Posts Tagged 'Politics'

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.

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.

‘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

Inciting stupidity

The furore that has greeted the Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ failed attempt to gain entry to the UK in order to show his anti-Islam film, Fitna, has been remarkable.

Not because of the heated reaction from ministers, not because of the wall of barrage of anger that has come from Muslim groups, but because so few of the people who denounced with it such vehemence had actually seen it.

After Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, banned Wilders from the UK on the grounds that his “presence in the UK would pose a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society”, Labour ministers were quick to jump on the bandwagon.

David Miliband, the foreign secretary, described Fitna as “a hate-filled film designed to stir up religious and racial hatred and is contrary to our laws”. He then had to admit he hadn’t seen it.

Similarly, when Keith Vaz, Labour chair of the Commons Home Affairs committee, spoke in support of the ban on Newsnight he openly admitted he hadn’t seen the film and then, incredibly, went on to say that he didn’t need to.

More incredible than the sheer arrogance of this comment, which is hardly incredible at all, is the fact that if any of them had actually taken the time to watch the film they would have seen that it is nothing more than puerile, badly-produced trash.

Wilders intersperses verses from the Koran with images of terrorist attacks and various (mainly Saudi) Imams preaching hatred to the West and images of baying mobs, veiled women and children taking part in the Ashoura, a Muslim religious festival.

Yes, it incites racial and religious hatred. Yes, it calls the Koran “fascist” and compares Muslims to Nazis. And yes, it uses the Koran in the most irresponsible, selective manner to do this (exactly what it accuses the Imams of doing).

But the idea that it could pose any serious threat bar providing fuel for existing bigots and racists is nothing more than an insult to the intelligence to the British public.

As Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of the anti-extremist think tank the Quilliam Foundation, puts it:

Banning Geert Wilders from the UK is not the solution. Just as the ideas of non-violent Islamist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir should be tackled through debate and argument, so should those of Wilders and others.

Freedom of speech should be protected – so long as people do not use this freedom to call for violence against others.

Well I won’t fall into the same trap. Instead, you can decide for yourself. To see the English version, click the link here.

I’m a barbie girl in a barbie world

Tall, blonde, blue-eyed and with breasts that defy gravity (and god). Is it Claudia Schiffer, Monica Bellucci or even Madonna? No, this is Angela Merkel, as created by Barbie.

To celebrate half a century as the world’s most iconic toy, Barbie manufacturer Mattel has brought out a version modelled on the German chancellor.

Today, mini-Merkel stole the show at the the 60th annual international toy fair in Nuremberg, south Germany.

She will soon be available in shops for €20 (£17.50).

A spokeswoman for Mattel said that they had chosen to portray Merkel because she, like Barbie, embodies the dreams of ambitious little girls around the world.

She said: “She’s simply a good role model for girls around the world.”

As Germany’s first female Chancellor, it would be hard to argue that Merkel is not a good role model for little girls, whatever you may think of her policies (or lack of them). But does she really represent the kind of woman that girls aspire to become?

Looking at the state of the UK government, it would seem not. Despite speeches, promises and policies to the contrary, women are still sorely underrepresented in British politics.

In the House of Commons only 1 in 5 MPs is a woman. And while local government is doing somewhat better, still only 30 per cent of all local councillors are female.

That places the UK 18th out of 27 European states in female representation in national government, and 21st when it comes to female MEPs, which account for less than a quarter, according to 50/50, a European women’s lobbying.

By comparison, Sweden 57 per cent of seats in Sweden’s government are occupied by women.

Is this disparity down to a lack of interest among women in going into politics, or is it more pervasive? Is there something innately macho about the structure of government that precludes women from entering into the hallowed halls of Westminster?

The UN answers yes. According to a report by iKnow Politics based on research by the UN, most local governments are inherently patriarchal institutions.

It states: “Their structures and procedures are designed for and by men and they do not take into account women’s multiple responsibilities in their homes and communities, or differences of communications and decision-making styles existing between men and women.”

