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Dispatches News Awards for 2016

Dispatches 2016 News Awards

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 21, 2016


Each year Dispatches From the Edge gives awards to individuals, companies and governments that make reading the news a daily adventure. Here are the awards for 2016.


The Golden Lemon Award had a number of strong contenders in 2016, including:

  • General Atomics for its MQ-9 Reaper armed drone, which has a faulty starter-generator that routinely shorts out the aircraft. So far, no one can figure out why. Some 20 were either destroyed or sustained major damage last year. The Reapers costs $64 million apiece.
  • Panavia Aircraft Company’s $25 billion Tornado fighter-bomber that can’t fly at night because the cockpit lights blind the pilot. A runner up here is the German arms company Heckler & Koch, whose G-36 assault rifle can’t shoot straight when the weather is hot.
  • The British company BAE’s $1.26 billion Type 45 destroyer that breaks down “whenever we try to do too much with them,” a Royal Navy officer told the Financial Times. Engaging in combat, he said, would be “catastrophic.”


But the hands down winner is Lockheed Martin, builder of the F-35 Lightning stealth fighter. At a cost of $1.5 trillion it is the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history. Aside from numerous software problems, pilots who try to bail out risk decapitation. The Director of Operational Test and Evaluation recently released an assessment of the F-35’s performance that states, “In an opposed combat scenario,” the “aircraft would need to avoid threat engagement and would require augmentation by other friendly forces.” Translation: “If the bad guys show up, run for your life and pray your buddies arrive to bail you out of trouble.”

Lockheed Martin also gets an Honorable Mention for its $4.4 billion littoral combat ship, the USS Zumwalt, which had to be towed out of the Panama Canal. The ship also leaks, as do other sister littoral combat ships, including the USS Freedom.

Note: U.S. students are currently $1.3 trillion in debt.


The Dr. Frankenstein Award to the U.S. Air Force for zapping the brains of drone operators with electricity in order to improve their focus. The electrical stimulation was started after scientists discovered that feeding the pilots Provigil and Ritalin was a bad idea, because both drugs are highly addictive and Provigil can permanently damage sleep patterns. Nika Knight of Common Dreams reports that “European researchers who studied the brain-zapping technique years ago warned that the technology is, in fact, extremely invasive, as its effects tend to ‘spread from the target brain area to neighboring areas.’”


The Golden Jackal Award goes to United Kingdom oil companies BP and Royal Dutch Shell for their lobbying campaign following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Executives of the companies met with UK Trade Minister Baroness Elizabeth Symons five months before the U.S. attack to complain that the Americans were cutting them out of the post-war loot.


According to Parliament’s 2016 Chilcot Report on the Iraq War, Symons then met with Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to tell him it was a “matter of urgency,” and that “British interests are being left to one side.” Straw dutifully told Blair to raise the issue “very forcefully” with President George W. Bush, because U.S. companies are “ruthless” and “will not help UK companies unless you play hardball with Bush.”


Runner up in this category is the Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer Prize in Public Service journalism for publishing Edward Snowden’s revelations about illegal U.S. wiretapping and then called for the whistleblower to be charged with espionage. Glenn Greenwald—who met with Snowden and wrote stories about the scandal for The Guardian—said “The Washington Post has achieved an ignominious feat in US media history: the first-ever paper to explicitly editorialize for the criminal prosecution of its own source…. That is warped beyond anything that can be described.”


The Thin Skin Award is a five-way tie among the governments of Spain, India, Israel, Turkey and Thailand:


*Spain-Under Spain’s 2015 public security law—nicknamed the “gag rule”—police are trying to fine a woman for carrying a bag on which was written “All Cats Are Beautiful.” The police say that the writing and color of the bag is “traditionally associated with insults to the police” and that the four capital letters really mean “All Cops Are Bastards.”


*India: The rightwing government of Narendra Modi is proposing a law that would make it illegal to publish any map indicating that Kashmir is disputed territory divided between India and Pakistan. Currently such maps are censored by either preventing the publication’s distribution or covering the maps with black stickers. The new law would fine violators $15 million and jail them for up to seven years.


*Israel: The Ministry of Education has removed a novel—“Borderlife” by Dorit Rabinyan about a romance between a Jewish woman and a Palestinian man—from the list of required reading for Hebrew high schools literature classes. Education official Dalia Fenig says, “Marrying a non-Jew is not what the education system is educating about.”


Turkey: In the aftermath of July’s failed coup, novelist and journalist Ahmet Alten, and his brother Mehmet, a professor of economics, were arrested for “colluding with the military” even though both men are known to be sharp critics of the Turkish armed forces. The prosecutor had no evidence against the men, but charged them with giving “subliminal” and “subconscious” messages backing the coup during a TV talk show. The authorities also closed down the Smurfs, Maya the Bee, and SpongeBob SquarePants, because the cartoon characters were speaking Kurdish on Zarok TV, a station that does programming in the Kurdish language. According to Al-Monitor, “Many social media users went into lampoon mode, asking, “Who is the separatist: SpongeBob or Papa Smurf?”


