Friday, December 9, 2011

Al Jazeera Correspondent - Barnaby Phillips

This piece is a biographical sketch of Barnaby Phillips, Al Jazeera’s Europe correspondent, who has been covering news from different parts of the world for 20 years. He shares his thoughts, learning, and insightful experiences as a foreign correspondent.

About Barnaby Phillips 

Barnaby Phillips has been the Europe Correspondent for Al Jazeera English since 2006. He was based in Athens, Greece for four years and currently he reports from London. Prior to Joining Al Jazeera, Phillips was with the BBC for 15 years, where he mostly reported in Africa. He has also travelled to India, the United States and the Middle East. 
Career in Journalism
Barnaby Phillips pursued his undergraduate studies in Modern History from Oxford University. He then received his Masters degree from School of Oriental and African studies, University of London, in African Politics and Economics.         
After graduating, Phillips joined the BBC straight away that summer. He spent 15 years at the BBC almost entirely doing African news. He was usually based in Africa, but he sometimes did editing and production from the BBC World Service in Bush House, London. 
Phillips always had a great interest in covering African news as he had spent much of his childhood in Kenya, East Africa. His Masters degree in African Politics and Economics further helped him in pursuing his interest. So to begin with, he joined the BBC’s African service in London and worked there from 1991 to 1993.
“In 1993 I did what a lot of young people, who want to get into foreign journalism, do. I took unpaid leave from my job and I worked as a freelance correspondent,” Phillips said. He went to Mozambique in Southern Africa and lived there for about a year and a half.
“And that was a very extreme time in Mozambique. The civil war was just ending and there was a UN peace keeping mission. So there was enough exciting news to keep me hooked on,” Phillips said.
After a year, Phillips went back to London and resumed working for the BBC. “Then at that point I felt bored, so I took unpaid leave again,” Phillips said.
This time he went to Angola in Southern Africa, a country with similar problems of Civil War. “I can speak Portuguese which I learned in Mozambique… Angola is also a former Portuguese colony… so I worked in Angola for a year, which was interesting,” Phillips said.
At that stage, the BBC offered him a proper foreign correspondent job. He lived in Nigeria, West Africa, for 3 years from 1998-2001. Then he was posted at Johannesburg where he worked as the BBC’s South African correspondent.
In 2006, Phillips joined Al Jazeera English which was launched around that time. He said he left the BBC because they wanted to move him back to London, which was something he didn’t want.
“Many people from BBC, CNN, ITN and SKY were joining Al Jazeera at that time. It seemed a good opportunity to be with an organization from its beginning… You don’t get that chance quite often,” Phillips said.
Al Jazeera offered him a chance to work in Greece. Phillips said that was quite exciting because he knew how to cover the eastern Mediterranean, Balkans, Turkey and so on, but he knew little about that part of the world.
“That was the opportunity which probably the BBC wouldn’t have given… you know it’s a bit more competitive, once you’re in it, then they won’t send you to a region unless you speak the language or have real expertise. But because Al Jazeera was new, there were lot opportunities,” Phillips said.
For the first three years in Greece, Phillips travelled a lot and covered news from the Napan Balkan countries, Turkey.
“The fun thing about Al Jazeera is they send you to quite a lot of places --- I ended up doing the American elections in 2008, the Indian election in 2009, which was wonderful,” Phillips said.
In 2009-2010, when the Greek economy started to get into difficulties, Phillips ended up doing a lot more from Greece.     
A year ago, Phillips finally moved back to London, where he is from, and now he covers Europe mainly from London.
Phillips’ Experience in International Reporting
“There are certain areas or parts of the world that I feel I am more familiar with… where I feel I have more to offer as a journalist,” Phillips said. “My understanding of Greece or Nigeria or Mozambique or South Africa or all countries I have lived in, is much more than my understanding of Japan, where I have been for only three days… and I don’t speak the language.” 
Phillips said he thinks although it’s not possible to speak the language of all the places journalists cover, but it does give them an edge. He said what he enjoyed in Africa, for example, is that he speaks Portuguese, French and English. That helped him get by most places in Africa as people there knew to speak one of those three languages. This reduced the need for translators and interpreters.
“I don’t speak Arabic, for example. I have worked in the Middle-East on and off for Al Jazeera and it’s a fascinating and tumultuous region. But if I really went to live there, I would make a serious effort at learning Arabic. Likewise for my brief experience in India, you would really have to speak some Hindi to explain what’s happening to the world,” Phillips said.
As far as the kinds of stories, Phillips said he loves to keep it a diverse mix.
“I think one of the great fun things about my job is that you can be reporting on a scandal in cricket one day and a problem in Greece’s debt the next… and I have always enjoyed that,” he said.
While covering the financial crisis of Greece, Phillips said he as well as many other journalists working in Europe had to get up to speed with a lot of financial and economic terms.
“To be honest, two years ago many of us didn’t really know what a credit default swap was … or bond deals … we all had to learn that terminology… but you know learning these things is fun as well,” Phillips said.

