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February 02 2014

Hollywood-Style Bank Heist in Bangladesh Ends in Arrest

Rapid Action Battalion personnel produce the mastermind of Kishoreganj Sonali Bank heist, Sohel (In red-white shirt) and his assistant along with recovered 165 million taka before the press at the elite force's headquarters in Dhaka. Image by Reza Sumon. Copyright Demotix (28/1/2014)

Rapid Action Battalion personnel pose with the mastermind of the Kishoreganj Sonali bank heist, Sohel (in red-white shirt), and his assistant along with the recovered 165 million taka before the press at the elite force's headquarters in Dhaka. Image by Reza Sumon. Copyright Demotix (28/1/2014)

The mastermind behind the biggest bank robbery in Bangladesh history has been arrested. 

“Sohel” along with accomplice “Idris” pulled off a Hollywood-style bank heist of 169 million Bangladeshi taka (about 2.2 million US dollars) from Sonali Bank [bn] in Kishoreganj, 130 kilometers north of the capital Dhaka, by digging an underground tunnel 30 feet long to reach the bank's vault. 

The feat was short-lived and they were nabbed by police two days later with most of the loot. Sohel confessed to the daring plot, admitting that he had planned [bn] the heist two years ago. Accordingly, he rented a house next to the bank and started digging the three-foot-wide tunnel. After a year and a half, he said could reach the bank's vault. He did all the digging during business hours in broad daylight when there was a lot of noise on the street, so people didn't suspect anything. Sohel even managed to start an affair [bn] with a bank employee to gather information for the theft.

Netizens have been widely discussing the robbery on social media. Many have pointed out this crime's resemblance to Hollywood blockbusters like “Sherlock Holmes”, “The Bank Job”, “Shashank Redemption” and “The Lady Killers” and Bollywood movies like “Dhoom 3″.

A reader commented on the popular Bangla daily Prothom Alo's report:

শারলক হোমস এর একটা গল্পে এমন ছিল। বাড়ী থেকে সুড়ঙ্গ কেটে ব্যাংক লুটের ঘটনা! এই দুঃসাহসিক চুরির ঘটনায় পেশাদার চোর ডাকাতেরাও হতবাক হয়েছেন সম্ভবত! তবে আজব বিষয় হচ্ছে ব্যাংকে টেবিলের ওপর অত টাকা পড়ে থাকে তা জানতাম না। ওই শাখায় কি ভল্ট নেই?

There was a similar story in a Sherlock Homes movie where a tunnel was dug from a nearby home. Perhaps even professional thieves have been astounded by Sohel's feat. I was surprised to learn that so much money was kept open in the bank. Is there no secured drawer in the vault in that branch?

Shihab Shahin commented in the same report:

‘দা ব্যাংক জব’ চলচ্চিত্রের ছায়া অবলম্বনে নির্মিত!

This heist is planned according “The Bank Job” movie.

Mumin Hemin commented on online portal BDNews24.com's report that the thief should have taken a cue from the film “The Italian Job”:

বেশ ধৈর্য নিয়ে মানুষটা কাজটা শেষ করেছে। মাথা অনেক ঠান্ডা এটা বোঝাই যাচ্ছে। এত টাকা এত সহজে দেখার পরেও মাথা ঘুরে পড়ে যাননি, বরং এশার নামাজ (!!) আদায় করে বেশ পাক-পবিত্র (!!) হয়ে এসে টাকাগুলো হাত করেছেন। বাহ, উনাকে মাথা ঠান্ডার জন্য শশ্যাঙ্ক রিডেন্মপশন মুভির সেকেন্ড পার্টে নেয়া যেতে পারে। তবে উনার দ্যা ইটালিয়ান জবটা আর কয়েকবার দেখা উচিৎ ছিল। টাকা চুরিই বড় কথা না, সামলে রাখাটাও অনেক কিছু :D

He completed the job with patience. His head is cool, that is evident. He did not panic seeing a lot of money. He went home, prayed his Isha prayers (!!) and then secured the loot solemnly. With that coolness, he could be an actor in the sequel to “Shashank Redemption“. But he should have watched “The Italian Job” a few times. The heist isn't everything, you have to keep that money. :D

On Facebook, Shahriar Tanvir called this robbery a copycat of “The Lady Killers”:

যারা ”লেডি কিলারস” দেখেননিঃ

সোনালী ব্যাংক ডাকাতির মত একেবারে হুবহু ঘটনা, মাটিতে লম্বা সুড়ঙ্গ খুঁড়ে ডাকাতি। একদম সেইম টু সেইম। যাক, আর স্পয়লার এলার্ট দিলাম নাহ : )

For hose who did not watch “The Lady Killers“:

That movie has a similar story, digging a long tunnel to rob a bank. This is just like the movie. No more spoiler alerts :)

Sohel has become a hero for many and his fate has saddened them. Journalist Provash Amin wrote on Facebook:

‘অপারেশন সোনালী ব্যাংক কিশোরগঞ্জ’ সিনেমার নায়ক হাবিব ওরফে সোহেলকে অসহায়ভাবে rab এর হাতে বন্দী হতে দেখে খুব খারাপ লাগছে। তার মত একজন ক্রিয়েটিভ, প্রতিভাবান, ধৈর্য্যশীল মানুষকে আরো বড় কাজে লাগানো উচিত।

So sad to see Habib alias Sohel, the hero of the “operation Sonali Bank Kishoreganj” movie, being arrested by Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Such a creative, talented and patient human being should be employed for a good cause.

