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Europe

Aug 1, 2014

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Natalia Antonova (@NataliaAntonova) is having a rough time of it. For most of this year, the Ukrainian-born, US-raised, ethnically Russian journalist and playwright has expected the worst and then been granted it. Crimea. East Ukraine. MH17. While Western correspondents condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin with a sense of moral righteousness that simplifies as often as it enlightens, and Russian propagandists respond with conspiracy theories and facts unworthy of the name, Antonova has watched sadly, but never quietly, as the world she once knew collapsed before her. This is not a news story for her so much as it is a deeply personal one, as anyone who has read her Twitter feed since February will be able to attest.

“I think one must make a crowbar separation between personal writing, op-eds, and reporting the news,” Antonova told Crikey. “Mixing that up is like mixing vodka with whiskey. Nothing good can come of it.”

“But personal narratives obviously have their time and place,” she said. “One of the reasons I tell personal stories on Twitter is because I think people should have some context for what is happening in Ukraine right now. This trouble has been brewing for years. It did not happen overnight.”

“A lot of the stuff I talk about — such as my cousin’s death and the condition her body was in at the morgue — still weighs on me,” Antonova said. “It’s in the back of my mind. And when MH17 was shot down and the world saw what was happening to the bodies of the victims — the lack of dignity, the anguish of the families — I started breaking down over it. I was crying non-stop. I asked myself where all of this additional pain was coming from and I remembered. Some wounds you carry with you for the rest of your life.”

A good deal of Antonova’s recent work has attempted to record for posterity the tension between the everyday and looming catastrophe that she feels characterised Ukraine over the past decade.

In a recent blog post she wrote:

When historians sit down to write about the Kiev that existed between the Orange Revolution and the fall of Yanukovych, they won’t write about the way things really were for us. They won’t write about parties that were so bad that they were actually good, the middle-aged couples dancing to a transvestite pop star at weddings with seven-course meals slathered with mayonnaise, the hideous funeral wreaths shuffling their plastic flower leaves like restless fingers in the wind, always the howling dogs, always the stars that did not give a damn, always someone else’s windows lit up at night in a way that made you sorry to be walking away down the street, and how silly and wrong we were back then, and how good we were at being wrong, and how passionate too, and how a clock was always striking midnight somewhere in the corner, under a pile of discarded clothes, and a lonely cricket was chirping, and someone at the edge of all space and time, a lantern was already burning to light the way into some impossible country, though we had our backs turned on it then.

“That particular paragraph is from an essay about an ex,” Antonova said. “A man who incidentally kept saying that things in Ukraine were going to get very bad. He turned out to be horribly right. And in writing about him, and about myself, and my family, I guess what I wanted to say is that this is happening to human beings. People who had lives before all of this craziness started. They loved each other, they had fun, they made mistakes, they had hopes for the future. People need to remember that.”

Antonova was born in Kiev, but raised in the American South. She returned to Ukraine in 2009, following  a stint editing GlobalComment online magazine from Dubai and Amman, and covered the 2010 presidential election that brought Viktor Yanukovych to power. She was offered the position of deputy editor at The Moscow News, Russia’s oldest English-language newspaper, that same year and became acting editor-in-chief two years later. “They never removed the ‘acting’ from my title,” Antonova said, “I think because I was young and had a kid on my arm they were like, ‘What? She’s going to run this paper?’ But I did, and I’m proud of those years. We had a good team, I had great bosses, and I think a lot of our stories really humanised Russia.” 

Since the liquidation of The Moscow News‘ parent agency, RIA Novosti, by presidential decree late last year, Antonova has freelanced and run social media for Russia Beyond the Headlines. “I left after RIA Novosti was liquidated and the controversial Dmitry Kiselyov, often referred to as Russia’s ‘propagandist-in-chief’, took over the new international news agency that was installed in its place,” she said.

“I didn’t want to work for someone who talks about reducing the United States to ‘radioactive ash’ on television or about how the hearts of dead gays should be ‘burned’, even if he swears that this is just his ‘persona’ talking.”

Such comments demonstrate Antonova’s readiness to criticise the Kremlin and its lackeys when they need criticising. But her unique trajectory through countries and cultures also gives her an eye for nuance that many correspondents and pundits lack and that others even actively disdain.

“I could write a dissertation on why Russia is viewed the way it’s viewed in the West,” Antonova said. “I think one of the key elements is that people say about Russia that which they can’t say about China. There’s a fair amount of displacement going on, especially at the top. Everyone wants to be friends with China, so Russia, which is already a boogeyman, must also stand in for the Chinese boogeyman. You see the difference in the contrast between how the 2008 Beijing Olympics were covered versus how the 2014 Sochi Olympics were covered.

“I think that deep down inside, many people rejoiced when Russia started acting up this year,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Yay! The Cold War is finally back on! And Russia’s weak, so we’ll totally kick their ass in no time!’ A lot of this is psychological. There is a certain sense of triumphalism.

“This one-sidedness makes my work and life that much harder, because it forces people to draw lines in the sand,” she said. “For me, it’s like having simmering tensions in your family finally graduate into a full-blown feud. You want to run and hide. I’ve dealt with abuse from everyone online: Russians, Ukrainians, Americans. In a way, I guess this means I’m doing something right, but I’m also a human being at the end of the day. I get emotional.”

It is for this reason that Antonova has stopped making predictions about Ukraine and what is likely to happen there in the coming months. “Every time I make a prediction, something horrible happens and completely throws me off course,” she said. “So I’m going to go ahead and keep my mouth shut with regard to the future. I think Putin’s plan was basic enough — reassert the Kremlin’s sphere of influence — but the law of unintended consequences may have completely taken over by now.

“I’ve fallen back on what I refer to as my ‘genetic Russian fatalism’,” she said. “Or, like Bob Dylan sang, ‘Nothing really matters much. It’s doom alone that counts.'”

@NataliaAntonova’s #FF:

  • If you’re interested in good coverage of events in Ukraine, there are lots of terrific journalists to follow. For the purposes of this column, I’m singling out Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7) and Roland Oliphant (@RolandOliphant).
  • One of my favourite US tweeters is Bearded Stoner (@beardedstoner), because he keeps it real.
  • I also love Hayes Brown (@HayesBrown) over in DC. Reading his Twitter feed makes me hate the world a little less.  Ditto for author Elif Batuman, who’s @BananaKarenina on Twitter.

Continue reading “Follow Friday: @NataliaAntonova on the horror of watching the world collapse”

Europe

Jul 25, 2014

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When I first met him a year ago, Pablo Gallego García (@PabGallego) had neither a job nor very much money. Like more than 50% of Spanish youth, he understood only too well the effects of the Eurozone crisis on ordinary people and had almost become accustomed to the indignities and privations of crippling unemployment. One of the original members of Movimiento 15-M, or los indignados, the Spanish protest movement that predated and inspired Occupy Wall Street, he knew exactly what he was fighting for, and against.

He still knows: Gallego may now have a job, but it pays roughly €400 less per month than it would have two years ago, one of countless positions to have seen its previous holder laid off so that it might be refilled by someone else at a lower wage. Gallego’s new gig is with a firm that compiles reports on the actions of the financial industry. He has been able to witness first-hand the selling of Spain: the auctioning off of its assets — high-rises, airports — to the highest bidders (usually Americans, Russians and Chinese). “Some people are making a lot of money off this crisis,” he told Crikey.

