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A look at Syria’s long history of feminist movements

A poster shows historical photos of Syrian women participating in public events in the 20the century. Copyright SFJN 2018. Used with permission. Click for full image.

The following piece is the result of a partnership between Global Voices (GV) and the Syrian Female Journalists Network (SJFN). It was written by GV MENA Newsroom editor Joey Ayoub with contributions by GV Italian translator Alice Bonfatti and GV writer Elias Abou Jaoudeh.

The Syrian feminist movement started at the end of the 1800s when the lands now known as Syria and Lebanon were under the Ottoman Empire.

We got an insight into this rich history through a conversation (in Arabic) between SFJN and Maya Alrahabi, co-founder of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement. It was uploaded on SFJN's SoundCloud account.

It's no coincidence that the feminist movement started in the late 19th century during the time of Arabic Nahda, or awakening in English, a period of cultural renaissance that began in Egypt and soon spread to Lebanon, Syria and other Arabic-speaking countries.

While attention is usually given to such figures as the Egyptian Muslim scholar Rifa'a el-Tahtawi or the Lebanese Maronite scholar Butrus Al-Bustani, Alrahabi emphasizes the role of women in pioneering what would become the Syrian feminist movement.

Since the beginning of the movement, Syrian feminists joined the global call for basic rights for women such as the right to vote and education.

مثل ما منعرف النسوية, الموجة تانسوية العالمية الاولى كانت تحي فقط عن بعض حقوق النساء, مثل التعليم او المشاركة بالانتخابات. فهذا طالبوا فيه النسويات الرائدات بسورية بنهاية القرن التاسع عشر وبداية القرن العشرين

As we know, the first global feminist wave only talked of a few rights for women: Education, suffrage and the likes. Syrian feminist activists were also demanding those rights at the end of the 19th century.

Syrian women gained the right to vote in 1953.

Alrahabi recalled women like Marianna Marrach who, as early as 1870, was already writing in newspapers and calling for the liberation of women (and may have been the first Arab woman to do so). She was born in Aleppo and died in Aleppo, living long enough (1848-1919) to see her city pass from the hands of the Ottomans to that of the French. Marrach may have even been the first woman to write in Arabic language newspapers. She revived the tradition of Mujtama'at wa Majaless al-Adabyya Al-Nisa'iya or “women's literary circles” in her family home in Aleppo, fusing selected European influences with her own Syrian ones.

Alrahabi also refers to Mary Ajami and Adila Bayham Al Jazairi as excellent examples:

بتذكر مثلا ماريا عجمي اللي اسست السنة 1910 مجلة العروس وعادلة بيهم الجزائري اللي عملت في جمعيات نسائية، هدفها ثفافية واجتماعية والمنادة بحقوق المرأة مما يتناسب مع الموجة النسوية الاولى اللي كانت موجودة بالعالم.

I remember for example Marya Ajami who founded in 1910 the magazine Al-Arous (the bride) and Adila Bayham Al-Jazairi who founded many feminist organisations whose purposes were educational and social as well as advocating for women's rights, and this coincided with the first global feminist wave.

The movement would continue, on and off, until the 1963 Syrian coup d'état, which saw the overthrow of the post-independence republic (1946–1963) and the rise of the Ba'ath party.

This was then followed by a second coup which toppled the leaders of the party in 1966 and installed Salah Jadid, followed again by a third coup by Hafez Assad who appointed himself the leader of Syria in 1970. The Assad regime continues to rule Syria to this day since Hafez's son, Bashar, took over power when the former died in 2000.

The attitude of these regimes to the Syrian feminist movement was either to ban, contain, or absorb them. This stopped the “natural development of the feminist movement,” according to Alrahabi, with its remnants absorbed in the General Union of Syrian Women (GUSW). Besides the GUSW, she continued:

لم يعد يرخص لاي جمعية نسائية جديدة وهذا استمر من 1963 لليوم

No other feminist organization has been given a license. And that has been ongoing since 1963.

Needless to say, what the GUSW could or could not do was severely limited from the start:

الاتحاد النسائي كان منظمة شبه حكومية لانه كان اولا عاملها شكلي ووظيفتها الاولي هي فقط التسفيق والتهليل انجازات السلطة في سورية او النظام السوري. لم تقدم على الارض للحقيقة مساعدة حقيقية للنساء.

The GUSW was a quasi-governmental organisation whose work was just formal. Its actions amounted to just clapping for and celebrating the ruling party in Syria. It didn’t provide any actual help to women.

According to Alrahabi, this monopoly by the state meant that Syrian feminists, as well as most Arab feminists, couldn't join the global second wave that started in the 1960s.

 لما صارت الموجة النسوية الثانية بالعالم واللي هي بدأت بالستينات تقريبا وبدأت تحكي عن مفهوم الجندر, مفهوم توريع الادوار الاجتماعية  بين الرجل والمرأة بالمجتمع, هون كان متوقف تطور الحراك النسوي بكا الدول العربية نتيجة سيطرة الانظمة الاستبدادية عليها

When the second wave of feminism in the world started around the 1960s, we started seeing the understanding of gender and gender roles in society. Here the development of feminism throughout the Arab world stopped due to the control of authoritarian regimes.

There were, however, some feminists in the Arab world who spoke of women's rights from a gender perspective. Alrahabi gave the example of Hanan Nijme, who set up her own cultural salon in 1980 in Damascus. Nijme was instrumental in demanding legal changes to improve the conditions of women and children in Syria and secured some concessions from the state. The following is a brief biography of Nijme (in Arabic).

It is with this background in mind that Alrahabi interprets the Syrian revolution since 2011.

 الثورة كانت ثورة على كل شيء ولذلك الناشطين الثوريين للحقيقة كان الهم دور بان تكون النساء ضمن مسيج الثورة وهذا تمدي لتنصيقيات اللي كان فيها تواجد للنساء مهم. وتطورت بعدين المنظمات النسوية السورية في الخارج اللي دعت لحقوق المرأة أو ادماج مطالب بمطالب الثورة. على صعيد اخر, كان في حركات متطرفة هي للحقيقة تعاملت مع النساء بوحشية وقمع وحاولت اعادة النساء الى ما قبل كذا قرن. فكان للحقيقة طرفين للمعادلة بعد الثورة

The 2011 revolution was a revolution against everything, and so the women had a role as revolutionary activists at the forefront of the revolution, and that extended to the important presence of women in organization (of protests, local councils etc). Then Syrian feminist organizations that developed outside of that advocated for women’s rights and merged them into the demands of the revolution. On another level, there were the extremist factions that interacted with women brutally and repressively and tried to send women centuries back. So there were two fronts to fight during the revolution.

