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Updated: 8 months 2 weeks ago

Seven African governments employ surveillance spyware, says new study

Thu, 12/10/2020 - 15:01

The snooping technique tracks phones and intercepts calls and texts

A map from the Citizen Lab showing countries using of Circle's spyware

The governments of seven African countries — Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Zambia, and Zimbabwe — are using spyware technology, according to a new report by Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary research unit at the University of Toronto, Canada.

The study has identified at least 25 countries around the world that have deployed surveillance software produced by Circles, a firm affiliated with Israel's NSO Group. The study says Circles claim to only deal with nation-states.

The report, written by Bill Marczak and four others, discovered “a unique signature associated with the hostnames of Check Point firewalls used in Circles deployments, enabling us to identify Circles deployments.” Check Point is a leading American-Israeli cybersecurity firm.

According to the study, Circles’ technology operates by exploiting a common signal flaw in the global mobile phone system to enable call and text snooping as well as tracking of phones.

The snooping technique used by Circles is called Signaling System 7 (SS7), a “protocol suite developed in 1975 for exchanging information and routing phone calls between different wireline telecommunications companies,” the report says. SS7 is currently used in 2G and 3G mobile networks during cross-border billing for roamed calls. 

Thomas Brewster, a cybersecurity analyst at Forbes who reported on the Citizen Lab study, further explains that when one travels to another country, “the SS7 network is used to move your phone over to a partner telecoms provider and adjust billing accordingly.” However, a twist occurs in this normal process if “a surveillance vendor” is able to access the SS7 networks, “either via hacking or acquiring it.” The SS7 then sends “commands to a subscriber’s ‘home network’ falsely indicating the subscriber is roaming. That will, in turn, reveal their location, though only the coordinates of the cell tower closest to the phone,” says Brewster. 

Circle's clients in Africa identified by Citizen Lab are the following: Botswana’s Directorate of Intelligence and Security Service (DISS), Morocco’s Ministry of Interior, Nigeria’s Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), and an unknown agency in Zambia.  

US in Syria: What to expect of the new administration?

Tue, 12/08/2020 - 20:53

Incoming US administration won't take leaps in Syria

Atmeh refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria. Photo by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

As the four-year term of US President Donald Trump nears its end, what will the new administration mean for Syria's dragging war and its embattled population? Although Trump officially ordered a comprehensive US withdrawal of troops from Syria over the last four years, the civil war remains an important issue for the US administration, as exemplified by its anti-terrorist missions over the last few months.

It is likely that US President-elect Joe Biden would bring new considerations to the US’ position on the conflict without imposing significant changes on the ground.

In an interview last month with Defense One, Jim Jeffrey, former US defense adviser on Syria, ruled out a potential full “US withdrawal” from Syria, despite Trump's orders, saying, “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there.” According to Jeffrey, US activity in Syria never diminished under the Trump administration and remains prominent despite recent calls for troops reduction on the ground.

In fact, US forces extended their scope, carrying out regular anti-terrorism missions from Iraqi bases alongside Washington-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Officially, the Pentagon only granted US presence for 200 soldiers on the ground. Nonetheless, according to a New York Times report in October 2019, US forces could currently reach 900 troops in Syria alone. Amid recent policies aimed at securing territory control and combatting terrorism, it is increasingly likely that US forces on the ground will be reinforced.

An example of such operations is last month's destruction of an ISIS camp in the Badiyah desert by a US-led aircraft from the international coalition, while some additional US military vehicles were rolled into eastern Syria. In the first week of November, 14 operations were carried out targeting terrorist groups in the area, while recent reports from Operation Inherent Resolve illustrate the necessity of maintaining a regular presence on the battlefield to combat what they described as ISIS’ still-active pockets on the ground. Large scale fighting was also recently reported between ISIS forces and pro-regime fighters near Deir ez Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria.

Perhaps last month's announcement by US Senator Lindsey Graham and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of an oil contract between the SDF and a US oil firm will add further backing for more US deployments to Syria. In addition to spearheading operations against terrorist threats to its regional interest and allies, the Syrian war's relevance to the US administration stems from Washington's pressing desire to scale down Russian territorial expansion in the region, since Moscow remains the Syrian regime's key supporter. Hence, Washington continues to back Kurdish forces against direct military confrontations involving Russian mercenaries.

Biden has yet to put forward his future Middle East policy as a campaign argument, so his military policy in Syria remains unclear. But last month, the upcoming US president noted he would keep up to 2,000 US boots in troubled parts of the Middle East, focusing mainly on “special forces” and that these forces “should not meddle in the political dynamics of the countries where they operate.” More generally, Biden said he will shape foreign policy based on “American interests.”

Biden appears aligned with the Trump administration on sanctions in Syria. In some of his pre-campaign interviews, Biden said he does not plan to modify or repeal the Caesar Act, a set of sanctions on Syria recently approved by the US Congress, and will “keep the US sanctions on the Syrian regime and the entities that deal with it in place.” Nonetheless, Biden's advisers recently raised the possibility of exceptions on humanitarian grounds to ensure aid to “Syrians in need.”

The main difference between Trump's and Biden's administration regarding Syria will probably reside with human rights. Kamala Harris, the US vice president-elect, rose against Trump's decision in 2019 to withdraw from Syria, following Turkey's operation Peace Spring. Anthony Blinken, the future secretary of state of Biden's administration, also shares this view. In an article for the Brooking Institute last year, he described the US’ military policy in Syria as an “error of doing too little.” He notably warned: “If the retreat from Syria announced by Trump proceeds, we will likely see the return of the Islamic State as well.”

In an interview with CBS last May, Blinken said Obama's administration, in which he served as deputy Secretary of State and former Deputy National Security Adviser, had “failed” the Syrians, and the US policy toward the war had since worsened, particularly by Washington abandoning its Kurdish allies. According to a transcript of the interview, he said: “We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement of people internally in Syria and, of course, externally as refugees,” adding that Biden's administration will try to regain traction with a closer eye on the humanitarian angle.

The new US administration could pay much more attention to the situation in Kurdish controlled areas, compared with Trump's “laissez-faire” policy toward Turkish forces in the area. Harris had also raised in favor of a US intervention in Syria, particularly following chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime in 2017.

Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria, even suggests that the Biden administration will provide the Kurdish community with an essential backing for the “recognition of a Kurdish state worldwide.” Sinam Mohammad, Syrian Democratic Forces’ political representative to the United States, recently told VOA

SDF hopes the Biden administration will bring more political support for us to be included in talks that will determine our future and that of Syria as a whole.

As such, Biden's approach toward the Syrian conflict is expected to clash with Turkey, another key player in the Syrian war. While Biden's administration is an SDF ally, Ankara's current extensive policy has been against this Kurdish-Arab alliance in northern Syria which it considers a “terrorist group.” On the contrary, Trump had referred to the Kurds last year as “natural enemies.” Jim Jeffrey, the former US defense adviser on Syria, confirmed in his November interview with Defense One that no one in Washington had given any guarantee for the Kurds against Turkey, limiting such cooperation.

Following Biden's election, diverse commentators predicted bumpy US-Turkey relationships over what they forecasted as US support for Kurdish territory enforcement in the region.

Within the humanitarian context, Biden's administration also plans to implement current US refugee policy. While the outgoing administration had lowered the cap to 15,000 refugees for the fiscal year 2021, which is an all-time low, Biden promised to “set the annual global refugee admissions cap to 125,000, and seek to raise it over time.”

The power of ‘personal experience': An interview with Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil

Fri, 12/04/2020 - 03:07

Youssef Nabil, Egypt. Photography, Contemporary Art, Venice, Italy, New York

Youssef Nabil, Self-portrait, Essaouira, 2011. Hand-colored gelatin silver print, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

The Palazzo Grassi Museum in Venice, Italy, is hosting an exhibition of more than 120 photographs and three films by the renowned Egyptian artist, Youssef Nabil, until January 10, 2021. “Once Upon a Dream,” curated by Matthieu Humery and Jean-Jacques Aillagon, “gathers together more than 120 works that trace the artist's whole career.”

Born in Egypt in 1972, Nabil is one of the world's most iconic photographers and artists, whose works have been featured in exhibitions and museums worldwide in the past decade. Nabil paints on black-and-white photos and creates compositions that depict his subjects as unattainable. His technique mixes painting and photography, inspired by hand-painted movie posters of the 1940s and 1950s, and is reminiscent of the pre-digital world.

Nabil's photographs are a combination of nostalgia and idealism, deconstruction and beauty, reality and illusion, and ultimately, the product of the photographer's sensitive intervention in shaping the final work. In the process of forming his work, painting is as important as photography. He says that each of his photographs is the product of his personal connection with the subject—a relationship that differs from one photo to another and which ultimately makes every photo different from another.

Nabil eventually turned to making films. In an interview with Global Voices, he explains his use of this new medium for artistic expression, his photography, and his relationship with Egypt.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Youssef Nabil at his exhibition at Palazzo Grassi Museum in Venice, Italy, September 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist, ©Matteo De Fina

Omid Memarian: You are well known for your photography and your portrait-paintings, in particular. You have also made three films, Arabian Happy Ending (2016), I Saved My Belly Dancer (2015), and You Never Left (2010). What does making a movie give you, as a medium, that you don’t get from photography?

Youssef Nabil: In my mind, I’m always making a film when I’m doing my photography. I always prepare in a way that I’m telling a story. I take care of every detail. I want the photos to feel like scenes taken from a film. So films have been the inspiration behind my photography and the reason I started taking pictures in the first place. Even technically, the painting on my photography comes from the cinema, from the old hand-painted movie posters, portraits of movie stars, and Technicolor films. I wanted this vintage feeling to be in my photography, with a contemporary approach. I never wanted to use color film. We are talking about a time before the digital era. In the early 90s, everybody used color film, and I still wanted to shoot in black and white and use the same old photography technique for painting. So moving from photography to films was a natural progression. It was something that had to come. Now I’m thinking of doing a long feature.

Youssef Nabil, Marina Abramović, New York, 2011. Hand-colored gelatin silver print, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

OM: How did you start doing portrait photography?

YN: They are the people I wanted to meet: all the actors and actresses are iconic figures I grew up watching on TV and in the cinema. I just wanted to meet these people because I have this significant awareness of the moment, an awareness of the time people die, as those did before us and the ones after us. I discovered this at a very young age, and for me, the camera was maybe the only medium that could freeze a moment and make it eternal. Whether they were actors or my friends and members of my family or even myself, for me, it’s an encounter, a meeting, a moment with people I might meet once, and whatever is left is the work we did together.

OM: You grew up in Egypt and left in 2003 when you moved to Paris for an art residency, and then lived in New York from 2006 until 2018. How has your upbringing affected your art, mainly your uniquely hand-painted portraits?

YN: All my work, whether it's the technique or the subjects, comes from my personal experience. What inspired me to paint my photos came from Egypt. When I was a kid growing up, I used to sit in the back of my family's car. My favorite thing was to spot and watch all the movie billboards along the way. Cairo was big in cinema. We called it “Hollywood on the Nile.” I grew up watching all those movie posters in the streets, all hand-painted. At our house, we also had a lot of hand-painted family portraits. I wanted to keep that in my work. It comes from the experience that I was in touch with and what life offered me over there.

I wanted to study art or cinema, but for two years, every art school in Egypt rejected me. It was a difficult time for me, so I decided to make my own art. I called my friends from school, and I borrowed a camera and a few years later I wanted to paint the black and white pictures that I took of my friends. Being inspired by old films, I refused to use color films and learned how to paint black and white prints. I had to learn the technique from the old and last remaining studio “retouchers,” as they were called. I wanted my work to look like a painting. I loved the combination of photography and painting. Of course, I took all that with me from Egypt to New York. It came naturally, not something I decided to do.

Youssef Nabil, Self-portrait With Roots, Los Angeles, 2008. Hand-colored gelatin silver print, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

OM: How do you choose which color to use for a photo?

YN: It's a very personal and spontaneous decision. I like a certain degree of the color blue, and I use it a lot in my work, and from that, a lot of people now can tell it's my work. And the same with the skin color or a particular red that I like and I use a lot. All decisions that I make are very personal.

OM: All three of your movies deal with social issues of our time in a troubled region: from speaking of sexuality to exploring the feeling of “leaving and longing, many years after you left Egypt, to freedom. What has been the reaction of the art world to raising these issues in your work? Has this also affected how you do your photography now?

YN: When I talk about personal feelings or personal experiences, concerns, and the culture I come from, I always try to link it on a universal level. So everyone can relate to it. In “I Saved My Belly Dancer,” I talked about this art being always attacked indirectly by some people in the Middle East because they say, it’s immoral. The film is more about what you want to save in your memory to live with you, even if it’s no longer a part of reality. In my case, I chose to speak about a belly dancer. It could be someone you love that is no longer a part of your life or memories from childhood in your country that do not exist in the country you choose to live in. So for me, it was about memory. In “You Never Left,” I’m talking about the idea of when you decide to leave home and go somewhere else, your country never leaves you. I felt a mini death happening to me, and I had to be born again in a new place, and I think anyone who decides to choose a new place as a home can relate to it.

Youssef Nabil, Your Life Was Just A Dream, 2019. Hand-colored gelatin silver print, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

OM: In your photos, you somehow remove the element of time and reality and take them to a unique space that seems to belong to our memories. What’s your thought process in creating such qualities?

YN: I never plant it. Some things come from me, my character, my life, how I see people, how I express myself, how I want the message to be felt and seen, and all the things that I cannot put into words. That’s why I take pictures. That is my vision of the world I want to share. That’s probably why I don’t make people laugh or why I photograph myself from the back. I don’t decide these things. Even with paintings, how can you choose when the work is done? When it says what you wanted to say. So I make decisions in a very natural and spontaneous way.

