The News Year Resolution: Consume Responsibly

Journalism and breaking news, wouldn’t it be nice if we could trust them?

But we’re a only a month into 2014 and already the mainstream media have displayed that they cannot be trusted to report without bias or to give any context for the events they report on.

The graphic above is a pretty handy guide to breaking news, the kind that comes with flashing graphics and alarmed tweets when no one really knows what happened yet but everyone is willing to repeat what the last person said.

Other points to consider:

  • Where is this happening?
  • Who are the groups involved?
  • Has this happened before?
  • Who stands to gain the most from this situation? (Extra important: always follow the money)

Mass media influences our understanding of the world in ways that it is difficult to be conscious of but it is always worth trying. When forming an opinion, try to be certain that it is in fact your opinion and not one you’ve simply absorb through cultural osmosis.

Good luck consuming your media responsibly this year!

Political Sectarianism in the Middle East

Sectarian violence in middle east has been on the rise in the past 12 months. This has been particularly obvious  in Iraq has been escalating in the past 12 months, with over 21 people killed in bombings around the capital Baghdad in the last week and in the neighbours of Syria.

The Sunni/Shia divide is often pitched as conflict of religion, leaving out the deep political history that governs the tensions. The creation of these two streams of Islam were themselves created over a disagreement over the choice of political leader.

The divide is used to political advantage by those who benefit from creating animosity between communities. . For instance in Syria were the majority of rebels are Sunni Muslim, and Saudi Arabia the most powerful Sunni country is a major source of support. But in Bahrain, where the majority of the population in Shia, and the political elite is Sunni, Saudi in that case protects the political establishment.

On Tuesday (21st Jan) a Shia delegate, Ahmad Sharafeddin in Yemen was shot dead on his way to reconciliation talks. According to Reuters, Sharafeddin who was dean of law at Saana University was a member of the Houthi Shia separatist group that opposing the current pro-American Yemeni government. Another Houthi leader accused Sunni militants.

On the same day, a bomb exploded in a Shia dominated neighbourhood in Beiruit in Lebanon, killing at least 4 people and injuring many others. Sectarian tensions have been heightened because of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis.

Hezbollah, a Shia militant group, has been supporting Syrian president Assad. Iran, the largest Shia majority country, also supports Assad. Assad’s government is dominated by a small Islamic minority sect, Alawi, but the majority of the country are Sunni and supported by Saudi Arabia. The regional involvement in Syria is inflaming sectarian tensions in the already dividing Lebanon.

The cold war played a huge role in exacerbating the conflict as the Americans and Soviets manipulated tensions in order to gain support in the region. Shia majority countries such as Iran have Russia (post-revolution 1979), while Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries allied with America.

Sunni Islam is hugely in the majority and is now very divided in its relationship with the US. Sunni Muslims make up it’s closest allies (Saudi, Egypt, Yemen) and those it believes to be its greatest threats, Al-Qaeda and similar groups. How America’s foreign policy has created enemies from allies is a topic for a different article but there long political history in play is often ignored not only in journalism but in academia as well. The post-colonial aspect also receives insufficient attention.

By portraying conflict between Sunni and Shia communities in the Middle East as a purely religious one presents a flawed picture without context. It is a sectarian issue, but also a nationalistic one, a class-based one and one of old political loyalties. Conflict is meaningless without context.

But much of mainstream media wishes to do just that, to portray Muslims as inherently, religiously fundamentalist and bigoted and ignore the blame that lies without outside actors’ political manipulation.

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.

Ideas Imprisoned No Longer

Imprisoned Ideas is an online campaign for the purpose of highlighting the cases of academics imprisoned for their work, frequently for human rights advocacy. The group uses Tumblr and Twitter to achieve greater awareness of these cases. But the campaign brought to mind several things I’d been considering about online activism in general.

Social media campaigns comes in various levels of competency and effectiveness but the significance of this campaign is that it directs support towards already existing campaigns on the ground. This incorporates the idea that social change cannot, and does not need to be imported or dropped in on people’s heads but rather emerges from the local context.

Each of the academics highlighted by the campaign has a petition and interest surrounding their arrest already but little support outside the local sphere. Imprisoned Ideas attempts to give a wider audience for these petitions, documentaries and campaigns.

