Category Archives: Orla-Jo

Ireland and CIA Torture

Since 2002 there has been concern over Ireland’s neutrality. US military aircraft have been using Shannon airport in the west of Ireland en route to conflict situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2002 over 2.25 million armed US troops have gone through Shannon Airport.

Many people were shocked by the realities of CIA torture revealed in a recently publicised report but for many other it was simply an official confirmation of what they have known was going on in secret CIA holding facilities and the infamous Guantanamo Bay. There is little the international community to stop the biggest military power from breaking international law, except condemn it.

What Irish people can and should be doing now is question the Irish state’s involvement in these “extraordinary rendition operations”. The Open Society Foundation produced a report called ‘Globalizing Torture’ in 2013 which dealt with many of the same practices confirmed in the “Torture Report” currently being circulated.

In particular this report highlights the complicity and facilitation of CIA torture by other states. Ireland is among these countries. Ireland permitted the use of its airspace and airports for flights associated with CIA extraordinary rendition operations.

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The number of countries complicit is frighteningly high (as you can see in the graphic above) abut it is often ignored that the international community does not only allow the USA’s frequently illegal actions but actively enables it.

“In December 2005, amid concerns that extraordinary rendition flights were landing in Ireland, the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) recommended to the Irish government that it seek agreement from U.S. authorities to inspect suspect aircraft. The Irish government responded that inspections were not necessary because it had received assurances from the United States that detainees had not been and would not be transported illegally through Irish territory. In 2007, the IHRC conducted a substantive review of the matter and concluded that “the Irish State is not complying with its human rights obligations to prevent torture or inhuman or degrading treatment [and that its] reliance on the assurances of the US Government is not enough.” […]In June 2011, the U.N. Committee against Torture stated that it was “concerned at the various reports of [Ireland’s] alleged cooperation in a rendition programme, where rendition flights use the State party’s airports and airspace,” and that it was “also concerned at the inadequate response by the State party with regard to investigating these allegations.” – ‘Globalizing Torture’ page 85

It is simply not good enough that other countries shake our heads and tut at “the American war on terror” but do little to nothing to curb our own involvement.

Ireland is a neutral country, we do not engage in military alliances and we did not join NATO. But to facilitate CIA torture is to have the blood of America’s wars on our hands as well.

There is No Post-Racial America

If there is one thing that events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri should make clear it is that there is no-racial America and there never was.

Conservatives and Liberals alike are guilty of assuming that because everyone is allowed on the same bus now that racism no longer exists, much like those who believe that gender-based discrimination ended when women gained suffrage.

Every 28 hours an African-American is killed by a police officer or vigilante.

A short documentary style video on the New York Times shows the fear and frustration of the people of Ferguson contrasted with the militarisation of its police force.

Mike Brown was 18, he was unarmed and he was shot six times by a police officer. Those are the facts. Regardless of whether he had weed in his system or was an excellent student or both, none of that is relevant to the fact that unarmed African-American people are seen as justifiable targets for police and vigilante violence.

Stand your ground legislation has shown over-whelming bias towards white men, leaving African-Americans, particularly women prosecuted for defending themselves. Florida woman, Merissa Alexander fired a warning shot into the ceiling above her violently abusive husband and was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison for assault. That case is still ongoing with a retrial planned for December.

The statistics on SYG shootings speak for themselves. White defendants are preferred over black victims in staggering percentages.

syg graph

This is compounded by a media that seeks to villainise black victims further. The Huffington Post ran a story called “When the Media Treats White Suspects Better Than Black Victims” highlighting the headlines that demonstrate this bias most clearly.

white suspect black victim huffington

The Economist ran an article discussing the frankly shocking numbers of civilians killed in the USA and the lack of transparency or accountability shown by law enforcement.

“In 2012, according to data compiled by the FBI, 410 Americans were “justifiably” killed by police—409 with guns. That figure may well be an underestimate. Not only is it limited to the number of people who were shot while committing a crime, but also, amazingly, reporting the data is voluntary.”

They compare this with the relatively low levels of deaths by police officers in England.

But the problem with this article, and dozens like it that were published, is that they attempt to diminish the racial element to these deaths.

“The shooting of Mark Duggan, a known gangster, which in 2011 started riots across London, led to a fiercely debated inquest. Last month, a police officer was charged with murder over a shooting in 2005. The reputation of the Metropolitan Police’s armed officers is still barely recovering from the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian, in the wake of the 7/7 terrorist bombings in London.”

Firstly to describe Mark Duggan as a “known gangster” is problematic and shows a disconnect from the youth culture of black youth in London who feel massively disenfranchised by British society. This atmosphere in Tottenham in North London that the police target young black men regardless of their criminality was a huge factor in those riots. They also ignore the fact that the “innocent Brazilian” Jean Charles de Menezes was shot for looking too brown in an area where the police were profile Muslims.

