Sunday, June 28, 2009

Journey for my Mother

Posting around here may be irregular for the next couple of weeks as I head off outback to work for the (Charleville) Western Times.

In the meantime, I'd be interested in any feedback about this 2 minute video. It is my first foray into film and the output from the enjoyable 4 day-long Winter intensive digital storytelling course I did this week at QUT. My thanks to all the "co-creators" who worked with me on the course.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Steven Wells

In the frenzy to report on the mortality of celebrities, the death of Guardian football writer Steven Wells barely merits a mention. But with his passing, the world has lost a fine sportswriter. Wells died on Tuesday of lymphatic cancer. He was 49.

For examples of his work see here. Reprinted below is my favourite.

On the FA's respect campaign:

"Refs are like traffic wardens — incredibly valuable public servants who are soft targets of a dumb, unthinking sheep-like consensus. And just as traffic wardens perform a vital task in keeping the planet-raping speedophile car filth in check, so referees are crucial to the very existence of the sport.

"That's why I cringe whenever I hear some triple-chinned has-been former red-card magnet deride a ref for 'thinking he's the most important person on the pitch'. The ref is the most important person on the pitch — the most important person in the entire sport.

"Undermine the authority of the ref and the entire structure of the sport collapses. And what rushes to fill the vacuum? The Corinthian values of the millionaire brats who play the game? The free-market amorality of the owners? The bumbling blazered bureaucracy? Only the referee remains pure of motive and entirely dedicated to the fundamentals of the game.

"Which is why the Respect campaign doesn't go far enough. The referee should be omnipotent and beyond question. Even when the ref is wrong — totally wrong, magnificently wrong, egregiously, almost-certainly-been-bribed catastrophically wrong — the ref is right. We need to instill a culture where to challenge a ref's authority is considered the sporting equivalent of picking one's nose in front the Queen.

"We should tool the refs up ... with tasers. Let's make the players wear undergarments laced with a filigree of superconductive wiring. One word of dissent, one raised eyebrow, the slightest suggestion of a smirk, one tiny gesture of sarcastic applause and the offending player is dealt a brief but instructive agony. This could be particularly effective with those players feigning injury. Bzzzzzzt! Get up. Bzzzzzzzzt! Get up. Repeat as needed."

"But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Respect needs to start in the commentary box and the backpages of the tabloids. All you old lags, all you wannabe Motsons, all you catcalling conveyers of cowardly consensus — show some respect for the game and shut your stupid mouths. The damage you do to the very fabric of the sport every time you undermine the ref is incalculable."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

NIDAC report shows Aboriginals are still filling Australian jails

A damning new report by the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee (NIDAC) has revealed that Indigenous people are filling Australian prisons at alarmingly disproportionate rates. Indigenous people are 13 times more likely to end up in prison than other Australians. Western Australia was the worst place for Indigenous people who were 21 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous West Australians. In total, 31 percent of all Australian prisoners are Indigenous (despite making up just 2 percent of the population), and that figures rises to half of all juvenile offenders in detention. The report also noted that there are now three times more Indigenous women in prison since the supposedly ground-breaking 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. It makes a mockery of that report’s recommendation that “imprisonment should be utilised only as a sanction of last resort”.

This latest report (pdf) says the issues involved are significant and complex but says there are strong links between substance abuse and incarceration levels. The report applauds the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) announcement that the 2 July federal, states, and territories meeting in Darwin will give special consideration to Indigenous Closing the Gap matters. But NIDAC says any initiative to improve Aboriginal health issues will not work unless it addresses Indigenous imprisonment rates.

The incarceration problem is partially caused by trauma and suffering that Indigenous people have experienced over generations. NIDAC says that Indigenous Australians in prison are themselves victims of substance abuse or violent crime and have the right to access appropriate treatment and rehabilitation to address these underlying issues. The report says this problem will not be fixed unless there is a national program to tackle health inequalities in the prison system and also strengthens the health and cultural wellbeing of all Indigenous people.

NIDAC says health issues are usually made worse by incarceration. Prisoners are more likely to suffer serious mental health problems, as well as blood-borne virus (BBV) transmission, violence, sexual assault and isolation. People suffering from mental illness are often consigned to incarceration, rather than treatment, because of the lack of appropriate facilities. Meanwhile BBV transmission is caused by high risk behaviour such as injecting drug use, tattooing, physical violence, body piercing and unprotected sex. The Australian Government National Drug Strategy estimated that the level of Hepatitis C among adult offenders in custody is 17 times greater than in the general community and prisoners are 31 times more like to have contracted HIV than non-prisoners.

NIDAC says there are numerous social and economic factors causing these problems. Indigenous Australians remain seriously disadvantaged compared with other Australians and suffer more ill-health, die at much younger ages, have lower levels of educational attainment and income, higher rates of unemployment and poorer housing conditions. Aboriginals most in jeopardy had a depressing list of socio-economic characteristics. These were the lack of schooling, unemployment, financial stress, crowded living conditions, association with the stolen generation, remote location and drug and alcohol abuse. Alcohol in particular is the cause of 90 percent of all Aboriginal offences.

(Photo by Pierre Pouliquin).The report offered a number of short and long term recommendations to solve the problem. The short term items include education support, jail diversion programs, re-integration of offenders, health care performance indicators, health screening, health research, leadership forums and partnerships with Indigenous services. The longer term goals would be funding youth networks, Indigenous drugs and alcohol campaigns, collaborative management plans, best-practice Indigenous-specific programs, working partnerships with law enforcement agencies, rehabilitation centres, consistent national legal approach and employment health training strategies.

All of these goals are laudable and the report deservedly criticises Australia’s shameful approach to Indigenous incarceration. Though it is debatable whether some of the short term goals are a bit optimistic, the real problem with this report (and many other similar ones over the years) is that the recommendations are uncosted. In the recent federal budget the Government announced a spending of $805 million on Indigenous health over four years. But will this spending address the underlying causes? NIDAC Chair Ted Wilkes doubts it. “It is clear current initiatives simply aren’t enough," he said. "It is widely known that there is a strong link between harmful alcohol and drug use, offending rates and poor health. A major rethink is needed and unless we address these issues, a lifecycle of offending can perpetuate and span across generations.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Steamed Buns: China and the media

“China shines. It radiates possibility. If it were a colour it would be the new black. My problem is that I remember the old darkness”.

Writing in the Griffith Review, former Age journalist Peter Ellingsen captured some of the conflicting essence of China in those short opening sentences to his Tiananmen Square evocation. Ellingsen was an eye witness to the old darkness and his account of the 1989 Beijing massacre is heart-wrenching. Yet despite that nagging memory it is shiny, modern China that now excites him with possibility.

Ellingsen’s article is unusually tentative in one respect. Most foreign media representations of China focus on its struggles with democracy. The problem with this representation is that it ignores a fundamental reality. China seeks détente with Western technology but resolutely refuses to adopt Western ideas about statecraft. The Chinese Communist Party has defied predictions of its demise, with a great deal of help from compliant western capital. The party has survived by applying strict censorship but also by judicious adaptation to the times. But they still face a difficult problem from within. The billion-strong audience is capable of a communications revolution and it is unwise to assume there is undifferentiated opinion. Chinese journalists are on the frontline of that communications revolution. This post investigates how the government controls information and how journalists have adapted to these controls. Of particular relevance are a new breed of Chinese bloggers who have opened up a new online front in the battle between the nation’s growing affluence and government censorship requirements. China’s politicians, producers, and consumers combine to create complicated, and often contradictory media patterns that will continue to make the field a fruitful subject of inquiry.

Enormous legal, political and technological changes have shaped Chinese media over the last 40 years. The government rules by controlling the information flow. They have been helped by the profit imperative of western technological companies. China subverts the idea that the Internet will bring about democratic change. Its growing clout in world affairs means their position will only harden. But hope exists. Despite sophisticated shields and compliant media, subversive messages are getting to the people formerly known as the audience. The less well regulated activities of bloggers and social networkers are subverting China's Communist norms. Since the 1980s reforms of Deng Xiaoping, China has danced subtly with democracy while always keep the steady party hand at the tiller. The Internet provides the greatest challenge yet to that centralised power.

