donderdag, oktober 27, 2005

Carrying on regardless: European social democrats fumble the post-referendum crisis

NB. You might want to print this one off if you, like me, prefer a more commodious reading apparatus, such as paper - as it was seven pages in Word when I wrote it.

European social democrats haven't rediscovered their socialist roots at all with this new waffle about protecting 'Social Europe' - they've just rediscovered the language of solidarity and equality following their summer of defeats at the hands of the extra-parliamentary left. They want to woo back their base, but they remain as committed to neo-liberalism as ever.

European social democrats aren't quite running scared yet, but a good number are looking over their shoulders as the various domestic examples of the anti-neo-liberal left - the 'Gauche du Non' - who had quite eclatant successes in the French and Dutch referenda on the European Constitution and have even begun to poach left-wing votes at the fringes, viz. Germany's new Linkspartei. For all the humbuggery about No votes being expressions of nationalistic provincialism and xenophobia, it was quickly conceded by soc-dem strategists after the votes that 'No' voters were not anti-European, so much as fearful of the transplantation of the European social model with an 'Anglo-Saxon', or neo-liberal, one, and so their parties had better 'shore up their base', and quick-like.

Thus at the start of the month, the Party of European Socialists - the centre-left grouping within the European Parliament that gathers together the MEPs from member states' Labour, social democratic and socialist parties - launched 'A New Social Europe', its response to the post-referendum crisis - a half-day conference accompanied by the publication a discussion document, 'PES - Social Europe: First contributions to the debate'. The pamphlet aims to kick off a discussion 'between PES member parties on how to combine Europe's traditional levels of social protection…with international competitiveness'.

In the pamphlet, the traditional brusqueness of the There Is No Alternative (but liberalisation and deregulation) discourse has disappeared, replaced with cozy platitudes about Social Europe. Liberalisation and deregulation are still there, and there remains no alternative, comrades, but now the discourse is peppered throughout with words such as 'solidarity' and 'equality' and 'Horlicks'. Okay, so there's no mention of Horlicks at all, but the booklet's tone remains all warm and fuzzy. However, just like the nourishing malted food drink, this only temporarily masks the bitter aftertaste that comes with the repeated mention of 'flexibility', 'reform' and 'competitiveness'.

Franz Müntefering, the chairperson of Germany's SPD, may have caused the financial press to have kittens when in April he sought to woo left-wing voters abandoning the SPD by describing foreign investors as 'a plague of locusts', and he may have begun his short essay for the PES pamphlet, 'Modernising the Social Market Economy', with a load of waffle about the strong needing to protect the weak, but ultimately he's the same old Neue Mittel partisan he has been for years:

'Preserving the social market economy…requires…courage to implement changes.'

'With the reforms of Agenda 2010 [the social restructuring that produced the massive protest movement that gave birth to the WASG and subsequently the Linkspartei], we…implement[ed] this strategy…with a sense of courage.'

'The SPD…have had the courage to act in spite of having to cope with the resistance of many.'

'If we go on implementing this policy and advance together and with courage…then this will benefit…the social market economy in Germany…[and] in Europe.
He's one courageous man, that Frankie, mentioning the word a full four times in a two-page article.

Similarly, Greek PASOK MP and former European Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou begins her contribution with a entirely sensible, neo-Keynesian call for financing of large-scale European infrastructure projects as a method of priming the European pump, but she quickly back on-message, repeating the neo-liberal myth that inflexible labour markets are the cause of high unemployment - rather than the inevitable product of overcapacity, capital flight, economic sabotage by investors or all three - and calls for labour market reform and invents a wretchedly disingenuous neologism in the process: 'flexi-curity'.

Meanwhile, UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, in addressing the conference, seems to have never received the memo about the new touchy-feely talking points, launching as he did straight into a 'We're so great, us in the UK, and you lot'll stop sucking so hard as soon as you're more like us' lecture on the godlike qualities of the British economy. You'll have heard the laundry list of New Labour's achievements before - 'record levels of employment', 'lifted almost a million children out of poverty,' 'turned water into wine,' 'raised Lazarus from the dead,' etc., etc. What goes without mention, natch, is how many of the jobs created are McJobs, the massive growth in inequality under Blair and that in any case it's all just based on irrationally exuberant consumers buying Stargate: Atlantis DVD box-sets and Philips Men's All-Body Shavers with money they don't have. And it goes without saying that he didn't mention economists' worries that the wheels are about to come off the British economy.

While a number of continental social democrats have noticed that 'the rejection of the proposed EU constitution in the recent referendums [sic] in France and the Netherlands [has] raised difficult questions about the direction the EU should take…[with] Europe's citizens worried about jobs, quality of life and growth,' as Vladimír Špidla, the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities and founding member of the Czech Social Democratic Party puts it in his contribution to the PES document, New Labour seems to be carrying on regardless, with the same prescriptions and discourse as ever.

But those who naively believe that there could be a change of course under Gordon Brown would do well to peruse the contribution to the debate of Douglas Alexander, the UK's minister for Europe and ally of Mr. Brown.

The solution to the European crisis remains for both Blair and Brown the Anglicisation of Europe's economies, and Mr. Alexanders' pamphlet, 'Europe in a Global Age', published this month by the Foreign Policy Centre, sets out in some detail the Brownite vision of the future of social Europe.

In response to the crisis, Alexander recommends a prescription of four elements: social and economic restructuring, trade liberalisation, remove agricultural protections and export subsidies, and a rejection of Europe as superstate. He warns against 'overregulation' and introspection, approvingly quoting the New York Times' evangelist of neo-liberal globalisation, Thomas Friedman.

Claiming to concern himself with the welfare of the twenty million Europeans out of work, he says that such high rates of unemployment are due to 'something in European social structures which inhibits work and economic gain' and that the continent must embrace necessary change of an Anglo-Saxon nature: 'It's a sobering and challenging insight that if the EU were an American state, it would be 46th out of 50, at about the same level of wealth as Alabama.'

No fewer thank six times does Alexander attack greater European political integration, saying, 'the EU must confidently assert its own identity as neither a nation state nor a superstate,' and that '[a] superstate…is not where the future lies…The best description and prescription for today's European Union is a close Union of nation states, working together in those many areas where co-operation can add value' Indeed, the entire final chapter is devoted to extinguishing the hopes of those who dream of an ever closer political union. Furthermore, however many peacekeeping or other military missions the EU may be engaged in overseas, 'Nato remains the primary guarantor of Britain's defence,' not any future European force.

Indeed, the document is so critical of Europe, one could be forgiven for thinking the minister for Europe isn't a pro-European, but actually, the rationale for Alexander's Superstate-phobia is that while he recognises that only as part of the EU can little Britain compete with the continent-sized economies of the US, China and India and is thus happy to encourage the completion of a single market, the democracy, or at least closer political integration that must accompany such economic integration has the danger of imposing on the UK continental social protections.

