Marie Colvin family files lawsuit against Syrian government

marie colvin
Marie Colvin in Homs (Photo: Paul Conroy)

The family of American journalist Marie Colvin has filed a lawsuit saying the Syrian government deliberately targeted her in the Homs bombing which killed her four years ago. Her sister Cathleen Colvin, whose children are Marie’s heirs, filed the suit through the non-profit Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA) saying Syria had rejected a “reasonable opportunity” to arbitrate the claim. The CJA says their lawsuit is the first case seeking to hold the regime of President Bashar al-Assad responsible for  crimes.

Marie Colvin, 56, died on February 22, 2012 along with award-winning French photographer Remi Ochlik when their building was hit with, according to official Syrian sources, an “improvised explosive device filled with nails”. The Syrian government claimed the bomb was planted by “terrorists” but survivors of the attack say the building was deliberately targeted by the Syrian Army. The lawsuit called Colvin one of the great war correspondents of her generation and accuses “Syrian government agents” of responsibility for her death. She had worked for the Sunday Times for 25 years covering war zones including Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Iraq-Iran, East Timor and Sri Lanka where she lost an eye in a grenade attack.

In 2012 Colvin was reporting on the Syrian revolution which had started the year before. The Syrian Army launched a massive military operation in Homs, the country’s third largest city, laying siege to rebel-held suburbs. Despite a media blackout, Syrian citizen journalists used YouTube, Skype and Facebook to get the truth out to the world. Local poet and activist Khaled Abu Salah and others set up a media centre at a secret location on the ground floor of a three-storey house. There they produced video blogs and hosted foreign journalists including Colvin. The Assad regime accused Salah and the Media Centre of being “terrorist collaborators”. In early February 2012 the army had begun a scorched earth campaign against the Baba Amr suburb of Homs, where the studio was located, with civilians subject to artillery and sniper fire.

The world was starting to take note. Colvin and other journalists gathered at Beirut Airport where they were smuggled into Syria. Colvin had seen the Media Centre’s video footage and was determined to cover the siege. She travelled with British photographer Paul Conroy and Syrian translator Wael al-Omar. They decided against an official Syrian visa after French journalist Gilles Jacquier was killed in Homs in January, with other journalists believing he had been led into an ambush. Colvin, Conroy and al-Haems made it to Homs using back roads and a 3km-long tunnel.

Colvin was there for two days as the neighbourhood took heavy shelling and then returned to the border where she filed her report for the Sunday Times. A day later (February 20) they returned to Homs where they trapped by artillery fire. Despite her vast wartime experience, she said the situation inside Homs was the worst she had experienced. Things were about to get worse. On February 21 Colvin made an audio satellite broadcast from the Media Centre which was picked up by CNN, BBC and Channel 4. “There are rockets, shells, tank shells, anti-aircraft being fired in parallel lines into the city,” Colvin said. “The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.” They bunked in the back room of the house with French and Spanish journalists. The regime knew Colvin and others were coming from Lebanon and tracked their movements to the media centre. The lawsuit said a decision to attack the centre with artillery fire was taken at the highest level by the war cabinet including Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad and was carried out by the military with help from a secret government death squad known as Shabiha (derived from the Arabic word for ghosts).

That night the Syrian Army at Homs was tipped off about the location of the media centre and the information was relayed back to Damascus. The information matched the location of Colvin’s intercepted broadcast signal and officials spent the rest of the night trying to work out exactly where the journalists were in the compound. The following morning Colvin was preparing to leave through the tunnels when the shriek of a rocket shook the house. Using a method called “bracketing” they launched rockets on either side of the compound, drawing closer with each round. Panicking people inside the centre decided to evacuate. As Colvin and Ochlik rushed to the front foyer a rocket slammed into the ground directly outside, killing them both. Conroy, al-Omar and French journalist Edith Bouvier were severely injured by the shrapnel and debris.

As survivors left the building they were spotted by aerial surveillance. The artillery switched target from the building to the nearby streets and aimed at survivors and emergency responders. There were no armed rebels nearby. After the attack Syrian intelligence gathered at Army offices where they were congratulated on the news Colvin and Ochlik were dead. The others escaped through the tunnel, including Edith Bouvier with a broken leg. Conroy called the situation in Homs “systematic slaughter”. Few believed the Syrian story of terrorists and Colvin’s family began the painstaking search for evidence. This week’s suit states categorically “with premeditation, Syrian officials deliberately killed Marie Colvin by launching a targeted rocket attack”. Whether anyone will ever be brought to justice in a war that has killed almost half a million, remains a moot point.

