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October 22, 2009
Getting the shot while wearing a sauna tracksuit

Megan in her sauna tracksuit.

Megan Thompson is a producer and editor at Worldfocus. She blogs about how she films such stunning shots for her signature stories – and about unexpected rainfall in Morocco while shooting An unusual weapon in the war against extremism.

Who knew it rained in Morocco?

We certainly didn’t, and woke up to a downpour on our one and only full day of shooting in the storied Moroccan city of Fez. Between the four of us, there was just one tiny raincoat – the one I’d brought for the camera.

We were in Fez to cover a festival of Sufi culture, and needed to capture the surrealistic beauty of the city itself. Looking out the window at the sheets of water, it was hard to imagine how. But imperfect circumstances are the norm rather than the exception in this line of work, so we just had to figure out how to make it happen. And first, we needed to find me something to wear.

We ran to a Moroccan version of Walmart, where they apparently didn’t appreciate the abnormal weather either, as there was no rain gear to be found in its vast aisles. But then we spotted something that could fit the bill. A metallic silver, two-piece, plastic “sauna suit” used for sweating off the pounds in the sauna. If it keeps water in, it could keep it out, so we bought it and headed for the door.

It’s pretty rare in foreign countries to see women operating television cameras. It’s even more rare in Morocco to see a blond camerawoman running through the streets in a shiny, billowy outfit meant for weight loss.

The valley outside the Moroccan city of Fes.

But we ignored the stares and went to work, capturing the sights and sounds that fill Fez’s ancient walls – donkeys piled with leather goods, men selling sweet mint tea, children filling water jugs from the tiled fountains, carts of fresh oranges and mosque after beautiful mosque. And then came our reward:  the sun appeared and delivered a brilliant afternoon.

Since that trip, I’ve never left home without rain gear. And I’ll admit it: I wore the sauna suit back in New York City during a rainy bike ride.  Turns out, it’s actually great at keeping the rain off, and breaks the wind too.  Who knew?!

– Megan Thompson

October 19, 2009
Message in a bottle: reporting from Antigua and Grenada

The coast of Antigua. Photo: Flickr user rgtmum

Megan Thompson is traveling around the world for a series on climate change and small islands. She filed this report from Antigua and Grenada.

On Thursday night, during dinner at the family home of our Antiguan guide, conversation turned to the powerful currents that pull the Atlantic waters westward from Europe and Africa to the eastern Caribbean.

I asked – half-joking – if they’d ever found a message in a bottle.  Without hesitation they replied, “Of course!”  They pointed to a large ceramic pot filled with notes and letters they’d found along the beach, from hopeful, faraway souls – most begging for a reply, some acknowledgment that their message was received.

But along with the bottled notes comes a lot of other foul stuff – trash from Africa and Europe. Neon signs, hard-hats – you name it, it winds up on the Antiguan beach.  Other people’s careless actions, wreaking havoc on a distant environment, cause a mess on a Caribbean beach that Antiguans are left to clean up.

The feeling on climate change is much the same:  we didn’t cause this problem, but we now must deal with the consequences.

During our two days in Antigua and Grenada, we saw and heard a lot about how the environment is changing.  Coastal erosion is a huge problem – whole beaches have disappeared and what’s left is often held up with rocks and retaining walls. Barrier reefs are dying, leaving the weak coast even more vulnerable.  Locals also say the weather is changing.  It’s unpredictable, and when it comes – as Hurricane Ivan did in 2004 to Grenada, which rarely sees hurricanes – it causes indescribable destruction.  Tourism dominates the economies of both countries.  But bad weather and no beaches mean no tourists, and that spells trouble.

Both countries admit that they’ve caused a lot of damage themselves.  Sand mining in Grenada and intense development in Antigua have done their fair share to beat up the beach.  Many scientists we spoke to said these factors — along with El Nino — make it that much harder to pinpoint the effects of climate change.   But whatever the cause, these governments feel they need to start cleaning up their acts, and urge the rest of the world to do the same.

Small island nations all around the world have banded together to make some waves before the Copenhagen climate talks in December.  Their slogan is “1.5 to Stay Alive — a catchy phrase, but a dead-serious message.  They say if the world’s temperature increases more than another 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the seas may rise so high that many of their nations could literally disappear underwater.

