Friday, February 29, 2008

Fiji clamps down on free speech

In the wake of the Russell Hunter deportation, Fiji’s military rulers have now announced further crackdowns on the country's media. The so-called Fiji Human Rights Commission has released a report (pdf) on media independence and freedom which recommends that all existing work permits in Fiji's media industry not be renewed, and no further permits be issued. The commission also advocates law changes imposing penalties on media outlets that publish material that incite sedition or breach the Public Order Act.

The sedition laws are based on similar draconian laws that hamper Singapore’s media. The report was completed without any input from Fiji's media industry, which says it had no confidence in its author, Hawaiian based academic Doctor James Anthony. The deported Russell Hunter said Fiji's interim government doesn't want anyone working in the country's media who it can't control. "It's a blatant attempt to exclude people who they fear, or dislike," Hunter told Radio Australia.

Hunter himself was declared a prohibited immigrant on Tuesday under the Immigration Act which stated that a non-citizen became a prohibited immigrant if the minister deemed the person had been conducting himself in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, security or good government of Fiji. The real reason for his eviction was the fact that his newspaper had run a series of articles accusing Fiji's Finance Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, of tax evasion. The junta’s response, according to the New Zealand Herald, was “a blatant act of intimidation against a newspaper trying to do its job”.

Hunter was the editor of the Fiji Sun. Today his newspaper reported the discrepancies in the story between the Immigration department and Fijian court officials over a court order to prevent Hunter’s deportation. The order was issued by High Court judge Justice Jiten Singh early on Tuesday morning before the Air Pacific flight left the airport. A senior court officer at the registry in Suva faxed the order to the immigration office in Nadi before the aircraft departed. However, immigration officers at the airport denied the existence of such an order. A lawyer for the Fiji Sun said that the order was sent and would have been received by immigration officers well before the flight departed. This, he said, was a very strong case of contempt of court.

Hunter’s deportation was strongly condemned by Australian and New Zealand governments. Meeting in Canberra this week, Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Helen Clark condemned the Fiji government's decision and demanded the country’s military leader Frank Bainimarama keep his promise to hold elections in 2009. However, Helen Clark suggested she didn’t believe this was likely to happen, saying it was “inconceivable that you can hold open, free and fair elections if you have media intimidation”.

International media organisations have also joined in the chorus of disapproval. Press freedom body Reporters Without Borders said his expulsion is unacceptable and contrary to all of the Fiji government’s international undertakings. The International Press Institute, which represents editors, media executives and leading journalists in over 120 countries, called on authorities to stop using Fijian immigration laws to silence outspoken journalists. The Australian newspaper said the “deplorable abduction and deportation of newspaper publisher Russell Hunter underlines that nation's standing as a banana republic ruled by a sinister dictatorship”.

Fiji has long had issues with the notion of freedom of the press. One of the first actions of the 2000 armed coup was to shut down the website of the journalism department of the University of South Pacific in Suva. The student online newspaper “Pacific Journalism Online” had been covering the crisis with stories, pictures and updates since the violence started in May 2000. University administrators shut it down after ten days due, they said, to threats against the university and students.

That same year, the government under Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry also introduced a government-imposed media council to replace Fiji’s independent self-regulatory council. They issued a directive for all government advertising to be placed on the government-controlled Daily Post. As part of a systematic campaign against the Fiji Times, the authorities told its Scottish born editor-in-chief they had rejected his application for a renewed work permit and gave him 28 days to leave the country. That man was Russell Hunter, for whom history has now repeated itself. Today’s military junta are little different – all Fiji’s rulers seem intent on waging a war of attrition against independent media.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thaksin Shinawatra comes home

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra arrived home today for the first time since he was ousted in a military coup 17 months ago. He landed at Bangkok Airport and was greeted by thousands of supporters who cheered, sang and waved placards proclaiming: "We Love Thaksin". The 58 year old Shinawatra responded with a traditional Thai bow before being whisked off by an even larger entourage of police to the Thai Supreme Court to answer the corruption charge over a land deal while he was in office.

Shinawatra was immediately released on bail of 8 million baht (about a quarter of a million US dollars). Bail will be revoked if he travels outside Thailand without the court's permission or does anything to interfere with his case. He faces several charges of corruption and abuse of power brought up by junta-appointed investigation bodies. Thaksin faces two charges of corruption which date to his time in office and separate charges of concealing assets. In addition, he and his wife Pojamarn face charges stemming from a Bangkok land deal and an alleged stock concealment plan. Shinawatra could receive a maximum of 15 years in prison.

The northern born Shinawatra became one of the richest people in Thailand by setting up telecommunications companies like Shin Corporation and Advanced Info Service before entering politics. In 1996 he formed a new Party: Thai Rak Thai (Thai love Thais). Their election platform (universal access to healthcare, a debt moratorium for farmers, and a development fund for all Thai villages) proved immensely popular and TRT swept to victory in 2001. His first few years in power were marked by massive economic growth in Thailand. He won another landslide victory in 2005 but by then the Thai economy was slowing down.

The crisis in 2006 started when the Shinawatra family sold its $2 billion stake in Shin Corporation. The Thailand Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the transaction but cleared the family of wrongdoing. With calls growing for his resignation, Thaksin called an election which was boycotted by the opposition. A Thai court ruled his subsequent win invalid. In September 2006 Shinawatra was deposed in a military coup while he was overseas.

The exiled Thaksin settled in London. In July 2007 he boosted his public profile in Britain by buying premier league football team Manchester City. He immediately spent big on the club bringing in former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson to coach the team. Political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University saying buying this club is a shrewd move aimed at his homeland where millions are besotted by the English Premier League. "The Thai authorities didn't want to let this deal go through,” he said at the time. “If Manchester City start winning matches, people will go wild for Thaksin."

Manchester City have been reasonably successful and are currently eighth in the table. And Thaksin’s stocks has risen in Thailand. His allies in the People Power Party (PPP) won elections in December, raising expectations that Thaksin would come home. New PPP Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej gained power largely by using the former Prime Minister’s popularity in its election campaign. While Sundaravej downplayed problems posed by Thaksin’s return and urged his supporters not to flock to the airport to greet him, he did send PPP party officials to accompany Thaksin home.

Officially Thaksin remains banned from political activity and he has repeatedly claimed he has retired from politics. However, he is seen as the power behind Sundaravej and he still has a massive power base in the north-east of Thailand where his policies are popular with farmers. “I just want to go home to my family and thank them and everyone for their support,” he said on his return today. How long he remains this coy about his prospects, depends on how quickly he can end his legal woes.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hazara hazards: Afghanistan's most oppressed people

In a new study, the London-based Minority Rights Group (MRG) have identified those groups most targeted for killing by virtue of their religious or ethnic heritage. Their Peoples Under Threat report lists those peoples or groups that are most under threat of genocide, mass killing or other systematic violent repression in 2008. The worst four countries for minority treatment are Somalia, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan. While many groups such as Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkomans, and Baluchis all face persecution in Afghanistan, it is the Hazaras which face the most threats.

The Hazaras are a three million strong Shia Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in Afghanistan's central highlands. As Asiatic looking Shias in a mostly Sunni country, the Hazaras are the most oppressed minority in Afghanistan. Hazaras speak Farsi (Persian) and claim descent from Genghis Khan. The name derives from the Persian word hazār, which means "thousand". The term originally referred to the Mongol military unit of one thousand which was later applied to distinct groups of people.

Hazaras have faced persecution at the hands of the ruling Pashtun since the 18th century. Under the brutal rule of the Emir Abdur Rahman Khan in the mid 19th century, the highland Hazaras were subjugated under his central authority in Kabul. After an unsuccessful revolt, many Hazaras fled to Quetta in Balochistan and to Mashhed in north-eastern Iran. Rahman forced those that stayed to attend Sunni mosques and abandon Shiism. He also imposed tougher regulations and heavy taxes. In 1901, his successor Habibullah Khan granted amnesty to the Hazaras but the seeds of distrust were already laid too deep. As a result Hazaras continued to face severe social, economic and political discrimination through most of the 20th century.

The majority of the Afghan boat people who arrived in Australia in the last ten years are Hazaras. They were particularly targeted by the Taliban government who considered them as “infidels”. It didn't help that most Hazaras united with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban regime. In 1998, Amnesty International reported killings, village burnings and confiscation of lands from Hazaras, as well as a major massacre of thousands of Hazaras at the city of Mazar e-Sharif in August that year.

The two monumental Buddhas of Bamyan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, were in Hazara heartland. The statues were built by Kushan and Indo-Hephthalite peoples in the 6th century and these people are believed to be the ancestors of the Hazaras. Physical features of the frescoes found in the relics and nearby caves greatly resemble the features of modern Hazaras. In order to destroy the monuments, Taliban militiamen tied ropes around local Hazara men before lowering them down the cliff face. Once in place, the men were forced to put the explosives into holes in the Buddhas. Locals described the thunderous boom and the cloud of dust that erupted from the alcoves when the Buddhas were destroyed.

