Monday, April 30, 2007

Underwhelming Anwar

Anwar Ibrahim's hopes of returning to the summit of Malaysian politics crashed when his Keadilan party lost a state assembly by-election on the weekend. The ruling coalition of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi won the election by 5,884 votes to 4,034 to retain a legislative seat in Ijok, central Selangor. The vote was seen as a test of support for the national elections which must be held before 2009.

The result is a massive blow to Anwar’s comeback hopes. But he alleged the poll was fraudulent and irregular. Speaking from Kuala Lumpur, he said "I am sad for Malaysia. I've been talking about fraudulent process all this while, but I didn't think it was going to be so bad ... the intimidation, the blatant bribery and the whole conduct of the election today”. Nonetheless he claimed the defeat would not impact his political comeback.

Selangor surrounds the federal territory of the capital KL and is Malaysia’s most prosperous state. The election was viewed as a barometer of Keadilan’s support. Keadilan is a centrist party founded by Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife while he languished in prison. His release in 2004 has revived the party’s fortunes which flagged while Anwar was out of the limelight in jail.

Anwar Ibrahim has long been one of Malaysia’s most controversial politicians who spent two separate terms in prison. Now approaching 70 years, he was once seen as a future prime minister. Anwar was educated at the University of Malaya where he did Malay studies and became active in student politics. He was arrested in 1974 during student protests against poverty. He was detained for 12 months under the Internal Security Act (ISA) without trial at the Kamunting detention camp for political prisoners.

Anwar also founded a student movement Persatuan Kebangsaan Pelajar Islam Malaysia (PKPIM). After his imprisonment, Anwar became a symbol for the student movement and a thorn in the official government’s side. In 1982, he surprised everyone by switching sides and joining Mahathir Mohamad’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Mohamad had been made Prime Minister the year before and under his tutelage Anwar quickly climbed the ranks of the organisation. He moved through a succession of ministries in the eighties. By 1993 he was deputy Prime Minister and it was clear he was being groomed to eventually replace Mahathir in the top job.

But things started to go wrong for Anwar in 1997. In July that year the East Asian economy went into sudden meltdown. Financial collapses in Thailand and South Korea affected local currencies and the stock markets. Malaysia was one many countries impacted. Mahathir blamed the West for the crisis and accused George Soros of ruining the Malaysian economy by currency speculation. Finance minister Anwar meanwhile, agreed to an IMF plan to implement an austerity package, end corruption, and open the economy to competition. His free market approach won him many plaudits including Newsweek’s magazine’s Asian of the Year in 1998. But his anti-corruption moves brought many Malaysian companies to the brink of bankruptcy and was opposed by his boss under pressure from business allies.

Anwar then became the target of sexual innuendos and corruption hints. With the help of the Mahathir administration, journalist Khalid Jafri spread the rumours in a book called “50 Reasons Why Anwar Cannot Become Prime Minister”. Although Anwar obtained a court injunction against its publication, the book caused Anwar irreparable damage. Mahathir fired him from the Cabinet in September 1998 on allegations of misconduct. Anwar hit back and launched a massive rally of 100,000 people to the Prime Minister’s residence in KL demanding reforms.

That evening Anwar was arrested. He appeared in court a week later with a black eye that the Government insisted was “self inflicted”. Anwar was tried and convicted of corruption and sodomy and sentenced to 15 years in prison despite the protests of worldwide human rights groups. He was freed in 2004 after Malaysia's top court overturned the sodomy conviction. Anwar has said the charges were fabricated.

Due to the terms of his expired corruption charges, Anwar must remain out of politics until 2008. He has announced his intention to return when his period of disqualification ends. In the meantime he has held teaching positions in Oxford and Washington and joined the board of several international organisations such as AccountAbility and Foundation for the Future.

Anwar fancies his chances against Mahathir’s handpicked replacement. Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has been Prime Minister since 2003 and is in a strong position after winning 198 out of 220 seats in the 2004 election. But his old mentor Mahathir has publicly criticised his replacement alleging freedom of the press has diminished under Badawi’s watch. There are also allegations of cronyism and charges that Badawi sleeps through important meetings. Despite his weaknesses, this week’s state by-election leaves him in a strong position to retain Malaysia’s leadership in 2008.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Howard Years

John Howard has hit back at claims he is too old for the job of Australian Prime Minister. In a reminder of the 1984 Reagan-Mondale presidential race, the 67-year-old told Channel Nine this morning "I could probably borrow that famous line of Ronald Reagan: 'If you don't talk about my age I won't talk about your inexperience." Howard made the barb (incorrectly about Jimmy Carter in 1980 not Walter Mondale in 1984) after opposition leader Kevin Rudd told him his time was up. Speaking at a Labor conference on Friday, Rudd accused Howard of being arrogant, out of touch, and not having any new ideas since the days of black-and-white television. The attacks to are likely to become increasingly personal as the 2007 election looms closer with Rudd leading in the polls while Howard looks to claim a fifth successive victory.

John Howard has been in power so long that a book can now be written about him called “The Howard Years”. Published in 2004, and edited by Melbourne academic Robert Manne, the book is a series of essays by writers who trenchantly judge the conservative populism of the Howard era and find it wanting. Manne admits in the preface that the writers are what the government would call a despised new social category, “the elites”.

Manne himself is a long-time critic of John Howard. He is the professor of politics at Melbourne’s La Trobe University and a major political player himself. He has been involved in Australia’s wars on the so-called ‘black armband’ side (those who know there have been significant massacres of Aboriginals by settlers), served on the Stolen Generations Taskforce and a former editor of the influential conservative magazine Quadrant which he took in a social democrat direction, albeit briefly.

The 2004 book describes itself as “the first reasonably systematic and broad ranging assessment of the impact of the Howard years”. Howard was then eight years and three elections in the job. Manne himself writes an overview of those years. Three writers (Mungo MacCallum, Judith Brett, and Helen Irving) tackle the enigma of “Honest John”. Mick Dodson writes about Howard and Aboriginal Australia. William Maley discusses immigration policy. John Quiggin writes about economics; Simon Marginson reflects on the universities, Ian Lowe does the environment. Finally there are two essays on foreign relations, one specifically about Indonesia by M.C. Riclefs and another about general foreign policy by Tony Kevin.

It is a heavyweight selection of essays. They are all critical of the Howard administration. Manne’s overview is a chronological dissection of the decision making process in the Howard Government. Manne notes that Howard’s Liberals have tapped in to suburban middle Australia. They have achieved this partially by good representative politicians and secondly by conspicuously rejecting the progressive agenda that had been in place since the Gough Whitlam administration of 1972 – 1975. This meant, as Manne said, saying no to multiculturalism, Aboriginal self-determination, gay rights, environmentalism, and refugee rights.

Since 1970, Australia has undergone two social revolutions which have reshaped its way of life. The first was a cultural revolution with the arrival of Indigenous land rights, the ending of the White Australia Policy and the idea of assimilation of immigrants. The second was an economic revolution with involved a floated dollar, deregulated financial system, privatised utilities and a tariff free economy. The educated left led the charge in the first revolution and the educated right led the second. But the mood on the street to both revolutions was turning sour.

No one was more committed to both revolutions than Paul Keating. As Treasurer, he brought about the economic revolution. As last Labor Prime Minister he tried to implement fully the first revolution. But in 1996 his labour base deserted him. That year the Liberal Party slogan was “For All of Us”. It was an unsubtle reminder that Keating only governed for some of us; ethnics, Aboriginals, feminists, gays.

John Howard ran that year with a “small target” strategy and won comfortably. His first year reflected this with a lack of major policy initiatives. His biggest plan was rid the waterfront of its union. It was a secret strategy to sack the maritime unionised workforce and replace them with a crew that was being recruited and trained by the army in Dubai. But the Dubai scheme was foiled when it was leaked to Labor and the union threatened an international maritime boycott. With Howard’s backing, the firm Patrick sacked its workforce anyway only to have the decision overturned by the courts.

