FREE SPEECH RIGHTS--Civil liberties and digital rights groups are raising concerns over the possible behind-the-scenes influence by the U.S. government in Facebook's decision to selectively block some sanctioned world leaders from using the social media platform, while allowing others to maintain accounts.

Facebook deleted the account of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov last week, explaining that the head of the Russian republic had been added to the government's sanctions list, which bars U.S. companies from providing services to him. Kadyrov has been accused of committing numerous human rights abuses against the LGBT community and his opponents.

Other sanctioned leaders, however, have not been banned from the website. While both Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been slapped by the U.S. with economic sanctions, neither have yet had their accounts suspended.

"It really does seem as though Facebook is picking and choosing compliance, which suggests there is government involvement," Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Guardian.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has raised concerns that the government could be indirectly censoring political speech via its economic sanctions.

"It really does seem as though Facebook is picking and choosing compliance, which suggests there is government involvement."—Jillian York, Electronic Frontier Foundation

"This sanctions law is being used to suppress speech with little consideration of the free expression values and the special risks of blocking speech, as opposed to blocking commerce or funds as the sanctions were designed to do. That's really problematic," ACLU attorney Jennifer Granick told the New York Times when the newspaper reported on Facebook's deletion of Kadyrov's account.

According to the Intercept, the possibility of Facebook's cooperation with the government to determine which leaders should be banned is deeply troubling—and not far-fetched. The company has met with Israeli officials to discuss the deletion of Palestinian activists' accounts on the grounds of "incitement," as Glenn Greenwald reported:

The meetings—called for and presided over by one of the most extremist and authoritarian Israeli officials, pro-settlement Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked—came after Israel threatened Facebook that its failure to voluntarily comply with Israeli deletion orders would result in the enactment of laws requiring Facebook to do so, upon pain of being severely fined or even blocked in the country.

The predictable results of those meetings are now clear and well-documented. Ever since, Facebook has been on a censorship rampage against Palestinian activists who protest the decades-long, illegal Israeli occupation, all directed and determined by Israeli officials. Indeed, Israeli officials have been publicly boasting about how obedient Facebook is when it comes to Israeli censorship orders.

Greenwald noted that "Israelis have virtually free rein to post whatever they want about Palestinians. Calls by Israelis for the killing of Palestinians are commonplace on Facebook, and largely remain undisturbed."

He also stressed that the Trump administration's ability to "pick and choose" who is barred from social media networks—which two-thirds of Americans use as news sources, according to Pew Research—could have dangerous implications for anyone the president considers an opponent.

"The Trump administration has the unilateral and unchecked power to force the removal of anyone it wants from Facebook and Instagram by simply including them on a sanctions list," he wrote. "Does anyone think this is a good outcome? Does anyone trust the Trump administration—or any other government—to compel social media platforms to delete and block anyone it wants to be silenced?"

(Julia Conley writes for Common Dreams … where this report was first posted.)

-cw

WORLD WATCH--“Mr. Kim may be partly motivated by an intense need to roll back sanctions that, by all accounts, have begun to bite.”

Whoa and ouch. This was my wakeup paragraph. I was sitting at Starbucks, reading the New York Times, feeling confusing old emotions wash over me on the first day of the New Year, when suddenly these words hit me like a sucker punch: The sanctions against North Korea “have begun to bite”?

Compare this throw-away fragment of international news with a brief analysis of the effect of U.S. and global sanctions against North Korea by the Council on Foreign Relations: “Sanctions are often felt most by ordinary families, not the power elites who are the intended targets. . . . Sanctions and extended periods of drought have left many of North Korea’s twenty-five million people malnourished and impoverished.”

The wakeup bite for me wasn’t that the New York Times was wrong, simply that, as it presented the latest bit of international news to its global audience, the context of its reporting wasn’t factual data but 21st century mythology.

In our contemporary mythology, the defining gods, especially here in the “developed world,” are hulking, dangerous entities called nations, which stomp across the planet endlessly pursuing their interests. They are alleged to be conscious beings, usually with human faces — Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un — and their power rivals that of Zeus or Yahweh. But the effects of their behavior, even when it kills actual humans, is trivialized by the scribes as the equivalent, for instance, of a divine a bee sting.

Notice how quietly, how smoothly, most geopolitical reporting shifts back and forth between actual individuals and the imaginary beings called nations:
“The statement emphasized the roles of the two Koreas in resolving the nuclear crisis. President Trump, in contrast, has pursued a tougher approach . . .”

“But Mr. Moon also agrees with China and Russia that talks are needed to resolve the nuclear crisis. Mr. Kim’s sudden peace overture on Monday will probably encourage both Russia and China to renew their calls for some kind of ‘freeze for freeze’ — a freeze on North Korean tests in return for a freeze on all American-South Korean military exercises. Presumably, under that situation sanctions would begin to ease.”

