The Best Human Rights Journalism of 2016
For the Best Human Rights Journalism of 2015, see here.
This list comprises 120 articles about 37 different countries, territories and regions of the world. They are the work of hundreds of journalists, photographers and videographers and were published by 31 different media organizations.
They reflect a wide range of human rights issues, including accountability and impunity, child soldiers, children’s rights, corruption, the death penalty, democracy and democratic transition, dictatorship and authoritarianism, discrimination, enforced disappearance, education rights, environmental and land rights, extrajudicial detention and killings, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of expression, genocide, Guantánamo, gun violence, human rights defenders, labor rights, lawyers’ rights, migrant rights, minority rights, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, peace, police brutality and abuses by security forces, press freedom, prisoners’ rights, racism, refugees, religious freedom, rights of disabled people, right to privacy and surveillance, segregation, self-determination, slavery and human trafficking, torture, victims’ rights, voting rights, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and women’s rights.
The list is divided into the following categories: Best of the Best, Asia, Caribbean, China, Europe, India and South Asia, Latin America, Russia, Turkey, United States, Global, Opinion, Interviews, Human Rights and the Arts and Culture, Photography, and Videos.
Best of the Best
“Can a French friar end the 21st-century slave trade?”, William Langewiesche, Vanity Fair, January 2016 (published online November 29, 2015)
The story’s got something old-style about it — the righteous (and also effective) moral crusader on a mission. It focuses on a name new to me, Xavier Plassat, a French Dominican friar, who’s worked for years to eradicate working conditions tantamount to slavery in the Brazilian Amazon. This is set in the wider context of the phenomenon of slavery in the twenty-first century, with over 20 million people around the world living in slavery, more than in the time of trans-Atlantic slave trade. Of course, slavery works differently today from back then- it’s not legal and not called “slavery”, which in many ways makes it more insidious and difficult to eradicate. This article shows how and why.
“My four months as a private prison guard”, Shane Bauer, Mother Jones, July/August 2016 issue
Mother Jones editor Monika Bauerlein uses this article as Exhibit A in her commentary, “This is what’s missing from journalism today”, in which she also mentioned the resources that went into the 35,000-word piece, which includes “charts, graphs, and companion pieces, not to mention six videos and a radio documentary”: roughly US$350,000 and many months of a reporter working full time on a single piece, and Mother Jones is no media behemoth. The piece, divided in six parts, gets at the nexus of some of the most pressing rights issues in the US, including workers’ rights (the guards are treated poorly), prisoners’ rights, mass incarceration, and the role of huge private corporations in running what’s been called the US prison industrial complex as well as “run-of-the-mill” abuses like assault, torture, and denial of adequate and timely medical care. This is the best year I can remember for a wide range of journalism covering various aspects of injustices related to the US mass incarceration system, several articles of which you’ll see elsewhere on this list. Perhaps they (and “Orange is the New Black”) contributed to President Obama’s decision to stop contracting with private corporations to run federal prisons. It began to look like the heyday of private prisons might be over (and their stock was down)… until Trump was elected.
“Inside the fight to reveal the CIA’s torture secrets”, Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian, 9, 10 and 11 September 2016
Billed as “one man’s fight to reveal the CIA’s torture secrets”, it lives up to the billing, focusing on the efforts of Daniel Jones, the chief investigator of the CIA for the Senate intelligence committee. If you want to know how in a supposedly free, democratic society, a government supposedly accountable to the people can get away with torture and then covering up, even though one arm of the government is trying to bring it to light, this is the report to read. That the CIA and their bosses, the Bush administration, have been able to get away with it so far shows the murky power of the state security and intelligence apparatus in the US. The investigation was tortuously complicated, with all sorts of obstacles put in its way, and if you’re like me, you’ll come away outraged at official intransigence. Of course, part of the problem is there’s been virtually no effort by the Obama administration to bring perpetrators to book or the truth to light. Divided into three parts, on the crisis spurred by the Senate intelligence committee investigation into CIA torture, the constitutional crisis caused by the CIA’s spying on its Senate overseers, and the CIA attack on the eventually published findings, this is simply great and necessary journalism.
“In India, a Small Band of Women Risk It All for a Chance to Work”, Ellen Barry, photographs by Andrea Bruce, New York Times, January 30
“Young Rural Women in India Chase Big-City Dreams”, Ellen Barry, New York Times, September 24
Ellen Barry wrote two extraordinary stories about impediments to rural women in India joining the formal workforce. Of 189 countries studied by the International Labour Organization, India ranks 17th from the bottom in terms of women’s employment. These articles humanize that statistic. The first is about women near Meerut who are ostracized by their caste for continuing to work in defiance of the orders of the caste’s men.
The second is about young women from Odisha going to work in Bangalore, in spite of their families’ ambivalence. It focuses on the women’s experience: “When you start working, your heart opens up,” one says. “Then you’re not scared anymore.” It reminds of Leslie Chang’s book, Factory Girls, set in China, with the difference that the families in rural India are much more reluctant to allow their daughter to leave the village and go to the city for work. Both articles are the result of months of work. The first was accompanied by this behind-the-scenes report, ‘We Will Not Apologize’: Chronicling the Defiant Women of India”. On top of that, Barry reported on aboriginal rights (“Baby’s killing tests India’s protection of an aboriginal culture”, Ellen Barry and Hari Kumar, New York Times, March 13) and the Indian army’s brutal repression of largely nonviolent demonstrations in Kashmir (“Pellet guns used in Kashmir protests cause ‘dead eyes’ epidemic”, Ellen Barry, New York Times, August 28).
“How Snowden Escaped”, Theresa Tedesco, National Post
Once this report came out, lots of other publications jumped on the bandwagon, but this was the first and the best. It’s easy to forget that while Edward Snowden was in Hong Kong, he was an asylum seeker, and one of his lawyers there, Robert Tibbo, who represents other asylum seekers in HK, decided to hide him with three asylum-seeking families. So you had people who had lost their homes due to political persecution offering their very humble shelters to him. Among other things, the article shows the terrible situation of asylum seekers in HK, who live essentially in perpetual limbo. The same could be said for Snowden now, though in Russia rather than HK.
“Where the Death Penalty Still Lives”, Emily Bazelon, New York Times, August 23
The death penalty isn’t necessarily a hot topic in the news these days. It’s seen as thankfully on its way out except in the few places where it tenaciously hang on. The US is one of those places, but actually, it is relatively few places in the US that actively seek death sentences, and this article looks closely at them. It’s the best article on the death penalty anywhere that I can recall reading in a long time. Regardless of whether or not you think it’s right to judicially murder someone, this article shows just how inherently unfair the death penalty in the US is because it largely depends on the luck of the draw. As one person in the article put it, “The people who get the death penalty tend to live in places with overaggressive prosecutors and defense lawyers who aren’t up to the task of defending against them — that’s a double whammy.” The piece does a marvelous job of not only portraying the issues but also the people and lives affected by death penalty cases.
