The Best Human Rights Journalism, July to September 2018
58 stories about 24 human rights issues from 29 places around the world
This year for the first time, the Best Human Rights Journalism list is being published quarterly. This is the third 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 (much shorter) year’s-best list at the end of 2018. Previous Best Human Rights Journalism lists: January to March 2018, April to June 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015
In the list, there are 58 stories from Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil (3), China (5), Colombia, Germany, Hong Kong, India (2), Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel (2), Kosovo, Latin America, Mexico, Nicaragua, Philippines (2), Palestine (2), Poland, Russia (4), South Africa (2), South Sudan, Spain (2), Syria (3), Tibet, Turkey, Uganda, the United States (10), and Xinjiang (14).
The stories are about a wide range of rights issues, including censorship and propaganda, childrens’ rights, corruption, crimes against humanity, democracy and dictatorship, digital surveillance and the right to privacy, due process and arbitrary detention, the right to education, environmental and land defenders, freedom of expression, the right to health, human rights defenders, indigenous people’s rights, migrants’ and refugees’ rights, nonviolent protest and activism, police violence, prisoners’ rights, racial and ethnic minorities’ rights, freedom of religion, the right of self-determination, socioeconomic rights, voting rights, war crimes, 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.
Before the list itself, here is an overview of some of the good and bad human rights news of the past three months.
Good human rights news
The Chinese government allowed Liu Xia, widow of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo who died in custody last year, to leave China for Germany after eight years of extrajudicial house arrest. As all things related to human rights in China these days, the event was met with elation by all who campaigned for her release over the years but also equivocal: Liu’s brother is being held hostage in China to prevent her from speaking out, and the day after she left the country, rights defender Qin Yongmin was sentenced to 13 years in prison. The Indian Supreme Court decided that criminalizing consensual same-sex conduct is unconstitutional and struck down language in a law that was used to prosecute gay sex. There were elections in big countries with shaky democratic histories like Pakistan and Mexico, and in both cases oppositions won. In the Maldives, a country that had been getting increasingly authoritarian, the opposition won as well. The former Malaysian PM was arrested on corruption charges after Malaysia’s most democratic election ever, in May. And lastly, some justice is a long time coming indeed: Eight retired Chilean military officers were sentenced to 15 years in prison for the murder of popular folk singer Victor Jara during the 1973 coup that installed late dictator Augusto Pinochet in power.
Bad human rights news
The international community, including players, fans and governments, was largely silent on human rights in Russia during the World Cup while Oleg Sentsov was on hunger strike, with only Pussy Riot making a scene at the final, while Mo Salah was forced to meet meet Chechen strongman Kadyrov who bestowed honorary citizenship upon him. In Zimbabwe, following the pseudo-coup deposing Mugabe, compromised elections were held; then the army shot protesters. In Nicaragua, nearly 500 people, mostly protesters, have died since April. In Brazil, it was announced that in 2017, the country broke its own record for overall number of murders in one country in one year, 63,880. On top of that, Rio police have killed 895 people this year, an increase of 39 percent after pledging at the start of the year to reduce the number of police killings by 20 percent. Google’s plans to reintroduce a censored search engine in China were leaked. And journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison for violating Burma’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act, essentially for reporting on army massacres of Rohingya villagers.
Outstanding continuous coverage
Several journalists have done exceptional work providing outstanding on-going coverage of a particular issue. This kind of tenacious journalism is so important when much of the rest of the media turns away from an issue previously under its spotlight. It highlights the nooks and crannies of the issues and seeks to hold accountable those responsible for rights abuses.
Jonathan Blitzer has published nine articles in the past three months on U.S. immigration issues for The New Yorker (and over a dozen others from earlier this year). The articles explore different angles of the U.S. government’s attempts to crack down on illegal immigration along its southern border, focusing in particular on its abusive practices and its effects on real living people, especially in regard to U.S.-government-enforced parent-child separations. Articles I found especially informative and affecting are “The Activist Effort to Find the Children the Government Took From Their Parents”, “The Government Has Decided That Hundreds of Immigrant Parents Are Ineligible to Be Reunited with Their Kids. Who Are They?”and “Reunited, an Immigrant Family Tries to Put Their Life Back Together”.
Another excellent source of information on abusive practices in the U.S. immigration crackdown is The Intercept’s “War on Immigrants” coverage, with 32 articles by 20 different reporters in the last three months, Ryan Devereaux, Debbie Nathan and Cora Currier all writing several of those each. Standouts include “Undocumented Immigrant Faces a Choice: Become an Informant for ICE or Be Deported” by Ryan Katz, “‘Kick Ass, Ask Questions Later’: A Border Patrol Whistleblower Speaks Out About Culture of Abuse Against Migrants” by John Washington, “Nursing Mother Describes Forced Separation From Infant at the Border: ‘They Said It Wasn’t Their Problem the Baby Wasn’t Eating’” by Cora Currier, and “Children Separated Under Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” Policy Say Their Trauma Continues” by Debbie Nathan.
Reporting for The Guardian, Tom Phillips has filed eleven articles on Nicaragua since the start of July. Taken together, they give the best view of the anti-government protests and the government crackdown in which hundreds have been killed. Two of the most compelling stories are “The Nicaraguan students who became reluctant rebels: ‘I’m no longer the same’” and “‘This massacre must stop’: Nicaraguan student rebels face militia assault”.
