Myopia and Misallocation in Media Development

Guest post by Richard Winfield of the International Senior Lawyers Project

Two years ago, my friends at CIMA revealed that of all federal foreign aid dollars, only 4/10s of one percent is aimed at assisting the development of free and independent media. The CIMA study reported that only $222 million in federal and private foundation funds were spent in 2010 on all forms of media development abroad. Of that sum, only 5.4% was aimed at helping democratizing countries to adopt modern, progressive media laws. This marked a drop of 4.2% from the comparable figure in 2006 of 9.4%. Funding for media law reform from all sources is on a downward spiral.

Efforts to create less hostile legal environments for the press have become the underfed stepchild of foreign aid. A pie chart published in the CIMA study illustrates the lopsided priorities in funding. For every dollar spent on reforming laws, $19 are spent on such projects as training journalists and supporting media businesses. This misallocation ignores the realpolitik of helping create a viable independent press; not even the best-trained journalist can survive in a hostile legal environment where prison awaits him/her for critical reporting. Not even a media outlet with the best business plans or technology can survive in such a repressive legal regime.

The CIMA study concluded that government and non-government funders alike have consistently “overlooked” the need to support media law reform. It is hard to explain such myopia. After all, it is no secret that autocracies deploy a variety of weapons systems to prevent a punish journalists for publishing critical coverage, and most systems are based on laws: criminal libel laws, seditious libel laws, insult laws, civil libel laws, national security laws, journalist licensing laws, internet-blocking and -filtering laws, and censorship laws to name just a few.

Only with an arsenal of such legal weapons systems can autocracies hope to survive, immune from the scrutiny of a free and independent press. Maintaining such systems is an incumbency insurance policy for any repressive regime worthy of the name. It is as fundamental to a regime’s survival as secret police, informers, rigged elections, lapdog judges and the usual ecosystem of fear.

A modest analysis would suggest there exists a link between enacting and enforcing good media laws and a good, watchdog-free and independent press. Another modest analysis would suggest there exists a link between such a free and independent press and the possibility of a self-governing democracy. A further modest proposal would go something like this: because reforming media laws is indispensable to sustaining a free and independent press, and because a free and independent press is central to creating democratic institutions, policymakers and funders should reemphasize and reenergize support for efforts to enact progressive media laws.

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Richard N. Winfield leads the media law working group of the International Senior Lawyers Project, which he co-founded in 2000. He teaches comparative mass media law at Columbia Law School, and American mass media law at Fordham Law School. He served as general counsel for the Associated Press for over three decades while a partner at Rogers & Wells, which later became Clifford Chance US LLP.

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Event: Documenting Democracy and Extremism in Pakistan through Political Cartoons

Political cartoons grace the pages of newspapers throughout the world often as fillers, deemed unimportant, when in reality, these images have the power to say more than any text based article. Political cartoonists play an essential role in conveying the true environment of what is happening in a country; however, in many restrictive countries, these artists are facing a shrinking space in terms of freedom of expression.

A few months ago, CIMA focused on this issue in Ecuador. We are excited to announce another event highlighting political cartoonist, Sabir Nazar. Sabir, a current NED Reagan Fascell fellow, is among the most well-known political cartoonists in Pakistan. In his July 23 event, he will use his cartoons to highlight the closing space in Pakistan for free expression and the ways that visual artists contribute to the promoting democracy.

cartoon image

Resisting Extremism through Media: Claiming a Space for Political Cartoons in Pakistan will be on July 23 at 3:00 p.m. The discussion will be moderated by CIMA’s senior director, Mark Nelson. Brian Joseph, NED’s senior director for Asia and Global programs at the National Endowment for Democracy will also offer his expertise from his time studying the region.

Sabir cartoon_press freedom

Please register for the event here: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/resisting-extremism-through-media-claiming-a-space-for-political-cartoons-in-pakistan-tickets-11647149939, and follow the event live on Twitter! Follow @cima_media using #NEDEvents.

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Treading Softly: Soft Censorship in Russia

Only a few brave souls will continue to produce objective, high-quality news when they have many incentives not to do so. Independent news sources in Russia face increasingly higher risks of litigation, verbal attacks by government news sources, or shutdown. Journalists must practice self-censorship in order to succeed in the field and avoid troublesome consequences.

