Iran on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Iran has entered a new and dangerous period as opposition protests escalate and the Government reacts with a fierce crackdown. No-one can say what will happen next. As Richard Silverstein says in Al Jazeera, Iran could either be at the stage of Eastern Europe just before the Berlin Wall fell or just as likely, as China was before the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Silverstein says the death this month of Ayatollah Montazeri is equivalent to the death of Chinese reformer Hu Yaobang that unleashed the Tiananmen protests. While Yaobang’s death was unsuccessful, Silverstein sees hope in Iran’s fragmented and chaotic leadership. “I doubt there is a unified Iranian command that can overwhelm the opposition in much the same way the Chinese government did after the massacre,” he said.

The Iranian Government is cracking down hard on the second round of protests since the disputed 12 June re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Mir Hossein Mousavi. Yesterday it issued an ominous warning that “trying to overthrow the system will reach nowhere … designers of the unrest will soon pay the cost of their insolence.” They are also facing down foreign critics. Foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, threatened Britain with “a slap in the mouth” for encouraging protests.

Meanwhile the Iranian regime has been on the receiving end of several slaps lately. The country had been relatively peaceful for months after the traumatic events that saw hundreds killed in post-election riots. But protests have been on the rise since 87-year-old Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali-Montazeri died. Montazeri was a former leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution who Khomeini was grooming to replace him as Supreme Leader. He fell out of favour in 1989 after he called for a more open political system. He was demoted when Khomeini died and later held under house arrest for four years. But he remained a thorn in the side of the theocracy up to his death on 19 December. Two days later thousands attended his funeral in Qom with reports of clashes between supporters and security forces for three days afterwards.

Protesters ignored the bans on further protests until the Government used the climax of Ashura, Shia’s holiest festival, to strike a decisive blow. Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali, killed in battle by the sovereign Yazid. The symbolism of the day and the Iranian Government’s action has not been lost on protesters. Burnt-out cars, motorbikes and other debris littered the streets of Tehran. Hundreds were arrested and at least 15 people were killed by authorities.

One of those who died on Sunday was Mir Hussein Mousavi’s 43-year-old nephew Seyed Ali Mousavi. A 4WD vehicle smashed through a crowd near his home and five occupants got out. One approached Mousavi and shot him in his chest. The men then sped away. Mousavi died before reaching hospital. Government authorities removed his body from the hospital without explanation and without a family burial.

Dozens of key opposition figures were arrested during the crackdown. Among those detained were three of Mir Hussein Mousavi’s top aides, two advisers to the reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, and human rights campaigner Emadeddin Baghi. Also arrested was Opposition leader Ebrahim Yazdi. Yazdi was secretary general of the outlawed but tolerated Iran Freedom Movement and was foreign minister at the start of the Islamic revolution. A neighbour told his American-based son Youseph Yazdi he was arrested at home at 3am Monday. Also arrested was Nooshin Ebadi the sister of Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi. Ebadi said her sister, a professor of medicine, had not been involved in any social, human rights and political activities.

Ahmadinejad theatrically blamed the US and Israel for the troubles his own election created. “Americans and Zionists are the sole audience of a play they have commissioned and sold out,” he said. “A nauseating play is performed.” Iranian authorities have urged its own supporters to take to the streets in a show of force against the opposition it called “pawns of the enemies.” It has called for a counter-demonstration “against those who have not respected the values of Ashura”.

Writing in The Drum, Iranian expatriate journalist Arash Falasiri says the major difference between earlier protests and the current ones is the focus of anger has shifted from Ahmadinejad to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He says while the main slogan in the first two weeks after the election was “Where is my vote”, it has now been changed to “Death to Khamenei”. But Khamenei could yet unleash death of his own before he is forced to stand aside. Iran successfully tested a medium-range missile earlier this month. Israel has announced it believes Iran will have nuclear capability by early 2010. Dangerous times lie ahead before the world can tell if it has another Berlin Wall on its hands or just blood.

Blogging in the Noughties

The end of the year brings to a close an extraordinary decade for social media on the Internet. Google has turned itself into a verb, Youtube has become a video-sharing phenomenon, Facebook has transformed the way people talk to friends while Twitter is the premier destination for finding out what is happening in the world right now. All are crucial in democratising the Internet. Yet none of them have had the same effect on democracy itself as much as technology that predated the decade. That technology is blogging, which seems almost old hat as the Noughties draw to a close.

Yet blogging has not disappeared. It is a mature technology in rude health on an international scale. In 2006 the Pew Internet & American life project estimated 12 million adult Americans kept blogs and 57 million adult Americans read them. Five million blogs globally posted content in June 2008 in 66 countries across 20 languages. 59 percent of these are maintained by people blogging for two years or more. Scott Rosenberg says the blogosphere is so large and anarchic, it does not exist in the singular. There were many blogospheres. “The one you saw depended on which little slice of the blog universe you were following.”

Blogs are interactive, contain posts of varying lengths, usually contain hyperlinks, allow comments, and have a blogroll of other blogs. But there is no single accepted definition of a blog. The academic Scott Wright said “It is generally accepted that a blog is a regularly updated website with information presented in reverse chronological order. But what do we understand by the term regular? I have recently updated a blog having failed to do so for several months. In the intervening period, was it a blog, a defunct blog, or a website?” Others have argued a blog must contain a blog-roll or links section, yet several highly active blogs do not have blog-rolls.

