Friday, March 10, 2006

October-February Poll Results

Question: Will the process for accepting the new Iraqi constitution enfranchise Sunnis enough to be legitimate?

Yes: 8 (67%)
No: 4 (33%)

This vexed issue provided mixed results amongst the small sample group, and understandably so. However, I think the subsequent participation of the Sunni minority in the democratic process and their pragmatic deal-making with other groups has been testament to the overall survival of the fledgling democratic process. Even with the 'sectarian violence' we hear so much about in the media (a term which needs to be unpacked over a few articles), the daily affairs of government are being conducted in a truly admirable manner with the Iraqi central government quietly taking over more responsibilities as the months go by.

Once again, many thanks for your participation! Please feel free to vote in the new poll which attempts to tease out the latest curveball thrown up in the Palestinian Authority.

PS: I have been a rather sporadic poster (to put it lightly) over the past few months due to my extended trip to Israel. Of course, the period held a number of big surprises in that region so I'll be endeavouring to put up some of my pictures and experiences of the Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem, the Israeli Labour Party primaries, and the general election campaigning in the course of the next few weeks.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Free Speech: An Absolute Right?

[Prepared for the ANU Student Magazine, Woroni]

Mr Irving has his day in court
Free speech. The phrase is getting a lot of airplay over recent weeks, with a host of people proclaiming, defending, qualifying and questioning it. I’ve been asked to apply the debate to recent events in Austria, where a renowned British Holocaust denier has been sentenced to three years’ jail under Austria’s laws against such activity. I’ll take a look at exactly what happened there and then see how it washes in a broader context.

David Irving is our man of the moment in Austria. It’s worth mentioning a few things about where he came from, to understand where he is today. Born in 1938, he failed to graduate from a physics degree and was rejected by the Royal Airforce as medically unfit, moving to Germany and working as a steelworker. Back in Britain, he made his first foray into history by writing The Destruction of Dresden, which characterised the Allied bombing of that city as ‘the worst single massacre in European history’. In 1968 his academic rigor was legally questioned for the first time, after he was successfully sued for libel by a participant in the events he described in The Destruction of Convoy PQ17.

His most famous and controversial book, Hitler’s War, was written in 1977. The book was built on the premise that Hitler never sanctioned the genocide of the Jews during WWII. He was eventually completely discredited as an academic in 2000, when he attempted to sue Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel after she branded him a Holocaust denier. The judge agreed with Lipstadt, ruling against Irving and labeling him ‘a racist, an antisemite and an active Holocaust denier’.

His most recent conviction arose from a previous Austrian visit in 1989, when he claimed in a number of speeches that that ‘the gas chambers in Auschwitz never existed’. This line was repeated in Canada two years later, where he said:

I don’t see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz. It’s baloney, it’s a legend. There are so many Auschwitz survivors going around- in fact the number increases as the years go past, which is biologically very odd to say the least- I’m going to form an association of Auschwitz Survivors of the Holocaust, and Other Liars, or A-S-S-H-O-L-S.

The trial sparked a series of commentators to protest that whilst Irving’s views are despicable, it is a fundamental principle of Western liberal democracy that we should not punish someone for espousing a position the majority disagrees with. The people arguing this line (some of them children of Holocaust survivors themselves), claim that imprisoning Irving will only increase his public exposure by making him a martyr. They see best way to defeat his historical fabrication as exposing it in the eyes of the public, through free and fair debate. But a journalist in last week’s Scotsman newspaper had another way of approaching the question. He wrote:

There can be no such thing as absolute freedom of speech, for very good reasons… The aim of a liberal democratic society must be to achieve a balance of freedoms, rather than to assert the primacy of one over the other.

Using this paradigm, let’s put David Irving’s freedom of speech to the test against possible flip-sides for the wider community.

Free Speech vs Inciting Genocide

Click to see the Syrian
Ramadan special
Even the defenders of David Irving’s rights did not give an unqualified defence of free speech. After arguing strongly against the Irving conviction, Peter Singer in the Jerusalem Post admits that there was a time when Austria’s laws were acceptable:

In the aftermath of WWII, when the Austrian republic was struggling to establish itself as a democracy, it was reasonable, as a temporary emergency measure, for Austrian democrats to suppress Nazi ideas and propaganda. But that danger is long past. Austria is a democracy and a member of the EU… there is no longer a serious threat of any return to Nazism in Austria.

This may be correct at a micro-level, but the works of Holocaust deniers do not dissipate at the borders of Austria. Just look at the Middle East, where such materials are used to build national mythologies of Holocaust denial. In fact, adoption of European antisemitism into mainstream Middle-Eastern culture has reached complete saturation level.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 19th century forgery by the Tsarist secret service which purported to be a Jewish plot for global domination, is now a best-seller in many Arab countries. A 41-part Egyptian TV series was recently broadcast across the Middle East, based on the book. In an equivalent Syrian-produced series, Rabbis are graphically depicted as they kill Christian children for Passover bread, which was a classic medieval and Nazi libel against the Jews.

A poignant example came on Iranian TV, with a panel of ‘experts’ referring to the book as a primary historical source:

But even if we assume [the Holocaust] happened... The Zionists, according to their Protocols, wanted to control the world, and they have not given up this idea. They are using various means, such as the Freemasons, or the Baha'i.

Most recently, Iran has given shelter to a number of European Holocaust deniers who are fleeing trial. In the words of President Ahmedinejad, they have been asked to present a conference which will ‘talk to people, examine documents, and let people know the findings of their research about the Holocaust myth’.

