Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The slow death of shortwave radio

With the advent of the Internet, Digital Audio Broadcasting and satellite transmission, shortwave radio is in decline. Even the BBC World Service, which once covered the entire globe, has cut back on its services. But the demise of shortwave will be missed by many millions who regularly tune in from remote locations.

In the mid-1990s the only way to listen to some broadcasters was to tune in on a shortwave radio. A large aerial was sometimes needed to trap the week signal which would fade in and out. While difficult to listen to at times, shortwave gave people in Europe and other parts of the globe the ability to tune into the Genesis Communications Network [GCN] which airs shows by the likes of Alex Jones, a radio broadcaster who describes himself as a libertarian, but is much criticised for being a conspiracy theorist.

In the 1990s dial-up Internet access was unreliable or cost-prohibitive so shortwave gave listeners a chance to browse through stations otherwise inaccessible in their own country. WWCR and WHRI still broadcast on shortwave [Frequency list - PDF], but many people wanting to tune into the rants of Alex Jones simply turn to their smartphone or personal computer, listening without the fades and crackles though fast broadband connections

But while listening through a stable broadband connection is much easier on the ear, there are times when access to shortwave transmissions become an important lifeline.

For foreigners on travel, Internet access is not always available. Having a small portable battery powered radio can bring joy and reduce feelings of being disconnected from the world. Whether miles from anywhere in the countryside of China or camping in a field in France, the BBC once provided a reliable and easily accessible portal to news, both in English and several other languages.

But people in remote parts of the world as well as travellers in less inaccessible places are becoming increasing cut off as broadcasters shut down their shortwave services.

In 2008 the BBC closed its World Service shortwave transmissions to Europe. For those sitting in a tent in a remote corner of France during their summer vacation were now cut off from England [NYT].

"There comes a point where the shortwave audience in a given region becomes so small that spending money on it can no longer be justified," the broadcaster said in a statement.

But it has resulted in a propaganda war being lost to other nations which continue to fill the airwaves. China, for example, still maintains its own shortwave network through China Radio International.

It is not just the BBC that are cutting back. All of the world's largest international broadcasters, based in the United States, France, Germany, England and the Netherlands, are cutting back on shortwave or reviewing the deployment of their resources.

Many broadcasters say the cutbacks are down to cost and they simply can't afford to upkeep services that few people listen to. With rising costs of fuel the expensive of maintaining shortwave transmissions to every part of the globe is undoubtedly expensive. But the demise of shortwave is resulting in more people being being isolated.

Lillibullero, the signature tune of the BBC World Service [YouTube], was apparently chosen by transmission engineers who found it particularly audible through the short wave mush. But as the organisation modernises it has faded into history along with many of the BBC shortwave services.

Today the BBC celebrated 80 years of broadcasting on shortwave. The anecdotes of listeners point to its importance in many people's lives [BBC]. The BBC still transmits on shortwave to much of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, but digital broadcasting and the Internet may kill it off completely before the World Service reaches 100.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

China micro-blogs may tank as new rules begin

Chinese micro-blogging platforms such as Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo are likely to lose a vast proportion of its user base are forced to register their real names or switch to read only services.

By March 16th, users on all of China's Twitter-like platforms will be required by law to register their real identities in order to publish posts on the sites. The new rules are already having an effect with Sina admitting many users had failed to register despite messages being sent to users.

Sina Weibo, one of the largest micro-blogging platforms in the country, reported on Tuesday that its total registered users had reached more than 300 million, with daily active users amounting to 27 million.

But with many of those who have followed through failing to pass the process Sina could lose a great number of users. Sina chief executive Charles Chao said more than 40% of new registered users for its Weibo site had failed verification screenings since the Beijing city government announced the new regulations in December. Of the users who have chosen to register with the real-name system, only about 60% actually succeeded in meeting the requirements, Chao added. The other 40% later dropped out of the registration process because the personal ID information provided did not match with state records.

Of particular concern is how the real-name policy affects foreign users. China would not necessarily have access to details of foreigners who have signed up to use such services and as such would be unable to verify their identity. Sina and Tencent ask for identity verification which includes "Certificate number", name and nationality. For Chinese citizens the "Certificate number" would be the number displayed on their national ID card. But for foreign citizens even those who honestly entered a passport number could not guarantee the successful creation of an account. What's more those who have already created an account could find themselves shut out [China Daily].

Even Sina's CEO acknowledges the new government regulations could have a significant impact. "If fully implemented in the near future, (the policy) will have a negative impact on user activities in the short-term," Chao said. "In a very dramatic scenario, (users) may not be able to speak, or to post messages, but hopefully that's not going to happen."

According to Chao about half of Sina's 27 million active daily users publish posts, while the other half mainly read posts. Since Beijing's new real-name registration policy was announced in December, Sina Weibo's active daily user growth has increased by 8% to 10%, but the March 16th deadline may curb any growth, and may in fact kill off many users.

"People are definitely not happy about this and I think the sentiment is that people will want to use the (micro-blogging services) less," says Bill Bishop, an independent analyst and user of Sina Weibo.

It is not just regulations connected with people's real names that will scare users away. New government rules over how users may use micro-blogs are set to make their use far more risky [Regulations Chinese].

"How are these regulations really going to be interpreted?" Bishop asks. "People are going to feel like, 'Why bother now?' It now raises the cost, and there's not a lot of upside for most people."

Indeed one Beijing resident and Sina Weibo user Qiu Yun, said she felt helpless and disappointed by the new regulations. "Weibo is our only window to find out the truth. From Weibo we can see things that the news broadcasts don't have and understand more about real events occurring," she laments. "Although there is fake information on the services, you can't give up eating for fear of choking," she added. "Why did they have to create these regulations? This is nothing more than the authorities in fear over the power of Weibo."

With more than half a billion Chinese now online, Chinese authorities are increasingly concerned about the power of the Internet and its ability to influence public opinion in a country that maintains tight controls on its traditional media outlets.

Ordinary Chinese are increasingly using 'weibos' to vent their anger and frustration over official corruption, scandals and disasters, but analysts believe the new rules could curb online criticism of authorities.

It may also prove to be financially ruinous for companies like Sina and Tencent. Nasdaq-listed Sina said it swung to a net profit of $9.3 million in the final quarter of 2011, compared with a net loss of $100 million for the same period a year earlier. But many investors will be watching carefully at stock prices and profits in the wake of the changes that are a little over two weeks away [Reuters / NasdaqPC World / AFP]

tvnewswatch, London. UK

Monday, February 27, 2012

World Bank warns China on growth, reforms

The World Bank has warned China that it needs to embrace fundamental free-market reforms if it wants to see its economy continue to grow at the "impressive" pace of the past three decades.

In the 400 page report the World Bank said China had reached a "turning point" and needed to reform a growth model that it described as "unsustainable".

The role of government and state enterprises both needed redefining, the report said, however it said that even if growth slows, China was likely to become the world's largest economy before 2030.

The report lays out six reforms it says China should adopt. The country should enact structural reforms to promote a market-based economy. This could be achieved by redefining the role of government, reforming state enterprises, developing the private sector and promoting competition. The report also advises China to quicken the pace of innovation, both internally and by participating in global research projects.

Strengthening the fiscal system by mobilising additional revenues and boosting local government financing was also identified as a priority as was an encouragement to engage more with the global economy.

Investment in green projects is encouraged and as well as increased efficiency in the use of resources. The World Bank also called on China to bring about a change in social welfare and to promote social security for all citizens.

