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March 29 2012

14:00

Cautious Hope for Freedom of Information in Burma

BANGKOK -- A week out from special elections that are likely to see opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi take a seat in the country's parliament, Burma's long-straitjacketed journalists sat with local and foreign officials to discuss a new press law that could see the country's censorship regime abolished.

Thiha Saw, editor of Myanmar Dhana magazine and Open News (two Rangoon-based publications), told an audience in Bangkok earlier this week that, according to the Ministry of Information, the censorship department will be abolished and there will no longer be pre-publication checking of articles.

Right now in Burma, daily newspapers are banned and existing weeklies must run their content by the censorship board for approval before publishing.

But change is nigh, it seems, and a second draft of a new print media law will go before the country's parliament later this year. By then, the parliament could include Aung San Suu Kyi, the famous dissident who was denied her win in 1990 elections and spent much of the intervening years under house arrest.

That possibility is heartening for journalists.

"Hopefully the Lady will be in parliament by the time the second draft comes around," Thiha Saw said.

A new playing field

The special elections and the proposed new press code are the latest in a series of reforms enacted or proposed by the country's nominally civilian government -- changes that have seen a bevy of media headlines lauding the country's rulers for their new-found open-mindedness.

Political prisoners have been freed, new laws on foreign investment proposed, and controversial, lucrative infrastructure projects have been put on hold. The year-old parliament also recently passed bills on environmental conservation and agreed on the country's annual budget -- which was previously announced by decree.

While I was reporting from Burma in February, ordinary Burmese -- as well politicians, media workers, political activists -- were all happy to be interviewed in public. This was not the case just a few months before.

Facebook is no longer blocked, and though the Internet remains slow and expensive -- as well as monitored by the government -- smaller publications yet to develop a website are using Facebook pages to post news content online, with images and video of Aung San Suu Kyi's election campaign proving wildly popular.

However, after five decades of military rule, army influence over the country's government is not about to fade away. Speaking on March 27, Army head Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said soldiers who serve as lawmakers are working for "the interest of the country ... performing the duty of national politics" by participating in parliament, where the military is allotted 25 percent of the seats.

a hint of reform

That said, there have been some surprising developments in the parliament, with members of parliament disagreeing with ministers and officials, and the tiny opposition finding common ground with some members of the army-backed majority party.

And in a signal that Burma's rulers are loosening their information grip, reporters from Rangoon -- such as Thiha Saw -- were permitted to travel to Bangkok on March 26, to discuss media reform and the April 1 elections.

In recent times, Thailand has served as a sanctuary for some of Burma's dissident and opposition figures, as well as leaders of some of the country's ethnic minority militias. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing fighting in Burma's rugged borderlands come to Thailand, as well as several million Burmese economic migrants escaping poverty and joblessness at home, to eke out a sometimes harsh living in Thailand's fishing industry or as domestic service.

Among the Thailand-based Burmese are the exiled media outlets, which have worked to fill the news void inside Burma in the years since the army crushed student protests in 1988.

irrwaddy.png

Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, an online news magazine based in Chiang Mai, close to the Thailand-Burma border, and Toe Zaw Latt, Thailand bureau chief of Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), joined their Burma-based counterparts for this week's discussion, held at Thailand's Foreign Correspondents Club.

Both Aung Zaw and Toe Zaw Latt had just returned to Thailand from Burma, where they attended an international conference -- backed by the Burmese government -- on media development in the country, which is officially known as Myanmar.

It was Toe Zaw Latt's first visit home in 23 years, and for Aung Zaw, his second in 24 years. Both men fled their country after the 1988 uprising, which marked Aung San Suu Kyi's first foray into Burmese politics.

old ways are hard to bury

Aung Zaw said his publication will consider establishing operations inside Burma, pending more reforms, but cautioned that he hopes to have a "one foot in, one foot out" strategy going forward.

Somewhat pessimistic about a new era of media freedom emerging in Burma, he said, "The government will give licenses (for media) to cronies, those who are rich, former military men who have business links. Any of these rich people could swallow The Irrawaddy."

The new print media law does not cover online reporting -- and it remains to be seen whether television and radio laws will be given the same overhaul. Toe Zaw Latt said that many of the old laws that made Burma one of the world's harshest places to be a journalist remained in place.

"The Electronics Act is still there," he said, referring to a law that means Burmese can be jailed for 20 years for publishing material deemed subversive. Up until January 13, when Burma's government released several hundred political prisoners, 17 DVB reporters were imprisoned under the Electronics Act.

Despite the existence of oppressive laws, both the Burmese government and international backers of media reform still portray Burma's journalists as the ones needing to change their ways.

A press statement released by UNESCO after the recent media development conference in Burma attributed the following summary to U Ye Htut, director-general of the Information and Public Relations Department, at Burma's Ministry of Information.

"U Ye Htut also identified the main challenges in lack of experience, lack of professional standards in journalism in Myanmar and limited access to local media, and need to imbue press, publishers and editors with a concept of self-responsibility," read the release.

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist usually based in southeast Asia. He writes for the Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, Christian Science Monitor and others. He is on twitter @simonroughneen and you can Circle him on Google+.

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December 10 2010

17:32

Online Freedom of Expression Under Siege in Thailand

BANGKOK, THAILAND -- "Today I have to go all the way to Khon Kaen to report to the police," said Chiranuch Premchaipoen, the editor of Thailand's well-known online news site Prachatai during a recent conversation in Bangkok.

