Crisis Porn: the power of content curation

In early October 2013 a boat filled with African migrants sank off of the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing at least 111 people, and more than 200 are still missing. Friday the 4th of October 2013, was declared a day of mourning in Italy.  The event has brought much introspection and concern.  News and Media, not withstanding has of course told the story of these migrants. Sometimes the content is important to educate, inform, or even to advocate, but on Friday the 4th of October 2013, I think the Guardian went too far. More after the break…..
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All kinds of content is written or created to show different aspects of the tragedy on Lampedusa; maps, pictures, interviews, video etc. Each one tells the story supposedly from the perspective of those involved or affected by this tragedy. But, when the Guardian published a click thru photo slideshow of found photographs of those that were lost at sea, I think they went too far.  In simple terms, the Guardian bought, bartered or received photographs of family and of migrants, which were recovered at sea and somehow acquired by the La Stampa news agency, and reposted the images with one or two sentences of assumptions, questions or random thoughts.  Here is one example:
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More can be found on their page here:
http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2013/oct/06/italy-migration” target=”_blank”>Photographs of migrants lost at sea on their way to Lampedusa: Faces of amibition and hope are seen in this poignant collection of photographs washed up on beaches or found in wreckage

I see this as Crisis Porn… an offshoot of poverty porn.  It is when tragic images and stories of people are told to the benefit of the storyteller, in this case a news agency.

Here is my logic:

1. Unless they hired a fortune teller to speak with the dead I seriously doubt either La Stampa or the Guardian acquired permission to publish the pictures. The issue of ownership is a real one and calls into question the journalistic practices of La Stampa and the Guardian.

2. The security of the victims of this tragedy are not considered, nor of their families. The pictures and identity of the victims could lead to unforeseen consequences by others who might prey on the family or even by those that might have lent/loansharked money to the victim or her/his family to get to Europe for work. Al Jazeera reports on what actually happened to these migrants after and it is not pretty.

3. I am not convinced that the goal of humanizing the victims is a good argument for this story since there is no (real) information about their humanity that is offered. Either the journalists are lazy or simply not on the ground to collect the real stories (or worse money was not invested by their news agency) which further highlights the ugliness in my last point…

4. Why do a click through? We know that news agencies receive advertising dollars based on clicks and page views.  What a ten image click-through slide show does is multiply one view times ten, and soon we can all see the money rolling in.

In the end “Crisis Porn” or “Humanitarian Aid Porn”, or “Poverty Porn,” at their core are all about power. When the powerful tell the stories of the powerless to gain more power… that is unethical. When the powerful, be they news agencies, humanitarian aid organizations, or charities use the images and stories of their subjects for their own enrichment, that is unethical. No matter how noble the cause, I believe that a story becomes exploitative when the subjects are not involved in the creation and therefore not empowered which can often lead to the same paradigms that began their oppression. For the sake of space and your sanity, I won’t even dive into the festering waters of the “white man telling the black man’s story” or how this information technology is re-colonizing the global south. That will have to be for another post.

In the meantime, tell me:  What do you think?
Source:
The Guardian

So the Muslims came last week, well at least the documentary did.  I had the pleasure of forcing my anti-social husband who is perfectly content to sit alone in his closet to come watch “The Muslims Are Coming.”  The pressure as always, is on me to somehow meet the high expectations of: not be too much noise, too many people, nor too much money spent and any toxic combination of these three. With such an aspirational goal, what could go wrong?  The documentary was produced and directed by two fine comedians: Negin Farsad and Dean Obedeidallah.  The directors screen was put together by the amazing Levantine Cultural Center and as always they really know how to put on a great event.

As we approached the venue, there were a few people standing outside and we realized that we could not enter because there was a biker documentary going on.

Yes you heard correctly these kind of bikers were watching a documentary:

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Not this kind:

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Nor this kind:

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This is all fine and well, except that on the way when I was looking at twitter to find what people have been saying about the documentary with the key word search “THE MUSLIMS ARE COMING” I found this tweet in all its glory:

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And even though that was a different city and different time, the seemingly similar circumstance was a little disconcerting. But hence no brawls ensued and everyone was civil.  It was actually pretty amazing to watch the two groups intermix as the bikers exited the venue and the Muslims are coming crowd (which included many muslims) entered.  Occupying the same space with such different demographics was lethargic and an appropriate way to begin the experience….

