A major newspaper in Bahrain has returned to the presses today, after yesterday's reports that the government had shut it down on Monday amid ongoing protests in Iran. Though officials didn't give a reason for the forced closure, many suspect the move was prompted by a recent article that criticized Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Despite the backtracking of the Bahraini regime, the episode has further inflamed already-brittle tensions between the Sunni-minority government and the Shia majority in the country.
I'm beginning to think that the real Obama effect is the process by which any issue, international or domestic, comes to be discussed primarily in terms of how it relates to the president.
I'm glad Obama publicly stated his support for the protesters in Iran today. It was the right thing to do. But I don't really anticipate either action significantly changing the dynamic of the situation in Iran. It's not as if the demonstrators were waiting for Obama to tell them they are "on the right side of history.” And the Iranian government obviously doesn't really care much about winning Obama's approval.
When Fox News's Major Garett asked Obama "What took you so long?", I had to wonder what he (or John McCain) thinks would have transpired differently if Obama had made a similarly strong-worded statement a week ago.
I haven't yet seen any indication that the Iranian opposition really wants Obama to say more. Mousavi's international spokesman may have criticized Obama in an interview with FP last week for comparing Mousavi to Ahmadinejad, but he never said that more vigorous support would be welcome, despite how some others have characterized the statement.
The heads of a number of states, including France, Germany, and Canada, have already publicly questioned the elections results and voiced support for the protesters, but I haven't seen any examples of opposition leaders or protesters mentioning this support.
On the other hand, the argument of Obama's defenders that stronger support would imperil the protesters seems a little unconvincing as well. Iran's leaders have never lacked for pretexts under which to blame foreign meddling for internal dissent. The government was blaming the U.S. for interfering in this election before Obama had said a word. I'm not sure I understand why they're any more or less likely to crack down or make concessions based on what the U.S. president says.
The fact of the matter is that the United States doesn't have a whole lot of diplomatic leverage or ability to influence what's going on in Iraq right now. The Obama administration still has to face the question of whether the likely fraudulence of Ahmadinejad's victory should change the approach to nuclear negotiations, but that seems like a question that can be addressed down the road. This latest round of the engagement vs. confrontation debate is becoming becomign increasingly tiresome and less pertinent to events outside the beltway.
(For the record, inviting Iranian diplomats to a White House Fourth of July party is a terrible idea. The White House might not be able to talk the regime out of abusing their own people, but that doesn't mean they should have them over for barbecue.)
Here's what the action star said at a forum whose attendees included Wen Jiabao:
"I'm not sure if it is good to have freedom or not," he said. "I'm really confused now. If you are too free, you are like the way Hong Kong is now. It's very chaotic. Taiwan is also chaotic."
He added: "I'm gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we are not being controlled, we'll just do what we want."
Via Evgeny, I see that the comments have provoked an angry online backlash in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as the blogosphere on the mainland. There are calls for a boycott of the "racist" Chan's films.
At Post Global, John Pomfret sees a class dynamic at play:
Chan is just saying what a lot of other rich Chinese feel. In the 20 years since Tiananmen, Chinese society has changed enormously. One of the most astounding ways has been in the return of a class society and in the disdain with which China's rich view China's poor. When Chan was saying Chinese need to be "controlled," to be sure, he was speaking about the poor. He didn't have to say it, But that's what the audience at Boao heard and that's why they cheered him on. Anyone who has conversations of depth with members of China's elite has heard this argument before.
Granted I don't know much about the context, but it seems to me like it's at least possible that Chan is being sarcastic. The comments were in response to a question about censorship. Chan's new film Shinjuku was recently banned in mainland China because of violence. It seems strange to me that Chan would so vociferously praise a set of policies that resulted in him losing quite a bit of revenue. Whatever his class prejudices or political beliefs, I'm sure that Chan believes that poor Chinese should at least be free to spend their hard-earned yuan on his products. He should also know better than to insult his many fans in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Chan's not in a position to criticize a decision by the Chinese government, but the over-the-top comments seem like they could be a subtle dig at the Chinese authorities for being so uptight about his movie. Then again, I could be giving the guy too much credit.