“Fractured lands: how the Arab world came apart”, Scott Anderson, photos by Paolo Pellegrin, New York Times, August
The scope and ambition of this long, wide-ranging piece is more on the scale of a book than a magazine article, as it essentially attempts to explain how the Middle East came to where it is today, starting out with the origins of the states there and then going forward to the invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring, its dystopian dissolution most places, the rise of ISIS, and the migrant crisis.
This might sound more like political science or history than human rights, but Anderson’s method for tying it all together is to look at this history through the eyes of six very different individuals from different places in the region. Three of those six are explicit human rights and freedom activists. One of them is an ISIS recruit.
Their perspective shows the human rights impacts of the recent turbulent history as well as their attempts to address the human rights abuses they see around them. If anything, what emerges is the great difficulty of establishing systems and cultures of democracy and human rights in a region with such a long history of imperialism, dictatorship and political stagnation. The result of a 16-month project.
“Tunisia in Sun and Shadow: A Democracy Lab Special Report”, Foreign Policy, August 7 (Most of the articles are by Asma Ghribi and Fadil Aliriza, with one each by Christian Caryl, Karina Piser and Ilya Lozovsky and C.K. Hickey)
Fourteen articles grouped together to show the promise and challenges of the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring as a relatively well-functioning democracy: profiles of individuals, commentaries, a timeline, and articles on Islamism (including Ennahda’s entry into the democratic mainstream), minorities, the tourism crash, local governance, environmental pollution, domestic violence, culture, smuggling and terrorism. Overall, this package presents a vivid portrait of a society in transition. In addition to it, Karina Piser wrote another great piece for Foreign Policy earlier in the year, “How Tunisia’s Islamists Embraced Democracy”.
“Between Identity and Integration: The Uighur Diaspora in the West”, Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service; English by Joshua Lipes, Radio Free Asia
This extraordinary project documents the Uighur migration to Central Asia and then to the West in the wake of the imposition of Chinese Communist rule in Xinjiang. It shows that the exiles have been instrumental in the establishment of Uighur national identity, which more than ever pervades the Uighur communities who live under Chinese Communist rule. It complements well an extraordinary book that came out this year, Uyghur Nation by David Brophy, which focuses on the development of Uighur national identity between Russia and China in the earlier part of the twentieth century.
“The Most Successful Female Everest Climber of All Time Is a Housekeeper in Hartford, Connecticut”,Grayson Schaffer, Outside, May 10
Appearing in an outdoor magazine, this article was hardly intended to focus first and foremost on human rights, but the story of Lhakpa Sherpa brings out many rights issues in regard to gender, culture, migration, labor, and domestic violence. The article really struck a chord with me, evoking both empathy and admiration for the courage, toughness and willpower of its subject who time and again has persevered against great odds.
“Myanmar’s moment of truth”, Nick Davies, The Guardian, 9 March
Burma was one of the big democracy success stories of 2015 after the elections brought Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD to power. Here, Davies looks for the signs to see whether Burma’s following through, and in particular, whether or not democratic forces will manage to keep the military out of politics. He does this by focusing on a double murder suspected to have been perpetrated by soldiers who the military appears determined to protect.
“The Killing Time: Inside Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs”, Rishi Iyengar, Time, August 25
Duterte’s election victory (to be sure, with only 39% of the vote) excited more international attention than just about any other story coming out of the Philippines for some time and is yet another disturbing sign of the rise of strongman/authoritarian politics from Turkey to the US and many places in between. Signficant attention has been drawn to whether or not Duterte would live up to his campaign threat of a violent war on, supposedly, drugs. This is one of the most comprehensive and well-proportioned articles tracking that, not least of all because it sets it in the context of Philippines history and compares the country to others to show that, relatively speaking, there is really no drug or crime epidemic there at all, at least not of the cataclysmic proportions proclaimed by Duterte. See below for an excellent photo essay that brings home the human impact of the many killings related to the crackdown.
“An epic battle between feminism and deep-seated misogyny is under way in South Korea”, Isabella Steger, Quartz, October 23
I wish there were more reporting like this on the women’s movements in other countries. As such, this is an excellent template of the sort of journalism we need more of. In many parts of the world, struggles for women’s rights are amongst the more dynamic and effective. It will be a promising area for years to come, but it’s under-covered in the media. In many respects, countries in East Asia like South Korea and Japan are stable, prosperous democracies, but when it comes to gender equality, they’ve got a long way to go. This article gives great insight into why, starting with a shockingly misogynistic magazine cover and the movement that grew up in reaction to it.
“In Exile: People of Haitian Descent in the Dominican Republic”, Jonathan M. Katz, photographs and video by Patrick Witty, New York Times, January 13
The lead says it all: “Deportations and violence have driven tens of thousands of people of Haitian descent from their homes in
the Dominican Republic — while the world is silent.” The world is silent partly because the issue is seriously under-reported, a problem addressed in this superb report, much of which focuses on the Parc Cadeau camps in Haiti where thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent have fled due to attacks on them and threats of deportation in the Dominican Republic. This is an issue with a very troubled history, and a great report on issues of discrimination, xenophobia, violence against minorities and displacement.
China (includes articles about the disputed territories of Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang)
“Holding the fate of families in its hands, China controls refugees abroad”, Paul Mooney and David Lague, Reuters, December 30, 2015
“China co-opts a Buddhist sect in global effort to smear Dalai Lama”, David Lague, Paul Mooney and Benjamin Kang Lim, , Reuters, December 21, 2015
These two articles came out at the end of 2015 as part of Reuters’ excellent series about China’s attempts to exert greater influence abroad. The first is about China infiltrating and intimidating Uighur exile communities. This is a phenomenon I have experienced first-hand in the case of Tibetans. Families in places under Chinese control are essentially used as hostages to exert influence on loved ones abroad. The second is about the clandestine support the shadowy anti-Dalai Lama Dorje Shugden group received from the Chinese Communist Party. The report had the effect of pretty much putting an end to the group, which announced in March it was disbanding.
“The day Zhao Wei disappeared: how a young law graduate was caught in China’s human rights dragnet”, Tom Phillips, The Guardian, 25 January
“‘I want to rescue my dad’: children’s heartbreak for the lawyers China has taken away”, Tom Phillips, The Guardian, 9 June
“The disappeared: faces of human rights activists China wants to silence”, Tom Philipps, The Guardian, 9 June
“Shanshan’s Year: Anguish of jailed lawyers’ families laid bare in Chinese film”, Tom Phillips, The Guardian, 7 July
Especially during the first part of 2016, Tom Phillips was simply hitting it out of the park. I don’t know quite how he managed to produce so many pieces of such high quality. In addition to the four listed above, he also wrote excellent pieces on the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, on young reporters being driven from journalism due to the government’s ever-tightening media controls, the persecution of He Xiaobo as part of another crackdown, this on labor activists, and the crackdown on academics and intellectuals which is driving many abroad. But to me, the four pieces above related to the rights lawyers crackdown stand out. They highlight the effects of their persecution and detention on their families. Because she was a relatively low-level legal assistant, Zhao Wei’s detention hadn’t received a lot of media coverage when Phillips reported on it. Later, when she was fake-released to an undisclosed location and then suspicious statements appeared in her name denouncing others rounded up in the crackdown, she came to greater attention.
