Inter Press Service » Press Freedom http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Thu, 17 Apr 2014 10:40:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 In Venezuela, a Popular Uprising, or Class Warfare? http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/venezuela-popular-uprising-class-warfare/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=venezuela-popular-uprising-class-warfare http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/venezuela-popular-uprising-class-warfare/#comments Thu, 27 Mar 2014 17:48:36 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133263 This much is known: at least 33 people are dead and 461 have been wounded. The rest – questions of who, why and what next for Venezuela – has largely been a matter of speculation. Earlier this month, a group of United Nations independent experts asked the government of Nicolas Maduro to clarify allegations of […]

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Faces of mothers whose children were killed in criminal violence peer out from walls in Caracas. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Credit: Fidel Márquez /IPS

Faces of mothers whose children were killed in criminal violence peer out from walls in Caracas. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Credit: Fidel Márquez /IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 27 2014 (IPS)

This much is known: at least 33 people are dead and 461 have been wounded. The rest – questions of who, why and what next for Venezuela – has largely been a matter of speculation.

Earlier this month, a group of United Nations independent experts asked the government of Nicolas Maduro to clarify allegations of arbitrary arrests, intimidation of journalists and the abuse of dissidents in what experts say is the country’s worst political turmoil in over 10 years.“These are not random acts, this is a deliberate campaign to cut social links between the government and its mass base by blocking the delivery of social services." -- James Petras

Beginning in early February as sporadic student demonstrations, protests are now a daily occurrence, drawing anywhere from 500 to 5,000 people who say they have taken to the streets against perennial food shortages, soaring inflation and a steep rise in crime, including 21,000 homicides in 2012 alone according to the Venezuela Violence Observatory, representing one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Although initially peaceful, the protests recently turned deadly, with civilians hurling Molotov cocktails from behind their barricades and the National Guard dispatching units decked out in full riot gear to meet them.

For several weeks the media has portrayed the situation as a democratic struggle for human rights, including the rights to freedom of speech and political assembly.

In a Mar. 18 statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Maduro’s government to “uphold its international legal obligations to respect human rights, and, specifically, to end abuses against demonstrators.”

Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at HRW, told IPS the situation is “grave”, particularly the “abuses being committed by security forces, including excessive use of force against demonstrators.”

But other rights groups in and around Caracas, as well as some commentators in the U.S. and beyond, say the violence in Venezuela is neither democratic nor spontaneous, but a carefully orchestrated effort by the middle- and upper-classes to destabilise the revolutionary process set in motion by former President Hugo Chavez, which has long been a thorn in the side of the wealthy.

Silence in the barrios

A Mar. 25 statement signed by over 30 independent Venezuelan human rights activists says protests have largely been confined to affluent sectors in eight of the country’s 335 municipalities.

These neighbourhoods, home to mostly upper- and middle-class Venezuelans who constitute an electoral minority, are now the sites of makeshift barricades where “cables, barbed wire, felled trees, rocks, and spilt grease oil…mix with disused furniture, tires and rubbish that are lit on fire,” according to a recent study.

“The covers of public drains have been lifted, leaving holes in which at least two motorcyclists have died,” added the study.

Contrary to news reports that most of the 33 deaths have occurred at the hands of security forces, the study found that 17 of the victims died at the street barricades, including a pregnant woman who was shot Monday when the bus she was riding in was halted by protesters and its passengers forced to disembark.

“The people you are seeing on the streets constitute the hard-line of the right-wing opposition who decided that they did not want to wait till the next election to get rid of the government,” Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington DC-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research, told IPS over the phone from Lima.

Regardless of their political affiliation, the protesters’ demands seem perfectly reasonable on paper: a reduction of the inflation rate that has nearly doubled to 57.3 percent since Maduro took the helm last April, and access to basic supplies and groceries.

Economic growth slowed from 5.6 percent in 2012 to to one percent in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund, partly accounting for the bare shelves around the country.

But Weisbrot says the protesters are more sheltered from such scarcities than their counterparts in the sprawling barrios of Caracas, home to 50 percent of the city’s 3.8 million inhabitants.

“Demonstrators hailing from neighbourhoods like Los Palos Grandes have servants to wait in line for them at the supermarket, they have access to goods that most Venezuelans do not,” he said, recounting scenes from his recent trip to Venezuela’s capital.

Those sectors that bear the brunt of rising prices and severe shortages are giving the demonstrations a wide berth. A resident of the Petare slum, which hugs the eastern rim of Caracas, recently told reporters about the unrest, “It’s rich people trying to get back lost economic perks. The slums won’t join them.”

Indeed, economic analysts have suggested that the protesters are more aggrieved by the 4.1 percent jump in monthly recreational costs, and the 3.9 percent spike in hotel and restaurant prices, than by inflated healthcare expenses or the cost of flour.

Targeting the poor

Some sources say the above analysis is borne out by protesters’ systematic targeting of public welfare institutions, utilised by the country’s most destitute and marginalised groups, in a deliberate attempt to weaken the nerve center of the Socialist state.

“There have been attacks on government supermarkets that sell food at subsidised prices, on clinics where Cuban doctors provide free medical care, and on educational facilities,” James Petras, professor emeritus of sociology at the Binghamton University in New York, told IPS.

A few nights ago demonstrators torched an experimental university in the western city of San Cristobal, cradle of the protest movement, where several hundred low-income Venezuelan students were receiving subsidised education.

Over the last 12 weeks, Petras says, protesters have also targeted “many centres of social gathering and recreational activities, electrical grids – especially those that supply areas where support for Chavez is strong – municipal buildings, local banks that supply microcredit loans to small-scale enterprises, and the list goes on.”

Fire bombings, arson and other acts of sabotage have cost the country about 10 billion dollars in damages, the government said last Friday in a statement that lambasted such tactics as “vandalism” and “terrorism”.

“These are not random acts, this is a deliberate campaign to cut social links between the government and its mass base by blocking the delivery of social services,” Petras said.

“The right wing is very conscious of the link between welfare programmes and the government. This is why there has been no targeting of big businesses, multinational banks or other institutions of the upper classes.”

The government, meanwhile, is sandwiched between international pressure to release the roughly 1,800 jailed protesters and rein in its security forces, and a growing movement in and outside of Venezuela calling for swift action against what they say is a wave of fascism, in which a privileged minority is threatening to destabilise a government that has won 18 of the last 19 elections.

*Correction: March 28, 2014 — An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that protesters in Venezuela fired bullets from behind their barricades. Documented evidence only shows civilians throwing Molotov cocktails at security forces.

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Increased Instability Predicted for Egypt http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/increased-instability-predicted-egypt/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=increased-instability-predicted-egypt http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/increased-instability-predicted-egypt/#comments Wed, 26 Mar 2014 00:02:50 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133224 International human rights groups have strongly denounced Monday’s sentencing by an Egyptian court of 529 Islamists to death for a riot in which one policeman was killed. Egypt specialists here say the sentences, which are widely seen as the latest in a series of steps taken by the authorities to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, as […]

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The killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters has only strengthened resolve within the party to resist the current regime. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS

The killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters has only strengthened resolve within the party to resist the current regime. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 26 2014 (IPS)

International human rights groups have strongly denounced Monday’s sentencing by an Egyptian court of 529 Islamists to death for a riot in which one policeman was killed.

Egypt specialists here say the sentences, which are widely seen as the latest in a series of steps taken by the authorities to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other dissident forces opposed to the military-backed government, are certain to fuel increased radicalisation in the Arab world’s most populous nation.“What all this repression creates is a very deep well of anger.” -- Michelle Dunne

“What all this repression creates is a very deep well of anger,” said Michelle Dunne, an Egypt specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-chair of the Working Group on Egypt, a coalition of neo-conservative and liberal internationalist Middle East analysts who have informally advised the administration of President Barack Obama since the dawn of the Arab spring in late 2010.

“Where these kinds of actions are taking Egypt is very worrisome. …We now have an ally that might be headed toward serious and persistent instability,” according to Dunne, who noted that another court sentenced a group of 17 university students for rioting just a few days ago. Although no one was killed or seriously injured in that incident, each of the students received 14 years in prison.

Indeed, while the administration of President Barack Obama, which Monday described the mass death sentences as “defy(ing) logic,” had hoped to fully normalise military ties that were partially suspended after the July coup against President Mohamed Morsi, the latest court actions – along with the designation by the military-backed government of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation – would appear to make that much less likely.

The death sentences, which Amnesty International and the New York Times described as “grotesque” and “preposterous”, respectively, followed a one-day trial before three judges in Minya in which most of the defendants were absent or had no or very limited legal representation. As noted by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the prosecution failed to put forward evidence implicating any individual defendant.

“The Minya court’s sentencing more than 500 people to death for the killing of a police officer highlights the fact that no Egyptian court has even questioned a single police officer for the killing of well over 1,000 largely peaceful protesters since Jul. 3 [when the military ousted Morsi],” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director.

“This trial is just one of dozens of mass trials taking place every day across Egypt, riddled with serious due process violations and resulting in outrageous sentences that represent serious miscarriages of justice,” she noted.

The defendants were all indicted for alleged participation in a riot in Minya, a Brotherhood stronghold in central Egypt, last August, some six weeks after a military coup against the country’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The riot, which followed two massacres of hundreds of peaceful Brotherhood protestors in Cairo, resulted in the destruction of several churches and police stations and the death of one police officer.

Analysts here said the mass sentencing, the largest in modern Egyptian history, may have been motivated by a desire on the specific court’s part to retaliate against Morsi’s efforts to gain greater control over the judiciary or by its acquiescence to instructions by the police or interior ministry to make an example of the case as part of a broader strategy to intimidate the opposition. Both the verdicts and the sentences are subject to appeal.

If, indeed, the intent of the verdicts and other repressive measures is to restore stability to Egypt, the strategy does not appear to be working, according to Dunne, who Monday released a new report documenting both the growing repression and the rise in violence directed against the government.

“Egyptians have suffered through the most intense human rights abuses and terrorism in their recent history in the eight months since the military ousted then president Mohamed Morsi,” according to the report, “Egypt’s Unprecedented Instability by the Numbers.”

Citing statistics by Egyptian rights groups and other sources, the report found that a total of 3,143 people have been killed as a result of political violence between Jul. 3 last year and the end of January. Of the total, at least 2,528 civilians and 60 police were killed in political protests and clashes, and another 281 others are estimated to have been killed in terrorist attacks.

Some 16,400 people have been arrested during political events, while another 2,590 political leaders – the vast majority associated with the Brotherhood – have been rounded up and remain in detention, the report said.

All of these tallies, according to the report, show that current level of repression actually exceeds the scale reached under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who tried to crush the Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s by rounding up hundreds of members and executing a dozen of their leaders, and in the aftermath of the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

The report also found, the rate of terrorist incidents – and the deaths they’ve inflicted — in the seven months that followed the Jul. 3 coup have also surpassed the rates reached between 1993 and 1995, when more than 300 people, including police, extremists, civilians and tourists fell victim annually to the war between the security forces and Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Group) of which the current Al Qaeda chief, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was a top leader.

“(M)ilitants have shown that they are capable of inflicting far more damage should they choose to do so,” according to the Carnegie report, which noted that insurgents have “shown increasing sophistication” in carrying out attacks against police officers, soldiers, and high-level government officials but have not yet shown interest in inflicting mass casualties.

The latest developments appear to have put the Obama administration, which suspended joint exercises with Egypt immediately after the coup and subsequently suspended delivery of some weapons systems, including attack helicopters and tanks, to coax the military into pursuing a less repressive policy toward the Brotherhood, in particular.

Saudi Arabia, with which Obama hopes to patch up relations badly strained by his failure both to support former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the outset of the Arab Spring and to intervene more aggressively on the side of rebels in Syria when he visits Riyadh later this week, has strongly backed the military’s crackdown against the Brotherhood and are expected to press their guest to do likewise.

The Saudis have not only provided billions of dollars in budgetary support for the regime; they have also offered to make up for any weapons withheld by Washington by buying comparable systems from other arms suppliers, including Russia, on Egypt’s behalf.

“The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a basic disagreement about what’s going on in Egypt,” according to Dunne. “The Saudis would say whatever heavy-handed measures the authorities are taking is necessary to defeat terrorism. Most U.S. officials says these tactics are causing terrorism and potentially driving Egypt toward persistent instability.”

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Rapping to Uganda’s News Beat http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/rapping-ugandas-news-bulletins/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rapping-ugandas-news-bulletins http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/rapping-ugandas-news-bulletins/#comments Tue, 18 Mar 2014 08:41:57 +0000 Amy Fallon http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132936 “People in Ukraine took over power. “Celebrated a few days, then the party went sour…” raps Sharon Bwogi, aka Lady Slyke, on NewzBeat, a weekend show that airs on Uganda’s channel NTV in both English and the local language Luganda.  It might sound strange — hearing a news item on the political situation in Ukraine being rapped. But […]

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Daniel Kisekka (l), aka Survivor and Sharon Bwogi (r), aka Lady Slyke, are presenters on NewzBeat, a Ugandan news programme that raps the news. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

Daniel Kisekka (l), aka Survivor and Sharon Bwogi (r), aka Lady Slyke, are presenters on NewzBeat, a Ugandan news programme that raps the news. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

By Amy Fallon
KAMPALA, Mar 18 2014 (IPS)

“People in Ukraine took over power.

“Celebrated a few days, then the party went sour…” raps Sharon Bwogi, aka Lady Slyke, on NewzBeat, a weekend show that airs on Uganda’s channel NTV in both English and the local language Luganda. 

It might sound strange — hearing a news item on the political situation in Ukraine being rapped. But a new show in this East African nation, where half of its 36.4 million people are below the age of 15 and media censorship restricts the information people receive, hopes to grab the audience’s attention through “rhyme and reason”.

NewzBeat airs on Uganda’s free-to air channel NTV and is recorded in an independent studio in a suburb outside the country’s capital, Kampala. The team records one segment between four and five minutes – which takes about half an hour to film using two cameras, a green screen and a few other pieces of equipment – every week.

Each episode includes a mix of four or five international and local stories and includes a human interest, sport and entertainment piece.