Victor Fraile/Getty Images
Burma is sounding positively gleeful today about talks with the United States, after Stephen Blake, director at the Office for Mainland Southeast Asia at the State Department, made a rare visit to the country this week. The New Light, an official state newspaper, reported "cordial discussions [between the two parties] on issues of mutual interest and promotion of bilateral relations."
Is it a fist unclenching or one big diplomatic gaffe? Thing is, the U.S. State Department remembers the meeting a little differently, saying that the visit was routine and certainly indicates no change on Burma policy. Despite the policy review underway in Washington, the sanctions, the human rights record criticism, and the cold shoulder on aid are not likely to disappear anytime soon.
Nor does the military regime show any real signs of changing tack. Senior Gen. Than Shwe set guidelines for a 2010 election today -- a poll in which the opposition is barred from taking part. "Some parties look to foreign countries for guidance and inspiration, follow the imported ideologies and directives irrationally," the general explained.So perhaps at best, the Burma dealings really are routine. As the junta calls for talks and condemns foreign powers all in one breath, it's becoming frighteningly clear just how out of touch the country's leadership is. Unfortuantely for Burma, no news there.
On his China Rises blog, McClatchy's Tim Johnson reports that Chinese authorities have cancelled performances by British band Oasis because of concerns over singer Noel Gallagher's political views. From the band's press release:
"The licensing and immigration process for the two shows had been fully and successfully complied with well before the shows went on sale. The Chinese authorities action in cancelling these shows marks a reversal of their decision regarding the band, which has left both Oasis and the promoters bewildered.
"According to the show's promoters, officials within the Chinese Ministry of Culture only recently discovered that Noel Gallagher appeared at a Free Tibet Benefit Concert on Randall's Island in New York in 1997, and have now deemed that the band are consequently unsuitable to perform to their fans in the Chinese Republic on 3rd and 5th of April, during its 60th anniversary year.
By now, China should've somehow realized that it's gotta lighten up on those artistic censorship laws. Other superpowers' leaders seem perfectly content to just ignore self-righteous outbursts from ageing foreign rock stars.
Dave Hogan/Getty Images
Our friends at Focal Point, the Web-exclusive international documentary series from PBS's acclaimed program Wide Angle, have a new documentary up titled "Underground Zimbabwe." The episode brings you to the black markets and underground protest movements that struggle to survive under Robert Mugabe's regime. Here are some clips:
In Zimbabwe's Life Lines, we meet a young man who survives by selling
basic goods on the black market.
In Demonstrating Under Dictatorship we meet a women's
empowerment movement that stages non-violent street protests to for agitate bread-and-butter issues in defiance of repressive laws curtailing public gatherings:
They're also presenting an interview with Columbia University African studies professor and FP top public intellectual Mahmood Mamdani reflecting on Mugabe's legacy:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reportedly told an interviewer that former Polish President, Solidarity leader, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa has been banned from entering the country to speak to a student opposition group:
Chavez instructed authorities on Tuesday to ensure that Walesa does not enter Venezuela, which is preparing for a Feb. 15 referendum on a proposal to lift term limits for all elected officials.
Chavez made the comment after an interviewer suggested that Walesa had received a new invitation.
Granted, Walesa has turned into a bit of a blowhard in recent years, (a Polish friend once told me that he can only stand to read Walesa speeches after they've been translated into English) but the role he played in Eastern Europe's struggle for democracy is legendary. Chavez just put himself in some pretty bad company by denying him the right to speak.
