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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Ireland's simple strategy for success

Ireland's simple strategy for success

By Thomas Friedman

DUBLIN - HERE is something you probably did not know: Ireland today is the richest country in the European Union after Luxembourg.

Yes, the country that for hundreds of years was best known for emigration, tragic poets, famines, civil wars and leprechauns today has a per capita GDP higher than that of Germany, France and Britain.

How Ireland went from the sick man of Europe to the rich man in less than a generation is an amazing story.

It tells you a lot about Europe today: All the innovation is happening on the periphery by those countries embracing globalisation in their own ways - Ireland, Britain, the Scandinavian and Eastern European nations - while those following the French-German social model are suffering high unemployment and low growth.

Ireland's turnaround began in the late 1960s when the government made secondary education free, enabling a lot more working-class kids to get a high school or technical degree. As a result, when Ireland joined the EU in 1973, it was able to draw on a much more educated workforce.

By the mid-1980s, Ireland had reaped the initial benefits of EU membership - subsidies to build better infrastructure and a big market to sell to.

But it still did not have enough competitive products to sell because of years of protectionism and fiscal mismanagement. The country was going broke and most college graduates were emigrating.

'We went on a borrowing, spending and taxing spree, and that nearly drove us under,' said Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney. 'It was because we nearly went under that we got the courage to change.'

And change Ireland did. In an unusual development, the government, the main trade unions, farmers and industrialists came together and agreed on a programme of fiscal austerity, slashing corporate taxes to 12.5 per cent, far below the rest of Europe, moderating wages and prices and aggressively courting foreign investment.

In 1996, Ireland made college education basically free, creating an even more educated workforce.

The results have been phenomenal. Today, nine out of 10 of the world's top pharmaceutical companies have operations there, as do 16 of the top 20 medical device companies and seven out of the top 10 software designers. Last year, Ireland got more foreign direct investment from America than from China. And overall government tax receipts are way up.

'We set up in Ireland in 1990,' Mr Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computer, explained via e-mail.

'What attracted us? A well-educated workforce - and good universities close by. Ireland also has an industrial and tax policy which is consistently very supportive of businesses, independent of which political party is in power.

'I believe this is because there are enough people who remember the very bad times to depoliticise economic development. Ireland also has very good transportation and logistics and a good location - easy to move products to major markets in Europe quickly.'

Added Mr Dell: 'They are competitive, want to succeed, hungry and know how to win. Our factory is in Limerick, but we also have several thousand sales and technical people outside of Dublin. The talent in Ireland has proven to be a wonderful resource for us. Fun fact: We are Ireland's largest exporter.'

Intel opened its first chip factory in Ireland in 1993. Mr James Jarrett, a vice-president, said Intel was attracted by Ireland's large pool of young educated men and women, low corporate taxes and other incentives that saved Intel roughly US$1 billion (S$1.68 billion) over 10 years. National health care did not hurt, either.

'We have 4,700 employees there now in four factories and we are even doing some high-end chip designing in Shannon with Irish engineers,' he said.

In 1990, Ireland's total workforce numbered 1.1 million. This year, it will hit two million, with no unemployment and 200,000 foreign workers (including 50,000 Chinese). Others are taking notes.

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said: 'I have met the premier of China five times in the past two years.'

Ireland's advice is very simple: make high school and college education free; keep corporate taxes low, simple and transparent; actively seek out global companies; open your economy to competition; speak English; keep your fiscal house in order and build a consensus around the whole package with labour and management - then hang in there, because there will be bumps in the road - and you, too, can become one of the richest countries in Europe.

'It was not a miracle, we did not find gold,' said Deputy Prime Minister Harney. 'It was the right domestic policies and embracing globalisation.' -- NEW YORK TIMES

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Bund, Tortoises, and Wild KTVs

The Bund, Tortoises, and Wild KTVs

 

 

Every time I am about to dial an external phone line, I am tempted to hit 7 instead of 9.  How time flies!  It’s almost a month since I left MAS, the Singapore central bank, and yet old telephone habits die hard (- my ex-colleagues would know what I’m referring to – oops – hope this is not a state secret).

 

From the timeless, dusty plains of Henan to the space age train lines and endless miles of skyscrapers of Shanghai, the New China continues to fascinate and awe me.  This is the Brave New World of progress with a capital P.  They say, the crane is the national bird of China – because the skyline of China’s cities, not just Shanghai, is full of construction crane. 

 

I was last in Shanghai in 1996 and now it is a space age city of skyscrapers and treads of elevated motorways floating like concrete ribbons in the sky.  Massive shopping malls, fancy bars and clubs, and monuments built by the world’s most renowned architects – some in adventurous experimental style while others are plain bad taste - all symbols of a confident global city which knows what it is and where it is heading. 

 

I strolled along the streets of the Xintiandi and the old French Concession – the quaint streets flanked by late 19thC/early 20thC residences, today turned into restaurants serving Shanghainese style and new fusion cuisines.  At 18 Bund, the swanky outfit on the 7th floor of a bella époque banking hall by the banks of Huangpu River with a panoramic view of the city and its river and skyscrapers, I had mango drop and mojito among a cosmopolitan crowd of expats and the young jet setting elite of China’s new middle class.  Images of the old China of water buffalos and Mao billboards seemed as far away as Outer Space, replaced with the most fashionable venues of London and Manhattan.  My poor old Singapore looks worn out and tired in comparison…

 

Not everything is perfect though – connecting international flights from the Pudong International Airport to the old Hongqiao domestic airport is a pain, and the one hour transit journey is painful, with endless congestion, despite the brand new motorways that crisscrosses the city’s skylines.

 

I flew to Henan, where I last visited in 2002.  Here, the old messy centre of Zhengzhou, the provincial capital with 5 million people, is now a mini Shanghai in the making.  Flashy new cars, brand new malls and fancy new hotels – Zhengzhou, once sprawling Soviet-planned metropolis, is the political heart of Henan, one of China’s most populous provinces.  Henan may be a poor province whose young men become migrant workers in the anonymous factories on the coast and where peasants get HIV-infected via contaminated needles while selling blood.  But having 100 million inhabitants within its borders means the existence of a wealthy local elite of a few million strong with cash to burn.

 

3 hours on the same motorway that links Beijing to Guangzhou and one reaches the city of Anyang.  Even this third tier city of China has one Carrefour hypermarket and I have seen at least 4 malls.  But Anyang is more than yet another city devoted to the new god of shopping.  This is one of the world’s oldest cities.  The ruins of Yinxu, capital of the Shang Dynasty more than 3000 years ago, lies near the city centre.  On a traffic island near the shopping district is an ancient monastery, whose 1000 years old tower with a larger top than bottom, is full of ancient carvings of tales of Buddha’s enlightenment and everyday life in mediaeval China. 

 

In Anyang, we had dinner with the mayor who governed this municipality of 5 million people with a surface area almost twice the size of Delaware, USA, from his palatial headquarters.  This is a gigantic complex in typical “socialist birthday cake” style, not unlike the Moscow State University and the Government HQ of Dear Old Ceausescu in Bucharest – but the Anyang version is much newer, and probably has more chandeliers and the latest German “smart lifts”. 

 

In its magnificent dining hall with an almost 270 degrees’ glass wall overlooking an enormous square, we had the strange dishes ranging from obscure parts of the bull to whole mini turtles (i.e., a complete turtle for each guest) cooked in thick herbal stew.  Like Tim Clissold said in his excellent book, Mr China, it’s as though cooks all over China are competing to serve the most unusual parts of animals cooked in the most unusual ways.  Days later, my accountant would introduce me to the delights of barbecue goat testicles.  Well, Clissold wrote about being served the tip of the deer’s penis.

