New on my other blogs

KERALA LETTER
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?
Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel

വായന

31 January, 2010

On Obama's State of the Union address

RALPH NADER
Countercurrents.org

The President's State of the Union Speech is the Big Speech of the year. Yet there is never an opportunity either for the press or the citizenry to promptly follow up with any questions or requests for clarifications. As a result, doubt and misunderstandings fester.

Watching President Obama's speech the other evening before a joint session of vociferous members of Congress, quiet Supreme Court Justices and military brass, I jotted down a few items for the White House to consider.

First, Mr. Obama cited the Senate's inaction four times in contrast to the House of Representatives. To add to his frustration, he cited the Republican leadership for insisting that "sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town." What he did not do was to urge his fellow Democrats to change the filibuster rule by a simple majority vote.

As a legal expert, Tom Geoghegan wrote to Senate majority leader Harry Reid (Dem. Nev) this week, "the Senate can act to change its rules, any rule, by majority vote, even a rule requiring a greater one." That means that the Democrats can change this rule with only 51 of their 59 votes in the Senate and get these bills passed.

Why President Obama did not tell tens of millions of Americans Wednesday evening about how to break the logjam, the gridlock on health insurance, energy, jobs, financial reform and other measures, that they dislike, is a question only he can answer. "Certainly Senate Rule 22 itself should be changed, so that there is ultimately a simple majority for a cloture limiting debate vote," according to Geoghegan.

Second, since dollars invested in energy efficiency and renewable energy have greater, safer, returns than money going into what Mr. Obama calls “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants and clean coal technologies,(which require heavy government subsidies), why did he accord the latter the same priority as the former?

Third, President Obama promised to double our exports over the next five years. This really raised eyebrows, leading New York Times reporter Helene Cooper to write that this highly ambitious goal would require him to persuade China to revalue its currency by 40 percent, "get global economic growth to outperform the salad days from 2003 to 2007 and lower taxes for American companies that do business abroad," plus "forget about strengthening the dollar." He left his own supporters wondering how he could perform this miracle and not forget his campaign promise to revise NAFTA.

Fourth, on health insurance reform, Mr. Obama said: "If anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors and stop insurance company abuses, let me know." Well, Mr. President, try what you supported before you became a Presidential candidate--single payer, full Medicare for all, with free choice of doctor and hospital. Remember you did not allow single payer adherents to have a seat at the table, the way the CEO of Aetna did five times in the White House. (For more see SinglePayerAction.org)

Fifth, you alluded as one reason for the multi-trillion dollar deficits you inherited from the Bush regime was "not paying for two wars." Well, you also are not pressing for a war tax to pay for your two wars, as Rep. David Obey (Dem. Wisc) urged you and other Democrats to do a few months ago. What is the difference and why?

Sixth, the President asserted the need to freeze government spending for three years, but excluded the well-documented, bloated, wasteful, redundant Pentagon budget. He also did not go after the huge corporate welfare budget of subsidies, handouts, giveaways and bailouts. Instead, he left many civic groups wondering what cuts might be coming for programs relating to food, auto, job and environmental safety.

Seventh, his brief words of foreign and military policy came across as Bush redux trying to show how tough he is. He compared notches on his belt in terms of the number of captured or slain "Al Qaeda's fighters and affiliates." He, of course, did not make any comparisons with the far greater number of innocent civilian causalities from drones and other bombings.

These were strange phrasings from a recent Nobel Peace Prize winner who managed to ignore completely the peace process for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There was not one sentence on, arguably, the core issue in that tumultuous region.

Eighth, on the Iraq war, he went over the top, declaring "make no mistake: this war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home." Not really. Both Bush and Obama have concluded that 50,000 soldiers will remain in Iraq indefinitely, with many more in the Persian Gulf region.

American taxpayers will be paying nearly $800 million a year just to guard the U.S. Embassy and its personnel in Baghdad. That sum alone is greater than either the annual budgets of OSHA ($502 million to deal with 58,000 work related deaths in America) or NHTSA ($730 million to deal with over 40,000 road fatalities.)

I'm sending this column to the White House. You also may wish to send your observations to President Obama. Citizens should be more than spectators to the annual state of the union spectacle.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. His most recent book - and first novel - is, Only The Super Wealthy Can Save Us. His most recent work of non-fiction is The Seventeen Traditions.

