Malaysia: Social Media Administrators under Pressure


May 19, 2017

Malaysia: Social Media Administrators under Pressure

by Asiasentinel Correspondent

http://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/malaysia-social-media/

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When you cannot face up to the truth (message) you screw up, censor and threaten the messenger (s). Trump should learn from the Malaysian Prime Minister. Remember George Orwell’s 1984. People like Raja Petra and his lot can be consultants to The Trump White House.–Din Merican

With national elections looming, perhaps as early as August or September, the Malaysian government is warning its legions of myriad social media critics to knock off tweeting or posting content the government deems “inappropriate.”

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission has promulgated a new “advisory for group admins” that critics say is designed to coerce social media platforms such as Facebook and others in the country to censor postings by opponents of the government.

The Barisan Nasional, the national ruling coalition, has cause for concern. According to Steven Gan, editor of the independent news website Malaysiakini, the next election, which must be held before August of 2018 but is likely to be earlier, is likely to be fought out in social media, with as many as 70 percent of Malaysians online.

With the mainstream media – English, Malay and Chinese language newspapers, radio and television – in the hands of political parties aligned with the government, an increasing number of citizens are turning to the Internet to seek independent voices.

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As Asia Sentinel reported on April 22, opposition websites and independent news publications have been warned to mute their criticism or face being shut down. The Chinese-language newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau was warned over a cartoon satirizing the Speaker of Parliament as a monkey and told to suspend the staff involved.

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The government is running scared for a variety of reasons, the biggest being a massive scandal involving the misuse or theft of as much as US$11 billion from the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd., with at least US$1 billion and as much as US$2 billion having ended up in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s own pockets, according to an ongoing investigation by US authorities looking into the purchase by nominees of houses, apartments, art works and a wide variety of other US assets, and the funding of the 2013 movie Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Barisan Nasional actually lost the popular vote in the 2013 general election but prevailed because the parliament was so thoroughly gerrymandered that the coalition ended up with 133 seats to 89 for the opposition, then headed by Anwar Ibrahim, who was later jailed on sexual perversion charges that human rights critics have characterized as trumped up.

Subsequently rising antipathy on the part of minority races, particularly the Chinese, has cut deeply into the Barisan’s support, leaving it largely supported only by ethnic Malays, who make up at least 63 percent of the population of 30 million. Given rising antipathy on the part of urban Malays, strategists for the Barisan believe the United Malays National Organization, the leader of the government coalition, must win every ethnic Malay vote possible in the countryside – where the mainstream media rule along with UMNO.

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2017–The Way Backward

That means trying to keep out as much chaff from the social media as possible, including people who retweet or post Chedet, the blog of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Najib’s most implacable opponent, which gets thousands of readers every day, or the Sarawak Report, which despite being blocked by the communications ministry (along with Asia Sentinel) can draw more than 100,000 readers on a single story.

Mahathir is said to be making inroads among the rural Malays supported by the Federal Land Development Authority, or Felda, which was founded to handle the resettlement of the rural poor, most of them ethnic Malays. The government listed Felda on the Malaysian stock exchange in 2012 and induced the thousands of settlers – whose territory covers 54 of UMNO’s 86 seats in parliament – to invest in the shares. Because of a variety of missteps, the shares have fallen in value steeply, impoverishing the settlers who bought into them. Felda Global Ventures as the public vehicle is now known, may be forced to delist.

Mahathir and PPBM, which he calls Parti Bersatu against the wishes of the government, have capitalized on the discontent to the point where political analysts believe he will pull away a number of those UMNO seats, perhaps 10 or 11 – two of which are held by Najib’s lieutenants.

Thus the Communications Ministry targets “administrators” of group pages hosted on communication platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Wechat, Viber and Telegram, or on similar services, advising them to take a proactive role in monitoring and removing content posted by others to their pages.

“While not a legally enforceable regulation in itself, a warning on the ministry’s Facebook page accompanying the advisory stated that Internet users should ‘be wise in using social media for their own protection,’” according to Article 19, a global rights watchdog with representatives in Malaysia. “This implies that failure to comply with the advisory may make group admins liable for the posts of others, even though this type of liability for third-party content is not currently provided for in Malaysian law.”

As Article 19 points out, a growing number of individuals are being arrested, investigated and charged in Malaysia for online criticism or questioning of the government under the sedition law, a toughened communications and multimedia act and a security act passed last year.

“Article 19 therefore considers that the MCMC advisory is seeking to deliver an implicit threat to social media users, that even if they are not the author of offending content, they can still be prosecuted by association,” according to Kuala Lumpur-based spokeswoman Nalini Elumalai. “This is likely to have the effect of co-opting private internet users into the role of enforcing draconian content restrictions in the online sphere, with victims of this censorship not having any recourse to challenge or seek redress for such removals. This is a concerning direction of travel, in particular if attempts are made to give legal force to the vague ‘advice’ of the MCMC. “

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The advisory by the Communications Ministry appears to violate an agreement promulgated by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, the Organization of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information that individuals cannot be held liable for content they have not authored unless they disobey court orders to remove such content.

