Friday, April 30, 2004

"Almost a quarter of households in the US will be prevented tonight from seeing an ABC TV network news programme that is to broadcast a list of American servicemen and women killed in action in Iraq.

"Eight affiliate stations have refused to take the programme, which is due to go out tonight in America."

Media Guardian: US TV blackout hits litany of war dead (Registration required)

Reports that the 800 Military Police Brigade is changing its motto to nos cruciatus nostrum captus cannot be confirmed at this time.

CBS News: Abuse Of Iraqi POWs By GIs Probed
BBC News: Iraqi abuse photos spark shock

In his defence, one of the suspended soldiers, Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick, says "We had no support, no training whatsoever. And I kept asking my chain of command for certain things... like rules and regulations...It just wasn't happening."

Even without guidance from above, you don't have to be General Ricardo Sanchez to realise that ordering detainees to masturbate publicly and attaching wires to a hooded prisoner probably falls outside standard military procedures.

Remember the Stanford Prison Experiment?


Joy of joys -- ten years after it was first shown on TV, Chris Morris's news satire The Day Today has finally been released on DVD.

My copy arrived yesterday and I spent much of yesterday evening weeping with laughter.

What makes it so howlingly funny is not just the quality of the script and the performances but the fact that the spoof news programme is so close in style and content to so many of the "real" broadcast news currently on television.

The security service MI5 has published its terrorist threat assessment and safety advice for the first time.

The details, on MI5's website, were previously given only to a few organisations.

Take a look at the briefing from Britain's top spooks and it's easy to see why this intelligence has been labelled top secret and kept highly classified.

It advises the public to take on Al Qaeda by ensuring "good basic housekeeping in and around your buildings...keep garden areas free from dense shrubbery."

So, by neatly trimming your garden hedge into the shape of a giraffe you are helping to defeat global terrorism.

Which would make Alan Titchmarsh the front runner to replace Tom Ridge as Homeland Security supremo.
"New technology has made our job much more difficult. Now anyone can operate in a war zone, many of them with no training whatsoever, and they shouldn't be doing it...

"...The immediacy resulting from the new technology means we do not have the planning time to check medical facilities or put in place basic contingency plans. Reporters are being spurred on to get in there faster and faster and that makes our job harder."
-- Chris Cobb-Smith, BBC Safety Adviser

Media Guardian: Rolling news 'threatens safety of journalists' (Registration required)

Fellow landmine victim and RBK amputee Chris Moon is planning to walk the 1284 miles between John O'Groats and Land's End for charity in June.

He plans to cover the equivalent of 2 marathons each day -- and aims to walk for 18 hours a day.

He's going to have one sore stump by the end of it.

The event is called One Walk.

The Limbless Association is asking amputees to show their support by walking a stretch of the route with Chris through London on 22nd June.

I'm hoping to be there.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

I can definitely relate to this Doonesbury comic strip:

Thanks to the folks from for the stats-boosting plug.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

I've long been a fan of Hong Kong action hero Jackie Chan, but after reading about his current projects I like him even more.

Chan has become a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and UNAIDS and has said he wants to highlight the worldwide landmine problem.

Not only that, he's also talking about making a movie in Cambodia,a country I reported from in November.

Jackie -- if you're looking for a one-legged co-star, my agent is waiting for your call.

A bulging in-box to clear and lots of catching up to do after the Cyprus trip.

First of all a big up to James Ker-Lindsay from the Nicosia-based think tank Civilitas Research. Frankly, what he doesn't know about Cyprus ain't worth knowing -- and most of what he does know ain't worth knowing either. He was a mine of information during my assignment and his website has lots of resources relating to South East Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. I'm hoping to work with James on a long-term project about Greek Cypriot president, Tassos Papadopoulos...of which more if it comes off.

Also, if you find yourself in Nicosia I can heartily recommend the Syrian Arab Friendship Club, ironically just a stone's throw from the American Embassy. It serves some of the best meze I've ever tasted and after dinner you can sip a strong Syrian coffee while passing round the nargila.

Next, a couple of stories of interest -- a leading Italian TV reporter has resigned from Rai after criticising Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi over his media influence. Frankly, from the picture she looks so damned scary it's probably a blessing.

The Media Guardian (registration required) reports that two Danish newspaper journalists are facing a six-month jail sentence after they were formally charged with publishing classified government reports that questioned the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, while the US is once again laying to Al Jazeera over its Iraq coverage.

Finally, in cute kid corner, BNI regular Robert Opp e-mails over a pic of his adorable new arrival, Ana -- seen below with her big sister Rachel. All together now.......aaaaaahhhhhhhh!

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Bill Horsley analyses the fallout from the Cyprus referendum and believes -- as I do -- that the response of the international community to the "yes" vote in Turkish cyprus represents a "positive landmark in the long history of the Cyprus dispute."

At Larnaca Airport. Back in London this evening.

