Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Iran on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Iran has entered a new and dangerous period as opposition protests escalate and the Government reacts with a fierce crackdown. No-one can say with any certainty what will happen next. As Richard Silverstein says in Al Jazeera, Iran could either be at the stage of Eastern Europe just before the Berlin Wall fell or just as likely, as China was before the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Silverstein takes the China comparison further and says the death earlier this month of Ayatollah Montazeri is equivalent to the death of Chinese reformer Hu Yaobang that unleashed the Tiananmen protests. While end result of Yaobang’s death was unsuccessful, Silverstein sees hope in Iran’s more fragmented and chaotic leadership. “I doubt there is a unified Iranian command that can overwhelm the opposition in much the same way the Chinese government did after the massacre,” he said.

But there is little doubt that the Iranian Government is cracking down hard on the second round of protests since the disputed 12 June re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Mir Hossein Mousavi. Yesterday it issued an ominous warning that "Trying to overthrow the system will reach nowhere ... designers of the unrest will soon pay the cost of their insolence." They are also facing down foreign critics. Foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, threatened Britain with "a slap in the mouth” for encouraging the latest round of protests.

While no-one know what exactly Mottaki meant by this sabre-rattling, what is more certain is the Iranian regime that has been on the receiving end of several slaps lately. The country had been relatively peaceful for months after the traumatic events that saw hundreds killed in post-election riots. But protests have been on the rise again since the 87-year-old Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali-Montazeri died earlier this month sparking massive wide-spread demonstrations. Montazeri was a former leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution who Khomeini was grooming to replace him as Supreme Leader. He fell out of favour in 1989 after he called for a more open political system. He was demoted after Khomeini died and later held under house arrest for four years. But he remained a thorn in the side of the theocracy right up to his death on 19 December. Two days later thousands attended his funeral in Qom with reports of clashes between supporters and security forces for three days afterwards.

Protesters ignored the bans on further protests until the Government used the climax of Ashura, Shia’s holiest festival, to strike a decisive blow. Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali, who was killed in battle by the sovereign Yazid. The symbolism of the day and the Iranian Government’s reaction has not been lost on protesters. Burnt-out cars, motorbikes and other debris littered the streets of Tehran after the rioting. Hundreds were arrested and at least 15 people were killed by authorities.

One of those who died on Sunday was Mir Hussein Mousavi’s 43-year-old nephew Seyed Ali Mousavi. According to one account a 4WD vehicle smashed through a crowd near his home and five occupants got out. One approached Mousavi and shot him in his chest. The men then sped away. Mousavi died before reaching hospital. Government authorities removed his body from the hospital without explanation and without a family burial.

Meanwhile dozens of key opposition figures were arrested during the crackdown. Among those detained were three of Mir Hussein Mousavi’s top aides, two advisers to the reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, and the human rights campaigner Emadeddin Baghi. Also arrested was Opposition leader Ebrahim Yazdi. Yazdi was secretary general of the outlawed but tolerated Iran Freedom Movement and served as foreign minister at the start of the Islamic revolution. A neighbour told his American-based son Youseph Yazdi he was arrested at his home at 3am on Monday. Also arrested was Nooshin Ebadi the sister of Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi. Ebadi said her sister, a professor of medicine, had not been involved in any social, human rights and political activities.

Ahmadinejad theatrically blamed the US and Israel for the troubles his own election created. "Americans and Zionists are the sole audience of a play they have commissioned and sold out,” he said. “A nauseating play is performed.” But Ahmadinejad is orchestrating his own nauseating performance. Iranian authorities have urged its own supporters to take to the streets in a show of force against the opposition which it called "pawns of the enemies." It has called for a counter-demonstration “against those who have not respected the values of Ashura”.

Writing in The Drum, Iranian expatriate journalist Arash Falasiri says the major difference between the earlier protests and the current ones is that the focus of anger has openly shifted from Ahmadinejad to the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He says that while the main slogan in the first two weeks after the election was "Where is my vote", it has now been changed to "Death to Khamenei". But Khamenei could yet unleash much death of his own before he is forced to stand aside. Iran successfully tested a medium-range missile earlier this month. And now Israel has announced it believes Iran will have nuclear capability by early 2010. Dangerous times lie ahead before the world can tell if it has another Berlin Wall on its hands or just blood.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Blogging in the Noughties

The end of the year brings to an end an extraordinary decade for social media on the Internet. Google has turned itself into a verb, Youtube has become a video-sharing phenomenon, Facebook has transformed the way people talk to their friends while Twitter has established itself as the premier destination for finding out what is happening in the world right now. All have been crucial in democratising the Internet. Yet none of them have had the same effect on democracy itself as much as technology that predated the decade. That technology is blogging, which seems almost old hat as the Noughties draw to a close.

Yet blogging has not disappeared. On the contrary, blogging is a mature technology that is in rude health on an international scale. In 2006 the Pew Internet & American life project estimated that 12 million adult Americans kept blogs and 57 million adult Americans read them. Five million blogs globally posted content in June 2008 in 66 countries across 20 languages. 59 percent of these are maintained by people who have been blogging for 2 years or more. Scott Rosenberg says that the “blogosphere” is so large and anarchic, it does not exist in the singular. There were many blogospheres. “The one you saw depended on which little slice of the blog universe you were following.”

Blogs are interactive, contain posts of varying lengths in reverse chronological order, usually contain hyperlinks, allow comments, and have a blogroll of other blogs. But there is no single accepted definition of a blog. The academic Scott Wright said “It is generally accepted that a blog is a regularly updated website with information presented in reverse chronological order. But what do we understand by the term regular? I have recently updated a blog having failed to do so for several months. In the intervening period, was it a blog, a defunct blog, or a website?” Others have argued that a blog must contain a blog-roll or links section, yet several apparently highly active blogs do not have blog-rolls.

The technology advances of the later 1990s made mass communications possible in a way impossible in any previous era. In Dec 1997 Usenet user Jorn Barger coined the term weblog on his site to define his site which he saw as both a log of, and on the web. Barger’s site contained posts and hyperlinks but had no comments or other interaction. In early 1999 Internet analyst Peter Merholz announced he was pronouncing the word we-blog or “blog” for short and said he liked the new name’s crudeness and dissonance. “I like that it [blog] is roughly onomatopoeic of vomiting. These sites (mine included!) tend to be a kind of information upchucking”.

Information upchucking became a lot easier with new blogging tools such as Google Blogger, Wordpress and Movable Type in the early 2000s. No longer, as A.J. Liebling suggested, did the freedom of the press belong exclusively to those who own one. Blogs evolved from being listings of websites people liked to increasingly take the form of personal journals sharing thoughts and encourage others to take part in conversation.

Blogs have changed our politics and our world. Their hyperlinking structure created a nonlinear activity and an almost instantaneous feedback loop. These hotlinks are the key to the success of the blogs. Stephen Coleman called blogs the listening posts of modern democracy. According to David Perlmutter, the advent of blogging allowed people to bypass regular big media and create mass communications messages without formal training, in the process reaching large audiences, inviting others to co-author knowledge and producing a range of effects on public opinion, political affairs and government policymaking.

The word blog first appeared in a mainstream publication on 11 October 1999. The New Statesman described it as a “web page, something like a public commonplace book, which is added to each day…if there is any log they resemble, it is the captain’s log on a voyage of discovery”.

A couple of months later the word appeared in a newspaper in Ottawa Citizen article about pop singer Sarah McLachlan. Television took another six months to cotton on. And even then it was a typical TV take-down. CNNdotCom’s show of 8 July 2000 introduced its nerdword of the day thus: “Today’s training in technobabble: “blog”. No it’s not the way feel in the morning after drinking too much tequila the night before. And no its not one of the creatures found in Dr Seuss’s zoo”.

But blogs were quickly escaping the zoo and entering the mainstream. Blogs were an ideal outlet to express the trauma caused by 9/11. At a 2002 Harvard conference on Internet communication Professor Jay Rosen of New York University identified “a new kind of public, where every reader can be a writer and people do not so much consume the news as they ‘use’ it in active search for what’s going on sometimes in collaboration with each other, or in support of the pros.” This was the germ of Rosen’s later oft-quoted idea of the “people formerly known as the audience”.

But not everyone was convinced the former audience was up to the job. Writing around the same time as Rosen, Washington Post editors Len Downie and Robert Kaiser’s critique of journalism decried the degeneration of political reporting and investigative journalism and blogs were no help either. “There is little [in blogs] of what journalists would call reporting (our study this year found 5%)” they wrote.