 

My factory is located at a company town 30 minutes from Anyang City.  Tall chimneys and massive furnaces that produce organic chemicals 24 hours/7 days a week, all to meet the demand of China’s booming manufacturing industry.  Although many parts of the huge industrial complex are new, remnants of the old revolutionary era remains.  A faded red slogan on the tallest chimney read, “Long Live the Chinese Communist Party”. 

 

Henan may be a poverty stricken province, but the village surrounding the company town looks prosperous.  The Village Administration is building a whole new residential district, with pretty multiple floor houses that look more in place in the wealthy Bavarian countryside than the dusty rolling plains of Northern China, where many people still live in loess caves.  This village, I was told, had become rich from its fertile soil enriched by the irrigation project nearby; as well as the employment of its residents in various projects associated with this huge expanding chemical plant next to it.

 

More surprises – My 60 years old chauffeur plays computer games in the office when not on duty, and plans beach holidays to visit his daughter who lives in China’s tropical resort island of Hainan.  My young accountant told me about his desire to sun tan on the beaches of Maldives, a country most Chinese probably hadn’t heard of 10 years ago.  While I was doing channel surfing on my hotel room’s cable TV, I saw flashy ads by the Egyptian and Indian Tourism Boards on the Provincial TV Station of Liaoning in Northeast China.  Shanghai TV news reported price wars among airlines for London holidays.

 

The contrast couldn’t be greater, for not too far away is the coal mining region that straddles the trip-provincial area of Henan, Hebei and Shanxi provinces, where under-regulated mining activities has led to the world’s highest accident rates.  More than 600 died in 2004 - 80% of world mining casualties occurred in China even though it produced only 35% of the world’s coal.  China’s miners are paying a heavy price for the nation’s hunger for energy fuel in the wake of rapid economic growth.

 

We drove past the pathetic mining villages – gray, dirty and polluted – which reminded me of scenes from Great Expectations – the London of early Industrial Age, where millions worked in inhumane conditions, tolling for the Empire’s rapid industrial expansion.  Nearby villages had the word “Cai” or “To destroy” painted on them – these were to be torn down to make way for the new highway leading to the coal mining province of Shanxi.

 

Here I am in my hotel room in Zhengzhou, on my 2nd visit to China since I started this job a month ago.  The work has been exciting but challenging as well.  It has been a fantastic revision into specialist areas related to my past jobs as an auditor and an investment banker.  I also learned a lot about doing business in China and managing complex organizational relationship that exists in Chinese organisations. 

 

There are also some downsides (or upsides in the eyes of many) – for instance, Chinese business entertainment – this applies to many other Asian cultures as well – evolves around dining, liquor and women.

 

I love good food, but I would prefer to draw a line at moderation – not leaving heaps of food untouched, not to mention the endless intake of meat which may fell turn me vegetarian one day if carried to the extreme.  The endless rounds of KTV entertainment with hostesses offering the sleaziest suggestions are not exactly my cup of tea.  I missed the more diverse business entertainment I had experienced in Europe, which included attending cultural performances and sporting events, or drinks in palaces, castles and museums.  

 

Well, TWC’s travels continues…will update you guys with more juicy details of the itinerant financier’s adventures in China.  Hold on tight!

 

 

Regards,

 

Wee Cheng

 

Saturday, June 18, 2005

'Religious bullying' at US academy

 
'Religious bullying' at US academy
By Matthew Wells
BBC News, Colorado Springs

Cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs celebrate graduation on 1 June 2005
The academy trains cadets to become Air Force officers
The sprawling campus of America's elite Air Force Academy is silent for the summer holiday, but the din surrounding its role as an alleged hot-bed of religious intolerance is only getting louder.

For months now, unsavoury stories have circulated - first in the local media and now nationally - of cadets at the academy, situated at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, being bullied and discriminated against by evangelical Christians.

The academy, already rocked by a rape and sexual abuse scandal, has admitted that all is not well.

Authorities have received more than 50 complaints from students who felt they were being inappropriately proselytised.

A few months ago, a religious respect and awareness course was established which all 9,000 cadets and staff are expected to attend.

But critics both inside and out are saying that it is nowhere near enough to resolve a problem they say is systematic and endemic.

'Preyed upon'

One man leading the charge is Mikey Weinstein, a graduate of the academy who served in the Reagan White House.

His eldest son is also a graduate, and his youngest son had been there just a few months when he complained of abuse from evangelical cadets.

Mr Weinstein said his son had complained of being called an "f-ing Jew" and was told Jews were responsible for "executing Jesus".

Air Force Academy chapel, which combines a synagogue and Catholic and Protestant chapels
The academy chapel is built to cater to several religions
Mr Weinstein said 117 people had given him examples of abuse. Only eight of them were Jewish, he said - the rest were Catholics, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Methodist.

"There're not used to being preyed upon... by their evangelical brothers and sisters. But that's exactly what's happening."

Mr Weinstein believes that some senior officers are so heavily involved in a culture of intolerance - and the rest are so blase about what is going on - that the entire academy leadership should be replaced.

A Yale Divinity School report and a liberal group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, cite many examples of alleged abusive behaviour by evangelicals.

Examples include placing "Passion of the Christ" flyers on every place-setting in the mess hall to frogmarching cadets who fail to attend chapel into their barracks.

'Abuse of uniform'

There are more than a dozen chaplains who look after the religious and counselling needs of cadets, and one of them - Captain Melinda Morton - says she has been punished for breaking ranks to complain that the problem merits more far-reaching measures than those proposed so far.

Air Force Academy Chaplain Captain Melinda Morton
You are free to evangelise as you want, out there on the street and in your churches. But you are not free to use the uniform
Chaplain Captain Melinda Morton
Capt Morton claims she has become an outcast since she complained. She has also been demoted, and is due to leave for a new post in Japan shortly.

"You are free to evangelise as you want, out there on the street and in your churches," she said.

"But you are not free to use the uniform, and the power and rigid structure of the military to propagate your ideology. The constitution says no."

The fact that Colorado Springs is home to some of America's most powerful evangelical Christian organisations has exacerbated the situation, she said.

"Many of them have particular goals when it comes to people in uniform, that they are there to teach and encourage those folks to use their power and their position in the military," she added.

Focus on the Family - perhaps the most powerful lobbying organisation on the Christian right - is over the road from the academy.

Mega-church

Colorado's largest evangelical mega-church, the New Life Church, sits on a hill just a few kilometres away, looking down onto the academy grounds. Its pastor is Ted Haggard, president of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals.

He boasts his own huge congregation of 11,000.

"Liberal movements in America treat people like they're stupid," said the man whose national prominence means that he talks to President George W Bush most weeks.

"Are we saying that we want those students to understand representative government... but they can't understand religious discussion?"

Portrait of Pastor Ted Haggard
Why in the world would we adopt a view that freedom of speech applies in every area except religion?
Pastor Ted Haggard
New Life Church
"Proselytising causes people to improve their argument, and exposes false arguments. Why in the world would we adopt a view that freedom of speech applies in every area except religion?"

Pastor Haggard says he believes cadets should be robust enough to withstand passionate evangelising. He denies systematic evangelical links to the academy.

At the academy itself, senior officers are refusing interviews before an internal Air Force inquiry into the allegations concludes later this month.