Besides finding work, Gallego’s life has changed in other ways since we last spoke. In May, Spain’s non-mainstream leftist party, Podemos, won a surprising 7.97% of the country’s vote in the European parliament elections, gaining five seats. Then, last month, King Juan Carlos abdicated, sending thousands onto the streets to call for a referendum on the monarchy. There is something in the air, Gallego says, that arguably hasn’t been there since the early 1930s.

“The results of the European Parliament elections have caused a total turnaround in our country,” he said. “For the first time, the leftist rupturista — Podemos, Izquierda Unida [United Left], Primavera Europea [European Spring], Bildu [a Basque separatist-leftist political coalition] and the ERC [Republican Left of Catalonia] — had more votes than the Social Democrats. Recent polls have shown that Podemos is now the third most popular political party in Spain overall and the second in certain regions. If the economic and political crises continue, and if the leftist parties can join forces with one another, I think we can come to power in more than ten major cities for the first time since the 1930s,” he said.

Gallego says that the second of these conditions — the coming together of the left’s various groups — is already beginning to happen, with the various groups committed to making a real showing at next year’s local and regional elections. “Most of these rupturist forces have started joining forces under the banner of ‘Ganemos’ — ‘Let’s Win’ — with the plan to take control of a number of town halls in next year’s municipal elections,” he said. “This is the same thing that happened before the proclamation of the Spanish Second Republic.”

The group to which Gallego belongs, Democracia Participativa, is one of ten socialist, regionalist and green parties that comprise Primavera Europea, which has played a significant role in this unification process. But Gallego believes more remains to be done in terms of creating a truly democratic movement.

“Primavera Europea enjoyed great success bringing various leftist groups together,” he said. “But in my view, we were very conservative when drafting our electoral list. Before the elections, I set up a meeting with Podemos and Primavera Europea to propose an alternative list and to suggest that our supporters vote on which list they wanted us to run. But Compromis and Equo, Primavera Europea’s largest constituent groups, rejected that idea. I assure you that they are really disappointed by this decision now. We could have had a far less conservative contingent in the European Parliament! But Democracia Participativa got a lot of positive reinforcement following the elections — our faith in the left’s ability to win was vindicated — and is now talking to Podemos about becoming a part of it.”

None of the circumstances that first drew Gallego into leftist politics have changed, he said. “The economic situation in Spain remains poor, especially in microeconomic terms. Neither families nor SMEs [small and medium enterprises] have noticed any change. But Podemos’s proposals so far — doing away with the privileges enjoyed by politicians, making progressive fiscal reforms, auditing the country’s debt to prevent paying any more interest to banks, as well as other neo-Keynesian proposals — are slowly opening up the debate.”

Risks and challenges remain, however, both in and outside the movement. “As members of the movement gain ever more visibility, we obviously run the risk egos clashing and leaders colliding, which could lead them to reject joining forces, combined primaries and so on,” he said. “We also face the threat of mainstream media media coverage that is trying to divert attention from the movement’s proposals towards the pasts and personal lives of its leaders.”

This is where Gallego believes social media comes in and plays a crucial role. “Twitter is a great tool for reporting political actions and events and for influencing public opinion on policy issues on a daily basis,” Gallego, who tweets primarily in Spanish, said. “Twitter has been very important for Spain’s leftist parties and social movements. There is no doubt that, without social media tools, including Twitter and Facebook, the rise of Movimiento 15-M, los indignados, would have been impossible. The number of tweets that were made during and after the evictions of Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Placa de Catalunya in Barcelona was unbelievable. There is a fantastic video on YouTube where you can see just how much Twitter was being used during the birth of the Movimiento 15-M. It helped us to get the message out.”

Gallego says a crisis of journalism throughout the country is another cause of the rise of use of Twitter in Spain. “The newspapers of the left used to be El Pais, which is now owned by a holding company and has changed its editorial line completely, and Publico, which cancelled its print edition two years ago. People turned to social networks to learn what the newspapers were no longer telling them,” he said.

“Finally, I find it very interesting how Spain’s social movements have succeeded in transforming these social networking tools. They really are being used in this country to enable collective mobilisation and not merely as another way of enlarging people’s egos,” he said.

@PabGallego’s #FF:

  • Pablo Iglesias (@Pablo_Iglesias): The leader of Podemos and Spain’s most influential politician on Twitter.
  • Juan Luis Sanchez (@juanlusanchez): Deputy director of Eldiario.es. He has covered Movimiento 15-M from its inception and understands the issues really well.
  • Alberto Garzon (@agarzon): Izquierda Unida’s future leader.
  • Ada Colau (@adacolau): By far Movimiento’s best spokeswoman, Ada is now running in Barcelona’s local elections.
  • Antonio Maestre (@antoniomaestre): A journalist with La Marea whose tweets are really incisive.

Online

Jul 11, 2014

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 The Melbourne International Film Festival (@MIFFofficial) released its full program this morning, and an embarrassment of riches it is, too.  But the festival’s most exciting piece of programming was in fact announced some time ago: Out 1: Noli me tangere, Jaques Rivette’s nearly 13-hour portrait of French malaise in the wake of May 1968, is to be screened in Melbourne in its entirety for the first time. For hardcore cinephiles, this is more than a treat: it is a white whale, a holy grail. It is a stunning coup for the festival.

Out 1: Noli me tangere — as opposed to Out 1: Spectre, the shorter four-hour shorter version — is something I’ve been wanting to screen ever since I got into programming,” MIFF’s artistic director, Michelle Carey (@raceymicehell), told Crikey. “But I always thought that was a crazy idea because it was so long. I had to find the right context. When Philippa Hawker approached me about co-curating a program of Jean-Pierre Leaud films, I had it.”

“Jacques Rivette is my favourite filmmaker, but I only saw Out 1: Noli me tangere for the first time last year,” Carey said. “I’d owned a bad-quality bootleg dub of the film for a long time, but I wanted to experience it for the first time on film. I did last year, at the Viennale, a 16mm print with German subtitles, the whole thing in one day.”

“There is always the fear around a holy grail that it won’t live up to your expectations,” Carey said, “but this absolutely surpassed them. Like any great novel or a great piece of classical music, the film becomes more and more involving as it goes along. At dinner the next day, the film’s producer, Stephane Tchalgadjieff, recounted several fascinating stories around the production that lent the film even more of an extraordinary aura. It turns out this German-subtitled 16mm print is the only existing film print in the world. We’ll screen it with live English subtitles over two days and four sessions. This is a really big event for MIFF. It basically takes over ACMI the second weekend of the festival.”

But Out 1 is hardly the only film on the program that Carey is excited about.

“I have so many highlights,” she said. “Hard to be a God, Boyhood, Goodbye to Language, Jauja. I find myself increasingly drawn to smart films that really hurtle into your face the magnificent foibles of humankind.  On television we have Louis CK and Larry David. In film, there is a new generation of filmmakers influenced by this kind of humour. Two films in the MIFF program I’d recommend are Soft in the Head by Nathan Silver and Buzzard by Joel Potrykus. Both are full of energy and ideas, as well as being hilarious, political and very smart.

“We have some big Australian premieres (and some world premieres). Our opening night film is Predestination from Michael and Peter Spierig, and our closing night film is Felony by Matthew Saville. We also have the world premiere of Tony Ayres’ new film, Cut Snake, as our centrepiece gala. And for something new, Robert “Does-That-Man-Ever-Sleep?” Connolly’s new film, Paper Planes, will screen as a special kids’ gala.

Carey also said she was excited about the festival’s experimental line-up.

