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Eda Okutgen was murdered by her ex-husband. This is her ponytail, which she cut off to give to a charity collecting hair for leukemia patients. (Photo: Nicole Tung, from “In The Kingdom of Men”)

The Best Human Rights Journalism of 2018

Individual articles, collective coverage, and bodies of work by individual journalists

Previous lists: October to December, July-September, April-June, January-March, 2017, 2016, 2015

This year for the first time, the Best Human Rights Journalism list was published in quarterly installments. In those four lists, 169 discrete pieces of work were recognized — mostly articles, but also videos, photos, and bodies of work.

The reason for the change from a single end-of-year list was simply that the end-of-year list was getting too long. That in itself is a good sign — there is a lot of great journalism out there. But as you can see from that tally of 169 discrete pieces of work in the four quarterly lists this year, it’s still difficult keeping the numbers down.

Here, 20 pieces are featured, selected from those four quarterly lists (plus two articles not originally included on those lists), though, as you will see, this discipline has been achieved by including collective coverage and on-going reporting; in other words, the list includes more than just individual articles.

“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.

What conclusions can be drawn about the state of journalism, especially in regard to human rights coverage, from this list and the past year’s media monitoring? Not many that haven’t already been reached by others elsewhere. As noted above, there is, obviously, a lot of great work, and this will probably continue. But there aren’t as many publications dedicated to human rights coverage as in the past.

This is partly due to economics — not many can afford to make such a standing commitment. The New York Times towers head and shoulders above the rest. It’s one of the few papers left that still has a truly global reach in terms of its support of foreign correspondents. That, however, still leaves much of the world largely uncovered in English-language reporting, and the English-language media have yet to find a solution to this.

One possible solution is more collaboration with media working in other languages, with increased translation of news. Only tentative steps have been taken in this direction. Of the 169 articles on the four best-of lists this year, only two were translated. I read news in eight languages other than English, only one of which is a non-European language, but that’s enough to know that there’s a lot of great journalism out there that never makes its way into English.

Besides economics, the other challenge facing human rights coverage is the downgrading of human rights as a concern of governments around the world. This goes hand in hand with an increase in authoritarianism and challenges to democracy. So far, the media has, in many but certainly not all places, provided a bulwark against this erosion. It remains to be seen whether that is but a temporary matter or part of a longer-term global trend. That depends mostly on the willingness of people to insist on their own and others’ rights and fight for them. But while the media has acted as a bulwark, it is also influenced by such a trend. Media leaders as well as journalists must recognize this and decide how best to address it. There are plenty of journalists interested in covering human rights news and also an audience interested in it — both the supply and the demand are there. Human rights is indeed a key area in which the media can have a substantial influence on the direction the world goes in coming years.

Much of the great human rights journalism is done by local and regional journalists and newspapers as well as by freelancers who manage to get their work published in various outlets. This list does a bad job of recognizing them, as I simply don’t have the capacity to reach out across the internet to all of those excellent sources.

I am continually amazed and inspired by the work done by journalists and their publications covering human rights issues around the world. Yes, it could improve, and it requires an awareness and commitment, as well as a willingness to innovate and find new solutions.

There are certain relative blind spots: There needs to be more work on the relationship between weapons production and human rights, the economic order and human rights, between inequalities of wealth and power and human rights, between business and finance and human rights, between corruption and human rights. Indeed, apart from the authoritarian challenge to the universality of human rights, probably the other greatest challenge comes from the privileging of trade and business over all other concerns, not just human rights but also the environment, that has occurred especially over the last three decades. This has had a corrosive effect not only on human rights but on democracy and is therefore related to the authoritarian challenge we see today. Most English-language media with an international reach has provided far from sufficient critical coverage of this trend; indeed, they have largely championed it, with varying degrees of awareness of what they were doing. That is something that needs to change, and toward that end, below you will find a separate category recognizing excellent reporting on these issues.

