Technology is connective, but is it democratizing?

Many commentators mistakenly interpreted the Arab Spring in 2011 as a harbinger of democratic movements everywhere, and now the pendulum of punditry seems to have swung hard in the opposite direction, says Sheldon Himmelfarb of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Contrary to this doom-saying, however, opportunities for citizen participation in political processes have never been greater, thanks to the ingenuity of a new generation of activists and technologists, he writes for Foreign Policy:

Three recent studies of “peacetech” tools have documented their use and promise, as well as their limitations. The first, “Citizen Participation and Technology,” released in May by the nonpartisan National Democratic Institute (NDI), reviewed nine international programs with which NDI collaborated in countries such as Uganda, Mexico, and Egypt. The programs attempted to leverage technology to improve citizens’ participation in politics.It found, broadly, that technology is expanding this participation and is changing the relationship citizens have with organizations and public institutions, even in places where these effects might not be obvious.

“According to New York University professor Clay Shirky, social media is a tool that strengthens the public sphere — and a robust and active public sphere is necessary to increase political freedoms around the world and to create political change,” Himmelfarbd notes:

larryDiamondLarry Diamond, a founder of the liberation-technology program at Stanford University, echoes this sentiment and points toward a highly controlled society — China, where citizens have used microblogging site Weibo to identify corrupt officials — to best understand this phenomenon…For experts like Diamond and Shirky, the Internet’s decentralized architecture, the spread of cell phones, and the sheer popularity of social-network applications have combined to produce a revolution in social activism. Others, however, have taken issue with this. Writer Malcolm Gladwell, for example, has argued in the New Yorker that a crucial distinction exists between traditional activism and its online variant. Social media, he says, is effective at building loosely affiliated networks, which are the opposite in structure and character of effective social-change movements of the past.

“It is too early to tell the outcomes of today’s violent conflicts that are spawning the chorus of calls for more inclusive governments,” he argues. “But this is certain: The public sphere is growing. And in a world where 3 billion people are expected to enter the global middle class over the next two decades and have greater access to technology in their daily lives, the power of technology-enabled citizen networks to pressure governments and large institutions to act is only going to grow — putting new potential to prevent wars and solve humanity’s most pressing problems within reach, if not in our grasp.”


TeliaSonera’s covert connection to Azerbaijani president’s daughters


azerbaijan network

Through a trail of owners and offshore registrations, the two daughters of President Ilham Aliyev appear to be connected to Azerbaijan’s largest mobile phone business, Azercell, RFE/RL’s Khadija Ismayilova reports

Records indicate they are linked to two of the three largest providers, which means the government is potentially controlling nearly three-quarters of the mobile market. This raises serious questions about Internet surveillance and communications security within Azerbaijan and may help to explain complaints about costly service.

It also indicates more unusual ties between Swedish telecom giant TeliaSonera and Eurasian political figures than the company has publicly acknowledged, according to documents reviewed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and (RFE/RL).

Media watchdogs say these hidden connections behind the ownership of mobile-phone operators raise serious questions about Internet freedom and the extent to which government officials may be listening to citizens.

Rashid Hajili is the director of the Media Rights Institute in Baku, which monitors media and protects journalists’ rights. He says the Internet is heavily monitored by the Azerbaijani government, which has a history of blocking websites that criticize it.

Hajili says the Ministry of Communication requires all communication companies to provide equipment and special facilities to the Ministry of National Security for surveillance. But while the companies have cooperated with Azerbaijani law enforcement in cases involving journalists and bloggers, Hajili says media rights advocates haven’t received information needed to defend those journalists.




Chávez legacy strained amid fears for freedom in Venezuela

vzlachavezcorralesVenezuela’s economy is so badly run that even recent presidential broadcasts have been interrupted by power cuts, the FT’s Andres Schipani writes:

The ruling socialist party, the PSUV, is also suffering from internal rifts ahead of its third congress at the end of July. The question there will be whether Mr Maduro and the pragmatists in his cabinet are strong enough to push for more reforms.

At stake is the economic survival of Chávez’s “21st-century socialism”. Since taking office in April 2013, Mr Maduro has struggled to unite the PSUV, where factional discord has pushed Venezuela deeper into the economic mire, despite the largest oil reserves in the world.

“Chavismo has always been an heterogeneous bloc glued together by the figure of Chávez,” says Edgardo Lander, an influential leftwing sociologist in Caracas. “Without Chávez, and amid such economic and political problems, the rifts are creating a crisis for Maduro.”

Venezuela is a deeply divided country, where propaganda and the news media have long been part of the political battleground between a powerful leftist state and an opposition concentrated in the middle class and the elite, William Neuman writes for the New York Times:

The government operates at least 10 television stations and more than 100 radio stations, and critics say that independent media outlets increasingly feel pressured into silence or self-censorship.

