Uncivil societies

russia_civilsociety_HRWThe ongoing crackdown on civil society groups “is about weakening NGOs, not making them more transparent or effective,” The Economist notes:

It is being undertaken by leaders who, if they accept democracy at all, want it to amount to nothing more than a tame vote every few years. Foreign donations are an easy target for autocrats whose worst nightmare is a flourishing civil society. NGOs’ activities in the “colour” revolutions a decade ago in the former Soviet Union and, more recently, the Arab spring, have sharpened autocrats’ hostility to them.

It is hardly surprising that leaders like Mr Putin want to curb those who seek to promote democracy, but these laws reach far beyond free speech and human rights. NGOs also suffer if they criticise poor public services, stand up for reviled minorities or disclose facts that the powerful want to hide. Mr Orban has targeted a group that publicises discrimination against Roma and another that runs a hotline for battered women. Among those Mr Putin has dubbed foreign agents are a group of women seeking information about Russian servicemen injured and killed while covertly deployed in Ukraine.

“Persuading autocrats who have decided that NGOs pose an existential threat to ease up will be a struggle. But donor countries can help stem the illiberal tide,” The Economist notes. “Initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, launched in 2011, which supports governments keen to increase transparency and cut corruption, should help to stop the trend spreading.”


Vietnam’s pivot: netizens demand ‘right to know’

vietnamese bloggers

Bloggers across Vietnam launched an online campaign Tuesday demanding that their authoritarian government keep the people closely informed about national and foreign policies, including its dealings with giant neighbor China whose territorial disputes with Hanoi have led to riots and a sharp deterioration in bilateral relations, Radio Free Asia reports:

Vietnamese activists have become increasingly vocal over what they call China’s aggression in the disputed South China Sea and Hanoi’s reluctance to take a stronger stand against its northern neighbor. The “We Want to Know” campaign was launched by a Vietnamese bloggers’ group early Tuesday and quickly spread on the Internet through Facebook and other social media sites across the one-party communist state, Haiphong-based blogger Pham Thanh Nghien told RFA’s Vietnamese Service. “At 12:00 a.m. last night, Vietnam time, the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers began the campaign ‘We Want to Know,’” said Nghien, who was freed from prison in September 2012 after her online writings earned her a four-year term behind bars. “Our network believes that free access to information helps people exercise their rights as citizens of the country,” she said.

Vietnam’s international strategy is shifting in a dramatic fashion, notes one observer. For years, the country hoped that it could manage China’s drive for regional hegemony by showing Beijing sufficient deference. But that strategy has been upended in recent months, analyst David Brown writes for Foreign Affairs:

At the end of July, Vietnam was awash with rumors that the country’s Politburo had voted 9–5 in favor of “standing up to China.” There was also talk that an extraordinary plenum of the 200-member Party Central Committee would convene to review and confirm the Politburo’s new tilt. The rumors may simply reflect the wishful thinking of a public that’s been far more disposed to tangle with China than its leaders have been. Beijing and Hanoi are still pro forma friends; Le Hong Anh, Vietnam’s top cop and a stalwart of the pro-China faction, was correctly welcomed in Beijing in mid-August and doubtless warned against unfriendly moves.

Even so, chances are good that Vietnam will soon take two game-changing step, Brown suggests:

First, Vietnam will likely challenge China in international courts, seeking a verdict that declares Beijing’s assertion of “historic sovereignty” over nearly all of the South China Sea to beillegitimate and its tactics impermissible…..Second, Vietnam is likely to forge a more intimate diplomatic and military relationship with the United States — not a formal alliance but a partnership based on a common interest in preventing Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea.

Hanoi wants the United States to agree to lift its ban on lethal weapons sales, a step that Washington has conditioned on Hanoi’s improving its treatment of political dissidents. For both governments, it’s a matter of principle. There is a yawning gap between the United States’ insistence that the Vietnamese regime respect fundamental political rights and Vietnamese Communist leaders’ belief that tolerating agitation for democracy poses an existential threat to their system.

On this matter of political freedoms, Hanoi, Washington, or both must compromise if they are to move ahead, but neither country has much room for maneuver. Many members of Congress will be wary of embracing Hanoi, even if they acknowledge that forestalling China’s regional hegemony is in both countries’ interest. For its part, the Vietnamese Politburo’s vision of political order has limited its ability to compromise on human rights. And yet, if Hanoi cannot pledge to open up the sphere of political participation, or Washington cannot take a longer view, the long-discussed strategic relationship will still be beyond reach.