Written by Syrian Female Journalists Network · comments (0)
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Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is pouring cash into military sports and historical reenactments to boost patriotism

Man shooting an arrow with a bow.

Historical re-enactors in Budapest in 2016. Photo courtesy of kormany.hu, the website of the Hungarian Government.

The Hungarian Ministry of Defense is funneling thousands of euros to sports associations and history re-enacting groups to inculcate a sense of patriotism in young people, a story by Atlatszo.hu, an independent investigative outlet, has revealed.

The Ministry's allocated budget to NGOs increased from 760,000 in 2014 to 5,6 million euros in 2018 (860,000 and 6,4 million US dollars, respectively). But while funds for trade unions, veterans, cultural programs, and historical societies remained stable, sports associations’ budgets have risen over tenfold in that period.

The Military Sports Association, an umbrella organization of groups that teach, among other things, self-defense and sports shooting, received alone 3,46 million euros (3,92 million US dollars) since its creation in 2017. The Association's website says its primary goal is to teach skills to children that are useful in the “defense of the homeland.”

Historical re-enactment societies, memorial organizations, and military history research groups have also received public grants — a total of 125,000 euros (142,000 US dollars) in 2018, and 692,000 euros (784,000 US dollars) over the past five years.

The Ministry of Defense's approach matches the broader education strategy by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose government has rewritten the national curriculum multiple times over the years to include military training and military history.

Recently, Orbán appointed former Minister of Defense István Simicskó as the Government Commissioner for Patriotic Education, who will be in charge of revising the curriculum to instill, in his own words, a “healthy national identity” in school kids.

In 2016, the government announced they would build 197 shooting ranges around the country that will cost 81 million euros. Critics at that time said Orbán was creating a “massive paramilitary force”.

Titled “Hungary: A smooth way to better patriotism,” the story by Anita Kőműves is part of a broader investigation by Vsquare.org’s on the militarization of patriotism in the Visegrad countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic). Kőműves’ story is based on data obtained directly with the Ministry of Defense of Hungary.

Written by Filip Stojanovski · comments (0)
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Female Brazilian legislator attacked on social media for revealing outfit

A photo of the deputy Ana Paula on the first day in office. Source: Facebook Personal Page, fair use.

For her state legislature inauguration on January 31, newly-elected Brazilian deputy Ana Paula da Silva wore a bright red dress and jewelry. She posted a photo of the occasion on her Facebook and, on the next day, she woke up with a flurry of hateful comments. The reason: her cleavage.

Ana Paula da Silva is one of the five women out of 40 legislators elected to the legislative assembly of Santa Catarina, a southern Brazilian state.

Her photo received 6,400 comments and 6,447 shares, including many offenses and threats.

But that is not the first time in Brazil that a woman's outfit choice has eclipsed her skills on her workplace

Male guide to female attire

In 2009, Porto Alegre city councilor Fernanda Melchionna took to the house's tribune wearing a black-and-white striped tie to protest a bill that would impose a dress code on female legislators.

Melchionna, who is now a state deputy, usually goes to work wearing jeans and trainers, which a male colleague thought was inappropriate.

She said that the debate around women's wardrobes was fit for “the lazy, for those who do not use their mandates to work on social problems.”

It is not only in politics that women go through such experiences. In 2017, lawyer Pamela Helena de Oliveira Amaral vowed to sue a judge after he interrupted a trial to scold her choice of clothing. Pamela was wearing a long blue dress that revealed her shoulders. Judge Eugênio Cesário left the room and only came back after Pamela had borrowed a blazer from a female colleague.

Pamela said in an interview at that time:

Eu fiquei estarrecida, sem entender. Não assimilei até agora. Foi humilhante, vergonhoso e constrangedor o que ele me fez passar na frente dos meus colegas. A sala estava cheia de estudantes e advogados.

I was astonished, confused. I still haven't quite comprehended it all. It was humiliating, embarassing and disturbing what he made me go through in front of my colleagues. The room was full of students and other lawyers.

On a post titled “Girl Power and Power Dressing: femininity in politics”, blogger Nawsheen Rumjaun analyzes how people tend to perceive women's choice of dress in political environments: 

[…] the number of powerful women is increasing, but being a woman in politics is still tough. The clothes they choose constitute a weapon to establish their authority in this man’s world. In politics, there is no pre-set dress-code but an unspoken rule that men should wear a suit, and women should have a decent outfit. Those who cross the fine line between what is judged decent, and what is not, are at risk of being blamed because of their attire.

The length of the neckline

Ana Paula received 51,739 votes, making her the fifth most voted legislator in her state.

In an interview for Universa, a local website that covers women's issues, she commented on the attacks: “The participation of women in society is so tiny that a neckline can become a huge issue,” she said.

She also posted a video on her Facebook page responding to the offenses. The comments on that video, however, were also packed with insults. A user named Vitor said:

Com todo respeito, mas você se esqueceu em qual ambiente trabalhará nos próximos dias? Formalidade por favor. Tenha respeito! Decoro parlamentar.

With all due respect, but have you forgotten in what environment you will work in the next few days? Formality, please. Be respectful! Parliamentary decorum.

Another user, a woman named Yelena Sier, received 252 replies to her comment in which she criticized the politician:

Geral não entende!! Ninguém vai no hospital com biquíni, as crianças não vão a escola de pijama, os homens não vão comprar pão só de cueca, ninguém vai fazer uma cirurgia com qualquer roupa, ninguém vai para uma festa de 15 anos ou um casamento de pijama, etc… cada ocasião uma traje adequado, nas empresas existem uniformes e assim por diante, e todo mundo sabe disso. A questão não é a roupa que a mulher usa ou deixa de usar, mas para cada local um traje adequado.

