Inter Press Service » Press Freedom http://www.ipsnews.net News and Views from the Global South Tue, 23 May 2017 21:34:59 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.18 Mob Killing Sparks Fresh Outrage Over Pakistan’s Blasphemy Lawshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/mob-killing-sparks-fresh-outrage-over-pakistans-blasphemy-laws/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=mob-killing-sparks-fresh-outrage-over-pakistans-blasphemy-laws http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/mob-killing-sparks-fresh-outrage-over-pakistans-blasphemy-laws/#comments Fri, 05 May 2017 00:01:39 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150309 A protest in Karachi over the lynching of Mashal Khan. Credit: Abida Ali/IPS

A protest in Karachi over the lynching of Mashal Khan. Credit: Abida Ali/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, May 5 2017 (IPS)

Aimal Khan, 27, an airman in Pakistan’s Air Force, warns the country will end up in the throes of mayhem if the state does not do something about the abuse of the blasphemy laws. “People will use it to settle personal scores,” he said.

He should know. His younger brother, Mashal Khan, 25, was brutally killed by a mob roused to a frenzy by allegations he had committed blasphemy. “They became the judge, the jury and the executioner,” Aimal said. "It's pretty obvious that religious passions are easily ignited because day in and day out all we hear about is religious sermonizing in one form or the other." --Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy

Studying at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KPK), Khan was known for speaking out against corruption and injustices prevalent in society. On April 13, he was shot, stripped and not satisfied with that, the mob then beat up his corpse as shown in the graphic video footage.

The police investigation following his killing, however, found no evidence he had committed blasphemy. The government has since arrested 47 of the 49 accused.

Political activist and lawyer Jibran Nasir told IPS that the country’s blasphemy laws are not just used by the land mafia to evict people, but often for raising funds and recruiting members by rogue organisations. “The social media has become a more potent tool where one fake account with just one blasphemous tweet can kill someone,” he said alluding to the fake account created in the name of Mashal Khan to falsely establish he’d committed blasphemy.

According to opposition leader Syed Khursheed Shah, since 1990, 65 people have been killed on allegations of committing blasphemy and no one was executed for the crimes.

A month later, Aimal says the family continues to receive phone calls expressing condolences from all across Pakistan. Ordinary people to celebrities and even politicians have visited their home to offer comfort.

“After my brother’s murder, we thought humanity had fled from this country, but I tell you, it’s quite the opposite. We have been given unconditional support,” Aimal said, his voice filled with emotion, over the phone from his village Zaida in Swabi district, KPK.

He hopes his family’s loss can open the door to a meaningful debate on reviewing the infamous laws.

Muhammad Iqbal Khan (left), the father of Mashal Khan, who was murdered by a religious mob in Pakistan. The men offer prayers. Credit: Abdul Hameed Goraya/IPS

Muhammad Iqbal Khan (left), the father of Mashal Khan, who was murdered by a religious mob in Pakistan. The men offer prayers. Credit: Abdul Hameed Goraya/IPS

Aimal’s sentiments are echoed by Reema Omer of the International Commission of Jurists. “If Mashal’s most tragic killing could revive the debate and lead to blasphemy reform, that would be a fitting tribute to his bravery and courage,” she told IPS.

“The law should have been reviewed and reformed a long time ago. These incidents are latest but not the first,” pointed out Nasir. While exploitation of these laws can be corrected through procedural reforms, he said what was innately wrong was that they are in violation of Hanafi jurisprudence [followed in Pakistan] which gives no death penalty to non-Muslims for blasphemy but Pakistani law does.

Asia Bibi, a Christian, has been on death row for the last seven years. International Christian Concern  has termed her case one of the most “controversial” and best examples of the abuse of blasphemy laws.

While a complete scrapping of the law is unlikely, many see this as an opportunity to revive a debate. In 1986, to ‘Islamise’ the country, Pakistan’s then leader General Mohammad Zia ul Haq enacted these laws.

But anyone who has tried to even tried to open debate has either been censured or silenced.

In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the then governor of Punjab, was assassinated for supporting Asia Bibi, accused of blasphemy. His murder was followed by that of Shahbaz Bhatti, a minister who had talked of misuse of the laws.

Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazal) chief Maulana Fazalur Rehman, enjoying a huge following in the KPK, while condemning Khan’s lynching, said he was well aware that liberal forces would use this incident and call for amendment in the laws, but warned that no one would be allowed to touch it.

“For a few days when there was such an outcry it was felt the time for a critical review of the blasphemy laws had arrived,” said I.A. Rehman, noted rights activist, speaking to IPS. “The clerics were on the defensive.”

This euphoria was short-lived.

Rehman said the lawmakers belonging to religious parties disowned the resolution in the assembly which they had earlier backed.

In fact, soon after Mashal’s lynching, the legislative assembly of Pakistan-administered Pakistan passed two resolutions regarding the finality of Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and respect of his family and companions.

A protest in Karachi over the lynching of Mashal Khan. Credit: Abida Ali/IPS

A protest in Karachi over the lynching of Mashal Khan. Credit: Abida Ali/IPS

The resolution also stated that if Ahmadis (declared non-Muslims by the constitution of Pakistan) claim themselves to be Muslims, they should be charged with blasphemy.

He has little hope in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who himself narrowly survived ouster and was saved by a supreme court verdict last month, after the opposition had taken him to court on charges of corruption.

“It [ruling Pakistan Muslim League — PML-N] will not take on the clerics at this stage,” Rehman said, lamenting: “The chance of doing something about blasphemy will again be missed.” But then he never had much hope attached to Sharif in the first place. “The PML-N is an accomplice to orthodoxy therefore there is no hope of a change for the better.”

However, there are others who say the laws have nothing to do with the recent episodes of lynching. The laws were not even invoked once.

Following the killing of Khan, in another part of Pakistan, a man was shot dead by his three sisters. He was accused of blasphemy in 2004 and the sisters in their confessional statement said they were incited by the imam of their neighbourhood mosque.

The same day a mob attacked a man after Friday prayers in northern Pakistan town of Chitral, and was saved in time by the mosque imam and the police officers who intervened and rescued him. The man was mentally ill and was on his way to Islamabad for treatment.

“It’s not the law, it’s the people, a people that have gone berserk,” said eminent educationist, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, who teaches physics at universities in Islamabad and Lahore.

That is why he insists on teaching Occam’s Razor in his classes. “It’s a metaphor for parsimony of assumptions. Start with the obvious, if that doesn’t work then assume that something more complicated is involved,” he explained, adding: “In this [lynching] particular case, it’s pretty obvious that religious passions are easily ignited because day in and day out all we hear about is religious sermonizing in one form or the other.”

But Omer thinks otherwise. “Killings in the name of blasphemy and mob violence after blasphemy allegations cannot be separated from the law and its mandatory death punishment; the impunity – even patronage – enjoyed by perpetrators in the past; and the state’s use of blasphemy to clamp down on dissenting/critical voices,” she said.

Recalling the climate just before Khan’s killing, she said there was renewed movement by various state institutions condemning ‘blasphemers; calling blasphemy ‘an act of terrorism; and urging people to report blasphemy so strict action could be taken against them.

Nasir, too, believed that when the parliament associates the death penalty with a crime it “does trickle down into society, socially and politically”. He gave the example of the arrest of three people for desecrating a Hindu temple and tried under section 295A (of blasphemy laws) which does not carry death penalty but shows clearly that blasphemy against other religions does not create a “huge social or political uproar”.

In addition, Omer said, the existence of the blasphemy laws in their current form gives a certain “cloak of legality” to such calls. “Which is why we shouldn’t lose sight of the connection between the existence of the blasphemy laws and the kind of violence we saw in Mardan, in Chitral, and before that in Kot Radha Kishan and other cases,” she said.

A large number of people accused of blasphemy, or even convicted of blasphemy by trial courts for defiling the Holy Quran, suffer from mental illnesses, said Omer. “This too is a common thread in how blasphemy laws play out in practice,” she said.”This is a damning indictment of the prosecution and police, who allow these cases to continue despite the fact that the accused do not have the requisite capacity to commit a crime.”

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Refugee Journalists, the Challenge of Reporting from Exilehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/refugee-journalists-the-challenge-of-reporting-from-exile/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=refugee-journalists-the-challenge-of-reporting-from-exile http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/refugee-journalists-the-challenge-of-reporting-from-exile/#comments Thu, 04 May 2017 17:16:57 +0000 Elena Pasquini http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150304 The author is Editor in Chief Degrees of Latitude
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Photo credits: Sara Furlanetto

Photo credits: Sara Furlanetto

By Elena L. Pasquini
ROME, May 4 2017 (IPS)

Abdulwahab Tahhan is a journalist and a refugee. From his exile in London, he documents the war that is devastating his homeland of Syria, monitoring airstrikes and assessing civilian casualties for the non-profit Airwars.

As for many journalists and netizens forced to leave their countries due to war, oppression, and persecution, continuing journalistic work has been a challenge for Tahhan. But now that’s his job: ‘Helping people understand the war better’, he told Degrees of Latitude.

Youngest of seven children, he grew up in Aleppo, studied English and literature, but not journalism, even if he would have liked. It was the concern of becoming used as a ‘propaganda tool’ that kept Tahhan away from professional reporting until the spring of 2011.

When the Syrian uprising erupted, he began translating content and videos about the demonstrations from Arabic to English for a secret Facebook group that spread updates beyond the Syrian borders, documenting arrests and detentions, and advising protesters how to keep themselves safe. ‘It wasn’t a professional platform; too dangerous to be identified as the journalist or the voice who was reporting about what was going on. Once you were identified, that’s it. You will be targeted; your family will be targeted …’, he said.

It was in Turkey, where Tahhan fled from Syria and obtained a visa to the United Kingdom, that his professional career in journalism begun, working as a fixer, interpreter, translator, writer and in the production of the award-winning documentary ‘The Suffering Grassers’. But getting a job in England was tough: ‘I had all the skills, I had the knowledge, the only thing that I lacked were the contacts’, he said. It was the Refugee Journalism Project, a collaboration between the London College of Communication and the Migrants Resource Centre, that provided Abdulwahab with what he needed to make his voice heard again.

It isn’t what you know, it’s who you know

‘In many countries, getting ahead in journalism still relies on having the right social capital, that is, being able to access jobs and opportunities by virtue of having an influential professional and personal network. The old adage still applies – it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know. So, if you are new to a country, don’t speak the same language, aren’t the same colour or religion, don’t have knowledge of the system, you simply don’t have the same social capital as the journalists who came through the European system. The project’s activities (mentoring, workshops and industry placements) attempt to address this’, Vivienne Francis, Project media consultant, explained.

The Project – which so far has worked with 36 journalists from a number of countries, including Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Yemen – was originally a London-focused initiative, but it has received applications from all across the UK, and ‘in greater numbers than we anticipated’, according to Francis. ‘We did not want to turn anyone away, as a number of these individuals – due to the UK government’s refugee dispersal scheme – were living in communities where they felt quite isolated. We had to find practical ways to support not just more participants, but also those who lived many miles away. One solution was to offer online mentoring and connecting them with networks of journalists closer to where they lived’, she said.

The value of a different perspective

Refugee journalists need support, but they bring to the newsrooms the invaluable knowledge of the countries they come from. ‘That’s one of the ways we could improve journalism’, Tahhan said. ‘If you want to write a story about Syria, you want a Syrian researcher, someone who understands Arabic, who understands the culture, who knows places and locations, that can tell you something about the country that maybe people here don’t know or are not aware of, that can double-check the authentication of specific reports’, he said.

It is not about teaching the local journalists how to do their job better; it is about providing them with sources, insights and different perspectives. He was intrigued, and alarmed, noticing how much attention European journalists put on bombings and terrorists killed, compared to ‘the victims of those bombings’, Tahhan said. ‘I would always focus on the humanitarian aspect; I would always focus on the civilian casualties from the war … I haven’t seen this very much on the news, to be honest. I haven’t seen a lot of reports from a civilian perspective’, he added.

But to unlock the potential of refugee journalists, many barriers have to be overcome and a holistic approach is needed: ‘The asylum process itself also takes a huge toll on individuals. Before they can think about re-establishing their professional careers, many have to deal with the emotional anguish of leaving home and loved ones, battling to get refugee status, permanent housing, and access to benefits’, Francis said. Giving refugees the basic tools for survival is not enough to enhance integration. The question is how to ‘maximize the value of the professions, work experience and qualifications they might already have. Their prior lives and experiences need to be seen as adding value to society’.

What is crucial, according to Tahhan, is to provide journalists with contacts and a ‘safe’ platform: ‘A safe environment is where you can start discussion ideas without being accused of being biased, discussing the ideas for the ideas themselves without attacking you personally …. [discussing] the ideas, [without] discussing the person, throwing accusation, stereotyping people, generalizing. Being safe [means] that you have been able to express whatever you want to express without being prosecuted’, he explained.

Refugees journalists must feel safe. ‘I know this is highly unlikely to happen in the Europe because of the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, but bear in mind we come from countries where we are oppressed and we can’t really report a lot of things against the governments, against the regimes’.


This story was originally published by Degrees of Latitude

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Reflections on World Press Freedom Dayhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/2017-world-press-freedom-day-message-by-dr-hanif-hassan-ali-al-qassim-chairman-of-the-geneva-centre-for-human-rights-advancement-and-global-dialogue/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=2017-world-press-freedom-day-message-by-dr-hanif-hassan-ali-al-qassim-chairman-of-the-geneva-centre-for-human-rights-advancement-and-global-dialogue http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/2017-world-press-freedom-day-message-by-dr-hanif-hassan-ali-al-qassim-chairman-of-the-geneva-centre-for-human-rights-advancement-and-global-dialogue/#comments Wed, 03 May 2017 06:54:15 +0000 Hanif Hassan Al Qassim http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150261 The author is Chairman of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue]]>

The author is Chairman of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue

By Dr. Hanif Hassan Al Qassim
GENEVA, May 3 2017 (IPS)

This year’s theme for the 2017 World Press Freedom DayCritical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies” is one of the most important days honouring press freedom.

Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim

Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim

Inevitably, the impact of media has the power to transform societies through enlightenment and active citizenry.

Observers occasionally refer to the media as the fourth estate owing to its influential role to further enhancing the plurality of opinions and ideas.

A free press is indispensable for facilitating good governance and transparency. It strengthens the accountability of governments as citizens can critically assess the activities of incumbents through information provided by the media.

Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights defends freedom of expression and the right to information. It enables press freedom to become a reality:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Some cite as a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad that “the ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr.”

However, significant challenges lay ahead limiting the freedom of the press.

Firstly, journalists have had at times to pay a high toll for the expression of truth as they see it.

Thus according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 1,200 journalists have been killed since 1992.

Among these victims, 65% were murdered, 22% perished owing to crossfire and combat, whereas 12% lost their lives owing to dangerous assignments.

Many of those murders remain unresolved and the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice as “complete impunity” prevails in 86% of the cases.