29 January, 2010

Sri Lanka's capacity to hold free and fair elections in doubt

BASIL FERNANDO

On the 26th January the election for the position of Executive President was held in Sri Lanka and the election commissioner declared the incumbent president, Mahinda Rajapakse, as the winner. The common candidate for the opposition, retired general Sarath Fonseka, rejected the results stating that the announced results were false due to the prevalence of violence, electoral fraud and tampering of the counting process itself. The commissioner while announcing the results to the nation in a televised message stated in strong terms that he was subjected to severe pressure and humiliation to an extent that he was unable to bear it any longer. All commentaries on the election commissioner’s speech interpreted it to indicate that he was not satisfied with the conditions under which he had to carry out his duties in conducting the election in a free and fair manner.

Very clearly, the question as to whether Sri Lanka is any longer capable of conducting a free and fair election has been raised in this election. It is not only the electoral process that is under challenge but the very process of receiving, preserving and counting of the ballot at the commissioner’s office itself which is the issue that has been prominently raised. Besides this, the enormous abuse of state resources by the government for its electoral purposes and particularly the blatant abuse of the state media for direct propaganda to request people not to vote for the opposition candidate, in defiance of the commissioner’s direct interventions, have all contributed to the creation of the overwhelming impression that the conditions for a free and fair election were not observed during this election.

The problem of the difficulties in ensuring a free and fair election was recognised previously. In 2001 the amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution of 1978 was passed in the parliament with rare unanimity which, among other things, created a Constitutional Council in order to ensure proper appointments to several important public institutions with the view to preserve professionalism in the government service. This was the result of a widely held realisation that political interference which had crept into the public service since the introduction of the executive presidential system in 1978 has contributed to the deterioration of standards in all public services and this deterioration was referred to as ‘politicisation’. This simply meant direct interference by the executive president and his agents into the running of the public service to an extent to make it impossible for it to function professionally.

Among the institutions that were recognised as being polluted by ‘politicisation’ was also the department of the commissioner of elections. Under Article 3 of the Constitution an amendment was introduced regarding the election commissioner. Under this article it was legislated that ‘there shall be an election commission consisting of five members appointed by the president on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, from among persons who have distinguished themselves in any profession or in the field of administration or education. The President shall on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, appoint one member as its chair.’

The governments since 2001 have refused to comply with this constitutional provision. The present commissioner of elections who was appointed to the position before this amendment was passed reached his retirement age in 2002. However, as no election commission was appointed according to the new provision he had to continue in office due to the absence of a substitute. On several occasions he publically requested permission to retire and as there was no satisfactory response from the government he even went before the court and sought permission to retire. The court refused his request on the basis that until a substitute was appointed under the constitutional provisions he had to remain in his post. Even the courts did not intervene to ensure that the government complied with the constitutional provision to appoint an election commission.

The failure on the part of the government to appoint an election commission consisting of five members nominated by the Constitutional Council has been perceived by all observers as a ploy to prevent the conduct of free and fair elections without political interference into the working of the election commissioner’s office. It was this situation which has led to the final outburst of the commissioner in which he voiced his frustrations to the entire nation in announcing the election result on the 27th January. Several of his comments are reproduced here due to their importance on any future discussion on this issue. (Translated from Sinhala by Roshan Fernando, quoted from Lanka Guardian).

"Under the empowerment of the Elections Commissioner as indicated in the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, I issued specific guidelines to the state media that were duly ignored. I then installed a Competent Authority for the state media who was completely disregarded. I then met the heads of state media but to no avail. I realized that this was a hopeless cause and so I had the Competent Authority removed.”

" I was able to note that during the election, many state institutions operated in a manner not befitting state organisations.”

"Some blamed me saying that my task was to ensure that the ballot boxes were safe and to ensure that the counting was done right. But under the circumstances I faced today, I could not even ensure the safety of even one ballot box. I did my duties during this time under great duress and mental agony.”

" I hereby state that the situation has reached a dangerous level that is beyond me. I am also advanced in years and have served in this capacity for eight long years so I only ask that I be released from this thankless duty.”

"It is impossible for me to work in peace under the circumstances – I am constantly under stress and find that I may fall sick and have to face consequences of such an illness.”

"Regional leaders harassed my team and I in several areas such as Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Matala Districts, they even bothered the counting centres. This is not a good trend. In fact, it reached an uncontrollable level of verbal abuse directed at Presiding Officers and Asst Elections Commissioners. “

"I have been accused of favouring one party in the process of carrying out my duties. I regret that it is no longer possible for me to suffer such indignity and insult – I am not able to do so physically or psychologically.”

Quite clearly, until the electorate is assured that the process of elections is not abused by violence, by the use of state resources in favour of the party in power, by the abuse of state media and without the tampering of the ballot in the process of receiving, preserving and counting at the commissioner’s office it would not be possible to create public confidence in a free and fair election. However, this cannot be done until a commission of elections is appointed in compliance with the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

Basil Fernando is Executive Director of Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong.

