07/19/2013 06:10 PM
Increasing Attacks: Piracy Shifts Coasts in Africa
By Gordon Repinski
The scourge of African piracy is shifting from the East Coast to the West. Although the attacks are taking a major toll on the global shipping trade, world leaders continue to play for time in the hope that it will be resolved locally.
In the moments before the attack, the Hansa Marburg seemed to be cruising peacefully in the Atlantic Ocean. It was April 22, 2013 and, based on its coordinates, the German container ship was about 130 nautical miles southwest of the port of Malabo in the Central African state of Equatorial Guinea -- a long way from the coast.
That's usually too great a distance for an attack by small speedboats. But, on that night, things were different. Within minutes, pirates boarded the freighter, took four hostages and vanished into the night.
The ship, which was sailing under a Liberian flag, is owned by the Hamburg-based shipping company Leonhardt & Blumberg. The firm had to wait several agonizing weeks, until May 24, before it could announce that the four seamen had been released in good health.
The fronts in the guerilla war between the international freight shipping industry and African pirates are shifting. The focus of piracy has moved from east to west, from the Horn of Africa to the Gulf of Guinea. While the Bundeswehr, Germany's military, has enjoyed considerable success off the coast of Somalia with its anti-piracy mission "Atalanta," pirate activity has now moved to a region off the coast of Nigeria. There were already 30 pirate attacks in the region in the first half of 2013, making it likely that this year's numbers will surpass last year's high. The German government now faces a difficult choice: Should it intervene off the West African coast as well? Perhaps even militarily?
A second hostage-taking took place on a German ship in the wake of the Hansa Marburg attack. In April, the City of Xiamen, a vessel belonging to the Emden-based shipping company Lauterjung, was attacked off the coast of Nigeria. The pirates only released its crew after five days.
Big Losses for Germany
Germany has now moved to the top of a grim list: It has suffered more attacks on its freight ships than any other country except for Singapore, or nine worldwide in just the first quarter of 2013.
The economic damage is enormous. At the height of the attacks off the Somalian coast in 2011, the German Shipowners' Association (VDR) estimated the total annual cost of ransom money, protective equipment, insurance and detours at around €5.3 billion ($7 billion).
While the already beleaguered industry fears that another catastrophe awaits in the Gulf of Guinea, the German government is alarmed. "We are closely observing developments in the Gulf of Guinea," says German Development Minister Dirk Niebel. "Organized criminality always represents an obstacle to development and legitimate business."
In its report for the first quarter of 2013, the Bundespolizei, Germany's federal police force, reached similarly clear conclusions about the new crisis region. Nigeria ranks well ahead of other African countries, with 11 ships from various nations having been attacked off its coast. When the new quarterly report is released next week, it is very unlikely that the situation will have improved. The recent attacks on the Hansa Marburg and the City of Xiamen won't be reflected until those new statistics are released.
One reason for the emerging problem is the economic upswing of formerly poverty-stricken states like Togo, Ghana and Nigeria. The more goods arrive in the port of Lagos, a city of several million inhabitants, the more pirates are seen in speedboats off the coast.
A New Boom in Oil Piracy
And things are likely to get worse. Whereas 13 percent of European oil imports already come from the region, the volume of gas imports from it to the European Union is set to triple by 2025. The Gulf of Guinea has become the transit region for an entire continent's trade in raw materials.
The growing importance of oil has led to a remarkable specialization among the pirates. As the Bundespolizei has discovered, some gangs now focus exclusively on hijacking tankers. "Over the course of a hijacking that lasts several days, all or part of the oil is pumped into other vessels," says the latest Bundespolizei report on piracy. The attacks share a "great propensity toward violence on the part of the aggressors."
The attacks also often follow a similar pattern. As in the case of the Hansa Marburg, the pirates approach in speedboats. The captured ship is then taken to a prearranged meeting point where the fuel is unloaded. Then things move to land, and a booming trade in freshly stolen goods begins. Government sources say that this is how the United States alone lost one-fifth of its oil imported from Nigeria. With every shipment, the German economy also risks losses.
Is Intervention Necessary?
Nevertheless, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government seems unmotivated to intervene in an international crisis that could potentially involve the country's military. The Chancellery claims that the situations in West and East Africa cannot be compared because West Africa still has reasonably intact states capable of addressing the problem themselves.
This has prompted Merkel to oppose German engagement off the coast of Nigeria: "At the moment, I don't see any plans for a mission," she announced last Thursday in a press appearance at the Chancellery with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the South African politician who chairs the African Union Commission.
Dlamini-Zuma, on the other hand, was defiant. She stressed that piracy was an international problem even if it was happening off of the African coast, and that the situation off the western coast was different from the one off the eastern coast.
Meanwhile, departments within Germany's foreign, defense and development ministries have been less interested in holding back. Experts there have been working for months to develop concepts for addressing the problem.
Running Out of Time
The Bundeswehr University Munich, which has ties to the German military, has also turned its attention to the new trouble spot. In a recent study, scholars reached a clear conclusion that continued inaction could result in an increase in criminality, terrorism and ethnic conflicts. "West Africa stands at a tipping point," says Professor Carlo Masala, the author of the study. "If the German government is interested in preventing anarchy from breaking out in an entire region, it must aid the affected states." Masala recommends development aid for coast guards and the creation of a maritime "task force," including overseas units from the United States and the European Union.
Although experts have welcomed the proposals, the political administrations in relevant ministries are still stalling for time. But a decison might not be forthcoming before December, when the European Council will address its Common Security and Defense Policy.
Germany may then bring itself to offer support -- at least in cooperation with other nations. "The example of the Horn of Africa showed that the international community can act successfully against piracy with an integrated political approach," says a Foreign Ministry spokesman. Even Chancellor Merkel might consider sending advisers to aid in European efforts.
In the meantime, shipping companies cannot wait much longer for governments to take action. Every day, ships continue to enter unsafe ports, and their crews can often only hope everything will be OK.
Maersk, the Danish shipping giant, has come up with a new trick for minimizing the danger of attack. When one of its ships approaches a risky port in West Africa, it keeps its presence secret from the authorities for as long as possible, and the captain doesn't radio port officials about docking until the last moment. This, they say, is the only way to prevent uninvited guests from approaching the ship.
Translated from the German by Nick Ukiah
July 19, 2013
A Conscientious Objector Poses a Challenge to the Israeli Military
By ISABEL KERSHNER
HAIFA, Israel — AROUND the age of 16, most Jewish Israeli high school students go to “Gadna,” the Israeli military’s voluntary youth corps, where they spend a week training for the army before mandatory service.
When it was Natan Blanc’s turn, he refused to go.
Mr. Blanc’s teachers called him in for a chat, and he told them that he was opposed to serving in a force that perpetuated Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians. “I explained, and they exempted me,” he recalled.
But when the actual draft came around a few years later, things were not so simple. Mr. Blanc emerged as one of the nation’s highest-profile objectors when he was tried and jailed. His case was finally resolved in June, but only after the military said Mr. Blanc was “not an appropriate candidate to serve,” in effect announcing that it was rejecting Mr. Blanc, not the other way around.
“You could see it as a victory,” Mr. Blanc, now 20, said in an interview at his family home recently in the northern city of Haifa. He was spared a court-martial in a full military court that could have kept him behind bars for three years.
“Maybe what made it easier for the army was that I was the only such declared conscientious objector of my year,” he said.
But if it was a victory, there was a long, difficult road to that end.
When he first showed up at the army’s induction office, Mr. Blanc asked to be allowed to participate in civilian community service as an alternative to the military. But the military refused, put him on trial and sent him to a military prison for repeated terms, amounting to six months.
As is often the case in Israel, one citizen’s open refusal to serve spoke to issues that cut deep into the complex character of a state whose identity and survival are so closely intertwined with its military. Mr. Blanc posed a challenge for the military in its sometimes clumsy attempts to balance security needs, individual rights and the principle of equality.
Mr. Blanc, in a black T-shirt and shorts, barefoot and with cropped hair, looks like a typical Israeli recruit on leave. But unlike his friends, who he says are serving in all kinds of roles in the military, he has found himself fielding tough questions. That is because, he said, he is not a pacifist and would serve, if not for the occupation.
The army says that while motivation for service remains high, it does grant a small number of exemptions each year on the ground of conscientious objection. But it makes a distinction between pacifists who object to joining any army and to any use of force and what it calls cases of “selective objection” or “selective conscience” like Mr. Blanc’s.
EMANUEL GROSS, a professor of law at the University of Haifa and a former military judge, said it would be “dangerous” to accept the right of people like Mr. Blanc not to serve in the army.
“Today you may be accepting a person with one ideological viewpoint and tomorrow you might have another person with another ideological viewpoint,” Mr. Gross said, adding, “There is no place in the army to raise political views.” He said that while he understood those who resist the idea of Israel’s staying in the occupied territories, the army would have sent a clearer message by court-martialing Mr. Blanc to a longer jail term.
Mr. Blanc’s route to conscientious objector started when he was a schoolboy. He grew up in a left-leaning household and attended demonstrations and Israeli-Palestinian coexistence activities with his parents. But his first real awareness, he said, occurred while he was in high school and became upset by what he called a systematic attempt to “brainwash” the students.
He recalled a trip to the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war. On the high ground overlooking northern Israel, the pupils met Avigdor Kahalani, a retired general who commanded a decisive battle there in 1973. “He tells his story, points to the hills and says: ‘I think the Syrians are watching us now. Can I count on you?’ Everybody shouts, ‘Yes!’ ” Mr. Blanc recounted. “It was a very traumatic experience for me.”
Mr. Blanc’s grandfather was an officer in the United States military who came to fight in Israel’s war of independence in 1948 and was wounded. Both his parents served in Israel’s military intelligence. One sister served in military intelligence, and another was exempted as a pacifist. “We have very different opinions,” he said of his family.
Mr. Blanc said he first began considering refusal in the winter of 2008-9, when Israel carried out a devastating military offensive in Gaza aimed at stopping Palestinian militant rocket fire against southern Israel. At first his parents opposed his refusal and hoped that he would change his mind, he said, but later they came to see his view as legitimate, even if they disagreed with it.
He said the argument that it is better to try to influence the army’s conduct from within was “acceptable, but you have to draw the line.”
“The essential problem of the Palestinian’s life is not whether he’s being smiled at at the checkpoint,” Mr. Blanc said.
MICHAEL SFARD, a lawyer for Yesh Gvul, a group that supports army refuseniks, said that Mr. Blanc would normally have been considered officer material, making his refusal harder for the military to swallow. Mr. Sfard, who represented Mr. Blanc, added that few of those who apply are granted exemptions as pacifists.
Shimri Zameret of Yesh Gvul was one of a group of five high school refuseniks who were court-martialed and spent two years in prison together a decade ago. Mr. Blanc’s case was unusual, he said, in that “Natan was alone, went public and did not go to an army psychologist” to ease his way out of the military.