This past year saw the deaths of many great human rights defenders. Here are a few that have been noted in these best-of lists: Marielle Franco of Brazil, Gene Sharp of the United States, Asma Jehangir of Pakistan, Jamal Khashoggi of Saudi Arabia, Ana González of Chile, Teodoro Petkoff of Venezuela, Lyudmila Alexeyeva of Russia, Raed Fares of Syria, and Palden Gyatso of Tibet. Of those, the good news is all but three lived into old age. The three exceptions, Franco, Khashoggi and Fares, all faced violent deaths, and all three murders were deeply symbolic of the gross human rights abuses plaguing their societies.

The list consists of 1) three collective efforts; 2) seven individual articles; 3) three examples of superb on-going or extended coverage of human rights issues by an individual journalist; and 4) six excellent examples of coverage of the links between human rights on the one hand and corruption, business and income inequality on the other.

The New York Times coverage of the war in Yemen: Five articles by four reporters and two photographers

The New York Times’ coverage of the war in Yemen has been exceptional. It is a very difficult conflict to report, and it has for the most part gone under-reported, even though it is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world and involves regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as the US, all of which are implicated in war crimes there.Airstrikes by Saudi Arabia and Yemen have killed at least 10,000 civilians, and about a million people have been displaced, but an economic crisis that was intended as a weapon of war threatens to kill far more people by hunger. Eight million Yemenis are dependent on food aid to survive. Two million children are malnourished, and 400,000 considered critically ill. Overall, an estimated 12 to 14 million Yemenis risk starvation. 85,000 children have been killed.There have been over 15,000 air strikes since 2015 but the front lines remain largely unchanged.

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Gasim Foreich, 21, was burned when her home on the outskirts of Sa’ada was bombed in an airstrike (Photo: Lynsey Addario)

The five articles below focus on different aspects such as the hunger crisis, the effects of the bombings on civilians, and the use by Saudi Arabia of child soldiers and other mercenaries from Darfur who were implicated in war crimes there.

The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia’s War” (October 26) and “This is the Front Line of Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen” (October 20), Declan Walsh, photos and video Tyler Hicks

“How the War in Yemen Became a Bloody Stalemate — and the Worst Humanitarian Crisis in the World”, Robert F. Worth, photos by Lynsey Addario, October 31

From Arizona to Yemen: The Journey of an American Bomb”, Jeffrey E. Stern, December 15

On the Frontline of the Saudi War in Yemen? Child Soldiers from Darfur”, David D. Kirkpatrick, December 28

Collective coverage of the Chinese government’s crackdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang: 32 articles by 22 reporters from 20 outlets

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One of the few photos inside a political re-education camp to emerge to the outside world.

China has detained an estimated one million Uighurs in political re-education camps and employed massive surveillance and “security” measures to impose its control over just about every aspect of the lives of Uighurs in Xinjiang. This is the most widespread and systematic abuses of the human rights of a particular ethnic group anywhere in the world, but it’s escaped the attention of much of the rest of the world because the Chinese government has made independent reporting on the ground in Xinjiang almost impossible (with the exception of only two articles below). Burma’s attacks on the Rohingyas most likely constituted acts of genocide, but they were much smaller in scale and for a shorter duration. Still, they merited massive attention and condemnation by the rest of the world. China’s oppression of Uighurs has received much less attention and condemnation.

But that is certainly not due to lack of media coverage. In fact, international media have outdone themselves over the course of the year in reporting on the massive human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Of course, the news media does not act as a coordinated group, but in this case, it almost seemed to. Once reporters got wind of what was going on, beginning in 2017, it was journalists who lead the charge, and have done the most to bring this, arguably the worst systematic human rights situations in the world intentionally imposed by government policy, to the awareness of the world (meaning everywhere outside of China, where any news of abuses is heavily censored). Governments have still failed to sufficiently take note, let alone effectively respond effectively, but it can’t be said the media hasn’t done its job.

And a difficult job it has been: Because restrictions on reporting in Xinjiang are so draconian, journalists have creatively employed various methods, including not only straight, traditional on-the-ground reporting but also interviews with released detainees who made their way to Kazakhstan and Uighurs in the diaspora whose family, friends and colleagues have been detained, and analysis of satellite photos in collaboration with tech companies to document the spread and growth of internment camps.

