Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What are ethical duties when confronted by injustice?

Teaching has its moments when you lead students to a certain point, and you may have made your conclusion, you might think that the conclusion is quite clear, obvious even, but your students just don't want to make that leap. When it comes down to it, they don't agree with you. They don't see it your way. Perhaps they are from a different generation or just have not seen the world your way. Perhaps they never will.

I was thinking about that today as we discussed Out of the Picture, a report by Freepress on the ownership of television stations by minorities and women. The report, not surprisingly, paints a pretty bleak picture of the situation in the United States, where the vast majority of stations are owned by white men. Even areas that are quite heavily populated by minorities are not served by stations owned by minorities.

We discussed the issue, and discussed the implication - and then I asked the critical question: Does this have to do with ethics? I can make the connection, because to me it concerns issues of social justice. But the students didn't see it that way. The white men own what they own because they are well connected. Sure. But this is legal, right? Nothing wrong with being rich.

I pointed out that the broadcast spectrum is really a public good, to be allocated so that the public benefits. But these children of Reagan Era have a different perspective. Anything hinting of affirmative action is bad. And having a policy that gives some sort of preferential treatment to minorities is bad.

I did not ask my students this question, but it intrigues me. How is this situation ever going to change, unless the government takes some action to remedy the imbalance?

I'm not out to convince them of anything - per se. But I want them to really see the reality of the media world around them, and ask themselves if it is really a just situation. And if it is not just, what is the ethical response? What is the ethical response to injustice?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist receives prestigious award

Eynulla Fatullayev, the editor of Realny Azerbaijan, is one of three journalists being awarded with a 2009 Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Also receiving awards are journalists from Sri Lanka and Tunisia.

Of course, Eynulla's joy at receiving the award may be mitigated by the fact that he is sitting in jail. This is not that unusual. Being a good and courageous journalist is quite dangerous in Azerbaijan. The main threat comes from the government. Currently, two bloggers are on trial on outrageous charges. Eynulla's offenses also were purely fictional, a case constructed by the government to put him behind bars.

The real offense was that in trying to find out who killed his colleague and friend, he uncovered facts that were uncomfortable for certain powerful people. Imprisonment was his reward for seeking justice.

Here is a synopsis of his story.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Not such a crazy idea

In an article on the RFE/RL website, Dmitry Sidorov presents an interesting hypothesis that I don't think is as whacky as some of his initial commentators think it is. He points out that it could be in the short-term interest of the Kremlin (i.e. Gazprom) for a war to erupt in Iran. Such a conflict would surely boost gas and oil revenues dramatically. These revenues are central to the operations of the Kremlin. Therefore, war is in the interests of those who rule Russia. (The Russian version of his article is found here.)

As the article points out, war might be in the short-term interest of the Russian government, but it does not mean that a war in Iran would benefit Russia in the long term. In the long-run, it could easily further degrade Russian power.

Of course, we have to understand the distinctions between the interests of the Kremlin and the interests of Russia. By implication, if not strictly by definition, the less democratic the country, the more the interests of its leadership and its people diverge. This is not a phenomenon limited to Russia. I remain convinced that it was no in the interests of the citizens of the United States to start a war with Iraq. It was, however, in the short-term political interest of the Bush Administration. It was in the interest of the military contractors who are so generous with their campaign contributions.

Likewise, a war in Iran could help the profits of Gazprom and Lukoil, the extractive industries linked with the Kremlin through interlocking directorships. What would be beneficial for Russia as a whole would be to reduce its dependence on these industries and to become truly democratic.

Unfortunately, I think a war in Iran is more likely than the democratization of Russia.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Football with a German soundtrack

For those of you who wonder what American Football is like, here's a taste. Football on a September afternoon at a medium-size US university.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rare good news from Azerbaijan

I heard a couple of days ago that my former student Perviz Azimov won his court case in Azerbaijan. Perviz had been expelled from the university because of an article he wrote while he was in the journalism class I was teaching in Lenkoran last year. The article was a stinging indictment of the pervasive corruption at Lenkoran State University.

At the time, I had very mixed feelings about the article. On the one hand, I admired Perviz's courage in confronting an issue that deeply concerned him. On the other hand, I feared for the consequences if his article was published. I recommended that he pursue publication slowly - in order to double fact-check everything. As it turned out, by the time I made this recommendation, he was already getting the piece published.

Ah well.

Not surprisingly, the school authorities reacted sharply to the piece, which detailed the pattern of corruption from top to bottom. (Remember - the pattern of corruption begins at the very top. The boss of a company or a country sets the standard.) Before too long, Perviz was accused of starting a fight with another student, grounds for his expulsion. But - he didn't accept this fate quietly. He and his friends began noisy protests in Baku. He challenged the expulsion in court.

