Profile in Courage: Journalist Mohammed al-Asaadi

When ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were injured in Iraq on January 29, the American media held vigil. The story received extensive coverage, possibly because Woodruff and Vogt are two of its own.

Commenting on the attention, American University profession Kathryn Montgomery said, “when you see the kind of coverage this story is getting it draws attention to the lack of coverage that hundreds of cases don’t get.” According to UPI, for example, the same week that Woodruff and Vogt were injured, 10 American service members were killed in Iraq.

While Woodruff and Vogt should be commended for their willingness to report from a war zone, especially in light of the number of journalists injured and killed during conflicts, there is another journalist sitting in a jail in Yemen who deserves our attention as well.

On February 11, Mohammed al-Asaadi, the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer, a weekly English-language newspaper, was arrested and charged with insulting the Prophet Muhammad. According to MSNBC:

…when his newspaper ran an article about the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist, Asaadi decided to reprint the cartoons—albeit with a large X censoring most of them, and an article denouncing them….he was arrested and charged with insulting the Prophet.

Reporters Without Borders immediately requested the release of Asaadi and five other journalists who are currently in prison for having printed the now infamous cartoons.

Here are excerpts from an interview with Asaadi conducted by Newsweek’s Rod Nordland:

This is a different sort of case…Tell us how it came about.
When we ran our article on the Danish cartoons, it was all about how the Prophet should be honored, with quotations from famous people about what an important figure he was, and a news story on Yemeni protests. We reprinted the cartoons but blacked them out. Unfortunately by an innocent mistake in the production process, a thumbnail of the cartoons appeared on the front page—only 1.5cm [0.6 of an inch] by 2cm [0.8 of an inch], you could hardly read it. But then one of the directors of [the newspaper] al-Akhbar al Yawn approached the Yemen Observer owners to blackmail us—that unless we paid them they would raise a stink. We refused, and they collected signatures on a petition that they presented to the prosecutor. Theirs is a newspaper that lives by blackmail, everybody knows that.  But the government responded by revoking our license to publish and putting me in jail.

Do you regret now the decision to run the cartoons, however censored, given the climate?  There are plenty of religious fanatics in Yemen, even if they’re a minority.
We had a meeting to discuss this before we published them, so it wasn’t an accident.  And we felt that these cartoons had already been shown on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya [satellite TV] and millions of Muslims had seen them.  And I personally believe these cartoons should be published.  If we make it unlawful to look at them, we give them an importance they don’t deserve, as if there’s something holy or special about them. We should be able to discuss them openly, which is what we did.

The article as a whole discussed Islam and particularly the Prophet in reverential tones.  So why the government reaction?
Most of these extremists don’t read English, they just saw the pictures. And the article was accompanied by an editorial, saying the cartoons were terrible, but we should accept the apologies of the newspaper that published them and move on, not continue running through the streets.  That’s what really angered the [government] hard-liners.  Even religious scholars have supported us: it’s the intention behind the publication, not just the publication.


What’s Next … Chicken Soup for the Blogger’s Soul?

  • I received this e-mail from the other day:

Dear Customer,

As someone who has purchased books by Mark Victor Hansen, you might like to know that Chicken Soup for the Soul Healthy Living Series: Asthma (Chicken Soup for the Soul Healthy Living) will be released in paperback soon. You can pre-order your copy by following the link below.

Is it just me, or don’t we have enough Chicken Soup for the Soul books already? lists 513, and I personally own a few of them (they did wonders when I had a long recovery a few years back).

So don’t get me wrong. This series is successful precisely because it tugs at the heartstrings. Kind of like a Hallmark card on steroids.

Maybe I should applaud Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. At a time when personalization and “all about me” don’t show any sign of abating, they keep cranking out book after book… and people keep buying them:

There are books for different ethnicities, different ages (Kids Soul, Preteen Soul I & II, Teenage Soul I-IV, Grandparent’s Soul and more, ), professions (Dental Soul) and interests (Traveler’s Soul, Golfer’s Soul). The list goes on. Pretty soon we’ll all have our own Chicken Soup book.

