Archive for October, 2010

Europe’s shame: the dictatorship of Belarus

Written by Michael Harris on . Posted in Articles, International

Cllr Mike Harris in the Independent on the death of Bebehin

A very slightly edited version of this article was originally published in The Independent newspaper on 8 September 2010.

On Friday, Aleh Byabenin, one of Belarus’s leading journalists and human rights activist, was found hanged in his country home. His beloved 5 year old son’s hammock was around his neck, hung so low that his feet touched the ground. Andrei Sannikov, the leader of Charter97, the organisation Byabenin co-founded, was one of the first at the scene. He has grave doubts about the coroner’s official verdict that Byabenin hanged himself: “No suicide note was found, and his last SMS to friends showed they planned to go to the cinema”. I landed in Minsk on Friday to meet Byabenin and other civil society activists. On Monday I will attend his funeral. People are in no doubt as to what really happened – and talk through tears about a man who had devoted 15 years of his life to fighting against President Lukashenko’s dictatorship and was in no mood to quit. In hushed tones everyone fears a return to the period between 1997 – 99 when suddenly activists, business and journalists ‘disappeared’ without trace.

In the last year, human rights activists have faced continual intimidation from the authorities. On 6 December 2009, Yahen Afnagel, a youth leader, was kidnapped in broad daylight on the streets of Minsk and taken by van to a forest just outside Minsk. His hands were bound together and a bag placed over his head. He told me he was subject to a mock execution and men screamed at him it would be carried out for real if he continued to question the authorities. In just two months, 6 youth leaders faced mock executions.

The death of Oleg Bebenin in Europe, today

All of this is happening, today, on European soil. When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited Minsk last November he told the country’s dictator President Lukashenko, that his people “love you, which is shown by the elections”. Never mind that the OSCE, which Italy is a member of, declared that the “presidential election failed to meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections.” Realpolitik is order of the day, and the opening up of markets by the IMF and World Bank are paying dividends for businessmen and their political cronies in capitals across Europe. Britain is no better. Lukashenko has hired Lord Chadlington, one of David Cameron’s closest allies (he bankrolled his leadership bid), on a public relations contract to improve his country’s image. Lord Chadlington clearly has no qualms about taking money from a nation ranked 188 out of 195 countries for press freedom; where every single gay club has been shut down and gay websites are blocked, and where Lukashenko has personally approved the turning of Jewish holy sites in Belarus into multi-storey car parks as part of a vicious national campaign of anti-Semitism, according to the World Association of Belarusian Jewry.

Culturally too, Western artists are helping to soften the image of Belarus. This month Sting will perform a concert in the Minsk Arena. His rider is for potted trees in his dressing room. If he looks beyond them, across the road is Lukashenko’s private residence built in the area of town that during the Nazi occupation hosted the mass killing of military prisoners. Whilst Sting performs, in an abandoned house on the other side of Minsk the banned Belarus Free Theatre will perform ‘Discover Love’, their play about the abduction and disappearance of businessman, democrat, and foe of Lukashenko, Anatoly Krasovski and his friend. Unlike the audience at the approved Sting concert, those attending performances of the Belarus Free Theatre are subject to harassment by the KGB.

Whilst Europe ignores the plight of the Belarussian people, the dictatorship is intensifying its efforts to stifle dissent prior to the Presidential election to be held at latest by February 2011. The KGB and intelligence forces are developing new, more subtle ways to target opponents. Accusations of scientology (illegal in France and Germany) and criminal libel abound. The short-term arrest and detention of political activists is now so routine that one youth leader told me he ‘couldn’t possible count’ how many times he had been arrested. Yet, the old methods are still the most effective. Yesterday an anonymous comment on the Charter97 website simply read: “We will wipe all of you off the face of the earth. None of your relatives will ever produce the like of you again.” The site’s moderator, Natalia Radzina has recently been sent emails and SMS messages that say, “We will rape you”, followed by her address. Yesterday she told me: “Lukashenko cannot frighten the IMF and other international investors by obviously murdering journalists and activists so my worry is, over the coming months up to the election, we will see a spate of mysterious suicides, road accidents and poisonings.”

The case of Aleh Byabenin ought to ring alarm bells across Europe, yet it has barely been reported outside Russia. We cannot let Europe’s politicians sleep walk into a cozy accommodation with a tyrant. Natalia Koliada from the Belarus Free Theatre, a close friend of Aleh asked me, how many more people must disappear or commit suicide until we take notice? Belarus is Europe’s shame.

Contact details

Written by Michael Harris on . Posted in Contact

Mike Harris public affairs consultant

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Phone me: +44 (7974) 838468

MJR HARRIS LIMITED is a limited company with a registered office address: 6 Berners Mews London W1T 3AJ

Mike Harris is the Director of MJR HARRIS LIMITED. He was former Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship. Mike was behind the advocacy for the Libel Reform Campaign that saw the campaign secure 3 election manifestos from the UK’s main political parties, 60,000 supporters and achieve parliamentary legislation in the Defamation Act, that has significantly improved freedom of expression. He has run high profile campaigns on human rights violations in Belarus, Azerbaijan, worked on digital rights issues including internet governance and is the author of a number of reports including The EU and freedom of expression; Burma: Freedom of Expression in Transition and a contributor to Palgrave Macmillan’s forthcoming book Media Law and Ethics in the 21st Century.

Before working for Index, he worked behind the scenes on investigative journalism into political corruption for the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph. I also worked in Parliament for two Labour MPs, and was Director of an anti-extremism think-tank. In May 2010, he was elected as a Councillor in Lewisham Central, one of the most diverse communities anywhere on earth, in South-East London.

Getting your message across

Written by Michael Harris on . Posted in What I do

Getting the message across

Effective media are being democraticised. It’s easier than at any time before to get your message across and to involve people globally in your values, and ideas.

It is no longer expensive either.

I’ve advised MPs, trade unions, NGOs, film production companies, and local government on how they can use social media and traditional campaigning.

Public Affairs consultancy especially for charities

Written by Mike on . Posted in What I do

Rt Hon Jack Straw MP at the Libel Reform Campaign parliamentary lobby

As a charity or social enterprise, engaging in a public affairs campaign shouldn’t seem daunting. Government is there to listen. In an increasingly competitive sector, it’s important your organisation is heard.

89up Ltd is a public affairs and campaigns consultancy especially for charities, NGOs and social enterprises.

89up was founded in 2014 by Mike Harris, the former Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship alongside 15 associates from the worlds of journalism, public affairs, campaigning and public relations. 89up has now grown to a team of 7 with 18 associates and projects in 4 countries.

Campaign websites that deliver

Written by Michael Harris on . Posted in What I do

Libel Reform website

Websites can be expensive. But a good website should be a source of income for your organisation.

I can provide a full service to design and build your website from scratch with high quality web designers and technicians.

And if you make the internet integral to what you do, it’ll pay dividends in the way you work.

Recently, I gave advice to trade union think tank Unions21 on how social media can work for them.