Draconian Secrecy Law Threatens Japan’s Media Environment

Thousands of people took to the streets in Japan’s major cities last week to protest against a controversial new secrecy law that took effect on December 10th,  one year after its passage in the Diet. The law, formally called the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets (SDS), has been hit by heavy criticism in the Japanese press and among members of the opposition over concerns that it will limit access to public information and weaken the media’s ability to cover matters of security and foreign policy.

Against all odds: Protesters voice their opposition against the state secrets bill outside the Diet on Friday night. | AFP-JIJI

Against all odds: Protesters voice their opposition against the state secrets bill outside the Diet on Friday night. | AFP-JIJI

Under the law, heads of government ministries and agencies can now designate as state secrets information in the areas of diplomacy, defense, and counter terrorism. In addition, the initial five-year-designation period for a state secret can be extended for up to 30 years, but with cabinet approval state secrets can remain classified for a maximum of 60 years.

Those who leak information designated as state secrets can face up to 10 years in prison and anyone who solicits information using “grossly inappropriate means” could face up to 5 years in prison. There is little doubt that this clause applies specifically journalists and the vague wording could allow the government to apply the sentences arbitrarily.

A means to a political end for the government

The SDS law is perhaps surprising to many given Japan’s many decades as a progressive democratic society with an open, diverse and dynamic media. But the new law also comes at a time when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cabinet are pushing a more assertive defense and foreign policy posture, a contentious departure from the country’s post-war pacifist constitution.

In fact, the law was one of the first to be approved by the prime minister’s new National Security Council, a body meant to centralize decision-making on national security issues. Given the heated national debate over foreign affairs and national defense issues in Japan, the SDS law could allow the government to insulate itself from the critical eye of the press.

Media already feeling the heat from the LDP?

Some are concerned that the law could be used to influence content in Japanese media—and the signs are already there. Prior to Sunday’s parliamentary elections, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) sent a letter to Japan’s five biggest broadcasters to demand “neutral” reporting on the election, an unusual move in the country.

The LDP ultimately enjoyed a strong election showing, with it and its junior coalition partner maintaining a super majority in the powerful lower house of the Diet. Although low turnout figures point to growing dissatisfaction with Abe’s government, has a renewed mandate to continue its current course, and this could spell trouble for the Japanese media.

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Posted in Asia, Sustainability

Youth in Media Development

Whether ‘youth’ is defined in more concrete terms according to age, or more fluidly according to life stage, the voices of this demographic are often overlooked in conversations about the global digital divide and media literacy.  While youth are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people in the developing world, they’re also some of the most creative and forward-thinking.  Including youth in conversations and initiatives for media development isn’t only necessary, but also beneficial.

Digital technologies can enable young people worldwide to share their views on issues that affect their everyday lives, such as education, health, good governance, and the environment.  However, access to such technologies is not globally uniform.  The opinions and needs of certain youth, therefore, can become victims to this digital divide.

UNICEF recently addressed this issue in a report concerning the engagement of young people in the global digital rights discourse.  In the report, Urs Gasser calls for global stakeholder participation to ensure that laws and technology are used in concert to safeguard children’s fundamental rights.  In particular, youth should have access to, skills with, and agency within the variety of information and communication technologies available.  To guarantee this, he calls for financial resources, proper training, mentorship, and assessments of the risks faced by youth using the web.

Most importantly, Gasser calls for a common sense step that is often disregarded — taking youth seriously.  It’s not enough that some young people in the developing world may have access to digital technology; they need to be encouraged to use these technologies to share their experiences and views on issues that matter to them.

The October 2014 report from UNICEF outlining the role of young people in the global digital rights discourse.

The October 2014 report from UNICEF outlining the role of young people in the global digital rights discourse.

What the report doesn’t note, however, is that while access to digital technology may result in a growing quantity of news and information sources, this doesn’t necessarily guarantee the quality of these sources.  In order to combat the misinformation that can become rampant on digital media, youth need to be taught media literacy.  Media literacy is not only the access to media, but also the comprehension, evaluation, critique, and production of information from a variety of sources.

The goal of media literacy is to produce well-informed, critical thinking consumers and citizens.  As noted in a special report to CIMA, however, media literacy education may be hard to institute in classrooms because decision makers, including school administrators and policy makers, misunderstand the concept and give it low priority, or may be focused on print rather than new media.  This last point, especially, underscores Gasser’s assessment that all stakeholders should be given the proper training and resources to provide for the digital media needs of youth.

