Zuma election win confirmed but falls short of two-thirds majority

Final results from South Africa’s election showedJacob Zuma’s African National Congress has fallen short of the two-thirds majority to change the country’s constitution. The ANC took 65.9 per cent of the vote which gave it 264 seats in South Africa’s 400-seat parliament. The drop of 4 percent from the last election in 2004 was a crumb of comfort for opposition parties who feared a Zuma landslide would lead to the reduction in local government powers.

It still represents an impressive mandate for the party that has ruled since open elections began in 1994. It blitzed the Democratic Alliance (DA) led by Helen Zille which took just 16.7 per cent of the vote. The election also represents a remarkable comeback for Zuma. He was sacked four years  ago as deputy president by Thabo Mbeki for being implicated in a corruption scandal. He was charged with corruption, money laundering and racketeering, but the charges were dropped on a technicality in the lead-up to the election. Zuma’s supporters claim he was the victim of a political conspiracy hatched by Mbeki.

Zuma got his revenge when he assumed leadership of the ANC in December 2007. At the party’s national conference he defeated Mbeki by a 60:40 margin leaving Mbeki a lame duck president. Zuma counted on the support of people in rural areas and townships where unemployment is nudging 50 percent and poverty is widespread. South Africa’s shack-dwellers, farm workers, unemployed and domestic workers gave Zuma his emphatic election win.

Despite problems associated with their 15 year tenure of power, most of South Africa’s poor don’t have a logical alternative to vote for. Most people see Zille’s DA as the political front of white business while the newly formed Congress of the People (an ANC breakaway faction loyal to Mbeki) which came third, is seen to stand for black business. Their combined vote barely topped 24 percent and, according to the BBC, will face pressure to merge for a more effective challenge to the ANC in the next election in 2014.

Zuma, 67, is the first Zulu president and is known for wearing traditional garb including leopard skins and a spear at ceremonial events. He celebrated victory on Thursday in typical fashion by dancing and singing his signature song, the Zulu anti-apartheid anthem “Bring Me My Machine Gun.” Many people believe there is a political conservative hiding underneath this flamboyant façade. During the election, Zuma offered prayers to ancestors, denounced same-sex marriage as a “disgrace to God”, promised a referendum on the death penalty, condemned political rivals as “witches” and “snakes”, and defended polygamy as “African”.

Zuma’s most difficult task will be to fulfil his post-election promise to unite the country. Nearly all the nation’s whites and coloured people voted for the DA and South Africa’s communities still live along colour-coded lines despite the emergence of a growing black middle class. As Matthew Tostevin writes at Reuters, Zuma will have to juggle the needs of those who want a greater share of the wealth with those who feel politically marginalised.

There is also suspicion over the long-standing charges against Zuma suddenly dropped two weeks prior to the election. In 2005 his personal financial adviser, Schabir Shaik was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for soliciting and paying bribes and for fraud, mostly to benefit his boss. Zuma was charged with 16 offences for corruption, money-laundering and racketeering in a controversial $5bn 1999 arms deal with French company Thint. After a complicated court case, the charges were deemed unlawful, then reinstated on appeal, before finally being dropped due to flaws in the legal process. State prosecutors denied they had yielded to pressure from the incoming government but said that their case had been irretrievably compromised by pressure from the Mbeki administration.

Zuma also survived a rape charge in 2005 brought by the daughter of a friend. The case was dismissed after the judge ruled the sex was consensual. Zuma’s testimony revealed startlingly naïve attitudes about sex and AIDS, including an admission that he had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman but he showered afterward to reduce the risk of infection. Zuma’s handlers, aware of his unorthodox opinions, shut him down during the election campaign and he refused to answer all policy questions deferring instead to the ANC’s executive committee.

While the ANC has faithfully served the anti-apartheid cause for almost a century, many argue it is now time to move on to a new political era in South Africa. The party’s popularity, membership and moral authority are in decline. Five million South Africans have HIV/AIDS (the largest population in the world),violent crime is endemic; and the black underclass continues to grow. In 2006, the South African Institute of Race Relations estimated that 4.2 million South Africans were living on $1 a day or less in 2005, up from 1.9 million in 1996 (pdf). Zuma will need a lot more than populist appeal and revolutionary anthems to deal effectively with these issues.

Forgetting Papua New Guinea

There is a presumption often mentioned around Anzac Day that the Japanese did not invade Australia in World War II. This is not entirely true. Japanese troops landed in Buna-Gona on 21 July 1942 with the intention of taking Port Moresby. Buna-Gona, Port Moresby and Kokoda, where they were stopped by Australian soldiers and local stretcher bearers known as fuzzy wuzzy angels, have been part of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea since 1975. But in 1942, they was still part of a colony administrated by Queensland civil servants. The northern part where the Japanese landed was formerly German New Guinea which Billy Hughes won for Australia in the 1919 Versailles talks. The lower half was British New Guinea re-named Papua in 1904. Australia was the de facto ruler of Papua and New Guinea for much of the 20th century.

