Issues & Analysis
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ON THE MEDIA: VR Becoming an Actual Reality for Documentarians

By: CASEY FREEMAN HOWE      APRIL 18, 2016      IDA

From Condition One’s 'In the Presence of Animals' (Dirs.: Danfung Dennis, Casey Brown, Phil McNally). Photo: Casey Brown. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

From Condition One’s ‘In the Presence of Animals’ (Dirs.: Danfung Dennis, Casey Brown, Phil McNally). Photo: Casey Brown. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Following a brief test run in the 1990s, virtual reality has rapidly taken hold over the past few years as a potent tool for exploring the possibilities of storytelling—first among the gaming community, then among such early adaptors as Nonny de la Pena, who started in journalism. The Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and SXSW have all incorporated VR programming into their respective new media mixes, and the medium hit the mainstream in Fall 2015 when The New York Times distributed Google Cardboard viewers to 1.5 million subscribers to experience what The Old Gray Lady has to offer through the double lens.

But what goes into producing and editing these VR projects? How far removed is the process from the skill set required for making “flatties”? Documentary tracked down some of leading purveyors of this new form to share their experiences and the specific challenges of working in this immersive medium.

Danfung Dennis, founder and CEO of Condition One.

Danfung Dennis, founder and CEO of Condition One.

For Danfung Dennis, former war photographer and an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker for his documentary Hell and Back Again, virtual reality is a natural transition. “I’m following in the tradition of bearing witness to suffering,” says Dennis. “It’s been a continuation from photojournalism to documentary film and now into virtual reality.”

His VR production company, Condition One, is currently circulating a number of pieces. For each of these, the goal is to create “presence”—the feeling of being at the scene. But how to achieve and describe that presence? That’s something documentary filmmakers working in VR are still experimenting with.

“We’re no longer trying to work within a frame,” says Dennis. “So the techniques and the storytelling, the cinematography, the editing—all of that’s for a flat frame. That frame is now gone. So, while I still think the sense of ethics and the [documentary] methods are still valid, the actual techniques of storytelling are very different. We’re now thinking a lot more about space and proximity to the viewer.”

From Condition One’s 'In the Presence of Animals' (Dirs.: Danfung Dennis, Casey Brown, Phil McNally). Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

From Condition One’s ‘In the Presence of Animals’ (Dirs.: Danfung Dennis, Casey Brown, Phil McNally). Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Dennis conceptualizes that space in concentric rings of near field, medium field and far field. “Far field is important to establish the sense of place,” he explains. “Medium field adds depth and cues that this is a real environment. But the near-field presence, which is the hardest to capture, is what evokes this powerful sense at a deep level of your brain that this is real.”

He explains that though the near-field environment has the most payoff in terms of presence, it is also the most difficult to execute technically, mostly due to seams and shadows. But like any documentary medium, Dennis believes that viewers are willing to forgive some imperfect shots if the content is powerful.

For example, In the Presence of Animals, one of Condition One’s experimental short pieces, contains a key moment where a bison walks directly up to the camera and the viewer can see its eye and experience the immensity of the animal. “It’s one of the most broken shots we’ve ever put out,” Dennis admits. “The exposure changes, the seam changes, it disappears for a second. But in the end it didn’t really matter because people, when they came out, just said, ‘I was next to this massive bison.’ They weren’t saying, ‘Oh, I saw the seams, or I saw this, or I saw a tripod.’ There’s no way to remove a shadow from a moving animal. And so you see the tripod shadow fall on the animal. These are all things that would be nice if we could completely remove them, but if the presence is there, you can get away with a lot of those errors. But that said, we were really aiming for the highest-quality stitching and seamless images without any of those small image-quality errors.”

From Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s 'Waves of Grace', commissioned for Vrse.works by the United Nations. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

From Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s ‘Waves of Grace’, commissioned for Vrse.works by the United Nations. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

 

Gabo Arora, senior advisor and filmmaker at the United Nations, and, through Vrse.works, director and producer, with Chris Milk, of the UN-commissioned 'Clouds Over Syria' and 'Waves of Grace'.

Gabo Arora, senior advisor and filmmaker at the United Nations, and, through Vrse.works, director and producer, with Chris Milk, of the UN-commissioned ‘Clouds Over Syria’ and ‘Waves of Grace’.

Gabo Arora, a senior advisor and filmmaker at the United Nations, is also one of the “creators” withVrse.works, a virtual reality studio. He directed, with Vrse.works creative director Chris Milk, the UN-commissioned Clouds Over Sidra and Waves of Grace, two powerful pieces that take on the refugee and Ebola crisis, respectively. Arora has spent over 15 years doing humanitarian work in disaster and conflict zones and thinks VR is an ideal medium for social impact work because it “levels the distance between the subject and viewer, giving a more equal exchange. With less distance is more understanding and more engagement.

“VR is also less dominated by information sharing,” he continues. “It is more about making you feel. The concern is not as much about, ‘Did you understand?’ but [more about], ‘Do you feel present?’ A storyteller in VR has to communicate much more subtly, which allows for more reflection, more poetry, as there is more experimentation.”

Both of Arora’s acclaimed virtual reality pieces take on issues that received extensive mainstream media coverage, but he believes VR can take viewers beyond the “one-dimensional and often sensational” approach of traditional media. “Reality is often much more nuanced and complex, and often times ordinary,” he says. “I really felt VR could capture what was missing. Somehow if you could really be there and share in the experience with the people, at their level, I thought it would be compelling and new.”

The newness and compelling nature of VR, however, may be a double-edged sword. “I do worry that filmmakers—and journalists in particular—may make the mistake of believing that VR is enough, that somehow the technology will amplify their cause because the technology is so compelling,” Arora explains. “That just won’t last, but [it] is an easy trap to fall into. You have to see it as something that is harder, not easier, than traditional ways of doing things.”

“Story is [still] king,” Arora maintains. “But how you tell it has to be completely different because you cannot rely on the same tropes as before. You can’t rely on jump cuts and close-ups; you really need to let things breathe a bit more. The pacing is also very hard, and what you think would work, when you put on a headset, doesn’t always work. It either feels too rushed or slow. The rhythm of it is still something that is hard to figure out.”

Filmmaker Lucy Walker, who made 'A History of Cuban Dance' through Vrse.works.

Filmmaker Lucy Walker, who made ‘A History of Cuban Dance’ through Vrse.works.

“One of the most exciting aspects of VR is that the visual vocabulary hasn’t been settled upon—it’s still being invented,” notes Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Lucy Walker, another creator in the Vrse.works collective. She is particularly interested in camera placement, choreography and how height and distance from the subject affects the experience, and says that she loves placing the camera so that “there are multiple points of interest within the 360-degree field of view.”

For her piece A History of Cuban Dance—a story she chose because Cuba is a place that people are eager to visit and “VR is the closest thing we have to a teleportation machine”—Walker and her team “experimented with the degree to which we inserted ourselves into the midst of the action. In some shots the camera is a bit removed and takes in the dancers from roughly the position that a dance audience would conventionally observe the performance. In others, we play with the idea of entering the space of the dance.”

Part of the appeal of the medium for Walker is that “it’s possible to shoot in a very low-key way that is perfect for documentary filmmakers. One of the wonders of VR is that, as cutting-edge as it is, we’re able to shoot with a small crew. The crew size varied from just myself alone, for one shot only, to myself and a DP, for much of it, to occasionally having a sound recordist and more help as well.”

From Lucy Walker’s 'A History of Cuban Dance'. Photo: Lucy Walker, Juan Carlos Zaldivar. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

From Lucy Walker’s ‘A History of Cuban Dance’. Photo: Lucy Walker, Juan Carlos Zaldivar. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Though Walker has recently started using cable cams, advanced rigging and even “primitive” monitoring, she says A History of Cuban Dance was made using a grip kit that consisted of little more than “a c-stand and some gaffer tape.”

That is changing quickly, however. “None of the shoots I’ve done resemble one another,” Walker notes. “A month doesn’t go by without new iterations of the camera gear or stitching software. I’ve filmed with a different rig every month since September when I filmed A History of Cuban Dance.”

So what does the rapidly evolving production process for live action virtual reality look like? At the most basic level, pairs of stereoscopic cameras capture footage in 360 degrees. There are commercial options for rigs beginning to emerge, and Condition One and Vrse.works both work with bespoke rigs that have been in development for years.

Part of the pre-production process is figuring out where the crew is going to hide, or alternatively, how the crew is going to be a part of the shot. Though filmmakers can shoot with plates and capture 180 degrees at a time (especially since each shot will be worked on in post-production anyway), most seem to think that shooting 360 degrees is preferable for the fast-paced, dynamic work that occurs during documentary production. It is also perhaps the more ethical choice.

The footage from all of the cameras is then imported into editing software and stitched together, beginning with a rough stitch. Once the final sequence is chosen, the fine stitching is a lengthy, tedious process.

“The seams are one of the first technical challenges,” Dennis explains. “These seams will break that sense of presence, and eliminating them can be a very time-consuming process in post-production. An artist goes in and rotoscopes, compositing and trying to match every pixel with the next frame. And with 16 cameras, that can take weeks, if not months, for a single shot. So developing the software to do that became the next critical component of the pipeline to assemble these videos together in a seamless, stereoscopic 360-degree video.

From Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s 'Waves of Grace', commissioned for Vrse.works by the United Nations.

From Lucy Walker’s ‘A History of Cuban Dance’. Photo: Lucy Walker, Juan Carlos Zaldivar. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

“Then playing the stereoscopic videos back is very demanding,” Dennis continues. “Computationally demanding. These are 4K videos. Once they’ve been stitched, they’re at 48 frames per second. And that we know is the bare minimum for VR. Traditional film is shot at 24 for that kind of filmic look. We’ve kind of gotten used to that. But in VR, if you shoot at 24 frames per second, it looks stuttery. It looks like you’re looking at video. So we then think, 60 frames, 90 frames, and eventually 120 and up will be required to really get the smooth, natural feeling of movement in VR.”

Sound is another critical component, Dennis points out. “We’re designing the capture and the post-production workflow to achieve realistic spatial audio. We use four microphones, mini- shotguns, offset by 90-degrees. And then we run them through software that mimics that human ear and the shape of the head to create these binaural audio tracks. And then we use a custom audio player to fix those four different audio tracks in space.”

Dennis says that using this audio production process makes it “so as you look around, the audio stays where it should be. It’s very subtle but extremely powerful in convincing the mind that this is a real experience.” Eventually, he thinks, the camera system and software technology will evolve far enough that one person could be shooting virtual reality in the field.

Animation is another production option for documentary filmmakers looking to explore the medium. All of VR pioneer Nonny de la Pena’s “immersive journalism” pieces use 3D animation, constructed using journalistic standards. For example, her piece Use of Force(about a border police brutality case) uses primary sources such as audio recordings from actual 911 calls and floor plans of the house where the incident took place to reconstruct the event as accurately as possible.

From James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s 'Notes on Blindness', for which Arnaud Colinart produced the VR component. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

From James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s ‘Notes on Blindness’, for which Arnaud Colinart produced the VR component. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Arnaud Colinart, a producer at AGAT Films/ExNihilo and one of the creative directors of the virtual reality component of the project Notes on Blindness, thinks that “animation and CGI gives the best performance in VR for now.” Notes on Blindness is based on the audio recordings of British professor of philosophy and theology John Hull, who documented his experience of going blind. The story was first conceived as a short film for New York Times Op-Docs in 2014, and directors James Spinney and Peter Middleton premiered a feature-length version of the film in this year’s New Frontiers competition at Sundance. With Amaury La Burthe from the French start-up Audiogaming, Colinart led the effort to create the accompanying virtual reality experience, called Notes on Blindness—Into Darkness.

“I think right now, virtual reality is at the same point as the birth of cinema, with the Lumière brothers and Train Pulling into Station,” Colinart asserts. “But just after that, you had Georges Méliès, who created A Trip to the Moon, which is sometimes considered the first narrative film because he used visual effects to create story. Now we see the birth of VR storytelling as more than just gadget or gimmick.”

The VR experience relies on Hull’s original audio recordings to guide the experience. Each chapter uses abstract 3D animation to explore the experience of going blind through a different memory. Making a virtual reality experience about blindness is perhaps a counterintuitive choice, but the emotional resonance of the experience suggests that virtual reality shows great potential for multisensory immersion.

From 'Notes on Blindness—Into Darkness' (Dirs.: Arnaud Colinart, Amaury Laburthe), the VR component of James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s 'Notes on Blindness.' (C) Ex Nihilo, Archer's Mark, ARTE France - 2016. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

From ‘Notes on Blindness—Into Darkness’ (Dirs.: Arnaud Colinart, Amaury Laburthe), the VR component of James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s ‘Notes on Blindness.’ (C) Ex Nihilo, Archer’s Mark, ARTE France – 2016. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

The filmmakers developed the experience using Unity, a multi-platform gaming development tool, and utilized the Agile method—an iterative, prototype-driven design process popular in software development. Colinart thinks there is a lot to borrow from software and video game-development, and that creating VR experiences in this manner will help accelerate the learning process for VR storytelling and its mise en scènevocabulary. “I think all stories can be told in VR, but we need to find the good way to do it,” Colinart maintains. “It’s like, you read books, and you say, ‘How can I adapt this in a movie?’ I think all books can be adapted, but you have to find the right way to adapt it to another way of telling the story; and I think it’s the same for VR. This is the start of this art of writing, as we discover little by little what VR can bring to storytelling.”

