Category Archives: Politics

The other side of the conflict: conversing with a Russian friend

 

Nadia's photo

I FIRST MET Nadia in the city of Toronto during the summer of 2008. Back then the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were being occupied by Russian troops and today, six years later, Russia is being accused of invading Eastern Ukraine. During the time Nadia and I shared in Canada, we discussed the Russo-Georgian war and many other related topics over lunch. I was interested in hearing her perspective on the current crisis.

I found her point of view particularly interesting not only because she is a Russian citizen who is currently living in the country, also because being fluent in English and Chinese as she is, she has worked and studied in China, Canada and South Africa, among other places. In other words, few people understand the West and the East the way she does.

First of all, I would like to know whether you consider you are receiving proper information from your government regarding the conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s participation in it.

– I do believe that during a war no one actually receives proper information. We all only see what our governments want us to see and that’s not something exclusive to Russian society. The news that you watch in Spain and the news that I watch in Russia are totally different. And how you and I perceive the news is also different. For you, as well as for the greater part of the world, it is ‘yet another conflict’ taking place in some remote country. For me, as well as for most Russians, it is a war in which my friends and relatives die and get hurt. I do take it personally, and so it is hard to keep calm and objective.

The Western world portrays Russia as an invader. On your TV screens you can see Russian troops and military forces all over Ukraine. We in Russia see the war between Ukrainian national forces and forces of the Ukrainian opposition, in which many ethnic Russians die or get hurt and they are our relatives, or our friends, or our friends’ relatives. I cannot say that politics is one of my strong points so my understanding of what is happening is very limited, but the general idea of what I, as an average Russian, would get from the news here is that the current Ukrainian government is rather confused and basically does not know what to do next; that Russia is trying her best to help reconcile the two parts of the conflict; and that European and American news lie.

Now, which news source is really lying? I don’t know. And you don’t know. And I don’t think we will ever know. I think in such circumstances one should not believe any mass media since during a war everybody lies.

Back in July, the USA and the EU imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Russia in response to her involvement in Ukraine. The Russian government retaliated banning certain imports from those countries who took part in the sanctions. Have these measures affected your everyday life?

To be honest, not really. But it does not mean that all Russians are totally okay with the change. There might be somebody who is suffering because they cannot buy their favourite sort of Dutch pears any more. I would say there are many factors to be considered in this regard, starting with one’s geographical location and finishing with one’s income level. There was a big discussion regarding these sanctions and there were different opinions on the matter.  And I, as well as many Russians I know, believe these sanctions are fair in an “eye for eye” view of things.

Going back to the negative effect it might have had, my opinion is based on my personal experience. I personally have not experienced any difficulties or inconveniences caused by these sanctions. However, I live in the far East of the country and it is really, really far out: an 8 hour flight away from Moscow. We never had most of these banned imports anyway. In that region nothing changed. A couple of weeks ago I visited my friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg and one of them said that some fish became more expensive. But in general, I don’t think these sanctions have had a major effect on our lives.

What is your opinion, and what would you say is the general opinion where you are, regarding Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula?

I really do not see anything negative in this. And I do not think there are many Russians who would be unhappy about it. You must also remember that we never really perceived Ukraine as a foreign country, there is so much history and blood relations that connect Russia and Ukraine, especially Crimea and Sevastopol. The population in this region is mostly Russian; they willingly became part of Russia so I cannot see anything wrong with it.

While I’m writing these lines my best friend is enjoying her holidays in Crimea and she says it is great there and people are happy. No one was killed in the process of this very episode of the crisis and I would say that all parties involved are actually happy about how it all was resolved. The American government was not very happy though. I came across a very interesting article on the Internet in which the author could not understand the American government’s involvement in this Crimean issue. He said it was nearly ridiculous that the USA would interfere, as ridiculous as it would be if a region of Mexico voted to become part of the USA and Russians would interfere. And I agree with that. I think the fact that the rest of the world has a problem with recognising Crimea and Sevastopol as part of Russia responds merely to political reasons. For me, this region was never truly separated from Russia, if you look at its people throughout history.

Do you consider the pro-Russian rebels who are currently fighting in Donetsk and other parts of Eastern Ukraine as rightful Russian citizens who should be given the chance to join the country?

Yes, because the people of Ukraine and Russia are historically connected and many of us have relatives and friends in Ukraine and naturally vice versa. Given the amount of propaganda and hatred towards Russians that is being cultivated in Ukraine – no matter how the crisis would be resolved – I do not think that any Ukrainian born Russian or any person with a Russian surname would have a peaceful life in Ukraine. It does feel wrong and sorrowful to me but I do not think that there is anything that could be done to change that.