Forgetfulness is a common response to Australia’s closest neighbour. Few Australians go there and PNG rarely features in Australian media. When Prime Minister Michael Somare appeared in Canberra yesterday, he was mostly ignored. According to Richard Farmer at Crikey, the ABC did not even mention Somare’s name when Rudd was giving a military award to the fuzzy wuzzy angels. He was treated worse last time when he was asked to remove his shoes for an airport security check.At least this time he did speak to the Prime Minister. Port Moresby was one of Kevin Rudd’s earliest overseas stops as PM in March 2008. Yet even Rudd still felt the need to play big brother and tell Somare yesterday that he was not spending Australian aid money wisely. Australia supplies 20 per cent of the nation’s budget worth over $300 million a year.

While Somare defended current practice saying no one starved in his country, Rudd said too much aid was “consumed by consultants” and not enough given to teachers, builders and health workers. Rudd too, was forgetting something. As Somare told him, Papua New Guinea is a village society. “When one village is poor, the other village helps,” he said. The majority of Papua New Guinea’s population is still dependent on agriculture. While PNG makes a lot of money from mineral deposits like oil, gold, and copper, it relies on World Bank aid and support from Australia to survive.

The influence of Australia on PNG is more than just monetary, it has also left its cultural mark over the decades. When PNG was still a colony, Australia was responsible for the census. In the 1950s, census takers found the hill tribes were changing under Australian influence. They saw that cloth clothing was replacing bark skirts and sporrans and male initiation no longer involved braiding bark strips in their hair and smearing their bodies with pig grease. Nose piercing with cassowary bones and ritualised cannibalism was also on the way out.

While Papua New Guinea remains the most linguistically complex country in the world with 860 languages, many are endangered. English is one of three official languages (with creole languages tok pisin and motu) and the only language of government and the education system. PNG also has many imported western problems such as car-jacking, firearms offences, robbery, violence, rape and a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

HIV/AIDS is central to one of the new initiatives announced in Canberra yesterday. Rugby league is the nation’s biggest sport and one of PNG’s biggest uniting factors. Rudd gave Somare $20 million for a national rugby league competition. Somare wanted league development to boost school attendance and help with HIV/AIDS awareness. The long-term view would also be to integrate the competition into Australia’s rugby league.

Somare continued his visit to Australia today away from the media glare. AAP reported he toured Victoria’s firefighting nerve centre during a visit to Melbourne. Victorians owe a debt of gratitude to Somare who donated $1 million to the Victorian bushfire appeal on behalf of his country. He said PNG did not experience fires on that scale, but wanted to show its support. “We thought it was a gesture to support the Australian people because they normally, in our bad times, they always come for our support,” he said. Even if most of the time Australians forget they do.

Greens say journalists’ shield laws don’t go far enough

The Greens announced today they will seek amendments to the proposed federal shield laws to protect journalists’ sources. The Evidence Amendment (Journalists’ Privilege) Bill has completed Senate hearings but the Greens say it needs further changes to adequately protect journalists. The party’s Attorney-General spokesman Senator Scott Ludlam said the bill did not support minimum protections of confidentiality nor did it meet the objectives as claimed by the Attorney-General. “We need to make it explicit that courts should assume protection of journalists sources unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary,” said Ludlam. “The Greens will propose a range of amendments to make sure the bill meets these important objectives and in coming weeks we will be seeking the support of other parties.”

The new legislation is a Labor election promise for a review of whistleblower protection. Ludlam said it does not go far enough to ensure journalists have the right to protect the identity of their sources unless overridden by strong public interest or national security reasons. Last week the media industry’s Right to Know Coalition (which includes most key media players) also said the proposed law was defective. They told the Senate enquiry the scheme should be based on the New Zealand model which contains a presumption journalists’ sources should remain confidential.

Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland has rejected the New Zealand model in favour of the scheme drawn up by the House of Representatives standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs. McClelland described the Labor position as a balance between the media’s role in informing the public and the public interest in the administration of justice. He says the bill required courts to consider whether information was passed illegally before determining if evidence should be admitted or a source revealed. This consideration needed to be balanced against the potential harm to the source or the journalist if evidence is given.

Critics say the bill retains criminal sanctions for most public disclosures, even those made in the public interest. Whistleblowers Australia said if the scheme is enacted in current form, they will advise commonwealth public servants to ignore it when dealing with disclosure issues. The most infamous recent case is customs officer Allan Kessing who leaked a confidential report to the Australian which showed the poor state of Australian airport security. The report was ignored by his superiors for two years but led directly to a $200 million improvement program after the leak. Kessing was convicted of disclosing official information and received a nine-month suspended jail term.

