Haphazard "Agenda Setting" Attempt in Belgium

Reuters reports that Belgium's Francophone public television channel RTBF (Radio-tツlツvision en Belgique francophone) shocked its audience last December when it interrupted regular programming to report that the Dutch-speaking half of the country had declared its independence. The reports were accompanied by video clips of cheering crowds waving Flemish flags. Linguistic and cultural differences have divided Belgium for many years and often there is acrimony in parliament and in the streets.

One problem with the report: It was not true.

Yves Thiran, director of RTBF, explained that the "documentary" was a fake aimed at alerting Belgians to the perils of disunity and encouraging a dialog between the French and Flemish (Dutch) speaking parts of the country.

Thiran said the showings of such "documentaries" would continue. It was inspired, he said, by Orson Welles' October 1938 dramatic radio version of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, whose use of journalistic formats (coming soon after a real "war scare" in Europe) had caused panic in the U. S. among those led to believe that Martians were invading Earth.

At least Welles' show was introduced as a Halloween offering of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, apologies were made, and the radio networks promised never to do it again.

"Axis of Evil" Revisited

The Swedish news outlet The Local reports that major Swedish media failed to verify and thus publicized a fabricated story that the Bush administration in the U. S. had banned a record album titled Lullabies from the Axis of Evil that featured songs by women singers from Iran, Iraq, N. Korea, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, and Cuba along with some Western anti-war singers.

Some of the biggest news organizations in Sweden, including Svenska Dagbladet, one of the country's most influential dailies, Sveriges Radio, TV 4 and Metro were among those duped. The story eventually was traced to Valley Entertainment, the company that produced the recording and lists it first among its "Featured Releases." The U.S. ambassador in Norway said the United States does not blacklist music and protects freedom of speech.

Nevertheless, the axiom still stands: If your mother tells you she loves you, always check it out.

Yahoo!'s Explanation

The Associated Press reports that although Hong Kong's privacy commissioner decided that there was not enough evidence to convict Yahoo! of privacy law violation, a Chinese criminal court said it used Yahoo!-provided identification to convict journalist Shi Tao for allegedly disseminating state secrets and sentence him to 10-years in prison. The "state secrets" were the government's instructions to media about coverage of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square events.

Another journalist serving a 10-year sentence, Yu Ling, was convicted for allegedly promoting democracy (known in the PRC as inciting "the subversion of state power"). Yu's wife plans to sue Yahoo! for providing identification information to Chinese authorities. Yahoo!'s lawyer told The Washington Times that his company "condemns punishment" of any free expression activity and added that authorities in China, the U. S. and elsewhere "typically do not explain.why they demand specific information."

Internet companies wishing to do business in China must agree to self-censorship by signing the "Public Pledge of Self-Regulation," which requires the signatories to pledge to "respect the lawful rights and interests of consumers" and their confidentiality. But the pledge also expects them to refrain from jeopardizing "state security" and from disrupting "social order"-and we now see how those "crimes" are defined, and by whom.

Wikipedia's "Expert" Caught Lacking

The New York Times reports that Wikipedia, Internet's popular encyclopedia that can be updated by any user, suffered a serious setback when it was revealed that one its editors was a fake. The editor had made his way up the Wikipedia ladder by claiming to be a tenured professor of religious studies at a prestigious eastern private university and an expert on canon law. He is alleged to have made some 20,000 corrections to Wikipedia content.

It turned out that he was a 24-year old college dropout, who used the book Catholicism for Dummies to produce some of his entries.

Human Rights and Human Wrongs

The Deutsche Press-Agentur reports that Cherie Blair, wife of the British Prime Minister, recently told a student audience at London's Roehampton University that "journalists have no ethics," that journalism has "no professional morality," and is not a "noble calling." She went on to call the British media watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission, "pathetic."

Could it be that Blair was upset with the PCC because it has turned down the Blairs' complaints about how they are being covered by the British media?

Ironically, Cherie Blair was at the university to dedicate its Human Rights Center. Her spokeswoman said Blair was "merely playing devil's advocate to stimulate discussion amongst students." Does advocating for the devil ever really work?

Silvio's Way or the Highway

Radio Netherlands reports that since Silvio Berlusconi lost the Italian premiership a few months ago, he has been unhappy with the coverage public television and those channels he doesn't own have been giving him. In fact, his spokesperson said (horrors!), current Italian Prime Minister Prodi gets four times the coverage Berlusconi gets.

So Berlusconi and his political party, Forza Italia, decided to start their own channel to offer their version of fair and balanced coverage. Of course, in terms of newsworthiness one is the Prime Minister and the other is the former PM and head of the opposition.

South Korea's State-Controlled News Gatekeeper

Much of the world's journalism community was surprised late last year when the state-owned South Korean news agency Yonhap asked the government to make it the sole gatekeeper for S. Korean media of information from world news agencies.

The World Association of Newspapers (WAN) objected to the proposed monopoly, saying it was "unacceptable in a modern democracy and a free market to deprive media of their right to receive international news from any source they wish to choose," and that "To reinstitute the Yonhap monopoly on news agency distribution will be a significant blow to press freedom in Korea."

Yanhop critics immediately compared its proposal to China, where the government recently gave the country's news agency, Xinhua, exclusive authority to distribute international news to Chinese media.

Let's see.it is South Korea that is the non-communist open democracy, isn't it?

Google to Protect Searchers

Journalists and ethicists applauded a recent Guardian report that Google had announced that it would destroy information on billions of searches to protect the privacy of the researchers. Identifying information will be erased 18-24 months after the search.

Google's lawyer said that "privacy is the cornerstone of trust" and his company will be "retroactively going back into our log database and anonymizing all the information there."

British companies are legally required to hold such data for at least a year to accommodate police needs, but Google successfully fought a U. S. government request that sought access to Google databases to search for terrorists. Google's chief executive said this practice would be "a complete violation of our users' rights."

Former conservative U. S. presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would probably put it this way: Anonymization in the defense of liberty is no vice.

This column is a regular feature in Media Ethics. Readers with verifiable contributions for future issues (all subject to editing), or comments on the entries chosen for this issue, should send them to Manny Paraschos, c/o Media Ethics.

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2007 (18:2), pp.2,20.