Ryan Gallagher of The Intercept broke the news that Google has been secretly planning to introduce a new censored search engine in China a decade after it pulled out of the country in protest at the censorship there. Then, over the course of August, he wrote seven more articles on subsequent developments: “Google Plans to Launch Censored Search Engine in China, Leaked Documents Reveal” (August 1); “Google Struggles to Contain Employee Uproar over China Censorship Plans” (August 4) “Lawmakers Pressure Google over ‘deeply troubling’ China Censorship Project” (August 4); “Inside Google’s Effort to Develop a Censored Search Engine in China” (August 9); “Google Censorship Plan is ‘Not Right’ and ‘Stupid’, Says Former Google Head of Expression” (August 11); “Google Staff Tell Bosses China Censorship is Moral and Ethical Crisis” (August 16)(NYT story on this last also good, republishing the letter from the staff); “Google Executives Misled Staff in Meeting on China Censorship. Here Are 13 Questions They Must Answer” (August 17); “World’s Leading Human Rights Groups Tell Google to Cancel its China Censorship Plans” (August 28), and followed those with three more in September. Bringing this out into the open provides the best chance to persuade Google not to become complicit in censorship again.
Immigration, to the U.S. and other places
Much of the U.S. media’s attention over the past three months has focused on immigration, and there have been many excellent stories as a result — see Jonathan Blitzer’s and The Intercept’s above. Here are three more.
“Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever”, Caitlin Dickerson, New York Times, September 12
While much media attention focused on the 2,500 to 3,000 immigrant children separated from their parents by the U.S. government, the overall number of children detained has increased dramatically, reaching a total of 12,800 in September, up from 2,400 in May 2017. This is not because the number of children entering the U.S. has increased but because the number being released to guardians in the U.S. after capture has decreased. Most of the children crossed the border unaccompanied, many teenagers from Central America, and they are housed in upwards of 100 shelters across the U.S. While the Trump administration has taken steps to discourage people from crossing, this suggests that so far it has not been successful.
“For Families Split at Border, an Anguished Wait for Children’s Return”, Kirk Semple, Miriam Jordan, New York Times, September 1
A subset of about 500 of the 3,000 families the U.S. government separated subsequently had parents deported without their children. Most are from Guatemala, followed by Honduras and El Salvador. This focuses on the family of one of these children, 8-year-old Byron Domingo. As of September, Byron had spent four months in a U.S. shelter with no prospect of reunion with his family. Twenty-two of the 500 children are under the age of five. While the U.S. government intends to reunite the children with their families, its bureaucracy has been so cumbersome that U.S. NGOs have taken the lead. This article traces the many obstacles to overcome.
“Latin America Has an Open-Door Policy for Venezuelan Refugees”, Benjamin N. Gedan, Nicolás Saldías, Foreign Policy, August 23
The embrace of fleeing Venezuelans by other South American countries stands in contrast to the restrictionist tendencies prevalent in the U.S. and Europe. Since 2014, two million people have left Venezuela. 40,000 arrive in Colombia every month. Ecuador has taken in 630,000–4 percent of its population — since 2017. Argentina and Uruguay have been especially welcoming. There are signs the hospitality may not last: Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru all recently introduced new restrictions.
The amount of excellent human rights reporting on China over the past three months has been astounding; indeed, taken as a body of work, it is probably the best in the world at the moment on a given human rights issue, and rightly so given the scale of the crisis. Below are the stand-outs. The superb journalism is all the more impressive considering that Xinjiang is such a difficult region to report on due to government controls and the fact that China still largely denies the existence of re-education camps detaining upwards of one million Muslims, mostly Uighurs. This is one of the worst human rights situations in the world right now, and probably the worst that doesn’t involve war or mass killings, as shown clearly in Human Rights Watch’s recent comprehensive report. Observers have struggled to find the language to describe exactly what’s going on, with some using “ethnic cleansing” or “cultural genocide” since adults are being “re-educated” in camps and children in schools to “love the motherland” and despise their own culture. There were also excellent articles on the crackdown in the first and second Best-of quarterly lists this year.
Focusing on the mass detention camps: “China Is Detaining Muslims in Vast Numbers. The Goal: ‘Transformation.’, Chris Buckley, New York Times, September 8; “China’s Mass Internment Camps Have No Clear End in Sight”, Rian Thum, Foreign Policy, August 22; “China’s Uighur Camps Swell as Beijing Widens the Dragnet”, Eva Dou, Josh Chin, Jeremy Page, Wall Street Journal, August 17.
On the effects on families and children of the mass detention of parents in re-education camps: “China Treats Uighur Kids as ‘orphans’ after parents seized”, Yanan Wang and Dake Kang, AP, September 22; “‘An information black hole’: Exiled Muslim Uighurs fear for loved ones back home as China tightens its grip in Xinjiang”, Jennifer Creery, Hong Kong Free Press, 2 September; “China’s Jaw-Dropping Family Separation Policy”, Sigal Samuel, The Atlantic, September 4; “Uighur children fall victim to China anti-terror drive”, Emily Feng, Financial Times, July 10.
On the crackdown’s effects on people in Xinjiang: “Crackdown in Xinjiang: Where have all the people gone?”, Emily Feng, Financial Times, 5 August; “How the ‘Happiest Muslims in the World’ are Coping with Their Happiness”, Gene A. Bunin, Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, July 31.
On the influence of the mass surveillance in Xinjiang on elsewhere in China: “From laboratory in far west, China’s surveillance state spreads quietly”, Cate Cadell, Reuters, August 14.
On the internationalization of the crackdown: “China’s Muslim Crackdown Extends to Those Living Abroad”, Eva Dou, Wall Street Journal, August 31.
On the crackdown’s background: “Muslim China and ‘de-extremification’ campaign: Interview with Darren Byler”, Living Otherwise, September 7.
Excellent in-depth interviews with former detainees: “Behind the Walls: Three Uyghurs Detail Their Experience in China’s Secret Re-education Camps”, Radio Free Asia.