It is also worth noting that Xinjiang and Uighur experts, including Darren Byler, Rian Thum, Adrian Zenz, James Millward, Gene Bunin and Timothy Grose, have stepped up and spoken out. They are a shining example of an academic community bringing their expertise to bear on an urgent human rights situation.

In all, there are 32 articles below by 22 different reporters (plus four without bylines). If that seems a bit over the top, the list is meant to represent the diversity and quality of coverage. If you manage to make your way through even just a fair share of them, consider yourself well informed.

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Gulbahar Jelil providing detailed testimony about her detention in a political re-education in Xinjiang after she was released and escaped to Turkey

‘As if you’ve spent your whole life in prison’: Starving and subdued in Xinjiang detention centers”, Darren Byler, supchina, December 5

Tracking China’s Muslim Gulags”, Philip Wen, Olzhas Auyezov, Photos by Thomas Peter, llustrations by Chrisian Inton, Graphics by Simon Scarr, Reuters, November 28

China is surveilling and threatening Uighurs in the United States”, The Atlantic Magazine, November 27

“‘There are no people’: China’s crackdown in the Uyghur heartland”, Ann Scott Tyson, Christian Science Monitor, November 19

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Uighur residents in Australia hold photos of family members missing and presumed detained in China (photo: Alex Ellinghausen)

Detained and in danger: The tortured Australian families who fear for their missing loves ones”, Fergus Hunter, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November

China’s Surveillance Laboratory”, Darren Byler and Timothy Grose, Dissent, October 31

China’s hidden camps: What’s happened to the vanished Uighurs of Xinjiang?”, John Sudworth, BBC, 24 October

China’s Government Has Ordered a Million Citizens to Occupy Uighur Homes. Here’s What They Think They’re Doing.” Darren Byler, ChinaFile, October 24

An internment camp for 10 million Uyghurs: Meduza visits China’s dystopian police state”, Meduza, 1 October

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A woman in Turkey holds a photo of her four children. She doesn’t know for sure where they are, but they’re suspected held in a boarding school for orphans in Xinjiang.

China Treats Uighur Kids as ‘orphans’ after parents seized”, Yanan Wang and Dake Kang, AP, September 22

China Is Detaining Muslims in Vast Numbers. The Goal: ‘Transformation.’, Chris Buckley, New York Times, September 8

Muslim China and ‘de-extremification’ campaign: Interview with Darren Byler”, Living Otherwise, September 7

China’s Jaw-Dropping Family Separation Policy”, Sigal Samuel, The Atlantic, September 4

“‘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

Behind the Walls: Three Uyghurs Detail Their Experience in China’s Secret Re-education Camps”, Radio Free Asia

China’s Muslim Crackdown Extends to Those Living Abroad”, Eva Dou, Wall Street Journal, August 31

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

From laboratory in far west, China’s surveillance state spreads quietly”, Cate Cadell, Reuters, August 14

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Abdusalam Muhemet, a former detainee who has spoken about his experiences in the camp (photo: Erin Trieb)

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

Uighur children fall victim to China anti-terror drive”, Emily Feng, Financial Times, July 10

Reeducation Returns to China: Will the Repression in Xinjiang Influence Beijing’s Social Credit System”, Adrian Zenz, Foreign Affairs, June 20

In China’s Far West, Companies Cash in on Surveillance Program that Targets Muslims”, Charles Rollet, Foreign Policy, June 13

The Families Left Behind: RFA’s Uyghur reporters tell the stories of their family members’ detentions”, Radio Free Asia

Navigating Xinjiang’s security checkpoints”, Darren Byler, Eurasianet, April 30

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Former political re-education camp detainee Omir Bekali holds a phone with a photo of his parents, whom he believes have now also been detained in Xinjiang.