(If you’re feeling particularly cranky, you may want to buy Chicken Poop for the Soul: Stories to Harden the Heart and Dampen the Spirit, a parody by David Fisher.)

But what I’m really holding out for is Chicken Soup for the Blogger’s Soul. I’ll even help put it together.

Cheney Shooting Just of Interest to Beltway Insiders? I Think Not

Having grown up mostly in the Washington, D.C. area and having spent most of my adult life there (to date), I’ll be the first to admit that an inside-the-beltway mentality exists. This is the city, after all, where locate politics are national politics are international politics.

But I disagree with former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer when he claims that the continued coverage of the Vice President Cheney shooting is an issue between the White House and the press corps:

“This is now a real inside-the-beltway controversy… The American people watched it and heard about it Sunday night and Monday morning; it was widely covered. They heard the news and saw the story. It is not dominating the lives of the American people.”

Maybe it’s not dominating everyone’s lives. But plenty of people outside the nation’s capital are talking about “The Incident”. And thanks to the mishandling of this entire situation, aptly pointed out by Tech PR Gems, that’s unlikely to stop any time soon.

(Thanks to the Holmes Report Blog for alerting me to this article.)


The Darker Side of Valentine’s Day

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Businesses have been going full-steam to get their V-Day tie-ins, no doubt keeping their PR firms very busy. When I did a PR Newswire key word search for “Valentine’s Day,” it returned 2219 hits.

Valentine’s Day involves all the usual things you’d expect: mushy cards, flowers, chocolate, lingerie and other related gifts, sometimes marriage proposals. But it also has a darker side.

Flowers: “Concern has been mounting recently over the use of toxic pesticides to grow flowers in such countries as Ecuador and Colombia, which export about two-thirds of flowers bought in the United States. Often the workers tend and prepare the blooms in confined greenhouses.” (Kansas City Star)

Chocolate: “Producer poverty comes at the hands of global corporations like M&M Mars, and other members of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association of America, that manipulate the market to keep profits high while producer incomes stay low. Under intense pressure from consumers and the U.S. Congress, the global chocolate industry agreed to a voluntary protocol to end child slavery on cocoa farms by July 2005. But rather than accept responsibility for their role in exacerbating producer poverty, their plan placed the blame on farmers without providing them the resources they need to feed their families and keep their children in school. Four years after these problems first came to light, little has been accomplished…” (Global Exchange)

Diamonds: “Amputation is forever. That’s the message from the lobby opposed to so-called blood diamonds…the term refers to diamonds associated with mutilation and murder. Mined in a war zone in a country such as Angola, Congo or Sierra Leone, blood diamonds are sold, usually secretly, to finance an insurgent or invading army’s war campaign….If you still feel enthralled by their sparkle, consider a Washington Post report that al-Qaeda has used blood diamonds, particularly from Liberia and Sierra Leone, to launder money to finance its terrorist operations.” (OhmyNews)

If you think, “oh, that’s terrible, but at least Valentine’s Day is still for lovers,” you’d be right, although not in the way you’d expect. The Wall Street Journal’s StartupJournal reports that Valentine’s Day is a big day for detectives and detective agencies involved in what is called “infidelity investigations.”

Valentine’s Day is “a major crisis day for anyone who is having an affair. After all, [it’s] the one holiday when everyone is expected to do something romantic for their spouse or lover — and if someone has both, it’s a serious problem.”

Before you feel too dejected by all this, here are two places you can go to get your sweetie a special something without feeling guilty:

The Story Behind YFly: Interview with Co-founder and CEO Drew Levin

Drew Levin talks about the inspiration behind the social networking site, why this one is different from the others, and what Nick Lachey is doing to get the word out.


After reading about the popularity of social networking sites and their potential danger for teens, I spoke with Drew Levin, the co-founder and CEO of newly-launched (created with the support of AJ Discala and Tom Petters) to find out how this site is different from others.

Levin and co-founder Daniel Perkins also gave me access to the site, which is normally off-limits to parents and other adults, so I could experience first-hand the features that set this site apart.

Before I went on the site, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After all, the home page is simple and some of the other public pages are still being created. But once inside, I was impressed.