Phillips wasn’t the only China journalist to provide excellent coverage of the crackdown on rights lawyers. Sometimes, without collaborating, journalists collectively do an outstanding job on a particular issue. Last year, in the case of China, it was the detention of the Feminist Five and the crackdown on rights lawyers. This year they outdid themselves with articles on the first anniversary of the start of crackdown. This was, in a way, even more impressive since, strictly speaking, there was little “news” — those snared in the crackdown’s net were still locked up or being prosecuted. But the very fact that the crackdown was on-going was important, and the journalists still found different angles to cover an issue which is a litmus test for the direction China is going. Below are three of the best.
“Reluctant human rights defenders: The wives of those detained in China’s lawyer crackdown”, Catherine Lai, Hong Kong Free Press, 9 July
“China crackdown on lawyers, year on, exacts toll on families”, Gerry Shih, Associated Press, July 8
“The ‘709’ Incident’: some testimony from the human rights lawyer community”, Eva Pils, China Change, July 8
“China Convicts Almost Everyone It Accuses: One Group Is Fighting Back”, Te-Ping Chen, Wall Street Journal, July 1
0.08 percent of defendants in China are found not guilty. In 2012, China passed a law banning from trial any confession or evidence extracted by torture. A group of relatively low-key lawyers founded the Innocence Project of China to fight wrongful convictions and test the extent to which the government was serious about the reform. This is their story and that of Chen Man, one of the few whose wrongful conviction has been reversed.
“China’s New Tool for Social Control: A Credit Rating for Everything”, Josh Chin and Gillian Wong, Wall Street Journal, November 28
“The national social-credit system’s aim, according to a slogan repeated in planning documents, is to ‘allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.’” Is that creepy, or what? The system’s been under development for some time, but exactly what’s going on has been murky, and this is the best report yet on the topic. “Orwellian” doesn’t even begin to describe it. The Chinese government is still testing it out in various localities but hopes to go nationwide with it eventually. Could this be the new dark world before us?
“A woman’s gruesome hanging shocked Tibet — but police have silenced all questions”, Simon Denyer, Washington Post, August 26
Tsering Tso died under suspicious circumstances. When villagers demanded answers from the police, hundreds of armed soldiers descended on her funeral and beat dozens of them. The story reads like a parable of what life is like for Tibetans under Chinese rule. It had actually been previously reported by International Campaign for Tibet, but usually reporters aren’t able to go to these remote and forbidden areas to verify such reports. Denyer did, and this is the result.
“China Takes a Chain Saw to a Center of Tibetan Buddhism”, Edward Wong, New York Times, November 28
RFA and Tibet organizations had run regular reports on the demolitions and evictions of thousands at Larung Gar Buddhist Academy, but due to a prohibition against reporters entering the area, virtually nothing had appeared in mainstream media until this article by Edward Wong, who’d managed to sneak in. Most of the report is not based on his presence there, but this is still a very well-constructed article that fully presents the issues and context of the demolitions. I’d been following the matter closely but still learned something new from it (about the heirs to the founder of Larung Gar and the social activism of some of the monks elsewhere in Tibetan areas).
“The curious tale of five missing publishers in Hong Kong”, Vivienne Zeng, Hong Kong Free Press, 8 January
China’s abduction of Gui Minhai in Thailand and Lee Bo in Hong Kong, plus its secret detention of three other related booksellers got a lot of international attention, but this piece by Vivienne Zeng shortly after Lee Bo’s December 2015 kidnapping is one of the best for putting all the pieces together and presenting them in a coherent narrative. The reality that the Chinese government can abduct people off the streets of Hong Kong and spirit them to the mainland with impunity sent a chill through the population.
“Xinjiang Seethes Under Chinese Crackdown”, Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, January 2
An excellent overview of the oppression under which Uighurs live based on a trip through Xinjiang. “Families sundered by a wave of detentions. Mosques barred from broadcasting the call to prayer. Restrictions on the movements of laborers that have wreaked havoc on local agriculture. And a battery of ever more intrusive ways to monitor the communications of citizens for possible threats to public security.” The region seethes with fear and resentment. As one Uighur student put it, “We’re all terror suspects now.”
“The Easter Rising 100 years on”, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Kevin Barry, Michael Longley, Joseph O’Neill, Sebastian Barry, Claire Kilroy, Glenn Patterson, Paul Murray, The Guardian, 26 March
The Guardian has this wonderful capacity to bring together the most eloquent, reflective voices of a continent to speak on a certain issue. Here, it’s Irish writers on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising; see below for European writers on Brexit. The Irish self-determination struggle was one of the major ones of the twentieth century and its relevance (in Hong Kong, for instance) still resonates today. These meditations make it clear just how messy and unclear things seemed at the time, how an “uprising” that was in some respects really a big mess and failure turned out to be a major turning point in the self-determination struggle, and how mixed its legacy and interpretation are even today.
“Is this the world’s most radical mayor? Ada Colau of Barcelona”, Dan Hancox, The Guardian, 26 May
Ada Colau’s mayoral victory in 2015 was inspiring to many proponents of local democracy around the world. Colau’s group, Barcelona en Comú, was only ten months old when it took power from a political caste that had run Barcelona for four decades.This is the story of how they did it and what they intend to do with their power. In an era in which politics at the national level appear to be ever more controlled by anti-democratic forces, whether of unaccountable capital or reactionary ideology, many see local, grassroots politics as an area of democratic hope. Barcelona en Comú has published a guide to “how to take back the city”, which it hopes will be useful to grassroots democratic forces elsewhere.
“Reforming Ukraine after the Revolutions”, Joshua Yaffa, New Yorker, September 5
So, how’s it going in Ukraine? With all else happening in the world, there hasn’t been much media attention to that question, but it’s globally important, as in terms of democracy, Ukraine is a swing country. Even in terms of the limited coverage of Ukraine, democratic progress takes a backseat to Russian interference. This is a great story about two ex-journalists turned politicians and their crusade to reform Ukraine’s traditionally corrupt politics. Reading it, I sense they haven’t much of a chance of succeeding, but I’m rooting for them.
There were several excellent pieces on Brexit. Below are four that especially stood out, two because they were crowd-sourced and represented a wide range of perspectives eloquently articulate, all four because they investigate the implications for democracy in the UK and beyond.
“Ahead of the European referendum, we asked leading authors and thinkers from EU countries to write letters to Britain. Do they want us to stay, or are they ready to say goodbye?”
