Inter Press Service » Press Freedom Turning the World Downside Up Sun, 23 Nov 2014 22:19:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Azerbaijan’s Rights Activists on the Brink Fri, 21 Nov 2014 19:52:13 +0000 Vugar Gojayev By Vugar Gojayev
BAKU, Nov 21 2014 (EurasiaNet)

When Azerbaijan served as chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, it scoffed at the spirit and purpose of the organisation and moved vigorously to squash all forms of free speech at home.

Now that Baku no longer holds the top spot, civil society activists are worrying about what Azerbaijani authorities will do next.At the moment, the country’s jails hold at least 90 political prisoners, almost double the number in Belarus and Russia combined. These prisoners of conscience face a variety of cooked-up charges, including hooliganism, drug possession, tax evasion and treason.

All civil society actors in Azerbaijan currently are grappling with a daunting dilemma: either stop engaging in rights-related activism or pay a high price, in particular face the prospect of criminal prosecution.

Dozens of activists and independent journalists remain behind bars for no reason other than engaging in rights work or tacitly promoting free speech. At the moment, the country’s jails hold at least 90 political prisoners, almost double the number in Belarus and Russia combined. These prisoners of conscience face a variety of cooked-up charges, including hooliganism, drug possession, tax evasion and treason.

Azerbaijan relinquished its Committee of Ministers chairmanship on Nov. 13. Far from softening its repressive behaviour and cleaning up its awful rights record during its six-month tenure, the government stepped up its suppression of internal dissent.

At least 13 activists were arrested and at least 10 others were convicted on politically motivated charges following flawed trials. Authorities rounded up the country’s most senior human rights defenders and other leading activists, including Leyla Yunus, veteran human rights defender and director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, the political commentator Arif Yunus.

They also detained Rasul Jafarov, chairman of Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Club, Intigam Aliyev, prominent lawyer and chairman of the Legal Education Society, and the famous opposition journalist Seymur Haziyev.

Some of those detained in recent months have serious health conditions. Yet, authorities keep them locked up, even as they fail to provide any information to suggest that pre-trial detention is warranted. They also have not released any credible evidence that would support the charges against these recent detainees.

In addition to politically motivated arrests, dozens of draconian laws regulating the operations of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been adopted. The offices of several local and international NGOs were recently raided, their bank accounts frozen and staff interrogated. As a result of increasing pressure, many groups have felt compelled to cease operations.

While the Azerbaijani government has been ruthless in its clampdown, it remains sensitive about its public image, a fact underscored by Baku’s efforts to lavish money on PR in Washington and the EU. Baku’s PR acumen needs to be kept in mind by those who mine for signs of its intentions. Some Western partners have lauded President Ilham Aliyev’s government for releasing four political prisoners in mid-October.

The truth is the release does not change anything, and it is certainly not indicative of a softening of the Aliyev administration’s stance on dissent. It is important to note that before the four were pardoned, they were coerced into acknowledging in writing their “crime,” begging for forgiveness, praising Aliyev, objecting to being called “political prisoners” and denouncing the “anti-Azerbaijan or pro-Armenian activities” of international organizations.

Aliyev’s administration has a habit of using a “revolving door” tactic, releasing few and arresting new political prisoners. Since the October amnesty, at least three more activists have been jailed on bogus charges.

Police accused two of them on hooliganism for “swearing in public place,” and the other faces “narcotics” charges. They all have rejected the accusations, insisting their arrests are retaliation for their rights-related work.

During the Azerbaijani chairmanship, the Council of Europe chose mostly to avert its eyes to Baku’s violations or make toothless statements and merely symbolic criticisms. This head-in-the-sand approach has prompted activists in Baku to question the point of the Council of Europe.

Sadly, Azerbaijan’s refusal to release people imprisoned on politically motivated charges and end its abuses has not affected its relationships with the United States and European Union. Western diplomats tend to prefer backroom diplomacy to public pressure, but, in Azerbaijan’s case, there is absolutely no indication that private talks have had any positive effect.

The international community’s inaction means that the end of the Azerbaijan’s independent human rights community is nearing soon. Unless Aliyev’s government understands that there are serious consequences for its abuses, Baku’s free pass on human rights abuses will continue.