The Notes on Blindness experience uses chapters, a format in which Colinart sees great potential for VR because it mitigates some of the headset discomfort issues that may limit longer-form pieces. “Maybe we will have long-form stories, but they’ll be broken up into chapters and consumed that way,” he suggests.

From James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s 'Notes on Blindness', for which Arnaud Colinart produced the VR component. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

From James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s ‘Notes on Blindness’, for which Arnaud Colinart produced the VR component. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Beyond the headset ergonomics, creating experiences that don’t induce motion sickness is another component of production that is new for most documentary filmmakers. While some VR reviewers have bemoaned the stationary camera in many pieces, Dennis argues that “the fastest way to make someone motion sick is to move the camera in an unstabilized way.” He thinks this will change as the medium advances and viewers develop “VR legs,” but for now he suggests that filmmakers start with a locked tripod.

Another issue Dennis sees is the presentation of virtual reality experiences. In film, he says, there is a strong viewing tradition. “Lights down. Someone introduces the director, they say few words, and they say, ‘Quiet, cell phones off,’ and then you watch the work.” In virtual reality, he says, “It’s put on this headset, and you jump in, then you jump out.”

The viewing presentation, Dennis notes, is particularly important for experiences like Condition One’s Factory Farm, which takes viewers into a factory farm and active slaughterhouse facility in Mexico. In it, viewers are guided by José Valle, the director of investigations at the advocacy organization Animal Equality. “Every time you move into a new environment, you ask, ‘Why am I here?'” Dennis says. “And with José, he’s doing his normal work. He is documenting abuse for his investigations. And so you get to be with him while he’s working, while he’s filming, gaining evidence. It is really helpful to have a guide, especially in this type of situation, which is so graphic and gut-wrenching. He gives you the courage to stay and watch it.”

Within the experience, Valle also gives warnings about the material ahead, telling viewers that they’re going to see very graphic footage, and warning them, “This is your last chance to leave.” It builds a level of trust in the guide, as the viewer has ample opportunity to remove the headset before entering the slaughterhouse.

Trust, Dennis says, is essential to this type of work. “He’s there with you. And he’s experiencing it. So in a way, you feel like you’ve got someone with you, and you’re not alone. You don’t want to run away.”

At Condition One’s Sundance exhibition, Valle was actually there to greet viewers in person as they came out of the VR experience. Dennis recounts how one viewer got through the entire experience and how she held it together until she saw him in person. “Then it just struck home: ‘That was real! He’s right here!'” The viewer burst into tears and shook Valle’s hand. “People were having really tremendously emotional responses and having a moral inquiry into their own actions, which I think is the power of VR.”

Casey Freeman Howe is a graduate fellow at the Center for Media and Social Impact in Washington, DC.

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DEVELOPMENT: What the Panama Papers Mean for Global Development

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage     IPS

Tax justice campaigners in Kenya. Credit: Zahra Moloo/IPS

Tax justice campaigners in Kenya. Credit: Zahra Moloo/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 12 2016 (IPS) – The financial secrecy and tax evasion revealed by the Panama Papers has an extraordinary human cost in developing countries and threatens the realisation of the UN’s ambitious Sustainable Development Goals.

The ongoing leak — made public by media outlets including German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, theInternational Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) – has already prompted protests and investigations around the world. The papers connect thousands of prominent figures to secretive offshore companies in 21 tax havens and reveal the inner workings of the offshore finance industry.

The documents focus on Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, with its 210,000 entities, and has led to allegations that the firm aided public officials and multinational corporations to avoid taxes. Mossack Fonseca say that media reports have misrepresented the nature of their work and its role in global financial markets.

In one case, leaked emails contained in the Panama Papers suggest that the Heritage Oil and Gas Ltd Company (HOGL), sought help from Mossack Fonseca to sidestep tax laws in Uganda. According to ICIJ, upon the sale of an oil field, the company received a tax bill of $404 million. In an effort to avoid paying the taxes, the entity fought the Ugandan courts and meanwhile tried to relocate to Mauritius, according to the leaked emails.

Mauritius has a double tax agreement with Uganda, allowing companies such as HOGL to only pay taxes in one of the two countries. In 2000, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) listed Mauritius as a preferred location for companies due to its minimal tax laws.

These havens deny developing countries such as Uganda of much needed tax revenue for essential services, Oxfam’s Senior Tax Policy Advisor Tatu Ilunga told IPS.

“Tax havens are at the heart of a global system that allows large corporations and wealthy individuals to avoid paying their fair share, depriving governments – rich and poor – of the resources they need to provide vital public services and tackle rising inequality,” said Ilunga.

In Uganda, approximately 37 percent live on less than $1.25 per day. The East African nation also has one of the highest rates of maternal and under-five mortality rates in the world. According to the World Health Organisation(WHO), Uganda is one of the top ten countries that account for the majority of global maternal deaths.

In a country that lacks access to health services, HOGL’s $404 million in taxes represents more than the country’s health budget.

Former governor of Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta State James Ibori was also implicated in the Panama Papers,allegedly using Mossack Fonseca as an agent for four offshore companies in Panama and Seychelles. These entities provide anonymity, hiding true owners’ names and actions and thus allowing for finances and assets to be undeclared and untaxed. 

Though he was detained in 2012 for diverting up to $75 million out of the country, Nigerian authorities estimate that Ibori stole and stored over $290 million in tax havens.

Like Uganda, Nigeria ranks low in health indicators, contributing to some 10 percent of global maternal, infant and child deaths. Poverty has increased in the country with 61 percent living below the poverty line, according to the most recent Nigerian Bureau of Statistics report.

The Niger Delta region in particular, despite being a significant contributor to the country’s economy through oil production, remains the poorest and least developed region in Nigeria. In Ibori’s Delta state alone, 45 percent of people live in poverty. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) report found that the majority of people in the region lack access to potable water, electricity, health facilities and infrastructure including roads and telecommunications.

“Have you seen any taps here?…Water used to run in public taps, but that had stopped 20 years ago. We basically drink from the river and creeks…hygiene is secondary,” a Niger Delta Resident told UNDP.

Though Ibori’s stashed money represents only a slice of Nigeria’s budget, it is indicative of a global and pervasive problem that goes beyond Mossack Fonseca.

Transparency International’s Senior Policy Coordinator Craig Fagan told IPS: “If you think about the millions of files that have been released and the number of high profile individuals [in the Panama Papers], this is just one law firm in Panama.” .

“We can be certain that there are many other law firms whether in London, Hong Kong, New York, Miami that are operating similar structures,” he said.

According to Oxfam estimates, at least $18.5 trillion is hidden in tax havens worldwide. The organisation found that two thirds of this offshore wealth is hidden in European Union related tax havens while a third is in UK-linked sites where it is left undeclared and untaxed.  Oxfam said that their estimate is a conservative one.

The Swiss Leaks, also released by ICIJ in 2015, revealed how over 106,000 clients from Venezuela to Sri Lanka hid more than $100 billion in Swiss HSBC bank accounts.

Another analysis from Tax Justice Network (TJN) reveals that between $21 to $32 trillion is being diverted into offshore companies.

This has enormous effects in developing countries, costing poor nations over $100 billion in lost tax revenues every year, according to Oxfam. The charity also found that tax dodging by multinational corporations alone costs the developing world between $100 billion and $160 billion per year. Added with profit shifting, approximately $250 billion and $300 billion is lost.

This “missing” money could lift every person above the $1.25 per day poverty threshold three times over, according to Brookings Institution calculations.

Oxfam added that for every $1 billion lost through commercial tax evasion, 11 million people at risk across the Sahel region could have enough to eat, 400,000 midwives could be paid in Sub-Saharan Africa which has the highest maternal mortality rates, and 200 million insecticide-treated mosquito nets could be purchased to reduce child mortality from malaria.

In addition to lost development finance, Ilunga also noted to IPS that such actions have exacerbated inequality in the world, stating: “This is the same rigged system that has created the situation where…the wealth of the richest 1% surpasses the combined wealth of the rest of the world.”

Though the use offshore companies is not illegal, Ilunga asserted that the legality of such actions is precisely the issue.

“Tax dodging exists in a legal gray area with some activities clearly violating the spirit of the law even though those activities are not technically illegal. But the fact that these activities are legal is precisely the scandal we are most concerned with,” Ilunga said.

Fagan told IPS that it does not matter whether it is legally acceptable to have tax avoidance schemes.

“Just because it’s not illegal does not mean it is not a form of manipulation, form of corruption,” he said.

Ilunga and Fagan noted that the Panama Papers are a wake-up call and urged governments to end harmful tax practices and close loopholes. They highlighted the need to institute a public registry which lists companies’ true owners, where money is being earned and how much is being earned.

Ahead of the United Kingdom’s anti-corruption summit to be held in May 2016, Oxfam and TJN also called on the U.K. to lead the fight by halting their large network of tax havens including in the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands.

“The anti-corruption summit provides an opportunity to dismantle the financial secrecy that threatens the [Sustainable Development Goals’] progress against poverty before it even begins,” said Oxfam Policy Advisor Luke Gibson and TJN’s Director of Research Alex Cobham in a briefing paper.

Cobham told IPS that though global reforms are essential, domestic stakeholders must ensure that tax revenues will be used to help meet the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Included in the SDGs are commitments to reduce illicit financial flows and corruption by 2030 and to strengthen domestic resource mobilization including improving capacity for tax and revenue collection.

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ON THE MEDIA: What If African Media Reported US Elections Like Western Media Report on Africa?

By: Ndesanjo Macha            21 April 2016         GlobalVoices

 

A screenshot of footage, uploaded to YouTube by Storyful, of a protester who was assaulted by a Donald Trump supporter being restrained by police at a rally in North Carolina.

A screenshot of footage, uploaded to YouTube by Storyful, of a protester who was assaulted by a Donald Trump supporter being restrained by police at a rally in North Carolina.

Coverage of Africa by Western media often portray the continent in a negative light or in a simplistic manner, placing emphasis on conflict, corruption and tribal divisions. But Western media don’t adopt that same tone when they report on their own countries.

Following in the footsteps of Joshua Keating’s “If it happened there” series on US news magazine Slate, Tumblr user Ragamberi asked himself, “How would it sound, if African media reported US elections in the same tone as Western media report on polls in Africa and elsewhere?”

His answer became a post titled, “If It had Happened Over Here”. Here are a few excerpts of how he imagined African coverage of the contentious presidential race in the US might read.

Tribal violence

Pressure is mounting on the Obama regime to allow international observers and peacekeepers after tribal violence marred election campaigns in the troubled north American nation.

In Addis Ababa, an emergency meeting was called by African leaders to demand a return to rule of law in America, after pro-regime militants attacked a rally addressed by popular opposition leader Donald Trump in Chicago.

“Unless America allows independent international groups to monitor the poll and for peacekeepers to move in and restore order, the poll is a sham and cannot be declared free and fair,” the African Union said.

[…]

Explaining the weekend’s clashes, America experts – based at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, Southern Africa – say Illinois has longstanding, deep-seated ethnic and sectarian tensions that are sure to boil over if the Obama regime does not allow UN peacekeepers before the hotly contested polls in November.

Republican candidate Donald Trump has seen violence break out several times at his rallies. Trump in turn has used violent rhetoric in speeches and on social media:

Bernie Sanders is lying when he says his disruptors aren’t told to go to my events. Be careful Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours!

Voter fraud

The election has also been marred by reports of widespread voter fraud. Sanders has complained of voter fraud after a controversial narrow loss in the Iowa region to party rival Hillary Clinton, wife of former regime leader Bill.

Trump himself has claimed voter fraud in the region of Florida, raising serious concern in the international community about the credibility of the forthcoming poll.

Throughout the primaries race, which determines the candidate who will represent the Democratic and Republican parties in the presidential elections, accusations of fraud have been tossed around on both sides of the aisle, and voters have complained the system is unfair.

Attacks on media freedom

There are also concerns over blatant attacks on media freedom. The International Committee for the Protection of Journalists condemned attacks on journalists during the campaign.

A journalist for CBS News was arrested while reporting on clashes at a rally for Donald Trump in Chicago in March. A charge of resisting arrest was eventually dropped.

Read the full post here.

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AFGHANISTAN: Interview- Don’t let Afghanistan become forgotten crisis – Red Cross official

By: Emma Batha           22 Apr 2016          Reuters 

Afghan men clear the rubble of their damaged house after yesterday's suicide car bomb attack on a government security building in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Afghan men clear the rubble of their damaged house after yesterday’s suicide car bomb attack on a government security building in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

LONDON, April 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The world must not let Afghanistan become a forgotten crisis, a senior Red Cross official said on Friday as he warned of spiralling violence, donor fatigue and a worrying “brain drain” of educated professionals.

