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January 28 2011

23:05

What Role Did Social Media Play in Tunisia, Egypt Protests?

As the protests are playing out in the streets of Cairo and the rest of Egypt today, I have been glued to the live-stream of Al Jazeera English as well as the Twitter hashtag #Jan25, a top trending topic based on the big protests a few days ago. The Egyptian protests come on the heels of a similar revolution in Tunisia, where a longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted after young people organized protests via Facebook. We've heard about "Twitter revolutions" before in Iran after huge protests there in 2009, but how have things changed today? How much of a role has social media played in the turmoil happening in the Middle East? Will that continue to be the case? Vote in our poll below, or share your deeper thoughts in the comments below.




What role did social media play in Tunisia, Egypt protests?online surveys

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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January 27 2011

18:00

Citizen Media Brings Opposing Political Views to the Maghreb

The Maghreb is generally a term used to refer to five countries in North Africa: Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. This article explores the current state of the media in the region, and marks the effect that a burgeoning citizen media sphere is having on democracy. It is based on a contribution by the author, Algerian journalist Laid Zaghlami to the book "Citizen Journalism & Democracy in Africa," an exploratory study undertaken by the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa, in July 2010. Download a PDF of the publication here.

The current political systems in the Maghreb countries are not eager to promote freedom of the press. On the contrary, they are acting to prevent the emergence of a real pluralistic media landscape and the birth of independent and active civil society.

In Morocco, the ascension of King Mohamed VI in 1999 brought high hopes for freedom and liberty. They have been dashed, however, by 10 years of banned newspapers and jailed journalists -- all because they dared to publish "sensitive" news about the king's health or his family members.

Media policy changes in Morocco are only cosmetic and tend to promote the king's image; journalists and bloggers alike are often subject to authorities' control and surveillance over their articles and comments.

In Tunisia -- where a new interim government is in power after the recent ouster of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali -- several international bodies and non-governmental organizations have openly criticized the government because of the worsening situation of press freedom and human rights.

Human rights activists, political opponents, lawyers and journalists are often harassed and even imprisoned. Also many bloggers face prison charges because of their critical reports on the Internet. (Next week MediaShift will have a more detailed report about the situation in Tunisia.)

Algeria appears to have a relatively free press, compared with its neighbors. Privately owned press accounts for a dominant and prominent position in the media market, comprising 74 newspapers out of a total of 80 titles. However, economic sanctions and fines may apply in the event of acts of defamation and libel.

Algerians also seem to enjoy unrestricted Internet access, in as much as there is no legislation to supervise or monitor Internet sites. However, authorities are enacting laws to address what they refer to as "communication crimes."

An Emerging Blogosphere

Illiteracy is an important factor that affects the educational and cultural participation of citizens in Maghreb countries, and therefore online media participation. In statistical terms, illiteracy affects 23 percent of Algeria's 35 million inhabitants, 32 percent of 9 million inhabitants in Tunisia, and in Morocco 40 percent of a population of 36 million.

Citizen journalism in the Maghreb region -- and in Algeria in particular -- still has a long way to come before providing a real alternative to conventional media. But it is clear that new technologies have enabled journalists and normal citizens alike to become multi-skilled media producers.

In Tunisia, for example, bloggers have set up a collective blog called Tunisian Witness, which aims to reach Tunisian citizens worldwide, particularly those interested in developing independent national media. These bloggers consider themselves to be active citizen journalists, contributing to the idea of citizenship with news, ideas and comments, as well as actively participating in forums and debates on issues related to Tunisia.

Perceptions of Citizen Journalism

One key issue is that the concept of citizen journalism is ill defined among the population of these three Maghreb countries. Some consider it just to be the online press.

Screen shot 2011-01-25 at 9.45.58 PM.pngMost newspapers have their own electronic editions on the Internet, although only few titles are exclusively available online. The latter include Algeria-based Echorouk Online and Tout sur l'Algerie [Everything about Algeria], which operates in compliance with the requirements of its French owner CNIL.

Others recognize blogs as a key part of the citizen journalism movement, representing online spaces for political opposition and a means to promote freedom of expression and the press.

There have been moves to build up common spaces on the Internet for new forms of expression, especially in the sphere of political blogging and particularly in Algeria.

The website agirpouralglerie.com [Act for Algeria], for example, was initiated by Hichem Aboud, a former Algerian security officer living in France. Also key to the political blogosphere is haddar-blog.com, which is authored by an active political opponent, Yazid Haddar.

There are citizen media websites and blogs that are not politically focused. Algerie Decouverte [Algeria Discovered] is a travel blog exploring the country's history, nature and geography; Kherdja is a blog dedicated to outings, food and shopping.

A timid debut of professional local citizen journalism is also taking place in the Maghreb. One good example is the electronic newspaper Algérie Focus [Algeria Focus]. Based in France, it's produced by a team of professional journalists, scholars and experts. It aims to promote freedom of expression and a diversity of opinions.

fay.jpgIts chief editor, Faycal Anseur has launched parallel citizen spaces with the support of social network applications including Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Orkut, Flickr, Bebo, Hi5, YouTube, Basecamp, Viadeo, and Webwag. Nevertheless, citizen journalism in the Maghreb seems to have a long way to go before it can be widely grasped and comprehended.

Anseur's concept of citizen journalism developed from a desire to elevate free and unfettered communication as a platform for generating fresh understandings about justice, politics, economics, democracy and more.

Resenting the ethical strictness and political correctness of existing Maghreb public media, his immediate aim is to secure more spaces on the Internet for free expression of opinions without restrictions or censorship.

There are basic communication gaps between within members of the same society across the Maghreb, thanks to a variety of economic, social and cultural barriers: Generational, educational, financial and gender differences.

It is too early to confirm how a project like Algérie Focus will fit into the conventional journalism model in the country. What is evident however, is how traditional media in the Maghreb has disappointed citizens.

Convential Media Joins In

Conventional public and private media in the Maghreb appear to underestimate or ignore the concept of citizen journalism. Their typical response has been simply to have online editions of their publications.

As such, they exhibit a highly institutionalized approach to citizen journalism, tending to think of their newspapers as spaces for all citizens' contributions and suggestions.

Besides having a network of regional and local correspondents, some newspapers provide hotlines to their readers for comments and reports on different issues. Traditional media assume there is no need to develop new specific citizen journalism projects that would provide an alternative to conventional channels.

Only a newspaper called Le Citoyen [The Citizen] is dedicated to reporting on regional news by placing citizens at the core, and it is privately owned.

The practice of citizen journalism requires a political system that is basically founded on core democratic values, including media and political pluralism. These key tenets were in fact instilled in the Maghreb at a conference on citizen journalism in the Arab world, held in Casablanca, Morocco in 2008.

The media is an important part of the democratic process in the region; journalists themselves are actors or agents of democracy. Those working in the region's private press should today be proud of their achievements in securing communicative spaces for public opinion.

Conventional media, and especially the private press, still has an important role to play in promoting and safeguarding democracy in the Maghreb. However, it must open up to provide the kind of forums in which journalists, scholars, political opponents and ordinary citizens alike can intervene in public affairs.

Laid Zaghlami has been a journalist, reporter and specialized chief editor in Algerian broadcasting since 1982. Most recently he has contributed to the book "Citizen Journalism & Democracy in Africa," an exploratory study by the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa, available online at www.highwayafrica.com.

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This story was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, join us on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

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January 06 2011

18:51

Vietnam Fighting a Losing Battle Against Free Speech Online

Last October, I had the opportunity to spend almost three weeks traveling through Vietnam, from Ha Long Bay to the Mekong Delta. The breakfast rooms I dined in were always stocked with copies of the government-run English-language daily, the Viet Nam News -- and on its sunny front page, the news is always good.

One typical issue heralded plans from the Central Committee of the Communist Party for "improving the competitiveness of enterprises."

"Production forces must be developed to a high-tech level while improving the production relations and socialist-oriented market institutions," it said.

Digital media occupy a critical position in the party's "high-tech" plans. The government has been building out the country's media infrastructure at a rapid pace. Internet subscriptions leapt from 200,000 in 2000 to 8 million in 2010. By 2020, they are projected to rise to more than 17 million, and the Ministry of Communications hopes that the country will break into the world's top 60 countries for web penetration.

But the same issue of the Viet Nam News sounded a darker note on media a few pages later, warning that young Vietnamese were using "creative measures" to dodge a new law that "aims to limit online gaming." According to the article, Vietnamese teens favored violent games such as Red Alert, Left4Dead, and Call of Duty: Black Ops. (One can imagine why Vietnam's elders might not favor a first-person shooter game that sends virtual CIA agents to targets in Cold War theaters including Vietnam...)

"The curfew was issued following complaints about the negative effects online games were having on youth, including addiction and rising school violence," the story read. On the following page a survey reported, "Social networking is fine, but do not forget the downside."

Playing Both Sides

I had long been aware of government crackdowns on the country's online media, but when talking to Vietnamese I learned of fine points missing from the general debate. Like China, its giant neighbor to the north, Vietnam has tried to play both sides of the fence on the questions of media development and censorship. As Simon Roughneen's post for MediaShift pointed out last month, the Vietnamese government has invested considerable time and resources in restricting the impact of Facebook.

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At the same time, it's a mistake to imagine Vietnam as a living under total media control. Instead, a combination of rapid technological and economic advances have opened vast new avenues of information for the new middle-class -- even as the government pursues its cat-and-mouse game with online dissent.

After the U.S.-Vietnam War ended in 1975, the country went through a period of devastating famine and hardship. Vast expanses of Vietnam's territory were blighted by lethal defoliants, military contamination and landmines, and new victims of this bitter legacy still emerge every day. But the economic disaster proved more tractable; within a few decades it gave way to a phase of astonishingly rapid growth.

