Australians love world news and digital media but never mind the politics

Australians rate international news more highly than Americans and Europeans but are not so keen on political news, according to a global survey of media consumption.

Among 12 countries surveyed, Australians were the top of the pile for the consumption of international news and also for accessing news on a smartphone.

But political news was ranked lower in importance in Australia than any other country surveyed – below national news, sport, economic news and local news.

The Digital News Report: Australia 2015 by the News Media Research Centre at University of Canberra examined how digital news is consumed in comparison with print and broadcast news.

An Australian first, the study was undertaken in collaboration with the Reuters institute for the study of journalism at the University of Oxford which has been doing the same survey in 11 other countries for four years, adding Australia in 2015.

“A strong interest in international news is understandable given many Australians’ historic and family ties with many other parts of the world,” research associate Nic Newman of the Reuters institute said in the report.

“As befits those living in one of the wealthiest and most developed countries in the world, Australians are also amongst the best connected – along with Denmark – as heavy users of smartphone and tablets for news.”

Broadcast television remains the main source of news for most Australians, and this includes both traditional news bulletins and 24-hour news channels such as Sky News and ABC News 24, The second most popular source of news is online news websites.

Print newspapers were the preferred main source of news amongst only 7% of respondents.

However, Australians don’t necessarily have a high opinion of news quality. The report found a “significant lack of trust in most news” with 30.7% of respondents disagreeing or strongly disagreeing that they trusted “most news”.

Respondents trusted their own preferred news sources more: 52.5% agreed or strongly agreed that they can trust the news that they chose to consume regularly.

Despite the proliferation of news apps put out by media organisations, only one in seven respondents who accessed news online in the past week used news apps on their smartphones – and fewer than one in 10 did so on tablets.

Of those who used news apps ABC, Yahoo7, ninemsn, Google News and Sydney Morning Herald apps were the most popular among smartphone and tablet users.

In more bad news for traditional media, Australians are very reluctant to pay for online news, with only 11% making a payment for digital news in the past week, and of those who did pay half forked out less than $10 a month.

Most of the news people consumed in the preceding week was not paid for – except for newspapers and pay TV – and 83% of those who had not paid for digital news said they were were “unlikely” to pay for news in the future and 60% were “very unlikely”.

Newman says in the report that free online news sources like Yahoo7 and ninemsn had already made it difficult for traditional newspapers to charge for content online.

“But now we see the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed appealing to the young, while UK brands such as the Guardian, the Mail and the BBC look to pick off mainstream audiences and a growing share of the advertising market.”

The most popular social network for finding, reading, watching, sharing, or discussing news is overwhelmingly Facebook with 48.1% using it every week compared with YouTube at 15.4%, Twitter at 7.5% and Google at 6.8%.

Australians are active participants in news sharing, reporting they like to talk face-to-face and to share news through Facebook and email with their friends.

We are also more devoted to Apple devices than any country apart from Denmark.

Another one the report’s commentators, Robert G Picard of the Reuters institute, said the report showed that while TV news and newspapers remain the main sources of news both offline and online, about a third of digital users get news from digital sources not linked to traditional media.

“Digital news consumption in Australia is widening the sources that audiences turn to for news,” Picard said.

“Whilst relying on major broadcasters and newspapers offline and online, audiences are increasingly turning to hybrid sources such as ninemsn, Yahoo7, and new sources such as Guardian Australia, BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post in their digital use, becoming a world leader in accessing news from these sources. When age is considered, younger people are more likely to use digital native sources than traditional sources to obtain news.”

The 11 other countries which took part in the 2015 Digital News Report were Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Spain, UK, USA and urban Brazil.

West Yorkshire family mourns ‘Britain’s youngest suicide bomber’

The family of a West Yorkshire teenager, believed to have become Britain’s youngest suicide bomber, said they have been left “utterly devastated and heartbroken by the unspeakable tragedy”.

Pictures of Talha Asmal, 17, were released by Isis on Saturday, along with a statement saying that he detonated a vehicle fitted with explosives in the northern Iraqi town of Baiji. The militant group said his name was Abu Yusuf al-Britani but following media reports identifying the boy in the pictures as Asmal, his family released a statement on Sunday expressing their grief and anger.

“Talha was a loving, kind, caring and affable teenager,” they said. “He never harboured any ill-will against anybody nor did he ever exhibit any violent, extreme or radical views of any kind. Talha’s tender years and naivety were, it seems however, exploited by persons unknown, who, hiding behind the anonymity of the worldwide web, targeted and befriended Talha and engaged in a process of deliberate and calculated grooming of him.

“Whilst there it appears that Talha fell under the spell of individuals who continued to prey on his innocence and vulnerability to the point where if the press reports are accurate he was ordered to his death by so-called Isis handlers and leaders too cowardly to do their own dirty work.

“We are all naturally utterly devastated and heartbroken by the unspeakable tragedy that now appears to have befallen us.”

The family said that Isis did not represent Islam or Muslims “in any way, shape of form”.

