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February 8, 2010
U.S. Congress bill threatens to crackdown on terror TV

A street in Baalbeq, Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s headquarters is located. Photo: Ben Piven

Cari Machet, who has lived and worked as a multimedia producer throughout the Middle East, writes about a new House bill that could sanction satellite operators if they contract their services to TV stations classified as terrorist entities by Congress. She argues it may prove to be counterproductive.

Last month Congress passed H.R. 2278, which would label certain Middle Eastern satellite providers of incendiary television programming as terrorist organizations — in an effort to prevent radical anti-Americanism from hitting the airwaves.

Representative Gus Bilirakis (R-Florida) introduced the legislation that would label satellite TV channels and content providers as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists” or SDGTs.

The wording of the bill seems too broad to enact and as yet has not been pushed through the Senate.

This bill is almost a carbon copy of a bill passed by Congress in 2008, H.Res.1069, which condemned the use of television programming by Hamas to indoctrinate hatred, violence and Antisemitism.

The earlier bill mainly focused on al-Aqsa TV, the channel run by Palestinian militant organization Hamas. The bill particularly targeted children’s program Tomorrow’s Pioneers, which depicts a Bugs Bunny-like character declaring that he “will finish off the Jews and eat them.”

The station recently launched a new cartoon satirizing a Fatah soldier named Bahlul (Buffoon) and a “blood-drinking Jew.” The network also operates its own film studio where they shoot movies they call the “cinema of resistance.”

Al-Aqsa TV is currently transmitted by satellites owned by the French-based, privately owned Eutelsat and by the Saudi-based, Arab League-owned Arabsat.

The new bill mainly targets Lebanese Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV channel. The station is telecast throughout the Arab world via Arabsat and the Egyptian-based, state-owned Nilesat.

Hezbollah is a Shi’a Islamist political and paramilitary organization that provides social services and operates schools, hospitals and agricultural services for Lebanese Shiites. They hold 11 seats in the Lebanese parliament.

The United States designates Hezbollah a terrorist group, and its militant wing has been linked to several major terrorist attacks. But the E.U. has resisted the terrorist label, with some countries arguing that engagement is a better policy.

Some Lebanese object strenuously to the bill. Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri sent a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi stating, “This bill represents bypassing the sovereign national laws of the targeted countries, among them Lebanon which is a free ‘Hyde Park’ for the Lebanese and Arab satellite ‘public opinion’ media channels.”

The passing of the bill prompted an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Jan 24th. The Arab information ministers released a statement after that meeting that censured the bill and called it “an interference in the internal affairs of Arab states who regulate their media affairs according to national legislation.”

“We insist on media freedom and reject any restrictions on it,” said Lebanese Information Minister Tareq Mitri.

During that meeting, participants discussed another proposal supported by the Egyptian and Saudi governments for the creation of a regional office to supervise Arab satellite TV stations — which might even impact the BBC Arabic (and BBC World) channels, or even the U.S.- government owned news channel Alhurra.

But the Lebanese government is against the idea of a pan-Arab media commission. Reporters Without Borders concurs: “The danger is that this super-police could be used to censor all TV stations that criticize the region’s governments. It could eventually be turned into a formidable weapon against freedom of information.”

Throughout the Mideast, mainstream American media saturates free satellite airwaves. Some is censored for content, but not always news content. There is a lack of knowledge among the bill’s supporters of the breadth and power of American culture, which blasts on radios, beams out of flat screen televisions and flashes on computers everywhere.

As President Obama said in his State of the Union speech: “Abroad, America’s greatest source of strength has always been our ideals.”

Of course the Senate is a far different body than the House. Also, the president would have to sign H.R. 2278 into law, but so far there is no comment from the White House regarding the bill.

Marc Lynch writes about the bill on Foreign Policy:

In short, H.R. 2278 is a deeply irresponsible bill which sharply contradicts American support for media freedom and could not be implemented in the Middle East today as crafted without causing great damage. Even Arab governments who despise Hamas and Hezbollah and Qaradawi and al-Jazeera could not sign on to it…The last thing the Arab world needs right now is more state power of censorship over the media — whether the Arab League over satellite TV or the Jordanian government over the internet. Hillary Clinton just laid out a vision of an America committed to internet freedom, and that should be embraced as part of a broader commitment to free and open media. Nobody should be keen on restoring the power of authoritarian governments over one of the few zones of relative freedom which have evolved over the last decade.

– Cari Machet

February 4, 2010
N. Korean paid informants risk lives but send dubious news

Photo by Ben Piven for Worldfocus

North Korea is one of the most closed-off societies in the world. Information from inside the country is notoriously difficult to gather.