While the majority 95 percent ran the gamut from purely personal journals to opinions that could not make it into big media, the five percent that reported were starting to make inroads. The power of American bloggers was shown in the Trent Lott and Dan Rather cases. Lott was a key congressional ally of George W. Bush but the president was obliged to denounce him after the blogs ran hard on his Strom Thurmond 100th birthday speech. In “Rathergate” the blogs forced CBS to apologise for the fact it could not prove its documents were authentic and Rather himself retired.

In the UK, blogger Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) is a one-man wrecking ball with a string of political scalps. Salam Pax’s online diary captured the frightening reality of invasion in Baghdad during the Iraqi war that disputed official accounts of the conduct of the 2003 war. Elsewhere in Asia, successful Korean OhMyNews’s motto is “every citizen is a reporter" while online citizen journalism outfit Malaysiakini has evolved into Malaysia’s premier news site.

Here in Australia there have been no “gotcha” moments among the blogs yet but they are proving successful if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Mainstream media have been busy copying the blogs while still professing to damn them – who could forget The Australian’s 2007 castigation of “sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper”?. But by 2009 News Ltd had started up The Punch, while Fairfax reheated the National Times masthead and the ABC has begun The Drum. The Drum’s editor Jonathan Green was hired from Crikey where he was responsible for starting up an influential network of bloggers to complement its journalism.

Asking whether blogging is journalism is like asking whether TV is journalism: it all depends on what’s on. The two practices should and do co-exist - often under the same name. Nevertheless the transformation from journalist to blogger isn’t always smooth. The Guardian’s groundbreaking Comment is Free website struggles to deal with the hoi polloi. As contributor and political journalist Jackie Ashley puts it, “there will always be those who know much more about a subject than a columnist. And equally there will be those who think they know much more. I’m delighted to hear from both: just so long as you make proper arguments and don’t call me a fucking stupid cow.”

The ease of anonymous publishing in an online environment has turned it into a space where it is all too easy to diagnose stupidity. Rumours, hoaxes and cheating games circulate which risk the public sphere descending into a chaos and anarchy. But as Henry Jenkins notes this is not an inevitable outcome, “As the digital revolution enters a new phase, one based on diminished expectations and dwindling corporate investment,” he says, “grassroots intermediaries may have a moment to redefine the public perception of new media and to expand their influence”. That moment has arrived.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Mark Scott’s year of living dangerously

Woolly Days' Australian media personality for 2009 is the CEO of the ABC, Mark Scott. Scott has led the ABC for the best part of five years but it is only in the last 12 months that he has established himself as one of the major figures in the Australian media landscape, and is proving to be a formidable opponent to older players.

Scott is a former Liberal Party staffer who was appointed ABC boss in 2005 aged just 42. He resigned a role as editorial director at Fairfax to take the ABC job. At the time Scott was forced to deny he is a creature of the Howard government saying “I have a cordial, nodding relationship I suppose with the [then] Prime Minister and the minister, but no more than that.”

Scott has proved an able non-political servant. He effortlessly survived the transition to Labor Government in 2007 and now seems to have an important ally in Communications minister Stephen Conroy.

The media landscape now looks very different to how it appeared when Scott first took over the ABC. Kerry Packer died and his beloved television channel was sold off to anonymous private equity firms. The alliance with Conroy has seen significant increase in funding and an end to government distrust of the ABC. The gradual ubiquity of broadband is seeing ABC take an important lead in the rollout of digital services. Scott himself was in the vanguard of ABC take-up of Twitter most notably used to give out Victorian bushfire information in February.

Scott was also able to put in place a structure underneath him he could trust. His two new trusty lieutenants were Kate Dundas and Kate Torney. Dundas was appointed head of radio while Torney was the new head of news. Torney’s role would be to carry out Scott’s vision for ABC News as “the seeds of a 24 hour news channel”. Dundas’s job would not only mean looking after the five stations (Radio National, NewsRadio, JJJ, Classic FM and local radio) but also making sure their content was available as a media-rich service together with podcasting, user-generated content and other integration with the internet. Dundas also picked up digital radio which went online on 1 July. This was in line with Scott’s statement from April: “No other media organisation is doing more with user‐generated content or using the web more to encourage robust local content.”

Possibly the most important action of the year was the renewal of ABC’s triennial funding. The 2009 federal budget gave an additional $185m to the two non-commercial stations, the lion’s share going to the ABC. It included $15 million to set up 50 regional broadband websites linked to local radio stations to create “virtual town squares for communities”.

Digital television is also a crucial piece of the jigsaw. ABC has set the pace with ABC2 around since 2005. This year finally saw the challenge of the other operators with One, SBS2, Go and SevenTwo all debuting on air. But ABC hit back in December launching ABC3 as the nation’s first children’s channel.

Also at the end of the year, Scott consolidated ABC online opinion into a new site called The Drum (a symbol also used in marketing by JJJ). He headhunted editor Jonathan Green to run it and populated it with articles from ABC’s stable of political journalists. The new star in the crown was Annabel Crabb whom Scott poached from the Sydney Morning Herald. Scott had long cherished the wry and shrewd sketchwork of Crabb as part of his vision to make the ABC a quality destination for digital journalism.

Scott made many notable public speeches this year but two stand out. In April he gave a remarkable Annual Media Studies Lecture at La Trobe University in Melbourne in which he showed how the global economy, the shattering structure underpinning the business model, and business blunders were forever changing the nature of media in Australia. The second, near the end of the year was the so-called “end of empire” speech. It was a direct challenge to News Ltd from a powerful man at the top of his game, in response to James Murdoch’s MacTaggart lecture in August which complained about the growing power of the BBC, and Rupert Murdoch’s China speech about the end of the age of the Internet free ride being over. Scott’s view was that News “empire” no longer has the power to dictate terms over the cost of the ride.

Scott was proving to be a tough negotiator as well as having a silver tongue. He reneged on a pay agreement with the CPSU citing the GFC as a factor and he took ABC into a cost-cutting partnership with WIN to build a shared TV presentation and control centre in Western Sydney. He also went to China in September to lobby the government allow the ABC to be carried on Chinese pay TV. Though there has been some criticism about the lack of investigative journalism in his vision, Mark Scott is proving to be a top media performer who seems to have mapped out a useful and exciting future for “your ABC”.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Indian Ocean tsunami fifth anniversary

Incredibly, five years have now passed since the Indian Ocean tsunami struck on 26 December 2004. The scale of the devastation was immense and it occurred on a hemispherical scale. 230,000 lives were lost in 11 countries, five million people were affected and $5 billion of damage was caused by one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded. (photo by simminch)

The drama of the day started at 7am local time in Indonesia when an earthquake of between 9.1 and 9.3 magnitude struck the sea between the west coast of Sumatra and the small island of Simeule. The event lasted an unprecedented ten minutes tearing a massive rupture 1,600 kms long. Depending on who’s talking it was either the second or third highest magnitude earthquake of the 20th century. Either way it was immense. The shift of mass and the massive release of energy very slightly altered the Earth's rotation. It caused the sea bed to rise several metres displacing billions of tonnes of sea water in the process.

Because of the north-south 1,600km fissure caused by the quake, the greatest waves went east and west. It took about a half hour for the wall of water to reach nearest landfall on the Sumatran Coast. Northern Aceh was worst hit with waves rising 20 metres high and travelling almost a kilometer inland. Some coastal villages were devastated losing up to 70 percent of their inhabitants. In all 167,000 were killed in Indonesia and another 37,000 listed as missing. An estimated 655,000 people were made homeless.

After another hour, the waves hit southern Thailand and its west coast islands. The waves swept locals and tourists off the beaches. 8,000 people died in Phuket, Phi Phi and elsewhere and a similar number were injured. At the same time the westerly-heading waves slammed 10m high into the east coast of Sri Lanka killing another 35,000 people and it made over a million and a half people homeless. A further 68 people died in Malaysia. By another half hour, it was taking severe casualties in India’s Tamil Nadu and Burma. The waves demolished railways, bridges, telecommunications facilities and harbours. The salt water contaminated large tracts of rich arable land.

And still it kept coming. After another 90 minutes, the tsunami engulfed the low-lying Maldives killing 100 people and displacing another 20,000. And two and half hours later still – some six hours after the original quake – the mammoth waves made landfall in Somalia. 300 people died there with 50,000 made homeless and many more livelihoods lost as 2,500 boats were destroyed. Most of the deaths were caused by asphyxiation from the silt and sand within the “black water” of the tsunami.