This is why Alexander is at pains to point out that in fact there is no such thing as a single European social model, but rather there are four different paths to social protection in Europe. He cites a report by economist Andre Sapir, of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, for an EU finance ministers' meeting last September (as did, by the way, John Prescott, and The Economist's Charlemagne in a recent column on European social policies tellingly entitled 'Choose your poison'), who divided European welfare systems into four types: the Continental one, typified by French and German generous benefit systems and strong worker protections; the Mediterranean version, seen in Spain, Italy and Greece, in which there are some of the strongest worker protections laws in Europe, but relatively weak benefit systems, as until recently the family in these more strongly Catholic and Orthodox countries was seen as the safety net more so than the state; the Nordic edition, found in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, which has traditionally offered strong benefits and income redistribution, but has seen considerable deregulation of worker protections over the past decade; and finally the Anglo-Saxon (including Ireland) model, in which there is weak social protection and weak job protection.

Sapir concluded that, given the competitive pressures of globalisation and the demographic pressures of an aging population, only the 'Anglo-Saxon and Nordic models are sustainable, while Continental and Mediterranean models are not and must be reformed in the direction of greater efficiency by reducing disincentives to work and to grow.'

Predictably, Alexander spends a great deal of time attacking the Common Agricultural Policy, and he is right. Agricultural protectionism by both Europe and the US has criminally brutal effects on farmers in the developing world. Closer to home, the 40 per cent of Europe's budget that is spent on the CAP could certainly be spent more wisely - a Europe-wide childcare programme, perhaps? Nonetheless, one suspects all this talk of concern for third-world farmers is just a screen for a defence of the UK rebate.

More broadly, Alexander would like to see at the European level and by other member states deregulation that 'eases the burden on business and promotes competitiveness', a recognition of 'the importance of the transatlantic marketplace' and the 'liberalisation of trade in services', by which he means advancement of the GATS.

This last prescription is of particular concern. The EU is currently engaged in negotiations surrounding the progression of a General Agreement on Trade in Services. The GATS is a trade agreement enforced by the WTO, established in 1994 at the conclusion of the Uruguay Round of the GATT.

The negotiations are as transparent as molasses, but under pressure from progressive NGOs such as France's Attac, as well as trade unions and student groups, information surrounding the GATS has to some extent been revealed.

It is the first multi-lateral agreement on services and covers the grand expanse of the service sector. It aims at 'progressively rising the level of liberalisation' of the service sector with the ultimate aim of full liberalisation of trade in services and the elimination of government non-tariff 'barriers' to international competition in the services sector such as regulations, laws, quotas and standards.

As Maude Barlow, of the Canadian altermondialist NGO Council of Canadians describes the process:

'Essentially, the GATS is mandated to restrict government actions in regards to services through a set of legally binding constraints backed up by WTO-enforced trade sanctions. Its most fundamental purpose is to constrain all levels of government in their delivery of services and to facilitate access to government contracts by transnational corporations in a multitude of areas, including public health and education.

'Infrastructure areas like transportation and telecommunication are included alongside financial services, architecture, electronic data processing services and tourism. Basic public services like education, health care and water also fall under the conditions of GATS.'

And what areas of government services are included? In advance of the 2000 GATS talks, the US conferred with the Coalition of Service Industries, the trade association representing the sector, asking what it would like to see included in a comprehensive GATS agreement. The European Commission did the same with the European Services Forum. The priority areas for the two groups, according to Ms. Barlow's research are health care; hospital care; home care; dental care; child care; elder care; education - primary, secondary and post-secondary; museums; libraries; law; social assistance; architecture; energy; water services; environmental protection services; real estate; insurance; tourism; postal services; transportation; publishing; and broadcasting.

In short, Alexander's 'completion of liberalisation of trade in services' would see the entire public sector apart from the police and army pried open.

Maude Barlow again:

'The U.S. has made its position clear. "The mandate of the negotiations is ambitious: to remove restrictions on trade in services and provide effective market access, subject to specified limitations. Our challenge is to accomplish significant removal of these restrictions across all services sectors, addressing measures currently subject to GATS disciplines and potentially measures not currently subject to GATS disciplines." In non-trade jargon, this means that the 137 members of the WTO have agreed to open up all of their service sectors to free trade laws and the same WTO enforcement powers that have struck down health, food safety and environmental laws in dozens of countries.

'Simply put, the "commons" - or what's left of it - would be under full assault. What used to be areas of common heritage, like seeds and genes, air and water, culture and heritage, and health care and education, would now be slated to be commodified, privatised and sold to the highest bidder on the open market.'

This is New Labour's response to the challenge from the left? This is the UK Presidency of the European Union's response to the post-referendum crisis and its prescription for the defence of Social Europe?

If Sapir, Prescott, Alexander and Charlemagne are all comfortable in disaggregating Social Europe, let's deconstruct the much vaunted Anglo-Saxon model. First of all, there is no one Anglo-Saxon model. The US and UK may have both significantly weakened job protection, but even Blair's Britain has not seen its social provision stripped to the bone as has happened across the Atlantic. Furthermore, if we look further afield, the other Anglo-Saxon economies are just as varied, with Australia akin to the UK and Canada and New Zealand more akin to the Nordic or Continental models, but Canada's economy is putting along reasonably fortissimo at the mo, with little Franco-German stylee economic grimness.

As a little pamphlet from the late Robin Cook's cupboard, 'A New Deal for Social Europe', points out:

'[O]n any objective analysis, there is no correlation between levels of labour market regulation, taxation and public spending on the one hand, and economic performance on the other. If there were, the Danish Swedish Finnish Dutch and Austrian economies would be amongst the least successful economies instead of being amongst the best performing.'

You couldn't fit a Kleenex between Blair and Brown's perspectives on Europe, but there are others in the Labour party who to some extent recognise the political terrain they have lost to the anti-neo-liberal left. Published a few weeks before Alexander's 'Global Age', 'New Deal' was written by a handful of the soft-left wonks, including David Clark, a special advisor to Robin Cook; and Stephen Twigg, the director of the Foreign Policy Centre and parliamentary secretary to Robin Cook when he was Leader of the Commons; as well as ETUC general-secretary John Monks; London mayor Ken Livingstone and former transport commissioner Neil Kinnock. But in reality, the New Deal document, a lively, fighting piece of work, is entirely Robin Cook's. Cook is doing battle with Brown over Europe from the grave.

'The New Deal for Social Europe was really the brainchild of the late Robin Cook,' says Sarah Schaefer, the director of the Europe Programme at the Foreign Policy Centre, 'as he had considerable credibility with the trade unions and the left, but was strongly pro-Europe. The failure of the Yes side in the French and Dutch referenda had inspired him to formulate a progressive argument in favour of Europe.'

Apart from a sprinkling of items, there is little in the way of policy prescription in the document that the anti-neo-liberal left would find disagreeable. In the introduction, the authors say, 'Europe must be more than a marketplace for the free movement of goods, services, labour and capital. It must be an instrument for regulating markets in the public interest.'

'It is bound to be criticised by sections of the press as pro-European and because it rejects the Brownite point of view,' says Schaefer, 'but it was warmly received at the recent Labour Conference - largely because it was seen as Robin Cook's legacy.'