But the defining characteristic of Howard earliest years is how he dealt with Pauline Hanson. Hanson was a Liberal candidate in 1996 who was disendorsed by the Party after she advocated the abolition of government assistance for Aborigines. She stood as an independent and won with a massive swing. She achieved instant stardom after her maiden speech to parliament which warned Australia risked “being swamped by Asians”. Hanson became a media superstar and the speech unleashed a whole unspoken argument about multi-cultural relations in Australia. Hanson claimed to have a mandate on behalf of commonsense and the forgotten “mainstream” Her new party took one vote in every four in the Queensland state election. They almost crippled Howard in his first re-election in 1998. One Nation took 8.4% of vote but Hanson herself was defeated.

In his second term, Howard put paid to the republic with his skewed referendum, discredited the “Bringing them Home” report on Aboriginal child removal and began to put in place a new policy to deal with asylum seekers. Mandatory detention had been in place since the Keating era. If their claims were rejected, asylum seekers could potential end up in permanent custody. The principle of refoulement means they could not be sent back to a war-torn country. Howard’s job was to demonise these people. They were called “queue jumpers”, “forum shoppers” and “illegals”. Howard stole a Hanson idea and created the concept of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) which would review status after three years and would not allow re-entry. Next of kin were not allowed to join them in Australia.

TPVs caused a flood of immigrants to flout the law and attempt to land in Australia. The detention camps were overflowing. A UN Working Group on Mandatory Detention visited the camps and found gross abuses of human rights. But 70% of Australians favoured this treatment. In 2001 survivors from a leaky boat called the Palapa were picked up by a Norwegian vessel and the Tampa crisis was created. While Howard’s harsh treatment of the Tampa refugees attracted international condemnation, he was supported by 95% of his own public. Howard hammered home the political advantage with his skilful manipulation of the false Children Overboard affair and the tragically real Siev X which sunk claiming 353 lives.

This policy alone would have won the 2001 election. But it was reinforced with 9/11. Howard was in Washington when the attacks occurred. Howard immediately invoked Article IV of the ANZUS treaty and pledged military support to the US. A month later he farewelled Australian troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban regime. Another month later, Howard had won a massive victory at the polls.

As the ‘war on terror’ unfolded Howard kept Australia in synch with the US position. Howard was a tireless arguer for the merits of going to war with Saddam. He criticised the UN for its “intransigence” over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. He sent in Australian troops after the US and Britain ignored the lack of a Security Council resolution and invaded anyway. Assisted by a pro-war Murdoch press, and the lack of Australian casualties Howard survived the early parts of the war with his reputation unscathed. And his vision of Australia was clear: Western values, the Anzac tradition, and a military alliance with its oldest allies, the UK and the US.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Japan court denies justice to war crimes victims

Japan’s Supreme Court has ruled against two women who were victims of Japanese War atrocities during World War II. The women filed for compensation saying they were kidnapped and used as sex slaves. The Supreme Court acknowledged the women were forced into sexual servitude but nevertheless upheld a 2005 Tokyo High Court ruling that rejected compensation claims. The court ruled the women’s right to reparation ended when Japan and China settled their diplomatic differences in 1972 and Beijing renounced their war claims. The woman had sought $US 390,000 in damages.

The same argument was used earlier yesterday when the same court also handed down a judgement against five Chinese men who were forced to work as slave labourers in Japan during the war. The plaintiffs were among 360 Chinese who worked at a Nishimatsu hydroelectric power plant construction site in western Japan for the last year of the war. The court overturned a Hiroshima court’s order for Nishimatsu to pay the five $US230, 000 in compensation. 78 year old plaintiff Song Jiyao lost his eyes in an accident while doing forced labour. He spoke to the media after the court result saying "We've lost. But we will continue to struggle with Nishimatsu to the bitter end."

China has denounced the court judgements. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao acknowledged the 1972 agreement that waived war reparation rights but said it was a political decision to aid bi-partisan friendship. He said the court had ignored solemn representations lodged by China which opposed what it called an “arbitrary interpretation” of the agreement. The matter is now likely to become a political issue. “We have already asked the Japanese government to seriously deal with China's concerns and properly handle this issue." Said Liu.

The 1972 agreement quoted by the court is known as the Sino-Japanese Joint Statement. This agreement finally normalised relations between the two bitter foes. In 1951 the US held a peace conference regarding Japan in San Francisco. But newly Communist China was not invited. Premier Zou En Lai denounced the subsequent treaty as illegal and invalid. The following year Japan signed a treaty with Taiwan which further enraged Beijing. Relations finally thawed between the powers in the 1960s and the countries established liaison offices. In 1972 Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited China to establish the joint statement. The statement annulled Japan’s agreement with Taiwan and recognised Beijing as the legal government. In return China absolved Japan of war reparations.

While China had not fully forgiven Japan for its wartime invasion and associated atrocities, its attitude would now become formulated as “the past, if not forgotten, can serve as a guide for the future". In 1998 Japan formally recognised its aggression against China for the first time and expressed a profound apology to the Chinese people. In 2001 then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the Museum of Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japan. There he expressed his apology and condolence over the Chinese people who lost their lives in the Japanese invasion.

Yet there is a strong new hawkish attitude visible in Japan today. In the same year he visited Beijing, Koizumi also re-established the tradition of a prime ministerial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine to pay homage to the Japanese war dead. This Shinto shrine was founded in 1869 to commemorate the dead from all wars since the Meiji Restoration in order to build a peaceful Japan (Yasukuni means "peaceful country"). The problem is that among the 2.5 million dead listed there are 14 Class A war criminals from World War II as well as over a thousand others convicted of other war crimes . The shrine steadfastly refuses to remove them. China and Korea have both repeatedly voiced anger at Japanese governmental visits to the shrine.

New Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was widely expected to be more hawkish than Koizumi but he surprisingly stayed away from Yasukuni as 160 Japanese lawmakers paid their respects there last week. Abe has visited the shrine in other capacities but not yet as Prime Minister. Abe is declining to say whether he would go to Yasukuni, keeping a delicate balancing act between Chinese sensibilities and his own conservative supporters. Abe told reporters last week he "still upholds the desire to pray for the souls of those who sacrificed themselves for the country."

Last month Abe further enraged the Chinese by telling the Japanese parliament there was no proof Japan's government or military had forced women to work in military brothels during the war. Currently at a summit in Camp David to discuss the US-Japan alliance with President Bush, he is the subject of protests in Washington. 78 year old Lee Young-soo, a former Korean sex slave, led the protest in a march to the White House. Abe told US reporters he has "deep-hearted sympathies" for what the women went through. But Young-soo wants a formal apology for the remaining victims. Young-soo was a prisoner for three years. She recalls how she looked when she finally returned to Korea after the war. "They were making a ceremony for my spirit because they thought I was dead,” she said. “I looked like a beggar -- beaten, bleeding."

Friday, April 27, 2007

Uganda ready to drop ICC warrant to make peace with Kony

After three months of stalled talks, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has re-opened negotiations to end its 20 year war with Uganda. The LRA agreed to come back to the talks under the auspices of UN Special Envoy Joaquim Chissano, ex-president of Mozambique. Discussions resumed yesterday in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. Chissano pleaded with the LRA to make a go of it saying it was a last chance.

Both sides seem to be keen to make the most of the opportunity with conciliatory gestures apparent prior to the talks. Peace negotiations began in the middle of last year but broke down after three months because the rebels feared for their safety. The problem was caused by International Criminal Court warrants issued against several senior LRA leaders including Joseph Kony. Those warrants remain a sticking point. The LRA are demanding they be dropped as a precursor to any settlement while Uganda will only agree to an amnesty if a peace deal is signed.

The host of the current talks, South Sudan president Salva Kiir, has urged both sides to put aside their differences. At the opening of the talks at Juba Raha Hotel he said “The problems you are attempting to solve are not so deep rooted as we had in Sudan”. Kiir has vested interests in the settlement of the dispute as the battlefield has spread across his border into the newly autonomous South Sudan.

A report published by USAID’s Famine Early Warning System Network stated LRA attacks on civilian populations in southern Sudan pose a significant threat to food security and overall stability in the Equatoria states. After the last peace talks broke down, the LRA retreated to the Central African Republic (CAR), attacking and looting South Sudanese communities on their way. LRA activity is also hampering the return of 250,000 Sudanese refugees who fled into northern Uganda to escape the Sudanese civil war.

