August 2006

Kneejerking off

The government has announced plans to make the possession of violent porn punishable by three years in jail. This follows a campaign by Liz Longhurst whose daughter Jane, a Brighton schoolteacher, was killed by Graham Coutts.

She started a petition last November and a number of MPs - including the solicitor general, Harriet Harman - jumped on the bandwagon.

The proposed law will make it illegal to possess material featuring violence that is, or appears to be, life-threatening or is likely to result in serious and disabling injury.

According to Sean Gabb, director of the Libertarian Alliance:

If you are criminalising possession then you are giving police inquisitorial powers to come into your house and see what youve got, now we didnt have this in the past.

So whats the justification for this law? Not much, to say the least, as Brendan ONeill points out:

For a consultation on extreme pornographic material, the [consultation] document says seriously little about what this material is, where it is, how many people are accessing it, or what its effects can be. What exactly is extreme porn? It is not possible in a public document like this to give a great deal of graphic detail or description of the material in question. Does such porn really warp peoples minds and make them do bad things? We do not yet have sufficient evidence from which to draw any definite conclusions as to the likely long-term impact of this kind of material on individuals generally. (Though this doesnt stop them from arguing, more than once, that aberrant sexual material might drive individuals to commit aberrant sexual acts.)

How many people are accessing violent porn? According to a major research study…57 per cent of 9 to 19-year-olds who use the internet at least once a week had come into contact with pornography online. [But] the study did not distinguish between types of pornography. In short: dunno.

This legislation is a kneejerk response to an isolated incident and does nothing to protect society from itself or anything else.

Art veto

The Art and Islam exhibition, which is currently running at the Birmingham Museum Art Gallery explores two artists’ impressions of Bangladesh, captured through textiles and photography. These impressions range from the materials remembered from a past visit, to the spiritual and industrial changes documented on a recent journey.

However, one of the artists - Syra Miah - is complaining over the fact that the gallery has removed an image of a semi-naked woman following a single complaint from the Muslim arts group Artists Circle.

The museum said it had acted on a complaint from a member of the Muslim arts group Artists Circle. Rita McLean, the museums acting head of museums and heritage projects, said in a statement: The complaint we received was taken very seriously and it was after much consideration that the decision to remove the work from the exhibition was taken with the full agreement of the artist. However, Ms Miah said she was not consulted and could have clarified the meaning and context of the image if asked.

An email about the decision from the museums Melissa Strauss to Ms Miah also said the work might hinder the institutions attempts to increase its audiences. The Art and Islam programme is about showcasing artists whose work is inspired by Muslim cultures in some way, but we are also aiming to reach new audiences through the programme, she wrote. This complaint has come from our target audience, and also a member of one of our main stakeholder groups.

So stakeholder groups now get a veto on what can and cant be shown?

According to the artist:

I felt that the whole message behind my show had been undermined by this censorship. During the editing process the curators seemed to want images in the exhibition that portrayed Bangladesh as another colourful Asian country. Sadly, the removal of this image, the only image in the show that could be interpreted as gritty, confirmed my growing cynical view that the museum wanted to perpetuate a myth about Muslim societies: that nudity isnt tolerated. In Bangladeshi society - at least the one I witnessed - it clearly is.

The partially dressed figure in the image was actually a mentally ill woman who had made a home of a bus shelter. She was looked after by locals who made sure she was out of danger and fed. I think this shows a compassionate view of Islamic society.

Evidently, promoting a compassionate view of Islamic society is not in the remit of Artists Circle.

Syrian blogger arrested. No reason given

Syrian blogger Ali Sayed al-Shihabi has been arrested by the countrys security forces without explanation.

The 50 year old teacher has not been seen since he was summoned to a meeting with security agents in Damascus on 10th August. On 12th August his wife tried to find out what was going on and was told that he was being held at the State Security centre at Kafr Soussa, Damascus, but that she could not see him.

No explanation has been given for either the summons or the detention. He has not been charged with any offence but his arrest is believed to be linked to articles hes written for websites such as Hiwar al-Mutamedn (‘Civilised Dialogue’). He also has had two books published in Syria on social affairs.

Ali Sayed al-Shihabi is a former prisoner of conscience, detained between 1982 and 1991 for his membership of the outlawed Party for Communist Action (PCA), which he has since left.

Syria has a history of persecuting bloggers and Shihabis arrest has sparked fears that President Assads government is seeking to clamp down on freedom of speech on the internet.

Vietnams porn smokescreen

The OpenNet Initiative has published a report into online censorship in Vietnam. Their main finding is that, although the government claims it only wants to deny access to online pornography, it is actually far more interested in blocking access to political and religious websites.

The report, published last week, says the government is using increasingly sophisticated filtering techniques to block access to sites that could threaten the countrys one-party system, on topics such as political dissidents, democracy and Buddhism.

Sites written in Vietnamese are far more likely to be blocked than those in English. Internet usage in cybercafes, the most common way to access the web in Vietnam, is checked regularly, the report says.

