Sunday, September 30, 2007

Australian Blogging Conference – Citizen Journalism

The conference continued after lunch and a launch of Dr Marett Leiboff’s book “Creative Practice and the Law”. I attended the session on “Citizen Journalism” with its panel of Axel Bruns, Graham Young and Rachel Cobcroft (picture credit: Mark Bahnisch at Facebook). Bruns opened the session. Dr Axel Bruns is a lecturer at the Creative Industries Faculty of conference host QUT. Bruns is an active researcher about blogs and their impact and is co-editor with Joanne Jacobs of a collection of scholarly articles called “Uses of Blogs”.

Bruns began by referring to Possums Pollytics (a site that was proving to be a very popular exemplar at several sessions at the conference). Bruns said “(possums pollytics) analyses polls from a scientific perspective rather than a Liberal Party perspective”. Bruns showed how the site forensically skewered a Christopher Pearson article in The Australian which framed the long list of unfavourable polls in a positive light for the Howard Government.

Bruns said the challenge for the blogosphere was to work together “rather than fighting each other”. From his research Bruns noted that the bulk of political blogs was left of centre but he had not come to any firm conclusions why this was the case. Possibilities included the fact that there was now more of a leaning to the left or perhaps simply that more people blogged from the left. Bruns then said that photojournalism might be an easier entry into citizen journalism. He used the example of the British Guardian newspaper’s Blair Watch project in the 2005 election. It ended up with a vast library of photos from the campaign.

Graham Young focussed on his latest project “Youdecide2007” which was actively seeking citizen journalists. Youdecide2007 is a user-driven forum for a seat-by-seat coverage of the 2007 Australian federal election. The project is led by the Creative Industries faculty at QUT, funded by the ARC, and supported by project partners SBS, On Line Opinion (OO), and the Brisbane Institute.

Young said Youdecide2007 will mine a similar territory to his OO site however while OO seeks elite opinion, the writers of Youdecide2007 will be “just like us”. He said the centralisation of media empires means there are fewer journalists on the ground especially in less populated areas. Youdecide2007 will use citizen journalists to report on their own electorates. It is slowly growing with 6,000 visitors this week up from 2,000 the week before. Young said “at this rate of progress, it will have more visitors than Online Opinion by the end of the election”.

The site has already had its first success with “Crategate”, an interview in Townsville with the Liberal member for Herbert Peter Lindsay. According to Margaret Simons in Crikey (27 September edition) Lindsay “perhaps had looser lips faced with a citizen than he would have had with a denizen of the Canberra Press Gallery”. Lindsay said issues of housing affordability were to do with the “financial illiteracy” of young people and their desire to have all the consumer goods too soon. He went on to say: “I’m just stating the facts... in years gone by people were more responsible. I remember in my own case we sat on milk crates in the lounge room until we could afford chairs.”

The “milk crate” quote formed the basis of a question in Parliament from Kevin Rudd to John Howard: “Does the Prime Minister agree with the Member for Herbert when he says that mortgage stress can be blamed on financially illiterate couples and his only advice to them is that they should sit on "milk crates in the lounge room" until they can afford chairs? Apart from the milk crate solution, what is your plan to deal with Australia's housing affordability crisis or is it simply to blame the states?" The Rudd quote got a run in a number of mainstream media outlets.

Young said the affair was not an unconditional victory for Rudd but it does show the potential power of citizen journalism. Young went on to walk the conference participants through the Youdecide2007 site and said more work needed to be done to differentiate between “premium” and “raw” content and to populate the news archive, media releases and opinion archive. Young said the site “did not encourage too much opinion, there is already too much around”. Rachel Cobcroft was then supposed to walk through a presentation on her PhD thesis about user-led content creation in Unfortunately, technical gremlins forced her to cancel the demo.

The final session of the day was called “the future for your blog: promoting your blog and building traffic” led by Des Walsh and Yaro Starak. Des Walsh is a business coach and self confessed “blogging fanatic” while Yaro Starak is a young entrepreneur who has managed many Internet start-up businesses since the late 1990s. Walsh and Starak provided a host of great tips and websites to explore to increase blog traffic including Frappr maps article marketing, digg, stumbleupon!, digital point, ning, blogrush, blog carnivals and many others.

After the conference, I joined several bloggers who took the opportunity to continue the discussions at the nearby Normanby hotel. See the following sites for more thoughts about the day. David Novakovic, Duncan McLeod, Kate Davis, Suzie Cheel, Peta Hopkins and Bogosity.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Australian Blogging Conference – The Politics of Blogging

The early morning panel session was the only formal part of the Australian Blogging Conference where all the participants were in the same room. After morning tea, the conference broke up into four breakout rooms to discuss intriguing issues that affect the blogosphere. After much indecision on which one to attend, I plumped for “the politics of blogging” over “blogs, creativity and the creative commons”, “researching blogging” and “legal issues.”

This session had a four person panel including Senator Andrew Bartlett, Brett Solomon, Graham Young and the facilitator Mark Bahnisch. Bahnisch opened up the forum. Mark Bahnisch is a Brisbane academic and prodigious online writer and commentator. He is a sociologist in the School of Arts at Griffith University and is the custodian of the political and cultural group blog Larvatus Prodeo. He also contributes for Crikey, Online Opinion and New Matilda.

He began the session by remarking that contrary to claims, blogs were hierarchical in format, with a system of a title page, posts and comments. He saw himself as less of a blogging evangelist and has a “more modest view” of where blogging is going. He saw it as “a conversation not a platform”. He compared the Australian blogosphere to its American counterpart and observed we are “not getting there”. The US equivalent exercises far more influence in both politics and money. Bahnisch suggested that may be no bad thing. He said the notion that the US is the template for Australian blogs was a cliché as was the claim that “blogging wasn’t journalism”. He quoted the Australian’s editor Chris Mitchell who praised his newspaper’s coverage of opinion polling because “unlike Crikey, we understand Newspoll because we own it”.

Bahnisch said that ownership in this context “was something not physical”. What The Australian meant was: “we own the right to decide who enters political discourse in this country and on what terms”. He said the real audience for the newspaper’s media narratives were the other participants in politics and the media in Canberra. Mitchell dismissed bloggers as “sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper”. Bahnisch said Mitchell is afraid of the barbarians at the gate and weaves a “web of spin that has a political purpose”.

Bahnisch turned to Australia’s thriving psephological blogs and said what they do best is “aggregate distributed knowledge”. The mainstream media are resentful of this but gradually accepting their existence. Dennis Atkins quoted the blogs ozpolitics and possums pollytics by name this week in the Murdoch owned Brisbane Courier-Mail. Bahnisch said these blogs raise the level of accountability, aggregate and wrap up commentary, as well as interface with the major media.

Bahnisch then asked where is the Australian version of the Daily Kos and said “it was good we don’t have one”. He said the Australian blogosphere was best appreciated for its value not its influence. He quoted Margaret Simons’ interview with Club Troppo’s Nicholas Gruen. Simons asked Gruen what was the business model for blogging. Gruen said it was the gift economy. Gruen gives freely of his time and his knowledge base and in return it enriches his life and makes it more meaningful. Bahnisch said “maybe we should monetise our blogs but if we did that we would write about Paris Hilton”.

Bahnisch said we don’t have the audience they have in the US. But political blogs here provide a service. He said the test case for the Australian blogosphere will be the 2007 federal election. But he cautioned that bloggers “had been marked and failed before we got to the exam room”. There were two reasons for this, according to Bahnisch. Firstly, the view from the US was that the 2004 presidential election was the glory year for the blogs and by the time of the 2006 congressional election, the big narrative was that “people were sick of the blogosphere”. Secondly he said the space had been appropriated by the mainstream media, Google News and others who had “sucked the oxygen out of the audience of political bloggers”. He pointed out how Tim Dunlop was recruited from the blogosphere to write for News Corp but had a post removed when it criticised his own newspaper. Bahnisch believes there remains a niche for political blogs. “But they are not going to set the world on fire,” he said. “Blogs are just one node in the political conversation”.