The group organized a Facebook campaign, petitions and demonstrations in support of Mr. Blanc. Mr. Zameret said the growing publicity was probably one of the reasons that Mr. Blanc was released in the end.
Mr. Blanc said he now intended to volunteer for two years in the civilian ambulance service, having already done one year of voluntary community work before his draft. He was also planning to attend the graduation ceremony of a friend who had completed the officers’ course.
“All the arguments were over a long time ago,” he said. “I did not convince them, and they did not convince me.”
Norwegian woman facing 16 months in jail after reporting her rape in Dubai ‘nervous’ about appeal
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, July 19, 2013 16:45 EDT
A Norwegian woman told AFP Friday that she was “nervous and tense” as she risked 16 months in jail after she reported being raped by a coworker in the United Arab Emirates.
Marte Dalelv, 24, said she remained hopeful that she would succeed in an appeal against the ruling by a Dubai court that convicted her this week of extramarital sex, perjury and consuming alcohol without a licence.
“I am very nervous and tense. But I hope for the best and I take one day at a time. I just have to get through this,” she told AFP by telephone from Dubai.
Calling the sentence “very harsh”, she said she immediately filed an appeal, adding a new hearing is scheduled September 5.
Dalelv reported the rape to police in the United Arab Emirates in March this year and was immediately detained, being released four days later with the assistance of Norwegian diplomats.
Dalelv, who has been staying at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Dubai for the past several months, emphasised she did not want to criticise the government of the United Arab Emirates.
“They have their legal system. I just want to get fair treatment,” she said.
She told AFP that Norwegian authorities have agreed to pay for legal fees after she spent 55,000 Norwegian kronor (7,000 euros) on legal assistance.
Norway’s Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide was trying to reach his counterpart in the Gulf nation Friday about the case.
With communication slowed down by the month-long Ramadan holiday and Friday prayers, he had not been able to establish contact by late in the day, according to Norwegian news agency NTB.
“It seems very strange that a person who reports rape is sentenced for acts which in our part of the world is not even a crime,” he said, according to NTB.
“The case illustrates the deeper problem that women all over the world are subjected to: First of all that they are not believed when they tell their story, and secondly that it is possible to be punished for so-called indecent behaviour.”
According to Kathrine Raadim, the foreign minister’s political advisor, it is out of the question for Norway to react by recalling its ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
“We would risk worsening Dalelv’s situation in the midst of her appeal. I think everyone is better off with Norway having a diplomatic presence there,” she told NTB.
The Norwegian opposition, however, demanded more robust action by the government.
“The least the Norwegian authorities can do is to let her stay at the embassy in Abu Dhabi, where she cannot be apprehended,” said Per Willy Amundsen, a parliamentarian from the conservative Progress Party.
Dalelv herself told AFP she would prefer to stay in Dubai rather than moving to Abu Dhabi.
“I feel safe here and I know the place well. I have received a lot of help from the Norwegian consul in Dubai and I have visited the Norwegian embassy in Abu Dhabi and gotten advice there,” she said.
“But I don’t want to move there. That could be seen as if I am a criminal hiding from justice. I cannot leave the country anyway, since they have taken my passport.”
July 19, 2013
Party of Japan’s Premier Poised for Big Election Win
By HIROKO TABUCHI
TOKYO — Japanese voters appear set to hand a resounding political victory to Shinzo Abe, the nationalist architect of the nation’s recent economic resurgence, possibly giving him stronger control of Japan’s long-fractured political landscape than any leader in almost a decade.
Opinion polls in virtually all the major Japanese news media show Prime Minister Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party poised for a landslide win on Sunday in elections for Parliament’s upper house. Some projections even suggest that Mr. Abe’s conservative party could win more than half of the 242 seats in the upper house for the first time since 1989. The party currently holds 84 seats.
But even without such a huge win, the Liberal Democrats, because of their coalition with a small Buddhist party, appear all but certain to regain control of the upper house. That would give the Liberal Democrat-led coalition control of both houses, ending what is known here as a “twisted Parliament,” which has added to Japan’s political paralysis by hindering prime ministers from getting legislation passed.
The prospect of a big win has already generated hand-wringing among liberals who fear that Mr. Abe, who was named prime minister in December, has been waiting until after the election to pursue the same nationalist agenda that dominated his first term in office several years ago, but did not resonate with many voters more concerned with ending Japan’s long economic slump.
If the polls are borne out, the election will be a remarkable comeback for Mr. Abe’s party. The Liberal Democrats had held power for most of the postwar period until a humiliating defeat four years ago that seemed to promise the emergence of a more competitive two-party democracy in Japan.
Mr. Abe’s recent ascent — and approval ratings around 60 percent — has been based in large measure on his all-out bid to revitalize Japan’s economy with a combination of aggressive monetary stimulus, heavy government spending and promised but still somewhat vague structural reforms. Investor enthusiasm over his economic policies, called Abenomics, has helped the Tokyo stock market soar this year, and the central bank-engineered drop in the value of the yen has helped revive floundering exporters.
A convincing win, analysts say, could free Mr. Abe to reach for the more daring structural changes that many economists say are needed to ensure that the latest recovery does not fizzle as others have over the last two decades of stagnation. The prime minister’s oft-repeated pledge to restore Japan’s global stature and confidence after almost a generation of political drift and disappointing growth has also struck a public chord, analysts say, as has his willingness to talk tough in a bitter territorial dispute with neighboring China.
“We are fighting to bring back a Japan that can grow again, a Japan that will rebuild, and a Japan that is prepared to protect its territory,” Mr. Abe said Friday at a rally in Mie, in central Japan.
But while Mr. Abe’s performance has boosted his party’s chances, those prospects have also been helped by the collapse of any credible opposition. The Democratic Party, the strongest opposition party, is still blamed by the public for its perceived mishandling of the 2011 nuclear crisis in Fukushima, and has been unable to regroup since its defeat at the hands of Mr. Abe’s party in elections for Parliament’s more powerful lower house in December. Depending on how badly it does in Sunday’s vote, some analysts say, the party could split apart.
The extraordinary inability of Japan’s antinuclear movement to make any inroads into national politics has also aided the Liberal Democrats, whose pro-business platform calls on Japan to return to nuclear power. For months after the Fukushima disaster, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in noisy rallies that called for an end to nuclear power in Japan. Polls show more than half of Japanese voters still at least passively oppose the restart of the nation’s nuclear plants, most of which were idled after the disaster.
“A lot of Japanese got agitated, for sure,” said Ryosuke Nishida, an expert on public policy at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. “But the movement has really failed to seize the day.”
For a time, many disgruntled voters seemed to rally around the charismatic mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, who had seemed to be what many Japanese yearned for: a decisive politician willing to take on Japan’s powerful vested interests, including its nuclear lobby. But Mr. Hashimoto, who founded his own party, seemed to stumble last year after he quietly dropped his opposition to restarting a nuclear plant near Osaka. Then in May, his party seemed to largely vanish as a factor in the current elections after Mr. Hashimoto outraged many voters by appearing to defend Japan’s infamous wartime system of forcing South Korean and other women to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.
If the Liberal Democrats gain control of both houses of Parliament, Mr. Abe will have the firmest grip on power of any prime minister since his mentor, Junichiro Koizumi, who for a time enthralled Japanese voters with his similar mantra of revitalizing Japan’s sluggish economy. After Sunday, Japan is not legally required to hold elections in either house until 2016, potentially giving Mr. Abe a three-year run before facing voters again.
Analysts say that gives Japan its best prospect in a long while of ending a streak of politically short-lived prime ministers; since Mr. Koizumi stepped down in 2006, Japan has had seven leaders, including Mr. Abe.
This time, the Liberal Democratic Party has put up a remarkably united front, because its lawmakers know that they must ride Mr. Abe’s coattails to win the election. But once elected, they may find fewer reasons to rally around Mr. Abe and more reasons to pursue their own agenda, experts say, possibly hurting Mr. Abe’s ability to pass painful economic changes, or push a right-wing agenda that could include reforming Japan’s pacifist Constitution. The “L.D.P. always has the biggest problems after they’ve won a big victory,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a politics professor at Nihon University in Tokyo.
Martin Fackler contributed reporting.
July 19, 2013
Inmate’s Letters Hint at North Korea Opening
By RICK GLADSTONE
The family of Kenneth Bae, the American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, received letters from him in the mail for the first time this past week, telling them that his health is worse and asking them to press the United States government to help secure his release, Mr. Bae’s sister said Friday.
North Korea experts said the message of the handwritten letters — and their method of delivery, which could not have happened without North Korea’s approval — suggested that the authorities there were open to the idea of negotiations on Mr. Bae. That had seemed remote three months ago when he was found guilty of committing “hostile acts” against the government.
North Korea said Mr. Bae, 44, was a Christian missionary who had sought to build a clandestine proselytizing base in the country, where the Communist government regards missionary work as sedition.
The possible opening in Mr. Bae’s case came against a backdrop of other indications that North Korea, despite its harsh public language toward the United States, is pursuing multiple ways of pushing for direct contact after months of threats and new weapons tests. So far, the Obama administration has resisted the overtures.
Mr. Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, said in a phone interview from her home in Edmonds, Wash., that Mr. Bae had been able to communicate a few times during his imprisonment, which began with his arrest in November, though those contacts were through intermediaries acting on behalf of Sweden’s ambassador in North Korea, who monitors American interests. Then weeks went by with no further word.
“This past week, we were surprised to receive a packet of letters from Kenneth through the U.S. Postal Service, bearing a Pyongyang postmark,” she said. “The packet contained four letters, dated June 13th, addressed to his wife, his mom, me and his supporters.”
She said that “all the letters contained the same message — Kenneth’s health is failing, and he asked us to seek help from our government to bring him home.”
Ms. Chung said her brother suffered from diabetes, an enlarged heart and back problems.
She declined to share the letters but said the family had conveyed their contents to officials at the State Department. Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman in Washington, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Mr. Bae was sentenced at a time of particularly high tensions between the United States and North Korea over the North’s nuclear weapons program under its young new leader, Kim Jong-un, further complicating any possible diplomatic efforts aimed at securing Mr. Bae’s release.
North Korea said that Mr. Bae had been working as a Christian missionary with the aim of overthrowing the North Korean government. In a video of an hourlong talk, given to a Korean church in the United States in 2011 and posted online, Mr. Bae detailed his activities inside North Korea.
The postmark on Mr. Bae’s mailed letters to his family suggested they were written at about the same time that the North Korean authorities had permitted a pro-North Korea group based in Tokyo, Choson Sinbo, to interview him in prison. A videotape of that interview, broadcast July 3 on CNN, showed Mr. Bae looking distressed and thin, his head shaved, dressed in a stained blue jumpsuit with his prison number, 103. His message was similar to those in the letters: an appeal for the United States government to help secure his release.
