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February 27 2014

Uruguayan President José Mujica Rejects “Foreign Interference” in Venezuela

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The president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, and his Uruguayan counterpart, José Mujica, in 2013. Photo published by Secretaría de Comunicación on Flickr under Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Uruguayan president José Mujica declared his opposition to any “foreign interference” in the current volatile situation in Venezuela, where the government and the opposition are involved in a bitter conflict. In an interview with TV channel Telesur, the head of state expressed his solidarity with the government and people of Venezuela and urged respect for the Venezuelan Constitution.

“Today I want to express the wish that within the framework of the Venezuelan Constitution, which, if respected, is ample – possibly the most ample in Latin America – a peaceful solution to the conflict can be found,” said Mujica, adding that “the weakest end up paying the price” in violent conflicts.

He ended his statement with a call to avoid external intervention in the conflict, appealing to reason as a way to mediate tensions: “Staying prudent in tense moments is a recommendation that should be kept in mind. Again, I emphasize my hope that no one will interfere with events in Venezuela.”

The official Twitter account of the Presidential Secretary of Communication [es] posted a summary of President Mujica's interview on the channel Telesur:

Mujica reaffirms his solidarity with the government, institutions, and people of Venezuela.

On February 14, the National Political Bureau of the Broad Front, Uruguay's governing party, released a statement [es] against the violent situation in Venezuela, calling it “an attempt [by radical sectors of the political opposition] to destabilize the constitutional government.” The Broad Front urged the nations of Latin America to remain strong and alert.

On February 17, the National Executive Committee of the Movement of Popular Participation (MPP) also voiced their opinion [es] on the situation in Venezuela, showing their concern about the conflicts taking place in its sister nation. The members of the MPP expressed their solidarity with the people and government of Venezuela, reaffirming their confidence in a peaceful and democratic solution to the unstable situation, placing the responsibility on the most conservative sectors of the Venezuelan right. They also emphasized their solidarity with the victims of the conflicts and their families.

The protests began in the state of Táchira on February 4, initiating a surge of violence that spread to other cities, including the capital. The conflicts have left at least 13 dead [es] and hundreds injured and detained.

For his part, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro blamed right-wing groups for the incidents and called on his backers to show their support of the government.

Colombian journalist Javier Arana [es] voiced his appreciation for the Uruguayan president's diplomatic speech:

‘Pepe’ Mujica, the renowned president of Uruguay, admired for his tact and peaceful overtures, very diplomatic in face of the violence in Venezuela.

Communications strategist Jorge Ruiz Crespo [es] also shared his opinion on Mujica's speech:

Careful, people: the violence in Venezuela is objectionable, but they need to solve it themselves. Be careful, Latin America…

Elisa Escovar (@elisaescovar [es]) commented:

Pepe Mujica is the most honest guy on this continent: the only one who has spoken out in support of Venezuela.

Mujica's statement against foreign interference in Venezuela gave rise to questions and criticism of the presence of Cuba in that country. User @Rerr1 [es] commented with irony:

Mujica says that foreign interference in Venezuela would be a coup, maybe he's referring to the Cuban helicopters and elite squads?

Simon José Antonio (@BolivarOfficial) [es] stated categorically:

President Pepe Mujica rejects “any foreign interference” in Venezuela. He only accepts interference from Cuba.

February 26 2014

Jamaican Dancehall Deported from Dominica

“You're not welcome here”. That's the message the Dominican government is sending to Jamaican dancehall artiste Tommy Lee (real name Leroy Russell), who has been prevented from entering the island, where he was scheduled to host a concert. Lee is known for his Gothic Dancehall style, which bases itself on dark subject matter. The move is the latest of several high profile immigration controversies in the Caribbean, several of which have involved Jamaican citizens. In this instance, the issues of censorship and free speech were also being widely debated on social media.

According to the Dominican authorities, Tommy Lee was considered a security threat:

‘Pursuant to advice received, government had concerns for public safety. The decision to deny entry was intended as a preemptive action and also to provide an opportunity to exhaust all efforts to clarify information received,’ the statement said.

Many religious leaders were opposed to Lee's performance, citing what they considered to be dangerous lyrics:

The Dominica Association of Evangelical Churches (DAEC) had been calling for a boycott of the concert here, featuring Sparta, whom it claims glorifies Satan during his performances.

A spokesman for the group, Bishop Michael Daniel, speaking on the state-owned DBS radio Monday, said he was pleased that the concert did not occur as had been planned.

He said while the churches played no role in the detention of Sparta, their prayers had been answered. 

On Instagram, Lee himself posted video of his supporters in Dominica outside the police station:

Some Dominicans tweeted to show that they did not support their government's actions:

Tyrone Christopher argued that Tommy Lee's rights must be protected, whether you like his music or not:

Some Twitter users referred to the controversial Shanique Myrie case and the Caribbean Court of Justice's involvement:

On the other hand, some netizens seemed glad that Tommy Lee was denied entry:

This Twitter user was amazed – and a tad amused – that the Dominican government was getting criticized for banning Tommy Lee…

…while these were bemused by the government's justification for their action:

Some argued that Tommy Lee was ultimately to blame for his deportation:

Others were confused as to how Tommy Lee was allowed to leave Jamaica in the first place – and why he would want to go to Dominica knowing that protests against his concert were already happening:

Lahore Brigade Working To Solve Civic Problems

The first meetup of the Lahore Brigade members took place on Sunday, 23 February, in Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). The brigade consists of civic hackers – software developers, designers, urban mappers who will be working to solve civic problems in Pakistan. Code for Pakistan and Technology for People Initiative partnered to launch the Lahore Brigade.

Code For Pakistan blog reports:

All the attendees introduced themselves and also proposed potential solutions to civic problems, pertaining to the areas of health, transportation, education, and governance. Some of the participants expressed interest in some of the projects that had been created at the Lahore Civic Hackathon. The ideas were all captured, followed by a rigorous discussion of them. A couple of Brigade Project Mentors were also present and they, like everyone else, expressed their interest in certain ideas. 6 promising project ideas or areas were agreed upon by the group.