“An internment camp for 10 million Uyghurs: Meduza visits China’s dystopian police state”, Meduza, 1 October. And last but certainly not least, one that came out just as I was going to press, on the first day of October, in fact, but bear special mention because 1) it’s written by an anonymous reporter who has visited Xinjiang several times over the past fifteen years and compares his most recent visit to previous ones and 2) it details the many “security” operations that an ordinary person entering Xinjiang from the west (in this case, Kyrgyzstan) and going to Kashgar, the region’s western outpost, must undergo. It is also the longest of all the articles listed here, not least because it provides extensive recent historical context to the current situation.The interviews with Uighurs are striking: Textbooks more than ten years old were destroyed in house-to-house searches about a year ago; mandatory Chinese lessons take place on neighborhood streets (there’s a video of one) and non-attendance negatively affects one’s “social credit” rating…. “Slightly more than a decade ago, I came to Xinjiang to see life with my own eyes as it had been many centuries ago, if not millennia. Now, what you can find here is a future that exceeds the most daring fantasies of George Orwell….”
“China and the world: How Beijing spreads the message”, Emily Feng, Financial Times, July 12
More than 200 Chinese-language publications around the world reprint content from Chinese state media. Many newspapers have signed partnership agreements with state media and print articles identical to those in official Chinese media. This is part of an aggressive push by Communist Party-run media outlets for influence in Chinese diaspora communities. There are an estimated 60 million ethnically Chinese people living outside of China. It used to be that Chinese-language media outside China were more closely affiliated with Hong Kong and Taiwanese outlets which were anti-communist, but that has changed over the last fifteen years. In 2000, Communist publications had 60 content partnerships with overseas papers; now there are 221. There has been quite a bit of reporting on Chinese state media buying separate sections in large Western English-language newspapers like the Washington Post, but this provides the best overview yet of the Party’s attempts to influence Chinese-language communities abroad. (The article is paywalled. If you have trouble accessing it, you may be able to via FT’s tweet.)
“China’s Health Care Crisis: Lines Before Dawn, Violence and ‘No Trust’”, Sui-lee Wee, New York Times, September 30, with Jonah M. Kessel’s accompanying video, “How Capitalism Ruined China’s Health Care System”
China’s health care system has inequality built into it. It is a class system, favoring those with means and connections, and a caste system, favoring those with residence permits in places with higher-quality options. Hospitals are to a large extent run according to the profit motive. Even more than half of those lucky enough to live in big cities, which generally have better health care, feel compelled to bribe health care workers to receive the treatment they need. These dynamics circumscribe access and, therefore, the right to health. Violent incidents between patients and health care workers have received widespread attention. It is this sort of article that people (and the UN and foreign governments) who make the lazy argument that China’s economic growth has automatically improved socioeconomic rights should read. (Actually, as Eva Pils points out in her book, Human Rights in China, it’s done just the opposite.) This follows Wee’s equally superb August article on a similar topic, “A Chinese Pharmacist Found Out He Had Cancer. Then He Vanished”. The accompanying nine-minute video is also excellent, focusing on a man who makes cancer drugs for his mother in a desperate effort to save her life and setting the current state of health care in the country in historical context.
Some of the most interesting recent human rights reporting on China has had to do with mass surveillance inside the country, the close relations between the Communist Party and Chinese tech companies, and the spread of Chinese surveillance technology abroad, mostly to non-democratic states. These developments are all the more troubling due to the almost complete lack of effective protection of the right to privacy in China. Here are three examples:
“Who Needs Democracy When You Have Data”, Christina Larson, MIT Technology Review, August 20
This article gives a good overview of Communist Party attempts to construct what Xiao Qiang calls “a digital totalitarian state”, without perhaps entirely coming to grips with the many human rights implications of the enterprise. It suggests that the Party wants to substitute surveillance and data collection for the kind of feedback loop one finds in democracies where free speech is protected, but I suspect that the more immediate and primal motivation is simply to control and dominate the populace. Given that tech is the latest means for doing so, it is predictable that the Party attempts to employ it to the full extent possible.
“China’s AI Giants Can’t Say No to the Party”, Elsa B. Kania, Foreign Policy, August 2
Some have said that when it comes to artificial intelligence, China has an advantage, partly because it essentially has no privacy protections regulating the collection of data and partly because of the close/symbiotic/incestuous relationship between the Partystate and tech companies which do its bidding, for a pretty profit. Kania insists, “Open debate about the ethics of tech is a strength, not a weakness, of the U.S. system.” Stunning candor from a Chinese tech CEO: “We’re entering an era in which [government and companies will] be fused together. It might be that there will be a request to establish a Party committee within your company, or that you should let state investors take a stake … as a form of mixed ownership. If you think clearly about this, you really can resonate together with the state. You can receive massive support. But if it’s your nature to go your own way, to think that your interests differ from what the state is advocating, then you’ll probably find that things are painful, more painful than in the past.”
“China’s Aggressive Surveillance Technology Will Spread Beyond its Borders”, Daniel Benaim and Hollie Russon Gilman, Slate, August 9
China’s “digital authoritarianism could emerge as an exportable model”. Already, Chinese companies are selling surveillance to places like Singapore, Zimbabwe, Malaysia, Egypt. The article is also full of recommendations for what “those invested in individual freedom — in government, in civil society, and in the tech sector” can and should do.
“Hong Kong photographer sets out to capture city’s ‘funeral portrait’ and localists’ fight for survival”, Karen Cheung, Hong Kong Free Press, 8 July
This profile of photograph Kaiser Wong taking Hong Kong’s ‘funeral portrait’ captures well the pessimistic mood of especially many young people. “To call it a funeral is to lose hope. The past couple of years — from failed social movements to legislature disqualifications and imprisonments of activists — left the younger generation deeply depressed about Hong Kong: they feel like their hands are tied when it comes to Hong Kong’s political future. Kaiser compares the city to a lover whose slow deterioration and eventual death one has to watch helplessly, unable to do anything.”