“Although my health is not good, I am being patient and coping well,” Mr. Bae said in that interview. “And I hope that with the help of the North Korean government and the United States, I will be released soon.”
In what appeared to be an effort to show the outside world that the North Korean penal authorities had been treating him well, Mr. Bae was seen seated in a comfortable cell with a radiator and a window. The video also zoomed in on what was described as his daily work schedule, posted in Korean and English, showing he was given three meals and had four rest breaks in between field labor. No other inmates were seen at the prison, and its precise location was unclear.
Diplomats who have dealt with North Korea said the unspoken message in both the video and the letters was that the North Korean authorities wanted to see more publicity about Mr. Bae as part of their broader effort to seek direct contact with the United States government.
The top North Korean diplomats at the United Nations have twice over the past month publicly called for direct talks, citing the impending 60th anniversary of the armistice that halted the Korean War as a juncture for a changed relationship. Dennis Rodman, the former basketball star who visited North Korea this past winter and met Mr. Kim, has called for Mr. Bae’s release and has said he intended to return to North Korea in August, although it is unclear whether that will happen. E-mailed queries to Mr. Rodman’s representatives in the United States were not returned on Friday.
Other Americans who have been held in North Korea were released after visits by former United States presidents.
In another possible signal from North Korea to the Obama administration, an American Navy pilot who flew combat missions in the Korean War, Capt. Thomas J. Hudner Jr., was en route to North Korea on Friday as part of his own lengthy effort to retrieve the remains of a colleague, Ensign Jesse L. Brown. Ensign Brown, the Navy’s first African-American aviator, died after his plane was shot down on Dec. 4, 1950.
Captain Hudner, who is white, crash-landed his own plane near Ensign Brown’s in a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to pull him from the wreckage, and was forced to evacuate. But Captain Hudner’s action became part of military lore and is regarded as having helped promote racial equality in the United States armed forces.
Choe Sang-hun contributed reporting from Seoul.
July 19, 2013
U.S., Urging Worker Safety, Outlines Steps for Bangladesh to Regain Its Trade Privileges
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
The Obama administration publicly recommended on Friday a series of steps that the Bangladesh government should take to have its trade privileges with the United States restored.
Three weeks after announcing it would suspend Bangladesh’s trade preferences, the administration released an “action plan,” which calls on Bangladesh to significantly increase the number of labor, fire and building inspectors and to improve their training. The plan urges Bangladesh to impose stiffer penalties, including taking away export licenses, on garment factories that violate labor, fire or building safety standards.
In addition, the administration recommended that Bangladesh create a public database of all garment factories for reporting labor, fire and building inspections, including information on violations found, penalties assessed and violations corrected, with the names of the lead inspectors.
The administration suspended Bangladesh’s trade privileges after a widespread outcry that the country was doing too little to safeguard worker’ rights and safety in light of the Rana Plaza factory building collapse in April that killed 1,129 workers and the Tazreen factory fire in November that killed 112.
The action plan calls for establishing “an effective complaint mechanism, including a hot line” for workers to anonymously report fire, building and workers’ rights violations.
With regard to the garment industry, the Obama administration said Bangladesh should enact and carry out measures to address concerns that factories were suppressing workers’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively. The administration urged Bangladesh to ensure that unions and their supporters do not face reprisals and to “expeditiously” grant recognition to unionization efforts when enough worker signatures have been gathered to meet legal requirements.
Union leaders in Bangladesh say that after they gather the needed 30 percent of worker signatures at a company to qualify for union recognition, the country’s labor department gives those lists of names to factory owners, who then often proceed to fire union supporters or bully them into withdrawing their names from the list — so that there is no longer the 30 percent needed. Labor leaders say that is a major reason so few of the nation’s 5,500 garment factories and four million garment workers are unionized.
On Monday, the Bangladesh government adopted a new labor law that it said would be critical in making it easier for workers to unionize. One provision bars government labor officials from giving that list of union supporters to factory owners. Nonetheless, Bangladeshi labor leaders pointed to several new provisions to assert that the law was in ways a step backward and made it harder to unionize.
The Obama administration called on Bangladesh to publicly report information on the status and outcomes of individual unionization efforts and on whether the government had officially registered them, including the time taken to process unionization applications and the basis for any denials. It said Bangladesh should make sure that its export-processing zones allow full freedom to unionize.
The administration also said Bangladesh should proceed with a “transparent investigation” into last year’s killing of Aminul Islam, a prominent union organizer. Bangladeshi news media have reported that government officials might have been involved.
Nauru detention centre burns down
Riot destroys most of asylum-seeker processing facility on island, with detainees being moved to second, incomplete site
Oliver Laughland in Sydney
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 20 July 2013 06.14 BST
There are no plans to move any asylum seekers detained in Nauru to detention in Australia despite the regional processing centre on the island being almost totally destroyed in a riot last night, the department for immigration (Diac) has confirmed.
A spokesperson for the department said all detainee accommodation at the regional processing facility had been burned down and the centre's administration offices, medical facilities and dining room had also been destroyed.
416 detainees have been transferred to a second "black soil site" on the island which has no permanent accommodation and is described as "flat", whilst 129 detainees have been detained by Nauru police and are being held at the island's watch house. The spokeswoman said all detainees were now accounted for despite a large number of attempted escapes in the riot on Friday night.
The "black soil" site, known as a regional processing centre two, is understood to be where a second accommodation site for families was due to be constructed. The spokeswoman told Guardian Australia that tent marquees were being constructed to house detainees and water supplies were being installed.
The riot began on Friday afternoon following a peaceful protest that had been going on at the regional processing facility for the past week. Diac would not comment on the reasons but Guardian Australia understands more than 100 asylum seekers housed on the island had been protesting about the time being taken to process their asylum claims. There had been unconfirmed reports of self-harm incidents involving a small number of detainees on the island during the past week.
Diac has confirmed that all non-essential staff on Nauru will be moved back to Australia but had no information on whether additional security staff had been called in.
On Friday Kevin Rudd announced a controversial new deal on asylum with the government of Papua New Guinea. It means all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat will be transferred to PNG and processed there. The prime minister declared no one arriving by boat without a visa would end up being able to settle in Australia. The riots on Nauru began before Rudd's announcement and it is understood they did not start as a result of the policy.
A number of protests in Australian cities were held on Saturday against the new asylum deal. In Sydney around 1,000 people rallied in the centre of the city and in Melbourne around 600 people were understood to have marched, with another rally held in Canberra. Events in Brisbane and Adelaide were being planned for Sunday and Monday.
Mexicans flock to recycle plastic bottles in exchange for food vouchers
Since Mexico City closed a huge landfill, residents have warmed to recycling – but the rest of the waste system is yet to catch up
Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 18 July 2013 17.38 BST
Carlos Quintero picked up a huge bag full of plastic bottles and moved a few feet forward before setting it down again in the long snaking queue to get into Mexico City's Mercado de Trueque, or barter market. In return for donating the bottles for recycling, Carlos would receive well-needed tomatoes, onions and a cabbage.
"It is a really good way of getting something out of things we normally throw away and helping the environment," he said. "And it helps the family economy, too."
The monthly market started in March last year, aimed at raising awareness about recycling through modest vegetable incentives. But the project is now straining under the weight of its own success.
"The objective is that people learn to separate, store and value the waste they produce," said Liliana Balcazar of the city's environment ministry, which runs the market, usually in a central park, although it moves to different locations around the capital every other month. She said the market received about 12 tonnes of rubbish each time. "It was always popular," she said, "but now it is overflowing."
Recyclers hand their rubbish over to government employees, who weigh the material and give vouchers to exchange for vegetables grown by farmers on the outskirts of the city.
Recent participants – who ranged from an architect with a trolley full of wine bottles to a poor woman with a neatly tied-up bundle of cardboard – recognised that the market would never solve the problem of how to manage the 12,000 tonnes of rubbish the city produces every day.
Since the closure of an enormous landfill early last year, shortly before the market opened, rubbish has been trucked out to smaller tips in surrounding states at considerable cost. There has been little sign of the environmentally friendly hi-tech waste management facilities that have been promised for many years.
Even so, the market's most dedicated fans return month after month, oftenwith friends or family in tow. "It is really worth the effort," said Erika Rodriguez, a regular, accompanied by her mother. "Once you start, it is difficult to stop."
"It's great for us," said smallholder Axel Castañeda as he cleared away piles of beetroot stalks, his entire stock gone."The price is good, and the volume is great."
But some of those handing over their recycling are inevitably disappointed, because the range and availability of vegetables quickly dwindles by late morning. Late arrivals are more likely to end up with a bunch of vouchers and almost nothing left to swap them for.
A harried official, surrounded by one such group, unhappy about going home with only radishes and tomatoes, pleaded for understanding. The market, he said, is "an educational project not a substitute for normal rubbish collection".
Hadron Collider provides exhaustive confirmation of conceptual framework of subatomic particles
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, July 19, 2013 14:50 EDT
Tests at the world’s biggest collider have provided the most exhaustive confirmation to date of the Standard Model, a four-decade-old conceptual framework for fundamental particles, CERN said on Friday.
Physicists at two giant underground laboratories straddling the French-Swiss border have given the most accurate measurement yet of a change in a particle called a Bs.
New measurements showed that out of every billion Bs particles, only a handful decay into smaller particles called muon, and they do so in pairs, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) said.
“Because the process is so rare, it is an extremely sensitive probe for new physics beyond the Standard Model,” it said in a statement issued in Geneva.
“Any divergence from the Standard Model prediction would be a clear sign of something new.”
CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) smashes sub-atomic particles together in a circular tunnel, where four laboratories use ultra-sensitive monitors to record the debris that tumbles from the collision.
The Standard Model, conceived in the 1970s, is the chief vehicle for understanding the basic particles and forces that make up the Universe.
In a historic discovery last year, the LHC uncovered a particle believed to be the elusive Higgs Boson, which explains mass.
Still missing from the Standard Model are explanations for gravity and the enigmatic stuff called dark matter and dark energy, which account for most of the cosmos and whose existence is inferred from their impact on ordinary matter.
The Bs tests were made by the LHC’s CMS and LHCb labs.
“It’s precisely for measurements like this that LHCb was built,” said the lab’s spokesman, Pierluigi Campana. “This result shows that we’re really putting the Standard Model to the most stringent test yet at LHC energies, and so far it’s coming through with flying colours.”
The research was presented on Friday at a European conference on high-energy physics in Stockholm, CERN said.
In other work put forward in Stockholm, European and Japanese scientists confirmed two-year-old evidence that an elusive elementary particle, the neutrino, transits from one state to the other — from a muon neutrino to an electron neutrino.
Physicists beamed muon neutrinos across nearly 300 kilometres (185 miles) in Japan. They found that the beam, on its arrival, had more electron neutrinos in it than at the start, proving that a transformation had taken place.
