Posts Tagged free speech

How’s this for ‘echo chamber’?

Politico, 2012:

The GOP’s media cocoon – POLITICO.com Print View.

Facebook and Twitter feeds along with email in-boxes have taken the place of the old newspaper front page, except that the consumer is now entirely in charge of what he or she sees each day and can largely shut out dissenting voices. It’s the great irony of the Internet era: People have more access than ever to an array of viewpoints, but also the technological ability to screen out anything that doesn’t reinforce their views.

“The Internet amplifies talk radio and cable news, and provides distribution for other sources like Newsmax,” said Trey Grayson, 40, the former Kentucky secretary of state and the current head of Harvard’s Institute of Politics. “Then your friends, who usually agree with you, disseminate the same stories on Facebook and Twitter. And you assume that everyone agrees with you!”

Grayson continued: “It’s very striking for me living in Cambridge now. My Facebook feed, which is full of mostly conservatives from Kentucky, contains very different links to articles or topics than what I see in Cambridge. It is sort of the reverse up here. They don’t understand how anyone would eat Chick-fil-A, watch college sports or hold pro-life views.”

“Social media has made it easier to self-select,” added 45-year-old GOP strategist Bruce Haynes. “Who do you follow on Twitter, who do you friend on Facebook? Do they all look the same and say the same things? If so, you’ve created a universe for yourself that is wedded to its own self-fulfilling prophecies.”

John Stuart Mill, 1859:

Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment, which is always allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable. Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer: for in proportion to a man’s want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of “the world” in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and largeminded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age.

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Ivory tower watch: we don’t need free speech protections when we have vague ideas instead

We’re doing well this week – the last ITW even had a response from the actual academic in question. Since I’m on a high, I figure I’ll let it ride – especially as I have just had the rather painful experience of trawling through ‘What to do about hate speech:
 an “institutionalised argumentation” model’ by Kath Gelber.

Gelber doesn’t believe that free speech protections are needed in racial vilification legislation, mostly because she has a magic formula to find out if a statement should be unlawful. First-off, I’ll highlight this passage if only because it re-affirms my general issue with social scientists trying to talk about law. The law faculty can’t be that far away, you would think that she could walk on over and ask about some of these issues before presenting a paper on them.

[I]t has been claimed that the public interest exception was necessary because Australia lacked specific constitutional protections of freedom of expression, although no evidence is provided to support a direct link between the lack of a constitutional free speech protection in Australia and the inclusion of the public interest exception in the legislation. Except for very general comments in parliamentary debate, very little concrete evidence exists that the specific terms or breadth of the exemptions were discussed in detail before the racial anti-vilification legislation was enacted in NSW. [references omitted, my bold]

How is this for evidence of a direct link: if there were a constitutional free speech protection, having the public interest exception built into the racial vilification provisions would be completely redundant as it would just be replicating protections that already exist. The US does not need to include free speech protections in any of its legislation because they are already covered by the first amendment.

But the paper is really about hate speech – Gelber thinks a theory by Jurgen Habermas is all that we need in determining whether a statement should be proscribed hate speech. The statement she chooses as the sole test example?

The incident concerns a woman who was the target of the following comments from occupants of another vehicle at a service station: “You black slut”, “You’re nothing but a coon”, “I’ve shot worse coons than you”.

Using Habermas’ theory, Gelber spends 7.5 pages determining that this statement is, in fact, discriminatory. I hope that comes as a shock to you, because I was certainly blown-away by the revelation.

To summarise her application of the theory:

  1. On one level, it is objectively determinable, and probably untrue, that the woman was, in fact, a ‘slut’ or ‘nothing but a coon’ (short for ‘racoon’) and whether speaker had actually shot any ‘coons’ before.
  2. The statement reinforced the idea that the black woman was inferior because she was black and a woman.
  3. We can’t really know why the person made the statement, but they are probably a racist.

I’m glad we sorted that one out. To me, that statement is pretty clear-cut racial vilification. In fact, it would probably be harassment even if there were no racial undertones. Maybe Gelber could have chosen something a little more ambiguous to test her theory on?

How, for instance, would this test apply to very black Aboriginal activist Bess Price saying to a very European-looking Aboriginal man, “Look, I didn’t know you were a blackfella as well because I’m sitting here and you look totally like a whitefella to me”? Or for Chris Graham, the Founder of the National Indigenous Times and another pale-skinned Aboriginal, calling Price a ‘grub’ in response?