People do not understand!! No one goes to a hospital wearing a bikini, children do not go to school in pajamas, men do not go to buy bread in their underwear, no one has surgery wearing whatever clothes, no one goes to sweet fifiteen parties or a wedding in their pajamas, etc. … every occasion requires an appropriate attire, in companies there are uniforms and so on, and everyone knows that. The issue here is not about what a woman wears or doesn't wear, but that each place has an appropriate attire.

On a different post, Rosimere Furtado defended Ana Paula's right to dresses as she chooses:

Parabéns pela discussão levantada! Enquanto uma Deputada com vestes comportadissima levanta discussões perseguindo Educadores e afirmando que a Educação não necessita de investimento financeiro, a senhora levanta discussão sobre a importância da mulher na política, sobre feminicidio, sobre causas que independe da cor ou traje. Em um “mundo” onde a mente é deturpada e a sexualidade é esarcebada, qualquer decote é uma guerra!!!

Congratulations for raising this issue! While a state representative in a highly-respectful dress persecutes educators and states that education does not need financial investment, you have started a discussion about the importance of women in politics, about femicide, about causes that are independent of color or attire. In a “world” where the mind is misrepresented and sexuality is exarcebated, any cleavage is a subject of war!!!

Ana Paula fired back at her attackers by reminding them of her curriculum: before she was elected to the state assembly, she had been twice elected mayor of the city of Bombinhas and left office with a 90 percent approval rate.

Ana Paula also posted on Facebook an interview in which she said: “Women are in politics and society has to get used to them as they are. There are much more important issues for the legislative assembly to discuss.”

She also documented the attacks and said that she would sue the people who have harassed her. She told another interviewer:

Vou continuar vestindo o que eu quero. Não pretendo me violentar para agradar ninguém

I will continue to wear whatever I want. I do not intend to abuse myself in order to please others.

Written by Rami Alhames · comments (0)
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A Tibetan-Canadian student was attacked online after winning student council elections. She thinks Beijing is to blame.

Image from Chemi Lhamo Instagram via The Stand News.

This article was originally written by Leung Hoi Ching and published in Chinese on Hong Kong based citizen media, the Stand News on February 15, 2018. The following trimmed English version is translated by Zhao Yunlin.

On February 9, students at the University of Toronto's Scarborough Campus elected Chemi Lhamo, a 22-year-old student of Tibetan origin, as their student council president.

Just days after the election results were announced, thousands of mainland Chinese overseas students signed an online petition of protest, accusing Lhamo of having close associations with pro-Tibet independence organizations. They demanded the school disqualify her from the elected position.

Demeaning comments from overseas mainland Chinese students

Lhamo’s personal social account was flooded with demeaning comments and veiled threats of violence from overseas students who appeared to be from mainland China. As her story began to make headlines in international media outlets, students from Hong Kong and Taiwan fired back in defense Lhamo's defense.

In a phone interview with Stand News, Chemi Lhamo said she believed that the incident was mobilized by organizations associated with Chinese government, an accusation that Chinese officials have denied.

Before this election, I had already been elected as vice-president of the student council for eight whole months and nothing ever happened. However, after all these sudden events, you cannot help but think that there is an organization manipulating these events behind the scenes. It’s really funny how I’ve been serving as a vice-president for so long, how I’ve organized many events and never held back from expressing my ideals, but nobody has ever asked me about my political opinions.

She also said that her fellow students from mainland China began to behave strangely. One of Lhamo’s classmates from mainland China spontaneously asked her, via mobile message, to draft a statement regarding Tibetan independence. She also received phone calls playing “red songs” (propaganda songs praising the Chinese Communist Party). Lhamo could not understand these songs, as she does not speak Mandarin Chinese.

Alongside the joint attacks and the comments on the internet, a group of students went to the student council office to demand that the election results be reconsidered. The campus student council has now temporarily closed its conference room, for safety reasons.

Chemi Lhamo has been a student activist for some years. She is an active member of the Tibetan community in Toronto and once joined a protest outside the university's Confucius Institute, the local branch of a global network of Chinese cultural institutions that are sponsored by the Chinese government and intended to promote China's soft power overseas. In recent years, she has also exchanged views with social activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan on topics related to freedom of speech, self-determination, democracy and related topics at public events.

Lhamo has never been afraid to speak up or show her Tibetan identity – she wears a Chuba, the traditional Tibetan dress, every Wednesday. Until the election, she had never perceived any animosity from her Chinese classmates. This is what led her to worry that this barrage of harassment was instigated by Chinese authorities.

From stateless refugee to student council president

Before immigrating to Canada at 11 years of age, Chemi Lhamo was a stateless refugee residing in India. Her grandparents were forced into exile along with the Dalai Lama in 1959. Within these rigid borders, no matter where she and her family went, they were looked down upon.

Every time someone asks me: ‘Where are you from?’ I always end up struggling to answer – I sometimes say that I’m from India, but I was denied citizenship status there; sometimes I say that I’m from Tibet, but when they ask me how Tibet is like, I really don’t know how to answer, because the Chinese embassy won’t even issue me a visa to go to Tibet. But it’s this experience of being viewed as an outsider that has made me understand my people’s culture better: the Tibetan culture.

Lhamo recounted that when she had just immigrated to Canada, a new kid from Tibet unexpectedly came to class. She was excited and happy to have found someone from her own land to become friends with, and she knew that he could speak the Tibetan language. However, frowning at her, he told her: “How about we don’t speak Tibetan? I can speak English.”

I don’t know if he was either ashamed or had some kind of guilt. I really don’t know. But it was then when I realized that some young Tibetans don’t want to speak their own language as if they were being pressured to speak another language.

At the time, Lhamo was only 12 years old. Feeling insecure about her identity, she convinced her parents to move back to a neighborhood with a Tibetan community. From then on, she learned more about Tibetan language, culture and Buddhism and became an activist.

Tibetan values, such as be considerate, be respectful to the elderly, ignorance as the root for negativity and etc., has give me a lot of strength. And the more I understand my culture, the more confident I feel.

This strength and confidence, she says, has enabled her to speak up as an immigrant and a Tibetan:

Being an immigrant is very difficult, but this struggle is what makes me who I am. Today, I speak about the Tibetan people loud and clear with pride thanks to the strength that my identity as a Tibetan gives me.

