Category Archives: Blame and Shame

#FreeAJStaff

It is a social media campaign that has exploded on the internet and it is making headlines in the world’s most renowned media.

It is a plea for the freedom of press and it  all started on December 29 last year, when three al-Jazeera journalists were detained in Cairo, following their coverage of the toppling of President Mohamed Morsi and the violence that followed.

Egyptian authorities have deemed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, pursuing its members and all those who give it a voice, including international journalists. That is why Australian ex-BBC reporter Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian ex-CNN journalist Mohamed Fahmy and local producer Baher Mohamed were arrested. They are accused of conspiring with the Brotherhood to tarnish Egypt’s international reputation.

Al-Jazeera has since demanded the release of its staff, arguing that the charges are absurd, an idea shared by other journalists and politicians around the world. Many have condemned this action as an attempt to end the freedom of expression in Egypt.

To make its case, the Qatari network has launched a huge social media campaign, asking people, around the world, to show their support through the hashtag “#FreeAJStaff”. People showed support by taking a photograph of themselves (selfie) while holding a “#FreeAJStaff” sign. The hashtag has, since then, been reproduced more than 250 million times, just on Twitter.

The campaign has been supported by millions, including top organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union and the White House. On February 27, al-Jazeera also held a global day of protest, to press for the release of its journalists detained in Cairo. The move gave the campaign extra strength as media organisations from all over the world took part in the initiative. Well known journalists, such as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour have also joined the fight.

Although focusing on the imprisoned al-Jazeera journalists, the campaign now has the broader objective of protecting freedom of press, not only in Egypt, but also in Crimea or Syria. Journalism and journalists have become the targets of those who do not want the attention of the international community and wish to keep their agendas hidden.

A worthy campaign, with a worthy objective, that was highlighted in this year’s Polis Journalism Conference, an event organized by the London School of Economics. Participants showed their support for the journalists and the campaign itself by holding a sign with the hashtag “#FreeAJStaff”. I was proud to have been among them.

If you with with to learn more about the campaign and those  involved, check out al-Jazeera’s “Journalism Under Fire” page for the latest updates on the campaign, or their Tumblr, always updated with the latest selfies of their supporters.

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Eritrea: Africa’s North Korea

It is rare to hear about Eritrea internationally. Often referred to as ‘the North Korea of Africa’, this small country in the horn of Africa, gained its independence from Ethiopia twenty years ago and is today governed by the all powerful President Isaias Aferwerki.

One of the most militarised societies in the world, Eritrea conscripts all men and unmarried women to military service, which many times translates into forced labour. In January 2013, HRW/UN released a report accusing the government of using forced labour to build a gold mine. Human Rights Watch denounced appalling working conditions, where workers were forbidden to leave the workplace without permission at the risk of being arrested. Yet it is always hard to obtain reliable information about the domestic situation of Eritrea as not only all press outlets were closed in 2011, but no independent civil society organisations nor nongovernmental organisations are allowed in the country.

The increasing number of defections is the proof that “Eritreans are voting en masse with their feet”. Today the country stands as one of the largest sources of refugees in Africa and according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) over 5% of the population has fled during the past decade. Putting it differently, around 4000 people escape from Eritrea every month.

While the majority of defectors are ordinary citizens, the elites are also fleeing the country. In 2013, two high-ranking Air Force officers stole the president’s luxurious private plane and fled to Saudi Arabia. Ironically, they were followed by a third pilot who was sent by the government to retrieve the plane but who also chose defection. In 2012, a dozen members of the Eritrean Olympic Team asked for political asylum at the end of the London Olympics and in 2013, nine players of the Eritrean national football team disappeared and refused to return at the end of the CECAFA Cup in Kenya.

The United Nations estimates that there are between 5000 and 10 000 political prisoners in the country. The detention conditions are said to be brutal, formal charges rarely exist and the majority of prisoners has not even been tried. Furthermore, Eritrea has repeatedly denied visa entry to the UN and it seems unlikely that the situation will change in the near future.

Still, the unprecedented event of January 2013 – where a group of soldiers occupied the Ministry of Information to force the director to demand on air television the release of political prisoners – shows growing discontent and might challenge President Aferwerki.

You can learn more about the story of Eritrea in this BBC Timeline and in this article from The Economist.

Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea Unleashed by UN Report

A new United Nations report has found that crimes against humanity – with strong resemblances to those committed by the Nazis – are occurring in North Korea. Surly, suspicions of this have existed for decades, but this 400 pages report concludes that there is truly evidence of it and calls for an international court investigation.

