Soft censorship ‘a rising danger’

Soft censorship is a rising danger to press freedom and democratic processes around the world, say two leading experts.

It is an often little visible official effort to influence the media through means other than direct censorship or force, according to Vincent Peyrègne, chief executive of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, and Mark Nelson, senior director of the Centre for International Media Assistance.

These include the arbitrary placement of government advertising, as well as biased subsidies, licensing arrangements, and for broadcasters, frequency allocation, all of which can sustain or destroy the financial viability of media firms, they write for The Economist.

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Putin’s iron-fisted message: ‘progressive conservatism’?

sovietmotherland_smThe revolution in Ukraine, and Russia’s lightning-speed annexation of Crimea, triggered a landslide shift in the Russian media, says Shorenstein Center fellow Jill Dougherty.

With Russia’s state-owned domestic mass media firmly under government control, the Kremlin is putting increasing pressure on smaller, independent media. Internationally, it is moving aggressively to champion Russia’s policies and values by rebuilding the decayed communications and propaganda structures of the Soviet Union, she writes for The Huffington Post:

Injecting new life – and new money – into the “medium,” it has honed its “message:” a litany of recriminations against the West and a firm conviction that Russia has the right, to reject Western values, and to promote its own alternative view to the world.

One Russian TV journalist, requesting his name not be used because of the political sensitivity of the issue, told me it’s not so much an issue of being pro-Kremlin or anti-Kremlin; Mironyuk, he says, “was a kind of liberal Kremlin media manager and that liberal clan has been defeated, and defeated with blood. And another hard-line clan has been waiting…they are now ruling the Russian media and that’s why everyone who used to be against them is being destroyed.”

[After a purge of its leadership] Russia Today soon shifted its editorial approach, forgetting about early features on life across the vast expanse of Russia, broadcasting a steady stream of “alternative” news reports, heavy on conspiracy theories, criticism of the American government’s “oppressive” domestic and international policies, and a steady stream of “what-about-ism,” a time-worn propaganda technique used by the Soviet government in which criticism is deflected by cries of “but what about?…”

In the 1990′s Russia’s media outlets were sometimes taken over at the point of a gun. At 3 a.m. on April 14, 2001 I stood in the hall on the eighth floor of Ostankino Television Center at the offices of NTV, Russia’s cutting-edge, hard-hitting news channel, as armed men forced the station’s security to step aside. NTV was now under control of the state-owned energy conglomerate Gazprom. The new NTV specializes in screeds against the opposition and two years ago made waves with an ambush interview with the new American Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul. After that run-in McFaul tweeted “Everywhere I go NTV is there. Wonder who gives them my calendar?”

Today, the domestic Russian media are more likely to be brought under Kremlin control in “hostile takeovers” than in midnight raids by men in balaclavas and body armor. The state controls all TV networks, beginning with First Channel, which covers approximately 98% of all households in the country.

“All TV networks are either under state control or under control of the state-affiliated companies that are headed by Putin’s closest friends,” investigative journalist Yevgenia Albats, chief editor of The New Times magazine told me in March. “All these current media are in the hands of the Kremlin.”

Talking to “Brotherly” Countries

Vladimir Putin’s media reach doesn’t stop at Russia’s borders. It extends to other parts of the Russian-speaking world, “brotherly” countries that used to be Soviet republics. Last December, explaining why he was offering a loan to cash-strapped Ukraine, Putin told reporters: “I’ll tell seriously without any irony: we often use the phrase ‘brotherly country’ and ‘brotherly people.’”

Image Problems

Moscow, however, has had difficulty in expanding the reach of its media internationally.

Kremlin officials have candidly admitted to me that Russia has an “image problem.” In an interview in Moscow last year Konstantin Kosachev, head of Rossotrudnichestvo, Russia’s key soft power agency, told me: “Right now the image of Russia is, in some way objectively, negative. In some way it is discredited.”

Vladimir Putin claims the West is waging a media war against Russia. Kremlin officials are deeply cynical about the West’s “image management.” Human rights, democracy, they have told me, are nothing more than “branding” meant to “sell” a nation internationally. As Alexander Smirnov, the Kremlin’s public relations and communications chief, put it in a Moscow interview in February 2012: “If we are talking about democracy, it’s the most expensive brand in the world that you (the U.S.) have created. It’s a million times more expensive than Coca-Cola.”

‘Progressive conservatism’

Now, with the sudden birth of Russia Today, President Putin is re-creating a crucial part of the Soviet Union’s external propaganda structure dismantled under Boris Yeltsin. The new agency is shaping up as a modern version of APN (News Press Agency,) founded in 1961, which was tasked with reporting on “the social-economic and cultural life of the Soviet people and items reflecting Soviet society’s point of view on important internal and international events”.

Russia, in Putin’s eyes, has become the un-West, a center of gravity in its own right. “I think they are getting more definite about what we are NOT,” says Ekaterina Zabrovskaya, editor in chief of Russia-direct.org. “They are opposing our beliefs to some Western ideas.”

