Journalist Baker Atyani looks back on kidnap ordeal in Philippine jungle

Baker Atyani inside a hut in the jungles of Sulu. The picture was taken by the man who helped Atyani to escape. (All photos supplied by the writer)
Updated 13 June 2017

Journalist Baker Atyani looks back on kidnap ordeal in Philippine jungle

It was around 5:30 a.m. when my cameraman Ramil knocked on the door of my room. “We have to go now. Romeo has arrived and is waiting outside the hostel,” he said. I was already up, well prepared for the meeting with one of the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Sulu Island. Romeo was the guide and driver set to take me and my team into the island’s jungle to meet this leader.
The plan was to return within three hours to Jolo, the island’s main city. I had promised Jolo’s mayor to attend the Philippine Independence Day ceremony. This was on June 12, 2012. I was working on a documentary about Mindanao and the Muslims of the southern Philippines, which required me to travel from Manila to Sulu Island.
My Filipino coordinator said he was tied up with his work in Manila but had arranged all the interviews and made all the arrangements for my visit to Zamboanga City and Sulu Island, including the interview with the ASG leader. He kept saying: “My brother, you will be in good hands.”
The night before I was kidnapped, he sent me a text saying the same thing. Something inside me warned me of a lurking threat but I ignored the feeling. My coordinator arranged the accommodation for me and my team at Sulu Students Hostel and insisted that I refuse to stay with the governor of the island or with the mayor of Jolo. “They should not know about our plans to meet with the ASG leader,” he said.
As Romeo drove toward the jungle, I had a feeling I would not return soon. The car crashed three times during the journey; the third time, Romeo left the car on the road and told us (I and my team) to continue on foot. This added to my feeling that something was not right; you cannot just leave the car on the road and continue with your journey unless it is serious.
The journalist in me ignored every sign of threat and kept me going. “You should do this scoop, meet the ASG leader in the jungle and get a first-hand account of the conflict in Mindanao,” I thought to myself. I had interviewed all the other parties involved in the conflict of Mindanao by then.
We were deep inside the Patikol area, ASG’s stronghold. Armed men from every side of the jungle appeared with guns and munitions. Abu Rami, an ASG leader who was later ambushed and killed by the Philippine army, gave money to Romeo, who left us with our kidnappers.
I spent 18 months in captivity, in the heart of the Sulu jungle, living among ignorant people, to say the least. When Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, appealed to my kidnappers to release me, they had hardly heard of Jerusalem. One of them asked me about it, to which I said: “Have you heard about Al-Aqsa Mosque?” He said: “Yes, that is in Spain?” I could barely keep myself from bursting into laughter.
I was astonished by their ignorance and could hardly believe what I heard from them in the first six months of my kidnapping. But soon I realized the jungle had its own world disconnected from the outside. I appeared alien to them. During the first month of my kidnapping, all the men, women and children would gather around my hut watching me carefully, as if I was a new creature that landed in their world.
When the mufti of Sulu, Abd Al-Baqi Abu Bakr, contacted them via a local mediator and asked them to release me, denouncing their act, they said about him: “He is not an honest man, he is astray and wants to take ransom money for himself.” I told them: “But is it right for you to deprive me of my freedom and demand to have my money, which you have no right to?”
Five years since my kidnapping, the situation in the southern Philippines does not seem to be getting any better. Kidnappings and executions of hostages continue. Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall were beheaded in April and July 2016, respectively, by an ASG thug named Ben who was an illiterate and former drug addict at best.
The ASG has declared its allegiance to Daesh. In addition to groups that split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), such as the Maute Group and a faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), groups from ASG joined Daesh in the Philippines and formed the State of the Philippines led by Insilon Hapilon, a former ASG leader not very different from Ben.
The Philippine government and armed forces are not innocent. They are part of the problem and their policies over the years have resulted in a sense of anger, grievance and hatred toward the state among the Muslim population in the south.
The ASG element that joined Daesh found its new umbrella very similar in its actions, as both have the same traditions and mindset. These people have been kidnapping, robbing and killing, apparently for the cause of the Moros, and allowed their ignorance to justify their ugly deeds.
People who do not respect their word, they promised to give me an interview but betrayed my team and I. They never kept a single promise they made regarding my release. Even Romeo, whom Shakespeare made a symbol of love and loyalty, turned out to be a traitor by being associated with the ASG.
• Baker Atyani can be reached on Twitter @atyanibaker.