“Brexit: a disaster decades in the making”, Gary Younge, The Guardian, 30 June
After the result, there were quite a few stories that attempted to explain it. Younge’s was one of the most incisive and bears resemblance to his similarly trenchant analysis (see below) of the results of the US elections some months later.
“Where are we now? Reflections on the referendum”, David Runciman, Neal Ascherson, James Butler, T.J. Clark, Jonathan Coe, Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, Daniel Finn, Dawn Foster, Jeremy Harding, Colin Kidd, Ross McKibbin, Philippe Marlière, James Meek, Pankaj Mishra, Jan-Werner Müller, Susan Pedersen, J.G.A. Pocock, Nick Richardson, Nicholas Spice, Wolfgang Streeck, Daniel Trilling, London Review of Books, July 14
Excellent series of reflections. I especially appreciated Mishra’s, Runciman’s and Marlière’s.
“Fences: A Brexit Diary”, Zadie Smith, New York Review of Books, August 18
Smith goes back to where she comes from to try to figure it out, focusing on the gaps and rifts between London and the rest of the country, the incomprehension of the cultural and intellectual elites, and the history of disparaging the poor for “voting against their own best interests”.
India and South Asia
I knew something was going on in Kashmir this summer, but if you just relied on the international media to find out, it was a bit hard to get to the bottom of it. When I came across these two excellent reports in October and November, I felt I’d finally begun to understand it. The treatment of Kashmiris by the Indian state is a human rights catastrophe that has gone on for decades without nearly enough international attention.
“The Iron Cage: Why the Indian state is failing in Kashmir”, Praveen Donthi, Caravan, 1 October
“India’s crackdown in Kashmir: Is this the world’s first mass blinding?”, Mirza Waheed, The Guardian, 8 November
From Waheed’s report:
“Since July, when the killing of a young militant leader sparked a furious civilian uprising across the Kashmir valley, the Indian state has responded with singular ruthlessness, killing more than 90 people. Most shocking of all has been the breaking up of demonstrations with “non-lethal” pellet ammunition, which has blinded hundreds of Kashmiri civilians.
“In four months, 17,000 adults and children have been injured, nearly five thousand have been arrested, and an entire population spent the summer under the longest curfew in the history of curfews in Kashmir.
“Some estimates put the number of people killed since 1989 at 70,000. Some 8,000 non-combatants are thought to have been disappeared, and 6,000 are believed to have been buried in mass graves.”
“The Imperilled Bloggers of Bangladesh”, Joshua Hammer, New York Times, December 29, 2015
As the lead says, “In support of gender equality, human rights and civil liberties, a group of bloggers is doing battle with Islamists online — and paying dearly for it.” In terms of the struggle for democracy and human rights, Bangladesh is a very interesting place: full of promise and facing significant challenges. This article looks in-depth at one of them.
“Bhutan’s children get their own parliament”, Neha Tara Mehta, Al-Jazeera, 8 January
Bhutan is one of the few places where democracy’s been imposed from above, to be exact, by the king. This article is about an attempt to cultivate a culture of democracy amongst young people. With a children’s parliament and school democracy clubs, the country’s doing what far more should in their educational systems to inculcate practical knowledge and values of democracy.
“The Death of Berta Cáceres”, Jonathan Blitzer, New Yorker, March 11
One of the human rights tragedies of the year was the murder of Honduran environmental and land rights campaigner Berta Cáceres. This was the best report on it in English, providing ample context to understand why she was at threat and the forces she was up against. Blitzer wrote a follow-up report a month later, “No Answers in the Murder of Berta Cáceres”. Eventually, five were arrested for her murder, including an army officer and the head of security of the dam company she was protesting against. But many suspect these are the low-level killers, not those behind the plot, and now, an international investigation has been launched. Amazingly, since her murder, five more activists have been killed, bringing the overall number murdered since 2010 to a whopping 120. The Guardian should be commended for its tenacious follow-up reporting.
“How to hack an election”, Jordan Robertson, Michael Riley, Andrew Willis, Bloomberg, March 31
As the lead puts it, “Andrés Sepúlveda rigged elections throughout Latin America for almost a decade. He tells his story for the first time.” This is one of those hard-to-believe stories that goes some way toward understanding the multiple challenges democracy faces, not just in Latin America but many other places. While Sepúlveda is currently in prison in Colombia, none of those he worked with in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela are.
“Brazil Is Engulfed by Ruling Class Corruption — and a Dangerous Subversion of Democracy”, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Fishman, David Miranda, The Intercept, 18 March
This is one of those great “explainer” stories that help to make sense of murky events far away. It also stand up to the test of explaining subsequent developments. It basically answers the question of why the impeachment of Dilma, rather than a victory for democracy in Brazil, was just the opposite. Previous to this article, The Intercept hadn’t done much reporting on Brazil. But its reporting met such a positive response that it’s since launched a Portuguese-language site reporting on Brazil and stepped up its English-language reporting, making it probably the best go-to for info in English on political developments in this country very important for the development of democracy in the region and globally.
“Colombia: What Happened to Peace?”, Alma Guillermoprieto, New York Review of Books, October 4
This, like the article above, is a great explainer: Why was the peace agreement rejected in the referendum? Read this to find out. Subsequently, Santos and FARC turned around and signed another agreement. This time, Santos was taking no chances with a referendum and managed to get the Colombian congress to approve it, ending the world’s longest-running armed conflict, all before he goes to Oslo to collect his Nobel Peace Prize.
“A Former Girl Soldier in Colombia Finds ‘Life Is Hard’ as a Civilian”, Nicholas Casey, New York Times, April 27
Great article about Mélida and others who fought for FARC, often having been forcibly conscripted, as children and are now being demobilized as part of the peace process in Colombia.
“The Missing Forty-Three: The Mexican Government Sabotages Its Own Independent Investigation”, Francisco Goldman, New Yorker, April 22
This continues Goldman’s excellent coverage of the scandalous case of the missing 43 students from Ayotzinapa Normal School in Mexico, earning him a Best of the Best on last year’s list for his eight articles dating back to September 2014.
“Two Years After a Night of Horror, Mexican Students Seek Answers”, Kirk Semple and Paulina Villegas, New York Times, September 26
Another excellent piece looking back on the disappearances of 43 students from Ayotzinapa Normal School in Mexico, this profiles three survivors. Manuel Vázquez Arellano escaped unharmed and is now an activist. Edgar Andrés Vargas was shot in the face and has had six surgeries. Aldo Gutiérrez Solano has been in a coma since a bullet pierced his brain.