Burma Boy – The Documentary

About the story
Barnaby Phillips worked on a documentary “Burma Boy”, where he pursued the story of a Nigerian soldier, Isaac Fadoyebo, who fought for the British during the Second World War in Burma against the Japanese troops from 1943 to 1945. Phillips traveled to Nigeria, Burma and Japan and talked to those who fought alongside as well as against Fadoyebo. At the end he managed to find the family of the person who had saved Isaac’s life, named Shuyiman, in the jungles of Burma. 
The Idea for the Documentary
The documentary was produced as part of Al Jazeera’s initiative to cover long form stories in a series called “Correspondent”.
“They basically said Israel-Palestine doesn’t have to be the big story that’s in the news. We don’t have to hear about the American election or the obvious stories that are in the news… or the story of the Libyan revolution. They wanted something more personal and something more unusual. And there was the time and the budget to do it which is very rare,” Phillips said.
Phillips said these days when we mostly see quick news journalism, he felt lucky to get a chance to do a longer project.
“If you are very lucky you are given two and a half minutes to do something on TV, maybe three minutes on the radio. It’s fun and exciting with longer projects as you get to test yourself in new ways. If you stop trying to test yourself then you become stale,” Phillips said.
 “I have always been fascinated by history. And being British and having lived many years of life in Africa, I have always been interested in Britain’s impact, good and bad, in Africa and the legacy of what Britain left behind. I find it sad that you could walk around London and you could ask an average British person and they wouldn’t even know which countries in Africa had been ruled by Britain and which had not, let alone maybe some of the terrible things that British might have done to them. So I am interested in those aspects of history,” Phillips said.
Making of the Documentary
“I really loved making that film. I don’t think I could have made that film unless I had lived in Nigeria for 3 years… I had to understand quite a lot about Isaac Fadoyebo’s and Nigerian history to put it in context,” Phillips said.
Having lived in Nigeria and having studied about African history back at Oxford University, Africa always interested him.
“When I was leaving Nigeria, I was frustrated because I felt that I have never done anything about Nigerians,” Phillips said.
“I felt I haven’t really researched the story properly, and I also feared that maybe the really interesting people would have died”
Research and Challenges
In December 2009, Phillips took a week off from his routine news job to research on it further in the library of London’s Imperial War Museum. At that time Phillips said he was thinking of writing a book about it, and not making a film. That was when Phillips came across the memoir of Isaac Fadoyebo and he later found out that Isaac was still alive.
“So when they asked for a great story, I had this story ready,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he had started researching 3 years before actually covering the story and it took him about 3 months to cover the story - to find the people in England and Japan as few of them were few alive. Those who were alive were very old.
Phillips said it was even more difficult to connect with the Japanese subjects as some didn’t use emails.
In Japan, a Japanese journalist and researcher helped him find all the people and did all the translation. “And that is the reality of our job. You are often in hands of somebody local who will help you,” Phillips said.
Phillips doesn’t speak Japanese, and he said he could not have found those people himself.
Nigeria had his own set of challenges, Phillips said. “What would be more straight forward in some countries - logistics, getting visas, arranging and making sure of the vehicles - may take a lot of time in Nigeria.”
In Burma, Phillips said he needed a lot of help and translation. “One of the wonderful skills you do get is that over time you get to judge who will help you and who is not so talented at helping you or who is interested in just money and hanging around with a foreign crew for few days,” Phillips said.
Phillips said the whole trip to Burma was quite complicated.
“Shuyiman and his family belonged to an ethnic minority who were closer to Bengalis, they were not Burmese as such. So in fact when Isaac and African soldiers in the war were there back in 1944, Isaac called those people “Indians”, as opposed to Burmese,” Phillips said.
Phillips said his first worry was that the Bengali community wouldn’t exist anymore. “This Bengali minority, who today are called Rohingya, are very unpopular in Burma and in fact there was a war between some Rohingyas and the Burmese government in the 1960s and 70s. So many of them were expelled and still today live in refugee camps.”
Secondly, Phillips said many of the villages that had Bengali names at that time, have Burmese names now. So Phillips couldn’t find Shuyiman’s village on a map. Fortunately another British officer had kept a detailed record of the attack and Phillips got hold of the map of where the attack happened.
Phillips said his other concern was the safety of people who were helping him.
“I wasn’t worried about my own safety because probably the worst that would have happened to me was our equipment would have been confiscated, and we would have been expelled from the country. But I was more concerned about the local people helping us and Shuyiman’s family. Even though the story was entirely innocent and positive; and we were not talking about corruption or government brutality or anything… we were talking about something amazing somebody did almost 70 years ago. So logically there should have been no problem, but one should always be careful.”
Phillips said he had a good local guide working for him in Burma. He made sure that he is never in any of the footage.
This local guide and travel agent helped Phillips find the village. But as the village was close to a military base, Phillips said he decided to quickly meet the family in a nearby forest. If caught, Phillips supposed Shuyiman’s family would be questioned.
Although Phillips knew Shuyiman’s family members weren’t risking their lives, he tried not to put them in any form of hassle. Throughout the film, he had edited out every mention of the village’s name or the specific region.
The other challenge Phillips faced was getting in Burma in the middle of the monsoon season. He said it was a terrible time of the year to be there.
Phillips and his crew went to Burma hoping to find Shuyiman or his family and he said it was incredible that they did finally find them. “Honestly it was so miraculous because we had no idea until the day before whether we would find them or not. We did not know that they were there before we went and before we found them. We didn’t arrange it over the phone from London or anything like that,” Phillips said.
 “We sent a guide to the village a day before. And he was very skilful in determining who the right people were in the village,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he thinks a journalist should always be skeptical. Some villagers may have falsely claimed to be Shuyiman’s family, thinking they would be getting money in return.
But Phillips said his guide in Burma was very skilful. “He went to the village and spoke with a lot of people they all pointed at the same family. He asked them questions such as – Did two Africans live here… Or maybe how many Africans hid in your hut, and they replied two. Then he would ask what their names were.”
When Phillips met them the next day and showed them the pictures of Isaac, their immediate question was “What happened to Dauda Ali?” (the other soldier they saved). Phillips said this reaction confirmed that they really were Shuyiman’s family. Also the sincerity of their emotions after knowing about Isaac was so overwhelming and that it removed all doubts about their identity.
“And to uncover something like that is a story of a lifetime… It’s incredible,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he thinks as a journalist it’s important to have empathy for people. “The moment you no longer care about the people who you are recording, then you should do something else. A good journalist will never lose that empathy. And will never get jaded or cynical about human beings,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he likes to cover human interest stories, “I have to admit personally, I felt very emotional about that story. I had worked on it for so long… I had put so much of effort into it and I met such amazing characters along the way, including the old British officers, the old Japanese guys, everyone I met in Nigeria, Isaac himself… and at the end to meet the people in Burma… so I was very emotional as well.”
Phillips said the piece was finally edited in Doha. But his couldn’t be a part of the whole editing process. “ My news editors were getting so fed up with me because I had been on this project for so long… that they did not allow me to sit through the whole editing process… which was about three weeks work.”
So Phillips spent a very intensive week in Doha, about half way though the editing, and discussed the story structure with his colleagues over emails and Skype.

