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« July 2005 | Main | September 2005 »

Paris Burning, Again!

by James Fontanella

“Young lives have been taken away from us due to our own negligence and that of the French government. At the moment, the flames are moving faster than those authorities who have the power to reverse what appears to be a tragic trend. It is important that they act now. Immediately”.
Anonymous immigrant in Paris.

On the night of 29th August at around 10 o'clock, a fire broke out in the Marais quarter in central Paris, engulfing an entire five-story building. The residents were mainly African immigrants waiting for a permanent allocation and authorisation of their residence permits.

Following the initial intervention of the fire brigade, which managed to put out the flames at 11:30 p.m., it seemed as though fire fighters had been able to avoid the tragedy. In fact, the first report stated that no lives had been lost and that only 13 people were injured.

Unfortunately, this information was not confirmed the following morning when the police made an official statement regarding the accident: Seven people remained trapped in the flames and were unable to be saved. Four were children and one of them died in a desperate attempt to save his life by throwing himself out of the window on the fifth floor.

This accident is not the first of its kind. Three nights earlier, another fire broke out in the city in the 13th arrondissement, in which 17 people lost their lives, 14 of them children. Furthermore, we can also recall the fire which burned down the Hotel Paris-Opéra in April. Then 11 adults and 10 children lost their lives in the flames.

The common denominator which characterises these tragedies, is that all the apartments burned down were inhabited by African immigrants. In the majority of cases, they are sans-papier (without documents), awaiting asylum and authorisation of their stay within French territory. However, those who lived in the block that was ablaze last week were all legal immigrants working mainly for the city council.

This common denominator, which sees African immigrants living in deplorable conditions, is abhorrent.

The government had promised immediate and prompt intervention after last week's incident. However, this has not been translated into effective action.

Thousands of people demonstrated at the weekend, demanding safe housing for all citizens and immigrants. Many of the protesters are still living in inhuman conditions. The flats, assigned by the government or affiliated agencies to house African immigrants, are often overcrowded. In some cases there are 10 people living in 40 square metres, without electricity or drinking water. The flats are also frequently infested by rats and the buildings are structurally unsafe and run-down. In the 21st century, certain images remind us of the Middle Ages rather than of modern France.

Recent statistics inform that at present there are more than 2,000 families living in buildings which are considered dangerous. The government is aware of this as it is involved, directly or indirectly, with the management of housing. For the time being, only 542 families have settled in appropriate flats: that is safe flats, with water, electricity and heating for the winter. However, over 102,000 families are on the waiting list demanding housing and the government is far from regulating the issue.

The repeated number of fires has yet to awaken a true sentiment of preoccupation. The fear is that these accidents will soon be forgotten and that we will have to wait for the next fire to remind us that intervention is urgently needed.

If this occurs, it will no longer be able to be classified an accident, the government will be responsible for homicide. We cannot just close our eyes and expect that the solution to the problem will pop up on its own. France, which has been trying to defend its social security system, is not facing the clear-cut downfall of a system which is outdated and obsolete. The tragedies of these last days are not accidents, not in the slightest. The mayors of the 3rd, 9th and 13th arrondissements were aware of the living conditions of the African immigrants afflicted by the blaze. Previous experience should have set the basis for change. Instead, a stagnant government has left thousands of immigrants isolated from the rest of society. For, as much as we should disregard and mistrust any kind of conspiracy theory, it is not surprising that many Africans living in Paris have alleged that the government is purposely allocating them these dangerous buildings in order to get rid of them sooner and at a low cost.

This is a fundamental social and political problem which needs to be tackled. It is not acceptable to dismiss such a tragedy by defining it as a simple accident. This tragedy is a consequence of a structural and political failure for which the government is responsible.

What seems to be most worrying is that the current actions taken by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Home Affairs Minister, aimed at helping the affected are far from suitable. Sarkozy declared, “All these squats and shaky buildings will be shut in order to put an end to this dramatic situation.” This might seem positive but the real question is - where is the government going to put the families it kicks out of these tumbledown apartments?

