Archive for the ‘Freedom of Information’ Category


Get Paid What You’re Worth: Disrupting a Broken Industry

As journalists, we are not supposed to talk about our political affiliations, religious beliefs, share any strong personal opinions. These are the rules. These rules have emerged since the U.S. positioned itself as a global beacon of free press for the rest of the world to envy.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, few people envy American journalists these days. The president of the United States openly, regularly attacks the press. He also makes sexist remarks about women and pursues anti-immigrant policies.

In a world where the government is not ensuring equal pay for men and women as they do in other countries and the newsrooms struggle to stay afloat, why are the U.S. journalists not fighting for their rights?

I was born in the Soviet Union, in an environment that could hardly called conducive to activism, confronting the status quo or even embracing ideals of outspoken feminism. But somewhere along the way in my career as a female financial journalist, I began to notice things.

My newsroom experience and the stories I was telling my friends were not the same as my male colleagues’.  My starting salary was not the same as theirs, and this was true across continents and newsrooms. After years in the industry, I knew I was still not paid the same for doing the same work. It was an institutional pay gap.

Then I realized this experience was not limited to me.

The Wall Street Journal reporters are still waiting for a response to their March 28 letter demanding equality in the workplace. The latest independent analysis found that “a significant gender pay gap in every location, in every quarter, and within the largest job single category: reporter.”

The Wall Street Journal journalists are not alone either. The pay gap between male and female journalists in the U.S. evolved somewhat since the 1970s, but then all progress pretty much froze around the 1990s when women’s salaries stayed at 80-85 percent of male journalists’ salaries. A recent Poynter survey found the news business is also unfair to journalists with children.

The women at the top news organizations who bring us the stories of the rich and famous, the financial scandals and inequality gaps are consistently underpaid themselves. At Dow Jones, women with up to 10 years of years of experience are paid six percent less on average than male journalists with up to five years of experience. Seems fair, right?

This is an industry-wide problem, not limited to one organization or media establishment. Once you start looking, examples are everywhere: the pay gap, who gets promoted to the most senior roles, whose voices are heard and whose are overlooked.

Surely there has been some progress. And many of these challenges are not limited to women: minorities, both men and women, face tremendous obstacles that should not be compared or contrasted. What’s important is to recognize them and not to pretend that we as a global society, as humans on Earth, are “over it”. We are not.

We still have a lot of work beyond the pay gap: we have to learn how to promote and support women in the workplace, how to cover stories like rape that don’t blame survivors, how to allow women to thrive at the highest levels of their organizations, how to quote and incorporate more female voices in stories and cultivate these new sources rather than turn to a handful of trusted “guys” over and over again.

This is not rocket science: all it takes is being aware and taking the time to educate, inspire others, start doing something.

For me it meant launching a media platform that is dedicated to women as news consumers, a platform that puts female readers first and focus on stories they are most interested in. I launched ellaletter.com with the hope of featuring more female voices, welcoming female journalists and offering a platform for more nuanced, smart storytelling. My goal is to recruit the best female (and male) reporters and offer them a competitive market salary they deserve.

What’s important is not to stay complacent or choose the safe, comfortable option in a corporate environment. It’s always more comfortable not to rock the boat, speak up or buckle down and negotiate a higher salary.

As a woman, a journalist and a first-generation immigrant whose family came to the United States in the late 1990s, I see Trump era as a particular kind of triple threat: to women, to the freedom of speech and to a new generation of immigrants and their families eager to enter the United States in pursuit of better opportunities. The initial outrage after 2016 election has subsided and hasn’t translated into consistent political activism or more women running for office.

With the democratic institutions and the news industry fighting their own battles for survival, nobody is going to fight for equal pay on our behalf. We can no longer afford to accept anything that makes us feel uncomfortable or unfair as “normal”.

It may make take a serious conversation with your boss or a job change. Or, in countries like Iceland, it took a legislative decision requiring companies to prove men and women are paid the same.

Silence, complacency or hoping for the best are no longer enough.

