The Best Human Rights Journalism, January to March 2018
38 stories about 30 human rights issues from 23 places around the world
38 stories from Brazil, Burma (2), Cambodia, Canada, China (6), DR Congo, Egypt, El Salvador, Haiti, Hungary, India, Iraq, Iran, Marshall Islands, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia (2), Spain, Sudan, Turkey, Venezuela (4), Vietnam, and the United States (8), and involving some groups with a decidedly uneasy relationship with state authorities such as Catalans, Native Americans, Uighurs and Yezidis; powerful tech companies which at times can seem like states unto themselves like Facebook and Palantir; and dictatorial states intruding into other countries such as China, Rwanda and Uganda.
The stories are about a wide range of rights, including academic freedom; activism and advocacy; accountability and impunity; children’s rights; crimes against humanity; cultural rights; democracy and dictatorship; discrimination; environmental rights; extrajudicial detention; extrajudicial killings; freedom of assembly and association; freedom of expression; freedom of the press; genocide; housing rights; human rights defenders; indigenous people’s rights; inequality; land rights; nonviolent struggle; psychosocial trauma of rights abuse victims; racism; refugees; religious freedom; the right to food; the right to health; the right to privacy; the right of self-determination; technology, the internet, surveillance and the abuse of rights; and women’s rights.
As that list indicates, “human rights” is here understood as those rights in the two principle covenants, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as in the international human rights treaties that emanate out from them; issues related to their abuse, protection and defense; and the nonviolent struggle for their fulfillment. Worth noting is that stories related to democracy are included, since it is a right in itself (ICCPR Article 25) as well as the form of government which best embodies the fulfillment of rights and in practice best guarantees their protection.
Some unintentional omissions: No articles about the rights of disabled people, LGBT rights, or other important rights are on the list. No Syria and no Yemen, though the people of those countries are suffering some of the worst human rights crises in the world — is it just that I’m not paying attention or has there been a paucity of coverage? The objective of the list is not full coverage of all rights but recognition of the best human rights stories in journalism overall.
China’s severe oppression of Uighurs, on the other hand, is finally get the attention it deserves, and there is much excellent coverage of Burma’s genocidal attacks on the Rohingya and the struggle of Venezuelans for dignity and democracy.
This year for the first time, the Best Human Rights Journalism list will be published quarterly, and this is the first quarterly list. The reason for the change is that the end-of-year list was simply getting too long — so much great journalism out there. There will still be a year’s-best list at the end of 2018.
“Massacre in Myanmar: How Myanmar forces burned, looted and killed in a remote village”, Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo, Simon Lewis, Antoni Slodkowski, Reuters, February 8
One of the most detailed, in-depth reports on a single massacre that was part of the genocidal attacks by the Burmese military and informal militias against the Rohingyas. The areas in which the killings took place have been a veritable black box, off limits to the media, and most of the media reports of massacres have been based mainly on refugees’ accounts and satellite footage. The two Burmese journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who authored the report have been detained since December on charges of “revealing state secrets”, the “secrets” in this case presumably being the massacre documented here. It appears that the government is contending they “illegally possessed confidential government documents”. It’s hard to escape the impression that it’s really in retaliation for covering something the government didn’t want anyone to know about. The report focuses on how ten men from a village of 6,000 were killed. That village has been entirely emptied; none of the 6,000 remain. Key to this report is testimony of the Buddhist villagers and paramilitary police who committed the atrocities. Essentially, the military organized Buddhist villagers to commit violence against the Rohingya. One expert said, this “would be the closest thing to a smoking gun in establishing not just intent, but even specific genocidal intent, since the attacks seem designed to destroy the Rohingya or at least a significant part of them.”
Three-part series: Chapter One: “The Poison and the Tomb: One Family’s Journey to their Contaminated Home”; Chapter Two: “On Standby: When You Leave the Marshall Islands, You Buy a One-way Ticket”; Chapter Three: “A new home, somewhere else: Marshallese move to Arkansas seeking a better life”, Kim Wall, Coleen Jose, and Jan Hendrik Hinzel, Mashable, February 25
This series is almost too big to be considered ordinary journalism, running to almost book-length. The reporting for it goes all the way back to 2014. It tracks Marshall Islanders through a series of changes in their lives, all of them caused by or related to environmental events beyond their control, brought about by people very far away. These include the after-effects of the nuclear tests conducted by the U.S. more than half a century ago and the more recent threat posed by rising waters resulting from global warming. In all, a people damaged by the externalities of twentieth-century energy use. The series is very down-to-earth, focusing sharply on the people and their stories, both in the Marshall Islands and in Arkansas, where some settle. It’s about how people adapt and endure.