Here is a collection of Tweets on the first meetup. According to the Appjuice, the group will be meeting every two weeks.

February 25 2014

Iran Watches Ukraine With Envy and Dismay

Ukraine protests

Ukraine's protest, as covered by Iran's Farda News


Ukraine's protests and change of power in Kiev were covered with enthusiasm in Iran's media. While Iranian officials saw a Western plot led by the United States and Europe, Iranians who once staged mass protests against their own regime were reminded of a revolution that eluded them.

Iran's minister of justice said Ukraine can't be compared to Iran, but many Iranians draw parallels to Green Movement protests after the presidential election in 2009.

Iranian blogger Abgosht writes [fa] that there are several reasons why Ukraine (and Tunisia) where able to accomplish what Iranians failed to do:

The short and useful answer is that the red line for Ukraine's and Tunisia's [opposition] movement leaders was democracy, while the Iranian ones would maintain the regime's [establishment] framework… their people are not traitors, their police and security forces are good people, ours are thugs who believe national interests take priority over individual ones.

On Twitter, Sarah makes fun of the head of the Iranian military forces, Hassan Firoozabadi who said that “Ukraine's revolution was escaping from independence toward dependency.”

She tweeted [fa] quoting Iranian writer, Ebrahim Nabavi:

I don't know why Iranian officials, more than the citizens of Ukraine, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon seem to be so preoccupied with these countries’ independence.

Free Democratic Iran tweeted, quoting a headline from the very conservative Iranian newspaper, Keyhan:

@_Cafe tweeted with irony:

We are ahead of Ukraine. That's why I need anti-filtering software to be able to write these few words on the internet.

Nima Akbarpour tweeted [fa]:

Ukraine's situation reminds me of Zapata's movie where the revolutionaries conquer power and then follow the same path.

Madagascar Still Awaiting a New Prime Minister, Government

A full month since President-elect Hery Rajaonarimampianina took position as the new head of state in Madagascar, there are still no indication who the new prime minister will be and what government he/she will assemble. Ma-Laza argues that the main issue is not really the identity of the prime minister but what he/she will bring to the table [fr]: 

 Un  technicien hors pair,  rassembleur, capable de mener à bien la politique générale du Président de la République. Ce Premier ministre ne  devrait appartenir à aucune mouvance politique, en principe.Mais il n’est ni contre Rajoelina, ni contre Ravalomanana. Bref, c’est un oiseau rare qui inspire aux bailleurs de fonds la confiance. Cette personne existe-t-elle ?  

(The prime minister should be) a person with outstanding technical know-how, a uniter who is able to carry out the policy of the President of the Republic. In theory, the Prime Minister should not belong to any political movement. He will not be against Rajoelina, nor against Ravalomanana (the two last presidents). In short, he will have to be that rare person who will inspire the trust of the investors. The question is:  does this person even exist?

Show Me an ‘Animal-Driven Constitution', Demands Zambian President

As questions began to emerge over Zambian President Michael Sata's commitment to following through on a campaign promise for a new constitution, the leader stunned with a comment mocking calls for a “people-driven” constitution by asking if any country had ever passed an animal-driven one.

During a swearing in ceremony of constitution office holders, the only time Sata publicly addresses the nation on television, he said:

And for all of you here, ask the most learned woman here, [acting Chief Justice] Madam [Lombe] Chibesakunda. You are always saying people-driven constitution, people-driven constitution. Madam, where do you have an animal-driven constitution? […] Have you ever seen an animal-driven constitution, which country because everybody is talking of people driven constitution, so once you produce the animal driven one, let’s ask Mr Phiri, once you produce the animal driven constitution, we compare the two constitutions, what we have and then we shall look at that.

As an opposition party, Zambia’s now-ruling party the Patriotic Front defeated the then-ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) in 2011 with a promise that when elected into office in elections later that year, it would pass a new constitution within 90 days of taking office.

A few weeks into office, President Sata appointed a technical committee to look into the previous constitutional making processes to come up with a new document. The promised landmark difference with the previous processes was to be that the draft constitution was going to be simultaneously released to both the government and the public and a referendum held.

People holding a banner demanding that President Sata releases the draft constitution. Picture used with permission of The Zambian Voice.

People holding a banner demanding that President Sata releases the draft constitution. Photo used with permission of The Zambian Voice.

With shifting deadlines and the constitution making process running into two years, the government changed its approach and asked the technical committee to only print ten copies of the draft constitution, which the cabinet was to study first. The draft constitution was later leaked via Zambian Watchdog and is now known as the “eleventh copy”.

Some started to cast doubt on Sata’s commitment to enacting a new constitution when he said that the country did not need a fresh document altogether but only amendments to certain clauses. At another time, Sata said the current constitution was still good because six elections had been held under it.

Nyalubinge Ngwende on his Brutal Journal blog wrote:

[…W]hen it comes to the constitution, President Sata will not fool us. The building of roads, universities, more schools and health facilities come to mean nothing if the citizens are enslaved by political tyranny that refuses to hand them a constitution meant to unleash their full liberties and broaden opportunities for citizens, regardless of their geographical position on the global map. 

 A people driven constitution is our choice and not that of PF! 

Ngwende goes on to explain what is meant by a people-driven constitution in a country where Cabinet with the President as the head has a played a bigger role in the enactment of constitutions by excluding clauses that people had recommended and infusing those favouring the rulers:

When civil society activists are talking of a people driven constitution, they mean a good document that will stand the test of time; with statutes that meet the aspirations of the people and one that the people themselves will agree to.

Joining a chorus of other opposition politicians and civil society organisations, MMD President Nevers Mumba commented:

I think that God has allowed him to lose his way because I can’t imagine a President making such comments. What Zambians are saying is that look, we want a better constitution in which we participate in its formulation […] For him to make such comments shows arrogance of the highest level. I appeal to the President to be presidential about this matter. We are determined to have a new constitution, with or without him anyway.

