Friday, April 27, 2012

How The US Media Gets It Wrong On Africa

Foreign Policy has a great piece of journalism critique currently up on its website that's well worth your time to read.  In it, author Laura Seay discusses the generally lousy state of reportage coming out of Africa, though her critique can be extended to the entire way that the profession is currently practiced in America.

Part of her critique is quite familiar: that the US media only turns to Africa during times of outright disaster/war or when there is an “American” angle to a story: the viral media sensation of the KONY2012 campaign being an example of the latter.  And African reporting tends to quickly fallback on to outright ethnic stereotypes – comparing events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness, for example.

But the why of this situation is where the story really starts to get interesting.  Seay lays the blame on American press outlets trying to do African reportage on the cheap and accuses American journalists of frankly being rather lazy in their duties.  Most major US media outlets rely on only two or three correspondents to cover the entire vast African continent.  Based in some of Africa's most metropolitan cities – Nairobi, Johannesburg – they are expected to parachute (figuratively, not literally) into hotspots as the need arises, even if that hotspot is on the other side of the continent.  Imagine if a foreign news outlet expected their New York City-based reporter to run out to Iowa to cover a sudden blight of the corn crop, a topic well outside their expertise, and you get an idea of the point Seay is trying to make.

Meanwhile, those journalists who do find themselves in Africa, tend to be rather lazy.  Seay gives the example of reporters headed to the war-torn borderlands between Sudan and South Sudan.  With no knowledge of the local situation or language, reporters tend to rely on locally-based “fixers”.  In South Sudan, one prominent fixer is an American expat named Ryan Boyette, who was the subject of several human interest profiles by outlets like NBC and the New York Times in the span of just a few weeks.

It wasn't always this way, once outlets like NBC or the Times maintained extensive networks of locally-based foreign correspondents.  But these positions have been a victim of cost-cutting measures.  The result has been a noticeable decline in both the quality and quantity of foreign affairs reporting by US media outlets.  All of which reminds me of a recent discussion I had with a friend whom I hadn't seen in a long time.  We talked about the world, and the media coverage of it.  For world news, it turns out we both relied primarily on a selection of foreign sources: the BBC, al-Jazeera English, even the occasional program on Russia Today; given Seay's critique, perhaps that's no surprise.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Britain's Prince Harry, or Russia's Next Czar?

As the youngest son of the heir to the British throne, Prince Harry's prospects for ever becoming king are pretty remote, so if he's seeking the top title, Harry may want to consider exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky's proposal.  In one of the crazier political notions to come along in awhile, Berezovsky is, apparently seriously, suggesting that Harry be crowned the next Czar of Russia.

It is part of the platform of Berezovsky's new political party for Russia, the Resurrection Movement.  Among the Movement's other goals are the liberalization of Russia's immigration laws, reform of the legal system and transformation of Russia into a confederation of states.  And then there's the Prince (or Czar) Harry thing... Berezovsky explains that: “returning the monarchy to the throne will reinstate an interrupted chain of time and become a symbol of the rebirth of Russia,” while noting that Harry “has more Russian blood than the last Russian Emperor Nicholas II.”  Prince Harry's great grandmother was a member of Russia's Romanov dynasty – pictures from the era show that Czar Nicholas II shared an amazing likeness with Britain's King George V, his cousin.

Needless to say, this bizarre, amusing proposal will sadly never happen.   Berezovsky, a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin, said he will not even attempt to register the Resurrection Movement as an official political party in Russia so long as Putin is running the government.  Berezovsky himself relocated to London after getting on the wrong side of Putin.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, April 20, 2012

Pirates From Somalia, Weapons From Libya

So along with the coup in Mali, it looks like we can add another unintended consequence to the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya: better armed Somali pirates.

According to this report on the website of Foreign Policy, since the fall of his regime, weapons that formerly belonged to Gadhafi's military have been flowing out of Libya.  And some of those arms seem to have made their way to Somalia though a circuitous route moving first through arms merchants located in Sierra Leone and Liberia on Africa's west coast, before traveling east to Somalia.

And, sadly, we're not just talking about the ubiquitous AK-47 here; according to FP, based on research conducted by the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism, the weapons procured by the Somali pirates include anti-ship mines and Stinger hand-held anti-aircraft missiles.  Weapons of that magnitude could give the pirates more ability to fight back against the international navy patrols who have been trying to tamp down piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean to the east of Somalia.