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression also warned that private actors should not be pressured by legal or extra-legal means to take steps that unnecessarily or disproportionately interfere with freedom of expression, including by removing content.

“The MCMC advisory is clearly intended to pressure social media users, against international freedom of expression standards, and against the spirit of the freedom of expression guarantees in Article 10(a) of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia,” Article 19 said. The rights organization urged the communications ministry to “retract the advisory without delay and make clear to social media users that they cannot be held responsible for content created by third parties. We also call on the Malaysian government to engage in comprehensive reforms to legislation that violates the right to freedom of expression, including online, in particular the CMA, the Sedition Act, and the Penal Code.”

What China’s Belt and Road has to learn from 1920s America


May 17, 2017

What China’s Belt and Road has to learn from 1920s America

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to resurrect the Silk Road must heed the lessons of a bygone era

By  Sourabh Gupta

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Perceptive China-watchers have observed that President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) has modelled his political mission on Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) – even if his methods bear a whiff of Maoism.

Deng put an end to the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and engineered China’s transformation towards socialist modernisation. Xi’s sweeping reforms and anti-corruption crackdown aim to engineer an analogous transformation that will deliver China to the cusp of a “moderately prosperous” society by the time of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial founding in 2021.

In one notable respect though, Xi has broken with the Paramount Leader. Deng had counseled a 24-character strategy on his countrymen: “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” By contrast, Xi has not been shy to employ assertive diplomacy in support of an ambitious, long-term and strategic foreign policy.

No single political project personifies this more than the “Belt and Road Initiative”, which aims to resurrect the ancient Silk Road through infrastructure projects that will link Eurasian economies into a China-centred trading network. When two dozen or so heads of state assemble in Beijing for the Belt and Road Summit on Sunday and Monday, the magnitude of the imposing soft-power dimension of this “win-win” project that aspires to embed Xi’s “China Dream” within a “neighbourhood community of common destiny” will be on ample display. The BRICS Summit in Xiamen (廈門) this September will be a sideshow by comparison.

A variety of malignant motives, mainly economic, have been ascribed to the Belt and Road plan. It aims to channel Beijing’s allegedly manipulated reserve surpluses abroad, prop up the internationalisation of the yuan, unload China’s industrial overcapacity on neighbours, ensnare the recipient country in a cycle of debt, exploit the host country’s strategic resources and purchase their political affiliation along the way.

Steel pipes are loaded for export at Lianyungang port, Jiangsu province, China. Some critics see the Belt and Road as a way to unload China’s industrial overcapacity on neighbours. Photo: Reuters

While these claims contain merit, the redeeming arguments are more compelling. China’s hard currency reserves are better put to use in hard infrastructure projects in developing countries than deposited passively in New York’s financial market. At a time of volatility in liquidity provision in the international monetary system, yuan internationalisation and the rise of another issuer of safe, short-term and liquid instruments is to be welcomed. Moreover, the bilateral yuan swap lines and dedicated trade payments and securities settlement infrastructure that Beijing has rolled out over the past half-decade will enable recipient countries to denominate their borrowings in local currency, thereby limiting costs and exposures.

Transferring industrial capacity, improving infrastructure and reducing transaction costs on the other hand will enable developing countries to jump-start a dynamic upward spiral of growth and development in sectors where they enjoy latent comparative advantages – on lines similar to China’s own industrial jump-start in the 1980s. A comparison of China’s and the US’ Eximbank (Export-Import bank) loans to Africa, meanwhile, belie the oft-repeated claim that the former is directed solely at natural resources. China Eximbank has contributed to almost all 54 countries in Africa – resource rich or poor – and displays no perceptible pattern of favoured client state lending. US Eximbank loans, by contrast, are concentrated in energy and mining and confined to a favoured few.

Finally, with developing and emerging economies forecast to account for 59 per cent of world GDP in 2018 (neatly reversing the average 59 per cent accounted for by advanced economies from 1980 to 2007), as per the IMF, the rise of an alternate model of development financing that is leaner, cheaper, quicker and more flexibly attuned to host country systems and requirements should be welcomed, not stigmatised.

Development economics aside, the most consequential effects of the Belt and Road will be in international relations.