In April, they said the teenager boarded a flight to Turkey with his friend Hassan Munshi, also 17 at the time. The families of both boys issued an urgent appeal for their return, adding they were gravely worried the pair had joined Isis.

Isis statements on Saturday named Britani as one of four suicide bombers. The others were said to be a German, a Kuwaiti and a Palestinian. All four were photographed by Isis standing beside SUVs.

The suicide attacks are understood to have occurred in Iraq’s Salahuddin province, around one of the country’s largest oil refineries, as part of a larger military offensive by the militant group.

One of the pictures believed to be showing Talha Asmal. Photograph: Screengrab

If the reports are corroborated, Asmal would be Britain’s youngest known suicide bomber. Another West Yorkshire teenager, Hasib Hussein, was almost 19 when he blew himself up on a London bus in the 7 July 2005 attacks.

Shahid Malik, a former government minister and a friend of the Asmals, described them as “a beautiful, caring, peace-loving and incredibly humble family”.

The former MP for Dewsbury said: “The local community grieves with them today, Ebrahim (the father) and the family’s world has been shattered in the cruellest of ways and one which no family should ever have to experience.

“Talha was a truly sweet-natured, helpful, respectful and friendly kid, and it is incredibly difficult to reconcile this Talha with the suicide bomber at an Iraqi oil installation.

“My thoughts and prayers are obviously also with those killed at the oil installation and their families.

“It is disturbing to see how relaxed he looks in the Isis photographs allegedly taken just prior to his suicide mission. He looks at peace. It’s like he’s ready to go and meet his maker. This is a clear indication of just how successful the evil Isis groomers have been in poisoning and brainwashing Talha and kids like him.

“We must defeat Isis in mosques and communities across the country. This is a generational struggle and everyone must be willing to rise to the challenge. Importantly, it’s a struggle which can only succeed if it is one which is led by Muslims themselves.”

West Yorkshire police said: “The police have been made aware of media reports with regard to the death of a British national in Iraq. The identity of the person who has reportedly died has not been confirmed at this time and we are unable to comment further.”

Speaking on Sunday, Asst Ch Con Russ Foster said: “As part of the Prevent initiative, West Yorkshire police is committed to working with communities and local authorities, to highlight the dangers associated with radicalisation and travel to regions such as Syria and Iraq. We are all working together to help identify vulnerable members of our society and intervene and engage them before it is too late.

“If anyone has concerns that a friend or relative may be vulnerable to radicalisation, expressing extreme views or contemplating travelling to Syria or Iraq, it is vital that we work together to try and prevent that person from travelling.

“Families are also encouraged to make contact with specially trained officers for help and advice by visiting preventtragedies.co.uk.” He said this was a newly created webpage, dedicated to being a “a one-stop shop for concerned families to visit if they would like further information or advice around this issue”.

Kim Kardashian’s backside being used to promote world news stories

What does Kim Kardashian’s bottom have in common with war zones and disease epidemics? Not very much, but one website has set out to change that.

The Big Ass News, which launched Monday, has found a unique way to get Internet users thinking about world news stories. The site posts headlines, like “Six Days in North Korea” or “Pope Francis Take Tougher Stance Against Putin,” on various pictures of Kardashian’s rear end to entice readers to click.

The creators of the aggregated site, Jennifer Garcia and Carl Larsson, told Newsweek that the star’s highly photographed derriere gets more attention than important global issues.

“We wanted to use that ‘huge platform’ that Kardashian has in the media to spread awareness for news we should pay attention to as a global community.” Larsson explained.

According to Newsweek, the New York-based art directors, who did not respond to FOX411’s request for further comment, developed the website to serve “as a cultural wake-up call and an immensely accurate grasp of the attention span of America.”  

So is Kardashian aware of the new site? A representative for the prominent personality, Ina Treciokas, simply said, “Why give them the time of day?”

Ouch.

It’s certainly no secret that the reality stars’ most famous asset has the power to win over the web. In 2014, Kim and her bare bottom were featured on the cover of Paper magazine alongside the catchphrase “Break the Internet.”   

She certainly came close. Paper’s site hit 6.6 million views just one day after the story was published. The cover photo also made the rounds of endless amounts of websites across the world and took social media by storm.

Lisa Durden, a talk show host and pop culture commentator, told FOX411 it’s no surprise that Kardashian’s booty would be used to garner clicks for a news site.  

“Kim made money on her booty with her sex tape and no one knew she had a booty before the sex tape,” Durden told FOX 411. “Her name has become her brand and when you hashtag Kardashian and hashtag booty, they know what they are doing and it will sell.”  

Click here to see the partially NSWF site.

Al-Qaida ‘cut off and ripped apart by Isis’

Two of al-Qaida’s most important spiritual leaders have told the Guardian that the terror group is no longer a functioning organisation after being ripped apart by Isis. In a wide-ranging interview, Abu Qatada, a Jordanian preacher who was based in London before being deported in 2013, and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, regarded as the most influential jihadi scholar alive, say the al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is cut off from his commanders and keeping the group afloat through little more than appeals to loyalty.

