Browsing articles from "February, 2012"
Feb 29, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Can Turkmenistan be the New North Korea?

TV Screen Shot of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov from RFE/RL

North Korea, in its own unique way, has captured the hearts of many outside of the country. You can certainly say that Westerners, especially the Millennials who virtually control the blogosphere and social media trends, are downright fascinated with the curious regime. Upon Kim Jong Il’s death, Twitter took off with hilarious quips and photoshopped oddities featuring the dead dictator. We knew his favorite food (sashimi so fresh it was still moving) and the story of his birth (heralded by a double rainbow, of course). Even before the Dear Leader’s death there was a Tumblr of him simply “looking at things.”

Years of Kim Jong Il’s peculiar PR activities, crazy rhetoric, and larger-than-life persona branded North Korea, in the minds of plugged-in young Westerners, as a fascinating place worth investigating and caring about. We watched when Vice Media went undercover on a trip to the country, secretly filming Pyongyang subways and staged exploits to the countryside. North Korea’s declaration that it has nuclear weapons certainly didn’t hurt, either–but that only garnered the country elite political attention, not cult status. For Generation Y, at least for those who normally wouldn’t be interested in international relations, Kim Jong Il provided a rare glimpse at authoritarianism.

So this week, when I heard that state-run media in Turkmenistan have declared “a new era of supreme happiness” for the country, I couldn’t help but make the connection. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, understandably happy himself after winning 97% of the vote share in this month’s elections, seems to building an exaggerated cult of personality. He plasters enormous portraits of himself on the sides of city buildings. He had the title “The Protector” formally bestowed on him by his Council of Elders. And  he shows a zaniness not seen among authoritarian leaders since Kim Jong Il abandoned the sport in December: he convenes televised concerts on state TV so he can perform his accordion, he publishes books about his favorite breed of horses. If the Internet is looking for its new “It” Dictator, it certainly has a candidate.

For a country that borders both Iran and Afghanistan, the horribly repressive regime of Turkmenistan does not get nearly enough international media attention. Maybe, in an era where virtual memes have (depressingly) unparalleled sticking power, the bizarre antics of Berdymukhammedov can drum up attention to the country and the support for its people it deserves.

Feb 27, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Only so Human

While not quite a household name, the words Citizens United are recognizable in the spheres of politics and business today.  This controversial ruling solidified the concept of the corporate entity as we presently know it, and provided a previously unknown set of rights to the corporate creature promising to shape future politics in the US. Just how human these most recently protected entities are
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Feb 23, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

To Watch this Weekend: Americans on Trial


AFP/Getty Images: Egyptian soldiers stand guard in front of NDI's office on December 29, 2011

This Sunday, 43 people, at least 16 of which are Americans, will be put to trial in Egypt for allegedly operating democracy programs without a license and transferring foreign funds to opposition groups.

The funny thing is that the groups these people work for, including DC-based IRI, NDI and Freedom House, were largely left alone during the Mubarak regime. Only now, after the dictator was ousted, are they under siege _ “a very disturbing sign”, in the words of Thomas Friedman, that “tells you how incomplete the ‘revolution’ in Egypt has been and how vigorously the counter-revolutionary forces are fighting back”.

Many say that it is the US-Egypt relationship that will be on trial. The situation has certainly strained their ties. A delegation of politicians, headed by senator John McCain, will arrive in Cairo on Monday to put some pressure on Egypt.

Although from most accounts it seems that the push for the trial comes from a handful of old Mubarak cronies, from the outside it appears that the government as a whole is adamant on pursuing the workers. According to Bloomberg, “Egyptian officials have increasingly gone public with their accusations, garnering particular praise from the Islamist parties that control Parliament [Muslim Brotherhood included] and the state-owned media. An editorial in one such publication, Al-Gomhuria , opined that now is the right time ‘to correct the course of Egyptian-American relations so that they are based on parity, a respect for sovereignty and the achievement of joint interests’”.

Other newspapers in the region are joining in that opinion, for example in Kuwait.

Some disagree. In a different Egyptian newspaper, columnist Amro az-Zanat, aiming at the Muslim Brotherhood, wondered “from where did the groups operating in the area of political Islam get their money” and why weren’t these funds, presumably supplied by foreign countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, subject to similar ‘NGO’ investigations.”

Meanwhile, some surveys offer interesting perspectives on the impact this discussion might have on the public of both countries. One such survey conducted by Zogby in Egypt last September shows that when asked about their political priorities, Egyptians ranked first employment, education, health care, and ending corruption at the top tier; democracy- related concerns appeared lower on the list. That is not surprising at all, given that most people in any country are primarily worried about bread-and-butter issues, but it is worth mentioning that the list of priorities is the same as it was before the revolution.

Another survey was conducted by ZRS last summer and showed that only 5 percent of Egyptians held a favorable view of the U.S., while with 89 percent said that American policies do not “contribute to peace and stability in the Arab World.” Americans are then an easy prey.

The last survey I wanted to mention was conducted in the US this January by jzanalytics for NYU Abu Dhabi. It shows a dramatic turn for the worse in American views of Egypt. “Now only 32 percent of Americans have a favorable attitude toward Egypt, with 34 percent holding a negative view (and 33 percent saying they are ‘not sure’)”, notes James Zogby at the Huffington Post.

I shall want to see what happens to those numbers if the American democracy workers are convicted.