In contrast to Alexander's work, the New Deal document argues straight away for further political integration, and explicitly takes on Alexander's preference for the nation-state:
'Those who are happy for the fate of humanity to be determined by the invisible hand of market forces or the aggregate of private choices believe they have nothing to fear from a world in which politics remains purely national. Indeed, they prefer conditions in which the decisions that matter are beyond the sovereign reach of elected governments.'

In contrast, the authors believe that the European Union is a powerful enough actor that through it, citizens can once again direct their governments to do their bidding, more resistant as it is than the nation-state to the Banshee mistrals of global markets.

As diplomatically as a document whose authorship includes Neil Kinnock can do so, it takes the Labour government to task for its emphasis on market liberalisation in its relations with Europe: 'Tony Blair said that he wanted a political and social Europe, not just a free trade zone…But words are no substitute for action and the positions taken by the British Labour government on, for instance, working time and information and consultation rights for employees have too often appeared to conflict with that aspiration.'

The document also debunks the myth that Britons are less 'social' than those on the continent, pointing out through a series of surveys that in fact, 'in a number of key issues, British opinion often emerges as more egalitarian and socially progressive than several other European countries,' and so we can indeed talk about a commonality of social beliefs across the union, regardless of Andre Sapir's models.

Futhermore, the document notes that those countries that have 'benefited most from glbalisation have done son by ignoring key tenets of neo-liberal ideology'. The governments of China and India remain heavily interventionist and employ capital controls, and the US uses its dollar reserve status to run external deficits that would otherwise force a country to deflate its economy. One might add that the US too, under Bush has engaged in an expansive programme of military Keynesianism, priming the pump in a much more destructive fashion than a Europe-wide childcare programme, and series of large-scale infrastructure projects would.

The document calls for 'a new international economic order', with a global system of managed exchange rates and capital controls. The single currency makes Europe such a force in the global economy as to be able to press for such reforms. Parallel to this, argue the authors, could be an international clearing union, as a mechanism for managing global trade imbalances, and the integration of labour and environmental standards into world trade rules. Indeed, the authors go so far as to call for avenues of 'redistribution that replicate the European Union's social and regional policies on a global scale.'

However, the report's solution to the economic malaise of France and Germany is where it runs aground, arguing wetly that increased investments in R&D, skills and lifelong learning will, erm, do something.

This, of course, does nothing to deal with the much more fundamental problem facing the two countries: that investment decisions remain in the hands of investors, who in times of crisis remain too timid to make the correct investments that will pull the economy out of the slump, or, in the current case of France and especially Germany, who engage in acts of economic sabotage aiming at disciplining the workforce and broader nation into accepting massive structural change.

Nonetheless, the report offers a pair of robust policy recommendations as practical options for counter-cyclical economic management with which the hard left would find it difficult to disagree: a European childcare guarantee, the establishment of a European Recovery Fund (originally advocated by the Labour Party ten years ago) or using the European Investment Bank's lending facility to fund new infrastructure projects.

The report is however dead wrong in its concluding paragraphs on 'Strengthening European Democracy', in which it declares in some genre of act of willing suspension of disbelief, that there is no lack of democracy at the heart of the Union. As Susan George, the vice-president of Attac France, says in an article explaining the reasons for the No's victory in her country in the inaugural edition of Europe's World - a sort of Foreign Affairs journal just for Europe - the proposed constitution 'perpetuated a Commission that is independent of the will of the people, and a Parliament that cannot even initiate legislation, much less levy taxes.'

However, the report does at least recommend the Union proceed with the creation of a position of President of the European Council as was proposed in the Constitution, but have the position be subjected to a direct Europe-wide election. Such a thought must strike fear into the heart of an Alexander, a Brown or a Blair - an elected President of the European Council? B-b-b-but that would mean that a social democrat or worse could theoretically be elected to the position, and no matter how impotent the office may be, could you imagine the horrible effect that would have on UK markets?

For all this, is the document anything more than a propaganda exercise aimed at winning over left-wing eurosceptics in the UK?

Alas, probably not. The FPC's Sarah Shaefer, which published both documents, admits that 'the difference is more in tone and emphasis than in content' despite all the markedly different policy prescriptions. After all, she points out, Neil Kinnock may have co-written A New Deal for Social Europe, but he also wrote the preface to Europe in a Global Age.

'The two perspectives are not as opposed to each other as many would like them to be,' says Schaefer.

'They're really aimed at different audiences: the Global Age document is targeted at a foreign audience, part of an attempt to persuade the continent to adopt the British model, while the New Deal document is targeted at a domestic audience, aimed at building a progressive case for Europe and in particular at persuading the trade unions.'

The authors of the piece, or at least Cook, Twigg, Clark and Livingstone, may genuinely (have) believe(d) in what they have written, but then they aren't minister for Europe in the Foreign Office as Douglas Alexander is.

Thus, in response to the post-referendum crisis, British social democracy where it counts is carrying on as if nothing has happened. But continental social democrats, who in the leadership, to a greater or lesser degree are really just as neo-liberal as Blair and Brown, have acted no differently. In response to the victory of the No, deaf to the votes of a clear majority of his own party's members, Francois Hollande, the leader of France's Socialists, a week after the referendum purged the party leadership of all those who supported the No campaign. 'Clearly we've rather pissed off voters and our supporters. The solution? More of the same.'

In fact, there are about five different ways Europe's social democrats and socialists have reacted to the crisis:

1) There is the Blair/Hollande steady-as-she-goes reaction. The Titanic of neo-liberal social democracy is heading for the iceberg of popular opinion.

2) The Laurent Fabius/Franz Müntefering reaction. They know the ship's headed in the wrong direction but are only pretending to do but not actually going to do something about it. Fabius was a leading No campaigner in France, but everyone remembers his tenure as Prime Minister in the early eighties under Francois Mitterand and the austerity measures he introduced, and knows that his championing the No side was a simply a path to challenging Hollande for the 2007 presidential nomination. Frankie 'Locusts' Müntefering can call foreign investors whatever phylum, genus or species of pest, plague or vermin he wants, but he'll still support the Hartz IV and Agenda 2010 reforms German capital demands.

3) The Cook/Livingstone reaction. They know the ship's headed in the wrong direction and don't believe the ship should be headed in that direction anyway, but in the end remain part of the crew - ship officers even - and are loyally going down with the ship. Their job is to convince everybody to stay calm even though they know that Attac France and the Linkspartei have torn a gaping hole in hull.

4) The Oscar Lafontaine reaction. The ship's headed in the wrong direction and he knew it from the start. He loves the old boat, but he's grabbed a lift in a life-raft that's turned out to be a sturdy little dinghy in the end.

5) The Marie-George Buffet reaction. We thought she had grabbed the same life-raft as Lafontaine, having somewhat revived the previously moribund French Communist Party by taking a leading role in the No campaign, but it seems like she's trying to row back to the Good Ship PS because while it may be sinking, it's, um, bigger than Bescancenot's catamaran.
To torture the metaphor just a little further, then - all the reports and conferences on a new social Europe are thus, ahem, just rearranging the deckchairs.