The Vietnamese Communist Party may have maintained a tight grip on local news outlets, but at the same time it laid the groundwork for an educated consumer society with a hunger for information. Government projects included a national literacy campaign that boosted adult literacy from under 75 percent to over 95 percent within 20 years.

Many media outlets are booming -- but this category does not include the state-run, propaganda-based newspapers. In a forthcoming study from the World Association of Newspapers, Catherine McKinley reports that these publications are losing circulation and advertising revenues at the same time they are experiencing increasing pressure to become more independent of government subsidies.

Cable TV Growth

Cable television, on the other hand, is growing rapidly, especially in the cities. I spoke about it with Ly, a Hanoi intellectual from a Communist Party family whose name has been changed to protect him from government retaliation.

"What do we watch? Everything! CNN International, the BBC, the Discovery Channel -- you name it," he said.

Ly explained that the Vietnamese government permitted news and information on most international topics, but blocked information related to the area of greatest concern: criticism of the Vietnamese government and its policies, especially from exile communities abroad. To accomplish this, cable operators work with a five-minute delay that allows government censors to filter offending content.

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Ly's point shed some light on the great Vietnamese Facebook controversy. During my trip to a half-a-dozen Vietnamese cities, I was able to pull up Facebook in some places (including noodle shops with WiFi), but not in others. When I checked online comments, I saw that the blocked materials included Facebook groups organized by Vietnamese exiles in the U.S. On the other hand, even from my noodle shop outposts, I was able to access an in-country Facebook group that promoted environmental protection as a government-approved youth project.

Unauthorized environmentalists have met a different response. As Roughneen pointed out on MediaShift, the government took harsh measures against two Vietnamese blogs, Blogosin and Bauxite Vietnam, that criticized its plans for a China-led bauxite-mining project in the Central Highlands. (China, which occupied Vietnam many times over the past millennium, appears to be far more unpopular among today's Vietnamese than the U.S.) Investigations of the incident have contributed more details on the full scope of the attack.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists's Shawn Crispin, "Vietnam's government actively promotes Internet usage to modernize the economy, but at the same time cracks down on bloggers who post views critical of the government and its policies."

Government Hacking

Danny O'Brien, CPJ's Internet advocacy coordinator, told me that the government launched "a directed hacking attack on Blogosin, which crashed the site and led to its creator announcing his retirement from reporting."

According to O'Brien, "The sophistication of surveillance and attacks on Vietnamese online media already exceed anywhere else in the world, including China. In early 2010, websites covering the bauxite issue were taken offline by denial-of-service attacks (DDoS)." The thousands of computers used in this attack were controlled by a large domestic "botnet" of computers infected by a specific kind of malware. Investigators at Google and McAfee discovered the source: A Trojan concealed in the software downloaded by many Vietnamese to allow them to enter native text accents when using Windows computers."

George Kurtz, McAfee's chief technology officer, said the attackers first compromised www.vps.org, the website of the Vietnamese Professionals Society, and replaced the legitimate keyboard driver with a Trojan horse.

From the Vietnamese news consumer's perspective, the danger lies less in accessing proscribed sites than in the later repercussions. According to Ly, the government monitors both home computers and accounts used in public spaces to see who is accessing the critical sites over time -- and then takes action.

"They follow your usage over a period of time, and then the police show up at the door," he said.


We can't underestimate the suffering -- to say nothing of the nuisance -- inflicted by Vietnam's cyber-cop crackdowns. But at the same time, it appears they're fighting a losing battle. Vietnam's media audience is moving online rapidly, partly because they are constantly learning new techniques for outmaneuvering the authorities -- and partly because the Communist Party's traditional news media have failed to hold on to their audience and advertising base.

Furthermore, technology is accelerating change: Vietnamese cell phone penetration already stands at over 111 million (in a country of under 90 million), and news will be even harder to control as it continues to migrate on to mobile platforms.

As one Vietnamese newspaper editor put it: "Things are changing. We have more freedom in our online edition, and that's where our readership is going. We just need more skills to produce the stories."

Anne Nelson is an educator, consultant and author in the field of international media strategy. She created and teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and teaches an international teleconference course at Bard College. She is a senior consultant on media, education and philanthropy for Anthony Knerr & Associates. She is on Twitter as @anelsona, was a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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December 28 2010

16:40

Top 3 New Media Legal Battles of 2010

This year's been a big one. Spain won the World Cup. Lindsay Lohan went to jail. Don Draper married his secretary. And, of course, the federal courts waded into some of the thorniest legal issues affecting new media.

Three cases stand out from the rest of 2010's docket. Each one shook up the law in a significant way. Below are summaries of the major developments, condensed in the spirit of CliffsNotes, with some commentary about the implications for people and organizations using new media.

Viacom v. YouTube

In June, a federal district court judge ruled on Viacom Int'l Inc. v. YouTube, Inc., a case testing the limits of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. The ruling came after three years of pre-trial litigation. Viacom claimed that thousands of its copyrighted works had been uploaded to YouTube (e.g., clips of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"), in violation of the DMCA, which governs online copyright infringement.

At the heart of the case was the DMCA's safe-harbor provision. It allows service providers in certain circumstances to host user-generated content without assuming copyright liability for that content. The key element is a notice-and-takedown scheme that immunizes the provider if it "responds expeditiously" when notified of specific infringements. That notification can come in two forms.

First, the provider could have actual knowledge of an infringement. This occurs when a valid takedown request has been received. Second, the provider could be "aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent." This operates like a red flag, and the idea is that the provider can't claim the safe harbor if it ignored one.

Viacom argued essentially that YouTube ignored a red flag, because it was well known in general that there was a great deal of "infringing activity" on the site. The judge, however, didn't agree. He sided with YouTube and held that the "facts and circumstances" raising the red flag must be "specific and identifiable infringements of particular items." In other words, it was not enough for YouTube to be aware in general that there was "infringing activity" on the site.

Although some have questioned the importance of the decision, it does spell out just how aggressively YouTube and others must police their user-generated content. Among other things, the decision affirms that the burden of identifying and documenting infringing content is on the copyright holder, rather than the service provider, and it makes clear that if the provider is aware only in general that there is infringing activity on the site, then the safe harbor still will be available.

Earlier this month, Viacom appealed [PDF] the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, bringing in Theodore Olson, a former U.S. Solicitor General, to handle the oral argument. This is a sign that Viacom is very serious about winning. YouTube has not yet filed its reply brief.

Barclays v. Theflyonthewall.com

barclays_logo.gifThis case required a federal district court judge to apply the "hot news" misappropriation doctrine, first recognized in 1918, to a news aggregation website. Barclays and two other financial firms produced regular research reports, to be distributed to clients for a fee, about stocks. They often released them before the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) opened for the day, and although the firms took precautions to ensure the reports went only to paying clients, some did leak out.

Enter Theflyonthewall.com (Fly), an online subscription news service that picked up and published those reports on its own news feed, updated continuously every day between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. It featured an average of 600 headlines per day, some of them about the research reports.

In 2006, Barclays and two other firms got fed up and filed suit against Fly, claiming that their reports were "hot news" and that the redistribution of them constituted misappropriation, a violation of New York state law. Misappropriation is a fancy way of saying that an organization used your property impermissibly for its own benefit. This is where the old collides with the new.

The "hot news" doctrine, as noted above, was developed in 1918, in the Supreme Court case International News Service v. Associated Press. INS and the AP were competing news services during World War I that transmitted articles by wire to member newspapers. Speed and accuracy got them their daily bread. For various reasons, INS began collecting AP stories that ran on the East Coast and rewriting them for INS subscribers on the West Coast. Finding that the AP had a "quasi-property right" in the news content it gathered, the Supreme Court held that INS's conduct constituted misappropriation. INS was, the Court said, "endeavoring to reap what it had not sewn."

The policy justification anchoring that decision was the same one running through the Barclays decision: The content producer invested substantial time, labor and money in its publication process, and those investments should be protected; because if they're not, the producer loses the economic incentive to continue producing, depriving the public of a valuable benefit.

The judge, accordingly, ruled for Barclays. She issued an injunction requiring Fly to delay its publication of stories about the research reports. Notably, the delay was just long enough to allow Barclays and the other firms to monetize the reports by distributing them to clients before they appeared on any news aggregation site.

Fly quickly countered that decision, however, by asking a federal appeals court to stay the injunction, i.e., to relieve Fly of its obligation to comply with it. The court granted the stay and agreed to expedite its full review of the appeal, which is pending as of this writing.

Comcast v. FCC

Last but not least comes the determination in April by a federal appeals court that the FCC has limited power to regulate the Internet. Comcast Corp. v. FCC [PDF] arose because of complaints in 2008 that Comcast, a service provider, was interfering with its customers' use of peer-to-peer networking applications.

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In response to those complaints, the FCC issued an order concluding that it had jurisdiction over the matter and that Comcast's method of bandwidth management "contravene[d] ... federal policy." Comcast complied with the order, but later asked the appeals court to review it, objecting on three grounds. The court began and ended its inquiry by finding that the FCC failed to establish jurisdiction.

For its part, the FCC conceded to the court that it did not have express authority to regulate network management practices, but argued that it had ancillary authority under the Communications Act of 1934 [PDF]. It empowered the FCC to "perform any and all acts, make such rules and regulations, and issue such orders ... as may be necessary in the execution of its functions."

The court didn't buy the argument and said the FCC, relying heavily on policy statements and unhelpful statutory provisions, failed to prove that its Comcast order was "reasonably ancillary to the ... effective performance of its statutorily mandated responsibilities."

