Journal of Democracy 25 Years In: An Interview with Marc Plattner

CIMA sat with Marc Plattner, the co-founding editor of The Journal of Democracy, to discuss the publication’s 25th anniversary, which will take place on January 29, 2015.

Taking the temperature of democracy

“When we started, it was a time when, suddenly, democracy was moving to the center of public consciousness,” Marc Plattner, the co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, says. “There was not a wide literature on democracy in developing countries.”

Plattner, also vice president for research at the National Endowment for Democracy, is discussing the evolution of a scholarly journal that focuses particularly on politcal development. He’s founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, now in its 25th year, and is reflecting on the Journal’s role.

“To do its work well, NED had to keep up with the best thinking on democracy,” Plattner says. “The Journal gave us an opportunity to do that.”

Is Democracy in Decline?

The theme of the 25th anniversary issue takes on what has been a tumultuous few years for democracy around the world. Every five years, the Journal’s anniversary issues take inventory of global trends, but this year, the question was grim: Is democracy in decline?

“It’s a question on everyone’s mind these days–the news for democracy in most parts of the world is not great,” Plattner says. “Some of the events of 2014 were a wake-up call.”

Marc Plattner

Democracy became the global standard of political legitimacy by the turn of the century, but in 2014 it was under assault. Indeed, 2014 marked a shift, with much of the energy toward political development seeming to be on the side of authoritarianism. The Journal’s January issue has strong opinions on both sides of the question about whether democracy is in decline, but Plattner, generally an optimist, is pessimistic about the near term, though he believes the downward trend can be reversed.

“Most people want democracy. The general demand for democracy has not weakened,” Plattner says. “But alongside this, where democracy has been established, the feeling is in a lot of places that it hasn’t delivered the goods.”

He sees three factors that could be contributing to the shrinking support for democracy: the setbacks seen in a number of countries around the world, the economic crisis in Western democracies (that makes the model seem less appealing), and geopolitical developments like the annexation of Crimea and the emergence of ISIS, all of which contribute to making democracy look weak.

“Democracy is a way of choosing leaders, but it’s also a form of government,” he says. “I don’t think people are losing their desire to choose their own leaders and have their individual rights and liberties protected–but what they’ve come to doubt is whether democracies are capable of governing effectively.”

Role of Media in Democracy

Plattner notes in his introductory essay in this quarter’s Journal that democracy is mired in a period of stagnation throughout the world, indicated by a flat line in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index.

To get a real sense of where democracy stands, though, monitoring the institutions supporting democracy is equally important. This includes rule of law, free and fair elections, and of course, freedom of the press. And as CIMA has noted in the past, there seems to be evidence of a correlation between press freedom and democratic freedom, and as the line for democracy has stagnated, so has the flat line of press freedom.

And at a time when media freedom is under pressure, even in retreat in some places, and the platforms by which media and citizens communicate and share news, information, and opinions, is under assault, Plattner also stresses that link as crucial for the coming years.

“The role of free media is critical–you can’t really have democracy without it,” he says.

***Read the Journal’s 25th anniversary issue, “Is Democracy in Decline?” and Marc Plattner’s introduction.

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Violence Against Saudi Arabian Blogger

**Update: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died on January 22. He will be succeeded by his brother, Crown Prince Salman.  Additionally on January 22, Raif Badawi’s public flogging was postponed for the second week in a row due his worsening medical condition. The international community will continue to monitor the situation as Badawi’s case remains open-ended.

January 2015 started with bad news for the press, as the New Year began with the worst attack against press freedom in the past five years when armed gunmen stormed French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s offices in France. And then things got worse. Just two days later, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi received the first 50 of his 1000 public lashes. The divergence between Hebdo’s seemingly random targeting of journalists provides a stark contrast of the institutionalized targeting of a blogger by the Saudi Arabian government.

Protesters in Oslo demand justice for Raif Badawi.

