18 May, 2007

United States Social Forum

I'll be volunteering for, attending, and blogging about the United States Social Forum, which will be held in Atlanta June 27-July 1. Hope some of the rest of you will be there, too. The schedule of workshops looks interesting and includes several sessions on Palestine-related topics and some potentially exciting workshops on Islam and social change. We shall see....

A new world may be possible, but you have to get off your ass to make it happen.


Two more journalists murdered in Iraq

Cameraman Alaa Uldeen Aziz (left), 33, and soundman Saif Laith Yousuf (right), 26, two Iraqi journalists working for ABC News, were forced from their car by gunman as they left work Thursday and their deaths were confirmed by ABC this morning.

The last count by Reporters Without Borders, not believed to include Aziz and Yousuf, of journalists and media staff killed in Iraq since March 2003 was 174.

According to ABC News, Aziz is survived by his wife, his two daughters and his mother. Yousuf leaves behind his fiancee, his mother and brothers and sisters.

I cannot fathom murdering journalists. Aside from taking that life, the killers are, in a sense, taking countless other lives by keeping others' stories from being told. We need to hear these stories; be reminded of those living through this nightmare are not simply numbers. Sometimes one story can make the difference.


17 May, 2007

What do all those squiggly lines mean?

Oversight is generally not regarded as being amongst the U.S. government's skill sets. (See Halliburton, KBR, $12 Billion US CASH!....) And then there's al-Hurra, "The Free", broadcasting in Arabic from the state of Virginia to the Arabic speaking world courtesy of your tax dollars and mine.

I only know of one person who watches the channel. The first family I rented a room from in Damascus lived in the U.S. for a number of years before returning to Syria. The father, born and raised in Syria as a Muslim, insisted I refer to him as 'John' instead of his kunya and was exceptionally insistent on telling me how much he hated "stupid...lazy....mindless...untrustworthy..." Arabs and Muslims until the day I moved out (about a week after moving in). But, my, did he love watching al-Hurra and always offered to change the channel to it whenever I was home, once offering to let me "watch some real news." Perhaps tellingly, the only content I ever saw broadcast the few times I tried to watch the channel were fashion runway shows. Our nation's brave message to the Arab world - "Stop eating and wear more overpriced, uncomfortable, and overly-revealing (even for me) clothes". Winning countless hearts and minds, indeed.

Unfortunately, while their fashion sense is keen their common sense is not. The people running al-Hurra in Virginia apparently neglected to hire any editorial supervisors who actually spoke Arabic. One might see this as a problem when your content is in Arabic and sometimes feeds live.

Such was the case, it seems, when they let Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah speak live for about an hour last December. Apparently, Nasrallah made comments inciting violence against Israel. Shocking. You let Nasrallah go live on air and he said what? That was followed by a broadcast of comments by Hamas leader and current Palestinian PM Ismail Haniya supposedly supporting the assertion of Iranian President Ahmadinejad that the Holocaust against European Jews was a myth. Again, not too surprising. Syndicated columnist Joel Mowbray, referring to Nasrallah, claimed on CNN "By the five-minute mark, he told the people in the audience, who were firing their guns in celebrations, not to waste their bullets, and to save their bullets for where they belong, the chest of the enemy, the Israeli enemy." I have yet to find full transcripts of either broadcast.
What do these squiggly lines mean?

The Middle East Subcommittee of the US House of Representatives grilled members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, who oversee several US funded broadcast outlets including Radio Sawa, VOA, and Radio/TV Marti, about this on Wednesday. Subcommittee chairman, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, D-N.Y, asked the $63 million dollar (current annual budget) question:

"Doesn't anybody watch the broadcasts?"

Rep. Ackerman was referring to the station's supervisory staff, but the question is just as valid for their intended audience who usually refer to the station as "the American propaganda channel" or thereabouts.

Secretary of State and de facto Broadcasting Board of Governors member Condaleeza Rice was asked in March by the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which provides funding for al-Hurra, about the incidents and admitted that "mistakes had been made".

Most of the critics are making Larry Register, al-Hurra's recently appointed news director and a former executive producer at CNN, out to be all but a member of a sleeper cell for the supposed changes wrought under his leadership. Register was appointed a month before the Nasrallah speech. CNN reporter Brian Todd paraphrased the criticism of Register: "[he] focused coverage less on corruption and human rights abuses in the Middle East, and more toward anti-American events, like the Holocaust-deniers conference in Tehran." Nine members of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations sent a letter on May 9 to Sec. Rice calling for Register to be replaced.

My main criticism is that with almost $70 million surely they could buy a copy of al-Mawred or hire somebody who speaks fluent Arabic. I know people, Larry. Arabic speakers, lots of them. Call me.

Again, al-Hurra means "The Free" and free speech is often messy, but always necessary. Do I agree with what Nasrallah and Haniya said? No. Do I want my tax dollars going to support a platform for such statements? No. Then again, I wouldn't want my tax dollars to support a station that only broadcast one side of things that felt good and easy for the U.S. government to broadcast. Personally, I don't think the governments should be in this business in the first place. What message are we sending about censorship if we censor? How is al-Hurra different from the state-owned channels in the region? If you want to be a legitimate news organization, you have to look at everything, which often includes some uncomfortable things, and from a balanced perspective. Of course it also helps to have somebody in the building who can speak the language.