During the student council election, I often emphasize the need for the marginalized to have their own representation during the student council elections. We need representation so that our rights be upheld.

Suffering will end

For Lhamo, the ideal world is one without borders or boundaries — Tibetan independence and autonomy is not the real issue at stake.

My vision for Tibet is the same vision that I have for the whole world: I wish for Tibetan people to enjoy the same rights as Canadians, namely freedom to express themselves, freedom of belief, freedom to avoid political oppression.

I don’t only wish for Tibetan people to enjoy these rights, I also wish that people from Hong Kong and Taiwan, Eastern Turks, the 60 million refugees around the world and for everyone to enjoy these rights.

Many people in Hong Kong believe that China has become more authoritarian in recent years, adopting a more heavy-handed policy towards political dissidents and ethnic minorities. Even in Hong Kong, the space for freedom of speech and association has diminished.

Chemi Lhamo is familiar with the political challenges faced in Hong Kong after the 2014 Umbrella movement but she shared her optimism with Hong Kong people and urged them not to give up:

I learned a concept from the Tibetan culture known as impermanence: everything has an end and I believe that all suffering will also end…I hope that one day I’ll be able to go to Tibet wearing my Chuba.

Written by The Stand News, Yunlin Zhao · comments (0)
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To change the system from within or without: the dilemma for feminists in ‘New Armenia’

Women protesting in Yerevan during the velvet revolution. (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

The following is a story by OC Media written by Knar Khudoyan and is republished by Global Voices under a partnership agreement. 

As more and more women choose to enter politics in revolutionary ‘New Armenia’, a debate is raging within the country’s feminist circles: how best to transform Armenia's patriarchal systems — from within or without?

“It was the methods of the Velvet Revolution, i.e. centralization, horizontality, that allowed women to participate. You didn’t have to push women to take political action — it happened naturally.” This is how feminist Maria Karapetyan, one of the organizers of the ‘Reject Serzh’ movement that toppled decades of Republican Party rule sums up the role of women in the revolution.

While many women still get goosebumps from Karapetyan’s famous “Long live sisters” speech in Yerevan’s Republic Square on 18 April 2018, she has taken the decision — she says a hard one — to join the Civil Contract Party and run for parliament.

Karapetyan is not the only woman who thinks the Velvet Revolution must continue inside state institutions and local governments. The first post-revolutionary elections in the country, 23 September’s mayoral and council elections in Yerevan, saw swathes of women activists joining the My Step alliance backed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Maria Karapetyan (Anahit of Erebuni)

However, a certain subset of radical feminists in Armenia see working with the state as contradictory to the goals of feminism — women’s liberation. According to them, the state is the protector of private property and the family (property belongs to men, and family is the foremost place of women’s exploitation).

They argue instead that the fight for women as a “sex class” must come via empowering women’s communities and creating cooperative models of social relations, not via individual success stories of women who managed to break the glass ceiling.

Patriarchs with a human face

The new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been articulate on his views on gender equality. Emphasizing women’s role in his speech on May 8, the day he was appointed, Pashinyan said that “women’s massive participation is a factor that allowed us to call what happened a revolution of ‘Love and solidarity”' .

But then he added something that made feminists throughout the country wince. “The revolution proved that women’s active participation [in politics] is compatible with our national identity, our national perception of the family.”

Most feminists concede that the new government is not quite educated on what women’s movements are about. But many have been forgiving, at least for now, believing that combating the risk of counter-revolution is a priority.

“Yes — members of the new government are products of the same patriarchal society. They are patriarchal people, too. The difference is, they are ready to listen, to educate themselves, to collaborate with civil society, unlike their predecessors,” says Lara Aharonyan, co-founder of the Women’s Resource Centre in Yerevan.

Aharonyan thinks for women to participate, the state must first make certain steps forward. One such step, she says, would be to raise electoral gender quotas to improve the disproportionate gender balance in parliament.

“Women have to be present to talk about their needs. And if more than half of the population are women, for justice and for equal representation, women should make up 50 percent of parliament,” Aharonyan argues.

Trading in activism for party politics

MP Lena Nazaryan greeting protestors gathered in front of the Parliament building, 2 October 2018. (/Ruben Arevshatyan)

Long before the Velvet Revolution, a key ally of Pashinyan’s, Lena Nazaryan, was one of the first women to trade in activism for party politics. As an outspoken environmental activist and critical journalist for many years, Nazaryan was one of the co-founders of Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party back in 2015.

Nazaryan has now climbed the party-political ladder to head the Way Out faction in Parliament. As a role model to many young women, she is often harried for selfies by teenage girls.

“I don’t like it when women are presented as weak, as if they need to be pushed to be active. No, they should be present because women are needed. And when they are, they should prove it in their work,” says Nazaryan.

Transforming social relations, not individual women

Most radical feminists in Armenia who refuse to compromise with the state do so without condemning other women’s decisions to do so.

“I don't say women should not engage in politics, I’m saying their participation should not be the end in and of itself,” says feminist activist Anna Shahnazaryan.

“If a woman enters parliament, she should question the way decisions are made there. If a woman enters an institution to dismantle it from within, to make the institution more democratic and human-centered, I encourage that.”

“Personally I don't care whether the mayor of Ejmiatsin is a woman if she doesn’t represent her gender […] The minister of work and social affairs is a woman, Mane Tandilyan, but for me its a problem that she doesn't speak up about women doing unpaid work as housewives.”

Galfayan warns against falling into the “trap” of being used as a token woman in politics.

“Women are being used to fill quotas, to give false hope that it’s getting better,” she says.

Protest during Velvet Revolution (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

She says that globally, the system is “ultimately hierarchical; men (especially wealthy heterosexual men), have had privileged positions in these hierarchies for ages, and therefore women have a very hard time becoming part of the “club”. Finally, even those few women who do get to the top still have to serve the interests of this hierarchical, unfair system.”

“I prefer to work towards dismantling this system rather than making it look nicer. I prefer to support and strengthen systems which I believe are ultimately fair and liberating,” Galfayan says.