The town is 450 km from Bangkok, and Chiranuch has to travel there once a month just to check in with police. This arrangement is the result of her detention at the Bangkok airport on September 24. That came in response to a complaint made about comments posted by a third party on the Prachatai web-board. (Irony of ironies, Chiranuch was returning home from attending an Internet freedom seminar in Geneva.)

She was charged with lese-majeste, or insulting the monarchy, which under Thailand's legal code can be filed by any citizen against another. Until the charges, which also incorporate an alleged breach of Thailand's Computer Crimes Act, are dropped, or the case goes to court, Chiranuch must make the 450 kilometer journey north once a month. She could receive a 32-year jail term if convicted of one of two lese-majeste charges she faces. The first goes to trial in February 2011, while the latest will be reviewed by a police panel that will decide whether a court case is warranted.

While in the process of preparing for the launch of a new report about the control and censorship of Thailand's online media, she recently squeezed in a few minutes to talk to PBS MediaShift at her organization's downtown Bangkok office.

"We have changed our domain name eight times since April," she said, referring to the month when Thailand's military-civilian-run Center for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES) pulled Prachatai into its swelling dragnet of blocked websites. It did so by citing threats to national security and stability amid violent protests in the center of Bangkok.

Red Shirts

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Between March 12 and May 19 this year, over 90 people died and around 2,000 were injured when Thai police and soldiers clashed with anti-government "red shirts," some of whom were armed. The latter became known as the"men in black."

Amid such political turmoil, freedom of expression in Thailand has taken a nosedive. Four years of color-coded protests, a 2006 army coup, and a 2007 constitution re-write combine with concerns about what the future holds after the 64-year reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej comes to an end to feed into a simmering unrest in an increasingly polarized society. (The king made a rare public appearance on November 5 for a dazzling fireworks and light show, and thousands of Thais turned out for his 83rd birthday.)

According to a recent Thammasat University report, "Control and Censorship of Online Media, through the Use of Laws and Imposition of Thai State Policies," just under 75,000 websites are blocked by Thai censors. The report's authors argue that this is in contravention of Section 45 of the Thai Constitution, which says, "[a] person shall enjoy the liberty to express his opinion, make speech, write, print, publicise, and make expression by other means." (The report is not yet available online.)

While these rights are qualified by other laws, as in all democracies that promote freedom of speech, Thailand's recourse to emergency decrees has swung the pendulum toward restrictive interpretations of and implementation of the relevant codes.

Some of the blocked sites and closed-down radio stations, many of which are affiliated with the red shirts, were deemed to have carried content or programs that incited violence. (In one sample protest, red shirts spilled blood on the private residence of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjva in a black magic ritual apparently aimed at driving him from office.)

More recently, the red shirt backer, one-time telecom mogul and former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra, has been invited to testify at the United States' "Helsinki Commission" about what took place in Thailand during 2010. This is scheduled to take place on December 16, even though the Thai Government wants him extradited back to Thailand to face jail on corruption charges.

Facebook Rising in Thailand

Foreign reporters have also faced scrutiny and criticism in Thailand. CNN correspondent Dan Rivers was the target of a Facebook campaign at the height of the protests. Thais opposed to the red shirts gathered on an anti-Rivers Facebook page to object to what they deemed to be biased reporting in favor of the protestors. Undeterred, Rivers got the first footage of the armed "black shirts," offering close-up visual proof that the protest was not entirely peaceful -- and signaling that he sought to tell both sides of the story.

"If there is really hate speech or incitement to violence, it can be dealt with through the criminal courts," said Chiranuch during our interview. "The legal means are already there and there should not be a need to suppress legitimate voices."

CRES.JPG

For its part, her publication insists that it is an impartial and independent online alternative to Thailand's mainstream media. The site's success boils down to what Sawatree Suksee, a lecturer in law at Thammasat University and lead author of the aforementioned report, calls a growing interest in Thai-style citizen journalism.

"The government tries to interfere with mainstream media, so the Internet plays a different role in politics," she said at a recent public forum about Thailand's netizens.

She added that web-boards and social media are booming in Thailand, giving curious Thais their information fix. "The Internet is too fast for the government to react to," she said.

Boosted by the launch of a Thai-language version, the number of Facebook users has more than doubled since January, to 6.7 million, or around 10 percent of the country's population, according to Socialbakers.

"Facebook is a new technology and we don't have any way to control it yet," Chuti Krairiksh, the minister of information and communication technology recently told Agence France-Press. Perhaps his boss, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva, will hesitate to lock down the site now that he has over 531,000 fans, and while the site's popularity continues to grow.

Monitoring Comments

However, the structure of the country's lese-majeste laws means that the boards need careful monitoring by owners, lest they end up like Chiranuch. Aside from her case, other non-news websites are also falling afoul of the law.

Teepagorn "Champ " Wuttipitayamongkol manages the youth and lifestyle-oriented website exteen.com, which he says gets 300,000 unique visitors per day. He lamented to PBS MediaShift that he "has been called in by the police, though his site has nothing to do with politics."

Commenting on how political turmoil can sometimes engage Thai youth, he did say that "when the political incident took place they freely share their thoughts on my site." However, if one user makes a complaint about another user, citing lese-majeste to the police, the police are in turn obliged to investigate.

While Thailand has regressed in terms of freedom of expression, it must be acknowledged that researching or writing a story like this would be much more difficult in some other Southeast Asian countries, such as Laos or Vietnam, and downright dangerous-to-impossible in Burma, which is usually covered by reporters based in Thailand.