Science-fiction writer Shezan Mahmud also expressed his sympathy for Sohel:

সোনালী ব্যাংক ডাকাতি এবং ১৬ কোটি টাকাসহ ধরা পরা সোহেল রানা আর সহযোগীর জন্যে আমার মায়াই হচ্ছে। বেচারারা দুই বছর ধরে সুড়ঙ্গ কেটে তারপর টাকা চুরি (ডাকাতি বলবো না) করে উপভোগ করার আগেই ধরা পড়লো (একেই বলে অর্জনের চেয়ে রক্ষা করা কঠিন); অথচ ওরা যদি জানতো তার'চে নষ্ট রাজনীতিবিদ, ঘুষখোর আমলা, নষ্ট ব্যবসায়ী হলে বছরে ১৬ শ কোটি টাকা মারলেও কেউ তাদের ধরতে পারতো না। যাই হোক, দেশে কোন ক্ষেত্রে অধ্যবসায় এর দাম নেই। নিদেন পক্ষে এই অধ্যবসায় এর জন্যে ওদের সাধুবাদ জানাই!

I feel sorry for Sohel and his assistant because they were finally caught with all that money. He dug the tunnel for two years to steal (I won't say rob) the money, but he was caught before enjoying the loot (it is harder to keep than to earn). If only they could learn how corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and unethical businessmen loot more than that and know how to hang on to it. There is no respect for perseverance in this country. We acknowledge Sohel's perseverance at least.

On Facebook, Zico suggested that the thieves’ talents should be employed to complete the design for road construction in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh:

সুড়ঙ্গ বানাইয়া ১৬ কোটি টাকা যে নিসে তারে গ্রেফতার কইরা জেলে রাখার দরকার নাই। ঢাকা শহরের রোডম্যাপ ঠিক করার কাজে তারে দেওয়া হউক। সে একাই কয়েকটা আন্ডারপাস বানায় দিবে।

The guy who could steal 169 million should not be kept behind bars. He should be employed to work on the road map of Dhaka. He could build a number of [much needed] underpasses in the city.

Kazi Prottoy and Apala Sengupta contributed to this post

January 31 2014

Have Acne? South Korea Will Tax Your Treatment

Who has the right to tax your pimple outbreak? In South Korea, it is the finance ministry.

Beginning of February, a new tax system that imposes a 10-percent tax on surgeries having to do with appearance and beauty will go into effect in South Korea. This so-called beauty tax not only includes well-known plastic surgeries such as nose job, double-jaw surgery or lip augmentation, but also ordinary skin care, such as acne treatment.

New taxation which was introduced last summer claims that it would rein in the country's rampant cosmetic surgeries, but it has been widely unpopular from the moment of its proposal. Critics argue [ko] that the scheme is simply a plan to increase tax revenue decorated as a public health law. Several web users pointed out [ko] that the tax won't tackle society's obsession with looks and people who have the means or who desperately want such procedures will not be affected. 

One the eve of the plan going into effect, one tax – 10 percent on pimple treatments – seems to have rekindled people's opposition to the bill. Below are some tweets from frustrated net users: 

As if it is not bad enough to have acne and hair loss. Now, we have to pay a tax for having those.  

The hyenas prowling, looking for things to tax, finally found the item – pimples!

To @mosfkorea [the official account of Korean Ministry of Strategy and Finance]: Who do you think you are to tax my pimples? 

So the Ministry of Strategy and Finance's logic is this: Since they don't think acne is a serious case of skin disease, whatever that cure the acne problem is categorized as a “beauty-related” surgery, it will be taxed. It was ridiculous enough to hear about the tax on cosmetic surgery and now this! Whatever the reason you give, will you just please stop taxing more? 

The medical community seems enraged by the news as well. The Korean Medical Association circulated the poster below explaining their frustration. The first sentence in bold letter laments that it is not the medical professionals, but the finance ministry who is making a judgement call on how to understand acne – not as a serious skin condition, but as a beauty-related inconvenience. Net users shared the image via Twitter and made fun of the current government's economic motto of “Creative Economy”, one user even invoking current President Park Geun-hye's notorious nickname “chicken”:

Taxing pimples… That is indeed “Creative”. 

Imposing an additional tax on skin treatment is bit too much. Acne patients are already paying considerable amounts of money to get proper treatment. And most of them are either teenagers in puberty or in their early 20s. It turns out that the chicken administration's “creative economy” actually means “creative ways to tax things”.

There is no country like ours where society is completely obsessed with looks. And the ones who helped shaped our society into how it this now tax each item related to enhancing ones look. This is ridiculous. 

Wow… How far will they go? Will the next step be taxing nail care and body slimming? It is not a sin to have some pimples. 

Whistleblower Barrister Expelled for Denoucing Dictatorial Trends in Burundi

Isidore Rufyikiri, Barrister at the Bujumbura Court in Burundi has been expelled from the Bar Association for denouncing dictatorial practices by the regime in power [fr] :

J'ai osé dénoncer ce que les autres n'osent pas dénoncer, à savoir la dérive vers l'instauration d'un régime dictatorial au Burundi et la mise en place d'une milice à l'instar des Interahamwe du Rwanda

I dared to denounce what others do not dare to speak of, namely the drift towards the establishment of a dictatorial regime in Burundi and the establishment of a militia like the Interahamwe in Rwanda

According to the ministry of justice, the reason for his expulsion is that his message threatened homeland security.

Don't Stop the Party: Copyright Issues Threaten Trinidad Carnival Fete

The Carnival season is in full swing in Trinidad and Tobago – and for many, that signals constant partying or “feteing” – right up until the pre-lenten parade of bands is over and Ash Wednesday arrives.

One of the most anticipated fetes for the season is Soaka Till Sunrise which has been scheduled for this coming Sunday, February 2. Since January 14, the organizers of the fete, Wow Events, have been saying that the party was already sold out. Soaka was catapulted into popularity last year, when soca artiste Machel Montano filmed the video for his hit song “The Fog” at the party.