“Not only do we have an experimental shorts program — which this year features new films from Nathaniel Dorsky, Richard Tuohy and Laure Provost, among others — but many of our features are experimental, too. La Ultima Pelicula by Mark Peranson and Raya Martin, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, and The Unity of All Things by Daniel Schmidt and Alexander Carver, are such examples.”

“These films are far from austere or inaccessible,” Carey said. “They are colourful, funny, textural, exciting. These filmmakers are important artists of our generation. Where else will they be seen in Australia if not at festivals?

Carey has been at MIFF since 2008, starting as a programmer before taking over as artistic director three years later. Both positions involved a lot of travel, a lot of relationship-building and, of course, a lot of movie-going.

“Travelling to festivals is fundamental, as it really drives home what is essential about a festival: audiences watching a film in such an exciting and intensive atmosphere. I travel overseas three times a year, and as artistic director, I actually travel slightly less than when I was a programmer. There’s also a lot of admin, meetings and e-mails, and a lot of relationships to develop and maintain. It’s about finding a genuine connection with people, and that connection usually comes through a shared love of cinema and festivals.”

Attending film festivals around the world has given Carey a sense of perspective on our own industry, and the quality of films it creates.

“The success or health of Australian films is always up and down,” she said.

“Australian cinema faces the same challenges that international film industries and cultures do. Most of the Australian producers I know work really long hours, but have so much passion for what they do. But at the end of the day we are a smaller industry than the US or even the UK and shouldn’t constantly compare ourselves to those industries. I feel there is a groundswell of cinephilia in Australia. How can we translate that into exciting indie filmmaking?”

@raceymicehell’s #FF:

  • ‏Brain Pickings (@brainpickings): For providing daily doses of literary curiosities
  • Notebook (@NotebookMUBI): Good digest for international film culture news
  • Neil Young (UK) (@JigsawLounge): Not the Canadian rock musician, but the witty Bradford-based film critic
  • The Age (@theage): For local Melbourne news
  • Melbourne Film Fest (@MIFFOfficial): Of course!

Online

Jul 4, 2014

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At eight o’clock on Monday morning, Alexander Fiske-Harrison (@fiskeharrison) will once again take to the streets of Pamplona to take part in the city’s famous encierro, what we know in English as the running of the bulls. He will be hard to miss: the author of Into the Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight, which saw him train as a torero and kill a bull in the ring, runs in an Eton athletics jacket conveniently coloured the traditional red and white of fiesta. To the madness, he adds a touch of class. He told Crikey why he continues to run.

 

“When I was bullfighting, which was basically throughout 2010, the appeal of running was non-existent for me,” Fiske-Harrison said. “However, as I spend less and less time in the ring, running grows on me. Sometimes I talk too much to the wrong people and they put me off with their competitive or sports-based approach. But after a boozy dinner swapping stories with Joe Distler, the greatest American runner, or chatting to someone like Victor Lombardi, who describes the encierro in terms of Beethoven, I get seduced by the idea again.”

The idea’s allure is palpable in Fiske-Harrison’s latest effort, Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona, which he edited and which features articles by Ernest Hemingway’s grandson, Orson Welles’ daughter and some of the best runners in the world.

“It was originally Bill Hillmann, a Chicago Golden Gloves boxing champion and the best young American bull-runner, who came up with the idea of a book with chapters by John Hemingway and others, and photos by Jim Hollander from EPA, who has been coming to fiesta for fifty-something years,” Fiske-Harrison said. “I suggested we add Joe Distler, because no one who speaks English has run as many times, and that we do it as an e-book to begin with. Bill ended up handing the project over to me.

“Then I got the four greatest ever Spanish and Basque runners on board, then a prize-winning Spanish photographer, then Orson Welles’ daughter, Beatrice, then the mayor of Pamplona and we had a complete set,” he said.

While a couple of the chapters in the book have been published previously, the majority of them are appearing in print for the first time. “John Hemingway’s piece is completely new, as are mine on bullfighting,” Fiske-Harrison said. “The chapter about my first run comes straight from Into the Arena, but that’s because it was written at the time. I’d write it differently today, and that would be wrong, less real.”

Then there are the chapters by the Spanish and Basque runners. These represent one of the greatest things about the book: its willingness to get beyond English-speakers’ experience of the encierro and to acknowledge the people to whom the tradition more properly belongs.

“All other books and articles about the bulls are written from what I’d call the periphery,” Fiske-Harrison said, “which is fine in small doses, but ludicrous as the majority perspective. Aside from Joe Distler, no one has come close to running as much as these guys. They have over 2000 encierros between them. And, more generally, it is their fiesta!”

The Spanish and Basque runners were chosen for the excellence of their running rather than their writing, Fiske-Harrison said.

“Julen Madina is a legend throughout the encierros of Castile, Navarre and the Basque country, as are his great friend and running partner Miguel Angel Eguiluz, a Pamplona native, and the slightly younger Jokin Zuasti, also a Pamplonica. Josechu Lopez I met in Cuéllar, and although his running style is different, it is no less formidable: my favourite photo of Josechu shows him running into the callejon [the entry into the arena] with the flat of a bull’s horn pressed full length against the small of his back. You can’t get closer than contact.

“They are not writers and speak no English, so I merely asked them what they would say if they a couple of minutes to address the crowd of first-time runners and translated it,” Fiske-Harrison said. “They gave great advice, sometimes repeating what others have said — which was fine, as it was always the most important things, like ‘Never touch a bull’ and ‘If you go down, stay down and the animals will leave you alone’ –and sometimes things I hadn’t really thought about, such as the importance of not giving everything and leaving yourself winded, because there might be another bull loose on the street. You don’t want to find yourself face to face with him with no gas in the tank.”

Fiske-Harrison’s first came to Pamplona in 2009 when he was writing Into the Arena, but his first impression was not a favourable one.

“The encierro was an interesting rush, but once the adrenaline faded, I realised the first-timers I found myself talking to were idiots, or else made so by the booze and after-effects of the rush,” he said. “I realised that that bullfighting was more attuned to my artistic instincts as participant than running and that the bullfights themselves in Pamplona did nothing for my artistic instincts as audience. But then the Reuters journalist Angus MacSwan told me the one flaw in my book was my judgment of Pamplona, so I came back with him in 2011, met everyone, and fell head over heels in love with the place,” he said.

“It has been a troublesome relationship at times, but I can’t deny that this year I am looking forward to going more than ever.”

“I am an intermittent Twitter user,” Fiske-Harrison said. “I am more inclined to the long-form status updates of Facebook which is why I linked my primary Twitter account to my Facebook status updates.”

“I set up my first Twitter account, @toreritor, when I was researching Into the Arena, and I kept it with the idea of creating some sort of taurine alter-ego. However, it hasn’t quite worked out like that.”

@fiskeharrison’s #FF:

Read more on Alexander’s thoughts about bullfighting on the website…  Continue reading “Follow Friday: @fiskeharrison on running with the bulls”

Online

Jun 27, 2014

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When an Egyptian court convicted Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed this week on trumped up charges and with no evidence against them worth the name, the internet, quite rightly, exploded. Twitter, in particular, quickly became a hotbed of outrage, with journalists all over the world expressing their solidarity with a series of hashtags — “#FreeAJStaff”, “#journalismisnotacrime” — visual memes and online petitions. Courtney Radsch (@courtneyr), advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom), put the verdict, the online reaction to it and its consequences for foreign and local reporters into context.