In the case of Mark Duggan we see the most parallels with the American media’s standard response. The Daily Mail called Duggan a “thug” who “lived by the gun”.

The image most commonly associated with Duggan in the media was one of him staring stony eyed at the camera.

mark duggan cropped

What most did not realise is that this photograph was cropped to hide the fact that Duggan was standing distraught at the grave of his daughter.

mark duggan full

This is exactly the kind of biased reporting the inspired the “IfTheyGunnedMeDown” hashtag on social media in the wake of Brown’s death. Young African-Americans showed two different sides of themselves to highlight the kind of editorializing that goes on behind the reporting of African-American deaths.

iftheygunnedmedown 1 iftheygunnedmedown 2

Race relations are bad in the US but it would be remiss of me to pretend that they are magically worse than the rest of the world. However America is so socially divided, heavily armed and filled with a culture of militarisation that the racism in its institutions are far more lethal than in other developed countries.

There are similarities between these cases and their media portrayal, one glaring difference remains. Duggan’s case, despite the fact that he was most likely involved in crime, sparked massive controversy and attention. It stands out as an example of attitudes that are problematic in British policing.

But it is not the norm.

The same cannot be said for Ferguson, where the difficultly for journalists to do their jobs has received more attention than the physical violence against unarmed civilians.

Changed Irish Political Landscape Elections 2014

While the weekend saw one of the slowest counts most pundits had ever seen, the delay gave three days for the results to sink in. Some journalists are calling this polling day Sinndependence Day, after the enormous success of Sinn Féin and independent candidates.

Certainly Sinn Féin have nearly tripled its seats in the local councils and gained 3 MEPs compared with none from the last European elections in 2009. At the same time Labour’s vote has collapsed and Fianna Fáil, the party held responsible for the economic crisis, has proved more resilient than expected and held their local support. RTE online provides detailed electoral breakdown. 

But the rise in support for Sinn Féin is only one symptom of a wider change in the Irish political landscape. What’s more significant is how the tradition political cleavages are breaking down. Those observing the transfers (Ireland uses a PR electoral system) shows that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have transferred to each other in this election in numbers not seen before.

For those less familiar with Irish political divisions, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael represent the parties formed from two opposing sides of the Irish Civil War in 1922/1923. The two parties, historically centre-right (FG) and centre with centre-left sympathies (FF) have never been in coalition. Their voters and the candidates often inherit the position.

Labour goes into coalition with FG on occasion then suffers afterwards for it in the polls. But Labour was distinctly the third party, one of a number opposition parties.

Sinn Féin’s support stayed under 8% in most elections and there was huge stigmas attached to membership because of the Northern Ireland conflict. Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act in Ireland forbidden the broadcasting of the voice of any Sinn Féin member. They could not take part in public debate. This only ended in the early 1990s so for them to be a significant player in the this election is remarkable.

One way this changing political landscape tripped Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, up was the category of ‘others’. ‘Others’ is made up of all independent/non-party candidates and smaller parties, Socialists, People Before Profit, and the Green Party, among others.

rte vote bar

But in this election ‘others’ was one of the largest groups and so displaying results in this way is not very informative.

The rise of the left was one of the most talked about outcomes of these elections. Despite making foolish decision such as the Socialist Party running its candidates as the AAA (Anti-Austerity Alliance) which no one had heard of or changing the name of the party in the European election to Stop the Water Tax – The Socialist Party, they won 12 seats on county and city councils. People Before Profit, primary a working group of the Socialist Workers Party, also took 12 seats.

Political discussion and analysis by many journalists failed to catch up with the new realities. Talking about the four historic parties and “the rest” no longer adds to the conversation.

Other changes can be seen in the issues that effect voters. Jobs, tax and healthcare will be central to most elections and the rise of real left parties has forced discussion on economic alternatives into the mainstream but new issues are also coming into play. Social equality, gender, sexuality and race, are becoming increasingly significant.

Darren Scully, who was mayor of Naas at the time, claimed that he did not represent the African community in his constituency. He resigned as Mayor and was expelled from Fine Gael. In this election, not only was he allowed to return to Fine Gael but he was re-elected to the council in Naas.

racist scully naas vote deets

At the same time Sinn Féin ran Edmond Lukusa, Chairperson of the Congolese Consortium of Ireland and he was elected to the Fingal council.

edmond lukusa

Ireland’s growing immigrant communities are still not only underrepresented in Irish politics but social disconnected from it as well. The parties that connect with this demographic before the next general election will hold  a significant advantage over the parties who do not.

A gender quota of 30% is expected to be in place by the next general election and so many analysts are already pointing at parties that will struggle to comply with that, such as Fianna Fáil. Marriage equality activists are expecting marriage reform in this next two years and increased rights for GSRM couples and families will have to be in the manifestos of many parties.

