Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Asterix: An Unseemly Row

War has broken out (ok a war of words) in the Gallic press, between Asterix creator and illustrator Albert Uderzo and his daughter Sylvie.

Apparently the old chap has decided to sell a 60 percent stake in his publishing company to French publisher Hachette Livre, which has outraged his daughter, who calls Asterix "her paper brother". I guess she's worried the money men are going to spin off the franchise into ever more commercial arms and believes her dad has been pressured by advisors into this turnaround (he'd sworn to keep his publishing company small, apparently).

Well, now dad has hit back and finds the row all rather unseemly, as you can read here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Most selfish nation?

Are we the most selfish nation in Europe (the Brits)? Seems so. Checking out Mark Easton's blog on the BBC reveals various pieces of research which shows we trust each other less, and are living in a highly-individualised society.

If it weren't for some reasonably healthy scores among the over-50s, the UK would drop below Bulgaria and Slovakia as the least trusting of all the European nations surveyed.

The researchers suggest that our low "trust and belonging" score may be "the result of the development of a highly individualistic culture in the UK". Basically, the suggestion is that we are in danger of becoming the most selfish nation in Europe.

If the research is robust and the conclusion sound, then this is one of the most troubling findings about my homeland that I have ever read.

Among the factors which emerge as having a big negative impact on a country's wellbeing score are a general fear of crime and a lack of trust in institutions. Also, the more time its population spends watching TV, the more unhappy a country appears to be.
One can see why Britain might struggle.

Easton's blog is here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Generation Kill comes to the screens

'It looks more real than anything I've ever seen'

Generation Kill, the new TV series from the makers of the critically adored show The Wire, swaps the streets of Baltimore for the battlefields of Iraq. It might take a bit of effort to watch, but the result is extraordinary television.

Itching to watch this one.

Guantanamo agents 'used torture'

A disturbing report surfaces today on the Internet: US agents 'officially' used torture on a Guantanamo suspect, leading him to be put in a "life-threatening condition" following 18-20 interrogations for weeks on end, and caused the case against him to eventually collapse.

No charges were ever brought against this individual, Saudi national Mohammad al-Qahtani. In fact, Susan Crawford, who oversees the trials at the camp, said:

"His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that's why I did not refer the case," she said.

Ms Crawford said she was shocked, upset and embarrassed by the treatment he had received.

She said: "If we tolerate this and allow it, then how can we object when our servicemen and women, or others in foreign service, are captured and subjected to the same techniques?

"How can we complain? Where is our moral authority to complain? Well, we may have lost it."

al-Qahtani had been picked up in Afghanistan in 2002 and labelled the '20th hijacker' from 9/11. Whilst he may or may not have been guilty (he tried to get into the US in 2001) the sheer ineptitude of the US response to 'the war on terror' rightly deserves some pretty harsh interrogation itself. This time in open debate and among the neocon politicians of George Bush's departing coterie.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Stuff Journalists Like

I had a little smile at this American site, offering a little ironic humour at the sort of things that "turn" us journalists on.

Whether it's beer, press releases or our (secret) love of jargon, it might bring a small smile to your lips.

Stuff Journalists Like

Monday, January 12, 2009

In the US, Gaza is a different war

Very interesting piece I found, on how US media treats the war between Israelis and Palestinians, sourced from Al-Jazeera. Of course, how you respond to this probably depends on long-held beliefs you already have *sigh* but it does seem hard to balance the 'fear' of rockets (even 8,000 of them over several years) with massive economic and physical suffering in the Gaza Strip.

To *just* blame Gazans for 'voting in' Hamas seems a gross oversimplification of a complex, historical situation with many eddies and currents below the surface. (For example, to demand that 'Hamas close its smuggling tunnels' seems to rely, too, on Israel opening its border crossings and relinquishing an economic embargo of the territory, leading in turn to smuggling ...)

Al Jazeera: The images of two women on the front page of an edition of The Washington Post last week illustrates how mainstream US media has been reporting Israel's war on Gaza.

On the left was a Palestinian mother who had lost five children. On the right was a nearly equally sized picture of an Israeli woman who was distressed by the fighting, according to the caption.

As the Palestinian woman cradled the dead body of one child, another infant son, his face blackened and disfigured with bruises, cried beside her.

The Israeli woman did not appear to be wounded in any way but also wept.

Arab frustration

To understand the frustration often felt in the Arab world over US media coverage, one only needs to imagine the same front page had the situation been reversed.

Watch our coverage of the war on Gaza If an Israeli woman had lost five daughters in a Palestinian attack, would The Washington Post run an equally sized photograph of a relatively unharmed Palestinian woman, who was merely distraught over Israeli missile fire?

When the front page photographs of the two women were published on December 30, over 350 Palestinians had reportedly been killed compared to just four Israelis.

What if 350 Israelis had been killed and only four Palestinians - would the newspaper have run the stories side by side as if equal in news value?

Like many major news organisations in the US, The Washington Post has chosen to cover the conflict from a perspective that reflects the US government's relationship with Israel. This means prioritising Israel's version of events while underplaying the views of Palestinian groups.

