Saturday, September 30, 2006

A small step forward for Aceh

Aceh’s independence movement Free Aceh Movement (known as GAM: Gerakan Aceh Merdeka) doesn’t expect to make serious inroads in the region’s first election since they signed a peace deal with the Indonesian government. The accord allows for limited self-rule of Sumatra’s northern most province. GAM do not expect to win seats in this election but are preparing instead for the following elections in 2009 when they will be better set up as a political party.

GAM are the former rebel movement who fought the government for 29 years until the cataclysmic effect of the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake. The earthquake measured over 9 on the Richter scale and its epicentre was 800km off the west coast of Aceh. Conservative estimates of the death toll in Aceh were 130,000 though some have said as many as 230,000 have died. A further half million Acehnese were made homeless.

Aceh, which occupies the northernmost 12% of Sumatra, is a religiously conservative Islamic society and has had no tourism or any Western presence in recent years due to armed conflict between the military and the separatists. Islam came early to Aceh. The Islamic Kingdom of Peureulak was established around 850 AD in East Aceh. Aceh played an important role in Islamising many parts of Indonesia, including Java. Marco Polo passed through the province of North Aceh on his travels in the 13th century. The Kingdom of Aceh became a significant player also around this time and its influence stretched to southern Thailand. When the Portuguese took Malaka in 1511, they sailed across the strait to Sumatra. They built a fort in Pasai too close to the Achenese for comfort. In 1523, the Acehnese Sultan Ali attacked the Portuguese in Pasai and drove them out. After this defeat, Portugal attempted to conquer Aceh several times, but to no avail.

The Dutch arrived in the following century and had better success in subduing the locals. However the Acehnese continued to resist strongly. In 1824, the Dutch signed the London Treaty in which Britain surrendered the island of Sumatra to the Dutch. However Aceh was allowed to remain independent. Its power was its strategic location at the tip of Sumatra and also its control of the black pepper trade. However their independence was finally killed off by the 1871 Sumatra Treaty in which the British authorised the Dutch to take Aceh to prevent the French from moving in. The Dutch attacked in 1873 and controlled most of the province within the year. Acehnese guerrillas resisted for another 20 years. They even wrested control of the province back for two years in 1892. The Dutch finally realised they could never win militarily so took a different strategy and bribed the regional chieftains to regain control.

However the Dutch never fully conquered the rugged mountainous regions which remained independent right up to the fall of Sumatra to Japan in 1942. The Acehnese welcomed the Japanese as they promised to free them from colonisation. But Japan’s promises were worthless and they were soon despised as much as the Dutch. Several rebellions broke out against their rule. When the war was ended, Indonesia declared its independence and Aceh was broadly in favour of the new country. Aceh gained “special territory” status in 1959. This decree conferred an unusually high degree of autonomy in religious, educational and cultural matters. This allowed Aceh to declare “sharia law” in 2003.

However the autonomy was not enough to satisfy those looking for full independence. On Dec. 4, 1976, Teungku Hasan di Tiro founded the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Indonesia reacted harshly. The authorities conducted mass arrests of GAM members and kept a lid on their activities until 1989 when the group attacked police and military installations. Jakarta declared Aceh a Military Operation Zone (DOM) which led to massive human rights violations by military and police personnel. Though the DOM status was lifted in 1998 matters did not improve much until the intervention of the tsunami. 12,000 people had died in the 29 year campaign.

The peace deal gave the province control over its affairs except external defence, foreign relations and fiscal policy. It allowed Aceh to retain 70% of its significant natural resources, allows them to field independent candidates in elections for provincial governor and district chiefs and finally to establish local political parties to run in future elections. The 4.3 million population Aceh remains an important province for Indonesia. It is rich in oil and gas. Its future remains cloudy but while GAM holds firm to the agreement, this fiercely independent proto-nation has a chance to establish a lasting peace and a bright future.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Queensland's island of shame

Local leaders on Palm Island have predicted further outbreaks of violence after the Queensland Police Commissioner decided not to stand down an officer a coroner ruled responsible for the death of an Aboriginal man in custody. Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson said Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley would remain on the job, but he would be restricted to non-operational duties. Hurley is now based on the Gold Coast.

On Wednesday, Acting State Coroner Christine Clements concluded her 18 month investigation of the death of 36-year-old Mulrunji Doomadgee. Her assessment was damning. She ruled that Senior Sergeant Hurley repeatedly punched the man after lost after losing his temper during an arrest. Mulrunji died from internal injuries received during the attack. Clements accused Queensland Police of not learning anything from the Deaths in Custody commissions of the 1990s. Her damning report said : "The arrest of Mulrunji was not an appropriate exercise of police discretion. There were a range of alternatives to arrest available that should have been preferred.” She continued “"He was a fit, healthy man . . He was not a trouble maker and had never been arrested on the island. It is reprehensible that the detailed recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody should have to be referred to, so many years after the Royal Commission. The evidence is clear however that these recommendations are still apt and still ignored." Clements was also critical of police practises related to deaths-in-custody especially the fact that police needed to review their training for police officers, and the way they investigated deaths-in-custody.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie today defended his police force by saying “"I understand these recommendations from the coroner are damaging and anyone who reads them knows that but I just want to assure Queenslanders that our police service is one of the best in the world. But he refused to be drawn on whether Sgt Hurley should be stood down, saying it was a matter for Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson. He said the important issue was whether the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) would decide whether Sgt Hurley faces prosecution.

Mulrunji’s body was found in a police cell on 19 November 2004. His death occurred barely an hour after he was arrested for the minor “drunk and disorderly” offence of “causing a public nuisance”. Two witnesses came forward to say they saw Mulrunji being assaulted at the time of the arrest. The autopsy report was held up for a week which fed suspicions in the local community of a cover-up. When finally released to the family, the report revealed that he had died of internal bleeding, after suffering four broken ribs and a ruptured spleen and liver. The initial coroner’s report suggested there was no evidence of force and he may simply have fallen on a hard surface. The findings were eventually read to a public meeting causing an immediate furious response. Anticipating this outcome, the Queensland government flew in extra police, boosting the island’s contingent from 4 to 20.

About 300 members of the crowd marched to the court house and police station and set fire to both buildings while threatening to kill police officers who had already fled the buildings. In response, police invoked emergency powers and flew in at least 80 officers, including members of the anti-terrorism Special Emergency Response Team (SERT). Police used the draconian terms of the Queensland Public Safety Preservation Act 1986 to declare an emergency situation. Dressed in full battle armour and carrying semi-automatic weapons, they raided the homes of the community leaders. At 4:30 am, four carloads of police launched a Gestapo-style raid on the home of Lex Wotton, a former Palm Island councillor and an alleged participant in the riot. Witnesses said he was shot in the leg with a Taser immobiliser (stun gun) while he had his hands on his head. Five police aimed rifles at him while his terrified wife and children looked on.

The Palm Island Aboriginal Council issued an open letter to Premier Beattie protesting that local people were living “under siege”. Spokesman Brad Foster said “Our children are feeling terrorised; 80 police are not necessary” and he accused police of treating Palm Islanders as anti-terrorism guinea pigs. Beattie visited the island under armed escort and defended police actions saying “I don’t believe it is reasonable to deal with these matters with one hand tied behind their back.”

Aborigines account for nearly one-third of all deaths in custody, even though they make up only 2 percent of the Australian population. The commission referred to by the State Coroner was the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which reviewed 99 deaths of indigenous prisoners that occurred between 1980 and 1991. It failed to indict any police officers and another 145 deaths occurred in custody in the following decade.

Palm Island is the Sunshine State’s ugly secret. Sited some 65km north of Townsville on a beautiful part of the Barrier Reef it is home to 4,000 Aboriginals making it the largest indigenous compound in Australia. It is a third world community in a first world country. Until 1985 it served as a penal colony. It was attractive to authorities as Aboriginals could be kept in isolation from the rest of the community. The island is now administered by the Palm Island Aboriginal Council but is lacking in all but the most basic facilities. There is no secondary school or hospital on the island.

Most of the police stationed on the island prior to the riot have reportedly declined to return. The Queensland Government has admitted it may be difficult to find police prepared to serve on the island at this time but has repeatedly stated it is committed to a continued police presence on the island. Seven locals are still awaiting trial for charges related to the riots and Beattie has so far refused to drop the charges as a goodwill gesture to the community. Locals are desperately hoping that the coroner's report will vindicate the community. However the stonewalling attitude of Police and their supportive Government is likely to mean more hard times ahead for the beleaguered islanders.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Media ethics: Who was to blame for Cronulla?

