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September 24, 2009
Walkouts inside, protests outside for Ahmadinejad at U.N.

Ben Piven and Mohammad Al-Kassim are reporting from the United Nations for Worldfocus.

Ben Piven describes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech on Wednesday, and the atmosphere at the U.N.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks before the United Nations General Assembly.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a wide-ranging speech to the U.N.’s General Assembly on Wednesday, emphasizing the ideological contrast between his Islamic values and Western materialism, which he blamed for the global economic downturn.

He strongly condemned Israel’s invasion of Gaza and also derided Jewish global influence. “The international community is calling the occupiers ‘peace-lovers’ and the victims ‘terrorists,'” said Ahmadinejad. But he didn’t repeat inflammatory comments about wiping Israel off the map or denying the Holocaust. Some commentators took this as a sign of Ahmadinejad’s newfound conciliatory attitude.

Even though the Iranian leader expressed some openness to American diplomatic gestures, his speech received mixed reactions from the audience at the U.N. Most Western delegations walked out of the General Assembly chamber after Ahmadinejad took the podium, but there was no heckling by visitors.

“Our nation has successfully gone through a glorious and fully-democratic election,” said Ahmadinejad, who also called for the “elimination of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.” Positioning himself as a third world populist, Ahmadinejad declared, “The hegemony and domination of a few governments is over.”

Throngs of pro-democracy protesters clamored for attention outside the world body’s New York headquarters. Many wore green, the color adopted by supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in June’s disputed elections.

Watch: Protesters outside United Nations headquarters.

Mohammad Al-Kassim describes how Ahmadinejad’s speech was portrayed in the Iranian press:

It’s true that he who has control of the flow of information has power over people.

For this reason alone, during the general assembly meetings each year, many governments dispatch an army of journalists to accompany their official delegates. It’s extremely important for high-ranking officials to be viewed in a certain way — to appear respected, intelligent and important in their countries.

That was evident during this year’s meeting, where presidents, prime ministers and high-ranking officials were surrounded by official media from their countries, who were carefully filming, writing and selectively editing their packages.

As part of my job at Worldfocus, every morning, I closely follow many news media outlets from the Middle East. What caught my eyes while scanning Iranian news outlets was how Ahmadinejad’s speech was covered by the Iranian media.

For example, Press TV — which is a government-funded English news channel — aired this broadcast report:

The package included footage of the Iranian president delivering his speech, and the camera cut to footage of an almost-full General Assembly hall — though from where I was seated, the hall looked mostly empty.

None of the Iranian media outlets that I checked mentioned any of the large number of vocal Iranian protesters outside the U.N. building. An article on the speech appeared on the Iranian government-funded Alalam news Web site, but it didn’t mention the walk outs or the demonstrations.

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September 23, 2009
Violence and anti-gay attitudes tarnish Jamaican beauty

Violence and hatred lurk close to the social surface in Jamaica.

Producer Micah Fink of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting produced the Worldfocus signature story “Jamaica’s battle against AIDS fought in the shadows.” He reflects on Jamaican culture and the homophobia that has contributed to the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis.

Jamaica, to me, is a land of deep contradictions.

On one hand, it’s a lovely, lush tropical country, blessed with sandy beaches, fantastic flowering shrubs, ripe mango and coconut trees, and inhabited by a strong, proud people who clearly share a basic sense of personal dignity and a deep-seated hospitality towards strangers. I found this to be true regardless of whom I was speaking with, be they rich or poor, educated or illiterate, straight or gay.

At the same time, I also encountered an intensity of violence and hatred lurking close to the social surface that shocked me. I was amazed at how easily people expressed their disregard for the human rights of gay people. Or how the same individual could argue that most violence against gays is carried out by other homosexuals while also acknowledging how “understandable” it is that gay people would be beaten by a mob, perhaps even killed, if they “flaunt” their sexual identity in a public space.

I was also surprised by the homophobic venom expressed, openly and on-camera, by the political leaders we met. Perhaps it was to be expected from Representative Ernest Smith, an outspoken opponent of gay rights, but I felt side-swiped to hear similar views expressed by the Reverend Bishop Herro Blair, who is Jamaica’s Political Ombudsman and widely credited with reducing political violence in Jamaica’s inner cities. And I was stunned when their most inflammatory remarks were repeated by leading public health officials, teen-aged school children, and, sometimes, even by members of Jamaica’s gay community.

The ideology of homophobia is as deep as it is pernicious in Jamaica.