This has seemingly led to the increased demand for tickets to this year's event.

Fete-goers took to social media early, commenting jokingly on the demand for tickets:

Amidst the ticket frenzy, news broke yesterday that the Copyright Music Organization of Trinidad and Tobago (“COTT”) was threatening to shut down the fete, due to a dispute over a copyright license:

An excerpt of the pre-action protocol letter sent by COTT's attorneys was leaked to the media and posted on Twitter.

 This news sent potential party-goers into a panic, with many of them going online to vent:

One of the fete's organizers, Adrian Scoon, quickly responded to the news on his Facebook page:

Arite. So there are two copyright organizations in this country. COTT and TTCO. For many years COTT has had a monopoly on the market and has taken advantage of the promoter. Any promoter will tell you that when you go to COTT they charge you copyright fees based on ticket sales which is ludicrous and unlawful. 

This year we decided to go with TTCO and we have secured a copyright license for our event. We were actually recommended to them by other credible promoters. 

On hearing this COTT contacted us and threatened to shut down our event as they realized that yet another promoter has defected to their competitors. 

1. COTT is a private company and has no affiliation with the government. Therefore they cannot shut down any event. 

2. TTCO is an authorized copyright organization under the laws of Trinidad and Tobago. 

3. We have a copyright license 

4. We are going to sue COTT for wasting our time with this shit. 

5. I'm at the venue right now and SOAKA is gonna be off the chain.

The central issue in this matter is the recognition of competing copyright collection agencies in Trinidad and Tobago. The Trinidad and Tobago Copyright Collection Organization (TTCO) maintains on its Facebook page that it is a legitimate entity, and enjoys the same rights as COTT to offer licenses:

A Brief background on Trinidad and Tobago Copyright Collection Organization (TTCO):

  1. TTCO is a Non Profit Organization 
  2. TTCO is a Copyright Licensing Body Protects the unique area of copyright Works of Mas, Live Performances under Neighboring rights and Author Composer
  3. TTCO protects the rights of artistes and mas bands by licensing and paying royalties for their copyrighted works.

The debate generated discussion on the popular Trinidad Carnival Diary Facebook page. One commenter, Jenny Lin, noted:

COTT takes advantage of many small businesses as well for having a simple cd playing on computer speakers. They claim it goes back to the artistes. Yeah right. They charge us like 3xx a year

Whether COTT initiates an action in the Supreme Court of Trinidad & Tobago remains to be seen. The penalty for offences relating to unlawful public performances of any copyrighted work or sound recording is TT$250,000.00 (about $40,000 US) or 10 years imprisonment. Aggrieved parties may also be entitled to civil remedies, separate and apart form the penalties for the offense of infringement. 

Egypt's Anti-Terrorism Law to Target Internet

Facebook, among other sites, will come under new scrutiny in Egypt, when a draft “anti-terrorism” law comes into effect.

The draft law, submitted by the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry, which in turn would go to the Cabinet for ratification, states that internet sites which instigate terrorism could be censored. This includes popular sites such as Facebook, which have increasingly become a channel among Egyptians to voice dissent.

According to Al Sherooq [ar] Arabic daily:

تضمن مشروع قانون «مكافحة الإرهاب» المرسل من وزارة الداخلية للعدل، قبل إرساله إلى مجلس الوزراء، لإقراره، ولأول مرة موادَّ جديدة لضمان فرض السيطرة على الجرائم «الإرهابية» بشكل أكثر شمولًا من مواد قانون العقوبات، بداية من فرض الرقابة اللازمة على مواقع فيسبوك والإنترنت؛ لمنع استخدامها في الأغراض «الإرهابية» المنصوص عليها

The anti-terrorism law, sent by the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Justice, before sending it to the Cabinet, for approval, for the first time includes new laws which guarantee control over “terrorism” crimes in a comprehensive manner, starting with the monitoring of Facebook and the Internet, in order of them not to be used for terrorism purposes

Egyptian blogger Ramy Yaacoub notes:

And adds:

Novelist Ezzedine Choukri Fishere says that the new bill will impact more than just terrorism:

Congratulations Egypt! Protecting the environment has now become an act of terrorism

And Mai El-Sadany concludes:

Citizen Journalists Expose Police Brutality During Protests in Algeria

For the first time in Algeria's modern history, the certainties of the established police state were dealt a severe blow by cyber-activists. Young Algerians are resorting to new technologies and a wide range of tools offered by the Internet to speak out against the tyranny of law enforcement and protect human rights.

It all started at the end of November 2013 when protests rattled the tranquility and peace of the town of El Guerrara in Wilayah district of Ghardaïa Province, more than 600 kilometers south of the Algerian capital Algiers. In that city, where unemployment, deprivation, hardship and precariousness are part of the daily routine, resides a religious community called the Ibadites. Their religious beliefs differ slightly from the majority of Algerians’ faith, who are followers of Sunni Islam. Ibadites are routinely victims of discrimination and injustice from the Algerian political authorities.

Capture d'écran des gendarmes lors des affrontements

Screen capture of the police during the clashes from the video clips in El Guerrara

For every Ibadites protest demanding better life conditions, authorities would crack down on protesters, arrest them, take them to police stations and subject them to beatings and torture. In the absence of factual evidence, it was difficult for civil society to force public authorities to sanction the law enforcement agents perpetuating those acts.