A little more difficult, no? Let’s apply the formula to the first:

  1. Price probably did assume that the man was not Aboriginal.
  2. She was affirming a norm that does exist where appearing black is linked with Aboriginality. Society has a lot of difficulty in determining if this is valid, but it is hard to tell someone who looks like Price that it is not. This criterion is a little vague.
  3. Both Price and the man knew exactly what Price wanted to say.

And the second:

  1. Price is not, in fact, a ‘grub’.
  2. Well, Graham is technically Aboriginal, however there does seem to be something racist in a white-skinned man calling a black-skinned woman a ‘grub’.
  3. His intent was pretty clear: he found it offensive that his Aboriginal appearance was being called into question by Price.

Should this be proscribed conduct? Not so sure now, are we?

But the worst part really is the ‘policy’ that Gelber puts forward at the end:

Might there be mechanisms other than apologies, retraction, fines and workplace-based educational programs that might respond more effectively to hate speech?

One alternative is to provide a hate speech policy which allows for the generation of speech which aims to counter the claims of the hate speakers. This means providing an assisted response to those who would seek to contradict and counter the effects of hate-speech-acts. This means that victims and victim groups would be empowered to respond to, and to seek to contradict, the impact of and the discrimination embodied in, the utterance.

She then spends a while explaining the benefits of this idea. The problem is, this is not really a ‘policy’ – it is a goal.

Apologies, retraction, fines and workplace-based educational programs are policies – they are things that can be implemented in the event that the Act is breached. Allowing the oppressed person to counter the claims of the speaker is not a policy. A policy could be, say, forcing the abuser to sit down with the abused and have at it – although I would question the effectiveness of this.

What I do know is that these vague alternatives have not convinced me that we can get rid of free speech protections in our racial vilification laws.

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Threat to press freedom: it’s not Rinehart, it’s the Greens and the ALP

Part II of my comments on the Gina Rinehart saga, this time focussing on press freedom. The first one, focusing on her as a female business leader, can be found HERE.

GINA RINEHART has bought 20% of the shares of Fairfax and is demanding three seats on the board. Listening to the way some people are talking about this, you could not be blamed for thinking that press freedom is over in Australia. To refute that claim, I would first like to juxtapose the following. First, a quote from our esteemed Foreign Minister Bob Carr and one of his colleagues in the Senate:

Greens seek laws to block Gina Rinehart | The Australian.

“We’re not being coy or raising this in the abstract — it’s about whether it’s in the public interest for a change of control to occur at Fairfax,” [Greens] Senator [Scott] Ludlam said. … “People seem to be frozen in the headlights,” he said. “I think it’s important we take action rather than wring our hands and let the market take it where it will.”

His comments came as Foreign Minister Bob Carr entered the media ownership debate, warning that a Rinehart takeover of Fairfax would “degrade” the quality of the publisher’s mastheads.

“I think Australians would be entitled to be very, very concerned. I think it would be impossible to separate her position as a controlling influence on the board, if it comes to that, a controlling influence, from the way the paper behaves,” he said. “The independence of Fairfax, which has been its glory, its boast, its pride, would be diminished.”

Second, something that a Pakistani journalist wrote a year ago (read the full story, it’s very good):

Pakistani Journalists, Dying to Tell the Story – NYTimes.com.

WE have buried another journalist. Syed Saleem Shahzad, an investigative reporter for Asia Times Online, has paid the ultimate price for telling truths that the authorities didn’t want people to hear. He disappeared a few days after writing an article alleging that Al Qaeda elements had penetrated Pakistan’s navy and that a military crackdown on them had precipitated the May 22 terrorist attack on a Karachi naval base. His death has left Pakistani journalists shaken and filled with despair.

And third, a news report from earlier in the week:

NGO fears for missing Iraqi-Kurd… JPost – Iranian Threat – News.

An Iranian journalist who advocates ties between Israelis and Kurds has been missing for 11 days, NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Wednesday, expressing concern for his safety.

“We fear the worst and we urge the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government’s authorities to do everything possible to find Mawlud Afand,” the group said. “And we therefore call for an immediate investigation into this journalist’s disappearance.”

