Paul Hansen's image of a funeral procession in a Gazan alleyway on Nov. 20, 2012 is undeniably striking. Two men, their faces warped with grief and anger, carry the shrouded bodies of their young nieces, killed in an Israeli missile strike, while a crowd of men follow behind them. When it was selected as the winner of the 2013 World Press Photo contest in February, the chairman of the contest jury, Associated Press Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon, praised the photograph's "incredible collection of powerful motifs of imagery, that when it all comes together makes for a really strong photograph."
But was it real? And what does that mean at a time when photo software can aid in collecting the very motifs that made the image so remarkable?
On Monday, British tech writer Sebastian Anthony claimed on the blog ExtremeTech that the photograph isn't really a photo at all; according to image analyst Neal Krawetz, it's three photos that were enhanced and stitched together using Photoshop. The proof is in the code, Krawetz argues, which contains a record of the composition. Applying other filters and tools to the image, he writes, shows evidence of additional manipulation including image sharpening and brightening. "Basically," Anthony argues, "Hansen took a series of photos -- and then later, realizing that his most dramatically situated photo was too dark and shadowy, decided to splice a bunch of images together and apply a liberal amount of dodging (brightening) to the shadowy regions."
Hansen, for his part, told news.com.au today that the allegations just aren't true. "In the post-process toning and balancing of the uneven light in the alleyway, I developed the raw file with different density to use the natural light instead of dodging and burning," the Swedish photographer explained. "In effect to recreate what the eye sees and get a larger dynamic range."
As I understand it, Hansen is arguing that his mild image manipulation is the digital equivalent of under- or over-developing select portions of the image in a darkroom. No fancy bells and whistles -- and definitely no composites of other photos. And as news.com.au points out, this seems to be acceptable according to the somewhat ambiguous rules for the World Press Photo contest, which states that the "content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to the currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed."
At the end of the day, an image from the November conflict between Hamas and Israel was bound to create controversy. The meaning of another photograph from that bout of violence -- depicting BBC World journalist Jihad Mashrawi holding his dead son in a hospital -- has also been subject to revisions. Initial reports claimed the child was killed by an Israeli attack, while a U.N. investigation found that the death owed to an errant rocket fired by Hamas.
Image manipulation is becoming more and more common in news photography, but many media organizations maintain certain journalistic standards for the pictures they use. Krawetz argues that Hansen's image violates "the acceptable journalism standards used by Reuters, Associated Press, Getty Images, National Press Photographer's Association, and other media outlets." Anthony, however, doesn't seem so certain:
The bigger discussion, of course, is whether Gaza Burial is actually fake -- or just enhanced to bring out important details. This is a question that has plagued photography since its inception. Should a photo, especially a press photo, be purely objective? Most people think the answer is an obvious 'yes,' but it's not quite that simple.... Is it okay for a photographer to modify a picture so that it looks exactly how he remembers the scene?
For what it's worth, the qualities that Lyon, the jury chairman, cited for the award are fundamental to the photograph:
This photo was chosen because it is so powerful.... The combination of the small size of the bodies -- they're very young children -- combined with the variety of expressions of pain and rage and sadness.... This image sums up the story very powerfully, very poignantly.
On Tuesday, World Press Photo told the Huffington Post that two independent experts will be carrying out a forensic investigation of the image file with Hansen's cooperation, and later informed Poynter that it had found "no evidence of significant photo manipulation or compositing."
Ultimately, Hansen may have edited the picture to emphasize the features that the judges cited in deeming his image the best photo of the year. But what Lyon described in announcing the award goes far beyond lighting in a dark alley.
FREDRIK SANDBERG/SCANPIX/AFP/Getty Images
For those born after a certain year, Barbara Walters may be best known for her banter with the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Elisabeth Hasselbeck on her talk show The View -- or her interviews with the likes of Monica Lewinsky and Michael Jackson. But with the 83-year-old Walters officially retiring next summer, we wanted to remind the whippersnappers among us to show some respect: Before The View, Walters snagged interviews with some of the most defining world leaders of the late 20th century.
Walters, after all, rode in a jeep with Fidel Castro, picking his gun up off the floor when they forded streams so it wouldn't get wet. She sparked a fight between the shah of Iran and his wife over whether women were capable of ruling countries. She asked Jiang Zemin whether he knew what happened to Tiananmen Square's tank man. More recently, she spoke with Bashar al-Assad about the Syrian military's brutal campaign against its own citizens.
Below is a selection of some of Walters's most noteworthy sit-downs with world leaders in the more than 50 years she's been on television.
Walters first met Fidel Castro in 1975, but had to wait two more years before she was able to nab the first American TV interview with the Cuban president. During her time on the island, Castro brought her to the mountains where he had been a guerrilla fighter (Walters and her production team spent the night at his camp). Her interview with him lasted five hours and, "in an unprecedented action," almost all of it aired on Cuban television. "The only part he deleted," Walters wrote, "was my question about whether he is married and his evasive answer. 'Formally, no!'"
Shah Reza Pahlavi
In the interview below, Walters asks the shah about how much support the CIA was providing to the Iranian regime. "Does the CIA play any part in this country today?" she asks. "Sure -- gathering information. We don't mind," the ruler replies.
The interview also included questions about the shah's views on women. "So you don't feel that women are in that sense equal, if they have the same intelligence or ability," Walters inquires. "Not so far," the shah replies. "Maybe you will become in the future. We can always have some exceptions."
"I give the shah credit," Walters later said. "He was certainly not politically correct ... he said what was on his mind."
Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin
It was an historic milestone in November 1977 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to officially visit Israel since its founding. While he was there, Walters got him to agree to a joint interview with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (Begin told Walters that he convinced Sadat to do the interview together "for the sake of our friend Barbara"). In the video below, Walters describes how she arranged the interview (footage of the interview itself wasn't available).
Walters later spoke of her admiration for Sadat. "He had such courage," she said.
During his interview with Walters, the new Chinese premier displayed what the New York Times called "a stunning cynicism" about the bloody crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square, which had taken place just a year earlier. The army behaved "with great tolerance and restraint," Jiang told Walters. "I don't think any government in the world will permit the occurrence of such an incident as happened in Beijing."
"It takes a lot to stop Barbara Walters in her tracks," New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield wrote. But even she was stunned when Jiang called the incident "much ado about nothing."
"We feel it's a great deal to do about something," she eventually retorted.
As late as 2011, Walters was still going after big names, scoring an exclusive interview with President Bashar al-Assad after the protests in Syria had begun (Walters later took some heat for assisting an aide of Assad's who she admitted helped her get the interview).
"Do you feel guilty?" Walters asks Assad toward the end of the conversation. "I did my best to protect the people, so I cannot feel guilty, when you do your best," he responds. "You feel sorry for the lives that has been lost, but you don't feel guilty -- when you don't kill people."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
With Pakistan's election just around the corner on Saturday -- and amid a month-long campaign of violence that local papers have dubbed the "reign of terror" -- the New York Times reported Friday that Pakistan's Interior Ministry has demanded that the paper's Islamabad bureau chief, noted journalist Declan Walsh, leave the country. From the Times's report:
The ministry gave no explanation for the expulsion order, which was delivered via a two-sentence letter by police officers to the bureau chief, Declan Walsh, at 12:30 a.m. Thursday local time at his home.
"It is informed that your visa is hereby canceled in view of your undesirable activities," the order stated. "You are therefore advised to leave the country within 72 hours." The timing of the order means Mr. Walsh must exit Pakistan on the night of the elections.
Walsh has reported from Pakistan for the past nine years for the New York Times and the Guardian, and his journalism is characterized by an eye for detail and a knack for making a frequently perplexing country comprehensible. For the past month, his reports have focused on the run-up to Pakistan's May 11 election: political maneuvering and rivalries, patronage networks, and the string of attacks that have punctuated the campaign. We've collected some of his greatest hits from recent weeks below.
From his May 8 article on Pakistan's feudalistic patronage networks:
As a result, Multan has been transformed, residents say. The city is ribboned with new roads and expressways, while a modern airport, capable of accommodating wide-body jets, is near completion. The railway station has been overhauled, some neighborhoods have new sewerage and young students have been awarded generous scholarships.
A giant billboard outside Mr. Gilani's house lists his achievements: 34 major development projects, costing more than $280 million, all financed by Pakistani taxpayers. "Multan has become like Paris for us," said Muhammad Bilal, a 28-year-old laborer and enthusiastic Gilani supporter, at a rally last week....