The technology advances of the later 1990s made mass communications possible in a way impossible in previous eras. In December 1997 Jorn Barger coined the term weblog on his site to define his site which he saw as both a log of, and on, the web. Barger’s site contained posts and hyperlinks but had no comments or other interaction. In early 1999 Internet analyst Peter Merholz announced he was pronouncing the word “we-blog” or “blog” for short liking the new name’s crudeness and dissonance. “I like that it [blog] is roughly onomatopoeic of vomiting. These sites (mine included!) tend to be a kind of information upchucking”.

Information upchucking became easier with new blogging tools such as Google Blogger, WordPress and Movable Type in the early 2000s. No longer, as A.J. Liebling said, did the freedom of the press belong exclusively to those who own one. Blogs evolved from listings of websites people liked to becoming personal journals sharing thoughts and conversations.

Blogs have changed our politics and our world. Their hyperlinking structure created nonlinear activity and an almost instantaneous feedback loop. Hotlinks are the key to the success of the blogs. Stephen Coleman called blogs the listening posts of modern democracy. According to David Perlmutter, blogging allowed people to bypass big media and create mass communications messages without formal training, reaching large audiences, inviting others to co-author knowledge and affecting public opinion, political affairs and government policymaking.

The word blog first appeared in a mainstream publication on 11 October 1999. The New Statesman described it as a “web page, something like a public commonplace book, which is added to each day…if there is any log they resemble, it is the captain’s log on a voyage of discovery”.

A couple of months later the word appeared in a newspaper in Ottawa Citizen article about pop singer Sarah McLachlan. Television took another six months to cotton on and it was a typical TV down-take. CNNdotCom’s show of 8 July 2000 introduced its nerdword of the day thus: “Today’s training in technobabble: “blog”. No it’s not the way feel in the morning after drinking too much tequila the night before. And no its not one of the creatures found in Dr Seuss’s zoo”.

Blogs were escaping the zoo and entering the mainstream. They were an ideal outlet to express the trauma of 9/11. At a 2002 Harvard conference on Internet communication Professor Jay Rosen of New York University identified “a new kind of public, where every reader can be a writer and people do not so much consume the news as they ‘use’ it in active search for what’s going on sometimes in collaboration with each other, or in support of the pros.” This was the germ of Rosen’s idea of the “people formerly known as the audience”.

Not everyone was convinced the former audience was up to the job. Washington Post editors Len Downie and Robert Kaiser’s critique of journalism decried the degeneration of political reporting and investigative journalism and said blogs were no help. “There is little [in blogs] of what journalists would call reporting (our study this year found 5%)” they wrote.

While the majority ran the gamut from personal journals to opinions that could not make it into big media, the five percent doing reporting started to make inroads. The power of American bloggers was shown in the Trent Lott and Dan Rather cases. Lott was a congressional ally of George W. Bush but the president had to denounce him after the blogs ran hard on his Strom Thurmond 100th birthday speech. In “Rathergate” the blogs forced CBS to apologise for the fact it could not prove its documents were authentic and Rather retired.

In the UK, blogger Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) is a one-man wrecking ball with a string of British political scalps. Salam Pax’s online diary captured the frightening reality of invasion in Baghdad during the Iraqi war and disputed official accounts of the conduct of the 2003 war. Korean OhMyNews’s motto is “every citizen is a reporter while online citizen journalism outfit Malaysiakini has become Malaysia’s premier news site.

In Australia there have been no blog “gotcha” moments yet but they are proving successful if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Mainstream media have been busy copying the blogs, while damning them – including The Australian’s 2007 castigation of “sheltered academics and failed journalists who would not get a job on a real newspaper”. By 2009 News Ltd had started The Punch, while Fairfax reheated the National Times masthead and the ABC has begun The Drum. The Drum’s editor Jonathan Green was hired from Crikey where he started up an influential network of bloggers to complement its journalism.

Asking whether blogging is journalism is like asking whether TV is journalism: it depends on what’s on. The two practices co-exist – often under the same name. Nevertheless the transformation from journalist to blogger isn’t always smooth. The Guardian’s groundbreaking Comment is Free website struggles to deal with the hoi polloi. As contributor and political journalist Jackie Ashley puts it, “there will always be those who know much more about a subject than a columnist. And equally there will be those who think they know much more. I’m delighted to hear from both: just so long as you make proper arguments and don’t call me a fucking stupid cow.”

The ease of anonymous publishing in an online environment has turned it into an easy space to diagnose stupidity. Rumours, hoaxes and cheating games risk descending the public sphere into chaos and anarchy. But as Henry Jenkins notes this is not an inevitable outcome. “As the digital revolution enters a new phase, one based on diminished expectations and dwindling corporate investment,” he says, “grassroots intermediaries may have a moment to redefine the public perception of new media and to expand their influence”. That moment has arrived.

Mark Scott’s year of living dangerously

Woolly Days’ Australian media personality for 2009 is the CEO of the ABC, Mark Scott. Scott has led the ABC for five years but only in the last 12 months has he established himself as a major figure in the Australian media landscape, and a formidable opponent to older players.

Scott is a former Liberal Party staffer who was appointed ABC boss in 2005 aged 42. He resigned a role as editorial director at Fairfax to take the ABC job. At the time Scott denied he was a creature of the Howard government saying “I have a cordial, nodding relationship I suppose with the Prime Minister and the minister, but no more than that.”