Barnaby’s Coverage of Indian elections
[Watch the stories here:
 Phillips visited India during the elections in 2009.
Phillips said on that assignment, he was again given a very generous time - two weeks (before elections) to do four features. He managed to find a good researcher in Mumbai.
Phillips said he was trying to pick up the big themes of India. “We weren’t saying that in this state the BJP is ahead of the congress party… and in that state, a well known political figure is involved in corruption. That is not so important to an international audience. Our audience wants us to be more analytical and talk about the big things that are happening in India. One – it is becoming far wealthier very quickly… But two – a huge number of people are left behind… and actually some way things are getting worse. It is all about picking up on those big themes - divisions between urban and rural India… what India is good at and what India is bad at.”
As Phillips had never been to India before, he read a book about India, “In Spite of the Gods”, and that helped him. “Good journalists read a lot of books,” Phillips said.
Phillips began the package by saying, “Today rich people are coming to poor areas. That means it’s the time of election” – something that Indian media would rarely do.  Phillips said that’s what somebody had told him.
“Somebody said –they are only coming here only today because of election. They won’t be here tomorrow. And it’s picking up on the little funny things. Often you just laugh about something and forget about it. But if you carry a little notebook and if you talk about it later to someone you would find that was a very profound remark and that would explain the whole story, the whole relationship of Indian politicians to ordinary people.”
Phillips said sometimes being an outsider is an advantage as one can see things more clearly. “All sorts of things can strike outsiders in a way that an Indian might not be surprised at… as they are things which they may take for granted…and they don’t see as surprising. An outsider can realize unusually interesting,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he thinks Indian TV media looks at politics as a national horse race. “They mostly cover - who is ahead, who has made a mistake… which powerful person has said what to another powerful person. And that is not always the most informative way of finding out what’s happening in your country. It’s cheap television because you just have taking heads in studio… and if you get loud mouth opinionated people to say controversial things, it can be quite amusing or shocking… But does it really tell you what’s happening in the country?” Phillips said.

Phillips’ comments about American Media’s coverage of Europe
Phillips said when he was in Kosova, Athens or Berlin, he met with journalists from other TV groups in hotels or while doing a live at the same point. He said he rarely found American TV crews there. “I know there are certain kinds of stories that they will cover… you see them at a royal wedding in London in big presence…or maybe a few big events… and obviously if Obama or Hillary Clinton is passing through.”
He said he thinks the extent of international coverage on American Television news is tragically inadequate given what a powerful country America is and how huge its interests are around the world.
Phillips said when I first knew the BBC office in Johannesburg, there were three American TV networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – in Johannesburg. But they all were shut down and they don’t have a single bureau in the African continent.
Phillips said the American media has not given enough time to understand the behind the scene story of Greece. “I get the impression that the American media perhaps a bit like the British media has seen the Greek’s financial crisis very much through its own ideological prism. Therefore many voices on the right say “This is what socialism does for you” “This is what Obama will bring to America”. You would know Greece is a disaster and there are many things Greece got wrong. But their history is more complex.”
Phillips said he thinks history plays a crucial role in understanding how to cover stories today. “For example, the US played a very important role in Greece after the World War, throughout the cold war and during the civil war in the 1940s and 50s. Greece had a military regime in the 60s and 70s, and many Greeks rightly or wrongly blamed the Americans for supporting that military regime during the cold war. When there are such riots that are very anti-American and anti-authoritarian, it’s useful to know why there’s such animosity left on the streets of Greece. And I suspect American TV has not done a very good job of explaining that to people in America.”
But Phillips said he doesn’t blame the American journalists. “Many American colleagues are brilliant and brave reporters, and they feel very frustrated by trends in the media. The criticism is aimed more at owners and managers of TV stations and newspapers, who've presided over a decline in international reporting,” Phillips said.
Phillips’ comments on War Reporting
Phillips said war reporting is a very grey area because people have different opinions on how to report wars.
Phillips has covered wars in Africa, and he said they have been very chaotic - there wasn’t a recognized frontline, very badly trained soldiers; sometimes the soldiers had children or were high on drugs, and they barely knew how to use guns. He said that was very different than working with the American Army when it’s invading Iraq.
“One should listen to the advice of experienced people there who will tell you when something is dangerous. Don’t take stupid risks. Err on the side of caution because you can only make one mistake once,” Phillips said.
This year, some of Phillips’ colleagues were killed in Libya. “They were all people who took real risks and kept on pushing it. You can get many fantastic journalists lucky enough to get away with that for ever but sometimes they don’t. It’s not worth it.”
When Phillips was covering Iraq during the US invasion, there was a lot of bombing going on but he played safe. He said he was mainly talking from the rooftop about what was happening in the war.
But Phillips said that he did take life-taking risks in Angola and Liberia. “In Angola, we took long journeys through areas by road, that were controlled by the rebels in Angola and we could have been ambushed and somebody could have been killed.”
Phillips said news organizations are much more cautious now than they were 20 years ago. “We all go with flap jackets and helmets to those situations, Often we have security advisors… some are more useful than others in some circumstances. Like in Liberia we had a very good security advisor.”
Phillips said knowledge of a place definitely helps in handling risks. “The recent riots in Athens were dangerous and they were getting worse. But I would never take a security advisor because I feel I know the situation there. And there was a BBC team with a security advisor. I feel that is just a waste of money if you are familiar with the place.”
Phillips said that local knowledge is developed slowly, by taking small and not crazy risks.

Interviewing Tips
Phillips interviewed George Papandreou, former Greece Prime Minister, during Greece’s financial turmoil.
[Watch the interview here - ]    
“Papandreou is a difficult man to interview because he is so nice. Because when you meet him, it throws you off coz if you get too aggressive with him, you feel really mean,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he thinks the most important thing to do while interviewing is to listen to the answers very carefully. “One should have a prepared list of questions but it’s still important to listen to what the person is saying… because sometimes people say unexpected things. Pick up on that and then you get a more lively conversation. And if somebody is saying something that you feel is blatantly wrong or illogical, pick up on that point, or maybe they admit to something that you never expected them to admit to.” Phillips said he thinks a really good interviewer will closely listen to what the interview subject is saying and would allow the conversation to go to unexpected directions.