Radio signals are jammed, internet connections blocked and cell phones monitored. To combat this lack of information some news organizations pay informants to smuggle news out.

These sources, often cultivated by South Korean news agencies as “underground stringers,” risk their lives for little pay. But as many as half of their reports are false, according to a recent New York Times article by Choe Sang-hun:

The reports are sketchy at best, covering small pockets of North Korea society. Many prove wrong, contradict each other or remain unconfirmed. But they have also produced important scoops, like the currency devaluation and a recent outbreak of swine flu in North Korea. The mainstream media in South Korea now regularly quote these cottage-industry news services.

“Technology made this possible,” said Sohn Kwang-joo, the chief editor of Daily NK. “We infiltrate the wall of North Korea with cellphones.”

Over the past decade, the North’s border with China has grown more porous as famine drove many North Koreans out in search of food and an increasing traffic in goods — and information — developed. A new tribe of North Korean merchants negotiates smuggling deals with Chinese partners, using Chinese cellphones that pick up signals inside the North Korean border.

Worldfocus also spoke with Barbara Demick, Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, about North Korean informants:

Regarding the underground news agencies, I’ve found that their reports are plausible, but a little exaggerated. For example, Good Friends’ NK Today was the first to report the famine in the 90s, but I think their claims of the death toll were overstated. These agencies have on occasion given vague reports of protests that I think have a kernel of truth — but are also exaggerated.

For example, I have never interviewed a defector who personally witnessed any kind of public protest in North Korea, although I think there have been localized incidents at the markets where vendors complained to market management or resisted arrest by the police. There have also been a fair number of incidents in which security officials were murdered.

On the ethics of the agencies paying informants, I think it would be unethical for them not to pay — in that these people are risking their lives. According to Choe Sang-hun’s recent piece [above], some of the informants are actually considered to be reporters who are working. But there is no doubt just the same that paying taints the quality of information. It creates an incentive for them to tell you what they think you would want to hear. We don’t pay for interviews with defectors, although when I interview them I am usually with a missionary who might be providing food and clothing.

Worldfocus put together a list of English-language news agencies and blogs that cover North Korea. These sites try to gather information from within North Korea:

  • Daily NK was created by activists from the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights. As the world’s first dedicated North Korean online news site, The Daily NK reports in real time.
  • NK Today is produced by Good Friends USA to help the North Korean people from a humanistic point of view and describe the way North Korean people live as accurately as possible.
  • North Korean Economy Watch is intended for business people, policy makers, academics and journalists but does not generally focus on human rights or the nuclear issue.
  • DPRK Studies promotes awareness of North Korean security, social, political and historical issues. It is a portal to news, research, opinion, and organizations on North Korea.
  • The Hankyoreh is a progressive newspaper decisively committed to journalistic freedom, democracy, peaceful coexistence and national reconciliation between South and North Korea.
  • Kyodo News is distributed to almost all newspapers and radio-TV networks in Japan. Kyodo has a special English-language section dedicated to North Korea.
  • Yonhap News Agency is based in Seoul and is the largest news-gathering network in Korea. There is a monthly magazine and a weekly e-newsletter dedicated to covering news from North Korea.

And these sites serve as North Korea’s official media, propagating pro-government news and information.

  • Korean Central News Agency is the Pyongyang-based state-run news agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. News is transmitted to other countries in English, Russian, and Spanish.
  • Korean Friendship Association was founded on November of the year 2000 with the purpose of building international ties with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

For more Worldfocus coverage of North Korea, visit our extended coverage page: Behind the Korean Curtain.

February 2, 2010
Morocco shuts down magazine that criticized government

The magazine cover from January 16-22.

Aida Alami is a Moroccan freelance journalist who wrote for Le Journal Hebdomadaire until the magazine was closed.

Worldfocus interviewed her about why the Moroccan government shut down the independent news outlet last week.

Worldfocus: What happened to Le Journal Hebdomadaire?

Aida Alami: The police came Wednesday to take control of our newsroom and change the locks. By Thursday, we were completely finished. This came after we lost a trial and had to pay huge amounts of money to several people. Money we didn’t have.

Actually, we had already been dropped by 80% of our advertisers over the past few years. I heard that the king’s right-hand men got together last year with the advertisers and asked them to boycott us.

This wasn’t a surprise or a shock to me. I knew it would eventually happen. I haven’t been taking my laptop to work because I knew they would come, and I didn’t want them to take it!

We’re giving a press conference tomorrow to discuss the issue. I am not sure if they will let us go through with it — or interrupt it and kick everybody out.