The decision prompted many commentators to wonder about its implications for Net neutrality, the idea that all online content and applications should be treated equally by service providers. David Post in April summed up the thinking over at the Volokh Conspiracy: "So what does this portend for Net neutrality rules? Can the Commission proceed with its rulemaking efforts ... or does it need some additional statutory authorization from Congress before it can do so?"

Since then, the FCC has been trying to answer those questions. It promulgated last Tuesday a set of rules that functionally creates two classes of Internet access, one for fixed-line providers and one for wireless providers. The rules are tied to the FCC's Section 706 authority, which directs the commission to "encourage on a reasonable and timely basis the deployment of advanced telecommunications services to all Americans," purportedly including broadband services. This means the FCC would have to show that the Net neutrality rules are ancillary to 706's mandate, a difficult task because the FCC itself concluded in the 1990s that that section is not an independent grant of authority.

Despite all the uncertainty, two things are certain: The rules will be challenged in the courts, and they will be challenged by Republicans in Congress.

The Year Ahead

Next year promises to bring big developments in the law affecting new media. A federal appeals court will decide both the Viacom and Barclays appeals, and the Net neutrality rules surely will be challenged. WikiLeaks will continue to dominate the news and very likely will head to court to test the uneasy balance between free speech and national security. And at the Supreme Court, the justices will hand down Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, which addresses whether the First Amendment permits any limits on offensive content in violent videogames sold to minors.

Jonathan Peters is a lawyer and the Frank Martin Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he's working on his Ph.D. and specializing in the First Amendment. An award-winning freelancer, he has written on legal issues for a variety of newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at jonathan.w.peters@gmail.com.

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December 26 2010

23:30

Online Censorship Grows in 2010, Showing Power of Netizens

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Despite some good PR for online freedom this year, online censorship grew and became more subtle in 2010. Online propaganda remains strong within countries like China and Iran, where media censorship is everywhere and the governments have mastered online censorship tools. These countries are as efficient as hacktivists when it comes to controlling information.

China and Vietnam remain among the most repressive countries, with 77 and 16 netizens in jail, respectively (read our recent report on Vietnam here). Thailand is unmerciful when it comes to lese-majeste laws (also read our recent report about how this law is being abused). And a new player, Venezuela, is on the verge of adopting a bill that will introduce Internet filtering and a range of penalties for online media for vaguely worded offenses.

Democracies such as France are also taking further steps to implement a legal framework for online filtering. The French government is working on an ineffective and dangerous online filtering system that could jeopardize the work of journalists and bloggers in the name of fighting child pornography.

Overall, netizens continue to be victims of threats and unfair trials and arrests. In just one example, a 28-year-old Egyptian human rights activist was beaten to death by police in Alexandria on June 6.

But along with the setbacks, 2010 saw a few high profile cases that hinted at an improving state of affairs for online freedom. The positive developments include Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer being set free in November after completing a four-year jail sentence, Turkey ending its two-and-a-half-year ban on YouTube in the spring 2010, and Turkmenistan, which has been called the "European North Korea," began to slowly open up to the Internet.

As of today, 112 netizens are in jail. This is an improvement over the 151 that were arrested in 2009. So does that mean things are getting better?

Netizens and the Public Interest

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Despite the strengthening of online propaganda and the growing expertise being developed by what we at Reporters Without Borders call the Enemies of the Internet, netizens keep finding ways to practice online freedom of expression even in the most repressive countries. In 2010 netizens proved the essential role they play in repressive societies. In China and Russia, netizens denounced corruption by local authorities and made important information available to their fellow citizens.

Overall, the environment, corruption, health care and politics remain the main topics focused on by the netizens defended by Reporters Without Borders. For example, in China, the activist Zhao Lianhai created a website to detail the effect that contaminated milk powder sold from Chinese company Sanluon had on young children. An estimated 300,000 children in China were made ill, 50,000 were hospitalized and at least six newborn babies died as result of consuming the milk powder. One of Lianhai's children was made ill by the milk powder, and he used the website to urge parents to bring a class action suit against those responsible. In the end, Lianhai was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for "inciting social unrest."

Netizens and the Law

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Because the Internet is still a vague legal notion in many of the countries, it has always been easy for repressive regimes to convict netizens on vague charges. As an example, netizens belonging to minorities can be accused of "separatism," and using the Internet and social media can be considered activities aimed at overthrowing the government.

2010 was no stranger to legal absurdity. In Azerbaijan, two well-known bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Mili were released after spending more than a year in jail for "hooliganism." This was because they went to the police to report after they were assaulted in a restaurant by two men. In Egypt, blogger Ahmed Hassan Basiouny will be tried by court martial for creating a Facebook page that offered advice and information to young people thinking of enlisting in the Egyptian army.

Internet Companies: Accomplices?

When Google decided to withdraw its email services from China after being a victim of cyberattacks, the issue of corporate responsibility gained worldwide attention. Later in the year, Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian manufacturer of the BlackBerry smartphone, was involved in a situation that showed we cannot expect technology companies to respect human rights. The company has been under intense pressure from several governments to allow access to encrypted BlackBerry communications, among other requests. The nature of the agreements made between RIM and these governments remains unclear due to conflicting statements from the parties. Reporters Without Borders has called for more transparency so that users know exactly what's going on.

Compared with the past decade, authorities and governments have never put as much energy into attempts to control online content. But this is good news. It illustrates that online free speech is spreading and netizens are winning. The battle is not lost in advance, but it is still far from being lost.

Photo of tainted milk event by jiruan via Flickr

Note that on December 30 Reporters Without Borders will publish its annual round up for 2010, which presents the number of bloggers attacked, arrested and jailed, as well as the number of countries who practice a form of Internet censorship.

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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December 21 2010

17:05

Vietnam Pushes Facebook Clone to Control Online Speech

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

HANOI, VIETNAM - Inside one of Hanoi's more than 3,000 online gaming houses, gamers clad in coats and scarves pass the hours shooting at each other on their screens, oblivious to the wintry gray and 10 celsius evening outside. This is southeast Asia, but the French colonial architecture and the proliferation of tourist-market socialist kitsch -- all covered by a wet blanket autumn gloom -- give the place a slightly European feel.

With the Vietnamese economy growing at an average of seven percent per year over the past decade, and companies such as Microsoft and Intel announcing major investments, there is a limit to how European the ambiance is. There's no downturn or recession here. Although average per capita incomes are little over $1,100 per year, Vietnam is moving up the international economic ranks.

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The growth of online technology and Internet usage in the country is a signal that change is taking place. According to the government, about 25 percent of Vietnam's nearly 90 million people use the Internet. By comparison, I found it extremely difficult to find cafés or bars with WiFi access when walking around Rome last April. In a stretch from the Colosseum to St.Peter's Basilica, the well-worn tourist and pilgrim hub of the Eternal City, I counted five places with WiFi. Yet in downtown Hanoi, almost every decent-sized hotel or eatery has fast and free WiFi. It is a flip of a coin as to which place has the better food, however.

Facebooking Vietnam

Back inside the gaming house, I asked the manager (who requested his name not be published) how to access Facebook. I saw that a few of the gamers take a break from shooting down Japanese World War II soldiers in order to log in to the social networking site. Facebook is blocked in Vietnam, though no official explanation has been offered by the authorities as to why. Nonetheless, the gamers on downtime were doing any of a number of things that apparently all Facebookers do, such as paying undue attention to pictures of cute young women among their contacts, or posting insulting remarks on their friend's pages.

The manager's answer came with with an air of incredulity, and a good measure of self-satisfaction. "We just change the DNS," he said.

The likely reason for the blocking of Facebook is the upcoming Five Year Congress of the ruling Communist Party. A one-party state, the Vietnamese government harbors no dissent, and over the past two months, 20 activists, lawyers, bloggers and religious minority figures have been arrested or jailed for various forms of alleged sedition or threats to national security. Some were denied access to legal representation at what looked like little more than show trials. Human rights groups and overseas Vietnamese say the government is trying to shut up any and all opposing voices in advance of the Congress, when a new leadership could emerge.

Removing Facebook from the equation could be a help to the government's agenda. Blogging has become increasingly popular in Vietnam, and one cause celebre has been a controversial bauxite mine in the country's Central Highlands. Writers criticizing the government's policy have been arrested, while others remain under surveillance. The government has tried, unsuccessfully, to close down one vocal website featuring blog posts flaying the authorities for allegedly kowtowing to China over the project, while anonymous cyber-vandals launched distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) hack attacks on some of the critical blogs and websites.

Mainstream media in Vietnam is affiliated with the government or the ruling Communist Party, and state censors control what can and cannot be said. So online content offers a new, more nimble and fast-paced challenge to the authorities.

Government-Run Facebook Clone

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In trying to take on Facebook, the government has launched its own social networking website, which is said to be the country's biggest-ever IT project. Users have to register with their official ID details, meaning that the government can monitor content and activity on the site.

Vietnam currently has 1.8 million Facebook users and the number of account holders has doubled in the past six months. In absolute and relative numbers, Vietnam is well back in the southeast Asian social networking league. Indonesia has the world's second-biggest Facebook user base after the U.S, with over 32 million users, while almost 20 percent of the citizens in the Philippines are on Facebook. That said, Vietnamese seem to be taking to the social networking giant, meaning that the government faces a challenge to get people away from Facebook and onto go.vn.

I asked the gaming room manager what he thought of go.vn. Nose and brow furrowed, he asked, "What is that?" I asked around the shop, and all but two of the nineteen gamers said much the same.

Big brother might have to work hard to make new friends here.

