Saturday, July 26, 2008

Olympics dominates Chinese news

CCTV on Friday continued to show final preparations being made as the Beijing games approached. From increased security measures to new fire-fighting equipment being demonstrated, authorities are making strident efforts to ensure the games are safe. The final batch of tickets went on sale Friday prompting thousands to queue for hours outside Olympic venues in Beijing. Another torch relay finished its run in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, before making its final leg to China's capital. Chinese news broadcasts are dominated with reports of the upcoming games. In Friday's edition of World Wide Watch the first report focused on the many athletic teams making ready to take part in the sporting event. CCTV-9 mainly focused on China's own athletes including basketball teams and diving participants. However, the channel also reported on preparations being made by Russia, Britain's cycling team and on athletes from Jamaica.

The Media Village opened Friday from where hundreds of foriegn journalists will operate. And dozens of High Definition outside broadcast vehicles also arrived in Beijing which will relay pictures around the world.

Aside from Olympic coverage, CCTV also reported briefly on other headlines from around the world. One item concerned a bomb blast in India which killed one person. Few details were broadcast concerning the incident and no pictures were initially shown. Another explosion forced a Qantas flight to make an emergency landing in Manila. There were no reported injuries aboard the Boeing 747 following the incident which damaged the cargo area of the fuselage and caused part of the ceiling to collapse. There was no explanation as to what caused the explosion. Meanwhile, back in China two were killed and over 140,000 buildings collapsed following a 5.6 magnitude earthquake on the borders of Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces.

[tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan province, China]

Internet access blocked after Kunming blast

Following the bomb attack in Kunming on Monday authorities have placed restrictions on internet cafes in the city. The procedures weren't immediately implemented, however by Tuesday access to the internet was barred at public internet bars and cafes until police had put 'monitoring procedures' in place. On Friday access to the internet was still unavailable though the restrictions do not apply to home users and has not affected other towns or cities. Access to the internet was finally restored on Saturday.

Two people died in the blasts which hit a pair of number 54 buses belonging to the Kunming Bus Company. The first explosion occurred at 07:05 local time [23:05 GMT Sunday] at Renming Xi Lu. One person was killed and another was seriously injured in the blast. Nine others received slight injuries. The second death occurred at 08:10 [00:10 GMT Monday] when another bomb exploded on board a commuter bus at Changyuan Zhong Lu, less than two kilometers east of the first incident. Four others were injured on the second bus. The death toll may have been much higher but for the low number of passengers travelling.

There has been no outspoken criticism towards authorities which took no action to shut down the transport network following the first blast. In 2005, London police immediately shut down bus and subway transport systems within minutes of blasts on trains and a bus which killed 52. But buses and trains continued to run throughout the day in Kunming despite the blasts which authorities described as "deliberate". The speed at which forensic examinations were completed was also very different. In London the subway network faced serious disruption for several weeks and the number 30 bus, involved in London's terror attack, remained in place for more than a week while police examined the scene. But within hours Chinese police had removed the buses from the streets of Kunming and the following day the streets were open once again. The bomb attacks came on the third anniversary of the failed 21/7 terror attacks in London. Officially the authorities in China have not said the blasts were terrorist attacks linked to the Olympic Games. But suspicion will no doubt fall on Islamic separatist groups especially since several such groups have been broken up in recent months.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Beijing sees blue

Beijing's skies are beginning to look blue following a massive effort to cut down on industrial and traffic pollution. Flying into Beijing last week one passenger, not having returned for over one year, commented on how clear the view was. "I've never seen Beijing look so clear", said Ms Wang, "It's beautiful isn't it?" Indeed, the view, as the plane came into land at Beijing International Airport, was unobstructed. The city is almost permanently covered in a layer of smog, something which the International Olympic Committee were extremely concerned about. But now it seems the only hazard athletes need to contend with is the high temperatures, already in the low 30s. But while there is much cause for celebration, it may well be short lived. After the Olympics, restrictions on the flow of traffic will be relaxed and the factories will once again start production. So the clear views and breathable air may well be short lived as Beijing once again becomes shrouded in the familiar smog.

In other parts of China the flow of traffic remains the same, as does the continuing belching of smoke from factory chimneys. In Kunming the smell of brick dust and cement hangs in the air along with the traffic fumes. Traffic jams in the city centre are common, a scene repeated in cities across China as car ownership increases.

[tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan province, China]

Kunming hit by 'terror' attack

Kunming city was the target of a terrorist attack on Monday. Reports say three bombs exploded during the morning rush hour, though CCTV-9 reported only two explosions which it described as "deliberate". Two buses and according to some reports a car were hit in the attack leaving at least 2 dead and up to 16 injured. Ten hours after the attack, forensic officers could be seen examining the scene of one of the explosions at Renmin Xi Lu.