Thoughts on Balancing Voices – Objectivity vs. Fair Judgment
Phillips said as a journalist one has to exercise judgment. But it is not objective to try to balance every argument equally. “There are small groups of scientists who don’t believe that HIV virus causes AIDS, it doesn’t mean that every time you do a story on AIDS you have to give a voice to the small group of scientists who believe something else. That’s not objectivity – that’s just bad judgment on the journalist’s part.”
“I guess the skill of a good journalist is knowing what you know, knowing what you don’t know, and I think somehow certain kind of fairness it is quite hard to define, but you or the listener know if they are getting it or not.”

The Story he is most proud of

Phillips said in his 20 years in journalism, “Burma Boy” has been the most satisfying story.
He also enjoyed being in Mozambique when he was 24 years old, learning a language and getting his voice on the radio from an African country. He said although that was very simple in comparison to the Burma Boy documentary but it was equally satisfying.
Phillips said he was pleased with his work in India as well.

Presence in Social Media
Phillips has been on Facebook for three years and he has been fairly active. He said he is careful about his posts on Facebook. “I would never express any political opinion on Facebook whatsoever. I will often put a video up of our latest story… or a blog,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he thinks if one is aspiring to certain standards on TV then he/she should aspire to those standards online as well.
Phillips joined twitter two months back. “Twitter I think is more dangerous than Facebook as it’s almost like you are sending a text message to your friends. And you would want to say interesting things but you have to be conscious about it.”
Phillips has a blog on the Al Jazeera page ( ) which he updates it regularly.

Comments from Phillips’ colleague/Supervisor
Juan Carlos Van Meek is an Executive Producer (EP) at Al Jazeera based in Doha. He currently manages all the content on the network. So while he is not micromanaging Phillips’ material, he assigns him to the kinds of stories he believes warrant coverage and which best allow him to showcase his skills.
Prior to his current role as an Executive Producer, Carlos worked alongside Phillips as a Bureau Chief/Senior Producer in Athens. Thus their working relationship was much more day-to-day than it is now. They traveled extensively on various assignments as well as taking stock of moving stories in Greece.
Carlos said that Phillips’ greatest attribute is his ability to take in vast amounts of information, much of it complicated, then distill that information to the audience in easily understandable terms. Carlos believes that’s where most journalists fail.
“They get caught up in the complexity of an issue, confusing themselves and the audience. This means Barnaby prepares for every assignment with tremendous amounts of research. This gives his storytelling the authority it requires, and the anecdotes which help viewers - many of whom have nothing invested in that story, and who live on continents far, far away - relate to any given situation, in any given country,” Carlos said.
Carlos said he believes Phillips’ performance is also stellar. “He's rarely flustered on camera and his live timing is impeccable,” he said.
Finally Carlos thinks Phillips’ voice work is perhaps the most underrated quality he has going for him.
“I had a workshop where I used Barnaby’s voice track to show my students the value of finding your voice. A well written story can be undone by a poor voice track. Barnaby, having hailed from radio, is well versed in the art of a good read,” he said.
Carlos said one issue Phillips shares with most senior correspondents is that he'd like more time to develop stories, so he's not always keen to turn around a quick spot news story. But that doesn’t present a problem, he said.
“We live in a 24/7 world with more news on more platforms globally than ever before. So we don't always have the luxury of time.  At the end of the day he works for news, so after he gets his grumble out of the way he's good to go. Not the worst of sins.”
Carlos has covered a lot of stories with Phillips and he thinks his work is very consistent. “The body of his work really shows off the breath of his skills,” Carlos said.
Carlos said he thinks Phillips work during Indian elections in 2009 was remarkable as was his series on the challenges facing America in the lead up to the US election in 2008. “Both very different demographics and cultures facing serious challenges. A more recent example of longer form was his Burma Boy special. All are very strong, character driven stories,” Carlos said.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why Palestine deserves Statehood

US Palestine Peace: patterns, problems, possibilities
The piece would help readers understand Palestine’s point of view as they approach the UN Security Council for the right to statehood

The UN Security Council’s admissions committee approved a report last Friday saying it failed to reach a unanimous decision about Palestinian bid for statehood. 
The reason why Palestine is still struggling is because the United States had clearly said that it would veto any Security Council bid and flat out reject any bid from Palestine for statehood. This US veto could be offset if Palestine gathers nine votes from the council’s 15 members, but it appears the Palestinians have only managed to secure eight supporters so far.

While Russia, China, Brazil, India, Lebanon, South Africa, Gabon and Nigeria support the Palestinian bid, the US is firmly against it. The other six members are expected to either vote ‘no’, or abstain from voting.

Palestine claims that the US has been trying to convince other countries to not vote in support of Palestine.

Late last month, Palestine received full membership status within the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 107 countries voted yes, 14 voted no, and 52 abstained from voting. But as a result, UNESCO ended up losing about 22% of its funds due to the US law passed in 1990 which obliges Washington to cut off funding to UNESCO if it admits Palestine.

“What we see that the US has been advocating for two-state solution for Palestine over several years, but when the real test came, they failed to move the paradigm forward,” Pat Carmeli, Member of CNY Working for a Just Peace in Palestine and Israel,said.

An American woman marries visits Israel, ends up supporting Palestine

Pat Carmeli, 53, is an Israeli-American citizen. She had shifted to Israel after marrying an Israeli man. She returned to the US in 2004.

Pat didn’t know much about the conflict before going to Israel.

“That’s like the general public here who know very little except what they hear through the media that generally makes one think that Israelis are the good guys. I would hear the historical perspective from my husband. Who are Israelis!We would talk about how they came and wanted the Palestinians to stay in 1948 but the Palestinians fled the land. And I believed a lot of this,” Pat said.

She said after going there, it took her nearly 4-5 years before she started to catch on to what was really going on.