Photo of traffic in Hanoi by Simon Roughneen

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 14 2010

20:30

Brussels Leaks Tries to Build on WikiLeaks Idea in EU

A new site, Brussels Leaks, modeled after WikiLeaks, launched out of the blue last Thursday to much excitement in the European capital and the Twittersphere. This follows the announcement of OpenLeaks, a spin-off from WikiLeaks from former workers there. But Brussels Leaks doesn't plan to run the documents that are leaked to it, but rather rely on the media to distribute the best material.

"We will mainly look at act as an intermediary, passing information to responsible parties," says a note on the Brussels Leaks site. "We think we are in a good position to do this because we live, work and to a certain extent breathe Brussels. And trust us, Brussels has both poor air quality and transparency."

I recently conducted an exclusive email interview with an anonymous representative of Brussels Leaks. This exchange is among the first media interviews granted by the fledgling European whistleblower organization.

Q&A

Why did you feel the need to set up a Brussels/EU focused WikiLeaks-type site? What do you want to achieve?

Brussels Leaks: We have all worked in Brussels for a while and have constantly seen, or heard about, documents floating around which 'would be great if they could get out in the open.' People didn't know how to do this most of the time. In our day jobs we did this, using our networks and contacts, but there were a lot of limits. Having personal connections with 'people in the know' means their jobs could be on the line if we revealed the information.

Brussels is a powerful place full of over 15,000 lobbyists who all impact big, international decisions. It's naïve to think things do not happen behind closed doors (such as European Commission President Jose Barroso attending a plastics lobby dinner -- weird?).

This isn't really for media as much as to help society, and perhaps namely civil society, get their hands on the right information to make their jobs easier.

What do you plan to focus on?

Brussels Leaks: Obviously it's EU focused which is as broad as you can get. At the moment we'll try the best with what we get, but obviously anything social or environmental takes priority. We'll see.

Can you give us a clue as to what leaks, if any, you have in the pipeline?

Brussels Leaks: Transport and energy.

What kind of people leak information on the EU to you? What are their motives?

Brussels Leaks: We meet people all the time working for EU institutions, lobby and industry groups and even NGOs who want to get information out there. They're often good people who see something they know is wrong, and want to get it known whilst keeping hold of their jobs.

Do you have any direct connections/contact with WikiLeaks? Have they or similar whistleblowing/hacker organizations been in contact with you, or given you advice or assistance?

Brussels Leaks: No, not yet but we are very open to advice and assistance.

What has been the response so far to Brussels Leaks from the institutions/organizations you plan to 'leak' information about?

Brussels Leaks: Very quiet publicly but we have heard they have at least half an eye on us.

How do your security and technical capabilities match up to the organizations who may try to stop you?

Brussels Leaks: At the moment, it's hard to tell. We're not really anticipating in the short-term anything which would put us under the kind of pressure WikiLeaks witnessed, as many of the leaks we have so far are quite low key. This is Brussels after all. Of course we want to build, improve and develop over time -- we have a plan and we won't overstep our capacities.

Is there anything you would not publish?

Brussels Leaks: We are a small group of people who will try to work to a moral code. We're not interested in gossip or slander. We are doing this because we want to get important information out in the open, but if it looks to endanger somebody, i.e. lives or jobs, then we will not. We also have high level media contacts outside of this who we can refer leaks onto. We're not here to get publicity, just to get the information out there.

Are any of you journalists?

Brussels Leaks: Yes, all are either journalists or worked in communications capacities in Brussels.

What is your code of ethics?

Brussels Leaks: Obviously as we are staying anonymous we need to build credibility and a reputation. We will always be truthful, accurate, and fair and want to hold everything up to public accountability.

What can people do to get involved with Brussels Leaks?

Brussels Leaks: We particularly need technical help, which is always appreciated. Otherwise, we'd just want people to be patient with us. We're probably not going to bring down EU global diplomacy or anything like that, so we just need time.

Emma Brewin is a writer, online/multimedia editor and social media manager currently based in Europe. Her areas of interest include media and journalism, Central and Eastern Europe, and alternative and sustainable travel and living.

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16:47

WikiLeaks and the Power of Patriotism

A narrow patriotism -- the psychological equivalent of a knee jerk -- is an under-recognized force in modern journalism ethics.

It distorts our thinking about the role of journalism as soon as journalists offend national pride and whistleblowers dare to reveal secrets. Narrow patriotism turns practitioners of a free press into scolding censors. Suddenly, independent journalists become dastardly law breakers.

Narrow patriotism is the view that "love of country" means not embarrassing one's government, hiding all secrets and muting one's criticism of foreign and military policy in times of tension. Narrow patriotism is an absolute value, trumping the freedom of the press.

The WikiLeaks saga proves, once again, that this form of patriotism is a powerful commitment of many journalists; often, more powerful than objectivity or independence.

For instance, as WikiLeaks rolled out the American diplomatic cables, Jeffrey T. Kuhner of the conservative Washington Times called for the assassination of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a December 2 opinion piece. "We should treat Mr. Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets: Kill him"

One day later, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer said the WikiLeaks document dump was "sabotage" during a time of war. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder should "Throw the WikiBook" at the website, using every legal tool at his disposal.

These vociferous comments are not nasty comments made by anonymous online "patriots." They come from practitioners of a free press in the land of the free.

Critical Journalism as Patriotism

5238068866_3bb1aef717.jpgThe WikiLeaks controversy reveals tensions in our view of the role of journalism in democracy.

We believe in the idea of a free press; but we oppose it in practice when the press offends our patriotism, or works against some vaguely defined "national interest."

The same narrow patriotism was at work among major American media when President Bush decided to go to war with Iraq on flimsy claims. TV anchors put flags on their lapels and reporters accepted too easily the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

In times of conflict, the strong emotions of patriotism override journalists' in-principle commitment to critical informing the public and to impartiality. The word "patriotism" rarely occurs in journalism codes of ethics but its influence on practice is substantial.

So what's the right view of the role of journalism?

The role of a free press is not to serve the government or its diplomats. It is to serve the public who hold government accountable through information provided by the media.

Throughout history, journalists have caused their governments trouble and embarrassment. Journalists are properly patriotic when they write critically of government, when they reveal their hidden strategies, when they embarrass their government in front of the world.

Criticism and the publishing of important confidential data is the way journalists often serve the public, despite howls of outrage from some citizens.

Of course, Kuhner and Krauthammer don't represent all American journalists. Many journalists support WikiLeaks. For example, Anthony Shadid, foreign reporter for the New York Times in Bagdad, expressed enthusiastic support during a recent lecture at my university's Center for Journalism Ethics.

"I should probably be a little more ambiguous and grey about this, but I think it's wonderful," said the two-time Pulitzer Prize. "It's a wonderful disclosure, this transparency and this openness of public office. I find it incredibly refreshing and incredibly insightful, as well."

Two Things at Once

Shadid3.jpgLike Shadid, I think the importance of the cables justifies their publication. But I am more concerned than Shadid about the new power of "stateless" websites like WikiLeaks.

In my view, if we care about the freedom to publish we need to do two things at the same time: First, protest attempts to shut down WikiLeaks, which include denying it access to the internet and calls to arrest Assange.

Second, we need to urge Assange to explain the principles that guide his decision to publish. Is he committed to simply publishing any and all secrets regardless of the consequences? Or is he willing to adopt the responsible approach of the New York Times and the Guardian which seeks to minimize the harm of their stories by carefully vetting the data. Is Assange willing to balance the freedom to publish with the principle of minimizing harm?

Minimizing harm does not mean not damaging the public profile of government. It means not naming informants, human activists, or innocent third parties if that would prompt reprisals. It means not providing detailed information that would help terrorists attack a public institution.

Organizations like the New York Times are serious about vetting their stories. I am not so sure Assange or WikiLeaks has the same concern.

Public support for this form of whistleblower journalism will turn swiftly against it should future releases lead to the death of a third party, or lead to a terrorist attack. The best way to retain support for a free press is to act responsibly, and to be seen to be acting so.

Is 'Responsibility' a Declining Idea?

From an ethical perspective, what is significant about the emergence of WikiLeaks is not only that new technology allows citizens to gather and publish secret material globally, and these online publishers are difficult to control.

What is significant is that enthusiasm for revealing secrets undermines the idea of responsibility -- the responsible use of the freedom to publish.

In a WikiLeaks world, the principle of minimizing harm, first articulated by professional journalism in the previous century for another media era, may be dwindling in importance.

Up to this point, the release of WikiLeaks documents has followed a pattern: WikiLeaks supplies the secret data to major papers and professional journalists vet and write the stories. In the future, however, the role of responsible news outlets may decline.

As new websites spring up, each pursuing their ends with the passion of activists, the idea of a free and responsible press may come to seem irrelevant. The idea of ethically restraining the freedom to publish may recede into the rear view mirror of history.

I hope not.

(For more on WikiLeaks, check out the recent 4MR podcast with guest Jay Rosen.)

WikiLeaks poster by R_SH via Flickr

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists' (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.

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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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15:00

This Week in Review: The WikiBacklash, information control and news, and a tightening paywall

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Only one topic really grabbed everyone’s attention this week in future-of-news circles (and most of the rest of the world, too): WikiLeaks. To make the story a bit easier to digest, I’ve divided it into two sections — the crackdown on WikiLeaks, and its implications for journalism.

Attacks and counterattacks around WikiLeaks: Since it released 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables last week, WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, have been at the center of attacks by governments, international organizations, and private businesses. The forms and intensity they’ve taken have seemed unprecedented, though Daniel Ellsberg said he faced all the same things when he leaked the Pentagon Papers nearly 40 years ago.

Here’s a rundown of what’s happened since late last week: Both Amazon and the domain registry EveryDNS.net booted WikiLeaks, leaving it scrambling to stay online. (Here’s a good conversation between Ethan Zuckerman and The Columbia Journalism Review on the implications of Amazon’s decision.) PayPal, the company that WikiLeaks uses to collect most of its donations, cut off service to WikiLeaks, too. PayPal later relented, but not before botching its explanation of whether U.S. government pressure was involved.

