Archive for March, 2009

Has the Australian Government banned Wikileaks?

Australia’s descent into authoritarian censorship seems to be taking a new draconian turn with its treatment of the international whistleblower site Wikileaks. The British tech site The Register claimed overnight “some pages of Wikileaks have been added to the blacklist of websites which Australians are not allowed to look at.” It said some pages were blocked after Wikileaks published a list of websites banned by the Danish government. It is impossible to confirm or deny this and The Register offers no proof of their allegation. However on the same day that the secret Australian version of the list was also leaked, the entire Wikileaks site is unavailable in Australia at the time of writing.

I am reluctant to say it has been banned outright – and it appears it is not just an Australian issue. Following the issue on Twitter, it seems Wikileaks is currently unavailable in Germany also. Both @Jase88 and @Sam6 claim that Wikileaks is not blocked but has crashed due to high traffic, presumably due to the Australian censorship controversy. @drylight said it may be as simple a matter to fix as someone rebooting the Wikileaks server. But whatever has happened, this is not the first time Wikileaks has offended a jurisdiction. A Californian court ordered it be taken down in February last year after the site posted documents revealed that a bank was involved with money laundering and tax evasion.

Wikileaks survived that episode and should bounce back from its bout with the Australian Government too. Earlier today Communications Minister Stephen Conroy condemned the publication of the Australian banned list as “grossly irresponsible”. This was despite the fact that he also claims the list was not the actual ACMA blacklist. Conroy muddied the water by claiming the list undermined efforts to improve cyber-safety and create a safe online environment for children. He also warned chillingly that anyone involved in making this content publicly available would be at serious risk of criminal prosecution. I rang the media contact on Conroy’s press release for a comment on whether Wikileaks (or parts of it) has now been banned but he has not yet returned my call.

The banned list of 2,000 websites showed up some glaring inconsistencies. While there are a large number of child pornography sites and other illegal material, most of the websites listed have no obvious connection to criminal activity. There are online gambling sites, Christian and other religious sites, satanic sites, euthanasia supporters, and straight and gay pornography. Bizarrely the list also includes such recidivists as a Queensland dentist, a tour operator, a firm of “Tuckshop and Canteen Management Consultants” and a Maroochydore kennel boarding company.

The original offending Wikileaks article (now probably banned) from yesterday was a secret censorship list for Denmark. The case is a bit artificial as it was sent to the Australian Communications body ACMA as bait by an anti-censorship group in order to test the censorship “slippery slope” theory. When a commenter posted a link to an anti-abortion website on the discussion forum Whirlpool, ACMA threatened them with an $11,000 a day fine because the site appeared on the list of websites banned in Australia. Whirlpool deleted the link. It would now appear the slippery slope has turned into a black downhill run. It is no coincidence that the first line in the Wikileaks article is “The first rule of censorship is that you cannot talk about censorship.”

Libertus.net says preventing information flow, communication or the exchange of art, film and writing on the internet is “a task only King Canute would attempt”. Yet stopping the internet tide is exactly what the Australian Government seems to want to do. Most people are aware of the ongoing “clean feed” controversy however Australia has had Internet censorship laws since 2000. The laws were strengthened in January 2008 to enable a broader range of content unsuitable for children to be ordered taken down from Australian hosted sites. Similar overseas hosted content are added to ACMA’s blacklist of prohibited content. And because the list is secret no one knows what is on it. And there is no accountability.

QUT academic and privacy expert Anthony Sherratt told Woolly Days there was “some absolutely terrible stuff out there” but the problem lies in who gets to define what is unacceptable. “Putting it under a catch-all of illegal is certainly not the way as society needs to be able to challenge and debate laws,” he said. “Life is organic and changea by definition.” Guy Rundle says there is no bigger issue than net censorship as it is a fundamental attack on free speech. I agree totally. Rundle concludes his impassioned article thus; “And now someone will tell me that the proposed filter won’t be able to blacklist pages like Wikileaks, or whatever. But I won’t believe them … who would…?”

