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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I am a journalist. It’s what I do, it’s what I am. That’s about to change.

I am a journalist. It’s what I do, it’s what I am. Probably the most defining thing of who you are is what you do. In my case, that has been linked to several things in the past decade, all converging into journalism. That’s about to change.

It’s difficult to change course. Yet sometimes you feel you have reached a wall and you need to go the other way. That’s not only how I feel now but also how I’ve felt for the last couple of years. It is the reason why I am embarking into this new career as a paramedic.

It’s really recent in my memory but this August marks the 10th anniversary of the date I consider my baptism into journalism. Back in 2004, ten years ago, still in my second year in college, I was fed up with no getting responses from anyone to work, not even as an intern –apparently it was a requisite to be in the final two years of your studies. So I said “fuck this” and did the same that many journalists before me had done: pack my bags, grab my camera and head into somewhere newsworthy: Palestine.

From that trip, I brought back my first published story, lots of photos, a broken camera (I blame Ben Gurion guards) and many friends, stories and contacts. Later would come Bosnia, Iraq, Syria or Egypt. In between, in order to pay the bills I had to work on anything I could. I tried to keep it related to communications, so I wouldn’t miss the train: business intelligence, corporate communications, analyst, blogger, social media consultancy gigs…

But the truth is that the freelance lifestyle never took off. I blame myself. Maybe it’s that I’m not good enough. Or it could be something else. I am a disaster as a commercial agent, have zero selling skills and although I enjoy getting into, and telling the story, the whole process of selling it was extremely tiring. I’m useless at it. In a market dominated by freelancers, that’s bad.

It didn’t help being in an industry that pays barely livable fares per job and where some people even expect you to work for nothing. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Without a decent pay, journalism mutates from the most beautiful job in the world to the most beautiful hobby in the world.

Neither did help that I probably never recovered from the psychological hit that was having to witness as a mere TV spectator, from New Zealand, the Arab Spring. The Middle East had been my specialty since even before I started and in their most defining moment I was trapped in the other side of the world. It was a huge blow, a hard pill to swallow. Sat in my apartment of Auckland, I think, I missed the train completely.

Despite it, I didn’t despair. I was decided to find my place. I tried then London, which paid decent wages and there was work. But it didn’t work. Somehow, something was missing. The photocalls with famous people didn’t fulfill me.

I got into journalism with the idea of contributing to create a better world, like many others. But unlike them, I have kept that goal since then. The reality, however, is that I can’t do much. For all the stories of bad border crossings that I have, I also have stories of people thanking me for being there, thinking that my camera or my pen will awake minds in Brussels or Washington to stop a genocide or help them combat an invisible foe.

That’s bullshit. We really can’t do shit.

I might get an article published on the tragedy of the Kurds, or a picture of a kid in the rubble in Gaza on the front page, but even if it’s seen or read or heard it’ll be forgotten under the latest Kardashian appearance or Ronaldo’s volley goal in the last game. You and everyone else will read it and go on with your life. And that’s ok. I get it. Only that those in the news departments shouldn’t think like that, but they do.

And then it’s when people I followed or I had met started to fall. It wasn’t the first time that it had happened. But somehow this time, and thanks to the effect of social media, it punched closer to me. It was different than reading of the deaths of the reporters of the past. These guys had given me tips, we had shared a beer or we had run together for cover.

Jim’s death last week is just the last straw of two years of being in a really uncomfortable place, wishing for the happy ending of a kidnap of a colleague or lamenting the death of others. Could have it been me instead of Ricard or Jim or Azem had I stayed in the course I was on until 2011? More than 270 journalists have died in the last two years alone.

All that for nothing. People in general don’t care about such boring things as politics and the deaths of others far away. Although many people approached me after Jim’s death to express their condolences, there’s one friend that after asking me “Who is that Jim?” and me explaining him everything, he just said: “Oh, ok; weird stuff”. Even worse, after Jim’s death I have had to see not only some media trying to make it into a circus but also conspiracy theorists insulting the memory of someone they never met for the sake of their stupid cause.

All that made me rethink my priorities. A lot has changed since I started. I have changed too. When I walked between the rubble in Nablus and met Yasser Arafat in Ramallah back in 2004, I was enjoying the single life. Now I have a stable relationship with a wonderful woman with whom I talk constantly about our future together. I think with two people (or more) in mind now, not just me. Considering that, is it fair for me to risk my life for a misery of a salary in a job that has almost no real repercussions empowering people?