Scott effortlessly survived the transition to Labor Government in 2007 and now seems to have an important ally in Communications minister Stephen Conroy.

The media landscape now looks very different to how it appeared when Scott took over the ABC. Kerry Packer is dead and his beloved Channel Nine is now owned by anonymous private equity. The alliance with Conroy has seen significant increase in funding and an end to government distrust of the ABC. The gradual ubiquity of broadband is seeing ABC take a lead in the rollout of digital services.

Scott put in place a structure underneath him he could trust. His two lieutenants were Kate Dundas and Kate Torney. Dundas was appointed head of radio while Torney was the new head of news. Torney’s role would be to carry out Scott’s vision for ABC News as “the seeds of a 24 hour news channel”. Dundas’s job would not only mean looking after the five stations (Radio National, NewsRadio, JJJ, Classic FM and local radio) but also making sure their content was available as a media-rich service together with podcasting, user-generated content and other integration with the internet. Dundas also picked up digital radio which went online on 1 July. Scott said in April: “No other media organisation is doing more with user‐generated content or using the web more to encourage robust local content.”

The most important action of the year was the renewal of ABC’s triennial funding. The 2009 federal budget gave an additional $185m to the two non-commercial stations, the lion’s share to the ABC. It included $15 million to set up 50 regional broadband websites linked to local radio stations to create “virtual town squares for communities”.

Digital television is a crucial piece of the jigsaw. ABC has set the pace with ABC2 around since 2005. This year finally saw the challenge of the other operators with One, SBS2, Go and SevenTwo all debuting. ABC hit back in December launching ABC3 as the nation’s first children’s channel.

Also at the end of the year, Scott consolidated ABC online opinion into a new site called The Drum (a symbol also used in marketing by JJJ). He headhunted editor Jonathan Green to run it and populated it with articles from ABC’s stable of political journalists. The jewel in the crown was Annabel Crabb whom Scott poached from the Sydney Morning Herald. Scott had long cherished the wry and shrewd sketchwork of Crabb as part of his vision to make the ABC a quality destination for digital journalism.

Scott made many notable public speeches this year but two stand out. In April he gave a remarkable Annual Media Studies Lecture at La Trobe University in Melbourne in which he showed how the global economy, the shattering structure underpinning the business model, and business blunders were forever changing the nature of media in Australia. The second, near the end of the year was the “end of empire” speech. It was a direct challenge to News Ltd from a powerful man at the top of his game, in response to James Murdoch’s MacTaggart lecture in August complaining about the growing power of the BBC, and Rupert Murdoch’s China speech about the end of the age of the Internet free ride being over. Scott’s view was that News “empire” no longer has the power to dictate terms over the cost of the ride.

Scott was proving a tough negotiator as well as having a silver tongue. He reneged on a pay agreement with the CPSU citing the GFC and he took ABC into a cost-cutting partnership with WIN to build a shared TV presentation and control centre in Western Sydney. He also went to China in September to lobby the government allow the ABC to be carried on Chinese pay TV. Though there has been criticism about the lack of investigative journalism in his vision, Mark Scott is proving to be a top media performer who is mapping out a useful and exciting future for “your ABC”.

Indian Ocean tsunami fifth anniversary

Five years have passed since the Indian Ocean tsunami struck on 26 December 2004. The scale of the devastation was immense and it occurred on a hemispherical scale. 230,000 lives were lost in 11 countries, five million people were affected and $5 billion damage was caused by one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded.
(photo by simminch)

The drama started at 7am local time in Indonesia when an earthquake of between 9.1 and 9.3 magnitude struck the sea between the west coast of Sumatra and the small island of Simeule. The event lasted an unprecedented ten minutes tearing a massive rupture 1,600 kms long. It was either the second or third highest magnitude earthquake of the 20th century. The shift of mass and release of energy very slightly altered the Earth’s rotation. It caused the seabed to rise several metres displacing billions of tonnes of sea water in the process.

Because of the north-south 1,600km fissure caused by the quake, the greatest waves went east and west. It took half an hour for the wall of water to reach landfall on the Sumatran Coast. In Northern Aceh waves rising 20 metres travelled almost a kilometer inland. Coastal villages were devastated losing up to 70 percent of inhabitants. 167,000 people were killed in Indonesia and another 37,000 missing. An estimated 655,000 people were made homeless.

After another hour, the waves hit southern Thailand and its west coast islands sweeping locals and tourists off the beaches. 8,000 people died in Phuket, Phi Phi and elsewhere and a similar number were injured. At the same time the westerly-heading 10m high waves slammed into the east coast of Sri Lanka killing another 35,000 people and made over a million and a half homeless. A further 68 people died in Malaysia. By another half hour, it was taking severe casualties in India’s Tamil Nadu and Burma. The waves demolished railways, bridges, telecommunications facilities and harbours. The salt water contaminated large tracts of rich arable land.

And still it kept coming. After another 90 minutes, the tsunami engulfed the low-lying Maldives killing 100 people and displacing another 20,000. And two and half hours later – six hours after the original quake – the mammoth waves made landfall in Somalia. 300 people died there with 50,000 made homeless and many more livelihoods lost as 2,500 boats were destroyed. Most deaths were caused by asphyxiation from the silt and sand in the “black water” of the tsunami.