Middle East and North Africa
“The Assad Files”, Ben Taub, New Yorker, April 18
Profile of the work of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability in smuggling top-secret Syrian government documents linking the regime to mass torture and killings out of the country. Julian Borger did a similar piece last year (on Best of the Best list for 2015). Taub’s details the background of the ICJA, providing an able history of how the current situation in Syria evolved and how some of those responsible for getting the upwards of 600,000 documents out of the country in the past four years got involved. The ICJA has now produced a 400-hundred-page legal brief linking Assad to “systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians” which can be used in eventual international prosecutions, which aren’t forthcoming at the moment due to Russia and Syria blocking referral by the UN Security Council of Syria for war crimes to the ICC. There are now an estimated half a million dead and five million refugees due to the war.
“Who murdered Giulio Regeni?”, Alexander Stille, The Guardian, 4 October
Regeni was an Italian academic murdered in Cairo in February. As the lead says, “Egyptian police claimed he had been hit by a car. Then they said he was the victim of a robbery. Then they blamed a conspiracy against Egypt.” There may very well have been a connection between Regeni’s murder and the regime’s crackdown on any form of dissent around the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Tahrir Square protests on 25 January. What’s brilliant about this article is that in investigating the murder and the response of the Egyptian authorities, it reveals a great deal about how corrupt and deceitful the regime is and how Egypt works (or doesn’t) under its rule.
“Notes on the great Syrian exodus: ‘Epic in scale, inconceivable until you witness it’”, Richard Flanagan, The Guardian, 5 March
The Booker Prize winner goes on assignment to Lebanon, Greece and Syria. Not only are his reflections brilliantly rendered but what struck me most about the piece was his descriptions of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon wear over half a million refugees have sought shelter from the war. With all the focus on Syrian refugees in Europe, it’s easy to forget that Syria’s neighbors, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, bears the heaviest burden. Flanagan brings his novelist’s eye for detail and linguistic proficiency to bear on strongly evoking the refugee’s plight. One emerges with the impression that the Syrian refugees who made it to Europe, for all their suffering, are relatively lucky compared to their counterparts in the Bekaa Valley.
“A Saudi Morals Enforcer Called for a More Liberal Islam. Then the Death Threats Began”, Ben Hubbard, New York Times, July 10
Two pieces more than any other gave me insight into what it’s like living under dictatorship in Saudi Arabia. One is the video below on women taking part in local elections for the first time. This is the other. It brilliantly evokes the dynamics in Saudi society that make change toward democracy and greater respect for human rights so difficult to bring about. It does so by focusing on the attitudes and views of a great many Saudis. The man referred to in the headline was in fact trying to promote quite modest reform from within the existing system; the reaction to his efforts was fierce.
“Israel: The Broken Silence”, David Shulman, New York Review of Books, April 7
Ostensible a review of some excellent books, Shulman’s piece is an excellent report on the Israeli government’s attack on Israeli NGOs promoting peace and human rights in the illegally Occupied Territories. Shulman then outdid himself late in the year, with this excellent report on the ethnic cleansing (his words) of Bedouins in Area C, the part of the illegally occupied West Bank under direct Israeli administration.
“A Palestinian teacher’s methods earn the attention of more than her class”, Diaa Hadid, New York Times, April 1
Profile of Hanan Hroub, a Palestinian teacher who won an international education prize for developing teaching games for children traumatized by violence. She created her play therapy after her husband and five children were shot at by Israeli soldiers. Her husband had spent over a decade in Israeli prisons, and some Israelis condemned the award, noting that he had allegedly aided in the killing of six Jewish settlers. A video of Hroub’s work in the classroom.
“Alexey Navalny’s very strange form of freedom”, Masha Gessen, New Yorker, January 13
The best chronicler of the depredations of the Putin years in Russia, Gessen is at it again with this profile of Alexy Navalny. It poses the question, Given he consistently thumbs his nose at the regime, how is it that he still is free? It uses the answer to that question to portray the dynamics of the country under authoritarian rule.
“Putin: The rule of the family”, Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books, March 14
“Is Russia a fascist state? A totalitarian one? A dictatorship? A cult of personality? A system? An autocracy? An ideocracy? A kleptocracy?” A hybrid regime? A mafia state? How best to characterize Putin’s rule?
“More of Kremlin’s Opponents Are Ending Up Dead”, Andrew E Kramer, New York Times, August 20
This is one of those articles that achieves its effect by connecting the dots, tracing the pattern of recent deaths of people who opposed the Putin regime and the history of political murder in Russia since the death of the journalist, Anna Politovskaya in 2004 and before.
Squeezed between the war in Syria and the Turkish regime’s crackdown in the aftermath of the coup attempt was another huge story: Turkey restarted its war against the Kurds, largely for the political gain of Erdogan. The following two excellent articles did the best at revealing the extent of the violence and assault on basic rights of Kurdish civilians (who are Turkish citizens).
“In a devastated Turkish town, teenagers dream of joining the Kurdish guerrillas”, Constanze Letsch, The Guardian, 3 April
Letsch published another excellent article on the crackdown on journalists related to Turkey’s war against the Kurds, “Crackdown in Turkey’s southeast is turning journalists into ‘terrorists’”.
“Behind the Barricades of Turkey’s Hidden War against the Kurds”, Robert F Worth, New York Times, May 24
This is the most complete report on the war, which is exceedingly difficult to report as Turkey bars journalists from the affected areas. It includes much background to the conflict. Worth interviews new recruits to the Kurdish resistance against the Turkish state and also visits Cizre, a town blockaded and shelled by the Turkish army.
“Welcome to demokrasi”, Christopher de Bellaigue, The Guardian, 30 August
Published a month after the coup attempt to overthrow Erdogan, this article does better than any other at explaining the latter’s popularity. As the lead puts it, “After a decade in power, Turkey’s ruler presides over a new form of democracy that the west neither likes nor understands: an authoritarian regime that exalts the will of the majority.” The only thing that’s changed about that is the bit about “the west” neither liking nor understanding it, the US having itself elected someone a bit in Erdogan’s strongman mold. Indeed, much of the article’s description of the phenomenon of Erdogan’s popularity can be used to understand elements of strongman rule in other putative democracies as well, such as the Philippines.
The best reporting on rights issues in the US this year revolved around prisons, guns, Guantanamo, equal access to education, and issues related to the elections such as the right to vote and the distorting influence on them of big money.
“Madness: In Florida prisons, mentally ill inmates have been tortured, driven to suicide, and killed by guards”, Eyal Press, New Yorker, May 2
This article focuses specifically on abuse of mentally ill prisoners, including killings and torture by guards, in Florida prisons.
“Private Prisoner Vans’ Long Road of Neglect”, Eli Hager, Alysia Santo, New York Times, July 7
One of those horrifying stories that can seem almost difficult to believe, about prisoners dying and suffering other deprivations such as hunger while being transported by a private company. Stories such as this one must receive some credit for Obama’s decision this year to cease allowing private companies to run federal prisons.