“Can Venezuela Be Saved”, Wil S. Hylton, New York Times, March 1
There has been a lot of terrific journalism on the democratic and economic crises of Venezuela, as this article and the two following demonstrate. This is a profile of opposition leader Leopoldo López, which is all the better for being equal amounts critical and admiring. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2014, ‘released’ to house arrest in 2017 on condition he not speak out in public, immediately did so, was sent back to prison, then ‘released’ again to house arrest, and since has remained silent, much to the consternation of his supporters, especially in the face of “the world’s highest rate of inflation, extreme shortages of food and medicine, constant electrical blackouts, thousands of children dying of malnutrition, rampant crime in every province, looting and rioting in the streets”, a great fall from being the wealthiest country in Latin America and a democracy since 1958. The interviews at the heart of this article went against the terms of the agreement upon which López’s most recent release to house arrest was based, and there was worry that it could result in new punishments for him. Beyond profiling López, Hylton presents Venezuela’s crisis more vividly and accurately than most.
“Hunger and malnourishment amongst children in Venezuela”, Meredith Kohut and Isayen Herrera, New York Times, December 17, 2017
One of the best at focusing on the impact Venezuela’s political and economic crises have had on ordinary people, this is based on a five-month tracking of 21 public hospitals in the country, exposing a record number of children with malnutrition and hundreds of deaths, facts that the Venezuelan government has sought to keep secret. The piece is complemented by Kohut’s moving photographs. Few middle-income countries not at war experience such severe crises of child malnutrition as Venezuela is undergoing, the country’s perilous situation having tipped low-income citizens who already lead a precarious existence into the danger zone.
“A Journey on a Caravan of Misery”, Alexandra Ulmer (photos by Carlos Garcia Rawlins), Reuters, March 2
The article follows 37 passengers on a bus out of Venezuela for 9 days and 5,000 miles. These people are part of a trend: In 2015, 84,000 Venezuelans emigrated; in 2017, 629,000. The country’s currency is in free-fall and air travel is beyond the reach of all but the elites, leaving ordinary people with the option of taking the bus. Besides that, other South American countries are more likely to be welcoming, or at least let them in, than the big neighbor to the north. Most of these 37 sold everything they had to finance their escape and had never been outside of the country. This piece does better than any other at putting a human face on the crisis.
“When Deportation is a Death Sentence”, Sarah Stillman, The New Yorker, January 15
Stillman is the the director of the Global Migration Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. In early 2016, she “set out, with a dozen graduate students, to create a record of people who had been deported to their deaths or to other harms — a sort of shadow database of the one that the Trump Administration later compiled to track the crimes of ‘alien offenders’.” The database so far holds 60 cases, uncovering various instances in which U.S. authorities have failed to respect the right of asylum seekers to non-refoulement, often with tragic consequences. This article focuses on the story of Laura who was deported even though there was a credible risk that her abusive husband in Mexico would harm her. Her story represents a growing trend over the past decade of asylum seekers being returned to their home countries and meeting violent deaths, but no U.S. government body monitors the fate of deportees, and NGOs lack the resources to do so. Especially at a time when the government is threatening to increase the number of immigrants deported, the risk that some will be returned to places where their lives are at danger rises, as does the importance of journalism such as this.
“‘My Only Friend Is My Conscience’: Face to Face with El Salvador’s Cold Killer”, Jonathan Blitzer, New York Review of Books, December 7, 2017
Belying the somewhat sensationalistic title atypical of the New York Review of Books, what’s actually most interesting about this article is the role that a human rights center at the University of Washington is playing in helping human rights advocates in El Salvador strive for justice and accountability and uncover the truth about the many massacres of civilians committed by the US-allied El Salvadoran army during that country’s civil war in the 1980s. Blitzer interviews Angelina Godoy, the head of the center, after her office is mysteriously burgled, as well as Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, a colonel in the army at the time of the war who is implicated in a particular massacre. The declassification and dissemination by the US government — often as a result of lawsuits brought against it — of information related to the war is bringing to light information about the war’s massive human rights abuses that have not been unknown but often lacked corroborating, detailed documentation. In 2016, an El Salvador court abolished the amnesty law that was passed after the war to protect those who had committed human rights abuses. This has opened the door to potential prosecutions of perpetrators, all of whom are by now old men. The wheels of justice turn slowly if at all, thanks not least of all to the largely unsung heroes who keep working on these issues years after the fact.