“Only when I left North Korea I understood what life is supposed to be” said Ahn Myung-chul, a former prison guard among the 80 refugees who publicly testified before the UN Commission for Human Rights. Along these 80 refugees, more than 240 victims were also confidentially interviewed as they fear the consequences for their family members who are still in North Korea.  You can watch some of the testimonies in this Human Rights Watch video.

The UN report is written is extraordinary detail and reveals a gruesome list of cruelties occurring in the country’s political prison camps, which exist since 1953 following the signature of the ceasefire with South Korea. ‘Among the regime’s main targets are those who try to flee the country, political prisoners, Christians, and those promoting other “subversive beliefs”’.

The UN describes a totalitarian State, sustained by prison camps and by the fear of being guilt by association. Indeed, one who is accused of treason in North Korea sees his entire family condemned as the law of guilt by association extends to three generations of the defendant’s family. At the same time, public executions are standard procedures and as Lee Young-Kuk (Kim Jong-il’s  former personal bodyguard) “every North Korean has witnessed them. If family members or friends of the condemned cry at the execution, they are arrested on the spot and send to be executed.”

North Korea has evidently denied the UN’s accusations, it has refused to grant permission for the UN Commission to enter the country, and denied the existence of its kwanlliso, the political prison’s network. Sadly, China also refused to let the UN Commission visit its border with North Korea and continues to send back refugees who were able to escape to China.

Many think that this report changes very little. But as stated by The Economist this week, “Now the international community does know. There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know. It’s too long now. The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action.”

The appalling reality of female genital mutilation

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines female genital mutilation (FGM) as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.

It is child abuse, it is recognised internationally as a violation of human rights and yet it is estimated to affect up to 140 million girls and women worldwide. According to a 2013 Unicef report, almost all girls are mutilated in countries such as Somalia (98%), Guinea (96%) and Egypt (91%). The report focused on the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where the practice is the most common.

But thanks to migration, FGM is now practiced nearly everywhere around the world, which was personally the most shocking finding. It is taking place in countries such as the UK (a report estimates that there are 66,000 victims of FGM in England and Wales), US, Australia, Canada – you name it.

I only became aware of this last week when 17-year-old student Fahma Mohamed launched a petition – backed by the Guardian, Change.org and a coalition of campaigners – calling on the UK education secretary, Michael Gove, to write to every teacher in the country before the summer holidays, requesting them to train both teachers and parents about the barbarity of FGM. It has gathered over 200,000 signatures and Gove has agreed to meet with the teenage activist.

Causes and consequences

Having their genitals partially or totally severed with a razor blade is the price millions of girls have to pay to make their transition to adulthood, though some undergo the procedure in early childhood or infancy. The ancient this rite of passage allegedly hopes to ensure appropriate sexual behavior in regards to premarital virginity and matrimonial fidelity, since many believe it reduces a woman’s sexual urges.

But the same Unicef report found that social acceptance is now cited as the main reason for the continuation of the practice, and that in most countries where FGM is practiced the majority of girls and women think it should end. Religious motives are frequently brought up, though there is no mention of the practice in religious scripts.

In the most barbaric cases, the genital area is literally stitched up, fuelling the fear of pain to open it and thus considered an even more inhumane form of control of women. It sounds like a girl’s worst nightmare and I cannot even begin to imagine the excruciating pain, not to mention the consequences. Immediate risks include shock, bleeding and all kinds of infections. Long-term effects can go from infertility to recurrent bladder infections, and childbirth complications to mental trauma. It doesn’t benefit your health, it ruins it both physically and psychologically. You’re scarred for life.

According to the UN population fund and Unicef, whose representatives have long been engaging in negotiations with the leaders of the communities to raise awareness of the suffering and dangers of FGM, 8,000 communities in Africa have abandoned the practice.

If you want to find out more about the appalling reality of FGM I suggest you watch Channel 4’s documentaries The Cruel Cut and The Day I Will Never Forget.

Russia’s Homophobia

In June 2013 we wrote about the rise of Homophobia in Russia, a situation that was to be kept under surveillance by the international community as it could quickly become alarming. At the time, a new law had just passed, preventing “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors, but which bottom line concerned the whole society. The targeting of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has not stopped ever since, it has actually worsen and is entering a whole more dangerous level. Indeed, it is not only the Federal Government, but also citizens that are progressively persecuting LGBT people, with increasing violence and homophobic demonstrations becoming recurrent.

