Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Marie Colvin’s murder – Journalists as “enemies of the state”

Veteran war reporter Marie Colvin was killed last week in the besieged city of Homs probably because she was a journalist  - and her murder is part of an alarming trend. 

The award-winning war reporter, 56, died alongside French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik, 28, when the house where they were staying was shelled by Syrian government forces.

Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy and French reporter Edith Bouvier, of Le Figaro newspaper, were also injured in the attack. They are today reported to be safe in Lebanon after being smuggled out of Homs.  French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, 43, was killed in Homs last month, and New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, also 43, died of an apparent asthma attack two weeks ago as he was leaving Syria.

Their deaths are a tragedy, as are those of the 465 people reported to have been killed over the past few weeks in Homs, according to Amnesty International.  

But Colvin and the other journalists were apparently targeted by the regime because they were journalists.

Syrian activists accused Assad's forces of deliberately targeting the journalists in rocket and shell attacks on the city last week, and French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, called the journalists' deaths "an assassination".

Syria is not the only country targeting journalists. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) compiled a list of 106 journalists killed last year - many for being journalists – and singled out Pakistan, Mexico and Syria as the most dangerous regions for journalists. The trend is so alarming that the federation are urging the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon  to take drastic action against governments of the most dangerous countries for media. (See my previous post on the subject)

“We are enemies of the state and the deaths of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik show we are being treated as such,” wrote Guardian’s foreign correspondent Martin Chulov a few days ago. And Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 News commented: “The rise of satellites TV has made journalists more of a target, because every dictator, general or rebel commander can see that we’re uncovering what they are trying to hide.”

Colvin’s final dispatches sought to alert the world to the human tragedy unfolding in Homs, which she described as "absolutely sickening”.  “There's just shells, rockets and tank fire pouring into civilian areas of this city, and it's just unrelenting," she said.

Speaking at a church service 15 months ago for colleagues who had lost their lives in conflicts , she said:  "Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice.

"We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?

"Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price."  She herself hadn't been spared. She wore a distinctive black eyepatch after losing an eye when she was wounded by shrapnel while covering Sri Lanka's civil war in 2001.

She added: "It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target."

At a time when journalists are being examined as never before, when allegations of sleaze and crime around the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry are rife, it’s good to recognize that there are journalists who fearlessly report what they witness and make a difference. 

They are crucial to making the news and informing the world.  And they need protection.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Somali women want a voice at London Somalia Conference

 As world leaders meet in London tomorrow to decide Somalia’s future, Somali women living in the UK are calling on Prime Minister David Cameron to ensure that women are not denied a place at the peace table.

Tomorrow,  February 23, senior representatives from more than 40 governments are gathering in London to discuss the transition to a new caretaker government in Somalia.
 Somali women are concerned that if they are not part of the political process, their rights will be ignored or even undermined by the new government.

 Although less than a quarter of girls in Somalia are in primary education and violence against women is rife, a leaked draft of the conference communiqué contains no reference to women’s rights or women’s political participation.

In the past, the UK has played a leading role in pushing the UN to recognise the critical importance of women’s participation in conflict resolution, peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction, helping to create UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls on states to include women in decision-making on peace and security.
Despite this, formal negotiations on the transition process have been dominated by foreign governments and Somali elites, who are overwhelmingly male.
 Sheffield-based Somali activist Amina Souleiman spoke with hundreds of Somali women and found there was deep concern about women being ignored by the London conference. She said:

“Somalia has been a failed state for 20 years, and all along, men were in charge.
 The draft communiqué talks about a role for Islamists in Somali politics but says nothing about a role for women. This clearly sends the wrong message and gives the green light to clan, tribal and religious leaders to exclude women from the political process.

 “David Cameron must call on the international community to support the participation of Somali women in the political process, to protect women’s rights and to find a lasting peace in Somalia.” 

Chitra Nagarajan, Director of Gender Action for Peace and Security UK, said:

 “The UK government is failing to join the dots here. After doing so much at the UN to champion women’s important roles in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, will it put that rhetoric into practice at home? If the conference communiqué doesn’t include support for women’s participation and put in place ways to protect and promote their rights, it will be a huge missed opportunity to help build a real peace for Somalia, one that has true meaning for both women and men.”

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Bust on the US-Mexican border - the end of a dream

Mark Abel

My friend, composer Mark Abel from San Diego (my former editor at the San Francisco Chronicle), witnessed a bust by the U.S. Border Patrol of a group of Mexican “illegals” in the desert a few days ago.  He saw their surrender - the end of their dream of a better life and everything they had risked for it. He thought of how many times this scenario has been repeated in the past 150 years… Here is his account: 

“Deciding that I needed to “get out of Dodge” (i.e., San Diego) for a while and clear my head, I pointed my 22-year-old Mazda down a road I’ve never  been on – California Route 98, which drops south of Interstate 8 in hardscrabble Imperial County toward the Mexican border from the impoverished hamlet of Ocotillo and continues on into the Imperial Valley and the city of Calexico.  The area is known as the Yuha Basin and it is definitely a desert, made up mostly of sand, loose dirt and scrub vegetation. A few forbidding-looking, lunar-like mountains dot the plain here and there.  

