Friday, December 09, 2011

Council of Europe book on media and human rights

At the invitation of Article 19, I attended the launch of a new Council of Europe book on Human Rights and a changing media landscape yesterday at the Free Word Centre in London. Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, led the panel of authors in a wide ranging discussion of freedoms in a digital age.  The website has a nice synopsis of the book
"The media play a crucial role in the protection of human rights. They expose human rights violations and offer an arena for different voices to be heard in public discourse. Free, independent and pluralistic media are a core element of any democracy. However, the power of the media can also be misused to the extent that the very functioning of democracy is threatened. Some media outlets have been turned into propaganda megaphones for those in power. Others have been used to incite xenophobic hatred and violence against minorities and other vulnerable groups.

Now the phenomenon of social media presents us with a range of fresh challenges. Blogs, video and social networking sites have become a key forum for political debate and organisation – so much so that they have provoked counter-responses from some repressive states. While there is a need to ensure better protection of personal integrity in social media, the right to freedom of expression must not be undermined.

The purpose of this publication is to contribute to a more thorough discussion on media developments and their impact on human rights in a constantly changing media landscape. Eight experts were invited to contribute their personal assessments of trends and problems. They have not shied away from addressing controversial issues or providing far-reaching suggestions. Together their texts indicate that there is a need for stronger protection of media freedom and freedom of expression in Europe today. These are clearly topics of paramount importance which demand serious public debate."
But actually there is nothing like hearing it first hand from the authors.

The Commissioner opened proceedings noting the human rights cause really needs a free and professional media.  Rights organisations fundamentally depend on free and professional media but he is seriously worried about current trends in this area all over the world.  We can note the positive effects of social media and the internet's value for demonstrators.  But governments have been very active in regulating new media and it is important that we understand how to avoid strangling fundamental rights of freedom of association and expression in the process.

Some of the threats are the same as they have been with traditional media and the Commissioner wanted to highlight the abuse and murder of journalists in Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan.  In some of these cases a killer has been caught and prosecuted but those responsible for orchestrating  the murder have escaped and continue to escape justice.  This creates a chilling effect where people are afraid to speak out for fear of their lives.

There are other pressures on a free press such as the criminal defamation laws in about half the member states of the Council of Europe.  In some cases these laws lead to journalists getting imprisoned or subject to disproportionate and unreasonable fines.  This also creates a chilling effect.  There are currently 70 journalists in prison in Turkey as a result of their writings alone.

Governments like to control media output and that desire for control is not limited to repressive regimes. Hungrary's implementation of a new liberty bashing media law earlier this year at the same time as the country was holding the presidency of the EU is an important example.

Freedom of information is fundamental, the Commissioner believes.

Another threat is monopolies in the private sector.  Pluralism in radio and newspapers is under a more serious threat than for a very long time.  The oligarchs who control the media have their own agendas and bend their media control to serve those interests.  The Commissioner noted that transparency of ownership is key here but even that apparently obvious condition has become controversial in Albania.  Many journalists have been dismissed for attempting to do old style investigative journalism in particular when there was a possibility it might expose some nefarious activity that might be associated directly or indirectly with media oligarchs or their preferred social/professional/political circles.

The ethics of journalism is under threat, an important example being the News of the World phone hacking scandal.  It is important that the Leveson inquiry gets full support and comes up with recommendations that will be useful not just in the UK but in the wider European context.

The Council of Europe formally supports self regulation of the press.  But the Commissioner bluntly stated that it simply has not worked in many countries, including most of Europe.  Why is that?  Well very often the dominant media don't cooperate because it doesn't fit the interests of the oligarchs in control.

The result is there is less ethical journalism and serious journalists are having difficulty being heard.  You could argue, therefore, that there is a case for public service media.  Where there has been public service media it has been positive but we can't ever believe they will be completely objective.  The holy grail of total objectivity does not exist but public service media where they exist should strive to be as objective as possible.

The Commissioner therefore asked a collection of experts to contribute to the book and the 6 chapters therein broadly cover the points he outlined above.

Dr Agn├Ęs Callamard, Executive Director of Article 19, followed Commissioner Hammarberg

So there is a pressing need for public service media but the trend is not looking good on this. And the financial crisis has been an extra burden/excuse in that regard.

The disturbing trend of physical violence against journalists continues. A journalist in Azerbaijan was murdered 2 weeks ago.

Additionally Dr Callamard is concerned about legal violence against journalists and has observed a "deterioration by imitation" around Europe as countries copy each others' worst laws. There has been some progress on the decriminalisation of defamation but not much. The use and abuse of defamation laws remain a major impediment to freedom of expression.  There are multiple legal attacks in this area in western as well as eastern and central Europe.

