Inter Press Service » Press Freedom Turning the World Downside Up Thu, 23 Oct 2014 00:50:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Cash-Strapped Human Rights Office at Breaking Point, Says New Chief Thu, 16 Oct 2014 21:47:50 +0000 Thalif Deen Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks at the opening of the 27th session of the Human Rights Council on Sep. 8, 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland. Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks at the opening of the 27th session of the Human Rights Council on Sep. 8, 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland. Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

By Thalif Deen

After six weeks in office, the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan launched a blistering attack on member states for insufficient funding, thereby forcing operations in his office to the breaking point “in a world that seems to be lurching from crisis to ever-more dangerous crisis.”

“I am already having to look at making cuts because of our current financial situation,” he told reporters Thursday, pointing out while some U.N. agencies have budgets of over a billion dollars, the office of the UNHCHR has a relatively measly budget of 87 million dollars per year for 2014 and 2015."I have been asked to use a boat and a bucket to cope with a flood." -- U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein

“I have been asked to use a boat and a bucket to cope with a flood,” he said, even as the Human Rights Council and the Security Council saddles the cash-strapped office with new fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry – with six currently underway and a seventh “possibly round the corner.”

Jens Martens, director of the Global Policy Forum (GPF) in Bonn, told IPS that governments treat the United Nations like firefighters.

“They call them to a fire but don’t give them the water to extinguish the fire and then blame the firefighters for their failure,” he said.

Martens welcomed the “the powerful statement” by the UNHCHR, describing it as a wake-up call for governments to take responsibility and finally provide the necessary funding for the United Nations.

Martens said for many years, Western governments, led by the United States, have insisted on a zero-growth doctrine for U.N. core budget.

“They bear major responsibility for the chronic weakness of the U.N. to respond to global challenges and crises,” he added.

The Office of the UNHCHR depends on voluntary contributions from member states to cover almost all of its field activities worldwide, as well as essential support work at its headquarters in Geneva.

“Despite strong backing from many donors, the level of contributions is not keeping pace with the constantly expanding demands of my Office,” Zeid said.

Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, told IPS the dramatic gap between the demands on the U.N. human rights office and the resources it has available is unsustainable.

“It’s time for states to match their commitment to human rights by providing the resources needed for the High Commissioner and his team to do their jobs,” she said.

Renzo Pomi, Amnesty International’s representative at the United Nations, told IPS it is wrong that the office of the UNHCHR’s core and mandated activities are not fully funded from the U.N.’s regular budget.

This, despite the fact, – as the High Commissioner himself points out – human rights are regularly described as one of the three pillars of the United Nations (along with development and peace and security).

Pomi said the office receives just over three percent of the U.N.’s regular budget.

“That makes for a short pillar and a badly aligned roof. U.N. member states should make sure that its core and mandated activities are properly funded,” he added.

Singling out the cash-crisis in the World Health Organisation (WHO), Martens told IPS a recent example is the weakness of WHO in responding to the Ebola pandemic.

Due to budget constraints WHO had to cut the funding for its outbreak and crisis response programme by more than 50 percent in the last two years.

It’s a scandal that the fraction of the regular budget allocation for human rights is less than 100 million dollars per year, and that the Office of the High Commissioner is mainly dependent on voluntary contributions.

Human Rights cannot be promoted and protected on a mere voluntary basis.

He said voluntary, and particularly earmarked, contributions are often not the solution but part of the problem.

Earmarking tends to turn U.N. agencies, funds and programmes into contractors for bilateral or public-private projects, eroding the multilateral character of the system and undermining democratic governance, said Martens.

“In order to provide global public goods, we need sufficient global public funds,” he said.

Therefore, member states must overcome their austerity policy towards the United Nations.

For many years Global Policy Forum has been calling for sufficient and predictable U.N. funding from governments, said Martens. In light of current global challenges and crises this call is more urgent than ever before, he added.

Zeid told reporters human rights are currently under greater pressure than they have been in a long while. “Our front pages and TV and computer screens are filled with a constant stream of presidents and ministers talking of conflict and human rights violations, and the global unease about the proliferating crises is palpable.”

He said the U.N. human rights system is asked to intervene in those crises, to investigate allegations of abuses, to press for accountability and to teach and encourage, so as to prevent further violations.

But time and time again “we have been instructed to do these and other major extra activities within existing resources,” said Zeid, a former Permanent Representative of Jordan to the United Nations.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

]]> 2
Half a Century of Struggle Against Underdevelopment Mon, 22 Sep 2014 04:55:17 +0000 Pablo Piacentini

This is the fifth in a series of special articles to commemorate the 50th anniversary of IPS, which was set up in 1964, the same year as the Group of 77 (G77) and the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Pablo Piacentini is co-founder of IPS and current director of the IPS Columnist Service.

By Pablo Piacentini
ROME, Sep 22 2014 (IPS)

The idea of creating Inter Press Service (IPS) arose in the early 1960s in response to awareness that a vacuum existed in the world of journalism, which had two basic aspects.

Firstly, there was a marked imbalance in international information sources. World news production was concentrated in the largest industrialised countries and dominated by a few powerful agencies and syndicates in the global North.

By contrast, there was a lack of information about developing countries in the South and elsewhere; there was hardly any information about their political, economic and social realities, except when natural disasters occurred, and what little was reported was culturally prejudiced against these countries. In other words, not much of an image and a poor image at that.A journalist specialised in development issues must be able to look at and analyse information and reality from the “other side.” In spite of globalisation and the revolution in communications, this “other side” continues to be unknown and disregarded, and occupies a marginal position in the international information universe

Secondly, there was an overall shortage of analysis and explanation of the processes behind news events and a lack of in-depth journalistic genres such as features, opinion articles and investigative journalism among the agencies.

Agencies published mainly ‘spot’ news, that is, brief pieces with the bare news facts and little background. Clearly this type of journalism did not lend itself to covering development-related issues.

When reporting an epidemic or a catastrophe in a Third World country, spot news items merely describe the facts and disseminate broadcast striking images. What they generally do not do is make an effort to answer questions such as why diseases that have disappeared or are well under control in the North should cause such terrible regional pandemics in less developed countries, or why a major earthquake in Los Angeles or Japan should cause much less damage and fewer deaths than a smaller earthquake in Haiti.

Superficiality and bias still predominate in international journalism.

While it is true that contextualised analytical information started to appear in the op-ed (“opposite the editorial page”) section of Anglo-Saxon newspapers, the analysis and commentary they offered concentrated on the countries of the North and their interests.

Today the number of op-eds that appear is much greater than in the 1960s, but the predominant focus continues to be on the North.

This type of top-down, North-centred journalism served the interests of industrialised countries, prolonging and extending their global domination and the subordination of non-industrialised countries that export commodities with little or no added value.

This unequal structure of global information affected developing countries negatively. For example, because of the image created by scanty and distorted information, it was unlikely that the owners of expanding businesses in a Northern country would decide to set up a factory in a country of the South.

After all, they knew little or nothing about these countries and, given the type of reporting about them that they were accustomed to, assumed that they were uncivilised and dangerous, with unreliable judicial systems, lack of infrastructure, and so on.

Obviously, few took the risk, and investments were most frequently North-North, reinforcing development in developed countries and underdevelopment in underdeveloped countries.

Pablo Piacentini

Pablo Piacentini

In the 1960s, those of us who created IPS set ourselves the goal of working to correct the biased, unequal and distorted image of the world projected by international agencies in those days.

Political geography and economics were certainly quite different then. Countries like Brazil, which is now an emerging power, used to be offhandedly dismissed with the quip: “It’s the country of the future – and always will be.”

At the time, decolonisation was under way in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Latin America was politically independent but economically dependent. The Non-Aligned Movement was created in 1961.

IPS never set out to present a “positive” image of the countries of the South by glossing over or turning a blind eye to the very real problems, such as corruption. Instead, we wished to present an objective view, integrating information about the South, its viewpoints and interests, into the global information media.

This implied a different approach to looking at the world and doing journalism. It meant looking at it from the viewpoint of the realities of the South and its social and economic problems.

Let me give an example which has a direct link to development.

The media tend to dwell on what they present as the negative consequences of commodity price rises: they cause inflation, are costly for consumers and their families, and distort the world economy. Clearly, this is the viewpoint of the industrialised countries that import cheap raw materials and transform them into manufactured goods as the basis for expanding their businesses and competing in the global marketplace.

It is true that steep and sudden price increases for some commodities can create problems in the international economy, as well as affect the population of some poor countries that have to import these raw materials.

But generalised and constant complaints about commodities price increases fail to take into account the statistically proven secular trend towards a decline in commodity prices (with the exception of oil since 1973) compared with those of manufactured goods.

IPS’s editorial policy is to provide news and analyses that show how, in the absence of fair prices and proper remuneration for their commodities, and unless more value is added to agricultural and mineral products, poor countries reliant on commodity exports cannot overcome underdevelopment and poverty.

Many communications researchers have recognised IPS’s contribution to developing a more analytical and appropriate journalism for focusing on and understanding economic, social and political processes, as well as contributing to greater knowledge of the problems faced by countries of the South.

Journalists addressing development issues need, in the first place, to undertake critical analysis of the content of news circulating in the information arena.

Then they must analyse economic and social issues from the “other point of view”, that of marginalised and oppressed people, and of poor countries unable to lift themselves out of underdevelopment because of unfavourable terms of trade, agricultural protectionism, and so on.

They must understand how and why some emerging countries are succeeding in overcoming underdevelopment, and what role can be played by international cooperation.

They also need to examine whether the countries of the North and the international institutions they control are imposing conditions on bilateral or multilateral agreements that actually perpetuate unequal development.

World economic geography and politics may have changed greatly since the 1960s, and new information technologies may have revolutionised the media of today, but these remain some important areas in which imbalanced and discriminatory news treatment is evident.

In conclusion, a journalist specialised in development issues must be able to look at and analyse information and reality from the “other side.” In spite of globalisation and the revolution in communications, this “other side” continues to be unknown and disregarded, and occupies a marginal position in the international information universe.

An appreciation of the true dimensions of the above issues, the contrast between them and the information and analysis we are fed daily by the predominant media virtually all over the world – not only in the North, but also many by media in the South – leads to the obvious conclusion that there is a crying need for unbiased global journalism to help correct North-South imbalance.

To this arduous task and still far-off goal, IPS has devoted its wholehearted efforts over the past half century.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

]]> 0
OPINION: This Flower Is Right Here Mon, 25 Aug 2014 12:10:03 +0000 Ernest Corea This is the second in a series of special articles to commemorate the 50th anniversary of IPS, which was set up in 1964, the same year as the Group of 77 (G77) and UNCTAD.]]>

This is the second in a series of special articles to commemorate the 50th anniversary of IPS, which was set up in 1964, the same year as the Group of 77 (G77) and UNCTAD.

By Ernest Corea
WASHINGTON, Aug 25 2014 (IPS)

Where have all the flowers gone? Yes, of course, those are the opening words of a beautiful song made famous by such illustrious singers as Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Vera Lynn and the Kingston Trio, among others. It was a great number made greater by the different styles in which singers of different musical temperaments belted it out.

But what has that got to do with a news and feature service – Inter Press Service — which has survived in a relentlessly competitive field and become internationally known as the voice of the underdog?IPS not only reflects (in its coverage) the realities of the “other.” It is actually part of the other.

The flowers in the song whose first few verses were written by Pete Seeger have gone to their graveyards. Similarly, non-traditional news services, news magazines, features services, and other innovative and non-traditional purveyors of information and opinion have sprouted like seasonal flora only to disappear – presumably on their way to that great big information graveyard in the skies.

Numerous efforts have been made by information entrepreneurs, journalists, publishers, and others to create a lasting and relevant instrument of communication different from those already well established, but most have failed. Some have frayed, withered and died faster than one can say Rabindranath Tagore.

That is an exaggeration, of course. (It’s early in the morning as I write, when exaggerations come faster than ideas.) In more prosaic terms, many such efforts, launched with great enthusiasm and hope, have faltered and flopped.

A few have survived, demonstrating that given the right circumstances and resources, alternative forms of dissemination can survive and flourish. Prominent among them is Inter Press Service, much better known by its shortened form, IPS.

The story goes that several years ago a messenger in a South Asian capital entered the office of a newspaper publisher to announce that “a gentleman from IPS is waiting to see you.” The publisher, already overloaded with tasks, each of them potentially a crisis, growled in reply: “Why would I want to meet somebody from the Indian Postal Service. Those buggers can’t even deliver a letter to the address clearly written on the front of an envelope.”

Courtesy of Ernest Corea

Courtesy of Ernest Corea

Doggedly the messenger, pejoratively known as a “peon,” the imported term bestowed on messengers by sahibs representing His/Her (unemployed) Britannic Majesty, says: “Not postman. Pressman.”

Irritated by now to a point dangerously close to incipient apoplexy, the publisher looks as if he is going to burst like an over-inflated balloon when the peon announces:. “Sir, he is from Inter Press Service.”

Calm is restored. The danger of an apoplectic outburst passes on like a potential monsoonal shower that turns out to be not even a drizzle. The publisher composes himself and wears his welcoming look. The peon is instructed to let the visitor in and also order up some tea for him.

The representative of Inter Press Service (now internationally known and recognised as IPS) comes in and is welcomed in a businesslike fashion, but with obvious warmth. And well he should be, for IPS was and continues to be like a breath of fresh air entering a room whose windows have rarely been opened.

For many years, representatives of developing country media (this writer among them) complained bitterly at regional and international conferences that circumstances compelled them to publish or broadcast news and views about their own countries, towns and villages, and people – people, for goodness sake – written by strangers in far-off lands, many of whom had never visited the countries they were writing about.

They had no hesitation in writing, broadcasting or publishing advice on how such countries should be organised and governed.

