Important but overlooked news from around the world.
“There are insufficient safeguards on the agency’s use of national security letters and other intrusive surveillance tools.”
— ACLU spokesman Jameel Jaffer on an FBI apology for monitoring journalists’ phone records (see “Top Stories,” below).
Myanmar Junta’s ‘Odd’ Rules Sap Cyclone Aid: Reports
FBI apology spurs further questions
Australia breaks ground on gay retirement home
*The Roof of the World*
World’s youngest republic swears in Maoist Prime Minister
Hindu and Muslim conflict rocks Kashmir
*Economy & Labor*
Will mobile phones vault the digital divide?
Businesses decry paid sick leave push in California, Ohio
* Myanmar Junta’s ‘Odd’ Rules Sap Cyclone Aid: Reports
The military junta that rules Burma has changed its currency conversion rules, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid intended for victims of Cyclone Nargis, according to reports.
Between May and July, the junta sharply devalued the foreign exchange credits, or FECs, used by international agencies working in the country.
As a result of the devaluation, financial aid from the United Nations and other organizations loses roughly 20 percent of its value before finally being delivered to the Burmese street, a situation that one U.N. official described as “odd.”
FECs were established under decades-old regulations intended to keep overseas currency out of the black market, and are the only acceptable currency for local purchases by international organizations, reports the Bangkok Post.
Speaking anonymously to Mizzima, a source in the “military establishment” said that the while the one U.S. dollar trades for 1180 Myanmar kyat on the street, the junta has valued FECs at just 880 kyat, bringing in a profit of 200 to 300 kyat for every dollar traded.
John Holmes, a U.N. humanitarian officer, acknowledged a “significant problem” in the exchange process and an estimated loss of $10 million of aid money over time.
The exchange from dollars to FECs must occur at government banks, although some officials said the U.N. could also use direct bank transfers to pay for humanitarian goods and would not be obliged to convert funds to FECs.
According to Mizzima, however, a principal bank used by aid agencies told reporters that they are continuing to give FECs to customers withdrawing funds from foreign-based direct transfers.
“We treat the FEC as equivalent to the US dollar and give customers the same amount. But we deduct 10 percent from the amount as tax,” said a bank official, wishing to speak anonymously.
Bangkok Post, August 2008
“U.N. admits loss of about 1.56 million dollars of cyclone aid in Burma”
Mizzima, August 14, 2008
“U.N. relief chief admits to ‘loss’ of aid money in exchange duplicity”
Mizzima, July 25, 2008
* FBI Apology Spurs Further Questions
The FBI has apologized for monitoring the telephone records of Washington Post and New York Times journalists in 2004 — but exactly why the phones records were monitored, and nature of the “exigent” letters used to gain that information — remain unanswered.
Reporters Without Borders said in an Aug. 13 statement they want an explanation why the FBI deemed it necessary to catalog incoming and outgoing calls at the newspapers’ Indonesian bureaus.
At the time, the reporters in question were working in southeast Asia on stories about Islamic terrorism.
In 2007, the Justice Department’s Inspector General unearthed thousands of cases in which the FBI improperly issued national security letters — a type of administrative subpoena that bypasses the court system, and which imposes a gag order preventing recipients from disclosing the letter’s existence — to gain access to phone records in terrorism investigations.
The exigent letters used in the Indonesian case were another class of letter altogether — and, according to a New York Times article, are illegal.
Although Robert S. Mueller III, the FBI’s director, agreed to stop using national security letters after the investigation, new questions have emerged about the use of emergency letters that bypassed even the First Amendment protections in place for journalists.
In accepting the apology, Times executive editor Bill Keller said, “We’d still like to know more about how this happened and how the bureau is securing against similar violations in the future.”
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement that broadly condemned national security and emergency letters, saying potential for abuse remained.
“There are insufficient safeguards on the agency’s use of national security letters and other intrusive surveillance tools,” Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said in a statement.
Lawmakers also expressed concern as the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Mueller demanding an explanation.
“In future congressional hearings, we plan to ask you about the misuse of exigent letters and the possible need for additional legislation,” committee members Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) wrote.
“F.B.I. Says It Obtained Reporters’ Phone Records”
The New York Times, Aug. 8, 2008
“FBI apologizes to newspapers for spying on reporters”
Reporters Without Borders, Aug. 13, 2008
“FBI improperly obtains reporters’ phone records”
American Civil Liberties Union, Aug. 9, 2008
“Lawmakers still seeking details on FBI’s illegal records demands”
Talking Points Memo, Aug. 11, 2008
* Australia Breaks Ground on Gay Retirement Home
Australia is breaking new ground with plans to build its first retirement village for gays in Ballan, Victoria.