March 19, 2009 at 9:09 pm 2 comments

Google’s EPIC fail: privacy group wants cloud computing safeguards

A privacy group has requested the US Federal Trade Commission shut down Google mail, docs, Picasa and other services because they don’t adequately safeguard the confidential information that they obtain. The stunning request was made by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and outlines the risks of Google’s cloud computing services. The request is far from frivolous and could have profound consequences for the industry in general, and Google in particular.
EPIC, who describe themselves as “a public interest research organization”, have requested the FTC open an investigation to determine the adequacy of the privacy and security safeguards. They also want them to assess Google’s claims about the service. In a letter to the government regulatory body, EPIC suggest they “enjoin Google from offering such services until safeguards are verifiably established.”

According to Wikipedia, Cloud computing is where dynamically scalable and often virtualised resources are provided as a service over the Internet. As that rather dense definition shows this is not a simple concept to grasp. The word “cloud” acts as a diagrammatic metaphor for a complex computer network. Thankfully then, users of the services don’t need to have knowledge of or control over the technology infrastructure “in the cloud” that supports them. The problem from a privacy perspective is that the data is held by third party servers, which is managed by private firms who provide remote access.

Google currently provides an extensive array of Cloud Computing Services. These include unlimited free email (“Gmail”), online document storage and editing (“Google Docs”), an integrated desktop and internet search (“Google Desktop”), an online photo storage (“Picasa Web Albums”) and a scheduling program (“Google Calendar”). And the number of people who use the services is growing. As of September 2008, 26 million people use Gmail.

While Google are quick to advertise the security safety of their products, EPIC say there are several known flaws with their cloud computing service. They noted a bug found in 2005 where Internet Explorer exposed web surfers’ hard-drive data to malicious web sites. And a recently as last week, the Wall Street Journal disclosed Google had shared “a very small number” (0.05 per cent) of online documents with users who weren’t authorised to see them. The bug hit users who changed their sharing settings on multiple presentations and documents at once, causing Google to make those documents available to others whom the owner had shared a document before. The Journal says the bug shows systems for managing file access permissions can break down, causing documents to end up in the wrong hands.

IT Security expert Greg Conti says Google is a particularly vulnerable target because of the amount of data it has. However Conti qualifies his remarks by saying the problem is endemic. ”It almost impossible for you, your employer, and online companies to provide impervious protection against attack”, he says “therefore, your data is at risk.”

Therefore EPIC backs up its case by pointing to Google’s false advertising. It quotes the Federal Trade Commission Act which regulates unfair and deceptive trade practices. The act allows for three factors that support a finding of unfairness. The practice must cause substantial injury, not be outweighed by countervailing benefits and the harm is not reasonably avoidable. EPIC says Google’s inadequate security policy fails all three tests and is deception likely to mislead customers. EPIC also quote several test cases which it believes give precedence to act against Google.

EPIC says the popularity of Cloud Computing Services means that data breaches pose a heightened risk of identity theft. It says the FTC should hold purveyors accountable, “particularly when service providers make repeated, unequivocal promises to consumers regarding information security.” They want FCC to open an investigation. They also want Google to revise its terms of service, make their information security policies more transparent, take Cloud Computing off the market until safeguards are established, and contribute $5 million to support research on privacy enhancing technologies (I presume its five million as the document talks about a strange number called “$5,000,0000” with an extra digit). Google has not reviewed the complaint in detail but says “it has policies in place to ensure data is protected”.

March 18, 2009 at 11:46 pm Leave a comment

Africa hardest hit by global recession

A new report by anti-poverty organisation ActionAid has found that developing countries are hardest hit by Global Financial Crisis. The report “Where does it hurt? The impact of the financial crisis on developing countries” (my thanks to ActionAid media officer Lindiwe Tshabalala for providing me a copy – unfortunately it not on the website at the time of writing) says Africa will suffer a drop in income of $49 billion in the two years from the start of the crisis in 2007 to the end of 2009. This represents a 13 percent drop in financial inflows to the continent. The report says the benefits of financial liberalisation have been oversold and that countries with the most open economies have suffered the most.