“The international community must keep their attention on Afghanistan. It’s far from being over. It’s not the time to switch off,” said Jean-Nicolas Marti, outgoing head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Afghanistan.

He warned that violence – which is at levels not seen since 2001 – would likely escalate in the coming year.

“The security situation has really deteriorated … and my prediction is a further deterioration,” Marti said. “Potentially the 18 months ahead of us will be much tougher.”

Marti is meeting government officials in European capitals and Washington to press for greater political, financial and humanitarian support.

“The message is (we need) to make sure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a forgotten or ignored conflict,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in London.

Marti was speaking just days after a suicide attack in Kabul killed 64 people and injured hundreds more in the deadliest single incident of its kind in the capital since 2011.

The Taliban, which claimed responsibility, is believed to be stronger than at any point since it was ousted by U.S.-backed forces in 2001. Fighters loyal to Islamic State have also emerged in pockets of the country.

Marti said the ICRC had evacuated 600 war-wounded in the first three months of the year – a high number given that fighting usually tails off in winter when mountain passes are snowed in.

“It … demonstrates that the fighting season is going to be tough this year and the humanitarian response needs to be up to it,” he said.

The Taliban, which wants to drive Afghanistan’s Western-backed government from power, announced the start of their spring offensive on April 12.

BRAIN DRAIN

The ICRC said it was particularly alarmed by the rising number of civilian casualties which hit a record high for the seventh successive year in 2015, with over 11,000 non-combatants killed or injured.

Attacks against medical facilities and staff have also risen 50 percent in the last year, making it more difficult for civilians to access healthcare.

Marti said the ICRC was launching a flying surgical team which will tour hospitals in provincial capitals around Afghanistan, training medical staff to respond to emergencies.

An estimated one million people are displaced within Afghanistan and others have fled abroad. Afghans are the second largest group of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe behind Syrians.

Marti warned of a “brain drain” as middle class professionals pack their bags in an exodus which could have serious implications for the country.

“What makes me pretty worried about the future of this country is that I know Afghans … who were here 10 years ago hoping to create a future for Afghanistan and who are now picking up their belongings and fleeing to Europe or to Canada.

“(This) illustrates for me that they are losing hope for the future of this country.”

Afghanistan is suffering from donor fatigue, partly because international attention was focused on Syria and Iraq, he said.

“We’ve seen a decrease in general interest for Afghanistan, but the situation is actually getting worse. It’s dangerous.”

(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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ON THE MEDIA: 2016 World Press Freedom Index: a “deep and disturbing” decline in media freedom

April 13, 2016      RSF

The 2016 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, which Reporters Without Borders (RSF) will publish on 20 April, shows that there has been a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels.

The 2016 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, which Reporters Without Borders (RSF) will publish on 20 April, shows that there has been a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels. Ever since the 2013 index, Reporters Without Borders has been calculating indicators of the overall level of media freedom violations in each of the world’s regions and worldwide. The higher the figure, the worse the situation. The global indicator has gone from 3719 points last year to 3857 points this year, a 3.71% deterioration. The decline since 2013 is 13.6%.

The many reasons for this decline in freedom of information include the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of governments in countries such as Turkey and Egypt, tighter government control of state-owned media, even in some European countries such as Poland, and security situations that have become more and more fraught, in Libya and Burundi, for example, or that are completely disastrous, as in Yemen.

The survival of independent news coverage is becoming increasingly precarious in both the state and privately-owned media because of the threat from ideologies, especially religious ideologies, that are hostile to media freedom, and from large-scale propaganda machines. Throughout the world, “oligarchs” are buying up media outlets and are exercising pressure that compounds the pressure already coming from governments.

All of the Index’s indicators show a decline from 2013 to 2016. This is especially the case for infrastructure. Some governments do not hesitate to suspend access to the Internet or even to destroy the premises, broadcast equipment or printing presses of media outlets they dislike. The infrastructure indicator fell 16% from 2013 to 2016.

The legislative framework has registered an equally marked decline. Many laws have been adopted penalizing journalists on such spurious charges as “insulting the president,” “blasphemy” or “supporting terrorism.” Growing self-censorship is the knock-on effect of this alarming situation. The “media environment and self-censorship” indicator has fallen by more than 10% from 2013 to 2016.

Every continent has seen its score decline. The Americas have plunged 20.5%, above all as a result of the impact of physical attacks and murders targeting journalists in Mexico and Central America. Europe and the Balkans declined 6.5%, above all because of the growing influence of extremist movements and ultraconservative governments.

The Central Asia/Eastern Europe region’s already bad score deteriorated by 5% as a result of the increasingly glacial environment for media freedom and free speech in countries with authoritarian regimes.

Published by Reporters Without Borders annually since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index measures the level of freedom available to journalists in 180 countries using the following criteria – pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative environment, transparency, infrastructure, and abuses.

See the 2016 World Press Freedom Index on the RSF.org website from 20 April onwards.

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HAITI: Haiti will miss election deadline, no date for new president

15 Apr 2016      By: Joseph Guyler Delva     Reuters

PORT-AU-PRINCE, April 14 (Reuters) – Haiti will not meet a deadline to complete its presidential election by April 24, the top election official said on Thursday, without giving a new date to hold the already delayed vote in the impoverished Caribbean country.

The election was postponed in January after sometimes violent protests over allegations of fraud in the first round. An interim government has been running the country since the last president’s term ended in February.

“It is clear that the elections won’t take place on April 24, but we are still assessing the election machinery as we make decisions about the way forward,” the head of a newly appointed electoral council, Leopold Berlanger, told Reuters.

He said the delay, which comes after political battles over the formation of the interim government, meant that temporary President Jocelerme Privert would not hand over to an elected successor by May 14, as agreed in a cross-party deal to overcome the crisis.

“It is also clear that the fact that the elections won’t take place this month means it is impossible to have a new elected president by May 14,” Berlanger said.

The results of the first round in October put Jovenel Moise in first place and Jude Celestin in second for a runoff, but Celestin and several more of the 52 losing candidates rejected the outcome.

Before completing the process, the election council is overseeing a second evaluation of the results to test the claims of fraud and decide which candidates should take part.

Supporters of former president Michel Martelly and his favoured candidate, Moise, have protested in recent days, claiming Privert is dragging his feet so his allies can cling on to power. The protesters demand the election be held as soon as possible. (Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

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ON THE MEDIA: A new understanding: What makes people trust and rely on news

This research was conducted by the Media Insight Project — an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research

trust-header

The meaning of trust in news

In order to refine the industry’s understanding of trust and develop actionable characteristics of a source, this study explores trust through its link to source reliance. Prior research shows that the way people define trustworthy news generally yields vague definitions that cannot be put into practice. However, people can readily identify the specific factors that lead them to rely or not rely on a particular news source. Some of these factors relate to trust (e.g. getting the facts right) and others likely do not (e.g. its content is entertaining).

In this study, we measure the reasons people rely on sources in order to provide insights into the importance they place on specific factors that might be related to trust. We then link these specific factors to more general principles of trust such as accuracy or completeness.

The chart below shows the traditional principles of trust on the left and their corresponding actionable factors on the right.

General Principle of Trust Specific and Actionable Factors Related to Trust
Completeness The reporting is in‑depth
It always has the latest news and information
It covers all the day’s events
Accuracy It presents expert sources and data
It gets the facts right
Balance It provides diverse points of view
It shares my point of view
I see my community and people like me in the reporting
Transparency I know and trust its journalists
It explains the way it gathers and reports news and information
Presentation and Design It’s concise and gets to the point
It is easy to find news and information I’m looking for
It uses visuals such as photos, videos, lists, or charts*
It allows people to comment on news and information*
The news and information include hyperlinks to get more information*
The site or app loads fast*
It works well on my mobile phone*
The ads do not interfere with getting news and information*
Convenience and Entertainment I can multitask or use it when I’m doing something else like household chores
It presents news and information in a way I can talk about it
It makes it entertaining
It’s a source I’ve always used

* The component applies only to digital sources

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

The research then dug deeper on these specific factors related to trust. To do so, we asked people what topics they follow most closely in the news. We then asked them to think about the sources they rely on for following those topics and then to name their favorite one. Finally, we asked them how important different qualities are when relying on that source for that topic.

This source‑specific approach allows us to get beyond general ideas, such as accuracy, and to isolate what a concept like accuracy means for people.

Inside the broader concept of completeness, for instance, we are able to test how important it is for people that the reporting is in‑depth, that it contains all the day’s news, or that it is always up to date with the latest results.

Inside the general and sometimes elusive principle of balance we are able to test how important it is for people to see differing points of view, views they agree with, or to see their community reflected in the coverage.

This approach also allows us to test the importance of certain modern presentation factors, such as navigability and use of visuals.

Overall, accuracy and completeness are the most-cited categories of trust

Past research had found that four or five main principles made up credibility or trust in the news: accuracy, balance, and fairness central among them. Some scholars broke fairness into additional parts, such as completeness and transparency. Others suggested concepts related to clarity or presentation.

In part so this new research can be compared to that older work, we test whether people recognize these traditional concepts today. At the most general level, we find Americans do still value these traditional and general concepts of news trustworthiness.

Americans rate accuracy as the most important general principle related to trust. Eighty‑five percent describe getting the facts right as an extremely or very important factor of a trustworthy source.

That is followed by completeness (providing all the important news and information), which 77 percent describe as very important.

A sizable majority (68 percent) also say transparency (the idea that news organizations explain the way they gather and report the news) is very important.

And 66 percent rate balance (reporting that provides different views) as a key factor of trustworthy sources.

Fewer Americans, but still nearly half, cite presentation (having a high quality and professional appearance) as a very important factor for trustworthiness.

But as we will see in a moment, those numbers change when people are asked to drill down into specific factors related to trust and other factors that lead them to rely on certain sources for different news topics.

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Accuracy and completeness are the most important principles of trust in a news source

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allAccuracyCompletenessTransparencyBalancePresentation0102030405060708090100

Data Source: Question: Thinking about the sources you consider trustworthy, how important is each of the following factors?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

Getting inside the broad categories of trust

The next step involves drilling deeper into the reasons why people rely on specific news sources.

We broke the five general trust principles — accuracy, balance, completeness, transparency, and presentation — into 12 actionable and specific factors related to trust. In doing so, we found that many of these 12 are important for why people rely on certain sources of news. Some are significantly more important than others.

We also look at four additional factors that relate to entertainment and convenience, which may be more important in an age of greater consumer choice.

The idea that a news organization should get the facts right is cited more than any other specific factor as vital. Fully 80 percent rate it extremely or very important.

Being up to date with the latest news and information — something related to completeness — emerges as the second biggest reason people rely on a specific source, at 76 percent.

Despite presentation falling lower on the list of more general principles people think make a news source trustworthy, a specific factor related to presentation — that a news account be concise and get to the point — ranks third overall (with 72 percent of respondents citing it as very important) when we asked people why they rely on a particular news source.

 

“As soon as I start getting outdated news (even if by a few hours) or find out they aren’t giving me the whole story, that’s when I start to go somewhere else for news,” said Zach, a younger, hard news consumer.

Another element of accuracy — that a news account cites expert sources and data — ties for fourth among the 12 specific factors related to trust we explore. Fully 70 percent describe this as very important. Seventy percent also cite navigability — that is, easy to find the news and information you are looking for — as critical.

In other words, having something be navigable, clear, and easy to use is a key part of whether people rely on and value it.

Nearly as important to people as clarity and navigability is depth. Fully 67 percent cite that the reporting is in‑depth as extremely or very important. On its face, people wanting news to be in‑depth might reflect a contradictory preference to their desire for news that is concise. It may also reflect, however, a desire for news that is in‑depth, but no longer than absolutely necessary.

The three specific factors Americans are least likely to report as being very important are that a source makes the news entertaining (38 percent), that they see their community or people like them in the reporting (36 percent), and that it shares their point of view (32 percent).

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Accuracy

Which factors matter?

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allIt gets the facts rightIt presents expert sources and data020406080100

Data Source: Question: Think about why you rely on [NAMED SOURCE] for the coverage of [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED]. How important is each of the following for you?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Completeness

Which factors matter?

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allIt always has the latest news andinformationThe reporting is in-depthIt covers all the day’s events020406080100

Data Source: Question: Think about why you rely on [NAMED SOURCE] for the coverage of [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED]. How important is each of the following for you?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Presentation

Which factors matter?

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allIt’s concise and gets to the pointIt is easy to find news andinformation you’re looking for020406080100

Data Source: Question: Think about why you rely on [NAMED SOURCE] for the coverage of [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED]. How important is each of the following for you?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Transparency

Which factors matter?

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allYou know and trust its journalistsIt explains the way it gathers andreports news and information020406080100

Data Source: Question: Think about why you rely on [NAMED SOURCE] for the coverage of [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED]. How important is each of the following for you?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Balance

Which factors matter?