As we entered, the theatre was full, it was an conglomeration of older Peaceniks-KPFK activist types, famous comedians, celebrities, muslims, non-muslims, hipsters, OZOMOTLI (I mentioned there were celebrities, right?) and most importantly there were friends from my hood Little Arabia in Anaheim and Garden Grove, CA. I felt good and was ready for action.

First a quick summary:  The documentary follows 7 different comedians:

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as they travel around middle America (actually mostly the South and Utah) performing free stand up comedy events at bars, community centers and banquet halls.  As Negin Farsad, the producer said of the comedians, “We really only have one talent and that’s comedy, so we want to use that to bring people together.”  The group of comedians as expected encountered some hostility and also surprisingly lots of friendliness.  Here is a short clip that explains the idea pretty well.

So now here’s the thing (a.k.a. my review…finally geez!)

1. The documentary generally engaged extremists, the ignorant, the unfamiliar and the unaware. I am not talking about muslims here, I am talking about the middle America, people attending gun shows or Christian right.  Like, they actually went to a gun show to get people to come to their stand-up comedy events.  I know that makes for some good cinema, but this will really paint an image of people (again, not muslims) that pretty much counters all the efforts towards understanding and coexistence.

When you engage people on the fringe, like the Christian radio station in Texas which denounces Islam in America, then you will get statements and reactions that will not represent the community they seemingly represent or the methods they would use to engage others and thus it does a greater disservice to coexistence as only the crazies are being heard.

2. In all fairness, most people they talked to are not crazies. Most are real people that have real fears about Islam and Jihadists.  These fears are based on the understanding they have from acts of terrorism like 9/11.  These fears are too be addressed, not mocked.  There is a real problem with violent extremism in Islam, that is the basis of the fear.

Now, to be clear, it is good to mock those that try to create terror and inflict fear on a population, kinda like telling your kid that the boogie man does not really exist.  But I have never seen fear mocked out of someone. And yet there are quite a few scenes where the ignorant or unaware are mocked and joked about.

3. The missing piece. For me, as a peacebuilder, I often engage in interfaith dialog and peacemaking and know of many many organizations that do this all over America.  I really wished the producers would engage those that are in the trenches doing this sort of interfaith work day after day, both the facilitators and participants.  They have vast amounts of knowledge, experience and insight on how to build bridges and bring people together.  Although they do quote and consult experts in Islam and had them expound the exegetical understanding of the faith… I think the psycho-social community element would have added to the documentary.  Also it would have painted a much more realistic picture of the efforts people are making around the USA towards coexistence.

4. What makes someone a muslim? This was the HUGE dare I say HUGE, elephant in the room, that while briefly addressed by Omar Elba, was really left unanswered.  The need for clarification is vital because Islam is a religion which holds Orthopraxi (correct action/activity) and Orthodoxy (correct belief) in equal balance.  Christianity has the concept of grace that is found in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This means that when you do something wrong, you know that there is not a good action that can nullify the bad (yes, it is true that different denominations of Christianity understand this differently, but the idea of Salvation by Grace is an essential).  Orthopraxi, in Christianity comes out of a pure faith, but it does not lead to salvation.

Therefore, in Islam following the five pillars: Shahada, fasting, praying, zakaat, and the Hajj are necessary for righteous living. This in fact identifies a muslim as a muslim.  And yet, the producers and comedians (besides Omar) had a very different understanding of what makes someone a muslim.  Basically the idea of self-identification, cultural-muslim and other quasi-muslim philosophies were put out.  I am not here to judge whether self-identification or having correct orthopraxi /orthodoxy is a better way to describe who is really following Islam.  I do however think  that maybe, just maybe the comedians might have taken themselves out of the running to represent muslims to America because that identity is diluted.  I would love to hear from muslims who saw the show if my assumption holds any water or perhaps instead they did feel represented and that the comedians were great examples of the Muslim experience in America.

