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August 30 2012

13:13

Infographic: CDA 230 Integral to Protecting Free Speech Online

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark want more people to know how important Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230) is in protecting free speech on the Internet.

To that end, the EFF and Newmark's craigconnects initiative released this infographic to highlight the importance of the federal law.

Newmark said in a release, "This law helps protect free speech online. It's made a huge contribution to the explosion of innovation and expression online, and we need it."

Click on the image below for a larger version.

CDA 230 - infographic.jpg

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August 17 2012

14:00

6 Questions for Arion McNicoll of The Journalism Foundation

It has been a difficult time for the British press, caught up in the phone-hacking scandal that has meant the death of the News of the World paper, along with arrests of News Corp. personnel, suspensions at Scotland Yard, and never-ending investigations. But from those ashes has risen one idealistic effort to promote free press issues around the world: The Journalism Foundation.

Unlike in the U.S. with our non-profit funders such as the Knight Foundation, the U.K. and Europe have been looking for a white knight that could help support struggling legacy media in their transition to digital. The Journalism Foundation was started last October by former editor of the Independent, Simon Felner, with money from the Independent's owners, the Lebedev family.

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The Foundation's first two projects include a training program for journalists in Tunisia (in conjunction with the City University of London's journalism school) and financial support for a hyper-local site in Stoke-on-Trent called pitsnpots. But the Foundation has also hired its own editorial staff, who are posting stories online relating to digital media, freedom of speech, and the Leveson Inquiry. The site recently ran a first-person account from the Independent's Guy Adams about Twitter suspending (and then un-suspending) his account.

I recently struck a content-sharing deal with The Journalism Foundation, so that they could run our various stories from MediaShift on free speech issues, while we could run their stories that touch on the digital and global angle of freedom of expression. The hope is to spread our content and ideas across the pond in both directions.

I asked the site's editor, Arion McNicoll, six questions via email to learn more about the Foundation and how it plans to spend its grants. McNicoll comes to the Foundation after being the assistant editor of The Sunday Times online, helping the Times build its iPad app. The following is an edited version of our exchange. (McNicoll also posted his interview with me here.)

Q&A

1. How did you get involved in The Journalism Foundation, and what are its goals?


Arion McNicoll: I joined The Journalism Foundation just prior to its launch in October last year. At the time, British press was under intense scrutiny in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal -- a public event that shocked the nation and led to the closure of the News of the World newspaper. Senior figures at Rupert Murdoch's newspaper publishing company, News International, were summoned to explain themselves to the government; the Leveson Inquiry was initiated to look into press standards and regulation not only within Murdoch press, but across the entire U.K. media landscape.

Against this backdrop, and at a time when the media seemed to be running out of friends, The Journalism Foundation was established to promote free and fair journalism around the world. We try to do this in two ways: by running media-based projects that have a positive impact, and by promoting intelligent debate around the big questions in journalism today on our website. My role as editor is to nurture that debate.


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2. Who has more awareness of press freedom issues, people in the U.S. or U.K., and why?


McNicoll: Whether the average American is aware of it day-to-day or not, freedom of the press is a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment upholds a raft of important freedoms -- of press, religion and expression -- which simply do not have an equivalent in the U.K. That said, media in the U.K. is deep and varied, with numerous newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, and I think the U.K. public is rightly proud of this plurality. The high rate of literacy is mirrored by a history of high newspaper consumption.

The national broadcaster, the BBC, is a much-loved public institution, in which many people feel they have a stake. When the BBC spends money frivolously or in the wrong place, the public actively complains. Many regard the BBC's service in a similar way to how they think about the free medical care -- as a right and an integral part of what it means to be British.


3. Explain the grant process for people who'd like to get a grant from The Journalism Foundation.



McNicoll: The Journalism Foundation looks to support a broad range of projects. From community-based enterprises to broad initiatives, our grant scheme is intended to support people or organizations with specific projects that further the cause of journalistic freedom. Once an application is lodged (go here), staff from the Foundation will review it and get in contact for more information if the project seems promising. If we can offer support (either practical or financial) we then work out how best to make that happen.

We don't have an upper limit on what we can grant (notionally) but in truth our projects have tended to be to the tune of about £10,000 to £20,000 so far. Our initial funding comes from the Lebedev family who own the Evening Standard and the Independent newspapers here in the U.K. This is one of their benevolent programs. We also do our own fundraising though, and all the money we raise from donations goes straight to projects.