The legislation also leaves journalists vulnerable. South Australian independent Nick Xenophon asked “would it have protected Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus?” Harvey and were Herald-Sun reporters convicted of contempt of court and fined $7,000 for refusing to reveal the source of a leak about a federal government proposal to slash war veterans’ benefits. The Howard government put up shield legislation which relied heavily on judicial discretion.

The 2007 Moss Report into the state of free speech in Australia stated those shield laws would not have helped Harvey and McManus. Labor’s proposed legislation does not seem much better than their predecessors. But despite the Greens and Xenophon’s reservations, there is still hope an amended version will be passed with the help of the cross-benches. Scott Ludlam wants the legislation to apply to new media including citizen journalists and bloggers. “With goodwill and cooperation amongst the parties, we can ensure this bill serves its important purpose,” said Ludlam.

Calvo Ospina falls foul of American security paranoia

If anyone thought an Obama administration might see less paranoid American attitudes to security, they should think again. Last week, an Air France flight from Paris to Mexico City last week was forced to make an emergency landing in Martinique because US authorities refused permission to fly over American airspace. The refusal was because one passenger was deemed a security risk. Air France sent its passenger manifest to Mexican authorities but that information was somehow obtained by the US. The prohibited passenger was Colombian journalist Hernando Calvo Ospina, who works for the French left-wing monthly Le Monde Diplomatique.

Hernando Calvo Ospina has written many critical articles about American involvement in Latin America. He is writing a book about the CIA and in 2007 wrote a stinging piece about Reagan’s shadowy National Endowment for Democracy which destabilised unfriendly regimes. But it doesn’t make him a terrorist and there is no good reason he should end up on a terror watch list other than he is unfriendly to the political administration.

Ospina has written about his experiences on the Mexico flight. He says five hours before the flight was due to land in Mexico City, the captain announced the plane had been refused permission to fly over the US. The captain said one passenger aboard was a person not welcome in the US for reasons of national security. A few minutes later, he announced the flight would have to divert to Martinique because there was not enough fuel to cope with the unintended detour.

Aboard the plane there was hushed talk about who the unwelcome passenger might be. Ospina overheard one conversation where someone said no terrorist could be at the back of the plane because “nobody there looks like a Muslim.” After the plane took off from Martinique, the co-pilot came to him and asked if he was Calvo Ospina. He asked Ospina to accompany him to the rear of the plane where he told him he was the reason for the detour. “Do you think I’m a terrorist?” asked Ospina. “No,” said the co-pilot, “that’s the reason I’m telling you this.”

The co-pilot asked him to keep quiet and Ospina returned to his seat. When they arrived at Mexico City, he was stopped at Immigration and taken to a room where two men asked him to “verify” a few things. His inquisitor told Ospina “five information sources” in databases had shown some information about him and they needed to make a summary. A second man told him he was being held at the request of US authorities and that after September 11, 2001, the Americans and Mexicans had stepped up “cooperation” work.

Ospina asked “So, am I to blame for the plane’s rerouting?” They told him no, it was merely a technical stopover. Ospina said he heard differently but the two men ignored this and resumed questioning. After the basics came “Are you a Catholic?” and “Do you know how to handle firearms?” Ospina said no to both and added “my only weapon is my writing, especially to denounce the American government, whom I consider terrorist.” One questioner responded “that weapon sometimes is worse than rifles and bombs.”

They asked him where he was going. Ospina said he was heading to Nicaragua on a story for Le Monde Diplomatique. After a few more questions, he was politely released and he went on to Nicaragua without further incident. But he was left with many questions: How much did it all cost (Air France had to pay for hotel rooms and food for at least half the passengers, who missed their connections) and why have Air France and the French authorities kept quiet about it? And perhaps the most difficult to answer: how far will the US authorities’ paranoia go?

Maurice Lemoine, editor in chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, said Calvo Ospina was a Colombian political exile in France who has denounced his home government of President Uribe and the role of the US in Latin America, and as a journalist has had occasion to interview top members of the leftist guerrilla group FARC. “That seems enough for him to be considered a terrorist,” said Lemoine. The best thing that can be said about this case is that the move has backfired badly. Ospina’s ideas will now get to a much larger audience thanks to American stupidity.

Centre-left victory in Icelandic election

Interim Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir has claimed victory overnight in Iceland’s election ending the long-term rule of a conservative alliance. Sigurdardottir’s centre-left Social Democratic Alliance won 20 seats with 30 percent of the vote and will govern with coalition partner the Left-Green Movement who won 14 seats. That gives them a five seat majority in the 63 member Althing (one of the world’s oldest parliaments).