“At one point, I decided to jump into action. Along the Egyptian-Gaza border there’s the Palestinian city of Rafah. And the Israelis were just clearing out homes… people being rendered homeless… and it was terrible. And that’s probably the first time when I felt the little disconnect… when I thought something is really wrong here and that was the first time I decided make a sign and head to a demonstration in Tel Aviv,” Pat said.

Pat said after that she started to pay more attention and realize that injustice was rampant. “And then it was just one thing after the other,”she said.

US attitude towards Palestine
The US and Israel say Palestine should resolve the statehood issue through negotiations.
“The negotiations that have failed to show any results for about 30 years,”Karen Carmeli, daughter of Pat Carmeli, said.

Karen, 23, moved in with her parents to Israel at the age of four and stayed there till 2004. She and her mother came back after she turned 16. “Right before I would have had to go through the military service which is something I wasn’t interested in doing,” Karen said.

“The US support what they say are direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. They say that Palestinians should not be pleading to the UN for statehood. They should talk directly to Israel about whether or not they can have a state. I feel that negotiating with an oppressing force is not always on equal terms when one group is the oppressor and the other group is the oppressed,” Karen said.

She said that’s the reason why the Palestinians have had to seek assistance from larger international bodies as opposed to dealing directly with Israel. “Especially when settlements continue to be expanded throughout this so called roadmap to peace or peace talks,” Karen said.

Pat said she feels that US is being disingenuous to pretend to advocate on behalf of people’s rights to self-determination. “With the Arab spring and the US claiming that they support these democratic movements – in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria – but when it comes to the Palestinians they are still supporting Israelis,” Pat said.

Pat said she thinks that the US actions towards Palestine are indicative that they do not support a real democracy in Palestine.

Karen thinks it was after 1967 war that US became staunchly intertwined with Israel. “Seeing it as a David against the Goliath Arab world,” Karen said.

“Palestine is using all of the acceptable means of liberating themselves. And one of those means is going to the UN asking for membership. But that’s straight being denied by US even though US has supported it on a number of diff occasions for other countries. In this instance it is seen as something that is counter productive to what the US has as roadmap to peace between two parties... which has so far done nothing,” Karen said.

There is a very large lobbying group of the US called AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Many AIPAC supporters see borders made in 1967are indefensible meaning that it would leave Israel in a very insecure situation if the borders would be along the 67 border. “Even though that is the internationally recognized border..eventhough anything built beyond that border by Israel is considered an illegal settlement,” Karen said.

Why the US support Israel?
 Mohamed Khater, 54, is the former President of the Islamic Society of Central New York
“More than 95% of the US congressmen support Israel… As they needJewish voters and Jewish money. Even if you have a President at the top, he can’t do anything unilaterally. Everything has to be approved by the Congress,”Khater said.

Pat said although only 2% of the US population is comprised of Jews, they tend to have a lot of money and control. “They are very successful of being able to target our elected officials who take a critical opinion of Israel. And they are very able to mobilize and support that person’s opponent and get them out. So the politicians know that if they are critical to Israel they will lose funding, or probably lose the next election. So this is a major part of the problem here,” Pat said.

The US gives Israel $3 billion every year in military aid. “That 3 Bn dollars we give to Israel, they are buying from us in weapons, missiles, white phosphorus. So it is not just how the US government is pushed by AIPAC but also our own military industry that loves this,” Pat said.
Khater said that the US has always supported Israel.

“Israel has more western values than any other middle-east country. There are manyAmerican Jews who live in Israel right now. And the US outright says that Israel is its ally. But they won’t flat out say that the enemy of my ally, Palestine, is my enemy,” Khater said.

US Plan for Two-state solution
“The plan that the US has for the two state solution means an “armed” Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state which is fragmented, that is, they have not figured out how to connect Gaza and the West Bank. Israel is in there in between. They are also thinking of doing something called “land swaps” which means Israel is going to keep many of its settlement it has been building illegally for 40 plus years,” Karen said.

She also said the current plan for a two state solution doesn’t address the issue of the right of return to Palestinians.

“Currently there are over 5million Palestinian refugees who were displaced from their homes in 1948. They are the largest refugee population in the world. They are scattered throughout the US. 

Some are in Arab countries… some are living in refugee camps in Syria, Jordan… the plan that the US is proposing is not going to give those refugee the right to return. Even though Jews who live throughout the world even if they cannot prove any lineage which links them back to Israel have the law of return,”Karen said.

This means that any Jew who lives anywhere in the world can apply for citizenship in the state of Israel and will be granted citizenship. “They are also going to be given financial incentives to move to the state of Israel…and to help to find an apartment or job,” Karen said.

Karen said many of the Palestinian refugees even have keys to their old home, many can prove ownership to their land though land deeds

“So those people will not be able to return to their ancestral home. While any jew living anywhere in the world is given automatic citizenship in the state of Israel. I don’t see that as an equal democratic two-state solution in any form,” Karen said.

Checkpoints within the West Bank
Karen said thatthe disconnect between Gaza and the West Bank makes the life of Palestinians miserable.Also, there are many checkpoints within the fragmented West Bank.

They would keep ambulances waiting at the check points and say that they need to search the ambulance even when there was a woman who was in labor.For instance, once a woman was carrying twins.They pulled her out of the ambulance and searched for however long it took and got her back in. She had to walk up and down into the ambulance. By the time she reached the hospital, both of her children had died,” Karen said.

She said the checkpoints make it difficult for Palestinians to pursue their medical and educational needs.

“If the university where you would want to study happens to be within three checkpoints away there is no guarantee that you’re goingto be able to make it to your classes or exams,” Karen said.

She said the checkpoints have also hurt the Palestinian economy because people cannot make it to work at times.

Khatersaid if the Israeli military would see a car with a yellow number plate indicating that of a Palestinian, the car will be held up. If the journey normally takes half an hour, it can take as long as seven hours. But with a blue number plate for Israelisone can commute freely.

Lack of Peace supporters
Pat said there aren’t enough supporters for establishing peace and settlementbetween the countries.