On the government side, the Library of Congress blocked WikiLeaks, and Assange surrendered to British authorities on a Swedish sexual assault warrant (the evidence for which David Cay Johnston said the media should be questioning) and is being held without bail. Slate’s Jack Shafer said the arrest could be a blessing in disguise for Assange.

WikiLeaks obviously has plenty of critics: Christopher Hitchens called Assange a megalomaniac who’s “made everyone complicit in his own private decision to try to sabotage U.S. foreign policy,” and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Joe Lieberman called for Assange and The New York Times, respectively, to be prosecuted via the Espionage Act. But WikiLeaks’ many online defenders also manifested themselves this week, too, as hundreds of mirror sites cropped up when WikiLeaks’ main site was taken down, and various online groups attacked the sites of companies that had pulled back on services to WikiLeaks. By Wednesday, it was starting to resemble what Dave Winer called “a full-out war on the Internet.”

Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan looked at the response by WikiLeaks’ defenders to argue that WikiLeaks will never be blocked, and web pioneer Mark Pesce said that WikiLeaks has formed the blueprint for every group like it to follow. Many other writers and thinkers lambasted the backlash against WikiLeaks, including Reporters Without Borders, Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, Roberto Arguedas at Gizmodo, BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin, Wired’s Evan Hansen, and David Samuels of The Atlantic.

Four defenses of WikiLeaks’ rights raised particularly salient points: First, NYU prof Clay Shirky argued that while WikiLeaks may prove to be damaging in the long run, democracy needs it to be protected in the short run: “If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.” Second, CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis said that WikiLeaks fosters a critical power shift from secrecy to transparency.

Finally, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and Salon’s Dan Gillmor made similar points about the parallel between WikiLeaks’ rights and the press’s First Amendment rights. Whether we agree with them or not, Assange and WikiLeaks are protected under the same legal umbrella as The New York Times, they argued, and every attack on the rights of the former is an attack on the latter’s rights, too. “If journalism can routinely be shut down the way the government wants to do this time, we’ll have thrown out free speech in this lawless frenzy,” Gillmor wrote.

WikiLeaks and journalism: In between all the attacks and counterattacks surrounding him, Julian Assange did a little bit of talking of his own this week, too. He warned about releasing more documents if he’s prosecuted or killed, including possible Guantánamo Bay files. He defended WikiLeaks in an op-ed in The Australian. He answered readers’ questions at The Guardian, and dodged one about diplomacy that started an intriguing discussion at Jay Rosen’s Posterous. When faced with the (rather pointless) question of whether he’s a journalist, he responded with a rather pointless answer.

Fortunately, plenty of other people did some deep thinking about what WikiLeaks means for journalism and society. (The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has a far more comprehensive list of those people’s thoughts here.) Former Guardian web editor Emily Bell argued that WikiLeaks has awakened journalism to a renewed focus on the purpose behind what it does, as opposed to its current obsession with the models by which it achieves that purpose. Here at the Lab, USC grad student Nikki Usher listed a few ways that WikiLeaks shows that both traditional and nontraditional journalism matter and pointed out the value of the two working together.

At the Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles said that WikiLeaks divides journalists into two camps: “Those who want to see information get to the public, by whatever means, and those who want to control the means by which information flows.” Honolulu Civil Beat editor John Temple thought a bit about what WikiLeaks means for small, local news organizations like his, and British j-prof Paul Bradshaw used WikiLeaks as a study in how to handle big data dumps journalistically.

Also at the Lab, CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson had some thoughts about this new quasi-source in the form of large databases, and how journalists might be challenged to think about it. Finally, if you’re looking for some deep thoughts on WikiLeaks in audio form, Jay Rosen has you covered — in short form at PBS MediaShift, and at quite a bit more length with Dave Winer on their Rebooting the News podcast.

How porous should paywalls be?: Meanwhile, the paid-content train chugs along, led by The New York Times, which is still planning on instituting its paywall next year. The Times’ digital chief, Martin Nisenholtz, dropped a few more details this week about how its model will work, again stressing that the site will remain open to inbound links across the web.

But for the first time, Nisenholtz also stressed the need to limit the abuse of those links as a way to get inside the wall without paying, revealing that The Times will be working with Google to limit the number of times a reader can access Times articles for free via its search. Nisenholtz also hinted at the size of the paywall’s target audience, leading Poynter’s Rick Edmonds to estimate that The Times will be focusing on about 6 million “heavy users of the site.”

Reuters’ Felix Salmon was skeptical of Nisenholtz’s stricter paywall plans, saying that they won’t be worth the cost: “Strengthening your paywall sends the message that you don’t trust your subscribers, or your subscribers’ non-subscriber friends: you’re treating them as potential content thieves.” The only way such a strategy would make sense, he said, is if The Times is considering starting at a very high price point, something like $20 a month. Henry Blodget of Business Insider, on the other hand, is warming to the idea of a paywall for The Times.

In other paid-content news: News Corp.’s Times of London, which is running a very different paywall from The New York Times, may have only 54,000 people accessing content behind it, according to research by the competing Guardian. The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle announced it’s launching an metered model powered by Steve Brill’s Press+, a plan Steve Yelvington defended and Matthew Terenzio questioned.

While one paid-content plan gets started, another one might be coming to an end: Newsday is taking its notoriously unsuccessful paywall down through next month, and several on Twitter guessed that the move would become permanent. One news organization that’s not going to be a pioneer in paid online news: The Washington Post, as Post Co. CEO Don Graham said at a conference this week.

Reading roundup: Other than the ongoing WikiLeaks brouhaha, it’s been a relatively quiet week on the future-of-news front. Here’s a bit of what else went on:

— Web guru Tim O’Reilly held his News Foo Camp in Arizona last weekend, and since it was an intentionally quiet event, it didn’t dominate the online discussion like many such summits do. Still, there were a few interesting post-Newsfoo pieces for the rest of us to chew on, including a roundup of the event by TBD’s Steve Buttry, Alex Hillman’s reflections, and USC j-prof Robert Hernandez’s thoughts on journalists’ calling a lie a lie.

— A few iPad bits: News media marketer Earl Wilkinson wrote about a possible image problem with the iPad, All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka reported on the negotiations between Apple and publishers on iTunes subscriptions, and The New York Times’ David Nolen gave some lessons from designing election results for the iPad.

— The Guardian’s Sarah Hartley interviewed former TBD general manager Jim Brady about the ambitious local online-TV project, and Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman looked at TBD and other local TV online branding efforts.

— Advertising Age’s Ann Marie Kerwin has an illuminating list of 10 trends in global media consumption.

— Finally, two good pieces from the Lab: Harvard prof Nicholas Christakis on why popularity doesn’t equal influence on social media, and The New York Times’ Aron Pilhofer and Jennifer Preston provided a glimpse into how one very influential news organization is evolving on social media.

December 03 2010

23:12

4 Minute Roundup: WikiLeaks Under Attack, Dropped by Amazon

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4MR 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.

In this week's 4MR podcast, I talk about the recent release of secret diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, and how it is viewed by governments, journalists and free speech advocates. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is wanted in Sweden for possible sex crimes, Amazon dropped hosting the documents, and the site has had trouble staying online due to hacker attacks. I spoke with NYU professor Jay Rosen about his views on WikiLeaks, the networked nature of information sharing, and the potential for local WikiLeaks.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio12310.mp3

>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Listen to my entire interview with Jay Rosen:

jayrosenfull.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here's a longer discussion of WikiLeaks by Jay Rosen in a recent video:

Jay Rosen on Wikileaks: "The watchdog press died; we have this instead." from Jay Rosen on Vimeo.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

State's Secrets - Special Report at NY Times

Swedish Court Confirms Arrest Warrant for WikiLeaks Founder at NY Times

WikiLeaks site

Despite Attacks, WikiLeaks' Swedish Host Won't Budge at Forbes

Bill aimed at WikiLeaks introduced at UPI

The War on WikiLeaks at CBS News

WikiLeaks fights to stay online amid attacks at the AP

Amazon explains WikiLeaks cutoff - Not because of feds at the Seattle Times

Amazon and WikiLeaks - Online Speech is Only as Strong as the Weakest Intermediary at the EFF

Online, the censors are scoring big wins at Salon

Here are some of the more entertaining responses to our recent poll question about new names for Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism:

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Also, be sure to vote in our poll about who you think about WikiLeaks:




What do you think of WikiLeaks?online survey

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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December 01 2010

18:35

Suu Kyi Set Free But Media Still Held Captive in Burma

Burma has in recent weeks been one of the top world news stories. The country's November 7 general election was followed less than a week later by the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world's best-known political dissidents, whose appearance at her front gate on Saturday, November 13, was carried on news networks around the world.

However, getting news out of Burma is no easy task. As detailed by MediaShift contributor Clothilde Le Coz, foreign journalists were banned from entering the country to cover the elections. Though an estimated 30 to 40 managed to sneak in on tourist visas, seven were deported after being detained by the police. Fourteen media workers are currently behind bars, some serving sentences of up to 35 years. There are a total of around 2,200 political prisoners who remain locked up, despite the release of Suu Kyi.

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Still, high-profile reporters such as BBC's John Simpson managed to interview Suu Kyi after her release, with no apparent retaliation or punitive measures by the ruling junta. One reporter in Rangoon, who asked to remain anonymous due to the restrictions on foreign journalists operating in Burma, told me the apparent indifference to the journalists-posing-as-tourists was more due to ineptitude on the part of the police, rather than newfound tolerance.