ActionAid say there are actually two problems – a financial crisis and a recession. The financial crisis impacts bank lending, investments, bonds and interest rates while the recession impacts trade flows. While both problems are the fault of the rich north, they are both are hitting developing countries the hardest. Africa is predicted to lose $22b due to the crisis while losing another $27b to earning exports, aid and income from rich countries in recession. This latter problem also impacts money sent home by relatives working in rich countries.

Of the money flowing into developing countries, bank lending has suffered the most. The International association of financial institutions known as The Institute of International Finance (IIF), estimates that foreign lending to developing countries in 2008 was just 40 per cent of the 2007 level. It gets worse this year when the drop is predicted to hit 100 percent. This means that more money will be leaving the continent to overseas banks than will be paid out in loans.

There will also be a negative flow on to equity markets in developing countries as their stocks seem too great a risk by international traders. The IIF predicts an 82 percent downturn in equities while foreign direct investment will also dip by a third. The crisis has also pushed up the costs of raising money by issuing bonds. Poor countries suffer disproportionately (despite not being responsible for the crisis) as lenders look for less risky places to put their money.

Trade losses from the recession that follows the crisis will also be severely felt in Africa and the global south. Most countries in ActionAid’s survey will expect a drop in export earnings of over 10 percent with Nigeria hardest hit at 25 percent. The combination of impacts on local economies is likely to lead to a worsening of poverty and ActionAid predicts “terrible consequences for individuals”. They are not alone in believing the worst. The World Bank’s chief economist for Africa predicts that 700,000 children under the age of one may well die over the next few years as a result of the financial crisis and the ensuing recession.

The survey results show that vulnerability to the crisis is directly proportional to a country’s exposure to international trade. The biggest factors are export revenues, level of concentration of exports, trade balance and reserves. Many countries have also increased foreign direct investment and private bank lending despite their being no provable correlation between financial integration and growth. In 2008 Rodrik and Subramanian found that on the international front, the benefits of financial globalisation were hard to find, even leaving financial crises aside.

The report concluded that domestic generated development was best. It needed to be shored up by diversified financial flows, controlling risk, a commitment to transparency, regulated financial markets and the importance of involving developing nations in global market decisions. The report also made several recommendations to the G20 summit next month. They involved controlling risk, improving transparency and developing regionally based financial markets. The report also recommended assistance to countries who cannot afford their own stimulus packages.

ActionAid’s head of policy, Claire Melamed said the report showed there was a large risk that development will start to go backwards in many countries as the money dries up. “The recession will lead to worsening poverty and terrible consequences for the men, women and children caught in its grip,” she said. “Although developing countries didn’t make this crisis, it has become all too clear that they are in the firing line when it comes to suffering its worst effects.”

March 18, 2009 at 12:08 am Leave a comment

Queensland election: stumbling to the finish line

The final Galaxy Queensland election poll released Saturday show the Liberal National Party steadying with a 51-49 lead over Labor on two-party preferred. The two-point margin represents a 5.9 per cent swing to the LNP and would leave them just short of government if this swing is applied uniformly across the state on Saturday. The closeness of the race forced Labor to swallow its pride last week and agree to a preference deal with party defector Ronan Lee in Indooroopilly in exchange for Greens preferences in 14 key seats.As the campaign enters its last week, Bligh and Springborg fought out a leaders’ debate on Friday. In the debate Bligh attacked Springborg’s decision to impose a 3 per cent efficiency dividend by not filling public sector job vacancies so that the government would “live within its means”. Labor used research from academic John Wanna to show the dividend would impact on front-line services. Springborg, meanwhile, attacked Labor on its health record. “[A]fter 11 years of Labor in Queensland there are 35,000 people in this State that continue to languish on our hospital waiting lists,” he said.

The two major parties formally launched their campaigns yesterday (how do parties, state and federal, get away with this sham of having “launches” at the end of the campaign?). The launches became pork auctions with the LNP promising 10,000 new jobs only for Labor to gazump them with a promise of 100,000. The banal similarities persisted as Kevin Rudd introduced Bligh while Malcolm Turnbull did the honours for Springborg. Just as in the polls, there appeared little difference in the launches.

