January 14, 2010

Checkpoint transformations and tweets

For those of you looking to follow my work this year in Afghanistan and south Asia, please head over to our new blog Checkpoint Kabul!

The new blog will feature my work, along with contributions from other McClatchy reporters on temporary assignment in Afghanistan.

Also, sign up to follow my work on Twitter - @DionNissenbaum -- as I will soon be tweeting from Afghanistan as well..

Happy 2010!

December 07, 2009

A Checkpoint Jerusalem farewell


A few weeks ago, I ran into Danny Seaman, the head of Israel’s government press office who has a well-cultivated disdain for many international journalists covering Israel.

“I hear you’re leaving,” Danny said to me. “I’d pop the champagne, but I don’t drink.”

We both laughed and then had a chat about baseball.

I’m sure Danny has used that line dozens of times over the years with many a reporter who has set up shop in Jerusalem to cover this conflict.

Danny is famous for his hostility towards journalists.

Over the years, he’s battled with reporters (calling them "idiots" and worse) and penalized media companies like Al Jazeera that he viewed as biased.

Last year, Danny defended Israel’s decision to bar journalists from entering Gaza to cover the controversial military assault and accused reporters of becoming Hamas apologists.

(As a consequence, a recent survey of press freedom around the world found Israel's ranking was in "free fall.")

Over the last five years that I’ve worked in the Middle East, though, I never had a run-in with Danny. He never called to complain about our coverage and always made sure that our work visas and temporary press cards were quickly approved.

But now Danny can pop the champagne.

This week brings an end to Checkpoint Jerusalem.

As readers will have noticed, I’m heading to Kabul, where McClatchy is in the process of opening up a full-time bureau so we can better cover Afghanistan in the years ahead.

In my stead, McClatchy will be bringing you coverage from two of the most talented reporters in Jerusalem.

First, McClatchy is expanding its joint venture with The Christian Science Monitor so that readers will be able to read the work of Ilene Prusher, one of the most thoughtful veterans in Jerusalem.

Secondly, McClatchy readers will begin seeing the work of Sheera Frenkel, who distinguished herself with her widely praised coverage for The Times of London of Israel’s Gaza offensive last winter.

But, for the first time in decades, McClatchy will no longer have a full-time bureau in Jerusalem.

In fact, McClatchy has become the last American news organization to close up shop in Beit Agron, the boxy press building that long-served as Jerusalem's media hub.

For decades, as I've written before, the fourth floor of Beit Agron was coveted real estate. Journalists waited for months and years to get space on the fourth floor.

Now the hall is deserted.

In last five years, I have watched office after office close. Newsday. The Boston Globe. The Baltimore Sun. The Toronto Star. The Chicago Tribune. And, now, McClatchy. Photoseven

In troubled financial times, McClatchy has held out longer than most newspaper companies in retaining its international coverage.

Over the past four years, I've covered the Israel-Hezbollah war, Saudi sitcoms, elections in Lebanon,  Obama's speech to the Muslim world, Palestinian drag queens, and Israeli politics.

But the years have largely been dominated by events in Gaza. 

Nissen0-R3-019-8 I took over the bureau (back then it was Knight Ridder) a few weeks before Israel pulled out of Gaza in the summer of 2005. 

This blog began right before the Hamas military takeover of the Gaza Strip in June, 2007. Because Israel barred reporters from entering Gaza as the fighting intensified, I was one of the few international reporters to be inside to cover the chaos as it unfolded.

This blog devoted many posts to challenging Israel's decision to bar reporters from entering Gaza during last winter's offensive. And I wasHamasrally4 one of the many reporters to trek through the Egyptian desert to enter Gaza as Israeli forces pulled out last January.

While Danny derided reporters who ventured into Gaza to report on the fighting as a "disgrace to their profession," journalists from McClatchy, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The Times of London, The Independent, The Washington Post, The New York Times and other major news outlets spent weeks trying to separate fact from fiction, reality from propaganda.