So far, attacks by Somali pirates are said to be down this year from last.  The question now is whether the pirates will start to feel bolder thanks to all these new weapons at their disposal.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pussy Riot, Still Behind Bars

Two months after their arrest, three members of the all-female Russian punk collective that calls itself Pussy Riot remain in jail, with their future very much in doubt.  The band shot to attention late last year, thanks to YouTube videos of public performances of their songs, which typically feature lyrics protesting about the current political situation in Russia.  Their arrests stem from an impromptu performance at Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral on February 24, when members of the band performed a song called “Holy Shit” that included the lines: “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, chase Putin out!”  Three members of the band were arrested two weeks later, on the eve of Russia's presidential election.

They are facing serious criminal charges that include hooliganism and attempting to incite religious hatred, which could get them a sentence of seven years in prison.  The weight of the charges, combined with the timing of their arrests and the nature of the performance at the cathedral, has led Amnesty International to declare the women “prisoners of conscience” and call for their release. Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin is also saying that the women should be released since their alleged crimes do not match up with the serious prison sentences they are facing.  “Why are they in custody? Did they try to blow up the cathedral?” Lukin asked at a press briefing in Tomsk, Russia.

But the Moscow Times is reporting this morning that the women will remain in jail for the near future.  A Moscow judge ruled in favor of extending their initial period of detention beyond the original term that would expire on April 24, to give prosecutors more time to build their case.  A recent public opinion poll suggests that this decision is in line with the majority of Russians' attitude towards the case.  The poll conducted by the Russian firm VTsIOM (the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center) showed that 46% of Russians considered Pussy Riot's “punk prayer” an act of hooliganism, with another 21% going further to call the performance sacrilege; only 13% called it legitimate protest, just slightly more than the number who thought Pussy Riot was simply staging a PR stunt (10%).  Ultimately though, only 10% of those surveyed thought that the act should land the Pussy Riot members in jail, mostly these were people who also thought that the punk prayer was an act of sacrilege.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

ExxonMobile Bets Big On Oil Deal In Russia

When is an oil deal more than just an oil deal?  Maybe when it is US-based ExxonMobile teaming up with Russia's state-run oil firm Rosneft.  The two companies announced a series of joint ventures on Tuesday that will give ExxonMobile access to Russian oil reserves in the Black Sea as well as the remote and frigid Kara Sea in Russia's far north.  The Arctic is widely believed to be the site of the world's last remaining major untapped oil fields; early surveys indicate that the Kara Sea field in question could by itself hold 36 billion barrels of recoverable oil – more oil, the New York Times notes, than in all of ExxonMobile's holdings in the United States. 

But the deal is even more interesting from the Russian side since it gives Rosneft a share in an ExxonMobile-owned shale gas field in Texas.  Thanks to hydrofracking and other advanced drilling techniques, shale gas and oil fields that were long thought to be near worthless due to the limitations of older drilling equipment have sparked an energy boom in the past few years.  The glut of natural gas now coming to the world marketplace were enough to prompt current Russian Prime Minister and soon-to-be President Vladimir Putin to discuss the “threat” shale gas posed to the Russian energy sector during his annual address to the Russian Duma (parliament) last week, and order the Russian energy sector to “answer this challenge”.  Rosneft seems then to be taking the “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em” approach with their partnership in ExxonMobile's Texas shale gas field.  They become the latest in a line of foreign companies who have invested in similar American fields as a way of gaining practical experience in using hydrofracking, horizontal drilling and other advanced recovery techniques to access their own domestic shale gas and oil reserves.

There's also a sense of going back to the future for ExxonMobile in the Rosneft deal.  In 2003, ExxonMobile was on the verge of signing a similar agreement with Russia's then-largest oil conglomerate, Yukos, when Yukos' chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on charges of tax evasion.  Khodorkovsky had hoped that the partnership would literally provide him with a krisha (Russian slang for “protection”) in his increasingly hostile personal relationship with Vladimir Putin.  Khodorkovsky was arrested before the Yukos-ExxonMobile deal could go through.