26 January, 2010

Great television, bad journalism: Media failures in Haiti coverage

ROBERT JENSEN
Countercurrents.org

CNN’s star anchor Anderson Cooper narrates a chaotic street scene in Port-au-Prince. A boy is struck in the head by a rock thrown by a looter from a roof. Cooper helps him to the side of the road, and then realizes the boy is disoriented and unable to get away. Laying down his digital camera (but still being filmed by another CNN camera), Cooper picks up the boy and lifts him over a barricade to safety, we hope.

“We don’t know what happened to that little boy,” Cooper says in his report. “All we know now is, there’s blood in the streets.” (To view the CNN story, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Unh4v1lFU0.)

This is great television, but it’s not great journalism. In fact, it’s irresponsible journalism.

Cooper goes on to point out there is no widespread looting in the city and that the violence in the scene that viewers have just witnessed appears to be idiosyncratic. The obvious question: If it’s not representative of what’s happening, why did CNN put it on the air? Given that Haitians generally have been organizing themselves into neighborhood committees to take care of each other in the absence a functioning central government, isn’t that violent scene an isolated incident that distorts the larger reality?

Cooper tries to rescue the piece by pointing out that while such violence is not common, if it were to become common, well, that would be bad -- “it is a fear of what might come.” But people are more likely to remember the dramatic images than his fumbling attempt to put the images in context.

Unfortunately, CNN and Cooper’s combination of great TV and bad journalism are not idiosyncratic; television news routinely falls into the trap of emphasizing visually compelling and dramatic stories at the expense of important information that is crucial but more complex.

The absence of crucial historical and political context describes the print coverage as well; the facts, analysis, and opinion that U.S. citizens need to understand these events are rarely provided. For example, in the past week we’ve heard journalists repeat endlessly the observation that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Did it ever occur to editors to assign reporters to ask why?

The immediate suffering in Haiti is the result of a natural disaster, but that suffering is compounded by political disasters of the past two centuries, and considerable responsibility for those disasters lies not only with Haitian elites but also with U.S. policymakers.

Journalists have noted that a slave revolt led to the founding of an independent Haiti in 1804 and have made passing reference to how France’s subsequent demand for “reparations” (to compensate the French for their lost property, the slaves) crippled Haiti economically for more than a century. Some journalists have even pointed out that while it was a slave society, the United States backed France in that cruel policy and didn’t recognize Haitian independence until the Civil War. Occasional references also have been made to the 1915 U.S. invasion under the “liberal” Woodrow Wilson and an occupation that lasted until 1934, and to the support the U.S. government gave to the two brutal Duvalier dictatorships (the infamous “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc”) that ravaged the country from 1957-86. But there’s little discussion of how the problems of contemporary Haiti can be traced to those policies.

Even more glaring is the absence of discussion of more recent Haiti-U.S. relations, especially U.S. support for the two coups (1991 and 2004) against a democratically elected president. Jean-Bertrand Aristide won a stunning victory in 1990 by articulating the aspirations of Haiti’s poorest citizens, and his populist economic program irritated both Haitian elites and U.S. policy-makers. The first Bush administration nominally condemned the 1991 military coup but gave tacit support to the generals. President Clinton eventually helped Artistide return to power Haiti in 1994, but not until the Haitian leader had been forced to capitulate to business-friendly economic policies demanded by the United States. When Aristide won another election in 2000 and continued to advocate for ordinary Haitians, the second Bush administration blocked crucial loans to his government and supported the violent reactionary forces attacking Aristide’s party. The sad conclusion to that policy came in 2004, when the U.S. military effectively kidnapped Aristide and flew him out of the country. Aristide today lives in South Africa, blocked by the United States from returning to his country, where he still has many supporters and could help with relief efforts.

How many people watching Cooper’s mass-mediated heroism on CNN know that U.S. policy makers have actively undermined Haitian democracy and opposed that country’s most successful grassroots political movement? During the first days of coverage of the earthquake, it’s understandable that news organizations focused on the immediate crisis. But more than a week later, what excuse do journalists have?

Shouldn’t TV pundits demand that the United States accept responsibility for our contribution to this state of affairs? As politicians express concern about Haitian poverty and bemoan the lack of a competent Haitian government to mobilize during the disaster, shouldn’t journalists ask why they have not supported the Haitian people in the past? When Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are appointed to head up the humanitarian effort, should not journalists ask the obvious, if impolite, questions about those former presidents’ contributions to Haitian suffering?