Conservative Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson conceded defeat in the worst election result in the party’s history. His party took only 22.9 per cent of votes, well below the previous all-time low of 27 per cent in 1987. The Independence Party has ruled Iceland with its coalition partners the Progressive Party for nearly all of the last 64 years. They were forced out of office earlier this year when Prime Minister Geir Haarde stepped down due to health reasons.

It wasn’t just Haarde’s health that suffered. The country’s economic collapse claimed the conservative administration and the left-wing parties formed a caretaker government in February with a view to holding elections in spring. Sigurdardottir became the country’s first female prime minister. She was also the world’s first openly gay premier.

Sigurdardottir’s sexuality was the last thing on the minds of voters in this weekend’s election. Opinion surveys and voter interviews showed a clear inclination to punish pro-business leaders who brought the country to ruin. In the good times banks offered 100 percent lending. Now many Icelanders are trapped with skyrocketing loan repayments while inflation hovers at 15 percent and unemployment has shot up from barely one percent to 10 percent.

The country’s banking sector collapsed late last year leaving the country swamped with debts. Inflation is spiralling out of control and the International Monetary Fund has predicted the economy will shrink by about 10 percent in 2009, which represents Iceland’s biggest slump since independence from Denmark in 1944. In October the IMF gave Iceland a stimulus package worth $2.1 billion to stabilise the freefalling currency (the krona lost almost half its value to the euro in the last 12 months) and also prop out the country’s stock market.

Icelandic financiers are delicately trying to untangle the mess left by the global financial crisis. Its banking system significantly outstripped the authorities’ ability to act as a lender of last resort when toxic debts began to emerge. The new government was forced to implement budget austerity measures worth $400 million and hopes this plan will end capital flow curbs. This would allow foreign investors to take money out of the country without destroying the currency. Investors (including many English councils) had been locked into crown assets when the previous government imposed capital controls to stop the domestic currency going into freefall after Iceland’s top three banks collapsed.

In the past Iceland deliberately stayed out of the EU to protect its rich fishing grounds from European boats. But now Icelanders are now looking to the European body to bail them out. Their application to join is being expedited and a process that normally takes ten years or more could be over by 2011. The EU is looking favourably on Iceland’s application. Olli Rehn, European commissioner in charge of enlargement gave it a glowing endorsement despite the financial crisis. “It is one of the oldest democracies in the world and its strategic and economic positions would be an asset to the EU,” he said. Sigurdardottir has pledged to fast track membership application and says she wants Iceland to join the euro zone within four years.

The metamorphosis of Anzac Day

Watching the Anzac Day marches on television today, it reminded me of the marches I saw 20 years ago when I first arrived in Australia. In 1989 the last few First World War diggers led the parade. They were dying out then and now they are all gone. In today’s march it was the turn of increasingly rare Second World War vets to feel the cold of comrades dying in numbers similar to when first they met.

Anzac Day is about ritual, the reason the media loves covering it in detail. The day is a stable source of controllable news and clichés about pride, mateship and honour. One important ritual is the day off work which was skewed today as it fell on a Saturday. Numbers were down on last year as people didn’t feel the same sort of time sacrifice was required on the weekend, and most states did not give out a holiday on Monday. A newer tradition is the battleground service where Australians and Kiwi backpackers combine a European holiday with a Turkish remembrance theme. Numbers were down at Gallipoli due to the recession, said the ABC but Lone Pine still attracted 7500 people. Another 3000 packed out the French 1918 battle site at Villers-Bretonneux which rose to Australian prominence last year on its 90th anniversary.

Though overseas Anzac Day celebrations date to 1916, it was one of the few things well-drilled founders of the tradition probably hadn’t anticipated. On April 25 1916 Australian and New Zealand troops commemorated the Gallipoli landing in England, Egypt and the Middle East and in France (where they had just arrived).

It captured public imagination in 1916 thanks to the war reporting of Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and Charles Bean. Throughout 1915 their lively accounts ignited a fire which religious institutions were quick to pick up on. By June bodies were coming back from Turkey in significant numbers and it continued until the operation was called off in December. A national day of mourning was needed to deal with collective grief.

The first Anzac Day Commemoration Committee was set up in January 1916. Brisbane auctioneer Thomas Augustine Ryan decided there should be a commemoration on 25 April. He was in the local recruiting committee and the father of a soldier who survived Gallipoli. Ryan suggested the idea to TJ Ryan (no relation) Labor Premier of Queensland. Premier Ryan convened a meeting on 10 January 1916 and high profile Anglican priest Canon Garland drew up an agenda.