“These convictions are highly politicised and are wrapped up in the geopolitics of the region,” Radsch told Crikey, “specifically the conflict between Egypt and Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera, over support for the Muslim Brotherhood. CPJ is seriously concerned about the chilling effect that such a politicised ruling has for the press in Egypt as the country undergoes a critical transitional period.

“Whether or not the imprisonments change the calculus of Western powers in their relationship with Egypt, a regional power, remains to be seen. But CPJ is certainly working to ensure that this issue is firmly ensconced on the US and other Western countries’ agendas.”

Radsch said that the online response to the verdict could play an important role on this front, especially if it remains as virulent in the coming weeks as it has been over the past few days.

“Symbolic gestures like tweeting pictures of journalists with their mouths taped shut or using the hashtag #journalismisnotacrime are important awareness-raising tools,” Radsch said. “They help to underscore — to Egyptian officials as well as to policymakers at home — the fact that the world is watching.

“We need to keep the pressure on our elected officials, whether in Australia, the US, Canada or the UK, to ensure that they raise the issue of the journalists’ imprisonment in their conversations with Egyptian officials and advocate for their release. They need to factor this into all aspects of their relationship with the country. Egypt should not be permitted to normalise its international relationships as long as it imprisons journalists.”

While the conviction of the Al Jazeera journalists has galvanised the international media community, Egypt is by no means the only country CPJ is currently concerned about. From Iran to Ethiopia, Turkey to China, journalists are languishing in prison, being murdered with impunity and in general being targeted for simply trying to do their jobs.

Ethiopia is currently experiencing one of the worst crackdowns on freedom of expression anywhere in the world,” Radsch said. “In April, nine journalists, known as the Zone 9 Bloggers, were jailed as part of an ongoing repression of independent journalists and news outlets. This comes ahead of the 2015 election amid a broader crackdown on dissent and opposition voices and independent NGOs.”

“We are also concerned about the ongoing imprisonment of journalists in Turkey — despite some recent releases — and attempts to block critical communication platforms such as Twitter. Turkey’s attempts to stifle internet freedom are especially concerning, and one might even say ironic, given that the country is set to host the UN Internet Governance Forum in September.”

Syria — and now Iraq — are of particular concern, Radsch said. Of the 70 journalists killed with a confirmed motive last year, 49 were killed in the Middle East, accounting for 70% of journalist murders worldwide.

“Syria alone accounted for 55% of killings in the region last year,” Radsch said. “Iraq accounted for 20%. Additionally, Syria has seen more than 80 local and international journalists abducted since the conflict began in 2011, according to CPJ research, with approximately 25 still missing as of May 15. Abductions act as a deterrent to international media organisations, meaning they increasingly have to rely on freelance or citizen journalists to cover one of the most dangerous conflicts of the century.”

Twitter plays a crucial role in CPJ’s project, Radsch said, and indeed the organisation’s use of social media in general is innovative.

“Twitter is an important tool for reaching out to and engaging with a global audience,” Radsch said.

“This is one of the reasons we maintain multiple accounts,” she said. “Regional accounts enable us to engage with journalists in specific regions in greater depth about issues of importance to them, and in languages other than English. Furthermore, since each regional team is responsible for their own accounts, they can use Twitter to conduct research, investigate cases and attacks, and expand our reach on a platform that has become a central part of the practice of contemporary journalism.”

CPJ’s latest social media project commemorates the five-year anniversary of Iran’s 2009 post-election crackdown and represents one of the various ways in which the organisation is using the medium.

“We are extremely concerned about the ongoing imprisonment of Iranian journalists,” Radsch said.

“We have been running a social media campaign on Twitter calling for an end to the crackdown on the press that began on June 12, 2009 and has resulted in a stunning 333% increase in the number of imprisoned journalists.”

“As part of the campaign, our @cpjmena account is looking back on key events from those three critical weeks, highlighting anti-press violations and attempts to discredit journalists as spies and foreign agents.”

In addition to following CPJ’s MENA account, you can also track the progress of the campaign by searching for the hashtags #IranElection and #5YearsAgo.

CPJ has also partnered with Reporters Without Borders on social media campaigns. In April, the organisations launched Bahrain Racing in Circles, which was designed to promote press freedom in Bahrain during the country’s Formula One race.

“The campaign, which was timed to the starting gun of the race, used the hashtag #F1 to disseminate the following message,” Radsch said. “‘Whether they cover changing tires or burning tires, journalists must be allowed to work freely in Bahrain.'” The campaign reached 4.36 million people.

“I use my personal account to engage with topics and people in which I am interested,” Radsch said. “I use it to keep up-to-date on the latest developments in media and internet freedom, cyberactivism and technology.”

Not a lot of daylight, then, between Radsch’s personal account and CPJ’s?

“There’s a lot of overlap,” she said.

@courtneyr ‘s #FF:

This is challenging, because there are so many good accounts to follow, depending on the topic. But for press freedom, with some regional diversity, I would choose:

  • Syria Deeply (@SyriaDeeply): an independent Syrian news outlet.
  • Mada Masr (@MadaMasr): an independent English-language Egyptian news outlet.
  • Yoani Sánchez (@yoanisanchez in Spanish and @yoanifromcuba in English): a Cuban journalist.
  • Umar Cheema (@UmarCheema1): a Pakistani journalist.
  • Dunja Mijatovic (@OSCE_RFoM): an OSCE representative on media freedom.
  • PewResearch Journo (@pewjournalism) for interesting factoids.
*Read more of  Courtney Radsch’s thoughts on the CPJ’s work on the website…     

Continue reading “Follow Friday: @courtneyr and @pressfreedom, fighting for Greste and others”

Online

Jun 20, 2014

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Tell a white South African that you’re planning on visiting Ponte City Apartments and you’re bound to be met with incredulity: “You’ve got to be kidding me?”

There is a good deal of irony in this. In the 1970s, Ponte City and Hillbrow, the inner-city suburb in which the apartment tower was built, were among the most desirable places to live in Johannesburg. At 54 stories, Ponte City was the tallest residential building on the continent, not to mention one of its most affluent. There was just one problem: it was too damned cosmopolitan. If Hillbrow’s whites wanted to mix with blacks, the vindictive logic of apartheid went, then that was fine. The government would simply make it impossible for the so-called “grey area” to develop. The rot, as they say, soon set in.

“What followed was mass urban degradation,” Nickolaus Bauer of Dlala Nje (@DlalaNje), the tower’s community centre, told Crikey. “No money flowed in for development or maintenance of infrastructure.” Ponte City went from being the hippest address on the continent to its first vertical slum. “And then, just before the transition to democracy, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that laws formerly prohibiting people’s movements were repealed. Hundreds of thousands of people from the rest of the country flocked to the inner city en masse in search of employment.” Overcrowding and crime were soon endemic. The inner city went to hell and the tower along with it.

But that was long ago. While any mention of Johannesburg’s city centre still calls to mind the pimps and drugs dealers of the 1990s, Hillbrow in general and Ponte City in particular have begun to clean up their act. Ponte is now at the centre of the inner city’s impressive regeneration, an orderly middle-class building like any other. But the incredulity of some whites still remains.

“Growing up in Johannesburg, you’d never hear anything good about Ponte City or Hillbrow,” Bauer said, “especially if you were born in the 1980s or afterwards. It’s been a tremendous challenge for us to convince people that it’s safe to come and experience it for themselves.”

Bauer and his business partner Michael Luptak hope to change all that.