Daria Solovieva is a Russian-American journalist based in Dubai. She is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has written for leading publications around the world, including the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Fast Company, USA Today, International Business Times, and Bloomberg News. She was featured as Achieving Business Woman of 2017 in Entrepreneur Middle East magazine in May. You can follow Solovieva on Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn to stay updated on her work.

If you or someone you know would like to share your narrative, please fill out the following form and a member of the International Community will contact the nominee. 

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How Comics Empowered Me

I read a lot of comic books when I was a kid and it’s fair to say that they influenced my decision to become a journalist.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent have a lot to answer for. I might be in mid-thirties but I still have my trusty worn-out Superman sweatshirt I curl up into after spending intense days either working on investigations or sharing remarkable stories in ways that will make them interesting to a global audience. My job as a journalist at the BBC is a varied one and everywhere I go, I pop a pen and a notepad into my bag – because you just never know when a story is going to unfold in front of you. It’s a lesson I picked up at an early age thanks to roving reporter Lois Lane.

I wish I had her fashion sense but for now, I’m just pleased that she helped me find a career that I quite enjoy.

It’s not to say I didn’t have other female journalist heroes. Much like Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo from the TV series the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – I too was a little bit in awe of “determined TV news reporter” April O’Neil. She was always getting up to adventures and helping them out. Surely that’s what being a reporter was about? These were strong women and I admired them.

Elizabeth Wakefield in the Sweet Valley High book series, Lynda Day in the British children’s television series Press Gang; these were accessible role models whose love of journalism and telling stories and being powerful female figures were all influential as I hit my teenage years.

I moved on and started devouring newspapers and books. I loved Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing. I was lucky that I wasn’t a shy adolescent – at least when it came to being curious about the world. In everything else, I felt like I was on the fringes of whatever “normality” was. But if there was anything to do with storytelling in whatever medium then I’d put myself forward. Work as a children’s bookseller? Yes please. Help set up a youth magazine for my borough so people my age can tell our stories? Of course.

When I got older, my local paper asked me to write a column about what life was like for a girl from a working class background to study English Language and Literature at the hallowed halls of Oxford University. It was there I saw first-hand how if I was to succeed in a highly competitive environment, I needed chutzpah. I needed to take ownership of my writing and believe in my capabilities. I also soon realised I needed to learn the art of networking – something incredibly key for any journalist to be good at. It’s through our networks we find out opportunities, are able to help each other, and get our stories the exposure they deserve.

What drives me is telling a good story. I began my career in local newspapers where I would go to court, inquests, carry out death knocks, write features, columns and learn how to make people accountable to the community around them. It was the best training any journalist could have. I then worked for an independent production company specialising in human rights stories – Insight News Television – where the documentary makers instilled in me an importance of remaining passionate about the story and the difference one journalist can make to the lives of so many others just by giving them space and a platform to share their experiences.

And then I ended up at the BBC, where I’ve been for the past nine years. I’ve worked in a variety of departments, on youth programmes, investigations, the website, World Service radio, digital newsgathering, the business unit and partnership projects. I’ve won awards and worked with the best in the industry – people whom I am in awe of everyday. I am a digital storytelling specialist and I’m glad I’ve moved across departments and allowed my passion for finding ways to stories in creative ways to drive my ambitions. One day I’ll be a verificationista – debunking fake news and investigating emerging breaking news stories; the next I’ll be figuring out the best way to get people to share a story focusing on economics and making it relatable to their lives. Then again, perhaps I’ll be popping up on a Facebook Live or researching inspirational stories of innovation.

Of course it’s difficult to be a woman working in this industry; especially when you begin to realise the importance of having a degree of a work/life balance. Life and its associated challenges doesn’t stop. We’ve all got families and commitments. But journalism is a profession which is hard to fit into a normal eight hour slot. Stories emerge at any time; or you have to follow up at times convenient to the person you need to interview. It’s key to build a strong support network around you who can help you achieve your ambitions as well as make sure you don’t sacrifice everything for work. Here at the BBC, I tried to be involved with the organisation’s pioneering Global Women in News network at its founding stages. It’s an amazing support network. I’m surrounded by amazing women producers and journalists whom I learn from every day. Women who are juggling families, caring responsibilities, multiple projects at work but still produce some incredibly creative interviews and ideas because they love their jobs so much despite its demanding nature.

