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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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16:40

On World Press Freedom Day, the spread of mobile and publishing technology shifts the playing field

It’s World Press Freedom Day, when we set aside time to think about journalists around the world who struggle under repressive conditions to report and tell the truth.

With 44 journalists killed so far this year, 2012 is on track to be the deadliest year for journalists since the International Press Institute began tracking such deaths in 1997. (The exact toll depends on how you count. Reporters Without Borders, for example,puts the count at 22. It only includes deaths that are “clearly established” to have been caused because of someone’s activities as a journalist.) Both counts increased by one overnight with the murder of Somali radio reporter Farhan James Abdulle. He’s the fifth journalist to be killed in Somalia this year, which Reporters Without Borders ranks 164th in the world in press freedom.

But while we honor those working journalists who continue to battle their governments, it’s also worth noting how technology is shifting the playing field of press freedom. The boundaries of the press are expanding — and yet working to guarantee press freedom requires the notoriously slippery undertaking of defining what it is that makes someone a journalist. NPR’s Andy Carvin, who famously tweeted (and retweeted) the Arab Spring, is a professional journalist. But what about all of the citizens on the ground — some professional journalists, many not — who helped populate his Twitter feed with information about what was going on?

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, has given these kinds of questions a lot of thought over the years. In 2005, he founded Global Voices, a network of hundreds of bloggers around the world who work to redress “inequities in media attention by leveraging the power of citizens’ media.”

“It’s really hard to organize a campaign for every blogger who gets in trouble with the law,” Zuckerman told me this week. “In part because often you don’t get arrested for blogging, you get arrested for something else.”

Working on a global scale, and without the formal backing of a news institution, it can become very difficult to determine whether such an arrest was motivated by the person’s journalistic behavior or by some other alleged activity.

Increasingly, there are groups willing to fight for the person being silenced — regardless of whether she’s a professional journalist, and regardless of whether she’s communicating “on paper, by broadcasting, or writing in bytes,” Zuckerman said.

As the power to publish spreads, World Press Freedom Day becomes about more than just “the press” as we’ve traditionally defined it. Zuckerman suggests it’s time to update the way we characterize what we’re trying to protect. Okay, so his alternative might need a bit of marketing polish, but he’s thinking something like “World Digital Public Sphere Freedom Day” or “World Network Public Sphere Freedom Day.”

“This notion of ‘the press’ holds onto this notion that there’s this specialized professional class to inform us about things,” Zuckerman said. “That institution is expanding to the point where the press is really the network public sphere or the digital public sphere. It’s incredibly important that we talk about the ability of journalists to do their jobs safely and without government harassment…But when we think about whether a country has a free press, under my definition, it’s what are the constraints on journalists? What are the constraints on nonofficial journalists [like] bloggers and activists? What are the constraints on the tools people use to discuss the issues of the day?”

Issues of Internet freedom are often framed around information consumption — whether someone in a country can get access to a given website, say. But it’s also about freedom to publish, a capacity that technology continues to spread. “There’s an enormous amount of common ground between the Internet freedom folks and the press freedom folks — and in many cases we’re looking at the same people,” Zuckerman said.

And then there’s mobile. As phones get smarter, the line between Internet users and mobile users blurs. According to the International Telecommunications Union, there were 2 billion people using the Internet at the start of last year. At the same time, there were 5.3 billion mobile phone subscriptions.

“It is absolutely unbelievable how rural a village you can be in, and the only things for sale will be yams, ground nuts, and phone cards,” Zuckerman said. “This is bringing in hundreds of millions of people who were not online previously. It’s a really crazy change, and what I think all of us are sort of predicting is, in the next five years, the distinction between those numbers — are you online or are you on the phone? — it’s just going to disappear. It’s going to be an irrelevant number.”

What’s good from a connectivity standpoint is not always good from a digital freedom standpoint, and this discrepancy goes to how the very structure of the Internet differs from how mobile networks are built.

“The Internet has this incredibly radically decentralized architecture where there are points of potential control, but there are a lot more of them, and it’s often possible to evade that control,” Zuckerman said. “On the mobile phone network, that’s a very different story. They tended to be built with the ability to wiretap and eavesdrop.”

When two Western journalists were killed with rockets in Syria earlier this year, The Telegraph reported that the Syrian military had tracked them down using their cell phone signals. In countries with weak legal systems and strong governments, mobile networks very quickly become a tool for government intelligence, so being an independent reporter “becomes a very difficult thing to do,” Zuckerman said.