During interviews, government officials were polite and optimistic about their campaign.  But off-camera, many admitted that achieving the goals of the “1.5” campaign would require emissions cuts too drastic for many other world players to accept.  They seethed especially at the United States, which they see as too beholden to its domestic politics to negotiate seriously.

But their message is desperate, and these countries don’t want to be ignored.  They say it’s a matter of survival.  They have packaged their campaign with press conferences, slick videos, publicity stunts, and this trip for international journalists.  In December, they will travel across the oceans to the Copenhagen summit,  hoping their message will be heard and acknowledged, and not lost like a floating bottle, swallowed by the ever-warming seas.

– Megan Thompson

October 19, 2009
Somali pirates: Behind the news

Connie Kargbo is an associate producer at Worldfocus and a native of Sierra Leone. She writes here of the story behind Somali piracy.

There is news today that Somali pirates have hijacked a Chinese fishing vessel in the waters off the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean — a move that seems to be expanding their reach to the east.

Last week, Somali pirates who had hijacked a Spanish fishing vessel with 36 crew members on board in early October demanded a ransom of $4 million in exchange for the release of the hostages.

The ransom demand is average — pirates these days usually request between $2 and $6 million for the release of ships and hostages. The difference is that the pirates are calling the $4 million a payment for illegally fishing off the coast of Somalia.  It may come as a surprise to some but this little-known dispute about Somalia’s fishing industry is at the root of the ongoing pirate situation today.

When Somalia’s central government was overthrown in 1991 the country quickly deteriorated into what many are now calling a failed state.  With the lack of central leadership and ongoing clan warfare, law enforcement took a backseat to the violence.

This lawlessness spread to the coast of Somalia with the arrival of  illegal foreign fishing vessels.  Many of these vessels did not have the proper rights to fish in these waters, but the lack of regulation made it easy for them to fish to their hearts content. Some of these ships were owned by countries now patrolling the coast of Somalia, the country’s police chief said Wednesday.

This illegal industry in turn began to hurt local Somali fishermen who were dependent on the fish they caught. Competition from foreign fishermen depleted fish resources and also brought toxic waste to Somali waters.

Fearing for their livelihoods, local fisherman began patrolling off the coast of Somalia and fining ships that were found to be illegally fishing in the area. Just as some illegal foreign fishing vessels found an untapped and lucrative zone to make money, in time the Somalis who patrolled the coast exploited their newly found money-making opportunity.

What began as a way for Somalis to protect their livelihood eventually became the livelihood.  Reprimands and small fines for ships found illegally fishing became hijackings and million dollar ransoms on any ship that was caught, regardless of whether or not the ships actions were illegal.  And so pirates were born off the coast of Somalia.

Nowadays most Somali pirates are not former fisherman but stealth businessmen looking to make a buck. And while illegal fishing vessels have largely been replaced by foreign navies patrolling the coast on the lookout for pirates, within Somalia the problems of rampant violence and insecurity still persist.  Until there is an overhaul of the country’s fundamental problems, crime along the coast of Somalia will largely be a reflection of the country’s internal conflict.

– Connie Kargbo

October 16, 2009
What Hillary Clinton could learn from Tatarstan

The President of Tatarstan thinks Hillary Clinton has a lot to learn from him—at least according to headlines from the republic’s official news agency web site: “Hillary Clinton promised to consult Tatarstan President on foreign policy issues,” “US secretary of state is going to use Tatarstan’s experience in establishing contacts between countries.”

Kazan Kremlin Mosque. Photo: Flickr user pirateparrot

Clinton swung by the predominantly Muslim autonomous republic at the end of her three-day trip to Russia this week. After visiting the Kazan Kremlin, the Blagoveshchensk Orthodox Cathedral, and the newly built Kol Sharif Mosque, one of the largest in Europe and Russia, Clinton praised the republic as a “model for tolerance and coexistence between Muslims and Christians.”

Tatarstan is one of more than 20 ethnic republics in the Russian Federation. Located between the Volga and Kama Rivers some 500 miles east of Moscow, it is home to two million Turkic-speaking Tatars — the largest non-Slavic minority group in Russia. Chuvash, Udmurt, and Mordvin are among the other ethnic groups, alongside ethnic Russians, that make up the rest of the population. Slightly more than half of residents are Muslim.

Tatars are proud of their heritage, and their independent roots run deep. In the 15th century, they had their own medieval state—the Kazan Khanate, which ruled for more than a century, until Ivan the Terrible brought the khanate under Moscow’s dominion in 1552.

