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).

 

Funeral costs a trap for the unprepared

funeral-costs-unprepared
Photo of Shetlands war cemetery by Joanna Penn https://flic.kr/p/ri73H3

If there’s one thing that can put an unexpected dent in the household budget, it’s paying for a funeral. A new study by Finder shows that the average cost of a funeral in Australia ranged from $6,131 (Canberra) to $7,764 in Perth. Of course those who can afford it and deem it necessary pay $20,000 and more for a formal send-off.

Finder’s Money Expert Bessie Hassan says one in five Australians don’t have enough money set aside to cover a $500 setback.

“So if an unexpected death of a family member does arise it could cause significant financial stress.”

Finder analysed Funeral Planner’s survey of some 2,000 adults, which showed that 60% of Australians either haven’t thought about their funeral costs or are expecting relatives to foot the bill. The other 40% have probably gone the whole hog and pre-paid for their funeral, and/or the cost is covered under a life insurance policy.

Invocare, a listed company, owns major funeral businesses in Australia including Simplicity Funerals, Guardian Funerals and White Lady Funerals. Invocare’s 2015 annual report shows it has $422 million in funds under management, derived from pre-paid funeral contracts.

Trends are emerging that show a growing number of Australians are seeking out practical and affordable funeral offerings. Invocare found that more clients were choosing direct ‘committals’ without requiring a traditional funeral service. The other popular choice was to combine a church service with a committal service at a cemetery or crematorium.

There is growing demand too for “Green Funerals” which shun embalming and use biodegradable coffins or shrouds. This seemingly morbid topic reminded me of the darkly comic TV drama, Six Feet Under (2001-2005). SFU explored the dysfunctional lives of a family of undertakers. Every episode would start (spoiler alert) with someone dying (the essential plot element, in that it supplied the necessary corpse). After a season or two, the writers got better at building suspense so the by-now predictable death would still come as a shock, as the person who would soon pop his clogs succumbed to unlikely events including a lightning strike.

I’ve been to a few unconventional funerals/memorial services in recent years. There were a few where the body was cremated in a private family service then the ashes scattered later in a more public forum. A couple of memorial services have been held in locations loved by the dearly departed. So no coffin or wreaths, not even an urn with ashes. People whose loved one had gone to meet their maker spoke passionately and fondly of them. On one or two of these occasions, God never got a mention, nor did Buddha or Allah.

This trend may have something to do with the 30% of Australian who profess to be irreligious. In the 2016 Census (6.93 million people) described themselves as having “no religion”.

My old Scots Dad was fond of saying (apropos of dying) “Och, just roll me up in a carpet and put me oot with the rubbish.”  You probably have friends who say similar things, often bracketed with “if I get dementia just put me out of my misery.”

In practice this rarely happens. When the time came (1991), there was a wee church service and a piper played Over the Sea to Skye. Dad’s ashes were inserted into a memorial wall at the local crematorium, next to “Winnie” who died in 1966.

Don’t ask me what it cost because (typical family experience), everyone is so distressed at the passing that they surrender to the blandishments of the dark-suited undertaker.

The plot thickens

The argument against burial is increasingly to do with the finite supply of burial plots. Local governments are understandably reluctant to offer land to be locked up for perpetuity. Burial plot prices have increased dramatically in the past five years, as a result of pre-paid contracts. In Sydney a plot can cost between $4,000 and $52,000.

Nevertheless, She Who Has a Plan wants to be buried and has a burial site in mind. As always, she is more organised than me. I have a will but there is no fine print about what happens to my mortal remains. Whenever cremation is mentioned, I mentally replay that scene in the Coen Brothers cult movie, The Big Lebowski. John Goodman’s character Walter Lobchak, accompanied by The Dude (Jeff Bridges), climbs to a windy clifftop, ready to distribute his friend Donny’s ashes.

(video contains expletives)

More than 50% of Australians who die are cremated, with more people choosing direct cremation. This means you pay only for the body to be disposed of: there is no service and nobody in attendance when the mortal remains are set alight. Later, the family may hold a memorial service, usually in a place that held significance for the departed.