Nine months later, the Taliban were defeated by the American-led alliance. The situation has improved greatly for the Hazaras since then. Hazaras are allowed to enter universities, can work as public officials and are able to fulfil successful careers. Dutch group blog Poligazette says 9/11 was a lifesaver for Hazaras and Hamid Karzai’s government lets them participate in public life. “One of Afghanistan’s Vice Presidents is a Hazara, as is the most popular member of Afghanistan’s Parliament,” they say. “The country’s only female Governor is a Hazara. This was impossible only 6 years ago.”

Yet the new MRG report suggests there is still a long way to go before they are fully accepted into Afghan society. Hazaras continue to have grievances, including desiring greater political control in their region, greater economic opportunities, freedom of religion, freedom to promote their culture, and protection from other communal groups. The renaissance of the Taliban is another concern. In 2004, 16 Hazaras were pulled from their vehicle by Taliban forces in south-central Afghanistan and executed. There remains a long way to go before Hazaras can lively safely without the tag of “infidels”.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fouad Mourtada: Jailed for fake Facebook entry

Moroccan man Fouad Mourtada has been jailed for three years for setting up a fake Facebook profile impersonating a member of the country's royal family. On Friday Mourtada was sentenced to three years jail and a fine of 10,000 dirhams ($US 1,350) after a court found him guilty of "usurping the identity of HRH Prince Moulay Rachid". The prosecutor and judge repeatedly reproached Mourtada for having “undermined the sacred integrity of the realm as represented by the prince".

According to the website set up by his family Help Free Fouad, Mourtada is a 26 year old IT engineer and a native of the town of Goulmima in the South Eastern region of Morocco. They say he is “a reserved and timid type” who created Internet friendships and was accustomed to participating in forums and exchange sites. They say he is “a Facebook user just like many young people around the world”.

Mourtada created the Facebook profile of the Prince as a joke. On 5 February, he was arrested in Casablanca on the charge of “villainous practices linked to the alleged theft of identity”. He was blindfolded and taken to a local police station where he was harassed and beaten unconscious. His family were allowed to visit him after a week where Mourtada told them he was "persecuted, beaten up, slapped, spat on and insulted." He continued: "I was also slammed for hours with a tool on the head and the legs."

His arrest and subsequent treatment brought a wave of protest by media and bloggers. Agoravox called Mourtada “a Martyr of the Net” and Le Monde Libere described the case as a “media lynching” pushed by the Moroccan royal family. Last week some Moroccan bloggers suspended their regular blog entries for 24 hours in protest at Mourtada's detention.

There is no precedent anywhere in the world for a person receiving a jail sentence for posting a fake Facebook profile. Fouad's fake profile was not malicious, and it did not in any way attempt to slander Moulay Rachid. The prince is the younger brother of Morocco's Head of State, King Mohamed VI. Mourtada admitted placing the profile of the Prince on Facebook but said he had done this out of admiration for him, not out of any wish to undermine the monarchy.

Two Amnesty International (AI) delegates attended the trial and AI released a statement yesterday issuing its concern. They say the hearing failed to satisfy international fair trial standards. AI said the main reason for the prosecution was the authorities' determination to clamp down on anyone deemed to be undermining the monarchy and what the prosecutor termed the "social and sacred values of Morocco." The court failed to investigate the alleged breaches of Mourtada’s rights during arrest and detention, and his allegations that he was ill-treated in custody and forced to "confess." AI called for a re-trial and for allegations of mistreatment to be “fully and impartially investigated.”

Moroccan-born author Laila Lalami writing in The Nation wondered how Moroccan police found out Mourtada's identity. Lalami said Mourtada did what millions of other people his age do every day: “create profiles, real or fake, on social networking websites”. Lalami said such spoofing was common. "There are fake profiles on Facebook for everyone from Brad Pitt to Mother Teresa, from King Abdullah to Osama bin Laden”, she said “There are 500 profiles for George W. Bush."

But criticism of the Moroccan royal family remains taboo. The French-based Reporters Without Borders annual report for 2007 said that investigating the role of the king and the royal family in running the country is the main reason journalists are prosecuted. Press law has many offences carrying prison sentences and journalists often have to pay very heavy fines and damages for offending the king, the monarchy, the nation, territorial integrity, God or Islam. According to Culture Maroc, it all boils down to the same problem: “Modern Morocco vs. the Morocco of the Middle Ages”.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Crossroads of power: The media, democracy, and the audience

The media has long been seen as an access-gate to democracy and an important contributor to a knowledgeable citizenry. However in today’s corporate age there is a growing sense of audience disengagement in the face of the agenda-setting power of the media combined with its rampant commercialisation. It is the contention of this paper that if the media doesn’t offer access to power for its audiences, then they will seize it for themselves. The paper will examine the history of the citizen-critic in relation to the media. The media plays a major role in shaping opinion and policy and offering interpretation of public events. The more the audience engages with the media’s interpretation, the more engaged they become with the democratic process. But journalism is just as capable of restricting the flow of information as providing it. This restriction occurs as the media become political players themselves. They have an agenda-setting role which is particularly noticeable during election periods. Political parties attempt to counter the media agenda by focussing the discussion on issues they are perceived to “own”. The challenge is for politicians to consider the media needs of their audiences. This perception is set by opinion polls which have their own, often negative, impact on political campaigns. There is also a challenge posed by the dumbing down of the media as they become more commercialised. In contrast, alternative media such as public access broadcasting and the Internet are providing audiences with ways to reclaim the agenda and develop their sense of citizenship in new ways.

To begin with, it is helpful to examine some historical senses of citizenship. Promotion of democracy and citizenship was central to the purpose of early printer-editors such as Benjamin Franklin. They left an important legacy of a free press and freedom of speech which are now considered essential elements in a healthy democracy. Anthony Lewis wrote that the First Amendment did not protect the press for its own sake but to enable a free political system to operate on behalf of “the citizen-critic of the government”. The concept of a citizen signifies the right of an individual to full membership of, and participation in, an independent political society. According to the social responsibility theory of the press, media operators are obliged to make sure all significant viewpoints of the citizenry are represented and this was a matter for the public as much as owners and editors to decide. These views could be contested in the public sphere. According to Habermas, the public sphere was a realm that was autonomous of the state and the market place. This was required because power exists in both the sphere of the state and the economic realm. But although public opinion is able to reach judgements on public matters, it is not the public but groups and organisations backed by sophisticated public relations which actually shape policy decisions and outcomes. Therefore while the concept of public opinion is important, it is a contested space of competing interests.

Journalism plays a major role in creating the shape of this contested space. For most people, political opinion is not directly shaped by politics but is mediated by news accounts. Lippman described how people gradually build a trustworthy picture inside their heads of the world beyond their reach conveyed to them by the media. The media limits the freedom of policy makers to select among the available policy options and channels that selection in one or other direction. Therefore, journalists play a crucial role in forming understanding of public policy. According to Adam, journalism is an act of imagination which “produces the forms of public consciousness that makes collective existence possible”. This means that as well as reporting the news, journalists also interpret it in order to make sense of issues and events.

News interpretation requires an active audience. Norris et al's landmark research into Britain’s 1997 election found that the short-term impact of the news media is greatly exaggerated. Studies show that audiences consume news in a sporadic way and flit from story to story without following them to completion. However, they also established that people who were more attentive to the news were more knowledgeable and had higher levels of civic engagement. The more stimuli about politics people receive, the greater the likelihood is they will participate in politics and the greater the depth of their participation. Norris et al saw this process as a “virtuous circle” with the media providing a positive cumulative effect. Active audiences engage with, and enrich, the news they receive.

However, positive audience consumption of news does depend on the quality of the news itself. Journalistic practices can restrict the flow and quality of information to the audience. The journalist’s need to produce a good story is often antithetical to the practice of writing investigative journalism. Investigative journalism is news in its truest sense; the striving to bring to public attention something someone does not want the public to know. Yet the final product of investigative journalism is often complicated to read, un-entertaining and inconclusive. The desire to print more entertaining stories exacerbates the trend towards “tabloidisation” which impedes the audience’s civic competence. The result is an increasingly downmarket media and a less informed citizenry.

This downmarket pull may also be driven by political considerations. The media are political actors in their own right. The way the media present stories and events produces a carefully constructed world in which some voices are allowed to speak and some are not. In their influence book "Policing the Crisis" Hall et al say that the twin demands of deadlines and the need to be impartial combine to produce a systematic over-accessing to the media of those in powerful and privileged positions. Other critics have attacked journalism for its ideological effects and role in reproducing the capitalist order in choosing sources as mouthpieces of their authority. Researchers show that media content is best conceived as the outcome of an unequal relationship between sources and journalists; a relationship that is often manipulated by those making the information available. But the audience is not well served by this battle of agendas between the media and their sources.