It’s part of why groups like Mobile Active set out to educate people about the inherent security risks that mobile networks entail. Its Safer Mobile initiative includes guides and training on text-messaging risks, apps to block wiretappers, secure chat mechanisms, information on satellite phones, tips on how to safely file stories from the field, and more. The bottom line: True anonymity on a mobile network is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

“The approach that people are taking right now is just trying to get people to understand these networks much more thoroughly: ‘Here are ways you might be safe or might be unsafe,’” Zuckerman said. “The problem is, we often end up saying, ‘You shouldn’t use that.’ But that’s crazy thing to say because for most people, that’s their main information device.”

Photo by Superstrikertwo used under a Creative Commons license.

May 05 2011

18:27

Is Non-Profit Journalism A Safeguard for Press Freedom?

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WASHINGTON, DC -- Since May 3, 1991, World Press Freedom Day has been celebrated worldwide annually to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect it. Marking the 10th anniversary last Tuesday, an international conference was organized in Washington, DC, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the U.S. State Department to debate the "new frontiers" of the media. You can see the entire agenda here.

Online freedom and the changing media landscape had pride of place and I was given the opportunity to debate online censorship on May 2 as well as discuss the actual situation between "traditional" and "new media," as a representative of Reporters Without Borders. (Note that Reporters Without Borders also has a special World Day Against Cyber-Censorship focused entirely on online expression.)

In countries where online platforms are tightly controlled -- but also are some of the rare places to get uncensored information -- the lines between traditional and new media is very vague. It's possible that non-profit journalism websites (or sites where the news isn't a profit center) might help safeguard press freedom.

Reports from Malaysia, France

In Malaysia, Premesh Chandran had to adapt to the fact that advertisers were staying away because the info published on Malaysiakini.com was not fitting in with the control imposed on media by the government. Malaysia is ranked 141st out of 178 countries in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Without ads, Malaysiakini began to install a pay wall for its English version. The website thought it might take a non-profit business model but according to Chandran, "It became obvious that [they] had to become more professional." The subscription allows the core of an audience to support the news activities of the website. But Chandran acknowledges that "readers don't pay."

In France, OWNI.fr depends on the expertise of reporters and licensed content for their free website, but make money by sell journalism services to online publishers. (You can read more about OWNI in this story by Mark Glaser on MediaShift.)

"In terms of client acquisition, this is very helpful," according to OWNI's director of data journalism Nicholas Kayser-Bril. OWNI worked with WikiLeaks on a non-profit basis and organized the crowdsourcing for documents that were released. It is now an expertise that they can sell to other organizations. For this website, the content and features are a non-profit activity, because the income is generated by services instead. "This a way of adapting journalism to the technologies," said Kayser-Bril.

Open Source Software at AllAfrica.com

Convinced that mobile phones were making a huge impact on the way media are operating in Africa, Amadou Mahtar Ba, co-founder of AllAfrica.com, insisted that "traditional media need to adapt to technology. Many media organization are losing relevance and there is a fundamental growth of mobile phones."

"Media owners and operators need guidelines and principles, as journalists have theirs," Ba said.

AllAfrica.com is a news content publisher and relies on the development of systems based on free and open source software, such as XML::Comma, released under the GNU General Public License. It has become the entry point to a global, Africa-interested audience, as well as a pioneering set of technologies. Here again, journalism is a non-profit activity.

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According to Richard Tofel, general manager of ProPublica, there is a role for non-profit journalism to take over the economic failures of the "traditional" media by taking the risks the latter could not afford anymore.

"We are going to a new territory based on a technological revolution," he said. "We need experimentation and a willingness to take risks almost every day to discover these new ways," said Tofel, when asked about the training journalists should receive to handle these different ways of making the news.

Press freedom is not only about journalists being killed and harassed and newspapers being forced to close by oppressive governments. It is also about guaranteeing independence -- independence from advertisers is no less complicated than independence from donors. At the panel discussion, one of the solutions was making money from readers and services. These publications do bring in money and are trying to get their readers to adapt to new technologies. Non-profit journalism, in the sense of news not being the profitable activity, is a way of helping to guarantee more editorial independence. This is one more possible safeguard for press freedom.

Photo of the Newseum by Clothilde le Coz

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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