In October, the ICC issued a warrant against five LRA leaders including Joseph Kony. The arrest warrants of arrest are historic as they are the first to be issued by the ICC since its creation by the Rome Statute in 1998. According to the warrants, the LRA has established a pattern of brutalisation of the civilian population “by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements”. Kony is wanted for the most serious charges, 33 counts in all including 12 crimes against humanity and 21 charges of murder. His deputy Vincent Otti is also wanted on 33 similar charges. Otti is believed to be hiding in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Because the ICC does not have its own military or police force, it relies on support from the Ugandan government and the international community at large for assistance with arrest and evidence proceedings. Before the meeting Ugandan defence minister Amama Mbabazi said the warrants had been passed on to the country’s Director of Public Prosecutions in accordance with procedure. He also said
believes that one of the other men charged Dominic Ongwen was killed by Ugandan troops in September during an LRA incursion.

Kony, meanwhile, remains in hiding in Sudan, while the ICC warrant stands. He is represented in Jube by Martin Ojul. Captain Barigye Bakoku, the spokesman for the Ugandan delegation has described the start of the meeting as "cordial and brotherly”. He told AFP “I hope we are going to move smoothly up to the end because I saw seriousness in both delegations." But human rights bodies are watching Uganda carefully and are fearful Uganda will drop the criminal charges. HRW estimate Kony’s group has kidnapped 25,000 children.

But President Museveni will face pressure to come to a deal with Kony. A coalition of more than 40 local and international non-governmental organisations known as Civil Society Organisations for Peace in Northern Uganda (CSOPNU) has estimated the persistent conflict in the North has constrained economic and social development across the whole of Uganda. CSOPNU estimated the conflict has cost at least US$1.33 billion over the last 16 years - 3% of Uganda’s GDP over the period. The war has displaced half a million people, schooling is rare in the north, and HIV is rampant. The country desperately needs peace, and Museveni may be ready to pay a high price for it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Human rights groups condemn Australia's refugee swap with the US

American based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned the deal between the US and Australia to trade refugees housed at Guantanamo for those held in Nauru. HRW said the deal upends international refugee standards. “Refugees are human beings, not products that countries can broker and trade,” said Bill Frelick, HRW Refugee Policy director, “[it is] a deal that bargains with lives and flouts international law.”

The two countries announced the deal last week in Washington. Under its conditions, Australia will initially transfer 83 Sri Lankan and eight Burmese refugees from Nauru to the US with a view to sending up to 200 a year. In return Australia will take 200 Cuban and Haitian refugees now being held at the US Navy base (not the prison) at Guantanamo Bay. The deal is designed to frustrate refugees from joining family and community members in a nearby country. Both the US and Australia are detaining refugees offshore to avoid their legal obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Of particular interest here is Article 32: expulsion which says nations “shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order” and even then only after a “reached in accordance with due process of law”.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said Australia would only accept refugees from the US for resettlement if their claims had been found to be genuine. Prime Minister John Howard has also defended the swap saying it will act as a deterrent to people smuggling. "People who want to come to Australia will be deterred by anything that sends a message that getting to the Australian mainland illegally is not going to happen,” he said.

But the Labor Party thinks that the move will send exactly the opposite message. Opposition leader Kevin Rudd says the deal will make Australia a “halfway house” to the US. "It strikes me as passing strange that we now will be playing swapsies," he said. "I am struggling with where all that goes in terms of the logic."

Meanwhile the US was also pouring cold water over the deal’s significance. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the deal an "informal agreement" that "does not create legal obligations." "The arrangement does not call for an exchange or a swap of individuals," he said. "And no person ... who is referred would be forced to accept resettlement." He also said no referrals have yet been made for the program.

Refugee groups also see the move as political expediency, yet another example of using asylum seekers as a scapegoat in an election year. But the quick-fix will do nothing to help overcome the world-wide flood of refugees. The move does not address the underlying reasons why people become refugees in the first place: either through war, or through the economic reasons of poverty, lack of health care, jobs, housing and water shortage.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, one of Australia's leading asylum seeker aid, health and advocacy organisations also expressed their outrage over the proposal. They say it is cruel to resettle asylum seekers in countries where they had no cultural connections. Their spokeswoman Pamela Curr said "the refugees were Australia’s our responsibility and the new policy was “shredding” the UN refugee convention. “This is not a container load of washing machines that we've decided to reject,” she said “These are human beings”.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Anzac Day 2007: Kokoda

The Kokoda Track Authority has denied a report in Papua New Guinea newpaper The National, local landowners were going to close the Track. KTA chief executive officer Warren Bartlett said village leaders would not close the track in protest over a lack of government funding for the authority. Bartlett said an ANZAC Day service at the war memorial at Isurava today would not be disrupted. "The Kokoda Track is not closed, it's going to stay open. There's no problem with the Anzac Day ceremony or the hundreds of people walking the track," he said.

The cause of the row was the allocation of 3.4 million kina ($1.42 million) in government funding to go to the KTA rather than to the National Cultural Commission. PNG recently established the KTA as a statutory body to administer the fragile track, promote trekking and collect the mandatory trekking fees. Landowners along the 93km track want more of the lucrative trekking fees markets (currently 200 kina or $83). This month there were 780 trekkers on the track with almost 4,000 visitors last year.

The trekkers want to follow in the footsteps of the World War II soldiers who defended Australia from Japanese invasion in 1942. The story of the Kokoda Track is one of the more remarkable actions of the War. In damp and fetid places such as Isuvara, Deniki, Buna and Gona, an Australian reserve force stopped the advance of a mighty Japanese army as it bore down on Port Moresby, the last stop before Australia itself.

The Kokoda Track is a native walking path which starts at the swampy north coast near the towns of Buna and Gona on the shores of the Solomon Sea. It crosses PNG's backbone - the Owen Stanley Range which splits the country east to west. At the highest elevation lies Kokoda village. Kokoda had a rubber plantation and an administrative outpost. It also had a primitive but strategically vital airstrip. From here the track wound its way to the south coast at Port Moresby, the capital of what was then the Australian-mandated province of Papua New Guinea.

In March 1942, the situation was grim for Australia. In the three months since Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had advanced rapidly. Rabaul in New Britain fell in January. Japan used Rabaul to invade PNG and bomb Port Moresby. They also launched bombing raids on Darwin and Wyndham. The impregnable Singapore fell in February and British forces were on the retreat in Burma while Japanese forces overran the Dutch East Indies.

While Australia faced its darkest hour, its prime fighting men were inconveniently overseas. The Australian Imperial Force was in the North African desert fighting Rommel or in Syria fighting Vichy French forces. National defence was left to the reservists known as the Militia. The AIF condescendingly referred to them as “chockos” – chocolate soldiers who would melt quickly in the sun. Prime Minister John Curtain called for US assistance and said Australia was now “inside the fighting line”. Over Churchill’s objections, he called the AIF home.

Meanwhile, the Japanese South Sea Detachment landed in Rabaul led by General Tomitaro Horii. Horii made plans to invade PNG in a two pronged attack. The first was by sea, and the second was by land across the Owen Stanleys. The naval prong was foiled by the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first ever battle fought by aircraft carriers. Although the battle was inconclusive with one major sinking each, the Japanese withdrew their convoy and postponed the sea attack on Port Moresby.

But the threat remained from a land invasion. MacArthur was aware of it and said if New Guinea went, the results would be disastrous. The Militia was sent to defend Port Moresby where they unloaded ships, built fortifications and repaired the airstrip. Because their tents, blankets, medicine and mosquito repellent was first loaded onto the ships they were the last loaded off. Most soldiers quickly fell to malaria.

The 39th battalion led by “Uncle” Sam Templeton was ordered across the Owen Stanleys to defend Kokoda. They would have company. On 21 July, 14,000 Japanese troops landed at Buna. The 39th marched north to meet them. Heavily outnumbered, they harassed the Japanese before retreating to Kokoda. The Japanese were better equipped and fought in camouflage uniforms with painted faces and foliage-disguised helmets while the Australians were outfitted in heavy regulation khaki. But the Japanese made one big blunder in logistics. General Horii thought his men would get to Port Moresby quickly and he gave them only ten days rations. It was a serious miscalculation.

