Posts Tagged ‘Freedom of Information’


The 2016 US Election and Global Journalism

American journalists and journalism prof Dan Gillmor gave the keynote address to the Congress of Journalists of Catalonia (Spain) last week. He chose as his theme free speech, the Donald Trump victory and the need for journalists to be activists.

And please note, this is a speech about a basic American value: Freedom of Speech/Press, presented by an American to a Spanish group of journalists. This is a discussion that is not limited to the States.

You can read the whole speech at Gillmor’s website.

Here are some key points:

I have three goals this morning.

First, to give you my impressions of how journalism performed during this election campaign. The short answer is that journalism failed, with some exceptions.

My second goal is to help you understand why I believe the Trump presidency could well be a turning point – a negative one – for free speech and other fundamental liberties in my country. That would have impact far beyond our shores.

Finally, I want to ask journalists – here and in America and everywhere – to be activists.

Activists for freedom of expression, among the liberties that are at the core of societies where freedom is an institution, not just a word.

Activists for media literacy, the foundation of which is critical thinking.


Our media organizations helped create the climate for someone like Trump to succeed. They’ve been selling fear for decades. For example, in America, at a time the lowest crime rates in many decades, our media have persuaded the public that the risk of being a victim is higher than ever. The risk of any individual person in America becoming a victim is terrorism is exceedingly low, but our media have persuaded the public that the opposite is true.


Trump drew audiences, which boosted ratings, and advertisers sent money. The head of CBS, one of the US media companies that profited wildly from Trump, will be infamous forever for what he said at a business conference early this year: “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

This leader of business said, most infamously, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

If American journalism dies in the next few years, those words should be carved on the tombstone marking the grave.


I emphasize that there was some great work. In fact, if you compiled all the excellent campaign journalism, you’d have a long list–including some work from newer online outlets–that would make you proud as a journalist. But the good stuff was swamped by the flood of mediocrity and awfulness that dominated.

I want to praise one journalist in particular. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post gave a one-man demonstration of how journalism should work. He deserves and will win a 2017 Pulitzer Prize, unless the Pulitzer judges are sound asleep when they look at his work.


Many liberties are in jeopardy, but I will focus mostly here on ones that involve freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

It is clear that Trump actually loves media – when it’s helping to promote him or his business interests. But he plainly hates actual journalism about him, and has promised to do things – and has already done some of them — that would directly and indirectly threaten what journalists do. He has sued at least one journalist not because of inaccuracies but because he wanted to punish the writer financially by forcing him and his publisher to spend money on lawyers. He’s been clear that he’ll appoint judges who might sharply restrict journalistic freedom. There is much more, but I believe it is accurate to call Trump an enemy of journalism, and now he’s in a position where he can do extraordinary damage.


Journalists have to recognize that on some issues, they have to become activists. There is no alternative.

I recognize that in many parts of this world, journalists are activists by definition—because truth telling in repressive societies is an act designed to bring about change. I’m humbled by the people who risk their freedom, and sometimes their lives, to tell their fellow citizens and the rest of the world what is happening where they live.

In the western democracies with a more robust tradition of free speech and a free press, the idea of journalists as activists is often seen as taking sides, and violating journalistic norms. But there’s a long and honorable history of what we call “advocacy journalism” exposing injustices with the goal of of bringing about change.


Free speech starts at the edges of the networks, and ultimately that is where it is heard.

And – this is so important – we need to be spreading the concept of media literacy to everyone who will listen. This is, above all, about developing skills for critical thinking – being skeptical, using judgment, asking questions, ranging widely for information; and more. People need a refuge from the misinformation, and context to understand what is really going on.

Journalists should the leading teachers of media literacy. The ones who do journalism with integrity will be among the biggest beneficiaries, because they’ll foster much more trust in their own work – and one of the things people pay for in this world is products and services they trust.


Journalists, and journalism, are under attack around the world. I wasn’t happy with President Obama’s harsh attitude toward leaks that assisted essential national security journalism. But we’ll probably look back on his tenure as a time of overt support for journalism compared to the Trump regime.

Core freedoms – of expression, association, and more – should be everyone’s right. Media literacy is everyone’s duty. Journalists, and journalism educators like me, have a duty to be their active defenders, and explainers.