IN conclusion…

The rest of the documentary was funny, crude, interesting and even emotional.  I think the concept is a great one and could be expounded and built on.  I would recommend it as I think it opens up space for dialog and self-reflection on all sides.  I am glad I went to see it, my husband unsurprisingly was mediocre, asking perhaps the worst and best question.  “I just don’t understand who the audience for this kind of documentary would be?!?”

In February 2013, I spent a whirlwind week in Gaziantep, Turkey training Syrian activist in conflict sensitivity and Do No Harm approach, as part of the Center for Civil Society and Democracy (CCSDS)  project on Transparency funded by the government of Canada.

Activists from Syria came to learn how to monitor and evaluate their work and implement best practices when delivering humanitarian aid or working as grassroots peacebuilders.  Besides the challenge of creating relevant curriculum in 3 short days that included Prezi’s, powerpoints, worksheets and activities (all of which had to be translated into Arabic) I was grateful to be allowed inside this conflict in such a deep way.  I was honored to be trusted with their stories of triumph over real tragedies.  Many of the participants had lost everything in the revolution and subsequent conflict, such as their land, their homes, spouses,  jobs, material property etc.   Many had also endured long separations from family and friends.  They had endured many deep traumas and pain.  And yet I saw a bright and resilient group.  Because of sensitive nature of this conflict I can’t say too much or post many pictures but I wanted to share the English report that CCSDS finally published which I helped edit.  The original report is published on their website here www.ccsds.org,  I also reposted it below.   I have attached some images from our collaborative conflict analysis that each group of participants developed together.  You can see the actor triangle below. Other tools we used are not shown here, like the Onion: positions, interests and needs analysis and the problem tree and others.

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Original Post HERE:

August 5th, 2013
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Due to the intense violence currently in Syria, public affairs work has become increasingly risky, particularly within civil society and relief efforts.  At a time in which the need for this kind of work increases, especially in besieged areas due to fighting and lack of resources, the number of volunteers, activists, and organizations trying to meet the desperate need has increased.  In addition, the civil society institutions and organizations that are involved in this work have had to spontaneously respond to very dynamic and challenging circumstances, which unfortunately has resulted in a great deal of chaos, improvisation and lack of transparency regarding their working mechanisms and the groups of people that they serve.  Furthermore, the lack of capacity and training, from which many of the organizations suffer, has become a huge challenge, causing unintended consequences and costly mistakes. These factors and more have motivated the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria to launch the “Transparency and Monitoring Project” to assist civil and relief organizations to increase the quality and scale of their work.- The project focused first on training a group of volunteers and activists from these organizations in the design, monitoring, and evaluation of conflict-sensitive humanitarian aid and psychosocial assistance interventions, including the development of the DO NO HARM approach methodology, theories of change, indicators and metrics to better evaluate successful programs.  Further training in research methods and data collection methodology was conducted to build the capacity of participants to document and evaluate their work in order to achieve more transparency in the field of relief work in Syria. The research was planned for the areas in which the participants worked, namely Damascus, its countryside and its suburbs.Another goal of this project was to create a platform and environment in which institutions, organizations, local councils, and relief agencies could share resources and information from the areas researched in order to fully know the present situation and to be able to study the needs of those most affected.After identifying Damascus and its countryside as a focus area for the implementation of this project, it was divided into fourteen sections, seven for the city of Damascus and another seven for its surrounding countryside. The Center targeted a group of twelve activists from different organizations and institutes. Although the organizers had expected another seven activists to participate, they were unable to attend because of the security situation due to the violence.  Following the training, the participants were expected to monitor the work of the institutions and organizations that nominated them.  They were also able to review the work of independent organizations of their choosing and apply the tools and mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation they had learned in the workshop.