Brett Solomon spoke next. Brett is the executive director of the online activist organisation “Getup!” Solomon said he was no expert on blogging and admitted the Getup! blog “did not have a lot of sugar”. But he added that was about to change soon. Their blog entries did sometimes attract six hundred to a thousand comments a day “when they hit their mark”. Solomon said it was exciting to tap into a community out there that wants to speak. Getup! has 200,000 members who were “not opposed to speaking out loud and have their words acted upon”. He saw it as a forum where people could say “I have a view on that and I can link in with others with similar views”. Solomon said legitimate interests were sidelined because they cannot get access to power. He also showed the ad (see video at bottom of post below) they were planning to run on AFL and ARL Grand Final days once they raised the $200,000 needed to get the airtime.

He said the other important thing was the use of the exposé. He said land rights were “the most important thing you’ve never heard of”. The government has ripped the guts out of the land rights laws with little debate. But there was outrage in the community. Their blog entry “our land, our rights” attracted 909 comments with many indigenous commenters. But there is no other media space for them. The Australian wasn’t interested, nor was the Sydney Morning Herald, nor ABC Radio National. The law was passed in parliament after just one day’s debate. Solomon said Getup! aims to engage people and “build a progressive Australia”. Its blog was a small element in bringing people together with 200,000 others “who actively agree with me”.

Andrew Bartlett didn’t not contribute greatly after his valuable input to the first session. He was also forced to leave the session early to catch a plane. He did say that the real value of blogs was the “conversation with the community”. It is less about critical mass than diversity. He said only about 80,000 people a day read The Australian but its readership is influential. He said the nature of Australian party politics lent itself to the culture of followers.

Graham Young was the final speaker. Young is a writer, and a former vice-president and campaign chairman of the Queensland Liberal Party. He is also chief editor of Online Opinion. Young said the reason he blogged was that he “wanted to have some significance”. He said Online Opinion was owned by the not-for-profit National Forum and published six quality articles a day by a diversity of authors. He said there were few regular contributors. He saw it as a constantly assembled daily newspaper and a way of opening up public discourse without the “gatekeepers Packer and Murdoch”.

Young also addressed the question of difference between the US and Australia. He said there has been no Rathergate here and no “gotchas”. But he looked at the six entries in the Online Opinion on the day and said there were all “idiosyncratic”. None of them were about the big stories of the day covered by the newspapers. There was nothing about Rudd anointing Swan for the treasury or the health crisis in NSW, which Young believes, people are more interested in. He said that if blogs don’t have the audience, they don’t have relevance.

Young concluded his arguments by saying “we should stop thinking of blogs as blogs”. They also exist in platforms such as Myspace and Facebook. He said “blogs have outlived where they are at” and more co-operation was needed. We also need to monetise to get to the next level. He said Australia needs more group blogs and clusters. After Young finished, conference sponsor Dan Walsh spoke briefly about a new project called Kwoff, a collaboration between Walsh, Stephen Mayne and Greg Barns. Walsh said Kwoff will be an Australian version of digg where they will put news to the vote to help users decide what is interesting content. Kwoff will be launched on Monday.

GetUp! grand final ad:

Friday, September 28, 2007

Australian Blogging Conference – Morning Panel discussion

BlogOzThe Queensland University of Technology (QUT) hosted a highly successful first ever Australian Blogging Conference today at its Kelvin Grove campus in Brisbane. The conference brought together some of Australia’s most prominent bloggers as discussion leaders and almost a hundred participants to the day-long event. Conference convenor Peter Black (QUT law lecturer and ardent blogger) put together a superb event with help from sponsors Microsoft, Getup! and Kwoff.

Professor Michael Lavarch opened the first session. Lavarch is a former federal attorney-general in the Paul Keating administration and is now Professor of Law and Executive Dean of the QUT faculty of law. Lavarch believed today’s conference was the first of its type in Australia. He said blogging was a remarkable phenomenon. The word blog is barely a decade old and was first coined around 1997. By 2004 Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary declared it the word of the year. The number of bloggers is estimated to rise to 100 million in the next few years.

Lavarch said his team at QUT led by Professor Bryan Fitzgerald were at the forefront of the information revolution with its open access and information exchange. He confessed he was not a blogger but was a consumer of blogs. In particular Lavarch praised possum pollytics as the ‘most incisive’ of the Australian political blogs. Lavarch held out great hopes for the future of political, legal and citizen journalism.

Fellow QUT professor of law Bryan Fitzgerald spoke next. His brief speech covered off two points. Firstly he thanked Peter Black for organising the event and praised him as ‘one of our bright up and coming academics’ and a tremendous ambassador for the law school. Secondly he thanked the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI) who were fellow hosts of the conference. Established in 2005, the centre of excellence is geared to support creative innovation, innovation policy and creative human capital.

Peter Black then introduced a three man panel who led the debate, John Quiggin, Senator Andrew Bartlett and Duncan Riley. John Quiggin began the discussion. Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland. Quiggin was an early adopter of blogs, starting in 2002. He began by admitting he always wanted a blog. He said it was a technology waiting to happen and appeal to the desire of people who wanted to diarise.

Quiggin said that when he started there was barely 50 Australians who blogged and it was possible ‘to read them all in one sitting’. But as the blogosphere grew, the diary element became much less dominant. Issues now motivate people to blog, he said. Blogging has removed barriers to access and the format is now being copied by the mainstream media. Comments gave people a chance to have their say and broke down the distinction between writers and readers. Quiggin thought that group blogs (Quiggin himself is a member of Crooked Timber) were the way of the future but said his only disappointment was that ‘the technology hasn’t got any easier to use’.

Senator Andrew Bartlett then took the floor. Bartlett has been a senator for Queensland since 1997 and is running for re-election again this time round. He is one of the few politicians who actively blogs. Bartlett said he focussed on the political side of blogging but admitted that knitting blogs were ten times more popular and food blogs probably ten times more popular again. The senator said he follows the wider nature of social networks and finds the ‘viral aspect’ fascinating about how information spreads through communities and sub-communities. He said it was ‘another way for people to connect when traditional methods have broken down’.

Bartlett believes that the real value of blogs is their ability to encourage wider discussion of issues. He gently mocked the mainstream media press gallery who see themselves as the custodians of ‘received wisdom’. They are feeling threatened by blogs who are making an impression because of their quality. He said it was becoming “almost an alternative commentariat – but with more diversity”. Bartlett also liked the nature of comments and the cross-fertilisation of commenters’ material. He finished by saying the best thing about blogs was that they were simply there. “The blogosphere is authentic,” he said. “Unvarnished, not going through a filter, warts and all”.

Duncan Riley spoke last. Riley is a writer, developer and self-confessed ‘blogging evangelist’. He began by disagreeing with Professor Quiggin about group blogs being the way of the future. He did see a bright future for very large 24 by 7 news cycle blogs speaking to an ‘always on, always connected’ audience. But he said the single author blog was the medium’s ‘bread and butter’. He pointed out that the best news sources coming out of Burma at the moment are bloggers. He agreed with Bartlett that the Australian media have a “terrible phobia” about blogs. They have them but are not doing a very good job with them.

Riley predicted a coming ‘tipping point’ in the evolution of the Australian blogosphere. He said there were somewhere between half a million and 700,000 bloggers in the country. Beyond that there were 2 million people in Myspace and 250,000 on Facebook plus a growing presence from Bebo. In all Riley calculated that there were “three or four million” people in Australia with blogs or access to a blogging platform via their social network. But he said there was no site like the American Daily Kos to “capture our imagination”. Riley said that collectively we have done so little together. He said there was a “dog eat dog” mentality that hampered growth. He finished by saying there were great photoblogs out there “doing wonderful things but haven’t got the audience."


