Obama’s YouTube Diplomacy

For those that haven’t seen it yet, below is Obama’s YouTube Nowruz (New Year) message to the people and leaders of Iran. In my opinion, he seems to have gotten the tone just about right. And I found that the use of online video to speak directly to the Iranian people, but also its leaders, a great example of Internet diplomacy. In our research into both the Persian and Arabic language blogospheres, we have found that online resources such as YouTube and Wikipedia are by far the most popular online media sources. Although YouTube has been blocked on and off in Iran, I understand it is currently not blocked. We need more people there to use Herdict and tell us if this is true or not. Obama’s use of YouTube also ensures that he will get a far larger audience than the usual White House press release garners. My only concern, though, is that the media and blogosphere are so focused on Obama’s video that nobody is talking about the death of Iranian blogger Omid Reza Misayafi, which is far too important, and upsetting, of a story to be overlooked.

Eulogy for Omid Misayafi

I am having trouble expressing how sad and angry I feel over the death of Iranian blogger Omid Rez Misayafi. Bruce’s post this morning announcing it, via Global Voices, left me shaken and upset. I have spent the last hour frantically pouring over the accounts of a writer whom I’ve never met or read (he wrote in Farsi, mostly about traditional Iranian music), but with whom I feel the deepest and most immediate brotherhood. As the Committee to Protect Bloggers put it: “They’ve Killed One of Us.”

I am trying to wrap my mind around how something this cruel and unnecessary could happen. Misayafi, whose chief offense seems to have been a few quickly penned satires, was sentenced in December for insulting religious clerics and opposing the Islamic Republic. That this could merit *two and a half years* in an Iranian gulag, the infamous Evin Prison (listen to this NPR report)… the mind reels in a complex reaction of weary disgust.

The true cause of Misayafi’s death is not yet known. According to official sources, his death was a suicide. Depressed and isolated in prison, the writer simply OD’d on sedatives. Misayafi’s sister is rightly suspicious of this story, especially after the Zahra Kazemi incident. Iranian officials first reported that the detained Canadian-Iranian journalist had died of a stroke while in custody. As it turns out, she was brutally raped, tortured and beaten to death.

They've Killed One of Us

Even if Misayafi died by his own hand, he did so under awful conditions and unfair imprisonment. I encourage you to read the statement by Reporters Without Borders, which has demanded a full investigation and detailed autopsy.

Finally, I express my condolences to the Misayafi family. Though you are thousands of miles away, speak another language and come from a different culture, your grief is rawly felt by anyone who believes in free expression. Omid Misayafi, rest in peace.

Iranian Blogger Dies In Prison

Hamid Tehrani at Global Voices tells us that Iranian blogger and journalist Omid Reza Mir Sayafi has died in prison. Hamid writes:

Omid Reza Mir Sayafi, a 29-year old Iranian blogger and journalist died in Evin Prison in Tehran on March 18. In December, he was sentenced to two and half years in prison for allegedly insulting religious leaders, and engaging in propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mir Sayafi was still awaiting an additional trial for insulting Islam.

According to the Human Rights activists in Iran website, Omid Reza suffered from deep depression in jail and was prescribed medications of which he apparently took too many. Dr. Hesam Firouzi, a jailed doctor and human rights activist says [fa] he urged prison authorities to send Omid Reza to a hospital outside prison but that prison doctors refused, and would not perform even basic tests.

See Hamid’s full blog post here.

Internet Wrecks Due Process

Increasingly, mistrials are being called because jurors are improperly accessing the internet to do research on a case. The biggest issue is the possibility that jurors would discover prejudicial evidence that had previously been excluded as inadmissible by a trial judge. A juror might discover for instance that John Doe has a prior record for x crime, biasing him toward conviction. The NYT sums it up:

They are required to reach a verdict based on only the facts the judge has decided are admissible, and they are not supposed to see evidence that has been excluded as prejudicial. But now, using their cellphones, they can look up the name of a defendant on the Web or examine an intersection using Google Maps, violating the legal system’s complex rules of evidence.

One can see how deeply ingrained our collective trust in Internet fact-gathering is. Trial by jury — and the highly complex rules of Anglo-American evidence law that accompany it — is itself a means of information seeking, but one which attempts to exclude unfair or unfairly obtained evidence (as determined by a judge).  By contrast, the sheer openness of the web is naturally more democratic, but also less judicious in what is available for consumption. When it comes to deciding on a high profile case, the potential for outside distortion is much higher, and amplified by an internet bursting with news and speculation. I think defense lawyers have a lot to worry about here.

The only positive thing I liked about this story was that jurors also used smart phones and the internet to look up complicated legal definitions. That kind of fact finding, into the complex procedural rules of our system, strikes me as healthy for an active citizenry. A google search for “legal terms” pulls up results a lot of sources more reputable than Wikipedia and tailored to American law. Why shouldn’t jurors find this?

China, Wikileaks and Democracy

For a good primer and summary of Chinese internet censorship, including the hilarious alpaca incident, read this TIME magazine piece on the topic.

The justification for sweeping control of the internet has always superficially been to combat vice like child pornography or gambling. What is alarming, but unsurprising, is how often these public reasons are simply cover for political blacklisting. As an author for Wikileaks puts it:

[C]ases such as Thailand and Finland demonstrate that once a secret censorship system is established for pornographic content the same system can rapidly expand to cover other material, including political material, at the worst possible moment — when government needs reform.

I think most people, including most Chinese, understand that the Great Fire Wall is explicitly political as well, uniformly banning discussion of the Party’s opponents: Falun Gong, Charter 08 democracy agitators and foreign journalists.