NOW I would like to take a second to ruminate on the freedom of the press. The freedom to express any view is possibly the most  important aspect of any democracy. Without the ability to make an informed choice based on accurate information, “democracy” is meaningless – you can vote, but you have no idea who or what you are voting for. The press play a vital role in scrutinising the government and reporting on its activities to the general population, as well as conveying the discussion and debate surrounding ideas in public life.

There are, however, some justifiable limits to free expression. For example, it is illegal to say or do something that encourages another person to commit a criminal act. Preserving the “glory” of a media company that is about to go insolvent, however, is not a justifiable reason to begin limiting the freedom of expression.

Fairfax is going out of business. That is extremely important and seems to have been entirely ignored by the ALP and the Greens. At the current rate, there will be no more fairfax in a decade. When people express concern at Rinehart’s control of Fairfax, they really only care about the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. The lamentations for our society’s debate are coming from a particular kind of inner-city elite that doesn’t generally listen to Fairfax radio (or anything that’s not the ABC) and certainly does not read any of its rural papers.

The Age and the Herald are not making any money. They have lost their revenue from classified ads and have suddenly discovered that no one actually wants to pay for their articles. They are now going to tabloid format and anticipating being phased-out completely, as well as firing all their senior editorial staff and cutting 1,900 other staff members – and that’s without Rinehart. Why is that? I think the Australian said it best:

Fairfax papers must speak to mainstream Australia | The Australian.

The myopia that predominates at Fairfax has seen its broadsheets cater, almost exclusively, to a conclave of left-leaning professionals, public servants and activists situated in inner-city Sydney and Melbourne. Rarely do they report on the shift of economic power to the north and the west of the country. They do not understand the mining boom and ridicule the idea of workers from the states in which they publish chasing the opportunity to work in the most dynamic area of the economy. Their reporting of Aboriginal Australia is confined to Redfern or St Kilda rather than exploring the important stories that can be found across the continent. Too often they focus on inner-city anti-development protests rather than life in the sprawling suburbs where most people live. A cafe opening in Western Sydney that serves “good coffee” is considered a novelty. They editorialise in favour of the latest fads and praise the Greens, who, the Herald argued, had inherited the “mantle of leadership in progressive politics”. Both papers usually champion negativity, embrace a culture of complaint, oppose economic progress and push the limits of social reform. They have missed most of the major political stories in recent years, such as the discontent over the resource super-profits tax or the lead-up to the coup that felled Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership.

Simply put, Fairfax in its current form is not a viable business and it has to radically transform or perish.

RINEHART, HOWEVER, has spent somewhere in the region of $200mln on Fairfax shares. That, to Fairfax, was a sorely needed cash injection. Fairfax shares have dropped from over $5 in 2007 to around $0.60 today, who knows where they would be without Rinehart? She bought the company valuable time and could potentially have kept it afloat.

Think about that. Fairfax’s metropolitan papers’ current editorial policy is beloved by the kinds of people currently in power (left-leaning, highly educated, wealthy, inner-city elites) but not popular enough amongst Australians in general for them to actually buy any papers. Rinehart is investing heavily in this company and would therefore benefit from the company becoming profitable and would have a duty to prevent the company from going insolvent. She is being asked to commit to having no say over the editorial policy whatsoever. That seems absurd.

It is natural that a person who holds 20% of a company should have some representation on the board – after all, the company’s success is her interest. Fairfax’s main product is determined by its editorial policy, so the board should have a say in what that is and how it is produced. No company directors could sit by and watch their company continue to produce a highly unprofitable product – this is actually a breach of their duty as company directors. They have a right, and indeed a duty, to prevent this.

WHICH LEADS me to another point: Rinehart has a multi-billion dollar mining company to run, she’s not exactly going to be spending her days in the Herald newsroom commissioning articles and reprimanding disobedient journalists. I also very much doubt that she will be going through each edition before it goes to print and vetting every article. The actual degree of editorial control she can/will exercise is highly questionable, especially as certain columnists, editors and correspondents are strongly entrenched in Fairfax and are key selling-points. I very much doubt that the Fairfax opinion writers can effectively be “silenced” by Rinehart – more likely, they would jump ship.

Therein lies the most important point, which is also worth putting in bold: no one is being forced to buy Fairfax papers. Who cares if they become glorified mouthpieces for Hancock Prospecting? The audience will move on. From where I sit, there is no shortage of aspiring journalists or new media outlets. The media is probably less monopolised now than it has ever been before.

