‘Crucial assets’ sapping North Korea’s media control

“From a small and crowded office in a Seoul backstreet, Park In-Ho shines a light on one of the most closed and secretive nations on earth. His Internet newspaper Daily NK is one of about a dozen South Korean organizations collecting news about North Korea, through sources inside the hardline communist state and contacts or staffers in neighboring China,” Agence France Presse reports:

“We wanted to let people here and abroad know how ordinary North Koreans live and think, a subject which has often been ignored by South Korean media,” said Park, 40, the Daily NK publisher.

The fugitives in China are “crucial assets” as their relatives and friends back home are the main source of information. But he would not discuss newsgathering operations, to protect his sources.

“Our operation is risky,” he said. Inside the North, “Pyongyang regards our secret sources within its system as spies and is desperate to discover their identities”, he told AFP.

The website now gets about 100,000 hits a day from people including government officials, scholars and journalists, he said.

Apart from advertising revenue it relies on donations from the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit foundation sponsored by the US Congress, to fund about 30 percent of its operations.

The North’s regime is losing its iron grip on media, according to a new report.

North Koreans are learning more about the outside world than at any time since the state’s founding, according to A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment, a path-breaking report from Intermedia.

“In 2012, North Koreans can get more outside information, through more types of media, from more sources, than ever before and they are less fearful of sharing that information than ever before,” says the U.S. State Department-commissioned study.

“Advanced media technologies such as mobile phones, computers, MP3 players and USB drives, have begun to make their way into North Korea in substantial numbers, particularly among the elites,” the study observes:

Since the mid-2000s, the field of broadcasters into North Korea has expanded. In addition to official government-funded sta­tions such as Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Korean Broadcasting System, independent broadcasters, some of which are funded by the U.S. government through DRL and the National Endowment for Democracy, such as Open Radio for North Korea, Radio Free Chosun (see video above) North Korea Reform Radio and Free North Korea Radio, also broadcast into North Korea.

The Pyongyang regime’s attempt to block external information “has not been so successful because of a growing appetite among North Korean people for news about the outside world”, said Kim Ik-Hwan, secretary general of Open Radio.

“Public allegiance to the regime is getting weaker and money counts for a lot there due to corruption, which is rampant and far more serious than we think,” he said.

Open Radio’s 20-member crew, including five defectors, relies on donations from NGOs and the NED to fund its daily broadcasts for five hours from 10 pm, AFP reports.

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Syria: can SNC ‘corpse’ turn it around?

Syria’s opposition has been receiving “significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States,” the Washington Post reports. But some observers fear that the supply of arms will boost radical factions at the expense of pro-democracy groups still committed to non-violent strategies.

The militarization of the conflict also coincides with further splits within the Syrian National Council which boycotted a planned opposition unity conference in Cairo this week. The group this week re-elected Barhoun Ghalioun as its president, a move that appears likely to prompt further resignations rather than cement unity.

“Across the country for weeks, some activists have brandished signs saying ‘The SNC does not represent me,’ criticizing the political infighting that has seen some of Syria’s top dissidents walk away from the group,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

“The SNC is a corpse, which the entire international community is desperately trying to resuscitate,” said Fawaz Tello, a veteran opposition figure who left Syria to work with the Istanbul- and Paris-based group:

He planned to resign from the council, saying it had failed to restructure to become more inclusive, transparent and democratic.

The SNC’s fragile standing has hurt international efforts to mold the body into the type of transitional council with accountable leadership and street credibility that governments would feel more comfortable supporting. The perceived leadership gap has allowed for other networks of both peaceful and armed activists to develop across Syria, with their own patrons abroad.

Some members who have split from the council protest what they call a monopoly on influence by the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the SNC’s seven political factions.  The Brotherhood is allied with Mr. Ghalioun in a power-sharing agreement that these critics say places Mr. Ghalioun as the secular, liberal front for an Islamist-dominated opposition.