Senior insiders in Jordan add that al-Qaida around the Middle East has been drained of recruits and money after losing territory and prestige to its former subordinate division. The ongoing war between al-Qaida and Isis has left the US struggling to catch up with the tectonic shifts within the global jihadi movement, intelligence insiders told the Guardian.

Maqdisi, who Zawahiri counts as a close friend, is frank about the 63-year-old Egyptian’s situation. “He operates solely based on the allegiance. There is no organisational structure. There is only communication channels and loyalty,” Maqdisi said.

Qatada, who was born Omar Mahmoud Othman and has been described by the British government as a “truly dangerous individual”, also says Zawahiri is “isolated” and admits that Isis have been winning the propaganda and ground war against al-Qaida.

Qatada was deported from the UK to Jordan to face terror charges after a court battle lasting nearly 10 years with a series of British home secretaries. Last summer he was released from custody after being acquitted of all charges. Since his release, he has become an increasingly vocal critic of Isis. He told the Guardian its members were extremists and a “cancer” growing within the jihadi movement following their assault on al-Qaida over the last two years. “[Isis] don’t respect anyone,” he said.

Isis was al-Qaida’s branch in the heart of the Middle East until the group was excommunicated from the network in 2014 after disobeying commands from Zawahiri and starting an internecine war with fellow jihadists in Syria which left thousands dead on both sides. Today that fight continues and has expanded across Eurasia and the Mediterranean. Since declaring the establishment of its so-called Islamic State a year ago, Isis has gone on to build a global network of affiliates and branches that now stretches from Afghanistan to west Africa and competes with al-Qaida in its scale.

Isis leaders, who described al-Qaida as a “drowned entity” in issue six of their official English-language publication, Dabiq, have declared that they will not tolerate any other jihadi group in territory where they are operating. They have readily delivered on that statement. Last week, Isis fighters in Afghanistan were reported to have beheaded 10 members of the Taliban, and on Wednesday al-Qaida in Libya vowed retaliation after blaming Isis for the death of one of its leaders.

But the US has been slow to grasp the implications of al-Qaida’s decline and possible collapse despite extensive study of Isis, according to intelligence community insiders. “There’s such a cadre of people so closely tied to the al-Qaida brand within the IC [intelligence community] that I think they don’t see what else is going on outside the organisation,” said Derek Harvey, a former intelligence analyst who predicted how resilient the Iraq insurgency would be.

Over the past year, a group of junior and mid-level analysts have concluded that Isis advances have pushed al-Qaida to the margins of global jihad. A former senior intelligence official who did not want to speak on the record said they had been tracking the split between the two groups with great attention. Against them is what Harvey described as “the overwhelming majority of senior intelligence officials looking at this” who he said considered the enmity between Isis and al-Qaida as little more than “a squabble within”.

That prevailing view has found expression in repeated public statements by Barack Obama and his senior advisers conflating Isis and al-Qaida or denying that any split between the two organisations is meaningful. That raises questions about whether a US counter-terrorism bureaucracy long focused on al-Qaida as a prime threat can grapple with the group’s decline and a different one’s ascent.

In a typical comment, Barack Obama in March told Vice that Isis “is the direct outgrowth of al-Qaida in Iraq”. Although factually correct, this is substantively misleading: al-Qaida in Iraq was for 10 years al-Qaida’s most fractious and disloyal franchise, even before it began waging its violent campaign against the old guard.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has depicted the rivalry between the two jihadi groups as cosmetic, and his top Iraq policy official, Brett McGurk, has repeatedly stated: “Isis is al-Qaida.” Kerry’s new spokesman, John Kirby, said in his old job at the Pentagon that Isis, al-Qaida and al-Qaida’s Syrian proxy the Nusra Front “in our minds, from our military perspective, are very much one and the same”.

“We’ve got counter-terrorist guys who are focused on counter-terrorism and they grew up fighting the al-Qaida networks, but Isis is a different kind of network,” Harvey said. “It’s basing itself on skills and organisational capabilities and objectives that are much more accelerated and capable than what al-Qaida’s ever had.”

However misleading, the conflation of the two groups has political and legal benefits for Obama. He launched military action against Isis without congressional approval 10 months ago and a push for retroactive legislative blessing is all but dead in Washington. Portraying al-Qaida and Isis as the same thing has allowed the president to claim that the 2001 and 2002 congressional authorisations for attacks on al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein provide the legal foundations for the current campaign.

Meanwhile, the US continues to target al-Qaida. So far this year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Americans have launched 11 drone strikes in Yemen – the most recent came Tuesday night – and 11 more in Pakistan, killing between 82 and 122 people.

US officials have warned that al-Qaida’s presence in Yemen, which al-Qaida’s scholars consider to be its most loyal branch, has benefited from the January coup that displaced the US client government and the Saudi-led war to roll it back.