*Thailand: Patnaree Chankij, a 40-year old maid, is to be tried by a military court for breaking the country’s lèse-majesté’ law that makes it a crime to insult the royal family or their pets. She replied “ja” (“yeah”) to a private post sent to her on Facebook. She did not agree with the post, comment on it, or make it public. One man is currently serving a 30-year sentence for posting material critical of the Thai royal family. Following the military coup two years ago, the authorities have filed 57 such cases, 44 of them for online commentary. One person was arrested for insulting the king’s dog.


The Cultural Sensitivity Award goes to Denmark, France, and Latvia.


The center-right Danish government, which relies on the racist Danish People’s Party to stay in government, passed a law that confiscates valuables, including jewels and cash, from refugees. Immigrants can only keep up to $1,455. The Danish town of Randers also required pork to be used in all public day care centers and kindergartens in what the Socialist People’s Party (SPP) charges is aimed at Muslims. “What do children need? Do they need pork? Actually not,” said Charlotte Molbaek, a Randers Town Council member from the SPP. “Children need grownups.”


Several French towns run by rightwing mayors have removed alternatives—like fish or chicken—from school menus when pork is served. On those days Muslim and Jewish children eat vegetables.


The rightwing government of Latvia is banning the wearing of full veils, in spite of that fact that, at last count, there were three such women in the whole country. Former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga told the New York Times, “Anybody could be under a veil or under a burqa. You could carry a rocket launcher under your veil.”


A runner up in this category is former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who, during a speech in Kiev, said that Ukrainians should stop complaining about the economic crisis that has gripped the country since the 2014 coup that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych. “Anyone who believes that life is bad in Ukraine should go to Liberia, where the standard of living is much lower, and then you will be thankful.”


The Head In The Sand Award to British Prime Minister Theresa May for closing down the government’s program to study climate change. A co-winner is the conservative government of Australia that laid off 275 scientists from its climate change program. Some were rehired after an international petition campaign, however, the leading international researcher on sea levels, John Church was let go permanently.


In the meantime, the U.S. Air Force is spending $1 billion to build a radar installation in Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Atoll is halfway between Australia and Hawaii and is only a few feet above sea level. It is estimated that sea levels will rise at least six feet by 2100, but the increase is moving far faster than scientists predicted. “The future does not look very good for those islands,” says Curt Storlazzi, and oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Service.


The Little Bo Peep Award to the U.S. Defense Department for being unable to account for $6.5 trillion in spending. Yes, that is a “T.” According to Mandy Smithberger, director of Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight, “Accounting at the Department of Defense is a disaster, but nobody is screaming about it because you have a lot of people in Congress who believe in more military spending.”


According to UK watchdog group Action on Armed Violence, the Pentagon also can’t account for 1.4 million guns shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan.


The CIA won some laurels in this category as well. According to an investigation by Al Jazeera and the New York Times, Jordanian intelligence operatives stole millions of dollars in U.S. weapons bound for Syria. Some of the guns were used to kill Americans at a police training school in Amman.


The Annie Oakley Award to the American firearms manufacturers and the National Rifle Association (NRA) for their campaign to arm kids. The guns for tots are lighter than regular firearms and have less recoil. They are also made in “kid-friendly” colors, like pink.


Iowa recently passed legislation making it legal for any minor to own a pistol. According to state Representative Kirsten Running –Marquardt, the law “allows for one-year olds, two-year olds, three-year olds, four-year olds to operate handguns,” adding, “We do not need a militia of toddlers.”


The Violence Policy Center reports, “As household gun ownership has steadily declined and the primary gun market of white males continues to age, the firearms industry has set its sights on America’s children. Much like the tobacco industry’s search for replacement smokers, the gun industry is seeking replacement shooters.”


If your two-year old is packing and really wants that Star Wars droid, Dispatches recommends you buy it.







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Ballots, Bullets, and Bizarreness

Dispatches From The Edge

March 17, 2006

Some elections to keep an eye on.

Last month’s massive demonstrations in Bangkok demanding the resignation of Thailand’s Prime Minister, Thanksin Shinawatra, focused on the media mogul’s avoidance of $100 million in taxes. But underlying the charges of corruption is a growing allergy to Thanksin’s heavy-handed approach to any opposition, a result of his scorched earth policy toward Muslims in the country’s southern provinces.

In an effort to derail the uproar over his taxes, Thanksin called a snap election for April 2.

But the largely urban and middle-class opposition is less concerned with Thailand’s endemic government corruption than it is with a series of emergency laws aimed at the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, which abut the border with Malaya. The law allows the government to ban publications, impose curfews, tap phones and detain suspects without a warrant

“This kind of law is a Pandora’s Box,” says Sunai Phasuk, a political analyst associated with Human Rights Watch, “Once you open it, all the nasty things will come out. This law provides the government with a blank check, which is pretty alarming.

