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World According To Obama: Praise King But Beef Up NSA

                 (Pic Courtesy PEN America)

President Barack Obama’s statement last Friday on the reforms on National Security Agency spying on US citizens and people overseas through mass metadata gathering of phone calls and internet content has had mixed reactions. 
While some believed it was that was a significant step forward in a tightly contested environment between national security and civil liberties, proponents of media freedom and human rights disagree. They say the reforms were far from adequate.
‘King Obama and Surveillance Today’ looks at media freedom in the context of another event that held the attention of American this week: Martin Luther King Day. Obama is a self-confessed admirer and votary of King. Yet King stood for universal and indivisible human rights. Further, he was the subject of FBI Director Edgar J. Hoover’s undying hatred and as such subject of surveillance of the Bureau.
“Obama specifically referred to the FBI’s war on King in his speech on Friday detailing surveillance reforms. But it makes little sense for the president to open the door on the deeply flawed surveillance program that plagued King while making cosmetic reforms to his own far-flung surveillance program,” writes Deji Olukotun in his blog post to PEN America.
Click here for the article

UN Committee Adopts Resolution Against Mass Internet Surveillance

The United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee unanimously adopted a resolution on November 26 reaffirming privacy as a human right and that it is an integral aspect in individuals exercising their freedom of expression. Although the resolution has largely symbolic value, the United States and its allies successfully lobbied to delete a clause in an earlier draft stating that mass surveillance is a violation of human rights.    

The resolution, sponsored by Brazil and Germany, would extend to all people the right to privacy and to protect them from unlawful surveillance. Earlier this year, documents collected by Edward Snowden revealed that US’s National Security Agency (NSA) had spied on the communications of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel among millions of others, when trawling for electronic communication data from phone records and the and internet.
“Brazil’s Ambassador Antonio de Aguiar Patriota said the resolution ‘establishes for the first time that human rights should prevail irrespective of the medium, and therefore need to be protected online and offline,'” said an Associated Press (AP) report on the resolution.
AP said the unanimous adoption of the resolution in the 50-member Third Committee (Social Humanitarian and Cultural Rights) meant that it would also pass the 193-member UN General Assembly. However, UNGA “resolutions aren’t legally binding but reflect world opinion and carry political weight,” AP said.
But unanimity in the Committee was achieved only after the US, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand comprising the ‘five eyes’ network that share intelligence, succeeded in diluting the resolution by lobbying to delete a clause stating that mass interception and collection of personal data constituted a human rights violation.
“[w]e must note that the resolution was weakened by the United States and its allies who stripped out a sentence that explicitly defined mass surveillance as a violation of human rights. The US also tried (and failed) to remove any suggestion that privacy protestions apply extraterritorially. The final text of the draft resolution noted that states have only ‘deep concerns’ with the ‘negative impacts’ of surveillance and collection of personal data, at home and abroad, when carried out on a mass scale,” said the US-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that studies digital censorship.
EFF also said “[t]he draft resolution is important in restating an already accepted international legal principle: states must comply with their own commitments under human rights law when exercising their power outside their borders. In other words, if a state is conducting extraterritorial surveillance it remains bound to upholding the right to privacy for everyone.”
The resolution also establishes the principle that privacy is essential for the right to the freedom of expression. EFF quoted UN Special Rapporteur of the Freedom of Expression Frank LaRue’s report that says, “Undue interference with individuals’ privacy can both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas…. An infringement upon one right can be both the cause and consequence of an infringement upon the other.”
To read the Resolution click here

Beijing Handtwists US Media To Suppress China News

Paramilitary officers at Tiannamen Square (Pic. courtesy WP)

China’s moves to control opinion overseas appears to have taken a step forward with the pliant chief editor at one of United States’ most prestigious news agencies killing a story that probed a Chinese billionaire followed by the suspension of the journalist who wrote it.