Even if that happens, I will be surprised if Washington really freezes the US$ 1.3 billion in aid per year to Egypt. Assured by the Camp David Accord, Cairo is betting that it won’t. But it will not come as a shock if all of this leads to a rebalancing of the ties between the two countries. Perhaps that was inevitable anyway.

Feb 23, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

The Media Spring

New outlet in Benghazi. Picture by the Executive Magazine-

After toppling dictators, flocks of Arab Spring revolutionaries are channeling their residual energy into journalism, which might seem at first a natural environment for those who want to stay in the “business of change”. But big media is a tricky business, and sometimes rebels can make the road even more slippery when trading guns for stories.

“The Atlantic” this month brings an account of a media training program in Libya that exemplifies the challenge. Correspondent Graeme Wood, who conducted the program in Benghazi, characterizes the about a hundred independent newspaper and magazines now being published in the city as “execrable”. Are the initiatives commendable? Of course. Does the effort deserve applause? No doubt. Is it a good start? Excellent. But how about what comes out of them? Humm.

The 50 young journalists trained by Wood seemed too close to the political flame to not get burned. On one occasion, nearly all said they would not publish a story that tainted in any way the image of the transition government. On another, while doing a (fictional) exercise on how to gather information from sources, the entire group preferred to run a false rumor than to go with the true story behind it, which was less appealing. The rumor was about the presence of Saif al Islam in the city; the trainees “wanted to find and execute” him “more than they wanted the story”, concluded the correspondent.

It seems that the closer the new journalist was to revolutionary action, the harder it will be for he or she to adhere to some of the tenets of the profession.

But that is not only true for transitioning countries: they merely display it more openly, and it goes without saying that many are just at the beginning of the process. No one expects perfection, there or anywhere else. It is obvious that no journalist checks his or her political preferences at the door before going to work. Even in the most democratic of societies, impartiality is an elusive concept that is sometimes best understood within a range than as something you either have or not. Just ask Fox News, or The New York Times for that matter. Standards vary from place to place: where I come from, it would be unthinkable to have a newspaper openly endorsing a presidential candidate like some do in the US.

But there are sound rules to keep journalists from straying too much from the road. Certain practices are, or should be, universal: sticking to veracity, crossing information through different and numerous sources, opening space for the other side to comment, investigating government and opposition alike, differentiating a news story from an opinion piece etc. There are things we can ask for and expect, in a full democracy as well as in a new one.

Libya is a particular case for new journalists. The new generation lived their entire lives under Gaddafi rule, which prevented any real journalism to be practiced and kept the country fairly closed to the outside media –much more so, for example, than it was the case of Tunisia, where from the ouster of Ben Ali until last December at least 20 newspapers were launched and 12 radio stations and five television stations applied for licenses. There are several media programs running there as well, but I have the impression that they begin at a different chapter, specially considering new technology.

For all those dilemmas, the fury of activity around journalism in these countries cannot be interpreted as anything but good news. It only means that there is great work to be done. And, as Graeme Wood wrote at the end of his tale at “The Atlantic”, there is at least one huge advantage of having as a journalist someone who was once a rebel: you can be sure he has the killer instinct.

Feb 22, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Cameras in Russian polling stations

From the WSJ comes this story about Russia’s plan to install web cameras in polling stations for the March presidential election.

Russia Friday launched the presidential election website,, that will allow web users to access video recorded at any of the approximately 92,000 polling stations across the country. One camera will give a full panorama view of each polling station and a second camera will be directed at the ballot box.


The website allows users to select as many polling stations for monitoring as they wish, although only until Election Day. Users will be able to monitor the election from 12 a.m. to 8 p.m. Moscow time. For an hour, recording will continue but nothing will be shown to observe the secrecy of the ballot. Starting at 9 p.m., when voting closes in Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost province, the service will show ballot counting and viewers will be able to see video from 8 p.m. local time.

Webcams in polling stations aren’t a bad idea by themselves, but I have a lot of problems with the way this is being implemented. My first concern is that it may contribute to the common development practitioner practice of assuming impact from an output. As with all transparency initiatives (making public records available, etc..) it’s not enough to simply produce the information and assume civil society will use it.  Often times they won’t. There are many similar “citizen monitoring” projects being done through the Ushahidi platform, which produce neat maps. Often the assumption is that people will actually do something with that map. I don’t want to bash Ushahidi too hard as I think it can do interesting things, but producing data should not be viewed as a behavior-changing impact of an intervention. It’s just an output that we hope will lead to the behavior change.

The webcams do, however, remind me of an innovative experiment done in Afghanistan: In 2010, local election monitors took photographs of the final tally sheets in local Afghan polling stations, which was shown to reduce fraud by 60%. The Afghanistan experiment was done through a Randomized Control Trial (RCT), which brings me to my next problem with this experiment.

It’s always difficult to determine if election monitoring actually reduces fraud (although Susan Hyde has done great work showing that it can). This is for the simple reason that we don’t know the counterfactual level of fraud if the observation wasn’t there. Because of this, I think it would be much smarter if  – instead of trying to put webcams in nearly every polling station – they randomly assigned the web cameras to certain stations. This would  allow us to measure if the intevention was actually effective or not. Aside from the fact that so many webcams will make monitoring of any of them less effective, not randomizing the cameras will make it impossible to actually determine impact.  Of course this assumes the actual goal of the project is to reduce fraud and not just give the appearance of transparency.

Cross posted at Ahwatalk.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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