The Best Human Rights Journalism, January to March 2019
Women’s rights defenders, mass protests, Xinjiang, the L.A. teachers strike, and more
These past three months have been characterized by an unusually large amount of excellent journalism about women’s rights. In addition to that, important reporting about China’s cultural genocide against Uighurs in Xinjiang and its internment of upwards of one million in concentration camps continues. There are other good articles about the deplorable human rights situation in China proper, all the more impressive considering it seemed that it had become so bad there, there was little new left to write about.
This list’s featured issue is the Los Angeles teachers strike. Many excellent articles focused on its many dimensions, not least its human rights implications, with regard to children’s rights, labor rights, women’s rights, the right to education, and issues of race, inequality and discrimination.
Considering its central importance to every society, education doesn’t get nearly the media coverage it should. This is due to key media weaknesses I’ve mentioned often: The bias toward reporting on discrete events, rather than issues, processes, trends and ideas, and toward covering certain sectors of society like business and the economy to the detriment of others, like education or labor rights. It takes a big event like the L.A. teachers strike to drag the media’s attention to issues that are percolating under the surface all the time.
Key human rights news
Reprisals against women human rights defenders have been in the spotlight. On 12 March, two days before the first anniversary of the murder of Brazilian activist and politician Marielle Franco, two suspects were arrested. They belong to a notorious crime syndicate; it’s strongly believed they had to have been ordered to kill by others. Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was outrageously sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes, basically for being a pain in the side of the regime for years but more specifically for defending women who removed their head scarves. After torturing them, Saudi Arabia put three women, Loujain al Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, on trial for espionage and conspiracy, though it has not publicly released the exact charges against them. The truth is that they merely advocated for women’s rights. (Update: Eman and Aziza plus a third have now been “temporarily released”. At least 10 women’s rights defenders remain in prison. There are more bail hearings in the first week of April — is Saudi Arabia starting to bend to pressure?) In February, the Philippines arrested prominent journalist and government critic Maria Ressa for “libel”. Then in March, it charged Ressa and six directors on the board of Rappler, her media company, with securities fraud. In good news, the amazingly tenacious Khadija Siddiqi managed to get reinstated the conviction of the man who stabbed her 23 times by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. And lastly, this period culminated in the election of a human rights defender, Zuzana Caputova, as first female president of Slovakia. Her campaign slogan was, “Let’s fight evil together” and her platform was summarized as “humanism, solidarity and truth”.
The first three months of the year were a period of many protests. On 10 March, thousands of demonstrators in cities all over the world marked the 60th anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day. On 15 March, an 1.6 million children and young people went on school strike to demand that governments take urgent action to address the climate crisis. This was the largest global environmental protest ever, quite possible one of the largest single-day protests in absolute numbers ever, and certainly one of the most truly global protests ever with over 2,000 separate demonstrations in at least 123 different countries — and it was entirely organized by young people. I am becoming ever more convinced that the right to a clean environment is one of the most important and urgent human rights and that environmental rights defenders are at the forefront of the human rights movement. On 23 March, over one million people took part in the “Put it to the People” march in London, demanding a second referendum over Brexit, one of the biggest protests in British history. On 2 February, tens of thousands of people once again took to the streets of Venezuela in the latest attempt to force Maduro from power. Protests in Algeria have been on-going for weeks, with the objective of getting the incapacitated 82-year-old president of 20 years to not run for a fifth term and getting “le pouvoir” (the clique of generals, spies, politicians, and wealthy business people who monopolize the real power in the shadows) to step aside — a much more challenging objective. The latest is that the president has finally agreed to step down by the end of April, but without elections scheduled or any clarity about who will take his place, it appears le pouvoir is simply trying to see how little they can buy the protesters off with. Protests in Sudan, together with those in Algeria, had some talking about a new mini-Arab Spring, and they posed probably the biggest challenge to the power of Bashir yet, but appear to have somewhat subsided. 30 March marked the first annivesary of the start of the Great March of Return. According to the WHO, since the start, “Israel has killed more than 260 and injured nearly 6,400 Palestinians in Gaza using live fire. In all, more than 27,900 Palestinians have been injured over the course of the demonstrations through other crowd-dispersal tactics, including tear gas and rubber bullets. Nearly 150 people have been crippled, requiring amputations, or left paralyzed.” All with complete impunity. The Israeli border must be about the most dangerous place to demonstrate in the world. Israel marked the first anniversary by killing four more demonstrators. Strikingly, of all these protests, of all these millions marching, Algeria appears the only case of the demonstrations having an immediate effect, spurring the perennial question, Is mass protest becoming less effective?