For now, Prachatai can be accessed inside Thailand, without apparent hindrance, on www.prachatai3.info, while the red shirt-linked Facebook page can be viewed under Ratchaprasong News.

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently in southeast Asia. He writes for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, South China Morning Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated to Global Radio News and has reported for RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, and Voice of America. He has worked in and reported from over 30 countries.

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December 06 2010

16:35

UBC Students, Globe and Mail Investigate Hidden Cost of Shrimp

news21 small.jpg

Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

Twenty-something university students usually head to Thailand in search of exotic adventures. But when a group of 10 University of British Columbia journalism students went almost a year ago, they were searching for the untold story of shrimp, a seafood delicacy that has become common in North America.

Led by associate professor Peter Klein, the students spoke to exploited Burmese migrant workers, documented devastated mangrove swamps, and visited labs where shrimp are tested for carcinogenic chemicals.

Their work was published recently in partnership with Canada's newspaper of record, the Globe and Mail, together with a companion micro-site to showcase the breadth and depth of the students' work.

"The Globe was preparing to do a series on global food, and we had just finished this reporting in Thailand, so we discussed with the editors the idea of a collaboration," said Klein, a former "60 Minutes" producer. "We shared transcripts of our interviews with one of their print reporters, and our students gave the reporter some advice on what we found in the field."

The project is an example of a growing trend of partnerships between major news organizations and universities, and it highlights the role of journalism schools as homes for investigative reporting projects.

This is the second project of UBC's International Reporting program. The first documentary, Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, was produced in partnership with PBS Frontline/World and went on to win an Emmy Award in September for investigative reporting.

A Nuanced Story

The International Reporting program takes 10 journalism students abroad to cover under-reported international issues. The idea of looking at the real cost of those all-you-can-eat platters of cheap shrimp came out of a pitch by one of the students, Kate Allen.

mangrove.jpgShe suggested a general story about seafood, the ocean and fisheries. As the students researched the topic, the issue of shrimp aquaculture started to take shape.

"There are environmental concerns, human rights issues, and even health issues that can affect us back home in North America and Europe, where most farmed shrimp ends up," said Klein.

For the investigation, the students visited several sites in Thailand. They interviewed exploited Burmese migrants who are paid a pittance for their labor, filmed the underwater effects of shrimp runoff on the country's reefs and reported on how the clear-cutting of mangrove swamps by shrimp farmers contributed to the effects of the 2004 tsunami.

"It's a nuanced story," said student Kerry Blackadar. "We went there expecting a black-and-white story about run-offs from shrimp farms impacting reefs and mangroves, but realized the complexities of the industry when we were in Thailand."

Allen, the student who suggested the topic that eventually became this project, said,
"By the end of our Thai trip, we were left with a palpable sense of how North America's raging appetite for one tiny species of crustacean had done serious harm to this beautiful country."

Multimedia Treatment

The students produced a web video project for the Globe that offers a snapshot of the impact of cheap shrimp. The journalism school also produced a micro-site that highlights different aspects of the story, drawing from more than 100 hours of footage shot in the field.

shrimp_telephone.jpg"This project was really well suited for a multimedia piece," said Klein. "There are several distinct themes we addressed, and in a linear TV piece we would have had to do awkward transitions between these themes. In this project, we were able to separate out the themes and address them as individual video clips."

The website was created using WordPress, which is the content management system we use for our student online publications. I was involved in supervising the site, which was developed by student Erin Empey.

"This worked well as a multimedia project because of its complexity," she said. "By using several multimedia tools and breaking the video into chapters, we were able to present the nuances of the story clearly."

Here's one of the videos produced for the project:

Non-Profit Investigative Reporting

The website was the culmination of a year-long investigation that started back in September 2009, when the students embarked on the second year of a new course called International Reporting.

The course is an example of foundation-funded journalism. It was launched in 2008 thanks to a generous donation from Alison Lawton of the Mindset Foundation.

For the shrimp micro-site, the school also secured funding from the MITACS Accelerate internship program. The program provides federal and provincial funding to offer students the opportunity to apply their research to real-world issues.

Funding programs like these can help established media undertake innovative research and development projects. Last year, the UBC journalism school also received a grant from MITACS to partner with CBC Radio 3 to create a Canadian music wiki.

These kinds of partnerships are evolving as news outlets, foundations and journalism schools pool their resources, particularly at a time when established media are devoting fewer resources to investigative reporting

"This is classic investigative journalism, the kind of reporting that rarely gets done anymore on international topics," said Klein.

Alfred Hermida is an online news pioneer and digital media scholar. He is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, where he leads the integrated journalism program. He was a founding news editor of the BBC News website. He blogs at Reportr.net.
news21 small.jpg

Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

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August 19 2010

14:04

WikiLeaks launches ThaiLeaks following government censorship

WikiLeaks has launched ThaiLeaks, a web page of downloadable ‘magnet links’ to Thailand news items, after authorities blocked citizen access to the main website yesterday.

The whistleblower announced the launch of the new page today on Twitter. It said even if the new page is blocked citizens will still be able to access information through the links which “can be sent in e-mails, instant messages, even printed on paper, in order to keep information flowing”.

According to a report by the Bangkok Post, government officials said access was blocked on “security grounds”.Similar Posts:



August 09 2010

09:39

Bangkok Post publishes Thailand’s first 3D newspaper

A Thai newspaper has become the first in the country to produce a 3D photo edition of its newspaper, according to the Shaping the Future of the Newspaper blog.

The Bangkok Post, an English-language daily, published the special edition to celebrate its 64th anniversary.