Otherwise we’ll live in a world of choke points and control by others – and Donald Trump surely craves control. Otherwise we’ll live in a world where lies are as plausible as truth because the public that doesn’t know how to tell the difference – and based on this campaign that’s the world Trump prefers, too.

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Prejudice: One of the outcomes of censorship

This article was first posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World.

China Digital Times pulled a great item from an interview with Chinese publisher Bao Pu and writers Guo Xiaolu and Hao Qun (who goes by the pen name Murong Xuecun) from the June 3 issue of Foreign Policy.

The blockage of the Internet by the Chinese government means, said the authors and publisher, that people are not getting enough information to make rational decisions.

[R]elatively few people actually bypass censored information on the Internet. But why? Censorship in the long run breeds prejudice. Once you have this prejudice, you think you know everything, but you don’t. That’s why they’re not actively seeking — because they think there’s nothing out there. It’s a vicious cycle.

I have long argued that censorship means the people of a country will begin to rely more on rumors and prejudices than on cold hard facts. China’s rulers, however, say too much unregulated (censored) information leads to social instability.

What they really mean is that once people start thinking critically, the iron-heel rule of the Communist Party in China will be weakened.

And what goes for China goes for other dictatorships. Think Iran, Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe. Even the leaders in proto-dictatorships such as Singapore and Malaysia want to control all forms of media to protect their hold on power.

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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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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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World Bank posts global FOI information

First posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World

Many thanks to the World Bank for building and posting a database of the freedom of information laws for many (not all) countries.

The database is part of the World Banks’ Public Accountability Mechanisms to keep government operations honest and transparent.

Freedominfo.org points out:

The Bank does not rate or rank the countries, but the database is expected to be a trove of information for comparative research. The Bank now is moving into research on FOI implementation issues.

The database collects information about FOI laws in seven broad categories with 30 subcategories.

Furthermore, the Bank does not score countries on their openness laws. But at least there is a list to work from.

After going to the Public Accountability page, click on the country you are interested in. Then scroll down to the FOI link.

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FOI makes progress in Malaysia

The first FOI law in Malaysia passed in Selangor state. The Center for Independent Journalism Malaysia said the national government should follow suit.

Selangor Passes FOI Bill; First in Malaysia

The legislation included a number of improvement the Center said. Among the positive changes are:

  1. Acknowledgment of the right to information, rather than an opportunity given by the state
  2. An obligation to reveal information
  3. Possibility of review by the courts
  4. A more independent State Information Board (to replace the Appeals Board)
  5. A narrower list of exemptions, with a public interest override
  6. Protection from prosecution, sanctions, suit etc for Information Officers or government officers who disclose information in good faith
  7. 20-year time limit for keeping information confidential.


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The Marshall Plan: What it meant 63 years ago and what it means today

First posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World.

Here it is the 63rd anniversary of the signing into law the Foreign Assistance Act of 1948. Better known as the Marshall Plan.

Seems whenever there is talk of helping a country rebuild — think Haiti — inevitably someone mentions the Marshall Plan. What people tend to forget is that the Marshall Plan was designed to rebuild societies that already had stable political and industrial infrastructures.

What Haiti and many other countries need is development help.

The Marshall Plan was not so much a “development” plan but a rebuilding plan.

The Marshall Plan, by providing goods to a war-ravaged Europe also provided support to democratic forces — from democratic socialists to conservatives. Without the Marshall Plan the Soviet Union would have grabbed more influence in Western Europe by playing on the deprivation of post-war Europe.

The marching orders from Moscow were clear to their satellite parties in Western Europe: Stop the Marshall Plan. For example, while the French Communist unions refused to unload Marshall Plan goods at the ports, the French Socialist unions were anxious to do so.

Oh, by the way, the aid was offered to Eastern Europe as well. The Soviets made sure their puppet governments rejected the help.

Again, the Marshall Plan was designed to assist societies that already had a history and culture of industrial life and democratic rule. All they needed was a little help to get back on their feet.

With the help of the Marshall Plan Europe got back on its feet. In the process the U.S. gained new trading partners instead of clients. And we got political and military allies instead of adversaries.