This essay will examine the events surrounding the Cronulla riots of 11 December 2005. It will discuss how the story broke and demonstrate the media chain reaction that made the riot inevitable. It will then examine the role of the media in the immediate aftermath of the riot. While there were many media reporting on Cronulla (TV, radio, press, internet news, weblogs) the essay will concentrate on the key roles played by Sydney’s highest-rating radio breakfast announcer and Sydney’s highest-selling newspaper. This essay will show how these media hid behind their public sources to implicitly encourage the events that followed. The conclusion will show that poor ethical practices in both media were justified to further commercial interests.

The sequence of events were caused by a crime. On Sunday 4 December 2005, two surf lifesavers were attacked and injured on Sydney’s North Cronulla beach. The wire service AAP broke the story. Their initial report was that “two young surf lifesavers have been bashed in an attack by a large group at a beach near Sydney” (AAP 5 December 2005). Other than conflating “large group” with “four people”, the report was a model of ethical hard news journalism. There was no unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics. An attack on lifesavers, the iconic symbol of Australian beaches, was itself an angle for a major story. But there was a second angle. The four men the police were looking for were Lebanese Australians.

It was Alan Jones who exposed the second angle. Jones does the influential breakfast slot on 2GB radio where he gets 16.4% of the radio audience. That amounts to 182,000 radios tuned to his program in the Sydney region every day. That Monday a caller “Bill” rang to say he had seen the news on Channel Nine about the “horrendous bashing”. “Bill” continued, “…gang acts on the beach at Cronulla yesterday. I mean, what type of grubs do we have in this...?” Jones finished the sentence for him:
“What kind of grubs? Well, I'll tell you what kind of grubs this lot were. This lot were Middle Eastern grubs. And you're not allowed to say it. But I'm saying it.”

The “you” Jones mentions, are journalists whose second commitment of their code of ethics forbids them to emphasise “race, ethnicity, (and) nationality”. Jones put himself outside the pale as he knew it would mean the angle could now be open spoken about. And it was the only real angle on offer - the lifesavers were not on duty at the time of the attack. That fact was buried as the media frenzy grew in the week that followed. Now that Jones had done their dirty work for them and named the “Middle Eastern grubs”, the Daily Telegraph could now join in.

The Murdoch owned Telegraph is Sydney’s biggest selling daily newspaper. It sold 403,000 copies in the first six months of 2004. They missed the story entirely on Monday but on Tuesday they splashed the headline “Fight for Cronulla: we want our beach back”. The article described the attackers as a “group of thugs” but also quotes surf lifesaving Sydney rescue services manager Stephen Leahy who said it was common for Middle Eastern men from Western Sydney to taunt Cronulla surf lifesavers. This disingenuous quote left readers in no doubt as to the identity of the “thugs”.

By Wednesday, the Telegraph had posted Luke McIlveen on the job. His prior front page exclusives on both Schapelle Corby and Ivan Milat were exposed by Media Watch as foundless. Although the quality of McIlveen’s reporting may be suspect, his sensationalism is a major weapon in their circulation war. This is the Janus view of news media. The media have both business and public utility aspects. McIlveen was brought in for the business aspect. Immediately he uncovered a history of beach thuggery and found one interviewee who was “harassed and assaulted by thugs of Middle Eastern descent”. The article concluded with a plea from the newspaper for follow-up information from the public. “Have you been harassed at the beach? Tell us at…” (McIlveen and Jones 2005). The newspaper was not interested in good news about Cronulla.

By Thursday the Telegraph was in full flight. There were reports of a second incident on the beach on the Wednesday and the newspaper printed six Cronulla articles on the day. They offered the “grim possibility” of future ethic based attacks and quoted a “disturbing” SMS which advocated “Leb and wog bashing day”. In each article the Telegraph reporters used the third journalistic ethical commitment (“aim to attribute information to its source”) as a way of avoiding conflict with the second commitment on ethnicity. They pushed the story hard on Friday and Saturday, setting the scene for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unlike journalists, the newspaper is not bound by the code of ethics. Its quest for healthy circulation figures breeds a desire to publish stories that have “sensational impact that titillates readers”.

While the Telegraph reported that police and political leaders were calling for calm, they also reported NSW State Opposition leader Peter Debnam on the Friday. He was not advocating calm: “Debnam called for police to be given permission to take a zero-tolerance approach to youths who threatened to turn Cronulla into a battleground. These thugs need to be arrested and locked up," he said.” Debnam was indulging in wedge politics. Wedge politics preys on prejudice and fear and involves so-called ‘dog-whistle’ messages using outwardly reasonable language that nonetheless carries a very specific message to the target audience. The Telegraph was tacitly approving the transformation of a fight among youths into a ethnic battleground.

Jones too was firing up his audience to gain radio ratings. After feeding them with Middle Eastern grubs on the Monday, he warmed to the topic in the days that followed. On the Tuesday, a caller rang in to recommend vigilante action and Jones did not demur. He told his listeners he "understood" why the offensive SMS text went out and he read it on air. This form of empathy is known as a schema theory. People form stereotypical models of their world to help them cope with the flood of new information they receive on a daily basis. These models are called schemas. While schemas are beneficial in handling vast quantities of new data, they are negative when over-generalised and lead to stereotyping and prejudice. Jones’s schema was coming home to roost. By Thursday he was reading out anonymous emails detailing how Cronulla’s beaches were “taken over by scum” and although he carefully cautioned his listeners not to take the law into their own hands, he warmed to listeners who had exactly that intention. Jones was in breach of the first item of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) ethical code “(do not) give distorting emphasis”. As a result there were three complaints to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) in the week before the riots. However the ACMA has not acted on these complaints. Their website states “The primary responsibility for ensuring that programs reflect community standards rests with radio and television stations”. The Australian Press Council is also an ineffective watchdog and frequently seen as a captive of the industry. Internal MEAA disciplines are also weak and application is limited to its members. Its procedures are secret and the ultimate sanction is dismissal from the union. Such a threat would be idle for a wealthy broadcaster like Jones given his consistently scant regard for the ethical code.

Unsurprisingly, given the encouragement of the media, events transpired as dismally predicted on the Sunday, December 11. There were 10 arrests on the day and a small number of injuries. The riot provided a rich diet of stories for the Telegraph for the entire following week before tapering off when the violence was not repeated. Journalists’ role in the communication process has fundamentally shifted in the modern era. They no longer decide what information the public should know but instead help audiences make sense of it. They function as “forum leaders”. The forum leaders at the Telegraph gave full warts-and-all coverage of the riot on the Monday. It deemed the day “a national disgrace”. They blamed alcohol and hate but did not point to any media failings. Instead it turned the temperature up: “youths of Middle Eastern descent have warned of pay-back” (Daily Telegraph, 12 December 2005).

And as gangs looked to pick out innocent victims on the train, Jones’ pre-riot suggestion seemed eerily prescient, “invite one of the biker gangs to be present in numbers at Cronulla railway station when these Lebanese thugs arrive, it would be worth the price of admission to watch these cowards scurry back onto the train for the return trip to their lairs”. Jones himself was not around to face the consequences of his actions. He had scurried back to his lair by going on holidays commencing Monday 12 December. That left 2GB picking up the pieces left by their star broadcaster. They claimed that two thirds of calls coming into station supported “what happened” in Cronulla. But it was the absent Jones’s on-air exhortations that turned a mild dispute into an explosive issue.

The Telegraph too shares the blame. It had a vested commercial interest in making the story bigger. And its journalism never looked at the root causes. There are three levels in construction of journalism. Level 1 is reactive (observation and fact). Level 2 is reflective; dealing with the how and why of events. Level 3 is analytical and involves the identification of trends and possible underlying causes. It is only at these higher levels of inquiry do journalists challenge initially “authoritative” accounts of events. The Telegraph Cronulla coverage rarely operated at level 2 and never at level 3. Two questions they never asked: 1. Are the beachside communities of Sydney’s south some kind of cultural tinderbox? and 2. How are we to manage public behaviour and etiquette in contested public spaces to allow respect for all? These are level 3 questions. But the Janus view is unlikely to allow Telegraph journalists the space and time to aspire to that level. They are among the sections of the news media that thrive on shock, horror and human drama. Circulation pressures will drive the market and journalists will face increasing pressure to shape their product to information-and-technology rich elites with the possible consequence of a general downgrading of news involving the poorer sections of the population unless they happen to have an impact on the wealthy.

