Sunday, December 23, 2007

2007: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

This past year was a fairly interesting one for me, from a reporting perspective and otherwise, and saw me traveling to six countries on three continents.

Beginning in the slums of Bombay and the hills and valleys of Kashmir, continuing on through electoral politics and civil unrest in France and extending to the cocoa fields and rebel roadblocks of Côte d'Ivoire, it was a period during which I felt, as acutely as ever, the importance of the role that a journalist serves as witness and recorder of the struggles of the disenfranchised and how, in our ever-more fraught and divided world, that role of illuminating our common humanity as people - despite transitory national, linguistic, religious, racial or economic differences - is as important now as it has ever been.

What follows is a review of nearly all the articles I've published this year, spanning a number of subjects across the globe.

Here's to hoping for a gentler, more humane and healthier 2008, with greater freedom married to a greater sense of local and global community for all concerned.

Much love,


Côte d'Ivoire: A Call for Solidarity in Resolving Fate of Missing Reporter for the Inter Press Service (December 14, 2007)

The Bitter Taste of Cocoa in Côte d'Ivoire for the Inter Press Service (December 3, 2007)

Interview with France Kassing on Davis, California’s KDVS radio (December 3, 2007)

Blood Diamonds No Longer Congo-Brazzaville's Best Friend
for the Inter Press Service (November 30, 2007)

France's Troubled Suburbs Erupt Again for the Inter Press Service (November 29, 2007)

Update on Riots in France
on WNYC's The Leonard Lopate Show (November 29, 2007)

Riots Rage in Paris Suburb After Police Collision, an interview with Robert Siegel on National Public Radio's All Things Considered (November 27, 2007)

In Ivory Coast, a Fragile Peace Is Framed by Promises Unfulfilled for the Washington Post (November 16, 2007)

On Lyrical Terrorists for Countercurrents (November 10, 2007)

Project May Boost Biofuels in East Africa for the Inter Press Service (October 30, 2007)

"We Don't Believe Gbagbo Will Organise Transparent Elections" An Interview with Alassane Ouattara
for the Inter Press Service (October 23, 2007)

Puma pounces
for Foreign Direct Investment magazine (October 03, 2007)

Burma: Criticism of Total Operations Grows for the Inter Press Service (October 4, 2007)

North Africa a Launch Pad For Auto Markets for the Inter Press Service (September 25, 2007)

'Silicon Ribbon' Pops Up Across the Maghreb for the Inter Press Service (September 29, 2007)

Trade-Africa: Improved Regional Integration Still Key For Success for the Inter Press Service (September 25, 2007)

France: Two Years After Riots, Little Has Changed
for the Inter Press Service (September 24, 2007)

Sarkozy Hedges Free Market With Government Control for the Inter Press Service (September 15, 2007)

France: New Employment Law Sets Stage for Showdown for the Inter Press Service (September 3, 2007)

African Countries Stand Up to EU for the Inter Press Servce (August 28, 2007)

L'Affaire Libyenne Shows a New Policy for the Inter Press Service (August 27, 2007)

France: Differences Arise Over Education Law for the Inter Press Service (August 27, 2007)

In Defense Of Taslima Nasreen for Countercurrents (August 11, 2007)

France: Sarkozy Charges Ahead
for the Inter Press Service (July 30, 2007)

Russian Roulette: A Review of Anna Politkovskaya's A Russian Diary: A Journalist's Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin's Russia for the Miami Herald (July 29, 2007)

For Jazz Musicians, a Paris Tradition Continues
for the Inter Press Service (July 25, 2007)

Hope, Concern Greet China's Growing Prominence in Africa
for the Inter Press Service (July 23, 2007)

Following Oil Boom, Biofuel Eyed In Africa for the Inter Press Service (July 13, 2007)

France: Diaspora Trade Strengthens Communities
for the Inter Press Service (June 29, 2007)

G8: Few Concrete Steps Proposed for Darfur
for the Inter Press Service (June 27, 2007)

New Plans for Niger Basin for the Inter Press Service (Jun 26, 2007)

France: Immigrants Uneasy over Proposed Policies
for the Inter Press Service (June 19, 2007)

Haiti-Dominican Republic: Film on Plantations Spurs Backlash for the Inter Press Service (June 4, 2007)

Trade-Africa: Europe Looks to Encourage Diaspora Investment for the Inter Press Service (May 31, 2007)

West Africa: Currency Integration Still A Few Years Off for the Inter Press Service (May 30, 2007)

An Appeal to Decency on behalf of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent:
An address delivered to the Journalists & Editors Workshop on Latin America and the Caribbean delivered at the Biscayne Bay Marriott Hotel in Miami, Florida (May 12, 2007)