If the Age and the Herald go the way that the ALP/Greens are predicting, their current writers and editors will find work elsewhere and their audience will follow. The Fairfax papers would never be able to compete with the News Ltd papers in the right-wing tabloid market, so they would become completely unviable and would probably be shut down.

THE REAL threat to freedom of the press comes not from Gina Rinehart. As a result of the Rinehart bid, both the Greens and the ALP are advocating some kind of “fit and proper person” test to be implemented for someone to control a media company. Essentially, they are making it illegal for Rinehart to control Fairfax because they don’t like her views.

That is blatant government censorship. Who the hell gave Stephen Conroy the right to choose who can and cannot own press outlets? The people who can decide whether or not Gina Rinehart’s views are worth listening to are those who opt to buy her papers, not our elected representatives. It’s not exactly like having some influence over Fairfax would be tantamount to a media monopoly, there are still plenty of outlets out there to vilify Rinehart (the ABC is going nowhere, so we can hear about how fat, ugly and greedy she is for the next decade).

This is complete government overreach. This is an open assault on our democracy. This is putting into place a system whereby the government can prevent anyone who disagrees with them from having a podium to express their discontent. The problem in Pakistan and Iraq is not that the “wrong” people own the media, it’s that the government is intervening to prevent people from expressing anti-government views. Sure, this legislation is not the same as journalists disappearing and turning-up dead, but it is symptomatic of the same kind of thinking: that “we are unpopular, but we are right and we are in power, so we can stop them from talking because they’re wrong”.

That is extremely dangerous. Australians need to wake up and see where the real threat is.

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If only the rest of the Arab world had Tunisia’s problems

There is a genuine confrontation going on between pro-Government protesters and the State media.

That means the State media is actually not controlled by the Government and has been reporting on flaws in Government policy. Even Al-Jazeera, which everyone keeps heralding as a “democratic force” is suspiciously silent on the leaders of the Gulf states(/often just putting out Qatari propaganda when it reports on the Middle East).

These protests in Tunisia are a sign that the country may actually pull through and establish democracy. Long may they continue.

THE DAILY STAR :: News :: Middle East :: Tunisian TV journalists in shouting match with protesters.

TUNIS: Journalists of Tunisia’s state television Wataniya had a shouting match Monday with protesters who have staged nearly two months of sit-ins outside its offices accusing it of backing the ousted Ben Ali dictatorship.

Shouting “Media of Shame!” the protesters brandished brooms and bottles of chlorine and demanded the “cleansing” of the national broadcaster, while Wataniya employees massed on the other side of the perimeter fence vented anger over the disturbance. …

Relations are strained between state media and Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party that won elections in October and now leads the governing coalition.

Wataniya is regularly accused of denigrating the work of the government and even of plotting to overthrow it. On the other hand, many in the media suspect Ennahda of wanting to keep them in check.

 

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On the Finkelstein report: HAS ANYONE ELSE ACTUALLY READ THIS THING???

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the Inquiry into the news media by Justice Raymond Finkelstein that is making waves in Australia. In the time that I have been reading it, everyone in the media has come out against it. And I mean everyone — from Andrew Bolt to the Green Left Weekly.

Many of these criticisms (including both Bolt and the GLW) stem from the claim that Finkelstein advocates imposing regulation on any blog with more than 15,000 hits per year. For some perspective, this blog received about 19,000 unique views in the last year (most of which would represent multiple “hits”) and that includes a good four-month period in which I was barely posting.

Other people to raise this as an issue include Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella, Institute for Public Affairs researcher Chris Berg, Sydney Institute head Gerard Henderson, influential political blogger Andrew Landeryou of VexNews and ABC’s Media Watch. Some even quoted the actual line in context, which I find absolutely baffling. Take a look here, pay attention to the sentence that comes after the one with the number “15,000” — which I have conveniently bolded for you:

If a publisher distributes more than 3000 copies of print per issue or a news internet site has a minimum of 15 000 hits per annum it should be subject to the jurisdiction of the News Media Council, but not otherwise. These numbers are arbitrary, but a line must be drawn somewhere.

I feel like I may need to draw your attention a little more, given how many people seem to have missed this, so here goes:

“THESE NUMBERS ARE ARBITRARY”

That means he is not recommending the number of 15,000 hits per day. 15,000 was just a random number that he made up.