Editor’s note:  Vugar Gojayev is an Azerbaijani researcher and freelance journalist. This story originally appeared on

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Fighting the Islamic State On the Air Sun, 16 Nov 2014 11:57:53 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza Hani Subhi, the presenter for Mosul´s only TV station, currently broadcasting from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Hani Subhi, the presenter for Mosul´s only TV station, currently broadcasting from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Karlos Zurutuza
ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan, Nov 16 2014 (IPS)

There is daily news broadcasting at 9 in the evening and a live programme every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. For the time being, that is what Mosul´s only TV channel has to offer from its headquarters in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

“We are still on the air only because we managed to bring a camera and satellite dish when we escaped from Mosul,” Akram Taufiq, today the general manager of ‘Nineveh´s Future’ – the name of the channel – tells IPS

The life of this 56 year-old journalist has been closely linked to television. He spent eleven years with the Iraqi public channel during Saddam Hussein´s rule. After the former Iraqi leader was toppled, he became the general manager of Mosul´s public channel Sama al Mosul – ‘Mosul´s heaven’. He held his position until extremists of the Islamic State took over Iraq’s second city early in June."From the beginning I tried to convince everyone around that we had nothing to do with the IS. A week after their arrival, everyone in Mosul realised that we had fallen into a trap" – Atheel al Nujaifi, former governor of Nineveh province

Taufiq admits he had never thought “something like that” could ever happen. “It took them just three days to tighten their grip over the whole city,” recalls this Mosuli from his current office in a residential district in the outskirts of Erbil.

Like all other Tuesdays, the staff, all of them volunteers, struggle to go on the air with their limited resources. Taufiq invites us to watch the live programme on a flat TV screen hanging on the wall of his office.

From an adjacent room, Hani Subhi, presenter, reviews the last news dealing with Mosul, which include the newly-established training camp. According to Subhi, it will host the over 4,000 volunteers who have joined the ranks of the ‘Nineveh Police’. The presenter adds that these troops were exclusively recruited among refugees from Mosul.

“We cannot trust anyone coming from Mosul saying they want to join because they could be spies for the IS,” claims Taufiq, who calls the recently set up armed group “a major step forward”.

“In the future, they will join the Mosul Brigades, groups inside the city that are conducting sabotage operations against members and interests of the Islamic State,” Taufiq explains, without taking his eyes away from the TV screen.

According to the journalist, the most awaited moment is the one dedicated to the live phone calls from inside the city. Today there have been more than 1,700 requests. Unfortunately there is no time for all them.

The first one to go live is Abu Omar, a former policeman now in hiding because members of the previous security apparatus have become a priority target for the IS extremists.

“I´m aching to see the Nineveh Police enter the city. I´ll then be the first to join them and help them kill these bastards,” says Omar from an undisclosed location in Mosul.

Hassan follows from Tal Afar, a mainly Turkmen enclave west of Mosul, which hosts a significant Shiite community.

“We Turkmens have become the main target of these vandals because we are not Arabs, and many of us aren´t even Sunni,” says Hassan. He hopes to remain alive “to see how the occupiers are sent away” from his village.

There are also others who share first-hand information on the dire living conditions Mosulis are forced to face today.

“We have to rely on power generators because we have only two hours of electricity every four days,” Abu Younis explains over the phone.

“The water supply is also erratic, coming only every two or three days, so we have to store it in our bathtubs and drums,” he adds. The worst part, however, is the seemingly total lack of security.

Atheel al Nujaifi, governor of Nineveh province until the IS outbreak, struggles to keep his government in Kurdish exile. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Atheel al Nujaifi, governor of Nineveh province until the IS outbreak, struggles to keep his government in Kurdish exile. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

“People simply disappear mysteriously, and that´s when they are not executed in broad daylight,” denounces Younis. His city, he adds, has become “a massive open-air prison”.

A stolen revolution

It is a stark testimony which is corroborated by Bashar Abdullah, a journalist from Mosul who is currently the news editor-in-chief of Nineveh´s Future. Abdullah says he managed to take his wife and two children to Turkey late last month but that he has chosen to stay in Erbil “to keep working”.

The veteran journalist has not ruled out returning home soon but he admits he knows nothing about the state in which his house is today.

“The jihadists have warned that anyone who leaves the city will lose their home. They want to avoid a mass flight of the local population,” explains Abdullah during a tea break.

A report released this month by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) points that almost three million Iraqis are internally displaced. Among those, over half a million have fled Mosul.