Venezuela media crackdown boosts online media

vzla universalAngel Alayon’s Prodavinci.com blog, with its serious political analysis, has seen unique monthly visitors more than double, to 239,000—the kind of growth that has become typical recently in this news-starved nation, Ezequiel Minaya writes for The Wall Street Journal:

Internet media and social-networking sites in Venezuela added a greater number of users per capita than any other Latin American country in the 12 months ending in June, according to the Virginia-based market researcher, comScore, which tracks computer use. The growth came despite a creaky telecommunication infrastructure and a private sector that is contracting as the economy stumbles.

While the Internet audience expanded 62%, to nearly 10 million unique visitors in that year through June, news websites have also proliferated, from Armando.info and its in-depth reporting to news aggregator La Patilla and the satirical site Chigüire Bipolar, which skewers politicians with fake news.

The news sites have helped fill a gap since investors with business ties to President Nicolás Maduro’s leftist government snapped up three major independent news outlets and scaled back critical coverage, journalists and press-freedom advocates say.

The anonymity of a new ownership group and a dearth of information about the sale of the newspaper El Universal have many Venezuelans fearing it is the latest major media company to fall to what they view as an insidious new way for the oil-rich government to neuter its critics, Nick Miroff writes for The Washington Post:

Mariengracia Chirinos, a researcher with Caracas media watchdog group IPYS, said the pattern began to emerge last year after the sale of the television network Globovisión, which is popular with Venezuela’s opposition.

Under new ownership, the network purged its newsroom and stopped airing live speeches by opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Chávez successor Nicolás Maduro in April’s presidential race. After Globovisión flipped, the same thing happened with another major news company and its popular daily paper, Últimas Noticias.

Using legislation, steep fines, pressure on advertisers and control of printing paper, the government during the past decade has corralled the mainstream press, says Carlos Lauria, who oversees the Americas for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Minaya adds:

He and other free-speech advocates say the intimidation has deepened since Mr. Maduro was narrowly elected in April 2013 after the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, with dozens of reporters detained, beaten and censored, Mr. Lauria says. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders recently ranked Venezuela among the worst offenders on its press-freedom index. The group said it has collected some 500 complaints of censorship in Venezuela since 2013.

During his 14 years in power, Chávez clashed frequently with Venezuela’s private media companies, and he sent a chill through the country’s newsrooms when he revoked the broadcast license of the leading network, RCTV, in 2007, Miroff adds:

Today, that landscape is cluttered with ruined companies and revoked licenses. While state-run news channels and publications favorable to the government proliferate, observers say, privately controlled media companies are being hammered by new regulations, lawsuits and the weight of Venezuela’s sinking economy.


Russia’s information war in Europe (selective memory at home)

russia ukraine

Russia is adopting an aggressive new propaganda strategy to undermine relations between the world’s leading democracies, the Wall Street Journal’s Anton Troianovski reports:

A Russian official in Berlin briefed on the media plans for Germany said a significant portion of the German public was receptive to Russia’s message. They included people with antiwar, antiglobalization and general leftist views. Conservatives, including opponents of “homosexual propaganda,” were also targets, the official said. “One can do some pretty powerful work with this segment,” the Russian official said.

RT, launched by the Kremlin as Russia Today in 2005, is a news channel now available in English, Spanish and Arabic that positions itself as an alternative to Western international media such as CNN, the BBC and Germany’s Deutsche Welle. While viewership is relatively small, observers say that by airing increasingly shrill criticism of the West and comments from anti-American conspiracy theorists as well as far-right and far-left Western politicians, RT has sought to undermine the authority of Western media.

russua rep wsjIn the Ukraine crisis, for example, RT has accused Western media and politicians of hiding evidence opposing the view that pro-Russian separatists shot down the Malaysia jet. “The biggest success of the Russian propaganda is to create confusion about what is true or not,” said Marieluise Beck, a member of the opposition party Greens who is one of Mr. Putin’s most prominent critics in the German parliament.

On Thursday, Russian police upgraded from ”vandalism” to ”hooliganism” a recent stunt in which four activists raised a Ukrainian flag on a Moscow skyscraper (above), the Moscow Times reports:

Under this new charge, the four could be sentenced to as much as seven years in prison.

If they are convicted, it will certainly send a pointed message to all Russian activists. But fear of punishment, not punishment itself, may prove to be the greatest lid on dissent in Russia. A raft of recent legislation on the Internet, especially the so-called blogger law, encourages many to police themselves.

