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Norwich protests Donald Trump selective Muslim Ban, welcomes Refugees

Donald Trump Muslim Ban Protest in Norwich

Hundreds of people in Norwich turned out to protest President Donald Trump‘s temporary immoral executive order banning Muslims from 7 countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) entering the USA. One arrest was made, and the demonstration was otherwise peaceful with a diverse range of speakers and banners from the humorous to the very serious.

Judge me by what's in my head not on my head
Judge me by what’s in my head not on my head

Perhaps, the best said it simplest, a woman in a headscarf whose placard read “judge me by what is in my head not what is on my head”.

Nobody is saying that ISIL’s dangerous ideology shouldn’t be countered, or that terrorists should be denied entry, but to blanket ban seven nations, marking them guilty before a trial, particularly when they are not in the top 25 nationalities that have threatened or attacked US citizens is disproportionate and against the founding charters of America that welcome immigrants, and don’t discriminate based upon religion and race.

Nobody is saying that ISIL’s dangerous ideology shouldn’t be countered, or that terrorists should be denied entry, but to blanket ban seven nations, marking them guilty before a trial, based upon nationality and religion alone, particularly when they are not in the top 25 nationalities that have threatened or attacked US citizens is disproportionate and against the founding charters of America that welcome immigrants, and don’t discriminate based upon religion.

Norwich Donald Trump anti-racist Muslim ban protest
Norwich Donald Trump anti-racist Muslim ban protest

Two protests came together for this event, one organised by UEA student Lotty Clare of Movement for Justice, and the other by Julie Bremner of Stand Up To Racism. Other groups including Norwich Stop The War Coalition joined in and over 1,100 people signed to attend on a dark drizzly night in February.

The mood was far from damp, with resounding cries of:

“Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here”

If anything, it was the hundreds of comments on the EDP online and Mustard TV posts that made me realise why we do this. The spewing of hate and Britain first, echoing Donald Trump’s election manifesto of America first. I talked afterwards to two Donald Trump and Brexit supporters, teenage girls from City College, they had no problem with elitist, nationalist, selfish, protectionist policies, though our debate soon turned to mental health and we had a good conversation. 

Norfolk Welcomes All Folk
Norfolk Welcomes All Folk

I was interviewed by Robbie West of BBC Look East, Emma Knights of the EDP, and ended up on a Mustard TV live stream. ITV Anglia also reported on the event. Good coverage and continuing to remind me of how great Norwich is, in the main, and after so many political protests and pro-migrant rallies over the last year it shows the strength of feeling in communities, both pro and anti. 

Katy Jon Went speech text

The 7 nation Muslim visa and refugee ban was signed on Holocaust Memorial Day, a day when the Whitehouse chose to #alllivesmatter the victim list by not mentioning Jews and homosexuals at all.

The fear that LGBT people may have their Obama-won state protections removed has also been concerning people, even if that comes to nothing, people are living in fear and anxious times. America’s biggest terror massacre since 9/11 was by an American, albeit the son of an Afghan immigrant – but not on Trump’s ban list, who traveled back and forth to Saudi Arabia – also not on the list, before killing 49 people, mainly Latinos, in the Orlando Pulse club shooting. No connection to the seven nation ban list.

Despite the so-called British exemption, Iranian-born but raised in Italy and doing post-grad veterinary studies at the University of Glasgow, Dr Hamaseh Tayari was denied US-leg travel by the presidential executive order, the extra flights avoiding America cost £2600 however, public response raised more than double that via crowdfunding with the excess going to the Scottish Refugee Council. That is one way we can help. Similar to the folk providing food and funds, and many lawyers offering pro-bono free advice at airports across America. Lawyers are saying that “It’s not lawful to ban immigrants on the basis of nationality” but judges and others unwilling to enforce it are being replaced.

Speaking about the ‘Muslim’ travel block and its effect on the vet student, the University of Glasgow’s principal said:

“The free movement of people, of ideas, of intellect is surely the very hallmark of civilized society.– Professor Anton Muscatelli, Principal of the University of Glasgow

Introvert's Love greater than Hate, Truck Fump!
Introvert’s Love greater than Hate, Truck Fump!

Indeed, America and its innovations and inventions are built on immigrants, not just the last century or so, but even those that first came to America, those pilgrim fathers and conquering Catholic explorers of different faiths to the established indigenous inhabitants. Indeed 7 nations of foreign religious immigrants from the early Norse to the British, Dutch, French, Spanish, German, Irish and even Russians (Kodiak Island) came to America and populated it, and far from peacefully. 

Blocking immigrants now is hypocrisy and against its founding principles. Take the inscription on the Statue of Liberty:

“Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; … Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me…”

The Quebec mosque attack last weekend that left 6 dead and 8 injured was not by Muslims, but of Muslims. First reports drew attention to the fact that one of those arrested was from Morocco, another fake news story from a pro-Trump reddit said they were Syrian refugees, but not the truth that the sole perpetrator, killer, terrorist, turned out to be a far right, anti-feminist, anti-immigrant and Trump supporting white supremacist inspired by Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen of Front Nacionale of France:

“Friends and those who knew him online said he had extreme political beliefs, but was not known to be violent. Eric Debroise said he called police after the shooting and told them Alexandre Bissonnette is “very right and (an) ultra nationalist white supremacist,” the French-language newspaper Le Journal de Quebec reports. “He really liked Trump and had a permanent discontent with the left.”” 

Will Donald Trump now block Canadians visiting the US, or won’t it matter if the victims are other Muslims and the aggressors other American continent citizens?

11,000 are killed on US soil each year at the hands of US citizens, black and white, Christian and Muslim. More toddlers than terrorists kill Americans. Ban guns not Muslims.

ISIS kills more Muslims than Christians and more people from the seven barred nations than American citizens. How many Americans you ask?

The number of Americans killed by terrorists who’ve entered the US as Refugees? ZERO. No person accepted to the United States as a refugee, Syrian or otherwise, has been implicated in a major fatal terrorist attack since the Refugee Act of 1980. Prior to that only Cuban non-Muslims had.