Obama lambasts Putin: you’re wrecking Russia to recreate Soviet empire

Barack Obama has used the close of the G7 summit in Germany to deliver his strongest criticism yet of Vladimir Putin, lambasting the Russian president’s isolationist approach as the seven leaders signalled their readiness to tighten sanctions against Russia if the conflict in Ukraine escalates.

“Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to recreate the glories of the Soviet empire? Or does he recognise that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries?” the US president said at the close of the intensive discussions in Bavaria as world leaders, including the summit’s host, Angela Merkel, presented a united front against Putin.

The German chancellor stressed that while she hoped the situation in Ukraine would not worsen, the G7 leaders were prepared to implement tougher sanctions if it did. We are “ready, should the situation escalate – which we don’t want – to strengthen sanctions if the situation makes that necessary but we believe we should do everything to move forward the political process of Minsk”, Merkel said.

Obama warned that if Russia were to “double down” on what he called its “aggressive behaviour” in Ukraine, “additional steps” could be taken.

Merkel, who maintained a sporadic line of communication with Putin through the early stages of the conflict, stressed that current sanctions would remain in place until Russia cooperated with implementing a peace plan agreed in Minsk in February.

The European members of the G7 – Britain, Italy and France – said they would support the extension of the main EU sanctions when they meet later this month.

Obama had come to Bavaria on Sunday with the intention of pushing for a tougher approach to Russia. And while Merkel was keen to stress that the Ukraine crisis had not dominated the two days of talks, it was certainly the uppermost topic in the coverage.

Russia was suspended from the G8 last year over its occupation and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and its backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The G7 leaders pledged to intensify their support for Ukraine’s reform and economic growth programmes, but refused to be drawn on the subject of military aid. Some of them already deliver support under bilateral agreements.

In its 17-page communique, the G7 warned: “We also stand ready to take further restrictive measures in order to increase [the] cost on Russia should its actions so require.”

Obama said it was wrong of Putin to suggest he was protecting the Russian speakers in Ukraine, saying: “Russian speakers inside Ukraine are precisely the ones who are bearing the brunt of the fighting.”

A Kremlin spokesman said earlier in the day that while Russia had paid attention to the latest threats of sanctions, the G7 had produced no “new theses”.

Dmitry Peskov said he believed the G7 leaders were far from united in their approach to Russia. “We also draw attention to the fact that among the participants of this meeting there are nuances in their approaches. Some talk about the need for dialogue with Russia and the impossibility of solving serious problems without this dialogue, so we continue watching closely,” he said.

Speaking elsewhere on Monday, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that western countries were obliged to ensure that Kiev also stuck by the terms of the Minsk agreement it had agreed on, including withdrawing heavy weapons and allowing more autonomy in separatist-held regions.

“We proceed from the point of view that Germany and France, other colleagues in the EU and the United States … work with the Ukrainian authorities, encouraging them to honestly fully implement the Minsk agreements,” he told a press conference.

G7 leaders pose for a photo
at the Schloss Elmau hotel.

Merkel said that in discussions with leaders from African countries and Iraq, the delegates had “agreed to work together to further combat terrorism”.

Meanwhile it emerged that Russian trolls have been attacking an Instagram account newly-opened by Merkel before the summit, to which she had posted more than 50 photographs. Many of the comments were critical of her and praised Putin. Some warned that Russians would “soon be in Berlin again” in revenge for Merkel’s criticism of Putin.

Elsewhere the G7 agreed on climate change reforms, including the phasing out of fossil fuels by the end of the century, and pledged to eradicate extreme poverty by 2050.

A protest planned to round off the summit fizzled out after organisers complained of fatigue. But the environmental pressure group Greenpeace secured the most publicity of all the protests, with the message it projected in a green laser beam on the escarpment of a local mountain, reading: “G7: Go for 100 per cent renewables.”

China’s Cruise Ship Disaster Is World News, So Why Is Beijing Censoring …

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic that’s making headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Jeremy Goldkorn, the founder and director of Danwei.

China suffered one of the worst maritime disasters in its recent history this week when a cruise ship with more than 400 people aboard capsized in the Yangtze river.

The four-deck Eastern Star was on its way from the city of Nanjing to the city of Chongqing on Monday night when it encountered a severe storm and overturned. Fourteen people survived the tragedy, including the ship’s captain and first engineer. Rescue teams had recovered 103 bodies by Friday night. More than 300 passengers remain missing.

Chinese authorities have severely restricted access to information about both the causes of the tragedy and the efforts to recover the victims’ bodies. In recent days, however, families of passengers across the country have increasingly voiced frustration with that lack of information. On Wednesday night, several family members forced their way through a police cordon to get to the disaster site, and on Friday a relative of two of the passengers burst into a press conference demanding an investigation into possible human error.

The WorldPost spoke with Jeremy Goldkorn about the way Chinese authorities are handling the flow of information about the tragedy. Goldkorn is the founder and director of Danwei, a research firm that tracks Chinese media and Internet.

