I have yet to post anything on Syria, and what the international response should be to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. This omission is mainly because I was away when the House of Commons voted on whether to join in with any military action, and I missed all the debates over the morality of intervention. By the time I began consuming media again after my time in a communications blind spot, the conversation had become about whether David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s political fortunes had been helped or hindered by the parliamentary vote. I was coming to the issue with fresh eyes and ears, and such parochial analysis felt incredibly crass and wholly beside the point.
For the past ten days, there has been much discussion about how our collective democratic experience of the Iraq war in 2003 has affected our political judgements a decade later. Clearly the sense of betrayal that many of us felt back then still remains. The brutal aftermath in Iraq, and our lengthy, corrosive presence in Afghanistan has made everyone wary of more military action in the Middle East. Continue reading →
A Qatari poet has been sentenced to life in prison for inciting the overthrow of the government of Qatar and insulting the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his son, the crown prince, reports say.
The verdict is likely to prove an embarrassment for Qatar which has worked hard to cultivate a progressive, modern image, and is currently playing host to a major international climate change conference.
The charges relate to a poem that 37-year-old Mohammed al-Ajami, a father of four, recited in 2010 before a small, private audience in his flat in Egypt. One audience member subsequently posted the poem online.
Al-Jazeera (a channel that yrstrly appeared on earlier this year) is funded by the same Emir Sheikh Hamad and has not yet covered the story, which is a glaring omission that undermines its otherwise growing reputation.
I think Al-Jazeera English (based in London) should take a leaf out of the BBC handbook, and start scrutinising this journalistic omission on the part of its head office in Doha. That would be very much in the spirit of the current media moment.
This quote stuck out, because twice in two weeks, I’ve been quick to share information online which has then been questioned and discredited.
The first was the damning testimoney of an “executive of Sony Music UK” who described how Simon Cowell grooms and sexualises young performers, in his quest to find a British Justin Beiber.
Ronan was privately auditioned by SYCO scouts on two more occasions and, as is usual practice on BGT, he was “invited” to audition for the show as a “preferred” contestant. At the same time, Ronan and his parents were “required” to enter into a contract with SYCO. Like all SYCO contracts, it is heavily weighted in favour of the label and are notoriously bad, even in the cut-throat world of the music industry. Simon effectively signed Ronan for life and he’s got little or no chance of ever getting out of it…unless Simon decides to terminate.
Now the improbable perfection of little Ronan Parke has always made me feel uneasy, so I was quick to share the story on my Facebook page. However, the original post quickly disappeared from the website where it was posted and Simon Cowell issued such a strong denial over matters of fact that I felt it rendered the acusatory, anonymous post unreliable. The following day, James Ward posted an excellent analysis of how the attack was propagated by a twitter account @ukLegion, which has also now disappeared from Twitter. I shared James’ link on Facebook too.
I have several things to say about this. The first is that linking to hoax information is clearly embarrassing, no two ways about it. Here’s my worst example, although to be fair it was reminiscent of a real story. As the Literally Unbelievable blog shows with its comments on The Onion articles, other people are much more gullible than I.
The second thing is to say that, nevertheless, the internet can work as a sort of fact-check engine. The act of sharing a link does not and should not imply complete endorsement. In the case of the SyCo smear I, at least, was quick to share the original article and the rebuttals. In this example, one could say that the act of posting/sharing is also an act of verification. When you publicise some text, does it stand up to scrutiny? If not, you have learned a fact about the world, which you also publish. This method is something that bloggers understand inately. However, in formal journalistic and legal circles such a practice would still be lumped in with ‘publish and be damned’ as irresponsible journalism. But it is more akin to open-source fact-checking.
I will also say that internet publishing has the huge advantage over print in that it allows corrections to the original article. In the case of Amina Abdallah Arraf, the three highly reputable news organisations I linked to (Al Jazeera, the New York Times and the Washington Post) were all able to correct the original article. This, I think, lessens the possibility of misinformation spreading.
Finally, this issue puts me in the mind of Ste Curran’s Monica, a play about a fantastic and witty online friend who turns out not to be real.
Amid all the frantic late night comments about the UN resolution to finally act in Libya, this tweet from @techsoc stood out:
All intervention is risky & w/ great downsides. A non-intervention is also an intervention; letting Gaddafi kill using weapons we sold.