The People’s Republic of China has always been deeply uncomfortable with an independent fourth estate. The Communist Party has maintained a monopoly on state power for 60 years and sees the media as a strategic sector of control. It has no immediate intention of relinquishing that control. A couple of weeks ago China blocked access to Twitter, Flickr, and Hotmail in the latest attempt to stop online discussion of the Tiananmen crackdown. Despite the opening of the Chinese economy that began during the Deng era, the country’s information space is restricted by regulations inherited from pre-reform years. At the national level, the main broadcasting stations and newspapers are controlled by the state while provincial and municipal authorities oversee regional and local newspapers and television stations. The effect is to ensure that state propaganda messages dominate the press and the airwaves.

A sense of the complexities of Chinese journalism emerges in the annual reviews of the journalist lobby bodies. Freedom House sees China as middle of the road. It calls the country “partially free” with tight official control and a crackdown on dissent balancing increasing the apparent benefits of media commercialisation. Reporters Sans Frontières is less impressed and ranks the country 167 out of 173 in its press freedom index. It says Chinese authorities continue to arrest journalists as a result of bad publicity from reports on corruption and nepotism. But the very fact that so many journalists are so frequently jailed and attacked shows a willingness on the part of many of its practitioners to defy the machinery of state to get out dissenting messages.

In theory, the dissidents are supported by the constitution. China, unlike Australia, has a bill of rights. Usually more honoured in the breach, its very existence shows a willingness to accept new ideas. Article 35 of China’s 1982 Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, press, assembly, association, demonstration, and protest. But these very admirable democratic rights have mostly been trumped in practice by other more vaguely worded articles which prescribe the media’s right to infringe upon other interests of the state. The media must keep state secrets, respect social ethics, and safeguard “the security, honour and interests of the motherland”. In practice, they are governed by the Communist “party principle” which comprises of three elements: the media must accept the party’s ideology as its own; the media must spread the party’s programs, policies and directives; and the media must accept party leadership, organising principles and press policies. The fourth estate is a branch of the state. Those facets of journalism that serve wider purposes such as freedom of the press, objectivity, truthfulness and news values are all subordinate to the “party principle”.

The only watchdog allowed is the Communist Party itself. It controls the media through the Central Propaganda Department. This Orwellian creation is charged with dealing with politically sensitive news. But the media pay the price for this interference: its credibility suffers. As jailed journalist Dai Qing said in 2002, “In the Chinese media, only the weather reports can be believed”.

Despite the scepticism, Chinese journalists do engage with the news. As the interviews with journalists in the book "China Ink" demonstrate, Chinese reporters have a willingness to address public issues in ways similar to their western counterparts. They subvert Communist norms in subtle ways that are a testament to their journalistic craft. The view of Hu Zhibin is typical:
“If we have to play the role of government mouthpiece, we do it perfunctorily and at the same time we provide information. For instance, if the government announces new grain and oil price adjustments, we’ll put the old and new prices side by side so the people can see them clearly. If the government wants us to report on the achievements of the tenth five-year plan, we’ll try to point out some of the more interesting aspects, such as…how much the water shall be improved, achievements related to the interests of the people”.

Zhibin and the others were able to practice the 5 Ws and H of journalism because of the 1980s reforms. Deng and his cadres were single-minded in their quest for face-paced development and integration with international norms. Chinese media got more in tune with the “interests of the people” and began to break free of Communist shackles. Journalists began wreiting about economic inefficiencies and political corruption hoping that a freer media would promote economic reforms. However the trend did not survive the government crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989. According to American journalist Harrison E. Salisbury who was in Beijing at the time, the media were complicit in the crackdown:
“It is a propaganda blitz, and it is backed up by the biggest lie they could think of – Tiananmen did not happen. No one, no one, was shot in the Square. They have even put down the memory hole their original announcement of the twenty-three students killed there. Now all they talk about are the brave PLA soldiers”.

After Tiananmen and the collapse of Communism in Europe, stability became a paramount concern. The Chinese Communists tightened its grip on power as the party prepared for the transition from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin. Jiang’s rule was paternalistic coupled with a central-supervised application of market economics. The state closed down avenues of opposition while beefing up state-controlled media. In 1996, the People’s Daily (the organ of the Communist Party central committee) was China’s top selling newspaper. The paper’s target readership was decision-makers, government officials, executives, experts and scholars but its circulation was flagging. It was selling 800,000 copies daily but most were dutifully bought by work units of the party state rather than by citizens wanting real news. Concerned party bosses did not solve the problem by allowing lively stories and objective analysis. Instead they issued a directive to work units across China urging extra subscriptions and circulation lifted quickly to 1.6 million. But because the solution was artificial, it sagged back to the previous number within months. As Ross Terrill said, it was a “piece of make-believe, unconnected with the appeal of the People’s Daily, or lack of it, to the Chinese people, serving only the self-image of the Chinese state”.

Despite these state vanity projects, the market reforms of the 1980s did leave a lasting imprint on the newspapers. When the government loosened control on the media, it encouraged them to create their own revenues. Advertising rose from an insignificant component to rivalling circulation as newspapers’ most important source of income. There is now more emphasis on business information especially in the non-state controlled mass-appeal market. There is also increasing commercialisation in tabloids and weekend editions that results in a vibrancy and diversity that Beijing is struggling to control. Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute, says the spirit of professionalism imbues many journalists to take the initiative in developing stories on environmental issues, labour difficulties, health problems, land disputes, abuses of power and corruption.

The state does not actively encourage such initiative. The Freedom House “Freedom of the Press 2008” global survey of media independence found that Chinese media control and internet restrictions were tightened in 2007 and the number of jailed journalists and bloggers increased. In November 2007, China introduced an emergency response law which allowed media licences to be revoked if they reported “false information” about emergencies, natural disasters or the government response to them without prior authorisation. Other pre-emptive restrictions stopped discussions of diverse topics such as flaws in the legal system, human rights defenders, a Hunan province bridge collapse, and negotiations with Taiwan over the Olympic torch route. Journalists who try to get around these restrictions have suffered harassment, sackings, abuse and detention. At least 29 journalists and 51 cyber-dissidents were in prison at end of 2007, more than any other country in the world.

Foreign journalists also face many restrictions in China. According to Beijing-based New York Times reporter Joseph Kahn, they can expect to be bugged, followed, and have their texts and e-mails monitored. He described “huge obstacles” to reporting, including the risks his Chinese accomplices face:
“We’re closely monitored, our phone is tapped, we’re subject to detention whenever we leave one of the major cities if we’re not travelling with permission and probably the biggest barrier to us is that the Chinese who work with us are subject to Chinese rules which are very different from the rules that apply to foreigners”.
Kahn was pessimistic about the possibility of any impending change to Chinese policies. At the time, preparations for the Beijing Olympics were in full swing. Kahn said authorities used the Olympics as an excuse to deny reforms in the name of stability. He added “it’s been going on for some time” and other excuses such as the 2010 Shanghai World Expo have been, and will continue to be, used to justify further crackdowns.

Many of these crackdowns involve the state oversight of the media consumption of its citizens. China has put in place the “Golden Shield” electronic surveillance system with the help of western technology companies using methods developed to counteract terrorism. The shield is a “massive, ubiquitous architecture of surveillance” which will integrate a gigantic online database with an all-encompassing surveillance network including speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television, smart cards, credit cards and Internet monitoring technology. Legal channels also support the system of censorship. In order to overcome technological difficulties monitoring audiovisual content with automated filtering technology, the State Administration for Film, Radio and Television issued a regulation in 2007 requiring 600,000 websites with such content to apply for permits. Huge numbers of government employees filter Internet content in web portals and internet cafes and punishment for breaking the rules is severe. A 2002 Harvard Law School study found a range of sites were filtered. They included sites that provided information on dissidents and democracy, public health and HIV, religion, Tibet, Taiwan, and worldwide higher learning institutions as well as news sites such as the BBC, CNN, Time, PBS, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post and Reuters. Censorship is also becoming more subtle. Pages that contain proscribed terms cease loading while Internet access is limited without explanation for minutes or sometimes hours. Users are often not aware they are being censored.