And of course it’s hard not to be affected by some stories that you work on. I started at the BBC’s User Generated Content Hub when the Arab Spring kicked off in 2011.  I have extensive experience working on disinformation, of working on stories of school shootings and murders; terror attacks and other traumatic reports; of seeing unspeakable acts. But that’s when the art of resilience plays a role. I took my experiences and made them into something to learn from.

I was selected for an Ochberg Fellowship focusing on trauma journalism at the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. My interest in that and wanting to be a better storyteller led to another fellowship, this time a Rotary International Peace Fellowship focusing on peace and conflict – something that underpins everything we do as journalists. I took a career break to do this professional development course because it was important for me to embark on this path and meet with non-journalists who worked in this field. If I understood why people worked in war zones; took up careers as peace activists; I felt I would be able to tell their stories better. I’d have more context. It’s important to defend press freedom but first I felt I needed to understand more about whose voices were the ones that people in positions of power want to suppress and why.

I’m back in London right now and currently am with the BBC’s Business and Economics Unit helping to demystify the world of business so that people understand how it affects their daily lives no matter where they are.  It’s a challenge, but then again, every role I’ve ever done has been.

In my career at the BBC I’ve been fortunate to work on big projects. One of which was called What Does Freedom Look Like? We asked the world to share their images of freedom. The season had a massive effect on me. Everything I do now I think about how as a journalist at the BBC, I am in a privileged position; able to give people a voice. When I worked on that project, I came up with the idea of creating a superhero especially for our season. We eventually commissioned a wordless comic which was shared across the World Service and our language services focusing on the idea of freedom. It was a success.

And me – I still read a lot of comic books and they still help me be a better journalist.

I have a dream – shh – that one day I’ll make it into a comic book. Maybe other kids, who don’t quite fit in will see my story and understand that it doesn’t matter what they look like, what they identify as, or what their background is; if they want to be storytellers too and they’ve got the determination to succeed, they can do it.

It won’t be easy but they can do it.

Dhruti Shah shares her story with the SPJ International Community as part of the women’s series for #PressFreedomMatters. She is an award-winning journalist, 2017 Rotary International Peace Fellow, 2015/2016 Ochberg Fellow and strategizes and produces the social media output for the BBC’s Business and Economics Unit. You can follow Shah on Twitter, Facebook, website and personal blog to keep up with her work.

If you or someone you know would like to share your narrative, please fill out the following form and a member of the International Community will contact the nominee. 

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Media Coverage of Asylum Does Not Have to be a Part of Its Humanitarian Aspect

A month ago I attended the Nobel Peace Conference in Germany. We were talking about the political situation in the world and the asylum that has become the top priority of the countries of the world. I remember specifically the story of a Syrian refugee who came out of the Syrian regime in a prisoner exchange deal, telling us her story and the death of her husband under torture.

It is a humanitarian story that summarizes the definition of asylum within some lines.

The media presentation of any asylum case should not aim to make a scoop with what is contained in documents and exclude talking about the humanitarian portion.

In the coverage of asylum news, the picture may differ from the publication of any other news. The life of the refugee and the consequences of publication are more important than the scope, that many media sources seek to do it throughout the Arab region, not only Jordan.

In one way or another, I had to remove this garment, “the journalist’s obsession with the scope,” to start following the cases in depth, highlighting the consequences in the refugee camps as a result of war, asylum and displacement rather than trying to shed light on the consequences of economic and political asylum on Jordan. We are talking about human stories that have suffered and are still suffering as a result of this asylum.

It is a complex crisis that cannot consider one part without the others.

In addition to the importance of maintaining the security of the refugee and the confidentiality of sources of information in light of the policies that intimidated the refugees from the “slander” which the government has repeatedly denied.

