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Posts Tagged ‘Freedom of expression

George Monbiot on another misuse of UK government’s “sweeping powers”

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From The Guardian

The villagers have marched, demonstrated, and sent in letters and petitions. Some people tried to stop the company from cutting down trees by standing in the way. Their campaign was entirely peaceful. But the power company discovered that it was legally empowered to shut the protests down.

Using the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, it obtained an injunction against the villagers and anyone else who might protest. This forbids them from “coming to, remaining on, trespassing or conducting any demonstrations, or protesting or other activities” on land near the lake. If anyone breaks this injunction they could spend five years in prison.

The act, parliament was told, was meant to protect women from stalkers. But as soon as it came on to the statute books, it was used to stop peaceful protest. To obtain an injunction, a company needs to show only that someone feels “alarmed or distressed” by the protesters, a requirement so vague that it can mean almost anything. Was this an accident of sloppy drafting? No. Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, the solicitor who specialises in using this law against protesters, boasts that his company “assisted in the drafting of the … Protection from Harassment Act 1997”. In 2005 parliament was duped again, when a new clause, undebated in either chamber, was slipped into the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. It peps up the 1997 act, which can now be used to ban protest of any kind.

Mr Lawson-Cruttenden, who represented RWE npower, brags that the purpose of obtaining injunctions under the act is “the criminalisation of civil disobedience”. One advantage of this approach is that very low standards of proof are required: “hearsay evidence … is admissable in civil courts”. The injunctions he obtains criminalise all further activity, even though, as he admits, “any allegations made remain untested and unproven”.

Last week, stung by bad publicity, npower backed down. The villagers had just started to celebrate when they made a shocking discovery: they now feature on an official list of domestic extremists.

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The parallels between AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the twin delusions of AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism, and examine some of the parallels between them.

AIDS denialists – who will often describe themselves as “AIDS dissidents” or “AIDS sceptics” – are those who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence that HIV causes AIDS. They may believe that HIV is harmless, or deny that there is evidence the virus even exists. In the early 1980s, soon after AIDS was discovered, the psychiatrist Casper Schmidt suggested that the disease was a “group fantasy”, the product of an ” epidemic of shame-induced depression” among gay men, caused by “a vast, society-wide conservative swing” culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan. “One can only hope”, Schmidt concluded, “that we wake up from the trance, and soon”. As with many of the most vocal “dissidents”, Schmidt’s denial seems to have motivated, in part, by a refusal to acknowledge his own illness. Tragically, Casper Schmidt died from AIDS in the mid-1990s – yet even now some die-hard denialists continue to cite his work in support of their claims.

Towards the end of the 80s, amid growing evidence that AIDS was killing thousands, the US virologist Peter Duesberg began challenging the scientific consensus that the disease was caused by a virus, HIV. Duesberg’s work with retroviruses – the class to which HIV belongs – had led him to conclude that all such viruses were essentially harmless. Rather than revise this view in the face of strong and growing epidemiological proof of a close correlation between the presence of AIDS and HIV infection, Duesberg chose instead to reject the new evidence and hang on to his old theory – a position he has stuck to ever since.

Duesberg’s arguably most poisonous claim is that AIDS can in fact be caused by the medications given to HIV sufferers to control the disease, such as the drug AZT. It was partly under Duesberg’s influence that the South African government of Thabo Mbeki chose to delay the public availability of anti-retroviral drugs – a decision which, according to a recent Harvard study – may have cost over 300,000 lives.

Holocaust negationists deny some or all of the established historical facts about Nazi atrocities during World War II. They may refuse to accept that the Holocaust happened at all, or they may – as David Irving has done – concede that atrocities took place but deny that the extermination of Jews and other minorities was a deliberate organisational policy, authorised at the highest level. They may, like Irving, significantly downplay the number of people who died at the hands of the Nazis. Or they may engage in “moral negationism”, acknowledging that Germany persecuted Jews but suggesting that the war-time abuses committed by Soviet or British forces could somehow cancel or diminish the moral gravity of Nazi crimes. Many of these kinds of arguments can be seen in the comment responses to the piece that I wrote about David Irving here.

David Irving has famously denied that he is a Holocaust denier – and went so far as to sue the writer Deborah Lipstadt for having described him in those terms. Some of this seems to come down to semantics. If we define a “Holocaust denier” as someone who is in denial about the established historical facts relating to the Holocaust, then even someone who acknowledges some level of atrocity – as David Irving does – would nonetheless fall into that category.

After a lengthy court battle in which Irving’s historical writings were examined in fine detail, the libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt famously failed, with the judge concluding that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.

Irving has sought to portray himself as a fearless and impartial historical investigator, motivated solely by a desire to establish the truth, bravely challenging the orthodox account of the events of World War II. But the Lipstadt libel trial revealed quite the opposite. Driven by a preconceived attachment to an extreme ideological position, Irving had systematically abused the truth, deliberately misrepresenting his historical sources in order to make them support his political views.

