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Emma Sky's Middle East Tour ft. 9mm

Look at this photo.

Seriously, if the British royal family came from North West London along the banks of the A40 and not Windsor, this is what you would expect to see.

The lady in the photograph is Emma Sky.

Emma Sky is an Oxford graduate who speaks Arabic and Hebrew. After graduating she spent a decade working in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. While opposed to the war, she volunteered to put her skills to use in post-invasion Iraq, where she was appointed the civilian representative of the CPA in Kirkuk. In 2006 she was made political advisor to General Odierno, the second most senior US military official in Iraq. Emma has also toured Walthamstow with Londonstani and Abu Muqawama.

In addition to all those accomplishments, Emma has been one of a very limited number of British officials working high up in the US military structure.

Presently, she's a visiting professor at the War Studies department at Kings College, London. Read about her Iraq (post US withdrawal) tour for Foreign Policy here.


Wembley vs. South Asia

Londonstani was mighty relieved to wake up today and find yesterday's speculation over the imminent fall of the Pakistani government had come to nothing - again.

Much more interesting than the gyrations of Pakistani politics (someone wake me up when there's an election or a coup), is Sagar Sharma's blog on life in India.

Sagar, a former top communications operative for Her Majesty's Government, and Londonstani have known each other for a very, very long time. They went to the same school, enraged the same teachers and flattered the same girls. (Yes, a pact of mutual silence is in place).

Modern Britain is no longer represented in the Subcontinent solely by Sanskrit-speaking public school boys. Nope, now they let blokes from Wembley comprehensives tarnish the national image abroad as well.

Over a border that makes Pakistan and India seem as close yet distant as parallel universes, Londonstani is pleased to see that Sagar is staying true to the Wembley tradition of unleashing motorised hell:

".., driving... I’m LOVIN’ it. It's like a 360 virtual video game but where you only get one life. The thrill and concentration required to stay alive makes driving a hugely stimulating experience. I never smiled when driving in London I can promise you. Over here, I’m hysterical."

If Londonstani manages to convince Sagar to cross the border, Lahore will need to brace itself for some serious Toyota Corolla drag racing.

Like the Harrow Road, but (even) more guns


Amnesty - behind the lines in the Arab Spring

Amnesty released a report looking at the popular uprisings against oppressive rule in the Middle East (let's not forget Iran had an uprising too) aka Arab Spring.

The report - Year of Rebellion, The State of Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - was released accompanied by a statement from Amnesty which makes some good points:

With few exceptions, governments have failed to recognize that everything has changed,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s interim Middle East and North Africa Director. “The protest movements across the region, led in many cases by young people and with women playing central roles, have proved astonishingly resilient in the face of sometimes staggering repression.”

But what has been striking about the last year has been that – with some exceptions – change has largely been achieved through the efforts of local people coming onto the streets, not the influence and involvement of foreign powers.

Amnesty, true to its human-rights-first agenda, makes the following recommendations:

Reform security forces

Ensure laws comply with international standards

Reform the justice system

End Torture and other ill-treatment

End incommunicado detention

Uphold the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression

Release prisoners of conscience

End enforced disappearances

End impunity


Now, you might be reading this thinking, "Yeah, that's the typical unrealistic, bleeding heart, tree-hugger, humanitarian, pie in the sky wish list that I'd expect from a bunch of crusties (thanks to the mayor of London for the phrase)". But, you'd be mistaken.

Amnesty's demands to Arab governments are always pretty much the same, which is the point. Slowly and steadily, Amnesty and other groups like it, have advanced these aims through contact with civil society groups. Londonstani doesn't think it's too much of a stretch to say that, in the end, engagement and capacity building with activists on the ground had a much bigger impact than the decades of government-level engagement with the former regimes carried out by Western governments. Which went a little something like this:

"please repeal your illegal emergency laws. 'No', you say? OK then."

"We will cut your aid if you keep jailing democracy activists. Not really!"

"We will be angry if you blatantly rig elections. What's that you say? Your people are a bit thick and naturally disposed to voting in terrorists? Ok, fine, but at least try and be a bit subtle about it."

What is that you are telling your people as you accept huge amounts of money from us? That we are plotting to overthrow you and let the Israelis fly the Star of David over the pyramids? Naa..Naaa. Naaa.. Can't hear yoooou...Naa Naaa"

Yup, human rights activists get regime change done. Who'd have thunk it. Nuff said.


* Wanna know what was going through the minds of your average way-past retirement age Egyptian official while they were having their terminally boring meetings with Western officials? This...


Pakistan's invisible news

In most places with a relatively free press, editors decide what goes on their pages (or websites) based on what they think will interest their audiences most.

So, in the UK, for example, when Prime Minister David Cameron opted out of a European plan that would have involved tighter regulation for the UK's financial services industry, media reaction was fairly predictable.

The Guardian (leftie liberal, generally pro European Union) - Casting Britain Adrift in Europe

The Telegraph (traditionalist, anti European Union) - ... In Splendid Isolation

The Mail (sensationally right of centre, anti most things foreign) - The Day the PM Put Britain First

(The notable exception here is the Express, once the world's largest circulation newspaper, which cant seem to go two days without a xenophobic story about immigrants or a conspiracy rant on the death of Princess Diana?!)

