Friday, 13 March 2015

Turn the Lights Back on in Syria: fourth year of conflict

This Sunday, March 15, marks the fourth anniversary of the start of the bloody conflict in Syria.  I wanted to share “Afraid of the Dark”, a short video reminding people that the conflict is still going on and showing one of its repercussions.

Since the start of the war,  83% of all the lights in Syria have literally gone out. Analysing satellite images, scientists based at Wuhan University in China, in co-operation with the #withSyria coalition of 130 non-governmental organisations, have shown that the number of lights visible over Syria at night has fallen by 83% since March 2011. In cities like Aleppo, the situation is even more extreme – satellite images show that 97 percent of lights have gone out since 2011.

The video makers - BAFTA-winning agency Don’t Panic and production partners UNIT9 – wanted to use this little-thought off repercussion of the conflict as a symbol of the darkness and chaos in which the country has been plunged already four years ago.  Over 200,000 people have died and millions more have been forced to flee their homes.

Four years since the start of the crisis, tell world leaders that they must stand by Syrians

"It is a literal truth that 83% of Syria's lights have gone out since the start of the war," said Richard Beer, Creative Director of Don't Panic, "but the darkness that afflicts them has a metaphorical truth that goes deeper. We wanted to use this shocking statistic to tell the story of just how far Syria has fallen into darkness, in every conceivable way, despite UN resolutions and international outcry. The hero of our film, Khalid, could afford to be afraid of the dark four years ago; now he faces far worse every day, despite his own bravery. He, and all Syrians like him, need our help."

Directed by UNIT9’s Greg&Jacob, this video is part of an international campaign launched by the #withSyria coalition. The coalition is a movement of humanitarian and human rights organisations from around the world, including Oxfam, Amnesty, International Rescue Committee, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), standing in solidarity with those caught in the conflict.

The #withSyria coalition launched this video alongside a global petition, calling on world leaders to ‘turn the lights back on in Syria’ by:

•           Prioritising a political solution with human rights at its heart;

•           Boosting the humanitarian response both for those inside Syria and refugees, including through increased resettlement;

•           Insisting that all parties put an end to attacks on civilians and stop blocking aid

A new report 'Failing Syria' released today by 21 humanitarian and human rights organisations accuses warring parties and powerful states of failing to achieve what three 2014 UN Security Council resolutions set out to do. 

Monday, 23 February 2015

Yazidi girls who escaped Islamic State are trapped by trauma

Last summer, militants from the Islamic State group attacked a small ethnic group called the Yazidis, executing men and taking thousands of women and girls as slaves. The Yazidi (or Yezidi) people are a Kurdish tribe who follow an ancient Mesopotamian pagan religion in which they worship the sun and have a spiritual connection with the land.  

Kimbal Bumstead, a young British-Dutch artist, spent some time in the Yazidi refugee camp of Batman in Turkey in October. People told him that on the 3rd August, ISIS militia came to their village and took 80 men out into the streets and told them they must convert to Islam or they will be killed. Those who refused were shot; those who accepted were also shot. They told horrific stories about their family members and friends being slaughtered and their women and girls being raped and sold into sexual slavery.  Here is his report

Some of the Yazidi women managed to escape from the terrorist group and are now living in huge refugee camps in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq. They are freed, but far from free, as PBS's special correspondent Marcia Biggs explains in her harrowing report. She speaks with young women in Dohuk, one of the refugee camps, about rape, violence, threats, the terrible escapes that they endured and their continuing struggles with psychological trauma and stigma - especially in a culture were rape is shameful and virginity for young women is essential.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Morocco - First female Muslim leaders lead quiet revolution

This is a little gem I’ve found on the Frontline Club website: Casablanca Calling, a documentary about women leading a quiet revolution in Morocco. I love this story because it shows strong women taking control and making changes in their own terms. They are neither following Western dreams nor accepting their country's repressive views of Islam.  It reminds me of the Queen Mothers of Ghana, who are reinventing their traditional roles to improve the lives of girls and women in their communities. I am going to Ghana in June with filmmaker Dominique Chadwick to report on that story.

