Alternative Media Sources


  1. Key poll which boosted Leadsom’s leadership bid funded by DUP’s dark-money donors

    An important poll which added momentum to Andrea Leadsom’s campaign to become prime minister was funded by the secretive Constitutional Research Council.

    Andrea Leadsom. Image, BBC, fair use.

    A key poll in the run up to last year’s Tory leadership election was funded by the same secretive group which funnelled a mystery £435,000 to the DUP’s Brexit campaign.

    The funding of the carefully timed survey is one of only three known occasions that the mysterious Constitutional Research Council has been used to channel money into British politics – as well as the DUP donation, £6,500 was given to the MP and now Brexit minister Steve Baker, to pay for a meeting of the pro-Brexit MPs’ European Research Group, which he chaired. Baker was a key member of Andrea Leadsom’s campaign team, and sat on the board of directors of “Leadsom4Leader”.

    The poll, which was conducted by Survation, was released on the day that Conservative MPs conducted their ‘first ballot’. The survey showed that, other than Theresa May, the only candidate with a positive net approval rating was Andrea Leadsom. Pollsters’ rules require that they are transparent about who commissions their work and Survation disclosed the fact that the Constitutional Research Council were their clients.

    The publication of the poll was particularly damaging for Michael Gove, Leadsom’s key challenger for the support of pro-Brexit MPs, who it showed as having a net approval rating of minus 47% among the public. When the Telegraph published its findings the next day, its headline claimed that “Four in 10 Tory supporters will not vote Conservative at 2020 election if Michael Gove becomes leader”, and the article quoted two MPs, both of whom were supporters of Andrea Leadsom: Andrew Bridgen, and another “who asked not to be named”, according to the Telegraph.

    The poll was one of only three published after the close of nominations for candidates – and after Boris Johnson announced that he wasn’t standing. It added momentum to Leadsom’s campaign at a key moment in the race for prime minister, as a number of candidates tussled to take on Theresa May in the final round of voting.

    Under Conservative party election rules, MPs vote in a series of ballots, eliminating a candidate each time until two contenders remain. These two must then contest an election among the party membership. Survation confirmed to openDemocracy that when a client funds a survey, as the Constitutional Research Council did, they have control over whether and when its results are released. This rule, which is normal among polling agencies, means that the secretive CRC, which channelled nearly half a million pounds of dark money to the DUP to campaign for Brexit, would have been able to time the publication of this research in order to have maximum impact on the race to 10 Downing Street. We don’t know if the group commissioned any other polls without publishing them.

    Andrea Leadsom was the favoured candidate for prime minister among a number of prominent Leave campaigners. Days before the poll was released, Leave.EU chair Arron Banks told the Daily Mail that:

    'Andrea was the breakout star of the Leave campaign during the referendum: calm, assured and, in contrast to May and Gove, honest; putting the case for Brexit eloquently and passionately. Leave.EU will therefore be throwing its full weight behind Andrea.'

    Without knowing who is involved in the Constitutional Research Council and who funds it, , we can’t establish whether Andrea Leadsom’s campaign team were involved in coordinating the research and its publication.

    openDemocracy asked the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards whether a poll such as this could count as a political donation to Leadsom. They don’t comment on individual cases, but referred us to the fact that, in 2014, Vince Cable was forced to declare a poll as a donation. All donations to MPs with a value of over £500 must come from ‘permissible’ sources, though they only need to be declared if they are worth more than £1,500. We asked Survation for the cost of a poll such as this, but they haven’t replied.

    The Constitutional Research Council has been at the centre of an ongoing openDemocracy investigation since we forced the DUP to reveal that a £435,000 donation for Brexit campaigning came to the party via the group. Little is known about the secretive organisation, but we do know that it is chaired by the Scottish Tory Richard Cook, whose numerous business and political connections include the former head of the Saudi intelligence service, a Danish ‘private banker’ at the centre of a notorious Indian gun-running incident, Conservative Friends of Israel and the Campaign Against Political Correctness.

    openDemocracy asked Survation who from the Constitutional Research Council had contacted them about the poll, but they said that this would breach client confidentiality. We contacted the offices of Steve Baker; Leadsom’s campaign manager Tim Loughton MP; Andrew Bridgen, who is the Leadsom-supporting MP quoted in the Telegraph article; and Leadsom herself. None got back to our requests for information about the poll.

    Survation is a reputable polling agency which works with clients across the political spectrum and there is no suggestion that it has done anything wrong, or that the poll was  anything other than accurate. However, the fact that such a secretive organisation was able to intervene in the election for prime minister in this way has raised questions.

    Steve Goodrich from Transparency International said:

    “Transparency is essential to preventing outside or undue influence over our democratic process. There are clear rules on what should be made a matter of public record and what the consequences are when these aren’t followed. Knowing who funds leadership bids is of heightened public interest, so it’s essential that all contestants ensure they disclose any support they receive in compliance with the law.”

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    The Lebanese model and authoritarianism

    Lebanon is indicative of the importance of state weakness. عربي

  3. Legalising drugs goes hand in hand with peace

    Last week the government released its 'new' drug strategy – but there’s nothing new. It's time to listen to the real stories of families who have suffered, and support their demands for reform.

    “'I ask any politician to stand by my daughter's grave and tell me that our drugs policy works” – Anne-Marie Cockburn, whose daughter Martha died in 2013. 

    20 July 2017 was the fourth anniversary of the death of 15-year-old Martha Fernback. Martha died of an accidental ecstasy overdose in 2013. Deaths like Martha’s are preventable, and the families losing loved ones deserve better. We urgently need a new approach to drugs. We need to legalise and regulate.

    In the UK drug-related deaths are at a record high – 50 deaths a week, 50 Marthas – our prisons are in crisis and drugs are getting stronger.

    The Home Office’s long-awaited drug strategy was published last week (14 July) and outlined a continued commitment to tackling drug-related harms through the criminal justice system. Evidence-based recommendations for reform – such as the adoption of drug consumption rooms and heroin-assisted treatment for dependent users – which would better protect people and save lives, were, regrettably, ignored.