The three-dimensional effect was also applied to the advertisements and to a special section called Our Pride, published in celebration of the newspaper recently winning the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers’ (WAN-IFRA) Best Overall Design award in Asia-Pacific and Middle East.

See the full post here…Similar Posts:



June 03 2010

16:27

Crisis in Thailand Leads to Net Crackdown, Censorship

At least 80 people were killed during the latest clashes in Thailand. But the confusion and danger that are present in various parts of Bangkok do not explain why several Thai and foreign journalists have been shot since April. Two are dead. The tense political situation also doesn't justify the leadership's blocking of more than 4,000 anti-monarchy websites.

As we at Reporters Without Borders recently stated in regards to the Thai government's actions, "The right to information is more important than ever when a country is in crisis." Yet several reporters have been gunned down and the Internet is falling prey to censorship. So far, around 4,500 websites have been blocked in an attempt by the regime to institute partial censorship of news about the nine-week crisis. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Twitter account has also been blocked since May 19.

On that same day, the leadership's Centre for Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) blocked Facebook and Twitter, which had been functioning as alternative sources of news after TV stations began broadcasting government-controlled programming. Also that day, the Bangkok headquarters of Channel 3 was set on fire by anti-government protesters, and the two biggest English-speaking dailies, the Bangkok Post and the Nation, sent their employees home at 3 p.m. due to fears that their offices could be attacked by Red Shirts. At this point, almost all local journalists avoid going into the streets to cover the situation because of concerns about the risks.

Gathering Info in a Tough Environment

Journalists have been gathering information via social networks, the telephone, and from people trapped in the Wat Pathum Wanaram temple. (It adjoins the square where the Red Shirt protestors had gathered.) Only a few foreign reporters are still on the ground. Here is a video interview with Italian photo-journalist Fabio Polenghi in which he explains the varying treatment of local and foreign reporters:

Sadly, Polenghi died on May 19 during the army's assault on the Red Shirts in Bangkok.

As of today, two reporters have been killed and several injured since mid-March. In testimonies obtained by Reporters Without Borders, foreign journalists also reported feeling targeted. Arnaud Dubus, a reporter for the French daily Libération and for Radio France Internationale, told us, "This is the first time in Thailand that I feel that foreign journalists are really targeted."

The Geneva Convention forbids journalists from being military targets. Thailand was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council on May 15, and now it is violating humanitarian and international law principles.

Online Crackdown Goes On

Blocking Twitter and Facebook is nothing new for Thai authorities. Since at least 2009, this has been a regular practice among the Thai police. So far, one blogger, Suwicha Thakor, has been jailed for his online activities. In April of last year, he was given a 10-year jail sentence by a criminal court in the northeast Bangkok district of Ratchada. This was for posting content online that was deemed to have insulted the monarchy. Thakor has been held in Bangkok's Klong Prem prison since January 14.

One challenge is that the Internet is not well regulated in Thailand. The country's Computer Crimes Act, which was adopted in 2007, is too vague. That means the ongoing trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the editor of the Prachatai news website, could create a legal precedent. She is facing up to 50 years in prison for failing to act with sufficient speed to remove "offensive" comments about the monarchy that were posted on the site.

Arrested on March 31, Chiranuch was released after three hours when her sister guaranteed the 300,000 bahts (6,000 euros) in bail demanded by the judicial authorities.

"In normal times I would be more confident about this initial hearing," she told Reporters Without Borders. "I hope the court will make allowance."

Under the Computer Crimes Act, owners and editors of websites can be prosecuted when they publish comments that are deemed to have broken the law. The owners are regarded as being as responsible as the commenters themselves.

Chiranuch's website, as well as its Facebook page and Twitter account, has repeatedly been blocked by the Centre for Resolution of the Emergency Situation since the start of Thailand's political crisis. The Prachatai news website was founded in 2004 -- when the now deposed Thaksin Shinawatra was still prime minister -- with the aim of being an alternative source of news. Its news section receives more than 20,000 visitors a day, while its forum receives about 30,000.

The harassment of netizens is widely spread and does not stop at Thai borders. In 2006, Anthony Chai, an American citizen from California, was interrogated by Thai officials in Thailand and again later in the U.S. for allegedly insulting the monarchy in 2006. Originally from Thailand, Chai was granted U.S. citizenship in the late 1970s. He faces possible arrest if he returns to Thailand. "What if now the U.S. is allowing a U.S. citizen to be interrogated by foreign agents on U.S. soil?" he said. You can read more about Chai's case here.

(For more on Thailand and other countries' "lese majeste" laws against insulting the monarchy, see this previous story on MediaShift.)

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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May 21 2010

15:31

International journalists in Thailand spread word in the face of violence

First-hand accounts and Twitter updates from journalists on the ground in Thailand this week have given an insight into the level of violence faced by citizens and journalists reporting ongoing clashes between the red-shirt anti-government protestors and the Thai military.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least eight journalists have been shot, two fatally, while covering the unrest in Bangkok. Freelance Italian photojournalist Fabio Polenghi was killed on Wednesday – another casualty following the death of Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto on 10 April.

Those journalists reported to have been injured include Dutch freelancer Michael Maas; the Independent’s Andrew Buncombe, and freelance Canadian writer and photographer, Chandler Vandergrift.

“Covering civil unrest in Thailand is always dangerous, but for months, neither side in the political turmoil has been willing to address ways of allowing journalists to do their jobs without fear of being killed or injured,” says Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator, on the group’s website.

