Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Oct. 17 2014 1:47 PM

Boko Haram Might Have Agreed to Return Abducted Girls

Nigeria's government says it has reached an agreement with the Boko Haram terrorist group to release the 200-plus girls abducted from a school in the town of Chibok earlier this year, though Boko Haram has not confirmed the news. From Reuters:

"I wish to inform this audience that a ceasefire agreement has been concluded," said the head of Nigeria's military, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, adding the deal had followed three days of talks with the militant sect.
Government spokesman Mike Omeri said the deal covered the release of the captives and Boko Haram had given assurances "that the schoolgirls and all other people in their captivity are all alive and well".

Reuters cautions that it's unclear exactly which Boko Haram representatives the government is negotiating with. Nigerian officials have rarely handled the group in a way that inspires confidence; at one point protests related to the abduction were banned, while the country's claim that it killed Boko Haram figurehead Abubukar Shekau in 2013 are disputed, not least because Shekau was also said to have been killed in 2009.

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Oct. 17 2014 1:00 PM

Updates on Ebola Outbreak: Dallas Worker With Possible Specimen Contact Is On Cruise Ship

Slate will post running news updates about the ongoing Ebola story below. For other Slate coverage of Ebola, click here.

Update, 12:30 p.m.: President Obama has appointed Ron Klain, who served as chief of staff for both Joe Biden and Al Gore, as the administration's Ebola response coordinator, a.k.a. "Ebola czar." From the Washington Post

Klain, a longtime Democratic operative, served as Biden's chief of staff from 2009 to 2011 and as Gore's from 1995 to 1999. He helped oversee the Democratic side in the 2000 presidential election recount as its lead lawyer.

Since Klain left the White House in 2011 he's apparently been working for Case Holdings, which manages the "business and philanthropic interests" of America Online co-founder Steve Case.

Update, 11:45 a.m.: A Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas employee who "might have had contact with specimens of [Ebola]" is on a cruise ship somewhere near Belize, the New York Times reports per the State Department. The employee is said not to have direct interaction with any symptomatic patient, and neither the employee or his/her traveling partner are apparently showing any signs of infection. They've nonetheless agreed to remain isolated on the ship, and efforts to bring them back to the United States are underway.

The worker "may have processed samples of fluids from Mr. Duncan" 19 days ago, the State Department says, and left on the cruise on Oct. 12. That was the day that Nina Pham was diagnosed with Ebola, and before Amber Vinson was diagnosed. Yesterday, the Times writes, "health care workers at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital who are being monitored for Ebola symptoms were asked by Dallas County officials to voluntarily agree to avoid public places and not use public transportation, including commercial airliners and trains, during the 21-day incubation period of the virus."

Original post, 10:29 a.m.: An internal document prepared by the World Health Organization—the U.N.'s public health arm—is heavily critical of the agency's own response to the Ebola crisis, the Associated Press reports this morning. Says the self-critique: "Nearly everyone involved in the outbreak response failed to see some fairly plain writing on the wall." From the AP:

The U.N. health agency acknowledged that, at times, even its own bureaucracy was a problem. It noted that the heads of WHO country offices in Africa are “politically motivated appointments” made by the WHO regional director for Africa, Dr. Luis Sambo, who does not answer to the agency’s chief in Geneva, Dr. Margaret Chan.

Other cited issues:

  • WHO Ebola experts failing to send reports on the crisis to WHO headquarters
  • The WHO's Guinea chief refusing to help get visas for a response team
  • A debate between the WHO and Doctors Without Borders, carried out via social media, over whether the crisis was "out of control" (the WHO insisted it was not)

Almost 4,500 people have died of the disease in West Africa during the current outbreak. In a more positive development, the WHO announced today that none of the 74 people who came into contact with an Ebola patient in Senegal have developed the disease, and no other cases of the illness are reported in the country.

Oct. 16 2014 9:49 PM

Syracuse Univ. Tells Guest Photographer Who Covered Ebola Not to Come to Campus

You would have hoped for better from an institution of higher learning, but perhaps we should have known better. On Thursday, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Michel du Cille was disinvited from a journalism workshop at Syracuse University because he has recently returned from covering the Ebola crisis in Liberia. The Washington Post photographer arrived back in the U.S. three weeks ago and has shown no symptoms of the virus, according to the National Press Photographers Association.