Irving’s claims are mirrored in many facets of this rhetoric. Take this recent Irving comment:

Speaking from his cell, [Irving] asked BBC News why, if such a programme existed, ‘so many survived’

Now compare it to the good ‘Doctor’ from the above TV panel:

Dr. Majid Goudarzi: if you want to buy a television in Germany, they take 20 percent tax from you in advance. Some of that tax is on account of the crematoria, the existence of which is in doubt... The money goes into the pockets of victims who do not exist - because, after all, if they perished, there would be no survivors. So it goes into the pockets of the Zionist regime..."

An entrant in the Iranian
Holocaust cartoon competition
The logic is incredible and bears no analysis. The results, however, are very important. Newer enemies of the Jewish people are using the corpus of ‘academic’ evidence produced by Irving and others, to comprehensively de-legitimize the Holocaust through media, political debate and education systems. By doing this, they are also attempting to de-legitimize the State of Israel, reverse victim roles and clear the way for scape-goating and ominous further action. In the words of Ahmedinejad:

The establishment of the Zionist regime was a move by the world oppressor against the Islamic world… As the Imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map.

Popular culture has also been harnessed, with Ahmedinejad somewhat hypocritically declaring that Iran’s response to the Danish cartoons of Mohammed would be to launch a competition for the best satirical Holocaust cartoons. Eager entrants have surfaced in countries as various as Brazil, Bulgaria, China, France, the UK and USA.

So the premise of Peter Singer’s argument comes full circle. Even if Austria is no longer a country in which such public debate leads to mass violence, there are a host of others in which it does. This is why the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) criminalises ‘direct and public incitement to commit genocide’.

So is the freedom of a group of intellectuals to fabricate an ideological excuse for mass violence more important than the harm it can do in the hands of millions of brainwashed and uneducated disciples?

Free Speech vs Other Concerns
In other ways, is the ability of a citizen to claim and publish any conjecture as historical fact more important than the integrity of historical study? More important than preventing defamation and slander? Is the freedom of a person to call Auschwitz survivors frauds more important than the right of those survivors to escape psychological trauma, as in the case of Australian survivor Kitia Altman when she was confronted with Mr Irving on A Current Affair? Mrs Altman wrote (Altman, Kitia Memories of Ordinary People: For Those Who Have No-One to Remember Them, Makor Jewish Community Library pp411-414):

My personal experience of confrontation with David Irving, on 16 February 1993, was equal in its horror only to my other experience, that of selection in Auschwitz. There, my life was endangered by the faceless, cold bureaucracy of evil. Here, I had the feeling I was fighting for my life again, facing the cynical cruelty of the power of a lie…

When we Jews add our concerned voices to the issue of banning Mr Irving from coming here, we are accused of ‘lobbying’. When Mr Irving is not allowed to spread his lies and incite violence and hatred, he is ‘denied freedom of speech.’ Is freedom of speech about lies or justice? In a democracy you have to be able to prove your accusations with evidence acceptable in a court of law. Mr Irving has merely been denied the freedom to slander and we Jewish survivors, once again, have been denied the support of the free world.

Can humour triumph without law?
Freedom of speech is a critical right to defend in our liberal democracy. The response of most ANU students to a small group of protesters who tried to silence Tony Abbott during O Week shows how dearly that right is held, even for those whose opinions differed with the speaker. However, when the line of free debate is crossed and when the right to freedom of speech is overridden by other concerns is not readily identifiable.

Some of the best antidotes can be non-legal and even humorous, such as a new competition by Israeli artists to prove they can make better antisemitic cartoons than the Iranians. To find right response will require a pretty frank public discourse and, as with most things these days, a fair amount of sacrifice to achieve the safest result for society.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Todah Rabah, Yitzchak Rabin

A young Rabin
Today marks the tenth anniversary of Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination. It is hard to put into words what the man means to me. Courageous, pragmatic, idealistic and visionary would be only a few worthy adjectives. As a member of the labour movement I consider him to be one of the very best labour leaders that any country has produced.

One of the nation’s saviours on the battlefield, and a man who led his compatriots along the first steps to final salvation in peace. A man willing to sacrifice his life for the hope of such peace, joining the high company of Anwar Sadat and Michael Collins on ground that Arafat and others feared to tread. If only more in the Middle East were brave enough to follow their path.

To mark the occasion I’ve included an essay I wrote last year, for a question that asked whether the Israeli right was to blame for the failure of Oslo. The more I wrote, the more it turned into praise for Rabin and the great strides he and his allies made during those remarkable days. I felt that it would be appropriate to post it here with some photos from Rabin’s life and others I took when visiting his memorials in Israel. I always visit his grave when I am there, and place a stone on it according to Jewish custom.

Rest in peace, Yitzchak Rabin.

תודה חור

(Those interested in particular citations for the essay, please ask for the bits you want in the comments section and I will post the footnote. It was too much trouble to refootnote the entire thing for blog format.)

The ‘Oslo peace process’ was a process of rapprochement and mutual recognition between Palestinians and Israelis. It was always going to require more from both sides than they had ever given before, if its faint chances of permanent status resolution were to be realised. The process would only ever take hold if both leaderships made a comprehensive, active and risk-laden effort to reconcile the national aspirations of their societies to a pragmatic position. Neither side universally achieved such a goal, but differing levels of success are discernible. On the Israeli side, the Labour movement showed that it was intent on changing the national psyche. Even at the risk of an Israeli civil war and increased threat from Palestinian groups, it did not resile from the task.