It is widely held that homosexuality is a mortal sin, which the Bible (and by extension God) has ruled should be punished by death. And if that wasn’t inflammatory enough, there is a wide-spread perception that gayness is transmitted by homosexual contact (gays are made, not born) and that gay men and women are out actively raping young Jamaican children to “recruit” them into a new generation of homosexuals. Many people also seem to believe in the existence of an “international gay lobby” that is conspiring to undermine and destroy the nation’s moral values and political sovereignty.

In the context of HIV and AIDS, of course, these attitudes are deadly. So it wasn’t surprising for me to meet a young gay man who rejected every safe sex message ever created. “It’s not AIDS that is killing us,” he told me. “If it were, I would use a condom. But it’s people, not AIDS, that is killing us. AIDS has nothing to do with it.”

Jamaica, it seems, needs to be reminded of another old biblical adage, expressed succinctly in Galatians: “You shall reap what you sow.”

– Micah Fink

  • Watch all the Worldfocus In the Shadows video signature series
  • Listen to Worldfocus Radio on LGBT politics and gay asylum
  • For more information on homophobia and HIV in Jamaica, visit The Glass Closet, a multimedia project produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

See more Worldfocus coverage on Homosexuality Around the World.

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September 23, 2009
Worldfocus reporting from the United Nations: Day two

Ben Piven and Mohammad al-Kassim are reporting from the United Nations for Worldfocus. He filed this report about how the foreign press reacted to President Obama’s speech on Wednesday.

Heralding a “new chapter of international cooperation,” U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his maiden speech to the U.N. General Assembly today. Obama remains very popular around the world, although he has not yet elicited any major concessions in global geopolitical conflicts.

I asked media personnel at the U.N. whether Obama’s good will might translate into tangible foreign policy benefits.

“I am very proud of the way that Obama has spoken frankly, since he comes from Africa,” said Boukar Doungous, press attache from Chad to the U.N. “But in terms of the tough foreign policy issues, all these conflicts — such as Israel-Palestine — existed before Obama came to power.”

“It’s difficult for him to truly resolve these issues of external politics before resolving internal American political problems. Although he has a clear vision, he’s prioritized the domestic issues for now,” Doungous said.

Brenda Miyeh Yufeh, a reporter at the state-owned daily Cameroon Tribune, said: “Obama has the good will to act, and he will be true to what he says. But he cannot operate alone as the president.” She continued, “There are so many groups with whom he needs to collaborate. The speed at which he needs to act should not frustrate us. As far as Africa is concerned, we need to give him some time to do better than George Bush.”

Watch: Reaction to Obama’s speech from an Indian print reporter, the bureau chief of Al-Arabiya and a reporter from Iran’s Press TV, a state-supported English-language news service.

A reporter for the Arabic-language Algerian daily Sawt Al Ahrar, which is associated with the ruling FLN party, expressed cautious optimism about Obama’s speech.

“He confirmed his intention to reform the foreign policy of the U.S. with regards to international organizations,” Nadjib Belhimer said. “But in reality, to change American strategy is a big task. For example, Guantanamo is still there. With the Muslim world, he has not yet modified the American stance.

Belhimer continued, “The Obama administration knows it’s not easy to shift the foreign policy of a superpower overnight. Yet it’s good to be optimistic. Obama already convinced the world that change has come. This president clearly doesn’t resemble Bush. Still, the whole world is waiting. Everyone wants to give Obama his chance.”

– Ben Piven and Mohammad al-Kassim

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September 22, 2009
Jamaica’s AIDS epidemic, by the numbers

Micah Fink of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting produced the Worldfocus signature story “Jamaica’s battle against AIDS fought in the shadows.” He breaks down the statistics that have been used to characterize Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS epidemic and its impact on the gay community.

Numbers, statistics and dates are notoriously difficult elements in any television script.

Most people find it hard to catch numbers on the fly. And when it comes to complex statistics, well, let’s just say that hearing them as a spoken word makes them even harder to grasp than usual.

So what does it mean when we report that a recent Jamaican government study found that nearly one-third of gay men in Jamaica is HIV positive? Is this a high number or a low one? Is just one isolated study really significant? And how does Jamaica’s infection rate in the gay community compare with levels of infection in other countries?

While these questions are too complicated for a six-minute television broadcast, they are more easily addressed in print. So here are seven facts and one extrapolation to help place these figures into context.