What is happening now has been happening for so long and has become so complicated that no one can give a reasonable explanation to it or predict how and when it will all end. All this will cause some sort of discrimination, or even a genocide in the long term, making it impossible for Russians -or as you call them pro-Russians- to live in Ukraine. And to answer your question, there are hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees in Russia now. And Russia will give a new home to every person from Ukraine who wishes to have one. And I think that is right, I think that is human.

Valentina Melnikova, president of “The Association of Mothers of Russian Soldiers”, estimates there are currently between 7000 and 8000 Russians fighting on Ukrainian soil. Have you heard of someone you know who’s been deployed there? What do you think about this sort of military involvement? Is it Russia’s duty to protect the rebels in Ukraine?

I don’t know of anyone who is currently fighting in Ukraine.  You never know what truth is so I would not take any current estimation as factual. The Internet is flooded with various rumours regarding Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine but I would not like to repeat the rumours: I believe one can only trust something he or she has personally experienced when it comes to war.

What do I think about this sort of military involvement? It is understandable for me if Russian people would want to go and fight for their families and friends who live in Ukraine. But as any sensible person, I think this war should stop. I think it should have never been started in the first place. It has always been beyond my understanding why people should kill people. Any war is wrong, but this particular conflict feels so wrong that I can hardly believe it is all really happening. I do not understand why people, regardless of their nationality, must pay with their lives and the lives of their loved ones for mistakes made by a group of greedy politicians.

The conflict was triggered by the violent protests that took place in Kiev last February, which managed to overthrow the government in what many viewed simply as a coup d’état fueled by the West. Would you say the USA and the EU are being somehow hypocritical denouncing other countries’ involvement in the region while supporting coups worldwide whenever they suit their interests?

I really do not feel that my knowledge of politics is anywhere close to judge such things. As I see it, every  government is hypocritical when they are trying to protect their interests. I think it is important for us to remember it. Our governments are hypocritical, the news that we watch is -if I may say so- ‘photo shopped’ according to our governments’ interests. And one of the negative side effects of this informational war is how we, people from different countries, let these things change our perception of each other.

I was on an international flight a week ago and there was a man from a Western country who sat next to me. There was a friendly chat between the two of us that lasted for a few minutes until I said I was Russian. After that this man just stopped talking to me, he turned away and acted as if I didn’t exist for the rest of the flight. Somehow it made me feel responsible for what my government does, or to be more precise, for what my government does according to his government’s news. I know I deviated from the question, but I feel it is important to say that we should not judge people on the basis of where they come from –  especially in such a tense international environment. We should not become victims of our governments’ hypocrisy.

Do you think the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine were at risk of being violated or damaged after the former Ukrainian government was overthrown?

I do believe so. And I do believe that ethnic Russians in Ukraine will not be able to live there peacefully.

Should the Ukrainian regions inhabited by a majority of ethnic Russians be granted the opportunity to join Russia the way Crimea did?

It is another question I feel uncomfortable answering because of my very weak political background. On one hand, if these regions joined Russia the way Crimea did, it might cause a second wave of sanctions and unhappy American and EU politicians, which would make this crisis even more complicated and reduce the chances for a peaceful settlement in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, it seems more than right to give Russians born in Ukraine an opportunity to live in Russia, to live peacefully with their loved ones in a country where they feel at home and are not hated for being of Russian descent.

 

To end this interview, I would like to briefly discuss with you a topic which has been pretty controversial among sectors of European and American societies. That is no other than Russia’s law against gay propaganda. I recently watched a documentary in which many people from all corners of Russian society publicly supported the law and advocated the need to protect children against inappropriate content and confusion. What are your thoughts on this measure? In the past Spanish society was probably more careful about the content children were exposed to. Now I think it is not far-fetched to say Spanish media exposes children to all kinds of violent and sexual content throughout the day. You have been to several Western countries; would you say our governments are becoming too permissive?

I do not think that media content in Western countries is much different to Russian media. Actually it is all the same TV shows, programmes and series that we watch. Though we do have this age restriction now in movie theatres, you know all those 12+ or 18+ markers that are shown before the movie begins.  I personally find them quite useless. I mean if a 15-year old wants to watch an 18+ movie, he’ll do it no matter what newly established censorship says. And I cannot say that governments are becoming too permissive about these things. It is just the amount of 18+ content today is so huge and availability of any information is so wide that no government will be able to control it. I think any restriction in a modern world is quite useless because today’s children are born with tablets in their hands. It is the parents’ duty to protect their children from all sorts of scenes they may find harmful that are shown on TV or available on YouTube.

As for gay propaganda and that documentary you watched, Russia historically is quite a traditional society and I have to agree that in general Russia’s tolerance level is quite limited nowadays. I think it has a lot to do with the Soviet times, when people went fanatical about morality and words like “gay” or “lesbian” were whispered in disgust. I frankly believe my mother did not even know such words before American movies were allowed on TV. But today things are changing, many people are starting to see it differently and maybe in some 200 years they will even allow gay unions in Russia.  I am sure that on that documentary you watched it was all 40+ 50+ people who were supportive of this law. Younger generations, at least in many cases, are not as traditional and if the director of that documentary had wanted to show Russians that support gay couples he or she would have easily found them in all corners as well. It is again, two sides of the same coin.