Worldfocus: Will founder Aboubakr Jamai start a new magazine?

Alami: Aboubakr could start a new one. He did it once before, but I doubt there is money to do so today.

Worldfocus: What will you do now that you’re jobless?

Alami: It’s really discouraging. Everyone I know outside of Morocco has been emailing me, but here, no one cares. People I’ve known for 20 years haven’t even contacted me.

I am sure that if something similar had happened in France people would be camping outside of the president’s residence to protest. I don’t think they see it as something important. It’s hopeless.

I won’t be looking for work in Morocco. We were really the only independent news outlet here. I don’t see myself working anywhere else.

Worldfocus: Do most Moroccans value independent media?

Alami: In the Reporters Without Borders 2009 Press Freedom Index, Morocco ranks 127th.

The public doesn’t want to hear the truth about issues. The magazine had no friends. Even people who are high-income just saw us as anti-patriotic — too critical and undermining the country. Personally, I’m not political. I am just doing my job.

We drove people away for several reasons. Many people considered us elitist because of the language — French and too eloquent. As opposed to other magazines, we didn’t have covers with sex and stuff that sells. We were too serious and dealt with real issues that people were not necessarily interested in reading about.

I think that the public doesn’t really care. If they did, they’d be writing letters now. But they aren’t. My personal feeling is: why fight for people like that? The upper class has its own interests — to be close to power. Of course they’re not going to want to criticize our government or king.

Then, you have the small middle class who sympathize and are intellectual. Then there are the barely literate masses. Our readership was not that important. It was around 40,000.

However, our impact was a lot more important. Stories told in that magazine were told nowhere else.

Worldfocus: What was the trigger issue that motivated the government to close you down?

Alami: We often covered [Western Sahara indepedence activist] Aminatou Haidar, who was on hunger strike in Spain after having been kicked out of Morocco. They had taken her passport.

The entire country had extreme and very one-sided coverage and called her a spy, traitor, etc. During her hunger strike, we interviewed her every week and we even sent a reporter to Laayoune, her hometown, to interview her family. We were the only ones to give full coverage of the story. The coverage was terrific, and I am very proud of what we did.

Our editor, Aboubakr, wrote editorials arguing that Morocco was was making a huge mistake diplomatically. And that we [Moroccans] would end up looking like fools. TelQuel, our biggest competitor, never interviewed her.

I think that’s when the government decided, “We need to shut them up forever.”

As I said in my article published in the Huffington Post:

Many people have called us traitors because we were too critical. I think it’s the opposite, we are all people who loved their country enough to never sell out. We gave our readers the best we could and kept them informed like no other news team. The legacy left by Le Journal Hebdomadaire will stay with all of us no matter what, and the fight for freedom cannot stop here. I hope that reporters of the new generation will not compromise and will take on the fight Aboubakr Jamai started 13 years ago.

– Ben Piven

January 28, 2010
Football rivalry dominates news from Egypt and Algeria

Mohammad watches the football game.

The news of the football match between Egypt and Algeria is dominating the front page headlines in both Egypt and Algeria Thursday. The rhetoric is high, and the war drum beat is getting louder.

The Algerian newspaper Al-Fajr devoted a portion of its web site page to the coverage of the match. The same was for true for Egypt’s leading newspaper Al Ahram, whose website greets viewers with a large colorful picture of Egyptian fans waving the red, white and black flag of their country at a stadium.

Meanwhile, the Algerian government is helping to shuttle at least a thousand of its citizens to watch the match in Angola.

For the Egyptians, this match is an opportunity to settle scores and regain its wounded national pride after its loss to Algeria in a playoff match in Khartoum, Sudan last November.

Fans of both teams were involved in violent clashes and accusations of mistreatment flew. Whether similiar passions will be ignited after this game remains to be seen.

– Mohammad Al-Kassim

January 26, 2010
A night on the town with Burmese karaoke girls

A karaoke bar in Yangoon. Photo: Michael Lwin

Worldfocus blogger Michael Lwin, who recently returned from Myanmar, writes about the urban Burmese social scene.

Four young couples are in a 250-square-foot room with bright pink wallpaper and a modest entertainment system. The two most extroverted stand in front of a television set, striking over-the-top dance poses as the liquid tones of Akon’s “Smack That” roll out of the speakers.

The clown jester of the group, a short, tan fellow with a dark-brown pompadour and oval-framed glasses, carries his porcelain-skinned girlfriend in his arms and twirls her around, some of her black hair sticking against the sweat on her face.

She giggles with glee and waves. She bumps her petite body against his; he jolts and rubs his bottom in feigned indignation.