4. Do you believe new online media outlets can help cover news lost at legacy organizations as they cut back? How?

McNicoll: I think media is currently in a transitional state. News organizations were quick to get their content online in the early days of the Internet, hoping that they could convert vast numbers of readers into advertising gold. Gradually it became apparent that simply having a lot of readers was no guarantor of financial success. Consequently, many news organizations have begun putting up pay walls and returning to subscription-based revenue models.

In the meantime, a raft of new media news organizations have sprung up offering alternatives to the traditional providers. Initially, the point of difference was journalistic veracity (i.e., people felt old media could be trusted, whereas new media was more suspect), but even that has eroded over time. Various sites such as Huffington Post and TMZ have put considerable effort into ensuring that their news is not just fast, but also accurate. Can such outlets fill the gap left by the decline in newspaper sales? Certainly, but the transition is not necessarily going to be swift or smooth. Plus, the future of news is unlikely simply to be digital newspapers, but something that fuses the best bits of print, TV, radio and social networking.


5. In the realm of press and Internet freedom, which organizations (including for-profit media and NGOs) do you respect in Europe and why?



McNicoll: Reporters Without Borders does a fantastic and admirable job, fighting for the rights of journalists who work in places where simply doing their job can cost them their lives. The Chartered Institute of Journalists does good work here in the U.K., and has been doing it for longer than almost anyone else in the world, founded, as it was, in 1884. The Centre for Investigative Journalism champions the kind of critical, in-depth reporting that makes the rich and powerful nervous.

At a more community level, Talk About Local is an excellent organization that trains people in starting up their own digital publications. And there are countless blogs and citizen journalism projects around the country which are doing their small bit for the spread of free information, many with deeply journalistic sensibilities.


6. How important is collaboration now in journalism, among non-profits, for-profits, public media and readers/community members?

McNicoll: Very important. In recent years the traditional division between people who are journalists and people who are not journalists has been almost completely eroded. Now anyone with a mobile phone can report on the news. While people remain rightly suspicious of the more sinister aspects of journalism, overwhelmingly I think there is still a great deal of public support for the free spread of information -- support which people are expressing through engaging actively with the process of news gathering and commentary. Just last month the United Nations unanimously backed a resolution that Internet access and online freedom of expression should be considered a human right.

While the spread of journalistic practice is an important development, I think the next stage is working out a fair way to recompense those people who work in the more costly or dangerous sides of news reporting: writers and photographers who report from the front line, investigative journalists who spend months on end trying to uncover a hidden truth. But I think there is broad understanding that some kinds of journalism cost money and people are prepared to pay for it.

The interaction between non-profits, for-profits, public media and readers underpins the evolution of journalism, and that evolution is essential to the continuing spread of information.

*****

What do you think of The Journalism Foundation and its work? Can it succeed in spreading freedom of expression ideas around the world and in the U.K.? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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 and fiancee Renee. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+

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May 03 2012

20:30

World Press Freedom Day: Where We Stand After the Arab Spring

This post is co-authored by Jillian C. York.

Nineteen years ago, before the Internet had reached millions of homes, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the celebration of press freedom, deeming May 3 "World Press Freedom Day." Since then, the day has been celebrated by organizations and government entities alike.

Today, the Internet age has created a whole new slew of concerns about press freedom. Despite early declarations that cyberspace would not be governed, it soon was, with governments such as Tunisia and Saudi Arabia censoring the Internet as quickly as it became available. Today, more than 60 countries engage in online censorship of some kind, with corporate online spaces -- think Facebook -- restricting speech as well.

Shifting Sands

A year after the start of the Arab Spring and the subsequent spark of social movements throughout the world, it remains a turbulent time for press freedom. As we reported in April, a multitude of countries have begun arresting journalists for their postings on social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook. And offline, censorship remains the norm in much of the world.

Following the ouster of Ben Ali, Tunisia quickly made strides toward a free press and open Internet, unblocking websites and allowing journalists to operate freely. In fact, Tunisia is hosting UNESCO for the World Press Freedom conference, where a representative from the U.S. State Department will deliver remarks at the opening ceremony just as a new report by Freedom House credits Tunisia with significant strides in press freedom.

But even as Tunisia's revolution has marked a new era of openness, just a little more than a year later, there's once again talk of censorship. A Facebook activist and citizen journalist was recently sentenced to seven years in prison, and Nabil Karoui, the owner of independent Nessma TV, is on trial for showing the Iranian film "Persepolis" on the air; if he is convicted, Karoui's case could set a dangerous precedent for censorship in the North African country.