Europe's social democrats have abandoned the Old-Labour/traditional-SPD, Keynesian, democratic socialist political terrain that had delivered them to power not a few times over the past century. It should not surprise them if forces to their left retake that terrain, and meet with similar success.

woensdag, oktober 12, 2005

DEMOCRACY COMES TO CHINA! (Well, actually just for Mongolian Cow Yogurt Super Girl)

Cranky aussie queen Paul Kidd, author of Buggery.org, recently published a brief, windy-haunted-cave of a despondent posting, writing, 'Every day I think of George Orwell. Every fucking day.'

He certainly has reason to.

Within the television and mobile industry itself, those louche, tranquilising emissions that involve audience participation popularly but counterfactually known as reality TV programmes, such as Big Brother, Pop Idols, et al, are called 'participation TV'. Indeed, there is an industry conference dedicated to the topic coming up in Amsterdam in November whose programme I've been editing.

Television channels, particularly private broadcasters, love the formats as they are very cheap to produce but massively popular, and in an era where advertising dollars are increasingly spread between thousands of media channels and publications/productions, it makes much more sense to produce a Big Brother than an hour-long drama such as the Sopranos, when the former brings in just as many viewers, if not more, for a fraction of the production costs. The latter are increasingly being produced by subscription-based channels such as HBO or the Sci-Fi Channel (and, of course, public broadcasters, who do not depend, or do not depend as much, on advertising sponsorship). The rest of the multi-channel universe is being steadily Who-Wants-To-Be-A-Millionaire-ified.

Mobile operators and telcos also think that the formats are better than ice cream. As in most western European countries, mobile penetration has reached almost complete market saturation (in other words, everyone, including your technophobic gran and your six-year-old sandbox-contaminating niece has one), the operators increasingly have to find other ways of parting you from your centimes, and participation TV is crackerjack adept at convincing all you rubes to spend silly amounts of money on voting for some Turkish, off-key, Xena-the-Warrior-Princess-obsessed vampiress to win the Eurovision Song Contest.

Sadly for both the operators, the channels, the format producers and the mobile aggregators (the companies that arrange the 'in-between' technology and content bits between the operators, TV channels and viewers, tallying votes and so on), the novelty of participation TV is wearing off. New formats, new ways of 'building communities' and new technology permitting more advanced forms of participation and content control are to some extent mitigating this tendency, but the real money is in expansion of the concept to other, much larger markets.

Participation TV took an unusually long time to take off in North America, but this was largely due to the fact that until such shows as American Idols came along, short message service text messaging was all but non-existent, as local calling in most jurisdictions is essentially free. Indeed, in reverse fashion, it was the advent of participation TV that drove up-take of SMS, rather than the prevalence of SMS that drove the expansion of participation TV, as was the case in Europe. However, the format is now well established there, and participation TV sector stakeholders are in any case more interested in Asia and the Middle East, which offer massive and almost entirely unjaded audiences.

India currently has over 50 million mobile users, but it is China which is most attractive, which has a barely untapped market of 200 million mobile subscribers, and participation TV formats are mammoths of the TV schedule. In August, the final episode of Super Girl, a Chinese, Pop Idols-style 'talent' contest for girls, drew 400 million viewers. Around 8 million paid RMB 0.10 (€0.01) to vote via SMS for one of the three finalists, or rather, not 'vote', but offer 'a text message of support'. Throughout the series, the word 'vote' is avoided for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, Li Yuchun, a 21-year-old girl from Sichuan whose repertoire includes the Cranberries' execrable and contractually-obligatory Irish Troubles record, 'Zombie', won with 3.5 million such 'text messages of support'. So popular has the show proved, that the Mengniu Milk Group has paid Hunan TV RMB 14 million (€1.4 million) for the naming rights to the show, which is now officially called Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girls.

Similarly, a Chinese internet portal, Tom Online, has seen its revenues expand through the import of elements of participation TV - ring-tones and ring-back-tones, WAP, MMS and premium SMS voting-that-we-won't-call-voting. The growth was largely a result of the introduction of participation elements to certain sporting events, in particular the broadcast of the NBA finals on channel CCTV-5.

Elsewhere, in pseudo-democracy Malaysia, where opposition candidates do occasionally win seats in the federal Parliament and state assemblies, so long as they or their parties' members have not been detained by the police, there are some 26 different locally produced reality shows. The final episode of the most popular, Akademi Fantasia, a participation TV format in its third season in which contestants stay in a house and take voice and dancing lessons, recently attracted 12 million SMS votes in a country with a population of 25 million.

UK-based Fremantle Media, one of the largest producers of participation TV formats in the world, produces some 260 programmes across 43 territories, and owns the rights to the Idols and The Apprentice formats. Its latest programme, SuperStar, the pan-Arab version of Pop Idols, is the most popular programme ever shown in the Middle East. Each of the finals for the 2003 and 2004 series received over 3 million votes from viewers. The next edition, SuperStar 2005, will be transmitted via Lebanese satellite channel Future TV to the Middle East and North Africa, with audiences in 17 countries able to participate.

Despite the dearth of democracy in the region, regimes are happy to allow citizens to exercise this particular franchise that encroaches on no elite interests. Indeed, the show has even become a battleground for national prestige, no different from major sporting events. Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has taken to SuperStar like a North Korean dictator takes to South Korean movie stars, with the government taking out ads in local newspapers encouraging citizens to vote for the Tunisian candidate, seeing the contest as vital to the nation's regional standing.

Meanwhile, in Tunisia, the sweeping privatisation of the public sector and a free-trade accord with the European Union has resulted in massive internal economic dislocation, with as much as a third of the country's manufacturing industry disappearing, according to some estimates. In response, a small Tunisian branch of the Tobin Tax and anti-neo-liberal pressure group Attac (Rassemblement pour une alternative internationale de developpement [Raid-Attac Tunisie]) was formed to in order to critique the free-trade accord and its local consequences. Its spokesperson, Fathi Chamki is one of the most harassed civil society dissidents in the country. He has been ill-treated, tortured and jailed, and, despite the organisation numbering only around a hundred, its members are routinely harassed and are under constant police surveillance. Their freedom of movement is severely curtailed and their phone and mail communications are intercepted. In September, the Tunisian authorities' prohibited the independent Tunisian Journalists' Syndicate (SJT) from holding its first congress. The country's severely overcrowded jails house some 2,000 prisoners of conscience in wretched, inhumane conditions. Arrests, torture, and beatings of dissidents in broad daylight are daily occurrences and freedom of expression is non-existent. Philippe Squarzoni, a French comic book journalist on the model of Joe Sacco and one of the first members of the original, French Attac, says Ben Ali has transformed Tunisia into 'a barracks with the air of a Club Med'.

Nonetheless, Tunisia is regularly described by the IMF as a model of liberalisation that the rest of the region must emulate. Jacques Chirac never misses an opportunity to praise the 'Tunisian Miracle' and Ben Ali himself, who has been in power since 1987.