Bwogi co-hosts hosts NewzBeat with Daniel Kisekka, aka Survivor, and the show also features 13-year-old anchor MC Loy. She is still in school but acts as the show’s “special correspondent”, making her one of, if not the youngest, “rapping journalist”.

She recently filed a piece on female boxers in Kampala’s Katanga slum for International Women’s Day. The programme, “borrowed” from hip-hop mad Senegal in West Africa, has only been on air for two weeks in Uganda.

“Right now it’s a mixed bag. Obviously the hip-hop fans are crazy about it but there are people who don’t understand it because hip-hop is not big here, it’s just getting there,” Kisekka, a hip-hop veteran who’s been rapping since 1988, tells IPS.

“[But] it encompasses so many things. It’s informative, it’s entertaining, it’s educational.”

He claims most youth aged under 30 are not interested in news and current affairs.

“It has been like that for such a long time,” says Kisekka. “But hip-hop is very popular with them. When we do a hip-hop show they say ‘I didn’t know this happened’. It’s only because we put it in the language they understand.”

Arnold Ntume, 23, stumbled across NewzBeat while channel surfing and is now a regular viewer.

“I was like ‘oh what’s this?’” the videographer tells IPS.

“It’s a different idea in Uganda. I learn more. And there’s some news that we don’t get on the other stations, mostly stories about our real lives.”

Uganda does not have a great track record when it comes to media freedom, which could explain why news consumption among young people may be low.

Last May, two privately-owned newspapers and radio stations were shut down by police for 11 days after reporting on a letter, allegedly written by an army general, that claimed that President Yoweri Museveni was grooming his son to succeed him.

According to the Press Freedom Index Report 2013, released by the Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda earlier this month, space for reporters to operate freely in the country has continued to shrink.

Senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Africa division Maria Burnett tells IPS that over the years the organisation has documented and raised concerns about the “ways in which the Ugandan government limits free expression under the dubious guise of keeping public order and security.

“We have documented intimidation and harassment of journalists and station managers, especially those who are critical of the government, present opposing political views, or expose state wrongdoing, such as corruption or failure to investigate crimes outside Kampala.

“Uganda’s media regulatory system has shown clear partisan tendencies on several occasions. This is all very troubling because the bedrock of free speech is the right to criticise those in powerful positions,” Burnett says.

NewzBeat is upfront about not being objective but also stresses, speaking in rap terms, “the street party is the only party we affiliate ourselves with.”

Kisekka says the show aims to cover issues that aren’t predominantly given air time on other stations.

“There are some things that are never covered [in Uganda], like corruption. There are some topics that are off limit but we have to cover them,” he says.

Uganda has been generating international headlines of late, after Museveni signed a draconian anti-gay law and another bill which supposedly criminalised women wearing miniskirts and led to attacks on females across the country.

NewzBeat delved into both issues.

“We talked a little about it [the anti-gay law]. We don’t want to overdo it because we know how people feel about this thing,” says Bwogi.

Other items that have been covered include Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s 90th birthday, the trouble in Central African Republic and South Sudan, the Sochi Winter Olympics and climate change.

Once the team decides on the editorial lineup, the creative process starts.

“I love it because I’m doing rhyme but I’m telling a story,” Bwogi, who started rapping in 1999, teaches poetry and song writing and is a fashion designer, tells IPS.

“It was what we were already doing but it was just a matter of getting different topics from different countries.”

She says although the news is delivered in hip-hop the audience can still understand it.

“We don’t do it so fast like it’s a race,” says Bwogi.

“People like it, they say it’s something they’ve never seen it before. Some are just getting into it.”

Kisekka says writing the material is often difficult.

“You have to obey the rules of hip-hop. The material has to remain the same. You can’t change the news,” he says.

However, Kisekka says, “I think the process [of writing the script] is better than the end finished product.”

Kisekka says the team hopes to increase its human interest coverage in the future.

“We expect to get sponsors and get more reporters and then expand it to beyond four [minutes], so we can have people who go to northern Uganda [and other places] and get the stories from the people,” he says.

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Italy Closes Its Eyes to Sealed Mouths http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/italy-closes-eyes-sealed-mouths/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=italy-closes-eyes-sealed-mouths http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/italy-closes-eyes-sealed-mouths/#comments Tue, 11 Mar 2014 09:23:47 +0000 Silvia Giannelli http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132598 “We walk inside an area that is 128 steps long and seven-and-a-half steps wide. This is the path they made for us: two metres of bars over our heads, and upon the bars, two metres of plexiglas. We are like canaries in a cage, like birds of different races all in one cage.” Ahmed (name […]

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Migrants being transferred from the Lampedusa centre. Credit: Caritas Italiana.

Migrants being transferred from the Lampedusa centre. Credit: Caritas Italiana.

By Silvia Giannelli
ROME, Mar 11 2014 (IPS)

“We walk inside an area that is 128 steps long and seven-and-a-half steps wide. This is the path they made for us: two metres of bars over our heads, and upon the bars, two metres of plexiglas. We are like canaries in a cage, like birds of different races all in one cage.”

Ahmed (name changed) is from Africa but he has been living in Italy for 22 years now. On Dec. 20 the police stopped him and asked for his documents. Ahmed does not have them, and so has been kept in the Ponte Galeria Centre for Identification and Expulsion (CIE) of Rome since then. “It’s been two months now, but it feels like two centuries,” he told IPS on phone from the centre."You are lucky if you get out of here with 100 grams of your brain left.” -- Ahmed, a migrant from Africa

Last month, the Caritas Italiana and Migrantes Foundation published their annual dossier on migration, which states that “the true reform of the repatriation system would be the closure of the centres.” Oliviero Forti, director of immigration issues at Caritas explained to IPS the reasons behind such a strong recommendation.

“Helped by Prof. Roberto Cherchi, constitutional lawyer, we came to the conclusion that there is a problem of constitutional legitimacy connected to those places. Precisely for the way they are conceived, built and managed, it is easy to slip into gross violation of human rights.”

The CIE is a part of the Italian system of reception and identification for migrants. Besides, there are the centres of reception (CDA is the Italian acronym), the centres of reception for asylum seekers and refugees (CARA) and the centres of first aid and reception (CSPA). The CSPA in Lampedusa, Sicily, caused outrage when a national newscast circulated a video of naked migrants sprayed for scabies in the December cold.

The CIE are centres for migrants who have no resident permits or identity documents, and for those who have received a deportation order. Yet, as the Caritas and Migrantes dossier reports, the available places are far fewer than the number of migrants in such a state.

As a consequence, placement is decided on a case-by-case basis, following such informal criteria as whether the person is considered a danger to society and whether the chances of identifying and deporting the person are high. This brings disparity in treatment often based on nationality.

Khalid Chaouki, Italian MP from the Democratic Party, visited the Ponte Galeria CIE following a protest by some inmates who literally sewed their mouths shut in January to draw attention to the conditions at the Rome centre. “The situation there was even worse than in Lampedusa, because it is in fact a prison outside the law, where people who often haven’t committed any crime are detained for months,” he told IPS.

Migrants who should be in other centres are often kept in the CIE. “Unfortunately we often found women victims of trafficking, minors, stateless people and also EU citizens, Romanians for instance,” Gabriella Guido, spokesperson for LasciateCIEntrare (Let Us In) told IPS. LasciateCIEntrare is a campaign that began in 2011 after then Italian minister of the interior banned media access to the centres.

That was the year that the maximum holding period was extended from six to 18 months. “Often the problem with the identification is that the foreign consulates are not very cooperative, but if a migrant is not recognised in the first 30 to 60 days, it is not going to happen in 18 months either. The extension of the permanence only increased the stress, the riots and the episodes of self-harm inside the CIE.”

“Nobody sleeps here,” Ahmed said, “apart from the ones who take sleeping pills. Many withdraw into themselves. There is a guy who doesn’t speak any more, and one who talks to himself. You are lucky if you get out of here with 100 grams of your brain left.”

Media access to the CIE now depends on permission from the prefect. Forti says the reception system needs deeper reform. “Regularisation of migrants, fair salaries, legal protection of foreign citizens, all of this means granting a correct culture of work in Italy, both for migrants and for Italian citizens.”

But there is political opposition to this idea. Nicola Molteni, Italian MP for the Northern League told IPS that Italy has been a victim of the “indulgent political behaviour of the last two governments” and that it has been abandoned by the European Union.

“We have 3.2 million unemployed, one million of unemployed youth, and we must give a job to our people first. With these numbers we don’t even need regular migration, not to mention the illegal one, which often leads migrants into the hands of organised crime.”

Molteni and his party defend the CIE. “They have a functionality and necessity which is fundamental,” he said. He says the problem is “the complete lack of a push-back policy, of a control of the borders and of international cooperation with the North African countries to prevent migration.”

At the other end of the political spectrum, Chaouki says the CIE centres are an ideological flag of the Northern League, that have solved no problems. “We need to develop alternatives to those centres, we need to open new regular channels of access to Italy, new procedures of reception and also of deportation that are not harmful to people,” he told IPS.

According to the Caritas dossier, of the 35,872 expulsion proceedings in 2012, 18,592 resulted in actual expulsions. In all 7,944 foreign citizens passed through the CIE, of which only half were eventually deported.

“Despite the huge amount of money spent to maintain these places, they don’t even serve the purpose they were created for. Our conclusion is that their function is rather to placate the anxiety of those who perceive migrants as a threat to security,” said Forti.

Ahmed’s voice becomes harsh over the phone: “We are losing our minds here. If an average Italian could see us now, he would think that is better to keep us locked inside. But they do nothing, because they see nothing.”

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What’s Going on in the Gulf? Unsurprisingly, It’s Probably About Iran http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/whats-going-gulf-unsurprisingly-probably-iran/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=whats-going-gulf-unsurprisingly-probably-iran http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/whats-going-gulf-unsurprisingly-probably-iran/#comments Mon, 10 Mar 2014 18:42:20 +0000 Derek Davison http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132625 Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain all recalled their ambassadors from Qatar on Wednesday, citing Qatar’s alleged support for organisations and individuals that threaten “the security and stability of the Gulf states” and for “hostile media.” This came right on the heels of a U.A.E. court sentencing Qatari doctor Mahmoud al-Jaidah to seven […]

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By Derek Davison
WASHINGTON, Mar 10 2014 (IPS)

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain all recalled their ambassadors from Qatar on Wednesday, citing Qatar’s alleged support for organisations and individuals that threaten “the security and stability of the Gulf states” and for “hostile media.”

This came right on the heels of a U.A.E. court sentencing Qatari doctor Mahmoud al-Jaidah to seven years in prison on Monday, for the crime of aiding a banned opposition group called al-Islah, which the U.A.E. government alleges has operational ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

This was a coordinated move, led by the Saudis, to punish Qatar for supporting Muslim Brotherhood interests around the Middle East (and also for assuming a more prominent role in pan-Arab politics in general), but beyond that it reflects the Saudis’ deep and ongoing concern about an Iranian resurgence in the Gulf.

The North Dome-South Pars Field, straddling Qatari and Iranian waters. Source: Wikipedia

The North Dome-South Pars Field, straddling Qatari and Iranian waters. Source: Wikipedia

From the Saudi perspective the Qataris have been punching above their proper weight, and making nice with the wrong people.

Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood are clearly the public justification for this row; it is no mystery why Saudi Arabia followed up Wednesday’s diplomatic swipe at Qatar with a decision on Friday to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

The Saudis, while they share certain conservative Islamic principles with the Brotherhood, are more than a bit put off by the group’s opposition to dynastic rule. Despite that feature of Brotherhood’s ideology, though, the very dynastic Qatari monarchy has been a strong supporter of Brotherhood-allied movements throughout the Middle East and North Africa, in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt (especially), and Syria.

Their rationale for doing so has been two-fold: one, they feel that supporting the Brotherhood abroad should insulate them from the Brotherhood at home, and two, Qatar has been predicting that the Brotherhood would be the main beneficiary of the Arab Spring.

Had they been right in their prediction, Qatar’s regional influence would have been significantly increased as a result, but by the looks of things, they were wrong. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is now outlawed in Egypt, its Ennahda Party in Tunisia has voluntarily agreed to give up power, and it has lost most of its influence within the Syrian opposition.

Last November’s reorganisation of Syrian opposition groups from the Qatar-financed Syrian Islamic Liberation Front to the Saudi-backed Islamic Front can be seen as evidence of the Brotherhood’s, and thus Qatar’s, loss of stature.

A related complaint that these countries have with Qatar is with the country’s Al Jazeera television news network (the “hostile media”).

Al Jazeera has continued to provide media access to Muslim Brotherhood figures in Egypt even as that organization was outlawed by the interim Egyptian government, to the extent that several Al Jazeera journalists are currently on trial in Egypt for aiding the Brotherhood.

These countries are also angry about the fact that Al Jazeera continues to give airtime to Brotherhood-affiliated cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Qaradawi is actually wanted for extradition to Egypt over his comments about the coup that removed the Brotherhood from power there, and he recently lambasted, on Al Jazeera’s airwaves, the U.A.E., for “fighting everything Islamic.”

The reported pressure being placed on Saudi and Emirati journalists working in Qatar to quit their jobs and return home undoubtedly has something to do with the overall irritation with Qatari media.

However, there is another factor at play here: Qatar’s close – too close for Saudi comfort – ties with Iran (the real “organisation” that threatens Gulf – i.e., Saudi – security), which has to do largely with natural gas. Qatar shares its windfall natural gas reserves with Iran, in what’s known as the North Dome/South Pars Field in the Persian Gulf.

The International Energy Agency estimates that it is the largest natural gas field on the planet. Qatar has been extracting gas from its side of the field considerably faster than Iran has been, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, the North Dome side of the field (the part in Qatari waters) was discovered in the early 1970s, whereas the South Pars side was only discovered about 20 years later, so Qatar had a lot of time to get a head start on developing the field.

For another thing, the North Dome field is pretty much the only game left in Qatar, whose Dukhan oil field is clearly on the decline. Qatar has a huge incentive, then, to develop as much of the North Dome as they can as fast as they can in order to fund their numerous development projects.

