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The Muckraker

Carrie Ching's Blog

Lobbyists push asbestos use in the developing world

Asbestos is a known carcinogen, banned or restricted in 52 countries, but lobbyists and trade associations have kept the business alive by promoting its use in the developing world. A nine-month investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the BBC was published this week by the Center for Public Integrity.

The ICIJ investigation, "Dangers in the Dust," has "tracked nearly $100 million in public and private money spent by these groups since the mid-1980s in three countries alone — Canada, India and Brazil — to keep asbestos in commerce. Their strategy, critics say, is one borrowed from the tobacco industry: create doubt, contest litigation, and delay regulation."

Stories take a closer look at the amount of asbestos production and/or use in India, Brazil, the U.S., Russia, Mexico, and China, and examine marketing campaigns that promote asbestos use and efforts to ban the substance. An interactive map defines the nations that are top asbestos producers, exporters, and consumers around the world.

>> View the full project online.

On the ground in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley

Today, President Obama addresses the nation to reveal a new plan for winning, and ending, the war in Afghanistan—many expect a substantial increase in U.S. troops deployed to the area.

Last week, FRONTLINE/World posted an iWitness interview with journalist Elizabeth Rubin, who was embedded with American soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, a remote area close to the Pakistan border, for two months in 2007. She returned to the valley nine months later to see how the situation had progressed. Her experiences shed some light on the realities American soldiers face on the ground there.

Watch the interview here:

>> Watch additional uncut scenes shot by Rubin in Afghanistan on FRONTLINE/World's iWitness website.

Elizabeth Rubin's reporting in Afghanistan was supported in part by CIR's Dick Goldensohn Fund.

Carrie Ching | Update: Carbon Watch | November 5, 2009

World leaders prepare for climate change talks in Copenhagen; fossil fuel industry prepares multinational backlash

As the Kyoto Protocol runs out, world leaders plan to reconvene in Copenhagen, Denmark this December to discuss provisions for a new multinational treaty to reduce carbon emissions and prevent climate change. At the same time, fossil fuel industries and other heavy carbon emitters are preparing a global campaign to influence negotiations at the conference and protect their interests.

Reporters from the Center for Public Integrity in D.C. have joined a team of journalists from eight countries "deemed essential to a successful treaty"— Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, the United States, and European Union—to investigate this multinational lobbying campaign.

The report, "The Global Climate Change Lobby," was released by CPI this week. It includes an interactive map showing current levels of greenhouse gas emissions by country. The CPI report coincided with the launch of CIR's collaborative project with FRONTLINE/World to investigate the trillion-dollar carbon trading market: "Carbon Watch."

From the CPI report:

Relying on more than 200 interviews, lobbying and campaign contribution records in a half-dozen countries, and on-the-ground reporting from Beijing to Brussels, our team pieced together the story of a far-reaching, multinational backlash by fossil fuel industries and other heavy carbon emitters aimed at slowing progress on control of greenhouse gas emissions. Employing thousands of lobbyists, millions in political contributions, and widespread fear tactics, entrenched interests worldwide are thwarting the steps that scientists say are needed to stave off a looming environmental calamity, the investigation found.

Among our findings:

• Both developed and developing countries are under heavy pressure by fossil fuel industries and other carbon-intensive businesses to slow progress on negotiations and weaken government commitments. The clash cannot simply be framed as one between richer and poorer nations.

• China’s moves to hasten development of renewable energy, Brazil’s pledges to curb Amazon deforestation, and other steps to address climate change in the developing world have prompted a strong pushback from domestic in-country interests determined to maintain the status quo.

• Instead of a broad frontal assault on the climate science that marked the pre-Kyoto battles, lobbyists seeking to dilute the Copenhagen treaty have changed strategy, acknowledging there is a problem while focusing on slowing or easing national commitments.

• The intensity of the lobbying can be seen most clearly in developed countries, where official registers reveal that thousands of industry representatives have attempted to influence climate legislation. In the United States, there are now about 2,810 climate lobbyists — five lobbyists for every member of Congress — a 400 percent jump from six years earlier. And in Australia, Canada, and the European Union, hundreds more lobbyists are at work attempting to block or water down strict limits on carbon emissions.

• Powerful corporations are fielding multinational efforts to influence the debate, such as Peabody Coal, the world’s largest coal company, in Australia and the United States; and oil giant Exxon Mobil in Canada, the European Union, and the United States. Although largely operating at a national level, opponents of a strong climate change treaty are employing similar fear tactics worldwide, including threats of massive blackouts and job losses.

• The voices of scores of business advocates for stronger climate change policy, including alternative energy companies and would-be players in the carbon market, can barely be heard above the clamor of the older, well-capitalized, and deeply entrenched industries that have been lobbying on climate change for more than 20 years.

• As a result of the forces arrayed against stricter emissions limits, no developed nation has made a firm pledge for the kind of emissions cut scientists say will be needed within the next decade to stave off catastrophic climate change.

Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell breaking ground in Civil Rights-era cold cases

Today in the American South, scores of civil rights murders remain unsolved, uninvestigated, unprosecuted, and untold. Those two legacies of violence and silence still haunt the region and continue to damage race relations in the United States.

Investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell has been re-opening many of these "cold cases" while reporting at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. His work has resulted in convictions in four cases, and has revealed evidence in several others. Last month, Mitchell was awarded the MacArthur Foundation's "Genius Grant"—a $500,000 award. He talks about his work in an article published today by Editor & Publisher: "Aiding Justice in Civil Rights-era Murder Cases."

Mitchell is joined by several other reporters doing similar investigations on unsolved Civil Rights-era murder cases in a collaborative project that will launch next month by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Paperny Films, and WNET in New York. Stay tuned.

Ken Light captures the San Joaquin Valley

California's San Joaquin Valley produces nearly half of America's produce—fruits, nuts and vegetables. But drought, shrinking farmland, a water war, and a wave of foreclosures have left the valley in crisis. In "The Valley of Shadows," a Newsweek special report, documentary photographer Ken Light captures the landscapes, faces, and voices of the region. An interactive map tracks the formation of a "perfect storm" that led to the current conundrum. Light also narrates a thought-provoking slideshow that compares the Depression-era photography of Dorothea Lange to his contemporary images of economic collapse.

>> View the project on Newsweek.com.

Beware the wrath of investigative bloggers

This week, Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science column in The Guardian, wrote about a "ragged band of science bloggers" who successfully took on the British Chiropractic Association and meticulously investigated its claims. Here's a clip from The Guardian, found via the Online Journalism Blog:

The British Chiropractic Association has been suing [Simon] Singh personally for the past 15 months, over a piece in the Guardian where he criticised the BCA for claiming that its members could treat children for colic, ear infections, asthma, prolonged crying, and sleeping and feeding conditions by manipulating their spines.

The BCA maintains that the efficacy of these treatments is well documented. Singh said that claims were made without sufficient evidence, described the treatments as "bogus", and criticised the BCA for "happily promoting" them.

... An international petition against the BCA has been signed by professors, journalists, celebrities and more ... But it is a ragged band of science bloggers who has done the most detailed work. Fifteen months after the case began, the BCA finally released the academic evidence it was using to support specific claims. Within 24 hours this was taken apart meticulously by bloggers, referencing primary research papers, and looking in every corner.

Professor David Colquhoun of UCL pointed out, on infant colic, that the BCA cited weak evidence in its favour, while ignoring strong evidence contradicting its claims. He posted the evidence and explained it. LayScience flagged up the BCA selectively quoting a Cochrane review. Every stone was turned by Quackometer, APGaylard, Gimpyblog, EvidenceMatters, Dr Petra Boynton, MinistryofTruth, Holfordwatch, legal blogger Jack of Kent, and many more. At every turn they have taken the opportunity to explain a different principle of evidence based medicine—the sin of cherry-picking results, the ways a clinical trial can be unfair by design—to an engaged lay audience, with clarity as well as swagger.

Five websites for digging up source documents

A large part of investigative reporting is crunching numbers and digging up source documents. Here are five websites that host digital archives of government documents, mostly acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests. Learn more about filing FOIA requests in this guide from Medill. The sites listed here are all run by private organizations. For documents and images archived by the federal government, try the National Archives.

The National Security Archive
An independent non-governmental research institute and library located at George Washington University, the Archive collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The Archive also serves as a repository of government records on a wide range of topics pertaining to the national security, foreign, intelligence, and economic policies of the United States. The Archive won the 1999 George Polk Award, one of U.S. journalism's most prestigious prizes, for—in the words of the citation—"piercing the self-serving veils of government secrecy, guiding journalists in the search for the truth and informing us all."

Governmentattic.org provides electronic copies of hundreds of interesting federal government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Fascinating historical documents, reports on items in the news, oddities and government bloopers.

The Memory Hole
The Memory Hole exists to preserve and spread material that is in danger of being lost, is hard to find, or is not widely known. This includes: government files, corporate memos, court documents (lawsuits and transcripts), police reports and eyewitness statements, congressional testimony, reports (governmental and non-governmental), maps, patents, Web pages, photographs, video, and sound recordings, news articles, books (and portions of books).

The Smoking Gun
Best known for their collection of celebrity mugshots, The Smoking Gun also features police reports and other material obtained from government and law enforcement sources via Freedom of Information requests and court files. In December 2000, The Smoking Gun was acquired by Court TV.

A website that publishes anonymous submissions and leaks of sensitive governmental, corporate, or religious documents, while attempting to preserve the anonymity and untraceability of its contributors. Within one year of its December 2006 launch, its database had grown to more than 1.2 million documents.