“It is essential that we change how people think about the inner city,” Bauer said. “If they don’t get rid of their fear, how will the situation ever change? The more people who realise that the inner city is about as dodgy as the suburbs they live in, the better.”

The pair’s connection with Ponte City began two years ago when Bauer, a journalist, was sent to the building to write what he calls “that typical story”.

“I thought it was going to be pretty straight forward,” he said. “Prostitution, drugs, pimps and gangsters. But I didn’t leave with the story I’d been asked to write. I left with a lease to live there. Michael moved in three weeks after me, after attending my housewarming.”

With a number of old retail spaces still vacant on the ground floor, which once housed shops, hairdressers, a bowling alley and a concert venue — there was even talk about building an indoor ski slope — Bauer and Luptak started toying with the idea of starting a business that would contribute socially and economically to the building’s community. A video arcade for local children was set up, but proved financially unsustainable. With the introduction of several immersion tours, as well as the development of a corporate leadership program, today’s much more comprehensive drop-in space — it sports pool and foosball tables, a small lending library and internet access — soon became possible, and its founders are keen for it to keep playing a role in the area’s renewal more generally.

“The renewal began in about 2008,” Bauer said. “Investors returned to the city and started buying buildings that had often become derelict. They pumped private money into private projects that begun turning around the city’s fortunes. The city authorities have been involved to an extent, giving their blessing and helping out where they can. But it has largely been private enterprise that has led the regeneration.”

Nevertheless, Dlala Nje, which means “Just Play” in Zulu, remains a for-profit organisation. Bauer and Luptak, a former strategy consultant with Ernst & Young, have little interest in the organisation becoming or being seen as a charity.

“It is essential to show people that it is possible to do good while still making a profit,” Bauer said. “For too long, it has been thought that these two things are mutually exclusive.”

Twitter plays an important role in the social side of Dlala Nje’s work.

“It’s one of the most effective ways for us to interact with our community,” Bauer said. “It’s immediate. It’s relevant.”

It also plays a central role in Dlala Nje’s two-day immersion tour, “Jozi: The Amazing Place”, which sends travellers on a kind of cultural orienteering course throughout the city armed only with a small allowance, a public transport card and a smartphone. Twitter is used to disseminate clues that the participants must crack to get from one place to the next, while the participants themselves tweet pictures from their travels in order to prove that they’ve visited each stop on the trail.

There is one other use to which Bauer and Luptak like to put the Dlala Nje account: to troll locals who are yet to face their fears. During one of Dlala Nje’s “This is Hillbrow” immersion tours—they also run “Taste of Yeoville”, a night time walking tour of a nearby suburb’s restaurants and bars — Luptak was struck by the sight of six Dutch children who were happily talking with African vendors in the suburb’s  central market. The opportunity was too good to pass up.

“He challenged South Africans to come along on an immersion,” Bauer said. “He wanted to warn them that foreign children might end up knowing more about their city than they do. Tweeting a photo of the kids on the tour seemed like the best way of doing so.”

@DlalaNje’s #FF:

*Read more of  Nickolaus Bauer’s thoughts on democracy in South Africa on the website…      

Continue reading “Follow Friday: @DlalaNje, changing perceptions in Joburg”

Asia-Pacific

May 30, 2014

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In a media landscape that comprises a multitude of voices, following events across countries can be bewildering. It is often difficult to separate the voices that know what they’re talking about from those that merely like the sound of themselves. It can be harder still to know what the voices of locals on the ground sound like—the voices of those who actually live in the places that grace our international pages and television screens—when the voices in question speak and think in languages other than own.

For the past two years, Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) has co-edited RuNet Echo, a project of Global Voices Online that seeks to expand English speakers’ understanding of one of the most fascinating and under-reported conversations of local voices in the world: the one that is currently taking place on the Russian internet, or RuNet, as it is more commonly known.

“I don’t think English-language mainstream media coverage is necessary to understand Russia at all,” Rothrock told Crikey. “Go straight to the source. You’ll find analysis and commentary that’s more unfiltered — and often quite zany — but you’ll come away with an improved sense of things and a more nuanced appreciation of current events’ chaos.”

“The Russian internet is unique because of Russia’s semi-authoritarian context,” Rothrock said. “Any real political alternative to the Kremlin is relegated to the periphery, where its public presence is limited to the internet. As a result, the RuNet is the site of a vibrant, exciting political conversation.

“Yes, it’s a cacophony, and it’s been inundated with some hateful and insane individuals. But it offers anyone in the world with a broadband connection the opportunity to study Russian civil society where it lives and breathes.”

Rothrock first became interested in Russian civil society — as well as with the country’s language and culture — in 2001, when Andrey Tselikov, his co-editor at Global Voices, started teaching him the Cyrillic alphabet on a road trip to Yellowstone Park. He lived in Moscow for six months in 2003, travelling on the University of California’s Education Abroad Program, and his fascination only grew with subsequent study and visits.

“It’s certainly possible to overstate the political significance of the RuNet,” he said, “at least insofar as it’s a forum for non-systemic political debate. People with genuine political power are not the key players online. The RuNet’s biggest stars are a mix of writers, journalists, activists and aspiring politicians.”

“It’s also true that most Russian internet users are not signing online in order to spread digital samizdat designed to bring down the Putin regime. Most Russians are looking for music, movies and porn, like most people anywhere.”

“However, I do think the RuNet poses a serious threat to Russia’s state-owned television networks,” he said. “While the hazard isn’t nearly as imminent as many make it out to be, and though it’s also possible that traditional media will succeed in co-opting the internet, the web will always be very difficult for the Kremlin to control. There will always be the potential to share citizen media and comment on anything trending at any time. I don’t think this is a deathblow to the Kremlin’s current media landscape, but it will make for more interesting times. It already is.”

Rothrock pointed to the online anti-corruption activism of Alexei Navalny, one of the non-systemic opposition’s most determined and popular leaders, as a case in point. In January this year, in the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, Navalny launched a well-designed, interactive website that detailed the corruption and graft involved in preparing the Black Sea city for the event. It made headlines around the world.

“Navalny’s anti-corruption efforts, housed and disseminated primarily online, may not have caused a revolution, but they’ve certainly had an impact,” Rothrock said. “The level of corruption involved in Sochi became a major international news story in no small part due to the materials he distributed online. The Russian political establishment is more vulnerable today than it has been for over a decade, thanks largely to Putin’s advancing age, but also to the anti-corruption movement that thrives online.”

Not that Rothrock’s praise for Navalny has stopped him from being blocked by the activist on Twitter.

“I’ve been blocked by two prominent figures in Russia, actually,” he said. “I learned recently that journalist Tatiana Felgengauer has blocked me, too.”

“I think Navalny blocked me after I tweeted a photoshopped image mocking his attendance at a Kremlin dinner party. I don’t know why Felgengauer blocked me. It’s a bummer, because I would prefer to have their tweets appear in my feed,” he said.

“As it is, I have to periodically look up their accounts individually. I wish they’d only muted me. I mute people all the time, especially since all this Ukraine conflict business started. It’s much harder now to write anything about that subject without provoking a dozen polemicists.”

 

“If I were based in Russia, I’d probably want to report on offline events, where the internet doesn’t play a significant role,” Rothrock said. “But I’ll always have a special place in my heart for citizen media.” When he does want to write about things that aren’t suited to RuNet Echo, Rothrock’s work can be found in The Calvert Journal, The New Republic and Russia! magazine. “I’m also happy to write for my old blog, ‘A Good Treaty’, if ever nobody wants to buy my work,” he said.

