Lewisham pay day loan firms are parasites pushing people into debt

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Labour, Lewisham Council

This article on pay day loans was originally published by the News Shopper.

I once borrowed from a legal loan shark. I took out a loan of £100 and a week later, for the privilege, I had to repay £120.

At the time, I was between jobs and the Nationwide had helpfully slashed my overdraft.

I was lucky enough to escape this debt trap and pay back my debt – but for families across Lewisham using a loan shark is an everyday reality. In fact, Lewisham has London’s worst pay day loan problem – according to the Step Change consumer credit counselling service.

If you walk down Lewisham High Street, these pay day firms offer loans at rates up to 4,000 per cent. That’s a rate over 200 times even what an average credit card charges. Rip-off Britain is alive and well.

Yet, it’s clear that people don’t realise how expensive these loans really are. Normally when there’s a lot of competition, the price of a product falls – but even as new shops have opened up in Lewisham, the interest rate charged hasn’t fallen and may have gone up. The market just isn’t working.

In Lewisham, the average person who uses these short-term loans owes £530 and has two separate loans. We’ve got to help these people out of their debts.

At the end of September, Lewisham’s councillors debated legal loan sharks. We heard evidence that made my blood boil. I told our meeting that one loan company had sent an employee out in costume to promote their loans during the Olympic torch relay through Lewisham; another councillor said employees of one firm had given out leaflets outside the job centre queue in Catford.

Unanimously, with cross-party support every councillor backed Labour’s motion to try and tackle these parasites.

There’s a lot we would like to do but sadly the government won’t let us. We want the ability to stop new loan shops opening in the same way we can stop too many late night bars from congregating in the same street, and we would like the government to set a maximum cap on the interest that can be charged.

But there’s a lot we can do. The council supports Lewisham Plus Credit Union, an alternative to the big banks that can provide low cost loans to people. The cost of a loan with the credit union could be up to 20 times less than with one of the legal loan sharks.

You can help too. Instead of the miserly rates offered by the high street banks, you can save with the credit union so they can lend more to families at a reasonable rate – you could even earn a better rate of interest on your savings!
This article on pay day loans was originally published by the News Shopper.

Local people need to pass this message on to their family, friends and neighbours, as credit unions don’t have big advertising budgets but rely on word of mouth recommendation.

I’m also calling for Lewisham’s residents to sign a national petition calling on the government to give councils the powers to hold back the endless spread of legal loan sharks.

The recession has made this problem worse, with more people relying on credit to make ends meet. But it’s a false economy as the unregulated wild west of legal loan sharks is shackling the UK’s poorest borrowers with the highest price for credit in Europe.

Yet, this industry doesn’t need to exist – for most people their local credit union or building society can lend them money cheaper. Together we can help people out of their debt traps, but as a community we need to take action, and now.

Libel reform comes around less often than Halley’s comet. Let’s get it right

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Free expression

“Laws are like sausages – it is best not to see them being made”; a phrase commonly attributed to Otto von Bismarck seems apt for attempts to reform our archaic libel laws. The last wholesale attempt to get libel law right was in 1843, making Robert Peel our last “libel reforming” prime minister. Depressingly, the sausage cliché is younger than much of the parliamentary law that dictates what we can and can’t say. It’s hard to overstate how chilling to free speech the current law is.

Libel tourism

In 2010, President Obama signed into law the US Speech Act protecting Americans from libel judgements made in the high court here. John Whittingdale MP, the chair of the culture, media and sport select committee described this as a “national humiliation”. Our publication rule laughably predates the light bulb, originating in a case won by the notoriously litigious Duke of Brunswick in 1849. Thanks to this case, if you unknowingly copy a libellous statement and publish it on your blog, you could receive a threatening legal letter.

Thankfully, the government will be taking action on “libel tourism” and updating the publication rule for the internet age with the defamation bill that is currently passing through parliament. However, in some ways, the bill is a missed opportunity, with no new public interest defence and no action taken to stop corporations suing individuals.

Getting libel reform right means giving citizens a new public interest defence. Such a defence would have protected libel victims such as Dr Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst – all of whom were dragged through the courts after writing on important matters of science. A strong public interest defence will protect NGOs and academics from libel actions when they speak out on the dumping of toxic waste by multinational corporations or rampant tax evasion by banks. This defence is crucial – it’s near-impossible for scientists to prove the absolute truth of their research in particular where there are constant breakthroughs in our knowledge.