A dozen officers sifted through the debris as others stood guard by a cordon strung up across the road. Passers-by seemed unperturbed by the incident and continued about their daily business. Even the buses continued running around the city despite the attack which comes only a few days before the Olympics. Residents did express surprise and shock however with one woman saying, "you expect this sort of thing in Tibet but not here in Kunming". Authorities have not indicated who carried out the attacks but there is a widespread feeling amongst residents of the town that the attacks were perpetrated by someone with a grievance rather than Islamic terrorists.
[tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan province, China]

Saturday, July 19, 2008

20 days until Olympic games

With just twenty days to go until the Beijing games China is continuing to put in place the final touches to its 'coming out party'. Medal ceremony costumes were unveiled on Thursday, a day which also saw another leg of the Olympic torch run completed in Anshin. Explosives detectors and x-ray machines arrived in Beijing this week adding to the increased security measures already in place. At Beijing airport security is very high and explosives trained dogs can be seen checking people's luggage on arrival.

Meanwhile at a press conference BOCOG have insisted everything should run smoothly for the 20,000 journalists expected to arrive in the city. Guo Weimin said foreign media should have no problems in carrying out interviews while Xi Guohuo said internet and telephone communications systems had been upgraded to facilitate increased capacity. New subway lines have also been unveiled this week which will convey people from the airport to the centre of the Beijing Olympic village. While one is never far from signs of the upcoming games in Beijing, with advertising and advertising seen everywhere, further south the Olympic symbols are less obvious. In Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, which itself hosted an Olympic torch run on 8th June, there are few outward signs that the Olympics are imminent. Some local people can be seen wearing t-shirts emblazoned with Olympic slogans and a few shops have flags on display, nonetheless, people across the provincial capital are still very excited about China's hosting of the Olympic games. [posted from Kunming, Yunnan province, China]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

China allowed to buy ivory stockpiles

If one thought the media would treat China gently with just over three weeks until the Beijing games, one would be wrong. Tonight, China was in the spotlight after it was revealed the country would soon benefit from being allowed to import a vast amount of stockpiled ivory gathered from legal culling and natural deaths. However, animal rights activists have slammed the ‘one-off sale” saying it will further encourage illegal poaching. The ivory accounts for more than 11,000 elephant across parts of Africa including Zimbabwe where 3.7 tonnes of the valuable commodity is stockpiled. But the largest stockpile sits in Botswana where more than 43 tonnes has accumulated. Opponents of the sale fear that after the stockpiles are used up poachers will return to killing elephants in countries such as Chad, Nigeria and the DRC where 23,000 elephants were killed last year alone according to IFAW. On their website the International Fund for Animal Welfare said, “China has the world's biggest illegal market for traded ivory and IFAW and other NGOs believe that if it becomes a trading partner, illegal traders will use this legitimate status as a smokescreen behind which to sell poached ivory” [Channel Four News / BBC]. However China has more to worry about than international concerns over ivory sales, its recent veto of planned sanctions against Zimbabwe and clamping down on protestors.
In the rush to make the Olympic Games just right there has been a massive effort to clear the pollution not only in the air but also the algae infested sea near Beijing. Up to 10,000 troops helped clear tonnes of the blue-green algae which threatened the upcoming sailing events during the games [BBC]. While China says the algae is a natural phenomenon, environmentalists have blamed the weed growth at Qingdao on pollution.
Another huge effort is being made to feed the thousands expected to descend on the capital over the coming weeks. Restaurants have sprung up across Beijing hoping to make the many foreign visitors feel at home. There are now eateries catering for many different tastes; Greek, Vietnamese, Italian, German, French, Ethiopian, Spanish and Singaporean to name but a few. There are more than 40,000 restaurants across the city, and many will be packed with nearly half a million visitors that will arrive very soon [CNN]. Over the next three weeks leading up to the Olympics tvnewswatch will bring special reports from China as internet and other technical issues allow. So stay tuned for reports from the ground in southern China, Xian where a total eclipse is due and from Beijing in what has been dubbed by many media commentators as “China’s coming out party”.

Money worries in US and UK

It’s been a turbulent week in financial markets. Asian markets have been hit particularly badly, the oil markets have been far from stable [CNN] and there was more bad news in the US banking sector as the government was forced to step in after another financial collapse. But far from appearing gloomy George W Bush was in his outlook for America’s housing market and the oil industry. Speaking on Tuesday he said his plans would help “stabilize” the economy [CNN]. "It's been a difficult time for American families," Bush said at a press conference but added, "We must ensure we can continue providing credit during this time of stress." On Sunday, the Bush administration said it would provide capital and might even buy stock in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the country's two giant mortgage financing companies. Stocks in the two firms plummeted last week on fears they were holding billions of dollars in bad loans. Turmoil at Fannie and Freddie raised fears the home lending market may dry up, sending home prices into a tailspin.

