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Posts Tagged ‘Censorship

Skepticism and freedom

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The video that could see Sanal Edamaruku jailed for “blasphemy”

At Leicester Skeptics in the Pub on June 19th, I’ll be talking about the link between skepticism and freedom of speech.

It’s hard to find a more pressing example of the problems that skeptics can face when powerful institutions threaten freedom of speech than that of Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association. On May 10th, Sanal went on Indian TV to debunk a purported “miracle” at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. Now, after local Catholic groups reported him to the authorities, he is facing a criminal prosecution for “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”.

The Rationalist Association have set up an online petition calling on the Catholic community to withdraw their complaint, and urging the Catholic authorities elsewhere in the world to speak out against the prosecution.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales has a Twitter account here if you would like to send them a polite message urging them to speak out against the persecution of Sanal Edamaruku.

Things are also reaching a critical point here in the UK as the Libel Reform campaign seeks to ensure that the government’s proposed changes to our laws really do ensure that people asking difficult questions are properly  protected from vexatious prosecutions. The Libel Reform Campaign are now appealing to all those concerned about freedom of speech in Britain to contact their MP and join a mass lobby of Parliament on June 27th.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 18, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Ten questions for the Press Complaints Commission and David Hunt

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Earlier this week, Liberal Conspiracy reported on plans by David Hunt, the new head of the Press Complaints Commission, to “invite political bloggers to volunteer for regulation by the PCC’s replacement. Blogs who promise to abide by the new code will get a ‘kitemark’ of approval.”

This follows a Guardian interview last month in which Hunt appeared to argue that inaccurate reporting by  bloggers posed a “greater challenge” than the (now well publicised) excesses of the tabloid press.

This seemed like a surprising thing to say given the shocking details that have been emerging from the Leveson inquiry, and my initial reaction was very much in line with that of the “Broken Barnet” blog.

But I was also curious to find out more about the motivation and rationale behind the idea, and the extent to which it has (or hasn’t) been properly thought through.

So I’ve written to David Hunt, C/O his office in the House of Lords, with a series of questions. If I get any kind of response I’ll be posting it here.

Dear David Hunt,

I was intrigued by reports that you are hoping to introduce a “kitemarking” scheme for bloggers. As a writer who has a blog and closely follows a number of others, I have some questions about this idea that I’m hoping you might be able to answer?

1. Despite the recent growth of the internet, many more people still read books than read blogs. Some of the things that are written in books are inaccurate and misleading. Thousands of new books are published in the UK each year. Yet other than the law of libel – which is equally applicable to blogs – there is currently no formal mechanism for challenging inaccuracies published in books. In order to be consistent, will the Press Complaints Commission therefore be seeking to “kitemark” books – or book publishers? If not, why single out blogs and blogging?

2. It has been suggested that you believe inaccurate reporting by bloggers to pose a “greater challenge” than inaccurate coverage by the tabloid press. Can you provide some specific examples of inaccurate reporting by bloggers that you believe might substantiate this claim?

3. In 2010 I reported the Daily Mail to the Press Complaints Commission over an article in which it made a series of false claims downplaying the health risks of white asbestos. [see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/27/asbestos-press-watchdog-pcc]. The newspaper eventually agreed to print a correction. Can you provide an example of a similarly toxic false health claim made by a blogger?

4. Can you provide an example of a blog whose reporting is consistently less accurate than, for example, that of the Daily Mail?

5. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all organisations that publish a blog (eg. Cancer Research UK [http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/] or Topshop [http://insideout.topshop.com/]) or only to individual blogs that are deemed “political”?

6. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to political blogs published by Members of Parliament – for example Nadine Dorries MP [http://blog.dorries.org/] and Tom Watson MP? [http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/]

7. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all blogs read in the UK (ie. including US-based blogs such as BoingBoing [http://boingboing.net], and the US edition of the Huffington Post [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/?country=US]) or only to blogs written by people living in the UK?

8. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to publicly visible postings and “groups” on Facebook, and to postings on microblogging sites such as Twitter?

9. Many political blogs are highly critical of the habits and standards of commercial newspapers, including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Sun and Daily Telegraph. Given that the Press Complaints Commission would receive the bulk of its funding from such sources even under the alternative arrangements you are proposing, would this not create a serious conflict of interest, undermining the credibility of any attempt by the PCC to “regulate” political bloggers?