There is much exciting news coming from the United States: The new crop of Democrats in the U.S. Congress got off to a blazing start, introducing H.R.1, known as the For the People Act, which proposes multiple reforms to address democratic deficits in the U.S. elections, and the Green New Deal, which is probably the first bill ever in the U.S. Congress that fully recognizes the urgency of the climate crisis and tries to address it in such a substantial way as to reorient the U.S. economy in a more sustainable direction. If something like that were to ever pass in the world’s biggest economy, it would be huge. There is already a crop of Democratic candidates for president who are more progressive than their predecessors. In my eyes, Elizabeth Warren is the star because she’s already laid out a number of very concrete policy initiatives that would make the US more democratic, fairer, and more equal: an ultra-wealth tax, universal child care, abolition of the electoral college, anti-trust enforcement (breaking up tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon), and major investment in housing to make it more affordable. It remains to be seen whether any of this exciting agenda will be realized.
“The Saudi Government’s Global Campaign to Silence Its Critics”, Sarah Aziza, New Yorker, January 15
The article is slightly misnamed, since it doesn’t really focus on critics of the Saudi regime but rather on Saudi women seeking asylum in Germany on the basis of human rights abuses at home, one in particular, Rana, as well as two others, Farah and Leena. Of the three, only Rana has her application for asylum initially accepted. The other two are rejected, not least of all on grounds that women in Saudi Arabia have “new freedoms”: “They told me, ‘Saudi Arabia is changed — go back. There are women’s rights there now.’ ” It is lamentable if indeed judges and those in charge of asylum in countries like Germany are really so ill-informed. Rana says the majority of Saudis she knows in Germany, including a gay man, have had their asylum applications rejected.
“#KoreaToo”, E. Tammy Kim, New York Review of Books, February 7
East Asia, sigh: South Korea, like Japan and to an extent Hong Kong, is a stubbornly sexist society. What makes this article so interesting is that it focuses on how the phenomenon of a run-away best-selling novel has provoked cultural change. As Kim puts it, “…the local activism… must be understood as a total rebellion against deeply patriarchal, Confucian structures that, in the digital era, have found cruel new forms.” One interviewee says Korea’s Me Too “is a braid of many social justice movements, all of them ‘connected through patriarchy.’… its concerns range from the mundane (sexist textbooks, imbalanced marital expectations) to the existential (the Gangnam murder), but what’s essential is that ‘women are coming together and realizing that what they’d been feeling individually is actually much broader, and shared.’”
“Is Tunisia Ready for Gender Equality?”, Ursula Lindsey, New York Review of Books, March 7
What I like about this article is that it shows how complex and inter-related social, political and human rights issues are. The writer goes to Tunisia to write about a proposed law that would grant women equal rights to inheritance. This would be the first law of its kind in the Arab world, and many believe it would have a revolutionary impact. The inheritance law “would dismantle the last and most significant form of religiously based legal discrimination against women”. She gets there on the eighth anniversary of the overthrow of Ben Ali which ignited the Arab Spring, but finds that people are disappointed so far in democracy because rather than prosperity, it’s brought high inflation, high unemployment and a sluggish economy, and the political system is perceived as ineffectual. There have been 11,000 protests over economic issues going back to 2017. Against this backdrop, no one’s in a hurry to pass a new inheritance law, and anyway, it’s perceived by many as political tactic of the president, who used to be a minister in the Ben Ali dictatorship. With all this explained, it’s easy to see that making progress on a human rights issue like gender equality means working through and coming to terms with these multiple entanglements. Tunisia’s already something of a leader in the Arab world when it comes to women’s rights. Thirty-one percent of parliamentarians are women, and a new 2017 law criminalizes violence against women. There’s so much going on in Tunisia, the above article doesn’t even mention attempts to bring about a reckoning with its dictatorial past through its truth and dignity commission, lead by a woman. Just at the end of March, its long-awaited report, after overcoming one political obstacle after another, was finally released.
