Journalists facing deadly risks

journalists-risks
Photojournalist wearing a gas mask covers civil unrest in Cairo.  Image Alisdare Hickson

Not for the first time, I’m ruminating about the deadly risks facing journalists working in conflict zones or countries like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt or even India.

It’s 1am and I’m reading the Guardian Weekly, starting with its world roundup, where my eye is drawn to a headline: “Indian journalist beaten to death.” In just 100 words we are told that Shantanu Bhowmick’s death at the hands of a stick-wielding mob brings the tally of reporters killed in India since the 1990s to 29.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) outlines the risks facing individuals in India who have made Right to Information (RTI) requests. Since the law came into force in 2005, at least 69 people have been murdered after they filed RTI requests. Another 130 journalists have been victims of assault and 170 reported being harassed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says that 1,746 journalists and 104 media workers have been killed world-wide since 1992.

What makes these statistics more compelling is that the majority of deaths were not random: a motive was confirmed in 1,253 cases.

The Committee to Protect Journalists maintains a list of the riskiest countries in which to work as a journalist. The list is based on the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on Internet access.

Eritrea is No 1 on the list of regimes which censor the press and the Internet, followed by North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan. Vietnam, Iran, China, Myanmar and Cuba.

There are 23 journalists behind bars in Eritrea. None has been tried in court or even charged with a crime. The Internet is available, but only 1% of the population goes online, using slow, dial-up connections. Only 5.6% of Eritreans own a cell phone. In North Korea, 9.7% of the population have (official) cell phones but an unknown number have phones smuggled in from China. A few individuals have Internet access, but schools and institutions are limited to a tightly controlled Intranet.

The CPJ says tactics used by Eritrea and North Korea are mirrored to varying degrees in other heavily censored countries.

“To keep their grip on power, repressive regimes use a combination of media monopoly, harassment, spying, threats of journalist imprisonment, and restriction of journalists’ entry into or movements within their countries.”

This was not helping my insomnia. I turned to page nine, to reporter Joshua Robertson’s full-page coverage of Australia’s same-sex marriage debate. The story includes interviews with residents of Warwick (Queensland), apparently the last bastion of the ‘No’ vote.

Robertson went to an un-named club in Warwick, a town of 15,000 on the Southern Downs, to interview un-named people about the town’s apparent reputation as a ‘No’ Vote stronghold.

“The bible says it’s wrong, and that’s all there is to it,” one woman in the club said, chiding her husband, who was yet to make up his mind.

The reporter also travelled to Roma, an oil and gas town in western Queensland. He interviewed a public servant who said he felt more comfortable being “out” in Roma that in Sydney or Melbourne.

Meanwhile in Queensland

As news assignments go, Joshua Robertson’s Queensland Diary would not fall into the category of risk that faced Shantanu Bhowmick or the other 44 foreign journalists and media workers killed so far in 2017.

These global statistics make the life of a working journalist in Australia look comparatively benign. But not so if you accept an assignment to file news reports, video or images from conflict zones. In 2015, Australian journalist Peter Greste laid a wreath at a new memorial in Canberra recognising the contribution of war correspondents. It was fitting that Greste was chosen for this honour as he’d not long returned to Australia after being imprisoned in Egypt, along with Al Jazeera comrades.

The memorial in a sculpture garden at the Australian War Memorial honours 26 war correspondents killed in combat zones. They range from William Lambie (Boer War 1899-1902) to cameraman Paul Moran, killed during a suicide bombing in Iraq, 2003. Also named is sound recordist Paul Little, who died in a German hospital in 2003 after being caught up in an ambush in Iraq. Also laying a wreath in September 2015 was Shirley Shackleton, widow of Balibo Five reporter Greg Shackleton, one of five Australian journalists killed in East Timor in 1975.

And Australians might want to think about these crucial issues of press freedom and the right to information. On Monday, the ABC’s Four Corners, still the best in the business, sent a reporter and producer to India to dig into the background of conglomerate Adani. It was a good example of journalists taking risks in risky territory. The Four Corners team were grilled for five hours by ‘crime branch’ police after filming at a controversial Adani-owned site. Four Corners investigated Adani’s environmental record and business probity because the Indian company wants the Australian Government to provide a $1 billion loan to underwrite the world’s biggest coal mine in western Queensland and associated rail and port infrastructure.