The New York Times said in its Sunday edition (Nov.17) that Michael Forsythe, a Hong Kong-based journalist for Bloomberg had been suspended after the organisation’s editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler had decided to kill “an investigative article because of fears that Bloomberg would be expelled from China.”
“Last week, after the allegations of self-censorship were published, reporters and editors in the Bloomberg bureau in Hong Kong who had worked on the unpublished article were called into a series of meetings, Bloomberg employees said,” reported The Times.
Norman Pearlstein who worked for Bloomberg News’ parent company Bloomberg LP had said he had “spoken Mr. Winkler and had heard that ‘the story was just not ready for publication and they’re still working on it,'” The Times continued.
The Times story went on to point out that following an expose by Bloomberg News last year about the present Chinese President Xi Jinping, subscriptions to the outlet’s terminals in China had fallen when government institutions had been ordered not to subscribe. Further, the Bloomberg website was blocked and its correspondents found it difficult to get residency visas in China.
Meanwhile, also on Sunday, Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post used the Forsythe saga and other incidents to point out Beijing’s systematic plan of controlling opinion abroad by using its power, wealth and prestige. Hiatt writes “Paul Mooney, a veteran Asia journalist for Reuters, recently was denied a visa, with no reason given, according to the agency. Knowledgeable China hands for Bloomberg News, the New York Times and The Washington Post have met similar fates.”
But journalists are not the only ones. Academics are too. Hiatt describes Beijing’s refusal of a visa to Princeton academic Perry Link because he had contributed a chapter on the Muslim Uyghur minority in China’s Xianjing. “[b]ecause China never explains its refusals or spells out what kind of scholarship is disqualifying, the result is a kind of self-censorship and narrowing of research topics that is damaging even if impossible to quantify,” said Hiatt.
Hiatt however says China only hurts itself by doing this because, among other reasons, its leaders who wish to see China as a self-confident nation has the country’s prestige undermined “by their apparent fear of honest scrutiny.”
This blogin a posting on November 13 titled ‘US Media Moghuls Helping China Export Repression?’ highlighted an article in The Atlantic titled ‘Legitimising the ‘Civilized Internet’: China’s Seduction of U.S. Media’ where the journal discusses a meeting of the Presidium of the World Media Summit in October. The WMS is the brainchild of the Chinese Communist Party but has among the members of its top decision-making body a number of US media companies including The New York Times, Google, Associated Press, as well as the BBC, Al Jazeera and others.
The Atlantic suggests that one of the reasons these organisations are in the presidium is to improve the penetration of their media businesses into China. The New York Times, BBC, Google and CNN websites have been blocked on and off in China in the past and reporters from The Times and Al Jazeera not granted visas to enter the Chinese mainland.

State Control Of Internet Freedom – Cure Worse Malady?

(pic courtesy

New draft legislation was introduced by European Union lawmakers to ensure data protection from foreign spying, as new details surfaced on US surveillance of French phone records. Earlier, Mexico and Brazil expressed outrage on NSA spying on their leaders. But as states erect protection through new regulations to circumvent US law that forces American companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to surrender data to the NSA, thoughtful voices ask whether the cure might be worse than the malady. 