In this world turned upside down, citizens may vote, indeed in some instances are urged to vote but only in this MTV-style-edited, Disneyfied, parody of democracy, for Pop Idols and, most apropos, Big Brother, but not in anything that resembles a free election.

Foreign Affairs magazine devoted its last issue to China, and one article [you have to pay for access, but the International Herald Tribune also published a free-to-access précis of the same piece under the title, 'An open economy, a closed society'] explored how a number of countries, China in particular, have actualised more or less what the authors approve of in the way of free markets and achieved quite remarkable rates of growth - but without any regard for western parliamentary democratic norms, in contrast to the long-articulated liberal discourse that economic liberalisation undermines repressive regimes.

This is more than instructive: Why subject ourselves, might ask the great captains of industry, the masters of the universe, to the messy, frequently social democratic products of democracy any more, when we can achieve what we want just as easily if not more so without such excesses? What utility any more has democracy? Indeed, the major institutions that currently govern us already do not pretend to have even a facade of democracy: the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the UN Security Council, the European Commission.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the future, Tunisia is the future: democracy as naught but reality TV bon bon.

maandag, oktober 10, 2005

The NED and the supremacy of human rights discourse

Last week, I published a rather long-winded piece, 'Imperialists in NGO drag', on the dodgy arriere-cuisine of Reporters Sans Frontieres, which receives some of its funding from the U.S. State Department quasi-NGO, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Over at Politics of Dissent, a blog by an Arizona attorney, Ken Sanders, with an interest in home-brewing and wine-making and a similar predilection to your correspondent for long-form blogging, has written a decent piece, 'Imperialists in democratic clothing' [Honest, we don't know each other, and I only came across his piece from an e-mail blast from Z Magazine, and we certainly didn't co-ordinate our headlines. Omigod. I swear. This is worse than the senior prom, when Nicole Gusenbauer and I both wore the same mauve dress and she, like, totally deliberately spilled non-alcoholic punch on it just out of spite…] essentially extending the thesis - that hegemons are exploiting human rights groups' organisational forms to hide imperialist activity - but exploring in greater depth the activities of the NED in particular, noting that the group is: 'a darling of the neo-conservatives and shares membership with the Project for a New American Century.'

'[And i]n the 1980s, the NED funded militaristic and dictatorial candidates in Panama, as well as opposition candidates in such stable democracies as Costa Rica (the opposition candidate in Costa Rica also had the endorsement of that champion of democracy, Manuel Noriega).

'In the 1990 elections in Haiti, the NED provided significant funding to former World Bank official Marc Bazin in a failed attempt to oust the leftist Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

'In the 1990s, the NED supported Skender Gjinushi, speaker of the Albanian parliament and former member of the Stalinist Politburo in Albania. Gjinushi was a principle organiser of the unrest that led to the 1997 fall of the democratic government in Albania, not to mention the death of over 2,000 people.

'In Slovakia, the NED funded several initiatives that ultimately resulted in the defeat of Slovakia's freely-elected government. The NED-backed "reformers" who took over in Slovakia were largely leading officials in the Communist regime of then-Czechoslovakia.'
One must suppose, however, that at a minimum we can say that the discourse of human rights and democracy is so pervasive that imperialism has no choice but to disguise itself in such language.

The supremacy of human rights discourse, whatever its exploitation by the U.S. State Department, is thus at least something to celebrate.

Update: Talos, of the solid English-language Greek blog Histologion, has written in, noting a rather glaring inaccuracy in Sanders' argument:

Gjinushi is a rather minor political figure, head of the Social Democratic Party, which got something around 4% in the last elections, and speaker of the Parliament for a long time. I'm not sure whether he was "a member of the Stalinist politburo", but I doubt it - anyway what is described as the "democratic government", was headed by Berisha, who also started his political career as a member of the Communist Party - as indeed the vast majority of Albanian politicians of any stripe and above a certain age.

Gjinushi was most certainly not a principle organiser of the unrest that led to the 1997 fall of the "democratic government" in Albania - a cleptocracy in fact, the likes of which would make Boris Yeltsin blush, whose fall was due to what was most certainly a popular armed insurection after a pyramid scheme in the country's deregulated banks cost most Albanians the sum total of their savings. Savings it must be said, amassed slowly and with great difficulty by the country's slaving one million immigrants since 1990. Berisha was in fact a darling of the West up to the collapse of the pyramid schemes.

Nonetheless, the NED remains a wolf of an NGO.

Grand Coalition accelerates SPD's demise

So the SPD has traded the Chancellorship for eight cabinet portfolios and a moderation to the CDU's plans for labour market reforms. Even accepting the new Linkspartei's (correct) rejection of joining a neo-liberal coalition with the SPD and Greens, Schroeder's hara-kiri, as I pointed out before, was unnecessary.

That the SPD would rather eat their own and join with the CDU when the left actually won the election, than contemplate entering into a coalition with a party whose programme is little different from that of the pre-Neue-Mittel SPD, shows how strategically and ideologically bankrupt the party is.

Well, it's their funeral. The Grand Coalition will further alienate SPD supporters, introduce reforms extending economic dislocation in the country and thus expand the audience for the Linkspartei's ideas. Far from saving the SPD, the Grand Coalition accelerates the party's demise.

By the way, the Linkspartei scored a handsome 19.23 per cent in the Dresden election, pushing the Free Democrats and Greens into a distant fourth and fifth place.

dinsdag, oktober 04, 2005

Imperialists in NGO drag - US State Department lickspittles Reporters Sans Frontieres produce blogger handbook? Humbug!

Christopher Hitchens, many years before he developed his gasconade, cock-rocketish oeuvre of liberalism-for-frat-boys, wrote a smart little leaflet about how beatific old Mother Theresa was in reality a condom-banning, abstinence-preaching, dictator-ass-kissing harpee of a thing. Everyone quite loved the saintly little midget, so Hitch received not a few sackfuls of hate-mail from affronted Catholic Girl Guides and the like. Who but the hardest-hearted of cynics could find something for which to criticise the beloved Saint of Calcutta's good deeds amongst the poorest of the poor?

Although they don't quite have the public relations machine of the late Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, Reporters Sans Frontieres, the France-based NGO that fights for press freedoms around the world, has as benign a reputation, and is widely thought of as an unimpeachably righteous do-gooder non-profit on the model of Amnesty International. And they have this last week published a pamphlet of their own that will only burnish such regard.

RSF has put out a guidebook for bloggers, aiming in particular at those who live under regimes with a less than humanist attitude towards press freedoms. The Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-dissidents is, according to the Guardian's
bloggers, 'a cross between a motivational business guide and the internet's answer to the Anarchist Cookbook', and, with the acute blogophobia of governments such as that of China, which only last Sunday announced a new crackdown on internet-based writers and activists, increasingly resulting in the suppression and imprisonment of bloggers, there is no better time than now to issue such a pamphlet.