Social media, while frequently used ineffectively or for lip-service activism spawning the phrase slacktivism, has great potential for assisting political and social movements.

For example this campaign could theoretically become a platform to be continuously updated, providing a excellent resource to journalists, activists and interested individuals.

Situations of political prisoners, such as Iranian physics postgraduate student Omid Kokabee or Professor Hadif Rashid al-Owais in the United Arab Emirates, are difficult to get accurate and up to date information, even for their own legal defense, never mind journalists or campaigners outside the country. This is a strategic decision by the governments in question to limit the capacity for international response or discussion. If journalists can’t access information how can they spread it? Twitter has already changed the nature of news reporting. Maybe it could change political behaviour as well.

Ventures like Imprisoned Ideas have the potential to be a platform that brings together grassroots campaigns for around the world and offer them support without taking over or claiming to have better solutions than campaigners on the ground.

It also raises the an idea I’d call “crowd-sourced activism” where the majority of the practical work is done on a local level but those local activists can receive publicity and put out calls for specific action, such as petitions or boycotts, through platforms such as the Imprisoned Ideas Twitter.

Fundraising through crowd sourcing on sites like IndieGogo and Kickstarter have proved the potential for fundraising in this way. That’s how the Veronica Mars movie has been made. If crowdfunding can change the music and film industries than why not political activism?

World News 26/9/2013

Updated 11:30 GMT

IRAQ: A number of bombs have detonated in a town outside Baghdad today killing at least 20 people today. Reports are varying between news agencies but at least 3 bombs  were detonated near markets in the town of Sabaa al-Bour 30km north of the capital. 

Al Jazeera claims that “Four bombs in the Saba al-Bur area north of Baghdad killed at least 15 people, while another bomb blast in a market in the Dura area of south Baghdad”. 

AP and Reuters say there were only three bombs but disagree on whether the neighbourhoods were majority Shia or Sunni.

 

US Drone Strikes Not as “Limited” as Obama’s UN Speech Claims

In his address to the UN last night in the 68th Session of the General Assembly, President Barrack Obama claimed much in support of his country’s human rights efforts.

However much of what he claimed was either disingenuous or simply untrue. Putting aside the fact he claims that his administration is “working” to close Guantanamo Bay (05:00) which after 5 years of promises seems quite a stretch, or the bizarre statement that the international coalition had “achieved its mission” in Afghanistan (04:25), though I am not certain what war President Obama has been watching or even how he brought up reviewing how the US gathers intelligence, ie mass surveillance by the NSA, (05:20) as though this was their idea not something they were forced into by the Snowden revelations.

I could even overlook the insane and baseless claim that the world is “more stable” now than it was 5 years ago (05:32) and lump it and all those other claims in with the usual American political rhetoric that we have grown to disdain quietly if he had not attempted to downplay and justify the American use of drone strikes in the middle east.

Screen grab of Live Address 24/9/2013
Screen grab of Live Address 24/9/2013

“We have limited the use of drones so they target only those who pose a continuing imminent threat to the Unite States, where capture is not feasible and there is a near certainty of no civilian casualties.” – Barrack Obama (04:40 )

This statement concerns me because this is apparently the limited stance. Does that mean that they were used in situations outside of these perimeters before? Even aside from that, how do you define a “threat”? What gives the US the right to kill indiscriminately those they consider a “threat” without any trial in a court of law.

And those legal and ethical concerns are only under the assumption that it is true that the US work not to injure civilians in their drone strikes which is not supported by the evidence, particularly in Yemen and Pakistan which have born the brunt of US drones.

August 1st on the very day that President Obama sat down in talks with Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Washington, four Yemeni citizens were killed in Hadhramout providence who appear to have been civilians. One of the victims was 21-year-old Saleh Saed bin Ishaq, who was survived by his wife and a young daughter, on his way home from buying his family new clothes for Eid.

These attacks occur within weeks of the anniversaries of two high profile civilian deaths by US drone strike from August 2012. One of them, Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, was a prominent anti-al-Qaeda preacher. Just two days before his death he denounced the group publicly. The other was his nephew, a young policemen Waleed Abdullah bin Ali Jaber. They were also killed in Hadhramout province.

Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber

Many commentators, including Baraa Shiban, a writer for al Jazeera from whom I got the dates and names above, argue that these strikes rather than curbing al-Qaeda’s activities simply grow their support base by giving them legitimate grievances to cite against the US.

Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani who founded Tawq, Yemen’s Democratic Awakening Movement two years ago is also a political analyst. He said in a statement to Alternet journalists:

“In the fight against al-Qaeda and the extremism it represents, we can do it the easy way, by killing, and thus have to do it again and again, or the hard way and really solve the problem. To truly fight al-Qaeda and similar groups, we must deal with the root causes of its growth – poverty, injustice, lack of rule of law…and drone strikes.”

Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference, a group of diverse political opinions brought together to work on a new Yemeni constitution voted 90% in favour of banning drone strikes. Delegates said that the US were violating Yemeni sovereignty and undermining the rule of law which was completely counter-productive in combating militant groups such as al-Qaeda.

Yemen protest Feb 2011 Washington DC (Colin David Anderson/ Flickr)
Yemen protest Feb 2011 Washington DC (Colin David Anderson/ Flickr)

Pakistan has seen 110 people killed by US drone strikes in this year alone despite the Pakistani government’s numerous protests to Washington that this was a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

It is difficult to really know how many civilians are killed in drone attacks as the US government has proven in the last year that they feel no obligation to disclosed such information. The cover up of the deaths of the Reuters journalists in Iraq uncovered through WikiLeaks begs the question how we can trust the US military to disclose accurate information.

During the election campaign in 2012 PolicyMic reported that the CIA wanted to increase the use of drones despite independent reports stating that: “estimates as high as 98% of drone strike casualties being civilians (50 for every one “suspected terrorist”). The Bureau of Investigative Journalism issued a report detailing how the CIA is deliberately targeting those who show up after the sight of an attack, rescuers, and mourners at funerals as a part of a “double-tap” strategy eerily reminiscent of methods used by terrorist groups like Hamas.” This tactic of killing those who arrive after the initial attack was also seen in the WikiLeaks video.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism then released a leaked CIA document which estimated that civilians killed in Pakistan since drone strikes began there were much higher than previously realised. The document details 75 drone attacks carried out in Pakistan between 2006 and 2009 by the CIA and a further 5 attacks by Nato or other unspecified forces.

Of 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes outlined in the document, at least 147 of the dead are clearly stated to be civilian victims, 94 of those are said to be children.

Which begs the question how and why we should trust the assurance of an administration that has continuously disregarding international law, executes foreign citizens without trial or cooperation from the nation in question and yet use the rhetoric of human right while aping a grotesque pantomime of diplomacy.

World News 25/9/2013

Last updated: 15:35 GMT

UNITED NATIONS: The 68th Session got underway with an address from Barrack Obama which will be further discussed here.

The Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff strong criticised the US and the NSA at the beginning of her address to the UN calling it an “intrusion” and calling it a “breach of international law”.

“The right to security of a country’s citizens can never be insured by violating the fundamental human and civil rights of another country’s…” – Rousseff (03:30)

This session saw the much anticipated first speech by new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. His tone was not as conciliatory as perhaps was expected however it was not aggressive either. He highlighted that Iran wished to work to create a less militarised, more stable world but also highlighted what he felt were injustices being perpetrated against Iran such has the harsh international trade sanctions. Rouhani argued forcefully against these sanctions, saying that they violated inalienable human rights and caused widespread suffering.

Leaders of India and Pakistan and said to meet sometime today to discuss the situations in Kashmir after fresh protests and instability in the past week. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif will meet while the UN General Assembly is ongoing in New York this week.

PAKISTAN: Yesterday’s 7.8 earthquake centred on southwest Pakistan has killed at least 370 people and created a new island. The army has been sent to the region to assist in rescue efforts.

Image from http://www.express.pk

KENYA: At the beginning of the fourth day of conflict in the capital city of Nairobi there were accusations found on Twitter once again. An account linked to al-Shabab, the militant group responsible for this attack which has left at least 61 people dead, claims that Kenyan security forces used chemical weapons to end the siege and have now collapsed a floor to hide the evidence, killing 137 hostages.