Telecom Backwater

Chinese correspondents are the only foreign press permitted to work in Burma on a full-time basis; news agencies and wire services such as Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse are only allowed to deploy Burmese stringers.

The information challenge was heightened in the week before the November 7 election, when a moratorium on new SIM cards was imposed by the junta, pushing the price of black market SIMs to well over $1,000. Economics are another form of censorship in Burma, as the average wage is a little over $200 per year. Even if the release of Suu Kyi somehow galvanized the public into another confrontation with the junta, there is little prospect of seeing the SMS-organized mass protests that emerged a decade ago elsewhere in southeast Asia, such as when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Manila to demand the ouster of President Joseph Estrada.

All told, only four percent of the population are wired up to telephone networks, one of the world's lowest telephone usage rates. There are rumors that various multinational telecommunications companies are seeking ways into the market, and trying to get around U.S., E.U. and Australian sanctions by setting up shell companies in Singapore and Hong Kong. However, the privatization of various state assets's-economy-and-investment-175390 over the past year appears to have only benefited a narrow cabal of Burmese businessmen affiliated to the ruling junta. There are 1.3 million mobile phones and 866,084 landlines in Burma, according to statistics released by Myanmar Post and Telecommunications. The country has a population of roughly 50 million people. In contrast, over half the population of neighboring Thailand has mobile phones.

The country has been deemed "an enemy of the Internet" by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), and Vincent Brossell, RSF's Asia representative, told me that "it is so risky to try to work with people inside Burma."

When it comes to the Internet, foreign news and social networking sites are blocked, though tech-savvy Internet users and Internet cafe owners in Rangoon and Mandalay can find ways around the wall using various proxies. However, just one in 455 Burmese were Internet users in 2009, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Internet cafes in Rangoon and Mandalay charge around $0.40 an hour for access, which is far too expensive for ordinary Burmese.

Enhanced Online Surveillance

A new ISP regime is being implemented by the ruling State Peace and Development Council, the official title for the junta. The planned "national web portal" will split the military, government and general ISPs into separate services, meaning that the publicly available Internet can be closed down or slowed without impinging on the government or army's web access. Critics say the new plan will enhance surveillance and online snooping, and make the country's few bloggers more vulnerable than ever to arrest.

During the monk-led mass protests in September 2007, citizens used the web to send reports and video to the outside world, circumventing the ban on foreign media. Blogger Nay Phone Latt was a central figure in that effort, but he was given a 12 year jail term for his efforts -- a harsh reminder of what happens to those who use the Internet to speak out against the ruling junta.

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Any hope that the release of Suu Kyi signals even a tentative loosening-up appear to be misplaced. The military censors have stuck to the old ways, as evidenced by the fact that only ten of the country's 100-plus privately owned publications were sanctioned to offer coverage of the release of Suu Kyi. All publications in Burma must have their content approved in advance by the Press Scrutiny Board. Speaking at a seminar on post-election Burma in Bangkok on November 23, Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, a news magazine based in Thailand but run by Burmese journalists, told me that "media in Burma are trying to push the envelope with the censor, since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi."

Shawn Crispin, southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me there is a "yawning news gap" caused by heavy censorship and intimidation inside Burma. Burmese exiles try to fill the void, operating mainly from India and Thailand. Clandestine reporters inside the country take great risks to funnel information to editors in Chiang Mai, New Delhi and beyond.

Late in 2009, Hla Hla Win, a reporter for the Norway-headquartered Democratic Voice of Burma, was sentenced to a total of 27 years in jail for violating the Electronics Act, another draconian lever used by the junta to stop information from getting around the country or to the outside.

First Eleven's Cover

However, since the release of Suu Kyi, even the state-watched media in Burma have shown daring creativity to get their message out, risking the wrath of the regime in the process. Sports journal First Eleven led with a front-page story on the Tuesday after Suu Kyi's release that was a combination of headlines ostensibly about English Premier League soccer matches, but that also used colored lettering to discuss Suu Kyi's release. Three innocuous-looking headlines -- "Sunderland Freeze Chelsea," "United Stunned by Villa" and "Arsenal Advance to Grab Their Hope" -- read as "Su Free Unite & Advance to Grab The Hope."

First Eleven got the ruse past the censors by submitting the advance copy of the page in black and white, but were subsequently hit with a two week publishing ban after the military realized that they had been fooled.

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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November 11 2010

16:31

Burma Elections Include Throttled Net, Blocked News Sites

Japanese journalist Toru Yamaji, the head of the Tokyo-based news agency APF, was arrested over the weekend in the eastern border town of Myawaddy, Burma, after reportedly entering from Thailand.

He was taken by helicopter to the Burmese capital, Naypyitaw, for questioning by military intelligence. Yamaji was attempting to report on the ongoing elections in Burma, despite the restrictions put in place by the military junta that rules the country they call Myanmar. Fortunately, Yamaji was released yesterday.

Along with arresting and restricting the access of journalists, Burma also used the election as an occasion to downgrade Internet speeds and stifle the online press. Here's a look at the crackdown that accompanied the recent, highly questionable, vote.

Visa Restrictions

On October 18, Burma's election commission decided not to grant press visas to foreign journalists, reinforcing the impression that the military government intended to isolate the country during the election. The commission's chairman, Thein Soe, said that Burma did not need any foreign journalists or observers because it already had a lot of experience in holding elections. This, despite the fact that the country last had elections 20 years ago.

Several European journalists had their requests for tourist visas rejected by the Burmese authorities.

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"The Burmese diplomats have clearly learned to use Google and are rejecting applications by people who are identifiable as journalists," a French reporter whose visa was denied told Reporters Without Borders. Twenty-five Burmese journalists who work for foreign media and two Chinese correspondents were the only foreign media reporters allowed to cover the elections.

A report by Simon Roughneen at Irrawaddy, an independent newsmagazine and website that reports on Burma, quoted an official with China Radio International saying that "usually we cannot report on Myanmar," or on other "sensitive stories," unless specifically asked to do so.

The election commission also announced on October 18 that media would not be allowed into voting stations. The commission and the country's Press Scrutiny Board, which is run by a military officer, closely examines all articles about the election and the statements of the 37 registered political parties. As an example, Favorite News, a privately owned magazine, was recently suspended for two weeks for publishing a cartoon that referred to the elections (see picture at right).

Monitoring Journalists

The Burmese correspondents of foreign news media were also closely monitored by plain-clothes police and soldiers during the voting on November 7, and throughout the preceding election campaign. "According to testimonies from reporters on the ground, some of them have been followed and sometimes searched, while the police spend their time taking photos of them while covering a story," according to a recent report published by our organization, Reporters Without Borders.

Foreign journalists have for decades been finding it extremely difficult to obtain press visas for Burma and have been forced to travel under tourist visas. This heightens the danger for the Burmese who work as fixers or agree to interviews. Zarganar, the Burmese blogger, actor, comedian and political prisoner, was jailed after talking to the BBC in 2008.

Zarganar, who is nicknamed the "Burmese Chaplin," was arrested on June 4 after talking to the BBC World Service and other foreign news media about delays in the humanitarian relief organized by the military after Cyclone Nargis struck the country in May 2008. He also blogged about the activities of the country's Buddhist monks during the September 2007 protests.

Zarganar was sentenced to 35 years in jail during a closed door trial at Insein prison. An extra 14 years were added to his sentence less than a week later. His sentence was then reduced back to 35 years. He is not due to be freed until 2033.

Internet Issues

Burma is home to some of the world's most draconian media laws, and it ranked 174 out of 178 countries in the 2010 Press Freedom Index. We have also labeled Burma as an "Enemy of the Internet," a distinction it continues to deserve thanks to its actions during the elections. Out of the 2,150-plus political prisoners in Burma, around 15 are journalists, and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists last year branded Burma the worst country in which to be a blogger.

It's therefore not surprising that Internet connections inside the country were noticeably reduced in preparation for voting. "I can no longer connect to my Gmail account using proxies," a Rangoon-based journalist said. "Accessing all the websites based abroad has become terribly slow."

According to Irrawaddy, Internet cafes in Rangoon were closed in advance of the elections. From a November 1 report on the website:

Burma's Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (MPT) has sealed off Internet access for Internet cafes and businesses, according to experts on Burma's Internet infrastructure.

Sources close to the ministry who asked to maintain anonymity have told The Irrawaddy that Internet access is normal at all government and military institutions serviced by MPT, but "access for businesses and Internet cafes" is shut down to control the flow of information in and out of the country.

On October 5, Reporters Without Borders reported the disruption of two news websites due to Internet-based attacks. The Democratic Voice of Burma and Irrawaddy magazine were temporarily knocked offline. Both provide independent coverage of current affairs in Burma. The attacks are believed to have originated from the Burmese government.

On Sunday, the authorities ordered the privately owned Eleven Media group not to update the special "Elections" sections of its website or Facebook pages.

As of today, 13 reporters and two Netizens are behind bars in Burma. The fear is that more could join them in the aftermath of these elections.

Photo of Bagan by druidabruxux via Flickr

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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October 22 2010

17:57

Michigan Official's Hate Speech Protected by First Amendment

For the last few months, Andrew Shirvell, an assistant attorney general of Michigan, has crusaded against the "radical homosexual agenda" of 21-year-old Chris Armstrong, the openly gay student-body president of the University of Michigan.

Shirvell has verbally attacked Armstrong at campus events, demonstrated outside the student's home, and has bashed the kid on his personal blog, Chris Armstrong Watch.

On that blog, which is now accessible only by invitation, Shirvell has called Armstrong a "privileged pervert" and "Satan's representative on the student assembly." He's accused Armstrong of "anti-Christian behavior" and "mocking God." One post included a photo of Armstrong with the word "resign" written across his face and a swastika superimposed on a gay pride flag; an arrow pointed from the flag to Armstrong. You can see it here.