Two significant events occurred overnight to add weight to the growing reputation of the blogosphere. The US State Department has launched a blog named “Dipnote” (short for ‘diplomatic note’) as an internet forum to shed light on some of the workings on American foreign policy. Meanwhile, as the political crisis grows in Burma, bloggers are getting around the news ban and posting descriptions and photographs of protests in defiance of the military authorities.

The two apparently unrelated events show that the growth of the blogging industry has not yet peaked in terms of influence. It certainly continues to increase in terms of quantity. In the last state of the Blogosphere update in April 2007, Technorati was tracking over 70 million weblogs worldwide with 120,000 new ones created every day. That equates to a new blog every one and half seconds. Bloggers were posting an average of 1.5 million new entries every day, about 16 for every second of the day.

According to University of Wollongong’s Marcus O’Donnell, blogs are not just an isolated phenomenon, they are part of a new set of cybercultural practices that offer a new way of doing and thinking. O’Donnell believes blogs are too often judged by what they do but not enough by how people think. O’Donnell states that the conversational nature of blogs is distinctive from both literate and oral forms of communication. He also believes blogs are a form of personal publishing that simultaneously involves a conversation with ones self as well as with others.

But American TV news anchor Morris Jones says that tangible evidence of blogs’ impact on mainstream journalism remains scarce. He questions the assumption that blogging is a means of bypassing traditional gatekeeping of the mass media in order to create a more democratic form. Instead Jones believes that the blogosphere will merely remain as an information source that mainstream journalists need to monitor on a regular basis.

Australian journalist Frank Devine is equally sceptical of the blogosphere’s ability to create impact. Devine harked back to the 2004 “Rathergate” story where a blog broke a story that cast doubt on CBS’s Sixty Minutes’ claim about George W Bush’s dodgy war record due to a font type it believed did not exist at the time of the story. Devine claims that the counter-cultural blogosphere is “almost preordained” to acquire a conservative tilt in opposition to what he called the “anchored on” Leftist status quo.

While Devine may be guilty of wishful thinking, the Dan Rather story shows blogs are become an increasingly important news site, especially in the US (CBS were eventually forced to apologise for the fact it could not prove its documents were authentic and Rather himself retired). Salam Pax became an important news outlet during the Iraqi war among those that disputed official accounts of the conduct of the war. His blog was read by over 100,000 people and translated into 14 languages only a few days after the outbreak of the war.

The Pew Centre in the US estimated in 2005 that 32 million Americans read blogs. That is equivalent to two-thirds of the number that read a daily newspaper during the week. Two of the breakthrough points for blogs were the coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 London Bombings. The continuous mode of coverage from blogs has led to a change in the way news unfolds. The internet has begun to replace the broadcast media for short news grabs. Newspapers such as the New York Times have been forced to respond with a “continuous news desk”.

Dan Bigman of that newspaper said the continuous newsdesk has changed journalists’ opinions of online and vice versa. What newspapers and bloggers alike need to evolve now is the ability to use the full range of facilities offered by the internet. Wikis, RSS feeds, Podcasts and video blogs remain under-utilised tools in the new industry. Bigman, the editor for business news at the Times' Web site believes that blogs are obliterating the news cycle and he recalls how one story “went straight out to the world from the back of a taxi somewhere near Frankfurt.”

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Moonage Daydreams

America will go back to the Moon in order to prepare for a trip to Mars in two decades. NASA announced yesterday they plan to resume manned missions to the Moon by 2020 with a view sending to a manned mission to Mars by 2037. NASA administrator Michael Griffin made the claim at the 58th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in the Indian city of Hyderabad. But Griffin stated they would need help from the private sector to make it happen. He said greater private investment in satellite and rocket launches is needed to make such missions commercially feasible. “Space tourism may be the only way out to make space transportation economical,” he said. “[but], we have to evolve a mechanism to train the prospective tourists and ensure their safety”.

America is not alone as at least four other countries are planning moon missions. However, a top Indian scientist warned the same IAC conference we should not colonise the Moon or Mars. Dr MYS Prasad said their resources should be shared for the common good. Prasad, who is an Indian Space Research Organisation ISRO deputy director, said the space community needed to avoid the temptation to mine minerals from Moon or Mars until we create an environmentally friendly base. “The biggest ethical question before the space-faring nations is whether mankind is looking at ‘habitation or colonisation’ of Moon and Mars,” he said. “The construction and occupation of bases should be fundamentally treated as habitations rather than colonies in the conventional sense.”

Griffin's 'back to the moon by 2020' statement is a reiteration of a George W Bush claim in 2004. But with a Mars mission like to cost in excess of $1 trillion, it remains speculative at best without commercial or international support. The arguments for and against colonisation of the Moon are likely to hot up as the Asian countries enter the space race. India and China have plans to launch space probes in the next 12 months and Japan has already launched a spacecraft to the moon.

On 14 September Japan launched its Selenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE for short) from its Tanegashima Island spaceport off the country’s south coast. Better known by the Japanese by its nickname “Kaguya” (for a mythical princess that visited the Moon) the three ton craft is powered by a Mitsubishi H-IIA rocket, the 3 ton rocket. It will orbit the Earth twice before setting off on a two week trip to the Moon. Expected to arrive in a Moon orbit by 3 October, Selene will map and analyse the satellite’s surface, interior and gravitational field.

China will follow suit when it launches Chang’e 1 before the end of the year. Named for the Chinese goddess of the Moon, it will be the first phase of China’s ambitious lunar program. It will be launched before the end of this year. Chang’e 1 represents the “orbiting” phase of the Chinese program and will be followed by a “landing” phase in 2012 and a “returning” phase in 2017. A fourth “manned” phase remains off the agenda for now.

India will also launch its Chandrayaan-L lunar probe in early 2008. And the US’s traditional space rival Russia should not be discounted either. Although their program has been impoverished since the end of the Soviet Union, in 2006 the Duma (parliament) voted a 33 percent increase for Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency. The will bring its budget, including income from the sale of launch services, to $1.7 billion a year. That is serious money and has given Russia the opportunity to consider returning to the Moon, where no cosmonaut has yet to land. It plans a permanent research base by an ambitious 2012.

But as NASA’s Griffin hinted in his IAC speech, private enterprise will play a large part in all future endeavours. Google have offered $20 million to someone who can send a robotic rover to the moon and beam back a gigabyte of data of the trip. But Google have placed a time limit on the prize in an incentive to speed up the race. It drops to $15 million in 2012 and expires altogether in 2014.

The moon has many attractive properties that would attract private investment but perhaps the most precious of these is Helium 3. Helium 3 is a light isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron. This configuration is rare on Earth but is abundant on the Moon. Its value to an energy hungry world is as a fusion power source. Its major advantage is that it is not radioactive. Some scientists estimate there is about 1 million tons of helium 3 on the moon, enough to power the world for thousands of years. Gerald Kulcinski, has grand ambitions for the isotope. The Director of the Fusion Technology Institute (FTI) at the University of Wisconsin said Helium 3 could be a cash crop on the Moon. "Today helium 3 would have a cash value of $4 billion a ton”, he estimates. "When the moon becomes an independent country, it will have something to trade."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bond blow for Jena 6 member

A Louisiana judge has denied bail for Mychal Bell, who is the first member of the Jena Six to come to trial. Bell is accused of beating a white student last year. While attorneys in the 3rd circuit court of appeals would not confirm bail was denied due to the secrecy of juvenile court proceedings, the father of one of Bell's co-defendants said the bail request was rejected. The case of the all black Jena Six has now emerged as a serious crack in the faultline of US race relations.

The small southern town was the scene of a major rally on Thursday last week led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, radio show host Michael Baisden and the families of the accused six teenagers. Thousands wearing black shirts with messages of solidarity, marched 3km from the town centre courthouse to the high school where the problems started. The school and all town businesses were closed for the day. There is ... unjustice here,” said marcher Rhonda McClain of Nashville. “There was no option but to come.”

