Thursday, March 3, 2011

Libya: The African mercenary question

John Liebhardt, who a year or two ago was posting some excellent analytical blogs on post-coup political developments in Fiji – in contrast to the rabid anti-coup blogs (and some pro-blogs for that matter) that were obsessed with political point scoring and obscuring the truth – has recently turned his attention to the Middle East. This extract is from his post on the vexed “mercenary” issue on Global Voices - and the full article is well worth a browse. It strikes a chord when Café Pacific recalls the foiled Sandline mercenary adventure plot against rebels in Bougainville in 1997:

ONE OF the more distressing sub-plots in the ongoing two-week uprising against Colonel Muammar Al Gaddafi in Libya has been reports of the Libyan leader's alleged use of “African mercenaries” to prop up his falling regime.

Global Voices has covered stories of mercenaries from Serbia bombing civilians from airplanes. But the majority of speculation regarding mercenaries portrays them as “foreign” or “African” — meaning from Sub-Sahara Africa and “Black”. This storyline is echoed everywhere in international media, in Arabic media, and in online citizen media and videos.

Why put a Black face on the mercenary story when people in Libya are both light and dark skinned?

In an open letter to Al Jazeera posted on the blog Sky, Soil & Everything In Between, KonWomyn worries that the broadcaster's shorthand description simply has become “mercenaries from Africa”, instead of looking deeper into who these people actually are, and that this description is being copied in media around the world.

Fear is another reason these claims are widely perpetuated. In a comment on a blog post on about mercenaries in Libya, “Benedict writes:
… in a climate of fear and scarce information, rumours that violence is being carried out by shadowy outsiders often spread widely (e.g. the rumours of ‘Arabs' beating protesters in Iran in 2009). Secondly, there are plenty of African migrants in Libya who may be seized as scapegoats by angry crowds, and there are also black Libyans, some of who may be members of the security forces.
Nonetheless, captured mercenaries in Libya have so far included people with identification papers from Tunisia, Nigeria and Guinea (Conakry) and Chad. In Ghana there are rumours that people in Accra had been offered as much as US$ 2,500 to fight for Gaddafi. And in Ethiopia local people have reportedly also been hired to fight. The video above is of an alleged mercenary captured by locals in the oil town of Al Barqa, Libya.

Destination Libya
For many in Sub-Saharan Africa, Libya has long been an employment magnet and also acted as a port of call for those wanting to migrate to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. An estimated 1.5 million people from south of the Sahara live in Libya, working mainly in the oil and construction industry.

Gaddafi is also financially and politically involved with governments south of the Sahara. The Libyan military has trained several rebel groups in the past, and has also recruited mercenaries on previous occasions.

In the early years of his rule, Gaddafi, who was affectionately known as “the Guide,” attempted to unify and Arabize the swath of land just south of the Sahara desert by pressing young migrants everywhere from the Sahel to Pakistan to fight as a single unit in wars in Chad, Uganda, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.

Attacks on migrants
The immediate problem is that people in Libya from Sub-Saharan Africa have been attacked simply because people assume they are mercenaries. On the Ethiopian Review blog, several people commented on a post about Ethiopian mercenaries with fears that innocent refugees would become targets of mobs.

One commenter, “Ganamo” wrote:
Some of those could be innocent refugees. During uprising in a mob mentality people most often do not differentiate well between criminals and innocent foreigners. I have to say this because I believe it from learning it through an experience. While revolution must go on we must be carefully to stand for refugees. Specially Ethiopians in Diaspora since their government cares only for their money and abandons them on their times of need, while other countries are evacuating their citizens. Where will Ethiopian Refugees in Libya go?
Some bloggers and activists from Sub-Saharan Africa see the mercenary issue as opening a window into the chauvinistic attitudes of those from North Africa.

Map source: National Post

Monday, February 28, 2011

No 'sun' for Pacific climate film, but Strangers scores an Oscar

PACIFIC hopes were high. The compelling climate change documentary Sun Come Up was shortlisted for the Oscars. Astonishingly, an environmental film about Papua New Guinea was in the running for a short subject documentary award.

