Media Watchdog as Democracy Manipulator
Reporters Without [Democracy or] Borders (Part 1 of 4)
Most people agree that a democratic public sphere is an essential part of any nominally democratic society, however, what many disagree over are the exact ingredients of such an environment. In large part these disagreements are caused by different conceptions of what democracy actually means. So while optimistic writers believe that democracy is thriving globally, researchers of a more critical bent are more inclined to believe that, while global democratic governance is on the rise, these gains are being overshadowed by the increasing dominance of corporate and political elites over all aspects of life.
This gloomy diagnosis does not mean to belittle the significance of progressive victories in majority and minority countries,  but collectively considered these hard won concessions have been unable to counter the coordinated neoliberal onslaught waged upon the global citizenry over the last few decades.  Subsequently, the political, economic and cultural ascendency of corporate-backed elites has severely limited discussions of what should constitute a democratic public sphere. Not surprisingly the corporate voices driving such media discourses provide ‘democratic’ options far removed from radical proposals for a New World Information and Communication Order.
Despite the democratic rhetoric flowing from the world’s most powerful political leaders – which is duly amplified by their corporate media mouthpieces – their actual actions tell an alternative, antidemocratic story, a story that is defined by its dedication to oppression, destruction, and opposition to all but the most minimal interpretations of democracy.  That many of our planet’s ruling politicians are also world misleaders is well documented,  yet even these so-called politicians still acknowledge that their voters (that is their secondary constituents after their corporate backers) hold great power to effect dramatic social change. Consequently in a perverse tribute to progressive activism, politicians cloak their antidemocratic actions (particularly their military ventures) under the veil of democracy – stretching their lexicon almost beyond belief to coopt and encompass terms like empowerment and participatory democracy – to describe work which undermines commonly understood conceptions of democracy by promoting polyarchy in its place. 
A ‘Democratic’ Foreign Policy
Professor William I. Robinson was the one of the first researchers to draw attention to the hypocrisy that was the antidemocratic practices of the NED’s global activities. His seminal work on this topic was Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, which examined the ‘hijacking’ of democratic transitions in
Since the creation of the NED, the number of organisations committed to promoting such ‘democratic’ work has grown rapidly. Yet most of them owe their creation to the pioneering work undertaken by liberal philanthropists – most notably the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations’ – who had worked hand in hand with the CIA in leading the cultural war against communism. (For more on this topic see my recent two-part article Do Capitalists Fund Revolutions?) Moreover, the multitude of groups that now promote these ‘democratic’ ventures provide a vital ‘humanitarian’ dimension to imperial power politics, complimenting the brutal military interventions and occupations that are the forte of the world’s leading powers.
Armed with this knowledge it is predictable that the NED would have an interest in supporting the work of an international media watchdog like Reporters Without Borders (RSF) – a fact that RSF now acknowledges on their website. Therefore, this article will endeavour to provide the first comprehensive investigation of the links between RSF and three key ‘democracy promoting’ bodies, the NED, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and Rights and Democracy (the latter two being the NED’s British and Canadian counterparts). However, before launching into an analysis of RSF’s ‘democratic’ links, the following section will contextualize the study by providing a brief introduction to RSF.
Who are Reporters Without Borders?
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was set up in 1985 by Robert Ménard – who is still their secretary general – and since it’s founding it has seemingly worked tirelessly to support journalists all over the world in their efforts to promote press freedom. Their website notes that RSF:
- defends journalists and media assistants imprisoned or persecuted for doing their job and exposes the mistreatment and torture of them in many countries.
- fights against censorship and laws that undermine press freedom.
- gives financial aid each year to 100 or so journalists or media outlets in difficulty (to pay for lawyers, medical care and equipment) as well to the families of imprisoned journalists.
- works to improve the safety of journalists, especially those reporting in war zones.
So who could fault an organisation with such a progressive mission? Well it seems that quite a few journalists in the independent media already have. The earliest online critique (albeit a minor one) was written in 2001 by Serge Halimi who observed in reference to RSF’s work that “glorifying ‘freedom of the press’ often serves to mask the silent tyranny that the media and their proprietors would like to impose on political and cultural life.” Shortly thereafter, however, critiques of RSF started picking up momentum.
Writing about the 2002 coup in Venezuela, Ignacio Ramonet highlighted the problematic role that international organizations like RSF fulfil through their denigration of a democratic government’s attempt to try to limit the influence of pro-coup forces within their country. Indeed during the 2002 coup, Ramonet reported that RSF “clos[ed their] eyes to the one of the most odious media campaigns ever launched against a democratic government”.  A few months later, again writing about RSF’s antidemocratic role in Venezuela, Thierry Deronne compared RSF’s current work with that the Inter-American Press Association’s (IAPA) – an infamous ‘press freedom’ group which in earlier times had formed an alliance with the corporate media to help “topple the Allende government in Chile in 1973.”  It is fitting then, that like RSF the IAPA describes itself as a “non-profit organization dedicated to defending freedom of expression and of the press throughout the
It was only in 2005 that critics of RSF determined that their work was being funded by the notorious National Endowment for Democracy (NED). A discovery that probably owes a debt of gratitude to the numerous articles that have been devoted to critically dissecting the events leading up to the 2002 coup in Venezuela, which although ultimately unsuccessful (due to genuine popular resistance), obtained vital support from US ‘democracy promoters’ working through groups like the NED.