The term Jena Six refers to a group of six black teenagers charged with the assault of a white teenager in Jena, Louisiana on 4 December 2006. Jena is a tiny sawmill town with a population of just 2,971. Although this area was once Ku Klux Klan country, locals disagree on whether the town has a history of racism.

The incident that sparked the crisis occurred at Jena High School. The school is split along racial with roughly ten percent of students black and the rest white. White students sit around a tree in the courtyard, while black students congregate near the auditorium. A few days into the first semester of 2006, a new black student asked the principal at a public assembly if he could sit under the tree. The principal said he could sit anywhere he liked.

Some of the white students did not take kindly to the question. On the following morning, they hung three nooses from the so-called “white tree”. The nooses were supposedly a code for the KKK (though some say only two nooses were hung). School administrators investigated the incident and determined it was a prank. The three boys who hung the nooses were given an in-school suspension. On the morning afterwards, the black students held a silent protest under the tree. They were confronted by white students and the school authorities called in the police. What happened next is disputed. According to black students, District Attorney Reed Walters looked at them directly and warned them he could be their friend or their worst enemy. Walters himself denies he aimed the comment only at the blacks.

While Walters diffused the immediate incident, resentment simmered behind the scenes. Sporadic racially-motivated fights broke out at the school. An uneasy truce held while the black-dominated school football team had a good season. But when the season ended, matters took a turn for the worse. On 30 November 2006, unknown parties burned down the high school. The case remains unsolved. At the time, both sides blamed each other.

That night 16 year old Robert Bailey and some black friends tried to enter a party attended mostly by whites. There he was attacked and beaten. On the following day Bailey had another fight with an unnamed white attendee of the party. During the fight, the white men pulled out a gun. Bailey wrested a gun from him and took it home. Police later charged Bailey with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student was not charged.

A few days later a white student, Justin Barker, loudly told his friends in the school hallway that Bailey had lost a fight to a white man. Barker was later attacked by black students. Barker was knocked unconscious but recovered sufficiently to attend a party that night. Six black students were arrested and initially charged with aggravated assault. The six men were Mychal Bell, Jesse Ray Beard, Robert Bailey, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw. Then DA Walters decided to increase the charges to attempted second-degree murder. Only Bell and Beard were under 17 at the time of the arrest. The four others still face adult trials where they could face long prison terms.

Walter’s move provoked a storm of black outrage and allegations of racial unfairness. Supporters launched a “Free the Jena 6” website which tracked media mentions of the case. In July 2007, the first of the six to be tried, Mychal Bell, was convicted after two hours of deliberations by an all-white jury on reduced charges of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit it.

Despite his age, Bell was tried as an adult on the grounds that he had a prior criminal record. The judge sent the conspiracy charge to juvenile court, but he upheld the battery conviction. However, the appeal court overturned the battery conviction on 14 September, stating it also belonged in the juvenile court. Having had the conviction overturned, the judge had the discretion of granting a new bond or releasing him pending appeal. With the latest denial of bail, Bell remains the only member of the six in prison.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Belgium on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Belgium is on the verge of a partition crisis as its French and Dutch components cannot agree on a government 100 days after the last election. The parties of the northern Dutch speaking Flanders cannot agree on coalition government with French-speaking Wallonia in the south. Not even the constitutional glue of the monarchy in the shape of King Albert II has been able to resolve the crisis. Albert has negotiated between the parties and ultimately asked would-be Flemish Prime Minister Yves Leterme to form a cabinet but all to no avail so far.

According to former nine times Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens, the euro currency is partly to blame for the current impasse. Martens was prime minister for much of the 1980s when the Belgian franc was the country’s currency. He said the conflicts between Walloons and Flemish were just as bitter in his day but the fact they had their own currency lent urgency to seeking a resolution. Martens recalls being visited by central bankers from the Belgian national bank in 1981. "They told us all the time how they were having to intervene every day, billions at a time, to support the value of the Belgian franc," he said. But today’s crisis barely causes a ripple with the euro system which reacts more to problems within the American economy than the Belgian one.

Belgium was created in 1830 as a political compromise. 15 years earlier the predominantly Catholic Southern Netherlands (which had passed from Austrian to French control) was placed under Dutch control by the Congress of Vienna after the defeat of Napoleon. The new united kingdom of the Netherlands would act as a buffer state against any future French invasions.

But the area what was to become Belgium resented the domination of Amsterdam and King William I. It was mainly a matter of religion. Although the south had both Dutch and French speakers, they were both predominantly Catholic. And they resented the rule of the Calvinistic north. The Belgian revolution of 1830 began with a riot at the opera after a performance of La Muette de Portici set against the local uprising against the Spanish masters of Naples in the 17th century. After bloody street fighting in Brussels, the rebels declared a provisional government and proclaimed a constitution in 1831. Leopold I was installed as King of the Belgians in July that year. The Dutch invaded but were held up by a French force. The Dutch did not end their ineffective struggle to resume control until 1839.

In that year, the Treaty of London recognised Belgium as an independent and neutral country. The new country was dominated by a Francophone elite; the Dutch citizens of the north were second class citizens. Beyond the local squabbles, the wording of 1839 treaty would have long lasting repercussions as it bound Britain to guard the neutrality of Belgium. Britain would have to live up to the treaty in 1914 when Germany invaded. Belgium was a major battleground during that war with the battles of Ypres and Langemarck fought on Belgian soil. During the German occupation it declared Belgium an artificial creation and administratively separated Flanders from Wallonia.

The country was united again after the war. After World War II, Belgium became an administrative capital, becoming first the home of NATO and then the new European Economic Community in 1957. But its internal divisions never went away. For Belgium’s first 130 years, French-speaking Wallonia was the country’s economic powerhouse, the richest coal and steel-making area on the continent. The poorer inhabitants of mostly rural Flanders were largely excluded from power, and Flemish, the local version of Dutch, was looked down on by French-speakers as a peasant dialect.

But after the war Wallonia’s economy went into long-term decline, like other heavy industrial regions in Europe, while the Flemish population grew and the economy of Flanders boomed. Now there are six million Flemings and only four million Walloons, and the unemployment rate in Wallonia (17.6 per cent) is almost twice that of Flanders (9.3 per cent).

The prosperous Flemings mostly vote conservative, while poorer Walloons vote more to the left, and there are no political parties that appeal to both language groups. Since 1971 both communities have administered their own educational systems. Making a government always involves putting together parties from both sides of the language divide, and it is never an easy process. Flemish Christian Democrats won the most votes in the June election with 30 per cent of the Flemish vote and 18.5 per cent of the national vote. But Party leader Yves Leterme has been unable to form a new government. He wants more autonomy for Flanders but French-speaking parties are suspicious he wants to secede from Belgium.

According to a recent opinion poll two-thirds of people in Flanders thought Belgium would not survive much longer as a unitary state. The biggest problem would be what to do with Brussels. The capital is a French speaking enclave within Flanders. Those in favour of Flemish secession are happy to allow Brussels become a European Union city but suggest that Wallonia itself will fragment into French, Luxembourgois and German components.

This view remains speculative while (according to a 2005 poll) 87 percent of all Belgians want the country to remain united. A thousand people took to the streets of the capital on the anniversary of the country's independence to march in favour of unity. One pro-unity demonstrator said "In Belgium, for the moment, we are in crisis. It's a pseudo-political crisis organised by lunatics. No more, no less. It's about power and will bring nothing but misery. Hands off Belgium!"

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Veiled agenda: Wearing the Hijab

To veil or not to veil? The question over whether Muslim women should wear the hijab is on the front line of Islamic-secular relations in nations across the world. In three different continents, Kyrgyzstan, Canada and Nigeria are the latest contested battlegrounds for use of the traditional Muslim headgear. The Kyrgyz education ministry has officially banned the practice on school grounds and have imposed a fine of 700 soms (about $19) on the family of infractors.

