Media & Journalism

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Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei formally arrested for alleged spying in China

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 12/02/2021 - 5:39pm in

Tensions between Australia and China continue to intensify


Screenshot from ABC TV 7.30 video: Cheng Lei's family speaks out for the first time since her detention in China on February 9, 2021

Australian journalist and television presenter Cheng Lei has been formally arrested and accused of unlawfully supplying or intending to supply state secrets or intelligence overseas, according to Chinese authorities.

Cheng, who was the anchor for a business program on state television’s China Global Television Network (CGTN), was detained in August 2020. The Chinese government was called out at the time for so-called “hostage diplomacy.”

Members of her family spoke out on the ABC (Australia) 7.30 current affairs program.

Journalists working in China for foreign media have faced numerous difficulties recently. Australian journalist Bill Birtles, the 7.30 reporter for this story, was the ABC Beijing correspondent before making a rushed exit home in September 2020. He explained some of the background during the 7.30 segment:

Cheng Lei was taken away six weeks after ASIO [Australian security] raided the homes of four Chinese state media journalists in Sydney.

The anti-foreign interference investigation prompted Beijing to target Australian journalists in China but it's not clear if Cheng's arrest is related to the tense diplomatic relationship, because four months after she was taken away, her close friend, Haze Fan, a Chinese journalist working for American media, was also detained on national security grounds.

There is a much broader context of tensions between Australia and China involving trade, security and diplomacy.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has dismissed claims by China that Australia is trying to interfere in their judicial system. Payne responded that Cheng Lei “deserves the basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and human treatment to be met in accordance with international norms.”

Another prominent case involves the continuing detention by Chinese authorities of writer and popular online commentator, Chinese-Australian Yang Hengjun, since January 2019. The latest news concerning Cheng Lei has been greeted online in Australia with anger and frustration. Laoch’s tweet captured the growing reaction “Down Under” against the Chinese Communist Party:

Brisbane Twitter user Bob Bruce raised the possibility that Cheng Lei may have been involved in breaches of Chinese national security:

Paul Barrett, former Secretary of Australian Departments of Defence and Primary Industries & Energy, drew parallels with the way that imprisoned Aussie journalist, Julian Assange, has been treated by his government:

Australian journalist Peter Greste, who spent 440 days in jail in Egypt, has continued his strong support for Cheng Lei. In a statement for the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, he is quoted as saying that:

…Chinese authorities have had ample time to gather evidence, and unless they are willing to show it, they should release Cheng immediately.

China’s record on press freedom is already deeply troubling. In the absence of evidence, Cheng’s arrest only adds to the impression that Beijing does not care about the freedom of the press. Her case stands as a clear warning to other journalists to support the government or risk being imprisoned too.

Several news stories were posted to Reddit, where there was lively discussion.

Defamedprawn raised an issue that many others agreed with:

I don't mean to be harsh, but the lady is an anchor [for] CGTN, which is very much an arm of the regime. For instance, they're notorious for televising forced confessions and pretending they're interviews.

So should I feel sympathy for this person?

Catalyst1945 showed cynicism about whether the Australian government would take any real action:

Can’t wait for our spineless prime minister to do nothing.

Given the nature of Chinese trials, it is possible that we may never know what motivated her detention:

Meanwhile, Australia faces claims of hypocrisy over lack of judicial transparency. Ann raised the contentious issue of its own secret trials:

Report into Australian special forces war crimes in Afghanistan ‘gut-wrenching’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 25/11/2020 - 4:04pm in

Twenty-five defence force personnel face charges over thirty-nine killings

Afghan Files- Four Corners video 16 March 2020 ‘Killing Field’ screenshot

Screenshot: Australian Broadcasting Corporation Four Corners video 16 March 2020 ‘Killing Field’

A report published on November 19 into alleged war crimes by special forces in Afghanistan has stunned Australians. Australia has had troops in Afghanistan since 2001 as part of the International Security Assistance Force. Combat troops were withdrawn in December 2013, with 400 trainers and advisers remaining till today.

Despite media stories and widespread rumours of troop misconduct, the Afghanistan Inquiry report has been described as a horrific bombshell.

The inquiry was conducted by Paul Brereton, a judge and Army reserve Major General. The independent investigation, commissioned by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), reviewed over 20,000 documents and 25,000 images and interviewed 423 witnesses. “57 incidents and issues of interest” were examined in detail.