Both the Telegraph and Jones’s employer 2GB will continue to shape their product according to their audiences. Both shaped the outcome of the Cronulla riots with their practices and neither are signatories of the MEAA code of ethics. Nor were the ACMA or Press Council effective in issuing sanctions against their actions. Arguably the most effective regulator is the one with the least powers – ABC’s Media Watch. Its power lies in the fact that ethical breaches are screened on national TV when journalists know their colleagues are watching. It will be needed. Ethical standards are likely to remain contested ground in whatever future holds for the media.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Changing of the guard in Japan

Japan has a new Prime Minister. Shinzo Abe was installed yesterday to replace long-term successful leader Jun’ichiro Koizumi who stepped down after five mostly successful years in the top job. The PM is likely to signal a shift in Japanese foreign policy as they look to step away from the shadow of decades of postwar guilt

Koizumi meanwhile can enjoy his retirement. Jun’ichiro Koizumi was a third generation politician and son and grandson of government ministers. His grandfather Matajiro was known as the "wild man" and "tattoo minister" because of a large tattoo of a red dragon on his back. His unsuccessful bid to privatise the post office was picked up by his grandson Koizumi. Koizumi was born in 1942 near Yokohama. He studied economics at Tokyo’s Keio University, second most prestigious private university in Japan. His father died in 1969 and Koizumi unsuccessfully ran for election in his place. He got a job as secretary to the future PM Takeo Fukuda before getting elected three years later. Fukuda became his mentor in the Liberal Democratic Party – the LDP. The LDP have ruled Japan almost uninterruptedly since its foundation in 1955. For the first twenty years of its existence it was propped up by millions of dollars pumped into it by the CIA in the effort to stop an effective left-wing opposition in the country.

Koizumi gradually climbed up the political ladder. His arranged marriage in 1978 was a major event. The wedding cake was in the shape of the Japanese Diet building the reception drew 2,500 people including now PM Fukuda. Clearly Koizumi was destined for great things. He gained his first vice-ministerial role in 1979 and becoming a full minister nine years later. The only fly in the ointment was his divorce which caused Koizumi to vow never to marry again. Koizumi kept his first two sons and he never saw the third son who was born after the divorce. In 1993, the LDP’s long cosy reign was brought to end due to endemic corruption. This was a major shock to the ‘born to rule’ mentality of the party’s leaders. In opposition, Koizumi set up a new faction of younger, more dynamic members and he unsuccessfully fought to be elected president of the party in 1995 and again in 1999. In the meantime the other parties could not find a stable coalition and the LDP was returned to power a mere two years after their removal. Koizumi finally won the top job in 2001.

He immediately set up a program of reform. He realised his grandfather’s dream and privatised the post office. The Japanese stock market recovered after the country’s banking crisis. Koizumi became more assertive in the foreign policy area too. H emphasised Japan’s claims over the Russian occupied Kuril Islands. He sent troops to Iraq, a token gesture, but a large one given the express anti-militarism of the Japanese constitution. But his most controversial and provocative move was his annual visit to the Yasukuni shrine. The Shinto shrine near Toyko is dedicated to Japan’s war dead. The shrine’s Book of Souls listed the names of over two million men and women who were killed in wartime. The list includes over a thousand convicted of war crimes. While the visits were condemned by South Korea and China, it was politically popular in Japan where they had a 69% approval rating in 2001. Koizumi was known as a maverick leader and he was obsessed by Elvis Presley with whom he shares a birthday (8 January). In 2001 he released a CD collection of his favourite Elvis songs which included his comments on each song. His brother is Senior Advisor of the Tokyo Elvis Fan Club. On his farewell trip to the States in June, the highlight was a visit to the less controversial shrine of Gracelands where he wore Elvis trademark sunglasses and sung a few bars of his songs.

His replacement Shinzo Abe is not quite as idiosyncratic but very similar in upbringing. He was born on the 21st of September 1945, which makes him by a matter of weeks Japan’s first post-war born Prime Minister. He graduated in political science at Seikei University near Tokyo in 1977. After a short stint working in private enterprise he began to work for the Japan’s long-term ruling LDP government. Like Koizumi, he is the third generation scion of a political family. His father Shintaro Abe was a possible candidate for Prime Minister until brought down by one Japan’s numerous financial scandals. After Shintaro died in 1991, his son was the obvious choice to take his seat in the Diet. Shinzo gradually worked his way to the top and became a Cabinet minister in the short-lived government of Yoshiro Mori in 2000. Mori was an unpopular PM with "the heart of a flea and the brain of a shark”. It wasn’t long before he lost his job to Koizumi. But Shinzo held his position under the new leader.

He came to public prominence in the 2002 negotiations with North Korea on Japanese citizens kidnapped by Kim Il-Jong’s regime. This referred to a strange episode between 1977 and 1983 when North Korea abducted up to 80 Japanese citizens. It is likely they were taken to teach the Japanese language and culture at North Korean spy schools. Shinzo struck a hard bargaining position with the Koreans which went down well at home. In October last year he was appointed Chief Cabinet Secretary of the fifth Koizumi administration which left him the heir apparent to succeed his boss. Yesterday the Diet elected him PM with a vote of 339-136 in his favour. At 52 Shinzo is the youngest Japanese leader since before Pearl Harbour.

Shinzo is a political conservative with even more hardline views on Japanese wartime activities than Koizumi. He published an instant bestseller in Japan “Towards a Beautiful Nation” where he repudiated the post war Tokyo Tribunal which charged many Japanese leaders with war crimes. He was also accused of censoring a tribunal on the military “comfort women” who were forced to provide sex for in military brothels during the war. He also opposes laws to allow women ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Despite his hawkish credentials, Shinzo has pledged to repair tattered relations with Asian neighbours. Relationships with China and South Korea have been frosty since Koizumi visited the war memorial. Although Shinzo is also in favour of such visits, his appointment has been cautiously welcomed by China and South Korea. Shinzo also has no ambitions to change the nature of the alliance with the US and told the press that alliance “forms the foundation of our foreign and security policy." However we can expect to see a more militarist stance from Japan as he attempts to change the pacifist constitution which has been in place since the end of World War II.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Science Fiction

Alec Baldwin is the latest Hollywood actor to publicly defend Scientology. On September 18, the New York Post asked him what he thought of about Tom Cruise’s religion. Baldwin responded by saying: I don't really understand Tom's religious beliefs; nor do I want to. All I know is I don't see people who are disciples of Tom's faith driving planes into the World Trade Centre”.

Baldwin is undoubtedly correct. Suicide is not scientology style. But they remain a cause for concern for many in the community who do not understand what Scientology is all about and to those who think they are a “brainwashing” cult. There is an unemployed man in Florida who is fascinated by the Scientologists enough to stalk them and make a movie about them. His name is Shawn Lonsdale and he lives in the Gulf beach community of Clearwater. He told the St Petersburg Times he is making a "pseudo documentary" about Scientology and its effect on downtown Clearwater for a local cable access show. He films open-air for up to 10 hours armed only with a camera and a can of mace “in case things get hairy”. He was assaulted by a Scientologist but sees it as good footage for the documentary. Because he is poor, he has nothing to lose by attacking Scientology. Every day he logs onto anti-Scientology Web sites to chronicle his encounters with church members. On these sites, Lonsdale is a hero. Taped to the side of his car is a cardboard message: "OT I-VIII for free at" This may seem like gobbledegook to a layman but it is blasphemous to a Scientologist.

OT is an Operating Thetan. It’s the black belt in Scientology, a person in a blissful state of enlightenment. OT has eight known levels. Lonsdale was advertising the fact that (a anti-Scientologist website called Operation Clambake) has a breakdown of each OT level and how much it costs to get there. According to the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (OCRT) “The Scientology religion deals with the human spirit and its relationship to the universe and its Creator. It teaches that its fundamental laws of life, when applied, help people achieve a happier and more fulfilling existence as surely as an apple falls to the ground when dropped.”

The religion was founded by the eccentric 20th century US sci-fi writer Lafayette Ron Hubbard. Hubbard was a Nebraskan son of a US Navy man. After dropping out of university in the 1930s he wrote westerns, adventures and sci-fi stories and novellas which were published in pulp magazines. Following in his father’s footsteps, he enlisted in the Navy in World War 2. He was posted to Australia but returned home without seeing any action after being rated “unsatisfactory for any assignment”. He commanded a harbour protection vehicle before losing that job too.

