Tag Archives: United Nations

Protests continue at Chechnya Homophobia, Gay-Bisexual Torture & Killing

Chechen Gay ‘Concentration Camps’

The Chechen Republic is a Russian autonomous region that is around 95% Muslim. Reports over the last week or so have continued to come in that around 100 men suspected of homosexuality have been sent to a detention facility in Argun, and that allegedly 3 have been killed. Calling them ‘concentration camps‘ may be a reach, but as we don’t know what is going on there it may be appropriate.

Clive Lewis MP speaking at Norwich LGBT Chechnya protest
Clive Lewis MP speaking at Norwich LGBT Chechnya protest

The last few nights have seen protests in London at the Russian Embassy and around the country because of the 100 detainees. Norwich held its protest with around 50-60 attendees last night on the City Hall steps. The supporters were addressed by Norwich Pride’s Nick O’Brien, Labour MP Clive Lewis, Green’s Lesley Grahame, Katy Jon Went, Julie Bremner, Andy Futter, and Di Cunningham. (Gallery here)

Decriminalisation of homosexuality

Norwich City Hall LGBT Chechnya protest
Norwich City Hall LGBT Chechnya protest

We can keep the victims in the media eye, gain diplomatic and human rights traction by our voices, standing up for those who’ve lost their liberty because of their sexuality. This is poignant coming, as it does, on the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK.

Sadly, over 70 nations worldwide still criminalise homosexuality and male on male sex which includes bisexuality, so let’s not forget that those imprisoned and beaten, even killed, may include gay and bi men, and trans – anyone who is an affront to the macho traditional image of Mother Russia and the two major religions in its regions, the Russian Orthodox Church and Islam.

What is happening in Chechnya?

One victim described how Interior Ministry SOBR police officers:

“stripped me naked. One filmed me on his telephone. Three of them beat me. They kicked me, broke my jaw. They said that this is a gay and that there shouldn’t be defects like this in Chechnya.” 

Rounding up the “defects”, the “abnormal”, speaks of sexuality eugenics and group genocide.

These are not just rumours, the Guardian spoke to two victims who were “subjected to torture on a daily basis” and activists report this is happening in multiple towns across the region. Helplines have been set up to help LGBT people leave the country and journalists who have reported on it are also fearing for their lives after threats and considering that the rare independent voice of Novaya Gazeta has had several of its staff murdered.

We have no Gays!

Denial that is happening is part and parcel of how this kind of abuse works. Spokesman, Alvi Karimov, for Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov described the Novaya Gazeta report as “absolute lies and disinformation”, saying also that there were no gay people in Chechnya:

“You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic. If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”

According to the Guardian, Chechen television is reporting that thousands gathered at Grozny’s central mosque to pass a resolution against the “lies and libel” in the Novaya Gazeta stories – “chiefly for suggesting there are gay men in Chechnya”!

“The centuries-old traditions of Chechen society, the dignity of Chechen men, and our faith have all been insulted, and we promise that those behind it will face reprisals, whoever they are and wherever they are.” – Chechen Resolution

This is similar to during the Sochi Winter Olympics, when “The mayor of Sochi, said there are no gay people in the city.” 

Why ban what allegedly doesn’t exist?

Famous Gay or Bi Russians

Why forget and erase the history of your own great LGBT+ persons?

From Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, probably Stravinsky, the son of Rimsky Korsakov, Gogol, numerous artists, dancers like Nijinsky and Nureyev, to Ivan the Terrible with 7 straight marriages but a preference for cross-dressed men. Not to mention dozens of counts and princes of Russia’s past who were bisexual, open or closeted gay Russians.

Legal Prohibition of Homosexuality

Apart from religious condemnation of homosexuality in orthodox Christianity and Islam, I’ve encountered a secular Russian traditionalism that also condemns being LGBT on the basis that it destroys the family, the national image, and is just plain “abnormal”. 

In June 2013, Russia brought in a law banning the “propaganda of homosexuality among minors”, not unlike the UK’s Section 28, but given the street-based homophobia much more dangerous. Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act stated that councils should not “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”.

Homosexuality “in private” was decriminalised in Russia in 1993, but plenty of discrimination and prejudice remains. Actually, it was decriminalised in 1917 but re-criminalised in 1933. That’s a stark reminder that equality rights won can be lost again, just look at India and Uganda too. Russia is at least 25 years behind the UK on LGBT rights.

The law banning spreading “non-traditional” sexual propaganda to minors is so loosely worded that almost anything could be seen as illegal. Locals say they fear even holding hands or kissing in public for the risk of attracting a £100 fine or worse. Prides in Moscow (2006-2011) have been beset by homophobic violence and since 2012 banned for 100 years by Moscow courts.