I could be describing young people anywhere in the world, but this particular group happens to be Burmese living in Myanmar.

The young men are using their hard-earned salaries for a night out on the town. The young women are not exactly their girlfriends.

Rather, most are the daughters of poor families, making a living in Yangoon by agreeing to be something like comfort girls — not prostitutes — but affectionate company for the evening.

Such young women are commonplace at karaoke bars in Myanmar. They sit on couches with the men, put their arms around them, and hold hands. They let the men touch their shoulders, legs, the small of their backs, nuzzle their necks, brush their cheeks with kisses.

The men claim to be sexually experienced, but further discussions reveal that many remain virgins until marriage. For women, there is even more pressure to be chaste.

A karaoke bar in Yangoon. Photo: Michael Lwin

For young Burmese, dating is very formal. Cohabitation and sexual activity before marriage are taboo, and it is expected that men and women date briefly en route to marriage.

Though there are couples that violate these taboos, I observed that most Burmese adhere to custom.

Respectable young women do not go to karaoke bars.

The young women who work at karaoke bars usually serve a significantly older clientele. Karaoke bars are popular entertainment for middle-aged men, who sing classic Burmese songs like Mee Bon Pwe, Sein Choo Kyar Nyaung, and Shay Yay Sett over chicken wings, rice, and vegetables provided by the in-house kitchen.

I noticed that in contrast to the playfulness displayed with the young men, the women seem ill at ease among their older clients. Often they grimace, subtly remove an aggressively placed hand and assume a vacant, distant look.

I am not sure whether the difference in behavior is a function of the age difference — or whether the younger men I observe are simply a friendlier, inoffensive lot.

The short funny male of the group is charming. He dramatically reenacts choreographed dances from Bollywood movies when Indian songs play; he throws his arms around the neck of his much taller friend, who is wearing a black imitation Armani Exchange shirt, and they bellow out songs together.

The young woman demands the young man pick her up and spin her around the room again, and he obliges.

For that moment, they look like a happy couple anywhere in the world.

– Michael Lwin

January 26, 2010
Class warfare looms in 2010 British general election

David Cameron

David Cameron  Photo: Conservative Party

The 2010 British General Election, which must be held by June 3, pits embattled Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labour Party against David Cameron of the Conservatives. Worldfocus contributing blogger Jamie Macfarlane writes about the perennial issue of class as a potential factor in the race.

The Bullingdon Club is Oxford University’s most exclusive dining society. Restricted to the most privileged undergraduates since its founding in 1780, the club is notorious for its destructive binges at unsuspecting restaurants, which are trashed from top to bottom at the end of the meal in the society’s signature ritual. The members escape trouble with the police by leaving a blank check behind to cover the devastation.

As depicted by Evelyn Waugh in Decline and Fall, The Bullingdon also helped to popularize the Oxford expression “debagging”, whereby an individual that irritated the club had his trousers pulled down in the street. Although the advent of tighter trousers has largely put a stop to this pastime, many other Bullingdon traditions persevere -the initiation ritual for example, where a new member discovers his invitation to join the club when he returns to his bedroom to find that the society has broken in and destroyed his possessions.

The 2010 general election could see the three most powerful positions in Britain all being occupied by “Buller” boys. The Conservative candidate for Prime Minister David Cameron, George Osborne, his prospective chancellor, and the current Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson were all in the society.

In a nation historically fixated with class, the prospective aristocratic takeover of government could turn this year’s election campaign into what the media are styling a “class war.”  Journalists were quick to jump on Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s declaration to Parliament that Conservative policies seemed to have been “dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton,” the $50,000 a year private school attended by Cameron and several senior members of his party.

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown  Photo: Labour Party

Gordon Brown has since backpedaled from the statement, claiming that he had just made an innocent joke. But some pundits think that Brown, who trails Cameron by around 10 points in the opinion polls, should get nasty. Tony Blair’s former adviser Alistair Campbell writes:

It was evident from Cameron’s face that he hated it. It was clear from the faces behind that they shared the hurt. Inflicting political pain on your opponents is part of the job of politicians.

Cameron’s detractors have always been keen to point out that his Eton schooling, his Bullingdon membership and a lineage that traces back to King William IV undermines his attempts at styling himself as an “ordinary bloke.” In comparison Brown is the publicly educated son of a Church of Scotland minister.

So why is Brown holding back from trying to politically debag Cameron?

Firstly, British elections tend to lack the same degree of personal attack as in the U.S. The British public was scandalized when Gordon Brown’s former special adviser Damian McBride was discovered formulating rumors about Cameron and other members of his team in 2009. Brown is still tainted by an episode that left his administration looking nasty.