The next general election will be one that defines Irish politics for the decade to come.

Who Speaks For Ireland? Media and Representation

Do you feel as though mainstream Irish media represents you and the issues that matter to you well? If not, then you are not alone.

 

There is a well-documented disconnect between many Irish young people and their government. A study in 2007 had Ireland’s young voting turn-out at the lowest in Europe. But what is less well-documented is the disconnect between much of Ireland’s youth and its media. I would argue that the political apathy is in part a knock on effect of a media that does little to prioritise issues that affect younger demographics but it is a problem in its own right as well.

 

This was well demonstrated in the ‘Pantigate’ incident that has been unfolding since January which brought many issues of homophobia and censorship to the forefront of debate. But it has also shown that the priorities and loyalties of the Irish media do not align with much of the population. The details of debates on homophobia, the Iona Institute and other parties involved have been and will be discussed elsewhere but what is more significant to me are actions of RTE in its role as broadcaster during the scandal.

 

There was a lack of transparency from the beginning which made many people uneasy. When the final figure of the settlement of €85,000 was revealed many people were outraged. RTE has received over 850 official complaints regarding this pay-out for a comment which received zero audience complaints on the night.

 

The general frustration and outrage was expressed on social media platforms and described on RTE a week later as “Twitter lynch mobs”. It was probably more akin to an unfiltered Letters to the Editor page. One upload of the section of interview edited out of RTE’s digital archive has been viewed on Daily Motion 27,360 times at time of writing. This is higher than the average rating of 18 of RTE’s 20 most watched programmes.This is maybe not that surprising given, according the Irish Digital Consumer Report in 2013, 53% of Irish people aged 16-25 and 43% of Irish people aged 26-34, now consume the majority of their TV content online.

 

I spoke to the chair of Ireland’s top journalism degree, Dr Jane Suiter who has written for a number of publications such as the Financial Times, to get her perspective on how Ireland’s traditional media have struggled to entice young audiences. “Yes I think traditional media are struggling with how to win audiences among young people. The Irish Times for example has hired a few younger writers who attempt to engage with issues relevant to younger readers but the success is patchy.”

 

However Dr. Suiter felt that journalism has had to become partially about entertainment rather than purely information. “Journalists are increasingly utilising social media as a source and reference for news and current affairs; this allows more direct access for all citizens as the shift in news production becomes more bottom up. Younger people are more likely to be engaged in social media and this is thus a source of influence.”

 

So young people looking to get involved in debates and commentary on current affairs now need no more qualification than an internet connection. Social media, particularly Twitter, is the primary news outlet for many young people all over the world including Ireland. Ireland has 600,000 daily Twitter users, making us the 10th highest country in the world for Twitter users per capita. This is a fact that journalists and broadcasters alike have been struggling with for a number of years. While this presents its own set of quality-control challenges, is an open more inclusive discussion not generally preferable?

 

The guests and debates on RTE only continued to highlight this disconnect in the weeks that followed ‘Pantigate’. Pussy Riot and Hollaback are two groups that have big youth followings but their treatment on RTE has cringe-worthy at best.  Brendan O’Conner’s interview of Pussy Riot in February was widely considered embarrassment as he failed to discuss their activism or feminist actions or their experiences of prison but rather made inappropriate jokes and asked questions about Madonna. Last year Ryan Tubridy interviewed the head of Irish Hollaback Aimee Doyle and suggested that she should find street harassment complimentary.

 

When asked Hollaback stated: “It was quite clear that Ryan didn’t take us seriously and was determined to present us as a group concerned only with “wolf-whistles” rather than a group concerned with street harassment and its place within rape culture. It was a frustrating experience, as we felt that there was a deliberate attempt to twist our words and redefine our experiences.  It seemed that our attempts to challenge the status quo were unwelcome to Ryan, who of course benefits from that status quo.”

 

Just this month RTE came out with a new TV show ‘The Centre’ that focuses on a working class community centre trying to “grab grants” by ticking “diversity boxes”. I watched the first 10 minutes of the pilot and that was all it took for the show to be massively classist and transphobic, not to mention anti-traveller and dismissive of Muslim women. Rather than spreading the things that would offend people out RTE decided to put all the things you might hate about them in one convenient place.

 

In February UCC held a Journalism Conference where the issues surrounding sexism in Irish media were addressed, like the fact that 98% of opinion columns in the Irish Times are written by men. Audrey Ellard Walsh, a Cork journalist covering the event, referred to traditional news outlets and “legacy media” which is an interesting term. Legacy is what traditional medias have to offer. Reputation, authority and trust are vital for any news outlet and it is the advantage that they still have over blog and purely online based publications. However what online journalism has to offer is an accessibility and diversity of voices that is seriously lacking in much of Ireland’s “legacy media”.

