Sifting through the wreckage of MH17, searching for sense amid the horror

Any journalist should hesitate before saying this, but news can be bad for you. You don’t have to agree with the analyst who reckons “news is to the mind what sugar is to the body” to see that reading of horror and foreboding hour by hour, day after day, can sap the soul.

This week ended with a double dose, administered within the space of a few hours: Israel’s ground incursion into Gaza and, more shocking because entirely unexpected, the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.

So in Gaza we look at the wildly lopsided death tolls – nearly 300 Palestinians and two Israelis killed these past nine days.

The different responses these events stir in those of us who are distant, and the strategies we devise to cope with them, say much about our behaviour as consumers of news. But they also go some way to determining our reaction as citizens, as constituent members of the amorphous body we call public, or even world, opinion.

As I write, 18 of the 20 most-read articles on the Guardian website are about MH17. The entry into Gaza by Israeli forces stands at number 21. It’s not hard to fathom why the Malaysian jet strikes the louder chord. As the preacher might put it, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Stated baldly, most of us will never live in Gaza, but we know it could have been us boarding that plane in Amsterdam.

Which is why there is a morbid fascination with tales of the passenger who changed flights at the last minute, thereby cheating death, or with the crew member who made the opposite move, hastily switching to MH17 at the final moment, taking a decision that would have seemed so trivial at the time but which cost him his life. When we read about the debris – the holiday guidebooks strewn over the Ukrainian countryside, the man found next to an iPhone, the boy with his seatbelt still on – our imaginations put us on that flight. Of course we have sympathy for the victims and their families. But our fear is for ourselves.

It’s quite true that if the US truly decided that Israel’s 47-year occupation of Palestinian territory was no longer acceptable, that would bring change.

The reports from Gaza stir a different feeling. When we read the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont describe the sights he saw driving around the strip on Friday morningthree Palestinian siblings killed by an Israeli artillery shell that crashed into their bedroom, a father putting the remains of his two-year-old son into a plastic shopping bag – we are shaken by a different kind of horror. It is compassion for another human being, someone in a situation utterly different to ours. We don’t worry that this might happen to us, as we now might when we contemplate an international flight over a war zone. Our reaction is directed not inward, but outward. More

There is an interesting article by Chris Hedges entitled It's NOT going to be OK on the current economic disparity which, he believes could lead to a drastic decline in democracy as states respond to social protests. The question I ask is what can be done to slow or erradicate this process? Editor

 

Edward Snowden should not face trial, says UN human rights commissioner

The United Nations's top human rights official has suggested that the United States should abandon its efforts to prosecute Edward Snowden, saying his revelations of massive state surveillance had been in the public interest.

Navi Pillay

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, credited Snowden, a former US National Security Agency contractor, with opening a global debate that has led to calls for the curtailing of state powers to snoop on citizens online and store their data.

“Those who disclose human rights violations should be protected: we need them,” Pillay told a news conference.

“I see some of it here in the case of Snowden, because his revelations go to the core of what we are saying about the need for transparency, the need for consultation,” she said. “We owe a great deal to him for revealing this kind of information.”

The United States has filed espionage charges against Snowden, charging him with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorised person.

Pillay declined to be drawn on whether President Barack Obama should pardon Snowden, saying he had not yet been convicted. “As a former judge I know that if he is facing judicial proceedings we should wait for that outcome,” she said. But she added that Snowden should be seen as a “human rights defender”.

“I am raising right here some very important arguments that could be raised on his behalf so that these criminal proceedings are averted,” she said.

Pillay was speaking after issuing a report on government surveillance, The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age (pdf), which says governments must accept stronger checks on their data surveillance powers and companies must do more to stand up to the state's demands for data.

Revelations of mass US surveillance based on documents leaked by Snowden sparked outrage among American allies including Germany, Brazil and Mexico. He has sought asylum in Russia.

The leaked documents revealed massive programmes run by the NSA that gathered information on emails, phone calls and internet use by hundreds of millions of Americans.

Mona Rishmawi, head of the rule of law branch of Pillay's office, said: “In this particular case, the way we see the situation of Snowden is he really revealed information which is very, very important for human rights. We would like this to be taken into account in assessing his situation.”

All branches of government must be involved in the oversight of surveillance programmes, and completely independent civilian institutions must also monitor surveillance, Pillay says in her report. Checks on government must also be clearly understandable by the public.

The report, which will be debated at the UN general assembly later this year, says any collection of communications data or metadata is potentially a breach of privacy.

Governments often force internet and telecoms firms to store metadata about their customers, which was neither necessary nor proportionate, Pillay said, adding that companies should always be ready to challenge government requests.

“This can mean interpreting government demands as narrowly as possible or seeking clarification from a government with regard to the scope and legal foundation for the demand; requiring a court order before meeting government requests for data; and communicating transparently with users about risks and compliance with government demands,” she told reporters.

She added: “I would say there are serious questions over the extent to which consumers are truly aware of what data they are sharing, how, and with whom, and to what use they will be put.

“And for how long is this data going to be out there? I would say that the same rights that people have offline must be protected online.”

An emergency data collection law being rushed through the British parliament may not address concerns raised by the European Court of Justice and is difficult to justify, Pillay said. More