Here’s a video of my acceptance speech at the International Media Awards in London. Enjoy!
Here’s a video of my acceptance speech at the International Media Awards in London. Enjoy!
As I leave this lovely city and bid adieux to new friends, its time for a reflection.
I came here at the invitation of the German government’s Foreign Office through their embassy in Bahrain. I came rather hesitantly as I had to take ten full days off work at a time where we’re rather busy preparing for an important project. It took some convincing but I’m now very glad that I accepted to participate. Of course this would not have happened without the excellent team running the office, they’ve really stepped up to the mark, which not only made the trip possible, but actually quite pleasant and without worry.
Nevertheless, I felt that 10 days for a conference is far too long. Normally I would attend a 3 day conference and be itching to return home at the end the first day! That feeling was shared by my colleagues here too, but when the time came to wrap up, we all felt glad to have been invited for this period. In 3 days you hardly start forming a relationship, while the 10 days gave us good time to get know each other, explore Berlin and participate in many cultural activities. It gave us the chance to gel together as a group and become good friends.
The program prepared for us was comprehensive, but not overwhelming, it was designed to give us time to enjoy each other’s company while visiting various Berlin venues and cultural events. The program’s structure and contents were outstanding with obviously a lot of thought put into it to make it relevant to us all.
From a naturally skeptical crowd, the tone and quality of the next ten days were set on the first day of business with excellent presentations from some of the luminaries of the field. The first day brought us in contact with the German political blogging scene through Robin Meyer-Lucht, a communication scientist who runs the influential carta.info, a group blog with some 40 contributing writers, 3 editors and one editorial assistant. The editorial staff are fully employed by the site. The site now serves about 60,000 unique users per month and is monetised by using various techniques. It is currently experimenting with both Kashingle and Flattr as new revenue streams and the initial results are encouraging.
Overall, in Robin’s estimate, the German political blogosphere, although still evolving, is driven by passionate bloggers who have become influential in the field. Business enterprises and their supporting services like some PR agencies hoped to ride the blog popularity wave by initiating their own blogs and twitter streams but have been largely discredited as “astroturfers” whose intention is to create content which migrate appear genuine at first, but ultimately shown as either subtle or brash attempts at promoting a product, service or business, something bloggers and general Internet consumers find distasteful if not deceitful.
The German blogosphere is no different from the worldwide phenomenon. It too has its memes, aggregation sites which provide an easier way for consumers to find relevant content quickly and offer an appropriate venue to expose new blogs and of course the obligator rankings, be those generated non officially or through established ranking sites like Technorati.
When it comes to the legal structure of blogging; however, the situation can seem quite daunting to the uninitiated. If not farcical at times, but as those gathered for the seminar are political bloggers with each one of them with experiences running into the law, Jan Mönikes presentation was eagerly awaited, even though some started with the usual skepticism, once Jan got going, his engaging style and relevant information presented soon captured our full attention. I know some have emphatically commented that it was t he most important presentation in the whole program.
The third and forth presentations after lunch were equally interesting. One dealt with the political blogging scene in Germany presented by Jens Berger of http://www.spiegelfechter.de and the other was about the relation between citizen journalism and classical journalism in Germany by Matthias Spielkamp of www.immateriblog.de which generated an intense debate given that his topic is the classic goading cry for bloggers: “relation between citizen journalism and classical journalism in Germany”. He almost got lynched! The end result; however, is that everyone had his own opinion about the subject with no clear resolution being adopted, as expected. It was a lot of fun though!
Saturday and Sunday were tour and food time. We were given a guided tour of Berlin and the Heavens cooperated as well by making the tour authentic. It incessantly rained! That gave me the chance to prove that my Canon 50D is good for use underwater without modification. It still works!