There is no possible explanation for this except that one person skimming the report noticed the number and then everyone else in the media saw that somewhere and decided to make a huge deal about it without actually bothering to read the report. Ironically, this is exactly the kind of low journalistic standards that Finkelstein identifies as a problem in a report that  has been — unsurprisingly — blown completely out of proportion. I guess the press don’t have the attention-span to read through 334 pages anymore.

What is particularly ironic is that Media Watch also made the same error — aren’t they supposed to be the ones picking things like this up?

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Roxon right on Sharia

I have to confess to being a little underwhelmed when I heard that Nicola Roxon had been appointed Attorney-General instead of Robert McClelland – a solid if unremarkable A-G. This, of course, is the same Nicola Roxon who, as then health minister, once referred to herself as “Nanny Nicola”. From what I could tell, she was definitely cast from my least favourite political mould – the “I know what’s best for you and I’m going to make sure you do that whether you want to or not” kind of politician. I am a big boy now, thanks, and I very much resent this attitude.

That said, it seems I may have underestimated Ms Roxon to a degree. I was very happy to read this headline over the weekend:

Roxon baulks at role for sharia by Australian Muslims | The Australian.

“There is no place for sharia law in Australian society and the government strongly rejects any proposal for its introduction, including in relation to wills and succession,” Ms Roxon said.

“The Australian government is committed to protecting the right of all people to practise their religion without intimidation or harassment, but always within the framework of Australian law.”

Note: I will forgive Roxon this, but “sharia” means “Islamic law” – calling it “sharia law” is a tautology.

Roxon was speaking in the context of a woman who wanted to obey the “sharia” with regards to inheritance for her children, which means that her sons inherit double the share inherited by their sister. It is very important to be aware of these kinds of rules within sharia, because many people from Roxon’s side of politics will defend the right of Muslims to their own sharia courts on the basis of moral relativity in various guises, such as “ethnic diversity” or “cultural sensitivity”.

The inheritance law is not the only aspect of family sharia that is inimical to Australia’s (and the West’s) values. For instance, as anyone who has seen Academy Award-winning Iranian film A Separation will know, sharia also mandates that in a divorce, the husband has the right to decide: a) if his wife is even permitted to divorce him and b) who keeps the children. Note that this is not dissimilar form the Orthodox Jewish concept of a “Get” – one that I strongly oppose and one that most Orthodox communities try desperately to find loopholes around (such as effectively excommunicating husbands who refuse to divorce their wives).

I will pause at this point to note that, Read the rest of this entry »

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And the Greens call themselves “progressives”…

There has been a lot of what looks like sensationalism/paranoia surrounding the Finkelstein report on the media in Australia, so I have decided to read it myself. I will write on this when I have seen more, but I did want to highlight something early on.

Firstly, Bob Brown’s call for a media inquiry (my bold):

…but the leader of the Greens, Senator Brown, called for a general inquiry into the newspaper industry. He suggested that the inquiry should canvass whether:

· publishers should be licensed
· a ‘fit and proper person’ test should be applied
· there should be limits on foreign ownership of the press
· the newspaper industry is too concentrated
· there is a need for independent regulation of the press

A few pages later, Finkelstein summarises how the idea of a free press came to the British Common Law (and therefore Australian Law) (my bold):

The newly-invented printing press came to England in 1476. It brought about a sweeping change in communication possibilities. There was now a means, which could be employed by many, of carrying speech far and wide. It did not take long for the state to exercise strict control ‘over the printing, publication and importation of books’ in the interests of the state’s ‘peace and security. As early as 1484, monopolies were granted to publishers to print particular books. Then, in 1534, it became an offence to purchase a book published abroad. This was followed by proclamations against seditious and heretical books

2.9 In 1586 the Star Chamber issued a decree prohibiting all printing other than by licensed stationers. …

2.10  …The 1662 Printing Act was the last attempt to regulate printing by statute. The Act established a licensing system. The licensor was required to certify that his work was not ‘contrary to the Christian faith … or against the state or government’.

2.11 By the early 1690s advances in technology had significantly reduced the cost of printing and it was no longer practicable for the state to keep printing under control.

2.12 The 1662 Act was allowed to lapse in 1694.

As a small point, Australia still bans the importation of foreign books to a large extent (or at least, this was reintroduced somewhere down the line).

More importantly, Bob Brown is trying to bring back the idea of licensing press outlets in order to quell criticism of the Government – an idea that our legal tradition got rid of more than 300 years ago. This is supposed to be progressive? I can’t think of many things more regressive.