However, the polls are showing some contradictions. While Bligh still has a commanding lead over Springborg as preferred premier (50 to 36), some analysts are saying she is Labor’s weak link. Writing in the Brisbane Times on Saturday, Cosima Marriner says Bligh has become a liability. Marriner says she has struggled to control the agenda and has been constantly on the backfoot. Similarly in The Australian, Sean Parnell criticised her negativity on matters such as the Moreton Bay oil spill and government cutbacks. “Everything Bligh is saying might be correct,” says Parnell, “but she looks like someone trying to defend the indefensible.”

Pollster Graham Young thinks the problem lies with Bligh’s presentation. He says she comes across as “too harsh, too shallow and too reactive” and Labor’s attack ads are not helping. There are other signs that Bligh is not a great natural campaigner. Yesterday TechWired caught out the Premier’s office deleting Twitter updates. When Ben Grubb queried whether Kevin Rudd’s Twitter depiction of the Queensland Opposition as “the other bloke” also included the Greens, the person behind @anna4queensland responded with “they’re certainly not an alternative government” before deleting the offending tweet.

But regardless of whether Anna or “the other bloke” wins on Saturday, there is a definite sense of gloom in the electorate. Jason Wilson tapped into that mood today as he used the environmental disaster from the MV Pacific Adventurer oil slick as a metaphor for Queensland’s current woes. Wilson says because its economy relies on mining and tourism, the state is particularly susceptible to recessions. “Under the circumstances, Queenslanders’ apparent lack of interest in this strange, irrelevant, funereal state election campaign is understandable,” he writes. On both sides, as Mark Bahnisch says, the vision is barren.

Luckily there is always the adventures of Pauline Hanson to cheer us up. Hanson launched another trademark anti-media attack today after News Ltd Sunday papers published nude photos yesterday. The Brisbane Sunday Mail claimed the photos were of Hanson when she was 19 years old and they paid $10,000 to obtain them from her boyfriend of that era, a man called Jack Johnston. Today, the would-be Beaudesert MP denied she had ever posed nude and said she had never heard of Johnston. Hanson said she was fighting the charge because the media didn’t check the story with her. “They just got these photos, presumed it was me, made it public, and have embarrassed me greatly and I’ve had enough,” she said. “I’m just not going to take this anymore.”

Other than noting the irony of Pauline Hanson channelling Peter Finch, I agree she has been treated poorly in this episode. Perhaps worryingly, I find myself agreeing with Andrew Bolt for the second time in three days. While the photos were a clear breach of privacy, the whole brouhaha won’t do Hanson a jot of harm. The more the media harass her, the more she becomes a symbol of resistance for the political underclass.

I’m not sure what it is about the redoubtable Hanson but today she also united Tim Blair and Pure Poison in condemnation of the publication of the photos. The Herald Sun dubiously claimed the 30 year old photos had news value because public people are public property. “[E]very bloody time you stand, Ms Hanson,” shrieked the Herald Sun in unconvincing defence, “we will ask the tough questions.” Who is kidding who here?

March 16, 2009 at 10:14 pm Leave a comment

Peter Costello: Walking in the overshadows

Cartoon credit: Tandberg.Happy Birthday to Larvatus Prodeo, which turns four on the stroke of midnight or thereabouts. Consistently Australia’s best group blog over the last few years, it is also a model of (mostly) civil and intelligent discussion in comments. Here’s wishing many more years of good debate from LP.

While this post is entitled “Peter Costello”, the subtitle is partially about the birthday blog and one of its commenters, so bear with me.

I am also grateful to Peter Black who inspired another part of the title. “What a great opening sequence to Insiders, wrote Black this morning, ‘beginning with “Peter Costello went for a walk”’.

It was indeed a great opening. There were plenty of other things going on in Australian politics, but the plot was thick with Costello talk. The ABC’s Chris Uhlmann agreed with Barrie Cassidy’s suggestion the former Treasurer was “up to no good”. I was enjoying his analysis when my ears really pricked up at a sentence he used. “Costello of course I think should be dubbed The Overshadow now,” said Uhlmann, “because no matter what he does he seems to have an effect on the party.”