In the USA...
Secret court lets NSA extend its trawl of Verizon customers' phone records
Latest revelation an indication of how Obama administration has opened up hidden world of mass communications surveillance
Ed Pilkington in New York
The Guardian, Friday 19 July 2013 23.39 BST
The National Security Agency has been allowed to extend its dragnet of the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon through a court order issued by the secret court that oversees surveillance.
In an unprecedented move prompted by the Guardian's disclosure in June of the NSA's indiscriminate collection of Verizon metadata, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has publicly revealed that the scheme has been extended yet again.
The statement does not mention Verizon by name, nor make clear how long the extension lasts for, but it is likely to span a further three months in line with previous routine orders from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa).
The announcement flowed, the statement said, from the decision to declassify aspects of the metadata grab "in order to provide the public with a more thorough and balanced understanding of the program".
According to Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, the Verizon phone surveillance has been in place – updated every three months – for at least six years, and it is understood to have been applied to other telecoms giants as well.
The decision to go public with the latest Fisa court order is an indication of how the Obama administration has opened up the previously hidden world of mass communications surveillance, however slightly, since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed the scheme to the Guardian.
The ODNI statement said "the administration is undertaking a careful and thorough review of whether and to what extent additional information or documents pertaining to this program may be declassified, consistent with the protection of national security."
The Verizon metadata was the first of the major disclosures originating with Snowden, who remains in legal limbo in the international airport in Moscow.
'Detroit is basically broke': cuts, cuts and cuts to follow bankruptcy filing
Governor and Detroit emergency manager make case for taking cash-strapped city into bankruptcy – but hard choices await
Dominic Rushe in New York
The Guardian, Friday 19 July 2013 21.11 BST
Detroit used to be known as "the Paris of the midwest" – a city of wide streets, imposing buildings, and home to the great US auto industry. In 1960, it had the highest per capita income in the nation. But decades of decline, racial tension and corruption have brought the motor city to its knees. "The city is basically broke," Michigan governor Richard Snyder said Friday.
At a press conference convened a day after the city filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history, Snyder and Kevyn Orr, the city's unelected emergency financial manager, set out their case for taking the most drastic step ever taken by a city of Detroit's size.
A Michigan circuit judge on Friday ruled the bankruptcy filing violates the state's constitution and must be withdrawn. That decision is expected to wind its way through the state court system over the next few days.
With the city saddled with debts of more than $18bn, Orr said there was "no way home from that equation". Detroit had no choice but to go bust and reorganize its debts in the bankruptcy court, he said, after months of fighting with the pension funds and its creditors had led to an impasse.
The scale of Detroit's decline is dizzying. The city's population has dropped from 2 million in 1950 to 700,000 today, as Detroiters have become fed up with decades of mismanagement and rising crime and poverty. Detroit's murder rate is at a 40-year high, only a third of its ambulances are in working order, and nearly half its streetlights are broken.
Citizens wait 58 minutes for the police to respond to calls, compared to a national average of 11 minutes. There are 78,000 abandoned buildings in a sprawling city of 139 sq miles. Detroit's dystopian landscape has attracted tourists and photographers from around the world looking for what the locals disparagingly call "ruin porn".
"Does anybody think it's OK to have 40-year-old trees growing through the roofs of dilapidated houses? Does anybody think our children should walk through the streets in the dark in October? Does anybody think they should call the police and they do not come on time because they are already out on calls? No," said Orr.
But bankruptcy comes at a cost. No other major US city has ever filed for a chapter 9 bankruptcy, as these filings are known. New York, Cleveland and Philadelphia all come close, but brokered last-minute deals rather than face the hard cuts and acrimonious legal fights a chapter 9 filing inevitably triggers. The city's pension funds and bondholders are preparing to fight for every dollar Detroit has to offer.
Detroit has 9,700 city employees who all now face pay cuts and worse, and close to 20,000 retirees whose pensions and health care benefits are under attack. "Detroit should not be rebuilt on the backs of the men and women who played by the rules and worked hard to provide city services," said said Al Garrett, president of Michigan branch of the AFSCME union.
Orr said the legal fights had in part forced his hand as it became clear he was unlikely to be able to broker a deal. Municipal bonds are traditionally seen as safe investments and the courts have protected investors rights in previous – smaller – cases. This time around those investors may face a tougher battle.
As he tried to negotiate a compromise earlier this month Orr organized a bus tour – complete with armed guards – to help convince the city's creditors to give Detroit a break. But the bankers pulled out fearing a PR backlash prompted by pictures of the captains of finance visiting some of the most desolate urban landscapes in the US. That backlash is only likely to grow as they fight pensioners for a larger share of the city's dwindling coffers.
Beneath this already tense background comes a political and racial divide that is only likely to intensify the debate. Snyder, a white Republican, is effectively taking over a Democratic city that is 80% black. Detroit has a long, sorry history of racial tension. The appointment of Orr, a prominent African American lawyer, was seen by many as a move to mitigate some of that tension. But this is a fight that will open old wounds and has huge implications for the rest of the US.
Randye Soref, an attorney and bankruptcy specialist at law firm Polsinelli, said the bankruptcy would have a major influence other cities in financial trouble and investors. "We've seen in other smaller bankruptcies that these filings have been used as a sword to rewrite pensions and rework collective bargaining agreements," she said. But no other municipal bankruptcy approaches the size of Detroit's and this case will be closely scrutinized, she said. If the bond holders are badly burned, "folks will be very leery of investing in other cities," she warned.
So far the White House has only said it is watching the situation. But the chances of a federal bailout like the ones that saved Detroit's car firms seem slim. It might be good for the bondholders and pensioners but it would send the wrong message to other cities, said Soref, and "absolutely impossible" given Republican opposition. For now it seems certain that Detroit, its workers and investors will be slugging it out in court.
In recent years, though, not all the news from Detroit has been bad. The bailout of the auto industry was a success, and the car firms are back in business. There are glimpses of a new Detroit to be seen in the city's still crumbling center. At the bottom of Woodward Avenue, the city's sweeping downtown artery, new arrivals fight for loft spaces in a pocket of urban renewal that has been overseen by Dan Gilbert, Detroit native and billionaire founder of the Quicken Loans mortgage empire.
Private enterprise has snapped up iconic Detroit real estate and businesses are moving downtown. With them have come new restaurants and bars, an ice rink and an ambitious plan to rebuild Detroit from its heart. Chrysler has moved offices back into the city, Twitter has taken space, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer recently toured the city.
Gilbert told the Guardian he hoped the bankruptcy would prove "a first step toward a better and brighter tomorrow for our city."
"The financial condition the city finds itself in is years, if not decades, in the making. Bankruptcy will be painful for many individuals and organizations but together we will get through it and come out stronger on the other side. We simply do not have a choice," he said.
"It's important that we ignore the noise that this filing will surely bring. Many forecasted the end for GM and Chrysler when they declared bankruptcy just a short few years ago. Today, GM and Chrysler are thriving," said Gilbert. "Detroit's best days are ahead."
'Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago', Obama says
President addresses death of unarmed black teenager in personal remarks, and admits US is still not a post-racial society
Paul Lewis in Washington
guardian.co.uk, Friday 19 July 2013 22.15 BST
Barack Obama used an unexpected speech at the White House to personally address the debates over race relations that have convulsed America since George Zimmerman was acquitted over the shooting of the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
In remarks immediately interpreted as the most expansive comments on race since he became president, Obama said the US was still not "a post-racial society".
"You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is: Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," he said.
"And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."
The president's intervention surprised Washington. For almost a week, Obama has resisted getting involved the swirling debates over racial discrimination, and was coming under growing criticism for his failure to respond to strong public outrage.
Some African American leaders were saying privately that the president was failing to grasp the intensity of feeling over the case and at Thursday's White House press briefing, Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, was repeatedly pressed on why the president had failed to take a more public stance.
However on Friday, Obama surprised reporters by turning up at the briefing to deliver deeply personal remarks.
"There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me," he said.
"There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happened to me – at least before I was a senator.
"There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often."
He added: "And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear."
Obama's remarks were echoed by Jesse Jackson, who told the Guardian in a video interview on Friday that "the stand-your-ground law lends itself to massive interpretations because it is so subjective. It is an incentive to shoot rather than a deterrent."
"We are free, but not equal," Jackson said, highlight the diminished access to healthcare in many black communities.
In taking such a bold stance, Obama risks criticism that he is seeking to politicise the Zimmerman trial. However, the White House is said to have realised the scale of feeling over the Zimmerman case, which has led to sporadic protests in cities including Washington, New York, Miami, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
On Saturday, another wave of demonstrations are planned outside federal buildings in 100 US cities.
Trayvon Martin's parents said they were "deeply honoured and moved" by Obama's remarks, saying they recognised their son's tragic death has become "a conduit for people to talk about race in America".
"We know that the death of our son Trayvon, the trial and the not guilty verdict have been deeply painful and difficult for many people," Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin said.
"What touches people is that our son, Trayvon Benjamin Martin, could have been their son. President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy."
Senior figures in the civil rights movement have told the Guardian that fast-escalating resentment over the treatment of black Americans will result in larger-than-expected crowds descending on Washington next month for the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.
They said the Zimmerman case has compounded a sense among many that America is moving backwards on civil rights issues, particularly in light of a recent supreme court to strike down key sections of a law that protects black voters.
Obama is understood to have been invited to play a central role in the King commemorations, which are likely to be a global spectacle, but has not yet publicly committed himself.
In his remarks on Friday, Obama invoked a line from King's famous speech when he said Americans should take part in an act of "soul-searching" and ask themselves: "Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?"
Obama appeared moved when he delivered his remarks at the White House, but was careful to temper the comments by recognising the progress that had been made.
"I don't want us to lose sight that things are getting better," he said. "Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race."
He also said African Americans are "not naive" about the social problems that afflict its own community, such as the disproportionate number of young black men who have had experience of the criminal justice system. However, those observations had to be viewed in a historical context and could not justify discrimination, Obama said.
In one particularly pointed observation, Obama said there was a sense among black Americans that "if a white male teen" was involved in the same kind of scenario as Martin, then "both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different".
"I think it's understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family."
The president outlined four proposals that he said went "beyond protests or vigils". He said there should be efforts to review the training of police officers across the country "reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists", and root out racial bias in policing.
Second, he called for a review of self-defense laws such as those in Florida, that may encourage fatal confrontations when one side in a dispute is armed. Anyone who disagreed, he said, should consider what would have occurred if Martin was of age and armed when he became embroiled in an altercation with Zimmerman.
"Do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?" he said. "If the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws."
The president's third proposal was to consider new ways to make young African American men feel that they're a full part of this society. "There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement," he said.
He finished by saying that an "appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy" was for Americans to look at honestly themselves to ask if they are free of prejudice.
He said the generations of Americans had made significant strides toward rance tolerance, but added: "It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated."