Joshua Robertson’s Queensland Diary, meanwhile, reminds us that not so very long ago, the State lived under a repressive regime. In 1989 the last criminal charges were brought (in Roma) under Queensland’s homosexuality laws. These were the last days of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime (1967-1987), an era when news gathering or protesting was riskier than they are today.

As one of the thousands of bearded, long-haired men who joined their saffron-robed women, wafting about King George Square in a cloud of patchouli essence and acrid cigarette smoke, championing anything that was anti-Joh, I suspect my photo is in a dusty Special Branch file somewhere.

Journalists working in Queensland through the Joh-era needed a Press Pass, which had to be shown whenever entering government buildings. I still have my pass, signed by the former Commissioner of Police, Terry Lewis.

Wonder how much that would be worth on eBay?

 

 

 

 

Plebiscites for the huddled masses

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Rainbow curtains by Maxbphotography https://flic.kr/p/RJ6yMy

Did you know that the good citizens of Puerto Rico voted in a plebiscite whether to allow the island territory to become the 51st state of the USA? Despite a low voter turnout (23%), the $15 million non-binding plebiscite achieved a 97% yes vote for statehood. But now the fate of PR lies in the hands of the US government, which has no legal obligation to follow through.

The issue for Puerto Rico’s 3.42 million citizens is the country’s insupportable debt, worsening poverty and rapidly declining population. The Pew Research Centre says the childhood poverty level among Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin is 58%, the figure based on a median household income of $18, 626. Puerto Ricans living on the US mainland, meanwhile, have a household income of $33,000 (if born on the island) or $44,000 if born in the US. The childhood poverty level is 44% and 30% respectively. Little wonder almost half a million Puerto Ricans moved to the US between 2005 and 2015.

As you may have read (unless living under the proverbial rock), the Australian Government wants to hold a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage. Despite the Senate blocking draft legislation this week, the government aims to proceed with a $122 million postal ballot. This is so we can find out for sure if what the polls have been saying since 2011 are right – that more than 50% of the people want marriage equality.

But as per the outcome in Puerto Rico, there’s no guarantee a government will act on the result of a plebiscite, which, unlike a referendum, is not binding.

Australia has only ever held three plebiscites: two on conscription in 1916 and 1917 (the No vote prevailed), and a third in 1977 which offered a selection of mediocre tunes from which to select a national song. You will note here the bastardry of the choices, with Advance Australia Fair (which attracted 43.2% of the votes) distancing Waltzing Matilda (28.3%) and God Save the Queen (18.7%), which the Fraser government decided to keep as the official national anthem). Another 9.8% voted for Song of Australia (Caroline Carleton/Carl Linger). Close to 653,000 people voted for this song, but if you can hum me a few bars I’ll walk backwards to Conondale.

National songs aside (Bob Hawke reinstated Advance Australia Fair as the National Anthem in 1984), plebiscites are only ever held (in Australia) to decide issues which do not require a change to the constitution. Elsewhere in the world, as noted by election analyst Antony Green, the terms plebiscite and referenda are interchangeable. Some countries (New Zealand, even) hold citizen-initiated plebiscites to decide a range of issues, like whether to smack a child or not.

The prominent constitutional lawyer George Williams, explaining why plebiscites are so rare in Australia said: “They go against the grain of a system in which we elect parliamentarians to make decisions on our behalf”.

Professor Williams said referendums necessarily polarise debate, as happened in Ireland when a yes/no proposition was put to the community.

As a result, even if the referendum did succeed, it may leave bitterness and division in its wake,” he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

National University of Ireland lecturer Brian Tobin said the Irish experience showed that putting a human rights issue to a national vote is a crude means of legalising same-sex marriage. “It forces a historically oppressed minority to literally have to plead with the majority for access to marriage in the months prior to the vote. It also provides a platform for those opposed to misinform the public and air anti-gay views.”

Labor Senator Penny Wong spoke against the plebiscite proposal in Parliament this week, saying it will expose same-sex couples and their children to hatred. It’s a fair argument, given that Australia seems well behind the times when it comes to giving minorities a fair go.

Wake up, Australia!

So far, 23 countries have legalised same-sex marriage since the Netherlands took the first step in 2001. Only Ireland has put the question to a popular vote. As SBS News reporter Ben Winsor noted in June this year, there are now 670 million people living in countries where same-sex marriage is a legal right.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that the constitution protected the rights of citizens to marry, regardless of gender. It was the same year that Ireland voted 62% in support of same-sex marriage.

