April 4, 2008
INTERNATIONAL UPDATE OF THE WORLD PRESS FREEDOM COMMITTEE
Conference on China, Paris, April 2008
Together with other groups, WPFC is organizing a conference in Paris on April 18 and 19, 2008, ahead of the August 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, to spotlight for sports journalists planning to cover the Olympics how media controls work in China. The conference is entitled “Beijing Olympics 2008: Winning Press Freedom.”
Holding the conference in Paris in April will set the scene for the press to know what to expect during the Olympics. Despite Chinese assurances that they will permit the foreign press to report freely during the Olympics, there have been signs that the Chinese authorities are already clamping down.
It was reported in WPFC’s conference on press freedom implications of the new media in Paris in February 2007 that China has exported some of its censorship and surveillance expertise abroad.
WPFC discovered that during the UN’s Internet Governance Forums in 2006 and
2007 that China is lobbying for international acceptance of a text containing
restrictive norms for cyberspace content. A WPFC report, “Does China Hope to
Remap the Internet in Its Own Image?” is posted on WPFC’s Web site at http://www.wpfc.org/Statements.html.
WPFC and its partners have invited experts on China’s controls to report their findings on how they work to this conference. Surveillance measures have led to the jailing of journalists and bloggers. The experts will also discuss how to cope with China’s control measures, journalistically and technologically.
The other conference organizers are Asia Presse, Paris; Committee to Protect Journalists, New York; Human Rights in China, New York; Reporters Without Borders, Paris; World Association of Newspapers, Paris. The conference is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The keynote speaker is Prof. Merle Goldman of Boston University and Harvard, a leading scholar on the evolution of civil liberties in China. Other speakers will include representatives of the Associated Press, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, the Hong Kong Journalists Association, and the Independent Chinese PEN Centre. The panels will be devoted to such questions as: Press freedom and the Olympics, How are Chinese news media controlled? What reporting conditions to expect in Beijing? Risks, responsibilities and opportunities of trading with China? Freedom and limits on China’s Internet? How does China deal with foreign and peripheral news media?
The International Olympic Committee, China’s Olympic organizers, the Internet Society of China and Chinese news media have also been invited to speak. Chinese journalists expected to speak include Gao Yu, first UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize laureate, and Ching Cheong, Hong Kong Correspondent of the Straits Times of Singapore, recently released from prison in China.
Sports and other journalists and others wishing to attend may register through the conference web site at http://www.beijing2008conference.com/home.php
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WPFC’s New Blog Monitoring Press Freedom in China
WPFC has launched a blog http://wpfc.org/blogs/chinablog.html dedicated to monitoring the Chinese authorities’ attempts to censor or restrict access to the Internet, and other efforts to curtail freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
The blog, titled “Interesting Times,” is a Knight-Foundation-funded initiative aimed at providing valuable information about the Chinese government’s abysmal human rights record, especially when it comes to press freedom and freedom of expression. During the months prior to the Beijing Olympics, Interesting Times will place special emphasis on denouncing China’s increasing repression of dissidents, particularly the one taking place in Tibet and surrounding provinces.
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UNESCO General Conference
Mark Bench, WPFC Executive Director and European Representative Ronald Koven attended debates in committee on the Communication and Information Program of UNESCO during the Organization’s General Conference in Paris last October.
Cuba introduced a draft resolution calling for “responsible media” and for the media to demonstrate “high standards of ethics and professionalism.” WPFC was successful in getting delegations of such press freedom-oriented delegations as Italy, Norway and Thailand to counter such ambiguous code language that left unanswered such questions as we were asked by the U.S. delegation if we approved of that language. We answered that we could not support that language. Our questions: the media would be responsible to whom? And who would determine if the media had high standards of ethics and professionalism? We were afraid that governments would make those decisions. At WPFC’s behest, the words “as determined by the professionals themselves” were added to the call for “high standards.” These words received unanimous adoption. As Bench noted, “Had WPFC not been there, on the job, this would not have occurred.”