The investigation followed a 2016 review of special forces culture by military sociologist Dr. Samantha Crompvoets. Crompvoet's investigation was commissioned by the ADF in 2015 after rumours of war crimes circulated in the special forces community. She found that there was, “illegal application of violence on operations, disregard for human life and dignity, and the perception of a complete lack of accountability at times.” The review has a comprehensive list of media reports about special operations overseas from 2000 to 2015 but was finished before the sensational 2017 Afghan Files revelations mentioned below. Her review did not document specific incidents. Media stories helped to inform the Brereton investigations but are not specifically detailed in its report.

Guardian Australia reporter Paul Daley summarised the background and findings of the recent report:

For more than four years, the Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton has investigated allegations that a small group within the elite Special Air Services [SAS] and commandos regiments killed and brutalised Afghan civilians, in some cases allegedly slitting throats, gloating about their actions, keeping kill counts, and photographing bodies with planted phones and weapons to justify their actions.

Among the findings of the Brereton report are the following:

  • 39 Afghans were killed and 2 others treated cruelly between 2009 and 2013. 25 current or former ADF personnel are implicated in one or more of the 23 incidents identified.
  • The killings did not happen ‘under pressure in heat of battle’.
  • Junior soldiers were required by patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner for ‘their first kill’, a practice called ‘blooding. The commanders were usually senior NCOs (non-commissioned officers).
  • So-called ‘throwdown’ weapons were carried by Special Operations Task Group to be placed next to bodies to justify killings.

This screenshot is an example of the heavily-redacted nature of the report, with names and other details blacked out:

Brereton report extract page 73

Screenshot: Brereton report extract (page 73).

Incidents involving 19 individuals have been referred to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) for criminal investigation, which may result in murder charges.

The report also explores the fostering of a ‘warrior hero culture’ as a contributing factor. An example of the toxic culture emerged in September 2020 when an Instagram account run by special forces soldiers, past and present, mocked war crimes allegations. Many Australians on social media were appalled at the time:

The report has dominated social media. Afghan-Australian human rights lawyer Diana B. Sayed posted this statement on Twitter:

There has been ‘shock and anger’ in Afghanistan. Hani Marifat, CEO of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, raised the implications for other nations:

The Australian government’s intention to pay compensation to the families of victims in Afghanistan has been welcomed.

However, not everyone accepts the report’s recommendations:

The report found that ‘no evidence that there was knowledge of, or reckless indifference to, the commission of war crimes, on the part of commanders at troop/platoon, squadron/company or Task Group Headquarters level, let alone at higher levels such as Commander Joint Task Force 633, Joint Operations Command, or Australian Defence Headquarters.’

In an article on The Conversation, veteran journalist Michelle Grattan questioned how it was possible for those up the chain of command to not know.

If senior officers did not pick up gossip and whispers, surely they should have been enough aware of the broad special forces culture to know that extensive checks should be in place to guard against the ever-present threat of misconduct.

Former soldier Dr. Julian Fidge believes that the culture of military leadership has led to a lack of accountability at higher levels:

A potential consequence of the recent report concerns former SAS member Ben Roberts-Smith, a recipient of Australia’s highest military honour the Victoria Cross. The Court has directed him to hand over documents from the Brereton inquiry. The documents may reveal whether he is implicated as a suspect. His old SAS squadron is to be disbanded as a result of the recent report. Roberts-Smith is currently suing newspapers for defamation.

Whistleblowers and the media

Between 2014 and 2015, Australian Army lawyer David McBride leaked information on war crimes in Afghanistan to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). A criminal prosecution against McBride is still proceeding. There are many people calling for the charges to be dropped:

However, Federal prosecutors are not proceeding with charges against ABC journalist Dan Oakes as it was not in the public interest. Oakes helped expose secret defence force documents leaked to the ABC in 2017 (also known as the Afghan Files), he was also one of the journalists at the centre of an Australian Federal Police raid on the ABC in June 2019.

The chief of the ADF, Angus Campbell, has been accused of hypocrisy:

Colin Hocking blames the Federal police and Prime Minister Scott Minister for the pursuit of the media:

On the broader front, the ramifications of these disturbing events will be playing out for years to come, especially criminal charges.

Solomon Islands bans Facebook for ‘harmful content’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 21/11/2020 - 4:16pm in

An official claims Facebook is merely being ‘suspended’ for an indefinite time


Students studying at a computer lab in University of South Pacific Solomon Islands Campus. Photo from Flickr account of the Asian Development Bank, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Cabinet of Solomon Islands has issued a temporary ban on Facebook for what it considers ‘harmful content’ disseminated on the social media platform. It is unclear when the ban will begin and how long will this last.