The academy's head of communications, Johnny Whitaker, was willing to discuss the issues, but denies an orchestrated campaign by evangelical Christians.

"We know we have issues within the cadet wing. We know we have issues on the staff and faculty... There are problems throughout the organisation," he said.

"Is it pervasive? We don't know that. We're taking this fairly seriously. A lot of it is just ignorance of the rules and insensitivity."

One of the other chaplains is Phil Guin, a United Methodist. He said he can't imagine any evangelical cadets calling their Jewish classmates "Christ-killers".

"The picture has been painted that we're holding a big tent revival here," he said.

"It's not that at all."

'Against national values'

Events are also being followed closely in Washington and the national editorial pages.

Democrat Congressman Steve Israel represents a district in Long Island, New York. He serves on the Armed Services Committee, and he fears that many evangelicals at the heart of power are happy to bend constitutional principles to suit themselves.

The problem, he believes, starts at the very top.

"Sometimes I think the president and some of my colleagues in Congress have forgotten how this country was founded," he said.

"It was founded by a group of people who fled state-sponsored and sanctioned religious intolerance. Now you have that very example unfolding at the US Air Force Academy," he said.

The argument looks set to rumble on.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Fatal shooting of teacher illustrates why Iraqis fear U.S. convoys

 
Posted on Wed, Jun. 15, 2005
 
  R E L A T E D   C O N T E N T 
Iraqi school teacher Farqad Mohammed Khinaisar is shown in this family photo with her husband, Mohsen Hameed. Shatha Al Awsy, KRT
Iraqi school teacher Farqad Mohammed Khinaisar is shown in this family photo with her husband, Mohsen Hameed. Shatha Al Awsy, KRT
More photos

Fatal shooting of teacher illustrates why Iraqis fear U.S. convoys




Knight Ridder Newspapers

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Farqad Mohammed Khinaisar was driving to work in her dark green Kia Sephia at 8 a.m. on May 29 when she came up behind three American Humvees that were about to enter a traffic circle in Baghdad's Sadiya neighborhood.

A high school Arabic teacher, she'd left home five minutes earlier, and she was 15 minutes from work. In the American convoy were soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga. They were out on a ride-around to get to know the community.

The 3rd Infantry had been in the country since February and had lost two soldiers a month earlier to a car bombing in an adjoining neighborhood. There had been three car bombs in three weeks in Sadiya. The prospect of another attack was "at the forefront of everyone's mind," said Lt. Col. David Funk, the battalion commander.

The usual crowd was gathered at the traffic circle - the shepherd and his 20 sheep, the kabob shop owner, the drivers waiting for someone to rent one of their trucks.

Everyone heard a gunshot from the third Humvee. The soldiers at the rear of the convoy thought they saw a suicide bomber, said Funk, and they'd fired a warning shot, then kept firing. The Iraqi men in the circle said they looked up and saw only a frightened woman in a careening car.

No one knows what Khinaisar saw or thought. She was shot once in the head, and she died five days later, on June 3. She spoke only once during that period, when her husband arrived at the hospital. When she heard him speak, she quietly called out his name: Mohsen.

In the car, the soldiers found only a purse and a Quran on the dashboard. They found no evidence that the 57-year-old teacher was a suicide bomber.

It's not clear how often American soldiers, strangers in a strange land where it's virtually impossible to distinguish friend from foe, mistakenly kill Iraqi civilians. U.S. officials say they keep no statistics, and since last year, the Iraqi Ministry of Health has refused to release the ones it keeps.

At the Iraqi Assistance Center, which pays families for damage caused by American forces, the head of the compensation section said the center receives 1,000 requests a month, but most of them are for property damage. The head of the center, Col. Chester Wernicki of the 353rd Civil Affairs Command from Staten Island, N.Y., said he doesn't keep information on how many claims have been filed for deaths.

Many Iraqis say they understand why U.S. forces must be here: to keep the country intact, protect its fragile new government and stop the violence.

But enough civilians have been killed in one-sided encounters with scared American troops that Baghdadis cower whenever Americans are near. Whenever American troops leave their bases, they say, everyone is vulnerable.

"We are living in constant terror because of these convoys," Khinaisar's husband, Mohsen Hameed, said at his wife's funeral.

Others think the shooting of innocent people is a reflection of the Americans' nervousness and their lack of intelligence about the insurgency.

"People are frustrated. So far, neither the government nor the multinational forces have proven that they can handle the security issues, and it is worrying the citizens," said Huda al-Nuami, a political science professor at al-Mustansiriya University. "There is a sense of distrust between the people and the security apparatus."

Funk, who wasn't present when his soldiers shot Khinaisar, defended his troops. Soldiers must decide who's a suicide bomber in a split second, and mistakes "tear us up."

"I truly honestly believe that, in the balance, we do so much good here," Funk said. This shooting "does not define our presence."

One fatal mistake, however, can undo a lot of good work.

Khinaisar's car jumped the curb and came to rest against a utility pole. A crowd quickly gathered. Witnesses said the Americans were standing to one side, talking about what to do. Funk said they were waiting for an ambulance.

One of the truck drivers standing in the circle, Raid Sabri, 38, said he saw Khinaisar's hand and leg move. He told the Americans that if they wouldn't take her to the hospital, he would. They agreed to let him take her, he said.

"We were furious after seeing them not rescue her while she was still alive. To them, killing a human being is nothing," Sabri said. "When an American soldier gets killed, they make a big fuss. Helicopters and ambulances come to rescue, but when an Iraqi gets killed in the street, it means nothing to them."

Funk said the ambulance was en route. Even his bleeding soldiers have had to wait for long periods for help, he said.

Sabri, his boss, Ibrahim Abdullah, 64, and the other men lifted Khinaisar into the back of Sabri's white Datsun pickup. They took her to the closest hospital, Yarmouk, where records show that witnesses brought her in. She was immediately transferred to Al-Kadimiya Hospital, the best place for head injuries, according to those records.

At the scene, U.S. forces found Khinaisar's address book, leading them to Khinaisar's niece, Inas Ahmen Muhammad, 25, who lived in an apartment above her aunt's house.

Muhammad rushed to Al-Kadimiya and found her aunt lying alone in a hallway, blood coming from her head. Khinaisar's hand and leg were still moving, but in Iraq's overburdened hospital system, she was waiting.

"We were begging the doctors to come and do something," Muhammad recalled.

Khinaisar's husband arrived home about noon. The neighbors saw him getting out of a taxi and told him that his wife of 17 years had been in an accident. He headed to the hospital.

"They told me she had a simple car accident," he said. "They did not want to shock me with the news."

But at the hospital, he learned the truth. "`The Americans shot her,' they told me. I don't know why."

Khinaisar's husband and several family members said they waited until 5 p.m., when hospital staff members finally wheeled Khinaisar into an operating room for a four-hour procedure.

After the operation, she didn't speak again. Because there weren't enough nurses, the family stayed at her bedside, cleaning her and changing her bandages. They said they noticed that other families at the hospital brought their own fans and water to care for their loved ones, and they did the same.

Regardless, they said they knew she was dying.

Khinaisar's funeral lasted three days. The family erected a large tent on a neighborhood street, the kind that lets everyone know they're mourning. Khinaisar's husband and the other men wore long white robes in 105-plus-degree heat.

In the house, the women, clad in black gowns, sat on cushions arranged on the floor. At every fifth woman or so, a box of Kleenex rested on the floor.

They said Khinaisar was a kind woman who loved her students and enjoyed visiting her parents in Spain.