@KevinRothrock’s #FF:

In English:

In Russian:

On threats to the RuNet and the Kremlin’s accumulation of censorship tools …

For anyone really interested in accessing forbidden websites, it will always be possible to circumvent internet censorship. Right now, Russian censorship laws and enforcement are not terribly hard to defeat. Navalny’s banned website continues to attract hundreds of comments for every new post, for example.

The Russian government’s accumulation of new censorship tools over the past couple of years is strange because it already has more than enough powers and excuses to close down whole social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and whole Web portals like Google. It could do the same with native websites like Vkontakte and Yandex. The latter is currently raising its eyebrows about the release of Sputnik.ru, the government’s own search engine that redundantly reinvents several services now offered by Yandex.

I don’t think the Kremlin wants to crush the internet. There is too much money to be made on the web, and the stigma of imitating Iran, North Korea or China is undeniable, even if Putin swears that Russia doesn’t judge other countries for how they handle internet access. But the weapons are locked and loaded. The hammer could come down on the RuNet at any time, if a perfect storm came along. Possibilities here could be another round of mass protests, a political assassination, a terrorist attack, or so on.

On how the internet has been used during the Ukrainian crisis …

I wouldn’t say that Russian internet users have done anything during the Ukraine crisis to revolutionise the technology. In Russia, anyway, you have various memes and hashtag campaigns popping up and dying out, but it’s not generally geared toward organising forms of offline activism. I think internet use changed radically during the 2011-2012 protests, when social networks suddenly burst through as a mobilisation tool for mass rallies and election monitoring. There has been relatively little public demonstrating in Russia over Ukraine, so people haven’t needed to turn to the web as an instrument for organisation.

I can say anecdotally that the public discussion online has become more polemical. Hundreds of people have died in Ukraine, first in Kiev and now in the east, and many internet users have gone on the warpath, looking to speak their version of the truth to anyone who tweets or posts something out of sync with it.

On the US State Department’s forays into social media …

I don’t think Twitter can be a very effective outreach instrument for the US State Department. Twitter accounts succeed among Russians when they have personality. Lenta.ru, when it was still considered a pillar of the independent media, used to have a Twitter account run by Igor Belkin, who drenched his posts in irony and sarcasm. Navalny’s Twitter account regularly cracks risqué jokes — the sort that no respectable Western politician would make a habit of sharing online. Russia’s internet discourse is something of a Wild West, where the range of tolerable language and tone is far wider than one finds in more “developed” societies. To my (American) eyes, I’m often shocked to see the things Russia’s foreign ministry shares online (trolling the US State Department’s Russian language mistakes, for instance). Russians, so far as I can tell, eat this stuff up. It’s funny. It’s the internet. Relax.

I think the US is better off encouraging individual officials to boost their online presence, where they can take on pro-regime figures one-on-one. Howard Solomon, ad advisor to the US embassy in Moscow, frequently spars with blogger Anton Korobkov. I’m not sure he always wins, but Solomon can match the snarkiest blow-for-blow. Michael McFaul has tried to put himself out there in a similar manner, but I don’t think he’s been successful. It takes more cynical person to do well in this atmosphere.

On the RuNet’s take on the Russian language …

The language on the RuNet is very different from the stuff I was studying when I started out in 2001 at the University of California Santa Cruz. I have a strong network of friends to help me with this, including Andrey Tselikov and my wife Victoria, and I use a whole host of online resources to help me understand and translate various words and phrases.

My favourite resource is multitran.ru, but googling around for terms with the word “significance” added, for instance, is a decent way to start untangling lots of language.

Online

May 23, 2014

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The website for the After Party, which was launched in the United States last month, shows a bright orange bird, its wings outstretched, crackling with blue flames: the bald eagle of the United States’ Great Seal recast as a rising phoenix. The text that appears superimposed above the image — “A Political Movement for a Democratic Revolution” — suggests that birds are not the only thing the After Party hopes to resurrect in the coming years. Founded by a number of Occupy activists, including Occupy.com‘s lead investigative reporter Carl Gibson (@uncutcg), the After Party is seeking to breathe fresh life into American democracy itself.

“Last century’s tactics have played themselves out,” Gibson told Crikey. “It’s one thing to point fingers and call people out. That’s important, but we’ve been doing it for a while now, and nobody is taking us seriously. When they ask, ‘So what are you doing about it?’ we never have an answer.”

More importantly, though, the system has become increasingly immune to marches, occupations and other tried but tired methods. “Loud and constant protests led to the US establishing child labour laws, a woman’s right to vote and basic civil rights for black Americans,” Gibson said. “They provided Americans with the eight-hour workday, paid overtime and the weekend. The thing is, though, all of these protests happened in a time when the government was still somewhat sensitive to the needs of their constituents.”

But this, Gibson said, is no longer the case.

“Never before have we had a government so completely subservient to corporate power and so beholden to the rich,” he said. He cited a recent Princeton University study that declared the US an oligarchy, rather than a democracy. “And in a complete absence of democracy,” he said, “our protests have fallen on deaf ears.

“The one thing we haven’t tried yet is combining our protests and movement-building with the formation of a new party, and directly challenging corrupt elected officials on the ballot.”

 

There are certain familiar shades of the Tea Party here and Gibson is not blind to them. Indeed, all over the world, leftist groups are taking a page out of their right-wing counterparts’ playbooks by coming in off the streets, where their methods often alienate those who might otherwise be sympathetic to their arguments, in order to make electoral tilts at the halls of power. This week’s European Parliament elections are a case in point. But Gibson is also quick to point out certain fundamental differences between the Tea Party and his own.

“To the extent that demonstrations in the streets are turning into political action at the local level, getting activists onto the ballot and oust corrupt incumbents, then you could compare the After Party to the Tea Party,” he said. “But while the Tea Party originally started as a populist uprising against the bailing out of the big banks, it was very quickly co-opted by the Republican Party, corporate executives like the Koch brothers, and propaganda outlets like the Fox News Channel.”

“The reason we started the After Party is because we feel that the political realm has been unfairly monopolised by precisely such corporate special interests and big money. We aim to change that over time, starting at the local level.”

This last point is important. The After Party has no plans to field candidates at the federal level until the end of this decade at the soonest.

“The federal legislative process is entirely corrupted and broken,” Gibson said, “and there’s no way that one After Party member of Congress or the US Senate could change an entire system on their own. But there’s a multitude of actions that can be taken at the local and state level that will have a direct positive impact in people’s lives.”

This where the After Party’s strategy for building its electoral base comes in.

“Our organising strategy begins with us listening to people in the community to find out what needs aren’t being met by local governments, then teaming up with community stakeholders like small business owners and churches to co-ordinate mass mobilisations of mutual aid to meet these needs,” Gibson said. “If a community needs access to healthcare, we’ll reach out to volunteer healthcare providers and organise a free healthcare clinic, similar to the clinics that sprung up all over the US during the Affordable Care Act debate. If a community needs jobs, we’ll work with it to establish time banks like those in Montpelier, Vermont, where services are traded as currency and people have less of a need for money as a result.”

The party will be able to judge the success of such grassroots actions when it contests its first spate of local elections two years from now. “We’ll run candidates for city council, mayor, county board and county sheriff based on our proven record of community service,” Gibson said. “The social movement aspect of the After Party is critical to the political element. Nobody would have any reason to vote for us if we weren’t actually out there helping our communities.”