Foreign technology companies have been complicit in this sophisticated throttling of free speech. The Golden Shield could not have progressed without the help of US-based Lucent and Cisco, European wireless giants Nokia and Ericsson and Canada’s Nortel Networks. In 2004 many of the top international technology companies operating in China including Yahoo, Intel, Nokia and Ericsson formed the Beijing Association of Online Media which quickly morphed from a trade grouping into what Bandurski called “an active agent of the Chinese government’s initiative to stifle discussion of political issues”. Two years earlier Yahoo had signed a document called the Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet industry in which it promised to inspect and monitor information on domestic and foreign websites and refuse access to those sites that “disseminate harmful information”. Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said Yahoo had switched “from being an information gateway to an information gatekeeper”. For international companies, it was clear that profits were more important than the health of Chinese democracy.

Few people were especially worried about these technological constraints given China’s astonishing rapid growth and prosperity in the last two decades. Fons Tuinstra relates how when he first studied in China in 1994, the Internet was unknown, it cost $15 to send a fax, and his most important communication tool was a bicycle. At the time, the Chinese bureaucracy was heavily divided about the merits of the Internet. The security apparatus opposed it as it would make their task of keeping a lid on societal tensions much harder. But its concerns were overridden by economic development departments who saw the need to invest heavily in Internet rollout. Authorities also realised that too much censorship would cripple the useful function of using the Internet for government business. The Chinese government closely monitored the Internet not just to control content but also to listen to the increasingly powerful voice of online citizens. As Tuinstra put it:
“Like other media channels, the Internet is more often seen as an extension of the government than a meeting place for opposition so audiences deal with this inherent reality rather than expanding energy opposing it”.

China is now dealing with the paradox of using information technologies to drive growth in the integrated global economy, while at the same time maintaining the authoritarian power of the Communist single-party state. As a result, China walks an ambiguous road between promoting widespread access to the Internet while keeping comprehensive oversight using strategies such as content filtering, monitoring, deterrence, and self-censorship. Journalists must avoid stories about the military, ethnic conflict, religion (particularly the outlawed spiritual movement Falun Gong), and the internal workings of the party and Government. Yet economic reform has impacted the emerging professional culture of media organisations and working journalists, who improvise new reporting strategies to overcome official control and attract market success. And the Communist Party itself is evolving as much as the media that serves it. The 74 million member party has consolidated its iron grip precisely by transforming itself and its relationship with the public. It regularly uses opinion polling and sophisticated spin techniques in an effort to show greater responsiveness to public opinion while heading off alternative opinion at the pass.

While the Party moves with the times, there is less certainty as to what it now stands for. According to Zhou He, the death of Communist ideology is at the heart of most contradictions in China. He says that although China still claims itself to be in “the primitive stage of socialism”, it has tacitly turned itself into a bureaucratic capitalist society. David Harvey described China’s reform era political economy as “neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics”. Communism is no longer an ideology of values and ideas faithfully followed by adherents, but is instead “a ritualised rhetoric [which survives] because of the long convention and the justification it provides to the Communist Party”. Two different media worlds collide in this contradiction: the official ritualised public discourse of the media and a private discourse being explored by blogs. While the mainstream media is staid under the party’s watchful eye, the less well-regulated blogging platform allows for a range of newly emerging ideologies that run a full gamut from liberalism, conservatism, new-leftism, nationalism, cynicism, materialism, and consumerism. This plethora of opinions offers the best hope for a more democratic China.

Blogging was slow to take off in China due to the popularity of bulletin boards and chat rooms in the early 2000s. It took the sexual exploits of Lee Li under the pseudonym of Mu Zi Mei to bring blogging into the mainstream. Her blog about the minutiae of her sex life made her famous and brought the technology to public attention. Li tapped into the zeitgeist at a time when Sex and the City episodes were among the most popular DVDs in China. The popularisation of Li’s blog made blogging the hottest keyword in Chinese search engines. After attracting praise and condemnation in equal measure, the government finally stepped in. After she was strongly criticised by the state-run Beijing Evening News, her book was banned and she shut down the website.

Li’s exposure showed the Chinese blogosphere could allow different political views and ideas to flourish that were previously unavailable. Because China’s traditional press is tightly controlled, bloggers often break news and provide provocative commentary. Many are written by mainstream journalists who cannot speak out at newspapers. Blogs played a prominent role in spreading news and information about the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Bloggers have also taken to using euphemisms to get around keyword filtering to pass around banned material and have also used tactics such as changing pseudonyms and IP addresses or hiding behind proxy servers to sidestep government control. Despite the Golden Shield, the Internet still enjoys greater freedom than other Chinese media platforms. Luwei (Rose) Luqiu, the executive news editor of Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television, sidelines her broadcasting work with a blog called Rose Garden which focuses on analysing news and current affairs and gets two million regular readers across China. She covers the international tours of Chinese leaders such as Hu Jintao and says what interests her readers is the human aspect of government; something she says is forbidden in China’s news media. Although the blog’s portal server is in mainland China and therefore must obey Beijing regulations about restrictions on conducting interviews and avoiding sensitive key words, Luqiu is able to link to her broadcast stories, and write about politics, the Cultural Revolution, and democracy.

Luqiu, Mu Zimei and others have shown how apparently apolitical media practices influence the way people think about politics, culture and society. The ease of publishing a blog makes it an attractive and potentially dangerous weapon. According to Asian studies scholar Haiqing Yu, 2005 was “the year of Chinese blogging”. Two of the largest Chinese Internet Service Providers, and, sponsored competitions to stimulate blog usage while a series of “blogger events” such as the group production of satirical on-line mash-up movies (“Steamed Buns”) and videos (“A Hard Day’s Night”) reflected the general trend of cultural transformation. While the movies and videos showed playful spirit – with “Steamed Buns” becoming a synonym for spoof – the authors in each case denied any political purpose or innuendo. Nevertheless, references to contemporary Chinese politics abound in these works and the pieces were characterised by mockery, paradox, sarcasm, and deliberate misuse and misinterpretation of mainstream ideology. The blog Massage Milk uses the apparently innocuous motto “dai san ge biao” which literally means “wearing three watches”. However, it is also a pun on “three represents”, which was a slogan of former leader Jiang Zemin which was compulsory learning for all Chinese students. Meanwhile Dog Daily purports to gather news about dogs but the references are to humans. This proliferation of consumer choice is destroying the claim of the 2 percent ruling elite of a “hegemonic mandate” over the cultural consumption of the other 98 percent 2002. The consumption of blogs has become a process of subtle resistance.

There are now signs that the elite understands the power of blogging and has started to crack down on some of its more open samizdat dissidents. Last month, the Committee to Project Journalists included China on a list of the ten worst places to blog. They said that despite having more than 300 million people online, Chinese authorities maintain the world’s most comprehensive online censorship program which relies on service providers to filter searches, block critical web sites, delete objectionable content, and monitor e-mail traffic. The crackdowns have forced international watchdogs to re-assess the fundamental meaning of what it was to be a journalist. In 1999, Ann Cooper, the then-executive director of CPJ, noted how her organisation had to decide whether to take up the cases of six Chinese bloggers arrested for “anti-government” or “subversive” messages. While none of the bloggers were professional journalists, CPJ reasoned they were “acting journalistically” by disseminating news, information and opinion and took up the case. Since then the CPJ has defended similar writers in Cuba, Malaysia, Iran and elsewhere. According to Cooper, these early Chinese bloggers have played a trailblazing role in forcing CPJ and American journalists as a whole to re-consider what it is to be a reporter and move the debate along from “who is a journalist?” to “what is journalism?” This is a question that Chinese authorities are also struggling to grapple with as it deals with a tidal wave of new media and new views.

These examples of “shiny China” sit uneasily next to the state-sponsored “old darkness”. Ellingsen’s contradictions have become the hallmark of modern Chinese media. While the state-dominated press and broadcasters serve the “party principle”, Chinese journalists continue to write critically about important issues. And while the media have been hamstrung by a laundry list of restrictions, commercial imperatives are slowly forcing change. Similarly, the state is using sophisticated technology to enforce digital rule on the Internet with the help of foreign companies yet new actors such as bloggers have launched a subtle resistance that is forcing a re-definition of what journalism is and what it is capable of doing in China. While it remains far from clear that the nation will embrace any lasting democracy, the Chinese media is diverse enough to accommodate a wide range of critical voices. The government may find the democratisation of media harder to handle than democracy itself.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

From Burma to Brisbane: A tale of Rohingya resilience

Sujauddin Karimuddin apologised unnecessarily for being late meeting me for a coffee. He was delayed next door at the Mater Hospital where a woman was having complications after the birth of her baby. The woman was a Burmese refugee and it was Sujauddin’s job to translate symptoms and orders between doctor and patient. All in a days work for a remarkable young man who himself was a refugee for many years.