-Thank you very much Nadia for your insight. It has been a pleasure speaking with you again.

-The pleasure has been all mine.

 

By Alberto Aberasturi.

 

 

Palestine and Israel – has Europe sided with the executioners?


IT HARDLY COMES as a surprise when European and other Western countries in general fail to oppose the destructive use of force by one state against another. It does, after all, feed into the same reasoning people once used to justify colonialism: those with power should use it, simply because they can. The European powers and Ireland all abstained from voting this week on a UN Resolution to conduct an inquiry into the alleged war crimes taking place through what has been translated into English as “Operation Protective Edge” (although some sources suggest that a more accurate translation denotes a more offensive nature – “Operation Mighty Cliff”) – an ongoing military assault on Palestine by Israel, resulting in the deaths of 697 Palestinian civilians (256 of whom were women and children).

Let us make no mistake – war crimes have been inflicted by both Hamas and the Israeli state on one another. However, in the context of Palestine and Israel, we see a nation with a vastly superior military capacity reacting to provocations (sometimes intentional, sometimes inadvertent, and sometimes merely perceived) with a disproportionate level of force. Throughout this recent battle, the damage and loss of life on the Palestinian side substantially dwarfs the loss suffered by Israel – standing, on July 23rd, at 32 IDF soldiers and 2 civilians) with three quarters of the over 700 Palestinian fatalities (and growing) being civilians. Figures of those injured in Gaza exceed 4000.

Even former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright – a woman that once gave her whole-hearted support to the U.S blockade on Iraq – has criticized Israel’s ‘disproportionate military response in Gaza’. The conflict can be seen in almost an infinite number of lights – how we choose to view it depends entirely upon the sources we consult and the interpretations we believe.

However, when a state inflicts a destructive and inhumane level of force on the civilians of another region, our choice perhaps becomes clearer. As Howard Zinn once said, “in a world of executioners and victims, it is the job of thinking people not to side with the executioners”. Whatever Israel’s justifications for its actions are, and however valid they may be, we (as objective third parties) should be on one side and one side only: the side of humanity. It is not necessarily our position (as third-party bystanders) in this age-old conflict to be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. But when confronted with devastating loss of life and unspeakable war crimes, we must choose the side of humanity and take action to put an end to the forces that threaten it. If we are to take at face value the reasoning of the countries that abstained from voting on the UN Resolution, then we could accept that they held reservations due to the inquiry’s lack of impartiality. They believed the inquiry’s wording was heavily biased against Israel before any investigation had actually taken place.

Considering both Hamas’ and Israel’s role in the current segment of conflict, this would seem fair. However, many sources claim that there was nothing in the language of the Resolution to exclude Hamas from investigation . An explicit statement in the Resolution assuring Hamas would also be under scrutiny would not have hurt, of course. However, its absence does not seem sufficient to exclude any inquiry at all from taking place (particularly given the scale and nature of the crimes committed). Thus, the reasoning of the European and Western countries in withholding their support might better be explained by other factors.

Israel is a power to which Europe and the West can relate. In addition to its Western-friendly attitude and economy, its current position is one that might bring a touch of nostalgia to the diplomatic tables of Europe. Responding to resistance in occupied territories with brutal, debilitating force is a familiar trend in history textbooks. It was a rationale that characterised European powers in their imperialist and colonialist pursuits in the rest of the world. It is the same logic often deployed by habitual abusers: killing a fly with a sledgehammer is acceptable, so long as you possess a sledgehammer.

This line of reasoning fits well into a natural-selection view of the world – the fittest will survive, and the fittest deserve to survive. However, as independently thinking people, we should perhaps rise above the primitive nature of this reasoning. As laypeople not encumbered by national and historic prejudices to certain modes and habits of behaviour, we should begin attempting to develop a healthier and more balanced mentality towards excessive exertion of military force. We should also condemn Europe’s abstention from the vote on the inquiry (regardless of the fact that its indifference failed to stop the inquiry from launching forward).

Following the bloody and bitter history of colonialism and imperialism, Europe’s attitude towards this kind of dynamic should be one of shame, remembrance and regret, rather than one of implicit endorsement. After all, as Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The bitter conflict in which the region has been embroiled for essentially as long as history can remember rages on – and it is unclear how exactly it will continue to unfold. Marwan Bishara of Aljazeera makes a startling observation: that “not one great power possessing superior firepower has won a war against a weaker, less organized, less professional resistance against occupation”.

However, in comparing the Israel-Palestine conflict to this fact, he may have underestimated Israel’s stake in the situation. Throughout history, most colonial powers did not fight their uprisings on home turf and thus had substantially less skin in the game. Israel, on the other hand, has everything to gain or lose in this conflict.