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allIt provides diverse points of viewYou see your community and peoplelike you in the reportingIt shares your point of view020406080100

Data Source: Question: Think about why you rely on [NAMED SOURCE] for the coverage of [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED]. How important is each of the following for you?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Convenience or entertainment

Which factors matter?

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allIt presents news and information in away you can talk about itIt’s a source you’ve always usedYou can multitask or use it whenyou’re doing something elseIt makes it entertaining020406080100It makes it entertainingSomewhat important: 36%

Data Source: Question: Think about why you rely on [NAMED SOURCE] for the coverage of [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED]. How important is each of the following for you?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

Breaking news is different — transparency becomes more important

The qualitative research conducted as part of the study (a combination of ethnography and focus groups) also indicated something else: The importance of certain components of trust may vary depending on whether a story is breaking news or is coverage of an ongoing trend or issue.

In focus groups, people said they understand that not all the facts may be known during a breaking news event such as a natural disaster, mass shooting, or terrorist act. When there are conflicting accounts about what is happening, people even said they understand if some of the information presented may not be true.

In those instances, some people raised the idea that transparency from a source about what is “factual and verified” versus what is the reporter’s theory or speculation is more important than immediate accuracy.

People also said that during breaking news they are more likely to look at multiple sources to try to find the latest information.

“When a story breaks, I’m flipping back and forth between channels because I need to know if anything developed that I didn’t hear about,” said David, a younger, hard news consumer. “And I’m on my phone, I’m on social at the same time.”

People’s news behavior and expectations change as news stories progress and become less ambiguous. Getting the facts right returns as the most important component in their determinations of trust. “After the fact, I have higher standards because people have time to do due diligence,” said Drew, a younger, hard news consumer.

In other words, among the issues that determine what makes a news account trustworthy is timing — or where an unfolding story stands and how much time there has been for reporting.

Read more on the original site.

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DEVELOPMENT: How to reduce humanitarian need

20 Apr 2016  By: Stephen O’Brien, UNOCHA and Kevin J. Jenkins, World Vision International  Original

A woman carries her child in a camp sheltering internally displaced people (IDPs) next to the M’Poko international airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, February 13, 2016. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

In the next decade, most of the world’s acutely vulnerable people will be living in fragile and conflict-affected cities and States. If current trends persist, conflict will continue to consume 80 per cent of humanitarian funding, setting back development by trillions of dollars. In 2014, over 13 per cent of the global economy was drained away by violence and war. The costs of protracted violence and deepening fragility will lead to lost childhoods, lost lives and lost opportunities. We must find a better way to not only save lives now, but also to address the root causes of fragility and build resilience over the long term.

Doing so must be underpinned by strong political leadership to resolve and prevent conflict. The human and financial costs of not doing so are simply too high. In the absence of political solutions from Syria to Iraq to the Central African Republic, there are severe limits to what principled humanitarian action can achieve.

When it comes to addressing fragility, international leaders, the United Nations and civil-society partners made history with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development when they pledged to leave no-one behind and to reach those furthest behind first. In doing so, international leaders promised to put the needs and priorities of the most-vulnerable people at the forefront of all development efforts. Turning this promise into action is fundamental to realizing the UN Secretary-General’s vision for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit on 23 and 24 May in Istanbul: to commit to moving from delivering aid to ending need.

To end need, we must stop thinking about relief and development as a sequence. Instead, we must find new ways to comprehensively reduce vulnerability and risk while in tandem meeting pressing humanitarian needs in line with humanitarian principles. This shift will disrupt our current model, in which humanitarian, development, peace, security and other institutions simultaneously work on different projects to different time frames and budgets within the same communities. Instead, wherever operationally possible, national Governments, humanitarian and development agencies, civil society and the private sector will need to work together to set common goals and outcomes over multiple years.

This will require us to work transparently to develop a common understanding of the risks and vulnerabilities people face in each context and prioritizing how to address them together. It will require each of us to overcome institutional barriers and plan our work based on each institution devoting their best services, skills and experience, context by context.

We look to an end to the short-term projects, launched year after year, which have dominated humanitarian response for the past decades and provided little strategic vision for focusing on results for the people we serve. In the cases of DRC, Somalia and Sudan, annual appeals have been repeated for 13 years running. People do not want simply to survive; they want to improve their life prospects and those of their children. Long-term improvement requires genuine partnerships with local partners built on trust, sustainable support, and sharing of resources and knowledge.

Partners must, where appropriate, support existing national and regional capacity, scaling it up and complementing it when necessary, rather than replacing national systems with heavy international ones. This should be done without impinging on the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence and humanity.

In the right context, humanitarian cash-based programmes should become the norm, not the exception, and they should build on national and regional safety nets that can strengthen social-protection systems. World Vision and many others offer assistance in the form of cash in responses as diverse as Lebanon and Jordan, South Sudan and Nepal. Going forward, cash assistance will be increasingly crucial to promote the resilience and dignity of children, families and communities affected by disasters.

We must also transform the way that we invest in reducing vulnerability. It is common sense to act early to reduce risk rather than waiting for full-blown crises to play out. Predictable multi-year funding would enable better strategic planning for impact, rather than the current model that focuses on agencies’ outputs. We need the transparency of medium-term goals for assessing whether we are truly reducing needs. To achieve all this, we must stop supporting isolated projects that prolong the fragmentation of services and the chaos after a crisis.

Businesses, civil society, faith groups and youth each have a vital role in bridging the divide between relief and development. OCHA and World Vision are engaged in relationships with a variety of partners that are giving better outcomes. Examples are diverse and include the private sector in East Africa, faith groups in West Africa as part of the Ebola response, and civil-society leaders and youth in the Central African Republic. We are sure that as we scale up these relationships around the world, we will increase the quality, reach and effectiveness of our responses.

Starting with the commitments we make at the World Humanitarian Summit, we must all agree to stop simply providing supplies to the world’s most exposed, defenseless people. Instead, we must listen to them and their calls for self-sufficiency and help in reducing their vulnerability over the long term.

At the Summit, World Vision will put forward bold commitments relating to financing, urban response and innovation, child protection, peacebuilding and partnerships. The UN Secretary-General is calling for strong commitments from global leaders, donors, business, investors and aid agencies to make the necessary changes that leave no one behind, and which close the relief-to-development divide once and for all.

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AFGHANISTAN: Afghan teenager braves threats, family pressure to lead women’s orchestra

 Mon, 18 Apr 2016  By: Mirwais Harooni  Reuters

Mina Salarzai, a member of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, practises at Afghanistan's National Institute of Music, in Kabul, Afghanistan April 9, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Mina Salarzai, a member of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, practises at Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music, in Kabul, Afghanistan April 9, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

KABUL, April 18 (Reuters) – Like many teenagers, 19-year-old Negin Khpalwak from Kunar in eastern Afghanistan loves music, but few people of her age have battled as fiercely to pursue their passion in the face of family hostility and threats.

Playing instruments was banned outright during the period of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and even today, many conservative Muslims frown on most forms of music.

Negin took her first steps learning music in secret, before eventually revealing her activity to her father. He encouraged her, but the reaction from the rest of her conservative Pashtun family was hostile.

“Apart from my father, everybody in the family is against it,” she said. “They say, ‘How can a Pashtun girl play music?’ Especially in our tribe, where even a man doesn’t have the right to do it.”

Now living in an orphanage in the Afghan capital of Kabul, Negin leads the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women at the Afghanistan National Institute for Music that plays both Western and Afghan musical instruments.

When she went home on a recent visit, her uncles and brothers threatened to beat her for a performing appearance on television, and she had to return to Kabul the next day.

“Compared to women outside Afghanistan, we feel we are in a cage,” she said.

In a country notorious internationally for harsh restrictions on women in most areas of life, Negin’s story highlights a double challenge.

“The formation of the orchestra is an achievement in itself,” said Ahmad Naser Sarmast, a musicologist who returned home from Australia after the fall of the Taliban to help found the National Institute for Music in 2010.

“I WILL NEVER ACCEPT DEFEAT”

While children at the school have the support of their parents, they often face pressure from their wider family as well as from religious authorities, he said.

“The bravery of the girls sitting in the orchestra and the leadership of a young female conductor is an achievement for Afghanistan,” he said.

Some of the women say their relatives are proud of their achievements, but they face suspicion from others, as well as intimidation.

“When I have my musical instruments with me, people talk a lot behind my back,” said Mina, a trumpeter in the orchestra, whose mother is a policewoman in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

“There are a lot of security problems, and if we go from one place to another with our instruments, then we have to go by car,” she added.

The dangers awaiting performers in Afghanistan were brutally highlighted in 2014, when Sarmast was nearly killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up during a show at a French-run school in Kabul.

He has not been discouraged, however. The formation of the girls’ orchestra was the best response to extremists, he said, adding that the school was trying to help Negin continue her education, despite the family problems.

Negin remains fiercely determined to continue on a path that has given her a new sense of identity.

“I am not that Negin anymore,” she said. “I have been leading this orchestra for six months now, and leadership takes a lot of effort.”

She is ready to leave her family behind for the sake of her music, she said, although, in Afghanistan, family is crucial to most people’s sense of their position in the world.

“I will never accept defeat,” she said. “I will continue to play music. I do not feel safe, but when people see me and say, ‘That is Negin Khpalwak’, that gives me energy.”

(Additional reporting by; Sayed Hassib; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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ON THE MEDIA: INTERVIEW: Citizen journalists in Syria ‘risking their lives’ for news

13 Apr 2016   By: Tristan Martin  Reuters

Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim poses for a portrait at the office of Index on Censorship, an NGO that promotes and defends the right to freedom of expression, in London, Britain April 13, 2016. REUTERS/Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tristan Martin

Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim poses for a portrait at the office of Index on Censorship, an NGO that promotes and defends the right to freedom of expression, in London, Britain April 13, 2016. REUTERS/Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tristan Martin

LONDON, April 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A series of short films, “Syria’s Rebellious Women,” by Zaina Erhaim tells the stories of women who stepped into positions of leadership and responsibility usually reserved for men.

If such remarkable women went undocumented, the Syrian filmmaker says, “the male winners will be writing the history, and the heroines will be forgotten.”

Erhaim, being honored with a 2016 Freedom of Expression award from Index on Censorship, has trained more than 100 citizen journalists in Syria and helped establish a number of independent newspapers and magazines.

In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, she discussed their challenges and how Syrians carry on despite the war and chaos around them.

THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION: At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, there were many foreign journalists reporting from the country. As they began to leave, what kind of space did this open up for Syrian journalists?

ERHAIM: It created the need for Syrians to do the journalism work themselves and to be citizen journalists. But sadly, this didn’t make the citizen journalists credible enough for the international media to take them seriously and deal with them as actual journalists.

It’s very sad to see that an agency is dealing with the same citizen journalist for four years, taking all their credible news from him, but when it comes to payment or to health insurance, or to considering him as a correspondent, they don’t.

TRF: What were your aims with the training courses you ran in Syria?

ERHAIM: When the revolution started, many of my friends who had no experience in journalism at all, they started looking for a journalist that they can trust. I decided that I’m going to do my best to give them those skills that I gained so they could be taken seriously.

They’re risking their lives so that this news can go out.

So what I have been trying to do, mainly, is just to help them be more professional and be taken seriously.

TRF: What challenges do female citizen journalists in particular face in Syria?

ERHAIM: I think movement is a big thing. You always need a male guardian to be able to move. At checkpoints you’re going to be asked, ‘Where is your guardian?’ If you’re seen alone on the street, they would look like, ‘Why is she moving on her own?’

For me as a trainer, I had to do lots of efforts to be taken seriously by the male trainees, like ‘How could a woman know better than a man?’

And everything that the woman is doing is much more in the spotlight, compared to the man. The smallest mistake she makes would have a huge impact, while a man could kill someone on the street by mistake and no one would question him.

TRF: What do you think will happen to the status of women when the war is over?

ERHAIM: I believe when a woman goes to the street and starts working, and being financially independent, it’s impossible to get her back to be a housewife waiting for her husband to give her cash. Many of them have become opinion leaders.

But I think for regular women, especially in the last two years where the society has become very militarised, they had this kind of ‘We need to stay at home, we’re too afraid, our children are not secure.’ So it became more and more closed.

Those few activists who are still active, they are trying to break these barriers, they are trying to get these women out and to tell them that like us, you are also capable of doing things.

TRF: One of the striking things about your series of short documentary films is the humour. How do Syrians carry on under such difficult conditions?

ERHAIM: Humour is a huge part in our daily lives. We even make jokes of death, of anything you wouldn’t imagine, like torture. We mock ourselves, we mock our fears. I think this is one of our ways of resisting and going on. Otherwise, we would really become much more insane than we are already.

We live, we go for trips, we go for picnics, although on the last picnic I went to, we had three snipers who were on the Aleppo castle. We were exposed to a machine gun – an M16 – but we just had a picnic. We hid among the grass. We had lots of food and drinks, and we enjoyed the picnic.

TRF: There is a whole generation in Syria now that has never known peace. What future do you see for these children?