“What It’s Like to Live in a Surveillance State”, James A. Millward, New York Times, February 3
This is one of the best overviews of just how oppressive life is for Uighurs under Chinese rule these days. A wide array of means is employed to control, monitor, intimidate and imprison them, usually in the name of fighting terrorism but more likely because China fears Xinjiang could eventually slip from its control. The means include facial recognition on street video cameras; multiple checkpoints; forced surveys on education, religious practices, whether you have a passport, have travelled abroad, or have family members abroad, or whether you know anyone who has been arrested; extrajudicial detention in political re-education camps; and prohibitions on going certain places or attending certain events. This is on top of what’s been reported elsewhere about the collection of Uighur DNA, the use of big data to police, and long-standing policies to persecute people who wear long beards or dress in “excessively Islamic” clothes, or who engage in religious activities outside of state control. Much media attention has been given to the crackdown on Uighurs over the past year, but it has as yet resulted in relatively limited general awareness of the severity of the persecution. Hopefully articles such as this will go some way toward addressing that.
“A Summer Vacation in China’s Muslim Gulag”, A Special Correspondent, Foreign Policy, March 1
Written by the anonymous professor of a Uighur student attending a US university about the latter’s experience of going home to Xinjiang during a break and being arbitrarily detained without charge in “China’s Muslim gulag”, an appropriate term for the political re-education camps strewn across the supposedly autonomous region where it is estimated hundreds of thousands of Uighurs have been arbitrarily detained. For reasons the detainee doesn’t know, he was not only allowed to leave the camp after 17 days but also, remarkably, to return to his studies in the US, albeit with a warning that his family is still in Xinjiang and thus subject to retaliation if he acts in ways of which the regime does not approve. (His mother has also been detained in a political re-education camp). A story that represents the systematic oppression employed in one of the most repressive places in the world, the sort of phenomenon that should cause foreign powers to seriously re-evaluate their policy of essentially engaging with China for purposes of trade and not bothering about much else. Because of the blanket repression and pervasive fear, individual accounts of experiences in the political re-education camps appear infrequently. China has yet to acknowledge their existence, and estimates of the number of people detained in them vary from a few hundred thousand to up to 800,000, with the World Uyghur Congress reporting that since the camps began in April 2017, up to 1 million have been detained.
“China’s Long Arm Reaches into American Campuses”, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Foreign Policy, March 7
This is the most in-depth and extensive report yet on a shadowy area where people have had a lot of suspicions but not that much concrete evidence — the role of the Chinese government in the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations operating on campuses in the US (and other countries like Australia.) Many believe they have a pervasive chilling effect on the political speech of Chinese students abroad and are used as a tool to monitor students, disseminate propaganda and mobilize shows of support for Chinese leaders visiting the US. Similar criticisms have been levelled at Chinese government-controlled Confucius Institutes at US universities. In all, it could be argued that authorities in free societies have taken a much too laissez-faire if not naive approach to Chinese government influence in their countries, which ultimately seeks to promote a form of authoritarianism opposed to values which are the bedrock of those free societies.
“How China Interferes in Australia, And How Democracies Can Fight Back”, John Garnaut, Foreign Affairs, March 9
Much of the reporting upon which this is based was done by others, and there are plentiful links in the article. What makes it so rich is the way it puts all that information together and provides a coherent and comprehensive overview. Not only that, but it gives cause for hope by outlining the steps Australia is beginning to take to address the Communist Party’s threat to democracy abroad and suggests these may be useful in places like the US, Canada and Europe. This kind synthesizing analysis, tracing patterns and trends instead of just reporting on discrete events, is much needed in journalism.
“How China’s multi-pronged crackdown on dissent took aim at citizen journalists and rights defence websites”, Catherine Lai, Hong Kong Free Press, February 16
Another good example of an article that gives an overview of a trend, the Chinese government’s attacks on citizen journalists and rights defence websites. All of the cases here have been reported previously in the media, but this is the best article at bringing that information together and analyzing it. It shows the depths to which China has sunk in eviscerating a nascent independent civil society. What all these people and sites have in common was that they were engaged in monitoring government abuses and responses (such as protests) to them. For that reason, they too have been targeted in the Communist Party’s seemingly never-ending crackdown.