“Since his return from Liberia, Du Cille has been following CDC guidelines and monitoring himself closely for symptoms. He has been taking his temperature at least twice a day (but actually more like on the hour, every hour) for the past 21 days,” the NPPA reports. The decision by the university, and its highly-esteemed journalism program, looks all the more hysterical considering du Cille spent Thursday afternoon photographing CDC director Thomas Frieden on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, du Cille was at the CDC itself—working. In fact, here are some of the pictures he took for the Post.

Here’s more on just how ludicrous this decision makes Syracuse look:

Just yesterday, du Cille spent all day with Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Thomas Frieden at CDC headquarters in Atlanta, GA… Du Cille said he asked the CDC's Communications Director Tom Skinner on Tuesday in Atlanta what the CDC did with their scientists and workers when they return to Atlanta from working in Africa with Ebola patients. "He told me that the CDC has them monitor their temperature twice a day, watch for symptoms, and to be alert for 21 days. They don't ask them to stay away, they don't quarantine them, nothing like that. They said that if you're not going to show symptoms between Day 2 and Day 21, then you're not going to get Ebola.” At the CDC the Washington Post photojournalist also asked one of Dr. Frieden's physicians, Dr. John Brooks, about the possibility of whether or not he could still be an Ebola carrier if he's gone this long without showing any symptoms. The accepted incubation period for Ebola is 21 days. While du Cille had been around many bodies of people who died because of Ebola, he says he has no reason to believe that he had actually been exposed to the virus. "Dr. Brooks told me, and I quote, that since my 21 days are up it is very, very unlikely that anyone could get Ebola from me."

Du Cille’s Pulitzer Prize-winning wife, Nikki Kahn, who is also a photojournalist and scheduled to attend, was also uninvited.

Oct. 16 2014 8:25 PM

The U.N. Started a Fund to Raise $1B to Fight Ebola, It’s Gotten One Donation for $100K

Now that we’re all agreed that Ebola is everyone’s problem, we’re all totally going to do better fighting it, right? Right. Beyond simply getting hysterical about the widening web of cases in the U.S. and elsewhere, fighting the virus at its source would also seem like a good idea—for everyone. Exactly one month ago—on Sept. 16—the United Nations set up an Ebola Trust Fund seeking $1 billion to do just that. On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered a status report on which countries are ponying up cash and how much they gave.

It presumably didn’t take the U.N. too long to crunch the numbers on contributions. Of the $1 billion needed, only one contribution has been made, of $100,000—by Colombia. That means the U.N. is still, approximately, $999,900,000 short of what it thinks it will take to combat Ebola. As a barometer of global commitment, the U.N. trust fund isn’t all that encouraging.

To be fair, the U.S. has sent troops to help build medical centers and train health workers. U.N. agencies and global organizations, including UNICEF, the WHO, Doctors Without Borders, and the CDC, among others, have all received donations and are hard at work in the region. In fact, “$365 million has been committed to stop Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, which have been hit hardest by the epidemic, [but] nearly all that money was donated directly to U.N. agencies and nonprofits working in West Africa,” Reuters reports. “Some diplomats and officials said many donors had made commitments to U.N. agencies before the trust fund was established. Others said donors were already overstretched and suggested they might be wary of how money put into the trust fund would be spent.”

As the Associated Press reports, private donations to the Ebola effort have been relatively low compared to natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year. As a result, the AP notes, “it's been evident that national governments will need to shoulder the bulk of the financial burden in combating Ebola, particularly as its ripple effects are increasingly felt beyond the epicenter in West Africa.”

So far the global response has been mixed and generally underwhelming. “[Ban] said dozens of countries "are showing their solidarity," singling out the U.S., Britain, France, Canada, Germany, Poland, Japan, South Korea, Cuba and China. But he said it's time that countries that have "the capacity"—which he didn't identify—provide support,” according to the Associated Press.

Here’s more on the problem of the U.N.’s underperforming fundraising via Reuters:

Dr. David Nabarro, who is heading the U.N. response to the Ebola crisis, said the trust fund was intended to offer "flexibility in responding to a crisis which every day brings new challenges; it allows the areas of greatest need to be identified and funds to be directed accordingly." World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said on Thursday the world does not have a choice in whether to support the Ebola fight… "Countries need to support the U.N. fund. They have to step up and they have to put the money in right now. It is the most rational thing to do from humanitarian, public health and economic perspective. It is the right thing to do," he said.

*Correction, Oct. 17, 2014: This post, to the chagrin of all of the math teachers its author ever had, originally miscalculated the total of $1 billion minus $100,000.