Dismantling the patriarchy from all sides

However, most feminists in Armenia agree that there is no dichotomy to “be reformer or a radical feminist,” and that change has always come with both forces in action together. They point to the Suffragettes movement in early 19th century Britain, in which militant women’s movements worked in parallel with conservative feminist groups.

Few politically active women in Armenia would disagree that the revolution should be continued, and that the famous feminist slogan — personal is political — still rings true. Some focus on ‘the personal’ of the phrase; working hard on themselves to win in an unequal battle with privileged men, while others fight to transform existing social relations.

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150 years of Ceylon Tea: A day in the life of a plantation worker

Saraswathi's story. Image via Groundviews.

This post, which contains a video by Selvaraja Rajasegar, originally appeared on Groundviews, an award-winning citizen journalism website in Sri Lanka. An edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement with Global Voices.

38-year-old Saraswathi wakes at 5:30 am to send her children to school before she heads to work.

Saraswathi’s story highlights some of the challenges faced by the Malaiyaha (plantation) Tamil community, who have lived and worked in Sri Lanka for over 150 years.

Parents often find it difficult to provide the meals required for children under the government’s stipulated school-feeding plan — the roti (bread) they eat regularly has almost no nutritional value, but is frequently the only thing they can afford.

The Sri Lankan tea industry employs (directly or indirectly) over 1 million people. Many of the 500,000 tea estate workers are Tamils descended from cheap laborers brought to Sri Lanka from India by the British colonial rulers in the 19th century, and more than half of the workers are women.

The tea estate workers have been calling for an increase in their daily basic wage to Rs. 1000 (US$ 5.50) for years. The Collective Wage Agreement – between trade unions and Regional Plantation Companies – was recently signed, which set the daily basic wage at Rs. 700 (US$ 3.90). This has been met with widespread strikes by estate workers as well as solidarity protests in Colombo.

Regional Plantation Companies say that providing Rs. 1000 (US$ 5.50) per working day is impossible. Although Ceylon Tea is one of Sri Lanka’s top exports, the industry has suffered heavy losses for a number of reasons, including climate change. However, as Saraswathi’s story shows, the wages she earns are nowhere near enough to bear the costs of providing for her family, and increasingly, the younger generation of estate workers are forced to leave and look for work elsewhere.

Watch the video:

சரஸ்வதியின் ஒருநாள் கதை

சரஸ்வதியின் ஒருநாள் கதை maatram.org/?p=7508 #MalayagaTamil

Geplaatst door Maatram op Dinsdag 5 februari 2019

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‘Man returns to his native Xinjiang and disappears’ — a story too common for the headlines

Nurbolat Shalayit has been missing since March 2018. Screenshot from a video testimony recorded in the Ata Jurt office in Almaty, Kazakhstan and published on the group's YouTube channel on November 11, 2018.

The Almaty office of Ata Jurt, a group in Kazakhstan that supports victims of China's Xinjiang police state, can be a harrowing place to spend a morning.

The walls in the main room are covered with pictures of missing people. This is where the informal group holds press conferences, publicising new cases of people who have disappeared or been long detained in Xinjiang, home of the Chinese government's now infamous “re-education camps”.

On days like this one, the office's tight corridors become innavigable due to the swell of petitioners who exchange stories of crushing loss and fading hope.

All of these people — some citizens of Kazakhstan, others Chinese citizens of Kazakh heritage pursuing naturalisation — have committed to “going loud” about their relatives’ disappearances.

To them, a journalist is a walking megaphone, a chance to pressure China into releasing their loved ones, whether from political “re-education”, house arrest, forced labour or just the passportless state that now affects so many minorities in Xinjiang.

They know that this approach guarantees nothing, and could even deepen their missing relatives’ suffering. But they also know that a handful of families who have campaigned publicly for their loved ones have found light at the end of the tunnel. Their relatives have been freed and Chinese authorities have allowed them to join their families in Kazakhstan. The only strategy sure to fail is silence.

What happened to Nurbolat Shalayit?

On my most recent visit to the Ata Jurt office, I met the wife of Nurbolat Shalayit, a man who has been missing in Xinjiang for nearly a year. She was among a number of women who were hoping a high-profile press conference being held that day would give them a platform to tell their own stories to journalists eager for a compelling story.

Both Nurbolat and his wife, Kulpash Kadyrbek, are ethnic Kazakhs who were born in Xinjiang. The couple lived there together until 2014, when Kulpash moved to Kazakhstan with their elder daughter, Sayagul. The two settled in Almaty, Kazakstan's largest city, where they had relatives.

Nurbolat Shalayit stayed behind, along with his younger daughter Sandugash Nurbolat — who provides testimony on his disappearance in the video above — mainly to care for his elderly mother. In December 2016, a few months after his mother passed away, they moved to Kazakhstan and began living together as a family again.

In February 2017, Nurbolat travelled from his new home in Kazakhstan back to Xinjiang, to finalise the sale of the family's former home.

Five months earlier, Chen Quanguo had became Xinjiang's most powerful Communist Party official in an appointment that would give birth to a chain of so-called “re-education camps” across the region.

Sinking into desperation

This was a very bad time for someone like Nurbolat Shalayit to pay what he believed would be a short visit to Xinjiang to tie up loose ends.

Over the course of that year political “re-education” for minorities became a full-fledged institution. It wasn't until the end of 2017 that Western press reports began capturing the full scale of suffering in the region.

In August of 2018, a United Nations expert panel estimated that a million mostly Muslim minorities — chiefly Uyghurs but also Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Hui — had been placed in the Xinjiang internment camps.

Is Nurbolat Shalayit among them? His family does not know.

Their last contact with them was in March 2018, when he told his wife to “take care of the children.” Since then, he has been unreachable.

The emotional and financial impact of his absence has been devastating.

Unable to afford permanent housing in Almaty, Kulpash Kadyrbek is staying with relatives. Sayagul is studying at an English-language university in Poland, but this opportunity is evaporating by the day, along with the proceeds from the sale of the family's Xinjiang farmhouse.

Sayagul's knowledge of English is the reason I am writing this post. Most Kazakhs living in Kazakhstan speak Russian, as do I. For many in Almaty, this is their preferred language, a holdover from Russification under the Soviet Union.