    In the UK drug-related deaths are at a record high – 50 deaths a week, 50 Marthas – our prisons are in crisis and drugs are getting stronger.

    Yet this alleged ‘new’ strategy fails to acknowledge that drug prohibition does not afford young people, like Martha, protection.

    Not only that, but it fails to recognise the link between the production and supply of drugs, with demand. Prohibition yields colossal amounts of profit and power to organised crime, creating an escalation of violence in producer and transit countries, and ordinary people are increasingly caught in the crossfire.

    In Mexico, in the first five months of 2017 alone, 11,155 people were killed in drug war-related violence. That’s one murder victim every 20 minutes.

    Yet Mexico’s Congress continues to debate an internal security law, which seeks to expand and normalise the military’s presence in public security. This is despite evidence that more than a decade of military deployment to combat organised crime in the country has been ineffective and counterproductive. The militarisation of drug war policies has resulted in grave human rights violations with little impact on the drugs trade itself.

    “They cannot silence our voices and hide our cries of pain, our anger, our fear, or our courage. If we talk about the drug war, we will win. They cannot ignore us any longer.” – Araceli Salcedo Jímenez, mother of Fernanda Rubi, a young Mexican woman kidnapped in 2012. 

    The human cost of the drug war

    Anyone’s Child 'Families for Safer Drug Control' is an international network of families who have lost loved ones or otherwise been harmed by the failure of the global drug war.

    Anyone’s Child aims to expose the human cost of the drug war and show that moving away from prohibition and criminalisation will better protect ordinary people. These families are telling their stories to illustrate the utter futility of the drug war, and to show the collateral damage caused by our failed approach to drugs at every stage of the drug trade across the world.

    It may appear rational to ban drugs and to place criminal restrictions on their production, supply and use in order to protect the young and vulnerable. But 50 years of prohibition has failed to prevent a dramatic rise in both the use of drugs, and drug-related harms, despite ever growing resources spent on enforcement.

    Beyond this failure, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has identified a harrowing range of negative “unintended consequences” caused by the drug war. These include the creation of a huge criminal market; the displacement of production and transit to new areas (the balloon effect); the diversion of resources from health to enforcement; the displacement of use to new drugs; and the stigmatisation and marginalisation of people who use drugs.

    The Home Office’s drug strategy ignores these appalling costs, too.

    Politicians in both Mexico and the UK continue to fight this war rather than genuinely engage with the overwhelming evidence showing that prohibition kills, while legal regulation (complemented by meaningful social improvements) can save lives and reduce harm.

    We are all someone’s child. The brave families involved with Anyone’s Child speak for all of us as they defy the drug war rhetoric and press for a new approach to drugs.

    Rosa Julia Leyva

    “By sharing my life story I'm trying to mend the social fabric a little.” – Rosa Julia Leyva, tricked into trafficking heroin and imprisoned for 11 years.

    Rosa Julia is a woman from a poor rural community in Guerrero, Mexico, a region plagued by poverty and full of opium poppy fields. Rosa became a casualty of the drug war when she agreed to accompany an acquaintance through airport customs and was tricked into carrying large amounts of heroin through security. She was subsequently sent to prison and tortured into signing a confession. She was raped and abused by authorities that ought to have been protecting her. As a result she spent close to 11 years in prison.

    Rosa’s story illustrates how the consequences of prohibition in Mexico do not stop at murder, disappearance and terror. With the authorities taking a zero tolerance approach to drug-trafficking, violence escalates and ordinary people are caught in the crossfire. Rosa is now part of Anyone’s Child and campaigns with other families from across the world for the legalisation of the drug market, to prevent other families from suffering.

    Anyone’s Child Mexico

    Anyone’s Child Mexico, the interactive documentary, tells the real-life stories of families and communities on the frontline of the international drug war, and their fight for safer drug laws. Through a free phone line in Mexico connected to the documentary, casualties of the drug war are able to have their stories heard across the world.

    Wider support from the international community for these casualties of the drug war is crucial. Efforts to boost international solidarity can contribute to putting an end to this violence and promote a change in policy that ensures human rights are fully respected and protected.

    Do something

    “Before, I used to say ‘it won't happen to me.’ But I have seen it in real life, with my own eyes. I believe that every single person, young and old, must fight, to leave behind us a better Mexico, a better society, a better world for our children.” – María Herrera, mother to four disappeared sons.

    It is time for casualties of the drug war to be at the centre of the drug policy debate.

    One of the biggest obstacles that must be overcome in order to achieve meaningful reform is demonstrating to policymakers that public opinion is supportive. An important way to change public opinion is by listening to the heart-breaking real-life stories of families who have suffered, and their demands for reform, so that others can see the harms this war is causing.

    Publics worldwide have had little opportunity to hear the testimonies of people affected by the violence that is inevitably linked to drug prohibition. New technologies and new innovations such as Anyone’s Child Mexico allow us to, for the first time in some cases, listen to the testimonies of people who have become casualties of the drugs war.

    We ought to remember that all UN member states – who are signatories to the UN drug war conventions – are responsible for the casualties. We are responsible. By listening to the stories and making our outrage known to our elected representatives, we can demand that they make the policy changes to prevent these stories being replicated in the future. We must call on our political leaders to put in policies that genuinely try to protect us – rather than punishing us.

    It is time for casualties of the drug war to be at the centre of the drug policy debate.

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  4. Breaking the poverty cycle through parenting

    Is it parenting or the financial situation of a family that can break the poverty trap? Parental confidence is the link between the two.

    Children having fun in London. Maureen Barlin/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The current debate on austerity, which follows a catalogue of political upheavals and social earthquakes, raises some interesting questions on a central aspect of this debate: child poverty and the attainment gap between rich and poor children. Why does the attainment gap exist? Does it link directly to income or is it a parenting style that is often associated with families living in relative poverty, or is it in fact both?

    In 2010, the Rt. Hon Frank Field MP published a report demonstrating that the experiences in the first five years of a child’s life, and the influence of the parents in that period, can define a child’s life chances. While all the evidence shows that children from poorer backgrounds tend to have worse outcomes, the key message was that what parents do is more important than what they earn. The report’s central message was that “Nothing can be achieved without working with parents, enabling [them] to achieve the aspirations that they have for their children.”