The 2016 World Press Freedom report issued by Reporters Without Borders suggests that violent extremism has put significant constraints on the ability of the press to operate freely and carry out their duties.

The conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Syria, the report underlines, have enabled insurgents to “create black holes for reporting.”

Journalists have the right to work free from the threat of violence and of fear in their capacity as transmitters of information to the public.

Their lives should not be put at stake for merely putting Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration into practice.

Secondly, the accountability of media needs to be strengthened so that it represents the public’s interests.

After the so-called “War on Terror”, hate speech and online bigotry have rapidly been on the rise targeting specifically religious minorities.

This has been followed by a misconceived conflation between terrorism, Islam and the Arab identity, which has given rise to marginalization, bigotry and discrimination.

At the same time losses of lives as a result of violence or military action may be reported selectively thus implying unacceptable differences in the value of human lives according to where the losses occur.

During the Geneva Centre’s panel debate on 15 March on the theme of “Islam and Christianity, the Great Convergence: Working Jointly Towards Equal Citizenship Rights” that was held at the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG), it was suggested by the panellists to better harness the power of media by promoting positive stories about religion and culture.

It was also proposed that we, as global citizens, should never fear the stranger as differences enrichen our societies.

I believe that media can play a more influential role in addressing prevailing misconceptions and misunderstandings that exist between people.

Journalists need to refrain from the use of contemporary phobic language triggering social exclusion and religious intolerance.

Incitements to hatred, violence and bigotry should be condemned as it exacerbates religious divisions within communities.

The spread of fake news and fabricated stories in social media contradict the goals of freedom of opinion or of expression.

A return to the founding principles of press freedom and journalism – accountability, transparency and independence of news media – is the first step to stop the flow of misinformation that is on the rise.

When the Emir Abd el Qader el Jazairy – the founder of contemporary Algeria – visited a printing press in Paris in 1852, he made the following observation on the power of the press:

What comes out of it resembles a drop of water coming from the sky: if it falls into the half-opened shell, it produces the pearl; if it falls into the mouth of the viper, it produces venom.”

Media has a “moral and social responsibility” in “combating discrimination and in promoting intercultural understanding (…)” as stipulated in Principle 9 of the Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression and Equality.

By reversing the trend of offering simplistic and misconceived generalizations not grounded in reality, media could become a catalyst for social inclusion by implanting a culture of peace, harmony and tolerance.

This would be in line with the objectives laid out in the 2002 “Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” and in UN HRC Resolution 16/18 entitled “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief.”

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Journalist Killings in Sri Lanka Predicated on a Deadly Ironyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/journalist-killings-in-sri-lanka-predicated-on-a-deadly-irony/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=journalist-killings-in-sri-lanka-predicated-on-a-deadly-irony http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/journalist-killings-in-sri-lanka-predicated-on-a-deadly-irony/#comments Tue, 02 May 2017 15:02:27 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150251

This article is part of special IPS coverage of World Press Freedom Day.

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, May 2 2017 (IPS)

The widespread belief in the politically-motivated killings of journalists in Sri Lanka is predicated on a deadly irony: the hidden hand has always been visible, but the fingerprints have gone missing.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Sri Lankan journalist killed in 2009.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Sri Lankan journalist killed in 2009.

The two most widely publicized killings relate to IPS UN Bureau Chief in Colombo, Richard de Zoysa, 30, in February 1990, and the Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge, 51, in January 2009.

But both murders remain unsolved—due primarily to political coverups — despite several leads pointing to the killers.

As fate would have it, the politician who apparently ordered the killing of de Zoysa, and the police officer who executed that order both died in a suicide bomb blast in 1993, three years after de Zoysa’s murder.

But the rest of the conspirators are still on the loose and fugitives from justice.

And as the United Nations commemorated World Press Freedom Day, there were reports last week that one of the suspects in the Wickrematunge killing– far from being investigated or prosecuted — had been elevated to the rank of a diplomat and posted to a Sri Lanka embassy in an Asian capital years ago.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ), which has an arresting headline on its website titled “Sri Lanka: Where Journalists are Killed with Impunity,” lists the killings of 25 Sri Lankan journalists since 1992, with 19 where “motives were confirmed” and six with “motives unconfirmed.”

David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on ‘the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression’, called on governments “to investigate and hold accountable all those responsible for attacks on journalists.”

In a statement released May 2, he said: “This past year has seen repeated attacks on journalists, leaving many dead or injured. Often terrorist groups carry out such attacks to silence opposition, secularists or atheists.”

Too often, he pointed out, threats are not met with effective protection by law enforcement or, in their aftermath, genuine investigation and prosecution.

“States need to make accountability a priority,” he declared.

In an interview with IPS, Sonali Samarasinghe, Minister Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, confirmed that both high profile killings in Sri Lanka were meant to silence press criticism of political higher-ups.

Speaking strictly as a former journalist and widow of Lasantha Wickrematunge, she said “the authorities at the time wanted to silence Lasantha and cripple two newspapers — The Sunday Leader of which he was Editor-in-Chief and I was Consultant Editor– and The Morning Leader of which I was Editor in Chief.”

In Richard de Zoysa’s case, Samarasinghe said, he was the first Sri Lankan journalist to pay the ultimate price for his journalism.

Like Lasantha, Richard was beloved during his life, and like Lasantha, he has, since his death, become an icon in the media industry in Sri Lanka. Richard was a man of extraordinary talent and range who wrote haunting poetry and powerful plays, she noted.

There is no doubt in my mind that his killing was politically motivated as well, said Samarasinghe, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, an Edward R. Murrow Fellow in Washington DC, and an International Journalist-in-Residence at the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: Since Lasantha’s killing, has there been any credible investigation to track down his killer or killers? Why has there been no trial or conviction for 8 long years?

SAMARASINGHE: Before January 2015, there had been virtually no serious investigation into this crime. There seems to have been a deliberate cover-up and stonewalling of the case. Such emblematic cases are not properly investigated for several reasons; among them, to hide the truth, to perpetuate a fear psychosis in the people and to create chaos. These assassinations affect not only the families of the victims but society as a whole. A break down in the rule of law and a lack of freedom of information leads to social divisiveness and generates mistrust between groups and in the institutions of the State. They send messages of fear, despondency and submission – and slavish/divisive societies are easier to manipulate.

However, since the change in administration in 2015, a special Criminal Investigations Team was established and there have been concrete steps taken not only in Lasantha’s case but in the cases of other journalists who were beaten, threatened or who disappeared during the previous administration. Lasantha’s body was exhumed late last year as part of this new investigation. These are extremely gut-wrenching circumstances and for me very difficult to endure as his wife. However, for the sake of the greater good and for the purposes of a thorough independent investigation, we have to go through this.

The proper conclusion of these investigations are important in order to re-establish Good Governance and the Rule of Law in our country, and halt the cyclical recurrence of violence in various forms. This is why the present administration has said it is deeply committed to these democratic principles.

IPS: How safe is the political environment for journalists now — as compared with 1990 or 2009?

SAMARASINGHE: As a nation that had suffered a dark period under the yoke of terrorism and an accompanying culture of impunity, this administration has demonstrated in several concrete ways that it is actively conscious of the value of a nation built on the principles of democracy and the Rule of Law. The cornerstone of any democracy is freedom of information. Without this there can be no meaningful advancement of peace, development or human rights. Among others, the proper handling of Lasantha’s case will become the symbol of a restored and renewed democracy where once again, the people of our country will have faith in our judiciary, and in our system of Justice. This is a slow and steady process.

Clearly the current administration has taken several steps in the right direction. For instance after years of civil society activism the Right to Information Act was signed into law in August 2016 and came into force on February 4, 2017. The government unanimously enacted the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses Act. A Permanent Office for Missing Persons (OMP) has been established. These are all structures and mechanisms that serve to rebuild trust in the state. I would say that today we have an administration that understands the value of an independent fourth estate and the serious perils of lapdog journalism.

QUESTION: With the increasing attacks on journalists worldwide, is there a role for the UN to stem this onslaught?

SAMARASINGHE: There is definitely a leadership role for the United Nations. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 19 which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” to the unanimously adopted Sustainable Development Goals – particularly Goal 16, to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” we see that member states fully realize the UN’s critical role in this regard.

Target 10 of Goal 16 recognizes that public access to information and fundamental freedoms are indispensable conditions to sustainable development. It reads, “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”

IPS: Are most UN member states paying only lip service to the cause of press freedom?

SAMARASINGHE
: In the final analysis, it is the responsibility of individual member states to implement nationally the international agreements and UN resolutions in accordance with their own domestic laws and cultures and to establish Rule of Law and end impunity. The two indicators set by the United Nations Statistical Commission for tracking progress in the achievement of target 10 are pertinent as they relate (a) to the number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates, and (b) to the number of countries that adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information. Therefore SDG 16 is significant in mainstreaming safety of journalists in the international development agenda and for tracking progress in individual countries.

IPS: Do you think the UN should at least name and shame these countries where journalists are constantly in danger of losing their lives in the line of duty?

SAMARASINGHE: There is in fact a UN plan of action for the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, with UNESCO taking the lead in developing and implementing the plan. This plan includes a number of actions including standard-setting, policy-making, monitoring, reporting, building capacity and awareness-raising.

And yet, according to the UN itself every five days a journalist is killed in pursuit of a story. So yes, clearly the international community must be more proactive in addressing this issue. The numbers from civil society are staggering as well, with the Committee to Protect Journalists reporting that some 370 journalists were murdered between 2004 and 2013 in direct retaliation for their work, with 48 journalists killed in 2016 and 8 already killed in 2017.

However there are several soft approaches that the UN already explores, and awareness-raising through commemorative events or International Days (including World Press Freedom Day) is one. These soft approaches, if constant, can be very effective in shining a light on national situations, transporting incidents to the international stage and affording activists and family members an international platform to make their case.

IPS: Is there any role for journalists themselves to take up the fight at home or, more importantly, internationally?

One way to do this is to highlight or give prominence to the journalists who have been victimized in their own countries. For example, as an exiled journalist at the time, I was invited to speak at international events organized by UN agencies. During this period, I was also given the opportunity to speak at various other international venues, including on Capitol Hill, at the National Press Club, Universities and was also invited to serve as key note speaker at special events, including to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr Day. This kind of exposure helps keep the issues alive on the international stage.

Furthermore, UNESCO has the annual UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize awarded on 3 May that honors a person, organization or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the promotion of press freedom. Lasantha was awarded this prize in 2009. He became only the second journalist to be honoured posthumously since this prize was created, and a testimony to the risk many journalists run in the pursuit of their calling. Again, this award, and the buzz it created, became a megaphone opportunity to highlight not only Lasantha’s case, but also the plight of all journalists persecuted everywhere for their work.

And in 2009 Mr Ban Ki Moon the then UN Secretary General highlighted Lasantha’s assassination during his remarks on Press Freedom Day. The world’s top diplomat giving prominence to Lasantha’s case was an important step in the right direction. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SNVeGGe0TU. Other UN agencies and diplomats expressed concern as well quite publicly, and these statements sent a message that the international community was watching. But yes, given the horrific numbers, it is important that the international community remains ever vigilant.

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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A Free and Diverse Media is Essential to Protecting Democracy in the 21st Centuryhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/a-free-and-diverse-media-is-essential-to-protecting-democracy-in-the-21st-century/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=a-free-and-diverse-media-is-essential-to-protecting-democracy-in-the-21st-century http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/a-free-and-diverse-media-is-essential-to-protecting-democracy-in-the-21st-century/#comments Tue, 02 May 2017 13:31:24 +0000 Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150249 Kashmiri journalists at a rare protest against a government clampdown on freedom of expression. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

Kashmiri journalists at a rare protest against a government clampdown on freedom of expression. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

By Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah
LONDON, May 2 2017 (IPS)

Images of protestors flooding the streets – whether in Caracas, Bucharest, Istanbul or Washington DC – send a powerful message to those in power, especially when they are plastered across newspaper front pages.

In far too many countries, the response has been to shut down the space for citizens to organise and undermine the ability for dissent to be reported. Even in the most mature of democracies, the ability of citizens to organise and mobilise, and the freedom of journalists to report when they do, are being undermined. In an era of rising populism and spreading curbs on fundamental freedoms, we need to do more to protect civic rights and press freedom.

When people hit the streets to express dissent, headlines are not always guaranteed.

In some countries, journalists risk imprisonment, disappearance or death for reporting on voices of dissent. In other places, the few powerful interests that control mainstream media channels are in cahoots and play down the scale or importance of protest. And the world over, independent and smaller media outlets – that are critical to diverse media – are struggling to stay afloat.

The first, and most worrying reason why protests don’t make the nightly news is because in many countries around the world journalists who cover protests are putting themselves at risk. In countries where civic participation is restricted or closed, journalists, like activists, risk losing their jobs, their freedom and even their lives reporting on protests.

In countries where civic participation is restricted or closed, journalists, like activists, risk losing their jobs, their freedom and even their lives reporting on protests.
According to the CIVICUS Monitor attacks on journalists are one of the three most commonly reported violations of civic space, alongside the detention of human rights defenders and the use of excessive force during protests. The Monitor, which measures the openness of civic space in 195 countries, found that journalists are most often attacked as a result of their political reporting on protests, conflict reporting, and for exposing government corruption.

Civil society and media exist in an ecosystem where attacks on one are likely to have an impact on the other. Where human rights defenders and civil society organisations find their freedoms under threat, so to do journalists. Policing media coverage is just one of the ways that governments close or repress civic space.

While social media and citizen journalists and bloggers have made it more difficult for mainstream media outlets to ignore mass demonstrations, some media outlets actively seek to undermine the renewed interest they generate. Media Matters for America, a monitoring agency, has recorded repeated instances of corporate media in the United States making false claims, such as that protests are staged or protestors are paid. Instead of interviewing citizens participating in the marches, cable news programs turn to their usual group of pundits for comment. For example, after the recent Science March, some cable television shows hosted panels featuring climate change deniers and no actual scientists.

In some cases journalists have forgotten that the voices of ordinary citizens, are just as important, if not more important, than the voices of powerful politicians and wealthy elites. And even where journalists do seek to quote representatives from civil society they too often turn to the same narrow set of voices for comment, since smaller non-governmental organisations often lack the media resources of larger international organisations.

Another important reason why journalists do not cover protests is because they do not have the resources to do so. The economic pressures on commercial media are also harming press freedom. Independent, diverse media often lack the financial resources of media owned by wealthy corporations or governments with their own political agendas. Many media outlets now rely on donations or membership models to survive.

All of these restrictions have led many activists to turn to reporting on protests themselves. Some of the most powerful journalism now comes from citizen bloggers, often providing invaluable news from closed political spaces and behind the battle lines.

As the boundaries between citizen and professional journalists blur it is becoming increasingly important to protect the space for all of those people who seek to inform, expose and educate.

Whether it is protestors, journalists, civil society organisations, human rights defenders, or climate scientists we need to protect the ability for people to be able to express dissent. And we need to stand together.