Several efforts were made to correct this imbalance but nobody seemed able to design the appropriate model. Gemini news service? Gone. Lankapuvath? Reduced to the level of a government gazette. Depth News? Up there with the dodo. Pan Asia News? Difficult to locate even through the internet. Then,  IPS came along.

The founders of IPS dealt with reality, as IPS does even today, not with slogans. Politicians and political journalists could play around all they wanted with  a “new international information order” or whatever their pet formulation might be.

IPS would, instead, attempt to service media outlets, print and electronic, with material written by journalists mainly from the South writing about the South from the South. Authenticity, thus, is a key IPS strength.

Even in its U.N. Bureau which is not country specific but, in effect, covers the world,  the rich flavour of internationalism is seamlessly combined with national concerns of small and powerless countries. whose interests are insouciantly ignored by the  maharajahs of international news dissemination.

IPS is different. It is authentic, as already pointed out. It is also down-to-earth and makes a strenuous effort to cover events, processes and trends emanating from developing countries and intertwined with the interests of those countries – and their peoples.

Contemporary history has demonstrated that failure to identify those interests and meet them leads to societal disequilibrium, dysfunctional politics, and disjointed economic development.

Thus, IPS not only reflects (in its coverage) the realities of the “other.” It is actually part of the other, bringing to the attention of audiences, readerships, and so on, activities – or lack of opportunities for activities – that go to the very heart of human development.

IPS is capable of functioning as both a catalyst and monitor of development. Other efforts to create and nurture such an institution have failed, mainly because they lacked high professional standards as well as funding.

The standards side has now been well established and IPS is not merely “recognised” but has won prestigious awards for the style, content, and relevance of its coverage. Often, it covers the stories that should be covered but are ignored by media maharajahs.

This effort has continued for 50 years. Can IPS continue to survive and thrive? It could and should – but only if it has the resources required.  Even the most exquisite bloom cannot survive unless it receives the tender loving care it deserves.

IPS is too critically important a media institution to be allowed to languish for want of resources. Moolah should not trump media relevance.

Ernest Corea is a former editor of the Ceylon Daily News, and more recently, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States.

The first article in this series can be read here.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

]]> 0
OPINION: International Relations, the U.N. and Inter Press Service Fri, 22 Aug 2014 14:37:48 +0000 Roberto Savio This is the first in a series of special articles to commemorate the 50th anniversary of IPS, which was set up in 1964, the same year as the Group of 77 (G77) and UNCTAD.]]> IPS's then Director-General Roberto Savio honours the director-general of the International Labour Organisation, Juan Somavía of Chile, Oct. 29, 1999. Credit: UN Photo/Susan Markisz

IPS's then Director-General Roberto Savio honours the director-general of the International Labour Organisation, Juan Somavía of Chile, Oct. 29, 1999. Credit: UN Photo/Susan Markisz

By Roberto Savio
ROME, Aug 22 2014 (IPS)

In 1979, I had a debate at the United Nations with the late Stan Swinton, then the very powerful and brilliant director of Associated Press (AP). At one point, I furnished the following figures (which had been slow to change), as an example of Western bias in the media:

In 1964, four transnational news agencies – AP, United Press International (UPI), Agence France Presse (AFP) and Reuters – handled 92 percent of world information flow. The other agencies from industrialised countries, including the Soviet news agency TASS, handled a further 7 percent. That left the rest of the world with a mere 1 percent.In a world where we need to create new alliances, the commitment of IPS is to continue its work for better information, at the service of peace and cooperation.

Why, I asked, was the entire world obliged to receive information from the likes of AP in which the United States was always the main actor? Swinton’s reply was brief and to the point: “Roberto, the U.S. media account for 99 percent of our revenues. Do you think they are more interested in our secretary of state, or in an African minister?”

This structural reality is what lay behind the creation of Inter Press Service (IPS) in 1964, the same year in which the Group of 77 (G77) coalition of developing countries saw the light. I found it unacceptable that information was not really democratic and that – for whatever reason, political or economic – it was leaving out two-thirds of humankind.

We set up an international, non-profit cooperative of journalists, in which – by statute – every working journalist had one share and in which those like me from the North could not account for more than 20 percent of the membership.

As importantly, we stipulated that nobody from the North could report from the South. We set ourselves the challenge of providing journalists from developing countries with the opportunity to refute Northern claims that professional quality was inferior in the South.

Two other significant factors differentiated IPS from the transnational news agencies.

First, IPS was created to cover international affairs, unlike AP, UPI, AFP and Reuters, where international coverage was in addition to the main task of covering national events.

Second, IPS was dedicated to the long-term process and not just to events. By doing this, we would be giving a voice to those who were absent in the traditional flow of information – not only the countries  of the South, but also neglected actors such as women, indigenous peoples and the grassroots, as well as issues such as human rights, environment, multiculturalism,  international social justice and the search for global governance…

Of course, all this was not easily understood or accepted.

We decided to support the creation of national news agencies and radio and TV stations in the countries of the South because we saw these as steps towards the pluralism of information. In fact, we helped to set up 22 of these national news agencies.

That created distrust on both sides of the fence. Many ministers of information in the South looked on us with suspicion because, while we were engaging in a useful and legitimate battle, we refused to accept any form of state control. In the North, the traditional and private media looked on us as a “spokesperson” for the Third World.

In 1973, the Press Agencies Pool of the Non-Aligned Movement agreed to use IPS, which was growing everywhere, as its international carrier. At the same time, in the United Nations, the call was ringing for the establishment of a New International Economic Order (NIEO) and was approved by the General Assembly with the full support of the Security Council.

It looked like global governance was on its way, based on the ideas of international economic justice, participation and development as the cornerstone values for the world economic order.

In 1981 all this came to an end. Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom decided to destroy multilateralism and, with it, the very concept of social justice.

One of the first actions taken was to ask all countries working with IPS to cut any relation with us, and dismantle their national systems of information. Within a few years, the large majority of national news agencies, and radio and TV stations disappeared.  From now on, information was to be a market, not a policy.

The United States and the United Kingdom (along with Singapore) withdrew from the U.N. Scientific, Cultural and Educational Organisation (UNESCO) over moves to establish a New International Information Order (NIIO) as a corollary to NIEO, and the policy of establishing national systems of information disappeared. The world changed direction, and the United Nations has never recovered from that change.

IPS was not funded by countries, it was an independent organisation, and even if we lost all our clients from the world of national systems of information, we had many private media as clients. So we survived, but we decided to look for new alliances, with those who were continuing the quest for world governance based on participation and justice, with people interested in global issues, like human rights, the environment and so on.

It is worth noting that the United Nations was moving along a parallel path. In the 1990s, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the sixth U.N. secretary-general, launched a series of world conferences on global issues, with the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) – also widely known as the ‘Earth Summit’ – the first in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

For the first time, not only we of IPS – a non-governmental organisation (NGO) recognised by the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) – but any NGO interested in and concerned with environmental issues could attend.

Actually, we really had two conferences, albeit separated by 36 kilometres: one, the inter-governmental conference with 15,000 participants, and the other the NGO Forum, the civil society conference with over 20,000 participants. And it was clear that the civil society forum was pushing for the success of the Earth Summit much more than many delegates!

To create a communication space for the two different gatherings, IPS conceived and produced a daily newspaper – TerraViva – to be distributed widely in order to create a sense of communality. We continued to do so at the other U.N.-organised global conferences in the 1990s (on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, on Population in Cairo in 1994, on Women in Beijing in 1995, and the Social Summit in Copenhagen, also in 1995).

We then decided to maintain it as a daily publication, to be distributed throughout the United Nation system: this is the TerraViva that reaches you daily, and is the link between IPS and members of the U.N. family.

Against this backdrop, it is sad to note that the world suddenly took a turn for the worse with the end of the Cold War at the end of the 1980s, when an endless number of unresolved fault lines that had been frozen during the period of East-West hostility came to light.

This year, for example, the number of persons displaced by conflict has reached the same figures as at the end of the Second World War.

Social injustice, not only at national but also at the international level, is growing at an unprecedented speed. The 50 richest men (no women) in the world accrued their wealth in 2013 by the equivalent of the national budgets of Brazil and Canada.

According to Oxfam, at the present pace, by the year 2030 the United Kingdom will have the same level of social inequality as during the reign of Queen Victoria, a period in which an unknown philosopher by the name of Karl Marx was working in the library of the British Museum on his studies of the exploitation of children in the new industrial revolution.

Fifty years after the creation of IPS, I believe more than ever that the world is unsustainable without some kind of global governance. History has shown us that this cannot come from military superiority … and events are now becoming history fast.

During my life I have seen a country of 600 million people in 1956, trying to make iron from scraps in schools, factories and hospitals, turn into a country of 1.2 billion today and well on the road towards becoming the world’s most industrialised country.

The world had 3.5 billion people in 1964, and now has over 7.0 billion, and will be over 9.0 billion in 20 years’ time.

In 1954, sub-Saharan Africa had 275 million inhabitants and now has around 800 million, soon to become one billion in the next decade, well more than the combined population of the United States and Europe.

To repeat what Reagan and Thatcher did in 1981 is therefore impossible – and, anyhow, the real problem for everybody is that there is no progress on any central issue, from the environment to nuclear disarmament.

Finance has taken a life of its own, different from that of economic production and beyond the reach of governments. The two engines of globalisation, finance and trade, are not part of U.N. discourse. Development means to ‘be more’, while globalisation has come to mean to ‘have more’ – two very different paradigms.

In just 50 years, the world of information has changed also beyond imagination. The internet has given voice to social media and the traditional media are in decline. We have gone, for the first time in history, from a world of information to a world of communication. International relations now go well beyond the inter-governmental relations, and the ‘net’ has created new demands for accountability and transparency, the bases for democracy.

And, unlike 50 years ago, there is a growing divide between citizens and public institutions. The issue of corruption, which 50 years ago was a hushed-up affair, is now one of the issues that begs for a renewal of politics. And all this, like it or not, is basically an issue of values.

IPS was created on a platform of values, to make information more democratic and participatory, and to give the voice to those who did not have one. Over the last 50 years, through their work and support, hundreds and hundreds of people have shared the hope of contributing to a better world. A wide-ranging tapestry of their commitment is offered in The Journalists Who Turned the World Upside Down, a book written by over 100 personalities and practising journalists.

It is evident that those values continue to be very current today, and that information continues to be an irreplaceable tool for creating awareness and democracy, even if it is becoming more and more a commodity, event-oriented and market-oriented.

But, in my view, there is no doubt that all the data show us clearly that we must find some global governance, based on participation, social justice and international law, or else we will enter a new period of dramatic confrontation and social unrest.

In a world where we need to create new alliances, the commitment of IPS is to continue its work for better information, at the service of peace and cooperation … and to support those who share the same dream.

Roberto Savio is founder of IPS and President Emeritus.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp


]]> 2
Azerbaijan: Human Rights Plummet to New Low Sun, 10 Aug 2014 19:29:20 +0000 Shahin Abbasov Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev chats with OSCE PA President Ranko Krivokapic, Jun. 28, 2014, in Baku. Credit: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly/CC-BY-2.0

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev chats with OSCE PA President Ranko Krivokapic, Jun. 28, 2014, in Baku. Credit: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly/CC-BY-2.0

By Shahin Abbasov
BAKU, Aug 10 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Azerbaijan in recent months has launched a clear assault against various civil society activists and non-governmental organisations. While rough treatment of critics is nothing new in this energy-rich South-Caucasus country, one question remains unanswered: Why pick up the pace now?

Some observers link this behavior to two causes: The February resignation of Ukraine’s ex-President Alexander Yanukovich in response to mass protests, and the Azerbaijani government’s keen desire for a protest-free 2015 European Games, a Summer Olympics for European countries that is a pet-project of President Ilham Aliyev.

And so, in the best of Soviet traditions, the cleanup has begun.

"Two months ago, the deputy head of the presidential administration, Novruz Mammadov, openly accused the U.S. of financing a revolution in Ukraine. Therefore, the authorities [here] want to deprive the local civil society of any foreign funding [...]." -- Emil Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety
The tactics appear to fall into two categories – criminal prosecutions and scrutiny of financial resources. Since June, several leaders of local NGOs, critical bloggers and opposition activists have been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms on various criminal charges, including alleged tax-evasion, hooliganism and possession of illegal narcotics.

On Jul. 30, the crackdown accelerated with the filing of criminal charges, including treason, against outspoken human-rights activist Leyla Yunus. She is now in jail for three months awaiting trial. A former defense-ministry spokesperson actively engaged in citizen-diplomacy with neighbouring foe Armenia, Yunus and her husband, conflict-analyst Arif Yunus, have been under investigation since April.

Shortly before her detention, Yunus and a group of fellow activists publicly denounced the upcoming European Games as inappropriate for “authoritarian Azerbaijan, where human rights are violated.”A group led by Yunus has appealed to the European Olympic Committee (EOC) and the European Union’s EOC representative office to cancel the decision to hold the Games in Baku.

Yunus’ problems with the government, though, are not unique. The list of people sentenced to prison since June reads like a “Who’s Who” of Azerbaijani civil society.

Anar Mammadli, director of the Election Monitoring Center has been sentenced to 5.5 years on charges of tax evasion; his deputy, Bashir Suleymanly got five years. Hasan Huseynli,  head of the youth-education NGO Kamil Vetendash, or Intellectual Citizen, received six years for allegedly illegally carrying weapons and wounding a person with a knife.

Yadigar Sadigov an activist from the opposition Musavat Party is in for six years on charges of “hooliganism.” And three so-called “Facebook activists,” bloggers Elsever Mursalli, Abdulla Abilov and Omar Mammadov were sentenced to upwards of five years for carrying illegal drugs.

On Jul. 25, Baku police put another Musavat activist, Faradj Karimli, into pre-trial detention for allegedly “advertising psychotropic substances.” All of the accused deny the charges.