To make every meeting opportunity fruitful, the organisers always included relevant and interesting people for us to meet and talk with. On Sunday’s dinner we were joined by Germany’s Managing Director of Reporters Without Borders, Mr. Christian Rickerts, whose experiences he shared together with the various cases his office handles, from championing the freedoms to express oneself through to actively helping defenders, journalists and bloggers who have fallen foul with their governments, and boy those are many. It seemed to me that the whole world has increased the pressure on basic human rights freedoms, or is it because of modern communications that we actually get to hear of them more often now?
The hairs on my neck stood stiff when I first read that activity in our program. A natural unmitigated revulsion for the idea of state organised spying. That feeling was made even more so when one realizes that the perception of what happened in the GDR, is still being actively pursued by various governments around the world. With the most oppressive now neatly contained in our lovely patch, one doesn’t need much imagination to know what’s being kept on whom, and the natural instinct to continuously look over one’s shoulder is not alien at all.
But Germany did something better with this. After reunification and against concerted efforts to destroy the millions of records, the new government preserved them with the clear intention of transparency and making those records available to their owners. Germans could still individually apply to the BStU Archiv to find out if the Stasi did have them under surveillance and wether the record is available for their viewing. A lot of people apparently took the opportunity to look into their lives from the Stasi’s point of view. That experience brought with it painful discoveries; some of those who gave up information and informed on them were in some cases not only colleagues and friends, but close family members like spouses, siblings and parents.
There are many warehouses full of these records all over Germany. The Berlin bureaus for instance contains some 18 million records. If just the A5-sized index cards were placed side-by-side, it is estimated that the resulting line would extend 5,000 kilometers! Of course those cards led to other confidential cards leading to various folders kept on individuals. Apart from the paper trail, the Stasi also kept film, photographs (over a million in Berlin alone), video, audio and probably some DNA samples all of which were meticulously categorized and cross-referenced.
These centres now offer deep research material of the era where several scholars are investigating. What they will get out of it will probably be very interesting to note. One of the results of these research efforts I should think is to preserve the German consciousness so that this kind of unauthorised state spying will never happen again.
I promise you that the hairs on the back of my neck continued in their erection and the sense of revulsion at such methodical voyeurism by the state never left me while we were at the BStU Archiv. Yes, I know it’s over now and Germany has made huge strides at coming to terms with itself, but the over-riding feeling I had then was, if the Stasi did that then, what the hell are our governments doing now, given the plethora of technological devices available at their fingertips now?
The visit to the BStU Archiv convinced me more than ever that legislation must be inculcated which protect against such intrusions. People have a right to their privacy. People have a right to expect and demand transparency from their governments. People have a right to access information. But unfortunately what our parliament here seem to be more content with is the reversal of all of these universal rights.
Does anyone know what’s happened to that legislation that Andrew Hearn wanted to pass through to demand high-court approval before the State Security here spies on people’s communications?
The afternoon was more pleasant and much closer to our cups of tea I think. After a nice lunch, we visited DPA, the German Press Agency (Deutsche Presse Agentur) and were received by its editor-in-chief and managing director Mr. Christoph Dernbach. Christoph gave us a short presentation about the history of the DPA then opened the floor for questions and answers. Needless to say, we all had many questions. Herr Dernbach was very accommodating and not only answered them comprehensively, but also gave us a tour of his newsrooms. That afternoon was very interesting for me personally and opened my eyes on the mechanics of such organisations.
We also saw how progressive the DPA is. I guess it being independent gives it the opportunity to chart its own paths, and one of those is to provide 300 of its journalists with 300 small video cameras in order for them to produce video content for their subscribers websites! The cameras they received were the small Sony Xacti CG10s. Journalists are of course trained on how to use them in the field, top and tail the material shot if need be then simply upload the raw footage directly to their bureaus in Germany for craft editing. Once the editing is completed, video packages are then released on appropriate websites and sold on to clients.
It’s good to see that “old style journalists” are cajoled into new technologies. They seem to be quite fine with the idea too. I guess to a professional journalist, a video is yet another tool in his quiver and if he can tell a story with the pen, he most certainly will be able to tell it through video as well.
