The newspapers’ royal regulation gambit

Yesterday’s announcement by several newspaper groups that they had launched their own royal charter for press regulation was met with anger by Hacked Off campaigners and, to be frank, confusion by the public at large.

Index, for our part, welcomed the rejection of the government’s royal charter, while still being opposed to the papers’ royal charter.

Why? Well, there’s the issue that Index doesn’t really want there to be any royal charter, at all, no matter who’s dreamt it up. It still creates the prospect of external political approval of press regulation.

There’s also a problem that the papers’ version of the charter gives them a veto over appointments to the regulatory board, which risks the regulator being seen as a tool of the industry, just as the PCC was perceived to be.

Then there’s the issue that it doesn’t really address the problem of the threat of exemplary damages for those outside the regulator, one of Index’s key concerns.

And it leaves us none the wiser as to the whole “What’s a newspaper/journalist/website/blog?” question, which has been the cause of some confusion (as illustrated by Martin Belam‘s satirical take on the government’s explanatory flowchart below).

Still, the rejection is the interesting part. And the furore over the rejection has somewhat undermined the claims made by government and campaigners that they believed in a wholly voluntary system.

What happens next? By Leveson’s own admission, if a substantial part of the industry refuses to sign up, then the regulator has failed before it has even begun. That is where we seem to be now.

It was interesting to note that in his interview on BBC radio’s World At One yesterday, Peter Wright, who has been leading the discussion for Associated, Telegraph and News International publications, said that the other papers who are not part of that group saw the alternative royal charter proposal as a way to “get the ball rolling again” on negotiations over reform. That would suggest that even Wright sees this merely as the opening gambit in fresh negotiations.

So perhaps now we can start discussing the terms of a new, genuinely independent and voluntary regulator, without the mad rush that led to the government’s ultimately botched effort.

Libel reform under threat

This is a statement from The Libel Reform Campaign

Four days before the Defamation Bill has its final and decisive debate in the House of Commons we find ourselves writing to you about disgraceful behaviour from politicians that will put everything we’ve worked for at risk.

Conservative MP and libel barrister Sir Edward Garnier is trying to remove the part of the Bill that would limit companies’ ability to use libel threats to intimidate critics into silence. His attempt to remove this will be voted on during debate on the Bill on Tuesday 14thApril. Please write to your MP and tell them not to support Garnier’s amendment.

We’ve heard that the Conservatives might back Garnier on this, and that the Lib Dems will join their Conservative colleagues even though restricting corporations from suing individuals unless they can prove harm is Lib Dem party policy! It was voted for overwhelmingly in the House of Lords. Please write to Nick Clegg and David Cameron and urge them to tell their parties not to support Garnier and to make sure the clause on companies becomes part of the Defamation Bill.

Read our briefing for MPs on why this along with a clear strong public interest defence would do the most to lessen the damage the laws are doing to free and open debate. A Bill without either reform would be a wasted opportunity. Please point your MP towards our briefing when you write to them.

We’ve seen the best of democracy in action – we have forced libel reform onto the political agenda and when politicians have listened to us all we’ve seen the best improvements to the Defamation Bill. But behind closed door dealing and cowardly behaviour threatens everything we’ve worked for. Please tell your MP not to support Garnier amendment and tell David Cameron and Nick Clegg that the Government shouldn’t either.

Brazilian schoolgirl threatened with death for Facebook page exposing school problems

A thirteen-year old Brazilian girl claims she has faced death threats through a Facebook community page she created to denounce problems in her school.

Isadora Faber created Diário de Classe (or “Classroom Diary”) in July 2012 to “show the truth about public schools,” as she writes on the page description, leading her to become an internet celebrity and a teen champion of free speech through new media.

Isadora filled the page with updates on life at Maria Tomázia Coelho School in Florianópolis — capital of the southern state of Santa Catarina — addressing problems in the school including exposed wires, damaged doors, transparency issues and improper teaching practice.