I probably could keep doing it if it paid well. Or if it wasn’t so risky. Or if it was worth it and really helped people. But journalism today doesn’t click any of those boxes. Even worse, I think journalism is dying as we know it. A few selected ones will prevail while most will be forced to find greener pastures in other jobs. And don’t get me wrong, there’s a plethora of excellent journos that will survive; but I’m not in that group. Still, I could keep trying if my personal circumstances were different. But my priorities have shifted now.

This is why I’m starting a new career and trying to become a paramedic. It still has the stress, long hours and risk of journalism, even some of the ingratitude and impotence against certain situations. But it’s worthy, you help people and you have an immediate effect on their life. Especially that fact, that you do change the life of someone, you can literally save them. It also lets me go back to my girlfriend and a hypothetical future family every day after the shift. And it has a better future while being decently paid.

Yet I know I’ll never be able to leave journalism completely behind. It’s just a big part of me. I’ll come back to this blog and the Facebook page from time to time. This is a bittersweet failure, one that has made me the man I am today and that has given me so much, but at the same time one that has also led me to this situation. I regard in high esteem and appreciation the colleagues I’ve met that keep doing a great job against all odds and I hope they continue to do the job they are doing. They’ll find a way to make it matter, I am sure of that.

I do know that this new life as a paramedic will probably be a better fit for me in my present and future situation. To the despair of my girlfriend, I don’t rule out going back into a conflict zone or disaster area when I graduate, but this time in a humanitarian role, closer to the stories of those I listened to for ten years and, this time yes, being able of helping them in a direct way.

It’s been a great ride. But it’s time to change.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The straw that breaks the camel’s back

Hosni Mubarak's lawyer said today that his client could be free in less than 48 hours. It would be the last straw, the final step for a planned return to the old regime in Egypt, one that the coup that was not a coup started.

Since the Egyptians ousted the Egyptian president, that revolution has only gotten more and more diluted. As it has happened in other places, as in Syria, groups as diverse as Islamists and liberals remained together long enough to carry out their common goal. That wasn’t going to last long.

Once decapitated the old regime, each of the groups looked after their own interests. In their search for power, both allied with the only option left for them, which was none other than the old regime itself or what was left of it: the military.

The pic that put Facebook in flames
First was Morsi, who cleaned the army starting with Tantawi and placed general al-Sisi in front. Sisi was more prone to change and even close to the Muslim Brotherhood in matters of religion. However, as happened to Allende in Chile in '73, the general that Morsi considered an ally was the one who ultimately betrayed him.

Then came the turn of the Liberals. In their desire to oust Mubarak from power, in the second round of the last elections they were met with a hard choice between the old regime remnant and the Muslim Brotherhood. Finally, fed up of the latter’s government, in July they sided with the other band, the army, to oust Morsi.

Since July 3 when the army carried out the coup that wasn’t a coup, the Liberals were at the forefront defending the generals. They believed they were on their side. In a way, it was true: both sides wanted to overthrow Morsi, but the agenda of the army goes further than just that. While liberals wanted elections, the army wanted a return to the old regime.

Hence the return to the cult of personality with Sisi, the use of thugs to suppress demonstrations or the veiled threats to international and regional press, all slightly reminiscent of the Mubarak era. The release of the former Egyptian President would be the last piece of the puzzle.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken to the streets and violence was assured. They will fight. The army has fought back Morsi’s supporters and over 800 Islamists are already dead at the time of writing this, and rising. Add to this the Islamist violence exerted primarily against Egyptian Christians, destroying churches and Coptic businesses. The army didn’t protect all those places as it should have done it, and it might have not been on purpose, but now the Coptic community is forced to side with the army.

The military has not hesitated to use the –sometimes armed- resistance of Morsi supporters as propaganda against them. For now they are branded as terrorists and it is perfectly conceivable that Sisi will end up using it to outlaw the whole party.

What does the world think about this? Well, Egypt is not what it used to be. It is not the influencer it once was among Arab countries. All the Gulf countries’ but Qatar support Sisi’s government. In the global arena, the EU has protested the violent repression of demonstrations. The United States has canceled joint military exercises with Egypt but maintains the military aid, which is to say that it has canceled the brunch but dinner still stands.