The Moorabool Leader, a newspaper in nearby Melbourne, says the multimillion-dollar facility will feature 120 units, with construction beginning spring 2009.
The village, Linton Estate, is the first of its kind in Australia.
Developer Peter Dickson said Linton will be marketed “to the gay community but it will be a facility that is tolerant of all people, if they are tolerant of others.”
It will feature typical retirement home facilities, including a pool, tennis courts, open-air theater, and spa.
Moorabool Mayor Dianne McAuliffe said the council’s approval of the project was based on the development plans themselves, and not who would live there.
“It’s a gay old world in Ballan”
Moorabool Leader, July 22, 2008
THE ROOF OF THE WORLD
* World’s Youngest Republic Swears in Maoist Prime Minister
Following years of turbulence, Nepal’s first prime minister was sworn into office August 18 in Kathmandu.
The Times of India reports that former Maoist rebel Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known popularly as Prachanda, took his oath of office “in the name of the people” rather than “in the name of God” — a break from tradition that acknowledges his communist leanings.
In his mid-fifties, Prachanda was once a guerilla fighter that led the Maoists’ decade-long insurgency to abolish the monarchy.
His Communist Party of Nepal won a majority in the nation’s Constituent Assembly in April, and his swearing-in ceremony brought dignitaries from the United Kingdom and the United States.
Both countries formerly supported Nepal’s monarchy in the fight against Prachanda’s Maoists.
He lost the presidential election in July, but was elected prime minister a month later by the nation’s Constituent Assembly.
“Prachanda is now Nepal PM”
The Times of India, August 19, 2008
* Hindu and Muslim Conflicts Rock Kashmir
In the biggest demonstration in almost twenty years, tens of thousands of Muslims gathered in Indian Kashmir’s main city in mid-August following the fatal shooting of 22 protesters by Indian police.
According to Agence France-Presse, one of the dead was a senior Kashmiri separatist, Sheikh Abdul Aziz, whom one demonstrator was quick to lionize.
“He is our hero — he has laid a fresh foundation for our freedom struggle with his martyrdom,” demonstrator Ayub Laway said.
The unrest began in June when a piece of land was given to a Hindu trust.
When Muslims — the majority population in the Kashmir valley — protested, the government rescinded the land offer.
Hindus counter-protested and extremists blocked the local highway, fueling protests between the two that have spread across the region for the past two months.
India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir as theirs, but they only rule parts.
The recent demonstrations are the largest separatist protests since Muslim rebels battled against Indian rule in 1989.
Indian police guaranteed restraint at the demonstration, held just a week after fights with protestors left hundreds injured and 22 dead.
“Thousands rally in Indian Kashmir to mourn dead protesters”
Agence France-Presse, August 16, 2008
ECONOMY & LABOR
* Will Mobile Phones Vault the Digital Divide?
Inexpensive mobile technology is opening doors in the developing world for communities that have previously been shut out of the information revolution due to the high cost of desktop computers.
Mobile devices are increasingly used to provide financial information and business services to low-income communities, as well as to report human rights abuses or drive political campaigns in emerging democracies.
Writing for India’s Business Standard, Guruduth Banavar said cell phone use in India has exploded past 200 million subscribers, with 7.5 million new users added monthly, while cell phone users in Africa are expected to number 600 million by 2011.
The numbers have already surpassed traditional land-line telephones, Banavar said, and sales of mobile phones in India have rocketed past personal computer sales.
Mohammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate for his work developing microlending programs for the developing world, is developing a new program in India to offer mobile payment and banking services via cell phone.
Using the service, customers in Mumbai and Bangladesh will be able to transfer money, access credit and savings accounts, and deliver payments, according to Bangladesh newspaper The Daily Star.
An article on Africanpath.com noted that calling plans in developing nations tend to be pre-paid, so almost anyone with a phone can access banking services without having a credit check or a bank account.
Several countries in Africa already use mobile banking.
Vodafone/Safaricom mobile phone users in Kenya can deposit money with registered agents, who then credit the user’s account.
That credit can be sent by text message to other mobile users and exchanged for cash, the article said.
Mobile technologies are also becoming indispensable to humanitarian and aid organizations.
According to the BBC, text messages are used to send medication reminders to patients, for election monitoring and to report market prices to farmers in remote locations.
The Washington Times reports that 86 percent of workers at nongovernmental organizations use cell phones in their humanitarian work in Africa.
In Zimbabwe, a human rights coalition called Kubatana says text messaging is among the most powerful ways to connect with individuals.
The paper reported that Kubatana sends text messages to citizens in an effort to boost morale, while another group called the Truth and Justice Coalition urges Zimbabweans to text them reports of human rights abuses.