Although the issue of asylum has become an important part of the priorities of many female human rights defenders; several violations have been deliberately or unintentionally inflicted on the refugees as a result of political agendas that have paid for them, media coverage has continued to talk about the political and economic consequences of asylum.

Writing my story in asylum is not easy in the presence of a societal culture enshrined by the government and others by placing the Syrian asylum as the “cradle” of the country’s economic, political and social crises. Which means colliding not only with the government and organizations but also by fighting a hate speech that policies have contributed in one way or another to strengthen it. Both citizens and refugees have become victims.

The most important thing to be done by a journalist who deals with asylum issues with its human dimensions, is to clash with the very old and obsolete accusation which is the saying: She is the owner of foreign agendas.

I had faced this in the beginning of my media coverage for asylum news.

The question is have some of the headlines in the provocative media played a role in promoting hate speech towards refugees?

What happened in the follow-up to the file of asylum media was addressing the official letters related to the file of the Syrian refugees and publishing it without any analysis or considering other points of view, which clearly supported increasing the hate speech towards the refugees and changed the public opinion of continuing opening of the border to the Syrian refugees.

The hate speech in some headlines was twofold: first, the lack of objectivity in the official discourse, without any scrutiny and focus on hateful terminology and concepts, where the matter was left to reporters to interpret, by ignoring the other side.

The hate speech in some headlines was twofold. First, the lack of objectivity in the official discourse, without any scrutiny and focus on hateful terminology and concepts, where the matter was left to reporters to interpret, by ignoring the other side. Second, it is to focus on negative, not humanitarian, issues of refugees (such as crime and high unemployment).

Unfortunately, some websites and journalists do not comply with the legal text in the publications. Article 7 of the Jordanian Publications Law stipulates that the print and the journalist must not spread hatred among the people, and all those on the land of the Kingdom. Except as provided for in article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides for the prohibition of any “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

As a result of many press and media coverage of asylum news that has been in the context of a systematic or nonsystematic “hate speech” that results from a lack of knowledge of human rights and criteria for covering asylum news by choosing terminology that avoids falling into the quagmire of hate speech.

The importance of female journalists knowing about the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and belief in them is important for following this file, which can not be cut off from it. Its consequences are not known or notable for some of us because you are shedding light on the right of living for a person who the life imposed him a painful reality.

As part of the coverage of the media coverage of asylum in its humanitarian dimensions, we find that the one who is keen on this dimension in media coverage in Jordan are female journalists specializing in human rights (Nadine Nimri, Rania Sarayra and Samar Haddadin, for example).

In the end, we have the right to defend the rights in our writing because it is in defense of our rights in this life. We must live away from political agendas, away from beliefs and customs, and even from what is being traded (security and safety).

And yes, there is a price and there are consequences for everyone who seeks to highlight the importance of preserving and establishing these rights, but life in dignity and defending these rights is always worth standing up to anyone who violates them only to have power.

So, I begin working with this platform #PressFreedomMatters to promote the role of female journalists in activating the fourth authority (the media) in combating the violation of these rights and ensuring the continuation of their work without any legal or political threats or obstacles.

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Hebatulahayat Obeidat began her career as a radio journalist for Albalad. She spent eight years in Jordan where she conducted training on election coverage, news writing and debates in Jordan, Yemen and Libya. She is a producer and presenter for the news and radio program on political and human rights. She is a member of The Regional Alliance for Human Rights Defenders in the Middle East and North Africa. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.  Her contribution above was translated from Arabic to English.

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Encouragement Sees No Borders

Several weeks ago I spent a week with 70 journalists from more than 50 different countries. We traded stories and frustrations, laughed, cried, debated the future of journalism, discussed the many current conflicts occurring around the world and experienced the welcoming and rich culture of South Korea.

It was part of an annual conference organized by the Journalists’ Association of Korea. I, along with Elle Toussi and Rebecca Baker, represented the Society of Professional Journalists.