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WPFC Mission to Nepal
WPFC Executive Director Mark Bench, with International Media Support (IMS) of Copenhagen and other human rights and press freedom organizations, met in Kathmandu, Nepal 12-17 Jan. 2008 with journalists, police and other security personnel, government and party officials, and the widows and families of murdered journalists.
The legal and political situation in Nepal has become more conducive to press freedom and freedom of speech since April 2006 but news media and media practitioners continue to struggle for their safety in a climate of impunity. Even though threats by the state stopped since the restoration of democracy, the government has failed to provide security for media practitioners and institutions, who continue to face threats and attacks from the Maoists and a wide range of new groups -- armed and unarmed.
The Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) recorded 652 incidents of abuses against press freedom between April 2006 and December 2007, including the killing of Birendra Shah and the disappearance of Prakash Singh Thakuri.
Bench met with the Chinese ambassador to Nepal and asked for his reaction to China’s record for the largest number of journalists and bloggers in jail for the last 8 years, and asked about the censorship or blocking of human rights Web sites in China. He answered that the majority of Chinese are much happier with how things have improved in China over the last 10-30 years, and that though Bench may be right, no country or NGO can impose its values on another country with its own history. He said China is moving toward fewer controls but that it will take time.
Bench also met with the second in command of the Maoist PLO party who said that over the last 6 months they have tried to rein in the violence of its various factions and splinter groups who have abducted, tortured and murdered journalists. He said the party is committed to the peace process and to press freedom. Bench said that it’s important for the Maoist party to demonstrate that they will cooperate in all the 17 unsolved cases of journalist’s murders.
There are few women journalists in the Federation of Nepalese Journalists. They report that they are often harassed by police officers and are not treated as equals by news sources.
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Comments of Mark Bench’s Press Freedom Mission to Venezuela
Though it’s long been known that the Venezuelan government requires all electronic media to carry a minimum of 10 minutes per day of government-provided programming in prime time, it’s quite something else actually to see it on private, independent television stations.
In early November 2007, weeks before the referendum election that Chavez lost by a slim margin, Bench was interviewed by television, radio, newspapers and on university campuses where he discussed press freedom principles and the First Amendment to the American Constitution.
Bench said, “In response to my naïve question whether the public could tell if the programming was government-originated and not from the private sector, I was soon to see that it was blatantly obvious.” He gave this account:
“I was treated to dinner at a local cafe by an outspoken opposition moderator of the radio talk show, ‘Speaking Out,’ on which I’d appeared earlier in the evening when at exactly 8 p.m. on Globovision -- the only remaining major privately held independent TV station in opposition to Pres. Hugo Chavez -- a government spokesman appeared, informally attired, with the Venezuelan flag behind him, who told us for 10 minutes why an opposition student march was not wise, why the police had to use tear gas and other means to keep them in line. Virtually all the cafe-goers were shouting insults at the flat-screen TV, telling him to shut up-and worse. No one paid much attention to what he was saying; it was obvious I was deep in opposition territory.
“Fully 30% of any broadcast day of all electronic media is regularly commandeered by the government for Chavez government messages. Together with the advertisements placed in the media by the government a broadcast day can be filled easily with 50% government propaganda. While the government insists that newscasts be balanced, there’s no way that the Venezuelan public receives an even-handed view of what’s occurring in the country.”
Opposition newspapers carry virtually no advertising: the government does not allow ad space to be purchased in opposition newspapers, and they intimidate and threaten other advertisers to keep them away.
After seeing a newspaper in an interior town devoid of ads, Bench asked the publisher how he could survive. He said that he pays his staff from his own savings. He drives a 1992 Toyota Crown; he volunteered that he’s not planning to upgrade his car until he can afford to upgrade all of his reporters’ vehicles. Bench asked him of all the awards he’s won what he’s most proud of, which event or era has brought him the most satisfaction? He was quick to respond: ”This is the most exciting time to be in the newspaper business in Venezuela! This has been my greatest challenge, to fight tyranny, to help bring true democracy back to my country.” On a recent front page-above the fold-he carried two pictures, one of Che Guevara and the other of Simon Bolivar. The cut line under the Che picture reminds the reader that though he is often eulogized by Hugo Chavez as if Che were a part of Venezuelan history, it is Simon Bolivar who is the national hero, and that Che is irrelevant to Venezuela’s past.