Subjective application of the law is one key tool for soft censorship, which I noted in my last post. Media outlets may have their license suspended for any number of reasons, such as for violating a ban on obscene language. Libel is a criminal offense, one of several laws discouraging journalists from reporting on corruption. Tax, fire, and other safety inspectors pay surprise visits to independent media outlets to issue citations and impede operations.

Journalists in state-owned media enterprises have privileges over journalists in independent media. They receive access to exclusive press conferences and government information which may be denied to independent journalists, and they receive significantly higher salaries. State-owned media benefits from sizeable government funding, giving them a distinct advantage, but at the loss of their editorial independence. Prominent TV host Vladimir Pozner has noted that he is not permitted to invite certain prominent opposition members onto his show on state-owned Channel One. Several editors of prominent independent media outlets, such as Lenta.ru, have been fired and replaced by supporters of the Russian government. Pavel Durov, the founder and CEO of the popular Russian social media network VKontakte, was recently fired and forced to flee the country after refusing to release Ukrainian user data to security forces.

Pavel Durov, Former CEO and Founder of VKontakte

The negative consequence of all this is self-censorship. Rather than risk their livelihoods, many journalists and editors will not report objectively or will avoid sensitive topics altogether. Few negative reports were published about the Sochi Olympics by state-owned media companies, despite blatant corruption and environmental concerns. The Kremlin’s expectations of the media are understood, and explicit instructions regarding content have largely become unnecessary. Self-censorship is systematized. It is more difficult for the diverse opposition voices to get their message across when they face a united state-controlled media sector.

In rewarding compliant journalists and punishing those who do critical reporting, the Russian government is able to shape its image to its audience. This plays a key role domestically and in Russia’s foreign policy objectives, which I will discuss further next week.

Read more about soft censorship in the CIMA report, Soft Censorship: How Governments Around the Globe Use Money to Manipulate the Media, or our recent blog post, “Sunlight on Soft Censorship: A Global Review”.

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Is the Private Sector the Key to Reversing Internet Censorship?

Guest post by John Sinden of American University SIS International Relations Online

Turkey, heralded as a modern secular republic, has been increasingly plagued by political polarization, authoritarian policies, and massive protests. During times of protest, Turkish citizens are finding themselves without access to reliable information and are unable to freely and publically express their political views. Using the broad mandate of an anti-terror law, the Turkish Telecommunications Directorate has blocked more than 22,000 Web sites since this past December.

In the spring of 2014, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan restricted access to Twitter after users published claims of corruption against him and his regime. This silencing of public discourse to protect Erdoğan’s public image is deeply concerning. However, private-sector technology has proven to be helpful in the fight against Erdoğan’s restrictive policies. Coupled with an innovative and tech-savvy local population, private-sector technology is an effective tool to fight against press censorship and increase freedom of speech throughout the world.

Innovative solutions to censorship

Private-sector technological tools have demonstrated great resiliency and have become increasingly innovative in circumventing or breaking through the barriers of censorship. After Erdoğan restricted access to Twitter, Turkish citizens quickly established a creative work-around using the free Google Domain Name System (DNS) service.

Turkish authorities had used a DNS block to deny use of Twitter for anyone accessing the site through a Turkish IP address. However, Google’s DNS service allows you to access Web sites through another IP address, rather than having to use your own location-based IP address. By simply configuring network settings to ensure that the IP address was 8.8.8.8, Turkish citizens were able to access Twitter. The DNS work-around went viral and greatly expanded the technical skillset of Turkey’s population—a powerful instrument against Internet censorship.


Additionally, Turkish citizens began using Virtual Private Networks (VPN) such as Hotspot Shield and Tor to further circumvent Erdoğan’s restrictions on freedom of expression. A VPN client, which can be easily downloaded to a PC or Mac, allows users to access public Web sites from within a remote private network, benefiting from the security, anonymity, and encryption policies of these private networks. In short, a VPN allows users to send and receive encrypted, secure data over the Internet. In a recent interview, Alec Ross, former senior advisor for innovation to Hillary Clinton, discussed the tools available for citizens to circumvent Web censorship. This is what Ross had to say:

“The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak. I sit on the advisory board of a company called AnchorFree which has a product called HotSpot Shield. It’s actually the 37th largest Internet service in the world—it just surpassed Yelp and Tumblr. After the leader of Turkey shut down access to Twitter, there were millions of downloads to HotSpot Shield, and the ability of Erdoğan to keep people from accessing Twitter was reduced to near nothing. We are going to see more and more of this as authoritarians try to censor the Internet.”