When mainstream journalists dare to mention this political history, they tend to scrub clean the uglier aspects of U.S. policy, absolving U.S. policymakers of responsibility in “the star-crossed relationship” between the two nations, as a Washington Post reporter put it. When news reporters explain away Haiti’s problems as a result of some kind of intrinsic “political dysfunction,” as the Post reporter termed it, then readers are more likely to accept the overtly reactionary arguments of op/ed writers who blame Haiti’s problems of its “poverty culture” (Jonah Goldberg, Los Angeles Times) or “progress-resistant cultural influences” rooted in voodoo (David Brooks, New York Times).

One can learn more by monitoring the independent media in the United States (“Democracy Now,” for example, has done extensive reporting, http://www.democracynow.org/) or reading the foreign press (such as this political analysis by Peter Hallward in the British daily “The Guardian,”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/
jan/13/our-role-in-haitis-plight
). When will journalists in the U.S. corporate commercial media provide the same kind of honest accounting?

The news media, of course, have a right to make their own choices about what to cover. But we citizens have a right to expect more.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009). He also is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.

03 January, 2010

The Horror State of Chhattisgarh: a firsthand account from the Belly of the Beast

NANDINI SUNDAR

Ujjwal Kumar Singh, Professor of Political Science, Delhi University and I have just returned (January 1st) from a visit to the police state of Chhattisgarh. Ujjwal had gone for research and I had gone for a combination of research and verification purposes to assess the livelihood situation of villagers for our case before the Supreme Court, both entirely legitimate activities.

In Dantewada, we had checked into Hotel Madhuban on the 29th of December around 2 pm without any problems, only to be told later that night that the management required the entire hotel to be instantly emptied out because they were doing some puja to mark the death anniversary of the hotel owner. We refused to leave at night, and were told we would have to leave at 6 am instead because the rooms had to be cleaned. As expected, other guests checked in the next morning, puja notwithstanding.

At Sukma, we were detained by the police and SPOs at the entrance to the town from about 7.30 till 10 pm, with no explanation for why they had stopped us, and no questions as to why we were there or what our plans were. We were denied lodging – all the hotel owners had been told to claim they were full and refuse us rooms, and the forest and PWD departments had been advised not to make their guesthouses available, since ‘Naxalites’ were coming to stay. Indeed, the police told us that these days Naxalites had become so confident that they roamed around in jeeps on the highways. Since everything was mysteriously full in a small town like Sukma, the police advised us to leave that very night for Jagdalpur, some 100 km away. We decided instead to spend the night in the jeep, since we did not want to jeopardize friends by staying in their homes. Later, we contacted friends and they arranged for us to stay in the college boys hostel, since students were away on vacation.

At midnight on the 30th, 6-7 armed SPOs burst into our room at the college hostel, guns cocked, and then spent the night patrolling the grounds. Evidently, the SPOs have seen many films and know precisely how to achieve dramatic effect. They were also trying to open our jeep, presumably to plant something. The next morning we were followed by seven armed SPOs with AK 47s from Sukma in an unmarked white car, and this was replaced at Tongpal by twelve SPOs, in two jeeps. None of them had any name plates. Given that we could have had no normal conversation with anyone, we decided to do all the things one normally postpones. In twenty years of visiting Bastar, for example, I have never seen the Kutumbsar caves. Everywhere we went, including the haat at Tongpal, the Tirathgarh waterfall and the Kutumbsar caves, as well as shops in Jagdalpur, the SPOs followed us, one pace behind, with their guns poised at the ready. Two women SPOs had been deputed specially for me. The SPOs also intimidated our jeep drivers by taking photos of them and the vehicle.

DGP Vishwaranjan claimed on the phone that it was for our ‘protection’ that we were given this treatment since there was news of Naxalite troop movement, and has gone on to say (Indian Express, 3rd Jan), “anything can happen. Maoists can attack the activists to put the blame on the police. We will deploy a few companies of security forces for the security of the activists.”

Clearly all the other tourists in Tirathgarh and Kutumbsar were under no threat from the Maoists – only we, who have been repeatedly accused of being Naxalite supporters, were likely targets. As for the police ensuring that we got no accommodation and trying to send us from Sukma to Jagdalpur in the middle of the night, such pure concern for our welfare is touching. The SP of Dantewada, Amaresh Misra, was somewhat more honest when he said he had instructions from above to ‘escort’ out ‘visiting dignitaries.’ The Additional SP shouted at us to be more ‘constructive’ – not surprisingly, though, with 12 swaggering SPOs snapping at one’s heels, one is not always at one’s constructive best. The next time, I promise to try.