Photo: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Chinese TV viewers got a truncated version of Barack Obama's inaugural address yesterday thanks to some skittish censors at the country state-run TV network:
The news channel of state broadcaster China Central Television broadcast the speech live early Wednesday local time, but appeared caught off-guard by Obama's reference to how earlier generations of Americans had "faced down fascism and communism."
The audio quickly faded out from Obama's speech and cameras cut back to the studio anchor, who seemed flustered for a second before turning to ask a U.S.-based CCTV reporter what challenges the president faces in turning around the economy.
Here's video of the cutaway from the invaluable Danwei.org:
Xinhua's Chinese translation of the speech also ommitted the reference to Communism as well as the section where Obama said that "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history."
So much for "unclenching your fist."
Freedom House has just released its annual Freedom in the World report on global political rights and civil liberties. Overall, the report shows global freedom in decline, a continuation of a trend over the last three years.
Last week, I spoke with Freedom House's director of research, Arch Puddington, about some of the report's more significant findings. Among these was a general improvement in the state of democracy in South Asia in 2008, a rare bit of good news for the increasingly unstable region.
South Asia is a volatile region. Last year one of our headlines was, "South Asia shows major decline." But you had some progress in Bangladesh, in Pakistan and some small countries like Bhutan, Nepal and the Maldives. They did show progress... I think that having India as the most powerful country in the region has a powerful ripple effect. India, despite its ethnic divisions and problems with terrorism and poverty does maintain a pretty stable democracy, which has rubbed off on its neighbors.
This year's report is also an opportunity to reflect on the effectiveness of outgoing President George W. Bush's famous "freedom agenda."
If you look at just our findings, there was a modest improvement over the eight years of the Bush administration. There was modest improvement in the Middle East. There was modest improvement in sub-Saharan Africa. The only region that showed decline throughout that period is the former Soviet Union.
So we certainly would not conclude, as some have, that the Bush administration was a catastrophe for the state of world freedom. There was some gain. Most of that gain came during the first four years and the decline came after the color revolutions and the backlash in the Middle East and you saw some of the gains eroded.
Also relevant to the discussion of Bush's legacy is the the only country in the Middle East that improved this year: Iraq.
The diminution of violence and expecially the decline in influcence of the Shia militias were cited by our analysts are improving the security environment and therefore enhancing, to a modest degree, the freedom of orginary people. I should not that we've always designated Iraq, in the post-Saddam era as "not free" and it's still not free. The improvement is modest but we thought significant enough to make note of, since we've been pretty hard on Iraq in the past.
The report may also put to rest notions that the Olympics would do anything to improve the state of freedom in China.
You can check out Puddington's full overview here.
Last Friday Vittorio de Filippis, former publisher of the left-wing Libération newspaper, was - according to press reports - seized at his home before dawn, handcuffed in front of two young boys and whisked off for interrogation by an investigating magistrate. Police told him he was "worse than scum" and kept him for five hours in a cell with no access to a lawyer. Oh, and he was strip-searched twice and subjected to "body cavity" examinations.
Haiti? Côte d'Ivoire?
Tonight, the organization Human Rights First will give out its annual Human Rights Awards in New York. One of the honorees is 24-year-old Russian activist Oleg Kozlovsky. In 2005, Kozlovsky helped found Oborona (Defense), a youth democracy movement modeled on Serbia's Otpor and Ukraine's Pora, the student groups that played a critical role in those countries' democratic revolutions.
For his troubles, Kozlovsky has been arrested more than a dozen times, served three prison sentences, and spent the 2007 Russian presidential elections at a remote military base after being illegally conscripted into the Army. (As a university student, he should have been exempt from the draft.)
Kozlovsky was in Washington yesterday and kindly agreed to stop by FP's offices to talk about the future of the Russian opposition movement and how the financial crisis will affect the Putin regime:
So far, the impact of the crisis on Russian politics hasn't been that huge because it hasn't really affected a lot of Russians. However, it's clear that the crisis is going to affect more people in the coming months so what we can expect is that people will understand that the economic stability that was, in their minds, connected to Putin's rule, is over.