Job on the Line

Shirvell appeared last month on CNN, on "Anderson Cooper 360," to defend his views and behavior, telling Cooper, "Chris Armstrong is a radical homosexual activist who got elected partly funded by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund to promote a very deeply radical agenda at the University of Michigan." Shirvell later added that he is a "Christian citizen exercising [his] First Amendment rights" and that "this is nothing personal against Chris." (Armstrong has also appeared on the show.)

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Since then, the sun has set on Shirvell's cause. He's on a personal leave of absence from the attorney general's office, the University of Michigan just banned him from campus, and a state judge will rule next week on a request, from Armstrong, for a personal protection order against him. What's more, Shirvell is the subject of unanimous condemnations from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the Ann Arbor Human Rights Commission, and the Ann Arbor City Council.

His job is on the line, too. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm tweeted a few weeks ago that, "If I was still Attorney General and Andrew Shirvell worked for me, he would have already been fired." David Leyton, the Democratic nominee for state attorney general, echoed Granholm, and a Facebook page, liked by over 16,000 people, maintains that Shirvell's "long history of bigotry makes him unfit to represent the state of Michigan."

Meanwhile, Mike Cox, the state attorney general, has refused to fire Shirvell. He released a statement a few weeks ago saying that Shirvell's "immaturity and lack of judgment outside the office are clear," but later told CNN that the First Amendment protects him -- that public employees do have the right to "express what they think and engage in political and social speech."

Cox is right.

The Legal Issues

Shirvell may be on thin ice, legally, for a variety of reasons (for example, his conduct towards Armstrong could cause him to be charged with harassment or stalking), but the First Amendment does protect his blogging. To make sense of this, it's helpful to keep a few things in mind.

First, the free speech clause protects the right of a person to speak without government interference. Speech includes blogging and others forms of online expression. That means, for example, a private employer can fire an employee because of his blogging, but a public employer, doing the same thing, might run afoul of the First Amendment. As an assistant attorney general, Shirvell is a public employee entitled to protection.

Second, the Supreme Court has ruled that a public employer may impose some restraints on the expression of its employees, on the theory that the government, like private employers, needs a significant degree of control over the management of its personnel and internal affairs. Still, significant does not mean unlimited.

In a series of cases, beginning with Pickering v. Board of Education, in 1968, the Court has created a balancing test to weigh the employee's speech interests against the government's interests in providing an efficient service to the public. Out of that series came a few general principles, applied here to online expression.

Public employees have a right to blog on their own time on topics unrelated to their employment. They also have a right to blog on their own time on topics related to their employment, if the topics are matters of public concern. Finally, the First Amendment does not protect them at all if they are blogging in the course of their regular duties, rather than on their own time.

Blogging During Work?

Against that backdrop, if the attorney general tried to fire Shirvell, the courts would call upon the First Amendment and likely would focus on whether he was blogging on his own time on topics unrelated to his employment. Shirvell has said a number of times that he blogged only at home, after hours, and Cox himself told CNN that Shirvell's job performance has been satisfactory. It's safe to say, too, that the content of the blog posts, on religion and homosexuality, were unrelated to his employment. In other words, they did not comment on the functioning of his workplace.

In turn, though, the attorney general's office might argue that Shirvell's blogging, regardless of the content, is related to his employment because it caused a substantial disruption in the workplace. After all, Cox had to investigate the issue and respond personally, the media blitz brought into question the impartiality and professionalism of the office, etc.

That would be a hard sell, and I doubt the courts would buy it, no matter any disruption, because Shirvell was using his blog to engage in social and political speech, which occupies what the Supreme Court once called the "highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values." Thus, it's entitled to special protection.

All of which means Andrew Shirvell, the state attorney who picked on a college student, the Christian who superimposed a swastika on a gay-pride flag, the guy who said it wasn't personal while making his attacks, is protected by the First Amendment.

Freedom for the thought that we hate, indeed.

Jonathan Peters is a doctoral student and the Frank Martin Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he's specializing in the First Amendment. He has a law degree from Ohio State University and has written on legal issues for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including the Plain Dealer, Columbus Dispatch and the National Jurist. Beyond journalism, Peters has worked at every level of the federal judiciary, with externships at the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. He can be reached at jonathan.w.peters@gmail.com.

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October 21 2010

18:26

2010 Press Freedom Index Shows Europe on Decline

Reporters Without Borders yesterday released its 2010 World Press Freedom Index. Thirteen of the EU's 27 members are in the top 20 in terms of press freedoms, but some of the other EU nations are very low. The European Union has had a reputation for valuing and respecting human rights, and new data suggests that reputation is at risk.

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"We must salute the engines of press freedom, with Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland at their head," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard. "We must also pay homage to the human rights activists, journalists and bloggers throughout the world who bravely defend the right to speak out."

Many Northern European nations, such as Finland, the Netherlands and Norway, have remained at the top of the ranking thanks to their strong protections for media institutions and journalists. But overall the freedom of expression model in Europe is weakening, and part of the reason is an ongoing effort to implement online content filtering, restrict file-sharing and other related measures.

Along with those developments, Ireland is still punishing blasphemy with a 25,000 Euro fine, the U.K. continues to keep outdated and worrying defamation laws on the books. Plus, Italy and France have seen their political leaders interfere with press activity. It seems that the legislative aspect is the most significant when it comes to Europe losing its world leader human rights status.

EU's Gallo Report

As I mentioned in my previous post for MediaShift, Reporters Without Borders is concerned that France might sacrifice online freedom for the sake of security by implementing a new Internet filtering system. The goal of the legislation is to limit access to pedophile and porn sites. Filtering is a widespread practice today in Europe, and can be very harmful to Internet users if badly implemented. It can also have a chilling effect on freedom of the press.

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In late September, the European Union adopted the Gallo Report, which made several suggestions about how the EU can better defend intellectual property rights and combat piracy. For Reporters Without Borders, the measures outlined in the report represent a repressive approach that violates the right of Internet users in part because it ignores the fact that legal file-sharing exists and fosters online creativity.

"The Gallo Report is an illustration of the will of the entertainment industry to try to impose private copyright police," said Jérémie Zimmermann, founder of the advocacy group La Quadrature du Net. "Repressive schemes such as the 'three strikes' policies and other Internet access restrictions negate fundamental rights, such as the right to a fair trial, the freedom of communication or the right to privacy."

EU members have begun implementing the Gallo Report, in spite of court rulings that go against its recommendations. Earlier this month, Ireland's High Court in Ireland ruled against three major record labels who wanted to see a "three strikes" policy implemented against Internet users who possess or share illegally downloaded content.

"The High Court ruled that laws to identify and cut off Internet users illegally copying music files were not enforceable in Ireland," according to the Irish Times.

However, the biggest ISP in the country is still implementing a three strikes policy by sending warning letters to those identified as illegal file-sharers. So does France, but Mark Mulligan, an analyst with research firm Forrester, told the BBC it is unlikely to happen in the U.K.

European Decline

When it comes to Internet filtering, file sharing and related issues, Europe is home to varying policies and laws. That's why one of the problems with the Gallo Report is how vague it is. This leads to a situation wherein nations in Northern Europe can be at the forefront of press freedom and online rights while its neighbors rank much lower. The two issues are of course closely related in the Internet age.

Overall, press freedom in Europe is on the decline, and we are far from reaching a consensus on how free European citizens can be to use the Internet.

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October 14 2010

15:41

CrowdVoice: Tracking voices of protest

CrowdVoice.org is a user-powered service that tracks voices of protest from around the world by crowdsourcing information. The platform is open source and can be repurposed for any other cause. Here is a short video demonstrating its usage and potential.

We would really appreciate it if you can take a few moments and vote for our project at the FACT Social Justice Challenge! http://netsquared.org/projects/crowdvoice

You can find us listed on the first page here: http://netsquared.org/projectgallery

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September 30 2010

19:42

Will France Sacrifice Online Freedom for the Sake of Security?

On September 8, the French Senate voted for a bill, called Loppsi 2, that seeks to create a dangerous online filtering system that could jeopardize the work of journalists and bloggers, as well as online freedom of speech for French citizens.

If this bill becomes law, any French website could be shut down with nothing more than a notification from an administrative authority. When the bill was passed in a lower house last February, it required intervention from a judge to make that happen.

The situation in France reflects the trend that's seeing democratic states such as England and Spain step up online surveillance and control. This could pose a serious threat to freedom of expression and information. Under the current French bill, a government department called the Central Office for Combating Crime Related to Information and Communication Technology would be able to order Internet service providers and website hosts to filter websites without requiring a court order.

Filter Failure

The effectiveness of online filtering has been disputed by many studies, including one released by the French Federation of Telecom and Electronic Communications Companies in July 2009 entitled, "Study of the Impact of Blocking Paedophile and Porn Sites." At Reporters Without Borders, we raised concerns about the law, noting in a release that:

Filtering mechanisms will not be able to prevent their circumvention by offenders, will not eliminate offending content from the Internet and will have no impact on the source of the problem. And furthermore, they tend to filter out innocent content as well, such as the websites of child protection groups or sites that defend minors who have been the victims of sexual abuse.

zommerman.jpgJeremie Zimmerman, co-founder and spokesperson of the advocacy group La Quadrature du Net, has long been warning against the dangers of this law. He cautions about how "collateral censorship" can affect the work of reporters and bloggers.

"Technically, blocking legal websites is inevitable," he said. "Unfortunately, there is no legal means to gain access to the list of the blocked websites."