“China’s #MeToo activists have transformed a generation”, Simina Mistreanu, Foreign Policy, January 10
When I first read the headline, I thought it overwrought- “transformed a generation”? But at least among young urban Chinese women, there does seem to be a sea change in attitude. “‘We are an unprecedented and unrepeatable generation,’ said Xiao Meili, one of China’s better-known feminists.” Most interesting about the article is its description of tactics employed by Chinese feminists in an authoritarian state where the space for independent civil society has been steadily shrinking: “The feminists have avoided confronting the state directly. Instead of staging public protests, for instance, they have pursued direct talks with university reps and other officials. They are helping to publicize survivors’ sympathetic stories in the media, which on the one hand promotes the movement and on the other emboldens others to step forward. They sometimes mobilize online audiences, but they do so carefully and always with a constructive tone: They demand anti-sexual harassment mechanisms, for example, instead of leaders’ resignation. They avoid associating their work with politics. That has meant some compromises — it’s impossible, for instance, to talk about the culture of sexual abuse within some of China’s most powerful institutions. But it allows the movement to survive at a time when others have been stamped out.” Still, in December, “the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center, announced it was closing down under pressure from authorities.” “In the meantime, a nascent network attempting to connect sexual assault and harassment victims with activists, lawyers, and psychologists has been quietly taking shape, on the backs of hundreds of volunteers — many of them based abroad — in recent months. Activists hope this will be the next stage — but they are also keeping the details deliberately quiet.”
The Best Human Rights Journalism of 2018 featured 32 excellent articles about the crackdown in Xinjiang. It continues to be one of the most urgent human rights issues in the world as well as one that is all too insufficiently addressed by the world at large; on top of that, the superb journalism is keeping up with it. No one can look back on this all and say, “How could anyone know?”
“After Mass Detentions, China Razes Muslim Communities to Build a Loyal City”, Josh Chin, Clément Bürge, Wall Street Journal, March 20
WSJ returns to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province, a year after it was last there to find the city greatly changed: Many Uighur neighborhoods have been partially or fully demolished. The cityscape is undergoing a transformation intended to allow authorities to more easily control the Uighur population. Similar urban reconfiguration has been reported from Kashgar. This is in addition to numerous checkpoints, “convenience police stations”, spyware downloaded onto Uighurs’ mobile phones, taking of Uighur DNA samples without their informed consent for a DNA databas; not to mention “visits” to rural Uighur homes by over a million Han government officials and the one to one and a half million Uigurs in concentration camps. The article is accompanied by an excellent eight-minute video, which, all in all, is very depressing.
“‘One minute felt like one year’: A day in the life of inmates of the Xinjiang internment camps”, Sophia Yan, Daily Telegraph, 26 March
With similar sources of many recent media reports on the crackdown in Muslims in Xinjiang, namely eight former ethnic Kazakh detainees who’ve managed to escape to Kazakhstan, this is one of the first reports that concentrates on what “a day in the life” of a detainee looks like. You must shout, “Long live Xi Jinping!” for a small portion of rice at lunch and dinner. Those who refuse are electrocuted with cattle prods. One was shackeled by her “hands and feet and [guards] kicked her violently with metal-tipped boots, simply for asking what crime she had committed. She was made to swear she would never again go to a mosque, wear a headscarf or pray.” Another, as punishment, “was made to wear an iron suit that stretched his limbs out.” One was detained for using WhatsApp, another for having studied in Kazakhstan.