A massive worldwide relief operation began almost immediately. The biggest ever peacetime launch of military relief effort arrived in Aceh led by emergency teams from Australia, India, Japan and the US. Apart from immediate medical needs, the biggest threat was secondary death from famine and disease. One of the most important early tasks in Sumatra was to provide purification plants and potable water. This was difficult in a region where the Indonesian army was hauling over a thousand bodies a day from rivers. Forensic scientists were stretched to the limit to identify the deceased. The process was complicated by sweltering heat, inconsistencies in data collection procedures used in each country and jurisdictional challenges. Port, road and transport facilities also needed to be restored.

Undermining the recovery effort was the influx of aid workers and media personnel who consumed scarce resources, making the cost of living soar. There were at least 500 journalists and news crews in the affected zone. The sensationalism of much of the reporting added to the trauma of the survivors. Aceh did eventually recover and the tsunami had one unintended benefit; it brought an end to the long running war between the Indonesian military and Acehnese separatists.

Dealing with earthquakes will always be one a peril of living in geologically active Sumatra. As recently as October, over 500 people were killed and thousands trapped under rubble when a 7.6 magnitude quake struck West Sumatra. But no-one will erase the memory of 26 December, 2004. As one 10 year old girl told AFP “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t forget. It’s the same for my friends who survived.”

Unchartered waters: coral reefs, climate change and mass extinction

While Australian politicians and the media continue to downplay effects of human-caused climate change, Australian scientists methodically pile up the evidence to the contrary. A new scientific paper has not only stated that the world’s coral reefs including the iconic Great Barrier Reef are in irreversible decline due to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but worse still, if these emissions are left unchecked they could cause a mass extinction event. This was the gloomy prognosis of a paper in October’s edition Marine Pollution Bulletin. The paper says today’s co2 levels of 387 parts per million is enough to cause catastrophic mass bleaching of coral reefs given a time lag of ten years.

(photo by mattk1979)

Written by ten Australian, British and Kenyan scientists, the paper entitled “The coral reef crisis: The critical importance of 350ppm” says if levels are allowed to rise to 450ppm by 2020 as the best effort proposed by the Copenhagen Accord then “reefs will be in rapid and terminal decline worldwide”. The scientists say this will be inevitable due to a synergy of mass bleaching, ocean acidification and other environmental impacts. Worse will follow should levels reach a doomsday scenario of 600 ppm (not impossible given current unchecked rates of growth). A domino effect would occur affecting marine ecosystems. The paper says anthropogenic CO2 emission could trigger “the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event”.

Because reef systems have existed for 240 million years, they provide an unequalled window into the effects of climate change in geological time. Yet astonishingly scientists have found no parallel in the past with today’s conditions. “We are in unchartered waters,” say the scientists. Already 20 percent of the world’s reefs have been destroyed and another 35 percent is seriously threatened. Mass bleaching events are associated with El Nino weather patterns and normally occur every four to seven years. But now they are happening annually. Coral has a high dependence on light and temperature and slight changes in either factor can cause irreversible damage.

There is no recorded mass bleaching before the 1970s. Temperature-induced mass coral bleaching was first recorded in 1978 when co2 levels were 336 ppm. Given a ten year time lag, the problem probably began around 1968 when co2 levels first exceeded 320 ppm. By 1983, co2 levels had reached 340ppm and this was enough to cause a mass bleaching of 10 percent of the Great Barrier Reef and two-thirds of all inshore reefs. Another mass bleaching event in 1998 with CO2 levels at 365 ppm killed 16 percent of coral globally. Further events in 2002 and 2005 characterised a new phase of decline and diminishing complexity of the reefs.

The paper says by the time CO2 levels reach 450 ppm coralline algae will no longer calcify which will make coral brittle and subject to collapse. Reef building processes will be severely diminished or cease entirely. Rising sea levels, an increasing number of high intensity storms, impacts from fishing and deterioration of the water quality will exacerbate the effects of mass bleaching and ocean acidification.

Reefs are resilient and usually bounce back from bleaching events particularly if they are many years apart. But as they become annual events and more intense, the capacity of the corals to regrow will decline. This is not helped by human factors such as water pollution and over-fishing. This reduces genetic diversity which further hampers the corals’ ability to re-grow.

The evidence suggests reefs will be the first planetary-scale ecosystem to collapse due to rapid global warming. And while bleaching is confined to the reef, the acidification will be felt more widely. It could impact molluscs, crustaceans, plankton, fish, seagrass, mangroves, marine reptiles and mammals, and estuarine habitats.

The scientists say the speed it is happening give little time for evolution to take adaptive measures. It recommends immediate remedial measures including reducing the harvesting of herbaceous fish, protecting sharks and other top predators, managing water quality, and minimising “anthropogenic impact”. “Only drastic action starting now will prevent wholesale destruction of reefs and similarly affected ecosystems,” concludes the paper. “Should humanity not be successful in preventing these threats from becoming reality, no amount of management or expenditure will save future generations from the consequences of our failed guardianship.”

Cleanskins: A dose of Roma Therapy

I learned a new term today at work. Sue from Advertising told me I had four cleanskins to work with for next Tuesday’s paper. I looked blankly at her. Cleanskins? Was this something political or was I being offered chicken, I thought. No, Sue patiently explained, it meant I had four full pages without ads to do what I liked with. Cleanskins were an old trade term I’d simply never come across in my short experience. Yet it made perfect sense as soon as it was explained.

There have been many moments like that as I deal with the new realities of life as a journalist.

