Newscast for Thursday, June 23, 2011

  • The Syrian regime continues its assault on towns and villages using soldiers and tanks
  • Critics say President Obama’s plan for Afghanistan fails to make good on his campaign promises
  • The increasing violence in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan state
  • The Freedom Flotilla prepares to attempt to breach Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza
  • New York’s Bloombergville protest against budget cuts

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Supreme Court rules in favor of pharma data miners

The Supreme Court today struck down a Vermont law that prohibited pharmacies from selling patient data to drug companies. FSRN’s Alice Ollstein reports from Capitol Hill.

Many pharmacies collect and publish data on which drugs doctors are prescribing to their patients. And drug companies use the information to better market their products to doctors. Vermont passed a law to restrict the drug companies’ data mining, but 6 of the 9 Supreme Court justices ruled that restriction unconstitutional.

Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, accused Vermont of regulating corporate speech.  But Greg Beck, a lawyer with the group Public Citizen, disagrees.

“I’m concerned that it suggests that the state has to treat drug companies sort of as a protected class, just like you would have to treat a racial minority as a special class.”

Public Citizen says it’s the patients, not the companies that need the law’s protection.

Many media organizations, such as ProPublica, Hearst, Bloomberg and the Associated Press, filed briefs in support of the drug companies.  They say newspapers and corporations alike should have access to digital information.  Alice Ollstein, FSRN, Washington, DC.

Flooding at nuclear plants in Nebraska cause worries

North Dakota is experiencing some of its worst floods ever, and water levels are expected to rise farther in the coming days.  Ten thousand residents of the city of Minot have evacuated their homes.  Flooding is on track to be the worst in the city’s recorded history.

Flooding is affecting other parts of the country as well.  Though less severe, rising waters in Nebraska have prompted states of emergency at two nuclear power plants.  The Cooper Nuclear Station and Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant are under US Nuclear Regulatory Commission observation.  The Fort Calhoun plant has been shut down since early June and won’t restart until the flood danger has passed.  As of Wednesday, parts of the grounds were under 2 feet of water, according to the NRC.  An “Unusual Event” declaration has been made for both plants, the lowest on a 4-point scale of nuclear emergency notification.

NY Same sex marriage bill could see vote

Republicans in New York’s State Senate are deciding today whether to allow legislation legalizing same-sex marriage to reach the Senate floor for debate.  Many predict it will pass if the vote is allowed.  This optimism stems, in part, from a high-profile Republican vote switch.  Senator Jim Alesi announced he would support marriage equality.  He spoke earlier this week at a rally in Albany.

“I am the first Republican vote to be cast in the NY State Senate.  And I am proud to be a Republican.  I will also be proud to be the first Republican voter to vote for marriage equality in this state.”

Video posted by the Times Union.  Republicans in the Senate are reportedly negotiating further shields for religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage.

100 women raped in 2-day spree in DRC

More than 100 women were raped or attacked in the Democratic Republic of Congo between June 10 and 12 by paramilitary rebel group.  Doctors Without Borders told media that they have been treating victims of the attack in South Kivu province.  This region of the DRC has been witness to several of these mass rapes in the past few years.

In other news, four policemen have been sentenced to death in the strangling death of a prominent DRC human rights activist last year.  Floribert Chebeya was the head of the group Voice of the Voiceless.  The murder prompted widespread international criticism.  AFP reports that three of the four sentenced men are still on the run from authorities.

Mexican activists meet with President about Drug War failures

Two weeks after a cross-country caravan made public the stories of Mexico’s drug war victims, many of its key participants held talks with the government today.  From Mexico, FSRN’s Shannon Young reports.

People who have lost loved ones in the ongoing Drug War sat down with the Mexican President and key cabinet members in what was billed as a dialogue.  It was the first time a large group of victims told their stories directly to the Mexican officials driving and carrying out domestic Drug War policy.  

The format of the “dialogue” resembled that of a city council meeting, with most victims facing time limits on their public comments and officials giving lengthy responses.

President Felipe Calderon says he would like to be remembered for promoting education, public health and infrastructure development, but recognizes the drug war will probably be his administration’s most lasting legacy.  He defended his policy as a tough decision that had to be made.

Poet Javier Sicilia told the President it was a mistake to fight cartels with institutions that are themselves rotten from the inside out.  While the talks don’t appear likely to bring about any major policy shift, the President agreed to give them continuity and meet with movement members again in three months.  Shannon Young, FSRN.



