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Liberals And Conservatives Clash Over Iran’s Internet Control

(Pic courtesy AP)


The conservative hardliners and the more liberal moderates in Iranian President Hassan Rowhani’s government are divided over how closed they can keep the internet. The differences are part of a larger issue of balancing the distribution of political power between the liberal and conservative wings of the regime.
Rowhani and his supporters favour selective dismantling of restrictions to the internet and to information in general. The conservatives however believe it will clash with Islamic values.

“We cannot restrict the advance of [such technology] under the pretext of protecting Islamic values,” Ali Jannati, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance was quoted by The Washington Post as observing at a meeting with Iran’s chamber of commerce. The Post said he had described Iran’s post-Revolution attempts at controlling the information, including the internet, as “ridiculous.”
Among the restrictions are government licensing of newspapers, books and film as well as content control. The Post said that moves to issue licences to reporters however had resulted in 400 journalists writing to the government in protest.
The tug-of-war between the conservatives and liberals is also seen in the announcement some weeks ago that Iran was going to set up its own internet which it described as “clean internet” and for which it had enlisted China’s help.
In an article on February 12, in The US News and World Report, Mark Eades said that Iran had announced recently that it had received Chinese help “to implement its closed ‘National Information Network’ or ‘clean Internet.'”    
Praising China for its “four decades of good experiences in the application development services for information technology,” Iran’s head of internet and communication technology Nasarollah Jahangard said. “We hope to use these experiences.”
The words of Jannati and Jahangard delineate the stark difference in outlook between the conservatives and liberals. 

Russia, Other Autocracies Modify Media Censorship To Suit The Times


Using Kremlin’s recent move to crackdown further on Russia independent media by replacing the editorial leadership of RIA Novosti with regime loyalists, two Washington DC-based scholars argue that authoritarian regimes are ‘retooling’ their approach to censorship.
Chris Walker, executive director, for the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Robert Orttung, assistant director of the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Elliott School, George Washington University say that authoritarian regimes caught between the need for an open media required for the operation of a modern economy while at the same wanting a firm control in the exercise of state power, are re-forging their weapons to exercise “effective media control” rather than oppressive, blanket censorship.

 Effective political control is, “enough for them to convey their strength and puff up claims to legitimacy while undermining potential alternatives. Such state dominance enables regimes to put pro-government narratives front and center while using the power of editorial omission to limit criticism of official policies and actions.”
The article that appeared in the Washington Post is from a longer one in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Democracy.
The authors analyse this strategy in relation to four sets of audience the media of authoritarian regimes address: the elite, the general public, the opposition, and regular internet users.
They conclude, “Authoritarian governments willfully deprive hundreds of millions of people of authentically plural and independent information and analysis. The intense attention devoted to the rise of new media in recent years has led many to underestimate television’s enduring and powerful role as an undemocratic force in authoritarian societies. But through their dogged control of traditional media, and increasing ability to impede the political content of new media, authoritarian regimes are shaping an entirely different understanding of “breaking the news.” 
Read the full article here

New York Times, Bloomberg To Be Expelled From China

US VP Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping  (Washington Post)  


Two US-based media organisations – the New York Times and Bloomberg News – could be expelled from China with Beijing refusing to renew work visas of their journalists. Recent articles by both highlighted issues of corruption and nepotism among China’s elite.

Although in the past China has delayed or denied individual journalists visas this is the first time entire staff of the two institutions have been asked to leave.
“Twenty four foreign journalists working for the New York Times and Bloomberg could be forced to leave China in the coming weeks after officials stalled over renewing their visas,” said Malcolm Moore, in the UK Guardianwriting from Beijing.
This was confirmed by David Nakamura in the Washington Post. He said “Ian Johnson, a New York Times writer based in China, wrote on Twitter: ‘China is about to expel all NYT and Bloomberg correspondents from China – unprecedented. Biden raised issue with Xi.'”
The reference is to US Vice President Joe Biden who is in Beijing at the moment as part of an East Asian tour. He was expected to raise controversial issues such as China’s designation of a Air Defence Identification Zone over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, before the issue of the journalists’ expulsion surfaced.
The Post reported that Biden who met a group of mostly American journalists privately where he said he had brought up the matter with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Biden also registered his displeasure about Chinese intimidation of journalists at a bilateral meeting a day earlier: “‘Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences,’ Biden said during his remarks. ‘We have many disagreements, and some profound disagreements, on some of those issues right now, in the treatment of U.S. journalists. But I believe China will be stronger and more stable and more innovative if it respects universal human rights,” reported the Post.     
The move to deny journalists visas, appears to be in retaliation for articles published earlier by The Times and Bloomberg on financial corruption. Said Moore, “[a]n article last October exposing the secret £1.65 billion fortune of the family of the then prime minister, Wen Jiabao, enraged the Chinese government, which has since censored both the English and Chinese websites and denied journalist visas for two incoming staff.”
On November 17, the New York Times carried an article on Bloomberg’s chief editor, Matthew Winkler, killing a story by one of the organisation’s Hong Kong-based staffers Michael Forsythe who was also suspended for working on an investigative story on a Chinese billionaire. The Times said, “Winkler had decided to kill “an investigative article because of fears that Bloomberg would be expelled from China.” Please see this blog’s post here.
Meanwhile, 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’ highlighted the journal discussing 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.

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 rt.com)


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.