But the Oralman (“returned”) Kazakhs from China, who populate Ata Jurt's office, speak Kazakh as a first language, often with Chinese and Uyghur as secondary tongues. When the BBC and CNN fly in, good translators can name their price.

On that day, the speakers at the press conference included a woman released from China after spending over a year-and-half in re-education and a former policeman who had fled China, apparently with significant knowledge of Xinjiang's surveillance state.

Both of these cases were dramatic enough to pique the interests of foreign media outlets that have been looking for new ways to cover the deepening crisis in shut-off Xinjiang.

Nurbolat Shalayit's story, on the other hand, could be repeated any number of times, with only minor differences from case to case.

As other petitioners clamoured to have their testimonies heard before the main event began, Kulpash Kadyrbek thrust a phone towards me. There was her daughter, Sayagul, speaking via video call in a language I could understand.

So this is their family's story. There are thousands of others just like it.

The Xinjiang Victims Database is the largest searchable English-language database relating to victims of the ongoing repression in XUAR.

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Azerbaijan leader gives first TV interview after 15 years in office. He could use more practice.

President Ilham Aliyev's interview with REAL TV on February 12. Screenshot from REAL TV's YouTube channel.

How often should a country's leader give interviews to the local media of that country? Once a week? Once a month? Rulers of authoritarian countries might sometimes settle on a very controlled interview with state media once a year or less.

The answer to this question in Azerbaijan is quite extraordinary. Earlier this month, President Ilham Aliyev, who became Azerbaijan's leader in October 2003, gave his first-ever interview to local television.

The hour-long February 12 interview with pro-government journalist Mirshahin Aghayev — once known for having a more independent stance — was broadcast on the privately owned pro-government broadcaster REAL TV.

It aroused significant interest in Azerbaijan, where citizens are used to listening to Aliyev make speeches but unaccustomed to seeing him discuss ideas with an interlocutor. Even Aliyev's Twitter account comes across as a bizarre monologue rather than an attempt at public outreach.

In the end, however, the interview proved an underwhelming debut. Many on social media commented on the president's understated body language, somewhat dazed appearance and a reliance on state media talking points.

Given that Aliyev does not have to impress anyone — Azerbaijan has never had a free and fair election in its 27-year independence — why did he bother to do this?

President Ilham Aliyev's interview with REAL TV on February 12. Screenshot from REAL TV's YouTube channel.

The topics of the interview broadly mirrored those highlighted in state media — the long-standing conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, public services, economic reforms and Azerbaijan's relations with the Eurasian Union and European Union trade blocs. No new insights were provided.

After the video received a host of negative comments like “Resignation” and “No more tales are needed” in addition to dislikes during its first day online, REAL TV's YouTube channel closed comments.

Opposition politician Azer Gasimli said the interview showed the government was “very worried” amid stewing public dissatisfaction and a sluggish economy.

I watched Ilham Aliyev's first interview with a local journalist. I think it is meaningless to say or write something in response to what the President said. Because we have responded to him for many years. The interview was not sincere. Both the President and the journalist remind me of “ships floating on a lie”. My conclusion: the government is very worried!

Habib Muntazir, an independent journalist also complained the interview was short on substance:

The only thing I learned was “Grandma Saray”. I'm sure that this “grandma” would say something more interesting than Ilham Aliyev.

Muntazir's reference to “Grandma Saray” addresses Aliyev's visit to the Shamakhi region of Azerbaijan, where an earthquake destroyed several homes earlier this month, including one belonging to a 92-year-old woman called Saray.

State propaganda had seized on Aliyev's meeting with Saray, who has since been celebrated as a model citizen for her stoicism and faith in the future of the Azerbaijani state after the quake. 

Ilham Aliyev meets with Grandma Saray. Photo from qafkaz.info.

As can be seen from an abridged translation of the REAL TV interview, Aliyev went overboard in his praise for the elderly citizen, name-checking her seven times in quick succession:

Such grandmothers and mothers, like Grandma Saray, have been preserving our national and spiritual values ​​for centuries. Every Azerbaijani woman wants to be akin to grandmothers Saray. Look, a 92-year-old woman whose house is destroyed, how much optimism in this woman! Grandma Saray is confident that the state will be with her. Honestly, during a trip to Shamakhi, I did not know that I would meet Grandma Saray. I examined the houses affected by the earthquake, familiarized myself with the situation there. When I saw Grandma Saray, I was once again convinced of how great the people of Azerbaijan were. We can be proud of our people. She was in a difficult situation; her house was destroyed. She probably did not even know that someone would come to her aid. She did not know whether her house would be repaired or a new house would be built. Grandmothers like Saray are the embodiment of the unbending spirit of the Azerbaijani people.

Another independent journalist, Sevinc Osmangizi, staged a call in canvassing reactions to the interview on YouTube immediately after the interview was broadcast. Viewers mostly registered their disappointment and called for change.

One said:

I could not watch the interview any longer and I turned off the television. Because both the interviewer Mirshahin Aghayev and his questions were very fake. Their promises to us is no longer matter. Because people are now tired of such frauds and lies. People want innovations and real reforms.

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Three babies have died from measles in Macedonia. Is anti-vax propaganda to blame?

Vaccination rates against measles in Macedonia have drastically dropped in recent years, coinciding with anti-vaccine propaganda promoted on media outlets associated with the former-ruling right-wing regime. Illustration by @reflektor_mk, used with permission.

measles epidemic in Macedonia has killed three infants in since December 2018, raising fears among the population that years-long anti-vaccine propaganda pushed by right-wing populists is to blame.

Macedonia's measles vaccination rate has sharply fallen in the past five years and is now among the lowest in Europe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO has declared “vaccine hesitancy” a global health threat in 2019.

By  February 15, number of people diagnosed with measles in Macedonia rose to between three and 10 per day, and more than 259 people have been diagnosed thus far, according the Institute for Public Health, the primary public health authority in Macedonia.

The Institute noted that more than half of the total number of cases are of children below the age of four, and every fifth victim is above the age of 30.

Macedonia has one of the lowest measles vaccination rates in Europe, according to WHO. Illustration by @reflektor_mk, used with permission.

Around 70 percent of those infected were either not vaccinated, not re-vaccinated, or had an unknown vaccine status.

