Monday 15 December 2008

Killing the Messenger in Asia-Pacific

A quick post from Jakarta on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 15 December 2008.


Here in Jakarta, journalists from across the Asia-Pacific region are gathering to discuss the security issues they face in their reporting. Day one of the International News Safety Institute's (INSI) conference, "Killing the Messenger", has been pretty revealing.

Friday 28 November 2008

Twitter in Mumbai

I wrote this for my Reuters AlertNet blog on 28 November 2008. When I look back at it now, in April 2011 after having relied on Twitter quite a bit to follow the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, I can say I'm far less sceptical now. And actually, I launched Crisis Group's Twitter feed shortly after my early expressions of doubt. Twitter is a useful source to add to the mix as long as you know how to use it and and understand its limitations.


I will try to make this blog entry 140 characters long, since that is the longest possible message on Twitter, which some are raving about as a source of news during the Mumbai attacks. I'm not exactly convinced. And I'm already over 140 characters.

I am someone who has previously equated "citizen journalism" with "citizen dentistry", so Twitter heads were obviously going to have a hard time convincing me. There have been a few interesting articles trying to make the case with the attacks in Mumbai, however, including one from Mathew Ingram, who boldly claims, "Yes, Twitter is a source of journalism".

Reuters also has had a good piece on "citizen journalism" in the Mumbai case, as does France 24, CNN and others.

I remain sceptical, however. Looking through the Twitter search stream for "Mumbai", I see so much useless information, I quickly get the feeling I am wasting my time. There are some personal notes -- very welcome no doubt if you have family or friends caught up in the madness and would like to know if they're OK, but it's not information that offers anything anyone can act upon.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Somalie: la piraterie, fruit de la 'faillite' de l'Etat

My Crisis group colleague, Daniela Kroslak, and I published this in Les Echos 19 November 2008.


C'est étrange comme un pays africain peut passer d'une situation de chaos prolongé à un violent effondrement sans que personne ne le remarque, jusqu'à ce que des navires soient détournés par des hommes armés.

La Somalie connaît la période la plus noire de son histoire récente, ce qui veut dire beaucoup dans un pays qui n'a pas réellement eu de gouvernement depuis pratiquement une génération. Pourtant, l'attention médiatique qui a été porté sur la somalie ne mentionne pas la guerre, l'exode de déplacés ou la réponse humanitaire internationale décroissante.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Witness to Absurdity

Given what I've written about Uzbekistan in recent years -- and assuming the visa-issuing officials in Tashkent have heard of Google -- there was never much chance of me getting into the country under normal circumstances. But an opportunity came in autumn of 2008, when I was able to go as part of an EU-sponsored conference. The experience of visiting Uzbekistan again after five or six years away was welcome yet disturbing. This is the piece I wrote upon return, for Transitions Online on 16 October 2008.


Arriving at Tashkent airport is not a pleasant experience. For foreigners, it means three or four hours in the tumbling scrum of Uzbek customs and immigration, with hundreds of people cramming up against each other to get through the paperwork. It’s not just the chaotic developing world, “this passport control is taking forever” sort of thing, but a literal shoving match for hours on end. It would be hard to imagine anything worse, but then, you don’t really have to: you just have to look at the pitched battle at the passport control booth for Uzbekistan’s own citizens.

Thursday 9 October 2008

No Crisis Like a Financial Crisis

From my Reuters AlertNet blog on 9 October 2008.


So, I might as well just pack up and go on holiday for a few months. With the global financial crisis continuing, no one wants to hear about violent conflict and mass atrocities around the world. Trying to interest the media in these stories -- ie, my job -- is even harder than usual these days.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Harvest by Force

This piece, looking at forced child labour in Uzbekistan, originally appeared in openDemocracy on 1 October 2008.


The start of the school year in Europe each autumn is a period when education resumes its place at the heart of the lives of pupils and their families. The equivalent of this annual cycle is very different in the central Asian state of Uzbekistan, where soon after their own school year begins, most students will be pulled out of classes to work in the cotton-fields for two months.

This is not their choice or even a poverty-driven decision made by desperate families trying to make ends meet. This is a top-down government policy: the authorities close the classrooms, they put the children on buses, and they give them a police escort to the fields. Repeated regime pledges to end the practice have come to naught: even as the Uzbek government announced a ban on child-labour on 15 September 2008, children were already in the fields, picking cotton under compulsion.

Thursday 28 August 2008

Tax Information?

This is a piece originally written for my Reuters AlertNet blog, where it appeared on 28 August 2008.


Please read this blog -- but only if you're rich. That’s essentially the message of a recent op-ed in the Washington Post.

In "If Everyone's Talking, Who Will Listen?", Dusty Horwitt first drags out the tired cliché about today’s society having "too much information", that we are all overloaded with too many blogs, too many web sites, fragmented TV and micro-audience radio shows. He says the proliferation of outlets and the shrinking of major TV network news audiences make broad-based political action, like the civil rights movement, increasingly difficult to achieve.

Wrong on all counts.

Friday 22 August 2008

Georgia and Citizen War Reporting

I wrote this for my Reuters AlertNet blog on 22 August 2008.


Evgeny Morozov has a great piece over at openDemocracy dealing with citizen journalism in the Georgia-Russia conflict. It confirms my opinion of citizen journalism -- which in short tends to be the same as my opinion of citizen dentistry. Some things should be done by professionals.

Saturday 19 July 2008

Media Power and Responsibility

This originally appeared in my Reuters AlertNet blog on 19 July 2008.