Several media outlets reported this week that Chinese authorities have kept a tight lid on information about the maritime disaster in Jianli. What are Chinese leaders aiming to accomplish by restricting information?

To put it in historical perspective, the Chinese Communist Party has always controlled information about disasters very tightly. The handling of the aftermath of disasters is obviously the government’s responsibility, but there’s also a long-held belief in the country that even the occurrence of natural disasters can in some way be seen as the government’s fault. After the Tangshan earthquake in the 1976, the government basically tried to prevent any spread of information.

The government has been a lot more transparent in recent years, partly because the Internet has made complete coverups impossible. A look back at the Wenzhou train crash of 2011 helps explain the authorities’ current reaction, because it was the first time social media made the government lose control of the narrative. In the weekend of the Wenzhou accident, most of the information about the train crash came from citizens who were posting on Weibo (a Twitter-like microblog service). The government was one step behind ordinary people writing about the tragedy and criticizing the government’s response.

That really woke up the government to the possibility of social media, and there have been a number of measures put in place since then, not only to control narratives about natural disasters but also political dissent.

In the case of the cruise ship sinking, social media is certainly highly censored, and there is a lot of pro-government propaganda on social media talking about how the government is doing a good job.

china
Rescuers prepare near the capsized ship Eastern Star after it was righted by cranes on the Yangtze River in Jianli county of southern China’s Hubei province.

How does the information that Chinese readers and viewers received about this tragedy differ from what an international audience gets to see?

There have been tight restrictions on Chinese news media. They’re kept away from the scene and told to rely on the authorized copy put out by the Xinhua news agency.

International reporters have also struggled with access, but they certainly have greater freedom to report and publish what they want since they don’t take their orders from the propaganda department or the state council’s information office. So in terms of actual reporting, foreign reporters have not had an easy time either, but they have much more latitude about what the organization ends up writing or broadcasting.

Has there been a public demand for more information?

There hasn’t been any kind of well-organized campaign, and if anyone tried to start one it would be wiped off the Internet. It looks like there have been some attempts by citizens to demand more information from the government or from the cruise company, and these have been repressed. In Shanghai for example, there were scuffles between relatives of people who were probably victims and the police, and it appears those people were trying to get information.

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Divers transports a dead body next to rescue workers near the sunken passenger ship in the Yangtze river in Jianli.

Do you think the Chinese authorities’ strategy is successful or counterproductive in the long run?

It is successful in limiting any kind of damage to the government’s reputation in the short term, but one of the country’s problems is that there’s a tremendous lack of trust in Chinese society. Most people are suspicious of the story that they’re getting from the government. They usually won’t say that publicly, but one of the reasons why you get people clashing with the police is because they don’t believe what they’re getting told. This happens pretty much every time there’s a disaster of some kind. We saw it this week, we saw it when the Malaysian Airlines plane disappeared and after the New Year’s Eve stampede in Shanghai at the beginning of this year. So it is a successful strategy to minimize any kind of organized threat to the rule of the Communist Party, both in the immediate and long run, but it doesn’t do the Chinese government any good in building a society where there is more trust, both between citizens and also from citizens to the government. People are unable to organize dissent, but they aren’t really going to believe in President Xi Jinping’s much propagandized “Chinese Dream” either.

This article has been condensed and edited for clarity.

More from The WorldPost’s Weekly Interview Series:

What Palestinian Membership In The ICC Really Means
Anguish In Argentina After Prosecutor’s Mysterious Death
Could The New Syriza Government Be Good For Greece’s Economy?
Naming The Dead: One Group’s Struggle To Record Deaths From U.S. Drone Strikes In Pakistan

Female genital mutilation practised in Iran, study reveals

The first authoritative study into female genital mutilation in Iran has found the practice is being carried out in at least four major provinces while officials are silent on the matter.

According to research by social anthropologist Kameel Ahmady released on Thursday, FGM is more prevalent in the southern province of Hormozgan and its nearby islands (Qeshm and Hormuz) than in any other parts of the country.

It is also being practised to a lesser degree in Kurdistan, Kermanshah and West Azerbaijan provinces, which are situated in western Iran close to the Iraq border.

Ahmady’s research shows that FGM is mainly an issue concerning the Shafi’i sect of Sunni Muslim Iranians, a minority in the Shia-dominated country. Only a small fraction of the Shia population living in proximity of Sunni communities practise FGM.

“FGM is practised in Iran in some cases to tame girls’ sex drive before marriage; it is made to preserve their chastity,” said Ahmady. “The attitude of officials and authorities is that FGM doesn’t exist in Iran. The Iranian public is also largely ignorant about the subject.”

Ahmady first decided to focus on FGM in Iran when he was working with relief NGOs in Africa in early 2000s. Over the course of 10 years he has spoken to around 3,000 Iranian women who have experienced FGM in Iran, as well as 1,000 men. His research was published to coincide with the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression, observed every year on 4 June.