It’s chilling to think that Wilmshurst was sued 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.

Public interest defence

A new public interest defence will also protect NGOs and citizen journalists who have got a minor fact wrong, but are willing to correct or clarify it. As it stands, with no new protections, the bill would not have helped many of the cases that spurred 60,000 people to sign the Libel Reform Campaign petition. It was the intention of the government to get this right. Justice minister Lord McNally told Singh at a packed Libel Reform Campaign meeting that he’d be reforming the law so that scientists couldn’t be dragged through the courts again. His hard work on this issue is being undermined by the lack of this defence.

The defamation bill will do little to stop corporations suing individuals. This may be for ideological reasons, but in a globalised world where big corporations increasingly dominate the public space, letting them sue individuals is manifestly unfair. Across parliament, Conservative MPs such as Peter Bottomley and David Davis, Liberal Democrats Tom Brake and Julian Huppert and Labour’s Rob Flello and Paul Farrelly have questioned whether large companies really do need to resort to suing citizens.

With PR teams and laws to stop anti-competitive practices, firms do have alternatives. The law of libel was never originally intended to cover non-natural persons. The law is there to compensate damage to an individual’s reputation and the psychological impact this has. But companies don’t have psychological integrity, ie feelings. Should they get damages for defamation?

A huge effort has gone into the Libel Reform Campaign so far. 60,000 supporters have lobbied their MPs in person, held pub meetings, events in parliament, roundtable discussions with lawyers and international human rights groups, a huge comedy gig in central London with help from 60 civil society organisations. On Wednesday comedians and friends of science Dara O’ Briain, Dave Gorman and Brian Cox will join us in parliament to lobby MPs. It’s not too late for the government to strengthen its defamation bill.

In the meantime, Guardian readers can email their MP to ask them to put pressure on ministers. Wholesale libel reform only comes around every 170 years – anyone who cares about free speech cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

I originally wrote this article for Guardian Law on Wednesday 27 June 2012.

How my riots tweet landed me in hot water – at taxpayers’ expense

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Lewisham Council

Sanctions against councillors who express an opinion are overzealous. Finally, a judge has stood up to such nonsense

This article was originally published in The Guardian on Wednesday 9 May.

Last year, I was reported to the standards board of Lewisham council for tweeting concerns that last summer’s riots were spreading to our area (which they did – you can read my tweets here). I was bizarrely accused of inciting riots.

The intervening weeks weren’t much fun. I wondered whether the board would publicly reprimand me, leading to my possible suspension from my political party, or whether I’d be banned altogether from the council chamber for six months – unable to vote on issues directly affecting my constituents. In the end, the claim against me was thrown out. But every year, claims are brought against councillors. One individual made 170 complaints about their local authority and elected members, at a cost to taxpayers of £160,000. Not a single one of their complaints was upheld.

You’d expect councillors would be encouraged to speak out on behalf of their voters. But over the past decade a new culture encouraging “standards” has deadened lively public debate in local government. In 2007-08 of 3,547 allegations investigated by the now abolished Standards Board of England & Wales, only nine ended up with sanctions applied against councillors. The investigations weren’t just a complete waste of £10m a year of taxpayers’ money; the threat of investigation and subsequent negative publicity had a negative effect on free speech.

The code of conduct, written by the dead hand of bureaucracy, pays little thought to the importance of free speech. Councillors are expected “not [to] conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute”. And to “show respect and consideration for others”.

These clauses are so broad as to be meaningless. What they do is give your opponents a powerful toolkit to use against you. Across the country, where councillors have been reported to local boards, their opponents have printed mischievous leaflets saying that an “investigation” was under way into their behaviour. Many complaints taken through the Standards Boards don’t come from voters, but from other political parties that use these boards for their own advantage.

Since the abolition of the Standards Board of England & Wales by the coalition, local boards comprising of independent members and councillors have overseen the conduct of the elected. It has saved money and weeded out some of the most ludicrous cases, but confusion continued as to the boundaries of free expression. One of the most infamous cases concerned a tweet by former Cardiff councillor John Dixon while shopping in London: “I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.”

