Bloggers organize international day of support for Burmese freedom

As the world awaits the U.N. briefing on this week’s peace talks in Myanmar, the chaos and violence on the ground ensues. The rising death toll is estimated in the hundreds, with injuries and arrests mounting by the day. But anyone outside the country’s borders is virtually in the dark as to how the situation is now unfolding.

That was not the case this time last week.

On Friday, Sept. 28, the Myanmar government effectively shut down all cell-phone and Internet communication, stunting a citizen-journalism movement that had itself drawn international recognition.

The state-controlled media in Myanmar has been tight-lipped, to say the least. Communication with international news organizations has been spotty, and soldiers continue to turn reporters away at the borders. The message has been clear: “Nothing to see here.”

But armed with cell phones, cameras and laptops, common citizens and protesters stepped in to expose the conflict in real time. Some ran blogs of their own. Many dispatched pictures and videos of police violence to off-shore bloggers and news sites. Either way, they loosened the government’s chokehold on communication.

Now, with the ebb and flow of information from within at a standstill, the offshore sites are left to sustain awareness. A brand-new site out of Germany,, calls on bloggers around the world to post a “Free Burma” awareness graphic on any posts today, Oct. 4. Organizer Philipp Hausser talked to us about “International Bloggers’ Day For Burma” and the impact of Myanmar’s citizen-journalist phenomenon.

Online Journalism Review: First off, can you tell me a little about the history of your site?

Phillip Hausser: The original idea came from a Blogger in Italy. The well-known German blogger Robert Basic had an idea “to do something” and asked what could be done. Many comments; different opinions. Everything was discussed in a Wiki and the idea of an international blogger day was born.

Christian Hahn [Hausser’s partner] and I found that this was a good idea to show the people in Burma our solidarity for their peaceful protests. To help the action to get better organized (the wiki was and is still very unorganized) we decided overnight to set up the domain and build a website.

OJR: And how have results been so far?

Hausser: It’s now in seven different languages, with an overwhelming success: Over 10,000 visitors came just in the first 24 hours, and over 30,000 visitors to date. The site [launched] Sunday.

The reason for so many visitors is a good working network. People spread the message within ours around the globe and many people joined.

And yes, the support was great! We reached many, many people in almost every country and had media coverage around the globe – all in 4 days.

Let’s see what happens on Oct. 4.

OJR: What sort of goals have you set for the site?

Hausser: The situation in Burma is getting more and more quiet in the last days; not because of a better situation, but because the military is trying to avoid any outgoing communication.

We want to keep this “burning topic” on top in the media. The bloody pictures are getting fewer every day, and the media are losing their interest to report about the topic. We want so set a peaceful sign to keep it on peoples’ minds.

OJR: Do you have a sense of how effective the government shutdown of Internet and cell-phone lines has been? How long did it take to figure out that outside communications had been halted?

Hausser: We/the bloggers realized very quickly that there was no more connection to Burma. Hours later the media spread the news. And yes, it was effective. Most blogs about Burma are written outside Burma (see our blog list on the blogs inside stopped refreshing and the remaining bloggers are afraid for their lives. They have taken pictures of themselves down from their blogs so the government can’t find them. Everybody there is in danger.

OJR: What are citizen journalists in Myanmar doing now to get information out of the country? Have they been able to get around the government barriers? If so, how?

Hausser: Not sure. But we know that it is not easy. They talk/write less about Burma every day. We try to stop that.

OJR: How are the off-shore blogs and sites like yours dealing with the block of information flow?

Hausser: To be honest, currently I’m more and more dealing with interviews and communication than working for the page. The response is overwhelming, more than we ever expected.

OJR: You’ve really tried to spread the word with Wiki, Digg, Facebook, Flickr, etc. How successful have those social media tools been in spreading awareness?

Hausser: Facebook is not directly connected with us, but they are promoting the action. Top referrers are Stumbleupon and We used Flickr for the graphics collection, and the wiki as a democratic element to collect ideas, translations and everything else.

OJR: Finally, do you have a particular, numeric goal in mind for the big Burma blog day on Oct. 4?

Hausser: No, nothing. The visitor counter is growing very rapidly, as are subscriptions (see the news page for updates). But like I said: This is more than we ever expected, and no one knows what’s going on today/tomorrow. But I’m sure it will be a lot!

FOIA at 40: Can it still help the public examine its government?