10. Many political blogs are highly critical of the Conservative Party and its donors, and of the wider political establishment in which the three main political parties operate. Given that both you and your predecessor are Conservative members of the House of Lords, does this not also create a serious conflict of interest, and undermine the perceived neutrality and objectivity of any PCC “kitemarking” scheme for political bloggers?

I will be publishing these questions on my blog. If you are able to respond then I would be happy to include your answers in full. You would also be welcome to add a comment to the blogpost itself, which can be found at http://richardwilsonauthor.wordpress.com.

Best regards,

Richard Wilson

Written by Richard Wilson

December 19, 2011 at 7:00 am

Blogger arrested for filming council meeting: In Carmarthenshire, this is what democracy looks like

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Furious council officials call Police after blogger refuses to stop filming a public meeting

From Carmarthenshire Planning blog

…when the row commenced over the Day Club, I started filming with my phone… I was asked to leave by the Chairman and Mark James, I said that I was not doing anything wrong, it is not against the law nor even in their standing orders (rules for meetings), neither was I disturbing the meeting…

As I didn’t leave, Mr James and the Chair called the police and then adjourned the meeting… it only took ten minutes today for two police cars and four police officers to appear in the Gallery. I tried to argue my point but was then arrested in the Public Gallery for ‘breaching the peace’. I was taken outside the door, handcuffed, searched, my phone taken and marched out to the waiting police cars. I was then taken 30 miles to Llanelli police station where I remained handcuffed for another hour before being ‘processed’, and put in a cell for another two hours.

By this time I was very disorientated, worried about my young daughter who needed picking up from school, I was cold (the police had taken my jacket and shoes and socks) and distressed. Without a solicitor present, I was then threatened by three police officers who said that if I didn’t sign an ‘undertaking’ not to film/record any more meetings I would be kept in overnight

Carmarthenshire blogger Jacqui Thompson is on Twitter as @caebrwyn

Written by Richard Wilson

June 9, 2011 at 10:05 pm

UK Foreign Office “covering up its mistakes and denying access to critical documents” over Iraq

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The picture of institutionalised mendacity presented by Carne Ross in today’s Observer is shocking – yet consistent both with my own personal experiences of the Foreign Office over the years – and the wealth of information that has emerged from other sources.

The unelected senior ranks of the civil service have more political power in their own right than is usually acknowledged. They now seem to be making the most of this in their attempt to evade accountability for their involvement in the systematic deception of the UK public (and Parliament) in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

From Carne Ross, writing in The Observer:

I testified last week to the Chilcot inquiry. My experience demonstrates an emerging and dangerous problem with the process. This is not so much a problem with Sir John Chilcot and his panel, but rather with the government bureaucracy – Britain’s own “deep state” – that is covering up its mistakes and denying access to critical documents.

There is only one solution to this problem, and it requires decisive action.

After I was invited to testify, I was contacted by the Foreign Office, from which I had resigned after giving testimony to the Butler inquiry in 2004, to offer its support for my appearance. I asked for access to all the documents I had worked on as Britain’s Iraq “expert” at the UN Security Council, including intelligence assessments, records of discussions with the US, and the long paper trail on the WMD dossier.

Large files were sent to me to peruse at the UK mission to the UN. However, long hours spent reviewing the files revealed that most of the key documents I had asked for were not there.

In my testimony I had planned to detail how the UK government failed to consider, let alone implement, available alternatives to military action. To support this I had asked for specific records relating to the UK’s failure to deal with the so-called Syrian pipeline, through which Iraq illegally exported oil, thereby sustaining the Saddam regime. I was told that specific documents, such as the records of prime minister Tony Blair’s visit to Syria, could not be found. This is simply not plausible.

I had also asked for all the Joint Intelligence Committee assessments on Iraq, some of which I helped prepare. Of dozens of these documents, only three were provided to me – 40 minutes before I was due to appear before the Chilcot panel.

Playing by the rules, I had submitted my written testimony to Chilcot before my appearance. In the hours before my appearance, invited to visit the Foreign Office to see further documents (mostly irrelevant), an official repeatedly sought to persuade me to delete references to certain documents in my testimony.

He told me that the Cabinet Office wanted the removal of a critical reference in my evidence to a memo from a senior Foreign Office official to the foreign secretary’s special adviser, in which the official pointed out, with mandarin understatement, that the paper sent that week to the Parliamentary Labour Party dramatically – and inaccurately – altered the UK’s assessment of Iraq’s nuclear threat.

In a clear example of the exaggeration of Iraq’s military capabilities, that paper claimed that if Iraq’s programmes remained unchecked, it could develop a nuclear device within five years.

