New Statesman Ai Weiwei guest edit shortlisted for Amnesty Award

Ai Weiwei, Cheng Yizhong and the New Statesman nominated.

Amnesty International have announced the shortlist for their 2013 Media Awards, and the New Statesman has been nominated for a series of three articles published in our 22 October issue guest-edited by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Amnesty’s Media Awards “recognize excellence in human rights reporting and acknowledge journalism’s significant contribution to the UK public’s awareness and understanding of human rights issues.”

Ai Weiwei is an internationally renowned artist and a free speech advocate. He was previously detained by the Chinese government on charges of tax evasion and is still prevented from leaving the country. He is currently appealing a fine imposed by the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau for $1.85m.

The New Statesman’s editorial team spent six months working closely with Ai and his team in Beijing to produce an ambitious issue dedicated to China and its future. The three nominated articles are : “Fact have blood as evidence”, an interview Ai conducted with blind civil activist Chen Guangcheng; the “The Virus of Censorship”, in which newspaper editor Cheng Yizhong reveals how journalists in China are kept in a state of fear and endemic self-censorship through government manipulation and policing; and “Meet the 50 Cent Party”, which saw Ai Weiwei expose the underworld of state-sponsored commentators by interviewing an unnamed twenty six year old graduate who explained the process by which he is hired to influence the thoughts of ‘netizens’.

The issue was published bilingually, produced as a digital issue in Mandarin and a print edition in English.  With original content from Chinese journalists, authors, artists and musicians, the magazine was edited in a foreign language for the first time in its history. It was a rewarding challenge that our commissioning editor Sophie Elmhirst outlined eloquently in this post-production blog.

The New Statesman and Ai Weiwei also jointly launched a Twitter campaign which posed the question “what is the future of China?” to ordinary citizen and collated thousands of responses, a selection of which were published in the magazine.

Following publication, we urged readers to download and to share the issue, for free, across social networking websites in an attempt to breach “The Great Firewall”. Our deputy Helen Lewis reiterated our commitment to free, uncensored journalism in this blog post - which offers links to the magazine as a sharable torrent file, magnet link and PDF.  

These three features revealed a side of China rarely seen in the west, and would never have seen publication in their authors’ home country. This issue was an act of solidarity with like-minded writers on the other side of the world; a promise that we would do our part to give a home to their stories, so often stifled. In his leader for the issue, Ai wrote:

I chose to dedicate my issue of the magazine to China, its people, its history, its culture, its current situation and its future. My country has to recognise itself, which is a challenge to anybody at any stage in life.

…the only way we can be successful, in China and in life, is through greater communication and wider awareness, in constantly questioning our standards and our conditions. You, as readers, are part of this, you are active members of this family, and you can be proud of that. We should all be proud of that.

The New Statesman is nominated alongside Janine di Giovanni’s Seven Days in Syria, published by Granta, in the Consumer Magazine category.

The issue has also been shortlisted for the British Media Award’s Cross Media project.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.