Casablanca Calling, by documentary filmmaker Rosa Rogers and triple BAFTA winning producer Hilary Durman takes us into the heart of this quiet social revolution in Morocco through the lives of the women at its forefront.  It is  the story of a society in transition and a mission to educate a nation.

In a country where 60% of women have never been to school, a new generation of women have started working as official Muslim leaders or Morchidat.  The Morchidat, the world’s first female Muslim leaders, are setting out to change their country: empowering women through the teachings of Islam and challenging the attitudes which breed extremism. 

They work in some of the poorest communities in Morocco to separate the true teachings of Islam from some of the prejudices emanating from a largely conservative culture. They work to support education for girls and campaign against early marriages.  And they encourage young people to build a more progressive Morocco, as opposed to pursuing the agenda that many young people in the country do, which is aspiring to a life in the West.

Through personal stories, family dramas and everyday lives, Casablanca Calling gives a unique perspective on women’s lives in contemporary Morocco. It tells the story of committed people, social change and a sacred mission.

The film will be presented at theFrontline Club on Friday 30 January 2015 at 7:00 PM. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Rosa Rogers and producer Hilary Durman.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Lebanon - Media in a polarised country

Talking with students from various universities in Beirut

I wonder how my Lebanese colleagues manage to do any meaningful work.  How do you cover the news in such a polarised country? How do you report on other views, on other religious and political convictions – especially when you work for media which are themselves so polarised? 

I went to Beirut recently with the wonderful Milica Pesic, executive director of the Media Diversity Institute (MDI), a London-based international organisation promoting and researching media diversity.  During our weeklong visit, we discussed with top Lebanese journalists, as well as journalism faculty and students from five universities, how their media could try to ease tensions rather than fuelling hostility and violence.  Our visit was part of a two-year project called “Toward an Inclusive and Responsible Media in Lebanon” run by MDI and its Lebanese partner the Maharat Foundation, an organisation working on building a more democratic society through freedom of expression.

Byblos/credit: Veronique Mistiaen

The first thing Milica and I did when arriving in Lebanon was to visit the ancient city of Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited city is the world. Created 7,000 years ago, this UNESCO World Heritage Site, some 40 km north of Beirut is a true microcosm of the various civilizations which have populated Lebanon over the centuries.   We thought that regular visits to Byblos should be mandatory for students, political and religious leaders, journalists and anyone in danger of forgetting the rich, diverse past of their country.
Walking through the coastal city, you can see layers upon layers of ruins from previous civilisations. Here are walls built by the Phoenicians, there a tower erected by the crusaders and everywhere are traces of the various cultures, ethnic groups and languages that have made the richness of this small country.

Sadly, because of its geographical location and the brutal civil war, which was fought along religious fault lines, Lebanon’s pluralism has long been replaced by ferocious polarisation.
The influx of more than one million refugees from Syria is further threatening this fragile country, where one out of every four people is now a Syrian refugee. 

And over the past few years, the media have exacerbated the sectarianism and have become more polarised themselves.  Journalists we spoke with explained that newspapers and TV stations – even universities – are increasingly in the hands of political, religious and business leaders who use them as their mouthpieces and instruments of control. 

Not surprisingly, the polarisation between media has in turn reinforced Lebanon’s social and political polarisation.

In that context, the work of Maharat Foundation and partner organizations like MDI is crucial. The Foundation has designed a Reporting Diversity module to help journalists, students and academics improve their skills in reporting on religious intolerance, sectarianism and extremism. Maharat is also trying to make the media industry acknowledge their part of responsibility for this polarisation and offering guidelines for a more inclusive, ethical and responsible coverage. 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Things the world gets wrong – Perils of Perception

We don’t know the basic makeup of the countries we live in.  In fact, we are wrong on most key social issues, according to a fascinating recent Ipsos MORI’s global survey.  