However, the youth of the region are well aware of the impact that the Internet can bring when it comes to defend and protect human rights. Very quickly, citizen journalists, most often members of activist networks, used their mobile phones to capture scenes of police repression and collect testimonies of young men tortured and beaten by the police, as seen in the following video:  

The clips were posted on YouTube and quickly went viral on the Algerian web. A police officer who was also a member of a cyber-militant group went as far as to secretly tape his colleagues commenting and revealing confidential information on the abusive arrests and torture practices of the riot police. The video was soon posted on YouTube with explanatory comments showing how some activists were detained and tortured. It sparked a public outcry.

At the beginning of January 2014, massive protests of this sectarian conflict opposing Mozabites, a Berber minority and Ibadites against Arab Sunni spread to the city of Ghardaïa, in the same Wilayah. Netizens were there as well to expose the racist and brutal practices perpetrated by some Algerian police officers:  

Again, netizens videos and reports contributed to shedding the light on the abuses of law enforcement. The following video clip shows how police officers protected Arab rioters and attacked only Mozabite protesters:

The scandal has earned a global buzz. Videos and testimonies of cyber-activists reached international media. On Facebook, where around 4.5 million Algerians have a Facebook account, the pages of activists also relayed the information from Ghardaïa. The underlying reasons for the tension in city are addressed [fr] in a blog post Les Observateurs :

Les policiers sont de fait impliqués dans ces tensions car ils sont, pour la majorité, issus de la communauté arabe de Ghardaïa et des villes voisines. Ce qui explique le fait qu’ils prennent parti pour les Arabes. Contrairement à eux, les gendarmes sont bien accueillis par la communauté mozabite.

Police officers are by default involved in these tensions because they belong in their majority to the Sunni sect in Ghardaïa and its neighboring towns. This explains their taking sides with the Arabs.

The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) [ar, fr] used the power  of these videos, articles and written testimonies  to alert public opinion at both national and international levels [fr]. It succeeded in obtaining information proving that:

l’attitude scandaleuse de certains agents des forces de police que ce soit lors du conflit (gestes obscènes, comportement et propos racistes etc) ou lors de l’arrestation des Algériens Mozabites (jeter de l’eau froide sur des détenus, les obliger à se déshabiller, les obliger à mimer des attitudes obscènes) laissent croire que les forces de police Algériennes se comportent comme les forces d’occupation Américaine en Irak notamment dans la prison d’Abu Ghraib!

The scandalous attitude of some police agents whether during the conflict (obscene acts, racists comments and behavior, etc) or during the arrest of Algerian Mozabites (i.e. throwing cold water on detainees, forcing them to take off their clothes or to perform obscene acts) may lead to the assumption that Algerian police forces behaved like the American occupying forces in Iraq, namely in Abu Ghraib prison.

The following video shows police forces surrounding a Mozabite protester and beating him repeatedly [ar]:

Well aware of these recurrent scandals, Algerian authorities are starting to investigate these events. They went as far as sanctioning and suing police officers “suspected of having taken sides during Ghardaïa events”, according to the General Security Directorate that monitors all of Algeria's police services. Other investigations are also being instigated. Thanks to the mobilization of cyber-journalists, police abuse will not remain in the shadows any longer. Cyber-activists won a big battle against the Algerian regime. They even succeeded in making it yield by demanding an investigation regarding these events.

For now, this is an important victory for the proponents of the defense of human rights in Algeria. 

January 30 2014

Landfill Smoke Continues To Hold Trinidad's Capital Hostage

For the fourth consecutive day, residents, visitors and people who work in Trinidad & Tobago's capital city have had to endure the thick, black, ominous smoke which has enveloped the city.

Talk of the situation has dominated social media, with netizens quickly losing tolerance for the seemingly slow response by authorities:

  Others were more concerned by the potential health hazards of the thick smoke:

Many high school students chimed in on the issue with comments about the closure of schools throughout the capital city. Some were happy for the unplanned holiday:

Others were not impressed:

Government officials also took to social media to address the issue. Minister of Legal Affairs, Prakash Ramadhar tweeted:

Meanwhile, officials at the Environment Management Authority posted:

It remains to be seen what definitive action will be taken by the authorities.

You can monitor how the situation develops on Twitter by using the hashtag #Beetham.

The thumbnail image in this post is by Mark Franco, used with permission.

January 29 2014

Ukraine Rolls Back Short-Lived Anti-Protest ‘Dictatorship Laws’

What the new anti-protest laws meant for Euromaidan protesters at a glance. Translated infographic from Den daily by Euromaidan PR, used with permission.

What the new anti-protest laws meant for Euromaidan protesters at a glance. Translated infographic from Den daily by Euromaidan PR, used with permission.

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

The Ukrainian Parliament voted on January 28, 2014 to revoke nine of the 11 controversial so-called “dictatorship laws“, which were meant to stifle the ongoing Euromaidan protests in the country, only twelve days after they were brought into law by the very same Parliament.

Ukrainians and the international community, however, still seem to be displeased with the results, and while the the country's Prime Minister Nikolay Azarov and his cabinet resigned on the same day, protesters are still in the streets of several Ukrainian cities and opposition leaders say protests will continue until key demands are met. Azarov's official statement regarding his resignation, handed in earlier on Tuesday, January 28, stated:

For the purpose of creating additional possibilities of social and political compromise, for the peaceful solution of the conflict, I’ve made a personal decision to ask the Ukrainian president to accept my resignation from the post of prime minister.

Christopher Miller, editor at the leading Ukrainian English-language newspaper Kyiv Post, covered the voting process and tweeted:

Jake Turk, a US-based journalist who has been following the protests closely, commented:

Euromaidan PR, the “official English-language public relations” site of Euromaidan organizers, reported:

Ukrainians value their freedom. The ‘Dictatorship laws’ caused mass indignation and radicalised protests. 9 of the 11 laws were just revoked in the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament). But the initiators of the repressive laws and those that falsified the voting results pretend that everything is normal, that 6 people haven’t died, tens are not missing, hundreds not arrested, and two thousands are not injured. The government proposes to give an “amnesty” to those that came to defent the rights and freedoms of ALL as if they are villains.