David John Garland was a remarkable political operator and the perfect man for the Anzac job. He was a missionary and organiser with a reputation for getting things done. Born in Dublin he emigrated to Queensland in 1886 aged 18 to follow a career in law. But he met a Toowoomba Anglo-Catholic rector who employed him while he prepared for ordination. Garland was a chaplain in the army prior to the Boer War and spent ten years in Western Australia where he got the rules changed to allow religious education in state schools. He returned to Queensland where he did the same and won a referendum to allow bibles in state schools.

Garland got an Anzac memorial on the 10 January meeting agenda. A motion was passed to “make arrangements for, and carry out the celebrations of Anzac Day”. The Brisbane Courier reported Garland saying the war was teaching people “their duty to God in a degree would compensate for their neglect of God in the past” and defeat in Turkey was no disgrace.

The first troops ashore at Anzac were the Queensland 9th Battalion of the 3rd Australian Infantry Brigade. The Ninth were also the first to return home in coffins in large numbers. As 1915 progressed a culture of commemoration grew in Brisbane. Garland also arranged for marchers to get free public transport from Queensland Rail.

His genius was overcoming Catholic suspicions about Protestant commemorations. Garland made sure the ADCC council was ecumenical and top-heavy with influential people. He used his Irishness to win over a suspicious Roman Catholic hierarchy. Military sacrifice did not compromise religious belief, so all religions wanted a part of it. Together, they would ensure Anzac Day always had a religious as well as secular charter.

Garland included a two minutes silence which allowed everyone to pray to their own God. There was also speeches, hymns, the Last Post and God Save the Queen. It was followed by a march of returned servicemen. The ADCC wanted the day to have similar solemnity to Good Friday (which in 1916 was just four days before Anzac Day). No cinemas, racecourse, hotels or sporting venues could open.

Royal support helped the ADCC. King George V attended the 1916 Anzac Day two minutes silence at Westminster Abbey. There he issued a rare message direct to Australians: “Today I am joining them in their solemn tribute to the memory of their heroes who died in Gallipoli. They gave their lives for a supreme cause in gallant comradeship”.

But even with royal imprimatur, it took 14 years for Anzac Day to spread across Australia. Garland worked tirelessly to ensure the day kept its religious dimension. From 1921 he lobbied the Prime Minister to declare a uniform celebration across the Commonwealth. New Zealand declared a day of solemn remembrance in 1920, Queensland followed a year later and WA in 1923. Businesses and hotels were required to close until 12.30pm to allow for services and the march and it would take another seven years for Queensland to shut down everything for the entire day. The federal government took over Anzac Day from Garland’s ADCC and it laid the Inauguration Stone at the National War Memorial in 1929.

At the June 1929 Premier’s Conference, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce invited all church denominations to hold memorial services the following year and asked the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia to arrange meetings of remembrance. The RSSILA could not decide if it wanted the tone of the meetings to be solemn or jubilant. It decided on both: solemnity in the morning and fun in the afternoon allowing the opening of sporting venues and bars.

Most states went with the RSSILA (now RSL) model. Queensland went alone with the “sacred day” approach. In 1964 the Anzac Day Act was modified to allow hotels, racecourses and places of amusement to open. Australia finally had a nationally sanctified and consistent Anzac Day appealing to the spiritual and the worldly sides of the nation’s psyche.

Fiji has a long way to go to be as bad as Burma

Journalism watchdog group Reporters San Frontieres has slammed Fiji’s censorship saying it was heading dangerously towards a Burmese-style system “in which the media are permanently subject to prior censorship and other forms of obstruction”. However as bad as things are in Fiji and they are very bad, they would have to get a lot worse to compare with terrible conditions Burmese media have had to put up with for 47 years.

To understand Burma’s media needs an understanding of Burma’s governance. Buddhism is at the heart of Burmese political culture and in pre-colonial times religion informed people’s belief government was an evil to be endured and kings were unaccountable to the people. A more secular polity emerged in the 19th century under European colonisation. Lower Burma was established as a British colony after the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826 and the northern part of the country was assimilated 10 years later.

Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 with a democratically elected civilian political leadership. In 1962 General Ne Win staged a coup under the pretext of preventing ethnic breakaway states and installed a military regime that remains in power to this day. Burma outlawed all other political parties and adopted a central planned economy Win called the “Burmese way to socialism”. Burma became one of the poorest countries in the world. In 1988, the government violently suppressed a peaceful revolution. Two years later Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of a murdered independence hero) led the National League for Democracy to overwhelming victory in elections only for the military to declare it invalid. They created a new ruling body, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) which later metamorphosised into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The SLORC/SPDC violently put down the Saffron Revolution in 2007.

Burma remains beset by major issues. The SPDC continues to string out Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest on a year-by-year basis. Ethnic groups such as the Shan and the Karen continue insurgencies against a central administration implacably opposed to a federal style of government. All sides of the conflict use unregulated commerce including the thriving opium trade to finance their operations. Burma is also a geo-political pawn. China wants Burma’s access to the Indian Ocean shipping lanes while China and India covet Burma’s abundant oil, natural gas, uranium and minerals.

