Showing posts with label democracy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label democracy. Show all posts

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Peace, power at stake in elections around the world

Pres. Ouattara
(s t CC BY 2.0)
With the U.S. election looming, it's easy to miss crucial elections going on elsewhere in the world, such as Ivory Coast and Moldova, with potential ramifications for global peace.

Votes are being counted now in the Ivory Coast presidential election.  Incumbent Alassane Ouattara is hoping for a third term despite vigorous opposition.  A 78-year-old economist, Ouattara has been president since 2011, after the disputed 2010 election resulted in civil war.  The Ivory Coast constitution limits a president to two terms, but the Ouattara side claims that a constitutional revision in 2016 reset the term clock.

The Sahel
(Munion CC BY-SA 3.0)


An especially sensitive issue in the West African context, the dispute over term limits gives Ouattara's run an uncomfortable overtone of authoritarianism.  Ivory Coast is a key commercial player in West Africa, so stability or instability there ripples throughout the region.  One way or the other, the influence of Ivory Coast's outcome could be especially impactful as Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and western Nigeria all struggle to get a grip on lawlessness and violence in the western Sahel.

Frmr. P.M. Sandu
(Accent TV 2015 CC BY 3.0)
Meanwhile, voters are at the polls today in Moldova to choose between starkly different visions for the country's future.  Former socialist party leader Igor Dodon, president since 2016, faces former prime minister Maia Sandu in the country's fourth election since 1991 independence.  Dodon carries the endorsement of Russian President Vladimir Putin and resolves to look eastward for Moldova's future.  Sandu thinks the best hope to pull Moldova out of chronic economic stagnation lies westward, in the European model of development.  

Pres. Dodon
(Russian Pres. Press & Info. Ofc. CC BY 3.0)
I wrote last year about my visit to the "breakaway state" of Transnistria, which embodies the depth of divide over Moldova's future.  Yet so much more is at stake; Moldova stands as a bellwether for the region, indicative of future European or Russian influence.  And with Brexit occurring on Europe's opposite border, the continental union's prospects for eastern growth might speak to the future of the union itself.

Both elections, in Ivory Coast and Moldova, are plagued with reports and denials of poll tampering and improper influence over voters.  And people in both countries fear for the peace in the wake of an outcome favoring any side.

Protestors in Algiers, March 2019
(Khirani Said CC BY-SA 4.0)
Even these elections are not the only ones in the world right now.  The "Georgian Dream" party looks to have won third-term control of Georgia's parliament, lengthening a long-term one-party rule there that opponents say has failed to deliver economic prosperity for working people.  And today, voters in Algeria, where I also visited in 2019, opine on anti-corruption constitutional reforms hoped to quell protests that persisted after the 2019 election of presidential challenger Abdelmadjid Tebboune failed to deliver the prompt changes that the street wanted.

The American election is only one among many in the world this fall in which prosperity and peace might hang in the balance.  I'm hoping that whatever happens here on November 3, we model order and rationality.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Ecuador reexamines repressive comm law, but would keep journalist licensing. Is that so bad?

The struggle between press and government in Ecuador is not new. Protestors
pictured above in 2011 supported a complaint to the Inter-American Human
Rights Commission over press freedom after Rafael Correa, president from
2007 to 2017, brought lawsuits seeking civil and criminal penalties, to the
tune of US$10 million and four years' imprisonment, against journalists
writing about corruption and against the publishing company and directors
of El Universo, a Guayaquil-based daily. More at the Knight Center for
Journalism in the Americas
. Photo by Cancillería Ecuador (CC BY-SA 2.0).

A legislative commission in Ecuador is recommending freedom-friendly reform of the country's repressive 2013 communications law, Observacom reports.  But the commission looks to be holding on to one piece of the law: journalist licensing.  While Western human rights advocates regard journalist licensing as a plain infringement of the freedom of expression, the reality is more complicated. Even in the United States, the idea of journalist licensing has been floated as a possible remedy to our "fake news" problem.

Journalist licensing is just what it sounds like.  Some countries require that professional journalists meet certain educational and vocational training requirements, such as a university degree in journalism and periodic continuing education.  A newspaper might publish op-eds and occasional contributions from unlicensed persons.  But regular, bylined writers must be licensed.  A licensing authority oversees the membership and may sanction malpractice, such as fabricated reporting.

The typical Western reaction to this arrangement—my reaction when I first learned of it as an undergraduate journalist in 1990—is horror.  Quasi-public officials with the power to impose sanctions and the benefit of hindsight second-guess the judgment of reporters and editors over questions such as whether a story is appropriately balanced or even newsworthy?  Policing journalism like that is asking for trouble.  How can the Fourth Estate be a zealous watchdog when the watch-ee bites back?

The U.S. Society of Professional Journalists decided in the 1990s that journalistic ethics must be aspirational and non-definitive, rendering ethics guidelines that are fundamentally incompatible with legalistic rules.  Minimize harm, a sort of Hippocratic oath for journalists, became the overriding principle, espoused by academic and practitioner leaders, such as the Poynter Institute's Bob Steele (no relation).