The Belt and Road’s storied predecessor, the Silk Road, two thousand years ago ushered in an age of commerce and civilizational exchange and afforded a set of loose principles of order and self-restraint. The Belt and Road’s ‘open regionalism’, likewise, will showcase Xi’s determination to practice a “new type of international relations” that binds China’s extended periphery as far out as Africa in a win-win embrace. Purposeful translation of his optimistic assessment for peace and development will realise the long-delayed promise of south-south cooperation in the post-colonial age. With luck, it will also confine the fascination with Great Power transition ‘traps’ – particularly the ‘Thucydides Trap’ (in which an established power’s fear of a rising power leads them into a vicious cycle of competition and eventually war) – to the armchairs of zero-sum-minded historians and think tank specialists.

Banners advertise the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Photo: AP

China’s re-emergence at the turn of, and the first few decades of, the 21st century bears remarkable parallels to America’s rise a century ago. Between 1890 and the early-1900s, the proportion of US manufacturers engaged in exports rose from less than a quarter to more than two-thirds, as the burgeoning surpluses of farms and factories were absorbed overseas. By the late-1910s and through the 1920s, the US became a prodigious exporter of capital as more than US$1 billion a year in loans surged out of New York. Nearly one-third as many foreign bonds floated on Wall Street as bonds of US companies.

As the Belt and Road becomes a conduit for the export of Chinese capital on as prodigious a scale as the US a century ago, its design and roll-out must also be informed by the cautionary lessons of that era. When boom had periodically turned to bust in the US economy and subjected many of her poorer hemispheric trade partners and raw material suppliers to simultaneous capital and commodity market shocks, Washington failed to provide the public goods (international development financing; recycling of capital flight; inter-governmental institutionalisation, and stabilisation loans, and so on) that could have placed a floor under the crash – and misery – overseas. China’s capital exports must avoid such boom-bust patterns and instead marry hard physical capital with soft technical know-how, managerial skills and local project ownership with purpose and patience.

During the next decade, China will replace the US as the world’s largest economic power. As it grows richer, it must assume the mantle of collaborative leadership and provider of global public goods. The Belt and Road is an appetising start but the proof of the pudding will be in its eating, as well as its ability to draw sceptical bystanders in the West and in Asia to the banquet

Get it right with the media


Get it right with the media

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In conjunction with World Freedom Day on May 4, it’s only appropriate for the media to urge leaders and politicians to treat the media with respect.

If leaders don’t like the way they are questioned, the media may be barred from attending press conferences or requests for interviews with them can be rejected.

Unfortunately, journalists are taken for granted and shooed away like goats in a barn. No other profession is treated and criticised as journalists and the media are marked and ridiculed by leaders.

As a ‘no-Internet-censorship’ commitment was part of the Malaysian government’s promise when it launched the Multimedia Super Corridor, Malaysia enjoys unrestricted Internet access and a space for independent media outlets to operate.Unfortunately, as of 2017, Malaysia ranked 144th on the World Press Freedom Index.

Having been a journalist for more than 35 years, taught journalism, media relations and authored five books, I feel that the constant harassment of journalists should stop. Only then can Malaysia see its freedom index improve to a higher notch.

To move up the ladder of the Freedom Index, here are some tips for leaders to work well with and maintain good relations with the media. The confrontations with the media must cease and leaders need to train themselves on how to work with the media and not fight with the media.

Get it right

Therefore, understanding the media and saying the right things at the right time is the first step a candidate to succeed in the 14th general election. A candidate’s better perception of the media will gain greater positive media coverage in the media.

With GE 14 looming in the next few months, perhaps October, it is important for candidates to position themselves in the right media with the right message.

Politicians should stop blaming the media and face the truth. As this week commemorates World Press Freedom, it must be reiterated that the media has attempted to give two sides of the story all the time to make it a balanced article for its audience.

Individual politicians from both Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan parties, meanwhile, have verbally attacked reporters who ask questions to unveil the truth.

Certain online media outlets have also been banned from covering press conferences after the UMNOo SupremeCcouncil meetings at the party’s headquarters at PWTC in Kuala Lumpur.

Need for transparency

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This certainly does not speak well for transparency. The lack of training for leaders in facing the media has made politicians appear sloppy, dumbfounded and tending to put their foot in their mouth at press conferences.

When a leader develops better skills in media relations, you are on the road to the victory of being elected and this is only one part of the journey.

Every other news headline and story on online news portals goes to show the weakness of a politician in the way they speak to the media and the blunders they make. It’s because politicians take the media for granted and think they can get away from liability in their statements, thus making it into the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Therefore, one has to master the skills in facing the media when being interviewed, at press conferences, in writing effective press statements and maintaining excellent interactions with the media.

This is the first step to build greater hope for the leader in winning as a candidate in GE 14. A candidate may think he has a ‘cool’ relationship with the media, but the media may perceive otherwise.

So, how does one build a cool relationship to win in GE 14? If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.