ERHAIM: The most frightening scene for me is when you see how comfortable they are dealing with death, with graves. Like a kid was playing on his father’s grave in one of the parks in Aleppo city, and then he found some grasses on it, and he cut some of them and said, “Mama, could we put that on the salad?”

The whole idea that you are so at ease with your father’s tomb, and you could just eat something that’s been planted on it. I really fear what these kids are going to be doing in the future.

(Reporting by Tristan Martin, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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DEVELOPMENT: Global inequality may be much worse than we think

By:   Friday 8 April 2016

Protesters in the Phillipines were dispersed by police as they demonstrated over inequality in 2011.

How do we measure inequality? From some angles, things appear to be improving, but from others the situation is getting worse and worse

It’s familiar news by now. Oxfam’s figures have gone viral: the richest 1% nowhave more wealth than the rest of the world’s population combined. Global inequality is worse than at any time since the 19th century.

For most people, this is all they know about global inequality. But Oxfam’s wealth figures don’t quite tell the whole story. What about income inequality? And – more importantly – what about inequalities between countries? If we expand our view beyond the usual metrics, we can learn a lot more about how unequal our world has become.

The first thing to say about Oxfam’s numbers is that they present a very conservative picture. Given that the rich hide so much of their wealth in tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions, it is impossible to know how much they really have. Recent estimates suggest that up to $32tn is stored away in tax havens – around one sixth of the world’s total private wealth. If we were to add that to Oxfam’s metrics, inequality would look much, much worse.

But that’s wealth. Many analysts object that we shouldn’t be measuring wealth inequality, but rather income inequality. This has been a major criticism of Oxfam’s numbers. And when you look at income inequality, it doesn’t seem so bad. At least not according to the dominant narrative. Branko Milanovic, one of the world’s leading experts in global income inequality, argues that while inequality is getting worse within countries, on a global scale it is actually getting better.

We can measure income inequality with the Gini index. A score of 0 represents total equality and a score of 1 represents total inequality, where one person has everything and everyone else has nothing. According to Milanovic, the global Gini index has decreased slightly, from 0.72 in 1988 to 0.71 in 2008. So perhaps we shouldn’t be overly worried about inequality.

The Gini index is a troublesome measure, though, because it only captures relative changes. If the incomes of the rich and the poor increase by the same rate, then the Gini index remains the same, even though absolute inequality is increasing. In other words, if person A has $10k and person B has $100k, and then both of them double their income, the Gini remains the same, even though the income gap will have grown from $90k to $180k.

Economist Robert Wade argues that this is a highly misleading measurement, as it obscures the true extent of inequality. We should be using the absolute Gini index, he says. So what happens if we do that? We see that inequality has exploded over the past few decades, from 0.57 in 1988 to 0.72 in 2005.

But hold on, you might say. Income inequality among individuals might be getting worse, but surely the gap between poor countries and rich countries is narrowing. The international development industry is helping to bridge the chasm between the west and the rest, right? This is a common opinion; I hear it all the time from students at the London School of Economics, where I teach. After all, “convergence theory” holds that, because poor countries grow at a faster rate than rich countries, over time the gap between the two will automatically diminish.

Unfortunately, it’s not true. In fact, history shows exactly the opposite. Inequality between countries has been increasing by orders of magnitude over the past two hundred years, and shows no signs of slowing.

There are a few ways we can look at this. Probably the most common way to think about global inequality is to measure the gap between the richest and poorest countries in real income per capita. Using data from the Maddison Project, we see that in 1960, at the end of colonialism, people living in the world’s richest country were 33 times richer than people living in the poorest country. That’s quite a substantial gap. But then by 2000, after neoliberal globalisation had run its course, they were a shocking 134 times richer. And that’s not counting extreme outliers, like small oil-rich kingdoms in the Middle East or tiny offshore tax havens. This isn’t convergence. To quote Lant Pritchett, it’s divergence, big time.

If we look at it in absolute terms, it’s just as bad. From 1960 to today, based on the data from the Maddison Project, the absolute gap between the average incomes of people in the richest and poorest countries has grown by 135%.

Of course, this metric overstates inequality by focusing on countries at either extreme. We can correct for this by looking at regional differences. The best way to do this is to measure the gap, in real terms, between the GDP per capita of the world’s dominant power (the United States) and that of various regions of the global South. Using World Bank figures, we see that since 1960 the gap for Latin America has grown by 206%, the gap for sub-Saharan Africa has grown by 207%, and the gap for South Asia has grown by 196%. In other words, the global inequality gap has roughly tripled in size.

Over the past few decades inequality has become so bad that, in 2000, Americans were nine times richer than Latin Americans, 72 times richer than sub-Saharan Africans, and a mind-popping 80 times richer than south Asians. These numbers give us a sense for how unfairly the global economy distributes our planet’s wealth.

It doesn’t matter how you slice it; global inequality is getting worse. Much worse. Convergence theory turned out to be wildly incorrect. Inequality doesn’t disappear automatically; it all depends on the balance of political power in the global economy. As long as a few rich countries have the power to set the rules to their own advantage, inequality will continue to worsen. The debt system, structural adjustment, free trade agreements, tax evasion, and power asymmetries in the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO are all major reasons that inequality is getting worse instead of better.

It’s time we face up to the imbalances that distort our global economy. There’s nothing natural about extreme inequality. It is man-made. It has to do with power. And we need to have the courage to say so.

  • This article was amended on 7th April 2016. Due to a mathematical error an earlier version said that “since 1960 the gap for Latin America has grown by 306%, the gap for sub-Saharan Africa has grown by 307%, and the gap for South Asia has grown by 296%. In other words, the global inequality gap has roughly tripled in size”. The gap has indeed tripled, but the percentages should read 206%, 207% and 196%.
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AFGHANISTAN/ON THE MEDIA: A FLICKERING TRUTH

Dir: Pietra Brettkelly
New Zealand / Afghanistan / 2015 / 91mins

We’re delighted to announce a Q&A with director Pietra Brettkelly, via skype, on Saturday 30 April following the screening at 18:30. Click here to book.

As Afghanistan teeters on the edge of an unpredictable future, A Flickering Truth unwraps the world of three dreamers, the dust of 100 years of war and the restoration of 8000 hours of film archive.

Afghanistan’s rich film history might well have been lost forever, if not for the brave custodians revealed in this doc, who risked their lives to conceal films from the Taliban regime. The journey through thousands of hours of dusty film reels yields new surprises every day. Watching rediscovered material sparks youthful recollections among the archive staff – of the films they saw or made, and of the society they have lost. As the caretakers thread old projectors with film from unmarked reels, the country’s history comes alive with images of former leaders, beloved actresses, and landmarks that have since been destroyed.

A Flickering Truth is a testament to the urgency and necessity of film preservation.

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AFGHANISTAN: Afghan schools, hospitals under threat, U.N. says in grim report

Mon, 18 Apr 2016    By: Josh Smith    Reuters

Teacher Mahajera Armani and her class of girls pose for a picture at their study open area, founded by Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), outside Jalalabad city, Afghanistan September 19, 2015.

Teacher Mahajera Armani and her class of girls pose for a picture at their study open area, founded by Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), outside Jalalabad city, Afghanistan September 19, 2015.

KABUL, April 18 (Reuters) – Schools and health facilities have come under increasing threat as violence spreads in Afghanistan, making it harder for children especially to get access to education and medical care, the United Nations reported on Monday.

Western-backed Afghan government forces are locked in a protracted battle with Taliban insurgents who are at their strongest since they were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.

International donors have poured billions of dollars into reconstruction in Afghanistan, including education and health programmes, but the conflict threatens to undermine services provided to millions of Afghans, the new U.N. report said.

Although direct attacks on schools and health facilities dropped slightly from previous years, U.N. monitors recorded 257 conflict-related incidents in 2015, up from 130 in 2014.

“It is simply unacceptable for teachers, doctors and nurses to be subjected to violence or threats, and for schools and medical facilities to be misused or attacked,” Nicholas Haysom, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement.

“All parties must take measures to protect education and health services in Afghanistan,” he said.

Sixty-three medical personnel were killed or wounded in 2015, most of them in a single, mistaken attack by a U.S. warplane on a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in the northern city of Kunduz in October.

In 2014, 25 health workers were killed or wounded.

A further 66 medical personnel were abducted in 2015, compared with 31 the year before.

Deaths and injuries among teachers and other education workers were down, to 26 in 2015 from 37 the year before, but abductions spiked to 49 from 14 in the same period.

Reports of threats and intimidation against medical and education workers also increased dramatically.

Violence forced more than 369 schools to close last year, affecting more than 139,000 students and 600 teachers, according to the U.N. report.

Among the hardest hit areas was eastern Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan, where militants linked to the Islamic State militant group forced the closure of at least 11 clinics and 68 schools.

Insurgent groups were blamed for the majority of incidents, but pro-government forces were also reported to have harassed medical workers and used schools as fighting positions.

At least 600 civilians have been killed in fighting so far this year, with another 1,343 wounded, U.N. human rights investigators said on Sunday, with urban warfare causing a spike in casualties among women and children.

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HAITI: Hillary Clinton and Haiti

 18 April 2016  Ricardo Seitenfus   TRANSCENDMS

hillary clinton

11 Apr 2016 – The Clintons’ high-profile interest in Haiti dates back almost all the way to their wedding in 1975. Shortly after their honeymoon in Acapulco, Bill and Hillary Clinton received an invitation from David Edwards — a friend and Citibank executive — to accompany him to Haiti.

Edwards’s motivation in getting the Clintons closer to Haiti was neither cultural nor humanitarian. The reason was Citibank’s long-standing financial interests in the country, which now go back over a century.

In 1909, the National City Bank of New York — Citibank — acquired a majority stake in the National Bank of Haiti,  an institution that had been under French control and which, since 1880, held the power to issue paper money and to serve as central bank for the Haitian treasury. In 1914, Roger Leslie Farnham — in charge of the Caribbean region at Citibank — pressed Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan for Washington to militarily intervene in Haiti in order to protect U.S. interests. One year later, 19 years of occupation would begin for the country.

It was only the beginning of U.S. meddling in the affairs of its poorer neighbor.

***

In April 2009, the State Department, under the leadership of Hillary Clinton, decided to completely change the nature of U.S. cooperation with Haiti.

Apparently tired with the lack of concrete results of U.S. aid, Hillary decided to align the policies of the State Department with the “smart power” doctrine proposed by the Clinton Foundation. From that moment on, following trends in philanthropy, the solutions of US assistance would be based solely on “evidence.” The idea, according to Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff, “was that if we’re putting in the assistance, we need to know what the outcomes are going to be.”

The January 2010 earthquake was the long awaited opportunity to test this new policy.

Mills was no development expert, but her connection to the Clintons ran deep. A graduate of Stanford Law School, Mills had been the unofficial manager of Hillary’s 2008 presidential campaign and Bill’s defense lawyer during his impeachment. Despite having no training or experience in development economics, Rolling Stone reported a few years back, Mills “was determined to figure out a new way of doing things that would be more effective, both for the U.S. and for Haiti.”

The idea was to transform Haiti into a Taiwan of the Caribbean, with maquiladoras, an apparel industry, tourism, and call centers. These would be the niche sectors that would guide the new cooperation framework.

In this plan, the particularities of Haiti itself didn’t matter much.

Yet more than hope, there was certainty that the country would eventually conform to the plans being imposed by the Harvard Business School technocrats. Haiti was to fit within the parameters of capitalist efficiency: “Is this going to be hard? Yes,” Hillary Clinton tearfully told The Miami Herald. “Do I think we can do it? Absolutely, I do.”

The volunteering amateurism of the Clintons was so far gone that Bill publicly declared in a speech in Port-au-Prince that he would make Haiti the first fully Wi-Fi-connected country on the planet.

For the desired policy changes to work within a diplomatic framework, the veneer of “democracy” needed to be maintained. Ergo, Clinton and Mills played a heavy role in Haiti’s contested 2010 elections.

BOID–the new Tonton Macoute

BOID–the new Tonton Macoute

I was present at a December 2010 meeting where the so-called “Core Group” of (initially the U.S., Canada, and France, but Brazil got a spot because of its role in the UN mission) plotted a coup against Haitian President René Préval, until then-Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive unexpectedly showed up. I intervened, citing the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Legality and common sense had prevailed. But until when? My hopes were still alive and I did not notice that a common international front had formed; one that would decide Haiti’s electoral path.

After this failed attempt, the Core Group quickly came to realize the absurdity of attempting to depose Préval. Rewriting history, in the following days, several ambassadors, when asked about the topic, would shamelessly lie, denying its existence.

Finally, on Sunday, January 30, 2011, the unavoidable foreign actor in the recurring Haitian political crisis decided to put an end to the dispute. Hillary Clinton had arrived in Port-au-Prince.

The secretary of state had taken care to invite her colleagues, the foreign ministers from the other member-states of the Core Group, to accompany her in a delicate mission to Port-au-Prince. They all declined the gesture, alleging it would be impossible for them to fit the event in their agendas. However, this was not the reason for their refusal. Since the Haitian crisis had been detonated by the United States, even on the night of the election, it was Washington’s responsibility to resolve it.