The media’s agenda-setting power is particularly prevalent during election times. The theory of agenda-setting suggests that the media tell people not “what to think” but “what to think about”. The media are often more participants than observers in election contests wielding power in setting agendas, the coverage of campaign events and issues, and even in the outright support of political parties. Other studies suggest that this results in a process of confirmation of prejudices rather than one of challenging assumptions. In Australia, media coverage reinforces the dominance of the major parties as well as the over-concentration on the party leaders. Control of the agenda affords great power to the media to affect democratic outcomes.

Political actors are quick to act in response to media agenda-setting practices. Election campaigns invariably veer towards issues which favour the candidates. Theories of issue ownership suggest that it is difficult for parties to gain electoral advantage on issues they do not “own”. The news media see themselves as major players in politics but lack governing responsibility or a guiding philosophy other than a negative challenging of all comers. Many politicians have attempted to get around this. In his 1992 election campaign, Bill Clinton maximised control over the media message by cultivating talk show hosts, MTV and similar programs where he was able to focus on stories and issues where he enjoyed a favourable reputation. Exposure on these “alternative” programs made it possible for him to connect with voters and explain his policy positions without being interrupted by his draft record or his infidelities. The intimate communication of television means it is an excellent medium to elicit an emotional response that reinforces a difficult political message or distracts from policy shortcomings. Similarly, research in Britain into the radio phone-in program Election Call showed the vast majority of callers were pleased with their involvement in the show. Their satisfaction was related to their ability to influence public agenda and to have their concerns taken seriously. It is possible therefore, to subvert the media agenda-setting powers with adroit use of the media’s own facilities.

These examples show up a paradox in the relationship between media and politicians and how this relationship impacts the audience. The major parties have great faith in the media but fear its power. Yet ever since Lazarsfeld’s seminal study (1944), it has been clear that mass media do not change people’s voting intentions and at best have a reinforcement effect. It is not the transmission of news that counts, it is the selective construction of images and events which are influenced by the negotiations and conflicts that occur within the news organisation. Audience studies acknowledge the potential for a “boomerang effect” in the communication of propaganda and ideas where the intended meaning can be inverted by members of the audience. Kiosis found evidence between the number of cynical stories in the news media and the lack of public confidence in the press. Others believe there is a restoration of substance occurring in political communication. According to research on radio talk shows, people do ask questions that are “overwhelmingly issues oriented”, obliging politicians to offer more information about their policies. Media images shape people’s view of the world and their deepest values. Politicians need to understand their audience to effectively use the media to communicate their messages.

One audience tool used extensively by the media and political parties is opinion polls. What the polls say is often the major news reported by the media during an election campaign. Media polls on voting intentions and leadership approval have become a deeply entrenched characteristic of election contests. The 1990 Australian Election Survey found that 60 per cent of voters take “some” or “quite a lot” of notice in polls. Polls generate their own momentum and can contribute to a “horserace” style reporting of election. Critics of polls say these horserace reports frame campaign news coverage as a contest and encourage journalists to avoid qualitative coverage of issues and leaders. Nevertheless, they remain an important part of the political process and provide a voice for the public in the political debate. Even if only as a symbolic gesture, they convey the impression of an involved electorate and at their best actively contribute to the public agenda.

Not all media content has this sense of public good. A worrying trend is that stories of apparent interest to the public have replaced stories in the public interest. The global first-tier media firms act as a cartel whose sole goal is to seek commercial gain in a congenial political and economic environment. In order to serve their shareholders these conglomerates are given over to entertainment and devote only a small part of their content to public affairs. New LA Times editor James O’Shea who is battling against shrinking budgets and falling circulations, recognises the problem when he said “we need to tell readers more about Barack Obama and less about Britney Spears”. The challenge therefore is for media to find ways of drawing in audiences for Obama as much as for Britney. Channel Seven’s director of news Peter Meakin believes the only way media can successfully cover political issues in the future is through interactivity. This means campaigning on public issues using advice segments, audience kits and advocating political activism. The difficulty for media is to actively engage their audiences without losing audience share.

Disaffected audiences are turning to newer media for more democratic access. Public access broadcasting fulfils an important function for democracy by providing a forum for citizen views and opinions. There is evidence to suggest that community broadcasting offers a sense of empowerment to audiences and creates an environment where community voices can be heard. According to Hartley, public broadcasting breaks down the distinction between viewing and program maker and provides social groups of all kinds a chance to communicate not only to their own communities but also to larger publics. The Internet is also capable of returning power to audiences. Wheeler saw the Internet as nothing less than an “electronic landscape for a reinvented civil society”. In 1997 he predicted millions of people would adopt the technology and engage in political discourse without interference of governments, regulators and owners. And to some degree, the rise of the blogosphere has borne him out. With almost 8 million blogs worldwide by March 2005, they have gained increasing audience size and political influence, especially in the US. A 2004 PANPA bulletin report cited Fairfax research which found 83 per cent of Australian respondents visited a news website at least twice a week. But there is no simple theory that can be used to anticipate how people will use the new services of the Internet or how society might be affected as a result. Montgomery believes the new digital media can play a significant role in developing thoughtful and active citizens. Audiences appropriate media output for their own purposes which they discuss and subvert to produce their own interpretations. In the online world, the way people access news is evolving. Use of Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and web-feeds is encouraging the use of “personalised news” which has the potential to increase public engagement in news coverage by encouraging citizens to become better informed about current events. This tailoring practice is not without its dangers if people choose only the information that reinforces their beliefs and values. But the overwhelming impression is that public broadcasting and the Internet have re-invigorated a sense of public participation in the media.

There has been a long interlocking history between media and its citizen audience. The power of journalism has long shaped public policy. Active audiences engaged with the material to enhance their sense of citizenship. But as the quality of the news has declined, so has citizen participation. This has not been helped by the contest of power between the media and their sources. The media has an important agenda-setting power which politicians react to, and attempt to circumvent. Audience considerations are not well served by this battle between media and political players. Audiences consider opinion polls important but they also have a tendency to reduce the quality of political debate. Meanwhile the rampant commercialisation of media is reducing the quantity of political debate. As a result audiences are turning to newer, independent media to express their opinions. Out on the independent fringes, forums such as public broadcasting and Internet allow the citizen audience to speak loud and clear. The challenge for corporate media is to heed this voice.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Uganda signs permanent ceasefire with LRA

After 18 months of discussion, the Ugandan government has signed a permanent ceasefire with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The two sides signed the agreement on Friday at talks in Juba, Southern Sudan. The Ugandan government has described it as a “major breakthrough” and former President of Mozambique, Joachim Chissano, who is mediating the talks called it “the end of the war”. The deal will come into effect 24 hours after both sides sign a comprehensive peace deal, which Chissano hopes will be achieved later this week.

The ceasefire terms prohibit LRA recruitment or rearmament and movement beyond the Southern Sudanese assembly area. It also creates a 10km buffer-zone around the assembly area, guarded by southern Sudanese troops. The last remaining issue to be dealt with is the demobilisation of LRA fighters and their integration into the Ugandan army. This may still be tricky as LRA leaders walked out of the talks just a day before signing the agreement after the Ugandans turned down their request for monetary compensation.

In August 2006, Uganda signed a truce with the LRA. That truce committed both sides to end the bloodshed and cease hostile propaganda. The rebels were given three weeks to leave their hideouts in Uganda and northern Congo and assemble at two south Sudanese camps. Though the ceasefire was later renewed, negotiations brokered by south Sudanese mediators frequently stalled.

The 20-year rebellion by the LRA in northern Uganda left tens of thousands of people dead and nearly two million displaced. The LRA became infamous for their brutal methods, killing of civilians, kidnapping children for use as soldiers and porters, and their mutilation of victims. Leader and self proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony began one of a series of initially popular uprisings in northern Uganda after President Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986.

Kony claimed the Lord's Resistance Army was fighting to defend the Biblical Ten Commandments, although they also had more prosaic demands such as stopping the looting of cattle by Museveni’s troops and wanting a greater share of political power for his Acholi people. Kony was originally supported by the Sudanese (Khartoum) government though they cut ties with the LRA in 1999 in exchange for Uganda dropping support for Southern Sudanese rebels. Since then Kony has been on the run in the DRC and desperate to sign a deal.