Burmese media are unable to report on any of these issues. According to Aung Zaw “most Burmese have no clue what is happening in their country”. It wasn’t always this way as Burma has a long and rich tradition of journalism. Within ten years of British colonisation of Lower Burma the first western-style newspapers appeared in both English and Burmese. By 1919 Burmese language agenda setting nationalist newspapers such as Myanmar Alin (New Light of Burma) were agitating for change. At the time of independence, Burma had a vibrant network of over 30 newspapers which operated with considerable freedom in a country of much natural wealth and widespread literacy. Until 1962 the Burmese people enjoyed political and civil rights protected by the constitution, a free press and national secular education.

After 1962, the new regime installed a system of press licensing requiring the registration of all publications. The rulers also issued a warning seditious news was not to be published. Ne Win began to act as a “tyrannical king”. In 1963 the junta closed down the prestigious Nation and began to publish its own propaganda in the Working People’s Daily. By 1966, they banned all private newspapers and expelled Reuters and Associated Press correspondents. In 1993 there remained just one permitted newspaper, the Government run Working People’s Daily, printed in Burmese and English.

The broadcast media of radio and television remain tightly controlled by the Government. Radio was a wartime legacy and the Burmese followed the British model when they set up the Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS) after independence. BBS programmers operated with similar freedom to the press until it was abruptly ended by the military takeover in 1962. Myanmar TV began in 1980 and was supplemented by a military channel in 1990. Both channels are owned and operated by the Government and the military. Foreign stations such as STAR TV are officially available only to high ranking officials and five-star hotels in Yangon (Rangoon), but enterprising citizens in northern towns have smuggled satellite dishes across the border from China.

In the Saffron Revolution (2007), the government did not restrict the flow of international news but concentrated on crushing the watch-dog function of local media by censoring news sources, reporters and editors. The Reporters San Frontières report on Burma for 2006 confirmed the military had not released its grip. The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division check every article, editorial, cartoon, advertisement and illustration ahead of publication. Burma also insists all fax machines be registered and journalists can earn a seven year prison sentence for having an unauthorised fax, video camera, modem or a copy of a banned publication. The Committee to Protection of Journalists describe Burma as one of the most repressive places for journalists, trailing only North Korea on their “10 Most Censored Countries” list.

Even minimal attempts to report the facts are ruthlessly crushed. Reporting on Aung San Suu Kyi is banned as is debate about Government policy. In 2006 two journalists were imprisoned for attempting to film the country’s controversial new capital Naypidaw and at least seven journalists were behind bars, making Burma the world’s fifth leading jailer of journalists. Burmese journalists cannot report on natural disasters, plane crashes, student brawls, regional turmoil and activities of opposition political parties lest they lead to criticism of authorities. Last year a blogger was sentenced to 45 years in jail for daring to report on Cyclone Nargiss. Journalism is Burma is less about agenda-setting than agenda-avoiding.

The Internet was tightly proscribed as of 2002 with just 14,000 email accounts for a population of 50 million people. News is stilling getting through despite repression. Because government news sources are unreliable, Burmese people tune in to shortwave radio services from the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Burmese are also turning to older technologies such as videos, tapes, facsimiles, photographs, and printed materials to get messages across. Uncontrolled ideas do get out as the 2007 Revolution showed. While the prognosis for Burma is not good in the short to medium term, the military can never fully defeat the power of communicable ideas.

Queensland presses on with anti-bikie laws despite Victorian veto

Queensland Attorney-General Cameron Dick denied today state and territory jurisdictions had backed down on a national approach to anti-bikie laws. At a meeting of Attorneys-General in Canberra last Thursday, Victoria and the ACT refused to support uniform adoption of laws aimed specifically at bikie gangs.

Dick told Woolly Days today he was satisfied he had achieved “a solid national response” on the issue of criminal activities of outlaw motorcycle gangs. “The clear message from last week’s meeting is that there will be no safe havens for bikie gangs in any state or territory in Australia,” he said.

The amended approach will not focus specifically on motorbike gangs but will target all forms of organised crime. Queensland’s Attorney-General said the agreement provides a framework for Queensland to ensure its proposed legislation will be “effective and supported nationwide”. “I am very pleased that the work we are undertaking here will be supported in all other jurisdictions,” he said.

The national laws allow for the confiscation of crime proceeds, coercive questioning powers, and will give police the ability to engage in controlled operations. Victoria Attorney-General Rob Hulls baulked at national provisions that would have allowed criminal bike gangs to be outlawed. Hulls refusal gave the Opposition spokesman Robert Clark the opportunity to use a colourful phrase: “the risk of Victoria becoming Australia’s soft underbelly of bikie crime has become even greater.”