    Family income is critical for a child’s early development and home environment.

    That was 2010. Last week the LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion published a report demonstrating that family income is critical for a child’s early development and home environment. Their evidence suggests that nothing can be achieved without money: “money itself matters and needs to be taken into account if we want to improve children’s outcomes.”

    In fact, the authors of these two reports do not contradict each other: Frank Field’s report does not deny that a secure income helps to create an environment from which it is easier for parents to give their child a good start in life. Kerris Cooper, the co-author of the LSE report, did not deny that parenting is important – but simply that the economic context in which parenting takes place cannot be ignored.

    It seems to me this is all swings and roundabouts. The debate is important but we mustn’t let the evidence lead us to casually “laying blame” on either parenting style or income for the attainment gap. Instead, we should remember that poverty is multifaceted, with multiple causes and cannot be reduced to one factor.

    Money itself matters and needs to be taken into account if we want to improve children’s outcomes.

    The Foundation Years Trust’s work is inspired by Frank Field’s original report. We work with parents and their children under five with interventions aimed at improving parental wellbeing, sensitivity towards their children’s development needs and the home learning environment.

    Among the families we work with, we repeatedly find that parental confidence is on the floor. And yes, this is probably related to financial stress within a family. The Foundation Years Trust cannot provide a cure for financial hardship. However, we do find that once parents realise how much they already know and already do to support their child’s early development, their self-perceived ability to parent improves. That confidence allows parents to master their children’s development, helping them to break the cycle of poverty. Our approach is universal – designed for all parents, not just poor parents. We know full well that parenting is a struggle and that the stresses of parenting are heightened for those families coping with the web of poverty. However, the work of The Foundation Years Trust shows that interventions in parenting can dramatically change the course a child’s life. Especially those families facing the full force of austerity.

    There is a real danger in taking too narrow a view of the causes of poverty. Addressing child poverty requires a sophisticated response combining sufficient family income and support to parents to fulfil their role as their child’s most enduring educator. Whilst we should welcome an end to the impacts of austerity which are bearing down hard on children’s outcomes, we must also remember that there is a critical need to support families to achieve their aspirations for their children.

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  5. Liu Xiaobo and the struggle for democracy

    A moment of silence for Liu Xiaobo's death, and the cause of personal freedom in China.

    Hong Kong, Hong Kong - People join the protest to the Chinese Liaison Office in Sai Wan, Hong Kong to mourn the death of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. People hold candle under heavy rain mourning the death of Liu Xiaobo and also demanding China government to release Lau's wife Liu Xia. PAimages/Chan Long Hei/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire. All rights reserved.Liu Xiaobo’s death last week was a painful reminder of the dire state of personal freedoms in China. The dissident was imprisoned for nearly a decade. His crime: a view of a democratic China, a goal to be achieved peacefully. He died in custody, his dream yet to be realized. At 61, he suffered multiple organ failure allegedly caused by liver cancer. He had been denied permission to travel for medical treatment overseas.

    Liu’s appeal for a more democratic China can be traced back to the Beijing 1989 protests. He joined the movement in Tiananmen Square, which resulted in a two-year jail sentence. But the government could never silence him. His calling to change the status quo remained as strong as ever as he continued to voice his concerns over the state of repression in the country. The regime tried to keep him at bay by detaining and sentencing him to 11 years in prison. Yet even there, his struggle was not forgotten. The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded him the Peace Prize in 2010.

    This time of mourning should give us pause to reflect on China’s protection of personal freedoms. Regrettably, the data confirms a bleak reality. A glimpse at the Varieties of Democracy Institute data below reveals that civil liberties in the country fare poorly when compared with the rest of the East Asia region. Most concerning, while this aspect of democracy mainly improved in the rest of the region between the mid-1980s and early 1990s, over the same period it deteriorated in China, and has remained the same ever since.

    Freedom House provides a similar account. It gives China a freedom score of 6 out of 7 in civil liberties, 7 being “the least free”. Most alarming, over the past four years the administration intensified its crackdown on freedom of expression, chiefly online media as well as basic forms of association.

    Indeed, since 2015 the country experienced a new wave of abrasive democratic restrictions including the imprisonment of numerous civil rights defenders who were tried for their political beliefs. Most notably, activist Zhang Haitao was subject to a stringent 19-year prison sentence for his critical remarks of the government. In a country where reports of custodial torture are widespread, the prospects to survive behind bars remain narrow. 

    This democratic dearth stands in contrast to the region and the rest of the world. In the last century most countries became or remained democratic, and estimates from the 2017 Economist Democracy Index now label 109 countries as “democracies” (either full, flawed or hybrid). China stands at a shameful 138 (among 167 countries in the total ranking), right below Yemen.

    Alas, other countries have also experienced democratic reversal since 2006. Estimates from the Bertelsmann Stiftung indicate that 28 countries suffered democratic decline in the period 2006–2016. My research on democratic backsliding (to be featured later this year as part of International IDEA’s forthcoming publication on the Global State of Democracy) analyses these trends.

    After one year of data collection, our findings show worrying authoritarian signs in relation to some countries with a once decent democratic track record, or a steady path towards democratic consolidation. Venezuela’s growing political repression, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s targeting of intellectuals in Hungary, and the extension of the presidential term limit in Congo-Brazzaville illustrate that, after taking one step towards democracy, a country can still take two steps backwards.

    Even in countries where democracy is most consolidated, maintaining it takes effort. Great challenges remain. Growing public distrust in political parties is a case in point: the World Values Survey and Transparency International indicate that, by and large, people regard political parties as the most corrupt organizations in their countries. This is even the case in places long considered beacons of democracy like the United States, Argentina and South Korea.

    In this mixed environment of freedoms and repression, the common anchor that may ground our hopes for a more democratic future is the relentless work of activists and civil leaders, such as in Venezuela, Hungary and the Congo-Brazzaville where democratic regression has yielded a chain of protests.

    Even in some of the most unhospitable environments for dissent, citizens with a view similar to Liu Xiaobo’s are still championing peaceful democratic reform. Liu’s tragic passing has already prompted renewed calls for democratic change in Hong Kong. A lot can still be done. 