“The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons”, Michael Schwirtz, Michael Winerip, Robert Gebeloff, New York Times, December 3
The product of a lengthy investigation drawing on “nearly 60,000 disciplinary cases from state prisons and interviews with inmates”, the article shows black inmates were disciplined at a higher rate for violating prison rules and punished more harshly than whites. Most of the prisons are in upstate New York where almost all of the guards are white. A majority of inmates come from the much more racially diverse New York City area. This is the same problem seen back in the seventies at the time of Attica and other prison uprisings; it’s really quite strike and depressing that it hasn’t been adequately addressed. While the article doesn’t focus on solitary confinement, it appears the findings also show it is used as a punishment with disproportionately lengthy confinements there, a huge human rights violation present in prisons across the US.
“A Weekend in Chicago Where Gunfire is a Terrifying Norm”, Monica Davey and 16 reporters, New York Times, June 4
While rates of gun violence and violent crime have actually decreased many places in the US, in certain urban areas, they are at epidemic proportions. Chicago is one of them. The New York Times tracked 64 people shot, six dead, over the three-day Memorial Day weekend with reporting from 16 journalists. As much of the great reporting on gun violence, the great value of this wide-ranging article is to show its human impact. Overall, gun death rates in the US are far higher than most anywhere else in the world. This is a clear infringement on the right to life, especially in certain areas of the country. After the mass shooting in Orlando, the NYT updated its “How they got their guns” graphic, a quick perusal of which amazes at what a great variety of weapons are legal and/or used by ordinary people in the country.
“Gun control: where it went wrong and how to fix it”, Lois Beckett, The Guardian, 20 to 24 June
This six-part series appeared shortly after the Orlando mass shooting. It is the best at giving an overview of a complicated issue, from identifying just what the problem is to proposing solutions. The different articles are called “The cycle of failure”, “The scale of gun deaths”, “Gun rights- and wrongs”, “What works, and what doesn’t” and “Changing the conversation”. If only politicians and people were as sensible as this series…
“Choosing a school for my daughter in a segregated city”, Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times, June 9
About disparities in access to quality education related to race and income in New York City, this article focuses on disagreements regarding the rezoning of two schools located in neighboring areas of Brooklyn, one high-income, the other low. As the title indicates, the author focuses on the difficult decision she and her husband face regarding which school their daughter should attend. It’s astounding that after all these years, there should even need to be a debate on this since it’s an issue that’s been around for decades: why isn’t every public school in the US as good as the next, why are so many Americans resistant to the idea of their children attending a school that is socio-economically and racially diverse?
With quite a few prisoners being released from Guantánamo, there was a surge in excellent journalism, mostly focusing on the effects on those people of so many years of being illegally incarcerated, almost all without charge. The prison is still open, though with a reduced prisoner population, and its rotten legacy will continue for years to come.
One of Obama’s first acts upon becoming president in 2009 was to close Guantánamo. Nearly eight years later, he hasn’t accomplished that. An intransigent Republican-controlled Congress is often (rightfully) blamed, but Obama himself has been unwilling to expend the political capital needed to get the job done, and this article does an excellent job of going behind the scenes in the administration to show just how lacking the political will from the top has been through much of Obama’s presidency.
“‘Here I have nobody’: Life in a strange country may be worse than Guantánamo”, Shaun Walker, The Guardian, 30 September
Tunisia Lutfi Bin Ali is sent to a remote border town in Kazakhstan after 13 years in Guantánamo.
Kidnapped as a teenager, Yemeni Ahmed Abdul Qader spent 13 years at Guantánamo and has now been released to Estonia. There was such a strong response to the article that Savage did a follow-up a few days later to give a behind-the-scenes look at how the article came together.
“After Torture, Ex-Detainee Is Still Captive of ‘The Darkness’”, James Risen, photographs Bryan Denton, New York Times, October 12
Tanzanian Suleiman Abdullah Salim was at least allowed to return to his home country, Tanzania, after 13 years in Guantánamo, during which time he was tortured.
In addition to the profiles of released Guantánamo prisoners, the NYT also did an expansive investigation into the lingering mental health issues of those who were kept at the prison without charge, often subject to mistreatment and torture. The articles also look at the complicity of medical professionals in the mistreatment and the difficulties of even the well-intentioned due to the great distrust by prisoners of any Americans.
“How U.S. Torture Left Legacy of Damaged Minds”, Matt Apuzzo, Sheri Fink, James Risen; photographs: Bryan Denton, New York Times, October 9
“Where even nightmares are classified: psychiatric care at Guantánamo”, Sheri Fink, New York Times, November 12
“Secret Documents Show a Tortured Prisoner’s Descent”, Sheri Fink and Matt Apuzzo, New York Times, November 12
“It’s Children Against Federal Lawyers in Immigration Court”, Fernanda Santos, New York Times, August 20
Immigration detention centers and legal proceedings in the US are rife with contradictions, discrepancies and abuses. This article looks at one particular aspect, the US trying to deport children in legal proceedings in which they have no legal representation; the children, therefore, must represent themselves. The US claims the children, being foreign nationals, do not have a constitutional right to legal representation, but the ACLU has filed a suit against the US.
“Leaked documents reveal secretive influence of corporate cash on US politics”, Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, September 14
One of the greatest threats to or compromises of democracy in the US is the disproportionate role that money plays in elections and lobbying. Pilkington got a hold of sealed court documents that were part of an investigation of Scott Walker and that the Wisconsin supreme court had ordered destroyed. They show multi-million-dollar secret donations by corporations and wealthy individuals to third-party groups. The article was accompanied by an excellent interactive guide.
“How 10 mega-donors already helped pour a record $1.1 billion into super PACs”, Matea Gold and Anu Narayanswamy, Washington Post, October 5
Gold and Narayanswamy analyzed federal campaign finance reports to document the enormous amounts of money donated to super PACs by just a small number of extraordinarily wealthy people.
“How Trump took Middle America”, Gary Younge, The Guardian (whole series of Gary Younge’s reporting from Muncie)
Probably the best coverage of the Trump phenomenon was this ten-part series focusing on Munsie, Indiana, characterized as Middletown, America. Younge spent a month there. The article noted above was Younge’s last, which, in a way was his “told you so” article. Anyone reading his series along the way would not have been surprised at Trump’s victory, and probably the single biggest impression is the enormous gap between the political elites of the country and the ordinary people of places like Muncie who feel increasingly pressed and insecure in their lives.
“Critics See Efforts by Counties and Towns to Purge Minority Voters from Rolls”, Michael Wines, New York Times, July 31
This is one of several articles that appeared during the campaigns on new initiatives in many places that appear designed to suppress minority voter turnout, this in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision three years ago that a key article in the 1965 Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. The article had to do with all or part of 15 states that had to receive “preclearance” from the federal government for any changes to the way they conducted elections due to their histories of voter discrimination. These places appear to have regarded the repeal of preclearance as a green light to discriminate again.