Media person of the year 2015: Clementine Ford

clem fordWoolly Day’s 2015 media person of the year is Australian writer Clementine Ford. Ford is an experienced columnist who has written about identity politics and feminist issues for many years at Fairfax, Murdoch and elsewhere. However this year she has gained wide attention for her uncompromising stance in publicly outing misogynist behaviour, bravery attracting praise and hatred in almost equal measure. The title of her forthcoming book Fight Like A Girl speaks to her battling qualities and an entry in her companion blog, describes why many men are so intimidated by Ford’s actions. “Women can’t go around pointing out sexism and RUINING SEXIST MEN’S LIVES with it,” she wrote.

Some makers of sexist remarks have lost their jobs after Ford called out their behaviour. Ford has also done a superb job calling out institutional sexism in the media, often to withering effect making many enemies. How she has dealt with them has made her an inspirational figure in the fight for women’s equality in public and private life.

Clementine Ford has long been a forthright media defender of women’s rights in Australia, never afraid to back it up with the honesty of her own experience. When almost 10 years ago, Tony Abbott pushed an anti-abortion pregnancy hotline as Health Minister in the Howard administration, Ford attracted condemnation and praise for her revelation that she had undergone two abortions without shame. Her only feeling was one of “intense relief”.

In 2013 Ford told her story to Mamamia as a “lifetime struggle to accept her body.” She said her body had endured 18 years of “punishing self-hatred.” Ford identified her struggle as dysmorphia. “Society drowns women in an ocean of narcissistic self-loathing, until eventually the only thing they can see is themselves and how incomplete they are, and they’re oblivious to the thousands of other bodies being sucked under the waves around them,” she said.

Ford’s solution was to articulate the problems her female body posed, in a way that was eloquent, honest, political, and fiercely critical of cant. As her media profile grew, so did the critics. In 2014, right-wing Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Blair included Ford alongside Marieke Hardy, Catherine Deveny, Vanessa Badham, Margo Kingston and others in his poll to find “Australia’s craziest left-wing frightbat”. “Frightbat” was Blair’s own invention and these were the women, he said, “whose psychosocial behavioural disorders are becoming ever more dramatic following Tony Abbott’s election.” Instead of being outraged Ford took the challenge head on, pleading with people to vote for her. In the end she attracted 5438 votes narrowly losing out the “frightbat” title to Badham by six votes.

Despite the humour, Ford, Badham and the others were all too aware of the institutional sexism that dominates Australia’s public life, especially in the media. Sydney shock jock Alan Jones spoke of how women were “destroying the joint” while Kerry-Anne Walsh’s book The Stalking of Julia Gillard was a forensic examination about the media’s merciless role in the downfall of Australia’s first female prime minister. Yet the “frightbat” and the “destroying the joint” campaigns also showed how feminists were using the language of their enemies to win their battles. Ford in particular fought hard against the practice of victim blaming, the archetype of the woman who invites rape by dressing too sexily.

In June 2015 Ford entered the limelight over a stand against a now deleted Channel Seven Facebook post. Seven were talking about an American revenge porn website which had posted illegally obtained naked photos of 400 South Australian women. However instead of attacking the website for its behaviour, Channel Seven blamed the women. “What’s it going to take for women to get the message about taking and sending nude photos?” they posted. A furious Ford saw this as making it the responsibility of women to stop others from exploiting them. She posted a nude photo of herself on her public Facebook profile. The photo showed text on her chest that read “Hey #Sunrise, get fucked”. Her reasons were twofold. “I wanted to oppose the message of victim blaming that forms so much of our social narratives about crimes against women’s bodies,” she said. “But secondly, I wanted to show solidarity to every woman who has been made to feel afraid or ashamed for engaging in a form of intimacy that should be bound by trust and respect but instead was marked by betrayal.”

The photo went viral. It was shared 45,000 times and liked by over 200,000 people. It also attracted thousands of comments, many supportive but many others rude and misogynistic. She shared screen grabs of some of the viler private messages she’d received which included requests for nude photos, explicit photographs of naked men, and many insults. Facebook banned Ford from accessing her account for 30 days because her messages violated their community standards. Ford launched a community protest and the ban was rescinded. “No one should be punished for speaking out against abuse, especially not the kind of cowardly abuse sent under the banner of ‘private correspondence’,” she said. “Private correspondence is a conversation mutually entered into by more than one party and defined by respect and sometimes discretion. It is not someone sending you unsolicited emails calling you a filthy whore.”

