Search Results for ‘corrupt’

Why is the UK so silent on Burma’s human rights abuses?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Free expression, International

Without increased pressure from the US and UK, the apparatus of Burma’s military dictatorship will continue to exist

This article was first published at the Daily Telegraph

If you want to know how much has changed in Burma since the much-vaulted transition, try and put on a punk gig in the capital, Rangoon. It’ll take two months and require the signatures of eight bureaucrats from varying levels of government. You may never get permission. But to punks in Burma, the idea they may even be able to play publicly at all is progress.

This is transition Burma, a country full of contradictions where the military no longer hold captive Aung San Suu Kyi and have released some of the thousands of her fellow political prisoners — yet the full apparatus of the military state still exists. The worry is, while the UK and US drop sanctions and William Hague took the time to congratulate President Thein Sein in London for the progress made, little is being done to keep this progress on track. With the army implicit in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims and the country on the verge of widespread unrest, Burma is merely a few steps away from a full blown military dictatorship.

The transition to civilian rule is supposed to be making steady progress, yet power lies in the same place — with the military. As one journalist told us, “the generals have only changed their suits.” The sight of Aung San Suu Kyi alongside 43 of her National League for Democracy compatriots elected to Parliament in 2012 was hugely symbolic. But it is no more than symbolism for the League to hold an eleventh of the seats in the lower house.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a front for the old military junta, still controls all the main institutions of state. The USDP controls the presidency, nearly half the seats in the lower house and over half the seats in the upper house of the Burmese parliament. When the seats directly appointed by the military are included, the USDP has an overwhelming majority in both chambers. The majority of these USDP parliamentarians are former army officers or government officials with strong military connections. The lifting of economic sanctions will prompt new trade with Burma, but the West will be dealing directly with these generals who control both the state and many of the major economic interests.

While we were still watched by the secret police when we returned in 2013, we could operate openly. People came over freely to speak to us. Burma is now a country where comedian Zarganar (released from jail in October 2011) performs satirical skits on corruption with the President apparently watching on TV. Artists are pushing the boundaries of political art, Burmese producers mock the government with films such as “Ban that scene” that parodies the mean-spirit and laziness of bureaucratic censors and — for the first time — horror films are being made inside the country legally.

Politics is vibrant too. Cafe88 in Mandalay hosts political discussions that were illegal just a few years ago by former political prisoners, TV celebrities and journalists. The media is more free as well. Daily newspapers are back on sale and the infamous censorship boards that ruined courageous journalism by painting physically over articles with black ink have been abolished.

This new freedom, months old, is perilously fragile. As Index’s report on Burma found, the transition is not underpinned by essential legal and political reform. The current atmosphere of freedom stems from the police and security services not using their powers to curtail free speech. The full apparatus of the military state exists — it just isn’t being employed to the same extent — at the moment.

For instance, using an email account for “political purposes” carries a prison sentence of 15 years. If you use more than one account your sentence can be increased by 15 years per email address. Restrictions on public protest or performance are extremely strict, particularly outside Rangoon. At the start of this month, Time Magazine was banned under emergency legislation after it led with a front cover of nationalist monk U Wirathu and the title, “The Face of Buddhist Terror”. The ban criminalised the possession of even a single copy of Time. Meanwhile newspapers face the threat of a new press law that would bring in statutory regulation of the press.

President Thein Sein told Chatham House that in Burma “free speech exists … but of course more freedom can and will be granted when there is increased understanding of the duties and responsibilities that go with it.” This isn’t good enough. To protect free speech the government needs to put in place reform now. Pleasantries at Downing Street and congratulations at the Foreign Office can’t mask the fact that progress has stalled. The UK mustn’t allow President Thein Sein to get away with stalling reform until after the next election in 2015.

Unless the UK, EU and US are willing to put sanctions back on the table and in the meantime insist on a clear road map for reform, an incredible opportunity for a military dictatorship to become a civilian democracy will be lost.