Other than the DPA, we also visited Deutsche Welle TV station and given a guided tour of the facility culminating in a presentation and discussion led by Gabriel Gonzalez, the Project manager of the Deutsche Welle Blog Awards “BOB’s” regarding the awards, which some found controversial.
On another day, we also visited Der Tagesspiegel offices and took a valuable hour of their online chief editor’s time in which we discussed their online strategies and their continuous efforts of integration between print and online. Their overall strategic direction, wisely I think, is to completely remove any distinction between those two worlds and gradually motivate their journalists to be fully conversant with the online world so that they can contribute to either medium whenever required.
Der Tagesspiegel, like the DPA, also provided their journalists with video cameras to file video reports in the field. In fact, on the same day we visited, they had a journalist abroad who was trying (unsuccessfully at the time, a condition which I hope is resolved by now) to upload video content to their office for editing and processing.
As we were in Berlin at the invitation of their Federal Foreign Office, it was only expected that we would spend some time meeting with their officials, and that we did on several occasions.
Our first visit to the Federal Foreign Office coincided with a Palestinian delegation visit, I am told that Mahmoud Abbas was there that day, so they were a bit careful in corralling us through the complex to get to our meeting destination. However I did glimpse a press conference in progress on our way out. I didn’t; however, was able to discern who was in it and what it was about.
The first Federal Foreign Officer to meet us was Herr Eberhard Pohl, the Deputy Political Director of the Federal Foreign Office who briefed us on their politics a bit, but none of us felt other than his interjections were classic politicospeek. Saying much but stating nothing! Or, as my fiend Milos said in his blog about the occasion:
Welcoming the bloggers by the German Foreign Ministry: “It’s tremendously exciting to meet you. I must say that I don’t often meet bloggers. I even looked up Rasmussen blog last night to see what this blogging thing is!”
Likely translation: “You are the bloggers? Really wish I knew who it arranges these meetings. What are you really? Yeah and I wonder if today we will have eintopf or gulášovka in the cafeteria?”
liberal paraphrasing and help from Mr. Google as my Czech is still not perfect!
I’m glad to say that the other two gentlemen we met at the foreign office were more interesting and most engaging. Herr Markus Löning, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at the Federal Foreign Office was demonstrably very passionate about his job, very well travelled and knows his stuff. Although he has taken up this task very recently, he was very aware of our areas, especially the happenings in the former Soviet republics around the Caspian Sea. Not only that, he knew exactly who was imprisoned where and for what! Upon hearing of the death sentence delivered in Singapore against Yong Vui Kong for drug trafficking, he immediately offered to send a letter to the Singaporean president to ask for clemency and to register Germany’s stance against the death penalty. He listened with attention to other bloggers feedback on the human rights situations in their countries and promised to take up various issues at the first opportunity he has when meeting respective countries’ representatives.
The other gentlemen from the Foreign Office we met and have had the pleasure of having lunch with at the Foreign Office International Club was Deputy Minister Herr Michael Zenner, Commissioner for Communication of the Federal Foreign Office, who is also the person directly responsible for inviting us to Berlin. We had a wonderful lunch with him as he was interested in everyone’s story and chatted about his experience with the web and his department’s efforts at modernising the communications structure for the better.
The last day of the tour was interesting. The organisers invited Claus Hesseling to talk to us. Claus is a journalist, lecturer for multi-media and online journalism at inwent and at the Technical University of Berlin.
Claus split us into teams and got us to do presentations about topics related to the last 10 days’ experience and conclusions which were all very similar more or less. Our team presentation was about the effects of blogs on traditional media and the challenges they face. The presentation is available here should you wish to view the bullet points, but we concluded that generally the German media websites have some growth potential as they are not as advanced as those available in the UK and the States. Examples were given for comparison like The Guardian in the UK and the Washington Post in the States.
We also concluded that the media laws in Germany are obtuse, even though Article 5 of their constitution was – to our mind – quite unambiguous.