Badawi was arrested in 2012 for his criticism of Saudi Arabia’s powerful clerics on his blog, the Free Saudi Liberal Network. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison plus 1000 public lashes. The first 50 lashes occurred on January 9. The next 50 were scheduled to occur last Friday, January 16, but they were delayed due to the fact that he hadn’t completely healed from the first round of lashings.

According to Amnesty International, “Not only does this postponement … expose the utter brutality of this punishment, it underlines its outrageous inhumanity,” said Amnesty’s Said Boumedouha. “The notion that Raif Badawi must be allowed to heal so that he can suffer this cruel punishment again and again is macabre and outrageous.”

International Response

Badawi’s case has media outlets and many in the international community speaking out on his behalf. A group of eight U.S. Senators called for his immediate release last Friday. While the United States often calls on repressive countries to uphold human rights values, the government often doesn’t speak out against actions taken by Saudi Arabia due to the strong ties between the two countries. Other Western democracies have called for his immediate release, and media outlets throughout the world have spoken out on his behalf stating that “his crime shouldn’t even be considered a crime.” 

What’s Next

Under immense international pressure, King Abdullah’s is said to have taken an “unusual step” and sent the case to the Saudi Arabian Supreme Court for review. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not this will truly have any impact. In the meantime, Badawi remains in imminent danger, however, the next 50 lashings that were scheduled for this Friday were postponed because he remains in poor condition.

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Posted in MENA, Sustainability

The Great Debate: Freedom of Information and Media in the UN’s New Global Development Goals

UN Representative, Global Forum for Media Development

This Monday, the UN General Assembly began its final phase of negotiations over the UN’s next set of global development goals, which will succeed the expiring Millennium Development Goals and guide international development priorities and aid funding for the next 15 years.  The debates will continue in weekly sessions every month through July, with the new “Sustainable Development Goals” to be adopted in September.

These new goals could provide an unexpected long-term global boost to public access to what should be public information, from official and private sources alike.

Or they may not – but we’ll know within a few months.

The ‘SDGs’ differ from the MDGs in that they are intended to be universal, applying to the developed North as well as to the South, with goals ranging from poverty eradication and disease prevention to gender equity and environmental protection.

They also differ notably from the MDGs in that they include – as currently drafted, despite objections from many UN member states   – several quite specific obligations intended to promote just and effective governance.

Among those proposals, to the surprise of many UN observers, is a commitment to public access to information, as one of the 169 proposed SDGs ‘targets,’ which still need to be backed up by agreed factual ‘indicators.’  Those yet-undetermined indicators could include legal guarantees and the actual observance of the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas, through any media and regardless of frontiers” – to cite the prescient but nonbinding language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

World leaders and development experts advising the UN on the post-2015 goals have stressed the need for freedom of expression and independent media in monitoring and ultimately achieving these goals.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his official recommendations to the General Assembly on the post-2015 agenda last month, pointed to “press freedom, access to information and freedom of expression” as essential “enablers of sustainable development.”

Yet as debate gets underway this week, it remains uncertain whether any clear commitment to the public’s right to all relevant information – from governments or elsewhere – will be included in the 2015-2030 “Sustainable Development Goals” that the UN General Assembly will adopt in September.

In the 18 months of UN negotiations over the 17 proposed  “SDGs” that are now being debated, draft references to “independent media” and “freedom of expression” were deleted in response to objections from several influential UN members, including Security Council powers Russia and China. Yet surviving in the agreed final text, in the 16th of the 17 recommended goals, is a “target” requiring all countries to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”

As UN diplomats convened for the post-2015 negotiations Monday, there was clearly growing resistance to any major redrafting or reduction of the painfully achieved compromise proposal for 17 goals, out of concern that any gains in precision or practicality would be outweighed by losses in substance and impact.

But the 169 aptly named ‘targets’ remain very much in the crosshairs, vulnerable to rewriting or elimination for a variety of practical and substantive reasons.  As an Austrian diplomat noted at the UN Friday, the current SDGs proposal would in effect obligate UN agencies to monitor 32,617 different data sets from 193 governments on 169 targets on an annual basis – a task that would be politically and technically daunting, if not impossible.