Several commentators were tipping Sun Come Up for final honours. But no. It was pipped by another deeply moving film, Strangers No More, a delightful Israeli documentary telling the tale of the children and their survival stories from 48 countries. The youngsters take their lessons and share their experiences at Bialik-Rogozin School in south Tel Aviv.

This is an inspiring parable of peace.

The films opens with these lines:
For most children, getting to school is as simple as going around the block. But for others it’s a dangerous journey across hostile borders.

Once child: “I [saw] my father killed in front of me.”

Another schoolboy: “They shoot people and kill them”.

A schoolgirl: “I just had to find a safe place.”

Disappointing as it may be for Sun Come Up’s filmmakers, Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger, and supporters to miss out at the final hurdle, one correspondent of Pacific Scoop summed up the views of many by saying:

Heads up to the media for taking climate change issues to this level…the Oscars…this is amazing! It’s also a brilliant way to get climate change out there to a totally different set of audience….new mindset…probably a new approach to tackling the issue will spring up….and more empathy rather than sympathy derived from this.
I actually have a lot of optimism in Hollywood stars doing something about it compared to politicians who have been doing nothing more than talking about it all these years….we’re so totally over their senseless negotiations!
The truth is that Sun Come Up had really tough competition this year with three other strong environmental and social justice films also in the frame. Shortlisted were: Gasland (this takes a critical look at the natural gas extraction industry, which has been blamed for polluting local water supplies; Waste Land, which exposes the life of catadores, or scavengers, in the world’s largest garbage dump on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro; and The Warriors of Qiugang, which tells the story of poor villagers challenging “runaway pollution” by three local industrial sites.

Also spare a thought for another inspiring climate change documentary from New Zealand, Briar March's There Was Once an Island (about the plight of Takuu atoll in Papua New Guinea). This wasn’t nominated, but it ought to have been.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Post-quake life in the Christchurch suburbs

Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) organiser, activist and writer Murray Horton pens his personal impressions of life in the suburbs after the 22 February 2011 earthquake brought death and devastation to New Zealand’s second-largest city. Authorities have confirmed 147 people dead with 50 unaccounted for. This is an edited extract from an email to friends and fellow activists received by Café Pacific. Murray, his wife, Becky, and a nameless stray cat live in the inner suburb of Addington.

By Murray Horton

BECKY and I are alive and well. We're living (camping, more accurately) in our house. It has no structural damage, unlike so many others. But it has sustained more interior damage than was the case with the September 4 quake. For example, we have evacuated nearly everything out of our lounge in case the chimney decides to part company with the wall, as it has now got more noticeable cracks where it joins the wall and the fireplace surround itself is coming loose.

Unlike September, this one sent things flying in all directions and knocked everything off the walls, smashing a number of things; including the office’s Chairman Mao clock (is nothing sacred?). Surrounding streets had cracking, slumping, ground rising, liquefaction and flooding (I witnessed water and silt start pouring from the ground as a huge aftershock struck as I was walking across our little neighbourhood reserve) but we have never had that in our street or on our land.

We were without power from Tuesday until Saturday, so had no internet access, nor did we get to see any of the TV coverage. Having no power was a blessing in disguise. One of the first huge aftershocks on Tuesday swung several of our light fittings so violently they hit the ceiling and smashed, showering the floor with broken glass and leaving naked wires dangling from the ceiling. Believe it or not, I was able to get not one but two separate electricians to come to the house and render them safe before the power came back on. These weren’t mates, just regular sparkies I found in the phone book.

Water on ... but just a dribble
Water started to come back on Friday but it is only a feeble dribble (better than no dribble, however). It will be a while before we can have a shower or wash clothes. We never lost the phone (good old analogue landlines … our cordless phones, answerphone et al, went dead).

Because we use bottled gas for cooking, we never went hungry. We dug a toilet in the backyard, even rigged it up for shelter and privacy. And from Tuesday to Saturday we slept under the dining room table. Now we’ve moved back into our bedroom – as Becky said to me today, if we die, we die. Of course, things are far from back to normal – we have low flying helicopters passing over us from dawn until dusk (we’re not far from Hagley Park and Christchurch Hospital); soldiers and police from several countries are manning the CBD roadblocks and curfew just walking distance from our home.