Across the pond in Britain there are increasing concerns that wages aren’t covering the soaring cost of living. In the last year fuel has risen 23% and in turn has put up the price of even the most basic foods in the shops. There was even more gloomy news as it emerged inflation in the UK was at a 10 year high hitting around 3.8% [Sky News / BBC]. All this has forced many to tighten their purse strings and consumers have been seen shying away from major purchases. There will be more bad news to come for anyone wishing to escape from the hustle and bustle after British Airways talked of inevitable fare rises in the near future. And any desire to drink one’s sorrows away is also becoming more difficult. Not only has the price of beer increased dramatically over the last year, but there are fewer pubs to drink in with Channel Four News reporting that they are closing at a rate of 23 a week.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sudan president charged with genocide

The ICC prosecutor has issued charges against Sudan’s president with genocide. Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has said President Omar Hassan al-Bashir will be charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. “The facts show” al-Bashir was involved directly with widespread genocide in Sudan. Talking to CNN’s International Correspondent Nic Robertson he said there was strong evidence linking the Sudanese president with atrocities across the African state including systematic rapes of women and ethnic cleansing [CNN / BBC]

Friday, July 11, 2008

Dog off the menu at Beijing Olympics

Dog is off the menu, at least in the 112 official Olympic restaurants in Beijing where authorities have asked chefs to remove the meat from the menu. The reasoning is that they don’t want to offend foreigners. But it is not a request by the Beijing Catering Trade Association since any restaurant breaching the ban will be black-listed. The organisation has also encouraged other restaurants across the capital to remove the meat from their menus too, but they will not face fines if they refuse. Xiong Yumei, deputy director of the Beijing Tourism Bureau, has suggested that, "If a customer orders dog meat, restaurant staff should patiently suggest another entree". In other attempts to welcome foreigners authorities have also told people to queue up politely, to smile and not to spit on the streets [BBC / Xinhua].

UN draft against Zimbabwe fails

A UN draft resolution on Zimbabwe has been vetoed [BBC]. Both China and Russia voted against the resolution brought before the UN by France, Britain and the US. Besides there being 9 votes in favour and 5 against, plus one abstention, the votes by China and Russia doomed the resolution. If any of the 5 permanent security council members veto a draft resolution then the majority vote does not count. South Africa also voted against the proposals but it is unclear who the remaining two were. CNN’s Richard Roth said there had been a feeling at the United Nations building that the UN was on a campaign of Africa-bashing especially as discussions were held over Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The Sudanese ambassador to the United Nations told CNN on Friday that the ICC had indicated to Sudanese officials that al-Bashir may be charged over the five-year campaign of violence in the country's Darfur region.

Evidence may be presented Monday of the genocide. Meanwhile, Sudan's U.N. ambassador Mahmoud Mohamad has spoken angrily as speculation swirled about an impending arrest warrant. He said Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo was “playing with fire” by seeking such a warrant.

Security tightens ahead of Beijing games

Anti-aircraft missiles protecting Olympic sites

Beijing has attempted to reassure journalists that they will have ‘freedom to report’ during the Olympic games. With less than one month to go until the games senior Chinese leader Li Changchun told journalists "If you are dissatisfied, you can file your complaint directly to Liu Qi, president of Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of XXIX Olympiad". Many have complained they have faced problems with authorities in the lead up to the games. Some have been prevented from filming and others have complained of issues of over where they may drive and park satellite vehicles. Many freelance journalists and photographers have been refused visas, and even some large organisations have suffered problems acquiring the correct accreditation. For those who have made it to China many will have access to the Beijing International Media Center (BIMC), which opened on Tuesday to serve more than 5,000 non-accredited reporters during the Games [Xinhua].

The technology involved in bringing the Olympics to millions of viewers has exceeded anything attempted before. With more than 4,000 hours of online content alone there are also issues of digital rights. It is something that authorities want to control and have said they will come down heavily on copyright breaches. And it is a product they are likely to make a lot of money from with broadcasting rights bringing in billions of dollars [CNN].

Protection doesn’t just come in the form of the ‘copyright police’. Outside the Olympic Sports Centre Stadium ground to air missile installations have been placed to guard the venues. Behind a two metre high fence, two Hongqi 7 missile launchers have been installed. Along side sits other military hardware and vehicles hidden under camouflage netting. And behind a notice reading "Military Administrative District No Admittance" a dozen or so soldiers can be seen guarding the military emplacement [CNN].