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  6. Is the world finally breaking its silence on Turkey?

    "Members of my staff are sad not just for their friends, but for their country. What will it take for the world to break its silence?"

    lead Federica Mogherini, EU High representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the EU arrives at 2016 summit with Turkey. (Aurore Belot / Press association) All rights reserved. In Turkey, truth and justice have become strangers. Six human rights defenders were imprisoned this week on the absurd charge of supporting a terrorist organization. They await trial, which could prolong their incarceration for several months. Four others were released but remain under investigation. Their movements have been restricted and they have to report to the police three times a week.

    Among those imprisoned is Idil Eser, Amnesty International’s director in Turkey. “I have committed no crime,” she wrote to me from detention last week. Nor have any of the others. Since the July coup in 2016, the Turkish government has seized on any whisper of dissent as an excuse to crackdown on political opponents. In this climate, even defending human rights is treated like a crime.

    Despite a foreign policy supposedly committed to supporting human rights defenders globally, the EU’s public response to Turkey’s horrific crackdown on human rights had been muted.

    But just days after they were remanded, the European Commission joined governments and world leaders, including Angela Merkel, to demand their immediate and unconditional release. With remarkable speed and speaking with uncommon unity the governments of Germany, Holland the US, France, Belgium, Ireland and Austria have all called for their immediate release.

    On July 25, at a meeting with Turkey’s Foreign Minister in Brussels, the EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has an opportunity to make amends. Rather than hide behind honeyed words and soft diplomacy, she must make an explicit demand for the release of Eser and other human rights defenders unjustly detained. On July 25, at a meeting with Turkey’s Foreign Minister in Brussels, the EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has an opportunity to make amends.

    Just last year, people in Turkey looked on in horror as journalists were dragged away during live broadcasts. Children were roused from their sleep as jets thundered overhead and gunshots echoed across the city. During 12 hours of bloodshed, 250 people were killed and thousands injured. Many people felt a sense of relief the next day when news spread that the attempted coup had failed.

    But that feeling was short-lived. Five days later, the government imposed a state of emergency. Since then, it has been extended every three months. And its effects become progressively worse each time. Criminal investigations have been opened against 150,000 people accused being part of the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization,” which the government claims masterminded the July coup. Every day, the number of people under investigation grows.

    As a result of the crackdown, some 50,000 people languish in jail. Among them are at least 130 journalists, the highest number of any country in the world. More than 100,000 public sector workers, including a quarter of the judiciary, have been arbitrarily dismissed. Last week alone, more than 140 arrest warrants were issued for IT workers, and hundreds of academics were cast out of their jobs.

    Last month, the purge arrived at Amnesty International’s door. Taner Kilic, Amnesty Turkey’s chair, was remanded in pretrial detention on the fictive claim that he is a member of the Fethullah Terrorist Organization. Authorities accuse him of being in possession of an encrypted messaging app favored by the Gülen movement. Taner, who is a human rights professional but a technology novice, had never heard of the app, let alone used it.

    This week, President Recep Tayyep Erdoğan warned that the state of emergency could last “several years.” “First, we will chop off the heads of those traitors,” he said, in a menacing tirade. “When they appear in court, let’s make them appear in orange suits like in Guantanamo Bay.”

    Ruling by executive decree, eluding the scrutiny of parliament and even the increasingly cowed courts, the government has crippled state institutions and civil society with a ferocity that rivals that of the 1980s military junta.

    Those responsible for the violence that killed and injured people in in last year’s attempted coup surely must be brought to justice. But those crimes cannot serve as a justification for a wave of repression that shows no signs of relenting. Erdoğan came to power on a promise to break with Turkey’s ugly past. But the more powerful he has become, the more closely he has come to emulate the repressive practices of those who came before him.

    With some exceptions, the international community has studiously maintained a silence on what is happening in Turkey.

    For many countries, Ankara is too important a political ally for human rights to matter. They need the country to stave off waves of migrants and refugees, to be an ally in Syria, and to halt the spread of the Islamic State. Erdoğan knows this — and he uses it to his advantage. He knows it blinds foreign leaders to the human rights violations taking place in plain sight.

    Members of my staff are on the ground in Turkey. Some had waited outside the courthouse until the early hours when the sentences were delivered and, when I spoke to them, their voices were thick with emotion. They are sad not just for their friends, but for their country. What will it take for the world to break its silence? As foreign leaders wordlessly look on, people fighting for basic human rights in Turkey are being imprisoned one by one. Soon, there will be no one left.

    This was first published on Politico on July 19 here.

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  7. The politics of nudity as feminist protest – from Ukraine to Tunisia

    Frontline activists, including women who use their topless bodies as political statements, are gathering in London to deplore threats to free expression worldwide.

    FEMEN activists. FEMEN activists. Photo: Jacob Khrist.Such are the risks to some frontline activists who have dared to challenge religious orthodoxies around the world that an international conference on Free Expression and Conscience, 22-23 July, is taking place at an undisclosed venue in central London, the location known only to the participants.

    One of the keynote speakers, Bonya Ahmed, was attacked by machete and her husband, Avijit Roy, was brutally killed on the crowded streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh because they ran a blog for freethinkers.

    Other speakers and participants – including members of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB), the main organising group behind the conference – also have stories of harassment, death threats and physical danger. Even (or perhaps especially), in the 21st century, with the rise of the religious right, free speech can result in a death sentence. the 21st century, with the rise of the religious right, free speech can result in a death sentence.

    Inna Shevchenko, leader of the controversial group FEMEN, is scheduled to speak on "Gods vs Girls: Is Religion Compatible with Feminism?" She had to leave her native Ukraine in 2012, and seek asylum in France, after being abducted, beaten, tortured and threatened with death by security forces.

    FEMEN activists have achieved notoriety because their main form of public protest has been inscribing slogans across their bare chests. Shevchenko told me, in their defence: “What do we do? We appear in the square, we take off our tops, we put slogans on our breasts and we scream the slogans, we do nothing else. We are then thrown on the floor and strangled, kidnapped, arrested. This is disproportionate. It reveals a lot about the violence that patriarchal institutions inflict on women who dare to disagree”.