Oct. 16 2014 6:43 PM

Chicago Quietly Allows .1 Second Shorter Yellow Lights, Makes $8M Off 77,000 New Tickets

How long is a yellow light? Most people would—reasonably—have no idea the exact length of time before a traffic light goes from yellow to red. The answer is: A minimum of three seconds, according to federal safety regulations. What happens when a mere tenth of second is shaved off that time and a yellow light lasts 2.9 seconds? If you thought, not much, you’d be wrong.

The city of Chicago and its mayor, Rahm Emanuel, are taking heat—thanks to a Chicago Tribune investigationfor ever-so-quietly sanding that measly tenth of a second off of the length of yellow lights in the city this past spring. The impact was substantial: 77,000 additional red light camera tickets were issued, at $100 a pop, which added up to nearly $8 million forked over by unsuspecting drivers.

Here’s more from the Tribune:

The Emanuel administration quietly issued a new, shorter yellow light standard when the city began the transition from red light camera vendor Redflex Traffic Systems to Xerox State & Local Solutions in February. Confronted by complaints from hearing officers and questions from the Tribune about the tickets issued at shorter yellow lights, the administration reversed course in September and told Xerox to re-establish the three-second standard.
Last week, Inspector General Joseph Ferguson issued a review that found that when the city was handing over the contract to Xerox, the administration directed the company to accept red light camera violations for incidents with yellow light times above 2.9 seconds, one-tenth of a second less than the minimum under Redflex. The city previously had told Redflex not to submit tickets with yellows of less than three seconds.

On Wednesday, Emanuel told the Tribune the city went back to three-second yellow lights “because trust is the most important” thing. The Mayor is still mulling refunding the ticketed drivers.

Oct. 16 2014 5:51 PM

Clippers Star Blake Griffin Writes First-Person Account of Donald Sterling's Weirdness

Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin has written an essay about Donald Sterling in Derek Jeter's new quasi-journalism, quasi-PR publication The Players' Tribune, and while it will not surprise you to learn that he found Donald Sterling to be an offputting weirdball, the details of their interactions are pretty funny/messed-up. Like this anecdote from a beach party Sterling brought Griffin to:

“Everyone, have you met our newest star? This is Blake! He was the number one pick in the entire NBA draft. Number one! Blake, where are you from?”
Then I’d say I was from Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma! And tell these people what you think about LA.”
Then I’d say it was pretty cool.
“And what about the women in LA, Blake?”
It was the same conversation with every group of people. When he would start having a one-on-one conversation with someone, I’d try to slip away, and he’d reach back and paw my hand without even breaking eye contact with the person. Whenever he didn’t have anything left to say, he just turned around and walked us over to the next group.
“… Have you met our newest star?

Griffin goes on to praise the team's new owner, Steve Ballmer, which Deadspin observes is both self-serving and predictable. It's a fair criticism, and Deadspin is right that you won't learn anything shocking or newsworthy from Griffin's piece, but it's still worth reading, in this blogger's opinion, for indirectly addressing the oft-asked question of how black players and coaches were able to work for someone whose racist views were a matter of public record even before the TMZ tapes came out. The answer seems to be a kind of groupthink psychology phenomenon—everybody knew Sterling was awful and unhinged, but since everybody knew that everybody knew, and he was still around, everybody just figured there was nothing to be done about it. Sounds depressingly plausible, right?

Oct. 16 2014 4:50 PM

Death Sentence of Pakistani Christian Woman Upheld on Appeal

A court in Pakistan has upheld the death sentence given to Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman whose 2010 blasphemy conviction preceded the assassination of two politicians who supported her. Though the Lahore High Court rejected Bibi's appeal, her lawyers plan to file an appeal to the country's Supreme Court.

In Pakistan, defaming the prophet Mohammed and desecrating the Quran are punishable by a life sentence or the death penalty. Bibi denies allegations that she insulted Mohammed. From Reuters:

She is alleged to have made derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbours objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.
Bibi's lawyer, Naeem Shakir, said his client had been involved in a dispute with her neighbours and that her accusers had contradicted themselves.
Two witnesses allegedly involved in the incident did not appear in court, he said. A prayer leader did appear, saying he did not witness the original altercation, but that Bibi had confessed in front of him.

In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was shot and killed in Islamabad after undertaking a campaign to repeal Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which are some of the harshest in South Asia. Prior to his death, he visited Bibi in prison. Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was also killed several months later by assassins who left behind pamphlets condemning him as a "Christian infidel."