In post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt, the situation is also shaky. On Twitter, Egyptian revolutionary Mosa'ab Elshamy described the state of press freedom as "generally better than [in the] Mubarak days but worse than what revolution aspired for." Al Ahram -- the state-run daily that once photoshopped Mubarak to appear to be the leader of the Middle East peace talks -- now reports on the revolution, but the media landscape still leaves much to be desired. As Egyptian blogger Amr Gharbeia said: "[There are] some independent journalists, [but] no independent journalism."

The Internet Promotes Freedom

Although governments have been exerting control over the Internet for nearly as long as it's been around, media experts are quick to point out that the overall impact of the Internet is toward openness.

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Lina Ben Mhenni and Zeynep Tufekci at the Prix Forum II. Photo by Ars Electronica on Flickr

With the Internet, "censorship is harder; there are more sources of information," sociologist Zeynep Tufekci told us. "The barrier to publish has become lower, so there are more people publishing information that may not have found an audience before." This was visible in Egypt as well where, before Mubarak fell, he tried desperately to keep a lid on information traveling throughout his country, yet was unable to stop the massive amounts of video showing the rest of the world his crumbling empire.

But just as technology allows for journalists to sprout up from anywhere and for stories to spread not only across countries but around the globe virtually instantaneously, it also gives governments another avenue to crack down on them. After the governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya fell, journalists found ample evidence of those governments tracking local reporters with sophisticated technology, in some cases leading to arrest and torture.

Nonetheless, more information is indeed available than ever before, begging the question: What happens next?

The Fragile First Amendment

As the U.S. government helps celebrate World Press Freedom Day in Tunisia this week, it's also important to meditate on the current state of our own country. While technology has shaped the media landscape just as much as in countries where press freedom is traditionally scarce, it has also affected the government's response to said freedom -- and it hasn't always been positive. While there's no doubt the First Amendment still gives U.S. journalists some of the strongest press freedom protections in the world, that reputation has also been mired by recent events.

As the New York Times reported in February, "Today, advances in surveillance technology allow the government to keep a perpetual eye on those with security clearances, and give prosecutors the ability to punish officials for disclosing secrets ..." Partly as a result, the Obama administration has prosecuted six leakers to the press since taking office in 2009 -- more than all prior administrations combined.

This has a chilling effect not only on government whistleblowers, but the journalists covering them as well. In one case, New York Times reporter James Risen has been subpoenaed multiple times to testify to his sources for reporting he did on his book "State of War" about Bush administration intelligence failures. In another case, it's clear from court filings the government had been reading emails of current and former ABC journalists Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito.

This is especially troubling given the State Department's push for stronger press freedom protections worldwide. ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper astutely raised this contradiction with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney after Carney praised two American journalists who died in Syria covering the government crackdown on democratic protesters and were known for practicing uncompromising, aggressive journalism: "There just seems to be disconnect here. You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don't want it in the United States," Tapper said. When Carney demurred, Tapper asked again, "So the truth should come out abroad; it shouldn't come out here?"

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Occupy Wall Street protest in New York. Photo by DoctorTongs on Flickr

Unfortunately, local law enforcement has also tarnished the U.S. image of broad press freedoms, even in times of protest. More broadly, local police forces, most notably the New York City Police Department, have come under fire for their seemingly unconstitutional treatment of reporters covering the Occupy Wall Street protests over the past year. Josh Stearns of Free Press has documented more than 70 arrests of journalists since the protests began in September. Many more have reported being harrassed or assaulted for just doing their job. As a result, Reporters Without Borders dropped the U.S. 27 places to 47th worldwide in its annual country-by-country report on press freedom. The recently released Freedom House rankings only dropped the U.S. slightly, but also cited the arrests at Occupy protests as the reason.

An upside to the U.S. system is that courts can -- and do -- act as a check on overzealous prosecutions and police tactics against journalists. The Fourth Circuit has twice ruled Risen does not have to give up his sources in the aforementioned leak case, citing reporter's privilege. And another court will soon have the opportunity to hear complaints about the NYPD, as a major lawsuit was just filed by many plaintiffs, alleging -- among other charges -- that the police interfered with journalists' ability to observe and violated their First Amendment rights.

Given its long history and tradition of a free press, the U.S. should be a beacon to other countries, such as the emerging democracies of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. But anytime the U.S. considers advocating for a freer press -- like it will in Tunisia today, it should be mindful of its own actions, or risk losing its ability to influence. Because as we know, information travels much faster now, and unlike in the past, there are likely countless citizen journalists now spreading news about the United States' domestic approach to press freedom abroad, just like so many do right here at home.