07/20/2013 06:02 PM
'Prolific Partner': German Intelligence Used NSA Spy Program
Angela Merkel and her ministers claim they first learned about the US government's comprehensive spying programs from press reports. But SPIEGEL has learned that German intelligence services themselves use one of the NSA's most valuable tools.
Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, and its domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), used a spying program of the American National Security Agency (NSA). This is evident in secret documents from the US intelligence service that have been seen by SPIEGEL journalists. The documents show that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution was equipped with a program called XKeyScore intended to "expand their ability to support NSA as we jointly prosecute CT (counterterrorism) targets." The BND is tasked with instructing the domestic intelligence agency on how to use the program, the documents say.
According to an internal NSA presentation from 2008, the program is a productive espionage tool. Starting with the metadata -- or information about which data connections were made and when -- it is able, for instance, to retroactively reveal any terms the target person has typed into a search engine, the documents show. In addition, the system is able to receive a "full take" of all unfiltered data over a period of several days -- including, at least in part, the content of communications.
This is relevant from a German perspective, because the documents show that of the up to 500 million data connections from Germany accessed monthly by the NSA, a major part is collected with XKeyScore (for instance, around 180 million in December 2012). The BND and BfV, when contacted by SPIEGEL, would not discuss the espionage tool. The NSA, as well, declined to comment, referring instead to the words of US President Barack Obama during his visit to Berlin and saying there was nothing to add.
'Eagerness and Desire'
Furthermore, the documents show that the cooperation of the German intelligence agencies with the NSA has recently intensified. Reference is made to the "eagerness and desire" of BND head Gerhard Schindler. "The BND has been working to influence the German government to relax interpretation of the privacy laws to provide greater opportunities of intelligence sharing," the NSA noted in January. Over the course of 2012, German partners had shown a "willingness to take risks and to pursue new opportunities for cooperation with the US."
In Afghanistan, it says elsewhere in the document, the BND had even proved to be the NSA's "most prolific partner" when it came to information gathering. The relationship is also close on a personal level: At the end of April, just a few weeks before the first revelations by former intelligence agency employee Edward Snowden, a 12-member high-level BND delegation was invited to the NSA to meet with various specialists on the subject of "data acquisition."
Alexei Navalny pledges to win Moscow mayoral election
Russian opposition leader arrives in capital after being released from custody while appeal is heard against jail sentence
Staff and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 20 July 2013 12.29 BST
The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has arrived in Moscow after being released from custody, declaring that he is going to win the capital's mayoral election.
Speaking through a bullhorn to hundreds of supporters at Moscow's Yaroslavsky station on Saturday, Navalny thanked them for their help in winning his release while an appeal is heard against his five-year sentence for embezzlement.
"I realise that if it wasn't for you I wouldn't be standing here for the next five years. You have destroyed a key privilege that the Kremlin has been trying to keep that it is their alleged right to say to any person: 'Arrest him on the spot,'" said Navalny, who claims that the case against him was concocted for political reasons.
Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement on Thursday in Kirov, but prosecutors unexpectedly asked for his release the next morning. They said that keeping him behind bars during the appeals process of his conviction would deprive him of his right to run for office.
A day before the conviction, Navalny, 37, was registered as a candidate for the 8 September Moscow mayoral election, running against the incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, a close ally of President Pig Putin. Navalny's support is mostly limited to the urban middle class and youth.
An opinion survey in early July by the independent Levada polling centre showed Navalny attracting only about 8% support among voters in the mayoral election.
Hundreds of police blocked Navalny supporters from the platform of the Moscow railway station where his overnight train from Kirov arrived, but Navalny shouted over the police lines: "We are going to run in this election and we will win". His supporters replied: "We are the power."
Navalny, a lawyer and blogger, is one of the most visible and charismatic leaders of the opposition to Putin and the governing United Russia party. His description of United Russia as the "party of crooks and thieves" has become a signature phrase of the opposition.
The Kremlin denies clamping down on critics or using the courts to persecute them. Pig Putin remains Russia's most popular politician despite the largest wave of street protests against his 13-year rule that were led by Navalny in 2011-12.
The ongoing Turkish protests have left us enlightened and emboldened
The overseas interest has waned but our protests continue amid a brutal government crackdown and give us reason to smile
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 20 July 2013 10.00 BST
On 25 June, three weeks after the Gezi Park protest started, an American friend sent me an email. He asked me whether I was OK, and hoped that the protests hadn't "affected me in a negative way". There was something in his tone that suggested that he thought the protests were already in the past, the camp in the park having been liquidated on 15 June. He was wrong; they have continued ever since. Why?
Because five people have died, more than 8,000 have been injured, and 11 people have lost an eye; because prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to cut down thousands of trees all over Turkey to build shopping malls, hydro-electric power stations and skyscrapers; because whoever criticises him – journalists, students, teachers who join a trade union – is in danger of ending up in jail and if they are a woman, being sexually harassed; because doctors who treated the injured and lawyers who represented protesters have been arrested and beaten; because those responsible for the deaths of protesters have not been brought to justice; and because Erdoğan's rhetoric has encouraged machete- and stick-wielding AKP thugs on to the streets whose attacks on us – with the police standing by – go unpunished.
What has happened since the night the police drove us out of the park and fired tear gas into hotel foyers and hospitals? On 17 June the famous standing man appeared in Taksim prompting a wave of standing people all over the country and briefly, around the world. The same day, Çarşı, the group of Beşiktaş football supporters that has played a major role in the protests, made a call: "From now on we will meet in Abbasağa Park in Beşiktaş; if they throw us from here, we will go to Maçka Park; if they throw us out of there we will find another." Since then there have been forums in about 20 parks all over Istanbul, and in many other cities. I hadn't been to Abbasağa Park before, even though I was born in Istanbul, nor did I spend much time in Yoğurtçu Park in Kadıköy, across the Bosphorus, even though I lived there for a year.
What are people doing in these forums? There is a platform, a microphone, and a chair person. Between 9pm and midnight anyone can go to the platform and talk about anything he or she wants. In the first week (starting from 17 June) many people made moving speeches, though not about unfamiliar things. After one week or so some experts started to come: lawyers, doctors, media people. Then workshops began: for children, filmmakers, women, lawyers. Photography exhibitions documented the police brutality that we refuse to forget.
Apart from that, if something outrageous happens, we march, at any time of the day. We marched in Kadıköy the day the police officer who shot Ethem Sarısuluk in the head was released on bail; a couple of thousand became tens of thousands as people came out of their houses to join us. We marched when we learned that people had been kept in custody illegally. We marched to the headquarters of the ATV channel to protest against their silence over their non-coverage of the protests. On 22 June we marched to the Taksim Square to lay carnations for our friends who died, and for the policeman who died falling from a bridge while chasing the protesters; a beautiful, peaceful scene, but still the police attacked and drove people out. The next Saturday, 29 June, we gathered in front of Galatasaray high school and marched to Taksim because two days before, in the village of Lice near Diyarbakır, the gendarmerie killed a Kurdish youth, one of a crowd protesting against the building of new gendarmerie stations. Again the police attacked us. The following day we went on the LGBT march along Istiklal Caddesi. On 6 July we organised a water fight (a Turkish tradition on that day) so the police could save their water cannons, but once again we were attacked, and chased into the surrounding neighbourhoods, where the police began randomly arresting people sitting in cafes.
I came back to England several days ago, having participated in the protests from the beginning, and wish to carry on here. At least I can write. I can write about what happened, and why. I can also find out how people here – people from Britain, people from Turkey – are reacting to the protest and how events are covered in British media. I can discover for instance that there has been little coverage of Turkey since 15 June. Maybe one or two things but that is all. I understand that there are other problems in other parts of the world, that the TV in particular likes spectacular images, but there are plenty of them being posted from Turkey every day – maybe the BBC and the newspapers should take a look.
I wrote back to my American friend to tell him that, far from affecting me in a negative way, the protests have changed me, and thousands of others, for the better: we have got used to tear gas and are no longer afraid of water cannons, I have been reunited with friends I hadn't seen for years, met new and interesting people, given shelter to others, discovered Istanbul parks I didn't know existed, seen the inside of mysterious old buildings, learnt something about human rights, and persuaded my parents that when they hear words like "gays", "lesbians", and "transvestites" they need not be afraid. And I have discovered that I won't let my country be taken from me.
July 19, 2013
In Turkey, Media Bosses Are Undermining Democracy
By YAVUZ BAYDAR
ISTANBUL — THE protests that convulsed Istanbul and other Turkish cities last month exposed, among many other things, the shameful role of Turkey’s media conglomerates in subverting press freedom.
As the social unrest reached a peak on May 31 with clashes between tear-gas-happy police officers and protesters spreading through the heart of the city, the lack of even minimal coverage by seemingly professional private news channels presented the residents of Istanbul’s upscale neighborhoods near Taksim Square with a moment of truth. They could see, hear and smell the truth from their windows, and they quickly realized how their TV channels had lied by omission.
As the city center turned into a battlefield, 24/7 news channels opted to air documentaries about penguins or to go on with their talk shows. One channel, Haberturk TV, only 200 yards from the now famous Gezi Park, had three medical experts discussing schizophrenia — an apt metaphor for the state of journalism in Turkey.
But this is nothing new. For years, it has been politically expedient for major news outlets to cover up the truth and impose news blackouts on all serious issues, especially the Kurdish conflict. After an October 2011 meeting between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and media owners about how to cover “news on terror,” mainstream TV outlets were cowed and began to exercise excessive editorial caution. When 34 Kurdish villagers were bombed to death by Turkish fighter jets two months later, in Uludere, near the Iraqi border, these outlets very efficiently blocked coverage of the story.
The plague of sanitized media coverage reaches far beyond Turkey. Across the globe, and especially in young or struggling democracies like Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, Hungary and Albania, the lack of media independence is doing real damage. Media executives who intimidate or censor reporters while kowtowing to governments to protect their other business interests are undermining the freedom and independence of the press that is vital to establishing and consolidating a democratic political culture.
Dirty alliances between governments and media companies and their handshakes behind closed doors damage journalists’ role as public watchdogs and prevent them from scrutinizing cronyism and abuses of power. And those who benefit from a continuation of corrupt practices also systematically seek to prevent serious investigative journalism.
The problem is simple: one need only follow the money. Turkey’s mainstream media is owned by moguls who operate in other major sectors of the economy like telecommunications, banking and construction. Since only a few large TV channels and newspapers make profits, the proprietors tend to keep them as bait for the government, which needs media managers who are submissive to the will of politicians.
It is fertile ground for carrot-and-stick policies. The more willing the proprietors are, the more their greed is met. Several of Turkey’s media moguls have been given extensive favors through public-works contracts, including huge urban construction projects in Istanbul.