Without journalists, scientists marching in the street, would not be able to be able to share their messages with the world. Without photojournalists, vast underestimates of crowd sizes from officials may continue to be used to undermine popular movements.

Asking questions, speaking truth to power, shining a light on corruption. These simple actions carry increased risks in 2017, as powerful elites seek to cement their positions of power. In this febrile political environment, civic space and press freedom feel more important than ever.

 

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Repression 2.0: An Updated Global Censorshiphttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/repression-2-0-an-updated-global-censorship/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=repression-2-0-an-updated-global-censorship http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/repression-2-0-an-updated-global-censorship/#comments Tue, 02 May 2017 04:46:59 +0000 Tharanga Yakupitiyage http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150232 In Minnesota, supporters gather at a rally for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in November 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

In Minnesota, supporters gather at a rally for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in November 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, May 2 2017 (IPS)

Censorship tactics have become more complex, posing new challenges for journalists and non-journalists alike, a new report finds.

In its annual “Attacks on the Press” report, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented a range of censorship cases from around the world and revealed a new world of media repression.

“[Censorship] is definitely becoming more sophisticated and complex and is occurring at a variety of levels,” CPJ’s Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch told IPS.

CPJ’s Executive Director described these new strategies as “repression 2.0” in the report, stating; “Repression 2.0 is an update on the worst old-style tactics, from state censorship to the imprisonment of critics, with new information technologies including smartphones and social media producing a softening around the edges.”

At the end of 2016, there were almost 260 journalists in jail, the most CPJ has ever documented.

Turkey is the world’s leading jailer of journalists with over 145 imprisoned journalists, more than China, Egypt, and Iran combined.

The country’s media crackdown deepened following the July 15, 2016 coup attempt and the subsequent imposition of a state of emergency which the Turkish government allegedly used to shut down over 50 newspapers, 30 TV channels, and three news agencies.

The government also reportedly used anti-terror laws to imprison journalists, including the chief editor of Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet Can Dündar who was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of disclosing state secrets, espionage, and aiding a terrorist group. Most recently, life sentences are being sought for 30 people with ties to Zaman newspaper, which is associated with Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen whom the government accuses of organising the coup attempt. The newspaper has since been under government control.

In Kenya, authorities are increasingly using a new mechanism to control the media: money.

“As revenues drain away from traditional media due to the inroads of digital technologies, the use of financial-induced self-censorship, or ‘fiscing’, can also ensure that journalists are more ‘reasonable’ in their reporting,” said journalist Alan Rusbridger in the report.

“Murder is messy. Money is tidy,” he continues.

However, the control of information is not unique to developing countries, said Rasch.

In the U.S., President Donald Trump has raised anti-media hostility to levels “previously unseen on a national scale,” said journalist Alan Huffman in the report.

President Trump has consistently described some media organizations as “fake news,” most recently reiterating the claim that media fabricate stories during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “They have no sources, they just make them up when there are none,” he told attendees.

Trump’s rhetoric often emboldened his supporters who would boo journalists. Huffman described one case in the report where a Trump supporter wore a T-shirt that suggested the use of lynching, stating: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.”

The president has also restricted and even denied access for reporters perceived as unfriendly, including those from Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and the Washington Post, and has threatened to change libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists and news agencies.

In one chapter, Christian Amanpour noted the similarities in such “poisonous” trends in the U.S. and around the world.

“The same dynamic has infected powerful segments of the American media, as it has in Egypt, Turkey, and Russia, where journalists have been pushed into political partisan corners, delegitimized, and accused of being enemies of the state. Journalism itself has become weaponized. We cannot allow that to happen,” she stated.

In Ecuador, the government has allegedly used social media as a way to suppress journalists.

After tweeting that Ecuador’s former Vice-President Lenin Moreno had not paid income taxes, journalist Bernardo Abad’s twitter account had been blocked for violating its terms of service. By the end of the week, nine accounts had been temporarily suspended after also tweeting about Moreno’s taxes.

Radsch told IPS that with the internet and social media, there are now “more outlets for repression and threats.”

China has taken this to the next level, making plans to link journalists’ online posts to their finances.

Under the country’s proposed social credit plan, journalists who write or speak critically of the government could face personal financial consequences including decreased credit score or a denied loan. Such censorship goes beyond the business as usual tactics of shutting down reporters’ social media accounts to affecting journalists’ daily activities.

Rasch highlighted the need to advocate for an open internet and the rights of journalists.

“[We must] remember the importance of the press that continues to help us make sense of all the information that we are bombarded with all the time,” she told IPS.

She also recommended journalists adopt secure communication practices in order to maintain their privacy and their sources’ privacy.

Most importantly, journalists must stand strong and commit to fact-based reporting.

“This is the best and most important way to fight back against the new censorship,” said Simon.

“Journalists cannot allow themselves to feel demoralized. They need to pursue their calling and to seek the truth with integrity, honestly believe that the setbacks, while real, are temporary,” he concluded.

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Trolling of Women Journalists Threatens Free Presshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/trolling-of-women-journalists-threatens-free-press/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=trolling-of-women-journalists-threatens-free-press http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/trolling-of-women-journalists-threatens-free-press/#comments Mon, 01 May 2017 23:16:23 +0000 Manipadma Jena http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150244 Shammi Haque, a Dhaka blogger known as a courageous advocate for free expression and secularism, received death and rape threats. Credit: Center for Inquiry

Shammi Haque, a Dhaka blogger known as a courageous advocate for free expression and secularism, received death and rape threats. Credit: Center for Inquiry

By Manipadma Jena
NEW DELHI, May 1 2017 (IPS)

“It’s not what you say that prompts it—it’s the fact that you are saying it,” says Mary Beard, a Cambridge University classics professor about online trolling. “If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It is the many ways that men have silenced outspoken women since the days of the ancients.”

Women professionals in many countries across Asia and the Pacific have increased their number in the newsrooms, according to a study, but they still represent only three out of ten news staff. Even with this low representation, they have now breezed into the male bastion of hard stories, among them politics, corruption, conflict, governance, environment with confidence and impact.“Shaming and harming women is an age-old practice, except that real time information sharing through technology makes the outreach far greater and the damage huge.” --Dilrukshi Handunnetti

They speak their mind, put forth their opinion and debate knowledgeably and vigorously with readers on matters of import on social media platforms.

Societal images of women have remained largely conservative.

Shammi Haque, a Dhaka blogger, received death and rape threats and an email from an Islamic extremist group that claimed the killing of  six Bangladeshi bloggers which said,  “Since the Islamic  Sharia (law) views working of women outside their homes without purdah (head cover) as (a) punishable offense, their employers are guilty to the same degree. We are urging the media to release their women from their jobs.”

In India, as part of an anti-trolling campaign by national daily Hindustan Times, Harry Stevens and Piyush Aggarwal set out in April to demonstrate how hard it is to be an outspoken woman on Twitter. They gathered a week’s worth of tweets sent to four prominent Indian women journalists. Out of these Barkha Dutt, a television veteran, received 3,020 abusive tweets, and Rana Ayyub, a Muslim, received 2,580 hateful tweets, often coloured by Islamophobia.

Internet trolls have had a free run in the region for at least six years now. Women journalists who tackled trolling and abusive comments on social media by ignoring or blocking the persistent trolls, now find that stalking and direct threats of attack have increased, forcing them to seek legal recourse or police protection.

“Journalists’ safety is a precondition for free speech and free media,” says the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

“Online media today allows for the fast flow of information and the public’s active par­ticipation in sharing ideas, news and insight. An open, free and safe Internet is essential for public debate and free flow of information and therefore should be duly protected.”

Female journalists, bloggers and other media actors are disproportionally experi­encing gender related threats, harassment and intimidation on the Internet, which has a direct impact on their safety and future online activities.

Twitter threats like “I’m going to cut off your head and rape it” have been directed even at the sexagenarian Mary Beard.

About the vitriolic abuse she faces, Dutt asks, “Why isn’t anyone discussing the marriages, divorces, and affairs of my male colleagues? Why the fixation with my private life? Because the public scrutiny of women – and especially those of us who are proudly ambitious and fiercely independent – is very different from the standards used to measure men. And the subtext is always sexual.”

“Cyber bullies are the same as goons who threaten in real life,” psychiatrist Samir Parikh says.

The personalized online abuse women journalists get for doing only what is expected by their professional job “can make them feel traumatized, helpless, angry and very frustrated,” says Parikh. “In some, it can even cause self-esteem issues, affect social life and lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety and panic attacks. For women, the abuse and threats of violence are often openly sexist and sexual, which makes them tougher to deal with.”

“(Online) it is possible to cloak one’s identity and attack individuals in the most unethical and harmful manner,” says Dilrukshi Handunnetti, an editor in Colombo. “Shaming and harming women is an age-old practice, except that real time information sharing through technology makes the outreach far greater and the damage huge.”

It does little to ease the trauma for journalists to know that trolling correlates with psychopathy, sadism, and Machiavellianism, according to a 2014 empirical personality study. Other studies found boredom, attention seeking, revenge, pleasure, and a desire to cause damage to the community among motivations for trolling.

But some interviewed trolls viewed their online comments not as harassment, but as a needed counterweight to opinions and news items they believe are flawed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

As threats get too dangerous to ignore, women journalists are being forced to seek recourse from the law, despite their misgivings about how the law is framed and doubts about whether law-enforcing agencies can ensure speedy and sensitive investigation.

An Online Harassment Social Media Policy drafted March 2016 by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) lays out a road map for media houses to protect journalistic voices, create safe online spaces for open and respectful debate, and deal with abuse and harassment faced in particular by female staff.

Among the mechanisms to ensure digital safety and freedom from harassment, the road map calls for a special cyber cell in media organizations that equip women journalists particularly, with legal awareness and resources. When the harassment is extreme, measures must also include physical security, legal hand-holding, and support to pursue police complaints and psychological support and trauma counseling.

Meanwhile, a Byte Back handbook for women journalists being cyber-bullied gives out handy advice – ignore, filter, block, report and if it gets worse, name-and-shame, shout it out, and don’t forget to save and document abuse.

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‘Fake News’ is not Journalism…http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/fake-news-is-not-journalism/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fake-news-is-not-journalism http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/fake-news-is-not-journalism/#comments Mon, 01 May 2017 09:56:10 +0000 Irina Bokova http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150182

Irina Bokova is Director General of UNESCO.

By Irina Bokova
PARIS, May 1 2017 (IPS)

Would you trust your news from any source? How are we able to ensure that ‘fake’(d) news does not overtake the flow of information?

Journalism plays a vital role for society, bringing verifiable news and informed comment to the public. Every day, the news provides a basis for dialogue and debate, and to make informed decisions on the issues that affect us. It helps us build our identity and, as global citizens, better understand the world around us; it contributes to meaningful changes towards a better future.

Irina Bokova. © Yulian Donov

Irina Bokova. © Yulian Donov

Today, however, news producers face many challenges. In-depth and fact-checked news is being overshadowed by shared media content that is all too often far from this standard. On social media in particular, collecting clicks and being first reign supreme over properly verified news and comment. All this further compounds long-existing problems of unjustifiable curbs on press freedom in many parts of the world.

In these circumstances, where does the responsibility lie for ensuring that fact-based debate is not stifled? Whose duty is it to strengthen the media’s potential to foster a better future for all? And how do we protect the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of information, which are the preconditions for independent and free journalism?

The answer is that we must look to ourselves as agents of change – whether we are Government actors, civil society members, business people, academics or members of the media. Each of us has a role to play, because each has a stake in press freedom, which facilitates our ability to seek, receive and impart information.

What happens to journalists and to journalism is a symbol of how society respects the fundamental freedoms of expression and access to information. Society suffers whenever a journalist falls victim, whether to threats, harassment or murder. It affects us all when press freedom is curbed by censorship or political interference, or is contaminated by manipulation and made-up content.

Society suffers whenever a journalist falls victim, whether to threats, harassment or murder. It affects us all when press freedom is curbed by censorship or political interference, or is contaminated by manipulation and made-up content.
When the free flow of information is hampered, the void is more easily filled by disinformation, undermining the ability of communities to make informed choices.

With this in mind, the global theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day is Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies. This refers to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an ambitious 15-year commitment of all UN Member States and stakeholders toward worldwide prosperity, peace and development. Journalism is central to achieving the agenda’s 16th goal, which aims for justice for all, peace, and inclusive institutions.

Free and independent journalism reinforces democracy, justice and the rule of law. It also serves as a prerequisite for combating gross economic inequalities, reversing climate change, and promoting women’s rights. But without audiences demanding well-researched and conflict-sensitive narratives, critical reporting will be increasingly side-lined. Every citizen has a direct stake in the quality of the information environment. ‘Fake’(d) news can only take root in the absence of critical thinking and the assumption that if it looks like news then in must be. Media and Information Literacy efforts have a central role in building the necessary defences in the minds of individuals to face these phenomena.

On World Press Freedom Day, let us all be reminded that fact-based journalism is the light that illuminates the pathway to a future where informed communities can work together, mindful of their responsibilities to each other and to the world we live in.

 

 

This article is part of special IPS coverage of World Press Freedom Day.

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Protection of Journalists Fails in Latin Americahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/protection-of-journalists-fails-in-latin-america/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=protection-of-journalists-fails-in-latin-america http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/protection-of-journalists-fails-in-latin-america/#comments Sat, 29 Apr 2017 23:26:45 +0000 Daniela Pastrana http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150224 Mexican photographer Rubén Espinosa places a plaque in honour of Regina Martínez, on Apr. 28, 2015, in the central square of Xalapa, the capital of the southern state of Veracruz, to commemorate the third anniversary of the journalist’s murder. On July 2015, Espinosa was also killed. Credit: Roger López/IPS

Mexican photographer Rubén Espinosa places a plaque in honour of Regina Martínez, on Apr. 28, 2015, in the central square of Xalapa, the capital of the southern state of Veracruz, to commemorate the third anniversary of the journalist’s murder. On July 2015, Espinosa was also killed. Credit: Roger López/IPS

By Daniela Pastrana
MEXICO CITY, Apr 29 2017 (IPS)

Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Brito covered drug trafficking issues in a region of the southern state of Guerrero where criminal groups are extremely powerful.

In September 2015 he survived an attempt on his life, and because he was deemed at “very high risk” he became a beneficiary of the federal mechanism for protection for human right defenders and journalists created in December 2012.

The protection measures he was assigned consisted basically of police patrols. They offered him a place in a shelter in Mexico City, but he refused.

In October 2016, the protection measures were cancelled; five months later, Pineda Brito became the first journalist murdered in 2017 in the most dangerous country for reporters in Latin America.“In addition to Mexico, Honduras, Brazil and Colombia, the situation in Paraguay and Venezuela, in particular, reflects the deterioration of freedom of expression in the region.” -- Ricardo González

Pineda Brito’s Mar. 2 murder was followed by six weeks of terror in which three more journalists were killed and two others survived after being shot, in different parts of this country of 127 million people.

