Archive for the ‘Democracy’ Category
One of the more amusing libel threats I’ve had since starting this blog came in 2010, on behalf of Tony Baldry MP, who at the time was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Banbury (he is now Sir Tony Baldry, the Member for North Oxfordshire).
Mr Baldry had taken exception to a blog post I had written about his dealings with a notoriously-corrupt Nigerian politician, James Ibori. So concerned was the Honorable Member that he deployed the services of the media law firm Olswang to make his concerns known. Here’s the “Strictly Private and Confidential” letter they sent to WordPress, cc-ing me.
Since then, James Ibori has been convicted by the UK courts of money-laundering on an epic scale.
Following a Freedom of Information request to the UK Foreign Office, I recently obtained a copy of the letter that Tony Baldry had sent in 2009 to the then Foreign Secretary, in which he raised concerns about the “draconian” freezing of James Ibori’s assets by the UK courts.
Due to a failure of file-format savvy at my end, and a lamentable over-reliance on MS Paint, I had initially thought, wrongly, that the Foreign Office had only sent me the first page of the letter – and wrote a somewhat tetchy blogpost.
In fact, they had sent me the entire thing, barring a couple of redactions.
The letter paints an intriguing picture of Tony Baldry’s work on behalf of James Ibori. Sir Tony has been at pains to point out that he wrote it in his capacity as a barrister, not as an MP. He also insists that he was not “lobbying” on Ibori’s behalf, and that he acted entirely appropriately.
I’m publishing the letter in full here (PDF converted from TIF), so Mr Baldry’s constituents can decide for themselves what they think of their MP’s second-job activities.
Private Eye also have a copy of the letter, and have published their take on it in this week’s edition.
VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS OF THE GATUMBA MASSACRE OF BANYAMULENGE REFUGEES IN BURUNDI STILL CRY FOR JUSTICE
From the peacebuilding group Ubuntu:
VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS OF THE GATUMBA MASSACRE OF BANYAMULENGE REFUGEES IN BURUNDI STILL CRY FOR JUSTICE
Eight years have passed since 164 Congolese citizens were savagely killed, some burned alive, on 13 August 2004. The victims were slayed while under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi. Hundreds of others were injured. The overwhelming majority of victims – many of them women and children – belonged to the Banyamulenge community. They had sought refuge in Burundi to escape from political oppression in South Kivu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. A report dated 18 October 2004 jointly produced by the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), the United Nations Operation in Burundi (ONUB) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concluded that the attack was clearly directed against the Banyamulenge refugees and apparently, ethnically and politically motivated. Various sources, including the above UN report as well as a report by Human Rights Watch, compiled credible evidence leaving little doubts over the responsibilities in the massacre. The evidence clearly indicated that the Burundian Forces Nationales de Libération (PALIPEHUTU-FNL), the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), the Congolese army (FARDC) and Mayi Mayi militia were directly involved in the Gatumba massacre.
The UN report asserted that many of these foreign armed groups operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi border region harbour resentments against the targeted group and others such as FARDC and Mayi Mayi militia may have political motives for preventing the refugees from returning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. PALIPEHUTU-FNL, then a rebel movement led by Agathon Rwasa, openly confessed its responsibility in this massacre. The ideology underlying the commission of the genocide in Rwanda one decade earlier was evident in the perpetration of the Gatumba massacre in August 2004. The UN report documented the fact that the attackers chanted such slogans as “we will exterminate all the Tutsis in Central Africa”; “kill these dogs, these Tutsis”; “today, you Tutsis, whether you are Rwandese, Congolese or Burundian, you will be killed”.
The massacre was widely condemned by several countries from around the globe as well as by supranational institutions such as the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations. Many of them pledged to support endeavours aimed at bringing the perpetrators to justice. The United Nations urged countries in the sub-region to cooperate in investigating the massacre and bringing perpetrators to justice. Eight years after the event, no single step has been taken to deliver justice for the slain and surviving victims of the Gatumba massacre. The uproar that accompanied the commission of the crime has faded and victims face the sad prospect of never seeing justice done. The peculiar circumstances of a crime committed against Congolese citizens, on Burundian territory, by Congolese national army and armed groups reportedly originating from three different or neighbouring countries of the region complicate, if not annihilate any prospects of domestic prosecutions against perpetrators of the crime. Victims are nonetheless still crying for justice. The inaction of Burundian, Congolese and other sub-regional authorities imposes a duty on the international community to get actively involved in delivering on the promise of justice made to them in the aftermath of the crime.
This eighth remembrance of the victims of the Gatumba massacre occurs at a time of revived tensions in eastern Kivu, the homeland of the slayed victims. Sources of the continued tensions include the unresolved socio-political and legal issues including elusive promises of justice and redress. Crimes committed in the DRC over the last decades have claimed numerous victims from the various communities living in the country. All victims deserve justice. Owing to the particular circumstances of the massacre and to the involvement of numerous actors, domestic and international initiatives aimed at delivering justice to the victims generally ignore the victims of the Gatumba massacre. This is evidenced by the non-coverage of the Gatumba massacre in the 2010 UN Mapping Report.
On this eighth remembrance of victims of the Gatumba massacre, UBUNTU notes that since the crime was committed, no active steps have been taken to bring perpetrators to justice. UBUNTU therefore urges:
• The international community to deliver on the promise of justice made to survivors of the Gatumba atrocities in the immediate aftermath of the crime.
• The United Nations to use all appropriate means to bring Agathon Rwasa and other perpetrators of the massacre to justice.
• The Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other sub-regional countries to cooperate in rehabilitating the victims.
For Ubuntu: Dr Felix Ndahinda and Alex Mvuka Ntung
UBUNTU is an organisation created by individuals from eastern DRC for purposes of contributing to initiatives aimed at preventing violence and working towards sustainable peace and conflict resolution in their native land and the wider Great Lakes Region of Africa. UBUNTU membership includes individuals who survived the Gatumba massacre. UBUNTU is one of only few actors who have constantly tried to remind the international community of the unfulfilled promise of justice for victims of the Gatumba massacre. It is an international peace-building and non-profit organization based in Brussels.
UBUNTU – Initiative for Peace and Development
Rue Creuse 60, B-1030 Brussels, Belgium, Enterprise no: 891.545.509, Approved by the
Belgium Royal Decree of 26th.07.2007.
Today’s school gimmick is tomorrow’s grunge album
Reading about the Cameron government’s big post-riot plans got me thinking about one of the crowning youth empowerment programmes of the last Conservative government…
Back in the early 1990s, everyone in my school year got handed a red leather (or possibly sham leather) folder with the words “National Record of Achievement” proudly embossed in the cover.
We were told that this was an incredibly important object that would serve us throughout our future careers as a repository for our many and varied “achievements”, and that the government had decided that every single pupil in the country should get one.
I think I may even have kept my GCSE certificates in it, at least for a while – but amazingly, the state-endorsed predictions about its future utility in my working life turned out not to be correct.