Every single one of us enjoyed the trip. What we all agreed on is that we have formed good relationships both with each other and the excellent organisers, specifically Lucien Koch, Lisa Moldenhauer and Deniz Ulusoylu.
We agreed that this initiative must continue as each one of us has a lot to offer and there is excellent potential for us to cooperate. Therefore, we decided to start a group blog which will be dedicated to those invited in this initiative and each of us will frequently post relevant articles. The details of this project are still in discussion, and I shall be happy to share the outcome of these discussions with you once they are concluded.
So even though we started this trip with a lot of skepticism, we end it now with a solid outreach program through which we hope to contribute to world understanding.
On behalf of my colleagues, I wish to thank the German Embassies in the participant’s countries and His Excellency Dr. Hubert Lang, the German Ambassador to Bahrain, the German Foreign Office and Kaiser Communications for making this program happen. They all made this trip unique and completely useful.
We’re so looking forward to doing this again soon and to keep up the momentum gained through the last 10 days. It has been a real pleasure indeed.
Berlin’s way of remembering the past to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself while honoring those who made sacrifices in the country’s turbulent history.
I know, such a revaluation isn’t it?
I’m in Berlin as part of an excellent program by the German Federal Foreign Office. They invited a group of 15 international bloggers coming from countries spanning across from Costa Rica through to China. Part of the program is to meet with German bloggers and opinion makers to effect a cultural exchange of sorts. The program is not strenuous at all, not like the usual conferences and workshops I usually go to which cram a lifetime into 3 days. With those you invariably come out fullfilled to be sure, but completely sapped and exhausted too. Well this one is different on many levels. It’s spread over 10 full days with planned time-outs and cultural visits too. Yes, it’s a holiday with a purpose. Thank you Germany
Mrs Eman Al‐Nafjan
Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Mr Mahmood Al Yousif
Manama, Kingdom of Bahrain
Mr Markus Balsiger
Bern, Swiss Confederation
Mr Cristian Cambronero
San José, Republic of Costa Rica
Mr Miloš Čermák
Prague, Czech Republic
Mr Ato Kwamena Dadzie
Accra, Republic of Ghana
Miss Nigar Fatali
Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan
Mr Elia Kabanov
Novosibirsk, Russian Federation
Mr Andrew Loh
Singapore, Republic of Singapore
Mr Nino Raspudić
Zagreb, Republic of Croatia
Mr Mahmoud Salem
Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt
Mr Aliyu Usman Tilde
Abuja, Federal Republic of Nigeria
Mr Árpád Tóta
Budapest, Republic of Hungary
Mr Tulkinjon Umaraliev
Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic
Mr Michael Anti
Beijing, People’s Republic of China
We concluded the first day of the program yesterday where we listened to 4 excelent people talk about the German blogosphere, politics, laws and media environment. The one i felt most important was a presentation by a self-described “aggressive lawyer” whose daily job, again by his own description, is to aggressively go after bloggers! It’s ironic because he himself is a blogger too.
Yes, lawyers are supposed to be dry – and the first glance at this one’s text-filled slides sort of confirmed that adage. I know that my fellow bloggers were at first skeptical too. We were resigned to what we were about to receive wouldn’t be anything better than Death by PowerPoint. That mode – i could see around me – was fully engaged.
But the guy surprised us. He didn’t only know how to press our buttons, he was also lucid in his thoughts, methodical in his presentation and made the relatively dry subject of Internet & Press Freedoms interesting through his evident passion.
The gist of his presentation is this: be prepared to be sued if you libel anyone, and he (and other lawyers too) will come after you!
In German law, there is no distinction between a traditional journalist and a “pro” blogger; that is, if your content is “news-type” approaching the same standards as that of a traditional mainstream paper, then you’re not only regarded as an equal to a journalist, but also will be deemed to have met the prerequisites of enrollment in a journalist union and will have the same rights and responsibilities enjoyed by journalists.
Weird isn’t it? And some still choose to be nit-picky about what pigeon hole bloggers should reside in! My friends, the lines are most certainly blurred and there isn’t a pigeon hole big enough to stuff bloggers in.
