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NEWS DAY | Sunshine Week, censorship and jail
UPDATED 3/21/2014: Last night I wrote about open government and free press issues — and a few hours later, #TurkeyBlockedTwitter started climbing to the top of the Twitter charts, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blocked his country's citizens and journalists from using the social media network. That's one more step in Turkey's repression of open information and free press — the mirror opposite of the open information celebrated here during Sunshine Week, March 16-22.
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On March 14, Timberjay Newspapers publisher Marshall Helmberger accepted the 2014 John Finnegan Freedom of Information for his work in forcing the St. Louis County school district to reveal irregularities in a construction project. The award, given annually by the Minnesota Council on Government Information (MNCOGI), honors a Minnesotan who fights for freedom of information.
I wasn't able to attend the event, so the quotes that follow are taken from MNCOGI's blog. According to MNCOGI, they
"... honored Helmberger for his nearly three-year legal fight to uncover construction cost irregularities by the St. Louis County school district. The district and its contractor refused to disclose figures for a taxpayer-funded school construction project. Timberjay vs. Johnson Controls reached the Minnesota Supreme Court and prompted a legislative push to clarify how such contracts are structured."
Thanking the organization, Helmberger said he was glad that “Minnesotans still appreciate German-Norwegian stubbornness.”
MNCOGI's award is given each year as part of Sunshine Week. The event wasn't entirely a love-fest, as former Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson gave a keynote address in which he both praised the role of a free press and criticized the press for sometimes-inaccurate reporting. Overall, though, the annual award serves to mark the importance of both journalistic watchdogs and open government information.
The celebration seems bittersweet to me this year, as I read story after story of repression of free press around the world.
I'm particularly aware of the situation in Turkey, because one of my students is from Turkey. A columnist in the New York Times described the repression of the press there, including this example:
"In one of the recorded conversations, Mr. Erdogan called Fatih Sarac, a top executive at Haberturk, a popular news channel, to reprimand him for airing the critical views of an opposition leader. Mr. Sarac, a confidant of Mr. Erdogan who suddenly became a top executive at Haberturk in 2012, apologized to the prime minister, telling him: 'Yes sir, I will have it cut in just two minutes, sir.' He then made a hasty call to tell his subordinates to take it off the air. In another phone call, Mr. Erdogan questioned Mr. Sarac about a story on Haberturk that criticized the government’s health reforms. The reporters and editor responsible for the story were soon fired."
"Russia’s Internet has remained largely free, but a law that took effect on Feb. 1 allowed the authorities to order providers to block sites containing “extremist” content or calls for unauthorized public gatherings. Thursday was the first time that the authorities had used the law to block posts by prominent opposition figures. In addition to Mr. Kasparov’s site, the order blocked access to Daily Journal and Grani.ru, both sites that routinely carry content critical of Kremlin policy."
In China, some journalists have been complicit in a kind of strange self-censorship. As described in this article in the New York Times, they have agreed to ask only pre-approved questions at a "press conference."
"But unbeknownst to many people in China, all the questions had been vetted in advance, with foreign reporters and Foreign Ministry officials having negotiated over what topics were permissible, and then how the acceptable questions would be phrased.
"This year CNN, Reuters, CNBC, The Associated Press and The Financial Times were among the outlets permitted to ask questions."
In Egypt, information is not free, and neither are journalists. Four Al Jazeera journalists have been imprisoned for months on trumped-up charges.
"Institutions including the White House, the European Union and the United Nations have called for the release of the journalists, and for press freedoms to be upheld.
"Freedom of speech in Egypt has been the focus of mounting global concern since the government adopted a hard-line approach toward journalists. The country was ranked the third-deadliest destination for journalists in 2013 by the Committee to Protect Journalists."
The annual Sunshine Week celebration is an opportunity for renewed commitment to both open government here and support for journalists around the world.