Friday, October 24, 2014

Are you being fed too much bad news?

A Times columnist recently pointed out that compared with any period in the past half century, the world as a whole is “healthier, wealthier, happier, cleverer, cleaner, kinder, freer, safer, more peaceful and more equal.”
Probably true. Trouble is, that kind of news doesn’t sell papers and attract advertisers.
Newspapers, television, radio and online news services provide an unrelenting torrent of negativity. There is never any shortage of bad news but, blimey, hasn’t there been a surfeit of it lately!
Even at the best of times, bad news stories far outnumber and are given far more prominence than the good ones. As if that were not bad enough, far from “telling it like it is,” journalists nowadays often feel the need to add spice, distort, exaggerate and emotionalise in order to make the news sound even worse.
Hacks nowadays are under pressure to ratchet things up amid a multiplying profusion of competitors all covering the same stories. 
Taking more notice of the bad than the good is a natural trait we humans have been stuck with since the Stone Age when we needed to quickly identify trouble in order to avoid it and survive.
But bad news can be toxic. Like a drug, it can become addictive. Psychologists say that regular doses can harm our mental health.
In Portugal, for example, a daily injection of gloomy economic news has been difficult to avoid in recent years. For many people it’s hard enough struggling to cope with the basic practicalities of austerity without the media rubbing it in and provoking feelings of pessimism, fearfulness, anxiety and anger.
Terrorist atrocities raging in the Middle East, a new ‘Cold War’ fermenting in Ukraine, paedophilia rampant in the UK, Ebola out of control in West Africa, climate change threatening the whole damn planet. There’s no let-up. The subjects and the locations change, but the overall picture remains bleak. That said, it’s not entirely hopeless.
The death toll in Syria’s three-year civil war has climbed past 160,000. More than a million were killed in the Vietnam War and 55 million in World War II.
The number of Ebola deaths is still measured in the low thousands and although the dangers of it multiplying exponentially should not be underestimated, it’s worth remembering that in 2012 about 1.6 million people died from AIDS, 1.3 million from tuberculosis and 627,000 from malaria. The good news is that the overall number of people dying annually from infectious diseases has been dropping dramatically.
It seems like only yesterday that we had all that media malarkey about the Y2K millennium bug that was going to end life as we know it by sparking a catastrophic meltdown in computer systems. Pity it didn’t, some might say, given the spiralling abuse and hate on social media.
A couple of centuries ago - 21 October 1805 to be exact - the British defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar. The mighty victory was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that Lord Nelson was shot and killed in the battle. It took a fortnight to get the news to London.
Today, such an event would be transmitted around the entire globe in minutes. It might even be broadcast on TV live.
And don’t tell me you wouldn’t watch it.



Friday, October 10, 2014

Is expression ever a freedom too far?