Mike Harris is Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship. @mjrharris

My report: Burma – Freedom of expression in transition: Introduction | Politics and society | Media freedom | Artistic freedom of expression | Digital freedom of expression | Conclusion | Full report in PDF format

Fine words on open government don’t match actions

Written by Mike on . Posted in Free expression, International

From America to Azerbaijan, leaders have pledged themselves to a new era of openness and transparency. So why are whistleblowers and journalists still punished?

Is Barack Obama committed to transparency? (pic Gonçalo Silva/Demotix)

Is Barack Obama committed to transparency? (pic Gonçalo Silva/Demotix)

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government” -Barack Obama, 21 January 2009

Governments across the globe are making bold promises to embrace open government ushering in a new era of public service reform, undermining corruption and increasing citizen engagement — all underpinned by open data and transparency. In September 2011, the Open Government Partnership was launched when a number of founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom and the United States) endorsed an Open Government Declaration, and announced their country action plans. Since then an additional 47 governments have joined. The global G8 forum also made transparency a priority.

Open government should mean making government and public bodies more transparent, responsive and accountable so that citizens can hold these bodies to account, fight corruption and use technologies to make government more effective and accountable. In practice this requires government and public bodies to bring forward freedom of information legislation, let citizens get access to the huge data sets held by public bodies and make public bodies respond to questions from citizens and the media quicker and more thoroughly.

Unfortunately, it’s increasingly clear what governments feel open government isn’t about — it certainly isn’t about protecting whistleblowers, opening up the security services to scrutiny, or declassifying the huge amount of information marked as secret by governments.

The Open Government Declaration mention the watchdog role of the media and journalists in analysing information and exposing malfeasance and corruption.

Open government, while a noble aim, is overly focussed on opening up uncontroversial data sets and the method of distributing these data sets. As Evgeny Morozov points out in his recent book To Save Everything, Click Here, putting train timetables online, while useful, is not the same as giving citizens the data they can use to tackle corruption.

President Barack Obama made an early commitment to refound American government around openness and transparency. This in practice has meant very little. In February 2013, 49 NGOs and organisations wrote to the President calling for him to fulfill his Open Government obligations. Yet, the routine over-classification of information, demonstrated by the Wikileaks’ US embassy cable leak, shows a government unwilling to open itself up to scrutiny from the citizens who pay for its work. Obama’s record on freedom of information and state secrets is patchy at best. On whistleblowers, the Obama administration has been downright hostile. The attempted prosecution of Edward Snowden for whistleblowing shows the First Amendment protection for freedom of expression is being interpreted in a narrow manner. It’s depressing to see the official newspaper of China’s communist party take the moral high ground in an editorial noting all Snowden did was “blow the whistle on the US government’s violation of civil rights.”

Azerbaijan has endorsed the Open Government Declaration alongside the US. It has a law on the Right to Obtain Information which states that any person can submit a request for information (any facts, opinions, knowledge produced or acquired in fulfilling duties as specified by legislation or other legal act). Yet when journalists use this information they often come under attack.

Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova has used the Right to Obtain Information law to obtain documentation to expose corruption in Azerbaijan. In early 2012, shortly after Ismayilova published an expose of the business interests of the President Aliyev’s daughter, she received a threat telling her to stop her investigations. Ismayilova refused to back down. The next week a video of her having sex with a man was distributed on the internet. Ismayilova, who is unmarried, feared for her safety in Azerbaijan which remains a deeply conservative country.

Throughout Africa, Open Government is also a buzz phrase that has been endorsed by significant institutions. The African Development Bank has launched the “Open Data for Africa” initiative which aims to promote statistical development in Africa as a basis for creating effective development policies to reduce poverty. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have also prepared a “Model Law on Access to Information for Africa”. Nation states are also on paper embracing the Open Government concept with Rwanda and Kenya two examples of states bringing forward legislation to this end.