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This is seriously starting to threaten Israeli democracy

Uzi Landau, Yisrael Beitenu MK and Israeli minister for infrastructure (who recently visited Australia, incidentally) spoke yesterday on the new reforms to the Israeli High Court that his party are trying to push through.

I find what he said terrifying.
Judicial selection reform postpon… JPost – Diplomacy & Politics.

I think that over the past 20 years, the behavior of the Supreme Court, and the legal system in general, has become a mistake of the democratic system.

We need to change this matter on a basic level.

I think that if the Supreme Court justices knew how to act in an orderly matter, without imposing themselves into issues that don’t concern them, without interfering with the actions of the Knesset, or the actions of the government, and if they were less politically motivated in their decisions, then the current selection process would remain.

But, the problem is bad, and we must deal with it.

Just to explain the context behind the bill he is talking about, this is not the only change that they are making. The coalition is introducing dramatic reforms to the judicial selection process to give them more control over who is appointed and to get their friends in.

Peres: Israeli right-wing bills are ‘digression from democracy’ – Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News.

The Knesset approved on Monday evening a bill proposing to abolish the rule that a justice cannot be appointed Supreme Court president unless he is at least three years short of the mandatory retirement age of 70. The bill would pave Justice Asher Grunis’ way to becoming Supreme Court president. Fifty-two MKs voted in favor, 35 voted against the bill.

Grunis is seen as a conservative judge who mostly refrains from intervening in decisions made by the executive and legislative branches, and is thus popular with right-wing politicians. But when Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch retires at the end of February 2012, Grunis will be five weeks short of three years from retirement.

Another bill, dubbed ‘the Sohlberg bill,’ and sponsored by MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu) was also approved. The bill would change the way the Israel Bar Association’s two representatives on the Judicial Appointments Committee are selected. Currently, the bar’s national council picks both; the bill would require one to be the bar chairman and the other a member of the bar’s internal opposition.

The bill paves the way for Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg to sitting on Israel’s highest tribunal of justice. Sohlberg, who lives in the settlement of Alon Shvut, has in the past been criticized for rulings thought to infringe freedom of the press.

This is following the bill a few months ago that was passed for the purposes of prosecuting the political enemies of Avigdor Lieberman and his Beitenu party. I have to lay this out in stark terms. Under the impetus of Beitenu, the Israeli Knesset is doing the following:

  • If they have a political enemy who says things that they don’t like but is technically doing nothing illegal, they pass a law that makes that person’s conduct illegal and then prosecute.
  • If they are supporting things that are in fact illegal, but are blocked by the courts, they pass new laws so that their cronies can be appointed into judicial positions to approve their activities.
This is exactly the kind of pattern that sees a democracy slowly slide into dictatorship. The two most fundamental elements of a democracy are the freedom of speech and an independent judiciary that can hold the government to account. Elections are not up there, the most important thing is that people can debate and scrutinise the government and the government is subject to the law, not the other way around. If judicial independence and free speech are taken away, Israel will cease to be a democracy.
I am actually terrified by this.
__________________________________
**Update**
I do want to qualify this. The other bill being passed regarding restrictions to foreign funding of NGO’s is a good idea.

Israeli NGOs brace for restrictions on foreign funding – Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had already announced support for one of the bills, sponsored by two members of his Likud party – MKs Tzipi Hotovely and Ofir Akunis – which would cap foreign governments’ contributions to “political” non-governmental organizations at NIS 20,000.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, meanwhile, is throwing its weight behind the second initiative brought forth by party MK Fania Kirshenbaum, which would slap a 45 percent tax on foreign governments’ donations to NGOs ineligible for state funding.

Damn straight. I find it hugely problematic that millions of dollars of foreign government money flows tax-free into Israel every year, particularly as a lot of it goes to organisations which work to undermine Israel as a state. When foreign governments are involved, it is not an issue of free speech, it’s an issue of foreign policy. European countries funding anti-Israel activists within Israel is essentially a form of diplomatic warfare and it is perfectly legitimate for Israel to deal with it as such.

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Saudi beheadings, Pakistani journalists and trouble in (Paradise) Palestine

So there hasn’t been a post here since last Friday. I could point out that this has actually been an extremely quiet week so far as the Middle East is concerned, however it’s not like nothing has happened and to be honest, I’ve just been quite lax in posting anything (unless you follow my Twitter feed, which is available to the right of the screen –>).