Sata ordered government officials not to respond to the constitution debate. However, his Justice Minister and PF Secretary General Wynter Kabimba during a visit to Malawi probably gave away the biggest fear his government had in the draft document—50 percent plus one threshold for election to the office of the president and a presidential running mate for the office of vice president. Kabimba said:

There are all these demands about 50 percent plus one constitutional provision, running mate constitutional provision without taking into account that where these provisions obtain they have caused more problems than the solutions they should have brought about to society.

We can learn from others. We don’t have to make the same mistakes that others have made in order to do the right thing.

February 24 2014

Al Qaeda Calls for Jihad in Bangladesh

Screenshot of a video by Ayman al-Zawahiri

Screenshot of a video by Ayman al-Zawahiri

Global militant organization Al Qaeda has called for jihad in Bangladesh via a video released online. The audio message was circulated in a video featuring the leader of the organization, Ayman al-Zawahiri, calling for followers to resist what he called anti-Islamic conspiracies and launch an “intifada” (uprising) in Bangladesh.

He invited Muslims in Bangladesh:

To confront this crusader onslaught against Islam, which is being orchestrated by the leading criminals in the subcontinent and the West against Islam, the Prophet of Islam and the Islamic creed, so that they may turn you into slaves of a despotic and disbelieving system.

Here is a transcription of the video message (PDF).

The entire clip lasting 28 minutes and 58 seconds, titled “Bangladesh: Massacre Behind a Wall of Silence”, features the message from al-Zawahiri along with his image as well as others, such as the Hifazat's rally in May last year. Aaron Y. Zelin, who runs the site Jihadology, reported in an interview to EuroBDNewsOnline.com that he is certain that this voice is of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Bangladesh’s elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) tracked the source of the message and arrested Rasel Bin Sattar Khan for circulating the controversial message from Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri. He is an admin of controversial Facebook page Basherkella and some other militant blogs [bn] believed to be run by extremist operatives. He confessed [bn] that he started spreading this video in Bangladesh, which was first uploaded in a Pakistani website.

Recently in Bangladesh, religious extremist organizations like Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefazat-e-Islam have engaged in a lot of violence. Some netizens have speculated that the call for jihad in Bangladesh is somehow related.

Diaspora legal practitioner Rayhan Rashid (@rayhanrashid) tweeted:

Jamaat, who once worked fought against the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, had always denied their involvement with militants. However, Mofaqkharul Taufique wrote that Jamaat can no longer deny the truth given this video:

এ বার ভিডিও-বার্তায় প্রকাশ্যেই জামাত-নেতাদের পাশে দাঁড়ালেন আল কায়েদার শীর্ষ নেতা আয়মান আল জাওয়াহিরি। এর পরেও কি কেউ বলবেন যে জমাত জঙ্গী সংগঠন নয় ?

In this video message, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has openly supported Jamaat. Can anyone deny that Jamaat is not a militant organization?

Jamaat and Hefazot both have officially denied any involvement with Al Qaeda.

Activists of Hefajat-e Islam march through as part of its Dhaka siege programme to press home its 13-point demand, near Buriganga Bridge-1. Image by Firoz Ahmed. Copyright Demotix (5/5/2013)

Activists of Hefajat-e Islam march as part of its Dhaka siege programme to press home its 13-point demand that includes the arrest of atheist bloggers. Image by Firoz Ahmed. Copyright Demotix (5/5/2013)

Dr. Imran H. Sarker, a blogger and the spokesperson for the Shahbag movement activists, a movement that supports the death penalty for liberation war criminals, wanted to hear reactions from other political parties:

এক ভিডিও বার্তায় জামাত- হেফাজতের আন্দোলনকে সমর্থন করে ধর্মের নামে মানুষ হত্যার কথিত জিহাদের ডাক দিয়েছে আল-কায়েদা প্রধান আয়মান আল জাওয়াহিরি।

জোটবদ্ধ রাজনৈতিক দলগুলোর প্রতিক্রিয়া কি? যুদ্ধাপরাধী, সন্ত্রাসী সংগঠন জামাত-শিবির, হেফাজত কে নিষিদ্ধ করতে আর কতো অপেক্ষা?

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has called for jihad (killing humans for religion) supporting the cause of Hefazot/Jamaat.

What are the reactions of different political parties and alliances? How long will it take to ban anti-liberation and militant organizations like Jamaat, Hefazot?

Abdullah Al Mamun, a reader on Bangla daily Prothom Alo, commented:

এটি বাংলাদেশ নামক রাষ্টের প্রতি সরাসরি হুমকি বা হস্তক্ষেপ। এসব হুমকি আমাদের সবাইকে ভাবিয়ে তুলছে।

This is a direct threat against Bangladesh as a country. This has worried all of us.

Journalist Anjan Roy, however, called for verifying this video:

বাংলাদেশে প্রতিরোধ গড়ে তোলার আহ্বান জাওয়াহিরি- এই ভিডিওটি এখন আলোচনায়, প্রথমত দরকার ভিডিওটির তথ্য সত্যতা যাচাই। সত্য হলেও বিন্দুমাত্র শংকার নাই- আমরা শত্রু এলে অস্ত্র হাতে লড়তে জানি। এটা আফগানিস্তান না, পাকিস্তান না। এটা বাংলাদেশ- আল কায়দাকে কায়দা করতে দেয়ার জন্য আমাদের পিতা আর ভাইয়েরা যুদ্ধ করেন নি। আমাদের মা আর বোনরাও জানেন কিভাবে অনুপ্রেরণা দিতে হয় প্রিয়জনকে যুদ্ধে যাবার।

Al-Zawahiri called for resistance in Bangladesh – this video is a source of a hot debate. First we need to determine whether the video is credible or genuine. We need not worry even if this is true. This is not Afghanistan or Pakistan. We Bengalis know how to fight. Our fathers and brothers did not fight the independence war to let Al Qaeda reign. Our loved ones know how to prepare ourselves for fight.

