Freedom of Speech in Other Places – apart from Turkey

‘No nation can achieve stability and economic growth if half the population is not empowered.’
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton uttered the words recently in a speech she made in Tokyo (Time, 23 July 2012). Apparently she was referring to Afghanistan, and the sad plight of that nation’s women – oppressed, downtrodden and disenfranchised. No doubt Mrs Clinton feels genuinely sorry for her disadvantaged sisters in Muslim countries, but is she aware that the average voter turnout in US presidential elections since 1992 is 52%? I can’t help feeling Madame Secretary might more profitably focus on the 48% of her own citizens who seem to feel that democracy in the land of the free has little to offer them – and look for ways of empowering them.

I mentioned in my previous post, a book called American Theocracy, where the writer Kevin Phillips posits an unholy alliance of Big Oil, the Debt/Finance Industry and fundamentalist Christianity which he claims have united to govern the United States. The book was published in 2006, and Phillips’ primary concern was President George Dubya Bush, and what he saw as the Republican Party sell-out to that Big Three. Phillips details the elements of the partnership:

  • Encouragement of continued profligate oil consumption, refusal to develop alternative fuels and limit carbon emissions;
  • Continued encouragement of consumer-driven economic growth fuelled by the debt/finance industry;
  • Deregulation of the finance sector, tax-cuts for the wealthy and calls for reduced government spending on social programmes;
  • Refusal to accept the case for global warming, and support for the lobby against abortion and in favour of teaching creation/intelligent design in schools, are all part of the plan.
  • The beauty of it is that it appeals to all of the Big Three: unfettered capitalism does not conflict with the beliefs of the religious loonies convinced that end-times are upon us and only Jesus can save the world, so there’s no need for social welfare programmes – bankers don’t really care what kind of rubbish kids get taught in schools and no doubt abortion, like everything else, will always be an available option for the rich.

Did anyone seriously believe that the Iraq invasion wasn’t about oil? Or that George W Bush is a true follower of Jesus? Honestly, if I thought Jesus loved the 43rd president, I’d have to rethink my whole understanding of Christianity.

As you may have realised, this post doesn’t have much to do with Turkey – or at least only peripherally – so at this point you may want to switch to another channel. My focus here is Ecuador, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom, the USA, Chile and Venezuela, not necessarily in that order.

Rapist or champion of freedom of the press?

No doubt, like me, you’ve been following news items from London about Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks guy. That he’s been accused of sexual assault by a couple of women in Sweden; that he’s holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in the plush neighbourhood of Knightsbridge; that the London Metropolitan Police Force has mobilised significant manpower to ensure that he can’t sneak out of the country; that the UK Government seems committed to extraditing the guy to Sweden so that he can be questioned about the alleged offences.

I have to admit I didn’t pay much attention to those Wiki-leaks when they first surfaced. I’ve always been fairly cynical about governments and politicians, and I guess I felt that nothing would surprise me. I had to do a check in the archives to see what all the fuss was about, and I can see why the US government and military would be unhappy to have such information made public. Those ‘Afghan War Logs’ and ‘Iraq war Documents’ showing that there were significantly more civilian deaths over there than official sources had been letting on; and that there seemed to be a policy of ignoring complaints of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers. Then there was that embarrassing video showing a couple of helicopter gunships mowing down apparently unarmed civilians, along with a Reuters journalist or two.

So, you can also kind of appreciate why the US army was quick to arrest a young private suspected of passing on the above material to the Wiki people. Bradley Edward Manning  is 24 years old and openly gay, with some history of psychological problems. In spite of that and his lowly rank, because of his high-level IT skills, he was posted to Baghdad and put in a position where he had access to databases storing extremely sensitive classified information. Private Manning, apparently disturbed by what he saw, and believing that the public had a right to know, took the difficult decision to blow his whistle. As a result, he has been in custody (much of it of a particularly unpleasant nature) awaiting trial on a number of charges, at least one of which carries the death penalty – though prosecutors say they won’t ask for it.