“Artist Flees Beijing after Filming Devastation of Mass Evictions”, Austin Ramzy, New York Times, December 12, 2017
See the article’s gifs to understand how effective it is. They’re based on videos Hua Yong took of the evictions of thousands of migrant workers (which the government callously referred to as China’s “low-end population”) in Beijing in the dead of winter and of the subsequent demolitions of the buildings in which they lived. These are the people who have built the city and provide it with indispensable services. The problem beneath these evictions is the discriminatory residence permit system which legalizes differential treatment of those with and without permits who live in Chinese cities, denying the permit-less (especially rural migrants from poor backgrounds) an array of rights, benefits and services to those without the permits. Seldom has a single incident illustrated so clearly the degree to which a large percentage of the Chinese population are effectively without rights or recourse. Hua Yong documented it all in concrete detail, then went into hiding, was captured in nearby Tianjin, then released a few days later and has been quiet since.
New York Review of Books has always had good human rights journalism, but they’ve stepped it up lately, publishing excellent pieces on a regular basis, especially in their NYR Daily, often on topics barely covered in the mainstream media. Below, five of the best.
“Blood on the Land in Brazil”, Gregory Duff Morton, New York Review of Books, March 8
Begins: “Big landowners hold about 45 percent of Brazil’s countryside, while small farmers own just 2.3 percent. This concentration of resources in the hands of a wealthy few derives from the country’s history of slavery and the mass deaths of indigenous peoples. The result, today, is chronic tension between those who have land and those who don’t.” Focusing on the unsolved January murder of a Movement of Landless Rural Workers activist, Márcio Matos, the piece is excellent on the relationship between the dynamics of Brazil’s formal political system and violence against landless people agitating for land rights. The number of killings of the landless, and especially landless leaders, decreased during the years of Workers Party rule, which also happened to be relatively good years economically in Brazil, but has almost doubled since 2015, returning to levels not seen since the turn of the millennium.
“Toughing It Out in Cairo”, Yasmine El Rashidi, New York Review of Books, February 22, 2018 issue
I’m a big fan of El Rashidi. Her 2016 novel, Chronicle of a Last Summer, was a wonderfully understated take on what decades of oppression in Egypt makes people think, feel, do (read it complemented by Omar Robert Hamilton’s novel, The City Always Wins). This article, looking over the last four years, reads like an update on her novel and previous coverage of Egypt’s revolution in this publication. Few today write better on what oppression feels like in everyday life. She is also good at showing why many ordinary people support strongmen for providing “stability” and “security”. One comment she frequently hears is, “We could have ended up like them,” referring to Syria. She focuses on what she calls a trait of passivity in Egyptians, something familiar to me from other dictatorships I’ve lived in, especially China: this very deep conditioning is a disease of dictatorship. The upshot of it all is pretty depressing, and El Rashidi is never one to offer a silver lining where none is merited. She ends by quoting a brass worker: “I admit I’m not happy with how things have unfolded. This was never a revolution to begin with. It was all scripted from the start, by military intelligence, so what is one to do now except put your head down and try to make a living?” Sigh….
“Rebuilding Mosul, Book by Book”, Shawn Carrié and Pesha Magid, New York Review of Books, March 28
I’m a sucker for stories about bookstores, and especially about bookstores contributing to cultural efflorescence in places with a history of violence and oppression. This is about Book Forum, a bookstore that has opened in Mosul, Iraq since the liberation of that city from ISIS, fulfilling the dream of a man who’d loved the library at the University of Mosul, which ISIS destroyed. What makes this story so rich is that it tells what life was like during “the occupation”, as Moslawis call it, for cultural and intellectual figures like musicians and professors. It’s not often you come across hopeful stories about places like Mosul. This one certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges it faces, but the hopeful tone arises from profiling the many resilient, resourceful, visionary individuals who together make up civil society and their efforts to culturally reconstruct their hometown.