After being reported for a breach of the code of conduct (from a Scientologist living in East Grinstead, Sussex), Dixon was cleared as his tweet was made in a private capacity, not as a councillor. Yet, the public services ombudsman for Wales who referred the case to Dixon’s local board for judgment, said Dixon “may” have breached the code. The ombudsman’s witless judgment is worth quoting from: “I am, however, concerned that a member who has served his community for over 10 years and has recently attended training does not appear to understand the provisions of the code, particularly paragraphs 2(1)(b), 4(b) and 6(1)(a). I also note that Councillor Dixon has not shown any remorse for his actions.”

Finally, a judge has stood up against this type of nonsense. Mr Justice Beaton’s decision in the high court declared that elected politicians should “possess a thicker skin and greater tolerance than ordinary members of the public”. His ruling that political speech is protected under article 10 of the Human Rights Act is a judicial rebuke to these inquisitions.

This case concerned Councillor Lewis Malcolm Calver’s blog, which contained sarcastic comments on the council chairman. Hardly the most scurrilous blog written about local government, but it landed Calver in trouble with the Adjudication Panel for Wales, which ordered he undergo training and publicly admonished him for “snide comments” (no, really). Thankfully, Calver’s victory will now establish a higher threshold for cases against councillors to proceed at standards boards.

There has for years been an extremely effective way for citizens to express their concerns about a councillor’s language or behaviour: by not voting for them. And no one would question that there should be locally set standards for those in public office. However, enforcing the nebulous concept of “respect” is a charter for those who oppose a particular policy or party to drag local politicians through the mud of an official investigation. The sanctioning of penalties against elected officials, for behaviour that is not illegal, has gone on for too long. It has taken the judiciary to finally stand up for the free speech of those elected by the public.

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.

Young people in Lewisham report

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Lewisham Council

The Young People in Lewisham report was commissioned by the Labour Group as part of our ongoing policy review. Lewisham is one of the most innovative Councils in the UK in its dealings with young people. As the first UK borough to have a directly elected Young Mayor with a significant budget, we are looked up to across Europe as a place where young people are taken seriously and given influence and power. This report attempts to build upon that radicalism. I chaired the report committee and we had fantastic contributions from: Kieza Silveira De Sousa and his advisors, Shiv Malik, Cllr. Alan Smith, Cllr. Alan Till, Cllr. Crada Oneugbu, Cllr. Jacky Addison and Ben Dixon.

Young People in Lewisham Report v1

Why are councils spinning against freedom of information?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Free expression

The Local Government Association has gone into overdrive to question the Freedom of Information Act

During the slow news days of Christmas, spinners at the Local Government Association sent out a press release: “Councils quizzed on Santa, Napoleon and aliens in 2011′s most wacky FOIs.” With opportune timing, the story appeared in most national newspapers.

Perhaps just a bit of fun, it gave the impression that local authorities are being bombarded by frivolous or vexatious requests, with the Freedom of Information Act costing local authorities £31.7m a year. No matter that, according to the same evidence base used by the LGA, of 693,650 requests made to local government 98.4% were deemed straightforward by officers and not subject to internal review to weed out vexatious requests.

It’s striking that the LGA decided not to highlight how freedom of information has held town halls to account by exposing waste and maladministration. The Barnet bloggers showed how the council used an unlicensed security firm to covertly film residents. Perry Austin-Clarke, editor of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, used FOI to discover the council was spending £500,000 on mobile phones bills. It subsequently fell to £100,000.

A series of FOI requests by the Daily Telegraph exposed how local authorities spent £2m on hotel bills over just 3 years – including stays at the Four Seasons in New York, the Pan Pacific in Singapore, and the Athens Hilton. The beauty of FOI is that it gives the public the same powers of inquiry as elected councillors.

Scrutiny can now be as powerful outside the town hall as inside.

This attention is not always appreciated by officers and members. Local government receives more FOI requests than any other part of government – because the services provided are the ones closest to the general public. In the Ministry of Justice’s memorandum to the justice select committee inquiry into the act, it argued: “At a time when all public authorities are required to do more with less, this consideration of the financial impact of FOIA on public authorities is pertinent.”

In Birmingham city council’s response to the committee, it argues that FOI costs the local authority £800,000. The figure is based on £25 an hour to locate, retrieve and review the information then (for no apparent reason) doubled the figure for staff costs. Until recently Birmingham was spending £10,000,000 a year on pushing its agenda through in-house publicity and communications.