In March 2013, Rwanda became the 11th African country to adopt a freedom of information law. The law also applies to private organisations where there is a public interest and their main activities relate to human rights and freedom. The government claims its objective was to promote Open Governance and hold public authorities to greater scrutiny. However, the law includes broad exemptions where access to information may be restricted in relation to national security, the administration of justice and for trade secrets.

In Kenya, the government launched its Open Data Initiative (KODI) in July 2011. It makes government data such as national census data, government expenditure, parliamentary proceedings and public service locations, open and accessible to people in Kenya. While Kenya has publicly backed Open Government, the legal framework, in particular the Communications (Amendment) Act 2008, provides for heavy fines and prison sentences alongside granting the state the power to raid media houses and interfere in the content of television broadcasts. The Kenyan Union of Journalists condemned the Act claiming it would “emasculate” journalism.

The publication of US State Department cables by Wikileaks demonstrated how the urge to over-classify documents is present even in established democracies. Open Government will only be as good as the data that is released. If Open Government is little more than a public commitment to put train timetables or the location of hospitals online, then it will fail to achieve the aspirations of the Open Government Declaration to tackle corruption, bring citizens closer to decisions or make public services more responsive. Open Government also has to recognise the importance of the media in processing and digesting the data sets and information that governments publish. Without analysis open data sets are just lines of numbers and letters. If the media is not free to do the analysis, or risks reprisals for doing so, Open Government will continue to fail to live up to its promise.

Mike Harris is head of advocacy at Index on Censorship @mjrharris

Stormont must give us a libel law fit for modern age

Written by Mike on . Posted in Free expression

MLAs will on Wednesday be told that reform of Northern Ireland’s outdated law is needed or else the province will lose out on investment.

This article was originally published in the Belfast Telegraph.

In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned the libel law of England, Wales and Northern Ireland for having a chilling effect on free speech across the world.

Not only did important elements of the law pre-date the invention of the light bulb, let alone the internet, but corporations and oligarchs could bully their critics with near-impunity, silencing freedom of expression both here but also abroad.

The courts heard cases with no connection at all to this jurisdiction. One Ukrainian oligarch sued a local Ukrainian paper and a disgraced Saudi businessman, Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, sued a US academic for a book not even published here.

To protect free speech, US President Barack Obama signed into law the US Speech Act to protect US citizens from the effect of English, Welsh and Northern Irish libel law, an act described as a “national embarrassment” by MPs.

Now Northern Ireland is alone with its embarrassing libel law. The law of England and Wales has been substantially reformed after the Libel Reform Campaign won support from 60,000 members of the public and over 100 charities and campaigning groups and in response the Government passed the Defamation Act.

Meanwhile in the Republic of Ireland, the Defamation Act of 2009 made modest changes to update the law to reflect the internet age and improve the defences available to those sued.

It is extremely unfortunate that Sammy Wilson, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, personally vetoed adoption of the Defamation Bill without scrutiny by either the Assembly or the Executive.

The worry is that “libel tourists” such as corrupt businessmen, powerful vested interests and global corporations may begin to use the High Court in Belfast to silence their critics using Northern Ireland’s unreformed law.

When we started our campaign, we asked people to tell us what had been censored using the libel laws. The results were startling.

Half of GPs surveyed said libel laws were stifling debate about the safety of drug treatments. Which? told us it went through lengthy legal proceedings by a manufacturer after they lab tested child safety seats.

Mumsnet faced legal action for humorous posts on its forum. Those who spoke out on the dumping of toxic waste in Africa and the funding of terrorism were taken to court.

Chillingly, cardiologist Dr Pete Wilmshurst told us how he was being sued by a US corporation for pointing out possible problems with heart devices.

In the four years he fought his case, patients continued to have these devices implanted in their hearts. Some then needed extensive surgery to have them removed because of the fault. If his concerns hadn’t been silenced by his four-year libel case, doctors may not have recommended this treatment.