In August, Ford drew fire again from the Murdoch Empire. This time it was page one criticism in The Australian from Sherri Markson. Markson complained that a “foul” Ford freely used profanities in her Twitter stream but celebrated Mark Latham’s sacking as a Fairfax columnist over his misogynistic comments. Markson also noted Ford had attacked The Australian’s columnists Rita Panahi and Miranda Devine. Markson sought comment from Ford’s employers Fairfax, who declined to say if she had breached their social media policy. The coded message was News Ltd was watching what Ford was saying and if she does slip up she could lose her job. Mike Carlton (sacked by Fairfax after News called out offending comments he made on Twitter) said it was part of a News Corp campaign to shut down dissenting views and journalists should not have a responsibility to act with professional objectivity on Twitter.

If it was a warning to Ford, she ignored it. In November she launched a stinging attack on the hypocrisy of White Ribbon Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. While Ford applauded how the day brought better dialogue around the impacts of men’s violence, she said not enough people called out the links between violence and casual misogyny. Ford castigated the campaign as a way “of reassuring every man listening that this isn’t really about him and therefore he doesn’t really have to do anything about it.”

Once again her post attracted the ire and abuse of many men. As she did after the Sunrise affair, Ford shamed her sexual harassers by screenshotting messages of abuse, unsolicited dickpics and requests for nude photos, and then publishing them. When one abuser lost his job over it, the vitriol against Ford increased but so did her support. Fellow “frightbat” Badham said the man deserved it. “The belittling and bullying, threats and harassment, cyberstalking and outright hate speech directed to women on the internet every day is real-world behaviour with real-world consequence and it should oblige real-world punishments,” Badham said.

The chatter around Ford hit her US namesake, the actress Clementine Ford who had received some of the abuse intended for the Australian.  The American Ford reached across the Pacific in support. “I have the pleasure of sharing a name with a strong brave journalist who pissed of (sic) some mysognists,” she tweeted. When the Australian Ford apologised to her for being caught in the crossfire, the American told her not to be sorry. “Fuck them,” she responded, “I’m proud to be mistaken for you.”

By the end of the year Ford was a major figure in the world of feminism and not to be messed with easily. It was probably not the right time for independent left-wing publication New Matilda to get its hands dirty publishing a piece by a naive young man critical of Ford’s methods. Jack Kilbride defended Ford as “courageous” but said her strategy of outing sexist offenders may be doing more harm than good. When that post was attacked as risible, New Matilda editor Chris Graham (who has many runs on the board for attacking racism) openly admitted it was a test in the interest of seeing “how much abuse he (Kilbride) cops”.

Graham found out Ford’s supporters did not enjoy being trolled in the name of a subscriptions drive. Her support is massive because her readers respond to her unflinching honesty and bravery under massive provocation. For all of these reasons Ford is a deserving winner of my media person of the year. I have given this award since 2009 and Ford would not be impressed – though not surprised – to find she is my first female winner, which says more about my male-dominated media interests than the work of outstanding women in the field. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya would have won in 2006, the year of her assassination, had I done it then. Of those who have won it, three were fighting the Murdoch Empire (two with the Guardian, and one a judge), two (Assange and Snowden) were fighting for freedom of information (and are still in legal limbo) and last year’s winners the Al Jazeera journalists Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed – all jailed on trumped up charges when doing their job – were the good news story of 2015 when Egypt finally released them without charges.

My first award in 2009 went to ABC managing director Mark Scott for his defence of strong public broadcasting and it is fitting that as he stands down this year, Michelle Guthrie becomes the first woman to head the organisation. Depending on how she tackles her job, she will be one of main candidates for my award next year. In the meantime, happy new year and congratulations to Clementine Ford.

Woolly Days media person of the year

2009: Mark Scott

2010: Julian Assange

2011: Alan Rusbridger and Nick Davies

2012: Brian Leveson

2013: Edward Snowden

2014: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. 

2015: Clementine Ford

The Australian’s laughable war on Twitter

frayIt may be 2015 but Australia’s only national newspaper The Australian remains stuck in the 20th century, raging against the dying of the light. This weekend the ever-pompous broadsheet reached into its grab-bag of perceived enemies and pulled out the one marked “Twitter”. For hundreds of millions of users worldwide, Twitter is a great communications tool that companies, organisations and individuals use to market themselves and find out what is happening in their chosen field. For The Australian, it’s more personal. As its banner headline reads Twitter is “debasing quality journalism”.