After talking to several public figures, both Haitian and foreign, the head of the State Department knew that the last meeting before returning to Washington would be decisive. Préval awaited her in his simple office next to the ruins of the National Palace.

Former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide campaigns alongside Dr. Maryse Narcisse. (Daniel Morel)

Former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide campaigns alongside Dr. Maryse Narcisse. (Daniel Morel)

Bellerive and Cheryl Mills were also present during the meeting in question – images of which are presented in Raoul Peck’s documentary Fatal Assistance.

Hillary Clinton began the meeting saying she was not interested in who would, or would not go on to the second round. What brought her to Haiti and to Préval was to try to offer him her advice and hear the allegations of his old friend of many battles. What mattered to her was to see that Préval emerged exalted from the crisis. Nothing else. She claimed she had made no commitments to the other actors involved in the crisis or even with the three presidential candidates, only to Préval and his future. He had been a constant and loyal ally. Now he was in a delicate situation, for they were accusing him of acting as a petty dictator, imposing an unknown candidate who had no representation and was manipulable.

For the woman in charge of US diplomacy, it must have been during those moments of uncertainty and difficulties that true friends were found. It was for this reason that Hillary was there, as a friend of Préval and of Haiti, as she always had been.

Towards the end of the meeting, she asked Préval to make a last gesture in favor of harmony and understanding. It was to be a gesture that would lead him, once and for all, to a special place in the pantheon of Haiti’s history and the struggle for democracy in the continent. Préval replied with an emotive, albeit enigmatic smile. It was only him who knew that the crisis had reached its epilogue at that moment.

As she was leaving the house, Hillary invited Bellerive to accompany her. The prime minister asked Préval for authorization to do so and placed himself between the two women inside the armored truck that left in a convoy to the airport. Confident that she had obtained what she wanted, Hillary was concerned now with the result of the second round. Bellerive removed all traces of apprehension when he informed her that Michel Martelly was going to win easily. And so he did.

As she was heading toward the plane, Hillary made a comment to Bellerive about his family relationship with Martelly. He confirmed that they were distant cousins. Since they were both educated individuals and the game was already over, the secretary of state allowed herself to make a joke and asked: “You are relatives, but you don’t sing?” Bellerive replied, humorously: “Neither does he.”

Hillary confessed having heard Martelly sing some songs and could not agree more with Bellerive. Then, smiling, she left Haiti.

 

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ON THE MEDIA: A serious problem the news industry does not talk about

Ask anyone working in a newsroom what they think of their audience, and you’ll hear a variety of answers. Over the past couple of years, Andrew Haeg and I have been asking that very question of hundreds of reporters, editors and producers in newsrooms around the world. I’m not one to manufacture an emergency, but the answers we’re hearing are pretty troubling. What they’re saying points to a very serious problem:

The culture of journalism breeds disdain for the people we’re meant to be serving, i.e., the audience.

Before we dive into specifics, first a little context about us and why we find this so troubling. Andrew Haeg is a former journalist who runs a company called GroundSource, and I’m a former journalist who runs a company calledHearken. We both left great jobs in great newsrooms to pioneer new forms and tools for audience engagement. Why? Because of what we think about audiences: they’re amazing, they’re underappreciated, and they can be of incredible benefit to newsrooms if they’re given the right conditions to shine. We’ve witnessed audience members go beyond the decency of polite and productive comments to send helpful news tips, share personal stories that humanize difficult subjects, contribute original story ideas that go on to win awards, to name a few. (See the bottom of this post for plenty more examples.)

We recognize that the world is no longer top-down. We want to help newsrooms recognize that, too. We’re focused on evolving new models and tools for newsrooms to partner with the incredible people in their communities, rather than toss content down at them from the mountaintop, hoping they’ll like it, share it, come back for more and maybe one day pay for it if we need them to (by asking nicely or threatening to shut it off). Thing is, there is no mountaintop anymore. Newsrooms no longer have a lock on the information people need and want to live their lives.

We believe the survival and relevance of the news industry depends on newsrooms’ ability to build meaningful relationships with the people they serve. That’s why it’s so troubling to hear reporters, editors, and managers alike have such disdain for their audiences. In conversations with newsrooms, we’ve witnessed this disdain range from subtle annoyance to straight-up hatred. The following is adapted from a recent conversation between Andrew and I exploring this culture of disdain, how it got to be this way, and what can be done to shift it.

How we’ve witnessed it

Brandel: In about two-thirds of the meetings I’ve had with newsrooms, someone in the room, often a manager, editor or some other higher-up says something along the lines of, “If we gave the audience what they wanted, they’d ask for crap!” Or “Our audience isn’t very smart, they probably wouldn’t have any good ideas.” Or, the big doozy, and the inspiration for this post, said by a manager during a meeting at a highly respected, hugely award-winning news outlet: “Our audience is a bunch of idiots and assholes. Why exactly would we want to hear more from them than we already do?”

Haeg: I had a colleague who referred to the audience as the “great, unwashed masses.” It was always said for laughs, and it was funny in a hard-bitten, grizzled news veteran kind of way. But that always stuck in my craw, and I realized that he was actually expressing what many, maybe most journalists felt. Spend any time in a newsroom, and listen to the tone with which people refer to the public — whether they’re commenters, or tweeters, or callers to talk shows. It’s as if we’re the sentries at the gate, keeping the zombies from overtaking the little civilization we’ve built (clearly I’ve been watching too much of The Walking Dead).

And the more I thought about this attitude journalists hold, the more I was like: Well of course they feel that way! Journalists mainly hear from “the public” when they’ve gotten something wrong, or when someone with time on their hands and an axe to grind finds the reporter’s phone or email. And when reporters go out “into the field” (which in and of itself evokes a kind of anthropological distance), they often encounter humanity at its worst. Now do that day in, day out, return to the office, commiserate with colleagues, develop some inside jokes, and voila! You have a culture. Now when the freshies come through the door on their first day at work, they absorb almost instantly the internal values of the place.

Brandel: Exactly. When the bulk of feedback journalists get is from people complaining or telling them that they suck, how can it not take a toll? What worries me is what happens over time. It can lead journalists to believe those vocal few with hot words are the audience. Not a small handful, but representative of everyone.

Ways of dismantling disdain for audience

Brandel: A helpful view I keep returning to is from this epidemiologist Gary Slutkin who works to prevent gun violence through treating it like a disease. He says when people feel anger, it’s actually a secondary form of sadness. The primary emotion is sadness, but it presents as anger. I can’t help but think that if you unpack the anger news folks can have toward their audience, you’d uncover sadness. It’s sadness that the public doesn’t understand or respect how much work and consideration goes into good reporting, sadness that they can’t always do their best work with ferocious daily demands, sadness that someone who they’re ultimately trying to help and serve thinks they are terrible at their jobs, or a terrible person. Regardless if you’re a journalist in the state of sadness or anger, changing the relationship with a person or a group you see as adversarial takes a great deal of perspective.

Haeg: Changing from within is really, really hard. It takes strong leaders, it takes people willing to try new ways of working, it takes the space and the resources to reframe and rethink the work we do. There’s actually a formula for change that speaks to what’s needed. I won’t go too much into it, except to say that you need a shared sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo, a vision for the future and concrete next steps for what you’ll do starting now. If you lack any one of those, resistance will always be stronger than the forces for change. ALWAYS. As one of my professors during my Knight fellowship at Stanford told me, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

But I do think the current state of relations between newsrooms and communities can’t persist, and to a large extent, economic and technological forces are making sure of that. In some ways, I see a parallel to the calls for police reform: moving from a culture of cops as warriors to cops as members of the communities they’re supposed to protect and serve.

One model has you out dressed for battle, treating the community as a threat; the other sees the public as just like us. Which is the more effective approach in the long run?

Now of course, we can’t have journalists on every corner. But technology does allow us to extend our reach. And that’s why I’m building GroundSource — to enable community-minded news organizations to engage in a way that’s positive; manageable and efficient; shapes good, grounded journalism; and builds relationships of trust and loyalty with the community.

But for GroundSource or Hearken to be of any use, we first have to ask ourselves this question: To what extent do we as journalists and news organizations feel a responsibility to our community? It seems we’ve gotten out of the business of taking pride in our communities and instead have doubled-down on clicks and shares as measures of our efficacy. Of course we need to pay the bills, but our long-term viability is tied more to the quality of the community we can build around us, not whether we can trick someone who clicked on a story about crime to read one about Britney Spears’ fabulous new abs. I exaggerate. Or DO I?

If our goal becomes building relationships and communities, then we’ll forego the digital sleight of hand and instead provide experiences that make people want to come back, and participate, and do it again because it felt good and it meant something. Because it helped — even if in a tiny way — make the place we live in better.

Brandel: Could not agree more. But how to help nudge newsrooms toward this vision? In the short term, I’ve been pondering ways to help dismantle that notion that “audiences are a bunch of idiots and assholes.” So here’s a handy flowchart that journalists can flash whenever colleagues start to be haters:

Brandel: I mean, we know rationally that treating any group as monolithic is at the very least, inaccurate, and at the very worst, dangerous. (“Fill in the blank are terrorists!” “Fill in the blank are evil!” “Fill in the blank are stupid!”) Journalists of course hate being painted with any broad brush like this, too, and we hear it all the time. “The media is … lazy, biased, corrupt, etc.”

A great quote that sums this up was brought to my attention by Adrienne Debigare, who commented on another post with this line from Men In Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.”

So how does the news industry begin to treat audiences as individuals instead of a mass? Will it be by using more tools and scraping data that shows what’s trending, what everyone is talking about, viral reach scores, etc? Nope. If anything, that puts us at an even further distance from the very human task of getting to understand people. I love this line from Jeff Jarvis in his book Geeks Bearing Gifts: “Knowing people as individuals and community — no longer as a mass — will allow us to build better services and new forms of news.”

I think dismantling the disdain for audience will require hard work of news outlets actually getting to know their communities as made up of real, individual, wonderful and wonderfully complex people. Newsrooms need to assume that their audience is capable of more, and then create the conditions for that assumption to be proven right. There’s this great old video of author Viktor Frankl talking about how as human beings, we only become our best when we set our expectations high. It reminds me that whatever we think news audiences are capable of, we’re right. So why not set our expectations higher, start devising ways audiences can be helpful, smart and kind, and calibrate opportunities for engagement to prove it?

Haeg: I have a quote that I come back to from time to time when I lose faith in the democratic aims of journalism, when I feel beset by the negativity in the news and start to listen to the cynic on my shoulder. It’s from Studs Terkel. “There’s a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence,” he writes, “providing they have the facts, providing they have the information.” What I like about it is that it’s a realistic and measured, but it’s also wildly hopeful.

Shining examples of audience greatness

In case it’s still unbelievable to think of audience members are truly helpful, productive and game-changing to a newsroom, we pulled together some examples from our own experiences and partners that convince us.

Hearken partners

When a Mom’s education question is about more than just her kids

We partner with the education news site Chalkbeat New York. The team at Chalkbeat starts every Hearken-powered investigation with a full profile of the person who asked the question. For example, Mishi Faruqee is a parent who asked which (if any) NYC schools reflect the city’s diversity. Reporter Stephanie Snyder wrote a great profile about Mishi’s interest in the question as a parent with school-aged kids. And then Mishi followed up with apowerful letter to the editor explaining why her question is about more than her own children’s education. Mishi’s story is great proof that communities don’t just engage with the newsrooms out of personal interest.

A troll-free story about guns in Chicago

Recently, our Community Manager Ellen Mayer reported a story for WBEZ’s Curious City (Hearken’s flagship series) answering the question: “What happened to all the rifle ranges in Chicago.” This story deals with Big Scary Conversations around gun control, gun culture, and the NRA, topics that usually seem to invite intense vitriol from all sides of the gun debate. But this story was anchored by the perspective and nostalgia of the man who asked the question, Bob Collar. He’s a proud lifetime member of the NRA, but he’s not interested in the politics; he just really likes the rifle sport and misses the old rifle ranges he went to as a kid. Bob put a human face on a contentious issue, and the story didn’t get a single negative response. He even jumped into the comments section to facilitate conversation. How’s that for audience participation! (WBEZ’s new site redesign has removed comments (?), but trust us, it was great!)

Curious citizen turned energy activist

Way back in 2013, Janice Thompson asked WBEZ’s Curious City about Chicago’s new energy supplier. Janice wanted to know how much of the city’s energy would now come from natural gas, via fracking. Before that point, Janice had never felt like she could understand or have any effect on energy policy. But once Curious City investigated her question, Janice was galvanized to pursue the issue further. She did some of her own investigating which ultimately became a part of Curious City’s story. And she became a community educator around energy issues in Chicago. In 2014 she wrote an incredible blog post crediting Curious City with her transformation: “Many times I’ve asked myself ‘Why am I doing this? Isn’t electricity a tedious subject best left to experts?’ Knowing that the staff at WBEZ’s Curious City cared what I did, that they valued citizen input as much as that of experts, kept me going.”