Can weak truly trump strong when both sides are fighting for all their lives? It remains to be seen.

Written by Sahar Shah
Picture Credit: Leftmedia

Picking the wound of Brazil’s dire prison system

BRAZILIAN PRISONS ARE an out-dated deposit for human beings, and imprisonment has more to do with persecution than crime rates. With arbitrary arrests that use the World Cup as excuse, the country re-opens the issue.

 The 7×1 by Germany is the smallest reason why Brazilians should be embarrassed. In the final weekend of the World Cup, a legal anomaly made national news: 60 preventive arrests were carried out using “possible future crimes” against protesters, family members and even guests present in their homes at the time.  By violating the constitutional principle that all are innocent until proven guilty, it was considered by some as an authoritarian measure. However, the ongoing issue dug into a larger problem: the abysmal conditions of the country’s penal system. Without going to trial and no jail to be held, those arrested were taken to Bangú Prison (Rio de Janeiro), one of the most feared penitentiary complexes in the country.

Debate about the national justice system is increasingly necessary. Easy solutions have been launched aimlessly, but mostly boil down to increasing violence against the offender, making more arrests, removing rights referred to as privileges and extending penalties. ​But being tough on crime ignores certain vulnerabilities and is based on a series of flawed assumptions.

​Demographics

Discussing crime often involves the claim that there are not enough prisons in the country; there are too many laws that
protect criminals; penal age should be lowered; and, occasionally, that the right to a fair trial is “kindness towards the bad guy”. ​However, statistics issued by the InfoPen database and the National Council of Justice (CNJ) point out that the lack of arrests is simply not real. Moreover, data suggests that ​the inhuman​ conditions means that, instead of resocializing, penitentiaries actually “breed” criminals.​

In 2012, InfoPen indicated a prison population of 548 thousand inmates. The number presented by Depen (National Penitentiary Department) is 563.7 thousand. Of these, 195 thousand are on temporary situation, that is, those who – like the protestors – have not yet been convicted and should not be imprisoned. There are another 22 thousand inmates which, according to CNJ, have already served their sentences and should have been released. In other words: almost 40% of Brazilian inmates should not be in prison in the first place.​

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A task force led by CNJ in 2011 spelled out the problems that accompany this scenario. Between manning and excessive sentences, there is unnecessary suffering caused by the poor conditions, such as diseases and forced labour, not established by court. According to official data processed by Thiago Reis and Clara Velasco for the G1 news portal, there is a deficit of 200.2 thousand vacancies, considering the system is able to handle only 363.5 thousand people. Although claims of insufficient arrests exist, the number of prisoners in Brazil has grown exponentially over the past 20 years, from 126 thousand to nearly 564 thousand imprisoned between 1993 and 2013.

So what does this mean, in global terms? Brazil has the fourth largest prison population in the world, only behind US (2 million prisoners), China (1.6 million prisoners) and Russia (780 thousand). This cannot be a good indicator, as  two of these are authoritarian regimes, the remainder being a largely privatized system with the largest penal population on the planet. It is worth mentioning the US maintains life imprisonment for recidivates (recurring offenders) in many states, in addition to a privatised system that strengthens lobbying to expand the use of deprivation of freedom instead of alternative punishment. “The model is outdated”, argues Humberto Fabretti, professor of criminal law and criminology at the Mackenzie Presbyterian University, in a column in Jornal do Brasil. “No one seems aware of the paradox that you want to re-socialize somebody away from society,” he says.

Inspections performed by the National Council of Public Prosecutors (CNMP), entity responsible for investigating abuses by public bodies, revealed that prisons serve as schools for crime. Those charged with minor felonies receive the same treatment as those accused of heinous crimes. According to the agency, out of the 1.598 prisons to receive the inspection, 79% mix temporary and definitive prisoners; 67% mix people who are serving sentences in different regimes (open, semi-open, closed); and almost 78% mix first-time and repeat offenders. In 68% of the sites, there is no separation by dangerousness or according to the offense committed. In 65%, gang members are not separated.

 

Imprisonment, violence and socialization

The treatment of prisoners is often uneven. In the prison of Grajaú, “imprisoned employees” took over administrative routines, while in Pavuna (both in Rio de Janeiro), “internal security” has been passed on to the detainees as a measure to save investments on prison guards. In both cases, as in many other unofficial agreements between staff and prisoners, the “employees” received perks that included air-conditioning, refrigerators and televisions, while the rest of prisoners huddled in overcrowded and filthy cells.

Last May, Amnesty International released the global campaign “Stop Torture”, result from a survey of countries where torture remains as a State practice. In Brazil, about 80% of the population is afraid of being arrested and tortured. Alexandre Ciconello, chairperson for the NGO, called state governments’ discourse on the practice “hypocritical”. “Some truly embrace torture as policy, others make the speech that are against torture, but in practice do not restrain it, or, when they do, it is in a very shy way”, he stated. In response, José Eduardo Cardozo, justice minister since 2011, admitted that the prison system in the country is “on an almost medieval situation.”