One sticking point in the current deal is the outstanding matter of international warrants for Kony’s arrest. The LRA has said it will never sign a final peace deal unless the International Criminal Court (ICC) drops indictments against its leaders for atrocities. They have now been supported by Uganda which has agreed to set up a special division of the Ugandan High Court. The LRA is now relying on Uganda’s ability to persuade the ICC to drop the charges. Kony and two of his commanders are wanted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Last week, the ICC issued a statement saying that the arrest warrants still stand. The office of the prosecutor is not a party to the peace process," it said. "The arrest warrants against the LRA commanders were issued by the court and remain in effect.” However the statement did offer a way forward by saying the indictments could be lifted if the ICC judges decide whether national trials are an adequate alternative to prosecution. "A challenge to the admissibility of the case remains hypothetical and, in any event, would be a matter for the judges of the court to decide upon,” said the ICC. Some difficult negotiation remains ahead to prove Chissano’s optimism that the war is indeed, ended.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Greens pressure Government to implement Garnaut recommendations

Greens’ climate change spokesperson, Senator Christine Milne has said Australia cannot wait for the final Garnaut report in September to take action to reduce carbon emissions. Milne says the interim report released yesterday calls for urgent action and the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd should respond with a climate-focused budget in May. Her call was “The razor-gang should be targeting the $9 billion in subsidies the fossil fuel industries receive annually, instead of public service jobs," she said. "Every month the Rudd government delays action to reduce Australia's emissions will cost the environment and taxpayers more in the long run.”

In his interim report (pdf), the Government’s climate change adviser Ross Garnaut warns that climate change is occurring faster than previously thought due to strong economic growth in China and India. He says the Federal Government should consider going beyond its stated 60 per cent reduction target by 2050 in a global agreement that includes developing nations. The Report also favours bilateral and regional agreements to accelerate domestic and international action. “Steady, long-term policies are what Australia needs,” he said, “in order to provide the market certainty for making appropriately large reductions in emissions at the lowest possible costs to Australians’ standards of living”.

The report’s executive summary stresses it represents “genuinely interim judgements”. However it also states that the world is moving towards high risks of dangerous climate change quicker than most people have expected. This makes mitigation more urgent and costly. The report says Australia should follow the lead of the EU and make firm commitments this year to 2020 and 2050 emissions targets with a similar adjustment cost to that accepted by other developed countries. It says an emissions trading scheme (ETS) needs to be the centre-piece of a domestic mitigation strategy.

So far, the government is refusing to budge from its stated 60 per cent target from 2000 levels. Climate change minister Senator Penny Wong told a Senate committee said Labor set that target on basis of known information last year. She said these included European studies, The Stern Review, and those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Wong refused to answer Greens’ questions about how the government's target related to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or predicted average temperature rises. Wong said the Garnaut Review and Treasury modelling were the two primary inputs to formulating climate change policy; however, it was up to the government to decide on targets. "You don't contract out decisions as significant to the Australian environment, community and economy to a single individual," she said.

In his final article for Crikey before he joins The Australian next week, Christian Kerr says Garnaut’s report underlies an inconvenient truth for the government. It was handy to delay the publication of the report until after the election but now the government must do something about it. Kerr says there will be higher petrol prices and higher energy costs involved in tackling greenhouse and it will be up to the government to sell the benefits of the strategy to the electorate. “Governments don’t just have to make hard decisions,” he said. “If they want to survive, they have to carry voters with them.”

Meanwhile the Greens have produced their own report “Reenergising Australia” to address climate change issues. In her preface to the report Senator Milne says “we have only ten to fifteen years to make the deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change.” She says only political will is stopping Australia from making the necessary transition to a low carbon economy.

But they recognise it won’t be easy. Australia has the highest per capita level of greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world due a reliance on coal power, a large agricultural sector, low levels of public transport use, energy-intensive metal manufacturing and a high population growth. The Greens demand greenhouse gas reduction to 30 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050. They also demand institutions need to be reformed to support a low carbon economy and say governments should create economic incentives to move from high to low carbon energy sources. As Milne concludes, the aim of their report is nothing less than fundamental change to the consciousness on which Australia’s unsustainable economy is based. Garnaut has simply reiterated this need.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Save the Children report paints shocking picture of child mortality

Save the Children UK have released a new report that says that nearly ten million children die worldwide each year before they reach the age of five. The figures get worse as the children are younger. Four million of these die within the first 28 days of their life. Three million die in the first week and two million die on the day they are born. An incredible 99 per cent of all these deaths occur in developing countries. The report also contains a new 'Wealth and Survival Index' which compares child mortality to national income per person. This shows which nations are squandering their resources and Angola is ranked as the worst offender.

The report (pdf) blames three major causes for child deaths. Firstly, poor access to treatment and prevention means for major diseases such as pneumonia, measles, diarrhoea, malaria, HIV and AIDS. Secondly are infrastructure factors such poor health systems, undernutrition, lack of clean water and female illiteracy. The third factor, says the report, are the outcome of political and policy choices that are the responsibility of governments and other agencies. Bad governance, violent conflict and worsening environmental trends are additional underlying causes that profoundly impact children’s survival prospects.

The countries with the worst child mortality rates are among the world’s poorest and to have experienced war or violent conflict, such as Afghanistan, Angola, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia and Sierra Leone. Five countries: India, Nigeria, DRC, Pakistan and China account of half of all deaths of children under five. Sierra Leone has the worst mortality rate, closely followed by Angola. Afghanistan is third worst and the only non-African country in the top ten. But on the Wealth and Survival Index oil-rich Angola is considered the worst offender. Although it now has a per-capita income high enough to put it in the "middle income" category, 20 percent of all Angolans still die before their fifth birthday.

Angola is still recovering from a 27 year civil war which ended in 2002. The former Portuguese colony was supported by the Soviet Union after independence in 1975. However they faced a long and debilitating war against Unita rebels backed by the US and apartheid-regime South Africa. After several broken ceasefires, it took the death of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi to bring the rebels to the table. However a separate struggle still remains in the enclave of Cabinda where 60 per cent of Angola’s oil resides. There have also been strong allegations that oil revenues have been squandered through corruption and mismanagement. Most Angolan still live in desperate poverty on less than $1US a day. The Index shows that Angola’s child mortality is strongly related to grossly unequal distribution of wealth.

Angola’s problems are not unique in sub-Saharan Africa. A child’s risk of dying on their first day of life is about 500 times greater than their risk of dying when they are one month old. The first few hours of a baby’s life are therefore critical, but far too often basic steps that could save the life of a child are not taken. A 2007 study in Ghana showed that 16 percent of neonatal deaths could be prevented by breastfeeding infants from birth. That figure rises to 22 percent, if breastfeeding begins within one hour of birth.

With two million victims annually, pneumonia is the largest single killer of children under five and is responsible for more deaths than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. However the underlying cause is malnutrition. Children without food do not have a strong immune system, and are unable to defend themselves against diseases. Pneumonia can be treated through community diagnosis and the use of antibiotics. However many poor countries do not have access to such successful antibiotics as Cotrimoxazole and Amoxicillin. In the 1990s, just one in five children who developed pneumonia was treated with antibiotics. Costs have dropped all over the world but the price is still beyond the means of most poor people.

Save the Children’s director of policy David Mepham concludes that a child's chance of making it to its fifth birthday depends on where it is born. But he disputes this is beyond human control. While poverty and inequality are consistent underlying causes of child deaths, all countries, even the poorest, can cut child mortality if they pursue the right policies and prioritise their poorest families,” he said. “Good government choices save children's lives but bad ones are a death sentence.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Judge orders Wikileaks off the air

A Californian court has ordered a whistle-blowing website to be taken down in a controversial ruling last Friday. was ordered off the air by Judge Jeffrey S. White of the Federal District Court following a case brought by Swiss banking group Julius Baer. Lawyers for Julius Baer brought the case to trial after several documents posted on the site allegedly revealed that the bank was involved with money laundering and tax evasion. The bank alleges the documents were stolen.

After an ex-parte hearing, the court ordered the controller of the sites domain name, Dynadot, should "prevent the domain name from resolving to the website or any other website or server other than a blank park page, until further order of this Court." Wikileaks did not have the chance to address the issue in court. They claim that the order was unconstitutional and said that the site had been forcibly censored. The judge ordered Dynadot to delete deleted from the DNS (domain name server) but clearly does not understand how the internet works. Despite the order, the site can still be accessed via the IP address "" at its Swedish hosting site and through mirror sites in Europe that replicate its contents.

The take-down decision has caused uproar and derision in the online community. Writing in the Guardian, Charles Arthur says the decision is a prima facie infringement of the US First Amendment prohibiting the abridging of free speech. Arthur says Wikileaks has annoyed many people with its determination to publish leaked documents. “Finally,” he says, "it properly annoyed someone who had the money for lawyers”.

