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IRIN's Top Picks: President Kagame, land in Burundi, and dead journalists

Syrian children among a group of refugees intercepted by Turkish coast guard and sent back to the coast city of Izmir
(Nicola Zolin/IRIN)

Welcome to IRIN's reading list. Every week our global network of specialist correspondents share their top picks of recent must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises. We also highlight key upcoming conferences, book releases and policy debates.

Five to read:

A deadly profession

At least 1,175 journalists have been killed because of their work since 1992. This sobering fact comes from the Committee to Protect Journalists. 2015 saw 69 names added to the list (motive confirmed), but the number may rise as several cases are still being investigated.

The geographical spread of fatalities is striking. Syria again dominated with 13 deaths, but not to the same extent as the three previous years. There were at least five deaths each in Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, Bangladesh, and six in Brazil. There were oddities too: a news team for a Virginia TV station murdered on-air in August by a disgruntled former employee; and eight of the nine deaths that catapaulted France into 2nd place on the list came during one attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The actual number of journalists killed could be far higher. There were unconfirmed reports of up to 35 killed in Mosul in Iraq, but the CPJ couldn’t gain enough access to stand them up. One third of the 90 investigations in Syria were dismissed because the journalists killed were also members of armed groups or seen too regularly with weapons.

Speaking to The Guardian, CPJ advocacy director Courtney Radsch drew attention to this worrying militarisation: “There is an information vacuum, there are far fewer foreign correspondents; it’s being left to domestic actors, many of whom have fled. Those left behind are in many cases doing journalism, but also playing these dual roles.”

It’s all about the data

With hundreds of donors and thousands of implementing agencies and government departments, international aid finance is by nature complex and tangled.

A single standard for reporting of aid flows should make for a more coherent and transparent overview of $135 billion of annual aid spending and a better deal for both recipient countries and donor taxpayers.

The International Aid Transparency Initiative, IATI, has been gradually building momentum as the core data-exchange mechanism. More than 25,000 entries in the common data-format have been recorded for activities in 2015 or later.

It's by no means comprehensive, with a number of major donors not yet reporting in the IATI format, and the data is knarly, to say the least. Nevertheless, this annual report claims that $80 billion of aid finance was tracked up to October this year.

This year, the IATI data structure was amended to make humanitarian spending distinguishable from longer-term development aid. Real-time monitoring of emergency finance might be closer to reality: one to watch in 2016.

Land and the Burundi conflict

Burundi’s seemingly inexorable slide towards civil war has been flagged as an emerging crisis and tracked by conflict analysts, Great Lakes specialists and humanitarian agencies alike. Foreign Policy magazine, however, has taken a completely different tack. Starting with the careful unpicking of a complex land dispute, its reporter tells Burundi’s story from the point of view of the land itself. What are the population pressures, the intricate cultural and legal systems that govern its management and – crucially – its ownership? This thread leads the reader from the disruption of colonial times, to the ethnic dimension deepened by the genocide and insufficiently addressed by the Arusha Accords, to the pressures of a swelling population on a finite resource and a buckling legal system. The most destructive conflicts experienced by the ordinary people of Burundi are not the internecine political struggles, but land disputes. These, in turn, may yet speed the country’s downward spiral.

President Kagame for life? Rwanda’s referendum

On December 18th, a remarkable 98% of Rwandans voted to change their country’s constitution to allow their current president, Paul Kagame, to serve a currently illegal third term. The approved changes would, in fact, allow him to stay in power until 2034. If you missed all this, and the subsequent kerfuffle, fret not: Global Voices has this excellent summary of the entire discussion. It picks out key policy statements, tweeted reactions, and, in particular, the furious response from local commentators querying a decision that doesn’t follow a conventional democratic narrative and implies that Rwandans don’t know their own minds. Others see a blatant imposition of a principle – the third term – that has proved the undoing of so many other African countries. Worth being up to speed on this one: it’s a debate that’s going to run and run in 2016.

Migrants who go full circle

Pictures of refugees arriving traumatised but alive on the shores of Europe dominated the continent’s newspapers in 2015. But in addition to the vast numbers who actually made it were many more who set out but failed. Some, of course, drowned, but thousands more gave up, turned back, or just ran out of cash. What happens to would-be migrants who fail? What are their stories?

The Wall Street Journal follows one young Malian man as he battles hunger, fatigue, and venal and corrupt officials. His dream slips away day by day, along with his money, even as his determination grows. At one stage, 25-year-old Mahamadou Doukara can even see Europe’s promised land across a narrow stretch of the Mediterranean. But after burning through his money just to get to Morocco, he can’t afford the extortionate smugglers’ fees. He ends up at a squalid hostel in Rabat, nicknamed The Titanic because so few of the migrants there are expected to make it.

Spoiler alert: Doukara ends up not on a Spanish beach but back in the family home in Mali with his furious – and now broke – father.

One to look at:


Among those uprooted and scattered by Syria’s war are those who comprised the country’s rich arts scene. Many are now unable to work. Nizar Ali Badr, however, finds material wherever he goes, because his art literally uses the land and stones beneath his feet. Badr’s gift is to coax sketches of power and humanity simply through the way he arranges stones to tell stories of his country and his life. In his hands, a few pebbles and sticks transform into an excruciating snapshot of torture, or a family of bowed refugees trudging beneath the moon, or a group of fishes weaving through reeds. No one knows who or where he is – the current best guest is Turkey – but for Badr, his identity is less important than his art. All we need to know, he says, is that “I love the dust and stones from Syria. My message is a humanitarian message.”

One to watch:


On 28th December, Naji Jerf was shot in the head with a silenced pistol in broad daylight in the border town of Gaziantep in Turkey. Jerf, who was the film editor for award-winning Syrian citizen journalism collective Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, was the second staff member to be assassinated in two weeks, following the death of reporter Ahmad Mohamed Almossa in Syria on 16th December. Jerf’s colleagues believe that part of the reason he was killed was because of this film, which he recently completed and which includes footage he shot of the kidnapping and murder of paramedics in 2013 and 2014. Multilingual readers may wish to note that the video is at present available only in Arabic and read the conversation on his Facebook page about organising subtitles in English and other languages.

From IRIN:

An unwanted guest

When humanitarian agencies were asked to list their top concerns for 2016, the El Niño phenomenon and food insecurity in East Africa ran Syria a close second. This week, IRIN maps out what the likely impacts will be for southern and eastern Africa, and worst of all the Horn of Africa. Because of El Niño, countries and regions that barely escaped drought and associated food insecurity in 2015 face another tough year in 2016. Some countries, like Somalia, are threatened simultaneously by too much water and too little – meaning waterborne diseases and destroyed infrastructure and farmland as well as withered crops and desertification.

Coming up: 2016


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