Russia’s second-largest and hitherto most open city, St Petersburg, has seen a deterioration with city council members since 2012 pushing Putin to harder lines on LGBT freedoms. Marked homophobia and transphobia worsened in 2016 with LGBT persons and their supporters being hounded out of their jobs, attacked in the street, and denied civil freedoms. 

Vladimir Putin, himself, has linked homosexuality to paedophilia and stated strongly that Russia needs to “cleanse” itself of gays if it wants to increase its birth rate.  The tagging of population growth on the end of that statement in no way minimises the echoes of a homosexual holocaust that was part of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ in “cleansing” 1930s Nazi Germany of Jews, homosexuals, the disabled, and non-conformists, alike.

Chechen Laws and Attitudes

Chechen Republic, Chechnya FlagChechnya, in 1997, implemented Article 148 of the Criminal Code punishing “anal sexual intercourse between a man and a woman or a man and a man”. The punishment was caning but upon a third conviction, the death penalty by shooting, stoning or beheading. Since 1996 and repeatedly reaffirmed, Russia under pressure from the Council of Europe has had a moratorium on the death penalty despite a persistent majority of the population wanting its reinstatement. The death penalty thus remains on the books but not enacted since 1996.

In 2011, the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, is quoted as saying: 

“I have the right to criticise my wife. She doesn’t. With us [in Chechen society], a wife is a housewife. A woman should know her place. A woman should give her love to us [men]… She would be [man’s] property. And the man is the owner. Here, if a woman does not behave properly, her husband, father, and brother are responsible. According to our tradition, if a woman fools around, her family members kill her… That’s how it happens, a brother kills his sister or a husband kills his wife… As a president, I cannot allow for them to kill. So, let women not wear shorts…”

With these kinds of archaic gender stereotype attitudes is it any wonder that LGBT people are ostracised, given up, locked up, with little internal national complaint?

Freedom House included Chechnya in the “Worst of the Worst” list (2009) of most repressive societies in the world, together with Burma, North Korea, Tibet.

Toxic intolerance of Homosexuality

From the Russian Orthodox Church to Conservative Islam and extremist Islamism, religion, tradition and ideology are involved in the toxic intolerance of homosexuality in Russia and Chechnya.

We must support open-minded inclusive faith and practice, but not the closed-minded homophobia of secular and religious pronouncements and laws.

Keep Chechnya in the public eye, and don’t forget everywhere else we turn a blind eye to, like Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Uganda and the other 70+ nations that deny human rights to LGBTI people.

LGBT Concentration Camps Chechnya protest
LGBT Concentration Camps Chechnya protes

International Migrants Day 2016, Syria & the World’s Refugee Crisis

International Migrants Day 2016

December 18 is International Migrants Day, falling in the middle of yet another broken ceasefire in Aleppo, Syria. The combination of 4.5 million refugees and 6.5 million internally displaced people means that half of Syria‘s 22m population are technically migrants, making it the biggest humanitarian refugee crisis and migration exodus since the Nazi era. Half-a-million have been killed in the civil war/uprising and there are few signs of an end in sight.

Dignity for all migrants

Two years ago, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon said in hope:

“On International Migrants Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to shape diverse and open societies that provide opportunities and lives of dignity for all migrants.” – Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 2014

Two years later and the outgoing Secretary General, at his last press conference, sounded a depressing note, describing:

“the carnage in Syria” as “a gaping hole in the global conscience” and Aleppo as “a synonym for hell”. “We have collectively failed the people of Syria. Peace will only prevail when it is accompanied by compassion, justice and accountability for the abominable crimes we have seen.” – Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 2016

Crisis, Displacement, Migration…Relief, Asylum, Refuge

Over a quarter-of-a-billion of the world’s population are migrants – people who have changed country because of war, disaster or famine, and the poverty or threat to life brought on by them. Globalisation and the resultant increased geographical mobility, not to mention trafficking and exploitation mean that some nations have seen 8-fold increases in net migration since the 1990s. If we recognise our international origins many more of us, if not all of us, are migrants too. 

If we recognise our international origins many more of us, if not all of us, are migrants too. Who is truly British or English when we are part Roman, part Saxon, part Viking, part Norman, part Dutch and many more besides.

Refugees from “forced displacement” recorded worldwide in 2015 numbered over 65 million according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. That’s nearly 1% of the world currently homeless, nationless, fleeing wars, terror, persecution and the slow death and disease of refugee poverty from relying on handouts and the generosity of others, NGOs, international aid and agencies.

Around 53,000 migrants have died since 2000 just attempting to reach the shores of more free, safe, developed nations, over half trying to get to Europe – some 6,000+ each year, most recently. Hundreds die every year attempting to enter America, similarly with Australia. Even if they make it, hundreds of thousands end up detained (350,000pa in the US) and returned, or imprisoned. 