The Khodorkovsky affair could serve as a cautionary tale about doing big business deals in Putin's Russia, as could the Kremlin's forcing of Royal Dutch Shell to sell half their stake in a $20 billion natural gas project on Russia's Sakhalin Island to Russia's Gazprom.  But Russia is jockeying for position with Saudi Arabia as the world's top oil producer, which means that despite the risks, the rewards could be huge for ExxonMobile.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Obama's Not-So-Excellent Latin American Adventure

By now you've probably heard about the Secret Service prostitution scandal that has totally overshadowed President Obama's trip to participate in the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of the nations of Latin America – plus the United States and Canada, this past weekend in Cartagena, Colombia.  After reading this report from Reuters, maybe the Secret Service distraction isn't a bad thing.

While the White House is touting the signing of a free-trade agreement between the United States and Colombia as an accomplishment from the Summit, most of the focus seems to be falling on the United States increasingly diminishing role in Latin American affairs, quite a step back for the US, which since the time of the Monroe Doctrine has considered Latin America to be our backyard.  But that attitude may be part of the reason for the split.  Latin American governments are finding the United States to be increasingly more arrogant and demanding in its bilateral dealings with them, and indications are that they are growing tired of the long-standing status quo.

The most visible sign of this split is the public rebuke suffered by the US and Canada over Cuba.  The two nations pushed a motion to bar inviting Cuba to future Summits unless Cuba engaged in massive political reforms. None of the Summit's other 32 participants signed on to the resolution.  The nations of Latin America meanwhile are charting a course that isn't dependent on the United States.  China is pouring money into investments in a host of Latin American nations, while Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has been promoting the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), as a US-free alternative to existing regional bodies like the Organization of American States.

Critics will likely be quick to blame the failure of the United States at the Summit on Pres. Obama, but as one State Dept. official noted to Reuters, many of the wedge issues between the US and Latin America have been brewing for decades.  And a number of Latin American leaders said that they truly appreciated President Obama's attendance at the Summit and his apparent interest in the discussions and decision-making process, even if they disagree with the official positions of the United States.  And a major driver of the US-Latin American split is the growing economic clout of a number of nations in the region, particularly Brazil, which is a member of the BRICS group of the world's top-performing emerging economies.  Brazil's statue will be boosted by their deepwater oil reserves, which could net the country vast amounts of money from crude oil exports, and Brazil's hosting of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.
Sphere: Related Content

Africa's Next War: Sudan

Sudan has all but formally declared war on their newest neighbor (and their former countrymen) South Sudan.  That is the message from Sudan's National Assembly, where the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has voted that a state of war officially exists between the two nations.  They are now urging Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir to make an outright declaration of war.

The already poor relations between the two states collapsed last week when the South Sudan military charged across the border and seized the region around the Sudanese city of Heglig.  The South Sudanese maintain that the move was necessary because Sudan was using the city as a base for cross-border military raids and bombing runs against towns and villages in the Nuba Mountains.

But Heglig also happens to be one of the few oil producing regions left in Sudan.  Before the Sudan/South Sudan split last summer, Sudan was an oil exporting nation.  But most of the oil production came from fields located in what's now South Sudan, which has left Sudan with far fewer resources under their control.  Oil continues to be a sore point between the two nations.  Almost all of the oil infrastructure in South Sudan is designed to ship oil north to refineries around Khartoum and export facilities in Port Sudan, both located in Sudan.  The two nations fought over transportation rates for the use of this pipeline network, with South Sudan eventually cutting off all of their exports to Sudan in protest of what they thought was an unfair deal.  While this has been an economic blow to Sudan, it has also been a crushing blow to the fledgling economy of South Sudan, which relies on oil exports for almost 100% of their revenues.

A new war between these two sides is a very real possibility.  For decades they engaged in what was one of Africa's longest-running civil wars.  In 2005, a peace agreement was signed, which stipulated that a referendum on independence would be held in six years.  That vote was held in 2011, with almost 99% of the South Sudanese voting in favor of independence.  The two countries formally split last July.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Patriarch's Watch

A sharp-eyed member of the Russian bologosphere has swept the head of the Russian Orthodox Church up in a photo controversy. 

