A New Adventure

I am writing today with bittersweet news. Beginning tomorrow, July 10, I’ll be moving on from UnderReported to serve as Gulf Correspondent for The National newspaper. I have been based in the region for the last year and am looking forward to the new challenge of reporting during a pivotal time for the region.

Sweet News of Chocolate in Africa

In 2010, all 3.7 million tonnes of global cocoa—the raw material for chocolate—was grown in the developing world. Most of it—2.5 million tonnes—was grown in Africa. But until now, almost none of the African cocoa has been transformed to chocolate on the continent itself. Consumption in Africa—just 450,000 tonnes a year—is also quite low.

But perhaps that will begin to change: East Africa's first local chocolate factory could soon be open in Tanzania, according to local media reports. Neuchatel Chocolate, the Swiss manufacturer, is said to have plans of opening a plant in the country's industrial zone.

What a PRI Comeback Means for Mexico

Predictably, Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) looks to be the winner of the country's presidential elections, as results from the vote are finalized this morning. Equally predictably, the narrative that the anglophone media has taken from the victory is simple: The old, autocratic party that was defeated after seven decades in power in 2000 is suddenly back at the helm.

This narrative is, to be blunt, a bit annoying. Isn't the whole point of democracy the alternance of power? Besides, now ten years out of the federal government, PRI's once monopoly of power is shattered; Nieto was winning less than 40 percent of the popular vote at last count.

Is it Sectarian Strife in Nigeria?

When I lived in Nigeria just a few short years ago, the term "sectarian violence" was not really something that came up. Inter-religious conflicts had plagued the country's middle belt on and off for the better part of a decade. But these were less religious conflicts than they were communities butting heads over scarce land, insecure resources, and really poor opportunities for justice when wrong was done. I never felt animosity between religions, even when I spoke with some of the less-savory members of a given side. The feeling was more of a competition—a sort of frantic scramble to control the scarce, whether that meant grazing and farming land or converts to the faithful.

So in recent weeks, as headlines proclaiming Nigerian sectarian strife have splashed across the papers, I've had to look twice. It's an incredibly painful and dangerous turn of events, as is already obvious from the hundreds left dead by the violence of Boko Haram, and retaliatory clashes.

Mexico's Anonymous Violence

There is only one thing more heartbreaking than the news that 49 mutilated corpses were discovered just outside Monterrey, Mexico yesterday: The speed with which these and many other recent victims have been written off as members of one cartel or another, battling for dominance in a brutal turf war.

When the victims were discovered this weekend, police found them decapitated, their hands were cut off—rendering it nearly impossible to identify them. Yet in almost the same sentence, government officials have insisted that the violence is taking place between organized crime members, not against civilians. But how, exactly, do we know that if we don't know who the victims are?

A Peek Inside Saudi Social Media

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracy released an unprecedented survey yesterday of the Saudi social media sphere—a vast space on Twitter, Facebook, and a host of blogs, message boards, and mobile applications. Their findings offer a striking picture of a country that is, in the lead author Jonathan Schanzer’s words, usually “very much a black box” to the outside world. The portrait that emerges is that of a vastly conservative and controlled country, but one where new voices—ranging from women to liberals to religious extremists—are beginning to find a voice online.

In Burundi, Political Violence Halts Progress

Late last year, during a visit to Bujumbura, Burundi, I found myself in a large public park, where throngs of men and women were all looking in the same direction. When clouds gathered, threatening a thundering African rain, their gazes remained fixed on the city courthouse. There was nothing to see, but a loud speaker broadcast the ongoing proceedings of a trial that shook the nation to its core. No one in the crowd that day—or any day they gathered over the several-week-long proceeding—spoke to one another.

The attraction that day was the trial of more than a dozen assailants accused of an attack on September 18, in which armed men burst into a bar in the small city of Gatumba and killed 39 people indiscriminately. It is the most serious incident in recent memory in a country that not long ago suffered civil war and genocide. It isn’t just the scale of the violence that has drawn attention, however.

Mexico's Imperiled Journalists

When you scan Reporters Without Borders's Press Freedom Index—as I happened to late yesterday, on World Press Freedom Day—the results are mostly expected: Eritrea and North Korea are the least free; Finland and Norway are the most. But seeing Mexico fall so low—number 149 of 179 countries—is not only shocking but must be one of the great tragedies for media in the last decade.

Mexico's press is incredibly robust, critical, and investigative. The country's proud literary tradition is infused with the reportage of news—the writing, reporting and editing are superb. Newspapers are among the best in Latin America, as are magazines such as Nexos and Proceso, which one could argue offer far more comprehensive news analysis that most US news sources.