The SPOs in their jeeps followed us some way from Jagdalpur to Raipur, even when we were on the bus. In addition, two armed constables and an SI were sent on the bus to ensure we got to Raipur. We overheard the SI telling the armed constables to “take us down at Dhamtari” but fortunately this plan was abandoned. Poor man, he narrowly missed getting a medal for bravery, and as the good DGP tells the readers of the Indian Express, it would have been passed off as an attack by Naxalites. On reaching Raipur, the SI was confused. Shouting loudly and forgetting himself, as bad cell connections are wont to make us all do, he said “The IG and SP had told me to follow them, but now what do I do with them.”? The voice on the other end told him to go home. We flew out of Raipur the next morning. In real terms, this was a rather pointless exercise for the CG govt, since we were scheduled to come home the following day anyway. But symbolically, it allowed the SPOs to gloat that they had driven us out.

The CG government obviously wants to ensure that no news on their offensive or even on the everyday trauma of villagers reaches outside. Many villages have been depopulated in the south, both due to the immense fear created by Op. Green Hunt and the failure of the monsoons this year. All the young people are migrating to AP for coolie work. There are sporadic encounters – the day we were in Dantewada (29.12.09), two ‘Naxalites’ were killed in the jungles of Vechapal and three arrested. A week before seven people had been killed in Gumiapal. Who is getting killed and how is anyone’s guess. The Maoists are blockading roads with trees and trenches, and killing ‘informers’. There is compete terror, fear and hunger throughout the district.

While the CG govt is busy providing us ‘protection’, it has refused to restored the armed guard that was taken away from CPI leader Manish Kunjam. He has had credible reports that his life is under threat, because of his opposition both to multinationals like Tata and Essar and to the Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt, and his independent stance against both state and Maoist violence. Despite Raman Singh assuring the CPI leaders that this would be done, the DGP has refused to act.

It is also remarkable that a government which can waste so many armed SPOs for an entire day and night on two people who do nothing more dangerous than teach and write, has been unable to catch the SPOs who are responsible for raping six young women. Despite the trial court finding the SPOs and Salwa Judum leaders prima facie guilty of rape and issuing a standing arrest warrant on 30.10.2009, even two months later, they are ‘absconding’. Some of them even give public speeches, but they are invisible to the police. In the meantime, when Himanshu reported that the rape victims were kept for 3-4 days in Dornapal thana and generally terrorized, the Chief Secretary’s response was to accuse him of running an ‘ugly motivated campaign.’ All good men these, good fathers, good husbands, good citizens. So was DGP Rathore and all the honourable men who defended him, promoted him and awarded him despite what he did to Ruchika. Unfortunately for these adivasi girls, they are not even middle class.

Bastar can no more get rid of me than I can get rid of Bastar. In 1992, because I attended meetings to observe the protests by the villagers of Maolibhata against the steel plant that was proposed to be sited there, the government denied me access to the local archives. But it was the government which then fell, and my book on Bastar, Subalterns and Sovereigns, was published by 1997. In 2005, they stopped us as part of the PUDR-PUCL fact-finding on Salwa Judum; in 2006, as part of the Independent Citizens Initiative, we were stopped and searched in Bhairamgarh thana by out-of-control SPOs, and one of us was nearly lynched inside the station, while the thanedar was too drunk to read the letter we carried from the Chief Secretary.

In 2007-8, the then SP, Rahul Sharma, fabricated photos of me with my arms around armed Maoist women and showed them to visiting journalists and others to try and discredit my independence. He later claimed, when challenged, that the photos were of one “Ms. Jeet’ and it was he who had verified the truth. In 2009, we narrowly escaped a mob of around 300 Salwa Judum leaders, police and SPOs, who, however, took away mobile phones, a camera charger and vehicle registration documents from the jeep we had parked there. The police refused to register our complaint and detained us for questioning for a few hours, even though we had got the consent of the District Collector and the Mirtur CRPF contingent to visit Vechhapal.

For anthropologists, our professional life is difficult to separate from our personal – our research depends on developing deep friendships with the people we ‘study’. In the twenty years that I have been visiting Bastar off and on, I have acquired a range of friends, acquaintances and people who are like family members, whose concerns are my concerns. This does not in any way diminish one’s commitment to independence and objectivity. As Kathleen Gough said in the 1970s, when the American Anthropological Association was debating whether to pass a resolution against the war in Vietnam, ‘genocide is not in the professional interests of anthropology.’


Nandini Sundar is Professor of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University, and Co-editor, Contributions to Indian Sociology. She has previously worked at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi and the University of Edinburgh. This article has been received through the Human Rights Movement group.(humanrights-movement@googlegroups.com)