Buncombe, who was shot in the leg while covering violence at a Buddhist temple, tweeted eyewitness reports from the scene providing a harrowing yet fascinating narrative of his experience, which he has also covered in a piece for the Independent:

The injured were removed, with priority given to those most badly hurt.

The first to leave was the man shot in the lower back. Next was a man shot in the leg. As he was lifted on the stretcher and carried towards the ambulances, he moaned and cried. He pressed his palms together as if to say a prayer, perhaps both for himself and his country.

A man who had been shot in the thigh and I were taken out in the final two ambulances. That man’s name was Narongsak Singmae, he was 49 and from the north-east of the country. As he lay waiting to be taken away to hospital, he said: “I cannot believe they are shooting in a temple.”

Tweets and images from fellow journalist MacKinnon, East Asia correspondent for Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, (who managed to sneak a cold beer into @andrewbuncombe while he was in hospital according to this tweet) have been pulled into a transcript by the Globe and Mail, creating a vivid account of the Thai government’s crackdown on protestors.

The Vancouver Sun has a moving account of photojournalist Nelson Rand who was hit by three bullets while covering the violence but survived; and another Canadian journalist, Vandergrift, who was seriously injured in clashes between Red Shirt protestors and Thai soldiers. A producer with CBC News, Cedric Monteiro, describes the moment he realised Vandergrift was injured:

There was more yelling down the road, from more soldiers running with stretchers. As the first one went by I recognized Vandergrift on it. He was motionless, his head bandaged, his shoulder bleeding. Someone was shouting at him: “Chandler stay awake.”

According to reports, he was struck by shrapnel from a grenade that also tore through the arm of a Thai soldier. Tonight Vandergrift lies in hospital in serious condition, fighting for his life. The sadness of the moment lies even heavier because I knew him. He is among four journalists who were injured today. Another was killed – an Italian photographer.

As I try to fathom why so many scribes race with such intensity and abandon to cover conflict, I’m reminded by what my journalism professor once said: “There is no story in the world worth dying for.”

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May 19 2010

09:51

SHM.com.au: Italian photographer shot dead in Thailand violence

An AFP report on the Sydney Morning Herald site confirms that an Italian photographer was among those shot dead in the clash between protesters and military forces in Thailand.

“An Italian man was shot and died before arriving at the hospital,” said police hospital director Jongjet Aoajenpong. “He’s a journalist. He was shot in the stomach,” he added.

“Thai protest leaders have surrendered after an army assault on their fortified encampment in central Bangkok left at least five people dead on Wednesday,” the AFP reported.

Full story at this link…

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December 21 2009

17:30

Glenda Cooper: When lines between NGO and news organization blur

[Not too long ago, it was clear who was a producer of news — and who were the sources who fed them. Not so in a world where the production of media has been democratized, and the rules that governed that production are up in the air. In this essay, journalist Glenda Cooper examines several cases where those lines have been blurred. This is the sixth part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

“Dear Sir. My name is Mohammed Sokor…from Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab. There is an alarming issue here. People are given too few kilograms of food. You must help.”1 Was this a note — as The Economist asked — delivered to a handily passing rock star-turned-philanthropist? An emotional plea caught on a BBC camera?

No, Mr. Sokor from Kenya is a much more modern communicator than that. In 2007, he texted this appeal to the mobile phones of two United Nations officials in London and Nairobi. He had found the numbers by surfing the Internet in a café at the north Kenyan camp.

The humanitarian world is changing. New information and communication technology is altering how we report, where we report from, and most of all, who is doing the reporting. These developments coincide with mainstream media coming under increasing financial pressure and withdrawing from foreign bureaux. This is a trend that extends beyond the United States. In early 2009, the think tank POLIS together with Oxfam published a report warning that international coverage is likely to decrease under the new public service broadcasting regime being worked out in the U.K. And in 2008, the U.K. tabloid the Daily Mirror said as part of the latest round of job cuts they were abolishing the post of foreign editor altogether. Meanwhile, citizen journalists and NGOs have been rushing to fill the gap. The mainstream media, getting free filmed reports and words, often sees this as a win-win situation. This raises three key issues:

— Do these new entrants to humanitarian reporting mean that we are seeing more diverse stories being told and more diverse voices being heard? Does the fundamental logic of reporting change?

— Are viewers/readers aware of the potential blurring of the lines between aid agencies and the media when NGOs act as reporters?

— How are aid agencies being affected by citizen journalists acting increasingly as watchdogs?

Media and aid agencies: a symbiotic relationship

The relationship between the media and aid agencies used to be well-defined and almost symbiotic in nature. This section will capture the essence of this relationship by taking a critical stance. The subsequent sections will then look at how this relationship is changing as well as the role citizen journalists play in this context.

The former UN emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, has talked about the way the world’s disaster victims are caught up in a “kind of humanitarian sweepstakes…and every night 99 percent of them lose, and one percent win.” The one-percent winners usually owe their good fortune to media coverage.

To illustrate the argument, the table below shows the death toll in the December 2004 tsunami as judged by the UN Special Envoy, and the number of stories written in British newspapers (Dec. 19, 2004 to Jan. 16, 2005) as recorded by Lexis Nexis.2

Indonesia: 167,000 dead or missing; 343 stories
Sri Lanka: 35,000 dead or missing; 729 stories
Thailand: 8,200 dead or missing; 771 stories

The death toll in Indonesia dwarfs that of Sri Lanka and Thailand — it is roughly 20 times that of Thailand — yet Indonesia received barely half the media coverage as Thailand. Not only was it quicker, easier and cheaper for the media to get to Sri Lanka and Thailand than to Indonesia, but there were many more tourists blogging, sending in photographs, and filming from the first two areas, contributing those vital shots of the wave as it happened.