The fears expressed by the authorities is that terrorists may attempt to target the games. According to Xinhua several terror cells have been broken up, though details have been sketchy. The state news agency said that five terrorist groups in a mainly Muslim autonomous region had been broken up. Chen Zhuangwei, head of the Public Security Bureau of Urumqi, said 82 suspected terrorists had been arrested over 6 months in the mainly Muslim autonomous region of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region on suspicion of plotting to attack the Olympic Games. But both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have raised concerns about the crackdown saying that the authorities were using the threat as an excuse to stop dissent amongst ethnic groups. Authorities have also been criticised in their rounding up of known Falun Gong members and activists. But Chinese authorities are adamant in their claim that the terror threat is real and tangible. Last year Aji Mai Mai Ti, leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement Organization, a terrorist group based outside China, is alleged to have arrived in the Xinjiang province "to accelerate the preparation on terrorism activities" targeting the Beijing Games. The terrorist leader planned to target hotels in Beijing and Shanghai that were frequented by foreigners, as well as government buildings and military bases, according to a statement from the Ministry of Public Security [CNN].

In the most recent counter-terrorist operation five ethnic Uighur men were shot and killed in Xinjiang province. The men were part of a group plotting a "holy war", according to Xinhua news. They were part of a group of 15, all of whom were armed with knives. According to the state news agency the eight men in custody had confessed to planning "terrorist" attacks against China's majority Han population [BBC / al Jazeera].

In April a number of other terror plots were broken up by authorities in the Xinjiang province. According to Wu Heping, a Ministry of Public Security spokesman, "The violent terrorist group plotted to kidnap foreign journalists, tourists and athletes during the Beijing Olympics" [BBC].
Back in Beijing and ordinary Beijingers are complaining their life has become difficult with recent security measures and restrictions. Some migrant workers have been told to leave the capital according to the BBC.
But it is the millions of motorists who have the biggest gripe. For many the car provides the only practical way of making the journey to work. But since measures were implemented to help cut pollution many have complained at the difficulty in getting to work. Lou Ning told the BBC that his 40 km journey provided few public transport links and he would have to pay 100 Yuan (£7.40) for a taxi ride. But he was generally pragmatic. "I have to drive a long way to work so the ban is inconvenient, but it's for my country, for the Olympic Games," said Mr Lou. There is increased inconvenience for anyone travelling around the city however. There are security checks on the subway, at airports and on the roads. A security cordon has even been set up on roads around Beijing at which passengers and their luggage are checked.

David Davis win 'a farce' says Labour

David Davis has won the bi-election he forced in the constituency of Haltemprice & Howden [Sky News]. But his intention of bringing issues of civil liberties to the fore and raise public awareness of an ever increasing surveillance society has largely failed. Shortly after he stood down as Shadow Home Secretary in early June there was a frenzy of media coverage [BBC]. But shortly afterwards the interest dwindled to nothing.
Only on Thursday afternoon was attention drawn to the fact that polls would soon be closing in the constituency of Haltemprice. Of course, with no real competition, it was a certainty that David Davis would regain his seat. Neither of the two main parties stood, with Labour seeing the whole exercise as a publicity stunt, while the Lib Dems withdrew primarily because they agreed with the issue on which Davis was basing his campaign. But there was no shortage of competition, though the candidates were from the fringes of politics. There were 13 ‘Independent’ candidates amongst the total of 26 standing. Amongst the more bizarre candidates were David Icke and the Mad Cow-Girl of the Monster Raving Loony Party. But Davis sailed through taking 71% of vote. The Green Party came second but took only 1,758 votes compared to the 17,113 taken by the Conservative candidate [results] and 23 candidates lost their deposits. One Labour minister has called the bi-election a farce and a waste of £80,000 in tax payers’ money.
David Davis’ win comes on a day that a report called for new rules on the sharing of information and data protection, an issue that had been raised by Davis himself. The government-commissioned report said the selling of electoral information needed to be tightened and that private bodies should also be taken to task over how they treat personal information. Under the spotlight were so-called social networking websites such as Facebook and Bebo. Dr Walport said, "Many individuals are posting more and more personal information on the web and of course web technology means that it can be aggregated in a very powerful way." The report says organisations should publish privacy policies explaining how and why they used people's personal information.

It also suggested that internet sites which collected people's details from electoral rolls, company registers, telephone directories and websites were a "worrying threat to privacy". The review, headed up by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas and Wellcome Trust director Dr Mark Walport, was commissioned a week before HM Revenue and Customs lost two discs containing personal details of 25 million people [BBC].
Today there were more privacy concerns raised after it was revealed the internet giant Google was planning a UK version of StreetView/. The 360 degree panoramic views are already available in most major US cities, but now Google is capturing everyone and everything on the streets of London. The black car equipped with cameras has already been spotted in parts of the capital and some people have slammed the plan as an invasion of privacy and a ‘burglar’s charter’. While the car spotted in France is emblazoned with a Google logo, the vehicle seen in the UK is anonymous except for the the large pole attached to the roof festooned with an array of cameras [Daily Mail / Scotsman / PA / Londonist].