Perhaps this cannot be called journalism in the more traditional sense of the term, but Woeser’s Instagram posts of her sojourn in Lhasa give a feel for Tibet that is hard to come by, given that virtually no independent journalism there is allowed by the Chinese government. The photos and short texts are all the more affecting given that this is the first time Woeser has been allowed to go to Lhasa since 2014. (She usually lives in Beijing.) Her short texts are in Chinese. High Peaks, Pure Earth has done an excellent job translating some of the posts. Many, being mostly photographic, speak for themselves.
“If the Regime Comes Here, Everyone Will Be Targeted”, Marwan Hisham, Molly Crabapple, New York Times, September 11
This came out right before the ceasefire regarding Idlib, the last major Syrian rebel enclave, brokered by Turkey and Russia. Before that, it looked like the region would become the war’s latest humanitarian disaster. This article conveys the voices of three Idlib residents facing that prospect. I found most moving that of the 25-year-old writer and activist Hanin: “Because of my activism, I am sure I am wanted by the Assad regime’s security branches. Still, I am against fleeing. I have to stay, even when the regime soldiers come. I might die, but I prefer it to slow death in another country…. Although it hurts, I don’t blame people who believed in our cause and our freedom but who got bored by this conflict. They didn’t live our lives. People who stopped caring about Syrians after the rise of Islamist groups shouldn’t have forgotten us. We need a revolution against those groups as much as we need it against the Assad regime. We won’t give up after all these years…. Idlib is not the end. We may die, but this fight will last for generations.” The article is accompanied by Molly Crabapple’s illustrations. She and article author Hisham collaborated on his recently published memoir, Brothers of the Gun.
“As Assad Claims Victory in Syrian Civil War, Families Learn Fates of Disappeared Loved Ones”, Murtaza Hussain, Mariam Elba, The Intercept, September 10
Tens of thousands of Syrians are believed to have disappeared into government prisons over the past seven years of conflict. Recently, information has emerged from the Syrian government about some of them. Unsurprisingly, in most cases, the people concerned died in detention years ago. Many were ordinary activists detained in the early years of the uprising, before the country erupted into full-fledged civil war. As Mai El-Sadany says, “This is a regime that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and is now issuing death certificates claiming that its detainees died of heart attacks or other natural causes. It’s a message that they know they won’t face accountability, they don’t care, and this is just a reality that Syrians will have to accept. This is not a blueprint for a peaceful or stable country.” NYT ran a similar story in July, noting that the Syrian Network for Human Rights said it has confirmed 312 recent cases of government notification of death, a fraction of the more than 80,000 detainees of which SNHR is aware.
“Syria’s Women Prisoners, Drawn by an Artist Who Was One”, Lina Sinjab and Anne Barnard, New York Times, August 7
Imprisoned in 2015, Azza Abo Rebieh got her guards to give her pencils and paper, then began sketching the faces and habits of fellow inmates in Syria’s notorious detention system. Released in 2016, she fled to Lebanon where she started to make art about the women she was incarcerated with: “I want to draw them so they are not forgotten.” To the left, Rama al-Eid, 18, former Syrian badminton champion, from Daraa, where the uprising first began, imprisoned while still a teenager and accused of activism against the regime. When she turned 18, the judge sentenced her to six years and eight months in prison.
“Iraq’s Forgotten Casualties: Children Orphaned in Battle with ISIS”, Margaret Coker, New York Times, August 31
When war ends, most of the media attention evaporates. The after-effects of war in general and on children in particular is a largely overlooked story. In formerly IS-occupied Mosul, there are about 13,000 orphans. Including other areas liberated from IS, the number is probably closer to 20,000. Most live with extended families which are overwhelmed by the extra responsibility. Fifty without any family are left at the Mosul orphanage. They include both orphans whose families were victims of IS, those whose families were IS members, and 17 abandoned newborns.
“BDS: how a controversial non-violent movement has transformed the Israeli-Palestinian debate”, Nathan Thrall, The Guardian, 14 August
The movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel — known as BDS — was founded 13 years ago. It infuriates Israel, but it has also targeted Arab states and the Palestinian Authority for their cooperation with Israel, and multinational corporations for their ties to the occupation, as well as nudging Palestinians away from an anti-occupation to an anti-apartheid struggle. All major civil society groups in Gaza and the West Bank support the movement. It has had effects on states, local councils, universities and churches in the US and UK. And it has challenged the two-state consensus of the international community, upsetting “the entire industry of Middle East peace process nonprofit organisations, diplomatic missions and think tanks by undermining their central premise: that the conflict can be resolved simply by ending Israel’s occupation of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, leaving the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and refugees unaddressed.” This article gives a history of BDS and is especially insightful in terms of its innovations in conceptualizing the struggle and strategy, a very interesting study from the point of view of activism. “What was new about BDS was that it took disparate campaigns to pressure Israel and united them around three clear demands, with one for each major component of the Palestinian people. First, freedom for the residents of the occupied territories; second, equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel; and third, justice for Palestinian refugees in the diaspora — the largest group — including the right to return to their homes.” The only thing I would have liked to see more of is profiles of the people leading BDS — one comes away from the article with only a shadowy impression.
“The Homecoming: How Ahed Tamimi Became a Symbol of Resistance to Israeli Oppression”, Alice Speri, The Intercept, July 31
Ahed Tamimi’s arrest and conviction made news around the world, largely due to her age, the prior renown of her family, and the video of her slapping an Israeli soldier. (A part of the context that was often lost in the coverage was that the soldiers had just shot her cousin in the head with a rubber bullet and then lied about it, saying he’d had a bike accident; he eventually had to have part of his skull removed.) This article goes in-depth about the case and Tamimi’s long-standing activism. Most insightfully, it probes the lives of the children of Nabi Saleh under Israeli occupation and, more generally, the plight of the 500 to 700 Palestinian children detained every year in Israeli prisons. Ahed’s cousin, 20-year-old ‘Iz a-Din Tamimi, was killed in June, shot from the back as he fled after throwing rocks at soldiers who had come into the village.