A massive worldwide relief operation began almost immediately. The biggest ever peacetime launch of military relief effort arrived in Aceh led by emergency teams from Australia, India, Japan and the US. Apart from immediate medical needs, the biggest threat was secondary death from famine and disease. One of the most important early tasks in Sumatra was to provide purification plants and potable water. This was difficult in a region where the Indonesian army was hauling over a thousand bodies a day from the rivers. Forensic scientists were stretched to the limit to identify the deceased. The process was complicated by sweltering heat, inconsistencies in data collection procedures used in various countries, and jurisdictional challenges. Port, road and transport facilities also needed to be restored.

Undermining the recovery effort was the influx of aid workers and media personnel who consumed scarce resources, making the cost of living soar. There were at least 500 journalists and news crews in the affected zone. And the sensationalism of much of the reporting added to the trauma of the survivors. Aceh did eventually recover and the tsunami had one unintended benefit; it brought an end to the long running war between the Indonesian military and Acehnese separatists.

Dealing with earthquakes will always be one of the perils of living in geologically active Sumatra. As recently as October, over 500 people were killed and thousands trapped under rubble when a 7.6 magnitude quake struck West Sumatra. But it will never forget the events of 26 December, 2004. The psychological trauma of confronting 20 metre waves is too deep. As one 10 year old girl told AFP "Even if I wanted to, I couldn't forget. It's the same for my friends who survived.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Unchartered waters: coral reefs, climate change and mass extinction

While Australian politicians and the media continue to lie or downplay the effects of human-caused climate change, Australian scientists continue to methodically pile up the evidence to the contrary. A new scientific paper has not only stated that the world’s coral reefs including the iconic Great Barrier Reef are in irreversible decline due to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but worse still, if these emissions are left unchecked they could cause a mass extinction event. This was the gloomy prognosis of a paper published in October’s edition Marine Pollution Bulletin. The paper says today’s co2 levels of 387 parts per million is enough to cause catastrophic mass bleaching of coral reefs given a time lag of ten years. (photo by mattk1979)

Written by ten Australian, British and Kenyan scientists, the paper entitled “The coral reef crisis: The critical importance of <350ppm CO2” states that if levels are allowed to rise to 450ppm by 2020 as the best effort proposed by the Copenhagen Accord then “reefs will be in rapid and terminal decline worldwide”. The scientists say this will be inevitable due to a synergy of mass bleaching, ocean acidification and other environmental impacts. But worse is to follow should levels reach a doomsday scenario of 600 ppm (not impossible given current unchecked rates of growth). In that case, a domino effect will occur affecting many other marine ecosystems. The paper states baldly that anthropogenic CO2 emission could trigger “the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event”.

Because reef systems have existed for 240 million years, they provide an unequalled window into the effects of climate change in geological time. Yet astonishingly scientists have found no parallel in the past with today’s conditions. “We are in unchartered waters,” say the scientists. Already 20 percent of the world’s reefs have been destroyed and another 35 percent is seriously threatened. Currently mass bleaching events are associated with El Nino weather patterns and normally occur even four to seven years. But now they are happening annually. Coral has a high dependence on light and temperature and even slight changes in either factor can cause irreversible damage.

There are no recorded instances of mass bleaching before the 1970s. Temperature-induced mass coral bleaching was first recorded in 1978 when co2 levels were 336 ppm. Given a ten year time lag, the problem probably began in 1968 or thereabouts when co2 levels first exceeded 320 ppm. By 1983, co2 levels had reached 340ppm and this was enough to cause a mass bleaching of 10 percent of the Great Barrier Reef and two-thirds of all inshore reefs. Another mass bleaching event in 1998 with CO2 levels at 365 ppm killed 16 percent of coral globally. Further events in 2002 and 2005 characterised a new phase of decline and diminishing complexity of the reefs.

The paper says by the time CO2 levels reach 450 ppm coralline algae will no longer be able calcify which will make coral brittle and subject to collapse. Reef building processes will be severely diminished or cease entirely. Rising sea levels, an increasing number of high intensity storms, impacts from fishing and deterioration of the water quality will exacerbate the effects of mass bleaching and ocean acidification.

Reefs are resilient and usually bounce back from bleaching events particularly if they are spaced many years apart. But as they become annual events and more intense, the capacity of the corals to regrow will decline. This is not helped by human factors such as water pollution and over-fishing. This reduces genetic diversity which in turn further hampers the corals’ ability to re-grow.
All the evidence suggests that reefs will be the first planetary-scale ecosystem to collapse due to rapid global warming. And while bleaching is confined to the reef, the impact acidification will be felt more widely. It could impact molluscs, crustaceans, plankton, fish, seagrass, mangroves, marine reptiles and mammals, and estuarine habitats.

The scientists say the speed at which events are happening give little time for evolution to take adaptive measures. It recommends some immediate remedial measures such as reducing the harvesting of herbaceous fish, protecting sharks and other top predators, managing water quality, and minimising “anthropogenic impact”. Given that Copenhagen failed singularly in that last task, hopes are not high the scientists hopes will be realised. “Only drastic action starting now will prevent wholesale destruction of reefs and similarly affected ecosystems,” concludes the paper. “Should humanity not be successful in preventing these threats from becoming reality, no amount of management or expenditure will save future generations from the consequences of our failed guardianship.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cleanskins: A dose of Roma Therapy

I learned a new term today at work. Sue from Advertising told me I had four cleanskins to work with for next Tuesday’s paper. I looked blankly at her. Cleanskins? Was this something political or was I being offered wine or chicken, I thought. No, Sue patiently explained, it meant I had four full pages without ads to do what I liked with. Cleanskins were an old trade term I’d simply never come across in my short experience. Yet it made perfect sense as soon as it was explained to me.

There have been many moments like that as I deal with the new realities of life as a journalist.

The biggest of these realities is the deadline. Much of my time in Roma has been spent dealing with it. It is constantly at the back of my mind and it is adrenalin-fueling as it approaches. This feeling comes twice a week in Roma as The Western Star is issued on a Tuesday and a Friday.

My Roma is the one in Western Queensland not in Italy. It was named for Lady Diamantina Roma who married George Bowen, Queensland’s first Governor-General. I wished they named the town Diamantina. Though geography doesn’t matter too much on the Internet, it’s a real pain sharing the name of your town with a major world capital. Though most of the conversation is in Italian, there is plenty of English conversation is about the football team called Roma or the Eastern European gypsies that Hitler loathed as much as the Jews.

My Roma is a small town 480km west of Brisbane in the centre of a district called the Maranoa. I’ve been here three weeks and I arrived slapbang in the middle of summer heat. Already I can tell the difference between 38 degrees and 42 and am beginning to feel that 30 is downright chilly. Yet I’m finding its dry heat more manageable than the suffocating sticky Brisbane equivalent in summer.

But airconditing is proving a must. Aircon is on the faultline of my political principles. The Green in me is annoyed by its flagrant waste of resources but the leftie praises the fact that I'm made comfortable by such wonderful cheap technology. I’m now searching for a conservative side that will make serious money out of aircon made from renewable sources.

In the meantime I’m earning a crust as a journalist. After four years of political blogging, I thought working for a masthead would provide me with good experience and a grounding in the daily realities of industrial journalism.

I must do a disclosure at this point. Starting at the newspaper has presented me with a problem about what to say about it in a blog. I’m bound by rules I’ve happily signed up with my employer not to compete against the paper. There are also issues of confidentially and conflict of interest. I like my job here in Roma and people I work with and don’t want to say anything here that would jeopardise it. The views here are mine and not associated with APN Media.

But being here has made me see some clear differences between the roles of blogger and journalist I wanted to talk about.

Firstly there is the power of the masthead. There are few bloggers around worldwide who have the power to ring people up and ask for quotes with a reasonable certainty they will be taken seriously. But every local masthead has this power and respect.

If they are not always treated a straight answer, then at least they usually get the courtesy of a carefully constructed response which you can often query further if need be.

Also you are much more likely to elicit a response from a member of the general public when you identify yourself as a representative of a trusted brand. This means that as a journalist you will have access to a lot of information. It is a powerful tool that needs careful management to avoid being abused.

For all its faults, I’m finding regional newspaper journalism is still trusted and unlikely to go extinct anytime soon. People engage with local papers because they still fulfill a strong social function.

They also hold up a sizable mirror to local events unmatched by any other media. Radio has the immediacy and bonhomie of local characters, but there is little local journalism. TV is even more openly piped in from remote places. The Internet is either underdeveloped or untrusted or both. In towns like Roma, that leaves papers with a duty to provide citizens with information they need to make sense of a plethora of local events. It is a clearing house of gossip, a fount of news, a big notice board for the community and a window on events elsewhere in the world.