“Behind global crackdown on NGOs, recognition of their power”, Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, April 25
Much journalism focuses on specific events. Much of the best puts the pieces together to show the pattern formed by specific events. This article goes in the latter category. There has been much coverage of crackdowns on civil society in various countries, but little of the overall global picture. The upbeat tone of the headline would be harder to stand behind now, just eight months later.
“How election monitors are failing”, Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch, Justin Willis, Foreign Policy, April 29
The writers address the seemingly technical issue of election monitoring in such a way as to show its failures reflect the continuing deprioritization of democracy in the foreign policy of established democracies, and as such, it’s part of the larger story of enormous challenges democracy is facing worldwide.
An excellent year for opinion pieces related to human rights. Some of the best below.
“I want you to understand the sense of fear that Chinese people feel every day”, Nanfu Wang, The Guardian, 22 January
By the director of “Hooligan Sparrow”, a documentary about Ye Haiyan, a persecuted activist in China. The director says her experience making the film “gave me a sense of fear that I think westerners don’t comprehend”.
“My father, the editor, under fire”, Tahmima Anam, New York Times, March 3
Novelist Anam on the Bangladeshi state retributively targeting her father, editor of the Daily Star, for persecution.
“Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Despotic Zeal”, Sevgi Akarcesme, New York Times, March 8
Editor Akarcesme on the Turkish state’s seizure of his paper and its wider crackdown on the press.
“The Enduring Curse of Caste”, Ananya Vajpeyi, New York Times, March 9
On how the suicide of Dalit PhD student Rohith Vemula shows India has a long way to go in eliminating caste discrimination.
“Murdered for Activism in Honduras”, Silvio Carrillo, New York Times, March 11
On the murder of environmental and land rights activist Berta Cáceres.
“My father’s killer’s funeral”, Aatish Taseer, New York Times, March 13
On how the huge turnout for the funeral of Taseer’s father’s killer, executed by the Pakistani state for the murder, shows the depressingly enduring appeal of religious fanaticism. Taseer’s father was governor of Punjab and was murdered essentially for defending a Christian woman against allegations of blasphemy.
“The Politics of Bangladesh’s Genocide Debate”, David Bergman, New York Times, April 5
The politics behind Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunals, and the wider issue of how it faces the massive human rights abuses and atrocities committed during its war of liberation from Pakistan, are confusing. This piece is an excellent explainer.
“Crackdown in China: worse and worse”, Orville Schell, New York Review of Books, April 21
Schell has not spoken out often in recent years about the human rights situation in China. In that sense, the very fact that this piece appeared at all is remarkable, apart from the fact that it paints an accurately grim picture.
“China is the biggest madhouse in the world and CCP the worst lunatic”, Yaxue Cao, China Change, June 18
Cao regards the widespread crackdown on independent civil society as a form of madness, and apart from the attention she draws to the widespread nature of the crackdown and the victims, the value of the piece lies in addressing the issue of the relationship between dictatorship, oppression and a country’s mental health, this in a country where psychiatric hospitals are used as yet another form of persecution.
“A Hero’s Burial for a Long-dead Dictator”, Miguel Syjuco, New York Times, September 6
From a human rights point of view, there have been many dismaying aspects of Duterte’s presidential victory and early performance. One that has been somewhat overlooked but is symbolically very important is his decision to transfer the corpse of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos to the Cemetery of Heroes in Manila.
“Letter from a Bahraini Jail”, Nabeel Rajab, New York Times, September 4
Somehow, Rajab keeps on, though this is his third imprisonment in four years. There are 4,000 political prisoners in Bahrain, a close ally of the US, which has, for the most part, looked the other way.
“What I learned from executing two men”, Semon Frank Thompson, New York Times, September 18
“As superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, I planned and carried out that state’s only two executions in the last 54 years. I used to support the death penalty. I don’t anymore.”
“A humane voice for a cruel regime”, Maziar Bahari, New York Times, September 25
Bahari is a journalist imprisoned and tortured in Iran in 2009. He writes sympathetically of the difficult situation of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and a relatively humane man representing a regime which, compared to that under Ahmadinejad, is relatively humane but who must nevertheless continue to lie about Iran’s human rights abuses.
“India’s Eternal Inequality”, Aatish Taseer, New York Times, October 12
On how an incident while visiting a Brahmin family in Benares brought home to Taseer how deeply entrenched caste discrimination still is.
“At Standing Rock and Beyond, What Is to Be Done?”, Eric Martin, New York Times, November 28
A meditation on the purpose and efficacy of protest and civil disobedience by a theology student and participant in demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality”, Jason Stanley, New York Times, November 4
In the week leading up to the elections, Stanley says the media’s got it wrong: Trump isn’t merely a liar, his whole purpose is to exert an “authoritarian reality” according to which truth isn’t important but what is the extent to which the leader can make his version of reality stand. A brilliant take on a particular use of propaganda that helps to explain much of what Trump’s about and why he’s potentially so dangerous.
And if you’ve gotten to the end of this list and still haven’t read this, please do so, and then act on it! (originally posted on Facebook, so, perhaps, technically, not journalism, but one of the better op-eds of the year nonetheless). Most of these principles can be applied to fighting anti-democratic and real or potential autocratic forces just about anywhere.
‘A Society That Can’t Speak is Like a Body That Doesn’t Feel Pain’: An Interview with Anjan Sundaram, Judi Rever, Hazlitt, February 3
Sundaram wrote the brilliant Bad News, published this year, about the end of independent journalism under Rwanda’s dictatorship.
Extraordinary interview with the exiled historian Wu Renhua who has spent decades trying to piece together the details of the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989 and, in particular, the military’s participation in the crackdown and its killing of civilians. Fascinating details of how Wu conducts his research into an area around which there is a complete wall of silence.
Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong Takes the Fight to Beijing”, Edward White, The News Lens International, June 7
“INTERVIEW: Future Hangs in the Balance for HK Student Leader Nathan Law”, Edward White, The News Lens International, July 29
Both of these are extended and profound interviews with two of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists. It’s fairly rare in the mainstream media that activists are given the space to discuss their politics in any depth. As a result, often coverage resorts to stamping an activist or politician with a label which may not be inaccurate but is misleading in presenting his position. These interview do just the opposite, allowing the two to explain their views on Hong Kong self-determination and how they were derived from their experiences and lessons learned from the Umbrella Movement. Nathan Law later won a seat in the Legislative Council, and now the governments of Hong Kong and China are trying to disqualify him. The road is long, the struggle is hard, but these two are young and have the intelligence, energy and courage to keep fighting.
“A café chat with Li Tingting”, Yaxue Cao, China Change, July 27
Li Tingting was the most outspoken of the Feminist Five, the women right’s advocates detained in China in 2015, and after his release, in the face of official intimidation, she keeps on keeping on.