Now that Russia is the host of the (most expensive) Winter Olympic games, the denunciation and the activism against the lack of respect for human rights in Russia, have more than ever been on the spotlight. Internal and external voices are rising to demand the end of discrimination and harassment of the LGBT community. Specially, Human Rights Watch launched a controversial video on February 4th, 3 days before the start of the Winter Olympics, portraying extreme violence against gay people, which stirred up an enormous commotion amongst the international community, casting blame on the Russian government.

These mobilizations are very important and it seems that in many places in the world the international community is showing its discontent and lack of tolerance towards homophobia in Russia. Politicians like Obama have condemn this and have endorsed the need for equal treatment, not only during the Winter Olympics, but in general. Several organizations from different countries, like Canada and Norway, even issued videos supporting LGBT activism in Russia.

The Business of Hunting Dolphins

We have all received one of those e-mails condemning the slaughter of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands. The animals are driven ashore where a mob awaits them with hooks and knives. It is a tradition, they say, and fishermen harvest the meat which, today, is eaten by only a small number of people. That number has been decreasing, and so have the the number of places in Europe where this type of hunt is tolerated. Much of this has to do with international pressure credited, in part, to videos such as the one below that are shared online.

This hunt is not unique to the Faroe but, for some time, most of us thought it was. Why? “Out of sight, out of mind” and, in this case, “out of the news”, seems to me the most accurate answer.

In the small village of Taiji, in south-eastern Japan, dolphins have been hunted, in huge numbers, for decades. The method is similar to that employed by the Danish: the animals are driven towards a cove, they are stranded near the beach with nets that cut them off from the rest of the ocean. Fishermen then choose small packs, drive them ashore and kill them.

For quite some time this hunt was kept from the world because Japanese authorities realized that if the world knew, they would be forced to stop. Science has taught us that dolphins are among the most intelligent beings on the planet, they are self-aware and, last but not least, they are cute. They fill children and adult’s imaginations as good and friendly animals. People would not tolerate the poor treatment of an animal such as the dolphin. Knowing this the Japanese kept their dolphin hunt a secret. They barred any who tried to photograph or film it and harassed the few reporters that ventured to the remote village. It took a documentary crew and specialized equipment to shed some light on the subject and to show the world what was really happening (see the trailer of the documentary The Cove (2009) below).

Japan had been hiding the hunt under the coat of tradition when in fact very few people knowingly ate dolphin. Not only because the habit is not that widespread across the country and because it can bear health hazards, given the high levels of mercury these animals have in their bodies.

So the hunt had less to do with tradition and more to do with the dozens of animals that were captured and sold to marine mammal parks everywhere. One dead dolphin is worth about $600, whereas a live one can be sold for as much as $150,000 dollars. Multiply that by 50, at least, per year, and you have a multi million dollar good that can be exported to any place in the world. This is one of the reasons why the hunt was kept a secret. Marine mammal parks themselves are a lucrative business, especially if they have dolphins. Associating that business with the capture and slaughter of these animals would destroy the industry.

Besides the captures, the kills were, in part, subsidized by state, to keep the industry alive. The meat harvested in Taiji was later sold as meat from other whales that the Japanese people actually eat. Animals that are not as easy to capture because of the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling, that has been in effect since 1982.

Since the documentary was released, dolphin hunting in Taiji has decreased, from 2,000 every year to roughly 800. World awareness is increasing every year, especially since mainstream media started reporting on the subject. However, a huge portion of the population is still not aware of what is happening and of how dolphins appear in the above mentioned marine mammal parks. One good indicator of that is the fact that the number of captured animals at Taiji cove has actually gone up.

I recommend you watch the Oscar winning documentary The Cove and check Sea Sheperd‘s compilation of facts on the Drive Hunt.

India’s walking dead

What if you were alive and well, but discovered someone had declared you dead? After getting over the ludicrousness of such act, you would naturally call on legal services to sort out the misunderstanding, right?

Well, not in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and where thousands of people have been declared dead by devious relatives who bribe officials in order to seize their land. Once someone is deceased on paper, the resurrection process is subject to a complex, corrupt system, not to mention the fact that there are no legal services available for the officially dead.

Land shortage appears to be the main cause of this bizarre phenomenon. As families grow larger – India’s population is now over 1.2 billion – land properties, the only way for most residents to make a living, become smaller after getting subdivided among heirs. Many unsatisfied farmers turn to corrupt government officials and often pay as little as 50 rupees (around US$1) to obtain a false death certificate and take over the deceased’s land. They usually pick a vulnerable, an absentee or an uneducated relative for this easy process of land grabbing, and the victim can then spend a lifetime battling in court to reverse the action.