Calculating the price of freedom; image by MaidanSOS, used with permission.

Calculating the price of freedom: What pressuring the government to revoke the “dictatorship laws” has cost the people of Ukraine, via Euromaiden PR. Image by MaidanSOS, used with permission.

On January 29, however, word spread that President Viktor Yanuckovich had yet to sign the decision to annul the questionable laws. Twitter users like France 24 journalist Gulliver Craggwarned:

BBC Global News Editor Olexiy Solohubenko also added:

Trinidad & Tobago: Smoke in the City

The work week in Trinidad began on a dark note – literally. On Monday January 27, the atmosphere was thick with haze, the sky a sombre grey as people commuted to work and parents dropped their children off to school. At first, many couldn't pinpoint the cause – wasn't it too early in the year to be experiencing the effects of Saharan dust? – but soon, news spread that the source of the smog was coming from the La Basse, the capital's main landfill site, located next to one of the most disadvantaged communities in the country.

As usual, Facebook was the go-to site for information; users posted updates and thoughts as information came in. It is suspected that several fires were started in the waste dump, allegedly by Beetham residents, in protest over the shooting of a resident by police the day before. As the smog grew thicker, some schools in the area were closed, but officials from the Environmental Management Authority and the Trinidad and Tobago Solid Waste Management Company, which oversees the dump, have been working with the fire services to get the situation under control.

A mid-morning rainfall on Monday improved the situation slightly, but as of earlier today, firemen were still trying to contain two lingering fires that were blazing underneath mounds of rubbish. Several early morning Facebook status updates spoke to the situation. Catherine Emmanuel quipped:

Mmm…landfill smoke with my morning tea. Yes please.

Gareth Jenkins added:

This city stinks. Kids shouldn't have to go to school in a shroud of burning garbage.

Photographs soon followed. Facebook user Iain Waller uploaded a pic of Port of Spain taken from the highway that passes in front of the dump and accompanied it with this sardonic question:

China

China?!?

C News Live posted a photo set that showed the effects of the heavy smoke in the capital:

CNews

Mark Franco posted a photo taken from a balcony on the outskirts of town, noting that “Port of Spain [was] shrouded again”:

Haze

There was also a lot of discussion on Twitter. Kerwyn Forde noted:

@CNC3TV posted regular updates:

Kalifa Sarah Clyne observed:

@triniqt2 complained:

@PLatchman felt sorry for the children who are being affected:

In typical Trinidadian style, @KetchAVapse used humour to deal with the situation:

If the smog persists for much longer, chances are that netizens will be less inclined to joke about it.

Cable Providers Begin Dropping Russia's Only Independent TV Station

It's not just threats facing Russia's only independent TV station. Providers are not dropping the channel outright. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

It's no longer just threats facing Russia's only independent TV station. Providers are now dropping the channel outright. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

The prospect that Russian cable television providers might drop TV Rain, Russia’s only independent channel, became a reality today, when two major cable companies reported decisions to stop providing customers with access to the station.

In a tweet today, January 29, 2014, the telecom Akado (where the Board Director is Yuri Pripachkin—the man who launched yesterday’s crackdown on TV Rain) announced [ru] on Twitter that it is suspending TV Rain’s broadcasting license on its cable network, effective tomorrow. Another cable television provider, Dom.ru, has already cut off access to TV Rain on its network, citing [ru] the absence of a broadcasting agreement with the station. According to the cable provider, it is illegal in Russia to broadcast a channel without such an agreement. Curiously, Dom.ru’s press release says nothing about why it only now realized that it lacks a contract with TV Rain.

A third cable television provider, Tricolor TV, told [ru] Echo of Moscow’s St. Petersburg branch that will continue to carry TV Rain, but warned that it would drop the station, if it ever repeated the scandal (covered at length in a previous GV post) that sparked its current troubles.

According to reports and the telecoms’ own websites [ru], Akado and Dom.ru have somewhere between seven and nine million customers in Russia, serving upwards of 56 cities throughout the country.

Akado’s decision to announce on Twitter that it is suspending TV Rain coverage exposed the cable provider to a wave of anger from the station’s supporters.

Here are a few choice responses to Akado’s tweet:

Dishonor.

Akado, this is shameful! Give viewers the chance to decide for themselves what to watch!

Akado, you electrically operated scumbags.

C**ksuckers.

What’s it like to write a tweet with a d**k in your mouth?

It’s good when the opportunity arises for some resistance. I’m switching away from Akado for its refusal to broadcast TV Rain, and I advise you to do the same.

January 28 2014

Coursera Blocked in Syria — by US Sanctions

Screen capture of Coursera notice. Capture by Anas Maarawi, used with permission.

Screen capture of Coursera notice. Capture by Anas Maarawi, used with permission.

“Our system indicates that you are trying to access the Coursera site from an IP address associated with a country currently subjected to US economic and trade sanctions. In order for Coursera to comply with US export controls, we cannot allow you to access to the site.”

As of this month, if you try to access the online learning platform Coursera from within Syria, you will see only this message.

Coursera, which according to its site aims “to change the world by educating millions of people by offering classes from top universities and professors online for free,” is now subjected to a recent directive from the US federal government that has forced some MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) providers to block access for users in sanctioned countries such as Iran and Cuba. Coursera explains the change in its student support center:

The interpretation of export control regulations as they related to MOOCs was unclear for a period of time, and Coursera had been operating under one interpretation of the law. Recently, Coursera received a clear answer indicating that certain aspects of the Coursera MOOC experience are considered ‘services’ (and all services are highly restricted by export controls). While many students from these countries were previously able to access Coursera, this change means that we will no longer be able to provide students in sanctioned countries with access to Coursera moving forward.