(From right) Generals Rabin,
Dayan and Narkis enter
the Old City of Jerusalem
after its capture in 1967
On the Palestinian side, the PA proved itself unable and unwilling to fundamentally reshape Palestinian nationalism into a form that was compatible with Oslo, or improve the social conditions that would necessitate such a change. They too faced internal pressures from many groups and external ones from the Israeli right, but it is clear that the failure of Oslo cannot be solely blamed on the Israeli right’s inability to accept it from the start. As with any other aspect of Israeli-Arab relations, a deeper analysis is necessary to identify the driving forces behind developments.

To realise the Oslo concept of an eventual Palestinian entity in the West Bank and Gaza, a profound seachange needed to take place in Israeli political discourse and society. Since the capture of the territories in 1967, segments of both the Israeli left and right rejected the concept of territorial compromise. The ‘Rafi’ faction of the Labour Party, led by Defence Minister Moshe Dayan and an eminent leader in the Achdut Ha’avoda movement began agitating for gradual de facto establishment of Israeli rule through settlements. When joined by the other Labour-right movements of Rafael Eitam and Rehavam Ze-evi, along with the ultra-orthodox and secular right movements of the Gush Emunim, Kach Kahane, the NDP and Likud, the pro-annexationist camp formed a formidable bloc. Threat of violence by these groups was real. In the lead up to the Oslo accords from 1988 onwards, national civil war was a serious possibility if any government were to attempt withdrawal.

After inheriting such a landscape from the Shamir government in 1992, Yitzchak Rabin had to move carefully through his agenda of preparing the population for peace. Whilst doves within his government such as Shimon Peres were pushing for an immediate turn to permanent-status agreements with the Palestinians, Rabin opted for an incremental, interim approach to the negotiations. This was in order to acclimatise the population bit by bit to the prospect of a Palestinian state, which would be the ‘ “amputation” of the homeland’ for many annexationists. However, this objective was not impossible. The Yom Kippur War had proven the ability of the Israeli public to adapt their nationalism towards the territories, for what they perceived to be the best shot at peace. Indeed, some commentators contend that many Likudniks do not support the Greater Israel policy, but base their annexationist tendencies on a grim outlook for peace with the Arabs. Rabin could reshape the Israeli landscape in favour of Oslo, if he was brave enough.

Politically, Rabin did not flinch. Whenever the process threatened to be derailed by the acts of Israeli extremists, he reacted strongly. After the massacre perpetrated by Dr Baruch Goldstein in 1994, the religious extremist parties Kach and Kahane Chai were outlawed. The precarious nature of the anti-annexationist coalition and the need to maintain the country’s trust meant that a show of force was still necessary whenever attempts were made to derail the process by Palestinian groups like Hamas. Such occasions included the deportation of four hundred Hamas activists after a spate of attacks on Israeli civilians and the Peres-authorised assassination of Yahya Ayyash, a Hamas terrorist who had masterminded the suicide bombings.

The famous handshake:
Rabin puts his trust in Arafat,
Although the peace process was slowed by these actions and appeasement of the Israeli right was a significant reason for them, the societal changes that the anti-annexationists introduced were critical for the long-term success of the Oslo process. The state educational curriculum and government broadcasting agenda were changed in line with the Oslo requirements of preparing the population for peace. Efforts to eliminate Arab stereotypes, respectful portrayals of Islam and the representation of the Palestinian Authority on schoolbook maps were all implemented in order to change the national mindset. The results were clear, with polling suggesting a huge shift in public acceptance of a Palestinian state, despite the terror attacks and much to the chagrin of the right. Such a paradigm shift was absolutely necessary before any of the permanent status issues of Oslo could be approached.

This is why Israel insisted on the formula of interim agreements in a gradual process that would eventually lead to final status negotiations. However, the approach produced a clash with Palestinian objectives. Many Palestinians felt it was critical that some of the final status issues, such as refugees, were put immediately on the table, to prevent those groups from feeling betrayed. On the other hand, the argument that Rabin used to justify the deliberate ambiguities in the agreements could well have applied to the Palestinians. If a two-state solution were to be achieved under a final settlement of the Oslo process, elements of Palestinian national identity would have to undergo profound paradigm shifts. This process would also take time and the first, incremental steps would need to be put in place immediately.

It is important to examine Palestinian societal dynamics over the Oslo period, to determine whether their population was being prepared for the permanent status negotiations upon which the success of Oslo rested. Leading into Oslo, Palestinian society was equally as complex as its Israeli counterpart. A large proportion of the Palestinian population remained in the same situation that they had upon fleeing their homes in 1948 and 1967. The surrounding Arab nations and UNRWA had maintained the structure of refugee camps and strongly supported the refugee identity amongst such Palestinians, imbuing them with an unshakeable belief that they would one day return to their original places of residence. It naturally came at the expense of exploring other solutions.

The pragmatic leadership of the Palestinian Authority maintained a precarious grip on power, in much the same predicament as the anti-annexationist group within Israel. Rival Palestinian groups were actively fighting for influence as the PA continued to centralise its control, ranging from the Islamist Hamas to the Communist PFLP. Refugee return to ‘all of Palestine’ and other entrenched national mythologies were used to criticise the PA in precisely the areas that it needed to reform. However, as in Israel, there were some justifications for optimism. Even amongst the Palestinian refugee population in Arab countries, some surveys found that Palestinians who enjoyed better socio-economic conditions were more likely to accept a peace agreement with Israel. If the PA could perform on improving the lives of Palestinians and take a stand on the definition of national identity, perhaps the Oslo process could succeed.