The official’s memo pointed out that this was not, in fact, the UK assessment: the UK believed that Iraq’s nuclear programme had been checked by sanctions.

The paper to the PLP was instead sent by the foreign secretary to “brief” the wider cabinet. This paper was pure overstated propaganda, filled with ludicrous statements like “one teaspoon of anthrax can kill a million people”. The paper was soon made public, as part of the campaign to create public hysteria.

The official’s memo about the PLP paper contained nothing secret. It relates to a public document, the PLP paper. Yet, of all the references in my testimony, this was the one that the Cabinet Office most wanted removed. I refused. Strikingly, this memo has never been mentioned to the inquiry, including by its author, who testified earlier this year. Neither has the author of the PLP paper been questioned, or the paper itself discussed.

I was repeatedly warned by inquiry staff not to mention any classified material during my testimony. The only problem is that almost every document I ever wrote or read in my work was classified. It was made clear to me, and to journalists attending the hearing, that if I mentioned specific documents the broadcast of my testimony would be cut off. Other forms of retribution (Official Secrets Act prosecution?) hung in the air. It was a form of subtle intimidation.

Meanwhile, my requests to see documents about the infamous Number 10 WMD dossier were ignored, including requests for letters I had written.

This experience and the inquiry’s record so far is cause for concern. It is clear from testimonies so far that most witnesses, most of whom went along with the war at the time, are offering a very one-sided account to the panel. A story is being peddled that sanctions on Iraq were collapsing and the allied policy of containment was failing. Thus, the military alternative to deal with the Iraqi threat was more or less unavoidable.

Though there is some truth to this argument, it was not what the Foreign Office, or the government as a whole, believed at the time. The true story is there to be seen in the documents. In memos, submissions to ministers and telegrams, the official view is very clear: while there was concern at the erosion of sanctions, containment had prevented Iraq from rearmament.

When invasion was promoted by Washington, the available alternative – to squeeze Saddam financially by stopping oil exports or seizing the regime’s assets, which I and some colleagues had repeatedlyadvocated, was ignored. Here the documents tell a different but equally clear and appalling story: there is not a single mention of any formal discussion, by ministers or officials, of alternatives to military action. It is hard to pinpoint a graver indictment of the government’s failure.

The oral testimonies delivered to the inquiry have not given an accurate picture of what the government really thought. Unfortunately, the panel is neither equipped, nor apparently inclined, to challenge witnesses on the contradictions of their testimonies with this documentary record. This may not be the panel’s fault: how can they know which pertinent documents exist?

In these circumstances, it is very worrying that the government machine is still trying to withhold key documents, and silence those of us with detailed knowledge of the policy history – and documents. I have been told too, from secondary sources, that members of the panel have been refused documents they have specifically requested.

There is a clear solution to these problems: break down the continued obstruction by the bureaucracy by releasing the documents – all of them. Only the most secret documents deserve continued protection, and there are very few of these. The vast majority of relevant documents relate to policy discussion inside the government before the war. Though profoundly embarrassing, there is little here that damages national security, except in the hysterical assessment of officials protecting their own reputation. Nick Clegg said a few weeks ago that almost all documents must now be released. He is right.

Carne Ross was the UK’s Iraq expert at the UN from 1997 to 2002. He now heads Independent Diplomat, a non-profit diplomatic advisory group

Written by Richard Wilson

July 25, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Free Jean-Claude Kavumbagu. Again.

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See also (from 2008): Free Jean-Claude Kavumbagu

UPDATE - I’m pleased to report that the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch have both put out statements condemning the arrest and calling for Jean-Claude’s release.

Burundi’s EU-bankrolled kleptocracy strikes again

I will never forget the enormous help Jean-Claude Kavumbagu gave me while I was writing my first book, Titanic Express. This is now the fifth time he has been jailed simply for telling the truth.

One of the things that seems to have particularly riled the authorities on this occasion is Jean-Claude’s claim that “our defence and security forces shine in their capacity to pillage and kill their compatriots rather than defend their country”. Unfortunately this claim is so clearly and demonstrably true that it’s difficult to imagine what the Burundi authorities think they have to gain in suppressing it…

From Agence France Presse

Burundi police arrested a journalist for alleged “treason” Saturday over an article questioning whether the security forces could deal with an attack like one that hit Uganda a week ago, an official said.

The July 11 bombings in Kampala claimed by Al Qaeda-inspired rebels killed at least 73 people watching the World Cup final in what the insurgents said was retaliation for Ugandan troops serving in Somalia, where Burundi also has soldiers participating in an African Union force.