He was transferred to Florida and trained in anti-submarine warfare. He was assigned command of a submarine but his buffoonery followed him into the new job. Near the mouth of the Columbia River he bombarded a seabed magnetic deposit in the mistaken belief it was two Japanese submarines. He then ordered practice shelling of the Coronado Island which he believed were uninhabited American islands. They were neither and the Mexican government complained about the attack on their sovereign territory. Hubbard was relieved of command. He retired in 1945 but drew a substantial Navy pension which allowed him to concentrate on his writing.

In 1950 he published a book called “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health”. Dianetics has a great ring to it and also had a concept of “auditing” a two-person therapy that focussed on painful memories. The book was a hit and sold 150,000 copies within a year of publication. The American Psychological Association were horrified that someone was on their patch and issued a statement to say that Hubbard’s claims were not supported by empirical evidence and recommended against use of Dianetic techniques. This merely added to Hubbard’s notoriety and success. He established the Dianetic Research Foundation in NJ. Two years later he expanded Dianetics into a secular self-help philosophy he called Scientology. He moved to England and set up his world headquarters near London. The word soul was used by too many other religions so he called his version “thetan”. He believed that most illness was psychosomatic and therefore he deemed modern medicine an irrelevance. He recruited members to his church who he charged for courses, auditing-sessions and books.

To escape hot water from the British government suspicious of his activities he fled to Ian Smith’s Rhodesia in 1966. Rhodesia was under UN sanctions due to Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain to oppose black majority rule. Hubbard tried to influence Rhodesian politics by producing a “constitution” while attempting to ingratiate himself with the leading political figures of the country. Smith expelled him and Hubbard fled briefly to Las Palmas. Despite his problems, Scientology was now a thriving and money-making worldwide religion. In order to keep ahead of the authorities he lived the next seven years aboard a sea-going vessel the “Apollo”. He was still persona non grata ashore. The military junta tossed him out of Greece in 1969. In the Madeiras his crew were attacked by locals who thought they were CIA agents. A London High Court judge declared Scientology is "dangerous, immoral, sinister and corrupt" and barred Hubbard from the UK. He finally returned to the USA and settled in Florida. He returned to fiction writing and published Battlefield Earth and Mission Earth. He died in 1986 of a stroke. In keeping with Hubbard's wishes, he was cremated within 24 hours with no autopsy. But there was a coroner's report and it described him in a state of decrepitude: unshaven, with long, thinning whitish-red hair and unkempt fingernails and toenails.

In May 1987, David Miscavige, one of L Ron Hubbard’s former personal assistants, assumed the position of Chairman of the Religious Technology Center (RTC), a corporation that owns the trademarked names and symbols of Dianetics and Scientology. He announced that Scientology's founder had willingly "dropped" his healthy body and moved on to another dimension. To this day, Miscavige is officially described as "the highest ecclesiastical official of the Scientology religion," and he is the effective leader of the religion. Among Scientologists he is simply known as DM or C.O.B. (Chairman of the Board). The Church of Scientology has consistently sought to recruit artists and entertainers, particularly Hollywood celebrities. As well as Cruise (a good friend of Miscavige), the actors John Travolta and Kirstie Alley and singers Beck and Isaac Hayes are all members. Scientology’s wealth means they can now harass its critics and enemies through the courts and they have launched many litigious actions. According to Scientology own web site, the word literally means "the study of truth." They argue that Scientology is the study and handling of the spirit in relationship to itself, others and all of life.

The truth about Scientology is somewhat more prosaic. They are money-making machine. The sci-fi writer Hubbard predicted his own future in the 1940s when he said “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion".

Monday, September 25, 2006

ETA renounces Basque ceasefire

The Basque separatist group ETA issued a statement on Saturday which said they would “keep taking up arms" until the region achieves independence. According to the Basque newspaper Gara, the statement was read out by three armed and masked militants who appeared onstage at a pro-independence rally in the village of Aritxulegi near San Sebastian. The statement concluded with the warning “the fight is not a thing of the past. It is the present and the future." The call came six months to the day after ETA declared a permanent ceasefire.

ETA is classed as a terrorist organisation by both the EU and the US. It stands for “Euskadi Ta Askatasuna” which is Basque for “Basque Homeland and Freedom”. ETA’s symbol is the snake wrapped around axe and connotes both secrecy and strength. This is evident in their motto "Bietan jarrai" which means "keep up on both". The Basques have a long and proud history and a unique language that is entirely unrelated to any other European tongue. But sited in a strategic zone between France and Spain, it was inevitably overrun by many invaders. Basque nationalism found a voice in the 19th century in the growing power of its largest city Bilbo (better known by its Spanish name Bilbao). The new movement’s pioneer was Sabina Arana, the founder of the Basque nationalist party. He died in prison at age 38 but in his short life he galvanised the use of the Basque language through his prolific writing. He published over 600 journal articles, most of them Basque propaganda. He was imprisoned for the charge of treason when he sent a telegram to US President Teddy Roosevelt praising the US for helping Cuba gain independence from Spain.

The Basques gained a form of independence during the era of the Republic. But after Franco won the Spanish Civil War he clamped down on all independence movements. ETA was founded in the 1950s under an atmosphere of brutal repression. Originally called EKIN (Basque “to act”) it changed its name to ETA in 1959. In the sixties they adopted a Marxist-Leninist philosophy but its early activity was minor. The destroyed Spanish symbols and hung the forbidden Basque flag. In 1968 they killed their first Spanish policeman. That death led to a series of tit-for-tat killings between the police and ETA.

But it was in 1973 when they became internationally known when they successfully assassinated Franco’s likely successor Luis Carrero Blanco. Blanco was in a heavily armoured car leaving mass when ETA placed 100kg of explosives in a tunnel they had excavated under the street many months in advance. The blast was so great it catapulted the vehicle over the church and landed it on a second floor balcony on the other side. The violence of the explosion was such that to this day Blanco is referred as “the first Spanish astronaut”. The enraged Franco executed the attackers using the "garrote vil" which exerts a slow paced increasing pressure on the victim until it crushes his neck. The sadistic nature of Franco’s revenge was instrumental in many countries downgrading the relations with Spain and eased the path for a civilian successor when Franco died two years later.

In the post Franco era, ETA split into two groups; one political and the other military. In the 1980s, the political wing accepted an amnesty from the new democratic government in Madrid and decided to work for change within the system. But the military wing kept up their terrorist activity. From 1985 onwards they started to plant deadly car bombs in Madrid and Barcelona. ETA suffered a devastating blow when its three leaders were arrested in France in 1992. Though they kept up an anarchist presence after this, the time was ripe for a negotiated settlement. They offered the cessation of all armed ETA activity if the Spanish government would recognize the Basque people as having sovereignty over their territory. Spain rejected the offer and the violence continued. The 1997 Good Friday Accord in Northern Ireland gave impetus to the peace initiative in the Basque Country. One year later, ETA declared a ceasefire and began dialogue with the government. This lasted until 2000 when ETA resumed their Madrid bombing campaign.

A year later, the September 11 attacks on the US severely impacted ETA. Anti-terror laws were toughened up, there was more international police co-operation and most importantly there was less tolerance in the community for this type of violent solution. In 2002, the US froze assets of twenty one people associated with ETA. While they have had sporadic success since then, they have suffered many arrests in France and Spain. In March this year they declared a permanent ceasefire after 40 years of fighting and over 1,000 deaths. The Basques have won limited political success in that time and have their own parliament based in Gasteiz (Vitoria). Three Basque provinces are represented in the parliament and they have their own police, TV, education and health systems. The Basque Country is believed to be the wealthiest part of Spain. But while their political advances are significant, they would appear not speedy enough for some hardcore ETA elements. Spain will be on tenterhooks to see what are the consequences of Saturday’s declaration. Never put all your Basques in one exit.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The howl of an angel headed hipster

In “The 'Priest' They Called Him” William Burroughs is described "as American as the electric chair”. The man who said that, the author Graham Caveney, is a student of the Beats. And no-one has so perfectly nailed Burroughs in one sentence.

William Burroughs was the grandson of William Seward Burroughs I who founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company. In 1885 the elder Burroughs invented and patented the first workable adding and listing machine in St. Louis, Missouri. His wasn’t the business brain and he was only vice president of the company that bore his name. But the family was wealthy enough when his grandson William Seward Burroughs II was born in that city 29 years later. It was 1914 and Europe was just about to resolve its differences. His father Mortimer Perry had no desire to join the family business and ran an antique shop. The wealth of the father gave young William a good education.

