Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Egypt bans porn sites

Yesterday’s decision by one of Egypt’s highest courts to ban porn sites is yet another example of the government’s losing battle to control the thoughts and actions of its people. arabicporn

The Administrative Court, based in Cairo, has ordered the government to block the sites in response to a case brought by Muslim lawyer Nizar Ghorab, who filed the case under his own initiative.

He welcomed the decision today, saying: “Thank God we won. Now the government should stop these electronic dens of vice immediately.”

Arguing in court, Ghorab cited the case of a senior civil servant and his wife who were arrested last year for holding “swinger” parties after soliciting other parties over the internet.

Although the decision can be appealed to a higher court, Ghorab believes that this is unlikely as it would put the government in the uncomfortable position of being seen to protect pornography.

“Freedoms of expression and public rights should be restricted by maintaining the fundamentals of religion, morality and patriotism,” the AFP news agency quoted the court as saying in its ruling.

Freedom of speech has long been under fire in Egypt. The country has been held in a state of perpetual emergency rule since President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party came to power in 1981. An estimated 18,000 people are in prison under Egyptian law, which allows police to arrest people without charge, while media organisations are kept firmly under the yoke of state control.

This curtailment of civil freedoms on the street has led many young Egyptians to turn to the virtual highway. According to government figures from 2007, Egypt has around 12m internet users, one in nine of the country’s population, making it the largest online presence of all the Arab nations.

080729%20egyptNine per cent of this – around 800,000 people – use the social networking site Facebook, which has become a powerful voice for the country’s youthful population. Epitomised in the April 6 Youth Movement, a political group created during last year’s protests which now has more than 700,000 members, social networks are taking on a political face.

Within hours of the first bombings of Gaza by Israel in January, around 2,000 people had organised a n ad hoc demonstration using Facebook and taken to the streets, many of them voicing their anger at their own government for what they saw as collusion with Israel.

In this light, the Egyptian court’s ruling to try to censor the internet is a cynical and hollow attempt to extend its waning power to the untapped domain of the internet. Pornography may often typify the exploitation of society’s most vulnerable and expolited, yet it also represents  the power of freedom of expression in the face of moral censure from mainstream society.

Love it or loathe it, porn is a barometer to a country’s politics. And the more the Egyptian government tries to restrict the freedoms of its people in the name of “religion, morality and patriotism,” the closer it will come to its own demise.

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World Press Freedom Day: a eulogy to international journalism?

Yesterday a group of students from Northwestern University joined a worldwide huger strike in support of the Roxana Saberi, an American journalist imprisoned in Iran for espionage.

roxana_saberiSaberi’s plight has brought world-wide condemnation of the Iranian government, after she was sentenced to eight years in prison in a closed trial that lasted only one hour. A reported 225 people have signed up to the “Free Roxana” campaign, after the Northwestern graduate started her own hunger strike in protest on April 21.

“The main point is to create awareness about the situation Roxana is facing and what many people are facing in Iran,” said student David Caratelli.

Saberi’s story is the latest example of how journalists around the globe are being persecuted for their profession. Fittingly, yesterday also marked World Press Freedom Day, instituted in 1997 by the United Nations General Assembly to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press as enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the past year, 60 journalists and media workers have been killed, 29 kidnapped and more than 900 attacked around the world. “Journalists been killed while trying to lift the veil of secrecy that governments seek to wrap around their military actions”, said Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists.

Speaking at a debate at London’s Frontline Club on Friday, he argued against the motion “Governments at war are winning the battle of controlling the international media”.

“The war on terror has been accompanied by a war just civil liberties and independent journalism,” he said, citing numerous instances of journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan facing persecution. But despite the actions of repressive governments the world over, he argued that “the voices of those suffering are given life by journalists”.

Yet his point was hotly contested. Andrew Gilligan, the controversial Evening Standard columnist, argued against the motion, claiming that war correspondents today are so desperate for stories that they latch on to anything that they would normally dismiss as rumour or government spin.