That’s what happened to Lal Bihari, founder of the Association of Dead People, who was first informed of his own death when he applied for a bank loan in 1975. Bihari was particularly annoyed to hear it from a dishonest bureaucrat with whom he had recently had tea. Determined to get the government’s attention, he decided to publicise his case in unique ways, including trying to get arrested, suing people, running for office, and even staging his own fake funeral along with other living dead fellows. Nearly 19 years later, in 1994, he finally got both his life and land back.

“In pursuing my battle, I had developed quite an identity. I became the leader of a movement. I knew I had other dead people to save,” he told the New York Times.

It’s not clear how many people Bihari has helped to resurrect through the association, and although his effort is admirable, it is clear that in order to put an end to such frustrating occurrences there would have to be tighter policies and substantial changes in the legal system.

If you want to find out more about India’s living dead, check out photographer Arkadripta Chakraborty, who has been documenting the plight of India’s living dead.

The “Fracking” Issue

It has been hailed by some (mostly the oil lobby) as the future of the energy industry. Others believe it is one more step towards environmental collapse. But what exactly is fracking? “Fracking” is short for “hydraulic fracturing”, which is a method of extracting oil and natural gas from shale deposits that uses high pressure water, mixed with sand and chemicals.

This process is used in shale rocks and other poor flow rate sands that make traditional extraction very costly. Hydraulic fracturing enables energy companies to extract oil or natural gas from these sites, with much lower expenses. The unprofitable suddenly becomes very profitable.

The process works as follows (it is a technical issue so I will resort to a quote for the explanation):

The fracking process occurs after a well has been drilled and steel pipe (casing) has been inserted in the well bore. The casing is perforated within the target zones that contain oil or gas, so that when the fracturing fluid is injected into the well it flows through the perforations into the target zones. Eventually, the target formation will not be able to absorb the fluid as quickly as it is being injected. At this point, the pressure created causes the formation to crack or fracture. Once the fractures have been created, injection ceases and the fracturing fluids begin to flow back to the surface. Materials called proppants (e.g., usually sand or ceramic beads), which were injected as part of the frac fluid mixture, remain in the target formation to hold open the fractures.”[1]

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However cheaper this process may be, its environmental impact is tremendous. The fluid injected into the wells is 98% water, plus chemicals and other materials. If you think that some wells run 3 km deep, imagine the amount of fluid required to exert enough pressure to make the fracking process work. The answer is roughly 30 million litres per fracking. Taking into account that every well can be fracked around 18 times and that there are more than 550 thousand of these wells in the United States, the amount of water used in just the US is 272 trillion litres of water. Yes, it is a lot.

More than that, fracking fluid is mixed with chemicals, sometimes more than 600 of them, some of which can cause serious health problems. During the extraction process, there is a chance that the fluid will leak to fields or underground water canals and contaminate water supplies for miles. The oil industry has been downplaying these incidents, classifying them as “minor”. Also, when in fact something bad happens, the communities affected are paid, in exchange for their silence, to make sure no one else hears about those issues. The fact is that the leaks are real and the result is the following.

Besides the water contamination with methane, there are other chemicals, mixed in the frack fluid, that can spill into underground streams. Some of the chemicals used are publicly known but most of them remain a secret as oil companies refuse to disclose their formula. Legally, they have the right not to do it. So, communities are being affected by the contamination of their water supplies but they are not even allowed to know what it is that is polluting  their water and what kind of effects it will have.

When drilling sites are exhausted, most of the water is sealed within the wells, which, again, poses several issues. First and foremost, if adequately sealed, it is a huge amount of water that is completely removed from the system. It will not flow into the oceans, it will not evaporate, it will not rain. 272 trillion litres that will be removed from the system, in the US alone. That is if all of it was sealed underground, which is not. And that is not necessarily a good thing. The fluid is kept in exposed tanks and some of the substances evaporate. They are responsible for acid rain and contaminate the air, affecting nearby communities as well. When the process is complete, they are sometimes sent to local treatment plants that, most of the times, are not prepared to handle such a mix. The supposedly clean water is reinserted into the system, contaminating rivers and aquifers and putting people’s health at risk.

There are also other concerns when it comes to fracking. The underground impact is that of a miniature earthquake and, after some time, there have been cases where those small vibrations start having an impact on nearby buildings.

