I wish I’d never seen Babak Dashab

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I wrote this because I found myself reminiscing about why we should always blur faces in videos and photographs from protests inside Iran and any similar totalitarian regimes where the slightest sign of dissent – real or imagined – has serious, often life-threatening implications.

Reunited

Babak (Rajabali) Dashab, arrested in December 2009 and sentenced to 6 years, after being identified from video showing him burning a log during an Ashura protest, has been freed from prison in Iran after serving a reduced 3 year sentence. Three years for making a bonfire. Look at his son. Three years is a lifetime to a child of his age.

We are responsible

Before the “Arab Spring” there was the equally exhilarating “Green Wave”. Social media was our new playground; we were transformed from no-life couch-potato geeks to “citizen journalists”. The buzz of finding and sharing news about massive street protests in an increasingly paranoid and isolated country like Iran was intoxicating. Iran kicked out the foreign press. “We are the Media!” became our battle cry.

On reflection it could just as easily have been “We Are Rank Amateurs!” or “We Are Gullible Idiots!”. Most of the time news was shared regardless of source. Some of us tried to “police” the torrent, but it was largely a losing battle against an ever-rising tide of misinformation and disinformation. Photos and videos were gobbled up by an insatiable appetite for “online activism”. We were going to post our way to freedom for Iran and poke CNN et al in the eye on our way up. In those days, the “media” were slow-witted and partisan, YouTube a petty censor. Our videos were removed on a whim, so we learned to copy, clone, remix, save, re-post, find new hosting venues. In so doing, we spawned thousands upon thousands of photos and videos.

This addiction to quantity without regard for quality or fact-checking quickly revealed its dark inner core. The risks to protesters of being arrested increased exponentially because of the photos and videos we were sharing. The regime countered this green wave of social media evidence of the unrest in Iran, and turned the green tide against the green movement. Images became evidence of crimes against the state. Evidence of terrorist acts. Evidence of insulting the Supreme Leader of the glorious revolution.

My reaction was horrified guilt. I had done this. I had shared without realising what could happen as a result of my actions, and now I was an unwitting accomplice in the arrest and torture of thousands of people. I had to do something, to redeem myself, to assuage the guilt, to convert the remorse into positive action. I started trying to raise awareness of this risk, and to demand that faces in videos be blurred, which is how I found  WITNESS – a fantastic team, they firmly hoisted that banner and ran with it. I credit them with getting YouTube to add a feature which will automatically try to find and blur all faces in a video.

But..

I recall being asked by someone what they should do if they didn’t know how to blur faces? The simple answer is: ask the original poster to do it or get someone else to do it. If you can’t do that, then do nothing, don’t share. That person felt this was infeasible: they they were compelled to share, because it was so important to show “the world” what was happening in Iran. To this response, I asked: who is there to take photographs of what happens to people you helped to identify after they are arrested?

The other, more common and weakest of all excuses is that the image is “already out there”. So is AIDS – does that mean everyone should have unprotected sex? We should regard blurring faces as a prophylactic to protect against the lethal disease of brutal repression.

It’s not easy

Instinct takes over and before you know where you are, you’ve clicked! Because it only takes a click.. so really,the blurring needs to spread to the original content posters, our “enablers”. This needs massive, sustained loft to become an enduring, instinctive habit.

Apart from those misguided souls who are so fixated on their popularity that they would rather count likes and re-tweets of the content they post than actually help prevent innocent protesters from being targeted, there is also a subtle pressure from the social networks to share visuals. Just look at the “success” of the meaningless and crappy Instagram. Photos and videos are the media of social media content – which is far more interesting if it includes visuals. There are financial pressures on developers: more interesting content is an advantage in promoting social media platforms to advertisers and investors. But is it essential: surely you’ve heard about events that did not include images, but which nevertheless are broadcast wholesale by established media? The first examples that come to mind are President Obama declaring that he would not release images of  “the killing of Osama Bin Laden” and the alleged stoning of a young couple in Mali in July 2012. Not only were there no photos or videos of the reported stoning, it’s unlikely that any exist. Yet you will see these “facts” repeated ad nauseum in established media.

The reality about what gets covered in the press belies the worn-out excuses: traditional media outlets prefer to have images but they do publish controversial news without evidence, and they do accept these stories from citizen reporters or people claiming to be witnesses.