Happy Birthday, Alan

Today marks captured BBC reporter Alan Johnston's 45th birthday. He was abducted in Gaza on March 12. A group called Jaish al-Islam released a video showing his BBC ID and calling for the release of all Muslim prisoners in British custody. There has been no direct word from Mr. Johnston since his abduction.


16 May, 2007

Oh, if ONLY!

Thank you CNN International for 12 seconds of bliss before reality crashed the party.

Bush. Blair. Whatever.....
Thanks SO much to mediabistro for the screencap.

A Sad and Not-so-surprising week for Syria

It has been difficult to read the news out of Syria this week....

Prominent writer Michael Kilo and Mahmoud Issa were each sentenced to three years in prison on charges of "weakening national sentiment" in part due to their signing of the 2006 declaration calling for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations.

Sulaiman Shummar and Khalil Hussain were sentenced the same day, in absentia, to five years in prison for "weakening national sentiment" and "undertaking acts and writings unauthorized by the Syrian government that may expose Syria to aggressive acts or spoil its relations with another state." Shummar, member of the political bureau of the unauthorized Worker's Revolutionary Party and a leader of the National Democratic Gathering, and Hussain, member of the Kurdish Future Movement, are in hiding or have fled the country and it remained unclear as to whether the five years for each charge were consecutive or concurrent sentences.

These most recent prison sentences follow the sentencing on May 11 of human rights activists Dr. Kamal al-Labwani and Anwar al-Bunni. Dr. al-Labwani, a physician and founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering, was sentenced to life in prison (ultimately reduced to 12 years) with hard labor for "communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria" due to his travels to Europe and the US in 2005. Al-Bunni, a human rights lawyer, was sentenced to five years in prison for "spreading false or exaggerated news that weaken the spirit of the nation." The "exaggerated news" referred to a statement by al-Bunni claiming that a man had died in a Syrian jail because of the inhumane conditions.

According to the Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic:
"Freedom is a sacred right. The state protects the personal freedom of the citizens and safeguards their dignity and security." (Article 25, line 1)
"Every citizen has the right to freely and openly express his views in words, in writing, and through all other means of expression." (Article 38)

I hope these sentences are overturned. I also hope the US State Department will use the informal talks between Rice and Mouallem at Sharm al-Sheikh as a jumping-off point for more substantive talks. The silent treatment serves neither side well.

Also, President Bashar Al-Assad has been nominated by the newly-elected Syrian parliament as the only presidential candidate for the nationwide referendum to be held on May 27. According to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), exams for students, scheduled for the same day, have been postponed to enable the students to, according to the National Union for Syrian Students "show their support.

According to SANA, the Union's statement also said that the "referendum embodies national aspirations and dignity". In my opinion, the men imprisoned this week embody those same things. Read their words and decide for yourself.

Despite its troubles, I love Syria and the many people I met during the months I lived there. Not one person there ever had a problem distinguishing me from my government and I don't have a problem doing the same for them. I hope to return to see my friends soon and pick up where I left off.


13 May, 2007

So much for "unbiased"

I hope somebody else saw Casey Wian and Bill Tucker's report for Lou Dobbs on CNN this week regarding the rise of the new sanctuary movement among religious leaders in the U.S. Click on the post title for the transcript (scroll halfway down). The tone of Tucker's voice, unfortunately, was what really made it for me. He sounded downright disgusted.

I am not a big fan of Lou Dobbs and his show. First of all, I think my mother nailed it when she muttered "That man's angling to run for something," as we paused on his show on night. He does seem like he's working very hard to hit an awful lot of the right notes not to be an eventual candidate for some office. Also, some of the reports I watched on his show are like FOX-lite; not as downright xenophobic, jingoistic, fear-mongering, etc. as some of the other guys, but enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth. Like polite racism; smarter packaging, gentler delivery, but still revolting.

Here's an example of what Bill Tucker felt was unbiased reporting:
"And so say the leaders of the new sanctuary movement, are positioning themselves, not only in opposition to immigration law, but also, the sovereignty of the United States."

Dobbs then reminded viewers of the audience poll: "Tonight's poll, our question is straightforward. Do you believe the political adventurism of our religious leaders is now a threat to our constitution and the doctrine of separation of church and state? Yes or no."

For those of you that aren't familiar with the term, the sanctuary movement was an organized response, primarily led by faith communities, to the influx of undocumented refugees fleeing the bloody civil wars in Central America in the early '80s. Instead of leaving people to fend for themselves or be shipped back to death squads and military juntas, people in this country rallied to face the challenge of a humanitarian crisis. Google "El Mazote" or "University of Central America massacre" or "Rio Negro". This was the front-page news of my childhood growing up in Miami and it left an impression on me.

Now with the U.S. government and a large portion of the citizenry on this latest anti-immigrant tear that has seen a 20% rise in deportations in the last year alone (NY Times), which I believe is wrapped up with an atmosphere of xenophobia and general "anti-foreigner" undercurrent, the call has gone out again to all faith communities to join together in the effort.

No one disputes that the immigration system needs to be fixed. Consider that it was intimidating and frustrating for me and my then-husband and we both have college degrees, speak English, and had the financial resources to pay the exorbitant fees and hire a lawyer to assist us. And no one disputes that there are serious issues to be resolved as to provision of services for undocumented workers and their families. Militarization of the border, a wall, fear mongering, short-sighted so-called "solutions" will not provide these answers.