A brief straw poll on Twitter suggests that I may not have been alone in this, eg:
Looking at the latest Tory government’s hastily-unveiled plans for fixing “broken Britain” it’s difficult not to wonder how many of today’s initiatives (not least the flagship voluntary, non-military nearly-but-not-quite National Service) will fare any better…
From The Propagandist
This past week, the Guardian published two articles in support of two of the more notorious tyrants in Africa. On December 27, Simon Tisdall argued that human rights groups were unfairly demonizing Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir during the run-up to the South’s January 9th independence referendum, with little consideration of the effect this could have on the new country’s already-tenuous future.Tisdall’s partly right: a country with minimal infrastructure, low literacy, few urban centers, an oil-based economy and a government comprised of former warlords could be a source of instability if major regional actors aren’t on the same page. That includes Bashir, who is currently under an International Criminal Court indictment for genocide, but has accepted a compromise over the oil-rich border region of Abyei and even laid out his vision of a smaller, more centralized North. For Sudan watchers, the fact that Bashir hasn’t taken things nuclear yet is encouraging, but it doesn’t erase a 20-year history of erratic and even genocidal behavior. For Tisdall it does…
BURUNDI: DEMAND RELEASE OF ONLINE EDITOR
Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, the editor of a Burundian online news agency, Netpress, has been detained since July after suggesting that the Burundian security forces could not defend the country. He has not been tried and was denied a bail request on appeal in November.
Jean-Claude Kavumbagu published an article on 12 July 2010, one day after suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, criticizing the capacity of Burundian security forces to protect the country from a terrorist attack. Somali Islamist armed group, al-Shabaab, claimed responsibility for the bombings in Uganda. They also threatened to attack Burundi in retaliation for Burundi’s participation in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Jean-Claude Kavumbagu’s article said that “the anxiety has been palpable in Bujumbura and all those who have heard about [the bombings] yesterday in Kampala were convinced that if the al-Shabaab militants wanted to try ‘something’ in our country, they would succeed with disconcerting ease, [as] our defense and security forces shine in their capacity to pillage and kill their compatriots rather than defend our country.” He was arrested on 17 July, questioned without a lawyer, charged with treason, and transferred to Mpimba Central Prison, Bujumbura.
Treason is a crime punishable by life imprisonment and is only applicable under Burundian law in time of war. Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has also been charged with defamation and violating Burundi’s press law. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression. His detention may detrimentally impact on the exercise of free expression in Burundi. It could increase self-censorship by other journalists to protect themselves from arbitrary arrest and detention.
Jean-Claude Kavumbagu’s bail request was rejected on 6 September. At the appeal on 9 November, his defence claimed that violating the press law and defamation do not justify preventative detention and that treason is not a valid charge. However, the Appeal Court of Bujumbura confirmed his pre-trial detention on 11 November. As of 6 December, his lawyers had not received a copy of the ruling and were waiting for the trial date to be announced.
Mpimba Central Prison is overcrowded and insanitary and conditions fall well below international standards.
PLEASE WRITE IMMEDIATELY in French, English, Kirundi or your own language:
expressing grave concern that journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has been detained on charges of treason and defamation for criticizing the Burundian security services;
urging the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression;
reminding the authorities that, as a state party to the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Burundi is obliged to uphold the right to freedom of expression.
PLEASE SEND APPEALS BEFORE 17 JANUARY 2011 TO:
Pierre Nkurunziza, Président de la République, Présidence de la République, Boulevard de l’Uprona, Rohero I, BP 1870, Bujumbura, Burundi
Fax: +257 22 24 89 08
Salutation: Monsieur le Président/ Your Excellency
Minister of Justice and Keeper of Seals
Madame Ancilla Ntakaburimvo
Ministre de la Justice et Garde des Sceaux, Ministère de la Justice et Garde des Sceaux, BP 1880Bujumbura, Burundi
Fax: +257 22 21 86 10
Salutation: Madame la Ministre
And copies to:
The Prosecutor of the Republic
Monsieur Elyse Ndaye
Procureur Générale de la République
Fax: +257 22 27 30 53
Also send copies to diplomatic representatives accredited to your country. Check with your section office if sending appeals after the above date.
BURUNDI: DEMAND RELEASE OF ONLINE EDITOR
Burundi has a vibrant media and journalists continue to criticize the government despite attempts to silence them. The Burundian government has used prolonged pre-trial detention, harassment by judicial authorities and substantive and procedural violations of Burundian law to unduly restrict freedom of speech. Burundi is a state party to both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee the right to freedom of expression.
The Burundian government is particularly sensitive to criticism of their security forces. Al-Shabaab, a Somali Islamist armed group, has threatened to attack Burundi, as well as Uganda, in retaliation for their contributions to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). AMISOM is a peace support operation mandated to protect the institutions of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. The 11 July bombings in Kampala, Uganda, for which al-Shabaab claimed responsibility, killed 74 people who had come together to watch the World Cup Final, and injured another 70.
Jean-Claude Kavumbagu was arrested on 17 July by Colonel David Nikiza, the Commander of the Western Region, who presented him with a mandat d’amener (an order calling him before the prosecutor). He was charged with treason defined under Article 570 of the Burundian criminal code as: “any Burundian who, in times of war… knowingly participates in an attempt to demoralize the Army or the Nation, with the object of weakening national defense.” Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has also been charged with defamation (imputations dommageables), under Article 251 of the penal code, and violating Article 50 of the 2003 press law (loi No 1 025 du Novembre 2003 regissant la presse du Burundi).
On 30 July, Jean-Claude Kavumbagu was brought before the High Court in Bujumbura (Tribunal de Grande Instance de la Mairie de Bujumbura). His lawyer requested bail, arguing that his pre-trial detention was not prescribed by Burundian law. The court did not rule on the case because one judge had been transferred to another court two days earlier – a move attracting criticism from 10 civil society organizations in a joint communiqué because the judge waited until the trial date to notify the court. The court was forced to wait until September, after the August judicial holidays, to reconvene.
Jean-Claude Kavumbagu’s bail request was finally heard on 1 September. The court ruled on 6 September that Jean-Claude Kavumbagu would be remanded in custody to ensure his availability for the investigation. At the appeal on 9 November, the defence called for provisional liberty claiming that two charges – violating the press law and defamation – did not, under Burundian law, justify preventative detention. The defence stated that if Jean-Claude Kavumbagu were to be charged with treason, the Prosecution would need to declare that Burundi was at war on 12 July. The representative for the Public Prosecutor stated that Burundi had not been at war on 12 July, but that it was for the court to decide. The Appeal Court of Bujumbura confirmed his pre-trial detention on 11 November.
Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has been a prisoner of conscience several times, most recently in 2008 when he was charged with defamation. He alleged that the cost of President Nkurunziza’s trip to see the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics had caused some civil servants’ salaries to be paid late. He was held in pre-trial detention for seven months before being acquitted in March 2009. The Prosecutor appealed the acquittal and the case remains open.
UA: 248/10 Index: AFR 16/004/2010 Issue Date: 06 December 2010
The Guardian reports that the Culture minister Jeremy Hunt has accused BBC staff of having a left-wing bias, suggesting that “it was clear to most people that more BBC employees would vote Labour or Lib Dem than Conservative”.
But given that the Tories mustered just 36% of the popular vote at the last election – while the combined Lib Dem and Labour popular vote was 52% – should this really be seen as a surprise, or indeed a serious problem?