A K M Wahiduzzaman wrote that this video has another purpose – to spark debate in the political arena:

দেশে-বিদেশে যখন এই বিচার বহির্ভূত হত্যাকাণ্ডের তীব্র সমালোচনা হচ্ছে, এমন কী সভ্যদেশগুলো যখন এই হত্যাকারী বাহিনীর সদস্যদের প্রশিক্ষণ কর্মসূচি বাতিল করছে। তখন ‘বিডি নিউজ ২৪’ গত ১৪ জানুয়ারি আল শাহাব মিডিয়ার তৈরি এবং জিহাদোলজি ডট নেট সাইটে প্রকাশিত একটি ভিডিও বার্তা নিয়ে মাঠ গরম করে বিচার বহির্ভূত হত্যাকাণ্ডের বৈধতা দেবার পাশাপাশি জঙ্গী ইস্যু দিয়ে পশ্চিমাদের মন গলানোর চেষ্টা করছে।

আরে গর্ধবের দল, ওটা সত্যি হলে আরো একমাস আগেই পশ্চিমা মিডিয়া এবং আল জাজিরা লিড নিউজ করতো।

When there are talks in the country about extrajudicial killings of security forces, even some countries have cancelled training for these security forces amidst the controversy. At this very moment, a video released by the Jihadology.net site and made by Al Shahab media is being highlighted by BDNews24.net to harp on militancy issues.

If this was real, international media and Al Jazeera would have made it top news a month ago.

The government is investigating the threat by Al Qaeda, but State Minister for Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal does not see it as a big threat. Security Analyst Major (Retired) Abdur Rashid said in an interview with BBC Bangla that Bangladesh should not take it lightly:

আল কায়েদার শক্তি কমে গেলেও ভাবাদর্শগতভাবে বাংলাদেশে তাদের অনুসারী আছে। তারা উজ্জীবিত হয়ে আল-কায়েদার সহায়তায় কোন নাশকতা করতে পারে। এ আশংকাকে আমি উড়িয়ে দিচ্ছি না।

Although Al Qaeda has been weakened, a number of dedicated followers of them exists in Bangladesh. We cannot rule out any violent activity by them after the support of Al Qaeda.

Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury, a retired air force official and a security analyst, commented in an op-ed in the Daily Star:

Those of us who dream of a democratic state, a multi-religious, multi-cultural society, an educated, healthy and prosperous nation, the Zawahiri message, even if it is a hoax, is a stark reminder that we have an enemy at the gate, and only together we can defeat it. We as a nation need to close ranks on the minimum agenda, and on the question of fighting religious extremism there is no other option but a national consensus.

A Day to Strengthen Portugal's Open Data Community

A typical rabelo boat from Porto carrying the open data flag for the #OpenDataDay. Banner by Transparência Hackday.

A typical rabelo boat from Porto carrying the open data flag for the #OpenDataDay. Banner by Ana Carvalho / Transparência Hackday.

[Disclosure: The author of this post was one of the organizers of the event.]

Pro-transparency and tech for citizenship enthusiasts from different cities in Portugal joined in the global Open Data Day celebration with a gathering in Porto hosted by the Transparência Hackday collective on February 22, 2014.

Designers, programmers, hackers, communicators and public servants dedicated a Saturday afternoon to sharing their experience with transparency issues as well as to opening some data to the public.

Hands-on tasks included the Local Open Data Census by Open Knowledge Foundation, which aimed at putting together data sets at the local level, from transport timetables to annual budgets and air quality:

We know there is huge variability in how much local data is available not just across countries but within countries, with some cities and municipalities making major open data efforts, while in others there’s little or no progress visible. If we can find out what open data is out there, we can encourage more cities to open up key information, helping businesses and citizens understand their cities and making life easier.

By the end of the day, the cities of Coimbra and Porto had quite a full range of information available in a collaborative document that will be used to update the Open Knowledge instance for Portugal once it has been setup by the international organization.

A different group took on the yogurt cataloging challenge launched by Open Food Facts, a free, open and crowdsourced food products database. The idea behind “What's in my yogurt?” project was to gather nutrition facts, ingredients and other dairy data from as many countries of the world as possible in just one day. So did the Portuguese

Data ‘visualinspiration’

The cherry on top for this fourth anniversary of the International Open Data Day was the presentation of the designer and researcher Pedro Cruz from the University of Coimbra of his work on data visualization.

The association for cultural intervention Maus Hábitos (Bad Habits) opened its door for the open data venue.

The association for cultural intervention Maus Hábitos (Bad Habits) in Porto opened its door for the venue of the #OpenDataDay in Portugal.

The journey started with Pedro's data visualization of the evolution of the decline of the maritime empires of the 19th and 20th centuries by land extension. In the timeline of events, British, Portuguese, French and Spanish empires dissolute in a fluid way as “some kind of soft bodies”. Other works by him include the traffic of Lisbon condensed in one day – or portrayed as a metaphor of living organisms with circulatory problems – as well as text analysis, public transport exploration, and much more.

“An ecosystem of corporate politicians“ - interactive visualization at pmcruz.com/eco.

“An ecosystem of corporate politicians“ – interactive visualization at pmcruz.com/eco.

But his most recent deed, the interactive visualization ”An ecosystem of corporate politicians” – on the relationships between members of Portuguese governments and companies for the period of 1975 to 2013 – was the one sparking more debate.

The powerful visualization shows the companies where ministers and secretaries of state have had positions and allows for the exploration of what appears to be a parasite ecosystem, given the form of the designed organisms:

Data is approached as an ecosystem, where each set of interdependent relations are regulated by physical conditions—each politician has a sequence of companies to visit, chasing them and jumping between them, in order to restart the sequence each time it is completed.

The data was collected from a study on politics and business carried out for the documentary “Donos de Por­tu­gal” (Owners of Portugal).