Curiously, the only other country in the area that receives massive amounts of U.S. military aid is also the only one who has supported the military coup in Egypt. Israel is not interested in a democratic country in the Nile delta, but a strong army to do what they are doing now: fight the Islamists in the Sinai and suffocate Hamas in Gaza.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Dr. Obama & Mr. Hyde

Normally during their second term U.S. presidents reveal their true ambitions. Without the pressure of having to win a re-election at the end of the term, they have their hands free to implement all those unpopular policies that in their first term would have been suicidal but that are the ones that forge a presidential legacy.

For Obama, it was going to be hard to accomplish more than in the first four years. Obamacare and the closing chapter of Osama Bin Laden were a hard act to follow. All this, however, has gone out of the window. His legacy might be rather murky in the end.

Picture: Obama's twitter
The revelation of secrets involving the US government spying its own citizens has dented the image of the country both abroad -and this is the novelty- and within the US. Foreigners were already suspicious; Americans are now on board that train too. All this has made Obama into a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

It is remarkable to see the different opinions that held candidate Obama and President Obama. Several online videos illustrate how both Obamas could have perfectly had a debate with completely opposing views. As an example, take this video. There is another one that puts Obama to debate with Biden.

The truth is that the US President has promoted laws to protect those who leak information to the press. But at the same time, he has ensured that no one can do it without being considered a traitor. To get an idea, it would be like legalizing the use of hands to play soccer while banning at the same time touching the ball at all. And while Obama is defending the whistleblowers that are working towards building up the freedoms of citizens, his team also removed from the memory of his electoral program the mentions to all promises working on that line.

Obama's speech isn’t contradictory only when talking about whistleblowers. Take the global war on terrorism, for example. Obama has put a deadline on the military intervention in Afghanistan and he has decided that the conflict is over, just to have the Pentagon saying straight after that it actually will be around for 10 or 20 years more -which is like saying that it will never end.

That’s without mentioning other flops like Guantanamo, still there. Or the policy of use for drones, whose operations have grown exponentially since Obama is in the White House. There even have been ad-hoc laws created to legalize the targeted killing of Americans who belong to "associated forces" of Al-Qaeda, which in practice is a blank check to blast out anyone anywhere.

But undoubtedly the cases of Manning and Snowden are the ones that seem to have started the ball rolling at home. Manning has been held incommunicado for weeks, months, years, without knowing his future. Today he finally knew it: he will be considered a snitch, not a traitor. The saga is not over yet. There are 20 more charges that could lead to a more than 120 years sentence.

For Snowden it is more poignant. The journalist who he leaked the information to is facing already voices calling for his prosecution and a smear campaign. It’s a declaration of intentions and a warning to the press in general. It effectively coerces journalists who might land in the future on leaked information. They know what they must adhere to. Snowden, meanwhile, lives in an airport at the moment and probably he will never again have a normal life.

But neither will American citizens -or the rest of the world. Giants like Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook have been involved in a case that threatens something Americans defend to death: privacy.

Snowden’s support among American citizens is far greater than the one for Manning, basically because this time Americans rights are the ones that got violated; not some foreign people’s. PRISM has done far more damage to the Obama administration that the supposed dangers it was trying to protect them from.

Obama might be remembered as the president who killed bin Laden. Or the one who won a Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps as the one who created the basics of an egalitarian health system or the one who rescued the car industry. But he also might be remembered as the tyrant who spied, tortured and killed other Americans. And there isn’t any Nobel Peace Prize capable of cleaning that.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A (pacified?) Iraq

Who said that Iraq was pacified? This week, a massive jailbreak in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison has freed more than 500 prisoners, many of them from Al Qaeda in Iraq. The word massive falls short to describe an operation that dwarfs others attempted by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The confusion in the Iraqi government has been massive too. They knew that something was coming to get them. Every year during the Ramadan month, terrorist attacks increase. That reminds me of the modus operandi of ETA, which used to carry out attacks on weekends and holidays.

Returning to the subject, I was saying that the Iraqi government suspected something was brewing. They weren’t sure what exactly but just in case, they had prepared a special police operation to deal with the unexpected.