In what’s becoming a recurring theme in my despatches from the field, the News Gods have once again unleashed their wrath on me. Either that or I’m just a crap field producer. Most probably the latter.

The Today programme, as UK readers will know, is the most prestigious and listened to programme on BBC radio. Every morning, millions of people from diplomats to dustmen tune in. The programme sets the news agenda for the day. It’s our flagship outlet -- and every correspondent wants to get on it as often as possible. Therefore when my proposal to do a report for Today on how millions of Euros of EU money will benefit the Turkish Cypriot north was accepted we (myself and Europe Correspondent Chris Morris) knew we had to do a decent job.

We crossed the Green Line into the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, hooked up with our local fixer, and set to work.

We wanted to talk to a Turkish Cypriot businessman and ask him to explain the problems he faced doing business in the TRNC – no direct flights to anywhere but Turkey, trade embargoes etc. Our fixer, Serkan, did the business and drove us to the offices of one of northern Cyprus’s most prosperous entrepreneurs.

We chatted to him, told him what we wanted to talk about, and I set up my equipment to record an interview.

I reached into my bag of recording kit and pulled out a minidisk machine and leads. I looked for my microphone. Then I looked again.

Then panic set in.

I’d crossed over from Greek Cyprus to Turkish Cyprus, negotiating checkpoints on either side of the Green Line….but I’d left my microphone in the Nicosia Hilton. No microphone = no Today programme package = professional humiliation.

To dash all the way back to the hotel, through the checkpoints twice, would have taken a couple of hours – and we just didn’t have the time.

We explained the predicament to our interviewee. He rummaged around in a cupboard and pulled out a microphone you’d attach to a computer. The microphone I normally use costs several hundred quid. It can pick up everything from a subsonic rumble to a high pitched squeak. He was offering me a piece of plastic crap worth about 50p. It was all we had, though, so I gave it a whirl. Not only did it work….it actually worked rather well.

Once we’d done the interview we nipped back to the government press centre to see if we could borrow a mic from one of the other international hacks working there.

I came across the microphone used to relay press conferences by senior Turkish Cypriot politicians. No one was looking. I grabbed it and stuffed it in my pocket.

I now had two microphones to choose from – the mickey mouse computer one and the stolen government one. Both were totally inadequate – but they were all I had. I pressed on.

Switching between the two we managed to record another handful of interviews. The quality wasn’t outstanding but it was passable. Before heading back across the Green Line I dropped the purloined microphone back at the government press office. No one seemed to have noticed it was missing.

With a bit of digital jiggery-pokery on the laptop I was able to turn the interviews into a half decent radio package. The News Gods had smiled on me again.

Here’s the finished product:
Audioblog: Today Programme Northern Cyprus Package (.wma) -- 533Kb download

When you listen to it, bear in mind that a piece for the BBC’s flagship radio news programme was put together with two of the shittiest microphones known to broadcasting. No one is more surprised than me.

Monday, April 26, 2004

No surprises, then, over the outcome of the Cyprus referendum. The only unexpected factor was the size of the “no” vote in Greek Cyprus. The overwhelming margin of the no vote – 3 to 1—means the chances of a second referendum or a new Annan plan seem slim for some time to come.

The international community believes Greek Cyprus has thrown away the best chance for a generation of finally solving the Cyprus Problem.

The UN negotiators here in Nicosia who drafted the Annan Plan are packing their bags and preparing to leave – they’ve tried for the past four and a half years to reunite the island but their efforts have failed. The mood when I visited the headquarters of the UN Force In Cyprus – or UNFICYP – was one of overwhelming disappointment, of high hopes ultimately unfulfilled.

I spent most of yesterday across the green line in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. For 30 years this enclave has been a pariah state, shunned by the international community. Now the international community, and the EU in particular, wants to reward Turkish Cyprus for voting “yes” in the referendum.

At the moment you can only fly into Northern Cyprus via Turkey – the lone country to recognise the TRNC as a genuine state. Senior Turkish Cypriot politicians I’ve been talking to want to see direct flights to other countries within a week. I think they’re likely to be disappointed.

The international community has to tread a fine line -- assisting the TRNC without making it look like it’s recognising it as a legitimate country. Even so, the EU earmarked more than 200 million Euros for the reunification of Cyprus. With the island still divided, most of that money is likely to go to the north – the diplomatic equivalent of sticking two fingers up at the Greek Cypriot president, Tassos Papadopolous.

Turkish Cyprus is looking forward to more prosperous times ahead – trade restrictions with the rest of the world eased a little, an influx of EU money and a chance to attract some investment and tourism. It’s not suddenly going to be welcomed into the community of world nations – but it’s a start.

Meanwhile, Tassos Papadopolous can expect an icy reception when Greek Cyprus joins the EU on May 1st. He’s going to be about as welcome as a case of the clap around the top table of heads of state in the enlarged European Union – but he’s only got himself to blame.