Syrian developer Anas Maarawi criticized the policy shift on his blog: “Between the censorship imposed by the regime, which includes blocking hundreds of internet sites, and the effect of US sanctions, it has become nearly impossible for the remaining youth in the country to have access to online learning.”

Maarrawi added: “The technological sanctions imposed by the US against Syria do not harm the regime. They only contribute to suffocating the population, especially a youth eager to learn and connect with the outside world.”

The sanctions are not new. For several years Syrian internet users have been suffering their effects, from social networks such as LinkedIn to Google Earth.

In September 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation called on the US to lift all restrictions “that deny citizens access to vital communications tools.” But the US has continued its piecemeal approach, going back and forth between blocking new ranges of transactions to allowing the export of certain services.

“These sorts of export restrictions are overbroad and contain elements which have no effect on the Syrian regime, while preventing Syrian citizens from accessing a wealth of tools that are available to their activist counterparts in neighboring countries and around the world,” EFF stated.

Amid increasing isolation, access to knowledge is vital

Contending with deep isolation and daily loss, many Syrians regard Coursera as an empowering platform that allows them to continue learning, against all odds. Mahmud Angrini, a Syrian doctor who took more than 20 of the online courses the platform offers, shared what Coursera meant to him in a very touching letter that was published on the Coursera blog under the title “It's never too late to start again”:

Once a successful physician, my family and I turned into one of the millions of Syrian refugees. I didn’t just lose my properties I also lost all my relations – friends and supporting family members. I felt sad, depressed, bored and isolated. But then one day while I was surfing the Internet, I found Coursera.

What I can assure you is that Coursera changed my life during those painful months. I began to follow Coursera courses, not just in the field of medicine but also in many other disciplines. (…) Soon later, my language skills improved and I engaged in many other courses. The courses and the interesting knowledge impeded in them helped me forget my pain, depression and suffering.

Someday, the war will end, and we will come back to our homes and our former lives to contribute to the reconstruction process in our country. To do so, we need to learn new skills, and this could only be achieved through continuing education. We can take advantage of the high quality courses that Coursera offers at no cost.

The letter was welcome by the Coursera editors, who described Dr. Angrini’s experience as touching and inspiring: “Thank you Mahmud, for living Coursera’s mission to create a world where people can learn without limits.”

Coursera ended the announcement of the changes that prevent access to their courses in sanctioned countries with the following note: “We value our global community of users and sincerely regret the need to take this action. Please know that Coursera is currently working very closely with the U.S. Department of State and Office of Foreign Asset Control to secure the necessary permissions to reinstate site access for users in sanctioned countries.”

If Coursera really believes in its own role as a life-changer (and game-changer) in the field of online education, it should take all steps necessary to ensure that access to their site is reinstated in sanctioned countries such as Syria, where their courses make the biggest difference.

Anas Maarawi contributed to this article.

Guyanese Website could be Game Changer in Regional Crime Fighting

One tech entrepreneur based in Georgetown, Guyana is taking a fresh approach to the country's crime problems. Vijay Datadin is the main player behind Guyana Crime Reports, the country's newest data journalism website. Guyana Crime Reports combines GIS mapping and crowdsourced crime detection to bring a fresh look to traditional online reporting.

Datadin says the site was born of the desire not to report news, but to fight crime. This goal is undoubtedly supported by the fact that Datadin is also the founder of Red Spider, a small web development startup, which today maintains Guyana Crime Reports’ presence on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, where its handle is @GuyanaCrime.

The tweets give concise, but specific information:

The site's Facebook page often shares more detailed stories of robberies, etc. by linking to mainstream media reports.

Guyana Crime Reports is part news aggregator, making it a good one-stop source for various crime reports related to Guyana, published in local and international news media. Citizens can submit crime reports through a form on the website, although those reports are verified more rigorously than stories aggregated from established media sources. On the site, incidents of crime are organised into different categories, ranging from fatal crime to domestic abuse – and users can get alerts from the site should an incident happen within 20 kilometers of their location.

Encouraging Conversations About Crime
Red Spider is considering forging informal relationships directly with journalists who share their interest in improving the way that crime is reported in Guyana – the aim being not to compete with established media companies, but rather to enhance the essential news service that they provide.

For Datadin, it is exciting to think of traditional and new media working together, as he believes they share a common goal, existing not just to distribute information but also to help readers make sense of large amounts of information over time. He has embraced the responsibility of helping followers understand how local crime fits into a larger national picture:

As a citizen [of Guyana], it would be to my benefit if crime went down. I'm doing this not for any immediate commercial benefit but because I think it needed to be done. There [has] to be a public conversation about crime…based not only on opinion but on facts, one that affords a more reasoned and inclusive debate about factors that cause crime and the policies that can help curb it.

He sees a more informed public as a critical part of having constructive discussions about crime, but concedes that the site has taken only early evolutionary steps toward that goal. His ultimate objective is to have a positive impact not just on public discourse, but on public policy. The company has already made what he calls “soft approaches” to the Guyana Police Force and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Mapping Crime Trends
Datadin holds a postgraduate Masters degree in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) from Edinburgh University, Scotland. Plus, the word ‘data’ is literally in his name! No surprise, then, that Guyana Crime Reports relies heavily on maps to visually represent the spread and scope of crime, thereby helping users of the service to see exactly where an incident took place.