Jillian C. York is the director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She writes regularly about free expression, politics, and the Internet, with particular focus on the Arab world. She is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online, and has written for a variety of publications, including Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Bloomberg.

Trevor Timm is an activist and blogger at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. Previously, he helped the former general counsel of the New York Times write a book on press freedom and the First Amendment. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic and Al Jazeera.

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September 13 2011

21:30

Censorship Prevails in 'New' Burma, Despite Reform Talk

BANGKOK -- A handful of protestors gathered outside the Burmese embassy in Bangkok last Friday to vent their anger against the detention of 17 journalists in Burma, some of whom have been given multiple-decade jail terms for what activists describe as "no more than doing their jobs."

The jailed reporters worked for Democratic Voice of Burma, a Burmese media organization with personnel in Norway and Thailand. Decades of military rule in Burma incorporates vice-like press controls, and though these have been loosened of late, there are questions over whether this apparent liberalization is anything more than rhetorical.

Those questions are highlighted by the case of Hla Hla Win, a 27-year-old DVB reporter sentenced to 27 years in jail for breaching motorbike rules and shooting video. DVB Chief Editor Aye Chaing Naing said, "There is no legal justification to arrest Hla Hla Win, and she should not have been arrested in the first place."

Talk, but no walk on reform

Hla Hla Win and the 16 other DVB reporters are among what the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners -- a Thailand-based organization staffed by ex-political prisoners from Burma -- calculates to be 1,995 political prisoners or prisoners of conscience still in jail in Burma. The Burmese government claims all the country's incarcerated are criminals, including the hundreds of Buddhist monks rounded up after the 2007 Saffron uprising against military rule. The continued detention of almost 2,000 political prisoners highlights what activists believe to be a sham transition from military rule to democracy. Former political prisoner Nyi Nyi Aung, now in the United States, told me that the failure to release the detainees shows the insincerity of the Burmese rulers. "They don't want to make any reform in Burma," he said.

Burma held elections in November 2010, the first since 1990, though the result was a predictable landslide for the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). When the post-election government was formed, ex-army men made up 26 of the 30 government ministers. Journalists have been given controlled-environment access to the recently convened Parliament, but on the condition that they avoid reporting in a manner damaging to the "dignity of the Parliament and the State."

In another apparent loosening of the press control spigot, an article by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, recounting her recent trip to Bagan -- a temple-laden city in north-central Burma -- was allowed to be published in a Burmese journal called "The People's Era." As ever, there was a caveat. It went to press only after much of the Nobel Peace laureate's submitted content was chopped by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), the official name for the state censor.

Leaked diplomatic cables give startling picture

Unlike some other authoritarian states, Burma has a thriving private-run media and, according to one of a cache of recently leaked U.S. diplomatic cables sent from the country's Rangoon embassy, "the number of weekly newspapers has gone from just a handful 10 years ago to approximately 150 today." That said, most of the growth is in non-controversial areas "like sports and entertainment," lacking what the cable terms "hard news about events in Burma or the outside world."

Covering Suu Kyi has long been a tricky topic for Burmese publications, with the journal Messenger banned from publishing its supplement section for a week by the PSRD. Shiwei Yei is the Southeast Asia point-man for the International Federation for Human Rights. He told me that this is likely to be "related to the journal's recent interview of Suu Kyi and the front-page photo of her."

While bread-and-circus stories about soap operas and sports can, for the most part, now be run without prior vetting by the censors, political stories are subject to word-by-word examination, meaning that critical or investigative coverage of the country's government cannot be undertaken.

According to U.S. embassy officials, writing in a cable sent before Burma's 2010 elections, the censor bans "20-25 percent of all stories in a given periodical." Burma's poorly paid reporters have a pocket incentive to keep within the censor's limits.

"Because Burmese reporters tend to get paid only for the stories that make it into the newspaper, self-censorship is prevalent," according to the same cable. As for the new media regime, some say it merely "encourages more self-censorship as publishers become less certain of what content is acceptable to the authorities," as Amy Sim of London-based Article 19 told me.