Rabin sings Shir L’Shalom
(Song for Peace) at the peace rally
minutes before his death
Ideologically, the PA differentiated itself from the other dominant Palestinian groups by pursuing the Oslo process. For example, although Hamas consisted of wings that originally emphasised strengthening the internal Palestininan Muslim community instead of fighting Israel, all of its components were fundamentally opposed to Israel’s existence on any part of ‘Muslim land’. The establishment of the PA left the PLO with better funding, resources, propaganda opportunities and support than any of its rival groups. Indeed, Yasser Arafat was prepared to exercise some tactical muscle when outbreaks of violence amongst Palestinians were not sanctioned by his authority. However, even at the beginning of the process when the PA enjoyed wider support than Hamas and others, it not only refrained from attempting to change the ideological nationalist agenda but in fact reinforced it.

Within weeks of the signing of the Cairo agreement, Arafat had twice publicly declared that the Oslo process was similar to the temporary hudna declared by Muhammad in his eventual war of annihilation against rival tribes. He clearly encouraged a ‘holy war’ to liberate Jerusalem. The PA-appointed religious clerics spread messages of conquest in PA media, perpetuating the idea that all of the land will be ‘returned to’.

The PA also began work on a new series of schoolbooks throughout the mid- to late nineties, over which it had complete control from 1997. These books describe Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as ‘our country Palestine’, incite the waging of violent jihad to liberate the whole of the land and specifically target it against Jews. Quite apart from that, PA leaders repeatedly expressed their opinion that the peace accords entailed the return of all refugees inside the 1967 borders and reaffirmed such a result as the ultimate goal of negotiations. The direct correlation between this continued reassurance and the inability of the PA to commit to a final-status agreement on refugees at Camp David II was therefore not surprising. There was no reason for the Palestinian population, particularly the refugees, to expect anything other than full repatriation and the Palestinian Authority knew that it could not bring them back anything less.

Aside from ideological problems, the PA also proved itself unable to facilitate a softening of societal attitudes through marshalling its resources for socio-economic improvement. Yasser Arafat, rather than developing solid economic institutions to deal with the influx of aid, instead opted to encourage a neo-patrimonial system of corruption and kickbacks in order to solidify the post-revolutionary order. Only recently has the IMF begun to uncover the level of corruption throughout the Authority, large parts of which have been directly attributable to Arafat. The economic conditions were always going to be difficult for the Authority, due to its war-damaged constituency and the challenges of setting up a state. However, the PA’s short-sighted and irresponsible approach contributed to its problems and exacerbated them, rather than doing all in their power to create a more suitable environment for the Oslo process to develop.

A photo I took at Rabin Square. The big
Hebrew graffiti simply reads ‘sorry’
None of these criticisms in any way detract from the difficulties placed in front of the process by the Israeli side. For example, a member of the extremist Israeli right carried out the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, the leader most capable of taking Israel through the process. A member of the extremist Israeli right perpetrated the Hebron massacre, allowing Hamas to legitimate their already-extant policy of violent response to the process and tying PA hands in responding to them. More importantly, it was a rightwing government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that actively attempted to subvert the peace process and impede the further transfer of land to the PA. His reversal and re-negotiation on the previous Oslo promise of handing over Hebron and his overall attempted replacement of Oslo with a unilateral ‘Allon Plus’ plan of radically narrower scope were both destructive moves.

All of these obstacles made the PA task harder in preparing its populace for the eventual re-evaluation of its national goals that would be necessary to facilitate Oslo. However, as has been shown earlier, there were spheres of influence that the PA bore sole responsibility for, such as its own economic structure, education curriculum and media service. Those institutions bore the potential to prepare the landscape for a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian Authority, partly through attempts to consolidate its ruling oligarchy and partly through a lack of determination to adapt the Palestinian national psyche for Oslo, were just as guilty as the Israeli right for not accepting it.

Overall, the Oslo process required an underlying shift in the societies of both Israelis and Palestinians, if it was to bring about a permanent status agreement. In Israel, the anti-annexationist movement made use of their periods in government to begin the process of affecting this societal change, through reforms in the education system and public advocacy of their policies despite the threat of civil war. Under the Palestinian Authority, even the opportunities that Israel and anti-Oslo Palestinians left in tact were not utilised by the PA pragmatists to begin reshaping the national self-image. It is true that the Israeli right never accepted the Oslo process and actively worked against it, just as it is true of Hamas and other Palestinian organisations. However, culpability lies not with them alone. It lies with all pragmatists who possessed any power to change the political landscape during the days of Oslo, yet refrained from doing so.

A photo of Leah and Yitzchak Rabin’s
grave I took at sunset, Har Herzl

In life: Yitzchak and Leah Rabin

Rabin’s legacy: a peace rally
at Rabin Square, 2004

Lyrics to Shir L’Shalom (Hebrew and English)

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Beginnings of an Online Saudi Renaissance

A Riyadh streetscape captured
by Saudi blogger Farah
After investigating Chinese internet censorship, I was very interested to stumble across a new world of online awareness amongst Saudi bloggers. Following through a number of links made the rapid flowering of online journals and content apparent. It was enough to prompt another article on internet freedoms in developing countries. Accordingly, I've done my best to give a brief outline of the Saudi blogosphere, and would welcome any comments from Saudi bloggers themselves.

What do Saudis blog about?
One of the most valuable gifts that blogs provide in a country without independent media is the ability to see into the hearts and minds of its citizens from the outside. However, I must admit at the outset that these Saudis are among the privileged 11% who are able to afford and maintain internet connections, no doubt reflecting a particular segment of Saudi society. They are also the ones that can speak English (although there are a significant number of Arabic blogs) so that assumes some Western contact. Even so, the blogs were still a fascinating read.

In some ways, they reflect the yearning for freedom and contact with the outside world that would be superficially expected from a controlled society. A number of blogs give the sense that the authors feel imprisoned by restrictions, and also display a very jubilant and Western materialism. This is apparent in the surveys passed from one blog to the next, with the author asked to rank their thoughts in categories such as ‘things I miss’ ‘my favourite toys’ etc.