If we factor in the detail that just 65% of those eligible to vote (ie. adult UK citizens, themselves a subset of the British/NI population) actually did so, the figures look even worse. In total, just 10.7 million UK residents voted Conservative – little more than a sixth of the total population. By any measure, voting Tory is a niche interest.
To put it another way if the majority of BBC staff were Conservative rather than Labour/Lib Dem voters, this would make the BBC even less representative of the UK at large than it currently is.
If voting Conservative is a niche interest, then so too, in fairness, is voting Labour (8.6 million votes at the last election, or 14% of the UK population) and voting Liberal Democrat (6.8 million votes – 11%). At the last election, the combined vote for all three of the main political parties was 26.15 million - barely 42% of the population.
There is, perhaps, a case for regarding the BBC as relatively left-wing compared to the bulk of the British press – but then again most UK voters are significantly to the left of the bulk of the British press. At the last election, while just 36% of voters (17% of the total UK population) supported the Conservative party, 7 of out of 11 daily national newspapers backed the Tories . The Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Star, Daily Telegraph, Sun, Times and Financial Times all came out for the Conservatives, with just the Morning Star, Independent, Guardian and Mirror supporting Labour, the Lib Dems, or another party.
A more interesting question, it seems to me, is who actually gets given a platform by the BBC, and on what basis, and how much prime air time their views are allotted within political coverage. The ubiquitous Nick Robinson, the BBC’s chief political editor, started his adult life as President of the Oxford University Conservative Association and shows little sign of having changed his allegiances since then. Andrew “don’t mention the denialists” Neil, presenter of the BBC’s “Daily Politics Show”, is the former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times and has a longstanding relationship with the Spectator magazine. The hard-right commentators Fraser Nelson, Andrew Green, James Delingpole and Melanie Phillips appear so often on the BBC’s flagship political panel shows that one wonders if the beeb is operating some sort of quota system…
If anyone knows of any analysis of how such pundits are selected by the BBC, and the overall political weighting of the views represented on Question Time, Any Questions, the Daily Politics, Newsnight, the Moral Maze, the Today Programme etc., I’d be interested to see it.
Earlier this week I wrote about my plans for marking the 10th anniversary of the December 2000 massacre in which my sister Charlotte was killed. Today I was sent a UN report suggesting that the group responsible, Burundi’s hardline Hutu FNL militia, are mobilising in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a new “holy war”.
From the Final report of the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (page 32), 29th November 2010:
113. During its mandate, the Group has followed closely the remobilization of the Burundian rebel group, FNL. Led by Agathon Rwasa, FNL combatants were either integrated into the Burundian security services or were demobilized in mid-2009. Rwasa was to have been one of the main candidates in the 2010 presidential elections in Burundi, but withdrew from the contest citing concerns over fraud, after FNL and other opposition parties were heavily defeated by the ruling Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie party of Pierre Nkurunziza, in local elections held on 24 May. In early July, Rwasa disappeared from Bujumbura.
114. According to multiple credible sources in Uvira, Rwasa crossed into the Democratic Republic of the Congo north of Kavimvira with the support of Colonel Baudoin Nakabaka (deputy commander of the 10th military region of FARDC) (see S/2009/603, paras. 25-27, 29-31, 33, 39, 70, 73, 80, 150, 159 and annexes 14, 50and 51). According to Congolese intelligence and several local sources, Rwasa was subsequently transported to Bukavu by Nakabaka and stayed with the commander of the 10th military region of FARDC, General Patrick Masunzu (see S/2009/603, paras. 25, 29, 48, 53, 158 and 159). The Group met eyewitnesses who confirmed Rwasa’s subsequent presence in Mwenga, where, according to Congolese intelligence services, he met FDLR representatives to form an alliance. According to diplomatic sources in the region, FDLR and Nakabaka have promised to provide financial backing for FNL.
115. Since Rwasa’s departure from Burundi, FNL has reportedly mobilized an estimated 700 of its most experienced combatants within the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone. According to diplomatic sources and former members of FNL, as at September 2010 there were more than 400 combatants based in the high plateaux of Minembwe, more than 200 in Kiliba, north of the Burundi border, another 100 north of Sange in the Ruzizi plain and an unknown number in Fizi territory. According to the same sources, those forces are led by Antoine “Shuti” Baranyanka, the former chief military commander of FNL. Instead of being integrated into the Burundian army with the rank of lieutenant general, Baranyanka opted to be demobilized in what analysts considered a “reserve option” for Rwasa in case of an adverse result in the Burundian elections (see annex 12).
116. In addition to its alliance with FDLR, FNL has also reportedly joined forces with the Mai Mai Yakutumba of the Bembe community in Fizi territory. According to MONUSCO and diplomatic sources, FNL has benefited from FDLR and Mai Mai Yakutumba’s strategic access to ports commonly used for smuggling across Lake Tanganyika. The Group has learned that, as a result, Rwasa himself has been able to make frequent trips between the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kigoma and Dar es Salaam in the United Republic of Tanzania. The Group also obtained documents of ongoing investigations concerning the disappearance of weapons within the FARDC Zone 4 headquarters, commanded by Colonel Bernard Byamungu (see S/2009/603, annex 124). According to FARDC sources, those weapons could have been supplied to FNL.
117. Eyewitnesses to FNL recruitment activities along the Burundi/Democratic Republic of the Congo border informed the Group that FNL was offering 80,000 Burundian francs to new recruits but selecting only those with previous combat experience. This is likely to include sympathizers who have deserted the ranks of the Burundian security services; the Group has confirmed 20 such cases through interviews with FNL defectors. Burundian authorities have attempted to arrest potential candidates crossing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The highest-ranking officer from the Burundian army to join FNL in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was Major Nzabampema who, according to Burundian intelligence services, survived an ambush en route to joining “Shuti” at Kiliba.
118. In addition, according to sources in the Burundian police and intelligence services, FNL has benefited from the support of Burundian businessmen. Former members of FNL informed the Group that some of the businessmen had provided “Shuti” with over $30,000 in order to begin his recruitment. According to those same sources, when the FNL leadership was negotiating with representatives of the Burundian Government in the United Republic of Tanzania in 2008, one of those businessmen proposed to Rwasa that FNL attack Bujumbura, during which operation he promised to deliver support from soldiers in the Burundian army.
119. In his public statements, Rwasa has explicitly denied that he was involved in a new armed rebellion. However, numerous credible sources informed the Group that Rwasa had made statements to his supporters that this new war would be a “holy war” and would transcend ethnicity. Meanwhile, members of other opposition political parties have also joined the ranks of FNL, including some members of MSD, which commands a strong following among the country’s urban Tutsi youth. While not significant in numbers, FNL does receive some support from its fellow opposition party, the Union for Peace and Development (UPD), led by Hussein Rajabu, who is imprisoned. According to Burundian authorities, a UPD leader by the name of Jean-Petit has joined Rwasa’s new rebellion. According to former FNL sources, Rwasa is exploring ways to finance his movement through involvement in the gold trade.
Guest post: “the Burundian diaspora will need to pick up signs, rally, blog, write letters to editors to educate the donors’ taxpayers” – Thierry Uwamahoro
Yes, you saw right! That was a “Free Kavumbagu” sign among the thousands of other rally signs that either made you laugh or left you scratching your head as you attempted to understand what they meant or who their intended audience was.