Mr. Gilani, for example, was in jail from 2001 to 2006 during the rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf on a charge of arranging 600 government jobs for his constituents during a previous administration in the 1990s. "If giving jobs is a crime, then I am a criminal," he told voters at one rally, to loud cheers.
In fact, the practice is institutionalized: The government gives each Parliament member, no matter the party, about $200,000 a year to spend on "development" -- effectively, a patronage slush fund.
He writes a riveting lede, like this one from his May 5 article about Pakistan's hardline Islamist candidates:
Dust swirled as the jeep, heralded by a convoy of motorcycle riders and guarded by gunmen in paramilitary-style uniforms, pulled up outside the towering tomb of an ancient Muslim saint.
Out stepped Maulana Abdul Khaliq Rehmani, a burly cleric with a notorious, banned Sunni Muslim group. Thanks to a deft name change by his group, he was now a candidate in Pakistan's general election, scheduled for Saturday.
Or this intro from his April 21 article on the Pakistani Taliban's intimidation tactics:
When Shahid Khan started talking, his gunmen clambered onto a school's rooftop, scanning the surrounding hills with flashlights, anticipating a possible attack.
In the past 10 days, militants have carried out five attacks against Mr. Khan's party.
Below them, Mr. Khan, a candidate for his region's provincial assembly, addressed potential voters - poor farmers and village traders, gathered on a cluster of rope beds outside the school, listening raptly to his promises. Then, after wolfing down snacks offered by his hosts, he abruptly left.
"They say it's not safe around here," said Mr. Khan, as he leapt into a waiting car, trailed by a bodyguard. "We'd better get going."
No stranger to Pakistan's extremist groups, Walsh profiled Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, in February:
...Mr. Saeed lives an open, and apparently fearless, life in a middle-class neighborhood here.
"I move about like an ordinary person -- that's my style," said Mr. Saeed, a burly 64-year-old, reclining on a bolster as he ate a chicken supper. "My fate is in the hands of God, not America."
New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has written to the Pakistani interior minister protesting the decision, and journalists and analysts have voiced their support on Twitter.
100+ already dead in Pakistan election violence; 600k security to be deployed this wknd. Hence Pak expulsion of NYT reporter @declanwalsh.— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) May 10, 2013
Walsh, for his part, has so far only tweeted out the Times article about his enforced departure:
On eve of Pakistani elections, been asked to leave:nytimes.com/2013/05/11/wor…— Declan Walsh(@declanwalsh) May 10, 2013
Iran's English-language, state-sponsored media service PressTV may have stumbled onto something, in spite of itself. An article published Thursday cites a bizarre YouTube rant by financial analyst and PressTV contributor Mike Stathis (author of recent articles "Jewish Mafia tied to death of America" and "Zio-Saudis use petrodollar to wage war," which are as unhinged as their titles suggest), in which he accuses Starbucks of blocking PressTV's website but not, for example, pornographic websites.
The YouTube video, which PressTV's article does not link to, lays out Stathis's conspiratorial theory, which is that Starbucks is censoring PressTV's site as part of an effort by a hypothetical Jewish cabal to control U.S. opinion. Stathis has some unkind things to say about Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and investment guru Peter Schiff (no, he does not connect those dots beyond "they're both Jewish"; yes, it's just as nonsensical in the video). And he takes a break from his rant to talk to a pornographic webcam recording he claims he's accessing from a Starbucks. The whole thing is strange and uncomfortable to watch, and not terribly work appropriate. I can't say I recommend it.
Here's the thing, though: Stathis is on to something. On Friday, I walked across the street to Starbucks. Sure enough, PressTV's website wouldn't load. In an effort to find another website that wouldn't load (and probably put myself on a few watch lists), here are some other sites I tried: Iran's other English-language state news agency Fars, the Syrian Arab News Agency, Russian propaganda machine Pravda, white supremacist web forum Stormfront, and PornHub, which is exactly what it sounds like. They were all accessible -- at the glacial speed of coffee shop Wi-Fi, but accessible. I walked two blocks to another Starbucks. Once again, PressTV gave me an error message, while Stathis's crazy YouTube video loaded without a hitch. Same thing at a third Starbucks. Back here at the FP office: PressTV's site loaded, no problem.
When reached for comment, Laura Mill, a spokesperson for Starbucks, told FP, "We do not filter our content or websites that can be accessed in our stores in the U.S. There're some global nuances, but in the U.S. there's no filtering." IT specialists at Starbucks told her the site might be blocked by the Internet service provider.
Starbucks's Wi-Fi is provided by AT&T, which did not reply to a request for comment by press time. But PressTV was easily accessible on the protected Wi-Fi network at the AT&T store across the street from one of the Starbucks locations I visited Friday. Starbucks's Wi-Fi also has AT&T terms and conditions that users agree to when logging in. And buried in the fine print, AT&T passes the buck back to Starbucks:
The owner or operator of the Location may have implemented URL filtering or other content filtering services which block access to certain websites or content while at the Location ('content filtering').
As it happens, AT&T's terms and conditions protect it from liability for just about any disruption in service you can imagine (and a few that you probably didn't think of):
AT&T will not be liable for any failure of performance, if such failure is due to any cause beyond AT&T's reasonable control, including acts of God, fire, explosion, vandalism, nuclear disaster, terrorism, cable cut, storm or other similar occurrence, any law, order or regulation by any government, civil, or military authority, national emergencies, insurrections, riots, wars, labor difficulties, supplier failures, shortages, breaches, or delays, or delays caused by you or your equipment.
Something does seem to be blocking access to PressTV at Starbucks, but whether that's a person or just a glitch -- and why PressTV and not, say, the Fars News Agency as well -- remains unclear. But if you think it's evidence of a grand conspiracy to deprive the American public of Iranian propaganda, maybe it's time to take off your tinfoil hat.
I didn't think it would be hard to find "9 Disturbingly Good Jihadi Raps" online, but it was. There were, of course, the stylings of al-Shabab's rapper laureate, Omar Hammami, and the music video for "Dirty Kuffar," which was designed to go viral on social media sites like YouTube and Dailymotion.
But the most professional-sounding jihadi raps weren't on YouTube or SoundCloud -- they were tracks off M-Team's album "Clash of Civilizations." And to listen to them, I bought the songs on iTunes. They're also available for download from Amazon.com and Google Play, and they can be listened to on Spotify.
M-Team (that's short for Mujahideen Team) offered some bold thoughts about violent jihad in their debut album:
SPOKEN: Today is the day of retribution!
Today is the day of jihad!
Today is the day of victory or martyrdom,
so all you who believe, raise your hand and ready your weapons...
SUNG: Bust your weapons, take off oppression,
take their lives and right-hand possessions,
snatch a politician out the election,
give him injections, lethal infections...
The revolution, kaffir execution,
the true solution, the day of retribution!
"It's certainly very provocative," Rolling Stone associate editor Simon Vozick-Levinson told me when I asked him what he thought of it. "Rap and hip hop in particular are effective ways of getting a message out to a broader audience. If you have a strong conviction, putting it to a catchy beat is a good way to get your message across. To a Western audience, it's going to be pretty shocking."
It's also hardly the first time music has encouraged violence. And it's not just rap; before songs like "Cop Killer" and "Fuck tha' Police" in the early 1990s, there were controversies over groups like Black Sabbath and Twisted Sister. But is there a point where musicians go too far for mainstream music outlets?
Graham James, a spokesman for Spotify, said they were looking into M-Team's work and pointed out that Spotify, in its company policy, "reserve[s] the right to remove content that, in Spotify's opinion, is likely to incite hatred or discrimination of any kind, be that race, religion, sexuality or otherwise, or content that is deemed offensive, abusive, defamatory, illegal, pornographic or obscene in anyway." But he also expressed concern about using the policy for anything other than exceptional circumstances. "It's a very slippery slope. If you start taking down things you find objectionable, where do you ultimately draw that line?" he told FP. (Representatives from iTunes did not respond to requests for comment.)
Vozick-Levinson agrees: "Artists test boundaries, like Ice-T's song 'Cop Killer.' But that song didn't lead to an epidemic of violence; that song is a work of art. Time has shown that censorship isn't the answer. The better choice is to discuss these things and why they're objectionable rather than try to censor them."