Both Sujauddin and the woman in the hospital are Rohingyas, a mostly Muslim people that have been persecuted for decades by Buddhist Burmese military rulers. The notorious 1982 Citizenship Act stripped them of their right to be Burmese. At a stroke of dictator Ne Win’s pen, a people who had lived in north-west Rakhine (formerly Arakan) province for centuries were declared unpeople who had no right to jobs, land, marriage or travel papers.

Sujauddin went to High School in the early 1990s suffering under this injustice. As he admits, he was one of the lucky ones. His father was a wealthy businessman in the sugar town of Kyauktaw and could bribe his way out of most problems. But even he had been arrested on several occasions for minor misdemeanours. Sajuaddin became involved in Rohingya support groups at school and wrote complaint letters to school and government authorities. He was arrested by military intelligence and charged with raising funds for armed groups in Bangladesh. His father came to the rescue and bribed authorities to get him out. But his mother could see the writing on the wall. She advised her son to get out while he could.

Sujauddin left his home town in 1998 and has never been back. Travelling without papers, he made the dangerous journey to the capital Rangoon by boat and truck. Hundreds were arrested on this known refugee route and Sujauddin was picked up at a military checkpoint 100km from Rangoon and sent to a prison camp. Here he had a stroke of good fortune. A new commander from up north was unaware he was a Rohingya and asked him why he was travelling without papers. Sujauddin told him he was just a poor person looking for a job in Rangoon. The commander admonished him and then freed him with a note saying “this boy is respectable”.

The respectable boy’s father had business interests in the capital. The plan was for Sujauddin to stay and manage the business. But he was defeated by Rangoon’s repressive laws. Citizens must report visitors on a daily basis with a penalty of two years imprisonment for non-compliance. After six dangerous months moving from friends to friends, Sujauddin admitted defeat. He hired an "agent” (what Australians pejoratively call “people smugglers”) and took a bus to Thailand. He arrived in Bangkok and sold roti on the streets to survive.

Inevitably he was caught and sent to an Immigration Detention Centre. Here they served him rice and pork. As a Muslim, Sujauddin could not eat the pork, but as there was no other food he starved. He had no energy to walk and was eventually dragged into a truck and deposited on the Thai-Burmese border with orders not to return. He ignored the order. Instead he contacted a cousin in Malaysia and asked him to send him money to come south to Malaysia. He got back to Bangkok where he contacted another “agent” to take him south to the Malay border. After an all night walk across the jungle, Sujauddin arrived in Malaysia in November 1999.

He took the train to Kuala Lumpur where he found a factory job. Because he was illegal, the conditions were pitiless. He earned just 20 ringgits a day for 12 hours work. He worked seven days a week and hid for a year. Eventually every Sunday he managed to escape to the university where he found a Rohingyan professor who taught him English. He would study for three hours before returning to work. He got a better job in a shopping centre but lasted just two months before being arrested for a third time in a third country.

Once again he was taken to a detention centre. On arrival he was ordered to strip naked in front of two thousand inmates. Sujauddin refused. “I am a Muslim,” he said. “I have my dignity”. The prison officers beat him up but he refused to obey the order. Fellow prisoners shouted out for him to obey but despite the kicking and the bleeding, he refused obstinately. “I would rather die,” he said. He did not die, but he did not take off his clothes either. The camp foreman ordered he be dragged away.

After three months imprisonment he was put on a bus with other detainees and driven to a river on the Thai border. The prisoners were loaded onto a boat and pushed off shore with orders not to come back. On the other side they were picked up by Thai gangs who worked with police. They demanded 200 ringgits or else they would sell them for 200 ringgits to local fisherman. Those that were sold into slavery rarely made it out alive. Sujauddin promised to ring his cousin in the morning to pay the ransom. In the middle of the night he escaped his captors and led them on a scary chase through the jungle. Sujauddin could hear his pursuers following on motorbikes but eventually found a highway petrol station where a couple helped him escape back to Malaysia.

He made his way back to Kuala Lumpur where he got another job. This time he struck it lucky and got a job with a fashion designer. He used his English to good effect and gradually made himself indispensable to his employers. Finally having some fixity of tenure, he resumed his activism and helped found the National Council of Rohingyas with his former English teacher. They succeeded in getting the UN High Commission of Refugees to issue a document to allow Rohingyas to get medical treatment in Malaysia. But while doctors recognised the document, the police would not. 12,000 Rohingyan refugees in Malaysia remained vulnerable to arrest at any minute.

In August 2005 Sujauddin arrived in Sydney on a 6 month 309 spouse temporary visa. He then applied for a refugee visa which took another 9 months to process. In the meantime, Sujauddin was keeping himself busy. He joined the local Rohingya support group and became secretary of the Sydney branch. He also became involved in wider Burmese issues. He joined the Burma Campaign Australian and also worked with the Burmese Democratic Movement Association. During the Saffron Revolution he organised support rallies in Sydney.

He moved to Brisbane where he now provides new Rohingyan refugees with cultural and language support. The love for his Rakhine homeland still shines brightly in his eyes and his biggest task now is to be re-united with his family who are now in refugee camps in Bangladesh. He wants the Australian Government to do more to help his repressed people. “I want them to put pressure on the Burmese Government and raise the issue in the UN Security Council,” he said. “Enough is enough. Australia is the western country closest to Burma and should take more responsibility to solve the problem. It’s bad enough for the half million Rohingya in the camps but its worse for the several million still in Burma. It’s our job to provide awareness to the international community so that people know what’s going on”. With that, Sujauddin apologised once more and disappeared into the Brisbane rain. I cycled home, oblivious to the wet, pondering on what it meant to live in a world where freedom could not be taken for granted.

Monday, June 22, 2009

And the Ozcar goes to “Waiting for Copenhagen”

It is quite appropriate that a major Australian political scandal revolves around a humble 1996 Mazda Bravo. The Bravo motor is apparently known for suffering cylinder head issues and it is clear that our parliament has blown a gasket or two in the last few days over it. But the Bravo is also a workhorse utility vehicle, not a SUV as the world calls them but a “yeoot”, beloved of Australians and ideal for carrying corflutes and campaign messages for politicians on the move such as Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan. In giving the pair an election ute each, what John Grant wanted in return was access to the $2 billion mush fund that the government in its stimulatory wisdom decided the already wealthy car dealer industry needed a prop-up to survive the global recession.

You’d think that IPCC data would suggest that putting money in the car dealer industry was not an example of “picking a winner” in the 21st century green economy. But you’d forget that Australia is still ruled by twentieth century institutions who have more pressing matters to discuss than irreversible climate change. To get this long-term problem to the fore of political opinion is difficult enough when the politicians are judged by what they do every three years. But it is made worse by the news cycle which demands a narrative for each day. The only feedback mechanism of interest to Australian politics today is the reaction to that daily story.

Today’s story was summed up in a remarkable 7.30 Report tonight on ABC where Kerry O’Brien interviewed Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull back to back. All the key issues of the day came out and both politicians stoutly defended their own position while attacking the other. But does it matter who send what to whom in which channel? What did not come out from interviewer or interviewees was why the government is guaranteeing the car dealership industry $2 billion to stay alive. Is this appropriate behaviour for a country that is struggling to meet its commitments to become a low carbon economy?

In their Utegate Explained (simultaneously despising and using the dreaded –gate cliche) Crikey goes through all of today’s players and all of the rival claims. Beyond the politicians shouting at each other to resign, there is a rich dramatis personae of car dealers, political advisers, journalists and lobbyists who are all seeking either money or favours. None, it would seem, are remotely worried that the scheme is in any way improper.

The journalist mentioned by Crikey is News Ltd’s Steve Lewis. Lewis says the story was set in motion when he rang the boss of Ford Credit on Monday. Lewis was chasing up with Greg Cohen whether Ford's finance arm had been asked to give assistance to John Grant at the same time Ford was seeking access to the $2b OzCar scheme. Cohen ducked the questions but Lewis said the conversation set in motion the chain of events. Like the concocted email he would later write about, this is self-serving rubbish from Lewis. The genesis of the problem goes much further back.