Queensland is independently developing legislative options for anti-association and anti-consorting laws for cabinet’s consideration. Dick said today he would be speaking to the Police Minister Neil Roberts to discuss “any additional areas which need to be considered in order to meet the requirements of this framework.”

South Australia was the first state to introduce anti-bike laws when it passed The Serious and Organised Crime (Control) Act (pdf) in 2008. The laws give the state Attorney General wide discretionary powers to deem organisations ‘criminal’ (but do not adequately define organised crime) and there is no appeals process for organisations branded under the legislation. There is also a ‘guilt by association’ provision and convictions carry a maximum period of imprisonment of five years.

NSW followed suit last month when it rushed in laws after a violent brawl at Sydney Airport in which a 29-year-old man was bludgeoned to death with a metal pole. Its laws were tougher than SA’s as there was no system of warning that charges would be laid if targeted bikies continue to associate with each other. Queensland, WA and the Northern Territory have also said they would introduce similar laws.

Critics say the laws are absurd and unfair. Last weekend the newly formed United Motorcycle Council of Queensland (UMCQ) said the proposed laws were discriminatory. The council which represents 17 clubs says the laws will target innocent bikie members. Greg Barns in Crikey said last month the laws were “largely unenforceable, cement in law the concept of guilt by association and would do nothing to lessen the problem of bikie gangs’ violence because they completely miss the point – which is that bikie gangs thrive on our refusal to decriminalise drugs.”

Here at Woolly Days, I also argued recently the laws were a moral panic and they only dealt with a perception while “the real bikie problem will only be driven underground.” Even with Victoria’s refusal to play ball, nothing I have heard since the Attorneys-General meeting causes me to believe any different. I hope I am wrong.

Sean Dorney speaks out on Fiji censorship

Journalist Sean Dorney spoke today about Fiji’s intimidating media censorship and how he and two New Zealand journalists were expelled from the country last week. Speaking in Brisbane, he praised the courage and friendship of the local journalists he left behind to face the country’s new draconian press laws. Dorney, the ABC’s long-time Pacific correspondent, was kicked out of Fiji because the newly reinstalled “interim” government did not like what he was writing about. (Note: picture above shows Dorney reading from his expulsion order to today’s audience. Credit: Lee Duffield).

Fiji descended into mayhem over Easter when the country’s High Court declared the Interim Government illegal only for the president to sack the court, abrogate the constitution, and re-install the Bainimarama government all within a matter of days. The government then clamped down on the media and expelled foreign journalists Dorney and a crew from New Zealand’s TV3.

Professor Alan Knight said 40 Australian & New Zealand journalists and journalism educators signed a statement of support last week (full text of statement here) which called on governments to “seek to protect all Fiji journalists striving to perform their duties in these difficult circumstances.” The statement also supported Dorney and other foreign journalists expelled from Fiji because “they sought the truth in the public interest.”

Dorney showed the audience the deportation notice the Fijian Permanent Secretary of Information issued him one hour before he was bundled onto a plane to Sydney. Dorney commended the bravery of the local journalists he left behind many of whom have been arrested and intimidated by authorities. The military government is now taking a direct involvement in their work. “There are censors in the newsrooms headed by a military major,” he said.

Dorney spoke about three decrees Fiji introduced to clamp down on press freedoms. The first controls publications and broadcasts and gives the censor the right to control all media output. The second says publishers and broadcasters must submit all materials to be vetted prior to publication or broadcast. The third states any publisher or broadcaster who does not fully comply must “cease operations and all activities”. All Fijian media are now under the control of Major Neumi Leweni, the newly appointed Orwellian sounding Permanent Secretary of Information.

Leweni has posted officials in all five of Fiji’s main newsrooms (the three papers; The Sun, The Post, The Times, as well as the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation and Communications Fiji) to ensure the media are complying to the new decrees. Leweni reserves the right to intervene if he feels the media are not compliant enough.

Dorney said the media hit back with creative protests only to encounter threats from the government. The Fiji Times printed blank pages instead of news and a title “this story could not be published”. Leweni told them if they did that again he would shut them down. The Post meanwhile, ran sarcastic stories such as “Man gets on bus” which had lines such as “It was easy…I just lifted one leg up and then the other and I was on”. Again Leweni intervened and told them “any more funny business and you are shut down”.

Dorney was warned he was likely to be thrown out. On Friday he got a text message saying “brace yourself to depart” and he was expelled a day later. After sending a story about the censorship back to Australia, the Information department asked him to come into the office. He was told Major Leweni didn’t like his reporting but was not detained. He told ABC what happened before being called in a second time a few hours later. Authorities asked would he leave voluntarily. Dorney refused and was taken into custody. “I didn’t feel as though I was going to be beaten up,” he said, “but if handed to the military, that could have happened”.