Anthony Abate is one such stakeholder.  Abate, a current Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and CIMA alum, is part of a team working on Morocco World News Junior, the youth platform of the country’s largest English-language news website, Morocco World News.  Slated for a February 2015 launch, Morocco World News Junior aims to involve Moroccan youth in news production and, as Abate says, “realize that news and media is something that can be interactive and fun.”

Other initiatives working to amplify the voices of youth in developing countries include Search for Common Ground, UNICEF’s Voices of Youth, and South Africa’s youth-run online newspaper Daily Vox.  As noted in the special report to CIMA, however, stakeholders must recognize that digital technology and new media aren’t panaceas to the digital divide and low media literacy.  Traditional media like radio and print may be more effective mediums for information-sharing in places where vast infrastructure challenges to digital penetration still persist.

Any initiatives involving youth in media development, therefore, must rely on research and a nuanced understanding of the cultural, social, and political contexts in these particular countries.  This kind of research and on-the-ground knowledge are what Abate and the rest of the team at Morocco World News Junior are using to make the project an incubator of Moroccan news leaders and innovators.

Listen to the podcast above to hear more of my conversation about youth in media development, particularly in the Moroccan context, with Abate.

Podcast music:  ”Hydromel” by The Seventh Alchemy, licensed under Creative Commons

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Posted in MENA, Sustainability

UN Secretary General Calls for Media in Post-2015

The campaign for media and access to information’s inclusion in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals gained a new advocate last week in UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who reaffirmed their importance in a synthesis report for the SDGs.

The report, noting the evolving information needs of communities and the necessity of supporting institutions for inclusive societies, cites access to information and media as integral to the post-2015 development agenda, a topic which CIMA has been following closely over the last  year.

“Press freedom and access to information, freedom of expression, assembly and association are enablers of sustainable development.” ~Synthesis Report of the Secretary General on the Post-2015 Agenda

Ban’s report is welcome support for what has been a lengthy challenge for press freedom and freedom of information advocates, including the Global Forum for Media Development and Article 19, who have spearheaded initiatives to get these issues on the table at United Nations Open Working Group sessions.

“The Secretary General’s report today echoed civil society calls for post-2015 commitments to freedom of information and media both as crucial rights-based ends in themselves and as practical necessities for monitoring progress towards all the proposed new goals,” GFMD said in a press release last week.

However, the process is not over yet. The road to final adoption of the SDGs faces significant roadblocks from authoritarian countries opposed to media’s inclusion on the indicators. On another front, the SDGs have come under criticism of late for the 17 goals and 169 targets proposed, which some member states feel would be challenging to implement by 2030. Ban’s synthesis report, which highlights the necessity of these goals, comes as a strong recommendation for their adoption.

The Global Forum for Media Development has launched a campaign to keep media and freedom of information as part of the post-2015 process. We recommend you join the coalition and take a look at their resources, including the video below.

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Posted in global, Impact and Evaluation

Linguistic Diversity in Online Media

When we think of the digital divide, we usually think of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’  However, this is just one component of the problem.  Closing the digital divide also requires us to think about the content of the Internet.

According to a July 2014 article from the Internet Society, “more non-Internet users indicate that they are not online because of a lack of interest, understanding or time rather than the affordability or availability of access.”

In particular, a lack of interest and understanding can be traced back to content.  What about the current content on the Internet is so discouraging that people, according to this article, choose not to use the Internet?  The answer to this starts with something very simple — language.  While the Internet is seen as a democratizing force, it also mirrors discriminatory societal structures that favor certain languages over others.  People who speak indigenous languages have enjoyed less linguistically- and, therefore, less culturally- relevant online media than those who speak the hegemonic languages of their societies, such as English or Spanish.

This lack of diversity can discourage indigenous language-speakers from consuming, producing, and sharing information in the digital sphere.  This benefits no one — the opinions and concerns of minority populations need to be heard outside of their local communities, and larger society could gain from minority perspectives, as well.

Eddie Avila is the current director of Rising Voices, a platform that “aims to extend the benefits and reach of citizen media by connecting online media activists around the world and supporting their best ideas.”  Part of meeting this goal involves creating and translating content into local languages that have been historically underrepresented online.

Aymara Language Domain.  Image from WikiCommons

Aymara Language Domain. Image from WikiCommons

Avila, for example, has worked with indigenous Aymara students in Bolivia who have been disappointed in the lack of Aymara-language content online.  He says that a strength of the various initiatives working to localize digital media content, including Rising Voices, is that they put the indigenous communities at the forefront of these projects.  It’s about grassroots participation rather than the top-down imposition of rules and expectations from outside stakeholders.  He says of indigenous communities, “they’re the ones doing the heavy lifting and the hard work.”