OK. Nuclear freeze — very important. The Times story contained sober and responsible data, but I still felt tormented by it. Slowly it began occurring to me: The jargon here is mythical. And such reporting does nothing but perpetuate the status quo that keeps these belligerent, increasingly unstable gods in power.

In such a context, the only peace that’s possible is tense and temporary. To long for lasting, transcendent peace — to imagine that it’s possible — is to marginalize yourself. Come on. Read Trump’s latest tweet: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

The voice crying out is bigger than Donald Trump. It’s the voice of the mythical nation desperately shrieking: I’m not going away!
My response: Yes, you are.

The most toxic force on Planet Earth is nationalism. I’m not against collective consciousness. I believe with all my being in a human identity that transcends self and ego, but the concept of “the nation” is poisoned by the worst of who we are.

Addressing the question what is a nation, the Global Policy Forum explains: “National identity is typically based on shared culture, religion, history, language or ethnicity.” But they leave out the most important element. National identity of the Trump sort — and as quietly revered in the New York Times and the rest of the status quo media — requires a shared enemy. Without it, there’s no news.

A year ago, after Trump’s election, I suggested he may be the poster boy of nationalism’s last gasp, that a larger consciousness is waiting to lay claim on American politics.

“Trump says build a wall. Even if the wall is mostly a metaphor, the effect of that metaphor is to lock in consciousness, as though ‘America’ is the only truth Americans are capable of understanding: Fifty states and that’s it. We’re exceptional and the rest of you, keep out. Locked-in consciousness never keeps people safe, but it does keep them scared. You might call it patriotic absolutism, which yields fear, violence and war.”

The latest manifestation of the border wall is in relation to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the law protecting some 700,000+ people — a.k.a., “the dreamers” — born outside the U.S., brought here as children, which could expire in March. Trump says he won’t renew DACA unless he gets congressional approval for his lunatic wall, estimated to cost between $68 billion and $158 billion to build. “We need it. We see the drugs pouring into the country, we need the wall,” Trump said.

Besides the cost, there’s another overlooked detail: “Environmental groups have also expressed concerns over the potential impact of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border,” according to Newsweek.

“Aside from the massive carbon footprint associated with the transport of raw materials, the U.S.-Mexico border is also home to many endangered species that routinely move between both sides of the Rio Bravo. The jaguar is one these species. As reported in Science earlier this year, the border wall would decimate the jaguar population across North America.”

If only for the sake of the jaguar, it’s time to expand our consciousness, to create a myth called One Planet.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one . . .”

(Robert Koehler is a contributor to CityWatch, courtesy of  PeaceVoice.  He is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.)

-cw

GUEST WORDS--The year began with a bang, as everybody in America lost their minds (some in a celebratory way, some totally devastated) over the fact that Donald Trump managed to be elected president.

CORRUPTION WATCH-The great advantage of Lies and Myths is that they dispense with unpleasant reality. In the realm of make-belief, where Americans prefer to live, everything they believe is true and there is no need for introspection because they think everything they believe is true. Trying to think can give you a brain freeze faster than a Slurpee at 7 Eleven. 

RELIGION RIGHTS-An Oregon state appeals court on Thursday let stand $135,000 in damages levied against the owners of a Portland-area bakery for discrimination after they refused on religious grounds to prepare a wedding cake for a local lesbian couple. 

A three-judge panel of the Oregon Court of Appeals rejected a petition by Melissa and Aaron Klein, former owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, to overturn the ruling by the state’s labor commissioner as a violation of their rights under the U.S. Constitution to freedom of religion and expression. 

An attorney for the Kleins, who closed their bakery not long after being ordered to pay the heavy fine, could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday. 

“Today’s ruling sends a strong signal that Oregon remains open to all,” Brad Avakian, the state’s labor commissioner, said in a written statement. 

“Within Oregon’s public accommodations law is the basic principle of human decency that every person, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, has the freedom to fully participate in society,” Avakian said. 

The case stems from Aaron Klein’s refusal to bake a wedding cake for Rachel Bowman-Cryer in January 2013 because she was planning a same-sex wedding to her partner Laurel, which he said violated his religious convictions. 

Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer filed a formal complaint with the state labor bureau, which found the Kleins had violated anti-discrimination laws and awarded the damages. 

The Bowman-Cryers were married in 2014 after a federal judge struck down Oregon’s same-sex marriage ban. 

The bakery case is one of many disputes nationwide since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June 2015 to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

SPORTS POLITICS-During the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos shook the collective American consciousness with a silent gesture. After winning the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter sprint, the two men raised black-gloved fists  into the summer night sky as the Star Spangled Banner droned on in the background. The image of their silent protest -- of racial inequity in the United States -- remains as striking now as it was 49 years ago. It immediately turned both men (as well the third man on the platform, Australian sprinter Peter Norman) into international pariahs. It's a moment that has come to symbolize what it means to be a socially aware athlete. 

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