This study shows how wrong the public across 14 very different countries (including UK, Australia, Sweden, Japan, US, France and South Korea) are about key population characteristics and social issues.  Generally, we tend to overestimate what we see as problems or differences (unemployment, murder rate, immigration) and underestimate the familiar or what we assume is the norm (voting, Christians).  

And we are not just a bit off – we are massively wrong.

       In the UK for example:

       • We hugely over-estimate the proportion of Muslims: we think one in five British people are Muslims (21%) when the actual figure is 5% (one in twenty). 
•      • We think that a quarter of the population are immigrants  (24%), while the real figure is nearly half (13%).

• We believe that the British population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 37% of the population are 65+, when it is in fact only 17%.

• And we think that one in six (16%) of all teenage girls aged 15-19 give birth each year, when the actual figure is only 3%. 

• In contrast, we underestimate the proportion of the electorate that voted in the last general election - the average guess is 49% when the official turnout was much higher at 66%.

• We think  39% of the country identify themselves as Christian compared with the actual figure of 59%.

The same discrepancies between perceptions and reality are seen across the 14 countries surveyed. See survey’s index of ignorance below.

The big questions for me are: what is the impact of this huge gap between reality and perceptions and how do we get things so wrong? 
Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, said: “These misperceptions present clear issues for informed public debate and policy-making.  For example, public priorities may well be different if we had a clearer view of the scale of immigration and the real incidence of teenage mothers.  People also under-estimate “positive” behaviours like voting, which may be important if people think it is more “normal” not to vote than it actually is.”

And how should politicians react? Should they act on these perceptions and design policies around them or should they try to challenge them?

As to why we get things so wrong, I blame the media. Although (or beacuse?) I am a journalist, I believe the media is largely responsible for reflecting distorted images of our societies.  For example, a relentless diet of Daily Mail’ stories about  ‘waves’ and ‘hordes’ of immigrants ‘flooding’, ‘invading’ British towns and villages must influence our perception on immigration.

Although the researchers didn’t generally ask respondents how they formed their views, they did ask the people who answered more than double the actual level for the immigration question how they formed their perceptions.

And surprisingly, the media (TV and newspapers) were far from their main reason. Rather, they said they based their immigration views on what they saw in their local areas and when they visited other cities. And because they believed people come into the country illegally, so aren’t counted.  

And now I wonder, how do people know who is an immigrant?  By the colour of their skin, the way they dress, the way they speak, behave? And that’s another big question…

Monday, 8 December 2014

Why prison doesn't work for women

Credit: Prison Reform Trust

Many years ago, fellow journalist Loren Stein and I worked with the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco on a year-long investigation into the alarming number of miscarriages among pregnant women in US prisons and jails. Packed into routinely overcrowded, understaffed and ill-equipped facilities, pregnant inmates were often denied essential pre-natal and emergency care. As a result, more than 30 percent of the imprisoned pregnant mothers lost their babies – in one prison, it was 80%.

We found that because women formed a small proportion of the US prison population, the system was generally ill prepared and ill equipped to look after them - and there was very little thought about the impact their incarceration had on their families.

A couple of decades later and on the other side of the pond, it looks like little progress has been made:

A day-long conference at Northumbria University, Newcastle, this Thursday (11 December), will address why prison doesn’t work for women.

Former prisoners, prison reform campaigners and criminologists will examine the impact that imprisonment has on women and their families.  They will also discuss effective alternatives to imprisonment that could help solve the problem of increasing reoffending rates for women.

Keynote speakers include Vicky Pryce, who served a prison sentence for perverting the course of justice and has recently authored Prisonomics, a book calling for reform for women prisons; Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Vera Baird; and Jenny Earle, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s programme to reduce women’s imprisonment.

Louise Ridley, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria, will argue that the prison system has been designed for men and isn’t suited to the needs of women offenders.

