Nonviolence, Media Freedom, Egypt and Fiji

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”
T.E. Lawrence

Post by Dr Mark Hayes (Brisbane)

Browsing the dead tree edition of the Sydney Morning Herald for February 19, 2011, at Page 13, my weary eye chanced upon an article tagged ‘Inspiration’, headlined ‘Unassuming author helps write history‘ by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and sourced to the New York Times. Me being me, and always ‘going to the source’, I energized the mighty MacBook Pro and tracked down the original article. The New York Times helpfully assembles resources and other background materials so start there.

Some focused Googling (excuse the irritating neologism  :(  ) added quite a few other materials to my trawl on Gene Sharp, including this long interview on a US public radio station (13.3 Meg MP3; excuse the irritating donation pleas) and a fairly recent edited interview on YouTube.

This last item was occasioned after Gene was ‘outed’ as an American agent funded by the CIA to destabilize Iran, Venezuela, and generally being a Bush administration stooge. Several sources promptly, and vigorously, debunked this nonsense.

The genial Gene Sharp

However, the ‘Gene Sharp is a CIA agent’ fantasy surfaced again in Fiji in June, 2008, when then Fiji Human Rights Commissioner, Dr Shaista Shameem, released a report (2.41 Meg PDF) into the deportations of Fiji Sun publisher, Russell Hunter, and later, Fiji Times publisher, Evan Hannah, which, among many other very interesting things, uncovered a perfidious plot to destabilize the then ‘interim’ government by a cabal of media, lawyers, and foreign funded NGOs distributing and inspired by Gene Sharp’s The Anti-Coup booklet. Shock! Horror!

Dr Shaista Shameem clearly pulled down Gene Sharp’s entry on Wikipedia, selectively Googled some other stuff to bolster her paranoia and conspiracy theory, and evaluated that rubbish in a way that would get her failed in any half-decent high school or university subject.

Around the time of the 2006 Fiji coup, in Boston, USA, Ms Jamila Raqib, a staffer with the tiny non-violence think-tank, The Albert Einstein Institution, founded by Gene Sharp, was e-mailing copies of the institution’s 72-page The Anti-Coup Handbook to every email address she could find in Fiji.

“Individuals whom we were able to actually reach (I am excluding a number of emails that were returned to me as ‘undeliverable’) included a diverse group of more than 200 human rights organisations, government bodies, civil society groups, business councils, religious associations, as well as radio, television, newspaper, and web media networks to bring their attention to our publication,” Ms Raqib told me in an email at the time. Radio Australia also reported on this activity.

What annoyed me was that, drawing on an illegal, stolen, and selective e-mail trawl probably obtained by the Fiji military, or helpfully provided by a coup-supporting stooge inside Fiji’s largest ISP, Connect,com.fj, Dr Shameem didn’t out me as another source of subversive and inciteful materials because I, too, had e-mailed several Fiji contacts with copies of The Anti-Coup.

Gene Sharp, apparently, also terrifies the local military dictatorship in the South Pacific, not without reason, it seems.

I well recall the first time I met Gene Sharp and heard him speak in the UK in 1981 when he was promoting Social Power and Political Freedom and was profoundly impressed by the hard headed rigor of his arguments for nonviolence. This by no means was ‘soppy quasi-religious pacifistic nampy pamby oh so altogether nice let’s not offend anybody’ drivel I’d encountered periodically in peace movement and some evangelical Christian circles which usually triggered my gag reflexes. Gene was emphasizing that nonviolent political actors had to be at least as strategic and tactical as their opponents, though using different means of struggle, and had to very deeply learn and practice how to be stubborn.

When he toured Australia a year later, I knew what was coming and watched as his arguments freaked many ‘oh so nice and polite’ activists right out. In some respects, successful Australian nonviolent campaigns have learned many lessons from both their own experiences and from studying Gene Sharp’s work, like I did when an undergraduate in Queensland in the latter 1970s.

As Bob Dylan observed in The Times They Are A-Changin’, itself one of the inspiring songs for the American anti-war and civil rights struggles of the 1960s, “… And don’t speak too soon… For the wheel’s still in spin… “, it’s far too early to predict what’s likely or even probable to occur in Egypt, or other Middle Eastern countries.

