Friday, March 24, 2017

Another blow for independent news

Independent news coverage took another hit last week with the decision of the United States Administration to wipe the cost of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from its budget. It is the most dramatic, but certainly not the only attack on news services independent of political, corporate or other sectional interests in recent times.

A combination of government indifference or direct interference and pressure from commercial interests is eating into the ability of news outlets to provide balanced, well-researched reporting at a time when this is needed more than ever.

In an increasing number of countries around the world, the media is either incapable or afraid of covering the issues of the day in a way than can do justice to the people it is supposed to serve.

And I am not talking about countries like North Korea, China or Vietnam where the wearying diet of nationalist propaganda simply reflects the unrelenting grip their governments have on the means of communication.

Nations which have previously had proud reputations for robust, independent reportage are seeing their news sources fall victims to tightened budgets, government tinkering and the whims of powerful elites that subtly and not so subtly manipulate the outlets under their control to reflect their interests and prejudices.

Never is this so apparent than in Russia which, for a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union enjoyed a vibrant, irrelevant and varied media that delighted in pushing the boundaries of its new-found freedom. That quickly ended in a repressive backlash so that now almost all outlets are controlled by the government or their stooges, and non-conforming journalists are hounded, in some cases into their graves.

In the United Kingdom a combination of short-sighted management, declining revenues and a failure to accommodate changing tastes has resulted in newspaper closures becoming an almost weekly event with hundreds of experienced news people thrown onto the employment scrap heap.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, which is administered by an independent trust, faces regular battles to hang on to the funds it receives from a £145.50 licence fee. Elsewhere, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which is dependent on direct funding from the government, has had to endure a series of cutbacks and retrenchments in recent years.

In a review of the increasingly parlous state of public broadcasting in South-Eastern Europe, the European Union was prompted to remind its members that public service media was the last path of mass communication left to its populations.

“The privatisation of that path by any partial interest (be it political, economic, or rooted in the particular interests of civil society segments) is unacceptable,” the statement said.

In relation to most other items that have to be paid for in a nation’s budget, maintaining a public broadcaster is ridiculously cheap. The Chief Executive of PBS, Paula Kerger, says it costs Americans just $1.35 per person per year — a tiny price to pay, which raises a worrying question: If cost is not the issue, is it simply that in the new order emerging before our eyes, there is a determination that its works must be hidden from independent scrutiny and judgement?   

Saturday, March 18, 2017

EU’s ‘quarter final’ win in Netherlands

On the night of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s win in the Netherlands General Election, a reporter asked an interesting question:

“Are you the politician that has saved the European Union?”

Rutte was not drawn on the implication that the EU needed saving, preferring to answer in purely national terms. However, there is no doubt that the Union is under attack and that the Netherlands result brought some relief to its hard-pressed supporters.

Concerns about its future have focused on the rise of hard-right anti-EU parties internally — Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands; the Front National Party of Marine Le Pen in France and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany — however, the external threat is just as potent, and together they provide a huge challenge for Brussels.

It is no secret that Russian President Vladimir Putin is no friend of the EU, believing its dissolution will be his chance to restablish influence over the Central European States that once belonged to the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact — and perhaps beyond.

Of particular concern is Russia’s growing relationship with Turkey who in its President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin sees a fellow authoritarian he can deal with.

Was it coincidence that soon after a series of meetings and telephone calls between the two, Erdogan set up a confrontation with various European countries, including the Netherlands, by calling for rallies of Turkish expatriates in support of next month’s constitutional referendum that will give him near dictatorial powers?

There is nothing wrong with Turks living in Europe taking an interest in the affairs of their homeland, but why was it necessary to demand that Turkish Ministers and officials fly in to stir up support for a vote Erdogan is certain to win anyway?

When Rutte quite rightly refused, citing law and order issues, he was subject to a blistering attack from Ankara, with slurs of fascists and Nazis being quite liberally thrown around, the obvious intention being to provoke an anti-Islam and immigration backlash that might carry the EU-hater Wilders to power.

