Sunday 30 December 2007

Georgia: Going off Script

The Guardian ran this on 30 December 2007.


It is almost certain that the first serious international media story in 2008 will be Georgia's early presidential election on 5 January. Incumbent Mikhail Saakashvili and his western supporters hope the results are equally predictable.

Because Saakashvili seriously tarnished his international image as a pro-western democratic reformer in November when he authorised violence against peaceful protesters and independent journalists, the upcoming vote is more than an exercise in domestic legitimacy. It is a show targeting a world audience, and for those who uncritically support Saakashvili, the script is plain. The world's media will arrive just after New Year's Day. They will report a relatively free and fair election. Then, everyone will get back on the plane amid a buzz of, "Georgia is back on track."

Indeed, election observers may give the poll an overall clean bill of health. The conduct of the vote will not be as ideal as some heavyweight western parliamentary observers will boldly claim in front of the TV cameras in the days immediately afterward. Already the opposition has cried foul, and non-governmental organisations following the process are claiming irregularities in the campaign. But even the less spotlighted and more technocratic Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which has enormous experience in observing elections within the 56-country zone of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, will probably not find too many grave shortcomings on election day. However, one decent election is not enough to get this country "back on track", because Georgia has been sliding off the rails towards authoritarianism for several years.

The Rose Revolution of 2003 seemed a fairy tale made for western television. As the cameras filmed, demonstrators gathered and stormed the parliament in Tbilisi, toppling a tired post-Soviet state using little but pro-democracy slogans and youthful charismatic leadership. After that, Saakashvili was unquestioningly supported as the plucky easternmost flag-bearer of liberal democracy, under siege by revanchist Moscow. Like all good political myths, this one contains some elements of truth.

Saakashvili came to power with enormous public support, and his declared intention to join Nato and the EU established his international leanings. His sweeping reforms have reshaped the failing state institutions and rejuvenated the dysfunctional economy, attracting foreign direct investment and enhancing state revenues. Small-scale corruption, which used to cripple Georgian society before the Rose Revolution, is down dramatically.

In this context, it may be possible to overlook the occasional excess of decisiveness, especially in a country that feels itself under attack. Resurgent Russia has, after all, applied economic embargoes and supported secessionists in Georgia's conflict regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Trying to stitch together a state torn apart by war and economic collapse in a poor and hostile neighbourhood requires enormous force of will. Unfortunately, however, admirable resolve has too often turned into disturbing heavy-handedness. The November 7 crackdown and the imposition of a state of emergency was a symptom of a much deeper problem.

Over the past four years, Saakashvili and a small circle around him have concentrated power in their own few hands, and they have been unwilling to accept criticism. Cronyism, the bane of pre-Rose Georgia, is again said to be flourishing in the senior level of the administration. The leadership elite has worn down fundamental checks and balances to enhance its own power, and it has curtailed basic human rights such as freedom of expression.

In fact, it was the government's repeated lack of responsiveness to the demands of the opposition, civil society and ordinary citizens for transparency, accountability and credible investigations into high-profile cases of official abuse that led to mass public protests in autumn. The leadership's violent crackdown was a depressingly magnified continuation of this overall trend.

International journalists covering the elections at the beginning of this year would be well advised to avoid the scripted show. Election observers will report what they see on the day of the vote and in the weeks leading up to it. Visiting western parliamentarians will likely clutch at any straw to give a boost to Saakashvili, who retains enough revolutionary charm to keep them smiling for the cameras.

The press can look deeper, however, and bring out what has been going on in the country over the past four years. If they ask the right questions, perhaps western policy-makers will too. Saakashvili should not expect to remain in the west's good books if his administration continues along its increasingly illiberal path.

Saturday 15 December 2007

US: No Satire, No News

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlerNet blog on 15 December 2007.


Everyone who thought American television news couldn't get any worse has been proven wrong in recent weeks, as the writers' strike has shut down the satirical news shows where so many people get their news these days. Yes, it's not just drama and sit-coms that have been hit by industrial action by the Writers Guild of America, Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" and Stephen Colbert's "Colbert Report" have also been in reruns since early November.

We're not talking about the loss of a couple comedy shows here. With the cliff-dive dumbing-down of US TV news over the last decade or so, these satirical news programs have become primary sources of information for millions of Americans in recent years -- particularly younger and more educated ones. The loss is felt, and there is a growing public debate about its impact on politics.

Monday 10 December 2007

Belgium Is Not Rwanda

From my Reuters AlertNet blog, 10 December 2007.


Blaming the media is an easy game every politician plays, but here in Belgium, it has just taken a step -- more like an enormous leap -- too far. After spending ages trying to form a government with no success, Yves Leterme, the Flemish Christian Democrat leader, lashed out at French-language state broadcaster RTBF, comparing it to Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda.