Gibson admitted that some of his comrades within the Occupy movement might cock an eyebrow at the After Party’s flirtation with electoral politics.

“Occupy was a torch carried by a lot of people,” he said, “including anarchists who don’t believe in electoral politics. There will always be some factions who don’t believe in playing the inside game. We sometimes need a family therapist so the disagreements between revolutionaries and reformers in the movement don’t get too heated.

“But I think we need revolutionaries and reformers equally,” he said. “The revolutionaries provide the inspirational vision of what we want our ideal society to look like and the reformers achieve the small wins that add up to revolutionary success in the long-term.”

 @uncutcg’s #FF:

*More of Carl Gibson’s views on Twitter and the powerless of Congress on the website …

Continue reading “Follow Friday: @uncutcg, occupying the electoral process”

Journalism

May 16, 2014

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In 2009, Australian journalist Lauren Williams (@Laurenwillgo) resigned from her position at The Daily Telegraph and struck out for the Middle East. Her plans were vague: a bit of backpacking, a bit of freelancing, a bit of well-earned adventure.

“I was frustrated, bored and unhappy in Australia,” Williams told Crikey. “I felt like I was using a lot of energy for things that didn’t really matter or make a speck of difference in the world.”

A train ride from Turkey to the Syrian city of Aleppo, taken on what Williams described as “a whim”, would change all that. Indeed, it would eventually change her whole life, both professionally and personally.

“I arrived during Ramadan and remember feeling like I had arrived on a different planet,” she said. “Syria was at that time becoming popular with tourists, but still had an edge of danger. It was described in Lonely Planet as the ‘friendliest rogue country’. I went for a drink in the Armenian Christian quarter of the city on my first night and met an EU official who was there working on some of the industrial sector’s economic reforms as part of what I later learned was a controversial and ambitious program to liberalise the socialist economy. I sensed a story, and he put me in touch with an editor in Damascus.”

She went to the capital the following day and knew immediately that she needed to stay. She contacted the editor, who ran a monthly current affairs magazine, and wrote the story. “It took me a month to get my head around the concepts, but I finally got the story out,” she said. When the editor moved on, Williams took over. “It was the most important work I’ve ever done,” she said. “I was in Syria during times of desperate poverty and when it wasn’t on the radar at all. But I couldn’t leave. It was an incredibly interesting time in the region and I needed to learn more.”

And then, with the first ominous rumblings of the political turmoil that was about to tear the country apart, Williams was kicked out. In March 2011, a week before the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in Daraa, she found herself turned back at the Lebanese-Syrian border after a weekend in Beirut. She was no longer welcome.

“I had been walking a tightrope in the months leading up to my expulsion,” Williams said. “I was publishing editorials and news pieces in The Guardian that were getting closer and closer to the red line. I knew deep down that my time would be up at some point, but I was bold and proud of the things I was challenging. But it was different when it actually happened,” she said. “Being barred from a country without any real explanation is confronting. I had my things, my friends, a life and a role there. My friends were questioned and my colleagues cut me off. I felt aggrieved.

“There was also a deep sense of foreboding because the revolution had kicked off in Egypt and Tunisia and everyone was waiting to see if Damascus would shake. When the protests began in Daraa, I was angry with myself for not holding my tongue a little bit longer in order to stay. I wanted to be part of it.”

Williams now found herself in Lebanon, a country with its own deeply complex political situation. But at the time it held no attraction for her whatsoever.

“I hated Lebanon because I never chose to be there and I felt useless and disconnected from important events,” she said. “That feeling only grew stronger when all the foreign journalists started parachuting in and began reporting on something they knew nothing about.”

She took a job as the Middle East/North African editor for the Beirut Daily Star and was finally issued a Syrian government visa that allowed her to re-enter the country last year.

“I spent a week in Damascus and Homs,” she said. “I was worried that I would bump in to old friends in Damascus and get them in trouble for being connected to a foreign journalist. But I didn’t have to worry at all. Everyone has left.

“It was very strange in Damascus because everything was so familiar and yet everything — my life, the world — had changed and become a darker because of what was happening there. There was constant shelling and checkpoints everywhere, juxtaposed against the stubborn denial of the city’s residents, clutching at normality.

“Homs was just incredibly sad. I will never forget speaking to these young army officers in a an abandoned family apartment that they had occupied as a military base on the front line. Their guns and walkie-talkies were lying around, and all the signs of normal lives interrupted were still in place: doilies on a coffee table, family photographs, china teacups lined up in a cabinet.

“In Homs, you feel how deeply and irreversibly divided the society has become,” she said. “It’s street by street at war with each other.”

Williams resigned from the Daily Star earlier this year — “I left because I wanted to concentrate on writing specifically about Syria,” she said — and is set to move to Istanbul sometime in the next couple months. “I expect to continue covering Syria from Turkey, which has a hugely important role in the conflict,” she said. “I couldn’t leave the Syria story alone even if I wanted to. That said, I am looking forward to getting a bit of much-needed distance.”

Nevertheless, Williams said she didn’t believe that her emotional investment in the Syrian conflict has unduly affected her coverage of the story.

“You become desensitised,” she said. “It’s only recently that I have started to feel the toll of it. I cry easily at videos of the refugees or the shelling campaigns. I return to old pictures of the early days of the revolution. I think everyone who has been working on the Syria file for this long is exhausted. This is a really terrible conflict, and there’s no end in sight. My response has been to switch off completely, to become occupied with mundane and commercial things, which is usually followed by periods of guilt about not doing or caring enough.

“Twitter is invaluable for reporting on Syria, where access is limited because of both government restrictions and the danger of Islamist radicals in the rebel-held territory. Remote reporting via social media, provided by those on the ground, provides essential updates on developments.

“When I do remember to offer my own insights and analysis to on events in Syria on Twitter, I’m surprised at how well they are received,” she said. “I do get a kick out of being retweeted by someone who’s opinion I respect. I should really find the time to do it more often.”

@Laurenwillgo’s #FF:

  • Sam Dagher (@samdagher): a Wall Street Journal correspondent who consistently reports from inside Syria and has amazing access;
  • Aron Lund (@aron_ld): a journalist and Syria analyst who runs rings around everyone else in terms of his knowledge and understanding of the crisis;
  • Rania Abouzeid (@Raniaab): the best journalist covering Syria, no question. Compassionate and thorough reporting;
  • The Syrian Observer (@observesyria): a website that translates Syria’s press and provides a sound selection of independent profiles and commentary; and
  • @wikibaghdady: a fascinating insight into the thinking of jihadis. While the user’s real name isn’t known, he is thought to be a senior leader in the ISIS, possibly a disenchanted member of the group’s executive council.

On the overlooked aspects of Syria’s civil war…

I think the economic foundations for the conflict have been under-reported. I don’t believe the uprising was as spontaneous as many people made out. I also think there is a misperception about the regime as a monolithic dictatorship with Assad at the top. The regime’s strength lies in its decentralisation and there is a lot more to the internal politics of the regime and its support networks that is difficult to report on because it’s so closed.

I think there was too much focus on the northern military developments early on that allowed a realisation of the fear-mongering sectarian narrative that the regime was pushing. But that’s by the wayside now. The Islamist threat has become real, the war has become sectarian in nature, and we need to report on and address the realities. We can’t pretend this remains a popular uprising even if the media had a role in originally overstating the sectarian dynamics early on.