Dorney said the only time he was worried was when a New Zealand cameramen (who was also held) tried to surreptitiously film proceedings. He was quickly spotted and officers demanded he delete all material from the camera and threatened to search his accompanying female reporter. After five hours of questioning, the journalists were handed over to the Immigration authorities in a car park. An Australian consular official yelled out “are you OK?” The official then rang Dorney’s wife with an update while Dorney and the New Zealanders spent the night in a hotel under the guard of immigration officers.

The following morning they were escorted to Nadi airport. They were taken to a special counter to be processed. The airline official told him she could see a booking to Sydney for Dorney but no ticket. “I do have tickets for Brisbane a month later,” he told her. Dorney was the last to board the flight and neither the tourists on board, nor the cabin crew were aware he was being deported.

Dorney praised the courage of Fijian journalists and thanked them for their support. He also attacked the conditions they now work under. “[The journalists] have been told – don’t be disloyal” he said. “They are trying to be loyal to Fiji, but Bainimarama (pictured) wants them to be loyal to him”. Dorney also said the military regime doesn’t care about international pressure and a military attack would be counter-productive. “The Fijian military is a formidable force,” he said. Dorney said pressure on the regime would have to emerge internally and might happen if economic conditions deteriorate further.

Another view on Dorney’s talk from Lee Duffield at EU Australia Online, a good potted history of Fiji’s troubled history from Legal Eagle at Scepticlawyer and Andrew Bartlett on the response from Fiji’s bloggers.

Israel flexes its muscles: The West’s shameful boycott of the Durban Review Conference

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is “shocked and disappointed” by the US decision not to attend the anti-racism Durban Review Conference starting today in Geneva, Switzerland. The US joins Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Israel, Netherlands, Germany and Italy in boycotting the conference. Speaking yesterday High Commissioner Navi Pillay said these countries have allowed a couple of issues to dominate, outweighing the needs of numerous groups who suffer worldwide on a daily basis. “These are truly global issues,” she said “And it is essential that they are discussed at a global level, however sensitive and difficult they may be.”

Western nations have allowed their Israeli interests to trump discussion of a wide range of important human rights issues. According to the Financial Times, the boycotters want to avoid a rerun of the original 2001 Durban meeting at which Israel was attacked over its racist policies towards Palestinians. Although this year’s draft communiqué was reworded to address concerns, the US was still unhappy at the final product.

US State Department spokesman Robert Wood said although the US was “profoundly committed to ending racism and racial discrimination”, it could not sign up because the language in Friday’s communiqué text reaffirmed the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA). “The DDPA singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians,” said Wood. “ The [US] also has serious concerns with relatively new additions to the text regarding ‘incitement,’ that run counter to the US commitment to unfettered free speech.”

Australia used similar arguments. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said he’d taken the decision with regret “as Australians are a people committed to eliminating racism and racial discrimination.” He claimed Australia was committed to advancing human rights and had put in place policies to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people (one of the main items for discussion at the conference). However, he said he could not support a document which reaffirmed the DDPA in its entirety. “We cannot be confident that the Review Conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views,” said Smith. “Of additional concern are the suggestions of some delegations in the Durban process to limit the universal right to free speech.

Their concerns seems over dramatised when looking at the actual text of the original 2001 DDPA (pdf). Just one out of 122 issues related to the treatment of the Palestinians. This is issue 63 which reads: “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.”

Hardly over controversial, and sentiments shared by many across the world. The decision looks even more suspicious having looked at the agenda of the 2001 conference. It dealt with five major human rights themes: trafficking in women and children, migration and discrimination, gender and racial discrimination, racism against indigenous peoples, and protection of minority rights. In none of the press releases related to these five areas, is Israel mentioned by name.

The call for laws against incitement is more problematic, but some boycotting nations already have similar laws (eg Volksverhetzung in Germany) on their books. The relevant passage in the DDPA (Action 145) urges “States to implement legal sanctions, in accordance with relevant international human rights law, in respect of incitement to racial hatred [through the Internet]”. In any case, the action is stated as an “urge” and does not imply outright agreement. The reason countries are pulling out is because they do not want public discussion of Israeli policy in the Palestinian territory.

Early draft versions of the Durban 2 declaration were rabidly anti-Israel. The 3 March version found by Ha’aretz found that Israel’s policy in the Palestinian territories constituted a “violation of international human rights, a crime against humanity and a contemporary form of apartheid”. However the final version I read this evening (Rev 2) contained no explicit mention of Israel at all. The commitment to avoid a just settlement in Palestine has trumped “the commitment to prevent, combat and eradicate racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.” The US and Australian position on human rights commitments has been shown up as a pious platitude and the boycott is shameful politicking.