Beijing might find it difficult to accept the suggestions. China is resilient to criticism or being dictated to, often referring to such things as "interference in China's own domestic affairs". However, the director of the World Bank Robert Zoellick was clear in the bank's assessment. "The case for reform is compelling" because China has "reached a turning point in its development path", Zoellick said [YouTube].

"China has an opportunity to avoid the middle-income trap, promote inclusive growth, without further intruding on the environment, and continue its progress towards becoming a responsible stakeholder in the international economy," Zoellick added.

A failure to implement such changes could result in an economic crisis that will not only affect China but the rest of the world. Editor in Chief at the Economist John Micklethwait, speaking on CNN said that one of the most important things China can do in to increase domestic consumption. "China doing well, is good for everybody," Micklethwait said.

How resilient China will be to accept any changes is hard to assess. Chinese leaders frequently talk about the need to reform the country's economic model, partly by reducing its heavy reliance on exports and increasing domestic consumption. But significant reforms have been slow as stability-obsessed leaders try to maintain rapid economic growth seen as essential to create enough jobs for the country's 1.3 billion people and suppress any potential unrest.

Beijing prohibits or restricts foreign investment in certain sectors such as auto, energy, finance, banking and telecommunications, drawing criticism from overseas competitors over the lack of market access and unfair treatment.

Domestically, privately owned firms also complain about the lack of competition and the fact they cannot access financing from commercial banks, which prefer to lend money to major state-owned enterprises.

Such issues will need to be seriously addressed, says both the World Bank and leading economists if China wants to remain on track. In the first hint of a reaction from China Vice Premier Li Keqiang said China had carried out "all-round, win-win and fruitful cooperation" with the World Bank over the past 30 years, and strengthened cooperation in joint studies in recent years.

The vice premier pledged his support to joint efforts with the World Bank and other countries to promote reform on global economic governance. However, in the report that was published by the state news agency Xinhua, Li failed to address other specific key points in the World Bank report.

[Links: World Bank: Opening remarks / China : Case for Change on the Road to 2030 / Executive Summary - downloads page / BBC / CNN / Guardian / Telegraph]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sun on Sunday sales high, content low

According to News International, its return to the Sunday tabloid market was a major success with sales of the Sun on Sunday reaching more than 3 million.

But with some describing the paper as "limp" and thin on stories, it may be too early to celebrate. Alex Woolfall, head of Porter Novelli's EMEA corporate practice, was critical of the newspaper's content. 'It felt very thin on stories and was a bit limp," Woolfall said. "I think a lot of people expected a toned-down News of the World, but with less kiss and tell. Instead they got the Daily Express on a good day meets Heat on a bad one."

The lack of the type  of punchy stories once seen in the now defunct New of the World was perhaps a case of playing it safe. "The Sun on Sunday is not trying to be a Sunday paper, yet," GolinHarris European MD Matt Neale said. "There was no sting operation, no-one was turned over and the product was very upbeat in tone." But he added, "With Sun journalists still being arrested – and the public unsure of how to reconcile their favourite paper – this was a smart move." [PRWeek]

Nonetheless, there may have been some readers who were disappointed as they sat down to their Sunday morning breakfast.

The Guardian described it as "unusually bland". The Guardian media commentator, and former Daily Mirror editor, Roy Greenslade, said the paper was "technically excellent", but he added, "overall this was less of a paper and more of a magazine."

"Not only were there no investigations, there were few revelations of any kind, and no hint of controversies or even surprises," Greenslade observed.

The Huffington Post said it was probably best to "reserve judgement" on the new paper, saying that it was "quite clear that Rupert Murdoch has, despite all the fanfare, opted for a soft launch of his replacement for the News of the World."

Meanwhile the Independent's media columnist Stephen Glover also highlighted the paper's attempt to play it safe. "It doesn't have any of the filthy stories associated with the News of the World," Glover said, and suggested readers "wouldn't feel slightly grubby to be caught reading" Murdoch's new paper. But he added, "You might be a bit bored."

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Iran threat, Israel & Syrian hornets nest

Concerns over Iran's nuclear capability have ratcheted up with UN inspectors raising doubts over Iran's claim that its nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful. At the same time a shadow war is apparently being conducted on foreign soil as Israel threatens to strike Iran's nuclear installations. Meanwhile there are worries over neighbouring Syria, and with Russia and China who remain loyal to both rogue regimes.

Iran's nuclear status

In a report published last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Tehran had not cleared up questions about possible military aspects of its nuclear programme. The IAEA said Iran had stepped up uranium enrichment in recent months inferred the regime was trying to hide its ambitions as it failed to co-operate with UN nuclear officials during two sets of talks in Tehran over the past month [BBC].

The report came only days after the British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned of Iran's "increasing willingness to contemplate" terrorism around the world. Speaking to the BBC William Hague pointed to an attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US, plus alleged involvement in recent attacks in New Delhi, Georgia and Bangkok. These incidents showed "the danger Iran is currently presenting to the peace of the world", Hague said.

Much of the world is convinced that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Even before last week's report the IAEA had presented evidence to suggest that medium-level uranium enrichment had begun at the Fordo plant near Qom in northern Iran. In its November 2011 report, drawing on evidence provided by more than 10 member states as well as its own information, the IAEA said Iran had carried out activities "relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device".

It did not give a timescale for Iran's ability to put together a bomb, but insisted that many activities carried out by Iran could only be used to develop nuclear weapons [BBC].

Mixed opinions

Iran insists that its nuclear programme is entirely peaceful, though doubts concerning their ambitions were further raised when President Ahmedinejad appeared on Iranian television overseeing an inspection of domestically made nuclear fuel rods, a development he described as a "very big new achievement" [Guardian].

But despite all the signs that Iran is close to developing a nuclear weapon some within the United States administration say the threat is overstated. Speaking days before William Hague raised his concerns, the US defence secretary Leon Panetta told a congressional committee that Iran had not yet decided to embark on a nuclear weapons programme.

"The intelligence does not show that they've made the decision to proceed with developing a nuclear weapon. That is the red line that would concern us and that would ensure that the international community, hopefully together, would respond," Panetta said.

But he was nonetheless adamant in his position concerning any move to develop an atomic bomb. "We will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon," Panetta told the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee on 16th February.

Panetta was also supportive of actions to stop Iran's attempt to close the region's water ways. "We will not allow Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz," he said. "And in addition to that, obviously, we have expressed serious concerns to Iran about the spread of violence and the fact that they continue to support terrorism and they continue to try to undermine other countries." [Al-Jazeera]

Military build-up

Within two days of Panetta's statement Iranian warships entered the Mediterranean Sea for only the second time since the 1979 revolution [BBC]. The destroyer Shahid Qandi and its supply vessel Kharg passed through the Suez Canal but their destination remained unclear.

Navy chief Admiral Habibollah Sayari told the Islamic Republic News Agency [IRNA] the mission was a show of might and a "message of peace", but it has been seen as further provocation by neighbouring Israel.

The United States has sent several warships to the region including the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier [USA Today]. And in further racking up of defences the US military has spoken of its intention to modify weapons systems on ships in order to target Iranian fast-attack boats.

Risk of conflict

But while the US is preparing its own defences, there are concerns, even amongst military circles that Israel may launch a preemptive strike against Iran.

There is the worry that any strike by Israel could provoke retaliation that could prompt US military action to defend its troops and key allies. And with an increased military presence in the waters near to Iran there is a growing risk of an attack on a US warship, something that could drag America into a larger conflict [USA Today / WSJ].