Jo writes:

3. I miss flirting. The kind of flirting that's harmless and nothing ever happens. Just harmless flirting between a man and a woman, which is another missing concept among the people of the Kingdom of Lunacy. For them sexual harassment is actually flirting!

4. I miss being able to have a conversation about anything and everything without someone playing the infidel card

8. Worst feeling in the world? … it would have to be feeling trapped and that is exactly what you get when ur STUCK in the Kingdom of freakin Lunacy!

Itachi writes:

1. Last movie you saw in a theater? as you all know in saudi arabia WE DONT HAVE..but if you consider my home theater as theater its will be "HITCH" it was fun..

Malik Jeddah writes:

Four things I plan to do:
1- buying a mobile
2- selling my broken i-pod :S
3- going into a good collage
4- getting the hell out of this contry !!

And highly-recommended blogger Farah (probably the most famous from her country) only this week described and uploaded photos from her camera phone of posters on her university bulletin boards. They differed from normal uni bulletins because instead of class or study information, they explained the hellfire that would result from female students not dressing morally.

The bulletin board at Farah’s
Another blogger, The Religious Policeman, devotes his entire blog to issues of human rights and freedoms in his country and its neighbours. Further scary incidents have been recounted, such as this one, where the author recounts fleeing from religious police after enjoying a coffee with her friends.

However, it would be very simplistic to describe these blogs only as cries for help from oppressed people who have disavowed their culture to seek interaction with the West. That would be demeaning to the unique and fresh perspective that the bloggers are bringing. Many mix their criticism with pride in their religion and fellow citizens. The same Farah writes:

Streets of Riyadh at 2:33 am on a Friday night (the equivalent of a Sunday in the rest of the world). Isn't it cool that the streets aren't even close to clearing up at such an ungodly hour? I don't think I'd be able to describe to you just how jam-packed the malls are at this time, as well. (I'm talking, families, shabab, banat, the whole deal) All I can say is: Gotta love Ramadhan.

Many maintain attitudes about global issues that are sharply dissonant to the Western narrative, but no generalisations can be made. This was made apparent by the hundreds of comments posted after Al Jazeera’s article on the Iranian President’s call for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’. I surveyed about 80 of the first comments and discovered that only 42.9% of posts identifying from Middle Eastern countries agreed with Mr Ahmedinejad, compared with 75% of the posts identifying from Europe! A scan down the rest of the page confirmed this trend.

Indeed, the only two Saudi comments read:

John from Saudi
jews is blessed contry, all the technology made by jews.the israel land is god given to them, so nobody can wive off from map

Juiboi from Saudi Arabia
and the munkeez want to go nuclear? i don't think so. this is why all of the extremists must be eradicated. once they are gone from both sides we can have peace.

Completely opposite views can be found on certain Saudi blogs, but others back this up.

In summary, Saudi bloggers are generally young, yearning to express themselves and push traditional values, receptive to Western culture but also very proud of their own. They blog about all manner of different topics, and have widely varying points of view which can be seen through their passionate debates. A number of them are also women, unashamedly very aware of what they want to achieve and what they should be entitled to. Many appear to be studying, either at school or university.

Bloggers are even developing their own Arabic net slang, as is apparent from almost all of the posts. The latest post on the main blog for the Saudi community suggests that the male bloggers are about to attempt a first meeting in person. A renaissance is taking place.

What restrictions do Saudi bloggers face?
In comparison to China, I was also surprised to read that the Saudi government is relatively relaxed about its censorship. The same group that produced the in-depth study on Chinese technological censorship also examined Saudi Arabia, which has taken a very different approach.

According to the report, the 2001 Council of Ministers decree laid the criteria for Saudi censorship:

…the ISU prohibits “pornographic web pages... [and] pages related to drugs, bombs, alcohol, gambling, and pages insulting to the Islamic religion or the Saudi laws and regulations”

The bulk of sites that are deemed to qualify under these headings are to do with pornography, homosexuality and womens’ issues. Also included are proselytising sites from other religions or critical accounts of the Saudi government.

A popular Saudi newsreader after
her husband beat her: covered
by The Religious Policeman
Sadly, the Holocaust attracts a large proportion of web blocking. However, the study suggests that this in particular is due to over-censorship caused by the Western-designed and supplied blocking software. Yet another company, this time Secure Computing, is contributing to e-authoritarianism. They must sleep well at night, knowing that they are restricting access to information for one of the most under-taught and ethnically inflammatory topics in the Middle East.

Interestingly, general Jewish and Israeli sites are subject to almost no censorship. Of all religions, Baha’I sites attract the most censorship (12% blocked last year compared to 0% of surveyed Jewish sites). Other interpretations of Islam also received extensive treatment.

The Saudi attitude to bloggers is decidedly less stand-offish. No doubt uneasy about the free exchange of ideas amongst the new online Saudi community, access to blogger was removed by the government only weeks ago. However, they soon repealed the move. This may have been due to bloggers alerting the international community, which responded quickly. The government is obviously more concerned with its censorship image than China. Even so, one source suggests that 92.5% of Saudi internet users attempt to access blocked sites. Obviously they have a different opinion to their government on the proportionality of the blocking.