But it is also a commercial entity and I’ve come to see newspaper ads as my friends. Apart from paying my wages, they also fill crucial space that suddenly makes filling a 24 page newspaper less daunting and leaves me with less cleanskins to worry about.

That’s another difference between blogging and journalism. As a journalist I see 40 x 30 centimetre blank sheets of paper that have to be filled regularly where as the only pressure I had on me as a blogger was a self-imposed rule to blog daily or as near to daily as I could. Space is not an issue on the Internet, but lacking this design constraint doesn’t necessarily make it better.

It is this tyranny of the blank page that sets the creative rules of journalism. An Internet post can be one line long or a thousand but the newspaper is more or less the same size every time. The pressure to find stories is relentless and they exist wherever you find them. That means using phone calls, tips, emails, press releases, old issues, wider issues, softer issues. Papers abhor an information vacuum. The white space must be filled. If there is no ad on the space, then there simply has to be editorial content.

This is where photos come in. Picture not only tell a thousand words they can fill the space of a thousand words on the page. And people like seeing pictures of themselves and people they know in the paper.

Being a rural paper, I have to take most of my photos myself. I never ever envisaged myself as a photographer though Fernando Mereilles’ City of God is one of my favourite films. On most engagements I usually first have to deal with my terror of my poor photographic technique and the possibility I’ll ruin the photo. So to get over this, I’m slowly trying to act as a photographer, and make more demands of subjects. I'm also taking more photos in the hope that some will come out. There may even be some good ones in there, or least presentable after being tightened up with a crop.

Photography is therapeutic and redefining my idea of being resourceful but at this stage, I still prefer the written form ahead of photojournalism.

It is wonderfully invigorating to grapple with an issue I don’t understand and attempt to unravel it and re-present that for a wider audience. In this, the blog has been very useful training both in terms of research and of threading an argument together in competent layperson’s terms.

But a major difference of style is the use of the direct quote which is almost compulsory in industrial media but rare in blogs. Having one source is immeasurably better than none because it enlivens the piece and adds variety with an additional point of view. Stricter authorities such as the ABC demand there be at least two sources and I’ve seen arguments that three should be the minimum.

But getting so many people to talk on the record is not always easy, not even for a masthead. People are cagey or a response needs to be vetted by a media unit. And in a busy world, people are rarely on tap for a ready quote. As the deadline moves ever closer, experts quickly deteriorate from being people who have expertise in their chosen topic to being the person who actually returns your call.

The telephone is my friend. I didn’t use the telephone much as a blogger, I use it a lot as a journalist. It helps I don’t have to pay the bills for the call. I always feel a slight sense of nervous energy every time I dial a number. People don’t hide as much on the phone as they do in email.

The only thing better is real life meeting. I’m doing that a lot in Roma and enjoying it too. And I know that if I’m really serious about tackling those cleanskins, I’m going to have to wear out a lot of shoe-leather too.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Macau anniversary protests as new leader is sworn in

The New Democratic Macau Association has marked the 10th anniversary of the handover of the former Portuguese colony with a demonstration calling for more democracy. The pro-democracy political party is also protesting against the corruption that has settled in the territory in the last decade. For the last few years, they have used the December 20 anniversary to demand universal suffrage and a larger fight against corruption. But this year’s event was especially significant. The Chinese Community Party leadership was in town for the tenth anniversary celebrations and to mark the leadership of a new government. (photo credit: Vixyao)

Like Hong Kong, Macau is a Special Administrative Region with a separate constitution guaranteeing freedoms not available to the rest of China. Fernando Chui Sai On was sworn in as the territory’s new chief executive for a five year term. He is only the second person to assume the role since 1999. He replaces Edmund Ho who has dominated Macau since handover. The 52-year-old Chui has been handpicked by Beijing like Ho before him. But Macau has always been considered the more compliant of the two SARs. Chui vowed to continue the “great cause” of one country, two systems but also pledged to support Chinese interests. “For years the motherland has always been a strong backing to the maintenance of Macao's prosperity and stability,” he said.

Chinese President Hu Jintao was on hand to swear Chui in. He praised Macau’s passing of Article 23 state security legislation. The article which came into effect in March 2009 under former leader Edmund Ho prohibits and punishes acts of "treason, secession, and subversion" against the Chinese government, as well as "preparatory acts" leading to any of the three acts. Critics are wary about the ambiguous catch-all language of the act. But Hu said Article 23 “fully reflects the strong sense of responsibility of the government, Legislative Assembly and people of all circles of the Macau SAR to safeguard national security and interests.”

Front and central to those interests is protecting Macau’s gambling interests. Since 1999, Macau, which has 31 casinos, has overtaken Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined in terms of casino revenues. It is now the world’s biggest gambling centre with an annual revenue of $12 billion. International gambling companies like Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts have invested Invest billions of dollars in the local industry. When it opened in August 2007 the $2.4 billion Venetian Macao Resort became the world’s largest casino with 3,000 hotel suites, a 15,000 sports arena, a 6,000 banquet hall and floor space for gambling games more than three times as large as the biggest in Las Vegas. But there are dangers inherent in solely relying on a gambling economy and there is also the stench of corruption.

Three years ago the US Treasury accused a Macau bank of laundering money on behalf of North Korean leaders engaged in nuclear proliferation. The US accused a family-owned Banco Delta of holding $25 million in profits from counterfeit US dollars, cigarettes and drugs made in North Korea. However they were prevented from freezing the assets after it became a sticking point in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program. According to former State Office official David Asher, the investigations “demonstrated the awareness of the Macao authorities to these things.”

But if they were aware of it, they showed they had not learned its lesson. In early 2008, a judge sentenced Ao Man-long, Macau’s former secretary for transportation and public works, to 27 years of prison on charges of bribe-taking related to kickbacks on construction contracts. Long had been part of Macau’s administration since 1999 but he was charged in 2007 with 117 crimes including 43 crimes of abuse of power; 41 crimes of corruption for unlawful fact; 30 crimes of money laundering; 1 crime of economic participation in business transactions; one crime of intentional wrong declaration of assets; and one crime of illicit enrichment.

While the stench of corruption never quite reached Edmund Ho, it got near enough to him for Beijing to abandon support of him. But it is questionable if they will listen to the voice of the protesters who want the government to combat corruption and stop selling land cheaply to the casino operators and developers. China is determined to make a success of Macau and with 90,000 PLA troops in the tiny garrison is well able to dictate terms. It is also shrinking the physical distance between the one country and two systems by building a new $10.7 billion 50km-long bridge that will link Guangdong Province to Hong Kong and Macao. When built, it will cut driving time from Macau to Hong Kong from 3 hours to 30 minutes.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Trafigura: the ugly face of capitalism

The latest installment in Trafigura’s sordid attempts to gag British media occurs today when the high court issues its judgement on the libel action the company took out on the BBC. Trafigura is the notorious oil and commodities trading company which was responsible for 15 deaths and the injuries of thousands of West Africans after it dumped oil waste. Trafigura says it is the world's third-biggest private oil trader, and declared $440m profit last year. Its 200 traders are reported to receive annual bonuses of up to $1m each. But it is highly sensitive to criticism and sued BBC’s flagship current affairs show Newsnight for telling the truth that they were responsible for murder. The Guardian, itself a victim of several Trafigura legal actions, says the BBC case was one of a series of legal threats against the media in several countries brought by the company. (Photo: AFP/GETTY)

Their most reprehensible order came in October when Trafigura made an extraordinary attempt to stop the Guardian from reporting on parliament. The attempt backfired after it ignited a Twitter firestorm and its lawyers Carter-Ruck withdrew the injunction within 24 hours. On that occasion Trafigura were trying to stop publication of a report they commissioned about their dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. 12 people died and 31,000 people were injured as a result of their illegal dumping of a by-product of coker naptha in 2006.

After repeatedly denying liability, Trafigura eventually agreed to pay an out-of-court settlement more than $50m to almost 30,000 inhabitants of Ivory Coast’s largest city Abidjan. Nevertheless Trafigura engaged Carter-Ruck again to bring the libel action against the BBC on the basis that the company had been wrongly accused of causing deaths, not just sickness. This was despite official pronouncements by a UN investigator, and the Ivorian and British government which referred to deaths being caused directly by the dumping. Trafigura were able to get away with this because of the settlement it struck with another British law firm Leigh Day which led the class action acted on behalf of the Ivorians. The eventual compensation resulted in an agreed statement making no claims about deaths.

