Sunday, March 30, 2014

US Draws Flak from UN Human Rights Panel over Drone Strikes

Rabin Man Shakya

At a time when the United States and European Union have been chastising and condemning Russia for its 'illegal' takeover of Crimean Peninsula, a United Nations Human Rights Committee has called for more oversight and transparency in the program of targeted drone strikes carried out by the US and recommended the prosecution of all those involved in unlawful killings and torture overseas, particularly, "persons in command positions."

There is no doubt that Russia's takeover of Crimean Peninsula is an outrageous aggression. Russia's President Vladimir Putin claimed that Russian nationals in Crimea were in 'jeopardy'. President George Bush before invading Iraq also falsely claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, "In  a report released Thursday, the UN Human Rights Committee, a panel of 18 independent experts from different countries, expressed concern that the US government had not clarified the criteria or legal basis for drone strikes and called for independent oversight of the program. It also drew attention to the limited number of investigations into unlawful killings and the use of torture in overseas operations by the American military and private contractors."(The New York Times, March 28, 2014).

According to the New York Times news story, the panel said the responsibility of those who "provided legal pretexts for manifestly illegal behaviour should also be established" and urged the US government to declassify and release the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into the CIA's secret rendition activities.

Well, the history of big fishes swallowing the small ones is not new. Just look at the South Asia only. Sikkim was annexed into India and Tibet was taken over by China. And, yes, look at the US which has been firing deadly missiles into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and so on.

Therefore, if past precedents are any guide, the big fishes will keep swallowing the small fishes, the big brothers will keep  controlling the lil ones.

Facebook Acquires Oculus VR, Ups the Ante

By Rabin Man Shakya

Millions of people across the world understand that in order to be social, interactive  and be competitive in their respective fields, they must have a social media presence. No doubt, social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google play a Zeus-like role in the global social media's trajectory.

In fact, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter have become an indispensable part of the people's lives across the world. Today more than ever, majority of the people across the world can not imagine their lives without the Internet and social media. That is why 68 percent of the adult US population use the social media in a regular basis. But in case of a developing country like Nepal, although the number of social media users are increasing day by day, the use of social media has been largely confined to the country's English speaking minority.

And there is this reality for the social media sites like Facebook which does not want to lag behind in the intense competition among the social media institutions. By hook or by crook, social media giants like Facebook would like to stay relevant in the time to come. That is why, probably, Facebook Inc. has made one after another  expensive bets on the future, and this time, very recently, by agreeing to acquire Oculus VR Inc, a 20-month-old maker of virtual-reality goggles, for $ 2 billion in cash and stock.

According to the Wall Street Journal, "Like Facebook's $ 19 billion purchase last month of text-messaging service WhatsApp, the deal is part of the social networking company's vast ambition to connect people across all kinds of devices and modes of communication." (The Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2014).

Well, prior to the deals with the Oculus VR Inc and WhatsApp, the Facebook had also acquired Instagram for $ 1 billion in 2012. And according to a news report, WhatsApp at least has more than 450 million users, but Oculus VR, a startup thatis less than two years old, has so far only sold its headsets to game developers.

So, the news that Facebook is paying colossal amount of 'dinero' to the Oculus VR has raised questions about the rationale behind it and has triggered the doubts of some analysts that Facebook Inc may just be upping the ante by acquiring it.

A broader question, however, is whether this kind of shopping spree of the Facebook Inc will enable it to stay relevant in the world of social media beyond the next decade?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Pak PM's Press Freedom Commitment: Light at the End of the Tunnel

Rabin Man Shakya

I was still with The Rising Nepal working at the night desk in 2002 when Daniel Pearl, a journalist with the Wall Street Journal was kidnapped and later murdered by the Islamofascists in Pakistan. I still remember the Pearl kidnapping and murder received a lot of news coverage in the Rising Nepal, albeit the stories were from the international wire services: AP and AFP.

Pearl's kidnapping and murder along with killings of many other journalists has made Pakistan a notorious and dangerous country for the journalists. Later on, some feature films as well as documentaries were made based on Pearl's journalistic activities, kidnapping and murder. Not long ago, coincidentally, I happened to watch "A Mighty Heart" a movie based on Mariane Pearl's (Daniel's widow) best-selling memoir. Angelina Jolie played the role of Mariane whereas Daniel's role was performed by Dan Futterman.

Reporters in Pakistan are often beaten or intimidated, and in the vast majority of cases, their attackers are not prosecuted. In some cases, news organizationa believe that members of the Pakistani security or intelligence forces have been involved in the abuses. (The New York Times, March 20, 2014).

Therefore, when Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's Prime Minister promised recently to improve  journalists' safety and freedom to work, it was taken as the light at the end of the tunnel by media observers.

Meanwhile, according to Kati Morton, board member of  Committee to Protect Journalists, "Pakistan has been one of the world's most dangerous countries for the media for the last decade. At least 46 journalists have been killed, 24 of them murdered for the 'crime' of covering the intelligence service, Taliban, separatists in Baluchistan, or the criminal underworld. The result is a lagacy of self-censorship and fear among the Pakistan press; critical stories go unreported."