The second reason for Brown’s reluctance is explained by George Pitcher’s blog for the Daily Telegraph.

Socio-economic status isn’t what it was when class really was the divisive issue in British society. Today you can be a successful PR flak or some ghastly (my dear, look at their suits) hedge-fund manager and buy your way into Royal Enclosures, or even the House of Lords if you’re subtle enough with the payments.

The Bullingdon club’s notoriety at Oxford University is partly because it is a relic of a bygone Britain, in which aristocracy was the law of the land. Similarly diminishing is the socialist reaction to this privilege that saw the rise of an embittered working class that formed the core Labour Party vote for decades.

Gordon Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair enjoyed his unparalleled success as Labour leader by shifting his party towards the center, as he embraced Britain’s ever expanding middle class. Tony Blair’s “New Labour” promised to govern a “Modern Britain.” Gordon Brown risks undoing this reinvention by pulling the trigger on a class war.

The dates of British elections are only announced a month in advance, so Britons must keep guessing about whether they are about to be caught up in “class warfare.” Brown, for now, has stuck to the softer language of Cameron being “out of touch with middle class families.” However if Brown continues to falter in the polls, he will become increasingly tempted to go for broke. After all, he would not want to see a blank check left in the rubble of Parliament’s restaurant.

January 25, 2010
In South Sudan, schools still function under trees

Jen Marlowe is an independent journalist with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. She is currently documenting and writing about education, infrastructure and health care, which remain among the most vital needs in rebuilding South Sudan.

Tension was under the surface as we negotiated with the contractor, trying to chip away another $10,000 from his bid. The price to build a school in South Sudan, I have learned, is exorbitantly high.

I am here with Gabriel Bol Deng, who is featured in my new documentary film, Rebuilding Hope. Gabriel Bol, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” has been raising money for three years to build a school in Ariang, his native village. We were not prepared for just how costly such a venture is.

South Sudan came out of decades of devastating civil war only five years ago. Infrastructure was nearly non-existent when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005, and now, five years later, its improvement has been creeping at best.

Students in front of the collapsing tukul that had served as the office of the former Ariang school, which met under trees. Photo: Gabriel Bol Deng

Nearly all the raw materials needed for construction is either imported from Uganda or brought in from Khartoum in the North. The price of the materials reflects the distance it had to travel to reach South Sudan. Located in Warrap state, Ariang’s isolation increases the cost as well.

Transportation to get all the building materials on site will cost almost $70,000. Cutting corners to get the price down is not recommended.

Three years ago, the NGO World Vision built four schools in Warrap State. The iron-sheeting roofs of all four blew off during last year’s rainy season. The climate is harsh and unforgiving in South Sudan.

Perhaps this explains why, as Lino Anyak Kuec, the director general of the Ministry of Education for Warrap state pointed out in our meeting last week, 90 percent of the 344 primary schools are still functioning under trees.

It is difficult to ascertain the exact population of Warrap state that these 344 primary schools serve. According to the 2008 census, there are close to 1 million people. Southerners, however, contest the census results and in fact, Kuec told us, the numbers of people who registered to vote in the 2010 elections surpassed the census results.

Warrap is a “new” state, born out of the signing of the CPA. Kuajok, the capital of Warrap state, was created in 2006. The problems faced by all states in South Sudan are intensified in Warrap, which had no previous experience or even minimal infrastructure to draw on.

The lack of constructed schools is one indicator of the challenges that the state faces. In Kuajok, the state capital, there are 5,220 students divided among only three primary schools, averaging 217.5 students in each classroom.

There are only eight secondary schools in all of Warrap State, which is about 220 miles in length, and only two of them have their own facility. The others use rooms in six of thirty-odd constructed primary schools. This arrangement will end soon; the primary schools are desperate for all their classroom space.

They are asking the secondary school classes to vacate their premises. There are only 2,000 secondary students in all of Warrap state—an indication of the drop-out rate, especially high for girls, as well as a commentary on the lack of education during the war and the subsequent need for Southern Sudanese to catch up. Many of the students studying in primary school are teenagers or adults.

Clearing straw from future Ariang School site. Photo: Gabriel Bol Deng

A school building, of course, is only one step towards a functioning school. Every school needs basic supplies, which schools in South Sudan are sorely lacking, whether they are housed in a building or under trees. Currently, only one-third of the classes in Warrap state have chalkboards.

Last year, UNICEF provided 1 chalkboard for each school. Each school had to decide—which class would be the lucky one to receive the chalkboard?