German law also provides no distinction between slander and libel and guarantees both freedom of expression and the freedom of the press.
Article 5 of the German Constitution (Basic Law) states:
Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing, and pictures and to inform himself without the hindrance from generally accessible sources. Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasts and films shall be guaranteed. There shall be no censorship.
These freedoms are further backed up by several other basic rights such as the guarantee of private property and the right to freely choose and exercise any profession.
It also emphasises that all citizens are generally free to run a publishing company or offer opinions – critical or otherwise – and information in any form to the public by starting a blog – for example – without any kind of governmental approval.
The proviso is that one has to be conscious of the limits of freedom, that is, one’s freedom ends where another’s begin.
This is taken to levels which could be considered by others as extremes; for instance, one has the full right to walk in the street, any street in Germany, fully naked! Regardless of gender. And no one can force that person to dress-up because they individually think that that behavior is “unsavoury” or “disgraceful”, that – I suspect – is an individual’s opinion which is open to interpretation. However, if someone complains that a person’s nakedness “disturbs” him, than and only then would it be considered as impinging on that person’s freedom and the naked person is made to dress up.
The press in Germany is independent of governmental control to the extent that governments (there are 16 of them in this Federation) are forbidden to issue or get involved in the issuance of Press Cards as those are solely the responsibility of the professional bodies such as Press Unions.
Herr Jon Mönikes, the vigorously aggressive lawyer warns us though, that you have to stand behind your words. In what to my mind is a contradictory and unconstitutional requirement, he says that publishers must declare their names and addresses on their blogs, this is to demonstrate responsibility in allowing people easy access to communicate with them should they need to, and for the lawyers to know where to send the summons or the law suit to! Doesn’t that contradict with the Constitutionality of anyone is allowed to have a publishing company, let alone a blog, and not to have to register it with the government? Thinking about it now, I don’t think so and it makes sense. A publisher must stand by his publication. However I’m unsure that this condition is a government requirement, I suspect it’s not but is required possibly by the Unions.
Upon notification from his clients of an infringement in a blog or any other type of media, Herr Mönikes investigates the situation and if there is merit he would lift the phone to talk to the publication’s owner and demand the alteration, removal or retraction of whatever is published. If they choose not to, he takes them to court, something he proudly states that he has done hundreds if times. And here in Germany, the loser in any civil court must pay the lawyer’s and court fees for the case, so it could get very expensive, especially for bloggers. Most, of course, comply.
Publishers are ultimately responsible for whatever is published on their blogs. Even comments! Yes, that was a revelation to me and a lot of my fellow bloggers in the room. But, there are limits of course… If you do not exercise moderation, that is, if you don’t approve the comment before it is displayed on your blog, then you are not responsible. However, the government or the lawyer has the right to force you to declare the commenter’s identity and IP address if available! That seriously freaked me out!
The advice? Well, don’t read the comments! But if you do and if you find that the comment might warrant a case against you, then you are beholden by law to remove it! If you don’t, then get prepared to be dragged into court. When notified, “professional” bloggers must remove the offending material within something like 24 hours of notification, amateurs however get quite a bit more leeway and get to remove it in a week or so, and of course, as theirs is not professional, then the roles and responsibilities assigned to journalists do not apply to them.
Article 5 continues to say:
These rights shall find their limits in the provisions of general laws, in provisions for the protection of young persons, and in the right to personal honour. Accordingly, limis to the freedom of expression are:
- general laws (including opposing constitutional rights of third parties) – general laws are federal and supersede local governments laws
- youth protection – child pornography, certain types of violence depictions, etc
- right to personal honour – libel, slander, etc
Probably the only no-negotiation law in Germany which even supersedes freedoms of expression is Holocaust Denial. Germans take this very seriously and if you do, then off to prison you go at the happy expense of the German government and citizens for 5 years. Full Stop.