Even if we include attacks and plots with no fatalities, then just 20 refugees out of 3 and a quarter million have been convicted over 40 years, that’s just 0.0006%, which is statistically zero anyway. An American is 250 times more likely to be killed or murdered by other means than by a foreign-born terrorist.

In a study of country origins of terroristsSaudia Arabia, UAE and Egypt topped the list. Trump’s nations only enter the list at places 25 and lower! 

Pennsylvania Republican representative Charlie Dent said,

“the order appears to have been rushed through without full consideration. You know, there are many, many nuances of immigration policy that can be life or death for many innocent, vulnerable people around the world.”

Even Donald Trump admitted it was a “ban”, announced in his best official and professional sounding statesman-like way on Twitter:

Another US Republican senator and former Presidential candidate, John McCain said:

“Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred. This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.” 

Even Mike Pence the Republican VP denounced it in 2015 when Obama was advised to do something similar but less extreme:

Yes we need to be careful calling this an “all Muslim” ban or saying it came only from Donald Trump, as Obama’s advisors first drew up the list but as amendmends to the pre-existing Visa Waiver Program. The new ban cancels the visa themselves, rather than requiring them.

Theresa the Appeaser
Theresa the Appeaser

Wherever it started, it’s where it ends that worries me. “Theresa The Appeaser” came back from America and Foreign Secretary Boris ‘the joke’ Johnson announced British exceptions to the rules – just like Chamberlain’s futile appeasement attempts in 1938.

“An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” – Winston Churchill

We won't let history repeat itself
We won’t let history repeat itself

I can appreciate the irony of standing under Hitler’s favourite balcony, Norwich City Hall, protesting. We do need to attack the policies not the person, appreciate the complexities of their origins, and not demonise the man, reference mental health and little hands, that plays into the insecure dictator psyche and adds fuel to Trump supporters that we don’t hear their concerns.

Just as with Brexit true communal change can only come about with all parties engaged, remainers and leavers, Democrats and Republicans, Labour, Tory and the rest. We underestimated the fears of leavers and Trump supporters that led to them winning society changing votes that will affect the next 4-5 years or more.

I would commend peaceful and polite protest, therefore, but without passive appeasement. The women’s march saw millions gather because it was peaceful. Better to let Trump visit the UK and then have a protest he can witness the size of feeling at. Unrest and civil disobedience are always a later option.

Neutrality helps the oppressor never the victim
Neutrality helps the oppressor never the victim

If anything similar were to ever happen here as some Brexit supporters and Nigel Farage have called for, then I’m with Madeleine Albright (a Czech immigrant to the US and former Secretary of State) and would register as a Muslim to demonstrate solidarity, before they list any other categories of people that need rounding up or banning.

Resist the ban, welcome refugees, and provide practical and legal support where you can, illegal support if it ever comes to it! It’s open mosque day this Sunday – go to one.

I am reminded of another of Churchill’s statements that diplomacy does not mean friendship with another state acting immorally towards its people and demonising groups within it. It reinforces the dangerous moral path Theresa May treads in appearing as Donald Trump’s greatest foreign ally.

“You must have diplomatic and correct relations, but there can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force. That power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy.”

View more photos from the protest here.

Fuck Trump anti-Fascist protestor
Fuck Trump anti-Fascist protestor

 

Saving Syria’s Aleppo from War Crimes & Humanitarian Crisis, Norwich Rally

Save Aleppo, Syria – Norwich Rally

Lotty Clare, Save Aleppo, Norwich demo
Lotty Clare, Save Aleppo, Norwich demo

Movement for Justice and UEA student, Lotty Clare led a rally outside City Hall Norwich for Aleppo Syria with Tim Hughes of Stop the War Coalition, activist and writer Katy Jon Went, Norwich-based Syrian refugee Anas, and John Cowan. Cllrs Alan Waters and James Wright of Norwich City Council were among the gathered crowd to offer support and hear what could be done. Alan Waters said that the city’s MPs, Chloe Smith and Clive Lewis, would be written to.

What can you do?

One of the hardest things is feeling so powerless in the face of the humanitarian disaster, but there are actions that can be taken:

  • Writing to MPs
  • Writing to international embassies about the United Nations Responsibility to Protect to which all member nations signed up in 2005 to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity
  • Writing to Syria’s embassy as responsible for the wellbeing of its own people and to uphold the 16 UN resolutions regarding atrocities and human rights abuses in Syria
  • Supporting Syrian and international aid charities
  • Helping Médecins Sans Frontières as a medic or with money
  • Joining Amnesty International
  • Welcoming Syrian refugees – offering spare rooms. Half of Syria have been forced out of their homes, the biggest refugee and displacement crisis since the Second World War, 11 million people
  • Keeping yourself informed to maintain international pressure on the parties responsible for perpetuating the situation
  • Attending rallies to keep Syria in the public and media eye
Norwich Save Aleppo Rally
Norwich Save Aleppo Rally

My own contribution evolved out of a facebook rant I wrote earlier in the day about the escalation of terror and atrocities in the weeks before Christmas, the supposed season of goodwill and peace to all mankind.

Text of my speech

We hear you Aleppo
“We hear you Aleppo”, placard by Laure Ollivier-Minns

A year ago, as the UK Parliament was considering joining the by then year long US & 13 nation coalition of bombing Syria, I attended a Don’t Bomb Syria rally. A year later and the situation is worse, not only in Syria but also in surrounding nations. 15 years of invasions, interference, and increased radicalisation by bombing the bombers, has not stopped or solved a single middle eastern crisis.

Christmas sees no let up in world chaos and terror, no salam, shalom, peace toward all men…an Advent calendar of death mostly meted out on non-combatants, mother and child, drone strike “collateral damage”, innocent victims of men’s rush to conquer and dominate, or to solve problems with swords rather than ploughshares, bombs rather than words.

Use your power for peace, Save AleppoOn Sunday, IS killed 25, mainly women, in Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral, the same day Boko Haram forced two 7-year-old girls to act as suicide bombers in a Nigerian market. In the first 2 weeks of December alone, IS have executed 100 people, so have Syrian pro-government forces, and suicide bombs have gone off in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Turkey, Yemen.