On 5 December 2008, Treasurer Wayne Swan announced the establishment of a new car dealer finance scheme. As a result of the global financial crisis, the government stepped in with a transitional $2 billion Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV). Despite the name the SPV wasn’t a car; it was a finance package. The package would be available to provide liquidity for 450 car dealers left without wholesale floor plan financing when financiers GE Money Motor Solutions and GMAC left the Australian market. The SPV became known as ‘OzCar’ and was legally established as a Trust on 2 January. It soon became the Car Dealership Financing Guarantee Appropriation Bill 2009.

When the SPV legislation finally reached the Senate in June, the Opposition referred to the Economics Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 23 June. This was strange behaviour from the Opposition. Don’t they have car dealer mates too? Was this the set-up for the “smoking gun” they promised against the Prime Minister. Through Andrew Charlton, Turnbull knew that Grant had gotten favourable treatment from the government. Through friend and former Treasury office Paul Lindwall, he faked an email to the civil servant Godwin Grech that outlined the preferential treatment. According to The Punch, Lindwall “has links” to Grech.

Grech was invited to give testimony to the Senate Enquiry on Friday. With his superior at his side, Grech was like a rabbit in the headlights. When Greg Cohen from Ford Credit came to Canberra seeking funds from the yet-to-exist OzCar, it was Grech who dealt with his claim. Liberal senator Eric Abetz established that Grech told Cohen of the plight of at least three car dealers with Rudd and Swan’s mate John Grant one of them.

Abetz set the trap by questioning the reluctant Grech. The problem is that the opposition reached too high and aimed for Rudd when Swan may have been there for the taking. Abetz asked whether the official had personally sighted any correspondence, “email, note, memorandum or any type of documentation” from the Prime Minister’s office to Treasury—concerning Mr John Grant and the OzCar facility? Grech’s eyes-down response was immediately legendary: “My recollection may well be totally false or faulty, but my recollection—and it is a big qualification—but my recollection is that there was a short email from the PMO to me which very simply alerted me to the case of John Grant, but I do not have the email.”

Who wrote the email? Who knows? It could well have been Julia Gillard for all I know. She had both motive and plausible deniability. The email is of no consequence. It was a communication designed to deceive. When we route around this damage, we find that while the Government and Opposition have their sport, they will eventually patch up their modest differences in the Senate. They will then spend $2 billion on fatcat car dealers that do not need our help while deferring spending on more pressing causes on the dubious grounds that “we must wait for Copenhagen”.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Nicolas Baudin, navigator

Now that I’m at the end of a university semester, I can return to the simple delight of reading books for pleasure. I’ve just finished Klaus Toft’s The Navigators which is the story of the race which took place in Napoleonic times between British captain Matthew Flinders and his French counterpart Nicolas Baudin to find the fabled sea passage through the middle of what was then known as New Holland, but now rejoices in the name Flinders gave it: “Australia”.

The Danish born Toft originally produced the work as a documentary for the ABC. His brief was to celebrate Matthew Flinders on the occasion of the bicentennial of his voyage around Australia. But as Toft explained in the preface to the book that followed, to tell Flinders story without reference to Nicolas Baudin was like telling Napoleon’s story without mentioning Josephine. And as the book progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that the Dane’s sympathies lie even more with the phlegmatic French captain than it does with his more celebrated but temperamental English rival.

Nicolas Baudin’s problem was that he did not survive the voyage around Australia. He died of tuberculosis on the way home at the Ile de France (Mauritius) in 1803. The version of his history that survived was written by his subordinate officers. These were mostly royalists who despised the commoner that commanded their ship in the Southern Oceans for three years. The book of the voyage downplayed his role. After reading the official account of his journey, Napoleon said Baudin did well to die: “on his return I would have had him hanged”.

Toft’s book goes a long way to righting the wrongs about Nicolas Baudin. When he set sail on his scientific voyage to chart the coastline of what the French called Terres Australes in October 1800, he was at the height of his powers and commanded 185 sailors, 22 scientists, and two ships: Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste. Baudin was ordered to find out whether a vast strait existed which separated the two sides of the Australian continent. The journey also had a political point. Napoleon wanted a strategic counterpart to the recently established English colony at Port Jackson. If the strait existed, France could lay claim to the western portion. Meanwhile Madame Bonaparte asked Boudin to bring back live creatures for her private collection.

Baudin was following in the footsteps of four doomed French captains none of whom made it back to France alive from their voyages. St Allouarn claimed the western Terres for France in 1772 but died six months later. Around the same time Dufresne was the first white man to land at Terre de van Diemen (Tasmania) before he was killed and eaten by New Zealand Maoris. La Perouse famously landed in Port Jackson on the same day as the First Fleet before disappearing in the Pacific. And when Admiral Bruny d’Entrecasteaux went to find him and failed, he too died on the way home.

Undeterred by the misfortunes of his earlier comrades, Baudin set off in good heart. But his good mood didn’t last long. He was unable to secure adequate supplies in Tenerife and the diminished rations caused grumbles among the officers and scientists aboard. He lost further time in the Doldrums as the ship drifted for windless weeks at the mercy of the currents. Most of the men on board had never been at sea and blamed the captain for their predicament. Finally in February 1801, the ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope where the winds began to blow, if often from the wrong direction.

Baudin sailed on to the Ile de France. The locals were not happy to see him. They thought he had arrived to enforce the 1794 decree to emancipate French slaves. The local gentry relied on slavery to run the local economy. They refused to feed the sailors and actively encouraged desertion so they could control the two fine ships. Baudin borrowed 10,000 piastres so he could buy supplies from private merchants and set sail again eastward across the Indian Ocean.

In the autumn of 1801, Baudin arrived at the south-western coast of Terres Australes which had been charted by Allouarn. The following day he found a large bay uncharted on the maps and called it Geographe Bay in honour of his ship. Baudin led a party ashore where they met the Wardandi people before sailing on north to avoid coastal storms. According to his orders he was to head south towards Van Diemans Land and see if the fabled strait across Australia existed. But with winter approaching, he headed towards Timor with a view to returning in the spring. Baudin charted the Bonaparte Archipelago islands off the Kimberley before limping into the lonely Dutch outpost of Kupang in West Timor.

Baudin became seriously ill with fever in Timor and many of his crew expected him to die. But after 12 weeks he recovered and headed back south down the Western Australian coastline. By now Matthew Flinders was on his tail. Baudin had a nine month start on the Englishman but the various delays had allowed him to catch up. Flinders’ boat The Investigator also had a scientific motive and hit the coast barely ten nautical miles from where Baudin first sighted New Holland. But Flinders continued eastwards towards the fabled strait.

40 days after leaving Timor, Baudin was back at his survey starting point. His boat crew suffered badly from tropical fever and dysentery and 11 had died since leaving the Dutch colony. Nevertheless the voyage continued until he reached Tasmania’s D’Entrecasteaux Channel. Here they saw no British but did meet friendly Nuenonne natives. One of the crew challenged a Nuenonne to a wrestling contest which he won. But the defeated local threw a spear at the Frenchman in revenge causing a minor injury. Baudin insisted there be no retaliation. His view about indigenous people was they should “observe [them] without judgement”.

After five weeks on Bruny Island observing local customs, they set sail up the eastern seaboard of Tasmania and into a body of water his English charts called “Bass’s Strait”. Heading back towards Southern Australia, he was greeted by an amazing sight: a ship which ran up the English flag. In command of the English vessel, Matthew Flinders was equally shocked but recovered his composure to board the French vessel. The two captains met formally on 8 April 1802 as representatives of nations at war. They compared charts. Flinders told Baudin he had discovered Port Phillip Bay and Western Port, while Baudin spoke about their stay in Terre de Van Diemen. Flinders reveal he had charted the Bight and discovered there was no “Williamson’s Strait” (named for the American captain who claimed to have sailed up it). In honour of the occasion Flinders called the area “Encounter Bay”.

While Flinders sailed for Port Jackson, Baudin went westward. But with half his crew struck down by malnutrition and scurvy, he realised he too would have to head for the British colony at New South Wales. He arrived in Sydney in June where he discovered Britain and France had signed a peace treaty at Amiens. Governor Philip King treated him warmly and sent 22 of his crew to hospital. Despite the colony itself being short of food due to floods on the Hawkesbury, King gave the French ample fresh produce. Baudin met Flinders again and spent the Bastille Day holiday together. But the two men did not share a great rapport. Baudin was more comfortable with King with whom he shared the headaches of dealing with insubordination.