Media relations training

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In whatever field, learning is a journey. Without the passion to learn techniques in facing the media, a candidate’s chances of winning are dim.

No one candidate is perfect. To err is human. It is in this spirit that leaders can improve practical knowledge through training to improve their skills on how to face the media.

As part of Malaysiakini’s corporate social responsibility (CSR), it has organised eight courses to help leaders perform better with the media.As a facilitator the workshops, I realise that from learning comes understanding and knowledge in being a better politician to serve the people better.

Knowledge sets us free, for it is ignorance that will make one inadequate as a politician or leader.

Let’s start with lesson one on key messages.

Key messages are phrases and sentences that will help the leader deliver his or her views on what is important for the community to know.

Today, the popular way to win the hearts and minds of the electorate is to convey your key messages in a story-telling style or manner.It must be clear, free of jargon and be relevant to your audience or constituents. Be concise and deliver key messages to be understood in simple storytelling language.

Key messages

At the same time, key messages must be consistent and must be repeated so that it sinks into the minds of the people. So, when facing the media, stay focused on the messages that will help prevent you from being “taken out of context” or saying something “you did not say”.

The key messages should be reiterated in the opening statement to the media in an interview, press statement or a press conference.Being clear is straightforward. Don’t make your audience feel stupid, and they will not forgive politicians. This will be reflected in the way they vote for or against a politician.

Some samples of key messages:

  • Thank you for your continued support. Remember, I am here to serve you. I have given this constituency my top priority in the past, present and will continue to do so in future.
  • I have been transparent at all times and I will continue to voice your grouses on injustice, wrongdoings and constructive views to make Malaysia a progressive nation.
  • People may be angry and emotional over the blunders and mishaps or the government. It is my responsibility as your elected representative to present your views so that your grievances are heard and rectified.
  • I will continue to engage with this constituency to set things right for all to benefit.
  • I will continue to work with the authorities to help you all in this critical and difficult times.

Practice makes perfect. So, try using positive statements with the people’s welfare in mind. Say it with sincerity and conviction as you can’t fool the people. And be sure to demonstrate in action and deeds what you say.

Get down to soiling your hands, if you have to clean up the environment for a day with the constituents. Listening to problems will not help. As a politician you have to solve the people’s problems.

 


M KRISHNAMOORTHY is a media coach, associate professor and a certified Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF) trainer. As a journalist, he has highlighted society’s concerns and has gone undercover as a beggar, security guard, blind man, handicapped, salesman and as a Member of Parliament. He also freelances as a fixer/coordinator for CNN, BBC, German and Australian TV networks and the New York Times.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Universal Values, not just Globalisation


February 26, 2017

Universal Values, not just Globalisation

 

We have been so obsessed – and this is a failing – by the economics of globalisation, the trade and finance and free movement of labour, that we do not give higher value to the fundamental human values and intercourse that are at risk.–Dr. Munir Majid

 

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THE gravest threat of the rise of nationalist populism is to the universal values and practices of a civilised world which took several decades to develop. It is this that modern tribalism in Europe and America seeks to cannibalise.

 We have been so obsessed – and this is a failing – by the economics of globalisation, the trade and finance and free movement of labour, that we do not give higher value to the fundamental human values and intercourse that are at risk.

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@http://web.stanford.edu/group/ccr/blog/2009/04/intercultural_communication_in.html

The world has become more possessed by economics than even Marx could have predicted. The disparity of income and wealth is as wide as he saw in post-industrial revolution Europe.

The political turmoil of Leninism, the rise of fascism, the Gulag and the Holocaust – and war – were some of the worst outcomes that followed.

We must recognise this looming threat. We will not get there unless we first recognise the main failing of globalisation, this obsession with economics.

Economic and financial benefit – however ill-distributed – was its driving force, mainly through trade, free movement of capital and labour. Such benefit did not become self-evident truth, however, as too many were left behind for too long.

Would it have made a difference had such benefit been better distributed? It would seem unlikely as non-economic values in the nation-state were disturbed as much as production and income structures were overturned.

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“Give us our country back”, is more than about economics. It is about the deemed imposition of global values and the perceived dilution of national character.

The appeal to nationalist populism, which last year saw the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as United States president, was primarily occasioned by globalised economic and financial supercharge which isolated the low income and divided societies while the top earners spirited away with handsome benefits, but the potent response came from nationalist reassertion against foreign threat.

Against loss of jobs to….Against loss of country to….Against loss of control because of….All because of globalisation. Global is foreign.

Universal values and international behavioural practices got to be associated with the ills of globalisation. This is the most dangerous threat to civilised world order.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however extant its violation, for instance, well preceded the wave of globalisation. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines the rights of refugees and the obligations of states towards them which are now part of customary international law.