What seems to me almost as pernicious is the new crop of open Westernized democracies now instituting nanny-filters as well as blacklists. This includes countries like Denmark and Australia, and to a lesser degree Thailand, where a presumption of free speech seems warranted. According to Wikileaks, the Danish blacklist is “generated without judicial or public oversight and is kept secret by the ISPs using it. Unaccountability is intrinsic to such a secret censorship system.”

Thankfully, Wikileaks and others have uncovered some of the blacklists, exposing free speech violations, like the banned anti-abortion site in Australia. The Australian bureaucrats’ solution?

Just ban Wikileaks. And the cycle continues.

Seattle P-I Goes Down (That Is, Digital)

I know this sounds like flip-flopping (see my last piece on post-paper journalism), but after 145 years the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has ceased to be a print newspaper today, and that’s not necessarily good news. From the NYT:

But The P-I, as it is called, will resemble a local Huffington Post more than a traditional newspaper, with a news staff of about 20 people rather than the 165 it had, and a site with mostly commentary, advice and links to other news sites, along with some original reporting.

Is it a race to the bottom? We can’t all be HuffPo. If the digital commentariat wants anything to analyze (or spin), someone must produce the reporting, vet stories and attempt to be neutral. Volunteer investigative reporting and citizen journalism are interesting phenomena, but I have some misgivings about how they compare in output and training to paid reporters. Does anyone know how much of that staff reduction is editorial?

It just seems as though the mechanisms by which news abroad and local have been professionally produced are being dismantled by a web medium against which there is no possible competition. I hate to sound like a scriptorium monk whining about the printing press, but maybe there is something to fear in the collapse of the MSM, however problematic and elliptical their coverage may be. They form a base layer of information in a world of information technology increasingly impenetrable and filled with subterfuge (witness HuffPo’s embarrassment over FoxNews hoax) and ignorant ideology (Barack Obama is a secret Muslim!).

One by one the giants fall. Readers, am I playing Chicken Little?

Post-Paper Journalism

Everyone these days is penning jeremiads on the death of newspapers. See Michael Hirschorn’s piece in the Jan/Feb Atlantic, as well as my post about a NYT endowment. So it was refreshing to read blogger Clay Shirky speculate about a future to journalism that isn’t so dark. Money quote:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

Shirky doesn’t claim to know the path forward. Maybe it’s in blogs, voluntary investigative work or endowments like universities. Regardless, just as the transition from manuscript to printed book turned out well in the end, so will declining printed sources — facing down an internet as lethal as any dinosaur-killing meteor — eventually make peace with our digital age.

Is That Putin Junior?

putin reagan photo

This 20-year old photo of Putin posing as a ‘tourist’ while Reagan took a stroll around Red Square with Gorby has been making the rounds on the Internet lately. (Putin is allegedly the blond guy on the left with a camera around his neck.) They don’t mention who the kid is, but I wonder if it’s Putin Jr., since FP reports that all the tourists were really KGB families. I half expect him to be hiding one of those old mad magazine buzzers in his hand to give the leader of the free world a shock as good as the verbal assaults that the KGB agents posing as tourists were throwing at him. Also makes me wonder how real this group of tourists on Medvedev’s blog post are. Photographer Pete Souza, who is Obama’s official photographer and had the same role under Reagan, talked with NPR about the photo here. Great stuff.

Khatami Bows Out of Presidential Election

Former president and leading reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami has decided to back out of Iran’s June 12 presidential election, according to Reuters. Khatami allies said that he decided to withdraw in order to unify the opposition and not split the reformist vote, although he was seen by many as the leading reformist candidate against current President Ahmadinejad. Although he has not stated publicly which candidate he will back, he did meet recently with former Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi, another moderate candidate.

As we’ve written here before, during Khatami’s presidency a number of independent newspapers were allowed to open, although they have since been shuttered. Many journalists from that era, such as Sina Motalebi, later moved to the blogosphere but were eventually forced out of the country for their writing. As we have also reported here, it seems that the Iranian government is cracking down on online speech in the lead up to the presidential election, especially opposition elements.

Internet Mobs and Freeman Detox

Chas Freeman, Obama’s controversial pick for the National Intelligence Council, recently withdrew his nomination after the flurry of protest (and counter-protest) on the web made him too hot to handle. Regardless of how you feel on the issue, I encourage you to read this thoughtful post by David Rothkopf over at FP. Money quote:

I was appalled by the mob mentality generated by the blog debate on the Freeman nomination. It produced some serious misgivings on my part regarding even being involved in the blogosphere because so much of what passes for discourse in this world is undistilled opinion and emotion designed to bind and stir up like-minded audiences. The rest is more like grafitti than thoughtful commentary, designed to leave a wannabe commentator’s mark on the side of a passing issue.

For me, the borking of Chas Freeman illustrates something that goes beyond its own narrow political logic. For a position that did not require Senate confirmation, Freeman was subjected to all the rigors and then some of a politicized Congressional hearing. He was held up, dissected, examined, slandered and defended by a cadre of bloggers, commentators, wonks, pundits and angry voices, left and right.

The sensitive nature of Freeman’s appointment only made the debate more combustible and fervent. Unlike a Senate hearing, he was not given much of a platform to discuss, evade or spin his record. As the pressure of the commentariat’s chorus swelled, Freeman cracked and withdrew. Depending on how you view Freeman, you may be inclined to view this as a triumph either of democratic process or the confirmation of Hamilton’s worst fears of now digital mob rule.