Archive for the 'Technology' Category

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.”


Egypt’s changing faces

Egyptian protesters who rioted against rising food prices have today been sentenced to between three and five years in prison by a special tribunal.

Shouts and calls for justice greeted the surprise verdicts as 22 people were jailed on charges of looting, attacking police officers and possessing firearms.

Outside the court, hundreds of supporters chanted anti-government slogans, demanding their release. Defence lawyer Ahmed Higazi called the verdict “blatant injustice,” asking:

“What has the government done for the people? Is this what they do to the people?”

The riots in the town of Mahalla al-Kobra in April were the worst Egypt has seen in more than 30 years. Security forces killed three civilians and arrested hundreds more as an industrial strike escalated into violent protests that gripped the city for two days.

Egypt has been hit hard by the economic crisis. The World Bank estimated at the time that global food prices had increased 83% in the past three years and earlier this year, 11 people were killed queuing for government-subsidised bread.

While protests have died down in recent months as food prices have fallen, there remains a tangible sense of disillusionment among Egyptian youth at the state of their country. The majority of Egyptians are under 30 and many have lived their lives solely under the near-dictatorship of Mubarak’s government. Many are calling for change.

On May 4, to mark the President’s 80th birthday, some 74,000 young Egyptians joined a Facebook group that demanded a minimum wage, salary raises linked to inflation, and legislation and other measures to control prices.

The group urged members to strike, wear black, and write “No” to Mubarak on their money.

The growing influence of the “Political Party of the Internet” in Egyptian politics has been greeted with dismay by the government. Young dissidents have been thrown in prison for their online activism and many bloggers fear persecution for expressing their views.

Esra Abdel Fattah, 27, was thrown in jail for more than three weeks for starting a Facebook group to organise a general strike. More than 60,o00 people joined the group.

Fattah was only released when her mother personally appealed to Mubarak, though her case only worked to inspire others: We are all Esra became the name of a popular group on Facebook.

Fattah is not alone. Others, such as Noha Atef, who runs the Torture in Egypt site, Al-Tatheeb fi Masr, claims to have received death threats against her and her family because of her dedicated years of blogging.

Yet not all of Egypt’s parties fear the internet. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic opposition movement banned in Egypt since the 50s, has used the internet with deft skill to spread its message in the face of government attempts to silence traditional electoral campaigns.

Unlike the current government, the Brotherhood in Egypt is young, dynamic and, significantly, technically literate. Where the current government has tried to silence the multitudes on the internet, the Brotherhood speak to them in their own language.

Asem Shalaby, a publisher and Brotherhood leader, said the BBC: “The media campaign has become much more important than the electoral campaign as we know we are never going to win the elections.”

In July of this year, the Brotherhood launched a Facebook group to spread Islam and promote political activism among young Muslims around the world. It now has 1,637 members.

One journalist I spoke to who has spent many years reporting on Egyptian affairs, says that if put to a free vote today, he believes the Brotherhood would win an election.

He said: “The government can’t escape the fact that it’s completely morally bankrupt. The Muslim Brotherhood is very plugged in and, in the end, the internet is more likely to bring the rise of political Islam than democracy.”


Virtual reality

A 19-year-old committed suicide live on the internet while being egged-on by watchers, the Times reported on Friday.

Abraha Biggs, a teenager from Broward County, Florida, took an overdose of pills while broadcasting from his webcam on watched by 1,500 viewers.

Biggs had told chatroom users that he was planning to kill himself, but to begin with no one took his threats seriously and several people even accused him of acting. It was only after he had not moved for several hours that viewers contacted the police.

On another bodybuilding forum he posted a suicide note that read: “”I am an a@#hole. I have let everyone down and I feel as though I will never change or never improve. I am in love with a girl and I know that I am not good enough for her.

“Please forgive me all for taking my own life so early. I tried so hard to fight against this strong battle. I have reached out for help so many times, and yet I believe, I was turned away because of the things I did, that it is a punishment I am willing to take, for I know that being who I am has only brought myself and others pain.”

In a statement outside their home, his father, a maths professor, said: “It’s unimaginable. I don’t want to watch what’s out there.There seems to be a lack of control as to what people put on the internet.”

Last year, a British father-of-two killed himself while streaming on the Paltalk website. Kevin Whitrick, 42, was the first British ‘online suicide’ after he hung himself while being watched and goaded by more than 100 people on the internet.

According to media reports at the time, one chatter urged him:

“Go on, jump! I’m waiting. Look at him wriggling – he can’t even kill himself properly!”

Another source was quoted as saying: “We couldn’t believe he was doing it – it was surreal.”

These incidents are part of a growing trend of online suicides. According to one charity which works to prevent suicide, there have been at least 17 deaths in the UK since 2001 which involved chatrooms or sites which give advice on suicide methods.

Earlier this year 17 young people committed suicide in Bridgend, South Wales. Many argued this spate of deaths was down to the influence of social networking sites which romanticised death.

Bridgend MP Madeleine Moon said: “The worrying part about internet sites is it is a virtual world – it isn’t a real world. The things that happen there don’t necessarily demonstrate the consequences.”
A Home Office survey of UK households in 2008 found that nearly 16.5 million households – 65 per cent of the population – had internet at home, up eight per cent on 2007.

Another survey in 2007 found that people between 15 and 25 were 25 per cent more likely to be online than other age groups and spent 24 per cent more time on the internet than the average user.

The internet has fast become an integral part of most British teenagers’ lives but what impact this will have on current and future generations remains largely unknown. The number of internet suicides has risen dramatically in recent years. Yet why and how internet communities are influencing young people remains an unsolved mystery.

The government has responded by threatening tighter controls on “harmful and distasteful” suicide sites, as well as erecting barriers at well-known “jump points” and setting up “suicide patrols” to watch over sites. But in a country where street violence has claimed the lives of 23 teenagers this year in the capital alone, this sounds like little more than virtual insanity.

July 2019
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