“The police arrested the director of Netpress on a warrant issued by the prosecutor of the republic and which had as motive ‘treason’,” police Colonel David Nikiza told AFP.

Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, head of the online news outlet, was later detained at the central prison at Bujumbura, relatives and prison officials said.

“The authorities are reproaching Kavumbagu for an article that appeared on July 12 and which questioned the capacity of the Burundi defence and security forces to face an Islamist attack like that which has just hit Kampala,” a Netpress journalist told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In the article that appeared Wednesday, Netpress wrote that “since Monday morning, the anxiety has been palpable in Bujumbura for all those who have heard about what happened yesterday at Kampala because they are convinced that if these Shebab militants wanted to try something in our country, they would succeed with disconcerting ease.”

This was because “our defence and security forces shine in their capacity to pillage and kill their compatriots rather than defend their country,” it continued.

It is the fifth time that Kavumbagu, 45, has been imprisoned for his work.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 18, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Just days into her career as an MP, Caroline Lucas busts open another big UK establishment secret…

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From the website of the UK Parliament

Early Day Motion

EDM 118

TRAFIGURA AND SHIPPING HAZARDOUS WASTE TO THE IVORY COAST
27.05.2010

Lucas, Caroline

That this House, concerned that due to the start of fresh legal proceedings in the Netherlands on 14 and 17 May 2010 concerning the multinational commodities trading group Trafigura, including allegations that UK nationals and UK firms may have been involved in illegal waste shipments and a subsequent cover-up and that payments were made to truck drivers in return for favourable witness statements and given that this is not being fully reported in the United Kingdom because of the chilling effect of the UK’s libel laws, calls on the Government to launch a full inquiry into the allegations against Trafigura and to review the libel laws to ensure that this matter can be reported fully in the UK.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 28, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Independent breaks UK media silence over Trafigura trial in the Dutch courts

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With help from the newly-elected Green MP Caroline Lucas, The Independent  newspaper has taken a clear lead in the “Trafigura challenge” – the race to see which UK media outlet will be the first to report fully on the upcoming trial in the Dutch courts of the controversial oil company.

No UK newspaper or broadcaster has yet made any mention of  allegations made to Dutch prosecutors by Greenpeace – and widely featured in the Dutch media – that Trafigura and their law firm MacFarlanes sought to bribe witnesses in an earlier London court case. But the Independent has, by citing Caroline Lucas’ remarks, at least been able to reference the ongoing legal proceedings.

Under the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840, “correct copies” of any Parliamentary publication may freely be republished without fear of legal action, including, crucially, any action under the UK’s notoriously expensive and one-sided libel laws, which Trafigura has been ruthlessly exploiting.

In a message on Twitter last night, Caroline Lucas promised an “EDM [Early Day Motion] and PQs [Parliamentary Questions] to follow”, so with luck the UK press may soon have more opportunities to cover this story freely.

From The Independent

Caroline Lucas used her maiden speech to raise concerns that the British media are unable to fully report legal proceedings involving the commodities trading company Trafigura.

The Green MP pledged to use her new position in Parliament to raise the issue after legal claims were launched in the Netherlands against the company, which chartered the ship whose toxic sludge was illegally dumped in the Ivory Coast in 2006.

The Dutch-based oil trader caused outrage last year when a High Court injunction issued on its behalf had the effect of blocking coverage of parliamentary proceedings involving its activities. The “super-injunction”, obtained by the law firm Carter Ruck, was amended after it was accused of infringing the supremacy of Parliament by preventing the reporting of a question tabled by an MP. Politicians from all sides criticised the legal manoeuvre.

The law firm agreed to change the injunction and insisted there was no question that Trafigura had sought to gag the media from reporting parliamentary proceedings.

In her maiden speech to the House of Commons, Ms Lucas said she was still concerned that proceedings in foreign courts were not being reported in Britain. She said: “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. And these are the kind of issues I would like to pursue.”

In unrelated proceedings, a court in Amsterdam is due to start hearing the trial next week of Trafigura for the alleged infringement of Dutch waste export laws relating to the Probo Koala, the chartered tanker whose waste was dumped at sites around the Ivorian city, Abidjan.

The company is accused along with the captain of the vessel, the municipal authorities in Amsterdam and a waste treatment company of breaking rules when the ship attempted to offload the waste in the Dutch city before it then departed for West Africa. The trial is expected to last five weeks.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 28, 2010 at 7:51 am