There is a potential conflict here, though. Natural gas, like any other gas, tends to flow toward areas of low pressure. So when one end of a gas field is being drained of its gas faster than the other end, some of the gas in the less exploited end may flow to the more exploited end.

This is fine when an entire field is controlled by one country, but in this case, one can easily envision a scenario in which, several years from now, the Iranian government is accusing Qatar of siphoning off its gas.

What this means is that Qatar has a strong incentive to maintain friendly relations with Iran, and on this they have considerable disagreement with their Saudi neighbors.

To Saudi Arabia, Iran is a potential regional rival and must be countered at every turn; their opposition to easing international sanctions against Iran, for example, is not so much about the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon as it is about fear of Iran escaping from the economic cage in which those sanctions have trapped it.

The proxy war taking place between Saudi and Iranian interests in Syria is the most obvious example of the rivalry between the two nations, and the Saudi move against Qatar can be seen as another front in that proxy war.

Qatar, although it has backed the Syrian opposition, sees things differently where Iran is concerned; in January, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammad Al-Attiyah publicly called for an “inclusive” approach to Iran, which he argued “has a crucial role” in ending the crisis in Syria.

There is enough historic tension between the Qataris and the Saudis for this kind of disagreement over foreign affairs to provide the basis for a wider fracturing of relations.

For its part, Bahrain has every reason to go along with a Saudi diplomatic move against a suspected regional ally of Iran; after all, it was Saudi intervention that saved Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family from a Shiʿa-led rebellion in 2011, a rebellion that Bahrain accuses Iran of fomenting.

Look, though, at the two GCC members that did not pull their ambassadors from Qatar: Kuwait, where the Brotherhood’s Hadas Party is out of favour, but whose relations with Iran are “excellent”; and Oman, where Sultan Qaboos has been critical of the Brotherhood, but who is close enough to Iran to have served as a go-between for back-channel U.S.-Iran negotiations.

If the issue were really Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood, and not its relationship with Iran, both of these countries may well have joined the others in recalling their ambassadors.

The one country for which this explanation does not make sense is the U.A.E., whose relations with Iran are improving after the two countries recently reached an accord over the disposition of three disputed Gulf islands. In this case, it may really be that Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood, and especially the Jaidah case and Qaradawi’s criticisms, motivated their action.

Qatar’s failed bet on the Muslim Brotherhood made this the right time for the Saudis to move against them, but Saudi fears about an Iranian resurgence may well have been the real reason for their action.

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Russians Back Crimea Action, They’d Better http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/russians-back-crimea-action-theyd-better/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=russians-back-crimea-action-theyd-better http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/russians-back-crimea-action-theyd-better/#comments Thu, 06 Mar 2014 07:11:06 +0000 Pavol Stracansky http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132495 Elena Smolenskaya doesn’t hesitate a second when asked what she thinks about the Russian military intervention in Crimea. The 23-year-old Moscow student is convinced that President Vladimir Putin had no choice but to order troops into the country. “The military action was right to protect Russian people in Crimea. This is why the majority of […]

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A post on the Russia-Ukraine border. Demarcation of the border is often flimsy. Credit: Susan Astray/CC2.0.

A post on the Russia-Ukraine border. Demarcation of the border is often flimsy. Credit: Susan Astray/CC2.0.

By Pavol Stracansky
MOSCOW, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)

Elena Smolenskaya doesn’t hesitate a second when asked what she thinks about the Russian military intervention in Crimea. The 23-year-old Moscow student is convinced that President Vladimir Putin had no choice but to order troops into the country.

“The military action was right to protect Russian people in Crimea. This is why the majority of Russian people support what President Putin is doing. He is protecting Russian interests,” she told IPS.“The adoption of more restrictive laws is a possibility against the current backdrop of anti-Western hysteria in state-sponsored and loyalist media.”

Elena’s view is far from uncommon – especially in areas outside the country’s major cities where support for Putin has always been highest – and appears to be growing every day.

Before the Ukrainian revolution polls in Russia had shown that the majority of Russians were against intervention in their western neighbour’s affairs, but the mood appears to have shifted in the last few weeks.

While there were demonstrations in Moscow against the occupation at the weekend – swiftly suppressed with the arrest of hundreds – there were much larger counter protests in support of it. In Russia’s second city, St Petersburg, more than 15,000 turned up at a rally supporting the military operation in Crimea.

Local analysts say that many Russians see the new government in Kiev as strongly anti-Russian and made up of dangerous neo-fascists. This image was reinforced when soon after Moscow-friendly former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, its new leaders proposed a law banning Russian as an official language.

In a survey by the independent Russian Levada polling group at the end of February, 43 percent of respondents described the Ukrainian protests and subsequent revolution as a violent coup, and almost a quarter categorised it as a civil war. A poll by the same organisation showed that a third thought that the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime was led by Ukrainian nationalists supported by Western secret service agents.

Clashes in Eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian locals and supporters of the Kiev government after the revolution reinforced these views.

As attention turned to Crimea, which was part of Russia until 1954 when then Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev made it part of Ukraine republic within the Soviet Union, many agreed with Kremlin claims that military intervention was a necessity to protect the almost 60 percent of Crimea’s population that is ethnic Russian, and help protect a people and culture which many in Russia see as their own.

Vasily Gomelsky, a 56-year-old clerk in Moscow, told IPS: “President Putin is right and I completely support him. He just wanted to protect the Orthodox [Christian] civilisation that has been there for hundreds of years. We were all afraid of what might happen if neo-fascists [in Kiev] take over there.”

Russian media, much of which is formally or informally state-controlled, has widely pushed the same view.

The Komsomolskaya Pravda national daily carried an interview with a 20-year-old Russian activist present at the pro-EU Euromaidan demonstrations in Kiev earlier who claimed that there were “German and American mercenaries” among the protestors leading younger members of the Ukrainian radical far right Pravy Sektor movement.

Criticism of the occupation in any media has been scarce. Where it has occurred it has, in some cases, been swiftly dealt with by the authorities.

Prof. Andrei Zubov of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations – which was founded by and remains institutionally a part of the Russian Foreign Ministry – wrote an article in the Vedemosti national daily condemning the intervention and likening President Putin to Hitler.

In another interview he said that the Russian president had “clearly lost his mind.”

He was sacked early this week. He said he believed the Foreign Ministry had forced his bosses to get rid of him.

Some critics say the professor’s dismissal typifies the approach to dissent of an administration which has been widely condemned by activists and the international community for its crackdown on rights since Putin began his latest presidential term in 2012.

The adoption of controversial legislation on gay propaganda, a crackdown on third sector organisations, repression of political opponents and systematic harassment of activists, among others, have all been cited as examples of Russian authorities’ disregard for rights.

Others warn that new-found support in the wake of the conflict will allow President Putin to pursue even more rigorous curbs on basic freedoms.

“Overall, Putin’s foreign policy commands support. The Crimean conflict will allow him to consolidate the country and the majority of the population will, in the end, support him. It will also allow him to put an additional squeeze on dissent,” Nikolai Sokov, a Senior Fellow at the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP), told IPS.

Just last week an anti-terrorist bill giving security forces sweeping powers in cases of suspected terrorism was approved by Russian parliament in a first reading.

The bill included, among other things, heavily-criticised controls of internet use. But it was approved without problems and one MP was reported as saying that critics need only go to Kiev to see why the bill was so desperately needed.

“The bills were actually introduced several weeks ago but the Ukraine conflict ensured they would be adopted,” said Sokov.

Also, the Russian State Agency for Financial Monitoring said Wednesday that it had launched an investigation after uncovering that Ukrainian ultra-nationalists were being funded by the same donor organisations as some Russian NGOs.

Controversial legislation forces NGOs in Russia which receive finance from abroad to be registered as ‘foreign agents’, and are subject to regular checks by local authorities.

Tanya Lokshina, Russia programme director at Human Rights Watch, told IPS: “The news of the investigation is very threatening for all NGOs which receive foreign funding.”

She added: “The adoption of more restrictive laws is a possibility against the current backdrop of anti-Western hysteria in state-sponsored and loyalist media.”

Meanwhile, support for President Putin among ordinary Russians appears firm with many saying it is he, rather than the West, who is looking to avoid escalating the current crisis into a war.

“Some people did fear that [occupying Crimea] could lead to war, but as we have seen, President Putin has acted sensibly with regard to this. He is looking out for Russian interests, not looking for confrontation,” Smolenskaya told IPS.

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After Sochi, the Hounding Game http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/sochi-hounding-game/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sochi-hounding-game http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/sochi-hounding-game/#comments Sat, 01 Mar 2014 10:08:27 +0000 Pavol Stracansky http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132313 Fears are growing in Russia that the Kremlin is preparing a crackdown on rights activists following the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Activists warn that even under the glare of the world’s media, Russian authorities have shown they are happy to go on committing human rights abuses and muzzle any form of protest and, […]

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A protestor at an LGBT rights rally in St Petersburg is led away by police. Credit: Alliance of Heterosexuals for LGBT Equality.

A protestor at an LGBT rights rally in St Petersburg is led away by police. Credit: Alliance of Heterosexuals for LGBT Equality.

By Pavol Stracansky
MOSCOW, Mar 1 2014 (IPS)

Fears are growing in Russia that the Kremlin is preparing a crackdown on rights activists following the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Activists warn that even under the glare of the world’s media, Russian authorities have shown they are happy to go on committing human rights abuses and muzzle any form of protest and, with the Games over, things could get much worse.The harassment of ecological activists – which had garnered international attention during the Games – has shown no signs of letting up.

“The Kremlin is likely to tighten the screws and intensify repression against independent thinkers even further if, after the Games, Russia’s international partners turn their eyes away from the country,” Tanya Lokshina, Russia programme director at Human Rights Watch told IPS.

Moscow had been criticised by international organisations for its human rights record in the run up to the Games.

The adoption of controversial legislation on gay propaganda, a crackdown on third sector organisations, repression of political opponents and systematic harassment of activists, among others, were all cited as examples of Russian authorities’ disregard for rights.

Amid the growing criticism, amnesties and pardons were granted for prominent rights campaigners just months before the Games started in what was seen by many as a Kremlin PR exercise. And it was expected that during the Olympics, with Moscow looking to improve its world image, there would be little, if any, of the flagrant rights abuses perpetrated before the Games began.

But arrests of activists during the Olympics as well as the detention and public beating of recently amnestied members of the Pussy Riot punk group by Olympic security guards has sent a worrying signal, say activists.

“The authorities have shown no restraint in their clampdown on the freedoms of expression and assembly while the world’s eyes are on Russia. Given this, we can hardly expect improvement after, and we are concerned there will be more repressions against activists and general dissent after Sochi,” Denis Krivosheev, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Programme at Amnesty International told IPS.

“Unless legislation introduced in the past two years to limit the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association is repealed, the message from the authorities is clear: they have armed themselves with tools to prevent people from exercising their rights. And it is not in their plans to do otherwise,” he added.

According to reports in local media, some NGOs have already contacted foreign diplomats in Russia expressing their concerns over a potential crackdown once the Games had finished.

These fears are being further fuelled by the mass anti-government protests and subsequent revolution in neighbouring Ukraine. Some analysts say Putin may look to stamp his authority by dealing harshly with anyone he sees as a threat and send out a strong signal that dissent will not be tolerated.

“Developments in Ukraine could well be used by ideologists in Russia promoting a crackdown to reassert themselves,” Lokshina told IPS.

The authorities’ hardline stance was already in evidence just a day after the Games ended. More than 200 peaceful protesters were arrested outside a Moscow court building where a group of protesters were handed jail sentences, some of up to four years, for their involvement in a 2012 protest on Bolotnaya Square in the capital.

The high-profile prosecution of the protestors was itself condemned by critics as unjust and politically motivated.

At the same time as the arrests it emerged that the harassment of ecological activists – which had garnered international attention during the Games – has shown no signs of letting up.

Two members of the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (ENWC) NGO were detained as the Games came to a close.

Both say they were walking down the street in Sochi when officers stopped them and ordered them to go to a police station where they were charged with refusing to adhere to a police order.

One of them, David Khakim, was this week given a four-day jail sentence.

Members of the NGO, which was at the forefront of campaigning against environmental damage caused by the Games to the region around Sochi – part of a UNESCO World Heritage Area – have faced years of harassment for their work.

The group highlighted not just activities which have made life unbearable for some people in villages near the Games sites such as illegal dumping and water pollution, but also the destruction of thousands of hectares of rare forests, spawning sites for endangered fish, hibernation sites and migration routes for animals.

It also drew attention to how legislation had been passed and amended to allow for the construction of Olympics venues and related infrastructure in the Sochi national park – legislation which just last week the Russian branch of the WWF said would allow for the legal exploitation and degradation of the environment for years to come.

But the group’s work came at a price. Members of the group have repeatedly faced arrests, detentions, personal searches and police questioning.

Another ENWC activist, Evgeny Viteshko, was repeatedly arrested in the months before the Olympics, and during the Games was jailed for three years for violating a curfew imposed as part of a 2012 suspended sentence in connection with an environmental protest.

His arrest, trial and sentencing have caused outrage among rights groups and for some his case has become symbolic of the repression rights activists face in Russia.

The group was unavailable for comment but members had previously told IPS that they were not expecting any let up in harassment while they continued their activities.

With the post-Sochi outlook for rights groups in Russia looking grim, some campaigners say these Olympics will be remembered as much for what happened outside as inside the sporting venues.

“People will recall the Games as much for the host nation’s disregard for human rights as for the sporting action that took place during them,” Lokshina told IPS.

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OP-ED: Washington’s Anemic Resolve on Egypt’s Human Rights http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/op-ed-washingtons-anemic-resolve-egypts-human-rights/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=op-ed-washingtons-anemic-resolve-egypts-human-rights http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/op-ed-washingtons-anemic-resolve-egypts-human-rights/#comments Thu, 27 Feb 2014 19:32:13 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132213 The unexpected resignation of Hazem al-Biblawi, Egypt’s interim prime minister, and his government this week and the appointment of Ibrahim Mehlib, a Mubarak-era industrialist, as a new prime minister seem to pave the way for Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s anticipated presidential bid. These intriguing government shuffles, however, fail to hide the reality of the […]

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Egypt's military rulers have set security solutions over political ones. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

Egypt's military rulers have set security solutions over political ones. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Feb 27 2014 (IPS)

The unexpected resignation of Hazem al-Biblawi, Egypt’s interim prime minister, and his government this week and the appointment of Ibrahim Mehlib, a Mubarak-era industrialist, as a new prime minister seem to pave the way for Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s anticipated presidential bid.