Underreported: An Update on Kashmir on WNYC's The Leonard Lopate Show (May 03, 2007)

The Dead and the Missing in Kashmir for The World Policy Journal (Spring 2007)

Politics-Sudan: "Do Something Now, Because People Are Dying Every Day"
for the Inter Press Service (April 30, 2007)

Haiti: A Literary Icon for "Les Damnés de la Terre" for the Inter Press Service (April 11, 2007)

Haiti/Democratic Republic: Exhibit Reveals a Bitter Harvest
for the Inter Press Service (May 13, 2007)

Kashmiri Separatist Seeks End To Armed Struggle for the Washington Times (February 25 , 2007)

Haiti : The terrible truth about Martissant for AlterPresse (February 13, 2007)

The Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM) calls for action on the Jean-Rémy Badio killing press release (January 30, 2007)

Haiti’s Mythical Man: The Novelist Madison Smartt Bell Humanizes the Person Behind the Legend of Haiti’s Independence for the Miami Herald (January 21, 2007)

Politics-US: Ailing Health System Defies Easy Fix for the Inter Press Service (January 3, 2007)

Friday, December 14, 2007

COTE D'IVOIRE: A Call for Solidarity in Resolving Fate of Missing Reporter

COTE D'IVOIRE: A Call for Solidarity in Resolving Fate of Missing Reporter

By Michael Deibert

Inter Press Service

PARIS, Dec 14, 2007 (IPS) - Early one afternoon nearly four years ago, journalist Guy-André Kieffer was thrust into a waiting car by several armed men in a supermarket parking lot in Abidjan. He has not been seen since.

Following the reporter's disappearance in Côte d'Ivoire's economic capital in April 2004, however, a tangled and murky picture has emerged of the forces in the country which Kieffer had been covering, forces that apparently had good reason to want to silence the troublesome gadfly.

Born in France, Kieffer obtained dual French-Canadian citizenship during a marriage to a Canadian. He spent the better part of two decades as a journalist for the French business publication 'La Tribune' before starting to report from Africa on a freelance basis for a variety of publications. These included the French-published 'La Lettre du Continent' (Letter From the Continent).

Despite the gradual, often deceptive cooling down of the civil wars that tore West Africa asunder during the early part of the decade, Kieffer -- 54 at the time of his disappearance -- still found plenty of corruption, nepotism and violence to write about while working in the region. These problems were notably evident in Côte d'Ivoire.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

W’s Christmas present to American children: Vetoing health insurance

As one of the nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance, my feelings about the American healthcare system - where private health insurance companies and physicians reap enormous profits by charging exorbitant premiums, denying care to the sick and artificially inflating the price of drugs - could not be more vehement. The American healthcare system is utterly, completely broken and even some of the more well-known proposals for rectifying it (such as that of U.S. presidential candidate and New York senator Hillary Clinton) strike me as woefully feeble in terms of addressing what is a terrible crisis for so many Americans. Speaking as an American who has spent much of his life living abroad, I can say with some authority that I don’t think I have ever seen a more predatory, exploitative approach to healthcare than I have seen in the United States. When taken in tandem with a consumer culture than encourages people to eat unhealthy foods packed with unnecessary sugars and hormones, the approach seems doubly cynical.

Along with the Bush administration’s irresponsible, negligent approach to climate change (which has lead the European Union to threaten to “boycott U.S.-led climate talks next month unless Washington accepts a range of numbers for negotiating deep reductions of global-warming emissions”), the healthcare debacle has, in the last week, thrown in the starkest relief possible to me how terribly out of synch the U.S., for so long a leader on so many issues, is becoming with the rest of the world.

This week, as the United States enters its holiday season, President Bush marked the occasion by vetoing an extension of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which attempts to provides health insurance to children from families earning too much to qualify for Medicaid (a very low threshold indeed) but unable to afford private insurance. The SCHIP proposal sought to increase federal funding for the program by $35 billion over five years, adding around 4 million people, partially funded by a 61-cent rise on a package of cigarettes. To give you an example of the context of the price tag, the cost of the war in Iraq, by end of fiscal year 2007, was at least $456 billion, to say nothing of the lives of nearly 4,000 American service personnel and those of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Bush vetoed a similar bill in October and, in July, was quoted by The New York Times as saying that the bill was a step toward “government-run health care for every American,” "

You mean like every other country in the industrialized world? As the U.S. government has taken responsibility for the post office, the police, the fire department and the national defense, so should it take responsibility for providing health care for every American. Despite the many problems I have with the French government and other aspects of society here, I think that their health system, like that of some other European countries, remains a model of a responsible state approach to taking care of its citizens well-being that the United States could learn much from.