Duncan Riley at Techcrunch points out that because the material is still available in the public domain, the likelihood is that more people will read the documents as a result of the publicity of the trial than would ever have bothered otherwise. Richard Stiennon at ZDNet says it is an outrageous move by a US court to attempt to destroy a website because of a complaint about a particular set of files. “I wonder how they justify that?” he asked. “Luckily the Internet is made of a series of tubes and the DNS is only a small part of the plumbing”.

Over at their Swedish home, Wikileaks released the trail of correspondence between themselves and Julius Baer’s solicitors. On 15 January, Baer’s solicitors charged Wikileaks of posting content that constituted “violation of trade secrets, conversion and stolen documents by former employee in violation of a written
Confidentiality agreement and copyright infringement” but consistently refused to reveal the name of their client nor would they identify what documents were causing the trouble. After several more days of fruitless exchanges between Wikileaks and the bank’s lawyers, it all went quiet until the ex-parte hearing last week.

Wikileaks was founded in 2006 by Chinese dissidents and by journalists, mathematicians and computer specialists in the United States, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa. It has published 1.2 million documents and says its goal, is to develop “an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis.” It has published important leaked material from across the world, including the top secret US Rules of Engagement in Iraq and news about Guantanamo Bay officials conducting covert propaganda attacks on the internet.

The Julius Baer story began in 2005 when the bank’s former Chief Operating Officer on the Cayman Islands was suspected of leaking information to the press. Rudolf Elmer is accused of being the source of the information that the bank specialized in hiding and laundering the money of the ultra rich through anonymising offshore trust structures. Wikileaks obtained and published documents related to the Caymans issue. The bank tried to stop Wikileaks publishing the information because of a court case related to the problem in Switzerland which commenced in December last year.

Julie Turner, a Californian attorney who has represented Wikileaks in previous litigation, told Wired she is surprised that the San Francisco court sanctioned such a broad agreement to remove the site. She had been speaking with the bank last month on Wikileaks' behalf when the negotiations fell through. “It’s like saying that Time magazine published one page of sensitive material so (someone can) seize the entire magazine and put a lock on their presses," she says. With Wikileaks making comparisons to the Pentagon Papers and invoking the First Amendment, this judgement is a certainty to be thrown out in a higher court. In the meantime, the Internet makes the law look like an ass.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

4 Corners: Howard’s End

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard excused himself in Nigeria while his former party colleagues forensically dissected his election defeat on ABC’s Four Corners last night. Howard launched his career on the international speaker circuit at Nigeria's biggest awards ceremony in the capital, Lagos, at the weekend. Howard steered clear of Australian domestic politics and instead spoke about Nigerian economic reform and its need to seek more foreign investment. It is likely Howard was paid in the region of $40,000 for this new and blander version of the Nigerian phishing scam.

While his speech content was uncontentious, the same could not be said for the swag of senior Liberals who bared their souls about their defeat on national television last night. The program entitled “Howard’s End” attracted 1.15 million viewers to the national broadcaster. The program featured significant interviews from key players such as Arthur Sinodinos, Nick Minchin, Peter Costello, Alexander Downer, John Abbott, Joe Hockey but not from Howard himself who has not spoken to an Australian media outlet since his defeat.

The program began with how Howard ascended to the leadership in 1994. Alexander Downer was opposition leader with Costello as his deputy. Downer was in freefall as leader and Liberal powerbroker Ian McLachlan set up a secret meeting to replace him. In the meeting were three people, McLachlan, Costello and John Howard. In this meeting Howard asked Costello not to nominate so Howard could be elected unopposed. Both McLachlan and Costello say Howard committed to serving only one and half terms. A reluctant Costello agreed knowing he did not have the numbers to win anyway. Costello asked McLachlan to document the undertaking about “one and half terms” on a piece of paper.

Eight weeks later in early 1995, Howard ascended to the leadership unopposed with Costello continuing as deputy. This would be the team that would vanquish Paul Keating in 1996 and go on to win four successive elections. By 2006 Howard was in power for ten years and was the second longest ever Australian leader behind Robert Menzies. Howard is at the peak of his power and the “one and half terms” idea has seemingly been forgotten. The one time Howard had obliquely mentioned retirement was in 2000 on his 61st birthday when he said nothing lasts forever and he would consider his position on his 64th birthday.

He turned 64 in June 2003 and decided to stay on despite Costello’s prompting. By 2006 Howard was now 67 and talk of change was in the air. Chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos said the speculation grew as the 10th anniversary approached. But Andrew Robb said it was not the sort of thing people would raise when talking to the PM. Senate leader Nick Minchin knew that Howard’s time was nearly up and he got Sinodinos and foreign minister Alexander Downer to sound out the retirement on the 10th anniversary which, Minchin thought, was the ideal time for Howard to go out on top. Costello was aware of Minchin’s plan. Both men conveyed their views but Howard never followed the matter up with Minchin and there the matter died.

Sinodinos said Howard’s attitude was he wanted to think it through. However he said that process was truncated by the McLachlan affair. In July 2006 McLachlan finally released the contents of the “one and half terms” piece of paper to the media. The note mentioned that a voluntary “undertaking” had been given. Howard and Costello subsequently gave differing accounts of the meeting, with the obvious imputation that at least one of them was lying. Minchin said the impact of the public spat was “devastating”.

Two days later Howard told the media “it was the will of the party” that was paramount. In July he announced he was staying on until after the next election. Costello told Four Corners that the McLachlan affair was irrelevant and that Howard never intended in standing down. But Downer said that had 1996 been a controversy free year, Howard would have retired. Costello said the impression he had was quite the opposite. But in any case Costello faced the same problem he always had – Howard had the party numbers. Costello conceded defeat and publicly proclaimed his loyalty to the team. He said the problem was the number of MPs that had been elected since 1996 who only knew Howard as leader. To them, said Costello, the Liberal Party WAS Howard. Liberal Senator Judith Troeth said Costello’s problem was that never cultivated the party backbench which made him arrogant and unpopular.

In December 2006, the Liberals had new problem: Kevin Rudd. Rudd came to the Labor leadership with a mandate for new leadership. The Liberals didn’t panic, they had seen off Mark Latham in 2004 and felt they could see off the new boy. But from the time Rudd became leader, there were 50 polls all of which pointed to a Labor victory. John Abbott said the Liberals could not counter this “fresh face” strategy; Costello was too associated with Howard, who anyway, according to Abbott, was the Libs best asset.

Labor homed in on the unpopular Government workplace relations law with the unions running effective scare ads. Joe Hockey was appointed Workplace Relations Minister with a mandate to fix the problem. In the most remarkable admission of the program, Hockey told Four Corners that “many ministers in cabinet” were not aware that people could be worse off under WorkChoices. Hockey moved to bring in the Fairness Test. Robb said this failure was proof the government were no long listening to “the Howard battlers, the people who put us there in the first place”.

Failure to sign Kyoto was another disaster for the government in 2007. Costello said the government should have ratified it “many years earlier”. Abbott said Howard’s rigid position on the “totemic issue” of Kyoto didn’t help the party. In September, Howard hosted the APEC summit in Sydney. On the eve of the summit, a newspoll showed an 18 per cent 2PP lead to Labor. This was a devastating poll that made the leadership “jumpy”. While Howard was busy hosting international presidents, he began to finally believe he would lose the election.

Howard asked Downer to sound out the opinion of the other cabinet members whether they would be better off changing leaders. Downer invited eight cabinet colleagues to discuss the matter: Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Philip Ruddock, Chris Ellison, Ian Macfarlane, Kevin Andrews and Joe Hockey. Most were unaware of Howard’s thoughts. Hockey said he thought the leadership had been sorted a year ago and he was stunned Howard himself was re-opening it. The view of the meeting was that if Howard didn’t think he could win, he should step aside.

The following morning, Downer reported back to Howard about the pessimistic mood of the meeting and the view of the majority was that Howard should quit. Later Downer told Costello he should get ready for leadership. Downer then told the cabinet that anyone who thought Howard should go, should tell the PM. Joe Hockey told Four Corners he rang Howard to tell him he should quit. Howard said he appreciated Hockey’s honesty but made no commitments. Downer then told Howard he should leave voluntarily. But Howard took the view he would only leave if told to do so by his colleagues. But those colleagues in the main felt doing that would be an electoral disaster.

For Andrew Robb, it was unfortunate Howard wasn’t told he should go. But for Hockey, a “knifing” of John Howard would have meant the Liberals would have been reduced to a small rump in parliament. Because the conditions were not agreed, Howard decided to stay on and contest the 2007 election. Something Costello thought he always was going to do anyway. Howard went on A Current Affair to say he had talked the matter through with his family and said “they want me to continue”. Hockey said he was disappointed that Howard had earlier said he would always stay as long as the party wanted him and “now the formula had changed”.