Meantime the humanitarian disaster that is Syria and Aleppo continues to escalate with over 450,000 killed, and some 4.8 million refugees (along with 6.6m internally displaced, that’s half of Syria’s 22m population forced out of their homes), cities flattened, hospitals destroyed, children killed (up to 50,000). The current raids on Aleppo have been called by the UN this afternoon, in all probability a war crime. If the battle for Aleppo is over, then for Assad the victory is Pyrrhic as the city is demolished and its people dead and devastated.

Great progress world, congratulations on continuing to be a right royal fuck up 2016 years after baby Jesus/Yeshua/Isa was apparently born. Extremist and fundamentalist religious interpretations, repressive political regimes, and “proxy wars” are not on my Xmas card list, Syrian refugees are – an airdrop of aid, peaceful passage out of conflict zones, a welcome in the West, but better still – stop the bombing so they can stay, live and rebuild their land.

Save Aleppo not inactionInstead, we continue the bombing, and breaking of ceasefires 2 hours after they are put into effect – even bombing the very roads the evacuations were due to take place on. Bombing escalates terror, and is a failed strategy, that even Donald Trump now admits! Indeed, Boris Johnson, against political and Tory party advice, has called a spade a spade, and for an end to proxy wars of geopolitical games carried out by Saudi Arabia, but perhaps also: Iran, Russia, Turkey and the US.

Each religion or political cause can be twisted to apparently justify slaughter, but that comes from man’s inhumanity to man, not faith or ideology per se. Equally, most faiths can be quoted from to encourage love, mercy and kindness. At this time of year, and every day, we need to be encouraging community, compromise and communication, not escalating conflicts creating mass casualties as the collateral toll of other people’s battles.

Save Aleppo

Save Aleppo

“Save us, people. Save us, people, world, anyone who has even a bit of humanity,” said one doctor in a voice message from a besieged district. “We beg you, we beg you, the dead and wounded are in the streets and people’s homes have collapsed on top of them. Save us. Save us.”

Postscript

Shortly after the rally, it was announced that the ceasefire had been restored, but for how long? By Friday morning it was off again. A UN official says the evacuation is “redolent of the Nazi evacuation of the Warsaw ghetto” as thousands are bussed out down the 21km corridor, 6km of which is controlled by Government forces. 

"We hear you Aleppo", placard by Laure Ollivier-Minns
Supporters at the #SaveAleppo rally in Norwich. More photos here and also pics by Emma Pamplin here.

 

Saudi Arabia mass executions & death sentences a Human Rights travesty

Saudi Arabia State Executions Escalate

2015 saw a rise in Saudi Arabia‘s public executions, some 157 people according to Amnesty International – there were 90 in 2014, 192 in 1995, the previous peak. Even more shocking was that 2016 began with 47 in a single day, on New Year’s Day, allegedly all ‘terrorists’ including prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Iran has threatened reprisals with molotov cocktails already thrown at the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Meanwhile even mainstream media commentary is now comparing the House of Saud to ISIS whilst Bahrain and United Arab Emirates (UAE) praised the message it sent to terrorists. Saudia Arabia has now ordered Iranian diplomats out and Bahrain followed suit, severing diplomatic ties, a day later, along with UAE and Sudan creating a new Middle East crisis.

ISIS Saudi Arabia Executions Any Difference via Khamenei
ISIS v Saudi Arabia Executions “Any Difference” asks Iran’s Khamenei

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Iran too, despite its own record executions, has compared Saudi Arabia to ISIS. Ayatollah Khamenei the self-titled “Leader of the Islamic Revolution” calling it a “White ISIS” and asking whether there are “any differences” between them.

Other atrocities apart, and excepting the variant methods of execution (Saudi still has stoning and flogging punishments, though often commuted to jail time, not to mention posthumous crucifixion), what is the difference between the continued practice of state executions by America, China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the so-called Islamic State, all of which have executed dozens of people a year. Iran has executed hundreds – perhaps a 1000 making its condemnation of Saudi Arabia somewhat hyprocritical. Pakistan has 6-8,000 people on its death row and in 2015 carried out 316+ executions a massive increase on the handful of 2014. Egypt (500+) and Nigeria (650+) have also been resorting to issuing death sentences (2014 figures).

Saudi Arabia's human rights record on executions 2014, 2015, 2016
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record on executions 2014, 2015, 2016

Ironically, the Saudi Arabian national flag features a sword – the very means of public execution, before each of which verses from the Koran are read justifying the sentence. Offences can include atheism, drugs crimes, homosexuality, insulting Islam, and sorcery!

The Death Penalty

Whilst just over a dozen countries had abolished the death penalty 30 years ago, today over a 100 have ended the practice. Some among those that have kept it, though, have increased its use in recent years in the name of countering ‘terrorism’.

Death Penalty around the world, 2014, Amnesty International
Death Penalty around the world, 2014, Amnesty International

Thousands a year are sentenced to death worldwide but fewer are carried out, some 20,000 people are incarcerated under a death sentence, yet to be carried out. In 2014 over a 110 people in 9 countries had their death sentence reversed, leaving them exonerated as innocent. This is the biggest reason to end the practice. Three times as many countries commuted death sentences to other forms of punishment.

“The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it.” – Amnesty International

Twelve countries still use hanging and ten use shooting, only Saudi Arabia and Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) behead people, swift but brutal. US executions peaked at 98 in 1999 and have steadily fallen since to 28 in 2015, but over 3,000 remain on death row.

A Foreign Office spokesperson has commented, saying that:

“The UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country. The death penalty undermines human dignity and there is no evidence that it works as a deterrent.”

Perhaps the UK should criticise America, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China’s position on capital punishment, alongside Islamic State? As David Cameron was challenged to do and amongst excuses for close ties with Saudi responded with:

“We oppose the death penalty anywhere and everywhere” – David Cameron, October 2015

Executed Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr

Arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death in 2014, Sheikh Nimr had opposed violence calling instead for peaceful protesters to resist the Saudi state and police bullets using “the roar of the word” and non-violent agitation, though he was not opposed to celebrating the deaths of tyrants. Mohammad al-Nimr, his brother, was arrested for merely tweeting about the death sentence but has since called for calm despite his own son on death row. Al-Nimr was pro-democracy and against “murder in the name of God”.