 

But Dr Suiter believes that “online journalism” as distinct from journalism as a whole is an increasingly outdated concept. “In many ways almost all journalism is now online to a greater or lesser extent. The questions are from where does it emanate? The traditional news organisations tend to have greater resources, more trained and experienced journalists and thus have a higher level of credibility with the public. The challenge for them and indeed for democracy is to ensure that these advantages are leveraged, ensuring high quality, questioning, well researched journalism that engages with the audience.”

 

The BBC could be seen in some ways to reflect this. It is one of the most highly visited online sources of news, on its own site and across various social media platforms, but also maintains its tradition television and radio mediums. It combines new techniques with a reputation that is trusted. But more importantly it provides context for its breaking news, something which can be lacking in Twitter headlines.

 

At the end of our interview, Dr Suiter expressed optimism for Irish media in the future, that it would figure out how to adapt and change. This week The Irish Times saw changes as John Waters left their employment and the website hosted a respectful and engaged article at the Lady & Trans Fest at Seomra Spraoi.

 

I am not suggesting that this disconnect is a new problem but rather that the internet is providing a new solution. Now the voices of the disenfranchised have a more easily accessible means of being heard. Underground zines that the world can read.

 

Does this mean we about to see a seismic shift in Irish media? Will ‘legacy’ outlets catch up with the needs and priorities of a very different country? I am not sure honestly. Most of the time in Ireland, to poorly paraphrase Yeats, change comes dripping slow. I do think that local, home-grown media still has value in an increasingly globalised word. So if Ireland’s media does change, hopefully it will be for the better.

 

First published in Trinity News.

The Case for GSRM over LGBT

Gender, Sexual and Romantic Minorities (GSRM) is a broader, more encompassing term that is replacing LGBT in many circumstances. The Global Echo will now be adopting the term and this is our justification why.

Okay so most people are familiar with the initialism LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) for discussing rights and cultural issues.

But people outside of the queer community are less likely to be aware of conflicts within the community about that very initialism. Many intersex, asexual, gender-queer and pansexual people claim that the title is exclusionary. This has led to multiple other variants, LGBTI, LGBTIA, LGBTQA, and in one case LGBTQIAAP which I think we can all agree is simply unfeasible.

Also the second A is for allies and I have to say if someone is only an ally to the queer community if they get to feel like people are paying attention to them they are not really allies.

But even with just a single A the initialism is still unworkable, it’s hard to say, it’s hard to spell and frankly no media outlet will be interested in using it so it does not really further the visibility of these minority groups.

Now I’m not going to add to the bashing of the infamous ‘LGBT Soup’ article. Frankly it got enough attention at the time. It raised the same point as us that LGBTQIAAP was unusable but it’s conclusion was that people should just get over not being included. That’s obviously easier for some to say than others.

Of course QUILTBAG (Queer intersex lesbian trans bi ace gay) was floated by some as a more memorable acronym it, again, is one unlikely to be picked up by wider society because, frankly, it sounds a bit silly.

This is fundamentally our case for Gender, Sexual and Romantic Minorities. It’s broad, inclusive and non-specific. If new identities and terms arise it doesn’t matter, they are inherently included.

For this reason GSRM will now be used on the Global Echo in the place of LGBT with a link referring to this explanatory article.

Thank you for reading and engaging with this debate.

Let He with the Best Solicitor Speak Freely

This week has seen legal attacks not only on the LGBT community in Ireland but on the freedom of speech in Irish journalism as a whole.

The controversy began when Rory O’Neill, alter-ego of Dublin gay icon and pub-owner Panti Bliss, was interviewed on RTE’s Saturday Night Show on the  11th January.

The interview was going well until O’Neill attempted to discuss some of the prejudices still facing members of the LGBT community. O’Neill said that of course things has changed over time but that it there were still difficult to deal with the kind unpleasantness found “the internet in the comments and people who make a living writing opinion pieces for newspapers”. When pressed for examples O’Neill named John Waters, Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute.

Not long after it was posted the interview was taken for “legal issues” following complaints made. When the interview was re-posted on line, all discussion of homophobia was edited out. A transcript of the missing section can be found here.

Now this obvious and upsetting piece of censorship was discussed eloquently by Trinity News writer Matthew in ‘Ignorance Isn’t Panti Bliss’ which was widely shared on social media in the outrage that followed.

O’Neill himself has received soliciter’s letters personally from Breda O’Brien, David Quinn, Patricia Casey, and John Murray (all of the Iona Institute the highly-conservative lobby group) and from John Waters.

John Waters, being the Irish Times columnist who wrote that the “gay lobby” want “to destroy the institution of marriage because they’re envious of it” and who is absolutely no way homophobic of course.

This is not the first time the head and founder of the Iona Institute, David Quinn, has silenced his critics or those of Iona with the threat of legal action.