He said: “The real problem for reporting on combat situations and the reason that so many stories from Iraq were wrong is simply this: wars create a sellers market in news”. Citing the practice of embedding journalists with troops in combat situations, he said that war creates a “sellers market” for news where journalists routinely succumb to a pervasive form of self-censorship.

“Even the most independent-minded journalist in the world is not disposed to write unkind things about somebody in that situation. No one needs to threaten or be threatened,” he said.

His co-speaker James Shea, Director of Policy Planning in the Private Office of the Secretary General NATO, also countered the argument that web 2.0 technology is undermining government control of information.

“These days, everybody can be a reporter on reality”

“And if the profession has been democratised, why can’t the government also therefore enter the profession as a reporter on its own activity?”

He cited new NATO TV channels and the use of articles by eminent ‘experts’ in papers as examples of how the government is bypassing the media to get its message across and winning the war of words that has grown out of the war on terror.

Yet the most compelling of all the speakers was and Alan Fisher, a London correspondent from Al Jazeera who has reported from aljazeera1war zones around the world, most recently during Georgia’s war with Russia in August of last year. 

Descrying the debate’s Western-centric view on the success of the media, he said:

“People tend to think that if a tree falls in the forest, and an American broadcast network isn’t there to record it, did it really fall?”

Discussing the coverage of the war in Gaza, which prompted the theme of the debate, he said that Al Jazeera had been the only channel able to give full coverage of the bombings because it was prepared to tap the vast resources of local journalists already living on the strip, unlike many outlets which relied almost exclusively on Israeli news reports.

He also argued that the proliferation of international news outlets meant there are “more ways of accessing the truth” that ever before, creating a more varied and exciting perspective on international events. He said:

“We challenge authority more than ever before an we continue to and that is why the government cannot win.”

‘One man’s spin is another man’s subjectivity’ – Westminster and the politics of online journalism

The Damien McBride affair was result of the incestuous relationship between Westminster and lobby journalists, political blogger Iain Dale said yesterday.

Speaking at a debate held at the Foreign Press Association, Dale told the assembly of foreign press that journalists had failed to expose McBride earlier because they had become too close to the politicians they are meant to keep in check.

Also on the panel were Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, the anti-establishment blogger who broke the recent “smeargate” scandal and Nick Jones, a former BBC correspondent and author of several books on the dark world of political spin.

“It’s now possible for anyone to get a scoop” said Staines, explaining that that the reason the “smeargate” whistleblower had come to him was because he is not constrained by internal lobby politics.

Staines, who says that he blogs from 6am-11pm every day, describes himself as a journalist who happens to blog. With bloggers like his around working for next to nothing – his own site costs £100 a month to run – he argued that traditional media’s costly business model is defunct.

However Dale, a self-confessed Tory, argued that he saw the remit of bloggers as political commentary, rather than to report news. “I don’t regard myself as a journalist; my blog’s not there to break stories”, he said.

In the end, all of the panelists agreed that the key to survival, for any journalist, is trust: “If people don’t trust me then they won’t read my blog, so I care about what I write,” said Dale. Yet they also argued that current regulations are stifling the traditional media’s ability to break stories.

“We have a very politicized media”, said Nick Jones, arguing that an increasing number of newspapers are using the internet to post multimedia content, such as Telegraph TV, presenting severe problems for broadcast outlets which cannot compete with the far less regulated press.

Taking the video footage of Iain Tomlinson being attacked by a policeman minutes before he died at the G20 protests as an example, he argued that newspapers such as the Guardian, who broke the story, are now able to post footage on their websites that the BBC could not broadcast due to the severe legal restrictions imposed by Ofcom.

But it was Paul Staines who went the furthest in advocating freedom of expression: “In a sense, pornographers are the greatest defenders of freedom of the press”, he said.

Queen tells off Berlusconi

It’s almost enough to make you a royalist.

‘Making money out of murder’

Islington Council has been accused of profiting from “murder” after an investigation by Islington Now revealed that the authority has nearly £5m invested in companies dealing in the arms trade.