Government still promising reform

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Still, the Burmese government is talking the talk on reform. An April 2011 parliamentary speech by President Thein Sein, describing media as the "fourth pillar" of Burmese society, was followed by other apparent liberalizations such as the watering-down -- for now at least -- of clumsy propaganda against foreign media by the much-lampooned New Light of Myanmar. In the past, this Burmese government mouthpiece panned DVB, along with BBC and VOA, with thick-tongued insults such as "killer broadcasts designed to cause troubles."

However, the new president -- who was an army general and prime minister under the pre-election military dictatorship -- tempered his fourth estate spin by giving Burma's MPs the enigmatic yet ominous-sounding missive that they were "required through media to inform the people about what they should know."

A new fish-in-the-barrel target for satirists might be the Burmese information czar, Kyaw Hsan, who followed up a much-derided tearful breakdown at a recent government press conference -- itself a novelty in Burma -- by describing media as "red ants" in a parliamentary debate on Sept. 7, held in Burma's purpose-built but isolated administrative capital Naypyidaw. To some, Kyaw Hsan's speech means little more than the same old restrictions garnished with some unintentionally entertaining rhetoric. "He thinks that the country is not ready for press freedom," said Zin Linn, of the Thailand-based Burma Media Association.

In his eyebrow-raising and quixotic response to a much-needed and overdue parliamentary proposal on press freedom, the minister of information said it would bring "more disadvantages than advantages," before launching into a half-hour speech which quoted from the ancient "550 Jataka Tales" and its fable of the elephant king Saddan. In the tale, the king offered flowers (press freedom) to his queen, but the flowers attracted red ants (journalists), which bit the queen.

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

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July 18 2011

19:05

Social Media Plays Major Role in Motivating Malaysian Protesters

Less than a week after Malaysian police fired teargas and water cannons at thousands of demonstrators seeking reform of the country's electoral system, a Facebook petition calling on Prime Minister Najib Razak to quit has drawn almost 200,000 backers, highlighting the role of social and new media in Malaysia's restrictive free speech environment.

One contributor to the page wrote: "The world is full of multimedia and electronics; the things we so call camera and videocam ... And photos and videos were already being uploaded on the Internet but 'it' still denies the truth and makes stories and lies until today."

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have played a major role in motivating some of the demonstrators in the run-up to the rally, which went ahead despite a police ban and lockdown imposed on sprawling Kuala Lumpur on the eve of the July 9 protest.

The demonstration organizer, Bersih 2.0 -- a coalition of 63 NGOs (non-government organizations) that wants changes such as updated electoral rolls and a longer election campaign period -- has its own Facebook page, attracting a similar number of "likes" as the page urging Najib to step down, with 190,000+ fans at the time of this posting.

The latest notable update is another petition, requesting 100,000 backers for a Bersih 3.0 -- although organization head Ambiga Sreenavasan has said she does not foresee any similar protests in the immediate future.

Clearing Distorted coverage

Along with online news sites such as Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today, social networks have helped get around partisan coverage by newspapers close to the government, where accounts of the rally did not square with what I witnessed.

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Coverage in Utusan, the pro-government Malay-language daily and best-selling print newspaper in Malaysia, was explicitly hostile to the protest and has remained so in the days since. Just this week, the paper came out with an editorial claiming that Jewish groups would use the opposition to infiltrate the Muslim country. The day after the rally, the front page of the English-language New Straits Times (NST) showed a single protestor, face covered with a scarf, looking set to hurl something at someone or something, minus the surrounding street scene.

The photo was headlined "Peaceful?" and was devoid of context, the implication being that Kuala Lumpur was beset by thousands of other would-be anarchists on July 9 and the police acted with heroic restraint in the face of relentless provocation. The NST is linked to Malaysia's main governing party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has ruled uninterrupted since independence in 1957.

As observed at several locations around the city center, the protest was peaceful, multi-ethnic (Malaysia's demographic breakdown is two-thirds ethnic Malays, a quarter ethnic Chinese, and the remainder mainly Indian/Tamil), though it was impossible to know how many in the gathering were affiliated with the country's opposition political parties versus how many were ordinary, disgruntled Malaysians who were galvanized into action by Bersih's exhortations.

With police roadblocks and checks emptying the usually bustling city by Friday evening, the only other people on the streets on Saturday morning -- before the demonstrators' emergence -- were expectant journalists and lost-looking tourists. When the protestors came onto the streets, the police wasted little time in firing teargas into the crowds gathering at various locations in an attempt to march to the Merdeka (Victory) Stadium, where the country declared its independence from Great Britain.

Despite allegations of police aiming tear gas or water cannons directly at protestors or at a hospital in the city, print newspapers praised the police response, as did the government. That, in turn, has drawn criticism from Malaysia's online news sites.