This is a very bad signal for Putin because his support was mainly based on the economic growth that we experienced for 10 years. This is a chance for the democratic opposition to explain to people how this crisis is connected to the policies that have been conducted for eight years and the political system that we have now, particularly the corruption, lack of rule of law, and lack of property rights... However cynical it may sound, we need a crisis in Russia to wake people up.
Unfortunately, this is hardly what ordinary Russians hear from their mass media, which in recent weeks has been reassuring viewers that Russia can weather the storm and that any problems are the fault of the United States. How can groups like Oborona cut through the filter?
It's hard to get the message out. We mostly have to communicate with people directly through street actions ranging from graffiti paintings to big protest rallies like the dissenters march. We are also quite active on the Internet, where the majority of our potential audience resides because we mostly work with well-educated youth.
But while Oborona and similar groups have successfully built a dynamic online community, translating this into real-world activism is more difficult:
It is really two different things to be politically active online and do something offline. For example, a blogger and activist from Oborona was persecuted in the city of Kemerovo in Siberia for posting some entries on his blog that were actually reports on the activities of the police and FSB [Federal Security Service]. For that he was charged with distributing extremist information and may face up to two years imprisonment. We started a campaign in his defense and in a matter of a couple of days we gathered about 500 signatures. However when we organized an offline street action in Moscow for him we only managed to gather about 15 people and half of them were organizers.
All the same, some recent victories have given Kozlovsky hope. One recent campaign was inspired by an unlikely event, the cancellation of a certain foul-mouthed American cartoon:
The government tried to take the license from a TV channel called 2X2 for broadcasting South Park. The series was considered extremist by a court ruling in Russia, but the channel is very popular with Russian youth. Some of this channel's fans organized a protest rally against its closing and the government decided not to pull the license. It only took several days for the civil activists to solve this problem and many of them were participating in such a campaign for the first time in their lives. Many of them didn't believe they could change anything. Such small campaigns are very important for building Russian civil society.
The South Park revolution? Has a nice ring to it.
Mo Ibrahim is a rare breed of African billionaire. On a continent far too often associated with the Mobutu Sese-Sekos and Charles Taylors of the world (whose fortunes came from commodity wealth, skimmed gracefully off the state budget), Ibrahim did it differently. A Sudanese telecoms entrepreneur, he earned his respect and big bucks as a businessman.
Now Ibrahim has set himself on a far more difficult task: fixing African governance and changing the continent's culture of corruption. A politician in Nigeria once described it to me like this: In a continent where so many are poor, when you see the chance to secure a financial future, you take it. Unabashedly, many politicians have done so. In 2006, Transparency International estimated that $140 billion of misappropriated African money was invested abroad.
Ibrahim just may have found one of those rare strategies that is perfectly suited to the problem. Need an incentive for good governance? How about the more than $5 million that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation now offers to its yearly prize winner, a head of state who has recently left office. The qualifications are simply good behavior: attention to economic development, human rights, public health, transparency, rule of law, and security.
It's still nothing compared to the potential payoffs for corrupt leaders, (during my time in Nigeria, a former governor was arrested for having amassed $35 million in foreign accounts, though his official salary was just $25,000 a year) but it is a well-earned reward for those who resist this path. This year's winner, former Botswanan president Festus Mogae, oversaw economic growth and enormous progress in battling the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS patients.
The prize has been criticized by some for rewarding behavior that should just be expected as something extraordinary. But the most important aspect the prize has is not the reward itself, but the chance to tell the other story about African leadership -- to the continent itself and to the world. As Ibrahim explained to the New York Times, we all know about the Mugabes of Africa, but they're only part of the story.
After Google and Yahoo! and Microsoft, there was Skype -- the latest U.S. company to buckle to China's draconian Internet laws. But this most recent scandal might be the most alarming of all. Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto, reports that China tracked and recorded Skype instant messaging (IM) conversations, storing massive amounts of private data.