Meanwhile the Youth Minister of Nigeria’s mainly Muslim state of Kano has denied the state government issued a directive for female students of all religions to wear the hijab. Over in Canada, politicians of all political parties have protested a recent decision by Elections Canada to allow veiled voters to participate in the upcoming federal elections without having to lift their veils.

According to Turkish sociologist, Nilufer Gole, veiling is the most salient emblem of contemporary Islamism. She says no other symbol reconstructs with such force the ‘otherness’ of Islam to the west and its use shows the insurmountability of boundaries between Islamic and Western civilisation. Gole also says that female dress codes have always been the litmus test of modernity in Islamic societies.

Her words are quoted in Geraldine Doogue and Peter Kirkwood’s study of the relationship between Islam and the west entitled “Tomorrow’s Islam: Uniting age-old Beliefs and a Modern World”. While the book addresses many controversial issues in relation to Islam, the chapter on the hijab and whether Muslim women are oppressed is possibly the most disputed. Doogue and Kirkwood interviewed many prominent Muslims for the book and found great diversity among Muslim women on clothing choice.

Baroness Pola Uddin, a Bangladeshi born British Labour politician (and the first Muslim woman in the House of Lords), told the authors she was puzzled by the decision of English Muslims to take the veil. She said her home culture has produced many female engineers while the women she knows are not passive and would not consider taking up the veil.

Turkish TV journalist and filmmaker Ayşe Böhürler, meanwhile, deeply shocked her family when she wore the veil that had been cast aside for two generations. She did not see her act as casting aside the secular reforms of Kemal Ataturk. Instead she saw her actions as the next logical step: by linking progress with an accompanying religious commitment. It was both a protest against Western ideas of modernisation and an affirmation of a collective identity.

Another Turkish interviewee, Professor of Sociology Ayşe Öncü, was not so sure. At her university in Istanbul, women students were debating the issue in detail: not only whether to wear the veil but if so, what version: full cover up or tied scarf. Öncü was worried that gender segregation would become a state policy. Geraldine Doogue believes that Muslim women are being encouraged to be anxious about their bodies and the whole idea seems suspiciously like self-loathing.

Wearing a veil was a Persian Zoroastrian and then Byzantine fashion which only made its way into Arabia after Mohammad’s death. There are no injunctions in the Koran about wearing the hijab. There is only one passage in the Koran (Sura 24: 30-31) about the need for modesty and it applies to men and women. Both men and women should “lower their gaze and guard their modesty” while in addition the women "should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof.”

The recent rise of the hijab is puzzling to western women, where dress codes have tended to become increasingly less modest. For many in the west, the hijab is a symbol of oppression against Muslim women and is a reminder that in some Muslim societies women are second-class citizens who cannot attend universities, are not allowed to drive and are victims of honour killings, circumcision and domestic violence. Ayşe Böhürler rejects this analysis. “For me it means freedom,” she said. "I do not want to impose my values on others and my own daughters will be free to choose whether to wear it or not”.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Paul William Roberts: An eye witness account of the Iraqi War

In his memoirs released today, former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan says that the US invasion of Iraq was largely motivated by oil. In the book “The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World” he wrote: "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” While Greenspan acknowledges what “everyone knows”, the link with oil was always denied by the Bush administration and the topic was largely ignored by the US media.

One of the few media publications in the US that did not toe the government line on the Iraq war was Harper’s Magazine. Harper’s is the US’s oldest general interest monthly. It was started in 1850 by the New York book-publishing firm Harper & Brothers. The magazine was instrumental in providing a platform for new American writing from the likes of Horace Greeley, Stephen A. Douglas, Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Henry James, and Jack London. In the 1970s, Harper’s Magazine broke Seymour Hersh's account of the My Lai massacre and it remains an idiosyncratic voice of criticism on politics, society, the environment, and culture.

Paul William Roberts is a British-Canadian author and journalist who has covered the 1991 and 2003 Iraqi wars for Harper’s. In 1997, he was also one of the last western journalists to interview Saddam Hussein. In 2004, he published his experiences of the second war in “A War against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq”. Williams was in Baghdad at the time of the invasion and the book is a fly-on-the-wall view of the war laced with his scathing condemnations of the war’s rationale and the conduct of the American invaders.

On 12 March 2003 as the threat of war closed in, Williams left Canada and made his way to Athens via London. There he took one of the few remaining flights into the Jordanian capital Amman. While nervous airlines cancelled services, everyone he met in Europe condemned the approaching war and expressed their loathing of George W Bush. The war, according to Williams’s vox populi, was inevitable for one reason only: because the US Government wanted it. Jordan was not looking forward to the war either. Not only were the planes not coming but Iraq was its biggest trading partner and supplier of oil. When Williams arrived in Amman, he sought out a powerful friend from a previous visit: Crown Prince Hassan. Known as Sidi, he was the brother of the late King Hussein and uncle to the current King Abdullah. Hassan’s own uncle Faisal II was the last Iraqi monarch. Faisal was killed in a coup in 1958 and his death set in motion the eventual Ba'athist take-over of Iraq.

Williams met Siddi Hassan over dinner with the ambassadors from France and Spain. Hassan told his dinner guests he had met Saddam Hussein many times. He did not like him but respected him for qualities never mentioned in western media. Hassan told Williams that Saddam truly loved his country. “He is not a learned man but there is no aspect of his country’s history he is not familiar with”, he said. Saddam always believed in his country’s best interest but he was also a “dreadful tyrant and brute”. Williams asked him what he thought of the impending war. “It is going to be a mess,” replied Hassan prophetically. “I really think the Americans have put us all on the slippery slope".

Williams asked about visas into Iraq but none of the diplomats present at the meeting knew who would might be issuing them. The whole concept of Iraq was looking notional in these times. Hassan said the Iraqi embassy in Amman was heavily guarded. “All the staff [there are] inside, presumably trying to get information from Baghdad”. When Williams returned to his hotel, he found no tourists but instead the place was packed with the world’s media getting ready for “the biggest story of the decade”. On hotel cable TV, Williams could watch the progress of the invasion. British troops had taken Basra and US forces were closing in on Baghdad. The Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Iraqi regime it faced “certain death”.

Williams’ visa for Iraq had expired so he went to the embassy in Amman for a renewal. The embassy was crowded and chaotic mostly with Iraqis trying to get home. Williams was the only westerner there. After a lengthy wait an official told him he could not be issued a visa. The embassy needed approval from Baghdad but the phones weren’t working. Williams continued to plead his case but was not successful until offered a bribe of a hundred US dollars to the bureaucrat. The bureaucrat issued him a dodgy stamp there and then. Williams returned to his hotel to figure out how to solve his next problem: how to get into Iraq.

He wasn’t the only journalist with a travel problem. Michelle Clifford from Sky TV lamented that her employers wouldn’t let her cross the border because it was too dangerous. This didn’t mean they were concerned for her safety (Sky already had two reporters in Baghdad), it just mean the insurance premium to send another crew into a war zone was too high. But through the press grapevine Williams eventually found a press convoy leaving for the 800km overnight trip into Iraq. He would hitch a lift with the Sunday Telegraph’s Philip Sherwell in a Toyota landcruiser. The convoy left Amman before midnight and arranged to meet up at the “Baghdad Café”, a makeshift eatery near Ruweished, the last Jordanian town before the Iraqi border.

Williams was under no illusions how dangerous the trip was. The US central command was told about the media convoy coming from Jordan but could provide no guarantees of safety. If an American pilot so happened to mistake them for Syrian mercenaries, then that would just be too bad. And even if they got to Baghdad, the situation there was no easier. The Palestine Hotel, the main journalist compound in the capital, was considered a legitimate military target. Two journalists were killed there in a US attack on 8 April. In short freelancers were fair game; only embedded journalists were afforded the protection of the US armed forces.

