Peter Ford

China Cracks Down on Internet Freedom

The Chinese government's overriding priority for the past week has clearly been to quell unrest among its Tibetan citizens. But the authorities have also made exhaustive efforts to ensure that as few people as possible, inside or outside China, hear any but the official version of that unrest.

Foreign journalists have been banned from traveling to Tibet and prevented by the police from reporting on protests by Tibetans in other Chinese provinces. Domestic newspapers, TV programs, and Internet sites have carried only articles produced by the official Xinhua news agency. News reports on international TV networks such as CNN and the BBC have been blacked out by censors.

The policy marks a sharp setback for moves the Chinese government had been making recently to be more open. In particular, the way foreign reporters have been prevented from reaching the scenes of protests runs counter to regulations introduced last year that were designed to ensure free reporting, in line with a promise the Chinese made to the International Olympic Committee.

"The foreign media's inability to conduct first-hand reporting is a very black mark tarnishing the government's promise," says Melinda Liu, president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China. The recent unrest was "a test" of the regulations, she added, "and in the last few days the government has got an 'F.' "

"Go no farther"

This reporter was stopped by police at a highway tollbooth on Saturday evening and told he could go no farther toward the town of Xiahe, in Gansu Province, where Tibetans had been demonstrating against the government.

Two dozen other foreign journalists suffered the same fate at other roadblocks around the town. Some who had slipped in before the blocks were established were later escorted out of Xiahe by the police. Elsewhere, two Canadian TV reporters were briefly detained by the police after filming in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

The director of the Foreign Ministry's information department, Hong Lei, who in the past has helped journalists being obstructed by local police, says he can only "cooperate with the local authorities. When there is some emergency, the local authorities have the authority to set up prohibited areas for outsiders," he says.

Banning foreign journalists from reporting on such emergencies serves "the peace, stability and unity of this country," he adds.

When Beijing was bidding for the Olympics in 2001, Wang Wei, head of the Games' organizing committee, promised the international media "complete freedom to report when they come to China." The new regulations say that "to interview organizations or individuals in China, foreign journalists need only to obtain their prior consent."

"The regulations are fine when you want to interview pandas, but they don't work when you want to talk to Tibetans," scoffs one longtime foreign correspondent in Beijing.

The police blanketed areas inhabited by Tibetans in provinces neighboring Tibet, such as Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan, in order to prevent foreigners from entering. On Monday, a police patrol even prevented this reporter from visiting the remote and peaceful village of Hongya, 60 miles southwest of here, where the Dalai Lama was born.

The security lockdown, though incompatible with China's international commitments, has precedents elsewhere. During the last Gulf War, the U.S. Army prevented reporters from working in areas of Iraq under its control unless they were embedded with US forces; the Russian Army imposed similar restrictions in Chechnya; and the Israeli army has often declared "closed military areas" in the occupied territories, though the zones from which they ban journalists temporarily are nowhere near as large as the areas closed to reporters here in recent days.

The Tibetan Autonomous Region, as Tibet is known, is off-limits to foreign journalists unless they are given a rarely issued special permit. A reporter for The Economist, who had been given such a permit before the violence broke out in Lhasa last Monday, is in the capital; another reporter is known to have reached there traveling as a tourist, but both are confined to their hotels.

When the Beijing bureau of the French TV station "FR2" applied for a permit last week, the Foreign Ministry official they approached told them that he could not handle it because his fax machine was broken.

Foreign journalists working from offices in designated diplomatic compounds in Beijing, meanwhile, report that their Internet access has slowed dramatically. The authorities have also imposed such a heavy blanket block on all Internet sites relating to Tibet that even the Tibetan government's official site is inaccessible from inside China.

You may read official reports only

The government has been even more successful in severely restricting Chinese citizens' access to information about the unrest. Newspapers and TV programs have carried only reports by the government-run Xinhua news agency, which has reported a significantly lower death toll than Tibetan exile groups and concentrated on attacking the Dalai Lama for allegedly organizing the violence.

Nor has Xinhua carried reports on any of the protests in provinces neighboring Tibet, restricting its coverage to Lhasa.