My native country simply cannot continue being so out-of-step with the rest of the world, so easily suckered by the false piety (married to brutal cynicism) of political snake oil salesmen like Bush and company. If the Democrats had any conviction at all and took their responsibility as guardians of the constitution seriously, we would be deep in impeachment proceedings by now. But alas, they greet this, like other outrages, with the feeblest murmurs of dissent.

My fellow countrymen have been fooled and lied to for so long by their government, I wonder if they will recognize the truth when it finally comes crashing down. Starting with the ridiculous banana republic farce of the 2000 election in Florida, continuing through the illegal use of torture and detention without trials of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people, through the illegal invasion of Iraq and the naked profiteering there that the administration’s cronies engaged in, the terrible abandonment of the people of Mississippi and Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina and now continuing with the denial of basic healthcare for American citizens, in a just world Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Feith, Mr Gonzales and many more fellow travelers would at least be facing criminal and civil prosecution in the United States if not an appearance at a tribunal in the Hague.

It a strange time to be an American with an internationalist outlook on the world, proud of the open, optimistic spirit and intense creative drive of my country, but very worried about the direction that its political leaders appear intent on taking it, which seems to be straight over a cliff, ever angrier, more closed-off from the rest of the world and more authoritarian by the day. It’s still not too late to change course, but I fear that the hour is growing ever more late.

I’ll be in a better mood next post, I promise.

Monday, December 10, 2007

How different the world might have been…

...If things had turned out differently in Florida during that November seven years ago…

He referred to or quoted several major world and literary figures such as George Orwell, Ghandi, Robert Frost, and Ibsen, and gave a litany of the world's environmental problems including cities that were running out of water, wild fires and temperature extremes.

Read more about former Vice President Al Gore's acceptance of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize here.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The fields of Nandigram

I have been following with concern in recent weeks the situation in the Indian state of West Bengal. Home to the world’s longest serving democratically elected communist government - the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) - the region recently saw terrible state-sponsored violence last month in the form of a raid by Communist party cadres against the village of Nandigram, which resulted in the deaths of at least six people, the raping of several women, the burning of peasant homes and the flight of thousands of villagers into exile. This appalling display came about as a direct result of the CPIM’s desire to convert the Nandigram paddy fields to a special economic zone for an Indonesian-owned petrochemical complex.

Having reported on the brutal treatment of Haiti's peasants on that country's Maribahoux plain (evicted from some of the best farmland in the nation in 2002 to make way for a free-trade zone by the ostensibly-populist government of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide), it would seem that Nandigram would be yet another case of a self-appointed political elite professing progress on one hand while trampling on the rights of the very people - the poor- that they claim to advocate for with the other. The sympathies of thinking, democratic progressives like myself could rest nowhere else than with the villagers victimized by the CPIM government. Indeed, as my friend Dilip D'Souza pointed out in a recent blog posting, “sensible, responsible thinkers on the left are appalled by the crimes of Nandigram, exactly as sensible, responsible thinkers on the right were appalled by the crimes of Gujarat 2002.”

Such simple humanity evidently still manages to escape sector of the international left, though.

In an open letter in The Hindu portentously addressed “To Our Friends in Bengal,” a handful of Western-based “radical” intellectuals lectured, not for justice, but rather, for “reconciliation” between the victimized peasants and the CPIM government, as if victimized and victimizers were operating on a ground of moral equivalency.

“The balance of forces in the world is such that it would be impetuous to split the Left,” the letter lectured the families of the dead and the raped, and the Indian left as a whole. “We are faced with a world power that has demolished one state (Iraq) and is now threatening another (Iran). This is not the time for division when the basis of division no longer appears to exist.”

The letter’s signatories counted among their number the usual assortment of cause-du-jour affluent commentators on world affairs, all making comfortable livings for themselves adopting “radical” positions while making sure to steer well clear of the line of fire.

There was Michael Albert, the founder of the frothing internet publication ZNet. There was Tariq Ali, the lavishly wealthy political dabbler and unreadable author of bad poetry. And, of course, never one to be left out of a poorly thought-out social critique, there was Noam Chomsky, who apparently also likes to dip his toes in Indian regional politics when not waging campaigns against books he doesn’t like or lauding revisionist histories in the 1990s Balkan wars.