The prosecutions follow on the heels of legislative changes that now allow law-enforcement and tax agencies greater scope to audit and fine registered NGOs and ban outright unregistered NGOs’ ability to receive grants.

“Obviously, Baku is following the Russian way – to control the financial flows and, thus, to control the situation,” commented political analyst Elhan Shahinoglu, head of Baku’s Atlas Research Center.

“If the pressure will continue further, it will not be possible to talk about the normal activity of NGO’s in the country,” warned Elchin Abdullayev, a member of a network of NGO’s created to resist perceived intimidation-tactics.

The fact that these events are taking place during Azerbaijan’s six-month chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the continent’s primary human-rights organ, seems to pose no contradiction for the government.

And the desire for control apparently extends to international groups as well. The Baku office of the Washington, DC-based National Democratic Institute was officially closed on Jul. 2 after the authorities accused it of financing “radical” opposition youth groups.

Like others, Emil Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, which also faces funding problems, traces that accusation to Baku’s fear of an Azerbaijani EuroMaidan.

“Two months ago, the deputy head of the presidential administration, Novruz Mammadov, openly accused the U.S. of financing a revolution in Ukraine. Therefore, the authorities want to deprive the local civil society of any foreign funding [...],” Huseynov charged.

Gulnara Akhundova, a representative of the Danish-run International Media Support NGO, said that the government has refused to register any of the organisation’s grants to local NGO’s and individuals. “Most of our partners in Azerbaijan cannot work. The bank accounts of some of them are frozen,” Akhundova said. No reasons have been given.

According to the pro-opposition Turan news agency, the government also reportedly has expressed a desire to halt activities by the U.S. Peace Corps, which has operated in Azerbaijan since 2003.

President Aliyev, however, insists that Azerbaijan has no problem with civil rights. Last month, speaking at the Jun. 28 opening of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly’s session in Baku, President Aliyev repeated that Azerbaijan is “a democratic country where freedoms of assembly, speech, media and Internet are guaranteed.”

Roughly a week later, speaking to Azerbaijani foreign-ministry officials, he claimed that he had never “heard any criticism of Azerbaijan’s domestic policy at meetings with European leaders.”

If so, it is not for lack of talking.

The OSCE has termed the number of journalists in prison in Azerbaijan “a dangerous trend,” while the European Union on Jul. 17 urged Baku to meet its obligations as “a Member of the Council of Europe.”

A difference in perspective poses an ongoing obstacle, however, noted U.S. Ambassador to Baku Richard Morningstar on Jul. 25, Turan reported.

“The major task of Azerbaijan is to keep stability. But we believe that if people would get more freedom, there will be more stability in Azerbaijan,” Morningstar said.

While Shahinoglu believes that the U.S. and European Union, for all their energy and security interests, will have to continue pressing Baku about its “poor human-rights record,” President Aliyev already has cautioned that the complaints will fall on deaf ears.

“Some people who called themselves opposition or human rights defenders believe that somebody would tell us something and we will obey,” he commented on Jul. 8. “They are naïve people.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku.

]]> 0
Iran, One Year Under Rouhani Mon, 04 Aug 2014 13:36:18 +0000 Jasmin Ramsey Rouhani greets a crowd in Lorestan Province on Jun. 18, 2014. Credit: Iranian President's Office

Rouhani greets a crowd in Lorestan Province on Jun. 18, 2014. Credit: Iranian President's Office

By Jasmin Ramsey
WASHINGTON, Aug 4 2014 (IPS)

When Hassan Rouhani was declared Iran’s president last year, large crowds gathered in the streets of Tehran to celebrate his surprise victory. But while hope for a better life persists, Iranians continue to face harsh realities.

“I think Rouhani has done a very good job,” Hassan Niroomand, the 62-year-old director of a steel company in Tehran, told IPS.“There are certain factions within the regime that are not comfortable with the way things are moving forward and are trying to make it as hard possible for Rouhani to achieve his goals.” -- Ali Reza Eshraghi

“He does not have all the power, but he has taken advantage of what he can control and I am hopeful,” said Niroomand, citing Rouhani’s handling of the nuclear negotiations, his universal health insurance initiative, and his leadership style.

“He knows how to deal with extremists who are trying to make Iran another Afghanistan,” he added.

Not all Iranians share Niroomand’s positive assessment.

“Everyone says he is better than [former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad], but I don’t see a difference,” said Fariba Hosseini, a 39-year-old part-time student who is currently unemployed.

“Prices are still high and girls are being bothered again about their veils,” she said, referring to Iran’s morality police who have taken to the streets in the sweltering summer heat to ensure women comply with clothing regulations.

“I don’t think life will get better,” she said.

Rouhani, a centrist cleric and former advisor to the Supreme Leader who was inaugurated one year ago today, promised to improve the economy, solve the conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme, and de-securitise the political environment.

Had his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif failed to achieve the historic interim nuclear accord with world powers in November 2013, and had negotiations toward a final deal broken down, many more Iranians might share Hosseini’s pessimistic view.

But while Iran’s economy continues to limp due to previous governmental policies and sanctions, slight improvements have kept people looking forward to the future.

“Rouhani and his team’s efforts to reduce sanctions on Iran through the nuclear talks has so far prevented the further cutting of Iranian crude oil production and exports,” said Sara Vakhshouri, an energy expert and former advisor to the National Iranian Oil Company.

“The [sanctions relief] has not had an immediate significant effect on the economy, but it has certainly had a positive psychological impact on the people,” she said.

Iran’s oil exports, which fund nearly half of government expenditures, were slashed by more than half in 2012 following the imposition of stringent U.S. and EU sanctions targeting Iran’s oil and banking sector.

Iran’s currency, the rial, went into freefall, dropping by more than 50 percent in October 2012.

But since November’s interim deal, which halts Iran’s nuclear programme from further expansion in exchange for moderate sanctions relief, the rial has strengthened and inflation is down by more than half from over 40 percent a year ago, due in part to improved governmental policies.

The temporary sanctions relief on Iran’s petrochemical exports and the unfreezing of some of Iran’s assets abroad have also positively impacted the economy, according to Vakshouri, who noted that Rouhani has changed investment regulations to attract more international investors.

But potential investors will maintain their distance until the energy-rich country’s release from the strangulating sanctions becomes certain.

Meanwhile, international human rights organisations have decried the rise in executions since Rouhani took office, while the sentencing of journalists and activists who were apprehended during the Ahmadinejad era for political reasons continue under Rouhani’s watch.

Domestic news media has become more openly critical of the government, but a number of reformist-minded journalists have been detained in recent months.

Iran’s Culture Minister Ali Jannati made headlines last year when he said Iran’s ban on social networks including Facebook and Twitter should be lifted, but while he and Rouhani have publicly criticised the Islamic Republic’s control over people’s personal lives, leading conservative factions retain their hold on Iranian society.

The shocking Jul. 21 arrest of a Washington Post reporter, Jason Rezaian, with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, also a reporter, has led many to speculate that domestic political infighting has resulted in the 38-year-old Iranian-American being used as a pawn.

The location of Rezaian, an Iranian resident, remains unknown despite outcry in the U.S. from the State Department and multiple rights-focused organisations.

Iran does not recognise dual citizenship and no charges have been announced.

Analysts have argued that Rezaian could have been detained to embarrass Rouhani ahead of the resumption of talks in September.

“There are certain factions within the regime that are not comfortable with the way things are moving forward and are trying to make it as hard possible for Rouhani to achieve his goals,” said Ali Reza Eshraghi, a former editor of several Iranian reformist dailies.

“Jannati summed the situation up well when he said that the only thing that has changed in Iran is the executive branch,” Eshraghi, the Iran project manager at the U.S.-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, told IPS.

Yet Eshraghi points out that while Rouhani may have no control over the judicial and legislative branches, he has proven adept at closed-door negotiations.

“Rouhani and his team have a modernising agenda, but they are not pursing it through radical statements or intense pressure on their political opponents. He is quietly negotiating and making pacts,” he said.

While Eshraghi sees the election as having energised activists to pressure Rouhani to force change despite his inability to do so, he also believes average Iranians remain patient.

“People have modest expectations, they are realistic about Rouhani’s ability to achieve his goals,” he said.

It remains to be seen how long Iranian patience will last, especially if the Rouhani government fails to secure a nuclear deal resulting in substantial sanctions relief.

Thus far Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has maintained his distaste and lack of trust of the U.S., has voiced support for Iran’s negotiating team. But while Iran seeks a final deal on the international stage, the domestic negotiating front appears to be getting tougher.

“Jason was trying to colorise the very black and white frame that Western mainstream news media has used for Iran,” said Eshraghi.

“His arrest ironically indicates that there are certain factions inside the country who are very happy with that framing.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

]]> 0
Human Rights Low on U.S-Africa Policy Summit Thu, 31 Jul 2014 15:38:37 +0000 Julia Hotz LGBT activists, human rights observers and police officers wait outside a courtroom in Uganda's constitutional court on Jun 25, 2012. Four activists had brought a case against Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo. Credit: Will Boase/IPS

LGBT activists, human rights observers and police officers wait outside a courtroom in Uganda's constitutional court on Jun 25, 2012. Four activists had brought a case against Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo. Credit: Will Boase/IPS

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 31 2014 (IPS)

As the White House prepares to host more than 40 African heads of state for the upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, civil society actors from the U.S., Africa and the international community are urging the Barack Obama administration to use the summit as an opportunity to more thoroughly address some of Africa’s most pressing human rights violations.

“While President Obama has unveiled specific initiatives to strengthen U.S. development work on the continent and connect it to core national security objectives, he has not done the same for human rights and the rule of law,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch,  said in the group’s 2014 Human Rights in Africa report.“Evangelical extremists from the U.S. have contributed to making society more dangerous than it ever was before." -- Richard Lusimbo

Although the policy agenda for next week’s summit has received praise for its proactive stance on energy, security and economic development, human rights advocates from both Africa and the U.S. are specifically condemning the agenda’s lack of concern over two critical humanitarian issues: freedom of expression and rights for the LGBT community.

“On the two issues we’re discussing today, the administration should be more straightforward, open and critical about these issues occurring in many countries in Africa,” Santiago A. Canton, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, an advocacy group here, told IPS.

Canton spoke Wednesday about these issues alongside fellow human rights advocates, as well as African journalists and LGBT activists, who collectively agreed that the current state of both press freedom and LGBT equality across Africa is “unacceptable.”

“Right that leads to other rights”

Citing terrorism laws, access to funding, and discrimination against independent media  as some of Africa’s  main obstacles to free expression, Wednesday’s panel spoke first and foremost about the need for press freedom to be recognised as not only a human right, but also as a key factor in development.

“This is a right that leads to other rights,” Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, said Wednesday.

Within his plea for governments to take a more active stance on freedom of expression and provide for more internet access, La Rue stated that 90 percent of young men in rural Africa already know how to use the internet, while 90 percent of rural women, who tend to be forbidden from the cyber cafes where such knowledge circulates, do not.

“If not everyone is convinced that freedom of expression and access to technologies are important development goals, then we cannot talk about things like education and access to health, especially women’s health…we need to first allow access to information,” he said.

In addition to urging that such freedoms be integrated into the next set of Sustainable Development Goals, La Rue has requested that the U.N. hire more legal and communications personnel to defend freedom of expression, adding that the understaffed office receives up to 25 cases per day.

Yet for Wael Abbas, a prominent Egyptian journalist, blogger and human rights activist, the blame rests primarily on the U.S. government alone.

“Egypt is the biggest country that receives U.S. aid – some in military, some in development – but if Egypt is  a dictatorship, and there is no regulation of how this money is being spent, than the U.S. is just bribing a corrupt regime and dumping huge amounts of money into the ocean,” Abbas told IPS.

Explaining how the Egyptian state is “waging a war against [independent journalists] and trying to destroy [their] credibility and presence,” Abbas argues that independent journalists like himself, who show “what is really going on in Egypt,” need assistance and attention paid to the fact that most media outlets are owned by corrupt businessmen.

Arthur Gwagwa, a Zimbabwean human rights defender and freedom of expression advocate, agrees that the U.S. should take more initiative in protecting freedom of expression and ensuring governmental compliance in Africa, informing IPS of a set of policy recommendations to address at next week’s summit.

A fundamental, not special, human right

Related to this call for a greater focus on freedom of expression in the press is the need for a more active U.S. role in protecting Africans’ freedom of sexual expression and identity.

“This is a time that we have to think about how we’re addressing sexual minorities’ rights overseas,” Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said in Wednesday’s discussion.

Citing Africa’s passage of an anti-gay law and the recent comment by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni that “gays are disgusting,” Kennedy expressed disappointment that there has been “no real pushback” from the U.S. on LGBT rights in Africa. She said a concerted U.S. effort “could have helped a lot,” and that there are now many LGBT individuals in Africa who are afraid to attend HIV clinics for treatment.

Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, considers such discrimination to be ironic on a continent that is diverse as Africa.

He spoke of the challenges posed by authoritarian leaders, both in Africa and around the world, who have called LGBT equality part of a “Western sexual agenda,” and believes it is extremely important for not only governments, but also artists, celebrities and business leaders, to challenge such a characterisation.

“This is a fundamental human right, not a special human right…everyone has the right to not be persecuted for who we are as human beings,” Malinowski said.

Lip service?

In addition to Kennedy’s suggestion that the U.S. pass legislation to create a special envoy for LGBT rights, Malinowski is calling on his government to provide “direct assistance” to people, such as doctors and lawyers, who serve on “the front line of the struggle,” and to continue to put LGBT equality “front and centre” in its diplomatic engagements.

Yet HRW’s Sarah Margon warns that the U.S. has sent “mixed signals” on this issue, and suggests that that the U.S. government is “simply paying lip service to human rights.”

Indeed, Richard Lusimbo, representative of Sexual Minorities Uganda, has similarly urged the U.S. to speak out more strongly, calling on Washington to “hold homophobic people responsible” for the subsequent discrimination in Africa.