Technically, however, progress on access to information is not that hard to track, UN officials acknowledge. Moreover, many governments and civil society activists from North and South alike have strongly endorsed the proposed target on access to information, improving its chances of survival.

Leading international human rights groups, in a joint message to the UN Friday as civil society representatives met with UN officials in New York to discuss the post-2015 deliberations, stressed the need for “transparent monitoring and accountability mechanisms at the national level which are underpinned by a safe and free environment for civil society, and access to information.”

Also on Friday, the team of statisticians and economists advising the UN on indicators for the proposed SDGs released its penultimate draft report, with newly added recommendations for Target 10 of SDG 16.   The experts in the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network proposed that UNESCO monitor the adoption and implementation of legal guarantees of public access to information, as well as cases of journalists killed in the line of duty. Separately, under goals aimed at economic development, the report proposed indicators from the International Telecommunications Union on progress toward universal access to online information.

That’s a significant advance. The soberly phrased inputs of UN technocrats in this contentious area – showing that freedom of information and media is not only important but measurable, and in fact already measured by the UN in many ways – may overcome political and practical concerns in some wavering countries.  But diplomats stressed to NGO representatives at the UN Friday that transparency and accountability provisions in the SDGs remain vulnerable without sustained public support from civic activists in coming months – and more active coverage of the issue by the journalists whose interests an access-to-information commitment would help protect.

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The Self-Defeating Censorship of Xi Jinping

When Xi Jinping emerged as the likely successor to the Chairmanship of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2008, there was hope among Western leaders that he would usher in a more open and politically pragmatic era for China. After all, Xi’s generation is largely removed from the revolutionary struggle of the 1940s, having climbed the ranks of the CCP in the post- reform era of Deng Xiaoping.

Unfortunately, as Freedom House’s Sarah Cook notes in her comprehensive new report, “The Politburo’s Predicament,” the Xi reign has taken a more repressive turn.  In an effort to pursue the CCP’s contradictory agenda of economic liberalization and total political control, Xi has centralized power and sought control of information flows in increasingly aggressive and expansive ways.

The report builds upon the research Cook conducted for a 2013 CIMA report entitled “The Long Shadow of Chinese Censorship” which paints a disturbing portrait of the CCP censorship beyond its borders.

In addition to the highly publicized blockage of certain social media platforms and international news sites, the CCP has expanded the scope of its censorship to include “previously tolerated activities, topics, and individuals.” For example, public health and safety issues have been subject to the most censorship activity in recent years.  This perhaps reflects the growing list of domestic issues sparking dissent in the country.

Created by ProPublica

Created by ProPublica

The report covers an extensive list of strategies and tools that the current regime uses to control information and increase pressure of civil society, the media and individual citizens. But perhaps the most compelling section of report is when Cook discusses the “limitations of censorship and repression.”

CCP censorship is galvanizing Civil Society

The report discusses the increasingly dynamic and “resilient” civil society in the country. “People who previously would not have become involved in challenging corruption or rights abuses by the regime are increasingly willing to add their voice or even take to the streets, to demand change,” Cook says.

Ironically, a key driver of China’s growing civil society might actually be the regime’s efforts to censor and suppress information flows and political activity in the country. “The rise of civil society that is more explicitly political in its goals, agenda and language is a reaction to greater repression. Politicization comes of day-to-day interactions with the legal problems and larger political system,” Cook writes. In short, censorship could be politicizing the Chinese public.

An opportunity for the international community?

Despite CCP efforts to block information in China, the Chinese people excel at outwitting censors. Information still flows relatively freely in the digital space, where the government lags behind a savvy generation of internet users. Still, China remains a difficult place for international donors and advocates to affect change in a climate where information and media are so relentlessly targeted. So where can donors and other international actors effect change?

Among the Freedom House report’s many recommendations for the international community, one item is particularly noteworthy. The report recommends the formation of “umbrella organizations” to unify disparate efforts to affect change in the country, and to help raise awareness inside China of instances of censorship and repression.