How did it work?
The tracking system was based on keywords -- red flags such as "Communist," "Falun" (of the banned Falun Gong religious movement) and "Taiwan independence." Users couldn't send these words over IM, but the contents of the message were nonetheless recorded and stored on a publicly accessible database.
This chart, from researchers' report, charts the frequency of "trigger words" in surveyed IM discussions:
Says the report,
Villeneuve [one of the researchers] was able to view, download, and archive millions of private communications, ranging from business transactions to political correspondence, along with their identifying personal information... These text messages, along with millions of records containing personal information, are stored on insecure publicly-accessible web servers together with the encryption key required to decrypt the data.
The outcry has already begun. Activists worry that dissidents could be jailed on Skype-compiled evidence. Google in particular, did great harm to its "Do no evil" image by helping Chinese authorities before.
Skype is in for a barrage of criticism too, I suspect. And thanks to its own software, Chinese users can place those complaint calls for free. Kind of.
The [state-run Radio Taiwan International] chairman and four other colleagues on the 15-member board submitted their collective resignation in the wake of news reports that the KMT government, notably the Government Information Office, and KMT lawmakers had put intense pressure on [the chairman] and RTI management to change its news and programming management.
According to Taiwan media reports, GIO officials cited reports by the Guangzhou-based "Global Daily" (Huanqiu shibao), an internationally-directed subsidiary of the PRC's official "People's Daily," that "the independence faction controlled the voice of Taiwan to attack Ma Ying-jeou" and called on RTI management to "make improvements."
Hugo Chávez didn't agree with Human Rights Watch's assessment of Venezuela's fall from democratic ways, released in a 230-page report today. He didn't agree that he has "undermined freedom of expression," or that he has undertaken an "aggressively adversarial approach to local rights advocates."
So, with no apparent sense of irony, he kicked out the Americas director of HRW, José Miguel Vivanco (shown here leaving a press conference in Caracas).
Chávez's Ministry of Foreign Relations, quoted in the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, said in a statement that Human Rights Watch had illegally intervened in Venezuela's sovereignty. But more importantly, he called the organization an agent for the interests of the United States government, "cloaked in the robes of defending human rights, deploying an unacceptable strategy of aggression."
Alrighty then! According to Human Rights Watch, that's pretty much the standard Chávez reaction when he senses criticism a-brewin'. Clearly, they are on to something.
Protesters just can't win in China these days. Now, even those who have requested official permission to protest in Beijing are being arrested, including a handful of citizens upset about having their homes destroyed in preparation for the big games. One would-be demonstrator, Zhang Wei, was even given a sentence of 30 days after repeatedly applying to protest about her forced home eviction.
Given the nature of the protest application process, it's not surprising that the three city parks "designated" as protest zones (and patrolled daily by police) have remained pretty quiet. Two, in fact -- Shije "World" Park (shown above in June) and Ritan Park -- have reportedly remained 100 percent protest-free since the opening ceremonies.
It all makes the words of Wang Wei, the Beijing Olympic Committee's executive vice president, sound pretty empty. Here are his comments from today's press conference in Beijing on press freedom:
[T]he Olympic Games coming to China will help China to open up further and to reform."
Tell it to Zhang Wei.
Last fall's Saffron Revolution was the probably the closest the country has come to mass protests since that fateful day when hundreds of thousands of Burmese took to the streets to call for democracy: 8.8.88.
The Irrawaddy, the best source of news on Burma, has a special issue today commemorating the '88 uprising. They are reporting that many people in the capital donned black clothing to mark the anniversary today, and that plainclothes police were out in force. All the while, conditions in the delta where Cyclone Nargis hit hardest remain dire, with little to no government or foreign aid coming through.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a longtime critic of the Egyptian government, has been convicted in absentia for "tarnishing Egypt's reputation" and sentenced to two years in prison. Saad spent about 10 months in jail after an earlier conviction in 2001, and he was released thanks to U.S. pressure.