Youssef Nabil, Catherine Deneuve, Paris, 2010. Hand-colored gelatin silver print, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/ Brussels

OM: Which artists have the most influence on your work? And how have they shaped your artistic experience and the way you look at art?

YN: It’s definitely cinema that shaped my vision. Old movies. Whether Egyptian, European, or American. I grew up in the 80s in Cairo. That was before the internet, cable TV, and mobile phones. Later on, I learned about other artists, especially in New York, like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring. I was very interested in what was going on with the American art movement in the 80s. Especially Andy Warhol, but I don’t want to say that he is my inspiration. In the 90s I went to New York and discovered more artists; Frida Kahlo’s first biography book was just out in March 1993, and I was reading that in New York and I was very touched, moved, and fascinated by her story because she was mainly turning her pain into art, she was only making art related to her personal life. I love Jean-Michel Basquiat. I love every artist whose work is personal—no matter their medium or what they do. I just need to feel that there is something personal.

Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana are the Pinault Collection‘s contemporary art museums in Venice, Italy.

The importance of ‘unlearning’ the past: Interview with Balkans expert Keith Brown

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 12:50

‘Critical thinking demands, as an early step, recognition of one’s own blinkers, prejudices and areas of ignorance’

Prof. Keith Brown, Arizona State University. Photo used with his permission.

This story was originally published by An edited version is republished here via a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation. All links displayed in the interviewee's quotes were added by

Keith Brown is a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies. He is also director of The Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian & Eastern European Studies. With a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Chicago, Brown works primarily in the domain of culture, politics, and identity, focused on the Balkans.

Part of his extensive research on ethnonationalism and the role of national history in the region has been available to the public in North Macedonia via the translations of his books “The past in question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation” (2003) and “Loyal unto Death, Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia” (2013).

In an interview with portal, Brown explains the importance of critical thinking when learning history.

CriThink: How important is the application of critical thinking to history and anthropology?

Keith Brown (KB): Critical thinking is very important in both history and anthropology.  Skeptics and naysayers sometimes dismiss our methods as “soft” or trot out tired clichés like “history is written by the winners.” But evaluating and comparing sources, and weighing how cultural and social factors impact individual decisions, are essential components of both disciplines. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, historians and anthropologists recognize that meanings and horizons shift over time and across space.

This is especially important in the study of nationalism—a mode of political organization and identity formation that contributed to the break-up of multiconfessional empires in the 19th century, and which often seeks legitimacy by claiming ancient roots.  What makes it more complicated is that most nation-states place a high premium on communicating to their citizens a strong sense of shared history that distinguishes them from others. Often, it is easier for people to see the inconsistencies and distortions in their neighbors’ versions of the past, than to question or closely scrutinize the history that they think holds their own society together.

Critical thinking demands, as an early step, recognition of one’s own blinkers, prejudices and areas of ignorance. It also benefits from dialogue in which participants check their egos and agendas at the door, and measure success not by the points they score, but by the new ways of seeing they have helped generate for themselves or others.

CriThink: Political establishments in most Balkans states seem to insist on promoting the concept of “national history” based on selecting “positive,” and excluding “negative,” “facts” to create or maintain official narratives that are then used in public education textbooks. In the last 200 years, this dogmatic approach had often been used as justification for oppression towards “the others.” Is there another way to do history?

KB: History is an incredibly rich domain of study. In 2015, oral historian Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her work chronicling citizens’ voices from the end of the Soviet Union. Organizations like EuroClio—to which many history teachers from the Balkans and Eastern Europe belong—promote the study of global history, and encourage members and students to explore social, cultural and economic history. Courageous and open-minded historians are often leading critics of the exceptionalism on which national history is founded—including in the United States, through efforts like the 1619 project.

I think that these kind of approaches have enormous potential to transform people’s understandings of the past, and prompt reflection on how the present will look from the future. I am particularly excited by the promise of microhistory, as pioneered by Carlo Ginzburg, which draws out the broader human significance from the close study of an event or community.

English language editions of Keith Brown’s books “Loyal unto Death, Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia” (2013) and “The past in question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation” (2003).

CriThink: In your book “Loyal Unto Death: Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia,” you note facing challenges of unreliability or bias in available historical sources, including the correspondence of British consuls preserved as microfilms by the Museum of Macedonian Struggle in Greece; or the applications for pensions submitted to the new Macedonian state by the elderly who survived revolutions between 1948 and 1956, preserved in the State Archive of North Macedonia. How did you deal with that challenge of extracting useful information from these records?

KB: I first read many of these sources while I was a graduate student in anthropology. Conscious that the Ilinden Uprising of 1903 had been interpreted differently by scholars for whom the correct context was Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, Albanian, Yugoslav, Ottoman, Balkan or Macedonian history, I wanted to get as close to the period as I could, by engaging closely with sources that, in one way or another, stood outside these frames of reference.

I was struck, for example, by the fact that according to the records of the National Archive in Skopje, only a handful of scholars had sought access to the Ilinden dossier of biographies. My understanding was that these sources were discounted because, self-evidently, they were self-interested. The British, French, German and American diplomatic and consular records from Ottoman Macedonia, by contrast, are often treated as wholly dispassionate, objective and clinical accounts, as if their authors were scientifically trained medical professionals, diagnosing the ills of an empire on its death-bed. In writing “Loyal Unto Death,” I took an alternative, subversive approach toward these two sets of sources.  Whether or not individual pension-seekers amplified their own roles, or edited out those elements that might weaken their case for state recognition, their accounts drew from their own or their age-mates’ experiences and understandings.  No-one lied about the organizational structure of the revolutionary organization, the methods of recruitment, or the logistics of acquiring weapons or distributing information and supplies: what would be the self-interest in doing so? Thus they provide us, individually but even more so in aggregate, with a sense of the shared day-to-day experience of participation in a resistance and rebellion.

British consular accounts, often read as if magisterial, reflect their individual authors’ biographies, perspectives and access to sources: Alfred Biliotti was a naturalized British citizen born in Rhodes who had worked his way up from the position of dragoman and had close ties with Ottoman and Greek authorities, whereas James McGregor knew Bulgarian and expressed the view that the Organization commanded strong support. Their accounts diverge or clash. This is not to say that all sources or accounts are equally valid or suspect.  It is rather to argue that we need to get past our own cultural preconceptions, whether they tell us “peasants lie” or “diplomats are cynical careerists,” and remain alert to the ways they can surprise us.

Macedonian language editions of Keith Brown’s books “The past in question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation” (2010) and “Loyal unto Death, Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia” (2014).

CriThink: Lacking a viable time machine, it’s hard to precisely determine the “national consciousness” of historical figures, given the non-existing, censored, fabricated, or conflicting records, their interpretations, as well as changed meanings of some of the language used at the time. Which critical thinking skills need to be nurtured across the region to help resolve such issues?

KB: In “The Past in Question,” I chose to use the language of the British consular sources rather than update or modify it, and to try to translate sources in Greek and Bulgarian into the English of that time, rather than of the early 21st century.  I thus used terms like “Bulgar,” “Arnaut,” “Mijak” and “Exarchist” seeking in this way to remind readers of the very different world of the late nineteenth century; when “Greece” referred to a territory roughly half the size of modern Greece; when only a small fraction of people who would call themselves “Bulgars” owed loyalty to the Ottoman-administered “Bulgaria” with its capital in Sofia; when the Sultan sought to restrict the use of the Albanian language, and the term “Macedonia;” and when the prospect of an alliance of convenience between the ambitious nation-states of Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece to carve up and nationalize Ottoman territory surely seemed absurd to most.

For me, critical thinking demands, paradoxically, that we try to unlearn what actually happened since the period we are trying to understand; or at least, allow it to strike us as surprising or at least non-inevitable. This then concentrates our attention on the factors that drive outcomes. It also liberates us from the illusion that figures in the past—like Ilinden-era figures Goce Delchev, Nikola Karev, Damjan Gruev or Boris Sarafov—imagined their own identity in terms of the nationalisms of their future.

Keith Brown and the historian Irena Stefoska at the promotion of the Macedonian edition of the book The past in question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation in December 2010. Photo by Vančo Džambaski, CC BY-NC-SA.

CriThink: Yet such issues seem to grow into central points of a slippery slope of international disputes, from Goce Delchev (Bulgaria-North Macedonia) to Nikola Tesla (Serbia-Croatia), Skanderbeg (Greece-Albania), Njegoš (Montenegro-Serbia) to King Marko (North Macedonia-Serbia-Bulgaria). Is there a way to resolve such issues at some higher, more objective level, rather than just between conflicting states, and based on their power?

KB: Social scientists, including historians (and I’d include myself in this assessment) don’t always keep up to date with developments in other disciplines and fields.  This manifests itself in approaches rooted in the conventions of 19th century Newtonian sciences, with a focus on breaking down complex reality into experimental-size pieces, where we can test hypotheses in an “either/or” mode to determine cause and effect, the rules of energy transfer and transformation, and so on. Contemporary theoretical and experimental science, though, have moved far beyond this paradigm; into the world of quarks, bosons and quantum mechanics, where non-specialists can barely follow. Ask the average person where they stand on the wave-particle duality, and you’re probably in for a short conversation. It requires thinking in “both/and” terms that demands effort, and also a realignment of deeply held common-sense. But this lack of public understanding doesn’t prevent physicists from pursuing their work and generating new insight into the workings of the universe.

Balkan history has been shaped by the territorial ambitions and disputes of the last century, and so has become a zero-sum game; it also has quasi-religious aspects, insofar as current debates reveal an implicit concern with purity and pollution underlying accusations around loyalty and betrayal. Grievances and disputes escalate; and (to pursue the game metaphor) there is no mechanism, in this case, by which both sides would agree to invest a referee with the authority to call the game fairly; the stakes are seen as too high.

An alternative view would be that the dispute over Goce Delchev’s “true” identity, for example, is a classic case of the prisoner’s dilemma game; in which both sides fear that by surrendering their claim to ownership they will lose and the other side will win (Bragging rights? Prestige? The mantle of “true” nationhood?), but the consequence of their refusal to acknowledge ambiguity is that both sides are seen as intransigent or blinkered in the wider community of nations.

CriThink: Would some sort of International Scientific Tribunal need to be developed to prevent escalations, akin to tribunals used to provide closure for conflicts involving genocide and war crimes (Rwanda, Former Yugoslavia)?

KB: I don’t see value in an external tribunal offering some authoritative closure: for me, that’s not how history (or science) work.  All findings are contingent and provisional: they are contributions to an ongoing exchange, the ultimate goal of which is not to set some conclusion in stone, but provide material that can open new horizons and perspectives.

CriThink: In the Balkans, contrary to the inherent role of professional journalists as promotors of democracy, the media often serve as amplifiers of the most radical and polarizing nationalistic views about history. Is there a way to embed critical thinking about history in the mainstream media sphere?

KB: My own fantasy solution is something like what a group of Macedonian youth leaders did in the second half of the 1980s with the Youth Film Forum (Mladinski filmski forum), and set up learning opportunities through engagement with film, literature and other prompts.  What would happen, for example, if Bulgarian and Macedonian historians and journalists watched “Rashomon” together? Or undertook a joint project (perhaps with Albanian colleagues) on the economic, psychological and social effects of gurbet/pečalba? Or conducted a close joint study of the United States 1619 project? I believe they would emerge with a shared vocabulary to address issues of contingency, ambiguity, trauma and structural violence that are shared across the Balkan region—and beyond.

Ali Banisadr and the art of ‘visual thinking’

Thu, 10/22/2020 - 22:45

A combination of harmony, chaos and unique Interpretations

Red, 2020, Oil on Linen, 48 x 60 inches, courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery

Ali Banisadr’s MATRIX 185 exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is the Iranian-American artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the US. The exhibition opened on October 22, 2020, and will run through February 14, 2021.

Ten paintings and two prints by Banisadr join a selection of works from the Wadsworth collection chosen by the artist, as well as a video collage that Banisadr created to show additional works from the museum’s collection. The visual and narrative content of his works is shaped by his exposure to war, pop culture, cinema, graphic novels and European painting. He told The Met that he paints the sounds and sights of war.

Banisadr was born in Tehran in 1976, and moved to the United States when he was 12, during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In 2000, he moved to New York, earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts, and later his Masters from the New York Academy of Art. 

At 44, he is one of the most promising and successful artists in the US, and his paintings are collected by major museums around the world, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Centre Pompidou in Paris, and The British Museum in London.

The Caravan, 2020, Oil on Linen, 66 x 88 inches, courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery

Banisadr’s paintings are aesthetically beautiful and conceptually mesmerizing and multilayered. They invite the viewer to visit an imaginary world with familiar and unfamiliar elements that create a labyrinth of meaning, form and color. His paintings might also be reminiscent of giants like Francisco Goya, Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch, although in many ways his energy, symbolic language, environments and characters, as well as the cryptic and coded world he creates, make him stand alone. He creates a magical combination of harmony and chaos that keeps the viewer outside the door, and invites a personal and unique interpretation. 

Excerpts from the interview follow:  

Omid Memarian: You work on one painting at a time. Why and how does that work?

Ali Banisadr: When I begin a new painting, it becomes a very involved process. Once I start a painting, we open up a dialogue that leads to a lot of research, reading, looking at art works in relation to the painting in progress, etc. My mind becomes very much occupied by the painting and if I opened another dialogue with another painting, it would just become overwhelming.

OM: You spent your childhood in Iran and moved to San Diego when you were 12 years old. How did your experiences in Iran affect what you did later, particularly in pursuing art, painting, and life in the US?