They scorned the American forces that killed her. Even a young boy sitting next to his mother tried to describe how the Americans are attacking people.

Khinaisar's husband was distraught. "Why are they roaring down our streets? Why can't they stay on their bases?" he said, moving black prayer beads through his fingers faster and faster.

"They have sophisticated weapons. With one bullet, they can kill someone. But they don't know who is an insurgent? They are making a mockery of the Iraqi people."

Khinaisar's car is at the Sadiya police station, where it will stay until the family picks it up. It has five bullet holes - two in the windshield, one on the roof, two in the hood.

Funk said an investigation of the shooting found that the soldiers gave Khinaisar several warnings - hand and verbal signals - before they fired a warning shot. Once they have to position their gun and fire that shot, "soldiers get anxious," he said.

Funk said the report also found that Khinaisar's car was 15 feet from the Humvees, so close that had she been a suicide bomber, the soldiers likely would have been seriously hurt, he said. The Iraqi men at the traffic circle gave conflicting accounts, putting her as far as 100 feet away.

Some family members speculated that Khinaisar, frightened, may have hit the gas instead of the brake when she heard the warning shot. Indeed, the military said that after the warning shot, she moved faster, not slower.

A police commander at the Sadiya station said the Iraqi police aren't looking into the shooting: "If the Americans are part of the investigation, we don't investigate. We have no authority over the Americans."

Muhanned Methal, Khinaisar's nephew, said the family has no plans to ask for compensation.

"What are we going to do with money?" he said. "We lost the important thing. All she did was go to school."

Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report. Youssef reports for the Detroit Free Press.

 
 
 

Monday, June 13, 2005

Screening Kingdom of Heaven in Beirut

 

Ridley Scott's Crusades Strikes a Chord in Lebanon

Screening Kingdom of Heaven in Beirut

By ROBERT FISK

Long live Ridley Scott. I never thought I'd say this. Gladiator had a screenplay that might have come from the Boy's Own Paper. Black Hawk Down showed the Arabs of Somalia as generically violent animals. But when I left the cinema after seeing Scott's extraordinary sand-and-sandals epic on the Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven, I was deeply moved--not so much by the film, but by the Muslim audience among whom I watched it in Beirut.

I know what the critics have said. The screenplay isn't up for much and Orlando Bloom, playing the loss-of-faith crusader Balian of Ibelin, does indeed look--as The Independent cruelly observed--like a backpacker touring the Middle East in a gap year.

But there is an integrity about its portrayal of the Crusades which, while fitting neatly into our contemporary view of the Middle East--the moderate crusaders are overtaken by crazed neo-conservative barons while Saladin is taunted by a dangerously al-Qa'ida-like warrior--treats the Muslims as men of honour who can show generosity as well as ruthlessness to their enemies.

It was certainly a revelation to sit through Kingdom of Heaven not in London or New York but in Beirut, in the Middle East itself, among Muslims--most of them in their 20s--who were watching historical events that took place only a couple of hundred miles from us. How would the audience react when the Knights Templars went on their orgy of rape and head-chopping among the innocent Muslim villagers of the Holy Land, when they advanced, covered in gore, to murder Saladin's beautiful, chadored sister? I must admit, I held my breath a few times.

I need not have bothered. When the leprous King of Jerusalem--his face covered in a steel mask to spare his followers the ordeal of looking at his decomposition--falls fatally ill after honourably preventing a battle between Crusaders and Saracens, Saladin, played by that wonderful Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud--and thank God the Arabs in the film are played by Arabs--tells his deputies to send his own doctors to look after the Christian king.

At this, there came from the Muslim audience a round of spontaneous applause. They admired this act of mercy from their warrior hero; they wanted to see his kindness to a Christian.

There are some things in the film which you have to be out here in the Middle East to appreciate. When Balian comes across a pile of crusader heads lying on the sand after the Christian defeat at the 1187 battle of Hittin, everyone in the cinema thought of Iraq; here is the nightmare I face each time I travel to report in Iraq. Here is the horror that the many Lebanese who work in Iraq have to confront. Yet there was a wonderful moment of self-deprecation among the audience when Saladin, reflecting on his life, says: "Somebody tried to kill me once in Lebanon."

The house came down. Everyone believed that Massoud must have inserted this line to make fun of the Lebanese ability to destroy themselves and--having lived in Lebanon 29 years and witnessed almost all its tragedy--I too founds tears of laughter running down my face.

I suppose that living in Lebanon, among those crusader castles, does also give an edge to Kingdom of Heaven. It's said that Scott originally wanted to film in Lebanon (rather than Spain and Morocco) and to call his movie Tripoli after the great crusader keep I visited a few weeks ago. One of the big Christian political families in Lebanon, the Franjiehs, take their name from the "Franj", which is what the Arabs called the crusaders. The Douai family in Lebanon--with whom the Franjiehs fought a bitter battle, Knights Templar-style, in a church in 1957--are the descendants of the French knights who came from the northern French city of Douai.

Yet it is ironic that this movie elicited so much cynical comment in the West. Here is a tale that--unlike any other recent film--has captured the admiration of Muslims. Yet we denigrated it. Because Orlando Bloom turns so improbably from blacksmith to crusader to hydraulic engineer? Or because we felt uncomfortable at the way the film portrayed "us", the crusaders?

But it didn't duck Muslim vengeance. When Guy de Lusignan hands the cup of iced water given him by Saladin to the murderous knight who slaughtered Saladin's daughter, the Muslim warrior says menacingly: "I did not give you the cup." And then he puts his sword through the knight's throat. Which is, according to the archives, exactly what he did say and exactly what he did do.

Massoud, who is a popular local actor in Arab films--he is known in the Middle East as the Syrian Al Pacino--in reality believes that George Bush is to blame for much of the crisis between the Muslim and Western world. "George Bush is stupid and he loves blood more than the people and music," he said in a recent interview. "If Saladin were here he would have at least not allowed Bush to destroy the world, especially the feeling of humanity between people."

Massoud agreed to play Saladin because he trusted Scott to be fair with history. I had to turn to that fine Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf to discover whether Massoud was right. Maalouf it was who wrote the seminal The Crusades through Arab Eyes, researching for his work among Arab rather than Crusader archives. "Too fair," was his judgement on Kingdom of Heaven.

I see his point. But at the end of the film, after Balian has surrendered Jerusalem, Saladin enters the city and finds a crucifix lying on the floor of a church, knocked off the altar during the three-day siege. And he carefully picks up the cross and places it reverently back on the altar. And at this point the audience rose to their feet and clapped and shouted their appreciation. They loved that gesture of honour. They wanted Islam to be merciful as well as strong. And they roared their approval above the soundtrack of the film.

So I left the Dunes cinema in Beirut strangely uplifted by this extraordinary performance--of the audience as much as the film. See it if you haven't. And if you do, remember how the Muslims of Beirut came to realise that even Hollywood can be fair. I came away realising why--despite the murder of Beirut's bravest journalist on Friday--there probably will not be a civil war here again. So if you see Kingdom of Heaven, when Saladin sets the crucifix back on the altar, remember that deafening applause from the Muslims of Beirut.

Robert Fisk is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch's collection, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. Fisk's new book, The Conquest of the Middle East, will be released this fall.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Gulf haven for exotic species

 
Gulf haven for exotic species
By Jonathan Fryer
BBC News

The Hawar Islands off the Gulf state of Qatar actually belong to nearby Bahrain, as confirmed by the International Court of Justice four years ago. The islands are potentially rich in oil and the Qatari authorities are still very angry about the decision. But, as Jonathan Fryer discovered, one beneficiary of the dispute has been the wildlife of the region.