“Congo for the Congolese”, Helen Epstein, New York Review of Books, February 19
It seems the amount of good reporting on Africa is dwindling, probably a victim of major media budget cuts. Helen Epstein’s been writing insightful reports on East Africa for years (see her coverage of Kenya’s elections last year which ran counter to most of what appeared in the Western press). This piece is all about the dirty, clandestine work of dictatorial Rwanda and Uganda in Congo, while both remain the staunchest allies of the US. In particular, it focuses on Beni, a remote region in eastern Congo from which very little news emerges and where about 70 different armed groups have been active. Nothing can be proven in such a place, but it appears the most recent attacks and massacres were perpetrated by elements allied with Rwanda, probably as a part of a battle of proxies of Rwanda and Uganda, erstwhile allies, over resources. Meanwhile unelected president Kabila remains in power, refusing to hold elections. “Contrary to common assumptions, democracy actually works in Africa. While not without problems, those countries that have undergone relatively free and fair elections — Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Malawi, Botswana, for example — have good trading relations with the West and have avoided the horrific bloodshed that has beset African dictatorships like those of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.Today, young people across Congo, as well as clergy and civil society leaders, are united in their desire for President Kabila, who has postponed scheduled elections twice, to step down.” Say it, Helen!
“Hell of a Fiesta”, Enrique Krauze, New York Review of Books, March 8, 2018 issue
The best single piece to understand what’s happened in Venezuela, how democracy’s been undermined, how that’s related to the country’s economic crisis, and what the current situation is.
“This Country’s Democracy has Fallen Apart — And It Played Out To Millions on Facebook”, Megha Rajagopalan, BuzzFeed, January 21
This article reminds of a Bloomberg piece from December 2017 called “What Happens When the Government Uses Facebook as a Weapon” about the Philippines and Duterte’s attack on the newsite Rappler. And then came this week’s “Facebook hate speech exploded in Myanmar during Rohingya crisis”. Not to mention the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In all cases, it appears Facebook was either passive or actively complicit in abuses which other parties used it to perpetrate. In countries with robust legal and regulatory systems, one might argue the governments are as responsible as Facebook for their failures to regulate or enforce, but in places like the Philippines, Cambodia and Burma, there is a certainly predatory aspect to Facebook’s presence, while, at the same time, it remains an indispensable means for ordinary citizens to disseminate information and communicate. There’s very little good journalism about Cambodia, one more reason why this article’s so welcome. It’s another strongman state and part of the political wreck which is Southeast Asia, a region without a single solid democracy.
“The Genocide the US Didn’t See Coming”, Nahal Toosi (photos by Szymon Barylski), Politico, March/April 2018
An inside story on deliberations within the Obama administration on Burma both before and during the genocidal massacres of the Rohingya. There’s much background that is useful, but this is really about how the Obama administration responded to what it and the rest of the world, thought was an emerging democracy. The thing is, the fact Burma is not yet a full democracy, that the military still is entrenched in power, and that it’s a mess in terms of relations with minority groups (and not just the Rohingya) should have been sufficient cause for deep reservations. No one could have predicted the ferocity and exact timing of the attacks on the Rohingya, but there had been attacks on and hate propaganda against them for years without much response by foreign governments. Obama’s generally hands-off foreign policy was a reaction against Bush’s invasion of Iraq and perhaps a necessary corrective but it’s certainly left a void: These days whenever the world needs the UN or powerful countries and defend the weak against attacks by their own governments, whether in Syria, Burma or elsewhere, the response is underwhelming, to put it mildly. Accompanied by excellent photographs by Szymon Barylski of conditions in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“Their Own Government Killed Their Families. Now These Women Are Helping Each Other Survive.” Pat Nabong, Narratively, January 10
An angle on Duterte’s drug war in the Philippines that hasn’t been much covered: how the surviving families of victims cope, and given that most of murder victims have been men, this means it’s mostly women and children left behind. With upwards of 13,000 people killed, the numbers are what one would expect from a real war, not a crackdown called a war. The levels of violence are appalling, and one can just imagine the effect this has on children in the communities where most of the violence takes place (Duterte’s drug war could just as easily be labelled a war on the poor — since they represent the vast majority of victims). This story profiles Sara, whose husband and son were killed by the police, and the work of an organization called Rise Up for Rights and for Life, which provides counseling services for victims. A great article about the psychosocial impact of violence, an issue in many societies which have experienced large-scale violence of the kind on-going in the Philippines.