This Saturday (10.30.10), hundreds of thousands of Americans flocked to Washington, DC to join a rally whose objective was to restore sanity in the discourse of American politics.
However, American politics are never too far from world affairs as the American people pride themselves in calling their President, the “Leader of the Free World”. As a Burundian residing near Washington, DC, I was drawn to think of a fellow Burundian – a journalist – who was not part of the “Free World” as the Rally to Restore Sanity went on.
Jean Claude Kavumbagu is an internationally-renowned journalist and human rights defender who has been unjustly arrested five times in this decade, but has never been found guilty. Today, he remains behind bars, despite promises by Burundian authorities and global calls for his release.
On July 17th, 2010, Jean Claude Kavumbagu was arrested and later jailed over an article that he published on his online journal “Net Press”. The article questioned the preparedness of the Burundian security forces, were the Somalia based militia Al-Shabab to attack Bujumbura (Burundi). The Burundian government considered the publication of such article “treason”, a charge that carries a life imprisonment sentence. Paradoxically, treason is an offense that Burundian law only recognizes when the country is at war due to external aggression. This is not the case today!
Last September, after meetings with some of Burundi’s highest officials, Omar Faruk Osman (President of the Federation of African Journalists) and his delegation left Bujumbura (Burundi) on a highly promising and optimistic note summed up in these words: “We agreed with the leadership of the country the urgency to resolve the case of Kavumbagu and our message was clear that was no longer a mere Burundian affair but an African and international press freedom case”.
Jean Claude Kavumbagu’s freedom has become a national, regional, continental and global issue. The Union of Burundian Journalists and the entire Burundian civil society, the East African Journalists Association, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, the Federation of African Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, FrontLine, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, Human Rights Watch; to name just a few – have all called for the release of Jean Claude Kavumbagu.
But all these calls have fallen on deaf ears. Mr. Kavumbagu has –this week – passed the 100 day mark behind bars in the notorious “Mpimba” prison, despite his constitutional rights to freedom of opinion and expression. The call for Kavumbagu’s freedom must not fade. This is no time to despair and quit.
But why carry the call to Washington, DC? This week, according to the journal Arc-en-Ciel, Washington hosted a high level delegation comprised of Burundian security apparatus heavyweights: the Director of military cabinet in the office of the President (Major General Evariste Ndayishimiye), the Minister of Internal Security (General Alain Guillaume Bunyoni) and the army chief of staff (Major General Godefroid Niyombare) alongside the top civilian advisor to the President. The delegation’s goal, according to trusted sources, was to promote greater cooperation between Bujumbura and Washington, and to secure funding for capacity building projects for Burundian securities forces.
If Washington and the American taxpayers are to fund these forces (the same forces that are carrying out the arrests of journalists), one can safely assume that Washington will have a greater voice in demanding that these security institutions improve their human rights record; or, at least, that should Washington voice any concern, Bujumbura would listen.
Ideally, a few months after celebrating our 48th independence anniversary, Burundians should not be expecting foreign powers’ coercion to be the safeguard to our freedoms. However, we have to be realistic. When a given government’s budget is financed at the tune of 70% by the international community, the perverse outcome is accountability to its donors (instead of its citizens). It is unfortunate! In the meantime, the Burundian diaspora will need to pick up signs, rally, blog, write letters to editors wherever they reside to educate the donors’ taxpayers. This Saturday, a few Americans learned of Burundi and of another name that they weren’t able to pronounce: Kavumbagu.
Help beat the torturers and their cyber-hacking buddies – please blog or tweet about the attack on Survival International
The video that someone, somewhere doesn’t want you to see
Survival International works to defend the rights of tribal communities under threat from repressive governments and rogue corporations.
Last week they published and distributed a shocking video of Indonesian soldiers torturing tribal people in West Papua. This week their website was attacked and taken out of action. Other websites that published the torture video were also reportedly attacked.
Starting with a test attack at 5pm (London time) on Wednesday 27 October, and building to a very sophisticated ‘distributed denial-of-service’ onslaught that evening, many thousands of PCs around the world simultaneously bombarded Survival’s website, knocking it offline.
Other organizations that hosted the torture video have also had their websites attacked.
Similar attacks occurred during Survival’s campaign against the Botswana government, after the Bushmen were evicted from their traditional lands.
Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said today, ‘This isn’t a couple of geeks in a shed, it’s an expensive and sophisticated attack amounting to cyberterrorism. The damage to Survival International may be substantial but is of course nothing compared to that inflicted on West Papuan tribes or Botswana’s Bushmen. This is not just a local struggle for the survival of the few hundred remaining hunting Bushmen in Africa, or the more than one million oppressed tribespeople in Indonesian West Papua, it also epitomizes the onslaught against those who dare to reject the domination of money and government over human rights. The forces ranged against us are colossal, and may have won this round, but we will never give up.’
Complicity in sleaze: UK Parliamentary Standards Commission kept MacShane investigation secret from voters during 2010 General Election
Today it was revealed that the UK Parliamentary Standards Commissioner has reported Denis MacShane MP to the police over his alleged misuse of Parliamentary expenses.
But they appear to have decided that the voters of Rotherham had no right to know, during this year’s General Election, that their MP was under investigation. The Labour Party, too, appears to have had little interest in allowing voters to make an informed choice.
Denis MacShane today told the BBC that he had been under investigation following a complaint made against him in June 2009.
Yet, when in March this year, I made a Freedom of Information Act request to the Parliamentary Standards Office asking how many MPs were being investigated, and who those MPs were, the request was formally refused.
Someone called Bob Castle (more on his connection to the MPs expenses scandal here) stated frostily that:
The number of inquiries under way as at 31 March 2010 is information that will be included in the Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2009-10, which is expected to be published in the early summer. It is therefore exempt from publication under s22 of the Freedom of Information Act (information intended for future publication).
To release the names of any MPs under investigation would, he told me, infringe the “privileges of Parliament”.
In response, I wrote to Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, asking them which, if any, of their MPs were under investigation. None responded.
I’ve argued before that cleaning up Parliament will require a wholesale clear-out not only of the corrupt MPs who have been abusing the system for personal gain, but also of the unelected, unaccountable officials who have worked so hard to help them get away with it.
The Parliamentary Standards Office made a deliberate decision to withhold crucial information from UK voters ahead of the 2010 General Election. The voters of Rotherham – and for all we know many other constituencies around the country – were thus prevented from making an informed choice about the candidates seeking their votes. It’s only now, five months after the election has taken place, that the full picture is beginning to emerge. It may be another four years before Rotherham voters can express their judgement on this at the ballot box.
Yet again, the Standards Commission has put the “privileges of Parliament” before the rights of the electorate, and brought our democracy into further disrepute.
“Guess who’s also on the Murdoch payroll? The Scotland Yard cop who headed up the failed investigation”
From the Columbia Journalism Review
Politico astutely pointed out the other day that Fox News now employs four of the leading Republican presidential candidates: Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum.
It’s hardly news that Fox News is more propaganda outlet than news organization. But this ought to be a more troubling development than it seems to have been thus far…
…it’s uncertain how other news organizations can cover the early stages of the presidential race when some of the main GOP contenders are contractually forbidden to appear on any TV network besides Fox.