An audioblog – compiled for the PM programme. It’s of a Greek Cypriot woman from the town of Morphou who was forced to leave her home after the Turkish invasion in 1974. It’s her memories of that times and gives a sense of her hope of returning there one day. After the referendum, the chance of that happening any time soon seems very unlikely.

Audioblog: Morphou -- Memories of 1974 (.wma) -- approx 600Kb download

Photo: Crossing the Green Line with Chris Morris
Photo: North-South Buffer Zone
Photo: Vote Yes Poster in Lefkosia

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Apologies for the lack of updates since I arrived in Nicosia -- the demands of my "real" job have meant that I've been unable to blog as much as I'd hoped and the upload of the audio I've been gathering will have to wait.

Having spent the past couple of days talking to politicians, diplomats and ordinary voters it's clear that most people here regard the outcome of today's referendum as a foregone conclusion -- the Turkish Cypriot north of the island will vote in favour of Kofi Annan's reunification plan but the Greek Cypriot south will reject it. That will mean that the Greek Cypriot half of the island will join the EU on May 1st -- with a UN-patrolled buffer zone keeping it apart from the Turkish Cypriot north. The Ledra Palace checkpoint, which marks the frontier between the two sides of Nicosia, will become Cyprus's European border.

Many people I've spoken to from the "yes" camp have accused the Greek Cypriot government of deliberately misrepresenting Kofi Annan's plan in order to secure a "no" result....and of limiting media access to those in favour of reunification under the current plan. When I spoke to the Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister, George Iacovou, though, he strenuously denied the allegations.

The Greek Cypriot administration seems determined to ignore the overwhelming pressure from the international community to accept the Annan plan. Even though the UN Secretary General has insisted this is Cyprus's last chance for peace, the government here seems to think otherwise. It's insisting that six months from now it'll be able to restart negotiations and try to secure a better deal.

When I spoke to Kofi Annan's Special Adviser on Cyprus, Alvaro de Soto this morning, though, he made clear there is no "Plan B." He said that if Greek Cypriots reject the current plan the current chance for reunification will be lost for many years to come.

With the rejection of the Annan plan in the south of the island almost guaranteed, attention is already shifting to the percentage of people who'll vote "yes." Officials are saying privately that if the yes vote is around 35-40% the diplomatic push to reunite the island will continue.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

To Nicosia in the morning ahead of Saturday's referendum on the reunification of Cyprus.

See you there.

Before I go, a quick word on a story that's going to be playing high in the bulletins tomorrow, the release from prison after 18 years of Israeli nuclear whistleblower, Mordechai Vanunu.

Some, like Shimon Peres and Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, call Vanunu a spy and a traitor to his homeland. Such views are understandable -- and will have been boosted by the Shin Bet interview released this week in a clumsy attempt to sway public opinion even further against him.

Vanunu may be about to be released from his prison cell but he certainly won't be a free man.

The restrictions placed on him by the Israeli authorities under the terms of his release punish him for offences he has not even committed and breach basic principles of due process.
Very, very many congratulations to loyal BNI reader Robert O on the birth of his second daughter Ana, a sister to Rachel.

Ana weighed in at a healthy 9lbs at noon yesterday.
USA Today reports on Iraqi bloggers.
Iraqi amputees make it into the funnies:

AP: Comic strip characters lose legs in Iraq war

The cartoons in question are here and here (thanks for the links, Bruce and Robert).
Blogs as a business? -- Chance would be a fine thing.

The Washington Post also investigates.

Spare some change?
American forces in Iraq are sending mixed messages to journalists.

First they criticise the pro-Arab Al Jazeera, accusing the channel of "simply lying" in its coverage.

But then they shoot dead employees of the pro-American Al Iraqiya network.

Most confusing.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Hamas has -- understandably -- refused to name the successor to Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi "for security reasons" but sources tell me it's Mahmoud Zahar.

Zahar has already survived one Israeli attempt on his life. He may not be so lucky next time.
Artist Al Braithwaite e-mails with a proposal.

I'll let him tell the story:

"Having heard you on the radio I thought I should get in touch. I am a young artist who knew Kaveh Golestan in Tehran when we were putting on an exhibition there in November 2002. I was deeply grief-struck by news of his death last year.

"As a release of my sadness I made a large artwork entitled 'The Death of Kaveh' while I was in Jordan at the time, full of nail and massive warm grey explosive brushstrokes, which I exhibited there (in the Orfali Gallery) hoping to sell and give half the proceeds to landmine charity MAG, which I understand you are now involved with.

"It was the centrepiece of the show and commanded much local press attention, but remained unsold. So now the piece is back in England, residing in a Clapham studio, and gearing up for our London show in June."

The details are the painting are:
Title: Death of Kaveh
Date: May 2003
Medium: Mixed Media
Size: c. 6ft by 3ft
Exhibited in May 2003 at Orfali Gallery, Amman, Jordan
price: £2000 (50% to MAG)

Here's what it looks like.