“Evangelical extremists from the U.S. have contributed to making society more dangerous than it ever was before…and because we have no opportunities to go to radio and TV to show our side of the story, it makes things very difficult,” he noted.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

]]> 2
Touaregs Seek Secular and Democratic Multi-Ethnic State Wed, 23 Jul 2014 11:10:13 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza By Karlos Zurutuza
LEKORNE, France, Jul 23 2014 (IPS)

The government of Mali and Touareg rebels representing Azawad, a territory in northern Mali which declared unilateral independence in 2012 after a Touareg rebellion drove out the Malian army, resumed peace talks in Algiers last week, intended to end decades of conflict.

The talks, being held behind closed doors, are expected to end on July 24.

Negotiations between Bamako and representatives of six northern Mali armed groups, among which the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is the strongest, kicked off in Algiers on July 16. Diplomats from Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and other international bodies are also attending the discussions.

Moussa Ag Assarid, MNLA spokesperson. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Moussa Ag Assarid, MNLA spokesperson. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

IPS spoke with writer and a journalist Moussa Ag Assarid, MNLA spokesperson in Europe.

You declared your independent state in April 2012 but no one has recognised it yet. Why is that?

We are not for a Touareg state but for a secular and democratic multi-ethnic model of country. We, Touaregs, may be a majority among Azawad population but there are also Arabs, Shongays and Peulas and we´re working in close coordination with them.

Since Mali´s independence in 1960, the people from Azawad have repeatedly stated that we don´t want to be part of that country. We do have the support of many people all around the globe but the states and the international organisations such as the United Nations prefer to tackle the issue without breaking the established order.

And this is why both the United Nations and Mali refer to “jihadism”, and not to the legitimate struggle for freedom of the Azawad people.

However, we are witnessing a reorganisation of the world order amid significant movements in northern Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe, as in the case of the Ukraine. It´s very much a clear proof of the failure of globalisation and the world´s management.“We [the people of Azawad] do have the support of many people all around the globe but the states and the international organisations such as the United Nations prefer to tackle the issue without breaking the established order” – Moussa Ag Assarid

The French intervention in the 2012 war was seemingly a key factor on your side. How do you asses the former colonial power´s role in the region?

The French have always been there, even after Mali´s independence, because they have huge strategic interests in the area as well as natural resources such as the uranium they rely on. In fact, you could say that our independence has been confiscated by both the international community and France.

The former Malian soldiers have been replaced by the U.N. ones but the Malian army keeps committing all sort of abuses against civilians, from arbitrary arrests to deportations or enforced disappearances, all of which take place without the French and the U.N. soldiers lifting a finger.

Meanwhile, Bamako calls on the French state to support them under the pretext they are fighting against Jihadism.

Another worrying issue is the media blackout imposed on us. Reporters are prevented from coming to Azawad so the information is filtered through Bamako-based reporters who talk about “Mali´s north”, who refuse to speak about our struggle and who become spokesmen and defenders of the Malian state.

So what is the real presence, if any, of the Malian state in Azawad?

Mali´s army and its administration fled in 2012 and the state is only present in the areas protected by the French army, in Gao and Tombouktou. Paris has around 1,000 soldiers deployed in the area, the United Nations has 8,000 blue helmets in the whole country, and there are between 12,000 and 15,000 fighters in the ranks of the MNLA.

We coordinate ourselves with the Arab Movement of Azawad and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad. Alongside these two groups we hold control of 90 percent of Azawad, but we are living under extremely difficult conditions.

We obviously don´t get any support from either Mali or Algeria and we have to cope with a terrible drought. We rely on the meat and the milk of our goats, like we´ve done from time immemorial and we fight with the weapons we confiscated from the Malian Army, the Jihadists, or those we once got from Libya.

You mention Libya. Many claim that the MNLA fighters fought on the side of Gaddafi during the Libyan war in 2011. Is that right?

Many media networks insist on distorting the facts. Gaddafi did grant Libyan citizenship to the Touaregs but he later used them to fight in Palestine, Lebanon or Chad. In 1990, they went back to Azawad to fight against the Malian army and, even if we had the chance, we did not make the mistake of fighting against the Libyan people in 2011.

Gaddafi gave Touaregs weapons to fight in Benghazi but the Touareg decided to go to Kidal and set up the MNLA. It´s completely false that the MNLA is formed by Touaregs who came from Libya. Many of our fighters have never been there, neither have I.

Do Islamic extremists still pose a major concern in Azawad?

In January 2013, AQMI (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), a splinter group of AQMI and Ansar Dine attacked the Malian army on the border between Mali and Azawad.

Mali´s president asked for help from Paris to oust them but it´s us, the MNLA, who have been fighting the Jihadists since June 2012. The United States, the United Kingdom and France claim to fight against Al Qaeda but it´s us who do it on the ground. Ansar Dine has given no sign of life for over a year but AQMI and MUJAO are still active.

One of the most outrageous issues is that Bamako had had strong links with AQMI in the past, or even backed Ansar Dine, whose leader is a Touareg but the people under his command are just a criminal gang. Today, the Jihadists backed by Bamako have become stronger than the Malian army itself.

Are you optimistic about the ongoing talks with Bamako?

So far we have signed all sorts of agreements but none of them has ever been respected. Accordingly, we have already discarded the stage in which we would accept autonomy, or even a federal state. At this point, we have come to the conclusion that the only way to solve this conflict is to achieve our independence and live in freedom and peace in our land.

Mali has never fulfilled its word so that´s why we call on the international community, France and the United Nations.

]]> 0
Malnutrition Hits Syrians Hard as UN Authorises Cross-Border Access Sat, 19 Jul 2014 12:09:41 +0000 Shelly Kittleson Syrian mother and child near Ma'arat Al-Numan, rebel-held Syria, in autumn 2013. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Syrian mother and child near Ma'arat Al-Numan, rebel-held Syria, in autumn 2013. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Shelly Kittleson
BEIRUT, Jul 19 2014 (IPS)

Gaunt, haggard Syrian children begging and selling gum have become a fixture in streets of the Lebanese capital; having fled the ongoing conflict, they continue to be stalked by its effects.

Most who make it across the Syria-Lebanon border live in informal settlements in extremely poor hygienic conditions, which for many means diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, and – for the most vulnerable – sometimes death.

By the end of January, almost 40,000 Syrian children had been born as refugees, while the total number of minors who had fled abroad quadrupled to over 1.2 million between March 2013 and March 2014.Most who make it across the Syria-Lebanon border live in informal settlements in extremely poor hygienic conditions, which for many means diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, and – for the most vulnerable – sometimes death.

Lack of proper healthcare, food and clean water has resulted in countless loss of life during the Syrian conflict, now well into its fourth year. These deaths are left out of the daily tallies of ‘war casualties’, even as stunted bodies and emaciated faces peer out of photos from areas under siege.

The case of the Yarmouk Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus momentarily grabbed the international community’s attention earlier this year, when Amnesty International released a report detailing the deaths of nearly 200 people under a government siege. Many other areas have experienced and continue to suffer the same fate, out of the public spotlight.

A Palestinian-Syrian originally from Yarmouk who has escaped abroad told IPS that some of her family are still in Hajar Al-Aswad, an area near Damascus with a population of roughly 600,000 prior to the conflict. She said that those trapped in the area were suffering ‘’as badly if not worse than in Yarmouk’’ and had been subjected to equally brutal starvation tactics. The area has, however, failed to garner similar attention.

The city of Homs, one of the first to rise up against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, was also kept under regime siege for three years until May of this year, when Syrian troops and foreign Hezbollah fighters took control.

With the Syria conflict well into its fourth year, the U.N. Security Council decided for the first time on July 14 to authorize cross-border aid without the Assad government’s approval via four border crossings in neighbouring states. The resolution established a monitoring mechanism for a 180-day period for loading aid convoys in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

The first supplies will include water sanitation tablets and hygiene kits, essential to preventing the water-borne diseases responsible for diarrhoea – which, in turn, produces severe states of malnutrition.

Miram Azar, from UNICEF’s Beirut office, told IPS that  ‘’prior to the Syria crisis, malnutrition was not common in Lebanon or Syria, so UNICEF and other actors have had to educate public health providers on the detection, monitoring and treatment’’ even before beginning to deal with the issue itself.

However, it was already on the rise: ‘’malnutrition was a challenge to Syria even before the conflict’’, said a UNICEF report released this year. ‘’The number of stunted children – those too short for their age and whose brain may not properly develop – rose from 23 to 29 per cent between 2009 and 2011.’’

Malnutrition experienced in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life (from pregnancy to two years old) results in lifelong consequences, including greater susceptibility to illness, obesity, reduced cognitive abilities and lower development potential of the nation they live in.

Azar noted that ‘’malnutrition is a concern due to the deteriorating food security faced by refugees before they left Syria’’ as well as ‘’the increase in food prices during winter.’’

The Syrian economy has been crippled by the conflict and crop production has fallen drastically. Violence has destroyed farms, razed fields and displaced farmers.

The price of basic foodstuffs has become prohibitive in many areas. On a visit to rebel-held areas in the northern Idlib province autumn of 2013, residents told IPS that the cost of staples such as rice and bread had risen by more than ten times their cost prior to the conflict, and in other areas inflation was worse.

Jihad Yazigi , an expert on the Syrian economy, argued in a European Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFR) policy brief published earlier this year that the war economy, which ‘’both feeds directly off the violence and incentivises continued fighting’’, was becoming ever more entrenched.

Meanwhile, political prisoners who have been released as a result of amnesties tell stories of severe water and food deprivation within jails. Many were detained on the basis of peaceful activities, including exercising their right to freedom of expression and providing humanitarian aid, on the basis of a counterterrorism law adopted by the government in July 2012.

There are no accurate figures available for Syria’s prison population. However, the monitoring group, Violations Documentation Centre, reports that 40,853 people detained since the start of the uprising in March 2011 remain in jail.

Maher Esber, a former political prisoner who was in one of Syria’s most notorious jails between 2006 and 2011 and is now an activist living in the Lebanese capital, told IPS that it was normal for taps to be turned on for only 10 minutes per day for drinking and hygiene purposes in the detention facilities.

Much of the country’s water supply has also been damaged or destroyed over the past years, with knock-on effects on infectious diseases and malnutrition. A major pumping station in Aleppo was damaged on May 10, leaving roughly half what was previously Syria’s most populated city without running water. Relentless regime barrel bombing has made it impossible to fix the mains, and experts have warned of a potential humanitarian catastrophe for those still inside the city.

The U.N. decision earlier this month was made subsequent to refusal by the Syrian regime to comply with a February resolution demanding rapid, safe, and unhindered access, and the Syrian regime had warned that it considered non-authorised aid deliveries into rebel-held areas as an attack.

]]> 0
OPINION: Why Asia-Europe Relations Matter in the 21st Century Mon, 14 Jul 2014 23:23:21 +0000 Shada Islam By Shada Islam
BRUSSELS, Jul 14 2014 (IPS)

Hopes are high that the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting – or ASEM summit – to be held in Milan on October 16-17 will confirm the credibility and relevance of Asia-Europe relations in the 21st century.

ASEM has certainly survived many storms and upheavals since it was initiated in Bangkok in 1996 and now, with ASEM’s 20th anniversary in 2016 approaching rapidly, the challenge is not only to guarantee ASEM’s survival but also to ensure that the Asia-Europe partnership flourishes and thrives.

Talk about renewal and revival is encouraging as Asians and Europeans seek to inject fresh dynamism into ASEM through changed formats and a stronger focus on content to bring it into the 21st century.

ASEM’s future hinges not only on whether governments are ready to pay as much attention to ASEM and devote as much time and energy to their partnership as they did in the early years but also on closer engagement between Asian and European business leaders, civil society representatives and enhanced people-to-people contacts.  An ASEM business summit and peoples’ forum will be held in parallel with the leaders’ meeting.

Shada Islam. Courtesy of Twitter

Shada Islam. Courtesy of Twitter

Significantly, the theme of the Milan summit – “Responsible Partnership for Sustainable Growth and Security” – allows for a discussion not only of ongoing political strains and tensions in Asia and in Europe’s eastern neighbourhood, but also of crucial questions linked to food, water and energy security.

Engagement between the two regions has been increasing over the years, both within and outside ASEM. Five of the 51 (set to rise to 52 with Croatia joining in October) ASEM partners – China, Japan, India, South Korea and Russia – are the European Union’s strategic partners. Turkey and Kazakhstan have formally voiced interest in joining ASEM, although approval of their applications will take time.  There is now a stronger E.U.-Asian conversation on trade, business, security and culture.

Exports to Asia and investments in the region are pivotal in ensuring a sustainable European economic recovery while the European Union single market attracts goods, investments and people from across the globe, helping Asian governments to maintain growth and development.  European technology is in much demand across the region.

Not surprisingly, Asia-Europe economic interdependence has grown.  With total Asia-Europe trade in 2012 estimated at 1.37 trillion euros, Asia has become the European Union’s main trading partner, accounting for one-third of total trade.  More than one-quarter of European outward investments head for Asia while Asia’s emerging global champions are seeking out business deals in Europe.  The increased connectivity is reflected in the mutual Asia-Europe quest to negotiate free trade agreements and investment accords. For many in Asia, the European Union is the prime partner for dealing with non-traditional security dilemmas, including food, water and energy security as well as climate change. Europeans, too, are becoming more aware of the global implications of instability in Asia.

ASEM’s connectivity credentials go beyond trade and economics.  In addition to the strategic partnerships mentioned above, Asia and Europe are linked through an array of cooperation accords. Discussions on climate change, pandemics, illegal immigration, maritime security, urbanisation and green growth, among others, are frequent between multiple government ministries and agencies in both regions, reflecting a growing recognition that 21st century challenges can only be tackled through improved global governance and, failing that, through “patchwork governance” involving cross-border and cross-regional alliances.

