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RSF 'cyberdemo' falls flat
The non-governmental organisation Reporters Sans Frontiers / Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a pioneer of the 'cyberdemo', is already familiar with worlds in which all is not quite as it seems. While the organisation conducts its campaigns for journalistic freedom almost exclusively against governments in the South and the East of our planet, the funding for these campaigns comes exclusively from Western sources.
Although the presentation of the official accounts of RSF seeks to spin the information in a deliberately misleading way, a brief perusal shows that the group's resources are provided by big business in France and the UK (plus a donation from the billionaire George Soros), and also - oddly for an organisation which is described as 'non-governmental' - by the governments of France and the USA. The presentation on RSF's website brazenly refers to one of its funders, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), as a "private foundation", despite the fact that the NED is a fully-funded arm of the United States government. RSF claims that it is mainly "self funded", to the amount of €2,154,299, through the sales of publications; but given that the costs of producing and distributing these materials are fully met by (mainly French) corporations, this 'self funding' amounts in reality to the provision of funds to NSF by big business. And the British advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi designs and conducts all of RSF's media campaigns- for free, of course.
Another donor which the RSF website lists as a "private foundation" is the Center for a Free Cuba, a Miami-based organisation which is funded by the US government. The Center for a Free Cuba is headed by veteran CIA operative Frank Calzon.
Having such a financial provenance, it is unsurprising that Reporters Sans Frontiers makes no mention in its campaigns of the restrictions on journalistic freedom which are imposed by the fact that the bulk of the mass media, based in the rich Western countries though operating beyond those frontiers into the poorer countries, is owned and controlled by the big capitalist corporations.
Sans frontiers, no doubt at all. But without doubt also, ces reporters sont sans intégrité.
As a Western organisation promoting an agenda aligned to that of Western governments and business interests, the credibility of RSF in the Third World has up to now been limited. But that seemed set to change on 12th March 2008, when RSF opened its Online Free Expression Day, branded with the logo of UNESCO, the highly respected educational, scientific and cultural department of the United Nations, and giving the appearance of having the full support of that body.
The targets of Online Free Expression Day were fifteen member states of the UN: Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, which were declared to be "Internet Enemies" for their restrictions of online expression. Online participants in Free Expression Day were invited to allow a a virtual representation of themselves to be whooshed though CGI-created clouds (designed by Saatchi & Saatchi), to virtual public squares in the capitals of nine Third World countries: Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea (which for unexplained reasons was not on the 'enemies' list), North Korea, Tunisia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. Having sent their 'avatar' almost instantaneously by the magic carpet of broadband to one or more of these sites of pixillated protest, which were found to be populated by faceless figures wearing white hoods, participants were then asked to select a virtual placard, with a list of five possible slogans opposing the alleged restrictions on free expression by the relevant government.
UNESCO responded immediately, repudiating RSF with the following announcement, which was placed on the front page of the UNESCO website:
UNESCO has withdrawn its patronage of the Online Free Expression Day, organized by the non-governmental organization, Reporters Without Borders.
UNESCO reiterates its support for freedom of expression on the internet but felt compelled to withdraw patronage following the publication of information by RSF which did not follow the arrangements agreed upon between the two organizations concerning the event.
Following a request from RSF, made through the French National Commission for UNESCO, the Director-General of UNESCO Koïchiro Matsuura, in a letter dated 22 February 2008, granted UNESCO patronage to the international day. This letter clearly indicated, however, that the Organization could not “be associated with the activities envisaged for this occasion” by RSF.
In its communications on the day, RSF published material concerning a number of UNESCO’s Member States, which UNESCO had not been informed of and could not endorse. Furthermore, UNESCO’s logo was placed in such a way as to indicate the Organization’s support of the information presented.
UNESCO has a clear mandate to defend the free flow of information and freedom of expression. It does so using the channels and fora of a UN intergovernmental organization, respecting the sovereignty of its 193 Member States. For example, UNESCO spearheaded debate in favour of freedom of expression on the internet throughout the UN-organized World Summit of the Information Society and continues to do so in the Internet Governance Forum, an ongoing UN dialogue on the future of the internet.
It appears that misrepresentation is something of a hallmark of RSF. Its attempt at subterfuge exposed, RSF issued a rather intemperate statement, in which it grandiosely referred to itself, in the grammatical third person, as "the press freedom organisation". It accused UNESCO of "grovelling" and its director of "caving in" to authoritarianism, and - rather unusually for a non-governmental organisation- insisted that the French Foreign Ministry should call UNESCO to order:
We were notified of the decision by the director of its Freedom of Expression, Democracy and Peace Division. Defending the move, UNESCO said it gave its patronage for the "principle of this day" but could not support the various demonstrations organised to mark it.
"We are not fooled," Reporters Without Borders said. "Several governments on today's updated list of 15 'Internet Enemies' put direct pressure on the office of the UNESCO director general, and deputy director general Marcio Barbosa caved in. UNESCO's reputation has not been enhanced by this episode. It has behaved with great cowardice at a time when the governments that got it to stage a U-turn continue to imprison dozens of Internet users."
The press freedom organisation added: "Unfortunately, it seems we have gone back 20 years, to the time when authoritarian regimes called the shots at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. UNESCO's grovelling shows the importance of Online Free Expression Day and the need to protest against governments that censor."
Reporters Without Borders immediately informed the French foreign ministry of UNESCO's decision as it was at the suggestion of the French National Commission to UNESCO that this UN body granted its patronage for this event. The commission is an offshoot of the foreign ministry. Reporters Without Borders is of the view that the French government cannot remain silent in the face of the rebuff it has received as a result of pressure from authoritarian governments.
The statement also included a plea for more 'avatars' to turn up for the demonstration:
Reporters Without Borders has issued an updated list of "Internet Enemies" as part of its actions to mark this day. There are 15 countries on the list - Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
Cyber-demos are being organised in online versions of nine especially repressive countries. Internet users can create an avatar, choose a message for their banner and take part in one of these virtual protests.
This last request was quite in order, as very few virtual protestors were arriving at the electronically represented city squares of the 'enemy' states. Peculiarly, for a demonstration which on the RSF website is described as a "24-hour online protest" for the 12th to 13th March- several days later, the facility is still open and one can send ones avatar to any or all of these foreign places to make a virtual statement.
Of course, one cannot make just any statement. The RSF facility does not permit you to write your own slogan. You must pick one of five pre-prepared anti-government slogans chosen by the RSF organisers- 'online freedom of expression' does not extend quite that far.
Nevertheless, I took part. Never having had the time or the money to visit Beijing or Hanoi, I took the opportunity to arrive at 'Tianemen Square' and then only a minute later, at the 'Place du Parti Unique'. The virtual entity 'Jimmy Cross', from London UK, has been added, twice, to the numbers which RSF is claiming as participants in its protest. Having broadband access- something which only a tiny minority of Third World citizens are able to afford- it was free for me to travel, and no knowledge of the political situations in China or Vietnam, or understanding of their international economic context, was required of me.
As I write, my avatar is still there, waving its placard in two far-flung places at once. Yet so far, RSF has managed to send only 1,962 virtual demonstrators to 'Vietnam', and, despite all the anti-Olympic publicity, only 8,438 avatars have turned up in 'China'.
Why so few? It is not as if Reporters Sans Frontiers lacks a publicity machine. Perhaps, for all the ease and anonymity which the internet offers to the relatively affluent, there is yet a sense that is not such a good idea for Westerners to arrive in a poorer country with the intention of changing the political system. George Bush and Tony Blair have done it for real; maybe, that was something of a lesson.