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Iran missile tests concern US & Israel

Iran has launched a number of medium and long range missiles creating concern in the US and Israel. Yesterday several missiles were launched and there were further test launches on Wednesday evening. The tests included the first night test of the Shahab-3 missile, said to have a range of 2,000km, along with shore-to-sea, surface-to-surface and sea-to-air missiles, state media reported.

Today pictures emerged showing military exercises in the Gulf increasing worries in Washington. Even before the tests the US Secretary of State had aired her concerns. “We are working with all our allies to make sure they can defend themselves” Condoleezza Rice said. The test come after several reports that suggest that both Israel and the US are preparing for military strikes against Iran. Gen Hoseyn Salami, the Guards' air force commander, said the tests demonstrated Iran's "resolve and might against enemies who in recent weeks have threatened Iran with harsh language. Our hands are always on the trigger and our missiles are ready for launch." [CNN / BBC / Sky News]

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Media critical as Beijing Olympics near

Anti-terror police on Segways

The IOC has praised Chinese efforts to complete everything ahead of next months Olympic Games. IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies speaking on CNN said “everything was ready”. But not everyone is entirely happy. Many media organisation have aired frustrations and anger over Beijing’s failure to meet the promised relaxation on reporting [Business Week]. "I think this free reporting will be a problem for everyone,'' said Johannes Hano, East Asia bureau chief of Germany's ZDF television. In the first week of July police barged into an interview being conducted by Johannes Hano on the Great Wall that was being transmitted live to Germany.
"They will stop you even if you have permission. It will be the biggest problem. There is no freedom of press as they promised,'' he said. But press freedom is only one of many concerns highlight on CNN today.

Many of China’s athletes have no time to relax and some have raised concerns over how hard they’re pushed. Channel Four News and the BBC World Service both ran stories about how many athletes are being overworked. The Channel Four report, rebroadcast on CNN, looked at the gruelling training regimes that many athletes had to endure in order to help China secure as many gold medals as possible. Many officials have pressured trainers saying that silver and bronze medal were simply not good enough.
The issue of human rights is never far away and many groups have expressed concern over both George Bush and Nicholas Sarkozy announcing their intention to attend the opening ceremony. Reporters without Borders have criticised the French president’s announcement saying it was “truly cowardly and not what one expects of France”. Reporters Without Borders have also called for world wide demonstrations on the 8th August. “The occasional good news, such as the unblocking of access to certain foreign websites and the reopening of Tibet, have been eclipsed by a series of outrageous arrests and increased surveillance of human rights activists,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The Olympic infrastructure is in place, but police controls have been stepped up, the Internet is still censored, international radio stations are jammed and Beijing’s air is still polluted.”

And indeed the air is still thick with a grey smog that hangs over Beijing. CNN’s John Vause reported that the view from his 30th floor apartment was almost invisible despite valiant efforts by authorities to clear the air. The army has been firing silver iodine into the clouds in an attempt to bring rain. Factories have shut down and the numbers of cars on the roads has been reduced. But so far there has been little major effect. Despite concerns that Beijing authorities have over possible demonstrations, acts of terrorism or even awkward journalists, the biggest problem may just be the weather and the pollution.

Over 60 dead in Afghan and Pakistan blasts

A day after an explosion struck a market in Islamabad killing 17 people, another blast rocked the country on Monday bringing fresh fears that terrorists are launching a widespread campaign of violence. On Sunday a blast targeted police and coincided with the first anniversary of the siege of the red mosque [BBC].

On Monday evening a number of blasts brought panic to the streets of Karachi. There was only one reported death, but more than 35 were injured, amongst them a number of children. However conflicting reports from ARY One World TV suggested two had died in 7 explosions and that more than 50 had been injured. President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani issued statements condemning blasts which have shattered a relative peace in the country [CNN / BBC].

Pakistan is not the only country suffering at the hands of terrorist bombers. In the heart of Kabul in neighbouring Afghanistan more than 40 were killed when a car bomb exploded near the Indian Embassy. Amongst those killed was the Indian defence attaché and a political consul. It is not clear if the suicide bomber was specifically targeting the Indian Embassy. The embassy is in the centre of Kabul, opposite the Interior Ministry and in close proximity to several other government buildings. Queues of people wishing to obtain visas for India can be seen every morning outside the embassy. "It is very important to say that among the dead were innocent civilians and shopkeepers, women and children," said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was clear, at least in his own mind, that the attack was targeted at India, as well as his own country. Calling it an "abominable act" he said "is the work of the enemies of Afghanistan’s friendship with India" [CNN / BBC].