    In Ukraine, FEMEN has used these tactics to protest against what Shevchenko calls the three institutions of patriarchy: dictatorship, the sex industry and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – an important reminder to those who equate extremism with Islam that institutionalised religion of all denominations can be dangerous to your health.

    Shevchenko says: “Dictatorship is usually one male leader who fosters the cult of the father of the nation. Similarly, in monotheist religions, there is one father i.e. God who punishes you, who protects you and who defines who you are and what your position in society will be”. (Of course, this pattern is also replicated in the family).

    A FEMEN activist is tackled to the ground. A FEMEN activist is tackled to the ground. Photo: Jacob Khrist. FEMEN was founded in 2008, Shevchenko says, as a reaction to the exponential growth of sex tourism in Ukraine. She grew up in post-communist Ukraine and recalls a catastrophic economic collapse in which the national currency was replaced for six years by coupons that expired within three months. Under communism, she says, gender gaps had reduced somewhat as women’s employment and educational opportunities opened up – but afterwards unemployment hit women the hardest, pushing many into the arms of a rich husband or the sex industry.

    Shevchenko and FEMEN have been criticised for the crudity of, and contradictions in, their arguments and tactics. But her clarity of analysis on the question of religion is lacking in some feminist quarters. Whilst she accepts that a feminist can be a believer, the idea of religious feminism to her is an oxymoron. Shevchenko says: “It would be intellectually dishonest to say that religion will provide the grounds for women’s liberation. No, it’s feminism that will provide the grounds for women’s liberation and it is through feminist ideas that religious ideas and text could be modified”.

    FEMEN’s topless tactics have been condemned by some feminists for playing into the culture of sexism by exposing their breasts. To this Shevchenko responds: “I get it when sexists make this argument, but I don’t understand it when feminists [do]... What those feminists are saying is that a woman’s body can be de-sexualised by hiding it – but that is what religious institutions are saying. I’m saying I’m going to give my definition of what my body is. My body is sexual when I decide it to be sexual, my body should be political when I decide it to be political”.

    "My body is sexual when I decide it to be sexual, my body should be political when I decide it to be political”

    The success of nudity as political protest seems to depend largely on context. In the west, where women’s naked bodies have been commodified and used to sell goods, reclaiming nakedness for political purposes is much harder. In conservative societies, where women’s dress is intensely policed, any breach of the codes is both brave and revolutionary.  

    Mona Eltahawy tells a funny story in her book Headscarves and Hymens; Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution about a Tunisian feminist Amira Yahyaoui who asked a Salafist member of the constituent assembly a question. When he refused to answer her, as he did not speak to “naked” women (she was not wearing a hijab), Yahyaoui began to undress. The Salafist was horrified and demanded to know what she was doing. She said: “I’m showing you what a naked woman looks like” – and he promptly answered her question.

    Other Muslim women have braved censure or death to use their bodies to make a political statement, including Aliaa Elmahdy, the naked Egyptian blogger, and Amina Tyler, the Tunisian blogger who posted a topless picture of herself in 2013. Maryam Namazie – an Iranian ex-Muslim, and an organiser of this weekend’s conference – has used toplessness as a form of protest on a number of occassions, most recently at the Pride 2017 march in London.

    Maryam Namazie. Maryam Namazie. Photo: CEMB (Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain).Namazie told me: “A pillar of Islamist rule is the erasure of the female body from the public space. So what better way to resist than with the female body?” Both Elmahdy and Tyler, under threat from conservatives, have had to flee their countries of origin. Feminists and progressives must defend the right of these women to free expression, rather than make common cause with religious conservatives, even if we do not personally see nudity as a form of liberation.

    “A pillar of Islamist rule is the erasure of the female body from the public space. So what better way to resist than with the female body?”

    This insight is sometimes missing in white feminist critiques of female nudity. When the Pakistan social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch was murdered by her brother – for bringing “shame” to the family with sexually-charged videos and photos posted online – some older British feminists took to a Facebook discussion where one asked whether Baloch “joining the oppressive western world and slathering herself in make-up and posting vids of herself twerking and always doing the bidding of men... [was] SO empowering”. But nothing is as undermining of religious patriarchal mores as a woman flaunting her sexuality. 

    The failure of some sections of the progressive left to challenge institutionalised religion’s assault on free expression will be one of the themes running through this weekend's conference in London. Billed as the Glastonbury of freethinkers and featuring 70 speakers from more than 30 countries, other discussion topics will be resistance to religion from gay rights campaigners, the growing influence of religion in the law and the state, secularism as a human right and identity politics. 

    For Namazie, “the conference is a timely reminder that freedom of conscience is not just for the believer but [also] for the nonbeliever. That free expression is not just to defend the sacred but to reject it”. Exercising this right has already caused harm and cost lives. This is a significant battleground for our times.

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  8. Attacks on Russian journalists must stop

    A series of assaults on Russian journalists this week accompany a continuing campaign against anti-corruption activists.

    Stanislav Zimovets was sentenced to 2.5 months in prison for violent conduct towards a police officer at an anti-corruption rally in Moscow on 26 March. Source: VKontakte.

    We continue our partnership with OVD-Info, an NGO that monitors politically-motivated arrests in Russia. Every Friday, we bring you the latest information on freedom of assembly. 

    Stanislav Zimovets, a defendant in the 26 March case, has been sentenced to 2.5 years in a general-regime prison colony. The prosecution had asked for three years. Stanislav Zimovets was charged with using force against a police officer during a rally against corruption. An OVD-Info correspondent attended the final court hearings in the case and we have published her article that includes Stanislav Zimovets’ final words in court, the arguments of the defence and the prosecution, and also a description of the unforgettable atmosphere in the courtroom.