“On Xinjiang, Atajurt and Serikjan”, Gene A. Bunin, Art of Life in Central Asia, March 18
This is an extraordinary testimony by someone who has been living in Kazakhstan for some time and working on Uighur issues even longer. It was one of the most insightful glimpses I’ve come across into how a fledgling grassroots NGO operates under very difficult conditions in one authoritarian state, trying to campaign on behalf of detainees in concentration camps in an even more authoritarian state. In early March, Serikjan Bilash, the leader of the NGO Atajurt, was arrested by Kazakh authorities, which had already applied pressure to the NGO. The arrest was widely reported in the international media, not because he had helped hook journalists up with concentration camp survivors and relatives of concentration camp detainees. Bunin, who is acquainted with many of the main actors, tells of how Atajurt came about, the kind of work it did, its internal dynamics, and the environment under which it operates in Kazakhstan.
“Kyrgyz Students Vanish into Xinjiang’s Maw”, Gene A. Bunin, Foreign Policy, March 31
Bunin then outdoes himself in this piece, going to Kyrgyzstan to try to verify reports of a large number of ethnic Kyrgyz students, mostly from Xinjiang, having returned there and never returned, effectively having been disappeared. Much has been written about the detention of Uighurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang; very little on Kyrgyz, so this article does a particular service in drawing attention to their plight. It also emphasizes that some of the disappeared are culturally prominent, which is also the case with Uighurs, and I learned something from the article I never knew about the tradition of manaschys, people who can recite the Kyrgyz epic, the Manas, about 15 times longer than The Iliad. One of the disappeared, Turgunaly Tursunaly, is a manaschy who learned the skill from his family and returned to Xinjiang last October at news that Chinese authorities had raided his grandfather’s house and taken precious books. No one’s heard from him since.
“Cultural genocide in Xinjiang: How China targets Uighur artists, writers and academics”, Rachel Harris, Globe Post, January 17
Harris is an expert on Uighur culture, and this article focuses on a woman she knows, the singer, Sanubar Tursun, who was apparently detained in December and has disappeared. Harris uses her as an example of the hundreds of prominent Uighur cultural and intellectual figures who have been detained in the mass crackdown, just a few of whom “include the much-loved comedian Adil Mijit, veteran pop star Rashida Dawut, the young singer Zahirshah who came to fame through the Voice of the Silk Road TV program, and the veteran folk singer Peride Mamut whose cassettes of charming Kashgar folk songs brightened the post-Cultural Revolution scene in the 1980s.”
“A Death Sentence for a Life of Service”, Amy Anderson, Art of Life in Central Asia, January 22
Another article that examines the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang by looking at the case of one prominent victim, Tashpolat Tiyip, former president of Xinjiang University. What is striking about his case is that he worked within the system, becoming a Party member and university president, and thus was an example of the sort of “loyal Uighur” that the Chinese Communist Party tried to cultivate in a previous era. Not only that, but he was a passionate geographer, focusing on the desertification of Xinjiang, and was especially enthusiastic about making academic connections with other places in the world, building relationships with more than 50 universities in 20 countries. If indeed he went on trial, it is unclear what criminal charges he faced, though it has been reported that he was accused of being “two-faced”, a Communist term implying that he acted loyal but was really disloyal. There is no confirmation of what exactly has happened to him, but there have been rumors that he was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve.
“Inside Xinjiang: A 10-day tour of China’s most repressed state”, Peter Martin, Bloomberg, January 25
This article does what few of the many thus far written on the crackdown in Xinjiang have done, put the focus squarely on the links between the oppression and China’s economic objectives: “Although it represents just 1.5 percent of China’s population and 1.3 percent of its economy, Xinjiang sits at the geographic heart of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.” Martin probably travelled more extensively in Xinjiang that most journalists have been able to up to now, allowing him the opportunity to encounter many ethnic Han Chinese who are supportive of the crackdown and share the government’s view of Uighurs as mostly disloyal. “By contrast, most Uighurs appeared too scared to say anything.” In one sense, what appears most striking about the atmosphere in Xinjiang is, if you don’t know what to look for, it might appear exceedingly “normal”, but for those in the know, the atmosphere of fear among Uighurs is palpable. If what China wants is the “ethnic unity” it frequently invokes, if anything the crackdown is driving the two main ethnic groups of Xinjiang further apart — they live in increasingly different realities.