Templeton prepared an ambush for the Japanese at Oivi, two hours north of Kokoda. They surprised the invaders but were eventually overwhelmed. Templeton then set off to Kokoda to warn the garrison but he never made it back. The remaining Diggers cut across the jungle of the valley to join Lieutenant-Colonel Owen’s troops in Deniki. They returned to Kokoda and set up a defensive position with 77 exhausted men. 1,500 Japanese troops arrived to fight the defenders at close quarters. Owen was killed but surviving defenders eventually retreated to join reinforcements coming up the Track.

500 soldiers of the 39th battalion gathered at Deniki to face an enemy five to ten times more numerous. Their hit and run tactics convinced the Japanese they were dealing with a much larger enemy force. Still, the defenders were overrun once again and retreated to Isavura. New commanding officer Colonel Ralph Honner, who was rushed back from the Middle East, ordered his men to dig in and hold position. Honner had won a VC for his service in Crete and proved a wise and courageous leader who understood his men. He also knew their limitations and saw they were exhausted, hungry, malarial and troubled by tropical infections. His leadership inspired them and they repulsed the invaders with ambushes and shelling.

The defenders were struggling to hold on and needed reinforcements. Finally the men of the AIF arrived. The 2/14th battalion reached Isavura two days later. The 2/16th followed. The Japanese also reinforced and the AIF could not afford to totally relieve the exhausted 39th battalion. The AIF and Militia would fight side by side removing the pejorative tag of “Chockos” forever. The fighting was fiercest at Isavura. The Japanese repeatedly charged the frontlines and the Australians responded with bullets and bayonets, and sometimes fists, rifle butts and even boots. The Japanese died in enormous numbers but still outnumbered the Aussies.

After three days of hand-to-hand combat, the Japanese broke through and threatened Battalion HQ so a group volunteered to counter-attack. Bruce Kingsbury, a quietly-spoken real estate agent from Melbourne grabbed a Bren gun and charged at the stunned Japanese killing dozens. His charge had a galvanising effect. His comrades followed him and repulsed the Japanese. Kingsbury was killed by a sniper’s bullet and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross – the first ever on Australian territory.

Although the Australians would eventually have to retreat they won important time at Isavura to regroup and resupply. The wounded were carried away from the battle scene by local villagers whom the Australian knew as Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. Horii’s ten-day plan to take Port Moresby was horribly exposed. He needed to get the end of the track without further delay but the Australians held out another month. Horii’s men attacked at Brigade Hill, with a numerical advantage of six to one. Half the Australian defenders were killed, some 500 in all. The Japanese advanced again but suffered crippling casualties.

On 12 September, the Australians made a stand at Ioribaiwa Ridge. It was an excellent defensive position; a needle-sharp 1,350m high ridge with a total view of the valley below. Although the battle was indecisive, the Japanese had had enough. In sight of Port Moresby's lights the supply line grew too long and too fraught. The US had invaded Guadalcanal and Tokyo decided to concentrate its efforts there. Horii’s troops were ordered to withdraw. The Kokoda Track was safe and so was Port Moresby.

There was no victory parade back in the capital. Most people, top brass included, thought the retreats amounted to defeat. Australian general in command, Thomas Blamey, castigated survivors saying they had been beaten by inferior troops in inferior numbers. He also accused his men of having run like rabbits. Whether his words were misinterpreted or not, the soldiers were indignant. There was no help from MacArthur who was anxious to show Guadalcanal in the best light. He ignored New Guinea and belittled the Australian contribution.

Eventually word got out about what really happened at Kokoda. Ralph Honner summed it up when he described the Battle of Isurava as "Australia's Thermopylae". 30,000 Australian troops served in the entire Kokoda Campaign. 3,000 died in battle, and 5,500 were wounded. Countless more died of disease. But Australia’s darkest hour was over. As Lt-Col Phil Rhoden recounted to Patrick Lindsay for his book “The Essence of Kokoda”:
“We were fighting for Australia, on Australian soil for the first time. It was important we won because if we didn’t win who knows what would have happened".

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

IGAD's demise spells trouble for Somalia

Eritrea has pulled out of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) after a row with Ethiopia about Somalia. IGAD is the regional development organisation for east Africa which is now down to six member countries. The decision is a blow to co-ordinated efforts to pacify Somalia. The Eritrean government of Eritrea released a statement saying it was “compelled to take the move due to the fact that a number of repeated and irresponsible resolutions that undermine regional peace and security have been adopted in the guise of IGAD”.

Ostensibly allies, Ethiopia and Eritrea are locked in a proxy war in Somalia. Ethiopia backs the weak interim government; Eritrea sponsors the Islamic militants fighting to overthrow it. UN Security Council Resolution 1725 was raised to reaffirm “its respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, and unity of Somalia”. The resolution commended the crucial efforts of IGAD to promote and encourage political dialogue between the Ethiopian backed government in Baidoa and the Union of Islamic Courts who ruled in Somalia’s rambunctious capital, Mogadishu.

IGAD was created in 1996 to supersede the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD) which was founded ten years earlier. IGADD was a response to the droughts that crippled the Horn of Africa in the seventies and early eighties. The then six countries of the Horn (Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan) decided to take a regional approach to the problem with the help of the UN. IGADD was officially launched in 1986 with its headquarters in Djibouti.

After achieving some success in drought reduction and famine relief, IGADD’s mandate widened to cover other areas of regional development. Eritrea joined the organisation shortly after gaining its independence in 1993. The organisation received a new charter and a name change to in 1996 with the focus moving away from drought to development. IGAD had three focus areas: Conflict Prevention and Humanitarian Affairs; Infrastructure Development; and Food Security and Environment Protection.

But process in IGAD is now stalled. The lack of a functioning central government has kept Somalia out of any meaningful action. Sudan is preoccupied by its civil wars in the South and West (Darfur). Kenya and Uganda, meanwhile prefer to concentrate their energies on the East African Community EAC) which it shares with Tanzania with Burundi and Rwanda joining later this year. The EAC is a more stable bloc of countries and has an eventual goal of economic and political union between its members.

But the major impediment to any progress within IGAD is the ongoing dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although the two countries are officially at peace since the Algiers Agreement of 2000, the UN was forced to demand Eritrea to remove its forces from a disputed buffer zone on its border with Ethiopia last October. Two months later, Eritrea protested when Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia to end the regime of the Islamic Courts in Mogadishu. Eritrea had supported the Islamic Courts as a buffer against Ethiopia.

While the fighting still rages, the US accused Eritrea this week of providing funding, arms and training to insurgents battling Somali forces and allied Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu. Assistant US Secretary of State Jendaye Frazer called for renewed ceasefire talks to end the fighting but said "Eritrea has not been playing a constructive role in Somalia because they continue to fund, arm, train and advise the insurgents" she told reporters.

The fighting not only damages IGAD. It is also destroying Somalia. In the past month alone, nearly 1,300 people have died in fighting between government troops and their Ethiopian allies on the one side, and Islamists on the other. There have been over 300,000 refugees from the capital. But the world is not interested. A Somali intellectual said, "There is a massive tragedy unfolding in Mogadishu, but from the world's silence, you would think it's Christmas.”

Monday, April 23, 2007

Maradona’s addictive personality

Diego Maradona has checked in to a specialist psychiatric clinic in Buenos Aires after been discharged from hospital. There he will be treated for alcohol addiction. Maradona checked in complaining of abdominal pain. The move is the latest in a long list of medical troubles for one of the all-time greats of football. He has spent the last three weeks in Los Arcos Sanatorium where he was hospitalised for alcohol hepatitis. Maradona is an ex-cocaine addict and suffers from excessive eating, drinking and cigars. His personal doctor Alfredo Cahe said that the 46-year old Maradona has an “addictive personality”.

Addictive or not, Maradona is probably the greatest player ever to play the game. His tragedy is his long history of dealing with alcoholism, cocaine addiction and obesity. Since retiring from the game in 1997, these problems have exacerbated. In 2000 and again in 2003, Maradona was rushed to hospital with severe heart problems stemming from cocaine abuse.