It’s also far too soon to claim, as some enthusiastic commentators have done, that Gene Sharp was the Master Tactician behind events in Tunisia, Egypt, and continuing. He carefully denies any such involvement though some commentators point to his work, and the work of the Serbian student group Otpor! as significant sources of ideas. Western claims that Gene Sharp inspired Egypt’s activists prompted the sharp riposte from at least one that ‘Egypt doesn’t need another Lawrence of Arabia’ to mount their own revolution. Quite so. It’s obvious that many Middle Eastern activists are ‘dreamers of the day’.

The role of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and the partially successful efforts of the Mubarak regime’s security services to cut the country off from the Internet, was, and remains, very significant, and most certainly deserving of close and critical analysis. Without doubt, other regimes are already hard at work figuring out how and why Egypt’s attempt at exiting cyberspace was only partially successful with a view to ensuring their efforts succeed. As I was finalizing this Post, Libya was also reportedly trying to vacate cyberspace too.

This activity is also linked to media control and censorship, including shutting down all but ‘loyal’ local, and foreign reporting, targeting journalists – very, very bad move indeed to sool your state thugs on to a very high profile, very attractive, female American network television reporter – and the other usual and expected nastiness directed at journalists. Doing so, of course, helps generate the conditions for Backfire (triggering the Corbomite Shield :)  ).

Of course, many valid criticisms ought be made about why Lara Logan got all the publicity when getting seriously monstered and tortured by Mubarak’s goons was a routine job risk endured for years by Egypt’s independent journalists as well as other human rights activists, but let’s debate that issue later.

Fascinating, too, to notice how, when Mubarak announced his resignation, Egyptian state media quite suddenly remembered what journalism is really for, and how it’s usually done should an outlet value credibility. Very flexible of them. I was reminded of one of the very best descriptions I’ve ever read about journalism, by the Israeli journalist, Amira Hass.

Not being a Middle East specialist, or having even anything beyond a moderately informed general knowledge of the profound complexities of that Region, nevertheless, seeing Gene Sharp popping up, again, in media commentary about another mass, largely nonviolent, regime change provoked some deja vu in my patchy memory, and had me re-visiting some work I’ve done on deploying nonviolence in media freedom struggles in the Pacific (PDF paper, 274 kb).

(To head off all the usual and expected criticisms of nonviolence, including from the esteemed creator of this most excellent Blog with whom I’ve had many amicable debates about the efficacy or otherwise of nonviolence, Rev Dr Martin Luther King dealt with many criticisms in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, and scholars of nonviolence are awaiting publication of a major study on the efficacy of civilian resistance {another admittedly confusing synonym for nonviolence, itself an admittedly clumsy description but one superior to several other terms deployed in the relevant Literatures}. For a taste of this major study download the article from International Security (171 Kb PDF).)

In relevant passing, some superficial parallels, in dynamics only, can be drawn between the campaigns and struggles which brought down historical dictators – Suharto, Marcos, Milošević, et.al. - and what’s occurring in the Middle East, but each struggle and context is quite unique once superficial parallels and dynamics are sketched out.

The history and analysis of nonviolence deployed against the corrupt Bjelke-Petersen government in my own home state of Queensland during the 1960s and especially during the 1970s deserves much greater attention as well, as this represents one of the most severe Australian governance and human rights crises in fairly recent history, as does the use of nonviolence in that particular context. (e.g., Plunkett & Summy, 1980, 4 Meg PDF.)

To very brutally summarize Gene Sharp’s most essential point about nonviolence (and I’m drawing on my PhD thesis, about a third of which focused on, compared, contrasted, and critiqued Gandhi’s and Sharp’s approaches to nonviolence; shameless self-promotion and gag filters engaged as appropriate   :)  ), and Gene does not put it in quite these terms though his intent is excoriatingly clear:

Dominators only get to dominate because people let them do it, for all sorts of complicated reasons. To remove a dominator, you take their power off them by withdrawing people’s obedience. Dominators usually use violence and because their staff (army, police, and similar) specialize in violence, you must use other means to remove a dominator’s power, otherwise you play to their strengths and not your own. Don’t engage in nonviolent resistance without very through preparation indeed. Expect and prepare for quite probably severe, even deadly, repression and reprisals. There are no guarantees of success.