On Monday October 21, the EU’s Committee Civil Liberties Commission passed draft laws under which US companies such as Google etc. will have to adhere to new rules protecting data transferred to third countries if they are to operate in Europe.
“The measure makes America’s secret court orders powerless, forcing companies based outside the EU – such Google and Yahoo – to comply with European data protection laws if they operate in Europe.  Fines running into billions of Euros are set to discourage anyone from violating the new rules,” said the news website Russia Today RT.
Asked by RT in an interview what this meant for the average person Alexander Dix, the Berlin Commissioner for Data Protection said, “The rights of European citizens will be strengthened if this measure is adopted in Europe. There will still be problems to effectively control and monitor what intelligence services are doing but the problem is much larger than this I think because Google … and all the other big American companies need strict rules which they have to attain to, when they want to do business in Europe. They will certainly have to because the sanctions envisaged by the European Commission and the parliament are so heavy that they will certainly think twice before starting to break these rules.”
Meanwhile, Washington Post reported this morning that as reports surfaced in the French newspaper Le Monde of US siphoning over 70 million phone records in France, the Obama administration was “scrambling” to mitigate the damage. The Post said that President Obama had spoken by phone to his French counterpart Francois Hollande, “to discuss what the White House called ‘recent disclosures in the press – some of which have distorted our activities and some of which raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies.'”
The revelations came as Secretary of State John Kerry is in Paris. The Post quoted him saying at a press conference, “‘Our goal is always to try to find the right balance between protecting the security and the privacy of our citizens. This work is going to continue, as well as our very close consultations with our friends here in France.'”
However, the US Ambassador in France Charles Rivkin was summoned to the French Foreign Ministry as outrage mounted with the US action labelled as “shocking” and “unacceptable.” RT quoted the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius telling the media, “We must quickly assure that these practices aren’t repeated.”
While these go on in the domain of international politics, Tom Gjelten in a comment to the US-based NPRwebsite asks whether the reaction of countries like Brazil to redesign the architecture of the internet by increasing governmental control would actually harm privacy more than protect it.
Gjelten says that before NSA began spying on the Internet, it was only minimally governed by institutions such as Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Although ICANN was set up by the US, and companies such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook were American-owned, global internet freedom was respected to some extent due legislation such as the First Amendment and a culture of free speech.
Gjelten quotes Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity expert who has worked with Britain’s Guardiannewspaper in reporting on NSA surveillance activities and acknowledges that spying has been detrimental to the openness of the internet. “The NSA’s actions embolden these people to say, ‘We need more sovereign control,’ Schneier says. ‘This is bad. We really need a global Internet.'”
Gjelten continues, “Some of the countries pushing for more international control over the Internet were never all that supportive of Internet freedom, like Russia and China. But they’ve now been joined by countries like Brazil, whose president, Dilma Rousseff, was furious when she read reports that she was herself an NSA target.”

The row over internet surveillance set off primarily by NSA contractor Edward Snowden has yet to settle. As it expands it has sharpened the debate over the control states have over private citizens and their freedom, while protecting national security. Let’s see where it goes.

“The Most Closed, Control Freak Administration I\’ve Ever Covered”

President Obama meeting the media (Courtesy CPJ)

A report released, Thursday, denounced the administration of US President Barack Obama for imposing curbs on government transparency though a range of methods that include denying the media access to harmless information by marking it classified and by administration officials refusing interviews to reporters. In his report for the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) former Washington Post managing editor, Leonard Downie, has also revealed the chilling effect pervasive surveillance and harsh punishments under the Espionage Act has on news sources leaking information on government wrongdoing.

Based on a series of interviews with senior US journalists Downie’s report, “The Obama Administration and the Press: Leak investigations and surveillance in post-9/11 America” has a number of juicy quotes that highlight the frustration of journalists about the restrictions placed on covering government affairs. It quotes David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, saying, “this is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
The report was sent to Obama accompanied by a letter co-signed by CPJ Chairperson Sandra Rowe and Executive Director Joel Simon with six recommendationsincluding guarantees that journalists in receipt of confidential information would not be prosecuted and on implementing the Justice Department’s guidelines on “overly-broad, and/or secret subpoenas of journalists’ records.”
The White House however pushed back saying that Obama had given more interviews in his four-plus years to news, digital and entertainment media than George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did in their respective first terms combined. The report also quoted the White House press secretary Jay Carnie saying, “The idea that people are shutting up and not leaking to reporters is belied by the facts.”
In his interview to Huffington Post Downie, who now teaches journalism at the University of Arizona expressed disappointment on Obama not delivering on campaign promises he made on government transparency.
“What I see here is that Obama campaigned against excessive secrecy, promised to have the most transparent government in American history, signed presidential directives in his first day of office with a lot of fanfare, continues to say in speeches and interviews and press conferences that transparency is a high priority for him, and it hasn’t happened. It doesn’t matter if he’s a Republican or Democrat. It matters what he has promised and has not delivered,” Downie said.