Sadly, the escalation of migrant deaths means that on average 20 die each day, with 2016 the worst on record at 7,200 deaths with 2 weeks left to run. It represents a 50% increase since 2014 which itself was double the figure for 2013. Some 4,800 deaths in the Meditteranean also represent a 33% increase over 2015, despite a 60% reduction in arrivals to Europe’s southern coasts. 

Migrant Arrivals and Deaths Mediterranean 2016
Migrant Arrivals and Deaths Mediterranean 2016

Back in 1990, on 18 December, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. In 1997, some Asian migrant organisations began to commemorate 18 December as the International Day of Solidarity with Migrants. In 2000, the UN proclaimed that date, henceforward, to be International Migrants Day.

In remarks to the UN, in October 2013, Ban Ki-moon said:

“Migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family.” 

Resolutions but no Resolution

At a high-level meeting on migration at the United Nations in New York, 3-4 October 2014, Member States unanimously adopted a Declaration calling for “respect of human rights and international labour standards”, “commitment to fight human trafficking” and strongly condemning “manifestations of racism and intolerance.” 

The declaration set out to “Strongly condemn the acts, manifestations and expressions of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance against migrants and the stereotypes often applied to them, including on the basis of religion or belief.”

The need to “improve public perceptions of migrants and migration” was also stressed.

It further recognised, in the same declaration document, that “human mobility is a key factor for sustainable development”, something which many immigration reactive nations are seeking to restrict. 

In 2016, September 19, the UN General Assembly held its first ever summit on large movements of refugees and migrants to enhance their protections. The resultant commitments, known as the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (NY Declaration), reaffirm present international protections and pave the way for forthcoming new global compacts in 2018.

Political Breaking Point

Breaking Point World Refugee Day Refugees Are Welcome
Breaking Point – World Refugee Day – Refugees Are Welcome

In the UK, all the main parties bar the Greens at the last election in 2015 were in a race to the bottom to prevent economic migration, restrict benefits for 2-4 years, and tighten borders – despite the economic case for immigration. The EU Referendum in June 2016 saw migrant peoples both demonised and topping some people’s fears and reasons for voting. In the US, the Republicans and Donald Trump have lionised migrants and Muslims especially. Meanwhile, the city of New York, with its large immigrant communities has vowed to oppose any anti-migrant or Muslim registers or laws.

An issue for the world

It is not just Europe and America that are primary destinations, though. For instance, in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates is made up of about 84% immigrants – millions from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, among others. The population has grown by some 500% since 1990. Some of the UAE migrant workers end up being “beaten, exploited and trapped into forced labour, according to an October 2014 report by Human Rights Watch.” 

Migrant workers have also suffered greatly in Qatar during the building work of the 2022 World Cup football stadium with the tacit sanction of UEFA whilst it turns a blind eye to the poor human rights record on its immigrant workforce.

Amnesty International‘s Head of Refugee and Migrants Rights says:

“Political decision-makers need to show leadership by ensuring the human rights of migrants are protected, instead of taking cheap shots through scaremongering tactics. Poor migrants are the perfect political scapegoats – they have no money, no influence and they can’t vote. So if you’re a government whose policies are letting people down, you can blame it all on immigration.” – Amnesty International

Allowing and welcoming immigration is part of international development, yet we prefer to give aid and then say, “stay away”, cementing our “me first” attitudes and protectionist economic policies that are counter free market and prevent natural third world development. The longer we artificially maintain the global haves vs have-nots the more we encourage “desperation migration”. We need generous global action on poverty and economic opportunity, not selfish states. Anyone willing to risk life and limb to reach your borders is probably the kind of driven committed person who would be an asset to your country, community, and workforce.

Don't Bomb Syria Rally, Norwich, 28 November 2015 photo by Katy Jon Went
“Refugees Welcome” Don’t Bomb Syria Rally, Norwich, 28 November 2015

 

Human Rights & Writes on World Poetry Day; And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

World Poetry Day and Human Rights

A day of beauty and soul, World Poetry Day, falls on the same day as the South Africa’s Human Rights Day, which remembers the fight against Apartheid and particularly the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of 69 black South African demonstrators and further killing of another 21 on the 25th anniversary of that day in 1985. It also became the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1966 and today still says, “We need to fight racism everywhere, every day”. It is fitting that we celebrate human writes and rights together. Whether it’s the campaigning of organisations like the United Nations and Amnesty International, or the placards of activists, or poems of voices of discontent and history, we cannot be silent to ongoing racism, its history, and its continued scourge.

Yes we need action more than just words, but 15 years ago, at a World Conference Against Racism in South Africa, the Durban Declaration sought to combine words with action:

“People of African descent have for centuries been victims of racism, racial discrimination and enslavement and of the denial by history of many of their rights… they should be treated with fairness and respect for their dignity and should not suffer discrimination of any kind.”Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, 2001

Sadly, in 2016, we are little further forward according to several human rights experts:

“Fifteen years after the Durban Conference very little progress has been made in tackling racism, afrophobia, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

Maya Angelou – be part of “the possible”

Maya AngelouMaya Angelou died in 2014 but 45 years before that, in a decade of American civil rights activism, she wrote the first of her autobiographical books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). The book describes her early years including racism, and a rape which led to a traumatised silence for 6 years, it goes on to document her rise from child victim to young woman, mother and adult voice.