Vice Adm. Mark Fox upped the anti in early February when he told reporters at the headquarters of the 5th Fleet that the US was "ready" to confront Iran's armed forces [USA Today].

Calls for calm

But there have been many voices calling for calm particularly aimed at  Israel. In an article in the New Straits Times Fareed Zakaria suggests that Israel should learn to live with its belligerent neighbour rather than resort to war.

He suggests that "absolute security is impossible to achieve" and that just as Britain and the US managed to live through decades of a tense stand-off with Russia and China over their nuclear ambitions and intentions, so Israel should re-examine its position.

In particular he cites the editor of Foreign Affairs Gideon Rose who writes, "Israel is finally confronting the sort of choices the US and Great Britain confronted more than six decades ago. Hopefully it, too, will come to recognise that absolute security is impossible to achieve in the nuclear age, and that if its enemies' nuclear programmes cannot be delayed or disrupted, deterrence is less disastrous than preventive war."

Iranian threats

Israel may be difficult to rein in. Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi has cautioned Israel against attacking Iran, warning of retaliation that would lead to the destruction of the Jewish state. In a statement released through Press TV, Vahadi said, "A military attack by the Zionist regime will undoubtedly lead to the collapse of this regime." And there were further belligerent statements coming from Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei who called Israel a "cancer that must be cut out". An attack on Iran "would be ten times worse for the interests of the United States than it would be for Iran"

Retired Colonel Stephen Ganyard told ABC that Israel was driven by the risk that Iran is burying its facilities so deeply underground that they will soon be beyond conventional weapon strikes.

In Senate testimony in January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that Iranian officials, "are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime." Clapper warned that Iran were willing to target US citizens on US soil. And ABC say that targets could include synagogues, schools and community centres.

Shadow war

With an apparent shadow war apparently being conducted, the threat is more than fantasy [WSJ]. At least seven Iranian nuclear scientists have disappeared, been killed or injured in attacks since 2007, most recently in January when a magnetic bomb attached to the car of Iranian scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan exploded, killing both him and his driver [see also: tvnewswatch - Press TV ban "a prelude to war"?]

In what appears to be acts of retaliation Israeli interests have been targeted in recent day, though Iran denies any involvement. Israeli embassy workers in the capital cities of India and Georgia were targeted in terrorist attacks that Israeli officials believe were planned and carried out by Iran and its client, the militant group Hezbollah. A bomb in Tbilisi was defused, but another explosive device in New Delhi, planted in an embassy worker's car, detonated and injured at least two.

Meanwhile police in Thailand say they are questioning several Iranians in connection with an alleged plot to attack Israeli diplomats that was foiled in early February after an apparent accidental explosion [Al-Jazeera / Reuters].

Syria and Hezbollah

With continuing turmoil in Syria there are further complications for the West. Hezbollah, a powerful political and military organisation of Shia Muslims born out of Lebanon, has stated its loyalty to the Syrian regime. In December the leader of the terrorist group publicly announced it backed President Bashar al-Assad [NYT].

As recently as two weeks ago Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah hinted at plans to target senior Israeli official while dismissing allegations the group was behind attacks in Thailand, India and Georgia as an "insult" [AP].

There are worries that any the whole region could become a blood bath as tensions grow between Israel and Iran, and the West push against the Syrian regime.

Russia and China

Of major concern is the position of Russia and China who have blocked sanctions and criticised the West over its attempts to rein in both Iran and Syria [Reuters].

While there may not be a mood to become involved militarily against the West should hostilities between the West and Iran, it could create problems for both Russia and China.

China, through its state run People's Daily, has criticised the United States calling it "super-arrogant" and questioned its motives in the region. The comments came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticised Russia and China for vetoing a UN resolution which had called for al-Assad to step down. "It is just despicable and I ask whose side are they on? They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people," Clinton said.

The critique in the People's Daily made the Chinese position more than clear. "The United States' motive in parading as a 'protector' of the Arab peoples is not difficult to imagine," the paper said. "The problem is, what moral basis does it have for this patronising and egotistical super-arrogance and self-confidence?"

"Even now, violence continues unabated in Iraq and ordinary people enjoy no security. This alone is enough for us to draw a huge question mark over the sincerity and efficacy of US policy," it added [BBC]

In a recent edition of Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, Roderick MacFarquhar, a Harvard University professor and China specialist, said that China was unlikely to resort to military action. "The Chinese don't want a conflict. The last thing they want is a war, because then everything is up for grabs," MacFarquhar said. But he said the country has to play carefully especially when it comes to rising nationalism, and it protection of its interests.

Chinese nationalism

"Nationalism, of course, is a two-edged weapon for the Chinese," MacFarquhar said, pointing particularly at Japan, "the favourite whipping boy of the Chinese blogosphere".

"If the Chinese reprimand Japan, the blogosphere gets whipped up, and you have the nationalists talking loudly and the government doesn't deliver anything more because it doesn't want to damage trade and relations with Japan too much," the Harvard professor asserts. In such a situation "the government is then under threat from the nationalists," MacFarquhar says, "So ... the party has to play nationalism very carefully." [CNN]

Less than a week after those comments, China's press were once again storming against the Japanese, criticising comments made recently by Kawamura Takashi, mayor of Nagoya, who the People's Daily said had "seriously hurt the Chinese people's feelings" by his "public denial of the Nanjing Massacre." [People's Daily]

Such commentaries as those seen in the Chinese press could be dismissed as rhetoric, but as tensions in the South China Sea seen throughout 2011 showed, such feeling can translate themselves into actions.

Putin also critical

For its part Russia has been less vocal over the West's position concerning Syria but have warned of the risks of pushing too far. "Learning from that bitter experience, we are against any UN Security Council resolutions that could be interpreted as a signal for a military interference into domestic processes in Syria," Putin said in an article published Monday in the Moscow News daily. Any attempt to launch a military action without a UN approval would undermine the world body's role and hurt global security Putin suggested. "I strongly hope that the United States and other nations will learn from the sad experience [a reference to Libya] and wouldn't try to resort to a forceful scenario in Syria," Putin said. "I can't understand that bellicose itch." [Telegraph]

Rhetoric or action

It all comes down to a protection of interests. While China and Russia may recoil as pressure ratchets up against Iran or Syria, both countries may recoil. Their statements may become more forceful, but as has been seen in recent conflicts, neither country has been will to become engaged. Both countries failed to give support to NATO in Libya, nor the Gulf Wars, the strikes in Afghanistan or the Balkans in the 1990s. But neither did they do anything more than criticise.

As the EU and US ratchet up the sanctions against Syria by freezing financial assets, the Assad regime may look to its allies for financial support [Telegraph]. If it gets aid from Russia and China, it will make the US position very difficult.

Tacit support of the Iranian regime too, will also make dealing with China and Russia uncomfortable. At the very least a new Cold War could develop between Iran, its allies, and the West [BBC]. At worst a real war could become a wider conflict and even a Third World War [SMH].

A war would be "disastrous" for the US, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East, Zbigniew Brzezinski told Fareed Zakaria on CNN this weekend. He suggested common sense would likely prevail and that Israel would not launch a pre-emptive attack against Iran, though he urged Obama to pressure them not to engage in a military approach. "We don't need to go to war, and we have to make that very clear to our Israeli friends," Brzezinski said.

Whether or not there is a conflict in the region, the fall-out of possible hostilities has already manifested itself in the form of increased oil prices, a resource that some might argue is at the centre of much of the turmoil in the Middle East as a whole.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Greece still faces stormy seas after bailout

It's often said "it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings". But as far as Greece is concerned it's not quite all over and there will be few in the country who feel like singing despite the massive bailout handed out and agreed upon by the EU, IMF & ECB.