No doubt the Oz has themselves in mind when they talk about “quality journalism” and there remains many talented journalists in their ranks. Unfortunately their work is skewed by editorial decisions tied to owner Rupert Murdoch’s increasingly unhinged world view. Was Murdoch debasing quality journalism with his tweetstorm last week, based on his observations after returning to Australia last month? Murdoch called the country “ungovernable” thanks to “extreme greenies”, “corrupt violent unions” and “deadly drugs”. The solution to this odious cocktail according to Murdoch? More of the same – another Abbott government.

The Australian is a faithful servant of His Master’s Voice ranting against environmentalism, unionism, drugs and more. It has long defended its position as the sacred arbiter of the news and its opinion pages are clogged with political analysts mostly to the right of Genghis Khan. The newspaper has been particularly dismissive of “pyjama-clad bloggers” and “under-employed academics” who dare venture into its chosen field with alternative views. Twitter, with its easy facility to talk back to power, has long been a target. But would @rupertmurdoch (now 1500 tweets old and counting, with 608,000 followers) appreciate a full page of this weekend’s Inquirer section devoted to exposing the evils of the 140-character communications mechanism?

The lead story on the page from reporter John Lyons (a talented journalist who seems reluctantly roped into this auto da fé) was about the Border Force debacle in Melbourne last week. The headline “The news, brought to you unedited” is dripping in irony at a company that sacked most of its sub-editors in 2013.

Yet the sub-headline continued to push the house message: “The idea of checking facts and verifying sources is alien to Twitter”.  It is a statement that makes as much sense as saying “the idea of checking facts and verifying sources is alien to paper”. Twitter is a tool used by hundreds of millions of people, with hundreds of millions different reasons. “Twitter” (even in the narrow News Ltd sense as “the people that use Twitter politically”) is made up mostly of individuals, not news organisations and they are not bound by the institutional, and increasingly fraught “rules of journalism”.

Despite calling it a Twitter war, Lyons initially plays a straight bat on the #borderfarce story acknowledging the effect Twitter has on the news cycle. But then it gets judgmental. There is a ritual attack on Fairfax before decrying the lack of filters in Twitter with people “re-tweeting” (his quotation marks, it’s obviously not a real word yet) information that often was wrong. That’s true, but no different to newspapers, and with far less influence. Traditional media says Lyons, “usually” (my quotation marks, it’s getting less and less usual) has several pairs of eyes looking at articles before publication.

The problem says Lyons is that (political) Twitter is skewed towards “the young and the left”, constituencies the Australian has well-nigh abandoned. Lyons quotes social media expert Axel Bruns who denies that simplistic skew saying Twitter was used by all sorts of constituencies for all sorts of reasons. That’s true. I was at an AgForce forum in Roma last week where farmers (hardly young and left) were encouraged to get their personal brand out on Twitter. Lyons attempts to be even handed but the headlines and fact-box “A Friday Afternoon Twitterstorm” push the house line that “Twitter” cannot be trusted.

This point is emphasised in the second story on the page, “When the Twitter tail wags the dog” by deputy editor Peter Fray. Once again, the frame is set by the sub-headline: “Some newsrooms are allowing social media to dictate what constitutes a news story”.  In this context “some newsrooms” is code for the enemies Fairfax and the ABC and Fray mentions them both in the context of the Australian Border Force story. Fray’s lament is not the stupidity or dangers of paramilitary government bodies but that Dutton’s jihadists (Fairfax and the ABC) prefer the “siren song” of social media over “sober tones of fact-checking, empirical evidence, objectivity and plain common sense.” The plea for common sense is a sure signal this is a right-wing rant and Fray does not explain why social media and journalistic practice has to be either/or and not both.

Fray (who tweets @peterfray) has three “truisms” to share about Twitter. It is fast not deep, it is dominated by “media types” and it is both a blessing and a curse for time-poor journalists. I would take issue with all three. To say it is not deep takes no account of hyperlinks; its supposed domination by media takes no account of celebrities or the millions of other non-media users; and it is only a curse to those that allow themselves to be ruled by it. Yes, there are unsubstantiated claims but lies are found out just as quickly. In a social media world where your reputation is everything, it doesn’t pay to muck around with the truth for too long.

But that seems completely lost on the writer of the hilariously awful third article on the page. Margaret Kelly (“who holds a degree in English literature and language”) was angry about lazy language, but inevitably social media comes in the firing line. In a confused rant that pours doubt on climate change and has Orwell disapproving of Facebook, Kelly laid into “groupthink” which “lives today in cyberspace where people want to be unknown”.  Kelly does not define groupthink but she says it leads to terrible things like Trending on Twitter. Kelly does define trending, which she says is “a lot of people saying the same sorts of things, mostly unconsidered… and trending is just what groupthink means.” Though her readers are none the wiser (not least at the ellipses which are in Kelly’s text) after this nonsense, it all leads to one definitive conclusion. “Frankly, in my view,” Kelly says, “only twits tweet.” Take that, all you 2.8 million Australian users of Twitter, you’ve been told. Though frankly, in my view, Ms Kelly ought to be careful about what she says about Rupert Murdoch in one of his papers.

