Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Judgement day – Iran Tribunal exposes mass massacres of the 1980s

Family members of political prisoners executed during mass massacres of the 1980s and the summer of 1988, gather at Tehran’s Khavaran cemetery to commemorate their loved ones/ Iran Tribunal 
Following a harrowing three-day hearing at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the Iran Tribunal, a tribunal of conscience, delivered its interim judgement on October 27th.  According to the tribunal, the Islamic Republic of Iran committed crimes against humanity and gross violations of human rights against its citizens committed during “the bloody decade” of 1980s.

This is a monumental achievement for the survivors and families of the victims of the mass massacres of political prisoners in the 1980s. The Tribunal has allowed their voices to be officially recorded and heard in court for the first time in 25 years. Unlike atrocities in Rwanda, Srebrenica and General Pinochet's Chile, they never had any opportunity for justice and legal redress.

"The consequences of this judgment are profound,” says Prof John Cooper QC, the lead prosecutor at the tribunal. “It finally provides an independent and authoritative finding that the Islamic Republic of Iran [was] responsible for murdering and torturing [its] citizens on a staggering scale. This judgment, along with the carefully documented evidence from over 100 victims can now be presented to the international community as part of the victim's fight for justice.”

When the judgment was announced, the courtroom fell quiet.  The silence was thick with emotions held back for 25 years. Then the people in the assembly slowly stood up and held pictures of their loved ones killed by the Iranian regime in the purges of the 1980s.  All were weeping.

For me, it was an emotional moment as well as I have come to know many survivors and bereaved over the many years I’ve been trying to report the story. I’ve followed the making of the Iran Tribunal - a grassroots movement created by survivors and families of victims because no official bodies would investigate their complaints.  It is a testament to their determination and resilience that they’ve managed to put the truth out there after all these years. The process also exposes shortcomings of the UN and other international bodies, which were supposed to investigate these atrocities. For information about the Truth Commission, the first stage of the Iran Tribunal, click here.

Read my blog in the Economist about the Iran Tribunal’s judgement here.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

It’s a Men’s World - Men still dominate British newspapers

Plus ├ža change…

I was shocked by the recent research carried on by Women in Journalism, a networking and campaigning organization I am a member of, showing that men still dominate not only the stories on national newspaper’s front pages, but the bylines as well.  They studied all the major UK national daily newspaper's front pages from 16 April to 13 May this year.

When you look around newspaper offices and TV stations today, there seem to be as many women as men, but when it comes to writing the news or appearing in it, women still can't quite make it up to a third of all contributions.

What appears on front pages is important because, despite declining readership and revenues, they still help dictate the day's agenda for both online and broadcast news.

The study found that 78 per cent of all front page bylines were male, versus 22 per cent female, with wide variance between titles. The Daily Express was the title with the most female bylines with a 50/50 split. The Independent had the least – a pathetic 9 per cent!

The content of the lead stories was also dominated by men, according to the WIJ research.  Eighty-four per cent of those quoted or mentioned by name in front-page stories were men. However, 79 per cent of those who might qualify as "victims" in front-page stories were women.  I guess the same might be said about the coverage of Africa news. 

But that’s not all. Across newsrooms, three quarters of news journalists are men while women make up just a third of journalists covering business and politics, according the WIJ research.  When I started as a journalist more than 20 years ago, the figures were similar. It is so depressing to see that nothing at all has changed after all these years. And it is not just the coverage of politics, business and sports that men dominate, but they also make 70 per cent of arts reporters and up 49 per cent of lifestyle reporters.  

Women were also found to be less likely to be in senior newspaper positions, with eight out of the top ten newspapers having almost twice as many male editors as women editors.

Sue Matthias, who is a Women in Journalism's committee member and edits the Financial Times Weekend Magazine, said: "Women's rights in the workplace may have improved, but this research shows that there is still a long way to go in British newspapers.

"The gender imbalance we have uncovered is shocking and it seems old attitudes are still alive and well in many places."

What surprises me is that during the eight years I have been teaching journalism, the majority of my students have been women. Yet, the jobs still seem to go to men. Why is this so?

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Microfinance - Grameen Bank under Threat

VSL meeting in a suburb of Accra, Ghana/Fjona Hill

Writing about development and humanitarian issues, I am well aware of the importance of microloans and how non-profit lenders and savings and loans associations can help change lives (see my recent post and article in the Economist on Village Savings and Loans Associations. Also, if you want a clear explanation of how microcredit works, see the excellent graphic at the end of this post).