Chinese mass-indoctrination camps evoke Cultural Revolution”, Gerry Shih, AP, May 17

“What Really Happens in China’s ‘Re-education’ Camps”, Rian Thum, New York Times, May 15

Beijing Squeezes Exiles in U.S. by Detaining Family Back Home”, Josh Chin and Clément Bürge, Wall Street Journal, March 30 (This article is a follow-up to a more comprehensive piece WSJ did in December 2017, Twelve Days in Xinjiang: How China’s Surveillance State Overwhelms Daily Life”)

A Summer Vacation in China’s Muslim Gulag”, A Special Correspondent, Foreign Policy, March 1

What It’s Like to Live in a Surveillance State”, James A. Millward, New York Times, February 3

The Intercept’s “War on Immigrants” series

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(Illustration: Simon Prades)

There has been much excellent reporting on US policy and practice in regard to immigrants in the past year especially, and much of it has been dramatic, involving border confrontations and children separated from their parents. The Intercept’s “War on Immigrants” coverage stands out even among the great journalism found elsewhere. Just from July to September, I counted 32 articles by 20 different reporters about a wide diversity of topics related mostly to Central American immigrants, many of which did not get widespread coverage in the mainstream media. Among those reporters, two have stood out for their consistently excellent coverage, Ryan Devereaux and Cora Currier.

Standouts from the middle of the year, when I followed the coverage most closely, 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.

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

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This photo was taken on the day the 10 Rohingya men were killed. It was obtained from a Buddhist village elder, and authenticated by witnesses.

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 on the Rohingya. The areas in which the killings took place were a veritable black box, off limits to the media. Most media reports of massacres were based mainly on refugees’ accounts and satellite footage. 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.” The two Burmese journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who authored the report were detained in December 2017 on charges of “revealing state secrets”, the “secrets” in this case presumably being the massacre documented here. The Burmese government contended they “illegally possessed confidential government documents”. In September, they were sentenced to seven years in prison for violating Burma’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act. They were key to putting together this report as it is based on evidence provided to them mostly by Buddhist villagers, some of whom appear to have participated in the killings. Burma seems to have targeted them in order to warn other Burmese journalists against doing any reporting on the mass human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya.

A Day, A Life: When a Medic Was Killed in Gaza, Was it an Accident?”, David M. Halbfinger, video by Yousur Al-Hlou, Malachy Browne, John Woo and David M. Halbfinger, New York Times, December 30

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An image created from examination of over 1,000 videos of the killing of Rouzan al-Nazzar (here in orange). An Israeli soldier shot her from over 100 yards away. She was in a crowd of eight medics (here in white) and dozens of protesters. (Image from video by Yousur Al-Hlou, Malachy Browne, John Woo and David M. Halbfinger)

This article focuses on the infamous killing of 20-year-old Palestinian medic Rouzan al-Nazzar on June 1 during the weeks of Palestinian protests at the border between Gaza and Israel. Hers became the most well-known of the 185 killings of Palestinians by Israeli Defense Forces in those weeks. Halbfinger and the Times bring to bear remarkable resources in examining her death and how exactly it occurred. In an ideal world, all killings and human rights abuses would be so thoroughly investigated. In addition to more traditional methods such as interviews, the Times examined over 1,000 videos and collaborated with an organization to create 3D models of the killing. Its conclusion: “…the shooting appears to have been reckless at best, and possibly a war crime, for which no one has yet been punished.” Al-Nazzar was amidst a group of eight medics at the time (two others were injured) and some protesters, none of whom were engaged in violence or threatening or aggressive behavior, and human rights and military experts concurred there appeared little to no justification for firing at them. The article is accompanied by an excellent 18-minute video.

2,000 Clandestine Graves: How a Decade of the Drug War Turned Mexico into a Burial Ground, Alejandra Guillén, Mago Torres, Marcela Turati, translated from the Spanish by Ashley Hermosillo Bawell, The Intercept, December 14

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Bertila Parada holds a photo of her son, Carlos Alberto Osorio Parada, a Salvadoran migrant found in a grave with 12 others in Tamaulipas in 2011. (Photo: Mónica González)

