‘Democratators’ – why the press is less free

censorshipIn the worldwide movement away from democracy, perhaps the most vulnerable institution is the free press, and the most disposable people are journalists, The New Yorker’s George Packer writes.  

“Around the world new systems of control are taking hold. They are stifling the global conversation and impeding the development of policies and solutions based on an informed understanding of the local realities,” according to Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

“Repression and violence against journalists is at record levels, and press freedom is in decline,” he writes in his new book, “The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom,” outlining four main reasons why this is so:

The first is the rise of elected leaders, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the leftist Presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, who use their power to intimidate independent journalists and make it nearly impossible for them to function. They exploit their democratic mandates to govern as dictators—“democratators,” as Simon calls them. ….

The second source of censorship, according to Simon, is terrorism. …The extreme violence of conflict today is actually amplified by technological progress. Armed groups no longer need to keep journalists alive, because they have their own means of—in the terrible cliché—“telling their story”: they can post their own videos, publish their own online reports, and tweet to their own followers, knowing that the international press will pick up the most sensational stories anyway. …

“The idea that freedom of expression, along with other public liberties, is a specifically Western ideology, rather than a universal right, is increasingly common, from Caracas to Beijing,” Packer notes: 

Simon’s book confirms an idea I’ve had about the fate of institutions in the information age. Despite its promise of liberation, democratization, and levelling, the digital revolution, in undermining traditional forms of media, has actually produced a greater concentration of power in fewer hands, with less organized counter-pressure. As a result, the silencing of the press, otherwise known as censorship—whether by elected autocrats, armed extremists, old-fashioned dictators, or prosecutors stopping leaks with electronic evidence—is actually easier and more prevalent today than it was twenty years ago.


Breaking North Korea’s Information Blockade


South Korea Ship SinksForty days. That’s the timespan between September 3 and October 14 that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un vanished from public sight. This incident exemplified the murkiness that surrounds information in North Korea, according to Christopher Walsh, the Program Coordinator for Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute, and Victor Cha, the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies,

The North Korean regime maintains the world’s worst media environment, they write for Foreign Policy.com. Independent press is nonexistent. Televisions and radios must be modified to receive government approved channels only. Foreign media of any kind is illegal. Defiant citizens risk imprisonment or worse; in fact, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on North Korea details public executions for those in possession of DVDs of South Korean dramas.

The situation is not hopeless though. North Korean society is undergoing a transformation that, coupled with external forces, is changing the media environment. As a result, North Korea’s formidable information barriers are fracturing (see infographic below).

Foreign radio broadcasts produced by international governments and South Korea-based defector organizations also penetrate North Korea. Outside radio is the only nationwide source of credible, real-time news. Listeners go to great lengths to bypass government barriers, illegally modifying radios to receive foreign signals and even building their own from wood and spare electronics.

Cell phones are another factor in North Korea’s modest information revolution. Recent estimates suggest there are now two million mobile subscribers. Illegal phones, those purchased in the markets or smuggled from China, show incredible potential.


Christopher Walsh is the Program Coordinator for Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute. Victor Cha formerly served as Director on the National Security Council staff in the George W. Bush Administration. He is the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, and a Fellow in Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute.


Cyberattacks target dissidents, pro-democracy groups

CHINA CYBER ATTACKA coalition of security researchers has identified a Chinese cyberespionage group that appears to be the most sophisticated of any publicly known Chinese hacker unit and targets not only U.S. and Western government agencies but also dissidents inside and outside China, Ellen Nakashima reports for the Washington Post:

In a report to be issued Tuesday, the researchers said Axiom is going after intelligence benefiting Chinese domestic and international policies — an across-the-waterfront approach that combines commercial cyberespionage, foreign intelligence and counterintelligence with the monitoring of dissidents.

Axiom’s work, the FBI said in an industry alert this month, is more sophisticated than that of Unit 61398, a People’s Liberation Army hacker unit that was highlighted in a report last year. Five of the unit’s members were indicted this year by a U.S. grand jury. The researchers concur with the FBI’s conclusion, noting that, unlike Unit 61398, Axiom is focused on spying on dissidents as well as on industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property.

“Axiom’s activities appear to be supported by a nation state to steal trade secrets and to target dissidents, pro-democracy organizations and governments,” said Peter LaMontagne, chief executive of Novetta Solutions, a Northern Virginia cybersecurity firm that heads the coalition. “These are the most sophisticated cyberespionage tactics we’ve seen out of China.”