“My Sister Disowned Me on State TV”, Masih Alinejad, New York Times, July 31
Alinejad is the founder of the My Stealthy Freedom campaign in 2014 and author of The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran. Here she describes the experience of watching her sister disown her on Iranian TV and the pressure the regime has put on her family due to her activism (she lives in exile). Her tale reminds me of the many similar cases in China of the regime attacking families due to its hostility towards one of their members for supposed anti-regime actions. Watching her sister on TV made Alinejad physically ill, and anyone who’s had their own government do this to them will certainly identify. The case reminds of another, that of 18-year-old Maedah Hojabri who was forced to ‘confess’ on TV after posting Instagram videos of herself dancing in her bedroom — forced TV confessions, yet another thing the Iranian and Chinese regimes have in common
Three of these stories have to do with two prisoners, Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian who has been on hunger strike in Russian prison for nearly 150 days, and 17-year-old Anna Pavlikova, accused of plotting to overthrow the government and apparently entrapped along with nine others who belonged to a fringe political group.
“Teen’s detention in Russia prompts public outcry”, Daria Litvinova, Foreign Policy, August 23
“Russia’s Indifference to Two Political Prisoners Sends a Strong and Familiar Message”, Masha Gessen, New Yorker, August 14
“Can Oleg Sentsov’s Hunger Strike Be Successful?”, Evan Gershkovich, Moscow Times, July 27
This article sets Sentsov’s hunger strike in the wider context of hunger striking in Russia, which has become more common. It also examines the strategy behind the hunger strike and is downbeat about its chances of success, saying Sentsov’s demands are too extensive and he has no leverage over Putin. But my impression is that Sentsov has taken the hunger strike in a more principled manner and perhaps he does not expect to succeed in the narrow sense of having his demands met. With hunger striking, exactly who wins can often only be seen in retrospect; witness the Irish republican hunger strikers of 1980, for example, ten of whom died without any of their demands being met, yet the strike eventually catalyzed the peace process in Northern Ireland and lead to Catholics having their rights better respected.
“World Cup 2018: The Moral Clarity of Pussy Riot’s Protest”, Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, July 16
This was one of the few articles to take Pussy Riot’s protest in the World Cup final seriously and examine its message and intention. It’s one thing to enjoy football, another to totally look away from the awful things occurring in the very country where the tournament takes place. As Gessen says, Pussy Riot brought some “moral clarity” to the issue, a moral clarity few others had. One of the pitch intruders, Pyotr Verzilov, was apparently later poisoned by Russian agents and ended up at a hospital in Berlin. Gessen also wrote a story about that.
“After two decades, the hidden victims of the war are finally recognized” and “’I didn’t want this to be a taboo’: The fight for Kosovan women raped during the war”, Karen McVeigh, The Guardian, 3 and 4 August
In February, in belated recognition of their suffering, all survivors of sexual violence perpetrated during the Kosovo war became eligible for pensions. By July, more than 600 had applied. There are an estimated 20,000 victims of sexual violence during the conflict. These two articles are about their struggle to come to terms with the trauma, and the campaign of many others to provide them with treatment and support. Only a handful of those responsible have been prosecuted. Amnesty International has criticized “the lack of clear political commitment” to prosecute such crimes. The second article is hopeful in tone, profiling four dynamic women, Feride Rushiti, founder and head of Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims; Vasfije Krasniqi, a rape survivor who made public testimony; Atifete Jahjaga, former president of Kosovo who took on the unenlightened male-dominated political establishment; and artist Xhafa Mripa who made the installation depicted here.
“No, the Church Does Not Love Ireland”, Susan Mckay, New York Times, August 27
“…but the Irish people have learned to love one another,” as the sub-title puts it. Ireland is one of the great human rights success stories of recent years, and this piece shows why. It’s legalized divorce, campaigned to expose Church crimes, passed gay marriage, overturned the constitutional abortion ban, and has a gay Indian-Irish prime minister who gave a speech in the presence of the pope about “brutal crimes perpetrated by people within the Catholic church and then obscured to protect the institution at the expense of innocent victims”. As the novelist Marian Keyes put it, survivors of abuse had been ignored and silenced, but now Irish people were going to take care of them. “They deserve to know right to their bones that they are beloved on the earth.” Go, Ireland!
“Spain Exhumes its Painful Past”, Omar G. Encarnación, New York Review of Books, August 24
In June, Spain’s new Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez announced his intention to move dictator Francisco Franco’s remains from El Valle de los Caídos (the Valley of the Fallen), Spain’s grandest public monument, and transform the site from a shrine to Francoism to a “memorial for the victims of fascism”. Explaining his decision, Sánchez said, “Something that is unimaginable in Germany and Italy, countries that also suffered fascist dictatorships, should also be unimaginable in our country.” This represents a potential shift in Spain’s way of dealing with its decades of dictatorship, which was to make a transition to democracy after Franco’s death and basically to forget the past in the name of peace in the present and the future. There was not transitional justice, no prosecutions, no lustration, no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, all of which occurred elsewhere after the end of dictatorships. As Encarnación notes, if implemented, this would be “the biggest step yet in Spain’s long and agonizing process of coming to terms with the horrific legacy of the civil war and the Franco dictatorship”.