To all of those friends who brought us water, let us use their houses for computer, internet, mobile phone charging, showers and toilets, Becky and I are eternally grateful. To all of you who rang and texted from around the country and around the world, many thanks for going to the trouble of getting hold of us (which was not easy).

I’ll just tell you one of my quake stories. I was in the Canterbury Television Building [a building that collapsed with an estimated 100 people inside] at 10.15 that morning for an interview about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the US/NZ Partnership Forum taking place in Christchurch that day, and the opposition to the TPPA being organised by the New Zealand Not For Sale Campaign. It was the first time I’d set foot in that building since 2008. We (me, the young reporter and the cameraman) did the interview in a first floor meeting room, then we sat around afterwards and chatted. I probably left the building between 10.45am and 11am. The young guy (Rhys Brookbanks), who had only just started at CTV, is among those believed killed in that building’s collapse. I was one of the last to see him alive, as it turns out.

I don’t know what happened to the Zimbabwean cameraman. From there I went to Kiwibank in the Bus Exchange Building in Colombo Street to do the CAFCA banking (because there was supposed to be a CAFCA meeting that night, in Lyttelton). I was at work, in front of this computer, when it all kicked off.

You don’t need me to tell you that this was an event of indescribable violence (and I only experienced what happened at our place, which was bad enough, but very mild compared to the catastrophe that happened in so many other parts of town). Tuesday night was just one continuous earthquake as wave after wave of aftershocks slammed into the house, some of them with the force of runaway trains. In between times the ground just continuously rumbled and shook. Neither of us got any sleep and I doubt that anybody else in Christchurch that night did as well.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the city. Our little street has been significantly depopulated. Everyone knows people who have left. One of our closest friends and colleagues is among them. Those staying put are under great stress in many cases.

Both CAFCA and ABC (Anti-Bases Campaign) are scheduled to meet this week (all committee members have sustained house damage ranging from moderate to serious to uninhabitable). I have every intention of getting out the next Watchdog but there are plenty of others involved in that process who may have more pressing priorities. So it might well be a smaller than usual

The Roger Award is on schedule (the event to name the winner is in Auckland, April 4). I have every intention of undertaking my North Island speaking tour in April (the first time I got access to electricity, at a friend’s house, I went back to work writing my speech). And I’m going to speak in Dunedin in May.

Murray Horton

Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA)
Aotearoa/New Zealand

Pictures: Searching for survivors, CTV.CN; Murray Horton at the Pacific Media Centre in 2009.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Mediawatch special probes NZ quake coverage

BEHIND the stories of catastrophe ...

Radio New Zealand's Mediawatch
has broadcast a gripping 44min special programme this weekend featuring news coverage of the Canterbury earthquake on February 22 - the second in Christchurch in five months.

The efforts were extraordinary - just like the survivors' tales of courage and compassion the journalists were telling.

The reporters, writers and editors who presented the pictures on the country's television screens, the interviews on radio and the words on the newspaper pages and websites told their own behind-the-scenes stories.

In spite of one editorial staff member being killed and four injured in the 6.3 magnitude earthquake, the Christchurch Press produced a special edition the nexr day and published right through the catastrophe - and still distributed the paper as well.

Editor Andrew Holden said there was no power, no television, no way to recharge cellphones and old media - radio with batteries and newspapers - kept local people informed.

"A bit of paper in your hand is very comforting at a time like this," he said.

Canterbury Television, the 20-year-old regional TV station, was devastated when the building collapsed with an estimated 100 media people, language school staff and students and visitors being trapped under the rubble.

Christchurch writer Trevor Agnew talked about the important and creative contribution of CTV to the region.

"It's terrible to be talking about the programme in the past tense but CTV, as we know it, has finished," he said. He hoped the programme would be redeveloped.

The Mediawatch programme was produced and presented by Colin Peacock and Jeremy Rose.

Image: Realtimer

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A tale of two cities – Tripoli and NZ's quake town

captured the contrasting mood between two cities with poignancy, but almost accidentally. After three days of heavy black borders to mourn the loss of some 147 dead and a further 50 missing, the newspaper and other media across NZ told stories of courage, drama and devastation in the Christchurch earthquake.