Fact # 1: When we say that nearly 32 percent of Jamaica’s gay community is infected with HIV, we are referring to a study conducted in 2007-2008 by the Jamaican National HIV Control Program. This study was the very first controlled study of HIV rates in Jamaica’s gay community and found a 31.8 percent infection rate among the 201 gay men tested. More than half of the gay men tested were between 20 and 29, and nearly 30 percent of the group reported not using a condom when they had sex during the past month. Eighty percent of the men studied reported having two or more male sexual partners during the past year. And interestingly, 33.8 percent of the total group also reported having sex with at least two female partners in the previous year.

Fact #2: “Controlled study,” by the way, means that the researchers linked the anecdotal reports of each individual person studied with their actual blood test. This technique is generally considered a very reliable way to conduct HIV research.

Fact #3: HIV has been infecting people in Jamaica for more than 25 years. The first case of AIDS was identified on the island in 1982, but for several reasons the folks in charge of the national response didn’t decide to study how deeply the virus had penetrated the gay community until 2007-2008.

Fact #4: Only one other study of HIV infection rates in Jamaica’s gay community has ever been conducted. It was done more than 10 years ago, in 1996, by Rossi Hassad, a graduate of the University of the West Indies and public health researcher. Hassad reported that 31 percent of the gay men he tested were infected with HIV. This study was never officially confirmed or accepted by the Jamaican Ministry of Health.

Fact #5: Based on the results of these two studies –- Hassad’s in 1996 and the National Program’s in 2008 – – it seems apparent that HIV infection rates have likely been hovering between 31 percent and 32 percent for more than a decade.

A fly-by-night extrapolation: I had to “run the numbers” for myself to begin to understand the implications of these studies for Jamaican society. A conservative estimate used around the world suggests that about 10 percent of the total number of men in Jamaica may engage in homosexual activities. Given a total population of 2.7 million, and a fairly equitable breakdown of the sexes -– let’s say 49 percent of the total population — we come up with a total male population of roughly 1.3 million individuals. Dividing by ten percent gives us an estimate of 130,000 gay men in Jamaica. Extrapolating from the Ministry of Health recent study means that 30 percent of this number are infected with HIV, and we arrive at the conclusion that some 39,000 gay Jamaican men may now be infected with HIV. Curiously, this number exceeds the Ministry of Health’s current estimate for the total number of HIV cases in all of Jamaica, which is about 36,000 cases. This inconsistency is worth pondering.

Fact #6: The Ministry of Health’s finding that 31.8 percent of the gay Jamaican men are infected with the virus that causes AIDS is alarming. However, when it is discussed in reports to international agencies like UNAIDS, the numbers are played down as a “concentrated” epidemic. But what is a “concentrated” epidemic? This term is how public health official now refer to infections within a specific sector of society, as opposed to infection rates in all of society, which is known as a “generalized” epidemic. Concentrated epidemics are now found in gay men, sex workers, handicapped communities, intravenous drug users and prisoners in Jamaica. However, calling these epidemics “concentrated” seems a bit misleading, since members of these “communities” are seldom, if ever, really isolated from rest of the general population. For example, as we saw above, more than one-third of the gay men studied reported having two or more female partners in the previous year. Clearly, the gay men in Jamaica, not to mention sex workers and prisoners, have strong sexual links to the “general population.”

Fact #7: Jamaica is not the only country in the world now reporting high HIV infection rates in local gay communities. Recent research on HIV rates in gay communities around the world –- particularly in developing countries –- has found similarly high “concentrated” infection rates. Recent testing in gay populations in Mumbai, India, found a 17 percent infection rate; in Bogotá, Columbia, 20 percent of the gay men tested were infected. Two years ago, Mexico reported a 15 percent infection rate and an older study in Trinidad topped the list by reporting a 40 percent infection rate in the local gay community.

– Micah Fink

  • Watch all the Worldfocus In the Shadows video signature series
  • Listen to Worldfocus Radio on LGBT politics and gay asylum
  • For more information on homophobia and HIV in Jamaica, visit The Glass Closet, a multimedia project produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

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September 22, 2009
Worldfocus reporting from the U.N.

Here at the U.N. on the first day of the 64th session of the General Assembly, over 100 heads of state have gathered to discuss climate change in the run-up to December’s Copenhagen conference. U.S. President Barack Obama headlined the plenary session, which featured eight world leaders.

“We risk consigning future generations to catastrophe,” said Obama. “To promote renewable energy projects and technologies in the developing world…we have put climate change at the top of our diplomatic agenda.”

The American president spoke mostly in generalities, but his message was received warmly by delegates in the General Assembly Hall. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon exhorted the international community to take “urgent action…the climate negotiations are too slow.”