He went to his namesake John Burroughs school in St Louis. There was no relation nor was there an affinity and Burroughs the boy left Burroughs the school without a graduation. He was sent to the private Los Alamos Ranch School for boys in New Mexico. It was in this rustic Scout-like setting, Burroughs discovered his homosexuality. He was expelled for taking chloral hydrate, a sedative drug used for insomnia. Disgraced and back in St Louis he kept his head down long enough to finish high school and enrolled for Harvard. He arrived there in 1932 at the bottom of the depression. There were 25 million unemployed and the US was deep in debt. He seemed to buckle down and got himself an arts degree in four years. 1936 was the cue for the Grand Tour of Europe. In Europe he found sexual freedom he could not find in the US. Nonetheless, he married an Austrian Jew named Ilse Klapper who needed an American visa to flee the Nazis. Ilse was living in London and her visa was about to expire when Burroughs saved her life. They married in Athens and then separated. She lived in New York until the end of the war and divorced Burroughs before settling in Zurich. They always remained friends.

Burroughs returned alone to St Louis. His parents were distraught that he had treated marriage so shabbily. But he didn’t need to work either; his mother and father did not stop his sizeable allowance. Burroughs mooched around following boyfriends until Pearl Harbour stepped in. He was drafted but his mother stepped in to have him declared mentally unsuitable for military service. The punishment was a six month stint in a psychiatric evaluation unit. On the advice of someone he met there, he travelled to Chicago. Men were scarce and jobs were easy to get. He became a “bugman” for AJ Cohen Exterminators, an experience that informed his writing. But eventually the thrill of killing cockroaches died and he followed a lover to New York. He settled in Greenwich Village. Here he was introduced to a shy young Jewish boy from NJ named Allen Ginsberg. Through Ginsberg he met Jack Kerouac and their mutual friendship solidified. Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested when Lucien Carr, another friend of Burroughs, killed his male lover. Carr told Kerouac and Burroughs that he had stabbed him after a row and dumped the body in the Hudson river. Burroughs advised him to find a lawyer. Carr turned himself in after two days and after plea bargaining down to manslaughter he served two years at a reformatory. Burroughs and Kerouac were charged for a failure to report a crime but released.

Burroughs had always written on and off but the murder spurred him into life. Ginsberg and Kerouac helped him on his manuscripts. Burroughs experimented heavily with drugs in this period and he learned how to persuade doctors to write morphine prescriptions. As the war ended, he got involved with another woman. Joan Vollmer was one of the Beats, a smart lady and a match for Burroughs. She knew he was gay but said “he made love like a pimp”. Her downfall was that she too was addicted on benzedrine. Their house was raided and Burroughs was given a four month suspended sentence for forging prescriptions. He returned to his father in St Louis and Joan deteriorated. Burroughs returned to her when he found out how bad her condition was. In 1947 they moved to a ranch in Texas where they could take their drugs unmolested. Joan gave birth to William Burroughs III in that year. The Burroughs were forced to leave Texas after he was arrested and lost his licence having sex with Joan in his car. They moved on from New Orleans too after police there took an interest in his drug habits.

They went to Mexico where their mutual self-destruction took a sudden turn. When drunk in their apartment, they decided to play William Tell. He placed an apple on her head but missed the apple and shot a bullet through her head. Burroughs was released on bail after 13 days and was told the trial for her murder would be a year later. Burroughs did not take his chances with a Mexican court and fled to New York.

Joan’s death was the catalyst for literary greatness. Later he said “"I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan's death”. He quickly wrote his first two novels about his two main predilections. They were called “Junky” and “Queer”. “Junky” was released in 1953 under the named of William Lee. Burroughs travel to Europe and eventually settled in the Moroccan frontier city of Tangiers where he find indulge his taste in drugs and men. With the help of Ginsberg he published the Naked Lunch in 1959. It was banned in Britain (the Lady Chatterley’s Lover court case had yet to decide if it could be allowed read to ones wife and servants). It was published in the US in 1962. Police in Boston arrested a bookseller for obscenity when he tried to sell the book. It took two years for the trial to come to court and the defence called in the heavies. Norman Mailer defended the Naked Lunch speaking of “artistry..more deliberate and profound than I thought before”. In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work "not obscene" based on criteria developed largely to defend the book. The case against Burroughs's novel still stands as the last obscenity trial against a work of literature prosecuted in the United States.

Burroughs was now living in Paris, the home away from home for US intellectuals. In this intense period he produced The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963). By 1967 he was famous enough to merit a spot on the album cover of Sergeant Pepper. He returned to New York where he was the darling of that set mixing with Warhol, Basquiat and his old friend Ginsberg. Ginsberg was now also looking after Burroughs’ son William Junior. Father and son never got on and young Billy Burroughs turned his hostility into autobiographical published works of his own. He was also drug dependent (probably since birth) and he died of liver cancer in 1981. By now Burroughs was becoming a giant of counter-culture. He released voice albums and starred in movies. In Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy”, he played himself in the role of Father Tom a defrocked priest and junkie.

In 1983 he moved to St Lawrence Kansas, where at almost 70 years old, he bought his first and only home. David Cronenberg filmed his unfilmable Naked Lunch and Burroughs returned to NY from time to time to meet old friends. There weren’t many left. They were dying off as a result of their extravagant lifestyles but Burroughs seemed to outlast them all. Allen Ginsberg died in April 1997 and that was enough for Burroughs himself; he finally threw in his Russian roulette chips barely four months later. He was 83 and an opiate addict for the last 40 years of his life. All through his life he kept another addiction; to that of guns.

His reputation is mixed. Some like Mailer say he is one of the greatest and most influential writers of the twentieth century, but others found him over-rated. What is undeniable is that his impact across literature, art, cinema and music is vast. Let’s leave the last words to Burroughs himself in the Naked Lunch:
“No good… no bueno … hustling himself…”
“No glot … C’mon Fliday”

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Turkey wrestles with its conscience

On Thursday Turkish prosecutors dropped charges against novelist Elif Safak (pictured), on the first day of her trial for denigrating the national identity in a case monitored by the EU as a benchmark for Turkey's human rights record. The infamous Article 301 of the Turkish penal code makes it an offence to “insult Turkishness”. The offence carries a three year penalty under Turkish law. Shafak was charged because she wrote a best-selling novel called “The Bastard of Istanbul” in which she described Turkey’s 1915 genocide of its Armenian population. In the book one of her characters is an ethnic Armenian says “Turkish butchers” massacred his ancestors.

The EU will include the case in a report on Turkey's progress toward membership that will be published on 8 November. Brussels has welcomed the ruling but an EU spokeswoman said the law used to prosecute Shafak still posed a significant threat to freedom of expression and those who express non-violent opinion. EU member Cyprus has also insisted Turkey recognises it as pre-condition for membership.

Elif Shafak is not the first Turkish novelist to break the taboo about discussing the Armenian genocide. Orhan Pamuk has also fallen foul of Article 301. His crime was one sentence in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger this month when he said 'Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in Turkey. Almost no one dares speak but me, and the nationalists hate me for that.”

The exact number is disputed, but there were somewhere between one and two million mostly Christian Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire at the start of World War One. The Ottomans were an ancient empire on its last legs. Turkey was the Sick Man of Europe. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 resulted in the liberation of many Christian areas of the Balkans from Turkish rule. The Treaty of Berlin that ended the war promised legal protection to the Christian Armenians. This led many Armenians to believe that they too could wrest self-control from the Ottoman government. Under the rule of Sultan Hamid (1876 to 1909) Turkey brutally suppressed minor Armenian revolts. In 1896 Armenian bank robbers raided the HQ of the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul. In response the Turks massacred tens of thousands of Armenians.

As the First World War approached, the Young Turks seized power in a coup in 1913. Initially they won the support of the Armenians who saw them as a change for the better from the despotic sultanate. Turkey joined the war on the side of the Central Powers but was soundly defeated by the Russians in the 1914-15 battle of Sarikamis. Sarikamis is an Armenian region of the Caucasus. The Turkish leader Enver Pasha blamed the defeat on Armenian rebels attacking Turkish supply routes. He ordered all Armenian recruits in the Ottoman forces to be disarmed, and assigned to labour battalion units. Many were rounded up and executed and the remainder turned into manual slave labourers.

In May 1915, the increasingly hostile government issued new orders which called for the forced evacuation of hundreds of thousands Armenians from Anatolia towards concentration camps in what is now Syria and Iraq. Many were tortured and murdered and many more died on the way to the camps. The government justified the deportations on the grounds of illusory armed rebellions in Van and other cities. During the war the British navy blockaded Turkey, including the Turkish Levant. No food was allowed in by sea. The resulting famine in Lebanon and Syria would not have become as deadly as it did had not the Turks commandeered available food supplies and refused to help the starving.