The deadly weaponry on this tank was made by a subsidiary of BAE Systems

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that at the end of last year the council’s pension fund held £4.9m of shares with seven key players in the defence industry.

More than a third of the investments (£1.92m) is in BAE Systems, Europe’s largest defence firm. The company has been at the centre of controversy in recent weeks for producing parts of the F-16 fighter planes used to bomb the Gaza strip and cluster bombs recently outlawed under the International Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Campaign groups branded the figures “shocking”. Michael Johnson, who works with Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), said: “It’s not just that these companies make weapons. They make money out of murder – and so does the council.

“There’s been a major outcry against the bombings in Gaza. BAE trades with Israel and Gaza, they have offices there. Where is the action that says: ‘We’re not going to profit from the murder of Palestinians?’”

Local politician Jon Notts, a former Green Party parliamentary candidate for Islington North, insisted it was unacceptable for public bodies to invest in an industry that supported unethical powers abroad.

He said: “The Green Party is fundamentally opposed to the arms trade and the sale of weapons to oppressive regimes. We are against central or local government investing in this sector in any capacity.”

The council’s pension fund, which represents more than 5,000 members of staff and former employees, states that it aims “to promote corporate and social responsibility” in its investment strategy.

An F-16 fighter similar to those used in Israel's bombardment of Gaza and designed by BAE

But the local authority has claimed that its greatest responsibility is to its investors. 

A council spokesman said: “Islington’s pension fund is regulated by law. The council, acting as a trustee of the pension fund, is legally bound to get the best return on investments and reduce the burden on council tax payers. This is the case for all local government pension schemes across the country. 

“We continually review our policies on socially-responsible investment.”

But campaigners argue that ethical investment funds have matched the FTSE 100 over recent years and can actually outperform other investments over long periods. 

The revelation comes in the wake of a growing trend in public bodies towards more ethical investment policies. In 2006, a report by the CAAT found that 45 universities held more than £15m in companies involved in the arms trade.

Since then, many of them have bowed to pressure from students and campaign groups to withdraw their investments, including SOAS, Goldsmiths, the University of Manchester, University of Wales, Bangor and St Andrews, as well as the previous biggest investor, University College London.

The total value of the council’s pensions fund at the end of last year was around £560m, meaning that arms investments amount to less than one per cent of the total. CAAT argues that this is all the more reason to withdraw them.

Mr Johnson, 29, said: “It’s such a tiny proportion of the overall investment that selling the shares isn’t actually going to prejudice the overall fund’s value. It’s going to make more difference to BAE in terms of their reputation and how other funds view holding their investment than it’s going to make to Islington.”

But Unite, the largest trade union in Islington which represents many of those with investments in Islington’s pension fund, refused to condemn the council. A spokesman said: “We don’t have a position on the matter.”

For more information visit: www.islingtonnow.co.uk

Iraq looks to a brighter future

Violence and insecurity are no longer the most pressing concerns for most Iraqis since the invasion in 2003, a poll released yesterday has found. _45570317_brit_pres_pie_2262

Figures from a  survey conducted in February for the BBC and others show a marked increase in the optimism of many people and a change to more conventional preoccupations, such as unemployment and the economy.

Perceptions of national security have shown a marked improvement, with 85 per cent of all respondents agreeing that the current situation was very good or quite good, up 23 per cent on a year ago. More than half say that security has improved in the last year, up 16 per cent on figures from March 2008 and nearly three in five say they feel safe in their neighbourhoods, up 22 per cent.

There was a 14 per cent increase, to 60 per cent, of those who think things will be better in Iraq as a whole in a year from now.

Speaking at a press conference at the Foreign Press Association, Haider al Abbadi, a member of the Iraqi Parliament and Chair of its Economic and Reconstruction Committee, confirmed this feeling of optimism.

