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

The Revolution Was Televised: Media in Post-Euromaidan Ukraine


Ukraine is experiencing the most turbulent period in its history as an independent country, and the media, in all its forms, has been an integral part of these developments every step of the way-from the Facebook post of well-known investigative journalist, Mustafa Nayeem, that was credited with bringing students out to the Maidan in November to the narrative propagated by Russia’s President Putin that served as a pretext for annexing Crimea.

As tensions mounted and protests grew, new media covered almost every moment; Internet television came into its own; and social networks hummed. As violence escalated, it was clear that journalists were being targeted.  Yet the majority of Ukraine’s people, particularly those living outside of large urban centers, still depend on traditional media as their primary news source. A lack of professionalism and ethics in journalism and editorial policy has undermined trust in media, and there remains a low level of media literacy in general. Nonetheless, Ukraine now has an unprecedented opportunity to reform the country’s media.


Kateryna Myasnykova

Independent Association of Broadcasters of Ukraine

Marjorie Rouse


Moderated by:  

Mark Nelson 

Center for International Media Assistance

Thursday, April 3

1:00-3:00 p.m.

National Endowment for Democracy

1025 F Street, N.W., Suite 800

Washington, DC 20004


Trial by Twitter? Erdogan, Gülenists, and the future of Turkish democracy

TurkeyMiddleClassFlagProtestTaksimRTR22YAE-198x132Last week’s attempt by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “wipe out” Twitter was  rightly decried as a sign of his creeping authoritarianism and an effort to contain the effects of incriminating recordings of telephone conversations between him, his cabinet ministers, family members, and newspaper editors, says Halil Karavelli, a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, affiliated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. 

The country’s democrats have yet again “failed to stand on their own feet,” he writes for Foreign Affairs. “Turkey’s pro-democratic forces, and liberals in particular, have a history of putting faith in illiberal forces to advance or protect democracy,” Karavelli observes:  

In the 1990s, as the Islamists’ popularity grew, many in the left looked to the military as a savior. When the military grew too powerful, the influential liberal intelligentsia rallied to the Islamic conservative AKP, whom they expected to stand up for democracy once the generals had been emasculated. To that end, the liberals were willing to turn a blind eye toward many of Erdogan’s abuses of power. With Erdogan now proving autocratic, it seems that the liberals have turned toward a new ally. Even though Gülen says all the right things about democracy and the rule of law, however, the way his followers have used their positions in the bureaucracy to put in place a Big Brother state indicates his true intentions.

erdoganFor Erdogan, the timing of the recent scandals could not be worse, says Svante E. Cornell, the editor-in-chief of The Turkey Analystand Karavelli’s SAIS colleague.

On March 30, Turkey is holding municipal elections, in which the stakes are anything but local, he writes for the Middle East Forum:

Instead, they are a battle of wills between the prime minister and the Gülenists, followers of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen who have been locked in a showdown with Erdogan, their onetime ally, since last December. The tapes are apparently meant to hurt Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the elections, laying the groundwork for his eventual downfall. But in addition to exposing the prime minister’s abuses of power, the tapes also reveal the Gülenists’ own dirty dealings.

“As alliances have been struck and dissolved, Turkey’s pro-democrats have tended to focus on one enemy — whether the generals in the past or Erdogan now,” Karavelli writes:

It is telling that Cengiz Çandar, one of Turkey’s leading liberal pundits recently wrote in the daily Radikal that, if the country were a real democracy, Erdogan would have had to resign after the recordings of him first started to leak. The irony that a prime minister of a democratic country had been wiretapped by his own bureaucratic apparatus apparently did not give Çandar pause. Indeed, Turkish democratic intellectuals and pundits demonstrate intellectual laziness when they reduce their country’s democratic crisis to an Erdogan problem. RTWT

Erdoğan is a talented politician and may yet find ways to survive this crisis as a weakened leader, argues Cornell:

His main asset is the sense of unity within the core AKP that provides a strong antidote to an overt split….Even the Gülenists appear to see a united AKP—but without Erdoğan—as the ideal outcome. But even if Erdoğan succeeds in staying in power, his chances of achieving one-man rule are now largely illusory. He could change party rules and seek a fourth term or, more likely, open an escape hatch and seek to be elected president under the current constitution. This would lead to his gradual loss of influence over day-to-day politics. In any case, it is more than likely that the Islamist movement that he led to unprecedented dominance over Turkish politics will soon conclude that Erdoğan has done his part. ….

What, then, would a post-Erdoğan Turkey look like? This will be the moment of truth for Turkish “moderate” Islam. At first sight, Turkey’s trajectory over the past several years suggests that even in the best possible circumstances, political Islam will be unable to shake its undemocratic, authoritarian, and intolerant characteristics. Even Turkey’s largest Islamist community, the Gülen movement, now implicitly acknowledges this, opposing the very notion of political Islam.

“Islamists have been able to say with some justification that the problem is not political Islam but Erdoğan as a person,” Cornell notes. “The track record of Erdoğan’s successors will determine whether political Islam can redeem itself.”



After the protests: the limits of slacktivism

Last Wednesday, more than 100,000 people showed up in Istanbul for a funeral that turned into a mass demonstration. No formal organization made the call. The news had come from Twitter, analyst Zeynep Tufekci writes for The New York Times.

“Protests like this one, fueled by social media and erupting into spectacular mass events, look like powerful statements of opposition against a regime. And whether these take place in Turkey, Egypt or Ukraine, pundits often speculate that the days of a ruling party or government, or at least its unpopular policies, must be numbered,” she notes.

“Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale,” says Tufekci, a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University:

This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.

Remember Spain’s Indignados (the outraged) Egypt’s tech-savvy Tahrir Square protesters and Occupy Wall Street?

Social media can provide a huge advantage in assembling the strength in numbers that movements depend on, Tufekci contends:

 Those “likes” on Facebook, derided as slacktivism or clicktivism, can have long-term consequences by defining which sentiments are “normal” or “obvious” — perhaps among the most important levers of change.

Media in the hands of citizens can rattle regimes. It makes it much harder for rulers to maintain legitimacy by controlling the public sphere. But activists, who have made such effective use of technology to rally supporters, still need to figure out how to convert that energy into greater impact. The point isn’t just to challenge power; it’s to change it.