As pointed out by the joint effort by CNJ, the treatment of prisoners in Brazil involves a series systematized acts of violence that often make the rehabilitation of the inmate impossible. Governmental disregard towards prisoners paved the way for prisons to become the playfield of organized crime groups One such group is the infamous Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC); dealing in drugs, prostitution and kidnappings, coordinating the action from inside jail, the PCC was responsible for a series of 250 attacks in 2006, that left 128 dead – since then, the group has been involved in multiple prisoner rebellions.

Often, newbies are required to join one of the gangs formed inside the detention facility in exchange for a minimum level of security, not offered by the state. In numbers: there were at least 218 killings last year alone. Official reports by the prison system represent the average of one death every two days. Frequent cases of violence against detainees include beatings, torture and even executions, both by prison officers and criminal factions. The intent is to intimidate the rest of the prisoners through example. Sexual abuse and rape against inmates occur, often in group.

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Even granted benefits can be delivered in a twisted fashion. Although conjugal (sexual) visits are allowed, this sometimes means harassment and intimidation against partners. In feminine facilities in particular, the deprivation of medical treatment is shocking, with inmates being handcuffed in the postpartum and prolonged isolation schemes are handed out without justifiable cause. Cells designed for four people frequently harbour fifteen. They are unventilated, subjected to excessive heat and painful cold, depending on season and region. Inmates sleep crammed on the floor, often filthy, many times over the hole that serves as a toilet. All problems which, admittedly, are not restricted to Brazil.

Unsanitary hygiene conditions are standard, not the exception. So is the lack of health material. In some cases, the task force encountered wards in which medication expired more than five months before. Rats and cockroaches are regular company. Again, female prisons scare: one report says prisoners were using pieces of bread as tampons. It is also common that these cells, already inadequate for adults, also house their small children. According to a 2005 report by the University of Brasilia, there were 291 children living inside prisons – and while the CNJ didn’t supply a precise number, it’s 2013 report indicates the situation has worsened since then.

Still, population calls for a even more grotesque treatment due to a couple of factors. First, there is dehumanization of the offender. Secondly because the problem of repeated felonies – 70% for juvenile offenders (one of the largest in the world) and “mere” 50% for adults – is not usually seen as related to how he was brutalized in prison. Third, neither to how he is marginalized from society on release. And this comes from how inmates and criminals are portrayed in public imagination.

Social stigma

The argument to justify violence against the convict is very simplistic: it is deserved because of the people he harmed. But this is pretty emblematic if considered the actual felonies. There is a fixed idea that every criminal is violent, dangerous, irredeemable and, therefore, deserves abject violence. However, CNJ points that 65% of Brazilian inmates have not committed violent crimes – and, as mentioned earlier, nearly 200 thousand of them have not even been to court.

The situation is little different with female detainees: two thirds of the female prison population were arrested for drug related offenses, and according to Claúdia Priscila – director of a documentary about women in prison – these are often lesser offenses. “They generally play a secondary role in the drug trade, and do not represent a threat to society”, she explained to brazilian website PortoCultura. They often take the blame so to spare their partners from being charged. The end result of these arrests, she claims, are broken families.

Both in news media and in the entertainment industry, social factors of crime are ignored. The problem in reduced from a complex social factor to a mere question of character and personality. It is not social policies, lack of opportunities, drug addiction, discrimination or the parallel state formed in disadvantaged communities that leads young people in vulnerable situations to crime. It is “bad blood”; “lack of character”; “the easy way to get ahead”.

Low educational levels should, by law, be compensated while serving time. Education in prison is a constitutional right, and one of the cornerstones of the rehabilitation process. However, only 8.6% of prisoners are included in educational programs, and only a fifth of them work legally during the period, in apprenticeship programmes. In Brazil, every three worked days deduce one day from the total due time, and any remuneration is passed on to the detainee’s family.

Outside prison, being a former convict is synonymous with unemployment, as some employers ask for the criminal record of potential candidates. Many consider correct not hire ex-cons, because of believed security risks. The somewhat obvious result is poverty. According to the CNJ, 95% of prisoners are poor or very poor, mostly coming from favelas and illegal occupations – where government bodies are absent, except for episodes of repression. Of these, 65% have not completed primary education, which severely limits integration to the labour market and the possibility of livelihood.

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What comes next

Aggravation is yet to come. Recently, Congresswoman Antônia Lúcia, from the Social Christian Party, has proposed an amendment to the constitution, which eliminates financial support granted to the families of inmates who have contributed to social security through taxes. The aid was established in 1988 in order to cover inmate’s children basic necessities. However, she argues this “promotes banditry”, suggesting it would be better to leave out in the open the family as an explicit additional punishment. Although this means another violation of the Constitution, by consciously harming innocents for crimes of others (in this case, the father or mother).