After his 2000 stint in hospital, Maradona went to Cuba to rehabilitate. There he forged a warm relationship with Fidel Castro. Maradona gave Castro a football lesson at Havana’s Revolution Palace. According to an excited Castro, "Today I learnt a lot of things, I learnt how to dribble with the ball!" Maradona was equally gushing in praise of his host saying “I am proud to be a friend of Fidel, a friend of the greatest man in living history." Maradona said he wasn’t a Communist, merely a “Fidelista”. While in Cuba, Maradona slimmed down and improved his health dramatically. But it was to be a short-lived respite.

Diego Armando Maradona was born to an underprivileged family in the Buenos Aires shantytown of Villa Fiorito. Diego shared a bedroom with seven siblings. He spent his every waking hour playing football in the streets of his neighborhood. Aged 14, he got a game with a team called "Los Cebollitas" (the little onions). Inspired by his young genius, Los Cebollitas went on a winning run of over a 100 games. Before Diego had turned 16, he was attracting the interest of Argentina’s largest football clubs. He signed on for Argentinos Juniors. He stayed there for six years and played 166 games where he scored 115 goals. In 1977, aged 17, he earned his first cap for his country. Argentina hosted the world cup the following year but manager Cesar Luis Menotti left Maradona out of the squad claiming he was too inexperienced. Menotti’s decision was justified as Mario Kempes inspired the hosts to their first ever victory. Maradona’s moment in the sun wasn’t to be far away.

In 1979, Maradona scored his first full international goal and captained Argentina to victory in World Youth Cup in Japan. In 1981 he was transferred to the club he supported as a boy: Boca Juniors. He scored twice on his debut in a 4-1 home win to immediately strike a chord with the fans. Boca would go on to win the league. But he only had one year to grace them with his presence. The European giants were taking notice. Aged 22, he transferred to Barcelona for a world record £5 million. The move was not judged a success.

In his first season, he was struck down by hepatitis. At the start of his second season, the Athletic Bilbao defender Andoni Goicoechea scythed him down, breaking Maradona’s ankle and earning himself the nickname of Butcher of Bilbao in the process. Though it seemed like a career ending injury, Maradona came back to play within 100 days. But he could not help Barca win the Spanish title and was allowed to leave at the end of the season. Maradona joined the Italian sleeping giants Napoli for another world record fee £6.9m.

It would prove to be one of the more inspired transfers of modern times. Maradona struck an immediate bond with the team from Italy’s roughest and toughest city. He took them to the pinnacle of Seria A. Maradona would lead Napoli to two Italian titles and a UEFA cup success. Even in 2003, well after his departure, a Neapolitan could say, “there are three million Neapolitans, and two million have photos of Maradona."

But the climax of his football career came at international level. Aged 26 in 1986, he was captain of his country and ready to lead them to victory in Mexico's second World Cup. The apogee of his talents came in the quarter final against England, a game still redolent with the after-effects of the Falklands War. Maradona would grace this game with two of the most memorable goals of all time. The first saw the tiny Maradona rising to palm the ball past a disbelieving Peter Shilton. Maradona added a memorable description to the language of football when he described the goal as "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”. While this was sleight of hand, the second was pure sleight of foot. Maradona picked the ball up in his own half before slaloming his way past five English defenders to score the probably the best goal ever seen. His goals would also defeat Belgium in the semi-final before making the winning goal in the final v West Germany.

While he would go on to play in the 1990 finals (reaching the final itself despite an ankle injury) and again in 1994, his career was on the slide. He was introduced to cocaine at Barcelona and it slowly took over his life. He first failed a drug test in 1991, an incident which brought his career at Napoli to an end. While playing in the 1994 World Cup, he failed a test for ephedrine and was sent home after two games. Maradona claimed the positive reading was due to his personal trainer giving him the power drink Rip Fuel.

Maradona retired after that world cup. He had unsuccessful stints as coach of Argentine clubs Deportivo Mandiyú and Racing before returning to play for his beloved Boca in 1995. He had some success before retiring for good in 1997. In 2005, Maradona started a career as host of his own immensely popular television program called La Noche del 10 (The Night of 10) - a reference to the number he played in for his entire career.

Maradona is now a powerful political player in Latin America. As well as his links to Castro, he has shared rallies with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales. In 2005, Chavez, Morales and Maradona led a 25,000 strong rally in Argentina to protest George W Bush’s proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Maradona brought star attraction to the march by announcing on his night television show that he would be taking part. Maradona described Bush as “human garbage” and told the protesters "Argentina is worthy; let’s kick Bush out”. Marcelo Langieri, an academic and protest leader, saw the importance of having Maradona espouse the cause “Maradona is not a politician. What Diego said is the truth,” he said.

If only Diego’s health was in the same shape as his reputation, he would live to 100.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media

It is almost twenty years since the first publication of one of the great books about the media. The book was written by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has since risen to fame as the intellectual darling of the US left while Herman remains in the academic shade, Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Both are voracious authors and they came together in 1988 to write Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. The title refers to how the media shape the frames of news to manufacture consent about the news’ contents. The subtitle shows why this happens. Herman and Chomsky described how the media of the day conformed to a five-point propaganda model in order to serve the interests of wealth and power. The model contained five filters by which news must sieve through in order to see the light of day.

The first and most important filter is ownership of the media. In 1986, the US had 1,500 daily newspapers, 11,000 magazines, 9,000 radio stations, 1,500 TV stations, 2,400 book publishers and seven movie studios, over 25,000 organisations that could be described as media entities. The authors concluded that power, however was concentrated in 24 large media corporations that mostly represented the wealth of powerful but underreported billionaire families such as Newhouse, Cox, Hearst, Buffett, Scripps, Chandlers and Annenbergs. Murdoch was then a growing player in the list. The interests of these families and the other companies they own are of paramount important to the media.

The second filter is advertising. Most media are businesses that are required to make a profit. Most media outlets rely on advertising to make money. Media are not interested in audiences in themselves but instead are interested in their buying power. So while ratings are important, especially in enormous numbers, the price of advertising space is firstly determined by the affluence of the audience. But advertisers do have the power of their business and can punish media for any treatment it might deem unfavourable by taking their business elsewhere. The TV networks learn that certain more controversial messages will simply not sell and they will no longer show them.

The third filter is the source of the news. While in theory news can come from anywhere, in practice the same sources provide the news time and time again. Media rely on witnesses to corroborate leads and stories. Their witnesses tend to be establishment figures. These are the Police, the court, the government, the military, corporate organisations, and doctors. These witnesses are usually deemed the most credible and the ones that media turn to whenever there are limiting factors of time and expense. Not only does their voice dominate the news, the message is usually finely tuned. Many of these organisations have shadow-media organisations of their own. Companies and Government have vast corporate relations that now outnumber journalists.

The fourth filter is flak. Someone out there isn’t happy. They could be writing letters of complaint, ringing up, making speeches, threatening, suing or making bills of law. If done on a large enough scale, it can force the media to change direction. Flak is related to power. Corporate flak is the most powerful. It can use the White House, or the FCC, or the network themselves to remove a negative message. Monitoring organisations such as Media Institute, Freedom House and Accuracy in Media exist specifically to create flak in the media for their top range corporate owners.

In Herman and Chomsky’s model, the fifth filter is the ideology of anticommunism. Communism threatened the wealth and power of the West. They had to be demonised as the enemy. The ideology kept Liberals on the defensive in the face of this onslaught as they had to constantly defend themselves against charges of being pro-Communist or insufficiently anti-Communist. Issues were always framed in a dichotomised world of Communist and anti-communist powers. This filter severely limited dissenting views of news.

Of course, barely a year after they wrote the book, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union was gone in another two. Anti-communism petered out, but a replacement has been found: anti-terrorism. Substituting this filter for anti-communism would still see a similar fit in terms of news selection. Views must be sufficiently anti-terrorist in order to pass the news production gate.

Having expounded their model, Herman and Chomsky went on to test it in the field. They first off found a difference between worthy and unworthy victims. They chart the media coverage of the death of a priest Jerzy Popieluszko at the hands of Communist Polish police with the death of 72 individuals, including priests, at the hands of the Guatemalan military around the same time. The model showed how the Popieluszko case received far greater coverage, more outrage and more analysis than the Central American events in a US-supported country.

