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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

Find me on social media:

You can email me:

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.

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.

Ed’s detoxification of Blair-Brown authoritarianism welcome news

Written by Michael Harris on . Posted in Articles, Labour

Free Speech Is Not For Sale

This article was originally published on Left Foot Forward, during the Libel Reform Campaign’s lobbying of Labour party conference.

“I won’t let the Tories or the Liberals take ownership of the British tradition of liberty; I want our party to reclaim that tradition” – Ed Miliband’s leadership speech was a strident attempt to detoxify the Labour brand from the widely perceived authoritarianism of the Blair–Brown years.

It’s not an original opinion to stress that Labour’s record on civil liberties was patchy at best. There was a schizophrenic schism between big ideas such as the Human Rights Act and the Equalities Act, and then a knee-jerk reactionary impulse especially when it came to the detail of legislation.

So the party that embedded Strasbourg jurisprudence into UK law via the Human Rights Act (a progressive act hated to this day by the Tories), also attempted to bring in 90 days’ detention, locked up asylum seekers including children, and restricted the right to protest in Parliament Square.

Jack Straw embodied this in 2000 with his dyspeptic gut-reaction to the judiciary when it argued against him abolishing the right to trial by jury with his attack on “woolly minded Hampstead liberals”, whilst in the same speech defending the Human Rights Act. Triangulation failed – simultaneously sending scores of small ‘l’ liberals to the Liberal Democrats, whilst those we were attempting to court abandoned us (especially C2/DE voters).

Our attempts at populism fell at a significant hurdle: they weren’t popular. Public support for ID cards fell from around 85% per cent of people backing ID cards (MORI) in the weeks after 9/11 to under half by late 2008 (ICM). Support for 90 days’ detention fell to just 20 per cent of voters by November 2005 (ICM), yet as unpopular as this was, Gordon Brown went back to this issue in Parliament in a bizarre Pavlovian moment of reaction.

It was great to see Ed distance himself from this yesterday: but we must always remember that British liberties were hard fought and hard won over hundreds of years. We should always take the greatest care in protecting them. And too often we seemed casual about them. Like the idea of locking someone away for 90 days – nearly three months in prison – without charging them with a crime. Or the broad use of anti-terrorism measures for purposes for which they were not intended.

As Ed develops a clear narrative that endorses civil liberties, it would be good to see a strong Labour position on reforming our libel laws to protect free speech, protecting the right to protest and freedom of association, prison reform, and looking again at anti-terror legislation. Ed’s speech was a good starting point for Labour to revalue where we stand on civil liberties, and a call to those who left our party over our authoritarianism to come back home.

Take to the Tweets – trade unions and twitter

Written by Michael Harris on . Posted in Articles, Labour

Mike Harris public affairs consultant

This article first appeared in the Autumn edition of ForeFront magazine.

Last June, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iranians took to the streets in the aftermath of Iran’s disputed presidential election. It used to be hard (and slow) work to organise street protests, with activists using underground samizdat printing presses at great risk to themselves, and their families. But now, in the new social media age, a single tweet (message via Twitter) can inform hundreds, if not thousands, of activists where to meet. More importantly, tweets can be hard for the authorities to trace.

Trade unions have an essential role to play in civic society. Now more than ever, members of trade unions in both the public and private sector face unparalleled challenges to their livelihoods. So, how can social media make a difference?

I manage the Libel Reform Campaign a coalition between English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science. We aim to change our libel laws which currently allow global corporations accused of appalling practices in third world countries to silence their critics using the High Court in London. We’ve used social media to great effect – 52,000 people have signed our online petition with 38% of them visiting our website via Facebook and Twitter.

The most important thing to remember when attempting to use social media to communicate a message is that prefix, ‘social’. Social media relies on the trust individuals place in the communicator of the message. Stephen Fry has 1,638,105 followers on Twitter simply because people like him. In this format he has serious clout: a single one-off tweet by Stephen Fry drove 1,918 people to our website.

It may be the case that corporations or trade unions aren’t ideally suited to a media like Twitter (who wants to follow PepsiCo?) – but individuals are. Rather than holding a monolithic Twitter account to push out messages, unions need to encourage everyone from the general secretary through to shop stewards to activate an account. How many people read every union email they receive? But if colleagues and friends are twittering a message from my union I’ll engage and take action. But – social media isn’t a panacea to falling participation and membership of your organisation. Whereas it can engage people quickly in your campaigns, the social element is key: you need a core of active people. Our campaign worked because we embraced this ‘social’ element with pub meetings, debates in Parliament and regular get-togethers. Twitter users met for the first time over a pint and could get involved in our work. We embraced spontaneous action by others.