“Critical Intimacy: An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak”, Steve Paulson, Los Angeles Review of Books, July 29
Best known for her seminal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak”, Spivak is now a kind of academic superstar. This is a wide-ranging interview that examines, among other things, her teaching of democratic empowerment to rural children in West Bengal, the tragic family story that sparked her interest in the subaltern, and the responsibility of intellectuals. She is now 70 and looking back over her life. The interview does a good job of showing someone trying to connect theory and praxis in the way she lives her own life. As someone who has been skeptical of critical theory, I was impressed.
Human rights and the arts and culture
“A Training Ground for Untrained Artists”, Nathaniel Rich, New York Times, December 16, 2015
An Oakland NGO, Creative Growth Art Center, and the successful artists with developmental disabilities it’s trained and fostered.
“The Daoud Affair”, Adam Schatz, London Review of Books, March 4
Schatz examines the responses to writer and novelist Kamel Daoud writing two pieces about Islam and sexuality which reveal a great deal about the politics of France, Algeria, the West and the Muslim world.
“‘Erase and I will draw again’: the struggle behind Cairo’s revolutionary graffiti wall”, Mia Jankowicz, The Guardian, 23 March
The Egyptian revolution was a prolific time for outdoor public wall art in Cairo. Now, much of it is being destroyed and many graffiti artists have been arrested.
“The People in Retreat: An Interview with Ai Xiaoming”, Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, September 8
Johnson’s interview with documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming continues his excellent series of interviews with Chinese cultural figures, largely on rights-related issues. He followed it up with this interview with the writer Hu Fayun, a signatory of Charter 08 who has also been a member of the official writers organization, on being inside versus being outside the system.
“A new generation of exiled Tibetan artists is producing radical art beyond the control of China’s censors”, Ilaria Maria Sala, Quartz, September 29
On how Tibetan artists in exile are both adopting and adapting to techniques and motifs of traditional Tibetan art in order to represent the situation of Tibetans today.
“Heavy metal politician Freddy Lim is fighting for Taiwanese independence”, Kim Kelly, Noisey, October 18
Freddy Lim is the founder of Taiwan’s New Power Party, a parliamentarian, an advocate of Taiwanese independence, a supporter of Tibetan freedom, and the frontman of the heavy metal band Chthonic, which, unsurprisingly, is banned in China. This great interview appeared in the music website, Noisey (owned by Vice). Lim represents the new way of thinking about politics, culture and the relationship with China in both Taiwan and Hong Kong and, as such, the future of the movements for self-determination and democracy in both places.
“They are slaughtering us like animals”, photographs and text by Daniel Berehulak, New York Times, December 7
Inside Duterte’s brutal antidrug campaign in the Philippines- 57 homicide victims documented over 35 days. Since Duterte took office on June 30, police have killed over 2,000 people and there have been over 3,500 unsolved homocides by killers other than the police. Behind these numbers families and communities are deeply affected. These photos, many of them graphic, bring home the impact of the unconscionably cruel, abusive, foolish and unnecessary crackdown.
“The Women of Atenco”, Daniel Berehulak, New York Times, September 22
“I made the conscious decision to survive, to be alive and well today, to feel pretty again, to love me and see me in the mirror and recognize the person I saw. It was that they stole from me, my way of being, of loving, of feeling.”
Also by Berehulak, these portraits brilliantly depict eleven victims of sexual assault in their dignity and courage. The eleven were brutalized in a crackdown on protesters ordered by the current president of Mexico, Peña Nieto, back in 2006 when he was a governor. The eleven have taken a case against the state to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Symbolically, these women represent the over 150,000 killed and 27,000 disappeared due to violence at the hands of drug cartels and the government’s deadly response to it.
“Stepping Over the Dead on a Migrant Vessel ‘Just Like a Slavery Boat’”, photos by Aris Messinis, text by Rick Gladstone, New York Times, 5 October
Messinis accompanied a rescue boat that came across other boats overcrowded with migrants twelve miles off the coast of Libya. Many had already died of suffocation. This series of photos documents the discovery. About the experience, Messinis said, “I’ve seen a lot of death, but not this thing. This is shocking and this is what makes you feel you are not living in a civilized world.”
Omran Daqneesh, Mahmoud Raslan, Aleppo Media Center
Most of the photos of Omran Daqneesh were actually screengrabs from this video. Just as the photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s corpse became the iconic image of the Syrian civil war and refugee flight in 2015, so Omran Daqneesh, the Boy in Ambulance, became that image in 2016. The difference was that Omran was alive, though his ten-year-old brother, Ali, later died. A similarity was that in spite of the fact that both images went viral, they had little long-term impact on the international response to either the Syrian civil war or the refugees fleeing it. While European attitudes have hardened against refugees in the past year and more, Aleppo is currently being bombarded by Russian planes, with massive civilian casualties, while the world watches. So much for the power of images….
Feyisa Lilesa while crossing finishing line of men’s marathon and standing on medals podium at Rio Olympics, Olivier Moran and Robert F. Bukaty
I seemed more moved than others by these images of Feyisa Lilesa. Perhaps that’s because I’ve lived in Ethiopia and know just how oppressive the (Western-backed) regime is. (On Obama’s visit there, he erroneously referred to it as “democratically elected”- it was unclear whether he was being ignorant or cynical.) Feyisa is a member of the Oromo people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia. He has not dared to return to Ethiopia after his gestures at the Olympics. Just a couple of months later, at least 52 people and probably many more were killed when Ethiopian security forces fired into a crowd at a religious festival where Oromo people were protesting incursions of government-sponsored development projects into their land.
“No Safe Haven: Chinese Dissidents Living in Fear”, Lynn Lee, James Leong, Al Jazeera, 21 July
Both this and the following video were made for Al Jazeera by the duo behind Lianain Films. This looks at the plight of Chinese seeking asylum in Thailand at a time when the Chinese government has become more aggressive in pressuring Southeast Asian governments and abducting some people and transporting them back to China.
“Hong Kong’s Missing Booksellers”, Lynn Lee, James Leong, Al-Jazeera, April 22
This video looks at two of those people abducted as well as three other booksellers in Hong Kong who were detained extrajudicially when they crossed the border into Guangdong. An accompanying article gives a good overview of the situation.
“‘Ladies First’: Saudi Arabia’s Female Candidates”, Mona El-Naggar and Adam Bolt, New York Times, October 15
Along with Ben Hubbard’s article above, this video about Saudi women standing for local elections gave me great insight into the impediments facing those in the country wishing for a more democratic and rights-respecting system. On the surface, allowing women to run in local elections was a step forward, but the documentary, which traces the campaigns of several women with different perspectives, presents a more complex picture.
“Inside These Walls”, Juliet Lammers and Lorraine Price, CBC, October 20
Democracy activist Wang Bingzhang was kidnapped by the Chinese government in Burma and brought to China where he was sentenced to life in prison. His family lives in Canada. This documentary focuses on the effects of the persecution of their husband and father on them and on their campaign for his release. Here, his daughter, Ti-Anna Wang, gives her reaction to the documentary, which depicts her father in a less than angelic light.