Pakistan saw a spike in blasphemy charges under the 1978-1988 rule of Zia ul-Haq, an Islamist who steered the country in a decidedly nonsecular direction. Vigilante retaliation against alleged insults to Mohammed is also common—since 1990, 52 people have been extra-judicially killed for blasphemy-related offenses, per a study from the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.

Oct. 16 2014 4:02 PM

One Dallas Ebola Patient Flown to Emory, Other Headed to NIH

Dallas Ebola patient Amber Vinson was transferred last night to an infectious disease unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, and today the National Institutes of Health announced that Vinson's  colleague and fellow patient Nina Pham will be flown to an NIH facility in Maryland. Elsewhere, fallout from Vinson's Cleveland-Dallas flight—taken just a day before she checked into the hospital—continued. From Reuters:

In Ohio, where Vinson had visited family members, two schools in the Cleveland suburb of Solon were closed on Thursday because an employee may have traveled on the same plane as Vinson, though on a different flight...
Frontier Airlines said it had placed six crew members on paid leave for 21 days "out of an abundance of caution." Florida Governor Rick Scott asked the CDC to expand the reach of its contacts to people who flew on the same plane after nurse Amber Vinson’s flight. The plane made a stop in Fort Lauderdale after Dallas.
Back in Texas, the Belton school district in central Texas said three schools were closed on Thursday because two students were on the same flight as the nurse.

Vinson is a graduate of Kent State University and went to high school in Akron.

Oct. 16 2014 2:36 PM

Watch an Inventive, Poignant Suicide PSA by an Indie Filmmaker and His Son

Here's a cool/touching video:

The kid is named Maximus Thor, and his father, it appears, goes by the name Benny Wonka and runs an indie filmmaking outfit in Atlanta called Sanctified Crack Gorilla Productions. The voiceover is by a gentleman named James R. Few who's worked on other videos with the pair.

Update, October 17, 2014:  Benny Wonka, via a Facebook message back-and-forth, adds some background. "James and I are old friends...we've produced TV shows together. We're producing a music video for David Banner right now." The motivation to address the topic of suicide was personal: "Struggled for years with it myself. Lost a close friend. I felt alone and crazy, felt I couldn't tell anyone." The video, he hopes, will help individuals with similar issues realize that there are others who know what they're going through. "Maybe encourage them in some way," he says. "Or maybe just feel understood for a second."

Oct. 16 2014 1:31 PM

Yemen, Home to a Major Arm of al-Qaida, Is Falling Apart

Yemen—a country that is both a hotbed for anti-American terrorism and key intermediary, geographically speaking, in the international energy trade—is in a state of chaos. The Houthi rebel group, al-Qaida, and a rising separatist movement in the south have combined to reduce an already-shaky central government's control over the country, and this week two cities were captured by rebels.

The Houthis, who have been responsible for periodic episodes of unrest in the country in the last decade, take their name from the Houthi family of northern Yemen. They are part of the Zaydi sect, the smallest of the three main remaining branches of Shia Islam. They say they face persecution and discrimination at the hands of the military-backed central government, and they want a say in drafting a new constitution.

Houthi-led unrest has also helped al-Qaida's influence swell, and the terrorist group controls a number of remote towns and areas. Al-Qaida has had a presence in Yemen for years—it was the Yemeni al-Qaida arm that was behind the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole as well as the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a flight into Detroit in 2009. The country's Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula organization has been the target of an aggressive program of drone strikes by the U.S.—the New America Foundation estimated that such attacks have killed at least 753 people in the country since 2002. 

In recent days Houthi fighters have taken control of key parts of the city of al-Hudaydah as well as the city of Ibb. The rebels allegedly did not face major resistance in the takeover of either city. Al-Hudaydah, home to the country's biggest oil refinery, is the base from which most Yemeni oil is shipped internationally via the Red Sea, and connects many maritime shipping routes key to the international energy trade. Meanwhile, seccessionists in the country's south are holding mass rallies, while the Houthi rebels are fighting Salafis from Saudi Arabia along the northern border. (Many have speculated that the Shia Houthis are being backed by Iran.)

Al-Qaida has not responded passively to gains in Houthi power. Last Thursday, a suicide bombing killed 47 at a pro-Houthi demonstration in the capital of Sanaa, which was taken by the rebels last month, and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has since claimed responsibility for the attack. Just this morning, reports emerged that an al-Qaida attack on a government base had killed three policemen. Such news, it seems, will be the norm from Yemen for the forseeable future.