C-SPAN Political Editor Steve Scully said that when C-SPAN tried to have Palin on for an interview, he was told he had to first get Fox’s permission — which the network, citing her contract, ultimately denied. Producers at NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and MSNBC all report similar experiences…
Murdoch, at least, is a naturalized American citizen, and who can forget the heart-warming story of why he became one: To get past legal requirements so he could snap up TV stations here.
But I’ve never understood why the UK allows a foreigner like Murdoch to have so much control over its press—he controls some 40 percent of newspaper circulation and has huge influence over television, too…
That News of the World scandal and coverup continues to unravel, and Murdoch’s influence is one of the key stories there. It looks for all the world as if Scotland Yard was so in debt to and/or scared of News Corporation that it wouldn’t investigate the crimes properly—and even helped cover them up.
Guess who’s also on the Murdoch payroll? The Scotland Yard cop who headed up the failed investigation….
From The Guardian
Andy Coulson, the No 10 communications chief, found himself in the direct line of fire in the News of the World phone hacking scandal tonight when a former colleague alleged that he issued direct orders to journalists to carry out the illegal practice.
As former home secretary Alan Johnson demanded the right to be able to review government papers relating to the police investigation, Coulson stood accused of presiding over a “culture of dark arts” which encouraged phone hacking.
The hacking scandal blew up again this week after the New York Times published a lengthy article including the claim that Coulson freely discussed the use of unlawful news-gathering techniques during his time as editor of the tabloid. Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World after its royal reporter and a private investigator were jailed. He denies any knowledge of phone hacking.
But a former News of the World journalist quoted by the New York Times repeated his claim tonight that he had been ordered by the former editor to tap phones. Sean Hoare told BBC Radio 4′s PM: “There is an expression called the culture of dark arts. You were given a remit: just get the story. Phone tapping hadn’t just existed on the News of the World. It was endemic within the whole industry. I have gone on the record in the New York Times and said I have stood by Andy and been requested to tap phones, OK, or hack into them. He was well aware the practice existed. To deny it is simply a lie…”
I’ve just been flipping back through some old A-level books and came across JH Plumb’s beautifully-written (1950) “England in the Eighteenth Century”. Partly inspired by Paul Kingsnorth’s “Dark Mountain” project, I’ve been looking at what life in the UK was like before we got our hands on the resources that fuel our modern economy and society. I’m trying to get a sense of where we may be headed when those resources run out, if we fail to make a smooth switch to effective alternatives.
Plumb’s account of England in 1714 – when our population was just a tenth of its current figure – makes for grim, albeit eloquent, reading…
Most cellars were inhabited, not only by people but by their pigs, fowls, sometimes even by their horses and cattle… All houses and cellars were desperately overcrowded- ten to a room was common in Manchester… Disease was rampant and unchecked… In the early part of the century, only about one child in four, born in London, survived…
Though some elements seem rather more familiar:
In the midst of death, the people sought palliatives and found them in drink, gambling and violence. The consumption of gin – drunk mixed with fruit cordials – was prodigious, but largely confined to London, where it may have affected the death rate in the thirties, although virulent influenza epidemics also took their toll…
…the ordinary merchants and prosperous shopkeepers… were still deeply attached to the puritan attitude… They were also Whigs, but it was an old-fashioned type of Whiggery which did not always see eye to eye with Walpole, for they believed in plain, fair and honest dealing, and the control of government by a Parliament – not the reverse, which was Walpole’s way…
What loyalty they had to Walpole was strained by the opposition’s exposure of corruption in high places. Their natural suspicion was aroused by the talk of England’s interests being sacrificed to Hanover. They were devoted readers of The Craftsman, the vigorous opposition newspaper, which played on their prejudices; some were taken in and voted Tory, most of them kept to the politics of their fathers…
While Burundi’s war criminals go unpunished, my friend faces “treason” trial over critical article, says Richard Wilson
What do you do when someone you love gets murdered in a distant country you know almost nothing about? A decade ago my sister Charlotte died in a massacre in the small Central African state of Burundi. In the years that followed I was consumed by a need to understand why she had been killed, who had been responsible, and what, if anything could be done to bring them to book. Only a handful of people in the world could help me. Almost all were journalists. One of them was Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, editor of Burundi’s Netpress news agency.
The information, advice and contacts Jean-Claude gave me proved vital when I came to write the book about my sister’s life and death, Titanic Express. With truth comes a certain kind of cartharsis. To the extent that one ever can, I’ve “moved on” from what happened. But I will always remain endebted to those who helped my family find answers, asking nothing in return but that we do what we could to focus attention on the outrages happening in their country.
Jean-Claude has been a thorn in the side of successive governments in Burundi, both Hutu and Tutsi. His views are often controversial, but there is no questioning the price he has paid for them. In 1999, a year before my sister’s death, Jean-Claude was arrested by the Tutsi-led regime of Pierre Buyoya and held for two weeks on charges of operating an unregistered newspaper. He was detained again in 2001 by the same regime, and accused of insulting the public prosecutor. 2003 saw the installation of a new, Hutu-led government, which loudly proclaimed its commitment to peace, democracy and human rights. Three months later, Jean-Claude was arrested yet again and charged with “insulting the authorities”.
Elections in 2005 saw a landslide win for the Hutu ex-rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza, who has gained plaudits for his talk of “forgiveness” and “reconciliation”. Sadly, Nkurunziza has been markedly unforgiving of critical coverage by the independent media. While no serious efforts have been made to prosecute those responsible for the ethnic massacres that have plagued Burundi over the last two decades, in recent years dozens of independent journalists have been detained or threatened over their work.
Utter humiliation: Bloggers beware…
The programme ‘hook’ was the launch of a new UK government website, “Your Freedom”, through which members of the public are invited to nominate laws that need to be scrapped in order to reverse the erosion of civil liberties that took place under the last government. The discussion was broadly in line with most BBC coverage of anything to do with “people from the internet”, and I am ashamed and embarrassed to have been associated with it. Given the BBC’s track record, I really should have seen this coming…
I’d been contacted by a Newsnight researcher who’d seen my blog post suggesting we bin the vaguely-defined crime of “aiding and abetting misconduct in public office”, which has been used in some disturbing court cases against people who receive information from government whistleblowers.
The format was as follows: Five people who’d each submitted an idea to “Your Freedom” got to speak for about 25 seconds about a law they’d nominated, and the reason they felt it should be scrapped.
Then there was a much longer discussion between the presenter and two ‘experts’ – a guy named Andy Williamson from something called the Hansard Society, and a writer called John O’ Farrell. Although Newsnight chose not to disclose this, O’ Farrell had been actively involved with the government which did so much to attack civil liberties, and whose authoritarian laws the public is now being invited to review.
The last thing I did for TV about the online media (a piece for Al Jazeera on Trafigura/Carter Ruck) had been quite a positive experience, which was partly why I agreed to do this one. The Al Jazeera feature is still online here, and it makes for an interesting comparison with the BBC’s loud-and-proud “old media” approach.
O’ Farrell and the Hansard guy (along with the presenter Gavin Esler) seemed to be competing with each other to flaunt their contempt for the public in general, and the online world in particular. According to O’ Farrell, the five ‘bad law’ examples that had just been featured were nothing more than “single issue obsessions”. According to Williamson, most of the ideas the public had submitted to the new website were “utterly stupid” or from “single issue fanatics”. All the while, the five token faces of Joe Public adorned the wall behind them.