These intriguing government shuffles, however, fail to hide the reality of the military junta’s repression and massive human rights violations.Washington has a huge reservoir of “soft power” in the region, which it could and should use to bring about democratic transitions.

The politically motivated indictments, trials, and convictions of regime critics, including journalists, academics, entertainers, comedians, and ideologically diverse political activists have cut across large segments of Egyptian society. The regime’s initial claim that repressive measures were necessary to uproot the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters and decapitate its leadership is no longer believable.

The military junta is determined to live its “fascist moment,” in the words of Professor Augustus Richard Norton of Boston University, and to maintain its grip on power come what may. Sisi doesn’t seem worried about a potential loss of U.S. military or economic aid because he expects Saudi Arabia and Russia to fill the gap.

Perhaps the real reason that underpins his lack of concern about losing U.S. aid is the belief that the Obama administration would not certify to Congress that the junta has not made any progress toward democracy. Washington would not want to lose Egypt, which means military aid will continue; hence, no certification.

While Sisi presents his leadership style to many Egyptians as a combination of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Russia’s current ruler Vladimir Putin, many in the region and in Washington are asking one key question: Does the Obama administration have the will and credibility to halt Egypt’s deepening dictatorship and promote human rights and freedom of expression?

This is a fair question since President Barack Obama has invoked U.S. democratic values in supporting the revolution that toppled Mubarak, in urging the Bahraini regime to engage the opposition in meaningful dialogue, and in calling for an end to the Assad regime in Syria. Additionally, most observers believe the international community cannot act decisively on behalf of human rights in any of these countries without U.S. leadership.

I have argued in the past two years in this space and elsewhere that Washington has a huge reservoir of “soft power” in the region, which it could and should use to bring about democratic transitions. Democratiation would reflect U.S. values and serve U.S. interests. Other regional experts advocated a similar approach.

The Obama administration has lost much of its credibility in the region, particularly in Egypt. It worked closely with the Mubarak regime and then abandoned him in favour of the revolution in January 2011.

Washington supported Mohamed Morsi’s presidency because he was the first ever freely elected president of Egypt. Yet the Obama administration failed to condemn his removal in a military coup led by Sisi. In fact, the administration went through all kinds of rhetorical hoops and gymnastics in order to avoid calling the military coup by its real name — a coup.

Washington has also remained silent in the face of ongoing state persecution of journalists and nationally known academics. Some academics have spent time in Washington, D.C. and other U.S. cities in the past three years consulting with U.S. officials about the prospects of democracy in Egypt.

Sadly, they are no longer walking in Washington’s halls of power but languishing in Egyptian jails.

Several factors could explain Washington’s apparent paralysis when it comes to Egypt. First, according to media reports, much uncertainly seems to characterise the administration’s policy debates on the Middle East but particularly on Egypt. The constant attempt to resolve the Values versus Interests dichotomy has left the national security community within the administration rudderless, creating an impression of impotence, confusion, and a lack of direction.

Second, the administration’s vacillation on Syria — whether to pursue a diplomatic or a military solution to the conflict — has rendered the United States a “paper tiger” in the eyes of Arab publics. Most of the world had expected Obama to strike Syria, but instead he took the case to the U.S. Congress with the promise that Syria would destroy its chemical weapons.

Syria’s delivery of the weapons for destruction has stalled, and the Geneva talks have failed. The Assad regime was playing for time, and Washington is left holding an empty bag.

The statements and rationalisations that Secretary of State John Kerry made in his TV interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Feb. 26 were a pallid display of the administration’s pendulous position on Syria and by extension on Egypt. When Mitchell pushed Kerry about the human tragedy in Syria and the regime’s use of its air force to drop “barrel” bombs on the population, he demurred and said that all options are on the table.

The pro-democracy convictions Kerry expressed in the interview in support of the anti-regime uprising in Ukraine were totally absent when he spoke on Syria and other “Arab Spring” countries.

Third, Obama’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia must have been preceded by intense efforts at appeasing the Saudis and allaying their doubts about U.S. resolve on Syria. A palatable visit from the Saudi perspective would be for the U.S. president to support the Sisi coup and keep U.S. military aid flowing to the Egyptian military.

The Saudis also would urge Obama to ease up on the Al Khalifa regime in Bahrain and be wary of Iran’s perceived charm offensive.

The pessimistic assessment of the administration’s policy oscillation could be reversed if Washington compels Syria to ground its air force and if it publicly and unequivocally demands that Sisi chart a clear pathway to democracy.

Supporting democracy in Ukraine reflects U.S. values and serves Washington’s national strategic interests. This should be the default position toward Egypt as well.

Emile Nakhleh is a former Senior U.S. Intelligence Officer, a Research Professor at the University and author of “A Necessary Engagement:  Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World”.

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Press Freedom Goes on Trial in Egypt http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/press-freedom-goes-trial-egypt/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=press-freedom-goes-trial-egypt http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/press-freedom-goes-trial-egypt/#comments Mon, 24 Feb 2014 18:37:37 +0000 Jonathan Rozen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131989 On Dec. 29, 2013, just over a month before the third anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolution that ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, three high-profile journalists for Al Jazeera English were arrested in their hotel suite in Cairo. Despite international condemnation, the Egyptian government has moved ahead with a trial, now […]

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Graffiti in Cairo showing police brutality. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

Graffiti in Cairo showing police brutality. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

By Jonathan Rozen
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 24 2014 (IPS)

On Dec. 29, 2013, just over a month before the third anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolution that ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, three high-profile journalists for Al Jazeera English were arrested in their hotel suite in Cairo.

Despite international condemnation, the Egyptian government has moved ahead with a trial, now set to resume Mar. 5. Altogether, nine Al Jazeera journalists and 11 others have been charged with conspiring with terrorists, undermining national unity and social peace and broadcasting false information, for their coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood.“They are basically trying to go after high-profile people and use that as a way to intimidate others." -- Joe Stork

A history of control

Media censorship in Egypt is not new, but advocates say the political transitions of the past three years have brought additional challenges for free expression.

“A combination of legal and illegal ways are used by the government to punish, intimidate and threaten independent and critical voices, including journalists,” Sherif Mansour, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Division, told IPS.

Source: CPJ

Source: CPJ

Since 2011, when the political turmoil in Egypt began, advocates say there have not been large differences in media censorship between each of the political transitions. While the targets of silencing efforts have shifted depending on who is in power, the legal apparatus that is used to censor undesirable voices has remained the same.

“The press law or penal code form the Mubarak era has not been replaced,” Soazig Drollet, head of the MENA division at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told IPS.

“All the regimes since the uprising in 2011 have used their power to repress media for their own sake…we saw it with the supreme council of Armed Forces in 2011, we saw it with the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, and now we see it with [Field Marshall Abdul Fattah al-] Sisi,” she said. “There is the same will to control the media and not respect the principles of pluralism.”

Under the current military government, a combination of legal and extra-legal methods are used to pressure and censor the media. Presently, the primary focus of these efforts has been directed against any discussion of the former ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since their fall from power in 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the current leadership and their existence completely discredited.

“If you support the Muslim Brothers…you are in trouble,” Nader Gohar, chairman of the Cairo News Company (CNC), an Egyptian news station with a main office in Tahrir Square, told IPS.

While the Al Jazeera case represents just a fraction of the journalists imprisoned by the military regime, it also indicates a new logic behind its repressive tactics.

“They are basically trying to go after high-profile people and use that as a way to intimidate others who might have some critical thoughts,” Joe Stork, deputy director for MENA at Human Rights Watch, told IPS. “The Al Jazeera journalists fall into this category.”

Many governments have increasingly used “anti-terror” charges, like the ones against the Al Jazeera journalists, as a justification for censorship, something that has contributed to the degradation of global press freedom, said Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ.

In January 2014, a new provisional constitution was passed in Egypt.

“Parts of the constitution look a little bit better [for media freedom] than the one by the Muslim Brotherhood,” Drollet told IPS. But “if you really look at the text carefully, they say many things that are really concerning…mainly when it comes to this possibility of censorship when there is wartime and a state of emergency.”

But the constitution is not the only factor in assessing the legal apparatus surrounding Egyptian media freedom.

“The problem isn’t so much the constitution, the problem is the actual laws that are used,” said Stork. “We’re talking now not about the constitution, but about the penal code.”

In 2013, for the first time, CPJ ranked Egypt among the top 10 jailers of journalists in the world, while RSF ranked Egypt in the lowest section of its press freedom index, at 158th out of 179 countries.

Self-censorship

For Gohar and the Cairo News Company, the current military regime has not been as bad as the conditions under the Muslim Brotherhood. That is, as long as they avoid covering the Muslim Brothers in a positive light.

“When we started to have the Muslim Brothers’ [government], they were a threat, they have a kind of militia who bothered us,” he said. “They were like a censorship beside the regular government censorship.”

Nevertheless, the current regime has also affected the way the CNC operates. Since the fall of President Mohamed Morsi, the military government and the Ministry of Communication have not permitted the renewal of the CNC’s press certification.

“It’s kind of like a precaution, like, lets wait and see,” said Gohar. “The officials don’t want to give permission, in case we do something wrong.”

Media licences have been heavily restricted for almost three years, since the revolution in 2011, essentially forcing many media outlets to break the law to continue operations.

The authorities want to see what is going to be published, explained Gohar. “If someone is not behaving, they can stop them easily.”

Self-censorship is “always the first consequence when you have a crackdown on news media and journalists,” Delphine Halgand, U.S. director for RSF, told IPS. “Arrests, imprisonment, charges and an increase in prosecution are having a major deterrent effect on journalists.”

A polarised population

The increasingly polarised and politicised population has also had an impact on media freedom in Egypt. Currently, a vast majority strongly supports the military government and al-Sisi, who is expected to win the presidency by a landslide.

For Egyptian journalists, this means that repercussions for criticism of the government will just as likely come from the people as from the government.

“You will be treated like a traitor,” said Gohar. “This is new, that there is harassment from the public toward the media.”

While the United Nations has expressed its concern over the “increasingly severe clampdown and physical attacks” on media in Egypt, human rights organisation say that publicising the lack of media freedom is likely the best way to apply pressure on the Egyptian government to relax censorship and release imprisoned journalists.

“They really have gone too far,” said Drollet, referring to the military government’s policy. “They have lost any credibility. They are not even hiding that they just want to have one kind of media exist in Egypt.”

The hashtag FreeAJStaff (#FreeAJStaff), often accompanied with a picture of the tweet’s author with a piece of tape over their mouth, is just one of these efforts to increase awareness about the situation, specifically pertaining to the Al Jazeera journalists, in Egypt.

“I would say the situation today is worse that it was,” declared Stork, “this is pretty serious.”

“The media should just tell the facts, to say what is going on the ground with factual events, with objectivity and independence,” said Drollet. “How can a democracy emerge and exist in such a situation?”

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Internet Holds a Presidential Hope http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/internet-awaits-presidential-yes/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=internet-awaits-presidential-yes http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/internet-awaits-presidential-yes/#comments Fri, 14 Feb 2014 09:36:10 +0000 Ezgi Akin http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131606 Turkey is waiting to see if President Abdullah Gul will ratify the government’s controversial Internet bill, which opposition parties, civil society and the international community call a major restriction on freedom of expression. Gul had said three years ago that “there shouldn’t be any restrictions over the Internet.” Freedom champions are waiting now for him […]

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Police use tear gas and water canons in Istanbul to disperse demonstrators protesting the new Internet bill. Credit: Emrah Gurel/IPS.

Police use tear gas and water canons in Istanbul to disperse demonstrators protesting the new Internet bill. Credit: Emrah Gurel/IPS.

By Ezgi Akin
ANKARA, Feb 14 2014 (IPS)

Turkey is waiting to see if President Abdullah Gul will ratify the government’s controversial Internet bill, which opposition parties, civil society and the international community call a major restriction on freedom of expression.

Gul had said three years ago that “there shouldn’t be any restrictions over the Internet.” Freedom champions are waiting now for him to walk the talk.

Parliament has passed the bill which bypasses the judiciary by authorising Turkey’s telecommunication board, TIB, to take a decision on blocking a website or individual web content in case of complaints of violation of personal rights and right to privacy. The new bill also allows the authorities to track individual web records of Internet users."The Turkish public deserves more information and more transparency, not more restrictions."

The bill has caused serious concern within the European Union. Peter Stano, spokesperson for Stefan Fule, the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, said the bill introduces several restrictions on the freedom of expression.

“This law is raising serious concerns here. The Turkish public deserves more information and more transparency, not more restrictions,” Stano said.

Turkey’s government, however, says the bill is aimed at protecting people’s privacy. Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that with the existing law it takes some five days to remove content from the web, and the new law will reduce this period.

“The Internet isn’t being removed, it is being brought under control,” Erdogan said in a televised speech. ”Perceiving this [law] as censorship is cruelty. In fact, this law is making the Internet more liberal…By Internet regulation, Turkey will no longer be a country which is being blackmailed by tapes.”

Turkey’s main opposition party calls the bill a “politically motivated” step to increase governmental control over the Internet and stop leaks about a recent graft probe. Social media has become the public information channel of purported graft probe documents and recordings of wiretapped phone conversations, including those of Erdogan and other senior government officials.

The graft probe, which kicked off Dec. 17, has already led four ministers to lose their seats in the cabinet due to alleged involvement in corruption. Erdogan says the probe is a “conspiracy” against him and is aimed at toppling his government.

He accuses influential cleric Fethullah Gulen’s supporters of being members of a “parallel state” that is behind the probe. Gulen, who is in self-imposed exile in the United States, was once a close ally of Erdogan’s government and is believed to have many supporters in Turkey and in the Turkish bureaucracy, especially in the judiciary and police. The two are reportedly locked in a power struggle.

A legislator from Turkey’s main opposition said the bill was a “clear attempt to censor the recent bribe and corruption scandal” and “against basic human rights and freedoms.