Woolly Days media personality of the year 2014: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Basher Mohamed

GresteIt’s that time of the year when I name the Woolly Days media personality of the year. The “award” dates back to 2009 when I complimented ABC boss Mark Scott for taking his organisation into the 21st century and leading the fighting against Australian media Murdochocracy. 2010 was the year of Julian Assange, who despite cringe-worthy self-centredness, did as much as anyone to tell stories people didn’t want told (the definition of journalism). In 2011 I gave it to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and journalist Nick Davies for shining a light on News Corp’s despicable practices in the UK, with the tacit approval of the police. Their full extent was revealed in Judge Brian Leveson’s inquiry in 2012 and he was my winner for that year. In 2013, Edward Snowden was a dominant winner for his spectacular expose for the intelligence practices and malpractices of the US and its allies.

There has been no standout this year but there is a deserving winner, or rather three deserving winners bucking a trend in news journalism. I recently saw the movie Nightcrawler, an excoriating treatment of evening news priorities. TV news journalism in the big American cities (and here in Australia) is all about ambulance chasing, the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy leading to news services overwhelmingly devoting time to petty local crime.

That criticism can’t be levelled at the three Al Jazeera employees who share the Woolly Days media personality of the year for 2014. Australian journalist Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and their Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed end the year as they started it in an Egyptian prison. The trio were reporting on the aftermath of the overthrow of Egypt’s elected government when arrested almost exactly a year ago. After a long and often farcical trial they were sentenced to multiple year prison terms for reporting news “damaging to national security.”

The sentences were widely condemned across the world though I queried their employer’s role in the matter. Al Jazeera’s owners, the emirs of Qatar, have dabbled dangerously in Middle East politics and bankrolled former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi with Qatari LNG. When Morsi was overthrown Qatar gave sanctuary to several high-ranking members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt accused Al Jazeera of bias in their reporting.

The most well-known of the three in Australia, Peter Greste acknowledged the problem in his letters from prison. Greste wrote that despite its responsibility for Islamist violence, the Brotherhood remained the largest social and political force in Egypt. “What then for a journalist striving for ‘balance, fairness and accuracy?’” Greste asked. “How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?” Greste and Fahmy decided they had to keep talking to everyone, regardless of the consequences. This is admirable and courageous, but didn’t acknowledge Al Jazeera’s role in Egyptian politics.

While Greste has been the focus of Australian efforts thanks to his media-savvy parents, Fahmy has been more prominent in Canada, where he attended university. Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is among those calling for his release. Fahmy’s CV is impressive. He was a stringer in the 2003 Iraq War for the LA Times and wrote a book on his experiences called “Baghdad Bound”. When the Arab Spring broke out, he returned to his native Egypt and chronicled the uprising in a photo documentary he called “Egyptian Freedom Story”.

Baher Mohamed is a graduate of Cairo University. He worked for Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper for five years, and freelanced for CNN and Iran’s English-language Press TV before joining Al Jazeera in 2013. In his trial, the prosecution said his father was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and had tried to make him go to religious classes organised by the Islamist movement. But Mohamed refused to attend because they were “boring”.  Mohamed got the seven years sentence of the other two but also an additional three years for having a weapon.

Their year in prison has been filled with false hope of an early release, most recently in November when Greste’s parents spoke of a possible pardon from Egypt’s president. Their best bet is a thaw in relations between Egypt and Qatar with the visit of a top Qatari envoy to Cairo. Egypt said it looked “forward to a new era that ends past disagreements” but made no mention of the Al Jazeera trio.

The Committee to Protect Journalists say they are among at least 12 journalists behind bars in Egypt. Four have been convicted including Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed. The other is Abdel Rahman Shaheen, a correspondent for Freedom and Justice News Gate. Shaheen was sentenced by a Suez court in June to three years jail on charges of inciting and committing violence during protests in April.

Many are saying Egypt has declared journalism a crime. The CPJ has released a documentary called Under Threat as the government cracks down on the press, forcing independent and critical voices into silence, exile, or prison. The film documents the dangers of working for Egyptian media, impunity in the killings of reporters, and the ongoing imprisonments of journalists. For braving those dangers, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed are my media personalities of 2014. Here’s hoping for a swift release for them and fellow journalists in 2015.