It is never too late to do the right thing

Go blurry:

How to Blur Faces in Photos Using GIMP free image editing software

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AL49Ox-zetA]
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Thousands at #Mauritania sit-in attacked and dispersed by police

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Photo: Mauritanie Demain

Mauritania’s first mass sit-in arranged by the coordinated opposition parties, activist and community groups following the successful mass march and rally on Wednesday was violently dispersed by combined security forces at 3am on 3 May 2012. After cutting off electricity and barricading the area around the sit-in with road blocks and a convoy of about 30 vehicles, a barrage of tear gas, sound grenades and water cannon rained down on the camp.

Police then attacked and beat protesters as they tried to escape. Scores of people were injured and dozens arrested in clashes that continued for over two hours. The injured included the leader of one of the opposition parties; the director of another opposition leader, Ould Daddah’s office; independent radio journalists;  a pregnant woman who was overcome by tear gas and developed severe breathing diffculties; and a youth with internal bleeding. The police confiscated bedding, electronics, and provisions from the camp site, and were later seen dividing up the food and drink between themselves. Whatever police couldn’t remove easily – such as tables, chairs and toilet facilities – they destroyed.

There are reports that president Aziz and a security detail of the presidential guard were spotted in the vicinity while the attacks were in progress, indicating that he was personally supervising the raid. The Council of Ministers met at the presidential palace later this morning, while police launched a fresh attack on the university, arresting several students. After the Council meeting, there was no mention in the official statement regarding the massive protest or the attack.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6_Xb5RnyTM]

Update: Seems AlJazeera’s crew were on hand and filmed the attack

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbUGNRi4Wck]

Iran: IRGC Roof Raiders Scrap Satellite Dishes

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As the images below show, several dozen people in Tehran have had their satellite dishes and receivers confiscated recently. I can’t afford satellite TV myself, so I have no feelings about this one way or the other, but I am sure some people will be demonstrating outrage over these raids. In fact it is not only a form of censorship, it is also a domestic sanction against foreign TV communication. No one in Iran can possibly pretend they don’t know it is illegal to use satellite TV, so there won’t be any legal complaints or civil court cases from the home-owners. However, the regime has been known to use possession of satellite TV equipment to persecute political and civil activists, as a way of increasing the range and number of charges against them.

گزارش تصویری/ اجرای طرح امنیت اجتماعی در شرق استان تهران
در طرح ارتقا امنیت اجتماعی که ظهر امروز در شرق استان تهران اجرا شد ماموران نیروهای انتظامی اقدام به جمع آوری تجهیزات دریافت ماهواره کردند.

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Banned Valentines

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Iran's Valentine Ban

Iran's Valentine Ban

My son asked me if I was planning anything special for Valentine’s Day … ! Not for the reasons you or I might expect: I was definitely relieved after he explained, had been searching background information on Iran, and saw that they outlawed this day as one of many decadent Western traditions to be avoided at all costs. I told him about Mousavi and Karoubi, their wives and families, and the stifled attempt to call for a protest on 25 Bahman, which was Valentine’s Day last year. And I shared my resigned expectation that the only crowds on Iran’s streets this February 14, will be crowds of security forces.

I told him that I wondered if  some of them might be strategically positioned to obscure opposition graffiti – now in the form of symbolic flowers – from the public gaze, lest any citizen be confronted by such impassioned artistic expression and shaken out of the regime’s enforced Islamic Revolutionary reverie. (Thanks for the graffiti bouquet, guys!)

He said,

“Never mind, Mum, even if the entire population of Iran came out onto the street, overthrew the regime, and installed a communist state, it would still be completely ignored and overshadowed by Whitney Houston’s death!”

He’s learned, as I have, that there are two constants in the freedom equation: the relentless perfidy with which repressive regimes seek to crush even the tiniest bud of hope, of joy, of creativity, of resistance: “X”; and the transitory nature of the media’s lens: “Y” (or more aptly, “why?”).