The Overshadow. It seemed as if Uhlmann was claiming the dub for himself but I knew that Uhlmann was not the first to describe Costello so. I thought I heard it initally through Larvatus Prodeo so I decided to check it out.

Firstly, I went to Factiva and ran a search for mainstream media articles that had Costello and overshadow in the last three months. The first article of interest was from the ABC. On 17 February, Hayden Cooper reported on the aftermath of the Julie Bishop demolition from the role of Shadow thus: “Hockey’s elevation overshadowed by Costello speculation.”

In this scenario Hockey was the shadow and speculation was the overshadow. Nevertheless – the speculation was close enough to Costello for someone to make the right connection.

That someone was Paul Burns. By 7:06pm on the 17th, Burns had either read the article or listened to it on The World Today. Over at Larvatus Prodeo he was ready to comment about Hockey’s promotion. He prefaced his statement with a grumble. “Occasionally the RW troglodytes who’ve taken over the ABC get it right.”

Just a bit of LWRW point scoring so far. But by channelling Cooper he was ready to deliver the knockout blow.

“Peter Costello = The Overshadow”.

In one mathematical equation Burns nailed the nebulous Costello.

Of course, he is. A perfect Overshadow. QED.

Naturally enough Mark at Larvatus Prodeo agreed: “It says it all, really.”

An overshadow in its most basic sense is something that blocks light from above. But it has a second meaning: something that “exceeds in importance”. Costello has certainly had no shortage of self-importance, he does smug in spades. And he has never been able to shed the negatives of his upbringing in a way that his brother Tim can.

Others sense this about Peter. When Mark Latham wasn’t dissing out his colleagues in the Diaries, he was fruity with Opposition figures too. In the introduction to the book, he agreed with Costello that all politicians indulge themselves in politics and as a result, families suffer. But that was about as good as it got for Costello from Latham. By page 50, he was wishing a pox on Costello and his then boss Howard for “their stinking rotten budget”. It was 1996, and it was the newly elected Howard and Costello were acting, said Latham, like the Bourbons on Bastille Day: “Self indulgent and arrogant.”

It is fair to say that first budget was not pretty. There was Treasurer Costello, the youngest ever Liberal MP commissioned to deliver a Budget of non-core promises to the people that elected his party. He was fortunate the odour of the meanness and the trickiness stuck on his boss.

Nevertheless Howard had the numbers and the loyalty of a whole bunch of politicians who grew up in power and who didn’t mind the smell.

For ten long years Costello stuck to his Bourbon tradition and let Howard eat cake. But when it became obvious in 2007 that the time was up for the Big Man, Costello wouldn’t move against him. Just like in 1994, Costello hadn’t the numbers or wasn’t prepared to take the big chair. Rudd torpedoed the Libs in November 2007 and Costello went down with the ship.

Except he didn’t. The big offers from private industry didn’t come, so he hung on tight in his Higgins liferaft. Costello’s margin in Higgins is 14 percent. It covers the wealthy south-east Melbourne suburbs of Prahran, South Yarra, Toorak, Armadale, Malvern, Glen Iris, Camberwell and Ashburton and has always been held by Liberals.

(Pic: The Overshadow). Costello whiled away the days writing his memoirs and taking valuable column inches from new leader Brendan Nelson. Castaway in his backbench boat, he watched as Nelson’s column was toppled. As Nelson fell on his sword, he used the one weapon at his disposal to damage Costello. His leadership spill took most of the media coverage away from Costello’s book launch.

But once again The Overshadow hung around. Turnbull inherited the leadership but Costello refused to go on honeymoon and turned down a position on the front bench. Turnbull was more solid than Nelson but still could not lay a glove on the Government. The Liberals allowed themselves to be wedged on the stimulus as Turnbull forgot the basic rule: never get between the voters and a bag of money.

The Australian has now jumped on the bandwagon with an editorial on 12 March that said Costello knows the next election will be fought on his issues. “Turnbull must embrace the Howard agenda,“ pontificated the Australian, “If he declines to do it, the party should look for a leader who will.”

