Saturday, December 25, 2010

Where Kenya Leads, Others Follow

Why doesn't Laurent Gbagbo wake up and smell the cocoa? That is the question on the minds of many watching the unfolding events in the Ivory Coast. However, seen through the prism of recent closely fought elections on the continent, Gbagbo's actions are not only rational, but also sadly predictable.

The script was pioneered right here in Kenya: A relatively free and remarkably violence-free campaign -followed by an equally remarkably peaceful election- give way to a delay in announcing the presidential poll results, sparking a dispute over the count. The incumbent is then declared the winner (despite all evidence to the contrary) and hastily organizes an inauguration. A violent stand-off with the opposition quickly ensues followed by internationally mediated talks resulting in the incumbent retaining his position. The erstwhile "real winner" gets a prime-ministership and a share of the government in return for his acquiescence in the robbery.

That, in brief, is how you rig an election nowadays.

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe was quick to cotton on to the benefits of the plan. Now it's Gbagbo's turn. He probably thinks that all he has to do is tough it out for a few more weeks and the West, anxious that the world might run out of chocolate, will cave in and call for a negotiated settlement of the "dispute." This would, of course, mean that Gbagbo would participate in such talks as de facto head of state ala Mwai Kibaki.

Welcome to African Democracy where we are all winners, even when we lose.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Six Cases Please

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Getting The Cable Guy

The recent arrest of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, in the UK must be viewed with extreme prejudice, given the shenanigans surrounding the issuing of the arrest warrant against him and the attempts by Western governments, led by the US, to cripple his organisation.

The West has pulled all the stops in its attempt to get Assange and knock out Wikileaks. The fact that he is yet to be accused of violating any laws has not stopped governments trying to find, or perhaps manufacture, a reason to detain him. In his home country, Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said that the Australia Federal Police were going through ''thorough processes'' to find any laws Assange may have broken. The Attorney-General has intimated that Assange might not be welcome back if convicted over the leaks, while at the same time declaring that Australia was providing ''every assistance'' to US authorities in their investigation. According to The Age, one of Australia's leading newspapers, government authorities around the world are working overtime to determine whether Assange could be charged with a crime related to the leaks.

Assange’s arrest is based on a warrant issued by a Swedish prosecutor. He is wanted for questioning in Sweden for what his solicitor has called “sex by surprise.” Interestingly, though, at the same time the Swedes were issuing arrest warrants claiming they could not find him, news organisations such as Al Jazeera had no problems locating him for on air interviews.

According to Bjorn Hurtig, Assange's Stockholm-based lawyer, the warrant itself is based on "exaggerated grounds." The accusations, which Assange denies, apparently stem from a malfunctioning condom and a refusal to wear one during a separate encounter. A report on the Reuters website says the two women involved were not initially looking to file charges but rather to track him down and persuade him to get tested for an STD.

Citing several people in contact with Assange's entourage at the time, some of whom have since fallen out with him, the report says that it was only after the women had trouble finding Assange -he had turned off his cellphone out of concern his enemies might trace him- that they turned to the police. An initial arrest warrant on rape and molestation charges issued mid-August by an on-call prosecutor was dropped a day later by another prosecutor and the charges later reinstated by a third, Marianne Ny, who, according to AOL News, has been active in proposed reforms of Swedish rape laws, including a radical redefinition of consent.

The women’s lawyer, Claes Borgstrom confirmed to reporters at the time that his clients' allegations against Assange related to efforts he made to have sex with them without wearing condoms, and his subsequent reluctance to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, following Assange’s arrest, a lawyer representing the Swedish government laid out for a British judge four specific charges of sexual misconduct but the word "rape" was not part of the charges which cited "unlawful coercion" and Assange's alleged reluctance to use condoms. A spokeswoman for Swedish prosecutors has also affirmed that at the moment Assange is not formally charged in Sweden, but is only wanted for questioning.

The Swedes also seemed determined to make exceptions for Assange. According to the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, which in August hired Assange to contribute bimonthly columns on politics and freedom of expression, last year a couple of Irishmen aboard a sea vessel were caught on tape beating a Swede, Christer Skoog, unconcious and then stomping on his head. However, despite the assault having taken place in Swedish waters, having the surveillance tape, and witnesses recognising and identifying both assailants, Sweden's public prosecutor decided to drop the case. Asked why he had not sought their extradition from Ireland, prosecutor Thomas Holst declared: “If we were to try to go after all the people who committed less serious crimes, we would have a lot to do.”

According to the Reuters report, however, the most serious accusation Swedish prosecutors made against him in a statement on their website is that he committed "rape, less serious crime" -- the least serious of three levels of rape charges that are on the statute books in Sweden. Conviction carries a maximum four year jail sentence and a minimum of less than two years, depending upon the circumstances. According to Assange's London lawyer, Mark Stephens, punishment could also be as light as a fine of 5,000 kronor or about $715. Despite this, it seems, however, that the Swedes have decided the accusations against Assange are of a sufficiently serious nature to justify an international arrest warrant.