While freedom of expression is said to be the cornerstone of democracy, of late it seems to be on shaky ground.
It remains on a steady footing here in Portugal compared to most countries and that is probably because of prevailing moral attitudes as much as the fact that it is enshrined in the Portuguese Constitution.
Throughout most of Portugal’s history, monarchs, the Catholic Church and political dictators have done their best to stop people from expressing anti-establishment opinions.
That changed dramatically after the 1974 revolution. Article 37 of the Constitution lays down that “everyone shall possess the right to freely express and publicise his thoughts in words, images or by any other means, as well as the right to inform others, inform himself and be informed without hindrance or discrimination. Exercise of the said rights shall not be hindered or limited by any type or form of censorship.”
Strong as that sounds, freedom of expression in Portugal is not absolute.
The 2014 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders ranks Portugal at number 30 out of the 180 countries covered. That is three places ahead of the UK and 16 places ahead of the USA.
Finland tops the index for the fourth year running, closely followed again by the Netherlands and Norway. Down at the bottom, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea are countries where such freedoms simply do not exist.
Among the main obstacles to freedom of the press in Portugal as in other European countries are national security restrictions, curbs on information about criminal investigations and defamation suits involving demands for large amounts in damages.
In even the freest countries, defamation against a private individual is a crime, as is blasphemy and hate speech against religion or race.
The courts in Portugal are occasionally asked to step in to exercise control when freedom seems to have been pushed too far.
A few years ago, the Lisbon-based weekly Sol was fined €1.5 million for defying a court injunction by publishing details from phone conversations recorded in a police surveillance operation.  
Last year, Portugal’s attorney general opened an investigation into a well-known journalist and author who described President Aníbal Cavaco Silva as “a clown.” Insulting the honour of the head of state constitutes an offence under Article 328 of the country’s Penal Code and may attract a punishment of up to three years imprisonment.
This summer a 30-year-old Algarve artist appeared in court charged with demeaning a national symbol by hanging a Portuguese flag on a gallows in an abandoned field near Faro. It was an expression of personal protest as part of a university project. He avoided a possible five-year sentence when the court ruled he was exercising his freedom of expression. Even in Finland demeaning the national flag is a punishable crime.
Then there is the stalled McCanns vs Gonçalo Amaral civil action in which the British couple are seeking €1.2 in damages from publication of the former detective’s controversial book, Maddie: A Verdade da Mentira (The truth of the Lie). While Amaral is claiming his right to freedom of expression, the McCanns have argued that he has deeply harmed them personally and also hindered the search for their daughter.
The McCann couple said recently that press regulation in Britain was still not working. This came after they were awarded £55,000 in libel damages from the Sunday Times.
As if regulating print media was not complicated enough, online social networking has opened up a completely new frontier, bringing new privileges and pleasures - and also new concerns and challenges.
Unlike the legally accountable mainstream media, social media users operate largely at will. Lord Leveson in his report noted that some called the internet a ‘‘wild west,’’ but he preferred to use the term “ethical vacuum.”
Security services have been monitoring internet communications between terrorists, political extremist groups and criminal organisations. Paedophile rings have also become a focus of special attention. In the main, though, internet users have been largely beyond the remit of regulation.
Things may be changing. Increasingly, hateful ‘trolls’ operating in anonyminity from the comfort of their tablets or smartphones risk being tracked down, as indicated by the Metropolitan Police Service’s investigation of a catalogue of threats and vile insults aimed at the McCanns.
In a case thought to be unprecedented in Portugal, court of appeal judges in the northern city of Oporto have unanimously upheld the dismissal of an employee for comments on Facebook. The employee had claimed “right to privacy” and “freedom of expression” in response to allegations that his comments were offensive, but the judge in the court of first instance argued, “it is unacceptable that freedom of expression and communication does not have any type of outer limits.”
A court of appeal in Texas last month seemed to be manouevering in the outer limits when it ruled that Texans had the constitutional right to take photographs of strangers, even if that involved surreptitious “upskirt” pictures of women or close-up body shots of children in bathing suits for the purposes of sexual arousal or gratification.
The judges in Texas said this was an essential component of freedom of expression and to deny it was a “paternalistic” intrusion on a person’s civil rights.
Was this further securing a cornerstone of democracy, or conceding a freedom too far?


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Missing Scotsman may still be working

