Author Archive

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

Letter: A primary solution to widening Labour party democracy

Written by Mike on . Posted in Labour

This letter was originally published in The Guardian on Friday 12 July 2013.

We welcome Ed Miliband’s bold speech setting out reforms to ensure that Labour politics is more open and that machine politics is consigned to history. Organisations like Pragmatic Radicalism, through its Top of the Policies events, are pioneering new ways to encourage the participation of the broadest possible range of people in Labour policy-making. We support Ed Miliband’s view that Labour must “reach out to others outside our party” in order “to genuinely build a movement again”, and agree that primaries may help this process. While no panacea, experimenting with primaries between now and the next election will show the British public that we are an outward-looking party that aspires to bring in a wider range of people as our candidates, not just a narrow elite.

John Slinger Chair, Pragmatic Radicalism
Cllr Mike Harris International officer, Pragmatic Radicalism
Jonathan Todd Vice-chair, Pragmatic Radicalism
Amanda Ramsay Vice-chair, Pragmatic Radicalism
John Mann MP
Gisela Stuart MP
Steve Reed MP
Jenny Chapman MP
Graham Jones MP
David Lammy MP
Ann Clwyd MP
John Woodcock MP
Kevin Barron MP
Lord Rogers of Riverside
Cllr Theo Blackwell London Borough of Camden
Cllr Simon Hogg London Borough of Wandsworth
Cllr Rachel Rogers Chair, Labour Group, Weymouth and Portland Borough Council
Robert Philpot Director, Progress
Joe Dancey Acting director, Progress
Peter Watt Former general secretary of the Labour Party
James Bloodworth Editor, Left Foot Forward
Hopi Sen Former head of campaigns, parliamentary Labour party
Cllr Mike Le-Surf Leader, Labour group, Brentwood Borough Council
Anthony Painter Author, Left without a future?
Cllr Stephen Cowan Leader, Labour group, London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham
David Goodhart
Jess Asato Labour PPC for Norwich North
Alex Smith Former Ed Miliband adviser/ Editor LabourList
Jonny Medland Secretary, Battersea Labour party
Atul Hatwal Editor, Labour Uncut
Lord Turnberg

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.

Islam Channel: Do we need to sacrifice privacy for security?

Written by Mike on . Posted in International

With the revelations of the American PRISM surveillance programme, many people are starting to question the trustworthiness of the National Security Agency and the American state apparatus. Is the social contract between the people and government at risk of breaking when private digital communications can be easily accessed at the highest levels of power? Joining Jonathan Steele to discuss this are Michael Harris, head of advocacy at the Index on Censorship; Jamie Bartlett, head of violence and extremism programme at Demos; and Robert McCaw, Department manager of government affairs at the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

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

Protest near “November 7 Square”, Tunis

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog


Protest near “November 7 Square”, Tunis. While liberal Tunisians remain concerned over the government’s often heavy-handed behaviour, huge improvements have been made. Public protest is tolerated, in stark constrast to the Ben Ali regime. NGOs are not only allowed registration but increasingly active in civil society. And the internet is more free, although concerns remain over online surveillance and the impact of old unreformed laws.

Charities accept Bitcoins

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

NGOs and charities often find themselves pursuing activities in direct contradiction to the rules of sovereign states. Whether NGOs that seek to foster political change in authoritarian states, to charities closer to home that seek legal changes or legal redress where fundamental rights have been challenged.

So it’s odd that so few charities accept Bitcoins (a currency devised precisely to go beyond the parameters of sovereign states) even after its general acceptance elsewhere.

The one exception is the Electronic Frontier Foundation that has accepted donations worth $102,000 in Bitcoins in recent weeks.

The EFF say:

Recently, EFF announced that we will resume Bitcoin donations on our website, using an intermediary service called BitPay. Gavin Andresen then returned all of these remaining bitcoins to us, stating:

I’m satisfied to see these bitcoins will be used as they were intended – as a donation to support the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Bitcoin Faucet was happy to receive the funds, but we are particularly glad to see them used as they were originally intended.

It’s very possible other NGOs in challenging environments will increasingly use Bitcoins as a method to circumvent restrictive financial laws devised to stop their work.

BNP to march on Lewisham

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

Racist political party, the BNP, are organising a march on Lewisham Islamic Centre this Saturday starting in Woolwich at 1pm.

The BNP’s support has collapsed in South-East London in recent years. In the whole of Lewisham (in 2009) they had just 20 members – out of 280,000 people. This march is a clear attempt to capitalise on the appalling murder of Lee Rigby to stoke up community tensions and give the BNP local profile.

I’ll be speaking to Labour party members tonight about what our response should be. Lewisham and Greenwich Councils are also working with the police to ascertain the likelihood of the march going ahead.

We don’t want to give the BNP the oxygen of publicity – nor do we want to leave the Mosque feeling unsupported and isolated. Counter-protests are likely. It’s essential that counter-protesters behave peacefully unlike the thuggish BNP.

People in Lewisham have a long tradition of standing up to racism and I’m sure we will do so again.

Let’s make their racism history.

Update: Lewisham NUT has put out a leaflet supporting a counter-protest.