Thankfully, Rutte’s robust response foiled that plan as Dutch voters rallied round their Prime Minister; Turkish Foreign Minister, Meviut Cavusoglu let his disappointment get the better of him when he made the outrageous assertion the election result would provoke a "holy war” in Europe.

However, elections in France and Germany this year may still give Puten and Erdogan a second chance. As football fan Mark Rutte pointed out, his election was just the quarter final in the trial of strength.

“We still have the semi final (France) and the final (Germany) to play, he said.   

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Northern Ireland vote: ‘Troubles’ ahead?

The sensational result of the Northern Ireland Provincial election gives British Prime Minister Theresa May something else to ponder as she prepares for her “hard Brexit” departure from the European Union.

For the first time in the history of the Province its ruling legislature has a majority that is not automatically wedded to a continued link with the United Kingdom. The party which supports joining the Irish Republic, Sinn Fein, has made significant gains and now sits just one seat behind the pro-union Democratic Unionist Party.

When a swag of minor parties are taken into account, a vote within the new Stormont Parliament could easily favour unity with the south.

At the moment this seems unlikely, if only because such a vote could possibly rekindle the Troubles — the sectarian violence that plagued Northern Ireland for three decades and was ended only by the Good Friday power-sharing accords in the 1990s.

However, in last year’s referendum that resulted in a narrow overall United Kingdom majority to leave the European Union, Northern Ireland, along with Scotland, voted solidly for the Remain campaign, which must have meant that a good number of Unionists saw a better future for the Province as part of the EU.

Since then the situation has been exacerbated by May’s Government being unable to deal with the issue of the land border that separates Northern Ireland from the south. Under the Good Friday Accords there is unlimited access between the two jurisdictions. People driving from the south into the north are usually aware of the change only when they notice the road signs have changed from kilometres to miles.

The so-called hard Brexit could also result in the establishment of a hard border — and May knows this when she promises it will remain open only “as far as possible”. However, this would be a red rag to a bull to militant groups such as the Irish Republican Army, kept quiet at the moment because the present situation is unification in all but name under current EU arrangements.

While the situation that brought about the election was an exclusively domestic issue over a public heating supply scandal that might have implicated Democratic Unionist leader and First Minister Arlene Foster, its result has put the reunification of Ireland back on the agenda.

While a referendum on ending the partition of the island seems unlikely at present, as May’s Brexit plans advance and as the reality of life outside the EU becomes clearer, the demand for one may prove overwhelming.  

As Northern Ireland expert and political commentator John Palmer points out, if Northern Ireland were to leave the UK the repercussions could trigger a full-blown British constitutional crisis “over and on top of the inevitable economic and social convulsions triggered by a final Brexit.”

Friday, March 3, 2017

Aggressive exercise that stirs up old hatreds

If any further confirmation of the perverted thinking of Russia’s elites is needed then it must surely be provided by a recent announcement from the country’s Ministry of Defence.

It has announced a plan to build a replica of Germany’s Parliament, the Reichstag, in a ‘military theme park’ as a target to be attacked in a repeat of the Russian storming of the actual Reichstag Building in Berlin at the end of World War II.

It would be bad enough if this was part of the training for Russian soldiers (remember the ‘sensitive material’ used by the Australian Defence Force which raised the hackles of the Indonesian military recently) but the targets for this aggressive exercise are young adults and schoolchildren, members of the Yunarimia, or Young Army, a youth movement aimed at “encouraging patriotism”.

Making the announcement, Russian Defence Minister, Sergi Shoigu said there was a need for the Young Army to have a “specific location to attack, rather than something abstract”.

Understandably, German officials have reacted with surprise and concern. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin, Martin Schaefer, said that nothing like this would ever be built for the education of German youth.

His criticism was rejected at the Kremlin with a spokesperson, Major General Igor Konashenkov, saying the Reichstag replica “will contribute to the patriotic education of young citizens and foreign guests,” claiming that anyone speaking against it must be a Nazi sympathiser.

“Verbal attacks by certain German politicians are not only dismaying, but they make one wonder how these people really think about the creators of the Third Reich,” he said.