Again, my experience in Haiti taught me a little something about dealing with this current of thought, where “solidarity” becomes a byword for lack of transparency, lack of accountability and lack of debate about the best means to help poor people create a better life for themselves. Alas for Haiti, many of its most articulate progressive intellectuals write with proficiency only in French, thus often not being able to contribute in any expansive way to the debate of the fate of their country in the English-language media, while many genuine English-proficient progressives with knowledge of the country, through either fear of reprisal or lack of interest, remain silent. In India, however, the democratic left said “not so fast.”

Responding to Chomsky et al on the Nandigram missive, an open letter by a group of Indian progressives including Arundhati Roy, Mahashweta Devi and Sumit Sarka, patiently explained that the CPIM, in their view, “today is to stand for unbridled capitalist development, nuclear energy at the cost of both ecological concerns and mass displacement of people…and the Stalinist arrogance that the party knows what ‘the people’ need better than the people themselves.”

“Moreover” the letter went on. “The violence that has been perpetrated by CPIM cadres to browbeat the peasants into submission, including time-tested weapons like rape, demonstrate that this ‘Left’ shares little with the Left ideals that we cherish.”

The Chomsky et al signatories responded to this with another open letter, which appeared to backtrack a bit from the initial, unequivocal call for unity, but this was not quite enough for Sumit Sarkar, who, in the pages of The Guardian, took the signatories of the initial letter to task for their authors had an "ignorance of what is happening in India. They have no idea of the on-the-ground facts."

As a progressive committed to trying to create a more just, equitable, healthy and humane planet, I was heartened to see the vigorousness with which India’s progressives responded to the attempted hijacking of the dialogue on the Nandigram debate on the world stage by a powerful self-fashioned intellectual elite, epitomized by the signatories of the initial letter. With genuine solidarity with oppressed peoples, with vigorous on-the-ground investigative reporting and with a continuing engagement in bringing the voices of the disenfranchised to the attention of a world where strident currents of both the left and the right have vested economic interests in ignoring them, I believe that, in time, the peasants of Nandigram, like the peasants of Maribahoux, may at long last see justice, and a government that genuinely represents and responds to the needs of its long-suffering people.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

A good week for democracy, a bad week for democracy and the head-in-the-sand approach to climate change

Democratic progressives were alternately heartened and chastened by developments around the world in the past week.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez’s referendum that would have allowed him to run for re-election indefinitely, declare states of emergency for unlimited periods and increase the state’s already-expansive control over the country’s economy there, was narrowly defeated, 51% to 49%. Abandoning the petulant tone that had marked his public statements in recent weeks (most notably in his exchange with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at the Ibero-American summit in Santiago, Chile last month), Mr. Chávez was extremely gracious in accepting the verdict of his country’s electorate.

Were it only true that such an example of participatory democracy had been on display in Russia, where parliamentary elections that gave a sweeping majority to political parties aligned with Russian President Valdimir Putin were characterized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as “not fair” and christened as an illegitimate "merging of a (Putin’s United Russia) political party and the state…clear violation of international commitments and standards.” In Chechnya, ruled by Putin’s ally Ramzan Kadyrov, the president’s party took a Soviet-style 99.2% of the vote. Russia’s liberal democratic opposition, most eloquently represented in the West by former chess champion Garry Kasparov, alternately clapped in jail, ignored on the government-controlled airwaves, forbidden from marching and all-but-bullied off the ballot itself, was left to ponder their next move.

Where was the United States government amidst all this turbulence? Telling the world that it still wasn’t ready to commit to mandatory caps to cut global-warming gases at the United Nation’s global warming conference in Bali, of course. This continued the rather less-than-visionary Bush administration approach to global warming that has resulted in my native country being the only major industrial nation to have rejected Kyoto Protocol and its modest targets for reducing damaging greenhouse gases.

Let’s hope the coming week has more stories like the first one, and fewer like the last two.

A busy week ahead, and as it’s a rainy night in Paris, so time to turn back to watching a pirated version of The Darjeeling Limited.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Interview with KDVS

I had a fairly wide-ranging interview with France Kassing of Davis, California’s KDVS yesterday, concerning the recent Paris riots, my exposé of the cocoa industry in the Côte d'Ivoire and my view of the peace process there, some recent developments in Haiti and other topics. The interview can be listened to in its entirety here.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Bitter Taste of Cocoa in Côte d'Ivoire


The Bitter Taste of Cocoa in Côte d'Ivoire

By Michael Deibert

Inter Press Service

BINAO, Southern Côte d'Ivoire, Dec 3, 2007 (IPS) - Hacking his way through the lush forest with a machete, his rubber boots sinking into the moist earth, Lambert Kwame surveys the plot of land that his family has worked for over 30 years, harvesting cocoa.