By 1917 fewer than 200,000 Armenians remained in Turkey. Armenians suffered a demographic disaster that shifted the centre of their demographic from the heartland of historical Armenia to the relatively safer eastern regions held by the Russians. Tens of thousands of refugees fled to the Caucasus with the retreating Russian armies, and the cities of Baku and Tbilisi filled with Armenians from Turkey. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres gave recognition of the Democratic Republic of Armenia but Turkey repudiated the treaty. Armenia and Turkey fought a war which the Turks won. Simultaneously the Red Army invaded Armenia from the north. Turkey and the newly fledged USSR signed the Treaty of Kars and Armenia became a Soviet federation in 1922.

Turkey emerged as the successor state to the Ottoman Empire under the strong secular leadership of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. It absolved the state from blame of the Armenian "problem" and launched a vigorous campaign of denial of genocide that lasts to this day. The political scientist R J Rummel has estimated that the Young Turks probably murdered at least 743,000 and perhaps as many as 3,204,000 people which included some 1,883,000 Armenians, Greeks, Nestorians, and other Christians. Rummel coined the term democide to describe mass murder by governments. Modern Turkey is still struggling to deal with its democide of the early twentieth century. Writers such as Safak and Pamuk are crucial in the difficult process of exorcising these demons. Repealing Article 301 would be an important next step.

Friday, September 22, 2006

I took on the law and the law won

Australian law is a booby-trapped minefield for journalists. Almost every published word has the potential to explode in their faces. In their day-to-day work, journalists must tread carefully through a field of issues related to privacy, contempt, defamation and copyright. This essay will examine three aspects of journalists’ dealings with the law. It will firstly discuss issues relating to the handling of confidential information, secondly the matter of privacy and will finally look at the impact of anti-terrorism legislation.

The Australian Press Council’s first statement of principle states “the freedom of the press to publish is the freedom of the people to be informed”. However, this freedom comes at a price. Journalists sometimes expose issues that others may have a vested interest in suppressing. As a result journalists may use whistleblowers or confidential sources who may be putting their own livelihoods at risk by coming forward. So there is a strong imperative to respect their anonymity. Item 3 of the MEAA code of ethics states “where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances”. This commitment, if accepted, puts the journalist on a possible collision course with the law. Since 1989 three journalists have been jailed for obeying that section of the ethical code in defiance of a court order to reveal their sources. Their crime is a disobedience contempt of court because item 3 of the code allows no escape clause. An Australian 1994 Senate inquiry recommended that the relevant clause in the code be changed to “remove the absolute character of the obligation”. That recommendation has yet to be acted upon. While some judges have exercised discretion not to insist on naming sources, journalists should exercise particular care before agreeing to anything “off the record”.

The laws of privacy are also a hazard for journalists. Item 11 of the code of ethics says respect private grief and personal privacy. However many newsworthy events involve tragedy and disaster and it is often the role of journalists to tell the story of the protagonists of these event. Jennifer Mullaly has defended media intrusions on privacy arguing that they play a unique role in facilitating the free flow of information. But she also acknowledges that the entertainment function of the media can undermine their public interest function. Employer pressures to submit stories in tight deadlines are likely to infringe the edges of journalists’ ethical commitments. In Australia there is no common law privacy right. Enforcement of standards is the province of regulatory bodies such as the Australian Press Council rather than the law. While significant public interest is a legitimate defence, Mullaly recommends media staff education to prevent privacy breaches.

The anti-terror laws are another bane for journalists. In the wake of the September 11 and Bali attacks, Australia has instituted a number of laws designed to combat terrorism. While these laws have broad support in the community, the Kafkaesque logic of some aspects of the law presents difficulties when reporting their consequences. Of most concern is the Anti-Terrorism (No.2) Act 2005 enacted in December 2005. The MEAA described this law as containing “the largest legislative impediments to press freedom ever seen in Australia”. Journalists are prohibited from publishing any details of a preventative detention order. There is no defence of public interest available and the punishment is five years imprisonment. The sedition provisions of the Act may also block close scrutiny of government actions. Section 80.2 (5) of the Act imposes seven year sentences for “urging violence within the community". It remains legally untested whether this provision applies to a journalist who is merely quoting the words of someone who may be urging violence. The draconian nature of the Act will have a serious chilling effect. This particular legal minefield is likely to remain off-limits to journalists until repealed or amended.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Diary of a coup

The newly installed Thai military leader said yesterday a new prime minister will be named within two weeks. Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin said elections would be held only after a new constitution had been written. State TV announced that Thailand's ageing but revered King Bhumibol had endorsed army chief Gen Sonthi as temporary leader, although there has been no direct communication from the King himself.

The bloodless coup d'état took place late on Tuesday evening Thai time but tensions had been building all day. The timing was opportunistic. The troubled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York for a UN General Assembly meeting. Probably aware that something was afoot he called an urgent teleconference with all armed forces' commanders at 8am. No-one showed for the meeting. Gen Sonthi later said the meeting is hastily called. All day, rumours spread around the capital that the army is planning a coup but there is no solid information. Finally, at 6pm the army acted. Armed Forces special units poured into Bangkok and took up key positions through the city. At 8pm, police are issued heavy arms are put on notice to prepare for a riot. An hour later, the Army controlled TV Channel 5 interrupts regular programming and replaces it with patriotic songs. Information is still hard to come by, with no-one confirming or denying that a coup has taken place. More rumours emerge that say the deputy premier and defence minister have both been arrested and Thaksin’s son has fled the country. Just after 10pm the news has filtered through to CNN. Thaksin was quickly on the phone to demote the Army leader and declare a state of emergency. But his intercontinental orders were ignored.

At 11pm local time a group calling itself the Administrative Reform Council (ARC) appeared on local TV to issue a statement. The polite statement said “the armed forces commander and the national police commander have successfully taken over Bangkok and the surrounding area in order to maintain peace and order. There has been no struggle. We ask for the cooperation of the public and ask your pardon for the inconvenience”.

In the next few hours, they issued three more statements clarifying their intent. The second statement outlines the reasons for the coup d'etat, citing national disunity and rampant corruption and the council says it plans to return power quickly to the people. The third said the constitution is nullified as is the caretaker Cabinet and the Constitutional Court. The fourth statement said that the ARC chief has now taken the power of the prime minister. It signalled that the power show was officially over for Thaksin, Thailand’s richest man.

On the Wednesday, Thaksin cancelled his planned speech to the UN and flew instead to London where his daughter is studying. Foreign governments were torn between condemnation of the coup and careful consideration of the new de facto government. Assistant US Secretary of State Christopher Hill said “It's really too early to form any hardened judgments”. Back in Bangkok martial law was imposed and all government, businesses and universities were advised to close for the day. However other than an obvious military presence on the streets, there was little impact. Restaurants and bars stayed open, the streets were busy and tourists continued to spend their money.

The Thai army have a long tradition of stepping in to suspend democracy in the country. Tuesday’s event is the 18th coup (ten of which saw a change of leader) since King Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946. And almost all of the successful ones have occurred with the tacit approval of the King. The 2006 coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin is the first Muslim to lead the mostly Buddhist Thai army. There has been more than 1,000 deaths since 2004 in a mostly underreported war between the army and Muslim rebels in the region bordering Malaysia. On the day of the post, the Bangkok Post reported a rare interview with Thailand's senior Muslim, known as the Chularatchmontri. He said “the government is on the right track to solve southern unrest”. It will be intriguing to see whether the country’s first Muslim leader will share that view. The world will have some time to judge as he announced he would not call elections for another 12 months.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Flag of inconvenience

Al Gore lost the presidency in 2000 by the narrowest possible margin. 5-4 was the margin of the third decision of the US Supreme Court to ban alternative means of counting the vote after issuing a more decisive 7-2 to stop the recount in Florida. George W Bush was declared president of the US by judicial decree. Gore said he didn't agree with the decision but said he would accept. The US legal world breathed a sigh of relief he didn’t take it to the World Court with Inauguration Day looming.

But having now watched “An Inconvenient Truth,” its possible to believe it may have been the best thing to happen to him. For, instead of being a probable lame duck president, he is now able to fulfil his destiny: Al Gore, the Cassandra of climate change. What Cassandra predicted to Troy was true but inconvenient. Gore faces similar problems with his message. Bush in office had no such scruples about showing who he really belonged to. He quickly burst out of his Trojan horse and repudiated Kyoto. The Bush camp's goal was to unleash production not impede it and his energy policy was painstakingly written under the guiding hand of the oil and gas majors.