The Freedom of Information Act turned 40 on July 4 of this year, a moment for both celebration and reflection among advocates for open government and press freedom. Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sees plenty of cause for both reflection and redoubled effort to preserve the public’s right to know in our current political climate, nearly six years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

OJR spoke with Dalglish about the heightened concern she sees from both journalists and the public about the culture of secrecy that has pervaded many parts of our government, as well as the status of a proposed federal shield law for journalists and some bloggers and a bill that its advocates say would improve administration of freedom of information regulations.

The beginnings of RCFP’s “secrecy beat”

OJR: Even before attacks of September 11, the Bush administration displayed a rare penchant for secrecy.

Dalglish: Right. [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales, when he was the White House Counsel, tried to gut the Presidential Records Act [PRA], to essentially make it meaningless. There was the [former Attorney General John] Ashcroft memorandum interpreting the Freedom of Information Act. They were working on that well before 9/11. There was the Cheney energy task force meetings that they tried to put off-limits. They were pre-disposed to secrecy even before 9/11.

[Note: In June, 2007, the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform issued a report alleging that senior Administration officials might have violated the PRA by using e-mail addresses assigned by the Republican National Committee to conduct official government business.]

OJR: How did journalists react to that predisposition toward secrecy in the very beginning?

Dalglish: Indifferently.

OJR: Indifferently? They didn’t see it as a real problem?

Dalglish: No, they didn’t see it as a real problem. They were caught unawares and they always thought, “Oh, we’re the only ones who care about that. Journalists are the only ones who care about that, so why even bother to report it?”

OJR: After 9/11, at what point did journalists get concerned. Was it the passage of the PATRIOT ACT?

Dalglish: Well the PATRIOT ACT doesn’t have much to do with information policy. And quite honestly, from my perspective, many of the things in the PATRIOT ACT are absolutely fine and absolutely necessary.

There were a number of things that happened after 9/11 that did impact the right of the public to know what was going on, but it wasn’t necessarily the PATRIOT ACT. I can really only think of one major area of concern in the PATRIOT ACT, and that’s section 215, which said that you could try to get tangible business information from any entity, and then, the librarians and the bookstore owners went nuts.

And we found out from the Attorney General that they were convinced that despite the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 that said you could not execute a search warrant on a newsroom, that because 9/11 was so special that the PATRIOT ACT would allow those search warrants to be executed on newsrooms.

OJR: Has anybody tried to do that?

Dalglish: No, not that I’m aware of.

OJR: There was information that had previously been public that suddenly got taken off-line after 9/11.

Dalglish: Yes. And there were rules that were implemented, executive orders that were written, there was laws that Congress did pass. For example, the law that creates the Department of Homeland Security exempted DHS from portions of the Freedom of Information Act. [RCFP has a detailed chronology of US government secrecy measures between 9/11 and 2005.

OJR: What motivated the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press to start covering these attempts at secrecy as a distinct beat, with reports such as Homefront Confidential and your blog, Behind the Homefront?

Dalglish: The absolute certainty that the public wasn’t going to learn nearly as much information as they used to, and that this administration was intent on placing valuable information off-limits.

Growing public support for open government

OJR: Where are we now in the effort to balance the legitimate need for secrecy with the public’s right to know?

Dalglish: I think we’re starting to bounce back a little bit. I think Congress has finally woken up. I think the media have finally woken up. I think the public is kind of waking up. They’re asking very serious questions. I think the [Congressional mid-term] election in November [2006] was partly due to all of this stuff. People are going, “Okay, we gave you enough rope, and you hung yourselves. So know we’re gonna go in another direction.”

And I think the [June, 2007] Washington Post stories about Vice-President Cheney explain the passion for secrecy better than just about anything I’ve seen.

OJR: When you cite the Washington Post stories as a sign that the news media has awakened, are you saying that they haven’t been aggressive enough on these issues in the past?

Dalglish: No, there’s no question the press has not been aggressive enough on these issues. Many reporters have made the mistake of concluding the public doesn’t care about this stuff, and that it was quote-unquote inside baseball. But the public does care about this stuff.

And we’re starting to find out that yes, there is a need to keep some things secret. But when you keep some things secret with impunity, abuses of power occur.

OJR: What evidence do you have that there is widespread concern about this among the public?

Dalglish: I get letters; I get e-mails. Mostly, it’s what doesn’t happen. It used to be when I would go on television or on radio and whine about this, people would call in and say I was an unpatriotic jerk. Now, when I go on these TV shows or on these radio talk shows, people call in saying, “Oh thank God there are people like you! Where have you been?” It’s more of an attitude adjustment, rather than any concrete information I’ve been getting.

I’m not getting as many death threats, let me put it that way.

OJR: You were getting death threats before?

Dalglish: Oh, sure!

Current challenges facing journalists

OJR: How do you feel things stand legally in terms of civil liberties protections for reporters?