The original problem was a result of western greed and lax Third World safety standards. In 2005 Trafigura bought dirty oil contaminated with coker naptha from Mexico for next to nothing with the intention of cleaning it and selling it on for profit. The cleaning process involves pouring tonnes of caustic into the coker naptha but this generates dangerous and deadly waste such as hydrogen sulphide. The process is so dangerous, it is banned in most western countries.

But African countries are less strict. Trafigura chartered a ship and took it to Abidjan where they illegally fly-tipped at 15 locations around Abidjan. In the weeks that followed, tens of thousands of people reported a range of similar symptoms, including breathing problems, sickness and diarrhoea. In September 2009 BBC Newsnight revealed it had uncovered email evidence to show Trafigura bosses knew the waste dumped in Ivory Coast was hazardous. The BBC were backed up by a UN Report on the matter which found "strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the cargo ship".

The Minton Report which exposed the dumping and blamed Trafigura remains off-limits to British media due to a host of injunctions. According to Wikileaks which is keeping access open to the report, the illegal Ivorian dumping is “possibly most culpable mass contamination incident since Bhopal.”

Trafigura, meanwhile, released a disengenuous statement on 16 October aimed at dispelling “further misunderstandings” of what happened in Abidjan. They attempted to discredit the Minton Report (which they had commissioned) on the basis of its “hypothetical ideas”, the fact that no visits were made to Ivory Coast and its analysis was overtaken by field analysis by the Netherlands Forensic Institute. Though it doesn’t say whether the NFI analysis contradicted Minton, it is highly unlikely it did, given it was used as a basis to settle the class action.

None of that matters now except preventing the truth from being told. But here’s to Trafigura’s failure. Their dishonesty, greed, selfishness and contempt of public opinion deserve the widest possible audience and criminal action. They represent capitalism at its venial worst.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lumumba Di-Aping: the Third World's Hero of Copenhagen

Lumumba Di-Aping has made the brave call that no Australian politician has been game to make and called Prime Minister Kevin Rudd a climate sceptic. The key negotiator at Copenhagen on behalf of the G777-China group told the ABC Rudd’s message to his own people was a fabrication which “does not relate to the facts because his actions are climate change scepticism in action.” Di-Aping was pointing out the disparity between Rudd’s sayings and actions on climate change. “It's puzzling in the sense that here is a Prime Minister who actually won the elections because of his commitment to climate change,” Di-Aping said. “And within a very short period of time he changes his mind, changes his position, he start acting as if he has been converted into climate change scepticism.” (photo credit: Reuters - Jens Norgaard Larsen)

Di-Aping is essentially correct. For all Rudd’s moralising about climate change as the world’s greatest problem, he has offered very little by way of Australian action to solve it. And Lumumba Di-Aping is the right person to remind him of his responsibilities. The Sudanese diplomat is the chief negotiator for the 130 nation bloc confusingly known as the G77-China group at the Copenhagen climate change talks. He was chosen because Sudan is the current chair of the G77. Despite (or perhaps because of) Sudan’s poor international reputation since Darfur, Di-Aping is proving to be a formidable opponent of vested western interests.

It was Di-Aping who led the criticism of the Danish Text which Rudd is also intimately associated with. The draft of the text which emerged at the start of the conference last week proposed a solution to stop global temperature rises at two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The UN tried to play down the document as an “informal paper” put forward by the Danish Prime Minister. Di-Aping was having none of it and slammed the proposal. "It's an incredibly imbalanced text intended to subvert, absolutely and completely, two years of negotiations," he said. “It does not recognise the proposals and the voice of developing countries".

Once again Di-Aping had a very good point. The Danish Text was leaked to The Guardian who described it as a departure from the Kyoto Protocol principle that developed nations should bear the brunt of climate change. The Guardian said the draft handed control of climate change finance to the World Bank. More importantly it would abandon the Kyoto protocol which remains the only legally binding treaty that the world has on emissions reductions. Lastly it would make funding to poor countries trying to adapt to climate change contingent on a range of actions.

But what infuriated the developing countries most about the Text was the fact it was prepared without their knowledge. It smacked of colonialism. On the first Monday of the climate change talks, Di-Aping addressed an ad hoc meeting of 100 African civil representatives and a few African parliamentarian. He began dramatically by crying, putting his head in his hands and saying “We have been asked to sign a suicide pact.” Di-Aping may well have been milking the drama but once again his analysis was spot on. He said a global temperature increase of 2 degrees meant 3.5 degrees for much of Africa. This was “certain death for Africa”, and a type of “climate fascism” imposed on the continent by high carbon emitters. He said Africa was being asked to sign on to an agreement that would allow this warming in exchange for $10 billion, and that Africa was also being asked to “celebrate” this deal. “I am absolutely convinced that what Western governments are doing is NOT acceptable to Western civil society,” he said.

On Thursday, Di-Aping made a direct call for action from US President Obama. He said it would be embarrassing for the US not to be part of a solution “to save humanity”. Di-Aping reminded his audience that the US is the world's largest emitter historically and per capita. He asked the US to join the Kyoto Protocol and take on its commitments as a developed nation. “This is a challenge that President Barack Obama needs to rise to as a Nobel Prize winner and as an advocate of a multilateral global society,” Di-Aping said. “We know he is proud to be a part of that community through his family relations in Africa.”

Frustrated by the lack of action from American and other Western negotiators, Di-Aping led the biggest gamble yet when he led the walk out of the G77-China group conference. Di-Aping explained his rationale for the walk-out with BBC Radio Four. He said it had become clear the Danish presidency was undemocratically advancing the interests of developed countries at the expense of the obligations it had to developing countries. "The mistake they are doing now has reached levels that cannot be acceptable from a president who is supposed to be acting and shepherding the process on behalf of all parties,” he said.

The Western media were becoming furious at the way the conference was being “hijacked” by an uppity nobody from the Third World. The Australian dismissed him as "hyperbole prone". Toronto’s The Globe and Mail went further and called him “an ill chosen voice from Khartoum”. The headline was meant to damn him by association with long term Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir. But this comparison is false. Di-Aping does not represent Sudan at the conference. He represents 130 nations who are not creating climate change, but who will suffer the most from it. Lumumba Di-Aping is a hero and one who should shame the West into hearing the truth of climate change as seen from the perspective of the poor.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Non-Proliferation report calls for 90 percent reduction in nuclear weapons

The International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament used today’s meeting of the Japanese and Australian Prime Ministers to release a report asking the US and Russia to drastically reduce their nuclear arsenal. The report calls for the two biggest nuclear powers to reduce the number of warheads from 22,000 to 500 each by 2025. Australian and Japanese Commission Co-Chairs, Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi, presented the report to Kevin Rudd and Yukio Hatoyama at a ceremony at the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence. Former Australian foreign minister Evans said the report set a target date of 15 years “to achieve a dramatic 90 per cent reduction in the world’s nuclear weapons.” (photo of Titan Nuclear Missile Museum, Tucson, Arizona by jmuhles)

The 230-page report entitled “Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers” (see synopsis) says its finding are timely for four reasons. Firstly it says nuclear weapons are most inhumane weapons ever conceived and as serious a problem as global warming. Secondly it is sheer dumb luck they have not been used since 1945 and as long as any state has nuclear weapons others will want them. Thirdly, the status quo increases the possibility of nuclear weapon falling into the hands of rogue nations or terrorist groups. Lastly, there is a new opportunity presented by new US and Russian leadership “committed to disarmament action”.

The report concentrates on the US and Russia as together they own 96 percent of the world’s 23,000 nuclear weapons. The remaining 1,000 are owned by France, UK, China, India, Pakistan and Israel. Iran and North Korea may also have the technology. Half of all warheads are deployed and the two major powers have 2,000 weapons ready to deploy with a decision window to launch of five to ten minutes. The possibility of nuclear terrorism or a “dirty bomb” combing conventional explosives and radioactive isotopes can also not be discounted.

The report endorses the use of civilian nuclear energy as proven method of providing base load power without carbon emissions but says its likely expansion in the coming decades will present proliferation and security risks. The dangers will be exacerbated if accompanied by enrichment facilities at the front end of the process and reprocessing at the back end. The result could be “a great deal more fissile material becoming potentially available for destructive purposes”.

The key to success, says the report, is delegitimizing nuclear weapons as something marginal and unnecessary to national security. The authors prefer a phased approach to getting to zero nuclear weapons admitting it would be a ‘long, complex and formidably difficult process”. The short term goal to 2025 is to reduce warheads to 10 percent of current levels with agreed “no first use” doctrines among all players. The report was unable to specify a timeframe for complete elimination but argued “analysis and debate” on the matter should commence immediately.