What might now seem mundane, the Universal Postal Union, was established in 1874, and now has 192 members as it serves a universal communication need. There are many others of this ilk.

Cross-border immigration took place to fill up jobs locals would not or could not do. The world was enriched by these kinds of common necessities, not by an enforcement of globalisation.

The point is that universal and international necessities were and are way ahead of the globalisation against which there is such massive revolt. Their values, standards and practices are in dire threat of being sacrificed on the altar of narrow populism.

We can talk too much about globalisation. It is far better now to talk less and do more – and not to use the term globalisation ad nauseam.

The kinds of demonstrations for the values of good society and nationhood across America and Europe that we have seen in response to rules of dictatorship, rules of violation of rights and universal values, against racism and acts of inhumanity, are significant signs that civilised standards of life will not be allowed to be trampled on and to die.

On the other hand, we must also do more “for” things, before we have to demonstrate for them. The good earth has been so much abused. We now talk about climate change and environmental protection. We need to look at the big picture of course, but we should also do more and more, and highlight more and more significant efforts that can and are being made to save the planet – for the good of mankind.

I know, as a significant example, of a documentary feature, Great Green Wall, being produced by acclaimed Oscar-nominated film-maker Fernando Meirelles, which proposes to tell the story of one of the most ambitious endeavours taking place on the edge of the Sahara desert: “A dream to grow a wall of trees and plants across the entire width of Africa, and stop the ravages of climate change firmly in its tracks.”

I know one of the persons involved at the start of the project in 2007 which when completed in 2030 will make the Great Green Wall the largest living structure on planet earth – three times the length of the Great Barrier Reef.

Businesses and governments should support and get involved in these kinds of global efforts to deliver goods that make and realise the point of universal values that are so much under attack from modern tribalism in the contemporary world.

There is no reason why the government and companies in China which so want to show global leadership cannot support projects such as the Great Green Wall or, indeed, embark on their own projects, such as to reclaim the Gobi desert.

There must in the world – especially among business corporations – be a greater realisation that value-at-risk is not just about dollars and cents. Yes, the good will ultimately come to the economy. But do not talk too much about it as if that is all there is.

Dr. Munir Majid,  Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is Chairman of CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

US hypocritical use of the Media


December 20, 2016

US hypocritical use of the Media

by Chen Weihua

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The US Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewal

Sarah Sewall, the US under-secretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, spoke recently of how freedom of information and freedom of the press form the bedrock for US foreign policy.

She lashed out at China and Russia, saying that a recent report found that the Chinese government and its legions of helpers write nearly a half billion fake posts a year and that the Russian government spends at least $400 million a year on its propaganda machine of bots and trolls and factories of false content to undermine trust in independent media.

She then claimed that the US ramped up support in Europe for civil society and media most vulnerable to Russian pressure by more than 50 percent to more than $85 million.

Ms. Sewall’s allegations against the Chinese and Russian governments are yet to be substantiated, while her admission that the US government spent $85 million on propaganda in Europe raises questions about the US government meddling in its media.

Ms. Sewall quickly left after the six-minute speech she gave at a seminar in honor of the 250th anniversary of Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act.The event touched on much of the challenges the media face in the US today, especially under President Barack Obama’s administration.

In the 2016 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, the US ranked 41st out of 180 countries. Its standing in 2015 was 49th. Such a relatively low ranking, behind Slovenia (40), Ghana (26) and Namibia (17), hardly looks like the robust media freedom  that Ms. Sewall touted.

The Reporters Without Borders report blasted the US government’s “war on whistle blowers who leak information about its surveillance activities, spying and foreign operations, especially those linked to counter terrorism” and the lack of a “shield law” in the US to help journalists protect confidential sources.

Sam Sanders of National Public Radio reported that Mr. Obama’s Justice Department has cracked down on reporters in an effort to prevent leaks; it also set a new record for withholding access to government files under the Freedom of Information Act (despite Mr. Obama calling for a “new era of openness” on his first day in office).

A study by the Columbia Journalism Review found that relations between the White House and the news media have never been so controlled in the past 50 years, saying that the “White House is determined to conceal its workings from the press, and by extension, the public.”

New York Times reporter James Risen last year called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.” Mr. Risen was beseeched by the Obama government to identify his confidential sources for parts of a 2006 book in which he detailed a CIA plan to undermine Iran’s nuclear program.

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At the seminar, veteran US journalist Marvin Kalb shared his personal experiences covering the Vietnam War and talked about how presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did not like his reporting that was critical of US foreign policy. Some reporters in his time ended up on the “enemies list,” their phones being tapped and income tax returns scrutinized every year.

He lamented that there are many ways a government, even in a free country, can put pressure on a reporter, but added that many reporters acted more aggressively under such pressure.