Guatemala is also used as an example to show how elections in pro-US countries were more favourable dealt by the media than those in anti-US countries. The study examined the 1984-1985 election in Guatemala and found that the coverage of it and the 1982 election in pro-US El Salvador was enormously in favour while the coverage of the 1984 Nicaraguan election was grossly unfavourable. In each of the three countries, the study compared the following attributes: election conditions, freedom of the press, freedom to organise, freedom to oppose and freedom from state-sponsored terror. Under each heading Nicaragua compared favourable to the other two. But in America, the news was always filtered against it.

The book then goes back to other moments in history such as the plot to kill the pope in 1981, the war in Vietnam, the secret wars in Laos and Cambodia to further tease out how the media filters operate. Herman and Chomsky conclude that the freedom of the press really means the freedom of the press to defend the polity. It notes how the press broke Watergate, the office of the Democratic Party, and therefore a powerful player. But it also notes how knowledge of the systematic FBI disruption and illegal break-ins of the Socialist Workers Party around the same time was completely ignored. The media rely on forces of market forces, internalised assumptions and self-censorship. Herman and Chomsky hoped that educated, networked community activists could some day overcome the skewed perspective of the media.

Perhaps the internet may yet prove this right.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Nigeria on knife-edge

As Nigeria goes to the polls today, the country remains on a knife-edge. After a week of violence which claimed 49 lives, polling day began with a failed attempt to blow up the electoral commission headquarters in the capital Abuja. A truck bomb loaded with fuel and gas cylinders missed its target and failed to detonate after crashing into a nearby barrier. The bombers escaped the scene. Police Inspector General Sunday Ehindero pleaded for calm and an orderly vote "I'm calling on all Nigerians to go about their civil duties ... peacefully” he said.

Nigeria goes to the polls today to elect a new president. The country has in a state of chaos since last weekend’s state elections to choose governors and state assemblies in Nigeria’s 36 states. The political opposition has rejected results from those elections that showed current President Olusegun Obasanjo's ruling party clearly winning. The world is watching how the presidential election unfolds in the hope that Nigeria will successfully transfer power between civilian presidents for the first time since gaining independence in 1960. Outgoing president Obasanjo urged aggrieved candidates and their supporters to "explore all avenues for seeking redress" rather than resorting to "jungle justice" in the aftermath of the vote.

On Tuesday, a group of 18 opposition parties threatened to boycott the national election unless the government could guarantee "transparency and fairness". But after three days of meetings they backed down and the two major opposition parties All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP) and the Action Congress (AC) both announced they would contest the poll against the Government People's Democratic Party (PDP). The ANPP’s candidate is Muhammadu Buhari a former military ruler of Nigeria in the 1980s. The AC is running vice president Atiku Abubakar who obtained a Supreme Court ruling on Monday to allow him to contest.

The PMP candidate and favourite to win the election is Umaru Yar'Adua. The 55 year old Yar’Adua has been the governor of the northern state of Katsina since 1999. He was mostly unknown prior to getting the party nomination in December last year. Most observers count his success down to the support of President Obasanjo. While critics call him a puppet of Obasanjo selected to prevent investigations into the misuse of billions of dollars of oil revenues, his supporters point to his spotless record on the important matter of corruption. Unlike Obasanjo who was a Christian, Yar’Adua is a Muslim. Currently relations are good between the two major religious groups in Nigeria

Whoever wins the election will have a massive task ahead of him. Nigeria is a country of 140,000 million people belonging to 250 ethnic groups with over 500 languages. Despite Nigeria’s vast oil reserves, which accounts for 95 percent of government revenues, the country is desperately poor due to endemic corruption. Most oil is found in the Niger Delta which is the site of an environmental catastrophe and a long running independence movement. But Nigeria remains a powerful player in West African and pan-African politics with the largest population and one of the largest armed forces.

Nigeria has long has an important history with the country home to a number of sophisticated and influential societies such as Borno, Katsina, Ife and the Kingdom of Benin. Its rich coastal region attracted the European explorers and the coastal enclave of Lagos became a British colony in 1861. By the end of the 19th century Britain began an aggressive military expansion and declared a protectorate over northern Nigeria in 1900. It merged northern and southern Nigeria in 1914 and created a legislative council with limited powers. Eventually the council gained more and more powers, becoming self-governing in 1954 and fully independent in 1960.

Britain gave Nigeria the legacy of a federal government due to conflicting demands from the country’s many tribal regions. The Tiv people launched a rebellion in 1964 but were quickly quelled. In 1967 civil war erupted in the eastern province of Biafra which proclaimed its independence from Nigeria. The central government launched a blockade of Biafra and eventually won the war. But the cost was high; there were a million military casualties and countless more who died in Biafra from famine.

Civilian government didn’t last long in Nigeria. The army first launched a coup in 1966. They kept their rule for most of the next 30 years. There was a brief hiatus in 1976 when Murtala Ramat Muhammed was assassinated. His death ushered in a short-lived elected government of the Second Republic. But the euphoria and optimism of a civilian government was short-lived. Because of religious extremism, corruption and economic difficulties (low world petroleum prices), it was deposed by another military coup in 1983.

During the 1990s Nigeria attracted a lot of criticism from the West due to its corruption, lack of democracy and poor human rights record. The chance for change finally came when military ruler General Sani Abacha unexpectedly died in 1998. His regime had enforced its rule through the arrest, imprisonment and execution of dissenters, press censorship and the development of a police state. Abacha was not mourned. A transitional government paved the way for free elections which were held the following year.

Former military leader Olusegun Obasanjo, who was jailed by Abacha for plotting a coup, won that election with 63% of the vote. Nigeria has seen renewed optimism under his leadership. He suspended all contracts made under the old administration and sacked many of Abacha’s lackeys in the armed forces and government departments. His term was helped by the rise in world oil prices. Obasanjo comfortably retained office in a 2003 election.

But Obasanjo was not without his critics. Despite his Christianity, he owed his political support to the Muslim north. Obasanjo showed his gratitude by allowing the northern states to introduce Sharia Law. Obasanjo stated that "sharia is not a new thing and it's not a thing to be afraid of". Nevertheless Nigeria received international condemnation in 2002 after an Islamic court upheld a sentence of death by stoning for a woman accused of adultery.

Umaru Yar’Adua will have to defend many more headlines like that if he becomes Nigeria’s first civilian Muslim president.

Friday, April 20, 2007

regulation of violence on TV: an essay

Television violence has been a public concern ever since the small screen first dominated living rooms in the 1950s. While the argument mostly bubbles under, it comes to the fore whenever someone apportions blame to television for a real life violent incident. What is the relationship between on-screen violence and brutality in real life? Does television require more regulation? Or is it merely a convenient target of blame? This paper will examine the arguments for and against more regulation of television violence and analyse some of the research done on the subject in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the American federal agency charged with consumer protection and competition jurisdiction. After the Columbine massacre, the FTC conducted a review of self-regulation and industry practices in the motion picture, music recording and game industries. Their 2000 study has implications for television as a transmission medium for these industries. The study acknowledged that exposure to violence in entertainment media is not necessarily the most important factor in violent crime but did find a high correlation between them. The commission examined the self-regulatory programs of the entertainment industries and found them wanting. It recommended three actions: 1) the establishment of a code to prohibit target marketing to children 2) increased compliance at the retail level and 3) parental education about ratings and labels. The report advocated strong penalties for non-compliance and continued vigilance by Congress to monitor progress.

The FCC findings corroborate research done by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. L. Rowell Huessman’s team examined the longitudinal relations between TV violence viewing at ages 6 to 10 and adult aggressive behaviour 15 years later for a sample growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Their results suggested males and females from all social strata are placed at increased risk for the development of aggressive behaviour in adulthood if exposed to high levels of violent television in early childhood. The study argues that prevention programs aimed at reducing exposure are more easily targeted at the viewer rather than the production source due to society’s strong protection for free speech. It cited parental supervision, co-viewing, and commenting on programs as mitigating factors as they reduce children’s identification with the perpetrator. The study criticised the undermining of the V-chip technology to control viewing by producers of violent shows who scuttled a content-based rating system.