Bringing all this information together, it comes as no surprise to find that RSF is currently backing the US government’s official foreign policy line in Venezuela, Palestine, Haiti, and Cuba  – all countries in which international ‘democracy promoting’ organisations are highly active. Furthermore, although the NED is not presently active in the
Understanding these apparent links between US foreign policy and RSF’s overseas activities may also help explain why RSF has recently been demonising the Venezuelan government for failing to renew the licence of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV): a CIA-linked media outlet that led the charge in attempting to oust Chavez from office, having already played a key role in organising the coup in 2002. Likewise, as this author has pointed out in a recent article, RSF’s role in
Now that that RSF’s work has been briefly introduced, the rest of this article will undertake three main tasks relating to exposing RSF’s close relations with democracy manipulators. Initially, it will examine the funding that RSF has received from key ‘democracy promoting’ organisations. Then the article will investigate the ‘democratic’ credentials of a number of RSF current and former employees. Since RSF provides few details concerning the names of their staff on their website, these people were located through internet searches. Finally, in order to demonstrate the extent of RSF’s ties to international democracy manipulators the last part of the article will illustrate how most of the recipients of RSF’s annual Fondation de France Prize are also intimately linked to the international ‘democracy’ crowd.
RSF and ‘Democratic’ Funding
“Independent media are an inextricable element of democratic society. Citizens rely upon information from the media to make informed decisions and hold their leaders accountable. Free media act as a catalyst for political reform, contribute to consolidation of democracy, and facilitate the unfettered exchange of ideas necessary for the development of civil society.” National Endowment for Democracy
According to the NED’s online Democracy Projects Database, RSF has only received one grant (worth $39,900) from the NED, and they obtained this grant in 2005 to “strengthen free press and decrease press abuse in
Returning to the NED’s Democracy Projects Database, something that other researchers have failed to mention is a grant that RSF-Canada received from Rights and Democracy in 2004. According to the NED, this grant (for an unspecified amount) was used to support RSF-Canada’s:
“…work preparing the defence for the Zahra Kazemi case, the Canadian photo journalist who was beaten to death [in July 2003] by Iranian officials. The project’s aim was to promote public interest in this case in order to encourage the Canadian government to put pressure on the Iranian government so that justice can be served. Rights & Democracy contributed primarily to organizing discussions between Foreign Affairs and relevant organizations preparing a public awareness event and sending a human rights observer mission to attend the Zahra Kazemi trial in
This is important because Rights and Democracy is the Canadian version of the NED. According to their website, Rights and Democracy was “created by
Although Rights and Democracy has only provided one single grant to RSF, it is not the only time that Rights and Democracy have been interested in
It is also noteworthy that Ganji was detained by the Iranian government for just over a year in April 2000 “following his participation in an academic and cultural conference held at the Heinrich Böll Institute”. This is a major German ‘democracy promoting’ organization that inspired the creation of the NED. Finally, it is interesting that Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, “formally asked to represent the family” of Zahra Kazemi. This is noteworthy because Ebadi is a director of the Points of Peace Foundation – a Norwegian based human rights organization whose advisory board includes a large number of ‘democratically’ linked individuals.
To be continued… Having examined the financial support that RSF has received from the ‘democracy promoting’ community the next part of this article will now turn to examine the ‘democratic’ affiliations of some of current and former employees of RSF. The final two parts of this article will then go on to reveal how many of the recipients of their annual Fondation de France Prize are intimately linked to the ‘democracy promoting’ community.
Michael Barker is a doctoral candidate at
 Al Gedicks, Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2001); Kathleen McPhillips, Local heroes: Australian Crusades from the Environmental Frontline (Annandale, N.S.W.: Pluto Press, 2002); Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperCollins, 2003); John Walton and David Seddon, Free Markets and Food Riots: The Politics of Global Adjustment (Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2004); Bruce Podobnik and Thomas E. Reifer, The Globalization Protest Movement: Before and After 9/11 (Boston: Brill, 2005).
 Sharon Beder, Free Market Missionaries: The Corporate Manipulation of Community Values (
 Nafeez M. Ahmed, The War on Truth: 9/11, Disinformation, and the Anatomy of Terrorism (
 Joel Bleifuss and Steve Freeman, Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?
Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count (
 Polyarchy was first coined by political theorist Robert Dahl to describe the limited form of elite-driven democracy advanced in and by the West. Polyarchy is synonymous with low-intensity democracy, and stands in stark opposition to the participatory forms of democratic engagement typically advanced by progressive activists.
 Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, pp.28-9. For related online resources see, William I. Robinson, A Faustian Bargain: U.S. Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era (Westview Press, 1992).
 Also see, Al Giordano, ‘Open Letter to Robert Ménard of Reporters Without Borders’, Narco News,
 For more details on the close links that existed between the CIA and IAPA see Fred Landis’s (1982) important article CIA Media Operations in
 Also see Diana Barahona, ‘Government funds color press group’s objectivity’, The Guild Reporter, March 11, 2005.
 In 2007, Center for a Free Cuba’ executive director, Frank Calzon, noted that: “During the current fiscal year the Center for a Free Cuba has received from USAID $l, 081,164 and from the National Endowment for Democracy $21,472.84. We also raise about a quarter of a million dollars a year from the Cuban American community.”
 Michael J. Barker, Polyarchy and the Public Sphere: Journalism Organizations and the National Endowment for Democracy. (Forthcoming.)