“The [Saudi] authorities depend on bullets … and killing and imprisonment. We must depend on the roar of the word, on the words of justice”…We do not accept [force of firearms]. This is not our practice…We welcome those who follow such attitude…Nonetheless, we cannot enforce our methodology on those who want to pursue different approaches…The weapon of the word is stronger than the power of bullets.” – Sheikh al-Nimr

“The oppressed should unite together against the oppressors, instead of becoming tools in the hands of the oppressors. The Khalifa family [in Bahrain] are oppressors, and Sunnis are not responsible for their actions. These are not Sunnis, they are tyrants. The Assad family in Syria are oppressors, and Shiism is not responsible for their actions. Never defend an oppressor. It is never justified for someone who is oppressed to defend [another’s] oppressor.” – Sheik al-Nimr, 2012

Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr Crufixion

Ali Mohammed al-Nimr via Facebook
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr via Facebook

Ali al-Nimr, nephew of executed Nimr al-Nimr, was arrested when just 17 for participating in Arab Spring pro-democracy demonstrations against the Saudi Arabian government. He was subsequently convicted by confession under torture. He is now 21 but in 2015 he was sentenced to death by beheading and then posthumous public crucifixion. As of today over 1.5 million people have signed just one of the several petitions to commute or cancel his sentence.

The UK Government believes that it can “achieve most by speaking privately and regularly to our Saudi interlocutors” rather than publicly confronting its ‘ally’. The Foreign Secretary recently said that he did not expect Ali al-Nimr to be executed and Shadow Minister Hilary Benn  has called on him “to seek fresh assurances that he will be reprieved.”

However, by threatening death to so many, and carrying out more than previous years, it is easy for Saudi Arabia to mollify the West with a couple of concessions and reprieves without denting its religious and political ethnic cleansing of opposition.

Political Prisoners in Saudi Arabia

Islamic Human Rights Commission IHRCSaudi Arabia denies it has any political prisoners but unofficial estimates from human rights bodies including the UK-based Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) suggest that up to 30,000 are imprisoned for political crimes against the Saudi state.

Back in November 2011, after the fatal shooting of four Shias, Sheikh al-Nimr had called for:

“[the] release of all those detained in the [Arab Spring] protests, and all prisoners of conscience – Sunnis and Shias.”

Raif Badawi Flogging

Saudi Arabian political blogger and recent recipient of the EU’s Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought, Raif Badawi, is serving a lengthy prison sentence for “insulting Islam” and also received the first tranche of 50 or a 1,000 lashed whipping sentence. Subsequent installments have been suspended based upon his poor health, exacerbated by his latest hunger strike, these last three weeks which has led to a deteriorating medical condition.

Raif Badawi, 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought
Raif Badawi, 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought

Wahhabism and Saudi Arabian History

Saudi Arabia has a wealth of cultural and religious history, is the birthplace of Islam, home to Mecca, Medina and Mohammed. It is rich in oil and other resources but beyond poor when it comes to human rights, democracy, and accountability. It offers the West tokenistic concessions in exchange for continuing its own ruthless totalitarianism.

Its brand of Islamic belief is Sunni as opposed to Shia, and an extreme version of that called Wahhabism or Salafism. They are stricter forms of Sharia Law based Islam, literalist, anti-Western and puritanical. Jihad, whether missionary or military, can be seen as a legitimate expression as well as expansion of Islam against its detractors.

Saudi Arabia, Extremism and Terrorism

Dr Yousaf Butt, senior advisor to the British American Security Information Council and director at the Cultural Intelligence Institute, says of Saudi Arabia:

“…one thing is clear: the fountainhead of Islamic extremism that promotes and legitimizes such violence lies with the fanatical ‘Wahhabi’ strain of Islam centered in Saudi Arabia. And if the world wants to stamp down and eliminate such violent extremism, it must confront this primary host and facilitator.”

He goes on to quote Wikileaks and other sources that purport to show Saudi’s financing of terror groups, several thousand Saudis are alleged to be in ISIL’s ranks. More easily verified is the funding of extremist Wahhabism via mosques and madrassas worldwide.

Saudi Arabia’s Hypocrisy on Human Rights

This same country was recently chosen to head a United Nations human rights selection panel. If it weren’t so serious and concerning, this would be satire. What’s worse is that apparently the UK supported their appointment.

Whilst Saudi Arabia has appeared to give women token political rights in recent municipal elections, they still can’t drive. Restrictions on political dissent and freedom of speech continue unabated and punishments for religious disagreement, in particular Saudi’s Wahabi version of Sunni Islam. As a result Freedom House’s freedom index ranks Saudi Arabia bottom on all counts.

Saudi Arabia is also the largest market for the British arms industry along with billions of other business deal tie-ups. As a result Britain is unlikely to publicly condemn Saudi too often, human rights will remain compromised by commercial interest. Indeed, a senior Government minister today defended close links with Saudi Arabia arguing that they enabled us to “tell them what we think”. True and unhypocritical condemnation of executions can only come when America and other countries also end the death penalty. Equally, rightful opposition to Islamic State (ISIL) should be accompanied by calling state-sanctioned extremism by Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and others to account too.

Africa Day 2015, a Diverse Continent in Conflict not Unity

Africa Day – 25 May 2015

On Africa Day it is worth reflecting on diversity as much as the so-called unity of the African Union. Africa may be a continent but it is far from united or content. Nor need it be. Diversity and difference, religious, economic and national identity struggle, are features of growth as much as peace and unity are. For now, discontent still rules whether in North Africa’s culturally Islamic Arab Spring countries or in Zimbabwe and South Africa’s continued issues. In between, Nigeria, Sudan and Kenya struggle with North-South divides, extremist groups and campaigns of terror. There are many Africas, not just one.

Africa’s History

Whilst shaking off the shackles of historical European colonialism, no one African identity has emerged but dozens. Self-determination, battles for independence, and religious and tribal/civil wars have ensured that national identities and stable futures are still fighting for supremacy. Africa is still making and creating its modern history.