“We can contribute to the greater good by limiting the global temperature rise to safe levels,” said Ban.

Expectations were high ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s speech at the United Nations summit on climate control. His speech introduced four new proposals, but the proposals lacked details on when and how China is going to implement them.

President Hu emphasized the importance of climate change and said that achieving sustainable development is an urgent matter for China, adding that his country will do its best to develop renewable and nuclear energy. He promised emissions would grow slower than economic growth in the future.

“We will endeavor to cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by a notable margin by 2020 from the 2005 level,” he added, and charged developing countries with supporting the world in tackling climate change.

“This is not only their responsibility, but also serves their long-term interest.”

But President Hu would not commit China to a specific target in reducing emissions.

Watch: Shao Zheng of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs discusses the Chinese president’s speech.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy delivered the most impassioned address in support of immediate legislation on climate change. The French leader also mentioned specific targets for 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by developed countries before 2050. The policy idea most strongly emphasized by Sarkozy was the transfer of financing and technology from the developed nations to underdeveloped nations. France is one of the countries most ready to implement actual legislation that would result in such a transfer of green energy in the near future.

While there will no doubt be a lag between the inspired speeches and political reality, the chorus of global leaders seemed to be speaking in unusual harmony.

“The journey is long. The journey is hard,” concluded Obama. “If we resolve to work tirelessly in common effort, then we will achieve our common purpose: A world that is safer, cleaner, and healthier than the one we found; and a future that is worthy of our children.”

– Mohammad al-Kassim and Ben Piven

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September 22, 2009
In the newsroom: The Black Sea Fleet covers the Beatles

Worldfocus producer Christine Kiernan writes about the meaning behind a Russian sailor’s version of “Let It Be” currently making the rounds on YouTube.

In 1970, the year the Beatles released their hit single “Let It Be,” Sevastopol — home to the Soviet Union’s legendary Black Sea Fleet — was a closed port. The city answered to Moscow, rather than the Ukrainian administration under whose territory it was located, and in order to enter or exit, a special permit was required. Other cities on the Crimean Peninsula — like Yalta, Sochi and Artek, famed for their Black Sea beaches and resorts — drew elite apparatchiki and ordinary citizens from across the Soviet Union. State radio piped out schmaltzy pop hits by singers like the Ukrainian Volodymyr Ivasyuk, while the music of the Beatles, which the state-run record label refused to release, circulated underground.

Today, Sevastopol belongs to an independent Ukraine. Anyone who wants to can freely visit the city. The Black Sea fleet has been divided between Russia and Ukraine, and in 2017 Russia’s lease on the port will expire, forcing the fleet to leave what has been its home for more than three centuries. While new international borders and an end to state-financed vacations may have made it harder for CIS residents to visit their once favored resort spot, today Americans like me can travel to the Crimea.

In yet another sign of how times have changed, the orchestra of the Black Sea Fleet now includes “Let It Be” in its repertoire. Check out this video circulating on YouTube:

Sporting the fleet’s seafaring uniforms, the singers look like they’ve stepped out onto the small stage from an earlier era. The lead singer gesticulates and croons to mother Mary in accented English. The performance is pegged as one of the “worst cover songs ever.” That said, comments in English and Russian are surprisingly uplifting — “This is genius!,” “The heart with which he sings inspires me” — although not all are convinced: “He should have stayed in opera.”

Whatever you think of the lead singer’s tremulous bass and the dancing girls swaying and waving their hands, you can’t deny that a performance like this would have been inconceivable 39 years ago. And that, in my view, is what makes it so wonderful and poignant today.

– Christine Kiernan

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September 21, 2009
Wrangling Google Earth into submission: Part II

In our second installment of our Worldfocus Google Earth tips, I’d like to demonstrate another workaround that helped us zoom in on a given region more effectively.

If you’ve ever tried to zoom in from a very high to a very low altitude on Google Earth,  you will have noticed that it takes a while to process the zoom and adjust the resolution.  In addition, on the broadcast we use color overlays on our wide views of countries, which we don’t need when we zoom in close on a city.

You can see the problem in this zoom of the island of Capri, off the coast of Naples, Italy:

A nice way we found to work around this was to create two maps: one of the wider view, and one of the close-up.

Once I export these two map moves, I bring them both into Final Cut Pro and dissolve them together. Take a look at this zoom into the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin:

– Channtal Fleischfresser

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September 21, 2009
Hoping for interviews with South American leaders

Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, seen in this photo taken in 2006, will be in speaking at an AS/COA Dinner event on September 23rd. Picture by Agencia Brasil.

