Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Short overview of journalists criticizing presidents

Cartoon of a shoe with George Bush's face on it, apparently shown at a rally in support of al-Zaidi. Authors of the cartoon and the photo are unknown to me.

On Dec. 14, 2008, during his visit to South Ossetia, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held a press conference. A local journalist, angered by the Russian occupation and de facto annex of his country, threw both of his shoes at him. President Medvedev ducked twice, avoiding being hit by the shoes. The journalist was arrested and is now awaiting trial. He may be charged with insulting a foreign leader of with assault, which carries a maximum sentence of 3 and 15 years, respectively. However, he found support from his employer, thousands of protesters in South Ossetia and some Ossetian politicians, as well as outside the country.
Of course the above described incident never happened. It hardly could, and even if it did, I don't think we would ever again hear of the shoe-thrower. The event actually took place in Baghdad, the journalist was Muntadhar al-Zaidi (29) and his target was then-US President George Bush. I copied some of the above phrases from al-Zaidi's Widipedia article, changing the names of people and locations.
Al-Zaidi became a hero not only in Iraq but also in the entire Arab and much of the Western world. I have shown above a cartoon held by his supporters, because it is really a good one and I can only regret that such excellent Arab cartoonists waste their talent on dubious causes, leaving all the important work to their Danish colleagues. In the city of Tikrit (where Saddam Hussein was born) a sculpture in the shape of a shoe was created, stayed for three days and then was removed following an order by local authorities.
Let me now frankly state that I have only contempt for al-Zaidi and his personality cult. According to Wikipedia, his journalism record prior to the incident shows him being strongly "anti-occupation", i.e. standing at the enemy side. While throwing the second shoe, he shouted, "This is for the widows and orphans...". Because civilian war victims are presumed to include at least as many women and children as men, and because only several thousands of regular Iraqi soldiers died during the 2003 invasion, al-Zaidi's mentioning of killed Iraqi men with surviving wives and children is (at least to me) a clear reference to the "insurgents", as the politically correct media prefer to call the terrorists. I think that German journalist blogger R.A. Clermont was quite right to note similarity between al-Zaidi and suicide bombers (her post is actually quite sympathetic to him, describing him as "thinking, civilized, with real understanding"). And while there is much talk about al-Zaidi's courage, this courage apparently never passed the threshold required for opposing Saddam Hussein's regime in any way. Many people independently asked the same question as commenter Jack on Sandmonkey's blog: "I wonder when Arabs will start throwing shoes at their own leaders? Or do they know, somehow, that the consequences might be substantially different?...I know exactly what would happen if people started to throw shoes at Arab leaders, aside from what seems to be the consensus so far: death after an indeterminate period of pain. The Arab leaders would make wearing shoes illegal."
After his arrest, al-Zaidi was beaten and this raised much indignation and protests (quite different from the silence observed when police are beating innocent citizens and killing detainees here in Europe). While I agree that no prisoner should be mistreated, I am amused by the double standards of al-Zaidi's supporters who claim that he is entitled to full corporal integrity and at the same time has the right to express his opinions by throwing heavy objects at other people's heads. Al-Baghdadia TV, which is al-Zaidi's employer, went as far to demand that "the Iraqi authorities immediately release their stringer Muntadhir al-Zaidi, in line with the democracy and freedom of expression that the American authorities promised the Iraqi people on the ousting of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. ... Any measures against Muntadhir will be considered the acts of a dictatorial regime" (source: Wikipedia).
What angers me most, and is the reason for me to write such a long post, is the worldwide attention given to al-Zaidi's act. It undoubtedly deserved to be included in the news, but I think this should have been in the People section, between reports of celebrity marriages, divorces, drunken drivings, clashes with paparazzi and attempts to guess paternity without using DNA tests. Inclusion of such news in the political section only diverts attention from real problems and leaves darkness where the spotlight of public attention is desperately needed. To illustrate, let me briefly mention what happened to two journalists criticizing other presidents.
"The terrifying ordeal of Jestina Mukoko, a television news anchor turned human rights activist, began at 5am on December 3 when seven men and one woman forced their way into her house at gunpoint... Certainly Mukoko has been a thorn in Mugabe’s flesh. She resigned from state television to become director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a human rights monitoring network, and has been one of the regime’s most intelligent, influential and informed critics. She has collected evidence of tens of thousands of abuses in the past decade. Her monthly reports have detailed the routine tyranny of violence, the shortage of food and the denial of free speech that characterise Zimbabwean life today..." The quote is from the Sunday Times Dec. 14, 2008 article Silenced - the sharpest voice against Mugabe, by Sophie Shaw. I came across this report via the WIP site, which means that I would never hear about this case if Mukoko were male. According to a later report by Independent, Mukoko was tortured and is now being tried.
Let's now come home to Bulgaria, which is expected to have a better human rights record and more freedom of speech. On Sept. 23, 2008 journalist Ognyan Stefanov (54), editor in-chief of Frog News, was severely beaten in the street as he was leaving a restaurant. The attackers were several men who first asked for Stefanov's name to be sure about his identity and then started beating him with hammers and metal rods. Stefanov suffered fractures of all four extremities, backbone and head injuries, lost over two liters of blood and spent days on artificial respiration. Doctors were not sure for a long time whether he would survive; fortunately, he did. I have no information about his present condition.
I wanted very much to blog about Stefanov immediately after the attack, but I had no opportunity back then. However, today isn't late at all because the key questions remain unanswered. Stefanov's attackers haven't been caught and their motivation remains uncertain. However, most commentators reminded that Stefanov had been "highly critical of the President Parvanov" and that shortly before the assault he had been subpoenated and interrogated by the State Agency for National Security. A month before the beating, on Aug. 28, Stefanov himself wrote a text titled Free speech between fear from those with power and power over fear; in it, he claimed that unidentified powerful people demanded him to stop criticizing the President and threatened him that if he doesn't, "they knew how to cause harm". So Bulgarian journalists strongly suspect that either security agents or "businessmen" sponsors of the President, not content with the legal options to shut up criticism, arranged a beating. But even if DANS people didn't participate in the attack per se, by calling Stefanov they clearly gave a sign to the mafia (against which he also wrote) that he was considered by the authorities as an enemy and wouldn't be protected. This aspect was best expressed by TV journalist Velizar Enchev, who knows well the secret services. If the reader thinks that I am too biased against our security forces and unwilling to let them off the hook, I would ask, why are then the attackers still unidentified and walking free? Or are our police good only in intimidating journalists and other citizens?
As far as I know, the attack against Stefanov was largely neglected by international public opinion. An exception is the Netherlands, where Daniela Gorcheva, a journalist from Bulgaria, alerted her colleagues about the case. Five leading Dutch cartoonists created works in solidarity with Stefanov (you can see the cartoons at Gorcheva's blog).
Let's now return to the shoe-throwing subject. While this post was in the pipeline, another incident took place in Britain. On Feb. 2, as Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was delivering a lecture at the Cambridge University, an unidentified 27-year-old man called him a "dictator" and threw at him a shoe, which landed a meter away. While agreeing with a university official that "Cambridge is a place where ideas are put into play, not shoes," I have much more sympathy for this protester than I have for Mr. al-Zaidi.
Chinese media initially kept silence over the incident, but when information leaked in via satellite channels and the Web, they just had to report it. According to one commenter, "the uncompromising Iraqi people threw a shoe at Bush which is a brave act by a suppressed nation, but the ugly Englishman threw a shoe at Wen, which was only a barbaric trick". Isn't this brilliant? I love China!

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