The quality of teaching in Warrap state is also a grave concern. During the war, there were a handful of scattered “bush schools”, so-called because they operated “in the bush.” The teachers were primarily untrained rebel fighters who gathered children during lulls in the violence to teach them whatever they knew from their own schooling. When fighting resumed, the bush schools stopped.

Many of these former rebel/bush teachers are now teaching in the primary schools. “We cannot ask them to stop teaching,” Kuec said. He suggested two reasons why. One is connected to the Government of South Sudan’s loyalty to those who fought and served with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army during the war. And, Kuec pointed out, there are not teachers with more adequate training to replace them.

The lack of trained teachers is perhaps the greatest challenge to providing an adequate education to children in South Sudan. Teachers lack not only methodology, but basic, general knowledge. Often, those with a sixth grade education level are teaching grade 4.

There are many qualified teachers among Southerners, but a large percentage of them received their schooling in Khartoum, following an Arabic language curriculum. The Government of South Sudan (GoSS) has determined that the language of instruction is English.

Educated Southerners fluent in Arabic cannot teach an English language curriculum. GoSS, strapped with budget deficits all around, pays teachers approximately $100/month. Subsequently, teachers often take second jobs to supplement this income. It is not uncommon for a teacher to send a friend to take over his class a few days a week while he is busy working as a driver.

Despite the constant uphill struggle, improvement has been made. 150 out of Warrap’s 3,000 teachers are currently in a training course and in February, 240 more will begin a three-month course.

Gabriel Bol teaches children in the Ariang school, which continues to meet under trees until he constructs their school building. Photo courtesy of Rebuilding Hope

In 2007, teachers complained that their salaries arrived months late if they came at all, and teachers had to travel to Kuajok to receive them, sometimes closing school for a week each month or two in order to make the journey on foot and return.

The salaries in 2010, though inadequate, are at least paid regularly. Teachers receive payment in their own district rather than having to travel to Kuajok. The system is computerized, enabling much better record keeping. Baby steps, but important ones.

Gabriel Bol continued to negotiate with the contractor, trying to convince him to reduce the cost of building the school without reducing the quality.

Even after the contractor agreed to shave off the $10,000, Gabriel Bol will have to raise an additional $50,000 when he returns to the U.S. in order for the construction to be completed. And he is well-aware, even as he negotiates the transport for gravel, cement, and iron sheeting, that building this school is only the first step. Gabriel Bol’s goal is not only that the children of his village have a school building, it’s that they have an education.

There is much work to be done.

– Jen Marlowe

January 22, 2010
The Ethiopian dream: come to America then go back home

A young boy in Addis Ababa. Photo: Tesfaye Negussie

Tesfaye Negussie is an American journalist whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia. Last month, Tesfaye traveled to Ethiopia to visit family and friends.

He writes how the desire to emigrate to America is common in the Ethiopian psyche — along with an equally strong desire to return to the homeland.

It was an elaborate scam: a beautiful bride, a dashing groom, a smiling best man and bridesmaids draped in matching gowns.

The photo was taken to bamboozle American immigration officials. Apparently, the bride was already living in America, and the groom, living in Ethiopia, just wanted to further his education in the U.S. So, he paid her a couple thousand dollars to marry him.

I’ve been told that some Ethiopian men living in America return to Ethiopia for a few weeks just to find a wife and bring her back to the U.S., even though they barely know each other. The man gets a young pretty woman who shares his culture, and the woman gets to come to America.

This is similar to what I used to hear of the young teenage women who lived in rural parts of Ethiopia. They would be married off to wealthy landowners who could afford to pay big dowries to the girl’s parents.

Still others come to America through diversity visa lotteries — a program that gives visas to countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

The Ethiopian dream is just like the American dream — but with a twist. Ethiopians come to the U.S. to make a living yet often return to Ethiopia to retire.

The dream also casts its fairy dust on Ethiopian pop culture. Ethiopian TV, films and music often depict the experiences of Ethiopian-American immigrants.

Men’s Affairs is a comedic film that follows the antics of a poor Ethiopian carpenter who lies that he lives in America and is just visiting Ethiopia, so that he can get the girl that he desires. For my Father is a drama about a girl who breaks up with her boyfriend to marry a rich man from the U.S.

Ethiopians in America remit about $1.2 billion per year to their families back home. This amount is second only to the total that Ethiopia receives from exports. For the most part, Ethiopians go abroad to make a better life for themselves and give back to their families in Ethiopia, but most dream of returning again.

I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, which has an estimated 200,000 people of Ethiopian descent — the highest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia. As a teenager, I remember learning that Ethiopians owned many of the big nightclubs in the city. As soon as they made enough money, they sold their clubs, and returned to Ethiopia to rejoin their families and invest in their country.