Getting to know the community

Improve Coimbra was another project from the third main city of Portugal that participants had the chance to meet on #OpenDataDay in Porto. Alike the organizer in Porto, Transparência Hackday, Improve Coimbra promotes monthly meetings that anyone can join to help solve the problems of the city. In little more than one year of activities, Improve has already created several websites and mobile apps for the citizens of Coimbra, such as a platform for crowdsourcing home rents, a map of cafes with available wifi, and Burocracia which makes the minutes of Coimbra's city government assembly available and easy to search. 

Also the northern municipality of Alfândega da Fé was represented in this #OpenDataDay. Ranked in second place in the Index of Municipal Transparency [pt] launched in October 2013 by the watchdog Transparência e Integrigade, Associação Cívica (TIAC), this small municipality of the region of Trás-os-Montes, with less than 6,000 inhabitants, has been showing positive signs of willingness to open local governmental data

That was the ultimate aim of the event, after all, to encourage governmental data openness, and thus the #OpenData in Portugal has grown a bit stronger with more grassroots organizations and individuals dialoguing with each other and the world.

You can check out the agenda of the #OpenDataDay in a pad available in Transparencia Hackday's blog, and read more about the global event in the official website [all links in Portuguese]. 

Brief Summary of the Situation in Venezuela for the Curious or Poorly Informed

The protests are being carried out in many parts of the country and are lacking in center and direction, having being called through social media networks. Among the protesters themselves, there are many diverse opinions about the opposition political parties, so it’s possible to find many expressions of support and also rejection at the same time.

In the case of Caracas the middle class and college students are the primary actors in the demonstrations. On the other hand, in other states, many popular sectors have joined the protests. In Caracas the majority of the demands are political, including calls for the freedom of the detainees and the resignation of the president [Maduro], while in other cities social demands are incorporated, with protests against inflation, scarcity and lack of proper public services.

Human rights defender, sociologist and journalist Rafael Uzcátegui (@fanzinero) [es] writes a “brief summary of Venezuela’s situation for curious people and/or the poorly informed,” originally published in Spanish [es] but now translated into English.

The Venezuela I'll Always Remember

Caracas

Caracas, Venezuela. Image by flickr user danielito311. Used with Creative Commons licence (BY-NC 2.0).

Back then in Peru, terror and fear was part of our daily lives.

I had just graduated from law school in Lima. It was late 1993 and my beloved Peru was recovering from 12 years of internal conflict which had claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Christmas was coming and I decided it was time for my first journey abroad to visit a dear aunt. 

My mother's elder sister moved to Venezuela in the late 1950s. She got married in Caracas and settled there with her husband and two sons. After my younger cousin died in a car accident, my mother and her sister strengthened their bond and never let distance deter them from staying in touch.

When I stepped foot outside Simón Bolívar International Airport [es] in Maiquetía, I was instantly struck by how different everything looked, compared with Lima.

Caracas was a shiny modern city, with high-rises, highways, flyovers, and recently repaved roads.

All the cars looked like they had just rolled off the factory assembly line, glossy and splendid. New cars was something we were just starting to get used to in Peru, after out-of-control hyperinflation [es] had made all of us billionaires with little purchasing power.

The road signs looked like they had been painted the day before.

I could feel progress everywhere I looked, and this was just on the way from the airport to my aunt's house. Rain welcomed me on this adventure, something we Limeans are not used to at all.

The next day I started my tour of the city. I didn't feel like a total outsider. My generation grew up watching Venezuelan soap operas on TV, so some popular areas were familiar to me: Chacao, Chacaíto, the Virgen of Chiquingirá. So was the rhythmic speaking that I noticed was following me everywhere, after a few days.

During a visit to one museum, I saw a guy looking at a list of battles fought by Simón Bolívar, the liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú and Bolivia. There were the names of the battles with no indication of the where they'd been fought, and I stood by next to this tourist and started with a lesson learnt long ago at school: Carabobo, Venezuela; Boyacá, Bogotá, Pichincha, Ecuador; and Junín and Ayacucho, Perú (country of yours truly).

On that trip, during a visit to a beach whose name I have forgotten, my toes first felt the waters of the Atlantic, I owe that to Venezuela too.

But what impressed me above all was the freedom people had, simply living their lives. We could enter any building and there was no military officer waiting to check our bags and belongings. There were no metal detectors or special machines that we had to pass through at the entrance of shopping centers or museums or anywhere for that matter.

I even walked in front of government buildings and ministries, as if that was the most normal thing to do. No one stopped me from being there, no one checked my documents, and no one made me feel like there was something to fear.

That is why I have been overwhelmed with sadness, as the recent stories and images have been trickling out of Venezuela.

Venezuelans are suffering. Venezuelans are crying. Venezuelans are mourning.

Protesters are rallying for liberty and demanding their rights be respected. Young people are dying in the streets, as police and government supporters battle protesters. Brothers are fighting brothers. 

I prefer to remember the Venezuela I knew in 1993. Joyous Caribbean music mingling with traditional Christmas songs wherever I went. Smiling faces greeting me, people welcoming me with kind words open arms, upon learning that I was Peruvian. 

Venezuela, you will always be in my heart.

Gabriela Garcia Calderon is a Peruvian lawyer specialized in Arbitration and Civil Law. She comes from a family connected to the media in Peru. Gabriela has been a member of Global Voices since November 2007.

February 23 2014

Indian Blogger Exposes Fuel Pump Cheating With Viral Video

Screenshot from the video uploaded by Kiruba Shankar

Screenshot from the video uploaded by Kiruba Shankar

In India, where fraud at gas pumps is commonplace and many complaints remain unresolved, a blogger's viral Facebook video has helped shed light on the problem.

Kiruba Shankar, a digital entrepreneur, author, teacher, farmer and long-time blogger in Chennai, India, explained how he first discovered the fraudulent practice:

I just caught the staff red-handed at Bharath Petroleum fuel station on Mount Road. They tried stealing Rs.700 worth of petrol. I paid Rs.2000 for the fuel and as the meter reached Rs.1300, one of the guys tried distracting me by asking me for my car number. Immediately, his accomplice manning the fuel pump stopped the pump and quickly reset the meter. As soon as the guy asked me for the number, I smelled a rat and saw the pump just when the guy was resetting it.