The highest-profile murder was that of Miroslava Breach, on Mar. 26, a veteran journalist who covered political news for the La Jornada newspaper in the northern state of Chihuahua along the U.S. border.

But Pineda Brito’s killing reflected the inefficacy of institutional mechanisms for protecting journalists in the region.

“Last year it became clear that the state’s protection model exported from Colombia to Mexico and recently to Honduras had failed,” said Ricardo González, Security and Protection Officer of the London-based international organisation Article 19, which defends freedom of expression.

“The cases of journalists murdered in Mexico, who were under the protection of different state mechanisms, as well as the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s refusal to take part in the assessment of cases under the Colombian mechanism are things that should be of concern,” he told IPS.

For González, the lack of a functioning justice system and redress makes the model “ineffective, apart from financially unsustainable.”

The numbers in Mexico prove him right: according to Article 19’s latest report, of the 427 assaults on the media and journalists registered in 2016, 99.7 per cent went unpunished.

Meanwhile, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression has only managed to secure a conviction in three cases.

Most of the attacks were against journalists who work for small media outlets outside the country’s capital, and at least half of them were committed by state agents.

The federal protection mechanism currently protects 509 people – 244 journalists and 265 human right defenders).

But even though the dangers are growing rather than decreasing, the government and the legislature cancelled the funds available for protection, and since January the mechanism has been operating with the remnants of a trust fund whose 9.5 million dollars in reserves will run out in September.

According to Article 19, violence against the press is still one of the main challenges faced in Latin America, and something to be reflected on when World Press Freedom Day is celebrated on May 3.

“In addition to Mexico, Honduras, Brazil and Colombia, the situation in Paraguay and Venezuela, in particular, reflects the deterioration of freedom of expression in the region,” said González.

Map of the World Press Freedom Index, released Apr. 26 by Reporters Without Borders, where Cuba (173rd of 180 countries) and Mexico (147th) are the worst positioned in Latin America, while Uruguay (25th) and Chile (33rd) top the regional ranking.  Credit: RWB

Map of the World Press Freedom Index, released Apr. 26 by Reporters Without Borders, where Cuba (173rd of 180 countries) and Mexico (147th) are the worst positioned in Latin America, while Uruguay (25th) and Chile (33rd) top the regional ranking. Credit: RWB

In the same vein, the 2017 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday Apr. 26 warns about the political and economic instability seen in several countries of Latin America, where journalists who investigate questions that affect the interests of political leaders or organised crime are attacked, persecuted and murdered.

“RWB regrets the pernicious and continuous deterioration of the situation of freedom of expression in Latin America,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of the RWB Latin America desk, presenting the Index.

“In the face of a multifaceted threat, journalists often have to practice self-censorship, and even go into exile, to survive. This is absolutely unacceptable in democratic countries,” he added.

The RWB report underscores the case of Nicaragua, the country that experienced the largest drop in the index because since the controversial re-election of President Daniel Ortega, the independent and opposition press has suffered numerous cases of censorship, intimidation, harassment and arbitrary arrests. The country fell 17 spots, to 92nd among the 180 countries studied.

The report also describes Mexico as another worrisome case: in 15 years it dropped from 75th to 147th on the Index, putting it next to Syria and Afghanistan. Mexico is still torn apart by corruption and the violence of organised crime, says RWB.

In fact, it is the second worst ranked Latin American country, after Cuba, which is 173rd, after dropping two spots.

At a regional level, the countries best-positioned in the ranking are Uruguay (25th, after falling five), Chile (33rd, after dropping two) and Argentina (50th, after going up four).

Increasingly sophisticated means of control

Despite the threats and risks, independent journalism is making progress in the region. In 2016, the organisation Sembramedia created the first directory of native digital media in Latin America which has listed more than 500 independent platforms.

But at the same time, the means of control of the independent press are getting more sophisticated, said González.

Legal, labour and online harassment, as well as indirect censorship through the control of state advertising are tools that governments and political and economic groups use ever more frequently around the region.

In Mexico, the most emblematic case is that of journalist Carmen Aristegui, who was fired together with her investigative journalism team from the MVS radio station after publishing an investigation about corruption implicating President Enrique Peña Nieto.

But there are even more unbelievable cases, such as a judge’s order for psychological tests for political scientist Sergio Aguayo, after he published well-substantiated information about massacres in the Mexican state of Coahuila, connected to former governor Humberto Moreira.

The organisation FUNDAR Centre for Analysis and Research has documented that this country’s central government and 32 state governments spend an average of 800 million dollars a year on official advertising and announcements in the media.

Another Mexican organisation committed to the defence of digital rights, R3D, reported that various regional governments have bought programmes from Hacking Team, an Italian cybersecurity firm that sells intrusion and surveillance capabilities to governments and companies on websites, social networks and email services.

According to R3D, online intimidation and monitoring have increased in Mexico during the Peña Nieto administration.

This pattern repeats itself in other Latin American countries, where attacks are increasing and presenting new challenges.

“In the last year, we have seen how the risks of violence which in the past were limited to questions such as drug trafficking are now faced by those who cover issues related to migration and human trafficking, the environment or community defense of lands against the extractive industries,” said González.

Another flashpoint is the coverage of border issues. “Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States has had quite a negative effect in terms of freedom of the press, both domestically and internationally, in the entire region,” he said.

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IPS Journalists Who Perished in the Line of Dutyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/ips-journalists-who-perished-in-the-line-of-duty/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ips-journalists-who-perished-in-the-line-of-duty http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/ips-journalists-who-perished-in-the-line-of-duty/#comments Wed, 26 Apr 2017 11:44:12 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150159

This article is part of special IPS coverage of World Press Freedom Day.

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 26 2017 (IPS)

In the politically-risky world of professional journalism, news reporters are fast becoming an endangered species.

The numbers are staggering: some 1,236 journalists have been killed since 1992, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

In 2016 alone, 48 journalists were killed worldwide – and in the first few months in 2017 there have been 8 deaths. The “deadliest countries” for journalists include Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya and Mexico, where international news organizations took the heaviest toll.

But Inter Press Service (IPS) was not spared the agony either.

The news agency, which has relentlessly covered the developing world for over 53 years, has suffered both under repressive authoritative regimes and also in war-ravaged countries where IPS journalists have either been detained, tortured or beaten to death in the line of duty in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Richard de Zoysa

Richard de Zoysa

But for most surviving families, the tragedy has been doubly devastating because the killer or killers have never been apprehended, prosecuted or convicted in any court of law in their respective home countries—or in some cases their bodies never recovered.

The most glaring example was the fate of 30-year-old Richard de Zoysa, the IPS Bureau Chief in Sri Lanka, who was abducted, tortured, killed and dropped from a helicopter into the ocean – a crime reportedly perpetrated by “death squads”. His bloated body was washed ashore in the suburbs of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.

The horrendous politically-motivated crime, which took place in February 1990, is still one of the unresolved murders after 27 long years.

In 2006, Alla Hassan, the IPS correspondent in Iraq, was shot and killed while driving to work in a war zone where killings were routine with little or no rule of law.

And in Argentina in the mid-1970s, two IPS journalists, Luis Guagnini and Roberto Carri, were both abducted at the end of their working day in the IPS Bureau in Buenos Aires – and their dead bodies were never recovered.

In a February 2013 piece titled “Censorship by Murder Will Not Silence Truth”, IPS Regional Editor for Asia Kanya d’Almeida wrote that even though Sri Lanka experienced a “reign of terror” battling two insurgencies in the South and the North in the 1990s, “no one expected that one of its victims would be Richard de Zoysa.”

She described him as “the progeny of two powerful Colombo families, star of the English-language stage, a well-known newscaster and bureau chief of the Rome-based Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, whose dispatches on Sri Lanka throughout the 1980s earned him a reputation at home and abroad as an exceptionally prolific writer.”

Juan Gelman, Director of the Latin American Bureau of IPS, based first in Buenos Aires between 1974 and 1977 and then in Rome, recounts the disappearance of two IPS journalists – Luis Guagnini and Roberto Carri—in the mid 1970s.

“Just days after the funeral, the media received a directive from the government: no more mention of Richard de Zoysa — not in print, not in pictures, not on the radio. If murder would not suffice to silence him, then censorship would have to be the next best thing.”
The kidnappings, like most such kidnappings at that time, were attributed to para-military groups, such as the self-styled Triple A comprising the Argentinian Anti-Communist Alliance —  which was largely held responsible for the murder of over 2,000 trade union leaders, students and leftist intellectuals.

Writing in “The Journalists Who Turned the World Upside Down”, a publication recounting the history of IPS, Gelman says the result was striking: 30,000 “desaparecidos”–  a term which encompasses four concepts: the kidnapping of unarmed citizens, their torture, their murder and the disappearance of their bodies.

“At the beginning of 1975, the Triple A had IPS in its sights, and the difficulties of obtaining information were multiplying,” says Gelman.

In an act of solidarity, then IPS Director General Roberto Savio decided to relocate the Latin American network to Rome, a task shared by four colleagues.

Every day, news arrived from the southern part of South America about killings and “disappearances” that the agency would punctually distribute. Several IPS journalists had to flee and rebuild their personal and professional lives in exile. This was not easy, but many managed, says Gelman.

In the case of de Zoysa, he was murdered on the eve of his relocation from Colombo to Lisbon as the new IPS Bureau Chief in Europe.

As de Almeida recounted: “On the third day after de Zoysa had been bundled into a jeep by six armed men (one of whom his mother Dr. Manorani Saravanamuththu, would identify as a high-ranking police officer in the president’s detail), wearing nothing but a sarong around his waist, a fisherman bobbing about on the Indian Ocean just off the coast of Moratuwa, a seaside suburb south of Colombo, hauled a floating corpse into his narrow boat and rowed it ashore.”

And although bullet wounds and three days in salt water had eaten away at the handsome 30-year-old, his mother, called in by a magistrate defying government orders to “dispose” of bodies without due process, recognised him.

The news sparked a massive public outcry among Colombo’s elite: louder, even, than the collective fury over the roughly 40,000 deaths that had preceded de Zoysa’s in that black decade, wrote de Almeida.

“Just days after the funeral, the media received a directive from the government: no more mention of Richard de Zoysa — not in print, not in pictures, not on the radio. If murder would not suffice to silence him, then censorship would have to be the next best thing.”

His last dispatch from Colombo was titled “Sri Lanka: Nearing a Human Rights Apocalypse.”

In late 1990, at a ceremony held at the United Nations, IPS posthumously bestowed its annual “International Achievement Award” on de Zoysa for his excellence in journalistic reporting and his news accounts of the killings of students by death squads in Sri Lanka.

But Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations was instructed by the Foreign Ministry in Colombo to reject the invitation and boycott the ceremony — even though more than a hundred diplomats turned out for the event.

The killings of journalists have been mostly in war ravaged or conflict-ridden countries. But Sri Lanka was neither– although successive governments were battling insurgencies both in the country’s South and North.

After de Zoysa’s killing, the most prominent journalist to be murdered in Colombo was Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader, in January 2009.

Both were unfortunate deaths in the “fog of bloody insurgencies and Sri Lankan politics”, Sinha Ratnatunga, editor in chief of the Sri Lanka Sunday Times, told IPS.

But there was more to follow, including the abduction of editor Keith Noyar and Poddala Jayantha, and the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda.

As a tribute to the missing journalist, the US State Department named Sandhya Ekneligoda, wife of the slain journalist, for one of its “International Women of Courage” Awards.

Ekneligoda was nominated by the US Embassy in Colombo, for her work “pursuing justice in her own husband’s case, as well as on behalf of missing families from both Sinhalese and Tamil communities, as a profound symbol in Sri Lanka’s efforts towards justice and reconciliation.”

Asked about state of press freedom in Sri Lanka since the killings of de Zoysa and Wickrematunge, Ratnatunga told IPS the danger to media freedom in Sri Lanka is when one compares the environment today to what it was– rather than what it should be.

Clearly, media practitioners faced trying times in the bad old days, beginning with serial indictments against editors and publishers on archaic criminal defamation charges around 1995, followed by censorships on military news as a separatist insurgency gathered momentum.

Emergency regulations promulgated to combat terrorism saw the press caught in the crossfire and suffer collateral damage, said Ratnatunga, a former President of the Editors’ Guild.

By the early 2000s, he pointed out, the military had the upper-hand in a civilian Government desperate to end the blood-letting in the country.

The dreaded ‘white van’ (the mode of transport for those abducted) syndrome emerged.

“Journalists who were critical of the military were targeted; some were killed, others abducted and tortured. The LTTE guerrillas (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) fighting for a separate state on the island were equally merciless with those who critiqued them on their turf.”

With the end of the ‘war’ resulting in the capitulation of the guerrillas, the ‘white van’ syndrome began to fade away, but the bitter after-taste remained and political opponents of the then-Government flogged the issue to its advantage, he added.

As all new Governments do, said Ratnatunga, the 2015 Government that replaced the old regime promised the sun and the moon to the media. Sceptical were those who have seen it all before.

Not too long after, ensconced in power and place, the new Government began to lose patience with the vastly expanding media. They began a “Them” versus “Us” labeling policy but the cohabitation Government of the country’s two major political parties, operating under the euphemism ‘National Unity Government’, became a victim of its own intrigue.

He said the Media Ministry, the official Government newspaper group and state television were, on the surface, supporting the Unity Government against the Opposition, but within, tug-of-wars were taking place; so much so, the President appointed a committee of his party loyalists to ascertain why he was not getting due prominence in the state media – a not-so-thinly veiled message to those backing the Prime Minister.

The Sri Lankan media keeps growing; the print media retains its influence, new publications keep sprouting up and television stations vie for ratings with politics and entertainment as their staple diet while social media adds the spice – usually by not allowing facts to get in the way of a good gossipy story, Ratnatunga added.

To have a say in this vast labyrinth, powerful politicians egg on businessmen they have helped amass wealth to start up newspapers, TV and radio stations; and to control this growing ‘monster’ the Government is regulating the issue of frequencies to who they think are politically ‘questionable’ applicants, also embarking on a new initiative to have a Media (Standards) Commission.

Like their predecessors in office, he said, the new Government uses the ‘carrot and stick’ policy. Journalists, given houses, motorbikes and computers are now being offered compensation for political victimization and physical harassment of the past years.

The Sri Lankan media does live in interesting times, Ratnatunga declared.

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

 

 

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Double standards: Do all journalist lives matter?http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/double-standards-do-all-journalist-lives-matter/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=double-standards-do-all-journalist-lives-matter http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/double-standards-do-all-journalist-lives-matter/#comments Wed, 26 Apr 2017 09:48:57 +0000 Shafik Mandhai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150157 Little attention is paid to reporters from the Global South who are killed, abused, or left stranded by foreign media.]]> Rescue workers move the body of Taimur Abbas, a cameraman of Pakistan's Samaa TV who was killed by gunmen in Karachi in February [Shahzaib Akber/EPA]

Rescue workers move the body of Taimur Abbas, a cameraman of Pakistan's Samaa TV who was killed by gunmen in Karachi in February [Shahzaib Akber/EPA]

By Shafik Mandhai
DOHA, Apr 26 2017 (IPS)

Taha avoids giving his last name to journalists, but not out fear of the Sudanese government, whose harassment he fled in 2015.