Williams and Sherwell's Landcruiser arrived at the “Baghdad Café” just before dawn the following morning. The café was packed with media personnel. The news was that the Americans had entered the outskirts of Baghdad and there was no sign of resistance from Saddam’s troops. The other news was that the border was due to open at dawn. But no-one knew what to expect on the other side. Earlier, Iraqi soldiers had fired a few farewell rounds of ammunition into Jordan before disappearing to leave their side unattended. An anxious Williams headed immediately to the border post. As he did so, he passed a tent city of mostly Palestinian refugees attempting to leave Iraq. The refugees were hemmed in by barbed wire while Jordan assessed their refugee status. The border itself was closed and the Iraqi side was still abandoned.

Nevertheless, the Jordanians were checking visa status. While Williams’s visa was dodgy, Sherwell’s cameraman Paul Hackett had no visa at all and he hid on the floor of the car as it approached the border. The Iraqi driver gave the soldier the passports. But he mistakenly gave three of them. The quizzical guard could only see Williams and Sherwell. They kicked the covered Hackett to let him know the game was up. Hackett improvised and pretend he was asleep and had just woken up. But his acting skills werent enough to get him across the border. The Jordanian guard refused to let him into Iraq without a visa. The men complained it was none of Jordan’s business and anyway there were “40,000 Brits and 300,000 Americans in Iraq right now without a visa”. The guard was unmoved. Then he turned to Williams’ handwritten visa and decided that was invalid too. Only Sherwell and the driver could get across the border. They promised to meet up in Iraq and he left Williams and Hackett stranded to their fate at the border.

While waiting around trying to unsuccessfully convince Jordanian soldiers to let them into a Iraq. a huge Chevy Suburban rolled up, as Williams put it, “bulging with Big Media”. Among them was CBS’s Dan Rather. After a flurry of bureaucratic activity, Rather’s car was left through as were all the other vehicles behind it. Williams and Hackett scrambled before hitching a lift across the border. There was one last step to cross. This was the Customs area and it was packed with a thousand journalists and media staffers. All their bags and gear were painstakingly searched. Here there paid a departure tax, and finally signed an indemnity absolving Jordan of "any responsibility for your safety" after crossing the border. The day was over by the time Williams crossed the empty border into Iraq.

The entire convoy was parked on the Iraqi side of the border. It would soon be dark and unsafe for travel. The 500km route to Baghdad was not safe at the best of times. With no police about, rich westerners would be an easy target for thieves known as “sand pirates”. Williams camped with the others near a concrete customs shed. Stealth bombers skimmed overhead and the skies to the north-east glowed an ominous red. The silence was punctuated by the occasional piece to camera bouncing towards a satellite: “I’m coming to you live at the Iraqi border…”

The following morning, the media were surprised to find military personnel at the Iraqi customs area. But they weren't Iraqis. A soldier introduced himself. “I am United States Special Forces” he said. He was from the fearsome Psyops. Special ops had been rumoured to be in Iraq well before the war had officially started. The soldier announced that they were now in control of the border. He said they would let them through but said the road was not safe.

The car detoured to the gas station just outside the border post. The soldiers told them to take what they needed and continue on their way. There was no-one to pay for the fuel. They wisely filled two spare cans as well – it would be the last gas station to Baghdad. The road itself was mostly a five lane straight road blacktop. It was empty apart from the media convoy. They contacted Sherwell who was still on the road ahead. He was searching for a safe entrance to Baghdad and had stopped for the night at a US checkpoint near Ramadi.

The convoy stopped to take photos of a burnt-out coach which blocked the oncoming side of the road. US forces bombed it claiming it was a busload of Syrian mercenaries heading to the war. Syria meanwhile said it was a regular bus carrying ordinary people between Iraq and Syria. Williams thought it looked like a normal bus but could not tell either way as there were no survivors or bodies left at the scene.

Several times the convoy had to veer over to the other side of the road to avoid debris or fallen bridges. Some of these had the spilled remains of Iraqi trucks attacked by American aeroplanes.

There was no sign of any local human life along the highway. The few gas stations and truck stops along the route were all closed. Cafés were locked, Doors swung in the breeze and garbage blew in the dust. The only people they met along the way were US soldiers. Nothing changed until they reached the Euphrates and the desert suddenly gave way to palm jungles. Here they could see the occasional man (but never a women or child) who fearfully attended their crops and animals but would not look at the road.

When the convoy reached Ramadi, 100kms west of Baghdad, they stopped to consider their options. Those that had them, put on their flak jackets. Williams went without – he did not think to ask Harper’s for armour. A security expert working for the BBC gathered the drivers together for an impromptu meeting. An ex-army man himself, he had contacts in the British military, and he was struggling to find a safe route into the city. Suddenly there was an explosion about a kilometre away following by a black column of smoke. The ground shook beneath their feet. Then more gunfire erupted. It was clear this was not a safe way forward.

The crew got in touch with journalists at the Palestine Hotel and devised a route into Baghdad via one of the smaller roads. They were warned that Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothes were firing rocket-propelled grenades at any foreigners they saw. Williams said the news made every Iraqi they saw look sinister. Occasionally an Iraqi car would drive along side them usually full of four to six men. Rarely would they give the convoy the thumbs-up. As they approached Baghdad, they began to see looters in the slums of the Shia district known as Saddam City (now Sadr City). Some pushed wheelbarrows and handcarts laden with goods while one man led two frightened prize racehorses along the road.

They then passed through the wealthy suburb of Mansur where the full scale of Baghdad’s destruction became apparent. US forces sent a Tomahawk missile into a crowded restaurant here in the mistaken belief that Saddam was holding a meeting there. The city was smouldering. Here Williams finally saw women and children but they invariably shrieking with fear and grief. Saddam’s palaces had all been hit. The Telecommunications Ministry still stood but was gutted and its floors a mass of wires and melted steel girders.

Williams had made it to Baghdad. He was aghast at the damage and senseless waste. He decried “precision bombing” and said there was nothing precise about hurling enormous bombs into a city full of people. Baghdad was devastated. Williams found it ironic that the only government targets not hit were the Interior Ministry and the Oil Ministry. He wondered if American taxpayers providing the Pentagon’s annual $431 billion would find this money well spent if they could see the carnage it caused in Baghdad. More Americans ought to go to Iraq, he said, to behold what has been done in their name.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Buddhist monks lead Burma democracy protests

Two thousand Buddhist monks have staged a third day of protest against Burma’s repressive military rule. Four monks were arrested in Tuesday’s protest though the military has so far refrained from opening fire. But a violent confrontation may be inevitable as the protests spread countrywide. 300 monks marched through Rangoon in the rain to Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma's most sacred landmark, while chanting Buddhist prayers. Another 500 monks demonstrated in Burma’s second city Mandalay while in Sittwe, 560 km west of Rangoon, more than a thousand monks staged a sit-in outside a police station. “It was raining hard all day but the monks marched without umbrellas,” said one protester. “Some of them collapsed because they were so tired from walking.”
Eyewitnesses said the monks were joined by thousands of civilians and high-school students who walked ahead of and around the monks to ensure they were not harmed.

According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, several monks taking part in the Rangoon protest waved placards calling for UN action on Burma as Security Council members in New York prepared for a briefing on the situation. The UN secretary general's special adviser on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, will brief the Security Council on the recent wave of political unrest in the country.

Plainclothes security officials stood guard on the protests but there was no violence or any arrests. For the first time onlookers outnumbered the monks and formed a protective human chain around the monks as they prayed at the Sule pagoda in the centre of Rangoon. Those watching offered support to the marchers, in the form of drinks and alms. An unnamed diplomat told AFP that "today marks definitely an escalation."

This protest is the longest display of dissident behaviour in Burma in two decades. The cause of the protests was a sudden hike in petrol prices in August which caused an initial wave of street protests from ordinary citizens. Then on 5 September security forces fired warning shots over a demonstration of clergy members in the holy city of Pakokku. Buddhist leaders retaliated by briefly taking hostage security officials at a monastery.