This incident took place in the Bharath Petroleum's Mount Road outlet in Chennai. Kiruba uploaded the video to Facebook, and the one-minute, 44-second-long video went viral with more than 6,000 shares and 3,000 likes. Many people shared their similar experiences in the comments section and local media started reporting on it.

Rajesh Murugesan, a commenter on the video, said:

Hey guys why blame only Bharat Petroleum, it happens with all petrol bunks. our Indian officer's just need to fill their pockets and are not worried about others. These officer's to be punished or teased in public.

Yashwanth Vee, another commenter, wrote:

It is a good thing that you came out and posted this on a social network. Hope the responsible person sees this video and takes some kind of action.

Kiruba posted updates on how the authorities reacted:

The social media outrage coupled with the coverage in national dailies has brought this incident right up to the CMD and top management of Bharath Petroleum.

They requested Mr.Kshitij Midha, Area Sales Manager for South Chennai to meet me in person. He is incharge of overseeing 35 fuel stations, including the one where the incident took place. [...]

The BPCL official did an investigation with the owner and staff at Ashwini Automobiles (the franchisee who runs the fuel station). After cross examining, they did find the two men guilty and they have been fired from their jobs. [...]

BPCL has the official complaint numbers displayed in all petrol pumps but most of the customers don’t take the extra effort to lodge a complaint. He encouraged people to complain which will keep the staff grounded.

Blogger Shushant Kulkarni from Pune advised how not to get cheated in a petrol station:

You might be getting fooled if you are not paying close attention. [...] I have noticed this a lot many times, have gotten first hand experience getting cheated a couple of times :), but eventually learned the pattern. You have experienced these or may be you are not paying attention to these.

The Allrounder blog also has similar tips to share. Vinaya Naidu at Lighthouse Insights blog lauded the role of social media in exposing malpractice in the society:

A rampant malpractice at most fuel stations in the country, one that needs to be tackled in these times of high fuel prices. It is interesting to observe how social media can play an important role in eliminating this, if leveraged fruitfully as Kiruba did.

Census Could Worsen Conflict in Myanmar

Shan minority group in Myanmar. Photo from  Flickr page of EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

Shan minority group in Myanmar. Photo from Flickr page of EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

Myanmar’s nationwide census scheduled from March 23 to April 10 threatens to inflame more ethnic and religious conflicts in the country over some ‘antagonistic and divisive’ issues included in the questionnaire. Myanmar’s last census was held more than 30 years ago.

The census, supported by the UN, aims to determine Myanmar’s key demographic and socio-economic statistics in order to ascertain the country’s particular development needs. But questions about ethnicity or tribal identification have become controversial after the government listed 135 ethnic groups and sub-groups on the questionnaire. Critics reminded the government that the listing is a colonial legacy which must be revamped. Several ethnic groups have complained about being lumped with other minorities while others claimed they were dropped from the listing.

The government is urged to reclassify the listing based on consultation with ethnic communities. And while the government is doing this, some groups wanted the census delayed for another month.

In Myanmar, majority are Burmans. An estimated 40 percent of the population is considered an ethnic minority, with Shan composing the biggest minority group.

The common complaint of many groups is the inaccurate categorization of ethnic groups. For example, the Palaung (Ta’aung) tribe questioned their inclusion as a Shan race:

We, Ta’aung, settled down in this land before the Shan…We are not the same with other races. We live in mountainous area and have a different culture and language.

Kyaw Thu, head of the civil society consortium Paung Ku, thinks questions on ethnicity and religion should be dropped because they are no longer necessary:

If development is the priority, the data of headcounts—the numbers of people and the age group—is enough to conduct economic projects.

Tun Myint Kyaw, local coordinator in Mon State for the European Union-funded Rule of Law Project, also urged the removal of some controversial questions in the census:

If [the Ministry of Immigration and Population] has a plan to omit the ethnicity and religion category from the national identity card, why would they still include in the census data collection?

Khun Jar of the Kachin Peace Network explained how inaccurate ethnic categorization can cause trouble; and he also warned about the danger of conducting census in some remote areas where armed conflicts are still taking place:

If the government accepts 135 ethnic groups only, it can cause harm to the peace process because ethnic groups can get into armed conflicts if disagreements arise among them

We can’t anticipate who will conduct the census in remote areas and places where there is no ceasefire. In some places there are no schools. Teachers are normally used to collect data on the population. So with no schools, it will not be easy to collect population figures at the refugee camps.

Thet Ko from Minority Affair proposed the drafting of a new listing based on the principle of democratic consultation:

The list of ethnics should be compiled again after consulting with ethnic groups through a democratic procedure.

Some ethnic groups are worried that they might lose political representation if the proposed census will adopt the official listing of ethnic groups in the country. Ethnic minister positions in local parliaments are automatically given to ethnic groups with more than 0.01 percent of the population in the area.

The government is accused of deliberately bloating the number of ethnic subgroups to deny representation to some tribes.

But in the case of the Rohingyas, the government refuses to recognize them as citizens. Kyaw Min of the Democracy and Human Rights Party is appealing for the recognition of Rohingyas, who are mostly Muslims:

Every human race has its own identity. We have our identity already…This is not just now—we have had it for a long time. But we have found that there is discrimination in the country, which ignores our demand that our identity be recognized.

One concern about the inclusion of religion in the census is the destabilization it might generate. In particular, the census might confirm that Myanmar has a growing number of Muslims which could provoke Buddhist extremist groups to cause trouble in many villages.