Throughout the weekend, while posing for photos with the different community leaders, we would say “화이팅hwaiting.” In English, it sounded like the word “fighting” which seemed ironic to me at the time since the theme of the JAK conference was world peace.

When I returned home, I learned it is a commonly used Korean word of encouragement, good luck, and cheer. It is commonly associated with sports and athletes. And now journalism.

I am not sure I fully realized it then, but journalists around the world, need encouragement now more than ever. While discussing the importance of a free press, free speech, and diversity in coverage and in newsrooms, you could hear the frustrations. Those frustrations included a lack of public trust in journalism, a lack of reliable information when it is needed more than ever and the apathy some feel exists in their communities.

The good news is, that while these feelings of frustration were apparent, it also was apparent that these journalists are not ready to give up and the support around them, from fellow journalists, isn’t going anywhere.

On top of that we came together to discuss how, in spite of the challenges we face, there are possible tactics and tools to use.

A common frustration for some of the journalists, especially the ones reporting in conflict zones was that credible information can sometimes be hard to obtain. Sometimes, you have leaders and people in power pushing agendas and stories, with the hope that it can help their “team.” Sometimes, journalists talked about how there is no information coming out at all.

As this discussion continued, one of the proposed solutions was to leave our emotion out of stories where you are reporting on conflict and war. This doesn’t mean not telling “real people” stories. This means that when you are trying to inform the public about a conflict or the latest on a war, don’t buy into the propaganda from either side. Stick to the facts. Your users will appreciate the hard-hitting story and hopefully trust you more for reporting the facts, and why it matters for them.

So, let’s all seek truth and report it. Minimize Harm. Act independently and be accountable and transparent. And more importantly 화이팅 hwaiting!

Lynn Walsh is the national president for the Society of Professional Journalists. Connect with her on Twitter, @LWalsh.

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Getting around the Great Firewall of China as June 4 approaches

June 4 is remembered as the day the Chinese government brutally shut down a peaceful demonstration in Tiananmen Square in Beijing that was calling for reforms in the ruling Communist Party and in the government.

One of the most famous scenes is the lone man with shopping bags standing up to a column of tanks.

While no official death toll has been released by the Chinese government, estimates are that hundreds died in the army attack on the demonstrators. An additional 10,000 or so were arrested.

Each year in Hong Kong there is a major commemoration ceremony — the only place in China that has such a thing, thanks to the protection of civil rights enshrined in the handover treaty of 1997.

Also each year the Chinese government tries to censor any reference to June 4 or the demonstration. And each year it fails, because the Netizens of China stay one step ahead of censors.

One of the earliest work arounds was a call to honor the dead of May 35. Or Remember the Square of 8. (For the math-phobic, 8×8=64 and 64=June 4)

The good people at China Digital Times have been keeping track of the code words and phrases the Chinese censors have banned on the Internet. One of the more humorous items is how the ban on “64” caused reporting on the Shanghai stock market fell 64.89 points. (Yes, that looks like 6/4/89) Rather than risk anyone thinking it was a Tiananmen remembrance, the government doctored the stock report for public consumption.

Here is the China Digital Times list. It is well worth the read.: Five Years of Sensitive Words on June Fourth

Be sure to pay close attention the ASCII cartoon of tanks rolling over a person.

 

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Why economic growth needs free media

This posting first appeared in Journalism, Journalists and the World.

Despite all the complaints about how poorly “the media” covered the Wall Street shenanigans that led to the 2008 Great Recession, people still turn to the unfettered and independent media outlets for news about stocks, bonds and the general state of the economy. In fact, the whole system of savings and investment would not work without a free press.wall_street_after_dark

The media — and this includes knowledgable bloggers — provide the public with loads of information about what is going on in the marketplace. They look at government regulations, company news and the overall status of the market.

One of the reasons there is global support for the U.S. stock markets is because there is such a strong tradition of free and unfettered media. (And perhaps, part of the trauma of the 2008 collapse was because how poorly the market was covered at the time.)