Thirteenth hour reprieve

In the early hours of Tuesday morning after more than 13 hours of talks, a second bailout package was finally agreed upon to help the beleaguered nation of Greece [Eurogroup statement PDF].

In order to get the promised bailout of more than €130 billion in funds Greece must comply with a number of conditions. It must reduce debts to 120.5% of GDP and allow a group from the IMF, ECB and EU oversee their accounts [BBC / Sky / CNN / France24 / RT / Xinhua].

This will be highly embarrassing and awkward for a country which has seen riots, rising unemployment, and a change of administration. For outsiders to come and scrutinize Greek finances on what looks to be a permanent basis will be galling for many.

Tough conditions

In order to meet the other conditions of the deal will be even tougher for a country that has been in recession for more than 5 years and is already suffering under a weight of austerity measures.

Many ordinary Greeks may look with despair at another five or more years of recession, austerity and unemployment. While the emphasise has been on growth, Greece, like many other European countries is struggling to lift itself from recession since the global economic downturn of 2008.

Cautious optimism

There was much optimism leading up to the announcement of a deal, but in the first few hours of trading the FTSE, Dax and Cac all saw falls, though all indices did pick up later in the day. The Euro also saw slight gains rising against the dollar and yen.

Even amongst those who had secured the deal there remained some cautious optimism. While there are further meetings proposed in March, members of the EU, ECB and IMF hope that Greece can turn the ship around.

The IMF's head Christine Lagarde spoke of "significant progress" having being made, but some pundits see the deal a sticking plaster. The plaster may be too small. Greece might need many bandages and splints, as well a a long period of recuperation.

The target of reducing Greek debt from 160% to 120.5% by 2020 is seen as over optimistic. It is also widely agreed that such a situation will only be realised if growth returns to Greece, something that may take decades.

Restoring confidence

Secretary General of the OECD Angel Gurria nonetheless welcomed the new deal but said the decision makers had been too slow in coming to an agreement. Speaking on Bloomberg he said, "What happened today is two years late," but added that the deal would "restore confidence". The question hinged on whether Greece would implement policies to bring about change, Gurria continued.

But more needed to be done across the whole group of member states. Gurria said that the eurozone needs a €1 trillion firewall, but that the decision making process was taking "too long" at the "cost of uncertainty".

In order to obtain help from Japan and China, something that has at least been hinted at in recent days, Europe must show they are committed themselves. "The Europeans have to show the world they are willing to do it," Gurria asserted.

While he conceded that it would take many years to re-establish confidence and a stable economy in Europe, Gurria rejected the idea that the eurozone would collapse. "There is no question of break-up," he maintained.

Ongoing austerity

Financiers, banks and investors will feel much of the pain as a result of the deal fleshed out in Brussels. Private holders of Greek debt will take losses of 53.5% on the value of their bonds, with the real loss extending to as much as 70%, especially Greek investors.

But ordinary Greeks will also see losses and a change in their lifestyle. As part of the deal Greece must set up a special account, managed separately from its main budget, that must always contain enough money to service its debts for the coming three months. In order to achieve this further 'hair cuts' or austerity measures are likely.

Government services may be sold off, benefits reduced and public spending will plummet. Taxes have already risen sharply with electricity hikes being much lamented by ordinary citizens.

Erasmia Dimoula, a 25-year-old qualified as a nursery schoolteacher, has been unemployed for two years and now lives at home. Like many young Greeks she is in a state of enforced dependence on her parents, along with her unemployed sister who speaks three languages and has a master's degree in psychology.

"If there wasn't a financial crisis, I would be working now. I'm sure of it," Dimoula tells the Daily Telegraph. Disillusioned, she says she will not vote in the elections expected in April and, like many Greeks of her generation, expresses nothing but contempt for the politicians of all parties who they blame for bringing the country to virtual bankruptcy. "I don't expect anything from any government, from any politician. I can only expect things from myself," she says.


As for who is to blame for the country's troubles there are differing opinions. Some blame the older generations who voted for corrupt governments which handed out jobs according to family or political ties, and avoided taxation. But this generation also helped bring democracy back to the country after toppling the military regime in the early 1970s.

Corruption, overspending, a free and easy social security system and a failure to tackle economic issues are certainly the fault of successive governments. But the Greek population too are also partly to blame for accepting a system that was inherently unsustainable.

Last year the British broadcaster Channel Four aired a programme which highghted just some of the problems that help create a failing economy. Called "Go Greek for a Week" the programme took three British families and placed them in a hypothetical position of being a Greek citizen.

The premise of the programme asserted that the generous tax, pensions and work practices were major causes of Greece's economic crisis. One 54-year-old British hairdresser discovered the generosity of the Greek pensions system, which allows hairdressers, pastry chefs, radio continuity announcers and people in almost 600 other jobs to retire aged 53 at 90% of the final pension because their jobs are defined as hazardous.

A bus driver reaps the rewards of the Greek approach to state-run services, where bus drivers can be paid up to almost double the national average salary and receive extra bonuses for arriving at work early and for checking bus tickets. Meanwhile a British surgeon discovers how paying income tax the Greek way transforms his disposable income. The hour long programme was  entertaining but a nonetheless scathing insight into tax evasion, corruption and mismanagement that have helped to sink the Greek economy [Channel 4OD / YouTube - UK only due to regional licencing restrictions]. The trailer [YouTube] created some consternation amongst Greeks, who were perhaps displeased at their country being mocked.

Riding the storm

Such practices as discussed in the programme will no doubt be targeted by government austerity measures. Whether the cuts are equitable is questionable. Many people in Greece feel that few in the government will suffer, as the population as a whole has to ride the storm.

Lucas Papademos, the Greek economist who was appointed Prime Minister last November, said he was "very happy" at the deal struck, but his people are far from happy. And discontent with the current administration is set to create further turmoil when elections begin in April. Greece is still on stormy seas, and while the ship has been bailed out, the risk of it sinking still remains.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, February 20, 2012

Beware of Greeks accepting gifts

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, which is paraphrased in English as the aphorism "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts", has blighted and somewhat labelled the whole Greek population for centuries. The phrase originates in a poem written by the Roman poet Virgil. Immortalising the events of the war between the Trojans and the Greeks in his epic Aeneid.

While Virgil certainly applies much poetic licence in the stories depicted in the book, the influence cannot be disputed. One part in particular has captured the public imagination.

As related in the Aeneid, after a nine-year war on the beaches of Troy between the Danaans (Greeks from the mainland) and the Trojans, the Greek seer Calchas induces the leaders of the Greek army to offer the Trojan people a huge wooden horse, the so-called Trojan Horse, while seemingly departing. The Trojan priest Laocoön, distrusting this gesture, warns the Trojans not to accept the gift, crying, "Equo ne credite, Teucri! Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis." ("Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Danaans, even when bringing gifts.")

The facts behind the story are disputed, and it is unlikely there was ever really a large wooden horse. But the story has stuck, and the Greeks have had to weather the storm ever since.

Metaphorically a "Trojan Horse" has come to mean any trick or stratagem that causes a target to invite a foe into a securely protected bastion, and is often applied to a piece of computer malware. Moreover the Greeks have been labelled as a nation of untrustworthy people ever since.

It is perhaps unfair that a factually incorrect and allegorical tale should poor so much scorn on an entire country, but with the rising concerns over the potential fallout from the current saga seen in Greece over the past few months, trust is an issue that is being widely debated.