The overarching message seemed to be that the very idea of asking ordinary people to participate in an online policy discussion was completely absurd, and we really ought to leave the thinktankery to people like Andy Williamson and John O’ Farrell.
The Hansard Society modestly purports to be “universally recognised as the independent and non-partisan authority on Parliament and democracy”. I beg to differ (and these guys don’t seem too impressed either).
The Newsnight discussion might at least have been enlightening if O’ Farrell had been bumped, and the guy from Hansard put up against someone who actually understood the relationship between democracy and the web, such as the people behind the excellent website, www.theyworkforyou.com.
As things stood, it was like watching a gruesome TV re-enactment of Radio 4′s “The Moral Maze”, with my own face superimposed in the background the whole time. Utter humiliation…
*UPDATE* – The Hansard Society’s corporate donor list makes for interesting reading. Turns out that this “authority on Parliament and democracy” is bankrolled by MBDA, a subsidiary of the arms manufacturer BAE, whose relationship with British democracy is, let’s say, somewhat questionable…
Other donors include the Rio Tinto mining group, who are notorious for their alleged complicity in serious human rights abuses around the world, the lobbying firm Ellwood and Atfield, and, perhaps inevitably, BP.Yet again, the BBC gifts air-time to a corporate front-group without any disclosure of its affiliations…
The new Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has begun her House of Commons career in style. In her maiden speech this afternoon, Ms Lucas exercised Parliamentary privilege to help break the UK media’s silence over the upcoming trial in the Dutch courts of the oil company Trafigura.
Under the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840, “correct copies” of any Parliamentary publication may freely be republished without fear of legal action of any kind. This means that the UK media should now be able to make some reference to Trafigura’s legal entanglements, if only by republishing our first Green MP’s maiden speech.
If you’d like to help end the legal fiasco which has allowed a powerful multinational with a dubious track record to silence our entire media, do please support the petition for libel reform at www.libelreform.org/sign, and encourage your friends to do the same.
The text of Caroline Lucas’ speech will shortly be available on the official Parliamentary record – in the meantime it has been published by the Green Party here. I’m also reproducing the text below.
I am most grateful to you for calling me during today’s debate.
The environment is a subject dear to my heart, as I’m sure you know, and I’ll return to it in a moment.
I think anyone would find their first speech in this chamber daunting, given its history and traditions, and the many momentous events it has witnessed.
But I have an additional responsibility, which is to speak not only as the new Member of Parliament for Brighton Pavilion, but also as the first representative of the Green Party to be elected to Westminster.
You have to go back several decades, to the election of the first Nationalist MPs in Scotland and Wales, to find the last maiden speech from a new national political party.
And perhaps a better comparison would be those first Socialist and Independent Labour MPs, over a century ago, whose arrival was seen as a sign of coming revolution.
When Keir Hardie made his maiden speech to this House, after winning the seat of West Ham South in 1892, there was an outcry.
Because instead of frock coat and top hat, he wore a tweed suit and deerstalker. It’s hard to decide which of these choices would seem more inappropriate today.
But what Keir Hardie stood for now seems much more mainstream.
Progressive taxation, votes for women, free schooling, pensions and abolition of the House of Lords.
Though the last of these is an urgent task still before us, the rest are now seen as essential to our society.
What was once radical, even revolutionary, becomes understood, accepted and even cherished.
In speaking today, I am helped by an admirable tradition – that in your first speech to this House, you should refer to your constituency and to your predecessor.
David Lepper, who stood down at this election after thirteen years service as Member for Brighton Pavilion, was an enormously hard-working and highly-respected Member whose qualities transcend any differences of Party. I am delighted to have this chance to thank him for his work on behalf of the people of Brighton.
It is also a great pleasure to speak about Brighton itself. It is, I am sure, well-known to many Members, if only from Party conferences.
My own Party has not yet grown to a size to justify the use of the Brighton Centre, although I hope that will change before long.
But I can say to honourable members who are not familiar with it, that it is one of the UK’s premier conference venues; and there are proposals to invest in it further to help ensure that Brighton retains its status as the UK’s leading conference and tourism resort.
There are also the attractions of the shops and cafes of the Lanes and North Laine, the Pier and of course the Royal Pavilion itself, which gives its name to the constituency.
And beyond the immediate boundaries of the constituency and the city, there is the quietly beautiful countryside of the South Downs and the Sussex Weald.
Brighton has always had a tradition of independence – of doing things differently. It has an entrepreneurial spirit, making the best of things whatever the circumstances, and enjoying being ahead of the curve.
We see this in the numbers of small businesses and freelancers within the constituency, and in the way in which diversity is not just tolerated, or respected, but positively welcomed and valued.
You have to work quite hard to be a “local character” in Brighton.
We do not have a single dominant employer in Brighton. As well as tourism and hospitality, we have two universities, whose students make an important cultural, as well as financial, contribution to the city.
There are also a large number of charities, campaigning groups and institutes based there, some local, others with a national or international reach, such as the Institute of Development Studies, all of which I will work to support in my time in this place.
I would like also to pay tribute to those wonderful Brighton organisations that work with women. In particular I’d like to mention Rise, who do amazing work with women who have been victims of domestic abuse.
Many of my constituents are employed in the public and voluntary sectors. They include doctors and teachers, nurses and police officers, and others from professions that do not always have the same level of attention or support from the media, or indeed from politicians.
But whatever the role – social workers, planning officers, highway engineers or border agency staff – we depend upon them.
I’m sure that members on all sides would agree that all those who work for the State should be respected and their contribution valued. In a time of cuts, with offhand comments about bureaucrats and pencil-pushers, that becomes yet more important.
There is also a Brighton that is perhaps less familiar to honourable members. The very popularity of the City puts pressure on transport and housing and on the quality of life.
Though there is prosperity, it is not shared equally. People are proud of Brighton, but they believe that it can be a better and fairer place to live and work.
I pledge to everything I can in this place to help achieve that, with a particular focus on creating more affordable, more sustainable housing.
Brighton was once the seat of the economist Henry Fawcett who, despite his blindness, was elected there in 1865. Shortly afterwards he married Millicent Garrett, later the leader of the suffragists, a movement he himself had supported and encouraged.
So he lent his name to the Fawcett Society, which is still campaigning for greater women’s representation in politics.
The task of ensuring that Parliament better reflects the people that it represents remains work in progress – and as the first woman elected in Brighton Pavilion, this is work that I will do all that I can do advance.
I said when I began that I found this occasion daunting.
Perhaps the most difficult task is to say a few words about the latest radical move that the people of Brighton have made – that is, to elect the first Green MP to Parliament.
It has been a long journey.
The Green Party traces its origins back to 1973, and the issues highlighted in its first Manifesto for a Sustainable Society – including security of energy supply, tackling pollution, raising standards of welfare and striving for steady state economics – are even more urgent today.
If our message had been heeded nearly 40 years ago, I like to think we would be much closer to the genuinely sustainable economy that we so urgently need, than we currently are today.