And its worth noting that, like Ice-T, who went from rapping about shooting cops to playing a detective on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, M-Team took a decidedly more moderate tone in their sophomore album, "My Enemy's Enemy." As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and jihadi rap critic, described it on Twitter, "M-Team's later deviations diminish their jihadi cred. Kind of like how Katy Perry's later music diminishes the credibility of her early work as a gospel singer."
On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat for his nearly annual televised live-call-in show -- which, this year, went on for nearly five hours. In addition to tackling some weightier questions about the Russian economy and the country's hot-and-cold relations with the United States, Putin also addressed more casual inquiries, culled from millions of submissions.
At one point, Putin cited the Boston Marathon bombings as justification for taking a hard line in the Caucasus. "We have always said that action is needed and not declarations," Putin told viewers. "Now two criminals have confirmed the correctness of our thesis." At another, he displayed a rare flash of humor in discussing former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. "He's a slacker and doesn't want to work," Putin observed.
According to the Guardian's Moscow correspondent Miriam Elder -- who deserves a medal for live-tweeting the marathon session -- the Russian leader had a particularly pensive response to a question about whether he was happy. "Me?" Putin inquired. "This is a philosophical question." Responding to liberal journalist Aleksei Venediktov, Putin adamantly dismissed a comparison to Stalin. "Stalinism is connected with a personality cult, with mass violations of the law, with repressions and prison camps," he said. "There is nothing of such kind in Russia and I hope there will never be. Our society is different now and it will never let this happen again."
But even as Putin dwelt on the freedoms that exist in today's Russia, the sheer length of time he monopolized on the airwaves seemed to undermine that assertion ("Putin sets new record for Q&A session: 4 hours 47 minutes, 85 questions answered," the Voice of Russia proclaimed after it was all said and done). These days, we tend to associate long-windedness with authoritarian leaders -- be it Fidel Castro's infamous four-hour, 29-minute speech before the U.N. General Assembly in 1960 or Hugo Chávez's mesmerizing television rambles that went on for anywhere from four to eight hours ... or until El Presidente was done talking. Why the correlation?
In 2009, after Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi's 96-minute speech before the United Nations, the BBC investigated this very question. The article notes that marathon speeches by democratic leaders -- such as one Indian politician's eight-hour Kashmir lecture in 1957 -- are rare, and that applause (out of either genuine passion or fear for one's life) often accounts for a substantial portion of history's longest speeches. The BBC even highlights an amusing example from Russia's own Stalin, who received a standing ovation that took up a whole side of a vinyl recording of one of his speeches. But another historian argues that long speeches haven't always been the sole preserve of dictatorships:
"Now [a long speech] is seen as a sign of political weakness, for example Neil Kinnock or Gordon Brown when he uses too many words and too much jargon.
"But earlier generations, ending with Harold Macmillan, had a taste for very long speeches which demonstrated their learning. We have now less patience with people who show their authority by speaking at great length."
One could certainly devote an academic paper to the nuanced relationship between democracy and speech length, but perhaps a simpler explanation exists. As Robert Service, a professor of Russian Studies at Oxford University told the BBC, "You are only ever going to get long speeches when the speaker doesn't have to worry about the audience running away."
Any other theories?
Update: A number of readers have weighed in on the question of why authoritarian leaders tend to talk for so long. Below are a few of the more interesting suggestions:
"only their opinion matters?" - Facebook user Charles Ursenbach
"Dictatorships also have fewer things competing for viewers' attention, as the 'running away' joke denotes. While the State of the Union is going on, I can switch to a lot of other things, or even watch something in the DVR." - Commenter Pdubble
"It's probably the most democratic thing Putin does. People call in, ask him questions, some easy to answer, others not so much." - Facebook user Pavel Shmelov
"Because brevity is the soul of wit - and they are, by and large, witless." - Facebook user Julian De Wette.
"Filibusters come to mind, and the[n] immediately the relationship between democracy and speech length mentioned above." - Commenter Zhangir K S
"Because they can." - Facebook user Rick Brandl
ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images
After the Associated Press tweeted, "Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured," it literally took only seconds for people to debunk the bomb scare.
from here in the WH basement, this acct seems hacked RT @ap: Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured— E McMorris-Santoro (@EvanMcSan) April 23, 2013
Please Ignore AP Tweet on explosions, we've been hacked.— Sam Hananel (@SamHananelAP) April 23, 2013
The fake @ap tweet was tweeted via web. Real AP tweets come from SocialFlow. Carry on.— Ethan Klapper (@ethanklapper) April 23, 2013
AP immediately locked down the account (and it remains suspended as I write), but that wasn't before the Dow dropped 70 points (it rebounded within 10 minutes).
The Syrian Electronic Army, a group of pro-Assad hackers that has been targeting major news organizations for months now, quickly took credit for the false tweet. In the AP's story about the hacking of its own Twitter feed, it stated that the incident "came after hackers made repeated attempts to steal the passwords of AP journalists." The SEA defaced the homepages of Al Jazeera and Reuters last year, and more recently they've been targeting social media accounts in particular. Last month, for instance, they got into the BBC's weather feed. In the past week alone, they've hit NPR and 60 Minutes. They've also gone after non-media targets, including Human Rights Watch and Columbia University.
The SEA's level of tact varies: Hackers weren't above making a fat joke about the emir of Qatar when they hacked @bbcweather last month. Other times, as when they broke into @60Minutes, they promoted the Assad regime's narrative that the United States is empowering terrorist groups in Syria. The "media scare" approach seems to be a new development, but it is unclear to what extent SEA attacks are planned and coordinated, or whether they are directly affiliated with the Assad government.
After being carried through the streets of London in a flag-draped coffin aboard a gun carriage, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was laid to rest this morning in St. Paul's Cathedral. But the big story of the day wasn't Maggie. No, it was a 19-year-old Texan who stole the show from the deceased Iron Lady.
With a poise reminiscent of the elder Thatcher, Amanda Thatcher, Margaret's granddaughter, delivered a reading from Ephesians that has the British media agog. Amanda, who lives with her mother in Texas, chose a rather militant passage that calls on believers to "put on the whole armour of God." But the reading was a good one, delivered with remarkable grace by a young woman suddenly thrust into the international spotlight. In a tweet that nicely summarized the breathless British media reaction, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland couldn't help but speculate "whether somewhere a Texas Republican operative is watching Amanda Thatcher thinking 'Wonder if she has political ambitions...'"
Here's the clip:
So who is Amanda Thatcher, and how did Maggie Thatcher's granddaughter end up in Texas of all places? Amanda is the daughter of Mark Thatcher and the Texas heiress Diane Burgdorf, who underwent an ugly, highly public divorce from Mark (Diane went so far as to detail her ex-husband's history of infidelity in a broadside published in a British paper). When Amanda's father became embroiled in an acrimonious business dispute, Diane agreed to move her family to South Africa. But after Mark was arrested in 2004 over his alleged involvement in a coup in Equatorial Guinea, the marriage finally dissolved. Amanda now lives in Texas with her mother, stepfather, and brother Michael. She is reportedly deeply religious, has carried out missionary work in China, and attends the University of Richmond in Virginia.
Voted "most likely to change the world" by her high school classmates, Amanda was a favorite of the Iron Lady. The former British prime minister reportedly kept a portrait of her two grandchildren on a mantle alongside a picture of Sir Denis, her beloved late husband. Maggie, the daughter of a fervent lay Methodist preacher, approved of Amanda's turn toward evangelical Christianity, and she cherished her relationship with her granddaughter during her ailing later years. As the Guardian notes in its excellent profile of the young Thatchers, Amanda's religiosity lined up nicely with Maggie's hard-nosed political and social conservatism.
Poised, eloquent, the descendant of conservative royalty, evangelical Christian, and Texas-bred: It all seems to add up to a promising political future. She certainly hit it out of the park in her introduction to the world, and isn't it pretty easy to picture a clip of Amanda's speech at her grandmother's funeral playing a role in a future campaign commercial?
The Republican Party could certainly do worse.
An earlier version of this post referred to the Biblical passage from which Amanda Thatcher read as the Epistles. She read from Ephesians, which is one of the Epistles.
Peter Nicholls - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Journalists have had their hands full this week with reports of Iran's fake time machine, not to mention the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that shook the country's south. But somehow, in all the excitement, an Iranian proposal to annex Azerbaijan went largely unnoticed.