One of the best aspects of my job as associate producer for Latin American news on Worldfocus is covering Latin American politics.

There are two events I plan to attend next week.  One is a press conference on Wednesday with guest speaker Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia.  We were hoping to get him as a guest on our show and to possibly ask him questions regarding the controversy surrounding his decision to give U.S. troops more access to the country’s military bases.  However his schedule will not permit a studio interview, so we’ll try and ask him about the military bases at the press conference.

The other event is a dinner honoring Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet.  Her popularity rate in the country is more than 70 percent right now.  A Worldfocus production team recently went to Chile and did a number of stories on fiscal responsibility in Chile and the country’s copper reserves.  Although we won’t be able to film the event, we’re hoping to get some brief interviews after the event with members of her staff.

– Ivette Feliciano

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September 17, 2009
In the Newsroom: Africa and climate change

Connie Kargbo is an associate producer at Worldfocus and a native of Sierra Leone.  She blogs here about her opinion on Africa and climate change policy.

Floods are thought to be one of the more severe effects of climate change. Dakar, Senegal. Photo: IRIN

Throughout history Africa has repeatedly gotten the short end of the stick. Colonialism left the continent decades behind other developing regions. Diamonds mined deep in the heart of Africa breed bloody conflicts as they flee the continent to adorn the fingers of westerners.

There is a chance now to change the script.

World leaders gather next week at the UN General Assembly to discuss climate change and prepare for the larger climate change conference in Copenhagen in December. The Copenhagen conference is seeking to produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol environment treaty.  This time, Africa has come out with its boxing gloves ready to fight for the best climate change deal for the continent.

African leaders have read the scientific studies and seem well aware of the stark facts behind the effects of climate change.  Despite how little their countries contribute to the overall global carbon emissions, according to a recent development report out by the World Bank developing nations will bear 75-80 percent of the cost of our changing climate.  This seemingly unfair contradiction is why African leaders such as Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi are defiantly threatening to walk out of the Copenhagen conference in December if Africa’s demand for monetary compensation from carbon-intensive rich countries is not appropriately addressed. In his own words, “”if needs be we are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threaten to be another rape of our continent.” South Africa, one of the world’s top polluters, has entered the ring as well stressing that it will not sacrifice economic growth for the sake of reducing carbon emissions.

Although these various approaches to securing a better deal for Africa are controversial, one thing seems constant: Africa is unified as the Copenhagen meeting nears. It’s been a long time coming.

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September 17, 2009
In the newsroom: Lost in translation

Mohammad al-Kassim covers the Middle East for Worldfocus.  He blogs here about an item he originally saw in the Jordanian online weekly donianews.net about a perceived insult by the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, Deborah Jones.

The Kuwaiti Parliament is up in arms over comments made by U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones about the Kuwaiti legislative authority. The comments, which were part a speech she delivered on August 27 in Washington, were understood by some Kuwaiti parliamentarians as derogatory.

Ambassador Jones’ remarks came in response to those who called the first four female Kuwaiti legislators the “four cats.” She laughingly said “if the female legislators are cats, so the male parliamentarians are dogs?”

The Kuwaiti Parliament has criticized the ambassador for her “irresponsible remarks about members of the Kuwaiti Parliament.”

If you have lived in the Arab world for any period of time, you would know that the word “dog” is a word you don’t include in you conversation with people. But in defense of Ambassador Jones, I strongly believe that her comments were lost in translation. Her remarks were referring to the bickering between the two branches of the Kuwaiti government and not the offensive meaning it holds in the Arab culture. Since Kuwait’s independence from Britain in 1961, the parliament has been dissolved five times, including a suspension for almost six years between 1986 and 1992. For those who closely follow Kuwaiti and Middle Eastern news like I do, it’s not a secret that the relationship between the Kuwaiti Parliament and Kuwait’s executive branch is marred by continuing contentious disputes.

When I was a freshman in college, I had to take an English literature class where we had to read a short story about two neighbors. In the story the word “occupation” describes the physical relationship between the two neighbors. As a Palestinian, all I was thinking about was what that word meant to me: A symbol of Israel occupation of my land. It took almost the entire semester before I understood that the words in English have multiple meanings. American English is full of idioms, expressions and figures of speech; one should not take the meaning of some words literally.

It’s become reflexive in the Arab world to take comments made by foreigners out of context. This kind of irresponsibility is detrimental when real criticism is needed.

– Mohammad al-Kassim

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