In fact, one of the most important part of any successful stock market is a free press that is allowed to dig into company records and government actions. Look at London, Paris, Tokyo and even Hong Kong.87502278_shanghai12

So is it any wonder there are uprisings and complaints about how things are going in the Chinese stock markets?

China Digital Times summarized a series of articles of how people across China are complaining about their losses in Chinese investment instruments.

According to the [Wall Street] Journal, some 1.6 million investors lost a total of at least $24.3 billion to collapsing wealth-management products over the past year. Many say they invested because of the perceived endorsement of government officials and state media, and are now demanding reimbursement from authorities.

Rather than move to make sure people got the best and most accurate information about where and how to invest their money, the Chinese government, instead, has decided to restrict even more information.

A series of leaked media directives published by CDT further illustrates efforts to manage discontent. Trying to steer a course between inciting panic and stoking further exuberance in June, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Film, Radio and Television told broadcasters not to “join the chorus of the bull or bear market. Rationally lead market expectations to prevent inappropriate reports from causing the market to spike or crash. […] Do not conduct in-depth analysis, and do not speculate on or assess the direction of the market. Do not exaggerate panic or sadness. Do not use emotionally charged words such as ‘slump,’ ‘spike,’ or ‘collapse.’”

Additional directives instruct editors to focus on “illustrative examples of steady growth,” while downplaying or holding back on anything negative about the property and stock markets.

Wall Street Journal reporter Laurie Burkitt retweeted one of the best reactions to the Chinese government actions:

And yet, the government continues to see it self as the main actor.

Why does this matter to journalists or even the people in the United States?
A great misunderstanding of how the Chinese markets work led to a global run on markets. And yet, only after the Western markets started falling because of what was happening in China, did people start figuring out the fall was an overreaction.

There is not enough foreign investment in the Chinese market for it to be a major problem. The London consultancy Capital Economics has said foreigners own just 2% of shares. — BBC  1/7/16

The smoke and mirrors situation in China built up by the ruling elite created a situation where otherwise strong Western investment instruments collapsed in just a matter of days. To be true, the collapse of the Chinese stock markets did indicate the Chinese economy was slowing. But again, had there been better reporting in China — that is had the government NOT restricted what reporters can cover — then the news about the slowing Chinese economy would not have come as such a shock.

The anti-free press fixation of the Chinese government is not just morally wrong, but it clearly also has a direct impact on U.S. investors, including a lot of retirement funds.4aa104a2bd6e75a39c9db8dad7319dbb

By the way, this has all happened before.

Back in the early 1990’s — when I lived in Shanghai — the government opened stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen. The party and government leaders encouraged people to invest. The people, figuring that the government has always taken care of them in the past will guarantee they will be taken care of in the future.

When the market collapsed in early 1992, millions of people lost their life savings. Men and women in their 60s discovered they had to now work many more years and save a lot more of their earnings to prevent starvation in their old age.

At that time the government did not step in to make good the losses. Deng Xiaoping was effectively in charge and forbade any bailouts. (Except for key companies, of course.) He made it clear the people will have to learn about the ups and downs of a marketplace economy with Chinese characteristics. He even allowed for and encourages small private companies to be set up.

The new leadership, however, has seem hell-bent to restore the all-pervasive nature of the Communist Party in Chinese society. They have apparently become nervous about the growing middle class. Seems once people get a taste of economic freedom, they tend to want political and social freedom as well. And that is not allowed.il_570xn-628619991_jc8m

So the government stepped up it campaign to crush freedom of speech and expression — including reminding the media their job is to represent the party — and stepped up its campaign of the government being mother and father.

The Chinese leadership claims they are concerned with preserving stability and avoiding social unrest. Yet the keep taking steps that lead to more social unrest.

By restricting the media to being only mouthpieces of the government, people will turn to rumors and whispering campaigns for information. And, as anyone who has played the “telephone game” will know, what goes in at the start is not necessarily what comes out the other end.

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Beijing makes it clear: All news must speak for the party

Despite all the public relations efforts aimed at the rest of the world to show how tolerant the Chinese government is, the current leadership is absolutely dedicated to preventing any views not in line with official policy from reaching the Chinese people.