“My name is Jon, I am 30 years old and a chef from eastern Scotland... I have a lot of hospitality experience in kitchens and also in bar work as well as general hotel experience.”
That is how Jon Anderson Edwards introduced himself on a ‘workaway’ information website, which he last logged into on 12 September, just before he went missing in the Algarve.
Portuguese police are helping worried parents and friends in trying to locate the 30-year-old Scotsman who left his Lagos apartment on September 15, leaving behind his passport, clothes and mobile phone.
His disappearance was of all the more concern because he seemed very happy working as a chef in a Lagos café but had to take a few days off after falling and hitting his head while out drinking one night. It was while recovering from the fall that he disappeared without telling his employer or friends in Lagos.
In his website post, Jon went on to say: “I am a very hard worker and would be willing to turn my hand to most tasks, or even learn new skills that could benefit both myself and the host. I have no problem with long hours or physically arduous jobs, I actually really enjoy throwing myself fully into a project because of the satisfaction that it brings to be part of something.
“I am not looking for a free holiday though, I am looking for challenges, experiences, meeting people I would otherwise have never met.
“I want to see as much of the world as possible while I'm still (fairly) young and will work my hind legs off in doing so :)”
He has already travelled widely in the world but he would not have had to travel far to join another workaway or wwoofing community. One such community in the Algarve advertised for a chef on September 7, but it has been establised he is not there. There are thought to be many other workaway or wwoofing places in the region. Police have already checked a hippie commune. 
Jon’s mother, Lesley Edwards, and his sister, Kenna Balion, flew out from Scotland to put up posters and help the search for him. They are now both back home anxiously awaiting news.





Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Missing Scot may have joined hippies

Speculation that 30-year-old Scotsman Jon Anderson Edwards may have found his way into a hippie commune in the western Algarve has given his family and friends hope that he is still alive and well after mysteriously disappearing more than two weeks ago.
Or Edwards may have joined a 'wwoofing' or 'workaway' community, one of which says it is involved in “a wide range of activities here from growing organic vegetables and fruit trees in our terraced gardens to walking and feeding our animals.” 
Deeply worried and finding the disappearance “surreal,” Jon’s mother Lesley Edwards had wondered if her son might even have been kidnapped, but the idea of him joining a group of free-spirited hippies seems to fit with his personality and sounds altogether more plausible.
Jon Edwards arrived in the Algarve at the end of August to take up a job as a chef in the Rockfood Café in Lagos. He went back to his apartment feeling unwell one day having said he had fallen and knocked himself unconscious while on the town the previous night.
His employer, Dago Lipke, went to the apartment Edwards shared with two others and suggested he went to hospital. Edwards said he was getting better, but within a few days he had gone missing, leaving behind his belongings, including passport and mobile phone. His employer informed the local police.
Edwards’ sister, Kenna Balion, followed by their mother, Lesley, flew out from Scotland. They found no record of him being admitted to a hospital and there was no response to appeals on his Facebook page. By then the Polícia Judiciária were involved, but Edwards’ sister and mother were not impressed.
Kenna Balion, 31, said that the PJ had still not examined her brother’s apartment 10 days after he had gone missing.
Back in Arbroath at the beginning of this week she told Rob McLaren of the Courier newspaper in Dundee about interviews she and her mother had with the PJ.
“Mum and I were separated and taken into different rooms to give a statement,” Kenna recalled. 
“It’s exactly the same detectives from the Madeleine McCann case, the same interpreter, in the same rooms. It was quite eerie.
“The detectives were very informal, wearing jeans and going off to smoke every half an hour.
“They just said that they didn’t think it was a criminal matter and that they would find him.
“They didn’t tell us what they were going to do next and we didn’t hear back from them all weekend. I don’t have a lot of confidence in them.”
     Despite Kenna and Lesley Edwards' lack of confidence, a PJ spokesman has assured Portugal Newswatch that detectives are taking this case seriously.
The idea that Jon may have joined a hippie commune surfaced only yesterday afternoon. His mother is hoping for good news before she returns home to Scotland tomorrow, Wednesday. 



Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Climate action or more procrastination

While about 675,000 people took to the streets in cities around the world prior to the United Nations climate change summit meeting, relatively few ventured forth in Portugal, suggesting that climate change is not something the Portuguese much worry about.
Well over 300,000 protesters turned out in New York, 40,000 in London, 30,000 in Melbourne and 15,000 in Berlin. Even Bogota in Colombia drummed up a throng of some 5,000. Organisers said marches took place in more that 2,000 other cities to demand action.
The gatherings in Portugal were relatively modest affairs. About 100 people, with a strong showing of green balloons, congregated in Rossio Square in the centre of Lisbon. Smaller numbers assembled in Porto, Braga, Coimbra, Faro and elsewhere.
The global protests were designed to put pressure on world leaders attending the UN summit. US Secretary of State John Kerry, concurred and said climate change should be at the top of the agenda despite competition from more immediate challenges such as ISIS and ebola.
The Portuguese press and their readers are far more preoccupied about current economic issues than what the climate is going to be like decades from now. The trouble is, experts warn, unless something is done soon to limited global warming, the economies of Portugal and many other countries could be devastated.
Meanwhile, Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, a man of celestial-based faith, showed himself once again to be a down-to-earth pragmatist.
On the eve of the New York summit he expressed his views in The Observer newspaper. “Never before in history have human beings been called on to act collectively in defence of the Earth. As a species, we have endured world wars, epidemics, famine, slavery, apartheid and many other hideous consequences of religious, class, race, gender and ideological intolerance. People are extraordinarily resilient. The Earth has proven pretty resilient, too. It's managed to absorb most of what's been thrown at it since the industrial revolution and the invention of the internal combustion engine. Until now, that is.
“Because the science is clear: the sponge that cushions and sustains us, our environment, is already saturated with carbon. If we don't limit global warming to two degrees or less we are doomed to a period of unprecedented instability, insecurity and loss of species. Fossil fuels have powered human endeavour since our ancestors developed the skills to make and manage fire. Coal, gas and oil warm our homes, fuel our industries and enable our movements. We have allowed ourselves to become totally dependent, and are guilty of ignoring the warning signs of pending disaster. It is time to act.”
The aim of the New York summit - the first such meeting in five years - was “to galvanise” 120 member states to sign up to a comprehensive new global climate agreement at another “crucial” summit in Paris in 15 months from now.
And so, yet more delay. Satisfying the public demand for change to 100% clean energy has still a way to go.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Marching for action on climate change

 Rallies are being organised across Portugal and around the world this weekend to promote action rather than words in tackling the problem of climate change.
The international mobilisation effort “to build a cleaner, fairer, safer world” is being staged to coincide with the United Nations summit meeting on climate change in New York.
The summit is the first time world leaders have sat down to discuss the problem – some say the biggest in history - since the summit in Copenhagen five years ago. Little has been achieved since then to stop the climate situation worsening.
The biggest street marches, some perhaps involving hundreds of thousands, will take place in New York and other cities including London, Berlin, Paris, Delhi, Rio and Melbourne. Groups large and small are expected to gather in Lisbon, Porto and at other locations in Portugal, such as Faro, Tavira and Silves in the Algarve, and in the Azores.
The various organisers hope that globally it will be the biggest climate change mobilisation ever. Nearly 400,000 people have signed up on an Avaaz digital site to say they will be taking part.
Greenpeace, Oxfam and the World Wildlife Fund are among the many organisations supporting the effort to get world leaders to recognise the groundswell of public opinion. 
The widespread belief is that the world can be powered entirely by renewable energy and make economies more sustainable. The transition to a clean energy future would among other things create millions of new jobs.
Activists say they want world leaders, without any further delay, “to create a world with an economy that works for people and the planet.”
Put simply, according to Avaaz campaigners, “we need to break free from the shackles of the fossil fuel industry in order to address the climate crisis. We’re already seeing the devastating impacts of climate change around the world, with the poorest and most vulnerable being the hardest hit.
“There can be no climate justice without economic justice, but there won’t be any economic justice without facing up to our climate reality.”
As previously reported in Portugal Newswatch, one of the messages from top scientists attending an international conference on climate change in Lisbon was that the world must expect increasing deluges, droughts, firestorms, landslides, avalanches, gales and tornadoes.
It is predicted that the Mediterranean could rise by half a metre by 2050 and wipe out coastal communities. Southern Europe generally is likely to get hotter and dry up. The farming of fruits, cereals and vegetables in southern Iberia may have to be abandoned; tropical species of mosquitoes may move north bringing with them diseases such as malaria and encephalitis.
In Portugal's southernmost region an irreversible process of desertification may be already underway. It could become as dry as the Sahara countries of North Africa.
     The message from marchers this weekend is that global action must be taken now to stop this sort of thing happening.
To help find a climate change march near you on Sunday (21st):  https://secure.avaaz.org/en/event/climate/