Afghanistan was also seeking answers to a pair of air strikes that killed a number of civilians. On Sunday around 23 people were killed and 10 others injured following a coalition air strike in Nangarhar province. The incident came only two days after 15 civilians died in a helicopter attack on the borders of Konar and Nurestan provinces. Amongst those killed were five members of one family, a doctor and two children, according to a government spokesmen. In July 2002, a US airstrike in Oruzgan Province killed at least 34 people at a wedding party.
The United Nations has said the proportion of Afghan civilian deaths blamed on government forces and U.S. and NATO troops has declined in the first six months of 2008, largely due to pressure from Karzai's government. "It is clear that the international military forces are making every effort to minimize civilian casualties and recognize the damage this does and want to deal with that," U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs John Holmes said in June. But he added, “Problems are still there, and we need to deal with them and make sure that the safety of civilians comes first and international humanitarian law is respected by everybody."
More than 2,100 people, mostly said to be militants, have been killed in insurgency-related violence in Afghanistan this year. More than 8,000 people died in attacks last year, according to the UN [CNN].

Meanwhile in Iraq at least 11 were killed in a bomb blast in the north of the country. A suicide car bomb struck a check point south of Samarra killing four and injuring six others. In Baquba a blast killed one woman and injured fifteen. Another bomb killed two women farm workers in southern Baquba and a mortar attacke in Mosul hit the compound of provincial Gov. Duraid Kashmoula leaving six injured. Also on Monday four contractors were killed by a roadside bomb in Mosul. Besides the recent attacks the US military claim that violence is down in recent months [CNN / BBC].

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Deadly blast in Pakistan kills 8

A deadly explosion has struck a market in Pakistan killing at least 8 people. The blast which appeared to target police comes on the first anniversary of the siege of the red mosque. The suicide attack was close to an anti-government protest and also near a police station. Aside of the dead at least 22 others were injured in the bomb blast which struck the centre of Islamabad at around 20:00 local time [BBC].

Another tragedy is also unfolding in neighbouring Afghanistan following a US air strike. The helicopter air strike is said to have killed a number of women and children en-route to a wedding in the Nangarhar province. A military spokesman has said the strike was aimed at militants but President Karzai has ordered an investigation into the deaths [CNN].

Saturday, July 05, 2008

UK - Deputy Mayor resigns

Ray Lewis on the day of his appointment

It all started out so well for Boris Johnson, well apart from his trip up the stairs as he took the rostrum at his first press conference. But only a few weeks into his office as London Mayor, the knives are out. And the first victim was his first appointment of Ray Lewis as Deputy Mayor for young people. Accusations of financial irregularities during his time as an East London vicar in the 1990s has forced the Deputy Mayor from office. Lewis said he resigned in order to stop the media circus that was beginning to surround the Mayoral office. "I cannot allow the things going on around me to obscure the important business of this very important mayoralty and for that reason I must step down with immediate affect” he said, adding that the matter should not be “hanging over Boris' head”. Boris Johnson said he was sad to hear of Ray‘s resignation and hoped he would prove his innocence. “The reason I hired Ray Lewis is that we won't solve the problems of this city if we rely on anti-septic yes men” Boris said. The Mayor said his Deputy had “god-given power and ability to inspire young people and to divert them from catastrophic mistakes of guns and knives and I very much hope that he'll now be left alone to clear his name and get on with what he does so well” [BBC].

During his short term in office there have been several stabbings across London. Two recent incidents have become extremely high profile with enormous press interest in the UK. This week saw the stabbing of a soap star’s young brother which drew strong condemnations and broad media coverage. It even brought out hundreds to protest in a call for youths to put down their knives [BBC. Although unconnected with the type of violent street crime that has left 17 dead this year alone, another savage knife attack also made the news this week. Two Frenchmen were stabbed and beaten before the flat they were held was set on fire. Police said one of the men had been stabbed 196 times whilst the other had been stabbed 47 times. Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez had been biochemistry students studying at Imperial College, London [BBC]. While police said they have no possible motive or positive leads they did reveal that they were investigating the possibility the killer stole items before leaving [BBC].

Before the Deputy Mayor left his office he expressed his muted anger at the importance placed on trivial issues rather than being focused on the important issues. "Today again we learn of another murder and yet so much time and attention's been given over to something that may or may not have happened 10-12 years ago, and of course you know that I flatly deny it." Today’s killing in Kings Cross brought the number of youth stabbing deaths to 17 this year [Map]. And it’s an issue also worrying not only the kids on the street but also wife of the former Prime Minister, Cherie Blair who this week said she was “scared for her children” [BBC].