YouTube plans to launch streaming video service

Updated 15 August 2022

YouTube plans to launch streaming video service

  • The platform has been in the works for at least 18 months and could be available as early as this fall.

LONDON: Alphabet Inc’s YouTube is planning to launch an online store for streaming video services, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.
The company has renewed talks with entertainment companies about participating in the platform, which it is referring to internally as a “channel store,” the report said, citing people close to the recent discussions.
The platform has been in the works for at least 18 months and could be available as early as this fall, the report added.
Alphabet did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
With more consumers cutting the cord on cable or satellite TV and shifting to subscription-based streaming services, the planned launch will allow YouTube to join companies like Roku Inc. and Apple in a bid to gain a portion of the already crowded streaming market.
Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Walmart Inc. has held talks with media companies about including streaming entertainment in its membership service.


Strike four: Facebook misses election misinfo in Brazil ads

Updated 15 August 2022

Strike four: Facebook misses election misinfo in Brazil ads

  • Facebook has identified Brazil as one of its priority countries where it’s investing special resources specifically to tackle election related disinformation

Facebook failed to detect blatant election-related misinformation in ads ahead of Brazil’s 2022 election, a new report from Global Witness has found, continuing a pattern of not catching material that violates its policies the group describes as “alarming.”
The advertisements contained false information about the country’s upcoming election, such as promoting the wrong election date, incorrect voting methods and questioning the integrity of the election.
This is the fourth time that the London-based nonprofit has tested Meta’s ability to catch blatant violations of the rules of its most popular social media platform— and the fourth such test Facebook has flubbed. In the three prior instances, Global Witness submitted advertisements containing violent hate speech to see if Facebook’s controls — either human reviewers or artificial intelligence — would catch it. They did not.
“Facebook has identified Brazil as one of its priority countries where it’s investing special resources specifically to tackle election related disinformation,” said Jon Lloyd, senior adviser at Global Witness. “So we wanted to really test out their systems with enough time for them to act. And with the US midterms around the corner, Meta simply has to get this right — and right now.”
Brazil’s national elections will be held on Oct. 2 amid high tensions and disinformation threatening to discredit the electoral process. Facebook is the most popular social media platform in the country. In a statement, Meta said it has ” prepared extensively for the 2022 election in Brazil.”
“We’ve launched tools that promote reliable information and label election-related posts, established a direct channel for the Superior Electoral Court to send us potentially-harmful content for review, and continue closely collaborating with Brazilian authorities and researchers,” the company said.
In 2020 Facebook began requiring advertisers who wish to run ads about elections or politics to complete an authorization process and include “Paid for by” disclaimers on these ads, similar to what it does in the US The increased safeguards follow the 2016 US presidential elections, when Russia used rubles to pay for political ads designed to stoke divisions and unrest among Americans.
Global Witness said it broke these rules when it submitted the test ads (which were approved for publication but were never actually published). The group placed the ads from outside Brazil, from Nairobi and London, which should have raised red flags.
It was also not required to put a “paid for by” disclaimer on the ads and did not use a Brazilian payment method — all safeguards Facebook says it had put in place to prevent misuse of its platform by malicious actors trying to intervene in elections around the world.
“What’s quite clear from the results of this investigation and others is that their content moderation capabilities and the integrity systems that they deploy in order to mitigate some of the risk during election periods, it’s just not working,” Lloyd said.
The group is using ads as a test and not regular posts because Meta claims to hold advertisements to an “even stricter” standard than regular, unpaid posts, according to its help center page for paid advertisements.
But judging from the four investigations, Lloyd said that’s not actually clear.
“We we are constantly having to take Facebook at their word. And without a verified independent third party audit, we just can’t hold Meta or any other tech company accountable for what they say they’re doing,” he said.
Global Witness submitted ten ads to Meta that obviously violated its policies around election-related advertising. They included false information about when and where to vote, for instance and called into question the integrity of Brazil’s voting machines — echoing disinformation used by malicious actors to destabilize democracies around the world.
This will be Brazil’s first election since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who is seeking reelection, came to power. Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked the integrity of the country’s election systems.
“Disinformation featured heavily in its 2018 election, and this year’s election is already marred by reports of widespread disinformation, spread from the very top: Bolsonaro is already seeding doubt about the legitimacy of the election result, leading to fears of a United States-inspired January 6 ‘stop the steal’ style coup attempt,” Global Witness said.
In its previous investigations, the group found that Facebook did not catch hate speech in Myanmar, where ads used a slur to refer to people of east Indian or Muslim origin and call for their deaths; in Ethiopia, where the ads used dehumanizing hate speech to call for the murder of people belonging to each of Ethiopia’s three main ethnic groups; and in Kenya, where the ads spoke of beheadings, rape and bloodshed.