War and Conflict

Africa leads the world on at least one thing, its 161 conflicts in 26 African countries, half of the continent.  Peace One Day? and prosperity are yet distant horizons. The poor, dispossessed, women and children are so often the innocent victims in conflict. Africa needs peace, but that is not the same as unity.

Africa Day

Africa Day, itself, celebrates the May 25 founding in Ethiopia, by 30 African leaders, of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, which in 2002 became the African Union whose motto is “united and strong”. Its current chairperson is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and his statement today is AU president Robert Mugabe’s Africa Day statement 2015.

Geography and the Clash of Civilisations

When was the last time anyone thought of Egypt, ancient or modern, as part of Africa rather than part of the Middle East? Geographical unity is a false guide to religious, cultural and national identity unity. Again, when we talk of the ancient world Africa is usually forgotten, yet Egypt is African, Nubia too, and what about historical Mali and the medieval literary and learning centre of Timbuktu.

African Languages

Africa ethnic language groups Wikipedia via CIA 1996
Africa ethnic language groups Wikipedia via CIA 1996

Arabic, English, French, and Swahili, may be the most well known African languages but many forget the 500 languages of Nigeria, or indeed the 2-3,000 across the whole of Africa making it the most diverse location on Earth, linguistically. South Africa has 11 official languages, more than anywhere else, only Somalia has just one. Most countries will speak ex-colonial languages alongside indigenous ones. 75% of Africa speaks over a dozen different languages but 25% speak hundreds more.

African Economics & Absolute Poverty

Many in African still survive – and that is a dubious description, on less than $1-$2 a day.

“Over the last 30 years, worldwide absolute poverty has fallen sharply (from about 40% to under 20%). But in African countries the percentage has barely fallen. Still today, over 40% of people living in sub-Saharan Africa live in absolute poverty.” Our Africa – Poverty

Nigeria, riven by conflict, violence, corruption, is nonetheless on target to continue to grow as Africa’s strongest economic nation, in the main due to oil.

African Women and Gender Equality

The theme of Africa Day, this year, is the “Year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”. Gender equality is far off with Boko Haram continuing to kidnap young girls and make sex slaves or forced marriages of teenage women. Education is still not an equal right in many states and countries, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) remains a health and human rights issue barely being tackled at all.

Dr Zuma, the Chair of the African Union Commission, said today that the 2015 theme represents:

“a recognition of centuries of African women and women from the Diaspora to the struggles against slavery, racial and gender discrimination, and for the emancipation of our continent and African men and women everywhere.

Women and girls continue to play critical roles – paid and unpaid – in their families, communities, countries and regions, that directly impact on economies and societies.

Despite the constraints that they continue to face, we have made strides, as a result of different waves of struggles by the women’s movements. Since the historic Beijing Conference twenty years ago, and the recognition of women’s rights as human rights, we have seen progress on women’s representation, in the advancement of reproductive rights, on equal pay for equal work, on access to education and basic services.

At the same time, it is estimated that if real change happens at the same [pace], it will take us 80 years before reaching full gender parity.”

Unity and equality in Africa are a long way off, slow progress is being made and conflict in various forms continues to destabilise economic and cultural development. Individual hopes, educational and economic opportunity, health and women’s rights, are bigger issues than a surface unity this Africa Day. African rights are human rights and abuses remain ignored by pan-African and international communities. News stories, unless they be of thousands of migrants or hundreds of schoolgirls, go ignored or buried by the international news services. Africa needs greater news coverage and the spotlight of global media, as well as economic aid, in order to progress both human rights and economic development.

UN Female Genital Mutilation Zero Tolerance Day, Origins of FGM

International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation

The United Nations designated Friday 6 February 2015 a worldwide day of zero tolerance on FGM, and called for action to end FGM now before another 86 million girls under 15 (most are under 5) are cut against their will by 2030.

African girlIt is carried out at the behest of male patriarchal societies, and increasingly by medical practitioners not just by tribal societies. In some countries up to 75% of cases involve healthcare professionals (most often other women) against the primary rule of medical ethics – The Hippocratic Oath, primum non nocere – “first do not harm”.

“It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. The practice also violates their rights to health, security and physical integrity, their right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and their right to life when the procedure results in death.” – United Nations

Prevalence of FGM

African mother and baby girlDespite laws against it, and blatant after-the-fact evidence that is occurs on UK soil, and not just in African and elsewhere, female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) still happens. In 7 countries 85%-98% of girls are cut, with Somalia being the most extensive practitioner.

Some 140 million women and girls throughout the world are thought to be living with FGM, including some 200-500,000 in the USA and an estimated 66,000, 103,000 or 137,000 in England and Wales (2011 figures). It still goes on in at least 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Illegal but not Prosecuted

In the UK the first court case of its kind brought against medics and others involved has just failed to reach a prosecution. Another woman was arrested in the last few days trying to take her 8 year old daughter abroad, presumably to engage someone to carry out the intervention, the child was taken into care.

It has been illegal in the UK for nearly 30 years without a single successful prosecution. In Egypt it’s been against the law for only 7 years, but it has had its first guilty case just last month.

Culturally Barbaric

African girl TanzaniaWhilst it has been rightly called “barbaric”, even primitive, is can be a distraction to use this term. Amnesty International counsel against it, though others think we should call a spade a spade, or a barbaric scalpel.

“Barbaric” may mean “uncultured, uncivilized, uneducated” or even “foreign, strange, brutal” from its earliest Greek and Latin origins, but some societies practising it do so in full knowledge of what they do, and as part of their culture, or coming of age ceremonies.

FGM Origins and Geographical Spread

It was present as far apart as Australian aboriginal tribes and Tsarist Russia in a Christian sect called the Skoptsy. They practiced castration and cutting of men and women as necessary for salvation – a complete misreading of some biblical texts in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The early church father Origen, was said to have castrated himself too.

Indeed, there are reports that the ancient Egyptians and Romans did it themselves, highly civilised cultures by some measures. FGM and female circumcision pre-date the Quran, in fact they are not mentioned in it. Its practice may have related to controlling slave women, and through the slave trade spread across sub-Saharan Africa via Arab and other traders. Some early descriptions seem to be of early surgeries on intersex people with either an enlarged clitoris or large labia. To this day genitals and even gender are still defined by size.