For the time being, the people who managed to escape the flames have been placed in gyms and provisional housing. However, doing this will generate the same nightmare situation that they have already experienced. The vicious cycle will start over again, with African immigrants living in precarious and insecure conditions.

It is imperative that these blazes mark the beginning of a new approach to the problem. It is crucial that those who were able to escape from the flames get a chance to start a normal life in a place that can guarantee them a minimum level of comfort and stability.

This responsibility is in the hands of the local communities, which are aware of the many obsolete buildings housing immigrants, and the national government. Local communities have the power to pressurise the national authorities and demand their intervention. On the other hand, the government is forced in the short-term to give some kind of concrete response to the recent tragedies. However, the banal and obvious risk is to forget those who continue to live in deplorable conditions and this risk cannot be taken, not again.

August 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

US forces questioned about journalist killings

On Sunday, Reuters soundman Waleed Khaled, was killed by five shots fired by US snipers in Iraq. His colleague, cameraman Haidar Kadhem, survived a shot in the back, but has now been detained by American forces without explanation.

According to the International Federation of Journalists this brings the number of journalists killed by American troops to 18. And it's caused all the major international freedom of the press organisations, including IFEX, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committe to Protect Journalists to raise questions about not just the killings, but the "wall of silence" they are met with whenever they demand inquiries into their deaths.

A statement from the IFJ on Monday says:

"The IFJ acknowledges that many of the incidents may have been unavoidable in the context of the war, but in a number of cases there are serious questions still to be dealt with that have given rise to suggestions of deliberate targeting of media staff."

It would be nice to know what's going on. Ever since a US missile hit Al Jazeera's offices in Kabul in 2001, it's hard not to suspect the worst. Then again, if you look at the high number of soldiers killed in "friendly fire" or "fratricide" maybe something else entirely is to blame.

August 31, 2005 in Media & the Net | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

We media or me media?

Welcome to the Evolving Personalised Information Construct. In this eight minute video, what starts as a spoof history of the media in the 20 years since Tim Berners Lee "invented" the World Wide Web, quickly turns into a cautionary tale of the future hegemony of Google and Amazon in the age of we media. Will the democratisation of the news lead to the destruction of the media as a democratic force? Decide for yourself.

August 30, 2005 in Media & the Net | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

US petition for Iraq Exit

From we hear:

"Last week, two organizations seeking an end to the Iraq War, began collecting signatures on a petition to Congress calling for an exit strategy. Thus far over 13,000 signatures have been collected on the websites of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) and Peace Action. The petition, whose chief author is PDA Cofounder Tom Hayden, can be read at here.

The language and arguments of the petition don't seem very sophisticated, and the signees claim to know what "Iraqis themselves" want. It's always a little suspicious to me when the full scale of Iraqi opinion is bundled together in support of one cause or the other. Furthermore, even the first point on the withdrawal plan seems downright naive: "the U.S. government must declare that it has no interest in permanent military bases or the control of Iraqi oil or other resources."

But at least people are talking about what the next steps should be. If you agree with the petition, sign it before the 15th of September when it will be delivered to Congress.

August 24, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A Question of Attribution

by Brian Cathcart

There is outrage today in Britain at the latest revelations about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician shot dead by police who feared he was a suicide bomber. The outrage has two main causes: first, that it is now clearer than ever that the suspicions which led to the shooting were wholly unjustified and second, that the police initially misrepresented the events and then allowed a false narrative to stand uncorrected.

The anger is evident in the press -- the conservative Daily Telegraph, for example, is demanding to know whether London’s police chief, Sir Ian Blair, knowingly allowed false information to be spread and appears to want him sacked if he did. Such bitterness is to be expected when journalists feel they have been duped into telling the public an untrue story, but what we are not seeing, and what we probably should be seeing, is some media self-criticism.