I really hope someone out there takes a shine to the piece -- not least because it means £1000 for MAG.

Drop me an e-mail if you're interested in finding out more and I'll forward you Al Braithwaite's contact details or visit Visions of Islam for more information about his work.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

No surprise that Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi has become the latest victim of Israel's judge, jury and executioner policy of assassinating its opponents. Israel had vowed to try to kill the entire Hamas leadership and the firebrand Rantissi was their number one target after he became head of Hamas in Gaza.

Israel sees the absence of any significant retaliation for the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as proof that it has seriously weakened Hamas.

The organisation now faces a power vacuum. Four of the founders of Hamas in 1987 -- Yassin, Rantissi, Ibrahim Makadmeh and Salah Shehadeh -- are all dead.

Emboldened by the free hand given by George Bush earlier this week, Israel will now seek to crush Hamas completely. I expect three remaining senior Hamas officials in Gaza -- Ismail Haniyeh, Said Siam, and Mahmoud Zahar -- to be next in Israel's crosshairs. Two have already escaped assassination attempts.

For its part, Hamas's exiled leadership (which is considered more radical) will play an increasingly central role, with the balance of power shifting further towards figures like Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas's political bureau. Israel's assassination policy means that Hamas's armed wing will now have to be directed not from Gaza but from a leadership in Beirut and Damascus.


Friday, April 16, 2004

Bob Woodward's account of the run-up to the Iraq war is imminent. If it's anything like his last book it'll be a must-read for anyone wishing to understand the behind the scenes story of the Bush presidency.

I expect it to get acres of column inches in the press next week. I've put my order in.

USA Today: Woodward book says Bush secretly ordered Iraq war plan

Assignment Nicosia next Wednesday ahead of Saturday's referendum on the reunification of Cyprus, which is likely to be passed in the Turkish-Cypriot north but rejected in the Greek-Cypriot south, meaning only the southern half of the island will join an enlarged European Union on May 1st.

Returning to my posting about private military companies, Peter Warren Singer, author of a book on the subject, has written a lengthy, extremely comprehensive and very enlightening two-part series on corporate warfare:

Salon Part 1: Warriors for hire in Iraq

Salon Part 2: Outsourcing the War
Prepare for unexpected bouts of severe nausea on both sides of the Atlantic at around 5 o'clock this evening, when President Bush and Tony Blair are due to hold a circle jerk, sorry -- joint news conference, at the White House.

Place your bets please on the number of times the following words are spoken: "special relationship," "unity," "resolute," "sacrifice," "enemy," "the war was a mistake and we are pulling our troops out of Iraq immediately" (OK, maybe not the last one.)

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Reopening yesterday's posting about propaganda by public subscription.

Before you dip into your wallet bear in mind that you're probably wasting your money because no one's going to be watching.

Those dumb Iraqs aren't as stupid as you'd like to think and after decades under Saddam they know what bullshit smells like.
As promised, here's my discussion with Hoder, which will be broadcast on the BBC World Service next Thursday.

The broadcast version will be shorter than the MP3 below (which is 19 minutes long) but I thought Hoder's readers (who are far more numerous than mine) would like to be able to hear the whole thing.

Save it onto your hard drive then listen, enjoy, discuss.

Stuart Hughes/Hossein Derakhshan.mp3 (2.2Mb)

Don't read too much into this report, which has been totally overwritten. We're assessing the situation hour by hour in the light of the latest security advice -- but it's premature at this stage to talk about pulling out....although that could, of course, change at any time if the situation on the ground changes.
Slow on the uptake as always, I start tuning in to Air America Radio just as the station hits a cash crisis (Air America's side of the story is here.)

Blame my decorator -- I've only just been able to reconnect the speakers to my PC because he's been painting the study.

My early impressions weren't favourable, although they weren't helped by the time difference which meant I was tuning in to some of their graveyard shift weekend output. Their environmental issues programme and a show called The Satellite Sisters were uniformly turgid.

Al Franken and Randi Rhodes lifted my opinion of the network somewhat with some lively exchanges and were a refreshing change to both the froth-spewing right-wing talkers and the All-Bran radio of NPR -- good for you, but impossible to digest. Yesterday's reaction to the Bush news conference was pacey and well-aimed.

My untutored Limey ears, though, can only listen to talk-radio from the right or the left in short bursts. After about ten minutes of full-on opinion I feel like I've been battered about the head with a plank of wood and need to put on a Carpenters CD and have a lie down.

With $60m in the coffers Air America can probably weather this particular financial hiccup -- but from the sound of its commercial breaks it's in need of some big money advertisers.
Just back from Bush House, where I recorded a discussion with Hoder for next week's edition of the World Service programme, The Word.