Appearing as an expert witness, the historian Richard Evans, who had painstakingly reviewed Irving’s work, confessed to being shocked at the “sheer depth of duplicity” he had found. Irving had, Evans concluded, “fallen so far short of the standards of scholarship customary among historians that he doesn’t deserve to be called a historian at all”, suggesting that Irving relied on his audience lacking “either the time or the expertise” to check up on his sources.

Another feature of Irving’s work is his tendency to seize on tenuous reinterpretations of the existing evidence and treat them as a knockdown refutation of the claim he is attacking. Irving has argued that forensic tests taken by an unqualified investigator on the walls of the Auschwitz gas chambers in the late 1980s proved that they could not have been used for mass-executions, later claiming that “more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz”.

Irving also applied a clear double-standard in his evaluation of the evidence. At the same time as he embraced tenuous forensic tests taken more than 40 years after the end of the World War II, he was dismissive of the detailed eyewitness testimonies of the thousands of Holocaust survivors still alive at the time.

We see a similar double-standard with many of those who deny the link between HIV and AIDS. A 3-month investigation by Science magazine found no evidence to back Duesberg’s claims. Mainstream AIDS researchers accused him of constructing his arguments through “selective reading of the scientific literature, dismissing evidence that contradicts his theses, requiring impossibly definitive proof, and dismissing outright studies marked by inconsequential weaknesses.”

One big problem faced by both AIDS denialists and Holocaust denialists is the difficulty of explaining why their arguments are almost universally rejected. Here again, the rhetoric is often striking similar. Hardcore AIDS denialists insist that the disease is a “hoax”, a “myth”, and a “deceptive and deadly scam” perpetrated by the “medical industrial complex”, and offer us “Ten reasons HIV is not the cause of AIDS”. Hardcore negationists, meanwhile, talk dismissively about the “Holohoax”, which they describe as a “myth”, perpetrated by “Zionists” with an “agenda of world domination”, and offer us “Ten reasons why the Holocaust is a fraud”.

UK trade unions condemn restrictions on press freedom and civil liberties

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The UK Trade Unions Congress has endorsed a motion by the National Union of Journalists expressing ‘grave concern’ over the erosion of civil liberties in the UK, and the effect that this is having on freedom of expression.

“The terrorising of journalists isn’t just done by shadowy men in balaclavas, but also by governments and organisations who use the apparatus of the law or state authorities to suppress and distort the information they do not want the public to know and to terrorise the journalists involved through injunctions, threats to imprisonment and financial ruin,” NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear told the conference.

Dear cited the case of Sally Murrer, who is currently on trial for allegedly receiving information from a police officer that he had not been authorised to disclose, and the treatment by police of press photographers in a raid on the “Climate Camp” protest earlier this year.

“Journalists’ material and their sources are increasingly targeted by those who wish to pull a cloak of secrecy over their actions.”, Dear told the conference.

In a similar vein, Craig Murray reports being pressured to making swingeing changes to the text of his new book, “The Orangemen of Togo” (great title!) after Tim Spicer, formerly of the mercenary company Sandline, and now head of the quids-in Iraq ‘security contractor’ Aegis, hired infamous libel firm Schillings, and brought a legal injunction to delay publication.

Murray says that he’s been told, among a range of other changes, that:

– I must refer to Sandline as a “Private Military Company” and portray their activities in Africa as supporting legitimate government against rebels
– I must portray Western action in Iraq as “peace-keeping”
– I must say Shell were involved in corruption in Nigeria “inadvertently”

A few years ago, The Center for Public Integrity did an incisive exposé on Spicer, the origins of the euphemistic term ‘Private Military Company’, and the shady role of such organisations in conflicts as far afield as Sierra Leone, and Papua New Guinea. It’s sobering to think that someone with this sort of history is now in charge one of the largest contracts awarded to any western firm currently operating in Iraq.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I take a look at the disasters that can happen when freedom of expression starts to break down, and at Craig Murray’s role in exposing UK government wrongdoing after leaving his post as British Ambassador to Uzbekistan.

Free Jean-Claude Kavumbagu!

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I’ve just heard that the Burundian journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has been arrested on charges of “defaming” the country’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza. Jean-Claude, the director of the ‘Netpress’ news agency has been tireless in exposing human rights abuses and corruption in Burundi, and I am endebted to him for his support while I was writing my last book.

This arrest was triggered by a Netpress report that Burundi’s President spent $100,000 on his official visit to the Beijing Olympics – a particularly sensitive issue in a country where income tends to average about $100 a year.  

Reporters Sans Frontieres has taken up the case, calling for Jean-Claude’s immediate release. According to RSF:

His latest arrest comes at a time of growing hostility among the president’s supporters towards human rights organisations and certain local journalists and privately-owned media, which a pro-government website recently accused of being “children of the dictatorship” concerned solely with “defending what they have gained.”

The Burundi government’s ongoing harrassment of its critics seems to contrast sharply with uncritical-verging-on-hagiographic media reports in the East African press of Nkurunziza’s presidency and his supposed emphasis on ‘forgiveness’.

Bugs, strip-searches and gagging orders – The bizarre story of Her Majesty versus Sally Murrer… (and some even more bizarre claims from Private Eye)

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The press freedom organisation Reporters Sans Frontieres doesn’t usually have too much to say about abuses against media workers here in Britain, but their latest report details some worrying cases – none stranger than the ongoing trial of the Milton Keynes local journalist Sally Murrer.