A leader who will? Despite all the wind and noise about Costello over the years, one basic fact needs repeating: Peter Costello has NEVER contested for the Liberal leadership. Maybe he never had the numbers to make a run at the federal Liberal leadership. Maybe he simply “never had the balls“.

But there is one thing that Costello has learned from his Faustian pact with Howard: In politics, longevity is everything. Unless he is challenged for pre-selection in Higgins, Costello will sit tight until the party comes begging for him. And if that date happens to be 2009 or even or 2012, then so be it. But then the Liberals must accept they will not regain the agenda until he comes out of the shadows.

March 16, 2009 at 10:34 am Leave a comment

The future of news: Next gen journos prefer digital

In news from Brisbane in the last few days, a QUT study has found that most student journalists don’t read newspapers. The problem with newspapers, say the students, is that there are too many long-winded articles, there’s no search engines and worst of all they get ink on your fingers. The study says a lot about the future of news, while the way the study was reported says much about the present.But I need to begin the story with the recent past. Last Saturday, QUT issued a media release entitled “Stop Press: Forests Saved. Next gen journos prefer digital”. The release was about the results of a survey QUT Journalism Professor Alan Knight ran to find out how first year university students got their news.

The full results of the survey are not yet in the public domain. Professor Knight will present them to the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre annual conference in New Delhi in July. However the results summary showed two important findings. First was 95 percent of the students enjoyed keeping up with news – as you’d hope and expect with people who want to become journalists. But the second fact contradicted the first: more than half of those surveyed read a newspaper “once a week or less often.”

Though I hadn’t read the release, I attended a Newswriting lecture at QUT on Tuesday where Professor Knight spoke about the future of news. During his wide-ranging talk he painted a bleak outlook for newspapers, though some specialist papers such at the Australian Financial Review (which hides most of its content behind a paywall) would survive. He also mentioned his survey findings and pointed accusingly at his audience who, he said, now preferred to get their news from commercial TV.

On Wednesday ABC picked up the story that Journalism students “don’t read papers”. Except it would appear that the ABC don’t read media releases. The ABC said, incorrectly, the survey found 90 per cent of students don’t like reading newspapers. Whereas, what Knight actually said was “More than 90 per cent of the respondents were aged under 21 and many of these want-to-be journalists don’t read newspapers.” Many of 90 per cent does not equal 90. The actual figure was 60 per cent.

However I did not realise the ABC’s error until I spoke to Knight. Other media, such as the Brisbane Times article linked in the opening paragraph, replicated the error. Techwired duly reported 90 per cent of students do not like reading the newspaper, despite Ben Grubb hearing it was only “a majority” in an interview with the professor.

But if is not 90 percent now, it will be in another year or two. Digital transmission is the way to go and the Techwired podcast I listened to was excellent quality. Knight rightly praised Ben Grubb for what he was doing. But the QUT professor made the point while it was all well and good for Grubb to interview him, he (Grubb) would need support if he was to do a story about something more complicated, say, on organised crime on the Sunshine Coast.

What Knight is saying is that stories like these require investigative journalism that is mainly the province of newspapers. But if hardly any young journalists are reading them, then it is likely the take-up rate is even smaller among the young generally. In 2008, The Pew Research Center found the internet overtook print for the first time as an outlet for national and international news. And newspapers in most parts of the world are contracting or dying as their readership gets older.

In Brisbane, the Courier-Mail has a readership of 646,000 of which almost half are over 50. Its rival the Fairfax Brisbane Times is digital only. Meanwhile, down in Melbourne Andrew Bolt is openly predicting the death of The Age in “a few years”. He might be right. It and its sister paper the Sydney Morning Herald are part of the crumbling Fairfax Digital empire which is rapidly turning into the sick man of Australian media despite its reverse takeover by the toecutters at Rural Press.

Yet although the Fairfax mastheads might disappear, Gen-Y will continue to read their digital imprints. Professor Knight said his study reflected cultural bias which in his view “results from using computers and not accepting print”. That is not wholly a bad thing. The State of the News Media 2006 report found that the Internet is often the richest source of information and is quickly gaining ground as a source for news. I got a personal inkling last year of how young journos get their news at the 2008 Future of Journalism conference when two out of the three students who spoke said they never read newspapers. Professor Knight accepts universities cannot reverse the trend but he added, “we can require journalist students to address all forms of media.”