Discussions on security issues are an important part of the political pillar in ASEM, with leaders exchanging views on regional and global flashpoints.  Given current tensions over conflicting territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, this year’s debate should be particularly important.

Asian views of Europe’s security role are changing. Unease about the dangerous political and security fault lines that run across the region and the lack of a strong security architecture has prompted many in Asia to take a closer look at Europe’s experience in ensuring peace, easing tensions and handling conflicts.  As Asia grapples with historical animosities and unresolved conflicts, earlier scepticism about Europe’s security credentials are giving way to recognition of Europe’s “soft power” in peace-making and reconciliation, crisis management, conflict resolution and preventive diplomacy, human rights, the promotion of democracy and the rule of law.

In addition, for many in Asia, the European Union is the prime partner for dealing with non-traditional security dilemmas, including food, water and energy security as well as climate change. Europeans too are becoming more aware of the global implications of instability in Asia, not least as regards maritime security.

Meanwhile, over the years, ASEM meetings have become more formal, ritualistic and long drawn-out, with endless preparatory discussions and the negotiation of long texts by “senior officials” or bureaucrats. Instead of engaging in direct conversation, ministers and leaders read out well-prepared statements.  Having embarked on a search to bring back the informality and excitement of the first few ASEM meetings, Asian and European foreign ministers successfully tested out new working methods at their meeting in Delhi last November.

The new formula, to be tried out in Milan, includes the organisation of a “retreat” session during which leaders will be able to have a free-flowing discussion on regional and international issues with less structure and fewer people in the room.  Instead of spending endless hours negotiating texts, leaders will focus on a substantive discussion of issues.  The final statement will be drafted and issued in the name of the “chair” who will consult partners but will be responsible for the final wording.  There are indications that the chair’s statements and other documents issued at the end of ASEM meetings will be short, simple and to-the-point.

ASEM also needs a content update.  True, ASEM summits which are held every two years, deal with many worthy issues, including economic growth, regional and global tensions, climate change and the like. It is also true that Asian and European ministers meet even more frequently to discuss questions like education, labour reform, inter-faith relations and river management.

This is worthy and significant – but also too much.  ASEM needs a sharper focus on growth and jobs, combating extremism and tackling hard and soft security issues. Women in both Asia and Europe face many societal and economic challenges.  Freedom of expression is under attack in both regions.

ASEM partners also face the uphill task of securing stronger public understanding, awareness and support for the Asia-Europe partnership, especially in the run up to the 20th anniversary summit in 2016.

The 21st century requires countries and peoples – whether they are like-minded or not – to work together in order to ensure better global governance in a still-chaotic multipolar world.

As they grapple with their economic, political and security dilemmas – and despite their many disagreements – Asia and Europe are drawing closer together.  If ASEM reform is implemented as planned, 2016 could become an important milestone in a reinvigorated Asia-Europe partnership, a compelling necessity in the 21st century.

Shada Islam is responsible for policy oversight of Friends of Europe’s initiatives, activities and publications. She has special responsibility for the Asia Programme and for the Development Policy Forum. She is the former Europe correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and has previously worked on Asian issues at the European Policy Centre. 

]]> 0
Honduran Secrecy Law Bolsters Corruption and Limits Press Freedom Wed, 09 Jul 2014 16:25:58 +0000 Thelma Mejia The social role of journalists in Honduras is restricted under the official secrets law because they will not be able to report information that the state regards as “classified,” under the controversial new regulations. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

The social role of journalists in Honduras is restricted under the official secrets law because they will not be able to report information that the state regards as “classified,” under the controversial new regulations. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

By Thelma Mejía

The new official secrets law in Honduras clamps down on freedom of expression, strengthens corruption and enables public information on defence and security affairs to be kept secret for up to 25 years, according to a confidential report seen by IPS.

The Law on Classification of Public Documents related to Security and National Defence, better known as the official secrets law, was approved on the eve of the conclusion of the last parliamentary term, on Jan. 24.

“It [information about corruption] would be classified for 25 years, by which time the statute of limitations for prosecuting public servants for corruption would have expired, and no one would be held accountable,” says the IAIP
In a marathon two-day session, Congress approved a hundred decrees and laws to smooth the path of the new government of President Juan Orlando Hernández, who took office Jan. 27 and belongs to the right-wing National Party, like his predecessor Porfirio Lobo.

“This law lets the government behave like a cat that covers its own dirt,” shopkeeper Eduardo Tinoco told IPS wryly. He pays 20 dollars a week extortion money to one of the gangs that control El Sitio, a neighbourhood in the northeast of the capital.

“I pay taxes here for everything, even to be allowed to live, and that secrecy law will only be used to cover up the diversion of funds used for security and other government business. There are no two ways about it,” said Tinoco, who owns a small grocery store.

The law was blocked in October 2013 because of opposition from the Honduran Community Media Association (AMCH) and international groups, which regard it as a violation of the right to information and freedom of expression.

But it was reconsidered in January. How this occurred is not really known, because there are no audio records in the parliament archives that indicate when the bill was reintroduced, legislature officials told IPS on condition of anonymity.

A report by a team of experts for the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) says that the official secrets law lacks a clear definition of “national security” and this ambiguity opens the way to discretionality, so that anything considered sensitive may be classified as secret.

The IAIP is the autonomous state body responsible for ensuring transparency in Honduras, according to the Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information. IPS obtained the report, which is due to be made public in a few weeks.

Article 3 of the official secrets law indicates that the following can be classified as confidential, in the interests of “national security”: “matters, actions, contracts, documents, information, data and objects whose knowledge by unauthorised persons may harm or endanger national security and/or defence and the fulfilment of its goals in these areas.”

The law sets four classification levels: private, confidential, secret and ultra secret, with periods of secrecy of five, 10, 15 and 25 years respectively, which may be extended as determined by the National Security and Defence Council which is responsible for classifying and declassifying material.

This Council is made up of the three branches of state, the Attorney General’s Office, the ministers of Defence and Security, the national Information and Intelligence Office and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces.

Information classified as “private” is lower level information, documentation or strategic internal material within state bodies that could cause “undesired institutional effects” if they came to light.

“Confidential” is the term attributed to intermediate level information, which could cause “imminent risk” or a direct threat to security, national defence or public order if it were made public, the law says.

Materials classified as “secret” are high level information at the national level, in the strategic internal and external spheres of the state, revelation of which poses an imminent danger to “constitutional order, security, national defence, international relations and the fulfilment of national goals.”

Finally, “ultra secret” is the highest level classification and is described as material which, if in the realm of public knowledge, would provoke “exceptionally serious” internal and external harm, threatening security, defence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the achievement of national goals.

Omar Rivera, of the Civil Society Group (GSC), an association of political advocacy and human rights organisations, told IPS that the “broad discretionality provided by the law is very worrying, because it provides a cloak of secrecy that can cover everything.”

His main concern is related to the security tax that has been levied on businesses and individuals for the past two years, as a contribution to the fight against insecurity and violence. This law “will make it impossible to get factual information on how the millions of dollars the state collects are spent,” he said.

The IAIP report highlights the same discretionalities, pointing out that any information about a public official being implicated in corruption can be classified as “ultra secret”.

In this case it would be classified for 25 years, by which time the statute of limitations for prosecuting public servants for corruption would have expired, and no one would be held accountable, the report analysing the law says.

Meanwhile, human rights expert Roberto Velásquez told IPS that the law directly targets journalism and freedom of expression, by putting a stranglehold on investigating or disseminating information.

He was referring to Article 10 of the law, which establishes that “when it can be foreseen that classified material may come to the knowledge of the media, these shall be notified of the nature of the material, and shall respect its classified nature.”

Also, any person having knowledge of classified information is obliged to “keep it secret” and report it to the nearest civil, police or military authority.

The new law directly contradicts the Transparency Law, in force for the past five years, by removing the IAIP’s powers to classify information regarded as secret, and overriding guarantees for freedom of expression and investigative journalism.

Doris Madrid, the head of IAIP, told IPS that it is hoping that the official secrets law will be reformed, on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and violates international treaties, but a proposal to revise or repeal it was turned down in Congress in March.

IPS learned that Transparency International made the signing of an agreement with the government on Open Budgets conditional on a revision of the law.

Honduras is regarded as one of the Latin American countries with the highest perception of corruption and insecurity. In April, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicated that this country of 8.4 million people has the highest murder rate in the world.

The Observatory on Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras reported this rate as 79.7 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. But now the authorities have refused to give any more figures on violent deaths to the Observatory, its members have complained.

]]> 0
Syrian Kurds Have Their Own TV Against All Odds Mon, 30 Jun 2014 15:31:17 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza Rudi Mohamed Amid gets set before going live at Ronahi, Syrian Kurds´ TV channel. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Rudi Mohamed Amid gets set before going live at Ronahi, Syrian Kurds´ TV channel. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Karlos Zurutuza
QAMISHLI, Syria, Jun 30 2014 (IPS)

Rudi Mohamed Amid gives his script one quick, last glance before he goes live. “Roj bas, Kurdistan (Good morning, Kurdistan),” he greets his audience, with the assuredness of a veteran journalist. However, hardly anyone at Ronahi, Syrian Kurds’ first and only television channel, had any media experience before the war.

After Syria’s uprising began in 2011, local Kurds distanced themselves from both the government and opposition, sticking to what they call a “third way”. In July 2012, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad loosened his grip on Syria’s Kurdish region and that the country’s biggest minority – between 3 and 4 million, depending on the source – claimed those parts in northern Syria where the Kurdish population is primarily located.

The relative stability of the northeast led to a myriad of civil initiatives that were unthinkable for decades. The Kurdish language, long banned under the ruling Assad family – first Hafez and then his son, Bashar – gained momentum: it was taught for the first time in schools, printed in magazines and newspapers, and it is the language spoken on air through the Ronahi (“Light” in Kurdish) TV station.

But despite such significant steps, life in this part of the world remains inevitably linked to the conflict.“250 people work as volunteers at Ronahi TV. Funds come from the people, either here or in the diaspora and our employees get between the equivalent of 30 and 90 dollars per month, depending on each one's needs” – Perwin Legerin, general manager of Ronahi TV

“I was studying oil engineering at the University of Homs, but I returned home, to Qamishli – 600 km northeast of the capital Damascus – when the war started,” recalls Reperin Ramadan, 21, operating one of the three cameras at Ronahi’s studio.

Syria’s northeast is an oil-rich region, so had Ramadan finished his studies, he could have applied for a job at the Rumelan oil field, less than 100 km east of Qamishli. The plant has remained under Kurdish control since March 1, 2013, but it has gradually come to a halt due to the war.

Besides, Ramadan’s former university town has been levelled to the ground after being heavily bombed by Assad´s forces. Unsurprisingly, Ramadan says he has “completely ruled out” becoming an oil engineer.

Once the programme is over, Perwin Legerin, general manager, helps to unwrap boxes of light bulbs, waiting to be hung from atop the TV set. Meanwhile, the 28-year-old briefs IPS on those who make all this happen:

“250 people work as volunteers at Ronahi TV. Funds come from the people, either here or in the diaspora and our employees get between the equivalent of 30 and 90 dollars per month, depending on each one’s needs.”

Legerin added that Qamishli hosts the channel’s main headquarters, and that there are also offices in Kobani and Afrin – the two other Kurdish enclaves in Syria’s north.

Supplying the three centres with the necessary equipment is seemingly one of the biggest challenges.

“We still lack a lot of stuff to be able to work in proper conditions mainly because both Ankara and Erbil – the administrative capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region – are enforcing a blockade on us, hardly letting in any equipment across their borders,” lamented Legerin.

The young manager admitted that the recent Sunni uprising in the bordering western provinces of Iraq poses “yet another threat to Kurdish aspirations.”

Against all odds, Ronahi still manages to reach its public seven days a week, mainly in Kurdish, but also in Arabic and English. There are interviews with senior political and military representatives, documentaries, funerals of fallen Kurdish soldiers, but also a good dose of traditional music to cope with the war drama. Needless to say, fresh news and updates from the frontlines are constant.

But not every Syrian Kurd supports the station. Several local Kurdish opposition sectors accuse Ronahi of being biased and on the side of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant party among the Syrian Kurds.

“I cannot but disagree with such statements,” said Perwin Legerin. “We show stories from all sides and all peoples in Rojava – that´s the name local Kurds give to their area – and Syria, but there´s little we can do if somebody refuses our invitation to come to our studio and share their point of view.”

Syrian Kurdish politics are, indeed, a thorny issue. A majority of the opposition parties are backed by Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) while around three others are backed by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani.

The PYD has repeatedly said that it has an agenda akin to that of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Salih Muslim, PYD co-chair with Asia Abdullah – they scrupulously follow gender parity – told IPS that Ronahi is “a mirror of society in Rojava which has already become part of people´s life.”

For the time being, Syrian Kurdish forces keep engaging in clashes with both government and opposition forces. Sozan Cudi knows it well. This young soldier was just a high school student when the war started. Today, she receives video training at the station, two hours a day, three days a week. Ronahi´s management told IPS that their training courses are “open and accessible for anyone willing to participate.”

“Three of us were told by our commanders to come and get training in media for a month,” recalled the 20-year-old Cudi, a member of the YPJ (Kurdish initials for “Women’s Protection Units”). The YPJ is affiliated to the YPG  (People’s Protection Units), a military body of around 45,000 fighters deployed across Syria’s Kurdish regions.

“Journalism in Syria often involves working in the frontlines and not everyone is ready to risk that much,” noted Cudi. “I´m ready to hold a rifle to fight our enemies, or a camera to show their atrocities, whatever is needed to achieve our rights,” she added, just before her lesson.