Of all the teen blogs I looked at, none were the same. A template serves as a design foundation for each teen’s site, and the personalization of background, fonts, colors, images and videos gives each a unique look. The originality some of these kids showed in personalizing their space was amazing. But not only is there a lot of opportunity to customize each space, the set-up is a cinch. After just a few moments of playing around, I already had the hang of it.

Aside from the visual aspect of the site, YFly also provides teens with other ways to interact. They can chose who on the site gets to read their blog, which online group they want to join or create, play one of the many video games offered in categories such as action or adventure, text message each other (see the video on the home page for how this works), and a bunch of other things.

I also had the opportunity to speak with attorney Parry Aftab, who developed the privacy and security features on the site. Aftab, a leading Internet safety expert and the Executive Director of, explained that by educating parents and teens about Internet safety, predators have less of a chance to lure teens into unsafe situations. (WiredSafety also has a division called Teenangels, which is a group of 13-18 year-olds trained in online safety and privacy, as well as a companion site,, for victims of Internet sexual exploitation.)

Aftab stressed the importance of giving kids something constructive to do with their time (“keep them busy, keep them safe”), which YFly provides. She also mentioned that one of the biggest mistakes teens make online is sharing too much personal information. To discourage this behavior and at the same time teach them how to protect themselves, YFly asks teens to ThinkB4UClick, urges them to put their best foot forward (BFF) and includes such features as a “Don’t Be Stupid” button that reminds teens to think twice before they upload content to their site.

The site also offers teens a Cheat Sheet, courtesy of Aftab’s WiredSafety organization, that educates them about the three biggest risks associated with social networking use, namely ID theft, sexual predators, and cyberharassment/cyberbullying. Detailed tips on what not to do online are also presented.

Furthermore, YFly has an escalation plan in place that ranges from completing a “Report Abuse” form to contacting the authorities when necessary.

Bottom line: Teens are given a ton of reasons to go to YFly and connect with their peers in an environment away from parents’ prying eyes, but safe from predators. And parents can feel comfortable knowing that YFly’s fundamental concern is protecting teens from cybercreeps.


Here is the full interview with Drew Levin. I appreciate his candor and willingness to share the very personal events that lead to the creation of YFly.

AW: How did you come up with the name “”YFly”” and how did you develop the idea for the site?

Levin: The “Y” stands for youth and “fly” stands for cool. With regard to how the site came about, it actually started when I was back in college at the University of Florida. There were other sites popping up at the time — Friendster was the first one I’d seen — and I really thought it was a cool way to meet people. However, what I saw that it wasn’t doing was enhancing the ability to communicate with others; it was really just simplifying the process of finding new people.

What I thought of doing was taking the whole six degrees of separation that was built into these social networks, and around that platform build in cool communication tools — which we’ve done with text messaging and things like that.

Danny [co-founder Daniel Perkins] and I, and my best friend John, started talking about how to set this all up. The three of us know each other because John had been my best friend since we were five years old, and Danny and I met while we were both at the University of Florida. Each of us knew the junior high and high school mentalities very well, since we had just recently been in those environments ourselves, and we really wanted to improve the way kids were connecting.

Anyhow, I went abroad to study in Florence, and during this time John came to visit me to start working on the business plan for YFly. But while he was there he was senselessly killed. That was a very tough time. My family, or course, was there to help me, but so were Danny and John’s father, Tom Petters.

Tom opened his arms. He knew about our business, and he funded us in September 2004 so we could do the research for it and develop the product. We also developed a foundation in John’s name which sends kids to college for four years and helps them study abroad. So we’re doing everything we can to carry on John’s legacy. It’s John that’s driving us to succeed and do as much good as possible.

That same September we also started doing our research and conducted focus groups. Other social networking sites were becoming more popular, but our kids were blatantly telling us that what they wanted wasn’t out there. They weren’t being satisfied.

So we built our technology specs on what these kids told us. What they really wanted was three things. First and foremost, they wanted better ways to connect to their friends, cooler ways. They loved our text messaging idea. Two, they wanted to be able to customize their profiles; they wanted to express themselves very easily and in as many ways as possible — the more bells and whistles the better. And third, they wanted to have their own environment. They didn’t want to be a part of everybody else; they wanted to have a site specifically for them. They didn’t want to feel they were a part of some huge community where they were nobodies, and they didn’t want to be approached by perverts.