Western governments have not been above using dirty tricks get to Assange and to knock out his website. After cyber attacks caused it to be dropped by its server, the US government leaned on US corporations to get them to stop servicing the now rogue site. According to TIME magazine, thanks in part to an effort by the office of Senator Joe Lieberman, who heads the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Wikileaks has been pushed off a series of servers in the US. PayPal, the online money transfer service, cut off Wikileaks after being requested to do so by the US State Department. Mastercard and Visa quickly followed, seriously threatening the operations of Wikileaks, which depends on donations from supporters.

In Europe, French Industry Minister Eric Besson called for the site to be banned from French servers and the Swiss postal system shut down Assange's bank account, stripping him of yet another key fundraising tool. Postfinance, the financial arm of Swiss Post, apparently only recently discovered that Assange had “provided false information regarding his place of residence during the account opening process,” because he used his lawyer's address in Switzerland for his correspondence with the bank.

Much of the criticism of Wikileaks revolves around the notion that releasing such information risks lives, exposing or compromising the identities of informants, spies, human rights activists, journalists and dissidents. According to former US House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, “Julian Assange is engaged in warfare,” and his actions are “information terrorism, which leads to people getting killed.” US state department legal adviser Harold Koh has said that Wikileaks' document dump "could place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals" as well as "ongoing military operations."

However, following the release of another haul of US defence department documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in August, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told the Washington Post: "We have yet to see any harm come to anyone in Afghanistan that we can directly tie to exposure in the Wikileaks documents." The fact is Wikileaks had already redacted names and other information in the Iraq War logs. And though criticized for not redacting names in the Afghanistan files, the site had asked the government for help in doing exactly that but the government declined.

Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who in 1971 released the Pentagon Papers which detailed US government lies and cover-ups in the Vietnam War, is sceptical of whether the government really believes that lives are at stake. He told the BBC's World Today programme that US officials made that same argument every time there was a potentially embarrassing leak. "The same charges were made against the Pentagon Papers and turned out to be quite invalid."

Ellsberg is now fronting a group of ex-intelligence officers from the CIA, FBI and the British Government that has written an open letter of support for Assange and WikiLeaks. He has previously said that labelling the Pentagon Papers leak as 'good' whilst the Cablegate leaks are 'bad' makes no sense. "That's just a cover for people who don't want to admit that they oppose any and all exposure of even the most misguided, secretive foreign policy. The truth is that EVERY attack now made on Wikileaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time."

Others are also rallying to Wikileaks’ defence including a clandestine group of internet vigilantes, known only as Anonymous and operating under the banner Operation Payback, which has launched cyber attacks against the websites of the companies that have yanked their support for WikiLeaks, temporarily taking some of them down. “At stake is not just the future of WikiLeaks, the protesters seem to believe, but freedom on the net in general — a principle worth defending by any means possible, however dubious,” writes Ray Singel in an article published by the online tech magazine,

Friday, December 10, 2010

Latest Anti-WikiLeaks Technology

Pressing Freedoms: Shutting Up WikiLeaks, Shutting Down The Media

December 7, 2010 is a date which will live in infamy. Not because it marks the anniversary of the Japanese attack on the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor, but because of two events which took place on two continents separated by the Atlantic Ocean but united by shared interests. In the UK, Julian Assange, founder of the whistle-blowing website, Wikileaks, was arrested on a Swedish warrant and across the Atlantic, the US announced that it would be hosting UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day event in May next year.

Under normal circumstances, none of these would merit any attention. However these are not normal circumstances. In the last few weeks, the diplomatic world has been thrown into a tizzy by Wikileaks' release of thousands of the quarter of a million classified cables, containing secret communications from US envoys around the world.

The cables have caused much embarrassment and earned Assange the enmity of government types across the Western world. In the US, Senate Republican Leader, Mitch McConnell, has branded him “a high-tech terrorist” and the ever-colourful former vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, compared him to the “editor” of al Qaeda’s new English-language magazine Inspire and demanded that he be hunted down “with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.”

Western governments have launched a crusade against Wikileaks which has spilled over into the internet and commercial domains. The US government has leaned on American corporations to get them to stop servicing the now rogue site. Wikileaks has been pushed off a series of servers in the US and online money transfer services, such as Pay Pal and Mastercard, have cut it off. In Europe, the Swiss postal system shut down Assange's bank account, stripping him of yet another key fundraising tool.

Despite all this, the US and her allies have yet to come up with a single law that Assange has broken in relation to the leaked documents. The fact is Wikileaks hasn't actually leaked anything. It has simply published material leaked by a young soldier, Private First Class Bradley Manning, who, having watched Iraqi police abuses, and having read of similar and worse incidents in official messages, reportedly concluded, "I was actively involved in something that I was completely against."