Empowering an enforcement authority over journalism is bound to have a chilling effect on free expression, and worse, to invite control and abuse of media.  There is no doubt that that has happened; licensing has been weaponized infamously by leaders in countries such as Iran and the Philippines.  Media licensing and enforcement authorities are fairly identified by free expression NGOs, such as Observacom, Freedom House, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, as a sign of authoritarianism and a strike against freedom.

In 1985, upon an inquiry by Costa Rica—then the United States' democratic darling in Central America—the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)—then presided over by American judge Thomas Burguenthal, now a law professor emeritus—issued an advisory opinion concluding that journalist licensing is incompatible with the freedom of expression in the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. (I wrote about this for my university honors thesis.  Go easy on me; I was 22.)

But step back from the problem for a moment and reconsider.  Journalism is important.  It might in fact be essential to democracy.  "[T]he press" is the only private-sector institution mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.  And especially in today's media-obsessed society, "the press" is powerful, shaping the public agenda in a way that it never has before.  Yet anyone can become a journalist, simply by saying so.  Prophylactic media privileges will protect this person from liability, or accountability, even upon publication of defamatory falsehoods, regardless of whether the person claimed journalistic credentials in good faith or published in the public interest.  To wield this power, or to abuse this power, there is no licensing, and there is no enforcement.

Meanwhile, in many American states, we license cosmetologists, interior designers, and real estate agents, and we sanction persons who would hold themselves out as having those competencies if they do not have licenses.  No disrespect to those occupations, but the republic will not fall upon their negligent practice.

Is there not some rational line to be found between licensing as a tool for authoritarian oppression, and licensing as a tool to bolster education and competence for informed democratic participation?

That question was not on my mind when I went to Costa Rica in 1992 to learn more about the colegio de periodistas, the journalism professional organization.  Rather, properly indoctrinated into the ideology of free speech absolutism, I sought only to understand how and why this anachronistic entity could persist—if as a voluntary organization since the IACtHR opinion—in evident juxtaposition with a famously liberal society.  In fact, I hoped to witness its death throes before it disappeared.

The colegio that I found was not what I expected.  Quite to the contrary, there was nothing remotely authoritarian about it.  And it was thriving.  I interviewed reporters, editors, lawyers, and people on the street, and the vast majority favored the colegio, heartily.  Indeed, its journalistic members were its strongest proponents.  They welcomed me as a fellow journalist and invited me to an evening gala with dinner and a speaker at the colegio's headquarters building in San José.  They celebrated their professional association.  When I asked about the incompatibility of journalist licensing with the freedom of expression, they frowned and shook their heads as if they simply did not understand.

The colegio in fact was more like a labor association than a lawyers' bar.  As an organization, the colegio advocated for better wages and employment terms for members, besides sponsoring professional peer dialog, continuing education, and social events.  Members helped and supported one another, professionally and personally.  They all had paid their dues—literally, and in terms of their university degrees and reporting experience—and they were happy to be part of the in crowd.  Colegio journalists were horrified at the idea of a journalistic free-for-all, the ill-informed masses practicing the reporter's craft at the public's risk, just as I had been horrified at the idea of licensing.  The Colegio de Periodistas de Costa Rica was not a public regulatory office, nor a lawyers' bar; it was more like a union and a lot like an academic fraternity.

An excellent 2010 report by journalism professor Steven Strasser, for the Center for International Media Assistance, a project of the National Endowment for Democracy, took a thorough and uncharacteristically evenhanded look at journalist licensing around the world.  While amply expounding the down side of licensing, Strasser wrote too about the up side.  He wrote about the labor angle that I discovered in Costa Rica, observing that publishers, as employers, might be as motivated by commercial self-interest as by idealism when they advocate for the incompatibility of licensing with human rights.

Strasser also observed that journalist licensing is a deliberate feature of sustainable development strategy.  Rwanda, for example, sought to use licensing as leverage to enhance the educational attainment of journalists, and thus indirectly to strengthen democracy with informed public participation.  "Fake news," after all, was in part responsible for the Rwandan genocide.  In Uganda, sensational and false reporting, perpetuating abhorrent stereotypes, has fueled brutal violence against the LGBTQ community.

That licensing might be an antidote to runaway sensationalism and "fake news" has not escaped notice by American legislators.   A Michigan legislator proposed voluntary journalist registration and a licensing board in a 2010 bill.  Membership, as a sort of service mark, would certify the writer as having a journalism or similar university degree, three years' experience, and "good moral character," Michigan Live reported.

Indiana Rep. Jim Lucas proposed journalist licensing in a 2017 bill, somewhat to mock licenses to carry firearms, according to the Indy Star.  Drawing a parallel between the First and Second Amendments, the Indiana bill would fingerprint journalists and exclude those with "felony or domestic battery convictions" from carrying a mighty pen.  Still, on the professionalism point, Lucas tweeted Trumpesquely, "Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!"