Gideon Rachman had a great piece in the FT on Monday. In "American journalism, still a model", he contrasts US and UK media, finding that although American newspaper journalism seems "self-reverential, long-winded, over-edited and stuffy", it does have an advantage over its British counterpart in that the Americans "take the idea of journalism as a civic duty much more seriously".

With a foot on each side of the pond, I don't really want to get into the cross-Atlantic contrast exactly. The cited Reuters Foundation report on "The Power of the Commentariat", showing that UK commentators don't regard themselves as powerful is more interesting, as it touches on something that goes beyond commentators to editors and others who decide what becomes a story and what doesn't.

Many media gatekeepers I talk to also seem to ignore the reality of the power they hold, or, if they accept they do indeed have some, will then not make the connection between power and responsibility.

Friday 18 July 2008

The Ghost of Sanctions (Not Quite) Past

This article originally appeared in the European Voice on 18 July 2008. The EU's policy toward Uzbekistan had once been hailed; it then became an example of unprincipled policy-making at its worst.


Attempting to ignore its own policy on Uzbekistan is becoming a favourite pastime for the EU. The latest in the sorry saga of EU sanctions against Tashkent is the decision not to include the Central Asian country on the formal agenda for next week’s meeting of EU foreign ministers.

This ‘oversight’ is somewhat surprising given that in April, the ministers’ monthly meeting – known as GAERC, for the General Affairs and External Relations Council – agreed to review the progress made by the Uzbek authorities after three months. Of course, nothing is particularly clear when it comes to the EU’s position on Uzbekistan: ‘after three months’ could mean any time, and sticklers might say ‘review’ doesn’t actually mean ‘discuss’.

This fits a fairly predictable pattern of late. If the EU has a way to avoid Uzbekistan, it will take it.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Medellín: Revival and Risk

This article originally appeared in openDemocracy on 8 July 2008. It looks at the work of civil-society and human-rights groups in helping a Colombian city reach beyond conflict and notoriety.


"This city used to be the murder capital of the world, but now look around Medellín", Mauricio Mosquera tells me with a smile. The director of the community TV TeleMedellín has a point: there are so many visible improvements here, it is impossible to deny things are looking up for Colombia's second city.

You can see it all around as you travel in the cable car that takes you up the mountain to the neighbourhood of Santo Domingo Savio. The high-wire ride is not a tourist attraction; it is a part of the public-transport system that moves people from the metro train at the river up to what was once one of the most violent parts of the country. The bustling neighbourhood is still poor, but it is safe to wander around, and it exudes an unmistakable pride: there is almost no litter anywhere, and none of the cable-car stations, not even the posts supporting the line up and down the mountain, have the tiniest tag of graffiti.

This system, built in 2004, is just one symbol of Medellín's renaissance.

Friday 4 July 2008

Colombia: Tocadas pero no hundidas

El Mundo (Spain) ran this piece by my then colleague Juan Munévar and me on 4 July 2008.


El emotivo comunicado sobre el rescate de Ingrid Betancourt y de otros 14 rehenes secuestrados por las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) ha sido una noticia bien recibida por todas aquellas personas y sus familias que han vivido una terrible experiencia, muchos de ellos durante casi diez años. El frenesí mediático es tan predecible como merecido. Sin embargo, sugerir que dicha noticia supone el fin de las FARC, tal y como dicen algunos comentaristas, es una exageración.

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Europe's Soft Powerlessness

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 20 May 2008.


Any dictator concerned about Western condemnation of his actions could learn a lot from Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov. Tashkent's strongman, with some help from Berlin, has just outmaneuvered the European Union to get the sanctions against his regime lifted.

Three years ago, the EU agreed on an Uzbek arms embargo and visa bans against top regime officials involved in the brutal crackdown on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan. No one can be sure how many men, women and children were killed on May 13, 2005, when security forces opened fire on the crowd. The authorities never allowed an independent inquiry. But conservative estimates suggest some 750 people died that day.

In fact, an independent investigation was one of the key conditions the EU had set for lifting the sanctions imposed in response to the mass killings and the torture, forced confessions and show trials that followed. It was an all-too-rare case of the EU taking the international lead on a tough foreign policy issue. The U.S. never even got as far as sanctions.

Sadly, European nerves didn't hold up.

Thursday 15 May 2008

Even Less Foreign News

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 15 May 2008.


Last week's announcement that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was ending its Newsline service is yet another damaging blow to the diversity of foreign news sources in Western Anglophone media. One more informative voice has been silenced.

Somehow the idea still persists that with the internet, everyone can get as much news as they want from any part of the world. In reality, as soon as you try to test this optimistic notion on anything other than the one or two big stories of the day, it falls apart. You quickly realise you're looking at the same news agency copy repackaged in outlet after outlet.

Tuesday 29 April 2008

Oh My Gosh, Pirates!

I wrote this with my then colleague, Daniela Kroslak, for the International Herald Tribune, which ran it on 29 April 2008.


Strange how an African country can be moving from prolonged chaos to violent collapse and no one in the world notices until a couple of European boats get seized by armed gunmen.

War-ravaged Somalia is in the worst shape it has been in for years - which, for this devastated country that has not had a proper government for nearly a generation, is really saying something.

Friday 29 February 2008

Afghanistan: The Prince and the Press

This was originally published on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 29 February 2008.


So, Prince Harry has been fighting in Afghanistan for ten weeks, and all the British media knew about it but agreed with the government to keep silent. Now a debate is raging among journalists. Is it unacceptable collusion with the authorities or a responsible approach to journalism in a war zone?