According to Downer, Howard did not want to look like a coward, and besides, had higher personal approval ratings than Costello. Two months later, Howard announced the election and the entire team got behind him. Nothing changed during the six week campaign and Howard was voted out of office both as PM and MP on 24 November. Costello refused the opposition leadership the following day. The Liberals would never find out what changing the leadership would have meant. According to Costello supporter Christopher Pyne “the public gave Labor the biggest swing they had ever had into government and that was the final say on who was right about that”. According to Four Corners, Howard loved the job too much to quit.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Brisbane council elections: Tristan Peach, Greens candidate Hamilton Ward

Brisbane is getting ready to vote again just four months after the federal election. This time it is the Brisbane city council elections which are scheduled for Saturday 15 March. Brisbane currently has a Labor dominated council in its 26 wards but has a Liberal mayor. I live in the eastern ward of Hamilton which has 27,000 registered voters. With the ward containing blue-rinse suburbs of Ascot, Clayfield and the eponymous Hamilton, it has long been considered a safe Liberal seat.

Although the last election was held in March 2004, there was a by-election for the Hamilton ward in October 2006 when Tim Nicholls moved to state parliament. David McLachlan retained the seat for the Libs in the by-election with 58 per cent of the vote ahead of Labor’s Anna Herzog (who is contesting again this year) and the Green’s Sam Clifford. Today, I caught up with the 2008 Greens candidate for Hamilton, Tristan Peach.

Born in 1980, Tristan Peach is a native of north Brisbane. He holds a bachelors and master’s degree in town planning. Peach is a committed activist and has been involved in many local projects including the Samford Transport Group, Cedar Creek Bushcare Group and the Nundah Positive Housing Project which looked at the affects of gentrification on the homeless in that suburb. He spent 4 years part time tutoring and lecturing at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) amd a year working as a development assessor for planning submissions. He is now devoted full time to sustainable transport submissions.

Peach was also the media spokesperson for the Communities against the Tunnel forum which fights against the controversial multi-billion dollar Transapex network of five tunnels across Brisbane. Peach is now treasurer of a new group called Community Action for Sustainable Transport which works in collaboration with the likes of Stop the Hale Street Bridge Campaign and the Queensland Conservation Council. Peach is also a guest lecturer in urban planning at QUT.

He has been a member of the Queensland Greens for one year but has been a supporter since 2003. He says they are the most progressive party in Australia and are community based rather than corporate funded. He said he was keen to work on local issues which matched his interests in urban planning. I ask him what was the mood of the people he had met while out canvassing and whether there was any sign of election fatigue just four months after the federal election. He said he didn’t see any signs of fatigue. The sense he got was that most people were relieved that John Howard was no longer in power. However he did acknowledge that most people were unaware that the election was happening.

The most popular local issue in the New Farm / Teneriffe area was the need for a local Citycat stop. Currently users need to take a cross-river ferry to Bulimba ferry stop which Peach says is a deterrent to use. He has set up a petition for Citycat services to stop at Teneriffe. He said there were many other local issues that people were concerned about. These included the removal of a river structure that was the roosting ground of white-faced herons and the growing problems of midges and mosquitoes faced by residents who live near the Enoggera Creek in the Windsor area of the ward. Some people believed that this problem has been worsened by the earthworks at the nearby North-South tunnel digging site. Peach said he enjoyed the challenge posed by local issues such as tree-trimming and keeping streets tidy. These he said “were issues you wouldn’t know about unless you talked to local people”.

Peach said his aim in this election was to build up the Green support base. This means building on the 3 percent swing which garnered a 15 per cent result in 2006. I asked him how the Greens could overcome the problem where the Brisbane council was entirely made up of Labor and Liberal members. He also saw a role for local decision-making groups and neighbourhood reps who would have a meaningful say and voting rights on ward issues. Peach said the people in Hamilton are intelligent and influential. He said putting a Green in council would mark a new era for the ward and would also be an exciting new era for the council. Otherwise, he said, all we could expect is more of the same from Liberal and Labour. “Electing a Green would be an exciting development,” he said. Even if you are not passionate about the environment, it would bring more accountability.”

Sunday, February 17, 2008

On Message: communication strategies in Blair’s landslide victory 1997

David Cameron has admitted that despite taunting Gordon Brown for pulling out of a snap autumn election, the Conservatives would probably have gone down to another defeat had it been called. The remarks are in stark contrast to his boasts last year that claimed they would have won the election if called. Cameron made the admission in a BBC documentary by former Tory Cabinet Minister Michael Portillo. In the documentary Cameron told Portillo an October election would have been tough. When Portillo asked him if defeat could cause a party split between traditionalist Thatcherites and Cameron’s left wing faction, he replied: "There are certain questions starting with 'if' that I never answer - and that's one of them."

Despite recent gains by Cameron, his comments show how much his party has struggled to come out of the giant shadow cast by Tony Blair’s landslide Labour victory in 1997 that ended 18 years of Conservative rule. In their landmark study of the effects of communication on British voting: “On Message: communicating the campaign”, a team of researchers led by Harvard’s Pippa Norris have provided a comprehensive and original analysis of the impact of political communications during election campaigns.

The sheer size of Labour’s 1997 victory surprised everyone including Tony Blair. The conventional account stressed Blair’s victory was a result of the radical party rebranding in the image of New Labour. Chief strategist Peter Mandelson was credited as the primary architect of the win. Started in the 1980s under Neil Kinnock, the project involved party modernisation, by-passing radical activists and the abandonment of traditional socialist policies in favour of the ‘third way’ so beloved of Bill Clinton. Above all, according to this view, it was the deployment of strategic communications that conveyed the image of New Labour to the people.

Their assiduous wooing of the press paid off as nearly all the newspapers backed Labor including the bellwether The Sun. In 1992, The Sun backed John Major and later proudly proclaimed “it was The Sun wot won it”. The prominence of Labour’s spin doctors and the obvious movement in the endorsements of several major newspapers gave the researchers the opportunity to answer two big questions: Firstly are party strategic communications important for electoral success and secondly, do news media have a powerful impact on election results?

The earliest political researchers such as Walter Lippman believed that the effects of mass communication were pervasive. However key 1940s research by Paul Lazarsfeld showed that theories of propaganda had exaggerated their effect and were useful only as a reinforcement tool. Today, many schools of thought stress the importance of “pocket-book” voting as demonstrated in the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid”. To that end, the argument suggests the Conservatives lost the 1997 election as early as “Black Wednesday” in 1992 with the currency crisis following Britain’s withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. The Tories' reputation as sound economic managers was in tatters and they never subsequent recovered in the polls.

Yet this theory fails to take into account the subsequent recovery of the British economy or the fact that election took place a full five years later. In the run-up to the 1997 election, Britain was in the middle of a boom and the Major government’s economic record was healthy. But the press had turned against Major. In 1993, a succession of scandals involving Conservative ministers created headlines while the party suffered internal splits over its attitude to Europe and the Maastricht Treaty. In 1997 six of Britain’s ten dailies endorsed Labour in the election.

Labour had a very effective election machine with its media management centre at Millbank Tower modelled on the war room of the Clinton campaign. In its tight inner core were Mandelson, Blair, Gordon Brown, press secretary Alastair Campbell, pollster Philip Gould, Lord Irving of Lairg, chief of staff Jonathan Powell, and Blair’s personal assistant Anji Hunter. Gould had conducted a constant program of focus groups since 1994 tackling Labour’s weaknesses on taxation, trade unions and crime. They launched a dry run manifesto in 1996 to iron out any policy kinks. This allowed them to run a safe and bland campaign during the election itself. The other major Labour success was a recruitment drive that saw membership increase from 261,000 in 1991 to 405,000 in 1998. Meanwhile Tory membership dropped substantially while its politicians brawled among themselves and launched a negative campaign against Labour.

While the Tories bickered and sent out messages of fear, Labour marked out the territory to be fought over in the coming election. The Tories fought on three fronts: firstly to convince the electorate that life was better under them, secondly to warn about the dangers of Labour and thirdly to counter Labour’s message of “time for a change”. It was this last front that was to prove most difficult for the 18 year old government. Its only effective option was a negative campaign in the hope voters’ fears of Labour would outweigh their boredom threshold of the current government. Their election posters of Blair’s “demon eyes” attracted widespread criticism and crucially, failed to swing opinion polls.

Meanwhile Labour campaigned on “hope not fear” and Blair had transformed his party. He told the trade unions they could expect only “fairness not favours” and publicly expressed his admiration for Margaret Thatcher saying there would be no substantive repeal of her trade union legislation. They also portrayed themselves as fiscal conservatives. Blair courted the owners and editors of the tabloid press, convinced their hostility in 1992 had proved damaging. Nevertheless, the researchers showed it was the Liberal Democrats who ran the most internally coherent campaign, probably because they were the least scrutinised by the media.