The V-chip was studied in a 1997 report by the Action Group on Violence on Television (AGVOT) for the Canadian Radio-Television and Communications Commission. It recommended the technology should be rolled out with a common classification system. But the encoding software is not always reliable and does not react properly to scheduling changes. Moreover, promotions and movie advertisements are not encoded. The study found a high degree of community support for the V-chip but it requires harmonisation with the US to be successful.

American studies are moving in a different direction. In 1998, the National Television Violence Study brought together the findings of three annual studies on violence on American TV. It had four components; a review of the scientific literature, content analysis of violence, analysis of ratings, and an evaluation of media campaigns targeted at adolescents. The study found TV violence contributes to three types of harmful effects on viewers. These were; the learning of aggressive behaviours, a desensitisation to violence, and increased fear of victimisation of violence. Factors such as attractive perpetrators or victims, or where violence was justified, extensive, rewarded or humorous, all contributed to greater harmful effects. The report encouraged more responsible TV programming and viewing. It eschewed censorship or content regulation and instead called on viewers to reconsider viewing habits and conduct a national dialogue about the cause and effect of violence.

Here, the Australian Broadcast Authority (now replaced by ACMA) did its own study on community attitudes to violence on Australian free-to-air TV in 1989 and 2003. The surveys examined whether a relationship existed between concerns about violence on TV and whether people changed their behaviour to avoid violent content. Its research showed community levels of concern about television violence had decreased in the intervening 14 years. In 1989 25% of adults spontaneously mentioned violence as a concern. This had reduced to 14% by 2002. The later survey showed a strong agreement that Australian adults should be able to watch whatever they like on TV.

University of Western Sydney professor Virginia Nightingale produced a monograph in 2000 about children’s views on media harm. Her research explored awareness and experiences of media regulation and how children understand harmful media materials. The majority of young people surveyed (70%) agreed children needed rules to protect them from harmful media. A substantial number said they used the classification information and viewer warnings. Some went so far as to recommend changes for increased specificity so they could use them more effectively. The study did not favour more censorship or stricter classification but rather desired more consistency in how classification decisions are made. It concluded that the impact of violence on children is determined by whether they believe the events ‘really happened’. Films such as Titanic and Saving Private Ryan made a huge impression because they were based on real events. Nightingale recommended community regulatory activity should take children’s own reports of their media experiences into account.

British psychologist Tony Charlton also concluded it was people not programmes that impact behaviour. Writing in the Observer, Charlton documented how television changed the remote Atlantic island of St Helena when it arrived in 1995. The event provided researchers with a rare opportunity to examine before and after effects of television in a real life setting. The project found that television does not adversely influence children’s social behaviour. The research team concluded social controls in the community were more persuasive in shaping behaviour. He cites factors such as the disintegration of support networks, urban apathy and lack of parental supervision as having greater impact than regulatory controls on television violence.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

wheels and a way: the future of cycling in Queensland

Cycling is the ugly sister of Australian urban traffic management. Bicycle riding used to be totally excluded from the planning process in previous decades. Now there are signs it is becoming more seriously addressed as policy makers begin to explore its benefits in terms of sustainable development, climate change, health, air quality and social exclusion. But public support remains weak. When cyclists to protest against conditions they face on the road, they end up being media victims and portrayed as “berks on bikes” as in the Daily Telegraph’s vilification of last November’s Sydney Critical mass organisers.

Here in Queensland, there are some signs of change. In October 2003, the Queensland Government released a cycling strategy document (pdf). The strategy’s aim is to make cycling safe and convenient and to integrate cycling into government policies and projects from the beginning. The specific target of the strategy is to increase the proportion of all trips made by bicycle in Queensland by an additional 50% by 2011 and by 100% by 2021. If achieved, it would mean an overall increase of 3% of the total transport share but would still amount to only 6% of all journeys in 2021. The targets are greater for the South East Queensland (SEQ) region. Here the target is for 5% of all trips to be made by bicycle by 2007 and 8% by 2011.

The strategy had transport, health, economy, social equity and environmental goals. Ausroads estimated the cost of congestion to Australian roads as $5 billion a year in 1999. Healthwise, cycling can contribute to the prevention of a number of physical and psychological illnesses such as coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and depression. Bikes are also economical, about 1% of the cost of owning and maintaining a car. Finally, bicycles provide affordable, accessible and independent travel for a large number of people and are pollution free.

The Queensland Government issued its first implementation report (pdf) for the period 2003 to 2005. The state government body Sport and Recreation Queensland provided over $5 million for cycling initiatives including the provision of bikeways, education programs and user group workshops. But data on increased bike usage was scarce. The ABS estimates 37% of Queensland cyclists ride once a week. 32% of these were aged 15-24. 10% of male cyclists ride every day but only 4% of females. The study acknowledged available cycling data consists of relatively small sample sizes, which made benchmarking for various regional areas difficult.

The study praised the QUT Kelvin Grove TravelSmart Destination project which achieved a 150 percent relative increase in cycling participation. Kelvin Grove Urban Village (KGUV) was a $400 million joint initiative of the Queensland Government and the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), One of the strategic goals of the KGUV Master Plan was to ensure that people using the urban village be less car dependant than the general Brisbane population.

The KGUV study outlined a summary of three infrastructure requirements with associated considerations for cycling. These needs are Shared and dedicated bicycle pathways, bicycle routes on roads and end-of-trip facilities. The considerations for it shared and dedicated bicycle pathways were: quality & accessibility, pathway surface & signage, transport connections and safety. Brisbane now has 500km of dedicated bikeways. But they remained disjointed and unintegrated. They are also badly affected by the current tunnel building exercise. There are clumsy and ineffective detours that will be in place for a long period at both ends of the North South Bypass Tunnel (NSBT).

The NSBT is part of Mayor Campbell Newman’s plan to build five bridge and tunnel crossings of the Brisbane River at the current estimated cost of $5.2 billion, though this will inevitably blow out. The lobby group Communities Against the Tunnel (CATT) is arguing the tunnel solution is 1960s thinking for a 21st century problem. It is advocating a mix of better public transport (busways, light rail, cheaper and more frequent services) as well as completing the bikeway network.

It claims expansion of the bikeway will cost a fraction of the tunnels but will add equally as much capacity to the city’s roads. As cyclists are not likely to be allowed in the council's tunnels, the Queensland cycle advocacy group Bicycle Queensland maintains that the existing roads adjacent to the tunnels need to be improved for cycling safety as part of the traffic reduction on 'above-ground' roads that the tunnels offer. BQ has stated this position to the Brisbane Council and in submissions regarding the tunnels.

End of journey facilities are another critical success factor for increase in cycling. The city of Perth in WA has developed an enlightened policy in this area whose aim is to “facilitate the appropriate provision of secure, well designed and effective on site bicycle parking and end of journey facilities to encourage the use of bicycles as an alternative means of transport and access to the City”. New or additional developments must provide on site bicycle parking facilities at a rate of 1 bay per 500 sq m of floor space while sporting venues must provide 1 bay per 500 spaces. There must also be a minimum of two female and two male showers, located in separate changing rooms, for the first 10 bicycle parking bays. There must also be change rooms with lockers located as close as possible to the bicycle parking facilities. Queensland would do well to follow suit.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

NRA: guns, money and influence

The National Rifle Association, America’s peak gun lobby, issued a brief statement yesterday in the wake of the Virginia Tech University shootings which claimed the lives of 33 people in Blacksburg, Virginia. The NRA said it “joins the entire country in expressing our deepest condolences to the families of Virginia Tech University and everyone else affected by this horrible tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families. We will not have further comment until all the facts are known.” The statement was issued as members gather for their 2007 annual meetings being held in St. Louis, Missouri.

Another gun lobby group Gun Owners of America (GOA) were not so tight-lipped. They have blamed the shooting on the laws that prevent guns be taken into school grounds. GOA Executive Director, Larry Pratt said "The latest school shooting demands an immediate end to the gun-free zone law which leaves the nation's schools at the mercy of madmen. It is irresponsibly dangerous to tell citizens that they may not have guns at schools. The Virginia Tech shooting shows that killers have no concern about a gun ban when murder is in their hearts."