The biggest of these realities is the deadline. Much of my time in Roma has been spent dealing with it. It is constantly at the back of my mind. And it is adrenalin-fueling as it approaches. This feeling comes twice a week in Roma as The Western Star is issued on a Tuesday and a Friday.

My Roma is the one in Western Queensland not in Italy. It was named for Lady Diamantina Roma who married George Bowen, Queensland’s first Governor-General. I wished they named the town Diamantina. Though geography doesn’t matter much on the Internet, it’s a pain sharing the name of your town with a major world capital. Though most of the conversation is in Italian, there is plenty of English conversation about the football team Roma or the Eastern European gypsies Hitler loathed as much as the Jews.

My Roma is a small town 480km west of Brisbane in the centre of a district called the Maranoa. I’ve been here three weeks and I arrived slapbang in the middle of summer heat. Already I can tell the difference between 38 degrees and 42 and am beginning to feel 30 is downright chilly. Yet I’m finding its dry heat more manageable than the suffocating sticky Brisbane equivalent in summer.

Airconditing is a must. Aircon is on the faultline of my political principles. The Green in me is annoyed by its flagrant waste of resources but the leftie praises the fact that I’m made comfortable by such wonderful cheap technology. I’m now searching for a conservative side that will make serious money out of aircon made from renewable sources.

In the meantime I’m earning a crust as a journalist. After four years of political blogging, I thought working for a masthead would provide me with good experience and a grounding in the daily realities of industrial journalism.

I must do a disclosure at this point. Starting at the newspaper has presented me with a problem about what to say about it in a blog. I’m bound by rules I’ve happily signed up with my employer not to compete against the paper. There are also issues of confidentially and conflict of interest. I like my job here in Roma and people I work with and don’t want to say anything here that would jeopardise it. The views here are mine and not associated with APN Media.

But being here has made me see clear differences between the roles of blogger and journalist.

Firstly there is the power of the masthead. There are few bloggers around worldwide who have the power to ring people up and ask for quotes with a reasonable certainty they will be taken seriously. But every local masthead has this power and respect.

If they are not always treated a straight answer, then at least they usually get the courtesy of a carefully constructed response which you can often query further.

Also you are much more likely to elicit a response from a member of the general public when you identify yourself as a representative of a trusted brand. This means as a journalist you will have access to a lot of information. It is a powerful tool that needs careful management to avoid being abused.

For all its faults, I’m finding that regional newspaper journalism is still trusted and unlikely to go extinct anytime soon. People engage with local papers because they still fulfill a strong social function.

They also hold up a sizable mirror to local events unmatched by any other media. Radio has the immediacy and bonhomie of local characters, but there is little local journalism. TV is even more openly piped in from remote places. The Internet is either underdeveloped or untrusted or both. In towns like Roma, that leaves papers with a duty to provide citizens with information they need to make sense of a plethora of local events. It is a clearing house of gossip, a font of news, a big notice board for the community and a window on events in the world.

But it is also a commercial entity and I’ve come to see newspaper ads as my friends. Apart from paying my wages, they also fill crucial space that suddenly makes filling a 24 page newspaper less daunting and leaves me with less cleanskins to worry about.

That’s another difference between blogging and journalism. As a journalist I see 40 x 30 centimetre blank sheets of paper that have to be filled regularly where as the only pressure I had on me as a blogger was a self-imposed rule to blog daily or as near to daily as I could. Space is not an issue on the Internet, but lacking this design constraint doesn’t necessarily make it better.

The tyranny of the blank page sets the creative rules of journalism. An Internet post can be one line long or a thousand but the newspaper is more or less the same size every time. The pressure to find stories is relentless and they exist wherever you find them. That means using phone calls, tips, emails, press releases, old issues, wider issues, softer issues. Papers abhor an information vacuum. The white space must be filled. If there is no ad on the space, then there simply has to be editorial content.

This is where photos come in. Picture not only tell a thousand words they can fill the space of a thousand words on the page. And people like seeing pictures of themselves and people they know in the paper.

Being a rural paper, I have to take most of my photos myself. I never ever envisaged myself as a photographer though Fernando Mereilles’ City of God is one of my favourite films. On most engagements I usually first have to get over my terror of my poor photographic technique and the possibility I’ll ruin the photo. I’m slowly trying to act as a photographer, and make more demands of subjects. I’m also taking more photos in the hope that some will come out. There may even be some good ones in there, or least presentable after being tightened up with a crop.

Photography is therapeutic and redefining my idea of being resourceful but at this stage, I still prefer the written form to photojournalism.

It is invigorating to grapple with an issue I don’t understand and attempt to unravel it and re-present that for a wider audience. In this, the blog has been very useful training in research and of threading an argument together in competent layman’s terms.

But a major difference of style is the direct quote which is almost compulsory in industrial media but rare in blogs. Having one source is immeasurably better than none because it enlivens the piece and adds variety with an additional point of view. Stricter authorities such as the ABC demand there be at least two sources and I’ve seen arguments three should be the minimum.

But getting so many people to talk on the record is not always easy, not even for a masthead. People are cagey or a response needs to be vetted by a media unit. And in a busy world, people are rarely on tap for a ready quote. As the deadline moves ever closer, experts quickly deteriorate from being people who have expertise in their chosen topic to being the person who actually returns your call.