“Despite administration hopes that the Sunni-led Syrian National Congress would become an umbrella organization, it has failed to win support from minority Syrian Christians, Kurds, Druze and Assad’s Alawite sect,” the Post reports. “All have resisted what they say is the group’s domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The Syrian opposition should look to the country’s east if it wants to “forge a truly inclusive national movement,” writes Hassan Hassan:

Known as Al Jazira, the eastern part of Syria consists of three provinces and makes up over 40 per cent of the country. ….Al Jazira is populated by Arab tribes and Kurds; both have historically suffered from the Baathist regime in Damascus. The area is also economically vital for the regime, as it accounts for 70 per cent of Syria’s oil and gas output and is a main source of agricultural and livestock products. If the Assad regime lost control here, it would suffer a heavy blow.

So why hasn’t Al Jazira shifted fully against the regime? The reasons for the relative quiet can be attributed to the nature of the area and its residents but, more importantly, to the opposition’s failure to cash in on a coalescing disdain for the Assad regime.

The “stagnant” SNC “cannot forge a country-wide movement if it does not represent all society’s sectors,” says Hassan.

“Nowhere is this more obvious than in Al Jazira - home to Kurds and Arabs alike. Reassuring religious minorities, on which the council’s efforts have focused so far, has miserably failed. But appealing to a broader cross-section of Syrians is essential to remove the regime. “

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EU assesses neighbors’ reform efforts

Europe’s neighbors have given a mixed response to the European Union’s incentives for democratic reform.

“While progress has not been universal, since last year, many partners have taken bold steps to accelerate their democratization and reform processes,” according to an annual assessment of the European Neighborhood Policy released yesterday. The report assesses the progress made in 12 neighboring countries, including several post-Soviet states, over the past year and shares recommendations for the way forward.

“There are a number of issues on which partner countries need to step up their reform efforts and there are aspects of its offer where the EU needs to deliver more promptly,” the report suggests, with regard to reform prospects in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Jordan, Lebanon, Moldova, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine, Algeria, Israel, Libya and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

On Ukraine, the report welcomes Kyiv’s progress towards negotiating an association agreement with the EU, Europolitics reports, but expresses alarm over rule of law, citing several politically motivated trials, including the case of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

“The EU repeatedly expressed its concern at the degradation of the rule of law in the country and the slow pace of a number of political reforms,” the report said.

The EU has responded with “determination” to a rapidly-changing circumstances in its neighborhood, says the assessment – “Delivering on a new European Neighborhood Policy” – drafted jointly by High Representative Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele.

“Applying the reform-rewarding logic of ‘more for more’, the EU has supported those partners embarking on political reforms,” a Commission statement said.

“I have always said that we will be judged on our work with our immediate neighbors, and I am convinced that we are moving in the right direction,” said Ashton.

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Informal justice resolving conflict in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

As a key institutional constraint on the exercise of arbitrary power, rule of law is considered a core component of democracy. But does legitimacy only reside in formal legal institutions?

In Tajikistan, the Young Lawyers Association “Amparo” is one of the leading civil society groups promoting human rights and rule of law, while in neighboring Kyrgyzstan groups like the Center for Support of International Protection and the Human Rights and Democracy Center perform a similar function.

But what role does informal justice play in resolving conflict in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan?  Is there an inverse relationship between the use of informal justice mechanisms and properly functioning state institutions?

In Kyrgyzstan, aksakal courts (courts of elders) are village-level institutions responsible for resolving community-level disputes, although they are increasingly described as largely obsolete and only used in villages to resolve small disputes. Their authority to resolve cases is gradually diminishing; most aksakal courts surveyed received less than ten cases last year.

In Tajikistan, informal leaders, usually imams, often play a contradictory role: they often act as arbitrators and mitigate conflict within their communities and yet they oversee practices that can violate individual rights and contravene Tajik law, such as officiating marriages and divorces outside of state institutions. In recent years, the authority of informal leaders has increased because of the government’s inability to provide much needed social services, including fair and equal access to justice. 

Azita Ranjbar spent a year in Tajikistan as a Fulbright Fellow and two months in Kyrgyzstan interviewing ordinary citizens on the role that informal justice plays in daily life. She will present her findings from both countries.

Azita Ranjbar, author of The Declining Use of Aksakal Courts in Kyrgyzstan and Informal Justice in Tajikistan. Respondent: Dr. Eric McGlinchey, George Mason University. 

Friday, May 25, 2012. 9:30 to 11:00 a.m. Light breakfast provided. Lindner Commons, 6th floor, George Washington University, 1957 E Street, NW, Washington, DC.   