In measured tones, he quoted the statistic that the number of violent and terrorist incidents had fallen by 90 per cent in the last year. He said: “There has been a marked development in the security field and, in my opinion, the improvement in security has passed the no return line.”

However, he argued that improving the economy and creating jobs were vital if security gains were to be maintained. Unemployment in Iraq is currently at 15 per cent, a figure which al Abbadi argues could provide fodder for dissident groups. He said:

“Of course there is unemployment in every country. But in Iraq, unemployment is more difficult and more complex because there are many criminal and terrorist organisations that try to recruit unemployed people.

“It is in the interest of the country to create jobs.”

271_cartoon_iraq_under_construction_large1The Iraqi government have long been voicing their committment to diversifying the country’s oil-dependent economy into agriculture and trade. More than 1,000 of the dispossessed “intellectuals” that left the country in the wake of the 2003 invasion have reportedly returned to the country over the last year and officials claim that there has been much interest in construction contracts from China, Jordan and Iran.

However, the planned reconstruction works face severe pressure from the financial squeeze. Despite several loans from Asian countries, including Japan and China, the proposed budget of $56bn has still not been ratified by the Iraqi parliament due to the decline in profits from oil exports, which are currently priced at under $40 per barrel after a high of $150 last summer.

This stagnancy in economic development could potentially destroy the fragile peace that has settled over Iraq. Earlier this month, Army Lt. Frank Helmick, commander of Multinational Security Transition Command, said that Iraq’s shrinking budget may force the parliament to choose between the economy and security.

“They are many, many hard decisions that they are going to have to make”, he said.

Job Centre blues

The Job Centre on Barnsbury Road presents a bleak prospect. Inside the packed reception, an air of resigned despair clouds the room that no amount of neon lighting or brightly-coloured wall designs can dispel.

Set back on a small side street off the Barnsbury Road, the Barnsbury Job Centre Plus stands like a testament to ‘Broken Britain’; outside, teenagers in hoods skulk around, smoking and shouting. Ironically, cutbacks forced the other Job Centre on Upper Street to close last year. PD*26001897

Islington has been hit hard by the downturn in the job market. Job Centre figures show that there were nearly 1,500 redundancies in the borough at the end of last year – 20 per cent of the London total. The number of vacancies on offer is at its lowest level since records began in 2001, according to the Office of National Statistics, offering the unemployed little hope for the future.

Ben White, 32, from Barnsbury, used to work as a manager in a local accountancy firm. Six weeks ago he was made redundant due to severe cutbacks and he has been unable to find a suitable job since. He stares at the floor, sucking hard on his cigarette. “There’s just nothing decent out there,” he says adamantly.

“I used to make a good salary and enjoy my job. In there [the Job Centre] there’s nothing but shit.”

A trawl of the Job Centre computer system confirms his claim. Of the 2,957 jobs advertised in the local area, the majority offer between £7 and £9 an hour and at least a third bear the grim maxim “exceeds the national minimum wage”, the legal pay requirement of £5.73 an hour for workers aged over 22. Even these vacancies at the bottom of the pay scale require extensive expertise.

An advertisement for a council PA not only demands that the applicant “MUST have relevant experience in the public sector”, but also shorthand, advanced IT skills and audio typing. Another for a Construction Design Manager, which promises to pay only “above the minimum wage”, requires a degree in engineering or equivalent, a mandatory four years at university.

At the higher end of the scale, there were a few vacancies for plumbers and electricians, although the hourly wages on offer were between £10 and £15 an hour, a tenth of the £100 plus an hour wages offered a year ago. The future looks bleak, even for those with essential skills. Unemployment in Islington rose by 0.5 per cent above the national average at the end of last year to 6.6 per cent, aggravating an area already divided by wealth.

Bridget Fox, a local Liberal Democrat campaigner, warns that this trend could have long-term effects. “One of the biggest challenges is the growing social exclusion of some young people,” she says. “The longer they stay out of work, the less suited to and able to cope with work/hold down a job they may become.”

For more details, visit: www.islingtonnow.co.uk


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