The ban was proposed by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Communication and Civil Aviation Minister Peter Shanel Agovaka.

Agovaka told Solomon Times why the Cabinet came up with this decision:

Abusive languages against Ministers, Prime Minister, character assassination, defamation of character, all these are issues of concerns.

The use of the internet now in Solomon Islands needs to be properly regulated to safeguard our young people from harmful content. At the moment there is no legislation to govern the use of the internet and even young kids can be able to download harmful stuff from the internet.

Agovaka said the government has not yet finalized the details with internet service providers about how the ban will be enforced. He added that press freedom will not be affected since citizens can still publish or air their sentiments on other media platforms.

There are 120,000 Facebook users in Solomon Islands.

The announcement garnered widespread criticism which prompted Permanent Secretary of Communication and Aviation Moses Virivolomo to clarify that Facebook is merely being suspended. But the official gave no timeline about the suspension.

The Facebook ban or suspension is seen by critics and the opposition as an attempt to silence citizens who are exposing irregularities in government.

Opposition Member of Parliament Peter Kenilorea Jnr reminded the Cabinet about the importance of upholding freedom of expression in a democracy:

As leaders, we will face resentment from factions of a demanding and at times dissatisfied public. Much of the dissatisfaction and mistrust, whether real or perceived, will be aired. Sometimes these need to be aired. After all, we, leaders, need to be held accountable by the electorate that place us in positions of power. We need to face the music from time to time. This is democracy.

But as leaders, let us not attack one of the main pillars of democracy upon which our nation rests – the freedom of expression. Let us not mute the voices, however angry, of those that we have sworn to serve.

Malaita Provincial Premier Daniel Suidani, a local official, also disagreed with the decision to ban Facebook:

Do not go into public life and make laws and decisions for your own good or for your own protection as is seen with the banning of Facebook.

Doing this will only lead to further frustrations. You can be guaranteed that going against your people only leads to failures.

The business sector is not supportive of the ban. Jay Bartlett, the board chairperson of the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI), said the Cabinet should be focusing on other more important matters:

It is the Government’s prerogative to make such a decision, but as a Chamber we believe that there are other pressing issues that requires our collective focus.

Ms Gloria Hong, a member of SICCI representing small businesses, argued that Facebook is an essential platform to interact with consumers.

Using social media helps us to build brand awareness, increase our customer base, and connect with customers.

In my view, banning Facebook is a threat to businesses, especially the small businesses who cannot afford to run advertisements on radio, newspapers and on TV.

Tourism Solomons CEO Josefa ‘Jo’ Tuamoto warned about the repercussions for the tourism industry:

It goes without saying the platform has become vital in our efforts to keep the Solomon Islands top of mind and competitive on the world tourism stage for the time when things return to normal.

No other social media platform comes even close to what we have been achieving with Facebook.

And not just for our tourism sector, but for all Solomon Islands businesses and the wider community in general which uses Facebook as a key means of communication across our 992-island archipelago.

In a letter sent to the Solomon Times, Floyd Manata from Port Moresby said banning Facebook is not the solution:

We need to be very careful about dealing with certain things regarding this time where the world technology is changing every 6 months. Today it's Facebook next year probably TikTok. But hey think again is this the best solution to the problem?

Before you ban Facebook you should establish or come up with policies that will facilitate the issue of cyber crime and cyber security. Do we have one in place at the moment?

Facebook told ABC Australia that it is ready to discuss the issues raised by the Solomon Islands government:

We’re reaching out to the Solomon Islands government to discuss today’s decision.

This move will impact thousands of people in the Solomon Islands who use our services to connect and engage in important discussions across the Pacific.

Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher Kate Schuetze said the ban will deprive users of vital information that can save lives during a pandemic.

Given how important it is for people to quickly access information in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government may not just place political discourse and participation at risk, but even lives. Total bans on websites or internet information providers will almost never be justifiable under international human rights law.

Dan McGarry, an independent journalist living in Vanuatu, has a proposal for Pacific governments which are unhappy over the social impact of Facebook and has considered plans to censor or ban the popular social media website:

Pacific governments need to start a dialogue, not just with social media giants, but with other national regulators too. They need to learn from others’ mistakes, and leverage others’ successes.