The 23 year old killer Cho Seung-hui is a South Korean national and legally resident alien who lived in Centreville, Va who last renewed his green card in 1993. Virginia gun laws are lax. They allow legal permanent resident aliens to purchase firearms but must provide additional identification to prove they are residents of the state. The law prevents students or visitors from carrying guns onto the grounds of public and private K-12 schools. But the Virginia code is silent on subject of guns and public colleges.

Most public schools and colleges in the state ban or restrict guns on campus. But the root of that authority is murky and some are seeking to get that law changed. David Briggman, a former police officer is fighting to challenge state colleges' authority to enact tougher gun restrictions than the state. He forced Blue Ridge Community College to allow him to carry a gun onto campus while a student. He also sued James Madison University over its ban on concealed weapons even among permit holders. "It's extremely easy to challenge university policy by looking at ... whether they are given the statutory authority to regulate firearms on campus, and of course, they're not, “he said.

Gun owners hold sacred the Second Amendment to the US constitution. The text of the amendment reads “"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Despite extensive discussion and much legislative action, there is no definitive resolution by the courts of just what right the Second Amendment protects. It is interpreted variously by 80 million gun owners as enshrining an individual right, and by advocates of gun control as referring to a right of the people to arm themselves only when needed for communal defence. Most Americans lean towards the first interpretation. An NRA poll found 89% of Americans believe they have a right to own a gun.

The NRA was founded in 1871 in New York State. The group formed over concerns about poor marksmanship skills of the Union Army in the Civil War. The primary goal of the association would be to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis”. Its power began to grow after 1903 when NRA Secretary Albert S. Jones urged the establishment of rifle clubs at all major colleges, universities and military academies. Their magazine, The American Rifleman, kept members abreast of new firearms bills. It formed a Legislative Affairs Division in 1934 which mailed out legislative facts and analyses to members. In 1975, recognizing the critical need for more direct action, NRA formed the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA).

NRA-ILA is the lobbyist arm of NRA. It is a powerful body. The NRA has 4.3 million members and a $180m annual budget. It is mostly associated with the Republican Party. It has disproportionate influence over several rural swing states, such as West Virginia and Tennessee, which were crucial to George W. Bush's narrow victory in 2000. Before that election, the NRA boasted that it was so close to Bush that it would "work out of [his] office". Addressing an NRA convention after the election, NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre told members: "You are why Al Gore isn't in the White House".

Currently meeting in St Louis, LaPierre again addressed the annual convention. This time he urged delegates to prepare for "the storm that lies ahead". LaPierre was referring to the threat posed by an anti gun-lobby Democratic-controlled Congress as well as the likelihood they would also win the presidency next year. "Today there is not one firearm owner whose freedom is secure,” he said. He could not have imagined the storm was barely two days away.

Opinion polls are now consistently showing a majority of Americans support stricter controls. That is likely to rise further following the Virginia shooting. But many doubt if the Democrats will take meaningful action on gun control. John Conyers, chairman of the House judiciary committee, pledged before November's election that he would not "support or forward to the House any legislation to ban handguns". Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, favoured an election strategy which allowed candidates in rural states to adopt pro-gun positions leaving those in urban areas to push for restrictions. As a result many rural gun friendly Democrats were elected.

Democrat New Mexico Governor and possible presidential hopeful Bill Richardson is seen by GOA as the “most gun-friendly candidate from either party at this point”. But even they worry that Richardson will take the party line on guns and his “greater love for his party allies might prove to greatly disappoint those pro-gun voters who want to see him in the Oval Office”.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Believe it or not: Yvonne Ridley in Australia

Australian Federal Opposition immigration spokesman Tony Burke has railed about the Government decision to issue a visa to British journalist Yvonne Ridley. Burke called Ridley an “apologist for violence” and said Ridley praised the masterminds of the Beslan school massacre and the Moscow Theatre hostage crisis as well as describing suicide bombings as "martyrdom operations".

Burke said the Government should kick Ridley out of the country if necessary. Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews disagreed saying there was nothing to suggest she was a security risk. "There is a vast distinction between allowing somebody into Australia whose views you may not like, and somebody who is a threat to national security,” he said.

Ridley was invited to Australia for the First Annual Australian Islamic Conference. The conference was held at Melbourne University on three days over the Easter weekend. The conference was staged by non-profit Muslim group Mercy Mission. Ridley led two workshops in the conference “Towards an effective strategy in tackling Islamophobia in the media” and "Dressing under duress – the challenge of wearing the hijab in times of apprehension” (which was women only). Ridley also gave two lectures entitled “Beyond stereotyping and misinformation...a positive vision for media contribution to the contemporary debate about values”, and “Feminism...Islam...what is the true path to restoring the honour of Muslim women?".

While Ridley was allowed in to Australia, the government did impose a ban on Canadian cleric Sheikh Bilal Philips who was also invited to speak at the conference. His visa application was refused on security grounds. Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said Philips had a long history of support for extremist Islamic positions. The US government named Philips as an unindicted conspirator to the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing. Supporters of Philips said this was American McCarthyism and “guilt by association.” Chaaban Omran, the president of the Federation of Australian Muslim Students, said the sheikh did not promote terrorism and the ban on him was unjustified.

Conference organisers also strongly denied suggestions it was staged over Easter to insult Christians. "We certainly meant no insensitivity," organiser Adel Salman said. "We weren't making any particular statement or any religious statement. It was purely a convenient time to schedule the conference."

Ridley was the conference's star attraction. She is the political editor for Islam Channel and writes a weekly newspaper column for the New York-based Muslims Weekly. She first came to international prominence in the weeks after 9/11. Then an agnostic Sunday Express reporter, Ridley secretly crossed from Pakistan into eastern Afghanistan to cover the impending conflict. She fell off her donkey in front of a Taliban soldier near Jalalabad, revealing a banned camera underneath her robes and was arrested for travelling without a visa. Ridley was held for in a Kabul jail where her appeals for a phone call were repeatedly denied. She went on hunger strike and The Taliban released her after 11 days and handed her over to Pakistani authorities. Her release came as British and American forces began their missile attacks on Afghan targets.

Ridley promised her captors she would study the Koran after her release. She became quickly entranced by what she read. “I was absolutely blown away by what I was reading - not one dot or squiggle had been changed in 1,400 years” she said. In 2003 Ridley converted to Islam. "I have joined what I consider to be the biggest and best family in the world. When we stick together we are absolutely invincible,” she told reporters, "and my mother is delighted I've stopped drinking."

Ridley’s conversion may have been an example of Stockholm Syndrome, in which hostages take the side of the kidnappers but she strongly denies the accusation. Ridley is now a roving ambassador for Muslim causes. She delivered lectures on issues relating to Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir and Uzbekistan, Women in Islam, the War on Terror and journalism at major universities in the US, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East. She now discourages British Muslims from co-operating with anti-terrorism police and refers to suicide bombings as "martyrdom operations".

In 2003, Ridley joined Al Jazeera as a senior editor. She didn’t last long. Al Jazeera sacked her for what they called her "overly-vocal and argumentative style". Ridley's supporters said her vocal criticisms of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been the more likely cause. She eventually won a case for unfair dismissal.

In 2004 Ridley ran in the European parliament for the Respect Party. She attracted 13 per cent of the vote but was not elected. She also ran unsuccessfully for the House of Commons and local government. Ridley is a friend and supporter of jailed terrorist leader Abu Hamza Al Masri. In 2003, he called her to offer his congratulations on her conversion to Islam. Al Masri is the former imam of Finsbury Park mosque who was jailed for seven years in 2004 for encouraging others at public meetings to kill non-believers, especially Jews. Ridley described Al Masri as “quite sweet really”.

While in Australia, Yvonne Ridley strongly defended herself from Tony Burke’s attacks. She said she had been misquoted and misrepresented. Ridley said she believed in justice for Palestinians and Chechnyans and denied she supported suicide bombing. She told the ABC “these views have been taken out of context and have been dredged up by mischief-makers who have an Islamaphobic agenda”.