The monks demanded an apology from the government by 17 September or else rallies would resume. When the government failed to apologise by Tuesday, the protests resumed. The ruling junta’s problem is that arresting Buddhist monks is a difficult proposition in this deeply devout nation. "The monks are the only ones who really have the trust of the people," says Khin Omar, an exiled dissident now living in Thailand. "When they speak up, people listen."

The monks have demonstrated their seriousness by refusing to take alms from the higher echelons of the military. Almsgiving is a crucial part of Burmese culture and their refusal is a threat in a country where people believe they cannot reach nirvana without recognition of good deeds. The Rangoon-based Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks are advising monks not to accept alms from soldiers and are now telling their followers that the ruling generals are a force of evil. At the South Dagon Nikal Ngar Yat monastery, which is sponsored by the wife of junta leader senior general Than Shwe, 200 monks staged a protest and marched to a nearby pagoda with their alms bowls upside down, to indicate that they would not be accepting any donations.

Burmese media trying to cover the story have faced arrest and censorship. Three journalists covering Tuesday’s demonstration in Rangoon were arrested and questioned by the police who took their equipment. A photojournalist, Win Saing, was arrested while trying to photograph a pro-democracy group making offerings to monks in Rangoon. Saing remains in custody. Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association have called on ASEAN (which includes Burma) to put pressure on the Burmese government to stop media censorship. The government has meanwhile stepped up its propaganda by portraying the protesters as violent agitators mobilised by the opposition and foreign governments. The pro-government media have also accused the foreign press of creating unrest. No foreign journalist has obtained a visa to enter Burma since the start of the protest. Reporters Without Borders have described the Burmese military as using a “detestable strategy” aimed at preventing reports from doing their job.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Australia heads list of dying indigenous languages

Australia tops a new list of the world’s fasting dying languages, according to a report issued by National Geographic. The study identified five global hot spots where languages are vanishing and an area of northern Australia that includes NT and parts of Queensland and Western Australia is worst affected. The study found that all 231 spoken aboriginal tongues are considered endangered. These languages now rely on inter-generational exchanges to survive.

National Geographic met and interviewed the last remaining speakers of several aboriginal languages. These included the last three surviving speakers of Magati Ke (also called Marti Ke) in Wadeye, NT. Even more remarkably they discovered the last speaker of Amurdag (Amarag), which had been reported extinct 25 years ago. Charlie Mungulda could recall the language used by his father but had not used the language in nearly 50 years and remembered the words with difficulty.

But Australia is not the only trouble spot for language. The National Geographic study, known as Enduring Voices said that a language dies somewhere in the world every two weeks. It claims that by 2100, more than half of the planet’s 7,000 languages will disappear. With them will disappear a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and how the human brain works. Study co-director David Harrison of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania says the extinction rate of languages exceeds the extinction rate of species.

The study identified four other global hot spots for language extinction. They are central South America (Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia), eastern Siberia, the US and Canadian Pacific Northwest and Oklahoma. Bolivia alone has twice the language diversity of the nations of Europe combined. Oklahoma was established as Indian Territory in the early 1800s until land hungry settlers swallowed it up to create the state of Oklahoma in 1907. Descendants of more than 60 tribes make Oklahoma second only to California in Indian population.

According to the non-profit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages (who jointly sponsored the study with National Geographic) languages are abandoned when speakers think of them as socially inferior, backward, or economically stagnant. When these languages die, they take a vast repository of human knowledge with them. The current rapid decline of approximately one every two weeks appears to be unprecedented in human history.

The study found that the 83 most widely spoken languages account for about 80 percent of the world's population while the 3,500 smallest languages account for just 0.2 percent of the world's people. The English language threatens the survival of the 54 indigenous languages of the Northwest Pacific plateau of North America, a region including British Columbia, Oregon and Washington. Only one person remains who can speak Siletz Dee-ni, the last of many languages once spoken on a reservation in Oregon. Meanwhile in Eastern Siberia, government policies have forced speakers of minority languages to use Russian.

Many languages have no written form, meaning that they are lost forever when their last speaker dies. Fellow co-director of the Enduring Voices project and director of Living Tongues, Gregory Anderson said languages usually trickle out of existence rather than abruptly disappearing. Harrison and Anderson have travelled the world to interview the last speakers of certain languages. "We'll start with a basic 100- or 200-word list. And then we'll go over each word with them again to make sure that we're transcribing it correctly, and try to repeat it to them," said Anderson. "And usually they'll burst out laughing at that point because we have hideously mispronounced it ... or make some word that sounds obscene to them. ... I did that in Australia, I'm afraid."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moroccan journalists terror laws sentence upheld

Press groups are dismayed after a Moroccan appeals court upheld the sentences of two journalists convicted under the country’s anti-terror laws for publishing confidential information. The case is the latest in a string of reverses for press freedoms in Morocco. The two men were arrested for an article entitled "Secret reports behind the state of alert in Morocco" published in the weekly newspaper Al Watan Alaan’s 14 July edition. The report attracted the ire of the authorities and they pressed criminal charges against the authors for the possession of stolen materials. According to Khadija Riyadi, president of the Moroccan Human Rights Association, “Moroccan courts are used as a mechanism to clamp down on the press and mete out severe punishment to journalists who are known for their courage in breaking taboos".

The original court had imposed an eight month jail sentence on Mustapha Hurmatallah, the journalist who wrote the article. His boss Abderrahim Ariri was given a six-month suspended sentence. Moroccan journalists went on a brief strike to protest the original decision. Hurmatallah was released last week pending the decision but will now be forced to return to prison to serve out his time. The appeals court ruled against him but did reduce his sentence by one month. Ariri’s suspended sentence was also upheld and reduced by one month.

Two other press freedom cases are also in front of the courts. The publisher of the two Moroccan weeklies has been charged with showing disrespect to the monarchy. Moroccan Communication Minister Nabil Benabdellah tried to downplay criticisms that the government is trying to limit press freedom in the country. A delegation of press, human rights and the civil society organisations met the minister on Friday to protest about what they called breaches of freedom of speech rights. Benabdellah rejected their claims and the government is only trying to “consolidate democracy”.

Morocco was noted for having the freest press in the Arab world but many of these freedoms were eroded in the last five years. The Press Law was amended in 2002. The new law made it illegal to criticize Islam, the king, and the royal family. It is also illegal to publish anything that challenges Morocco's "territorial integrity," which is a coded reference to Morocco’s continued occupation of Western Sahara.

In the wake of the Casablanca suicide bombings of May 2003 the press lost further freedoms. Within eleven days of the bombs which killed 43 people near Western and Jewish targets, Morocco’s parliament overwhelmingly passed a controversial anti-terrorism law. The law broadened the definition of terrorism and defined a terrorist act as "any premeditated act, by an individual or a group, that aims to breach public order through terror and violence". The law had serious implications for the press, as its wording criminalised the dissemination of material deemed to support terrorism. Several journalists have been prosecuted under this law.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), says there is a “government-inspired judicial assault against outspoken newspapers”. It cites the 2006 case of the independent weekly newsmagazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire which had to pay 3 million dirhams (US$359,700) in a defamation suit brought by Claude Moniquet, head of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre. Moniquet said the publication had defamed him in a six-page critique questioning the independence of his think tank’s report on the disputed Western Sahara.

In the trial, Le Journal Hebdomadaire was barred from introducing an expert witness and the court provided no explanation for how they reached the unprecedented damage award which threatened the magazine’s financial viability. Two days before the verdict, government-organised demonstrations were staged in front of the paper’s offices after malicious and incorrect rumours spread that the paper had reprinted the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. The demonstration was not spontaneous. Moroccan officials recruited and provided transportation to people from poor neighborhoods who had been told that the target of the protests were “infidels” who had reprinted the cartoons.