But you won't have to wait for a week and then clamp your crackly old shortwave to your ear to hear it. Oh no. In a clear breach of copyright I'll encode and upload it this evening.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004


"The General Assembly...Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible." (UN General Assembly Resolution 194)

"The Security Council...Affirms that the fulfilment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles: (i) Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." (UN Security Council Resolution 242)

"The Security Council...determines that the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East." (UN Security Council Resolution 446)

"In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949....It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue, as part of any final status agreement, will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than Israel." (President Bush, 14th April 2004)

Time was when governments were prepared to pay to disseminate their propaganda.

Now, though, the poor US taxpayer is being asked to chip in as well.

"News broadcasts in Iraq can be biased, inaccurate and incomplete - to put it mildly," says the Sprit of America website.

It's true -- when I was there Fox News was the only channel we could receive.

Try spouting the press freedom bull to the journalists on Al-Hawza Al-Natiqa....oh, sorry, you can't because there aren't closed the paper down last month.

At least Congress was generous enough to pay for Al Hurra out of its own pocket.

"I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with answer, but it hasn't just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be." -- President Bush's news conference, 13th April 2004 (Transcript)

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The American nets are doing the honourable thing by pooling material from Falluja, thereby putting the safety of their newsgatherers ahead of professional rivalries.

The words of ABC boss Paul Slavin -- "If the competitive instinct drops to third, then so be it" -- demonstrates an admirable awareness of the dangers faced by news crews, be they staff or freelance, who are working in hostile environments.

Of course, dead journalists equal bad PR for the broadcasters involved but, even so, the willingness on this occasion to put the safety of the newsgatherers first should be commended.
I'm keen to expand the videoblogging/streaming video aspects of this site but, given the lack of revenue streams, am balking at the cost of buying in Visual Communicator -- as excellent as it looks -- and the associated hosting.

Any thoughts, anyone?

I've been catching up with some of my contacts in the Middle East and discussing the fact that Hamas still hasn't carried out an attack to avenge the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

After his killing, an associate of Sheikh Yassin warned that "the enemy should expect a response that will turn the ground under his feet to hell," while the Sheikh's successor Abdel Aziz Rantisi said that "the retaliation of this nation, will be of the size of this man." (Source: Haaretz) Yet three weeks on there's -- mercifully -- been no sign of Hamas turning its words into deeds.

There are reports from the Gaza Strip of Hamas organisers going door to door collecting money to carry out a strike against Israel. They're said to have raised many thousands of dollars for the purpose.

There's no doubt that the retaliation will come. The feeling in the Middle East, though, is that the time it is taking in coming is a clear sign of just how weakened Hamas is. It's believed to be having real difficulties in putting together a spectacular terrorist atrocity because so many of its key operatives have been killed or imprisoned.

A laundry manager? He could be -- but I'm not convinced.
A watching brief on my big story for this coming Summer -- the Athens Olympics.

The Times reports that a series of site inspections has concluded that Olympic building projects will not be completed in time for the Games without cutting corners on security and crowd safety.

The Times also has a useful graphic showing which venues are ready -- and which are nowhere near completion.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman speaks with his usual sanity in his latest NYT op-ed -- his headline, that "a year after the occupation of Iraq began, Mr. Bush and his inner circle seem more divorced from reality than ever."

Monday, April 12, 2004

The Vlog phenomenon gathers pace with Time magazine picking up on the subject.

Jeff Jarvis gets a mention.

My videoblogs from Iran, Cambodia and elsewhere are archived here, here, here and here.
Apologies for the lack of updates -- I've been making the most of the Easter weekend to get my freshly-decorated study into some sort of order. I've also been out stretching my legs, real and artificial, in Richmond Park and catching a couple of films, including the extraordinary Capturing the Friedmans.

It's a breathtaking piece of documentary-making -- unsettling, disturbing and at times almost unwatchable. It reminded me of all the reasons why I never read fiction -- because non-fiction is more compelling and it's grounded in real life. To watch "Capturing the Friedmans" is to watch a middle-class suburban family self destruct in front of the camera.

What's most amazing is the fact that director Andrew Jarecki was originally making a film about New York party clowns and stumbled across the secret past of the Friedmans almost by accident (read his explanation of how the film came about here.)

I won't spoil the film by saying too much about it (there's plenty of background here) but it's a real must see movie.

One other piece of news...I'll be taking part in a discussion about blogging with Persian super-blogger Hoder this Thursday for the BBC World Service programme The Word. We'll be talking about blogging, journalism and censorship -- among other issues.

I'm not sure of the transmission time and date yet...but I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Further to my earlier posting about private military companies, today's Washington Post has more on the subject.

It says:
"The firms, stunned by the casualties they suffered this week and by the lack of a military response, have begun banding together to share their own operations-center telephone numbers and tips on threats, as well as to organize ways to rescue one another in a crisis."
"Gruesome Iraq Images Could Shake U.S. Opinion" shouts this Reuters headline.