So, I have decided to do a round-up of some of the interesting articles/developments that I’ve seen over the past few days.

Firstly, there was this news item on beheadings in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia – Group Condemns Increase in Beheadings – NYTimes.com

Amnesty International on Friday condemned what it said was a sharp rise in beheadings in Saudi Arabia and urged the authorities there to halt executions.

I believe that Saudi officials later announced that the sharp rise would be followed by a sudden drop…and then possibly a loud “thud”.*

Meanwhile, there was this very disturbing account, by Umar Cheema in the New York Times on Pakistan’s suppression of journalists. He describes the murder of a friend of his, then recounts his own experience of being abducted and tortured by the authorities for merely writing truths that they did not want to hear. He, however, was fortunate enough to survive the ordeal.

Pakistani Journalists, Dying to Tell the Story – NYTimes.com.

WE have buried another journalist. Syed Saleem Shahzad, an investigative reporter for Asia Times Online, has paid the ultimate price for telling truths that the authorities didn’t want people to hear. He disappeared a few days after writing an article alleging that Al Qaeda elements had penetrated Pakistan’s navy and that a military crackdown on them had precipitated the May 22 terrorist attack on a Karachi naval base. His death has left Pakistani journalists shaken and filled with despair.

…When my attackers came, impersonating policemen arresting me on a fabricated charge of murder, I felt helpless. My mouth muzzled and hands cuffed, I couldn’t inform anybody of my whereabouts, not even the friends I’d dropped off just 15 minutes before. My cellphone was taken away and switched off. Despite the many threats I’d received, I never expected this to happen to me.

We all know that these kinds of things go on in too many countries, but reading the stories still shocks me every time. Although, as someone pointed out to me recently, when you really have to be worried is when you are no longer shocked.

There was also this little story by Bangladeshi journalist Mohshin Habib on the absurd fact that his country does not permit its citizens to travel to Israel.

What if I want to visit Israel? :: Weekly Blitz

It is my dream, since long time to visit the State of Israel. But is there any way to fulfill my dream? It has different reasons for me to get high concentration to visit this extra ordinary country. One of the reasons is, mankind always look to break the barrier as said ‘Adam’ was provoked by ‘Eve’ to have that very fruit which was forbidden by the Lord or the God or the Allah, whoever it is. Sadly enough, being a Bangladeshi, I am banned to visit this beautiful, historic land of ancient history. According to Bangladesh passport, no citizen is allowed to visit Israel. It is written prominently in each of the Bangladeshi passports, ‘ALL COUNTRIES OF THE WORLD EXCEPT ISRAEL’!

Finally, I thought that I would cover the Palestinian unity agreement a little. I had previously written about how Fatah’s capitulation to Hamas in preventing Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad from staying in the new unity government would pretty much destroy all of the recent progress that has been made in the West Bank. That’s why I was very happy to see that this may not, in fact, be the case:

Fayyad nominated by Fatah to head Palestinian unity government – Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

The Fatah movement nominated Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to head a transitional Palestinian government Saturday as part of a unity deal with their rivals in the Islamic militant group Hamas.

The nomination of the economist could ease Western concerns over the reconciliation deal, which offers Hamas an equal say in the administration that will govern until elections next year.

However, Hamas then came out strongly against the idea.

Bardawil: Hamas will not accept Fayyad as premier or minister

We do not comment on such media leaks, but it is a sure thing that we will not accept Fayyad as premier or minister. Four years of siege, arrest and torture of Hamas cadres, were linked to Fayyad, who is also responsible for the debts that accumulated on the Palestinian people.

Would the fragile unity deal split over Fayyad? To be honest, I’m quite hopeful that this will happen. Not because I think a united Palestine is a bad thing (I don’t), but because I do not want to see anything containing Hamas be given any power ever.

*I’m sorry if I offended any victims of beheading, this is a serious issue really. 

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Where the real battle for sexual equality is and why it matters

Women could be the saviours of the Arab World

The Australian media this week has been intently focussed on how many women we have on corporate boards, why there aren’t enough and how to solve this. There was even an odd slip-up from shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, who in a complete break from the Liberal Party’s usual position, promoted the idea of gender quotas for corporate boards on ABC’s Q and A (this was subsequently rejected by Tony Abbot).