“How Viktor Orban Bends Hungarian Society to His Will”, Patrick Kingsley, New York Times, March 27
One of the better articles showing how the new breed of elected authoritarians goes about undermining democracy, and Viktor Orban is certainly one of the most successful of these. He appears to be strategically engaging in a long-term project to reconstruct Hungary as a sustainable illiberal democracy (which is to say, one that doesn’t depend for its success on perpetual wars against perceived enemies, such as Russia and Turkey and even the Philippines with its drug war). What’s striking is just how comprehensive his program has been: rewriting the constitution, bending the judiciary to his will, stacking governmental and government-funded institutions with Fidesz-friendly appointees, and exerting influence on the educational system and cultural sphere. And this article hardly mentions the oligarchical relationships between the political and business elites and the regime’s control of the most of the media. Looking back over these past years, what is most striking in Hungary, even before the time of Orban, was the poor quality of political parties and the lack of political alternatives. If there had ever been robust and non-corrupt alternatives, at the very least Orban would have had a much bigger fight on his hands. As it is, it appears that at least for the time being, he’s steamrollered all opposition.
“Canada Struggles as It Opens Its Arms to Victims of ISIS”, Catherine Porter, New York Times, March 16
Among Western countries, Canada has been (along with Germany and Sweden) unusually welcoming of refugees. This article shows the huge psychological challenges faced by Yezidi victims of ISIS enslavement and sexual violence in rebuilding their lives, as well as the significant challenge to Canada in helping them to do so after having granted asylum. Some excellent articles and a book last year documented the atrocities faced by the Yezidis at the hands of ISIS as well as the immediate aftermath of the liberation of some of those enslaved. This is the next stage in the process of recovery.
“The Unmet Promise of Equality”, Fred Harris and Allen Curtis, New York Times, February 28
Excellent use of graphs to illustrate an issue, with simple, clear explanations. Makes a compelling case that the US not only has not followed through in its efforts since the 1960s to create a more equal society but is actually backsliding and has been for decades. There’s been an increase in school segregation both in the North and the South and an increase in extreme poverty since 1970s while the poverty rate has remained about the same. In fact, it might be a surprise to some that schools in the North are more segregated than those in the South. Indicators such as income, wealth, unemployment and home ownership show that disparities between Whites and Blacks have grown. The number of people incarcerated has increased since the 1970s from 200,000 to 1.4 million, and they are disproportionately people of color. This, in spite of the fact that we know what works — tried and tested policies are ignored or underfunded. This has to do with both racial inequality and economic inequality across races, a stain on the country that doesn’t look to be getting removed any time soon. Former senator Fred Harris is the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Johnson in 1968 in response to the riots in many US cities.
“A Native American Activist Followed Her Mother’s Footsteps to Standing Rock. Now She Faces Years in Prison.” Will Parrish, The Intercept, January 31
Will Parrish and his Intercept colleagues deserve an award for their now 13-part series on the aftermath of the Native protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. This article, one of the best in the series, focuses on the prosecution of Red Fawn Fallis, a NoDAPL activist, who reached a plea bargain with prosecutors, copping to two federal felony charges related to her arrest at the demonstrations in October 2016 in return for having the most serious charge against her dropped. A gun she was carrying accidentally went off during an altercation with police. The gun belonged to an FBI informant who’d infiltrated the activists and developed a relationship with Fallis. You want to say she was stupid to have a gun at all, and this generation of activists appears not so alert to government infiltration as past Native activists have been. As the Intercept series makes clear, there are many rights issues involved here, including surveillance of rights activists by the FBI and other public security agencies, which have a very bad track record of spying especially on minority groups. What makes the article so tragic and moving is that it shows how Fallis’ activism was inspired by her deceased mother, an American Indian Movement leader, and how the government’s tendency to criminalize Native movements is perpetuated. From this article, one gets the impression the atmosphere in the aftermath of the protests is spooky and depressing, its tone contrasting sharply with upbeat reports that appeared on last year’s list, “’Not Invisible Anymore’: Standing Rock a Year After the Pipeline Protests” and “Holy Rage: Lessons from Standing Rock”.
“Since Standing Rock, 56 Bills Have Been Introduced in 30 States to Restrict Protests”, Zoe Carpenter (photos by Tracie Williams), The Nation, February 16
This article could have done with more detail, but its chief purpose is to alert and highlight, and I hadn’t come across these numbers — 56 bills in 30 states — in any other report. They are based on data collected by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. Apart from the aggressive Standing Rock prosecutions, of which there are more than 800, there is the case of the nearly 200 prosecutions of protesters at Trump’s inauguration, with charges eventually dropped against 129. But this article isn’t just about prosecutions; it’s about pre-emptive legislative measures taken to infringe the right to freedom of assembly. It remains to be seen how many bills will actually be passed into law, but it is clear that this is emerging as another battlefront in the U.S. between those urging more “law and order” (often connected to vested interests such as the fossil fuel industry) and those advocating a freer, fairer society. Tracie Williams’ many photos from Standing Rock are excellent. She goes on trial in June for “physical obstruction of a government function” in relation to the photo here.