Which is where WikiLeaks comes in. According to its website ‘WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organisation. Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists.’  Well, if you’ve ever considered blowing the whistle on an employer, or heard about someone who did, you’ll be aware that the action carries some risks and dangers. And given that few institutions, from the corner grocer up, are as squeaky clean as they could be, you might think that there is a place in the world for an organisation like WikiLeaks. Julian Assange clearly thinks so – and that is what has landed him in trouble.

It is fairly evident that the US Government is keen to get its hands on this gentleman, and probably put him away for a long time, as a salutary lesson to others who might be tempted to emulate his obsession with transparency and freedom of information. His own government in Australia has indicated a lack of sympathy, and an inclination to cooperate with the USA. There is some evidence that plans are proceeding in secret for a grand jury indictment. Several high profile politicians and political commentators in the US have even recommended that Assange should be assassinated.

Interesting then, that an apparently unrelated and somewhat bathetic affair has arisen to threaten the WikiLeaks boss’s liberty. Two women in Sweden made complaints of rape and sexual assault against him in 2010. Despite clear evidence that Assange was consensually in the beds of the ladies concerned, and that the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office originally decided that there were no grounds for a rape charge, nor for having him arrested, this decision was subsequently overturned, and Swedish Police issued an international warrant for his arrest. Assange gave himself up to police in London, but, when it became clear that UK authorities were determined to extradite him to Sweden, he sought and was granted political asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy. It seems his fear is that, once in Sweden, the US Government will arrange for him to be sent to the US, where, he suspects, retributive justice will be swift and sure.

Assange and his lawyers believe that the Swedish business has been organised to give US authorities time to prepare a more serious case against him. They have asked the Swedish Government to guarantee that they will not authorise Assange’s extradition to a third country (the USA) – which they have refused to do. In the mean time, the Brits have police swarming all around the embassy to ensure the WikiLeaks man doesn’t sneak out. They even went so far as to imply to the Ecuadoreans that force could be used to apprehend him – a threat which they later retracted. Nevertheless, you have to ask, where does a relatively minor South American nation like Ecuador fit into this business?

Apart from a lifetime of eating their bananas, I confess to an appalling ignorance about Ecuador. Now that I know it is about the size of New Zealand, with a population of around fifteen million, I can understand why. However, it seems the small Latin American country has assumed some international fame (or notoriety) since the election of President Rafael Vicente Correa Delgado in 2006. Despite having studied economics in the US, Correa seems to be leading his nation’s march with a different drum. With the aim of reducing poverty and unemployment, and minimising Ecuador’s dependence on foreign companies and capital, he negotiated major restructuring of its external debt and a greater share of its oil profits. His government refused to renew the US military’s lease on the Pacific coast airbase of Manta, has been resisting IMF pressure to monitor its economic plan, and pursuing policies encouraging conservation in Ecuador’s share of the Amazon basin. Correa has apparently even endeared himself to the main group of indigenous people by learning their language. To tell you the truth, he doesn’t sound like such a bad guy to me.

One problem he has, however, in his relations with his large northern neighbour, is that he is good mates with Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela since 1999. Some sources suggest that Venezuela’s oil reserves could be larger than those of Saudi Arabia, and at present it is the US’s third most important source of oil. Little wonder then that there is some disquiet in upper echelons of the US Government that Chavez ‘probably doesn’t have the interests of the US at heart.’

Chavez’s self-styled policy of Bolivarianism opposes imperialism, capitalism and neo-liberalism, and has focused on participatory democracy and nationalising industries (especially oil). He has been influential in the establishment of the Bank of the South, a partnership among South American nations to provide finance for ‘the construction of social programs and infrastructure.’ In 2002 he was ousted in what may be one of history’s shortest-lasting successful military coups. Chavez maintains that the US was involved in planning the coup, and even its military leaders are on record as saying they believed they were operating with US approval. Whatever, the result was a huge outpouring of popular support for Chavez, resulting in his reinstatement a mere forty-seven hours later.