On Tuesday, Iran's Fars news agency reported that Azerbaijani-speaking lawmakers in Iran had introduced a bill to re-annex their neighbor to the north. Iran lost Azerbaijan in 1828 -- "The most frustrating chapter in the history class!" Fars laments -- when it was forced to sign the Turkmenchay treaty, ceding the territory to Russia. The legislators propose revisiting the terms of the treaty, which, according to Fars, means "the 17 cities and regions that Iran had lost to the Russians would be given back to Iran after a century."
For its part, Azerbaijan has told Iran to "bring it" -- diplomatically speaking. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Siyavush Novruzov of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party has declared that revisiting the treaty would result not in Azerbaijan being annexed to Iran, but rather in Tehran ceding its northwestern territory to Azerbaijan.
While all this may sound like the makings of an international showdown in a strategically sensitive region, here's the comforting part: in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both sides have repeatedly brandished the treaty as an empty threat. Take a look at this January 1992 edition of one Kentucky daily:
Screenshot of the Kentucky New Era
Or a December 2011 headline from Azer News that reads, "MP wants to 'annex Azeri territory to Iran.'"
On the other side of the border, Azerbaijan has threatened more than once to reclaim the region in Iran known as "Southern Azerbaijan." And as we wrote in February 2012, minority lawmakers in Baku have even provocatively suggested changing the country's name to "Northern Azerbaijan," implying ownership over the Iranian territory to the south.
Writing in Foreign Affairs in January, Iran expert Alex Vatanka explained why, despite significant cultural and linguistic overlap, the two countries remain tense neighbors. After securing independence in 1991, Azerbaijan failed to become the close Shiite ally that Tehran wanted, he notes. And since 2003, Vatanka adds, "Baku has grown both considerably richer -- thanks to revenues from energy exports -- and noticeably bolder in its foreign policy."
This boldness -- which includes the purchase of weapons and technology from Israel in exchange for granting the country a foothold on the Iranian border -- has driven an increasingly substantial wedge between Azerbaijan and Iran. In other words, don't be surprised if we see this headline crop up again ... and again and again.
Emotional blackmail. No, it's not Madonna's new hit single, but rather one of the accusations hurled at the pop star in a statement released by the Malawi State House on Thursday.
Earlier this week, we wrote about the material girl's less-than-stellar trip to the country, which included a series of faux pas that angered and offended the country's president, Joyce Banda. Today, tensions between the government and Madonna escalated as Malawi released a comprehensive document detailing its grievances. The full text was published in the Nyasa Times, but here are some of the highlights:
Madonna feels that the Malawi Government and its leadership should have abandoned everything and attended to her because she believes she is a music star turned benefactor who is doing Malawi good....
[I]n the feeling of Madonna, the Malawi Government and its leadership should have rolled out a red carpet and blast the 21-gun salute in her honour because she believes that as a musician, the whiff of whose repute flies across international boundaries, she automatically is candidate for VVIP [see definition] treatment.
The document then goes on to "put the record straight" with 11 bullet points. Number three accuses Madonna of emotional blackmail regarding her adoption of two Malawian children:
It, therefore, comes across as strange and depressing that for a humanitarian act, prompted only by her, Madonna wants Malawi to be forever chained to the obligation of gratitude. Kindness, as far as its ordinary meaning is concerned, is free and anonymous. If it can't be free and silent, it is not kindness; it is something else. Blackmail is the closest it becomes.
Number seven, meanwhile, draws our attention to the gaggle of "equally dazzling" celebrities who have visited Malawi without demanding star treatment, including Chuck Norris and Bono. Ouch.
Number nine may be the most cutting:
For her to accuse [President Banda's sister] Mrs. Oponyo for indiscretions that have clearly arisen from her personal frustrations that her ego has not been massaged by the state is uncouth, and speaks volumes of a musician who desperately thinks she must generate recognition by bullying state officials instead of playing decent music on the stage.
Madonna responded with a statement on her website that called the allegations against her "ridiculous," adding that she was "saddened that Malawi's President Joyce Banda has chosen to release lies." In what could perhaps be construed as further emotional blackmail, the singer then went on to list her accomplishments in the country, which include raising "millions of dollars in Malawi to support orphans and vulnerable children." I wouldn't bet on Malawi's leaders sending a thank-you note.
AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP/Getty Images
"Leader, Just Give Us Your Order" KCNA
North Korea's threats have dominated international news over the past month. But a quick scan of North Korea's state-run news agency KCNA suggests we've been missing something: Pyongyang's unique literary approach to bellicosity.
Every few days, it seems, KCNA publishes an article detailing songs and poems performed at official events -- remarkably literal titles that give you a sense of what it might sound like if Kim Jong Un adapted his provocations as a musical. Here are some of the top songs:
When it comes to poetry -- a literary form loathed by high schoolers the world over for its mind-numbing level of abstraction and obfuscation -- the North Koreans might be on to something with titles like:
If these are a little somber for your taste, there's always the poem that kicked off today's event celebrating the 20th anniversary of Kim Jong Il's election as the DPRK defense commission chairman -- the idyllically titled, "Great Joy in April."
For those who listened to "Leader, Just Give Us Your Order" and still want more, here are "We Will Defend General Kim Jong Un at the Cost of Our Lives" and "Provokers Are Bound to Meet Death":
Margaret Thatcher's death on Monday prompted a great deal of reflection on the Iron Lady's many legacies. But one in particular has been less explored: the former British prime minister's recurring appearance in political cartoons.
"She was a great subject for people who really hated her or hated her for what she stood for, which was many of the cartoonists," Anita O'Brien, the curator of the London Cartoon Museum, told Foreign Policy. "She was very distinctive. She had a particular way of speaking, which some [cartoonists] used to their advantage.... She was somebody that somehow couldn't be ignored."
For that very reason, O'Brien's museum devoted an exhibition to the satirical sketches featuring Thatcher called Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! The exhibit opened in 2009 -- two decades after the divisive British leader had left power. "Because she was such a strong figure and because she continued to try to exert an influence over many of the succeeding prime ministers, both Tory and Labour, she continued to feature in cartoons long after she had ceased to be prime minister," O'Brien explained. "Much much more than probably any figure."
To get a sense of how Thatcher was depicted in political cartoons, check out the image below by American cartoonist Bill DeOre, which appeared after Thatcher dispatched the British Navy to the Falkland Islands in 1982:
DEORE © 1982 Bill DeOre. Courtesy of the artist and Universal Uclick. All rights reserved.
And another by DeOre:
DEORE © 1982 Bill DeOre. Courtesy of the artist and Universal Uclick. All rights reserved.
The cartoon below was published in the Daily Mirror the day after Thatcher's longest-serving cabinet minister, Geoffrey Howe, delivered a scathing resignation speech, voicing his discontent over her refusal to better integrate the United Kingdom with European economies:
This photograph shows a sketch at the Cartoon Museum drawn by Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell in 2000, after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that it was time to "move British politics beyond the time of Margaret Thatcher."
Photograph by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
"One of the things that came across when we did the exhibition was that she really divided the country," O'Brien told , and this doesn't look to be changing any time soon. "Even the whole issue of her funeral is dividing people. I'm sure there will be more cartoons between now and next week and probably after the funeral."
For Maggie's part, "she didn't care about cartoons at all," O'Brien notes. "We know this because one of our trustees was one of her ministers. Whereas some other politicians and previous prime ministers may have been quite hurt or offended by the cartoons, she just completely ignored them so they had no impact on her. I don't imagine she had that much interest in the visual arts."
Today, 30 July 1987 © Martin Rowson
When, in 2012, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman chose to title a blog post about Estonia's less-than-stellar economic recovery "Estonian Rhapsody," we should have known that this was no run-of-the-mill fiscal commentary -- but rather an omen of far more dramatic things to come. The slew of angry tweets that the post elicited from Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves included the phrase "Nostra culpa" and provoked mixed responses in the international press, with some glorifying the president and others lambasting his rashness.
Conflict, rhapsodies, Latin -- in retrospect, it's easy to understand why Estonia-based writer Scott Diel and U.K.-based composer Eugene Birman thought this bizarre online feud had the makings of an opera. Their much-anticipated 16-minute production, Nostra Culpa, is set to premier on Sunday at the Estonian Music Days festival.
So how exactly does one go about turning six tweets and a blog post into opera? Foreign Policy caught up with Birman to find out what we can expect.
The opera will be divided into two acts, according to Birman, with the first detailing Krugman's philosophy and the second Ilves's tweets. "I thought the most powerful thing would be to take those things verbatim and oppose them -- not to put them into conversation because there was no conversation," Birman told FP. The two acts are fairly different in style, with Krugman's movement set to loud and fast music and the Estonian president's sung against a more varied and slower score.