In Australia, a direct cremation starts at $1,500, though most pay around $2,900. That’s considerably cheaper than a burial organised by a funeral director. Just so you know I did some homework on this, it is legal to scatter ashes at sea or on land (with provisos). If you scatter ashes on private land you need the permission of a landowner. Ashes scattered at sea must be dispersed beyond the three-mile (4.82 kms) limit. If you are scattering in a state forest or national park, you need permission.

Some of the information in this essay was gleaned from this website which has a searchable tool on its website where you can shop around for the cheapest funeral option (if that is what you want).

A thorough investigation last year by Choice magazine left few coffin lids closed. This article by Allison Potter is available online

Choice answers the most obvious question; do you have to engage a funeral director? Choice could not find a law that says you have to, although you will find advice to the contrary. Laws differ from one jurisdiction to another, but it’s best to disbelieve those who say it is legal to bury Aunt Bridget near her favourite peach tree. In theory, a DIY back yard planting is possible, but only if the private land is larger than 5ha and the local Council agrees. In any event, burying a body changes the zoning to cemetery. Your neighbours may not be impressed.

This is an ex-parrot

Monty Python’s euphemism-laden sketch aside, Six Feet Under remains the benchmark for kick the bucket humour. From the opening episode to the ‘we’ll all go together when we go’ finale six series’ later, SFU set out to test the boundaries of many taboos. It is full of dark one-liners about the different ways individuals manage grief.

One fine example (from a list compiled by www.pastemagazine.com) comes from episode one. Ruth, matriarch of the Fisher family, flings Christmas dinner to the floor on hearing the news of her husband’s abrupt demise.

She tells her son Nate: “There’s been an accident. The new hearse is totalled. Your father is dead. Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined.”

You will note that, despite the show’s title, Ruth does not employ any of Wikipedia’s 128 euphemisms for death (obscure ones include Ride the Pale Horse, Tango Uniform, Hand in One’s Dinner Pail, Wear a Pine Overcoat and Assume Room Temperature).

 

Homeless for a rainy night

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The Hope Centre for the homeless, Logan. Photo used by permission

For some, today is a reminder that anyone can become homeless, with various agencies (and reality TV) bringing this urgent issue to light. It also marks the end of the financial year, a kind of witching hour for those engaged in financial markets, investing in rental housing, or running Australia’s businesses, large and small.

For seventy-nine intrepid souls, our charity sleep-out on Maroochydore beach was thwarted by early morning drizzle turning into heavier rain.

Some abandoned their posts, leaving sheets of cardboard for others to make shelters with. Others took up the scarce positions under the eaves of the Maroochy Surf Club.

I took refuge in a nearby toilet block, mopping my wet hair with a sweatshirt. I decided I’d done enough, including raising $700+ and headed home in the wee hours. I briefly imagined a truly homeless mother in a similar situation. The two-year-old wants to be carried and the seven-year-old is saying “This is dumb, I wanna sleep.” So they walk 300m in the rain to the 1997 Ford wagon and do as best they can.

The St Vincent De Paul Society homelessness sleep-out raised more money this year ($125,577) with fewer people sleeping out. That’s an impressive result from a regional population of 300,000, (1,500 of whom are homeless).

The 2016 Census homeless tally (105,000 in 2011), won’t be known until 2018. But a 2014 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey found that 351,000 Australians had experienced homelessness in the previous 12 months.

There were a few speeches last night before we headed out to a balmy 17 degree Maroochydore evening. Mix FM’s Todd Widdicombe threw gentle barbs at local politicians and did a good job of generating competitive bidding for the charity auction (including a pillow sold to local politician Steve Dickson for $320).

St Vincent De Paul Society tells us most social housing on the Sunshine Coast was built more than 30 years ago. The Coast’s private rental vacancy rate is less than 2% and one-bedroom units are hard to find. A chart of social housing demand shows that 64% of people are looking for accommodation for one person. Developers on the coast tend to build three and four-bedroom homes and two or three-bedroom units. Many units are rented to holiday-makers.