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Internet Governance Forum in India
The third annual UN Internet Governance Forum has been switched from New Delhi to Hyderabad in India and set for Dec. 3-6, 2008. Proposals for Internet content controls and to transfer oversight from a U.S. public corporation to a UN body are expected once again to be central themes, as they were at the first IGF in Athens in 2006 and again in Rio de Janeiro last year.
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United States and Switzerland Boost Commitments to UNESCO’s IPDC
UNESCO’s once-ailing International Program for the Development of Communication is getting a major boost with new commitments from the United States and Switzerland as major participants and donors.
The IPDC got a major setback in June 2007, with the sudden death of its Chairman, Torben Krogh, a leading Danish journalist who spearheaded thorough reforms of the program. It had looked as if it would wither away, with sharply reduced voluntary contributions and interest by donor countries.
At a forthcoming meeting of its 39-member Intergovernmental Council, IPDC is expected to elect, as successor to Krogh, Walter Fust, Director General of the Swiss Development Corp., the Swiss government’s foreign aid agency. Switzerland has just pledged $450,000 a year for the next three years to IPDC.
The United States is expected at the Council meeting March 26-28 to be elected to the IPDC’s eight-member Bureau, which decides on projects to fund and oversees the Program between biennial Council meetings. The U.S. representative on the Council will be Marguerite Sullivan, who heads the International Media Assistance Center of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. The United States has contributed $305,000 in each of the past two years -- second only to Spain as a current donor. U.S. interest in helping to revive IPDC has been a major focus since the American return to UNESCO in 2003, after a 19-year absence over the politicization and mismanagement of the Organization.
The IPDC, founded in 1981, was originally a U.S. initiative, designed to provide practical development aid to Third World news media, in exchange for abandonment of demands for intergovernmental controls of international news media. But the program was bedeviled by Cold War tensions.
IPDC currently has 77 projects under consideration and about $2.1 million to distribute this year. It provides seed money, and its imprimatur attracts further funding. It has never distributed more than $3 million yearly, but had fallen in lean years to under $750,000.
Meanwhile, UNESCO’s Freedom of Expression Division conducted a seminar March 19-20 to create a tool kit for school curricula on freedom of expression and press freedom. The lead editor to develop the educational resource is Susan Moeller, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. Work shop participants also included Marguerite Sullivan; Li Xiguang, Executive Dean of Beijing’s Tsinghua University Journalism School, considered China’s most prestigious; Andrei Richter, Director of the Moscow Media Law & Policy Institute; Aralyn McMane, of the World Association of Newspapers; Raymond Louw, Deputy Chair of the Media Institute of Southern Africa and WPFC African Representative, and Ronald Koven, WPFC European Representative.
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South African Rulers Pull Ads to Force Press to ‘Behave’
WPFC African Representative Raymond Louw reports an insidious form of censorship gaining currency in South Africa: threats to withhold government advertising from publications that produce stories displeasing to the authorities. Print Media SA, representing over 700 newspapers and magazines in South Africa, recently sought an urgent meeting with Minister in the Presidency, Dr. Essop Pahad, a long-standing confidant of President Thabo Mbeki, to discuss his threat to withdraw government advertising from the country’s biggest newspaper, the Sunday Times.
Pahad described it as punishment because the newspaper published a story that the Health Minister indulged in liquor and abused staff while undergoing treatment in a hospital in Cape Town in 2005. The paper followed this with the disclosure that the minister had been convicted when in charge of a hospital in Botswana in 1976 of stealing from a patient.
Government politicians and officials have made similar threats against other newspapers as “punishment” for publishing stories that have embarrassed them or which they regard as inaccurate and showing bias against them. The country’s oldest paper, Grocott’s Mail, in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, has been living for months under such a ban imposed by the City Council. The ban is usually accompanied by a refusal to talk to the newspaper’s reporters.