Just last year David Quinn forced the University Times to retracted two articles it had published criticising the Iona Institute’s controversial YouTube video ‘The Case for Man/Woman Marriage‘ with threats of legal action. When Trinity News published an article describing these events, they themselves were contacted by his solicitor, as was published by the College Tribune.

It’s worth noting at this point that mostly the news outlets brave enough to risk Quinn’s legal wrath have been student publications with far less legal support than mainstream media.

‘Defamation,’ the common thread to these claims, is a slightly complicated piece of Irish law though it’s outlined brilliantly in relation to this case here. But ultimately nothing that is true can be legally considered defamation. Is the claim that the Iona Institute, Breda O’Brien and John Waters homophobic, not one of a opinion that O’Neill as a gay man is entitled to have?

Even outside of the range of opinion and in analysis of statements made against Same Sex Marriage by all three that they work against the mainstream of the LGBT civil rights movement is not a matter for debate, as is outlined in an analysis of statement here.

But I believe the real problem is that frequently it is not a question of whether those getting served with Quinn’s legal complaints are legally in the wrong but whether than can afford to run the risk that a judge might side with a wealthy, prominent public figure over them. Deeper pockets wins the debate; which is a scary thought for the future of journalism in Ireland.

Where does the argument for “defamation of character” end? How do we hold people accountable for defaming their own characters? Because the journalists and others Quinn has targeted are not in a position to stop his organisation publishing or operating, they are simply stating that they disagree. But Quinn’s actions serve to silence the opposition entirely. This incident certainly begs the question whether a wealthy, public figure can be held accountable for the offense his organisation causes so many people. 

And much more importantly when will we stop letting those with the most cash on hand, and the best solicitors dictate what is and is not fair debate?

Mandela and Ireland, complexity and sacrifice

There is a tendency, when great and inspirational people die, to reduce them to just that: an inspiration.

But before Mandela was inspiration he was an angry young man, a lawyer, a freedom fighter, a prisoner and it is important to resist the urge to simplify him to an abstract idea of how he effected others. Many world leaders, and journalists have praised this man he held views and behaved in ways that they routinely condemn. Now an idealist might say that people are able to put aside their personal feelings in order to acknowledge the great work done by Mandela but more cynical people might call it disingenuous.

In a sea of journalistic obituaries by people who never met him I am not sure what I have to offer, hence my delay in writing, except maybe the Irish perspective.

As a freedom fighter against a left-over colonial regime in the 70s and 80s, Mandela captured a lot of good-will from the Irish public. A boycott of South African goods as a protest against apartheid was put in place by a number of groups and trade unions.

Catherine Bulbulia (Fine Gael), Niall Andrews (Fianna Fáil), Donal Nevin (Irish Congress of Trade Unions), Reg September (African National Congress), John Hume (SDLP), Ruairi Quinn (Labour Party), Tomás MacGiolla (Workers’ Party) and Kader Asmal (Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement) share a platform to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the African National Congress. (An Phoblacht)

In 1985, 12 retail workers from Dunne Stores in Dublin went on strike for 2 and half years (July 1985 to April 1987) for the right not to sell South African products while Apartheid was in effect.

Dunnes Stores strikers on an Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement national march through Dublin, November 1986. (An Phoblacht)

“We had made the decision as a company that we couldn’t allow people in the organisation to decide what goods to sell and what not to sell.”

– Ben Dunne, Former Director, Dunnes Stores

“Ben Dunne was saying he had the right to sell what he wanted to in his store. If Ben Dunne decided to sell stolen property it wouldn’t mean I had to handle it.”

– Cathryn O’Reilly, former striker

The Irish government would go on to ban the sale of all South African good in Ireland until the end of the Apartheid regime. They officially called for his unconditional release in 1988. Mandela met with some of the strikers when he visited Ireland in 1990 after his release.

When Mandela spoke in Dublin on that visit he thanked the strikers as a source of comfort and inspiration to him during his imprisonment. “For more than a quarter of a century your country has had one of the most energetic and effective anti-apartheid movements in the world. Irishmen and women have given wholehearted and often sacrificial support for our struggle in the fields of economic, cultural and sports relations.”

Because it was a sacrifice to get involved. In the 1980s Ireland was in the grip of an economic depression with unemployment higher than even in the more recent financial crisis. But two of Ireland’s most significant trade partner the UK and America were not in favour of political support for Mandela’s ANC. Margaret Thatcher called them terrorists and the CIA sent money and arms to the apartheid regime. The government ran a risk of retaliation for their strong stance of support.

Not only that but the strikers themselves ran a personal risk and sacrifice of stable employment at a time when emigration from Ireland was very high due to the unemployment epidemic.

“The outstanding Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, has written that too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart…We understood that to emulate the barbarity of the tyrant would also transform us into savages. We knew that we would sully and degrade our cause if we allowed that it should, at any stage, borrow anything from the practices of the oppressor. We had to refuse that our long sacrifice should make a stone of our hearts.”