“I don’t want any of the people I worked with to know I’m here,” he tells Al Jazeera, writing by instant messaging from a temporary residence for refugees in the French city of Calais.

“I want to avoid causing any embarrassment or awkwardness,” he adds.

The colleagues Taha refers to are journalists who covered the ongoing war in Sudan’s western province of Darfur.

The father-of-two worked as a stringer, fixer, and translator there for a number of major broadcasters based in the UK and South Africa.

However, as the conflict dragged on, coverage dried up because of restrictions placed on foreign media by the Sudanese government and as editorial agendas shifted to other wars in the region.

Even in death, there is apparently a double standard in the newspaper world: one yardstick to measure the killing or abduction of, say, a reporter from the New York Times or the Washington Post and another yardstick to measure the kidnapping and murder, for example, of a journalist in Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka.

Farhana Haque Rahman, Director General, Inter Press Service

Taha says his track record as a journalist was enough to attract unwanted attention from the Sudanese authorities, but it was his next move that sealed his fate.

“I helped to set up a school for IDP (internally displaced) children in Khartoum, which was very successful and had about 800 students.”

Most of the pupils at the school were from the two conflict-stricken regions of Darfur and South Kordofan.

The Sudanese government, in an apparent bid to punish him for his journalistic work, eventually accused Taha of receiving money from foreign organisations.

After a cycle of harassment, arrests and releases, he decided to flee.

His first port of call was the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, from where he set sail with scores of others on a poorly maintained vessel headed for Europe.

The overcrowded boat capsized in the Mediterranean, but Taha was among the survivors after Greek rescuers plucked him from the waters.

After time in a Greek holding facility, Taha made his way across Europe eventually reaching northern France, from where he hoped to cross the English Channel and reach the UK, where his brother lived.

With one final hurdle left to overcome, however, Taha became ill with a benign tumour growing on his spine.

In the year since the diagnosis, his attempts to enter Britain have been put on hold while he undergoes treatment.

Taha hopes to join his brother who lives in the English city of Liverpool, but is resigned to the idea his appeals to the British Home Office for asylum will not succeed.

His story is just one of many that highlights the struggle of journalists from the Global South when western media outlets pack up and go.

Double standards

The work of stringers, in particular, is crucial in ensuring good coverage in difficult reporting environments, but when the story dies down, they are often left to deal alone with hostile governments or non-state actors.

Taha’s experiences are far from unique or limited to Sudan, which is ranked 140 of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

According to UNESCO, at least 929 journalists were killed between 2006 and 2016.

Of those killed, 94 percent, or at least 869 were local reporters. Sixty were foreign correspondents.

Most were killed in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia and the Pacific.

UNESCO recorded at least 12 killings of local journalists in Afghanistan in 2016, making it the deadliest country for reporters last year.

“Local Afghan journalists have experienced large numbers of threats against them,” Rachael Jolley of the Index on Censorship told Al Jazeera.

“Many Afghan journalists have stopped reporting and some have fled the country after threats against their lives.”

Jolley noted a surge in threats towards journalists in that country from around 2014, further blaming armed groups and gangs for harassing those in the media.

Journalists in Afghanistan face threats from armed groups and criminal gangs [File: Reuters]

Journalists in Afghanistan face threats from armed groups and criminal gangs [File: Reuters]


In other countries, journalists face the risk of kidnap and murder, while those who work with international media outlets face particular suspicion as potential spies, Jolley said.

“In Yemen, for instance, local journalists are threatened, kidnapped and released. The same tactics have been used in Syria to close down reporting.

“In some cases, the international media and those that work with it are also in massive danger, they are seen as traitors or spies.”

But despite the threats they face, journalists in the Global South receive little attention from their fellow colleagues around the world when targeted.

Lack of coverage

In March alone this year, in Mexico, for instance, at least three journalists have been killed – Miroslava Breach who chronicled murder, columnist Ricardo Monlui and Cecilio Pineda Birto.

Their stories were covered by local and regional media, but largely ignored by international newspapers, websites and television channels. Their names did not trend worldwide as hashtags on social media.

In 2016, of the 100 journalists who were killed, 93 were citizens from the Global South, according to UNESCO.

Farhana Haque Rahman, the director general of the Inter Press Service, said that the level of coverage and outcry each case received depends on where journalists are from and whether or not they are affiliated with western outlets.

“Even in death, there is apparently a double standard in the newspaper world: one yardstick to measure the killing or abduction of, say, a reporter from the New York Times or the Washington Post and another yardstick to measure the kidnapping and murder, for example, of a journalist in Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka,” she told Al Jazeera.

Rahman put the double standard down to a “mindset” in Western newsrooms that reflected the interests of their audience, but added journalists have a responsibility to change that.

“Change in perspective has to come from the inside, not from the outside.”

But according to City University Department of Journalism academic Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar, differing responses were more closely related to whether journalists were members of staff or contractors for media outlets.

“The double standard involves full-time (staff) correspondents and freelancers…that’s a more clear demarcation in terms of how it’s treated,” he said, adding “mainstream media tend to treat their full-time reporters with more care and concern than freelancers”.

Abubakar explained that as the main market for stringers, fixers, and freelancers was in the Global South, it meant they were most affected by the differing standards of treatment.

Mainstream media tend to treat their full-time reporters with more care and concern than freelancers.

Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar, academic at City University Department of Journalism

He said there was also a disparity in information flow from the Global South and Global North that translated into uneven levels of coverage for events depending on where they were happening.

This is, he said, was not exclusive to journalists but a wider reflection of which societies in the West prioritised.

Abubakar, himself a former reporter in Nigeria and producer for the BBC World Service, told Al Jazeera that media organisations should take on further responsibilities for their stringers, including the provision of adequate hostile environment training.

“Media organisations in the West have a massive responsibility to protect the journalist who work with them and in cases where their freelancers are being persecuted, they should put pressure on their governments to act against the offending government.”

In a similar vein, the Index on Censorship’s Jolley said that the risks journalists faced are not limited to threats from other people or government; she said inadequate training for local journalists also puts them in danger.

“[Index] has reported on freelance Iraqi journalists who had been reporting from the battlefield without any special training or equipment … Safety and security training is vital in these situations.

“We’ve been told that mainstream media channels in the UK, at least, are now refusing to use freelancers from locations that they would consider too dangerous for a staffer.”

For Taha in Calais, those decisions have come too late; such prospects make very little difference to his current situation.

His treatment has gone well and he now plans his days planning how he will reach the UK.

Despite his experience and reluctant acceptance things could have been different if he had a different ethnic background, Taha is grateful to be in Europe and harbours no ill will towards those he worked with.

Like many journalists, his interest in current affairs is difficult to shake off, and his days are spent discussing politics with his fellow refugees.

A recent round of deportation of Sudanese asylum seekers by the French authorities has rattled his optimism but he is careful not to dwell on it.

“God willing, I will be in the UK by Ramadan.”

This story was originally published by Al Jazeera.

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Worrying about Fake News Has Become All the Ragehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/worrying-about-fake-news-has-become-all-the-rage/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=worrying-about-fake-news-has-become-all-the-rage http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/worrying-about-fake-news-has-become-all-the-rage/#comments Wed, 26 Apr 2017 05:10:52 +0000 Farhana Haque Rahman http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150153

This article is part of special IPS coverage of World Press Freedom Day.

By Farhana Haque Rahman, Director General, Inter Press Service
ROME, Apr 26 2017 (IPS)

Rogue interests, perhaps even foreign, are said to be trying to interfere with the electoral process in the U.S. and European Union members. Senior government officials glibly endorse what they themselves call “alternative facts” and even openly describe the media as their enemy.

Farhana Haque Rahman

Farhana Haque Rahman

Social media platforms, seen as the primary distribution vector for this plague, are under pressure to police their content.

However, the history of journalism is full of stories of distortions, many of them in prestigious publications. Benjamin Franklin once produced – in wartime – a fake newspaper to distribute a fake story.

At root, the current fake-news epidemic is a symptom of growing distrust in media. It also reflects a widespread contempt for expertise, which poses a special challenge for organizations like IPS, where for decades we have sought to chronicle the complex and often slow-moving travails of development in the global South.

The press, which should by nature be profoundly aware of the tactics of all kinds of propaganda, has no choice but to see this crisis as an opportunity.

A vibrant media ecosystem requires readers who are able to discern trustworthy news from “alternative” versions. Indeed, the relative absence of such readers may be a guide to what kind of policy response is needed. Enabling such readers to thrive is analogous to the goals of development efforts aimed at lifting people out of poverty and hunger.

That goal must include safeguards against against violence directed at reporters, including civic journalists and bloggers, who are frequently targeted for abuse and often physically attacked, even hacked to death as evidenced by a string of grisly crimes in Bangladesh. Last year’s high-profile “Pizzagate” episode in the United States’ capital, in which a man fired an assault rifle in a popular restaurant he had been told by right-wing online sites was linked to an elite paedophilia ring, is a reminder that such attacks may themselves be based on fake news as well as ideological beliefs or factional interests.

Yet in the end, just as “more speech, not less,” was a rallying call for advocates of freedom of speech, today’s response should be real news, and more of it.

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With an Eye on Electoral Violence, Kenya Keeps Tight Rein on Mediahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/with-an-eye-on-electoral-violence-kenya-keeps-tight-rein-on-media/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=with-an-eye-on-electoral-violence-kenya-keeps-tight-rein-on-media http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/with-an-eye-on-electoral-violence-kenya-keeps-tight-rein-on-media/#comments Tue, 25 Apr 2017 00:12:52 +0000 Justus Wanzala http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=150128 Kenyan journalists attend a function. The media has been blamed for fanning the flames of electoral violence, which took an ethnic angle. Credit: Justus Wanzala/IPS

Kenyan journalists attend a function. The media has been blamed for fanning the flames of electoral violence, which took an ethnic angle. Credit: Justus Wanzala/IPS

By Justus Wanzala
NAIROBI, Apr 25 2017 (IPS)

As the clock ticks down to Kenya’s general elections slated for Aug. 8, a move by the Kenya Communication Authority (CAK) to make journalists adhere to guidelines on election coverage has elicited fear that the government could be trying to control how they report on the polls.

The rules, announced on Feb. 28, require Kenyan journalists to keep all notes and recordings for six months and ensure that radio and TV guests do not make hateful statements about individuals and ethnic groups.“Considering that most media houses are privately owned by influential politicians and well connected individuals, it remains to be seen whether those who flout the rules will face justice." --Kennedy Epalat

On March 7, the media managers also signed up to another poll coverage code designed by the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) in collaboration with Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The council is a quasi-governmental body charged with protecting media independence and enforcing standards of professionalism.

MCK rules also require media organisations to remain truthful to the tenets of responsible journalism that is sensitive to peace and objectivity during the polls. Kenya was engulfed in post-election violence in late December 2007 and January 2008 due to a poll dispute that saw some 2,000 people lose their lives and over 3,000 flee their homes. The media was blamed for not doing enough to forestall the violence, which took an ethnic angle.

The scenario was to influence the subsequent election in 2013, which was peaceful but saw the media depicted as being overly timid. Critics noted that most coverage failed to raise the tough issues facing the country during the election period.

Not everyone thinks the guidelines are a bad thing. According to Dennis Odunga, a reporter at the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading daily newspaper, enforcement of the rules will be a challenge as long as impunity continues to prevail. But the CAK guidelines are just a reminder that the media is expected to promote fair coverage in line with journalistic standards.

“For instance, keeping notes and recordings is not a new thing in the media world. It is a rule we apply when dealing with sensitive matters like in investigative stories,” he observed.

He said that it is possible to check hate speech in both print and electronic media. In the case of radio and television programmes, hosts should be in control of their guests and be fast in interrupting those who use the platform to whip up ethnic emotions – although such a measure should be done with decorum.

“Freedom of expression and access to information is not absolute [under the constitution],” he noted. “But, being a government entity, we must be wary of possibility of mischief in some of the rules, especially on programming that could affect the flow of revenue for media houses.”

Fair coverage of the election might remain a mere wish anyway, given that media houses are known to be driven by both ownership and editorial interests, he said.

CAK’s Angela Koki, speaking on behalf of Director General Francis Wangusi, told IPS that the Kenya Information and Communication Act 1998 gives the Authority power to prescribe a code that sets standards for the time and manner of programmes to be broadcast.

She said the Authority prepared the Programme Code and Complaints Handling procedure for use in the regulation of broadcasting services with stakeholders. “The consultation was done in line with the constitution and consolidation of inputs, the final documents were published and came into effect on 1st July 2016,” she said.

In exercising its mandate, Koki said the CAK is simply reminding media houses about already existing regulatory provisions governing the responsible use of broadcasting platforms before, during and after the elections.

“Coverage of elections and political parties can be found under section nine of the Programming Code and requires that broadcasters provide equitable coverage and opportunities to political parties participating and candidates among other standards,” she said.

On whether media practitioners are being burdened by multiplicity of regulations, Koki said CAK’s mandate is to regulate broadcasting houses as its licensees, and does not extend to journalists or journalistic practices.

She added that the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) is the regulator mandated to handle professionalism and accountability of media workers and journalists.

“The requirement to keep broadcast recording for a period of one year and also the requirement of delay of live broadcasts by seven seconds so as to manage unintended content before it goes on air applies to broadcasting houses as an entity and not to journalists,” she clarified.

She concurred with Odunga that the Programming Code is a living document and is to be reviewed every two years. She thus urges journalists to give their inputs towards the improvement of the document whenever there is a call for stakeholder consultations.

Her views were echoed by MCK Deputy Chief Executive Officer Victor Bwire who said there are no new guidelines announced by the communication Authority of Kenya. He reiterated that the authority just talked about the need for implementation of its programmes code for radio and television that was instituted in 2016 noting too that CAK’s programmes Code was arrived at in a participatory manner.

Bwire said views were sought from CEOs of media houses and representatives of the Editors Guild. “They are really not new, we just update to include issues relating to gender sensitivity and emerging matters like fake news,” he said.

“The aim is to ensure fair and professional coverage of elections. The measure is also aimed at adherence to standards, just as is the case in when it comes to climate change and business reporting. There is nothing new, if anything each media house has its in house policy,” he added.

Kennedy Epalat, a radio news editor at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, said CAK’s move is influenced by the perception that media helped foment the post-election violence of 2007/8, especially local radio stations.

“By retaining the recorded material and the scripts for six months, relevant agencies get evidence to sustain prosecutions in order to avoid the propagation of hate in future,” he observed.