The participants were asked to distribute a questionnaire to groups of active citizens known for their work in the revolution, to have them respond to the questions and send it back to the Center for Civil Society and Democracy to study and analyze.  After analyzing the completed questionnaires, we found the following results:

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This project is timely and relevant because of the present crisis inside Syria, from displacement, deteriorating economic conditions, destruction of property and loss of jobs.  These issues and more have increased the great need for humanitarian, psychosocial, and community development. And yet this work was all conducted under the radar and in secrecy because of the difficult security situation.

Due to the importance of anonymity for security reasons, much of the information regarding the relief situation in Syria has been blocked and prevented from being shared, including documents of the real needs of the refugees, the possibility to fully help them, the abilities of the workers in this field and the obstacles they face. For this reason the Center for Civil Society and Democracy identified the need to spread the concept of transparency among Syrian organizations and the community in general.  With this in mind, the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria petitioned the support of funders.  It has been the honor of the staff and volunteers of the Center to work with and be supported by the Canadian government and they are very grateful for their cooperation.

Some Notes on the Study:

When the project first began, admittedly the study was not completely neutral in terms of participant selection due to security issues.  To be more specific, all of the participants shared the same opposing opinions to the present regime. However, they differed greatly in their opinions and allegiances towards the various opposition parties and their intellectual, ethnic, regional or sectarian approach.

The study was initiated by the workshop participants upon their return to Syria and it lasted one month.  Because of the dynamics of the conflict and changing atmosphere of relief work, the study may not be comprehensive.  However, the data from this research does provide a good overview of the humanitarian relief situation in Syria, and it can possibly be a starting point and foundational study from which further work and research can begin.

Features of Relief Work:

  1. In many cases, the work of different organizations operating in the same region is confused due to lack of coordination between them.  This sometimes leads to some families receiving other families’ shares of aid and relief.
  2. Many of the humanitarian workers have responded spontaneously and do not have the proper training or expertise needed to conduct formative baseline research and documentation of the situation on the ground.
  3. Most of the activists were fearful to share information about their work because of the high degree of security concerns.

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Key Findings of this Study:

  1. The type of workforce functioning in these areas varied greatly; relief organizations, local councils, small, organized groups of individuals or, in some cases, individuals operating alone.
  2. The study targeted more than 35 areas in Damascus and its countryside, depending on the activists who received the questionnaire.  The level of coverage and evaluation was uneven from one region to another; depending on each region’s particularities, circumstances, nature of conflict and clashes. In addition the amount of destruction, the number of displaced and the presence of relief organizations in each region and their ability to work also played an important factor.
  3. The study showed the effectiveness of the relief work in some of the areas that are under the control of the regime, such as Al-Mazzeh, Al-Adwi, Ashrafiet Sahnaya, Jaramana and Al-Zahera, compared to other areas that are under the control of the armed opposition forces including in Eastern Ghouta, Douma, Harasta, Saqba, Mesraba and others.  In Eastern Ghouta, the performance of the relief organizations was good but it needed more support.
  4. The sectarian diversity of the regions hosting refugees and internally displaced persons has spread to cover nearly all sects of Syria. However, this study found that the Sunni regions topped the list, but that may also have been due to the fact that Sunnis make up the largest demographic in Damascus and its countryside.
  5. Relief workers in many of the areas studied encounter regular obstacles, including random artillery and aviation shelling, lack of security, and increased kidnappings.
  6. The uncertainties of the unstable security situation have brought unintended consequences and inherent challenges. The relief work constantly faces challenges because of constant movement of supply warehouses, difficulty to move between different areas due to checkpoints and often the lack of means of transport by which to deliver the supplies of aid and help.
  7. The constant increase in the number of refugees and the clear lack of capacity for organizations to cover their needs has been further exacerbated by the desperate lack of accessibility of medical supplies, resources, food and fuel. There is also evidence of theft of aid and relief materials.
  8. Varying effectiveness in the work of different relief organizations from one region to another depended on the following factors: financial ability, foreign aid, and the security conditions under which they operate.
  9. In general, the metrics from the survey rated the work of the organizations and activists from acceptable to good.  But it is clear that, due to the lack of coordination between groups, financial support and in management capabilities, the programs are not as developed or successful as they could be.  In addition, it is apparent that the small numbers of trained and specialized volunteers lead to a capacity vacuum in service management and delivery.
  10. The study revealed the lack of commitment in most of the organizations when it comes to abiding the principals of transparency in their work.  As it turned out, the majority of workers had no idea on the amounts of aid coming to their organizations, who provides these supplies or how much is being given to each family.
  11. The distribution of aid to the displaced was not subjected to any conditions in general.  However, some organizations demanded “the family book”, and in other cases, the distribution was based on some priorities and preferences; according to the damages or to the fact that the displaced are related to a victim or victims.  As for other organizations, there have been some cases where the aid was delivered according to political, religious and sectarian considerations.