Older people facing a tougher future

This is not a problem unique to the Coast. Pensioners and working parents have been priced out of the rental market in all metropolitan areas across Australia, according to National Shelter’s Rental Affordability Index (RAI), released on May 17.

Chief Executive of COTA Australia (Council on the Ageing) Ian Yate told a conference this week that older Australians were the forgotten faces of the housing crisis. He cited as examples the 70 year old divorcee facing homelessness, the 80 year old with a knee replacement who can’t find appropriate or affordable accommodation, the 68 year old couple retiring, still with a significant mortgage.

“Older Australians are increasingly falling through the cracks in the growing housing affordability and supply challenge,” he said. “A growing number of older Australians need to rent, rather than owning a home outright.

“We are already starting to see rates of home ownership by older Australians decline, and this is forecast to drop even further in the next 10-15 years.”

Anglicare’s annual report into housing affordability shows that welfare recipients and single-person households are the least likely to find appropriate accommodation. Queensland’s stock of social housing is just 3.6%, compared with a national average of 4.5%.

 

Rents are generally lower on the Sunshine Coast and the weather markedly warmer than the Southern States, even in winter. Little doubt this is why young people take their battered old wagons, surfboards and sleeping bags to the beach.

While many people in crisis use their cars as a refuge between one home and the next, others have developed an on-the-road lifestyle.

I once met a woman in her 50s whose camper van is her home and always on the road, unless she’s visiting family in one state or the other. Recently we met a couple who have a permanent caravan moored in a small town van park. They also have a bigger van for their grey nomad adventures. Safe to say most of their capital is tied up in these depreciating assets

For those who’d rather have a fixed abode, the Queensland Government recently made a ‘better-than-nowt’ commitment to provide 5,500 new social and affordable housing units over the next 10 years. Last year, the Government launched a Better Neighbourhoods initiative in fast-growing Logan City, with an affordable housing target of 3,000 by 2030.

Hoping for Hope Centre II

Family and Kids-Care Foundation established the Hope Centre in 2009, a complex of 19 self-contained units, designed for individuals and small family groups in crisis.

President Tass Augustakis told FOMM the charity is currently considering participating in the Better Neighbourhoods Logan initiative, seeking funding for a second Hope Centre which can accommodate larger family groups.

“The thing that got me going to start the Hope Centre was seeing women sleeping in cars with their kids. It just shouldn’t be happening, but it still is.”

Family and Kids-Care donated the land for the first Hope Centre and raised funding from the Federal Government to build it.

“After reading about the State Government’s affordable housing strategy, I’m organising a meeting to discuss Hope Centre II,” he said.

“We can provide the land, but we need the Government to contribute between $10 million and $12 million to build a four or five-level unit building.”

Cameron Parsell, a researcher with the University of Queensland, last year revealed that it costs governments more to provide services to the homeless than it costs to provide standard accommodation.

He produced ‘compelling and robust’ data in The Conversation which showed that chronically homeless people used state government funded services that cost approximately $48,217 each over a 12-month period. He compared this with another 12-month period in which the chronically homeless were tenants of permanent supportive housing.

“The same people used state government services that cost approximately $35,117 – $13,100 less when securely housed, compared to the services they used when they were chronically homeless.”

 

Urban studies researcher Emma Power, also writing in The Conversation, says single, older women are among the fastest-growing groups of homeless people in Australia. Yet most are unable to apply for community housing because the sole eligibility criterion is their low-income status.

Sadly, women who are not leaving a violent situation or who do not have a recognised disability will risk homelessness before they qualify for community housing.

The answer is for governments to provide more secure, low-cost social housing and/or increase rent-assistance payments across the board.

But as Power points out, the latter is not ideal. Although it assists renters in the short-term, it effectively subsidises private landlords.

This has been going on for a long time and it is getting worse, despite a lot of work by charitable organisations like St Vinnies. I tucked myself into my cosy bed (early) last night, feeling OK about raising the equivalent of a fortnight’s rent for someone.

But it is a band-aid at best.

Further reading:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/06/27/australias-homelessness-crisis-summed-up-in-four-news-events_a_23005274/

Everyone should have a home