This has nothing to do with history: The Third Reich ended more than 70 years ago and the world of 1945 bears no resemblance to that of today. The Reichstag building, renovated and remodelled after years of neglect during the divided Germany era, now houses the Parliament of the modern German democratic state which is not at war with Russia or indeed anyone.

Attacking the Reichstag as a symbol for the “patriotic education of the young” is aimed at inculcating anger and hatred against an enemy that no longer exists — but an enemy  that Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to invent in order to bolster his hold on power.

It is necessary because despite crushing an independent media, despite hounding, harassing, imprisoning and even murdering his opponents, Putin does not quite have the dictator’s iron grip on the country he so desires.

The fact that last month thousands of Russians took part in a peaceful protest to mark the second anniversary of the assassination of one of Putin’s most trenchant critics, Boris Nemtsov , shot several times from behind virtually at the walls of the Kremlin in February 2015, clearly demonstrates that the Russian leader has so far failed to stifle dissent.  

In situations like this the answer lies in distracting the citizenry with a reminder of an external enemy – even if that enemy was from an era that has long since been consigned to history — but it is actually worse even than this.

Putin and his officials should consider whether turning the final victory in the Great Patriotic War into something akin to a reality game show comes close to trivialising the sacrifice of the millions of Russians who died in that conflict in order that their Motherland should survive and prosper.   

Friday, February 24, 2017

Why the EU’s good works go unreported

Recently as part of my work covering bureaucracies around the world, I came across a story that I almost dismissed after reading the opening paragraph — the near bankrupt Kano State Government in Nigeria was being given seven new vehicles for one of its Ministries courtesy of the European Union.

Initially, it seemed rather humdrum; nothing of any great interest — but then I began to wonder why it had failed to grab my attention and realised that it was just one of a number of similar items that come across my desk almost every week.

Business as usual for Brussels, but in this case crucial for the workings of the Kano Government and scores of other jurisdictions around the world that are extremely grateful the EU exists.

Just this week the European Commission launched a project to address the root causes of the refugee migration from Africa that will involve some 250 migrants from Burkina Faso, Mali and Gambia being given vocational training. Some at least will be able to take their new found skills back to their original countries where they have a better chance of decent employment.

It is not widely known that the EU is the second largest aid donor in the Pacific region after Australia. Recently, the President of Kiribati was in Brussels to sign a six-year assistance plan for the island nation, supported by the European Development Fund.

The EU is also backing Indonesia’s efforts to stop illegal logging with a program that will boost the exports of legally-produced timber into Europe. In the Caribbean and Latin America, the EU has a $100 million program to support sustainable development, including a transition to green energy production, strengthening institutions and helping the growth of small business.

And in Greenland — yes Greenland — Brussels is running a significant education and vocational training project for that Arctic territory’s young people.

It is examples like this — and there are many others — that make me ever so slightly irritated when people ask me what good the EU is to anybody.

But I would have to say the EU is its own worst enemy when it comes to its ability to blow its own trumpet. The kind of information I have just outlined is often buried on its websites under uninspiring headlines and in media releases couched in dense, bureaucratic language. It needs to hire a good PR firm. 

This kind of lacklustre presentation plays into the hands of populist campaigns that rely heavily on appeals to the emotions, while disregarding hard facts. The United Kingdom may already be a lost cause, but Brussels needs to hit back hard against the rising tide of extreme right rhetoric and its claim to have easy answers to complex questions.

In the last six decades the EU has been an outstanding force for good, both in curbing the rabid nationalism which had devastated the continent in wars over and over again, and in its aid among less fortunate countries in the Third World.

It needs to tell that story, and tell it more aggressively. The gloves must come off. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Why globalisation has to work

Fears about a reaction against globalisation found a powerful voice in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg this week when he said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation that there were increasing demands to “withdraw from the connected world”.

Citing fake news, polarised views and “filter bubbles” for damaging what he called common understanding, Zuckerberg said the globalisation movement had underestimated the challenges it held for some people.

He urged Governments and private enterprise to “build the infrastructure to empower people” so that globalisation worked for everyone, not just for some.