“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom”

She has become renowned as a woman full of inspiration, and love not hate, reminding us how to be better humans through her best-loved poems which she would write from a motel with, nearby, “a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room”.

Watch Maya Angelou read her poem A Brave and Startling Truth which she wrote for the United Nations 50th anniversary in 1995, here is a section of it:

We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness …

… We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world

It would be great if we, “the possible, the miraculous, the true wonder of this world”, would stop hating and discriminating.

Maya Angelou – Still I Rise

In Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise”, are the words: “Out of the huts of history’s shame”. She’s said before, the truth is that:

“A person who does not have a clue to his or her history stands a very poor chance of mapping out a future.” – Maya Angelou interview (1m40s)

She was not one to be cowed or subjugated, instead, she found her voice and gave hope to others.

The full text of her poem, “Still I Rise”:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise

Maya Angelou 1974
Maya Angelou, 1974

Be amazing, A rainbow in someone else’s cloud

Maya Angelou also said, echoing a similar sentiment of Albert Camus:

“If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”

Perhaps, we could also paraphrase that, if you are always following the crowd, buying into cheap national and racial stereotypes you will never discover not only how amazing you could be but also how amazing others are, irrespective of the colour of their skin or some other characteristic of difference. “Human beings are more alike than unalike”, she has said.

“The thing to do, it seems to me, is to
prepare yourself so you can be a
rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.
Somebody who may not look like you.
May not call God the same name you
call God – if they call God at all. I may
not dance your dances or speak your
language. But be a blessing to somebody.”
– Maya Angelou

She wasn’t all “turn the other cheek” love, she also saw humour as a defence, and since “life’s a bitch”, the need to “go out and kick ass”.

UN International Day of Happiness – its pursuit as a human right or goal

United Nations International Day of Happiness

Firstly, I did not know there was a UN resolution for me to be happy today on the International Day of Happiness, nor that there was an International Society of Happiness Professionals! Perhaps their job is to help me pursue it, attaining it is another matter, a goal, not a right. However, in a UN Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 28 June 2012 it decreed:

“Recalling its resolution 65/309 of 19 July 2011, which invites Member States to pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and well-being in development with a view to guiding their public policies, conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal, recognizing the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives, recognizing also the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples, decides to proclaim 20 March the International Day of Happiness!” – United Nations

The Pursuit of Happiness

But as Benjamin Franklin once said, “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” Although some would argue that the more you pursue it, the more it runs from you – I’m inclined to agree. It’s a state of being not chasing. Whatever the American Declaration of Independence granted “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as an inalienable right, pursuit is no guarantee of capture:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” – American Declaration of Independence

Revolution to bring about change, overturn a government, to better “effect…safety and happiness” now that’s radical!

The 17th century English philosopher and liberal John Locke, said to have influenced the US Constitution, wrote in his ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding‘ that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness”.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said:

“The pursuit of happiness lies at the core of human endeavors. People around the world aspire to lead happy and fulfilling lives free from fear and want.”

Does pursuing happiness annoyingly aid its very escape, making it elusive rather than an elementary state that can be taught and caught?

Happiness – All in the Mind?

Yes, we would all like lives free from fear and want, but in this world, is that any time soon? Or can we follow the optimists and Abe Lincoln and think ourselves happy, despite outward circumstances:

“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” – Abraham Lincoln

Will a positive outlook overcome those fears and wants? It certainly won’t feed us, unless we believe in some kind of positive law of attraction that by being happy we will attract to ourselves good things.

Is it as simple as clicking on www.wikihow.com/Be-Happy and following the simple steps for “How to Be Happy”? I certainly wouldn’t suggest it to anyone who has suffered from depression as I have, yet paradoxically, I have also felt an inner happiness even amidst the powerlessness and chemical low of depression. So is happiness about acceptance, contentment – even in poverty, insecurity, and challenges to mental wellbeing?

“in my darkest depression and suicidal, I, also, ceased being an optimist. Indeed, as someone who suffers from a bipolar disorder…it is all I can do to stay on top of my mood swings, and near impossible to influence them, just manage them. I do believe that, at times, one can think oneself happy – or content, at least, despite the surrounding circumstances. For, whatever may be done to the body, the mind is our last refuge and sometimes the greatest place of anxiety and attack. Yet, if we can calm that, then we may find peace amidst the storm, and internal/eternal sunshine in the darkest winter.”

Wealth and/or Happiness?