Map showing Qatar, Bahrain and the Hawar Islands

The 16 islets of the Hawar archipelago used to be a favoured base for pearl fishing.

In the days before oil, pearls were the major source of wealth for Bahrain and its near neighbour Qatar. But the natural pearl trade collapsed in the 1930s, in the face of competition from cheaper, cultured pearls from Japan.

These days the bitter life of the divers, who would plunge into the sea at the height of summer in search of pearl-bearing oysters, is just a distant memory.

But Bahrain's ruler, King Hamad, likes to talk of the Hawar Islands as the "priceless pearls of Bahrain".

That is not just because Bahrain has consistently rebuffed efforts by Qatar to gain sovereignty of the islands.

Flora and fauna

Since 1996, Hawar has been Bahrain's most important nature reserve and the archipelago offers both naturalists and eco-tourists a rich diversity of birds, animals and sea creatures that is most unusual for the region.

Socotra cormorant (Image: Tommy Pedersen)
It is only a 45-minute ride yet one still gets the feeling of arriving somewhere tremendously remote

Indeed, the flora and fauna of Hawar have been the main beneficiaries of the stand-off between Bahrain and Qatar over the islands' ownership.

Oil and gas exploration has been kept at bay and the wildlife has been allowed to thrive. This includes a spectacular colony of Socotra cormorants, estimated to be 200,000-strong, which cover the sea like a vast rain-cloud when they take off.

Herds of dugongs or sea cows - some of which can reach three metres long - ply the coastal waters, grazing on sea-grass.

There are even Arabian oryx, the twin-horned antelope that had become extinct in the wild but which have been reintroduced in various sanctuaries in the Gulf region, including Hawar.

Officially the Hawar Islands are uninhabited, as far as humans are concerned. But that is not strictly true.

Separatist movement

Qatari offshore oil rig
Oil is the main export of both Bahrain and Qatar

The Bahrain Defence Force maintains a garrison there, just to make sure that the Qataris do not suddenly get frisky. Or that some individual or group does not settle on the islands and declare them independent.

That is not as fanciful a notion as it might sound, as one can find a putative Hawar Islands separatist flag posted on the internet.

So the soldiers run around the spectacularly barren landscape, keeping their eyes open for any intruder.

And there are several dozen other humans who work and sleep on the main island - the staff of a small but comfortable hotel resort that the Bahrainis have recently developed, catering for locals and foreign visitors alike.

Access to the resort is by speedboat from the jetty at Dur, on the main island of Bahrain.

It is only a 45-minute ride, yet one still gets the feeling of arriving somewhere tremendously remote.

The hotel and its large swimming pool, flanked by towering water-chutes, stand out incongruously against the natural backdrop.

Beyond the resort's perimeter fence, army jeeps scud by.

Culture clash

Bahraini families predominate among the guests, especially at weekends. Some appear totally westernised - the youngsters in particular, dressed in jeans and baseball caps.

From deep within the black shroud of the wife, a gurgle of laughter emerged that turned into a torrent of mirth, echoed by seabirds passing overhead
But there are also more traditional groups. The young wife who sat with her husband and two children at the table next to mine at lunch the other day was completely shrouded in an enveloping black robe.

And as she was wearing sunglasses, one couldn't even see her eyes. She had to lift up the long black face-veil that hung from above her nose every time she wanted to transfer a forkful of food into her mouth.

I wondered how this modest Islamic lady would react to the Filipina woman who had come out to Hawar that morning on the same speedboat as myself.

A very glamorous woman, she was accompanied by an unusually plain teenage daughter. As for the mother, age had not withered her, and designer clothes - including massive white platform shoes - added to her look.

She had enough luggage to sink the boat. Once installed in the hotel, she kept disappearing, only to re-emerge in yet another stunning outfit.

Exotic species

After lunch at the pool, the Bahraini family was again sitting near me, the husband and children in swimming costumes, but the wife still completely covered.

Then the Filipina arrived, swathed in a black fishnet robe, an attendant padding behind her with a pile of towels.

Her hair was immaculate and around her neck hung a splendid string of pearls. She peeled off the fishnet robe to reveal a bathing costume that would have turned heads even in Rio de Janeiro, as it totally exposed her buttocks.

I looked over to the family to watch their reaction, expecting some expression of outrage.

But instead, from deep within the black shroud of the wife, a gurgle of laughter emerged that turned into a torrent of mirth, echoed by seabirds passing overhead.

Undeterred, the Filipina - still in her pearls - stepped gracefully into the water, as the Hawar Islands welcomed another exotic species into its midst.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 11 June, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Cannibalism in DR Congo: Zainabo's agony

This tragic story from the UN Mission in DR Congo website:
 
 
 
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monuc.org
19/03/2005
Cannibalism in DR Congo: Zainabo's agony
Mathy Mupapa et Christelle Nyakura/MONUC

Zainabo, on the operation table after the drama. (MONUC) Zainabo, on the operation table after the drama.
When people speak in general terms about the atrocities and abuses committed against the Congolese population, it's not easy to empathize or grasp the scope of the issue. However when we hear of the specifics of individual cases, all of a sudden, the horror rings clear. Such is the case with the story of Zainabo Alfani.

It's June 5, 2003. Zainabo Alfani, a widow and merchant living in Kisangani, decides to travel to Bunia to sell 5 carats of diamonds, earrings, a necklace and three rings, all made of gold. She is carrying $480 on her. Zainabo boards a bus with three of her children, two girls and a six-month-old baby. Her five eldest children are to remain in Kisangani.

14 other women traveling the same road, on the same bus. Between Mambassa (135 km west of Bunia) and Irumu (56 km southwest of Bunia), a series of shots ring out. The passengers ask the bus driver to turn around, and head back to Kisangani. He suggests instead that they get out of the bus and hide in the jungle of Muvuta Bangi until the fighting ahead stops. After, he proposes, the passengers can continue on their way to sell their goods in Bunia as planned. Convinced, the women accept to get off the bus. As for the driver, he, for his part, pulls a U-turn and heads back towards Kisangani, abandoning the women, young girls and baby left alone to seek refuge in the jungle.

Approximately half an hour later, in the middle of the bush at Muvuta Bangi, armed men in army fatigues appear. They are about 18 in number. Only one speaks to the women in their native tongue, Swahili; the others remain silent. He who speaks tells the women to take off all their clothes, after which the armed men examine with attention each of the women's genitals. What are they looking for? Their war fetish: long vaginal lips. Zainabo is the only one who meets this criterion. Her life is spared; the others are ruthlessly massacred. Zainabo is alive, but is mutilated, the men cut off her prized vaginal lips. As if that were not enough suffering, she is then raped by the so-called spokesman of the group. The others follow his lead. Zainabo, in excruciated pain, believes she will die there in the fields. Instead, she faints.

When she regains consciousness, she sees her attackers sharing the piece of flesh they cut from her loins. They cut into her right foot, her left forearm, and underneath her right breast, in order to extract her blood. Five among her attackers, no doubt the leaders of the group, shallow a mixture of her blood and water, along with pieces of her flesh. After this ritual, they take her and her three children farther into the brush, some 2 kilometers away. Zainabo is totally lost. They arrive somewhere that seems to serve as a sort of kitchen, where she sees human bones. A "cook" is skewing pieces of a human body over an open flame. Meanwhile, more cooks are heating up oil and water.