“China uses DNA to Track its People, With the Help of American Expertise”, Sui-lee Wee, New York Times, February 21
This is impact journalism. For nearly two years, Human Rights Watch had been trying to get U.S. company, Thermo Fisher, to stop selling DNA sequencers to authorities in Xinjiang who were using the technology to create a DNA database of Uighurs. It was only when NYT started to inquire about this that Thermo Fisher did an about face and announced it would no longer do so. It still has big business in China, and there’s no telling whether its products are being used to abuse rights elsewhere in the country. Apart from this particular matter, the article points to an important issue: For many U.S. tech companies, China represents a big market but given the danger that their products can be employed toward rights-abusing ends, what should be done? There is a push to get the Commerce Department to prohibit U.S. companies from “selling technology to China that could be used for purposes of surveillance and tracking.” That’s probably the least that can be done: As the case of Thermo Fisher attests, it’s unrealistic to expect these companies will police themselves.
“Learning China’s Forbidden History, So They Can Censor It”, Li Yuan, New York Times, January 2
What’s striking about the depiction of Chinese censorship in this article is just how normal and routine it is. That’s part of what makes it scary, that so many people seem not only completely accepting of it but willing to participate in it. This article focuses on low-wage workers in “censorship factories”, profiling a 24-year-old worker and the training in censorship he received from Beyondsoft, which mostly appears to work for other companies that outsource their censorship duties to it. A whole, profitable censorship industry is revealed. This is a model of the internet that China is promoting to the world.
“‘It’s Hopeless But You Persist’: An Interview with Jiang Xue”, Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, February 19
Yet another great interview from Johnson’s series of interviews with independent Chinese intellectuals and cultural figures, “Talking about China”, this with journalist Jiang Xue, who’s found it all but impossible to work within mainstream Chinese media because of the pervasive censorship. Like many of those interviewed, Jiang appears exceedingly wise, and this in turn appears to result from her experience of trying to work with integrity within an authoritarian system. Her resilience reminds me of many heroically working against the odds. I found especially compelling her explanation of how Buddhism helps her to cope with the situation. “People in China, many of us, realize it’s hopeless. How can you change things? It’s hopeless. But you persist. You can’t give up just because it’s hopeless…. I want to be a normal person in an abnormal society. I want to be able to say truthful things, and express what’s in my heart.”
“With each generation, the people of Taiwan feel more Taiwanese — and less Chinese”, Alice Su, Los Angeles Times, February 15
Simple and effective, tracking a phenomenon that those who follow Taiwan have been aware of for a long time and that polls have continually shown: People feel ever less Chinese and this is most pronounced among young people. This is at a time when China has spoken ever more stridently about the need for “reunification”, something ever fewer Taiwanese are interested in, even less so under the “one country, two systems” proposed by Xi Jinping which has shown itself to be such a great disappointment and betrayal in Hong Kong. About Xi’s pitch, Shayne, the youngest says, “…it’s just another way of saying, ‘If you keep saying you’re not Chinese, we will bomb the hell out of you.’”
“How Slovakians Beat the Oligarchs”, Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, January 9
One of the few truly upbeat stories on this list, and a counter-narrative to the democratic backsliding in Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic. It starts with the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak in 2017 and, arguably, ends with the election of Slovakia’s first female president, progressive anti-corruption lawyer, Zuzana Caputova at the end of March. In between, “protesters in Bratislava and fifty cities across this country of five million staged the largest demonstrations since the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The government resigned. Reforms were passed. Journalists, some of them fierce rivals, banded together to complete some of Kuciak’s unfinished projects.” One of the keys has been a relatively independent media.
“The Tragedy of Baltimore”, Alec MacGillis, New York Times / ProPublica, March 12
In 2015, Freddie Gray died of injuries sustained in police custody. “In 2016, the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division concurred, releasing a report accusing the city’s Police Department of racial discrimination and excessive force. The city agreed to a “consent decree” with the federal government, a set of policing reforms that would be enforced by a federal judge.”… “But in the years that followed, Baltimore, by most standards, became a worse place. In 2017, it recorded 342 murders — its highest per-capita rate ever, more than double Chicago’s, far higher than any other city of 500,000 or more residents and, astonishingly, a larger absolute number of killings than in New York, a city 14 times as populous.” This is that story, a story of “a failure of order and governance the likes of which few American cities have seen in years”. It wasn’t always like this. By 1993, Baltimore had 350 homicides a year but the number fell to 197 in 2011. What’s made it climb since? An article that shows how political and bureaucratic decisions in government and policing have real-life impacts.