Journalists spent hours interviewing survivors and testing their credibility. Reporters dug up medical records to verify claims, conducted separate interviews with witnesses, scoured neighborhoods for information, conferred with human rights researchers working in Gaza, examined the scenes of fighting, challenged inconsistencies in stories, and sought input from the Israeli military.

McClatchy reported on allegations that Israeli soldiers shot Palestinian civilians waving white flags and used Palestinian men as human shields. McClatchy wrote about Hamas using the fighting as cover to attack its Fatah rivals and about Israel's attack on the American school in Gaza.

While the stories were vociferously challenged by the Israeli officials, the Israeli government eventually, reluctantly, agrFrisk2eed to look into the most inflammatory allegations.

And the United Nations has warned both Israel and Hamas that they could face war crimes charges if they don't launch serious, credible investigations of their conduct during the fighting.

 The coverage that led to the UN actions was possible because so many international news outlets devoted time, money and resources to the story.

Jerusalem is still home to one of the biggest concentrations of reporters in the world. But the number of  full-time journalists based in the Middle East is dwindling.

And that will make it harder for all of us to separate truth from fiction in this convoluted, politically-charged part of the world.

Checkpoint Jerusalem will soon be morphing into Checkpoint Kabul. There, as here, I hope to use the blog to report on both the substantive and the surreal.

Readers are invited to keep checking in at the new checkpoint...

November 29, 2009

Taliban white flags don't mean surrender

(McClatchy photo: Chuck Liddy. An Afghan man listens to a US soldier at a checkpoint in southern Afghanistan.)

One of the biggest challenges facing President Obama in Afghanistan is the drive to train enough Afghan police and soldiers to handle the fight when US forces leave.

McClatchy's Jay Price and Chuck Liddy have been out to see how the training is going.

"Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion," Jay writes, " the police appear to be years away from functioning independently. American trainers say they must tell the Afghans repeatedly to do the simplest things, such as separating passengers they've searched from ones they haven't when they stop a vehicle."

Jay and Chuck spent time at a checkpoint in southern Afghanistan where the Taliban marked their territory with white flags and the Afghan soldiers abandoned their post after the American troops left.

Jay has the story. Chuck has the pictures.

November 28, 2009

Bulletproof vests and unfortunate goats

Anyone living or working in a war zone should take a moment to reflect on the passing of Lester Shubin, the Justice Department researcher credited with inventing the first effective bulletproof vests.Kevlar

The Washington Post obit on Shubin includes this interesting detail of the tests to determine if the new Kevlar vests would stop bullets:

"They put their new vest over a gelatin mold to determine how a body might react to the impact of a handgun bullet and then drafted, as test subjects, a series of unfortunate goats..."

November 25, 2009

Afghanistan's 007 kicks some terrorist butt

Forget about Daniel Craig, Roger Moore and Sean Connery. 

Afghanistan has its own 007. QUASEEM1

Halle Sure, he may drink tea instead of vodka martinis and drive a Camry instead of an Aston Martin. And Halle Berry does not co-star.

But Kabul's 007, when he's not running over his screenwriter, is kicking some terrorist butt and taking names...

Read about his terrorist-killing exploits here.


November 22, 2009

When Hillary (almost) met the warlord

When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Kabul last week for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's inauguration, she sat in a palace hall that included some of the country's most influential warlords.

Along with Karzi vice presidents Mohammed Qasem Fahim and Karim Khalili, the honored guests included Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has been accused of committing war crimes and investigated for allegedly carrying out vigilante justice on the streets of Kabul.

As she flew to Kabul for Karzai's swearing-in ceremony, Clinton told reporters that the Afghan president's alliance with Dostum "certainly raises questions."

Sitting in the hall with Dostum was one thing.

Now, it turns out, Clinton came dangerously close to inadvertently taking part in a photo op with Dostum at the palace.

After Karzai was sworn-in and dignitaries were chatting in the palace hall, Dostum was among those shaking hands with visitors and making his way towards Clinton to say hello.