And quite simply regulatory violence has a chilling effect.

Dr Callamard wanted to highlight the case of Hungary's terrible media law.  Hungary is a member of the Council of Europe and the EU.  When they got away with it, others will emulate it.

She also noted that the OSCE met this week and declined to adopt a declaration on freedom in a digital age. Yet the fundamental freedoms don't change with technological development so press freedom does need to be protected in our digital age.

Ali Sheikholeslami, the London correspondent for Euronews, who was chairing the panel, at this point noted it had been a "dark cold summer" for journalism with the phone hacking scandal and occasionally off the back of that it sometimes makes him ashamed to admit to anyone he's a journalist.

Aidan White, author of chapter 2 on ethical journalism and human rights, then came in and robustly suggested there was no reason for journalists to feel ashamed of their profession.  The issue in the News of the World case was corporate culture not journalism. It was also important to note that the nefarious criminal behaviour involved was exposed not by the police, the self regulators or the government but by journalists.

Mr White passionately believes we have to look again at the principles and values that underpin journalism and that this should feed into ethical behaviour in public life as a whole - including politicians and corporate leaders.

How do the media respectfully report the cruelties and tragedies of the world in which we live? Journalism is in crisis but sound ethical investigative journalism has a great future.  Good journalism, contrary to popular opinion, dominates access to information on the Net.  The debate about principled behaviour in journalism is really important but it can't be restricted to newsrooms.

Ethics has to be management led. (Mr White is a very articulate, convincing and passionate speaker but at that point I have to admit that the thought "is that a realistic prospect" ran through my head.).

He noted a lot of key problems are highlighted in the book and that we have to deal with energetic and sustained deceit in journalism.

Do we do this through regulation?  Well in nearly every country the print press is self regulated and the broadcast press is subject to statutory regulations.  Changing technology makes this approach useless. Therefore we need an open debate.  But we don't need what has happened in Hungary.  Though they have not used the draconian tools in the law there yet, they will.  South Africa are doing likewise and both have used the News of the World phone hacking scandal as an excuse.

The notion that media organisations can avoid any form of statutory control is not sustainable.  It is probably no longer possible to have self regulation of the press.  Co-regulation, that awkward compromise between statutory and self regulation, is the necessary path forward but we need to have the hugely important public debate on this.  It may also be necessary to have a privacy law but there must be built in protections in such a law for public interest journalism.

Prof Douwe Korff, joint author of chapter 6 along with Ian Brown, was the next speaker.  Prof Korff explained social media have features that are different to conventional media the most obvious being access to speech tools and audiences which were previously restricted to the professionals or the wealthy. He suggested the problem with social media was that ordinary people use it for private communications whereas organisations use it for professional ends.  At the professional end of the scale you can apply legal and ethical standards.  Private communications have different legal boundaries.

The technologies that are widely used for censorship in despotic regimes are the same technologies supposedly used for benign ends - like controlling copyright infringement or distribution of child pornography - in the West.

The data retention directive requires mass surveillance of people not suspected of any crime. How's that for a despotic law?

When technology can be used for abusive ends it will be so adopted and we have no cause to be smug in that regard in the West because governments and the private sector are engaged in unethical mass surveillance using these technologies.

Human rights standards are universal and should apply in the online as well as offline worlds. Offline they can be tailored to the specific sovereign jurisdiction and the European Court of Human Rights accepts multiple variations in the specific regulations governing freedom of expression in member states.  Yet if we are to apply the most restrictive of these laws online then you end up with unconscionable cases like the US citizen of Thai descent getting arrested and jailed for two years when he visited Thailand for something he wrote on the Net in the US.  Such transnational applications of domestic legal standards lead to real problems.

Another key issue in relation to human rights is that the internet is effectively controlled by the private sector.  How, therefore, do you ensure the private sector not only respects but also upholds the rights of users?  These private companies are not equipped to do so.  They cannot be expected to make subtle human rights judgments.  They are in business to make money so neither are they motivated to protect the rights of users.

So when these companies operate in repressive regimes they will do the will of those regimes and we have seen multiple examples of this.

Prof Korff also mentioned he is working with his fellow author Ian Brown on a framework to encourage the private sector to respect human rights.  In many online contexts punishment is arbitrary, lacks transparency, lacks due process, with limited access to remedies or appeals. That is not an environment in which human rights will be respected and so intermediaries like the telecoms companies and ISPs need support in protecting human rights.