With the opinion polls remaining flat and in Labour’s favour there was little media interest in the ‘horse race’ component of the 1997 election. This may also have been impacted by the 1992 election where the polls were badly caught out, as they were predicting a Labour win. Instead the media concentrated on strategy and political activity on the campaign trail. There was little correlation between media agenda and party agenda. Though the parties tried hard to get their message across, the press followed its own priorities with such headlines as “Hamster eats through car” (The Sun, 12 April) replacing constitutional reform or the agricultural policy.

John Major called a six week election campaign to try and claw back some ground. This was twice as long as a typical British election period and it had a negative effect on the public. Although the BBC News added an extra 20 minutes coverage each night, its audience went down. ITN also lost audience share during the six weeks. Public interest flagged during the long and uneventful campaign but came back to life spectacularly on the night of the election itself. 12.7 million (one third of the electorate) watched the election special. As Labour’s landslide became obvious, 5.2 million remain glued to the TV at 1.45 in the morning. Audiences between 1.4 and 6.5 million watched all next day as Blair went to the Palace and emerged triumphant to throngs in Downing St.

Yet the researchers failed to find evidence television influences voters. British television aims for neutrality in three respects: directional coverage (favourable versus unfavourable messages about a party), stop-watch coverage (how much time is devoted to a party) and agenda coverage (how far coverage focuses on issues that favour party positions). The researchers found no evidence any imbalances in these coverage factors influenced the election. The three major parties received broadly similar treatment in the broadcasting media.

Similarly they could find no evidence to support the claim the transfer of support of The Sun was decisive. The researchers’ analysis showed The Sun’s conversion did not bring new recruits to Labour nor new readers to The Sun. Other newspapers also changed their view between 1992 and 1997. The Times advised their readers to vote Eurosceptic (in practice mostly Tory). The Independent switched from being neutral to supporting Labour. The Star also switched from Conservative to Labour. The difference all these papers made was to mobilise their existing readership to vote in a certain way.

In the end, the researchers concluded all the sound and fury of electioneering did not signify much at all. In this respect the parties would have been better off going on holidays for six weeks and giving one pound to each British citizen for the £54.1 million spent on the campaign.

Yet party campaign managers, advertising consultants, and market researchers in all parties believed the campaign was a vital component in Blair’s victory. Philip Gould said that right to the end, the 1978 Winter of Discontent haunted the campaign and it wasn’t until the final Sunday before polling he was convinced Labour were going to win. But the researchers say the win was not contingent on either long campaign (the last year before the election) or the official short campaign (the six weeks prior). Labour led steadily in the polls since September 1992 around the time of Black Wednesday. In the view of Pippa et al, it was the stupid economy, after all.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism: a toxic combination

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is in the news for yet another of its barbaric practices. This time it is the story of a woman about to be executed on a charge of witchcraft. The court convicted her on the evidence of a man’s claim she had made him impotent and also that of a divorced woman who reportedly returned to her ex-husband during the month the accused woman predicted. The woman, Fawza Falih, also made a forced confession which she later retracted. She told the court she was illiterate and did not understand the document she was forced to fingerprint.

Human Rights Watch said the charges were absurd and had no basis in Saudi law. Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code, and “witchcraft” is not a defined crime. HRW have called on King Abdullah to halt the execution. They said judges never investigated whether her confession was voluntary or reliable nor did they investigate her allegations of torture. They also did not enquire whether she could have been responsible for the supernatural occurrences she supposedly did. Instead, the court judges sentenced her to death for the benefit of “public interest” and to “protect the creed, souls and property of this country.”

Of one thing there is no doubt and that is the creed, souls and property of Saudi Arabia need protection; but the danger does not come from witchcraft. The real problem with the oil-rich kingdom is the nefarious alliance between the ruling House of Saud and its venomous court of Wahhabi scholars, the “uluma” that is a key part in Saudi decision making. Not only do the uluma rule on the law, they are also responsible for spreading a toxic brand of intolerant Islam that is spreading across the world. Funded by the world’s largest oil reserves, it is an alliance that has directly led to the rise of Al Qaeda and 9/11 and is responsible for sponsoring an education of hatred in Saudi-funded madrassas in the Third World and beyond.

The story of this alliance and its terrible consequences for the world is brilliantly told in Dore Gold’s “Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia supports the new global terrorism” (2003). Gold is a partisan: He is an Israeli and the president of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs who served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN between 1997 and 1999. But he is also superbly knowledgeable about Greater Middle East affairs. He was a diplomatic envoy to the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf States and the Palestinian Authority. He also has a PhD in International relations and Middle Eastern studies and is a world-renowned expert on Saudi Arabia.

Gold's thesis in Hatred’s Kingdom is America has grossly overlooked Saudi Arabia’s role in the promotion of international terrorism. In fact, says Gold, Saudi is responsible for Middle-Eastern inspired terror. The cause is its dominant religious creed: Wahhabism, which regards all non Wahhabists (not just non-Muslims) as “mushrikun” (polytheists), or idolaters. According to Saudi religious textbooks, mushrikun have no rights to live and it is permissible to “demolish, burn or destroy” the bastions of these infidels. Gold says the Wahhabists who preach this dangerous nonsense are not extremist “Saudi versions of the Ku Klux Klan”, but are instead the product of Saudi mainstream society and culture and are sponsored by the government.

The founder of Wahhabism was Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab who was born around the start of the 18th century in a village in east central Arabia. His father was a qadi (a religious judge) and he instilled a love of learning of Islamic law in his son. Wahhab travelled to Medina where he learned the Hanbali Islamic tradition and later moved to Baghdad and Damascus where he learned the ways of the Shiites and the Sufi. He became an exponent of mystical Sufism but later abandoned it. On his return to his homeland, he announced that Islam had been corrupted by foreign influences. In his Book of Tawhid, he expounded on his view of Islam which was a rejected of all Gods except Allah. He also denounced the veneration of tombs as a Christian influence. In the name of strict monotheism, he launched a jihad against the mushrikun (polytheists).

Wahhab antagonised the local uluma (religious leadership) with his extremist ideas and was expelled from his home town. He sought refuge from the ruler of Riyadh Muhammad ibn Saud. Wahhab married Saud’s daughter and the two men launched an alliance that survives to this day. Saud would provide military protection for Wahhab while the latter would legitimise Saudi rule over local Bedouin tribes subjugated by jihad.

The Wahhabists were brutal to their enemies. If captured, they were offered the choice of conversion to Wahhabism or death. Unlike most Muslims, they gave no respite to the “people of the book” (Jews and Christians). Wahhab himself advocated an anti-Christian and Jewish agenda describing believers as “sorcerers who believed in devil worship”. Wahhabi writings elevated jihad to the “ultimate manifestation of Islam”. When ibn Saud died in 1765, the cause was taken up with relish by his son Abdul Aziz. Wahhab himself died in 1791 but the Saudi empire expanded in his memory. In 1802 an army of Wahhabists attacked the southern Iraqi city of Kerbala. There they massacred 4,000 Shiites and sacked the shrine of the tomb of Hussein, the martyred grandson of the prophet Muhammad.

The Saudis stormed Mecca in 1803 where again they attacked shrines including the chapel on Jebel Nur mountain where Muslim traditions says the angel Gabriel brought the Koran to Muhammad. Controlling the entire Arab peninsula they were now a serious threat to the Ottoman Empire. The empire fought back led by the Albanian born governor of Cairo Muhammad Ali who launched a series of raids across the Red Sea. French trained Egyptian forces retook the cities of Mecca and Medina and captured King Abdullah in 1818 to end the first Saudi reign.

But the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance was to survive this setback. After the Egyptian army was forced to withdraw to bases in the 1840, the Saudis retook Riyadh with Wahhabism firmly seated at the centre of power. This second Saudi state was terminated in the late 1860s by an Ottoman Empire revived by the newly built Suez Canal. But this was a temporary respite for the Sick Man of Europe. Britain was starting to assert its influence on the region. They struck an alliance with a new Saudi leader. Abdul ibn Saud returned to power in Riyadh in 1903 with help from Lord Curzon’s naval flotilla in the Persian Gulf.

Ibn Saud co-opted his old family allies the Wahhabists and provided them with funds and religious instructors. In World War I, Britain took control of all of the old Ottoman Arab territories and established a relationship with Sharif Hussein, the Hashemite ruler of Mecca since 1908. The end of the war meant that the map would need to be redrawn to establish the border between Hussein’s and Saud’s kingdoms. Wahhabi armies terrorised its neighbours but were hemmed in by the airpower of the RAF.