– Nelsom Mandela (Dublin 1990)

The willingness to sacrifice your own livelihood for what is right is a sentiment that is lost in politics today. Individualistic philosophy, a lazy apathetic amoralism has been a trend that even a new financial crisis could not shake.

Injustice in other countries does not inspire reactions like this again. Despite what I’ve said, I must admit that I feel like waxing lyrically on Mandela as a near spiritual figure. I feel like quoting Yeats’ ‘September 1913’ where he bemoans his own generation and longs for the heroes gone. I’ll try not to give in to the defeatist romanticism just yet.

My earliest memories of my parents and political activism involve my mother suddenly laughing in a supermarket that she could buy South African products again, my father’s copy of Mandela’s autobiography on the shelf, learning to spell boycott with the correct number of Ts. When angry teenage activist me sulked that all politicians were liars and con-men, there was an unspoken “except Mandela” at the back of my brain. So in a strange way I am mourning a man a never met.

But what worries me most is that I look around the world and cannot see anyone on the stature or  with drive and clarity Mandela had. I do believe that the world is not change by leaders but by communities but all the same, leaders with vision and influence can rally people to action in ways a group cannot. The world could use its next Mandela.

Iran Ending Isolationism: What would be the Consequences?

The new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has been outspoken recently on the need for social reform in his country and with promises not to build nuclear weapons.

In the four months since Rouhani was elected as the 7th president of Iran he was released 11 political prisoners, sworn off nuclear weapons, temporarily lifted bans on Facebook and Twitter and expressed an interest in improving Iran’s relationship with the international community.

Photo: NBC/AP

It is the Ayatollah Khamenei, the religious leader of Iran, who has the final say on issues of the nuclear program and defense but Khamenei seems interested in supporting Rouhani’s move. Saying:

“We don’t want nuclear weapons, not because of pressure from the US or others but because of our belief that no one should have nuclear weapons. When we say no one should have nuclear weapons that means not for them and not for us either.” – Ayatollah Khamenei

All this comes ahead of Rouhani’s attendance at the UN General Assembly in New York today. In another interesting move by the new president he is bringing the only Jewish MP in the Iranian parliament, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, with him to New York. Not only this but there may be some kind of informal “accidental” meeting between President Rouhani and President Obama which would be the first time American and Iranian presidents had been face-to-face since the revolution of 1979.

The temporary lifting of the ban on social media sites on 16 September is more significant than it might appear at first. Firstly as it suggests that the Iranian government might be considering lifting its bans altogether but also because of what that would do to change the sense of isolationism within Iran, particularly for its younger generations.

Among the optimism there are many skeptics. Israel’s government is chief among them. PM Netanyahu and those close to him in parliament have been quick and vocal in dismissing Rouhani’s efforts as a “diplomatic deception” to distract international attention while they complete their work on nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu’s office released a statement on Thursday saying:  “One must not be fooled by the Iranian president’s fraudulent words. The Iranians are spinning in the media so that the centrifuges can keep on spinning.”

Iran’s parade of long range missiles capable of reaching Israel and the Gulf most likely did little to dampen these concerns. President Rouhani states that the weapons on show are for defensive purposes only claiming: “In the past 200 years, Iran has never attacked another country”.

This is unlikely to satisfy Israel. Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, a political ally to the prime minister, claimed: “If the Iranians continue to run, in another half a year they will have bomb capability”. But did not offer evidence to back this up.

Some commentators were reminded of Netanyahu’s memorable address to the UN last year with a cartoon bomb that was apparently meant to serve as evidence of Iran’s increasing nuclear research.

PM Netanyahu addressing the UN General Assembly AP Photo/Richard Drew

Israel might yet be right but, if they are not, what would a more open Iran mean for the dynamics of the region?

Well for one, if they cooperated with UN officials and demonstrated they were not pursuing nuclear weapons then at least some of the heavy sanctions against Iran could be lifted.  These sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy and have increased anti-Western/anti-American feeling among a portion of the population. The RT reported on the situation saying that:

“Doctors are also sounding the alarm: the trade embargo has caused shortages of food and medical supplies. The director of a cancer center in Iran says he has faced lots of problems getting modern equipment to treat cancer patients.”

Also if Iran was really willing to remain nuclear free and allow UN inspectors into its research facilities then it would go a long way to disarming much of the region.

Israel’s recent statements about Iran have only drawn further attention to their own nuclear activities, particularly in the wake of a summer of worsen relations between Europe and Israel. Israel is known to possess nuclear though its security forces refuse to confirm or deny this.

Last week Israel faced an attempt to censure Israel’s refusal to acknowledge  having nuclear arms and put them under international oversight at the annual conference of the U.N.’s nuclear agency, led by other countries in the region. 