“I returned to Iran in 2005 to study FGM in my home country and instantly I was shocked to discover that it even happened to the closest members of my own family and relatives,” he said. “In fact, many in Iran don’t have a clue that [FGM] is being practised in some parts of the country.”

FGM, which has affected millions of girls and women alive worldwide, predates Islam and Christianity and has been practised in many different cultures and societies, from Coptic and Catholic Christians in Eritrea and in Ethiopia, to Beta Israel society, Australian aboriginal tribes and some parts of the Middle East and Asia. It is usually performed on girls between the ages of four and 12 and can include partial or in extreme cases total removal of external parts of female genitalia.

In Iran, the practice, referred to as Khatne or Sonat, is usually carried out outside hospital without anaesthesia or prior consent by amateur midwives. The tools used include sharp razors.

Mehrangiz Kar, a leading Iranian human rights lawyer, said it was tragic that such mutilation was carried out by women. “It’s one of those instances where the violence against women is carried out by women in unhygienic circumstances,” she told the Guardian. “In areas where FGM exists, unfortunately it’s usually the mothers who insist that their daughters should be cut.”

In at least one extreme case which had involved stitching up after cutting, Kar said an Iranian mother refused to allow her daughter to have her stitches removed before marriage. “The daughter told me that she was afraid of marriage; she feared she would have pain during sexual intercourse.”

Although Ahmady’s research is unprecedented in its depth, other people have also studied FGM in Iran, including Fatemeh Karimi and Rayehe Mozafarian, who have both published books on the subject. Mozafarian said that the Iranian authorities had let activists research FGM in Iran and had allowed those books to be published.

“When people in Iran learned for the first time seven or eight years ago that women are being cut there, it was a cultural shock,” she said. “People didn’t believe that it was being practised.”

Mozafarian said she had reached out to the country’s vice president for women’s affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, who is considering her proposal for a nationwide campaign to end FGM. Iran’s penal code criminalises mutilation but does not specifically mention FGM.

Mozafarian warned that in some parts of Khuzestan province, home to many Arab Iranians, an extreme form of FGM known as infibulation, which involves the removal of the clitoris as well as the narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a covering seal, is being practised.

Influenced by events in the neighbouring Kurdistan region of Iraq, which prohibited FGM in 2007, female circumcision is in decline in Iran’s Kurdistan but still goes on. Hormozgan is less affected by that change.

Not all Sunni Iranians practise FGM, such as those belonging to the Hanafi sect or those living in other provinces. In West Azerbaijan, FGM exists among Sunni Shafi’i Kurds of Sorani dialect but not among Sunni Shafie Kurds of Kermanji dialect, Ahmady’s report shows. In Iran’s Kurdistan, where prevalence of FGM is patchy, it is mainly seen in rural areas, some villages and communities but not usually in urban areas. Even in provinces where FGM exists, many communities do not practise it.

“The majority of women I spoke to who were circumcised defended FGM, saying that it is a tradition that had existed for hundreds of years,” said Ahmady. “Some Sunni mums even boasted that their daughters were more virtuous than the majority Shia girls because they were cut.”

Shia clerics also avoid interfering in what they see as a Sunni issue. The government, wary of inciting anti-Shia sentiment among the country’s Sunni minority, is also largely quiet. In Hormozgan, minimal traces of FGM is seen in Shia communities in some village, the report shows.

How ABC’s ‘World News Tonight’ became a ratings winner

Little by little, ABC’s “World News Tonight” has climbed to the rocky summit of Mount Nielsen. After years of also-ran status, the evening newscast has caught up to NBC’s “Nightly News,” the ratings champ for more than five years. The two programs now jockey for the title of America’s most-popular TV news source.

How did that happen? NBC’s six-month suspension of its lead anchor, Brian Williams, in February probably didn’t enhance “Nightly News” public relations. But “World News Tonight” was gaining even before Williams tripped and tumbled over his bogus war stories.

The story of “World News Tonight’s” ascension is a bit more nuanced, starting even before ABC decided to replace anchor Diane Sawyer with rising star David Muir in September. At the same time, the venerable broadcast has slowly evolved into a newscast engineered for the social media age. In important ways, “World News” looks and sounds different from its competitors. It’s brighter, tighter and indeed quite a bit lighter than its evening rivals.

Under Sawyer, “World News” became noticeably softer, with a greater emphasis on celebrity and entertainment stories, weather coverage, crime fare, news-you-can-use and YouTube’s hottest videos. The trend has continued, and perhaps accelerated, with Muir, 41, at the anchor desk.

News from Washington — a staple of the broadcast since its Peter Jennings glory years — now fights for air. It usually loses: “World News” devoted half as many minutes to Washington stories as CBS did during the first four months of the year, and about 40 percent less than did NBC, according to Andrew Tyndall, who tracks the networks’ newscasts through his eponymous newsletter.