African mother and baby girlWhatever its origins, in a supposedly post-slavery era (though we are not there on that count yet either) it remains used in traditions and cultures that are innately sexist where men and marriage define and control status, pleasure, and purity. Virginity and FGM remain prerequisites for some African marriages thus forcing mothers into being accomplices in the practice, in order to find marriages for their daughters and avoid the social and economic exclusion of not being married off.

Zero Tolerance to End FGM

Zero tolerance rather than a phased ending of FGM is the only way to bring about its demise, irrespective of cultural excuses, rather than setting some future date for it to end by. It is abuse, explained by culture and tradition but never justified by it. Mothers and medics, being coerced into collusion breaks their sacred vows to first, do no harm, to their child or patient. We need education of mothers, medics and girls, as much as legal action, to raise awareness that this is an unacceptable practice that must end.

An early version of this article was first published here.
Credits
Images courtesy of Pixabay and do not imply people illustrated are affected by FGM

Corporate Cultural Change – Can Big Business be a Force for Good? What about People Power?

Can business behemoths end bigoted prejudice in conservative cultures? Can this assist people power movements, or is corporate collaboration selling out?

We all like to blame big business and banks especially for the financial crisis and resulting austerity, not to mention bonus culture and tax avoidance, but can they be a force for good too? Are they big enough to effect change and shift cultures in otherwise more conservative or religious societies that may discriminate against LGBTI+ people or women, not only in employment, but in life? By being openly supportive of LGBTI+ and other minority employees, creating safe spaces for them at work, helping stem existing employment prejudices, can change happen?

Goldman Sachs in Singapore is doing just that. In a public student recruitment drive it has positively targeted LGBT students, inviting them to dinner to discuss issues such as being ‘out’ at work in the local culture.

Goldman Sachs has a strong track record on diversity with positive employee networks such as their Disability Interest Forum, Women’s Network, and LGBT Network.

Boycott Barclays Don't Bank on Apartheid NUS Poster
Boycott Barclays – Don’t Bank on Apartheid, NUS Poster

Alongside Goldman Sachs are similar stances by JP Morgan, Google, Barclays and BP. Barclays Bank were not my favourite bank in 1970s/80s student politics with their pro-Apartheid trading, the University Union I was then at, UCL, refused to take Barclays payment cards in protest. In 1977 after UN embargoes on South Africa, Barclays pledged support for Botha’s racist regime. Yet now, here in Norwich, Barclays boasts several gay bank managers and proudly marches with Norwich LGBT Pride. The University of London Union, the biggest in Europe with 120,000 members now acts on issues such as Palestine.

We acknowledge people power, indeed we have the power to change bad corporate practice, worker exploitation, tax avoidance, for example by boycotting their products, be they Starbucks, Vodafone, Amazon, Apple etc, but do we? UK Uncut, the Occupy movement, showed the power we have as consumers – if we follow through. To paraphrase Plato’s “The price of apathy toward public affairs is to be ruled by evil men” our hypocritical inaction as consumers going for cheap over ethical, image over substance, is to be ruled over by Tescos and High Street coffee shop clones.

Capitalism is not inherently evil for it carries with it the power of its own demise or change. Consumer choice, people power, stockholder revolts, pay package rejection, the freedom to form unions. When the banks failed us in 2008-9 we failed ourselves by rescuing them, indeed it was a so-called Socialist, well ‘new’ Labour government that here in the UK aided their rescue. Unbridled free market capitalism would have effected change by allowing them to fail and something new and better form and take their place. But we, and I include myself here, are all hypocrites, still selecting the cheapest deal, not investigating their ethics and practices. When we buy from Amazon we destroy smaller, local businesses, we lose our bookshops. It is evolution, but of business, and as consumers we are partly responsible.

So can corporations be beneficial too? Certainly, with all their power they have some degree of moral responsibility and diversity in the workplace is an economic benefit, aiding creativity and bringing alternative perspectives, rethinking outside the box.

Pink Dot 2009-2014 Freedom to Love Singapore
Pink Dot 2009-2014 Freedom to Love celebrations, Singapore

Goldman Sachs’ positive employment policy in Singapore and support of the emerging LGBTI rights movements there such as Pink Dot are a powerful force for freedom. Technically, homosexuality is still illegal in Singapore but Pink Dot and its inclusive promotion of “freedom to love, regardless of sexual orientation” has seen its inaugural gathering in 2009 grow tenfold in just 4 years, with the next Pink Dot, now jokingly called the Pink Whale – due to aerial views of its event growth, due to be held 28 June.

Google, for all their domination of Internet search, privacy questions and more, also have profoundly positive employment policies and with subtle changes of their logo doodle each day can send messages to billions. They’ve even done special rainbow styling on LGBT and equal marriage searches during big votes on the issue.

Though, are companies like Goldman Sachs meddling with local culture by being brazenly equality-minded? Is it a throwback to Western colonialist imposition or patronisingly paternalist interference? Certainly, we haven’t got equality right in our own countries yet. Gay British footballers don’t feel safe to come out yet. Lord Browne, the former chair of BP, never felt it acceptable to be ‘out’ at work, indeed he only did so after resigning when he was about to be ‘outed’ by an ex-lover.

Again, it works both ways, we as consumers and as corporates have the power to effect change. Mozilla’s CEO was forced out, no not in that sense, he wasn’t gay, he lost his job for supporting an anti-gay marriage campaign in the US. Boycotts of their browser by LGBT campaigners and staff forced him to quit. In reaction, conservative groups in America boycotted the Firefox browser for its support of equal marriage.

Corporate sponsorship is not evil of itself and can help people recognise inclusive employers that are safe to work for. In some societies where equality is still an emerging issue, it can be a risky stance to take, but globalisation can bring equality benefits to all countries where companies have representation. Check out the statements of the likes of Google, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and BP on Pink Dot’s website.

Wael Ghonim, Revolution 2.0 - The power of the people is greater than the people in powerEgyptian Wael Ghonim, just 33 years of age, has worked for Google in Egypt and UAE since 2008, though took time out in 2011 during the Egyptian Revolution as part of the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East. He was detained and interrogated by Police for 11 days during the pro-democracy rallies having been a prime mover behind some of the social media, Facebook and Twitter, harnessing of people power.