The council argues that to reduce the cost of FOI, requests should be charged at £25 to deter multiple requests. Yet it’s multiple requests that allow groups such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance to make comparisons between local authorities – and find that councils such as Birmingham have the highest spending on publicity.

As John O’Connell, research director at the Taxpayers’ Alliance told me: “The Freedom of Information Act was one of the most important pieces of legislation enacted by the last government. FOI helped shift the power back to those who pay, and away from those who spend. It would be wrong to impose limits or caps on how much information taxpayers can request, and if public bodies wish to cut down on the work they do responding to FOI requests then they should simply publish more information proactively.”

Cost is a poor argument. While the LGA was happy to isolate the high costs of FOI, it pales into insignificance against the £427m a year claimed in mileage allowances for councillors and staff in 2009-10. The scrutiny that FOI brings to local government drives efficiencies.

It is certainly true that the number of FOI requests to local authorities has risen as people have become aware of their rights. Yet, research from University College London suggests that the cost of processing individual FOIs has also fallen by over half from £410 per request in 2005 to just £160 in 2010. FOI isn’t just the preserve of journalists or political parties: 52% of requests are from individual citizens, with 5% from businesses, journalists and political parties.

A concerted effort is underway to undermine the scope of FOI. It’s possible that requests could be charged in the future, severely hindering comparative investigative journalism. Another proposal is to lower the cost limit of £600 per request for central government departments and £450 for all other public authorities. This will only affect a tiny minority of FOI requests – but often the more pertinent.

A huge number of organisations (including Index on Censorship) are lining up to defend freedom of information. We’re hoping the justice select committee makes clear that the act is here to stay. But some policy makers have a desire to turn back the clock.

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff, regrets the introduction of freedom of information. “In retrospect, this was a mistake, not because secrecy is a virtue, but because policy making, like producing sausages, is not something that should be carried out in public,” he has said.

It’s a politics-first approach; hold debates behind closed doors so political groups can present a united front. In local government, this ignores the possibilities that opening up decision making to the public offers.

Local government must do more with less. In these circumstances opening up the decision-making process can only be a good thing. It’s a pity that the LGA is framing the debate in such a misleading way.

This article was originally published in the Guardian on 16 March.

Should councils be using public money for libel actions?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Free expression

Several local authorities are spending huge amounts of money on legally dubious grounds pursuing libel actions

In early February, Carmarthenshire county council confirmed that its chief executive Mark James will sue local blogger Jacqui Thompson for libel. The decision was made by the council’s executive board, and indemnifies James from the costs associated with the legal action.

The same local authority that is switching off 5,000 street lights as a result of cuts to its central government grant is pursuing a libel action that is likely to cost a six, maybe even seven, figure sum. The case is symptomatic of a wider trend where local authorities are becoming increasingly intolerant of local bloggers and using their legal, press and even security teams to hit out at vocal critics.

The Carmarthenshire dispute is long-running. It began with a libel action between Kerry and Jacqui Thompson from Llanwrda and the local authority’s director of planning Eifion Bowen, after the couple were sued for circulating defamatory letters, though they were never published in the wider media. The Thompsons apologised to Bowen at a hearing in October 2007, when they were given 12 months to pay legal costs totalling £7,000.

In 2008, the county council controversially changed its constitution so that public money could be used in future libel actions; an FOI request revealed its total legal costs from external organisations (solicitors and counsel) shot up from £364,369 to £711,832.

The legal authority for using public money for libel actions is questionable. The Derbyshire county council v Times Newspapers Ltd judgment of 1993 specifically rules out local authorities from suing for libel. As Lord Keith said in the judgment: “It is of the highest public importance that a democratically elected governmental body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism”.

This ruling was derived in part from earlier case law, which asserts the fundamental importance in a democracy of citizens being able to express their views – even offensive or distressing views – about their government, at national or local level.

While elected members and officers can use local authority funds to defend themselves if sued for libel in the course of their duties under the 2004 Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) parliamentary order, it specifically does not allow members to bring actions as claimants. And though Derbyshire specifically rules out local authorities and elected members suing for libel, it is less clear on councils funding libel actions brought by individual officers.

Wesley O’Brien, a solicitor at Bevan Brittan, pointed out in Local Government Lawyer magazine that local authorities can fund a claim brought by an individual officer and assist them if it can justify this expenditure. He said: “As the law currently stands, a local authority can fund a claim brought by an individual officer [council staff member] and it can also assist an officer in defending such a claim, where it considers such public expenditure to be justified.