AB: It's hard to say. Of course, everything you experience in some way affects your work. One thing I can say is that it is helpful to be able to think about things through the lenses of two different cultures at once. Instead of having just one point of view, you can listen to different voices which may sometimes be in opposition. I feel it's a healthy way to understand the world and I've always liked the idea of multiple points of view. There is never just one way or a single answer.

The Prophet, 2020, Oil on Linen, 66×88 inches

OM: In 2000, you moved to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts, and later you received your Masters in Fine Arts from New York Academy of Art. How did school change or shape your vision and contribute to your creativity and work?

AB: When I went to school I was ready to learn as much as I could. I was thirsty for it because I had spent a lot of time experimenting on my own to get an understanding of what lies inside of myself and what it wants. Then I just had to learn some structure to be able to unveil it.

OM: You are one of the most talented and also successful current artists in the US, and your works have been exhibited/collected by major museums/collectors. How has this level of success affected your work? 

AB: When I am painting, my goal is to turn off my rational thinking—”the voices of others,” as Guston has said—and to think in a different way—visual thinking. So I don't think these external forces factor into my practice of painting.

OM: What’s your definition of success for art and artists?

AB: Each work should be better than the last one; each work should teach me new things.

Only Breath, 2020, Oil on Linen, 16 x 20 inches, courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery

OM: How do you describe your technique and style of storytelling in your paintings in relation to others whom you might have studied or been influenced by?

AB: In this case, I would just refer to the paintings themselves. It is a hard thing for me to try to break down words; one has to simply look at the paintings, and all those traces of past, present and future can reveal themselves, but they come and go like dreams, not easy to grasp and pin down.

OM: How about the Iranian 19th-century tradition of coffee-house painting? How much did you know about this tradition when growing up and after? Was it part of your visual imagination at all? 

AB: It is a very interesting way to be able to tell a story; what I like about it is that they are worlds within worlds. You can have the same person shown in the story when they are young and then when they are old. It's a bit like a time machine, which I appreciate and think about within my own work.

OM: Good music and novels have been two of your sources of inspiration. How have they found a way into your painting?

AB: Music goes inside of my body and it turns into visual worlds. Novels and poetry can also provoke powerful imagery but also create a musical orchestra. Films can have a combination of sounds and imagery, but also movement. They are all a point of reference that comes and goes as I am painting. Since I don't use any references, they sort of become a part of my visual vocabulary to refer to when I am working.

OM: What’s your intellectual and creative process in setting the scene that makes every painting share common characteristics and, in particular, the highest level of symbolism?

AB: Each time I start working, it's like a dive into the abyss and the unknown. When I am not painting, I am doing a lot of research based on the content I am interested in at the time—this can be triggered by a current event topic, but I am not just satisfied with that immediate topic. I like to research its history, see echoes of it in the past, in books written about the subject, art which was made about the subject, so, in a way, I fall into a rabbit hole of research with each painting and these contents may or may not work their way into the painting.

Fields of Energy, 2019, Oil on Linen, 66 x 88 inches, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac

OM: In an interview, you recently said, “I want my paintings to have that feeling of metamorphosis, where you're looking at things becoming something else. Because that's the truest mirror of imagination and memory and dreams—things are always changing.” How did such a philosophy grow within you, and what elements helped shape it? 

AB: I was always interested in how imagination, memory, dreams and hallucinations work. All these elements have shaped our world and connect us with things that go beyond our rational thinking. This fascinates me.

OM: What is the title of your 2019 painting, Thought Police, refer to?

AB: The title refers to George Orwell's 1984 novel which I have been thinking alot about lately, such a prophetic novel, especially for our time!

Ali Banisadr has also curated part of the Wadsworth's collection (Goya, William Blake, Hiroshige, Max Ernst, etc). He has a solo show coming up at the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece, from November 3 until January 30, 2021, and also has an upcoming monograph, published by Rizzoli, to be released next spring, to coincide with an exhibition at Kasmin Gallery in New York.

Photo Credits: Jeffrey Sturges and Adam Reich 

New book tells stories of suffering and resistance from Iran’s female prisons

Thu, 10/15/2020 - 16:53

13 female political prisoners from Iran share their stories

An illustration depicting Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi being congratulated upon her release from prison, while other Iranian women are arrested. By Assad Binakhahi, Germany-based cartoonist. Used with permission

Content warning: This story includes descriptions of torture that some readers might find disturbing.

White torture is a psychological torture technique in which inmates are held in all-white cells for very long periods of time. It is aimed at producing complete sensory deprivation and isolation in the victim. It is one of the torture methods used in Iranian prisons, alongside physical torture.

It is also the name of a new book by Narges Mohammadi, a leading Iranian human rights activist and journalist. “White Torture,” printed in Persian by Swedish publisher Baran, features interviews with 12 female political prisoners, as well as the experiences of the author, who spent eight and a half years in an Iranian prison herself.

The 12 interviewees are journalists, members of religious minorities groups, and political activists. Their stories reveal the appalling state of Iranian prisons: Disastrous sanitary conditions and tiny and lightless cells are commonplace; prisoners face intentional deprivation of medical care, long hours of interrogation, threats to their family members, and the use of solitary cells as an instrument of torture.

Reza Kazemzadeh, a Belgium-based leading Iranian psychologist who works with victims of torture, wrote about the white torture technique:

It can be argued that if physical torture is used at the beginning of an arrest to make a prisoner talk (providing information), the purpose of the psychological torture is to infiltrate the identity and influence his or her personality in the long run.

The book reveals that the 12 women interviewed were not arrested for crimes they've committed, but because Iranian security and intelligence services consider them useful in investigations. They put these prisoners under extreme duress to extract confessions or force them into collaboration.

Those are the women Mohammadi interviews: Nigara AfsharzadehSima KianiSedigheh MoradiAtena DaemiMahvash Shahriari, Zahra Zahtabchi, Hengameh Shahidi,Reyhaneh Tabatabaei, Mary MohammadiNazila Nouri, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and Shokoofeh Yadollahi.

Cover of “White Torture,” a book by Narges Mohammadi. Photo used with permission.

Talking to ants

In the book, Mohammadi also tells of her own experiences in prison, including time in the solitary cell and interrogations. As she details, the interrogators usually had all the information they needed, but still demanded she declared resignation from Defenders of Human Rights Center, a group founded by prominent Iranian lawyers including Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi.

Mohammadi, who is also a campaigner against the death penalty, writes in the book:

The solitary cell is not just a location, but a place where all elements concur to make to have the imprisonment impact us. This includes the indifference of doctors towards our pain, blindfolding prisoners, dirty curtains, dead cockroaches on the floor, unfitting prison clothes, and long periods of sitting in interrogation cells.

Each prisoner reacts to the circumstances in a different way. Nigara Afsharzadeh, a Turkmen national given a five-year sentence in 2014 for alleged spying, explains how talking to the ants in her cell helped her cope: “I just wanted to share my cell with another living being,” she says.

Baha’i former prisoner of conscience Sima Kiani says: “I would rather be interrogated than be left alone in a cell.”

The interrogators also use medical and family information to pressure prisoners. Mahvash Shahriari, another Baha’i citizen who spent 10 years in prison, says threats made against her husband and son were “the most difficult” aspects of the interrogations.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British citizen, explains how she was denied medical care in prison, including prescribed medicine.

Christian convert Mary Mohammadi, who served six months in prison for being a member of a house church, tells how guards constantly insulted her, her parents, and her Christian faith. “They would call the church a gambling house,” she says.

The book explains how the interrogation tactics are aimed at turning prisoners into collaborators. An interrogator declared his love to Hangameh Shahidi, a journalist and women's rights activist, and asked her to marry him in exchange to closing her file. She rejected the offer harshly, saying she would rather serve her sentence than meeting him again.

In this context, several of those prisoners still managed to undertake hunger strikes to defend their dignity and rights.

Surviving trauma

For most prisoners, the psychological impact of torture persists for a long time. Mansour Borji, executive director of Article 18, a London-based Christian advocacy organization that helps former Christian prisoners overcoming trauma, told Global Voices:

Awareness about this kind of torture and the ways to identify the symptoms in victims’ behaviour and moods is key. It is essential that the victims, their families, and the broader community know about the root causes of the unusual behaviour in some specific circumstances and are able to react in an appropriate way. Former prisoners re-live trauma and suffering caused by torture repeatedly. You should not respond lightly to the way they react stressfully to the ring of a phone, or to some smells and noises. Awareness will help them gradually improve their mental wellbeing.

Kamran Ashtary, the director of Arseh Sevom, an organization promoting democracy, human rights, and civil society in Iran, himself a victim of torture as a teenager in an Iranian prison, tells Global Voices:

Any form of torture can cause psychological trauma. But it’s especially bad for young people under 25 because their brains are still forming. It becomes permanent and life-long (…). Unfortunately, for all of us who have experienced trauma, there is no returning to the people we once were. There is only finding ways to dim the nightmares.

A new ‘cyber defence’ system in Oman raises human rights concerns

Fri, 09/18/2020 - 17:34

The Cyber Defence Centre system legalises repressive patterns

A man holds his mobile phone at a fort in Oman. Photo via Pikist, license-free photos for design.

Editors note: This post was written by Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the MENA region.

While the world remains preoccupied with the repercussions of COVID-19, the Sultanate of Oman passed a new decree that further increases the authorities’ control over the internet. This will make it even harder for critics and dissidents to transmit critical information without putting themselves at additional risk. 

On June 10, Sultan Haitham bin Tarik issued decree No. 64 of 2020 establishing the Cyber Defence Centre, as a division that follows the Internal Security Service (ISS), notorious for its continous suppression of public freedoms, including freedom of expression on the internet. On June 14, the Official Gazette No. 1345 published the method of work of this centre, which includes 11 articles.

The Cyber Defence Centre system gives absolute control to the ISS over communication networks and information systems in the country. The decree makes the ISS head the de facto head of the Cyber Defence Centre.

It further gives authority to the Cyber Defence Centre to import advanced hardware and software that blocks websites or closely monitors the internet. The centre has the authority not only to monitor any electronic network in the country, but also to isolate it ”in order to address any threats that might harm the national security system, or the Sultanate’s economy, or its international and regional relations.”

The new decree means that the ISS fully controls the devices and data of all institutions and groups of society and may use this control to provide evidence and information about internet activists who express their opinions contrary to the government on public issues of concern. This may result in threatening and imprisoning internet activists, and using the judiciary against them if required.

Oman has several vague and broad laws in place that make it a crime to express dissent and criticise the authorities or the country's rulers.

For example, article 17 of the cybercrime law prescribes a prison term between one month and three years against those convicted of using information and communication technologies to distribute materials that “might prejudice or violate public ethics.” While article 19 punishes by the same prison sentence those found guilty of distributing and possessing content that “might prejudice the public order or religious values”.

On July 19, the Special Division of the ISS summoned internet activist Ghazi Al-Awlaki to a police station in Dhofar Government, as a result of his peaceful activities on social media. He was held until September 7, without access to a lawyer or his family.

The Cyber Defence Centre system is an open attempt to legalise Oman’s repressive patterns. This dangerous development, which violates the digital rights of all citizens, including Omani internet activists, has passed unnoticed and has not received any coverage by various media outlets.

The government in Oman should immediately rescind the decree establishing the Cyber Defence Centre system in order to preserve the open space for citizens to exercise their legitimate right to freedom of expression on the internet. The authorities must end all forms of repression against other opinions on the internet and offline.

The task of preserving the internet and making it a tool that contributes to building a prosperous future for all citizens must be entrusted to a group of independent academics and technologists in cooperation with the Ministry of Technology and Communications and other civil bodies specialised in internet governance so that the mission of security services is limited to addressing issues of a criminal nature only.

Lebanon protests: Authorities prey on digital spaces to silence criticism

Fri, 09/18/2020 - 17:12

‘Social media played a part in mobilizing the population’

Protestors in Tyre, Southern Lebanon, cheering to a female singer during a demonstration against government corruption and austerity measures on October 22, 2019. Credit: RomanDeckert via Wikimedia / CC BY-SA  4.0.

Editor's note: This article is part of UPROAR, a Small Media initiative that is urging governments to address digital rights challenges at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

As new protests erupt in Lebanon, online repression is set to continue.

In recent weeks, protests escalated as the country is crippled by the dire spill-overs of the 4 August Beirut port blast which damaged the city and left tens of thousands of people homeless in the Lebanese capital.

In the face of a reported death toll of 190 dead and more than 6000 injured, the population revolted against the political elite’s long-denounced graft over the government’s negligent mismanagement of the thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate that were reported to be the cause of the explosion. Dumped for six years in a compound of Beirut’s port, the ammonium nitrate was stored next to 15 tons of fireworks and several jugs of kerosene and hydrochloric acid, setting the stage for the 4 August tragedy.

So far, the Lebanese authorities have met with repression the population's demands for major political overhaul.

Government crackdown on the streets has been coupled by repression online. As critics to the political elite’s ingrained corruption skyrocketed across the internet, Lebanese authorities prey on online digital spaces — from social networks to messaging services — to restrain freedom of speech and opinion online and mitigate anti-regime outbreaks, a practice which has been long denounced by activists and human rights defendants.  

Since 2015, when anti-government protests rocked Lebanon over authorities’ mismanagement of waste, human rights activists have witnessed a surge in online repression against dissenters. 

On October 17, 2019, another wave of nationwide protests erupted, unveiling the population’s deep-rooted discontent. Yet again, protesters hold the corrupted political elite responsible for driving the country to the brink of collapse. 