Sponsored by the Eurasia Foundation and the Central Asia Program at George Washington University.  Media interested in attending should RSVP to Melinda Haring at Eurasia Foundation at 202-234-7370, ext. 122 or mharing@eurasia.org.

Tajikistan’s Young Lawyers Association and Kyrgyzstan’s Center for Support of International Protection and the Human Rights and Democracy Center are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Still no justice two years after Thai crackdown

Two years on from Thailand’s most violent political conflict since pro-democracy protests against military rule in 1992, the authorities have failed to arrest or charge any soldier or official in connection with at least 90 fatalities and over 2,000 injuries incurred in the “Red Shirts” protests, rights groups said today.

The resilience of the political tensions underpinning the protests was evident today when arsonists burned down a pavilion in Songkhla, a day after Tida Tavornseth, chairwoman of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), presided over the opening ceremony.

Police suspect a political motive, The Bangkok Post reports, because some locals “were not happy with the red-shirt movement’s push into the southern province,” traditionally a bastion of the opposition Democrat Party.

The Thai government should withdraw an amnesty bill submitted to parliament that would shield all those involved in abuses during the 2010 violence from prosecution, said Human Rights Watch: In a video released today (above), victims and their family members from both sides demand justice and tell Human Rights Watch that the failure to investigate and prosecute those responsible for abuses during the 2010 violence would lead to a cycle of violence and impunity.

“Despite well-documented atrocities that took place in the full view of cameras and witnesses, no Thai soldier or official has been held accountable,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The military should not be above the law. The government needs to prosecute all those responsible for crimes, whatever their political affiliation or official position, to provide justice for the victims and end the cycle of violence and impunity.”

From March to May 2010, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the “Red Shirts,” held a mass protest against the government. In Thailand’s most violent political confrontations since pro-democracy protests against military rule in 1992, at least 90 people died and more than 2,000 were injured. Arson attacks in and outside Bangkok also caused billions of dollars in damage. Human Rights Watch’s May 2011 report “Descent into Chaos” concluded that the military used excessive and unnecessary lethal force and that armed elements within the UDD called “Black Shirts” engaged in attacks.

The previous government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva established the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand to investigate and report on the 2010 violence. The Abhisit government charged UDD leaders and hundreds of UDD protesters with serious criminal offenses, but did not file charges against any government officials or military personnel. Since the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took office in August 2011, the focus of criminal investigations has shifted entirely to cases in which soldiers were implicated, while ignoring those involving UDD violence.

According to the Justice Ministry, more than 600 people have been charged for alleged violence and other crimes in connection to the UDD protests. Of those charged, 290 were arrested and 53 of them remain in prison. The Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand found that the charges against many of the UDD protesters were summary and excessive. No soldiers or governments officials have been arrested or charged by either the Abhisit or Yingluck governments. The investigation by the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) has progressed slowly. Of the more than 90 known deaths, only 16 cases have been sent by the DSI to the prosecutor to launch post-mortem inquests.

The Truth for Reconciliation Commission has missed a series of reporting deadlines and has not been given sufficient resources and powers to fulfill its mandate, Human Rights Watch said. Another inquiry conducted by the National Human Rights Commission has suffered from mistrust and lack of cooperation from participants in the events. Families of victims from all sides told Human Rights Watch they welcome the decision by the Yingluck government to provide reparations to those harmed by the 2010 violence.

However, many families fear that financial compensation will be offered as a substitute for a full investigation and a process for bringing perpetrators of violence to justice. Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern about the March 27 proposal by the ruling Pheu Thai Party and coalition partners in the parliament for a broad amnesty for leaders and supporters of all political movements, politicians, government officials, and members of the security forces involved in the 2010 violence.

Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on April 15 responded to those opposing the proposal for amnesty and political reconciliation that, “Mother of Katekamol Akhard, volunteer nurse who died during the dispersal at Ratchaprasong, is still angry that her daughter was shot by soldiers and does not want to have amnesty … But we have to listen to [what is] the greater good. And the minority [voice] should make a sacrifice.” “The Yingluck government came to power promising justice to the victims of political violence. It should resist pressures to engage in a whitewash,” Adams said. “Current efforts to pass an amnesty law for serious abuses committed by government forces and armed protesters would be an affront to victims, who seek and deserve justice.”

Thailand’s Campaign Committee for Human Rights is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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