I had only driven a few miles when I started to notice a spread-out presence of Border Patrol squad cars and SUV-type vehicles. This didn’t surprise me, since we were probably within five miles or so of the frontier, which lay beyond to the south. 
Yuha desert, near the border
I got about halfway to Calexico before deciding that there was really nothing scenic about the area and that I might as well head back toward Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, one of my favorite places and one that always touches the soul in some way. I braked to turn around after shooting past a pair of flower-laden crosses by the side of the lonely road. I wanted to see who was being memorialized and assumed it was some migrants who died in the desert (nothing unusual in these parts). 

Not thirty seconds after I turned off the engine, a Border Patrol helicopter came screaming in from out of nowhere – zooming directly over my car and not far off the ground. I was startled but quickly deduced that I was probably being surveilled to determine if my car was big enough to ferry a group of migrants out of the area (the answer to that is no.) 

I started back toward Ocotillo. But a few minutes later I spotted the chopper again, hovering over an area about 50 yards off the highway. As I drew closer, I saw a Border Patrol officer striding forward with a bullhorn. Cowering ahead and herded by the chopper, with their hands raised behind their heads, was a group of five or six Mexican men who had apparently been lying prone on the ground, hoping to escape detection. No such luck.

 I kept on driving (knowing the Border Patrol would probably shoo me away if I pulled over) but had slowed just enough to catch a rather heartbreaking tableaux – the end of a common and fiercely held dream of a better life. The image that stayed with me was their “surrender,” with their hands up; it reminded me of an iconic photo from the Holocaust that just about everyone has seen – a Polish Jewish boy marching fearfully with his hands raised, surrounded by grinning Nazi soldiers with guns. This is, of course, unfair to the Border Patrolmen, who are simply doing a job politicians have ordered them to do. But I felt I was somehow experiencing the agony of the Mexicans, whose ambitions in America probably did not encompass anything beyond a life of manual labor – labor that we consider “beneath” us.   

As I drove on, I thought primarily of two things – that these men had walked for god-knows-how-many miles into alien territory, apparently not knowing where they were going, and that they most likely had been led in that direction by a coyote guide who took all the money they had and then pointed them toward an area far from civilization and crawling with Border Patrol, giving them virtually no chance of making it to San Diego or the Imperial Valley, where they might melt into the Hispanic population. Very tough.   

I moved on into Anza-Borrego, whose stark, arid, majestic beauty belies the fact that it was once a place where wooly mammoths, a bird with a 17-foot wingspan, giant ground sloths and saber-toothed tigers roamed, and whales swam in vast inland seas. One’s sense of time slows down very quickly in this place. But sure enough, even here, after about 8 miles there was a Border Patrol checkpoint – in case any “aliens” had made it past the gauntlet in the Yuha Basin. I was waved through with a “Have a nice day” after my white skin and small car were duly noted. … I soon passed a place called Canon sin Nombre (Canyon Without a Name), where I have actually hiked. But all I could think of was the thousands of Mexicans who have perished in our deserts over the decades and how many of them were “sin nombre” – though they most certainly had family somewhere.

Later, I pulled over once more and watched as wispy clouds slowly drifted and broke up high over the Sawtooth Mountains. The late afternoon light silhouetted on the steep slopes the yearning sharp fronds of the ocotillo plants, the solitary stalks of the tall agave, the yellow-green new growth on the cholla cactus. The scene was draped with the silence of the ages. … I thought again of the Mexicans and the deportation that awaited them, and how many times the scenario has been repeated in the past 150 years – despite the fact that their labor has played such an important part in the building of America and the maintenance of our standard of living, faced as it is with possibly insurmountable challenges from the rest of the less fortunate world, which asks, “When will it be our turn?”   

And (though I wished I hadn’t), I thought of the phony, dishonest Mitt Romney and the 11,000-square-foot mansion he is building in not-far-away La Jolla and of the serial liar and attack dog Gingrich – he of the higher moral standard than those folks “on food stamps.” Not to mention Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin. 

In our lifetimes, I suspect, America will get what’s coming to it – what is coming to it already – and the wispy clouds will continue their timeless procession over the mountains, as they always have. And the ocotillos will sprout red flowers in the springtime. 

Composer Mark Abel's orchestral song cycle "The Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits" will be released on the Delos label in March

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Anti-slavery coin - first-ever coin with a social conscience

Anti-slavery prototype coin

A silver coin with the message "Break the Chains of Bondage" will be launched at the World Money Fair, Europe's largest coin convention, in Berlin tomorrow (February 3).

The first-ever coin with a social conscience features on its head side (observe) the silhouettes of a man and a woman back-to-back with a broken chain of five links and the inscription "Break the Chains of Bondage." The tail (reverse) is designed by Luc Luycx, the graphic artist behind the design of the Euro.

The prototype coin is issued by the United Future World Currency (UFWC), a global currency initiative, and being struck by the Royal Mint UK in eco-silver, a responsibly sourced precious metal from recycled silver.

The idea behind the initiative is to encourage Mints and central banks to issue a coin with a clear  anti-slavery message that will end up in the hands of the public and raise awareness of this important cause, says Dr. Sandro Sassoli, founder of the UFWC.

Between 10 and 30 million people worldwide are believed to be either enslaved or in bonded-servitude, according to the latest estimate by the UN.  Slavery and human trafficking cross race, religion, gender and ethnic background and exist in every countries.

UFWC are approaching more than 60  Mints attending the World Money Fair  to encourage them to issue the anti-slavery coin. Several Mints and central banks have already expressed interest in issuing the coin, ahead of the launch tomorrow.  The campaign will continue into 2013 and beyond.