This time demonstrations were sparked by the government’s attempt to introduce new taxes, including an umpteenth tax proposal on voice calls made through internet services such as WhatsApp, a freeware mobile application for messaging that is widely used in Lebanon, especially among young adults. Soon, the grievances turned into the largest anti-regime unrest that the country experienced in more than a decade. 

As societal turmoil spiraled, the government’s online repression intensified. While social media and WhatsApp have been extensively leveraged by demonstrators to organize, document, and sprawl the protest, Lebanese authorities have resorted to identifying and persecuting dissenters based on their online activities. 

Social Media Exchange (SMEX), a Lebanese nongovernmental organization that advocates for digital rights in the Middle East and North Africa, tracked the recent soaring of state’s repression using Muhal, an observatory for the documentation of violations of online freedom of speech, reporting approximately 44 cases between October 2019 and August 2020. 

Mariam al-Shafie, knowledge & impact manager at SMEX, told Global Voices:

Social media played a part in mobilizing the population during the mass protests; at the same time, we witnessed the increase of threats on the digital space with the calling in for investigations of many activists at the hands of different security agencies.

Ever since the garbage crisis in 2015 spurred the anti-establishment demonstrations, the government’s response to corruption and mismanagement allegations has been to stifle criticism and dissent on the current political and economic crisis, Human Rights Watch denounced in a November 2019 report

The government’s repression strategy has widely relied on criminal defamation laws, which punish critics against the army, president and public officials, with up to three years of imprisonment. 

According to the evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch, the use of these laws to silence online speech has skyrocketed in recent years, with a prevalence of cases of defamation filed by “powerful local individuals” who were accused of “allegations of misconduct, corruption, or fraud.” Leveraging its controversial criminal defamation laws, state authorities are prosecuting people on charges of tarnishing the state’s image by defaming state representatives’ reputation. 

On the legal side, “Lebanon only offers conditional protection to freedom of expression, both offline and online, which enables judicial and non-judicial bodies to impose restrictions,” al-Shafie says. “Although Lebanon has signed a number of international conventions and treaties affirming its commitment to protecting freedom of expression, its laws fall short.” 

On June 15, Lebanon's National News Agency reported that the Anti-Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau (Cybercrimes Bureau) has been put on the lookout for social media posts that violate criminal defamation laws by insulting the president, Amnesty International says. The risk is that this operation may further escalate the attacks on free speech perpetrated by state authorities, resulting in increased arrests and investigations. 

On SMEX's Muhal, most cases of online repression look the same. Recently, Raed al-Masry, a professor of political and international studies, and Alwan Amin al-Din, the founder and director of the Sita Center for Studies, were summoned by the Cybercrimes Bureau on August 3, for an article written by Masry and published on the center’s website. The piece accused the president of the Lebanese University, Fouad Ayoub, of corruption. After they appeared before the bureau, both defendants were later released.

In a similar case, an anonymous report exposing fiscal fraud at Lebanon’s Central Bank was disclosed by journalist Dima Sadek and released on the independent media platform Daraj. Later, Sadek was contacted by the Cybercrimes Bureau on May 18, as she was being investigated on the charge of “undermining the financial status of the state,” under Article 319 and 320 of the penal code, SMEX’s sources highlight.

The complaint was filed by Riad Salamé, the governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank. SMEX reports that according to available sources, Sadek was questioned for 5 hours; as of today, there are no further updates on the case.  

As protesters continue to use WhatsApp chat groups to organize and coordinate demonstrations, Lebanese authorities have started infiltrating these groups. According to insights gathered by a US-based national public radio (NPR) investigation, authorities use this strategy to identify and persecute protest leaders. The strategy has created fear among participants and protesters, whose identity and anonymity are at risk. 

Arbitrary arrests and interrogations over online activities, social media posts, and WhatsApp chats jeopardize not only the life and the freedom of speech of journalists, activists, and protest leaders but the future of protests themselves. “Now, many young people feel that there are no results happening to the action they are doing. Because of the Lebanese authorities’ tactics, disengagement increased,” al-Shafie said.

“After Beirut port explosion on August 4, we witnessed many coming back to the streets to protest the political elite and the people in power, whose corruption led to this massive explosion,” she adds, “Yet, the situation in Lebanon is always changing, and with the COVID-19 on the rise, we cannot guess what is going to happen.”

Now more than ever, digital security and rights remain crucial for securing citizens, journalists, and activists’ freedom of speech and safeguard their rights to protest amid the mass uproar.

Surveillance in Lebanon: A crisis of privacy

Mon, 09/07/2020 - 10:00

The legal aspects of surveillance regulation are a conundrum

Graffiti art of surveillance camera. Published and labeled for reuse on Pixabay.

This article is part of UPROAR, a Small Media initiative that is urging governments to address digital rights challenges at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

If the Arab Spring highlighted one phenomenon about digital upheaval, cyber-activism and democratization, it was this: the wave of uprisings that shook the Middle East starting in 2011 have fallen victim to the very same factor that initially served as their catalyst—technology

One of the places where this has occurred is Lebanon, whose citizens today face serious technological threats to their freedoms, and where intrusions on citizens’ privacy are pervasive and often conducted without proper judicial oversight.

Tensions between citizens and the government intensified during the October Revolution protests—which began in 2019 and are ongoing—when protestors who were detained raised the issue of security agencies seizing protestors’ phones and demanding the passwords to unlock them. Although some perceive the protest movement to be anti-austerity, the protesters’ wide range of demands point to a revolutionary goal of redefining Lebanon's sectarian political system, which is plagued by patronage, partisanship, duplicity and poor governance, amongst other issues. Along with pressing for women’s rights, a stable economy, the provision of jobs and public services, demands have also touched upon online freedoms, such as: “I want to tweet without being arrested”.

Lebanese security agencies are also known for their use of invasive spyware. The Lookout and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) published a report in 2018 which revealed the existence of “hundreds of gigabytes of exfiltrated data” that violated the very basic privacy rights of Lebanese citizens. Perhaps the most shocking of the report's allegations was the assertion that the global cyber espionage crusade called “Dark Caracal” that has targeted 21 countries since 2012, an advanced persistent threat-level (APT) level global campaign, was believed to be “administered out of a building belonging to the Lebanese General Security Directorate in Beirut. APT groups are organizations that spearhead “attacks on a country’s information assets of national security or strategic economic importance through either cyberespionage or cybersabotage” and also prey on megabusinesses. They generally avail themselves of various mechanisms to extract important data/intelligence on white-collar crimes, including the acquisition of ransom or cyber vandalism. 

Given its consumerist and proxy nature, the spyware program that has spanned more than 20 states and external (non-state) catalysts has been deemed “government surveillance as a paid service.” It has been alleged that Dark Caracal, using simple hackware and age-old ‘phishing’ tricks, has been able to invade fully encrypted correspondence on social media applications, including Whatsapp. 

Some argue that surveillance technology prevents crime and helps maintain law and order and low-intensity discipline, including in domains such as education. But some human rights activists claim that the surveillance program was used to target thousands of people, including activists and journalists.

A statement refuting the EFF report was issued by Lebanese General Security Directorate (GDGS) Director-General Abbas Ibrahim, who is known as “the eyes and ears of the Lebanese state.” Ibrahim said that “General Security does not have these type of capabilities. We wish we had these capabilities.” 

Rights groups have also previously documented the directorate’s use of the spyware FinFisher. FinFisher possesses the capability to wiretap various social media applications —including Whatsapp, Viber and Skype—and access private details, including location, passwords, call log, text messages, files, photos, videos and calendar events.

What does Lebanese law say?

The legal aspects of surveillance regulation are a conundrum in itself and have been interpreted in various ways. The Telecommunication Interception Act of 27 December 1999, more commonly known as Law 140/1999, upholds the privacy of Lebanese citizens, barring in emergencies, such as criminal activity. Article 14 of the Lebanese Constitution ordains that “The citizen's place of residence is inviolable. No one may enter it except in the circumstances and manners prescribed by law.” 

Even so, it is not to be taken for granted that a “citizen’s place of residence” is a separate entity from a citizen’s intangible presence and privacy on their electronic devices. These two domains are yet to be connected—or distinguished from each other—in the eyes of Lebanese law. For many people who find themselves attached to their phones in a country where the majority of the population uses the internet, the digital realm is, in fact, a home of sorts. Legal protection for privacy should be expanded to include one’s electronic devices and online communications, rather than just one’s “residence.”

According to Article 14, a “judicial or administrative order” has to be decreed to allow the surveillance of communications. This ruling is ineffective as a means of keeping the intelligence agencies accountable and in check, because they come directly under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, which also possesses the authority to sanction interception.

Article 9 of the Interception Act ordains that administrative approval can be given by the Minister of Interior or the Minister of Defence, after the Prime Minister ratifies the act and manner of the interception. This type of investigation, which cannot exceed a period of two months, can only be allowed in exceptional circumstances, such as to combat terrorism, organized crime or security threats to the state. The loophole, however, is that any of these crimes can easily be associated with activists or dissidents.

Meanwhile, activists and common citizens can try to protect their online privacy by downloading digital safety software such as Detekt and by reporting abnormalities to the authorities. Naturally, however, the latter is useless if the authorities themselves are involved in extrajudicial surveillance and breach of privacy. 

Lebanon has historically maintained its reputation as a country that is more liberal than other Arab nations. In what seems to be a wave of efforts by state agencies grappling with, or denying, digital privacy, interference with online human rights is a concern.

To fundamentally secure digital rights, old laws will have to be amended or new laws created to limit intrusions on citizens’ privacy and to allow for strong independent oversight of surveillance practices  Only then will the citizenry be assured of genuine digital privacy, freedom and security.

From death in Syria to quarantine in Madrid

Fri, 08/28/2020 - 16:18

The journey from confinement in Syria to confinement in Spain

Madrid during the confinement, April 2020. Photo by Mousa Mohamed, used with permission.

A Syrian refugee is searching for hope and freedom after all the difficulties he faced on his journey from Syria to Spain, only to face the unexpected: yet another confinement, but this time due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

We are not ready. We don’t have masks, nor gloves to cover those little hands or anything to sterilize them with other than some soap mixed with anxiety. 

We are a little concerned about this tiny invisible being called the Coronavirus. We believe it is too small to hurt those bodies that have already endured tremendous psychological and physical suffering in their native country, Syria, then once again on the smuggling routes through Turkey and finally in an environment of instability in Spain, right down to a quarantine that was never foreseen.

“Don’t worry, this crisis will pass,” I tell my two little girls, ages five and three, “… this dark cloud will fade, and each one of us will return to our own poems.” 

“Rest assured, ‘Corona’ is not a ruler who clings to power until their dying breath. It does not burn cities to ashes, nor does it kill all living beings indiscriminately without batting an eyelid. It is not obsessed with remaining on its throne, so there’s no reason to worry,” I tell them.

“After the quarantine ends, people will regain their freedom and return to their lives once more … You, too, will return to the school that you love and to the park where you played and had fun.”

With these words—not “Good morning”—I begin each day, answering their flood of questions.

“When are we leaving the house? How many nights must we go to sleep and awake before Corona disappears? What are we going to do today? What are we going to draw? What story are you going to read to us?” and dozens more of those sentences that end in a question mark. 

This is how they start their days in the small apartment where we have been trapped since the start of the confinement that began last March.

At first, it was almost normal. But then it gradually evolved until the world became pale and colourless, except for the watercolours that we mix to turn our days into paintings.

We soon realized that we had to tame those days with useful activities. We started with home exercise, then breakfast, followed by learning and teaching. All in that tiny room that can barely fit a bed, decorated with sheets of papers filled with vague scribbles legible only to us.

However, the stage on which our daily actions take place is a small hall decorated with a table and a few chairs and a plant that resembles those from back home. I tell my daughters stories about letters and teach them how to pronounce them, while my wife uses her brushes to draw magical paintings, before handing them over to the girls who decorate them with the most beautiful colours. 

These repetitive actions are interrupted with moments of staring out of windows to observe the few passersby as they head to food stores or enjoy a little walk with a dog—the only permissible reasons for leaving their confinement.  

These moments allow us to stray towards old memories. We have been through difficult days, and survived only because we were together.

We remember harrowing memories that we do not share with our daughters. Instead, we smile while enjoying our family games. We experience good moments and hope to create new and different kinds of memories. But there is no door to contain our old memories and instead, there is a gaping space where clouds float freely.  

The days of confinement may be reminiscent of times when we huddled in basements to protect ourselves from merciless bombs and missiles. Fear kicks in, but the fear here in Madrid is entirely different from the one felt in Syria.

The days spent in confinement reminds an ex-prisoner of the prison’s high walls. They remind him of those days in which he dreamt of flying freely away from the watchful eyes of those who kept him chained to those invincible walls. Nights are not similar though; being confined behind prison bars is different from being confined behind your own windows.

But the comparison is unfair. Here in Madrid, freedom is forbidden for your protection, and there in Syria, the deprivation of freedom is designed to make you die a thousand deaths. Then the world expects you to live normally, as if none of this took place.

Confinement here does not entail fleeing the home in which you were born. Here, you are meant to stay, while there you must escape to survive. Here, your home is a refuge -maybe from death; there it is a target. Yet, the similarities between them in suffering are astounding.

Our days in confinement are different from the times spent in displacement, circling borders of various countries in search of safety. Here, they tell you that you are safe.

But the feeling of instability is the same. When you live in a country where you and your family are given red asylum documents allowing you to stay for a few months it is a reminder that you are far from home and you have to leave soon. It is a reminder of your yearning for a stable home for your family, a home that will take months to find.

When you are a refugee, you leave home in the hope of turning a new page, but the old page refuses to fold.