Brice Manenti covers the issue for the magazine Nouvel Observateur. "With Loppsi 2, I am worried for freedom of speech as a citizen, more than as a journalist," he said. "Allowing filtering is a way to get to a generalized filtering of the web, as it is in China for example. Freedom of expression would be under particular threat."

Legalized Spyware

In July 2009, an earlier version of the law stated that the police who suspect criminal activity would be able to use remotely introduced spyware under an investigating judge's supervision in order to obtain information from computers without the knowledge of those targeted. If any kind of criminal activity is discovered -- even if it's outside of the initial suspicions -- the information obtained can still be used to bring a prosecution.

The French Commission on computing and freedoms reserved judgment regarding this aspect of the law in 2009. (Journalists would be protected from of this kind of spyware by a law that protects the the secrecy of journalists' sources, but bloggers and amateur journalists would not be protected.) The law would also extend the length of phone taps on people suspected of a crime.

In and of itself, Loppsi 2 is not a bill focused on freedom of speech and freedom of the press; but as it is currently drafted it ends up posing a threat to these principles. In a September article, the French daily newspaper Le Monde accused presidential aides of using a domestic intelligence agency to identify an official who was leaking information about a judicial investigation about a case involving labor minister Eric Woerth and L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Reporters without Borders subsequently joined with Le Monde in a lawsuit related to these actions. From our release about this action:

Reporters Without Borders campaigned for years for a law explicitly protecting the confidentiality of journalists' sources and appeared before both the National Assembly and the Senate when they examined the proposed law that was eventually adopted.

The organization is outraged that covert police activity has trampled on the protection of sources enshrined in article 2 of this law. The authorities have a right to investigate leaks of confidential information but such investigations must be conducted according to the law. Any failure to respect the law protecting journalists' sources must be punished or else it will be rendered meaningless.

In light of this example, there is reason to be concerned about the government's increased use of spyware. It seems like it would only be a matter of time before it finds its way onto bloggers' computers and machines inside newsrooms.

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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August 26 2010

18:06

Free Speech at Stake as India Demands Encrypted BlackBerry Data

Next week will be decisive for BlackBerry corporate users. BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM) could provide a solution to help security agencies in India access corporate email by obtaining encrypted data in readable formats. If RIM does not offer a solution before the end of the month, India has warned that it will block BlackBerry Messenger service in the country for corporate users.

BlackBerry phones encrypt their services better than most smartphones do, and this has been one of the selling points for BlackBerry as a device for corporate users. RIM has to this point refused to provide access codes that would allow governments to monitor the content of encrypted messages. Should RIM provide the Indian government with access to the data, it would not only hurt freedom of expression -- it would likely also hurt the BlackBerry's reputation as the business device of choice.

About More Than The BlackBerry

The Indian government isn't the only seeking access to BlackBerry data. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia claim that BlackBerry's services break their laws and threaten national security. The UAE's Telecommunication Regulatory Authority announced that it will suspend BlackBerry's instant messaging, email, web browsing and roaming services starting October 11. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is still allowing BlackBerry's instant messaging service to operate. Saudi authorities had planned to suspend it on August 6, but they only ended up blocking the service for a few hours. The company and government continue to work toward a compromise.

Reporters Without Borders is worried about the BlackBerry issue because the "national security" argument is just a pretext for these countries to take steps to restrict access to new technology and to tools that help with freedom of expression. In the UAE, some BlackBerry users were arrested for using BlackBerry Messenger to try to organize a protest against increased gas prices.

What really bothers these countries is their inability to monitor the communication flowing via BlackBerry's services. Indonesia, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria and Kuwait have also voiced concern about BlackBerry's encrypted services, and it's no coincidence that some of these countries are home to a wide range of censorship measures. In Indonesia, for example, the government requires ISPs to filter out porn -- without providing them a specific list of offending sites. The inevitable result is that the ISPs cause collateral damage by blocking other websites with no direct link to pornography. This is also the case in Saudi Arabia. Filtering also slows down connection speeds throughout the country. Aside from censorship, these countries are also known for monitoring the communications and web usage of citizens.

It's therefore natural to question whether the requests for BlackBerry to offer access to its services are truly meant to fight terrorism, or if it's about finding another way to monitor the communications of citizens?

U.S. Perspective

These countries would do well to learn from an example in the United States. In 2003, the Department of Justice drafted legislation that would have lengthened prison sentences for people who used encryption in the commission of a crime. Defenders of encryption said it would do little to help catch terrorists, and would instead hamper the work of activists. The legislation never passed -- even though the fight against terrorism was a top priority of the government.

RIM's BlackBerry encryption isn't alone in being targeted. India plans on asking Google and Skype for similar access, which means this issue is about more than just one company's device. It's about the future of private communications in countries prone to censorship and other abuses.

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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August 10 2010

16:21

Saudi Blogger/Activist Jailed for 'Annoying Others'

Although Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to have been authorized to register domain names in Arabic, it is still one of the most repressive countries when it comes to the Internet.

For example, since 2009 Internet cafes in the country have been required to install hidden cameras, supply a list of customers and websites accesses, not permit the use of prepaid cards or of unauthorized Internet access via satellite, close at midnight and not admit minors. In the latest development of concern, Sheikh Mekhlef bin Dahham al-Shammari, a writer/blogger, human rights activist and social reformer, is in jail. Why? For "annoying others." He has not yet been formally charged.

Blogger Rhymes With Prisoner

Al-Shammari has often written about poverty and unemployment in the kingdom, accusing the government of ignoring these problems because it is obsessed with public morality and keeping men and women apart. He has also highlighted the government's failure to promote tourism, and its discrimination against the Shiite minority. Although a Sunni, he was critical of the influential Saudi preacher Mohammed al-Arifi for referring to one of Iran's most respected Shiite clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, as an "obscene atheist."

In an article published in April of last year, "My Dear Christian", al-Shammari contrasted the work of an American Christian who was killed while helping to protect Palestinian Muslim children with the conditions imposed by Saudi Muslim charities that require its recipients exhibit proper Islamic conduct.

Al-Shammari has been arrested several times in recent years, in part because of his defense of Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority. He told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors used his articles to accuse him of spreading discord among Muslims. His articles criticizing the conservative interpretations of Islam promoted by Saudi officials led to his arrest on May 15, after which he was released on bail. His latest arrest took place on June 15 in Jubail. He was transferred to Damman prison at the start of this month.

Al-Shammari is not the first blogger jailed for seemingly arbitrary reasons in Saudi Arabia. For example, Fouad al Farhan, a blogger known for advocating political reforms, was arrested in 2007 in Jeddah. His arrest was reported by other Arab bloggers, and the Saudi authorities also confirmed he was being held in solitary confinement for "interrogation." No official charges were ever cited or laid. He was released from prison on April 26, 2008. Al Farhan, who is in this thirties, was one of the first Saudi bloggers to dispense with a pseudonym on his site. He was also the first cyber-dissident to be jailed in the country -- but he's far from the last.

According to information from the Arabic Network for Human Rights, Munir alJassas, a prominent Internet activist and defender of the rights of Shiites, has been in jail since November 7, 2009. This is apparently because of his comments and articles on websites and online forums such as Tahara and Shabaket AlRames, where he is one of the most prominent writers.

Free Speech in Saudi Arabia

In the kingdom, free speech is under constant threat. In March, the Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, a professor of religion at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, declared a fatwa against two journalists. Reuters reported that he "was responding to recent articles in al-Riyadh newspaper that questioned the Sunni Muslim view in Saudi Arabia that adherents of other faiths should be considered unbelievers."

"Anyone who claims this has refuted Islam and should be tried in order to take it back. If not, he should be killed as an apostate from the religion of Islam," read the fatwa.

In another example, the journalist Rozanna al-Yami was sentenced to 60 lashes by a judge because she worked for the Lebanese Broadcast Corporation (LBC), a satellite TV station that shocked conservative Saudis a year ago by broadcasting an interview with a Saudi man talking openly about his sex life.

There was one encouraging development. In June of last year, Saudi Arabia agreed to have its human rights records reviewed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, and it welcomed Navi Pillay, the UN high Commissioner for human rights last April. Sheikh Mekhlef bin Dahham al-Shammari was among the few activists who met her.

However, the fact that the authorities have jailed him for such a ridiculous and offensive reason ("annoying others") shows that the kingdom is still not committed to changing its approach to free speech. If this charge is taken seriously by authorities, then how many more bloggers will end up behind bars for similar reasons?

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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August 06 2010

23:39

4 Minute Roundup: Politicians Don't Want Wikileaks Protected

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4MR 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.

In this week's 4MR podcast I look at the recent move by U.S. senators to amend a Federal journalist shield bill to exclude Wikileaks. Many lawmakers are angry at the whistle-blower site for sharing thousands of classified documents about the Afghan war. But what does this mean for a possible shield law, which already passed the House and a Senate committee? I talked with MediaShift legal analyst Rob Arcamona about the move by senators and whether the U.S. could really hold Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange accountable.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio8610.mp3

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Listen to my entire interview with Rob Arcamona:

arcamonaleaks full.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

After Afghan War Leaks, Revisions in a Shield Bill at NY Times

Wikileaks editor interrogated by US border police at the Independent

WikiLeaks and a journalism shield law at the L.A. Times

Schumer, Feinstein Support Prosecution of WikiLeaks at NRO's The Corner

Latest Attempt To Create Federal Journalism Shield Law May Carve Wikileaks Out Of The Protections at TechDirt

Schumer Aims to Exclude Wikileaks From Media Shield Bill at FoxNews.com

Senate Tweaking Shield Bill In Wake of Wikileaks at Broadcasting & Cable

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you think about Wikleaks:




What do you think about Wikileaksonline surveys

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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4MR 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.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

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