In relation to radio and television guests, Epalat said it is incumbent upon programme producers to blacklist those with notoriety in propagating hate. Guests should also be prepared by the programe hosts on the dos and don’ts, although such measures are not devoid of challenges.

“In 2004, I black-listed a member of parliament (MP) from participating in my radio programmes because of attacking the president whenever he was talking about crime or corruption. This is even after asking him to avoid the same. I even told my presenter as much. Two months later, the MP was appointed as an Assistant Minister for Information and Broadcasting and asked my station to set aside one hour weekly for him which he would use to outline government policy. Fortunately, I was not victimised,” he recalled.

Commenting on how the multiplicity of guidelines will impact on the 2017 general election coverage, Epalat said that accessing information and freedom of expression will be impeded under certain circumstances.

“The people you seek information from may not offer that information as freely as they would do if you came from their community. People will tend to trust one of their own with information – especially if it is sensitive,” he said.

He said the challenge will be aggravated if those covering the elections have not undergone training in light of the emerging rules. And like Odunga, he is concerned with the problem of impunity.

“Considering that most media houses are privately owned by influential politicians and well connected individuals, it remains to be seen whether those who flout the rules will face justice,” he observed.

To fellow journalists, he said since MCK has signed a memorandum of understanding with the IEBC on elections coverage, as long as they abide by its guidelines, and apply the rule of common sense; cognizant of the past chaotic elections, then they do not need to worry.

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“We Can’t Protest So We Pray”: Anguish in Amhara During Ethiopia’s State of Emergency http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/we-cant-protest-so-we-pray-anguish-in-amhara-during-ethiopias-state-of-emergency/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=we-cant-protest-so-we-pray-anguish-in-amhara-during-ethiopias-state-of-emergency http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/04/we-cant-protest-so-we-pray-anguish-in-amhara-during-ethiopias-state-of-emergency/#comments Mon, 17 Apr 2017 00:02:36 +0000 James Jeffrey http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=149986 Woman and child outside a Gonder church with crosses marked in ash on foreheads. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

Woman and child outside a Gonder church with crosses marked in ash on their foreheads. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

By James Jeffrey
BAHIR DAR, Apr 17 2017 (IPS)

As dawn breaks in Bahir Dar, men prepare boats beside Lake Tana to take to its island monasteries the tourists that are starting to return.

Meanwhile, traffic flows across the same bridge spanning the Blue Nile that six months ago was crossed by a huge but peaceful protest march.“They were waiting for an excuse to shoot.” --Priest in Bahir Dar

But only a mile farther the march ended in the shooting of unarmed protesters by security forces, leaving Bahir Dar stunned for months.

Events last August in the prominent Amhara cities of Bahir Dar (the region’s capital) and Gonder (the former historical seat of Ethiopian rule) signalled the spreading of the original Oromo protests to Ethiopia’s second most populace region.

By October 9, following further disasters and unrest, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party declared a six-month state of emergency, which was extended at the end of this March for another four months.

Ethiopian national flags and regional Amhara flags flutter along the bridge over the Blue Nile on the road going east from Bahir Dar that the protesters took last year. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

Ethiopian national flags and regional Amhara flags flutter along the bridge over the Blue Nile on the road going east from Bahir Dar that the protesters took last year. A mile on from the bridge the peaceful march descended into tragedy with shots fired into the crowd. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

On the surface, the state of emergency’s measures including arbitrary arrests, curfews, bans on public assembly, and media and Internet restrictions appear to have been successful in Amhara.

Now shops are open and streets are busy, following months when the cities were flooded with military personal, and everyday life ground to a halt as locals closed shops and businesses in a gesture of passive resistance.

Speaking to residents, however, it’s clear discontent hasn’t abated. Frustrations have grown for many due to what’s deemed gross governmental oppression. But almost everyone agrees that for now, with the state of emergency in place, there’s not much more they can do.

“Now it’s the fasting period before Easter, so people are praying even more and saying: Where are you God? Did you forget this land?” says Stefanos, who works in Gonder’s tourism industry, and didn’t want to give his name due to fear of arrest by the Command Post, the administrative body coordinating the state of emergency.

“Because people can’t protest, they are praying harder than ever.”

The four-month extension to the state of emergency contains less sweeping powers than before. Now police need warrants to arrest suspects or search their homes, and detention without trial has officially been ended. But grievances remain about what happened before.

“Someone will come and say they are with the Command Post and just tell you to go with them—you have no option but to obey,” Dawit, working in Gonder’s tourism industry, says of hundreds of locals arrested. “No one has any insurance of life.”

Outside Gonder churches, beggars line streets hoping for alms. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

Outside Gonder churches, beggars line streets hoping for alms. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

Locals recall how if young men gathered in too large a group they risked getting arrested.

“The regime has imprisoned, tortured and abused 20, 000-plus young people and killed hundreds more in order to restore a semblance of order,” says Alemante Selassie, emeritus law professor at the College of William & Mary and Ethiopia analyst. “Repression is the least effective means of creating real order in any society where there is a fundamental breach of trust between people and their rulers.”

Across Gondar, many unemployed men seek distraction by chewing the plant khat, a stimulant that motivates animated conversation about security force abuses and the dire local economic situation.

“If you kill your own people how are you a soldier—you are a terrorist,” says 32-year old Tesfaye, chomping on khat leaves. “I became a soldier to protect my people. This government has forgotten me since I left after seven years fighting in Somalia. I’ve been trying to get a job here for five months.”

Beyond such revulsion and frustration, some claim the state of emergency has had other psychological impacts.

“Continued fear and distrust of the [ruling] regime by the Ethiopian people,” says Tewodrose Tirfe of the Amhara Association of America. “Continued loss of hope for a better form a government where basic human rights of the Ethiopians are respected.”

For many the memories of what happened during protests last summer are still raw, especially for Bahir Dar residents.

Tens of thousands gathered in Bahir Dar’s centre on August 7 before marching along the main northeast-running road out of the city toward the Blue Nile River, carrying palm tree leaves and other greenery as symbols of peace.

After crossing the bridge there are various versions about what happened next.

Some say a protester attempted to replace Ethiopia’s current federal national flag flying outside a government building with the older, pan-Ethiopian nationalistic flag—now banned in Amhara—an argument ensued and the guard shot the protester.

Others say that protesters threw stones at the building—the guard fired warning shots in the air—then protesters tried entering the compound—the guard fired at them.

But there is less uncertainly about what happened next.

“Security forces suddenly emerged from buildings and shot into the march for no reason,” says an Ethiopian priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They were waiting for an excuse to shoot.”

It’s estimated 27 died that day, the death toll rising to 52 by the end of the week. A total of 227 civilians have died during unrest in the Amhara region, according to government figures, while others claim it’s much higher.

“Two people on my right side dropped dead,” says 23-year-old Haile, marching that day. “One had been shot in the head, one in the heart.”

Such violence was unprecedented for Bahir Dar, a popular tourist location, known for its tranquil lake and laid-back atmosphere.

“The city went into shock for months,” says the Ethiopian priest.

But as the months have passed, normal daily life has gradually reasserted itself.

“People are tired of the trouble and want to get on with their lives,” says Tesfaye, a tour operator. “But, then again, in a couple of years, who knows.”

Many criticise the government for failing to address long-term structural frictions between Ethiopia’s proclaimed federal constitution and an actual centralist developmental state model, as well as failing to resolve—with some saying it actively stokes—increasing ethnic tensions.

“Three years ago I went to university and no one cared where you were from,” says Haile, a telecommunication engineer in Bahir Dar. “Now Amhara and Tigray students are fighting with each other.”

“Federalism is good and bad,” says Haile’s friend Joseph, who is half Tigrayan and half Amhara. “Ethiopia has all these different groups proud of their languages and cultures. But [on the other hand] even though my father is Tigray, I can’t go and work in Tigray because I don’t speak Tigrayan.”

Joseph pauses to consider, before continuing.

“This government has kept the country together, if they disappeared we would be like Somalia,” he says. “All the opposition does is protest, protest, they can’t do anything else.”

Finding such a view in Gonder is much harder.

“The government has a chance for peace but they don’t have the mental skills to achieve it,” says tourist guide Teklemariam. “If protests happen again they will be worse.”

The main road between Gonder and Bahir Dar winds up and down steep hillsides, surrounded by mountains, cliffs and tight valleys stretching to the horizon.

Ethiopia’s vertiginous topography has challenged foreign invaders for centuries. But it’s potentially a headache for domestic rulers too, added to which militarism is a traditional virtue in the Amhara region.

In Gonder, men talk admiringly of an Amhara resistance movement which conducted hit-and-run attacks on soldiers when they occupied the city, before withdrawing into the surrounding mountains.

“The farmers are ready to die for their land,” the Ethiopian priest says. “It’s all they have known, they have never been away from here.”

According to Gonder locals, armed farmers have been fighting Ethiopian security forces for months.

“I saw dozens of soldiers at Gonder’s hospital with bullet and knife wounds,” says Henok, a student nurse, who took part in the protests. “The government controls the urban but not the rural areas.”

Off the main streets in Gonder, Ethiopia, poverty becomes starker. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

Off the main streets in Gonder, Ethiopia, poverty becomes starker. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

Young men like Henok talk passionately of Colonel Demeke Zewudud, a key member of Amhara resistance arrested by the government in 2016, and even more so about Gobe Malke, one of the leaders of the farmer insurrection until he was killed this February, allegedly at the hands of his cousin in the government’s payroll.

“If the government wants a true and real form of stabilization, then it should allow for a true representative form of governance so all people have the representation they need and deserve,” Tewodrose says.

“But the concern of the TPLF is the perception from the international community, so they can continue to receive and misuse foreign aid.”

In his role with the Amhara Association of America, Tewodrose presented a report to a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing March 9 about “Democracy Under Threat in Ethiopia”. The report also detailed 500 security forces killed during fighting in Amhara—Gonder locals claim many more.

“Before I die I just want to see Ethiopia growing peacefully and not divided by tribes,” says 65-year-old grandmother Indeshash, housebound in Gonder due to ongoing leg problems. “If my legs worked I would have protested.”

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Journalism in Nicaragua under Siegehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/journalism-in-nicaragua-under-siege/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=journalism-in-nicaragua-under-siege http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/journalism-in-nicaragua-under-siege/#comments Thu, 30 Mar 2017 22:37:46 +0000 Jose Adan Silva http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=149731 The offices of La Prensa, the oldest newspaper in Nicaragua and the leading media outlet critical of the Daniel Ortega administration, has suffered negative economic consequences as a result, as have other opposition outlets. Credit: José Adán Silva/IPS

The offices of La Prensa, the oldest newspaper in Nicaragua and the leading media outlet critical of the Daniel Ortega administration, has suffered negative economic consequences as a result, as have other opposition outlets. Credit: José Adán Silva/IPS

By José Adán Silva
MANAGUA, Mar 30 2017 (IPS)

During the 161st session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an empty chair across from the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanzas, sums up the Nicaraguan government’s relationship with this issue in the country: absence.

At the Mar. 15-22 meeting of the IACHR, an independent Organisation of American States (OAS) body, only Cuba, the United States and Nicaragua were absent from the debate in the review and complaints session, which in the case of Nicaragua dealt with freedom of expression.

It was the third time this Central American country abstained from participating, which according to experts on freedom of expression and journalism conveys a “disregard” by the government towards the media and journalists, ever since leftist President Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007, after governing the country in the 1980s.

Adrián Uriarte, the dean of the social sciences department in the University of Commercial Sciences, said “freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and goes beyond the media.”

The academic explained to IPS a set of indicators he created to determine the degree of freedom of expression in a country.

The first “refers to the exercise of this right in different social areas: home, community, media, school, church, and now social networks,” while the second “has to do with the exercise of this right in public spaces: protests, demonstrations, marches,” he said.

The third involves “a citizen’s right to demand accountability from the government and the powers-that-be, including the media.”"This can be measured by the lack of access to information, zero interviews, zero advertising from the state, control over tax exemptions, and control of social and labour institutions to exert administrative pressure on owners of media outlets.” -- Adrián Uriarte

The fourth relates to “the right to seek and access public information; and the fifth indicator has to do with the exercise of this right in writing, by radio or television, which of course is directly linked to freedom of the press.”

This country “has good grades in the first indicators, in terms of freedom of expression, mostly because in Nicaragua internet use is not yet regulated, and as a result, social networks have become the main new public spaces where citizens exercise their right to freedom of expression,” said Uriarte.

“But journalists and the media are ironically the group that exercises freedom of expression the least in Nicaragua. I would say actually that this is the area where self-censorship is practiced the most,” said the academic.

In Uriarte’s view, the government of Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, who became vice president in January, “has a sectarian vision of freedom of the press.”

“There are public policies aimed at promoting technological development and access to information and advertising for public and private media outlets, but which have ties, according to investigative reporting, to the current administration,” he said.

“On balance, we can say that in Nicaragua those who suffer a lack of freedom of expression are private media outlets not influenced by the state,” said Uriarte.

“The most visible form has been denial of this right,” he said.

This “can be measured by the lack of access to information, zero interviews, zero advertising from the state, control over tax exemptions, and control of social and labour institutions to exert administrative pressure on owners of media outlets.”

“It is also seen in the cancelation of private spaces in local newscasts, removal of technical equipment from local radio stations, which has naturally led to the closure of private spaces of opinion due to a lack of economic sustainability for many journalists.”

Newspaper and radio reporter Juan Rodríguez has experienced firsthand the consequences of being considered an “opposition journalist”.

“In 2007 I was communications and press officer for the Executive Secretariat of the National System for Disaster Prevention and Care, when the Sandinista government came into power and they cancelled my contract with no legal justification. They fired me because they suspected that I belonged to the right-wing media,” he told IPS.

Since then, Rodríguez has got around a series of barriers and a lack of institutional support to make radio programmes, while complaining about political harassment for having headed the independent Association of Journalists of Nicaragua.

Journalist Luis Galeano, director of the local radio and television programme Café con Voz, put it like this: “As a journalist I always work thinking whether tomorrow we are going to be able to go on the air.” His programme, broadcast by a local TV station and a network of community radios, is not yet considered “opposition”, but Galeano is worried that any day now the authorities will apply pressure to remove it from the air.

“I don’t know whether the government will all of a sudden get annoyed with what I say or do in my programme and order its closure, or whether business people are going to request that my programme be shut down, or whether they will pressure the few business people that support the media to stop backing us. The truth is that I live in constant worry about whether or not I will remain on the air,” he said.

Dozens of journalists have complained about the same sense of uncertainty, to Nicaraguan human rights lawyer Juan Carlos Arce with the non-governmental Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre.

Freedom of expression, according to the United Nations, is based on “the freedom to seek, receive and impart information.” In the current situation this right is not guaranteed for individual citizens, collectives or independent journalists, due to a secretive government policy,” Arce told IPS.

According to the activist, the 2007 policy is based on the strict control of public information and manifests itself as a gag order for civil servants.