Serekaniye – Ras al-Ain in Arabic, 570 km northeast of Damascus – is one of those towns which has seen intense violence over the last years. Abas Aisa, a producer at Ronahi, escaped just in time from this village on the Turkish border where Islamic extremists have reportedly been funnelled into the area to quell the Kurdish autonomous project.

“Our small village had a mixed Arab and Kurdish population, but many people have left and the place remains under the control of Jihadist groups,” Aisa, whose family is Arab, told IPS.

The 30-year-old is one among several other non-Kurds working at Ronahi. He said he has always been fluent in Kurdish thanks to his neighbours back home.

“My parents are still in the village, so I’m constantly thinking about them,” admitted Aisa, explaining that he doubts he will go back any time soon. Nonetheless, he believes his parents will feel reassured “as long as Ronahi keeps reaching their living room.”

]]> 1
Battle Stations: Civil Society Fights Radio and TV Spectrum Auctions Thu, 26 Jun 2014 11:22:55 +0000 Edgardo Ayala Representatives of the Network for the Right to Communication gathered at the Constitution Monument in El Salvador’s capital city to demand a complete end to auctions of television and radio frequencies. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Representatives of the Network for the Right to Communication gathered at the Constitution Monument in El Salvador’s capital city to demand a complete end to auctions of television and radio frequencies. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

By Edgardo Ayala
SAN SALVADOR, Jun 26 2014 (IPS)

Pressure from social organisations has temporarily halted concessions of television broadcasting frequencies in El Salvador, a country where the struggle for spectrum ownership has political and ideological overtones, as well as economic ones.

“We have stopped the auctions, but it is only a partial victory because no definitive resolution has been taken,” Oscar Beltrán, the head of Radio Victoria, a community radio station in the small town of Victoria, in the central province of Cabañas, told IPS.

Beltrán was referring to the May 16 Supreme Court ruling that temporarily suspended the auction process begun by the Superintendencia General de Electricidad y Telecomunicationes (SIGET), the state electricity and telecoms regulator.

On May 5, SIGET invited companies and individuals to bid for six national open television channels, numbers 7, 13, 14, 16, 18 and 20. The date when the Supreme Court will issue its final ruling is unknown.

The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court partially accepted an appeal on the grounds of unconstitutionality brought by several organisations that had previously challenged six articles of the Telecommunications Law in August 2012.

These articles establish auctions as the sole mechanism for granting radio or television frequencies.

This part of the 1997 Telecommunications Law was contested by several community radio organisations, lawyers’ and journalists’ groups, which later formed the Network for the Right to Communication (ReDCo).

The ReDCo network is pressing the Supreme Court to issue a definitive finding that the six articles in the law are unconstitutional.

The network argues that auctions do not allow sectors like community radios to compete on equal terms for frequencies, as concessions are won by bids from powerful economic groups.

Blocking access for other sectors to the frequency spectrum by means other than auctions violates the constitutional principles of equality under the law and freedom of expression, among others, the network’s representatives say.

“The channels and frequencies that SIGET intends to grant to the highest bidder should be used to promote more public and community media,” activist Leonel Herrera, the head of the Association of Participatory Radios and Programmes of El Salvador (ARPAS), one of ReDCo’s founding organisations, told IPS.

Since 2013 the network has been lobbying for two bills, one on community media and the other on public media, which seek to democratise the country’s communications, a goal that entails reforming the mechanism for granting radio and television concessions.

According to SIGET, in this small Central American country of only 20,000 square kilometres and 6.2 million people, there are 51 free and subscription television channels. Four of the main ones are in the hands of the private Telecorporación Salvadoreña (TCS).

There are also 210 commercial radio stations, as well as 18 community radios that all share a single frequency modulation, 92.1 FM, which they have to divide between them to broadcast simultaneously.

SIGET planned the auction of the six television channels in response to a request by Autoconsa, an electronics company. Expressions of interest were subsequently received from the companies Tecnovisión and Movi, and from the individuals José Saúl Galdámez Ábrego, Luis Alonso Avela and Henri Milton Morales.

It is common in El Salvador for frequencies, especially for radio stations, to be bought by front men, who lend their names to the concessions on behalf of powerful media groups that want to make use of them or fend off competition.

The ruse is used by large communications consortia to avoid being accused of excessive concentration of media ownership.

The auction process was suspect from the outset, because it followed immediately on the Mar. 31 departure of former SIGET head Luis Méndez. It was never clarified whether he resigned or was fired.

Then Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, whose term of office ended on Jun. 1, appointed Ástor Escalante, a lawyer, to the top post at SIGET for the last two months of his term.

The new head of SIGET immediately opened the auction process, alleging that he was obliged to do so by law if a request was made. IPS tried without success to interview executives at Autoconsa, the requesting company.

Escalante did not say why he disregarded his predecessor’s resolution of September 2012, suspending new concessions of frequencies until the country’s frequency spectrum is digitised in 2018.

At the request of the social organisations, attorney general Luis Martínez opened an investigation into Escalante’s action.

“I don’t know what there is for the attorney general to investigate, since no irregularity has been committed,” Escalante told IPS.

The attorney general might also wish to investigate what the former superintendent has done with Channel 37, which used to belong to Francisco Gavidia University and according to the Salvadoran digital newspaper Diario 1 has been sold to Mexican communications magnate Ángel González.

González owns a multi-million dollar empire of 30 television broadcasters and 80 radio stations in Latin America. He has television channels and radio stations in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay as well as Mexico, according to several sources.

Escalante also changed the UHF channel 37 to VHF channel 11, improving its quality and range. IPS could not confirm whether the channel is already being operated by González’s group, as claimed.

The irruption of González, nicknamed “the Phantom” because of the secrecy of his operations, on to the Salvadoran market would worry the country’s traditional media groups, because the Mexican entrepreneur is expected to have allies among the ruling leftwing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which has been in power since 2009.

According to Diario 1, the FMLN is keen to use the Mexican group to break the stranglehold of the right on the country’s media. The rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which governed the country from 1989 to 2009, has the backing of the mass media.

Spokespersons for the FMLN and the government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who took office Jun. 1, declined to comment on the issue to IPS.

Activists have also asked the attorney general to investigate instances of frequencies being granted in the past which they claim did not follow legal procedures.

For example, in March 2009, at the end of the last ARENA government, Luis Francisco Pinto, a lawyer, obtained eight television frequencies under shady circumstances, paying over 300,000 dollars for them. They are still not in use, in spite of the fact that according to law, all concessions that remain unused after one year are revoked.

“It is worrying that SIGET’s actions have not been entirely transparent,” José Luis Benítez, the president of the El Salvador Journalists’ Association, told IPS.

]]> 0
How EU-Ready Is Tbilisi? Wed, 25 Jun 2014 12:29:53 +0000 Giorgi Lomsadze By Giorgi Lomsadze
TBILISI, Jun 25 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Georgia plans to finalise a pact with the European Union on Jun. 27 that would bring Tbilisi closer to Brussels. Even so, the campaign environment ahead of Georgia’s local elections suggests that the country has quite a bit of distance to cover before it reaches the standards of a European democracy.

The former Soviet republic has yet to experience a campaign season that does not smack of a rowdy soccer match. After a peaceful change of government via a 2013 presidential election and 2012 parliamentary vote, Georgian officials can certainly point to democratization achievements."They are trying to convince us that all the 80 candidates caught some kind of virus and started withdrawing en masse." -- opposition figure Nino Burjanadze

But the run-up to Jun. 15 mayoral and local council elections still has seen bloody noses, egg-throwing and allegations that the governing Georgian Dream coalition is intimidating opposition candidates.

In Tbilisi for a quick check-in ahead of the association-agreement signing ceremony, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, the EU’s chief executive, speaking during a Jun. 12 news conference, voiced concerns about Georgia’s political process.

“It is … key that Georgia remains on the path of political pluralism, media freedom and [an] independent judiciary,” Barroso said. “It is important there are no doubts about freedom and fairness of the elections, so I expect this to happen.”

Campaign incidents already have prompted the European Union’s own human rights adviser to Georgia, Thomas Hammarberg, to urge officials to start a national campaign against violence, including against political figures. The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi has called for an investigation into the reports of violence and pressure, and for Georgia to keep up “the highest standards of democracy in this region.”

The task is not straightforward. Thirty-one-year-old Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili’s government faces the challenge of not only maneuvering the country toward closer integration with the EU, but sidestepping any funny business by confirmed Euro-skeptic Russia. As has been the case for earlier Georgian governments under pressure, the temptation to use heavy-handed means to maintain political control can run strong.

The government maintains the Jun. 15 elections, which feature 12 mayoral and 2,145 local-council and council-chair races, will occur without incident. But minority parties charge that Gharibashvili and his coalition are trying to create a single-party rule.

The main target of the attacks this election season is former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), the country’s largest opposition force, which 31-year-old Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili says should “vanish” after the vote.

“We, together with you, have to remove the UNM from government in every district, every city and village,” Gharibashvili declared at a Jun. 9 campaign stop in the Black Sea city of Batumi.

Earlier, Gharibashvili had asserted that his team would not let any party other than his Georgian Dream coalition score victories at the polls. The prime minister put such comments down to campaigning.

The UNM, which has claimed political persecution, questions that definition of diversity. “We are seeing a systematic, well-orchestrated harassment of our candidates to quit the race and to wipe out the opposition,” charged UNM lawmaker Giorgi Kandelaki.

The prime minister’s statements only testify to the government’s orchestration of the attacks, he added. [Editor’s Note: Kandelaki once served as an editorial associate at].

Civil rights groups also point to a string of violent clashes. Several men scuffled with UNM officials at a recent campaign event in Batumi. In Tbilisi, one high-profile UNM member, Zurab Tchiaberashvili, had a glass crushed on his head in a café, while a group of unknown assailants tried to abduct another senior UNM member, Nugzar Tsiklauri.

Overall, political groups and election observers attribute to political pressure the withdrawal of “up to 50 candidates” from six parties, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy reported. Only four out of 80 candidates interviewed by prosecutors said the same, however, the government has announced.

“They are trying to convince us that all the 80 candidates caught some kind of virus and started withdrawing en masse,” quipped opposition figure Nino Burjanadze, a former parliamentary chair, to Maestro TV.

The prime minister has dismissed criticism of his governing style, claiming that the Georgian Dream is diverse enough to find an opposition within its own ranks.

The Georgian Dream’s deputy chair, Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze, as well as several Georgian Dream members did not respond to requests from for comment. In public statements, the governing coalition has attributed the violence to those who suffered injustices under the UNM’s tenure in power from 2004-2012.

Georgian Dream MP Eka Beselia, a senior coalition figure, alleged that UNM withdrawals from the race are part of a conspiracy to damage the Georgian Dream’s democratic credentials.

Those credentials carry particular weight now. Aside from the EU, Tbilisi is holding its breath for a membership-overture from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation this September.

There may be only so much public criticism the EU can dish out. Determined to hold firm against Russian pressure in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, it already has pledged tens of millions of euros to ensure Georgia’s European transformation sticks.

Signs do exist that its democratic health has improved. Observers note a largely pluralistic media environment, free of “political money,” and a more independent judiciary is taking root. An April 2014 survey of 3,915 voter-age respondents commissioned by the Washington, DC-based National Democratic Institute found that half of all Georgians believe the overall election environment has improved since 2012.

Nonetheless, the democratisation process in Georgia still has a way to go, according to 40 percent of those polled, the highest percentage on that particular question.

This story originally appeared on

]]> 1
Obama, Rights Groups Protest Egypt Sentencing Mon, 23 Jun 2014 23:47:15 +0000 Jim Lobe Rights groups say the sentences are evidence of the Egyptian regime’s increasingly totalitarian nature. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

Rights groups say the sentences are evidence of the Egyptian regime’s increasingly totalitarian nature. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jun 23 2014 (IPS)

The administration of President Barack Obama joined international human rights groups around the world in “strongly condemn(ing)” Monday’s conviction and sentencing by an Egyptian court of three Al Jazeera journalists and 15 others for their alleged association with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The White House, however, did not indicate what actions it was prepared to take, if any, in response to the verdicts, which it said “flouts the most basic standards of media freedom and represents a blow to democratic progress in Egypt.”We all know that the judiciary in Egypt has been the arm of the state for years. I feel embarrassed for our secretary of state to have to sit there and listen while the foreign minister says the judiciary is independent.” -- Emile Nakhleh

In a statement, it appealed instead to the new government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general, Egypt’s strongman since the military coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi almost exactly one year ago, to commute the sentences or pardon the defendants, as well as others who have been convicted for political reasons.

“Perhaps most disturbing is that this verdict comes as part of a succession of prosecutions and verdicts that are fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance,” according to the White House statement.

“These include the prosecution of peaceful protesters and critics of the government, and a series of summary death sentences in trials that fail to achieve even a semblance of due process.”

Monday’s verdicts, which were also strongly denounced by a number of Western governments and press watchdog groups, immediately followed Sunday’s visit by Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo where he met with both Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry during which he reportedly appealed for a more conciliatory approach to the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the eve of his arrival, however, an Egyptian court confirmed death sentences against the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, and 182 supporters in a mass trial that has also been broadly condemned by rights groups and Western governments.

Kerry’s visit, which was billed as an attempt to rebuild ties after a partial freeze on U.S. military aid following the coup and the subsequent killings of hundreds of Brotherhood protestors in Cairo, marked the highest-level meeting Sisi has held with a U.S. official since his election to the presidency last month.

Officials accompanying Kerry on the trip told reporters before his arrival that Washington had quietly restored all but about 78 million dollars of the 650 million dollars earlier this month. It was the first of two tranches of military aid earmarked for Egypt this year.

Washington has provided Cairo with an average of about 1.3 billion dollars in military aid annually over the past two decades.

Despite the death sentences confirmed Saturday, Kerry told reporters in Cairo after meeting Sisi that he was “absolutely confident” that all of the aid would soon be restored, although the State Department said later Monday it was “constantly reviewing” what aid should be provided.