Jeffrey Herbst, President and CEO of Newseum, noted the high societal pressure on journalists in the US today. Feedback on reporters’ stories often includes hateful or vitriolic comments. He admitted that some US reporters tend to censor themselves under such a public backlash. It would be good if Ms. Sewall had also reflected on the US government’s war on the media before pointing fingers at other governments.

Source :China Daily Asia

The Uses and Misuses of Rhetoric


September 6, 2016

The Uses and Misuses of Rhetoric

by Max Stephenson Jr.

http://www.ee.unirel.vt.edu/index.php/outreach-policy/comment/the_uses_and_misuses_of_rhetoric/

Max Stephenson, Jr. presently serves as Professor of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and Director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance. He has published widely on policy, civil society and governance concerns. He is the author most recently, with Laura Zanotti, of Peacebuilding through Community-Based NGOs: Paradoxes and Possibilities, Kumarian Press (2012) and editor with Laura Zanotti of Building Walls and Dissolving Borders: The Challenges of Alterity, Community and Securitizing Space. Ashgate Publishers, 2013.

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The Greek philosopher Socrates is famous for suggesting, among other aphorisms, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” When one follows that great figure through his student Plato’s famous Dialogues, one quickly learns that the sage was not arguing for “know-nothingism,” but for its reverse, a dedicated, passionate, life-long and humble pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.

Socrates more than once patiently undid pompously certain or manipulative individuals in exchanges with them, including the rhetorician Gorgias, his student Polus and finally, and most importantly, the Athenian gentleman, Callicles in Plato’s The Gorgias. As he debated each of these individuals concerning the relative roles and merits of rhetoric in that Dialogue, Socrates established that the art of communication may degrade rather than ennoble those who practice it, particularly when the rhetorician’s aim is to employ that art to garner power or riches for themselves. As he talked with his three interlocutors in The Gorgias, Socrates moved their conversation into a deeper reflection on the nature of the good and evil inhering in humankind. In conversing with Callicles particularly, the philosopher completely discredited the pursuit of power and riches for their own sakes and persuaded the Athenian to admit, to his great consternation, that rhetoric harnessed for such purposes is both personally and socially corrosive and worse.

As Socrates made these points in The Gorgias, he suggested how pernicious empty pursuit of power can be while also pointing to abidingly important questions about human behavior and expectations of political life. The philosopher’s sometimes pointed probing of Gorgias as well as that rhetorician’s pupil and sponsor offer several lessons for those active in American politics today.

I sketch three very briefly here: the imperative need for intellectual and moral humility to secure the possibility for knowledge and free human interaction, the profound individual and social degradation and loss of freedom that can result from the misuse of the power that inheres in rhetoric and the often painful political consequences of embracing certainties where none exist, especially when these result in dogma or fundamentalisms of various stripes.

Socrates sought early in The Gorgias to remind his conversation partners of their grotesque, almost comedic, vanity. Not one of the trio with whom the thinker interacted could imagine that their positions were not the height of intelligence and perspicacity. The philosopher’s burden was to expose what their conceit meant for their positions and how they viewed their fellow human beings. Socrates carefully demonstrated to each individual that rhetoric unlinked to truth seeking and knowledge was empty and often cruel, and that their certainties led not to thoughtfulness, but to boasting and brokenness. More, their false sureness led to arrogance and an abiding belief in their own wisdom and standing, and especially in their capacity to persuade their fellow citizens to their views to advance their own pride, power and place.

All of these attributes Socrates deliberately, and sometimes scathingly, showed to be utterly hollow and destructive for those employing them, for those abused (and used) by these arts and for the broader society. Narcissism results not only in personal arrogance and shame, but also social corrosion. For Socrates, while knowledge can certainly be precise, one must ever be open to the possibility that it may be overturned by newfound insights and be humbled by that fact in one’s quest for wisdom and in how one treats others.

One key lesson of The Gorgias is that he or she who would be wise must also be humble and that seeking knowledge demands tolerance. Another message of this Dialogue is that vanity degrades its purveyor even when, perhaps especially when, the individual can ply their skills successfully (i.e., persuades the listener or viewer of their perspective even when that point-of-view may not redound to that person’s interests). Manipulation of another human being, successful or not, damages profoundly the dignity of both the individual undertaking it as well as the target.

It is hardly a stretch to note that today’s equivalent of the rhetoricians depicted in The Gorgias are political consultants who are hired for the sole purpose of persuading enough of the relevant voting electorate to choose their employer to allow that individual to gain power via an election. The metric for most of those in this industry is whether their candidates succeed or “win.” In fact, future contracts depend largely on these consultants being perceived as “winners” in just this sense. With so low a bar for practice it is no surprise that each election season brings fresh revelations of how one or another campaign consultant pressed completely untruthful or inflammatory claims to “support” their candidate.