Ghonim was interviewed on CBS’ 60 Minutes saying:

“Our revolution is like Wikipedia, okay? Everyone is contributing content, [but] you don’t know the names of the people contributing the content. This is exactly what happened. Revolution 2.0 in Egypt was exactly the same. Everyone contributing small pieces, bits and pieces. We drew this whole picture of a revolution. And no one is the hero in that picture.”

Ghonim was Time magazine’s no#1 on their annual world’s 100 most influential people in 2011. In the same year he was awarded the Press Freedom prize on World Press Freedom Day.

In his 2011 TEDx talk in Cairo, on the inside story of the Egyptian revolution, he said “The Power Of The People Is Much Stronger Than The People In Power”  (9m26 into the video)

“Revolution 2.0 – The power of the people is greater than the people in power”, is also the title of Ghonim’s 2012 book, described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a gripping chronicle of how a fear-frozen society finally topples its oppressors with the help of social media”.

Philanthropic capitalists have also searched for Capitalism 2.0, a “creative capitalism” that sacrifices profits for public welfare, as Bill Gates said in 2008. The 400+ billionaires of the Giving Pledge who have volunteered to give away more than half their wealth, some as much as 95% of it, are definitely have the power to change things. Milton Friedman might have argued that profit was the only motivation in business, but green businesses, community interest companies and the realisation that good PR, ethics and equality, can actually raise profits, are changing that.

London, 27 May 2014, saw a conference on so-called “Inclusive Capitalism“. Focused on renewing trust, one could easily dismiss the initiative given the likes of Rothschild and Bill Clinton’s involvement. Indeed, Dr Nafeez Ahmed, writing in the Guardian, called it PR spin and a “Trojan Horse” to quell a coming global revolt. So is corporate inclusivity to be trusted?

Rarely, too, are situations simplistic. take Starbucks, they have used legal methods to avoid tax liabilities and yet have also paid Ethiopian coffee farmers a 75% premium over market prices as corporate welfare. Fair Trade schemes may appear to benefit third world producers but in some countries they are not the most beneficial or ethical system and stringent label certification can lock out smaller producers and increase inequality.

South Africa is the largest producer of Fairtrade wine in the world and yet, even there, concerns about traditional FairTrade labelling and its insufficient benefits to workers have led to rival schemes such as Fair for Life and others that go further, offering housing, healthcare and education to employees. Stellar Organics is one such winery where it is 26% owned by the workforce and Fair for life certified.

It is both complex and simple, we can use social media to produce “The People 2.0”, informatise and organise, communitise and unionise, we have the power… make corporates recognise that, and society and governments can and will change.

[This article first appeared here]

Image Credits
Montage of Pink Dot Singapore photos 2009-2014 http://pinkdotmtl.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/2009-2011-Size-Matters.jpg
http://teryndriver.wordpress.com/2012/07/14/the-power-of-the-people-3/ unattributed image with Wael Ghonim quote added by myself
Historical NUS/University of London Union Boycott Barclays student union poster http://africanactivist.msu.edu/image.php?objectid=32-131-2B3

World Press Freedom Day – Journalism is essential to political accountability and personal liberty

May 3 is the twentieth World Press Freedom Day, a day to be celebrated, whether you like the media you read or not. Doing their job and trying to write free of political pressure or censorship has meant 200 journalists are currently imprisoned worldwide in countries like Azerbaijan, Bahrain, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Iran, Palestine, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

Freedom of the press means several things. Firstly it should be free of government influence, free to criticise in-power politicians, free to champion the causes of out-of-power ones and those who may have become political prisoners. As the recently deceased Tony Benn MP once said of democracy and those in power: “To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you?” – surely one of the tools of challenging politicians is a free Press which should go hand-in-hand with democracy. Tony Benn power democracy quote 2005 No journalism will ever be completely free of personal or political influence, therefore to be truly free, we need journalism of all flavours, passions and persuasions. From long established broadsheet papers like The London and New York Times, The Telegraph, Washington Post and Guardian, to Internet HuffPost, Wikileaks and even tabloid or so-called “gutter press” papers, and combative Radio 4 Today Programme and interrogative Paxman Newsnights – they are all necessary. If we believe in freedom of speech/writing then we cannot seek to control that based upon personal preference for a different style of news or belief on what constitutes news.

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” – Thomas Jefferson

Journalists should equally be free to write without editorial or media-owner pressure to toe a particular line. Any piece that bears their name should carry their opinion and theirs alone. They should even have input and a veto on headlines, which are so often written by others after their piece has been edited and approved. This is a part of journalistic transparency which we should be able to see in every article or story. Either in tandem with this, or in addition, there should be rules preventing monopoly and/or government ownership of the Press.

A sad but now inherent part of newspaper history was the so-called “Yellow Journalism” of the 1890s as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer II of Pullitzer Prize fame battled it out for readership, lowering the tone and truth of reporting in the process of pursuing profits over accuracy. We would now call much of this “Tabloid Press” now, though the shape and size of a paper need have no bearing on its quality of content. The “Yellow Press” has, however, still been responsible for bringing people and politicians to account, even if it can also be blamed for causing offence, ‘outing’ people – whether their sexuality, gender or infidelity, it has been cited in cases that have led to suicide – so I am not saying that the media is perfect, just that it is necessary in an open, if not for, an open society.

“Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose” – George Orwell

Whilst writing should, in principle, be free of ‘hate’ speech, libel and slander, it must, however, be free to express opinion and should only incur sanctions when breaking human rights, equality and defamation laws. A right to disagree and be disagreed with is paramount to press freedom and journalistic integrity. That said, opinion pieces should have a right to reply and/or comment with moderators being sure to only police hate speech, insult and injury, and not rights to express personal, political or religious beliefs. Noam Chomsky said that “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all”, it is freedom for all or it is censorship. “You can’t pick and choose which types of freedom you want to defend. You must defend all of it or be against all of it.”, as Scott Howard Phillips said, albeit concerning the US 2nd Amendment and right to bear arms. In John Stuart Mill’s 1859 book, On Liberty, he wrote much that holds as true today, if not more so, as 150 years ago:

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

In the Danish political drama, Borgen (Season 2 Episode 2), the female PM, Birgitte Nyborg, is encouraged by her faithful friend and gruff colleague Bent Sejrø that a clever politician gathers around themselves people who may disagree with you. Not just as part of the episode’s Sun Tzu “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer” theme but in order to create better policy. Only surrounding yourself with people who agree with you will not save you from mistakes.