“People who are working towards peace have been doing it for years and they are very dedicated. There are just not that many people,” Pat said.

Karen said Israel has a very nationalistic society. “Once you go through the military you have a strong bond with the military… and probably all your family would have served in the military too. When everyone you know has been through the military,your association with anything that the military does, and your willingness to defend its actions gets increased,” Karen said.

Peace and settlement: Possible or far from Possible?

1) With middle-east support, can Palestine get statehood?

Egypt is the most highly populated Arab country and has the greatest influence in Middle-East.

“Over the past 30 years during Mubarak, the direction was to generally follow what US said. Palestinians had limited access to Egypt through the Egyptian-Gaza border But in March 2010 after the revolution, the barriers were removed Palestinians could travel freely between Gaza and Egypt,” Khater said.

Khater said the only time that the MiddleEast countries affected the US policy was during the war in 1973.

“All the Arab countries refused to export oil to the US. How can you really affect someone? By using your resources as your power,” Khater said.

Khater said following that the US became more careful as to not upset the Arab countries.

“If coalition of countries in Middle-East can support Palestine then it can have a huge impact. If Saudi Arabia, the emirates such as Kuwait refuse to export oil to the US, a lot can change,”Khater said. “But those countries are still ruled by dictators who support the US. Those countries need a revolution to change things,” Khater said.

Khater said two years ago when Israel bombed Gaza, there was a huge revolt in the Arab world also. However it was suppressed by the government.

“Now after the revolution and with the new government, Egypt can try to convince Saudi Arabia to help Palestine,” Khater said.

2) Can media bring about peace and settlement?
Karen said she thinks that the way most people feel about the conflict has to do with the way they learn about it from their representatives in the media.

“The media is generally portraying Israel as a victim in a situation not as an aggressor. They fail to mention that Israel gets the financial backing from the US. Quite often the media leaves out some of the basic facts about existence in Palestinian territories right now -their limited mobility, their limited access to education, to resources… medicine,” Karen said.

During the Gaza flotilla raid, nine activists were murdered. Karen said what the US media watcher perceived was that the activists on the boat were actually armed. “They were told that the activists in the boat were armed Islamic terrorists who were heading to Gaza to deliver weapons,” Karen said.

However in reality, she said the IDF (Islamic Defense Forces) raided the boat illegally at the middle of the night after shooting from a helicopter before the activists boarded the boat.
“So the activists armed themselves with chairs, clubs, and kitchen knives to defend themselves. 
No Israeli soldiers were killed and 9 activists were murdered. Many many were injured. All recordings were confiscated and never returned. And any thing that was shown on CNN was Israeli footage. It came from the IDF. Some of them were doctored and IDFhad admitted that it had doctored before giving it out,” Karen said.

“But the initial reaction that it creates when you see soldiers raiding a boat and people have knives; it seems thatthese people weren’t peace activists, they were dangerous people,” Pat said.

The media is supposed to represent impartially the truth or the facts. But our media has been one-sided for so long. Anyone who is interested in this subject is reading reports directly from the people who are experiencing it. People are led to believe certain things through what our media is telling them, then they vote a certain way, they support a certain way,” Pat said.

Pat said, she and her group try to showpeoplewhat really happens between Israel and Palestine.

“And usually the response that we get is that people are shocked. They didn’t realize that there are hundreds of settlements, not a few… and that there are well developed cities with transportation systems, where everybody has a swimming pool. And there you have people in the Palestinian villages holding up plastic soda bottles waiting for it to be filled maybe twice a week with water,” Pat said.

Khater said just few days ago he heard the US media say this small Israel is surrounded by the Arab countries.

“Israel may be small in size but it’s the most militarily powerful country in the Middle East. Israel is more powerful than all middle-east countries combined. And the US makes sure that this is the case,” Khater said.

“Israel has nuclear powers, it’s confirmed… atleast 200 nuclear warheads.But no one talks about this in the media. What media is talking about now is the threat of Iran. And this is the focus of US policy in the last couple of years - how the US can stop Iran from being a nuclear power. And that’s why the media only raise those issues. Some people in the media also have an interest in pushing this agenda,” Khater said.

Khater said Israel doesn’t deny it’s nuclear power. “They say it flat out – it’s a secret we can’t talk about this. They don’t say “yes” or “no”.  And the subject gets closed,” Khater said.

The entire media and the atmosphere shape public opinion. “So when you hear this in the news all the time, you think it must be true. So the public opinion has always been with Israel,” Khater said.

“The other factor is Hollywood,” Khater said. “When you see movies in which great Hollywood actors sympathizewith the Jew point of view, and say how the Muslim terrorists are attacking them. So people will think it must be true.If Paul Newman and John Wayne support Israel, people follow them.”

“The perception about Arabs and Palestinians is they are all Muslims and hence terrorists… They are barbaric, they are terrorists.They want to destroy the little state of Israel,” Khater said.

Pat said only when people become active enough to sign a petition to call their congress person, or write a letterto Obama, things can change.

“When I get the mail saying “Vote for Obama” , I write on it “You will not get my vote  unless you respect Palestinian human rights” and I put it back in that envelope. And I mail it back to them,” Pat said.

She said things will change only when enough people in this country step over that line and be willing to speak “We don’t want our tax dollars going to Israel warcrimes,”

Pat said she thinks if US starts withdrawing its military support from Israel, peace may flourish.

The other day in the G-20 summit Sarkozycalled Netanyahu a liar in a private conversation with President Obama, with him agreeing to it. “So what does this show? And even Dennis Ross who is one of the US advisors on the Middle East just left. Now did he quit or resign? Or President Obama pushed him out? Nobody can tell,” Pat said.

AnnTiffany ,76, is another member of the CNY working towards a Just Peace in Palestine and Israel.

She said she thinks Israel with its resourcesand power, is like a colony of the US.

It’s like the US base in the Middle East. And the reason for our isolation from the entire Arab world at this point,” Tiffany said.

I was in Israel when the towers came down on 9/11… and I still believe that would never have happened if we weren’t allied with Israel the way we are and had alienated the others,” Pat said.