Dalglish: They’re chipping away in millions of tiny little ways. They’re trying to close down criminal prosecutions. They’re trying to keep us out of proceedings in Guantanamo. They’re trying to close down access to jurors. They’re trying to prevent us from finding out who it is we’ve kicked out of the country. The foreign nationals that we’ve deported because of some weird, wacky matrix system. They don’t want us to know anything about critical infrastructure, even to the point of ridiculous examples. They won’t even let you know — if somebody’s proposed to build a credit-card processing facility in Texas, and the local folks won’t even tell you what intersection it’s going on, because someone has told them that’s sensitive homeland security information. I mean there’s some really ridiculous things that are happening.

And, people are so worked up, and so frightened, that they’ve kind of let common sense fly out the window.

OJR: I recall that a few months after 9/11, I was teaching a computer-assisted reporting class, and we tried to get information on whether ground water had been contaminated around a particular plant. We couldn’t get the information, whereas it had been fairly easy to find that kind of thing out online before.

Dalglish: Yes, they took it down. They took a lot of that kind of information down, because, you know, a terrorist might use that to poison people! Well the same information a terrorist could use to do damage, citizens who live in that area might appreciate knowing so they can tell their children not to drink the ground water. It’s a total double-edged sword, and they’ve got to be so over-protective, that they’re not using common sense. How can you insist that the EPA clean up your ground water if you’re not allowed to know that it’s contaminated? It gets to be infuriating.

Legislative update

OJR: Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press devotes a lot of its resources to keeping track of shield laws, sunshine laws and the like. How do we stand with regard to that?

Dalglish: The [proposed Federal] shield law might move in the House fairly quickly. We’re having problems with some members of Congress who are concerned that journalists are going to protect leaked national security information. So that’s kind of a sticking point.

The Open Government Act, sponsored by [Patrick] Leahy (D-VT) and [John] Cornyn (R-TX) in the Senate, and by [Henry] Waxman (D-CA) and some others in the House, should be a no-brainer, but [Jon] Kyl (R-AZ) has put a hold on that, and he’s single-handedly blocking it.

OJR: The “secrecy Senator.”

Dalglish: Yes, the secrecy Senator.

OJR: Can you talk just a bit about the Open Government Act, which is designed to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act?

Dalglish: It doesn’t do anything, as far I’m concerned, that’s all that controversial or remarkable. It put things back the way they used to be as far as shifting in reimbursing people who have to sue the government. It doesn’t create any new information that’s off-limits. It creates some new tracking procedures, and puts some teeth into the enforcement of the act, and hopefully will make it work better, make it more user-friendly.

I don’t think there’s anything in the world that should hold this thing up. But they are so pre-occupied by immigration right now, that I don’t think anybody’s in the mood to tangle with Kyl right now. [This interview was conducted on June 26, 2007; the controversial immigration reform bill was defeated on June 28.]

What journalists and the public should do to protect the public right to know

OJR: What should journalists be doing right now with regard to Freedom of Information issues?

Dalglish: I think what journalists should be doing, quite frankly, is reading our website every single day. They should be paying attention to the sunshine in government initiative. They should be paying attention to Open the They should be paying attention to the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government. And they should be getting active in these FOI-related journalism groups.

Just stay informed, and I personally don’t think that it is a conflict for journalists to take a political position on something that has to do with the need for government to inform its citizens. Now, if you’re covering a committee in Congress that’s considering amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, should you be up there testifying in favor of the Act? No. But, what you should be doing is supporting the non-profit organizations that are trying to speak up on your behalf, to ensure your ability to do your job.

OJR: Are we doing an adequate job of making the public aware of these issues at this point?

Dalglish: We’re doing better. The American Society of Newspaper Editors has been working very hard the last two or three years on Sunshine Week. It started with newspapers, it spread to online and its spread to broadcasting. In March, right around James Madison’s birthday, we try to convey information to the public about why it’s important to support open government. Why it’s important on both the state and the federal level, and I think that’s been a remarkably successful project.

OJR: You’ve been in your job at RCFP for seven years now. In 2010, when July 4 approaches, what do you hope you will see?

Dalglish: I hope to see that the Freedom of Information Act has been amended; I hope to see that we have a reporters’ privilege – a shield law. And I hope to see that various news organizations and the non-profits are up there pro-actively seeking things from Congress rather than acting defensively.