Such rhetoric is empty in just the way that Socrates warned it could be dangerous so many years ago; it can become untethered to anything but a relentless quest for power and individual gain. Given this concern, it is noteworthy that our polity’s politics no longer is yoked to political consultants only during campaigns, but for daily governance choices as well. Each political party offers daily talking points for its partisans aimed solely at persuasion for perceived partisan advantage, as do countless advocacy groups, and these often bear too little relationship to the facts of the policy challenges at hand, but are instead crafted to mobilize specific voters or to seek to persuade others to support an alternate perspective by whatever claims may appear to “work.” In addition to not always being linked to real, as opposed to salient, concerns, these statements frequently also trend to the fantastical, as when several GOP Senators recently sought to blame President Obama for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to occupy the Crimea militarily.

This example is fresh, but new ones occur daily and they illustrate the dangers of disconnecting rhetoric from any substantive ethical claims in efforts to mobilize for advantage to garner power. Pursuit of power for its own sake is always dangerous and that is true in democratic societies, too, particularly when it leads officials to adopt strategies that “other” groups or entire populations, or otherwise manipulate hearers or viewers to take stands against preserving the freedom and rights of all.

A third lesson one may take from The Gorgias for today’s U.S. politics is the danger in using rhetoric to offer the public false certainties. Our politics is rife with officials—both elected and those who would be—willing to offer up all manner of supposed certitudes to voters feeling insecure as a result of rapid globalization, a deep recession and slow economic growth that is leaving many groups behind. In so fear-filled a context, would-be democratic leaders confront an electorate yearning for explanations and “fixes” for their perceived woes and leaders may be tempted to provide voters all sorts of deceptive targets for concern as a way to gain their votes. We have seen just such strategies employed in recent years by candidates and officials willing to blame government for a range of social and political problems, including, in fact, sluggish economic growth. Other leaders have argued similarly that the poor constitute a cancerous tumor on the body politic and their laziness and moral degradation is the cause of much wider woes.

Still others have asserted that immigrants constitute a threat to employment for Americans and that religious freedom is under assault (there is no real evidence for either contention).  In all of these cases, those campaigning for office have offered voters rhetoric characterized by unbridled claims and simple-seeming “certainties” that allege someone or something is responsible for what are, in fact, complicated multi-causal realities.

Each such initiative launched by political leaders and their consultants comes replete with the dangers implicit in unleashing “othering” of either the government or specific groups. There is now ample evidence that these sorts of claims can mobilize a share of voters, but as Socrates wisely realized, such rhetoric often results in and feeds fundamentalist claims and imagined certainties that permit their purveyors to dismiss other groups in society or to blame those groups for all manner of woes, resulting ultimately in the degradation or loss of freedom among both those targeted and those abusing them.

False certainties tied to emotive claims concerning the moral inadequacies of those blamed constitute an especially surefire fast track to tyranny. At their worse these sorts of social contentions have resulted in the horrors of the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the Rwandan genocide, among too many other examples to recount. It is hardly too soon to sound the alarm that a share of our national rhetoric today has taken on a vicious and malignant tone that appears untethered to any claim, but the pursuit of power.  History teaches that such rhetoric is dangerous for freedom.

by James Fallows

ENOUGH SAID
What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics?
By Mark Thompson
342 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $27.99.

In the “Afterthoughts” to his book about the decline of public language in politics, Mark Thompson mentions something that for me clarified the 12 chapters that went before. Thompson, who grew up in England and was director-general of the BBC before taking his current job as chief executive of The New York Times Company, was invited in 2012 to give a series of lectures on the “art of public persuasion” at Oxford, his alma mater. From those lectures and subsequent discussions, he writes, “Enough Said” arose.

Knowing the book’s genesis is useful in understanding the kind of value it has, and what it does not do. To oversimplify, the most influential nonfiction books usually exist either to tell a story, as with “Seabiscuit” and “All the President’s Men,” or to advance an argument, as with “Silent Spring” and “The Feminine Mystique.” Ideally they combine the two, as for example Michael Lewis did with his tale of the origins of the 2008 financial crisis, “The Big Short.”

Lecture series, and books derived from them, are different in that their assumed interest comes from watching a thinker engage with a set topic and seeing what insights emerge, rather than expecting a clear narrative or argument to ring through. That’s the case with “Enough Said.” Given Thompson’s standing as a past leader of one of the world’s dominant news organizations and the current head of another, what he thinks about the interactions among politicians, citizens and the press is by definition important. I don’t think this book will change the continuing debates about “bias” and “objectivity,” the separation of the public into distinct fact universes, the disappearing boundary between entertainment and civic life, the imperiled concept of “truth” or the other important topics it addresses. But it offers many instructive allusions, useful judgments and important refinements on these themes — and provides reassurance by its mere existence that someone in the author’s position is grappling so earnestly with such questions.