China, the object of recent U.S. allegations of cyberspying, may hack more often, U.S. officials and researchers say. But Russia hacks better, according to a Wall Street Journal report:

A U.S. official said differentiating between Russian criminal hackers and government hackers is difficult because the government uses cybersurveillance tools created by criminal groups and criminals use tools developed by the government.

“I worry a lot more about the Russians” than China, America’s top spy, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said at a University of Texas forum this month, speaking of cyberattacks.

The hacking attacks have unnerved Chinese dissidents, said Columbia University professor Andrew Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“There’s a paranoia that sets in,” he said. “That may be one of the functions of this surveillance.”

A non-governmental democracy assistance group was one of over 70 companies, governments and non-profit organizations targeted in a massive cyberspying offensive in 2011 that experts believe was likely conducted by China.

“The presence of political non-profits, such as the a private western organization focused on promotion of democracy around the globe or U.S. national security think tank is also quite illuminating,” said the report from the McAfee security firm. “Hacking the United Nations or the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Secretariat is also not likely a motivation of a group interested only in economic gains.”



Tying up the internet, Balkanizing the digital world

iraninternet freedom ftConcerns are rising that efforts to protect citizens from foreign surveillance will Balkanize the digital world. Blocking websites, bottling up information so it cannot flow freely around the world and ramping up the monitoring of people who are online are becoming increasingly common ways to manage the internet – and not just in authoritarian countries, according to a special FT report: .

Developments such as these are often depicted as a fight between the forces of darkness, represented by reactionary governments, and the forces of light, in the form of internet idealists trying to keep the medium open, says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a professor of internet policy at Oxford university.

But that perception is a fiction, he says. “A global commons of the internet was something that never existed. It was a useful aspirational thing for internet companies.” In reality, he adds, “there were always vacuums of power on the internet, which were seized by different organisations”.

One danger, however, is that the cause of defending a nation’s citizens is being used as a pretext for repressive political action. This year Turkey banned YouTube and Twitter for carrying allegations of political corruption, though the bans were overturned in the country’s constitutional court.

“The law used to be about protecting children from harmful content,” says Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi university. “Now it is all about protecting government from content they deem undesirable.”

If even democracies cannot be trusted as stewards of an open internet, the power of all governments must be kept in check by companies and civil society through processes based in a common commitment to keep cyber space free and interconnected, argues Rebecca MacKinnon, the author of ‘Consent of the Networked’ and director of the Ranking Digital Rights project at the New America Foundation:

But if companies are to win civil society over to their side, activists must be able to trust them not to violate their privacy or restrict speech. Strengthening trust in public and private institutions that shape the internet should be a priority for anyone with an interest – commercial, moral or personal – in keeping global networks open and free.


Turkey: strike down internet curbs, says rights group


Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch

New legal amendments giving the Turkish authorities broad powers to block websites and to amass users’ internet activity data should be overturned, Human Rights Watch said today.
The new measures deepen existing internet censorship in Turkey, increase surveillance of internet users, and violate privacy.

“After hosting the 2014 Internet Governance Forum, Prime Minister Davutoglu’s new government has adopted even more provisions to restrict free speech online and the privacy of internet users,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These measures would violate basic rights protected in the constitution and guaranteed under international law and should be struck down.”

A new law adopted by parliament on September 10, 2014, that would amend a range of other laws on a broad range of subjects introduces two new measures increasing the powers of the Telecom Directorate (TIB), a regulatory body whose head is appointed by the government. In July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the prime minister, stated that the directorate should be run by the National Intelligence Agency (MİT). The current head is a former MİT operative….

In February and March the government adopted amendments to the existing internet law (no. 6551) giving the directorate the authority to block internet content deemed to violate privacy. The government’s changes were a response to the circulation of wiretapped telephone conversations of politicians, including the prime minister, via social media. …These two amendments were included (as articles 126 and 127) in the major reform bill that parliament approved on September 10. ….

“The latest steps are the latest blow to net freedom and privacy rights in a year in which Turkey unlawfully blocked both Twitter and YouTube,” Sinclair-Webb said. “They should be reversed now, before Turkey has to account for and redress these violations at regional and international levels.”