Economic historian Harold James went further, saying the election of United States President Donald Trump and the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union suggested the international appetite for globalisation was collapsing and that this could plunge the world into war.

"We're swinging back again from an era when everyone thought globalisation was inevitable, to a period when people think there's really a big problem with globalisation," James said.

The Princetown professor said this era was becoming very like that which existed in the first decade of the 20th century when there was a nationalist reaction against globalisation that led to World War I.

Zuckerberg and James are wrong to believe that globalisation can be permanently derailed. We are living through a period of profound change — the main thrust of which is a movement away from the Westphalian system of nation states to an increasingly globalised world order.

This movement has been going on for some time, probably since the advent of transnational railway systems in the 19th century. Its progress was interrupted by two world wars, but has been continuing apace since, with the establishment of the United Nations, the European Union and a host of other bodies existing for the extension of international cooperation.

By the 1970s financial markets were fully globalised and not long after new technology brought instant communication to anyone with a smartphone.

There can be no retreat from this whatever populist politicians promise and however many demonstrators take to the streets. History does not have a reverse gear.

But Zuckerberg is right to point out that more must be done to help people through this inevitable period of change. Not to do so will produce more Trumps and Brexits as the old order thrashes around in its death throes – and yes, the very real possibility of Professor James’ war. It has happened before.

When former United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, flushed with his Brexit victory, said he looked forward to the day when the entire European Union was dismantled and it was back to sovereign nations trading amongst themselves, he was harking after a time that never really existed in the modern era, except briefly and in a wasteful and highly unstable way.

The present system, in transition and in need of moderation, certainly has to be made fairer, but is far more preferable to Farage’s utopia which brought the Great Depression and two world wars.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Making sense of Trump’s Wonderland

The Trump Administration’s erratic relationship with Pakistan has taken another turn when White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus went on television to suggest that it could be added to the list of countries whose nationals will be banned from entering the United States.

Observers across the border in India said they were surprised that Pakistan had not been named in the first place. “Pakistan has long been a hot-bed of terrorism. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic State…they are all there,” one said.

Even so, this did not stop the then President-elect Donald Trump handing out lavish praise to Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif in a telephone call last December, Trump saying he was ready to play “any role desired” to resolve Pakistan’s problems.

Despite never having met Sharif he described him as a “terrific guy with a very good reputation for doing amazing work” and that Pakistanis were “one of the most intelligent people”.

But hold on. During his campaign for the White House a few months earlier he described Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries in the world and he intended to work with India to keep it in check.

This latest version of the relationship resulted in a flurry of advice on how to cope with Pakistan’s “continuing loss of influence with the United States Executive Branch”.

Analyst Sasha Riser-Kositsky urged Sharif to reign in local radical cells or risk losing some or all of the multi-million dollar funding that Washington provides to help Pakistan’s widening current account deficit.

In particular, he must deal with the Haqqani network that is closely associated with the State Intelligence Agency, Riser-Kositsky said. 

Maybe, but it could be equally prudent simply to wait for the Administration’s next change of attitude. After all, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Jalil Abbas Jillani was quoted just the day after Preibus’ statement as saying there were “indications of good relations” between the two countries.

“If you see the Republican Party presidential manifesto, there are two paragraphs on Pakistan in a very positive light,” Jillani said.

For the moment at least, the US president is dealing in broad brush strokes. It is unlikely he has heard of the Haqqani network, and isn’t interested in, or doesn’t understand the intricate problems the Pakistani Government faces in balancing the demands of religious fundamentalists, the ever-restive army and volatile public opinion in dealing with extremists groups.

In this climate, the best advice for President Sharif would be to keep his head down and stay under Trump’s radar until the wild ride of the past two or three weeks begins to slow.

If indeed it does slow. In considering the times we live in, it is hard to argue with veteran British Parliamentarian Ken Clarke, debating that other chaos-generating disaster, Brixet which he likened to Alice’s Wonderland.

“No doubt somewhere there is a hatter holding a tea party and a dormouse in the teapot,” Clarke said.

In 2017, the whereabouts of the hatter is beyond doubt, but for most of the world, it isn’t going to be much of a party.