YouTube has been blocked for China-based Web surfers, as video of events in Lhasa was posted there. Internet news portals such as Sina.com and Sohu.com have also been forbidden to post any reports other than those from Xinhua, and the comments function under those reports has been locked.

Some sites with no relation to Tibet have kept chat rooms open, and to judge by comments on PCHome.net, a site dedicated to high-tech gizmos, the government need not fear public debate. The comments, such as "After we hold the Olympics we will get revenge" and "We should not be gentle, we should use violence against violence," are overwhelmingly hostile to Tibetans.

Though comments sympathetic to Tibetans have most likely been deleted by site moderators to avoid being closed down, some "internauts" have questioned the ban on public comment.

"Such big news. Why is discussion in China completely banned?" asked one anonymous post on the Tianya.com site, based in the southern island of Hainan. "All real Chinese should care about this."

The restrictions on information in China are likely to draw increasing attention in the run-up to the Olympic Games, says Ms. Liu, who is Newsweek's Beijing correspondent.

"I fear that they [the authorities] will circle the wagons and stonewall," she says. "And that is not in keeping with the international community's expectations of an Olympic host nation."

Why the Era of Cheap Food Is Over

Food prices worldwide hit record highs in 2006, and all the signs are that they will go on rising this year, and for the foreseeable future. The era of cheap food, the experts say, is over and we are going to have to get used to it. This is easier said than done for millions around the world, as evidenced by protests in Mexico over the cost of corn tortillas, and in Italy last September about the price of (wheat) pasta. Here's a look at why.

What is behind the increases in food prices?

Certainly not bad harvests. Although a drought hit the traditionally bountiful Australian wheat harvest this past year, world cereal harvests hit 2.1 billion metric tons, a record production level, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Two major trends have been pushing prices up faster than they have risen for more than 30 years. One is that increasingly prosperous consumers in India and China are not only eating more food but eating more meat. Animals have to be fed (grains, usually) before they are butchered. The other is that more and more crops - from corn to palm nuts - are being used to make biofuels instead of feeding people.

At the same time, the world is drawing down its stockpiles of cereal and dairy products, which makes markets nervous and prices volatile.

The result, says Joachim von Braun, who heads the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, is that "the world food system is in trouble. The situation has not been this much of a concern for 15 years."

How big a factor is the biofuels boom?

It is significant enough for the FAO to be warning about the dangers of turning too much food into fuel, and for the Chinese government, for example, to ban the construction of new refineries that use corn or other basic foods. In fact, earlier this month Beijing announced tax breaks and subsidies to encourage the use of cellulose, sweet sorghum, and cassava (nonfood crops in China) for biofuels.

Some analysts estimate that as much as 30 percent of the US grain crop will go toward producing ethanol this year, a doubling from 2006. IFPRI forecasts that if the world sticks to current biofuel expansion plans, the price of corn will go up 26 percent by 2020, and the price of oilseeds (such as soybean, sunflower, rapeseed) by 18 percent. If governments double efforts to produce this alternative fuel source, corn prices are expected to go up 72 percent and oilseeds by 44 percent in 12 years' time.

Who gets hit hardest? Does anyone benefit?

As usual, it is the poorest people in the world who suffer most, because food takes up a bigger share of their daily shopping bill than it does for richer people. A family in Bangladesh, for example, living on $5 a day, typically spends $3 of that on food. The 50 percent rise in food prices the world has seen in recent years takes a $1.50 chunk - nearly 30 percent - out of the family budget.

Even farmers are not immune. On the whole, small-scale farmers in developing countries buy more food than they sell, so they, too, are net losers. Relatively few peasants have holdings large enough to benefit from price increases.

Big farmers in the rich countries, however, are doing well: US corn farmers have seen the price their crop fetches jump by 50 percent since 2000. Other net food exporters, such as India, Australia, and South Africa, will also do well out of rising prices. Major dairy producers, such as New Zealand, have done well as consumption of milk, yogurt, and cheese rises in Asia. As a result, while property values in New Zealand are generally expected to soften, flat rural land, where cows can graze, is expected to continue to rise in price, according to a survey by Massey University in New Zealand.

Will market forces correct the situation, as farmers switch to the high-earning crops?