Atheel al Nujaifi is likely the best known displaced person from Iraq´s second city. He was the governor of Nineveh province until the IS outbreak. Today he is also one of the main drivers of the TV channel.

From his office in the same building, he admits to IPS that many Mosul residents welcomed the Islamic State fighters in open arms.

“From the beginning I tried to convince everyone around that we had nothing to do with the IS. A week after their arrival, everyone in Mosul realised that we had fallen into a trap,” recalls this son of a prominent local tribe.

In April 2013, Nujaifi received IPS at the Nineveh´s governorate building, in downtown Mosul. Just a few metres away, mass demonstrations against the government were conducted, denouncing alleged marginalisation of the Sunni population of Iraq at the hands of the Shiite government in Baghdad.

Nujaifi would regularly visit the square where the protests were held, openly showing support and giving incendiary speeches against Nuri al-Maliki, the then Prime Minister.

Today from Erbil, he insists that one of the main goals of the TV channel is “to convey the people of Mosul that they still have a government”, even if it´s in exile.

“The Islamic State stole our revolution from us,” laments Nujaifi late at night, just after the last member of the crew has left. They will resume work tomorrow.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Pushing the Voice of Syrian Women For a New Future Sat, 15 Nov 2014 09:55:31 +0000 Shelly Kittleson Two young girls look on as a veiled woman passes by in Aleppo, August 2014. Syrian magazine Saiedet Souria wants to provide women with the information they need to have a wider view on the world and a voice in a revolution that has largely left their views unheard. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Two young girls look on as a veiled woman passes by in Aleppo, August 2014. Syrian magazine Saiedet Souria wants to provide women with the information they need to have a wider view on the world and a voice in a revolution that has largely left their views unheard. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Shelly Kittleson
GAZIANTEP, Turkey, Nov 15 2014 (IPS)

For most Syrian women, the war has been a disaster. For some, it has also been liberating.

For Yasmine Merei, managing editor of the Syrian women’s magazine Saiedet Souria, the upset of traditional family roles and the shaking off of a culture of fear have wrought positive effects.

Many Syrian women have unfortunately been forced to become the breadwinners of their families, with their husbands missing, in jail, injured or killed, she told IPS, but while fending for themselves can be a terrifying experience, it can also free women from the traditional bonds placed on them.

Although it [Syrian women’s magazine Saiedet Souria] does not shy away from stories of women who have suffered greatly … [it] wants mainly to provide women with the information they need to have a wider view on the world and a voice in a revolution that has largely left their views unheard
‘’If he [the husband] isn’t the one who pays for everything and has that specific role in society, he no longer has the right to tell you what to do’’, added Mohammad Mallak, the founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine, which translates as ‘Syrian Women’, and was founded early this year.

Mallak also runs a partner magazine, Dawda (‘Noise’), from the same office in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.

Few of the women in the magazine’s photos have their heads covered, and Merei took off her headscarf earlier this year, after wearing it ‘’for about twenty years’’ as part of her upbringing in a poor, conservative Sunni family.

Merei said that she started taking part in the 2011 protests due to the unjustness of Syrian law, especially as concerns women. As examples, she noted a longstanding law against Syrian women giving citizenship to their children and widespread, unpunished honour killings.

A former Master’s student in linguistics, Merei – like many Syrian women – has become responsible for providing for her immediate family, sending money to her mother and her brothers, both of whom were jailed for protesting and released only after large bribes were paid.

Her elderly father died shortly after he, too, had been imprisoned and the family forced to flee their home.

Telling women’s stories does not simply mean female victims recounting the horrors and hardships of their lives, however.

Although it does not shy away from stories of women who have suffered greatly, Merei wants mainly to provide women with the information they need to have a wider view on the world and a voice in a revolution that has largely left their views unheard.

A first-hand account from a woman who was tortured in Syrian regime prisons sits alongside a review of Germaine Greer’s ‘The Female Eunuch’ and an interview with a female police officer in opposition-held areas in the pages of the magazine and on its Facebook page.

Articles on how forced economic dependence negatively affects both women and national economies overall, others discussing potential health problems found in refugee camps such as tuberculosis, a regular column by a female lawyer still in regime areas who previously spent 13 years in prison for political reasons and two translated articles from international media give breadth to the magazine’s roughly 50 pages per issue.

