Info somewhat freer in parts of world, panelists report

Monday, March 19, 2012

WASHINGTON — Even as some countries scramble to clamp controls on the Internet, the picture is bright for freedom of information in many places across the globe, experts said March 16 during the 14th annual National Freedom of Information Day Conference.

“Freedom of Information Worldwide” was the final panel was presented by the University of Southern California Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy in association with the First Amendment Center.

Vinton G. Cerf, dubbed “the father of the Internet,” highlighted the panel with introductory remarks in which he decried “visible political limitations that have been put on the Internet” in recent years by countries including the United States.

Some countries want “the power to suppress speech” to keep more power for themselves, said Cerf, whose title is “vice president and chief Internet evangelist” for Google.

Though acknowledging “harms that occur through the Internet,” he said these must be addressed without “destroying principles of human rights.”

“Internet access is not a human right,” Cerf said. “We should not imbue a particular technology” with that status, and we can’t guarantee access to everyone yet. However, he emphasized, “if you are denied access to that which is available, that is a denial of human rights.”

Cerf termed recent legislative efforts in Congress to combat piracy of copyrighted material “overblown attempts to deal with what I think is a legitimate problem.” Referring to the stalled Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in the Senate, Cerf said both would have had “damaging consequences” to new technologies being developed.

Panel moderator Adam Clayton Powell III, senior fellow at USC’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, turned to three other speakers for “reports from the field” on developments and trends in freedom of information in Africa, China and elsewhere.

Jerelyn Eddings, program director for the International Center for Journalists, said the Internet had helped change the equation in Africa from past oppression of information by various governments to greater freedom.

Jerelyn Eddings. Photo by Maria Bryk

Her organization tries to help people get needed information by training journalists to use new technology to make sense of newly available government data, she said. At the same time, there is greater openness in a number of African nations — including Kenya, Morocco and Nigeria — as governments have eased restrictions on journalists and information.

African journalists are learning to “mine the information and get it out to the public using the best technology available,” including cell phones and Web applications, Eddings said. With training, more African journalists have become able “to tap into the amazing wealth of information that’s out there.”

Africa does have some trouble spots for freedom of information, Eddings said, including Somalia, which is “dangerous for journalists.” And she said South Africa has a new secrecy law, pushed by the African National Congress, under which the government can classify any information it doesn’t want to get out.

“It’s a reaction to aggressive investigative journalism that has brought scandals out,” Eddings said.

Although it can be hard to press for legal change in many African countries, she said, training helps journalists learn how to gather and present news and information better.

Marguerite Sullivan, senior director for the Center for International Media Assistance, saw the flip side of Eddings’ point about press-restrictive legal systems in many parts of the world.

“We can train journalists, but unless there are systems and laws to support freedom of expression,” there isn’t much they can do, she said.

Sullivan, whose think tank tracks independent media, reported that U.S. aid for independent media had increased of late, and that 90 countries have freedom-of-information laws. Not all of those laws are well-implemented, though, she said.

“Building good media takes a long time; it’s not short term,” Sullivan said. “It takes a lot of international pressure … and the public needs to start demanding better media.”

As for China, the news about news is mixed, said Arnold Zeitlin, visiting professor at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies.

“You must never forget that China is a one-party, totalitarian police state — but that’s not the whole story,” said Zeitlin, who has covered news and taught in China extensively.

“Tremendous suppression … designed to prevent the free flow of information” exists, but Chinese journalists have been getting around this firewall for decades and have become good at it, he said. The more the authorities try to suppress information, the more journalists and others push to seek it out, especially younger people, he noted.

“I have a lot of hope in these young people … they demand more and more,” Zeitlin said. But he cautioned that Chinese leaders would no more give up control of information than they would of the military. At least 40 Chinese journalists are in jail for what they’ve written.

“News values in China are warped because of the government control,” Zeitlin said.

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