A lesson in the abuse of information technology

2016 ended with “fake news”, a quite detestable oxymoron describing the onslaught of manipulative agit-prop pieces popping up on emerging – and at times, established news outlets. While this degree of lazy reporting is usually confined to darker corners of the internet or local papers, and concern local policing, this year, it blew to considerable proportions targeting the most significant news items: the US presidential election, the chaos in Syria and Yemen, as well as the role of the EU in the result of the Brexit referendum.

As a result, journalists, routinely targeted and attacked in recent years for doing their job, while reporting from extremely hostile environments across the globe, find themselves discredited at home, mostly in the US and the EU. Despite a vast array of evidence to the contrary, there have been several massacres in Syria, including the large-scale destruction of Aleppo; there have been hospitals hit by bombs in Yemen, civilian casualties in anti-ISIS coalition strikes, an attempted coup d’état in Turkey, Russian involvement in the continuous war in Ukraine, dubious political campaign funding of far-right parties; I could go on.

On this most anticipated New Year’s Eve, as the world prepares to celebrate the end of the annus horribilis, bracing themselves for the difficult years to come, I decided to share 10 of the most interesting, thorough, necessarily complex and salient pieces of journalism I have read this year; that I have relied on in my work as an international lawyer; that I have enjoyed and learned from as an active citizen; that have represented the world as it is to readers, the world as they should know it, work for, but more often than not work against. There has been many, many more that deserve to be highlighted. Those journalists deserve to be supported, followed, relied upon, and their expertise trusted.

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The White Flight of Derek Black, by Eli Saslow (the Washington Post, October 15)

2016 marked the ascent of the far-right in the West, a cyclical event in Europe, and a first in the United States when a bubbling but fringe movement rose to prominence with the election of Donald Trump and his cohorts of white supremacists nominated to key positions in the upcoming administration. This form of extremism, often overshadowed by the omnipresent threat of islamic terrorism, relies on severe indoctrination and threats of retaliation. This long read on the ideological turn-around of a trusted figure highlights mechanisms of belief and violence, as well as strength and courage to refuse.

 

How Do You Stop a Future Terrorist When the Only Evidence Is a Thought? by Rukmini Callimachi (The New York Times, June 21)

Rukmini Callimachi has reported on ISIS like few have before or since; her 2015 on the horror suffered by Yazidi women as they were enslaved by the fighters in Iraq has been seminal story-telling in an era of detachment from the inhumanity of war. Following the events in Paris, the New York Times reporter has travelled across Europe and the Middle East in order to regularly provide, through articles and Twitter updates, an unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the self-styled state, as well as underlining the strategy of the response and its shortcomings. This one studies the difficulty of placing the cursor on a spectrum of radicalization.

 

‘Why did they wait to kill us?’: How the attack on the aid convoy near Aleppo unfolded by Louisa Loveluck and Thomas Gibbons-Neff (The Washington Post, September 24)

The bombing of a UN aid convoy on its way to (partially) relieve the siege of East Aleppo on the outset of the summer has riled up NGOs and organizations across the globe, trying to assess the damage done to the humanitarian cause in failing to help Syria, to the rule of law for targeting UN workers, and most importantly attempting to decipher those responsible. In a blame game that has characterized much of the Security Council debates on the country in 2016, Loveluck and Gibbons-Neff conducted a clinical study of the munitions used, the timing of the attack, collecting witness testimonies and analyzing video footage to provide the only independent report into a defining moment in the battle of Aleppo.

The Hot Land: How a Lime Grower Led an Uprising Against one of Mexico’s Bloodiest Drug Cartels by Ryan Devereaux (The Intercept, September 6)

Often self-effaced, Devereaux has managed to compile a solid body of work since the humble and stumbling beginnings of The Intercept in June 2013. Usually focusing on national security, he traveled to and reported from Mexico for months, working on student disappearances, state repression, and here, on the ad hoc formation of resistance to the dictature of violent drug cartels in a country rife with impunity. At the heart of the destructive war on drugs, Mexico struggles to survive, to shelter its own, and to rise above shadow armies and control through corruption. This specific story, as well as others long reads and photoreportage he issued in the previous months, deserve your attention.