So it seems to be farting in church a little to point out that RSF is actively engaged in the advancement of US and French foreign policy interests to the detriment of reporters' rights; that it white-washed of the murder of journalists in Iraq by occupation forces; supports the right-wing Venezuelan opposition, the invasion of Iraq, and the overthrow of Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Bertrand Aristide; and receives funding from not merely the State Department but also hard-right Miami-based hard-right Cuban exile groups that support anti-Castro terrorism.

Nonetheless, all of this is true. Reporters Sans Frontieres, founded by Frenchman Robert Menard, is nothing more than imperialists in NGO drag, on the model of the AFL-CIO's
notoriously Latin-America-meddling American Center for International Labor Solidarity (which replaces its forerunner, the American Institute of Free Labor Development - the American House of Labor's participation in the overthrow of Chile's Salvador Allende*).

Plainly, in Stalinist Cuba, press freedom does not exist in the way it does in, say, northern European countries, and is thus a legitimate target of criticism from an organisation that monitors violations of press freedom around the globe. However, in its criticisms of Cuba, RSF goes beyond legitimate criticisms of the attacks on journalistic liberties into active anti-regime propagandising barely distinguishable from the biased press releases of the State Department, or even the froth-mouthed hyperbole of the Miami Cuban-exile mafia.

Every year, RSF publishes an annual ranking of countries based on their press freedom, the Worldwide Press Freedom Index. Near the top of the most recent index, not unexpectedly, are such nations as Denmark, Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand, while at the bottom are such oppobrious freedom-allergics as China, Burma, Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. No surprise really. What is surprising is that Cuba comes in dead last, apart from the aforementioned Stalinist Disneyland of Kim Jong-il.

Now, Castro's regime has a lot to answer for, but is the level of press freedom there really almost as bad as that of North Korea? Let's have a closer look at that index, shall we? Out of 167 rankings, Cuba comes 166th, lower than China, which comes 162nd; lower than Nepal - 160th; Iraq - 148th - where, as of the end of September, according to RSF's own figures, 70 journalists had been killed by both sides; dissident-boiling Uzbekistan - 142nd; Russia - 140th; trade-union-friendly Colombia - 134th; Turkey - 114th; and - and this is quite telling - Israel, which comes in at 37th.

But what has happened in Cuba to so frighten these defenders of press freedom? What wicked act could the Cuban authorities have performed against reporters and the media that convinces them that Cuba is the second-least-free state on Earth in terms of freedom of the press? How many journalists have they tortured and killed?

None, actually. No boil-in-a-bag repression Uzbek-stylee; no gay Iranian bloggers hung; no cameramen sentenced to thirty years for speaking Kurdish on air and no Chinese labour activists sent to the funny farm indefinitely for printing posters denouncing poor working conditions.

This is not to say that Cuba is without fault. As RSF says, everything from internet use to possession of a fax machine or computer requires permission and, apart from a handful of Catholic Church newsletters, there are virtually no independent publications. Indeed, one cannot really criticise the specific reason RSF finds a problem with Cuba - the arrest, trial and imprisonment of 21 dissident journalists for receiving funding from the U.S. The reporters remain in jail.

Now, it is true that the journalists met regularly at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, receiving advice and funding and are committed to the overthrow of the Castro regime, and one may justifiably ask whether in the States journalists who had received funding and training from a foreign government committed to the destruction of the U.S. and who met regularly at the embassy of an enemy nation would be treated any differently than these Cuban reporters have, but they would certainly not have been arrested and imprisoned in most of the cuddly Scandicanadazealandian democracies - and they, surely, are the better measure of press freedom, not the United States.

The problem is not that RSF criticises Cuba - although some Castrophiles refuse to hear anything but that Cuba is some libertarian Shangri-la and RSF rightly takes such blinkered romantics on - it is that the criticism of Cuba is out of all proportion to the level of pressures on press freedom that exist there.

But back to that list. Israel, by the way, comes in ahead of Italy (39th), and perhaps understandably, but also ahead of Australia (41st), Japan (43rd) and South Korea (48th). Actually, in truth, Israel, like only one other country on the list, has its ranking split in two. In its Worldwide Press Freedom Index, RSF allows Israel to have two kicks at the can - Israel (Israeli territory), which wins 37th place, and Israel (Occupied Territories), which wins 116th place - which is awfully sporting of them. I wonder where Israel would fall in the listing if the two rankings were combined. Still, as bad as things are at level 116, they're still better, according to the noble RSF witnesses, than at level 127 - the Palestinian Authority.

The other country that gets a double-ranking free kick is - shall we say it together, kids? - the United States. There is that bastion of press freedom and home of Fox News, United States of America (American territory), which comes in at a respectable 23rd place, just behind Belgium but ahead of Portugal (25th), South Africa (26th) and the U.K. (30th); and then there is United States of America (in Iraq) [note here how while conceding Israel is occupying something, the U.S. is just 'in' Iraq, like 'I just popped in for a visit', or 'I was over at Mrs. Gilbert's, and what did she put in her strudel, why candied ginger, donchaknow!'], which comes in at a woeful 108th place, sandwiched between Kyrgyzstan and Cambodia, and in the neighbourhood of the Central African Republic (104th) and Rwanda (113th) and Turkey (114th) - still better, mind you than the aforementioned Cuba, of course. Turkey, unfortunately, was unable to convince the judges to allow it both a Turkey (Kurdish-journo-torturing) and a Turkey (non-Kurdish-journo-torturing), which I think is just rotten favouritism on the part of the refs.

Indeed, in the
press release announcing the latest index, RSF seems to forget entirely how poorly America's 'evil twin' performed in its league table, as under a headline that reads, 'The two North American giants score well', the group reports that:

'A police raid in Canada on the home of journalist Juliet O'Neil and the national regulatory authority’s stand against the pan-Arab radio station Al-Jazeera and the local station CHOI FM downgraded the country to 18th place. Violations of the privacy of sources, persistent problems in granting press visas and the arrest of several journalists during anti-Bush demonstrations kept the United States (22nd) away from the top of the list.'
The decision of Canada's national regulatory authority, the CRTC, was actually to approve the broadcast of Al-Jazeera - the Qatar based channel known for being the sand in the thong of Arab regimes almost as much for the calumny it attracts from the U.S., and which has just managed to sign Sir David Frost, the veteran BBC interviewer - thus RSF, the defender of press freedom, is here actually criticising the Canadian communications regulator for expanding such freedom.

The release doesn't even mention the U.S. Army's 8 April 2003 shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Iraq, where almost all foreign journalists had been based, killing Spanish cameraman José Couso of Telecinco and Ukrainian Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and wounding three others. In fact, on the very same day, the Iraqi offices of United Arab Emirates satellite channel Abu Dhabi TV were hit by air strikes as well, and two American air-to-surface missiles also hit Al Jazeera's office in Baghdad and killed Tariq Ayoub, a Jordanian reporter, and wounded Zouhair al-Iraqi, an Iraqi cameraman. Three missile attacks on the media in one day - oh, and add to that Nato's bombing of Radio Televizija Srbija during the air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, and, well, I'm not saying there's a pattern here - I'm no tin-foil-hat-wearing moonbat that thinks that just because one country's armed forces has systematically targeted television stations over and over, that there might be some conspiracy here, but you know - it bears looking into.