While Flinders then set off on his great circumnavigation of the continent, Baudin resumed his exploration of the south coast. He had accumulated 100,000 natural history specimens including 20 living creatures: dingoes, wombats, black swans, cassowaries and emus. When they arrived at King Island they found the British had set up an armed camp. Baudin wrote a remarkable private letter to King saying “I have never been able to conceive that there was justice or even fairness on the part of Europeans in seizing…a land seen for the first time, when it is inhabited by men who have not always deserved the title of savages”. It would many years before a European would again suggest that Indigenous people had land rights.

But the end was near for the Frenchman. He picked up kangaroos on Kangaroo Island and now both his boats were filled with wildlife. He decided it was time to sail for home. After a stop at Timor, he began coughing blood. He had another revolutionary idea which was to hold a ballot of crew for a second-in-command. He was shocked to find his enemy Henri Freycinet won the ballot ahead of his own choice Francois Ronsard. With his TB getting worse, Baudin’s ship arrived in Ile de France. There he wrote a letter to the Minister of Marine stating his satisfaction with the mission’s achievements. The value of his charts and scientific discoveries was immense. But on 16 September 1803 he suffered the same fate as Dufresne, Allouarn, La Perouse and D’Entrecasteaux and died far from home. And while Flinders is feted today, Baudin’s name remains almost entirely unknown both in France and Australia. Toft’s book is a welcome rehabilitation of his reputation.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Good NightJack: a legal blow to whistleblowing

Australia devolves much of its law from Britain. The news that a court has forced a policeman there to reveal his identity as a blogger will eventually have profound consequences for Australia too. The case was an ironic clash of rights between the privacy of the individual writer to preserve their anonymity as a whistleblower, against the right of a newspaper publisher to name the individual under a pretext of outing their bad behaviour. The judge sided with the newspaper.

On Tuesday British High Court Justice David Eady ruled that anonymous bloggers have no right to keep their identity secret. The case was brought by Richard Horton, a 45 year old detective with the Lancashire Constabulary. Horton sought an injunction to prevent The Times from naming him as the author of the revealing police insider blog NightJack. The anonymous hard-hitting blog attracted a readership of half a million people. His advice to readers was: get your complaint in first ("racism and homophobia are your friends"); never explain to the police, because they'll use it against you; claim suicidal thoughts.

Horton may or may not have had suicidal thoughts of his own when Eady rejected his plea that his anonymity be preserved "in the public interest". The judge said Horton knew he risked disciplinary action if his bosses found out. “The public was entitled to know how police officers behaved and the newspaper's readers were entitled to come to their own conclusions about whether it was desirable for officers to communicate such matters publicly,” said his Lordship. He concluded Horton did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, because “blogging is essentially a public rather than a private activity.” And so the thirst of the Times to tell a story destroyed the blog.

On Tuesday Lancashire Constabulary issued Horton a written warning and announced he had accepted “that parts of his public commentary have fallen short of the standards of professional behaviour we expect of our police officers.” Horton was silenced and all we got was a comment from his lawyer: "He is keeping his head down and won't be making any comment.” The blog itself was expunged. Now when you log on to Nightjack, you get a terse message from Word Press saying “The authors have deleted this blog. The content is no longer available”.

But there are some cached versions around of some of his posts. For instance the 27 November 2008 entry shows some of his difficulties of being a policeman. “For this and a few other reasons, I am now pretty sure that although I did not join the Stasi, we are in fact being used as such by politicians looking to settle grudges just like the Evil Poor on the Cannonrail Estate.” Provocative perhaps, but where in any of this is the necessity to know his name?

Even The Times admits the blog “gave a behind-the-scenes insight into frontline policing, included strong views on social and political issues.” So this case was not about the right to know – Horton was already making sure the audience had that right. It was simply an act of petulance by The Times. The paper had praised the anonymous blogger profusely in April when he won the Orwell Prize for political blogging.

But a Times journalist named Patrick Foster was determined to find out who he was. Foster played the despicable “child offender” card in order to scramble to the high moral ground. As he explained it, “what the Orwell Prize judges did not know is that he was also using the blog to disclose detailed information about cases he had investigated, which could be traced back to real-life prosecutions.” Next, the killer line from Foster, “each involved sex offences, often committed against children.” This long bow was carte blanche enough for Foster to out him.

The final lines of Foster’s article noted the blog was now closed and Horton’s “superiors are now aware of further allegations that he was also using the blog to disclose information gained during his investigations.” And with that Foster signed off, smugly happy that he had closed off a route of truth talking to power all in the name of perpetrating a moral panic. Journalists of all people should know the value of anonymity and have gone to jail rather than reveal their anonymous sources to judges. The Times will have plenty of time to regret their stupidity of getting a High Court to override this. In one stroke of a judicial pen, whistleblowing just got a lot more difficult.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Peru revokes Amazon land laws after massive protests

Peru's Congress revoked two controversial land decrees yesterday to exploit virgin rainforest after protests that left dozens dead in the Amazon region. Congress voted 82-12 to revoke two decrees that indigenous groups said would encourage oil and gas exploitation on their ancestral lands. Native Indians had been in conflict with the government for two months and had paralysed the nation’s highways with roadblocks while thousands marched in support on the streets of Lima. Peruvian President Alan Garcia was forced to admit that indigenous communities were not consulted in the original decision to open up large areas of the Amazon basin to logging, dams and oil drilling.

The vice president of the Amazon Indian confederation immediately called off the protest after the Congress vote. Garcia had issued the original decrees in 2007 to give the state powers to regulate investment in the Amazon as part of a free trade deal with the US. Indigenous groups were outraged and said the decrees would affect their ancestral lands and threaten their way of life. According to Amnesty International, Peru breached their obligations under the International Labour Organisation Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in failing to consult.

In response, Indigenous leader Alberto Pizango, head of Asociacion Interetnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (Aidesep), called for a general strike. The government declared a curfew but tens of thousands marched in defiance in Lima. On 5 June the violence became deadly near the jungle town of Bagua, about 1,000km north of the capital when police tried to break up a road blockade manned by activists. 650 Peruvian National Police and Special Forces officers launched a pre-dawn raid on the blockade which was manned by Awajun and Wambis indigenous people. Some protesters had wooden spears but most were unarmed. Police attacked from both sides with automatic fire, teargas grenades and live rounds from helicopters.

Death figures are disputed. The government says 23 police and 10 civilians were killed, with another one police officer missing. The Huffington Post accused the police of ignoring civilian deaths while conflating their own dead with numbers from a separate incident elsewhere. According to Indian leaders at least 30 civilians died and there are varied reports that between 100 and 150 people died in the attack.

The dispute became international when Peru accused neighbouring Bolivia of being behind the riots. In return Bolivian president Evo Morales said the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was to blame for the violence. Morales said that the FTA promoted privatisation and handed the Amazons forests to transnational companies. The Bolivian leader said US FTA practices amounted to “genocide in Latin America” with the Indigenous worst affected.

Alberto Pizango accused the Peruvian government of genocide over the Bagua clashes. After talks with the government broke down, he called for an uprising. That was the cue for Peruvian authorities to charge Pizango with sedition. Nicaragua granted him political asylum and he arrived in Managua on Wednesday where he blamed Garcia’s administration for the Bagua massacre. “The results were disastrous, and even the government can't deny it any more,” he said.

Just 400,000 of Peru’s 28 million are Amazonian Indians. But the protests have united many of Peru's non Indigenous citizens behind their claims. According to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, President Garcia is “no friend of the indigenous”. He colluded with multinational companies to tread on indigenous constitutionally protected rights. His position was weak with the global financial crisis as Peruvian economic growth stalled due to a decline in commodities prices. He also knows that in conceding defeat to the indigenous demands, international investors may take their complaints to a free trade dispute board. That outcome could yet be the Achilles heel of Garcia’s apparent agreement to revoke the laws.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Romero Centre refugee week film festival at Yungaba

Life throws up a few unexpected pleasures from time to time. If I hadn't checked Facebook this morning, I wouldn't have known Andrew Bartlett was broadcasting live on 4ZZZ Brisbane community radio at the time. if I hadn't listened in, I wouldn't have heard the interview he did about refugees with Kathi McCulloch, the coordinator of the Romero Centre. If I hadn't heard the interview I wouldn't have known that there was a Refugee Week film festival tonight at the wonderful Kangaroo Point building known as Yungaba. So on the spur of the moment, I went along and was treated to an evening of three films, discussion, food and drink, and good company.