It is definitely a controversial method, to say the least, one that is used mostly in the US but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, among others. It has also been banned in some countries, given its environmental impact. There are also some issues concerning its promised profitability.

It is a subject worth exploring if one is to make an informed assessment of it and that is why I want to leave you with two links:

  • Detailed article by the New Internationalist on Fracking (PDF version available for download for free) – http://newint.org/blog/2013/12/04/frack-files/
  • And 2010 documentary on the subject called Gasland. You can watch it below. Hope you find these interesting and helpful.

The Jewish Lobby

We have all heard about Jewish influence in American politics but, for most of us, it is not exactly clear how it works. And rightly so. It is hard to understand how an ethnic minority (comprising roughly 3% of the American population) can wield so much power. For that, some context is required.

The fact is that, even though they represent such a small part of the population, Jews account for half of the USA’s billionaires and they are well placed within the media industry. Political Science professor (and Jew) Benjanmin Ginsberg wrote in his 1993 book The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State that “chief executive officers of the three major television networks and the four largest film studios are Jews, as are the owners of the nation’s largest newspaper chain and the most influential single newspaper, the New York Times” (Ginsberg, 1993).

This overpowering presence in the media is a reality in other countries as well. John Pilger’s documentary The War You Don’t See, reveals that there has been cases reporters ask their editors what they could and could not say, such is pressure the lobby exerts on media organisations (see this video, part of John Pilger’s documentary The War You Don’t See, broadcast by ITV)

Getting back to the United States, political pressure is not only exerted through the media. Most political campaigns are funded by Jewish entrepreneurs/businessmen and, since the creation of Israel, no presidential candidate has won without mentioning Israel as an ally.

Besides directly funding political campaigns, there are also several organizations that make sure Israel’s interests are promoted in American policy: the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the WINEP (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs), the RJC (Republican Jewish Coalition) and the ADL (Anti-Defamation League), among others. It is also worth noting that these type of institutions exist in several other countries.

What these organisations, and Israel itself, seek is to make sure that the Jewish State is portrayed in a positive way. Also, when it comes to the United States, to make sure it continues to receive the 3 to 4 billion dollars of aid it is given, annually. As Stephen Walt put it, Israel continues to receive this aid “even though it is now a wealthy country” and despite continuing “to take actions the United States opposes” (building settlements in the Occupied Territories). Israel is also allowed to pursue several policies that make the two state solution (favoured by the US and most of the world) impossible, while at the same time taking advantage of the US’s diplomatic coverage in international institutions.

The lobby plays a huge role in US foreign policy, having been one of the major drivers behind the invasion of Iraq, for example. Its latest target is the possible diplomatic deal that the US could reach with Iran. Even if such a deal might be better for the United States or, in fact, the World.

One should not, however, make the mistake of thinking about the Jewish lobby as “all powerful”. It is not always able to get what it wants, even if it is able to keep the above mentioned aid and support from the US, and most of the western world. Still, it is important to grasp that it has been successful in clouding our judgement of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. We tend to see the news as Israel wants us to see them. Most of the times this means that we hear about all of the suicide attacks but only about major Israeli military operations. It also means that sometimes the language is distorted to make us feel closer to the Israelis (more Western like, “similar to us”) than to the Palestinians (the Arabs, “the others”). It also means that several of the Jewish State’s problems stay hidden from us. The new racist trend against African migrants being one of them (see this video about the Persecution of African Migrants in the Holy Land, a report by The Nation)

The Koch Brothers

Obama has several wars going on. Some abroad, some very close to him. The war against the Tea Party has been going on since 2009. The recent shutdown of the government shows that there is a serious problem inside american politics. But who is behind this?

The Koch brothers are very “low-profile” people, of whom we rarely hear about in the international press. David and Charles, have both more than 70 years old and a fortune estimated at around $35 billion. More than conservative they are highly libertarian. These billionaires are behind a very important part of the funds of the Tea Party and many other conservative organizations. It is estimated that on these “enterprises” they have already given more than $100 million. They believe that the State should play a much smaller role, with less (to no) taxes, less regulation of industry and economy, and less (to no) social helps.

Despite vehement denials, being strong opponents of “Obamacare”, it seems that their latest investment was freezing the Congress. Among other things, Koch Industries is one of the most polluting companies in the United States, and the brothers highly support lobbies that deter from legislation related to environmental protection and climate change.

The Koch brothers and their money are able to move the political scenery of the United States. How terribly sad that is for a democracy… Blame and Shame?…