The telephone is my friend. I didn’t use the telephone much as a blogger, I use it a lot as a journalist. It helps I don’t have to pay the bills for the call. I always feel a slight sense of nervous energy every time I dial a number. People don’t hide as much on the phone as they do in email.

The only thing better is real life meeting. I’m doing that a lot in Roma and enjoying it too. And I know that if I’m really serious about tackling those cleanskins, I’m going to have to wear out a lot of shoe-leather.

Macau anniversary protests as new leader is sworn in

The New Democratic Macau Association has marked the 10th anniversary of the handover of the former Portuguese colony with a demonstration calling for more democracy. The pro-democracy political party uses the December 20 anniversary to demand universal suffrage and a larger fight against corruption. This year’s event was especially significant. The Chinese Community Party leadership was in town for the tenth anniversary celebrations and to mark the leadership of a new government.

(photo credit: Vixyao)

Like Hong Kong, Macau is a Special Administrative Region with a separate constitution guaranteeing freedoms not available in the rest of China. Fernando Chui Sai On was sworn in as the territory’s new chief executive for a five year term. He is only the second person to assume the role since 1999. He replaces Edmund Ho who has dominated Macau since handover. The 52-year-old Chui has been handpicked by Beijing like Ho before him. Macau has always been considered the more compliant of the two SARs. Chui vowed to continue the “great cause” of one country, two systems but also pledged to support Chinese interests. “For years the motherland has always been a strong backing to the maintenance of Macao’s prosperity and stability,” he said.

Chinese President Hu Jintao swore Chui in. He praised Macau’s passing of Article 23 state security legislation. The article which came into effect in March 2009 under Ho prohibits and punishes acts of “treason, secession, and subversion” against the Chinese government, as well as “preparatory acts” leading to any of the three acts. Critics are wary about the ambiguous catch-all language of the act. But Hu said Article 23 “fully reflects the strong sense of responsibility of the government, Legislative Assembly and people of all circles of the Macau SAR to safeguard national security and interests.”

Central to those interests is protecting Macau’s gambling economy. Since 1999, Macau, which has 31 casinos, has overtaken Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined in casino revenues. It is now the world’s biggest gambling centre with an annual revenue of $12 billion. International gambling companies like Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts have invested billions in the local industry. When it opened in August 2007 the $2.4 billion Venetian Macao Resort became the world’s largest casino with 3,000 hotel suites, a 15,000 sports arena, a 6,000 banquet hall and floor space for gambling games more than three times as large as any in Las Vegas. But there are dangers in relying on a gambling economy and there is also the stench of corruption.

Three years ago the US Treasury accused a Macau bank of laundering money for North Korean leaders engaged in nuclear proliferation. The US accused a family-owned Banco Delta of holding $25 million in profits from counterfeit US dollars, cigarettes and drugs made in North Korea. They were prevented from freezing the assets after it became a sticking point in negotiating North Korea’s nuclear program. According to former State Office official David Asher, the investigations “demonstrated the awareness of the Macao authorities to these things.”

But if they were aware of it, they showed they had not learned its lesson. In early 2008, a judge sentenced Ao Man-long, Macau’s former secretary for transportation and public works, to 27 years of prison for bribe-taking related to kickbacks on construction contracts. Long had been part of Macau’s administration since 1999 but he was charged in 2007 with 117 crimes including 43 crimes of abuse of power; 41 crimes of corruption for unlawful fact; 30 crimes of money laundering; 1 crime of economic participation in business transactions; one crime of intentional wrong declaration of assets; and one crime of illicit enrichment.

The stench of corruption got near enough to Edmund Ho for Beijing to abandon support. But they are unlikely to listen to protesters who want the government to combat corruption and stop selling land cheaply to the casino operators and developers. China is determined to make a success of Macau and can dictate terms with 90,000 PLA troops in the tiny garrison. It is also shrinking the physical distance between the one country and two systems by building a new $10.7 billion 50km-long bridge to link Guangdong Province to Hong Kong and Macao. It will cut driving time from Macau to Hong Kong from 3 hours to 30 minutes.

Trafigura: the ugly face of capitalism

The latest in Trafigura’s sordid attempts to gag British media occurs today when the high court issues its judgement on the libel action the company took out on the BBC. Trafigura is the notorious oil and commodities trading company responsible for 15 deaths and injuries of thousands of West Africans after it dumped oil waste. Trafigura is the world’s third-biggest private oil trader, and declared $440m profit last year. Its 200 traders receive annual bonuses of up to $1m each. But it is highly sensitive to criticism and sued BBC’s flagship current affairs show Newsnight for telling the truth they were responsible for murder. The Guardian, a victim of several Trafigura legal actions, says the BBC case was one of a series of legal threats against the media in several countries.

(Photo: AFP/GETTY)

Their most reprehensible order came in October when Trafigura made an extraordinary attempt to stop the Guardian from reporting on parliament. The attempt backfired after it ignited a Twitter firestorm and lawyers Carter-Ruck withdrew the injunction within 24 hours. Trafigura were trying to stop publication of a report they commissioned about their dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. Twelve people died and 31,000 people were injured as a result of their illegal dumping of a by-product of coker naphtha in 2006.

After repeatedly denying liability, Trafigura eventually paid an out-of-court settlement more than $50m to 30,000 inhabitants of Ivory Coast’s largest city Abidjan. Trafigura engaged Carter-Ruck again to bring the libel action against the BBC on the basis the company had been wrongly accused of causing deaths, not just sickness. This was despite official pronouncements by a UN investigator, and Ivorian and British government which referred to deaths being caused directly by the dumping. Trafigura got away with this because of the settlement it struck with another British law firm Leigh Day which led the class action acted on behalf of the Ivorians. The eventual compensation resulted in an agreed statement making no claims about deaths.