    This week the Russian police and the Investigative Committee refused to open an investigation into assaults on journalists. In Orenburg, a pro-Kremlin activist explained that he had attacked a journalist because he had toothache, and police officers would agree only to make an official record of part of the journalist’s complaint. Meanwhile, in Petrozavodsk, the Investigative Committee refused to bring charges against a police officer who assaulted a journalist working for the online-journal Chernika at the 26 March rally against corruption. During the rally the police officer struck the journalist in the face, breaking his glasses. At the time the journalist was wearing a press badge on his chest. And the attacks continue. In Moscow, assailants sprayed an acrid gas of unknown chemical composition into the home of journalist Yulia Latynina.

    Petroavodsk: Footage of journalist Alexei Vladimirov being assaulted at an anti-corruption rally on 26 March.

    Intimidation against the campaign offices of politician Alexei Navalny and his supporters continue. For example, in Gatchina police refused to launch a criminal investigation into an assault on supporters of Navalny with a spade. In Omsk, police officers demanded that passers-by who accepted Navalny campaign leaflets should write explanations for their action. In Khabarovsk, Navalny’s election headquarters were covered with paint, ostensibly in retaliation for putting up election materials in the entrance halls of apartment buildings. In Astrakhan, unidentified people smashed the windows of a car parked in the courtyard with a “Navalny 20!8” sticker.   

    And, in completely absurd news, in Kurgan a 14-year-old teenager blogger with anarcho-capitalist views was summoned to the police because of a meme of a gingerbread man in a German army cap with a swastika. Blogger Dmitry Morozov was summoned to the police station because of a comment posted by another individual on his VKontakte page. “They say that I am inciting hatred under Article 282 [of the Russian Criminal Code] and have violated Article 20.3 of the Administrative Law Code, since I did not DELETE A POST IN GOOD TIME AND ASSISTED IN ITS DISSEMINATION. That’s me, and not the person who posted the comment,” the videoblogger wrote.

    We have published two descriptions of arrests – one by a Soviet dissident, the other by a supporter of Navalny. The first text was written by Irina Ratushinskaya, a poet and an inmate of political prison camps in the 1980s. She tells how she was jailed for 10 days for taking part in the annual traditional dissident protest on 10 December on Moscow’s Pushkin Square: how at 6pm people came and stood in silence, bareheaded. The author of the second text, who is an activist in Navalny’s election campaign, has asked to remain anonymous. In his case, both in his arrest and in his release, a key role was played by a smartphone.

    Thank you

    Thanks to everyone who continues to support us. Find out how you can help here.

    For more information on OVD-Info, read this article from the organisation's founder on how OVD is breaking the civil society mould here.


    'Read On' Sidebox: 

    OVD-Info is a crowdfunded organisation. Find out how you can help them here.

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  9. An ideal conflict on the Dniester

    Twenty five years after the end of the war, a resolution to the frozen conflict over Transnistria seems no closer. This situation suits plenty of people at the top just fine. RU

    March 1992: Members of a pro-Transnistrian militia at Dubăsari. (c) RIA Novosti / I. Zenin. All rights reserved.On 21 July 1992, the armed conflict in Transnistria came to an end. A Russian peacekeeping mission was introduced to this self-declared republic on the east bank of the Dniester river, internationally recognised as Moldovan territory. After a quarter of a century, Chișinău and Tiraspol still haven’t agreed on a final settlement to the conflict. Nevertheless, both Moldova and breakaway Transnistria often interact with each other as though they were still one state.

    The war along the Dniester river, the bloodiest moment of which occurred in June 1992, ended with the signing of the “Agreement on the principles of a peaceful settlement of the armed conflict in the Transnistrian region.” The agreement was signed by the then presidents of Moldova and Russia, Mircea Snegur and Boris Yeltsin, in the presence of Transnistrian leader Igor Smirnov.

    This document launched a peacekeeping operation on the banks of the Dniester that continues to this very day. Contingents from Moldova, Russia and unrecognised Transnistria all participate in it. As a result, the operation is frequently referred to as “unique” — soldiers who had formerly fought one another now man the same roadblocks, sporting the same blue helmets.

    Barely a day or two passed after the conflict’s end before participants on all sides returned to visit each other’s houses as welcome guests

    From Transnistria’s perspective, the peacekeeping operation was important for another reason. It kept the conflict ticking over, albeit frozen, allowing the territory’s elites to rebuild working institutions of state and effective power structures, including an army and security services.

    These days, the ongoing negotiations between Chișinău and Tiraspol are carried out in the spirit of a civilised, but final, divorce with Moldova. It’s worth pointing out that the very formula of a “civilised divorce” was the brainchild of Evgeny Shevchuk, who ruled Transnistria from 2011 to 2016. In a stroke of irony, he and his wife Nina Shevchuk (neé Shtanski, she served as the territory’s de-facto minister of foreign affairs) now comfortably and peacefully live in Moldova, a state which both had routinely criticised in the strongest possible terms.

    The kind of transformation undertaken by Shevchuk would surprise only those who know little about the often-overlooked Transnistria dispute. Barely a day or two had passed after the conflict came to an end before participants on all sides returned to visit each other’s houses as welcome guests.

    A frozen settlement

    Twenty-five years have passed since the end of the war, but Moldova and Transnistria seem no closer to a political settlement to the conflict. Both sides are conducting drawn-out negotiations under the 5+2 format (in which Moldova and Transnistria are recognised the conflicting parties, the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine as mediators, and the EU and US as observers), in which they generally discuss economic and humanitarian issues. So far negotiators haven’t even pressed the key matter: whether Transnistria will be included in a united Moldova.

    The position of the conflicting parties is as follows. Moldova stands for the full restoration of its territorial integrity. Chișinău’s approach is shared by all mediators and observers, including Russia. Although Moscow supports Transnistria economically and politically, it does recognise that a settlement to the conflict can only be achieved through negotiations, which would result in Transnistria receiving some special political status.

    Moldovan president Igor Dodon's visit to Moscow in January came during a period of diplomatic tension between the two powers. Source: What exactly that status should be has also not been established. Officially, Chișinău doesn’t even have a concrete answer. The Moldovan government promises that this year, it will finally finish developing its approach to resolving the conflict. That is to say, some 25 years after the end of the war in Moldova, Chișinău will finally have some view of how to settle matters.

    However, against the backdrop of a bickering and undecided government, Moldova’s pro-Russian president Igor Dodon appears to have taken a determined and strong stance for the return of Transnistria to Moldovan jurisdiction.