Iran conservative media hail Salman Rushdie attacker

Updated 15 August 2022

Iran conservative media hail Salman Rushdie attacker

  • Rushdie was on a ventilator after the attack during a literary event in New York state on Friday, more than 30 years after he went into hiding following late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa

TEHRAN: Iranian ultra-conservative newspaper Kayhan on Saturday hailed the man who stabbed British author Salman Rushdie — the target of a 1989 Iranian fatwa calling for his death.
Rushdie was on a ventilator after the attack during a literary event in New York state on Friday, more than 30 years after he went into hiding following late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa.
“Bravo to this courageous and duty-conscious man who attacked the apostate and depraved Salman Rushdie in New York,” wrote the paper, whose chief is appointed by current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Let us kiss the hands of the one who tore the neck of the enemy of God with a knife,” the daily added.
With the exception of reformist publication Etemad, Iranian media followed a similar line, describing Rushdie as an “apostate.”
State-owned paper Iran said that the “neck of the devil” had been “cut by a razor.”
Iranian authorities have yet to make any official comment on the stabbing attack against Rushdie.
But Mohammad Marandi, an adviser to the negotiating team for Iran’s nuclear talks in Vienna, wrote on Twitter: “I won’t be shedding tears for a writer who spouts endless hatred and contempt for Muslims and Islam.”
“But, isn’t it odd that as we near a potential nuclear deal, the US makes claims about a hit on Bolton... and then this happens?” he questioned.
The attack came after Iran hinted earlier on Friday that it may accept a final compromise to revive its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. This followed the European Union’s submission of a “final text” in Vienna.
The US Justice Department said Wednesday that it had indicted a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards over allegations he had offered to pay an individual in the United States $300,000 to kill former White House national security adviser John Bolton.
Iran dismissed the allegations as “fiction.”
Rushdie, 75, was propelled into the spotlight with his second novel “Midnight’s Children” in 1981, which won international praise and Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for its portrayal of post-independence India, where he was born.
But his 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” transformed his life when Khomeini issued a religious decree ordering his killing.
In 1998, the government of Iran’s reformist president Mohammad Khatami assured Britain that Iran would not implement the fatwa.
But Khamenei said in 2005 he still believed Rushdie was an apostate whose killing would be authorized by Islam.


Twitter plan to fight midterm misinformation falls short, voting rights experts say

Updated 12 August 2022

Twitter plan to fight midterm misinformation falls short, voting rights experts say

LONDON: Twitter Inc. on Thursday set out a plan to combat the spread of election misinformation that revives previous strategies, but civil and voting rights experts said it would fall short of what is needed to prepare for the upcoming US midterm elections.
The social media company said it will apply its civic integrity policy, introduced in 2018, to the Nov. 8 midterms, when numerous US Senate and House of Representatives seats will be up for election. The policy relies on labeling or removing posts with misleading content, focused on messages intended to stop voting or claims intended to undermine public confidence in an election.
In a statement, Twitter said it has taken numerous steps in recent months to “elevate reliable resources” about primaries and voting processes. Applying a label to a tweet also means the content is not recommended or distributed to more users.
The San Francisco-based company is currently in a legal battle with billionaire Elon Musk over his attempt to walk away from his $44-billion deal to acquire Twitter.
Musk has called himself a “free speech absolutist,” and has said Twitter posts should only be removed if there is illegal content, a view supported by many in the tech industry.
But civil rights and online misinformation experts have long accused social media and tech platforms of not doing enough to prevent the spread of false content, including the idea that President Joe Biden did not win the 2020 election.
They warn that misinformation could be an even greater challenge this year, as candidates who question the 2020 election are running for office, and divisive rhetoric is spreading following an FBI search of former President Donald Trump’s Florida home earlier this week.
“We’re seeing the same patterns playing out,” said Evan Feeney, deputy senior campaign director at Color of Change, which advocates for the rights of Black Americans.
In the blog post, Twitter said a test of redesigned labels saw a decline in users’ retweeting, liking and replying to misleading content.
Researchers say Twitter and other platforms have a spotty record in consistently labeling such content.
In a paper published last month, Stanford University researchers examined a sample of posts on Twitter and Meta Platforms’ Facebook that altogether contained 78 misleading claims about the 2020 election. They found that Twitter and Facebook both consistently applied labels to only about 70 percent of the claims.
In a statement, Twitter said it has taken numerous steps in recent months to “elevate reliable resources” about primaries and voting processes.
Twitter’s efforts to fight misinformation during the midterms will include information prompts to debunk falsehoods before they spread widely online.
More emphasis should be placed on removing false and misleading posts, said Yosef Getachew, media and democracy program director at nonpartisan group Common Cause.
“Pointing them to other sources isn’t enough,” he said.
Experts also questioned Twitter’s practice of leaving up some tweets from world leaders in the name of public interest.
“Twitter has a responsibility and ability to stop misinformation at the source,” Feeney said, saying that world leaders and politicians should face a higher standard for what they tweet.
Twitter leads the industry in releasing data on how its efforts to intervene against misinformation are working, said Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor at Stanford Law School who studies online speech regulation.
Yet more than a year after soliciting public input on what the company should do when a world leader violates its rules, Twitter has not provided an update, she said.