On pining for Syria and reporting on Lebanon …

Lebanon and Syria are completely different. I am one of those who have tended to pine over Damascus and complain about “superficial” Beirut. But I am also wary about romanticising what I call the “bad old good old days” in Syria. It was more communal, less rushed and aggressive, that’s true, but it’s important not to forget that life there was under a brutal and oppressive dictatorship with a terrible security apparatus and a cumbersome, failing socialist economy.

After three years covering the region from Beirut, I am only now just getting the chance to report on what’s happening here. It’s been good to engage a bit more in the place that has, in reality, been my home for three years. That said, Lebanese politics is ridiculously complicated. I don’t think anyone can say they understand it all with any real authority. Apart from anything else, it’s always shifting. I think you need three years here at least to feel competent reporting on it.

On working for the Beirut Daily Star 

I was lucky to take over the region desk at a very exciting and important time: at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Heading a desk like that for big news events like the murder of Moammar Gadhafi, the recognition of the Palestinian state at the UN, and both Egyptian revolutions, was a rush. The Daily Star is a small paper with limited resources and I think we managed to punch above our weight in terms of original coverage from the region. We broke some big Syria stories and got plenty of scoops. It was rewarding. That said, my role there involved juggling reporting and editing duties. I was filing a lot on Syria and pulling together four or five pages, with two staff. It was a lot of work.

On reading about home from abroad …

I pay very little attention to Australian politics, and when I do tune in it seems laughably mundane. But after nearly six years here, mundane has its appeal. Reading about the bigoted exploitation of the immigration issue for domestic political gain in Australia has been frustrating and doesn’t make me feel very proud of my home country. I’ve also had very little interest from Australian publications on stories from this part of the world, which is a real shame. It seems like there’s very little interest or appetite for good foreign news, which is sad.

Crikey’s Follow Friday series:

Books

May 9, 2014

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At the beginning of 2013, Brigid Delaney (@BrigidWD) attended a silent retreat. Bending the definition of “silent” somewhat, she tweeted the whole thing.

 

Delaney told Crikey this wasn’t cheating. “I was literally silent,” she said.

That the retreat managed to keep Delaney’s mouth shut was something of an achievement. Perhaps it would have been too much to ask that it curb her rampant tweeting, too. And it is rampant. “I tweet every day,” she said, “many times a day. I use Twitter like a stream of consciousness. It’s very quotidian. I also tweet a lot of news and culture stories.”

Her Twitter feed is thus a fairly accurate representation of her personality as a whole: Delaney the journalist jostles with Delaney the anti-death penalty activist and both have to contend with Delaney the self-styled clown. (She once locked herself in a bathroom and tried to escape by fashioning a key out of soap. She tweeted about it, of course.)

More recently, Delaney the novelist has made an appearance on the feed, following the publication of her first fictional effort, Wild Things, last month. “I’m tweeting some book-related stuff,” Delaney said, “but trying not to overload my feed with it.”

Set on the campus of an exclusive university, Wild Things follows the members of a college cricket team in the wake of a wild weekend in the mountains where a Malaysian student, dragged along for the ride, goes missing.

“I went to a university college and thought it was a fascinating world,” Delaney said. “It was a kind of halfway place — closed, secretive, with its own rituals and language — but at the same time attached to universities where new ideas and fresh thinking were the order of the day. I found moving between the two places really interesting, particularly at 18, when everything felt so new and novel.”

“As a journalist and a former lawyer, I also became interested in people who commit crimes in groups,” she said. “How is the group regulated when they are operating outside the law? How do a large group of people keep a secret? Does getting away with a crime embolden people to act recklessly and think they can be bad without consequence? Another big question was how power works in Australia. A lot of the powerful networks start at school and university.”

The book, which Delaney began in 2006, has been a long time coming. “There were technical challenges,” she said. “It was initially written in the first-person plural, which proved to be a lovely voice but too tricky to sustain in a long-form project. I had to scrap most of it and start again.”

In the meantime she wrote another book, This Restless Life, a non-fictional account of her generation’s hyper-mobile existence, hopping from job to job, lover to lover, city to city. Delaney has never quite shrugged off the restless life herself. She spent three months a year in New York City for the past two, travels to Indonesia regularly with her anti-death penalty work, and is this year planning trips to West Papua and Japan. “This Restless Life used a different part of my brain,” she said. “It was like a large op-ed, a book of ideas, not of characters.”

Delaney’s next project is a collection of interconnected short stories set in the world of Sydney media. “It’s called The Disruptions, and it takes place over the course of the NSW Labor years, roughly 2000 to 2010,” she said. “It’s about the effect of the internet on the world of print media and the lives of all these youngish journos.”

She’s now back in Australia after her latest overseas jaunt and working as director of news at the New Daily.

@BrigidWD’s #FF:

  • Virginia Lloyd (@v11oyd): For all things books
  • Alex McClintock (@axmcc): On boxing and the news of the day
  • Jessica Reed (@guardianjessica): French Guardianista
  • Susannah Guthrie (@susg91): Journalist at The New Daily, celebs and style
  • David Johnson (@_struct): Acerbic Melbourne man about town

On Australia’s media landscape…

I think now is a really good time to be a freelancer. There are some green shoots that make me feel very optimistic and excited about the future of the Australian media. The New Daily, The Saturday Paper and The Guardian Australia are three amazing new ventures that provide new outlets for journalists and more choice for readers. You pay $3 for the Saturday Paper — a bargain — and The Guardian and the New Daily are free. That’s a great deal for readers. I found the hardest years of freelancing were in 2010-11. There was a lot of pessimism amongst the big media companies and lay-offs. I saw my work drop off and word rates go backwards. These new media outlets were yet to appear. I considered leaving journalism and started studying for the bar exam. I thought it was all over.

On the Mercy Campaign and the death penalty…

I don’t think the state should have the power to take lives. It’s such a final, irreversible step, and doesn’t allow for the fact that a conviction might be wrongful. Albert Camus wrote: “But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared?” I also believe in rehabilitation. The work that Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran — two of the Australians condemned to death in Bali — do in Kerobokan is great. They are helping other prisoners learn English, have set up a computer room, and Myuran has set up art classes. Artist Ben Quilty has been into the jail to assist him with those classes. There are a lot of positive things happen there in a prison that we often hear only negative things about. I’ll disclose my involvement in Reprieve and the Mercy Campaign if I’m writing about the issue. I’ve done a lot of op-eds on the issue, because I do have strong opinions about it and feel very strongly that it shouldn’t exist.

The Bali campaign is called The Mercy Campaign. It’s a chance for people to respectfully ask the Indonesian President to spare the lives of Andrew and Myuran. I’m also involved in Reprieve, which sends Australian interns to the southern states of the US to assist attorneys there on capital cases. The program has been going for around 11 years and has assisted in getting prisoners off death row. I’m immensely proud of the work young Australians do over there, on their own time and their own dime. It says something about how poorly funded the American capital defence system is when you have Aussie volunteers propping it up. Reprieve has also started working closer to home, on death penalty cases in Asia. I don’t believe that fighting against the death penalty is a lost cause. The Asian countries that we have started working in are mostly keen to modernise and engage with human rights. Indonesia in particular has shown a waning appetite for the death penalty. Particularly when their own residents are facing it abroad in countries such as Saudi Arabia. As for Andrew and Myuran’s plight, I would encourage anyone who cares to sign the petition. The pair has supportive families and a great legal team. They are keeping busy in prison and trying to be positive. I’m hopeful for them.

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