March 14, 2009 at 5:20 pm 1 comment

Muntadhar al-Zaidi: a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people

You are an Iraqi press corp reporter. You are in a privileged position among the elite of your society. You are at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Palace in Baghdad. Nouri Al-Maliki, the Prime Minister of your nation and George W. Bush, the president of the United States are holding a joint conference. The US President is speaking. The professional ethics of your craft and common courtesy would demand that you sit quietly, listen and be respectful. If you hear things you do not agree with, ask a question. The president may, or may not answer. Nevertheless, you must at all times be civil.

But last December, Muntadhar al-Zaidi didn’t play by the rules anymore. When he got face time in front of his country’s occupier for five years, he didn’t want to ask a question, he wanted to make a statement. “I saw only Bush and it was like something black in my eyes,” he told the court in February.

And today he got a sentence of three years for shoeing a head of state.

Though I can’t be sure, I haven’t seen anyone ask him if he was fond of those Size Tens. We also don’t know for certain if it was it a spontaneous act or careful planning. But what is clear is that al-Zaidi certainly wasn’t fond of President Bush.

The video of the incident remains good for a laugh:

Bush shows good reflexes as the first shoe sails over his head. Al-Zaidi then uses the stunned silence to throw another shoe and shout out “this is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!” The head of that people, Al-Maliki, makes a half-hearted attempt to catch the second gift. Al-Zaidi is wrestled to the ground by journalists and security and finally the heavy brass enters the room. No-one is hurt except perhaps al-Zaidi himself. The plot is translated by the media as “Breaking News: President forced to duck.”

The video was hugely popular. It was soundbyte perfect and made for great news footage that played endlessly across the globe. Within the Arab world, al-Zaidi became both instant hero and cult figure. He hit the jackpot by using the cultural act of shoe-throwing to send a powerful message of disrespect. Even the shoe company did well out of Al-Zaidi. The reaction of Jordanian businessman Samer Tabalat was typical: “Al Zaidi is the man. He did what Arab leaders failed to do.”

Muntadhar al-Zaidi has made a meme extraordinarily popular and the tactic du jour of protesters everywhere. Throwing footwear is an excellent low-harm way of expressing political displeasure. Figures as diverse as the Mayor of Ithaca NY, the Israeli ambassador to Sweden, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Bush again have all copped brogues from copycat offenders. Brazilian president Luiz da Silva went on the front foot when he threatened to throw his shoes at unfriendly journalists.

But the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted hypocrisy. They say many government officials in the Middle East have come out in support of al-Zaidi while their own countries have a long history of repressing journalists. The CPJ also says the case is not about press freedoms but legal freedoms. “Al-Zaidi was not acting as a journalist when he threw his shoes at Bush, [but] he is entitled due process and the full protection of the law.”

Al-Zaidi should have known this. He was a Shia graduate from Baghdad University with a degree in communications. He is a reporter for al-Baghdadia, a Cairo-based satellite network. In 2007, he was kidnapped by gunmen and released unhurt after three days. In January 2008, US troops detained him overnight and searched his flat before releasing him with an apology. His older brother Dargham said both experiences fuelled Muntadhar’s resentment against the US military presence in Iraq. “He hate[d] the American physical occupation as much as he hate[d] the Iranian moral occupation,” he said.

Last month, Al-Zaidi pleaded not guilty but his Defence lawyer Yahia Attabi expected today’s decision. He told reporters outside the Baghdad court that under the Iraqi criminal code al-Zaidi was charged with assaulting a foreign leader on an official visit. His lawyers tried to argue that his shoe-throwing did not cause any injury or damage.

Judge Abdulamir Hassan al-Rubaie did not agree and today dished out three years. But given that the maximum sentence for this type of assault is 15 years, this is a good outcome. Al-Zaidi will probably be out of prison in 12 months. While it is always foolish to predict, it is difficult not to believe he will profit from his newly acquired cachet.

March 14, 2009 at 5:18 pm Leave a comment

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