On 17 February, Isadora alerted her 581,000 subscribers to a message published on Diário de Classe’s wall that demanded the fan page be deleted, or Isadora and her classmate Lucas Alves — who also posts content on the website — would end up “with a bullet right on their foreheads”. The children’s parents were also threatened .

The apparent death threat was posted under the profile of teenager Bruna Meneises Silva, which is believed to be a fake one and has been deleted since. Police authorities asked Facebook to provide Bruna’s IP address, so they could trace the person who posted the message.

Isadora’s mother Mel Faber told Index her daughter would never feel intimidated by the threats. “Isadora responds the opposite way. When she’s threatened, she gets more compelled to go public and face her attackers. But I can’t say if that happens because she’s so young and incapable of measuring risks.”

Last November, the student posted a picture of her injured grandmother after her house was allegedly stoned, possibly in retaliation to the Facebook page.

On 22 February, Isadora was ranked by Financial Times in a list of 25 outstanding Brazilians in areas including politics, social work, business, sports, arts and entertainment.

Israel’s “Prisoner X” case and the creep of military censorship

OPINION: In June 2010, Israel’s Ynet website reported on the detention, and then six months later on the death, of unknown detainee “Prisoner X” in solitary confinement.

A gag order issued by an Israeli court soon after put an end to any reporting on the case, or even reporting of the order itself. “Prisoner X” became a byword in the Israeli media for yet one more of the kind of security-related stories that no-one quite knows the truth of, and probably never will.

Nothing more was heard until this week, when an Australian TV documentary claimed that the man in question was one Ben Zygier, a 34-year-old father-of-two and an Australian citizen who had moved to Israel a decade earlier.

Zygier, who called himself Ben Alon in Israel, was apparently held in the cell — built to hold Yigal Amir, the assassin of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin — for a number of months before he was found hanged, and his body flown to Melbourne a week later. His father Geoffrey, a grandee of the Jewish community there, has refused to speak to the media regarding his son.

Military censorship and wide-reaching gag orders are a fact of life for Israeli journalists. But this gag order was absolute. Articles which appeared on a number of Israeli websites yesterday noting the Australian programme were soon removed.

Even more extraordinary was the meeting called that afternoon by the Prime Minister’s office convening the so-called “Editors’ Committee”, a grouping set up in the early years of the state through which senior media figures could be briefed on secret information if they agreed to not publish it.

Historically this was a sort of gentleman’s agreement between the hacks and the establishment, who in the nascent days of Israel were understood to be more or less on the same side. Now, the annual meeting between the PM and the Editors’ Committee has become largely a matter of show, open to the scrutiny of other journalists. Self-censorship is managed more obliquely.

The Prisoner X situation was so extraordinary that a number of MKs used parliamentary privilege yesterday to ask the outgoing Justice Minister, Yaakov Ne’eman about the Australian reports.  Zahava Gal-On, head of the left-wing Meretz faction pouring scorn on the implied complicity of the Israeli media.

“I want to hear your stance on the fact that journalists volunteer to censor information at the government’s request,” she said. “Is it proper that the Prime Minister’s Office invited the Editors’ Committee to prevent news from being publicised? Today, we hear that in a country that claims to be a civilized democracy, journalists cooperate with the government, and that anonymous prisoners, who no one knew existed, commit suicide.”

The gag order has now been softened, perhaps due to the MKs’ questions,  and Israeli media are now reporting on the Australian story. But it’s the press rather than politicians who should be charged with exposing this kind of event.

There is an argument to be made that there is a need for some level of censorship to protect national security. But the censors need to choose their battles.

It’s stupid and self-destructive to try and suppress a story after it appears on a foreign media outlet. The suppression will inevitably serves to draw additional attention to the story.

The danger is that security becomes its own justification for censorship with a creeping reach.

Daniella Peled is editor at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and writes widely on the Middle East