Courier-Mail apology adds to its growing irrelevance

apologyThe Courier-Mail’s apology for an apology this morning highlights everything wrong with News Corp journalism in Australia.

The apology, printed over three small columns buried on page 7 comes a day after the Brisbane tabloid ran a racy page 1 image of murdered Indonesian woman Mayang Prasetyo. Prasetyo was posing provocatively in a bikini next to the screaming headline “Monster CHEF and the SHE MALE”. It was an appalling headline that should never have seen the light of day and passed through many gatekeepers before publication. It was a headline that said more about newspaper management than about the murder victim.

The headline and the picture had one purpose: to sell newspapers. Recent Audit Bureau of Circulation data have shown a modest recent increase in Courier-Mail sales, which the paper trumpeted. The longer-term picture is of consistent decline, shown up in the Year on Year figures from 2012 to 2013 which shows the paper down 10% from 185,000 papers a day to 162,000. These figures are similar to newspapers across the country. News suits in Brisbane and elsewhere are panicking and think they have to go downmarket to gain readership. Yesterday, the paper hit rock bottom managing simultaneously to offend women, Asians, gays, blacks, domestic violence victims, and possibly chefs, in its extraordinary heat seeking missile headline.

Tabloids have been offending minority groups forever, with the “other” always fair game for headline writers. People were always offended and some may have written to the paper to express their outrage. A handful of letters might even have been published in the name of faux-balance. But the papers felt they could get away with anything, because no one could stop them. These days the rules have changed. The digital disruption playing havoc with News Corp’s business model is also offering effective ways of expressing disapproval. The headline went viral for all the wrong reasons and social media and activist websites are fanning the flames calling for apologies. Realising finally they might have gone too far, the Courier-Mail thought they could douse things down with today’s apology and indeed there are some good things in it.

The apology’s first sentence should have been yesterday’s Page 1 lead’s first sentence. It read “Mayang Prasetyo was the innocent victim of a horrendous crime, killed by the man she should have been able to trust”. The sentence went to the core of the issue yesterday’s headline ignored: there is a domestic violence crisis in Australia of men attacking and often killing their partners. The apology said Mayang would be remembered for her cheerfulness and her love of family “as we reported yesterday” (hidden behind the hideous headline). It went on, “Many believe” (but presumably not Courier-Mail management) “we presented Mayang’s story in a way that was disrespectful to her memory. It concluded they “no intention of diminishing the value of Mayang’s life, or to add to the grief being felt by her family”.

Can they seriously believe “Monster chef and the she male” is a respectful headline? Didn’t anyone at the paper think their other headline “the butcher and the ladyboy” might diminish her life? Was anyone arguing these headlines would add to her family’s grief? The apology shows the Courier-Mail has learned nothing. The sooner it and its stablemate of toilet papers disappear, the better it will be for the health of our society.

Peter Greste is not guilty but Al Jazeera is

As an Australian journalist I am outraged by the imprisonment of Peter Greste and his colleagues in Egypt all manifestly innocent of the charged that convicted them. However, the same cannot be said about their employers Al Jazeera. Their employees are paying a heavy price for the Qatari media organisation’s meddling in Egyptian politics. Reporter Peter Greste, bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed are victims of Middle Eastern energy politics, pawns in a long game between Egypt and Qatar with significant roles for Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Al Jazeera broke the back of western dominance of world news reporting and who have a formidable global news reputation branching out in every direction from its foundation of excellence in Arab affairs. Founded in 1996 with a charter to overcome censorship, Al Jazeera is bankrolled by Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar until he abdicated for his son Tamim in 2013. But Al Jazeera has a growing blind spot as the network becomes more important.

Qatar’s massive oil and natural gas reserves has turned it into the richest country in the world per capita, wealth it now pours into influence in world affairs. Al Jazeera is one of Al Thani’s pet projects and despite its influence it has been unable to turn a profit independently. It dares not bite the hand that feeds it. Matters off limits to Al Jazeera include the 2022 World Cup or Qatar’s place in Gulf politics. The relationship between Qatar and Egypt is particularly problematic and Al Jazeera are not just reporters of that relationship but players.

This dangerous game dates back to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak who was backed by the Saudi government. He viewed the Qataris and Al Jazeera as regional troublemakers. Following the Arab Spring, Al Thani put Qatar’s billions into the new governments. Mubarak was toppled in 2011 and replaced in elections by Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar swung into action to prop up Morsi.