“This is against the Copenhagen criteria and may put Turkey’s European Union aspirations at risk,” Aykan Erdemir told IPS, referring to standards that Turkey needs to achieve in order to join the 28-member group.

“Leaving a decision to a bureaucrat without a court order is unacceptable. This is a violation of the presumption of innocence.”

The new bill also calls for all Internet service providers to unite under an umbrella group called the Internet Service Providers Association. The association will have to block a website or content within four hours at TIB’s request. Web page owners would be able to appeal the decision in court.

The bill also allows the association to keep individual web records of Internet users for two years and share them with the authorities on request.

An Internet watchdog group, the Turkish Informatics Association, said the bill is “not constructive but destructive.”

“We are concerned that this will cause self-censorship as users’ records will be archived. People will be afraid of visiting some sites,” İlker Tabak, deputy head of the association, told IPS.

“The websites will be closed without even asking their owners to defend themselves. We have a state governed by laws, and decisions to block [sites] shouldn’t be left to personal initiative.”

The New York-based media freedom advocacy group, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has labeled the bill a “radical censorship measure.”

“If passed, the amendments to Turkey’s already restrictive Internet law would compound a dismal record on press freedom in the country…Internet freedom has been deteriorating steadily in Turkey for some time,” the group said.

Most recently, an Azerbaijani journalist who works for Turkey’s English language newspaper Today’s Zaman left the country. The “Turkish authorities added his name to a list of people who are barred from entering Turkey” after he posted critical Tweets about Erdogan, Today’s Zaman reported.

Meanwhile, civil rights groups and NGOs have urged Gul to veto the bill. Turkey’s largest business association, TUSIAD, sent a letter to Gul saying the bill “should be revised” in accordance with the definition of basic human rights, including freedom of expression.

The new bill has also prompted protests in major cities like Istanbul and Ankara. Hundreds of demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest the bill and mount pressure on Gul.

Gul’s stance on Internet freedom is starkly different from that of Erdogan who once defined social media as the “worst menace” for societies.

“I think there shouldn’t be any restrictions over the Internet. Everyone should be able to use the Internet freely,” Gul had tweeted in May 2011. But Gul rarely vetoes government bills as he is one of the founding members of the ruling AKP party.

Gul is one of the most active leaders on Twitter with some four million followers so far. Hasip Kaplan, a legislator from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, BDP, said Friday that he would lose one follower if Gul ratified the bill.

“We will see to what extent Mr. President is libertarian. I think the President should veto this. In case he doesn’t I will delete him from my Twitter, I will unfollow him.”

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Egypt’s Generals Face a Watery Battle http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/egypts-generals-face-watery-battle/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=egypts-generals-face-watery-battle http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/egypts-generals-face-watery-battle/#comments Thu, 06 Feb 2014 08:35:50 +0000 Shelly Kittleson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131220 Heavy reliance on water intensive crops, a major upstream dam project for the Nile basin, and rising groundwater levels pushing at pharaoh-era monuments will be pressing issues for the next Egyptian president – whether military or civilian. As criticism continues over the military’s heavy-handedness to quell protests, little attention is being given to the late […]

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Three boys in the Moqattam area look out over Cairo, the growing population of which is rapidly depleting already scarce water resources. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS.

Three boys in the Moqattam area look out over Cairo, the growing population of which is rapidly depleting already scarce water resources. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS.

By Shelly Kittleson
CAIRO, Feb 6 2014 (IPS)

Heavy reliance on water intensive crops, a major upstream dam project for the Nile basin, and rising groundwater levels pushing at pharaoh-era monuments will be pressing issues for the next Egyptian president – whether military or civilian.

As criticism continues over the military’s heavy-handedness to quell protests, little attention is being given to the late January announcement by Egypt’s minister of irrigation and water resources on the growing severity of the country’s water shortage: share of water per citizen stands at 640 cubic metres, compared with an international standard of 1,000.

The minister said he expected this amount to decrease to 370 cubic metres by 2050 due to a rapidly growing population.“Many people need to start measuring how much water they use, but it’s hard to break traditions here.”

A scientist working in the water resources sector expressed cautious hope to IPS that “the military is one of the few institutions that can actually get things done.” But he added: “That said, they were in power for a long time and didn’t do anything.”

Improving irrigation practices and countering the demographic explosion are some of the most commonly cited actions to be considered, as well as reducing the use of pesticides and improving sewage and waste disposal systems to prevent contaminating the limited water supplies available.

Attempting to lessen the population’s consumption of sugar would also be beneficial, experts say, not only in terms of water supplies but also public health.

Hugely popular juice pressed from water-intensive sugarcane can be found on street corners across Egypt, with inhabitants swearing by its “kidney-cleansing” properties. Ubiquitous coffee and tea gets steeped in sugar.

Diabetes levels have risen by 83 percent over the past 15 years, but little attempt is made to inform the public of the health-related risks or stem the preponderance of sugarcane production.

Egypt’s agriculture sector consumes well over 80 percent of the country’s annual water resources and sugarcane accounts for a large portion, alongside rice and cotton.

Rice production has been banned by the government in some areas for its heavy water requirements, though it commands a high price on the international market, is a staple for the population, and a certain quantity helps control soil salinity and limits saltwater intrusion in the Delta.

Egypt is instead the world’s largest importer of wheat and buys over half of its requirements from abroad, much of which goes into subsidised bread for the quarter of its 84 million people who live below the poverty line of 1.65 dollars a day.

A serious issue is that outdated irrigation practices are still in use, Hussein Jeffrey John Gawad, a hydro-geologist working as a consultant in Egypt, told IPS.

“Because there was always an abundance of water before, they just continue flooding the farms,” he said. “Many people need to start measuring how much water they use, but it’s hard to break traditions here.”

In certain areas of the country, it is instead an excess of water that is causing problems. The most traditional face of Egypt to the world – and its main magnet for tourism, a sector that accounted for more than a tenth of Egypt’s GDP prior to the 2011 uprising – may be in danger as well, Gawad noted, due to rising groundwater around the country’s ancient monuments.

As the population swells, agriculture increasingly encroaches on areas near important monuments, bringing with it artificial irrigation channels to which chemical fertilisers are added, thereby increasing salinity levels and seeping into limestone foundations, weakening them.

A rise in the water table around the Osireion – the only remaining visible tomb in Abydos, one of Egypt’s most important archaeological sites – has made it largely inaccessible due to inundation of sand and flooding.

Gawad said that at one point the government had tried to install a “dewatering” system, “but now there is literally zero government attention to this.”

At some sites, pumps and drainage pipes have been set up, with varying levels of success. An international rescue effort led by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in the 1960s saved the enormous blocks of the Abu Simbel temples from being submerged by relocating them onto an artificial hill during the construction of the Aswan Dam.

However, the more gradual but relentless weakening of temple foundations and steady erosion of carvings and ancient paintings has not drawn similar attention.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s diversion of the Blue Nile as part of its massive Renaissance Dam project looms large over any discussion of Egypt’s future water supplies.

As part of colonial-era agreements, Egypt long held rights to the vast majority of the Nile’s waters. In mid-2010, however, five upstream countries – Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda, with Burundi joining in the following year – signed a treaty to share the dam’s resources, formally launching the project in April 2012.

“Ethiopia has the right to use the water flowing through their lands,” Gawad said, “but the policy of the Egyptian government is to not grant them that right. They stick by colonial-era mandates when it is convenient, and throw them by the wayside when it is not.”

A study by the International Fund for Agricultural Development found in 2005 that 98 percent of Egyptian agriculture was irrigated with Nile water or pumped from aquifers renewed by the Nile River flow. Under former president Mohammed Morsi, there was talk of “going to war” if the dam project were to be completed, but officials have since said this option has been ruled out.

Journalists have been arrested for questioning the merits and funding of the dam in Ethiopia, and the country shows no willingness to consider alternative options. Few reliable studies have been carried out on the potential effects of the project, but reducing the amount of water flowing into the water-strapped nation further downstream will inevitably pose risks to its economy and, as a result, its stability.

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OP-ED: Egypt’s Revolution Teeters as Sisi Seeks the Presidency http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/egypts-revolution-teeters-sisi-seeks-presidency/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=egypts-revolution-teeters-sisi-seeks-presidency http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/egypts-revolution-teeters-sisi-seeks-presidency/#comments Tue, 04 Feb 2014 19:08:19 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131186 Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is set to run for president and is expected to win handily. The ruling junta and the interim government have taken several steps to make this happen. Interim President Adly Mansour recently promoted Sisi to Field Marshal, the highest rank in the Egyptian military, despite his lack of military combat. Egypt’s Supreme […]

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By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Feb 4 2014 (IPS)

Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is set to run for president and is expected to win handily. The ruling junta and the interim government have taken several steps to make this happen.

Interim President Adly Mansour recently promoted Sisi to Field Marshal, the highest rank in the Egyptian military, despite his lack of military combat. Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) followed Mansour’s action by giving the newly minted Field Marshal a “mandate” to run for president in response to the “desire of the masses.” Sisi’s response: It was his “duty” and an “obligation” to do so.The Field Marshal is hoping the Egyptian “Street,” which rejected Nasser’s resignation after the disastrous defeat of the 1967 war, would crown him as another modern-day Pharaoh of Egypt.

To guarantee his victory at the polls and to shield him from parliamentary oversight, Mansour altered the so-called road map to allow for the presidential election to precede the parliamentary poll. Not to be outdone, Interim Prime Minister Biblawi announced a reshuffle of his cabinet, including the ministry of defence currently headed by Field Marshal Sisi.

Sisi’s high stakes political game comes barely 18 months after former President Morsi appointed him minister of defence and despite his previous statements that the military should shun politics and return to the barracks. While he was publicly declaring allegiance to Morsi and civilian control, he proceeded to conspire against the freely elected leadership and torpedo civilian rule.

Once Sisi “retires” from the military and the cabinet, he would be free to seek the presidency as a “civilian” person. He would then present himself to the Egyptian masses as the “Savior” and “Indispensable Man”—much like other military-turned-civilian dictators who preceded him. He seems to forget that shedding the military uniform and donning a business suit just doesn’t cut it anymore. The era of military dictatorships has passed.

The recent announcement by the two potential challengers Abdul Min’im Abu al-Futuh and Hamadayn Sabahi that they would not run for the presidency is seen to bolster Sisi’s presidential ambitions.

Sisi wants to resurrect the tradition of strongman rule despite its rejection by the January 25 Revolution. According to media reports, Sisi looks to former President Gamal Abdul Nasser as a role model and would like to emulate his rule. But he is too young to remember the period when Nasser’s wars cemented his cult personality.

Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Credit: Secretary of Defence/cc by 2.0

Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Credit: Secretary of Defence/cc by 2.0

Sisi was two years old when the Suez war occurred, seven at the start of the Yemen war, 13 during the 1967 war, and only 19 at the time of the 1973 October War. He graduated from the military academy in 1977 and pursued his political/military career in the halls of power, especially through Military Intelligence.

He is reputed to see previous leaders, including Sadat, in his recurring “visions” while asleep. These visions, some media reports speculate, have led him to believe he is destined to lead Egypt and to recapture its glorious past. This task requires a cult personality, which he and Egypt’s pliant state media have been feverishly nurturing.

The Field Marshal is hoping the Egyptian “Street,” which rejected Nasser’s resignation after the disastrous defeat of the 1967 war, would crown him as another modern-day Pharaoh of Egypt. Jihan El-Tahri, an Egyptian born world-renowned movie producer, has titled her forthcoming film on Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak “Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs.” Sisi seems to be following in their footsteps.

The high stakes political game is set to begin in Egypt with Sisi’s expected announcement confirming his intention to run for president. Popular hysteria will carry him forward, but Sisi must realise this kind of mass adulation is short-lived and could turn against him fairly quickly.

Politically active and aware Egyptians will soon realise that Sisi’s presidency would result in three disastrous realities for Egypt: first, a return to military dictatorship; second, an emasculation of the January 25 Revolution; and third, a re-institution of the economically powerful plutocracy.

As Sisi’s presidency begins, Egypt will be suffering from high unemployment, a tanking economy, an anemic tourism industry, low foreign currency reserves, a poor human rights record, growing communal violence and even terrorism, but above all high popular expectations. The January 25 Revolution empowered Egyptian youth to search for dignity, freedom, social justice, and employment.

Like Morsi before him, Sisi will not be able to turn the country around, especially as human rights of secularists and Islamists are violated and illegal arrests, sham trials, and harsh sentences continue unabated. Sisi’s presidency is dangerous for Egypt and harmful to U,S, interests and security in the region.

Sisi’s Egypt and the U.S.

The (Washington-based) Working Group on Egypt sent a letter on Jan. 29 to President Obama expressing “deep concern” about U.S. policy toward Egypt. The letter added, “In fact, the brutal tactics now regularly used by the Egyptian government against civilians, the suppression of dissent, the crushing not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but of non-Islamist political actors, and economic regression are likely to erode the popularity of Egypt’s rulers in short order.”

Furthermore, the letter urges President Obama to demand that Egyptian officials take four concrete steps before U.S. aid is given to Egypt:

• “End the broad security and media campaign against those who peacefully oppose the actions of the interim government and the military, release the thousands of opposition group members, supporters, and activists now detained on questionable charges and with disregard for their due-process rights, and allow all citizens not implicated in violence to participate fully in political life;

• End the use of live ammunition to disperse protesters, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators, and respect basic rights to freedom of peaceful assembly;

• Cease repression of other peaceful dissidents and drop investigations and lawsuits launched against youth activists, former members of parliament, journalists, and academics for peaceful activity protected by international human rights treaties to which Egypt is a signatory;

• Stop media campaigns against the United States and American organizations, which are contributing to an unprecedented level of anti-American sentiments as well as endangering Americans and other foreigners, not only in Egypt but in neighbouring countries where Egyptian media are present.”

If the interim government fails to take action on these issues, U.S. assistance to Egypt should be suspended. The letter further argues that a “trade-off between democracy and stability is false.”