While Leterme's general state of frustration may be somewhat understandable -- today marks six months to the day since the general election in June, and still Belgium has no new government -- that can be no excuse for throwing perspective out the window as he did in an interview with Flemish newspaper Het Belang van Limburg on Saturday. It is an insult to the intelligence of the Belgian public and to the victims of Rwanda.

During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the private radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines was the "Hate Radio" inspiring Hutus to kill Tutsis en masse, using terms like "final war" and calling on listeners to "exterminate the cockroaches". The broadcaster was not just an appendage of the genocide; it was its nervous system, relaying commands and directly inciting murders.

Comparing the textbook example of media driving violent conflict to RTBF and the political discord in Belgium today is lunacy. Leterme may be angry with the Belgian broadcaster and may even blame it and its "political agenda" for complicating his attempts to form a government over the past half year. But please, let's not get crazy. This is Belgium 2007, not Rwanda 1994.

In fact, you'd hardly notice this country is going through much of a crisis at all. The schools still work well, the trash continues to be collected twice a week, the taxes are still too high, and the beer is as good as it ever was. The public debate in the media seems very calm and reasoned -- RTBF has even invited Leterme to discuss his comments on air. People are concerned about the future of their country, and indeed it may even split some day (I hope not though), but there is zero possibility of violence. And no one is encouraging it, least of all the media here.

The Association of Professional Journalists of Belgium has strongly condemned Leterme's comparison, and Belgian Radio and Television Minister Fadila Laanan has called it "abominable". Indeed.

Tuesday 4 December 2007

EU-Africa Summit: Get Beyond Bob

From my Reuters AlertNet blog on 4 December 2007.


Here's a challenge to all European journalists intending to write about this weekend's EU-Africa Summit: deal with real issues that may have an effect on people's lives, not invented ones that politicians use to aggrandise themselves. In short, skip the flap about Robert Mugabe's attendance, and go directly to substance.

Some may say this is hard to do. No doubt editors back home are baying for Bob, so they can cover what they assume people are interested in -- mostly because the competition is working under the same assumptions. Of course, in doing so the media gatekeepers have to consciously ignore their duty to inform the public as well as the opportunity they possess to set the agenda.

There are at least a dozen much more critical issues this EU-Africa Summit raises.

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Teddy Bear Arrested in Sudan

This piece was my reaction to the "Sudanese teddy bear blasphemy case". When I published it on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 28 November 2007, I didn't expect some of the reactions I received from the anti-satire lobby.


Governments around the world have expressed outrage at yesterday's arrest and imprisonment of a teddy bear in Khartoum, Sudan.

The stuffed animal, a UK citizen of Chinese origin, was taken into police custody after it emerged he had the same name as a child who had entered the toyshop where he was working. If found guilty of the offence, the teddy bear could face 40 lashes or possibly even be thrown into a room with an overly playful puppy.

Reaction from around the world has been swift.

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Let Al Jazeera English Speak

The Boston Globe ran this under the headline "News without the nonsense" on 20 November 2007, and I was very happy to see it get picked up elsewhere in the US and around the world in the following weeks. Today, April 2011, I think everything I wrote is still spot on: AJE does a great job. Unfortunately, while many Americans watch it online, many cable companies are still reluctant to carry it.


It is probably the world's best-funded television news operation, and it has a team of experienced professional reporters. Yet after a full year on air, Al Jazeera English remains unavailable to most Americans.

Given constant public criticism about the media in the United States, in particular the decline in television news standards, it is surprising that Al Jazeera English has had such a hard time breaking into the market. But cable is king in the United States, and most cable providers have been reluctant to take on the new station.

Some of their reasons are understandable. There is competition for bandwidth among a variety of companies, from shopping channels to sports channels to special-interest networks. Cable companies cannot carry everything.

However, the implicit assumption that there is not a strong enough market for international news is faulty. Sure, serious reporting from Africa or the Middle East is never going to be as popular as escapist entertainment and fluff news about film stars. But Al Jazeera English would get significant viewership from among the large number of Americans disgusted with the seemingly bottomless dumbing-down of American TV news over the past decade or so.

Sunday 12 August 2007

The Far North of Sudan: The Next Conflict?

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 12 August 2007.


While the world's media are concentrating on the deployment of peacekeepers to Sudan's troubled Darfur, a new threat is rapidly emerging in two areas of northern Sudan where the government is building hydro-electric dams that will displace local communities and could ultimately create a new conflict zone.