The men in uniform seize Zainabo's two girls, 10-year-old Alima and 8 year-old Mulassi, and submerge them, one after the other, in the barrels. They mix them with a large iron rod used as a spoon and pierce their stomachs in order to ensure a proper "cooking". They eat one of the bodies with foufou (a Congolese specialty, dough made of manioc) and they save the other body for later in the night.

The "spokesman" explains to Zainabo that the ritual is to continue with her body, by cutting into her stomach and placing a piece of wood wrapped in white paper. Zainabo's baby, he promises, will be spared. Zainabo muster the courage to ask of him one favour: that her body and the remains of her baby be left on the main road, so that someone of good faith may find them and give them a proper burial. The man simply proceeds to cut her stomach open. She faints.

Zainabo awakes at Bujumbura's Nouvelle Espérance (New Hope) hospital. The staff explains to her that passersby found her and her baby alongside the main road, not far from where she first got off the bus. She had been taken to Bunia before being transferred to the Burundian capital for the appropriate medical care.

Zainabo, now HIV/AIDS positive, leaves the hospital two years later. At this time, an NGO called "Héritiers de la Justice" (Hiers of Justice) in Bukavu looks after her progress for a month. She travels then to the Congolese capital, Kinshasa where other HIV/AIDS organizations take care of her. Her son is now 3 years old.

On February 17th 2005, she presents her case before MONUC's Human Rights Section, in Kinshasa. She sobs as she relives her excruciating story, all the while unveiling the numerous scars on her body. Zainabo dies at Kinshasa's General Hospital on March 11th, at the age of 42.

Zainabo, in February 2005 with her 3 years old son. (MONUC) Zainabo, in February 2005 with her 3 years old son.
 
 
 

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Fox Spirits and Xiangtou: Religious Healing in the Local Culture of Village North China

and I found more... maybe we should invite Thomas DuBois onto this list:

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Fox Spirits and Xiangtou: Religious Healing in the Local Culture of Village North China

Thomas DuBois, University of California, Los Angeles

This paper uses recent fieldwork conducted in the villages of Cangxian, Hebei, to discuss popular beliefs concerning the role of fox spirits in sickness and healing. Villagers recognize a difference between ordinary sickness (shi) which should be treated by a medical doctor, and those of supernatural origin (xu), which are the purview of xiangtou, specialists who act as media for the power of fox spirits. When diagnosing a xu illness, the xiangtou first determines what sort of spirit is afflicting the individual and why. Possible actors include animal spirits, who afflict humans out of spite, as punishment for a misdeed or to call the attention of the individual for a specific reason. This diagnosis dictates the cure; depending on their motivation for afflicting an individual, spirits can either be supplicated or exorcised. However, xiangtou are not masters of a body of arcane knowledge, but rather media chosen by fox spirits because of their innate ability to channel divine power. Thus, the diagnostic and healing arts themselves are well-known even to non-specialists, and a new xiangtou draws together his or her own eclectic mix of ritual arts from this body of common knowledge. Just as the ritual arts of xiangtou are part of local culture, so too is knowledge concerning the supernatural causes of sickness and sources of healing, and the motivations and character of fox spirits. Villagers learn about the complex morality of fox spirits not through texts, but through a constantly evolving and tangible culture of tales located in neighboring villages in the present day.

 

In the Name of Buddha: Local Pride and Religious Practice at a Sacred Site in Contemporary Rural China

Another interesting writeup on the same page, this time about the fox fairy spirit medium in northern China:
 

In the Name of Buddha: Local Pride and Religious Practice at a Sacred Site in Contemporary Rural China

Xiaofei Kang, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

On a research trip in 1997 I visited a recently renovated Buddhist temple in Buoluo town in northern Shaanxi. The temple is the pride of the whole town, known for a gigantic stone Buddha, carved out of a cliff, purportedly by a Tang Dynasty monk. As an officially designated cultural preservation site it has received substantial government funding since 1984. Among the eight guardians of the Buddha is a diamond king dressed as a traditional scholar. While official documents remain silent on this scholar guardian, locals identify him as a fox spirit. A few hundred yards away from the temple are the home of a spirit medium and a cave where the medium regularly invokes the fox spirit to heal visitors from the town and surrounding areas.

This paper studies the spatial arrangement of the temple, and the textual and oral narratives about the temple, the Buddha, and the fox spirit, as well as religious practices centering on the temple in the context of the religious revival in contemporary northwest China. Under the government’s patronage of the great stone Buddha, the people at Buoluo have sheltered a dubious medium cult for personal and local needs, developed a sense of uniqueness, and framed social networks beyond official ideological and institutional control. The case of the Buddhist temple in this small town in northern Shaanxi exemplifies how in today’s rural China official efforts to control traditional cultural resources are often diverted to construct local power and identity.

Sectarian Networks in Local Society: The Heaven and Earth and Laozi Teachings in Cangzhou, Hebei

I attended an interesting talk at the Asian Civilisation Museum today about a Taoist sect in Cangzhou, Hebei Province in northern China.  I googled around and found further writeup about this topic:
 
 

Sectarian Networks in Local Society: The Heaven and Earth and Laozi Teachings in Cangzhou, Hebei

Thomas DuBois, Washington University, St. Louis

Although sectarian groups are generally treated by scholars as discrete networks with characteristic doctrine, scriptures, and rituals, they are also local phenomena. This is evident in the local organization and consciousness of the Heaven and Earth Teaching (Tiandimen) and the Laozi Teaching (Taishangmen) in modern Cangzhou, Hebei. Each of these teachings spread widely throughout North China during the Qing dynasty, but in modern Cangzhou both remain primarily local, with strong ritual and social networks in the immediate area, but little or no contact with branches outside of it.

Of the two teachings, the Heaven and Earth Teaching retains the stronger network, both extra-locally and among villages within Cangzhou. Extra-local ties consist of the knowledge of Dongjialin Village in northern Shandong as the origin and spiritual center of the teaching, and the scriptural memory of its spread to Cangzhou. In addition, groups in Cangzhou retain contact with those in Duliu, near Tianjin, which had received the teaching from a Cangzhou teacher during the mid-Qing. However, the strongest ties are those maintained among Cangzhou villages. In contrast, the Laozi Teaching has no scriptural and little consciousness of its history as a teaching or its arrival in Cangzhou. Villages with the teaching have no knowledge of groups outside the area. Within Cangzhou, villages with the teaching are divided into North Chest and South Chest networks, suggesting that they had once cooperated in a ritual capacity. However, within living memory, ritual ties even among local villages in the teaching have been weak.

 
 

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Intrauterine Cannibalism in Sharks

MS NBC website, 3 Jun 05
Scientists to breed 'test tube' sharks
Plan hopes to boost critically endangered gray nurse species

The Associated Press

SYDNEY, Australia - Australian scientists will attempt to breed gray nurse sharks in artificial wombs under a plan to boost the critically endangered species' numbers, a state fisheries minister said Friday.

Embryos harvested from female sharks in the wild will be reared separately in artificial wombs designed to stop the ravenous fish from devouring each other before birth in what is known as "intrauterine cannibalism." "This is literally survival of the fittest at work, but unfortunately it means that, in the wild, each female gray nurse shark produces only two pups every two years — not enough to increase species numbers," New South Wales state Fisheries Minister Ian Macdonald said in a statement.

Scientists believe only about 460 gray nurse sharks remain in eastern Australian waters and fear they could vanish from the region altogether within 20 years.