However, there are subtle suggestions that censorship is less visably but more stringently enforced off the internet and in person. The following comment was posted by a blogger in response to a worried message from other Saudis that she had not updated her blog recently:

Regarding my blog, I have a new one right now which happens to be (dare I say) ANONYMOUS!! (Yeah yeah I had to learn the hard way) In other words, I don't wish it to be placed on any link or anything because thanks to some nameless barbarians who don't believe in freedom of speech, I sorta got into a teenie weenie likkle problem since I got carried away with most of my entries.. HOWEVA my darling and faithful fans, do not fret, I will be BACK with vengence.. and this time, my blog will be ALL about "the un-mention-ables"

One can only speculate about what took place in the intervening period of her online silence. On the same issue, I encourage everyone to sign the petition in the bottom of this blog’s right hand column, to free an Iranian blogger who has been sentenced to lashings and prison in his country.

Riyadh streets during Ramadhan
from Farah
Despite such measures, it is obvious that the Middle East is awakening online. Far from the death of traditional or Islamic culture, this represents its resurgence in a vibrant and exciting new form. Whilst obviously limited to the economic elite at this point, it will increase in significance as more people gain access to technology. A proud new Arab and Persian are emerging, and this can only spell trouble for the governments which up until now have relied on cheap nationalist populism to retain control.

As a postscript, note the comments section of my last post. One of my cheeky Chinese friends has provided a perfect example of the spirit with which these bloggers will overcome their obstacles.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

China Puts Orwell to Shame with Internet Censorship

Chinese internet usage is closely
The Chinese government is in the middle of an unprecedented campaign to restrict the freedom of speech being expressed electronically by its citizens. The new world of internet-based technology poses great challenges for authoritarian regimes across the world, and the reaction of China (one of the largest, most technologically advanced and well-resourced police states) provides an interesting case study as to whether it is possible to censor such activity. China’s 103 million internet users (expected to be 178 million by 2007) have been subjected to an amazing array of control mechanisms, predominantly aimed at small independent blogs and posts like this one.

The controls have taken two forms: more traditional legal and people-based solutions, and a new realm of technologically advanced avenues. This second category should be of particular concern to Western governments, as it is feeding off the input of Western companies in much the same way that the Tibet mining situation was feeding off of Orchid Investments (see my previous post).

Legislative and Human Controls
The government recently introduced a range of new laws and restrictions for online dissemination of information, building on its legislation of 2000 (following information on them taken from here and here). The new laws impose fines of up to $3700 and closure on non-government sanctioned news outlets, as well as redefining the scope of their definition for ‘news’. Instead of ‘news published and republished’, it now extends to ‘reports and comments on political, economic, military, foreign policy and other social public affairs’. The obvious target of such a definition are bloggers and chatboards.

Indeed, the view that blogs are the target of the new legislation is reinforced by its stipulations for acceptable news outlets. These include a minimum of US$1.24 million registered capital, and ‘a staff or at least five professional news editors with no less than three years’ working experience in traditional media’. This makes it easier to identify and control what the outlets publish, which is also restricted under the laws to exclude anything that ‘compromises national security, divulges national secrets, impinges on the country’s social legal rights and interests, destroys the country’s unity, or includes any information that promotes or relates to pornography, violence, or illegal cults’. All of this is policed by around 30,000 government monitors.

Other provisions require university online bulletin boards to register the legal names of all student users, to prevent them contributing anonymously. As the above referenced article contends, the focus is on internal commentators rather than external ones. This is because the international media often reproduce the biased propaganda of Chinese state outlets for lack of any other information. A distressingly poignant example appeared recently on CNN when its ‘World Report’ broadcast a piece from Chinese State TV on the 40th anniversary of the ‘liberation of Tibet from feudal oppression’. Readers interested in examining the exact wording of such propaganda are welcome to do so here, as I have only been able to find a cached Google search for the articles.

Whilst claiming that it does not endorse such broadcasts and is merely ‘creating a vehicle for the expression of different views from across the globe’, CNN cannot escape responsibility so easily. One wonders whether the same argument would be used for broadcast of Nazi Party propaganda. More contemporaneously, it could be applied with the same principle to news items from Hezbollah TV station Al-Manar, which is banned in many Western countries for incitement to violence. CNN’s willingness to air the Chinese state line and provide international oxygen to it is only paralleled by the activities of some Western companies in assisting the government to launch electronic warfare on its people.

These and other laws have produced a sharp increase in internet-related arrests, rising from three in 2001 to sixty-two this year.

Technological Repression
Concurrently with its legislative and coercive campaign, the Chinese government is pioneering entirely new territory in electronic censorship. Worse still, it is being willingly assisted in this task by a number of Western companies (following information was from this article). The largest-scale project of this variety is the multi-billion dollar Golden Shield, which attempts to automatically censor the material that Chinese surfers can view by targeting key words. As the article states, ‘typing ‘Tibet’ and ‘freedom’ in the same email can produce a visit from the Man’.

Western leaders sacrifice
human rights for trade benefits
This extensive network of routers required to run such a pervasive network has been supplied at $20,000 per router by US company Cisco systems. Cisco has obfuscated by saying that the technology could be put to other uses, and that China is simply buying ‘off the shelf’ technology. Both excuses are void, as Cisco has promoted it at trade fairs as highly customised material for specific policing purposes. Even Cisco shareholders launched a short-lived protest towards the company’s activities, but the fact that such an enormous investment was at stake saw the inquiry ending at a fairly superficial stage.

Testing of this technology has shown that typing in the words ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ will be censored to a degree of 70% efficiency. Combined with the ‘firewall box’ that Cisco designed for China in the 90’s which enables the government to block websites, this presents a formidable obstacle to bloggers and other freelance political commentators.