Recommendations for Future Projects:

  1. Due to the short amount of time in which this study was conducted, there was a great amount of pressure on the trainees to gather the needed information.  For this reason, the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria asks for the allocation of more time during which to complete future studies of this kind, as they require a lot of movement, travel and communication with people.
  2. New, innovative ways through which to raise people’s awareness of the concept of transparency and monitoring using the media and social communication tools should be established.
  3. The development of better metrics and indicators of transparency work is needed to more effectively evaluate the quality of service of delivery.
  4. The development of an upstream strategic communications campaign would help to educate opinion leaders and dignitaries on the need for investment and capacity building for the sake of humanitarianism and not for political, sectarian or personal purposes.

Banias, Syria May 1-4 2013

The conflict in Syria, which began as a revolution, has spiraled into sectarian violence. Leaders from various ethnic and religious backgrounds in Syria have capitalized on a history full of cultural and structural violence to manipulate and move their followers to violence.  Yet until May 1-4 2013 there has not been such outright violence, mass killings and ethnic cleansing (which some are calling it genocide).

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At the heart of the violence in Banias, Syria is Mihraç Ural, an Alawite Turk with Syrian citizenship that leads the “National Resistance” militia, a shabiha subdivision. According to blog “Arab Saga” (http://arabsaga.blogspot.com/)  Mihraç Ural goes by his Arabic nom de guerre: Ali at-Kayyali. In a leaked video, that made headlines Mihraç Ural said  “We need to cleanse Banias of traitors at the earliest.”   Supported and sitting next to Alawite religious leaders Ural continued his hate speech that brought on the killing of over 100 Sunni Muslims in the small Syrian Coastal town.

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He says:

“Banias? The only exit route for those traitors is the (Mediterranean) sea.

We are Banias!

“In any case, Jableh (a nearby coastal city) is under nationalist forces control. It cannot possibly be a base or pathway for our foes.

“Sooner or later, we’re supposed to lay siege to Banias. I mean what I say: cordon off Banias and start the ethnic cleansing.

“Our mission is to liberate, cleanse and hold our ground until (regular army) troops take over.”

This was not Ural’s first hate speech YouTube video[i], in January he offered some choice words to traitors of Syria and also alluded to the need to do away with them.  Hate media as we see does not happen in a vacuum but envelops a central historic and cultural pivotal time. In Ural’s hate speech, which was uploaded to Youtube making it hate-media, Ural carefully crafts his words to be full of meaning.  He chooses an enemy: one that is supported by a greater enemy: Erdogon (Turkey) and Neo-Ottomans. These words are important to Alawites because they suffered oppression and cultural violence themselves from the Ottomans.  This hate speech was effective, moving Ural’s militia to action because it made cultural violence look and feel right.  It is justified because Alawites too have suffered at the hands of the Sunni’s (no matter if it was nearly 100 years ago).  The collective memory of suffering by the Alawites is very strong and can be called upon years after the initial violence occurred to bring about mass killings as happened in Banias.  In the short video Ural even mentions a history of 7,000 years, the Sumerians, the sons of Syria…etc. to make his point. His chosen words are clear that the Syrian opposition against the Assad Regime is not truly Syrian and therefore must be done away with.  Hate Speech found in Ural’s hate media, is an example how the tone has changed in the Syrian conflict (Revolution to some).  He uses ethno-political terms, which increase sectarianism, and thus has lead to over 100 men, women and children to be killed between May 1-4, 2013.