“The disease can only be prevented with a vaccine. We once again urge all parents to most responsibly understand the recommendations for the MRI vaccine which protects against this severe illness. Vaccines are tested, and the quality is guaranteed,” the Ministry of Health said in a public statement on January 11.

During the early stages of the current epidemic, the Ministry of Health had said that in Skopje alone about 15,000 children hadn't been immunized against measles. The government subsequently launched a campaign that resulted in 8,434 people getting the vaccine — 5,900 of them in Skopje –, but that was not enough to stop the outbreak.

Meanwhile, progressive media outlets and civil society organizations focused on addressing misinformation, while regular citizens began confronting anti-vaccination advocates (so-called “anti-vaxxers”) on social networks.

But when the public prosecutor began investigating a pharmaceutical company that had allegedly placed wrong expiry dates on vaccines bound for Macedonia, the scandal played right into the hands of anti-vax advocates.

After the first death was reported, tensions heightened. Many citizens started then to suggest that those spreading propaganda were criminally liable:

И сега што праемо?

Е за ова зборимо цело време! Дете од шест месеца не може да биде вакцинирано за морбили пошто е мало, наша дужност е да се осигурамо дека децата што може да бида вакцинирани ќе го заштита!

ПОЧИНА ШЕСТМЕСЕЧНО БЕБЕ ОД МАЛИ СИПАНИЦИ https://t.co/haCiObKVAC

— Мутен (@toVornottoV) February 8, 2019

And now what?
This is what we have been talking about all along! Six-month old babies can't be vaccinated against measles because they're too young. Our duty is to secure that the children that can be vaccinated would protect them! […]

The anti-vaccine movement in Macedonia

Macedonian anti-vax advocates mirror similar movements around the world that falsely claim that vaccines can cause autism and other diseases.

At times, they claim that the quality of vaccines offered in Macedonia is sub-standard and therefore ineffective or harmful. Many parents choose to immunize their children abroad — most typically in Greece — where the caliber of the vaccines is deemed higher.

Reported cases of measles in Europe, based on WHO data. Illustration by @reflektor_mk, used with permission.

Following the 2008 fall out between the then government and NATO, media outlets under the direct control of Nikola Gruevski‘s right-wing regime began  promoting various populist topics on their channels.

Starting in 2013, this practice included giving  more media exposure to anti-vaxxers. Then pro-government Sitel TV, a national broadcaster, did several live interviews with infamous Serbian anti-vax advocate Sladjana Velkov on its “Jadi burek” talk show, which featured live studio guests and telephone contact with the audience. There she was constantly presented as a “health expert”.

“Alternative medicine” pundits became so prevalent on national TV that the Doctor's Chamber of Macedonia publicly demanded in 2014 that the state “take concrete measures” against them:

Медицинско преставување на лица кои даваат совети од областа на медицината и алтернативната медицина, а немаат соодветна диплома ниту соодветна лиценца за работа – на пример Слаѓана Велков на телевизија го коментира квалитетот и валидноста на вакцините, ТВ емисии во кои некомпетентни лица со билки лекуваат секакви болести, капки и раствори се рекламираат на сите телевизии, но не смее да ги препорачува доктор, самоуки нутриционисти препорачуваат рецепти за долг и здрав живот.

…Misrepresenting persons giving advice from the area of medicine and alternative medicine as medical professionals, while having no medical degree or the appropriate work license — for instance, Sladjana Velkov commenting on the quality and validity of vaccines on TV. [Other such cases include] TV shows presenting incompetent persons as healers of various diseases using herbs, commercial advertising of drops and solutions which physicians are not allowed to recommend on all TV stations, as well as self-taught nutritionists recommending recipes for long and healthy life.

Screenshot of the search results of the archive of website of Vecher newspaper, with articles about Serbian anti-vaxxer informing about the charges against her as charlatan in 2015, and then presenting her as medical expert in 2018. The title of the latest article reads “Sladjana Velkov: Vaccines can be deadly!”

Meanwhile, in December 2015, Sladjana Velkov was sued in Serbia after she allegedly promoted bleach as medicine to children. She moved to Macedonia soon afterward and has lived there since. As of 2018, media outlets associated with the former ruling party continued to present her conspiracy theories as facts.

In August 2018, researchers at George Washington University revealed that 93 percent of messages about vaccines posted on Twitter between 2014 and 2017 came from accounts that exhibited malicious behavior, including those by “Russian trolls”.

According to their study, which examined a sample of more than 1.8 million tweets, “Russian trolls and sophisticated bots promote both pro- and antivaccination narratives,” thus creating a “false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination.”

The current Macedonian government has promised to improve the quality of life in Macedonia by instituting democratic reforms.

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EU proposal pushes tech companies to tackle ‘terrorist content’ with AI, despite implications for war crimes evidence

Yarmouk, Syria. The area had been damaged by airstrikes and fighting between the regime and rebels. Photo by Ahmad Shihabi, used with permission.

A new video on Orient News’ YouTube channel shows a scene that is all too familiar to its regular viewers.  Staff at a surgical hospital in Syria's Idlib province rush to operate on a man who has just been injured in an explosion. The camera pans downward and shows three bodies on the floor. One lies motionless. The other two are covered with blankets. A man bends over and peers under the blanket, perhaps to see if he knows the victim.

Syrian media outlet Orient News is one of several smaller media outlets that has played a critical role in documenting Syria’s civil war and putting video evidence of violence against civilians into the public eye. Active since 2008, the group is owned and operated by a vocal critic of the Assad regime.

Alongside their own distribution channels, YouTube has been an instrumental vehicle for bringing videos like this one to a wider audience. Or at least it was, until August 2017 when, without warning, Orient News’ YouTube channel was suspended.

After some inquiry by the group, alongside other small media outlets including Bellingcat, Middle East Eye and the Syrian Archive — all of whom also saw some of their videos disappear — it came to light that YouTube had taken down hundreds of videos that appeared to include “extremist” content.

But these groups were puzzled. They had been posting their videos, which typically include captions and contextual details, for years. Why were they suddenly seen as unsafe for YouTube’s massive user base?

Because there was a new kind of authority calling the shots.