    The geopolitical divergence doesn’t prevent either side from finding points of common interest, particularly in business

    This position has already caused a rift between Dodon and Transnistria’s new leader Vadim Krasnoselsky. The fact remains that Tiraspol is the only participant that insists that negotiations must end with the recognition of Transnistria’s independence. Krasnoselsky stresses that at every available opportunity. In June, he even took the opportunity to say so on British soil, after an invitation to speak from the Oxford Union. The Transnistrian authorities also speak of the unrecognised republic eventually becoming part of Russia, on the basis that over 90% of the territory’s residents voted for such a move in a 2006 referendum.

    Moscow prefers not to recognise Tiraspol’s dream of annexation. But negotiations for a settlement to the conflict stand still. Their dynamic can be summed up with one simple fact: since the beginning of this year, not one summit for negotiations in the 5+2 format has been held. Russia and Tiraspol have called for another round of negotiations on several occasions, but Austria, which presides over the OSCE this year, is categorically against. Vienna believes that negotiations should not be held for their own sake, insisting that they must end with concrete agreements. And that’s a result nobody can guarantee.

    Separately, but together

    If you ignore the rhetoric of Moldovan and Transnistrian politicians, their attacks on one another, you realise that Moldova and Transnistria have far more in common than you might expect at first glance.

    The geopolitical divergence between the two — Chișinău is covered in EU flags, Tiraspol - the Russian tricolour — doesn’t  prevent either side from finding points of common interest, particularly when it comes to business.

    The most scandalous examples is energy. Right-bank Moldova and Transnistria both use Russian gas. Tiraspol, however, doesn’t pay its debts to Gazprom, and, given that Transnistria remains just another Moldovan district for Russia, Moscow views the debt that forms as a result as belonging to Moldova. The size of the debt has long tipped over the $6 billion mark, and 90% of this is down to Transnistria.

    Beyond the rhetoric of Moldovan and Transnistrian politicians, both sides have far more in common than you might expect

    A no less interesting situation has emerged with electricity production. Chișinău buys it from the Cuciurgan power plant, which is in Transnistrian territory, and thus provides a much-needed source of currency for Transnistria to survive. Under Evgeny Shevchuk, Transnistria began selling Chișinău electricity via intermediaries. This opaque scheme of delivery quickly attracted the attention of the media and experts, who connected the middlemen to Shevchuk and Vladimir Plahotniuc, the influential oligarch and leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova.

    This might explain why Shevchuk recently fled to Moldova (and not anywhere else) when the Transnistrian authorities opened a criminal investigation into corruption, contraband and abuse of power against him. Here, the ex-president of Transnistria lives in an elite apartment block in the centre of Chișinău (where a flat will cost you 1300 Euros per square metre) and is driven around town in a luxury red Mercedes together with his bodyguards. It’s hard to imagine this kind of scene in other countries locked in “frozen” conflicts across the post-Soviet space.

    There are other examples that show how Moldova and Transnistria are actually cooperating with one another effectively, and without problems. Trade is one such sphere. Tiraspol trades with the outside world, including the EU, via Chișinău: Transnistrian producers get their goods certified in Moldova, and register them in Moldovan customs offices. Indeed, since 2016, the Association and Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Moldova has basically been in effect in Transnistria.

    On 21 July, the Moldovan parliament voted for a declaration to demand Russia remove its peacekeepers from Transnistria. CC BY-2.0 Marco Fieber / Flickr. Some rights reserved.There are more than 300,000 Moldovan passport holders on the left bank of the Dniester, and this number is constantly rising, given that Moldova entered into a visa-free regime with the EU in 2014. Even Transnistrian public officials take Moldovan citizenship. Transnistrian athletes participate in international competitions under the Moldovan flag, and are members of the national team. Tiraspol’s football club, Sherif, has won the Moldovan league several times over. For landlines and mobile, Transnistria uses the Moldovan international telephone code.

    Recently, Chișinău took another important step in Transnistria’s direction. On 17 July, the first joint Moldovan-Ukrainian border and customs post opened at the international border crossing at Cuciurgan-Pervomaisk. At the same time, with Kyiv’s help, Moldova has launched the process of establishing control over the Transnistrian section of the border with Ukraine, which has been out of its control for 25 years. Now, Moldova plans to open 13 border and customs posts — five international and eight intergovernmental.

    The many years of the Transnistrian conflict have shown that Chișinău and Tiraspol have completely adapted to co-existing in the status quo. And elite groups on both sides of the Dniester have even learned how to extract mutual benefit from the situation.


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  10. Call for applications: Tunisia Facilitator, Middle East Forum

    يبحث موقع openDemocracy عن ميسّر لمنتدى الشرق الأوسط  في تونس.

    openDemocracy is looking to hire a facilitator for the Middle East Forum in Tunisia.

    The Middle East Forum is a project that encourages emerging young voices to express themselves, exchange views and be heard. The project provides participants with a series of workshops to develop writing skills, media presence, and digital security as well as a free discussion space where they have the capacity to debate constructively. Participants in the forum host speakers, acquire skills, share knowledge, and give feedback to one another.

    We are currently looking for a facilitator to coordinate a group of 7 participants from Tunisia. openDemocracy has a standard of expectation from our participants as well as from each individual facilitator.

    This is a freelance role, 35 days of work spread over 11 months with a salary of $109 per day.

    In general, facilitators will be expected to:

    • - Ensure a safe space for all the participants to express themselves freely;

    • - Host debates but allow for the creative process to take its due course;

    • - Cultivate a good working relationship with the participants, and serve as their mentor;

    • - Maintain a good line of communication with the participants, and be available for any questions;

    • - Be responsible for training the participants, providing them with the tools necessary to complete the program successfully, and the ability to organise other professional trainers where needed;

    • - Outline learning objectives for the group;

    • - Oversee and support the participants’ work, and assist where necessary;

    • - Provide constructive feedback and suggestions to enhance the participant’s learning experience.