I think this an interesting companion thought to Sunder Katwala’s bolshy piece on the subject of whattaboutery (a topic Johann Hari previously dealt with in this hardy perennial). Sunder explains why it is worth intervening in Libya when we might not do so elsewhere. First, there has to be a clear and present humanitarian crisis (this is not present in most examples of despicable oppression, a small mercy). Second, intervention has to be possible and practical. This generally means the support and assistance of major regional players like the Arab League or African Union, who are notoriously lethargic. And third, the intervention requires a legitimacy, again related to what important external stakeholders think, but also what those inside the country ask for. These three checkboxes provide a case for what Sunder calls contextual universalism. It matters – at least to me – because it articulates why I had a gut feeling that the Iraq war was wrong, and the current intervention is right. This is despite the fact that the documented brutality of Saddam Hussein was ever bit as bad as that of Colonel Gaddafi.
The cautious approach is clearly a response to the bungling of Iraq. I watched some of the collegiate House of Commons debate on the issue yesterday, and most of the contributions, from Nicholas Soames to John McDonnell, were infused with the considerations that Sunder lays out. This approach to Foreign policy – the need for practicality and legitimacy, the need to be seen to be going to war for the right reasons – is obviously influenced by how unsuccessful the hawkish and shameless approach of Bush/Blair turned out to be. in 2006 I wrote in this space how protest actually serves to influence future policy more than current policy. I quoted Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads, who wrote:
… someone has to be called to account or the next batch of power-mad bastards – here or abroad – will think they can get away with exactly the same thing.
Well, Tony Blair was not forced kicking and screaming from office in the way Tim hoped. Nevertheless, the way the British and American Governments have acted during this current crisis is telling. It is clear that they have been profoundly affected by the uproar we caused last time. David Cameron is rightly being praised for his handling of the crisis, but his course of action was defined by the parameters set for him by recent history. And those parameters were set by us, the awkward squad of protesters and dissenting bloggers. For that, I think we can claim some credit.
How many ways can the world’s news media face? There is an environmental and human catastrophe brewing in Japan, and Libya seems to be temporarily cowed by the recent UN resolution. That shunts Bahraini protests into the third spot – at best – on any news bulletin.
Today English PEN received a few disturbing reports from that country that deserve a little more air. First, we’ve received reports that Ali Abdulemam, a prominent activist and ‘blog-father’ of Bahrain (so called because he set up the first free uncensored forum there) has gone missing:
His uncle described the scene last night when 50 heavily armed policemen came to arrest him, just a few weeks after he was released as a part of concessions to placate Bahraini protesters. … At around 1.15am on 18 March the housing complex in Aali where Ali rented a flat from one of his cousins awoke to hear the metal gate outside being riddled with bullets.
Ali’s twitter feed is rather chilling. It is full of chatter up until yesterday, and then there is a single curt and entirely uncharacteristic message:
I get tired from my phone so I switched it of no need for rumors plz
I note that it is the only message in the stream to have been posted from an Android phone, which is odd. Moreover, his twitter page gives the location for that tweet as 26.267457, 50.618742 which is no-where near his home in Aali… but is near the airport, Ministry of Transport and police training centre.
Tahrir Square – “The biggest think-tank in the Middle East”
In the Western world, there is much hand-wringing over just how our people and governments can help the people of Egypt get a better government. Since we are viewed as part of the problem, any interventions (either supporting the Mubarak regime, or condemining it more forcefully) will likely make matters worse. So for now, we hear slightly patronising platitudes about how the Egyptian people “must decide for themselves” followed by cautionary tales of radical Islam in the very next breath.
There is one way in which Western nations – or rather, the people civil society groups in those nations – could help the pro-democracy groups, and that is by publishing their message. With communications still slow and unreliable in Egypt itself, the messages of What They Actually Want are patchy, stilted, and vulnerable to pro-Mubarak spin.
Tahrir square is the biggest brainstorming & think-tank in the middle east and possible the world now. #egypt #jan25
Well then: how about the people of Europe and North America, with their unrivalled and unfettered communications network, publish the preliminary findings of this new think-tank?
I do not mean “Let’s publish thoughts of Egyptian journalists and analysts” or “thoughts of Arab writers” or “eye witness accounts of what is happening”. I mean, why not publish the debates and discussions of those in the square right now.
Now, I actually think that a book is the right medium for this. Something that has been formally published and can exist in printed form has a certain authority and weight (literally and metaphorically) that these ideas need. TV interviews and news reports are two-a-penny and far too transient, as are blogs, YouTube Channels and Twitter feeds. A book on the otherhand – even a short book – can step outside the river of news and become something more tangible and influential. It will be something other than the charter of the Muslim Brotherhood, that everyone can point to as an alternative to Mubarak and his henchmen.