She argues that the aid would be passed on to the victim, who already receives compensation from the defendant and the State on demand. Support comes from the increasingly common phenomena: since the beginning of the year, there has been over 45 successful lynching attempts by organized civilian mobs dedicated to vigilante justice. More than 300 hundred attempted attacks have also been registered by police forces. In most cases, no evidence other than hearsay existed against the victims.

For all such instances, Fabretti urges caution. “The prisoners are entitled to fundamental rights, and sooner or later they return to society”. He also poses a reflection: “The question that arises is in which shape we want them back?”

 

 

Written By:

Pedro Leal is a freelance journalist, currently based in Wales. He wrote on human rights and social issues for Brazilian newspapers and news sites, working with minority rights and social inequality.

Scheila Silveira lives in the Brazil-Germany skybridge. She is a public affairs specialist working with sustainability, corporate social responsibility and social management.

Photo Credits: Jack Two, Osvaldoeaf, Blog do Milton Jung, Tanozzo

 

Facebook: Consumerism or community?

Kris Olin

Facebook recently announced a significant change to its advertising policy which means that soon they will be able to track users’ browsing habits outside of Facebook. This activity will be monitored through the use of the ‘like’ buttons now found almost universally on websites across the web.

Importantly, even if users do not click on a ‘like’ icon, that site will still record a visit if they are still logged into Facebook. The most obvious issue from this change regards the egregious infringements of privacy- as well as tracking and analysing activity within Facebook, users’ online history will be collated and processed by powerful computers scattered across the world.

This news was announced with a surprising indifference across the UK media. Perhaps the recent revelations of mass surveillance of the population by British and American government intelligence agencies de-sensitised people to the concept of their private lives being systematically spied on and analysed in distant, anonymous data centres.

The small level of public anger over this change has mainly been directed at privacy issues. These are important, but I think what is equally concerning is the desired end result: more extensive targeted-advertising. This may seem like a rather niche issue; targeted advertising from user tracking is already used by Facebook – mainly based on what users’ “likes” are – and other online giants such as Google and Twitter. But it is not a trivial matter; firstly its widespread use of course does not justify its prevalence. And more importantly, it illustrates how Facebook is providing a service which is increasingly an uncomfortable blend of public and corporate life.

Facebook makes most of its revenue by acting as a marketing platform for companies- they get to share this platform with over a billion users from around the world. For many of these people Facebook acts a significant extension of their social lives. It is indeed a great way to share photos and links, or plan gatherings and parties. But, there is a cost to using the service, which is the exposure to incessant adverts trying to sell you products or services that you have never needed.

Facebook has never been a public good but in many ways it is treated like one. The general complacency about the nature of the service has helped to normalise the notion that at all times our lives should be peppered with commercial messages.

Advertising is nothing new, but never before have corporations had this level of intimacy with consumers’ private lives. Television –the most important distributor of commercials  in recent decades –is of course saturated with consumerism but which mainly accompanies video entertainment. With social media, consumerism is now being mixed with our social lives in unprecedented ways. For example the Facebook ‘news feed’ contains advertisements that are integrated among the endless personal information uploaded by a multitude of friends. And now, the personal browsing history of Facebook users will be mercilessly exploited to provide tailored adverts- the online lives of those hundreds of millions who use it will be almost totally commercialised.

This is great news for online businesses but bad news for the integrity of our personal lives, as they become increasingly dominated by consumerism- a dangerous ideology that has helped cause the environmental emergency we’re in and desecrates cultures into mere shopping preferences.

Words by Andrew Knowles

Picture credit: Kris Olin

Campaigning and comedy collide for Scottish Independence

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POLITICAL APATHY CAN be attributed to many things. A lack of trust in politicians; a disillusioned, disenfranchised electorate; a breakdown between government and citizen.

That, and politics can be really fucking boring.

Regardless of the side you’re on, you have to hand it to the impending independence referendum in Scotland: the subject does spice up a normally bland dish of abstract policy, nonsensical political jargon and stressed, peaky looking politicians who (particularly in Scotland) are about as well known and relevant to the general public as the minor members of Blazin’ Squad.

That said, even the most patriotic or politicized  within the debate can’t help but stifle a wee yawn when it comes to the inane semantics of the subject at hand. As massive a decision as this is, those taking it most seriously can admit (even just to themselves) that they don’t exactly relish the thought of flicking through a 670 page ‘mission statement’ that still only covers half of the debate. They’ll do it, of course, but lets not pretend to enjoy it.

(“Oh yeah, the Referendum White Paper? I’d love to read it. Just send it to my fax” But you don’t have a fax machine Rachel, it’s 2014. “…Send it to my fax.”)