So, I was alarmed reading this recent appeal from the global campaigning group Avaaz that the Grameen Bank is under threat.

The Grameen Bank is very different from traditional banks. They loan money to 8.4 million people, mostly women from the poorest villages in Bangladesh, so they can buy assets like cows or sewing machines and start earning money. These women borrowers also run the bank -- they are not only the majority shareholders, 9 out of 12 seats on the board are held by village women in saris.

I haven’t had time to verify Avaaz’s claims and I know that the Grameen Bank has come under criticism over the past few years for tax evasion. There were also accusations that microcredit can bring communities into debt from which they cannot escape and that the Grameen Bank was linked to exploitation and pressures on poor families to sell their belongings.  (That’s why I prefer the Village Savings and Loans model in which the money comes from the community itself.)

I don’t know what is behind the Bangladeshi government’s decision regarding the bank, but here is what Avaaz says:   “Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina wants to end Grameen Bank as we know it.  She first stripped Dr. Yunus’ position as the bank’s managing director, and now just passed a law that would allow the government to bypass the people-elected board and handpick his successor. We fear that the government may use its newfound power to manipulate millions of members for votes in next year’s election.

“Grameen's downfall would be a disaster for Bangladesh and the larger microcredit movement that is working to improve lives across the globe.”  Avaaz is asking people to sign their urgent petition to PM Hasina.

Here is a very good graphic, which explains clearly the process of microloans and how microlending, if done correctly, can help millions of people around the world. The graphic is produced by, a personal finance blog by a team of experts focusing on all things credit and debt related.

 Microlending Infographic

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Transformational Media – Can the media be a force for good?

As I write about human rights, social justice and development, my stories are often about hardship, injustice and abuse.  These stories are depressing. They are hard on my readers and on myself.  I believe these stories need to be told,  but there might be another way to tell them. Increasingly, I’ve tried to look for the positive, even in the most depressing stories, to seek solutions instead of just outlining problems. We all need hope.

So, I was intrigued when I found in my mailbox an invitation to attend a Transformational Media conference at Sadler's Wells in London on 27-28 Sept.  The conference’s website describes Transformational Media this way: “Transformation Media may be focused on inner qualities, inspiring stories or on practical solutions. It is transformational in the sense that its goal is to transform conflict into peace, to unite rather than divide, and transform environmental destruction into living in harmony with the natural world.”

Just what I was looking for!  

It could have been a lot of hot air – and there was some of that, but on the whole, the summit was inspiring and exciting. Over two days, journalists, film-makers, musicians, publishers, web designers and other creative people focused on how the media could bring solutions to cultural, social, environmental and economic problems.

My favourites included a wonderful story-telling workshop with Dara Marks, a leading Hollywood script consultant, exploring the power of myths, and a talk by former BBC and ITV national news anchor Martyn Lewis, in which he argued for the media to achieve a fairer balance between the positive and the negative, and analyse success and achievement as well as failure and disaster.

Gilles Vanderpooten told us why he created Reporters d’Espoir (Reporters of Hope) to encourage the media reframe problems in term of solutions and help mediatise positive innovative initiatives.

Actor Felicity Finch, who plays Ruth in the Archers and worked on radio dramas in Rwanda and Afghanistan, explained how radio soaps can be used to convey important messages , such as HIV and domestic violence. Journalist Catherine Gyldensted has developed a “positive news” module to teach in journalism schools. She said journalists needed new heroes - not just muckrakers and war reporters, but reporters of positive changes. Musician and TV & radio presenter Clemency Burton-Hill talked about what happens when people listen to music together and how music can change lives.

Other speakers included Greg Barrow from the UN World Food Programme; BBC World Affairs Producer Stuart Hughes; Jarvis Smith, founder of Green Magazine; Julie Mollins from Reuters AlertNet; Anna Coote, head of Social Policy at the New Economic Foundation and  Beadie Finzi, foundation director of BRITDOC.

“The vision is for the event to become an annual global gathering exploring emerging trends and how media can be a force for good in the world,” says Jeremy Wickremer, founder of Ideal Media, who organized the summit.

I truly hope something will come out of this…