“This, Too, Was History: The Battle over Police Torture and Reparations in Chicago Schools”, Peter C. Baker, The Point
“On May 6, 2015, in response to decades of local activism, Chicago’s city council passed an ordinance officially recognizing that Burge and his subordinates had engaged in torture, condemning that torture, and offering his victims (or at least some of them) compensation for their suffering. The ordinance is a singular document in American history. Torture accountability — even basic torture honesty — has been a perennial nonstarter in American politics, all the more so in our post-9/11 condition of perpetual war. Reparations, especially those with a racial component, have long been treated as, alternately: an incoherent absurdity; a frightening threat; a nice-sounding but impractical rallying cry; or, more recently, in the wake of the National Magazine Award-nominated Atlantic essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as a worthy (but still essentially utopian) demand. But within Chicago city limits, reparations for police torture isn’t just a thought exercise, a rhetorical expression about what should exist in a better world. It’s Chicago City Council Resolution SR2015–256: the law of the land.”
“The ordinance also pledged the city to take two concrete steps to counteract its decades-long tradition of trying to make the Burge story disappear. These two promises will likely end up being the most controversial parts of the law, because they deal not with bureaucratic payouts but with attempted modifications to Chicago’s public history — to the story the city tells itself about policing. First, Chicago officials would work with activists to design and erect a memorial to the city’s police-torture survivors. Second, the city’s public schools would henceforth be required to add “a lesson about the Burge case and its legacy” to the official history curriculum for eighth and tenth graders. To many of the activists who fought for the reparations package, the curriculum was its most meaningful component, precisely because of what it asked from the city: not money, but time and talk, however awkward or uncomfortable that talk might be.”
That’s what this long, detailed article is about, how those last two things went over. It covers issues of history and education in relation to human rights that too infrequently make it into the media.
Featured issue: Los Angeles teachers strike
One of the most interesting and exciting human rights issues over the past three months has undoubtedly been the Los Angeles teachers strike, not least of all because it involves so many different kinds of rights: labor rights, children’s rights, the right to education as well as inequality and racial discrimination. It is also an excellent case study in organizing for rights. As Caputo-Pearl, one of the leaders of the recently revivified Los Angeles teachers union put it, “We took on the idea of bargaining for the greater good.” While the teachers were indeed interested in pay rises, at the heart of the strike were concerns over the quality of education offered to a low-income students, the huge class sizes (39 students per class in one of the richest countries in the world, and that’s the concession won by the teachers, to reduce it to this size!), insufficient support staff such as counselors and nurses, and charter schools, an issue that needs to be addressed much more directly and urgently than it has been up to now. The relationship between education and human rights is under-reported in the media, so it was great to see so many excellent pieces about the teachers strike. Below are the ones that caught my eye.
“What’s Really at Stake in the Los Angeles Teachers Strike”, Miriam Pawel, New York Times, January 14
“The Social Justice Imperative Behind the L.A. Teachers Strike”, Dana Goodyear, New Yorker, January 15
“At Los Angeles teachers strike, a rallying cry: more funding, fewer charters”, Jennifer Madina, New York Times, January 17
“Saving Public Education Isn’t About Idealism, But Survival”, Erin Aubrey Kaplan, New York Times, January 17
“Don’t Make Us Go West Virginia on You”, Richard Ojeda, The Intercept, January 17
“The Radical Organizing That Paved the Way for LA’s Teachers’ Strike”, Sarah Jaffe, The Nation, January 19
“43 Teens, 1 Adult: Los Angeles Teachers Describe a Typical Day in a Crowded Classroom”, Lela Moore, New York Times, January 24
“The Striking Demands of L.A. Teachers”, E. Tammy Kim, New York Review of Books, January 23