But few politicians have any answers to sole the wave of knife crime hitting parts of the British capital. And of course it’s not just the capital, nor does the death toll reveal the true extent of knife crime on city streets. The injured and maimed are rarely counted and even more rarely reported. But a statement by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner in May did reveal how many knives may be on the streets. Sir Ian Blair said in just two weeks nearly 200 knives were seized and 200 people were arrested during stop and search operations across London. But even the outgoing Deputy Mayor who had been recruited to help solve the crisis admitted early on that there was “No magic solution” [BBC].

Friday, July 04, 2008

Viacom battle with Google threatens privacy

In a move that has rocked internet users across the world a judge has ruled that Google must hand private data over to the media giant Viacom. The company has fought long and hard against what it calls widespread copyright infringement and has demanded the Google give it information connected with the video website You Tube. The 12 terabytes of data would include user names and IP [internet protocol] addresses as well as a list of videos viewed by each user. Many groups have criticised the move as a step too far with regards privacy invasion and there has already been cals by some You Tube users to boycott Viacom products, programmes, channels and even products advertised on their channels.

Google have asked that they strip the private information before handing it over to Viacom but have not yet received a response from the media company which started legal action against the internet giant in 2007. Digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called the ruling a "set-back to privacy rights" saying it “will allow Viacom to see what you are watching on YouTube. We urge Viacom to back off this overbroad request and Google to take all steps necessary to challenge this order and protect the rights of its users." The body said the ruling was also potentially unlawful because the log data did contain personally identifiable data. Leading privacy expert Simon Davies told BBC News that the privacy of millions of YouTube users was threatened but that Google had not reacted to threat sooner. “The chickens have come home to roost for Google. Their arrogance and refusal to listen to friendly advice has resulted in the privacy of tens of millions being placed under threat."

Mr Davies said privacy campaigners had warned Google for years that IP addresses were personally identifiable information. Google pledged last year to make IP addresses anonymous for search information but it has said nothing about YouTube data. Mr Davies said, "Governments and organisations are realising that companies like Google have a warehouse full of data. And while that data is stored it is under threat of being used and putting privacy in danger."

The threat to privacy by large companies handing over data to authorities is well documented. In 2005 Yahoo was highly criticised after it handed data to Chinese authorities resulting in the arrest of at least one Chinese journalists. Shi Tao was jailed after Yahoo helped Chinese officials identify him. He was jailed for sending on to foreign websites an e-mail from the ruling Communist Party warning journalists not to cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 2004. He was tracked down and jailed for 10 years for subversion after Yahoo passed on his e-mail and IP address to officials. Another man, Wang Xiaoning, was also given a 10 year sentence for "incitement to subvert state power" after publishing pro-democracy material online. He too had been traced using information handed over by the internet company Yahoo [BBC].

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Ingrid Betancourt lands in Bogota

The news of the real of 15 FARC hostages was greeted with joy tonight. The news broke at around 19:00 GMT and within two hours family members were already packing their suitcases in order to fly and meet their loves ones. The mother of one of the released US contractors said she always knew her son would be freed and was overcome with joy at the news “This will be the first time I’ll have seen my son (Mark) in five years” Jo Rosano told al Jazeera. He was one of three American contractors employed by the US Department of Defense. They have been held around five years but many of the 11 Columbian security forces have been held captive for more than 10 years. Tonight President Sarkozy of France flanked by members of Ingrid’s family made a short address in which he expressed his joy at hearing of the released. He said Ingrid was in good health and was safe at a Columbian military base and added that his “thoughts were with Ingrid‘s family”. He thanked the Columbian President Urib as well as the authorities and army for securing Ingrid‘s freedom. Sarkozy also thanked the countries of Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador and made special mention to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for his help in trying to negotiate her release. He called on FARC to stop the fight calling it an “absurd conflict”.
Members of Ingrid’s family also spoke about their feelings. Ingrid’s daughter Melanie said “We have waited so long for this moment. We lack words. We just want to hold mum in our arms”. She went on to thank the President and the Columbian authorities for releasing her mother. But she added people “must not forget the other hostages in the jungle and we must spare thoughts for those who have died”. He brother Lorenzo said he hoped the other hostages would soon be freed but today he said “we won a fight for freedom and its the most amazing moment of my life”. Ingrid’s sister Astrid also spoke of her joy and echoed the words of thanks by Melanie and Lorenzo. They were set to fly out and meet Ingrid in the coming hours. Shortly after they spoke a white jet touched down at a landing strip in Columbia carrying the released hostages. As Ingrid stepped from the aircraft she neamed smiles as she hugged her mother.