Reporting from Islamabad on March 23, 2014, AFP added: "A  Pakistani journalist who was shot dead in the southern port city of Karachi three years ago was posthumously honoured on Sunday with one of the country's top civilain awards."

AFP news story went on to say: "Wali Khan Babar, a reporter for the private Geo TV station was murdered on Jan 13, 2011 while returning home from work. Earlier this month, a Pakistani court convicted six men of murdering Babar in what is believed to be the first case convicting anyone for killing a journalist in the country."

Also, according to media campaign group Reporters Without Borders, last year (2013) seven journalists were killed doing their jobs in Pakistan, which was 158th out of 180 countries in its press freedom ranking.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Journalists Still Vulnerable to Attacks, Threats in Afghanistan

By Rabin Man Shakya

An Afghan journalist working as an interpreter for the New York Times was killed last month. Likewise, a Swedish journalist was gunned down in a brazen daytime attack in the heart of Kabul's high security diplomatic district, as the country braced for a spate of insurgent activity ahead of presidential elections next month. Swedish Radio identified the victim as Nils Horner, 51 years old, broadcaster's Asia correspodent who had just arrived in Kabul to cover the April 5 election. (The Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2014).

Also, very recently, an Afghan broadcaster, Qazi Nasir Mudassir, along with two other employees of Radio Paighame Milli, were "arrested and abused by American Special Forces troops." (The New York Times, March 2, 2014)

Communists and the Taliban were chased away long time ago, but the journalists are still in jeopardy in Afghanistan which was ruled by King Zahir Shah until 1973 and it was prior to 1973 that Afghanistan had a vibrant and secured press. In broadcast journalism, for example, Kabul was much ahead of Kathmandu. Radio broadcasting kicked off in 1950 in Nepal whereas Radio Kabul began broadcasting in 1925.

But Afghanistan has been unsuccessfully pouring oil on troubled waters since Mohammad Daoud Khan, ( the son-in-law of King Zahir Khan) ousted the king in 1973 to become the president. Daoud was assassinated and ousted in a saur revolution by the Communist "Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan" in 1978. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Dec 27, 1979 and pro-Soviet Babrak Karmal was made the president. Later on, Dr Najibullah was replaced as president in 1986. After Taliban's foray into Kabul, Najibullah's government collapsed and the communist president was brutally tortured, killed and hanged in a Kabul street.

As a matter of fact, I was familiar with, at least, four would-be Afghan journalists at the Faculty of Journalism at the Belorussian State University (BSU) in the 1980s. Afghan students fraternity in the USSR back then was influenced and affected by the political polarization rampant in the then Peoples Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Two Afghan journalism students belonged to the Parchami faction of the Communist "Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan" and two others were supporters of Khalqi faction of the Party. Sayeed Mohammad, a Parchamist,  was one of the four would-be Afghan journalists at BSU and he used to say that he would like to work for the Afghan television.

Speaking of the Afghan media today, Article 34 of the Afghan Constitution allows for freedom of the press and of expression, and the current Mass Media Law, which came into effect in 2009, guarantees the right of citizens to obtain information and prohibits censorship. But in real life the environment for journalists and reporters is not very conducive to free journalistic activities.

In the period from 1995-2004, ten journalists were killed in Afghanistan thereby making it one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the last decade. According to Freedom House, "Despite hopes for greater press freedom, Afghan journalists continue to be targeted and threatened for reporting on political and social issues." And not without reason, Freedom House has ranked Afghanistan as "not free" in world press freedom scenario. The Afghan media organization, NAI, has recorded 71 cases in 2012 -- defined as killings, threats, beatings or arrests.

Today, media in Afghanistan is ethnically polarized so much so that even  the New York Times reported: "The television and radio dials in Afghanistan are crowded with partisan stations that glorify their leaders and fire up their followers, and many of them have seized on the ethnic debate--" (The New York Times "Afghan ethnic tensions rise in media and politics" Feb 19, 2014)

Afghanistan has already suffered a lot due to conflict which started after the Communist takeover in 1979. It cannot afford more conflicts and uncertainties.But, unfortunately, prospects for any settlements in the Afghan conflict remain dismal.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Nepal: Not Just A Newsy Country

Rabin Man Shakya
Former Associate Editor, The Rising Nepal

In the beginning of the summer of 2013, one of my American friends informed me that he had watched a piece of news on CBS about the rescue works being undertaken in the Himalayas of Nepal. Well, avalanche, mountaineers missing in the Himalayan expeditions, rescue works being undertaken, rich Nepalese culture and festivals are headlines about Nepal that sometimes appear in the newspapers and TV networks abroad.

But it is true that comparing to other Asian countries like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Israel, China, India, Pakistan, North and South Korea and so on, Nepal usually does not very often make international headlines.