I thought it was referring to yesterday's posting, but sadly no.

A flurry of reports in recent days have focused on the role of mercenaries -- or "private military companies" as they prefer to be known -- in various troublespots around the world, most notably Iraq where around 15,000 civilian security guards are believed to be working.

The Economist highlighted what it called a "Baghdad Boom," noting that Iraq has boosted British military companies' revenues from £200m before the war to over £1 billion.

The four men killed and horrifically mutilated in Fallujah recently were employees of the private security firm, Blackwater.

Blackwater also made the news in Washington Post, which carried a report saying that that an attack by hundreds of Iraqi militia members on the US government's headquarters in Najaf on Sunday was repulsed not by the US military, but by eight Blackwater commandos.

Time magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star have also carried reports on the role of mercenaries in Iraq, as has this week's Economist (subscription only.)

What amazed me was the sheer size of some of these private military companies. Far from consisting of a few wild-eye, trigger-fingered desperados, some are slick corporate entities with huge government contracts.

Blackwater, for example, has a training centre on a 6000 acre compound in North Carolina. It also has its own private air force. It even sells its own range of merchandise -- Blackwater gym shorts, anyone?

Despite the reservations some may have about the ethics of these corporate soldiers of fortune (who come with the added benefit of not appearing on lists of coalition military casualties), ultimately it comes down to good old fashioned supply and demand. The demand for people willing to risk their lives for money is clearly there -- and there seem to be plenty of people willing to volunteer.

As Peter W. Singer, who has who has written a book on private military companies says, "you have to think about this in terms of a marketplace."


Wednesday, April 07, 2004

I got a little first anniversary shock today -- the arrival from the US of a previously unseen (by me at least) photograph taken in the operating theatre in Sulaymaniyah, where I was treated by an American Special Forces surgical team immediately after my accident.

Like the other photos that were taken at the time, it's pretty gruesome -- and reveals the full extent of the injury caused by the landmine.

I've written already about I feel when I look at the photos -- sadness mixed with shock and horror but above all overwhelmingly relieved that I wasn't more seriously injured.

So here, for the strong stomached only, is graphic evidence of what high explosives do to soft flesh.


The photo was accompanied by a copy of the journal written at the time by a member of the USSF Surgical Team. I won't give his name because I haven't asked his permission but here's what he wrote:

April 2, 2003: ....We got our first trauma last night. A BBC producer -- Stuart Hughes. The Iranian national cameraman died -- he had won Pulitzer prizes for his work on filming Halabja after Saddam gassed the Kurds. He went in with no gas suits. The pictures always shown on TV are his work. The reporter Jim Muir was uninjured. Stuart's foot was almost completely lost. We flushed, debrided and placed external fixators onto him. He will have to have much plastic surgery or lose the foot. They had stopped their vehicles around Halabja. One stepped on a mine, the others dove -- thinking artillery -- and hit another, blowing off his foot. We made BBC World TV later. He proceded through the surgery well. Good to see how we did as a hospital unit. Everything worked out well.

April 3, 2003: Debrided the BBC reporter's foot again. I was the main anesthetist this time. Went very well with a perfect wakeup in the ICU. The BBC reporters let us use their satellite phones to call home. It was great to finally hear someone's voice from back home. We got to carry Stuart to a helicopter and get him out of here. It was cool seeing the bird come in with no lights.
My One Year One article has finally been published on BBC News Online (it's currently on the front page, no less!) -- and has sent the stats soaring.

Welcome new readers....the whole story is here!

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Have you been reading my postings today, Jeff?

Jeff Jarvis -- whom I respect -- says of Zeyad's incorrect eyewitness account:

"Here was have a correspondent giving us a perspective on the events in Iraq that we were not getting -- and likely could not get -- elsewhere. That makes it valuable. Period."

I see exactly where Jeff's coming from, and agree with it to a large extent -- especially when he says that "we all need to act as editors as we read these weblogs and judge them in their own context" (and Jeff was totally right to urge caution yesterday, unlike some.) It just helps if the perspective on events we're getting is correct in the first place.

Slapdash journalists at IRN used to have a catchphrase for their service -- "Never Wrong For Long." Similarly, a certain rolling news network I have some experience undertook a relaunch with a promise to offer viewers "breaking rumour" as well as "breaking news."

Personally. I'd rather be second, third or even last and be 100% sure of my facts than be first and wrong -- be it in my blog or my work for Big Media.

ABC News reports on how fellow newbie amputees from the Iraq war -- including landmine survivors -- are taking to the slopes in Colorado.

One amputee's secret of success: "It's easier to be positive when you're constantly doing something," he says. "You sit around in bed, you just get depressed."

Amen to that, brother.

I'm hoping to resume a favourite pre-accident pastime very soon. My specially made scuba diving leg should be ready for collection by the end of the month -- then it's off to the Red Sea ASAP.
I caught up with a colleague this afternoon who's back in London after his latest tour of duty in Baghdad.