This is the kind of sustained investigative reporting journalists these days all too seldom get the opportunity and resources to carry out.In Mexico, 37,485 people were reported missing between December 2006 and last October, according to official records. This report is the result of a year-and-a-half investigation that discovered 1,978 clandestine graves located in 24 of Mexico’s 32 states, a number far greater than the 232 reported by federal authorities. Of course, chances are, this is only a percentage of the overall number of mass graves related to the drug war and associated violence, and only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the estimated 200,000 killed in the drug war over the last decade during two presidential administrations. The article not only presents the evidence but also discusses the difficulties of identifying the remains. The scale and the pervasiveness of the violence is mind-boggling. The new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has promised to do things differently. He certainly has an immense challenge, so entrenched and powerful do this economy and culture of violence seem. This article was originally published in Spanish at adondevanlosdesaparecidos.org and translated into English. It is the only article on the list not originally written in English and reminds that we need more translated journalism, especially in an age of drastically reduced numbers of foreign correspondents and reduced English-language coverage of many parts of the world.

District of Despair: On a Montana Reservation, Schools Favor Whites Over Native Americans” and “On a Reservation, a Second Chance for Prisoners and Their Warden, Annie Waldman of ProPublica and Erica L. Green of The New York Times, December 28

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Ruth Fourstar, a Native American student who has struggled in the Wolf Point School District, as have many other Native Americans (Photo: Annie Flanagan)

More excellent investigative reporting, but whereas the above article looked at all of Mexico, this examines with laser focus discrimination against Native Americans in the Wolf Point School District on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation of Montana. While the report has a tight focus on that place, statistics indicate the problems there are typical of those faced by Native American students elsewhere in the US. They have some of the worst academic outcomes of any demographic group, exacerbated by decades of discrimination: “Native students are more than twice as likely to be suspended…. [and] score lower than nearly all other demographic groups on national tests… only 72 percent of Native students graduate, the lowest of any demographic group.” Native young people also have a substantially higher suicide rate than whites. Ruth Fourstar says, “I feel invisible”. That statement is symbolic of the situation of Native Americans in general. The second article focuses on a Native man who used to be head of the Wolf Point school district where he says he fought for years in vain for better treatment of Native students though he was outnumbered by whites on the school board and now finds himself warden of the prison on the reservation where he does remedial work with young prisoners whom the school district failed the first time around.

The Homecoming: How Ahed Tamimi Became a Symbol of Resistance to Israeli Oppression, Alice Speri, The Intercept, July 31

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Ahed Tamimi, right, with her father, Bassem, and her mother, Nariman, arrive in Nabi Saleh following the womens’ release on July 29, 2018 (photo: Samar Hazboun)

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.

Too Many Men, Simon Denyer and Annie Gowen, Washington Post, April 18

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(Illustration: Jasu Hu)

In China and India, men outnumber women by 71 million (34 million in China, 37 million in India). But this drastic imbalance has very different causes in the two countries. In the case of China, it is largely the knock-on effect of the government’s draconian and abusive one-child policy, enforced from 1979 to 2015. In India, it is the result of a combination of the second-class status of women and the use of sex-selective technology. Most of this article, though, is not about the causes of the gender imbalance, which have been widely covered elsewhere down through the years, but the effects, many of which are just starting to be known. The article focuses on four areas in particular, village life and mental health, housing prices and savings rates, human trafficking, and public safety. Much human rights coverage focuses understandably on human rights abuses, their perpetrators and their victims. Human rights abuses are wrong in and of themselves, and for that reason, our short attention spans, and limited resources, not nearly as much effort is put into examining their effects. It is also quite rare to see a comparative study of two countries such as this in mainstream journalism. Given the increasing importance of China and India globally, this kind of journalism is insightful and necessary.

A Journey on a Caravan of Misery, Alexandra Ulmer (photos by Carlos Garcia Rawlins), Reuters, March 2

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The 37 Venezuelan emigrants profiled in the story (photo: Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

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.