Laws cast a chill

However, even if individual journalists or publications wanted to take an objective line with this story, Malaysia's press laws act as an effective deterrent.

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Self-censorship is prevalent, said Siew Eng of the Centre for Independent Journalism, who added that "print coverage of the organizers [of the Bersih 2.0 rally] has been demonizing them for weeks now."

The main deterrent seems to be the country's 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), which means that publishers and printing firms need an annual operations permit, with the added stipulation that the prime minister can revoke licenses at any time without judicial review.

Jacqueline Surin is editor of The Nut Graph, one of the online alternatives to the older print news establishments in Malaysia. Getting out from under the government's thumb was a prime motivation for her.

"I worked for more than 10 years in the traditional, government-controlled press. We knew what it was like to have constant government and corporate interference in the newsroom," she said.

Article 10 of Malaysia's constitution upholds freedom of expression, but in effect this right is curtailed by a range of antiquated and Orwellian-sounding laws. The colonial-hangover Sedition Act, the Internal Security Act (ISA) and emergency laws are used regularly to impose restrictions on the press and other critics. One well-known case is that of Raja Petra Kamaruddin, founder of the website Malaysia Today. After allegedly insulting Islam, the majority religion in Malaysia, he was charged under the 1948 Sedition Act, and was accused of defamation, in a case seen as politically motivated.

High Urban Net Usage

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, there are 16.1 million Internet users in Malaysia, out of a population of 27 million. There is a sharp town-country divide, however, with 80 percent of the country's web users being urban-based. That said, the Internet gives Malaysians some freedom of expression, away from the tight controls and implicit intimidation that hampers the older print media outlets. In the days since the Bersih 2.0 rally, many tweets and blogs from Malaysians have said trust in the country's print media has declined, or is now non-existent.

Online media outlets unhindered by the PPPA have helped give Malaysians a fuller and more objective image of what went on July 9. "The police have said that only 6,000 people turned up for the Bersih 2.0 rally and that there was no police aggression," according to Surin. "There are enough pictures and videos already out there, even before the traditional media could report them, that demonstrate that the police/state are clearly misrepresenting the truth."

How long this will last remains to be seen. Siew Eng told me that "there are moves to amend the laws for the Internet and online media in Malaysia," citing a recently established cross-ministry committee set up by the government to look into the issue.

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist usually based in southeast Asia. He writes for the Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, South China Morning Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated with 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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April 01 2011

11:58

Blocking content sites by ‘self-regulation’ – a recipe for easy censorship

At the start of this month I said that journalists were failing to “protect the public sphere”. Well, here’s just one example of this in action that we need to be watching.

Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, has confirmed to the Open Rights Group “that discussion are ongoing between rights-holders and Internet Service Providers about ‘self-regulatory’ site-blocking measures.”

For journalists any move in this direction should be particularly concerning, as it provides a non-legal avenue (i.e. without due process) for anyone to suppress information they don’t like.

The point is not blocking sites, but the ease with which it might be done. If distribution van drivers ‘self-regulated’ to stop delivering newspapers whenever anyone complained, publishers and journalists would have a problem. An avenue to appeal doesn’t solve it, because by then the editorial moment will likely have passed – not to mention the extra costs it incurs for content producers.

Here are some precedents from elsewhere:

If you want to write to your MP, you can do so here.

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March 11 2011

17:30

How French Site OWNI Profits by Giving Away Its Content

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Most content sites in the U.S. have two ways of making money: charging for subscriptions or running advertising (or both). But a French site, OWNI.fr, has found an unusual business model for a site with no ads and no subscriptions -- that's also profitable. How do they do it? Their main business is doing web development and apps for media companies and institutions.

One big advantage for OWNI is its origins as a pure online business, with an entrepreneurial CEO Nicolas Voisin and a staff of web developers. The site was initially an aggregation of bloggers, with the parent company called 22Mars (March 22nd), set up to fight a controversial French copyright law known as HADOPI. While 22Mars was made up of web developers at launch in April 2009, they eventually revamped the site with more editorial direction and hired journalists in 2010 to work alongside the developers.