We fielded fifty candidates in the 1979 general election as the Ecology Party, and began to win seats on local councils. Representation in the European Parliament and the London Assembly followed.
Now, after nearly four decades of the kind of work on doorsteps and in council chambers which I am sure honourable members are all too familiar, we have more candidates and more members, and now our first MP.
A long journey.
Too long, I would say.
Politics needs to renew itself, and allow new ideas and visions to emerge.
Otherwise debate is the poorer, and more and more people will feel that they are not represented.
So I hope that if, and when, other new political movements arise, they will not be excluded by the system of voting. Reform here, as in other areas, is long-overdue.
The chance must not be squandered. Most crucially, the people themselves must be given a choice about the way their representatives are elected.
And in my view, that means more than a referendum on the Alternative Vote – it means the choice of a genuinely proportional electoral system.
Both before the election and afterwards, I have been asked the question: what can a single MP hope to achieve? I may not be alone in facing that question.
And since arriving in this place, and thinking about the contribution other members have made over the years, I am sure that the answer is clear, that a single MP can achieve a great deal.
A single MP can contribute to debates, to legislation, to scrutiny. Work that is valuable, if not always appreciated on the outside.
A single MP can speak up for their constituents.
A single MP can challenge the executive. I am pleased that the government is to bring forward legislation to revoke a number of restrictions on people’s freedoms and liberties, such as identity cards.
But many restrictions remain. For example, control orders are to stay in force. Who is to speak for those affected and for the principle that people should not be held without charge, even if it is their own homes?
House arrest is something we deplore in other countries. I hope through debate we can conclude that it has no place here either.
A single MP can raise issues that cannot be aired elsewhere.
Last year Honourable Members from all sides of the House helped to shine a light on the actions of the international commodities trading group Trafigura, and the shipping of hazardous waste to the Ivory Coast.
There was particular concern that the media in this country were being prevented from reporting the issues fully and fairly.
This remains the case, for new legal actions concerning Trafigura have been launched in the Dutch courts, and are being reported widely in other countries, but not here.
Finally, I would like to touch on the subject of today’s debate.
I have worked on the causes and consequences of climate change for most of my working life, first with Oxfam – for the effects of climate change are already affecting millions of people in poorer countries around the world – and then for ten years in the European Parliament.
But if we are to overcome this threat, then it is we in this chamber who must take the lead.
We must act so that the United Kingdom can meet its own responsibilities to cut the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that are changing our climate, and encourage and support other countries to do the same.
This House has signed up to the 10:10 Campaign – 10% emissions reductions in 2010. That’s very good news. But the truth is that we need 10% emission cuts every year, year on year, until we reach a zero carbon economy.
And time is running short. If we are to avoid irreversible climate change, then it is this Parliament that must meet this historic task.
That gives us an extraordinary responsibility – and an extraordinary opportunity.
Because the good news is that the action that we need to tackle the climate crisis is action which can improve the quality of life for all of us – better, more affordable public transport, better insulated homes, the end of fuel poverty, stronger local communities and economies, and many more jobs.
I look forward to working with Members from all sides of the House on advancing these issues.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about Tony Baldry, the MP for Banbury, in which I referred to some rather surprising allegations that have been made about him by a grassroots anti-corruption group, the Nigerian Liberty Forum. I had been prompted to look into the issue after I read that the Independent had withdrawn an article about it, following libel threats from Tony Baldry.
A few days later, I myself was contacted by Baldry’s lawyers, Olswang, who claimed that my blog post was defamatory, and copied me on a letter that they had sent to my webhosts, WordPress, threatening to sue them for libel, and demanding that the entire post be taken down. In their email to me, Olswang also stated that “we will advise our client to take all necessary steps to protect his reputation should there be any repetition of these allegations”, which I took to be a threat of libel against me.
(Readers can make up their own minds about the degree to which the Olswang letter accurately reflects what I wrote. The original version of the blogpost is available here.)
What surprises me most about this was that, to the best of my knowledge, Tony Baldry has not made any threats of libel against my original source, The Nigerian Liberty Forum. Their allegations and are still freely available all over the internet, and their criticisms arguably far more detailed and damning.
The dispute centres around a letter that Tony Baldry wrote to the British government in September last year, in which he discussed a UK corruption investigation into James Ibori, the former governor of Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta State region, alongside a number of his associates. Tony Baldry (through his lawyers, Olswang) has been at pains to make it clear that he wrote this letter in his capacity as a barrister (one of his second jobs outside of Parliament), and that in writing this letter he was not seeking to get the criminal investigation shelved:
1. The letter was written on the notepaper of 1 Essex Court, and it states clearly that Mr Baldry has been instructed by solicitors to represent James Ibori. The letter was clearly written in Mr Baldry’s capacity as Counsel for Mr Ibori, not as an MP.
2. There is no suggestion anywhere in the letter that Mr Baldry is seeking any course of action which would benefit Mr Ibori. The letter specifically summarises its purpose by saying that perhaps after the outcome of the criminal proceedings is known, relevant agencies might want to reflect on lessons learned.
The Nigerian Liberty Forum has argued, and I agree, that the quickest and easiest way of clarifying this issue to everyone’s satisfaction would be for Mr Baldry – or the UK government – to publish the disputed letter in full.
Unfortunately, the Foreign Office has refused a Freedom of Information Act request from the NLF. Given the lack of resources allocated by the government to the Information Commission for FOI appeals, it also seems likely that the decision will not be reviewed for many months – if not years.
So we’re left wondering what exactly what was in that letter, and what the purpose of writing it really was.
The decision to take down my original blog post was made by me. I didn’t think it was fair that WordPress were getting threatened over something that was my responsibility. While I knew that Tony Baldry was insistent that he had written his September 2009 letter in his capacity as a barrister rather than an MP, and I had made that quite clear in the article, I hadn’t actually been aware that Tony Baldry disputed the purpose of that letter as it had been described by the Nigerian Liberty Forum. And it seemed somewhat futile to get into a dispute with the author of a letter I hadn’t seen, over that letter’s contents – especially as I had merely been referring to what others had alleged, rather than making that allegation myself.
I also figured that once I’d had the chance to look into it in depth I could always return to the issue again.
My point in that original blog post – as it is now – was really that even if we take only the facts about this story that are not contested, it seems to raise some worrying questions.
1. Potential conflicts of interest
Firstly, it seems to me very surprising that our Parliamentary system should allow MPs to hold a second job which involves a) acting on behalf of people who are under criminal investigation (perhaps especially when this involves allegations of large-scale corruption) by the UK courts over which Parliament ultimately has sovereignty and b) making representations on behalf of such people to the same government ministers they face daily on the floor of House of Commons in their capacity as an MP.
The potential for such an arrangement to create conflicts of interest seems very clear, and quite worrying. Even in the terms that Tony Baldry himself has described it, I believe that this case does not look good, and I doubt that it will look good to many outside of the “Westminster bubble”. If this is what the rules allow then it seems to me that those rules urgently need to be changed.
2. Transparency and accountability
Secondly, an effective democracy depends on our being able to scrutinise the activities of our elected representatives. Yet we are unable to do that fully in this case, because the letter that Tony Baldry wrote to the UK government is protected from FOI disclosure. As I believe the “exemptions” listed here make clear, one of the main reasons for this is precisely because he wrote it confidentially in his capacity as a barrister acting on behalf of a client.