A world away, and tucked deep on p. 17 in today’s Herald, the Libyan crisis raged on in Tripoli: “A city in the shadow of death.”

More than half the front broadsheet page of the Herald was devoted to the death of five-month-old Baxtor Gowland, a child of the last quake. Pictured clad in a scarlet Father Christmas outfit and cottonwool beard, Baxtor was born just two weeks after the 4 September 2010 quake. And now, tragically, he is a victim.

The inside front page told of “one street’s misery”, showing a fullpage graphic of Santa Maria Ave in the seaside suburb of Redcliffs: Reported Andrew Koubaridis:
In the minutes after Tuesday's devastating earthquake, the people of Santa Maria Ave, Redcliffs, gathered at the top of the street and hugged and cried.

Still in shock from the violent shaking, they scrambled from their shattered homes and sought comfort from one another - many will never be able to live in their homes again.

One side of the street has several homes cracked beyond repair. Others have been almost split in half and are now in danger of falling down on to a street below.
Another story reported how an Australian female urologist used tradesman’s tools – a hacksaw and a multipurpose knife – to amputate both legs of a quake victim lying trapped under a beam in a collapsed building. She saved the 52-year-old’s life.

Columnist Noelle McCarthy cited “the great poet of collapse, William Yeats, who wrote: “All is changed, changed utterly.” While noting that there is a scale to measure earthquakes, she asked how do you quantify their toll?:
In the aftermath of disaster, where to start? We start with each other. We take care of each other, we acknowledge this loss.
On Pacific Scoop, former Fiji Times editor Jale Moala, now a subeditor with the Christchurch Press, described the city as being “like a war zone” and a shock to Fiji migrants just used to cyclones and hurricanes.

Local Radio Apna and Suva’s were condemned by authorities for quoting an unnamed doctor saying eight Fiji Islanders had died in the earthquake. The authorities insisted this was false.

Meanwhile, from Tripoli in Libya, The Independent’s Robert Fisk reports in the Herald on gunfire, fear and rumour in the capital:
Up to 15,000 men, women and children besieged Tripoli's international airport last night, shouting and screaming for seats on the few airliners still prepared to fly to Muammar Gaddafi's rump state, paying Libyan police bribe after bribe to reach the ticket desks in a rain-soaked mob of hungry, desperate families. Many were trampled as Libyan security men savagely beat those who pushed their way to the front.

Among them were Gaddafi's fellow Arabs, thousands of them Egyptians, some of whom had been living at the airport for two days without food or sanitation. The place stank of faeces and urine and fear. Yet a 45-minute visit into the city for a new airline ticket to another destination is the only chance to see Gaddafi's capital if you are a "dog" of the international press.

There was little sign of opposition to the Great Leader. Squads of young men with Kalashnikov rifles stood on the side roads next to barricades of upturned chairs and wooden doors. But these were pro-Gaddafi vigilantes – a faint echo of the armed Egyptian "neighbourhood guard" I saw in Cairo a month ago – and had pinned photographs of their leader's infamous Green Book to their checkpoint signs.

There is little food in Tripoli, and over the city there fell a blanket of drab, sullen rain. It guttered onto an empty Green Square and down the Italianate streets of the old capital of Tripolitania.

But there were no tanks, no armoured personnel carriers, no soldiers, not a fighter plane in the air; just a few police and elderly men and women walking the pavements – a numbed populace.

Sadly for the West and for the people of the free city of Benghazi, Libya's capital appeared as quiet as any dictator would wish.

But this is an illusion.
Turkey is mounting the biggest evacuation operation in its history, with more than 25,000 Turks living in Libya fleeing. Twenty one other governments have asked Ankara for help getting their nationals out. A US-chartered 600-passenger ferry is leaving Tripoli for Malta and Israel has allowed 300 Palestinians from Libya to enter the occupied territories.

Petrol and food prices have trebled; towns outside Tripoli have been ripped apart by bitter fighting between Gaddafi supporters and opposition groups.