Worried about the threat, the International Crisis Group, is proposing to limit census questions on age, sex and marital status:

…the coming census, consisting of 41 questions, is overly complicated and fraught with danger. Myanmar is one of the most diverse countries in the region, and ethnicity is a complex, contested and politically sensitive issue, in a context where ethnic communities have long believed that the government manipulates ethnic categories for political purposes

A poorly timed census that enters into controversial areas of ethnicity and religion in an ill-conceived way will further complicate the situation.

Meanwhile, the Burma Partnership fears the census might undermine the national reconciliation process:

Yet the lack of transparency and consultation is a damning indictment of the UN’s – and donors’ – role in the census, while the accusations of inaccuracy and divisiveness only serve to further undermine the credibility of these parties. Moreover, there are real fears about the logistics of collecting the data, both in terms of authorities using the correct forms and accessing remote areas or conflict zones, which would have implications for the accuracy of data recorded

It is clear that this census represents a Pandora’s Box of potential ethnic tensions and conflict. At a time when the Burma government claims to be striving to secure a sustainable peace deal with the armed ethnic groups and cementing political reforms before the 2015 national elections, the timing and nature of the census is strange, to say the least. It risks jeopardizing national reconciliation, undermining the peace process, and exacerbating inter-communal violence.

Apparently, some ethnic groups are cynical of the census process that they chose to conduct a census on their own.

February 22 2014

Ukraine's President Yanukovych Ousted and Parliament Reshuffled

This post is part of our Special Coverage Ukraine's #Euromaidan Protests.

After a violent crackdown on anti-government Euromaidan protesters left 70 to 100 people dead this week, Ukraine's parliament has voted to oust President Viktor Yanukovych and release his political rival ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison. 

Yanukovych was not in the capital Kyiv at the time, having fled and denounced the events as a coup. 

The legislature's vote was met with celebrations from people within the Euromaidan movement, which has protested for three months against the government led by Yanukovych after he backed out of a deal with the European Union in November 2013. 

Following the turmoil on 20 February when security forces shot at protesters, a deal [uk] was originally struck between the opposition and Yanukovych that would end the violence in the country, but would also see him remain president until new elections that were to be held by end of year, according to this agreement. The deal also included a return to the 2004 version of the country's constitution, which limits presidential powers, early presidential elections in 2004, and the creation of an international commission for investigating the events in Kyiv. The agreement was brokered by three European foreign ministers.

On the evening of February 21, the leaders of the parliamentary opposition came to Kyiv's Maidan (Independence Square) – the stronghold of the protesters – to present the signed agreement to the people. They arrived just as Maidan was mourning the unprecedented loss of lives which occurred the day before. Despite risks, hundreds of thousands had gathered on the square, including some of the police officers who had deflected to the side of the protesters. They blamed the president for the escalation of violence and the use of firearms.

When the protesters heard that Yanukovych would remain in power at least until the next elections, they booed the parliament representatives. A regular member of the Maidan self-defense unit (the “sotnyk”) took to the stage and gave a very emotional speech calling on the president to resign by the next morning or Maidan would go into the offensive (video).

His call received overwhelming support from the gathered crowd, and that support was echoed by the leader of the Right Sector movement, a right-wing opposition group, albeit in a more restrained manner. Well-known journalist Dmytro Gnap also got on stage, blaming the leaders of the opposition leaders for betraying the Euromaidan movement and outlining possible options of Yanukovych's resignation.

Social media users, like @RainFromUkraine, reacted similarly:

Cracked voice of a sotnyk was the voice of all Ukrainians.

Afterwards, one of the opposition leaders, former world boxing champion turned politician Vitaliy Klychko, got on stage and apologized to the protesters for entering into an agreement with Yanukovych and “shaking his hand“.

Shortly after these events, news spread that Yanukovych was leaving Kyiv for the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Later in the evening, however, social media activists have identified a private jet that allegedly belonged to the President leaving Ukraine via a flight tracking site FlightRadar24. As the plane was flying towards Sochi, many believed Yanukovych was fleeing to Russia.

However, the jet did not land there but went further towards the United Arab Emirates, with Yanuckovych allegedly on board. Whether Yanukovyh has really left Ukraine, however, remains unconfirmed.

In the morning, the Maidan self-defense movement announced that they were guarding Parliament and other government buildings, while government security forces had completely abandoned the government block in Kyiv. Twitter user Pedrodon tweeted this image of the events:

A journalist from Brussels, @Balliauw, also added this image:

Government forces and private security personnel had also abandoned Yanukovych's notoriously lavish residence Mezhygirya. Maidan self-defense members encircled the residence to prevent looting and destruction, but allowed journalists and other citizens free entry (photos). Hundreds of Ukrainians have visited the place, which was off limits to regular citizens for years.

In the meantime, journalists discovered piles of partially destroyed records of large-scale corruption schemes.

RL/RFE reporter Irtsia Stelmakh [uk] tweeted several photos of the residence:

Here it is, Mezhygirya.

Journalist Oksana Kovalenko tweeted:

Found documents in the water near the dock.

While many Ukrainians were having a tour of Mezhygirya, MPs assembled in Parliament and began voting on a number of crucial decisions, including the return to a parliamentary-presidential republic (with limited presidential powers), choosing a new speaker of parliament, and several other key government positions.

In the midst of these events, one of the pro-government channels released a video statement [uk] by President Yanukovych, who allegedly recorded the statement in Kharkiv, the second largest city in the northeast of the country. In the statement, the president accused his opponents of a state coup, referred to protesters as “bandits”, and stressed that he was doing all in his power to prevent bloodshed.

He also added that he was not planning to leave the country.

A screencap of President Yanukovych' address released on Feb. 22, 2014

A screencap of President Yanukovych’ address released on Feb. 22, 2014

While MPs in parliament were hastily leaving the pro-presidential political party Party of Regions, several pro-presidential and pro-Russian MPs and regional authorities quickly called an assembly in Kharkiv. The move caused widespread concern that separatist or federalist statements would be adopted and appeals for Russia to deploy its troops in Ukraine would be made.