Judging by the coverage of the news stories published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the USA Today, Nepal even lags behind countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

Nepal is a negligible economy which can not be compared with Asian giants like China, Japan, South Korea, India and Israel etc. Sound and vibrant economy is always a good source for international business news.

China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are nuclear-powered countries and Iran is striving to be a member of the nuclear nations' club. The activities of nuclear-powered nations are good sources for international news stories.

Nepal used to be a conflict-ridden country during the decade-long Maoist insurgency. But not any more. Conflict, confrontation, competition, wars and civil wars are always good fodders for international headlines.

But it is also true that countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea have been linked to one bizarre news story after another raising the question: Do these countries attract more news than others or does news receive extra attention and emphasis when it happens in these countries?

International news is dominated by the Western countries like the US, UK and France etc through the TV channels like CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and BBC, through news agencies like AP, the Reuters and AFP and through the newspapers like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal etc.

The Western media is time and again castigated by media observers for bias and slant on their coverage of international reporting and rightfully so. International media manipulation of these media outlets can not be ruled out.

The US which dominates the international media has less strategic interest in Nepal comparing to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Middle East and the Arab World. That is why news on important issues, events and catastrophies in Nepal are usually reported in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal by a New Delhi dateline and a byline of a New Delhi based correspondent.

News value is determined by different circumstances, factors and sometimes by bias. If two soldiers are killed in Nepal in a conflict, it may be the news only for Nepal. If two US soldiers are killed in Afghanistan, it will be a big news not only for Afghan and US media but for the countries across the world. If two Afghan soldiers die in a Kabul conflict, that will be far less important than the death of two US soldiers. The fact that the international media is dominated and monopolized by the Western countries also plays certain role in this case.

Nepal was last covered by the New York Times during the Constituent Assembly elections in November, 2013 and after the formation of the government under the leadership of Sushil Koirala's leadership.

For the Western media, Nepal is not just a newsy country. That is why news on Nepal are published once in a blue moon in the newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Therefore, news on Nepal which are published and broadcast in the Western media are confined to Nepalese culture, festivals, avalanches, mountain rescue efforts and activities of Tibetan refugees.

I remember the Reuters correspondent for Nepal, Gopal Sharma, did an interesting news story about the Kumari under the headline "Nepal searches for revered living goddess" on Feb 15, 2001. I also remember  I had provided Sharma with some details about the living goddess and my quotes were used in the Reuters news story.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Facebook to Delete Posts for Unlawful Gun Sales

Rabin Man Shakya

I am not a gun and crime analyst, but it does not take a genius to understand that gun violence and crime rates in the US is one of the highest in the world. The US takes the first ranking in the prison population in the world followed only by Russia.

Nearly 50 percent of American black men, 40 percent of white men and 44 percent of Latinos are arrested at least once on non-traffic-related crimes by the time they turn 23, according to a new study. 14,612 intentional homicides were committed in 2012 in the United States, a country with the population of 316 million.

No wonder, the evening news of the American television channels are full of news related to crimes and violence. I have been to many countries and I must admit that law enforcement in the US is one of the best in the world. There is no doubt had there not been the effective policing network, there could have been much more dramatic surge in the crime rates in the US.

A number of Nepalese have been the victims of homicide culture of the US. The recent murder of Samanata Shrestha, (daughter of Rajshree Shrestha, who happened to work together with me in The Rising Nepal in 1990s) a brilliant would-be doctor, in Virginia is just a tip of the iceberg. Questions arise why one after another gun violence incidents are not opening the eyes of the US government and the Congress?

Against such disappointing background lurks the future role of the social media vis-a-vis the gun control issue. Meanwhile, according to a news story in the New York Times, "Under pressure from law enforcement and advocacy groups, Facebook took steps Wednesday to regulate gun sales on its sites as well as its photo-sharing site Instagram" (The New York Times, March 6, 2014).

According to the news reports, Facebook is one of the world's largest marketplaces for guns. A Double Star AR-15 is offered for $650 and a raspberry-colored Taurus pistol can be purchased for as little as $239.95

Facebook's measures are indeed highly commendable and according to the news reports the steps will be enforced over  the next few weeks at the world's largest social network, with 1.3 billion active users. "We will remove reported posts that explicitly indicate a specific attempt to evade or help others evade the law," Facebook said in a statement.

Facebook's steps demonstrate increasing awareness among the activists that the social media is being used to make transactions of the banned weapons, evade restrictions on interstate sales, and put guns in the hands of convicted felons, domestic abusers, the mentally ill or others barred under US law from obtaining firearms.

It is to be noted that Google Plus and Craigslist have already prohibited gun sales, legal or illegal. Increased public awareness against gun violence, along with better law enforcement and policies to contain mass shootings and homicides, may be helping to reduce gun violence cases, despite recent headlines of individual and mass shootings.

At a time, when tech titans like Google and Facebook are changing the perception, perspectives, lifestyle of the people across the world, activists should accord more emphasis, should place more priority in using social media to agitate against the free flow of guns which is one of the main causes  of homicides, mass shootings and other crimes.