But no, according to RSF's release, 'persistent problems in granting press visas' was America's gravest sin against press freedoms.

RSF itself did actually denounce the attack on the Palestine Hotel initially, but when it came to its own investigation of the shelling, RSF's report ultimately exonerated the U.S. of all blame, resulting in the family of José Couso to attack the RSF report as a white-wash. The Couso family responded to the RSF report
press release, saying:

'The conclusions of this report exculpate the acknowledged perpetrators of the shelling of the Palestine Hotel on the basis of the dubious impartiality of embedded reporters and the testimony of those responsible for the shelling, transferring responsibility to unidentified individuals.

'The report was signed by a journalist, Jean Paul Mari, who has a known relationship with Col. Phillip de Camp, who acknowledged his involvement in the attack and the deaths of the journalists at the Palestine Hotel. Furthermore, the report is supported by the testimony of three journalists embedded with U.S. troops, all of them U.S. citizens; one of them, Chris Tomlinson, having worked for U.S. Army intelligence for more than seven years. None of the Spanish journalists in the hotel has been consulted for the writing of this report.

'The report contains numerous errors, contradictions and irregularities in reference to important facts such as the location of the rooms at the hotel, the site of impact of the shell, the location of witnesses, etc…Reporters without Borders (Spanish Section) requested to join the complaint filed by the family on May 27, 2003, against those responsible for the death of José Couso. After the release of this report which, according to its version, excuses them from responsibility in the murder of the journalists at the Palestine Hotel, it is absolutely illogical and contradictory that their organization continues to be a party to the public action in the open proceedings of the National Tribunal.

'For this reason we express the wish of the family that they withdraw their request for standing as a party to the public action in the open proceedings of the National Tribunal.'*
In fact, RSF actually praised the invasion of Iraq and celebrated the bombing campaign, saying: 'the overthrow of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein ended 30 years of official propaganda and has opened a new era of freedom, full of hope and uncertainty, for Iraqi journalists,' and that, 'for the Iraqi media, decades of zero press freedom ended with the bombing of the Ministry of Information on 9 April in Baghdad.'

Apart from the organisation's contemptable white-washing of America's targeting of war correspondents, thus directly endangering the lives of journalists, and its explicit support for American imperialism, on a more prosaic level, RSF takes Turkmenistan to task, and rightly so, for having no privately-owned media, but the organisation says nothing, absolutely nothing about the undermining of public broadcasters in the United States (the Republican Congress' assaults on the funding of the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio), in the U.K. (the attacks on BBC surrounding Andrew Gilligan), in Canada (the governing Liberal's slashing of the CBC's budget by $400m, around 33 per cent of its funding) or the European Commission's allergy to German public broadcasters' spending money on new forms of diffusion of information such as the internet or via mobile. There is a concerted international attempt by the privatisation fundamentalists to undermine public broadcasting and a growing corporate concentration of the mass media and RSF says nothing about either's effect on press freedom.

Lately, the organisation has taken to criticising Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, specifically for three items: physical attacks on journalists by government supporters, public protests against corporate media bias, and a new law that requires the media adhere to norms of 'social responsibility'.

It is a twisted logic, however, as what are in fact popular and government attempts to free the media from hard-right, corporate control are portrayed as their inverse: attacks on the media. The very attempts to expand the freedom of the press in Venezuela for RSF are crimes against liberty and sufficient to warrant awarding Venezuela 90th place in its Press Freedom Index.

The country's five largest television channels - Venevisión, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Globovisión and CMT - are privately owned and so vituperatively hostile to the Chavez government that they make even Fox News look, well, fair and balanced, and moreover, nine of the ten largest newspapers are opposed to the government.

Impartiality is a foreign concept to the television stations, who,
according to Nation journalist Naomi Klein, during the 2003 failed 'strike' by the managers and owners of the state petrol company, broadcast an average of 700 pro-strike commercials a day. Further, found Klein:

'[I]n the days leading up to the [failed] April coup, Venevisión, RCTV, Globovisión and Televen replaced regular programming with relentless anti-Chávez speeches, interrupted only for commercials calling on viewers to take to the streets: "Not one step backward. Out! Leave now!" The ads were sponsored by the oil industry, but the stations carried them free, as "public service announcements."'

During the strike, the country's communications regulator and a local council for the rights of children and youth in the town of Tachira attempted to use the courts to force the TV stations to break their 24-hour coverage of the lock-out for at least a few hours a day in order to show children's programming - broadcasts which are mandated by the stations' licences. Nonetheless, in RSF's cuckoo, inverted world, this is yet another example of state intimidation of the media.

According to the makers of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, an award-winning documentary on the Venezuelan media's role in the abortive coup, insults, false allegations and even calls for the overthrow of Chavez were and continue to be common in the press and on TV. As the filmmakers note, a month before the coup, the El Nacional newspaper falsely and wackily reported that the Chavez government had entered into a secret deal with Hizbollah and the Iranian government, allowing Iran to build a military base in Venezuela, while the channels routinely refer to government supporters as 'Taliban' and compare Chavez to Hitler, Mussolini and Idi Amin.

In an era when Islamist militants who publish or preach 'enticement to violence' in the UK can be deported from the country or imprisoned, it is glisteningly remarkable that in Venezuela not a single journalist has been jailed, and the TV stations have continued to broadcast their rabid anti-government propaganda.

On a recent visit to Caracas, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told Chavez that he had heard many criticisms in Spain of the lack of press freedom in Venezuela, but after watching just a morning's worth of the rivers of maniacal disinformation that passes for television programming and having read the day's papers, he declared that he had no doubt in his mind that there was 'full and total freedom of speech' in Venezuela.

A former editor with CNN en Español, Andrés Izarra, interviewed by Naomi Klein believes that because the four TV stations have undermined press freedom to such an extent, they have forfeited their right to broadcast and should have their licences revoked.

According to both Le Monde Diplomatique and Klein's Nation article, on the night of the coup, the owner of Venevisión, Gustavo Cisneros, hosted the meetings of the coup plotters at the station. The president of Venezuela's broadcasting chamber was one of the signatories to the decree dissolving the elected National Assembly - the negligee of legality in which the plotters dressed their coup d'etat. The TV networks celebrated the coup on air, but when the coup went awry, and the poor of Caracas and sections of the military rose up returning Chavez to power, the stations responded with a complete media black-out, programming only light entertainment as if nothing had changed.

Truly, the coup was a media-military putsch, where the major media players were not merely sympathetic to the coup, or even just propagandised in its favour, but actively participated in and helped co-ordinate the event.