All in all we got a good return for our minimal investment.

The problems countries such as Haiti and many in Africa face are a lack of democratic institutions and stable and safe infrastructure. What these countries need is not so much a Marshall Plan, but rather development support on a broad front.

The development of democratic institutions is vital to economic development. People have to see they have a stake in the growth and development of their country.

When only the political elite get the benefits of industrialization and when the workers are denied their basic rights, the embers of revolts and violence start to glow. Add unchecked corrupt government practices — because of no free press or independent watchdog — can only help the embers burst into an inferno.

Fortunately, the U.S. Agency for International Development figured out some time ago that along with building roads and power grids, development programs had to include the building a pluralistic culture.

In the past 15 or so years, AID has run programs that help local journalists understand what it means to have independent media. Sessions are run on how to either get the government to enact freedom of information laws or how to improve and use existing laws.

Adding to the development issue is the work of the National Endowment for Democracy. This private, government-funded group provides funds to the international arms of the Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO and the Democratic and Republican Parties. The programs these groups run help build business and labor groups and  the political parties run programs to improve the stability of political forces independent of government control.

Back to the main point:

Under the Marshall Plan, no one had to worry about building democratic institutions or building and industrial culture. The people were anxious and ready to do that. The Marshal Plan gave the people the material support they needed.

What is needed in the developing world are programs to get to that first step of development: the building of a pluralistic society with independent organizations to serve as a check and balance against government excesses.

So, please, let’s get our terms right in the future. Please let’s not see any more stories that say “Haiti needs a Marshall Plan.” It’s just bad history.

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Mexican FOI law improves with new provisions

Freedom of information laws are a growing phenomenon in the world and more needs to be done to help the forces of FOI win their battles.

In Mexico, the forces of transparency won a major victory in a key congressional committee as damaging proposals were cast aside and proposals to strengthen the law passed.

And Twitter played a role.

Improvements to Mexican Transparency Law Passed

1 APRIL 2011

A handful of potentially harmful proposals to change the Mexican freedom of information law were defeated March 30 as a key congressional committee approved a package of more positive reforms.

Although approval by several other committees and the full lower body of Congress still lies ahead, and activists are concerned about the possible opposition from some in the current government, the deletion of certain parts of the Senate-passed bill was considered a major success by Mexican supporters of freedom of information. Their effort was bolstered by a targeted barrage of Twitter messages.

Rest of story at Freedominfo.org

The Carter Center and the Knight Foundation have been running a series of seminars and conferences around the world to promote the concept that citizens have a right to know what information their governments have.

 

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FOI: It’s not just a local thing

First posted at Journalism, Journalists and the World

Welcome El Salvador to the ranks of governments that  have accepted the idea that its citizens have a right to know (most) of what the government knows.

El Salvador Joins the List of FOI Countries

The latest action by El Salvador also proves that no matter how parochial many may think the freedom of information movement is, it is really global in its reach. In fact, there is even an International Right to Know Day. (It’s Sept. 28, in case you did not know.)

The Carter Center is especially active in the global right to know/information movement.

Last year it held a major conference in Africa. (Report) The year before it sponsored a conference in Latin America. (Report) And it kicked off the regional sessions with a global conference in 2008.

The important point here is that while journalists and journalism groups are some of the most vocal in support and defense of freedom of/right to information laws, they are not the biggest users of those laws. The vast majority of FOI requests come from individuals, civic groups or private organizations.

A good example of how one person used the Virginia FOI laws is recorded in the Fairfax City Patch:

And it is clear that FOI laws are never as strong as we would like. But once the laws are on the books, it is up to the citizenry to use what is available and push for better laws. (This was the basic argument former SPJ president gave to journalists and civic groups in the Dominican Republic in 2005 on the first anniversary of that country’s FOI law.)

If nothing else, promotion and strengthening of FOI laws is a link that journalists and civil society activists share around the globe. Unfortunately, too few in the United States see that connection.

Corporations have globalized. It strikes me that the only way to keep track of what they are doing is to make sure that there are strong FOI laws around the globe as well. It further occurs to me that citizens who are used to having strong FOI laws should be reaching out to those in countries with no or weak FOI laws.

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