A picture of Clinton and Dostum shaking hands would have been an unacceptable PR fumble on a day when the Obama administration was sending out positive messages about Karzai and looking for ways to repair the strained relationships.

As Dostum closed in, according to one witness, US diplomat Richard Holbrooke made a move towards Clinton in an apparent attempt to warn her that she was about to shake hands with the notorious warlord.

Dostum Clinton's security team deftly moved in and made sure that Clinton wrapped up her handshakes just as Dostum was sauntering up to say hello, according to the source in the room.

After the inauguration, Clinton sought to draw distinctions between good warlords and bad warlords.

There are warlords and there are warlords," Clinton said in an interview with Radio Azadi in Kabul.

"There are people who are called back who fought on behalf of the people of Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, who fought against al-Qaida and the Taliban and their allies," Clinton said."And there are people who had very serious breaches of human rights and mistreatment of people during war, which is always difficult to look back on and figure out how to judge."

Dostum held a key military post in Karzai's last government. But few people in Kabul expect him to be given a prominent role in the next cabinet. Instead, Dostum allies are more likely to be rewarded with political posts as Karzai creates his new team.

November 20, 2009

Progress in Israeli-Palestinian (small) talks

Finally, reports of progress in talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Unfortunately, the report  comes from the Onion...

"According to State Department officials, the violently clashing peoples of Israel and Palestine have agreed to resume small talks this week in an effort to move toward eventually having a discussion about the weather," according to the report.

Well, it's a start...

November 18, 2009

Hillary Clinton channels 'Godfather' mobster

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in Kabul for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's inauguration.

Clinton offered pointed criticism of Karzai on the flight to Afghanistan.Hrc

Then, when she met Karzai, according to the pool report from Mark Landler of The New York Times, the secretary who famously castigated a student in Kinshasa with the curt cut-down "I'm not going to be channeling my husband," started channeling a Hollywood mobster.

"The conversation was pleasantries, revolving around Mrs. Clinton’s intense travel schedule and inauguration planning," Landler wrote in his pool report.

Then Landler injected a little Hollywood interpretation of the talks:

“You have a long journey and then you go to meetings straightaway,” Mr. Karzai said to Mrs. Clinton.

“It’s the life we’ve chosen,” Mrs. Clinton said, channeling Hyman Roth, the aging gangster in "Godfather: Part II."

For those who don't remember the story, Roth was a Jewish mobster who met a predictably bloody ending in the film.

The exact line is: "This is the business we've chosen."

(The line was also embraced by Tony Soprano.)

Perhaps it would be better for the secretary of state to go back to holding imaginary talks with Eleanor Roosevelt instead...

(AP photo: Anja Niedringhuas)

November 17, 2009

Saudi "Super Bad" sitcom's debut

Earlier this year, I wrote about a Quixotic attempt by some aspiring filmmakers in Riyadh who are trying to produce a pioneering Saudi "Super Bad" sitcom about four guys from Riyadh trying to start a band.

This weekend, the filmmakers plan to unveil their TV pilot.

Here's a sneak peek at the sitcom trailer:

November 16, 2009

Afghanistan: The pink boxers of war

For most of this decade, photojournalist David Guttenfelder has been documenting life in Afghanistan.

Now you can see the scope of his work here.

One of Guttenfelder's most famous recent photos featured U.S. Army Specialist Zachary Boyd joining a firefight last spring while wearing pink boxer shorts.


The photo, which appeared on the front page of The New York Times, prompted NPR's Bob Simon to quip: "Real men wear pink boxers."

(AP photos: David Guttenfelder)



Checkpoint Jerusalem was written by Dion Nissenbaum, who covered the Middle East as Jerusalem bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers from 2005 to 2009.

Nissenbaum is now McClatchy's bureau chief in Kabul, covering south Asia with an emphasis on Afghanistan. See his new blog at Checkpoint Kabul.

Feel free to send a story suggestion. Read his stories at news.mcclatchy.com.


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