News & Current Affairs

July 17, 2009

Wikipedia painting row escalates

Wikipedia painting row escalates

Georgina Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire ascribed to Sir Joshua Reynolds, circa 1759-1761. © National Portrait Gallery

Work by Sir Joshua Reynolds was among those uploaded to Wikipedia

The battle over Wikipedia’s use of images from a British art gallery’s website has intensified.

The online encyclopaedia has accused the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) of betraying its public service mission.

But the gallery has said it needs to recoup the £1m cost of its digitisation programme and claims Wikipedia has misrepresented its position.

The NPG is threatening legal action after 3,300 images from its website were uploaded to Wikipedia.

The high-resolution images were uploaded by Wikipedia volunteer David Coetzee.

Now Erik Moeller, the deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation which runs the online encyclopaedia, has laid out the organisation’s stance in a blog post.

‘Empire building’

He said most observers would think the two sides should be “allies not adversaries” and that museums and other cultural institutions should not pursue extra revenue at the expense of limiting public access to their material.

“It is hard to see a plausible argument that excluding public domain content from a free, non-profit encyclopaedia serves any public interest whatsoever,” he wrote.

He points out that two German photographic archives donated 350,000 copyrighted images for use on Wikipedia, and other institutions in the United States and the UK have seen benefits in making material available for use.

Another Wikipedia volunteer David Gerard has blogged about the row, claiming that the National Portrait Gallery makes only £10-15,000 a year from web licensing, less than it makes “selling food in the cafe”.

They honestly think the paintings belong to them rather than to us
David Gerard
Wikipedia volunteer

But the gallery insists that its case has been misrepresented, and has now released a statement denying many of the charges made by Wikipedia.

It denies claims that it has been “locking up and limiting access to educational materials”, saying that it has been a pioneer in making its material available.

It has worked for the last five years toward the target of getting half of its collection online by 2009. “We will be able to achieve this,” said the gallery’s statement,”as a result of self-generated income.”

The gallery says that while it only makes a limited revenue from web licensing, it earns far more from the reproduction of its images in books and magazines – £339,000 in the last year.

But it says the present situation jeopardises its ability to fund its digitisation process from its own resources.

Legal issues

The gallery has claimed that David Coetzee’s actions have breached English copyright laws, which protect copies of original works even when they themselves are out of copyright.

The National Portrait Gallery now says it only sent a legal letter to David Coetzee after the Wikimedia Foundation failed to respond to requests to discuss the issue. But it says contact has now been made and remains hopeful that a dialogue will be possible.

A spokeswoman also said that the two German archives mentioned in Erik Moeller’s blog had in fact supplied medium resolution images to Wikipedia, and insisted that the National Portrait Gallery had been willing to offer similar material to Wikipedia.

National Portrait Gallery

The gallery said the row could prevent it putting more of its collection online

The gallery also explained how David Coetzee was able to obtain the high resolution files from its site. They were made available to visitors using a “Zoomify” feature, which works by allowing several high resolution files to be seen all together.

It claims Mr Coetzee used special software to “de-scramble” the high-resolution tiles, allowing the whole portrait to be seen in high resolution.

The British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies has backed the National Portrait Gallery’s stance.

“If owners of out of copyright material are not going to have the derivative works they have created protected, which will result in anyone being able to use then for free, they will cease to invest in the digitisation of works, and everyone will be the poorer,” it wrote in an email to its members.

But the Wikipedia volunteer David Gerard accuses the gallery of bureaucratic empire building.

“They honestly think the paintings belong to them rather than to us,” he wrote.

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July 15, 2009

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israeli soldiers deployed on the Israel-Gaza border 28 Decmeber 2008

Soldier testimonies appear to contradict official Israeli statements

A group of soldiers who took part in Israel’s assault in Gaza say widespread abuses were committed against civilians under “permissive” rules of engagement.

The troops said they had been urged to fire on any building or person that seemed suspicious and said Palestinians were sometimes used as human shields.

Breaking the Silence, a campaign group made up of Israeli soldiers, gathered anonymous accounts from 26 soldiers.

Israel denies breaking the laws of war and dismissed the report as hearsay.

The report says testimonies show “the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians” was a result of Israeli military policy, articulated by the rules of engagement, and encouraged by a belief “the reality of war requires them to shoot and not to ask questions”.

One soldier is quoted saying: “The soldiers were made to understand that their lives were the most important, and that there was no way our soldiers would get killed for the sake of leaving civilians the benefit of the doubt.”

Paul Wood
From Paul Wood,Courtesy
BBC Middle East correspondent:

Until now, Israel always had a ready answer to allegations of war crimes in Gaza. Claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda. Now the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

The common thread in the testimonies is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

The Israeli military says past allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza were the result of soldiers recycling rumours.

But Breaking the Silence has a long – and to many, credible – record in getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the army.

Another says: “People were not instructed to shoot at everyone they see, but they were told that from a certain distance when they approach a house, no matter who it is – even an old woman – take them down.”

Many of the testimonies are in line with claims made by human rights organisations that Israeli military action in Gaza was indiscriminate and disproportionate.

Amnesty International has accused both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in charge in Gaza, of committing war crimes during the 22-day conflict which ended on 18 January.

Israeli officials insist troops went to great lengths to protect civilians, that Hamas endangered non-combatants by firing from civilian areas and that homes and buildings were destroyed only when there was a specific military need to do so.

‘Ill discipline’

Other allegations in the testimonies of the 14 conscripts and 12 reserve soldiers include:

• Civilians were used as human shields, entering buildings ahead of soldiers

You can’t identify too much at night and anything that moves you engage in order not to take risks. It was not defined this way officially, but it was obvious
Anonymous Israeli soldier

• Large swathes of homes and buildings were demolished as a precaution or to secure clear lines of fire for the future.