Masha Gessen’s consistent and diverse reporting in The New Yorker on human rights in Russia, refugees, immigration, LGBT rights, and other rights issues

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It’s only when I look back over the year that I become fully aware of the consistently excellent reporting on human rights Masha Gessen has done. Few journalists in major publications dedicate themselves so consistently to writing about human rights issues as she does. Her pieces are often brief, directed at a recently arising news item or about an issue or story that no one else is covering, in diverse areas from Russia, refugees, and immigration to LGBT rights. In addition to the articles that have appeared on the quarterly best-of lists, she has also written more about LGBT persecution in Chechnya, Hungary’s hounding of Central European University, and the case of Siwatu Ra as a woeful statement on the “relentless logic of mass incarceration” in the US.

Remembering Lyudmila Alexeyeva, One of the Last of the Soviet Dissidents”, December 10

Fleeing Anti-Gay Persecution in Chechnya, Three Young Women Are Now Stuck in Place”, October 1

Russia’s Indifference to Two Political Prisoners Sends a Strong and Familiar Message”, August 14

Barcelona’s Experiment in Radical Democracy”, August 6

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Oleg Sentsov, who went on hunger strike in a Russian prison (Photo: Sergey Pivovarov)

World Cup 2018: The Moral Clarity of Pussy Riot’s Protest”, July 16

The Bureaucratic Nightmare of Fighting Deportation”, April 3

The L.G.B.T. Refugees in Turkey Who Refuse to Be Forgotten”, June 15

Counting Down the Days of the Hunger Strike by Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian Political Prisoner Held in Russia”, June 4

The Living Memorial to Boris Nemtsov is the Most Radical Political Statement in Russia”, February 27

Ryan Gallagher’s 18 articles from August to December on Google’s secret plan to introduce a new censored search engine in China, beginning with the one on August 1, in which he was the first to break the story.

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai fielding critical questions from the US House Judiciary Committee on December 11 about Google’s secret plan to introduce a new censored search enginge in China (Photo: Alex Wong)

This is in celebration of good old-fashioned dogged journalism, and big credit to The Intercept too for giving Gallagher the platform and freedom to pursue the story. Much of it was based on information provided by informants inside the company. Many other news organizations picked up the story. The coverage provoked an outcry from human rights and tech organizations as well as from Google employees and resulted in Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai getting hammered by members of Congress over the censorship plan in December and, eventually, Google’s privacy team putting a stop to Project Dragonfly’s use of datasets that were accessed without the privacy team’s knowledge, in breach of company protocol. In other words, this is journalism with real impact. Holding a mega-IT company accountable — what about that! It remains to be seen whether Google will persist in developing and introducing a censored search engine in China, but it appears that for now at least, work has ground to a halt.

Patrick Kingsley’s articles for the New York Times on the Hungarian government’s attempts to control institutions essential to a healthy democracy, in particular the media and the courts

Together, these articles amount to a primer in how to use a nominally democratic system to subvert democratic institutions. Orban and his allies have won elections repeatedly since coming to power in 2010. Why would people effectively vote to end their democracy? In this story lies an apparent paradox of our current era, and in this sense, these articles read like a modern-day parable of the dilemma of democracy.

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Demonstrators protesting in Budapest in December against the so-called “slave” law introduced by Orban’s government (Photo: Balasz Mohai)

How Viktor Orban Bends Hungarian Society to His Will”, March 27

The Website That Shows How a Free Press Can Die”, November 24

Orban and His Allies Cement Control of News Media”, November 29

Hungary Creates New Court System, Cementing Leader’s Control of Judiciary”, December 12

Outside Hungary’s State Television, A Protest. On Air: Pigeon Talk”, December 18

As I assert in the above introduction, these are areas in which media coverage is quite weak relative to their overall social, economic and political importance, and so I’ve gone out of my way to include here some models of reporting on the links between human rights on the one hand and corruption and business on the other, as well as on social and economic rights, especially as linked to equality.

Three articles by Norimitsu Onishi and Selam Gebrekidan of The New York Times on how the African National Congress has stolen tens of billions of dollars meant to lift black South Africans out of poverty, corrupting the very democracy for which they lead the struggle.