For example, the newspaper's lead article on Tuesday, which was published above the mothers' photographs, quotes Israeli military and civilian sources nine times before quoting a single Palestinian. The first seven paragraphs explain Israel's military strategy. The ninth paragraph describes the anxiety among Israelis, spending evenings in bomb shelters. Ordinary Palestinians, who generally have no access to bomb shelters, do not make an appearance until the 23rd paragraph.

To balance this top story, The Washington Post published another article on the bottom half of the front page about the Palestinian mother and her children. But would the paper have ever considered balancing a story about a massive attack on Israelis with an in-depth lead piece on the strategy of Palestinian militants?

Source: Al Jazeera English

John Walker's Blues

This weekend the UK's Telegraph Magazine published a (somewhat cut) version of a feature story I produced on John Walker Lindh, aka 'The American Taliban' and his family.

The case is a travesty of justice and a growing campaign of voices is pressing the outgoing US President, George Bush, and the incomer, Barack Obama, for his early release from jail.

Not only was Lindh tortured, but others who committed far greater crimes have since been released. Time now for John Lindh to go home.

Here's an excerpt:

Few can forget the iconic image of John Walker Lindh, hidden behind dirt, a beard and wild hair ripped free of his turban. The media dubbed him the 'American Taliban’. A volunteer for the Taliban army, he was an eager convert to Islam who had strayed from his studies in Yemen and Pakistan. Like thousands of others he fled the American advance into Afghanistan. His Taliban commander had bartered with the Northern Alliance to allow safe passage back towards Pakistan in return for surrender. Instead, the Northern Alliance had taken them prisoner.

Yaser Hamdi, a Saudi-American national who was captured with Lindh, and held for almost three years without charge before being released back to his homeland, offers an alternative view of the battle of Mazar-i-Sharif: 'They called it an uprising, and it was not – it was some kind of massacre. It was 24 hours of asking Allah for help. Men crying out, men who were wounded, men who were sick, men who were dying. The Koran tells you how to pray in all situations. People there who couldn’t move and couldn’t turn to face Mecca still prayed. They prayed until they died.’

Within a day Lindh was strapped naked to a stretcher inside – according to his lawyers at his later trial – a freezing shipping container, in handcuffs so tight they cut off circulation, and the word 'Shithead’ scrawled on his blindfold. The lawyers also contended that it was two weeks before medics even treated the bullet wound in his thigh, and that for almost six weeks Lindh was held incommunicado, despite repeated attempts by them and the Red Cross to reach him, while he was interrogated. Prosecutors maintained that Lindh was properly looked after. Today he sits in the Federal Correctional Complex at Terre Haute, Indiana, serving a 20-year prison sentence for 'supplying services’ to the Taliban.

I'll be putting a version of the original, larger story (with far more components) up on my website soon. Meanwhile read The Telegraph Magazine version here.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Justice for the reporter who dared take on Brussels

The EU's ham-fisted attempts to supress stories about corruption have been exposed after a court case in Belgium

A blow was struck for freedom this week. Hans-Martin Tillack, a German journalist who had been detained by the EU after investigating Brussels fraud, was definitively cleared by the courts. The Belgian government, whose police had raided Tillack's flat, was ordered to pay damages and costs.

Tillack was, for several years, the EU correspondent of the respected German magazine, Stern. Before he arrived, the press corps in Brussels had largely been made up of true believers. Copy was routinely submitted to Commission officials for approval; negative stories were suppressed; any criticism of the EU, even on narrow grounds of financial probity, was dismissed as populist.

Tillack thought of himself as a pro-European, but could see that such deference was doing the EU no favours. In the absence of critical scrutiny, the Brussels bureaucracy had become self-serving, bloated and sleazy. So he began to expose some of the more egregious corruption cases, such as how officials had diverted millions of euros from a body called Eurostat into private accounts.

The Euro-elites were furious. They expected such "anti-Europeanism" from British red-tops, but not from goody-goody Germans. When Tillack widened his investigation, and started to ask why the EU had failed to act on tip-offs, they pounced. Belgian police raided his flat and seized his laptop, files and address books. He was held for 10 hours without a lawyer, while his notebooks were confiscated, placing all his sources at risk. Even his private bank statements were ransacked.

Unbelievably, the raid was ordered by Olaf, the EU's anti-corruption unit. Needless to say, no such treatment has been meted out to the alleged fraudsters. In the looking-glass world of Brussels, it is those exposing sleaze, rather than those engaging in it, who find themselves in police custody. Tillack was implausibly accused of having procured some of his papers by bribery. No formal charges were brought. Yet it has taken him fully five years to be finally vindicated.

The First Post

Shock at Senegal gay jail terms

The jailing in Senegal of nine gay men for eight years over "indecent conduct and unnatural acts" has been condemned by an international gay rights group.

Homosexual acts are illegal in Senegal but the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) told the BBC it was "shocked by the ruling".