“Palantir has secretly been using New Orleans to test its predictive policing technology”, Ali Winston, The Verge, February 27
There are many civil liberties implications of so-called “predictive policing”. It can lead to racial and socio-economic profiling. How often do you hear about predictive policing of white collar crime? But an even bigger problem here is the secrecy with which the mayor of New Orleans (an early Democratic contender for the presidency) and Palantir implemented this pilot — not even members of the city council were aware of it, and this in spite of the fact that it’s been going on since 2013. Without democratic oversight, the potential for abuse is heightened. Not only that, but Palantir appears to have used the pilot to develop and market software which has been sold, again in a very untransparent manner, to foreign intelligence services. And given the collusion between American companies and, for example, dictatorships such as China in using technology to monitor their own people, this should be great cause for concern. A good quote: “‘They’re creating a target list, but we’re not going after Al Qaeda in Syria,’ said a former law enforcement official who has observed Palantir’s work first-hand as well as the company’s sales pitches for predictive policing. ‘Palantir is a great example of an absolutely ridiculous amount of money spent on a tech tool that may have some application,’ the former official said. ‘However, it’s not the right tool for local and state law enforcement.’” Incisive and wide-ranging investigative reporting. US communities are just beginning to mobilize to hit back against intrusive police surveillance measures, and not a moment too soon.
“I Will Never See the World Again”, Ahmet Altan, New York Times, February 28
Altan reports on his experience of being sentenced to life without parole together with five others on 16 February for their supposed involvement in the 2016 coup attempt against the Turkish government. His words could easily speak for the many unjustly imprisoned in autocratic societies. While he watches the bored, indifferent judges who will condemn him, he quotes Canetti: “Being safe, at peace and in splendor, and then to hear a person’s pleas while determined to turn a deaf ear … could anything be more vile than that?”
“The Living Memorial to Boris Nemtsov is the Most Radical Political Statement in Russia”, Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, February 27
“Totalitarianism works in three ways: it kills people, it kills will, and it kills memory…. To oppose its core is to assert life, will, and memory.” That’s how the article begins, and its brilliance lies in taking the example of the on-going memorial at the site of Boris Nemtsov’s murder in 2015 to discuss how the new totalitarianism of the Putin regime works and what measures are being taken and can be taken to counter it. I’m a big Gessen fan (her book The Future is History is also brilliant). She’s been derided by some lately for lapsing from journalism into commentary (and I’m not that crazy about her pieces on Trump), but when it comes to Russia, she knows her territory and understands just what needs to be reported on it, and how.
“Dubious polls and murky media: the truth behind Vladimir Putin’s popularity”, Maxim Trudolyubov, The Guardian, 8 December 2017
This is one of the best pieces I’ve come across that discusses whether the concept of public opinion is even valid in an authoritarian society where media ownership lies entirely or mostly in the hands of those in political power, censorship is widely practiced, and freedom of expression is heavily restricted. Unlike in China, “Public opinion polls are common in Russia, and officials and journalists quote them frequently. But the jury is out on what they actually mean… The Kremlin has based its ruler’s legitimacy on a supposed popular support that is propped up by the executive’s control over the legislature, judiciary and media. This kind of support cannot be verified independently and is essentially circular. By equating polls to elections (and elections to polls) the Kremlin claims to have built a system that runs on eternal popular support. This is tantamount to claiming to have built a perpetual motion machine.”
“Why Iranian Women Are Taking Off Their Headscarves”, Nahid Siamdoust, New York Times, February 3
At the start of the year, dozens of women protested in public by taking off their headscarves and at least 29 (as of this article) had been arrested. Such bold acts were unprecedented in 40 years of theocratic dictatorship. By explaining where the impetus came from and setting it in historical context, Siamdoust gives what seems an insider’s view and also goes through the whole “oh, Westerners just love to go on and on about how oppressed Iranian women are” debate.