"We know that the national price for cocoa is very high," Kwame says, as he stands under a fecund canopy about an hour north of Côte d'Ivoire's commercial capital, Abidjan. Fat orange and yellow cacao pods from which cocoa beans are extracted cling to the trees. "But the obstacles set up between the farmers and the harbour take all the profit that we could make from the crop."

Hundreds of beans from Kwame's cocoa crop lie drying in the sun on a modest wooden stand before his home, along the highway that leads to Abidjan. For this harvest he will be paid about 90 cents per kilogramme by middlemen who will sell it to international exporters in Abidjan.

Côte d'Ivoire is the world's largest producer of cocoa, a distinction that remained even during the political crisis that has engulfed this West African country over recent years (a 2002-2003 civil war sparked by political and economic instability, as well as tensions over regional discrimination and immigration, led to Côte d'Ivoire being split into government and rebel zones). The nation's crop currently accounts for nearly 40 percent of global cocoa production.

Cocoa is also Côte d'Ivoire's main export, representing some 35 percent of goods sent abroad. This translates into about 1.4 billion dollars of revenue annually in the south, controlled by the government of President Laurent Gbagbo, according to official figures. In the northern sector, overseen by the rebel New Forces (Forces Nouvelles, FN), yearly cocoa revenues are thought to hover around 30 million dollars.

In addition, up to four million of Côte d'Ivoire's 17 million inhabitants work in some aspect of the cocoa trade.

But, concern been growing for several years as to how revenues generated by the crop are used by the maze of overlapping and often opaque organisations set up by both the government and rebels to manage cocoa.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Taslima Nasreen forced into hiding

News reaches me via an article in The Guardian and via a rushed instant message conversation with the author herself, who is in hiding, that the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen has been driven from her home in Calcutta (Kolkata), India, by the violent protests of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind group, claiming that she had insulted Islam in here new book, Dwikhondito (Split in Two).

Readers of this blog and my other writing will recall that, this past August, Ms. Nasreen - a recipient of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thoughts from the European Parliament (1994), the Hellman-Hammett Grant from Human Rights Watch (1994) and the UNESCO Prize for the promotion of tolerance and non-violence (2004) - was physically attacked at a book release event in Hyderabad, India by members of the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) party, including Indian lawmakers.

It is a depressing development of intolerance in a region of India that has always prided itself on being on of the great intellectual bastions of that great nation, birthplace of the poet Rabindranath Tagore and the film director Satyajit Ray, In response, Narseen has consented to delete the controversial passages in her book, something that I am sure any writer is loathe to do under public pressure

The decision must be doubly bitter for an author who, in her home country of Bangladesh, saw her books banned, her passport seized, her life threatened and was eventually forced to seek exile in Europe and the United States before settling in Calcutta. Criticizing the victimization of her country's Hindu minority and of women, and calling for a more moderate, humanistic and less extremist approach to faith in South Asia in general, is evidently not a path not endorsed by all.

Though Maulana Mahmood Madani, general secretary of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, has called on protests against Nasreen to stop if she withdraws the “objectionable” passages, the Milli Ittehad Parishad, an umbrella alliance of 12 Muslim groups including Jamait Ulema-i-Hind, still intends to meet on Sunday to discuss their further plan of action.

Events such as this in India, whether coming from the camps of Hindu extremists or Muslim fundamentalists, make a mockery of the concept of free speech and minority protections, when mob rule and violence become an accepted mode of public discourse and addressing one’s grievances.

The reaction the Indian government to all of this? In a statement, India's External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the following: "We have never refused shelter to those who seek our protection, and the same applies to Nasreen...(But) those given shelter in India have always undertaken to eschew political activities in India or any actions which may harm India’s relations with friendly countries. It is also expected that the guests will refrain from activities and expressions that may hurt the sentiments of our people."

What kind of a defense of freedom of speech is that? In effect, it tells writers “Say what you want, just nothing too challenging,” when the purpose of writers, if they have any purpose, is to always challenge, push and provoke beyond merely entertaining.

“If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,“ said the British author George Orwell said in his preface to Animal Farm, a book that got him mercilessly vilified by the British left for its scathing satire of the Stalinist Soviet Union, Those words ring as true in our polarized world today as they did in 1945.

Hopefully, despite the increasingly shrill minorities on the right and the left; among the Christians, Hindus, Muslims; Americans, Indians, French, Russians et al, the bravery of genuine free thought and the wisdom of moderation will prevail and, I hope, that writers like Taslima Nasreen will continue to challenge and provoke us through these dark and difficult times.