The same is true in its different and yet achingly similar ways for Syria, where everything must be painted black and white, either or, despite a rainbow of alternative arguments and positions. For Bahrain, and I would also say for Saudi Arabia, where protests, police brutality, and a host of violations are blanketed in ignorant silence more suffocating than the clouds of tear gas in Bahrain, so large I always imagine they can be seen from space. For Tibet, so tired of being either ignored or patronised, I assume because major political powers are clearly terrified of getting on the wrong side of China, the world’s major creditor. For Yemen, for Mali, for Western Sahara, and for Mauritania, where it’s simply not in the Western powers’ interests to be paying attention to opposition movements, not when there are fascinating stories about terrorism or a food crisis to report, even if the opposition is real and the terrorists are fabricated. Frankly, the food crisis in Africa is so over-hyped, it’s making me feel queasy. And don’t even get me started on the tens of thousands of freshly-minted refugees. For Kashmir, Senegal, West Papua, and for all of you everywhere*, struggling to make your voices heard, I send you my love and respect, for Valentine’s Day and always.

*I realise I left a LOT of names out of this list but it would be like reading a world atlas if I mentioned every country by name. Apologies; you’re still in my heart.

News and Comments 10 Feb 2012

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Much Ado About Mali

Azawad Rebels

Azawad Rebels


Mali continues to feature in the media, with lots of conflicting statements from all quarters.
Despite the arrival of dozens of US troops in Mauritania, Reuters is reporting that the United States has delayed annual counter-terrorism training for its allies in the Sahara region. The U.S. embassy in Bamako said on Friday Flintlock 2012, its counter-terrorism exercise bringing together African and Western nations and was due to start later this month and run through March, had been delayed while Mali tackled the rebels.
“Mali’s participation in Flintlock 2012 is critical to its success and we understand the need to focus necessary efforts on maintaining its security,” said U.S. Ambassador to Mali Mary Beth Leonard. No details were given for when the training would take place.

Mali is no stranger to rebellions – this is the fourth led by the mainly Tuareg nomads of the north since the country gained its independence from France in 1960. The last ended only in 2008. But this time the turbaned rebels’ arsenal is rumoured to include SA-7, SA-24 and Milan portable missile systems, according to a Malian soldier who faced them. And rather than just melting back into the desert after an attack, the new firepower has emboldened them to take on the army on three fronts and resist helicopter gunships.

A Malian military official has allegedly told Reuters that Malian helicopter gunships bombed rebel positions and troops used heavy weapons fire against them near the key northern town of Kidal today, but they didn’t provide a body count. “Five of our helicopters have been bombing the rebels … to take out the attackers,” the official said, adding that raids had taken place about 15 km from the town. A second military source said: “We are not waiting for them to attack us anymore. Now it is us going on the offensive.” The rebels said 20 people have been killed and thousands have fled Kidal. However, the “Azawad Women of Kidal” movement has said they are not leaving under any circumstances and will stand their ground even if they face being arrested.

MNLA released a statement today, thanking France for it’s support for the rebellion. Speaking to Al Jazeera, the French FM quickly and firmly denied that they were providing any support and called for an immediate ceasefire and talks. Algeria has done the same, even mediating between Mali government and representatives of the May 23 movement. Sadly for all concerned, the MNLA objected to the fact that they had not been invited, though they did welcome the move.

Statements from various officials of Algeria, Mauritania and Mali show a lack of consensus regarding the relationship between MNLA/May23/Azawad/Tuareg (4 confusing names is hardly better than being rebels without a name!) and AQIM. The MNLA have rejected claims of a relationship and have previously indicated they are prepared to neutralize the AQIM threat in the region.

Mauritania’s Aziz told French newspaper Le Monde, “We are talking about a small enemy (in AQIM) of no more than 300 men. That should be within the capabilities of any country.” He also said that Mali’s north had practically become a “free zone” for terrorists and called for countries to take concrete steps to tackle the group. Big words from the head of a military dictatorship that can’t even rescue one kidnapped gendarme. I doubt they are his own words. The man has “puppet” written all over him in gold braid.

Aid agencies are the busiest of all interested parties, releasing new daily accounts of rapidly increasing numbers of refugees from Mali reaching Nigeria, Algeria and Mauritania, along with reports of an escalating food crisis across the Sahel. Perhaps their efforts herding tens of thousands of displaced people around Africa like pawns on a giant sand strewn chessboard will be even more critical to Flintlock 2012 than anything the Malian army is doing right now.