It is with this in mind that the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) organized some light comedic relief for its canvassers, for Yes voters and for those still undecided, in the fundraiser with The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh: “Stand Up for Independence”.

Attending the show last night, the question for me was: can comedy and campaigning go well together? If so, is it actually funny?

 

Chatting before the show begins, event organizer Stuart Rodger is more focused on the well being of the canvassers than the quality of the acts, or even the funds raised. He described how he hoped the show will be a bit of a ‘morale boost’ for RIC campaigners this far along on the road to September 18th. Working fiercely in spreading the message of the group through the wider population can be exhausting and often a little disheartening, and so the show was organized predominantly as a way to blow off some steam and laugh “at both sides of the debate”. Whatever the motive, he’s clearly succeeded in attracting a crowd: the room is packed out, with many squashed together at the back – standing for the night.

The lights dim and the show begins. All the acts, I’ve been informed, are pro-independence and are doing the gig for free in support of RIC. Jay Lafferty warms the already slightly rowdy audience up with light banter in preparation for the first act, Andrew Learmonth. His act doesn’t focus too heavily on the topic of independence, bar some choice gags thrown in to the delight of the very clearly politicized crowd. Eleanor Morton follows with some musical comedy, but again seems to get louder laughs when she makes political points. A pattern begins to emerge. By the time Vladimir McTavish & Keir McAllister begin their double act, which really has a primary focus on the independence referendum, and headliner  David Kay takes the stage, the theory’s cemented. The atmosphere is good, the room is responsive, but the crowd of RIC campaigners don’t take much of a night off from politics. The most political (and, lets be honest, pro-independence, naturally) gags get the loudest laughs. The evening seems to be half stand up performance, half rally.

And that’s exactly the intention of pairing comedy and campaigning, I’m told. RIC – this internationalist, left wing  team of volunteers – aims to utilise independence not as an end in and of itself, but as a means to a more progressive end. At the heart of their campaign lay ideas of equality and social justice and this is what makes comedy such an important vehicle for discussion. Central to their campaign lies the belief that existing power structures need to be challenged. That, Rodger passionately claims, is what’s so brilliant about comedy as a medium: it’s subversive. It has the ability to undermine uneven political power; something which is at the heart of what RIC aims to challenge.

More than that, comedy and creativity are something which lie at the heart of Scottish culture in a more general sense. Exploring politics this way, Rodger explains, helps engage huge segments of society (young people in particular) in a way which traditional methods of campaigning cannot. This is something that can be seen not only in the acts featured that night, but in their work as artists and activists outwith the confines of the comedy club (see the video, below): mirroring other similar movements in Scotland today, such as creative campaigners “National Collective”.

Comedy and RIC political campaigning are part and parcel of the same thing: influencing and engaging an increasingly apathetic electorate. Last night may have been about lightening the mood, but at the heart of all of this is something all involved take extremely seriously: the future of their country.

Written by Rachel Barr

Are the Norwegians using Slaves?

slave by Benkos_Bioho

 

As the summer sun reveals the dust on the floor, social media in Norway is uncovering several incidents of exploiting employees. A felony so serious it has been depicted as being on the verge of slavery.

Workers defined as slaves
This spring, several businesses have revealed bad working conditions after routine control. On the Norwegian web page, Osloby.no, it is written that the police are worried about slavery in the Norwegian carwash industry. They claim to have met people paid 19 Norwegian kroner per hour. The employees are cheap labour for the superior. Also, the hotel, Oslo Plaza, has been threatened to close if they do not improve their work ethics. A 28-year old woman revealed to the Norwegian newspaper, Dagbladet, that she usually worked an average of 11.8 hours per day even though the normal work hours in Norway are 7.5 hours per day. The hotel has until August to find a solution to the problem.

Summer patrol
An improvement of today’s law on work ethics, can improve the work situation of today’s generation. During the weeks before summer break, young and hopeful seek work in order to earn money. This year is no different. The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Union (LO) is planning to conduct a so-called ‘’summer patrol’’. This patrol is supposed to visit different businesses and companies, and further report what conditions are like. LO prioritises these visits in addition to encourage unorganized employees to contact them about their rights.

‘’Take some air’’
Their first visit was at the Norwegian media house, NRK. Many young people working there were unsure about what will happen when their work period runs out. ‘’ To take some air’’, is a definition that temporary employees have had to deal with for a long time. It means that the supervisor makes the employer leave for a period of time in order to escape the rule of permanent employment starting after four years of temporary work. This spring, a temporary employee ran a lawsuit against NRK because the employee was asked ‘’to take some air’’. To the Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen, the representative of ‘’NRK super’’, said that the use of temporary employees is rapid because media houses usually work project based. However, this should not act on the expense of the employee’s rights.