Loyalist forces patrol the capital’s streets, tanks guard the outskirts and the state radio station is heavily guarded.

This war zone is rapidly exploding.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fiji honeymooners and headline grabbers

CROZ WALSH has picked up yet another example of media hypocrisy and bias relating to post-coup Fiji. This time an Australian Associated Press report about "honeymooners flocking to Fiji in spite of instability". And who should be the sole expert voice sought for comment? None other than "South Pacific specialist" Professor Brij Lal, a Canberra-based Fiji academic. Indeed, as a social historian yes. But couldn't the news agency also locate an economist or tourism industry specialist for balanced comment? The bias of the news item carried by Television New Zealand's website is quite marked. Read on for Croz Walsh's spin on this item:
Fiji has been picked as the best place in the world to honeymoon, after Hawaii and French Polynesia. They are apparently flocking to Fiji and overall tourist numbers are up. TVNZ reports that "this is despite the presence of a military regime which has been in power since a 2006 coup." Similar negative comment follows.

Then TVNZ ask "South Pacific specialist Professor Brij Lal" what he thought. Prof Lal is an historian who is yet to say one complimentary word about the Baininamara government. He lives in Australia. He has no specialist knowledge of tourism. And this shows. He said Fiji was a popular destination worldwide, thanks [among other things] to marketing of the bottle brand Fiji Water and Oprah Winfrey's visit. What utter .....! Fiji has been a popular tourist destination from Australia and NZ well before there was a Fiji Water brand or an Oprah Winfrey show.

This is not the first time NZTV and RNZI have sought inappropriate (but politically correct) information from Australian sources. Tourism is taught and researched in Fiji and almost all NZ universities. Why did our media not ask an expert in Fiji or New Zealand, rather than a person resident overseas with no tourism expertise? Someone with fewer negative vibes on Fiji?

One suspects these journalists have an address book of preferred sources. [Sorry, Brij. This is not a personal attack. Surely you'd agree there are more appropriate sources than you on this issue.] - Professor Crosbie Walsh on his Fiji: The way it was, is and can be blog
Picture: Fiji

Friday, February 11, 2011

That outrageous pick-and-flick Trinh-duc inspired try

FRANCOIS TRINH-DUC'S moment of genius with a flick pass under his legs to Imanol Harinoroquy. The outrageously exciting try contributed to France's 34-21 victory over Scotland in the Six Nations tourney last weekend. One of those distinctly French gems in rugby that have been missing for a while.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Fiji blogs and The Fiji Times

AN OPEN letter from outgoing Fiji Times publisher Dallas Swinstead explains why he left the country's leading newspaper after rescuing it for the Motibhai Group following the buyout of News Ltd last year. The Australian-based Murdoch subsidiary was forced to divest 90 percent of its interest to local ownership under the terms of the controversial Fiji Media Industry Development Decree in September. But News Ltd elected to sell up completely:

People keep telling me I’m getting the occasional mention on blogs (which I don’t read). Anyway, it would be a good idea to share with anyone who is interested why I left The Fiji Times.

1. Motibhai, the new local owners of the paper, could not organise insurance nor medical evacuation for me, a requirement of our contract.

2. This became an issue for both them and I and they agreed to pay out the remainder of the work permit, four or five weeks.

3. I am tremendously proud, in fact exhilarated, by what I achieved with the full-blooded co-operation of some 160 The Fiji Times employees, as they embraced the job of resuscitating the newspaper the government intended to close.

4. The newspaper published its editorial charter on October 9 in which we stated that we supported the Prime Minister’s dreams of One Nation One People. We made it clear we would not be kissing arses but nor would we be instinctively kicking them. Like every decent paper in the world we have kept that promise.

5. The government continues to subsidise the opposition newspaper, the Fiji Sun with about 3000 pages of advertising a year. In return it publishes verbatim, mostly, all government releases. It is a shameless, even dangerous, publication.

6. Depending on what happens in Fiji in the weeks ahead, I may, or may not, fill in the details of that journey other than to take this opportunity to thank those dozens of the business, academic, legal, diplomatic and public servicemen and women who shared frank and revealing conversations with me about the way Fiji works.

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