Reporter released from Tehran prison tells his story

Last month, the streets of Tehran erupted in violence after disputed election results were announced June 13. Over the course of the next few days much of Tehran lost cell phone service and many Internet sites were blocked as the government cracked down on protesters. Foreign journalists were banned from covering rallies on the street—many had their visas revoked.

I followed the events unfolding on the ground in Tehran through the Facebook posts of an acquaintance I met at a journalism conference—photojournalist Iason Athanasiadis-Fowden was covering the elections for The Washington Times. On June 13, a female friend took over Iason's account: "Iason is in Tehran and FB is blocked. I am posting for him." On June 15: "to friends........update he is ok." Two days later, the posts stopped.

On June 17, Iason was arrested as he was attempting to leave Iran; his visa was due to expire that same day. He was charged with espionage and thrown in Tehran's notorious Evin prison and detained there for three weeks.

After his release on July 5, Iason spoke to FRONTLINE/World's Joe Rubin in an iWitness account. Watch the video, which was published online today:

Iason also wrote of his experience in prison for The Washington Times:

My first bazjoo, or interrogator, was a silky-voiced presence with a rough streak who slapped me if I dared look behind me where he sat and conducted our discussions. His questions were general and betrayed how little he knew about who I was: Who were the Iranians I had met outside Iran? What payment methods did my newspaper use? Where had I gone over the past week?

When I dallied or refused to answer a question, he would fly into a rage and shout at me that I wasn't there to "just eat and sleep. We want answers from you; you are accused of heinous crimes."

When I answered a question about the fees paid me by my newspapers, he laughed derisively and told me, "You should have told me earlier, and I would have paid you that money out of my own pocket."

One night, a guard came and pulled me out of my cell for what I could tell would be a special session. Entering the interrogation room, I sat at the front, removed my blindfold and stared at green uneven walls from which a hairy substance protruded, presumably for soundproofing. The hush did not conceal the presence of several men sitting in the back.

When the questioning started, my bazjoo's voice was an octave higher, almost theatrical in its showmanship. He clearly had a special audience to impress that evening.

"How are you spending your time, Iason?" he asked.

"I'm reading the Koran," I told him, truthfully.

"Can you recite a verse?"

I recited the Fatiha and Surat al-Naas -- the opening and last verses of the Muslim holy book. When I ended, a subtle barometric shift had occurred in the room's atmosphere. The interrogation flowed more convivially.

My bazjoo handed me two surveillance images of myself as a younger man chatting with a tall British diplomat in the theological center of Qom four years ago. The interrogator seemed to think it was conclusive proof that I was passing secrets to perfidious Albion. I pointed out that we were surrounded by people and the scene was clearly some sort of social gathering.

Undeterred, he pulled out transcripts of SMS messages sent from my phone. The exchange on which he focused was between my number and someone called Sultan. They were a mixture of English and Persian, most of them flirtatious, but nothing I had never written. Then it dawned on me that they were the romantic writings of the owner of the phone who had lent it to me for temporary use. Laughing, I pointed that out. The interrogation ended soon afterward.

Keeping secrets—then and now

A new report from the National Security Archive shows the Pentagon has recently tried to cover up historical information that was declassified and released to the public years ago.

From NSA's report, "More Dubious Secrets":

Pentagon classification authorities are treating classified historical documents as if they contain today's secrets, rather than decades-old information that has not been secret for years. Today the National Security Archive posted multiple versions of the same documents—on issues ranging from the 1973 October War to anti-ballistic missiles, strategic arms control, and U.S. policy toward China—that are already declassified and in the public domain. What earlier declassification reviewers released in full, sometimes years ago, Pentagon reviewers have more recently excised, sometimes massively. The overclassification highlighted by these examples poses a major problem that should be addressed by the ongoing review of national security information policy that President Obama ordered on May 27, 2009.

For example, two different versions of a 1969 memo—the first released in 1989 and the second in 2008—show the Pentagon is trying to cover up more information now than it was twenty years ago:

The National Security Archive is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University, the Archive collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Twenty years after Tiananmen

Twenty years ago, in June 1989, the Chinese army killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of unarmed civilians in Beijing and other cities during demonstrations for democracy. How much has changed? A multimedia feature by Human Rights Watch examines the impact of and Chinese response to the Tiananmen Square incident, and finds the government continues to "victimize survivors, victims’ families, and others who challenge the official version of events."

As the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen approaches on Thursday, Chinese authorities have seized dissidents and blocked social networking sites like Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and news websites like The Huffington Post.

"Tiananmen taught the Chinese government that freedom of speech is the core issue that they must control," says Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch in the video.

"Domestic press censorship doesn't just have consequences for people inside China," adds Dr. Sophie Richardson, also from HRW. "Because the domestic Chinese press couldn't write about SARS or melamine scandals or lead-painted toys, we wind up with global public health problems, product safety problems. This matters for everyone, everywhere."