Big media vs. the grassroots: A status report

The extended drama surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s unsolicited $5 billion bid to take over family-owned Dow Jones media empire, along with the pending $8.2 billion sale of the Tribune Co. has brought renewed attention to the longstanding debate over media consolidation. While these two high-profile transactions have grabbed the spotlight, they are mere flashpoints in a much larger battle between free-market advocates and grass-roots media advocates over the role of government in ensuring equal access to the marketplace of ideas.

At this writing, it appears as if the Bancroft family, which owns controlling shares of stock in the Dow Jones conglomerate, may be close to directing its board to negotiate the price of a final sale. Meanwhile, mogul Sam Zell has been buttonholing members of Congress in his effort to get waivers from the Federal Communications Commission that would permit the ownership of newspaper and television properties within the same market.

Both pending sales have met with criticism from activists and observers concerned about media consolidation. The editors of the Columbia Journalism Review spoke for many in the industry when they likened Murdoch to a scorpion, and pleaded, “We hope [the Bancrofts] find a way to keep this American treasure away from Rupert Murdoch, who will smile even as he raises the stinger.” The United Church of Christ and a coalition of civil rights and other groups have petitioned the FCC to stop Zell from obtaining the waivers that would make the Tribune bid possible.

While these issues have grabbed the headlines, the battle lines over media consolidation spill into other regulatory skirmishes over such issues as Internet radio, cross-ownership rules and the Net Neutrality debate. The debate has further intensified with advent of digital television in 2009, because the FCC will be auctioning off the portions of the broadcast spectrum currently used for analog television.

OJR spoke with two experts on media policy who differ strongly on consolidation and a host of other issues.

Mark Fratrick is an economist who has worked on broadcast regulation issues at the Federal Trade Commission and the National Association of Broadcasters. He is currently vice-president of BIA Financial Networks, a Virginia-based consulting firm. Craig Aaron is the press liaison or, a non-partisan think tank on media issues. Here’s what they had to say about the Dow Jones sale and several other issues related to preserving competition in the media marketplace. Their contrasting views highlight the ways in which technological change is creating new competitive realities and reshaping old debates about the tension between the media’s public service responsibilities and the economic imperatives of capitalist enterprises.

Issue: Dow Jones sale

Fratrik thinks Murdoch won’t sacrifice the Wall Street Journal on the altar of either profit or his brand of politics because to do so would be bad business practice. “I don’t think that Mr. Murdoch would seriously alter the quality and integrity of the Wall Street Journal. That integrity, that quality, that brand name is what the Wall Street Journal is. And Mr. Murdoch buys assets in order to improve the value of those assets and the value of his holding company. I find it hard to believe he would put that in serious jeopardy by diminishing the quality of such a thing.”

Issue: Net Neutrality is one of the key players in the Save the Internet coalition, proponents of “net neutrality.” Net neutrality advocates say broadband providers are looking for ways to force consumers to pay extra fees for high-speed internet access and other premium services. They want Internet access to be treated as a public resource, much as telephony was 100 years ago. In the early decades of the 20th century, industry leaders and public policy makers made universal telephone service a priority, leading to a chain of business moves and legal decisions that culminated in the Communications Act of 1934.

In 2006, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act (HR 5252), a bill that provided for some net neutrality protections passed the House but died in the Senate.

Aaron worries that without FCC action, consumers could find their internet access restricted in the same way that cell phones are limited now. “If you look at your cell phone plan, there are a lot of restrictions in place. Network neutrality is not allowed. They [wireless access providers] can interfere with who gets to you and what kind of information you can get. So we’re looking to ensure network neutrality.”

That argument doesn’t sit well with experts such as Fratrik, who describes himself as “very free market-oriented.” In fact, Fratrik exclained, “Net neutrality makes my hair hurt!” Fratrik echoes the industry-led “Hands Off the Internet” coalition, which argues that “Net Neutrality” is “expensive and unnecessary. Net neutrality opponents say that current laws already provide adequate protections for consumers. Further, they say, the changes that Neutrality advocates want would add expense without benefitting consumers.

It’s not easy to find analyses of the issue that don’t lean to one side or the other. Project Censored has accused the mainstream media of largely ignoring the net neutrality debate in 2005 and 2006, calling it the most censored story in its 2007 list. The issue may get more coverage as the 2008 Presidential election approaches, especially since several candidates have already declared themselves in favor of Net Neutrality.

Issue: Concentration of Media Ownership

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 loosened some of the rules on, for example, how many radio stations a company could own, both nationally and locally. To Fratrik, that regulatory relief was essential: “I think that the competitive environment that both radio and television stations now find themselves in… is incredibly remarkable. Without the deregulation of the ’96 Act, … broadcasters would be even in a worse position than they are now.”