The result is a striking website, with an eye-catching design and various examples of data journalism and data visualization. In fact, when they set up an English-language site, OWNI.eu, its motto was "Digital Journalism." The site won an Online Journalism Award at the ONA conference last year, and is a finalist in next week's SXSW Accelerator competition for "news-related technologies." Here's a screen shot from one data visualization showing how many people have died immigrating to Europe from Africa:



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All the American interest in the French site will grow exponentially when the site opens a U.S. subsidiary next month, somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. I spoke to the future CEO of that U.S. subsidiary, Adriano Farano, an Italian who had helped run Cafe Babel, a pan-European website. Here, he explains what the name OWNI means in French (largely a play on "UFO"):

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Farano told me that the parent company, 22Mars, is about a third of the way to closing a Series C round of funding for about 1.5 million Euros, and that they will seek a first round of funding for OWNI.us. In France, the company grew from just 8 people a year ago to 37 today, with 15 full-time journalists. At the same time, Farano says the site traffic also boomed, going from 200,000 monthly unique visitors to 1.5 million uniques today.

I also spoke by phone to OWNI's director of data journalism, Nicolas Kayser-Bril. The following is an edited transcript of our international phone conversation.

Q&A

Why did you start OWNI and what were your aims?

Nicolas Kayser-Bril: It wasn't planned to be a media company at all. It was started in April 2009, where there was a law called HADOPI being passed in the French parliament, that was dangerous for online freedom [and later was the basis for Loppsi 2]. Several bloggers got together to set up a platform [to fight the law]. And the company that was set up to run OWNI is called 22Mars, and we decided to host the platform so we had a blog network hosted on a WordPress platform. Step by step, the platform grew, and Nicolas Voisin, the CEO of 22Mars decided to take the experiment further and put one person full-time on maintaining and engaging the community.

We saw that this worked well so we put more resources and people into OWNI. So we decided to become a real media [outlet], a real website, still with this strong community of bloggers behind it. In the summer of 2010, we realized that OWNI had become a real media [outlet], ran stories, and really had a big impact in the traditional media sphere. We hadn't really planned to become one. This changed the way the company was organized. At first we had been more of a showroom for what we're doing, and today it's more of a lab where journalists are free to innovate and do what they want.

With that experience, we continue to run our service company, selling website development and applications. We specialize in providing apps and social media platforms. Half of our sales today have to do with social media, and the other half has to do with data visualization, crowdsourcing apps, and running innovative journalistic products. We serve all kinds of institutions and NGOs that have a story to tell but don't know how to to do it online. We build the tools for them to do so.

When you say half of your sales is social media does that mean helping them with social media strategy?

Kayser-Bril: We do some social media consulting, but most of the work is building social media websites tailor made [for clients]. For instance, with universities, they have unique problems as to how to communicate between teachers and students and the wider public. So we built the interface using WordPress to solve this problem. So we always build custom solutions with added value.

What was your background and that of the OWNI CEO Nicolas Voisin?

Kayser-Bril: Nicolas, our CEO, was an entrepreneur and got into the media in 2006 before the presidential election in France. He started doing a political show; he realized there was a big gap on how the public was informed about candidates' platforms. So what he decided to do was interview them without time limits and spent hours with them, and then posted them on YouTube. It worked really well, so he thought there was a need to reinvent storytelling online. That's what drove him.

The other core people at the company are mostly developers. I myself have a background in economics. I never studied journalism. Before OWNI, I was living in Berlin and working at a startup. Before that I was doing freelance work. I was doing online work for a presidential campaign in 2009, mostly web-related things. We didn't hire a traditional journalist until February 2010. Now we have many seasoned journalists working for us.

So you are set up as a non-profit or for-profit company?

Kayser-Bril: 22Mars is for-profit, and we did not spin off OWNI as a non-profit organization from an accounting perspective. The website does not have to make a profit in the sense that we don't make money from the website. No subscriptions and no hidden advertisements. The value the website provides is in gaining expertise online that we can then share and sell to clients.

So your model is basically making money by developing websites and custom social media solutions? The site is more of a testing lab?

Kayser-Bril: Exactly. You could compare it to businesses in other industries. We might start selling online objects or other products in the coming months to have more high-margin products.

We will start selling e-books, which is a big driving force of 22Mars -- we don't sell content but we sell products, because everyone knows content is abundant. What's missing is a way to properly browse through it and consume it. So we'll be selling apps. Not apps for the iPhone or in the App Store. We always remain on the HTML side and JavaScript and stay compatible with all platforms. So they would run on the open web as well as on the iPhone and iPad.