However, the assembly only called for self-organizing to maintain order in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine and for friendly relations with Russia. In support of the event, a mass rally by Party of Regions supporters was organized in Kharkiv. While some participated genuinely, there were media reports of pressure on state employees and others [uk] to participate in the rally.

At the same time, a large rally in support of Euromaidan also took place in Kharkiv [video]. Twitter users @ShkvarkiUA tweeted from the city center:

East and West are UNITED! FREEDOM TO THE PEOPLE! – shouts Kharkiv.

Kharkiv Euromaidan activists also demanded the removal of their separatist mayor and governor. Closer to the evening, reports emerged [uk] that both officials were leaving for Russia, as State Security Service of Ukraine opened a criminal investigation into their separatist claims.

Later that evening, the parliament in Kyiv voted to oust President Yanukovych and called early presidential elections for May. The MPs also supported the release of former Prime Minister of Ukraine Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed by Yanukovych in 2011.

Needless to say, the reaction of many Ukrainians was celebratory. Kyiv-based journalist and photographer Bogdana Shevchenko tweeted:

CONGRATULATIONS EVERYONE!!!! #євромайдан #янукович

User Olia Riabuha tweeted:

Thank you everyone who fought for justice! Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes! Today we won!

Reactions from the international community followed. British Foreign Secretary William Hague tweeted:

Polish Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Radosław Sikorski also added:

As of 7 p.m. local time on 22 February 2014, the whereabouts of Yanukovych remain unknown.

February 21 2014

Congratulating The New Prime Minister of Nepal

Nepal’s Parliament has elected Mr. Sushil Koirala (75), the president of the party Nepali Congress, as the new Nepali Prime Minister. Nepali diaspora blogger Indra congratulates the new Prime Minister and thinks that “the gift Mr. Koirala has for empowering others with his humility and sincerity will go a long way”.

Social Media Rallies to Help Comatose Pakistani Student in US


Screenshot of Facebook page supporting Muhammad Shahzaib Bajwa

Muhammad Shahzaib Bajwa, a 21-year-old Pakistani exchange student in the US, has been in a coma since 13 November 2013 when a deer collided with the car he and his friends were riding in outside of the city of Minneapolis. At a local hospital after the accident, Bajwa went into cardiac arrest. Doctors were able to resuscitate him, but he suffered brain damage and has been comatose ever since. 

Just as Bajwa was fighting for his life, another battle was brewing. Bajwa's student visa was set to expire on 28 February, and Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth, Minnesota, where he was transferred after the accident, was making plans to deport him to a Pakistani hospital, saying its hands were legally tied. His family feared Bajwa wouldn't survive the flight. 

A student of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Bajwa was also only insured for one semester for the student exchange program with a cap of 100,000 US dollars, not enough to cover the expensive costs of an extended stay in an American hospital.    

As the visa expiration date neared, support on social media for Bajwa began to pour in, and an online campaign to raise funds and to pressure the US to allow the student to stay for treatment quickly spread throughout the web. Finally, after Pakistan’s Ambassador in the US Jalil Abbas Jilani became involved, Bajwa's brother announced on 20 February that US authorities had agreed to extend the student's visa.  

Social media takes up the cause 

Bajwa's medical costs exceeded 350,000 dollars in mid-February and continued to climb. The hospital agreed to absorb the costs and not dip into the insurance money, but warned (before the visa was extended) that it would cease paying on 28 February. Essentia Health also said it would pay the medical evacuation costs, though it threatened to pull the coverage if the family didn't sign off on returning Bajwa to Pakistan, according to his brother Shahraiz Bajwa.  

With the family unable to fund Bajwa's extensive treatment once the hospital pulled its financial support, his brother launched an online fundraising campaign on website gofundme.com, which has collected to date more than 132,000 US dollars of its 300,000-dollar goal.

On Facebook, groups such as “Support For Shahzaib Bajwa“ helped to spread the word about the need for donations. “Inshallah God will help you guys more. People show that humanity still exists in its full context,” one user, Mubarik Hasan, wrote. Other users, A Facebook user like Mohammad Jibran Nasir published statuses urging friends to help.

The peace initiative of the Jang Group of Pakistan and the Times of India, Aman ki Asha, shared a plea on Facebook from someone who had met Bajwa:

From an Indian about a Pakistani: “I request you from the core of my heart if you could help this lovely guy. I met him on my last visit to Pakistan and I've great memories of the time spent with him. I request you to pl help him out of the situation in which he and his family is.”

Meanwhile, an online petition was created on change.org to demand the extension of Bajwa's visa; it has so far received more than 8,000 signatures. Bajwa's family was not hopeful about the quality of treatment he would receive in Pakistan, and his mother feared signing off on the medical flight would be sending her son to his death. 

On the petition, Ivy Vainio from Minnesota wrote:

Shahzaib needs the best medical care that he can receive right now and he will get it where he is at currently. He is one of the most wonderful young men that I have met. Caring and loving to all. Please renew his visa so that he can stay and get the best treatment available to him.

Richard Mienke argued: 

I would rather see such a brilliant student and decent human being be taken care of until full recovery is attained and then give him the means to continue his degree here in the United States. It is not a question of citizenship, it is a question of humanity and doing the right thing. Period.

On Twitter, users pushed the campaign even further with tweets and retweets. Professor of International Relations, Earth and Environment at Boston University Adil Najam wrote:   

Pakistani journalist, artist and documentary filmmaker Beena Sarwar also requested the US extend Bajwa's visa: 

Political analyst and senior TV anchor Nasim Zehra wanted people to show generosity: 

Slow recovery ahead

Bajwa, who suffered severe facial fractures, will eventually need reconstructive surgery. He remains comatose, but can open his eyes, squeeze his mother's hand, shrug his shoulders and has some movement in his legs.

Doctors at the Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center say that it will take at least a few years to determine his chances of complete recovery. With his visa renewed, officials are now making plans to move Bajwa to a long-term facility in the area. 

Thumbnail image: Screenshot of Facebook page praying for early recovery of Muhammad Shahzaib Bajwa