Greece has been criticised for lying over its financial status in order to obtain EU membership. But with years of overspending and a failure to keep its finances in check, the country has collapsed into virtual bankruptcy. It has led to riots on the streets, massive cuts in public spending and a change in political leadership. Meanwhile the EU and IMF have sought to limit the fallout by trying to prop up the failing economy.

EU member states have come together to fund a massive bailout. But this has gained a mixed response even by the Greeks themselves.

Greece has accused the EU and IMF of interfering in its domestic affairs after international lenders called on Athens to speed up reforms and sell more public assets. In February last year EU and IMF inspectors visiting Greece to monitor the implementation of a bailout plan that saved Greece from bankruptcy, approved more aid for the country but adopted a more critical tone than on previous visits.

The criticism was not welcomed by the the Greek government who described the inspectors' approach as unacceptable. One government spokesman George Petalotis said, "We asked nobody to interfere in domestic affairs … We only take orders from the Greek people." [Reuters]

A year later and the problems concerning Greece have still not been solved. A change of administration and further austerity measures have brought only more trouble in the streets, while Eurozone finance ministers debate whether Greece has done enough to merit a huge bailout loan.

Athens needs the €130 billion [£110 billion / $170 billion] in order to avoid bankruptcy in mid-March, when a huge repayment on its governmental debt must be made.

Greek PM Lucas Papademos went to Brussels on Sunday to secure the deal and while many are in support of bailing out the country, doubts remain.

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the United States was urging the IMF to support the bailout, though it is not clear how much the IMF will contribute. China and Japan have pledged some support to the IMF in order to help the eurozone [BBC]. The rescue plan would also write off €100 billion of debt, with private lenders accepting a 70% reduction in what Greece owes them.

Some eurozone finance ministers doubt Greece's commitment to its spending pledges and want strong mechanisms to ensure its debts are paid [BBC]. And there is the fear that by letting Greece go, and expelling it from the eurozone, would also create as much chaos as letting it remain.

Writing in the Guardian Larry Elliott suggests that the conflict over Greece's bailout has Tolkienian overtones. "There's a scene in The Lord of the Rings where the wizard Gandalf confronts the Balrog, a hellish monster, on a narrow bridge in the Mines of Moria. The battle ends with Gandalf smiting the bridge with his staff, sending the Balrog plunging into a fathomless abyss," Elliott writes. "There's a twist to the tail, however. As the monster falls, one last swish of its whip curls round Gandalf's ankle and drags him down into the pit as well. Views may differ, in the context of the eurozone debt crisis, whether Greece is Gandalf or the Balrog, but one thing is for certain; the risks of mutually assured destruction are high."

To hark back to the aphorism "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts", it might also be said "timeo Danaos donos accipiendo" - Beware of Greeks accepting gifts!

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Xi Jinping arrives in poverty struck US

Xi Jinping, the man set to be China's next president, arrived in the US late Monday. He is to meet Barack Obama who will be interested to know the kind of leader the US will be dealing with in the coming years. But while the focus will be on how the two countries deal with each other, both leaders face increasing domestic economic challenges [BBC].

Divided country

Xi will inherit a country which is seeing an increasingly divided country. While many people have become rich in the past twenty years there is an ever widening gap between rich and poor. In Xi's home town in Fujian province there are few outward signs of wealth [BBC / Video: BBC ]. Some even talk of not being able to afford a bowl of noodles, a far cry from Beijing's rising middle class who pack out restaurants and party at the many KTV bars.

But America too is seeing divisions not seen since the Great Depression. Tent cities are now appearing on the outskirts of many cities as America's rising number of unemployed and homeless become detached from mainstream society.

Dining on rats

On the BBC's flagship documentary programme Panorama reporter Hilary Andersson found some of the new underclass which are living on handouts. At a school in Las Vegas she came across children who are tell of going to bed hungry and worrying about their families. Officials say that some children were resorting to eating "ketchup soup". One young girl reveals that she had even eaten rats [BBC].

Some of these families earn less than $7,000 dollars a year and it's having a big effect on the children. "We don't have any dinner at home," one girl Taniah tells the BBC, while others speak of often having to go to bed hungry. "My mom eats rats," says Sarah, a shy and withdrawn girl, who explains it was because her family did not have enough food to feed themselves. Asked how it made her feel she said she was "sad".

These are children from America's new class of unemployed. Once middle class families have been left jobless and homeless as the economic situation in the richest country in the world worsens. And as they find themselves unable to keep up mortgage repayments or pay rent they join the growing number of tent cities springing up on the outskirts of America's cities.

Tent cities

There are at least 55 such tent cities dotted across the country and while they house only a tiny proportion of the US population, their existence is evidence that America's poverty crisis is worsening.

Conditions are often unhygienic with no toilets and electricity only available to a few who might still own a car or generator. Communal tents may offer warmth where campers huddle around wood stoves as the harsh winter continues [BBC].

In such conditions people's health is at risk. At an encampment outside Ann Arbor in Michigan, 23-year-old Alana Gehringer nurses a hacking cough she has suffered for several weeks. She speaks of black mould on the pillows and blankets they are forced to wrap themselves in every night, trying to keep warm as temperatures plummet well below zero.

Even those not living under canvas are struggling to make ends meet. According to census data, 47 million Americans now live below the poverty line, the largest number in half a century. The number has grown exponentially, fuelled by several years of high unemployment.

Root causes

The causes are many but many point to the fact that jobs have shifted abroad as companies seek cheaper labour, farming out their manufacturing base to countries like Thailand, India and of course China. Poor social welfare has also exacerbated the problem. With few state benefits to fall back on, unemployed or low earning families find themselves with little or nothing to live on. Obama's promise of health reforms has helped a few, but with increasing federal debt the crisis is far from contained.

Economic priorities

As Xi steps foot in the US he will be interested in forging strong ties with Obama and any future administration. China has seen a slight drop in exports in recent months and will be looking to help maintain stability in the US market. It is also looking with close interest at Europe and is today [Tuesday 14th February] holding talks with European leaders in Beijing to discuss the ongoing economic crisis there [BBC]. It has led to fears amongst Europeans that China could "take control" or "buy up" Europe.

State media has dismissed such rumours and insists China has no intention of "buying up" or "controlling" a debt-ridden Europe. In a statement coming ahead of the China-EU summit a top state-run paper said that any help Beijing offered would be for purely economic reasons [Reuters / NYT]. The meeting comes after months of political and economic turmoil in Europe which has also seen rising unemployment and social discontent. And with further downgrades of Eurozone economies [BBCTelegraph / FT], the begging bowl is out.

Abandoning principles

Obama recently raised his concern as regards China's ignoring of Intellectual Property rights, flagrant breaches of copyright, and a desire to bring more manufacturing back home. In his January State of the Nation address he pointed to increasing protectionist policies which meant it was "expensive to do business in places like China" and that "it now makes business sense …  to bring jobs back home."

"I will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules," Obama insisted. "We've brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration –- and it's made a difference," he claimed. But as the US struggles with its finances, and as China holds an increasingly growing amount of American debt, his words may well be just that; words. Driven by the need to retain strong economic ties to China, Obama, end even future administrations, may be forced to abandon such high ideals. As Xi arrived in Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney appeared to clarify this as he said the focus with regards China was an "economic approach".