We chatted about working conditions for journalists at the moment. What he told me was not dissimilar to this article in the Christian Science Monitor -- in short, that Baghdad isn't a pleasant place for a hack to be right now (even though some people -- like BBC Brussels Correspondent Tim Franks do manage to make the best of it, training for the London Marathon in spite of the armed guards and razor wire.)

On a related issue, on Thursday journalists around the world will remember Taras Protsiuk of Reuters and José Couso from Spanish network Telecinco, who were killed a year ago in an attack by American forces on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad.

Andrew Sullivan is a clown. Glenn Reynolds is an even bigger clown. Recent postings by Tweedledum and Tweedledee show why.

Yesterday, Reynolds put up a posting linking to a claim on the Healing Iraq blog that "a coup d'etat is taking place in Iraq at the moment."

Sullivan saw it and got very excited, calling the report "a really big deal."

But Reynolds was confused about the "scoop." "I'm not seeing anything about this elsewhere yet" he whined.

There was a good reason why. The report was incorrect and premature...a fact later admitted by Healing Iraq blogger Zeyad, who updated to say that "everything is back under control."

Zeyad's lack of clarity in a confused and dangerous situation is perhaps forgivable. What's less forgivable, however, is for two supposedly "A-list" bloggers to jump on an unconfirmed report from a single source and present it as "news."

What's particularly ironic is that the blog entry was picked up by two people who were utterly scathing of the BBC over the Andrew Gilligan affair. Notice any similarities gentlemen?

Many people see blogs as the future of news -- ordinary people on the ground recording events as they happen and replacing all those overpaid "professional" journalists. It's an interesting and important debate -- but in this brave new media world a little old fashioned Big Media editorial judgment and fact-checking never goes amiss.

I'm not sure quite how I happened upon it, but I've uncovered a nugget of amputee history.

It seems the earliest historical reference to an artificial limb can be found in Herodotus' Histories, written in 484 BC.

Herodotus talks of a Persian soldier, Hegesistratus, who was shackled in the stocks and cut of part of his foot in order to escape> He walked with the aid of a prosthesis made out of wood.

Herodotus writes:

"Hegesistratus, I say, did a deed for which no words suffice.

"He had been set with one foot in the stocks, which were of wood but bound with iron bands; and in this condition received from without an iron implement, wherewith he contrived to accomplish the most courageous deed upon record.

"Calculating how much of his foot he would be able to draw through the hole, he cut off the front portion with his own hand....When his wound was healed, he procured himself a wooden foot, and became an open enemy to Sparta."
(Source: Herodotus Website)

Monday, April 05, 2004

Most major news organisations are focusing this week on the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, which began ten years ago tomorrow when a plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents was shot down.

The crash acted as the trigger for Hutu extremists to try to wipe out the Tutsi minority.

In just 100 days an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered while the rest of the world stood by.

Many reports are rightly highlighting the pivotal role the media played in fuelling the genocide with the notorious "hate radio" station RTLM in particular playing a central part in the massacres.

But as the Boston Globe explains, a decade on, freedom of the press is a distant dream in Rwanda.

Meanwhile, press freedom -- or the perceived lack of it -- is a contributory factor in the upsurge in violent anti-coalition protests across Iraq.

A week ago, the coalition closed Moqtada Sadr's al-Hawza newspaper on the grounds that it was inciting violence. Then, the International Federation of Journalists warned that the shut-down could be counter-productive because it smacked of censorship and would "do nothing to build confidence in a culture of openness."

Sadly but perhaps predictably, the IFJ has been proved right.
Thanks to Nic for drawing attention to News Designer,a blog I hadn't come across before.

It's written -- aptly enough -- by a newspaper designer and it has some fascinating insights into how papers use images and headlines to mould their coverage.

Check out his deconstruction of the Falluja and Madrid bombing photos.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Jim e-mails from Tehran with news of the gathering at Kaveh's grave to mark one year since he died.

He writes:

"It is still hard to believe what happened; it still has that element of unreality and disbelief about it.

"We had a little gathering up in Afjeh on Friday - though for Iranians, the anniversary was Thursday: It's a leap year, but the Iranian calendar doesn't add in the extra day till the end of the year so there's a one-day discrepancy because of the intrusion of 29 Feb. But because the Iranian day it happened - the 13th of Favardin, known as Sizda Bedar - is the day everybody has to get out of the house and have a picnic they did the commemoration on Friday anyway to avoid roads clogged by merry picnickers.

"There's been quite a lot of commemorative write-ups in the local papers. There was no ceremony or speeches, just people standing round and remembering. Kaveh was never much of a one for formalities."

Kav's family and friends laid flowers on his grave (which I visited myself in February) to mark the anniversary.

There's a one year on tribute to Kaveh here.