Australian government on collision course with Facebook and Google over news revenue

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 19/09/2020 - 2:39am in

Tech giants fiercely resist compulsory bargaining code of conduct

Facebook News - U.S. website

Facebook News – U.S. website (Author's photo of computer webpage)

In what could be a world first if successful, the Australian government has drafted laws that would force tech giants Facebook and Google to negotiate with media companies over payment for linking to their news stories. The tech giants have responded defiantly.Flaw

The dispute has its seeds in a request by the Federal government for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). In December 2017, the ACCC was directed to consider the impact of online search engines, social media and digital content aggregators (digital platforms) on competition in the media and advertising services markets. Its final report was published in 2019 and a draft bill was posted on 31 July 2020.

Draft legislation would establish a code of conduct, requiring negotiations between the parties that could result in payment to the publishers of the content. Compulsory arbitration would follow if agreement could not be reached.

As can be expected, most of the large media companies support the code, including the Guardian as it admits in its explainer:

The government, acting on the advice of its competition regulator, accepts the argument that the platforms benefit far more, and that their substantial market power means the news companies do not have the capacity to demand a better deal. It also accepts the argument that this lopsided relationship jeopardises the capacity of the media to continue to play their essential role in society.

The vested interests of Australian-based media may help to explain why there seems to be confusion about the difference between using links to news and publishing the actual content of the stories. They foster the common belief that the platforms are gaining advertising revenue from these links, money that should be going to the news producers.

Google and Facebook react

Apparently Google is prepared to pay for content and has undertaken some negotiations about doing this. They have mounted a publicity and lobbying campaign, with a letter to the ACCC posted on their platforms in Australia. The latest update to their open letter outlines their position.

They have also highlighted part of the proposed laws requiring them to give the big news organisations notice of changes to search rankings and algorithms. It warns that ‘Search and YouTube, which are free services, are at risk in Australia’ without being specific about their future.

Moreover, Google News in Australia is under threat, according to the tech giant.

Facebook has threatened to remove the news content from its site:

[…] we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram.

It has already changed its terms of service in Australia to enable this to happen:

Effective October 1, 2020, section 3.2 of our Terms of Service will be updated to include: ‘We also can remove or restrict access to your content, services or information if we determine that doing so is reasonably necessary to avoid or mitigate adverse legal or regulatory impacts to Facebook’

Facebook has also offered a carrot:

We already invest millions of dollars in Australian news businesses and, during discussions over this legislation, we offered to invest millions more. We had also hoped to bring Facebook News to Australia, a feature on our platform exclusively for news, where we pay publishers for their content.

Online commentary

The sums of money being talked about could well exceed $AUD 600 million [USD 40 million] according to Crikey’s Bernard Keane, politics editor at Crikey, an independent news website in Australia.

However, he rejects the government position arguing that it is stealing money from successful companies:

The government’s proposed News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code would be a draconian regulation to force two explicitly identified companies, Google and Facebook, to hand an unlimited amount of revenue over to Australian media companies, justified by a fiction that those companies steal news content.

[…] The code is justified by a News Corp lie, that Google steals news content and makes billions of dollars from it.

Well respected Australian independent writer Tim Dunlop mused at length on Twitter about the government’s approach:

You can read the complete thread here.

Hal Crawford explained the case for change to New Zealanders at Spinoff:

Google, Facebook and other global companies are not sufficiently contributing to the public purse and the community life of the places where they conduct business. Both companies have made moves to support news locally, but these good initiatives are not yet enough to balance the books.

The role of News Corp

The Australian government has support from the big media companies especially Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. In fact some see it as doing his bidding arguing that the code of conduct mirrors a News Corp submission to the ACCC. Kangaroo Court of Australia’s Shane Dowling has no doubt:

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and the Scott Morrison government are conspiring in an attempt to shakedown Google and Facebook for hundreds of millions of dollars.

One of the slightly puzzling aspects of News Corp's strident position is that nearly all of its online news sites are behind paywalls. The national daily, The Australian, is a good example of a paid subscriber service only.

Others are riled by the fact the government-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) are excluded from the proposed scheme. This includes the Australian Greens party but others fear it would undermine their government funding and independence:

There are also concerns about the future of the Australian Associate Press news agency and the funding of regional newspapers.

This is not just shadow boxing. The tech giants face fines of up to 10% of their annual turnover in Australia if they do not comply with the code. That could amount to hundreds of millions.

The draft legislation has been the subject of a month’s consultation. It should be debated by the parliament before the end of the year.