One of the latest items is a new rule that only allows Chinese-owned media companies to operate behind the Great Firewall.

The latest came as President Xi Jinping visited People’s Daily, Xinhua and CCTV.

The Xinhua report on the visit was very clear:

All news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions and protect the Party’s authority and unity, Xi said.

They should enhance their awareness to align their ideology, political thinking and deeds to those of the CPC Central Committee and help fashion the Party’s theories and policies into conscious action by the general public while providing spiritual enrichment to the people, he said.

Marxist journalistic education must be promoted among journalists, Xi added, to make them “disseminators of the Party’s policies and propositions, recorders of the time, promoters of social advancement and watchers of equality and justice.”

While most Westerners understand that the Chinese government tries to maintain a firm control of society and especially the media, few really grasp how severe the control is. Likewise, too many in the West are seduced by phrases designed to hide the true meaning of the words. (See The Real Meaning of “Hurt Feelings of The Chinese People” for one example.)

It is important to remember that people in the West make decisions based on the selected information allowed to be released by the Chinese government. There are no independent agencies or organizations that are allowed to monitor and confirm the data. There is no Freedom of Information Act. And the media (as made clear just this week) are not allowed to report anything that would make life difficult for the party leadership.

For a fuller discussion of Xi’s visit and the role the party sees for news media outlets, read the report at China Digital Times.

Xi’s State Media Tour: “News Must Speak for the Party”

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Belarus Fines Freelancer For Working With Foreign Media

There is so much happening in the world and news organizations have limited resources. The smarter news groups reach out to freelancers to fill the gaps in reporting around the world.

Belarus — one of the last hard-core holder overs of Stalinist rule after the collapse of the Soviet Union — enacted a law that forbids Belarus journalists from working for foreign media.

Now the government has fined freelance journalist, Larysa Shchyrakova about US$245 for breaking that stupid law.

The European Federation of Journalists is calling on the Belarus government to withdraw the fine and repeal the law.

Belarus ranks right at the bottom of press freedom according to Freedom House, with a score of 93 out of 100 for media repression and control. It also has a political freedom rating of 6.5, with 7 representing an absolute lack of any freedoms.

From the Freedom House 2015 Press Freedom report on Belarus

Despite constitutional provisions for freedom of the press, criticism of the president and the government is considered a criminal offense, and libel convictions can result in prison sentences or high fines. There are no effective legal guarantees of public access to government records. Judges, prosecutors, police officers, tax officials, and bureaucrats from the Information Ministry regularly use politicized court rulings and obscure regulations to harass independent newspapers and websites.

That puts Belarus in the same neighborhood as Chad, China and Cuba.

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Transparency and military sales

Transparency International just issued a report on military sales into the Middle East. (Transparency International: Mideast and North African Military Corruption “Critical”)

The report notes the massive sales by Western countries is worsening many of the region’s conflicts.

Many of the 17 countries listed in the report are already notoriously corrupt, and increasing military spending without adequate oversight, the report states, means defense budgets are not being spent to meet countries’ strategic needs, weapons are increasingly trafficked over porous borders and the governments’ domestic legitimacy — already battered by 2011’s revolts — are further undermined.

Remember that TI looks at how transparent government operations are. Only two of the 17 countries covered in the 2-year report — Jordan and Tunisia — publish their defense numbers. The rest keep the numbers as secret as possible.

Another thing to look at in this situation is not only the corruption index of these countries — all “High” to “Critical” — but also at how these governments look at press freedom.

None of these countries, with the exception of Kuwait, breaks into the “Partly Free” category of press freedom by Freedom House.

Previous reports from Freedom House show a steady decline in press freedom in the area.

There is a real connection between freedom of the press and reduced corruption. Just look at the bottom 20 of press freedom and the worst 20 on the TI corruption scale. (More political freedom=More press freedom=Less corruption)

Or look at how just the general issue of transparency and free press interact: Transparency and Free Press.