“Israel says an Israeli-Palestinian peace must be reached before creation of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.” – AP

A more trusted Iran could also assist in negotiations with radical groups throughout the Muslim world, especially Hezbollah.

But a stable and cosmopolitan Iran would pose a problem for at least three countries, Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia. Israel would no longer be able to use Iran as an excuse for increased militarism and neither would the US. Not only that but Iran would no longer distract for the US ally in the region, Saudi Arabia.

While the human rights situation in the monarchy of Saudi Arabia is even worse than that in Iran, Iran has taken much of the international and media attention away from the Saudis. If this distraction was removed the media would have a greater capacity to criticise the close relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia in light of its many injustices.

But at this point it is a waiting game and we here and Global Echo will keep up to date as Iran-US-Israeli relations continue to evolve.

Orla-Jo

Glenn Greenwald and the Intimidation of Journalists

It is both a good and bad time to be a journalist. The internet means there’s more access to information, it’s easier to make yourself heard without a big news agency behind you and news breaks from around the world in moments. But it is also a dangerous time to be a journalist, every day it seems like someone has found a new way to spy on you, more journalists are in jail as of last year than any other time in the last decade and it seems like people are having more and more trouble deciding what a journalist is.

Photo from UN - Sec Gen briefs Journalists
Photo from UN – Sec Gen briefs Journalists

The US Senate seems to think you need some corporation or agency behind you to be a journalist or that it matters how long you’ve been employed. I’ve talked about this before and I disagree. I believe it is the lengths you go to in order to share the truth with the public, to information and educate and provide the context to understand the world we’re in, that makes you a journalist. However those criteria discount many of the overpaid talking heads the Senate seems to have had in mind.

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I’ve also already written about the deeply troubling story of Barrett Brown’s arrest and imprisonment after months of harassment by the FBI for investigating military contracting that the US government would have rathered he hadn’t. Glenn Greenwald was the journalist who first broke the documents leaked by former NSA consultant Edward Snowden.

The reaction to the revelations of widespread illegal surveillance by the NSA was surprising. Rather than turning on their government, many mainstream American journalists turned on Greenwald, calling him an “activist” or a “blogger” rather than a journalist.

Then in August, while travelling between Berlin and their home in Rio, Greenwald’s partner David Miranda was stopped and held for 9 hours under the UK’s terrorism powers.

“One US security official told Reuters that one of the main purposes of the British government’s detention and questioning of Miranda was to send a message to recipients of Snowden’s materials, including the Guardian, that the British government was serious about trying to shut down the leaks.” However it is not part of British law that terrorism powers can be used simply to “send a message”.

Lord Falconer is a qualified barrister and the former UK lord chancellor and he helped write the terrorism powers act and he says: “schedule 7 powers can only be used

“for the purpose of determining whether the detained person is a terrorist. The use of the power to detain and question someone who the examining officer knows is not a terrorist is plainly not for this purpose, so it would neither be within the spirit nor the letter of the law. There is no suggestion that Miranda is a terrorist, or that his detention and questioning at Heathrow was for any other reason than his involvement in his partner Glenn Greenwald’s reporting of the Edward Snowden story.”

During Miranda’s 9 hour illegal detention in Heathrow, his phone, laptop and external hard drive were confiscated. He was forced to give up the passwords to his social media sites.

It’s hardly as if British security forces thought that Miranda was hiding classified material on Twitter. No, this was a tactic of intimidation and humiliation.

Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

When Greenwald said in an interview that he would continue to report on Snowden documents that had not yet been released it was reported as if he were vowing some mad revenge scheme.

“The US and UK governments are apparently entitled to run around and try to bully and intimidate anyone, including journalists – “to send a message to recipients of Snowden’s materials, including the Guardian”, as Reuters put it – but nobody is allowed to send a message back to them. That’s a double standard that nobody should accept.”

Then on Monday the 19th of August only days after Miranda’s detention, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, revealed that UK authorities had been threaten the Guardian UK for weeks if they did not destroy all their materials provided by Edward Snowden.

Agents were then sent to supervise the physical destruction of hard drives in the paper’s basement. Rusbridger described the behaviour as “thuggish” but also useless as of course there were multiple copies around the world so they achieved nothing but, in Greenwald’s own words, to make “themselves look incompetently oppressive”.

The destroyed hard disc and Macbook that held information leaked by Edward Snowden Photograph: Roger Tooth

Multiple journalist protection  and human rights organisations around the world have condemned these acts of intimidation and attempted censorship by the British government, including the Committee to Protect Journalists among others.

The British government are not alone in believing it can silence dissent. Russian authorities have a history of dealing harshly with critical press but recently has cracked down on those reporting on problems around construction in Sochi in preparation for the 2014 Olympics. Azerbaijan has similarly targeted journalists and academics.