After the confinement, we will live a new beginning full of positivity. We will fulfill all those dreams that were deferred for a decade. We will overcome these days as we overcome ones more difficult, but did we really overcome those days? Or are we still living them?We will overcome everything one day.

We will resist—Resistiré, original song by Dúo Dinámico.

Video shot in Puçol, Spain by Manuel José Gongora Aguilar, used with permission.

“Cuando pierda todas las partidas; Cuando duerma con la soledad; Cuando se me cierren las salidas; Y la noche no me deje en paz; Cuando sienta miedo del silencio; Cuando cueste mantenerse en pie; Cuando se rebelen los recuerdos; Y me pongan contra la pared. Resistiré, erguida frente a todo; Resistiré para seguir viviendo…”

“When I lose all the games. When I sleep with loneliness. When the exits are closed to me. And the night does not leave me alone. When I'm afraid of silence. When it's hard to stand. When the memories rebel. And put me against the wall. I will resist, standing tall against it all. I will resist to continue living ….”

With the words from the Spanish song “Resistiré”which became a symbol of hope during the confinement in Spain, with the increasing number of COVID-19 victims—a curtain descends to end another day of quarantine. 

From the windows of our temporary home we join our neighbours and the rest of Spain in communal applause every night to thank those who are working hard to fight the virus and to break the silence of our days. 

The little ones wait every evening to clap and shout from the windows, and with their cheers, they shout: We will resist!

Abused and infected with COVID-19, Nigerian domestic workers are stranded in Beirut

Thu, 08/13/2020 - 23:19

The women risk arrest and detention at the airport

Up to 30 women stay in this safe house for domestic workers stranded in Lebanon after they were kicked out of their employers’ homes. Image by Dara Foi’Ella, used with permission.

Forty-three Nigerian women are currently holed up in three safe houses in Beirut, Lebanon, after they were kicked out of their employers’ home where they worked as domestic workers, following a massive explosion in Lebanon on August 4. 

Thread on stranded Nigerian women in Beirut:

- 3 safe houses with up to 3o women in 1 room
– no furniture, substandard facilities
– no access to drinking water
– no access to food
– receiving daily threats by employers & agents (human traffickers)#sendthemhome #abolishkafala

— Dara Foi'Elle (@Dara_FoiElle) August 12, 2020

The explosion at a portside warehouse in Beirut caused adverse shockwaves that killed 135 and wounded 5,000 people, reports the Guardian. On August 10, following widespread protests, Lebanese prime minister Hassan Diab along with his cabinet resigned from office.

The explosion uncorked pent up anger of the Lebanese people who were already undergoing a stringent financial crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic with increased job losses. 

However, migrant domestic workers — mostly from countries in Africa — were the worst hit. 

The Middle East Eye reports:

Migrant domestic workers are protesting outside the Kenyan Consulate in Beirut to demand authorities take action to help them get home. Many were expelled by their employers following the explosion last Tuesday.

— Middle East Eye (@MiddleEastEye) August 12, 2020

On August 13, the General Security Directorate, the Lebanese intelligence agency, arrested these protesting Kenyan migrant domestic workers:

Lebanon's General Security are now arresting the Kenyan women who protested to ask to be sent home.

Lebanon is hell for migrant workers. These people are literally just asking to be sent home and they're being arrested for it.

If Kenyan journos want to cover this reach out

— #كلن_يعني_كلن (@joeyayoub) August 13, 2020

Even before the explosion, many African domestic workers were dumped on the streets of Lebanon by employers following an economic recession, aggravated by COVID-19. Without money and passports, some of the ladies were sexually exploited. 

Under the Kafala sponsorship system, the immigration status of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon is tied to their employers. This slave-like labour law perpetuates exploitation and abuse.  

Read more: Harrowing tales from African domestic workers in Lebanon  A litany of abuses, exploitation and harassment  

Dara Foi’Ella, a Beirut-based human rights activist with Syrian Eyes, explained to Global Voices via WhatsApp that the Nigerian women are currently in three safe houses. 

One safe house is crammed with 30 women in two apartments. Foi’Ella stated that this house is located in a “dangerous ghetto” where these women have allegedly suffered attempted physical and sexual assaults. “Some men tried to break into the house. The girls had to wedge the door with sofas to prevent them from breaking in,” Foi’Ella said.

Some of the Nigerian former domestic workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Image by Dara Foi’Ella, used with permission.

But unfortunately, since one of the women is COVID-19 positive, they cannot be relocated to a safer location. Syrian Eyes, in partnership with Doctors without Borders, are treating the Nigerian women infected with COVID-19. 

A second safe house hosts seven women, while a third safe house has six women. These two houses are located in a safer area of Beirut. Some of the women staying in the second safe house were among those repatriated to Nigeria on August 12: 

Our stranded girls in Lebanon.. Ecstatic to be back home

— Abike Dabiri-Erewa (@abikedabiri) August 12, 2020

Many of the women —  trafficked into Lebanon by Nigerian agents —  either ran away or were kicked out by the Lebanese employers after the explosion. None have valid Nigerian passports since they are forcefully kept by their employers. 

According to various sources, many of the women continue to endure ongoing verbal harassment and trauma from their employers who are luring them back to their slave-like jobs. 

Foi’Ella made several WhatsApp notes available to Global Voices from a source name “Lola” as evidence. Lola is a pseudonym to protect her identity. 

Lola received five WhatsApp voice notes from her employers which started with pleas but soon degenerated into threats. 

The first WhatsApp voice note from Lola’s employers — loosely translated from Arabic to English — said: “Lola, how are you? Just tell me where you are and why you left. Tell me where you are.”

The second WhatsApp voice note was an implicit threat: “Come get your passport. If you want to travel, get your passport.”

The third WhatsApp voice states: “I told the [employment] agency that if you want to travel, come get the passport and money and go.”

The fourth WhatsApp voice note was from the agent: “Lola, why did you run away from Madam? It’s very simple to tell Madam that you don’t want to continue. Your passport is with us. It’s better for us to talk with you, and settle this problem and go back there to Nigeria….” 

The fifth voice note from Lola’s “madam” was explicit blackmail: “if you don’t come and get the passport, the police will come and get you. I told them you ran away.”

These stranded domestic workers have to rely on the Nigerian Embassy, according to Foi’Ella, who liaise with Lebanese security agencies to provide travel documents.

Usually, the women submit four passport photographs upon registration at the embassy and some get free flight tickets to return back to Nigeria. 

When former employers make criminal charges against domestic workers alleging that they stole, like in Lola’s case, repatriation can get delayed. Even at the airport, with valid exit papers, these domestic workers may be arrested nd detained for three to four weeks and then kicked out again into the streets. 

A livid Foi’Ella emphasized to Global Voices: 

The Nigerian government needs to put pressure on both the Lebanese foreign and labour ministries to grant a general amnesty to all Nigerian domestic workers to be repatriated.

That’s the only way these women who have been “wrongly accused of crimes can be able to leave Lebanon without being arrested at the airports.” 

‘Wiki Loves Africa’ 2020 features images of a continent on the move

Fri, 08/07/2020 - 18:56

The annual contest diversifies Africa-relevant media on Wikimedia

“My Homeland,” photo by Mohammed Yousry, Lake Burullus, Egypt, February 23, 2019, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

A quick search for images from or about Africa on Google often drudges up reductive, cliché and exploitative images of a monolithic continent in perpetual despair.

Wiki in Africa, a South African-based nonprofit founded in 2016, aims to diversify the “single story of Africa” that Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie lamented in her renowned 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” Their founders asked:

By 2020, Africa’s community of mobile users is expected to swell to 725 million. With so many Africans being exposed to a ‘single story’ about their continent – will they, too, believe that this narrative is true?

To “rebalance the type and diversity of information and perspectives” of Africa online, the organization has hosted a continent-wide photo contest since 2016 called “Wiki Loves Africa,” that encourages photographers to contribute Africa-relevant media to Wikimedia around a particular theme. This year, the theme is transportation — to capture the widest range of images of Africa on the move.

On Wikimedia, with 18 billion page views and nearly 500 million unique visitors each month, there is a dearth of acceptable images of and about Africa. “Most content relating to Africa has been written by editors who have no connection to Africa,” explains Wiki in Africa. In fact, Wikimedia content providers are “disproportionately male, young, and from countries in the Global North.” Half are under 22 and at least 91 percent of Wikimedia editors are male, according to Wikimedia.

Read more: In the age of misinformation, who holds the power to categorize the ‘truth'? 

Between February 15 to April 15, 1,904 competitors submitted 16,982 media files of Africa-related content from about 53 countries. Top winners received cash prizes based on decisions made from an international jury. These images were viewed approximately 3.1 million times in June 2020 alone.

Here are the award-winning images of Africa on the move in 2020:

First Prize: ‘My Homeland,’ by Mohammed Yousry, Lake Burullus, Egypt

“My Homeland,” by Mohammed Yousry, Lake Burullus, Egypt, February 23, 2019, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

Second Prize: ‘Bread delivery by bicycle,’ by Abd Elhamid Fawzy Abd Elhamid Tahoun, Egypt

“Bread delivery by bicycle,” photo by Abd Elhamid Fawzy Abd Elhamid Tahoun, Egypt, 2020, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Third Prize: ‘A Mess,’ by Summer Kamal Eldeen Mohamed Farag, Alexandria, Egypt

“A Mess,” photo by Summer Kamal Eldeen Mohamed Farag, Alexandria, Egypt, 2020, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Traditional Culture Prize: ‘Salt transport by a camel train in Ethiopia,’ by Olivier Siret, Lake Asssale (Karum), Ethiopia

“Salt transport by a camel train in Ethiopia,” photo by Olivier Siret, Lake Asssale (Karum) Ethiopia, 2020, CC BY-SA 4.0. 

Highly commended: ‘Me and You’ by Mohamed Hozyen, Egypt

“Me and You,” photo by Mohamed Hozyen, Egypt, via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Highly commended: ‘Busy schedule,’ by Kelly Bissue, Accra market, Accra, Ghana

“Busy schedule,” by Kelly Bissue, Accra market, Accra, Ghana, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Highly commended: ‘Crazy horse ride,’ Ewien van Bergeijk, Kwant, Senegal

“Crazy horse ride,” photo by Ewien van Bergeijk Kwant, Senegal, 2020, via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0.

Highly commended: ‘Khartoum, Africa road tunnel,’ Mohammed Abdelmoneim Hashim Mohammed, Khartoum, Sudan

“Khartoum, Africa road tunnel,” photo by Mohammed Abdelmoneim Hashim Mohammed, Khartoum International Airport Road, Sudan, March 13, 2020, via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0.

And a prize-winning video “Le Transport Lagunaire a Abidjan realisé par Bouba Kam's,” or “Lagoon Transport in Abidjan, realized by Bouba Kam's,” by filmmaker Aboubacar Kamate:

In addition to overall winners, national teams also identified winners per country.

For example, Team Tanzania announced their winners on Twitter:

Team Tanzania announces their Wiki Loves Africa winners! 1st prize is for A transportation van at sunset by RahimMngwaya; 2nd place goes to Makunduchi, Zanzibar by Erasmus Kamugisha and 3rd to African Sport utility vehicle by Rasheedhrasheed.

— WikiLovesAfrica (@wikilovesafrica) June 11, 2020

Team Ghana announced their local winners:

Team Ghana has announced the Ghana winners for Wiki Loves Africa 2020. 1st prize to Africa's Coastal Transport by User:Wisdom Kwesi mensah Abekah, 2nd prize to Train In Accra 004 by User:NanaYawBotar and 3rd to Transport hors gabarit by User:Cyriac Gbogou

— WikiLovesAfrica (@wikilovesafrica) June 23, 2020

And Wikimedia Nigeria announced its first prize photo entitled, “Moving upstream”:

@Alaminjos is the overall winner of the just concluded Wiki Loves Africa 2020 in Nigeria with his photo titled, Moving upstream. CCBY-SA4.0. The gift was presented by proxy to one of his friends in Lagos. @Wikipedia @Wikimedia @wikilovesafrica

— Wikimedia Nigeria (@WikimediaNG) July 30, 2020

‘Africa is many things, not just one’

Activists, writers, scholars and photographers have worked hard especially over the last 10 years to diversify content and counter negative narratives about Africa online, but colonial, racist narratives persist through images that dominate with just a few keyboard clicks.

Read more: New York Times ad for Nairobi bureau chief riddled with clichés about Africa

Clearly, Africa is not just its despair, but it is also not just its riches — or its past. When American singer Beyoncé recently put out her visual album, “Black is King,” there was major backlash over its reductive representations of Africa that perpetuate narrowly imagined fantasies of the continent.

South Africa writer Pababllo Chauke takes issue with this “corrective representation,” or — “showing Africa solely as ‘better off’ through a capitalist lens.”  In his essay, “Black is not king, queen or peasant — black is complex,” Chauke writes:

Africa is many things, not just one: We need to treat it with complexity.

“Motherlandization” is the term Chauke uses to describe the “process, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, intentional or unintentional, by African Americans to romanticize and reduce Africa to a monolithic, frozen and fixed ‘motherland’ that serves their views. They treat Africa as a repository for their use and consumption,” he writes.

By encouraging submissions of more diverse open-source photos of Africa in all its complexity, Wiki in Africa hopes that:

[T]ruthful information, correctly placed on a platform that is open and accessible to all, can fundamentally change how people both within and outside Africa view and interact with the continent.

‘Shadow Means Strength, Shadow is Invincible': A conversation with Turkish artist Selma Gurbuz

Thu, 08/06/2020 - 02:30

 Forest. Full Moon. ink on hand made paper, 155x300cm, 2012

Turkish artist Selma Gürbüz is fascinated with shadows.