It’s not possible to conduct serious journalism in such a polluted system. These conflicts of interest have transformed Turkey’s major newsrooms into prisons: coverage of economic corruption in Turkey today is almost zero. There are a few tiny, brave independent outlets, which break stories that are critical of the government, but these stories are hardly ever picked up by the mainstream media and therefore have little impact.
While the world is focused on the issue of jailed journalists in Turkey — almost all of whom are Kurds — the kiss of death to our profession has been bestowed by owners who consciously destroy editorial independence, fire journalists who voice skepticism and dissent and block investigative reporting.
Turkey’s rapidly growing economy has caused such greed that the media owners regularly counteract the judgment of professional journalists who are trying to do their jobs on behalf of the public. Editorial content is strictly controlled by media bosses who have other business interests and are submissive to the government. With, or more often without, any direct government intervention, they impose self-censorship on a daily basis and silence colleagues who defend basic journalistic ethics. With hardly any union presence in these outlets, there is very little job security.
The daily Milliyet, once a flagship of good journalism, was acquired in 2012 by the Demiroren Group, which, among other ventures, is in the liquid propane gas business. In February 2013, Milliyet printed the minutes of talks between Kurdish politicians and the jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan. Two days later, a veteran Milliyet columnist, Hasan Cemal, boldly defended the paper’s decision to publish, declaring: “It’s one thing to publish a newspaper. It’s another to rule the country. The two should not be mixed. Everyone should mind their own business.” The scoop and the column infuriated Mr. Erdogan, who publicly condemned the paper and journalism more broadly. Mr. Cemal was given two weeks of forced leave. Upon his return, he wrote a new article on media freedom and independence, which was rejected by the paper’s owner, and Mr. Cemal resigned.
At NTV, a news channel targeted by protesters for its poor coverage, a monthly magazine called NTV Tarih, which focuses exclusively on history, had a cover story in its July issue about Gezi Park’s past. The company’s management asked to see the issue’s content a day before it went to press. Management not only canceled the issue, but also discontinued publication altogether. NTV Tarih’s circulation had been 35,000, among the most commercially successful periodicals in Turkey. The owner of the NTV channel, Dogus Group, happens to have recently won a bid to build the large Galataport — a contract worth over $700 million — that will transform an old port in the center of Istanbul into a modern hub of tourism, shopping and real estate.
Another conglomerate, Ciner Group, which owns media outlets like Haberturk TV, has in the past years won a number of contracts for energy and electricity distribution. Since then, the increasingly pro-government editorial policy of Ciner Group outlets has been clearly visible. Unsurprisingly, Haberturk’s headquarters near Gezi Park became a target for protesters angry at the channel for broadcasting an obsequious interview with Mr. Erdogan at the height of the police crackdown.
THE Turkish media’s pathological dysfunction is just one example of a much broader phenomenon. An extensive study conducted for the European Union by a group of journalists and independent media experts from across the continent found similar problems throughout southeastern Europe.
“Many media owners and leading journalists have vested political and economic interests and use their position to engage in ruthless ‘media wars’ against political opponents,” the report found.
The only way to prevent the damage done to democracy by a pliant media is if governments empowered by the electorate reform state broadcasters so that they become autonomous or independent public services and prepare the legal ground for fair competition and diversity in privately owned media outlets. In Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and Australia such broadcasters are established by law and guarantee the public’s right to know without interference from commercial interests. Their organizational structures represent various segments of their societies and are run by independent professionals, rather than partisan bureaucrats.
An autonomous public broadcaster that serves as a focal point for good journalism, far away from commercial concerns and government influence, would enhance public debate in Turkey and a number of other young democracies like South Africa and the Philippines.
In democratic transitions, pluralism and diversity do not mean much if they consist only of a competition between pro-government media and ultrapartisan opposition outlets. Private ownership in the media sector must be structured to allow the existence of a credible, independent, vibrant and high-quality Fourth Estate.
This is the core lesson of the Turkish media outlets’ spectacular failure to cover the Gezi Park protests, and their subsequent aggressive outbursts against the international media outlets that chose to cover Turks marching through the streets of Istanbul rather than penguins waddling across the ice of Antarctica.
The more media moguls get involved in shady dealings with governments, the more their greed blocks all decent journalism and destroys journalists’ ability to hold the government accountable. A corrupted media can never uncover corruption in a credible manner.
Yavuz Baydar is a Turkish journalist, the ombudsman for the daily Sabah and a columnist for the English-language newspaper Today’s Zaman.
July 19, 2013
Türkiye’de Medya Patronları Demokrasinin Altını Oyuyorlar
İSTANBUL — Geçtigimiz ay boyunca İstanbul’u ve diğer kentleri sarsan eylemler, bir dizi gelişmenin yanı sıra, Türkiye’deki büyük medya holdinglerinin basın özgürlüğünü ayaklar altına almadaki utanç verici rollerini gözler önüne serdi.
Sosyal huzursuzluk 31 Mayıs günü biber gazına eli fazlasıyla kolay giden polisler ile genç eylemciler arasındaki çatışmaların kent merkezine yayılmasıyla birlikte zirveye çıkarken, bu olayların görünürde pek profesyonel olan özel haber kanallarında düşük düzeyde bile haber yapılmaması, Taksim meydanı civarındaki varlıklı semt sakinlerini gerçeklerle yüz yüze getirdi. Gerçekleri pencerelerinden görebiliyor, duyabiliyor ve koklayabiliyorlardı, ve hızla kendi televizyon kanallarının nasıl onlardan gerçekleri sakladığını, yalan söylediğini anladılar.
Şehir merkezi bir muharebe alanına dönmüşken, 24 saat yayın yapan haber kanalları penguen belgeselleri yayınlamayı ya da tartışma programlarına devam etmeyi tercih ettiler. Gezi Parkına sadece 200 metre uzakta olan HaberTurk kanalında üç tıp uzmanı, Türkiye’de şizofreni konusunu tartıştı — Turkiye’de gazeteciliğin durumuna çok da uygun bir metafor.
Aslında bunlar yeni değil. Yıllardır bütün ciddi konularda, ve bilhassa Kürt sorununda, gerçekleri örtbas etmek ve haber karartmak büyük haber kuruluşlarının siyaseten işine geliyor. Başbakan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ile büyük medya sahiplerinin katılımıyla Ekim 2011’de yapılan “terör haberlerinin nasıl işlenmesi gerektiği” konulu toplantıdan sonra sindirilen “ana-akım” televizyon kanalları habercilikte aşırı ihtiyatlı davranmaya başladı. İki ay sonra, Irak sınırı yakınlarındaki Uludere köyünde 34 Kürt köylü Türk savaş uçakları tarafından bombalanarak öldürüldüğünde, bu kanallar haberi çok etkin bir şekilde sansürlemişti.
Medyanın haber filtreleme-ayıklama musibeti Türkiye ötesinde de büyük bir sorun.
Dünyanın birçok yerinde, ve özellikle Arjantin, Venezuela, Brezilya, Filipinler, Güney Afrika, Macaristan ve Arnavutluk gibi genç ya da çalkantılı demokrasilerde, medyanın bağımsız olmayışı önemli hasarlara yol açıyor. Kendi başka ticari çıkarlarını korumak için hükümetlere yaltaklanırken gazetecileri sansürleyen veya korkutan medya patronları, demokratik siyasi kültürün yerleşmesi ve kök salması için hayati olan medya özgürlüğünü ve bağımsızlığını baltalıyorlar.
Hükümetler ve medya şirketleri arasındaki kirli ittifaklar, kapalı kapılar ardında gizli kapaklı el sıkışmalar gazetecilerin kamusal bekçilik rollerine zarar veriyor, onların yandaşlığa dayalı ilişkileri ve iktidarın kötüye kullanılmasını sorgulamalarını engelliyor. Ve bu yozlaşmış ilişkilerin devamından çıkarı olanlar aynı zamanda ciddi ve sorgulayıcı araştırmacı gazeteciliğin yapılmasını engellemek için de sistematik olarak uğraşıyorlar.
Aslında mesele çok basit; parayi takip etmek yeterli.
Türkiye’de ana-akım medyanın sahipleri, telekomünikasyon, banka ve inşaat gibi ekonominin diger temel sektörlerinde de yatırımları olan büyük patronlar. Sadece birkaç büyük televizyon kanalı ve gazetenin kar yapabildiği bu ortamda, patronlar bu işletmeleri, siyasetçilerin iradesine tabi medya yöneticilerine ihtiyacı olan hükümetler için yem olarak tutuyorlar.
Bu durum havuç ve sopa politikaları için verimli bir zemin oluşturuyor. İşletme sahipleri ne kadar laf dinlerlerse, hırsları da o kadar doyuruluyor. Türkiye’deki büyük medya patronlarının bazıları, İstanbul’da büyük kentsel dönüşüm projeleri de dahil olmak üzere, kamu ihaleleri üzerinden kapsamlı bir şekilde lütuflandırıldılar.
Bu kadar kirlenmiş bir sistemde ciddi gazetecilik yapmak mümkün değil. Bu çıkar çatışmaları Türkiye’deki büyük haber kuruluşlarının yazı işlerini birer tür “açık hava cezaevine” çevirdi: bugün Türkiye’de ekonomik yolsuzluklarla ilgili neredeyse hiçbir haber yapılamıyor. Hükümeti eleştiren haber yapan birkaç küçük, cesur, bağımsız yayın organı var ama bu haberler ana-akım medya tarafından neredeyse hiçbir zaman görülmüyor, yayınlanmıyor ve dolayısıyla etkili olamıyor.
Dünya, hemen hemen hepsi Kürt olan, Türkiye’deki cezaevindeki gazeteciler konusuna odaklanmışken, bizim mesleğimiz bilerek yazı işlerininin bağımsızlığını yokeden, kuşkularını veya eleştirilerini dile getiren gazetecileri işten atan, araştırmacı gazeteciliği engelleyen medya sahipleri tarafınan öldürülmekte.
Türkiye’nin hızla büyüyen ekonomisi öyle bir açgözlülüğe yol açtı ki, medya sahipleri kamu yararı esasına dayalı görevlerini yerine getirmeye çalışan profesyonel gazetecilerin editoryal muhakemelerine düzenli bir şekilde karşı çıkıyorlar. Haber ve yorumların içeriği medya dışında ticari çıkarları olan ve hükümete boyun eğmiş medya patronları tarafından katı bir şekilde kontrol ediliyor. Bazen doğrudan hükümet müdahelesiyle, ama çoğunlukla buna gerek bile duyulmaksızın, günlük olarak oto-sansür uygulanıyor ve temel gazetecilik ahlakını savunan meslektaşlar susturuluyor. Sendikaların neredeyse hiç olmadığı bu yayın organlarında iş güvenliği yok denecek kadar az.