Saiedet Souria publishes sections of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – the ‘’international bill of rights for women’’ adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979 – in every issue, and will publish it in its entirety in the next, she said.

The magazine itself only has a print run of between 4,500 and 5,000 copies per issue (with roughly 3,500 distributed inside Syria through one of its four offices), bit its Facebook page where the articles are regularly posted is followed by over 40,000.

For a country where Facebook and Youtube were banned from 2007 until early February 2011, and where internet and electricity are scarce, this is a significant number. Syria has been on Reporters Without Borders’ Internet enemies list since the list was established in 2006.

In addition to offices in Daraa, Damascus, Suweida and Qamishli, another will soon be opened in Aleppo, Merei said.

‘’All of the ten women who work for us inside get a regular salary of 200 dollars,’’ she explained, ‘’and are responsible for distributing the copies as well as bringing women together for meetings and similar initiatives.’’

The copies are given out at markets and local councils, and in at least one location, noted Merei, the women have a system to recirculate the limited copies once they have finished with them.

Reporters Without Borders has held two workshops for the magazine, in April and September of this year, and offered to donate equipment to the magazine, but ‘’ we had basic equipment – regular printers, computers’’ from an initial investment made by Mallak,  she said.

‘’But what we really needed was paper and ink, to get the magazine to as many women as possible. And so RSF made an exception and offered us that, instead.’’

The goal, she said, is to ‘’help Syrian women regain confidence in themselves.’’

A confidence undermined by the war and by the use of ‘religion’ to control women in Islamist areas which, when she last went to them earlier this year, ‘’seemed like the country had gone back to the Stone Ages.”

‘’I am a Sunni Muslim but the Islam there is not like any I know.’’

‘’One of the major problems is that Syria’s intelligentsia are all either in jail, abroad or dead,’’ one Syrian, who has lived most of his life abroad but came back recently to help try to set up university classes in opposition-held Aleppo, told IPS. ‘’There is almost no one to structure anything, no one to put forward ideas.’’

This is what the magazine and it correlated activities are trying to address, as well, Merei said. ‘’We are trying to give Syrians the knowledge they are going to need in the future,’’ she said.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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When Is a Corporate Media Group Too Powerful? Wed, 05 Nov 2014 20:56:19 +0000 Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero GFR Media runs three local daily newspapers, including El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s most widely read daily, and 10 business web sites. Credit: public domain

GFR Media runs three local daily newspapers, including El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s most widely read daily, and 10 business web sites. Credit: public domain

By Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
SAN JUAN, Nov 5 2014 (IPS)

A multi-million-dollar grant from a major media conglomerate to a communications school here has been hailed by some as a shining example of corporate philanthropy working to improve the quality of journalism.

But others view it as a worrisome case of undue influence of media corporations on the formation of journalists.“Gallardo represented the worst of corporate strategies, that is, those measures that compromise journalism with greed and market routines in detriment of the interests of the people and their most noble hopes." -- Luis Fernando Coss

Last June GFR Media, Puerto Rico’s largest media company, gave a five-million-dollar grant to the Communications School of Universidad del Sagrado Corazón (USC), one of the country’s leading private universities. Upon receiving the grant, the university changed the school’s name to Ferré Rangel School of Communication, after the Ferré-Rangel family, which owns GFR Media.

GFR Media runs three local daily newspapers, including El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s most widely read daily, and 10 business web sites. It is part of Grupo Ferré Rangel, a family-owned portfolio of companies and investments which includes real estate, printing, marketing and health services.

GFR Media and USC already have a history of collaboration. Together they run Agenda Ciudadana, a roundtable of business and civil society leaders that aims to enhance citizen participation in public affairs, and the PR Center for Press Freedom (CLP), founded and funded by El Nuevo Día, which is housed in the USC Campus.

“This centre was founded to educate the citizenry about freedom of expression, which is our dearest human right,” said CLP director Helga Serrano.

The centre works with high school students, holding journalism summits, forming journalism clubs and giving youths hands-on for print media and digital radio workshops.

“We encourage people to read the media with a critical eye,” said Serrano. “The Ferrés have been totally supportive of us on that. An alert and questioning public pushes the media out of their comfort zone.”

Serrano does not believe that accepting five million dollars from GFR Media and having the school renamed after the Ferré-Rangel family compromises the institution in any undue way.