“Barcelona’s Experiment in Radical Democracy”, Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, August 6
Much media attention on Catalonia has understandably focused on the independence movement. Perhaps the good-news story of Barcelona has not gotten nearly the coverage it deserves, partly because good news stories tend to get less attention, partly because the media tend to under-report the issue of urbanism, how people live in cities, how cities as societies are organized and governed, and related issues of equality, fairness and rights. The city government’s ruling coalition is essentially made up of former protesters with roots in the Indignados anti-austerity movement. Barcelona is the heart of the global movement of municipalism which “aims to break the bounds of traditional party politics and challenge institutional politics as they currently exist”- basically to run cities differently, make them more people-centric, more attendant to the needs, desires and quality of life of citizens. It focuses on the commons, public space and the feminization of politics which “ implies to have more coöperative ways of working that actually allow you to combine professional and private life. And that should prioritize people and common objectives above any other vested interest and any other type of power.” Mayor Colau, by the way, is against independence for Catalonia but her government supports the rights of independence advocates and demands the release of those whom the Spanish state arrested for holding the independence referendum.
“A Warning from Europe: The Worst is Yet to Come”, Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic, October 2018 issue
This is a big, broad piece that is anchored in Applebaum’s personal experience in Poland, watching it turn from what she thought was going to be a flourishing liberal democracy after the end of Communist dictatorship into a retrograde nationalist right-wing state intent on weakening institutions of accountability and denying a variety of rights. Many of her former friends made a similar transition. One might think it would take an economic crisis to bring about such a drastic shift in the political terrain, but Poland is doing fairly well economically, and yet still got waylaid. This is the story of how that happened. It focuses mostly on elites whom Applebaum knows and might have paid more attention to ordinary people. Her lesson: “Polarization is normal. More to the point, I would add, skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.” Well, yes and no: whether you have a flourishing democracy or neo-authoritarianism all depends on the actions individuals take; nothing is fated or certain.
“The Tragedy of Angela Merkel”, Wolf Biermann, New York Times, June 29
For those who don’t know him, Wolf Biermann is a legendary dissident folk singer from East Germany whose music was banned there. In 1976, he was expelled, “exiled from Germany into Germany”, as he puts it. Angela Merkel, too, comes from East Germany, a state that no longer exists. Both lived through first Nazi, then Communist dictatorship. “…when the entire Eastern Bloc began to crumble, without a big bang, without a hot war, without bloody civil strife, I knew for certain that from now on, all throughout Europe, we would be singing a new and better song of life. Down with the communist experiment on human guinea pigs! Freedom of speech! Peace! And democracy!”… “Yet the past decades have taught us how much easier it is to build new roads and houses and modern factories than to turn subjugated subjects into tolerant democrats…the magic word ‘freedom’ means nothing more or less than taking responsibility for yourself. Freedom hurts for people trained as slaves.” Biermann then links that history to 2015, calling Merkel’s decision to admit refugees tragic: Every possible solution was wrong. “Three years ago, in an emergency situation, Ms. Merkel chose not to use barbed wire, clubs, water guns, machine guns and tanks to chase away thousands of desperate refugees on the German border, not to chase them back to Austria, Hungary, Greece, Turkey and possibly back to the war in Syria or Afghanistan. Yes, yes, it was a mistake. But it was the smaller, better mistake. The ‘right’ mistake,” a mistake for which she’s paid politically. “I support our chancellor completely, because she proved herself to be an energetic humanist, because she has acted as a true Christian and has remained a stoic European despite Europe’s internal turbulence. She shows the world the friendly face of human rationality.” I like this piece not least of all because Biermann asserts “the most imperfect democracy is better than the best dictatorship.”
“A Ride Along the Front Lines of the Brazilian Truckers’ Strike”, Tiffany Higgins, Guernica, August 17
This report’s strength is that it interviews many ordinary people about their perceptions of the Brazilian truckers’ strike in May that blocked highways throughout the country. The truckers were protesting the high and regularly fluctuating prices of diesel set by the Brazilian national company Petrobas (which also played a central role in the infamous Carwash corruption scandal involving many politicians). Behind the truckers’ strike is immense distrust in government, which is widely regarded as thoroughly corrupt and incapable of reforming itself. The genius of the piece lies in capturing the sometimes self-contradictory and illogical thinking of both strikers and observers. For example, many truckers called for the intervention of the military to resolve the strike. An expert comments, “They’re asking for something completely absurd, which shows a lack of historical memory,” referring to Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964–1985). “They’re asking for something that’s against their own interests. Under a military intervention, there are no protests.” At the same time, Higgins suggests ordinary Brazilians have a pretty good fundamental grasp of economics because the issues so directly impact their daily lives. The strike lasts ten days in total, from May 21 to May 30. A poll shows 87 percent of Brazilians support it, even though all suffer economically from the road blockades. The government agrees to lower the cost of diesel by R$0.46 per liter but then decides to pay for the reduction by cutting education and health budgets in what appears an act of pure revenge since the cuts amount to so little of the overall budget. Not only that, but it agrees to keep the cost that much lower only until December. As the Billy Bragg song goes, “You have to make great sacrifice for so little gain, and so much pain…” And with Lula out of the coming election, it remains to be seen whether Brazilians can make the corrupt right-wing government pay at the ballot box. Higgins had another excellent piece in Granta in July, “The Munduruku People Against Brazil”, about the former working to halt the building of the proposed São Luiz do Tapajós megadam, which would extinguish their lands with water.