Qatar supplied oil and also liquefied natural gas Egypt needs to fulfil export contracts. Egypt has state-run energy companies but allows foreign firms to exploit its gas reserves which the government subsidises for the domestic market. The foreign companies recoup costs by exporting gas for higher prices. But as Egypt’s demand increased and supply declined, there was less gas for the foreign market. Qatar filled the gap, selling the gas to Morsi’s foreign clients. Qatar also signed a deal to deliver an LNG import terminal. This was a powerplay against the Saudis and UAE. Both had a long standing enmity to the Brotherhood and both supplied energy to Mubarak’s economy. Al Jazeera also enthusiastically threw it weight behind the new Islamist regime to the disquiet of its journalists.

The army deposed the Brotherhood government in 2013, to the quandary of the western leaders, who quantified their hatred of coups to their hatred of elected Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood once again became officially Egyptian public enemy number one, but Qatar became number two. Those few Brotherhood powerbrokers who escaped the crackdown mostly ended up in Qatar. Al Jazeera is alleged to have paid for hotel suites in Doha for the exiles.

Egypt’s new master Abdel al-Sisi was left with a big problem of how to replace Qatari energy. He turned to the Saudis, UAE and Kuwait. Those countries showered Egypt in petrol and diesel products but could not supply al-Sisi with LNG for his power plants. No other Gulf state has the gas capacity of Qatar, and Egypt owes $8 billion to the oil companies. Al-Sisi had to increase the domestic price. With natural gas supplying 70% of local electricity, cutbacks are inevitable, possibly leading to more domestic discontent. Al-Sisi moved to avoid possible blackouts by contracting Norwegian HOG-Energy to anchor an LNG unit in the Red Sea. That won’t be online until autumn past the critical month of Ramadan when people fast during the day.

Al-Sisi does not want to risk becoming the third leader deposed in three years and management of the message is crucial to his success. He closed down Islamist news channels in 2013 including Al Jazeera’s Egyptian station Mubashir Misr. Greste, Fahmy and Bahar were arrested in December accused of “damaging national security.” The government said the journalists held illegal meetings with the Brotherhood which had been declared illegal the previous week.

Greste’s letters from prison admitted he knew the dangers and had discussed them with Fahmy but they decided to press ahead anyway. He said they was doing what journalists across the world do: “recording and making sense of unfolding events with all the accuracy, fairness and balance that our imperfect trade demands.” Greste said he did not support the Muslim Brotherhood. But he does not acknowledge Al Jazeera’s role in Egyptian politics. Greste, Fahmy and Bahar are scapegoats and cause celebres for press freedom. Telling the truth is not terrorism – but the truth is rarely simple. Greste and his two colleagues deserve our support, but they should know this is also about geopolitics as much as the right to report. Worldwide pressure should be applied to Doha as well as Cairo.

Woolly Days media person of the year 2013 – Edward Snowden

snowdenI read the other day an article in Nieman Journalism Lab that pronounced the death of the blog in 2013. It had been overtaken, the article said, by social media, aggregators, micro-blogs and meme police (think Reddit) in setting agendas and influencing other media. That may be so, but I think the death of blogging is exaggerated. The article that reported the death was itself a blog post and there are hundreds of millions of blogs still active. I’ve been blogging for over eight years and don’t see myself stopping soon. I enjoy writing them, I like the way they force me to marshall my ideas and I enjoy my work in the public domain, no matter how uninfluential. Millions of others will continue their blogs for a million other reason. One of my many million reasons is that I can get to name a Woolly Days media person (or personality) of the year award, something I’ve done for the last five years.

My winner wouldn’t be aware of the award but that doesn’t stop me from having fun and naming someone I saw making a difference to the world of the media. The year I started the award – 2009 – was around the time Australia was grappling seriously with the end of analog and the idea of paywalls for internet content. ABC boss Mark Scott was in the fortunate position of being able to deal with both issues without the need to turn a profit. He was emerging as a thoughtful contributor to where the digital world was taking us. As boss of the national broadcaster he straddled the political divide as a former Liberal staffer appointed by John Howard yet who seemed ready-made Labor-lite and someone not afraid to put the boot into Rupert Murdoch. It is difficult to see how Scott will survive into an Abbott Government but he has put ABC in a strong position as an independent cultural institution, albeit very safe and conservative in its Sydney values.