Bir zamanlar iyi gazeteciğin önde gelen örneklerinden sayılan Milliyet gazetesi 2012 yılında, diğer girişimleri arasında aynı zamanda LPG sektöründe de çalışan Demirören ailesi tarafından satın alınmıştı. Şubat 2013’te Milliyet bazı Kürt politikacıları ile hapisteki PKK lideri Abdullah Öcalan ile arasındaki görüşmelerin tutanaklarını yayınladı. İki gün sonra, Milliyet’in kıdemli köşe yazarı Hasan Cemal bu tutanakların yayınlanmasını savundu ve “gazete yapmak ayrıdır, devlet yönetmek ayrıdır. İkisi birbirine karıştırılmasın. Kimse de kimsenin işine karışmasın” diye yazdı. Bu “flaş” haber ve Cemal’in köşe yazısı Başbakan Erdoğan’ı çok kızdırdı ve Başbakan hem özel olarak gazeteyi hem de genel olarak gazeteciliği kınadı. Bunun üzerine Hasan Cemal iki hafta zorunlu izne çıkarıldı. Hasan Cemal’in geri döndüğünde yazdığı basın özgürlüğü ve bağımsızlığı hakkındaki yeni makale gazete sahibi tarafından reddedildi ve Hasan Cemal istifa etti.
Kötü haberciliği yüzünden eylemciler tarafından hedeflenen NTV haber kanalının aylık tarih dergisi “NTV Tarih” Temmuz sayısının kapak konusunu Gezi Parkı‘nın tarihine ayırmıştı. Şirketin yönetimi derginin içeriğini basılmadan bir gün önce görmeyi talep etti. Yönetim sadece o sayıyı iptal etmekle yetinmedi, dergiyi yayından tamamen kaldırdı. NTV Tarih’in aylık 35,000 tirajı vardı ve Türkiye’nin ticari olarak en başaralı dergilerinden biriydi. NTV kanalının sahibi olan Doğuş grubu tam da çok yakın zamanda İstanbul’un merkezindeki eski bir limanı modern bir turizm, alışveriş ve emlak merkezine çevirecek 700 milyon dolarlık büyük Galataport ihalesini kazanmıştı.
Habertürk televizyonu gibi medya kanallarına sahip olan Ciner grubu geçtiğimiz yıllarda enerji ve elektrik dağıtımı ile ilgili ihaleler aldı. O zamandan beri Ciner grubunun giderek artan hükümet yanlısı habercilik politikası gözle görünür halde.
Şaşırtıcı olmayan bir şekilde merkezi Gezi Parkının hemen yakınlarında olan Habertürk kanalı, polis müdahelesinin en yoğun olduğu günlerde Başbakan Erdoğan ile dalkavukça bir röportaj yayınlamasına kızan eylemcilerin hedefi haline geldi.
Türk medyasının hastalıklı düzeydeki bozukluğu aslında daha geniş bir olgunun tekil bir örneği. Avrupa’nın çeşitli yerlerinden bağımsız medya uzmanları ve gazeteciler tarafından Avrupa Birliği için hazırlanan kapsamlı bir rapor benzer sorunların Doğu Avrupa’da da yaygın olduğunu vurguluyor
Bu rapora göre “birçok medya sahibi ve önde gelen gazetecininin yerleşik siyasi ve iktisadi çıkarları var, ve onlar konumlarını siyasi rakiplerine karşı acımasız ‘medya savaşları’ açmak için kullanıyorlar.”
Bu itaatkar medya tarafından demokrasiye verilen zararın önüne geçmenin yolu, seçmenler tarafından yetkilendirilmiş hükümetlerin, devlet yayın kuruluşlarını özerk veya bağımsız kamu hizmeti sunar hale dönüştürmesi ve özel mülkiyetteki medyanın da adil rekabet ve çeşitliliğe sahip olmalarını sağlayacak yasal zeminin hazırlanmasıyla olur. Bunun İngiltere, Almanya, İsviçre, Kanada ve Avustralya gibi bazı örnekleri mevcut — bunlar hukuki çerçevede kurulmuş ve ticari çıkarlardan bağımsız olarak halkın haber alma hakkını garanti altına alıyorlar. Kuruluş yapıları olarak da kendi toplumlarındaki çeşitli sektörleri temsil ediyorlar ve partizan bürokratlar yerine bağımsız profesyoneller tarafından yönetiliyorlar.
Ticari kaygılardan ve iktidarın etkisinden uzak, iyi gazetecilik için önemli bir odak noktası olarak çalışan özerk bir kamu kanalı hem Türkiye’de, hem de Güney Afrika ve Filipinler gibi bir çok genç demokraside, kamusal tartışmaların içeriğinin gelişmesini sağlayacaktır.
Demokrasiye geçişlerde çoğulculuk ve çeşitlilik sadece hükümet yanlısı medya ile partizan muhalefet yayınları arasında bir rekabet alanına sıkışırsa, bu pek anlamlı olmaz. Medya sektöründeki özel mülkiyet inandırıcılığı yüksek, bağımsız, canlı ve yüksek kaliteli bir “Dördüncü Kuvvet”in varolmasına izin verecek bir şekilde yapılandırılmalı.
Türkiye’deki medya kuruluşlarının Gezi Parkı eylemlerini haber yapma konusundaki olağanüstü başarısızlıklarının ve Antarktika’da buzlar üzerinde yuvarlanan penguenlerin yerine İstanbul sokaklarında yürüyen Türklerin haberini yapan uluslararası medya kuruluşlarına karşı saldırgan çıkışlarının altında yatan en önemli dersin özü tam da bu.
Medya sermayedarları kendi hükümetleri ile ne kadar çok karanlık ilişkilerin içine girerlerse, açgözlülükleri meslek ahlakına dayalı gazeteciliği o kadar engelliyor ve onların hükümetten hesap sorma kapasitelerini yokediyor.
Yozlaşmış bir medya, yolsuzlukları inandırıcı bir şekilde asla ortaya çıkaramaz.
Yavuz Baydar Sabah gazetesinde okur temsilcisi ve Today's Zaman gazetesinde köşe yazarıdır.
Turkish police crash Taksim Square wedding party
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, July 20, 2013 19:08 EDT
Nuray and Ozgur fell in love behind the barricades of last month’s mass anti-government protests in Istanbul, and their wedding ceremony would have been incomplete without the Turkish police.
So when the couple picked the epicentre of the revolt on Taksim Square as the venue to tie the knot Saturday, the anti-riot police obliged and provided the water cannon.
Baton-wielding police broke up a crowd of around a thousand fellow activists who had turned up for the wedding of Nuray Cokol, a 32-year-old nurse, and Ozgur Kaya, a 34-year-old electrician, in Gezi Park.
The wedding guests, veterans of the protests that started on May 31 and rattled Turkey’s government, had turned up to celebrate what the Turkish press has called “the love story of the uprising”.
“Long live the resistance, long live love,” shouted the protesters-cum-wedding guests before police backed by water cannon dispersed them.
Five people died during the three weeks of protests that saw an estimated 2.5 million people take to the streets in 80 different cities to demand Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s resignation.
What began as a protest against plans to redevelop Gezi Park, which is adjacent to Istanbul’s Taksim Square, soon evolved into an unprecedented nationwide movement against Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government.
The authorities had closed the park to the public after police forced protesters out on June 15. It was reopened 10 days ago but demonstrations remain banned.
War-torn, stateless area of Nagorny Karabakh reinvents self as a tourist hub
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, July 20, 2013 17:07 EDT
Sniper fire, minefields, ghost towns: perched perilously on the verge of conflict, the disputed Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani region of Nagorny Karabakh may not sound the ideal holiday destination.
Now, though, a growing number of foreign tourists are heading to the breakaway territory — which is not recognised by any state — and say they are seeing a different side to its war-scarred image.
Wandering around the region’s largest town Stepanakert as part of a tour group whose members come from places ranging from Turin to Taiwan, French pharmacist Jordan Nahoum said that while he knew all about Nagorny Karabakh’s bloody past, he was surprised by what he found.
“People are very nice and open,” Nahoum, 23, told AFP as he stood next to a row of hawkers selling tourist trinkets. “It is very safe here and I see many tourists from different countries — I don’t feel myself in danger.”
Seized from Azerbaijan by Armenian-backed separatists in a brutal war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives as the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, Nagorny Karabakh remains frozen between war and peace.
Despite a fragile 1994 ceasefire that ended major hostilities, repeated attempts to get Armenia and Azerbaijan to sign a final peace deal over the past two decades have failed, and both sides — especially oil-rich Azerbaijan — are rearming heavily.
Nagorny Karabakh is still recognised as part of Azerbaijan by the United Nations, but its population is almost completely ethnic Armenian after the Azerbaijani community fled in the wake of the war.
Soldiers along the heavily fortified frontline exchange gunfire almost daily, with both sides blaming each other for violating the ceasefire. So far this year some 20 soldiers from both sides have been killed.
– ‘A pleasant place for tourism’ –
Despite this, the local authorities have pumped money into promoting the region at tourist fairs overseas, and they say the drive is paying off.
Over the past few years, local authorities say, visitor numbers have grown by 40 percent annually and in 2012 the number of foreign tourists — not counting visitors from Armenia’s huge diaspora — topped 15,500 people.
“This unprecedented growth shows that despite the heated confrontation with Azerbaijan we’ve created an image of Karabakh as a pleasant place for tourism, safe and interesting,” says Sergey Shahverdyan, head of the separatist authority’s department for tourism.
Once ravaged by fighting, the serene boulevards of Stapanakert — some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the frontline — do not feel like they are in a conflict zone and the town is now studded with new hotels and restaurants following a building boom in recent years.
“If we can maintain this sort of growth in visitors then in five years tourism will be one of the most profitable sectors for our budget,” Shahverdyan said, pointing out that no tourist had ever been injured in Karabakh.
– Rugged mountains and thickly forested hills –
Azerbaijan though is fiercely opposed to the nascent tourist industry in a region it considers under illegal occupation.
Anyone visiting Nagorny Karabakh — which is only accessible by road from Armenia — risks being blacklisted by Baku, and moves to open a new airport that would boost Stepanakert’s links to the outside world have brought threats of a return to war.
But for those willing to risk the journey, tour operators argue that there is plenty to attract tourists to Nagorny Karabakh — a spectacular highland area of rugged mountains and thickly forested hills.
Despite the destruction of cultural heritage in the war, the region remains studded with testaments to its rich and diverse history — from ancient ruins to medieval monasteries and 18th-century mosques.
For some visitors though, that is not enough.
“There are those who prefer extreme tourism, who want to go to the frontline, but we have to explain to them that it can be dangerous as there are minefields,” said Gohar Hovannisyan, a manager at tour firm Sati.
In fact, it is impossible to escape the grim reminders of the region’s brutal conflict, which often saw neighbour turn on neighbour and the entire 600,000-strong Azerbaijani population of Nagorny Karabakh and seven surrounding districts forced to flee.
“We don’t hide anything about the conflict,” says tour guide Ani Hovhannisyan.