For Birman, the decision to separate the exchange into two acts using a single female soloist, Iris Oja, underscores the problems with communication in today's world. "The nature of Twitter for example, or writing an article is that there's no real discussion," he said. "You can respond to something but it's not really a discussion format. They're speaking at each other instead of to each other." In the digital age, where everything is mediated through our computer screens, having one voice speaking directly to the audience does seem fitting.
Diel and Birman hope the opera will stimulate deeper discussion in Estonia about the political and economic issues behind the spat. "Estonia became independent through music," Birman tells FP, referencing the mass singing demonstrations, known as the Singing Revolution, that helped the country peacefully overthrow the Soviet government. "There is something Estonian about this -- that we're using music to have a discussion about what the political policy of Estonia should be," he says.
But more than anything, the opera's purpose is to highlight the absurdity of all the squabbling over economic recovery -- and in particular the terms so often thrown about by pundits. Librettist Scott Diel achieves this by transforming Krugman's 70-word blog post into a series of almost tweet-like phrases imploring the Estonians to follow his advice. "There's this line in the libretto that says stimulate over and over again and it becomes almost sexual," Birman says. "The words when you take them out of their context become really strange."
One of the stranger moments comes in the second movement, when in adapting Ilves' sarcastic tweet "Let's sh*t on East Europeans," the singer will make a high-pitched whistling sound with her voice in place of the asterisk.
While Birman concedes the content is amusing, he cautions "in the end there's nothing really funny about what they're discussing. If you think about it, if you look at the words and you look at the argument, then it's pretty ridiculous. But that makes good theater." We won't argue with that.
Here's the libretto in full, as written by Scott Diel:
RAIGO PAJULA/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo's Twitter feed disappeared for about an hour today following an online sparring match with a feed operated by the office of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy over Jon Stewart's impassioned defense of Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef. When the embassy's feed returned, a tweet linking to the Daily Show clip had been deleted, and State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters that embassy officials "came to the conclusion that the decision to tweet it in the first place didn't accord with post management of the site."
There's bad diplomacy, and then there's the Twitter fight that followed this afternoon between the Muslim Brotherhood's English-language Twitter account (@IkhwanWeb) and American radio show host and media personality Rick Sanchez (@RickSanchezTV). The improbable feud started when the Muslim Brotherhood tweeted an Al Jazeera report featuring a comment Sanchez made in 2010 that was widely reported as being anti-Semitic and led to his firing from CNN. The Muslim Brotherhood pointed to the incident as an example of the West's "double standards" about free speech:
The Muslim Brotherhood's confusion about the government-ensured rights of an individual vs. the rights of private employees notwithstanding, Sanchez came looking for a fight this afternoon. Armed with a loose understanding of the situation, Sanchez eagerly began trolling @IkhwanWeb.
The Muslim Brotherhood responded, and from there, it was a good, old-fashioned troll fight. @IkhwanWeb was right that Sanchez didn't have his facts straight, but their defense of Egypt's freedom of speech rang a bit hollow given the circumstances:
.@ricksancheztv Mr. Shanchez, we value freedom of speech, it's what Egyptians fought for & no power can take this fundamental right away— Ikhwanweb (@Ikhwanweb) April 3, 2013
.@ricksancheztv perhaps u shld get facts first. He wasn't arrested, but questioned and released re complaint brought by pvt citizen, not us— Ikhwanweb (@Ikhwanweb) April 3, 2013
.@ricksancheztv absolutely false, we've nothing to do w investigations, it's a fact & if u ve evidence to contrary plz announce to the world— Ikhwanweb (@Ikhwanweb) April 3, 2013
Sanchez then declared victory. Several times.
And that's today's installment of how Twitter is making politics weird. Remember, folks: Don't feed the trolls.
With Egypt's economy entering crisis mode, you'd think government officials would have their hands full. But Prime Minister Hesham Kandil seems to be finding time for the obscure mobile game Smurfs' Village. Or at least that's how his Twitter account made it seem on Monday, when a tweet that may have been automatically generated by the app appeared on his feed, reading "Doctor Smurf prescribes cakes, pies and smurfberries as part of a healthy diet."
The bizarre tweet has since been deleted from his account, but not quickly enough to prevent an inevitable onslaught of snark. The blog Egyptian Chronicles, for instance, ran with the gleeful headline, "The PM of Smurfs Village!!"
One Twitter user blamed the politician's smurf addiction for Egypt's current state of turmoil:
.@kandilhesham someone's having a VERY productive day at the office. No wonder the country's going down the pooper.— Farah Saafan (@FarahSaafan) April 1, 2013
Another pointed out the tweet's problematic public health implications:
.@kandilhesham should you really be advising people to eat cakes, pies and smurfberries when Egypt is dealing with a diabetes epidemic?— sherief gaber (@cairocitylimits) April 1, 2013
Some people, however, were a bit more understanding:
We've blogged before about politicians whose accounts have accidentally been hijacked by apps after their children used their phones to play games. Our advice still applies: In an age where a stray tweet can provoke an almost automatic backlash, politicians should keep their phones out of the hands of their children. Unless, that is, they're playing the games themselves.
Screenshot of Twitpic
Several news outlets, including the pro-reform Shargh daily, said French lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre is in Iran for talks with officials over how and where to file the lawsuit. She is also the lawyer for notorious Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known as Carlos the Jackal.
This isn't the first time the Iranian government has complained about the film's portrayal of the Iranian people during the 1979 hostage crisis. In February, the government even organized a conference to highlight the anti-Iranian ideology behind Ben Affleck's film and other movies. The lawsuit was discussed on Monday during yet another conference in Tehran for Iranian cultural officials and movie critics entitled "The Hoax of Hollywood."
While the details of how (and if) Iran will go about suing Hollywood have yet to be released, one can't help but wonder: Does Iran actually have a case?
The short answer? Not really. "The threshold for a defamation suit in this context is pretty steep," Cory Andrews, senior litigation counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation, told FP. To prove defamation, you have to not only establish that what is presented as fact is actually false (a difficult task when dealing with a partially fictionalized movie), but also that the plaintiff's reputation was injured, causing financial damages. "I'm not sure how the current Iranian regime would go about proving damages," Andrews notes. "The film is loosely based on events from 1979, not 2013. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is dead, and as a general rule of law you cannot libel the dead."
Even if Iranian officials choose to pursue a case of group libel -- a controversial legal theory, typically raised in cases of racial hate speech -- they would still have to prove that the regime suffered an injury to reputation and measurable damages as a result of the film.
As for where Iran could file its lawsuit, Noah Feldman, a professor of international and constitutional law at Harvard, tells FP, "The Iranianans could bring suit in any place where the film is shown, I suppose, and rely on anti-defamation laws." Still, he adds, "it seems highly unlikely to go anywhere in any credible jurisdiction."
Then again, Andrews reminds us, "it's the easiest thing in the world to file a suit." So while Iran might have an exceedingly difficult time proving their case, that won't necessarily stop them from giving the makers of Argo a minor headache in the process.
© 2012 - Warner Bros. Pictures
With the papal conclave expected to convene early next week, the Vatican has torn a page out of the Chinese playbook for stifling dissent, blocking access to a prominent website, bishopaccountability.org, that documents cases of clergy abuse.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, access to the site, which has become an invaluable resource for journalists covering the sex abuse scandal, is restricted on the Vatican's Internet servers. And when one tries to access the site through the Holy See's network, a message notes that it is blocked because of "hate/racism." That's certainly one way to describe an effort that has posted more than 8,500 pages of documents describing clergy abuse.
As we've written earlier, much of the pre-conclave jockeying plays out in the media, where candidates can be floated and reputations attacked in order to best position one cardinal or another for the papacy. By blocking access to one of the chief sources of information about this dark chapter in the church's history, the Holy See may be seeking to reassert a degree of control over the mud-slinging process in the media.
The NCR says it has filed a request to have the site unblocked. (Hey, it could happen!) We'll keep you updated.
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images
It was widely reported last week that this year's Aipac conference, which ends tomorrow, will culminate in a mass lobbying effort by attendees to persuade law makers to officially designate Israel a major strategic ally of the United States, a designation that until now has never been awarded.
So does the bill, the "U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act," actually make a new class of alliance for Israel? Is the House about to name Israel a super-best-friend-for-life ally of the United States?
No. They're not.