The Sunday before Clinton’s visit, more than 400 people demonstrated in the capital city Kazan to mark the anniversary of this very conquest. Demonstrators took the opportunity to protest Moscow’s policy of “Russification”—targeting a new education law passed this year that advances the use of Russian—and call for the national independence of the Tatars.

Claims to Tatar independence are not new. During the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, Tatarstan was one of many ethnic minority republics within Russia demanding full-fledged sovereignty. Chechnya’s attempts to break away resulted in two wars, and violence continues to flare there periodically.

Blagoveshensky Cathedral, Kazan. Photo: Flickr user LostBob

Tatarstan was luckier. While its attempts to gain independence failed, no blood was shed. Due in part to President Mintimir Shaimiev’s savvy negotiating, Tatartstan walked away with more autonomy than any other republic in the Federation, including a significant degree of control over its economic resources.

Today, Tatarstan is, as the official website boats, one of the most economically developed parts of Russia. Rich in oil, it is also a manufacturing hub. Some of the biggest and most successful Russian companies are based there: the KamAZ truckmaker, for one. Shaimiev’s been successful in creating special economic zones and attracting foreign investment. Both Iran and Turkey, two big investors, have consulate generals in Kazan.

After Moscow and St. Petersburg, Tatarstan is said to be the most prosperous region of Russia. And, despite the prevalence of numerous ethnic groups and religions, and occasional pan-Tatar strivings for independence, actual strife is rare.

While the Tatar President’s claims to educate Secretary Clinton on foreign policy issues may be a bit far-fetched, it’s not that surprising the US State Department selected the region to showcase.

Or perhaps it was the republic’s unofficial motto that served as the decided factor: “We Can!”

Sound familiar, Obama?

– Christine Kiernan

October 16, 2009
Israel condemns Turkish TV drama for “incitement”

Gizem Yarbil is a producer at Worldfocus and a native of Turkey. She blogs about a controversy over a Turkish television program.

Only a few days after Turkey excluded Israel from a joint NATO war exercise, a new crisis is brewing between the two Middle East allies.

The problem is a television drama series that Israel condemns as state-sanctioned “incitement.”

“Separation,” a 13-part TV series that aired on Turkey’s state-run television channel for the first time on Wednesday, has several controversial scenes. In one, a Palestinian father holds his new-born above his head in front of Israeli soldiers at a check point. A few seconds later, one of the soldiers shoots the baby dead. In another scene, Israeli soldiers kick and beat elderly Palestinians on the streets and one soldier shoots a teenage Palestinian girl on her chest.

Here is an excerpt from the television drama “Separation:”

The drama outraged Israel. The Foreign Ministry summoned the deputy chief of mission at the Turkish embassy to complain and protest. “Such a drama series, which doesn’t even have the slightest link to reality and which presents Israeli soldiers as murderers of innocent children, isn’t worthy of being broadcast even by enemy states and certainly not in a state which has full diplomatic relations with Israel,” said Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The coordinator of the Turkish drama replied by saying that none of the incidents in the show were “imaginary.” “It is possible to find photographs of what Israelis did to Palestinians on the Internet,” said Bulent Erdinc, the series coordinator.

The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also shrugged off angry Israeli protests over the show saying the Turkish state “has no right to comment on the quality of broadcasts or the opinions expressed in them.” This statement should be met with some skepticism as Turkey’s record on freedom of speech issues is not known to be very high.

The controversial scenes in the drama are subjective. I’m sure some people will think they’re simple propaganda and some will think them a reflection of reality. In general, Turkish films, especially TV dramas and soap-operas, do tend towards exaggerated melodrama.

But a broader question here is whether filmmakers should care about the sensitivities of those they depict.  For example, should the producers and writers of the drama series “24” have taken into consideration the fact that their depiction of Muslim terrorists may have possibly led to suspicion against ordinary Arab-Americans?

The TV drama is airing on Turkey’s state-owned channel, TRT. This channel, according to law, has to be “autonomous and impartial.” However, since the Islamist-based ruling AK party came to power in Turkey, TRT has been criticized for its religious/conservative programming, and also for appointing party sympathizers. I think it’s quite possible that the government officials knew what this television drama, which has been advertised in Turkey for a long time, was going to entail. And I imagine they could foresee the reaction it would draw from Israel.