“‘They Eat Money’: How Mandela’s Political Heirs Got Rich Off Corruption”, Norimitsu Onishi, Selam Gebrekidan, New York Times, April 16

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Andisiwe Mlaba outside her home. Her father, Vusi Mlaba spoke out against corruption and was gunned down nearby. (photo: Joao Silva)

The all-too-familiar vicious cycle: Imperfect democracy leads to corruption which undermines democracy and tends to entrench in power those who benefit most from corruption, which in turn entrenches old racial inequalities and increases income inequality. That’s South Africa today. It’s also part of the legacy of revolution at the ballot box without corresponding change in the economic arrangements of the country, which left most of the wealth in the hands of a tiny few. The great thing about this article is that it connects many of the dots in that big and complicated story, starting off with a corrupt dairy project in an out-of-the-way rural area: “Millions of dollars from state coffers, meant to uplift the poor, vanished in a web of bank accounts controlled by politically connected companies and individuals.” Since the end of apartheid in 1994, tens of billions of dollars have been siphoned off by ANC leaders. While there has been some decrease in poverty, inequality has increased in a society that was already amongst the most unequal. Follows on another excellent NYT piece from last year’s best-of list, “End of Apartheid in South Africa? Not in Economic Terms” by Peter S. Goodman.

South Africa Vows to End Corruption. Are Its Leaders Part of the Problem?”, August 4

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A toilet in Middelplaas, Mpumalanga, the province run by David Mabuza, the new deputy president of South Africa

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.

Hit Men and Power: South Africa’s Leaders Are Killing One Another”, September 30

Astoundingly, about 90 politicians have been killed since the start of 2016. Most were ANC members. Other ANC members are the main suspects in the murders. These seem like turf battles in a mafia organization. It makes think the ANC as a democratic liberation movement is good and truly dead.

How McKinsey Has Helped Raise the Stature of Authoritarian Governments, Walt Bogdanich, Michael Forsythe, New York Times, December 15

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Not only is the investigative journalism in this wide-ranging piece outstanding, but the conceptualization of the topic is one that is found too seldom, i.e., that there’s something problematic about multinational corporations working with authoritarian regimes in this way, that it shouldn’t just be considered “business as usual”, and Bogdanich and Forsythe homed in on consulting giant McKinsey because it doesn’t just make products but works with authoritarian regimes and their allies to help them to work better and bolster their images. The writing is great too: Witness the opening, which juxtaposes a McKinsey retreat in the sand dunes of Kashgar, Xinjiang with a political re-education camp located just a short distance away in a region under a major crackdown involving the detention of upwards of one million Uighurs. The cynicism of it is appalling, and symbolic of a certain way of doing business that is all too prevalent in the world these days, a craven practice of “engagement” with despicable regimes, often under the self-serving justification of helping them to change for the better. Four cases of McKinsey’s “engagement” are profiled here: an oligarch and a strongman in Ukraine, Putin’s banks in Russia, Chinese state-run enterprises, and a corrupt regime in Malaysia. There should be much more reporting of this sort on the impact of international business practices on human rights. An academic researching the work of management consultancies in the Gulf sums it up: “‘In the beginning, the best of them want to help, want to do real research, provide data and expert opinions.’ But after initially speaking their minds, she said, they gradually stop. ‘They engage in the art of not speaking truth to power… They self-censor, exaggerate successes and downplay their own misgivings due to the incentive structures they face.’”

In the Valley of Fear, Michael Greenberg, New York Review of Books, December 20 issue

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18-year-old Rufina García at the roadside shrine for her parents, who died in a car crash while being pursued by ICE agents, Delano, California, June 2018 (Photo: Michael Greenberg)