The key policies from the document are: Next year’s Non-Proliferation Treaty review should agree on a new 20-point consensus for action replacing 2000’s “Thirteen Practical Steps”; the US and Russia should reduce their combined arsenal to 1,000 warheads and no other nation should increase its arsenal; all states should have a “no first use doctrine”; reduce the instant usage of warheads; Conventional weapons imbalances may need to be addressed; all countries (including the US) should ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban treaty immediately; and all nuclear-armed states should stop the production of fissile material for weapons production.

The report said the non proliferation efforts also needed to be beefed up. Key policies included: application of the IAEA Additional Protocol; IAEA compliance to concentrate on technical matters and stay out of politics; the UN Security Council should regard withdrawal from the NPT as a punishable threat to peace; and the IAEA should make full use of its powers. The report also acknowledged that that the three non-NPT states Israel, India and Pakistan are not likely to become members soon and they should be encouraged to participate in “parallel instruments and arrangements” to meet similar obligations to the NPT countries.

It also looked at the threat of terrorism. It recommended the adoption of the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material which insists on greater information sharing between nuclear powers. It also urged a Code of Conduct for safety of radioactive sources to control “dirty bomb” material and supported the emerging science of nuclear forensics. The report supported civilian nuclear power and called for assistance to extend it to developing nations. It called for new technologies for spent fuel treatment, increased plutonium recycle and spent fuel take-back by suppliers (including Australia) to reduce accumulations in a large number of countries. It strongly supported spreading the fuel cycle process across nations to build global confidence and aid verification of sensitive fuel cycle activities.

Evans and Kawaguchi acknowledged the political difficulties of doing something that was difficult, sensitive and expensive. They said it needed leadership to prevent inertia, knowledge of the magnitude of the problem, confidence in the strategy moving forward, and having an international process to back it up. All will be difficult to achieve. While it was no surprise that non-nuclear nations Japan and Australia welcomed the report, the US and Russia were ominously silent. Getting the two major powers to see its sense will be a herculean task for the coming years. Nevertheless the report is welcome as a road-map, however optimistic, of how to get to a future without nuclear weapons. It is an important vision as nuclear weapons remain a deep and dangerous threat the world has taken too much for granted since the end of the Cold War.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Negotiator paid $500,000 to release Nigel Brennan and Amanda Lindhout

John Chase, the hostage negotiator in the Somali kidnap of Nigel Brennan and Amanda Lindhout has admitted they paid a half a million US dollars to secure their release. The Australian Brennan and Canadian Lindhout were released from Mogadishu last month after being held for 15 months and Chase was instrumental in getting the initial $2.5 million ransom demand per head down to the $250,000 a head that was paid in the end. Chase said the kidnappers had no political motives and were not related to the Islamic Courts Union that rules much of Mogadishu. (photo credit: Reuters)

A blog called Free Amanda Lindhout said last week the Canadian Government would send a plane to take Lindhout and her family back to Canada. However the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs would not confirm this saying the family deserved privacy. Whenever she returns, it brings an end to a long ordeal she suffered in the name of getting the story of Somali refugees out to the wider world. Lindhout had worked in Iraq where she wrote stories about honour killings. She went to Mogadishu in August 2008 with Nigel Brennan. Brennan is a Brisbane-based photojournalist, who studied photography at Griffith University and a former photographer for the Bundaberg NewsMail newspaper.

On 23 August 2008 the pair were kidnapped in Mogadishu. Lindhout told Canadian TV they were researching a story about internally displaced people in Somalia. Many IDPs preferred the certainty of the camps to life in the war-torn capital. The journalists had been to a refugee camp the day before to interview IDPs and were going back to film for a second day. Their vehicle was ambushed and pulled to the side of the road. According to the pair’s local fixer and journalist Abdifatah Elmi the kidnappers opened the door of the car and brandished guns. They forced all three to get into their car and drove away from the scene very fast.

Within twenty-fours, Brennan’s parents in Australia got a call from the hostage takers. As Brennan’s sister Nicky Bonney described it, a voice identified himself as Aden, ringing from Mogadishu. Aden said he had Nigel and this was a ransom call for $1.5 million. A few hours later, Australian federal police turned up and directed the family to ask the hostage-takers a “proof of life” question. Bonney asked them, what was the name of their dog and the correct answer came back two hours later.

The Somali journalists union claimed they were being held in the north-eastern Mogadishu neighbourhood of Suqa Holaha by militias. After a month, Al Jazeera television showed footage of Brennan and Lindhout. They were accompanied by armed men, who identified themselves as the Mujahideen of Somalia. They accused Australia and Canada of helping to destroy Somalia, and demanded they end this policy.

In January, the hostage takers released the Somali journalist Abdifatah Elmi after 150 days in captivity. Elmi said his clan elders negotiated his release and that no ransom was paid. He said he was kept separately from the others and didn’t know their whereabouts. There was no further contact until May when Brennan and Lindhout made a five-minute phone call to an AFP journalist in Mogadishu saying they were in poor health and requested help from their governments. A day later Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith asked for a media black-out saying public discussion could endanger Brennan's life.

The problem for Brennan and Lindhout is that they were freelance journalists. If they had been employed by a news agency, the employer would likely have had kidnap insurance and the situation would have been resolved quickly. But being freelance, they had no choice but to ask their governments to pay. Both the Australian and Canadian Governments refused citing their long-standing policy not to pay ransoms.

However this is not a hard and fast rule. What the Australian Government would agree was $250,000 which it was prepared to facilitate as payment to secure a release. This had to be described as an incidental cost and not as a ransom. The Australian and Canadian Governments set up a Nairobi task force but the kidnappers were not prepared to accept $250,000 a head. It was up to the hostages’ families to raise the rest of the money. The families got together and hired a hostage release and ransom negotiator with a proven track record of dealing with Somali kidnap situations. The contractor was John Chase, the managing director of crisis response with the AKE group. He said the kidnappers were criminal gangs who could be placated with extra money. Chase was not cheap at $3,000 a day. But the families raised funds with the help of Dick Smith and other businesspeople. Finally after 462 days of captivity, the hostages were released for half a million dollars each.

Writing in Online Opinion today, African scholar David Robinson went behind the trite "lawless since 1991" common media headline to show why Somalia is such a complicated place. There has been a long-standing post-colonial conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia for control of the Ogaden. During the Cold War both countries were courted in turn by the US and the USSR but the Somali regime found itself bereft of friends after the Soviet collapse. In 1991 Siad Barre’s rebel movement displaced the Government which led to the disastrous 1993 UN peacekeeping mission. The US lost 30 soldiers and more important lost its will to engage in Africa. The intervening years have seen an ongoing power struggle between the UN-backed Transitional Government and the fundamentalist but popular Islamic Courts. As Robinson says “Nigel Brennan travelled to Somalia to reveal its story; it is a story worth telling.”

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Death in Manaquiri: A time bomb in the Amazon

While the world’s leaders haggle and prevaricate in Copenhagen, real and devastating climate change is happening in many countries across the world. The third world is bearing the brunt of the problem and the story of Manaquiri, in Brazil’s Amazon Basin is a microcosm of a much larger problem. Producing one fifth of the world’s oxygen, a quarter of the world's fresh water and home to the world’s largest rainforest, the Basin is often described as “The Lungs of the World”. But these lungs are now struggling to breathe as the region is crippled with the worst drought since records began. (photo: Reuters)

Manaquiri is a small sleepy town in the Brazilian State of Amazonas. It is not on the highway, but the state capital Manaus is a short trip three hours downstream where the Parana de Manaquiri River eventually flows into the mighty Amazon. The river that shares the name of the town is the area’s lifeblood. 800 of the town’s population of almost 20,000 are fishermen. And 14,000 people rely on the river as an economic lifeline. All are suffering as the river loses its grip on life.

Manaquiri is the centre of a drought that has last a month. It has not rained in 25 days which does not sound like much but it rarely happened before recent times in this lush rainforest region. The length of time without rain is enough to have a devastating effect on the local river. All the tributaries that supply water to the Manaquiri have choked up and have deprived the water of oxygen. As a result, the drought is killing tonnes of fish. Their rotting bodies are polluting the water and leaving thousands of people with no clean water.