Nevertheless, Northern Ireland has not passed same-sex marriage legislation. The Church of England remains opposed to it, despite ongoing internal debate, and gay marriage has become a legal minefield in the aforementioned Puerto Rico.

The Australian government could resolve the issue simply and cheaply by holding a free ballot for members of parliament. This would cost the taxpayer precisely nothing and would avoid months of divisive debate.

Facebook’s Rainbow Warriors

Social media was aflame on Wednesday night as people ridiculed the costly notion of a (voluntary) plebiscite. Many people offered findings on what else $122 million could buy (chicken nuggets for all, said one post).

A cursory search by yours truly turned up another fascinating nugget: The cost of the same-sex marriage postal ballot is only $6 million more than the 2017-2018 Budget approved last month by Noosa Shire Council. The Shire covers 868.7 square kilometres and has a population of more than 52,000 residents.

But getting back to Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States located in the northeast Caribbean Sea. Then White House press secretary Sean Spicer said of the June 11 vote, “now that the people have spoken on Puerto Rico, this is something that Congress has to address.” But Spicer is gone and Congress has an easy ‘out’ pointing to the low (23%) voter turnout. The key reason Puerto Rico wants Statehood is to be protected by US bankruptcy laws.

As Carlos Ivan Gorrin Peralta, a professor at the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico told The Atlantic magazine, “To make a long story short, the prospects (of nationhood) are between zero and negative-10 percent.”

I’m not suggesting that Australians will boycott the (voluntary) postal ballot to that degree. But the Puerto Rican plebiscite shows what can happen when governments try to railroad people into something they do not want.

In 2011, then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott proposed a plebiscite to test Australians’ support for a carbon tax. This was variously described in the media as “junk politics” and “an expensive, bad idea”.

Moreover, Abbott said that if the plebiscite showed support for a carbon tax he would ignore it anyway.

If there’s a clear sign Aussies are fed up with the dicking about* over the same-sex marriage debate, it was reflected in the much-retweeted front page of the NT News.

The Murdoch-owned Northern Territory tabloid set aside its usual croc-shock/blood in the water approach. Instead its masthead was decked out in rainbow colours.

Under an image of two hands intertwined the NT News declared: “The legalisation of same sex-marriage is inevitable. It’s time to end this farce”.

Cool. Now can we have our chicken nuggets?

*dicking about’ – to do absolutely nothing constructive and be completely useless to the point where it can aggravate others. (Urban Dictionary).

 

Blogging and human rights

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Protest in Iran photo by Christopher Rose https://flic.kr/p/7CJsu7

In case you were curious, the word blog in Farsi looks like this – وبلاگ. Iranians who didn’t like the way things were going in their country started وبلاگ’ing (blogging) like crazy after the 2000 crackdown on Iranian media. Iranians who interact with the internet are by definition risk-takers.

As recently as late 2016, five Iranians were sentenced to prison terms for writing and posting images on fashion blogs. The content was decreed to ‘encourage prostitution’.

The Independent quoted lawyer Mahmoud Taravat via state news agency Ilna that the eight women and four men he represented received jail time of between five months to six years. He was planning to appeal the sentences handed down by a Shiraz court on charges including ‘encouraging prostitution’ and ‘promoting corruption’.

The immediacy of blogging appeals to those who live under oppressive regimes. They use the online diary to inform the world of the injustices in their country as and when they happen. I cited Iran (Persia) as just one example of a country where expressing strong opinions contrary to the agenda of the ruling government is extremely risky business.

The founder of Iran’s blogging movement, Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian-Canadian blogger, spent six years in prison (the original sentence was 19 and a half years), before being pardoned by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Derakhshan also helped promote podcasting in Iran and appears to have been the catalyst that spawned some 64,000 Persian language blogs (2004 survey). Clearly there is/was a level of dissent among people who think the right to free speech is worth the risk of incarceration or worse.

Blogging can be a lot of things in Australia, but risky it rarely is, so long as you are mindful of the laws regarding defamation and contempt of court. Not so for bloggers or citizen journalists of oppressed countries who try to get the facts out.

It is no coincidence that most of the countries guilty of supressing free speech are among the 22 countries named by Amnesty International as having committed war crimes. They include Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan and, closer to home, Myanmar, where persecution and discrimination persists against the Rohingya. Amnesty’s national director Claire Mallinson told ABC’s The World Today that not only are people being persecuted where they live, 36 countries (including Australia) sent people back into danger after attempts to find refuge.