Google opposes Facebook-backed proposal for self-regulatory body in India - sources

Updated 11 August 2022

Google opposes Facebook-backed proposal for self-regulatory body in India - sources

  • India wants a panel to review complaints about content decisions
  • Google says self-regulatory system sets bad precedent - sources

NEW DELHI: Google has grave reservations about developing a self-regulatory body for the social media sector in India to hear user complaints, though the proposal has support from Facebook and Twitter, sources with knowledge of the discussions told Reuters.
India in June proposed appointing a government panel to hear complaints from users about content moderation decisions, but has also said it is open to the idea of a self-regulatory body if the industry is willing.
The lack of consensus among the tech giants, however, increases the likelihood of a government panel being formed — a prospect that Meta Platforms Inc’s Facebook and Twitter are keen to avoid as they fear government and regulatory overreach in India, the sources said.
At a closed-door meeting this week, an executive from Alphabet Inc’s Google told other attendees the company was unconvinced about the merits of a self-regulatory body. The body would mean external reviews of decisions that could force Google to reinstate content, even if it violated Google’s internal policies, the executive was quoted as saying.
Such directives from a self-regulatory body could set a dangerous precedent, the sources also quoted the Google executive as saying.
The sources declined to be identified as the discussions were private.
In addition to Facebook, Twitter and Google, representatives from Snap Inc. and popular Indian social media platform ShareChat also attended the meeting. Together, the companies have hundreds of millions of users in India.
Snap and ShareChat also voiced concern about a self-regulatory system, saying the matter requires much more consultation including with civil society, the sources said.
Google said in a statement it had attended a preliminary meeting and is engaging with the industry and the government, adding that it was “exploring all options” for a “best possible solution.”
ShareChat and Facebook declined to comment. The other companies did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

THORNY ISSUE
Self-regulatory bodies to police content in the social media sector are rare, though there have been instances of cooperation. In New Zealand, big tech companies have signed a code of practice aimed at reducing harmful content online.
Tension over social media content decisions has been a particularly thorny issue in India. Social media companies often receive takedown requests from the government or remove content proactively. Google’s YouTube, for example, removed 1.2 million videos in the first quarter of this year that were in violation of its guidelines, the highest in any country in the world.
India’s government is concerned that users upset with decisions to have their content taken down do not have a proper system to appeal those decisions and that their only legal recourse is to go to court.
Twitter has faced backlash after it blocked accounts of influential Indians, including politicians, citing violation of its policies. Twitter also locked horns with the Indian government last year when it declined to comply fully with orders to take down accounts the government said spread misinformation.
An initial draft of the proposal for the self-regulatory body said the panel would have a retired judge or an experienced person from the field of technology as chairperson, as well as six other individuals, including some senior executives at social media companies.
The panel’s decisions would be “binding in nature,” stated the draft, which was seen by Reuters.
Western tech giants have for years been at odds with the Indian government, arguing that strict regulations are hurting their business and investment plans. The disagreements have also strained trade ties between New Delhi and Washington.
US industry lobby groups representing the tech giants believe a government-appointed review panel raises concern about how it could act independently if New Delhi controls who sits on it.
The proposal for a government panel was open to public consultation until early July. No fixed date for implementation has been set.