Studies suggest that a certain minimum level of wealth aids happiness but wears off with future income increments (hedonic adaptation) and lottery wins do not a happy person make. Indeed, with both wealth and poverty comes worry, worry you’ll never have it and worry you might lose it. To have money without worry would be nice. Whether you are rich or poor, being compassionate and generous can make one happier and the poor often give more than the rich, proportionately.

“Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.“, according to psychology professor Norbert Schwarz.  Similarly, “differences in reported sleep quality are associated with a very large difference in reported enjoyment during episodes at home.” – Having been both in chronic eviction-worthy debt and suffered for 44 years from insomnia, clearly I was not worried about money at 5 but I was at 45. I’m still an insomniac, but $60k might reduce anxiety further.

Just be Grateful

It is commonly suggested that being grateful can help, it puts things in perspective, and allows you to focus on the positive amidst the doom and gloom, and may lift you and turn your vision outwards and upwards. All happiness and depression can be relative. Relative to another’s better or worse condition. But the words are just words and often of little comfort when told at least you have your health, when your lack of wealth means you are fighting off debt collectors or losing your job or relationship. Indeed, your health may ungratefully quickly follow the loss of other things.

Be Yourself

Albert Camus said, “To be happy we must not be too concerned with others”, constant comparison, pressure to conform, following the crowd, keeping up with the Joneses. Being yourself takes less energy and improves your sense of happiness.

“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” – Albert Camus

Can Happiness be Measured in an Index?

Today may be the International Day of Happiness but the reality of that is hugely personal, cannot be dictated from on high, whether by religion or politics – the UK government even attempts to measure a happiness index but there are many ways to measure it. Whilst it cannot, to my mind, be enumerated, feeling and experiencing it, are of immeasurable worth.

International Women’s Day 2016, another 100 years wait for gender equality?

International Women’s Day 2016 Theme

United States Woman Suffrage
United States: Calls for Women’s Suffrage

The theme for the still necessary International Women’s Day (IWD) this year is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality“, or more simply, gender parity. An IWD was called for as long ago as 1910 by Clara Zetkin and 100 women from 17 countries at a conference in Denmark. It was celebrated for the first time in 1911 and by 1913 it was recognised in many places, including Russia, the same year it moved to its current date of 8 March. In 1908, 15,000 women demonstrated in New York for equal rights, and in 1909 held the first National Woman’s Day. Yet after more than a century, by some accounts, we are still at least a 100 years away from equality:

“The World Economic Forum predicted in 2014 that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. Then one year later in 2015, they estimated that a slowdown in the already glacial pace of progress meant the gender gap wouldn’t close entirely until 2133.” – International Women’s Day

8 March 2005 International Womens Day rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh Trade Union Kendra - Photo by Soman, Wiki
8 March 2005 International Womens Day rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh Trade Union Kendra – Photo by Soman, Wiki

Recalling last year’s theme of “Make it Happen” and this year’s “Pledge for Parity” it seems we are still struggling to accelerate progress and in some instances we are slowing down.

Meanwhile UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argued in a statement on IWD for positivity because of past change:

“We have shattered so many glass ceilings we created a carpet of shards. Now we are sweeping away the assumptions and bias of the past so women can advance across new frontiers” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Great, but progress is still slow, hardly “sweeping away”, and those campaigning for change don’t want to wait another 100 years for parity in education, employment, democracy, legal rights, sport, representation in the media etc.

Women in Education

A timeline of women’s history – or rather some choice and interesting examples, as it does little justice to many forgotten women – includes Mexico’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz who in 1691 fought for women’s education, saying:

“one can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper.”

Malala Yousafzai Bring Back Our Girls
Malala Yousafzai #BringBackOurGirls

We wouldn’t even accept that comment now, 400 years later, regarding it as sexist to assume that she should be the one to be cooking the supper. Yet education parity hasn’t arrived either with 50% more boys than girls in school in sub-Saharan Africa and the well-publicised situation in NW Pakistan brought to the fore by the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in 2012. Men are twice as likely to be literate as women in Pakistan and there are three times as many schools for boys as those for girls with twice as many male places.

Money Talks

Frida Kahlo and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz on Mexican currency notes
Frida Kahlo and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz on Mexican currency notes

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz ended up on Mexico’s currency, as does Frida Kahlo on another peso note, and we all know that money talks, yet barely a dozen nations have historical female figures on their national printed currency.

Even Syria, much in the news, has third century Queen Zenobia on a high value note. The Ukrainian 200 Hryvnia note features women’s rights activist Larysa Petrivna Kosach-Kvitka (Lesya Ukrainka), a writer and poet who died in 1913. Israel and Turkey also have female figures on current or planned notes, whilst Argentina has Eva Perón.

The UK has its female head of state on the front of every note and on the reverse of others Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, and soon, Jane Austen will be added to their number. The United States will only have a woman on its banknotes in 2020.