The older project, the Merowe dam along the fourth cataract of the Nile, begun in 2003 and due to become operational as early as 2008, is to be the second largest in Africa and significantly boost national energy production. It has been contested by the local population who will not only lose their traditional homelands but are also being refused access by the government to the new waterfront land. Though the locals are not entirely opposed to the dam, numerous negotiations have failed to address adequately their demands for resettlement and compensation, leading to tension and clashes in which civilians have been killed and arrested by security forces.

The second project is further north, in the area of Kajbar, and threatens to submerge parts of the ancient Nubian homeland, much of which was already lost when Egypt opened the Aswan High Dam in 1964. It faces near unanimous opposition from the Nubian community. Originally proposed in 1995 then cancelled in 1999, it was revived in early 2007. There have already been several violent clashes between the Nubians and the government, and the risk of more is very real.

Wednesday 25 July 2007

The "Darfur Lifestyle" in Italy

This originally appeared as a post on my blog at Reuters AlertNet on 25 July 2007.


One of the most-embarrassing videos I've seen in a while is an interview with a couple of deputies of the Italian parliament on the subject of Darfur. It may be slightly unfair, because the interviewer just doorsteps them out of the blue, but still, their answers are incredible, with one declaring "Darfur" is a fast-paced, fast-food lifestyle.

Tuesday 3 July 2007

Useless Coverage of Summits

I posted this on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 3 July 2007.


The "lobster summit" between Bush and Putin reminds us all how bad the media are at setting their priorities.

It's not just this meeting of leaders, of course. Nearly all high-level summits are devoid of meaningful content, with no visible consequences for anyone anywhere.

Yet the world media love nothing more, giving commentators a handy hook to say what they were going to say anyway, and filling TV screens with images of the alpha males smiling jovially as they engage in a ritual dance to mark out territory.

Watching the media cover these summits, I am always reminded of "minister-meeting news",

Thursday 7 June 2007

Darfur: Unhelpful Media Diversions

This appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog and was crossposted on the Globe for Darfur group blog, on 7 June 2007.


Over the past few months, some media attention on Darfur has shifted away from the issue itself and on to the activist movement and its cast of characters. At the risk of navel-gazing, it seems worth a quick summary, because it leads, hopefully, to some lessons for all of us in the NGO sector.

The problem first seemed to develop -- at least from my European perspective -- in France, where Darfur activists and intellectuals trying to capture public attention with their pet proposals in the midst of a heated presidential campaign spent weeks attacking each other in public meetings and on the pages of the major dailies.

Tuesday 15 May 2007

Von Taschkent zum Narren gehalten

This piece originally ran in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 15 May 2007.


Vor fünf Jahren sah es so aus, als könnten ein paar kleine Fortschritte in Bezug auf den Respekt für Menschenrechte im Land eine Öffnung des Regimes in Usbekistan signalisieren. Taschkent stellte Leichtgläubigen aus dem Westen eine Falle, und einige fielen darauf herein.

Wednesday 4 April 2007

A Responsibility to Protect: The World's View

My then-boss, Gareth Evans, and I wrote this piece for openDemocracy on 4 April 2007. In it, we looked at the "responsibility to protect" doctrine in light of some encouraging new global public opinion research and what it meant for crisis-areas such as Darfur. It was subsequently republished in a number of newspapers, including the Swiss Le Temps.


Trying to draw sustained international media attention to violent conflicts and mass atrocities around the world is a depressing business. The subject-matter is deeply disturbing, attention-spans are limited, and it is often hard to tell if publics are taking any notice in a way that is likely, in turn, to make their governments more responsive.

On Darfur, for example, non-governmental organisations such as the International Crisis Group have been ringing alarm-bells for over three years, yet effective international action to stop the state-sponsored violence has not materialised.

But new evidence suggests the message is getting across, at least on one level.

Thursday 29 March 2007

The EU's Inexcusable Pardon for Serbia

My Crisis Group colleague, Sabine Freizer, and I wrote this piece for the European Voice, which ran it on 29 March 2007.


Given the widespread negativity about further EU enlargement, it is curious that the EU is poised to lower the bar for Serbia, which Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said earlier this month could achieve candidate status by 2008.

Indeed, it is more than surprising – downright shocking – that the EU proposes to waive preconditions that the most notorious war criminals in Europe are arrested and transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

For years, talks with Serbia over a stabilisation and association agreement (SAA) were strictly dependent on Belgrade’s full co-operation with the tribunal and from December 2004 to April 2005 this conditionality bore fruit. Serbia transferred 16 indictees before SAA talks began in May 2005.

But that is precisely when co-operation stopped.

Tuesday 27 March 2007

New Angles for Darfur

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 27 March 2007.


I just finished a short round of meetings on Darfur with European journalists, and one thing that emerges over and over again is how desperate editors are for new angles on the issue. So, with the help of Reuters AlertNet, I would like to set up a contest to find new stories highlighting the issue.