(As it happens, it appears that the letter only came to light in the first place because its existence was leaked to the Nigerian Liberty Forum – had this not happened, then we and the voters of Banbury would presumably have never have even heard about this issue).
The Nigerian Liberty Forum have also alleged – and it should be clear here that I am referring to an allegation rather than endorsing it – that just days before writing his September 2009 letter to the UK government about James Ibori, Tony Baldry had met with the Nigerian President, and discussed the Ibori case with him.
Again, my point here is not to suggest that Tony Baldry broke any Parliamentary rules. My point is rather that it’s very difficult for us to scrutinise what, in practice, those rules are allowing, and form our own judgements about whether we agree that this is reasonable and appropriate behaviour for our elected representatives.
One analogy might be the controversy around MPs’ expenses. Parliament had published the broad rules guiding what MPs were, and were not, allowed to claim, and these seemed reasonable enough to many. Yet it was only when the specific details emerged of what, exactly, had been allowed under those rules, that we got a really meaningful picture of what had been going on. And at that point many of us came to the conclusion that the rules were not appropriate, and needed changing.
It seems to me that the more “second jobs” that an MP holds, the harder it is going to be to scrutinise their external activities, and satisfy ourselves that those activities are appropriate, whether or not they are “within the rules” that Parliament writes for itself.
Tony Baldry’s external activities are listed by They Work For You as follows:
1. Remunerated directorships
Chairman (non-executive), Westminster Oil Limited; a BVI registered company, development of oil licences and exploration.
West African Investments Ltd; investing in infrastructure and natural resource projects in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in West Africa.
Halcyon Oil Limited; a Hong Kong registered company focusing on oil exploration and discovery projects in Central Asia.
Mastermailer Holdings plc; development of stationery and stationery products. I am a non-executive director, and my duties involve attending board meetings…
2. Remunerated employment, office, profession etc
Practising barrister, arbitrator and mediator…
Executive Partner in Diamond Film Partnership; a UK partnership promoting UK film and television production rights.
Chairman of the Advisory Committee of Curve Capital Ventures Ltd, c/o Apex Fund Services (Mauritius) Ltd, Suite 2005, Level 2, Alexander House, 35 Cyber City, Evene, Mauritius; a sector neutral investment company that predominantly invests in India, China and Africa and advises companies on strategic growth and global expansion.
The Oxford Mail reports that since last July alone, Tony Baldry has earned more than £111,000 from his external interests – significantly more than his £64,766 MP’s annual salary.
3. Why was the letter written?
Thirdly, I remain very confused about why Tony-Baldry-the-barrister would have written this controversial letter to the UK government in the first place.
The lawyer and journalist Allen Green had these thoughts on that issue in this week’s excellent article in the Lawyer:
The other aspect of the Independent on Sunday apology which intrigued me was the notion of a barrister – especially in a matter where solicitors are instructed – writing a letter.
I have never before come across it.
Settling draft letters to go out under the letterhead of the instructing solicitor or the client is common. Indeed it is sensible if one takes litigation seriously, not least as it prevents the barrister from blaming the solicitor for screwing up pre-action correspondence.
But a barrister sending a letter under their own name? Whilst there is nothing at all wrong with this, it must be unusual. In my experience it sometimes difficult to get barrister to even sign the pleadings they are supposed to put their name to.
So Allen Green wrote to Tony Baldry and asked him:
Why did you write the letter on behalf of the client when solicitors were instructed?
(It is highly unusual for barristers to write any correspondence in their own name (rather than pleadings), especially when solicitors are instructed.)
But the only answer to this that Tony Baldry gave was:
The letter was written in my capacity as a Barrister, instructed by solicitors.
Tony Baldry states that in writing the letter he was not seeking to secure any “benefit” for James Ibori. We can take this at face value, yet still be confused about why a barrister would be employed to act in behalf of a client towards a particular purpose (eg. in this case writing to the UK government) if that purpose held no benefit at all for the client.
The picture gets even more confusing when we look at the reasons reportedly given by the UK government for refusing to disclose the letter following a Freedom of Information Act request. These include an exemption under Section 27(1)(a) of the Act, which “allows us to withhold information if its disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and another state.”
What could possibly have been in that letter – which we’ve been told was written by a barrister acting solely in his capacity as a barrister on behalf of a client in a criminal investigation – that would have such wide-ranging political implications as to risk undermining international relations were it to be disclosed?
4. Libel should not be used to suppress political scrutiny and debate
Fourthly, it seems to me extremely worrying that an elected MP should be so quick to respond to public criticism by threatening to sue newspapers and web-publishers for libel. Tony Baldry is by no means alone in this. One of the reasons I became interested in this issue in the first place is that I’ve begun to lose count of the number of times an MP or Lord has used our notoriously draconian libel laws to try to get a news article censored.
Among the worst offenders was Michael Martin MP during his time as Speaker of the House of Commons. Martin’s multiple failures during the expenses scandal ultimately brought about his downfall (though he still got to sit in the House of Lords, where he has continued to do damage). But for a long time he had great success in using libel threats to get critical media coverage withdrawn.
These people are public figures whose actions in office can impact on us all. There is a clear public interest in being able to scrutinise and question their behaviour, freely and without intimidation. As public servants, it seems to me that our politicians therefore have a duty actively to support robust and open debate, and to avoid doing anything which might deter critical scrutiny.
Yet we have somehow got used to the idea that our MPs can routinely resort to heavy-handed legal tactics at the slightest of provocations. This week it was revealed that the Respect MP George Galloway was suing over a critical comment left on a blog. Regardless of the objectionable nature of the comment (and I’m no great fan of the website in question) this decision – and in particular the scale of damages being demanded - seems quite extraordinary. I hope that George Galloway, who interviewed me on his radio show (in his capacity as a radio presenter, not an MP, I hasten to add) when Don’t Get Fooled Again was first published, will soon realise how bad this looks to the neutral observer and reconsider what he’s doing.
There is now a palpable reluctance in large sections of the media to ask critical questions about our politicians’ behaviour, and the rules by which they govern themselves. It strikes me that this is very bad for our democracy. I think that our elected representatives need to develop a thicker skin, and we need to start being more critical when MPs make inappropriate libel threats.
I am genuinely amazed that Tony Baldry chose to address this controversy by threatening to sue my webhosts. I do not believe it reflects well on him that he chose to do so, especially as the airing of similar allegations in stronger terms elsewhere appears to have gone unchallenged.
Neither does it look good, as Allen Green has noted, that Tony Baldry demanded the removal not only of the comments he deemed inaccurate and defamatory, but the entire blogpost.
I have no desire to say anything about Tony Baldry which is untrue or unfair, and am happy to take corrections when necessary. But on the basis of the evidence I have seen, I do believe that there are serious questions that need to be asked about this case, and that asking those questions is manifestly in the public interest.
Now why would someone want to go and repeatedly remove well-sourced, yet embarrassing, pieces of information from an elected MP’s wikipedia entry, claiming, falsely, that they were “inaccuracies”?
It’s almost as if whoever’s behind this doesn’t want the voters of Banbury to be properly informed about the more “controversial” activities of their democratic representative…