Saad was my boss and mentor while I worked at the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo, the pro-democracy NGO and think tank he founded. An extraordinarily gracious and charismatic man, all he wants is to see a free and democratic Egypt. Under constant threat of arrest, the 69-year-old sociologist has been living in exile, his income under severe strain.
This new conviction is ludicrous, though it has been a long time coming. It's obviously payback for Saad's efforts to lobby for cuts in the U.S. aid package. Though he is hardly the shadowy, all-powerful player the Egyptian state media make him out to be, Saad does have a lot of admirers in the media and on Capitol Hill who will not look too kindly on this move. But with the "freedom agenda" long dead, perhaps Hosni Mubarak's government -- which has been ruling under a repressive "state of emergency" since 1981 -- thinks it can get away with it.
If you want to protest in favor of freedom and democracy during next month's Olympics, you have an ironically appropriate place to go: the Beijing World Park. The park -- which has replicas of the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. Capitol Building, and the White House, along with other world monuments such as the Sydney Opera House and the Eiffel Tower -- is one of three official protest zones that China has set up for protesters.
Some have speculated that the logic of designating the World Park as a protest zone is to make it look like protesters are elsewhere when images appear on television and the Internet.
And what's up with the Twin Towers still standing in the replica of the New York City skyline?
YouTube and even the more freewheeling LiveLeak have both apparently yanked a video showing a dress rehearsal for the Olympics opening ceremony, citing copyright concerns. It's not clear to me whether that would refer to the South Korean network that originally aired the footage, China, NBC (which bought the rights to broadcast the games), or the International Olympic Committee, but I am trying to find out.
When my colleague Travis posted the video last night, he wrote: "Maybe mighty China doesn't have as much control over the Internet as it would like to believe." Perhaps he was wrong?
UPDATE: Here we go again. Chinese Internet users are enraged at South Korea.
... Reuters reports that SBS pulled the footage off its own Web site Thursday afternoon. So, presumably we can rule the South Korean network out, unless YouTube and LiveLeak pulled their footage earlier in response to a request from SBS and then SBS did so later in response to a demand from China. I'm sure we'll find out soon enough.
Moving to disarm critics and follow through on promises made to the International Olympic Committee, China announced yesterday that it will allow demonstrations in special "protest pens": three public parks that are no closer than several miles to the Olympic Stadium.
Unsurprisingly, activists are unmoved. Demonstrations must first obtain formal approval by local police, and it's not clear whether Chinese laws banning political protest "harmful to national unity and social stability" will apply:
We never get it no matter how many times we try," said Jiang Tianyong, a lawyer and legal-rights advocate who has been rejected numerous times [attempting to schedule a protest]. "This is only a show for foreigners. Otherwise, I'd love to see these three places be kept after the Olympics so we can let our voices be heard, too."
That said, such "free-speech zones" are really nothing new for the Olympics. They've also been employed at other large international gatherings such as the G-8, as well as American political conventions. China certainly stands out for its political suppression before and after the Olympics, but during the games, for better or for worse, it's par for the course.
Remember that little feud between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? Well, the spat between the two men isn't quite over.
Ahmadinejad shot back today at comments made by Velayati in an Iranian daily newspaper criticizing Ahmadinejad's hardline nuclear rhetoric, saying that the former foreign minister and Khamenei advisor had no role in the country's nuclear program:
Velayati is a respected man. Like everyone else in Iran, he is free to have personal views... But he is not involved in nuclear decision making."
Ahmadinejad may be more delirious than I thought if he actually thinks that "everyone in Iran is free to have personal views." Did he get the memo about Ahmad Batebi, Iran's estimated 250 executions last year, the systematic suppression of journalists and bloggers, or that the country was ranked 181st out of 195 countries in Freedom House's annual Freedom of the Press survey last year? Apparently not.