“Shadow is strength. Shadow is invincible. Nothing can overpower the shadow. Shadows follow you; they change,” said Gürbüz in an interview with Global Voices.

Gürbüz was born in 1960 in Istanbul, where she currently works. She graduated from Marmara University Faculty of Fine Arts in 1984 following two years at Exeter College of Art Design. Since her first exhibition in 1986, Gürbüz has been part of numerous solo and group exhibitions in both in Turkey and abroad.

Gürbüz's works create worlds from imaginary creatures, ghosts, and threads drawn from The 1001 Nights, and draw inspiration from history. While her works might seem disconnected from the outside world or current events, they are fundamentally concerned with issues such as race, women, love, identity, and nature.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Omid Memarian: How do you see the current position of Turkish contemporary art in the broader global scene? Have art events such as the Istanbul Biennale boosted the visibility of local artists? 

Selma Gürbüz: Economic and political instability in Turkey have long affected the local art world. Collectors’ interest has slightly declined compared to previous years. However, I see this as temporary. A number of our important artists continue to produce works that make waves in the global art world. So, the interest that was shown in the works of Turkish artists both nationally and internationally remains. The Istanbul Biennale is one of the most important such events anywhere in the world.

Arter, a non-profit initiative that brings together artists and audiences in celebration of today’s art in all its forms and disciplines, relocated to a new venue last year. This new space boasts 18,000 square meters of indoor area and houses, exhibition galleries, terrace, performance halls, learning areas, library, conservation laboratory, arts bookstore, and a café.

The Odunpazarı Modern Museum opened in the city of Eskişehir. The Istanbul Modern Museum will soon move to a new, much larger building. There is no doubt that all these developments will greatly benefit the visibility and production of contemporary art within Turkey.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a considerable impact on the art world, internationally and within Turkey. International organizations will continue to be adversely affected, including through the impact on international travel, and therefore I think it is important that countries show more support and take an interest in their own artists, helping them to overcome these difficulties. The art markets will localize for a few years and this, in turn, will give a different kind of motivation to artists.

Maybe you feel like it, oil on canvas, 155x230cm. 2016

OM: The color black is dominant in many of your works. You have even been called “the painter of black magic, black crows, black people, fairies and eyes.” What's your connection to this color? 

SG: Black, for me, is fundamentally, shadow. In life, I've always enjoyed looking at shadows. My discovery of shadows is influenced not only by my interest in the shadow theater of my own country but also of the Far East, such as China, Japan, and Indonesia. Some of these shadow plays are quite vocal in their political discourse.

My first piece of shadow theater was an installation I prepared for the Kuandu Biennale in Taiwan. The papier mâché figures I created moved among themselves and I projected their reflection onto the wall. As well as their own movements, they threw black shadows onto the walls. Their movements transformed into an erotic theater piece.

Later, I prepared other shadow plays for an exhibition of mine in Yokohama in Japan. In these plays I was also there within the shadows. It was a difficult piece. I was in front of the curtain this time, with the shadow puppets in my hands. They were animal puppets, roosters, ravens and suchlike. Along with my puppets, I entered into a performance that resembled a battle, an actual physical fight. It turned into a play in which the ostensible struggle was between such emotions as jealousy, passion, and vulnerability. In time, these black shadows made it into my paintings. Shadow means strength. Shadow is invincible. Nothing can overpower shadow. Shadows follow you; they change. Along with the movement of light itself, the position and form of shadow also changes. Shadow can change the shape of an object. Shadow lends length. That which is real does not change, but its shadow can change. Shadow is a two-dimensional representation. It shows us ourselves.

Woman with Roosters, oil on canvas, 155x230cm. 2011

OM: Women have a very strong presence in many of your works. What type of women do you speak about in your works, and what do they mean to you?  

SG: I usually portray myself in my depictions of the figures of women in my paintings. The vulnerability, courage, caprices, and smiles of my female figures are reflections of my own feelings. They are the innocent figures of an undefined time. They are vulnerable. They are flirty. Instead of being in dialogue with the viewer, the viewer can instead form a strange closeness with them. They are mystical and naïve while also being courageous and intelligent. They have been trained in the ways of both the east and the west. Each one has a different story in my world. And I'm not talking here about a story as a product of fiction. These, instead, are stories that play out in an impromptu fashion; stories that have broken through into the free movement of the imagination. Every story gives birth to a new one and they all have this element of discipline and sustainability. For them, nature is extremely important, they feel the yearning for nature. They miss nature. These women see nature in its tiniest details, they study it, paint it, and wish to be consumed by it: to be lost in nature. It is this courage that gives them the power to be free.

Dance in the Forest, Ink on handmade paper, 61×118 1/10 in, 2013.

OM: Many of your paintings look like the work of a storyteller. How do you develop your stories and how do they end up as paintings? 

SG: It starts with a mental picture. Then I ponder on which images I can use to compose that vision within a painting, and the kind of dramatic effect it will have. I have often felt that people who look at my paintings can read them like a story and that I have somehow enabled them to do so. But we have to distinguish here between this kind of storytelling and the compositional coherence of a literary author and the written tales that they build up through their layers, the gradation that takes place from start to finish as they compose drafts, erase, and rewrite.

In my creative process, the continuation of a spontaneous flow is clearly visible. I open up the doors to impromptu creation. There is nothing in my pictures that I cover up with something else. For example, I'd never say, “this part hasn't turned out quite as I'd have liked, so I'll change the paper.” Whatever I do is represented there. This is an idiosyncrasy that makes me, me. But at the same time, this can be a drag. The process requires the highest degree of concentration. What's more, I have to know from the outset exactly what I want. Then again, that's not to say that I will sit in front of a painting having toiled and performed every calculation. I like to leave myself to be free. My free form associations can cause the painting to flow in a new direction. And I feel it's these surprises that make a painting a painting.

OM: Do current events impact your work and creativity? 

SG: I don't make political paintings. I don't sit in front of a piece of work and feel the pressure of daily politics. The themes of the paintings, the subjects and contents are separate and are not influenced by everyday events in life or current developments. And therefore I can't really say that I feel subject to a definite effect coming directly from that context. However, I am affected indirectly, there's no doubt. And not only as an artist, I am affected first and foremost as a person. The disappointments I suffer in the outside world due to events that occur tend to turn me deeper into my own inner world. This is not a form of submission but can be better thought of as a stronger impulse to bring out the artistic powers. I say that I do not get directly affected, and then I suddenly remember a painting I made some three years ago.  In the name of defending the rights and freedoms of those people who are oppressed in so many places in the world I painted a Statue of Freedom. The Statue of Freedom was only symbolic here of course. And to look at that painting again now in light of what is currently happening in the United States gives rise to new readings of it in totally new contexts and I personally find that very interesting. 

Left: Ad Gloriam, ink on hand made paper, 220×120 cm. 2016. Middle: “Faced with Myself”, Archival Pigment Print 17/30 ed., 83x42cm,2012. Right: Serpentine. ink on hand made paper, 240x122cm, 2011.

OM: You were born, grew up, and live in Istanbul, Turkey, a country with a rich history and culture. How can one explore references to your roots and cultural identity in your works?

SG: Istanbul was the capital city of three huge empires: the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. It has a vast, rich, history and culture that very few other world cities can challenge. Istanbul's rich identity results from a synthesis of “east” and “west”. When you take a walk on the historical peninsula of Istanbul you can see Ottoman miniatures, Byzantine mosaics, historical mosques and churches all of which are hundreds of years old, in just one day. Being born and brought up in a city such as this has had very direct effects on my art. For example, the Ottoman hunting miniatures or the paintings of Byzantine saints are only a few of the subjects I have portrayed. At the same time, the lands of Anatolia, which countless civilizations have made their home throughout history, are a place of incredibly rich mythology. Some of the references I go back to frequently for my paintings are those such as Kybele, the goddess figure whose roots we find in the Hittite and Phrygian civilizations. In addition to this, I love to return to universal myths, such as those of Adam and Eve or Medusa. I always find that I discover new points of view, new aspects, every time I go back to them.

Night. Sleeping Beauties. ink on hand made paper, 155x300cm, 2011

OM: What are you working on now and when we will see a new body of work? Will your new body of work be the continuation of your previous work?

SG: Two years ago I visited Tanzania with my friend Burak Acar. We went on safari in the Serengeti and took videos and photographs for a whole week. Africa opened new doors of inspiration to me. I've been working in Africa for a very long time. In November 2020 I will launch my new solo exhibition at the Istanbul Modern. In the exhibition my paintings and sculptures inspired by Africa will be exhibited. Alongside these we'll be setting up various video installations showing the films that we took whilst in the Serengeti.  At the moment I am directing a team and we're working to get it all ready. I am really excited about this. 

Moderate globally, impact locally: A series on content moderation in the Global South

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 19:27

‘Content moderation raises difficult challenges…’

Public domain image.

This article was written by Michael Karanicolas, a Resident Fellow at Yale Law School where he leads the Wikimedia Initiative on Intermediaries and Information as part of the Information Society Project. It is the first in a series of papers published by the initiative to capture perspectives on the global impacts of platforms’ content moderation decisions. You can find the author at @M_Karanicolas on Twitter, and you can read all of the articles in the blog series here.

Every minute, more than 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, 350,000 tweets are sent, and 510,000 comments are posted on Facebook. Managing and curating this firehose of content is an enormous task, and one which grants the platforms enormous power over the contours of online speech. This includes not just decisions around whether a particular post should be deleted, but also more minute and subtle interventions that determine its virality. From deciding how far to allow quack ideas about COVID-19 to take root, to the degree of flexibility that is granted to the President of the United States to break the rules, content moderation raises difficult challenges that lie at the core of debates around freedom of expression. 

But while plenty of ink has been spilled on the impact of social media on America’s democracy, these decisions can have an even greater impact around the world. This is particularly true in places where access to traditional media is limited, giving the platforms a virtual monopoly in shaping the public discourse. A platform which fails to take action against hate speech might find itself instrumental in triggering a local pogrom, or even genocide. A platform which acts too aggressively to remove suspected “terrorist propaganda” may find itself destroying evidence of war crimes.

Platforms’ power over the public discourse is partly the result of a conscious decision by global governments to outsource online moderation functions to these private sector actors. Around the world, governments are making increasingly aggressive demands for platforms to police content which they find objectionable. The targeted material can range from risqué photos of the King of Thailand, to material deemed to insult Turkey’s founding president. In some instances, these requests are grounded in local legal standards, placing platforms in the difficult position of having to decide how to enforce a law from Pakistan, for example, which would be manifestly unconstitutional in the United States. 

In most instances, however, moderation decisions are not based on any legal standard at all, but on the platforms’ own privately drafted community guidelines, which are notoriously vague and difficult to understand. All of this leads to a critical lack of accountability in the mechanisms which govern freedom of expression online. And while the perceived opacity, inconsistency and hypocrisy of online content moderation structures may seem frustrating to Americans, for users in the developing world it is vastly worse. 

Nearly all of the biggest platforms are based in the United States. This means not only that their decision makers are more accessible and receptive to their American user base than they are to frustrated netizens in Myanmar or Uganda, but also that their global policies are still heavily influenced by American cultural norms, particularly the First Amendment

Even though the biggest platforms have made efforts to globalize their operations, there is still a massive imbalance in the ability of journalists, human rights activists, and other vulnerable communities to get through to the U.S.-based staff who decide what they can and cannot say. When platforms do branch out globally, they tend to recruit staff who are connected to existing power structures, rather than those who depend on the platforms as a lifeline away from repressive restrictions on speech. For example, the pressure to crack down on “terrorist content” inevitably leads to collateral damage against journalism or legitimate political speech, particularly in the Arab world. In setting this calculus, governments and ex-government officials are vastly more likely to have a seat at the table than journalists or human rights activists. Likewise, the Israeli government has an easier time communicating their wants and needs to Facebook than, say, Palestinian journalists and NGOs

None of this is meant to minimize the scope and scale of the challenge that the platforms face. It is not easy to develop and enforce content policies which account for the wildly different needs of their global user base. Platforms generally aim to provide everyone with an approximately identical experience, including similar expectations with regard to the boundaries of permitted speech. There is a clear tension between this goal and the conflicting legal, cultural and moral standards in force across the many countries where they operate. But the importance and weight of these decisions demand that platforms get this balancing right, and develop and enforce policies which adequately reflect their role at the heart of political debates from Russia to South Africa. Even as the platforms have grown and spread around the world, the center of gravity of these debates continues to revolve around D.C. and San Francisco.

This is the first in a series of articles which is meant to bridge the divide between the ongoing policy debates around content moderation, and the people who are most impacted by them, particularly across the global south. The authors are academics, civil society activists and journalists whose work lies on the sharp edge of content decisions. In asking for their contributions, we offered them a relatively free hand to prioritize the issues they saw as the most serious and important with regard to content moderation, and asked them to point to areas where improvement was needed, particularly with regard to the moderation process, community engagement, and transparency. The issues that they flag include a common frustration with the distant and opaque nature of platforms’ decision-making processes, a desire for platforms to work towards a better understanding of local socio-cultural dynamics underlying the online discourse, and a feeling that platforms’ approach to moderation often did not reflect the importance of their role in facilitating the exercise of core human rights. Although the different voices each offer a unique perspective, they paint a common picture of how platforms’ decision making impacts their lives, and of the need to do better, in line with the power that platforms have in defining the contours of global speech.

Ultimately, our hope in this series is to shed light on the impacts of platforms’ decisions around the world, and provide guidance on how social media platforms might do a better job of developing and applying moderation structures which reflect their needs and values of their diverse global users.