Unpaid and Low Paid Working Women

The UN 2015 Human Development Report which monitors the gender-related aspects of empowerment (GEM) and development (GDI) says that whilst 47% of women are in paid employment and 72% of men, they nonetheless contribute 52% of global hours worked to men’s 42%, indicating high rates of unpaid labour. Socio-cultural reasons for this and expectation within marriage and motherhood, explain some of this, but women are still often expected to do more for less.

UNDP Infographic Progress in gender equality
UNDP Infographic Progress in gender equality

A UNDP infographic shows how we are approaching parity in education, but that workforce equality and executive jobs are lagging behind, and whilst female representation in parliaments is growing, ministerial positions for women are still rare. The blue polygon represents the aims of parity on 5 axes. The green is where we are at, and the orange where we were two decades ago in 1995. Even in the UK there are more male MPs now than the total number of female MPs ever.

Sexual Violence

Far from ending sexual violence after more than a century of IWD activism, in some places it seems to be on the rise. In areas controlled by Islamic State (ISIL) and similar groups like Boko Haram or Al Shabaab, sex-based violence is used as part of military control and conquest. Forced marriage, gang rape, mutilations and punishments are all carried out in the name of jihadist terror.

No such thing as a Safe Space for Women?

A far cry from Africa and the Middle East lie the streets of Britain on an average Friday night or even the office workplace, on any given day. Sexism at work, inappropriate banter or touching, still occur – 30% of British men admit to being sexist. The risk of being groped by a stranger in public for a young woman is nearly 1-in-2 with a majority wishing members of the public had intervened to stop it happening. The End Violence Against Women campaign report that 85% of women-under-25 had received unwanted sexualised attention and 45% sexual touching, in public. Nine times out of ten, nobody helps.

Woman in Sport

A Women in Football survey of women working in the sport reported that 2-in-3 women were the butt of sexist jokes and comments, 1-in-4 were bullied and 1-in-6 experienced actual sexual harassment. These figures are a rise on the last survey, 2 years ago. Perhaps, this could be accounted for by improved reporting and confidence to complain, or it could actually be getting worse.

Feminism is for all Women

Women attacking women is not unknown either, whether workplace bullying, school gangs, or policing each other’s feminism. Feminisms, rather, for a great range of feminist labels and ideologies now exist and needlessly attack each other rather than the societal systems that oppress them. Some avoid the term feminist altogether in protest, but when asked what they believe in, the basic principles of feminism are still held up. Namely, equal economic, personal, political, and social rights for women.

Feminism is for Men too

Whether you’re a feminist or an egalitarian, equality is what matters. Indeed, there is also an International Men’s Day, on 19 November during ‘Movember’ month. Joining in bringing disadvantaged women up to the opportunities, levels and ceilings, currently experienced by most men, brings equality and benefit for all. That is why we need International Women’s Day and campaigns against gender disparity in places where the scales of power are tipped in favour of patriarchal and often religious, political and economic establishment privilege. Men’s Day is a time to focus on their health and other disadvantages, but today in Women’s History Month is a day to focus on girls and women.

Human Rights Day: Righting Human Wrongs, Write for Human Rights

Human Rights Day – Universal Declaration of Human Rights

International Human Rights Day celebrates 67 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a precursor to the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK’s own, in peril, Human Rights Act. In the aftermath of the Second World War, on December 10, 1948, The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Universal was the hope and aspiration of the world’s most translated document, into some 300 languages. The application and implementation, however, remains inconsistent. Many leading nations treat it as a pick-n-mix document, usually ignoring the principles against torture or discrimination on grounds of sex or sexuality.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948

“Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,…” – UDHR preamble

European Convention on Human Rights

In 1950 the Council of Europe’s initial 10 members including the UK drafted the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and brought it into force in 1953 for its 14 early member states, now 47 including Russia which joined in 1996. Vatican City is a notable exception to its agreement. Whilst Russia has signed it, like Azerbaijan it has not agreed to Protocol 13 – the complete abolition of the death penalty.

Article 14 is wide reaching in prohibiting and protecting against discrimination based on “sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status” –  the latter has now been taken to include sexual orientation.

Article 12, however, provides a heterosexual right to marry and have a family, which has legal precedent for including transsexuals under their post-operative gender status, but not for same-sex couples. See Rees v United Kingdom (1985/6), Cossey v UK (1990) and Goodwin v UK (1995-97).

UK Human Rights Act

The 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA) became law in 2000 in order to integrate the ECHR into UK national law to avoid people having to go to Europe to obtain recognition of their human rights as described and protected in the convention.

Human Writes BIHR Newsletter
Human Writes, issue 1, BIHR

Human Rights are more extensive than the protected characteristics outlined under the 2010 Equality Act. We are all human so all protected. That is why it is essential the HRA remain enshrined in law and is not watered down into a British Bill of Rights, because it goes beyond the Equality Act.