In perhaps a first for a national newscast, “World News” no longer has a full-time correspondent reporting on Congress. Such stories are handled on an ad hoc basis by reporter Jonathan Karl, whose primary beats are the White House and political campaigns.

Although Muir has anchored from Cuba and the Middle East, there’s far less world news on “World News Tonight,” too. During May, the broadcast led with domestic news almost every night of the week, despite a flood of developments in Syria, Iraq, Europe and elsewhere.

The news on “World News” can be serious and important, but the serious stuff is often fleeting. On a typical Tuesday broadcast in May, the lead story was a “breaking” report about a missing U.S. military helicopter in Nepal (the “breaking” element was unclear, given that the helicopter had been reported missing about 30 hours earlier). The second story was a report about a commercial jet’s “scary landing” (as a bold graphic labeled it) in Hawaii. The event produced no injuries, but the story did have the kind of visual element — video of a damaged plane — that made it compelling for “World News.”

The last quarter of the broadcast included amateur video of a man being extricated from a car involved in a crash, a home invasion caught on a security camera and footage of two men flying jet packs in Dubai.

It’s not just what “World News” covers that sets the broadcast apart, but how quickly it covers it. By design, Muir’s newscast has a faster and more urgent pace than those of his predecessor and rivals. According to Tyndall’s statistics, the average correspondent’s news report on “World News” was just 100 seconds last fall, compared with 138 seconds on NBC and 121 on CBS.

The breathless quality comes across in the newswriting and reading. Muir and “WNT’s” reporters frequently eschew verbs, replacing them with gerunds in a kind of headline-style speed talk. To wit: “And tonight, flash flood watches across the plains . . . Black Hawk helicopters airlifting families to safety,” the anchor intoned at the start of another weather story.

ABC executives acknowledge that their newscast is different but say that’s a positive development. The faster pace and sometimes offbeat story mix are designed for an audience that is already saturated with news, said Almin Karamehmedovic, executive producer of “World News Tonight.” “By 6:30, when we come on the air, most of our audience may have heard about” the major stories of the day, he said. “We’d like to give them a full picture . . . and to put it all in perspective.”

He adds, “I think it’s important to have a style that is unique. Not different to be different, but simple and clean and without confusion. . . . We’re fully aware of how people consume news these days, and we’re addressing it. There are a lot of Web sites and channels. It’s still important to have a place that can tell you the day’s stories in a way that’s accurate and urgent and in context.”

Karamehmedovic, a longtime international news producer for ABC, took over the broadcast in August 2014 during Sawyer’s waning days as anchor. Sawyer had made progress in denting “Nightly News” dominance during her five years as “World News” anchor. But it wasn’t until Muir’s ascension to the anchor chair in September that the ratings needle really began to quiver. “World News” has since added about 500,000 viewers to its total. It now regularly beats all comers among younger viewers (those ages 25 to 54), a key group for advertisers, though “Nightly News” maintains a slight advantage among viewers of all ages.

The Sawyer-to-Muir transition may have been the most important element in ABC’s ascension, said an NBC news executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak for the network. “As long as Diane was on the show, they were not going to win,” he said. “When David Muir filled in [for her], bang, they’d win the day. I can tell you that ‘Nightly’ was dreading the moment Diane retired” and Muir took over.

In the meantime, ABC News has lost some of its most experienced journalists to CNN. The list of departures over the past three years includes Bill Weir, Chris Cuomo, John Berman and two Washington mainstays, Jake Tapper and Jeff Zeleny. Virginia Moseley, an 18-year ABC veteran, left in late 2012 to become CNN’s deputy bureau chief in Washington. Christiane Amanpour went back to the cable network in late 2011 after a short stint hosting “This Week,” the Sunday-morning program with George Stephanopoulos.

ABC News wouldn’t comment on the departures but said that the network has hired a number of people from CNN during the same period.

Several former ABC News journalists described various states of disappointment about the changes at “World News.” Speaking on background, they lamented the rapid-fire presentation, the emphasis on visually arresting but largely vapid videos, and the diminution of news from Washington and abroad.

Among the more positive alums was former ABC News president David Westin, who installed Sawyer, the former “Good Morning America” co-host, as “World News” anchor in 2009.

“They’re putting on a program more people want to watch,” said Westin, who now runs a media investment advisory firm. “The audience gets a vote every night and they clearly like David Muir. And there’s a lot to like about him.”

Westin noted that the media landscape has changed dramatically even in the four years since he left ABC News, and that “World News” is attempting to craft a newscast that keeps pace. “The rules that applied in the 1990s don’t apply now,” he said. “Part of the problem here is that none of us have come to terms with what news is in this digital age. In the digital age, everyone constructs his or her own news from a wide range of choices. The landscape is more complicated than ever.”

Even so, the national evening news format has shown surprising endurance; the overall audience for the Big Three network newscasts has actually grown the past two years and during three of the past five years. It averages around 24 million people per night.