The gray nurse shark, which feeds primarily on other fish and is not considered dangerous to humans, was decimated by overfishing and hunting until 1984, when it became the first shark species to be protected by the Australian government.

However, the species has been slow to recover, and some scientists believe the local gray nurse shark population is already too low to regenerate itself naturally.

Macdonald said scientists would begin by collecting reproductive and biological information to construct the artificial shark wombs, but that experiments would be carried out first on non-endangered sharks to avoid any risk to the gray nurse population.

He said scientists are still in the process of developing techniques for harvesting embryos from the wild sharks.
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Intrauterine Cannibalism in Sharks


Sandtiger Shark (Carcharias taurus)

Two forms of within-the-womb cannibalism are known in sharks. The most extreme form of intrauterine cannibalism - in which the largest and strongest embryo actually consumes its lesser womb-mates - is termed "embryophagy" or, more colorfully, "adelphophagy" - literally "eating one's brother". It was discovered accidentally in 1948, when a researcher probing the uteri of a late-term Sandtiger Shark (Carcharias taurus) was startled by a bite on the hand. To date, adelphophagy is known only in the Sandtiger. The less extreme and by far more common form of intrauterine cannibalism - in which developing embryos feed on a steady supply of tiny, unfertilized eggs - is termed "oophagy" (sometimes called "oviphagy") - meaning "egg-eating". The earliest documented case of oophagy dates back to 1907, in the Porbeagle (Lamna nasus). Both forms of intrauterine cannibalism continue throughout embryonic and fetal development, so that at birth each pups often has aa conspicuously swollen abdomen known as a "yolk stomach".

Until quite recently, intrauterine cannibalism was thought to be restricted to lamnoid sharks. This grisly form of within-the-womb nutrition is now known from two carcharhinoids and even one orectoloboid. Following is a list of all sharks in which intrauterine cannibalism has been documented, or for which exists strong circumstantial evidence:

Order Orectolobiformes

Family Ginglymostomatidae

Tawny Nurse Shark (Nebrius ferrigineus)

Order Lamniformes

Family Carchariidae

Sandtiger Shark (Carcharias taurus)

Family Pseudocarchariidae

Crocodile Shark (Pseudocarcharias kamoharai)

Family Alopiidae

Pelagic Thresher Shark (Alopias pelagicus)
Bigeye Thresher Shark (Alopias suprciliosus)
Common Thresher Shark (Alopias vulpinus)

Family Cetorhinidae

Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus)

Family Lamnidae

Salmon Shark (Lamna ditropis)
Porbeagle (Lamna nasus)
White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias)
Shortfin Mako (Isurus oxyrinchus)
Longfin Mako (Isurus paucus)

Order Carcharhiniformes

Family Pseudotriakidae

Slender Smoothhound Shark (Gollum attenuatus)
False Catshark (Pseudotriakis microdon)

 
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Did You Know?
Cannibalism within the womb (intrauterine cannibalism) is known to occur in some fish species, such as the spotted ragged-tooth shark (see page 17 of “Oceans of Plenty: South Africa’s Teeming Seas” ). The most common form of this type of cannibalism is oophagy, which occurs when an embryo eats unfertilized eggs. Less common, but far more extreme, is embryophagy, when the strongest embryo eats weaker ones within the same uterus. Also known as adelphophagy, or “eating one’s brother,” embryophagy is only known to occur in sand tiger sharks.

While intrauterine cannibalism is rare, cannibalism in general is not uncommon in the animal kingdom. Scorpions, spiders, ants, otters, muskrats, and even pigs and bears are known to have cannibalistic tendencies. Animals may commit cannibalistic acts to ensure reproductive supremacy by eliminating rivals or simply to ensure survival in times of famine. According to the Humane Society of the United States, minks raised in cages for fur production have been driven to cannibalistic acts by the severe conditions in which they live.

—Elizabeth Connell

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Framing Venezuela: the US Media's Anti-Chavez Bias

 
Framing Venezuela: the US Media's Anti-Chavez Bias
Wednesday, Jun 01, 2005 Print format
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By: Justin Delacour - Counterpunch

In analyzing U.S. press coverage of Venezuela, it is instructive to examine how U.S. news reports "frame" the political issues. Operating on the basic assumption that framing is a process of selecting certain fragments of a perceived reality and making them more prominent in a text, one can deduce that news frames are not necessarily neutral in a political or ideological sense. By emphasizing certain fragments of a perceived reality and omitting (or downplaying) others, U.S. media can promote their own political agendas.

A recent examination of reports about Venezuela in The Miami Herald, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Christian Science Monitor suggests not only that U.S. media frequently invoke biased news frames but also that their choices of which "independent" analysts to cite is strongly correlated with the level of bias.

The National Review alerted against an emerging axis of subversion forming between Cuba and Venezuela.
The National Review alerted against an "emerging axis of subversion forming between Cuba and Venezuela."
Credit: MCI

Biased News Frames

To illustrate the meaning of frame bias, it is instructive to analyze one recent Miami Herald report, entitled "Chávez eyes idle lands, raising fears" (January 22, 2005). A cursory examination of the title reveals that the story is principally framed in "personalist" terms: Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez Frias, "eyes idle lands..." The personalist frame --a favorite of the Herald-- immediately conjures up notions of the all-powerful leader, portraying the president as solely responsible for "stirring fears." The title fails to convey the larger social forces and the level of popular political support --institutionally mediated through repeated electoral processes-- that sustain the policy in question.

In addition to invoking the personalist frame, the Herald employs the "property rights" frame to highlight the "fears" that have been stirred mostly among anti-government property holders. Buried deeper in the report, however, is an acknowledgement that the agrarian reform law "filled many landless peasants with hope." In other words, the Herald explicitly chooses to highlight --in the story's title-- the "fears" of large landowners while downplaying landless peasants' support for agrarian reform.

Another framing device employed by the Herald involves the lessons that it chooses to draw from the history of Latin American land reforms. The Herald reports, "Land reform is dangerous territory, and history has not been kind to those who have walked Chávez's path: Both Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, and Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 were ousted by U.S.-backed coups after confiscating idle lands." The assumption underlying the historical lesson that the Herald chooses to draw is that land reform represents no more than a provocation against the economic and political groups that oppose it. The onus of responsibility for political destabilization is thus placed on the governments that implement such reform. The report ignores that most contemporary scholars of modern Latin American history do not look kindly upon the right-wing military dictatorships of Guatemala and Chile that overthrew democratically-elected reformist governments and thwarted land reform (with the support of landed elites). Thus, an alternative lesson might be that, in the interest of democracy, economic elites should learn to live with agrarian reform, and the U.S. government should not support such elites when they attempt to overthrow left-populist governments.

U.S. correspondents often invoke variants of the "property rights" frame in slanting their coverage against Venezuela's government. For example, an L.A. Times report (January 30, 2005) pays special attention to the complaints of Venezuela's privately-owned media, casting a highly critical eye on the government's new media law that restricts daytime broadcasting of sex, violence and profanity. The Times report --which is demonstrative of how U.S. media often fail to accurately contextualize the issues-- neglects to point out that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposes similar restrictions on public broadcasting.

Surely Venezuela's media law is partially designed to restrict the political manipulation of violent images, but only by reviewing the nature of the private media's anti-government propaganda can we begin to understand why pro-government legislators would feel the need to regulate. The L.A. Times neglects to seriously consider the ways in which Venezuela's private media have waged campaigns to politically and economically destabilize the country. As the political scientist Daniel Hellinger points out, Venezuela's private media have been more than simply biased; "they actively organized efforts to oust Chávez via coup, work stoppages, and recall" (Latin American Perspectives; May 2005).