Today the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) launched its Human Writes, issue 1 calling on “People Power” to “protect what protects us all, our Human Rights Act”. That means writing to MPs and being vocal about human rights issues and laws both here and abroad.

Amnesty International Write for Rights
Amnesty International Write for Rights

Since 2009 and indeed earlier, Amnesty International has run its Write for Rights #Write4Rights letter writing campaign. Activists in more than 200 countries and territories write millions of letters, emails, tweets and petitions to those in authority and to the human victims of human rights abuses.

“Across the world, governments are afraid of people power and are cracking down on dissent. And that’s why we need to stand with people who are risking everything to speak out…Our words are powerful. We need to use that power to push for change, now.” – Amnesty International

 

Human Rights Day letter, Today, The Times
Human Rights Day letter, Today, The Times

BIHR also ran a full page advert/letter in the The Times signed by 157 organisations supporting the retention of the HRA. It notes that the UDHR is an:

“international Magna Carta for all humanity [that] has inspired so much, including our own Human Rights Act.”

The letter calls on Britain’s political leaders to;

“stand with the Human Rights Act recognising it is the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made law here at home.”

Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam

Some 45 Islamic nations have signed the alternative 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI), more in accordance with Sharia law, and notably omitting rights based upon sexuality, gender, religious conversion or protecting against FGM. The freedoms that do exist are subject to “not being contrary to the principles of the Shariah”, as such there is no freedom of religion other than Islam. Article 24 states: “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia.” Article 19 sounds like it protects against going beyond Sharia law – an already harsh system: “There shall be no crime or punishment except as provided for in the Sharia.”

The Arab Charter on Human Rights (ACHR) tries to incorporate the UDHR and CDHRI. It was written in 1994 but even by 2008 only 7 states had adopted it, 13 by 2013 including Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights Violations

In a mammoth opinion piece in the Guardian Eric Posner has suggested that international Human Rights laws are failing for being too general and being ignored by several leading democracies despite their theoretical protections pan-nationally against authoritarian states.

“it seems that the human rights agenda has fallen on hard times. In much of the Islamic world, women lack equality, religious dissenters are persecuted and political freedoms are curtailed. The Chinese model of development, which combines political repression and economic liberalism, has attracted numerous admirers in the developing world. Political authoritarianism has gained ground in Russia, Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela. Backlashes against LGBT rights have taken place in countries as diverse as Russia and Nigeria. The traditional champions of human rights – Europe and the United States – have floundered.”

Peace, education, sex/gender equality, LGBTI rights, slavery, no discrimination based upon race, colour, nationality, freedom of speech and the press, the right to bodily integrity for all, irrespective of gender or age, are but some of the rights that 67 years later are not yet universal despite the Universal Declaration.

As the Swedish politician Anna Lindh has remarked:

“Human rights are praised more than ever – and violated as much as ever.”

Today is a day to reduce those violations, and call more people and nations to account over them, and make sure the rights that do exist are known about and extended to those that may not know their rights or have the wherewithal to claim them.

International Day of Happiness, Last Day of Winter, First of Spring

Today is the International Day of Happiness and the last day of Winter. As far as I am concerned Spring has been under way for some time with the delightful daffodils and rays of Spring sunshine daily illuminating the view from my window into the woodland beyond.

Solar Eclipse and Spring Equinox

Happiness Sun Leaping for Joy
Woman Leaping for Joy at Sunset (Pixabay)

It’s been a rare day that has seen a solar eclipse coincide with the evening of the March equinox. An equi-nox, from the Latin, marks the moments in the year when the length of night is equal to that of daylight. It has long been considered a time of rebirth, fertility, and association with nature’s natural cycles.

Moods like the weather!

I’m not sure if feeling happy today is compulsory or not for the pessimistic glumguts out there. That said, when I was in my darkest depression and suicidal, I, also, ceased being an optimist. Indeed, as someone who suffers from a bipolar disorder – cyclothymia, it is all I can do to stay on top of my mood swings, and near impossible to influence them, just manage them. If anything, my moods are like the weather, sometimes clouding over, or then all of a sudden the sun breaks out, and then it pisses it down! Rapid cycling change.

Think Yourself Happy?

I do believe that, at times, one can think oneself happy – or content, at least, despite the surrounding circumstances. For, whatever may be done to the body, the mind is our last refuge and sometimes the greatest place of anxiety and attack. Yet, if we can calm that, then we may find peace amidst the storm, and internal sunshine in the darkest winter.

Earlier this week, I gave a talk and presentation on torture – not the happiest of subjects, for Amnesty International at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and the words of Gandhi that I quoted are still both a challenge and an inspiration:

“You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Things outside our control – Powerlessness

When we can’t control the weather – as with the disappointing solar eclipse today occluded by clouds, or our finances, someone else’s love, or our government ministers – when democracy seems to have failed us, what is left that we can control? Where can we find comfort or hope, when we feel powerless? Is depression, which can affect 1-in-4 of us, something we can in any way lift ourselves out of?