Gore went home and licked his wounds. He began by dusting off an old powerpoint presentation on climate change issues. He prettied it up and did his research. He used his name and fame as the man who used to be the next president to take this on the lecture circuit. On stage Gore was good. He was relaxed and funny, and importantly, master of his brief. He wooed audience after audience. In 2004 producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender were agog after seeing the Hollywood climate change blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow and then hearing Gore’s presentation in quick succession. They immediate saw the value in making a film version of Gore’s speech. They contacted filmmaker Davis Guggenheim about the idea of turning the presentation into a movie. Guggenheim had justifiable misgivings. How do you make a film about a slide show? But he took on the challenge and turned into a narrative about Al Gore's life. The result was “An Inconvenient Truth”. The movie opened in May 2006 and is already the third-highest grossing documentary ever in the US.

Albert Arnold Gore Jr was born in 1948 in Washington DC to an overachieving family. His father Albert Snr was a tobacco farmer who became a senator for Tennessee. His mother Pauline was the daughter of a Tennessee store manager who rose through a world of men to manage a Washington law firm in the 1970s. Al enrolled in Harvard in 1965. It was here where he first heard of global warming. He attended a course run by Professor Roger Revelle. Revelle was one of the earliest scientists to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He co-authored a paper that suggested the Earth's oceans would absorb excess carbon dioxide generated by humanity at a much slower rate than previously predicted. The results indicated human gas emissions might create a "greenhouse effect" that would cause the planet to warm up over time. He did forward predictions into the 1980s and 1990s which showed pretty much what happened.

Gore actively sought out service in Vietnam and was there in the Nixon years as the war was becoming more unpopular in the US. He quit law school in 1976 to run for the US House of Representatives in Tennessee. He was elected and eventually ran for a Senate seat in 1984. When he was elected to Congress, he initiated the first congressional hearing on the subject of global warming. In 1988 his public profile shot up when he ran as an outsider for the Democratic presidential nomination. He used his Tennesse background to good advantage with a good early showing in the south but was forced to drop out after a heavy defeat in the crucial New York primary. The exposure was valuable and many saw him as a likely candidate for 1992. However one year later, his 6-year old son Albert was seriously injured when hit by a car. Gore, who was with his son at the time of the accident, spent many weeks by his son's bedside. The time away from politics made Gore re-evaluate his priorities. He became convinced that the environment was the biggest problem facing the world. His 1992 book “Earth in the Balance” became a best-seller. That same year Bill Clinton made Gore his surprise choice running mate for the presidential campaign. Al Gore was inaugurated as the 45th Vice President of the United States on January 20, 1993. Its difficult to know what to make of Gore as VP. Much of his work was behind the scenes and he was never part of Clinton's inner trusted circle. Gore claims it was him who strongly pushed for, and got, US approval of the Kyoto Treaty.

In the documentary, Gore comes across as a knowledgable and engaging presenter with a good line in self-deprecating humour. The thought constantly occurred while watching the film: where was this person hiding during the insipid 2000 election campaign? Clearly the spin doctors and media agents and minders that managed that campaign would have been trying to hose down suspicions of his liberal credentials in the Southern heartlands but perhaps they may have been better served in letting him off the leash. Especially as he had already proven himself a winner in the south. In An Inconvenient Truth Gore shows mastery of the data that invites respect and a passion that was rarely hinted at during his time in high office.

Perhaps most illuminating among the data Gore presented was a contrast between the conclusions of peer-reviewed scientific papers and general opinion on the subject of global warming. The sample size of the scientific data was over 900 papers (about 10% of the total papers on the topic). The view was unanimous among the scientists that global warming is a direct result of human-caused CO2 emissions. There was 0% disagreement. He then compared this against the media reports in the same period. The sample size here was around 600 articles. Whereas the scientists were in agreement, some 58% of the articles from the commentariat cast doubt on the existence of human-caused global warming.

How come such a large disconnect between the scientists and the commentariat? I believe the problem is an ethical one. The scientific papers are all rigorously checked by a peer-reviewed panel before the data is allowed into print. No such checking mechanism exists in the popular press and the writers are playing more towards their publication owners than any public interest.

There is clearly much vested interest in fomenting public doubt in an area where the hard data of science is pointing a very accusing finger. The US oil, gas and car manufacturing industries with the support of the Bush administration are doing all in their power to deny, doubt and prevaricate and use the power of the media to spread their mixed message. Chomsky and Herman showed how this is done in "Manufacturing Consent" with the highly-skewed media coverage of the Central American troubles of the 1980s (an analysis of data from New York Times and other influential newspapers showed Sandanista Nicaragua received inverse positive coverage to the pro-American dictatorships of El Salvador & Guatemala).

Australia too is finding climate change truths inconvenient. No-one wants to rock the resources boom by pointing out consequences. Federal Resources Minister Ian MacFarlane dismissed the documentary by saying "Al Gore is just here to sell movie tickets" (interview on ABC radio 11/09/06). The Australian newspaper is regularly sceptical about global warming in its editorials and op-ed pieces.

Global warming is the single-most important issue on the planet and needs to be reported as such. The new generation of journalists should remember the first clause of their own MEAA code of ethics: "Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply." The huge gulf between science and opinion in the reporting of global warming would suggest there is a lot of room for improvement in that score.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Talk the Plank

Today be the fifth annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day. People worldwide are urged to get in touch with their inner buccaneer and speak pirate for the day. The idea originated in 1995 when two friends from Oregon, John Baur ("Ol' Chum Bucket") and Mark Summers ("Cap'n Slappy"), proclaimed 19 September each year as the day when everyone in the world should talk like pirates. The date was selected because it is Cap’n Slappy’s ex-wife’s birthday and therefore easy for him to remember. The idea remained a private joke until 2002 when the duo wrote a letter to American humorist Dave Barry. He liked the idea and popularised it in his syndicated newspaper column. The idea quickly spread internationally.

There are several basic rules that must be observed in order to talk like a pirate. Firstly one must double up on all adjectives in order to achieve the correct level of over-enthusiastic bombast. A few letters of the alphabet are dropped such as the ‘g’ that ends present participles such as in sailin’, rowin’ and fightin’. The letter v is also omitted in words like ne’er and o’er. Pirates always speak in the present tense and say “I be” rather than the more formally correct “I am”. Pirate conversation is, of course, strictly nautical – landlubbers need not apply. But the single most defining feature of pirate talk is the long drawn out ‘arrr’ that acts as a sentence substitute as well as having a multitude of other uses. Even if a would-be pirate has mastered nothing other than ‘arrr’, he (pirates of both sexes are male) is well on the way to the sailor nirvana known as Fiddler’s Green where unlimited supplies of rum, women and tobacco are provided.

Of course, this is pure Hobsbawm – an invented tradition. Pirates never talked or acted like that but Robert Newton did. Newton was an English character actor who died in 1956. His most famous role was Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island (1950). Stevenson’s original novel, a tale of "buccaneers and buried gold," provides much of stereotypical pirate culture. The shanty Dead Mans Chest is from the novel. Silver used the misquoted oath “shiver my timbers” seven times in the novel. Newton was born in Dorset which is not far from the famed Cornish smugglers coast. He provided his native accent to lend “authenticity” to the role of Long John Silver and added blandishments of his own to make the character larger than life. And it was his faux-Cornish delivery in the film which gave ‘arrr’ to the world.

Unlike the relative newcomer ‘arrr,’ piracy itself is as old as sailing. The word pirate comes from the Greek word “peira” (attack) and the earliest recorded pirates were the Anatolian Sea People who terrorised the Mediterranean around 1200 BC. Real pirates still exist in many parts of the world today and piracy is on the increase. In November 2005 the cruise liner Seabourn Spirit was attacked off the Somali coast by pirates in speed boats. The captain managed to change the course of the vessel and sped away without incident. The UN International Maritime Organisation (IMO) were aware of 27 pirate attacks off Somalia alone in the 12 months leading up to the Seabourn Spirit incident. These include the commandeering of two vessels used by the U.N. World Food Programme bound for Somalia. The Straits of Malacca off the coast of Singapore is another piracy hotspot. The Strait is the busiest waterway in the world with 65,000 vessels annually plying its waters. Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have begun to co-ordinate maritime and air patrols to curb piracy. As a result there has only been three sea robberies in the area in the first half of 2006, down from 18 cases for the whole of last year and 38 in 2004.