The manipulation of violent images for partisan political purposes has been a trademark of Venezuela's private channels.  Perhaps the most famous example is the private stations' telecast --during the failed coup-- of a video showing Chávez supporters firing handguns from a bridge near the presidential palace. According to the video's voiceover, the gunmen were shooting at a peaceful opposition march below, but Eva Golinger points out in an article for the alternative news site Venezuelanalysis (September 25, 2004) that the video "manipulated the setting and failed to include the wider angle of the scene." Simultaneous video footage evidenced not protesters on the street below but rather police --under the command of an opposition mayor-- "hiding behind vehicles and buildings, taking shots at the Chávez supporters on the bridge."

Despite the deceptions of Venezuela's private media, the L.A. Times favorably describes the private all-news channel Globovisión as "a counterweight to the government mouthpiece Venezolana de Televisión." It might actually be more accurate to describe the state television station as the true "counterweight," given that private stations continue to dominate Venezuelan broadcasting. Moreover, the Times does not qualify its pejorative description of state television with any discussion of how Globovisión might also serve as a "mouthpiece" for its owners (and the political and economic groups with which they are allied).

News frames that cast a left-wing government's regulatory policies as essentially authoritarian in nature have one basic feature in common: they leave out of the discussion the question of whether unfettered private economic power is compatible with democracy. In U.S. press reports about Venezuela, private actors that wield great economic power (i.e. media moguls, landowners, etc.) are often cast as mere victims of the government's alleged abuse of power, with little consideration of the manner in which these private actors have exercised their own power and whether they have done so in a democratic fashion.

Skewed Independent Source Selection

The U.S. journalistic practice of emphasizing the allegedly arbitrary nature of state power (while avoiding meaningful discussion of the social and political ramifications of unfettered private power) is reinforced by the press' biased selection of independent sources. My own preliminary findings suggest a strong correlation between biased news frames and the press' choices of which independent analysts to cite. The analysis suggests that U.S. newspapers attempt to conceal their biases by choosing to cite particular independent analysts --whose political affiliations are not revealed-- to support contentious claims against the Chávez government. Citations of selected independent analysts may also enable journalists and editors to cognitively rationalize biased reports, as if corroborating statements by independent analysts render such accounts "objective."

Looking at reports about Venezuela in five major U.S. dailies (The Miami Herald, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune) over a two-and-a-half-year period (April 12, 2002 - March 12, 2004), I find that each of the four most oft-cited independent analysts is an opponent of the Chávez government.

The most frequently quoted independent source, Michael Shifter, is an analyst at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue (IAD). A recent article by Christopher Clement in the scholarly journal Latin American Perspectives (May 2005) points out that the IAD has received numerous grants from the U.S. congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy, which has also contributed heavily to Venezuela's political opposition. A 2003 IAD policy report expresses concern that Latin America's citizens and governments are "losing confidence" in U.S.-sponsored economic and political reforms.

In illustration of how an independent source can be used to buttress an imbalanced journalistic account, a March 29 Christian Science Monitor report follows up its reference to the "authoritarian leanings" of Venezuela's president with a quote by Shifter suggesting that Chávez's newfound popularity in Latin America threatens democracy, individual freedom and the rule of law.

The second most oft-cited independent source, the Venezuelan historian Alberto Garrido, is also an outspoken critic of the Venezuelan government. In a December 6, 2004 Miami Herald report, tendenciously titled "New hire by mayor of Caracas stirs fears," Garrido is quoted as claiming that a left-wing Venezuelan "paramilitary group" has "become the political arm of the Chávez movement." In another report (New York Times; November 20, 2004), Garrido is quoted as stating that "the opposition has, in effect, been criminalized."

The third most frequently cited independent source, Venezuelan newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff, is another vociferous critic of the Chávez government. Citations of Petkoff are also frequently employed as a means of affirming biased narratives. For example, a New York Times report (December 8, 2004) claims that Venezuela's new media law would allow the government to "censor" news reports. The reporter's assertion is then followed up with a quote attributed to Petkoff that the media law is "sufficiently vague, sufficiently broad, so that anything fits in there."

The fourth most oft-cited independent source, Venezuelan pollster Luis Vicente León, is also an opponent of the government, although he has in recent years become more circumspect in expressing his criticisms due to his role as a pollster. León's political leanings became apparent in a Los Angeles Times report (November 20, 2004), in which he is quoted as saying that the government might "further clamp down on the opposition" in response to the assassination of a prominent Venezuelan state prosecutor.

Only the fifth most oft-cited analyst, Larry Birns of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, could be described as somewhat sympathetic to Venezuela's government. In a recent U.S. radio show (Democracy Now!, January 19, 2005), Birns states the following:

"The fact is that President Chavez, no matter how noisy and ravish he might be, has pretty much been a constitutional president. There have been minor human rights violations, if you take the opposition's charges seriously. But they're minor. He has respected free press, freedom of opinion."

Non-Quoted Independent Analysts

It should be stressed that numerous experts on Venezuelan politics share Birns' basic assessment and would most likely dispute claims that a Venezuelan "paramilitary group" has become "the political arm of the Chávez movement"; that recent legislation permits the government to "censor" media; or that the Venezuelan government "clamps down on" and criminalizes the political opposition. However, press citations of analysts who share Birns' perspective are few and far between.

For example, Julia Buxton, a British scholar who recently disputed Shifter's comparison of the Chávez government to the former military dictatorships of the Southern Cone, is never quoted in U.S. press reports. Buxton wrote the following rebuttal to Shifter in a recent commentary for Venezuelanalysis (April 25, 2004):

"It is mistaken to argue that Chávez does not come from a tradition of fighting for democracy. On the contrary, the Chavista movement is a product of the lack of democracy in Venezuela between 1958 and 1998, a product of the social, economic and political exclusion that prevailed throughout that time and a product of massive disaffection with corrupt and politicized state institutions. We may not be enthralled by the type of democracy Chávez is seeking to build, or the manner in which he has chosen to do this, but it is important to note that the Chávez government has brought marginalized and excluded people into the political process and democratized power."

The March 2005 issue of Latin American Perspectives features articles about Venezuela written by eight scholars who generally share Buxton's view of the Chávez government (Steve Ellner, Miguel Tinker Salas, Edgardo Lander, Dick Parker, Jesus Maria Herrera Salas, Margarita López Maya, Luis Lander, and Maria Pilar Garcia-Guadilla). My own research indicates that, among these eight experts, not one has been quoted in The Miami Herald, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, or Chicago Tribune over the last three years.

Summing Up

The U.S. press' clearly biased selection of independent analysts is disabling U.S. readers from considering alternative perspectives so as to form their own informed opinions about Venezuela. By relying overwhelmingly on independent analysts who oppose Venezuela's government, U.S. newspapers are subjectively propagating particular political opinions while disarticulating those of others. Given that independent analysts of Venezuelan politics are rarely impartial, a truly balanced journalistic approach would require that correspondents compensate for their quotations of anti-government analysts with a roughly equivalent number of citations of independent analysts who sympathize with the government. In the absence of balanced sourcing, U.S. newspapers are essentially violating the code of ethics of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which clearly states that "sound practice...demands a clear distinction for the reader between news reports and opinion."


Justin Delacour is a freelance writer and a doctoral student of political science at the University of New Mexico, United States of America. He can be contacted at jdelacunm.edu