In May last year, Murrer was arrested by eight police officers, strip-searched and charged with “aiding and abetting misconduct in public office”. She was then accused of paying police officers to supply her with information for stories she could then sell on to the national press, a charge which she firmly denies. The police told her that she had been under surveillance for weeks, and played her recordings of telephone conversations she had had with her friend Mark Kearney, a Thames Valley police officer, which they said proved the case. Murrer was told that they already had enough information to send her to prison for life, and that the police need only show that she had heard information deemed ‘sensitive’ in order to convict her. Kearney and a former police officer Derek Webb (now a private investigator), have also been charged in the same case.

Then in February this year, it was revealed that Mark Kearney had been involved in the secret bugging of the Labour MP and lawyer, Sadiq Khan, during his visits to a childhood friend, Babar Ahmad, who has been detained without charge for several years, pending extradition to the United States (where he is accused of involvement in terrorism). Kearney claims that he repeatedly raised ethical and legal concerns about the work he had been asked to do. He and Murrer believe that the case being brought against him – and Murrer – was a somewhat clumsy attempt to prevent him from blowing the whistle.

Now the print edition of the magazine Private Eye reports an even more bizarre twist. The Eye claims that the detective-turned-private-investigator Derek Webb had been carrying out surveillance operations for the tabloid press against a number of high-profile public figures suspected of having affairs. These reportedly include two un-named (due to the usual legal gagging orders) cabinet ministers, together with the infamous former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, and the director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald – the man in charge of the department overseeing the case against Webb, Kearney and Murrer. The police seized Derek Webb’s diaries (in which he details his surveillance work) as evidence to be used in the case case against him. Now the crown prosecution service has reportedly declined requests by Webb’s defence team for access to the diaries, claiming that it no longer has them…

UN calls UK government over attacks on freedom of expression

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Robert Maxwell, UK libel law’s most famous beneficiary

If I had to choose my all-time favourite bill ever passed by the New York State Legislature (a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon if ever there was one), it would have to be the “Libel Terrorism Protection Act”. The specific purpose of this bill is to stop Britain’s ‘rogue state’ libel laws from being used to undermine the constitutionally-protected right to freedom of speech in the state of New York.

Ironically, while the UK government allows our courts no jurisdiction over a murder committed overseas – even when the victim is a British citizen – it’s a different story when a book is published in a foreign country, which happens to offend someone with the time, inclination and (most importantly) cash to pursue their grievance in the UK courts.

The practice of ‘libel tourism’ relies on the fact that, with the internet, any book published anywhere in the world can be deemed to have effectively been published in the UK (and thereby fall under the jurisdiction of the UK libel courts) if it can be bought online and shipped to Britain. UK libel law famously places the burden of proof on the author/publisher of a work rather than on the plaintiff. A UK libel defendant is effectively guilty until proven innocent.

It’s also, I’m told, possible to defend a UK libel case successfully, yet still be left with massive legal costs to cover. Bringing a libel case can be very expensive, and is thus largely beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. So what we effectively have is a legal mechanism for allowing rich people and organisations to inflict crippling costs on anyone who says bad things about them, regardless of whether or not those things are actually true. During the 1970s and 1980s this mechanism was famously – and skillfully – exploited by the fraudster Robert Maxwell to suppress the many questions raised about his business deals. It was only after his somewhat mysterious death that the truth emerged. Perhaps the one saving grace of the law is that, at least in the UK, dead men can’t bring libel cases.

But with the advent of the internet, the phenomenon of ‘libel tourism’ gives the UK’s rapacious libel laws a global reach, and now pose such a threat to freedom of expression worldwide that foreign states are having to create legislation to protect their citizens.

The threat posed by ‘libel tourists’ is just one among a number of issues raised by a recent UN report on the state of human rights in the UK. Equally dangerous – if not more so, as we’ve been familiar with the libel problem for long enough to have at least some ways around it – is the Brown regime’s attempt to make it illegal for any former civil servant to say anything at all about their time in government, ever, without official permission from the state.

According to Craig Murray (ex UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan):

“The idea, of course, is that only the ministers’ version of truth will enter history. You can be confident that Jack Straw’s memoirs will not tell you that he instructed Richard Dearlove that we would use intelligence from torture, or that we colluded with torture and extraordinary rendition in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. You needed my memoirs for that. If Jack Straw had his way, I would not have been able to publish my book telling you the truth; in fact the new regulations were born directly out of Straw’s fury at Murder in Samarkand.”

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I explore the ease with which deception and delusion can start to creep in – and go unchecked – once freedom of expression has been compromised. An effectively functioning society depends on the free flow of information. The quicker that serious systemic problems can be identified, and analysed, the quicker solutions can be found. Attacks on freedom of expression seriously hinder this process, with the result that, at the extreme (as in the Soviet Union and Communist China), a wholesale national disaster can unfold without those in power ever facing up to the reality of what’s going on – less still being held accountable.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 19, 2008 at 2:24 pm