The Romero Centre is a faith-based ecumenical social justice organisation. The centre is named for El Salvadorian Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated by his own government in 1980 for fighting human abuses. As part of the spiteful regime of the former Howard Government, the Romero Centre was ineligible for funding from the Department of Immigration because of its work with Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) holders. Now that is beginning to change and new funding possibilities are opening up along with the great ideas they can purchase.

The film festival about refugees is one such great idea and Yungaba is a perfect venue to host it. The heritage listed building was built as an immigration depot for Brisbane in 1885. For over a hundred years it became a local version of Ellis Island and was listed recently as a Queensland icon. But the building has now been sold to private developers who will probably turn it in to boutique apartments for the wealthy. In the meantime it was an honour to be among a hundred people at one of the final public gatherings in what McCulloch called this “joyous space”.

There were three films shown in the festival, all of which touched on the refugee experience. The first, and shortest, was “See Through Me” a collection of tough street experiences of ten young Somali-Australian immigrants made by the Refugee Health Research Centre of La Trobe University in Melbourne. The “fight or flight” mentality became easier to see from their perspective. As one Somali boy said when taunted by a gang, “I was outnumbered, I had to ignore them or I would have copped the damage”.

The second film was Freedom or Death. “Freedom or Death” was the slogan of the refugees held in Nauru detention centre for several shameful years during the height of John Howard’s notorious Pacific Solution. The mendicant state of Nauru was bought off by the Australian Government to house boatpeople in an environment that was excised from Australian law. The refugees became sick of living with no hope of release in an environment where phosphate got into the food and into the feet. They fought back with the only weapons they had: their bodies. Howard branded the Nauru 2003 hunger strike as “blackmail” and refused to negotiate with them. But as lawyer Julian Burnside said “they were playing the only card they had”.

Out of their midst emerged a born leader. Chaman Shah Nasiri (pictured seated next to Kathi McCulloch) was a young man whose dignity could not be repressed and it was he who got his fellow inmates to end the hunger strike before anyone died. Chaman, like most of the rest of them, is a Hazara, a Shia community which were heavily discriminated against in Sunni Taliban Afghanistan. He described the terror of trying to get to Australia in leaky, dangerous boats and pay $16,000 for the privilege. He was a natural spokesman for the group and he was in the delegation that spoke to the then-Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone’s office in 2003. Chaman is now happy to be settled in Australia where “he can breathe the air of freedom” and reminded the audience that Australia is a signatory of the UNHCR convention/protocol on refugees.

The final film was called “Pacific Solution: from Afghanistan to Aotearoa”. It tells the story of those rescued from the MV Tampa in 2001 who were taken in by New Zealand. While Australia and New Zealand share a common colonial heritage, they treated refugees radically differently in the early 2000s. While Howard banged on stridently about “us” deciding who could stay in Australia and under what conditions, the Helen Clark government took a more compassionate approach (often against the anger of many New Zealanders worried about immigration). New Zealand immediately accepted 131 of the 438 Tampa asylum seekers (including about 40 unaccompanied boys). The film took in the touching story of how the rest of the family joined one of these boys in Auckland, and the culture and language difficulties they found on arrival. This family was also Hazara and had to leave Afghanistan. As Julian Burnside said “when your own country wants to kill you…what choice do you have?”

While TPVs and Nauru are gone, the problem has not fully gone away. There is compassion fatigue within the industry. The media is always ready to play up fears about “border protection”, despite the reality that Australia is no danger of being “swamped” by refugees. The current Australian Government is worried about being wedged on the issue – they remember only too well that Howard had a 90 percent approval rating over Tampa. Yet they could also do well from learning how the Kiwis quietly and effectively dealt with the problem. Refugees need help and by international law and the covenants that Australia has signed, we must help them. Nights like tonight at Yungaba are a useful reminder of how that help can be sustained at an individual level.

China backflips on Green Dam net nanny

Iran is not the only 20th century totalitarian regime struggling to overcome 21st century technology. Yesterday the Chinese government was forced into an embarrassing backflip when it overturned its directive that all computers sold in China after 1 July should include the Green Dam Youth Escort Web filtering software. Government mouthpiece China Daily now reported that the Green Dam software is not compulsory on all computers. It says users will still need to have the software on an installation disk but it is up to individuals to install the software. This effectively means it will be ignored. China Daily now says it all was merely "a misunderstanding.”

If it was a misunderstanding, it was one that has backfired spectacularly on the government. Green Dam is net nanny software. Chinese authorities had claimed it was necessary to protect people from pornography but the software also blocks politically sensitive terms and can be updated remotely to filter out other “undesired” items. But the software has some undesired features of its own. It is spyware which uses unencrypted data which can be easily hacked. It is also not robust with known versions not working for Firefox or Safari and is also not compatible with Macs or Linux machines. Like the controversial proposed Australian “clean feed” it is also resource hungry and may impact performance. Worst of all, it may be pirated software.

This ham-fisted drama provoked exactly what the government didn't want: a very public controversy about censorship. Chinese journalist Michael Anti says the intrusive filtering treated all consumers like children. "China is a kindergarten, that is the basic logic behind this," says Michael Anti, a Chinese journalist and popular microblogger. "It's stupid. It's so stupid." Meanwhile, Hong Kong-based Internet scholar Rebecca McKinnon said the debacle has turned into the laughing stock of China.

On her blog, McKinnon got hold of a document from an anonymous source ordering Green Dam’s installation on all PCs. The software’s black list contains about 2,700 words related to pornography and about 6,500 “politically sensitive” words. According to McKinnon’s document locally made and imported PCs are required to pre-install the latest version of "Green Dam Youth Escort" by 1 July. PC Manufacturers and Green Dam’s developers Jinhui Computer System Engineering are then required to provide monthly reports to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) about sales figures and the number of copies installed.

But there are serious questions about the legitimacy of the software, beyond the censorship ramifications. According to The Register, the software was pirated from an American software maker Solid Oak and also uses open-source code without displaying the proper license. US software maker Solid Oak is seeking injunctions against Jinhui and its US suppliers claiming that Green Dam code uses libraries tagged with the name of its CyberSitter application and makes calls back to Solid Oak servers.

The British online IT magazine also warns the software poses a massive security risk as a single point of failure. If it were possible to hack into the code, says The Register, Green Dam could be used to create a huge malicious software robot. It could also be used to create targeted attacks on government computers. It is probably this latter threat that the government wants fixed up before it proceeds with making it compulsory.

Green Dam is aimed at supporting the server-side and ISP-level filters, the so-called Great Firewall of China and the Golden Shield. It came about as paranoid Communist officials realised that even with all their sophisticated surveillance technology, users could still by-pass government censorship. Bryan Zhang, founder of Jinhui, said Green Dam operates similarly to net nanny software to let parents block access to Web content inappropriate for children. Some computers sold in China already come with parental-control software, but it isn't government-mandated. But Jinhui is unlikely to take its current issues lying down. Zhang stands to make a lot of money when each of China 250,000 million Internet users are forced to install paid upgrades of Green Dam in a year’s time. The high level of user ridicule will need to be sustained over the coming months to compete with serious money and political paranoia if it is to ensure the Chinese internet is not completely damned.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Andrew Fraser hands down Queensland budget 2009

Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser introduced his second budget into state parliament today with the state over half a billion dollars in the red. Fraser said the worst set of global economic circumstances in more than 75 years has resulted in rising unemployment and revenues from transfer duties, GST and royalties taking a battering. But just as the impact of the so-called federal “horror” budget was muted by judicious advanced leaking, most of the key items in Queensland’s budget were in the public domain before Fraser gave the details to his parliamentary colleagues in Brisbane today. The treasurer said today’s budget had a dual function: to support the economy during the financial crisis and to “chart a course for a new future beyond these dark hours.”

He announced a “colossal drop” in forecast revenue of more than $15 billion due to shortfalls in the key revenue streams of royalties, taxes and GST. This will result in a deficit of $574 million, which is actually a lot better than $1.5 billion deficit forecast in February but will still not return to surplus until 2015-2016. The state’s economy is forecast to contract by 0.25 of a percent in 2009-2010 before returning to modest growth the following year. Unemployment is also trending upwards from 6.50 percent in 2009-2010 rising to 7.25 percent the following year. This means an additional 175,000 people on the dole.