My parents and many of their Ethiopian friends who live in America have lived in the U.S. for about three decades. But they still talk about how they will return to Ethiopia once they retire.

There is a sense of pride that links most Ethiopians to their country. We feel the joy of being with family and a yearning to stay close to our rich history and culture.

We also have a tacit amour-propre, as children of an ancient civilization and the vanquishers of the menacing evil of colonization. Moreover, we are the gatekeepers to an array of ethnicities, languages and religions that have coexisted for centuries.

And even though Ethiopia is now poor, most Ethiopian emigrants dream of the day they will return. Many of them will visit several times before permanently returning — coming back to a country that changes in the blink of an eye.

Ethiopia is the fourth fastest growing economy in the world, according to The Economist. Even though so much has changed, the love is the same, and it feels like they never left.

Many Ethiopian-Americans born in America will stay and raise kids here.  We, unlike our parents, have grown with American culture and taken it as our own. But our pride for Ethiopia burns strong. Many of us speak broken Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya, Gurage — or the language of whatever region our parents are from.  We will dress in green, yellow and red patterns.  Or wear shirts with pictures of Halie Selassie, as to say, “I am Ethiopian.”

Because the Italians, Jamaicans, Mexicans, Chinese and others who settled in America share a similar journey as the Ethiopians, the Ethiopian-American story is the American story.

Tesfaye Negussie and his grandmother.

So, that is also my story.

My grandmother, who lived with us in America for 10 years, is now back in Ethiopia.

I visited her for several days in Addis Ababa. Since she is very old, it may have been my last time seeing her.

The day I was leaving, I had a terrible stomach ache from something I ate. My grandmother pulled out the one thing she knew would cure me: an old dingy plastic bottle filled with holy water.

It was refreshing as she poured the cool water on my aching belly and head. As she recited prayers under her breath, I remembered those days that I would go to her room to wake her up for breakfast, when she would already be awake thumbing her rosary beads.

And when my sister and I would return from school, she’d hand us huge chunks of ambasha bread that she had prayed over.  And we’d have to finish it. Even though our stomachs were full from whatever junk we had picked up at the ice cream truck, we obediently finished every crumb.

Afterward, we would sometimes take Grandma for a walk because she had been inside all day, and this was her only chance to spend some alone time with her grandchildren before Mom and Dad came home.

The water gradually warmed on my skin, and I felt the touch of my grandmother’s fragile hand on my forehead as she prayed. And then my stomach didn’t hurt anymore.

It was good to be home.

– Tesfaye Negussie

For more Worldfocus coverage of Ethiopia, visit our extended coverage page: Ethiopia Past and Present.

January 20, 2010
South Korea’s president proposes controversial river plan

A South Korean honor guard in Yongsan. Photo: Flickr user ImComKorea

Worldfocus contributing blogger Jamblichus analyzes the leadership style of the conservative South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, which he likens to that of a CEO, and his controversial plan to dredge Korea’s major waterways.

If you were a shareholder in the Republic of Korea, plc., you’d probably be quite content and thinking about buying more stock: Lee has clinched a huge project to sell locally developed nuclear reactors to the United Arab Emirates, a first for the country and as a result making South Korea only the sixth place in the world to export nuclear reactors.

He has launched an ambitious $19.2 billion program to dredge and “clean up” the nation’s four major rivers, pledging the project will generate thousands of jobs, improve water supply and quality, and prevent flooding, while also boosting the nation’s “aquatic tourism.” Sounds good, does it not?

Except that most people who know anything about it are united in their opposition. Take Hong Jong-ho, an economist at Hanyang University, for example, who argues that the project would create an “environmental disaster” that would worsen flooding and pollute the two rivers that supply drinking water for two-thirds of the nation’s 49 million people and that costs would run as high $50 billion.

(Lee claimed that 60 percent to 70 percent of it would be recovered by selling sand and gravel scraped from the riverbeds — hardly likely to have a positive environmental impact surely? — and that the rest would come from private investment. )

And opposition party chairman Chung Sye-kyun claims the administration has not conducted a proper feasibility study and its environmental impact assessment on the 634-kilometer area, completed in just four months, was slap-dash and troubling. Plans to place the project in the hands of project in the hands of the Korea Water Resources Corporation, which is not subject to National Assembly budget reviews, have also raised concerns, according to local paper the Hankyoreh.