For the record, I am completely against the idea of quotas – I believe that it is dangerous and counter-productive. People promoted in order to fill a quota know that this is why they were chosen for the position and so do their colleagues. Not only is it extremely patronising to be told “we’d like to bump you up to management because we’re trying to put more [minority] there”, but the person will likely struggle with a position that they are not qualified for and they will be resented by their colleagues who had to work harder to get to the same place.

So now that I’ve finished that little rant, here’s a more interesting point. I was sent this article ages ago, but only just got round to reading it – it’s an interview with veteran Middle East analyst Bernard Lewis by David Horovitz for the Jerusalem Post. Lewis reaffirms a lot of what I’ve been saying about democracy in the Middle East, particularly the Western fixation on elections, but he adds some great insights. One thing worth reading the article for is his idea of consultative rather than electoral democracy as a model that would work in the Middle East.

The other thing that stuck out was what he said about women:

A mass expression of outrage against injustice.

There’s one other group of people that I think one should bear in mind when considering the future of the Middle East, and that is women. The case has been made, and I think there is some force in it, that the main reason for the relative backwardness of the Islamic world compared to the West is the treatment of women. As far as I know, it was first made by a Turkish writer called Namik Kemal in about 1880. At that time an agonizing debate had been going on for more than a century: What went wrong? Why did we fall behind the West?

He said, “The answer is very clear. We fell behind the West because of the way we treat our women. By the way we treat our women we deprive ourselves of the talents and services of half the population. And we submit the early education of the other half to ignorant and downtrodden mothers.

It goes further than that. A child who grows up in a traditional Muslim household is accustomed to authoritarian, autocratic rule from the start. I think the position of women is of crucial importance.

I’ve heard this argument before and it makes a lot of sense. The Middle East is being run by men who were raised by uneducated and subjugated women, in households where their fathers were unquestionably in charge. It does not require a huge amount of imagination to see how this would result in an autocratic culture.

The exclusion of women in the work force also leads to the extremely high fertility rate that is really the cause of all this Arab unrest – there are constantly more and more youth reaching working age and less and less jobs to acommodate them; this led to the anger that we saw exploding so vividly.

Arab economies lag rest of world, despite oil and natural gas.

Growth rates are consistently too slow to keep pace with the population, and little space remains for private entrepreneurship. In its 2009 Arab Human Development Report, the United Nations found that, as of 2007, the Arab states as a whole were less industrialised than they were in 1970, with governments using revenue from oil, gas and other outside receipts to maintain the large public workforce and cheap goods.

It feels really ironic that there has been such an outcry in a country with a female prime minister and a number of women in very high-profile positions. Obviously Australia has a lot to work on, but really we’re lightyears ahead of some parts of the world. Consider the problems we’ve been debating in our newspapers with the debate in Saudi Arabia. For example, Samar Fatani for the Arab News:

Empowering women the biggest challenge – Arab News.

Economists stress that the high cost of living and inflation make it difficult for single-income families to provide the basic needs of the average family living in Saudi Arabia today. The participation of women in the work force is no longer a luxury; it has become an economic necessity. Therefore, it is crucial now to mobilize a more effective national program to tap women’s talent, enhance their skills and provide them with career opportunities so they may contribute equally in our nation’s social and economic development.

Women have every right to be provided with a healthy, civilized lifestyle more in tune with the 21st century way of life. We need to see women in the council of senior scholars or as advisers to the grand mufti to address their needs and grievances and have a say in decisions that affect their lives and their families. Women face injustice and discrimination because many judges and senior ulemas are unaware of the suffering.

Cultural limitations and tribal laws rather than religious rulings are the impediments that are strangling our country. It is time for the educated to boldly counter the vicious campaign of the extremists — men and women — who continue to attack progress. It is ironic how these “medievalists” so resistant to change adopt the Internet and modern media to attack the educated calling for the empowerment of women in Saudi society.

Of course, this isn’t absolutely true across the Middle East. Lewis points to Tunisia as the notable exception and Fatani also praises several of the smaller Gulf states, such as the UAE and Kuwait. Nevertheless, there are not only tribal regions and societies, but entire countries in the Middle East where a 7th century view on human rights, as well as women’s rights, is seen as the ideal – with social norms and legislation reflecting this. This attitude is detrimental to the whole society and is one of the key reasons for the backwardness of the region in relation to the rest of the world. If women take a leading role in these revolutions that are happening everywhere, there may be a chance of genuine progress in the Middle East.

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