Another issue is a proposal before a major conference of the ruling African National Congress that it consider setting up a “media tribunal” because of party members’ dissatisfaction with the current self-regulating voluntary Press Ombudsman system. This has conjured up visions of statutory Press control and contradicts assurances that the government supports media freedom.
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WPFC Chairman Richard Winfield Participates in Panel About Press Freedom and Economic Development
WPFC’s Chairman Richard Winfield participated in an extraordinary panel, organized by the Millennium Challenge Corp., and titled “Press Freedom and Poverty Reduction: Exploring Links in Developing Countries,” which looked at the critical connections between economic development and the existence of a free and independent press.
Winfield focused his presentation on what can happen in a developing country when a free and independent press is eliminated from the national equation and used Zimbabwe as a tragic example to illustrate his point.
More than a decade ago, “Zimbabwe had a thriving press and a moderately thriving economy, and was the bread basket of Africa, a net exporter of agriculture products, and one of the most prosperous colonial states,” Winfield said.
But then, the Robert Mugabe regime intervened and cracked down hard on the press, “ending any resemblance of a free and independent press and the economy collapsed,” he said.
Today, that country, which held elections a few days after Winfield’s presentation, is in shambles. Criticism of the government became “unthinkable and prosecutable,” he said, which prompted a “precipitous and deliberate decline.”
“The rate of hyperinflation exceeds 100,000 percent,” Winfield said. “I don’t really know what that means. It’s just impossible to comprehend 100,000 percent economy. Unemployment hovers between 80 percent and 90 percent. About three quarters of the farm population fall below the poverty line.”
Winfield gave a detailed explanation as to why a relatively prosperous country could have fallen into such a catastrophic downturn.
First, he said, the Mugabe regime introduced draconian changes in the country’s laws, which effectively eliminated all independent media. Second, the state acquired wide powers to monitor and intercept communications, including the Internet. Third, it created a state monopoly on all electronic broadcasts.
Fourth, insult laws were enacted to protect the president, the vice president or the acting president. And fifth the regime imposed another legal reform that expanded the official secrets law giving the state more repressive powers.
“Is it a coincidence that these two spirals are synchronous and parallel?” Winfield wondered. “Certainly a number of pathologies caused the economic chaos. My suggestion is that the government’s systematic, and often violent, suppression of news and information constitutes a major pathology.”
To destroy freedom of expression is to do more than merely muzzle a press,” he concluded. “It’s more than shuttering newspapers and broadcasters. It’s also —to destroy freedom of expression, as Zimbabwe proves— to dry up the market for information and no economy can survive without a vital marketplace of information.”
At the event, Winfield shared the podium with Mark Whitehouse, Director of Media Programs at the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX); James Traub, Contributing Writer for The New York Times Magazine, and Dr. Joseph Siegle, Senior Advisor for Democratic Governance at DAI.
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Grants for WPFC’s Work Against Insult laws
The Open Society Institute’s Network Media Program in London has renewed for a second year its support of WPFC’s world campaign against “insult laws” that give special protection against critical comment to government leaders and officials, with a grant of $42,500.
The Ringier newspaper publishing group of Zurich has pledged 30,000 euros (more than $45,000 currently) a year for three years to finance WPFC’s annual world survey on the status of insult laws and their use. This follows on a similar grant to WPFC by a group of four Danish news media houses for last year’s global survey report, “It’s a Crime: How Insult Laws Stifle Press Freedom.”
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Two Major Donations
The World Press Freedom Committee is profoundly grateful to its Chairman Emeritus, James H. Ottaway Jr. for an unrestricted donation of $100,000. Current Chairman Richard Winfield said, “Who but Jim Ottaway would know of the vital nature of the work we do.” Ottaway served as Chairman of WPFC for 10 years and traveled worldwide for it on press freedom missions. The Ottaway family owned 7% of Dow Jones before it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
The late Dana Bullen, WPFC’s Executive Director for 17 years, bequeathed WPFC $25,000. WPFC Executive Director Mark Bench said, “We are grateful for Dana’s posthumous support for WPFC, to which he dedicated the last part of a distinguished career — and to his widow, Joyce, who remains in touch with all of their friends at WPFC.”