Not as quickly as you might expect, though the European Union, the largest food exporter in the world, has suspended a "set-aside" program that had paid its farmers to leave 10 percent of their land fallow (so as to prevent oversupply).

Cereal prices are considered "inelastic," meaning that a 10-percent price increase tends to boost supplies by only one or two percentage points. While prices are high, they are also very volatile at the moment, which scares a lot of farmers off making the investments they would need to switch crops.

At the same time, the food market overlaps with the fuel market. Farmers can now sell their corn, their palm nuts, or their sugar to biodiesel refineries. So the price of palm oil, for example, traditionally the cheapest in Africa, is now set not by the cooking oil market, but by the fuel market.

It will not help that climate change and the accompanying floods and droughts will reduce cereal output in more than 40 developing countries, mainly in Africa, according to recent studies.

Where will food shortages be most acute?

Wherever the underlying trends of rising prices and scarcer supplies are compounded by special problems. Sometimes they are natural disasters, such as the cyclone and flooding that hit Bangladesh last November, wiping out many people's stocks of food. Sometimes they are man-made, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where continuing civil conflict and mismanagement disrupt the market, or in Zimbabwe, where inflation of more than 7,000 percent and a crumbling economy are threatening people already short of food.

"The hot spots of food risks will be where high prices combine with shocks from the weather or political crises,", says Dr. von Braun. "These are recipes for disaster."

What effect will high prices have on hunger-prevention programs?

A big one says the World Food Program (WFP), the UN agency in charge of emergency food aid, which reported last year that food aid flows had reached their lowest levels since 1973.

Food prices "are an incredible concern for us at the moment" says WFP spokesman Robin Lodge. "The same dollars don't buy the same amount of food as they used to," and donations to the agency are flat.

The WFP has been making a big effort to buy food from countries as near as possible to crisis zones, to cut transport costs, and in 2007 it had 15 million fewer people to feed than in 2006 because there were fewer major emergencies.

"But we are now about as tight as we can get, so unless donations go up there is no doubt about it, we will have to reconsider who we are feeding and the rations" says Mr. Lodge. "There is no other way around it."

Many food aid organizations are trying to buy more food locally. The FAO is reportedly working on a program to offer poor farmers vouchers for seeds and fertilizer to help them adapt to changing climate conditions.

Can Saddam Hussein Get A Fair Trial?

When the curtain goes up on Saddam Hussein's first trial today, the audience will stretch far beyond the Baghdad courtroom where the former Iraqi president is on trial for his life.

Advocates of international justice, anxious to spread the law's reach to dictators everywhere, will be watching to see how the Iraqi Special Tribunal copes as judges try the gravest crimes in the world's statute books. "This is one of the most important trials of our lifetimes," says Michael Scharf, a law professor at Case Western University in Cleveland, because of "the number of victims ... the status of the defendant ... and the fact that the whole world went to war against this man in 1991."

The way the trial has been organized, however, has divided international justice experts. Some of them say Mr. Hussein should have been brought before an international tribunal, such as the panels that judged Nazi leaders at Nuremburg, or the Rwandan Hutu officials charged with genocide, rather than a domestic Iraqi court.

"Since some of the crimes he is accused of are crimes under international law," such as crimes against humanity and genocide, says Geoffrey Robertson, a British lawyer, "it would be better for a proper international court to be set up."

Since Nuremburg, several such courts have furthered the idea that crimes against humanity require judgment in courts with broader authority than national tribunals.

Hussein's trial "is a departure from the main current of trials of senior officials in post-conflict situations" such as Rwanda, Sierra Leone, or the former Yugoslavia, adds Richard Dicker, head of the International Justice department of Human Rights Watch in New York. "That's a bad thing," he argues. "These are extremely difficult trials to do in the best of circumstances. They put an enormous strain on just developed or newly restored judicial systems" after wars.

Other observers are more sanguine. "International courts are not a preferred option, but limited to cases where national justice is not available," says Adam Roberts, professor of law at Oxford University. "In this case there seems sufficient reason to think that a national court can handle the matter."

"One wants to engage the local judiciary and the local population," adds Cherif Bassiouni, a professor of law at DePaul University, who drafted the special tribunal's statute. "It is important that any kind of post-conflict justice be owned by the people affected."