Strengthened supervision
In 2011, while the previous government was still in charge, the supervision on conditions at various workplaces and among workers was strengthened and supported with 10 million Norwegian kroner. The previous Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, underlined how important it was with effective and visible supervision.

A reduce in law
Today, 3 years later, the current Prime Minister Erna Solberg, claims that the previous party in charge did not prioritise employment and work politics. Therefore, she believes it is up to her and the conservative parties in charge, to focus on employment and safe workspace. Although LO believes that the working environment act is functioning. Erna Solberg, on the other hand, believes that there needs to be a change of law. A law that reduces the rules, and might further result in more flexibility and freedom. Because of broad scepticism towards this, Solberg explained that a softening of the rules would not turn into dramatic changes in Norwegian work routines.

Bosses can easily take advantage of employees who are unaware of their rights, and several incidents show that this is the case in various businesses. The summer patrol, among other instances, can help build this awareness. Only the future can tell us if the reduction in the law can also improve the rights of workers in Norway.

By Hanna Skotheim

Picture: Benkos Biohos

What’s Italy’s new protest party doing with UKIP?

The EU elections marked a rise of the European right almost everywhere, with Italy as a notable exception – leaving anti-establishment Five Star Movement struggling to figure out where it stands as it joins Nigel Farage’s group in the EU parliament.

Despite the arguments the decision raised among the Five Star Movement’s voters, the alliance is done: 78% of the the 29.584 registered Five Star Movement members who took part to the online poll said yes to having their 17 members in the European Parliament join UKIP in the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group. A decision Nigel Farage, UKIP Leader and EFD Group President, was extremely satisfied with.

Farage, who’s been working to gather like-minded MEPs from several countries – but refused to open up to Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn party – says he’s “delighted” by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement decision to join with UKIP in the EU Parliament.

“I am very proud to have formed this Group with other MEPs and we undertake to be the peoples’ voice,” he says. The group includes MEPs from Czech Republic’s Party of Free Citizens, Latvia’s Latvian Farmers’ Union, Lithuania’s Order and Justice and the Sweden Democrats. There will also be independent MEP Joëlle Bergeron, former Front National candidate.

Former comedian Beppe Grillo, creator of Italy’s Five Star Movement, has called the vote “a great victory for direct democracy”.

There was more to the decision than simply choosing whether or not to join a group in the EU Parliament: it was also a matter of choosing a side after a long time spent claiming to be “beyond left and right” – and after an unexpected defeat at the European elections.

Born out of public outcry against the corruption and inadequacy of traditional parties, the Five Star Movement reaped a stunning success in Italy’s general elections in 2013, becoming the third main political force. Few people hid the fact theirs was a “vote to protest”: a vote to the Five Star Movement as an act of protest against conventional parties and politicians. Elected members of the party took their seat at the Parliament while promising to “open it up like a tin can”.

About a year and a half later, they seem to have failed to do as much. Keeping itself isolated from other parties, the Five Stars Movement did give voice to its voters’ protests – but, aside from that, it seemed to be getting little else done. Its base of support encompassing people from both right and left wing ideologies, the party also had to deal with many internal contradictions from the start.

On the other hand, aided by a general leniency of Italian press, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi excelled at giving out just the right image of himself in the past months: that of a young politician working fast to get Italy out of recession.

As a result, the Five Star Movement was soundly defeated at the European elections – losing almost three millions of votes since 2013 and only reaching 21% of votes against Renzi’s Democratic Party’s 40.8%.

The centre-left Democratic Party’s victory came as a surprise, and it was a huge shock for the Five Stars Movement, which had hoped to come very close to the Democratic Party or even to surpass it. The election’s outcome didn’t only mark the failure to surpass their biggest opponent: it changed everything most of the party’s arguments were based on. After over a year spent claiming old parties were “dead”, that the government – nominated and never elected – was not legitimated by vote and that only the Five Stars Movement represented the people, Grillo’s party is suddenly unable to use any of those arguments. Joining the EFD group may be a first step to recover by gaining influence in Europe.

Still, the alliance may not lack difficult moments, and not only because the many left-wing supporters of the Five Star Movement may not appreciate the turn to the right. There are several key points – immigration, energy policy and financial regulation being just few – where the Five Star Movement’s programme vastly differs from UKIP’s. And the Five Star Movement is well aware of it: the party’s MEPs are arguing that the group shouldn’t be sitting on the right side of the Parliament. MEP Ignazio Corrao says: “I don’t want to spend all the time explaining over and over that we have nothing to do with the right.”

The problem was clear even before this issue presented itself : shortly before the European elections took place, Grillo expressed appreciations for Alexis Tsipras’ ideas – going as far as saying that the president of Greece’s Syriza-United Social Front was “saying the same things” as the Five Star Movement. And yet Tsipras’ vision of Europe’s future couldn’t possibly be farther away from Nigel Farage’s UKIP.

Written by Alessandra Pacelli
Picture Credit: gruppo.it