The bill, which can be accessed online here, simply states that, "Congress declares that Israel is a major strategic partner of the United States." Nowhere in the bill does it define or codify this terminology; it doesn't grant special privileges like, say, being the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid or being permitted nuclear weapons without pressure to sign conventions regulating them, both of which are already part of U.S.-Israel policy. It is just a "declaration of policy," much in the way that last year's "U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012" stated:
It is the policy of the United States to reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the security of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. As President Barack Obama stated on December 16, 2011, "America's commitment and my commitment to Israel and Israel's security is unshakeable." And as President George W. Bush stated before the Israeli Knesset on May 15, 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, "The alliance between our governments is unbreakable, yet the source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty."
The new legislation, which extends existing legislation on military, cyber, and energy cooperation, does not alter Israel's formal designation as a "major non-NATO ally" of the United States (other major non-NATO allies make for some strange bedfellows, including Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). At this point, in other words, there's no need for other U.S. allies to start getting jealous about new official labels -- there aren't any.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
On Monday, the Israeli government launched a new bus service to shuttle Palestinian day laborers from the West Bank town of Qalqiliya to Israeli cities where they are employed. Ynet outlined the reasons behind the two new lines, which have only been advertised to Palestinians in Arabic:
A ministry source said that many complaints expressed concern that the Palestinian passengers may pose a security risk, while other complaints said that the overcrowded buses cause the drivers to skip stations.
The development has caused an uproar both in Israel and internationally, prompting comparisons to apartheid in South Africa and the United States' own checkered transportation history. In an op-ed for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Aeyal Gross compared the new bus service to the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which deemed segregation legal in cases where it is "separate but equal." Striking a similar note, Al Jazeera went with the headline, "Israel launches segregated bus service."
The Israeli Transport Ministry, meanwhile, has defended the move as pragmatic rather than discriminatory -- a way of accommodating the growing number of Palestinians who are receiving permission to work in Israel.
Lofty analysis aside, surprisingly little attention has been paid to how the change is actually playing out on the ground. The Palestinian newspaper al-Quds described the first day of the new bus service as stressful and chaotic, with too few buses to accommodate the many Palestinian laborers trying to get across the border. Palestinians who gave up on trying to board the overcrowded buses and instead chose to cross the border on foot were refused entry.
Still, like their Israeli counterparts, Palestinians primarily voiced pragmatic rather than moral concerns about the new service. One man told al-Quds that the new lines mean he has to wake up two hours earlier and get home later each day. Another lamented that he doesn't understand "why [the Israelis] had to go and make this headache." Haaretz also reported from the scene:
One man working on the Meier-on-Rothschild luxury tower asked why the Tel Aviv bus stopped at the northern train station and did not continue on to the Central Bus Station. A group of workers looking to get to Herzliya asked why the Ra'anana-Kfar Sava line wasn't extended to Herzliya. Many wondered about the buses' return times.
As far as we can tell, there was no mention of Plessy vs. Ferguson.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Last night, Argo, Ben Affleck's account of the Iranian hostage situation, surprised few when it claimed the Academy Award for best picture. Also unsurprising was the reaction of Iranian media.
The film, which looks at Hollywood's role in helping smuggle six hostages out of Iran amidst the fraught 1979 revolution, has garnered intense criticism from the country for its negative portrayal of Iranians. The Iranian government even organized a conference to discuss the ideology behind films like Argo, and their use in promoting an anti-Iranian, Islamophobic agenda. And when Michelle Obama presented the Oscar via live feed from the White House, this seemed to confirm the worst fears for many in the Iranian media.
In a rare occasion in Oscar history, the First Lady announced the winner for Best Picture for the anti-Iran Film ‘Argo,' which is produced by the Zionist company Warner Bros.
Mehr News dubbed the award the "most political Oscar" saying, "the anti-Iranian movie ‘Argo', the 85th Academy Awards ceremony, unveiled the bare politicization in Hollywood."
Meanwhile Iran's state TV called the whole thing an "advertisement for the CIA."
In his acceptance speech, Affleck included a couple of shout outs to the frustrated nation:
I want to thank our friends in Iran living in terrible circumstances right now. I want to thank my wife who I don't usually associate with Iran.
Not the most diplomatic of speeches, this prompted Mehr to further lament: "Ben Affleck continues to show a bleak picture of Iran: Iranians live in terrible circumstances.”
The state-owned, Press TV, went in a different direction. In a snub worthy of the Academy, they chose not to acknowledge the film at all in their coverage of the evening, making it seem, for those who wouldn't know better, that Life of Pi and Amour were the big winners of the night.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
With a North Korean nuclear test looming imminently on the horizon, the nation's propaganda machine appears to be in full 1980's-pop-swing. Last weekend, the government uploaded a video to its official website depicting a young Korean man falling asleep beside a telescope --don't we all?-- and dreaming happily of a rocket circling the globe. As an instrumental variation of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie's hit charity single from 1985, "We are the World," plays in the background, viewers are treated to images of celebrating North Koreans before the video takes a more ominous turn, depicting a war-torn U.S. city-scape, (incidentally lifted from the video game, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3). The captions running across the screen confirm the video's threatening intentions:
"Somewhere in the United States, black clouds of smoke are billowing," runs the caption across the screen.
"It seems that the nest of wickedness is ablaze with the fire started by itself," it added.
The video ends with the young man concluding that his dream will "surely come true".
"Despite all kinds of attempts by imperialists to isolate and crush us... never will anyone be able to stop the people marching toward a final victory," it said.
This isn't the first time the U.S. has been the target of North Korean propaganda. With some of the country's most popular cartoons depicting similarly chilling themes, is it any wonder this young man started dreaming about it?
In the wake of a knife attack at an elementary school reportedly driven by predictions about the coming end of the world, Chinese authorities have detained dozens for spreading rumors about the coming apocalypse.
According to Xinhua, 93 people -- many of them members of a religious group called Almighty God, which promotes belief in the upcoming Dec. 21 Mayan doomsday -- have been detained as potential day of reckoning grows closer. At the same time, authorities have sought to play down any talk about the world ending, ordering media last week to "strictly vet reports on the so-called "end of the world" and "strengthen positive guidance and forcefully guard against the creation and spread of rumors, as well as working up panicked feelings." The order appears to have been taken seriously, with newspapers publishing soothing quotes from various experts arguing that Friday will be like any other day, reports The Telegraph:
"Speaking to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, Sun Xiaochun, a top professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: "The event will be as destructive as when we throw an old table calendar into the rubbish can at the end of the year."
The idea that Friday will be the end of it all has gained quite a foothold in parts of China. Hebei Province farmer Liu Qiyuan, pictured above, has begun making "survival pods" out of fiberglass and steel for the event, while Business Insider reports that,
"...in Sichuan province, panic buying of candles has swept through two counties in the fear that an ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end on December 21 proves to be true.
"Candles are selling by the hundreds, with buyers constantly coming to the market. Many stores have run out," said Huang Zhaoli, a shopper at the Neijing Wholesale Market, to the West China City Daily newspaper."
The panicky feeling was not helped by an unnerving meteorological phenomenon last week that made it appear that the sky over parts of eastern China contained three suns.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
On Tuesday, Al-Watan, a Saudi newspaper, quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had agreed to step down after months of trying to quash the Syrian uprising. It's not unusual for public figures to take back inflammatory statements after they make them. But in this case, the Russian foreign ministry is denying that the interview happened at all.
According to Al-Arabiya, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a public statement on Tuesday:
"We would like to point out that this report does not correspond with reality, and the Russian special envoy gave no such interview."
Zakharova also claimed that there was a "propaganda war" being waged over Syria and accused media outlets of disseminating "blatant disinformation."
In an attempt to defend its credibility, Al-Watan published a recording of the alleged interview on its website. The speaker, who identifies himself as Bogdanov, also claims (in remarkably fluent Arabic) that Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, had lost his legs in the July bombing of a key government headquarters in Damascus and was "fighting for his life." According to the AFP, the voice on the recording "sounded different from the voice of Bogdanov in videos available online."
The Al-Watan story was picked up by quite a few news outlets, most of which have since amended their reports after the Russian statement. A few Israeli and Arab news outlets continue to post their original stories on the incident.
On another front of the Syrian misinformation war, the Reuters blogging platform was hacked yet again on Wednesday. This time, the hackers falsely posted a report stating that Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, had died.