Both Europe and US are looking to China for help, and while they may not be blind to the rising social problems in their own backyard, such issues are taking a back seat as western leaders seek to woo the the Chinese [CNN / BBC]. China has its own social and domestic problems. Wen Jiabao has already outlined the importance for China to solve these issues []. Any help China offers will likely be measured by how it benefits themselves.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, February 10, 2012

Death of photo-journalism is nigh

When four suicide bombers targeted London on the 7th July 2005 citizen journalism came to the fore with pictures and video taken on cellphones being posted on sites like Flickr. Media organisations snapped up these pictures, taking advantage of the 'free' images taken by people who were in the right place at the right time. But while such pictures provided an important element in reportage, it also signed the death warrant for photo-journalism.

These were the days before social networking had really taken off. Facebook had only been up and running for less than a year while Twitter was only in the ideas stage by creator Jack Dorsey. But the road being paved was clear.

Citizen journalism

Within weeks of the 7/7 terror attacks a new photo agency launched targeting citizen journalists and offering to market their mobile phone pictures. Scoopt, founded by Kyle MacRae and his wife Jill, was later bought by leading photo agency Getty in 2007 but closed in 2009.

Getty said it closed the site due to the lack of ongoing content. "If something breaks, it's an amazing way to get first-hand content, like the Underground bombs. But you really have to have a lot of events to get enough content," a Getty said at the time. Scoopt members uploaded photos received 40% of any sales made with the agency keeping a 12-month exclusivity on all photos received. The fact that many so-called citizen journalists are prepared to give away their pictures was a likely factor in Getty's closure of Scoopt.

Broadcasters and print media were increasingly asking for viewers and readers to send in their pictures. The BBC ask that those providing pictures grant the broadcaster "royalty-free, non-exclusive licence to publish and otherwise use the material in any way" and "and in any media worldwide" while allowing the creator to retain copyright.

Loss of copyright

Sky News also set out similar terms and conditions while stating the user might allow them to "pass it on to others for similar use in any media worldwide, without any payment being due" to the person supplying the pictures.

It seems evident, from the vague terms set out by some organisations, that money is being made from syndication without payment to those sending in the content.

CNN's iReport [Wikipedia] which launched in 2006 has also been criticised for similar reasons. While users are granted copyright to their contributions, they often are forced to relinquish control of who uses their work and where their images and video are shown worldwide [CNN iReport].

Advent of YouTube

With a greater number of people using YouTube to broadcast video and Twitter to post pictures, media are increasingly scouring these portals for 'free' content.

The use by the media is not entirely clear, and there is much debate over whether such organisations can use such video without paying the uploader.

In the terms set out by Google, a user grants YouTube "a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable licence (with right to sub-licence) to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform that Content in connection with the provision of the Service and otherwise in connection with the provision of the Service and YouTube's business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels". This seems to infer that they can make a user's content available, free or otherwise, to broadcasters.

It has been discussed that should a TV show broadcast a new viral video it could be argued as being for the purpose of promoting the YouTube Service, but ONLY IF the broadcaster has YouTube's permission, and as laid out in a YouTube uploader's sublicenseable licence. Of course, lawyers might also argue fair use. Since many YouTube users would be more than proud of seeing their video on the television, few are unlikely to take issue over any copyright infringement.

Facebook concerns

The re-use of pictures posted on Facebook and via Twitter has also created another grey area. For the poster the situation is far from clear, while for the large media companies the risk of breaching copyright of a Twitter user is unlikely to be of much concern. But users of Facebook might be more than a little worried.

In its terms, Facebook clearly states it has the 'right' to pass on pictures and video uploaded to the service. "For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it." Of course it should be pointed out that should your content be set to 'friends', it cannot be passed on, though a profile picture, for example, might be public since it is a way of allowing other users identify you.

As such newspapers have increasingly looked to Facebook for 'collect pictures'. Why knock at doors trying to find a great snap of a murder victim when you can type a name into a search engine, cross check it with other sources and pull a picture from a Facebook profile?

When Seydou Diarrassouba was stabbed to death in London's Oxford Street last Christmas several papers used a picture posted on Facebook [The Sun / Daily Mail / Daily Telegraph].

Reducing costs

The fundamental reason behind the decisions made by newspapers and new channels is cost. Why pay for a picture when you can get one free? Many papers already pay subscriptions to agencies and can take a daily pick of photographs at no extra charge. The choice is clear for picture editors when looking at submissions.

After recent snowfall in Britain most national papers used only picture agency photographs. With fewer staff photographers, and with the extra cost in purchasing photographs supplied by freelancers, there is little choice for papers with ever tightening budgets.

The recession has not helped and has led many papers to lay off staff. The Independent let their last staff photographer go this January [Guardian]. It is a trend that has increased over the years.

In the 1970s the Daily Express had 28 photographers on its London staff, 10 in Manchester, two in Birmingham and even one in New York. The Daily Mirror also had a large photographic department. But the glory days of Fleet Street are over.

Uncertain future

Papers now rely on agency pictures, citizen snaps, press releases, and if required might throw a few crumbs to a freelancer who is expected to be ready to jump at a moment's notice.

Even local papers are increasingly turning to cheaper options. Newspaper group Archant recently launched a user generated picture submission site called iWitness24 while photographers working for the papers faced an uncertain future [Hold the Front Page].

James Foster, editorial director of Archant Norfolk, who led the project, insisted it was about getting news and pictures they wouldn't otherwise get. "Whether it's a picture from a community group activity or a fire, we know that by engaging with our audience and telling them how much we value their contributions we can add to the richness of the material that we produce."

There was once a common phrase spoken by photographers "f/8 and be there", meaning that being on the scene was more important than worrying about technical details. [The aperture of f/8 gives adequate depth of field, assuming a 35 mm or DSLR camera, minimum shutter-speed, and ISO film rating within reasonable limits subject to lighting.] But as citizen journalists with their camera phones are increasingly going to be on scene before a professional, the incentive to even head to an incident is diminishing.

Why would a freelancer continually waste time and petrol chasing after an incident if papers aren't willing to pay? Local papers often provided some steady work for freelancers, but with tightening budgets and less work, many are looking at other careers.

Even Scoopt founder MacRae has acknowledged the threat. "I wouldn't like to be a local newspaper photographer right now," he said in an interview with Black Star Rising some years back. "You're competing with your own readers."

Rates cut

The writing was on the wall some years ago as agencies and papers cut fees. The newspaper industry is one of the few areas where the buyer sets the rate. Papers don't ask how much the picture is or what they want for a commission. Instead they tell the photographer how much they are willing to pay.

In 2009 photographic agencies that supply pictures to national newspapers were said to be fuming over cuts to freelance photographers' fees sparked by the recession.

News International, owner of The Sun and The Times, wrote to contributors saying the cutbacks, which also applied to freelancers, were needed to stay competitive in the "current economic climate".

The reductions, said to be as much as 40% in some instances, angered many in the industry. One agency boss, who did not want to be named, told Amateur Photographer, "They [the newspapers] seem to have chosen to forget that they are the customer. In any normal transaction the supplier, not the customer, sets the price."

He warned that, in the age of the Internet, newspapers would be "writing their own death warrant" if they ignore the "supreme importance" of paying a fair rate for "quality content".

Rates for writing has also suffered in the age of the Internet. Brian Scott, a professional freelance writer and photographer who writes for, attributes lackluster pay rates to emerging "content farms" which demand writers provide 500-word articles for $4 [£2.50] a piece or less. Prior to the Internet, a writer could earn at least $200-$300 [£126-£189] for a 500-word article. And the change is permanent.