There are, of course, critiques of Gene’s theory of power, even by sympathetic critics such as Australia’s leading nonviolence scholar, Professor Brian Martin. My PhD thesis also traverses some of these critiques.

When Fiji’s most recent coup seemed likely, and while the first moves were in play in early December, 2006, I was one of those seeding copies of Gene Sharp’s PDF pamphlet, The Anti-Coup, around several contacts there, hoping it might do some good.

I was especially concerned for contacts in the Fiji media because the Fiji military, closely following the coup plotter’s ‘manual’, was targeting the local media and journalists. By no means was I sympathetic at all to the Qarase SDL moderately ethno-nationalist government, but at least it had been tolerably democratically elected,  governed by reference to a tolerably legitimate constitutional and legal apparatus, and seemed to be slowly shambling towards ameliorating some of Fiji’s worse proto-coup formations. Another military coup was the very last thing Fiji needed.

Between December, 2006, and Easter, 2009, when any pretense of the military dictatorship being ‘interim’ was shredded, there were periodic attacks on some Fijian journalists, but over Easter, 2009, Fiji’s constitutional rule of law was replaced by ‘rule by decree’ and Public Emergency Regulations (PER) – never clearly explained who caused the ‘emergency’ – which include severe and intrusive media censorship.

In August, 2010, I wrote a detailed and lengthy backgrounder arguing that almost nobody could see any sustainable endgame out of the Fiji situation. Nobody’s sought to refute my argument, though one commentator, the same one I discuss in the Appendix to my 2009 PIPSA paper, fired off one very minor pot shot.

Indulging my cognitive dissonance, and thus simultaneously holding two completely incompatible ideas in my head, I couldn’t figure out why Fiji’s media operators didn’t politely treat the military censors and police sent into their newsrooms as trespassers, for which, in normal legal environments, there are ample criminal and civil legal sanctions and remedies. Even given the PER after Easter 2009, rehearsed and prepared nonviolent resistance would have enabled media outlets to at least monkey-wrench attempted censorship or other illegitimate interference in their business activities. Just because some loud mouthed usurper bellows ‘This is the law now!’ is no reason at all to take them seriously or obey them or their agents of mischief.

There were a few attempts at resistance, such as the now defunct Fiji Post reporting spoof stories, Fiji TV pulling its news on Easter Sunday night, 2009, a classic Sunday Fiji Times Easter Sunday 2009 edition with holes indicating where censorship had occurred, and shunning of the censors in the Fiji Times newsroom.

Of course, when the militarized police and military officers turn up, should they encounter resistance, they could whistle up some serious, and armed, muscle more than ready to enforce Fiji’s new legal order: the Rules of Fists and/or Glock.

Further, given Fiji’s fearsomely competitive media market, and as amply demonstrated periodically since well before the 1999 inception of the Fiji Media Council, an attack on one outlet, such as a female journalist getting threatened by some uniformed cowards, or publishers being all but kidnapped and deported by other cowardly uniformed snatch squads sneaking about at night, or a similarly heroic attempted firebombing of the Fiji Times’ editor’s house, is often all but explicitly regarded as a business opportunity by some of the others. Probably, all but essential industry wide solidarity would have been very difficult to achieve and maintain, which is much more a statement about the Fiji media than about the efficacy of nonviolent resistance to coups.

The regime, for example, has diverted all its newspaper advertising to the Fiji Sun, which is the regime’s most vigorous media supporter.

To brutally summarize, it’s all very well for media freedom advocates, such as the Pacific Freedom Forum, of which I’m a founder member and serve on our drafting group, to issue Statements – and by no means do I denigrate or deprecate the issuing of statements by human rights or media freedom groups; one of Gene Sharp’s 198 nonviolent tactics (PDF) – but, as I crudely, as well as quite deliberately to get people’s attention, put it at some PFF meetings, if there’s a toilet paper shortage in the Government Buildings in Suva, across the road from Radio Fiji’s studios and around the corner from Fiji TV, and your Statement comes off a fax machine or is printed off a Web Site, I have a pretty good idea what your statement will be used for.