World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day was declared at the end of 1993 by the UN General Assembly. It is commemorated on 3 May, the anniversary of the 1991 Declaration of Windhoek (Namibia) to promote “Independent and Pluralistic Media”. Among other principles Windhoek declared that:

  1. Consistent with article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.
  2. By an independent press, we mean a press independent from governmental, political or economic control or from control of materials and infrastructure essential for the production and dissemination of newspapers, magazines and periodicals.
  3. By a pluralistic press, we mean the end of monopolies of any kind and the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, magazines and periodicals reflecting the widest possible range of opinion within the community.

Back in 1946, the UN had declared “freedom of information” to be a “fundamental human right”. Press Freedom Day, therefore, seeks to:

  • Celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
  • Assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;
  • Defend the media from attacks on their independence;
  • Pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize

On 2 May an independent panel of media professionals declared Turkish journalist Ahmet Şik the 2014 UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize winner. An investigative reporter and exposer of human rights abuses and corruption, Şik was injured whilst covering the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul last summer.

Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom Award

On 1 May Al Jazeera English Egypt producer Mohamed Fahmy, who is currently under arrest and detention, was awarded the Canadian Press Freedom Award for a “Canadian journalist who has made an outstanding contribution to the right to freedom of expression in the face of inordinate persecution.” Fahmy had previously worked for the BBC and CNN, and wrote an account, Egyptian Freedom Story, of the Arab Spring of 2011. Fahmy has donated the $2000 prize money to the family of another journalist, Mayada Ashraf, who died whilst covering political demonstrations in Egypt last month.

Al Jazeera Journalists detained in Egypt

Journalism is not a Crime, Amnesty International #FreeAJStaffAmong the hundreds of journalists gagged, detained, or killed, worldwide, are two other Al Jazeera English staff – former BBC journalist, Australian Peter Greste, and Baher Mohamed, held in detention by Egypt for “broadcasting false news” – for “false”, whatever your opinion, read “disapproved”. In the prison where they are being held pen and paper are banned yet the power of journalistic truth and persuasion won Fahmy access to them and he was able to smuggle out a letter this week:

“I hereby appeal to the global advocates of press freedom not to hold Egypt, the country of my birth responsible for our wrongful detention. Only certain individuals in the system who lack the understanding of the fundamentals of journalism are to be held accountable. One way to reverse this misunderstanding is to start with the man next to you, and in my case that would be the illiterate prison guard convinced that by broadcasting protests in Egypt to the Western world simply makes me a traitor. His more educated disgruntled boss who has prevented me from having a pen and paper in my cell has become more lenient by time when I continuously highlighted certain values of journalism like transparency and the importance of having a watchdog to question the government that pays his salary and evaluates his performance. The metamorphosis has begun and the fact that this letter has been released from prison and published is in itself a victory to be celebrated and hopefully not the last.”

Another Al Jazeera journalist, Arabic correspondent Abdullah Elshamy, has been imprisoned without trial since last August and has now been on hunger strike for weeks and lost nearly 35kg and not received medical attention. [Update: Elshamy was released on 17 June after 10 months in prison without charge or conviction.]

Fahmy described this as a blatant “breach of human rights” and added in his letter:

“I see no better occasion than today to remind the world about the plight of these men and that there are dozens of respected, local Egyptian reporters and citizen journalists who are suffering in prison awaiting trial, they are simply prisoners of conscience.”

(See and hear the letter read out in an Al Jazeera English video) The Egyptian judge at the 3 May bail hearing wished the 3 detained Al Jazeera journalists a happy Press Freedom Day then refused bail with no sense of irony at all. At the hearing Peter Greste said for the benefit of other reporters present: “You can’t have a free society without a free press. In Egypt today you know that you can’t provide balance as long as you can end up in prison like us.”

[Update: Sadly, the 3 reporters – Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, were handed down guilty verdicts on 23 June for 7 years for spreading “false news” and supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood, charges they continue to deny and say they were only carrying out their duties as journalists and reporters. Nine other defendants tried in absentia, including three foreign journalists, received 10-year sentences, two have been acquitted. Of the twenty defendants in total nearly half are Al-Jazeera journalists. #AJTrial]

[Latest: Fahmy and Mohamed are among 100 prisoners to be released and/or pardoned today as part of Islam’s Eid al-Adha holiday and Egypt’s attempt to re-legitimise its Western standing]

Censorship

Early 20th century Ukrainian-Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov – he was born in Kiev, but moved to Moscow – managed to simultaneously both offend and please Joseph Stalin and have books and plays not only banned but also protected by him! He superbly put that a journalist without freedom is like a fish without water:

“To struggle against censorship, whatever its nature, and whatever the power under which it exists, is my duty as a writer, as are calls for freedom of the press. I am a passionate supporter of that freedom, and I consider that if any writer were to imagine that he could prove he didn’t need that freedom, then he would be like a fish affirming in public that it didn’t need water.”Mikhail Bulgakov, Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov A Life in Letters and Diaries

Voltaire

If Press freedom is like water for journalists, just as the air all of us breathe, it is not something that can be restricted. The right to free expression and opinion is a universal human right. I’ll end with the infamous non-quote by Voltaire:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This was actually said by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire, 1906. What he did say in a 1770 letter, was:

“I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

Many have given their own lives in order to report the news or their views, whether professional or “citizen journalists”, but Press freedom means supporting the freedom to express even the views we may detest or disapprove of. Press Freedom Day means reminding the powers that be that the “world will be watching” their treatment of journalists and freedom of speech.

This article was first published on Bubblews and subsequently a version was published on my Google blogger/blogspot account.