In Pakistan, things are a little more complex. Editors, of course, do want people to read their newspapers, but at the same time they have to navigate much more complex environments. Newspapers and television channels will be part of a larger conglomerate, which might print news and comment but may also buy advertising as well as produce it. At the same time, the owners of these businesses will have their own relationships with political players including the military, feudal landowners and the rest. In addition to this, no one really knows how many people read or watch anything. At the same time, as in many other countries (but without the legal restrictions in more structured media environments) cost plays a large part in how issues are covered. Ie. People arguing in a studio is cheaper to organise than an investigation.

Londonstani wouldn't pretend to understand what the exact decision making process is for Pakistan's media editors, but the end result is a propensity to cover stories that lend themselves to a simple X vs Y formula, focus intently on political manoeuverings (cheap to cover) and fit within a simple emotive narrative.

As a result, what's on the front page of a newspaper is of questionable news worth to your average Pakistani. For example, after a considerable respite from bomb attacks over the past several months, yesterday saw an explosion in a market in the Khyber Agency kill about 30 people. Pakistan's English-language newspapers are carrying this pretty major story on the back page, while the two Urdu-language newspapers Londonstani looks at daily (including the biggest circulation daily) have a small headline.

It could be argued that downturn in recent months or not, bombings are depressingly familiar in Pakistan and do not generate headlines anymore. More likely, the story has been pushed off the front page by political wrangling between Pakistan's highest court and the sitting government over the validity of the legal get-out-of-jail card that let politicians avoid old corruption charges and paved the way for a civilian government replace former military ruler Parvez Musharraf. An editor may say that this legal battle directly affects the survival of the government and is therefore of vital national interest. But, frankly, the government has been on the verge of falling for the whole time Londonstani has been in Pakistan (since October 2009). So, its not really all that new.

More likely, those who own the newspapers and TV channels will have their own positions to promote regarding whatever political spat is playing out at the time. But, the importance of an easy narrative shouldn't be understated. And by "easy narrative", Londonstani doesn't just mean something that a journalist finds easy to portray to his/her audience, which is just part of it, but also something that fits an already existing perception.

So, NATO forces killing Pakistani troops on the Afghanistan border elicits huge amounts of attention and generates much coverage because it slots neatly into the "The US is really our enemy. The US is trying to destroy us. The US takes our lives for granted" perceptions that already exist. However, those same Pakistani soldiers kidnapped, tortured and killed by militants generates nothing like the same sort of fury. The reason being, Londonstani would sugget, that editors aren't sure what wider context the story would sit in. "Who are these militants? Are they Indian funded agents trying to besmirch the good name of Kashmiri or anti US freedom fighters? Aren't the militants just retaliating for what our military has been doing to them at the behest of the Americans? Why would militants who claim to be true Muslims want to kill the soldiers of the army of Islam?"

This isn't to say Pakistani media is rubbish. It remains rambunctious and robust. Opinion pages are routinely filled with nuanced and detailed discussions about tries with India, accountability and governance, which in many other more stable countries would be deemed to "boring" for a mainstream outlet. For example, see today's article by former ambassador Maleeha Lodhi on building confidence with India.

The result is that if you only have the newspapers or news channels to go on, you get a skewed idea of what is really affecting people's lives. Right now, in Pakistan, it's not terrorism, political infighting or military-civil relations that will push the country towards meltdown. It's more likely to be a simple, unsexy, energy crisis. But people outside the country will have to look pretty hard at the Pakistani media to find references to a problem that's bringing rioters out onto the streets, causing unemployment as factories shut, leaving even the wealthy without heat as night-time temperatures dip to near zero, and shutting major arteries between cities. Dawn as a good, but short, article on the situation. 

Anyway, Londonstani (as a media consultant) has a potential solution in the form of a ready-made, instantly deployable, sexy narrative.

To be deployed in any media environment when you face a boring issue of essential public concern:

(thanks to Chris Allbritton)


Diane Abbot, twitter and.... really?

UK political types were transfixed last week by a story about a black MP who apparently said something racist on twitter. From the Guardian:

"The row began when [Diane] Abbott, who has more than 26,000 Twitter followers, became involved in a discussion with Bim Adewunmi, triggered by the Stephen Lawrence case, on Wednesday.

Adewunmi said she objected to the way in which the term the "black community" was used as a generalisation.

Abbott responded with a series of messages. "I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a 'divide and rule' agenda," she said. Then she added: "White people love playing 'divide & rule' We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism."

After which, everyone got very worked up and lots of articles and blog posts etc were written while important people called on her to resign.

You might have missed it there, but apparently, someone lost their life in a racist murder. The only point that Londonstani can see as mattering in all this is the one made by Harmit Athwal at Open Democracy:

"Stephen Lawrence was a young black student stabbed to death in an unprovoked racist attack by five or six white youths in south London in April 1993. That his murderers have gone unpunished for so long, and that three or four still remain free, was not for lack of evidence but due to a police investigation hobbled by institutional racism and corruption...

"...the hideous fact is that since Stephen Lawrence's death, at least ninety-six people have lost their lives to racial violence — an average of five per year."