The Syrian regime continues its assault on towns and villages using soldiers and tanks

In Syria, the regime of President Bashar al Assad is continuing its assault on towns and villages in the north west of the country. Today, very close to the Turkish border, troops backed by tanks entered the village of Khirbet al-Jouz. Hundreds of refugees are continuing to flee to Turkey where more than ten thousand are now in makeshift refugee camps near the border.

Towns and villages in this north western region are now deserted after the Syrian authorities launched a military operation in response, they said, to attacks on their security forces by gunmen in the town of Jisr Al Shugour.  Local witnesses say the gunmen were security forces shot by the army for refusing to fire on unarmed civilians.  United Nations agencies, international diplomats and members of the Syria media were allowed access to the area earlier this week under the supervision of the Syrian authorities.  UN Refugee agency spokesperson in Geneva, Sybella Wilkes described to UN Radio what the mission found.

“From about 40 km before Jisr Al Shugour my colleague was telling me that they really saw very, very few people working in the fields. Really the villages were like ghost towns and Jisr Al Shugour, again, with very few people there.  In Jisr Al Shugour itself they saw burnt out buildings, they saw government buildings that had been burnt out.”

Wilkes said they were shown an alleged mass grave site but they were unable to verify the bodies or who killed them. During this supervised visit UN personnel were unable to get access to any displaced people on the Syrian side of the border but Wilkes said refugees in the Turkish camps have reported abductions, torture and murder by the Syrian security forces.

Meanwhile, protests in Syria against the regime and calls for international intervention continue.

This amateur video uploaded to YouTube shows a group of young Syrian women holding and then setting light to a sign which reads in English, “Made in China, Russia and Iran”. Those countries are against a Libya style international intervention in Syria.  Britain and France have been calling for a UN resolution condemning the violence used by the Syrian regime.

Since the uprising began the UN says about 1200 people have been killed and many thousands more detained.

Critics say President Obama’s plan for Afghanistan fails to make good on his campaign promises

President Barack Obama’s plan, announced in last night’s address to the nation, to bring ten thousand troops home from Afghanistan this year and another twenty three thousand next year is receiving an angry response from progressives. Matt Laslo reports that coupled with his stance on Libya, the president’s recent foreign policy decisions are causing unrest in Washington.

The increasing violence in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan state

Tensions remain high in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan state, after tens of thousands of civilians fled fighting between Northern and Southern troops. Some are concerned about the fate of refugees in Kadugli after Sudanese intelligence agents, disguised as Red Crescent workers, threatened them if they didn’t amass at a stadium. That information was from an internal report obtained by the Associated Press. There was no information on what happened to refugees, but some observers say the Nuba people are again facing targeted attacks. Additionally, the UN is demanding the release of six of its national staff arrested yesterday.

The Freedom Flotilla prepares to attempt to breach Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza

In the coming days, a flotilla of about ten boats carrying hundreds of passengers will attempt to get through Israel’s coastal blockade of the Gaza Strip.  The aim is to non-violently challenge the blockade and support Palestinian human rights. This week Israeli authorities announced their intention to enforce their naval blockade and yesterday, the US State Department issued a new travel warning strongly urging Americans not to travel to the Gaza Strip, noting that previous attempts to access Gaza by sea resulted in the, “injury, death, arrest, and deportation of U.S. citizens.” Since the so called Freedom Flotillas started a few years ago, some have managed to successfully reach Gaza’s port, but others have been intercepted and turned back, often violently, by the Israeli authorities.  In May last year, half a dozen vessels with hundreds of passengers supported by a Turkish humanitarian organization were attacked by Israeli commandoes killing nine on board, including one US citizen.  One of the boats in this latest flotilla is a US flagged ship, The Audacity of Hope with about 50 American passengers, crew and members of the press.  In an open letter to President Obama, they explain that their peaceful demonstration – aboard the boat named after his bestselling book – is about non-violently challenging US foreign policy and Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which they say has effectively imprisoned 1.6 million civilian of the crewmembers on The Audacity of Hope is Yonatan Shapira, a former Captain in the Israeli air force.  He joined us from Athens, Greece where the boats are preparing.

New York’s Bloombergville protest against budget cuts

In New York City, activists have been camping out for over a week near city hall in protest of proposed layoffs and cuts to public services. They have vowed to remain until their demands are met. Community News Production Institute Reporter Jaisal Noor brings us more.

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