Al Jazeera quoted a local scientist who says the problem is directly attributable to climate change. Philip Fearnside is a research professor in the Department of Ecology at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA) in Manaus. Fearnside has lived in the Amazon for 33 years and he says the drying up of the Manaquiri may signal similar droughts occurring with higher frequency as the climate continues to change. "[Climate change] is something we have experience with and know from the data, it's not something that depends on the outcome of a computer simulation," he said.

A photo essay on the site shows the extent of the devastation in Manaquiri. Boats are stranded in dry lakes and whole lagoons have evaporated. The parched conditions have triggered forest fires killing off fish and crops. As the waters receded, many people were trapped in their home without access to food or medical treatment.

The current drought is happening just four years after Manaquiri suffered “its worst drought in 40 years”. The 2005 drought lasted for over two months and local officials were forced to close 40 schools and cancel the school year because of a lack of food, transport and potable water. Cases of diarrhoea rose in the region as wells became poisoned and stagnant water caused a rise in malaria. One local, 39 year old Manuel Tavares Silva was quoted at the time saying "I've never seen anything like this."

But now Silva is seeing it again. Manaquiri is a microcosm of a wider problem. The New York Times noted that in mid-October, the governor of Amazonas State, Eduardo Braga, decreed a "state of public calamity” which remains in effect two months later. Many boats cannot reach Manaus as the river level in Amazonian tributaries drop to near zero. The drought also affects neighbouring states and other Amazonian Basin countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Colombia.

Many scientists say the drought is most likely a result of the same rise in water temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean that caused Hurricane Katrina. If global warming is involved as they suspect, it is likely to mean more severe and frequent droughts in the region. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace are less circumspect and say the problems in Manaquiri and in the Amazon region are a direct result of deforestation and global warming. "If you compare the rainfall averages over the last five years, you see that there have been growing rain deficits each year," said Manaus-based Greenpeace activist Carlos Rittl about the 2005 drought. "It will be extremely worrying if this becomes a tendency." Whether those meeting in Copenhagen like it or not, that tendency has now arrived.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Another massive Baghdad explosion tests al-Maliki's resolve

127 people died and more than 500 were injured in five coordinated suicide bombing attacks on Tuesday targetting government buildings in Baghdad. The Islamic State of Iraq, a group with links to Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the blasts in an online statement. The statement said the attack was on "the bastions of evil and dens of apostates," and the Islamic State of Iraq is "determined to uproot the pillars of this government" in Iraq."The list of targets will not end until the flag of unification is raised again in Baghdad,” it read.(Photo credit: Bassim Shati/Reuters)

The attacks were the worst since late October when twin car bombs killed 140 people and wounded 700 more outside Baghdad’s Justice Ministry. The Islamic State of Iraq also claimed responsibility for this atrocity as they did another major attack on government installations on 19 August. In the latest bombing, the five targets were the finance ministry office, the labour ministry, the interior minister, a courthouse and a police patrol. The bombs all exploded within minutes of each other on Tuesday morning.

While violence in Iraq has fallen in the past 18 months, these incidents question the state of Iraq's security as US troops prepare to leave the country after the March 2010 elections. In the wake of the latest bombing Iraqi PM Nouri Al-Maliki sacked the head of the Baghdad Operations Command. Lieutenant General Abboud Qanbar had been a close ally of al-Maliki who was appointed in 2007 to lead that year’s crackdown of Baghdad. But now he was made the scapegoat, as al-Maliki dodged the flak of angry MPs and asked for patience while he plans a further shake-up within the military.

Al-Maliki has been at pains to show the country is now much safer in the lead-up to the 2010 election. But he is gradually being undermined by the well planned and strategic attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq. Formed in 2006, the Islamic State of Iraq is a front group for Al Qaeda with the intention of establishing a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist state in Iraq. A 2007 Times article quoted US intelligence fears that that the Islamic State of Iraq planned to turn Iraq’s Sunni heartland into a militant Islamic state once the Americans left. They quoted the organisation’s draft constitution “Notifying Mankind of the Birth of the Islamic State” posted on a British website that outlined their plans to take over the provinces of Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Salah al-Din, Nineveh and parts of Babil. They were also identified as being behind the deadliest roadside bombs for American casualties that year.

While US deaths have decreased, Iraq remains a dangerous place today with far more civilian casualties than occur in Afghanistan. According to Nir Rosen, the US surge in Iraq only worked because the Shiites had already won the civil war with the Sunnis. Rosen says Iraq is ruled by an “incredibly corrupt government, weak, oppressive and this so-called success in Iraq which we’re using as a model for Afghanistan, success that included the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the displacement of millions of Iraqis, the devastation of a country, [and] the spread throughout the region of sectarianism and instability.”

Writing on the ABC Unleashed site yesterday, Antony Loewenstein said the Iraq war had dropped off the media radar despite still being a far more dangerous place than Afghanistan. Loewenstein quoted a study by the American media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting which found that while opinion polls were divided on the Afghan war this year, this diversity of opinion was not reflected in the pro-war The New York Times and The Washington Post. While the FAIR report did not examine the Iraqi campaign, Loewenstein says the issues are similar. Despite US plans to drawdown its troops by 2011 a large number of “private contractors” will remain. “No American official has ever answered the basic question of how many US troops or military trainers will remain in Iraq beyond 2011,” said Loewenstein. “Indeed, permanent bases in Iraq suggest a long-term presence.”

Monday, December 07, 2009

Uganda anti-gay laws linked to fringe US fundamentalist group

Britain and Canada have joined the international chorus of disapproval of Uganda’s proposed anti-homosexual law. The bill, sponsored by a secretive right-wing American Christian fundamentalist group, would give Uganda the most draconian anti-gay legislation in the world on the specious grounds that "same sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic". Gay sex is already illegal in Uganda but under the proposed law, a person convicted of homosexual acts is liable to life imprisonment, and if HIV positive the penalty is execution.

Britain and Canada’s prime ministers have told Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni the bill needs to be withdrawn. Gordon Brown and Stephen Harper told Museveni the proposal was unacceptable during a private breakfast meeting at the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Trinidad & Tobago last week. Sweden also threatened to cut aid if the bill is passed.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 is going through Uganda’s Parliament after receiving its first reading last month. The draft was introduced into parliament on 14 October. According to Clause 2, a person who is convicted of gay sex is liable to life imprisonment. There is also an “aggravated homosexuality” component which means if they are also HIV positive, the penalty is death. It was introduced by Ugandan MP David Bahati, a low ranking member of the ruling party. Bahati said the legislation promotes family values. "Homosexuality is not part of the human rights we believe in," he said. Many top government officials support the bill.

President Museveni is among them and has long claimed homosexuality is a ‘disease” imported from the West. In 1998 he said “When I was in America, sometime ago, I saw a rally of 300,000 homosexuals. If you had a rally of 20 homosexuals here, I would disperse it.” Last month he urged Ugandan youth to abhor “divergent sexual orientation” and stand firm against European homosexuals who were on “a recruitment drive”. Museveni claimed Uganda had very few homosexuals. “They were not persecuted but were not encouraged either because it was clear that is not how God arranged things to be."

God is now arranging things differently in Uganda. The bill contains provisions to forbid the "promotion of homosexuality" including publishing information or providing funds, premises for activities, or other resources. Conviction could result in seven years in prison. The Bill also proposes a three-year prison sentence for anyone who is aware of evidence of homosexuality and fails to report it to the police within 24 hours. Ugandan parliamentary Speaker, Edward Sekandi, said it was necessary “to do whatever we can to stop” homosexual liaisons in Uganda.

The legislation was immediately condemned by human rights groups. US-based Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International joined a group of 17 local and international groups saying the bill would violate human rights and should be withdrawn immediately. Amnesty said the bill would criminalise the work of organisations working for the defense and promotion of human rights in Uganda. It would also stymie effective HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.

Writing in The Ugandan Independent, blogger Anne Mugisha said Museveni was behind the bill. Mugisha said the bill was designed to distract attention from economic failings. She said his links with the US far right ideology became evident when he favoured the Bush administration approach on HIV AIDS with its emphasis on abstinence and faithfulness rather than condoms. Mugisha’s position is supported by NowPublic which says David Bahati is a member of a secretive fundamentalist Christian organisation called The Family. They quote writer Jeff Sharlet who said Bahati received millions of dollars in funding through the organisation’s African outreach programs. Sharlet also said The Family has cultivated a "deep relationship" with Museveni.