Analysts here said the timing of Kerry’s announcement – coming so soon after the latest death sentences and on the eve of the reporters’ sentencing — was particularly unfortunate and effectively reduced what leverage Washington enjoys over the new government.

“He should’ve at least waited to make the announcement until the verdict [in the reporters’ trial] came out, because he knew it was scheduled today,” said Emile Nakhleh, a former senior analyst on the Middle East and political Islam for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

“Frankly, it’s pathetic for the United States to be in the position where we see clear violations of human rights and the most elementary principles of judicial practice hiding under the pretence that this is an independent judiciary,” he told IPS.

“We all know that the judiciary in Egypt has been the arm of the state for years. I feel embarrassed for our secretary of state to have to sit there and listen while the foreign minister says the judiciary is independent.”

The three Al-Jazeera journalists, all of whom had previously worked for mainstream international news media, include Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste; and Egyptian Baher Mohamed.

Detained since a raid on their studio in the Marriott Hotel in Cairo last December and charged with membership in the Brotherhood and fabricating video footage to “give the appearance Egypt is in a civil war,” the three were sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security prison, with an additional three years for Mohamed for possessing a spent shell he kept as a souvenir.

The other defendants, mostly students, were accused of aiding the reporters in allegedly fabricating the footage. While two were acquitted, most were sentenced to seven years in prison; those tried in absentia were sentenced to 10 years.

“The trial was a complete sham,” according to Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“This is a devastating verdict for the men and their families, and a dark day for media freedom in Egypt, when jouirnalists are being locked up and branded criminals or ‘terrorists’ simply for doing their job.”

He was joined by Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, who complained that the prosecution had offered “zero evidence of wrongdoing” and noted that current U.S. law requires that military aid be withheld pending real progress on the human rights situation in Egypt.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also denounced the verdicts as “shocking and an extremely disturbing sign for the future of the Egyptian press,” while Reporters Without Borders in Paris said they offered evidence of the “Egyptian regime’s increasingly totalitarian nature.”

Kerry issued his own condemnation of the verdicts in between urgent meetings with Iraqi political leaders in Baghdad Monday. He called the conviction and sentences “chilling” and “draconian” and “a deeply disturbing setback to Egypt’s transition.”

He said he had phoned Shoukry Monday “to make very clear our deep concerns” and appealed for Sisi’s government “to review all of the political sentences and verdicts pronounced during the last few years and consider all available remedies, including pardons.”

But Nakhleh said Washington’s appeals are unlikely to have the desired effect. “The appeal by the White House for clemency isn’t going to carry any weight with the Sisi government,” he told IPS. “We’ve really lost all credibility.” He called for Congress to re-impose the aid freeze.

Indeed, the powerful chairman Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, suggested late Monday that he would work for such a freeze in light of the latest verdicts.

“The harsh actions taken today against journalists is the latest descent toward despotism,” he said in a statement. “Through discussions with Secretary Kerry and others over recent weeks, I agreed to the release of the bulk of these funds for sustainment purposes, but further aid should be withheld until they demonstrate a basic commitment to justice and human rights.”

CPJ’s director, Joel Simon, said the Al-Jazeera journalists have become “pawns” in a conflict between the Egypt and Qatar, which supported the Brotherhood and Morsi’s government, in particular. Since Morsi’s ouster, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have replaced Doha has Cairo’s main financial supporter.

Riyadh has even vowed to provide the government with any military aid withheld by the U.S.

]]> 1
IT and Internet Offer Possibilities of Overcoming Blockade in Gaza Thu, 19 Jun 2014 10:39:44 +0000 Khaled Alashqar Khalid Salim (left) and Yassir Younis (right) , owners of the Motawiron mobile applications and software development company that grew out of the Technology Incubator in Gaza. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

Khalid Salim (left) and Yassir Younis (right) , owners of the Motawiron mobile applications and software development company that grew out of the Technology Incubator in Gaza. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

By Khaled Alashqar
GAZA CITY, Jun 19 2014 (IPS)

“After graduating, I joined the thousands of other graduates on the list of the unemployed. Then I read about a project that offers a technology incubator for youth projects, applied, was accepted and now I’m no longer on that list!

Yasser Younis, who is now co-owner of a mobile applications and software development company, was describing his experience of the Palestine Information and Communications Technology Incubator, a unique programme set up and run by the University College of Applied Sciences (UCAS) in Gaza, with the support of Oxfam, which has the ambitious aim of bypassing the blockade imposed on Gaza.

The idea behind the programme is to provide graduate students with the necessary sponsorship and financial support to develop their projects during a gestation period of six months, with project staff on hand to help them network with companies abroad and market their products online.“Ideas are accepted on the basis of specific criteria and the ability of the idea to overcome the blockade on Gaza and market products abroad via the Internet” – Professor Saeed Azzibda, Manager of Development Programmes at UCAS, Gaza

Describing this promising programme, Professor Saeed Azzibda, Manager of Development Programmes at UCAS, told IPS: “Ideas are accepted on the basis of specific criteria and the ability of the idea to overcome the blockade on Gaza and market products abroad via the Internet. If such essential criteria are met, we would embrace the idea and develop it until it becomes a product with foreign trade potential.”

The Technology Incubator qualifies five companies in each assessment session and some of its start-up projects have already developed their own programs and applications that are being sold in the global market of mobile phone software.

The programme has been very well received in the Palestinian community and at international level, with some Arab investors offering successful participants the opportunity to travel and work in Qatar and other Arab countries interested in the field of technology and online markets, or to open headquarters for budding start-ups outside Gaza and increase investment in them.

“We have two dimensions to corporate incubation,” Professor Azzibda told IPS.  “The first is that the company sells its products via the Internet to overcome the blockade of Gaza, and the second dimension is for those students who have created their own companies here to explore opportunities outside the borders of Gaza border and develop strong companies and investments abroad with the aim of also supporting their people in Gaza.”

Two of the graduates from the OCAS programme are Yasser and Khalil Salim, owners of the Motawiron mobile applications and software development company. They graduated from the UCAS programme after six months of incubation and the company is now selling its products online for companies in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and some other countries.

Motawiron recently won a ticket to represent Palestine inthe “Imagine Cup”, the global student technology competition organised by Microsoft Corporation for the best software and applications to serve the world. This was the first time ever that Palestine had been represented in the competition.

Nevertheless, the blockade on Gaza prevented Younis and Salim from travelling earlier this month to Qatar for the Pan-Arab semi-finals of the “Imagine Cup”, although they possessed the necessary papers and the official invitation and tickets.

“Our company has developed the ‘HOPE’ application for mobile phones which helps the deaf communicate with people and integrate into society. We got the first position for Palestine and now compete in the world but we could not travel.  We have shared this application in competitions in order to expand horizons and start relationships with international companies,” Yassir told IPS.

Graduates make up a significant segment of Palestinian society where over 40,000 studentsgraduate each year, creating an urgent need to find creative ways to accommodate young graduates and their talents in the labour market. But the market in Gaza suffers from major weakness and serious decline at various levels because of the continued siege and closures imposed by Israel.

Some international donor organisations, including Oxfam, work in Gaza and try to support domestic markets and the local economy.

They manage large development projects through which they provide significant support to UCAS graduates to deliver their products to the outside world via the internet despite the challenges they face in Gaza, particularly the electricity blackouts for 12 hours a day and the difficulty of bringing in supporting equipment for emerging companies.

“Information technology is among the emerging and promising sectors in Gaza, where products that are blocked from access tomarkets by traditional ways due to the blockade can be offered via the Internet,” Alun Macdonald, Media and Communication Coordinator at Oxfam, told IPS.

“A company producing animated advertising has so far won six contracts outside Gaza with companies in the Gulf states, Canada and Saudi Arabia. Some of the companies have also proved themselves in the local market,” he added.

Meanwhile, young female journalist Nour Al-harazin is taking the media approach in her initiative to overcome physical and political barriers and reach the outside world, by preparing to launch and operate an English-speaking news channel from Gaza via YouTube.

“It would be the first in the Arab world and Palestine.This channel intends to provide reports and human stories from besieged Gaza to the outside world. It will be, for the first time, our right as Palestinians to convey our suffering ourselves to the outside world without any parameters. This is the main idea of the project,” Nour told IPS.

A support network of activists from Western countries is taking shape across social networking sites to help this Palestinian journalist with her project. Having launched an online page for fundraising, Nour has also released a short video on YouTube calling on activists and supporters of justice in the world to provide assistance and financial help for her project so that she can deliver the message of the Palestinians and the people of Gaza in particular.

“The siege and travel ban have always been an obstacle to Palestinians, so I thought of using the Internet and social media to reach out to the world that cannot reach us. The Internet has now become a means to break this siege,” said Nour.

Day after day, Gazans like Nour, Yassir and Khalil continue the struggle to find new ways to break the siege imposed on them and create access to the outside world through commercial relations and media outlets. The global Internet and social media have opened new doors and are now being used as an essential space to challenge closure and isolation.

]]> 0
Internet Censorship Floods Serbia Mon, 02 Jun 2014 18:46:16 +0000 Vesna Peric Zimonjic Credit: Public Domain

Credit: Public Domain

By Vesna Peric Zimonjic
BELGRADE, Jun 2 2014 (IPS)

Waters have receded in Serbia after the worst flooding the country has seen in 120 years, and something new has surfaced, apart from devastated fields and property – censorship of the internet.

A number of sites and blogs that criticised the government’s behaviour at the peak of the floods two weeks ago – in which over 50 people died – were hacked, unavailable or removed, showing the “error 404″ message whenever an attempt was made to access them.

Some 30 people have been detained in the past two weeks for “dissemination of false news and panic”, in the words of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Three young men spent nine days in custody for their Facebook posts, which cited hundreds of casualties in the worst hit town of Obrenovac, 33 kms south west from Belgrade. The three were released but will soon face trial. If guilty, they face six months to five years in prison."There is an obvious effort by the state to narrow the social dialogue … It's also an effort to introduce one-mindedness in the country" – head of the Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (NUNS)

Sources at the Prosecutor’s Office, who insisted on anonymity, told IPS that “such comments and posts could have caused panic or grave disturbance of public order”, denying that the process represented any type of crawling censorship. Censorship is banned by the Constitution of Serbia.

However, hacking and downing of the and sites that carried highly critical items on Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and his government’s behaviour under titles “People are desperate”, “Vucic to stop with pathos and self pity”, “State, we’d won’t keep you any longer” were described as clear censorship by professionals and the Ombudsman of the Republic of Serbia, Sasa Jankovic.

A blog on the most popular site which said “I’ AV (Aleksandar Vucic), resign”, was removed without any explanation from the web site of “Blic” newspaper. Axel Springer Media, the owner of the paper, would not comment on the case.

“There is an obvious effort by the state to narrow the social dialogue,” said the head of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS). “It’s also an effort to introduce one-mindedness in the country.”

Ombudsman Jankovic said in a statement that it is becoming harder to hide censorship because “we see more often that some information or critics are being withdrawn from publicly available media and information space.”

One clear case of censorship was the removal of the appeal by Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali to citizens of Obrenovac not to leave their homes on Friday, May 16. It was posted on the official site of the Serbian capital of Belgrade, because Obrenovac is one of its city municipalities.

It disappeared from the site after the town was completely flooded the same day, when 23,000 people were hastily evacuated. It remained at cache, only to be re-distributed over Facebook and Twitter en masse.

Mali is one of the top officials of Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of Prime Minister Vucic. The SNS won last early general elections in May and run the nation together with Socialists of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic. The coalition has run the country since 2012, when Democrats, who toppled Milosevic in 2000, lost elections due to widespread corruption and inability to save the country from the effects of the global downturn.

However, the Prime Minister denied existence of censorship in his recent appearance at state-run Radio-television of Serbia (RTS).

“It is absolutely untrue that there was censorship or that there were demands for certain texts or posts to be withdrawn,” Vucic said.

He was reacting fiercely to a statement by Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom official of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At last week’s OSCE meeting in Stockholm, she expressed deep concern over allegations that websites and online content are being blocked in Serbia.

“This is a clear violation of the right to free expression. The Internet provides unparalleled opportunities to support these rights and is essential for the free flow and access to information,” she said.

For professionals in Serbia, the behaviour of Vucic does not come as a surprise. In 1999, at the time of NATO bombing, he was part of the Milosevic’s government, the youngest-ever Information Minister. Strict media censorship, together with repressive laws with fines amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars for independent media marked his time in that position.

“It’s the same as in Milosevic’s era, maybe worse” said veteran journalist Jasminka Kocijan.

She experienced first-hand the consequences of meddling into state affairs earlier this year.

After a widely propagated footage showed Vucic saving a child from snow in the northern town of Feketic, she posted on her Facebook page an item from the Red Cross which described how volunteers really saved people stuck in high snow. She was immediately removed from her editorial post at the state-run Tanjug news agency.

Since coming to power in 2012, Vucic and his team have been diligent in efforts to remove all the satirical or even factual online contents dealing with Progressives. A blog on internal issues within the party was removed back then, while online photos or items on Vucic’s second marriage last November were immediately removed.

The last incident of the online censorship happened on Sunday evening, when the web site went down. It carried an analysis of three university professors on the doctor’s thesis by Vucic’s right hand and Minister of Interior Nebojsa Stefanovic. The analysis showed that the thesis was a plagiarism.

]]> 0
Women Journalists Seize Initiative in Gaza Thu, 29 May 2014 10:24:31 +0000 Marjut Helminen Gaza City, with a population of more than half a million people, spreads along the sandy shores of the Mediterranean Sea.  Credit: Marjut Helminen/IPS

Gaza City, with a population of more than half a million people, spreads along the sandy shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Credit: Marjut Helminen/IPS

By Marjut Helminen
GAZA CITY, May 29 2014 (IPS)

“We let the men participate in the workshop discussions, but the training sessions are only for women journalists,” says Mona Khadir, who coordinates the activities of the Filastiniyat Women Journalists’ Club in Gaza. The meeting hall at a hotel in Gaza is full of journalists, both women and men. What catches the eye is the row of TV cameras and microphones behind the audience.