For Arce, the problem of freedom of expression is exacerbated by government control of the media. This, in his opinion, “runs counter to the government’s obligation to promote pluralism and independence in the media.”

In this Central American nation of 6.2 million people, in 2007 there was only one TV channel and one radio station in the hands of the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) , another state-owned station and two other pro-government stations, as well as several others close to the government.

In 2017, according to Arce, more than 80 per cent of the radio stations, TV channels, print media and on-line programmes are under the control of the FSLN, controlled by family members, political operators and like-minded journalists, although some occasionally declare themselves publicly as independent.

“As an advocate, the biggest problem is the lack of information of the institutions and the fact that that many people avoid speaking out because they fear retaliation from the government,” he said.

Arce said the absence of the government in the continental forums to debate on freedom of expression is shown not only by the empty chairs during the 161st session of the IACHR, but also in the countless pronouncements of international bodies on violations of human rights and other universal rights.

To illustrate, Arce mentioned U.N. criticisms in its Universal Periodic Review on Nicaragua in 2014, and other reports issued since 2008 by the U.S. State Department, the European Parliament, the OAS, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the Inter American Press Association, Freedom House, and Amnesty International, among others.

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Under Fire, Journalism Explores Self-Preservationhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/under-fire-journalism-explores-self-preservation/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=under-fire-journalism-explores-self-preservation http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/under-fire-journalism-explores-self-preservation/#comments Fri, 24 Mar 2017 13:50:06 +0000 A. D. McKenzie http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=149625 Journalists call for the freeing of a colleague at a UNESCO colloquium in Paris. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

Journalists call for the freeing of a colleague at a UNESCO colloquium in Paris. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Mar 24 2017 (IPS)

With widespread attacks on professional journalists and the rise of a fake-news industry, media experts agree that journalism is increasingly under fire. But how can the press fight back and ensure its survival?

Judging by the stubbornly defiant tone at a one-day colloquium held at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters on March 23, there may still be reason for hope in a media landscape ravaged by the killings of journalists, verbal abuse of reporters, job losses, low pay and “alternative facts”.The business model that has long served the press in general is changing, and the sector is universally scrambling to adapt in ever-transforming terrain.

“When [U.S. President] Trump said that the media is the enemy of the people, it’s perfect for journalism,” said Vicente Jiménez, director-general of the Spanish radio network Cadena SER. “We can eradicate some bad practices. It’s a great opportunity.”

Jiménez was one of several media professionals calling for journalists to clean up and protect their own sector, during the colloquium titled “Journalism Under Fire: Challenges of Our Times”.

“Journalism used to be a pillar of democracy,” Jiménez said. “But that model is changing with social media.”

He said the dependence on “clicks” for on-line-media income was leading to “stupid” and “vile” stories, and he told participants that the three most-read stories in Spain over the past year were fake ones. He warned that the media would lose its relevance if this situation continued.

Carlos Dada, co-founder and editor-in-chief of El Faro digital newspaper, based in El Salvador, stressed that a distinction had to be made between “media” and “journalism”. As an example, he said that during a certain period in his country, journalism was under fire while media companies grew rich, partly by being politically compliant and going about business as usual.

Dada said that technology was “not only a threat” but that it was also a “huge opportunity” in areas such as using data in investigative stories, for which El Faro is known in Latin America.

Still, the business model that has long served the press in general is changing, and the sector is universally scrambling to adapt in ever-transforming terrain, participants pointed out.

According to UNESCO, “technological, economic and political transformations are inexorably reshaping” the communications landscape.

“Major recent elections and referenda have raised many questions about the quality, impact and credibility of journalism, with global significance,” the agency said.

In organizing the colloquium, UNESCO said it hoped to “strengthen freedom of expression and press freedom, since modern societies cannot function and develop without free, independent and professional journalism”.

As some panellists noted, however, many journalists work under political dictatorship – in countries that are United Nations member states – and they “pay with their lives” or with their liberty for telling the truth, as one speaker put it.

UNESCO statistics show that more than 800 journalists have been killed over the past decade, and although the agency has been working with governments and the press on ways to end impunity for the killers of media workers, attacks on journalists continue on a daily basis.

Yet killing, imprisoning or abusing the “messenger” is only one aspect of the assault on professional journalism. The dissemination of so-called fake news, with “mainstream” media companies sometimes involved, has led to confusion among the public about what is real and what is false and contributes to the overall distrust of the press.

While critics have particularly slammed social media company Facebook for its role in spreading false news stories, the company is adamant that the responsibility lies with its users.

“You’ll see fake news if you have signed up to fake news sites,” said Richard Allan, a former politician and Facebook’s Vice President of Policy for the European, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region, who participated in the colloquium.

Explaining how the company’s “algorithm” works for showing content, Allan said that the “vast majority” of what users saw in their feed was the “sum” of material to which they connected.

He told the colloquium that Facebook was trying to address the issue of fake news, but he added: “We don’t want to be the world’s editor.”

If Facebook is unwilling to be a gatekeeper, who would take action though, asked Maria Ressa, a former CNN correspondent and now editor-in-chief and CEO of on-line news site Rappler in the Philippines.

“We have not only misinformation … we have disinformation,” she said, describing the deliberate spreading of false stories in targeted attacks against individuals, groups or policies.

For Serge Schmemann, a New York Times writer and editor, “fake news is more a symptom than the real problem”. A crucial issue is how journalists are now expected to produce news, with often too little time or resources to work on an in-depth story.

But, said Schmemann, “We will adapt, we will survive… We have to remain honest reporters.”

A key to survival may be getting the public involved, according to David Levy, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

In an interview on the sidelines of the colloquium, he told IPS that for professional journalism to continue, it will have to get people to value the service enough to pay for it.

“Sometimes ordinary people see journalists as part of the problem, rather than the solution, and journalists have to change this image by getting rid of bad ethics and practices,” he said.

Financial support is already a possibility through crowd-funding, subscriptions and philanthropy, Levy said. In addition, the proper functioning of publicly funded media – where politicians refrain from interference while still holding the media accountable – was an essential part of the solution, he added.

Despite all these views and the organizing of one conference or colloquium after another (there will be a slate of them on World Press Freedom Day, May 3), the outlook remains troubling, even dire, for many journalists in the field.

“We don’t have jobs. We’re badly paid,” said Paris-based Burundian journalist Landry Rukingamubiri. “Then there’s fake news and pretend-journalism. Where do we go from here?”

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Half a Century of Struggle Against Underdevelopmenthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/half-a-century-of-struggle-against-underdevelopment-2/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=half-a-century-of-struggle-against-underdevelopment-2 http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/half-a-century-of-struggle-against-underdevelopment-2/#comments Fri, 03 Mar 2017 10:00:53 +0000 Pablo Piacentini http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=149227

This oped was written by the Argentinian journalist Pablo Piacentini, cofounder of IPS to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the agency in 2014. IPS is republishing it now to celebrate his life. Piacentini passed away in Rome on March 1.

By Pablo Piacentini
ROME, Mar 3 2017 (IPS)

The idea of creating Inter Press Service (IPS) arose in the early 1960s in response to awareness that a vacuum existed in the world of journalism, which had two basic aspects.

Firstly, there was a marked imbalance in international information sources. World news production was concentrated in the largest industrialised countries and dominated by a few powerful agencies and syndicates in the global North.

By contrast, there was a lack of information about developing countries in the South and elsewhere; there was hardly any information about their political, economic and social realities, except when natural disasters occurred, and what little was reported was culturally prejudiced against these countries. In other words, not much of an image and a poor image at that.A journalist specialised in development issues must be able to look at and analyse information and reality from the “other side.” In spite of globalisation and the revolution in communications, this “other side” continues to be unknown and disregarded, and occupies a marginal position in the international information universe

Secondly, there was an overall shortage of analysis and explanation of the processes behind news events and a lack of in-depth journalistic genres such as features, opinion articles and investigative journalism among the agencies.

Agencies published mainly ‘spot’ news, that is, brief pieces with the bare news facts and little background. Clearly this type of journalism did not lend itself to covering development-related issues.

When reporting an epidemic or a catastrophe in a Third World country, spot news items merely describe the facts and disseminate broadcast striking images. What they generally do not do is make an effort to answer questions such as why diseases that have disappeared or are well under control in the North should cause such terrible regional pandemics in less developed countries, or why a major earthquake in Los Angeles or Japan should cause much less damage and fewer deaths than a smaller earthquake in Haiti.

Superficiality and bias still predominate in international journalism.

While it is true that contextualised analytical information started to appear in the op-ed (“opposite the editorial page”) section of Anglo-Saxon newspapers, the analysis and commentary they offered concentrated on the countries of the North and their interests.

Today the number of op-eds that appear is much greater than in the 1960s, but the predominant focus continues to be on the North.

This type of top-down, North-centred journalism served the interests of industrialised countries, prolonging and extending their global domination and the subordination of non-industrialised countries that export commodities with little or no added value.

This unequal structure of global information affected developing countries negatively. For example, because of the image created by scanty and distorted information, it was unlikely that the owners of expanding businesses in a Northern country would decide to set up a factory in a country of the South.

After all, they knew little or nothing about these countries and, given the type of reporting about them that they were accustomed to, assumed that they were uncivilised and dangerous, with unreliable judicial systems, lack of infrastructure, and so on.

Obviously, few took the risk, and investments were most frequently North-North, reinforcing development in developed countries and underdevelopment in underdeveloped countries.

Pablo Piacentini

Pablo Piacentini

In the 1960s, those of us who created IPS set ourselves the goal of working to correct the biased, unequal and distorted image of the world projected by international agencies in those days.

Political geography and economics were certainly quite different then. Countries like Brazil, which is now an emerging power, used to be offhandedly dismissed with the quip: “It’s the country of the future – and always will be.”

At the time, decolonisation was under way in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Latin America was politically independent but economically dependent. The Non-Aligned Movement was created in 1961.

IPS never set out to present a “positive” image of the countries of the South by glossing over or turning a blind eye to the very real problems, such as corruption. Instead, we wished to present an objective view, integrating information about the South, its viewpoints and interests, into the global information media.

This implied a different approach to looking at the world and doing journalism. It meant looking at it from the viewpoint of the realities of the South and its social and economic problems.

Let me give an example which has a direct link to development.

The media tend to dwell on what they present as the negative consequences of commodity price rises: they cause inflation, are costly for consumers and their families, and distort the world economy. Clearly, this is the viewpoint of the industrialised countries that import cheap raw materials and transform them into manufactured goods as the basis for expanding their businesses and competing in the global marketplace.

It is true that steep and sudden price increases for some commodities can create problems in the international economy, as well as affect the population of some poor countries that have to import these raw materials.

But generalised and constant complaints about commodities price increases fail to take into account the statistically proven secular trend towards a decline in commodity prices (with the exception of oil since 1973) compared with those of manufactured goods.

IPS’s editorial policy is to provide news and analyses that show how, in the absence of fair prices and proper remuneration for their commodities, and unless more value is added to agricultural and mineral products, poor countries reliant on commodity exports cannot overcome underdevelopment and poverty.

Many communications researchers have recognised IPS’s contribution to developing a more analytical and appropriate journalism for focusing on and understanding economic, social and political processes, as well as contributing to greater knowledge of the problems faced by countries of the South.

Journalists addressing development issues need, in the first place, to undertake critical analysis of the content of news circulating in the information arena.

Then they must analyse economic and social issues from the “other point of view”, that of marginalised and oppressed people, and of poor countries unable to lift themselves out of underdevelopment because of unfavourable terms of trade, agricultural protectionism, and so on.

They must understand how and why some emerging countries are succeeding in overcoming underdevelopment, and what role can be played by international cooperation.

They also need to examine whether the countries of the North and the international institutions they control are imposing conditions on bilateral or multilateral agreements that actually perpetuate unequal development.

World economic geography and politics may have changed greatly since the 1960s, and new information technologies may have revolutionised the media of today, but these remain some important areas in which imbalanced and discriminatory news treatment is evident.

In conclusion, a journalist specialised in development issues must be able to look at and analyse information and reality from the “other side.” In spite of globalisation and the revolution in communications, this “other side” continues to be unknown and disregarded, and occupies a marginal position in the international information universe.

An appreciation of the true dimensions of the above issues, the contrast between them and the information and analysis we are fed daily by the predominant media virtually all over the world – not only in the North, but also many by media in the South – leads to the obvious conclusion that there is a crying need for unbiased global journalism to help correct North-South imbalance.

To this arduous task and still far-off goal, IPS has devoted its wholehearted efforts over the past half century.

Pablo Piacentini, born in Buenos Aires, cofounded IPS-Inter Press Service in 1964. Having served as Editorial Director, Chief Editor and then Director of the Economics Service, until six months ago Piacentini headed the IPS Columnist Service.

 

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Community Stations Fight for Frequencies in El Salvadorhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/02/community-stations-fight-for-frequencies-in-el-salvador/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=community-stations-fight-for-frequencies-in-el-salvador http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/02/community-stations-fight-for-frequencies-in-el-salvador/#comments Mon, 27 Feb 2017 07:58:13 +0000 Edgardo Ayala http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=149116 Sandra Juárez, holding a microphone, rehearses together with two colleagues from Izcanal Radio and Television to record a programme. This station is the only community TV station in El Salvador, which can only be viewed by subscription, but that could change with the advent of the digital system in the country. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Sandra Juárez, holding a microphone, rehearses together with two colleagues from Izcanal Radio and Television to record a programme. This station is the only community TV station in El Salvador, which can only be viewed by subscription, but that could change with the advent of the digital system in the country. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

By Edgardo Ayala
NUEVA GRANADA, El Salvador, Feb 27 2017 (IPS)

The Izcanal Radio and Television set is simple and austere, but this TV station made history in El Salvador, being the first, and until now the only one, to make the leap from community radio to community TV channel, in 2006.

It has done this through a local cable TV station, not an open signal channel, but that could change very soon.

“Our greatest wish is to compete for Izcanal to have its frequency and broadcast on an open signal channel; that’s our dream,” said Wilfredo Hernández, news coordinator at the Izcanal station, which was born in February 1993 in Nueva Granada, a town in the eastern department of Usulután.

Izcanal’s signal reaches across this town to 35 surrounding municipalities, but to receive it you have to pay for cable TV service. “The right to freedom of expression has to do with access to different sources of information and spaces for participation, and when the media system is exclusive and corporate, there is no way to guarantee this right.” -- Leonel Herrera

Its programming is focused on showing positive developments and initiatives in the community, revolving around themes such as local development, women and gender, environment, a culture of peace and migration.

“The major media outlets don’t show the good things that are happening in the communities, we offer this option,” said Sandra Juárez, coordinator of programming and content, while she edited an audio file on a computer.

Hernández and Juárez hope that radio and television, which are currently dominated by private commercial stations, will become more open and democratic, but to achieve that the authorities would have to generate the appropriate conditions.

They told IPS that the legal and operational foundations are in place to open up to new alternative projects, which would lead to a strengthening of the freedom of expression.