“The position is, however, different for members where a local authority is only entitled to fund a defence, but not a claim … the only condition is that the statements made must refer to and be defamatory of the individual concerned.”

This isn’t the only case where taxpayer-funded local authorities are using their resources to take on vocal critics.

South Tyneside council, while making £35m worth of cuts in its 2010-11 budget, has admitted to Index on Censorship that it has used in excess of £75,000 worth of public money to launch a legal action by the council’s leader Iain Malcolm, fellow Labour councillor Ann Walsh and independent David Potts, alongside borough regeneration boss Rick O’Farrell.

Originally, South Tyneside told us that total case costs would not rise about £75,000, but the council has since admitted costs have rocketed into six figures. “The legal costs of this case have passed the £75,000 as a result of additional costs incurred to defend an ‘anti-Slapp’ motion … our American lawyers have advised that these costs total $64,370 and they have submitted a claim for this amount to the court in California. We are advised that the claim will be considered by the court at a hearing in February 2012,” it explained.

South Tyneside’s constitution requires cabinet sign-off for items over £75,000 – which of course creates a direct conflict of interest as Malcolm is a claimant in the case. However, the press office declares cabinet sign-off is not required.

As the case is being pursued in the Californian courts, it seems that the Derbyshire principle does not apply. But the council would find it hard to argue in the English courts that funding a case brought by an elected member did not breach either the Derbyshire principle, or the 2004 parliamentary order, leading to serious questions as to why the legal action has been taken.

These troubling recent cases, demonstrate the need to include a prohibition on all public bodies from suing for libel, as recommended by the Libel Reform Campaign, a coalition of Index on Censorship with English Pen and Sense About Science. The government is currently considering including the draft defamation bill in the next Queen’s speech, with thousands across the country writing to MPs to urge them to do so. If it does, ensuring that the resources of public bodies cannot be brought to bear against vocal opposition should be a serious priority.

Local authorities that open up access to information and learn from their critics will in the long-run build trust with their citizens. Councils that use public money to silence local voters are on a hiding to nothing – thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we know what they’re spending, and how their decisions are being made. The old control impulse is strong, but it’s hard to justify to taxpayers in South Tyneside that their money is being thrown at lawyers in a Californian court so one councillor can sue another.

This article originally appeared in the Guardian on 14 February 2012.

In Belarus, the freedom of the internet is at stake

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Free expression

Europe’s last dictatorship is clamping down on online activism, with a new law effectively requiring everyone to be a state spy

As of this morning, the internet in Belarus got smaller. A draconian new law is in force that allows the authorities to prosecute internet cafes if their users visit any foreign sites without being “monitored” by the owner. All commercial activity online by businesses registered in Belarus is now illegal unless conducted via a .by (Belarusian) domain name. There are concerns that this gives Belarusian authorities the power to take the next step and criminalise Amazon and eBay’s operations unless they collaborate with the regime’s censorship and register there. The law effectively implements the privatisation of state censorship: everyone is required to be a state spy. Belarusians who allow friends to use their internet connection at home will be responsible for the sites they visit. Some have tried to defend the law, stating all countries regulate the internet in some form – but the Belarusian banned list of websites contains all the leading opposition websites. The fine for visiting these sites is half a month’s wages for a single view.

The Arab spring has been a wake-up call to the world’s remaining despots. The internet allowed images of open dissent to disseminate instantly. As Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak found out, once you reach a critical mass of public protest you haven’t got long to board your private jet. It’s a lesson learned by Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus and Europe’s last dictator, and also by the Belarusian opposition.

Lukashenko attempted to destroy the political opposition after the rigged 2010 presidential elections. Seven of the nine presidential candidates were arrested alongside thousands of political activists. The will of those detained was tested: there are allegations that presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Mikalai Statkevich have been tortured while in prison. The opposition is yet to recover; many of its leading figures have fled to Lithuania and Poland.

Within this vacuum of leadership, the internet helped spur a civil society backlash. After the sentencing of the presidential candidates, a movement inspired by the Arab spring “The Revolution Via Social Networks” mushroomed into a wave of protests that brought dissent to towns across Belarus usually loyal to Lukashenko. As the penal code had already criminalised spontaneous political protest with its requirements for pre-notification, the demonstrations were silent, with no slogans, no banners, no flags, no shouting, no swearing – just clapping.