“In the United States this is a very common practice. You see plenty of buildings and institutions named after philanthropists over there,”Serrano told IPS. “Columbia School of Journalism in New York, for example, was founded by Mr. Pulitzer, a newspaper publisher and creator of the journalism prize named after himself.

“The [USC] trustees approved the name change, because the grant is a major contribution to the school’s development.”

But others believe the donation will undermine the Communication School’s independence and intellectual integrity.

“This grant [from GFR Media] means that the poorly formed communicators graduated from the school will have to carry the message and editorial line of the Ferré-Rangels and their publications,” said a source in the USC faculty that refused to be identified. This grant “contradicts the institution’s mission, which is to form persons with intellectual liberty, with critical thinking.”

According to “Un Diario Amable”, a critical 2009 documentary about El Nuevo Día, between 2001 and 2005 the Ferré-Rangel group of companies had profits of over 100 million dollars. And yet, in February 2007 El Nuevo Día laid off some 40 employees.

According to the PR Journalists Association (ASPPRO), after the layoffs the remaining staff writers have lived in a state of fear and uncertainty, and are afraid to publicly denounce their working conditions.

GFR Media is now one of ASPPRO’s top donors.

El Nuevo Día is a member of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), an organisation that has frequently been accused of right-wing bias and political activism. Chilean entrepreneur Agustín Edwards, owner of the El Mercurio newspaper and IAPA president from 1968 to 1969, met with U.S. Central Intelligence Agency director Richard Helms to discuss ways to undermine the government of Chilean president Salvador Allende, who was overthrown by a right-wing military coup in 1973.

El Mercurio, which strongly opposed Allende, became a strong supporter of the military regime.

Mauricio Gallardo, a close associate of Edwards, was executive director of El Nuevo Día from 2007 to 2009. He had previously worked for El Mercurio as editor of its Sunday magazine. Gallardo is currently back in Chile directing La Segunda, another newspaper owned by the Edwards family.

Gallardo was allegedly fired from El Nuevo Día shortly after he was featured in “Un Diario Amable”.

Good riddance, according to the documentary’s executive producer, Luis Fernando Coss: “Gallardo represented the worst of corporate strategies, that is, those measures that compromise journalism with greed and market routines in detriment of the interests of the people and their most noble hopes. Corporate colonialism suffered a hard setback.”

From 1986 to 1998, Coss directed Diálogo, the University of Puerto Rico’s monthly newspaper. He now directs 80 Grados, an online magazine.

IPS repeatedly tried to contact Héctor Peña, director of El Nuevo Día’s opinion columns section and IAPA board member, for comment but he did not respond by deadline.

“Criticisms of IAPA come from all sectors,” said Ricardo Trotti of IAPA.

Trotti, who is IAPA’s press freedom coordinator, told IPS that the followers of Peru’s Fujimori, Paraguay’s Stroessner, Chile’s Pinochet, and Argentina’s Menem, and the Nicaraguan contras have all considered the organisation to be “unbearably to the left”; and the leftist followers of Ecuador’s Correa, Venezuela’s Chavez and Cuba’s Castro accuse IAPA of undermining democracy while serving imperialism and colonialism.

He also pointed out that in the U.S., both Democrats and Republicans have made similar accusations of bias against the organisation.

“IAPA has always criticised and denounced press freedom violations from all kinds of governments,” said Trotti. He added that the organisation cannot be held responsible for the behaviour of each and every member.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Journalists Silenced as Killers Walk Free Tue, 04 Nov 2014 14:00:46 +0000 Lyndal Rowlands The funeral procession for Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana in Gaza. Shana was killed by an Israeli Defence Force tank in April 2008 because, eyewitnesses said, he had begun to film the tanks that were firing. The resulting investigation by the Israelis led to no disciplinary action. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

The funeral procession for Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana in Gaza. Shana was killed by an Israeli Defence Force tank in April 2008 because, eyewitnesses said, he had begun to film the tanks that were firing. The resulting investigation by the Israelis led to no disciplinary action. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

By Lyndal Rowlands

A new report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) shows that nine out of 10 cases of journalist killings go unpunished.