Internet censorship is not isolated to Turkey alone—as access to the Internet in developing nations increases, so too does the implementation of restrictive policies. The trend of negative convergence between Internet access and Internet censorship is becoming the new norm across continents.

Countering censorship in the future

Despite the trend, Internet censorship can still be countered. As we have seen in Turkey, private-sector innovation is a powerful tool to fight back against government censorship. As authoritarian regimes become increasingly technical and complex with their suppression of freedom of speech, the private sector will continue to respond with tools and solutions that are more sophisticated. Access to groundbreaking private-sector technology has never before been as widespread and easily accessible as it is today. In countries where voicing an opinion can be met with great harm, citizens are now discovering ways to do so securely and anonymously. The availability of innovative technologies is the greatest instrument to reducing Internet censorship, toppling repressive regimes, and increasing freedom of speech throughout the world.

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Blogging for a Future Democracy: The Story of Anh Ba Sam

Guest post by Pham Doan Trang

On a late spring day in Hanoi, officers from the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security launched a sudden raid on the home and business of well-known blogger, Nguyen Huu Vinh, better known as Anh Ba Sam (Vietnamese for “Brother Gossiper”). Vinh and his assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy were detained immediately.

A sudden raid–and the “urgent arrest,” as the police put it– is a technique regularly practiced by the security forces in Vietnam in order to suppress political dissent. In Vinh’s case, they have achieved this–for now. Two of the websites that he was managing at the time, Chep Su Viet (Writing Viet History) and Dan Quyen (Citizens’ Rights), were shut down shortly after his arrest, which indicated that the police were able to gain control of the sites and their passwords. The other blogs, notably Ba Sam News, however, have stayed out of police control and continue their daily work.

Vinh is currently held with no access to a lawyer, and is denied family visits. He is one of the latest of at least 300 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam in the past five years.

The Vietnamese press is state-owned, and the People’s Police as well as the People’s Army both have dozens of printed and broadcasting agencies of their own. They portray Vinh as a blogger who specializes in “reporting and commenting on current social and political issues of Vietnam with a deliberately critical tone” and “trying to uglify Vietnam to make her as bad and ugly as he is.”

So who is Nguyen Huu Vinh? He was born in 1956 into the family of a high-ranking communist official. Vinh’s father, Nguyen Huu Khieu, was twice the ambassador to the Soviet Union, between 1974 and 1980. As the Soviets were Vietnam’s “Big Brother” in Cold War time, this was an enormous privilege, and as Vinh himself admitted in a short memoir in 2012, he and his family led a life of which other Vietnamese could only dream.

Anh Ba Sam on the job in Vietnam.

As a brilliant “princeling,” Vinh became a student at the Academy of Public Security, then became a public security officer before taking a position in the Department of the Overseas Vietnamese. His experience working with Vietnamese intellectuals in foreign countries made him obsessed with “how much social capital was wasted as a result of bad policies.”

As a man full of ideas, Vinh was possibly one of the first people to see the potential power of the Internet in reaching people’s minds and opening their eyes in Vietnam. In 2005, when Yahoo! 360° came to Vietnam, he soon found himself “blogging” like any teenager in urban cities.

Anh Ba Sam, his first Yahoo! 360° blog created in September 2007, was initially filled with articles he wrote for the state-owned media. However, Vihn soon realized the demand within the country for information about Vietnam from a foreign perspective. People wanted to know “what the world is thinking of us.” He then focused on translating foreign articles into Vietnamese for his blog readers.

Eventually, he began to provide not only articles about Vietnam but also materials about China-Vietnam relations, which even today remains a highly politically sensitive issue.

Vinh’s connections with some people in the state apparatus provided helpful news sources. However, at the same time, they raised suspicions about him being an undercover policeman. A question for many was why Nguyen Huu Vinh, who published material that the ruling party did not want the public to see, was spared from  arrest?

It was just a matter of time.

Ba Sam was identified by the police as a rallying point of “anti-state” forces in and outside Vietnam earlier this year. The site was subject to continuous attacks. Five days after Vinh and Thuy’s arrest, two of their colleagues published a defiant statement, “Nguyen Huu Vinh was arrested, yes, but Anh Ba Sam will never be.” The statement hints at the birth of an even more powerful blogging and writing movement for change in Vietnam, with bloggers following Ba Sam’s path of enlightening Vietnamese citizens on the values of democracy and freedom. There are reasons to believe that it will not be easy for the Vietnamese government to silence bloggers forever.

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