Government spokesman Manoah Esipisu denied this and told the AP that the official civilian death toll remains 61 and that no chemical weapons were used. He confirmed that there was a collapse inside the shopping mall but claimed it was caused by a fire started by the militants, they believe 8 civilian hostages could be under the rubble and possible an unknown number of militants.

MALDIVES: There is global concern as a Maldivian court postpones the presidential election scheduled for September 28.

ZIMBABWE: Over 80 elephants were poisoned with cyanide in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest game park. Poachers poisoned the watering hole in order to get easy access to the ivory. Other animals were also killed but the park does not yet have definite numbers.

UN Human Rights Council sees Controversy

The United Nations saw the 27th Regular Meeting of the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council

Lithuania, just beginning their presidency of the European Council, opened discussions with a general statement of the EU position on Human Rights. The delegation from Ireland put forward a draft motion about maintaining pluralist civil society.

The delegations began to grow more adversarial Allegations of forced sterilizations of Tamils were issued against Sri Lanka. Myanmar was criticised for its discrimination and the violence against Rohingya Muslims.

Then a representative of Human Right’s Watch began accusing Egyptian human rights activist, Mona Seif, of not being eligible for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (MEA), Egypt raised point of order that it was not relevant to the agenda. America disagreed, Cuba backed up Egypt as did China, UK went with the US then Pakistan supported Egypt. Human Rights Watch went on to call Mona Seif a “terrorist supporter”.

This was not unexpected as the last few months have seen increased controversy over Seif’s nomination following the publicising of Tweets where she celebrating the sabotage of the Egyptian pipeline bringing gas to Israel and the burning of an Israeli flag. Seif defended herself by saying:

“One of the rights that we, the young people of Egypt, have succeeded in seizing is the right to insult our own government and to insult anyone whose policies are bad for our people. We insist on this right.”

However many feel it would damage the reputation of the prize as her Tweets “publicly voiced blatantly violent views”

Another NGO raised the issue of the Falun Gong in China and their persecution. China objected calling the Falun Gong an “evil cult” which had been outlawed and denying that this was relevant to the agenda. While supporting this point of order from China, Cuba wandered from the point to criticise Israeli violence against Palestinians using the word “genocide” for which the Americans and UK delegations criticised the Cubans.

World News 24/9/2012

13:30 GMT

PAKISTAN: An earthquake of 7.8 magnitude has hit south-west Pakistan with tremors being felt as far away as New Delhi. US Geological Survey has issued a “RED” alert which means estimated fatalities of over 1,000 and damages costing over $1 billion. Updates will follow via Twitter.

WALES: Welsh police have arrested 4 men in connection with a slavery ring in the UK. The investigation followsedthe discovery of Darrell Simester, 43, who had been missing for 13 years and had apparently been living and working in the area.

UNITED NATIONS: The UN meet today in New York. President Obama will give a welcome address followed by a statement by new Iranian President Rouhani.

The 24th Regular session the Human Rights Council are meeting in Geneva today to raise issues of international human rights in relation racism, racial discrimination or xenophobia. There has been much heated debate so far which will be discussed further here.

KENYA: The Westgate situation continues. On Saturday a group of up to 20 militants attacked the shopping mall in the capital Naiobi with guns and grenades. At least 62 people are dead and another are missing and may either have been killed or are being held hostage inside the centre.

There are mixed messages being release by multiple news sources regarding whether any Americans or British citizens were involved. There are also questions asked about how many hostages are still being held inside.

A British security source says it is “a possibility” that Samantha Lewthwaite, a UK citizen, was involved with the militants, but Kenyan President has denied this, saying that all the attackers were men. 

GREECE: New strikes have begun all over the country following further threats of public sector job cuts. The strike of public sector workers has effectively shut down schools and left hospitals with a skeleton staff. 

SYRIA: Spanish journalist, Marc Marginedas, has gone missing from the city of Hama in Syria. His newspaper, the Barcelona-based El Periódico revealed that he was kidnapped by Islamist fighters but that no group has taken responsibility yet.

RUSSIA: Edward Snowden’s lawyer gave an exclusive interview to RT today, which can be viewed here.

CHINA: 14 baby panda cubs were shown to the public today. 14 cubs were artificially bred in the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base in south-west China’s Sichuan province.