The report found that between 2004 and 2013, 370 journalists were murdered “in direct retaliation for their work” and that in 90 percent of these cases there was total impunity – “no arrests, no prosecutions, no convictions.”“Syria is a graveyard of journalism and journalists who go there." -- Nadia Bilbassy-Charters

CPJ also found that although “in some cases, the assassin or an accomplice has been convicted, in only a handful is the mastermind of the crime brought to justice.”

The report’s author, Elisabeth Witchel, told IPS, “Impunity has really grown to be one of the greatest threats to journalist safety. When journalists are killed, and no one is prosecuted, it opens the doors for new attacks to take place.

“It’s not just one story, it’s not just one journalist that is killed, the whole media community feels intimidated.

“Journalists feel insecure if one of their own is killed and there’s no official justice. It builds a climate of intimidation and can lead to underreporting of very important issues.”

Witchel said that the issues that journalists who have been killed with impunity cover are crucial to their communities and include crime, corruption, human rights, conflict and politics.

The report was published to coincide with the first International day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists on Nov. 2.

Investigative journalist Eric Mwamba from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) told IPS how the fear of being arrested, tortured and the risk of losing his life has affected his work as a journalist.

“To my knowledge, no perpetrator of violence against journalists in Africa has been held accountable,” Mwamba said.

Mwamba added that defamation laws and the ambiguous notion of contempt were also used by the Congolese justice system to try to muzzle journalists.

This was particularly relevant when working on financial stories, he said. Due to strong links between public and private interests in the DRC, state actors are also often shareholders in companies being investigated, Mwamba said.

“During my term as president of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters, I studied some cases. I remember the case of Didace Namujimbo, a journalist for Radio Okapi who was murdered in the east of the DRC. Judicial investigations, unfortunately, did not provide a favourable outcome.”

“I hope that with the fall of the regime of President Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso this week, the new authorities would help to know the truth about the assassination of Norbert Zongo, another journalist killed in 1998 in this country,” Mwamba said.

Mwamba was forced to leave the DRC because of his investigative journalism, and has since lived and worked in several other countries and regions, including in West Africa and in Australia.

He told IPS, “I don’t think there is anything worse in life than when someone is forced to leave his country for fear of losing his life.”

At a discussion held at the United Nations on Monday, panelists discussed the role of the United Nations, national governments, the judiciary and the public in ending impunity in crimes against journalists.

Al-Arabiya News Channel foreign correspondent Nadia Bilbassy-Charters, who recently reported on human rights violations near Syria’s border, spoke about the huge risks faced by journalists working in the Middle East.  Two-thirds of the journalists killed in recent years were working in the Middle East, she said,

“Syria is a graveyard of journalism and journalists who go there,” she said.

Bilbassy-Charters added that most of the journalists who are killed are local freelancers who have no one to protect them.

“They take an enormous risk just to tell the world what’s happening. And even with that risk, I don’t know if the world is responding, especially in Syria. It’s a moral failure of the 21st century what is happening in Syria,” she said.

Journalist safety and the post-2015 development agenda

Deputy Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization(UNESCO) Getachew Engida told the panel that UNESCO and media advocacy organisations from across the world are advocating for media freedom to be incorporated into the United Nations Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda.

“For now, freedom of expression, the safety of journalists and ending impunity are not included as such in the proposed agenda to follow post-2015,” he said.

He said that UNESCO is advocating to “ensure recognition of the importance of freedom of expression for sustainable development and to enhance the safety of those who make this possible.

“Every journalist killed is a day without news, a day when freedom of expression is undermined, when basic human rights are violated, when the rule of law and democracy are weakened. The climate of fear created by impunity throws a shadow over the sustainable development of entire societies,” Engida said.

Joel Simon, CPJ’s director, told the panel, “When it comes to actual violence committed against journalists, when it comes to levels of impunity, the trends are moving in the wrong direction. In fact, these last two years have been the most deadly and the most dangerous that CPJ has ever documented. Record numbers of journalists killed, record numbers of journalists imprisoned.

“I have a concern that governments, the U.N. system, the public could mistake awareness, which is good, for progress.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: Contras and Drugs, Three Decades Later Sun, 26 Oct 2014 21:28:10 +0000 Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero President Ronald Reagan with top aides Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Ed Meese, and Don Regan discussing the president's remarks on the Iran-Contra affair, Oval Office. Nov. 25, 1986. Credit: Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library, official government record

President Ronald Reagan with top aides Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Ed Meese, and Don Regan discussing the president's remarks on the Iran-Contra affair, Oval Office. Nov. 25, 1986. Credit: Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library, official government record

By Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
SAN JUAN, Oct 26 2014 (IPS)

In late 1986, Washington was rocked by revelations that the Ronald Reagan administration had illegally aided a stateless army known as the contras in Central America.