Reporters Without Borders latest annual report said 2006 was a bad year for press freedoms in Morocco. It said the Arab-language weekly Nishan was shut down in December for “undermining Islam”. It also cites censorship, harassment and legal action against independent media which continued throughout the year. Morocco also banned foreign journalists reporting on human rights from going to Western Sahara. Detective arrested Jamal Wahbi, of the weekly Assahifa al-Maghribiya, for photographing three prisoners who were suspected terrorists coming out of a court building in the city. Meanwhile Al-Jazeera correspondent, Hassan Fatih, was physically attacked by police while covering a sit-in by the families of political prisoners in Rabat in June. He was taken to hospital with neck and shoulder injuries.

After Moroccan media went on strike to support the Mustapha Hurmatallah case, they received the backing of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The IFJ called on media unions worldwide to support the striking journalists who stopped work for thirty minutes in August. “This case is looking more and more like a travesty of justice,” said IFJ Vice President Younes M’Jahed, “The press in Morocco is now facing a dangerous impasse where the authorities are spinning out of control, seizing publications and imprisoning journalists using the flimsiest excuses”.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Chernobyl's new ring of steel

Ukrainian authorities have approved a new $1.4 billion steel cover for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. Ukraine has hired a French company to build the casing over the crumbling concrete sarcophagus that was put over the reactor in the wake of the 1986 explosion. The original casing was a hastily built interim measure designed to last 20 to 30 years. The new cover will take five years to complete after which authorities will then be able to dismantle the reactor inside the casing.

The 105 m high cover is urgently required to replace the old casing which has been leaking radiation for more than decade. The reactor still contains 95 per cent of the original nuclear fuel from the plant. Ukraine is concerned that if the sarcophagus collapses another cloud of lethal radioactive dust could escape. A French construction firm, Novarka, will build the structure and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has provided the bulk of the funding for the project.

Prior to the explosion Chernobyl (Chornobyl in Ukrainian) was an obscure city on the Pripyat River in north-central Ukraine. 25kms upstream of the city lay the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant. On 26 April 1986 the city’s name became known across the world. At 1.21am that morning, inexperienced plant nightshift workers turned off the safety switches while doing a test prior to a routine shutdown. A dramatic power surge caused the fuel elements to rupture. The resultant explosion lifted the cover from the No. 4 reactor. Several explosions followed which released thirty to forty times the radioactivity of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The graphite in the reactor blazed for ten days. Helicopters dropped 5000 tonnes of boron, dolomite, sand, clay and lead onto the burning core to extinguish the fire and limit the release of radioactive particles. Most of the released material was deposited close by as dust and debris, but the lighter material was carried by wind over the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and to a lesser degree over Scandinavia and Western Europe.

While Soviet authorities sent in several hundred thousand “liquidators” (most of who received near lethal doses of radiation) to attend to the fire, they released no news to the outside world. The first evidence emerged on 28 April, two days after the explosion. Workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden were found to have radioactive particles on their clothes. Forsmark is approximately 1,100 km from Chernobyl. Sweden’s investigation into the source of the radioactivity showed it was coming from the East. Although the Soviets initially denied anything had happened, finally the official Tass news agency reported briefly that an accident occurred at Chernobyl with “some casualties”.

On 2 May, authorities evacuated everyone within 10km of the plant, including the plant workers village of Pripyat. Two days later, all those living within a 30 kilometre radius including the city of Chernobyl itself - a further 116 000 people from the more contaminated area - were evacuated and later relocated. About 1,000 of these have since returned unofficially to live within the contaminated zone.

Four months after the disaster, the Russians finally came clean at an IAEA conference in Vienna. The Soviet Union's chief delegate Valery Legasov stunned his audience with a detailed and frank expose of what went wrong. British government representative Professor John Gittus (document link) received a thick package of carefully prepared documents containing details such as copies of chart recorders at Chernobyl's stricken reactor at the time of the blast. "For me this was the beginning of perestroika," he said. "We didn't realize that at the time, of course, but Chernobyl was a turning point -- a punctuation mark in Russian history."

However information was slow in getting to those nearest the disaster site. It wasn’t until 1989, that the local public gradually became more aware of the extent of the catastrophe. The number of newspaper articles about Chernobyl tripled and pressure on the Soviet leadership grew to co-ordinate a second wave of resettlement began. In 1991, the third phase of Chernobyl policy was determined by the successor states of the Soviet Union in the contaminated area: Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Official Chernobyl committees were set up in Belarus and Ukraine to compensate and resettlement victims.

There is no consensus over the death toll. After the initial explosion 28 people died, mostly fire-fighters, from radiation or thermal burns, another 60 or so died in the years that followed. A 2005 UN health agency report estimated that about 9,300 people will die from cancers caused by Chernobyl's radiation. Some groups, such as Greenpeace, say the toll has been grossly underestimated. Their report, based on Belarus national cancer statistics, predicts 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases directly attributable to the nuclear explosion. Radiation has had a devastating effect on survivors; damaging immune and endocrine systems, leading to accelerated ageing, cardiovascular and blood illnesses. With the temporary sarcophagus likely to leak for its remaining five years of existence, the total death toll could reach over 200,000.

Monday, September 17, 2007

African floods affect 17 countries

Two months of constant rain has caused severe flooding across the Sahel region of northern Africa which has wrecked hundreds of thousands of homes and left many people vulnerable to water-borne diseases. Over 150 people have died and 17 countries have been affected in West, Central and East Africa. Entire villages have been washed away by torrential rains along with crops critical to some of the world's poorest nations. "The rains are set to continue, and we are really concerned, because a lot of people are homeless, and infectious diseases could emerge”, said UN spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs. “Some of the poorest countries, like Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger… are badly affected”.

In Sudan, the worst floods in living memory have left 64 people dead and displaced and affected several hundred thousand, mainly in the troubled south, according to the UN. The World Health Organisation are reporting a cholera epidemic spread by floods which has killed at least 49 Sudanese in recent weeks. "The response is still ongoing,” said Maurizio Giuliano, spokesman for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).”Most of the 200,000 plus people who were homeless at the end of August have by now been given shelter.”

In neighbouring eastern Uganda, nine people have died and 150,000 have been made homeless since early August. Another 400,000 subsistence farmers have lost their livelihoods after their fields were flooded or roads washed away. The rains are forecast to worsen in the next month. Uganda's Minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness Musa Ecweru spent Saturday viewing the affected areas by plane. "The problem is getting worse by the hour," he said. “Access to some communities is almost impossible."

While heavy rains are not rare in eastern Africa at this time of year, it is more unusual in West Africa where contingency plans are not as well developed. The UN said severe floods across West Africa had affected 500,000 people in 12 countries, wiping out crops and homes there as well. Ghana has been hit badly by the flooding, with three northern regions being declared an official disaster zone after several towns and villages were submerged. Ghanaian Information Minister Oboshie-Sai Cofie said it was a humanitarian disaster. “People have nowhere to go,” she said, “Some of them are just hanging out there waiting for help to come."

French military helicopters were helping relief efforts in nearby Ivory Coast, while officials in Togo were dealing with more than 60,000 displaced people and wrecked infrastructure. At least 17 people have been killed in the Savanes region of northeastern Togo. Una McCauley, UNICEF’s representative in Togo, said the death toll is likely to rise in the coming days as the rains continue. “About 60 thousand people still haven’t been accessed because their areas have been cut off,” she said. “The situation is quite poor because these are the same communities which have been touched by severe malnutrition.”

While African web sites and newspapers and the UN Information Network are filled with stories about the floods, the major English-language media in the West have mostly ignored this tragedy. But western disinterest in Africa’s problems is not new. When Mozambique suffered catastrophic flooded in 2000, Time reporter Tony Karon lambasted the lack of the interest in the west saying “forget about ‘ask not for whom the bell tolls…’ when it comes to a natural disaster in an impoverished African country, it takes some pretty gruesome images and a dramatic death toll before the industrial west even hears the bell”.