This media coverage translated into increased aid. So many aid workers poured into Sri Lanka that they were dubbed a “second tsunami.” In the year after the tsunami, a Disasters Emergency Committee evaluation noted that Indonesia had suffered 60 percent of the damage but received only 31 percent of the funding.3

But the tsunami was such an extraordinary event — perhaps it was a one-off? Not at all. Another example is provided by the difference in media coverage after the acute natural disasters in Burma and China in spring 2008. In Burma, the military junta tried to keep the international media out during Cyclone Nargis, while the Chinese authorities allowed the media in to follow the Sichuan earthquake. Figures reported in the Times on May 22, 2008 — 20 days after Nargis and 10 days after the quake — showed that despite Burma having almost twice as many people dead or missing, China was attracting far more aid.

These examples show that the more media-friendly the disaster, the more money it attracts. In the past, at its most extreme, disaster coverage has been a kind of moral bellwether for the nation.4 Aid agencies follow these waves of coverage and in turn provide access and footage to the media. Yet when covering famines, earthquakes, or tsunamis, the media have not always prioritized establishing objectivity, and aid agencies have not always sought to correct the lack of balance.

New ways of reporting disasters

In the past the relationship between aid agencies and journalism, as described above, prospered because only a few people had access to places where important events happened — or information about significant events occurring. Now, new technologies — including SMS, mobile video and the Internet — increasingly offer ordinary people the ability to reach audiences they could never have reached before. Dan Gillmor has described the December 2004 tsunami as a “turning point” that set in place this new dynamic. While not the first event to use user-generated content (UCG), it was perhaps the first disaster where the dominant images we remember come not from journalists but from ordinary people. As Tom Glocer, head of Reuters, noted, none of Reuters’ 2,300 journalists or 1,000 stringers were on the beaches when the waves struck.

Since then the speed, volume, and intensity of citizen journalism have all increased rapidly. In early 2005, the BBC received, on average, 300 emails a day. By mid-2008, this had risen to between 12,000 and 15,000, and the corporation employed 13 people around the clock solely to deal with UCG. With photographs and video the increase has been even more extreme. Two years ago, the BBC received approximately 100 photos or videos per week. Now they receive 1,000 on average and 11,000 in unusual circumstances. “It used to be exceptional events such as the tsunami or 7/7,” says Vicky Taylor, former head of interactivity, BBC, referring to the July 2005 London Tube bombings. “Now people are seeking out news stories and sharing information.”5

People are adapting different forms of media to make their words and pictures available to a wider audience. The microblogging site Twitter broke the news of the Chinese earthquakes, and Burmese bloggers used the social networking site Facebook to raise awareness of the 2007 protests. Also in Burma, many of those who sought to get out information about Cyclone Nargis opted to use email through Gmail and, in particular, its messaging service Google Talk, because the junta found Gmail more difficult to monitor.6

As new actors enter the formerly privileged information-sharing sphere dominated by the mainstream media and aid agencies, there are increased possibilities of more diverse stories being told, and more diverse voices being heard. In the past, those affected by humanitarian crises have traditionally been spoken for by aid agencies or mainstream reporters. For example, Michael Buerk’s seminal BBC report in 1984 which alerted the world to the famine in Ethiopia featured only two voices — his own and that of a (white) MSF doctor.7

Yet this is changing. As Sanjana Hattotuwa, of the Sri Lankan NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote: “citizen journalists [in Sri Lanka] are increasingly playing a major role in reporting deaths, the humanitarian fallout and hidden social costs of violent conflict.”8

In January 2008, Ushahidi (which means testimony in Swahili) was set up by four bloggers and technological experts. As Lokman Tsui explains in his essay in this series, the mashup used Google Earth technology to map incidents of crime and violence with ordinary people reporting incidents via SMS, phone or email. Ushahidi has been so successful that it was awarded a $200,000 grant from Humanity United to develop a platform that can be used around the world, and the website received an honourable mention in the 2008 Knight-Batten awards.

As Ory Okolloh, one of Ushahidi’s founders, says, “There were not many ’scoops’ per se but in some cases we had personal stories, e.g. about the victims, pictures that were not being shown in the media, and reports that were available to us before they hit the press. We were able to raise awareness (and for that matter learn of) a lot of the local peace initiatives that the mainstream media really wasn’t reporting.”9

Another Knight-Batten award winner is Global Voices, a nonprofit citizen media project set up at Harvard in 2004 which now has around 400,000 visits a month and utilizes 100 regular authors. It mainly links to blogs but is increasingly using Facebook, Twitter, Livejournal, and Flickr as well.

However, it is important to critically assess the significance and the impact of this trend. Verification of citizen journalism is difficult, hoaxing is an ever-present possibility, and the outpouring of material does not always elucidate. As Sarah Boseley of the Guardian reflected on her paper’s three-year commitment to report on the Ugandan village of Katine, when the paper gave out disposable cameras to the villagers in the hope of getting a new perspective, “most of them,” she said, “just took pictures of their cows.”

And such voices are most commonly framed in accordance with traditional news standards rather than challenging them. Citizen journalism may also unwittingly skew the definition of what is important towards the unexpected or the spectacular and the dramatic, focusing, for example, on a natural catastrophe such as an earthquake rather the long-term famine. As Thomas Sutcliffe of the Independent commented: “The problem with citizen journalists — just like all of us — is that they are incorrigible sensationalists.”10

Different narrators — more diverse voices?