Thus began the Iran Contra scandal. The contras were an irregular military formation put together by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1981 to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The war they provoked caused tens of thousands of deaths and devastating damage to Nicaragua’s economy.What’s truly tragic and ironic in this whole affair is that the main allegations in Webb’s contra reporting had been confirmed in 1998 by a CIA report authored by the agency’s inspector general, Frederick Hitz.

Reagan’s aid was illegal since Congress had banned it. The Reagan administration responded to the congressional ban by setting up secret and illegal channels to keep the contras supplied and armed. The operation was directly supervised by the office of Vice President George H. W. Bush, who himself had headed the CIA in the 1970s.

The contras also benefited from collaboration with South American cocaine cartels. This explosive information was uncovered at least as early as 1985 when Associated Press reporters Robert Parry and Brian Barger co-wrote an article that cited documentation and witness testimony from inside both the contra movement and the U.S. government implicating nearly all contra groups in drug trafficking.

John Kerry, then a U.S. senator, carried out an investigation into illegal contra activities, including drugs, as head of a Senate subcommittee. His investigation was all but ignored by the mainstream media, which was busy covering the congressional Iran Contra hearings, the ones that made a celebrity of National Security Council staffer Oliver North.

The media also ignored the final report of Kerry’s investigation, “Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy”, released in 1989.

In 1996, the subject of contra drug dealing reappeared in a series of investigative articles by reporter Gary Webb published by the San Jose Mercury News in California.

For these articles, Webb was savaged by fellow reporters and editors, particularly from the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. The Mercury News buckled under the pressure and got rid of Webb.

Unemployed, shunned by his own colleagues and practically abandoned by progressive sectors that had lost interest in the contra story, Webb took his own life in 2004. His journalistic saga and tragic end are the subject of a new Hollywood movie called “Kill The Messenger.”

Some insist that Webb was assassinated by the CIA. Regarding this, Robert Parry, who was friends with Webb, wrote:

“Some people want to believe that he was really assassinated by the CIA or some other government agency. But the evidence of his carefully planned suicide – as he suffered deep pain as a pariah in his profession who could no longer earn a living – actually points to something possibly even more tragic: Webb ended his life because people who should have supported his work simply couldn’t be bothered.”

What’s truly tragic and ironic in this whole affair is that the main allegations in Webb’s contra reporting had been confirmed in 1998 by a CIA report authored by the agency’s inspector general, Frederick Hitz.

But the mainstream media alleged that the report cleared the CIA and the contras of drug trafficking. The report indeed concluded that the CIA had not conspired to fund the contras with the help of drug cartels.

But Hitz, now a scholar at the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Law, said in the report that the war against the Sandinistas had taken precedence over law enforcement, and that the CIA had evidence of contra involvement in cocaine trafficking and hid it from the Justice Department, Congress, and even from the agency’s own analytics division.

Hitz interviewed CIA officers who confessed to him that they knew of contra drug trafficking but kept quiet about it because they thought that such disclosures would undermine the fight against the Nicaraguan regime.

He also received complaints from agency analysts to the effect that field officers who worked directly with the contras hid evidence of drug trafficking, and that then, working with partial and incomplete information, they concluded that only a few contras were involved with drugs.

On Oct. 10, 1998, the New York Times ran a piece attacking Webb’s credibility while acknowledging, as if it were a minor detail, that contra drug dealing was worse than the newspaper had originally estimated.

In September the CIA declassified a number of articles from its in-house journal Studies in Intelligence. One of these showed that the agency was genuinely distressed by Webb’s contra articles, and that it took active steps against him, relying on “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists”.

The article even brags that the CIA discouraged “one major news affiliate” from covering the story.

The article’s author tries to fathom the hostility of broad sectors of the U.S. population toward the CIA: “We live in somewhat coarse and emotional times—when large numbers of Americans do not adhere to the same standards of logic, evidence, or even civil discourse as those practiced by members of the CIA community.”

That’s an actual quote.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service.

Editing by Kitty Stapp

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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

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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)

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

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