Italy’s Jobs-and-Pollution Showdown

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on the conflict between jobs and health in southern Italy.

The southern Italian city of Taranto’s most distinctive feature isn’t its picturesque coastline, its cathedral, or its castle. It’s the heavy taste of metal in the air—a tang that leaves the unaccustomed visitor with a tingle in the back of the throat, the product of the Ilva steelworks. On one side of the bay stretch manicured sidewalks and coffee shops. On the other loom giant cranes and a forest of chimneys pumping smoke.

Ilva, the largest steel plant in Europe, has set off a conflict in the city of 190,000 between those worried about their health and those desperate to keep their jobs. It’s also put Italy’s government on a collision course with its judiciary, which wants the plant closed.

Over the past decade, environmentalists have exposed alarming levels of pollutants in the area around the plant. In 2008 roughly 2,000 sheep were slaughtered after their milk and meat were found to contain dangerous levels of dioxin. In the blue-collar neighborhood of Tamburi, on the same side of the bay as the plant, homes are infiltrated by a black powder that blows from slag heaps and drifts from smokestacks. Grazia Parisi, a pediatrician who once worked in the area, recalls finding the powder on her desk and examination bed every morning. “I was always washing my hands, washing my hands,” she says. “I left because I was also getting sick.”

Read the rest.

The Pope Tweets with You: Benedict XVI Joins the Twitterverse

My piece on the Pope’s first Tweet has just been published by Time.

At first glance, the Pope taking to Twitter has the taste of anachronism: an 85-year-old pontiff, who still writes in longhand, tapping out messages 140 characters at a time. But when Benedict XVI sent out his first tweet on Wednesday, soon after his weekly audience in St. Peters’ Square, Vatican officials believe he will be following a long tradition of Christian communication. “This is not a new approach,” says Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “What’s new is the technique.” As for the long awaited tweet, it read: “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.”

On Wednesday, those first tweets will be answers to questions solicited from Twitter users under the hashtag #askpontifex. Cardinal Ravasi’s office is one of several charged with looking at submissions from #askpontifex. As a result, some of his staff have been screening tweets that range from the sincere to the buffoonish, from the political to the vulgar. (Some, referring the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal, are both.) While some have worried that wading into the wild — often dirty — world of the Internet will demean the office of the Pope, Ravasi and his team see it as part of the pontiff’s pastoral mission to engage with all segments of society. “I see the Internet as a playground, and I see the church as playing the role of a responsible adult,” says Richard Rouse, the Cardinal’s spokesperson.

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A Time for Mischief: Will Monti’s Departure Mean Berlusconi’s Return?

My piece on Mario Monti’s resignation has just been published by Time.

The reaction to the news from Italy — that Prime Minister Mario Monti will soon step down to make way for early elections featuring the possible return of Silvio Berlusconi — has been nearly unanimously negative and, in some quarters, uncharacteristically vocal. “Worried about the resignation of Italian PM Mario Monti,” wrote Finland’s Minster for European Affairs, Alexander Stubb, in a tweet on Sunday morning. “I think he is one of the best European leaders we have.”

Martin Schulz, a German politician whom Berlusconi once likened to a concentration-camp guard, was more direct. “Europe needs stability,” he said, in an interview with the Italian news agency ANSA. “And Mr. Berlusconi is the opposite of stability.” Even Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, expressed his worries. “We can’t allow a year of sacrifices to be ruined,” he said, referring to painful austerity measures Monti has introduced in order regain the confidence of the markets. “What’s stunning is the irresponsibility of those who think of their own interests while the house is still burning.” By Monday evening, the markets had weighed in as well, with the Milan Stock Exchange down 2.2% at the close of trading.

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The Syrian Regime’s Survival Strategy: Shut Down the Web

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my follow up on the Syrian cyberwar.

When the Internet went dark in Syria last month, it halted more than just the opposition’s Facebook campaigns and YouTube videos of atrocities committed by government forces. It caused a lot of action on the ground to grind down as well. “Most aid work stopped because the people involved could not exchange the needs and the addresses to which aid should be delivered,” says Susanne Fischer, Middle East program manager at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, which offers training in digital security to activists in the Arab world. Fischer says that “some overworked activists were forced to take a break. When I asked one person inside what he had been doing while being cut off from the Internet, he said: ‘I played video games.’”

Syria’s civil war appears to have entered a decisive phase. Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are digging in as rebel fighters close in on Damascus. It’s little coincidence that the rebels’ push toward the capital gained strength after activists regained access to the Internet following a two-day blackout in late November. It remains an open question, however, whether that momentum will be slowed should the government attempt to shut down the Web again.

Read the rest.