The original problem was a result of western greed and lax Third World safety standards. In 2005 Trafigura bought dirty oil contaminated with coker naphtha from Mexico for next to nothing to clean it and sell it on for profit. The cleaning process involves pouring tonnes of caustic into the coker naphtha but this generates dangerous and deadly waste such as hydrogen sulphide. The process is so dangerous, it is banned in most western countries.

African countries are less strict. Trafigura chartered a ship to Abidjan where they illegally fly-tipped 15 locations around the city. In the following weeks tens of thousands of people reported a range of similar symptoms, including breathing problems, sickness and diarrhoea. In September 2009 BBC Newsnight revealed it had uncovered email evidence to show Trafigura bosses knew the waste dumped in Ivory Coast was hazardous. The BBC was backed up by a UN report which found “strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the cargo ship”.

The Minton Report which exposed the dumping and blamed Trafigura remains off-limits to British media due to injunctions. According to Wikileaks which is keeping access open to the report, the illegal Ivorian dumping is “possibly most culpable mass contamination incident since Bhopal.”

Trafigura released a disengenuous statement on 16 October to dispel “further misunderstandings” of what happened in Abidjan. They attempted to discredit the Minton Report (which they commissioned) on the basis of its “hypothetical ideas”, the fact no visits were made to Ivory Coast and its analysis was overtaken by field analysis by the Netherlands Forensic Institute. Though it doesn’t say whether the NFI analysis contradicted Minton, it is highly unlikely it did, given it was used as a basis to settle the class action.

But here’s to Trafigura’s failure. Their dishonesty, greed, selfishness and contempt of public opinion deserve the widest possible audience and criminal action. They represent capitalism at its venial worst.

Lumumba Di-Aping: the Third World’s Hero of Copenhagen

Lumumba Di-Aping has made the brave call no Australia politician has been game to make and called Prime Minister Kevin Rudd a climate sceptic. The key negotiator at Copenhagen for the G777-China group told the ABC Rudd’s message to his own people was a fabrication which “does not relate to the facts because his actions are climate change scepticism in action.” Di-Aping was pointing out the disparity between Rudd’s sayings and actions on climate change. “It’s puzzling in the sense that here is a Prime Minister who actually won the elections because of his commitment to climate change,” Di-Aping said. “And within a very short period of time he changes his mind, changes his position, he start acting as if he has been converted into climate change scepticism.”

(photo credit: Reuters – Jens Norgaard Larsen)

Di-Aping is essentially correct. For all Rudd’s moralising about climate change as the world’s greatest problem, he has offered little Australian action to solve it. Lumumba Di-Aping is the right person to remind him of his responsibilities. The Sudanese diplomat is the chief negotiator for the 130 nation bloc confusingly known as the G77-China group at the Copenhagen climate change talks. He was chosen because Sudan is the current chair of the G77. Despite Sudan’s poor international reputation since Darfur, Di-Aping is proving a formidable opponent of vested western interests.

Di-Aping led the criticism of the Danish Text which Rudd is also intimately associated with. The draft of the text which emerged at the start of the conference last week proposed a solution to stop global temperature rises at two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The UN played down the document as an “informal paper” put forward by the Danish Prime Minister. Di-Aping was having none of it and slammed the proposal. “It’s an incredibly imbalanced text intended to subvert, absolutely and completely, two years of negotiations, “ he said. “It does not recognise the proposals and the voice of developing countries”.

Again Di-Aping had a good point. The Danish Text was leaked to The Guardian who described it as a departure from the Kyoto Protocol principle that developed nations should bear the brunt of climate change. The Guardian said the draft handed control of climate change finance to the World Bank. More importantly it would abandon the Kyoto protocol which remains the only legally binding global treaty on emissions reductions. Lastly it would make funding to poor countries trying to adapt to climate change contingent on a range of actions.

What infuriated developing countries most about the Text was the fact it was prepared without their knowledge. It smacked of colonialism. On the first Monday of the climate change talks, Di-Aping addressed an ad hoc meeting of 100 African civil representatives and African parliamentarian. He began dramatically by crying, putting his head in his hands and saying “We have been asked to sign a suicide pact.” Di-Aping may well have been milking the drama but his analysis was spot on. He said a global temperature increase of 2 degrees meant 3.5 degrees for much of Africa. This was “certain death for Africa”, and a type of “climate fascism” imposed on the continent by high carbon emitters. He said Africa was being asked to sign on to an agreement to allow this warming in exchange for $10 billion, and Africa was also being asked to “celebrate” this deal. “I am absolutely convinced that what Western governments are doing is NOT acceptable to Western civil society,” he said.

On Thursday, Di-Aping made a direct call for action from US President Obama. He said it would be embarrassing for the US not to be part of a solution “to save humanity”. Di-Aping reminded his audience the US is the world’s largest emitter historically and per capita. He asked the US to join the Kyoto Protocol and take on its commitments as a developed nation. “This is a challenge that President Barack Obama needs to rise to as a Nobel Prize winner and as an advocate of a multilateral global society,” Di-Aping said. “We know he is proud to be a part of that community through his family relations in Africa.”