Freelance photographers face a much worse situation. The recession and poor economy have hit freelance photographers the hardest, compared to freelance graphic designers and freelance writers. Photographing weddings, once a lucrative and popular photography service has been cut in half. Photographers have been forced to reduce their rates significantly to stay competitive. Pay rates for other work has also dropped.

Most photographers shoot locally, within the city or county they reside. Restricted to offering services locally, instead of globally, clients are fewer and freelance photographers fiercely battle one another to gain "one-shot" non-repeat clients. Coupled with these disadvantages is the fact that photographers maintain more expensive overheads than other freelancers. Photographers have to upgrade photographic equipment, cameras, lenses, software, and computers, often adding unrealistic costs compared to what they earn. While most freelance graphic designers and writers can work comfortably from a home office, freelance photographers must drive to the client's location, dragging along their equipment, as well as spending money on out-of-pocket expenses for fuel.


"Freelance photographers are getting headlocked and kicked squarely in the butt. Low-paying clients are laughing in their faces and giving them wedgies behind their backs," Scott says. "I have a lot of empathy for freelance photographers right now. There is not much they can do to change the situation until the economy recovers."

Scott suggests freelance photographers look at other venues to earn money globally, from the comfort of a home office. "Photographers can look into contributing stock photography to agencies, and perhaps, partnering up with professional freelance writers to offer photography services for their articles." Another way, Scott suggests, is to submit photographs to reputable magazines, especially nature and wildlife magazines, which pay high rates for photography." [prlog]

Endangered species

Some photographers and journalists saw this coming many years ago and have hung up their cameras and put down their pens. Others hang on in desperation or complement their income with unrelated employment.

It is difficult to argue that citizen journalism is entirely bad since it democratises news. The video coming out of Syria, China and Libya are a particular case in point. But this of little solace to those struggling to earn a living.

One photographer writes with some sadness about the demise of photo-journalism on a comments page. "I do feel sad for myself and my fellow professionals to be so out of luck this way when we have worked so hard to do what we do and poured our heart, soul, youth and many years into newspaper photography," J Howden writes. "What shall we do now? What can we retrain as?"

He speculates that the professional photographer may go "the way of the dodo", a bleak prospect. The professional photographer may not die but their diminishing number will make them an endangered species.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered to be the father of modern photo-journalism, would no doubt be shocked to see demise of the style of photography he inspired. He was once quoted as saying, "Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again". The irony is that he was referring to the scene captured by the photographer, not the photographers themselves.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Google may release glasses with HUD

Google is reported to be experimenting with 'terminator-style' glasses with heads-up-display [HUD] which would allow users to interface with the Internet. According to reports the HUD glasses would sport an earpiece and be equipped with voice input allowing users to pull up maps, web pages and other information.

While the project is still in a development stage it could prove to be a hit with some technology geeks, though many people might feel awkward as the walk along the street apparently talking to themselves as they call up directions or Internet pages on the move.

When bluetooth earpieces surfaced some years back they provided an excellent way to use a mobile phone more safely while driving. However their use outside a car created a bizarre spectacle as users could be seen apparently having an argument or conversation with themselves.

With speculation that navigation might involve subtle tilts of the head, the HUD glasses might result in even stranger sights in the high street. Are we to see an army of people sporting dark wrap-round shades nodding their heads uncontrollably while loudly asking for directions to the Nag's Head public house?

There maybe concerns whether such devices could prove hazardous in certain circumstances such as when driving or when attempting to cross a busy street. With a built in camera, they may also pose problems. Many places prohibit the use of cameras, such as courts and private establishments. Policing what could amount to a hi-tech spy gadget could create new problems. There is no word if the glasses will be adaptable for those without 20/20 vision, nor if they will ever be released to the public at all since Google is apparently unsure if they will have mass-market appeal [Reports: Telegraph / 9to5google / PC World / CNET]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

China and Russia gamble over future of Syria

Like card players dealing high stakes at a card game, China and Russia this week have gambled over the future of trouble stricken Syria. Both countries vetoed a UN resolution which aimed to bring about a peaceful resolve to the ongoing conflict between government forces and pro-democracy activists. Both China and Russia want to avoid giving support to the idea of regime change, but each country has more personal reasons for their opposition to the UN resolution.

Russia says it wants swift stabilization in Syria, but it is clear that they favour the current administration. Should President Bashar al-Assad be pushed from office Russia would likely lose lucrative arms deals and a strategic naval base. As for China, it followed a predictable and much stated policy of 'non-interference' with another country's affairs.

The stance of Russia and China has brought much criticism from the international community. But should Assad's government fall both countries are likely to lose more than friends.

China's veto of the much watered down UN resolution was anticipated by many observers. The South China Morning Post ran with the headline "After Libya, no vote is no surprise".

Tsinghua University international studies professor Sun Zhe says he thinks China is following Russia's lead on the Syria issue, but he acknowledges that Beijing also has its own concerns.

Sun believes Chinese leaders see the Syrian government's actions as "extremist," but are afraid of Western intervention because, in his words, "they do not want to see another Libya or another Egypt." [VOA]

China has few ties in Syria, and as such less to lose from regime change as Russia does. But in failing to support the resolution it has not won many friends across the Arab world. Many Arab papers were scornful of the decision. Jamil al-Dhayidi, writing in London's Saudi-owned Al-Hayat said, "The Russian and Chinese stance is clothed in shame and disgrace. Moscow and Beijing insist on dancing on corpses and disregarding the massacres by Assad's regime. Vladimir Putin and his like will go to the rubbish heap of history haunted by the curses of angry Arabs... The Russian and Chinese people should speak out against the veto that gives a license to kill... But we doubt that this will happen." [BBC]

China's netizens react

There was some comment on China's microblogs in support of the Syrian people, though such posts were quickly deleted by censors.

One Shenzhen netizen calling himself "anti-CCTV ballistic egg" wrote, "As a Chinese citizen, on behalf of myself, I deeply apologize to the Syrian people for the voting in the United Nations resolution. I did not participate in any of China's elections, so that ballot couldn't be counted as mine cast."

Another Weibo user, "Devil of the gods," said that it should be made clear that the Chinese people do not have the right to vote, and as such have no control of their government or their decision. "The veto does not represent the point of view of the citizens (at least not mine)," he wrote. "NATO, give some power to defeat them. If the evil is not punished, righteous and goodness will not be known." [Epoch Times]

Western leaders "disgusted"

Of course the strongest condemnations came from western leaders. US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said she was "disgusted" by Russia and China's veto while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the veto "a travesty".

"Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future," Clinton said while reinforcing the dictate that "Assad must go".

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking in parliament also voiced his concerns and said that Assad had been given carte blanche to continue its massacre of civilians and those that opposed him.

"They chose to side with the Syrian regime and implicitly to leave the door open to further abuses by them." William Hague said. "They did so while President Assad's tanks were encircling Homs and shells were pounding the homes of Syrian civilians, killing up to 200 people, and on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Hama."

He called the veto a "grave error of judgment" that will have "increased the likelihood of what they wish to avoid in Syria - civil war." Furthermore he said both China and Russia will have "placed themselves on the wrong side of Arab and international opinion." [Full statement: FCO / Video - BBC / BBC]

He drew broad support across the house, but also further action from some MPs. Green MP Caroline Lucas pointed out that Tunisia, a country which sparked off the so-called Arab Spring, had expelled its Syrian ambassador, and asked whether the British government would consider doing the same.

The foreign secretary replied that he had not ruled out doing so, but stressed he would consult with other EU and Arab partners before taking any such action.