The human rights world lost three great heroes in the first three months of 2018, Gene Sharp, Asma Jehangir and Marielle Franco. At least Sharp was able to live into his nineties and produced indubitably a full and rich body of work. At 60, Jehangir’s death seemed premature, though she’d already attained elder status in her native Pakistan and abroad. Franco’s murder at the ripe young age of 38, on the other hand, was tragic. One felt about her that there was simply much more to come, and with her death, a promise, a hope for a better Brazil went out; it’s up to Brazilians to revive it.
“Marielle Franco: Why my friend was a repository of hope and a voice for Brazil’s voiceless, before her assassination”, Glenn Greenwald, The Independent, 16 March
Greenwald remembers a friend, says what she stood for, and why her legacy is important, providing insight into why she was so widely mourned and her murder produced such outrage. Other important pieces include “With Marielle’s killing in Rio, a dream breaks into pieces”, “Marielle Franco: Brazil’s favelas mourn the death of a champion”, “The Assassination of Human Rights Activist Marielle Franco Was a Huge Loss for Brazil — and the World” (which includes a video on her murder and the first protest), The Intercept’s follow-up looking at the three cases Marielle was pursuing at the time of her death, “Who killed Eduardo, Matheus and Reginaldo?”, “Don’t Turn a Radical Activist’s Death into a TV Melodrama”, and the open letter from prominent global cultural figures and activists to Brazil, “Marielle Franco’s murderers must be brought to justice”.
An Irreplaceable Champion for Pakistan’s Dispossessed is Gone”, Omar Waraich, The Atlantic, February 12
Of the various obituaries of Asma Jehangir, this gives the best sense of what she meant for Pakistan and how she was received (and in some corners, reviled) there. A perfect tribute to a heroic human rights defender. Her legacy, I hope, will be to act as a model for us all.
“Gene Sharp, Global Guru of Nonviolent Resistance, Dies at 90”, Sam Roberts, New York Times, February 2
I didn’t know he cultivated orchids. That may be the only entirely new thing I, who have followed Sharp closely down through the years, learned from this obituary, but it does an excellent job of coherently, accurately and succinctly portraying his career, his importance and his influence. He was truly a one-of-a-kind trailblazer in his field. Recent outcomes have put a damper on some of the enthusiasm for nonviolent resistance, but all they mean is that we need to be inspired by Sharp to press on to develop even better solutions to the problem of unaccountable, unfair monopolization of power. Also see “A Dissident’s Legacy: How to Win Without Violence”.
“Life without toilets: The photographer tracking the taboo”, Peter Beaumont, photographs by Andrea Bruce, The Guardian, 19 March
Bruce went on assignment by National Geographic to India, Haiti and Vietnam to document the phenomenon of 1.1 billion people living without access to hygienic disposal of feces, 524 million in India alone, where it’s estimated that every year one million children under the age of five die of diarrheoa from lack of access to sanitation. This Guardian article is based on the prize Bruce won for her photographs in “Nearly a Billion People Still Defecate Outdoors. Here’s Why” which was followed by this piece, “Inside the Hidden Dangers of Life without Toilets”.
“The Rebel Puppeteers of Sudan”, Roopa Gogineni, New York Times
Puppeteers and film-makers of South Kordofan State satirize Omar Bashir while being bombed by his regime, which has now been in power so long not even the people in the film can remember for sure, 43 or 44 years.
“A Conversation with Native Americans on Race”, Michelle Stephenson and Brian Young, New York Times
Did you know that the U.S. government decides whether or not you’re a Native American based on “blood quantum”, the percentage of you that is N.A? Here, young (and hip) Native Americans tell what it’s like living in the country where the people even forget they stole your land. About how non-N.A.s react to them, about decolonization. Perhaps weirdly or counter-intuitively, watching this, you think, These people have a future.
“44 Messages from Catalonia”, Robert Mackey, Anna Giralt Gris, Ross Domoney, The Intercept, March 28
A snazzy approach to the Catalan independence referendum and its aftermath, juxtaposing the many striking images associated with the referendum along with public pronouncements, on the one hand, with private WhatsApp messages, on the other, from an exchange between a mother and grandmother in the early morning of the 1 October referendum to the famous leaked message from Puidgemont saying, “I suppose you know this is over.” While taking no sides (messages from unionists are featured as well), the 11-minute film gives a sense of just what a tumultuous, emotional and at times confusing period this has been for the people of Catalonia .