Fraser said the centre of the budget was an $18.2 billion capital works program with funding for roads, ports, schools, transport and other infrastructure. This capital outlay will support 127,000 full-time jobs. The Abbot Point coal terminal will be expanded at a cost of $305 million, there will be a Bundaberg ring road at $100 million, and $464 million will be spent on the Gold Coast Rapid Transit project. In Brisbane, $259 million goes towards the Gateway duplication and another $125 is spent on the new Houghton Highway Bridge. Disappointingly not much will be spent on public transport.

Hospitals and health facilities account for $1.3 billion of the total with new hospitals at Mackay (2013) and Gold Coast University Hospital (2012). There is also funding for a research facility at the new Queensland Children’s Hospital at Brisbane’s Mater. The budget provides for 645 more doctors, nurses and health practitioners, 350 more teachers and teacher aides, 200 more police and another 50 ambulance officers.

There will also be $300 million for new school facilities plus another $150 million for climate change and Barrier Reef protection packages. $57 million will go to a “green army program” to create 3,000 jobs by improving waterways, beaches, national parks and green spaces. The government also abolished stamp duty for vacant land for first home buyers who purchase vacant land to build their first home up to $250,000 with a further concession to land up to a value of $400,000.

To pay for all of this, the government announced its revised fiscal principles designed to save $5.4 billion over four years. This figure does not include asset sales. As flagged earlier, the 8c fuel subsidy will be abolished saving $2.4 billion. There will also be the promised “public sector efficiency dividend” of $280 million a year from 2009-10 which the government says will not impact on “front line service delivery”. But what will go are local government grant and subsidy programs. Motor vehicle registration will increase from 1 June. The tax rate on casino gaming machine wins will go from 10 percent to 20 for Townsville and Cairns and from 20 percent to 30 percent for Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Apprentice and trainee wages will be excluded from payroll tax and the government will extend a further 25 percent rebate on these wages. But Fraser said the government’s own wage bill will only increase by 2.5 percent with MPs to continue their pay freeze.

The budget announced more details on the controversial asset sales which are not factored into budget estimates. The program has a strong export focus and will involve the sale of Forestry Plantations Queensland’s softwood business (and possibly also its hardwood plantations business), Queensland Motorways Limited, the Port of Brisbane, Queensland Rail’s coal businesses and Abbot Point Coal Terminal. The sales will be staggered over three to five years and the government expects them to raise $15 billion. The sale will also mean that $12 billion in required capital investment over the next five years will be avoided – however it is not certain that this capital investment is factored into the likely sale price.

The Queensland Greens have come out against the asset sales saying that control of these utilities is essential in making a smooth transition to a low carbon economy. The Greens will also closely scrutinise the climate change components of the budget. The government supports the CPRS (Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) and in its Toward Q2: Tomorrow's Queensland document has set a target of cutting a third of Queensland’s carbon footprint by 2020. Key budget initiatives include the Solar Hot Water Program, investment in the Geothermal Centre of Excellence and $7 million towards the development of a 10MW solar thermal power station at Cloncurry. But these measures are dwarfed by the $300 million Clean Coal Fund which is of dubious environmental benefit but keeps the government’s industry friends happy. Anna Bligh’s government has a long way to go before it is weaned off its love affair of coal.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Life on three continents: Of Ahmadinejad, Peter Costello and Omar Bongo

I was determined to write about Gabon today. After all, the West African nation has installed a female president Rose Francine Rogombé as an interim replacement for Africa’s longest serving dictator Omar Bongo Ondimba. And I will write about Rogombé and Bongo later in this article. However, a couple of other matters in Iran and Australia have grabbed my more immediate attention.

The biggest news worldwide is the continuing fall-out from the Iran election. Mousavi supporters are continuing a violent protest against what they say was a rigged election. Yet while the uniformity of the results does look suspicious, the wide margin suggests that Ahmadinejad probably did win. As the BBC’s John Simpson said “This was not, of course, the result the West was hoping for.” Of course. But the West needs to come to some rapprochement with Ahmadinejad (and his boss the Ayatollah Khamenei) if they are to end Iran’s international isolation. As Simpson said, Obama and the EU will “surely prefer President Ahmadinejad, with his reputation tarnished” than support the riots that have crippled the streets of Tehran since the result was announced.

The communication of those riots also became the news of the day. The revolution may not be televised but it could very well be Twittered. Ahmadinejad claimed that Western media are behind the protests against him but the fact is that CNN simply weren’t interested. It was Twitter where the action was both in #CNNFail US and opposition Iran. After being silent for several hours, defeated leader Mir Hussein Mousavi’s twitterstream announced on Sunday morning “Dear Iranian People, Mousavi has not left you alone, he has been put under house arrest by Ministry of Intelligence.” It was confusingly later updated to say the BBC confirmed that Mousavi is NOT under house arrest. As of today the man is free and is on the way to a protest where he is asking his followers for calm.

Back in the more rarefied atmosphere of Australian federal politics, one man did exhibit a Zen-like calm today. Peter Costello finally hung up his Overshadow and walked off the Canberra stage today with his decision to retire from politics. The actual end date for the meddlesome member for Higgins is not immediate; it will be effective next election. But the news means that Malcolm Turnbull will now probably lead the Liberals to the next two elections. Former Treasurer Costello was relaxed and joking as he spoke at Parliament House today. When he said his announcement would be welcomed by “both sides of the dispatch box”, everyone laughed knowingly. It was funny because it was an obvious truth and one that could not be admitted beforehand by Costello, the Liberals or indeed, by Labor.

While I paused to consider what that breathtaking insouciance says about the Australian polity, I cast my eyes back to Gabon. Situated on Africa’s west coast between Cameroon and Congo Republic, Gabon doesn’t get much press in the west. Nothing much happens in this small country of 1.5 million. It had known only one leader for 41 years. Omar Bongo was Africa’s longest serving head of state but died of cancer in Spain last week aged 73.

No one was terribly upset by his death. The Kenyan Standard called the diminutive Bongo “a pint-sized dinosaur who stifled Gabon”. He stole millions from his country in offshore oil revenues. called him “a notorious looter-for-life” who spent $800 million on his palace while the capital Libreville did without a major hospital. But Bongo got away with his crimes because he was protected by former colonial power France. Nicolas Sarkozy will be one of ten heads of state to attend his funeral on Thursday.

Meanwhile Rose Francine Rogombé was sworn in overnight as Gabon’s interim president. The 66 year old Rogombé is Gabon’s first female president. Rogombé is a member of the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) founded by Bongo, was speaker of Gabon’s senate and is a human rights lawyer. She has been given all an elected president’s powers apart from authority to dissolve parliament or to hold referendums. Rogombé will be a breath of fresh air for a nation that has been used to Bongo's absolute power for almost half a century. The downside is that Rogombé doesn't have much time to make an impression. She will be ineligible to contest the presidential poll for a permanent replacement constitutionally due in the next two months.

The longer-term prognosis is not good. The favourite for the election is Bongo’s son and Gabon's Defence Minister Ali Ben Bongo. The 50 year old was parachuted into the role in 1999 as a move to pre-empt coups against the dictator while grooming the son to succeed. Ben Bongo is of the same corrupt cut as his father and enjoys conspicuous spending. In 2003 executives of French oil company Elf paid the pair $16.7 million in bribes to allow them pillage the nation’s oil wealth. Meanwhile, his wife Inge has been busy buying a $25 million mansion in LA’s most exclusive neighbourhood Malibu. But watch out for Ali Ben to resuscitate the party motto that only a Bongo can unify the country’s ethnic groups.

With Omar Bongo’s death, the mantle for the longest serving dictator in Africa now passes on to the estimable Muamar Gaddafy. The Colonel launched his Libyan revolution on 1 September 1969 meaning he is almost 40 years in power. He is currently being feted in Italy by Silvio Berluscone who will probably appreciate Gaddafy’s request to meet 1,000 prominent Italian women on the trip. And new president Gabonese Rogombé would be impressed by his all female bodyguard. Yet the man himself is as inscrutable as ever. "There is no difference between men and women on a human level," he exclaimed. "God made men and women, we must respect the differences between the sexes."