Yahoo has also assisted with the project on other fronts, such as searching its chat rooms and most recently providing information to the government that led to the conviction of a Chinese journalist after they wrote about media restrictions. One of the above articles even claims that Western technology has enabled Chinese street police to call up the last 30-60 days’ worth of emails sent by a suspect by entering their government ID card into a computer network. Even without this technology, the government has also conscripted its local ISPs into the battle, encouraging them to self-censor any posts that appear on their servers.

These and other methods of electronic control are explained in a must-read survey of China’s e-censorship, which also discusses the ways in which search engines like Google and its Chinese counterparts have been filtered to prevent even that form of exposure to information.

The actions of these select US companies are part of a broader framework of economic collaboration which is conducted by many Western countries, whilst only paying lip service to furthering the cause of civil liberties in China. As renowned Chinese human rights campaigner Harry Wu has observed:

Europe did condemn the murders and the camps in the Gulag, but not in the Laogai [Chinese equivalent] camps. They don’t feel threatened, so why would they damage their trade?

In the same article, he noted the difference between Eastern European leaders who shunned China after their own experiences with totalitarianism, and Western European nations such as France and Germany who were more than happy to take advantage of the economic benefits on offer. Unfortunately for them and their fellow travellers, this policy can easily be traced back to internationally detrimental results. As one of the above articles notes, the delayed response to the SARS outbreak was due in part to China’s censorship of any online reporting when it first became an issue.

However, even without the support of Western governments the Chinese are fighting back (see above Wall Street journal article). Some pay off the owners of internet cafés to avoid registration, which has occasioned the installation of video cameras in such locations by the government. Others host their sites on overseas servers, although the government can block access inside China. Even the most ingenious of technological weapons are being used to fight back, posting ‘undesirable’ opinion as image files to prevent word trawling and inserting characters to confound the search engines.

The results of such activity can be seen with the excellent work of online news forums such as the China Labour Bulletin. CLB recently broke a story about two women (aged 70 and 50) being killed by police along with 24 injured co-workers when the government broke up a workers’ protest. The workers were campaigning for some severance pay after lifetime’s work at a factory which was bankrupted by the corrupt practices of its managers. Without knowledge of activities like this, the international community will soon forget the true nature of the Chinese regime. They will begin to believe the lie that totalitarianism can deliver a prosperous and egalitarian society, and fall victim to the Orwellian world of Chinese media censorship.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

August-September Poll Results

Question: What should the next step be for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

Further Israeli withdrawals: 3 (12%)
Palestinian crackdown on terror and reform: 19 (73%)
Resumption of negotiations: 4 (15%)

This poll is very pleasing as it appears to be the most controversial one yet on VFW. Many thanks to everyone who registered an opinion. Looking back on the question and receiving feedback from some participants, it was suggested that all three options would be preferable simultaneously. Whilst I can see the point, I would argue that that the process has reached such a stage now that any further progress is dependent on the results of one actor.

For me, that actor would be the Palestinians (as evidenced by answer two). For some of the more extreme pro-Palestinians, all progress must occur on the back of Israeli withdrawals without confidence-building measures or negotiation (hence question one). The final, and somewhat hopeful answer three presumes that the best progress can be achieved by bypassing unilateralism and moving straight back into the final status discussions.

As much as I would love to see a world where this is feasible, I believe that the complete lack of confidence now pervading Israeli-Palestinian interaction will only be solved by unilateral meaures to restore it. This has been done by Israel with Disengagement, and hopefully after a reciprocal gesture (disarming of terror groups and strengthening of state institutions), the Palestinians will create the environment for such negotiations to resume again.

But once again, many thanks to all those who voted and I encourage you to participate in the new poll. It asks another tough question on development and self-determination in the Middle East, relating to the drafting and vote for the imminent Iraqi constitution.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Development and Australian Corporate Shame

First Australian company to
An issue has been simmering under the surface of Australian corporate activity for some time now. Over the last few months it has been growing in seriousness and public profile. I refer to the actions of ‘bad apple’ companies overseas, taking advantage of more relaxed regulatory and legal environments to maximise profits at the painful expense of local populations.

This issue is key to development, as the necessary corporate involvement in stimulating any growing economy must win popular support for economic liberalisation to take root. The two Australian cases that have received some (although nowhere near enough) media attention recently are those of Orchid Capital in Tibet, and Anvil Mining in the Congo.

Orchid in Tibet
Recently, Australian investment firm Orchid Capital concluded an agreement with the Chinese company, Tibet Institute of Geological Survey, to begin exploring a 2,000sqkm area of ‘Western China’, as the company refers to it in its press release. Potential resources of interest included copper, lead, zinc and silver, to complement the already-functioning Nagartse Gold Property that the company had a stake in.

There are a number of important problems with this program. Firstly, the Chinese state controls all aspects of the mining licenses and Chinese business is receiving all of the profit from the venture. The Tibetan government-in-exile is justifiably concerned that local protests over environmental issues have been labelled ‘threats to national stability’ by the Chinese government and used as a pretext for persecution. They point to the fragile nature of the high altitude mountain environment, and the impact mining has had on vital river sources and lakes. Forced resettlements and expropriations of land have also been alleged.

This raises the question of why an Australian company would venture into such a hostile and ominous environment, as even their website admits that the mineral exploration reports ‘do not comply with Australian reporting standards’. Presumably some of the areas that they fail to comply with are environmental impact statements and legal title over the land in question. Orchid is also quite open about the fact that none of these rate consideration, saying that it will jointly determine prospects with the Chinese company, based on areas ‘that will show the greatest economic potential’.