The government of leftist President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has announced the launch of digital TV in 2018, a new technology which will optimise the bandwidth and could make way for new stations, especially community, public and academic stations, among others.

For the shift from analogue to digital, the authorities chose the ISDB-Tb model, known as the “Japanese-Brazilian” model, used throughout Latin America, except in Colombia and Panama.

Social organisations grouped together in the Network for the Protection of the Right to Communication (RedCo) are fighting for El Salvador’s General Superintendency of Electricity and Telecommunications (Siget), the regulator of the sector, to promote the incorporation of these new players in the TV frequencies and also to open spaces on the jam-packed radio spectrum.

The expansion of the radio spectrum gained momentum following the reform of the Telecommunications Law in May 2016, which acknowledges community and other non-profit stations, and established alternate mechanisms for them to participate in the allocation of frequencies, such as direct allocation and a tendering process.

Wilfredo Hernández, during the broadcast of one of the radio news programmes of Izcanal Radio and Television, a project that emerged in 2003 in Nueva Granada, in eastern El Salvador. The community station was the only one to expand towards a TV channel. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Wilfredo Hernández, during the broadcast of one of the radio news programmes of Izcanal Radio and Television, a project that emerged in 2003 in Nueva Granada, in eastern El Salvador. The community station was the only one to expand towards a TV channel. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

When the 1980-1992 civil war ended, a score of community stations were operating, initially broadcasting without a license from private frequencies, which led to crackdowns by the police.

In 2008, they managed to secure, through third parties, an FM license, which they fractioned and divided into zones to broadcast their programming, although with interference.

For years they struggled for the elimination of the auction system, imposed by the now reformed 1997 Telecommunications Law, a scheme that prevented community stations from competing on an equal footing.

In 2015, the Supreme Court came down on their side, ruling that something other than the auction system should exist, to guarantee the participation of these actors, in response to appeals on the grounds of unconstitutionality filed by social organisations in 2012 and 2013 against this mechanism and other aspects of the law in force at the time.

The inclusion of these new players in radio and television would give the country’s media a more pluralistic and inclusive character, which would strengthen freedom of expression, said Leonel Herrera, head of the Association of Participatory Radios and Programmes of El Salvador (Arpas).

“The right to freedom of expression has to do with access to different sources of information and spaces for participation, and when the media system is exclusive and corporate, there is no way of guaranteeing this right,” Herrera told IPS.

But the idea of extending the allocation of frequencies faces heavy opposition from commercial radio stations, controlled by five corporate consortiums, which account for 92 per cent of the spectrum, according to Siget.

The segment for open TV is almost entirely in private hands, although of the 42 existing stations, seven are not commercial and are run by religious organisations, and two others are state-run.

Uncertain future

But the entry of new players, in radio as well as in television, cannot be taken for granted, and if the current system remains as it is, blocking the entry of other participants, the media will become even more concentrated in fewer hands, said Herrera.

In the case of television, the digital platform and its greater bandwidth would allow diversification, but Herrera argued that the existing license-holders intend to keep the extra bandwidth for their channels.

In radio, the panorama is even more complex, because the radio spectrum is full and the commercial consortiums refuse to give space to community stations, although there are proposals to divide the frequency bandwidth to double the space.

“Siget must comply and make room, otherwise the reform that acknowledges community radio stations will only remain on paper,” said Izcanal’s Hernández.

A request from IPS for an interview with the superintendent of the regulator, Blanca Coto, received no answer.

An opportunity for new licenses in radio could open this year, during the renewal of frequencies, a process which takes place every 20 years. Until the reform in 2016, they were automatically renewed, a mechanism which practically ensured the concessionaires a license for life..

Now they must meet requisites such as keeping up with payments, failing to commit serious infringements, and making proper use of the broadcast signal.

But RedCo argues that with these standards almost every station will manage to get its license renewed, and that other aspects should be taken into account, such as whether the license was originally obtained in a transparent, legal manner.

A report from the Presidential Secretariat of Participation, Transparency and Anti-corruption revealed in September 2016 that 60 per cent of the concessions granted before the 1997 Telecommunications Law have no paper trail to verify their allocation.

The then regulatory body used to grant frequencies as an award for political favours or to benefit relatives or friends of the right-wing National Republican Alliance (Arena), in power from 1989 to 2009.

If Siget includes this transparency factor proposed by the organisations that make up RedCo, some licenses may not be renewed, giving community stations a chance.

But even if community stations are granted radio and TV licenses, this would not be enough to bring about a more democratic media system. To do that, the state must back up these measures with public policies aimed at promoting and developing community radio, said the interviewees.

The RedCo organisations have submitted a Proposal for a Public Policy in Communications, to contribute to a debate that, in the end, should generate clear measures to democratise the media in El Salvador.

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Confusion over U.S. Travel Ban Grounds Foreign Correspondentshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/02/confusion-over-u-s-travel-ban-grounds-foreign-correspondents/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=confusion-over-u-s-travel-ban-grounds-foreign-correspondents http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/02/confusion-over-u-s-travel-ban-grounds-foreign-correspondents/#comments Mon, 20 Feb 2017 16:20:32 +0000 Tharanga Yakupitiyage http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=149031 Confusion over the implementation of the US travel ban has left journalists unable to travel. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS.

Confusion over the implementation of the US travel ban has left journalists unable to travel. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS.

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
NEW YORK, Feb 20 2017 (IPS)

New restrictions on immigrants and refugees coming to the United States are also posing challenges for foreign correspondents covering news in the United States. Some have had to indefinitely postpone plans to report on conflicts in the Middle East while others have found an unfriendly reminder of their past treatment as journalists in less free countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration executive order sent shockwaves throughout the world as citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and all refugees were barred from entering the country for 90 days and 120 days respectively.

Though the travel ban is temporarily on hold following a court decision to reject its reinstatement, President Trump stood by his policy, calling it “common sense” and promising to keep “the wrong people” out of the U.S. Trump announced Thursday that he would sign a new Executive Order next week which will address some of the legal issues raised by the U.S. courts.

Within the millions affected by the travel ban are journalists, many of whom were caught amidst the chaos and confusion as the initial Executive Order was implemented.

In the wake of the order, BBC journalist Ali Hamedani, an Iranian-born British citizen, was detained and questioned upon his arrival at Chicago’s O’Hare airport for over two hours.

“I was always dreaming to live here, to write stories here, to be able to travel to places and write whatever I wanted to write about without being persecuted,” -- Journalist Sama Dizayee.

He said his phone and computer were searched, including his social media accounts.

”It wasn’t pleasant at all. To be honest with you, I was arrested back home in Iran in 2009 because I was working for the BBC and I felt the same this time,“ he said.

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, a dual American and Iranian citizen, also expressed his fear about the “major” impact of the new policy on his family, stating: “This isn’t the America I promised [my wife] when we were finally set free.”

Rezaian spent nearly two years in an Iranian prison after being arrested on charges including espionage and propaganda against the government.

CNN editor and award-winning journalist Mohammed Tawfeeq, who is an Iraqi national and legal permanent resident of the U.S., was detained in Atlanta where he was subjected to additional screening. He promptly filed a federal lawsuit challenging the executive order.

“We are concerned when policies adopted by countries restrict the access and movement of journalists…We believe that journalists should be allowed to enter countries, to report on them regardless of where those countries are,” Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch told IPS.

The ban also affects foreign correspondents covering the United Nations. Although there is a specific exception for journalists traveling as part of diplomatic delegations to the United Nations, the original executive order does not directly address any other media visas given to foreign media representatives traveling to or who are already in the country.

The restrictions have also concerned journalist Sama Dizayee, an Iraqi journalist who is a green card holding legal permanent resident in the U.S.

Dizayee told IPS that she had a trip planned to London but was forced to cancel it once the travel ban was implemented.

“I wake up and [saw] all of these people that were detained, deported back to their home countries…I was like oh my god I’m a legal resident here in America and I came all the way from Iraq here to pursue journalism, a dream that I always wanted and now my freedom is threatened,” she told IPS.

The Department of Homeland Security later clarified the policy in relation to green card holders, stating that U.S. permanent residents from one of the seven countries are not automatically barred from entry and will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Despite this, Dizayee, who initially had refugee status before becoming a permanent resident, said she still did not want to take the risk.

“Do I really want to become subject to extra screening and hours of being held at the airport? Do I really want to be profiled as a Muslim Iraqi here in the U.S.? This is not an experience I want to remember,” she said.

Dizayee told IPS that she has always been subjected to extra screening due to her background, waiting for hours to be released.

“That really stays with you…and it has now become a law with this travel ban,” she said.

Dizayee highlighted that the stakes are particularly high for journalists whose work is now limited due to the inability to travel.

“[Journalists] go places to cover stories—they go to Iraq, to Lebanon, we travel all the time,” she said, adding that she had planned to travel to Iraq to cover the Mosul battle.

“I can’t be there now, I can’t write that story,” Dizayee continued.

CPJ issued a safety advisory for journalists, recommending that those who are from one of the seven countries with media visas in the U.S. should not leave within the time period covered by the executive order.

Radsch also advised journalists not to travel with mobile or other devices or to make sure confidential or important information is backed up rather than on their devices.

“This order is helping to highlight the importance of [digital security] for journalists,” she told IPS.

The U.S. order has already emboldened other governments to implement similar policies, including the Iraqi government which approved a “reciprocity” measure banning Americans from entering the Middle Eastern country, further restricting information flow across borders and journalists’ ability to report.

Radsch highlighted the need to get clarity on how the order is impacting journalists and what the regulations are.

She also told IPS that journalists have been subject to secondary screening and questioning at the border before this new policy, including Canadian photojournalist Ed Ou who was pulled aside and interrogated for six hours on his way to cover the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. After refusing to surrender the password to his devices, Ed Ou was denied entry into the U.S.

Dizayee expressed uncertainty and apprehension regarding the future of the new travel restrictions.

“I was always dreaming to live here, to write stories here, to be able to travel to places and write whatever I wanted to write about without being persecuted,” she told IPS.

“I am not going anywhere for the next 90 days for sure,” Dizayee continued.

The immigration executive order, initially implemented at the end of January, was denounced by several human rights groups and politicians, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who said: “Discrimination on nationality alone is forbidden under human rights law. The US ban is also mean spirited, and wastes resources needed for proper counter-terrorism.”

Similarly, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Sarif, said the Trump Administration’s decision would be recorded in history as “a great gift to extremists and their supporters” while Swedish foreign affairs minister Margot Wallström said she was “deeply concerned” by a decision that “creates mistrust between people.”

Others expressed support for the move including Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who stated that “”it is vital that every nation is able to control who comes across its borders.”

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Sri Lanka Shines Light on Public Sector Governancehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2017/02/sri-lanka-shines-light-on-public-sector-governance/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sri-lanka-shines-light-on-public-sector-governance http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/02/sri-lanka-shines-light-on-public-sector-governance/#comments Wed, 15 Feb 2017 15:23:31 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=148952 Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) Act could open new doors for the country’s media if journalists use it effectively. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) Act could open new doors for the country’s media if journalists use it effectively. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Feb 15 2017 (IPS)

Sri Lanka’s long-awaited and much-debated Right to Information (RTI) Act became law this month without much fanfare.

There was no big PR campaign on the part of the government to unveil it on Feb. 3, a day before the island’s 69th Independence celebrations. There was not even a public event, a rarity in this South Asian island, where politicians are prone not to let such opportunities pass by.

Maybe the lack of fanfare was due to a rare understanding of what RTI could do to Sri Lanka’s governing culture – like media minister Gayantha Karunathilake predicted several months ago, the act now places all elected and public officials ‘inside a glass box’ of public scrutiny.

And the requests have flooded in. Taking the lead has been actor turned politician and current deputy minister of social welfare, Rajan Ramanayake. He filed a slew of requests even before the ink dried on the new act.

“This is an act will reveal everything about politicians, without any discrimination on party affiliations,” Ramanayake said.

His RTI requests include details on the number of bar permits, sand mining permits, duty free shop permits, fuel station permits and land permits that have been offered to elected officials from parliamentarians to those at local government bodies. He said he was likely to receive the details by the third week of February.

He has also filed a request for details of all licenses given out by the government to operate TV stations and their conditions.

Most of the first batch of RTI requests have been linked to corruption within public sector, according to RTIWire, a national website that tracks the progress of the act.

“When we asked the public what information they would seek through RTI, almost a third of them referenced some form of corruption by public servants; for example, asset declarations, irregularities in tenders, salaries and perks for ministers,” RTIWire said in profiling the first ten days of the new act.

Citizens in the former conflict zone in the North and East have used the act to seek information on land acquisitions by government departments and on missing loved ones.

Media Minister Karunathilake is candid about the act’s possible ramifications on the government ,which has stepped into the second of a five-year term.

“This will open up the government structure completely for scrutiny. Usually governments will take this kind of decision at the toe end of their terms, but we have not. The act can minimize corruption.”

There has been criticism leveled at the government that the act was aimed at soothing international concerns on rights issues, especially those stemming from the administrations of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa between 2005 to 2015.

The minister denied that there was any connection between the act and the government’s efforts to regain preferential tariff deals for garment exports to the European Union.

“There is no connection at all,” he said. In the next two months the EU is expected to announce whether Sri Lanka will be allowed back in to GSP+ tariff fold that it lost in 2010 due to rights-related concerns.

Opposition parties, however, say that the government is not showing the same enthusiasm it displayed in getting the act finally functioning in making sure the act is implemented efficiently.

“If they are serious, they should begin awareness campaigns without delay,” Opposition MP from the People’s Liberation Front Nalinda Jayatissa said.

To be fair, the government has a Herculean task on its hands in getting RTI information officers into all government agencies, which according to some estimates at the Media Ministry could be in the range of 40,000.

The Ministry has been training officers in the last few months, and while several thousand have taken up posts, many more remain to be filled. The government has not done itself any favours by only allocating a mere Rs 25 m (175,000 dollars) in the current budget for RTI implementation.

Close to two weeks after the act became law, the government was yet to announce the relevant officers in departments, adding confusion and creating unnecessary delays for those submitting requests. B.K.S. Ravindra, the additional secretary at the Media Ministry, said that list would soon be made available online, but did not give a date.

During the first week of the act, there was also confusion about whether police came under the act and who was the relevant officer for each station. Ravindra said that police stations indeed came within the act and that the Assistant Superintendent of Police from each district would serve as the RTI officer.

But according to RTIWire, “the Police are still in the process of appointing Information Officers. This should be complete within the next few weeks. The police force is currently participating in trainings held by the Ministry of Mass Media on Right to Information.”

There is also a dearth of awareness in rural areas on the act and how to file requests, especially in rural areas. In Arananayake, a rural village about 130km from the capital Colombo, which suffered a devastating landslide last year, villagers still living in temporary shelters had absolutely no idea that they could gain information from using the act.

The bigger test for the government will be to make sure that the RTI act does not end up a damp squib.

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