Meanwhile as the bombardment by government forces intensified on the Syrian town of Homs, the Syrian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office for a dressing down.

Assad "doomed"

The British Foreign Secretary insisted the Assad regime was "doomed" and that its days were clearly numbered. Should the regime crumble both Russia and China will have a difficult time dealing with any new government.

On Monday demonstrators attacked the Chinese Embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli throwing rocks, tomatoes and eggs. The previous day the Russian Embassy was also attacked and its flag torn down. "All of this is because of what is happening in Homs, this is because of the Chinese and Russian veto," Ahmed Mourad a Syrian expatriate in Libya, said [Reuters]. 

Losing friends

China and Russia won few friends in the new Libya after failing to support NATO and the UN in its action against the former dictator [tvnewswatch: China & Russia may lose out in new Libya]. And even after Gaddafi's fall, China was accused of blocking the release of much needed assets to the Nation Transitional Council [tvnewswatch: China burning its bridges with Libya].

China has struggled in recent months to build relations with the country's new rulers after Beijing was seen as supporting the Gaddafi regime, even though it did not use its veto and instead abstained. This was an attempt to retain a position of impartiality given the importance of Libya's rich oil resources.

China's economic ties to Syria are small by comparison. "Syria is a third-tier oil producer and a country of little economic importance to China," says Trevor Houser, a partner at Rhodium Group, an economic research firm, who has studied China's behavior at the UN. Beijing does not want to give the signal that it supports any form of popular uprising and add fuel to any home-grown revolution. China's leaders are "driven by domestic political concerns," Houser asserts. But he says, "Beijing is protecting the al-Assad regime at the expense to its relationship with all other Middle East oil producers, save Iran, and overall stability in the Middle East." [WSJ]

Risk of an African Spring

With growing anti-Chinese sentiment across the Arab would and Africa, China may be on a rocky road. An African Spring has yet to manifest itself, but should the likes of Angola, Zimbabwe and Nigeria go the same way as some Arab countries China will have to make some difficult decisions. Angola for example supplies a significant proportion of China's oil imports, more than 20%, far greater than that supplied by Iran. It also relies on many African states for its growing need for copper. Regime change in any of these key countries could prove to be particularly important for China. Failing to support a popular uprising in such states could be disastrous for China as it builds its economy and infrastructure with Africa's rich resources.

There is a growing debate as to whether Africa needs its own revolution [BBC] and with the beginnings of demonstrations in Senegal, whether it has already begun [Al-Jazeera]. Much of Africa is far from free, but would likely face for more difficult hurdles than those seen in Egypt, Libya and Syria. But the demand for change is gaining momentum nonetheless.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, February 03, 2012

Sichuan violence could worsen

In recent weeks protests have turned to riots in China's Sichuan province home to a large number of Tibetans who say their human rights are being suppressed. But the situation could become far worse should their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, dies.


At least 16 monks or nuns have set themselves alight in protest against Beijing's grip on ethnic Tibetans many of whom seek the return of the exiled Dalai Lama and freedom for Tibet. Several have also been shot dead by police during riots which have been blamed by China on separatists.

Authorities have cut Internet connections and shutdown mobile networks across the region in an attempt to prevent the protests spreading. Foreign news crews and journalists have also been barred from visiting the area to limit the reporting of the worst violence seen since 2008 when rioting ravaged Lhasa, the capital of what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region [Wikipedia].

Journalists banned

The ban on foreign journalists has helped keep the subject off the news agenda. While print media has covered the story, many news broadcasters have made scant mention of the protests. The BBC have reported the skirmishes on their website, referring to the killing three protesters in late January [BBC] and the tightening of security [BBC], but there have been few television news reports. The Sky News website fails to even mention the ongoing troubles. Al Jazeera has also failed to report on the turmoil and France 24 published only a short article on January 25th. Russia Today only published a few lines on the subject while Iran's Press TV ignored the news altogether.

CNN made the best effort in trying to report the riots, sending its correspondent Stan Grant to the towns ripped apart by the rioters. The website had already covered the troubles, but in an effort to get close to the story the CNN crew made the journey into a province in lock-down. His three and a half minute report was repeated on air many times throughout the week. But it nearly did not make it to the edit suite. Grant and his crew were detained for five hours at the airport and some of their footage was seized.

Speaking after his visit, Stan Grant explained the difficulties in getting into and even out of the area [CNN] while there was further coverage on the website itself [CNN / Timeline and more videos: CNN].

In China itself CNN's broadcasts have been blacked out, censored by the state machine. Meanwhile its own media have controlled how and what is reported. The Global Times English language website reported on how ordinary citizens had been targeted by the rioters. Xinhua has not mentioned the riots on its English portal and it was not possible to find any articles on Chinese language news websites.

Internet censorship

Censors have also worked hard to eradicate any mentions of the riots on Chinese microblogs. Netizens posted photographs on Sina Weibo showing army trucks heading towards Tibetan regions of China's Sichuan province but these posts were soon deleted [NYT / RFA].

Pictures and video of the self-emoliation have also emerged though due to their graphic nature many news organisations have refrained from showing them.

After the Dalai Lama

It is likely that the latest series of protests and riots will be kept down, but authorities may face further dissent in coming years and especially after the Dalai Lama dies.

The Dalai Lama has generally managed to restrain Tibet's youth with his message of non-violence, says Khedroob Thondup, nephew of the Dalai Lama and a former member of the exiled government. Speaking to Reuters he says that this could soon change. "Positions have hardened," Thondup claims. "If His Holiness were to suddenly leave the scene, yes, there will be many more problems for the Chinese government."

It is a view expressed by many others. Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, says the Dalai Lama's death could precipitate chaos in Tibetan regions. "Were he to pass away in exile abroad, it could spark an unpredictable wave of protests far greater than 2008 and an even harsher crackdown," Bequelin suggests.

Ethnic divisions

It is a frightening prospect for Beijing who seem unwilling or unable to accept there are ethnic divisions and issues affecting the rights of Tibetans and other ethnic groups. A wider civil disturbance amongst Tibetans could spark trouble in other regions. Xinjiang is a potential powder keg and saw widespread disturbances in 2009 [Wikipedia]. Friction between Han Chinese, which account for more than 90% of the country's population, and different ethic groups differs depending how willing the group is to integrate. In Yunnan there is little if any conflict between different groups. The province is home to more minority peoples than any other region in China, making up some 34% of the population.

But in some areas the indigenous ethnic group has felt invaded or sidelined my the Han Chinese, resulting in social or physical conflict. Prejudice even exists between the Han Chinese themselves with people from one province looking at others with disdain [How the Chinese see each other / Beijing map / Hong Kong map / Shanghai map].

There has been a barrage of insults between Hong Kong residents and Beijing recently, and while somewhat tongue in cheek it underlies the prejudice existing between different parts of the country. In the past few days Hong Kongers called mainlanders 'locusts' in an advert taken out in papers which criticised the "mainland mothers" who were "flooding in to take up resources in public hospitals, getting benefits and social welfare" [BBC / China Daily / Xinhuanet - Chinese].

The advert came less than a month after Peking University professor Kong Qingdong called Hong Kongers "bastards" and "running dogs of the British" on a live webcast on the mainland [Guardian / YouTube / Full video: Shanghaiist].

The war in the blogosphere continued with one mainlander blogger Cheng Jianghe [程江河] suggesting that Qingdong had successfully predicted the attitude of the Hong Kong people.

With such scorn and criticism being hurled about it appears Chinese leaders have more than just Tibetans and Uighers to worry about.

tvnewswatch, London, UK