The church published a photograph of their spiritual head, Patriarch Kirill, at a meeting, but a blogger noticed something odd.  Taking a close look, they realized that the Patriarch's $30,000  gold Breguet watch had been airbrushed off his wrist, but that a reflection of the watch was still visible in the highly-polished surface of the table where Patriarch Kirill was seated. 

At first, the church denied that the Patriarch was wearing such an expensive watch, then they removed the photo from their official website, before finally admitting to the manipulation.  The Russian Orthodox Church then went on to condemn the digital manipulation of images of the Patriarch adding that “the guilty ones will be punished severely.”  Though Patriarch Kirill himself denies that expensive gold watches are a part of his official attire, another photo of the Patriarch wearing the same $30,000 Breguet while posing with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was also published this past February.

So what's so important about the Patriarch's choice of wristwatch?  Perhaps not a lot, but it is worth noting that after the Russian punk band Pussy Riot's impromptu “punk prayer” performance late last February at Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral, they claimed part of their motivation was because the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church wore watches worth $40,000 – several years wages for many average Russians.  Two of Pussy Riot's members remain in jail facing charges of inciting religious hatred stemming from the performance, which could earn them seven years in prison.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Is Zimbabwe's Mugabe Dying?

According to a report in Monday's The Australian newspaper, Zimbabwe's controversial President Robert Mugabe may be dying in a hospital in Singapore from an undisclosed illness.  The paper goes on to suggest that the illness may be cancer, which has spread throughout his body.  According to one of the many diplomatic documents unearthed in the WikiLeaks data dump, Mugabe had previously battled prostate cancer in 2008.

The 88-year old leader was allegedly in Singapore to oversee his daughter's enrollment in a post-graduate program.  Again, according to The Australian, members of Mugabe's family have rushed to be at his bedside.

Zimbabwe has not known another leader since gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1980.  That leads analysts to predict that Zimbabwe may likely fall into chaos should Mugabe die, since he has not groomed a successor to take either the presidency or leadership of his ZANU-PF party.  Currently Mugabe's ZANU-PF is locked in an uneasy power-sharing agreement with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was forged in the wake of the violently-contested 2008 presidential election.  After Mugabe lost the first round of voting to Tsvangirai, Mugabe's supporters launched a campaign of violence against the MDC that drove Tsvangirai out of the run-off election.  International pressure eventually forced the two men to share power.

In a troubling sign of what could happen following the death of Robert Mugabe, there are reports that he has tapped Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa to fill-in for him should he die.  Mnangagwa has been loyal to Mugabe since the struggle to drive out the British.  Over the years Mnangagwa has earned a fearsome reputation and is believed to have been the leader behind the campaign of violence directed against MDC supporters in 2008.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Somalia: When Good Stories Go Bad

There's an interesting piece in Foreign Policy that illustrates the dangers of trying to get out in front of a story from a turbulent region in this era of instant information.

In case you didn't hear, overnight Wednesday a suicide bomber struck at a performance at the National Theater in Mogadishu, Somalia, killing as many as 7 people, including the head of Somalia's Olympic committee and chair of their national football (soccer) program.  The militant group al-Shabaab, which has recently suffered from a string of defeats at the hands of Kenyan, Ethiopian and African Union troops, quickly claimed responsibility and identified the bomber as a 16-year old girl.

The reopening of the National Theater for the first time in 21 years was being widely cited as a sign that a sense of normalcy was finally returning to the capital of what is arguably the world's most war-torn state (I even referenced it in this post).  The theater was the centerpiece of a story by the New York Times Jeffrey Gettleman, who has done some incredible reporting from the region, entitled “A Taste of Hope in Somalia's Battered Capital.”  Gettleman even tweeted up his story with the line: “Who says it's just bad news coming out of Somalia?”

The New York Times webpage with Somali story

Of course as Gettleman was hitting the Twitterverse a teenage girl was blowing herself up in front of a collection of Somali dignataries.  This isn't to criticize Gettleman, who, as I mentioned above, is one of the few Westerners doing solid reporting from this region; rather it is a story that illustrates just how fast information moves today, and how quickly a story can change.
Sphere: Related Content

Stalin: The Notebook

Apparently there's a new bestseller in Russian bookstores.  No, it's not a Russian knock-off of the Hunger Games series, but rather a humble school notebook with the image of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin emblazoned on the cover.  The book is part of a series called “Great Russians” meant to expose schoolchildren to noteworthy figures from Russia's history: Czars, composers, scientists and, apparently, Joe Stalin.