Audience participation upping quality of life for reporters

One lighter story that our partners out of St. Louis Public Radio assigned for their series, Curious Louis, answered what is the best doughnut in St. Louis?Reporter Willis Ryder Arnold said this was the most fun he’s had as a reporter, and got the opportunity to be far more creative than usual with this assignment. Plus, he got to hang out with an incredibly excitable fan of his outlet (the question asker Andwele Jolly) and eat a ton of doughnuts.

Dollar bills and hot sauce

Partners at WFDD reported on a much-loved hot sauce that went missing from local stores. It was brought to their attention by a Curious Carolina listener, Wendell Burton, who asked about it. Burton not only turned into a lovable, relatable protagonist for the story, but after the story aired he increased his membership donation amount to WFDD and sent the newsroom a collection of his own homemade hot sauces.

GroundSource partners

Using GroundSource, Listening Post Macon reached out to area residents to gather perspectives on gun control. We heard back from dozens of people who shared their experiences with guns, and how those experiences informed their opinions of gun control. We didn’t hear back the typical circle-the-wagons bloviating you get in comments. Instead we heard stories of people who grew up in hunting families but supported stricter background checks, and from one mother whose son was killed walking to the gas station — and was teaching her kids to use guns to protect themselves. GPB reporter Grant Blankenship picked up the thread and produced this story for statewide radio.

Listening Post New Orleans is a community-driven news service built using GroundSource, and for the past two years, week in week out, they’ve managed to draw out an astounding diversity of voices speaking to their specific reality living life in a community with great charm and great challenges.

The Alabama Media Group has used GroundSource to gather community input on stories ranging from guns to health care to overcrowded prisons — and mother’s day. They asked Alabamans what their favorite “mom-isms” were and heard from more than 100 people by text and voicemails, which they used to create a 3-plus-minute audio piece which is worth a listen. Not hard-hitting journalism, but I can think of few other projects I’ve worked on that so effectively revealed the voice of the community.

I worked on this project while at APM with the Public Insight Network. We reached out to Lutherans to talk about their experience as the ELCA decided to allow gay clergy to serve as pastors. More than 2,500 people responding, providing us with a deep and nuanced view of a community facing a schism. It showed me what was possible when you open up to hearing voices who don’t feel like they have any other place to express themselves.

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AFGHANISTAN: Disabled young Afghan artist dreams to become professional teacher

By KHAAMA PRESS – Thu Apr 14 2016, 10:26 pm   KHAAMA 

The story of a young disabled Afghan girl has gone viral in Afghanistan with reports and stories surfacing the media regarding her extraordinary drawing skills.

The young Rubaba is disabled from her legs and hands but she dreams to become a professional teacher in the future despite her family is suffering from poverty and she is not able to walk and perform like other children.

Her heartbreaking story has attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of people after she appeared she in various Television reports, causing the social media users to overwhelmingly share her stories in the internet.

The 16-year-old Rubaba says she wants to become a professional artist and teacher in the future as she is practicing the art at home using her teeth to grab the pencil.

The young girl says she is also interested to learn English language and attend classes in school similar as other children.

She was born disabled but Rubaba says she has learnt a lot by studying at home and looking at her brothers and sisters.

Rubaba is now able to write and is hopeful to have more achievements in the future as she believes disability is not a barrier to stop someone from reading, writing and participating in social affairs.

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ON THE MEDIA: How Crowdfunding Is Empowering Communities to Tell Own Their Stories

By: Angilee Shah   April 11, 2016   MediaShift 

A collage of images from stories report by Global Nation at PRI. Their new campaign is working to bring new voices into public media.

A collage of images from stories report by Global Nation at PRI. Their new campaign is working to bring new voices into public media.

The following opinion piece is a guest post and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.

I’ve been running a crowdfunding campaign with my colleagues here at Public Radio International for one month. What I’ve learned: It’s about so much more than money.

We crafted the Global Nation Reporting Fund as a challenge to ourselves: Could we get one new contributor onto PRI.org — and thus give them a step into public media — every week for a year? Could we get more people who are immersed in the communities and topics we want to cover to become the authors of the stories we tell? And could we do it in a way where this community, largely immigrants and children of immigrants themselves, are the funders as well?

From the beginning, this was a project led by a group of people who are interested in conversations about immigration that connect different ethnic groups and people with varied experiences. The rewards for our Kickstarter campaign come largely from members of the Global Nation Exchange, our discussion group on Facebook. The message comes from them, too.
They are backing the campaign and using their networks to grow the fund. But they are also becoming more engaged as they realize they have power in how the national news media covers them. Since we began our Kickstarter campaign last month, the discussion group has grown from just under 1,000 members to over 1,300. We are getting more story tips and pitches than ever. The conversations in the group, this empowered community, have always been rich. Now, they are illuminating.

Diverse Media Makes For Better Journalism

Global Nation began in the fall of 2012 as PRI’s The World’s commitment to immigration coverage, led by editor Monica Campbell. I was then the social editor and am now the digital editor. And I am proud of our track record: My colleague, Lisa Gardner-Springer at PRI, conducted an audit of our work. Of a random sample of 23 stories, she discovered: Of 54 sources in Global Nation stories, 81.5 percent were people of color and/or Hispanic. Among the 26 authors, half were people of color and/or Hispanic.

It’s a big contrast to the broader American media landscape. Nationally, less than 10 percent of the radio news workforce is non-white, according to the latest data from the Radio Television Digital News Association. The American Society of News Editors reports that less than 13 percent of daily-newspaper newsrooms are minorities.

For our journalism, that means we ask different questions than most of our national media. We want to know about disparities at the Oscars, but from the perspective of one of the child actors who was at the receiving end of Chris Rock’s joke about Asians. We want to explore conflict and tension, but give it the context of histories that are often left out. And we want to understand people on all sides of the immigration debate.

The upshot of all this — of empowering people at all levels of our process, from funding to reporting to discussion — is representation. One of the first members of our discussion group, Sheena Koshy, was gracious enough to tell me about her experience with Global Nation. She immigrated from Dubai one week before 9/11 and has thought deeply about what it means to be part of America. Fifteen years and many visa types later, she’s now in the queue for an interview for her US citizenship. Seeing these stories and discussions between immigrants has been transformative, she said.

Koshy told us why she backed the Global Nation Reporting Fund. (Image by Angilee Shah)

“It has made me question what makes an American,” Sheena told me. “I bring a lot of my Indian culture and the culture I grew up with in the Middle East into becoming an American. And this little community that you’ve created has really made me feel ok about doing that. I don’t think I quite understood that is was ok to have all these different sides to your personality — and that still makes you an American.”

As is so often true, though, it’s better if you just hear Sheena herself.

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DEVELOPMENT: Secret aid worker: Why do expats earn more than the rest of us?

People riding on British pound banknotes in sky above city.

Aid agencies are all about empowering the communities they serve, but overlook equal treatment of staff in their own organisations. Photograph: Alamy

Is it hypocritical for an aid agency to come to a developing country looking to improve local lives, yet economically discriminate against local staff within their organisation? Or is there a line that separates extremely poor citizens targeted as beneficiaries from the average working citizen? Are their needs, such as equal treatment in the workplace, irrelevant?Perhaps local staff are seen more as tools to implement aid programmes without the expertise to make the big decisions. But local staff have knowledge that cannot be learned at any institution and many are highly educated with years of experience in their field, so why don’t they have the salary to match?

I am a local aid worker at an international humanitarian NGO in an east African country. Given my foreign qualifications, I negotiated hard for my salary of over $1,500 (£1,000) a month, making me one of the highest paid local staff. On average, a local employee receives a third of that, (if they are lucky) as my organisation reminds me on those times I dare to raise my head above the parapet.

On the other hand, expatriate staff receive between $3,000 and $8,000 a month. This is not uncommon in the international NGO (INGO) world. In fact, in a particularly renowned UN programme, the highest paid local employee receives less than the international intern.

In most companies, if two people who did the same role and had the same amount of experience got paid vastly different salaries, there would be uproar. Not so in the NGO world. I recently asked around my aid worker friends for their own stories of inequality in the workplace. One told me how when an expat programme director left their country office, a national staff member was hired. She was paid half his salary despite having both superior academic qualifications and experience.

Do I, as a local, not deserve the same standard of living? I pay my own rent, in the cramped, cheaper outskirts of the city. I would love to have a car that allows me to explore my country and visit its famous sights that expat workers enjoy but I only dream about. I wake up extremely early to board the cramped public minibuses to get to work on time, paying with my own money. A personal vehicle would be a great privilege. While the children of expat colleagues go to the country’s top schools, I struggle to pay the fees for my kids attending schools of a standard I can afford. I guess this economic imbalance will perpetuate into the next generation.

Do expat colleagues deserve these privileges more than I do? Must I accept unequal treatment because they are bringing in goods and services that are otherwise unavailable? I am not advocating that every NGO worker should receive mansions and cars, a pure wastage of funds that should be channelled into the community. Rather, none should get such royal treatment.

Even more double standards can be pointed out regarding per diems, rest and recuperation (R&R), and consultants. When a foreign employee travels here, they are given per diem double what we are given when we travel within the country. This usually results in a separation of groups at mealtimes – with expats fine dining and citizens grabbing something from the local joint. In challenging locations, foreign employees are given high hardship allowances and extra monthly leave days to visit home, travel expenses paid. Usually, local employees do not receive R&R. International consultants live on another planet entirely. Usually the upper limit is $800 a day, but I have encountered short-term consultants being paid up to $3,000 a day. One consultant I know was flown in for 12 days and earned $36,000, six times the average annual salary of a local employee.

The discrepancies in compensation and benefits reflect the difference in value assigned not only to needs, but to the capabilities of local versus expat staff. Foreign “experts” are assumed to know more about how to improve local lives than the locals themselves. This means that the highest positions in INGOs are almost all held by foreigners from the country in which the INGO is headquartered.

And so, with foreigners holding the power and the money, the neo-colonialist legacy continues. We locals, who are lucky enough to be employed by INGOs bite our tongues and accept our relative privilege over fellow citizens, not daring to risk questioning the inequality within the workplace lest we lose our jobs.

 

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ON THE MEDIA: In central Africa, citizens are using social media to build democracy. Here’s how.

    April 6 2016     The Washington Post

Congolese displaced residents from the southern districts of Brazzaville take shelter in a church after fleeing intense clashes between security forces and unknown assailants on April 4. (AFP/Getty Images)

Early Monday, heavy gunfire was reported in Brazzaville in Congo Republic, after disputed elections led President Denis Sassou Nguesso to declare he had been reelected to yet another term in his 32-year rule — continuing a story whose background I will explain in depth below. That fresh fighting reminds us again of the bad news from central Africa, a region that’s also known as the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

But here’s the surprise: There’s some good news, too.

Why isn’t central Africa as democratic as neighboring West Africa? 

The bad news is that compared with West Africa, where 13 out of 15 countries can reasonably be described as democracies, central Africa has seen little progress in human rights, free speech or democracy. Central Africa is home to most of the continent’s longest-serving presidents, including not just Nguesso but also Angola’s Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, who has spent 37 years in power; Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, also 37 years; Cameroon’s Paul Biya, 33 years; and Chad’s Idriss Derby, 25 years.

That’s true in part because the region is rich in mineral deposits, forests, and other natural resources. Central African leaders know they can continue profiting from lucrative trade relationships, regardless of how undemocratic they are — because even when governments and corporations condemn those leaders’ undemocratic behaviors, they keep paying for those resources.

What’s more, central African states’ political opposition is fragmented, their civil society weak, and their news media fragile. Central African journalism struggles for funds and works under tough or even draconian press laws. Journalists are too often arrested, killed, or expelled when they investigate those in power or report on corruption.

But social media offers some hope

But here’s the good news. Using social media — especially Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter — citizens are reviving moribund civil society organizations, energizing opposition movements, exposing human rights violations and electoral fraud, and rebuilding interest in elections among people who’ve become apathetic after decades of electoral fraud. That’s been true in Rwanda and in Burundi, where activists are using social media to expose state brutality, to support activists, and to exchange information. For instance, in Burundi, according to reporting by OkayAfrica, activists and independent journalists have been highly creative in spreading information via Twitter and online, reporting that:

… the best source for news on the ground is the Soundcloud account SOS Médias BURUNDI. Made up of independent journalists in Burundi now too frightened to work openly, the group posts radio clips to Soundcloud, distributing them via Tweets and Facebook posts.

A vibrant online community congregates around this news, analyzing and poking at it in real time. In August, the satirical hashtag #10millionpresidents became its popular rallying cry. The hashtag is a satirical take on Nkurunziza’s rushed third-term inauguration, proclaiming each and every Burundian a president with many participants posting their presidential platforms and images of themselves taking the oath of office.

Below are country vignettes that highlight how, specifically, social media is being used in particular ECCAS nations.