A Sisi presidency, should it come to pass, will have to address the endemic economic and severe human rights problems facing Egypt. If Sisi fails to do so in his first year in office and continues massive, indiscriminate human rights violations, it would not be unthinkable for Egyptians to hit the streets demanding his resignation.

If that happens, he could find himself on trial next to his two predecessors in the same soundproof glass cage.

Emile Nakhleh is a former Senior U.S. Intelligence Service Officer, a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World”.

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Tajik Intellectuals Finding Little Room for Reasoned Discourse http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/tajik-intellectuals-finding-little-room-reasoned-discourse/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=tajik-intellectuals-finding-little-room-reasoned-discourse http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/tajik-intellectuals-finding-little-room-reasoned-discourse/#comments Wed, 29 Jan 2014 14:02:29 +0000 Konstantin Parshin http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=130924 Last July, authorities in Tajikistan confiscated the only manuscript of a little-known novelist’s latest book. In what can only be described as an Orwellian sequence, after the manuscript was seized at a Dushanbe printing house, the author was hauled in for interrogation and asked questions like, “who ordered you to write this book?” The author, […]

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By Konstantin Parshin
DUSHANBE, Jan 29 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Last July, authorities in Tajikistan confiscated the only manuscript of a little-known novelist’s latest book. In what can only be described as an Orwellian sequence, after the manuscript was seized at a Dushanbe printing house, the author was hauled in for interrogation and asked questions like, “who ordered you to write this book?”

The author, Pulod Abuev, 69, later appealed to representatives of the feared State Committee for National Security (GKNB) to have his work returned to him. After some time, Abuev was told that a special committee at the state-run Academy of Sciences had reviewed his writings, including stories critical of Tajikistan’s widespread corruption, and decided it “offends the Tajik people.” The manuscript, thus, was not returned.“Take any classical play by Shakespeare or Chekhov, and the bureaucrats will immediately detect ‘a national security threat.’ " -- Barzu Abdurazzakov

At a Jan. 17 news conference, Abdulvokhid Shamolov of the Academy of Sciences, who conducted the review of Abuev’s work, said the author had expressed support for the theories of an unnamed “Uzbek scientist” who has denied the existence of the Tajik nation.

“The Academy of Sciences and the National Security Committee [GKNB] have performed their duties – to ensure security in the country,” Shamolov said in comments carried by the Asia Plus news agency.

Abuev’s case has heightened fears among some in Dushanbe’s creative class that Tajik authorities are trying to stamp out any form of freethinking under the vague pretext of patriotism. Already self-censorship is widespread among journalists who face libel charges and death threats when tackling tricky subjects. Local observers say the chief enforcer of the government’s perceived “group-think” campaign is the GKNB, which is the recipient of training assistance from the American military.

Abuev believes he was labeled an agent of rival Uzbekistan simply for expressing forthright views about the present state of Tajik society. One of the short stories in the manuscript is a thinly disguised tale about a new toll road that profits relatives of the president’s family.

“I write about life, about labour migrants, about corruption and the hypocrisy of bureaucrats. Somebody has seen a threat to national security in my work. This is ridiculous,” Abuev told EurasiaNet.org.

The space for intellectual discourse is vanishing, according to celebrated playwright Barzu Abdurazzakov. He went on to assert that authorities are gagging literature that even the most zealous Soviet censor would have found unproblematic.

“Take any classical play by Shakespeare or Chekhov, and the bureaucrats will immediately detect ‘a national security threat.’ If it keeps going this way, they will ban all of ancient literature and classical dramaturgy – since all those plays tell us about the tragedy of kings and their children,” Abdurazzakov told EurasiaNet.org. (Many of President Imomali Rakhmon’s relatives occupy senior government posts and other prominent positions).

Abdurazzakov, perhaps unsurprisingly in this atmosphere, says he is unable to find work these days in Tajikistan.

When a social critic happens to be a member of an ethnic minority, the personal attacks can get ugly, noted Temur Varky, a Tajik citizen from a minority background who operates an independent television station in Moscow that broadcasts to audiences in Tajikistan.

In several Facebook messages since June, one “Tamara Obidova” has called Varky “a traitor and liar with a family name alien to Tajiks.” Obidova wrote that Varky “is trying to split” Tajikistan, “the crowned nation of Asia.” She went on to compare Varky to Tamerlane, a folk villain in Tajikistan who is revered as a conquering hero in neighbouring Uzbekistan.

In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as in many of the states that gained independence after the Soviet Union’s demise, attempts to define national identity often resort to “us versus them” tropes. Such unsophisticated nationalism enables officials to blame mysterious outside forces, dodge criticism and dilute responsibility for their own missteps. In the pro-government media, arguments about resources or borders often degenerate into disputes about historical rivalries dating back centuries.

Varky and several newspaper editors in Dushanbe who spoke on condition of anonymity believe “Tamara Obidova” and other, similar Internet trolls are working on behalf of the GKNB. (Similar allegations are common in Uzbekistan and Russia, too).

Varky says his troubles with Obidova began soon after he announced his support for Zaid Saidov, an opposition politician arrested a few months before presidential elections last year. (Most independent observers believe the arrest was politically motivated — designed to silence a reformist and potential rival to President Rakhmon, who ended up securing reelection).

Human Rights Watch noted that the November vote “lacked meaningful political competition.” Last month, Saidov was sentenced to 26 years in prison on a variety of charges after a closed trial that few believe was fair.

“Authorities are hounding his [Saidov’s] supporters and those expressing alternative views,” Varky told EurasiaNet.org.

Ironically, Rakhmon scolded officials less than two years ago for not responding to criticism: He called criticism “a constructive phenomenon,” adding that it was “an important factor for development in society.”

That was then; these days those viewing the rich and the powerful with a critical eye often face a backlash. For example, Olga Tutubalina, the editor of the Asia Plus weekly, is being sued for an article she wrote last year criticising members of government-funded creative and artistic unions as government sycophants. Tutubalina – a non-Tajik minority who was born in Dushanbe – has received racist hate mail charging she is trying to destroy the Tajik nation.

Meanwhile, authorities are working to define what is Tajik and what is not. Earlier this month, for instance, the Dushanbe mayor’s office announced it would begin monitoring music in taxis and on public buses to prevent passengers from listening to tunes that are “alien to national and universal human values.”

Editor’s note: Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan. This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

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Ukraine Media Under Attack http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/ukraine-media-attack/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ukraine-media-attack http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/ukraine-media-attack/#comments Fri, 17 Jan 2014 03:53:39 +0000 Pavol Stracansky http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=130320 Just hours after Ukrainian investigative journalist Tetyana Chornovil was beaten and left for dead last month at the side of the road by men she claims were acting on the orders of the country’s president, pictures of her battered and bruised face quickly made their way around the world. News of the attack was used […]

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By Pavol Stracansky
KIEV, Jan 17 2014 (IPS)

Just hours after Ukrainian investigative journalist Tetyana Chornovil was beaten and left for dead last month at the side of the road by men she claims were acting on the orders of the country’s president, pictures of her battered and bruised face quickly made their way around the world.

News of the attack was used by critics of the country’s authoritarian regime as an example of the dangers faced by journalists who fall foul of the Ukrainian ruling elite.

But while what happened to her drew global media attention and was seized upon by opponents as an example of the government’s sanctioning of the brutal repression of a free press, it was just the latest episode in an ongoing crackdown on the independence of the country’s media.“For a long time we have seen a trend of independent media disappearing in Ukraine."

As well as physical intimidation of individuals, the government has been tightening its grip on the media through buy-outs of publishing houses and other media outlets.

And press watchdogs are warning that by 2015, the year of the next presidential elections, there could be virtually no independent media left.

Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Bureau at Reporters Without Borders, told IPS: “For a long time we have seen a trend of independent media disappearing in Ukraine, and it is perfectly possible that in just a few years there will be no independent media in the country.”

Ukraine’s media freedom has been steadily eroded in recent years, according to international media watchdogs. Ukraine languishes in 126th place out of 179 in Reporters Without Borders’s 2013 press freedom index. Just four years ago it was ranked 89th.

The most ostensibly visible threat to media freedom has been the increasing problem of violence against journalists. According to the Ukrainian NGO the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), 101 journalists were victims of physical attacks during their work in 2013. Of those, 64 were injured in assaults by police officers. The figure in 2012 was just eight.

Half of the attacks came during the recent Euromaidan protests, as the protests against the government are called. Riot police clashed with protestors, but other incidents have included the beating of reporters from a TV station covering a demonstration in the capital earlier this month who clearly identified themselves as journalists.

A high-profile case was that of Oleg Bogdanov, a journalist with the Internet-based newspaper Dorozhnyi Kontrol (Road Control) that reports on alleged corruption among traffic police. He was beaten and left with serious injuries after an attack near his home in July last year.

The level of violence against journalists in the country is shocking, even for organisations used to monitoring such abuses.

Bihr told IPS: “The recent beatings are just the tip of the iceberg. This is something which has been getting worse for years. Ukraine is not a dictatorship and the current situation there cannot be compared to, say, somewhere like Uzbekistan, or some war-torn African country.

“But having said that, the fact that it is at peace, not war, and that it is not a dictatorship makes it very unusual that there is so much violence against journalists.”

Within Europe, only Turkey reported more beatings of journalists than Ukraine last year, according to Reporters Without Borders.

When contacted by IPS, many local journalists either declined or were reticent to speak openly about the threat of violence faced by people working in their profession.

However, Yulia Sidorova, a journalist working for a newspaper in Donetsk, one of Ukraine’s largest cities, told IPS of the concern and growing paranoia among some of her colleagues about the threat of violence.

“Of course, there is pressure and repression over here… but [regarding violence against journalists] even if a journalist has an accident, many of their colleagues believe it was not an accident but because of the work they are doing,” she said.

“And conversely, those that are really victims of an attack because of their work may think that they have just had an accident. The problem is that it is so difficult to know what the truth is.”

But violence against journalists is far from the only threat to Ukraine’s media freedom. The last few years has seen media houses and broadcasting organisations bought up by people seen as close to members of the ruling elite – with consequences for editorial freedom in newspapers, other publications and broadcast media.

In one recent example, 14 journalists resigned from the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine in November over claims of censorship. The publication had recently been bought by Sergey Kurchenko, a businessman seen as having close ties to the family of President Viktor Yanukovych.

The country’s growing Internet media is also suffering, with numerous online news sites and websites of print publications regularly reporting cyber attacks. Some have involved sites being completely taken over and replaced with duplicates spreading false information.

Others have also been taken offline at specific times. During the recent anti-government Euromaidan protests the offices of three independent media outlets were raided by police. At the same time, the servers of some major national newspapers were shut down due to apparent cyber attacks, meaning there was a delay before news of the raids could be reported.

“Cyber attacks are a worrying practice that is on the rise,” Bihr told IPS. “Of course, because of their nature it is always hard to prove exactly who is behind them, but the attacks have always been on journalists supporting the opposition or who are independent.”

However, as bleak as the outlook may appear, there is some hope that independence in Ukraine’s media will not disappear completely.

Sidorova told IPS that despite the problems journalists face doing their jobs, criticism of the government in the media will continue.

She said: “Articles that are sharply critical of the government are published in media without any consequences and the journalists writing those articles have been doing so for many years. Therefore, they cannot see the risks to their health or their livelihoods as so great that it would keep them from publishing these articles.”

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Chinese Dominance in Kenyan Digital Migration Raises Alarm http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/chinese-dominance-digital-migration-raises-alarm/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=chinese-dominance-digital-migration-raises-alarm http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/chinese-dominance-digital-migration-raises-alarm/#comments Tue, 14 Jan 2014 07:08:19 +0000 Miriam Gathigah http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=130163 Controversy and confusion have marked Kenya’s transition from analogue to digital television in keeping with the 2015 International Telecommunication Union deadline when all analogue signal transmission will cease.  Digital migration, intended to give consumers of media content more choice and better service quality, has faced various hurdles in this East African nation and the government […]

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There are concerns that Chinese dominance of Kenya’s digital migration process could be used to muzzle freedom of the press. Courtesy: Miriam Gathigah

There are concerns that Chinese dominance of Kenya’s digital migration process could be used to muzzle freedom of the press. Courtesy: Miriam Gathigah

By Miriam Gathigah
NAIROBI, Jan 14 2014 (IPS)

Controversy and confusion have marked Kenya’s transition from analogue to digital television in keeping with the 2015 International Telecommunication Union deadline when all analogue signal transmission will cease. 

Digital migration, intended to give consumers of media content more choice and better service quality, has faced various hurdles in this East African nation and the government has already postponed the switch several times.

While the fate of a court case filed by three major media houses challenging the government’s decision to deny them a digital licence is yet to be decided, there are increasing concerns that the Chinese are occupying too much space in the local media platforms – particularly the Chinese dominance of the digital migration process.Concerns have also been raised over the fact that though the government ICT policy bars foreign companies from operating telecommunications infrastructure, that policy was suspended during the tendering process for the digital licence.

Javas Bigambo, a political analyst with Interthoughts Consulting, a firm specialising in media, governance and policy, tells IPS it was no coincidence that a Chinese-owned company was given a digital licence and local media houses with significant infrastructure to transmit digitally were not. “We are still reeling from the controversial draconian Media Bill with heavy penalties for journalists and media houses, and now the government is auctioning media freedom to the highest bidder.”

Local TV broadcasters will be reduced to only producing content as Chinese-owned Pan-Africa Network Group’s (PANG) and SIGNET – a subsidiary of the national broadcaster – will serve as middlemen between local TV stations and consumers of media content. Both parties will provide all transmission at an agreed cost with the respective local media houses.

Alex Gakuru, the chair of ICT Consumers Association of Kenya and a member of the Digital Transition Committee multi-stakeholder task force established by the government, says that because China represses its domestic media there has developed in Kenya “the futuristic fear [that the Chinese will repress local media] ignore our constitution, laws and restructured judiciary.”

But Gakaru says such fears are misguided.

“The status of public communications is the legal and sole mandate of the Communications and Media Authority, rendering it illogical to conclude that all foreign companies ignore local laws opting to observe their home countries laws.”

Gakuru says that as the only digital signal distributors, “PANG and SIGNET are legally required to be neutral signal carriers – neither discriminating nor prioritising some broadcaster’s content over others, failure to which their licences risk revocation.”