The threat of international piracy is so strong that the IMO have issued a guideline to ship operators called “Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships". The document has chilling hints for crew members working aboard ships such as point 33 “(they) should avail themselves of shadow and avoid being silhouetted by deck lights as this may make them targets for seizure by approaching attackers” and point 57 “in the event that attackers gain temporary control of the ship, crew members...should leave CCTV running.” Piracy is no joke on the high seas. Shiver their timbers.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Taliban Resurrection

The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan has told UK Channel 4 he expects the military campaign there to last another three to five years. British Lieutenant-General David Richards took command of the 8,000-strong NATO force last month and is talking up NATO’s role in the troubled country. However he refused to speculate on whether British troops would remain in Afghanistan for the duration of the campaign.

Richards’ pessimistic outlook comes almost five years after the US launched what they called “Operation Enduring Freedom” to oust the Taliban government. That operation was a direct result of the 9/11 attacks. A shell-shocked America needed to respond quickly. Afghan based Al-Qaeda was identified as the culprits and American troops were deployed to countries surrounding Afghanistan within days of the attacks. President Bush outlined their objective “the destruction of terrorist training camps and infrastructure within Afghanistan, the capture of al Qaeda leaders, and the cessation of terrorist activities’. Britain also called for the same ends but added “the removal of Mullah Omar and the Taliban Regime”. By late October the US-led Coalition had destroyed virtually all Taliban air defences and raided the residence of Mullah Omar in the Taliban stronghold, Kandahar. The Taliban fled from the capital Kabul in November that year ending their five year rule.

In the 90s, many people were astonished by the rapid success of the Taliban. Taliban is the Persian word for “students”. These students were Afghan refugees and former mujahadeen studying Shari’ah law in the madaris (religious colleges) of Pakistan. They took on and beat the Northern Alliance. Their conquest began in October 1994, when 200 Taliban seized the Afghan border post of Spin Baldak. Less than a month later the Taliban attacked Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan. Within 48 hours, the city was theirs. They maintained momentum and ruled all of Afghanistan from 1996 to 9/11. The Taliban banned all forms of television, imagery, music and sports. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended Afghanistan from the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Men had to wear beards at a specified length while women were obliged to wear the burqa in public. In March 2001, the Taliban attracted the ire of UNESCO when they ordered the demolition of two statues of Buddha carved into cliff sides at Bamiyan one 1800 years old and the other a mere 1500.

However not all of the Taliban’s impact was negative. Afghanistan is the world’s leading supplier of opium and produces more of the stuff than all other countries combined. Almost one third of its GDP is from the opium crop. In 2001 U.N. drug control officers said the Taliban religious militia had almost completely wiped out opium production in since banning poppy cultivation in 2000. That year Afghanistan produced nearly 4,000 tons of opium, about 75 percent of the world's supply. Opium is the milky substance drained from the poppy plant and is then is converted into heroin and sold in Europe and North America. But the fall of the Taliban allowed the old warlords to make enormous profits in the poppy crop. Opium production has now risen to pre-Taliban levels.

But just like Afghan heroin, the Taliban itself is now making a comeback. In May, over 200 people were killed in fierce fighting in southern Afghanistan. It was the worst bout of violence since the defeat of the Taliban and the opening shots in a promised Taliban Summer offensive to deter the promised additional NATO troops from deploying in southern Afghanistan. The additional troops are required because the US is withdrawing 3,000 troops before the November congressional elections. The Hamed Karzai government in Kabul is angry with Washington, and also frustrated at the US attitude toward Pakistan. Senior Nato officials believe that Pakistan’s military regime is turning a blind eye to Taliban recruitment and control taking place in Baluchistan province. Pakistan is insisting it is doing what it can to reign in the Taliban but is concerned that the US and Afghanistan are allowing traditional enemy India to launch insurgencies to destabilise Pakistan. Although this sounds far-fetched, Pakistani President Musharraf will use this excuse to forge alliances with pro-Taliban forces in Afghanistan and some of the lawless areas of his own country such as Baluchistan and Waziristan. With the US distracted by events in Iraq and Iran, and a European Nato unwilling or unable to deploy sufficient forces to address the issues, it is likely that the Taliban will regain de facto control of southern Afghanistan and probably regain Kabul sometime in the next ten years.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Eyes on Titan

Voyager 1 is our farthest missile. Scientists reckon it is now almost ten billion miles away and officially out of the solar system, a resident of stellar space. Way back in 1980 it was our first close-up visitor of Saturn. While there, it examined the remarkable moon of Titan. It found Titan to be the first moon in the solar system with an atmosphere. Scientists now know that Earth and Titan are cousins or possibly even lovers that exist in sweet spots of the solar system. They know that wind, rain, volcanism and tectonic activity all occur on Titan. There are rivers. Titan is the second largest moon in the solar system. It’s bigger than our moon and smaller than the earth. But because Titan is so far away from the sun it’s a icy world. The sun lies about 1.3 billion kms away. That makes it ten times further away from the star than we are. It’s so cold that it is possibly perfect for methane to form rivers which erode the landmass of ice.

So as a laboratory Titan will be cold and slow going. Nothing much quickly occurs at -180 degrees. The temperature is so low that is easier to express in Kelvin: 94K. But despite these bitter conditions, the scientists who looked after Voyager saw that the best thing about the entire mission was the discovery of the atmosphere on Titan. It was obvious therefore that if we were going to the expense of sending another probe in that general direction then Titan was obviously the place to go. The NASA called this probe Cassini. Giovanni Domenico Cassini was an astronomer. He was born in the Republic of Genoa in 1625. He died in the capital of death, Paris, in 1712. Cassini shares the credit with Robert Hooke as Jupiter’s great spot spotters. On Saturn he was the first to see four moons of Saturn and discovered the Cassini Division, rings of Saturn. It is appropriate that the next visitor to these regions be named after him

Aboard American Cassini bound for Saturn would be a smaller European probe bound for Titan. Something had to go through the atmosphere and check it out. The Europeans called their probe Huygens. Christiaan Huygens was a Dutch contemporary of Cassini. Huygens was younger than Cassini but died before him. Huygens was first and foremost a mathematician. His main claim to fame was the invention of the splendid pendulum clock which was a reliable measure for the fourth dimension, time. But he was also an astronomer and it was he who first observed Titan in 1655.

Together Cassini-Huygens were a sailing ship and its boats. Cassini would get us to the coast but Huygens would get us ashore. That was the theory anyway. The idea dates to 1982, when the European Science Foundation and the American National Academy of Sciences got together to investigate future missions together. But not much concrete was done on it in the years to follow. The idea got wings in 1987 when Sally Ride, the first American women in space four years earlier, wrote a report for NASA. NASA commissioned the Ride Report to outline a new forward-thinking strategy for the agency. It proposed four areas of study: 1. Earth and the Space Station 2. Exploration of the Solar System 3. Outpost on the Moon and 4. Humans to Mars. As part of point 2. the idea of Cassini around Saturn was dusted off the plans and advised to go with the Europeans so that Huygens could be landed on Titan.

Cassini-Huygens needed to get to Saturn as quickly as possible. It was decided that the perfect planetary alignments of the late 1990s were ideal for providing the fuel necessary to get there. And so it took off in 1997 appropriately on a Titan rocket, the biggest on Earth. It set off in the direction of nearby Venus. It would get two almighty shakes of its gravity by passing around the planet twice. Then, incredibly the plan called for a return trip home to get the benefit of our sling shot effect. Cassini-Huygens bounced off us in August 1999 and the danger of a very fast Earth-bound missile, capable of scoring a vast own goal, passed. That wasn’t the end of its mathematical manoeuvres however. Saturn is a long way from earth and it was time for a mega-swing off Jupiter by twirling once around the daddy planet. The alignment and the maths worked. The mother ship arrived in the waters of Saturn’s orbit just in time for the start of the financial new year on July 1, 2004 some seven years.

On Christmas Day that year Huygens left Cassini and aimed for Titan and landed softly on a planetary plain three weeks later. The pictures it sent back were startling and seemed eerily familiar to photo shots on Earth. Scientists had speculated that conditions on Titan resemble those of early Earth, though at a much lower temperature. But now Huygens evidence is showing volcanic activity and suggests that temperatures are probably much higher in hotbeds, perhaps even enough for liquid water to exist. Titan's surface is relatively smooth. It has possibly been eroded by liquid methane. But the weight of evidence coming from this mission is that Titan is even more interesting a place than when we didn’t know what was under the atmosphere. It is looking increasingly like the second most interesting place in the solar system. Only the other sweet spot,our own astonishing planet, has more variety.

Earth's love affair with Titan has just begun.