Sharlet is the author of the book “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” and he recently named Museveni and Bahati as members of the group. The shadowy group is led by Douglas Coe in Arlington, Virginia and Museveni has visited the group’s compound. Sharlet said one of The Family’s central ideas was that Jesus Christ’s message was not about love, mercy, justice or forgiveness. Rather, it was about power. "Jesus didn’t come to take sides, he came to take over". The group's agenda includes fighting homosexuality and abortion, promoting free-market economics and dictatorship, an idea they called “totalitarianism for Christ”. Yoweri Museveni is taking this totalitarianism to new levels in Uganda.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Politics and the media: Searching for narratives with Jesus

Today’s little joke story in the Courier-Mail was lifted (with attribution) straight out of Associated Press. The headline “Jesus Christ kicked off jury for asking too many questions” simply demanded to be read further. Unsurprisingly the story was pure fruitbat Americana - in prim NSW it is unacceptable to change your name by deed poll to Jesus Christ (or Ned Kelly for that matter). This particular Jesus Christ was from Birmingham, Alabama and was born Dorothy Lola Killingworth. As AP and the Courier-Mail told the story, Christ was apparently tossed off a jury for being disruptive and “asking questions instead of answering them.”

Leaving aside why jurors are asking or answering questions when their role is simply to listen, it seems that the focus of the story changed as it travelled. AP’s point was how funny someone called Jesus didn’t seem to be acting Christian. But as originally told to The Birmingham News, the newsworthy element was simply that someone called Jesus was called for jury service. The Alabama paper confirmed the disruptiveness and her questions. And while their “efforts to reach Christ” were in vain, they did reach Court administrator Sandra Turner who stood up for her. Unlike some Jefferson County residents, said Turner, Christ did not try to get out of jury duty. "She was perfectly happy to serve," she said.

I’m not sure what the moral of the story here is other than to always interrogate the moral of the story. Certainly those who love narratives will have a difficult task in prising apart of the moral of this week’s dizzyingly confusing story of Australian federal politics and the media. The last December before an election year is traditionally the killing fields for a tottering leader and so it proved again this year. A fierce and very public battle for the soul of the Liberal Party ended when arch-republican Malcolm Turnbull was rolled in a complex three-way ballot by arch-monarchist Tony Abbott. In truth, the monarchy/republic dyad had little to do with Abbott’s success but it was one of the many emblems that made the choice look quite stark and the twists and turns were enjoyable to follow from a distance.

While the fight was very public, much of the real decision making took place behind the scenes. The partyroom doors were firmly closed during the voting and this was one of the few times in the week the nation was not ruled by Tweet. One of the other critical moves of the week was the calculated decision to feature Tony Abbott photographed in the wonderfully named “budgie smugglers” at a Sydney swimming carnival. It signified common-man vigour and sexual dynamism that contrasted with the snobbish intellectual air of Turnbull and the jovial butchery of Joe Hockey.

The result was a shock for most commentators and an instantaneous defeat for Labor’s CPRS legislation. When Abbott appeared after his victory surrounded by Bronwyn Bishop, Sophie Mirabella and Wilson Tuckey, it was clear this was a win for the hard right of the party. Barnaby Joyce was brought in to cabinet fold. Somewhere out of sight, Nick Minchin was probably pulling strings. Loyal puppie Julie Bishop was kept on as a harmless deputy and a sop/mop to the narrowly defeated dripping wet side of the party. Senators Troeth and Boyes crossed the floor and Turnbull rattled the cage in the background but otherwise the liberal Liberals have taken defeat on the chin.

The commentariat quickly assumed their respective positions. The left spluttered their disbelief and assumed the Liberals had just handed the 2010 election to Kevin Rudd on a plate. Many commented on his failure to convince women. As former Health Minister he was in charge of many health decisions that were affected by his deep Catholic beliefs. New ABC appointee Annabel Crabb showed how this was an open source and a brilliant post by Kerryn Goldsworthy showed how Abbott duly ignored the question under the cover of the imfamous budgie smugglers. Goldsworthy’s conclusion is that Abbott in power would be dangerous “where biology meets the budget or the law”.

But Abbott’s media supporters were quick to emerge too. Within hours of the spill results, The Australian’s Miranda Devine had coined the term “Abbott haters” to describe the majority of journalists who immediate wrote off his chances in the next election. Devine’s point is that journalists are elitists who turn people off with their prognostications into the arms of those they criticise. The irascible Piers Akerman said Abbott’s duty was “to expose the CPRS as a nation-destroying fraud”. In the Punch David Penberthy also warned Labor about underestimating their new opponent and talked up his “potential electoral appeal”.

But the fact remains that the regardless of leader (as NSW Labor will also find out in 2011), opinion polls suggest the Liberal party is heading for a shattering loss in 2010. The outlier 53-47 poll since his election since Abbott's election may give him hope. His negative politics on the CPRS and interest rate rises might save a few seats but every urban seat margin under five percent is vulnerable. And these seats are mostly held by the Turnbull wing. After the Liberals will be left as a skewed right-wing party that will have even less incentive to change its ways in order to regain power. At 52, Tony Abbott is the same age as Kevin Rudd. Both men may lead their parties for a long time to come. And like Jesus Christ (and they both do), they will be happy to serve. But only one will ever be Prime Minister.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Regional survey exposes three myths in Australian climate change debate

A new report from international law firm Allens Arthur Robinson surveying climate change strategies across the Asia Pacific region has found the debate in Australia has been too narrowly focused on an ETS. The report entitled One Hat Doesn’t Fit All was an overview of climate change measures in 14 countries: Australia, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. Report co-author Grant Anderson said that while the debate in Australia and NZ has focused on a domestic ETS, the survey has revealed the wider region is looking at a variety of other measures to promote the green economy, all of which were necessary to combat climate change. (photo of Copenhagen bike commuter by David Dennis)

The report identified "three myths" about emissions reduction. The first myth identified by the report is that Australia can afford to wait until after Copenhagen to see what the rest of the world is doing on climate change. While it is possible (though unlikely) that negotiations may see the agreement of more ambitious proposals, many countries in the region including China, South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand have all announced unilateral measures that will position them to prosper in the green economy. Australia should be looking at targets and national feed-in tariffs to support renewables as well as providing tax incentives, fuel price reforms and energy efficiency programs.

The second myth is that China is doing nothing to constrain its greenhouse gas emissions. While it is true that its emissions are growing rapidly as the economy expands, China is investing heavily in renewable energy and becoming more energy efficient while increasing taxes on higher polluting products and industries. In advance of Copenhagen, the Chinese government has announced it would curb emissions per unit of gross domestic product by between 40 and 45 percent from the 2005 levels by 2020.The Chinese are also increasing consumption taxes on transport fuel, and have introduced stringent fuel efficiency regulations for vehicles.

The third myth is that there is a “silver bullet” that will solve climate change. The countries in the Asia Pacific region are taking a wide variety of approaches suitable to local economic and geographic conditions. While Japan and Singapore concentrate on energy efficiency, poorer countries such as Indonesia and PNG are working to avoid deforestation. The Philippines is the world’s second-largest producer of geothermal energy, and is now expanding into wind, solar, mini-hydro and biofuels initiatives with the aim of being 60 per cent energy self-sufficient in 2010. The report says that a wide variety of emission reduction measures will be needed to solve the problem of climate change.

Australia is particularly exposed with its reliance on vast, cheap reserves of coal, an energy-intensive export industry, and a sparsely located population wedded to private car usage. As a lucid Malcolm Turnbull noted this week, there is no costless way of moving to a lower emission economy. The country has been absorbed by the fight over the Government’s version of the ETS, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme which remains mired in the Senate after this week’s defeat despite it being riddled with compromises that severely limit its effectiveness. Meanwhile there is a vast untapped resource of renewable energy (currently supplying less than five percent of the base load) and the Government steadfastly refuses to examine the nuclear option.

Because of these factors, Australia faces relatively high economic costs of abatement compared with other developed countries. A key element in Australia’s negotiating position at Copenhagen is the idea of “comparable effort”. The concept requires that Australia would be prepared to adopt a national allocation budget between 2013 and 2020 that is comparable in its economic impact to that shouldered by other advanced countries. Economic modeling by Access Economics has shown a comprehensive climate change global agreement is more cost and environmentally effective from Australia’s point of view that a partial agreement.

But the AAR report warns that it could take many years to nut out a comprehensive post-Copenhagen agreement. The 180-page treaty draft is currently riddled with 2,000 square brackets each of which indicates a point of difference between participants. It notes that although it took two years to agree the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, much of the nitty-gritty was not agreed until the 2001 Marrakesh Accords and even then it did not come into force until Russia signed up in 2005. In the meantime, Australia should be widening its net far beyond its flawed ETS.