Strong Support for Syrian People from Mauritanian Youth

10 Feb 2012 Mauritanian youth show support for Syria

10 Feb 2012 Mauritanian youth show support for Syria

After last week’s protest, Mauritanians gathered once again after prayers in the large Nouakchott mosque to show their support for Syria. During the prayer the Iman received a call from a Syrian counterpart, but unfortunately the connection was not very reliable and it was not possible for everyone to hear him speak. However, what really matters is that people in Syria know that they have support, and that message did get through.

After prayers, everyone gathered in the inner courtyard and there were rousing chants expressing solidarity with the struggle against the brutal regime in Syria that has lasted almost a year. There is a small group of Syrians currently living in Nouakchott, and they were present as always, leading or joining in the chants, and infecting everyone with their remarkable spirit and energy.

There was also a massive march for Syrian people in Tunisia today. [FaceBook video]

News is currently breaking that Saudi is tabling a motion on Syria before the UN General Assembly condemning the human rights violations (that’s rich, coming from the brutal kingdom of repression) and supporting the Arab League proposal for power transfer (which was mainly Saudi’s idea anyway)..

 

The Pope “Not Going to Iran”

Papa

Papa

Duh.  Right up there with “Queen Elizabeth Not Joining Space Shuttle Programme”. In case you thought it might be on the cards, the Vatican says Pope Benedict XVI receives many invitations and that a trip to Lebanon is under consideration but that there are no plans for a visit to Iran.

The Italian news agency ANSA on Wednesday quoted Iran’s ambassador to the Holy See as saying Iran issued an invitation to the pope in 2010 and that he would be welcomed to that country with “enthusiasm.”

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi says the pope does have a Middle East trip “under study,” a possible September visit to Lebanon to present a document on the future of the church in the region.

Does Putin Use Nested Trolls?

Russian trolls

Russian trolls

No surprise that emails released by hackers shows a youth organisation acting as a front to stage cyber campaigns to boost and defend Putin’s popularity and making payments to journalists and bloggers. They’re all at it, of course Russia will be, too.

The Guardian reports on a pro-Kremlin group which runs a network of internet trolls, seeks to buy flattering coverage of Vladimir Putin and hatches plans to discredit opposition activists and media, according to private emails allegedly hacked by a group calling itself the Russian arm of Anonymous.

The group has uploaded hundreds of emails it says are to, from and between Vasily Yakemenko, the first leader of the youth group Nashi – now head of the Kremlin’s Federal Youth Agency – its spokeswoman, Kristina Potupchik, and other activists.

What Makes Female IDF Soldiers Lose Sleep?

rats

rats

It’s not their remote-control weapons targeting unarmed kids collecting gravel near the wall around Gaza, so they can scrape together enough money to buy a meal, and help support the building projects that are stunted by Israel’s blockade. No, it’s having to occupy a barracks that is infested with rats. The Beersheba base, which is home mostly to female soldiers, has been facing a rat assault for five months now, Yedioth Ahronoth reported Wednesday.

“It’s terrible. They swarm the offices, the bedrooms, the dinning hall and the sewage system,” one soldier at the base said.  We’re so scared that we can’t sleep at night,” one soldier said, adding: “Nobody treats us seriously.”

Could be worse. Could be moles. Or man-eating cyber-rats.

Racial Poverty Trap

Poverty among Americans at all-time high

Poverty among Americans at all-time high

This headline “Are many whites tumbling into a new underclass?”  from Nik Kristof was one of the first things I read this morning and it put me in a sour mood all day.  Poverty is a fact of life for so many people, I felt so angry that anyone would view it through the prism of racial difference, and especially someone who is positioned as a leading exoert on the subject. Also, indignant that a journalist would conjure up the spectre of “poor white people” like that was something new in America. Poor is poor.

In September of last year, AP reported that the ranks of America’s poor swelled to almost 1 in 6 people last year, reaching a new high as long-term unemployment left millions of Americans struggling and out of work. The number of uninsured edged up to 49.9 million, the biggest in more than two decades. AP didn’t see any need to highlight skin tone, they know it gives the impression that everyone is perfectly comfortable with poverty as long as it only affect those who are black, brown, yellow or basically any colour but white.