On 22nd July, the day of the shooting, Sir Ian Blair went on record as saying that de Menezes’s dress and behaviour had been suspicious, and we now know this was untrue. But it did not stop there. A good deal of additional “detail” was published that day and the following morning, for example that de Menezes ran from police, failed to heed a warning and jumped over a ticket barrier in an underground railway station – all incorrect. The provenance of this material was probably unclear to most readers or viewers, but most of it none the less passed into the popular consciousness as fact.

It appears from newspaper reports yesterday and today that the “detail” emanated largely from off-the-record briefings by police officers – in other words, those sessions in which people say things but reporters don’t specify afterwards who said them. Surely British newspapers and broadcasters should be asking themselves today whether they should have accepted so much untrue information on these terms and passed it on to their readers without health warnings designed to encourage an appropriate scepticism. They appear to have allowed themselves to be the vehicles for a scandalous untruth; will they now ignore the problem and move on, or will they do something to prevent it happening again? My money is on the former.

August 18, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

German election blog

It seems appropriate to announce the launch of Michael Naumann's election blog from Germany where I have been for the past week. Election posters are hanging everywhere in the streets of Berlin. My German is nowhere near good enough to make sense of the newspapers, and I'm looking forward to his insights.

Naumann is editor and publisher of Die Zeit. In 2003 he wrote a short-lived column on openDemocracy which was immensely popular. Check his new blog regularly from now until September 18. Already his first post is jam-packed with information. And murder x 9...

August 16, 2005 in openDemocracy | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Online input at Young Democrats convention

When the The Young Democrats of America, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party in the US held their national convention last week, they accepted online submissions for their new visions platform, and real-time online feedback from the general membership across America using a new technology called the "Online Progressive Congress". The prospects of something like that being used in the "adult" end of the party are pretty interesting.

I only just read about it in their newsletter, and haven't found any links to the software/website, but they say it was funded by Garrett Gruener a former candidate for California governor, and one of the main venture capitalists behind the search engine Gruener did most of his campaigning online, but Governor Schwarzenegger was the Terminator.

August 11, 2005 in Media & the Net | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Cuban Son's favourite son

One of the first things that spring to mind when I think of the Buena Vista Social Club is the melody of ‘Chan Chan’ co-sung by Ibrahim Ferrer, who died last week. My liking for the slow but intense rhythm and the simple words of the love song is hard to articulate, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it never fails to inspire images of the Cuba that I do not yet known but am eager to experience.

I am one of the many people whose ears have been opened to the sound of the Buena Vista Social Club only recently, and so it came as a great disappointment to learn of the sudden death of Ferrer, one if the group’s most recognisable figures. However, I was pleased to see that even here in the UK - where the music market persistently seems so impervious to so-called ‘World Music’ and its virtual non-existence in the charts reflects such hostility - there were several obituaries to one of the main figures of Latin American, and specifically, Cuban music. As a Hispanicist, I can remember when ‘Latin Culture’ exploded onto the scene in the late 90s, with Bacardi Breezer even using the line, ‘There’s Latin spirit in everyone’ to capture the imagination of a the masses and thereby introduce them to a Spanish-speaking world that extended beyond Ibiza and Benidorm.

That is one of the great things about Ferrer and his fellow singers in Buena Vista – he loved the sound of the Cuban Son and was undisputedly one of the sound’s greatest pioneers. Starting out in the 50s, he promoted a rhythm through which Cuba’s black population could give expression to their joys, sorrows and life experiences. Indeed, Ferrer began singing at a time when many Cubans, such as the poet Nicolas Guillen, were beginning to showcase their skills to an ever-increasing home and international audience.

Although I will never get the chance to hear Ferrer sing 'Chan Chan' live, a search for his work throws up numerous results and his discography, which is as varied as it is extensive, is ultimately the most glowing testimony to his talent.

Cuba has lost one its greatest stars, however his influence will live on.

August 10, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Lest They Forget

by Antoinette Odoi and Anju Srivastava

In recent times, nuclear discussions have not been far from the headlines. This week, Iran resumed uranium enrichment thus breaching a Paris agreement it signed on Nov. 15, 2004. Consequently, the three EU countries with which it had been negotiating – Britain, France and Germany- have reacted strongly, with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer hinting at "disastrous consequences”, whilst French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy described the situation as a ‘grave crisis.’