“It is simply ridiculous to even think Wikileaks has done anything criminal” says Andreas Fink, CEO of DataCell, an Icelandic online payment company that has kept the channels open to Wikileaks and threatened to sue VISA for stopping payments via DataCell to the site. “If Wikileaks is criminal, then CNN, and BBC, The New York Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera and many others would have to be considered criminals too as they have published the same information.”

The only explanation for the unprecedented attack on rights that citizens of the West take for granted is that the ultimate target is the public's right to know what is being done and said in their name by shadowy officers in faraway places.

Much of the criticism of Wikileaks also revolves around the notion that releasing such information risks lives, exposing or compromising the identities of informants, spies, human rights activists, journalists and dissidents. Yet previous Wikileaks’ releases of US defence department documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in no such consequences. Four months later, the US military still has no evidence that anyone has been harmed because of information gleaned from Wikileaks documents.

It is painfully obvious that governments are seeking to protect their own reputations, not lives. The attacks on Wikileaks are part of a global trend towards constricting media freedoms. The Freedom of the Press 2010 report, compiled by Freedom House, which conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights, reveals that the overall level of press freedom worldwide has been in decline for the last 8 years.

“Both governments and private individuals,” the report says, “continue to restrict media freedom through the broad or disproportionate application of laws that forbid … ‘endangering national security.’” In particular, the report notes that the internet and other new media have become sites of contestation between citizens attempting to provide and access news and governments attempting to maintain control.

The governments have argued that secrecy is essential for the conduct of diplomacy. But as US President Barack Obama noted last year: “The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.” Secrecy is also an important ingredient in the conduct of illegal and immoral activities and it is one that is frequently employed by repressive governments across the globe. It is the duty of a free and responsible press to strive to uncover that which governments would rather hide.

It is, therefore, more than a touch hypocritical for the US to be hosting the World Press Freedom Day 2011 in order to, according to one online report, “prove its commitment to expand press freedom and the free flow of information in this digital age.” The theme for the commemoration will be “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers”. It will perhaps be the perfect opportunity to ponder why the governments of societies which pioneered press freedoms in the last century have become the new barriers to the spread of those same liberties in this one.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Politics of Identity

After two decades in power, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni probably needs to update his image in view of next year's election. And he has hit on a new strategy to woo young voters. The 66-year old is reinventing himself as a hip-hop star and his debut rap song has become a sensation on the radio and in the nation's dance clubs. While addressing a huge crowd of youth supporters on last month, Museveni decided to show off his rapping prowess, saying that he had recently learned about "the black African roots of hip hop music." A music producer captured the rhymes and later put them to beats, creating the song "U Want Another Rap?" with Fenon Records. The song features the president rapping in Runyankore about God and family, followed by the chorus "Yes, Sevo!", which was added by the producer. Sevo is a common nickname for Museveni.

Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin is intent on forging a different kind of identity. In a bid to boost his action-man credentials, he strapped on a helmet branded with the Russian flag before climbing into a powerful Renault Formula One race car and tore along an empty road near St Petersburg by himself, reaching speeds of nearly 250 kilometres per hour. It is just the latest in a long list of machismo stunts the 58-year old has pulled off in the recent past. It all started with flying a fighter jet into war-torn Chechnya in 2000. In August this year, he was photographed hunting endangered whales with a cross-bow during a scientific expedition in choppy seas, and later taking the controls of a plane to dump water on a Moscow wildfire. He has also shot a Siberian tiger with a tranquiliser gun and released leopards into a wildlife sanctuary.

It was not only politicians seeking a public makeover. A young Asian male was placed under arrest after he donned a mask and boarded a flight from Hong Kong to Canada. However, at some point during the flight he went to the toilet and emerged without the elaborate disguise, looking like the fresh-faced twenty-something he actually is. In what they described as an "unbelievable case of concealment", authorities in Vancouver, who had been tipped off by the cabin crew, later found a bag containing a Mission Impossible-type head mask of a white man complete with a brown leather cap, glasses and a thin brown cardigan. The young man, who had apparently swapped boarding passes with a US citizen to get on the flight, has now claimed asylum in Canada – presumably using his real identity.

Disguises, however, can have fatal consequences. A 32-year old actor playing the role of a masked gunman in the Philippines was shot dead after he was mistaken for a real assassin. Kirk Abella, was shooting a scene for the movie Going Somewhere when the local security guard, Eddie Cuizon, was called by a concerned citizen saying there was a masked gunman in the area. As the director shouted "action", the actor took off on a motorcycle with another masked rider at the controls. Cuizon later told police he saw two men on a motorcycle but they sped away as he tried to approach them. He then shot Abella fearing they were going to escape. Police said that other witnesses initially thought the shot fired was part of the movie. Cuizon now faces real-life charges of homicide and violation of a gun ban.