But both sides have radically different versions of what happened and inevitably it is the Armenian side of the story tourists hear when they visit.
Such is the case with the town of Agdam — a former Azerbaijani city of around 50,000 inhabitants outside Karabakh, which was one of several areas Karabakh Armenian forces overran in 1993.
It is now a bombed-out ghost town, its Azerbaijani population among the hundreds of thousands forced to flee the region. Hovhannisyan says she tells her tourists that Agdam had to be cleared because Azerbaijanis there used to fire on Armenian civilians.
Despite the region’s uncertain future, tourists like Andrey Hoynowski from Poland say they will be recommending a visit to their friends back home and that the added attention might even help Karabakh move on.
“They need to resolve this conflict peacefully, but in the meantime they shouldn’t stop tourists from travelling here,” Hoynowski, 59, said, smiling for a photograph in front of the medieval Gandzasar monastery.
July 20, 2013
Karzai Signs Second Election Law, Clearing Way for Presidential Vote Next Year
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai on Saturday approved the second of two elections laws, setting the stage for a presidential vote to be held next year. But the deaths of at least 14 people in bombings offered a bloody reminder of the obstacles Afghanistan faces as the country prepares for what will be its first peaceful transition of power as the United States pulls back.
The United States and its allies, who pay the vast majority of Afghanistan’s bills, have made it clear that they expect the presidential election to be held next year, and would prefer that it take place on time. The vote is scheduled for April 5, and diplomats have said Afghanistan must hold an “acceptable” election — that is, a vote considered legitimate enough to avoid a political crisis — if it expects to see billions of dollars in aid pledges materialize in the coming years.
Until last week, when Parliament passed the two laws needed to govern the election and the commissions that are to run the vote, there were growing concerns about whether the election would be held on schedule, if at all.
But Mr. Karzai last week signed the law governing the election commissions, the more contentious of the two laws, and on Saturday he signed the one outlining how the vote would be held, according to a statement from the presidential palace.
If the election goes ahead and a new president replaces Mr. Karzai, who has served his constitutional limit of two terms, it would be the first time that Afghanistan has had a peaceful transfer of power. Its previous governments were overthrown in coups, like the one that toppled the monarchy in 1973.
Yet, even as Afghanistan’s political elite prepared for the election, the Taliban remained a potent force, especially in the insurgents’ traditional strongholds in the southern and eastern parts of the country.
The power of the Taliban to disrupt, and to kill, was on display over the weekend in the southern province of Helmand, where American Marines and British soldiers had spent much of the past few years trying to root out the insurgents.
The foreign troops are ceding the fight to the Afghan Army and police. Both Afghan forces remain very much works in progress, and the Taliban appear to be reasserting themselves in areas that the American-led coalition never cleared fully.
Chief among those areas is the district of Sangin, where five Afghan intelligence agents and a police officer were killed after their vehicle struck a hidden bomb late Friday, Afghan officials said.
There were three other bombings on Friday afternoon and evening in Helmand, and six civilians and two police officers were killed in the attacks, said Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the provincial government.
One of the bombings killed at least three civilians in Marja, the site of a large and widely publicized offensive by American, Afghan and British forces in 2010. In the years since, the former Taliban stronghold has grown markedly more secure.
But American commanders said they believed that the Taliban wanted to re-establish themselves in Marja, seeing it as a chance to score a military and propaganda victory by showing that they could take on the Afghan security forces.
Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul.
July 20, 2013
Despite Education Advances, a Host of Afghan School Woes
By ROD NORDLAND
SALANG, Afghanistan — There is not an ounce of fat on the wiry frame of Abdul Wahid, and no wonder.
After he finishes his morning work shift, he walks 10 miles down mountain trails in northern Afghanistan to the first road, where he catches a bus for the last couple of miles to the teacher training institute in Salang. He walks back up the mountain another 10 miles to get home, arriving well after dark, just in time to rest up for his day job.
In his determination to formally qualify as a teacher, Mr. Wahid, 33, exemplifies many of the gains for Afghan education in recent years. “It’s worth it, because this is my future,” he said.
But he also personifies how far the efforts here have yet to go. Mr. Wahid’s day job is being the principal of the high school in his village, Unamak. Though he has only a high school diploma, he is the best educated teacher that his 800 students have.
It is widely accepted that demand among Afghans for better schooling — and the actual opportunity to attend, particularly for girls — is at its highest point in decades. For Western officials seeking to show a positive legacy from a dozen years of war and heavy investment in Afghanistan, improvements in education have provided welcome news.
But for those who are working to make it happen — local Afghan officials, aid workers, teachers and students — there are concerns that much of the promise of improvement is going unfulfilled, and major problems are going unsolved.
In interviews, they pointed out an abysmal dropout rate, widespread closings of schools in some areas of conflict and a very low level of education for those who do manage to find a seat in a class. Overcrowding is so bad that nearly all schools operate on split shifts, so students get a half-day, and many of them are on three shifts a day, meaning that those students get only three hours of instruction daily. And many children are not in school. Unicef estimated in 2012 that one in two school-age children did not attend at all.
Further, while there has demonstrably been positive and rapid growth in the public school system, there have also been daunting challenges, particularly a lack of capacity to find or train qualified teachers, print enough textbooks or build enough safe schools.
According to statistics compiled by Unicef, only 24 percent of Afghanistan’s teachers are qualified under Afghan law, meaning they completed a two-year training course after high school. In many rural places, there are sometimes teachers with 10th-grade educations teaching 11th and 12th graders.
Forty-five percent of the country’s 13,000 schools operate without usable buildings, under tents or canvas lean-tos, or even just under the branches of a tree; in a country of harsh extremes of climate both in winter and in summer, that means many missed school days.
The Afghan public school system has expanded immensely in recent years, buoyed by extensive international aid — the United States Agency for International Development alone has given $934 million to education programs over the past 12 years, according to the government agency. The education minister, Farouk Wardak, insists that 10.5 million students are enrolled this year, 40 percent of them girls, a huge increase from an estimate of 900,000 enrolled students, almost none of them girls, under Taliban rule in 2001.
Those numbers are widely quoted by Afghan and Western officials as a marker of success, but the claims are seen as unsupportable by many here.
Jennifer Rowell of CARE International, who has been conducting a study of education in Afghanistan, cautions that enrollment numbers are not actual attendance numbers.
And she said that when CARE tried to contact the headmasters of schools around the country, using contact lists kept by the Education Ministry, “half to three-quarters of phone numbers of school masters were missing, or the man we call has not been in the job for years.”
That makes it difficult for the Education Ministry to do any meaningful monitoring of actual school attendance around the country. Beyond initial enrollments, attendance tends to drop off quickly, often within just a few weeks. Only about 10 percent of students make it through to graduation, according to U.S.A.I.D. figures.
Those numbers are even lower for girls, most of whom drop out between sixth and ninth grades, after puberty makes them marriageable in many areas. Female teachers are acutely scarce, and families worry about the safety of sending their daughters to school given continuing threats from the Taliban and resistance from some local elders.
The schools themselves have an incentive to inflate their figures, since their financing, which comes from Kabul, is based on enrollment.
In the eastern province of Khost, bordering Pakistan, Education Ministry documents from Kabul officially list 252,000 students enrolled last year. But in Khost Province’s education department, Kamar Khan Kamran, who works as a recruiter of teachers, said those numbers were wildly inflated. “I think we would hardly be able to enroll 20,000 to 25,000 students this year in the province, though the demand for education is booming rapidly.”
The shortage of teachers is so acute that in many districts the schools are hiring teachers who graduated only from sixth, seventh or eighth grade, Mr. Kamran said, “even though it’s not legal.”
For all of that, even those who warn that establishing quality education in the country is a mission far from accomplished will acknowledge that improvement has been marked over the past decade.
One United Nations official, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to anger Afghan officials, noted that while there still was not enough attention paid to the quality of education being provided, “enrollment has been tremendous, very encouraging, particularly for girls.”
S. Ken Yamashita, the head of U.S.A.I.D. in Afghanistan, said that even though reliable statistics are hard to come by in Afghanistan, “what’s absolutely clear is the number of kids in school has gone up, the participation of girls has gone up, and it’s such a huge differential.”
He added, “Education is very much a success in Afghanistan.”
A good example of that success is the Sardar Kabuli High School for Girls, in the capital. It was built for $27 million from the United States — and is still not the most expensive American-financed school. The Ghazi Boys High School in Kabul cost $57 million.
Last year Sardar Kabuli High graduated 290 girls, more than a third of the number of this year’s first-grade enrollments, and half of them passed university entrance exams.
“This school is an example to the whole country,” said the headmistress, Nasrin Sultani. Two years ago, it consisted of 38 tents and students attending in three shifts.
Now its 6,600 students, in two shifts, all have their own desks and no more than two students share one textbook.
In Zamina Stanikzai’s 12th-grade math class, when she asked for a show of hands of girls who want to go to college, all but one of the 40 students’ hands shot up. The one was a younger girl, waiting for her sister to finish classes to take her home.
When the girls were asked how many thought their families would allow them to go to college, however, half of the hands went down.
A girl in the back stood up and asked to speak, which she did in halting but good English. “Many of our families still believe in the old ways,” she said.
Mr. Wardak, the education minister, expressed pride when he talked about what has been accomplished despite the challenges, and particularly in remote areas, like Ghor Province. “For the first time in the 5,000-year history of Afghanistan, for instance, Ghor has 800 schools, 173 of them high schools,” he said in an interview.
He becomes defensive, however, about the quality issue. “I have $70 per student per year to spend,” he said. “In the U.S. you spend $20,000, in Pakistan $130. You don’t expect to do much for $70 a year.”
Outside Kabul’s public school system, the difference in quality can be drastic. At Mir Ali Ahmad Girls School in Char-i-Kor, in Parwan Province, the girls share their building with boys — two shifts for boys, one for girls. Only the boys have sports fields and playgrounds. One set of textbooks is shared by three or four girls. Two girls share a seat at each desk.
And even in the capital, most public schools are not the showpiece that Sardar Kabuli High is.
At Sayid Ismail Balkh School, 8,000 students are enrolled in three shifts, three hours each. They have buildings, but one set of them has no roofs or windows — it was a World Bank project, but the contractor took the money and ran — and another set was a Japanese-financed project that also was never finished, so only the first of two stories were built. Canvas tarps are slung over the walls to provide shelter.
“When it rains, we take the day off,” said Barat Ali Sadaqi, the headmaster.
Toilet facilities and running water systems have not been finished, and the odor of sewage permeates the small compound. Electricity is intermittent, and there are six computers for the whole student body.
On a given day, only 5,400 students attend out of the 8,000 enrolled. Still, they are crammed in: three to a desk, 40 to a class, 10 textbooks per class.
“This is development after 10 years in Kabul,” Mr. Sadaqi said.