Dr Wilmshurst will be joining me, English PEN and Sense About Science to give testimony to the Finance and Personnel Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly today after the Chair Daithi McKay personally intervened to ensure Northern Ireland has a debate about these laws.

Mike Nesbitt MLA is also working with lawyers to prepare a Defamation Bill to bring to the Assembly later this year.

While Sammy Wilson thinks there is no need for reform, other politicians beg to differ.

If Northern Ireland gets this right, it will have a law fit for the internet age that protects ordinary people and GPs, scientists and academics speaking out in the public interest.

If it fails to reform the law, it’s hard to see how it will attract internet companies with a publication rule from 1849; how it will attract academics with no public interest defence for their work, or ensure books don’t get pulped (as they have done) with little protection for comment or opinion.

England and Wales have enacted wholesale libel reform for the first time in 170 years, Northern Ireland cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

Mike Harris is Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship, part of the Libel Reform Campaign.

Mike Harris – the strong voice for Ilford North

Written by Mike on . Posted in Labour

I’m Mike, I’m putting myself forward to be your Labour Parliamentary Candidate. I believe I can win this seat back for Labour and ensure the people of Ilford North will get the best deal from a future Labour government. 

Ilford North needs a candidate who will bring home the 7,000 voters who stopping voting Labour here between 1997 – 2000. A candidate with personal integrity, who has fought corruption and worked hard to solve complicated problems. 

I would be an MP who gets things done. I took on 4 international banks and forced them to stop selling the government bonds of a vile dictatorship that tortured and murdered people (BBC). I’ve campaigned against the lobbyists who undermine our democracy. I also secured cross-party support to ensure we saw a new Defamation Act pass in the last session of Parliament, ensuring big corporations and ruthless oligarchs can no longer silence free speech in this country. 
I have a track record of campaigning and more importantly, winning for the Labour Party. During the local elections in 2010, I built up our local party so voters came home to us. Labour took 45% of the vote up from 30% the election before, one of the top 5 swings in London. Ilford North needs a candidate who will do this again. 

More importantly, I will stand up for your values. Whether ensuring the Royal Mail stays in public hands, campaigning to build more council housing or getting behind small businesses.

I will speak to you over the weekend and hope to meet you in the coming weeks. Please feel free to call me directly on 07974 838468. 

Mike Harris

Lobbyist register: we used to imprison foreign agents – now we give them six-figure salaries

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, International

For 70 years American citizens have known what foreign governments are up to in Washington thanks to a lobbyist register: with current lobbying scandals it’s about time we caught up in the UK.

The first lobbyist register

The first lobbying scandal was over 70 years ago. In July 1934, the Special Committee on Un-American Activities reported that Carl Byoir and Associates, one of the founding firms of American public relations, were receiving $6,000 a month to spin for the new Nazi government of Germany. Byoir’s distribution of anti-Semitic literature and the sheer scale of the money involved scandalised congressmen, whose earnings of $9,000 a year paled in comparison. In 1938, the US Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) which required “public disclosure by persons engaging in propaganda activities and other activities for or on behalf of foreign governments, foreign political parties, and other foreign principals.” FARA has given us a fascinating snapshot of historic lobbying. In 1942, Britain spent more than the rest of the world combined on lobbying and propaganda activities in the US – a huge $1,350,000.

What Americans have known for 70 years, Britons are still to discover. The activities of foreign governments and their proxies in the UK are entirely unregulated. As a free speech charity, you may not expect Index on
Censorship to be particularly concerned about lobbyists – a group of people whose job it is to argue a point. Yet their work is critically undermining the work of international organisations that campaign for human rights, by airbrushing the worst excesses of autocratic regimes.