15 FARC hostages freed

Ingrid Betancourt, former Columbian presidential candidate, is amongst 15 rescued by Columbian commandoes. The former senator was captured by the FARC in 2002. Of the others rescued, 11 were Columbian soldiers and police and 3 were American military contractors. The rescue took place in the east of the country in the heart of dense jungle following months of surveillance [CNN / BBC]

Israel - 4 dead after tractor attack

A tractor driver from the occupied part of east Jerusalem has launched an attacked on Jaffa Street killing at least 4 people. The man drove the tractor into a bus packed with commuters and then proceeded to drive over a number of vehicles. More than 36 were injured in the attack. The bus was pushed onto its side in the incident which is being treated as a terrorist attack by Israeli police. One woman was killed when the Toyota car she was driving was completely crushed by the tractor. The driver was shot dead by an off duty soldier.
According to Fox News he held an Israeli identity card despite being of Arab descent and had been an employee of a building site. The death toll is not clear with most TV broadcasters saying 3 were killed while Israeli TV reports have said 4 died in the attack. The incident was brought to TV screens very quickly as it occurred directly outside a building housing most of the international media [BBC / Sky News / CNN / al Jazeera / Fox News ]

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

UK - smoking ban is 'killing the British pub'

More than three pubs close every day in Britain

Today, one year on from the smoking ban which came into force in Britain, many of the country’s pubs are struggling to survive [CNN]. Many landlords and managers say profits are down by as much as 30% because of the ban, which has been compounded by the effects of the credit crunch. Some 1,409 pubs closed over the course of 2007, a staggering increase compared to the 216 closures seen the year before, and many bar owners do not believe the situation will improve. Gary Heronsby-Smith, landlord of The Cherry Tree, told the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph that the smoking ban was killing his business. “Before (the ban), 95 per cent of my customers were smokers but they have gone. I don't have an outside area, we're a land-locked pub” he said. Rob Hayward, Chief Executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, also talks of a bleak outlook for the pub industry. “Britain’s pubs are grappling with spiralling costs, sinking sales, fragile consumer confidence and the impact of the smoking ban,” he claims. “A vital part of the British economy and social life is under the most severe strain it has faced for decades.”

While many have hailed the ban a success with claims of smokers giving up the habit and reported heart attacks down, businesses are realing. Last year a leading health insurance company claimed that the English smoking ban would “enable village and town pubs across the UK to play an even more integral role in community life”. But few have seen an influx of new customers. Smokers are preferring to stay at home and some publicans are also blaming the cheap beer available in supermarkets for the drop in trade [Sunday People / Daily Telegraph].

The closure of so many pubs is also having an effect on people’s social life. Kate Burt, who started, has destroyed what was once the only meeting place for a whole cross-section of society. “Where else – apart from, possibly, the Post Office queue – do different ages, classes and cultures combine on equal footing and communicate, sharing a story, gripe or joke? All these reasons and more are why I started ‘Save the Boozer’, an online celebration of old-style pubs to remind people to support and cherish their unglamorous local while they still can” she told the Independent on Sunday. On the plus side the number of smokers successfully quitting has soared because of the smoking ban in England. Research shows that almost 235,000 people managed to stub it out with help from the NHS in the nine months from April to December 2007, up 22 per cent on the year before. The figures, in a Department of Health report to be published next week, are being used as evidence that the smoking ban in enclosed public spaces has been a success. Little reported is the numbers of people taking up the habit in Ireland where a ban came into effect in 2004 [Irish Times].
Today the Netherlands was the latest country to see a smoking ban, a tobacco smoking ban that is. Coffee shops across the country are still able to welcome those who wish to participate in smoking cannabis, though they are forbidden to mix it with tobacco [BBC]. This in itself may cause problems in trying to enforce the ban, but many are happy enough to smoke something at least. Some may have thought they had smoked a little too much as they saw llamas, giraffes and camels running wild after they escaped from a circus on Monday [CNN].

China - stabbings & riots leave 5 dead

Amateur footage leaked out of the rioting in Guizhou province

A man has stabbed five police officers to death in a frenzied knife attack in the heart of Shanghai. Four other officers and a security guard were injured in the attack before the man was arrested. The 28 year old is said to have been a suspect in a series if bicycle thefts last year [BBC]. The attack comes in the same week that thousands rioted in southern China following the death of a 15 year old middle school student Li Shu Fan. Police have said the girl killed herself, and they released several suspects. But family members and many members of the public believe there has been a cover up. The riot started late Saturday afternoon and lasted until early Sunday morning in Weng'an County of Guizhou Province, Xinhua news reported [CNN].