Melbourne academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert remains a ‘political hostage’ inside Iran’s Qarchak prison

Tue, 08/04/2020 - 11:18

Quiet diplomacy fails to achieve the release of the academic

Kylie Moore-Gilbert interview with The Modern Middle East October 2017- Video screenshot

The transfer of University of Melbourne academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert to Iran’s notorious Qarchak prison in Tehran has focused worldwide attention on her plight.

Qarchak has been infamous for its health and security conditions. Kylie has become physically sick and mentally depressed. She also faces the real possibility of contracting COVID-19.

Kylie is a dual citizen of Australia and the United Kingdom who was sentenced in 2018 to ten years imprisonment for alleged espionage. Her incarceration was kept a virtual secret for a year as part of the Australian government’s quiet diplomacy strategy. Some of her colleagues have lost patience with this approach and have launched a petition calling on the Australian government and her university to undertake an active public campaign.

Iranian American Jason Rezaian, who was released in January 2016 in an apparent diplomatic deal after fifteen months imprisonment on espionage charges, tweeted:

Whatever the governments of #Australia and the #UK are doing to free their citizen, Kylie Moore-Gilbert from prison in #Iran, it’s failing miserably. This innocent woman should be free. Few foreign nationals held hostage in Iran have been treated so badly.

— Jason Rezaian (@jrezaian) July 28, 2020

Moore-Gilbert maintains her innocence but claims that Iranian intelligence tried to recruit her in exchange for her freedom.

Radio Zamaneh, part of a Farsi language media organisation which ‘supports the efforts of human rights activists and civil society in Iran’, is closely following the case:

آزاده دواچی، پژوهشگر در دانشگاه دیکن ملبورن و از دوستان و همکاران کایلی مور-گیلبرت در گفت‌وگو با زمانه می‌گوید او انسان بسیار آرامی است و اتهام‌هایی که به او وارد شده، برای افرادی که از نزدیک او را می‌شناسند، قابل باور نیست.

«ایشان محقق و پژوهشگر در حوزه اسلام‌شناسی و مدرس اسلام‌شناسی در دانشگاه ملبورن بودند. حوزه تحقیقی ایشان در مورد شیعیان بحرین و جنبش‌هایی بود که در آن منطقه وجود دارد. به همین دلیل به زبان عربی هم مسلط بودند و به کشورهای حوزه خلیج فارس هم سفر کرده بودند. چند سال پیش هم به ایران سفر کردند برای تحقیق در مورد شیعه و اسلام. بدون هیچ مشکلی هم برگشتند.

Azadeh Dawachi, a researcher at Deakin University in Melbourne and a friend and colleague of Kylie Moore-Gilbert, told Zamaneh that she was a very calm person and that the accusations against her were unbelievable to those who knew her intimately.

… She was a researcher in the field of Islamology and a lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne. Her field of research was about the Bahraini Shiites and the movements that exist in the region. She speaks Arabic fluently and also traveled to Iran a few years ago to research Shiites and Islam. She returned without any problems.

Another friend and colleague, Jessie Moritz, called for more action and less secrecy in a post on The Conversation: 

I have been keeping silent in the hopes a quiet diplomatic approach would secure her freedom.
But it is hard to overstate how horrific this week’s development is. Australia needs to do more.

The recent exposure of her situation has brought some progress with the Australian ambassador promising access to Kylie. The Twitter account @FreeKylieMG has a thread:

We welcome the news that the Australian Ambassador Lyndall Sachs will visit Kylie, hopefully tomorrow. We understand that negotiations for her release may take time, but there are some non-negotiable demands that the Australian government must make TODAY. 1/ #KylieIsUs

— Free Kylie Moore-Gilbert (@FreeKylieMG) August 1, 2020

Chinese American Xuyie Wang, another who was released in 2019 in a prisoner swap after three years imprisonment in Iran, spoke to ABC’s Radio National Breakfast program. He sees Kylie as a “political hostage” held in order to make a deal such as a swap. He argues that “as much public attention as possible” is necessary in these cases.

Reza Khandan, human rights activist and husband of Nasrin Sotoudeh who was imprisoned for defending human rights in Iran, shared in his Facebook that Kylie “was transferred as an act of punishment”. He writes that during a call from prison she described conditions as very bad. “I can not eat anything … I do not know … I am very disappointed … I am very … depressed …”.

Khandan adds that in the quarantine of Qarchak prison, prisoners are kept for all kinds of reasons, including murder, drugs, and financial crimes. There is also a significant number of COVID-19 patients in the prison’s quarantine section.

The Modern Middle East, a current affairs television series, interviewed Kylie in October 2017. With considerable understatement, her reflection on her pre-Arab Spring travels in the region has extra significance in hindsight: “The Middle East was a little bit more stable than it is today.”

Migrant workers face racism and rampant human rights violations across the Gulf

Wed, 06/17/2020 - 21:27

Migrant workers face COVID-19 with no medical care or unions

Anti-kafala demonstration in Lebanon. The sign in Arabic reads “I'm a [female] human and I have a right to live.” Photo by International Domestic Workers Federation, licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

This post was written by Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the MENA region.

Migrant workers in the Gulf region and neighboring countries have been subjected to fierce campaigns calling for their deportation that is riddled with racist speeches and hatred. They have been left alone to face the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic with no access to medical care or unions, according to research by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR).

Over the years, migrant workers in Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Bahrain have been subjected to massive human rights violations through the notorious kafala (sponsorship) system that strips them of their basic civil and human rights. They lack the right to move, travel or change work, the right to health care and the right to union representation or formation of organisations. In addition, migrant workers are denied the right to citizenship — even if they spend their whole lives working in these countries.

The kafala system, which enshrines discrimination and exploitation, contradicts the principles of human rights and modern work systems that are guaranteed under the International Convention on the Rights of Migrants and Members of their Families, signed in 1990. This convention entered into force on July 1, 2003, after being ratified by 20 states, but has not been signed by the Gulf states and Lebanon.


With the collapse of the Lebanese pound and the stress of COVID-19, migrant workers — especially domestic workers — face extremely harsh conditions. The Lebanese labour law does not protect domestic workers  — who are usually women — because they are subject to a sponsorship system that links their legal status with a contractual relationship with employers. At the end of this contract, workers lose their legal status and face possible detention and deportation. Likewise, they can only change their place of work with employer consent, which exposes them to exploitation, forced labour and human trafficking.

The number of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon stands at 250,000, most of them women, who immigrate from different countries — notably Ethiopia. On June 5, Ethiopian domestic workers gathered in front of their country's consulate in Beirut, waiting to return home. Some left work after being paid in Lebanese pounds, which was inadequate to meet daily needs and made it impossible to send any money home to their families. Others left work who had not been paid in the past several months. Their status has become illegal and they need a speedy resolution from authorities.

The crisis in Lebanon has cast a shadow on all migrant workers, according to this BBC report.  In 2012, Stop Violence and Exploitation, a civil society organisation, published a study on the sponsorship system, calling for the end of exploitation of women migrant workers and an alternative system that provides legal protection and freedom to choose their workplace.


On May 28, blogger Reem al-Shammari posted a video on Snapchat, verbally attacking Egyptians working in Kuwait. She said:

Kuwait is for Kuwaitis, not for Egyptians. … You are hired. Understand … Egyptians are not partners with Kuwaitis in the homeland.

The video met widespread opposition from Kuwaiti citizens, but hate speech is still a growing phenomenon on social media sites, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of this hate speech has illogically linked migrant workers to the spread of COVID-19. However, moderate voices have defended migrant workers and their achievements as a result of their hard work.

Due to COVID-19, a sharp decline in oil prices has led Gulf countries to reassess their policies regarding migrant worker numbers — many companies have laid off thousands and started deporting those who work illegally.

On June 3, in a press interview, Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Khalid al-Hamad al-Sabah noted that 70 percent of the 4.8 million population was foreign, and said that this amount should be reduced to half in stages. He concluded that “we have a future challenge to address the demographic imbalance.”

Saudi Arabia

In May 2020, in an episode of “We Are All Responsible,” presented on the official Saudi TV channel, the host, Khaled al-Aqili, said:

Unfortunately, the control of expatriate workers over the economy has become a real threat to national security and not only on the economic side but beyond much of that.

He concluded:

We ​​must stop making the Saudi employee a scapegoat with every crisis, and make the expatriate workers, who replaced Saudi workers — who are more efficient than them, the first to be dispensed of, not the sons of the homeland.

This was preceded by a ministerial decision issued on May 3, to regulate labour contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Promoting discourse that directly targets foreign workers and portraying them as a national security threat definitely stirs up racist, hostile feelings. Justifying this sentiment only fans these flames.

United Arab Emirates

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, press reports have confirmed the prevalence of the disease among migrant workers, due to a lack of protection and lack of social distancing. Most migrant workers live in crowded common areas and in densely populated commercial neighborhoods.

On April 10, a letter sent by a coalition of 16 nongovernmental organisations and trade unions to UAE Minister of Human Resources and Emiratisation Affairs Nasser bin Thani al-Hamli states:

Low-wage migrant workers remain acutely vulnerable to severe human rights violations, that increase their risk of infection from COVID-19.

On March 26, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation issued an arbitrary ministerial decree that allows private companies to amend migrant worker contracts, force them on unpaid leave, or to accept permanent or temporary salary reductions. This decision legally protects companies 100 percent — expatriate workers have no right to complain or resort to the courts.


Migrant workers in Qatar are not allowed to form unions. Many are exploited doing heavy work for long hours with low paying salaries. COVID-19 has revealed another chronic problem — a lack of health care and adequate housing. The drop in oil prices has led to the layoff of thousands of migrant workers, forcing many onto the streets.

In an April 15 statement, Amnesty International said that Qatari authorities had arrested and expelled dozens of foreign workers after informing them that they would be tested for COVID-19.

On May 23, 100 foreign workers demonstrated in Doha, to protest non-payment of their wages by Qatari authorities.

Local sources confirmed that migrant workers who work for World Cup 2020 suffer from widespread human rights violations, including low pay and long work hours under the harsh sun. They can not terminate their contracts or return home. A recent report issued by Amnesty International UK on June 10 confirmed these conditions and mentioned workers who have not been paid for seven consecutive months.


Bahrain also targets migrant workers. On June 5, Member of Parliament Ghazi al-Rahma announced that he and a number of deputies would present a proposal to amend the labour law in the private sector, favoring Bahraini citizens in the private-sector recruitment process and prioritizing terminations for foreign workers.

Gulf states must abolish the kafala system, ratify the International Convention on the Rights of Migrants and Members of their Families and allow equal civic rights for all migrant workers.

Impoverished youth in the Middle East turn to cheap — sometimes deadly — alcohol

Wed, 06/17/2020 - 17:31

‘We are forgotten by the authorities’

Photo of alcohol with inscription in Arabic. Photo by Ben Abdallah Abdel Karim on Flickr used under Licence CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0.

In May, young Tunisians looking for a buzz by drinking homemade alcohol ended in tragedy. 

At least seven youth died and 56 were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning in Kairouan, an ancient Islamic center about 130 kilometers from Tunis, the capital, and one of the poorest governorates of Tunisia, where nearly 40 percent live below the poverty line. 

A neighbor of one of the young people who died in a video uploaded on Facebook said:

Young people want to forget their situation. They don’t care about dying. In fact, they say sometimes they want to die. Look at their environment, at the poverty. We don’t even have roads; the water is dirty. We are not stupid, but we don’t have the means. We are forgotten by the authorities.

The parents of three brothers who died from the poisoning added:

My sons were unemployed. One of them was 37 and unable to get married and start his own life. We don’t even have toilets at home.

This is not the first time toxic homemade alcohol has killed young people in the Middle East. Alcohol and drug use is on the rise in the region, where young people who can’t afford locally produced or foreign imports opt to drink homemade, methanol brews —  strong concoctions mixed up by illicit dealers. 

Methanol — used for industrial and automotive purposes — is a highly toxic and potentially deadly substance that can cause blindness, kidney failure and seizures and death if consumed in high quantities.  

Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol and many Arab countries ban or enforces strict regulations on its sale, but it’s still widely available, whether obtained underground or on shelves.  

#SputnikAnalyse | En Tunisie, le décès de sept personnes après la consommation d’alcool frelaté a provoqué beaucoup d’émoi. Hormis la tragédie, c’est la précarité de la population et l’indifférence de l’État qui sont pointées du doigt. @HanZbiss analyse

— Sputnik France (@sputnik_fr) May 29, 2020

In Tunisia, the death of seven people after consuming adulterated alcohol caused turmoil. Beyond the tragedy, it is the precariousness of the population and the indifference of the state that are pointed out. 

The thirst for cheap booze

The Middle East region has the largest youth population in the world, with more than half under the age of 25, but it also accounts for the highest unemployment rates reaching 27 percent in 2019. In 2011, youth-led protests — known as the “Arabic Spring” — erupted after years of frustration over social, economic, and political exclusion.

A 2019 report by the Brookings Institution argues that this delayed transition to the work market affects “other pathways to adulthood, including marriage, homeownership, and civic participation.” 

Young men, traditionally seen as breadwinners for their families, are unable to fulfill their social obligations. 

Within patriarchal societies in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine, men  “face tremendous stress to be providers. Men are ashamed to face their families due to lack of money,” according to a BBC report on patriarchy in the Middle East. 

Alcohol flows freely in restaurants, bars and shops in the Middle East — for those who can afford it. In Libya, for example, a bottle of Chivas Regal in 2014 was available for US$100 whereas a homemade Libyan brew was only US$15 a liter.