Dictators paying for lobbyists

Whilst we treat MPs to the occasional cup of tea, foreign governments are paying for British MPs to enjoy five-star accommodation on trips euphemistically called “fact-finding missions”. The same regimes hire parliamentarians whom the electorate have booted out, on large salaries, to lobby their former colleagues. NGOs cannot compete. The six-figure salaries regularly used by lobbying firms to gain access to parliamentarians across Europe are impossible for us to match. The degeneracy of the lobbying trade is often staggering. Since we began our campaign on this issue, we’ve been approached behind the scenes; one young lobbyist told us that the worse the client, the more fun it becomes. Lobbying is often dull work, dealing with the minutiae of lightbulb regulations: at least working for a foreign regime is intellectually challenging. Another told us that one lobbying firm was prepared to take on Gadaffi’s regime as a client. That is, until the go-between wanted a cut of the contract in cash, in a suitcase.

Whereas once authoritarian regimes would have used their foreign ministries to spin their message, these governments now want the best PR and lobbying teams money can buy. London is at the centre of this trade, with, in recent years, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, Mubarak’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others leading their lobbying operations from our capital. Whereas Potomac Square Group, a US lobbying firm working for the autocratic government of Bahrain, has to declare their monthly $20,000 retainer, London’s Bell Pottinger’s contract (in part suspended) does not. The US firm also has to declare the correspondence it has with US politicians – while lobbyists working on behalf of autocratic foreign
governments can persuade our MPs without declaring a thing. Recently, Index
pointed out
that all but one of the main sponsors of a Parliamentary Early Day Motion praising Azerbaijan’s independence (with no mention of the country’s poor human rights record) had enjoyed a trip to the country including accommodation in luxury hotels costing £3,500.

The opaque lobbying of MPs on behalf of foreign governments is corrupting our politics. While in opposition, both Coalition partners made welcome noises on regulating lobbying – but campaigners weren’t inspired with confidence when the civil servant in charge of regulating the industry tweeted that she hoped one of the campaigns, Unlock Democracy, “would die. I am prepared to help it along.” While she met with representatives of the lobbying industry on four separate occasions, she refused to meet campaigners calling for reform. The political reform minister Mark Harper’s assertions that all parties are being treated equally is harder to swallow in light of the recent “cash for access” allegations. And the government’s consultation on a statutory register of lobbyists doesn’t even consider the option of FARA-style regulations. If the Coalition seriously wants to clean up British politics, and stop London’s reputation as the international capital of spin for despots, it needs to implement its own FARA.

This article was originally published in the Daily Telegraph on 10 April.

The Politicization of Chernobyl in Belarus

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, International


Originally published by anti-totalitarian journal Dissent Magazine on 31 May 2011

WHEN THE reactor at Unit 4 of the V. I. Lenin Atomic Power Station, Chernobyl, exploded twenty-five years ago, the people of Belarus were sacrificed by a secretive political system. Pilots such as Major Aleksei Grushin were sent into the air above Belarus to seed clouds with silver iodine so they would rain down what had spewed from the inner core of the reactor onto the fields below. That political decision kept Muscovites safe—but as a result, 60 percent of the disaster’s radiation fell on the hapless people of Belarus.

It was a national catastrophe. As author Svetlana Alexievich points out in her masterful Voices from Chernobyl, the Nazis took three years to destroy 619 Belarusian villages during the Second World War; Chernobyl made 485 villages uninhabitable in hours. Today, 2,000,000 Belarussians, including 800,000 children, live in contaminated areas. To give an idea as to how contaminated this land is, 100,000 people live on land with a radiation level 1,480 times greater than the level typically found on a nuclear bomb test site. Between 1990 and 2000, the incidence of thyroid cancer in adolescents in the region increased by 1,600 percent.

To begin with, the Soviet Union said almost nothing to its people about the catastrophe. But after the contamination spread across the Iron Curtain to Sweden, setting off radiation level alarms, there was an admission of an accident. Even so, stories in Pravda Ukrainy and Sovetskaya Belorussia parroted the official party line that Western propaganda was making the accident out to be worse than the “contained” incident it supposedly was. The long-term effects were said to be a few hundred additional cancer deaths over a generation. Farmers were told that afflicted land could soon be returned to productive use (a statement backed by the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] in Vienna, a certain Hans Blix).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, little changed in Belarus: one authoritarian regime was replaced by another. The country’s dictator since 1996, Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective-farm boss, is keen to get people back onto the land. He has personally intervened to support studies that show this land is safe to bring back into agricultural use. In 2004 he declared that it was time to build new homes and villages in the contaminated regions, stating triumphantly, “land should work for the country.”