Thanksin has silenced critics by filing defamation suits, and buying up media outlets. He says the media must serve the “national interest” and not report “bad news.”

Southern Thailand is “bad news,” and it’s getting worse. The area is mostly Muslim and ethnically Malay, unlike the Buddhist and ethnically Thai center and north. The three provinces, formally the Sultanate of Pattani, were annexed by Thailand—then Siam—in 1909 in a deal cut with the British.

The fact that the south is vastly poorer than the rest of the country has fueled resentment in the three provinces, anger that exploded in April 2004 when a group of Muslims, mostly armed with knives and machetes, attacked several Thai police stations. The government responded with fury, killing over 100 local Muslims, including 32 people who had taken refuge inside the 16th Century Kru Se Mosque.

The following October, the government savagely attacked a demonstration with water cannons and live ammunition, arresting over 1,300 people. The demonstrators were piled on top of one another for a five-hour drive, at the end of which 78 of them had suffocated.

Thanksin said the deaths were a result of the Muslim holy month, Ramadan. “This is typical. It’s about bodies made weak from fasting. Nobody hurt them,” he said.

The Prime Minister has poured 35,000 troops into the provinces, and threatens to cut aid to the impoverished region. According to Amnesty International, the military and local police are guilty of “arbitrary detentions, torture, and excessive lethal force.” The United Nations says the Thai government is violating an international treaty on civil and political rights. The ongoing tension has strained relations with Thailand’s neighbors as well.

Some of Thanksin’s behavior has been simply bizarre. In an effort to encourage “peace,” the military dropped 100 million origami paper cranes over the provinces. But since victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki invented the origami as an act of forgiveness, the crane drop suggested that the Muslims were the ones who needed forgiveness. Needless to say, it was not well received.

At this point the opposition says it will boycott the April 2 vote because they say it is impossible to have a fair contest during a state of emergency. Under Thai election rules that could invalidate the election. In the meantime, the repression in the south continues. It is a tactic, argues an editorial in the Financial Times, “that does not work for Israel in the occupied territories or for the U.S. forces in Iraq, and it will not work for Buddhist Thailand in the country’s predominantly Muslim southern provinces.”

Consider the train wreck that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has engineered going into the April 9-10 national elections:

  • The Prime Minster may be facing his ninth indictment for corruption and bribery. He has been convicted three times on similar charges, but managed to pass legislation in the Italian parliament that allowed him avoid any punishment.
  • The Italian economy, according to Mario Draghi, governor of the Central Bank, “has run aground—gross domestic product did not grow, our products lost even more world market share, and the budget deficit increased.”
  • His reform minister from the racist and xenophobic Northern League was forced to resign for wearing a t-shirt embossed with cartoons insulting Mohammad, and his health minister resigned because he was caught wire tapping political opponents.

Should be a slam-dunk for the center-left L’Unione coalition, right? Not when Berlusconi owns controlling stakes in three of the biggest private TV stations and, as Prime Minister, can decide what happens in the three owned by the state.

For example, he got blanket media coverage when he pledged to abstain from all sex until after the election. On the same day L’Unione’s unveiled its economic program, he stole the limelight by comparing himself to Jesus Christ. He managed to get round the clock coverage when President Bush lent him a hand by inviting him to address a joint session of Congress.

Using this combination of showmanship and raw financial power, he is keeping the race close. The most recent poll (before his latest legal difficulties) indicates the gap between his center-right coalition and L’Unione has closed from 6 percent to 4 percent.

In the end, Berlusconi’s antics may all come to naught. Even with the current poll numbers, L’Unione is still on track to build a wide margin in the lower house (340 to 277) and narrowly take the senate (158-151). And his new legal difficulties may widen the gap. But with a friend in the White House and almost unlimited media power, this one isn’t going to be over until it’s over.

Israel’s March 28 elections looked like they were going to be a victory lap for Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party, but with his lackluster successor, Ehud Olmert, in charge, polls indicate a fall from a projected 44 seats to only 37 in the 120-member Knesset. Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud has picked up one of those seats for a projected total of 15. Labor is at 19 seats, the number two position. But it looks like some of the former Kadima votes will go to small parties that range from extremely reactionary to Left.

One newcomer is the Green Leaf Party, which is dovish on the Palestinian issue and advocates legalization of marijuana, gambling and prostitution. It may take two seats.

Netanyahu has ruled out a coalition with Kadima, and talk is of a Kadima/ Labor government. Olmert, however, says he will not negotiate with the Palestinians, which is nothing new. The Israeli government has refused to talk with the Palestinians since 2001. Labor’s Amir Peretz, on the other hand, recently met with the Palestinian Authority.

With the exception of a few small left and Israeli Arab parties, none of the major parties has presented a peace plan that is likely to get much traction with the Palestinians, although at least Labor is willing to negotiate matters. However, until a majority of Israelis elect a government that will evacuate all the settlements, share Jerusalem, and equitably resolve the refugee question, peace will remain a long way off.

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