This got me wondering if there are any leaders of South American countries that are loved by US and British governments – and one surprising name I came up with was Augusto Pinochet, dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1990. General Pinochet came to power when a military coup, reputedly endorsed by the Nixon administration and the CIA, ousted the elected government of President Salvador Allende. Pinochet’s regime was characterised by free-market economic ‘reforms’, restrictions on labour unions and privatization of state assets, not to mention the imprisonment, torture, and or ‘disappearance’ of tens of thousands of civilians, some of which, unfortunately, were Spanish nationals. As a result, the General was arrested in the UK in 1998 and the government of Spain sought his extradition to face numerous charges of human rights violations. A protracted legal battle ensued, at the end of which Pinochet was released after Tony Blair’s Home Secretary, Jack Straw, overruled a House of Lords decision to extradite him to Spain. Apparently former US President Nixon, and former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had both interceded with Blair’s government on Pinochet’s behalf.

OK, Nixon we’ve touched on above, but what was Mrs Thatcher’s interest here? Well, it seems that General Pinochet’s military had given major support to the Iron Lady’s Falkland Islands campaign back in 1982. Some sources say that Chile provided invaluable intelligence about Argentinean air attacks, tied up elite Argentinean forces with threats of cross-border incursions, and even allowed British aircraft to operate with Chilean colours. Given that Dame Maggie probably wouldn’t have won a second term in office without the jingoistic patriotism generated by the Falkland Islands victory, you can see how she might have felt she owed General Augusto a favour or two. Unfortunately for Julian Assange, he clearly doesn’t have the same ties of ‘friendship’ in high level international political circles.

Even so, you might think that the British Government could take a slightly less hard-line approach to the WikiLeaks guy, if the issue really is just a matter of a couple of somewhat debatable sex offences in Sweden. As a comparison, I’d like to tell you about an on-going affair in my beloved homeland, New Zealand.

Kim Dotcom is a 38 year-old computer genius of German-Finnish parentage, currently resident in New Zealand, but very much wanted by authorities in the USA to answer charges of copyright infringement against his highly profitable company Megaupload. Admittedly, Mr Dotcom (or Schmitz, if you prefer), has a somewhat murky record of shady business practices preceding his Megaupload activities, but knowing this, the NZ government granted him permanent residency in 2010. Subsequently, however, NZ police raided his palatial home in January this year, and took the internet entrepreneur into custody – since when there has been a continuing legal shemozzle over the question of extradition. Most recently, a NZ High Court judge has ruled that in seizing Dotcom’s property, police exceeded the authority of their warrants, and the case is continuing. As an interesting aside, a prominent NZ Member of Parliament and strong supporter of the Prime Minister, has been accused of soliciting and obtaining a large donation from Dotcom for election purposes – but probably that has nothing to do with the larger matter. Whatever the case, I’m feeling kind of proud of my country for standing up to US corporate interests.

And I’m also feeling a little sorry for Turkey, as its government continues to field international criticism on human rights and freedom of the press issues. Is hypocrisy too strong a word to use for grand-standing politicians who seek votes by criticising other sovereign states while refusing to acknowledge the dubious practices of their own?

At the recent Pacific Forum in the Cook Islands, evidence has emerged of increasing competition between the USA and China for influence in the Pacific region. China, apparently, is making significant financial investment in tiny developing nations, and US officials are not happy, despite the fact that the US economy would probably implode without Chinese monetary input. One US spokesperson was quoted as saying:

” . . . we have consistently been calling for increasing transparency in the Chinese military posture.” Apparently the United States also ‘hopes to boost the forum as a regional alliance to combat shared threats such as climate change, encourage economic development and protect marine stocks in the face of overfishing’.

Run that by me again: the US government is calling for military transparency, and is acknowledging the threat of climate change?

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