For unions, social media is an opportunity especially in workplaces with low trade union density. A few highlynetworked individuals can drive membership throughout an organisation. The CWU’s Pat Carmody unionised a north London call centre, staffed by many temporary staff, against the best attempts of the management to prevent him. As nearly all the mostly young staff had Facebook, a Facebook group was set up. As each call centre worker joined the group their friends on Facebook were notified, which in turn drove fellow call centre workers to join – especially as it was the only Facebook group for their workplace. Social events – there’s that word again – were organised (paid for by the union) with live music and food which brought yet more people into the fold; nearly all of whom have never been a member of a union before. Social networking works at a micro level. For unions to embrace it they must think about why they want to use it, but also who is best placed to communicate their message. The union man Lech Wałęsa struggled against the odds to maintain his illegal strikes against the authoritarian regime in Poland. Modern struggles are now easier thanks to these transformational technologies; but you still need individuals to drive change.

■■ Mike Harris is a public affairs and media consultant and a member of Unite and the CWU.

Britain’s Digital Economy Bill Has Huge Implications for Freedom of Expression

Written by Michael Harris on . Posted in Articles, Free expression


This article was originally published by Dissent on their excellent Arguing the World website.

Content creators haven’t had it easy in the last few years. The almost endless expansion of the Internet’s capacity to move content—first copyrighted text, then images, audio, and video—has fundamentally undermined the pay model of those who produce content. So the lobbying for draconian measures to protect traditional notions of copyright in Britain’s Digital Economy Act has been intense.

Lobbyists told politicians that:

British musicians, singers, actors, writers and directors are known and loved around the world and create some of our greatest assets. Together they contribute more that 7 percent to the UK economy.

The Digital Economy Bill brings both of these together. It will ensure that British creators, entertainment companies and the 1.8 million people who work in and around the cultural sector are respected and rewarded in the future as they have been in the past, and that they are fairly paid when they put their work online.

The lobbyists won. The Digital Economy Bill that was rushed through Parliament contained controversial clauses that potentially allowed “a three strikes and you’re out” rule that would block access to the Internet for users who are alleged by content creators to have downloaded or shared copyrighted material.

Although the specific clause that allowed for disconnecting a user’s access to the Internet did not pass (though the government intends to bring this back to Parliament after the election on May 6), the UK’s communications regulator (known as Ofcom) will still be able to order Internet service providers (ISPs) to sanction speed blocks, bandwidth shaping, site blocking, account suspension, and other limits against an ISP customer accused of downloading copyrighted material.

While content creators have every right to defend their material, the provisions in the Digital Britain Bill are arguably an extremely authoritarian way of going about this. The Courts will not decide whether an individual should be barred from having an Internet connection—but a tribunal panel at Ofcom. And if individuals appeal, they will shoulder one third of the costs of such an appeal without recourse to legal aid. As a result, it will only be a matter of time before national newspapers will carry stories of poor disabled people on council estates facing disconnection from the outside world—and with no money to appeal such a decision.

If you think this only affects Internet users in Britain, think again. As with so much illiberal legislation, once mandated in one country, it begins to creep abroad. As Ian Brown, of the Oxford Internet Institute writes in the latest edition of the Index on Censorship magazine: “The European Commission has been secretly negotiating a new anti-counterfeiting treaty with the US, Japan and other developed nations that would mandate a three strikes policy.”

THE DIGITAL Economy Bill also contains clauses that allows a secretary of state, by order, to apply technical measures (as described above) against any user for any reason—for example, a political or religious Web site considered extreme by the government of the day.

In 2008, the former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told BBC Radio 4:

We need to work with internet service providers, we need to actually use some of the lessons we’ve learned, for example about how to protect children from paedophiles and grooming on the internet to inform the way in which we use it to prevent violent extremisms and to tackle terrorism as well.

In the event of another homegrown terrorist attack on UK soil, amending the Digital Economy Act to give a secretary of state the power to ban any website he or she chooses would be entirely possible under existing clauses of the act. At most it would require a “statutory instrument,” a type of mini-bill, that doesn’t need to be voted through Parliament but instead is voted through “on the nod” by a small Committee of MPs (this is how government Whips almost always get their way by convention).

The Digital Economy Bill passed through Parliament with almost no debate. Tom Watson MP, a close ally of the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was moved to rebel against his party. With legislation now at European level and the possibility of this legislation creeping abroad, what happens next? Ian Brown suggests it’s not over yet:

The House of Commons may have rushed through the Digital Economy Act with minimal scrutiny, but I think public protest over its far-ranging provisions is just warming up. Most of the UK’s 50m Internet users are only just hearing about this threat to their ability to work, learn and express themselves online.

The Internet’s democratic potential will be damaged by powers in the Act for users to be disconnected and websites to be blocked. But in the meantime, the tens of thousands of citizens who complained about the lack of debate to their MPs will be thinking about next month’s general election. Voters have an ideal opportunity to favour candidates that support freedom of expression and promise to block the secondary legislation that is still needed in the next Parliament to bring many of the Act’s provisions into force.