When the new Turkish republic abolished the Ottoman caliphate, King Hussein proclaimed himself caliph. An enraged Saud declared a jihad against the Hashemites. The war was enthusiastically pursued by the Wahhabists who wanted to “purify” the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Hussein abdicated and his son Ali fled to Iraq in 1925. Seeing the changed landscape, Britain transferred the northern cities of Maan and Aqaba to Hashemite Transjordan. Saud returned in triumph to Mecca.

The greater Muslim world was appalled by the Saudi government of the Holy Cities. Indian Muslims called for an internationalisation of the Hijaz area and the Egyptians also voiced their disapproval. Ibn Saud succeeded in calm Muslim fears by declaring they had nothing to fear from Wahhabism. But quietly the movement was building up a new head of steam. In 1928 Muhammad Rida set up a new militant movement in Cairo called the Muslim Brotherhood. Rida espoused Wahhabi doctrines and was now about to export them overseas.

Back in Arabia, ibn Saud was suffering from the world’s Great Depression. With his country on the verge of bankruptcy he signed a deal in 1933 with Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) to grant them a huge oil concession in Eastern Arabia. They struck oil five years later and Saudi royalties grew fast as war demand grew. Saudi royalties went from $3 million in 1938 to $10 million in 1946. By 1952 that had increased to $212 million. The Wahhabi uluma were not happy about the “infidels” in their country but bought ibn Saud’s argument they were helping to extract the material resources “placed by Allah” underneath the land.

In return for their support, ibn Saud allowed the Wahhabis a monopoly over education and religious policies. After ibn Saud died in 1953, his weak second son, Saud became king. Saud terminated the US airbase in Dhahran and plunged his country’s finances into disarray. The uluma deposed him in 1964 in favour of his younger brother Faisal. Faisal’s mother was a direct descendent of the original Muhammad Wahhab and her father was a major Wahhabi scholar.

As a counterweight to the secular Arabism espoused by Egypt’s Nasser, Faisal turned to Islam. Arabia established the Muslim World League dedicated to the spread of the religion. The League became a mouthpiece for Saudi Arabia, run by Saudi government employees and was an effective promoter of Wahhabi Islam. At home, Faisal created new government ministries in 1970 and the Wahhabists won control of justice and education, including universities. The entire generation of Saudis born in the 1960s grew up on Wahhabi doctrines.

Faisal gave renewed powers to the mutawain (religious police). They scrutinised public behaviour, ensured men and women did not mingle, checked for suitable attire, and made sure people attended public prayers. Thanks to Faisal they were given back powers of arrest, which they had lost in the 1930s under ibn Saud. Meanwhile Saudi oil revenue was skyrocketing. They earned $22.6 billion in 1974 and funds were becoming available for the export of Wahhabism.

Riza’s Muslim Brotherhood had suffered under Nasser in Egypt and many members had fled to Saudi Arabia. There they became prominent scholars and were influential in the creation of the Islamic University of Medina. The Brothers had a great deal of affinity with the Wahhabists. The university was directly controlled by Wahhabi clerics and it quickly became a hotbed of Islamic militancy. Later 85 percent of the university’s students would be foreigners, making it a crucial tool for the export of Wahhabi ideas.

The university also imported Muslim brotherhood ideas especially from the hugely influential Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb. Qutb spend some time in the US where he became extremely anti-American. He predicted a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West which Islam would win. Although executed by Nasser, Qutb’s call for a militant jihad was taken to Arabia by his brother Muhammad who taught Islamic studies in Jeddah. In the 1980s Saudi Arabia welcomed another Egyptian radical Ayman al-Zawahiri who had been jailed for a part in Sadat’s assassination. Later he would leave for Afghanistan where he became Al Qaeda’s second-in-command and chief ideologue.

A lesser known but equally important import was the Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam. Azzam was also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and he joined Muhammad Qutb at Jeddah University. There Azzam and Qutb were both teachers of a young Saudi student named Osama Bin Laden. Azzam was instrumental in the resurgence of jihad as a central facet of Islamic fundamentalism and said it was “obligatory on all Muslims”. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan was the trigger Azzam needed to preach jihad. He went to Pakistan where he ran the Muslim World League office as a terrorist front. This office would become a feeder for Bin Laden’s later network. Although successful in removing the Russians, he was killed in 1989 by a car bomb, probably planted by Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet intelligence services.

Azzam’s effective successor was his Saudi student Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden was heavily influenced by his Wahhabi upbringing. He was immersed in officially sanctioned Saudi religious texts that labelled Christians as “polytheists” which effectively removed the protection they were owed as “people of the book”. This teaching also influenced Juhaiman al-Utaibi who attacked Mecca’s grand mosque in 1979 taking hundreds of hostages. He declared himself to be the “mahdi” (guided one). Al-Utaibi held a particularly pure strain of Wahhabism believing Muslims should not have any contact with the kufar (infidels) and called the Saudi regime corrupt. After two weeks, Saudi troops stormed the mosque and killed and executed the kidnappers.

However the rattled government began to take on al-Utaibi’s ideologies. Women were banned from appearing on television. Music disappeared from the media. Stores closed during daily prayers and the religious police were granted further prohibitive powers. Wahhabists were angered by the US build up in the region in response to the Iranian revolution and the Carter Doctrine. The Saudis supported the Iraqi Sunni Saddam Hussein in his war against the hated Shiite Iranian leadership. Meanwhile they poured $4 billion towards the Afghan mujahideen via Azzam’s Peshawar office. After Azzam was killed, Bin Laden evolved the movement into Al Qaeda. Bin Laden was dedicated to the task of spreading Wahhabism in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia supported the Taliban militia who had similar radical ideas about Islam. The Saudis were one of just three countries (Pakistan and UAE were the others) to recognise the Taliban rule of Afghanistan.

But the biggest impact to the homeland was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Overnight, Saudi Arabia’s 1980s ally was now its primary enemy. King Fahd (who inherited the throne after Faisal’s assassination by his nephew in 1975) consulted the uluma and reluctantly allowed an American force into the country. After the 1991 Gulf War thousands of US troops roamed the country even setting up their own radio station which could be picked up across the kingdom. Their presence fed a huge sense of anti-Americanism. The uluma began to tell Fahd the real enemy was not Iraq – but the west. In 1994 Fahd denied Bill Clinton’s request to agree to host a US armoured brigade.

Bin Laden meanwhile had moved to Sudan on the invite of local Islamic leader Hassan al-Turabi. There he established contacts with Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Hamas and Algeria’s Front Islamique du Salut (FIS). Bin Laden sent forces to oppose the US in Somalia and an affiliated group bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. He also attacked King Fahd as not sufficiently Wahhabi. But he was not in favour of the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. He supported Crown Prince Abdullah who succeeded Fahd in 1995. Abdullah was noticeably less pro-Western. In 1998 Bin Laden called for a jihad “against Jews and Crusaders” and lambasted the American “occupation” of the lands of Islam’s holiest places. He was supported within Saudi Arabia by mosque sermons which were full of anti-Jewish themes. The Clinton administration put pressure on Sudan to extradite Bin Laden but Saudi Arabia refused to take him. He was expelled to Afghanistan instead in 1996.

In 1998 Al Qaeda struck the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killing 240 people. Two years later they bombed the USS Cole in port in Yemen. Saudi citizens and money were responsible for all three attacks. On 11 September 2001, 15 Saudi citizens and four others hijacked four airplanes attacking the Pentagon and destroying the World Trade Center at the second attempt. Saudi Arabia denied all involvement. Yet within days of the attack, Saudi Sheik Hamud al-Shuaibi issued a fatwa announcing “whoever supports the infidel against Muslims is considered an infidel”.

The Saudis had a deep PR problem and they paid US advertising company Burston-Marsteller $2.7 million to place ads in American media depicting Saudi Arabia as a staunch ally. They paid retainers to Congress insiders and paid Patton Boggs to educate congressmen and their staff on issues of concern to the kingdom. Back home however, a confidential poll of Saudi men found 95 percent approval of Bin Laden’s cause. Meanwhile, the religious police showed their contempt for human values when in 2002 they prevented Saudi firemen from rescuing 15 girls caught in a school fire in Mecca because they were not wearing their headscarves.

Though Abdullah took responsibility for girl’s education away from the Wahhabists in response to the Mecca fire, he cannot afford to unduly rock the boat. The uluma’s power remains strong. Wahhabi hatred remains at the core of Saudi society. Through the Muslim World League and the sponsorship of madrassas and Islamic universities they have taken this peculiarly Arabic version of Islam across the globe. Oil money has spread what Bernard Lewis called “this fanatical, destructive form of Islam” all over the Muslim world and among Muslims in the west. Without oil, they would have remained a lunatic fringe. Instead they are a serious world power dedicated to hatred. And a poor illiterate witch pays the same price for this hatred as the Western mushrikun.