“Fighting for Democracy: A Lesson from Bolivia”, Jacquelyn Kovarik, New Republic, August 8
Under Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, the country has seen remarkable progress — achievements in economic growth, literacy rates, improved public health, unprecedented strides for indigenous rights, nationalization instead of privatization of natural resources. His 2009 constitution recognized 36 indigenous languages as official. “The 2010 education law, titled Ley 070, required all school children to learn not only Spanish and ‘a foreign language’ (usually English), but also the native language of the department in which they live. Currently, 34 of the the 36 officially recognized indigenous pueblos have their own language institutes located within their own communities. As of 2012, every public official has been required to speak not only Spanish but also the native language of the region in which they work. For the first time in Bolivian history, a woman can walk into a bank in La Paz and converse with her teller in Aymara. A man can walk into a hospital in Cochabamba and receive treatment from his doctor in Quechua.” Remarkable. But now Evo is running for a fourth term even though Bolivians voted against removing term limits in a February 2016 referendum. Strikingly, in November 2017, Bolivia’s constitutional court annulled the referendum and struck down re-election limits on all public offices, claiming that re-election limits are a violation to human rights, even though most democratic states recognize term limits as a legitimate restriction. If Evo is re-elected, he would remain in office until 2025, a term of 19 consecutive years. There is a campaign afoot to stop him as a matter of principle, lead by the F21 Movement.
“There is a Right-Wing Coup Underway in Brazil”, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, New York Times, August 14
From the outside, Brazil’s long-lasting political crisis can be a bit hard to make sense of. Lula’s imprisoned for 12 years on corruption charges and disqualified from running for president again. Even if he’s guilty, his crimes pale in comparison to the many politicians who still walk free, many of whom campaigned for the impeachment of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, who wasn’t corrupt but was blamed for aiding and abetting others in her and Lula’s Workers Party. And they succeeded. So the most corrupt of all impeach their opponents for corruption and then take over. In one sense, it’s good the courts are so interventionist in addressing endemic corruption; in another, they seem to be lacking a sense of perspective and perhaps going overboard or aiming at the wrong targets. Here, Lula has his say. The years of Workers Party governments were probably amongst the most successful in Brazil’s post-dictatorship history. He outlines the progress the country made and emphasizes that they were stopped not through the ballot box but through parliamentary machinations and the courts. With him out of the running for the presidency, it remains to be seen how Brazilians respond now that they finally have a chance to make their voices heard through votes.
“What is Prison Abolition?”, John Washington, The Nation, August 1
The article begins, “It’s difficult to fully capture the negative repercussions of keeping millions of people — overwhelmingly black, brown, or poor — in jail, prison, or under some form of ‘correctional supervision.’ How do you calculate, for example, the impact on families and communities across our country when almost half of all black adult women in America have a family member locked up? Or that at least 80,000 people are, at any given time, resigned to some form of solitary confinement? Or that the aggregate cost of total incarceration in the United States (including costs borne by the families of those incarcerated, lost wages, and health impacts) is, by some estimates, about $1 trillion a year? A trillion dollars, the break-up of families, the destruction of lives, and little to show in the way of rehabilitative effects — and yet this system is just a part of life?” And then goes on to introduce the prison abolition movement: “Abolitionists believe that incarceration, in any form, harms society more than it helps.” In times such as these, we need more creative, visionary thinking of this type to address deep-seated social and political problems. Rarely do you find the more established media thinking innovatively about human rights. This is a good example of just that.
“Arrested, Jailed, And Charged with a Felony. For Voting.”, Jack Healy, New York Times, August 2
There’s been a significant increase in attention paid to voting rights in the US recently, especially in regard to gerrymandering, the role of money in elections, and various legislative attempts to discourage minority voting as well as recently published books, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy, The Embattled Vote in America, From the Founding to the Present and Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. This article is about 12 people charged with illegally voting in a single county in North Carolina in the 2016 elections. Cases of convictions for illegally voting are rare in the US, but some local prosecutors have started to aggressively prosecute the charge. Nine of the defendants in Alamance County are black. This is against the backdrop of Trump falsely claiming that millions voted illegally in 2016. Meanwhile, across the US, there are laws that strip more than 6 million convicted felons of voting rights. North Carolina has a history of suppressing black votes and the North Carolina legislature has put an item on the upcoming 2018 calling for ID to vote, even though a previous similar law was struck down by a federal appeals court.
“The Chicago Police Files”, James Kalven, Rob Arthur, Andrew Fan, The Intercept
A five-part series examining various aspects of dysfunction and malfeasance in one of the most recalcitrant police forces in the US. Titles include “Chicago Faces a Defining Moment in Police Reform and Civil Order” by James Kalven (August 15), “130 Chicago Officers Account for 29 Percent of Police Shootings” by Rob Arthur (August 16), “Chicago Police Are 14 Times More Likely to Use Force Against Young Black Men Than Against Whites” by Andrew Fan (August 16), and “Bad Chicago Cops Spread Their Misconduct Like a Disease” by Rob Arthur (August 18).
But it must be admitted that Chicago also has a terrible problems with citizen-on-citizen murders, with 66 shootings and no arrests in just a single weekend in early August. While police violence and misconduct are certainly one part of the problem, gun violence in general and insufficient gun control are another big part. Of course, these are general problems in many places across the US and don’t explain why Chicago has a much higher murder rate than other big cities.
“The Unlikely Activists Who Took on Silicon Valley — and Won”, Nicholas Confessore, New York Times, August 14
This was a story I’d never heard of before reading this, even though it is a very important and timely issue, the right to privacy in the digital age. Europe’s already passed a fairly stringent data privacy law. The U.S. has nothing of the sort. This is the story of one California man’s attempt to change that. He had previously no experience or expertise in I.T. but he was wealthy and well-connected. It is a brilliant, well-told story, very intriguing, compulsively readable and quite complex, about an attempt in California to enact adequate data privacy legislation after the Obama administration failed to do so. It’s about the great power of the tech industry, which probably would have crushed Mactaggart’s initiative if not for a series of scandals — Snowden, Cambridge Analytica, fake news and Russian interference in elections. From an activist perspective, this story was about tactics and strategy, the dilemma of whether or not to accept a piecemeal and potentially insufficient victory. Privacy groups didn’t support Mactaggart because they believed his proposal didn’t go far enough since it didn’t require the informed consent of consumers. Eventually a political compromise is reached, Mactaggart is victorious, but, I think, the new law doesn’t go nearly far enough to protect privacy. So is it a victory? Wired has a good straight-up hard news piece on the story.