Meanwhile, an additional report from today’s Guardian states ‘Iran has made 4000 centrifuges capable of weapons grade uranium enrichment - 25 times the quantity it has admitted to the UN.’ This information has recently been brought to light by Strategic Policy Consulting, a Washington-based think-tank. These centrifuge machines were not declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), despite ongoing talks with the EU. The US is suspicious that the centrifuges will be used to make nuclear weapons, however, Iran maintains that these machines will only be used to produce nuclear energy. At this stage, the IEAE does not seem to be planning to report this incidence to the UN Security Council which could impose sanctions on the regime. 

The six-nation talks between North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US have been reportedly met with an impasse and have been delayed to the end of this month. Recriminations between North Korea and the US are being tossed back and forth, with the US refusing to budge on allowing North Korea to possess light-water reactors whilst North Korea maintains that it is not harbouring any ulterior motives.

This week, the on-going talks were given a sombre background with the recent commemoration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which there was a stark reminder from the Mayor of Nagasaki that past events should never be forgotten and that peace should be given a chance to reign.

If nothing else, stories from the elderly victims who witnessed the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki should act as a reminder of the damage, both physical and psychological, that any possible nuclear weapons can cause – a situation that,fortunately, the majority of us have not had to witness.

August 10, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Au revoir 35mm?

So Dixon’s, the UK-based consumer electronics retailer, have announced that they will no longer be selling  35 mm film-based cameras. As irrelevant as this piece of news may seem to some, it’s an important landmark in the history of photography. Is this the final nail in the coffin for film and a confirmation that the digital era has arrived and is here to stay?

So what? Some might say, the digital format is progress. Digital images are cheaper, more convenient and nearly equal in quality. In an age when we can sit at our computers and, at the press of a button, launch an image to a thousand different destinations for free, what need is there for that cumbersome dinosaur?

In fact, 35mm film first brought photography to the masses, precisely because it was so user-friendly and so uncumbersome. George Eastman’s  desire to “to make the camera as convenient as the pencil” freed photography from its restrictions as a pastime for the rich or something to be left to the professionals. No longer was it necessary to hire porters to carry your camera up that mountain for a scenic shot; likewise you didn’t need a personal studio or dark room to take your family portraits.

Some would argue that that this is all very well: digital photography can do all the above and more. There are many photojournalists who would concur with this, and most have already converted to digital and carry their portable darkroom / telegram office (the laptop) with them while out on the frontlines. Advertising and fashion photography are also moving in the same direction: why take the risk with film (results you will not see until the next day) when you can show your client the finished product then and there?

As a keen amateur photographer, all this would logically tell me that I should also ditch my 35mm and join the revolution. Yet something holds me back.

I think that it’s precisely the convenience that puts me off. Digital photography is too easy. It’s too easy to erase the images you think you don’t like and then regret their absence from your life forever more; so often I find that the photographs I’m initially ambivalent about end up becoming my favourites.

I like the inconveniences tossed up by film – the dash to the developers and the first anxious glimpse. I like finding a forgotten roll of film at the bottom of my bag and being reminded of lost weekends and holidays. I like the piles of photographs lying in my room aching to be organised into albums; each time I sit down to the task I am transported back to a different time and place, and a memory of how I felt at that moment. I notice a different nuance, an expression, the shapes and colours in the background, the mistakes and double exposures and I get a thrill from looking at them in another way. The album might not get done but a hundred memories have been rekindled.

Digital photography is too efficient, too precise, too intangible. You are not confronted by stacks of prints cluttering up your home, or a solid photo album that can be pulled from shelves. Too often digital images and the memories imprinted within them remain buried in the depths of laptops and PC’s, forever to be lost in a maze of files and folders.

I have made a concession and bought a digital camera, but unlike Dixon’s I won’t be throwing away my 35mm just yet.

August 9, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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