And the parents we met while conducting the teen focus groups would tell us, “I’m just so scared on the Internet, I don’t understand it. It’s a scary world and I don’t know how to tell my kids to be safe.”

These kids’ parents grew up in a time where they wasn’t the Internet. They were never taught how to protect themselves online. They were taught traditional lessons like running away from strangers, not taking candy from strangers, not letting anyone in your house when no ones home, things like that. However, parents can’t translate those lessons to the online world, and they don’t understand the online world for the most part. So there’s a knowledge gap.

We also knew that at some point in the process we needed to bring a safety expert on board. So we built the site first, launched the beta version in September 2005 — which did very well — and then started bringing together all the right people to take this out to mass market.

AW: Can you tell me how AJ Discala, Nick Lachey and Parry Aftab got involved?

Levin: I was at a conference in West Palm Beach in early October 2005 held by Tom and Petters Group Worldwide, which owns Polaroid, among others. AJ was doing business with Tom at that point, and Tom introduced us.

I took AJ through the site and touched on how we wanted to build in safety features, but weren’t sure where to begin. AJ suddenly said, “You’ll never believe what just happened to me. I’m sitting at lunch with Nick in L.A. and this woman comes up to Nick and says, Look, I’ve never done anything like this before, but Nick, I have to tell you, your name is one of the more prominently used names on the Internet by predators as a means to lure kids offline. Nick was disgusted that his name was being used in such a way, and we asked what we could do. Parry dropped her card and said, “I’d like you to do a PSA or whatever else you’re willing to do to help.

Fast-forward a month and Danny and I meet AJ. We realize this is an opportunity. All the stream of events that had brought Danny and me to where we were, plus meeting AJ though Tom, and AJ and Nick meeting Parry, this meant something. AJ called Nick, we flew right out to L.A., and Nick was on board. Then we got in touch with Parry and she agreed to join us.

AW: Can you tell me about some of the safety mechanisms on the site, such as Don’t Be Stupid and BFF?

Levin: Those programs were the brainchild of Parry. They’re educational tools that are put in teen speak that bridge the gap between what parents can’t teach kids and what we’re teaching them about online safety.

AW: Underlying the site is obviously the desire for safety and meeting the needs of the kids, which is greater connection and customization and personalization. How do you meet both the safety needs and the “coolness factor” kids expect?

Levin: That’s the money question. And the answer is that the site was developed 100% based off of what the kids wanted; safety was brought in later during October 2005 with the help of Parry. So it’s a cool site that happens to have safety built in.

AW: Is there any role for parents in all this? Is there any way for parents to help out?

Levin: We’re going to give parents their own educational tools. We want to teach them about online safety, so we’re going to have a section on the site for parents to learn about what social networks are and how kids use them — I’m not sure that most parents understand what kids are doing on them — so they can reiterate a lot of the lessons that we teach on our site to their kids at home.

But can parents go on the site and play around? No, because we don’t want adults there. That’s a kids site and if we let the parents there, then any other adult predator could get in and it would be a lot more difficult to manage.

AW: It sounds like you are also saying that if there are parents on the site, it would loose its “coolness factor.”

Levin: Absolutely, it would be gone.

AW: We talked about how Nick Lachey got involved with YFly. Is he going to take an active role in YFly, is he going to use his celebrity to get the word out, or is he even going to be talking online with some of the teens who sign up?

Levin: All of the above. Of all the celebrities I’ve met, Nick is the only one who is so down-to-earth. Because he is a celebrity and a lot of people listen to him and respect him, that’ll help him get the word out.

Nick has also given us several ideas for the site that we’ve implemented. He wanted to get the acoustic version of his new song on the site, so we’re going to do that. He designed the T-shirts we’re passing out. He stays involved in exactly what’s going on, he knows about every upcoming feature on the site and everything that’s happening. I’ve just been blown away by him.

AW: Are you going to bring any advertising to the site?

Levin: We will be working with hand-selected advertisers and the most-appropriate brands for YFly. We’re going to be working very closely with the advertisers we select.