“Let Us Have a Childhood”: On the Road with the Parkland Activists”, Maggie Astor, photographs by Gabriella Angotti-Jones, New York Times, August 15
This article follows March for Our Lives activists over the course of three days on their road tour to promote initiatives to reduce gun violence in the US, six months after the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High High School in Parkland, Florida. As the article points out, one of the great triumphs of the Road to Change tour is that the young people have first of all defined gun violence broadly to include “not just mass shootings but gang killings, police brutality, domestic abuse, suicide”. This has allowed them to create a strong, broad coalition that bridges classes and races. Some might say it could make them too diffuse when it comes to working for specific changes to address gun violence, but since Parkland, state legislatures have passed at least 50 new gun regulations, largely due to public pressure. It’s unusual for the mainstream media to take the ordinary doings of activists so seriously. In this case, that is presumably down to their relative celebrity. It would be good to see more coverage of this sort, as it provides insight into how a movement is made and operates. The article could focus a bit more on some of the core activities of the tour, such as registering voters.
“Bangladesh’s Authoritarian Turn”, Salil Tripathi, New York Review of Books, August 15
This was one of several articles that alerted the world to the arrest of renowned Bangladeshi photographer on August 5. He is charged with “spreading propaganda and false information against the government”, apparently for an interview he gave Al-Jazeera in which he criticized the government crackdown on students protesting worsening road safety. Earlier in the same day, he’d been photographing them and had his equipment smashed by “goons”. UN human rights experts have called for his immediate release. Tripathi argues the arrest is part of an increasingly authoritarian turn on the part of the government, and he gives detailed background history to show how the oppressed have now become the oppressors.
“Cows are sacred to India’s Hindu majority. For Muslims who trade cattle, that means growing trouble.”, Annie Gowen, Washington Post, July 16
An extremist monk is tapped to lead Uttar Pradesh. Emboldened mobs of Hindu vigilantes swarm buffalo tracks to find smugglers. Some Muslims have been killed by lynch mobs. Dozens of slaughterhouses and 50,000 meat shops have been closed, severely limiting access to red meat, a staple of the Muslim community’s diet. Hundreds from the Qureshi clan, Muslims in the meat trade for centuries, have lost their jobs. Recent moves led by the Hindu nationalist party of Narendra Modi to tighten “cow protection” laws have contributed to a 15 percent drop in India’s $4 billion beef export industry, until recently the largest in the world. This is not just an economic matter but a sign of worsening conditions for India’s 172 million Muslims. As one commentator put it, “It’s okay to hate now. Hatred has been given a mainstream legitimacy.” This article follows one buffalo trader, Bhurra Qureshi, as he makes the perilous journey to market.
“South Africa Vows to End Corruption. Are Its Leaders Part of the Problem?”, Norimitsu Onishi and Selam Gebrekidan, New York Times, August 4
Part of an on-going series of excellent NYT articles about how the party that lead the anti-apartheid liberation movement has stolen tens of billions of dollars meant to lift black South Africans out of poverty. Strong institutions like the tax agency have been hollowed out by party officials bent on shielding their illicit activities. But the nation’s poor schools are perhaps the African National Congress’s greatest betrayal of the dreams of black South Africans. Students have drowned from falling into pit toilets while corruption is rampant. Ironically, “Poor schooling was a major spark in the anti-apartheid movement, most notably in Soweto in 1976, when thousands of students protested the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction.” This article focuses on the career of David Mabuza, head of Mpumalanga province, a former math teacher who has become one of the most powerful figures in the ANC and recently appointed South Africa’s deputy president, all while millions of dollars have gone missing in his province. This certainly doesn’t bode well for the prospects of the new president Cyril Ramaphosa cleaning up the ANC. The article does an excellent job of tracing Mabuza’s rise and the backdrop of malfeasance against which it occurred. Onishi and Gebrekidan’s more recent article, “Hit Men and Power: South Africa’s Leaders Are Killing One Another”, is, in many ways, even more astounding: About 90 politicians have been killed since start of 2016; most were ANC members suspected of having been killed by other ANC members in territorial disputes. In other words, what we have here is a mafia organization. Indeed, the two articles together make you think the ANC as a democratic liberation movement is good and truly dead.
“Girls of South Sudan on gunshot wounds, hunger and hope — in pictures”, Kate Holt, The Guardian, June 25
South Sudan is one of the poorest places in the world, newly independent and now at war with itself. How would you expect its girls are doing? Many do not have enough to eat, are married off in their mid-teens, have to stop school after primary if not before, and have considered ending their own lives. A brilliant photo essay that depicts the girls with dignity, shows their typical meals, and discusses their hopes and dreams. Pictured here, Roseanna, 17, was shot in the hip by her own family when she refused to get married and has somehow managed to continue her schooling. She wants to be a doctor.
“Nine activists defending the earth from violent assault”, Jonathan Watts, photos by Thom Pierce, The Guardian, 21 July
Portraits of nine people in seven countries risking their lives to save the land and the environment. They struggle against illegal fishing, industrial farming, poachers, polluters and miners. Global Witness counted 207 defenders murdered last year. Brazil has the most deaths, followed by the Philippines, Colombia and DR Congo. Mexico has seen the greatest increase in defenders killed in the last five years. Most of the defenders are from indigenous groups and poor black communities. Each of the nine profiles is inspiring and frightening in equal measure.