Overwhelming evidence

The first case brought against Hussein concerns Dujail, a village north of Baghdad where security forces are alleged to have killed at least 140 people after a failed attempt there on the president's life in 1982. It is a relatively simple case, and "the evidence is so overwhelming that people will say it is a fair verdict" even if the trial itself is not a model of judicial efficacy and fairness, says Professor Scharf, who helped train some of the judges and prosecutors involved in the case.

But later, Hussein and other former Iraqi leaders are expected to face charges relating to the use of poison gas against Kurdish towns and villages - considerably more complex cases that may amount to genocide. "That is the crime that the international community requires should be tried, and the allegations are of such wickedness that they should be tried by a proper international court" to guarantee the trial's fairness and credibility, argues Mr. Robertson, who sits with Sierra Leonean and foreign judges on a United Nations war crimes tribunal. "This is a missed opportunity."

Some critics of the Iraqi tribunal (including Hussein's lawyers) argue that it is not legitimate because it derives from an invasion of Iraq that was illegal in the first place. But even opponents of the former Iraqi regime, who have been trying to put Hussein on trial for many years, are disappointed by the way he is being brought to justice now.

Though the Iraqi tribunal's statutes and rules closely follow those of the fledgling International Criminal Court, and precedent at Rwandan and Yugoslav war crimes tribunals will guide the Iraqi court, "it will inevitably be a victors' trial" worries Chibli Mallat, a founder of Indict, an organization that unsuccessfully badgered the international community for years to indict Hussein for his crimes even while he was in office.

"Victors' trials are never of the standard they would have been if a special court had been set up before," Professor Mallat adds. "This is not at all the ambition we had hoped for."

Mallat would have preferred to see a mixed court, like the Sierra Leone tribunal, outside Iraq for security reasons. All the judges hearing cases against former regime leaders have moved to temporary housing in the US-secured Green Zone in central Baghdad, and their families may have to follow them. It is unclear whether all the judges will allow themselves to be identified.

In the current atmosphere of lawlessness, everybody involved in the Hussein trial - judges and prosecutors, defense counsel and witnesses - is liable to attract death threats from one quarter or another of Iraq's political scene. "Judges have been assassinated in much less sensitive cases than this," Mallat points out. "It is a bizarre and cruel trial, taking place in the midst of a civil war when one of the main protagonists in the war is the accused."

The Iraqi authorities hope that the trial itself, by publicizing the extent of the former regime's cruelty and bringing perpetrators to justice, might also bring an element of political stability.

Holding it in Baghdad, rather than abroad, "makes the process that much more accessible to both the victims and to those in whose name the crimes were committed," says Mr. Dicker. "There is a value to the trial taking place close to where the crimes occurred," he says, despite security risks.

International standards

Nonetheless, Dicker worries that the trial may not measure up to international standards. Hussein and other defendants have been able to see their defense counsel only when they have been interrogated by an investigating magistrate, for example, which human rights activists say is too late. And the tribunal's statute requires only that judges be "satisfied" of a defendant's guilt to convict, not "satisfied beyond reasonable doubt." "This is a disturbingly low threshold," says Dicker. "It's a real anomaly that reflects Iraqi law but not developing international law."

Hussein's judges will certainly be familiar with the provisions of international war crimes law: they have been trained by independent foreign experts hired by the US Justice Department, which also arranged for the translation into Arabic of portions of the Nuremburg, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia hearings.

The Iraqi government has not, however, made use of one of the Iraqi tribunal statute's provisions, which allows for foreign judges. Its insistence on keeping the death penalty has also prevented European nations - which have outlawed such punishment - and the United Nations, from playing any significant role in the investigation or prosecution of regime crimes.

That disappoints Scharf. "The Iraqis are saying that this is our court, the atrocities were committed against our people, and we have always had the death penalty," he explains.

"This is the trial that is going to happen," he adds. "Do we want to help make it the best trial possible or do we ignore or oppose it?"

Whatever the outcomes of the forthcoming trials, says Bassiouni, they will add a few bricks to the rising edifice of international justice just by happening. "International justice is made not only by international tribunals but domestic ones too," he says. "What's important is that the crimes be prosecuted. It is accountability that counts."

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