By making the crime maps public, Guyana Crime Reports effectively creates an equal opportunity for anyone seeking to understand how crime is trending both in their area and nationally. Both the public and policing officials can review the map and detect trends, both in specific areas and throughout the country as a whole. According to Datadin:

You can see not just what happened recently but what has been happening over time.

By using maps to visualise crime data, Guyana Crime Reports has already set a significant precedent for digital journalism in the region. Its popularity and success thus far suggest that audiences across the region would benefit if more Caribbean newsrooms added maps to their arsenal of storytelling tools.

January 27 2014

“There Are No Other Problems” in Tajikistan Besides Name Games

More than a week after Tajikistan's Prosecutor General made a controversial statement about “unpatriotic” surnames, Internet users in the country continue debating whether the ending of one's surname is a good measure of the person's level of patriotism. Many netizens, however, are angry about the fact that the Prosecutor General has been so vocal on seemingly trivial issues while remaining silent on high-profile cases that fall under his mandate.

The following image is widely circulating among Tajikistani users of social networks Facebook and Odnoklassniki:

patriot

Anonymous image circulating online.

The text at the very top and the very bottom of the image reads ironically, in Russian: “The Prosecutor General is worried about people changing surnames. If your surname ends with “ov” or “ev”, you are not a patriot. There are no other problems in the country!”. Smaller images and texts behind the Prosecutor General's photo relate to cases that the official has apparently failed to address. These images (staring with the bottom-left image, moving clockwise) point to: a deadly car crash involving a son of a well-connected official (text reads, “Murderer”); newly-built plant emitting hazardous coal dust in the country's capital (“Ecology is dead”); recent death of an opposition activist in prison, apparently of torture (“Murdered”); recent jailing of an influential businessman-cum-opposition politician on dubious charges (“26 years in prison”); and the fact that at least a million of Tajik citizens work outside of the country to keep their families out of poverty (“Migrant”).

Congrats Tunisia on the New Constitution!

Bloggers from across the region paid tribute to Tunisia for adopting a new constitution, three years after the ousting of dictator Zeine el Abidin Ben Ali.

The country, the first to join the so-called Arab Spring, is on the right path, they say.

Yemeni blogger Noon Arabia congratulates Tunisians:

Algerian Megari Larbi follows suit:

From Egypt, Mohamed El Dahshan laments the situation in his own country:

The comparisons with Egypt continue.

Borzou Daragahi tweets:

And Israeli Elizabeth Tsurkov chimes in:

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt adds:

January 26 2014

The Other Side of Social Media

That’s Twitter – it makes a joke out of serious issues and takes jokes seriously.

- comments blogger Purba Ray while discussing Sunanda Pushkar’s sudden death who underwent a Twitter spat with a Pakistani journalist. The unusual death of the wife of Indian minister Shashi Tharoor has created a lot of controversy pointing fingers at Twitter.

‘AFTER 25 Conference': Tokyo and Berlin Discuss Creative Culture

As Berlin and Tokyo mark 20 years of friendship as sister cities, representatives of two creative industries, including Chairman of the Club Commission of Berlin Marc Wohlrabe and Takahiro Saito, a lawyer and member of Let's Dance, a consortium that fights against Japan's dance regulations, will come together for the AFTER 25 conference on March 1, 2014 in Tokyo to discuss how creative culture can contribute to the socio-economic development of both cities: 

After the fall of the Berlin wall, extreme social, cultural and economic changes transformed the city into a unique playground. Today, 25 years later, it attracts creatives, tech startups, social entrepreneurs, and investors from all over the world.

Berlin recognized its creative sub-cultures as part of its identity and history, which now act as key drivers for tourism and economy. This transformed Berlin into a unique, successful city demonstrating how supporting creativity can grow into key economic and social factors fueling innovation and growth.

This dramatic yet positive change that Berlin went through leads us to the question: what role can Tokyo’s creative cultures play in laying the foundations for the city’s next phase? How can we paint a brighter future by aligning the creative potential of these two cities?

China Sentences Citizens’ Movement Icon Xu Zhiyong to Four Years in Prison

A number of petitioners expressed their support of Xu Zhiyong outside the Beijing court early this morning. Photo from Zhu Chengzhi's Twitter.

A number of people expressed their support for Xu Zhiyong outside a Beijing court early 26 January 2014. Photo from Zhu Chengzhi's Twitter.

Xu Zhiyong, a prominent Chinese citizens’ rights activist and an icon for the New Citizens’ Movement, was sentenced to four years in prison by a Beijing court on 26 January 2014 for disrupting public order related to two small demonstrations for equal education rights in 2012 and 2013.

His arrest and imprisonment is part of a crackdown by new Chinese Communist Party leadership under President Xi Jinping against political liberals who have been trying to advocate for constitutional reform to protect individual citizens’ rights. More political liberals will be put on trial in coming weeks. 

To defend himself against the political prosecution, Xu wrote a long court statement on 22 January to explain his political beliefs and practices, in particular related to the New Citizens’ Movement which has been a main target of suppression since early 2013.

Xu explained the spirit of New Citizens’ Movement in the opening of his statement:

新公民運動倡導每個中國人堂堂正正做公民,把公民身份當真。我們是公民,是國家的主人,不是臣民,順民,草民,暴民;把公民的權利當真,那些寫在《世界人權宣言》和中國憲法裡的選舉權、言論自由、信仰自由等神聖的權利不能永遠是一張白條;把公民的責任當真,中國是我們每個人的中國,良心正義的底線在我們每個人的腳下,電要我們每個人去堅守;新公民運動倡導自由,公義,愛的新公民精神。

The New Citizens’ Movement urges every Chinese to become an upright citizen, to believe in and enact their citizen identity. We are citizens and the masters of the country, we are not the empire's subjects, nor their obedient servants, nor the rights-deprived grassroots, nor rioters. We have to enact our citizen rights. Those sacred rights including election rights, freedom of speech and religion written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Chinese Constitution cannot remain an IOU. We have to enact our citizen responsibility. China belongs to every Chinese person. The baseline of conscience and justice is where we stand and we have to stand firm to protect [our values]. The New Citizens’ Movement advocates the citizen spirit of freedom, justice and love.