Pat said she thinks that the main issue that upsets the Arab world is the US relationship with Israel and the oppression of the Palestinian people.

“If that goes on we will not resolve our relationship with the Arab world. That’s primary,” Tiffany said.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Journalist’s Guide to Egypt

This is aimed at providing a quick but intensive briefing for a journalist making a visit to Egypt.

With one of the richest cultures and oldest civilizations in the world, Egypt has been the heart of the Arab world and the epicenter of Islamic learning. Egypt has long been known for its pyramids, but surprisingly little is known how they were formed. Being the largest and the most populous country of the Middle East, Egypt has played a major role in Middle Eastern politics in modern times. 

Freedom of Press in Egypt
According to the CIA, Egypt attained independence on 28 February 1922 from UK protectorate status. Then another revolution began on 23 July 1952 that led to a republic being declared on 18 June 1953 and all British troops withdrew on 18 June 1956.
“Gamal Abdel Nasser became the President after the revolution in 1952 and continued till he died in 1970. Then President Anwar Sadat ruled till 1981. Hosni Mubarak took over in 1981 and ruled for thirty years till he was overthrown in 2011 by the protesters. All the three Egyptian presidents were from a military background and they used to exercise unchecked powers and control over people. Nobody was given the right to express opinions. The police used to crack down on civilians unreasonably,“ Mohamed Khater, 54, the former president of the Islamic Society of Central New York, said.
Khater has been a Syracuse resident for about 30 years and he visits Egypt every year. He couldn’t visit his home country this year as all flights were cancelled due to the revolution.
Khater said that Mubarak started to allow some freedom to the press, but with red lines that one couldn’t cross. People were allowed to speak about anybody up till the Prime Minister but nobody could discuss the President.
“Last year in Alexandria, which is the second most populated city after the Capital city Cairo, the police killed a young man in his 20s because he was an internet blogger and he posted allegations against the government and the deplorable state of the youth. The police claimed that he died due to drug use, but later a photograph was obtained which showed his face brutally beaten,” Khater said.
“But now after the revolution, things are different. Press is given unlimited freedom. Anybody can say or publish anything about anyone.” Khater said
“One of the most influential channels is Al Jazeera which started in 1990s. Young people who lacked exposure to places outside Egypt, started to see a different picture than what their state channels and newspapers would show. This realization was one of the reasons that sparked a need to improve the state of the country. And gradually  the resentment found its way into the revolution that happened in January 2011,” Khater said.
Khater said that after the protests people have become more aware and involved in social issues.
Campaigns are held almost every Friday. The government doesn’t stop them anymore… they only say that don’t stop production… and don’t do on a day when there is work,” Khater said.

Following the resignation of President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Defense Minister Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, assumed control of the government.
Egypt has two legislative bodies - the Advisory Council or Majlis al-Shura (Shura Council) that traditionally functions mostly in a consultative role (264 seats) and the People's Assembly or Majlis al-Sha'b (518 seats).
Al-Geel, Democratic Peace Party, Nasserist Party, National Democratic Party or NDP, National Progressive Unionist Grouping or Tagammu, New Wafd Party or NWP, Social Justice Party and Tomorrow Party are some of the prominent parties which are vying for seats in the next election.
According to the CIA, “Despite a constitutional ban against religious-based parties and political activity, the technically illegal Muslim Brotherhood constitutes Egypt's most potentially significant political opposition. President Mubarak has alternated between tolerating limited political activity by the Brotherhood and blocking its influence.”
“Before the protests, President Hosni Mubarak was in control of almost everything. National Democratic Party (NDA) was in control of about 90% of the parliament.The President led the NDA and exercise complete autocracy. But now this is no longer true,” Khater said.
“These uprisings in 2011 were not the result of religious reasons but suppression of political participation and freedom of speech, uncontrolled corruption, privileged ruling class controlling all aspects of the society, state of emergency laws, police brutality, lack of free elections, social inequities, a wide gap between the rich and the poor, high unemployment, rising food prices, low minimum wage and little hope for a bright future for the youth,” Khater said.
“You would see people in some areas live in palaces not just nice villas while other live in shacks. And they are not second class citizens … They are not from a different clan … They are just regular people,” Khater said.
Khater said the reason for the wide disparity between haves and have nots was the widespread corruption. Most of the well-off people had political connections and so they had illegal access to money, property and other benefits.
“One guy, who probably became the third or fourth richest person in the country, owned a steel factory. He started from nowhere but made political connections and was able to climb his way to the top. But now he is in jail. He is Ahmed Ezz from Ezz steel industries,” Khater said.
“Even the head of the parliament, the head of the people’s assembly, and many more are in jail. The interior minister, for instance, has already got a sentence of 12 years and he is waiting for other trials… because they all are corrupt,” Khater said.
Khater said that now after the protests no one can dare embezzle funds. “Things are at a standstill… People don’t know where the country is going, what kind of government will take over. But they are going to keep the same political structure although they have changed some articles of the constitution,” Khater said.
Khater expects the election to happen in November this year. “When the military took over in February, they said they will be in power for six months only and after that they will transfer power to a civilian government… but for practical reasons, it’s not feasible. We don’t have the structure for a civilian government,” Khater said.
“There are so many parties, around 20 of them. But any party that succeeds it has to have an Islamic basis and value. Egypt is not going to be a secular country. But also not autocracy... It will be somewhere in the middle,” Khater said.
Khater said it may take 10-12 years to rebuild the country.
The Ancient Egyptian civilization
“The Egyptian civilization is the first recorded one in the world history. It started 7000 years ago, around 5000 BC. The pyramid of course… everyone knows. But how the pyramids were built, we still don’t know,” Khater said.
“The Egyptian civilization built up around the Nile. Egypt is mostly a dessert and the Nile is the bloodline of Egyptians… Nile is the reason why it’s fertile on some parts of Egypt. Sometimes you say, there’s something like the pyramids we don’t know how they did it… and there are some things that later became a model for things that came after – such as the first irrigation system built by the Egyptian civilization. That civilization continued till around 1000-1500 BC and then moved to different places around the area,” Khater said.