Media freedom advocates in the Pacific, and that includes working journalists for whom media freedom should be non-negotiable (Article 19 UN Human Rights Declaration), need a further array of tactics to deploy to more effectively respond to attacks on media freedom in the Region.

I can readily anticipate many objections to my points above, and I welcome vigorous and informed debate accordingly.

To briefly rehearse some further objections in no order of priority:

Certainly, a military dictatorship, even a relatively benign one, is not going to be bothered engaging in any polite debates about media freedom when, in addition to everything else, they seem to operate out of an extremely limited understanding of media effects (which is the subject of another Blog post here fairly soon). Should they back down on the basis of losing a polite debate on media freedom, they can be seen to be weak, and that weakness exploited by less than honorable opponents.

Deploying nonviolence in defence of media freedom challenges Management Prerogative by equipping employees with precisely the same tactics deployed in industrial disputes. Engaging in nonviolent struggle challenges journalist’s ethics and norms of objectivity. How can a media nonviolent campaign be prevented from being exploited by other, less worthy, political actors or even criminals just exploiting apparent social instability. Pacific countries and their media are comparatively very small indeed, everybody seems to know everybody else, and everything seems to involve personalities. The size of Pacific cities, like Suva, Apia, Honiara, or Port Vila, physically concentrates media outlets, which makes it easier for police or military to secure a newsroom, printing plant, radio or TV studios. The same goes for Internet ‘pipes’ into and out of small Pacific countries; Coconut Firewalls could be much more closely monitored. Given many media outlets are Government owned and/or are QANGOs, or corporatised with government majority shareholding, a government’s media, even if the ‘government’ has been removed in a coup, is hardly going to resist obeying dictates from its owners. Challenging the State violates Christian teachings on obedience to the authorities (e.g., Rom. 13: 1-7) {neglect or overlook the ‘religious geography’ in the Pacific at your peril}. Local, or even Regional, media organizations can easily be suborned or infiltrated (as has occurred already with the Pacific Islands News Association), so how to more effectively resist this (some efforts are already underway on this front).

The foregoing, of course, was all provoked by reading an edited article about Gene Sharp in a newspaper one somewhat languid mid-February Saturday morning in Brisbane, Australia   :).

Awaiting responses and informed debate with anticipation and in a Pacific spirit of Talanoa.

————————————-

Some UpDates (23/2/11 10.30am Brisbane time):

Communications Fiji Ltd, operator of the Pacific’s largest radio network and of Fijivillage.com, has helpfully dobbed its main cyberspace competitor, Fijilive.com, into the regime’s Media Industry Development Authority because Fijilive’s owner, Yashwant Gounder, hasn’t lived in Fiji for over a year. This is a flagrant violation of the regime’s Media Decree, which requires media owners to have lived in Fiji for at least six months of the last year.

Fiji Times journalist, Felix Chaudhary, was reportedly hauled in by the regime on Friday, February 18, 2011, quite probably because of his reporting on the declining state of the Fiji sugar industry. Given the rigorous media censorship and the fact that the military actively monitors and data mines all phone and Internet traffic into and out of Fiji, getting further information out about such detentions is very difficult but sources suggest Mr Chaudhary was only held for an hour and wasn’t roughed up or assaulted. The Pacific Freedom Forum issued a statement about this latest detention, as did the Asia-Pacific desk of the International Federation of Journalists.

BBC News on February 21, 2011, ran this addition to recent coverage about Gene Sharp with some useful links off their story.

2 Responses to Nonviolence, Media Freedom, Egypt and Fiji

  1. [...] (Confirms my point about the Fiji media’s extreme solidarity, usually not, whereby an attack on one outlet is usually responded to as a business opportunity by the others.) [...]

  2. [...] I would rather argue, informed by the theory I dissected in my PhD thesis, that, taking the very fullest and most informed account of the context one is examining, if it cannot be conclusively shown or argued that, for example, the suspension of fundamental human rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech (including media freedom) is absolutely necessary, then the suspension of those all but universally accepted rights is illegitimate and must be opposed (preferably by nonviolent means, for reasons I also sketched out in my thesis, and occasionally elsewhere). [...]

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