Peaceful gatherings or disruption of public order?

The two incidents that were referred to by authorities as disruptions of public order took place on 5 July 2012 and 28 February 2013, when Xu and other activists gathered to pressure education authorities for equal schooling opportunities for migrant workers’ children.

In China, because migrant workers do not have household registration in cities, their children couldn't enter local schools and many of them were deprived of education opportunities. The New Citizens’ Movement's campaign for equal education began in 2009 with demonstration aimed at education authorities in Beijing, and the following year, authorities granted permission to Beijing schools to admit migrant students.

The second stage of the campaign was to press the Ministry of Education to change its policy and allow migrant students to take university entrance examination according to their schools’ locations. The ministry agreed to introduce a set of new policies by mid-2012, and a small protest was organized on 5 July 2012 to follow up on the promise, which was fulfilled by the end of 2012.

But Beijing was not covered in the new policy guidelines. To press Beijing authorities to adopt the new policy, another small protest was staged outside the office of the Beijing Education Committee on 28 February 2013.

Xu explained why the two demonstrations did not disturb public order:

7.5 和 2.28請願,我們去的是教育部門,是公民到國家機關表達訴求,我們去的不是法律意義上的公共場所。刑法對公共場所界定得很清楚,是除國家機關、社會單位、公共道路之外的公共空間…

We were petitioning outside the education authority on 5 July 2012 and 28 February 2013 as citizens. The organizations are government-related authorities, not public spaces in a legal sense. According to the penal code, the buildings of government authority, collective units, highways and roads are not considered public space…

Many Chinese human rights observers believe that the two occasions are pretext for China to suppress the New Citizens’ movement, which has been vocal in putting forward citizen agendas for social and political reforms, such as pushing for officials to disclose their properties and advocating constitutionalism, a political stand that brought Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo an 11-years prison sentence in 2008. Similar to Liu Xiaobo, Xu's New Citizens’ Movement also stressed the peaceful transformation of the political system in China:

你們不用恐懼新公民運動,我們是新時代的公民,理念上,徹底告別了敵人、江山、推翻、打倒的專制意識,堅守自由,公義,愛的信仰,行為上徹底告別陰謀,暴力等野蠻模式,以和平改良方式推動社會進步,在陽光下健康成長。公民群體的使命不是作為反對黨存在,雖然建立憲政民主,是未來中國實現政治文明的必然趨勢。我們的使命,是和中國所有進步人士一道,共同推動中國實現政治文明轉型。

Don't be afraid of the New Citizens’ Movement. We are citizens of the new era. We say farewell to enemies and authoritative ideas such as the “emperor's landscape”, “overthrow”, “take over”. We believe in freedom, justice and love. We give up brutal actions such as “conspiracy”, “violence” and uphold peaceful and transformative acts to push for social progress under the Sun. The mission of citizens’ groups are unlike opposition parties. We believe constitutional democracy is the ultimate means to the future of a civilized polity and our mission is to promote the political transformation of China with other progressive sectors.

The four-year sentence has caught many by surprise. Liu Xiaoyuan, a Chinese human rights lawyer, expressed his frustration about the harsh reality for political moderates in China on popular microblogging website Sina Weibo:

Sources say Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in prison. This is much more than I predicted. I know that imprisonment was inevitable, but this is a heavy sentence. On second thought, in a country where there is no rule of law, such a heavy sentence is not that surprising.

Liu Xiaobo, who does not have any enemies, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for political charges. Xu Zhiyong, who advocates for non-violent acts of civil disobedience was sentenced to four years in prison for disrupting public order. What does this tell us?

Teng Biao, another prominent human rights lawyer, believed the people's struggle will never cease:

The four-year sentence of Dr. Xu Zhiyong treads on law and citizens. The public security organs, the procuratorial organs, the court and the authorities behind the scene had to be responsible for this. Prison will not destroy the people's will to resist, but will light up the people's passion to fight.

[One political prisoner is too many] The important role of Dr. Xu Zhiyong will manifest itself slowly. In the near future, authorities’ suppression of civil society will be more heavy-handed, but there will be more grassroots resistance. There will be more and more conflicts and more political activists, citizen rights activists and people with a conscience put in jail. We can lose our battles many times, but it takes only one battle to beat them.

January 25 2014

Protest Against Rape : WordToon by Subhendu Sarkar

In India women often fall prey to sex crimes where police fail to take proper action. Subhendu Sarkar, an artist from Kolkata created cartoons from words (see Youtube video) in an workshop called “wordtoon” urging everybody to protest against rape.

January 24 2014

Trinidad & Tobago: Crime Fighting?

Yes, the Government is on the crime busting trail again. But, as always, it depends on your definition of ‘crime.’

Wired868 tackles, tongue firmly in cheek, the government's pushing of the Bail Amendment Bill, insinuating that in political speak, there are criminals and ‘criminals'.

Chinese Billionaire Activist's Confession and Release

Chinese billionaire activist Wang Gongquan, who was arrested and detained for more than 4 months, was released on bail after making “confessions” that he and another citizen right activist Xu Zhiyong had organized and incited criminal activities to assemble a crowd to disrupt order in public space. Offbeat China has the story.

Reposted bycheg00 cheg00
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