But Gakuru tells IPS that one signal distributor would have been sufficient as a cost-saving measure as is the case with countries such as Australia.

“Two signal distributors were unnecessary and [financial and spectrally] resource wasteful in the first place. A third or further multiple distributors only aggravate the situation, if at all technically feasible.”

Grace Githaiga, an associate with Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), tells IPS that although the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK), the independent regulatory authority for the communication industry in Kenya, argues that local media houses lost their bid to acquire a digital licence fairly, “local media houses have reason to be concerned over foreign control of the digital migration in the sense that we are mortgaging our rights.”

“CCK argues that it advised the local media companies to form a consortium and bid, which they did and lost. [But] there seems to be no affirmative action in supporting local entities,” she says.

But Gakuru says that the “fear the Chinese argument” is an exaggeration in this case since “mobile phone operators use Chinese technologies with millions of phones among other consumer electronics either manufactured or components assembled in China – including the iPhone, iPad and other Apple products.”

Government statistics show that China’s state news agency, Xinhua, provides news bulletins for 17 million Kenyan cell phones.

Concerns have also been raised over the fact that though the government ICT policy bars foreign companies from operating telecommunications infrastructure, that policy was suspended during the tendering process for the digital licence.

According to the government, the suspension was on condition that foreign companies commit to offload 20 percent of their shares to locals within three years of starting operations.

Gakuru says that the bone of contention between the government and local media houses is not media freedom but profit margins.

“The many new broadcasters will bite into the advertising spending previously enjoyed by a few. Advertising spending was 769 million dollars in 2011. Local TV stations previously enjoyed freedom to air whatever their profitability-friendly content they so desired.”

“We must recognise China as a superpower. Their dominance on Kenya’s digital migration landscape is a manifestation of their broader information and communications technologies ecology,” Gakuru says.

Gakuru adds that the current situation where media ownership has been the privilege of a few individuals to grant signal distribution to the same few is not an expression of media freedom.

According to Gakuru, challenging PANG as a signal distributor “would be an uphill task. They won an open and public tender bid and there is no need to insinuate favouritism, corruption or even that the media will be muzzled. Separate but associated StarTimes Media focuses on Set Top Boxes [which can be used to receive digital signals for analogue TV sets] and Pay TV business.”

Nonetheless, Githaiga cautions “there is need to understand the role of the signal carrier [in this case PANG and SIGNET].”

“Is the signal carrier for example allowed to edit content from any of the providers? Is it allowed to switch off a signal if content is considered harmful or even anti-government? This information needs to be made clear,” Githaiga says.

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Sri Lanka Faces New Year Pressure Over Rights http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/sri-lanka-faces-new-year-pressure-rights/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sri-lanka-faces-new-year-pressure-rights http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/sri-lanka-faces-new-year-pressure-rights/#comments Sun, 29 Dec 2013 17:43:16 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=129785 When the American Centre in Colombo held a memorial event honouring the late South African President Nelson Mandela, the first few questions at the question and answer session had nothing to do with the great freedom fighter. The questions raised at the meeting Dec. 20 were about how South Africa could assist Sri Lanka set […]

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By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Dec 29 2013 (IPS)

When the American Centre in Colombo held a memorial event honouring the late South African President Nelson Mandela, the first few questions at the question and answer session had nothing to do with the great freedom fighter.

The questions raised at the meeting Dec. 20 were about how South Africa could assist Sri Lanka set up its own national healing process. During the Commonwealth Heads of State summit (CHOGM) in Colombo in November, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government had approached the African state to explore the possibility of assistance in setting up something akin to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

According to the South African envoy in Colombo, Geoff Doidge, the request was made to South African President Jacob Zuma at the summit. “The past will haunt you as a country, even if you go forward, without a TRC-like process in Sri Lanka,” Zuma had told the meeting.

The questions on the TRC were symbolic of the kind of focus Sri Lanka’s rights record, and government efforts to correct it, have received since a bloody civil war ended almost five years back.

The Commonwealth meeting turned the spotlight on that rights record yet again. While attending the summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the former war zone in the north with a retinue of reporters and journalists. During his whistle-stop tour, Cameron was quick to stress that Sri Lanka lagged behind in its efforts to address international concerns over rights violations.

Cameron said that the UK would back stricter international strictures against the Rajapaksa government if it does not redress the situation.

“The spotlight will be on Sri Lanka to demonstrate it is committed to Commonwealth (values),” British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka John Rankin said before the Commonwealth meet.

Cameron’s comments resulted in a barrage of criticism against him locally, but international advocates pushing for a credible investigation into rights violations welcomed it.

“It has reinforced the need for an international inquiry,” Steve Crashaw, director for the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International who was in Sri Lanka during the Commonwealth meeting told IPS.

Crashaw said Cameron’s actions should be followed by other international players. “It should not be limited to a one-off media event.”

It is unlikely to be. The U.S. has expressed similar sentiments that Colombo needs to do more to investigate wartime allegations, especially about the thousands of civilians who have gone missing. The New Year is now likely to see more pressure on the Sri Lankan government.

The U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal is expected in Sri Lanka in mid-January. During her first visit to the island Biswal is expected to discuss issue pertaining to investigations into disappearances and deaths.

Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa set up a new commission in late November to tabulate wartime deaths. The new census is being conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics.

A similar effort by the same department in 2011 found after looking at vital events in the North and East that 4,156 persons were untraceable in the two provinces since 2005. International organisations including an advisory panel to the UN Secretary General have put figures of civilian disappearances close to ten times that.

The newly formed Northern Provincial Council, controlled by the opposition Tamil National Alliance, has already said it would launch its own census of the disappeared since it did not trust the numbers produced by government surveys.

National rights activists told IPS that pressure by the likes of the UK, the U.S. and next-door neighbour India, whose prime minister stayed away from the Commonwealth confab, is leading the government at least to take note of uncomfortable issues.

“At the very least, it strengthens the determination and courage of victims, their families, a few journalists, lawyers, the clergy and activists who continue to struggle for truth and justice,” Rukshan Fernando, board member of the national advocacy group Rights Now told IPS.

Fernando observed that if the government continues to drag its heels, it could face a tough reception at the upcoming March sessions of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council. Over the past two years the council has adopted resolutions calling on the Sri Lankan government to address lingering allegations of rights violations.

However, neither resolution has included any mention of the possibility of an international rights inquiry.

“The members of the Council have toughened the position on Sri Lanka from 2009 to 2012 and 2013, and the Indian PM’s boycott of CHOGM indicates that India is ready to be tougher on Sri Lanka,” Fernando said.

India’s role has changed considerably in the last five years. In mid-2009 when the war was in its final stages, India was instrumental in stalling a resolution brought on by European nations condemning Sri Lankan government actions.

In 2014, domestic political exigencies may push New Delhi to come full circle, according to Ramani Hariharan, a political commentator from India who served as intelligence officer with the Indian Peace Keeping Force that was stationed in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990.

“The UNHCR meet will be held in March 2014 when the Indian parliamentary poll campaign will be in full steam. The Congress (government’s) fortunes are at stake and it is likely to oblige the Dravida Munnetra K’azhagam [DMK] party’s demand to keep it in the coalition.” The DMK is a dominant party in India’s Tamil Nadu.

It was due to pressure from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu with its Tamil majority population, that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stayed away from Colombo in November.

“The UN Human Rights Council sessions can create significant pressure on Sri Lanka,” Amnesty International’s Crashaw said.

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Free Expression Still a Mirage for Zimbabwean Artists http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/free-expression-still-mirage-zimbabwean-artists/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=free-expression-still-mirage-zimbabwean-artists http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/free-expression-still-mirage-zimbabwean-artists/#comments Fri, 27 Dec 2013 15:45:08 +0000 Busani Bafana http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=129756 That citizens cannot enjoy democracy if they are ruled by an undemocratic party is the warning that got Cont Mhlanga’s play “Members” banned from theatre stages in Zimbabwe in 1985. Owen Maseko’s art is provocative and political. A 2012 painting of a bespectacled man emerging from a television set with long outstretched arms is a […]

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Owen Maseko. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Owen Maseko. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

By Busani Bafana
BULAWAYO, Dec 27 2013 (IPS)

That citizens cannot enjoy democracy if they are ruled by an undemocratic party is the warning that got Cont Mhlanga’s play “Members” banned from theatre stages in Zimbabwe in 1985.

Owen Maseko’s art is provocative and political. A 2012 painting of a bespectacled man emerging from a television set with long outstretched arms is a depiction of the bad news of the killings in Matabeleland and Midlands by government forces in 1983, which President Robert Mugabe has described as  a “moment of madness”."We are dealing with people who only understand their political positions and not the laws, especially under our new Constitution." -- Playwright Cont Mhlanga

Daring and bold define the works of Mhlanga and Maseko,  whose liberal yet dissenting artistic voices have made them personae non gratae in Zimbabwe’s art circles.

Mhlanga and Maseko have been harassed, arrested and detained for criticising the government – but they have not stopped doing what they love.

Zimbabwe is widely perceived as having repressive laws on freedom of expression, association and the media. According to Amnesty International, Zimbabwe is not walking the talk in practising human rights, guaranteed under its new constitution, launched in August 2013.

The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act of 2005 has been used to silence critics. The law was put to test in October 2013 when the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that sections were unconstitutional and should be scrapped.

In his ruling, Deputy Chief Justice Luke Malaba criticised government prosecutors for abusing the law, saying the country’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) should not be “prosecuting matters in which statements were uttered in drinking halls and other social places, as the pursuit of such frivolous matters only served to bring disrespect on the Office of the President.”

While civil society organisations and lawyers commend the Constitutional Court for taking a big step in securing freedom of expression and the rule of law, Mhlanga and Maseko have suffered persecution, humiliation and isolation.

“Once you have a government that bans you as an individual and people do not see your work but see you as a controversial and problematic figure, you do not get far,” Mhlanga, the founder and artistic director of the Amakhosi Cultural Centre and performing arts academy, told IPS.

“It is not wrong to be critical because it helps everyone but there is a misconception that when you talk about rule of law in Zimbabwe you are referring to regime change. That is the biggest misconception there is because we are dealing with people who only understand their political positions and not the laws, especially under our new Constitution.”

Mhlanga describes his work as one story of governance and transparency, and his plays offer a social commentary on politics, corruption, human rights abuses, dictatorship and dispossession. A number have been banned from the stage, earning him a reputation for not shying away from controversy.

The 1983 satirical play “Members” was prophetic of  Zimbabwe’s current politics. Infighting has rocked the ruling Zanu-PF as separate camps jockey for a candidate to succeed Mugabe, who has indicated that he will serve his current five-year term of office to 2018. Opposition parties who fared badly in the July 2013 elections are now more divided than they were in the 2008 elections.

Mhlanga’s play “Nansi Le Ndoda”, which toured Botswana in 1985, introduced him to the national and international stage with its didactic message about corruption. “Stitsha” mirrored the controversial land policies that have divided Zimbabweans today, with claims that  reforms have led to poor agricultural productivity and food insecurity.

“Workshop Negative” highlighted the conflict between rich and poor as a result of political patronage. It was banned.

“I write plays because I am stubborn about issues, not because the plays are appreciated,” said Mhlanga, lamenting that because of his work the government was not comfortable supporting any projects and graduates from his academy.

“I am affected because this persecution slows down new thoughts I would like to bring to society because society is developed by thoughts. Thought leadership does not come from a group of people but it can come from simple individuals as I write to advise and help correct what I find wrong in our society.”

Maseko has suffered personally and professionally since his Gukurahundi Exhibition held at the National Gallery in Bulawayo in 2009 was shut down by the police after it premiered. Today the section of the gallery housing the exhibition is a crime scene despite the Constitutional Court ruling that Maseko’s arrest was unconstitutional.

“The freedom to express oneself does not come free because I have paid for it with my work,” Maseko told IPS at his home studio in Bulawayo. “While I have been able to do international exhibitions, I have not been able to function in Zimbabwe as no one wants to work with me or be associated with me.”

Maseko laments that his family lives in worry that he might be arrested again to suffer a worse fate. The minister of defence, who in November 2013 was summoned by the Constitutional Court to justify Maseko’s prosecution, has since appealed the ruling.

“My celebration of being a free man has been short-lived and I do not know when this matter will be heard. It could be next year or never,” said Maseko. “Art appreciation is important and critical. If a lot of people start appreciating art then all the laws about the freedom of expression might possibly be challenged and changed.”

The Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ) has urged the government to immediately repeal the remaining laws that affect the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly, arguing they violate regional and international norms.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said banning Maseko’s work has very troubling implications for national healing, reconciliation and integration in Zimbabwe.

“It is too early for us to say that the government has embraced democratic principles as they will have by now aligned the laws in line with the provisions in the new constitution, ” ZLHR spokesperson Kumbirai Mafunda told IPS. “We expect this government to adopt modern laws and model standards that inform modern democratic societies. Zimbabweans must not be persecuted and prosecuted for free expression.”

Citing the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act and the Public Order and Security Act as some of the laws used in the past to deny people their rights to freedom expression, association and peaceful assembly, Amnesty International says in its November 2013 report, Human Rights Agenda for the New Government – 2013 to 2018, that Zimbabwe should improve its poor human rights record.

“The new constitution offers a golden opportunity for the government to begin to right the wrongs of the past, to deliver justice for its people and to allow freedom of expression,” said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Southern Africa.

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Some Cartoons Aren’t Funny http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/sketching-grim-humour/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sketching-grim-humour http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/sketching-grim-humour/#comments Mon, 23 Dec 2013 10:04:43 +0000 A. D. McKenzie http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=129693 A woman and her husband are seated at a table. As she talks, he seems to be ignoring her, his head hidden behind a newspaper. “At least Obama is listening to me,” she says. This is just one satirical reference to the ongoing international surveillance scandal, in a book published earlier this month by the […]

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Cartoon by Ann Telnaes in The New York Times.

Cartoon by Ann Telnaes in The New York Times.

By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Dec 23 2013 (IPS)

A woman and her husband are seated at a table. As she talks, he seems to be ignoring her, his head hidden behind a newspaper.

“At least Obama is listening to me,” she says.