Yet Lee is highly unlikely to pay much attention to their fretting; you see, Mr Lee’s silvery lining as leader has a cloud attached and it hovers above everything he touches like a possible ratings downgrade from a credit agency or a sell recommendation from an influential analyst. The cloud, which is a towering cumulonimbus, rather than your wispy cirrus is this: President Lee runs the nation like a company.

He is no democrat, for a CEO with a penchant for collaborative leadership or one who recognizes the value of dissent is generally a weak CEO. To Lee, those who disagree with his position are renegade shareholders who may damage the stock value. They must be brought on side or silenced before the international markets notice.

The president is equally aware of who the majority shareholders are in his enterprise. They are the conglomerates, the establishment academics whose intellectual prostitution allows for their recruitment as technocratic advisers, they are the fund managers and construction companies.

“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still,” wrote British philosopher John Stuart Mill, but that is the mindset of a philosopher, not a businessman.

So as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gets its funding shut off and its offices closed down; as the National Human Rights Commission gets its funding reduced and its independence threatened; as the judiciary faces an almighty assault on its integrity, it is a little disconcerting to read that CEO Lee’s government is to invest $1.5 billion, yes, billion, in building marinas and subsidizing the construction of yacht clubs.

Whether this seems like an appropriate priority for a nation’s government dear reader, led by a businessman or otherwise, I leave to your impartial assessment.

January 13, 2010
Avatar’s forced evictions resonate with Chinese public

Photo: Flickr user Rxau

Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer at Worldfocus, is a news editor at the “China Times” in Taipei.

”You have watched the movie ‘Avatar,’ haven’t you?” a colleague asked me the other day. “I sure have,” I answered, ready to show off my knowledge of war on terror and how the movie director, James Cameron, parallels America’s invasion of Iraq with his work.

“Then you’ll probably be interested in this,” she said, passing me along a piece from a reader in mainland China. I thought I had interpreted Avatar from all kinds of perspectives, but it was not until reading the piece that I realized my ignorance (of which I am ashamed.)

For those who haven’t seen the movie, the film is set on the planet of Pandora, a resource-rich paradise that draws the greedy eyes of human beings. It is a story about how the blue-skinned aboriginals of the planet, the Na’vi, tried to protect their woodland home from armed developers who plan to seize a valuable mineral buried there.

Apparently, it’s the scene of the violent tear-down of the tree that resonated among the Chinese people. In an op-ed piece titled,  “Real estate developers and law makers should all go to see Avatar,” the writer furiously attacks the large number of forced demolitions in China in recent years.

“Like the story in Avatar,” he argues, ” poor, helpless people, when facing the injustice of forced demolition, can only take extreme measures to make themselves heard or simply accept it and weep.”

He’s talking about the so-called “nail house problem” in modern China. As the name suggests, “nail houses” belong to people who defiantly resist eviction in the face of development and whose homes thus stick out like nails amid a field of debris.

A Chinese “nailhouse” in Nanjing. Photo: Flickr user GraemeNicol

While such demolition might seem common in most countries, the violent measures taken by both the authorities and the residents in China have made the confrontations painful.

Last November, a Chengdu woman doused herself in petrol and set fire to herself in protest against the government because she learned that her house is in the way of a highway project and will be torn down. The tragedy echos an earlier case. In June, 2008, a Shanghai woman threw petrol bombs at a demolition crew planning to tear down her home to build a transportation site for the 2010 Shanghai Expo.

Both cases reflect the tip of the iceberg. Although last month authorities agreed to further look into the issue of housing demolition, from the attitudes of the government officials, one can tell reform will not happen soon. When a 66-year-old villager threatened recently to jump off a building to protest his home from demolition, an official told him: “Go straight to the top floor. Don’t choose the first or second.” In fact, his words have been chosen by editors at the China Daily as one of the “Top ten quotes of the year 2009.”

Besides the corruption of government-business relations and the abuse of administrative power, the lack of “privatization” in the Chinese system is a key factor of the nail house problem. Unlike Americans or Canadians, Chinese people don’t really own their lands. In fact, they are granted 70 years of use of their house–which, in a legal sense, means that in China, ownership of the land is separated from the right to the use of the land. According to law, the State may withdraw such right anytime by offering compensation.

Since my colleague is from mainland China and can work in Taiwan only because she married to a Taiwanese, I asked her what she thinks about the issue.

“The only thing people can hope for is to get some compensation,” she said, “but really, who would want to leave home?”

Yeah. Who would want to leave home? That’s what I feel, too.

– Hsin-Yin Lee

Perspectives highlights the best of the blogosphere by cross-posting columns culled from a network of contributors. We cut through the noise of tens of millions of bloggers worldwide and bring you commentary from experts and voices on the ground.

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