The two other recent media sales involved Globovisión, a television station that aggressively promoted the opposition’s political agenda, and Cadena Capriles, a newspaper chain that publishes Últimas Noticias, one of the country’s highest-circulation dailies. Under the new ownership, news coverage at both of those outlets became more favorable toward the government.

“The information ecosystem in Venezuela is currently subjected to strong political pressure that affects its diversity and pluralism,” said Carlos Correa, the executive director of Public Space, a nonprofit organization focusing on press freedom.

Mr. Correa pointed out that Globovisión was sold after it was repeatedly hit with large fines by a government regulatory agency over its news coverage, including charges that its coverage of a prison riot had instigated violence. Before that, the main pro-opposition television station, RCTV, lost its broadcast license in 2007. And during the protests this year, Mr. Maduro ordered a Colombian news channel, NTN24, barred from cable here, saying he objected to its coverage.

Newspapers have also come under pressure as the government has refused to allow them to obtain dollars needed to import newsprint. El Universal and several other papers have reduced the number of pages they print and have warned they might have to stop printing if paper runs out. Some regional newspapers have stopped printing temporarily because of the shortage.

“There is a government policy to harass and bother the media,” Mr. Correa said.

For now, the opposition has coalesced around two figures, the FT’s Schipani writes:. The first is María Corina Machado, a former congresswoman who the government accuses of plotting to assassinate the president – claims that she and others dismiss as dreamt up by Maduro supporters to divert attention from the country’s troubles…

vzlaHenrique_Capriles_Radonski_2The other is Henrique Capriles [right], an opposition leader narrowly defeated in last year’s presidential election. He advocates a slower strategy of building popular support among Venezuelans who once loved Chávez but have since grown disenchanted with the PSUV. “One has to start from working with the people on the reasons why the government has to go,” he says.

Indeed, a May poll by local survey Datanalisis found Mr Maduro’s popularity has fallen to 39 per cent from 51 per cent last year, and four out of five Venezuelans are pessimistic about the country’s direction.

Call to overhaul pro-freedom broadcasting

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Bachus Discuss Fannie And Freddie Reform PlansHouse Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (right) has called for a complete overhaul of the U.S. government agency that oversees civilian broadcasting abroad, saying the current Broadcasting Board of Governors is effectively “defunct” and “real change” is needed to send American voices of freedom to people who aren’t as free, Newsmax reports:

At a media breakfast on Friday hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, Royce specifically criticized the “the part-time Board of Governors, which very often cannot find a quorum.” He called for replacing the current structure of three disparate broadcasting bodies by combining them into “a single institute.”

“It would be put under a CEO and have an advisory panel, and operate like the NED,” he said, referring to the National Endowment for Democracy, the umbrella agency that oversees the four core pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations.

“We need an overhaul of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and a complete reinvigoration of Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America,” the California Republican said. “Real change is needed to offset the propaganda in Russia and the Middle East.”

“Radio Free Liberty and Radio Free Europe helped instruct a generation of young Germans and helped shape” the present free Germany, he said, noting that many Germans have said the positive messages they heard on those broadcasts were light years removed “from the bombastic rhetoric of [Communist] East Germany.” RTWT

From Sudan to South Sudan, dissident editor won’t be silenced

sudan taban 2On Wednesday July 3 South Sudanese security forces confiscated the entire print run of South Sudan‘s leading independent English language daily newspaper, the Juba Monitor. The reason? Its editor Alfred Taban defied an order not to report on local government demands to be given more authority, Jason Patinkin reports for the Christian Science Monitor:

“It didn’t surprise me,” he says, leaning back in his office chair next to towering stacks of papers lit by the glow of a computer screen.  ”I knew they would react negatively.”

Having endured years of harsh censorship in Khartoum under successive dictators, Taban, from the south, hoped that independence for South Sudan would bring change. But three years later, Taban says the press climate in Juba the capital is nearly as bad as his years in Khartoum, in Sudan.

Taban first moved to Khartoum in 1976 to attend university, then became the BBC’s correspondent in 1981, and until 2007. But it was in 2000 when he began his most important and dangerous work, as he calls it – starting the Khartoum Monitor in order to report on the civil war for readers in the rebellious south.

“Taban’s tenacity earned him a 2006 meeting in the Oval Office (above, left) with President George Bush where he received a National Endowment for Democracy award,” Patinkin adds:

But Taban’s biggest problem is the ruling government’s attitude about press freedom, especially given the civil war. He’s been detained four times since 2011. He and other editors receive calls from the government not to report on topics like corruption.  The confiscation of the July 3 paper was the third such incident this year, and came a day after South Sudan’s press minister pledged to uphold press freedom.