As The Saudis Covered Up Abuses in Yemen, America Stood By by Samuel Oakford (Politico, July 30)

The carnage in Yemen has been denounced as aided and abated by western states, specifically the US, UK and France, arming Saudi Arabia with high range and high precision weapons despite the warnings from humanitarian organizations that those munitions were used in attacks that could amount to war crimes. The silence of most governments in the face of those serious allegations only matched the incredibly, nauseatingly profitable business of arms trade with the Kingdom, the highest recipient of weapons in 2015. As governments now start to wake up to the responsibility, this piece provided a starting point for activism and promotion of arms regulation in the face of atrocities.

The Appearance of Disappearance: the CIA’s Secret Black Sites by Crofton Black and Edmund Clark (Financial Times, March 17)

I first saw Crofton Black as he testified before the European Parliament’s inquiry on CIA rendition in European states. He shared his work on the hidden prison in Antavilliai, Lithuania, a windowless white building in the middle of the forest the Vilnius government said was a “jewelry storage facility”. With photographer Edmund Clark, he released a unique, unprecedented book called Negative Publicity, a remarkable look at the mundane aspect of atrocities, the everyday conversations between perpetrators and their facilitators, a strange, eerie window into the base logistics of the CIA rendition program. Black’s evocative writing conveys the unshakeable discomfort of the silence surrounding those places.

Warning From the Syrian Border: Trump Reminds Us a Bit Too Much of Assad by John Knefel (Rolling Stone, May 12)

Knefel spent a lot of time in Turkey over the last 6 months studying the flow of refugees from Syria and the lack of safety they experience due to a porous border; the foreign fighter phenomenon and the role of the peshmerga in the fight against ISIS; and the human dimension of never be able to leave behind a war that will define a generation in the suffering it has inflicted. In here, a painful but necessary reminder that the 2011 insurrection was a legitimate uprising against an oppressive leader, a thoughtful reflection on the role of dissent, while we still can.

Inside RICU, the Shadowy Propaganda Unit Inspired by the Cold War by Alice Ross, Ian Cobain, Rob Evans and Mona Mahmood (The Guardian, May 2)

Countering extremism, this pseudo science denounced by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism in a March 2016 report, has led to unpalatable policies in the United Kingdom, where the main scheme, Prevent, has been criticized for targeting individuals, groups and families with no tangible link to terrorism. A concerted effort was made at European level following the January 2015 attack in Paris to offer a “counter-narrative”, a government-led initiative to lead potential terror recruits away from the path of radicalization. That, too, was doomed to fail.

Les Journalistes, Nouvelles Cibles Préférées des Populistes by Jean-Bernard Schmidt (self-published on Medium, November 20)

Toward the end of the year, as the introduction specified, the lack of trust for any piece of reporting that did not hold to confirmation bias reached a level of surrealism and ignorance that baffled even the most experienced of internet users. French journalist Jean-Bernard Schmidt, who co-founded the investigative outlet Spicee in 2015, worked on a year-long project to debunk conspiracy theories and the role of the new media in propagating them. His opinion, sadly not translated for the non-francophones, explained that truth is the most dangerous weapon to be used against populists; and that as such, they tend to work towards discrediting their critics.  A wonderful and powerful defense of investigative and critical journalism.

Calais Minors Lured From Camp Then Abandoned by Authorities by Lisa O’Carroll, Amelia Gentleman and Alan Travis (The Guardian, October 27

Many have written about the lack of empathy shown to refugees in Europe as the crisis has formed a front of isolationist retreat in Fortress Europa. The evacuation of “The Jungle”, the makeshift camp in Calais where, in October, approximatively 8,000 refugees and asylum-seekers awaited their fate – among which over 3,000 unaccompanied minors – was touted as a success by the French authorities. For weeks, Paris had sought an agreement with London over the fate of children, and to end the constant expansion of tents, shipping containers on dunes, a squalor that even MSF denounced as untenable. Said clearance was rushed, poorly scrutinized, half-botched. It led to some severe violation of basic refugee rights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What the hell happens now on Fantasy Island?

 

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Since June 24, I have been going back and forth across more or less visible borders, attending talks, discussions, debates, symposiums, hearings, and other forms of airing of grievances related to the EU referendum in the U.K., in which a very simple question was asked: would British citizens like to retain membership in the European Union?