The judge added three years to a five-year sentence, saying the men were also members of a criminal group.

Most of them belonged to an association set up to fight HIV and Aids.

Story source: BBC.

Dozens of Journalists Killed for Their Work in 2008

Last year, fewer journalists were killed while doing their job than in recent years - but that should not be grounds for optimism, say IFEX members in their end of year reports.

According to its annual analysis, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recorded 41 journalists killed in direct connection to their work in 2008 - a drop from 65 in 2007. "While that's lower than the unprecedented numbers we saw over the last few years, by historical standards it's still very high," says CPJ. The lower death toll was due mainly to a sharp drop
in deaths in Iraq, from 32 in 2007 to 11 last year, due to improved security conditions there, says CPJ. CPJ is still investigating further cases.

The 2008 death toll reflected a shift in global hot spots, as high numbers of deaths were reported in restive areas of Asia and the Caucasus, says CPJ. Watch CPJ's video tribute to the journalists who died in 2008: http://tinyurl.com/7ouzyw then read the report: http://tinyurl.com/9v6kvf

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) counts 60 journalists killed in the line of duty. RSF tallies cases in which a link between the violation and the victim's work as a journalist is clearly established or very likely. But RSF says the fall in numbers of attacks on the traditional media does not mean the press freedom situation has improved - online repression is on the rise, with bloggers being imprisoned and websites being censored. RSF says cases of online censorship were recorded in 37 countries, with Syria (162 websites censored), China (93) and Iran (38) topping the list.

"The figures may be lower than last year's but this should not mask the fact that intimidation and censorship have become more widespread, including in the West, and the most authoritarian governments have been taking an even tougher line," says RSF. See: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=29797

The World Association of Newspapers (WAN) records 68 journalists and other media workers killed last year. "Attacks on journalists throughout the world - by organised crime groups in Latin America, autocratic regimes in the Middle East, repressive governments in Africa and by combatants in war zones - pose serious threats to press freedom," said WAN in its report, with region-by-region details. See: http://www.wan-press.org/article17943.html

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which compiles figures in cooperation with the International News Safety Institute (INSI), counts 109 journalists and media workers killed last year in 36 countries. IFJ includes all journalists killed because of their work as well as those killed in accident while on assignment or on their way to or from a story. According to IFJ, India's death toll also figured high on the list with 10 casualties, following a surge of attacks in insurgent-hit states in the
country. See IFJ: http://tinyurl.com/8juw3k and INSI: http://tinyurl.com/8suo9d

Despite the range in numbers, all agree that even though the casualties have decreased, Iraq was once again the world's most dangerous country for the press. Many of the at least 11 journalists - all Iraqi nationals working for local Iraqi news outlets - were deliberately targeted.

The next three deadliest countries for the media were Pakistan with at least seven journalists killed for doing their work, the Philippines with six killed, and Mexico, with four murdered.

In the Americas, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) called 2008 "a year of contrasts." The year was marked on the one hand by violence and harassment of the media, including 13 journalists killed, and by the passing of constructive new laws on the other. IAPA blamed organised crime for the murders. IAPA notes "aggravation and threats" took place in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, while 26 journalists remain jailed in Cuba, many of them seriously ill. But the good news is that access to
information improved in Chile, Guatemala, Uruguay and Nicaragua. See: http://tinyurl.com/9bhsuh

In Mexico journalists have increasingly become the target of drug traffickers and mobsters. According to WAN, 23 have been killed since 2000, and seven others have disappeared since 2005 - cementing Mexico's position as the most dangerous country in the Americas for the media, even surpassing Colombia. Like the Philippines, Mexico is among the worst in solving these murders: none of the killers of journalists murdered in Mexico this year have been brought to justice.

The fall in the death toll in Africa, say IFEX members, is a result of many journalists opting not to work, often turning to a less dangerous trade or going into exile. WAN reports that charges of defamation, sedition and "disrupting public order" work to intimidate and silence independent and opposition media. Those that choose to report on rebellions or criticise the authorities often end up in jail - the number of arrests is particularly high in Africa, says RSF.

Even in Europe and Central Asia, death threats against or prosecution of journalists reporting on conflict zones, war crimes and organised crime are common. Journalists are at risk in an increasingly volatile political situation in the Caucasus, where at least three journalists died in just five days of fighting between Georgian, Russian and local forces over the disputed region of South Ossetia, say the members.

Some IFEX members have also put out country-specific year-end analyses.

"2008 was not a bright year for press freedom in Indonesia," says the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), especially with a slew of criminal charges against journalists and, unsurprisingly, the introduction of new laws that criminalise press offences. Those who commit defamation via the Internet face up to six years in jail, for example. See: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/99600/

Safety remains the biggest concern for journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says Journalist in Danger (JED) in its 2008 annual report, "Ten years for press freedom: the situation of freedom of the press in Central Africa". JED says a decline in the number of attacks against the press is more likely attributable to censorship and self-censorship, rather than improvements to the country's press laws or the impunity that journalists' killers usually enjoy. See: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/99592/