Many international organizations, including the IAEA, backed Lukashenko’s aspirations. But Belarus isn’t a place to question the wisdom of the authorities. It is one of the least free places on earth, ranked below Zimbabwe and Iran for press freedom. And so the Soviet silencing of dissent continues.

A scientific expert on the effects of Chernobyl, Yuri Bandazhevsky, openly criticized the policy of bringing contaminated land into use a decade ago, suggesting that the government was knowingly exporting radioactive food. For this he was jailed on anti-terror charges. In 2001, he was sentenced to eight years in prison on “corruption charges.” He was released in 2005 and now lives in exile in France, unable to research the disaster’s effects on the people remaining in the evacuation zone.

Lukashenko is unfazed by such criticism. Since his reelection in December (deemed “unfair” by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s election observers) he has ruthlessly clamped down on any opposition to his rule. Over 600 arrests were made in the days that followed the election result. Seven of the nine opposition presidential candidates were jailed, five of whom have now been sentenced to multi-year prison terms. The bombing of the Minsk metro on April 11, in which twelve civilians died, has been blamed by Lukashenko on his rule being overly liberal. He told his crony Parliament, “There was so much democracy, it was just nauseating.” As in Soviet times, fear stalks the country: mysterious terrorist acts, the near-total jailing of the opposition, KGB arrests in the dead of night, and allegations of torture abound.

In the absence of open politics, the remembrance of Chernobyl’s victims has become an intensely political act. Protests demanding justice for the victims until recently have been led by the opposition. In 2006, 5,000 protesters shouted anti-government chants declaring a cover-up on the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe. Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition leader, led the crowds.

For those living in the affected areas, political fear is compounded by a vacuum of information about the disaster. Detailed maps of the land contaminated in the Ukraine are readily available; not so in Belarus. The vacuum is filled with hysteria and fear. According to Richard Wilson, professor of physics at Harvard University, “The truth is that the fear of Chernobyl has done much more damage than Chernobyl itself.” To this day this fear infects daily life. A fear of deformities means there are more abortions than live child births in Belarus. One psychiatrist, Dr. Havenaar, studied the people of Gomel, one of the worst-affected areas. He found that local people said they were five times as sick as people in similar towns not affected by Chernobyl’s radiation. But after physical examinations, the level of illness among those towns was broadly similar. It was the psychological distress in Gomel that was far, far greater. Fear is literally making people sick.

Political decisions in Moscow made Belarus the dumping ground for over 100 times the radiation released by the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Now the aftermath of Chernobyl itself is intensely political. Prior to its post-election suppression, the opposition demanded answers from a secretive regime about the health effects of the disaster. Now Lukashenko is committed to building a new nuclear power plant bordering Lithuania (to the horror of Lithuanians)—on one of the country’s tiny patches of uncontaminated land—and to opening up the contaminated land for human inhabitation. Last month, Lukashenko visited the village of Dernovichi in the evacuation zone and delivered a speech on the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. His intentions for the area were quite clear:

In Narovlya district milk is produced which is used for the production of children’s food. The re-specialization of agriculture gives farmers work again. In the Gomel Region—there are 34,000 hectares from which it is possible to receive clean products. Besides, tourists are ready to come to this zone.
As for Major Aleksei Grushin, he was awarded a medal by Vladimir Putin at a state ceremony. This is a state secret in Belarus. In countries where dissenters are silenced, disasters like Chernobyl are magnified. The tragedy is twenty-five years on, and Belarusians are no more free.

Contact details

Written by Michael Harris on . Posted in Contact

Mike Harris public affairs consultant

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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.