Depression is not a choice!

I remember, all to well, the well-meaning suggestions “to get out more”, “do some exercise”, “get out of bed”, “get some sunshine in your life” given to me when I was suffering excruciating depressive lows and suicide attempts. The advice was not well received, when one feels the weight of the black dog suffocating your very breath.

Shifting the circumstances and chemicals that affect depression is hard enough when well, nigh on impossible when ill. Yet, I do believe that, to some extent, we can think ourselves well, improve our state of mind and body. But I am not saying that it is easy or guaranteed.

For me, I had to come off anti-depressants to even try it, and that is not something I would medically advise, nor am I in a position to. My path is my path. It unleashed in me, instead, a bipolar rollercoaster, which has become more manageable through daily awareness and diarying, in which I feel both more alive and yet when I have lows, at least more conscious of the possibility and experience of change. Every day feels like a new day, at last, it could go up, it could go down, but at least it could go somewhere!

The Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer, by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, has been used by many to help distinguish between things we can change and those outside of our control:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”

I’m a bit stubborn at the accepting of that which I cannot change and like to think in mental messianic terms of being able to do anything. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes I can shift my thinking and mood, or at least my attitude to it.

Happiness as a National Growth Goal

United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has stated that the world:

“needs a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being…Together they define gross global happiness.”

Takshang Bhutan Buddhist Monastery
Takshang Bhutan Buddhist Monastery (Pixabay)

Since the early 1970s, one country – Bhutan, has recognised happiness as a goal over and above national income and actually adopted the goal of Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product.

Here in the UK, we have a an HPI (Happy Planet Index) score of 47.9 and rank #41 of all the countries surveyed. Our wellbeing score of 7 is actually ranked #19 of 151 countries but we are let down by our poor ecological footprint on the earth.

Over the years we are apparently getting happier, living longer, yet also remain anxious. Not surprising, in these austerity times, and I deeply suspect the UK measures of wellbeing.

In a UN General Assembly resolution of 12 July 2012,  the following 20 March 2013, and each year since, has been proclaimed The International Day of Happiness. This was in order to draw attention to the relevance of:

“happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.”

“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are a well-known objective and unalienable right in the United States Declaration of Independence. Sadly, we are only guaranteed the freedom to pursue happiness, no one can give it to us, they can certainly reduce the factors that make us unhappy – health, wealth, peace, among others, but at the end of the day, happiness can at best come from ourselves.

A Spring boost to the system

As a boost to the chemical enjoyment of something akin to happiness, we can of course enjoy more hugs and the oxytocin they release, and draw some Vitamin D from the increasing daily sunlight. Certainly, I feel an enormous improvement to well-being after some light gardening and having the sun beat down upon my back.

I spent my day, in the end, weeding, cleaning up around the already fast growing rhubarb, discovering some small over-wintered potatoes in the ground, and taking great pride and pleasure in how the warmth has pushed the asparagus above the surface already.

Photographic joy

Winter Snowdrop
Winter Snowdrop

It was also an opportunity to have some fun with a new lens adapter which enables my old 1978 50mm f/1.2 Minolta MD Rokkor-X lens to work on modern digital bodies (effectively a 75mm portrait lens on digital). The old lens is superb, and been described as producing a “complete bokeh creamy-mosh” i.e., a lovely aesthetic softness to the out of focus zone just beyond the shallow depth of field sharpness when the lens is wide open. Boke is a Japanese word meaning blur or haze.

The lens is still worth £300+ because of the aperture brightness, and it would have been a waste not to find a way to reuse it – I used to use it for low light rock photography in black and white 30 years ago. Aperture priority and manual only but hey it feels like old school photography again, just without the expense of film and with all the immediacy of digital results.

Spring Wealth and Happiness in a Daffodil

 Early Spring Narcissus Daffodil, a symbol of happiness
Early Spring Narcissus Daffodil

Daffodils of many varieties are out in my garden and surrounding woodland. They are said to symbolize rebirth, new beginnings, and are pretty much the first Spring flower. Whilst I’ve always seen the humble snowdrop as a winter plant, to me it marks the halfway point of winter and the daffodil (narcissus or jonquil) as denoting the end of winter. In Wales, China, and as gifts, daffodils – in a bunch, are said to be harbingers of wealth and happiness.

Happiness can be simple

Happiness can be found every day, in the simple things, the asparagus and photography, weeding and sunlit warmth, the cats playing in the garden. They may not cure a low mood, or persistent depression, or solve financial stress, or bring about world peace, but in the present moment, they are to be enjoyed for what they are, and may bring a temporary boost – and I’ll take as many successive boosts as I can get!

(An earlier version of this was first published on Bubblews)

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

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.