But if every citizen with a cellphone or Internet access can become a reporter, where does this leave the traditional gatekeepers (journalists) and the gatekeepers to disaster zones (aid workers)?

As pointed out above, in the past, journalists turned to aid agencies to get access to disasters and “real” people. The agencies received a name-check in return for facilitating access. The result was a symbiotic relationship in which it was to the advantage of both sides that the humanitarian “story” was as strong as possible. With the growth of UGC, this control of the story has disappeared. As John Naughton, professor of public understanding of technology at the Open University, agrees: “UGC is now blowing that [relationship] apart.”11

As a result, three trends have developed. First, aid agencies have turned themselves into reporters for the mainstream media, providing cash-strapped foreign desks with free footage and words. Second, they have also tried to take on citizen journalists by utilizing the blogosphere. Third, the agencies are simultaneously facing challenges from citizen journalists who are acting as watchdogs and critics and who can transmit their criticisms to a global audience.

The origins of the first trend stretch back as far as the 1990s and the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle combined with, as Nik Gowing points out, aid agencies having to salvage their reputation after accusations of misinformation during the Rwandan genocide.12 The two agencies who led this charge in the U.K. were Oxfam and Christian Aid. They both hired former journalists to run their press operations as pseudo-newsrooms. Both agencies pushed the idea of press officers as “fireman” reporters — on the ground as soon as possible after a disaster occurred to gather and film information themselves. Oxfam protocol written for their UK press office in 2007, for example, demanded that a press officer sent to a disaster should use an international cellphone, a local cellphone, a satellite phone, a laptop (capable of transmitting stills and short video clips), and a digital camera.13

Perhaps the clearest example of this development occurred during Cyclone Nargis, when a package filmed by Jonathan Pearce, a press office at the aid agency Merlin, led the BBC Ten O’Clock News on May 18, 2008. (Pearce also wrote a three-part series on the subject for the Guardian.) In the two and a half minute report — which was revoiced by BBC correspondent Andrew Harding — all but 32 seconds had been filmed by Merlin. In many cases, such collaborations have worked out well; news organizations receive content at little or no cost, while aid agencies are able to further their mission and reach larger audiences. But there has also been a potentially dangerous blurring of lines.

Fiona Callister, of the Catholic charity CAFOD, said her press office sometimes provided features that went in UK national newspapers unchanged – just re-bylined with the name of a staff feature writer.14 And in a piece from the Observer entitled “In Starvation’s Grip,” with three bylines — Tim Judah, Dominic Nutt, and Peter Beaumont15 — it is not made clear that two of the authors were Observer journalists and one a Christian Aid press officer.

For some, this is a necessary evil; they would say that NGOs are the only entities seriously funding foreign reporting. The distinguished photographer Marcus Bleasdale said recently, “[o]ver the last ten years I would say 80-85 per cent [of my work] has been financed by humanitarian agencies. To give one example, in 2003 I made calls to 20 magazines and newspapers saying I wanted to go to Darfur. Yet I made one call to Human Rights Watch, sorted a day rate, expenses and five days later I was in the field.”16

Bleasdale has had a long and distinguished career, especially in Darfur. But there are concerns about what might happen in less experienced hands than his. Dan Gillmor has called humanitarians acting as reports “almost-journalism.” Some observers argue that as aid agencies become reporters and conform to dominant media logic, they lose opportunities for advocacy and also any credibility they formerly possessed. Yet the real problem appears to be as Gillmor warns: “They’re falling short today in several areas, notably the one that comes hardest to advocates: fairness.”

Certainly broadcasters now appear to be less laissez faire about using NGOs as their unpaid reporters than in the past. The Merlin package used by the BBC was so keen to mention its debt that Merlin was given numerous name-checks. This — in the U.K. at least — may be linked to a heightened sense of responsibility after a succession of scandals in 2007 that revealed “faked” footage in documentaries, and which resulted in both the BBC and the major commercial channel ITV being censured. These scandals themselves did not have anything to do with NGOs but added to a climate of caution in news as well as documentaries. Certainly by acknowledging the provenance, it absolved the news organizations of responsibility if the footage should later prove controversial — especially given that recent crises have included Burma and Gaza.

Second, aid agencies are also adapting by seeking to become citizen journalists themselves. The Disasters Emergency Committee, in its 2007 Sudan appeal, persuaded the three UK party leaders to each record a message that could be put up on YouTube. Save the Children has launched its own “fly on the wall” documentary from Kroo Bay in Sierra Leone. Rachel Palmer of Save the Children said that while numbers remained relatively small, those who clicked onto the site spent on average 4.5 minutes there. But the main success was not explaining development but to “bear witness…to show people the similarity between their own children and an eight-year-old in Sierra Leone.”17.

And in 2008, the British Red Cross even ventured into the world of alternate reality games to build the game Traces of Hope written by the scriptwriter of Bebo’s KateModern. Aimed at 15- to 18-year-olds in the U.K., it attempted to engage players and introduce them to the consequences of the trauma of war, and how the Red Cross helps victims of conflict.

While NGOs are educating themselves in new media, however, they are facing a challenge: citizen journalists are increasingly becoming watchdogs for NGOs, thus consolidating a third trend.

In her 2006 report for the UN Special Envoy, Imogen Wall points out that in Aceh there were two to three mobile phones per refugee camp. When I visited Banda Aceh in 2007, aid agencies had found to their cost that instead of being grateful beneficiaries there was an articulate and determined population using new media (such as texting, and digital photographs) effectively when they felt the reconstruction process was not going quickly enough. They would use such methods often in collaboration with traditional media such as the local newspaper Serambi Indonesia or the local TV news programme Aceh Dalamberita.