The actual development and implementation of regulatory rules in the years since 1996 has been contentious. In a 2004 decision in the case Prometheus v. FCC, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals stopped plans announced by the FCC in 2003 to further loosen caps on the number of radio, newspaper and broadcast outlets that can be owned in one market. In 2006, the FCC announced that it was seeking public comment on how to respond to the order. In 2004, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) introduced the Media Ownership Reform Act, which would roll back much of the deregulation of the last two decades, break up some media conglomerates, and re-introduce the Fairness Doctrine. So far, the bill has not made it out of committee.

The transition to digital television brings a new twist to the consolidation debate with the FCC’s forthcoming auction of the analog bandwidth that over-the-air television broadcasters won’t be using any more. Digital television, which will become standard in 2009, also promises to create a host of opportunities for new interactive media services.’s Craig Aaron is worried that, “the way the auction is taking shape, it very well could be that the same companies that already dominate our broadband market – the phone and cable companies. Phone companies, in particular, are in a position to swallow up this spectrum.” and its allies are urging the FCC to follow “open access rules” that it says will lead to greater consumer access, more innovation, and more marketplace competition. Those rules include requiring licensees to make bandwidth available, at wholesale rates, setting aside a portion of the spectrum for unlicensed wireless services, and ensuring that customers will be able to connect to wireless services without having to purchase a device endorsed by their wireless carrier. They also support passage of the Wireless Innovation Act of 2007, which would turn these recommended rules into law.

Issue: Diversity of Media Ownership

One of the reasons, the Third Circuit ruled against the FCC in the Prometheus case is because it rejected the FCC’s claim that it could loosen ownership restrictions without further eroding the diversity of media ownership. That lack of diversity remains a serious issue.

Aaron and others point to the June 2007 report, “Off the Dial” as evidence of the the persistently low representation of women and people of color among the owners of the nation’s broadcast outlets. According to that report, African Americans, Latinos and Asians own only 7.7 percent of the nation’s full-power commercial broadcast stations, despite representing about one-third of the US population. An October, 2006 study, “Out of the Picture,” found people of color similarly scarce among commercial television station owners. Women constituted just under 5 percent of television station owners, despite the fact that just over half the US population is female.

Fratrik says diversity of ownership and opinion is “always a valid concern.” However, he adds, “how it should be handled is another question, insofar as how you may hamper the ability of certain stations to operate for not allowing groups to acquire properties, troubles me. I think it’s a very good concern; I think it’s an important part of a democracy. It’s also an important part of communications policy. I’m always fearful if that is the primary driver in some proposals.”

Fratrick added, “If you just look at over the air broadcasting as your group of outlets, then there may be not as much diversity as one would like, but on the other hand, I think the broader media environment should be the environment, what we refer to as the media ecosystem that one should look at. Given the thousands and really unlimited number of outlets that one has available, I think there’s a tremendous amount of diversity.

“I think the current regulatory scheme is fine, insofar as providing enough diversity in that broader media ecosystem, that broader marketplace. I’m thinking of satellite radio, I’m thinking of the Internet, I’m thinking of video-on-demand, cable systems, the hundreds of newspapers, blogs – every day there’s a new avenue.”

“Not everybody has a broadband connection to the Internet, and not everybody has cable, and certainly not everybody subscribes to satellite radio. But when I take a step back and ask, what’s available to the American consumer, and what’s available for free, what’s available for a fee, what’s available online, I’m just wondering, what else more can we be doing?”

Aaron has some ideas that he thinks will lead to more diversity among media owners. “Well, he says, “you could lower the ownership caps, for a start. You can create incentive systems for those properties to be sold to under-represented communities.”

The Outlook

While Fratrik doesn’t expect MORA any bill like it to surface any time soon, he adds, “I’m always concerned when Congress talks about this, because I’m always fearful that they may come back and re-regulate, and I think that would be an unwise decision.” disagrees. Aaron maintains that whether it’s the Internet, the wireless spectrum, cable or satellite, “they’re all a part of the public airwaves. And it’s the FCC’s job to make sure these airwaves are used in the public interest. And the public interest is lower prices, more options, more space to get faster Internet service, to connect their devices and do different things. Unfortunately, the history of media policymaking has largely gone in a different direction, and that’s taken this great public resource and privatized it in a way that it doesn’t serve the interest of everybody, and it does serve the narrow interest of a few big companies.” Aaron insists that the policies he and his colleagues recommend will yield “benefits in terms of new services, new products new competition.”

Whatever your philosphical predisposition, one thing is clear: the decisions taken by the FCC in the coming weeks and months will go a long way toward shaping the media environment for both journalists and news consumers for years to come.