Amnesty’s Human Rights report for 2015-2016 does not spare Australia from criticism, particularly our treatment of children in custody, with Aboriginal children 24 times more likely to be separated from their families and communities. We are also complacent when it comes to tackling world leaders and politicians accused of creating division and fear.

Still, at least if you live in Australia you can openly criticise something the government is doing (or not doing), apropos this week’s Q&A and the Centrelink debt debate.

According to literary types who seem to have warmed to my turn of phrase, FOMM is not a blog as such, but an example of ‘creative nonfiction’ which I am told is not only a genre, but also something taught at universities.

I never knew that.

Bloggers in comfortable democracies like ours use blogs to write about cats, dogs, goldfish, cake recipes, fashion, yoga, raising babies, travel adventures and produce how-to manuals about anything you care to name.

The definition of a blog is ‘a regularly updated public website or web page, typically run by an individual or small group, written in an informal or conversational style.’

Scottish comedian and slam poem Elvis McGonagall, who you met last week, satirises the blog format with this entry.

Monday:

Woke up. Had a thought. Dismissed it. Had another. Dismissed that. Stared at the cows. The cows stared back. Scratched arse. Shouted at telly. Threw heavy object at telly. Had a wee drink. Had another. Went to bed.

Tuesday to Sunday – repeat as above

The definitive blog is an online daily diary, kept by people while travelling, carrying out some stated mission like preparing for an art exhibition, producing an independent album, dieting or training for a triathlon. Most of these literary exercises are abandoned at journey’s end, or on completion of the mission. A fine example of this is folksinger John Thompson’s marathon effort to post an Australian folk song each day for a year. He did this from Australia Day 2011 to January 26, 2012.

Some of the tunes have ended up on albums by Cloudstreet, Thompson’s musical collaboration with Nicole Murray and Emma Nixon.

The social worth of a blog, though, is when an oppressed human being writes a real time account of what atrocity or infringement of human rights is happening in their third-world village, right now.

There are millions of blogs circulating on the worldwide web, many of which are concerned with marketing, selling, promoting and luring readers into subscribing to the bloggers’ products and/or clicking on sponsors’ links. It is nigh-on impossible to find a list of blogs independently assessed on quality, although some have tried.

The Australian Writers Centre held a competition in 2014 to find Australia’s best blogs, dividing entries into genres like Personal & Parenting, Lifestyle/Hobby, Food, Travel, Business, Commentary and Words/Writing. The competition attracted hundreds of entries which were whittled down to 31 finalists.

The AWC told FOMM it has since switched its focus to fiction competitions but has not dismissed the popularity of blogging. Even so, continuity is an ever-present issue.

The 2014 winner, Christina Sung, combined travel and cooking, two topics which spawn thousands of blogs worldwide, into The Hungry Australian. But as happens with blogs, the author has somewhat moved on since then. As Christina last posted in September 2016: ‘Hello, dear readers! Apologies for my lengthy absence but I’ve been working on a few writing projects lately.’

Likewise, the author of The Kooriwoman, the Commentary winner for a blog about life as an urban Aboriginal in Australia, has not posted since January 2016.

It is not uncommon for finely-written blogs like those mentioned to have a hiatus or disappear without notice, for a myriad of reasons linked to other demands and distractions in the authors’ lives.

The few lists of Australian blogs you can find tend to rank them on popularity (numbers of followers or clickers). The top 10 blogs in this list are all about food or travel.

Hands-down winner Not Quite Nigella is a daily blog curated by Lorraine Elliott who according to blogmetrics has 28,523 monthly visitors. It’s not hard to see why – the blog is constantly updated with recipes, restaurant reviews, travel adventures and the like, featuring mouth-watering photos and a chatty prose style.

So there are those like Lorraine who make a living from blogging and those who start with a skyrocket burst of enthusiasm and fall to ground like the burnt-out stick.

Whatever your absorbing passion in life happens to be – cross-dressing, wood-carving, wine-making, writing haikus, collecting Toby jugs, quilt-making, proofreading or growing (medicinal) marijuana, you can bet someone out there has created a blog.

Just yesterday for no reason other than a bit of light relief after months of heatwave conditions, I searched for ‘grumpy spouse blog’ and got 22 hits. Have a look at this one – it’s choice.