In Central African Republic, social media was central in pushing out President Francois Bozize in 2013. Journalists used their smartphones to film the abuses of the presidential guards, especially in their operations in the north. Those images were circulated via Facebook. It enabled citizens in the main cities of Bangui and Berberati, strongholds of Bozize, to see graphic images of torture carried out by the army and in particular the presidential guards.

Images circulated on Facebook are partly the reason why the Seleka rebels’ support increased in CAR. That also contributed to Bozize’s fall, because he no longer had popular support. When the Seleka rebels took over after Bozize, social media activists then used the same method against the Seleka. This time around, journalists and some politicians used both Whatsapp and Facebook to expose the new government’s abuses as well.

Through Whatsapp and Facebook, CAR citizens first discovered the mass graves of people who were killed by the Seleka rebels. That’s also how CAR citizens learned that foreign soldiers — in particular, from Sudan and Chad — had helped the Seleka rebels gain power and were now looting their country.

When the country held its first presidential elections after the conflict, watchdogs used social media to keep the outcome honest. In the first electoral round, Faustin-Archange Touadera finished second against Anicet-George Dologuele. Opposition candidates and social activists threw their support to Touadera for the second round.

And here’s how social media was key. Some pro-democracy activists, journalists and groups fighting corruption used Whatsapp and Facebook to circulate information on how Dologuele’s time as prime minister was marred by corruption. Before the electoral commission could declare a winner, local electoral observers used Facebook and Whatsapp to announce that the president-elect was Touadera, based on firsthand accounts from individual central Africans observing the votes being tallied locally. They used smartphones to film results slips — which made it far more difficult for the centralized elections commission to change the results.

CAR citizens believed that Touadera had been fairly elected, and the nation avoided post-election violence.

In Cameroon, social media activists and opposition parties have teamed up against President Biya’s plan to run for a seventh term in 2018. Using Whatsapp in particular, activists have helped expose severe failings in the country’s health system. Social media outrage prompted civil society organizations to turn out in massive numbers to demonstrate against the death of a pregnant woman who was not attended to at the hospital because she had no money. The government was forced to justify her death on television and radio, something that Cameroon’s government officials rarely do.
So what’s happening, in particular, in Congo-Brazzaville?

In that country, where we’ve just seen violence, democracy activists are relying mostly on Facebook pages to expose human rights abuses and electoral fraud and to revive the political opposition. Congo’s opposition had long denounced the government’s fraudulent election practices — as when, in an October referendum, the government declared that citizens had agreed to throw out constitutional term limits and allow President Nguesso to stand for a third term. But social media had not been widely used before this year’s presidential elections, so there was little evidence to support the fraud allegations.

However, the March 20 elections were different. In the run-up to the vote, activists used social media in two major ways.

First, they used Facebook postings to successfully unite opposition voters behind challengers to Nguesso, after Nguesso’s camp made strategic mistakes. For instance, on social media, citizens posted evidence that the government was systematically arresting people close to one opponent, Andre Okombi Salissa, and that police had beaten another declared opponent, Gen. Jean Marie Michel Mokoko, after beating and tear-gassing journalists who had turned out to cover him.

Second, after reporting on those attacks, pro-democracy activists successfully used social media to convince Congolese to register to vote. Congolese saw via Facebook postings that government-sponsored thugs had attacked opposition party candidates. Meant to intimidate, these attacks produced the contrary effect. Congolese concluded a government prone to vote-rigging might actually be able to be defeated at the ballot box. Otherwise, why would it fear opposition leaders?

That decision to go to the polls was a dramatic transformation in public attitudes, which hadn’t been accomplished before by the government or by such international organizations as the European Union and La Francophonie. Congolese had lost faith in free and fair elections. But as social media reported the government’s several attempts to arrest Mokoko, citizens became highly motivated to vote. They saw the government’s attempts to stop Mokoko as a sign that what had seemed to be an invincible, rigged system was actually vulnerable — and that their votes might actually be recorded.

Let’s look more closely into how Mokoko was created by social media. Unlike Congo’s more established opposition figures, Mokoko doesn’t have a political base or party. No one knows what he stands for, or whether he is a nationalist, leftist or conservative.
Here’s what we know: He is a soldier, a former chief of staff for Congo Republic’s armed forces, and a former U.N. staffer. In the 1990s, he helped Congo organize its first and only truly democratic presidential elections after independence. He announced his intentions first on Facebook and other social media applications, rather than in traditional press conferences or interviews with such French-language news media as Radio France International, Le Monde, or Le Figaro. As a result, he is supported primarily by young people born between 1991 and 1997 who are heavy Facebook and social media users.

Mokoko’s candidacy sparked hope in part because many Congolese were tired not only of President Nguesso but also of established opposition party leaders — and in part because, being a soldier, he could face down fellow soldier Nguesso.

Democracy activists on social media also launched an operation called “Je vote et je reste” or “I vote and I stay.” Voters cast their votes — and then stayed at their polling stations, watching the count and waiting to see the results, in person. After every result was read and signed, voters used their smartphones to film the polling station reports. They sent those results to a parallel electoral commission created by the opposition to monitor fraud and verify official results, headed by Charles Zacherie Bowao.

The parallel electoral commission succeeded — because most activists used the Firechat App, which creates a peer-to-peer network among smartphones via Bluetooth and therefore didn’t rely on the Internet, which the government had shut down. In addition, an Al Jazeera reporter who was in Brazzaville to cover the elections was able to communicate directly to the Internet via satellite — and so her reports on Twitter were broadcast around the world.

Congolese social media activists were thus able to discredit the government when it declared victory on state TV at 3:30 a.m. Why so late? Because the government feared that, since the population already had seen the real results via social media, a daytime announcement would spark riots.

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But this attempt to hijack the results failed. When the minister of internal affairs announced that Nguesso had won, he was unable to produce evidence from local polling stations to support that. By contrast, social media activists published online detailed reports showing results by polling stations and regions, and showing that in most areas, the winners were from the opposition. In fact, according to this evidence, the first-round balloting winner was Mokoko, followed by Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas. And Nguesso had not even met the cut-off mark for entering the second round.

What happens now? According to the constitution, the second round of balloting should take place two weeks after the first-round results were known. But Nguesso’s government had already declared a first-round winner and reported no need for a second round. Hence the post-election violence, objecting to what most Congolese accept as outright fraud.
Central Africa has a new tool for democratic revival

Social media will not replace traditional methods for democracy and free speech activists. But in Congo and elsewhere in central Africa, social media is becoming an important tool for democratic revival. Voters can use their phones to document and circulate what they’ve observed. That’s a powerful testament and force for open and fair elections, making clear when a government is intervening through brute force. And in central Africa, it’s giving many renewed hope for change.

Elie Smith, Cameroonian journalist, reporter and translator, is a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. He served most recently as director of the MNTV television station in Congo-Brazzaville.

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DEVELOPMENT: Where does the $8bn UN peacekeeping budget go?

By:   6 April 2016  The Guardian

The United Nation’s budget seems healthy, but across the world missions are facing alarming shortfalls.

United Nations peacekeepers face a credibility crisis. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

There are more than 100,000 peacekeepers wearing the blue helmet in 16 missions across the world, from Kosovo in eastern Europe to western Sahara in north Africa. Faced by multiple crises across the world, the UN will spend in excess of $8bn on its peacekeeping missions this year, an increase of 17% on 2015.

But with criticism of operations in Congo mounting, and a sex abuse scandal dominating stories about the mission in Central African Republic, UN peacekeeping faces a crisis of credibility. In light of this, we thought it was time we looked at where the money from peacekeeping goes. Here’s what we found.

The overall budget is equivalent to 1% of US defence spending

The first thing to note about the peacekeeping budget is how small it is, at least when compared with the defence budgets of national governments.

At $8bn, the entire peacekeeping budget is equivalent to one month of US military spending in Afghanistan at the height of the conflict in 2010, or just 1.4% of the current US defence budget, which stands at $573bn.

So what are the reasons for this disparity? For a start, the UN has far less manpower than the US. The US has 1.3 million military personnel worldwide and, in 2014, despite significant cuts, it had 450,000 troops on active duty.

Today, the UN peacekeeping force stands at a little over 100,000. That might sound like a lot, but the US currently has 40,000 troops in Germany, almost double the size of the UN peacekeeping force in Congo – a country that has seen decades of continuous fighting.

But the main reason for that disparity lies somewhere else, according to Alexandra Novosseloff, a senior visiting fellow at the Center on International Cooperation in New York. “Historically, peacekeeping operations are not considered as purely military interventions,” she said. “The assessed contributions are paid through civilian budgets by each and every member state. These budgets are more limited.”

There are also differences in equipment. While the US was able to spend the equivalent of the entire peacekeeping budget on 34 F35 joint strike fighters last year, the relative lack of funds at the UN has left some missions overstretched.

A review of peacekeeping by the high-level independent panel on UN peace operations (Hippo), published in June last year, found that missions lacked “the specific equipment, intelligence, logistics, capabilities and specialised military preparation required” to engage in military counter-terrorism operations.

Further questions have been raised about certain missions’ abilities to carry out their mandates. In December 2014, Reuters reported that due to a lack of funding and personnel, peacekeepers in the country were “struggling to contain a growing humanitarian disaster” in DRC’s mining region. Relief eventually came in the form of more troops to bolster the 451 soldiers in the affected region, but the story gives an indication of how overstretched peacekeepers are.

In the last years of his presidency, Barack Obama has looked to bolster the UN’s force by pledging new equipment, including desperately needed attack helicopters, and specialist troops, but for the time being shortfalls remain.

Medical spending

The budget for all medical care for the missions in 2016 stands at a little over $47m. To put that in context, a little known project known as “enterprise resource planning project” is budgeted for $31m this year, the equivalent of two-thirds of the medical budget. The project, which has proved controversial with UN officials due to delays and cost overruns in the buildup to its launch, has the stated aim to “streamline administrative practices and boost efficiency throughout the organisation”.

Medics in peacekeeping missions have long found themselves overstretched and underfunded. A 2009 audit of the UNmil mission in Liberia (UNmil) found inadequate training, no standard operating procedures, and lack of quality drugs being provided. Audits in 2009 and 2011 of the Ivory Coast mission (ONUCI) also found a lack of basic training.

More recently, a report by the International Peace Institute entitled Healing or Harming? United Nations Peacekeeping and Health noted there was a problem “of peacekeepers providing healthcare to the local population in situations where the quality of medical care provided to the mission’s own personnel is not always in accordance with WHO guidelines”.

Monusco: Decades old, with few results to speak of
The costliest UN mission is in Congo, where thousands of uniformed personnel are facing off against numerous warring factions. It’s a situation that hasn’t changed much in the years since the mission – previously Monuc but known as Monusco –came to be.

Monusco has a budget of $1.3bn this year. This pays for the 19,784 UN peacekeepers who are currently stationed in the country, 18,232 of which are military personnel. These forces face a fight with dozens of armed groups, predominantly from the east of the country, and operate in a country the size of western Europe.

Maria Lange, a director at International Alert, says that recently security has deteriorated in the region. “The current security context in the eastern part of the DRC is marked by a sharp rise in intercommunal violence and the proliferation of new, albeit small, armed groups,” she explained.

But with limited resources and a poor record of protecting civilians, criticism of Monusco has been frequent and vicious. On Twitter, the hashtag #MONUSELESS crops up whenever the mission hits the news, as it did earlier this when investigators found that UN peacekeepers had failed to prevent a recent massacre in the east of the country by Hutu rebels.

This year, the mission will spend $1.3m on consultants – outside groups, including NGOs, tasked with doing research and others tasks for the mission – and $8m on official travel. Medical expenditure counts for just under $2.3m.

An angry crowd parades a man wounded as regional peacekeepers tried to evacuate Muslim clerics from a in Bangui, Central African Republic, in 2013.

An angry crowd parades a man wounded as regional peacekeepers tried to evacuate Muslim clerics from a in Bangui, Central African Republic, in 2013. Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP

Minusca: CAR sees huge cash injection, but problems remain
While Monusco is the most expensive operation, Minusca, the mission in Central African Republic, received the biggest increase in funding in 2016; rising 220% to over $800m, amid an intensification of fighting in the country.

Military and police personnel costs have increased by more than 300% to more than $350m, while spending on consultants, has increased by over 1,000% to $462,600. Medical spending increase to $9m, up 712% on the previous year, but this dwarfed by the $20m spent on communications, an increase of 37% on 2015.

But despite the increase in funds, the missions faces numerous problems, not least the sex abuse scandal currently making headlines across the world. Since last year, stories have emerged of UN peacekeepers abusing women and children in the country, often in exchange for food and clothing. The latest development in the scandal came in January, the UN human rights office found six more cases of UN peacekeepers allegedly abusing children in the country, with a seven-year-old girl among the victims.

Last month, Amnesty International warned that, despite the increase in funding, the UN mission in Central African Republic still had “severe weaknesses”, including a lack of training and equipment. One senior Minusca official reportedly told Amnesty: “When there’s gunfire, we can only send the guys in armoured vehicles. But several of these are currently out of service.”

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