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We're convinced that the apps you see on the iPhone and iPad and Android in the future will be merged into web apps because it makes more sense economically to develop something once instead of three or four times. We develop for all devices. We recently published what we call an augmented cartoon where you have more depth in text, and can follow links. We made it for the iPad; it was more of an iPad app than it worked on a computer. With HTML 5 you can really design an app and optimize it for the device you want.

Kayser-Bril explains how developers will work for OWNI for less money than at other companies because they have a chance to work on projects about society and politics:

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Does OWNI have a specific political viewpoint?

Kayser-Bril: Not really, we're not really involved in politics. What we do fight for is freedom online and offline, supporting the declaration of human rights. We could lead fights in defense of Internet freedoms (for example, against censorship, for Net neutrality, etc.). We'll fight against all laws that restrict freedom of speech online. We don't have any more political views beyond that. When you see the political views of people at OWNI, it ranges from leftist to libertarian so it would be impossible to have a single political line.

Tell me about the work you've done for WikiLeaks.

Kayser-Bril: WikiLeaks called us to do similar work that we are doing on a daily basis, which is building interfaces and web apps. Their problem is that they had masses of web documents but they were not comprehensible for a normal human being. So we came up with this app to browse through the Afghan War Logs. It illustrates how OWNI works, because when the Afghan War Logs came out, we realized we could build that just like for the Iraq War Logs.

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It was a non-commercial relationship with WikiLeaks, and it made perfect sense because we learned a lot so we could sell crowdsourcing applications. From a business perspective it made a lot of sense.

Kayser-Bril explains how OWNI helps clients with unique open solutions, and that everyone's become a media outlet now:

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Have you done work for media companies?

Kayser-Bril: Yes, many French ones. Our client list include France24, Radio France Internationale, Groupe Moniteur (professional magazines), Le Monde Diplomatique, Slate.fr, Le Soir (Brussels) and Zeit Online (Berlin). We're in talks with many more, and we've worked as well for NGOs and public institutions (the municipality of Paris and the French presidency).

I noticed that you re-post or license content from other sites on OWNI. How much of your content is original vs. reposted?

Kayser-Bril: About half and half. We are trying to reach the 60% mark of original content. If someone is more of an expert than we are, we just republish his or her article. Not just re-posting it, but fact-checking it, adding images -- we really want to add value to cross-posted articles.

You have a Creative Commons license on your stories. So does that mean anyone can run your stories on their site?

Kayser-Bril: Of course. Our whole business model is built on the Creative Commons license. On the content side, the more our articles are republished, the happier we are. We don't have advertising, but we want our articles to be read. Please repost them. On the business side as well, we only use open technologies -- HTML and JavaScript and no Flash. And that makes sense because our added value isn't in the code or software that we build, but how we can answer our clients' needs and provide them open solutions.

Kayser-Bril explains how OWNI's new U.S. site won't consider other media sites as competition but as partners:

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Can you point to any successes you've had in some of your journalism experiments?

Kayser-Bril: The WikiLeaks project didn't turn out as well as it could have. One thing we did was rethink the way surveys are made. We worked with a pollster and realized that when a media [outlet] orders a survey, what you get in the paper is a page with two infographics and a pie chart. That's not enough. We built an app that lets you browse through all the data the pollster gathered to really see in your area what men over 45 thought. What was really successful was we added the possibilitiy for you to take the survey while you were browsing the app.

That's extremely interesting in terms of journalism, because you can see what your audience is like compared to the people who took the survey. It's also interesting in terms of business because one big asset today is having a big database with qualified voters and such an app would be very valuable for many clients.

*****

What do you think about OWNI's site and business model? Do you think they can replicate their success in the U.S.? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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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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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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.

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July 15 2010

11:01

June 17 2010

07:54

December 14 2009

10:05

Nominations open for Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards 2010

Index on Censorship’s 10th Freedom of Expression Awards are still open for nominations.

There are three categories: ‘Journalism’, ‘New Media’ and ‘Law and Campaigning’, honouring the ‘individuals who are leading the fight against censorship in all corners of the world’.

JOURNALISM AWARD: Recognising investigative journalism of dogged determination across a range of media including print, online, radio and television, taking into consideration impact, originality and revelation.

NEW MEDIA AWARD: Recognising innovation and original use of new technology to circumvent censorship, fostering debate, argument or dissent.

LAW AND CAMPAIGN AWARD: Recognising lawyers or campaigners who have fought repression, or have struggled to challenge political climates and perceptions. Special attention is given to people using or establishing legal precedents to fight injustice.

The nominations must be submitted at this link by 18 December.

The award winners will be announced in March 2010.

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