Just before the mysterious removals, YouTube announced its deployment of artificial intelligence technology to identify and censor “graphic or extremist content,” in order to crack down on ISIS and similar groups that have used social media (including YouTube, Twitter and the now defunct Google Plus) to post gruesome footage of executions and to recruit fighters.

Thousands of videos documenting war crimes and human rights violations were swept up and censored in this AI-powered purge. After the groups questioned YouTube about the move, the company admitted that it made the “wrong call’’ on several videos, which were reinstated thereafter. Others remained under a ban, due to “violent and graphic content.”

The myth of self-regulation

Companies like Google (parent of YouTube), Facebook and Twitter have legitimate reasons to take special measures when it comes to graphic violence and content associated with violent extremist groups — it can lead to situations of real-life harm and can be bad for business too. But the question of how they should identify and remove these kinds of content — while preserving essential evidence of war crimes and violence — is far from answered.

The companies have developed their policies over the years to acknowledge that not all violent content is intended to promote or incite violence. While YouTube, like other platforms, does not allow most extremist or violent content, it does allow users to publish such content in “a news, documentary, scientific, or artistic context,” encouraging them to provide contextual information about the video.

But, the policy cautions: “In some cases, content may be so violent or shocking that no amount of context will allow that content to remain on our platforms.” YouTube offers no public information describing how internal mechanisms determine which videos are “so violent or shocking.”

Groups like the Syrian Archive take pains to document contextual details of videos. This screenshot from their database shows video clips, a map, other metadata and a summary of a suspected 2013 sarin gas attack in Damascus.

This approach puts the company into a precarious position. It is assessing content intended for public consumption, yet it has no mechanisms for ensuring public transparency or accountability about those assessments. The company is making its own rules and changing them at will, to serve its own best interests.

EU proposal could make AI solutions mandatory

A committee in the European Commission is threatening to intervene in this scenario, with a draft regulation that would force companies to step up their removal of “terrorist content” or face steep fines. While the proposed regulation would break the cycle of companies attempting and often failing to “self-regulate,” it could make things even worse for groups like Orient News.

What does the Commission proposal say?

Under the proposal, aimed at “preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online,” service providers are required to “take proactive measures to protect their services against the dissemination of terrorist content.” These include the use of automated tools to: “(a) effectively address the re-appearance of content which has previously been removed or to which access has been disabled because it is considered to be terrorist content; (b) detect, identify and expeditiously remove or disable access to terrorist content,” article 6(2) stipulates.

If adopted the proposal would also require “hosting service providers [to] remove terrorist content or disable access to it within one hour from receipt of the removal order.”

It further grants law enforcement or Europal the power to “send a referral” to hosting service providers for their “voluntary consideration.” The service provider will assess the referred content “against its own terms and conditions and decide whether to remove that content or to disable access to it.”

The draft regulation demands more aggressive deletion of this type of content, and quick turnaround times on its removal. But it does not establish a special court or other judicial mechanism that can offer guidance to companies struggling to assess complex online content.

Instead, it would force hosting service providers to use automated tools to prevent the dissemination of “terrorist content” online. This would require companies to use the kind of system that YouTube has already put into place voluntarily.

The EU proposal puts a lot of faith in these tools, ignoring the fact that users, technical experts, and even legislators themselves remain largely in the dark about how these technologies work.

Can AI really assess the human rights value of a video?

Automated tools may be trained to assess whether a video is violent or graphic. But how do they determine the video’s intended purpose? How do they know if the person who posted the video was trying to document the human cost of conflict? Can these technologies really understand the context in which these incidents take place? And to what extent do human moderators play a role in these decisions?

We have almost no answers to these questions.

“We don’t have the most basic assurances of algorithmic accountability or transparency, such as accuracy, explainability, fairness, and auditability. Platforms use machine-learning algorithms that are proprietary and shielded from any review,” wrote WITNESS’ Dia Kayyali in a December 2018 blogpost.

The proposal’s critics argue that forcing all service providers to rely on automated tools in their efforts to crack down on terrorist and extremist content, without transparency and proper oversight, is a threat to freedom of expression and the open web.

The UN special rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right to privacy; and the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism have also expressed their concerns to the Commission. In a December 2018 memo, they wrote:

Considering the volume of user content that many hosting service providers are confronted with, even the use of algorithms with a very high accuracy rate potentially results in hundreds of thousands of wrong decisions leading to screening that is over — or under — inclusive.

In recital 18, the proposal outlines measures that hosting service providers can take to prevent the dissemination of terror-related content, including the use of tools that would “prevent the re-upload of terrorist content.” Commonly known as upload filters, such tools have been a particular concern for European digital rights groups. The issue first arose during the EU’s push for a Copyright Directive, that would have required platforms to verify the ownership of a piece of content when it is uploaded by a user.

“We're fearful of function creep,’’ Evelyn Austin from the Netherlands-based digital rights organization Bits of Freedom said at a public conference.

We see as inevitable a situation in which there is a filter for copyrighted content, a filter for allegedly terrorist content, a filter for possibly sexually explicit content, one for suspected hate speech and so on, creating a digital information ecosystem in which everything we say, even everything we try to say, is monitored.

Austin pointed out that these mechanisms undercut previous strategies that relied more heavily on the use of due process.

Upload filtering….will replace notice-and-action mechanisms, which are bound by the rule of law, by a process in which content is taken down based on a company's terms of service. This will strip users of their rights to freedom of expression and redress…

The draft EU proposal also applies stiff financial penalties to companies that fail to comply. For a single company, this can amount to up to 4% of its global turnover from the previous business year.

French digital rights group La Quadrature du Net offered a firm critique of the proposal, and noted the limitations it would set for smaller websites and services:

From a technical, economical and human perspective, only a handful of providers will be able to comply with these rigorous obligations – mostly the Web giants.

To escape heavy sanctions, the other actors (economic or not) will have no other choice but to close down their hosting services…

“Through these tools,” they warned, “these monopolistic companies will be in charge of judging what can be said on the Internet, on almost any service.”

Indeed, worse than encouraging “self-regulation”, the EU proposal will take us further away from a world in which due process or other publicly-bound mechanisms are used to decide what we say and see online, and push us closer to relying entirely on proprietary technologies to decide what kinds of content is appropriate for public consumption — with no mechanism for public oversight.

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