Unlike colegio members in Latin America, journalists in the United States have rallied against any talk of licensing.  (See also this 2017 point-counterpoint in Canada.)  And Ecuador is hardly the poster child for licensing's up side.  After the 2013 communication law went into effect, the Correa administration wasted no time in going after editorial cartoonist Xavier "Bonil" Bonilla at the newspaper El Universo for criticizing heavy-handed search and seizure by police as politically motivated.  The "Superintendent of Information and Communication," an office created by the communication law, "accuse[d] Bonil of perverting the truth and promoting social unrest," reported the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas (source of cartoon, inset, published Dec. 28, 2013).




I doubt that licensing will cure our "fake news" problem.  And I'm not much on licensing in general, more for the burden on economic freedom than the risk to political freedom.  We lawyers demonstrate very well how licensing is an addictive means to economic protectionism, ultimately working at cross-purposes with consumer protection.  Moreover, regarding journalism, licensing would seem to undermine the benefits of (momentarily notwithstanding the problems with) citizen journalism in the internet age.
 
At the same time, I don't think that the licensing of journalists merits a knee-jerk reaction of detestation.  What passes for journalism in America is transforming into something frightening, more akin to the yellow journalism of the 1890s than the Woodward-and-Bernstein reporting of the 1970s.  Was journalism's twentieth-century engagement with professionalism aberrational? a racy flirtation during a midlife crisis for democracy?

Maybe we need more journalists who went to journalism school.

Can somebody please check to see whether we still have any journalism schools?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Let's put democracy out of its misery


Democracy ain’t all that. 

That must be what Reince Priebus has been thinking this year.  The possibility has been on the mind also of author and professor Jason Brennan, of Georgetown University.  Brennan is touring New England this week to talk about his new book, Against Democracy.  I knew of Brennan from one of his earlier works touting my faith, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know.  This week I had the good fortune to meet him in Providence, thanks to the Rhode Island Federalist Society.  On my commute this morning, I heard that he’ll be on WGBH’s excellent Innovation Hub this week. 

Brennan’s thesis in short is that when we talk about how best to select our leaders in human society, democracy might not be the endpoint and high point of human achievement.  He offered a simple thought experiment:  Imagine a professor instructs students that instead of grading exams on the usual A-F merit system, each person in the class will get the same grade, an average of everyone’s performance.  No surprise, students don’t study and perform poorly.  The incentive for each individual to do well is diminished along with the risk that poor preparation will be reflected in any one person’s grade.

Brennan explains that the same dynamic is at work in democracy.  If any one person’s vote is vastly unlikely to have an impact on the general election, then the individual has only weak, and largely symbolic or emotional, incentives to become informed and vote intelligently.  Surveys of how well informed voters are sadly support this thesis, with voters performing only about as well as chance would predict in answering simple multiple choice questions about politics.

What’s better than democracy?  Brennan isn’t shilling for any model, but provided a compelling and fair tour of the possibilities.  He pointed out for one example that simple gambling—imagine betting on the next President of the United States, if the model could be translated into politics—is a rather good predictor of outcome.  The gambler has skin in the game the way a voter does not, so has a proportionate incentive to be well informed.  Other potential models would jettison one person, one vote in ways that would reward better informed voters with greater influence.  I was reminded of my “oligarchy of the intelligentsia” phase when I studied politics at university.

A model I found enchanting, maybe because of its cool name, is “the Simulated Oracle.”  Imagine that along with a person’s vote, we collect also some basic demographic data and even administer a short quiz on political know-how.  With large enough data sets, we could employ the magic of statistics to control variables and correct for self-serving biases.  Factors such as race and gender, the community I live in, and my wealth can be predicted to evidence self-serving biases in my voting behavior, not necessarily the vote that a more altruistic me might cast.  The Simulated Oracle can control variables and correct for irrational or unfair biases, transforming my vote into a hypothetical ideal, the vote my better self would cast.  Weight everyone’s votes accordingly, and we might get a result that compensates for individual rent-seeking.

The mythology of democracy is emotively powerful in our society today, shaping how we define ourselves and our ideals.  But the U.S. Constitution—in, for examples, life tenure in the Article III courts, a republican representation system, and the original method of selecting senators—was designed to temper the risky excesses of pure democracy.  Moreover, the framers intended the Constitution to be amended.  There is no reason to think that progress means evolution toward pure direct democracy.  Remember Ross Perot suggesting instant home voting on contemporary issues?  Today that sounds like a good way to run Dancing with the Stars, and not so good a way to make foreign policy, tax policy, or really to do anything important.

Rather, we are engaged, or should be engaged, in an ongoing process of perfecting the organization of human society.  It’s not so strange to imagine that democracy as we know it now is just one stop on our journey.

Brennan is awash with fascinating data about the American electorate, and I’ll share just one item.  Turns out that people who self-identify with political third parties, such as libertarianism, are among our most informed voters. 

Am I blushing?