With around 82 million of population, Egypt has mostly Muslims and just about 10% Christians.
“There are incidents of fighting between Muslims and Christians… mostly in poor and less educated areas which can get easily influenced and become extremists. They don’t understand that even in the Quran there’s pluralism. That god allows all religions to exist,” Khater said.
“A Christian store owner would not sell goods to a Muslim. A Muslim person would say he will only help other Muslim. This does happen even now but it’s not prevalent,” Khater said.
“And people say the Christians are oppressed in Egypt… the answer is that in the Forbes list of billionaires, there are three from Egypt and they are all Christians, and not Muslims. This doesn’t mean all the Christians are rich… No they are not. Not all the Muslims are rich either. It just means that if you want to make billions of money, your religion won’t be a barrier,” Khater said.
Cultural Significance
“Sometimes you hear similar music in different Arab countries. The Arabic music evolved over the years in the middle east area in Egypt,” Khater said.
“Before 30 years, there were no movies in the Arab countries, other than the ones coming from Egypt. All the television talent, soap operas were exported to other Arab countries from Egypt. And that’s true even now… the Egyptian cinemas and theatre and the cultural life… is much more prevalent than any other Arab country,” Khater said.
Khater said the reason behind the Egyptian dominance in in Arab culture is that the Egyptian cinema is the oldest among Arab countries; it started around 1910s and being the most populated Arab country, theatre and art found a large audience.
“Nothing changed in the Egyptian culture after the protests. Some things will never change… no matter what the government is. You can’t take their culture away from them. Moreover Egypt will never be ruled by an Islamic autocratic regime… Egypt will never be like Iran or Saudi Arabia. Because people in Egypt are just different. They want their freedom, they want to be Muslims or Christians… they also want to go out to movies… they want their theatre… they want to go to play, sing or dance,” Khater said.
Regional Importance
“Because of the revolution started in 1952 by Nasser, which was almost the first revolution, in the area…Nasser wanted a united Arab republic… “One voice for the Arab” was his dream… it was never materialized but he was always trying to export the revolution… export “help” – politically, financial and help with people - from egypt to other Arab countries. Egypt had a huge manpower and population more than any other country. There were just people from Egypt going everywhere,” Khater said.

“All Middle East countries speak Arabic… but they have a dialect… so there’s an Egyptian dialect which is understood everywhere in the Arab world… because of the effect of cinemas and culture, singers, engineer, doctors, teachers in Egypt who travelled to overseas starting from 1950s,” Khater said.
The Azhar University in Cairo is the chief centre of Arabic literature and Islamic learning in the world. People from Azhar University go overseas to spread the Islamic knowledge to other imams (religious workers) and people.
Education and Unemployment
According to CIA, the literacy rate is high 71.4% (83% for males and 59.4% in females).
“We definitely have many people going to universities for education… it’s both good and bad. Good because they are getting educated and bad because there are no jobs for them. Unemployment rate its worse at this point, around 24.8% for youth… It turned worse after the protests as some people who owned companies have fled the country. Some are in jail waiting for trials,” Khater said.
“You don’t have a real future in Egypt as a young person… you are going to get a job that will barely cover your living expenses. One-third of Egyptian population is less than 25 years of age. The youth population is high and so the demand for jobs is very high.”
“Whichever government comes, they will face the huge problem of unemployment. Everyone now expects with the new government, the living standard of a common man would improve. Else they will look at themselves after a year and wonder ‘What did this revolution do to us. My life is still the same and maybe even worse’,” Khater said. 
Khater expects things to get worse before it gets better. “But in the long run, I think its definitely going in the direction it should be,” he said.
Mina Fakhouri, 27, left Egypt and came to the US in June 2006 to pursue his education and doesn’t plan to go back.
“There are no jobs in Egypt. Many young educated people are working in cafeteria on the streets. With a Christian name, no muslim would offer me a job in Egypt. So more and more Christians are leaving the country,” he said.
Fakhouri said that people in Egypt are quite conservative. “They will be either with you or against you. They are not liberal or understanding.”
According to the CIA, in the northeast side of the African continent, Egypt is bisected by the highly fertile Nile valley, where most economic activity takes place.
Egypt ranks 27 in its GDP compared to the rest of the world and ranks 68 in its GDP growth rate.
“Oil, Egyptian textiles, cotton are the main sources of revenue for Egypt, with textiles being the main industry. Egypt also has Suez Canal that brings a lot of revenue. The tourism industry is also very developed. Pyramids, temples and red sea. It’s not of the best places in the world for divers,” Khater said.
“The economy now is not in good shape. People say that it’s the price of freedom.”
International significance
“The allies and enemies of Egypt changed over the last several years. During the revolution of 1952, President Nasser tried to align Egypt with the Americans.  In the 1950s, Egypt approached the World Bank to receive funding for a dam on the river Nile to produce electricity. However they were denied,” Khater said.
“So they asked Russia and they agreed to give Egypt the money and support in building the dam in Egypt. The influence of Russia continued for the whole period in up until early 70s. So for 12 years there was no communication at all between Egypt and US. Everything was run by the Russians,” Khater said.
“However after 1973, President Sadat was more pro-western. He pushed Egypt to the American side. He opened up the country for foreign investment. This is when people started having alliances with people outside Europe and US.“
Tips on travel and access 

There are direct flights from the US to Egypt. “Egypt Air goes directly to Cairo. Else American, united, delta airlines have connections to Cairo.” Khater said.
Khater said that Cairo is the safest city to live in. For a journalist, he said it will be best if he/she has a local contact. If not, the journalist should contact the Egyptian Association of Journalists for the next steps.
The average stay in an Egyptian hotel would amount to USD 60-70.
Khater said that with their newly found freedom, Egyptians would be ready to freely give information to journalists. In order to ensure safety, it is advisable to obtain information about the cities where the journalist wishes to travel. One should also try to move in groups rather than being alone to unknown places.

Biases of Mohamed Khater
“I have no influence or interest towards any political party. I like some more than others. I like the center party. It’s a mix of islamic and non-Islamic values.”
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