Friday, April 02, 2004


At around this time, exactly one year ago, in a minefield in Northern Iraq, Mr Stumpy was born.

Today marks a year since I stepped on the landmine that changed my life. Technically, I suppose Mr S's birthday is on Tuesday, when the operation took place, but April 2nd is when it all started.

As I've written before, journalists love anniversaries -- 100 days in power, one year on from 9/11, 10 years since the Rwanda genocide. Because of this, I feel almost obliged to feel different today.

But I don't.

Over the past week I've been undecided whether it's a day for celebration or sadness.

It's a time for reflection on what happened to Kaveh, of course.

Mainly, though, today feels like just another day -- although not in a bad way.

My leg still hasn't grown back, which is a shame, but looking back on the year gone by so many wonderful things have happened, many of which wouldn't have occured had the accident not happened.

I've been able to draw attention to the landmine issue, to write and broadcast on the subject and to visit places like Cambodia. The support I've had from family and friends has been overwhelming.

One year on I'm walking, working as before and life goes on -- changed and even enriched rather than diminished by what happened. The fact that I don't feel any different today is a sign, I think, that the worst is over and that there's a bright future ahead.

So on balance I think it's a day to celebrate -- and this evening that's just what I'll do.


Thursday, April 01, 2004

Another Iraq war survivor is getting the "One Year On" treatment -- former American POW Jessica Lynch.

Reflecting on the year gone by, the former Wirt County Miss Congeniality says: "I do want my life back to normal, because it's hard ? it's so hard. But at the same time I'm like ? wow, I get to go to New York, I get to go to Hollywood. I get to hang out with people like Britney and Leonardo."

Clearly, Jessica Lynch's life-changing experience has made her a deeper, more philosophical and more spiritual person.
From the prestigious page 39 of today's South Wales Echo, squeezed between Spot the Ball and the death notices....I'll let Alex have her own say on what she thinks about what the subs did to her copy.

It's a 1.6Mb pdf file:

South Wales Echo: The Fight Goes On For Stu
Most of us think of refugee camps as bleak, temporary places made up of tents filled with wretched souls.

But doing some research for my proposed trip to Zambia and Angola it became clear that not all refugee camps are the same.

I'm hoping to visit the Meheba camp in northwestern Zambia. It was only when I read this report that I realised what a huge place it is.

It is, in effect, a town -- with more than 30,000 people living there, mud-brick houses, schools and its own system of self-government. It takes a hour to drive from one side to the other.

If I manage to get there, a key part of the story will be looking at how Angolan families who have spent most of their lives living in the camp in Zambia adapt on returning to a homeland many of them have never known.

The Israeli government does itself absolutely no favours by accusing my colleague Orla Guerin of anti-semitism for daring to draw attention to the potential public relations advantage for Israel from the arrest last week of a teenage would-be suicide bomber.

The Israeli minister for diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, shows astounding dishonesty in claiming that Orla has "a deep-seated bias against Israel" because she noted that a child with learning difficulties had been paraded in front of the world's media. What Mr Sharansky doesn't make clear is that Hassam Abdu was presented to international reporters at the Hawara checkpoint near Nablus some hours after he was apprehended (Source: ABC News).

The day after Hassan Abdu was arrested, the New York Times outlined how events unfolded:

"In the propaganda battle that is always a component of the Middle East conflict, Israel is swift to highlight the Palestinian use of youths barely in their teens. In this case much of the drama was recorded by an Associated Press Television News cameraman, a Palestinian, who was among those waiting to cross the checkpoint....

"...As the rest of the story unfolded, it was captured on tape by the cameraman....

"...Israeli military and government officials immediately invited journalists to the scene and then placed Hussam on display for several minutes."

There are two points:
1) The BBC wasn't the only media outlet to draw attention to the way Hussam Abdu's capture was presented to the international media -- so why is the Corporation being singled out for criticism?
2) It is utterly ridiculous to claim that noting the fact that a child with learning difficulties was deliberately presented to journalists -- who were invited by press officers to the checkpoint -- shows anti-semitism and a "deep seated bias against Israel." Mr Sharansky's crying wolf routine seriously undermines the campaign against genuine anti-semitism, which is on the rise across Europe.

More troubling by far, though, is the call by some Israeli newspapers for the explusion of foreign reporters who didn't cover the story.

Criticising the foreign media is one thing -- but trying to interefere in their editorial decisions is another.

Meanwhile, there's much discussion in newsrooms over yesterday's "Mogadishu Moment" -- the graphic TV footage showing the mutilation of the bodies of four American contractors in Falluja.

My feeling is that in the right context, at a suitable time of day and preceded with a proper health warning, showing the pictures is justified (provided the next of kin of those killed have been informed.)

The danger, though, is that if the 24 hour news channels take graphic footage and repeat it time and time again as part of their non-stop coverage the pictures quickly lose their power to shock and become little more than wallpaper.