• Some of the troops had a generally aggressive, ill-disciplined attitude

• There was incidents of vandalism of property of Palestinians

• Soldiers fired at water tanks because they were bored, at a time of severe water shortages for Gazans

• White phosphorus was used in civilian areas in a way some soldiers saw as gratuitous and reckless

• Many of the soldiers said there had been very little direct engagement with Palestinian militants.

The report says Israeli troops and the people who justify their actions are “slid[ing] together down the moral slippery slope”.

“This is an urgent call to Israeli society and its leaders to sober up and investigate anew the results of our actions,” Breaking the Silence says.

Israel said the purpose of Operation Cast Lead had been to end rocket fire from Gaza aimed at its southern towns.

Palestinian rights groups say about 1,400 Palestinians died during the operation. Thirteen Israelis died in the conflict, including 10 soldiers serving in Gaza.

According to the UN, the campaign damaged or destroyed more than 50,000 homes, 800 industrial properties, 200 schools, 39 mosques and two churches.

Investigations

Reacting to the report, Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich said:

“The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] regrets the fact that another human rights organisation has come out with a report based on anonymous and general testimony – without investigating their credibility.”

She dismissed the document as “hearsay and word of mouth”.

“The IDF expects every soldier to turn to the appropriate authorities with any allegation,” Lt Col Leibovich added. “This is even more important where the harm is to non-combatants. The IDF has uncompromising ethical values which continue to guide us in every mission.”

There have been several investigations into the conduct of Israel’s operation in Gaza, and both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs the territory, have faced accusations of war crimes.

An internal investigations by the Israeli military said troops fought lawfully, although errors did take place, such as the deaths of 21 people in a house that had been wrongly targeted.

A fact-finding team commissioned by the Arab League concluded there was enough evidence to prosecute the Israeli military for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that “the Israeli political leadership was also responsible for such crimes”.

It also said Palestinian militants were guilty of war crimes in their use of indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians.

September 9, 2008

Indian painter cleared by court

Indian painter cleared by court

MF Husain

This is not the first time Mr Husain’s work has caused controversy

India’s Supreme Court has refused to launch criminal proceedings against one of the country’s best-known and controversial artists.

MF Husain has been accused of obscenity in several cases filed against him in a number of Indian states.

He is alleged to have offended Hindus with a painting in which he represented India as a nude goddess.

The court said Mr Husain’s paintings were not obscene and nudity was common in Indian iconography and history.

The Supreme Court also upheld a lower court ruling in May that dropped legal proceedings in three cases against the painter and cleared him of obscenity charges.

Under Indian laws, obscenity is a criminal offense.

In its ruling, the court said that the nudity portrayed by Mr Husain had a long history.

“There are many such pictures, paintings and sculptures and some of them are in temples also,” it said.

‘Victory’

Mr Husain has been living in the Middle East. He welcomed the court’s decision and said he was looking forward to returning home

“At last they have understood the dignity of Indian contemporary art,” he was quoted as saying by the Times of India newspaper.

“This is not a victory for me only, but one for the Indian contemporary art movement.”

Last year, art auction house Christie’s rejected demands by a group of expatriate Indians to withdraw the work of Mr Husain.

The group had threatened to hold demonstrations unless the auction was dropped.

In 2006, Mr Husain had publicly apologized for the painting.

He promised to withdraw the controversial painting from a charity auction, after Hindu nationalist groups accused him of hurting their religious sentiments.

Mr Husain, 92, is one of India’s leading painters.

His paintings are much sought after and are auctioned for millions of dollars.

He has also made two Bollywood films, although both failed at the box office.

September 3, 2008

Ukraine in snap election warning

Ukraine in snap election warning

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko

Mr Yushchenko said he would call a poll unless a new coalition was formed

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has threatened to dissolve parliament and call elections after the collapse of the country’s ruling coalition.

Mr Yushchenko’s supporters walked out in protest following new laws trimming the president’s powers.

The laws were introduced by the pro-Russian opposition and backed by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party.

Former allies, the prime minister and president are now at odds despite sharing pro-Western political goals.

All but one of 12 ministers from Mr Yushchenko’s party boycotted Wednesday’s cabinet meeting.

“A political and constitutional coup d’etat has started in the parliament,” Mr Yushchenko said in a televised speech.

“I will use my right to dissolve parliament and decree early elections if a new coalition is not formed within 30 days,” he said.

‘Irresponsible behaviour’

But Ms Tymoshenko blamed her rival for the chaos, vowing that the Ukrainian cabinet would continue its work despite the break-up of the coalition.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (l) and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko

“I am sorry that the president behaves irresponsibly,” she said at a cabinet meeting. “The coalition was destroyed under his instruction.”

Mr Yushchenko’s popularity is at rock bottom at the moment with opinion polls giving him single-digit levels of support.

The prime minister and president are believed to be jockeying for position before next year’s presidential election, though our correspondent says Mr Yushchenko’s chances of winning with current popularity levels would be slim.

The crisis follows mounting tension between the president and prime minister with Mr Yushchenko accusing Ms Tymoshenko of treason for allegedly siding with Moscow over the conflict in Georgia.

Mr Yushchenko has been a vociferous supporter of Georgia during the conflict but the prime minister’s party on Tuesday blocked a parliamentary resolution condemning Moscow.

The flare-up comes a day before a planned visit to the country by US Vice-President Dick Cheney.

The trip is part of a tour of former Soviet states which the US sees as key allies.


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