“Two people posing as journalists tried to kill him, you won’t get access to him.” I’m sitting in a Sydney coffee shop with a Syrian contact. “Nobody knows anything about him.” I retort.
He slowly sips on his coffee, one of the many he’s had since I first proposed getting access to the leader of the Free Syrian Army. “OK, let me see what I can do.”
A few months later I am in Antakya, Turkey, interviewing the almost anonymous Colonel Riad al-Asaad. Reporting for SBS’s Dateline program, I have been granted rare access to him at a military camp where he is protected by Turkish security forces after several attempts on his life. The camp is meant to be strictly off limits to journalists.
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This week Twitter announced a shift toward censorship. The social media outlet, which was instrumental in the recent uprisings in the Middle East and for providing rare opportunities for open communication in parts of Asia and South America, will now consider blocking replies and banning users who don’t provide the site with sufficient personal information such as a picture, bio and even followers.
In a statement released by Twitter yesterday the company explained its decision was based on differing perspectives globally, ‘as we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression’.
However, this caused public uproar particularly by those from countries where governments don’t acknowledge rights to freedom of speech.
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Foreign Minister Bob Carr held a press conference yesterday and was peppered with questions on what we’re going to do about Syria.
Over 9,000 Syrian civilians had been killed in the uprising against tyrant Bashar Al-Assad. At least 108 people were killed in the recent Houla massacre, including 49 children and 34 women. Some killed by shell fire, the majority appear to have been shot or stabbed at close range.
But what about Schapelle Corby?
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As the Arab Spring continues its momentum throughout the Middle East engulfing Syria, and with it the hope of greater democracy, it’s also worth reflecting on the consequences such as the ancient Christian communities which are becoming a disappearing minority.
Syria’s Christians, represent no more than ten per cent of the country’s 22 million people, tracing their origins two millennia to the beginnings of the faith. Apostle Paul is said to have converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus, from which he went on to spread the religion across the Roman Empire.
Christianity has its origin in the Middle East from the fourth century. Covering communities speaking Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, and Arabic.
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In October 2010, Syria’s heavy-weight ambassador Tammam Sulaiman left Australia a disappointed man. He had failed to convince Australia to reopen our embassy in Damascus.
In 2008-10 Syrians were very anxious that Australia bolster its credibility building exercise with the United States. Just before the beginning of the Arab Spring, President Obama had very unwisely reopened an American diplomatic post in Syria.
Looking back it’s hard to re-imagine the Middle East before the successful revolutions against authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Then, the received wisdom in Western foreign policy circles was that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was a “man we could do business with”. Democrats would now be horrified to recall the prevailing view in Western chanceries that this “London” ophthalmologist and his glamorous wife (who subsequently appeared in Vogue magazine) was a closet democrat.
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When Vogue published its February 2011 profile on Asma Al-Assad, the English-born first lady of Syria, her husband’s totalitarian regime already had blood on its hands.
President Bashar al-Assad has ruled Syria since the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad. They are members of the Baath Party, Arab nationalists who have ruled Syria under “emergency law” since 1971. Under emergency law the government can arrest people without warning, launch police operations against suspicious citizens and jail them without trial.
Yet Vogue, the glossy bible of all things fabulous and fashionable turned a blind eye. Describing the regime as “not as secular as we might like” while salivating over Asma Al-Assad’s long-limbed and analytic beauty. A “desert rose” in the heart of Syria. It’s the safest country in the Middle East, they cooed.
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An Arab Spring first sprung late last year, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire to protest the humiliation heaped upon him by government officials.
Protests flared across Tunisia afterwards, toppling the local tinpot dictator and inspiring people in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and many other countries to take to the streets against their governments.
While there were several Big Moments from the Arab Spring this year - think the Egyptians occupying Tahrir Square and Hosni Mubarak finally giving in to protesters - the moment The Punch believes said the most about the promise, pitfalls and pragmatism of the Arab Spring was the ousting and killing of the “Mad Dog of the Middle East”, Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
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While the world is rightly celebrating the death of the tyrant Gaddafi today, here in the chicken coop the mood is more sombre. Across the world, millions of my fellow hens continue to be slaughtered daily in the name of another colonel.
These two colonels lived different lives, on different continents, in different eras. But the hens and I had a scratch around in the dirt today, and we came up with a few similarities. Begeeeeerrrrk!
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Sentenced to 90 lashes and a year in prison.
That’s was the verdict Marzieh Vafamehr received. Her crime? Acting in a film about an actress whose work is banned by Iranian authorities. No prizes for spotting the irony there.
Public whippings should outrage and anger us. Yet compared to a year in jail, these 90 lashings will most likely be the humane aspect of the sentence.
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So what are we to make of 2011, a year in which one has hardly been able to catch one’s breath in between momentous events (and it’s only just September!).
We have had major environmental disasters (the Queensland floods, the Christchurch earthquake, the Japan earthquake/tsunami), and the spectacular fall from grace of seemingly unassailable powerful men (such as Tunisia’s Zine el Abadine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Osama Bin Laden, IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn (even though rape charges were recently dropped), and Rupert Murdoch).
For the second time in a few years, the global economy teeters (including the first downgrade of the US’s sovereign debt status since 1917 and the very real possibility of the demise of the Eurozone). Anders Breivik wreaked havoc in a murderous rampage in Norway. We also have a new state in the form of South Sudan. There have also been flashbacks to unfortunate episodes of the 1980s, with a major (and ongoing and unresolved) nuclear emergency in Japan’s Fukushima recalling the Chernobyl disaster, famine in East Africa, and England’s recent riots recalling unrest under Thatcher, oh ... and on a nicer note, a Royal Wedding.
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