Whilst of course being the main goal for any company, this cannot be the only one in a region as sensitive as Tibet. Orchid’s unique lack of scruples are attested to by its Joint-Managing Director Alvin Tan. He stated that Orchid, as one of the first foreign companies to engage in a joint venture with the Chinese extraction project in Tibet, ‘anticipates being well-rewarded for its pioneering efforts’. He then further brushed aside the political implications by claiming that ‘social responsibility will be a big part of Orchid’s corporate plan for its Tibetan venture… we don’t have any [political] baggage to carry with us’. This, after referring to Tibet as ‘Western China’, not consulting Tibetans and participating in a Chinese-sponsored program of resource exploitation which does not benefit the locals.

Thankfully, Orchid paid a large commercial price for its adventurism. After becoming involved with such a reputable program, it soon learned that other Chinese companies which it had not been informed of were competing for the same resources. Its share prices halved and it is now in the process of beating a hasty retreat from all interests in the region.

The second story of Australian corporate infamy, still under investigation, is far from resolved and even more abhorrent.

Anvil Mining in the DRC

Second Australian company to shame
Anvil Mining was a fairly smallscale operation before its big break in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Even before the event in question, the process by which they achieved such a deal raises similar issues to the above case of Orchid. A recent Four Corners report has proved to be very informative on the matter. It describes how Anvil walked into an industry where, according to the UN, the government had engaged in ‘embezzlement, tax fraud and extortion, the use of stock options as kickbacks along with smuggling, false invoicing, non-payment of taxes and bribery’. At the centre of the bonanza was a man called Katumba Mwanke.

According to the Four Corners report, Mr Mwanke is a key powerbroker in mining deals on behalf of the DRC government. He also appeared as a founding member on the board of Anvil’s wholly-owned subsidiary for the project. He has managed to keep the company from paying any government taxes and brokered a formal agreement to exempt it into the future. Although ‘not recalling’ Mr Mwanke’s involvement with the company originally, the Anvil Mining Chief Executive Bull Turner eventually did remember enough to confirm to Four Corners.

However, what allegedly followed illustrates the lengths to which some companies can go when they are in a completely unfettered regulatory environment. The local population were once again displeased with the fact that none of the large profits from the mine were flowing on to their impoverished community. In contrast to Tibet, a small group of them took up arms and to make a point, raided a company warehouse about 50km from the mine.

In response, Anvil provided planes and trucks to transport government troops who would ‘take care’ of the villagers. A secret UN report has declared that around 100 villagers have been found in a mass grave, at least 28 of them appearing to have died from summary execution. Eyewitnesses reported seeing Anvil trucks used to carry the victims off to their deaths. When asked about the matter, Mr Turner openly accepted that Anvil had given such equipment for the use of government troops, and saw no responsibility on the part of his company for events that followed. Specifically, he said ‘We helped the military get to Kilwa... Whatever they did there, that’s an internal issue, it’s got nothing to do with Anvil. It’s an internal government issue’.

The company website also now carries a statement on behalf of ‘the Kilwa Traditional Leaders’ which denies the company’s responsibility for events, says that it has been one of the only companies willing to invest in the region, but even then confirms the use of Anvil equipment by the Congalese military. Another statement reads as such:

Given Anvil’s previous experience with rebel activity in the Kilwa area, during which Anvil’s vehicles were, after initial resistance, commandeered at gunpoint, Anvil had absolutely no choice but to provide the transport required by the DRC Military and had no reason to suspect that this would involve anything other than the lawful enforcement of the laws of the DRC.

A rather contradictory statement, I would venture. If previous experience with the military had ended at gunpoint, which surely wasn’t ‘lawful enforcement of the laws of the DRC’, then what made them believe such laws would be carried out in relation to the villagers? The argument works one way or the other, but can’t be used to excuse the company from responsibility whilst they simultaneously plead ignorance about the military’s activities. Interestingly, another press release from January in which Anvil commends the government’s actions is not readily available from the website anymore.

This is all the more disturbing given the fact that Anvil was also busy celebrating an agreement signed months before. Signed with a subsidiary of the World Bank, it was an insurance contract to cover ‘risks of transfer restriction, expropriation, breach of contract, war and civil disturbance’. Therefore, they were the only company in the DRC to be specifically guaranteed against the exact type of damage that took place. They were not commercially compelled to help stifle the uprising in such an unscrupulous manner, as they were not at risk of losing everything in an unstable regulatory system.

But all is not lost. Even though there will obviously be no local prosecution of Anvil, more than one body has stepped forward to hold them to account. The Australian Federal Police, UN, World Bank (see here) and the Canadian government have all launched investigations.

In summary, international corporations operating in an underdeveloped and less-regulated country need the line drawn by someone. This is not to say that the vast majority may not have very strong codes of practice, and in fact positively influence the development of the region by providing employment, stability and good working conditions. However, the nature of the market means that some will be tempted to use any tools available to gain advantage in their sphere. That is why organisations such as the ILO exist, and why projects like the US Millenium Challenge Corporation use incentives for developing governments to strengthen their regulations whilst opening their markets.

However, when the country is not susceptible to economic coercion from the outside (like China), what tools can be used to force it into sterner limits for private activity? The answer, I think, is none. The only way that a globalised world can hold adventurist companies to account, when they are protected by a local authority willing to give them free range, is the threat of prosecution in the company's home country or multilaterally. Perhaps even regulatory reforms used as a bargaining chip in impending free trade negotiations. We can only hope that all of the organisations investigating Anvil will set a precedent, to make such actions ‘unprofitable’ for potential copycats in the future.

Other Related Articles
China, Australia Jointly Explore Gold in Tibet (Balloch Group)
Orchid Capital Won’t Continue With Qu Long Copper Project (Dow Jones News)
Orchid Capital Signs Contract for Gold Project in Tibet (Investor Web)
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