Text to Change, a non-profit in sub-Saharan Africa, uses cell-phone text messages for HIV and AIDS education.
The program was launched in Uganda and targets young Africans who are most at risk, according to allAfrica.com.
Researchers are also working on voice-based programs that cater to less literate customers.
It is worth noting, says the BBC, that text messages remain popular mainly because so many phones in developing countries are too old to support internet-based technologies.
This means mobile applications developed for humanitarian reasons may be useless if people on the ground can’t access them.
Syed Mohammad Ali, writing in Pakistan’s Daily Times, says that even as mobile phone use grows, women in India and Pakistan have lower levels of access than men.
He also said that in some West African countries, cell-phone and Internet use by women is seen as a destabilizing factor threatening traditional gender roles, creating a new digital divide between genders.
“Mobile phone, not PC”
Business Standard, August 12, 2008
“Grameen-Obopay to offer mobile banking service to Mumbai, Bangladesh”
The Daily Star, August 7, 2008
“Text messages open window in developing countries”
The Washington Times, June 15, 2008
“Mobile Africa: Push Button Banking for the Unbanked”
African Path Network, August 9, 2008
“Uganda: Mobile Phones to Be Used in AIDS Fight”
The Monitor (Uganda), February 11, 2008
“Mobile development rings true”
BBC, July 14, 2008
“Development: Development through mobiles”
Daily Times Pakistan, June 24, 2008
* Businesses Decry Paid Sick Leave Push in California, Ohio
A bill working its way through the state legislature would make California the first state to mandate paid sick leave for employees.
In Ohio, citizens will take the matter into their own hands with a vote on the Healthy Families Act, a public referendum on the November ballot that would require businesses with 25 or more employees to provide at least seven days of paid sick leave for employees.
California’s AB 2716 would affect more than 5.4 million workers who don’t receive sick leave from their job, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, and was inspired by an ordinance passed by the city’s board of supervisors that took effect in February 2007.
If passed, the bill would provide one day of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, the Sacramento Bee reported, and the state’s department of industrial relations would enforce it at a cost of about $600,000 per year.
Small businesses do get a small break — firms with fewer than 10 employees would only have to grant employees five day of paid sick leave per year, while businesses with more employees are required to provide as many as nine days.
Rajiv Bhatia, San Francisco’s occupational safety and environmental health director, said that paid sick days make public health sense, as workers without sick leave are less likely to stay home, and thus can spread diseases such as influenza.
However, labor policy is also a concern.
A report by the nonprofit group Human Impact Partners found that 72 percent of the highest-paid workers in the U.S. have paid sick leave, compared to only 21 percent of the lowest-paid quarter.
The bill’s author, Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco), told the East Bay Business Journal that business owners also stand to gain from the passage AB 2716.
“[The bill] not only benefits the nearly 6 million California workers who lack paid sick days but also employers through the cost savings of maintaining a healthy workplace,” she said.
Some Republicans in the state assembly decried the legislation as “job killing,” and a threat to businesses that might not be able to afford paying sick leave, according to the Modesto Bee.
“It’s a bad idea to mandate benefits,” Marti Fisher of the California Chamber of Commerce told the Chronicle. “This could force employers to cut back on hours, raises or even lay people off.”
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has yet to take a position on the bill, the Bee reported.
Opponents of the Ohio bill allege its appearance on the ballot is a ploy to get Democratic voters out to the polls.
“The state Democratic Party’s number one goal in this election is to take control of the Ohio Legislature,” David Zanotti, president of the business group Ohio Roundtable, told the Canton Repository. “They believe this mandatory sick-leave measure will help them reach their goal.”
The Cleveland-based group Policy Matters Ohio released in a report that the mandatory sick leave bill increase the benefits of 2.2 million workers, the Cincinnati Enquirer reports.
San Francisco became the first city in the country to mandate paid sick leave for all employees in the city when it passed its ordinance, and Washington, D.C., also passed a similar ordinance in March.
— John Hornberg / Newsdesk.org
“Assembly OKs paid sick leave for all”
Sacramento Bee, May 29, 2008
“San Francisco orders paid sick leave for all”
NPR, January 18, 2007
“Bill would require paid sick days for most”
San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 2008
“California legislator defends paid sick-leave bill”
East Bay Business Journal, June 25, 2008
“Council Approves Sick Leave In District”
Washington Post, March 5, 2008
“Sick leave gives Strickland a headache”
Cincinnati Enquirer, June 17, 2008
“State sick-leave proposal draws criticism”
Canton Repository, July 30, 2008
“California bill requires paid sick leave”
Pacific Business News, February 27, 2008
Editor: Josh Wilson
Interns: Julia Hengst, John Hornberg, T.J. Johnston, Lauren Riggs
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