This is just one satirical reference to the ongoing international surveillance scandal, in a book published earlier this month by the French-based group Reporters Without Borders, which works to protect freedom of expression and of information.

Titled ‘100 Cartoons by Cartooning for Peace for Press Freedom’, the book aims to raise awareness of the many assaults on freedom of expression that have taken place over the past year. It contains cartoons by more than 50 cartoonists from all over the world who have produced some laugh-out-loud work, even when one is aware that the subject isn’t fundamentally funny.

The book looks at freedom of speech, American surveillance tactics, and the state of the world. The section subtitled ‘Spying on the World’ contains some of the most satirical cartoons, but some drawings may offend individual readers.

One troubling aspect of the book, for instance, is the way certain cartoonists tend to depict characters of African origin, whether they are presidents or the poor. Some of the usual stereotypical representations can be found here in a few instances, and they smack of insensitivity, even for readers who try not to be like the person who says in one cartoon: “I’m all for free speech … unless I find it personally offensive.”“We can’t talk about political correctness and say cartoonists must draw certain groups only in a certain way."

Nicolas Vadot, a Belgium-based cartoonist featured in the book, told IPS that the cartoons involved reflect the style of the individual cartoonist, who draws everyone as “ugly”.

“We can’t talk about political correctness and say cartoonists must draw certain groups only in a certain way,” Vadot says. “You’ll find someone offended by anything.”

Patrick Chapatte, a popular cartoonist whose work appears in international newspapers, said in an interview published in the book that “it’s all a question of temperament.

“Some cartoonists will do anything for a laugh and to try to stretch the limits. I just try to get it right. To know how to be provocative when necessary and to be serious when necessary,” he said.

His understated humour and unfussy drawings make for incisive commentary in the book, as when he shows a commuter in a packed train screeching on his cell phone: “Outrageous! The government is listening to all our conversations!”

For former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, “cartoonists must provoke discussion with sensitivity for the considerations and feelings of others.” But even when they try to do this, cartoons can still offend.

“It may even be required of them,” Annan says in a foreword to the book. “But we cannot forget that the freedom to communicate through images is an important right which must be defended and upheld.

“In no context is this more important than when cartoonists use their images to resist oppression, hold leaders to account, and speak truth to power on behalf of those with no voice,” he adds.

Annan and the renowned French cartoonist Plantu founded Cartooning For Peace in 2006 in the wake of protests and riots around the world sparked by the controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The organisation now comprises more than 100 cartoonists representing 40 nationalities and all the world’s major religions.

The initiative was meant to highlight the notion that cartoonists’ influence comes with a “responsibility to encourage debate rather than inflame passions, to educate rather than divide,” Annan says.

The new book, a joint project between Reporters Without Borders and Cartooning for Peace, is a “reminder of the challenges that reporters continue to face in many parts of the world, and also of the importance” of organisations such as Reporters Without Borders that work to safeguard freedom of information and to protect and support journalists, Annan says.

If anyone doubted the importance of such efforts, a recent report makes for sobering reflection. Reporters Without Borders says that in 2013, 71 journalists were killed in connection with their work, and 87 were kidnapped.

The number of deaths was lower than in 2012, but abductions are a 129 percent rise from last year. Reporters Without Borders says that “Syria, Somalia and Pakistan retained their position among the world’s five deadliest countries for the media.”

The organisation added that “threats and violence forced a growing number of journalists to flee abroad,” while at least 178 journalists are in prison right now.

Cartoonists themselves have been the victims of harassment and even physical harm in a number of countries. The book profiles Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, a critic of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, who in 2011 was abducted and tortured by assailants. They also broke his left hand – the one he uses to draw. Cartooning for Peace managed to get him out of the country and he now lives in Kuwait, where he still gets threats through the Internet, he says.

Against this backdrop, the drawings in ‘100 cartoons’ take on an added dimension. This is the first time that Reporters Without Borders has brought out a book of cartoons instead of photographs since it began publishing its press freedom books in 1992. The group says that the proceeds from the sales will be used to help fund Reporters Without Borders’ activities in the field in support of journalists and bloggers.

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Citizen Journalists Take the Lead on Gender Issues http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/citizen-journalists-take-lead-gender-issues/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=citizen-journalists-take-lead-gender-issues http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/citizen-journalists-take-lead-gender-issues/#comments Sat, 14 Dec 2013 09:53:44 +0000 Stella Paul http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=129545 Twenty-five-year-old Ragae Hammidi of Casa Blanca, Morocco wears two hats. Five days a week, she attends a business school. But on weekends, she is a journalist who goes out on the street with a small camera, shooting videos of people and issues that go untold by professional media outlets. “I report what is happening to […]

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By Stella Paul
BANGKOK, Dec 14 2013 (IPS)

Twenty-five-year-old Ragae Hammidi of Casa Blanca, Morocco wears two hats. Five days a week, she attends a business school. But on weekends, she is a journalist who goes out on the street with a small camera, shooting videos of people and issues that go untold by professional media outlets.

“I report what is happening to girls and young women. It’s my story. If those responsible for reporting it do not, then I have a duty to tell it,” Hammidi says.

Hammidi shares an example. Morocco has a law allowing rapists to avoid charges if they marry their victims. In March 2012, a young woman who had been forced to marry her rapist committed suicide. It was local citizens who reported it while the professional media, fearing official reprisals, kept quiet.“I report what is happening to girls and young women. It’s my story. If those responsible for reporting it do not, then I have a duty to tell it.”

“Can you imagine a young girl first getting raped and then being forced to marry the same guy who hurt her? There are many such stories in our country that are not reported by the media. So it is up to us citizens to talk about it. We pick up our cameras and mobile phones and tell the story as we see it happening,” she says.

Hammidi spoke of her experiences at the 1st Global Forum on Media and Gender held here last week. Organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the forum aims to increase participation of women in the media and also their access to new communication technologies.

Hammidi was trained by Global Girls in Media, a development media organisation that teaches high school girl students how to become citizen journalists and report on gender issues.

There are several thousand citizen journalists – most without any form of training – reporting today from Morocco and other Arab countries, including Sudan, Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and, most notably, Syria.

All these countries have one common feature: their traditional media is largely controlled by the government which is opposed to freedom of the press beyond a certain limit. This, coupled with easy access to Internet technology, has pushed citizens to take up reporting.

The content they generate – written reports, videos, audio messages and photographs – is fast becoming a primary source of information for an audience worldwide.

Fedwa Misk is the founder editor of Qandisha, a web-based magazine in Rabat, Morocco. Though a mainstream media outlet, she says only 20 percent of her writers are professionally trained journalists. The reason, she says, is that the magazine raises “disturbing and uncomfortable” issues such as rape, marital abuse, torture, along with regressive anti-women laws.

“Most of my writers are women who have experienced this first hand, so there is a lot of honesty in their writing. Readers love that. We have instances where they also respond quickly if there is a call to action,” she says.

Many citizen journalists are also driven by their passion for gender issues and are often ready to offer their content for free – another reason why many media outlets willingly accept them.

Bushra Al Ameen is the owner of Al Mahaba, a community radio station in Baghdad, Iraq, dedicated to women’s issues. She often uses content provided by citizen journalists, especially from areas that her own reporters cannot reach. “I run an 18-hour radio station. If citizen journalists are willing to give us stories, we take them,” she says.

But citizen journalists also often risk their lives, especially in regions that are politically volatile. According to research conducted by the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, since the beginning of the uprising in Syria in 2011 till November 2012, 72 reporters, including citizen journalists, have been killed.

“Detention, shooting, organised rape, torture – these journalists are subjected to various forms of violence every day. But it is difficult to count their exact numbers as many of them keep moving in and out of reporting,” says Abeer Saady, vice-president of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate.

Saady, a professional journalist who has been physically tortured by Egyptian police, tries to identify, locate and train women citizen journalists in Arab countries. “It is very important for them to receive some safety training because if anything happens to them, there will be no compensation paid,” she says.

Peter Townson, lead writer at the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, thinks that alongside safety, citizen journalists also need training in how to report a story.

“In most cases, you cannot verify the sources. So basically you don’t know how much of what is reported is true and how much is exaggerated.”  The only way to deal with this is to identify and train the citizen journalists, he says.

Rachael Maddock-Hughes, director of Strategy and Partnerships at World Pulse, an action media organisation with 50,000 citizen journalists, agrees. World Pulse, based in Oregon in the U.S., trains women social activists in 190 countries in citizen journalism.

Says Maddock-Hughes, “We also channel their stories and solutions to leading mainstream media outlets.”

According to her, the programmes help women articulate their message better and allow them to be taken more seriously by a larger audience, especially on issues like gender violence.

Shekina, one of the citizen journalists trained by World Pulse, was the first woman to write against the practice of breast ironing in her West African country, Cameroon. She shot a video showing how older women were applying a hot iron to the chest of young teenage girls to stop their breasts from sprouting. The video drew condemnation and raised a global demand to end the practice.

Similarly, activists-turned-citizen journalists have written and helped launch worldwide campaigns against social practices like female genital mutilation and ostracism of girls during menstruation.

There would be much more such action and direct impact if more people at the grassroots accessed the Internet, says Meribeni Kikon, a citizen journalist in Kohima in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland. She reports on gender inequality practised by the local churches and also violence against women such as date rape.

She says such issues cannot be reported from the districts as there is no Internet connectivity. “If only women here were able to access the Internet, they could not only report but also seek help in a crisis situation,” she says.

Eun Ju Kim, director of International Telecom Union (ITU), Asia-Pacific, also outlines the role of mobile technology in promoting gender equality.

“The world over, women and girls are behind men because they lack access to equitable opportunities in information technology. Access to broadband is critical for the empowerment of women,” says Kim, the first woman director of the ITU.

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Kremlin Tightens Grip on Media http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/kremlin-tightens-grip-media/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=kremlin-tightens-grip-media http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/kremlin-tightens-grip-media/#comments Sat, 14 Dec 2013 09:52:32 +0000 Pavol Stracansky http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=129546 Russia is set to lose one of its few relatively objective news outlets as the Kremlin moves to tighten its grip on the country’s media. In an unexpected move earlier this week President Vladimir Putin ordered the closure of the RIA Novosti news agency and the creation of a new global news agency – Rossia […]

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The Kremlin is tightening its grip on media. Credit: Pavol Stracansky/IPS.

The Kremlin is tightening its grip on media. Credit: Pavol Stracansky/IPS.

By Pavol Stracansky
MOSCOW, Dec 14 2013 (IPS)

Russia is set to lose one of its few relatively objective news outlets as the Kremlin moves to tighten its grip on the country’s media.

In an unexpected move earlier this week President Vladimir Putin ordered the closure of the RIA Novosti news agency and the creation of a new global news agency – Rossia Segodnya – to be run by one of the most pro-government figures in the media.

The Kremlin said the decision was taken for financial reasons.

But critics say the development means that the new station will almost certainly become just a tool for government propaganda.

Tatiana Gomozova, a journalist and political analyst with Kommersant FM radio station, told IPS: “It’s another media outlet being turned into a propaganda bureau with all RIA’s facilities now to be used for propaganda.”“It’s another media outlet being turned into a propaganda bureau."

Although state-owned, RIA Novosti was seen as one of Russia’s most objective news services in a media landscape which is heavily regulated and largely under government control.

Almost all the country’s TV channels are controlled by the state, while most regional newspapers are, mainly because of financial ties, in the hands of local authorities.

Among national newspapers there is some degree of independent and critical reporting on various issues.

Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Bureau at Reporters Without Borders, told IPS: “The national press is slightly different in that it is probably the most critical of the government – i.e. some criticism can be found there at least, and certainly among some of the online news outlets.”

But individual journalists also face problems doing their work. While self-censorship is a problem among journalists – although Reporters Without Borders says that this practice has been waning in recent years – independent journalists reporting critically on the state, especially in areas such as human rights, can often find themselves facing intimidation, or worse.

According to the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), 62 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1997, making it the sixth deadliest country in the world for reporters in the last 16 years. But the group also warns that the real figure could be higher as impunity for attacks on journalists in Russia remains the general rule and the vast majority of cases go unsolved.

In an interview with the IPI earlier this year, Novaya Gazeta investigative reporter Elena Milashina explained the problems faced by some journalists in Russia.

She said: “I think there was a kind of political order or demand in the country when Putin came to power the first time; he kind of announced a war on free media….When such attacks on journalists happen, journalists go to the police and the police don’t want to investigate. When they have to do so, because of a murder, they do it slowly because no one is pushing. Impunity is the rule and they understand that nothing will happen to them if they don’t investigate.

“Behind murders, a high-level politician stands in almost all cases. Investigators understand that if they are digging around, they will have problems. When people try to criticise the regime – not just journalists, but human rights defenders too – at a high level they try to show that it’s not safe to do so, and that they [politicians] can get away with anything.”

The authorities’ iron grip on the media is highlighted by the fact that Russia currently ranks 148th in Reporters Without Borders’ Freedom of the Press Index. This puts it below countries such as Libya, Angola and Afghanistan.

The appointment of one of its most fervent supporters to the top position in the Rossia Segodnya agency suggests state control is not being relaxed in any way.

Dmitri Kiselyov is a TV host who is well-known for his pro-government and ultra-conservative views. He has previously praised Stalinist policies and recently called for the hearts of homosexuals to be burned when they die.

Speaking on state-owned TV channel Russia 24 just hours after his appointment he outlined the aims for Rossia Segodnya as “restoring a fair attitude towards Russia, an important country in the world that has good intentions, is the mission of the new organisation.”

And it is his appointment, directly by Putin, as head of the news agency that is a more worrying signal of the government’s intent towards the country’s media than the liquidation of a relatively objective news outlet, say experts.

Gomozova told IPS: “There’s not much media freedom in Russia already, so losing RIA won’t mean we’ve lost that much. But this is a very strong signal for journalists – nobody is safe now.

“The government doesn’t care even about its own media. They don’t respect any media with a story, nor its team, nor that team’s job. They need a resource so they just go and get it.”

Bihr added: “It sounds ominous for the future that Kiselyov has been made head of the new organisation, and the fact that its head has been appointed by the president directly says a lot about its possible future policy.”

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