As Foreign Policy posted earlier this month, hackers supporting the Syrian opposition had previously hijacked one of the Reuters blogs on August 3, posting false reports of rebel gains in Syria. In a separate incident, pro-regime hackers fought back on August 5 by commandeering a Reuters Twitter account, which they used to tweet about a rebel collapse in Aleppo and accuse the White House of providing arms to al-Qaeda militants in Syria.
All this lends at least some credibility to the Russian claim of a propaganda battle over the Syrian uprising. If there is a war of disinformation, it would seem that the worst casualties are the media organizations whose reputations have been damaged, sometimes by cyberattacks, sometimes by failure to thoroughly verify information.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
On Thursday, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed that a small aircraft piloted by democracy activists had violated Belarusian airspace in July when it crossed over from Lithuania. The aircraft was carrying a cargo of teddy bears, which parachuted into the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on July 4.
Lukashenko was peeved at his military commanders and air traffic control had failed to stop the plane's raid into Belarus. Government officials have been trying to sort out how the activists planned the attack and why national security operatives failed to stop the small planes raid into controlled air space.
According to Al Jazeera's news report:
"[Press Secretary ]Andrei Savinykh told Al Jazeera that the aircraft was detected, "but the air defence did nothing. They didn't consider the aircraft as a military threat because it was a small aircraft and usually the air defence system is focusing on high-speed heavy crafts." However, Savinykh said their failure to act was a "violation of instructions" and that the responsible personnel will be punished."
The plane was piloted by the cofounder of a Swedish ad agency on behalf of Charter 97, a Belarussian democracy advocacy group. The group has since organized other teddy bear assaults, including staging of teddy bears in front of the Belarusian Embassy in London-which caused embassy officials to call the police-- to protest Lukashenko's repression. Protestors have adopted the teddy bears as a symbol of resistance against Lukashenko.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
On Saturday, as Ramadan began, a new Egyptian satellite television channel was launched, catering to and run by women. Maria TV is an all-woman Islamic channel -- the first of its kind -- in which women work the cameras, determine content, and appear as presenters and actresses, providing programming directed at a female audience. No men will be featured in any of Maria's programming.
Shows on Maria TV will include daily news, talk-show-style programs on topics such as the first year of marriage and make up tips, as well as investigative reports on subjects like women who cheat on their husbands. There will also be a satirical news show starring a female puppet.
Female preacher El-Sheikha Safaa Refai will head the programming. The channel is the newest creation of Ahmed Abdallah, a Cario-based producer of Islamic television, who is also the founder of Ummah TV, a religious satellite station targeting Muslim audiences throughout the Middle East.
Hosni Mubarak's regime had targeted several security raids against Ummah TV , but since Mubarak's fall, Egyptian media has seen some relaxation of restrictions. Earlier in the summer, Egyptian broadcasting also began featuring its first political humorist and satirist, Bassem Yousef, on the air.
Maria TV, which will for now consist of six hours of programming on Ummah TV, will show only fully veiled women. Guests who choose not to wear the Niqab will have their features blurred out.
AMR NABIL/AFP/Getty Images
Protests against government austerity measures have been spreading rapidly throughout Khartoum today, with Reuters reporting at least seven separate demonstrations in the Sudanese capital throughout the day. The number of protesters have grown substantially since yesterday, when Egyptian journalist Salma Elwardany reported a crowd of about 200 outside the University of Khartoum. 400 to 500 protesters took to the streets after Friday prayers in one suburb alone.
Elwardany was detained by security forces, as was activist Maha El-Senosy (who has been tweeting under the handle @MimzicalMimz) of the youth movement Girifna (@Girifna), or "Fed Up." Both have since been released. IRIN News reported that at least 100 people had been arrested in connection with the demonstrations as of June 20.
According to Reuters:
"The police fired tear gas and then used batons as they clashed with the protesters, who threw rocks. Witnesses said men in civilian clothes also attacked the demonstrators."
Rumors that Internet will be cut off have been circulating among the protesters via Twitter, under the hashtag #SudanRevolts, as activists attempt to circulate instructions for accessing social media via mobile phone. Other protesters have uploaded pictures that appear to show protesters blocking the streets with burning tires. Reuters reported that smaller protests have also broken out in Bahri, a suburb of Khartoum, but that they were quickly dispersed by heavy security presence.
Sudan currently has a budget deficit of about $2.4 billion, and inflation reached nearly 80 percent in May. Bashir's austerity measures include devaluing the Sudanese pound by nearly 50 percent, removing fuel subsidies and cutting back government by up to 50 percent. Austerity measures were implemented in order to cope with the loss of 75 percent of Sudan's oil production after South Sudan seceded in July 2011, taking the majority of the region's oil fields with it.
Despite calls by opposition groups for an uprising, Sudan has avoided the kind of demonstrations seen in neighboring Egypt and Libya last year.... so far.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has been on a tear lately: breaking news on the files found in Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad safe house, revealing details of the backchannel negotiations between Erdogan and Ayatollah Khamenei, and now, channeling the Obama administration's negotiating strategy toward Iran.
At a time when Thomas Friedman is writing his 35th column complaining about the state of America's train system and urging New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch a third-party bid for the presidency, Ignatius is far and away America's must-read columnist right now. Iggy has always been known for his top-notch sources, especially in the intelligence community, but his columns seem especially well-sourced of late -- it's almost as if he has a weekly lunch with Tom Donilon or something.
Let's take a look at his latest. Ignatius says that "the smart money in Tehran is betting on a deal" -- picking up on a rise in the Iranian stock market to argue that a nuclear agreement is in the offing. "So far," he writes, "Iran is following the script for a gradual, face-saving exit from a nuclear program that even Russia and China have signaled is too dangerous. The Iranians will bargain up to the edge of the cliff, but they don’t seem eager to jump." According to Ignatius, under this deal, "Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and to halt work at an underground facility near Qom built for higher enrichment. Iran would export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for final processing to 20 percent, for use in medical isotopes."
In exchange, Iran would get ... nothing, at least right away. Ignatius suggests that the Europeans would agree to delay implementing their oil embargo, set to take effect July 1, and the Americans would delay their own fresh round of sanctions due to be implemented in late June.
Frankly, I don't see how this can work. There do seem to be signs that Khamenei is laying the political groundwork for a deal, for instance by bringing his pragmatic former president, Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, back into his good graces. But any deal that doesn't visibly benefit Iran -- rather than merely preventing future harm -- will inevitably be viciously attacked within the country's fragmented political system. And I suspect, given his past behavior, that the supreme leader will stick his finger in the air before staking out a clear public position.
It seems equally unlikely that President Obama will risk handing an electoral issue to his rival Mitt Romney by making any real concessions to Tehran. Americans may not be eager to fire up the B-52s -- and the Pentagon certainly isn't -- but they don't want to see their president look weak. And even if Obama did cut a deal, Republicans and pro-Israel groups would likely make a lot of noise, and might even be able to derail it.
Then there's Israel, which has set the bar extremely high for these negotiations, insisting among other things that Iran shut down its Fordow enrichment plant -- the one it spent years building in secrecy and burying 200 meters beneath a mountain outside the city of Qom at a cost of millions of dollars. Indeed, everything the Obama administration agrees to apparently has to be vetted with the Israelis, who have completely unrealistic notions about what Iran is willing to accept.
Moreover, the intricately choreographed arrangements of the type Ignatius suggests seem hard to imagine given the deep levels of distrust between the two sides. It beggars belief to think that two countries whose diplomats will barely even sit in a room with one another can work out "confidence-building measures" that will survive the political maelstrom news of a deal would unleash. We are not anywhere close to a Nixon going to China moment, in any sense of that hackneyed historical analogy.
What will most likely happen, as Time's Tony Karon lays out here, is that the can gets kicked further down the road: Talks will proceed for the sake of talks, and a decision about whether to bomb will be deferred until at least November (unless Iran crosses a red line like installing next-generation centrifuges at Fordow).
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that if you want to know what the Obama administration is thinking, read David Ignatius. But don't expect to be optimistic once you do.
The sudden resignation Tuesday morning of Al Jazeera director-general Wadah Khanfar sent shockwaves through the Arab media world, leading to intense speculation about whether the relative freedom the satellite network had enjoyed is about to come to an end.
In his 8 years at the helm of the network, Khanfar built it into a news powerhouse in the Middle East and beyond, angering the United States and nearly every Arab regime and -- arguably -- helping take a few of them down. He presided over the opening of Al Jazeera English, the widely praised international spinoff, which recently pried open the U.S. cable market after years of a de facto boycott. Al Jazeera's Arabic-language reporters, in particular, have taken bold risks to report the news, and not only during the Arab Spring. Some of them have paid with their lives.