There is, of course, a controversy surrounding the notebook.  There are some who say that the heroic image of Stalin, dressed in a sharp military uniform with a chest full of medals, is nothing short of propaganda aimed at impressionable children and that it totally ignores the fact that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens; the creation of the gulag system and of a culture of fear that persisted after his death.  In response to numerous complaints, Russia's Education Minister Andrei Fursenko said that while he disapproves of the notebooks, he can't legally block their sale.

The counter-argument is that Stalin was a great leader, who managed, against all odds, to lead the Soviet Union through the Second World War (or Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia) and oversaw the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Many Russians still regard Stalin's reign as the high-water mark for the power and prestige of the Soviet Union – which, perhaps, explains why most of the notebook sales are said to be to adults.  Artyom Belan, art director of the publishing house that put out the Great Russians series makes a point Stalin supporters often do: "If we do a series of great Russians, should we strike the 20th century from the list altogether?" Belan asked in an interview published by USA Today, in other words, since we can't ignore the fact that Stalin existed, we may as well celebrate his accomplishments.

But I can think of a better reason though not to include Josef Stalin in a series on “Great Russians”: he wasn't Russian.  Stalin was actually born in the Soviet republic of Georgia.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

How's That Coup Working Out For You?

That's a question that a group of army officers in the West African nation of Mali have to be asking themselves right about now.  Two weeks ago, a group of mid-level officers overthrew the democratically-elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure over what they felt was President Toure's incompetent handling of the uprising by Tuareg tribesmen in the northern part of Mali, which began in January. 

But since a group of officers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo siezed the presidential residence, Mali's army has been in disarray, and the Tuaregs have been taking full advantage, seizing a string of Malian cities, including the historic Timbuktu.  For their part, the Tuaregs say that they launched their uprising in response to continued oppression by the Malian government in Bamako, located in the southern part of the country.  The Tuaregs are fighting for an independent homeland that they would carve out of the northern section of Mali.  They have dubbed their militia the “National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad”; there are reports that the Tuareg numbers have been bolstered by fighters formerly employed by Moammar Gadhafi's regime- since the Libyan leaders is known to have favored Tuareg mercenaries for their loyalty and fearsome reputation across west Africa.  Of course, since Gadhafi's downfall, these men have been mercenaries without a job.

The Malian military was upset by the government's handling of the uprising and by the heavy casualties they were taking in fighting the Tuaregs.  But many international observers are saying that the actions of Capt. Sanogo and his fellow coup plotters were impulsive, and that they seized the presidential residence without any plan as to what to do next.  That their coup seems to be having the exact opposite of its intended effect – rather than improving its effectiveness, the military campaign against the Tuaregs has all but fallen apart – seems to back up this assessment.  To make matters worse, it has been discovered that Capt. Sanogo was actually one of a group of elite Malian soldiers who were selected to receive advanced anti-terroristtraining in the United States, which makes you wonder just what the US was teaching these “elite” soldiers since they seem to have totally screwed up their own anti-insurgency campaign with the coup they impulsively decided to stage against a president who was scheduled to leave office next month anyway.

What happens now is anybody's guess.  Mali's neighbors are taking moves to seal their borders, isolating Mali in response to the coup.  But, at the same time, it is clear that the Tuareg uprising has gotten past the Malian army's ability to handle, so without foreign assistance, it is likely to continue.  Also in question are the whereabouts of President Toure, who hasn't been seen since the coup.  Everyone seems to agree that he is safe, somewhere within the country, though reports then differ, suggesting that he is either trying to seek asylum with the French government, or that he is being protected by a cadre of loyal soldiers, which also suggests the possibility of a counter-coup.   
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Post of the Month: Somalia and the Resoure Curse

FYI - the most popular post on A World View for the month of March was this one about Somalia and the potential for them to suffer the "resource curse".

Oil has been discovered in the autonomous region of Puntland in north central Somalia.  On the surface, this should be a great deal for Somalia, a source of revenue that the war-torn country needs to try to start a new future.  But too often for developing countries, a valuable natural resource only leads to more poverty and more instability.  Will this happen again in Somalia?  Only time will tell.
Sphere: Related Content