 

Here is the text below:

 

“The Syrian Resistance will get its revenge from every oppressor. It will chase all corrupt, traitors and infiltrators from across the border, sent by Erdogon and Neo-Ottomans. The Syrian Resistance, the Sons of Syria, the sons of the land, the sons of a 7,000 year old civilization…will not allow you… to spread in this land… to destroy it… to burn it. We are all on the look out for you… all of us. This coast is the coast of civilization of the Mediterranean Sea. This coast has repeatedly offered to humanity several civilizations. Long ago, man found this place to be one where he can enjoy an honorable livelihood and he created on it many civilizations. From the days of Sumerians and those who came before until this very day… one civilization after another…the identity of Syria has evolved, in all the mosaic that it is comprised of, in all its shapes and colors.  You oppressors, whose minds are quarter empty, you traitors. Don’t even dream of descending on Lattakia and the coast. The entire coast is on the lookout for you.  The coast, with the Syrian Resistance and its men, is on the lookout for you. We are all ready to get you…always ready!

Song begins “ Syria, my beloved… you gave me back my dignity, you gave me back my identity…” 


[i] Mihrac Ural January 2013 Youtube Video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwnQ4-D2cOQ

Aleppo Streets

Image  —  Posted: April 19, 2013 in Peace/Conflict in the news, poems from conflict, Transmedia Storytelling

Two weeks ago I was in Eastern Turkey working with the Center for Democracy and Civil Society in Syria.  It was an amazing time that I will cherish and hope to relive soon.  While I was there the Economist Magazine released their now “infamous” cover featuring the illustration below ( number 1).   The concept is pretty straight forward – country imploding from civil war, destruction and fatalism.  It is true  that in the international sphere and from a geo-political perspective it seems pretty accurate. What else could cause over 1,000,000 refugees?  What else killed has over 55,000 in Syria if not the conflict.  True….

But…

When I asked the my Syrian friends what they thought about the cover…they were alot less angry than the tweets I head read about it.  They seemed almost apathetic…or was it fatalism?  I was frankly a bit surprised that I did not get a bigger more angry reaction.

But…

Two days later a new image (number 2) was going around the internet. It was created by a Syrian.  Yes, a Syrian has caste more hope on a horrible conflict than the “thought leaders” at the Economist Magazine. This time my Syrian friends reacted with pride and hope. It was interesting how an illustration from a designer that most likely was commissioned a work and has little knowledge about the real Syrian story can frame a conflict for the literate word.  These simple symbols have power.  The one on top confirms fatalism while the one on the bottom  shines a little light.  The wonderful Danny Bar-Tal often used to say (in my graduate school class at Brandeis, covering how mobilization of people towards or away from conflict takes place) ” Its easy to see how someone would go from light to darkness,  what is really the mystery to us all is how one can come out of deep deep darkness and become light”  There have been many – Ghandi, Mandela etc… even with their flaws they were visionaries of a different world.

There are many Syrian Ghandi’s and Mandela’s – now if the mass media would shut up long enough to let the smaller- quieter voices of peace to raise up.  For my part, I will do all that I can to augment and amplify the Ghandis’ and Mandelas’ in today’s conflicts.  I do this by calling out “thought leaders in the mass media” and their myopic views of conflicts no matter on what side they sit.  I do this by supporting local movements towards peace. By helping facilitate and making it easier to mobilize towards peace. I help create platforms (modern soapboxes and megaphones) for minority messages and voices to escape censorship and the noise of information overload. But most often I do this best by shutting my privileged mouth and doing the simple work like setting up chairs, passing out flyers or cleaning up after a campaign. Will you join me? here is one campaign I have had the honor to work with…  #IAMSHE

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Economist #1

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Economist (#2)

See on Scoop.itPeace Journalism

In early February, a suicide bomber attacked the American Embassy in Turkey. The moments and hours afterwards were captured on video by Turkish TV reporters and CNN — and by a contributor for…

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