Khanfar is at the top of his game. So why did he resign? In his departing note to staff, he said only that it was because he had "decided to move on" and that he had been discussing his "desire to step down" for some time.
"Upon my appointment," he wrote, "the Chairman and I set a goal to establish Al Jazeera as global media leader and we have agreed that this target has been met and that the organization is in a healthy position."
But is that the whole story? A couple theories are making the rounds, none of which seem to be based on any inside information. So what follows is purely speculative.
One potential clue is Khanfar's replacement: Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a member of the royal family. Al Thani is not a journalist; he is an executive at QatarGas, a state-affiliated natural gas producer. Given that the chairman is Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, another royal family member, this may not ultimately be such a big deal. But the optics certainly don't look good.
There were already strong reasons to question just how much editorial independence the network really has. The U.S. State Department clearly views Al Jazeera as a tool of Qatar's foreign policy; one cable from November 2009 claims that the Persian Gulf state uses the channel "as a bargaining tool to repair relationships with other countries, particularly those soured by al-Jazeera's broadcasts, including the United States." Al Jazeera devotes suspiciously little time to covering the politics of the Gulf; for instance, after Qatar's rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, criticism of the Saudi royal family dropped dramatically.
In recent weeks, the details of conversations between U.S. officials and Al Jazeera executives, including Khanfar, had been the subject of much chatter in the Arab world (Omar Chatriwala details that story for FP here). One October 2005 cable describes U.S. officials presenting Khanfar with the findings of a Defense Intelligence Agency report complaining about the network's coverage, and him agreeing to remove a particularly inflammatory slideshow from Al Jazeera's website. The cable was taken out of context and seized upon by the network's critics as evidence of a CIA-Qatari conspiracy to manipulate Arabs in the service of U.S. foreign-policy goals.
Middle East Online is running with the headline "WikiLeaks topples Al Jazeera director." But if Khanfar somehow had to resign because of the cable controversy, which has hurt Al Jazeera's credibility in certain quarters, it doesn't wash that his replacement would be a member of the Qatari royal family. Middle East Online also reports that unnamed Qatari officials were already looking to cashier Khanfar over a supposed dispute with Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian intellectual and former Knesset member who lives in Doha (and appears frequently on Al Jazeera).
So perhaps something else is going on. My sense from watching the Arabic network's coverage over the past few months is that it had more or less dropped the pretense of independence, and at times seemed like the official network of the Qatari Foreign Ministry. For instance, its Libya coverage was utterly over-the-top, enthusiastic cheerleading for the rebels -- and it just so happened that Qatar was heavily engaged in overthrowing Muammar al-Qaddafi. When Qatar brokered a peace agreement between warring factions in Darfur, Al Jazeera broke away from its normal coverage for two hours to show the final announcement. And, as many have noted, the Arabic channel's usual aggression has been noticeably lacking when it comes to Bahrain.
It's hard to imagine a hard-charging guy like Khanfar -- who clearly has his own ideological leanings -- putting up with that sort of thing for very long. So maybe he just didn't want to toe anybody's line. Whatever the reason, Arabs will be watching closely to see if his successor clips Al Jazeera's wings.
Correction: Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani is not a former minister of commerce, as I originally wrote. And QatarGas is technically state-affiliated but not state-owned.
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
With just five days remaining for Congress and the White House to agree on a deal to solve the U.S. debt limit crisis, it's not just Americans who are frustrated and concerned about the prospects of a government default.
The most strident commentary on the crisis has come from China -- no surprise, since Beijing's long-standing affinity for U.S. treasury bonds has made it the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. An editorial cartoon in China Daily today shows snowballing U.S. debts threatening to crush the rest of the world. A column from state news agency Xinhua yesterday had harsh words for the leaders in Washington:
When countries across the world hold breath watching the debt negotiations between the Democrats and Republicans in Washington, they are once again "kidnapped" by U.S. domestic politics.
As the Aug. 2 deadline approaches for Washington to raise its borrowing limit and avoid a catastrophic debt default, deeply divided U.S. politicians remain stubbornly engaged in what is widely seen as a game of chicken.
Given the United States' status as the world's largest economy and the issuer of the dominant international reserve currency, such political brinkmanship in Washington is dangerously irresponsible, for it risks, among other consequences, strangling the still fragile economic recovery of not only the United States but also the world as a whole.
Meanwhile, a number of European outlets have lambasted the Tea Party for its role in the crisis. Der Spiegel's Washington correspondent, Gregor Peter Schmitz, excoriates the G.O.P.'s libertarian wing:
Democracy depends on compromise and the American government depends on all branches working together. The Tea Party movement shuns both, preferring instead to drive the state into bankruptcy. On principle.
At the Guardian, editorial cartoonist Steve Bell takes the attack even further, comparing Tea Party members to Nazis. But Spain's El Pais is thankfully more measured, assailing both Republicans and Democrats for their "accumulated rigidity" and "mutual distrust," but also singling out Tea Party fundamentalism for "diminishing ... the possibility of reasonable arguments."
Over in France, Les Echos investigates whether credit rating agencies Moody's, Standard & Poor's, and Fitch are more kind to the United States than toward European countries. The paper cites multiple European officials who suspect the agencies of being "very sensitive to criticism targeting them in the U.S. and of turning a blind eye to such criticism here in Europe." (translation provided by France24).
The Tehran Times, a pro-government Iranian daily, uses the debt crisis to criticize U.S. military intervention in the region. In a brief and somewhat rambling column, University of Tehran professor Ebrahim Motaqi illuminates what's behind the troubled Treasury:
Perhaps one of the main reasons for this situation is the huge cost of U.S. involvement in regional and international military conflicts. ...
Since 2001 the mounting expenditures of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a huge threat for U.S. national security which resulted in the devastating economic recession of 2008. Accordingly, in the current situation, the U.S. economy is gripped with stagnation. In fact, the current U.S. budget deficit is a direct result of such a process which began with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
On the subject of defense spending, it's worth noting a Congressional Budget Office report released on Wednesday about competing budget plans proposed by Republican Congressional leader Rep. John Boehner and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Harry Reid. The report said that Reid's plan would save almost three times the amount that Boehner's would, mostly because Reid's version includes more than $1 trillion in savings from the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan -- although a closer look at the math suggests that the $1 trillion figure is deeply misleading.
That said, even under CBO projections, neither plan appears to have enough savings to fully offset the debt ceiling increase needed to secure U.S. finances through 2013. Some crisis, indeed.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The furor over the Saturday night train crash last weekend in eastern China that killed at least 39 people and injured at least 192 has left the Chinese government scrambling to control public reaction. But its efforts may be doing the ruling Communist party more harm than good. Here's a roundup of some of the most interesting bits coming out about the crash:
Official reports from earlier this week said the crash was caused by a lightning strike. Today, however, the state-affiliated Xinhua News Agency is reporting testimony from the head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau at a meeting of the central government's State Council saying that the blame lies with design flaws in the railway's signaling system. The revelation confirms questions aired publicly by a number of Chinese railway experts wondering why safety mechanisms didn't kick in after the lightning strike to avert disaster (Caixin, Wall Street Journal).
Meanwhile, five days after the crash, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao finally made a public appearance today in Wenzhou to address the disaster. He blamed his earlier absence on an illness, which knocked him out of action for the last eleven days. His explanation didn't sit well with a number of users of the popular Chinese microblogging site, Weibo, who circulated official press photos showing Wen up and about with visiting state leaders between July 18 and July 24. But the confusion may boil down to a simple reporting error; the original Xinhua report appears to have misquoted Wen in saying that he had been in the hospital, while the premier said only that he was sick and in bed.
Whatever the reason for Wen's absence, his appearance means that the central government is taking seriously the crash -- and not a moment too soon. The Ministry of Railways (MOR) has come under fire from citizens, journalists, and even fellow government officials for its handling of the crisis. At a press conference on Monday, MOR spokesman Wang Yongping elicited howls from journalists with his efforts to explain why initial state reports about the cleanup were proven false (see item #13). Meanwhile, stories from the Wenzhou City News and the Beijing News describe how Wenzhou officials clashed with MOR officials over cleanup at the crash site. One local security official told the City News how he disobeyed orders on Sunday afternoon to bury the trains (translation by China-watching blog Shanghaiist):
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