And - as we see - in the end this strategy was successful.

So far, the strategy of engaging in noisy protest has not freed Adnan and Emin. But - there's still hope!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sept. 2 demonstration in London

Such demonstrations may seem frustratingly small - but they have an effect. Without publicity about the case, Emin and Adnan don't have a chance.

Monday, September 7, 2009

They expected democratic elections?

Radio Free Europe has a little article about the complaints of the Right Cause Party in Russia regarding the elections for the Moscow Duma. Apparently, the election process is blatantly unfair.

I am very sympathetic but very unsurprised.

Did Stalin hold free elections for city government during his reign? Does the opposition win municipal elections in Azerbaijan? In autocratic systems, there may be variation between how closely elected representatives hew to party orthodoxy, but free competition will not be tolerated.

Certainly a free election in the capital city would be unthinkable.

I'm not sure what the best strategy is for democrats in Russia. I don't see any free elections on the horizon.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Don't cede the essentials in health care debate!

The New York Times has a good editorial today about the effort to change the health care system in the United States. One fundamental point: it is a mistake at this point to cave in to Republican pressures. Democrats win elections by being Democrats and standing firm on their agenda. They lose elections when they try to be Republicans. Obama was elected to bring change to the USA. The electorate did not vote for the status quo - and I remain convinced that a majority of US citizens want change. The Republicans own a potent noise machine but the Democrats are backing an agenda that benefits the majority of US citizens. This agenda includes more controls on corporations, more equity in distribution of wealth, and a better services for the population.

If Obama cedes an important part of this agenda, then he also deserves to lose a large part of the support that put him in office.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Rally in front of Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington D.C.

It might seem to be a large rally, but it's a start. International pressure might appear to be ineffective at this point, but it's one of the few tools available to press for human rights in Azerbaijan. Azadliq!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Trial of bloggers begins

So Azerbaijan begins its latest show trial today, as Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade face judgment for their crime of "hooliganism." It is tragic for the two young men, of course, but it is even more tragic for Azerbaijan as a whole, that its rulers can act contrary to common decency and even common sense with such impunity.

For the few readers who are unaware of the situation, Global Voices Online has a good summary, including tweeted updates here.

In Washington and in London, protesters have denounced the repressive policies of the Azerbaijan government. But - in Azerbaijan itself? What reaction will there be?

An Azerbaijani friend of mine wrote me today about the situation in his country. These are dark and dangerous times for people who are vocal in their support for democracy, he said. For people who just remain quiet, however, it is not so dangerous.

So - how long will the people of Azerbaijan remain quiescent? Until the oil runs out?

In a side note - I saw that the president of Turkmenistan has invited the president of Azerbaijan for visit. How nice! They can compare notes on repression. Maybe Ilham Aliyev can learn some new techniques.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A tale of two cities

Last year at this time, I was teaching a small class of journalism students in Zaqatala, a small and beautiful city in Azerbaijan that is located in the mountains, not far the borders with Russia and Georgia. Now, I am teaching university classes in in a small and pretty city in the mountains of North Carolina, USA. I teach two subjects: research methods & ethics.

Teaching has its moments that are interesting, frustrating, rewarding and boring. I also find that the activity can be disturbing. For example, several years ago I was teaching at a different university when the Bush Administration's policy of torturing suspected terrorists was completely operational. I was teaching a class on politics, so perhaps the subject wasn't directly relevant, but I brought it up anyway. I was appalled that no one in the class would condemn this policy. I was teaching a class of young people who were completely prepared to acquiesce with an official policy of torture, even if this meant that innocent people were tortured. The mantra "9/11. 9/11, 9/11" had its desired effect.

This last week, I described some hypothetical situations for my class on ethics. The class is really about ethics in communication, but we are just getting started, so I am talking more generally about ethics. I posed the question: If a cashier mistakenly gave you an extra $50 in change, would you return it?

I wasn't surprised that not everyone would, but I thought it was interesting how the students who planned to keep the money rationalized their decision. They reasoned that if the cashier made a mistake, then it is the cashier's fault and so the cashier deserves to suffer.

The rationale and the attitude was so wonderfully American. If you are poor, you deserve to be poor. In this understanding, America is not the land of opportunity; it is the land of survival of the fittest. You deserve all the loot that you can get, and if you don't have loot, you don't deserve it.

I note that not all the students opted to keep the money, and some said they would return the money, even after I changed the conditions to make keeping the money more attractive and returning it more difficult.

Nonetheless, I could not help thinking about the change in attitude and locales - my sweet and motivated students in Zaqatala, who write me still and were so grateful for the brief time I spent in their mountain city. And my American students, who possess so much more material wealth but who may be much poorer in some other ways.