For me the book is strongest by far when it is most like a story — Thompson’s own story, of his 30-plus years with the BBC. They began in his early 20s, when he was a research assistant trainee, continued with his rise to producer, editor and top executive, and coincided with dramatic changes in both politics and the language of public affairs in Britain. Thompson describes these vividly and well. He emphasizes the shift in political rhetoric from Margaret Thatcher’s forcefulness — “hard-edged, insistent, utterly sure of itself” — to the smoothly sophisticated message discipline and media management of Tony Blair in his early years. He also describes the ways, successful and otherwise, that he and others in the British press tried to keep up. Crucially, he knows the nuances of these people and predicaments so well that he need not stop with saying that certain choices were difficult or complex. He can go on to argue why, despite the complexity, decisions he made were right (for instance, to introduce a new kind of news coverage in the Thatcher era) or why distortions by some politicians (notably Blair’s, in urging Britain into war in Iraq) were worse than others.

Although Thompson worked in the United States for a time as a BBC producer in the 1980s and returned once he joined The Times four years ago, his feel for American politics is naturally not a match for what he knows about Britain. When providing American examples for his analysis, he often stops at the “difficult and complex” stage. One example: In a survey of books about the dysfunction of the United States federal government, he mentions “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” a prescient 2012 book by Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann about problems within the Republican Party. But he dismisses it by saying that “their thrust is resolutely one-sided” and that “blaming an adverse trend in political culture entirely on one party . . . is scarcely a recipe for reducing political division.” This sounds balanced, but it doesn’t acknowledge the influential and carefully argued point of Ornstein and Mann’s book, which was precisely that the extremist forces in modern politics had been much more damaging on the Republican than on the Democratic side.

Another example: Thompson contrasts the “two rhetorics” of public life, what Mario Cuomo called the poetry of campaigning and the prose of governance, and says that Barack Obama is “perhaps the most obvious example . . . ‘the change we need’ giving way almost overnight to tight-lipped and sometimes testy managerialism.” In Thompson’s view, “the word-worlds of Obama the campaigner and Obama the president turned out to be so different that it was almost as if they were twin brothers with contrasting personalities.” In fact, compared with that of other presidents, Obama’s rhetoric is remarkable for how little it has changed over the years. As a matter of achievement, the President Obama who has not closed Guantánamo or cleaned up Wall Street is a disappointment to some of his supporters. But the rhetorician Obama who spoke to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this summer could have taken whole paragraphs from the speech with which the young Illinois State Senator Barack Obama made his national debut at the Democratic Convention in Boston 12 years ago. Both spoke of America’s constantly becoming a better version of itself. Both emphasized what united rather than divided their fellow citizens.
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Beyond British and American politics, Thompson covers a wide range of additional subjects. He discusses the classic Greek elements of rhetoric, including logos (argument), ethos (the character of the speaker) and pathos (emotion), along with other Greek rhetorical concepts. He talks about the punchy, Trump-like language of Vladimir Putin and the theatrics of Silvio Berlusconi. A whole chapter is built around George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” He punctuates his discussions with sweeping summaries like this one, in reference to social media: “The art of persuasion, once the grandest of the humanities and accessible at its highest level only to those of genius — a Demosthenes or a Cicero, a Lincoln or a Churchill — is acquiring many of the attributes of a computational science. Rhetoric not as art but as algorithm.”

Thompson examines the rhetorical extremes through which the British public considered its Brexit vote and the American public considers the prospect of a President Trump, and the ways residents of both countries evaluate rhetoric about climate change. He gives few details about the strategy he is applying in his current job, at The Times, to keep the newspaper economically viable and credible to its readers, but he closes a passage on the digital transformation of news with a lament that “traditional” journalists may have become “a tribe whose discourse no longer has the breadth or the adaptability to reflect reality, but whose befuddlement is such that, even if they are aware of the dilemma, they are more likely to blame reality than themselves. . . . The important question about much old-fashioned journalism is not whether it can survive as a profession but whether it deserves to — and whether anyone would miss it if it disappeared.”

Thompson’s employees, and those at other traditional news outlets, will be relieved to hear that his answer is yes: Journalism matters and journalists deserve to survive. He closes the book with some unexceptional but important advice for all affected parties: Politicians should not say one thing and do another; journalists shouldn’t lie and should be fair; members of the public should be more willing to pay attention and absorb real facts. The destination is not surprising, but there is enlightenment along the way.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of many books, including “Breaking the News.”

A version of this review appears in print on September 11, 2016, on page BR13 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Watch Your Rhetoric. Today’s Paper|Subscribe