With the new digital inventions at our fingertips, there are no technical barriers to doing this. Initiatives like The Benjamin Franklin Project have shown that the free tools on the Internet are all that is required to gather and publish news and views. And the means to pull content together are already in operation down on Tahrir Square. Lulu.com allows you to publish a proper book, with an ISBN and a listing on Amazon, almost on a whim.
So, how about a British or American civil society group offers to spend until the end of this week managing the project, and undertakes to publish the book, in English, to an international audience. I am thinking of a projects of the scope of The New Liberal Arts project – short essays. I reckon think tanks like Demos, or the Fabian Society have the capacity to pull this off… or maybe a forward think news organisation like OpenDemocracy, The Guardian, or The Atlantic?
A couple of PEN members may be putting this together with their contacts in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Libya! Get in touch via the comments if you would like to help.
Åsne Seierstad, a Norwegian author, has been successfully sued in Norway over her book Bookseller of Kabul. It is a fictionalised account of her time staying with a family in Afghanistan, and much of the family’s private life is laid bare for the reader in unflattering detail.
On Comment is Free, journalist Conor Foley lays in to Seierstad, outlining the social faux pas she has committed:
Some may argue that freedom of artistic expression should be completely divorced from such political considerations. However, a writer who chooses to use a conflict as the background for their work cannot plead cultural immunity when real life intrudes on the result.
Indeed. But being stung, criticised and discredited for failing to respect cultural norms should not be punished in a civil or criminal court. Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, explains in the Independent why this development is a worry:
That’s not to say that Seierstad has not broken an unwritten code of hospitality, or that the Rais family has not faced problems as a result of the book’s publication. Although Rais himself continues to operate a successful business out of Kabul, his first wife has sought asylum in Canada and other members of the family are now living in Pakistan. But is this discrepancy in the fates of the male and female members of the family the fault of a Norwegian journalist – or Afghan society? Is it appropriate for a Norwegian court to punish the messenger? Is a court of law the place to determine how a book treats the “honour” of an entire society?
The example that such cases set is a very bad one. What happens when an investigative journalist wants to deliberately abuse the hospitality of an Afghan businessman, in order to expose corruption? What if an Afghani journalist wants to make similar, off-message commentary about his countrymen. Seierstad should certainly suffer the reputational and social hit of her insensitivity, but dragging this sort of roman a clef into the court-room is a terrible precedent for free expression.
Islam4UK want to march through Wooten Basset in a provocative protest against the British presence in Afghanistan. It is, as Dave Osler says on Liberal Conspiracy, a huge “headache” for the principled secular left who want defend free speech. Also at LibCon, Scepticisle points out that Anjem Choudry, who leads Islam4UK, is a “media troll” who is being deliberately provocative. He wants to provoke a violent reaction, and the best course of action is to not give him one. This means allowing the march to proceed, however offensive the message. The small numbers it will attract will demonstrate just how fringe and ridiculous Choudry and his ideas actually are.
I’m surprised by the illiberal line taken by James Alexander at Progress:
This planned event will turn to violence and lead to a counter-response by the English Defence League. Then the BNP will begin to stir up divisions in the surrounding localities.
Even if you disagree with the actions of the brave soldiers who fight to protect British security, it is wrong to antagonise the families of the fallen. This is hateful and evil. I am writing to the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson MP, to call for Islam4UK to be also banned.
I don’t buy into the meme that a provocative march will necessarily be met with violence from outraged Britons. Politicians and public figures should seize this as a ‘teaching moment’ and now use their influence to condemn in advance such actions, and inspire people to a more tolerant approach. Gordon Brown has failed to do this so far.
Alexander’s Progress piece seems to have been seized upon by the sort of comments that one usually sees on tabloid comment boards. I’ve just posted my own comment which sums up what I think:
I disagree with James Alexander … in suggesting that the Islam4UK march should be banned. That would be anti-free speech. If our troops are fighting for anything in Afghanistan, it is human rights, including the right to free expression (something sadly lacking in that country at the moment). The greatest tribute to our soldiers, living and fallen, would be to maintain our principles consistently at home and abroad: This means allowing the Islam4UK march.
The idea that the British people en mass cannot control themselves when confronted with a sorry band of Islamists is ridiculous and divisive. Locals and others who disagree with Islam4UK’s ridiculous ideas are perfectly capable of staging a bigger, peaceful counter-march, without any of the pathetic threats of violence that the other commenters here are so keen to see realised. It is this, and only this course of action that is consistent with the British spirit of tolerance and democracy. Progress members should be using their power and influence to bring this course of action about. Anything less is to sink towards the level of the fundamentalists.