“The Revolution Via Social Networks” (RSN) helped co-ordinate these protests online via VKontakte (the biggest rival to Facebook in Russia and Belarus with more than 135 million registered users). RSN now has more than 32,000 supporters.

RSN splits its four administrators between Minsk and Krakow to keep the page active even when the state blocks access to the page, or the country’s secret police (hauntingly still called the KGB) intimidate them.

The protests were so effective at associating clapping with dissent that the traditional 3 July independence day military parade was held without applause with only the brass bands of the military puncturing the silence. As lines of soldiers, trucks, tanks and special forces paraded past Lukashenko and his six-year-old son dressed in military uniform, those gathered waved flags in a crowd packed with plain-clothed agents ready to arrest anyone who dared clap or boo.

The internet has kept the pressure on the regime in other ways. Protesters photograph the KGB and post their pictures online in readiness for future trials against those who commit human rights violations. A Facebook group “Wanted criminals in civilian clothes”, blogs and Posobniki.com all help to expose those complicit in the regime’s crimes. The web has also helped spread the stories of individuals who have faced brutality by the regime.

It’s this effectiveness that has made the internet a target for Lukashenko. The law enacted in July 2010 allowed the government to force Belarusian ISPs to block sites within 24 hours.

The new measures coming into force today merely build upon these restrictions. The official position of the Belarusian government from the operations and analysis centre of the presidential administration is: “The access of citizens to internet resources, including foreign ones, is not restricted in Belarus.” Yet, in reality the government blocks websites at will, especially during protests. Just after Christmas, the leading opposition website Charter 97 (which works closely with Index on Censorship) was hacked, its archive part-deleted and a defamatory post about jailed presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov published on the site. The site’s editor, Natalia Radzina, who has faced years of vile death and rape threats and escaped from Belarus after being placed in internal exile last year, says she has “no doubt” that the government was behind the hack. This is one of a series of attacks on Charter 97, which include co-ordinated DDOS (denial of service) attacks orchestrated by the KGB through an illegal botnet of up to 35,000 infected computers worldwide.

The regime has even darker methods of silencing its critics. In September 2010, I flew to Minsk to meet Belarusian civil society activists including the founder of the Charter 97 website, Oleg Bebenin. The day I landed he was found hung in his dacha, his leg broken, with his beloved son’s hammock wrapped around his neck. I spoke to his closest friends at his funeral including Andrei Sannikov and Natalia Radzina. No one believed he had committed suicide, all thought he had been killed by the state. Bebenin isn’t the only opposition figure to have died or disappeared in mysterious circumstances under Lukashenko’s rule, a chill on freedom of expression far more powerful than any changes in the law.

Today marks yet another low in Belarus’s miserable slide back to its Soviet past. Clapping in the street is now illegal. NGOs have been forced underground and their work criminalised.

Former presidential candidates languish in jail. The internet is the last free public space.

Lukashenko will do all he can to close down this freedom. In Europe, the battle has opened between the netizens of Belarus and its government. Who wins will be a matter of interest for us all.

This article was originally published in the Guardian on 6 January.

Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas stop selling Belarusian government bonds

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, International


Two more foreign banks halt cooperation with Belarus after German Chancellor Angela Merkel tells Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now that she would intervene to stop Deutsche Bank from selling government bonds to Europe’s last dictatorship.

Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now welcome the decision of banks BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank to stop selling the government bonds of Belarus, a country known as Europe’s last dictatorship. Deutsche Bank’s decision came after the launch of our international petition signed by the families of the political prisoners and NGOs as well as a series of protests. The campaign’s success is testimony to the success of the organisations in encouraging the high-level involvement of European politicians such as British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in condemning Belarus’s human rights violations.

Irina Bogdanova, sister of jailed Belarusian presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov raised Deutsche Bank’s involvement in two bonds sales directly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel told Bogdanova that she would call Deutsche Bank and raise the issue with them directly. Bogdanova said:

“It’s outrageous that a bank used by German families has sold the government bonds of the dictatorship that has imprisoned my brother for no other crime than standing in an election. Chancellor Merkel promised me she would speak to Deutsche Bank. I’m delighted that Deutsche Bank will no longer work for Europe’s last dictatorship after our campaign.”