I didn’t give thought as to whether it was a one-off award or not in 2009. As it happened, one person dominated world media headlines in 2010 and he was Julian Assange. Assange was Australian but his actions had huge international ramifications. Wikileaks transformed the dangerous act of whistleblowing by providing a safe place to blow the whistle. Wikileaks’ best work was tackling corporate crime such as Trafigura and Bank Julius Baer but like Icarus, Assange got too close to the sun. The astonishing horde of documentation Assange got from Bradley Manning made Assange a public enemy to western powers. Assange was a brilliant operator who changed the rules of information dissemination but he had massive personality flaws. Assange has a case to answer under Swedish law and needs to face that justice system, otherwise the current Mexican stand-off will last only until a more American-friendly Ecuadorian government tosses him out to the streets of London.

While Assange languished in legal no-man’s land in 2011, a massive new media story was developing. What initially was regarded as ‘a few bad apples’, turned out to be an organisation rotten to the core showing it wasn’t just our intelligence services that spied on us. Guardian journalist Nick Davies with the fierce support of his editor Alan Rusbridger courageously overcame a smear campaign to reveal malfeasance by Rupert Murdoch’s News International with the assistance of the Metropolitan Police. The Guardian’s work was the best media on media story in years and Davies and Rusbridger fully deserved my 2011 award.

In 2012 I gave my award to the British judge Brian Leveson who took on the Inquiry that bears his name from the Guardian hacking revelations. Leveson is a thoughtful jurist and his findings were admirable – though I have serious misgivings the British government’s new regulator will actually carry out his wishes. Nonetheless he deserved the award for running the best daily entertainment that year. Testimony after testimony was spectacular and it bordered on soap opera at times – especially when any of the Murdochs were giving evidence.

When it came to this year’s award I became aware of an anomaly – there was a serious gender imbalance, all my winners were men and White Anglo Saxon Protestantish at that. This said more about the stereotypical way I think about media than a lack of suitable women candidates. Indeed, I found a magnificent contender in the very last week of the year. I had not heard of Ukrainian journalist Tetyana Chornovil before she was beaten up for investigating the Interior Minister but she is everything good about a journalist: single-minded, honest, fearless and determined to tell the story in the face of intense intimidation. She is already the favourite to win my award in 2014.

Yet I cannot give Chornovil, or any other journalist, my 2013 media person award. That has to go to Edward Joseph Snowden, the American computer specialist who leaked top secret National Security Agency documents to world media. The thousands of documents show the extent of surveillance nationally and internationally, against friend or foe. Pentagon Paper leaker Daniel Ellsberg (who was assiduously courted by Julian Assange as he set up Wikileaks) described Snowden’s revelations as the most significant in US history and it lays bare the US’s intelligence framework, not to mention causing political headaches across the globe.

Snowden became the story after his dramatic flight from the US to Russia via Hong Kong and he now remains stranded like Assange in legal limbo (of the unholy trio of leakers, only Bradley Manning has ended up in an American jail so far and even he has ‘escaped’ by changing his identity to Chelsea Manning). The idea that Russia, with its own repression, gives Snowden immunity is a sick Putin joke. However the laugh has been on the Obama administration left flat-footed as it attempts to deal with the scale of the leaks without being able to press charges.

There are times when we become a little cynical of the way government works and we look the other way when they get involved in sausage-making. There is the sense in many of our obsessive rules and regulations that it won’t affect us if we don’t do anything wrong. But there are times when someone holds up the mirror and we must look. We know we won’t like what we find and Snowden’s material shows government at its most paranoid and Orwellian. What the leaks showed was government surveillance is not about protecting people from terrorism but about protecting power. The US and allies spied for political, economic and social reasons, and while this was something we all suspected, here was the proof. Media commentator Jay Rosen said Snowden exposed threats to our freedom and his going public was a decisive moment.

Snowden says he did it to inform the public what was done in their name and what was done against them. One NSA documents he leaked admitted they wanted mastery of the intelligence medium. To find the pin the haystack, they would collect the whole haystack. What they wanted was the ability to spy on anyone, anywhere, and at any time. Snowden left authorities and their lackies flailing for answers and blaming the messenger. The craven editors at News Ltd and the Washington Post claimed publishing the articles breached national security but the leaks showed it was national security that was on trial.

What happens next to Snowden is anyone’s guess, but I cannot imagine it will end happily. He is too far outside the pale for the US to forgive and forget and sooner or later, Putin will cash in his chip. Snowden will likely rot in prison like Manning. Whether it is enough to deter other would-be leakers, remains to be seen. In the meantime we must do all in our power to read what he has risked so much for. Not a woman, like Chornovil or Manning, but a worthy winner of the Woolly Days media person of the year 2013.