By the time most readers of this blog sit around a table filled with food prepared and packaged from all corners of the single market, introducing romantic  partners from all over the Schengen area, and exchange gifts paid for in Euros, it will mark six very long months since a vote that defined the future of not just the UK, but the Union as a whole. In an accessible yet outstandingly thorough book, Ian Dunt details that not only were the British people not prepared for the full-bodied outcome of the referendum, neither was their government. It lays out the responsibility at the feet of Theresa May, perceived as broad-shouldered and strong-willed, but just as much bumping in the dark and stumbling upon ideas. Most importantly, what it describes in numerous chapters focusing on economic consequence is that removed from immediate and dire financial payback, the UK is losing more than free trade agreements. Several key ideas are contained within the right to access the single market. Some of those ideas are entirely contingent on EU membership; some of those ideas are tied to freedom of movement.

EU citizens benefit from an incredible amount of privilege, compared to other political systems. The structure of the organisation, not federal but tailored to further integration, allows citizens of all member states to: be represented in a parliament; access specific courts; appeal to a broader consensus; receive grants; be financially supported in academia and the job market; be compensated in the event of an illness; see political, civil and human rights safeguarded. Among those rights, Brexit affects freedom of movement the most. Something very specific to the United Kingdom, however is that this withdrawal from the European Union, no matter how world-altering and overwhelming it is, may not even be the end game. At a talk at LSE Law on 8 December, professor and barrister Conor Gearty of Matrix Chambers explained his position quite clearly: for the Prime Minister, exiting the EU was simply a proxy move towards a repeal of the 1998 Human Rights Act.
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Indeed for many, human rights and the legal obligations contained therein are at bigger fault. It was the ECtHR in Strasbourg most often accused of violating British sovereignty; it was the Human Rights Act accused of forcing the nation to welcome refugees beyond coercively agreed upon quotas; it was principled legislation that formed adherence to a European project the U.K. never felt much a part of. Slowly unveiling its arguments over the summer in a series of videos, “On Fantasy Island” is a compelling collection of all the lies and myths surrounding Britain’s capacity to provide for the safety and liberty of its citizens outside of the realm of international law. It starts with reminding the citizenry that the roots of the European convention on human rights themselves are British; that the history of European construction and expansion has been based on British cooperation; but that mostly, the Strasbourg court, often maligned to the point of needing to be defended in the New York Times, has never been opposed to the United Kingdom so much.

 

Both Dunt and Gearty, while focusing on separate institutions – the EU for the former and the Council of Europe for the latter – are preoccupied with the same question: what will become of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland once London initiates the process of removing itself from the rest of the world? With humour and quite a rare concern with facts, legal accuracy and political consistency, the issues here are tackled with less doom and gloom that could be anticipated. There is time, although little, to stop the ongoing machine. There are safeguards, although vanishing, to protect what can be saved. There are figures, although drowning in white noise, to provide much needed expertise. Dunt and Gearty are among those. The image of an isolated, alienated Britain on a self-imposed exile adorns the cover of both their books, as we are about to step forward into a year marking the ascent of populism and geopolitical retreat in the name of base fear and incorrect perception of security.

 

One thing is certain: we on the continent must shoulder some of the blame. The most europhile among us must reflect on where the institutions we take so much pride in have failed to appeal across social classes, did not step up in times of heightened worry – about terrorism, about employment, about immigration, even more so about identity. The generation that has entered the job market in 2008 feel entitled to basic labour and union protection, to freedom of movement, to a right to privacy, to access to health care, and to protections against police violence. If the EU has felt like it itself encroached on progressive visions for commerce, on self-determination or has undermined the principles of democratic representation, then it must consider its reaction to the biggest issues of our time: the refugee crisis, the Greek debt, surveillance, freedom of opinion. The EU must take a look, beyond poor communication, at what it forgot to mention about its role in sheltering acquired rights, the permanence of entitlements, and the necessity to keep close to citizens. Otherwise, the Nigel Farage of Europe – Le Pen, Wilders, Five Star – will continue harvesting votes from those who deserve better.

Ian Dunt: Brexit: What the hell happens now? At Canbury Press.

Conor Gearty: On Fantasy Island, at Oxford University Press.