Frustrated by the lack of action from American and Western negotiators, Di-Aping took a big gamble when he led the walk out of the G77-China group conference. Di-Aping explained his rationale to BBC Radio Four. He said it had become clear the Danish presidency was undemocratically advancing the interests of developed countries at the expense of obligations to developing countries. “The mistake they are doing now has reached levels that cannot be acceptable from a president who is supposed to be acting and shepherding the process on behalf of all parties,” he said.

The Western media were furious at the way the conference was “hijacked” by an uppity nobody from the Third World. The Australian dismissed him as “hyperbole prone”. Toronto’s The Globe and Mail called him “an ill chosen voice from Khartoum”. The headline damned him by association with long term Sudan’s dictator Omar al-Bashir. But this comparison is false. Di-Aping does not represent Sudan at the conference. He represents 130 nations who are not creating climate change, but who will suffer the most from it. Lumumba Di-Aping is a hero and one who should shame the West into hearing the truth of climate change from the perspective of the poor.

Non-Proliferation report calls for 90 percent reduction in nuclear weapons

The International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament used today’s meeting of Japanese and Australian Prime Ministers to release a report asking the US and Russia to drastically reduce their nuclear arsenal. The report calls for the two biggest nuclear powers to reduce warheads from 22,000 to 500 each by 2025. Australian and Japanese Commission Co-Chairs, Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi, presented the report to Kevin Rudd and Yukio Hatoyama at a ceremony at the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence. Former Australian foreign minister Evans said the report set a target date of 15 years “to achieve a dramatic 90 per cent reduction in the world’s nuclear weapons.”

(photo of Titan Nuclear Missile Museum, Tucson, Arizona by jmuhles)

The 230-page report “Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers” (see synopsis) says its finding are timely for four reasons. Firstly it says nuclear weapons are the most inhumane weapons ever conceived and as serious a problem as global warming. Secondly it is sheer dumb luck they have not been used since 1945 and as long as any state has nuclear weapons others will want them. Thirdly, the status quo increases the possibility of nuclear weapon falling into the hands of rogue nations or terrorist groups. Lastly, there is an opportunity presented by new US and Russian leadership “committed to disarmament action”.

The US and Russia own 96 percent of the world’s 23,000 nuclear weapons. The remaining 1,000 are owned by France, UK, China, India, Pakistan and Israel. Iran and North Korea may also have the technology. Half of all warheads are deployed and the two major powers have 2,000 weapons ready to deploy with a decision window to launch of five to ten minutes. The possibility of nuclear terrorism or a “dirty bomb” combing conventional explosives and radioactive isotopes can also not be discounted.

The report endorses civilian nuclear energy as a proven method of providing base load power without carbon emissions but says expansion in the coming decades will present proliferation and security risks. The dangers will be exacerbated if accompanied by enrichment facilities at the front end of the process and reprocessing at the back end. The result could be “a great deal more fissile material becoming potentially available for destructive purposes”.

The key to success, says the report, is delegitimising nuclear weapons as marginal and unnecessary to national security. The authors prefer a phased approach to getting to zero nuclear weapons admitting it would be a ‘long, complex and formidably difficult process”. The short term goal to 2025 is to reduce warheads to 10 percent of current levels with agreed “no first use” doctrines. The report was unable to specify a timeframe for complete elimination but argued “analysis and debate” should commence immediately.

The key policies from the document are: Next year’s Non-Proliferation Treaty review should agree on a new 20-point consensus for action replacing 2000’s “Thirteen Practical Steps”; the US and Russia should reduce their combined arsenal to 1,000 warheads and no other nation should increase its arsenal; all states should have a “no first use doctrine”; reduce the instant usage of warheads; conventional weapons imbalances may need to be addressed; all countries (including the US) should ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban treaty immediately; and all nuclear-armed states should stop the production of fissile material for weapons production.

The report said non proliferation efforts also needed to be beefed up. Key policies included: application of the IAEA Additional Protocol; IAEA compliance to concentrate on technical matters and stay out of politics; the UN Security Council should regard withdrawal from the NPT as a punishable threat to peace; and the IAEA should make full use of its powers. The report also acknowledged the three non-NPT states Israel, India and Pakistan should be encouraged to participate in “parallel instruments and arrangements” to meet similar obligations to the NPT countries.

It also looked at the threat of terrorism. It recommended the adoption of the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material for greater information sharing between nuclear powers. It also urged a Code of Conduct for safety of radioactive sources to control “dirty bomb” material and supported the emerging science of nuclear forensics. The report supported civilian nuclear power and called for assistance to developing nations. It called for new technologies for spent fuel treatment, increased plutonium recycle and spent fuel take-back by suppliers (including Australia) to reduce accumulations across the world. It strongly supported spreading the fuel cycle process across nations to build global confidence and aid verification of sensitive fuel cycle activities.

Evans and Kawaguchi acknowledged the political difficulties of doing something difficult, sensitive and expensive. They said it needed leadership to prevent inertia, knowledge of the magnitude of the problem, confidence in the strategy moving forward, and having an international process to back it up. All will be difficult. Non-nuclear nations Japan and Australia welcomed the report, but the US and Russia were ominously silent. Getting the two major powers to see its sense will be a herculean task. Nevertheless the report is welcome as a road-map, however optimistic, of how to get to a future without nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons remain a deep and dangerous threat the world has taken for granted since the end of the Cold War.