So don’t deny the Holocaust happening and don’t display swastikas and other Nazi symbols. And oh, you can’t sell Mein Kampf here either. You can own it if it’s handed to you or you found it, but you cannot sell it, and by inference, you won’t be able to buy it.
Regarding the Holocaust, you CAN question its situation, the numbers involved and do academic research into it, but you just cannot deny it’s occurrence.
So how is this all different from the laws in Bahrain and other Arab countries? It seems even stricter than what is coded in our own countries.
Thinking about these issues since yesterday, I think the differences are quite apparent. While in Germany (and other democracies) the law is applied fairly, it is backed up by an independent judiciary and above all it is applied with good will. With us, unfortunately, regardless of how good the laws are on paper, they are applied with ill will for the most part, with an eye on a hidden or declared agenda.
Will this situation change in the future? I hope so. But it won’t happen on its own accord. It requires people to stand up and vigorously demand their rights, rather than just be the usual acquiescents we normally are.
Due to a 6-year-old database (dinosaur by blogging’s standard) which was subjected to hundreds of plugins and optional component installs and uninstalls, plug various other caching and theme components whose developers thought it best to write their preferences in the database and neglected to remove those entries on uninstallation, the site’s database got to be a huge 310MB in size! Being fat, I can tell you, is not a good idea at the best of times.
So, days after the installation, I finally got the time to deal with this properly. For those interested who might be in the same situation, my remedial steps to properly upgrade to WordPress version 2.9 from 2.8 are as follows:
1. I manually went in and removed the no longer needed tables (after backing up the database of course)
2. I manually edited the db version number in the options table (as given above, thanks!) to 12329 to force going beyond the forced upgrade page
3. I went to the admin panel, downloaded, installed and activated the "Clean Options" plugin.
4. I got the plugin to remove all the hash rss entries (over 8 thousand of them!)
5. I got the plugin to evaluate all the remaining entries in the table to determine the most likely unneeded entries and double checked them all. Selected the ones I know to be unneeded and deleted them.
6. The above operation reduced the database size from 310MB down to 58MB!! Serious weight loss ;)
7. I re-edited the options value to put in the old database version of 11548
8. Went to the Admin panel again /wp-admin
9. Clicked the "upgrade database" button, and then within seconds the upgrade was reported successful and I have my blog back!
I’m so glad that the site is up and running again. I am also even happier that the database has finally slimmed down which seems to have affected the response of the site too to the better.
Silver lining? I guess so.
For a gathering that was organised at such a short notice, we had an excellent attendance of 10 bloggers! Thanks to everyone who came. It was excellent to see everyone and be re-energised again to do even more for the community.
There were many topics discussed of course and resolutions made, one that I have already actioned is the restoration of the old Gregarious RSS Aggregator for BahrainBlogs.org, after the continuous troubles I’ve had with WordPress and its brain-dead aggregator plugin, it was a pleasure for me to delete that installation and restore it back. I hope you like it.
Please also note, that as the Bahraini government has inexplicably blocked http://bahrainblogs.org, I have made it available within Bahrain on https://bahrainblogs.org (note the S). So until they block this one too and you have to access it through one of the proxy services or applications, enjoy!
I would appreciate it if you would let me know so I can add it.
Unfortunately the venue we chose did not have WiFi! Can you believe it? It probably will be the last time we meet there. The absence of wireless access prevented us to add an 11th very welcome blogger to our gathering: Yacoub Slais. Hopefully next time, who knows, attending virtually might be something that we perfect for those who couldn’t come join us for any reason.
Quick shout out to the attendees:
I hope to see more people at the next meeting. Any input as to which day/date/location we should choose?
All local bloggers are invited to a Local Bloggers Meetup on Saturday 13th of June 2009. 11 AM Dolce Café in Zinj.
We’d love to restart, reconnect and re-meet old and new friends. Please take a couple of hours off and come and have a coffee with us.
Find out what number this meeting is and I’ll buy you coffee and maybe a nice piece of cake too!