In that case, considering the already strained relations between the two “allied” nations, the question becomes, is the Turkish government interested in enlarging the rift between the two countries? And if so, what would this say about the future of the Middle East?

– Gizem Yarbil

For more Worldfocus coverage of Turkey, visit our extended coverage page: Turkey between East and West.

October 16, 2009
South Yemenis clamor for secession from Yemen

Mohammad Al-Kassim is a producer at Worldfocus. He writes here about the separatist movement in Southern Yemen – an under-reported story that could have major implications for the United States.

South Yemenis in favor of secession from the North protested around the world this week on the anniversary of an uprising against former colonial power Britain.  In New York, a few hundred vocal Americans of South Yemeni descent demonstrated outside the United Nations building.

South Yemen was an independent nation after the British left in 1967. North and South Yemen unified in 1990 and a new country- the new Republic of Yemen  – was born with Ali Abdullah Saleh as its leader and San’a as its capital.  But the union has been uneasy and southerners have complained of being marginalized.

“We are a nation living under occupation,” said Hamza Saleh Meqbel, Vice President of TAJ (Southern Democratic Assembly), a South Yemeni political organization based in the United States.
Mr. Meqbel says the central government in the capital Sanaa has reneged on all commitments it promised and signed with the south upon unification.

“The unification treaty is invalid because the regime in Sanaa has lost its credibility. It was supposed to be a partnership, but the north has turned to occupiers and we no longer want a part of this unity.”

Ahmad al Muthana, the President of TAJ, claims that his group represents the majority of people in the south. “We are constantly in communication with our brothers in the south, we fully support them in their struggle,” he says.

So far the separatist South Yemenis have resorted to peaceful means in their quest for independence, including marches and protests. But al Muthana says, “if the regime keeps oppressing and killing our people, we will turn to arms.  We have no choice.”
That sentiment was echoed by many of the protesters. On Friday, Yemen’s interior ministry banned demonstrations in the south.

The problem in the south is not the only challenge for the Yemeni government.  Its forces have also been engaged in a military confrontation with Shiite rebels in the north.  The Yemeni government accuses the rebels of being loyal to Iran.

An unstable Yemen may spell disaster for the rest of the world.

Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility on several attacks in Yemen against tourists and U.S. interests, most notoriously the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 in the Red Sea port of Aden.

Yemen’s intelligence and military apparatus are busy with rebels in the north, as well as the separatists in the South, which makes it easier for Al Qaeda members to operate inside the country.

– Mohammad al-Kassim

October 15, 2009
Around the world in 18 days

Worldfocus producer Megan Thompson is traveling the globe to report on the effects of climate change on small island nations.

Megan will take 16 flights and log 35,000 miles on the trip, which is a collaboration between United Nations Environment Program and the Alliance of Small Island States.  She is posting blogs and photos along the way. Read Megan’s posts from Grenada and Antigua, Maldives, and Tonga .

Worldfocus, the Arabic language station Al Arabiya, the Chinese news service Xinhua, and a reporter from the Italian newspaper Quotidiano Nazionale all have representatives on the trip. They will go to five countries – Antigua, Grenada, Maldives, Seychelles and Tonga – to see for themselves what’s going on and what these countries are doing about climate change.

As environmental leaders around the world gear up for the Copenhagen talks in December, AOSIS says their member nations – some only a few meters above sea level – will be the first to go if sea levels rise as high as they are predicted to. Many are already seeing the effects of erosion, erratic tides, unpredictable weather, soil contamination and other phenomena, which they say are caused by global warming. If the sea continues to rise, many of these islands may become completely uninhabitable.

View Megan’s itinerary on a larger map

October 13, 2009
No New York visit for critical Cuban blogger

The Cuban government has denied Yoani Sanchez permission to travel to the United States. Sanchez is a blogger famous for openly criticizing the Cuban government’s communist system. She was supposed to travel to New York yesterday to receive the Maria Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia University, the oldest international award in journalism.

Sanchez and her husband used the blog, Generation Y, to provide searing criticism of everyday life in Cuba. She started the blog in 2007, and it receives more than one million hits every month. Here is one of her entries:

History Ignored,” from October 9th:

“History cannot be ignored, that is why it is so hard to understand that a process accused of betraying revolutionary ideals may be worthy of being on the list of the ones who “kept the banner of socialism aloft”.