The problem in getting more coverage for Darfur has never been finding journalists willing to cover it, and today -- as opposed to a couple years ago -- the problem isn't even convincing editors it's a critically important story. The difficulty is in finding new angles from which to cover the issue.

Saturday 17 March 2007

US and Iraq: Post-Pottery Barn Rules

I posted this on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 17 March 2007.


Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s ominous pre-war warning, "You break it, you've bought it", set the tone for the public debate on Iraq for years to come. How ever bad Iraq got, the US would have to deal with it, because the American-led invasion had released numerous unforeseen, though hardly unforeseeable, consequences.

If last week's New York Times interview with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is any indication of where the American public debate stands today, and the new guiding principle really is, as she says, "the American people are done with Iraq", then the era of the "Pottery Barn rules" has given way to something much worse.

Monday 12 March 2007

Would You Live in Kosovo?

This appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 12 March 2007.


Anyone who has followed Kosovo over the past decade or so knows that public debate on both the Kosovan and Serbian sides is fairly limited. It can seem like two monotones talking past each other: commentary in the media follows those familiar conflict mentality fall-backs of ancient history lessons and attempts to reinforce "our" victimhood. Only rarely does any local commentator really come up with something new to say, despite -- or perhaps because of -- the fast-approaching final status decision. This weekend in Belgrade was one of those rare moments, when a very refreshing opinion piece appeared in a key Serbian newspaper.

Thursday 8 March 2007

Worst Crisis Question of the Month

This was a short post on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 8 March 2007. Sadly, sharing the experience didn't help.


As Media Director of the International Crisis Group, I obviously answer a lot of journalists' questions about various conflicts. Some might even say it's part of my job. Of course, nearly all the journalists who call me are deeply interested in the conflicts they are covering and have sharp questions. On rare occasions, however, I get something thrown at me that is so outrageously crass or ill-informed that it bothers me for weeks. Perhaps by sharing it, I can purge myself of the memory.

Tuesday 6 March 2007

1000 Journalists Dead

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 6 March 2007.


A comprehensive study released today finds that 1,000 journalists and news media support staff have died as a result of their reporting over the past ten years. On average, that’s two a week. The new report, entitled Killing the Messenger, was produced by the International News Safety Institute (INSI) and draws on an impressive number of sources, including input from the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Press Institute, the World Association of Newspapers, and Reporters Without Borders.
Apart from the headline figure, other key conclusions were

-- Only one in four died in war and other armed conflicts. The great majority died in peacetime, covering the news in their own countries.

-- Most of those killed were murdered because of their jobs; eliminated by hostile authorities or criminals.

-- Nine out of ten of their killers have never been prosecuted.

Inquiry Chairman Richard Sambrook, Director of BBC Global News, says in the executive summary: "The figures show… it is virtually risk free to kill a journalist. In many countries, murder has become the easiest, cheapest and most effective way of silencing troublesome reporting, and the more the killers get away with it the more the spiral of death is forced upwards."

"This is the most shocking fact at the heart of the inquiry. Impunity for the killers of journalists, who put themselves in harm's way to keep us all informed, shames governments around the world."

And the situation seems to be getting worse. The inquiry found that the news media death toll has increased steadily since 2000. The last full year covered by the report, 2005, was a record with 147 dead. It has since emerged that 2006 was even worse, with 167 fatalities, according to INSI's annual tally.

INSI's researchers counted all news media personnel -- journalists as well as support workers such as drivers, translators and office personnel, whether staff or freelance -- provided they died because of their work gathering or distributing the news. All causes of death were included, from murder through accidents to health-related.

The report comes with a number of recommendations and will no doubt become the seminal reference point for discussions of journalist safety for years to come.

Wednesday 31 January 2007

Teetering Turkmenistan?

From my Reuters AlertNet blog, 31 January 2007.


IWPR just published a good overview report on Turkmenistan as the country faces a presidential election and an uncertain future without the megalomaniacal Saparmurad Niazov, aka Turkmenbashi, at the helm. The death of "the father of all Turkmen" in December not only came as a shock to the Central Asian nation, it also left a gap for those in the international media and NGO world who follow the region.

Though Niazov's reign was unquestionably brutal, the absurd elements of his rule -- the gold statues; the calendars with months renamed after himself and his mother; the obligatory questions about his ludicrous book, the Ruhnama, on the exam for a driver's license -- at least provided freaky factoids to draw the outside world into the story. Without the lunacy, it's going to be a lot harder to sell Turkmenistan to editors. More than one human rights activist and journalist has commented to me in recent weeks, "In a strange way, we're going to miss him."