And with tensions brewing between Iran and the West, it would help to know who is actually in charge of the Islamic Republic. I never thought I'd say this, but let's hope it's Khamenei.
Which economists, journalists, and business leaders are doing the best job of advancing free markets and free people? You can make your opinions known by voting for nominees for the Free Market Hall of Fame.
At this year's FreedomFest—which describes itself as the world's largest annual gathering of free minds and is the brainchild of contrarian economist Mark Skousen—the first five members of the Free Market Hall of Fame will be inducted at a July 12 gala banquet in Las Vegas. Unlike with FP's top public intellectuals poll, however, the nominees receiving the highest vote counts won't necessarily make it into the Hall of Fame. Rather, "[a] select group of economists and other free-market supporters will make the final decision and vote on upcoming Hall of Fame members," according to the hall's Web site. I guess the Hall of Fame isn't ready to surrender the commanding heights to the tyranny of the Internet majority.Meanwhile, I recommend voting for Andrew Carnegie for question 6: "Vote for your favorite free market business leader and entrepreneur (past)." Without this industrialist and philanthropist, FP's publisher, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wouldn't be here!
Anyone who's ever lived in London, New York, Chicago, or any one of 20 other cities around the world knows that Time Out is an indispensable guide to going out on the town. The arts and entertainment magazine lists events and reviews of museum exhibitions, theater performances, movies, clubs, restaurants, and anything else you can think of as a way to spend your free time. It's all in good fun, and totally apolitical, right?
Not according to China. The country's General Administration of Press and Publications, which is in charge of censoring media it deems threatening to the government, has banned the June issue of Time Out Beijing. The agency's offical reason for banning the distribution of the English-language magazine is that it lacks a proper license. But the publisher of Time Out, which is headquartered in London, has implied that it's all part of Beijing's crackdown on foreign influences in the runup to this summer's Olympics. The real test will be whether the magazine is allowed to go to press in August, when foreigners are flooding the city for the games. In the meantime, Internet users can still access the Web site to get their fix on what to do in Beijing.
The eXile, Moscow's button-pushing alternative biweekly and self-described "Jesus Christ of English-language publications," is no more. The 11-year-old tabloid shut down after its investors were scared away by a Russian government investigation of its ties to opposition leader Eduard Limonov as well as its general obnoxiousness toward those in power. Editor Mark Ames has been blogging the eXile's downfall for Radar Online and "war nerd" Gary Brecher has launched a fundraising drive to keep his employer alive as an online-only publication.
Brecher brings up the possibility of relocating to a city with a more welcoming media climate, but it's hard to imagine the eXile's unique brand of obscenity and excess existing anywhere but Moscow.
The last thing Beijing wants to see at the Olympic opening ceremonies on August 8 is Tibetan flags, "Stop genocide in Darfur" signs, or similar such provocations from "troublemakers." And given Beijing's paranoia, it's hardly surprising that this year's opening and closing ceremonies are going to have some of the tightest security of any event, ever.
Each ticket for the ceremonies will have a microchip embedded with the user's photograph, passport details, addresses, emails, and telephone numbers. All event tickets also have microchips to prevent counterfeiting, but only the ceremony tickets will contain the personal data. Some have raised fears of data theft, and others question whether activists known to the Chinese authorities could even attempt to attend, since many of them are being detained or at least closely watched ahead of the games. Perhaps the biggest concern is that the tickets will be too effective: If you are attending the ceremonies with a few friends or family members and your tickets get switched among you, expect big delays at the gates.
It looks like the climate for Russian media may not be improving so much after all in the Medvedev era.
The eXile, Moscow's venerable English-language alt-weekly, is under investigation by the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage and may be shut down. After 11 years of proudly mocking government authorities, it's not clear what finally brought the hammer down. It could have something to do with Eduard Limonov, novelist and leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party, who is friends with editor Mark Ames and a frequent contributor.