It is in such a climate that reporters from these stations have come under physical assault from the poor and working classes of Venezuela, defending their president who has massively expanded the provision of social services in the country. RSF's 2004 Venezuela report cites 62 physical assaults on such journalists. However, when one examines the report, one finds that of the 62 attacks only one was by agents of the state. The rest were by 'government supporters' or in one case, merely 'apparently Chavez supporters' (RSF is thus happy to take it on hearsay that attacks are performed by certain actors without corroboration). Furthermore, when one parses the list of attacks, one is struck by the number of 'attacks' that are in fact merely journalists being 'insulted and jostled'.

Indeed, in the most Orwellian of manoeuvres, when Venezuelans have taken to the street to protest the media bias, RSF finds such actions sufficient to include them in its list of assaults on media freedom. As RSF itself admits, most of the assaults came from government supporters during the strike, angry at the bias of the major media outlets, which, says the RSF report, 'actively backed the opposition movement, sometimes violating journalistic principles.' To be sure, many of the demonstrators attacked the right-wing journalists with stones, and this - or any form of violence towards journalists - is completely unacceptable, no matter how biased the reporters, but it must be noted that government supporters are not the same as the government, and that as problematic as such a climate is, it pales in comparison to the regular murder and imprisonment of journalists that occurs on a sadly increasing basis in many other countries.

Since the coup, the stations have continued to operate, with no action having been taken against their directors. What the government has done, is introduce legislation that requires the stations adhere to norms of 'social responsibility', under which, media outlets that 'excus[e] or advocat[e] disrespect for lawful institutions and authorities' are to be penalised.'

However, this tame measure aimed at reining in the corporate-putschist media barons is transformed by RSF into government harassment of the 'free' press.

This burlesque, where a reporters' defence organisation defends instead coup-plotters, was repeated last February, on the occasion of the U.S.-French overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. RSF hailed the coup, calling the popular social-democratic leader a 'predator of press freedom', and, according to local independent documentary film-maker Kevin Pina, carefully documented attacks by Aristide supporters on opposition radio stations while paying no attention to violence on reporters from government opponents, thus helping craft the international media's 'framing' of the conflict in Haiti as one of state and state-supported violence against the media and opposition.

Following the coup and subsequent kidnapping of Aristide, which RSF describes as a 'resignation', the organisation issued a statement declaring that press freedom had returned: 'A new wind of freedom is blowing for the capital’s radio stations.'

According to Amnesty International, after Aristide was overthrown, paramilitaries entered Port-au-Prince and massacred thousands of poor peasants and slum dwellers perceived to be sympathetic to Aristide's Lavalas party.

Following the coup, Canada's RCMP reorganised and trained the Haitian National Police (HNP), who, according to the Canada-Haiti Action Network (CHAN), have continued this wave of killing. An International Crisis Group assessment reports that the HNP have continued the practices of the former Haitian army, which had been abolished by Aristide, including military operations against the capital's poorer quarters. Journalists too have come under assault, alongside Port-au-Prince's poor, with one radio reporter killed in January, but RSF says nothing at all about this.

If we follow the money, the bricolage of dodgy imperial sugar-daddies that populate the arriere-cuisine of Robert Menard's soi-disant human rights organisation, we can perhaps understand a little more why it is that RSF has such a throbbing hard-on for Cuba and Venezuela and is deaf to the screams from Port-au-Prince's slums and radio stations.

To begin with, for an NGO, the group is remarkably close to France's haute bourgeoisie. RSF receives the bulk of its funding from FNAC, the giant French music, electronics and book retailer; CFAO, the French-African automobile and pharmaceuticals distributor; the Hewlett Packard Foundation; French publishing house Hachette; the Electricité de France Foundation; George Soros' Open Society Institute; and France's Sanofi-Aventis, the world's third-largest pharmaceutical firm, amongst others.

Vivendi Universal Publishing Services, a division of Vivendi, the French water-giant-cum-media-conglomerate, offers RSF promotional material, and via Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, Publicis, the Paris-based advertising behemoth, delivers marketing services to RSF gratis.

The group has also received donations from Menard's personal friends, the late arms dealer Jean-Guy Lagardère, and French UMP senator Serge Dassault, the owner of the Dassault Group, a manufacturer of fighter jets. The Dassault Group also owns 82 per cent of Socpresse, which controls leading French conservative newspapers Le Figaro, Valeurs Actuelles and L'Express.

RSF also obtains 11 per cent of its budget in direct funding from the French government, and also receives indirect funding from the U.S. via grants from the Center for a Free Cuba, an organisation that is committed to the overthrow of the Cuban government and which is financed by USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy. Amongst other activities, the NED finances the right-wing Venezuelan opposition - to the tune of some $20 million so far - and is headed by Frank Calzón, who has connections to the Miami anti-Castro exile community and was the former leader of an anti-Castro terrorist group, Abdala, which performed a number of admittedly not terribly successful actions in the U.S. in the 1970's against the Cuban football team. Subsequently, he was director of the Cuban American National Foundation, the principal Cuban-American lobby in Washington.
Luis Posada Carriles, the Cuban-Venezuelan CIA-trained terrorist mastermind behind a series of hotel bombings and the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner in which seventy-three people were killed, claimed in a 1998 interview in the New York Times that he had received financial backing from CANF for a 1997 bombing campaign in Cuba.

So this is the crowd Menard and his RSF runs with: a Shanghai of anti-Castro zealots with links to CIA-trained terrorists; the sultans of the French publishing, pharmaceutical, advertising and arms industries and France's conservative press; and the various tentacles of the U.S. State Department and the French government. With RSF's benefactors coming from such noble quarters as these, one really shouldn't be surprised at all at RSF's Cuban, Venezuelan and Haitian perfidies.

For years, large corporations vacillated between attempting to marginalise environmental campaigners and being petrified that their campaigns were costing them market share amongst beardy Volvo drivers. Today, even the most flagrant eco-scofflaw enterprise has rebranded itself as environmentally right-on, regardless of their continued production of, say, mercury-infused lollipops. Campaigners have found this manoeuvre, of using environmentalists' own campaign strategies and language against them - a sort-of public relations jujitsu that they call 'greenwashing' - intractably difficult to counter, as the Volvo drivers return from the barricades, convinced by the corporations' reassuring words and satisfied that they have saved the world in time for tea.

Like Shell, BP and Unilever before them, imperialists too have now developed their own form of human rights 'greenwashing': impersonating an NGO.

As with Human Rights Watch and Freedom House (which both have similar conservative political and corporate ties to those of RSF), individuals with long histories in or connections to the foreign affairs departments, diplomatic corps and even military or secret services of hegemonic states have formed organisations modeled on such civil society groups as Amnesty International or Friends of the Earth, employing the same discourse of democracy, freedom and justice as that of human rights campaigners.

These groups perform just enough good in the world - such as publishing pamphlets for bloggers and cyber-dissidents - that no one notices when they act in keeping with their original purpose: to further the interests of empire.

* For a comprehensive overview of the history of the AFL-CIO's participation in the U.S. State Department's plans for Latin America, see
Labor Educator's series, The AFL-CIO's Dark Past.

** From the Spanish. From a Z Magazine
article by Salim Lamrani, translated by Diana Barahona.