Like the above article, this is one that goes under “how the world works but shouldn’t”. It has to do with the systematic practice of food cultivation in the San Joaquin Valley of California, one of the highest value stretches of farmland in the US, presided over by big growers, and it focuses on the conditions of the workers employed there. Revenues are $47 billion a year, benefitting mostly a few hundred families. The composition of the work force is about 80 percent undocumented Mexicans, mostly indigenous people. Cancer rates among pickers are high, due to pesticides. Pay for tomato-picking is 75 cents per five-gallon bucket, preferred by pickers to California’s $11 an hour minimum wage. In five hours, a skilled picker can earn $75 to $85, or $20,000 to $23,000 for eight or nine months of work. On top of this, they live in constant fear. “We have witnessed families being separated at the border — images of primal outrage. But the cruelties visited upon undocumented immigrants on the lowest rungs of the labor force who already live in the US have received far less attention. Thousands exist in a cordon of terror….” On the one hand, the government tacitly allows the systematic practice of employing undocumented workers, bowing to the demands of politically powerful business interests; on the other, it cracks down on the workers, a policy which on the surface appears self-contradictory until one realizes that keeping the workers living in fear also plays into the hands of their employers. We eat their food, we accept their conditions. Another story about the debased working conditions of workers worldwide in the neo-liberal era of deregulation and privileging of trade and capital over rights and the environment.

The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy, Matthew Stewart, The Atlantic

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On its surface, this may not look like a human rights article, but inequality is arguably overall one of the more pressing human rights issues in the U.S. and the world, and there’s a lot of talk about rights in the article, in particular about how rights have been turned into privileges, which in turn are cornered by a small portion of the population. The main point of the article is that despite the talk of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, it is really much more accurate to speak of the 9.9 percent versus the 90 percent beneath them. This 9.9 percent is what Stewart calls the meritocratic class which, he says, “has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.” They have gotten the right education and the right jobs to secure a firm footing high up the socioeconomic ladder and they jealously guard their privileges. Meanwhile, for everyone else below them, life in the U.S. has become increasingly precarious. The article helps to reconceptualize class in the U.S. as well as to understand the relationship between the country’s increasingly rigid class structure and a whole host of rights. The 9.9 percent eat better, life in safer neighborhoods, go to better schools, get higher quality health care, and generally have better access to the political process and a range of opportunities. Stewart says, “The rights of human beings never have been and never could be permanently established in a handful of phrases or old declarations. They are always rushing to catch up to the world that we inhabit. In our world, now, we need to understand that access to the means of sustaining good health, the opportunity to learn from the wisdom accumulated in our culture, and the expectation that one may do so in a decent home and neighborhood are not privileges to be reserved for the few who have learned to game the system. They are rights that follow from the same source as those that an earlier generation called life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In his recent book, Not Enough, Samuel Moyn argues that the human rights movement, which rose in the same era as neoliberalism, has paid insufficient attention to social justice in general and social rights in particular, and this article might just be the best evidence to support his point.

The Unmet Promise of Equality, Fred Harris and Allen Curtis, New York Times, February 28

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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.

“An Economic Bill of Rights for the 21st Century, Mark Paul, William Darity, Jr., Darrick Hamilton, American Prospect, March 5

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The lead says, “In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt proposed constitutional amendments to guarantee Americans’ fundamental economic rights. It was never adopted — and today, is more necessary than ever. Here’s an adaptation of his program for our time.” And indeed, that’s what this is. It addresses the link between inequality, both economic and political, in the U.S. and human rights head on, and does so from a liberal perspective. Most liberal media tend to privilege coverage of civil and political rights, with their coverage of economic and social rights being poorer. This article points out that economic mobility has declined, middle-income Americans have less than 40 years ago, and poverty persist at unjust levels. So what does that have to do with rights? “Let us be clear,” the authors state, “Our economic reality is not mere circumstance; these are the result of policy choices.” They keep the six economic rights proposed by FDR in 1944 and add four more. Just to give some idea of what that might mean concretely, when Obama passed the Affordable Care Act, medical care was not conceptualized as a right; indeed, under the act, it is an obligation of the citizen to get health insurance, and there are punishments for those who fail to do so. From a rights perspective, this was an utterly backwards way of framing the issue: Quite simply, adequate medical care should be a right, especially in any relatively prosperous society. Ultimately, this article is about envisioning a decent society as a fair, equitable society, and asserting that this society is best achieved through conceptualizing the things all people need to live decent lives as rights. “We can no longer accept the redlining of opportunity in America.” A country that is not even party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has a long way to go.

— KTG

Written by

Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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