Though I sometimes found its descriptions of ordinary Russians condescending, bordering on racist, the eXile was undoubtedly one of the great guilty pleasures of living in Moscow -- a rare breath of politically incorrect air in an otherwise muzzled media climate. Its cultural coverage sometimes felt like the last vestige of the wilder, pre-Putin Moscow scene of the early '90s. It's also had some international influence, with Gary Brecher's War Nerd column gaining an loyal Internet readership and former editor Matt Taibbi going on to cover U.S. politics for Rolling Stone.
In what may be a farewell editorial, Ames recounts the eXile's history of abuse in a tone of proudly obscene defiance:
From its very inception, The eXile has been under constant siege, always pushed to the brink of collapse by a nefarious alliance of Russian bureaucrats, aggrieved small-business owners, thick-ankled American women, thin-skinned Russian celebrities, seething Western journalists and politicians, and even members of our own staff, people whom we thought we could trust. Everyone, it seems, learns to hate us at one time or another, leaving only a small rump core to keep the flame of hatred burning. Is there a lesson to be learned in that? Yes there is: everyone but us is a worthless piece of [expletive]."
Moscow won't be the same without them.
As Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe was proving that he has a sense of humor by appearing at a the U.N. food summit in Rome while his people suffer from government-induced starvation and out-of-control inflation, Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was being arrested today. Charges have yet to be filed against Mugabe's chief political rival -- whom many observers say was victorious in the first round of the country's presidential elections in March -- and with the sad state of affairs in Zimbabwe, I wouldn't hold your breath.
Created by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) -- an Internet surveillance monitoring partnership between the Citizen Lab, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the Advanced Network Research Group at the Cambridge Security Programme, and the Oxford Internet Institute -- this week's Tuesday Map plots the top 6,000 Persian language blogs according to the links among them, showing both those blocked (left) and visible (right) inside Iran.
Each dot represents a blog, color-coded by content (yellow and green for reformist, secular and expatriate bloggers; purple for Persian poetry; green for popular culture, and red for religious and/or conservative bloggers) and scaled by the number of links to the blog from other sites.
Although most blocked blogs are "secular/reformist" in nature, ONI notes:
[T]he majority of these [secular/reformist] blogs are not blocked. Also, a handful of blogs from religious, pro-regime parts of the network are blocked as well. A preliminary analysis of these indicates content (like anti-Arab bias and discussion of "temporary marriages") that, while not unfriendly to the Islamic Republic, might nevertheless be embarrassing to it."
For a closer assessment of the Iranian blogosphere, check out this more detailed map and case study from the Internet and Democracy project at the Berkman Center.
Does Dmitry Medvedev have a mind of his own after all?
Yesterday, Russia's new president essentially sank a draft law that would have allowed the government to shut down a newspaper suspected of libel without even waiting for a court decision. A lawmaker from the ruling United Russia Party introduced the bill after a tabloid published rumors that Vladimir Putin was leaving his wife for a 24-year-old gymnast. Under Putin, the paper was shut down within days, but Medevedev has indicated that he may be a bit more liberal in his view of press freedom:
It is obvious that the ... draft law could lead only to the creation of hindrances to the normal functioning of the media, and does not accomplish the declared aims -- to defend citizens from the distribution of material that is libelous."
Hopefully, this is an indication that it is still too early to dismiss Medvedev as Putin's sock-puppet. Russia's not going to magically transform into a liberal democracy any time soon, but there's reason to suspect that Medvedev isn't entirely on board with all of Putin's authoritarian tendencies. He may be testing the waters to see how much he can get away with. Given that Putin has rigged the system so that he can impeach the president fairly easily, Medvedev doesn't exactly have a lot of room to maneuver. But it's still encouraging if he's using what power he does have to curb some of the state's most draconian excesses.
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