    We are looking for people who are passionate about journalism and its potential to change the world, and have:

    • - Expertise in the specific region of the program;

    • - Experience in debate moderation;

    • - Prior experience of digital publishing and social media;

    • - A background in journalism and journalistic writing;

    • - Fluency in both Arabic and English - able to write and edit;

    • - Knowledge of online security, computer systems and office-related software;

    • - Possess strong interpersonal and communication skills.

    Specific responsibilities will include, but are not limited to:

    • - Finding, screening and selecting seven candidates for the program;

    • - Meeting the commitment of 15 sessions;

    • - Actively developing an online space for debate;

    • - Developing a working relationship with the participants, such that you can adequately serve as their mentor;

    • - Actively moderating debate;

    • - Managing communication with participants;

    • - Ensuring that notes for each session are being taken. Share notes with all participants;

    • - Editing articles written by the participants in both Arabic and English;

    • - Liaising with the project coordinator and editor;

    • - Writing progress reports;

    Who can apply?

    You can apply for the position if you fall under any of the following:

    • - Previous experience as a journalist or editor

    • - Currently completing or recently completed post-graduate studies in related field

    • - Possess expertise in the specific region of the program

    How to apply?

    • Send in a sample piece of 1000 words in Arabic or English of why you believe you are suitable for this role and your resume

    Please send your application documents to by the 28th August 2017.

    دعوة إلى تقديم الطلبات لمنصب ميسّر لمنتدى الشرق الأوسط في مصر

    يبحث موقع openDemocracy عن ميسّر لمنتدى الشرق الأوسط  في تونس.

    منتدى الشرق الأوسط هو مشروع يشجّع الأجيال الصاعدة الشابّة على التعبير عن نفسها وتبادل الآراء وإيصال صوتها. يقدّم المشروع للمشاركين سلسلة من ورش العمل لتطوير مهاراتهم في الكتابة والحضور الإعلامي والأمن الرقمي كما يوفّر المشروع فضاء للمناقشات ويمنح المشاركين فرصة التحاور بطريقة بنّاءة. يستضيف المشاركون في المنتدى متحدثين ويكتسبون مهارات ويتشاركون المعلومات ويعبّرون عن رأيهم بعمل زملائهم.

    نسعى إلى توظيف ميسّر لتنسيق عمل مجموعة من 7 مشاركين من تونس.

    ثمة معايير يتوقع موقع openDemocracy من المشاركين ومن كلّ ميسّر احترامها.

    هذا منصب حرّ (freelance) يتضمّن 35 يوماً من العمل ممتدّ على فترة 11 شهراً.

    بشكل عام، تضمّ مهام الميسّر التالي: 

    -       تأمين منبر آمن لجميع المشاركين للتعبير عن آرائهم بِحرية؛  

    -       استضافة مناظرات والسماح للعملية الخلّاقة أن تأخذ مجراها المناسب؛ 

    -       بناء علاقة عمل جيدة مع المشاركين وتأدية دور المرشد؛ 

    -       الحرص على تأمين التواصل السليم مع المشاركين والتوفر للإجابة عن جميع أسئلتهم؛ 

    -       تحمّل مسؤولية تدريب المشاركين ومدّهم بالأدوات اللازمة لإتمام البرنامج بنجاح وبالقدرة على تأمين مدرّبين محترفين آخرين، إذا دعت الحاجة؛

    -       وضع أهداف التعلّم للمجموعة؛

    -       الإشراف على عمل المشاركين ودعمهم ومساعدتهم لدى الحاجة؛

    -       تقديم تعليقات واقتراحات بنّاءة لتحسين التجربة التعلّمية للمشاركين.


    متطلّبات الوظيفة:

    نبحث عن أشخاص شغوفين في مجال الصحافة ويؤمنون بقدرتها على تغيير العالم. يجب أن يتحلّوا بالمهارات التالية:

    -        إطّلاع واسع على شؤون المنطقة المحدّدة للبرنامج؛

    -       خبرة في إدارة المناقشات؛

    -       خبرة سابقة في النشر الرقمي والتواصل الاجتماعي؛

    -       تخصّص في الصحافة والكتابة الصحافية؛

    -       طلاقة في اللغتين العربية والإنكليزية والقدرة على الكتابة والتنقيح في اللغتين؛

    -       معرفة في أمن الإنترنت وأنظمة الكمبيوتر والبرمجيات المكتبية؛

    -       امتلاك مهارات متقدمة في التواصل والتعامل مع الآخرين.


    تضمّ مسؤوليات الميسّر التالي، على سبيل المثال لا الحصر:

    -       إيجاد 7 مرشحين للبرنامج وفحص مهاراتهم والاختيار من بينهم؛

    -       القدرة على الالتزام بحضور 15 جلسة؛

    -       تطوير فعلي لفضاء إلكتروني للمناظرات؛

    -       تطوير علاقات عمل مع المشاركين للنجاح في دور المرشد؛

    -       إدارة المناظرات بشكل نشط؛

    -       القدرة على التواصل مع المشاركين؛

    -       الحرص على تدوين الملاحظات في كلّ جلسة وتشاركها مع جميع المشاركين؛

    -       تنقيح المقالات التي يكتبها المشاركون باللغتين العربية والإنكليزية؛

    -       التنسيق مع مدير المشروع والمحرّر؛

    -       صياغة تقارير عن سير العمل وتقدّمه.


    مَن المرشّحون لهذه الوظيفة؟

    يمكنك التقدّم بطلب للحصول على الوظيفة إذا:

    -       لديك خبرة سابقة كمحرّر أو صحافي؛

    -       أتممت دراسات عليا في مجال مرتبط أو إذا كنت في طور إتمام هذه الدراسات؛

    -       لديك إطّلاع واسع على المنطقة المحددة للبرنامج.

    كيف يمكن التقدّم للوظيفة؟

    أرسِل نصّاً من 1000 كلمة باللغة الإنكليزية أو العربية تفسّر فيه الأسباب التي تجعلك مناسباً لهذا المنصب، بالإضافة إلى سيرتك الذاتية.

    الرجاء إرسال جميع الطلبات والمستندات المرتبطة بها إلى موقع والموعد النهائي للتقديم هو ٢٨ أغسطس ٢٠١٧.

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