Boyko Boev of Article 19 and co-author with Barbara Bukovska of chapter 5 on public service media and human rights, was the last of the panel into the fray before the audience got the opportunity to ask questions.  He symbolically instructed the audience to open the book at page 133, the first page of his chapter, before pointing out that public service media is a hot issue in Europe. The problems with public service media in Europe have been highlighted by a Council of Europe expert group.  Their report noted 4 key issues

1. the transition from public service broadcasting to public service media
2. competition with the private sector
3. securing the independence of public service media from the state and the powerful private sector
4. lack of funding

He tried to look at public service media from a human rights perspective focusing on transparency and accountability and found it instructive to use the epistemological framework relating to a "rights based approach to development". And the Article 19 issue paper, Public service media regulation in Europe: future or funeral was his starting point.

The problem of public service media is not recognised in a lot of countries.

From an economics perspective there is no money. From a human rights perspective there is no question but that public service media are essential.

Then Ali Sheikholeslami addressed 2 questions to Aidan White and Commissioner Hammarberg:

1. How do we guarantee conglomerates will not have too much power
2. How do we guarantee governments don't undermine freedom of expression.

Mr White answered that transparency and disclosure are the key - who is saying what and why; who owns what; what are their interests etc.  It is scandalous for corporate power to have influence without disclosing potential conflicts of interest.

On regulation we need to modernise the root and branch of regulatory institutions because the existing ones are creaking and not fit for purpose. We have an opportunity to move towards more forms of self rule and we have to find a way to make self regulation workable through co-regulation.  This can't be a restraint on the right to report but a regulatory body should have the power to do minimal investigations and e.g. call witnesses.  The Press Complaints Commission is bound by a lack of authority.

We can make self regulation more creditable through co regulation.

Commissioner Hammarberg concluded this part of proceedings by noting transparency is really important.  He had just come from Ukraine where private sector media oligarch control and public service media control are coming together just as it did in Italy under Berlesconi and likewise in Georgia and Azerbaijan.  He agrees with Mr White that self regulation, attractive though it might be in principle, does not work in practice.  We need a thorough analysis of how to make it effective without restricting or damaging freedom of expression.  The idea of having a co-regulatory legislative basis is worth discussing and exploring.  But the key is who is going to be involved in making such laws and civil society's input is crucial.  The structures of the EU are certainly not ready to take this on, however.

At this point the floor was opened to questions and I will endevour to do another short report on the Q&A when time and a following wind allow.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The lobbyists and the PM: Bell Pottinger calling the kettle black

The Independent's front page story today is on PR company Bell Pottinger's alleged influence on the UK government. It's based on an undercover investigation carried out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

I'm not a big fan of lobbyists but some of the individuals caught on camera actually come out of the story slightly better than you might expect.  They are quoted as showing interest in working to improve the image of the Uzbekistan regime but only if that government demonstrates an intent to improve its behaviour on human rights.
"A number of [our client] governments have had serious reputational issues,"[...]
But he also stressed a need for genuine commitment to reform. "Everything we are recommending is predicated on the agreement by the government to change," he said. "[That] justifies why a PR company is representing a country which previously people shouldn't have been talking to. Now it actually wants to change it is fully acceptable."
Another executive stressed, whilst talking about one of the firm's clients: "I wouldn't actually represent a client whom I didn't believe."
He added: "Just trying to sell the situation as it is or to say that things are changing when in reality they aren't is not going to work. Once we're clear that we've got the collateral, the proof that things are changing, then obviously we have the connections to get the message through to the right people."
They're also reported as boasting easy access to and influence over government, though that's hardly surprising in a meeting where they are attempting to promote their services to secure a lucrative contract.

It's probably the government and in particular the prime minister who comes out of this with the least credit, if the PR consultants (or the journalist's reports) are to be believed.  Mr Cameron and the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg have been repeatedly quoted about the damaging effects of the disproportionate degree to which lobbyists and big business influence government. They even have plans for a register of lobbyists.

The alleged lightning speed at which a business can get a message through a PR firm to the prime minister, who then instantly takes that complaint to a foreign head of state, in this case China, therefore, will be cause for concern. Whether that concern arises from being found out or a desire that such influence should not be so powerful is another question.  What was predicatable in the world of Westminster, the media and PR was that the PM's office would issue a denial:
"Bell Pottinger nor any other lobbying firm has any say or influence over government policy."
The almost amusing part of the story comes at the tail end where, through their lawyers Carter Ruck, Bell Pottinger declare:
"The conduct of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism does not remotely constitute responsible journalism. It is an attempt by unethical, deception to manufacture a story where none exists."
A case of the Bell Pottinger calling the kettle black? {Assuming you define a kettle (or the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) as 'a vessel designed to withstand high temperatures, used in various processes such as refining and brewing' (stories)}