The United Nations proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages.  The Director General of UNESCO at the time, Koïchiro Matsuura, said that as much as languages are about individual and group identities, they also “constitute a strategic factor of progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global and the local context.”

This relationship between the global and the local can be seen every February during UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day (IMLD) when multilingualism is celebrated and promoted around a common theme.  This year’s theme was Local languages for global citizenship:  spotlight on science and highlighted the role of local languages in advancing science so that it’s more widely shared and accessible.

Language Diversity.  Illustration from Tobias Mikkelsen

Language Diversity. Illustration from Tobias Mikkelsen

On the digital front, Rising Voices partners with organizations like the Living Tongues InstituteEndangered Languages Project, and Indigenous Tweets to encourage people to tweet in their mother languages.  People are also asked to amplify the voices of others who speak indigenous languages by retweeting them or helping them sign up for Twitter accounts.

This participatory, grassroots structure makes Avila optimistic about the future of linguistic diversity online.  During my interview with him, I played devil’s advocate and asked about possible downsides to promoting more linguistic diversity on the Internet.  For example, could it lead to more ethnic or cultural tensions?  According to him, this isn’t an issue.  He told me, “I think the more people are able to communicate with one another, I think the more interconnected this world can be.”

Listen to the podcast above to hear my interview with Avila.  In the podcast, you learn more about the role of indigenous communities in promoting their own languages online and the Aymara students Avila has worked with.  You’ll also hear about some of the social and technical challenges to promoting online linguistic diversity, the role of women in these programs, and much more.

Podcast music:  ”Winjammer” by Poddington Bear, licensed under Creative Commons

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Posted in global, Latin American and the Caribbean, Podcasts, Sustainability

Freedom on the Net Declines for Fourth Straight Year

Global internet freedom is in its fourth straight year of decline, according to the annual Freedom on the Net index released by Freedom House.

The 2014 index, released early yesterday morning, looks at three levels of internet use: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. The downward trend was discussed by a panel of experts at Google’s offices in Washington, DC on Thursday morning.

Panel at Freedom House #FOTN2014. Photo by Anjelika Deogirikar.

Panel at Freedom House #FOTN2014. Photo by Anjelika Deogirikar.

It’s perhaps no surprise that states are becoming increasingly savvy in their methods for blocking and manipulating content online, with a proliferation of repressive and regulatory policies, increased use and sophistication of cyberattacks, and increased government pressure on private sector internet companies to access the data they possess online.

But perhaps the most troubling trend, experts agreed, was the evolution of state control beyond the typical targets of surveillance and censorship. No longer are journalists and human rights activists the largest demographic with targets on their backs—it is now the individual who should be wary of their activity online, and this has completely changed the game.

“Unlike previously, everyday users are at threat because of casual comments that they make online,” said Sanja Kelly, project director for the Freedom on the Net report at Freedom House.

The rise of connectivity means that more people around the world are sharing information and opinions via media than ever before. Governments often take that as a cue to manipulate the online space, seeing the free flow of information as a threat to authoritarian control. Indeed, we see today that more individuals are jailed for online activity than ever before, and often penalties for online activity are greater than for offline activity, according to Freedom House’s report.

The routes countries take to control content are all different, and yet the downward trend is global—meaning that even in some countries ranked “free” or “partly free,” there can still be risks for users (we need look no further than this year’s revelation of NSA surveillance in the United States).

Of the 65 countries surveyed, more than half have seen a decline in internet freedom scores, with Russia and Turkey seeing the worst devolution over the last year (and incidentally, each has experienced a five-year decline). Iran, Syria, and China make up the bottom three countries on Freedom House’s list, and Iceland, Estonia, and Canada make up the three best-performing countries.

Global map of Freedom House's FOTN2014. Countries in green are ranked "free," in yellow "partly free," and in purple "not free."

Global map of Freedom House’s FOTN2014. Countries in green are ranked “free,” in yellow “partly free,” and in purple “not free.”

But when it comes to combating government control, panelists at the Freedom House launch event argued for a more proactive approach by activists, civil society, and even journalists.

“A lot of efforts around the world are reactionary,” Kelly said. In most cases, those most affected by repressive policies will wait for a piece of legislation to be proposed or passed to start fighting against it, rather than advocating for free and open internet policies from the get-go. If we hope to see any turn in this trend of net freedom around the world, it will hinge on that.

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Posted in global, Innovation, Sustainability