Seeing Charles Taylor from Sierra Leone

On a warm summer day in 2005, I took a tour through the former home of my host family in a small village in Sierra Leone. Their abode at the time, a concrete structure with several small rooms, made them among the luckiest in the village; most lived in mud huts, only sometimes with metal roofs. Their former home, however—well, I certainly needed a tour guide to find it. Because it was a small tree, hidden in a pit amid a crowded rainforest. During the months of horror when rebel forces razed the villages around Taiama, this family of a dozen ate leaves and cassava plants and tried to stay as quiet as they could. When they emerged, all the children were years behind in school and the family's wealth—a piece of land they cultivated—was decimated by neglect. They got away with their lives, but they had lost everything.

When a Fixer is Arrested

Many of the international journalists who come in and out of a country like Bahrain rely on fixers—locals who are willing to help them set up meetings, serve as translators, and generally get the lay of the land. Particularly for correspondents tasked with a broad geographical area to cover, fixers are a vital part of being a journalist. In fact, it would be no overstatement to say that they are the unspoken heroes of almost all modern war reporting.

Unfortunately, fixers are also—almost always—at greater risk than international correspondents themselves. They lack international passports and foreign embassy protection. They are also essentially invisible in the news production process. They don't have bylines; they don't show up on camera.

Last night, Mohammed Hassan—who has helped several reporters and was featured prominently in Dan Rather's recent special on Bahrain—was caught up in a clash with police, hit with a stun grenade, and beaten by security forces according to activists on the ground. He is currently missing, likely arrested.

How Long Can Bahrain's Opposition Hold Out for Dialogue?

MANAMA, Bahrain—Fourteen months after the Arab Spring hit the shores of Bahrain, revolution has at least two major hubs. The first is a large, several-story villa with high ceilings and bright ivory-colored walls—the headquarters of Al-Wefaq, the largest Shia opposition group here. Another locus is across town, in a run-down mall overlooking a poorly kept traffic roundabout. Activists, human rights groups, and local organizers gather at a Costa Coffee with their computers.

On any given day this week, each of these two hubs are helping organize massive protests across Bahrain—an anti-welcoming for the Formula 1 race scheduled to go ahead beginning April 20th. Most of Al-Wefaq’s demonstrations are officially sanctioned with government permits. They might be met with tear gas, but they will largely remain peaceful marches. Most of the others—including the countless smaller protests that pop up daily in the corridors of dozens of Bahrain's Shia villages—aren’t legally ordained. Tear gas, sound bombs, and perhaps even more blunt force will likely meet these displays of anger at the regime.

At Summit of the Americas, Washington Looks Behind the Times

By the time the Summit of the Americas wrapped up in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend, one couldn't help notice: Washington is looking a bit behind the times. The United States and Canada are the only countries still advocating to keep Cuba out of the event. President Barack Obama was clear that his administration is not open to decriminalization of drugs—making him almost the only one in the room who wasn't grasping for new ways to tackle the spiraling violence overwhelming countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. And when it came to the economy, the US position came across as somewhat arrogant: Obama brushed off concerns about US monetary policy impacting developing countries' currencies.

A Dangerous Escalation in Bahrain

In just the last few days, there have been an alarming series of escalations in Bahrain, where tensions are simmering in advance of a scheduled Formula One event April 20. On Monday, youth protestors booby-trapped a roadblock with a petrol bomb. When it exploded, it injured half a dozen police. The AP is now reporting that Sunni mobs attacked Shia villages last night in retaliation.  This morning, several homemade bombs are said to have gone off in schools in several Shia villages.

Bahrain: What You Won't See at F1

Just 10 days before car racing's biggest event, the Formula One race (F1), is scheduled to hit Bahrain, serious questions are emerging about whether the country can or should host the sporting event. Human rights activists point to a barrage of ongoing abuses that they argue discredit the government from putting on an international spectacle. Most immediately, a political prisoner, human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, is entering the 62nd day of a hunger strike—and no one is sure of his health condition.

This is an ethical argument: that making merry is inappropriate in a country that still witnesses daily injustices. But from a mere logistical perspective, Bahrain likely is capable of hosting the event. That's because the formation of this uprising has changed dramatically in recent months—and the crackdown has grown adept at forcing protests into small geographical pockets. In other words, if the F1 happens, it's likely to be accompanied by a martial law—but fans might not even notice.

How Al Jazeera English Came of Age

After a decade and a half, it's fair to say that Al Jazeera—the news channel owned by the
tiny Gulf state of Qatar—has "arrived" into the mainstream. Millions of dollars of investment and hundreds of journalists' hard work have earned the broadcaster—which has Arabic and English channels—a credibility that few other state-owned media since the BBC can claim.

But the Arab Spring has been a big test for the channel, which some viewers have accused of covering the uprisings with a bias that gleans of Qatari foreign policy. I have a recent piece out on just how and why the critiques of Al Jazeera have grown:

Since the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera’s previous success has been amplified and the Qatari government has started playing a bigger part in regional policy. Suddenly, the cozy relationship between patron and broadcaster carries a bit more baggage.


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