“I would say it’s ‘progressive conservatism,” RIA Novosti’s Executive International Director Pavel Andreev told me. “It’s based on the foundation of Russianness, of unique Russianness. I think this is the narrative which they will be developing but it’s still in the early stages, to be adopted and to develop the external messaging that would be unified across the board but, I mean, they are getting there.”

Ukraine, Vladimir Putin says, is the turning point. “Our Western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally,” he told his lawmakers, as applause filled the ornate hall of the Kremlin.

“They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything.”

HT: MikeMcFaul

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Secret ‘Cuban Twitter’ scheme aimed to advance democratic change

cuba - civil rightsThe U.S. Agency for International Development devised a secret social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist regime, AP reports:

According to documents obtained by The Associated Press and multiple interviews with people involved in the project, the plan was to develop a bare-bones “Cuban Twitter,” using cellphone text messaging to evade Cuba’s strict control of information and its stranglehold restrictions over the Internet. In a play on Twitter, it was called ZunZuneo – slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet.

Documents show the U.S. government planned to build a subscriber base through “non-controversial content”: news messages on soccer, music, and hurricane updates. Later when the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize “smart mobs” – mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”

At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions. But its subscribers were never aware it was created by the U.S. government, or that American contractors were gathering their private data in the hope that it might be used for political purposes……

USAID documents say their strategic objective in Cuba was to “push it out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get the transition process going again towards democratic change.”

HT: RealClearWorld

Buying Compliance: Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico

buyingcomplianceA virtually unregulated system of government advertising has distorted Mexico’s media landscape and corrupted the country’s media profession, according to a new report, Buying Compliance: Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico.

Mexico’s media today face great difficulties. Physical attacks are all-too common, the shadow of state control has not fully faded, market concentration is extreme, and most media outlets have advanced little towards a democratic model to serve as an impartial watchdog on actions of government and other societal actors.

Any discussion of Mexico’s media situation must begin by explicitly recognizing—and condemning—ongoing assaults on journalists. Mexico is among the world’s most dangerous countries to practice journalism. Since 2000, over 77 journalists have been murdered. Another 17 have disappeared. This terrible violence is widely documented by Mexican and international press freedom groups.

The impact of these attacks is very powerful and very clearly leads to widespread self-censorship. But more subtle means also and perhaps more widely constrain media freedom in Mexico. “Soft censorship,” or indirect government censorship, includes a variety of actions intended to influence media—short of closures, imprisonments, direct censorship of specific content, or physical attacks on journalists or media facilities.

This report focuses primarily on financial aspects of official soft censorship: pressures to influence news coverage and shape the broad media landscape or the output of specific media outlets or individual journalists through biased, and/or nontransparent allocation or withholding of state/government media subsidies, advertising, and similar financial instruments.

In Mexico, the allocation of Government advertising is the more common tool to exert soft censorship and is an integral part of the country’s complicated media landscape. Absent precise and clear rules, it is a means to influence or even a tool to blackmail media owners and journalists. Federal and local governments use official advertising to shape media outlets’ editorial line and push partisan agendas. Opaque and arbitraryallocation of official advertising constrains pluralism and a diversity of voices by selectively funding media outlets that support officials and their policies.

Some media owners actively partner with politicians in a corrupt symbiosis that earns both power and profit. Many Mexican media outlets have become addicted to public money, corrupting basic journalistic ethics. Articles praising or criticizing specific politicians are often offered primarily as leverage to negotiate more lucrative government advertising contracts.

Mexico’s very high level of ownership concentration in the television industry (largely dominated by only two players) is an important aspect of the soft censorship landscape. The growing economic clout of these two media businesses has magnified their influence on the country’s political life. These dominant companies often skew nominally democratic debates towards their self-interest.

Buying Compliance: Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico offers an overview and detailed examples of how a virtually unregulated system of government advertising has distorted Mexico’s media landscape and corrupted the country’s media profession. Refusal to license community radio stations as a constraint on media freedom is also addressed. The report does find some reasons for hope in efforts in a few states and by some media outlets to instill new integrity in both official and journalistic practice—and in pledges, as yet unfulfilled, by Mexico’s president and legislators to enact genuine change.

Another cause for guarded optimism is the 2013 Constitutional Reform on Telecommunications, which has the potential to make a profound change in Mexico´s media landscape and generate greater pluralism and competitiveness. This report’s key recommendations are a launching point for wider reforms urgently needed to help Mexico’s media fulfill its proper role in promoting democracy, pluralism, and accountability—rather than serving as an empty vessel to be filled with and driven by government advertising.

The findings of this paper, Buying Compliance: Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico, are based  on  the results of the three-year (2010-2012) Official Publicity Project led by Fundar and the ARTICLE 19 Office for Mexico and Central America, with the support of the Open Society Foundations.  

It follows two reports published in January: Soft Censorship: Strangling Serbia’s Media and Capturing Them Softly: Soft Censorship and State Capture in the Hungarian Media 

For more information on the Center for International Media Assistance, please explore our website or contact CIMA@ned.org.