But in these conservative countries — where drinking is expensive and also a social taboo — it can turn into a grim and risky endeavor. Mohamed Cheik, a Tunisian activist, told Global Voices: 

Homemade alcohol is widespread among idle young people, especially in poor remote areas. But it only makes the news when it ends in tragedy.

The Alexandria Faculty of Medicine in Egypt reported that 5 percent of monthly poisonings are related to alcohol, a figure likely lower than the true scale. Due to social stigma, shame and fear, many methanol consumers do not go to hospitals for treatment unless they are in critical condition. 

Taboo: Caught between tradition and modernity 

Alcohol is widely available in the Middle East, but it remains a taboo with negative associations and connotations. Young people in these countries often struggle to balance traditional Islamic values with the desire to live a liberal, globalized lifestyle. 

Tunisia has a contentious relationship with alcohol, where consumption rose sharply from 20 to 30 percent since the 2011 revolution. And yet, a survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013 affirmed that 82 percent of Tunisians disapprove of the consumption of alcoholic beverages. 

Social class also influences attitudes. Educated, wealthy Tunisians who live in big towns and are often more secular may drink openly, whereas the less well-off living in more rural, conservative areas may drink discreetly but still consider the behavior morally corrupt. Taher al-Saidi, an underemployed college graduate from Iraq, told Global Voices:

We are like schizophrenics. We drink and enjoy drinking while at the same time thinking it is bad and we should not be drinking. I can’t drink in front of my family and society. They would think I am a bad guy and lose my respected social status

Complex alcohol sales legislation 

In the Middle East, commercial alcohol sales are largely restricted on religious grounds. In Tunisia, since the 1990s, for example, shopkeepers can not sell alcohol on Friday, an Islamic prayer day, or during the holy month of Ramadan and religious holidays — except in bars and hotels. In some countries like Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Sudan and Iraq, alcohol is completely banned. 

Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, with large foreign communities, apply partial bans toward Muslims only. 

In Yemen, the law is more ambiguous: it’s officially dry, but alcohol can be consumed on private property and sold to foreigners in hotels and nightclubs in Sana’a and Aden. These restrictions leave ample room for smugglers in a black market to flourish. 

In Kairouan, Tunisia, no shops are authorized to sell alcohol, but young people can choose from over 100 shops that sell methanol. 

There have been several alcohol poisonings in the region. The deadliest was in 2013 in Libya, when 101 people died and 1066 were poisoned, with dozens suffering irreversible brain damage or blindness, after drinking methanol-filled homemade brew. After this tragic incident, the government attempted to crack down on alcohol dealers. But this kind of repression alone does not stop young people from drinking. 

“The government should legalize alcohol because Libyans will keep drinking anyway and at least legalizing it will ensure that what they drink is safe,” said Mohammed, a small-batch homebrew producer who spoke in 2014 with The World, a US-based radio program. 

When large-scale alcohol poisoning outbreaks occur, they make the news. But the political will to tackle this sensitive and controversial issue remains silent in comparison. 

This issue affects mostly deprived youth often forgotten by authorities. For youth to thrive in the Middle East, governments can restore a sense of purpose and hope in the future by creating more opportunities. 

Afghan migrants continue to die in the hands of Iranian authorities

Fri, 06/12/2020 - 15:29


Afghan artists paint George Floyd and a sign of “We cannot breath” with Iran Flag to demonstrate the brutality of Iran police toward Afghans. Photo credit Omaid Sharifi, via Twitter, used with permission. 

While the world continues to protest over the death of George Floyd in the US, and to denounce racism and discrimination, Afghans are leading their own fight against a similar issue: the way Afghan migrants are mistreated in Iran as they attempt to reach Europe through that country.

In one recent episode of the many atrocities experienced by Afghan migrants, Iranian police opened fire in May on a civilian vehicle that was carrying 13 Afghan migrants in the Yazd province of central Iran. As a result of the shooting, three migrants were burned alive in the car, and four were severely wounded.The footage of the car in flames went viral on social media, causing outrage. As one Afghan twitter user wrote:

Such a disgrace and shame that even in 21 century barbarism still ruling in ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, repeating ISLAMIC!#کمی_آب_بیار_که_سوختم

— Meelad Asi (@AsiMeelad) June 5, 2020

One migrant who was able to get out of the burning car was pleading “Bring me some water, I am burning.” The heartbreaking story caused a public outcry in Afghanistan and beyond.

Reuters News Agency reported that:

Police fired on the vehicle, suspected of carrying drugs and undocumented migrants, after it crashed through a checkpoint, Ahmad Tarahomi, deputy Yazd governor, told state media. After its tyres were hit, the vehicle continued to drive away on its wheel rims, igniting sparks which started the fire, Tarahomi said.

World-class Afghan novelist Khaled Hosseini, author of the acclaimed book “The Kite Runner”, said in a Facebook post:

I add my voice to the chorus of Afghans who have denounced the recent killing of Afghan refugees at the hands of Iranian police in Central Yazd province. It is shocking and unforgivable, and as an Afghan and refugee advocate, I am heartbroken. The image of that burning car and the screaming, half-burnt boy is searing.

Many Iranian officials have used the death of George Floyd as a propaganda tool against the U.S., but they have themselves failed to address the systematic mistreatment of Afghan refugees in Iran, as Afghan comedian Musa Zafar points in his tweet:

Hey @JZarif

George Floyd was seen burning inside this car.

Any comments?

— Musa Zafar (@realMusazafar) June 5, 2020

Following the outcry in Afghanistan, the Afghan ambassador to Iran visited a hospital in Iran where the Afghan migrant who escaped the burning car is treated. The ambassador greeted the man who is handcuff in the hospital bed.

This is so inhumane that words can’t describe:
Iranian police burned a vehicle carrying refugees—alive.
The one who survived was handcuffed at the hospital so that he can’t even wipe his tears.
The other day @JZarif was lecturing the US about racism.


— Saleem Javed, MD (@mSaleemJaved) June 7, 2020

Prior to this incident of the burning car, more than 50 Afghans were arrested while crossing Afghanistan’s western border to Iran in May 2020. The Iranian border police tortured them and forced them to jump into the river that flowed from Afghanistan to Iran. As many as 23 drowned, 15 went missing and only 21 of them survived.

Afghan activists on Sunday threw colors at the gates of the Iranian embassy in Kabul to protest against the shooting of a car carrying Afghan migrants in Yazd, #Iran, and the drowning of Afghan migrants in Harirud River.#کمی_آب_بیار_که_سوختم

— SAMRI (@SAMRIReports) June 8, 2020

Iran denies that the border police tortured and had Afghan migrants drown. But the credibility of Iranian authorities deserves scrutiny: in January 2020, the Iran revolution guards shot down a passenger airline during a dispute with the U.S. in the region. Iran initially denied that they used a cruise missile for targeting an airline that killed as many as 176 people in the air, but eventually admitted doing so.

An investigation by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission indeed confirmed that the Iran police border tortured and killed migrants at the border.

On May 14, the Afghan government and the Iran government set up a commission to investigate the drowning of Afghan migrants into the river. The commission has yet to release its findings, though Iran still denies any wrongdoing.

As one Afghan Twitter user laments:

The experience of refugees show that in most cases d Iranian public have gone far beyond helpless enablers & collaborators, making life a hell for #Afghans at schools, in d neighborhood, at d workplace.
Where is all that long brandished culture & civility? #کمی_آب_بیار_سوختم

— Sayed Madadi (@MadadiSaeid) June 7, 2020

While millions of Afghans have found refuge in Iran since the war broke out in the 1980s, they are also mistreated by Iranian authorities, as the recent tragic incidents demonstrate. Often working as daily laborers, Afghans are denied education and other basic services.

When COVID-19 hit Iran in February 2020, the Iranian health authorities refused to treat Afghan migrants who work in Iran. As a result, hundreds of thousands of migrants had to pack their bags, and returned to Afghanistan, infecting their birthplace that has very weak health structures to fight the pandemic.

Information warfare: COVID-19’s other battleground in the Middle East

Wed, 06/10/2020 - 17:01

The internet breeds and amplifies state-sponsored fake news and propaganda

The Gate of Yemen in the capital Sana'a. Photo by Jialiang Gao, licensed under CC BY BY-SA 2.5

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing political tensions in the Middle East and North Africa, a region already marred by decades of conflict. Now, unscrupulous politicians blame their political enemies or neighboring governments for the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, sounded the alarm on the threat that mis- and disinformation poses to humanity:

“At the WHO, we’re not just battling the virus, we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theories that undermine our response,” he said, reiterating that false information can cause confusion and fear.

The MENA region is no stranger to conspiracy theories and disinformation practices. A 2019 Oxford University study revealed that the region is home to half of the top 12 countries identified as having a “high cyber troop activity” — including Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates.

Those in positions of power use “information warfare” to frame narratives and control public opinion, and social media has become the main battlefield to employ influencers, trolls, bots, and commenter armies.

In Iran, Yemen and Syria, the so-called “axis of resistance” — whose legitimacy is often tied to virulent opposition to the West — leaders have seized on COVID-19 to reaffirm political positionality and channel hostile anti-Western ideologies.

Hezbollah, for example, has framed the coronavirus as a plot twist by their “enemies” — the West in general and the United States in particular. Hezbollah, a Shi’a political party based in Lebanon, and affiliated with Iran, is known for being a state within a state. It is considered a terrorist organization by most countries.

In March, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah affirmed:

The corona is a highly threatening enemy. We have to confront this invasive enemy. We should not surrender or despair or feel helpless. The response must be confrontation, resistance, and fighting. We will win this battle. It is only a matter of time.

The Iranian-led ‘axis of resistance’

In the battle for hearts and minds, the Iranian regime’s ideological army — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — has led a counternarrative about the pandemic, portraying the virus as a conspiracy orchestrated by the regime’s traditional enemies — the United States and Israel.

The propaganda includes claims that the virus is an “American biological invasion” and a “Zionist biological terrorist attack,” leading some of the regime’s defenders to call for a retaliatory response.

Since its founding in 1979, the IRGC has been the “ruling clergy’s principal mechanism for enforcing its theocracy at home and exporting its Shi’ite Islamist ideology abroad, “according to Foreign Policy.

It collaborates with its allies in Arab capitals where it holds considerable influence —  Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. They share similar anti-Western, US and Israeli ideologies. The leaders of these nations often glorify fighting and martyrdom.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah, for example, regularly preaches martyrdom messages to his base. In an interview, he explains: “Our fighter blows himself smiling and happy because he knows he is going to another world. Death for us is not the end but the beginning of real life.”

Houthi: Iranian proxy voice in Yemen

Yemen continues to grapple with the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the UN, after plunging into a bloody proxy war in 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition intervened to remove Houthi leaders from power taken following a coup.

Houthis forces, backed by Iran, control the most-populated northern region, as well as the media. Houthi leaders have used the pandemic — described by some analysts as a “gift for the Houthis,” to attack rivals and deflect attention from the ongoing crisis. Houthi leaders also promote the Iranian regime’s conspiracy theory that the virus is an American plot.

Houthi Minister of Health Dr. Taha Al-Mutawakkil said in a public sermon aired on TV: “We must ask the whole world, we must ask all of humanity: Who and what is behind the coronavirus?” He concludes with a Houthi slogan: “Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse be upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!”

As the virus sweeps through Yemen in recent weeks, activists report dozens of deaths. Houthis leadership has denied the scale of the outbreak and downplayed its severity. In a press conference, Mutawakkil said:

We should not do like the rest of the world who have terrorized the population. The recovery of the virus is very high, it is in Yemen of over 80 percent. The treatment of the coronavirus will come from Yemen.

Houthis often conform to an ideology rooted in victimization and showcase that all of Yemen’s problems are caused by external interventions that started in 2015 with the Saudi-led military campaign. As such, they often blame the Saudi-led intervention that absolves them responsibility for the current crisis.

Mohamed Ali al-Houthi, a member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, tweeted on March 16, that the Saudi-led coalition is to blame for any spread of coronavirus in Yemen.

وتتعمددول العدوان في المناطق التي تحتلها على عدم اتخاذ أي إجراءات إحترازية ولا طارئة ولا حجر صحي ولا أي شيء
وكان لا وباءيجتاح العالم يسمى #كرونا
نحمل العدوان الأمريكي وحلفائه مسؤلية أي حالة باليمن_فهويسيطر على الأجواء والمنافذ البحرية البرية_
ومسؤلية عدم التأهيل واتخاذ الإجراءات

— محمد علي الحوثي (@Moh_Alhouthi) March 16, 2020

In the territories occupied by the aggressor countries [Saudi led coalition] no precautionary or emergency or  quarantine measures have been taken or anything. There would not be an epidemic sweeping the world called corona. We hold the American aggressor and its allies responsible for every case in Yemen, as it controls the airspace, the land and ports.

Houthis leaders have also exploited the virus to push their base into action and boost military recruitment. On a Houthi affiliated TV channel, a speaker recommended the public to join the battlefield and die as martyrs instead of dying confined at home from the coronavirus.

The Saudi-UAE axis: Blame it on Qatar and Iran

The Gulf Council Countries (GCC) was formed in 1981 in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Iran-Iraq war, by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain. Their union, from its inception, was to defend themselves against an Iranian threat.

However, the GCC has been in crisis since 2017, when a bloc of countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, came into conflict with Qatar over allegations of links with Iranian’s “terrorist groups.” A full blockade has been imposed since June 2017 against Qatar.

The coronavirus has been politicized against this backdrop. A widespread narrative in all GCC countries supports the story that the virus was imported from either Iran, the regional epicenter of the crisis, or Iraq, via Shi’a citizens returning from a pilgrimage in Iran.

The Saudi daily newspaper,