Hardly news. It has long been remarked that the structures of power, be it government, education or business, are innately geared towards men. Yet I believe that there is one decisive factor that differentiates politics when it comes to vilifying women: the media.

Women in politics almost invariably get a bad press. If they are strong or defiant, they are painted as witches or harpies in the eyes of the public. If they are quiet or attractive, they become reduced to classic stereotypes of the Madonna or the whore.

Take the uproar that greeted some recent ill-judged remarks from the Parliamentary Under Secretary, Baroness Vadera. Ill-judged though they undoubtedly were, very little of the media coverage of the incident actually referred to her comments.

Instead, we were shown some kind of evil incarnation of Xena Warrior Princess. In the Spectator she was an “assassin … ass-kicker … axe-wielder”, in the Mail she was given the moniker of “Shriti the Shriek”.

Even the BBC decided to get its penny’s-worth, with Nick Robinson on the Today programme saying: “Civil servants call her Shreiky Shriti. Others choose to leave.”

It is as if we are in the school yard, gossiping in corners about the popular girls in the year.

But at least the UK is not alone. Last year’s US Presidential Elections were one of the most openly bitchy displays of character assassination by the media in history.

While Obama stormed to victory, much of the rest of the press devoted their time to a face-off between Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton. And it doesn’t take much to see who won.

So, maybe in the end Barbie really does have it right. If you want to get ahead in politics, it’s better to be made of plastic.

 

 

 

 

 

Great expectations

In 1999 Tony Blair told the Labour Conference: “If we are in politics for one thing, it is to make sure that all children are given the best chance in life.”

A decade on, that dream seems even further away.

Last month, Gordon Brown announced a “national crusade” to improve social mobility for the country’s most underprivileged children.

In a controversial move, discriminating against people on the grounds of class will be made illegal, just as it is on the basis of sex, age or gender. Though exactly how it will be possible to identify such discrimination remains unsurprisingly unclear.

Former health secretary Alan Milburn will head a new commission aimed to widen access to professions traditionally seen as the bastion of the middle classes, such as law, medicine and the media.

So, in the wake of all this government bluster it’s good to know that, on the ground at least, some things never change. The Cambridge paper, Varsity, today published a list that shows the average weekly budget and annual parental income of the parents of students by subject.

And, thank goodness, there are no surprises here. Topping the list with an average budget of £182 and an average parental income of £118,000 are the HAGS: the History of Art Girls.

As in life, following hot on in their heels are the Management boys with an average budget of £171, though the second-highest parental income is in Economics at £117,000.

The group with the lowest parental income are the Education students, on £46,500. Other altruistic professions – the doctors and vets – are average in the parental income groups but sit at the bottom of the tables when it comes to weekly budgets.

All of these are rather higher than the national average salary of around £30k (which has no doubt plummeted since last year). And how many students actually know for sure their parents’ income?

Still, if it shows one thing for sure, it is that we are all still obsessed with money, who has it and how much. I just wonder how many of these students will grow up to have anything like the income of their parents.

The Varsity list in full:

Average weekly budget/Average Parental Income

History of Art £182, £118,000

Management £171, £67,50

Architecture £155, £83,100

Land Economy £153, £74,000

Geography £148, £104,000

Classics £137, £84,600

Economics £137, £117,000

Maths £134, £78,000

Philosophy £129, £57,700

Computer Science £127, £50,900

Oriental Studies £125, £87,800

English £122, £61,200

SPS £119, £77,600

Law £112, £80,000

Music £107, £80,000

MML £106, £62,200

History £106, £74,800

ASNaC £104, £63,300

Theology £103, £74,900

Engineering £92, £68,100

Natural Sciences £90, £64,600

Arch & Anth £89, £52,200

Medicine £86, £62,300

Education £78, £46,500

Vet. Medicine £76, £64,600

 


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