Advertisers have to meet three criteria before we let them on the site: One, it’s got to be beneficial for the advertiser. Two, it’s got to be beneficial for the teens. Three, it’s got to be beneficial for us.

I’ll give you an example. We’re connected to Polaroid through Tom Petters and we have a program on our site called the Picture of the Week. Each week a funny picture goes up and every week the kids can go online and submit their own caption. At the end of the week everybody votes and whoever had the funniest caption wins. However, before the caption is submitted, each teen selects which prize from Polaroid they’d want to win. Polaroid is getting all this great information on what kids like and getting great product brand line awareness, and the kids are having fun and loving it.

Those are the types of programs we’re going to offer, what we call immersive advertising.

AW: Kids have to enter the name of their school when they register on YFly. Are only public schools part of your program or are private schools also covered?

Levin: Both public and private.

AW: Do you have any plans of going outside the U.S.?

Levin: It’s a longer-term goal.

AW: What are some of the different groups the kids can get involved in online?

Levin: The kids have complete control to become their own experts, they can blog about whatever they want and develop a huge following on the site.

Some of the kids are really remarkable, and to be able to express themselves in a positive way — as Parry says, without having to “pose sexy” and do other things that aren’t appropriate — will help kids get positive reinforcement from their peer groups.

AW: If you spot something on the site that just isn’t right, what is the mechanism to take care of that?

Levin: We have an escalation plan that Parry has developed. What sets us up from other social networking sites is that we actually follow-up if there’s a report about cyberabuse or something else.

AW: Is there anything about the site you haven’t mentioned yet that you want kids to know about?

Levin: Yes, that would be the group text messaging, which I personally use every day. We’ve been able to allow users to create a group and invite their friends to join this group by creating their own text messaging address and naming it whatever they want, such as mybestfriends[at] And whenever they send a message from that address it gets sent out as one message, regardless of how many people in your group receive it. It only costs you one message based on the standard text message rates you have on your cell phone. It’s also a great way to connect when you’re making plans to get together.

AW: Thanks so much for your time, Drew. I really appreciate it.

Doing Good = Smart Marketing

I’ve always been a sucker for “doing good” and can never understand the argument that running a business and making a profit can’t coincide with charitable contributions or cause marketing. So I’m really pleased that two blogs talk about this very thing.

Mack Collier at Beyond Madison Avenue discusses Sarah McLachlan’s video World on Fire, which is nominated for a Grammy for Best Short Form Video.

Meanwhile, Mike Swenson, President of Barkley & Evergreen, suggests what smart advertisers should start doing with the $2.5 million it costs to buy a 30 second Super Bowl spot (via Holmes Report Blog).

Thanks to both of you for pointing out that there is a better way.

Personal Safety for Bloggers

In his post about Blog Stalkers — Personal Safety for Bloggers (via Performancing), Darren Rouse shares his personal experience of being stalked by a blog reader who, after a series of escalating behaviors, ended up at his home.

Having put this situation behind him, Darren goes into detail about how bloggers can protect themselves:

  • Decide ahead of time how much personal information to share on your blog
  • Be aware of what impression you’re leaving
  • Remember to follow offline security measures
  • Develop a plan of action ahead of time
  • Don’t try to deal with a problem situation alone

He also writes an important post about What to Do when Your Blog is Attacked, which I’m going to clip for future reference.

Other Global Responses to the Conflict about Jyllands-Posten’s Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed

With violence increasing and the polarization about the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy becoming greater, it’s easy to agree with Neville Hobson’s statement that this conflict “illustrates a massive cultural and religious divide that is getting wider… with no meeting of minds looking likely at all. If anything, this will probably get worse.”

Fortunately there are dissenting voices, as these excerpts from around the world show.


Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani denounced the violence and appealed for calm, accusing infiltrators of sowing the dissent to “harm the stability of Lebanon.” Prime Minister Fuad Saniora also urged peaceful protests. “Those who are committing these acts have nothing to do with Islam or with Lebanon,” he said. “This is absolutely not the way we express our opinions.”