Well, it didn’t work. According to the latest information available, some of the guards of the prison itself helped the prisoners to escape. In fact, Iraqi officials are talking of an inside job that has released many of the leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq, including some who were arrested by U.S. troops.

But if it had been just a matter of a mass jailbreak –just a huge escape after all- it would not be so worrying. Worrying, but not as worrying as the other stuff going on in Iraq. The really serious problem is that the death toll continues to rise. So much for a country that is supposed to be stable.
It was too much to ask for that for once Iraq enjoyed a peaceful Ramadan. So far in July, 450 people have died in a country that is accustomed to high numbers of deaths on a daily basis. Last Saturday, in one day alone, 80 people were killed in various attacks around the country.

To get an idea of the bigger picture, in 2011 there were 4,147 deaths related to terrorist violence in Iraq. In 2012 the figure rose to 4,573. So far in 2013 (excluding July), the death toll stands at 3,175. If the progression continues, it could reach 5,000 dead in this year. Moreover, since 2003, there has not been a single month that had less than 200 violent deaths. Since 2011, the average is 450 deaths a month. Too many for a (supposedly) pacified country.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Smugglers of the Middle East

The borders of the Middle East and the Sahara have always been an excellent breeding ground for smuggling. Dozens of times, crossing from one country to another, I have seen myself how cigarettes, alcohol or even toilet paper was carried mixed among the luggage of tourists and backpackers.

Conflicts in the region have made these borders even more porous. Many people are benefiting from the lack of control on either side of the border to increase smuggling of all kinds of goods, objects or even people.

In the Sahara, the growing influence of al-Qaeda (notable for using the drug trade to finance itself) has increased smuggling in places like Algeria and Mali. People who smuggled cigarettes before have been attracted by the easy money in drugs and now carry cocaine. It comes from South America to Africa through the parallel 10 (Highway 10) and across the desert into Europe.

Further east, the story is somehow similar, but the trade changes. According to an AP report for Al Jazeera, weapons, humanitarian aid, including fuel, and medicine enter Syria via Turkey on a daily basis. In the other direction go vegetables, flour, tea, iron and wood from houses destroyed by missile and rocket attacks and even live animals such as cows or sheeps.

The long-time porous border between Lebanon and Syria is more of the same. For the Lebanese, the traditional tobacco smuggling has given way to a far more deadly trade: weapons. The UN, through its Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, has expressed concern that this smuggling will end destabilizing Lebanon itself.

One of the reasons for the American doubts to support the rebels is that their weapons could end up in the hands of Islamists. There are also questions raised about what might happen to the chemical weapons arsenal if the Assad regime is toppled.

The matter concerns enough to Israel, which fears that orphaned Assad’s weapons will end up as part of a service arsenal for the highest bidder. A few weeks ago Israeli warplanes bombed an alleged Syrian arms shipment to Hezbollah, in Syrian soil but from Lebanese airspace.

Tunnel in Gaza
The counterpart to the benefit of a few for smuggling is that commodities’ prices have skyrocketed for the rest, even for basic items. While Syrian fuel and flour cross the border to make a profit in Turkey, Aleppo bakeries can not make bread.

The same goes for other food like tomatoes, which have seen their price more than doubled since the war began. Also sheperds try to get rid of their herds before a bomb wills kill the animals. This explains the smuggling of live animals, but also the exorbitant price of meat inside Syria.

But if there is a Middle Eastern place that has taken years perfecting smuggling that is the Gaza Strip. The famous tunnels under the border with Egypt have provided the population a way of life and survival during the hardest years. Now, with the change of government in Egypt, are still used but less and less.

However, The Telegraph recently speculated with the possibility of reviving a smuggling route from Iran to Gaza via Sudan, intended primarily to provide weapons to Hamas.

It would not be the first time that the Iranians try, and it would not be the first time that Israel invades foreign airspace to avoid it. Israel attacked in the Sudanese capital several convoys that, according to Tel Aviv, were carrying weapons destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

However, perhaps the most striking act of smuggling in recent months has been a completely different one. It has to do not with weapons, food nor medicine. It is all about a much more primary element of human nature: obtain offspring.

For Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, having children is out of reach. No right to conjugal private meetings means it is impossible to start a family. So they are increasingly resorting to an ingenious method, sperm smuggling.

Are you afraid? Well, this works in that way. First you do what scares you and it's later when you get the courage
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