Free and independent media are vital to democratic and transparent government. And remember that this is not exclusively an international issue. This idea filters all the way down to the most local of local governments. The freedom of information laws we have at all levels of government are there for a reason.

And if anyone is wondering, there is a major effort on the international level to expand FOI laws in countries where they exist and to introduce such laws where they don’t. The problem is the real need for FOI laws is also in those countries that don’t recognize press freedom.

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Lessons China Needs To Learn From Hong Kong

As usual, journalist Frank Ching is spot on in his analysis.

When Hong Kong was handed over to China, people were saying Beijing could learn from Hong Kong how to enter the modern world of finance and politics. But there are lessons Beijing just does not seem to want to learn.

For example, when a major issue dominates the public’s concern, the Hong Kong government sets up commissions to investigate and report back to the people.

Such commissions are part of Hong Kong’s tradition. The British colonial government, between 1966 and the handover to China in 1997, set up commissions of inquiry 12 times to look into such issues as the cause of riots, a fire on a floating restaurant that claimed 34 lives, and the flight from Hong Kong of a police chief superintendent wanted on corruption charges. The strength of such inquiries is that they are conducted by individuals of standing in the community who, while appointed by the government, act independently. Often, such inquiries are headed by judges.

The latest issue is the discovery of lead in the Hong Kong drinking water. The pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong reacted in a way that does credit to the recent history of Hong Kong. They set up a commission.

[T]he commission is headed by Justice Andrew Chan, a high court judge. The commission’s terms of reference are to ascertain the causes of excess lead found in drinking water in public rental-housing developments; to review and evaluate the adequacy of the present regulatory and monitory system in respect of drinking-water supply in Hong Kong; and to make recommendations with regard to the safety of drinking water in Hong Kong.

Frank also points out that the people of Hong Kong know what the local standard is and how it compares to the World Health Organization standard. BTW, 10 micrograms per liter for both.

Now take the explosion at Tianjin — as Frank did — as an example of how not to investigate a major incident that have people concerned for their health and safety.

Premier Li Keqiang promised to “release information to society in an open and transparent manner.” But the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus has moved in as usual and demanded: “Use only copy from Xinhua and authoritative departments and media…. Do not make live broadcasts.”

Cyanide has been detected in the soil near the blast sites, but a Chinese official, Tian Weiyong, director of the environmental emergency centre of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, was quoted as saying that the level does not exceed the national standard. However, we are not told what the Chinese standard is and how it compares with WHO guidelines.

And just as a side note, Frank points out that even if China revealed the “Chinese standard,” it would probably not be of much comfort to the people. In the case of the Hong Kong lead-in-the-water situation, it would never come up as an issue in China. While the readings in Hong Kong exceeded WHO standards by four times, they would have been within Chinese standards of 50 micrograms of lead per liter of water, or five times that of the WHO.

Frank’s bottom line is something a lot of us have argued for years. When the Chinese people know the information they are getting has been carefully sifted and purified, they reject the official statements and turn to rumors for information. Rumors cause panic. And yet, the Chinese leadership says controlling information is necessary to preserve social stability. They really don’t seem to see how their actions are actually adding to instability. (Or at least they are acting as if they don’t see the connection between media control and social instability.)

Independent commissions to investigate disasters and access to the commission reports have provided stability to Hong Kong society. People may not like the results of the studies, but at least the process is public and the public knows how and why the conclusions were reached.

Frank points out

China can learn from the outside world is the creation of an independent body, such as a commission of inquiry, to show its determination to uncover the truth, regardless of where it leads. Such commissions are used around the world, including by the United Nations.

Setting up such a commission lifts a huge burden from the government’s shoulders. The trouble is that, in China, the Communist Party won’t let anyone else investigate.

He adds another problem finding individuals trusted by the people to serve on the commission. “After all, there is no independent judiciary,” he wrote, “no Independent Commission Against Corruption and no Office of the Ombudsman where people of integrity may flourish.”

This item originally appeared in Journalism, Journalists and the World.

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