Deutsche Bank were involved in a syndicate alongside British bank Royal Bank of Scotland, Russian bank Sberbank and French bank BNP Paribas that sold $1bn Belarusian government bonds at 8.75 per cent (due August 2015) in August 2010, followed by a further issue of $850m of bonds in January 2011 (due January 2016) at a higher rate of 8.95 per cent.

Experts calculated these interest rates were twice the rate that would have been levied by the IMF, but the IMF would have required structural reforms. Governments including the British government have opposed IMF involvement until the country releases political prisoners jailed after the last presidential election.

Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now were particularly concerned that even after the oppressive post-election crackdown in which seven of the nine presidential candidates were arrested and 43 political prisoners were held, the bond sale by Deutsche Bank continued.

Mike Harris, head of advocacy at Index on Censorship, said:

“Belarus’s financial crisis is so severe last week the Central Bank was forced to auction government property including TVs and cardboard boxes. Deutsche Bank and RBS who sold Belarusian government bonds in January were propping up a dictatorship. We’re delighted they have both pulled out leaving Lukashenko with few options other than to release his political prisoners.”

He added: “Only Sberbank is left from the original consortium of four banks. We will keep campaigning until they commit to not doing business with Lukashenko.”

Index on Censorship was the first NGO to report allegations of torture in Belarus on 20 December last year. The campaign by Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now is continuing to place pressure on Sberbank, the last remaining bank involved in the bond sale.

For more information please contact Mike Harris at Index on Censorship mikeindexoncensorshiporg or +44 207 324 2534 / +44 7974 838 468

London Riots showed the worst of the city, but also the best

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Lewisham Council


IT’S HIGHLY UNUSUAL to have widespread violence across a city, where the authorities have absolutely no idea of the root cause.

There’s no one to negotiate with, no community group to speak to, no leaders, no ideals to challenge: it’s just sporadic mob violence. My constituents have been shocked by its spread and unpredictability. St Stephen’s church just off the High Street has boarded up its windows, as have local pubs. On Tuesday our local branch of Barclays had a sign that ominously proclaimed: “This branch is closed until further notice”.

Social media and the London Riots

Twitter has become a dangerous tool: provocateurs are using it to spread rumours that the far-right National Front is going to march upon Lewisham to “reclaim the streets”. On Tuesday night panicked tweets exclaimed: “200 national front marching to Lewisham”. It wasn’t true. But in a highly diverse area where over 100 languages are spoken, rumours are enough to cause fear.

If you plot the London Riots against deprivation there’s a clear relationship: the violence mostly happened in poorer areas. There’s also a historic link between austerity and social unrest, according to a discussion document just published by the The Centre for Economic Policy Research. Yet, no one thinks the individuals who caused the violence were anything other than opportunists – some career criminals, others who saw a chance to loot.

The first before the courts included an organic chef, an opera house steward and a university student. There’s no political sentiment being expressed by the looters except for the downright stupid – such as the “I want my taxes back” looter in Clapham Junction which went viral.
‘People wanted to stand up’

Volunteers clean up London

This civil disorder has brought out the worst elements from our community. It’s thought that some gang members were behind the most extreme violence. But it has also brought out the best in Lewisham. People have genuinely wanted to stand up for their community. On Tuesday morning, unprompted, around 15 local people came down to the town centre on their way to work to help with the clean-up. Fantastic images of Londoners coming out onto the streets to clean up the mess have been seen across the globe. One American tweeted in response: “English people, WE’LL stop thinking you’re all quaint and proper as soon as YOU stop immediately cleaning up after your own riots.”

My constituents have inundated me asking me how they can help. This Saturday, local people will be gathering in the town centre for a ‘carrot mob’: armed only with shopping bags, we’re going to go and do our weekly shopping at the local market and at shops damaged by Monday’s violence. It’s a great way of putting money back into the pockets of those affected. It’s also a show of solidarity.

A culture of greed

London is a chaotic place. It’s survived terrorism, the Blitz, the Great Fire, civil war and revolts. Asymmetric violence for no cause has visibly shaken us – and we have to deal with complex issues that have created this situation including the culture of greed. The collapse of trust in our major institutions isn’t helping. In amongst much confusion, one thing is clear, the decent majority have to take an interest in their communities. And politicians have to be visible on the streets and listening.

This article was originally published at TheJournal.ie