There must be vigilance and caution when observing attempting abuses of journalistic freedoms, particularly in countries such as the UK and US that previously so highly valued their freedom of the press.

Reading the story of the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner and the following harassment of the Guardian, should concern everyone. It should frighten people. The censorship of the press, intimidating and threatening a journalist’s family are hardly the precursors to good times. In fact I would go out on a limb and say that they are a consistent and undeniable sign that we are losing control of government agencies allegedly in place to protect us. Unfortunately we are now subject to them regardless of what country we are citizens of, rather than the agencies being subject to the will of their citizens.

The Veil and the Complexity of Freedom

There are discrepancies between how we define freedom and how we perceive it.

Freedom is defined by most as the ability to make your own choices but freedom is often perceived as choosing to be like you.

Not specifically you obviously but ourselves in general. If you consider yourself to be free then you are more likely to recognise freedom in others if their lives resemble yours.

This problem presents itself particularly strongly when ‘western’ ideologies of ‘freedom’ attempt to reconcile with choices they do not understand. Head-scarves and veiling of Muslim women has become the symbolic battleground of cultural ideology in the west. But behind the rhetoric are the realities of personal freedoms in our societies.

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When discussing legislating against veiling in Europe, discussion usually returns to France and ‘The Scarf Affair’ when three scarf-wearing Muslim girls were expelled from their school in November 1996. Then in March of 2004 a law was passed in the French National Assembly banning the bearing of all “ostentatious signs of religious belonging in the public sphere”.

It is interesting to note that quickly the word scarf (foulard) was replaced by veil (la voile). The choice of words is significant as a scarf is a fairly ordinary piece of clothing in France but a veil is more ceremonial and conjures up orientalised images.

More recently, in 2011 a ban on face-veiling in any public space came into effect in France which threatened monetary fines or “citizenship” courses to anyone in breach of this law. Of the 5 million Muslims living in France fewer than 2,000 women wear a veil that covers their face (burqa or niqab). This begs the question of why this became the focus of the debate. A similar ban was discussed in the Netherlands in 2012 where of 1 million Muslims only a few hundred women cover their faces.

These questions are more explicable if the debate on veiling has more to do with European, and by extension “western”, identity than it does about the realistic impact of veiling.

There are many reasons used to justify the banning of headscarves and face veils, the most common of which being security and fighting the oppression of women.

There is an academic feminist argument against veiling that acknowledges its long, traditional roots far outside any one religion but rather as part of patriarchal history of humans as a whole. Ancient Greece, early Christianity, Judaism and the Assyrian Empire all had veiling as a marker of a respectable woman which, like their chastity, added to the commercial value of women as the property of their male relatives. I am a historian and a feminist so I acknowledge this argument.

However, patriarchy is a fact of the majority of history and if we were to ban everything that had once had a hand in the oppression or objectification of women we would have to ban all sorts of things, including but not limited to; wedding rings, corsets, high heeled shoes, wigs and men.

Also my feminism is that which says that women should be allowed make their own decisions (radical I know!) and so ultimately as interesting as the history of veiling I don’t believe it should play a role in decision making regarding modern legislation. Not only that but I believe that the objectification of women is best typified by the fact that our bodies remain political battlegrounds for the ideology of political systems.

The idea of freedom is opposed to any law that regulates the clothes of women and treats them as ideological tools. So regimes like Saudi Arabia are a different discussion. But I would also like to point out that veiling is the least of women’s problems when living under regimes like this. But if we agree that a law enforcing veiling is wrong then how can we support a law banning them when that is the same control from another perspective?

I also think there is a patronising element to the assumption that veiled, Muslim women are simply incapable of making their own decisions.

And then there is the security argument. That covering your face in public should not be allowed regardless of religion.

A recent high-profile decision by Judge Peter Murphy that a Muslim woman who wears a niqab (a veil that covers the face but not the eyes) must unveil while giving evidence. At previous hearings the woman, who cannot be identified to the public, verified her identity with a female police official before giving evidence. Judge Murphy has said she can remain veiled while sitting in the dock and have a screen to block public view but that he, the jury and the lawyers must be able to see her while giving evidence.

There is no set procedure for situation such as this and Judge Murphy called on parliament to “provide a definite answer” saying:

“If judges in different cases in different places took differing approaches [to the niqab] the result would be judicial anarchy.”

Reuters/Mohsin Raza

But the decision that she only had to unveil to give evidence was not enough for some observers. Keith Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said he “regretted” the judge’s decision.

“We will be complaining to the Office of Judicial Complaints and also be asking senior legal officers to make visibility throughout court hearings mandatory, and not subject to judges’ discretion.”

This is part of a culture that removes the right to privacy and the right to anonymity in public. Am I cynical in thinking these bans coming just as facial recognition software becomes more efficient as a tool of surveillance and law enforcement is not a coincidence? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make me wrong.

— Orla-Jo