Rossiya Segodnya now says it will employ hundreds of journalists around the world to produce local-language news reports, radio shows and social-media content, the Journal’s Troianovski adds:

According to a Rossiya Segodnya brochure that provides an overview of the organization for the German public, the organization planned to build up hubs in about a dozen cities, with a goal of participating “in shaping public opinion and the news agenda.” Mr. Kiselyov said financing for the expansion was still being worked out. ……

“The U.S. was always the symbol of the good, democracy, freedom, alliance, defense, while Russia generally represented the opposite,” Mr. Tulchinskiy, the Rossiya Segodnya bureau chief in Berlin, said. “It turns out the first statement isn’t so true, so it’s logical to think that the second statement isn’t so true.”


Credit: Moscow Times

One of the most important moments of the perestroika era was when the secret additional protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact were made public, notes analyst Ivan Sukhov:

These secret additions assigned the Baltic states to the Soviet Union and divided up Poland into German and Soviet spheres of influence. These protocols were a real shock to a country that had been proclaiming itself the defeater of fascism since 1945.

That uncomfortable moment of closeness between the Soviet leadership and the Nazis explained, for example, much about the way in which the Baltic republics left the Soviet Union. That is, it was an explanation for those who wanted to understand, but those people were and still are few and far between in Russia.

Even today, the leaders of the ministries of culture and education are seriously discussing ridding the school curriculum of the paragraphs about the secret protocols. This part of history too obviously contradicts the official propaganda on the war with Hitler, which, as we know, is so significant in today’s manipulation of public opinion.


Swaziland labor, rights groups call for action on AGOA


Photo: Kate Conradt, Solidarity Center

Swaziland’s government needs to act on the African Growth Opportunity Act by October, according to a prominent rights advocate.

The government had limited time to salvage the situation and help the country save AGOA eligibility, said human rights lawyer and activist Sipho Gumedze.

Rights groups last week urged Swaziland and other states represented at this week’s summit of the Southern African Development Community meeting to curb rights abuses and uphold individual freedoms in their countries.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights deplored “serious human rights concerns” in Angola, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Labor unions and rights groups condemned remarks by Swaziland Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini, calling for the strangulation of union representatives participating in the White House summit on Africa.

Due to systematic violations of fundamental worker rights, the USG removed AGOA benefits from Swaziland.

In a new policy paper, the AFL-CIO labor federation insists that AGOA must “ensure that it delivers on its ambitious goals of supporting democratic governance, enhancing civil society, combating corruption and promoting the rule of law in Sub-Saharan Africa”.

“Swaziland is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 60% of the country living in poverty and an official unemployment rate of 28.5%. The government, one of the world’s few remaining monarchies, has banned all political parties and refuses to recognise democratically established trade union associations. Trade unionists are regularly imprisoned, harassed and intimidated,” the AFL-CIO notes.

“While scrutiny of this repression is welcome, complete suspension of all tariff benefits is a blunt instrument,” it added. “The ability to target benefit suspensions at industries or sectors where violations are occurring would leverage the power of employers to seek better enforcement, and interim measures beyond revocation would prevent autocratic regimes from passing the harm onto workers.”

The general secretary of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) says members will protest Minister of Labor and Social Security Winnie Magagula’s appearance before parliament, VOA’s Peter Clottey writes:

Vincent Ncongwane said Swaziland is set to lose about 17,000 jobs after the country was thrown out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) initiative over the country’s poor human rights record.

“Our members are mobilizing for protest action. Of course the challenge is that they have ensured that they are prepared to crash any protest, but that is what our members are mobilizing to do,” said Ncongwane. “We want to hear from the minister as to what is it that this government have in mind as with regards to AGOA, beyond just misleading the international community.”

U.S. trade benefits for Africa—known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)—provide key economic support for countries such as Swaziland, according to Vincent Ncongwane, secretary general of the Trade Union Confederation of Swaziland (TUCOSWA).

Yet some in the Swazi government are falsely accusing Ncongwane and human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze of taking a stand against AGOA benefits for Swaziland when they were in Washington, D.C., last week as part of a delegation of 40 African trade union leaders, notes the Solidarity Center, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy:  

While in Washington, Ncongwane and Gumedze, both internationally respected labor and human rights advocates, the Swazi Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini reportedly told lawmakers “you must strangle them” upon their return. The U.S. State Department condemned the threat, saying in a statement:

“The United States is deeply concerned by the threatening remarks made by Swaziland Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini toward Swazi labor and civil society leaders who participated in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this week. Such remarks have a chilling effect on labor and civil rights in the Kingdom of Swaziland.”

“The comments made today by Prime Minister Dlamini are a clear threat to the human rights community,” said Santiago Canton, Director of RFK Partners for Human Rights. “This type of language is another indication that Swaziland’s authorities do not, in any way, respect the basic human rights of its people.”