Since there appears to be organic growth in the dynamism and courage of Chinese civil society, perhaps one of the most powerful roles the international community can play is as a facilitator of networking and information-sharing to help promote greater interaction and collaboration among various groups working for political change across the country. International actors should empower activists by building off of the indigenous Chinese talent for overcoming censorship in the digital space to help groups form a more collective movement to counter the brutal repression and censorship that has come to define the Xi Jinping era.

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Posted in Asia, Sustainability

Measuring the Audience

A Wrap-Up of CIMA’s Discussion

As the coordinator of CIMA’s events, I spend a lot of time on a lot of different topics—from hammering out the concept of the event to finding panelists to wrapping my mind around topics that I am sometimes, frankly, not the most familiar with. This event was no different. When CIMA decided to have an event to launch Michelle Foster’s report, Measuring the Audience: Why It Matters to Independent News Media,  I went through the typical event steps, starting with reading the paper (twice!). My initial thought was: wow, this is a wonky issue.

Despite this complex topic, the panelists at Wednesday’s event really broke down the concept of audience research and showed the audience why the media development community should focus on this. My colleague, Rosemary D’Amour, recently blogged about audience research, stating that “a failure to understand [a newsroom’s] audience will certainly lead to a news organizations failure.”  This makes sense—without knowing who you are reaching and how you are reaching them, you will have a hard time building a sustainable business model—but why should the media development community care?

Moderator Mark Nelson leads the panelists in CIMA's discussion of audience research.

Moderator Mark Nelson leads the panelists in CIMA’s discussion of audience research.

Here are a few major takeaways from the event:

First, without better audience measurement practices, media in developing countries will never reach their full potential. They may never even become remotely financially stable. Since there are so many levels to measuring an audience, there is a lot more that needs to be done than simply “doing” audience research. Many media organizations around the world simply do not have the time or resources to do it.  CIMA’s senior director Mark Nelson discussed the idea of a “data free” zone, where media outlets do not have any data on their audiences. The consequence of this is that it becomes extremely difficult for newspapers to become financially sustainable by monetizing their audience.

This chart shows how MDIF would typically think about the media environments in potential investment countries.

This chart shows how MDIF would typically think about the media environments in potential investment countries.

It’s not necessarily that news outlets don’t want to conduct this research—many have issues with availability and capacity. The Media Development Investment Fund’s  Evan Tachovsky elaborated on this point, “When I’m talking about availability, I’m talking about first, that the data exists…second, that it’s not cost prohibitive. When I’m talking about capacity, I’m talking about whether they have staff that deal with audience data as part of their set duties and whether their management actually takes data seriously.”

The second takeaway from the event is the rapid-speed changes in technology. Simply put, this is changing the way things work in every aspect of our lives, and the world of audience research is no different. Michelle Foster, the author of CIMA’s corresponding report Measuring the Audience, highlighted this concept in a discussion about the exposure model vs the engagement model of measuring impact.

michelle slideTraditionally, media outlets were evaluated by advertisers “based on the number of people who could potentially be exposed to their message,” said Foster. However, these messages are “expensive, require professional coordination, favor large media over small, and urban media over rural. They are fundamentally a look backward in time.” Today, we see more people measuring engagement in real time at little cost, no matter where their audiences are, largely due to the nature of the platforms on which news is accessed. While we haven’t reached a place where this is exclusively the type of measurement that occurs, it is clear that we are heading in that direction, and even if engagement never fully takes over the traditional methods of measuring the audience, it is clear that the dynamic is shifting.

Finally, the overarching theme of this event was that no two countries are the same when it comes to the issues with audience measurement. IREX’s Leon Morse’s discussion of the Media Sustainability Index  is proof of this idea. Each country’s legal and political systems have major impact on the environment for business models to thrive. In these types of environments, audience research will not hold up. Additionally, no two markets are the same, so donors need to evaluate each environment for a better assessment of what types of places will succeed.

This event highlighted just some of the many needs that news organizations around the world have when it comes to audience research. CIMA hopes that this will be just the beginning of the conversation. To watch the full event, click here or watch below.

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Posted in General, global, Sustainability