Geopolitics

Al Jazeera Verdict, A Farce Of Egyptian Justice

After the verdict sentencing Al Jazeera journalists to prison, it is difficult to consider the country's court system independent. Dark days ahead for freedom of expression in Egypt.

Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Peter Greste listen to the verdict at a court in Cairo, June 23, 2014.
Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Peter Greste listen to the verdict at a court in Cairo, June 23, 2014.
Tomas Avenarius

-OpEd-

MUNICH — It doesn't take a jurist to see how thin the evidence was against the three “Marriott cell” journalists. When news broadcasts that comprise both new and archived material, which is accepted practice, are assessed as “fake news,” then it’s not just Al Jazeera that’s “guilty.” It’s also the BBC, CNN and Germany’s ARD.

When a foreign reporter is supposedly a “member of a terror group” because he or she maintains contact with representatives of a political organization that up until relatively recently was the ruling party, then journalism based on objectivity and diversity of opinion becomes irrelevant. Talking to a Muslim Brother doesn’t mean a journalist believes he’s on the side of right.

In a controversial decision, a Egyptian court has sentenced three journalists from the Al Jazeera news channel to long prison terms.

None of the above interested the Egyptian judge. Three Australian and Egyptian Al Jazeera reporters were sentenced to seven years in prison because they worked for a channel that is not politically popular in the new Cairo. Seven years behind bars because they didn’t have the requisite permission to film. Locked up for seven years after a trial where the supposed “proof” was laughable. Seven years because Egypt is feuding with the Gulf state of Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based.

After this verdict, it is difficult to consider Egypt’s justice system independent. But the verdict is more than just scandalous. Unfortunately, it could be an indication of the way the new Egypt handles freedom of the press. The judge was bent on showing all Egyptians what they could expect where diversity of opinion is concerned. Equally as important is the message Egypt apparently wants to send to its international partners: The regime in Cairo clearly places not the least bit of value on how the outside world reacts to such a huge abuse of national and international legal culture.

Political Islam is in ruins, as what played out in Egypt demonstrates. Radical Islam, however, has ever more supporters. Weekend warriors are drawn to ISIS militias whose sadism exceeds that of their mother organization al-Qaeda. It’s not going to be an easy matter to quell these terrorists.

When journalists cover legal, moral or ethical accusations made against other journalists, caution is the order of the day. For those in the media, protecting their own professional group cannot take precedence over the fate of individual citizens of a state suffering from political arbitrariness.

And what do the fates of three reporters count for in a country where an estimated 40,000 have been imprisoned since the fall of Islamic President Mohamed Morsi? Very little, apparently. Forty thousand is a horrific number, and there are terrorists among them. But there are also thousands and thousands who did nothing more than exercise their basic political right to protest or, worse, were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. The courts have also handed down hundreds of death sentences.

Over and above concerns about press freedom, the verdicts are important because they shine such a clear light on Egyptian justice, which is darkly partisan.

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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