Minnesota's miseries

The government of the northern state shut down on 1 July following a disagreement over the budget de

It's party time across America today as the nation celebrates Independence Day -- but in the state of Minnesota, it's political fireworks lighting up the sky. That's because for the second time in six years, party leaders have failed to agree a budget because they can't decide how to tackle the deficit, so the entire government has shut down. That's only happened in a handful of states before -- and Minnesota's the only place to go through it twice.

Today at least is still a holiday of sorts -- leaders won't hold any more talks until tomorrow. But for local people looking to spend some time outdoors over the holiday weekend the shutdown means that state parks are all closed, along with historic sites, rest-stops on highways, and even two racetracks run by the state.

In an ironic twist, state troopers are still handing out tickets for traffic violations -- but you can't get a fishing licence, buy a lottery ticket or claim on a winning number.

And more seriously, among other closures: a women's refuge, reading services for the blind and a helpline for elderly people and their carers. Parents say they're having to stay home from work because childcare facilities aren't operating. And the 22,000 employees who work for the state aren't getting their pay cheques.

Both parties, naturally enough, are blaming each other for the impasse. The Republican chairman Tony Sutton accused the (Democratic) Governor Mark Dayton of causing "maximum pain" for political reasons -- while Dayton is blaming much of the $5 billion deficit on his predecessor-turned Presidential candidate Tom Pawlenty. Left wing activists have set up a "shutdown shame'" website which invites users to "share the impacts of the GOP's reckless political game with your friends".

Pawlenty was in charge last time the state shut down in 2005, but this time he's saying it could have a positive outcome: forcing Minnesota to live within its means. Tackling it has come down to an ideological battle between Democrats, who want to raise taxes on the highest earners -- while Republicans are demanding sweeping cuts in spending, including heath and welfare.

The breakdown in negotiations shows quite how far apart these two sides have become: bipartisan spirit is precious thin on the ground. This was the state which was once home to high-minded liberals like Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, and Paul Wellstone. Now politicians on both sides have grown ever more radical. On the left, Al Franken's bitterly fought campaign for the Senate in 2008 won him the seat with the slimmest of majorities -- just 312 votes. Minnesota's representatives in the House include Democrat Keith Ellison, who co-chairs the progressive caucus, and on the right, the darling of the Tea Party, Michelle Bachmann. Polarised parties -- where the zone of possible agreement is growing ever more thin.

Today at least the politicians are back in their districts, the acrimony on hold for now, as they celebrate the 4th of July. But one thing they're unlikely to escape is their constituents -- who'll no doubt have their own views on how the two sides should reach a budget deal. And it's a fight with national implications too, as President Obama and Congress wrestle with that little budget defict problem of their own...

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News

Photo: Getty
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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.