Saturday, September 13, 2014

Summers and Swan interview – part 2

In part two of our interview with Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, the authors explain more about the background to their new book Looking for Madeleine, their thoughts on the police investigations so far, and what may now lie ahead in this extraordinary case.

How did you conduct your research? What was the process you followed?
First and foremost, we spent months doing what we have done on our previous eight books, reading all possible available documentation – in many cases a logistic challenge because of the Portuguese language factor. All of this was sorted and allocated and built into a vast chronology. Chronology, carefully assembled, is the key to investigation – whether by law enforcement or non-fiction authors.
When did you come to the conclusion that Kate and Gerry McCann played no part in covering up their daughter’s disappearance and that claims of this are unfounded?
Were we to have to put a date on this current view of ours, we would say it was at the stage a few months ago when – after all the months of analysing the available evidence and testimony – we were finalizing the manuscript.
Can your book be accurately considered as ‘the definitive account’ of this unsolved case?
Note that our publisher has said that the book is “the most definitive account possible.” Possible at this time. We hope and believe that it is exactly the case at this point, as of September 2014. Events yet to occur may change that and – as and when they do – we would hope to update our work.
Your book has been described as ‘a whitewash’ and ‘propaganda,’ and criticism has been levelled at the amount of ‘spin’ it received in the British media before publication? What is your reaction to this?
It is emphatically not a whitewash, whether or not those making the allegations choose to believe it or not. Should they look at the available evidence and testimony, and in turn how we report it in Looking for Madeleine, they will find such allegations untenable. We know of no articles about us or the book that could be called "spin.” There have been news stories based on the information in the book - that is reporting.
How would you sum up the way in which the investigations have been conducted over the past seven years?
A muddle of events and developments, poorly reported and – because of the lengthy lapse of time after the case was archived – critically interrupted. Hopefully, with both nations’ police forces for some time now engaged in systematic fresh work, lost ground may be retrieved.
How relevant is the Gamble report discussed on Sky TV shortly before publication of the book?
The report written by former Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre head Jim Gamble and his team has not been released. In an interview for our book, Gamble discussed it, we believe, more openly and at greater length than ever before, and this was justifiably newsworthy. The inclusion of this self-critique of British law enforcement’s role in the investigation, from a senior source, was welcome and long overdue. The first Portuguese investigation has been widely criticised, often exaggeratedly and in a way that seemed xenophobic. The new openness from the UK’s Gamble may go some way to redressing the balance. Once it becomes ethically possible, Portuguese law enforcement may perhaps offer similar up-to-date background. Should that occur, we would be glad to report it in a new edition of Looking for Madeleine.
How long do you expect the investigation to continue?
Rather than speak in terms of months or weeks, we hope the investigations by both Portuguese and British law enforcement will be allowed to continue until they have followed up on all the lines of inquiry they regard as necessary. We hope the climate of public opinion in both countries develops positively, in a way that favours true international cooperation. Unbiased, moderate media reporting could do much to make this possible.
Do you think the mystery will ever be solved?
A major breakthrough would be a forensic lead. Any trace, dead or alive, of Madeleine. The police never forget, though, that someone, somewhere, knows – or suspects they have knowledge – of what happened to Madeleine. Someone’s wife, someone’s brother or sister or friend. Someone who noticed something but has until now kept it to themselves. What cold case investigators always hope for is that some hitherto unknown witness or witnesses will come forward with the fragment of information that can break the case. It’s happened in the past, and could yet happen in the case of Madeleine.