“Women are mainly imprisoned for low level crimes, such as theft or handling stolen goods, which are often linked to their domestic situation. When men are imprisoned there is often a network of women – mothers, girlfriends, wives – who are caring for their children, paying the bills, and keeping their lives going so that they can more easily slip back into their family life when they are released. When women come out of prison they need support to rebuild their lives.”

Ridley argues that there is greater cost to the state when women are imprisoned as there is often the need to support their children in care during the custodial sentence. There also appears to be a larger domino effect when women with families are sent to prison.

 “Studies have found that children with mothers in prison are more likely to go on to offend than those with just the father in prison.”

The event is organised by The Centre for Offenders and Offending at Northumbria University, NEPACS, a regional charity providing support to prisoners and their families, the Prison and Offender Research in Social Care and Health Network (PORSCH), and OpenGate, a charity providing mentoring and support to women offenders returning to their community. 

You can follow the conference on Twitter: @PrisonNU & #wiprison

Monday, 27 October 2014

Reporting Diversity in Algeria - Terrorism stretches inclusive journalism training

Here I am with some of the brilliant journalists participating in the reporting diversity training in Algiers

You might not have heard much about Algeria and that’s not surprising. Unlike neighbouring Morocco, Algeria is not a popular tourist destination and the country is rarely in the (Anglo-Saxon) news - unless there is terrorism.  Well…a few weeks ago, not far from where I was staying on the outskirts of Algiers, a French tourist was kidnapped and beheaded by a militant group linked to Islamic State.  Police presence was beefed up in Algiers and foreigners like me were told to keep a low profile.

The murder hit at the core of the work we were doing there.  I had been asked by the Media Diversity Institute (MDI) to run a training for professional Algerian journalists on reporting diversity.  The London-based organization works internationally to prevent the media from intentionally or unintentionally spreading prejudice, intolerance and hatred; encouraging instead, fair, accurate, inclusive and sensitive media coverage in order to promote understanding between different groups and cultures.

During the five-day workshop, an Algerian colleague and I trained print and online journalists in how to write stories about the diverse groups who make up Algerian society, but whose voices are seldom heard in the media.  The journalists rose to the challenge and produced great stories on Syrian refugees, Sub-Saharan immigrants, people with disabilities, children in rural areas, single mothers and other marginalised groups.

And there was one other story – my favourite in fact. It was the story of a boy born in the mountains in Northeast Algeria during the “Black Decade” – the devastating conflict between Muslim extremists and government forces that tore the country apart in the 1990s and killed some 200,000 Algerians.  “Abd was the son of Islamist guerrillas, born in the ‘maquis’.  He is now 18. He doesn’t share his parents’ beliefs - in fact he has condemned them - but he is rejected everywhere he goes, he has no place in society and no future. He is suicidal,” explained the young journalist who had produced the story.  “I want to tell Abd’s story. It is the story of the children of the terrorists, of the “repented” – they are treated as pariahs in spite of the 2005 charter of national reconciliation,” the journalist told the class.

The other journalists greeted his story in stony silence. Then one said:  “I refuse to read anything about terrorists. We shouldn’t give them any voice, any recognition, any space.”  Many nodded in agreement. 

- “But he is a child. He didn’t ask to be born to terrorist parents, he doesn’t share their views,” I tried. 

- “What about the children of their victims? Do they have a voice?” angrily replied the journalist.

Everyone in Algeria is still traumatized by the “Black Decade” (Algiers still shuts down at night - a remnant of 10 years of curfew) and the story of the invisible children of Algerian terrorists hit a raw nerve. But it also generated a passionate and ultimately productive discussion around issues which were at the very heart of our training: how do we talk about other people’s views and experiences, especially when they disturb us?  Isn’t it better to hear what a segment of the population has to say, even if we don’t agree with them?  Some strongly believe that “terrorists” shouldn’t have a voice, but other people in Algeria believe that refugees, homosexuals, Christians and many other groups shouldn’t either.

The story also made me appreciate even more working with my Algerian colleague, as there are things which an outsider can only understand intellectually.