From Rantings of a Sandmonkey:

Fully knowing that it is retarded to punish a whole country and its products for what a Newspaper in that country did, I expected someone to start a movement to restore common sense our muslim brothers and demand a stop to the boycott, especially since the Danes have apologized over and over again. Then I figured, shit, why don’t I be that someone?…

So I guess I will start the official local campaign to boycott the boycott, and thanks to the efforts of Roba and Jameed, the campaign now has banners that you can get here, put on your website and show solidarity with Danish people…

From Sorry Norway Denmark (via History News Network’s Deja vu — Judith Apter Klinghoffer):

In the middle of all the mayhem surrounding the Danish cartoons controversy, a group of Arab and Muslim youth have set up this website to express their honest opinion, as a small attempt to show the world that the images shown of Arab and Muslim anger around the world are not representative of the opinions of all Arabs.  We whole-heartedly apologize to the people of Denmark, Norway and all the European Union over the actions of a few, and we completely condemn all forms of vandalism and incitement to violence that the Arab and Muslim world have witnessed.  We hope that this sad episode will not tarnish the great friendship that our peoples have fostered over decades.

The problem with media representation of such issues tends to be that the media only picks up the loudest voices, ignoring the rational ones that do not generate as much noise.  Voices that seek tolerance, dialogue and understanding are always drowned out by the more sensationalist loud calls, giving viewers the impression that these views are representative of all the Arab public’s view.  This website is a modest attempt at redressing this wrong.  We would appreciate it if you could forward the word to as many of your friends as possible.

What long-term effects on free speech will this conflict have? We probably won’t know for quite some time. There is possibly a new Europen Union media code of conduct in the works (via EU Rota). And Lee Hopkins points out that, on a lower level, “the whole issue does… introduce fear and loathing in the workplace.”

In the meantime, although there is already some “fight cartoon with cartoon” behavior, as evidenced by the Arab European League’s two cartoons, I’d speculate that for most media, Serge Cornelus’s prediction is right on.

Danish Embassy in Damascus is Latest Target in Rage over Caricatures of Prophet Muhammed reports that hundreds of Syrian demonstrators stormed the Royal Danish Embassy in Damascus, Syria today and set the building ablaze. This is the latest reaction to the publishing of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

Many Muslims are offended because they find the cartoons disrespectful and blasphemous; others object because various hadiths prohibit any depiction of the Prophet, regardless of what the images contain (although Wikipedia notes that representations of the Prophet have existed in Islamic art for quite some time).

The Vatican had this to say about the cartoons:

“The freedom of thought and expression, confirmed in the Declaration of Human Rights, can not include the right to offend religious feelings of the faithful. That principle obviously applies to any religion…

Any form of excessive criticism or derision of others denotes a lack of human sensitivity and can in some cases constitute an unacceptable provocation.”

Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, part of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, was also critical:

“Freedom of satire that offends the sentiments of others becomes an abuse — and in this case it has affected the sentiments of entire populations in their highest symbols…

One can understand satire about a priest but not about God. With reference to Islam, we could understand satire on the uses and customs and behavior, but not about the Quran, Allah and the Prophet.”

See Wikipedia’s Jyllands-Posten Muhammed cartoons controversy for a chronology of events and international reaction. Make sure to also read the posts by Allan Jenkins and Neville Hobson, both of which offer an analysis from a communications perspective.

I predict that this explosive situation is only the beginning of other similar international incidents we’ll see in the coming months and years. I’d venture to guess that others (see, for example, Media Orchard’s post Newest Beer Pitchman: Jesus Christ) would agree.

Online Suicide Notes

It was bound to happen. Our most intimate moments in life and death are now public for anyone to see.

According to New America Media, 17 year-old Joshua Anson Ballard posted his last bulletin on Nov. 29, 2005 just a short while before fatally shooting himself. And Chris McKinstry, the founder of Mindpixel, made two posts dated January 20, 2006 on his Mindpixel Blog before taking his own life a few days later.

What’s our obligation if we stumble across something like this? Should we get involved, contact the authorities? Can we just click away without guilt? I’m not sure there is a universal answer. In the cases of Joshua and Chris, it seems that people did try to intervene before it was too late.