“History cannot be ignored. What kind of merit does an army have, other than that of imitating Hitler, in marching at 115 goose steps per minute? How funny is it for a civilian population to conduct itself like a beehive, emulating, along its armed compatriots, the ability to achieve a high level of mass organization?”

October 8, 2009
A view from the East: Soccer in Egypt

Mohammad Al-Kassim is an associate producer at Worldfocus. He blogs here about the popularity of soccer in Egypt.

Football, or soccer as it’s called in the U.S., is considered to be one of the most popular sports in the world. Millions of people make time during the month-long World Cup — which takes place every four years — to watch the matches.

I grew up playing football as a kid in Kuwait and Jerusalem. We kids played on any vacant lot we could find, in our neighborhood or our school’s dusty field. I have many scars and a few broken bones from playing the game. Football is a game without any class separation. For me and my friends, football was and still is the cheapest game out there.

My best childhood memories are those spent with my father — who was an avid football fan himself — watching the game. It was the only time he would set aside his worries and be transformed into a kid again.

Most nations around the world (with the possible exception of the U.S.) take the game very seriously.

In 1969, following the second North American qualifying round for the 1970 FIFA World Cup, Honduras and El Salvador engaged in a brief war following their intense soccer match. It wasn’t the only reason — but the tensions surrounding the game didn’t help. 

Egyptians are no exception; it is no secret to how much Egyptians love their local football teams, especially the Ahli, and Zamalek. But their passion and devotion to their national team borders on insanity.

The Egyptian national football team’s win in the African Cup last year sent thousands of flag waving Egyptians into the streets hugging and kissing each other.

Football brings a lot of emotions out in people — emotions that they themselves may not have known they had. It’s about national pride and identity. It’s when small countries show off their muscles, playing the “bully” big countries.

Currently, Egypt is hosting the FIFA U-20 World Cup, where its team is playing in the tournament. The regular World Cup, which will be held in South Africa,  is still a year away — so passionate football fans, especially the Egyptians, are getting their football fix by watching the under-20 tournament.

This story from Al Arabiya TV caught my eye.  It’s about a wedding that almost didn’t happen because it was scheduled for the same night Egypt was playing in that under-20 tournament.  The bride and groom found a novel solution.

I’ve translated it from Arabic.

October 7, 2009
A view from the East

Mohammad Al-Kassim is an associate producer at Worldfocus. He blogs here about the significance of the visit of Saudi Arabia’s king to Syria.

Since ascending to the throne in 2005, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is making his first visit to Syria. The visit is being enthusiastically received by officials and political analysts in both countries. Relations between the two nations became tense following the U.S invasion of Iraq and the kingdom’s support for it. Two years later, relations deteriorated further after the alleged Syrian link to the assassination of Lebanon’s ex-premier, Rafiq Hariri.

Saudi Arabia is aggressively trying to assert itself as the leader of both the Arab and Muslim worlds. Having two of the holiest sites in Islam located within its borders helps a lot, in addition to having lots of petrodollars to spread around.

On the other hand, Syria considers itself the last Arab state standing up for the Arab cause, and the only remaining Arab state that publicly challenges Israel. It therefore sees itself as the natural leader of the Arabs.

But there are other major issues that threaten the relationship between the kingdom and the republic.

Saudi Arabia is not happy with Syria’s close ties with Iran and it has concerns about Damascus’ support for the Lebanese Shiite party Hezbollah.

The issue of Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East disturbs Saudi Arabia, who represents the so-called “moderate Arab state.” The Saudis would love to bring Syria back into the “Arab side.”  It’s very important for Saudi Arabia to have stubborn Syria on its side while aiming to take the leadership position for both the Arab and Muslim worlds.

If relations improve between the two countries, it may finally translate into the formation of a Lebanese government, the process of which has been deadlocked for months. Syria could use its influence on Hezbollah, and Saudi Arabia would do the same on its Lebanese Sunni ally led by Sa’ed Hariri.

Saudi Arabia certainly could use whatever tools at its disposals to persuade Syria.  The rich oil monarchy can start by injecting some much-needed financial help into the Syrian economy. Saudi Arabia could also use its clout with the U.S. and help Syria with opening the door to diplomatic dealings with the White House, something the Syrian government is eager to do.

The thaw in the relationship is in motion; it seems that both leaders are in agreement that rapprochement must not be stopped. But how long will it be before both recall their ambassadors back home is anybody’s guess.

– Mohammad Al-Kassim

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