They are there for the workshop organised by Filastiniyat, a non-governmental advocacy organisation committed to ensuring and supporting the equitable participation of Palestinian women and youth at all levels of the public sphere.

Filastiniyat workshops offer a platform for vivid discussion and varied viewpoints, and such events never fail to draw media attention.

“We make the voice of women heard in the society” – Wafa' Abdel Rahaman, founder of Filastiniyat
Raising a chorus of many voices – where everybody is welcome, irrespective of religion, political views or differing ways of thinking – is a rare opportunity in today’s Gaza.

The political division that has lasted since 2007 in Palestine between the two largest Palestinian political parties and long-standing rivals, the Fatah government in the West Bank and the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, has had a significant effect on the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression – and on women’s lives, whether journalists or citizens.

Filastiniyat’s activities offer an alternative view and much food for thought, considering that those in power in Gaza favour steps to segregate women and men in all spheres of life.

“We make the voice of women heard in the society,” says Wafa’ Abdel Rahaman, founder of Filastiniyat in Ramallah in the West Bank.

Several Palestinian men admitted to IPS that they respect the Filastiniyat as something unique and fresh. The club does something nobody else dares to do, they said. It offers an alternative to the conversation culture and a way of searching for common ground for action.

Although the activists of the volunteer organisation do not put it this way, it seems that the women journalists’ club aims at freeing journalism from narrow-minded party politics and taking it back to its roots, to informing the public in a spirit of free speech and right to information.

In the journalism field in Gaza, telling the truth can be life-threatening and the attack against free speech comes both from the Israeli occupation forces and from the domestic political leadership. Media outlets in the Gaza Strip have been prohibited from criticising the practices of the Hamas government, particularly regarding human rights violations.

But the voices of women journalists are being heard not only inside meeting rooms. Earlier this month, Filastiniyat invited journalists to discuss Palestinian reconciliation and ways to put an end to the split between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza. Al Jazeera TV broadcast this lengthy discussion live to the Arab world, and others, like Palestinian TV and several other media gave it extensive coverage.

“Our club is first of all about empowering women journalists and we do it in many ways, giving them an opportunity to raise their voice, increase professional skills, as well as offering relaxation and networking through social activities,” explains Khadir.

Some of the club’s activities might seem trivial at first glance, but a closer look reveals that they can mean a world to the women journalists struggling for professional survival in the male dominated and segregated society.

Psycho-social support, yoga and excursions offer relaxation and the possibility to forget for a moment the stress of everyday life – like the regular cuts in electricity or tap water, which is salty and poisoned with minerals, and the siege over Gaza, which imprisons the population in ghetto conditions.

Women journalists in Gaza are not only struggling with basic necessities for existence for themselves and their families, but also for employment.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate in 2012 among Palestinian journalism graduates aged 20-29 was 52 percent: 38 percent among male graduates and a striking 82 percent among female graduates.

UNESCO and Birzeit University’s Media Development Centre are about to release an in-depth Media Development Indicators Report, which analyses different factors of freedom of speech and media freedom in Palestine. According to this study, discrimination of women journalists is deeply rooted in media houses and union life, and the rights of all journalists are constantly violated both by the Israeli occupational authorities and the Palestinian authorities.

]]> 0
Burundi Headed for Election Turmoil as Ruling Party Allegedly Arms Youth Wing Tue, 27 May 2014 07:41:54 +0000 Bernard Bankukira BURUNDI: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, the chairman of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH) was taken into custody on May 15 for speaking publicly about the paramilitary training of the ruling party’s youth wing. Courtesy: Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH)

Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, the chairman of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH) was taken into custody on May 15 for speaking publicly about the paramilitary training of the ruling party’s youth wing. Courtesy: Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH)

By Bernard Bankukira
BUJUMBURA, May 27 2014 (IPS)

Burundi could be heading for political violence ahead of the 2015 elections amid allegations that the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) has been arming its youth wing.

Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, the chairman of the civil society organisation Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons, known by its French acronym, APRODH, was taken into custody on May 15 for speaking publicly about the issue. Since his arrest, Mbonimpa appeared to court three times. During his last appearance on May 23 he was denied bail. Civil society groups in this tiny Central African nation tried in vain over the weekend to negotiate his release.

Mbonimpa, who was allegedly in possession of pictures supporting this claim, has repeatedly denounced the paramilitary training of CNDD-FDD’s youth wing, Imbonerakure, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Mbonimpa alleged that the training was conducted by senior police and army officers. “The attitude of [the government] in attacking civil society and the opposition, muzzling the media, and trying to silence everyone ... will lead only to a catastrophe." -- Agathon Rwasa, leader of the main opposition National Liberation Forces

Léonce Ngendakumana, the leader of the opposition Alliance of Democrats for Change (ADC-Ikibiri), a coalition of 11 major opposition parties, said that arms were being distributed in order to spread terror among the electorate and force them to vote for the ruling party.

Ngendakumana concurred with the claims by activists that Mbonimpa’s arrest was an attempt to prevent him from speaking out about the arming and militarised training.

“The chairman of APRODH was arrested because he had courageously pointed a finger at the terrorism-oriented behaviour of the Imbonerakure militia,” Ngendakumana told IPS.

Mbonimpa was charged with making false claims likely to harm relationships between Burundi and neighbouring DRC, and for undermining state security. He denied the charges.

“He has been arrested in this regard in a bid to push him to give up inquiring and delivering all the information he has,” Ngendakumana said. He pleaded for a commission of inquiry into the allegations.

However, the Burundi government has turned a deaf ear to the requests from various organisations, including the United Nations Office in Bujumbura, for an investigation into the matter.

In April a confidential correspondence from Parfait Onanga Anyanga, the U.N. secretary-general representative in Bujumbura, to the secretary-general of the U.N., alleged that army and police uniforms and weapons were being distributed to the CNDD-FDD-affiliated youth wing. Two high-ranking army officers were alleged to have been involved.

The Burundi government refuted the allegations, claiming it was an attempt by the U.N. office to divide the Burundian people.

Paul Debbie, the security councillor of the U.N. Office in Burundi, was given 48 hours to leave the country by the government.

“Those who give these reports, which are only rumours, are the ones who have to carry out such investigations,” the government said in a statement.

Agathon Rwasa, leader of the main opposition National Liberation Forces and a presidential candidate, urged the international community to monitor the upcoming elections. He told IPS that he feared if the CNDD-FDD continued to arm Imbonerakure, the situation would eventually become catastrophic. Burundi is recovering from a 13-year civil war that resulted in 300,000 deaths and which only ended in 2006. The last armed group only formally laid down its weapons in April 2009.

“The attitude of [the government] in attacking civil society and the opposition, muzzling the media, and trying to silence everyone [reporting on] their evils will lead only to a catastrophe,” Rwasa told IPS.

“If the government fails to find a solution to what’s said about [CNDD-FDD]-affiliated youth, what would happen in Burundi if all other political parties gave their youth military training and provided them with weapons?”

Rwasa said that the ruling party was seeking to become a dictatorship.

He called on the government to promote dialogue with all key players to ensure a peaceful environment that would ensure fair elections.

Léonidas Ntahimpera, a political analyst from Bujumbura, told IPS that the ruling party had no reasonable explanation for the military training of its youth.

“Instead of explaining this suspicious venture, the government just opts to shut up any disturbing voice,” said Ntahimpera, referring to Mbonimpa’s arrest.

He said that the current socio-political situation was just a prelude to an situation of fear ahead of the 2015 elections.

“The tense situation observed for the time leads to threats of electoral violence as it happened in Kenya in 2007 and in Côte d’Ivoire in 2012 where election exercises were marred by violence,“ said Ntahimpera.

Ntahimpera urged the government to promote transparency and political tolerance and acceptance before, during and after the elections.

“Imagine there are candidates who are prohibited from running their campaigns for their own security, or [parties] where their members are intimidated in their activities. How can they believe in the outcomes of the elections?”

Pacifique Nininahazwe, the chairperson of the Forum for Conscience and Development, a civil organisation in Bujumbura, told media here that imprisonment was being used as a weapon of intimidation and harassment against human rights activists, journalists, and whoever expressed views that conflicted with those of the ruling party.

He said he failed to understand why the government was unwilling to investigate the allegations.

]]> 0
Azerbaijan’s Rights Situation Deteriorating, Group Warns Tue, 06 May 2014 16:40:58 +0000 Farangis Abdurazokzoda By Farangis Abdurazokzoda
WASHINGTON, May 6 2014 (IPS)

The Azerbaijan government crackdown on civil society has worsened in recent months, human rights campaigners are warning, and activists are increasingly falling victim to official efforts to limit dissent.

Human Rights Watch, the global watchdog, is calling for an end to what it refers to as harassment and oppressive tactics against the prominent human rights activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunusov. The group says it is now up to the international community to step up pressure on the Azerbaijan government.“Mirgadirov and the Yunuses are the voices that the Azerbaijani government doesn’t want to be heard." -- Rachel Denber

“Azerbaijan’s international partners, in particular fellow members of the Council of Europe, should make clear that continued harassment of human rights defenders, and the Yunuses in particular, will affect their relationships with Azerbaijan’s government,” the U.S.-based watchdog group said.

The call was particularly aimed at President Francois Hollande of France, who is scheduled to visit Azerbaijan on May 11 and 12. Campaigners are urging President Hollande to insist on seeing the Yunuses and to signal that their freedom is of significant importance to French-Azerbaijani relations.

Concern is also being expressed for the plight of Rauf Mirgadirov, an Azerbaijani journalist accused of spying for Armenia. He’s been in prison since late last month, awaiting trial.

Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the charges against Mirgadirov “bogus”.

“Mirgadirov is a man who has been for many years a strong critique of the Azerbaijani government, and the Azerbaijani authorities, who are known for having a longstanding pattern of bogus allegations, were just looking for a pretext to put him behind bars,” Denber told IPS.

“Mirgadirov and the Yunuses are the voices that the Azerbaijani government doesn’t want to be heard. But the outrageous facts of their scandalous treatment have to be exposed to the public and addressed immediately.”

Azerbaijan will soon be taking over the rotating chairmanship of Europe’s foremost human rights body, the Council of Europe. Human Rights Watch is also calling on the body’s secretary-general, Thorbjorn Jagland, to express urgent concern about the treatment of the Yunuses and Mirgadirov, as well as other civic activists and journalists that have fallen victims of the regime in recent months.

“No government should be allowed to get away with targeting human rights defenders while it’s seeking to boost its international prestige,” Denber said in a brief.

PR show

The warnings come just days after an annual private-sector U.S.-Azerbaijan convention took place here in Washington. There, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Richard Morningstar, called the detention of the Yunuses a “mistake”.

In follow-up comments to IPS, State Department officials expressed “deep concern” about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, and said that they are “closely following the situation”. The U.S. Embassy in Baku, they said, has been in “direct touch” with the Yunuses.

“As with the Rauf Mirgadirov case, we are disturbed that the actions taken by the Azerbaijani government against Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunusov appear to be related to their participation in people-to-people efforts aimed at building confidence and facilitating a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

Nagorno-Karabakh is a de facto independent but unrecognised state, which is internationally seen as part of Azerbaijan. However, the area remains populated by significant numbers of ethnic Armenians.

The Yunuses’ detention occurred at about the same time as the U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention took place here in Washington. The event is seen by some as a public-relations show for energy-rich Azerbaijan, with significant participation by the country’s influential oil and gas industry.

Leyla Yunus’s brother-in-law, Ramis Yunus, a long-time Washington-area resident and a columnist for a number of Azerbaijani and Russian language media outlets, was not allowed to attend the convention after his family members were detained in Azerbaijan.

Although attempts by IPS to contact Ramis Yunis proved unsuccessful by deadline, he was quoted in local media stating that he had hoped to ask U.S. legislators whether their priority lay with human rights or oil.

“They call it the ‘U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention’, organised by ‘friends of Azerbaijan’,” Ramis Yunus was quoted as saying. “I am both a U.S. citizen and an Azerbaijani citizen. But why I am treated as an enemy here?”

This year’s U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention celebrated two decades of bilateral ties following Azeri independence from the Soviet Union.

Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute, who spoke at the convention, told IPS the event’s goals are “to further the conversation between American policy-makers and Azerbaijani counter-parts.”

Vatanka continued: “Such efforts are important in introducing Azerbaijan’s agenda to policy-makers here in Washington.”

Track-two crackdown

Leyla Yunus is the director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, a group formed in 1995 that focused on combating politically motivated prosecutions, violence against women and unlawful house evictions. Since then, the group has also been involved in the projects targeted at rebuilding the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan around the unresolved conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Leyla and Arif Yunusov were detained by Azerbaijan’s government earlier last week as they were boarding a plane to Doha, where they planned to attend an international conference. Leyla Yunus’s detention is visibly related to their work on building dialogue with Armenians and her relationship with Mirgadirov, the journalist.

Mirgadirov has been involved in track-two diplomacy between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, having taken part in meetings in Armenia aimed at improving the relationship between the two countries. Leyla Yunus and the Institute for Peace and Democracy have also been involved in organising some of these projects.

Human Rights Watch cites media reports from in which the Azerbaijani officials state that the Yunuses are considered witnesses to a criminal investigation. The officials also assert that the Yunuses had previously disregarded an attempt to be served with an interrogation summons, and had not responded to phone calls asking them to appear for questioning.

Yunus’s lawyer confirmed to Human Rights Watch that a government official delivered such a summons on Apr. 24. Leyla Yunus refused, however, explaining that she had not received adequate notice.

“Azerbaijan has a long history of using bogus charges to imprison its critics, including on treason charges,” Human Rights Watch states.

]]> 0