That means the networks’ long competitive fight for news viewers is far from over, said Deborah Potter, a former network correspondent who runs NewsLab, a research and training organization. And what the ratings suggest, she said, is that “World News” has figured out that a lighter approach may be a key to appealing to younger people who “are most likely to be tracking news through the day by other means on other screens.”

Last cigarette: Beijing brings in smoking bans from Monday

Beijing will ban smoking in restaurants, offices and on public transport from Monday, part of new curbs welcomed by anti-tobacco advocates, though how they will be enforced remains to be seen.

Health activists have pushed for years for stronger restrictions on smoking in China, the world’s largest tobacco consumer, which is considering further anti-smoking curbs nationwide.

Under the rules, anyone in China’s capital who violates the bans, which include smoking near schools and hospitals, must pay 200 yuan ($32.25). The current fine, seldom enforced, is just 10 yuan ($1.60).

Anyone who breaks the law three times will be named and shamed on a government website. And businesses can be fined up to 10,000 yuan ($1,600) for failing to stamp out smoking on their premises.

“Restaurant staff have a duty to try to dissuade people from smoking,” said Mao Qunan, of the National Health and Family Planning Commission. “If they don’t listen to persuasion, then law enforcement authorities will file a case against them.“

The government will also no longer allow cigarettes to be sold to shops within 100 metres of primary schools and kindergartens, according to state media.

Smoking is a major health crisis in China, where more than 300 million smokers have made cigarettes part of the social fabric and millions more are exposed to secondhand smoke. More than half of Chinese smokers buy cigarettes at less than five yuan (80 US cents) a pack.

Parliament passed legislation last month banning tobacco ads in mass media, public places, on public transport and outdoors. Many Chinese cities have banned smoking in outdoor public places, but enforcement has been lax.

Bright red banners, typically used to display government slogans, have been posted around Beijing with anti-smoking messages. The city has also set up a hot line on which violators can be reported, the China Daily reported.

The names of people and companies who violate the rules more than three times will be posted on a government website for a month, state radio said.

Anti-tobacco advocates said they were more confident in the government’s will to enforce the bans after a series of tougher measures in recent months, including a bigger tobacco tax.

“We couldn’t say this is the strongest law in the world,” said Angela Pratt, of the World Health Organization’s Tobacco Free Initiative. “But it’s certainly up there with the strongest, in that there are no exemptions, no exceptions and no loopholes on the indoor smoking ban requirement.”

Vladimir Putin declares all Russian military deaths state secrets

Vladimir Putin has declared that all military deaths will be classified as state secrets not just in times of war but also in peace – a move that activists worry might further discourage the reporting of Russian soldiers’ deaths in Ukraine.

The Russian president has amended a decree to extend the list of state secrets to include information on casualties during special operations when war has not been declared, among other changes. Previously, the list had only forbidden (pdf) “revealing personnel losses in wartime”. He has repeatedly denied any involvement of Russian troops in a pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that the changes were not connected to the conflict in Ukraine. Revealing state secrets is punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Rights advocate Valentina Melnikova, secretary of the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees, said the decree simply legalised the common practice of withholding information on all military losses, which had been done since Soviet times.

“I don’t know what [the new decree] is connected with, but the bolsheviks and Russian authorities never revealed any casualty numbers, except after South Ossetia,” she said, referring to the 2008 conflict during which Russian troops established control of the Georgian breakaway region. “It was always considered a state secret. Now Putin has just made this official.”

Sergei Krivenko, a member of the presidential human rights council, said the decree “raises many questions” and could serve to intimidate activists, journalists or relatives who report the deaths of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.

“If we lived in a state governed by the rule of law, this decree would only affect officials. Those who have this information don’t have the right to publish it, that’s what this decree is about,” he said. “But in the situation we’re in now … almost any citizen can be punished for revealing information, so long as the authorities decide that this information hurts the country’s interests.”

Earlier this month, one of two Russian men who were captured by Ukrainian forces during a clash with pro-Russian rebels said on camera that he was a member of the Russian special forces. Coverage of Russian soldiers’ presence in Ukraine is virtually taboo on state-controlled television, which portrays Russians fighting there as volunteers.

At least 276 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, according to a list of names compiled by Open Russia, an organisation started by Kremlin critic and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Reuters witnessed Russian troops and hundreds of pieces of weaponry near the border with Ukraine this week, providing evidence of a large-scale military buildup.

Also this month, colleagues of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered near the Kremlin in February, presented a report with evidence of Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine.

Relatives of dead servicemen and returned soldiers have been reluctant to speak out about the conflict. Activist Ilya Yashin told the Guardian that while working on the Nemtsov report he had met relatives of 17 soldiers from Ivanovo who were killed in Ukraine, but they had signed a pledge of secrecy and were afraid to go on record.

This week, US congressman Mac Thornberry said the Russian armed forces were “trying to hide their casualties” by deploying mobile crematoria to eastern Ukraine. Putin’s spokesman called the statement untrustworthy, and the US State Department reportedly declined to confirm the report.