“The community is smart in playing the media game,” says Christelle Chapoy of Oxfam in Banda Aceh. “We have had the geuchiks (village chiefs) saying quite openly to us — if you don’t respond to our demands we will call in the media.”18

This may mean unwelcome criticism, or, at its most severe, it can put people in danger. Those aid agencies who find themselves attacked online in one area may find more serious consequences in other parts of the world. As Vincent Lusser of ICRC said: “In a globalised media environment, people even in remote conflict areas are connected to the Internet. Therefore our colleagues in Kabul have to think that what happens in Afghanistan can affect our colleagues elsewhere in the world.”

Conclusion

Citizen journalism can mean that more diverse voices — for example, earthquake survivors in Pakistan, tsunami survivors in Banda Aceh or bloggers in Burma — are being heard. This new wealth of angles can act as a corrective to the previous patriarchal approach where reporters and aid agencies acted as mouthpieces. Neither aid agencies nor the traditional media can return to the control they had in the past. The old certainties about the gatekeeping role that aid agencies had — and journalists utilized — have gone, and both sides are grappling with this new world.

It is important not to be too idealistic about citizen journalism. Without checks and balances, UGC can spread misinformation and even be used as a dangerous weapon — witness the ethnic hatred spread by SMS messages in the aftermath of the December 2007 Kenyan elections.

New media has also seen a potential blurring of boundaries between journalists eager for material but strapped for cash, and aid agencies fighting in a competitive marketplace and using more creative means to get stories placed. If journalists use aid workers’ words and footage they must clearly label it as such. If they are accepting a trip from an aid agency — so-called “beneficent embedding”19 — then they should be honest about it.

If aid agencies act as reporters they must consider whether they are acting as journalists or as advocates. While journalists — if sometimes imperfectly — work on the principle of impartiality, the aid agency is usually there to get a message across: to raise money, to raise awareness, to change a situation. When they act as journalists this often becomes blurred. The danger, as Gillmor points out, is a growth in “almost journalism,” a confusion both for aid agencies as to what they are trying to do, and for the viewer/reader about what they are being presented with.

For those agencies who are turning from traditional media to using their own websites, the key point is that to be successful, such footage and websites need to be of as good quality as those produced by traditional media for sophisticated consumers. The associated cost privileges the efforts of larger and well-funded NGOs.

Meanwhile agencies must realize that they are not the only ones grappling with new media. Citizen journalists have the potential to act as NGOs’ watchdogs, as the mainstream media retreat from foreign reporting. As the experience in Aceh and elsewhere shows, local people are not just grateful beneficiaries; instead, they can be articulate and angry critics.

And finally new information and communication technologies that enable these developments cannot be ignored. The Economist reports that following Mr. Sokor’s appeal, the WFP did boost rations in the Dagahaley refugee camp. Is that blunt text message a harbinger of things to come?

Glenda Cooper is a journalist and academic. She is an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford. She was a visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism 2007-08 and the 2006-07 Guardian Research Fellow at Nuffield. She is a consulting editor at the Daily Telegraph.

References

Bleasdale, M. Speaking at “The News Carers: Are Aid Groups Doing too much Real Newsgathering? A Debate at the Frontline Club.” New York, February 28, 2008.

Cooper, G. “Anyone Here Survived a Wave, Speak English and Got a Mobile? Aid Agencies, the Media and Reporting Disasters since the Tsunami.” The 14th Guardian Lecture. Nuffield College, Oxford, November 5, 2007.

Cottle, S. and Nolan, D. “Global Humanitarianism and The Changing Aid-Media Field.” Journalism Studies 8, No. 6 (2007), pp. 862-878.

Gowing, N. “New Challenges and Problems for Information Management in Complex Emergencies: Ominous Lessons from the Great Lakes and Eastern Zaire in Late 1996 and early 1997.” Conference paper given at Dispatches from Disaster Zones conference, May 1998.

Hattotuwa, S. “Who’s Afraid of Citizen Journalists?” In TVEP/UNDP, Communicating Disasters. An Asia-Pacific Resource Book, 2007.

Judah, T., Nutt, D. and Beaumont, P. “In Starvation’s Grip.” The Observer, June 9, 2002.

Moeller, S. Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Famine, Disease, War and Death. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Oxfam. “Guide to Media Work in Emergencies.” Internal document, Oxfam GB, Oxford, 2007.

Sutcliffe, T. “Ethics Aside, Citizen Journalists Get Scoops.” The Independent, January 2, 2007.

Notes
  1. The Economist 2007
  2. Cooper 2007
  3. Vaux 2005
  4. Moeller 1999
  5. Interview with Vicky Taylor, May 7 2008
  6. Interview with Samanthi Dissanayake, BBC producer, 7 May 2008
  7. Buerk 1984
  8. Hattotuwa 2007
  9. Email from Ory Okolloh, September 5, 2008
  10. Sutcliffe 2007
  11. Interview with John Naughton, November 27, 2006
  12. Gowing 1998
  13. Oxfam 2007
  14. Telephone interview with Fiona Callister, August 29, 2007
  15. Judah, Nutt, and Beaumont, 2002
  16. Bleasdale 2008
  17. Phone interview Jan 20, 2009
  18. Interview, Banda Aceh, 30 Apr 2007
  19. Cottle and Nolan 2007
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