The report is the latest in a series of case studies that address Internet filtering by states worldwide and you can read it in full by clicking here.

NoSpace in UAE

The United Arab Emirates has blocked, according to Dubai newspaper 7 Days.

For the majority of the country, Emirates Telecommunications Corporation, also known as Etisalat, has a monopoly on business and personal telecommunications services. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) requires Etisalat to actively censor Internet sites, and material which is deemed offensive is often blocked. Etisalat said this week that is banned because the website does not do enough to categorise adult content.

7 Days spoke to an Emirates musician, Saleh Hamed, whose opportunities have been suddenly and drastically limited by this move.

Hamed says that if a site is found to offend, blocking it outright is not always the answer. The solution, he suggests, is not censorship, but education. Otherwise United Arab Emirates is in danger of being left behind in the creativity stakes.


Inciting censorship

Following the recent alleged terror plot in the UK, a mini-summit of EU justice ministers was held in London last Wednesday. Several proposals were discussed, including the tightening of hand luggage checks in airports, more exchange of information on air passengers and teaching of European values to Muslim preachers.

Worryingly, they also came up with the idea of the blocking of some websites.

The Times has more and quotes EU justice commissioner Franco Frattini as saying: “I think it’s very important to explore further possibilities of blocking websites that incite to commit terrorist actions.”

Incitement is already a crime, regardless of the medium used. Inventing new or special rules for the internet looks very much like a case of wanting to be seen to be doing something rather than spending the time and resources that it will take to do something effective.

Backdoor Conservatism

Reporters Without Borders have joined the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), the Media Institute of Southern Africa-South Africa (MISA-SA) and the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) in urging the South African parliament to reject a bill proposed by the government that would open the way to censorship.

The Film and Publications Amendment Bill 2006 is currently being debated by the parliamentary subcommittee for Home Affairs before being submitted to the full parliament. Business Day has quite a good analysis of the issues surrounding it:

The bill discards the very carefully constructed balance between free speech and other rights contained in the original act, reached through extensive consultation 10 years ago. This act is based on the assumption that adults should be free to access any material they choose, with a carefully defined category of material being banned for possession and distribution (such as bestiality).

The bill seeks to reverse these gains and harks back to the Publications Act of 1974, which banned publications if they were considered to be indecent, obscene or offensive to public morals. This is dangerous stuff, and seems to be buoyed by a growing moral conservatism hiding under the guise of protecting women and children. The bill also bans publications on grounds that are far broader than what the constitution provides for, which has serious implications for the media and other publications.

The detailed issues and implications are thoroughly covered in the article. Go read it.

More music banned in Malaysia

Pussycats Dolls This is slightly old news, but the Malaysian organisers of a recent Pussycat Dolls concert have been fined for flouting decency laws.

Promoters Absolute Entertainment have been fined 10,000 Ringgits (£1,436) for allowing the female US act to perform sexually suggestive routines.

The penalty was imposed by the council which manages the Kuala Lumpur suburb where the event took place on 26 July.

The fine followed a complaint from Malaysias culture minister Rais Yatim, who is labouring under the strange belief that the six-strong troupes concert amounted to gross indecency.

Malaysia has a history of banning musicians. In 2003 US rock band Linkin Park were banned from wearing shorts while performing and in 2004 singer Mariah Carey was asked to cover up.

Madonna has been banned from Malaysian television and a scheduled concert by Norwegian metal band, Mayhem, was banned earlier this year.

Trial by tabloid

German prosecutors are to monitor Madonnas concert to determine whether the mock crucifixion segment could be construed as insulting religious beliefs.

However, they arent planning to send any observers of their own, but are instead planning to rely on media reports of the concert.

While Im all for a free and independent press, it strikes me as a bit dangerous - to say the least - for prosecutors to start basing their decisions on press reports without even attempting to independently verify the claims. This is especially true in the case of something as clearly subjective as deciding whether a religious belief has been insulted.

Of course, if we cant be sure that a crime has been committed, its pretty safe to say that it shouldnt be a crime at all.

Bikers call for blogs to be banned

Peter Black comments on the tendency nowadays for people to react to views that they disagree with by demanding that the views be banned. This is attitude is becoming increasingly apparent as more and more public figures start using blogs and other media to try and create a dialogue.

A case in point is that of the North Wales Police Authoritys Deputy Chief Constable, Clive Wolfendale who on 8th August recalled a trip that he and his wife took to the Lake District.

The area has many delights and sailing a traditional lake boat on Ullswater is certainly one of them. Drifting on the breeze, with the ochre sail set against grey waters and green fell, it was hard to imagine that some 12 million tourists a year visit the area. The only detriment to this earthly paradise was the inescapable whine of motorcycles on the A592. Revving in frustration at the snaking traffic and inconvenient speed limits, the machines seemed wholly incompatible with the otherwise pristine scene. I reflected on the statutory duty of Park Authorities to“conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage” and was reminded that Snowdonia suffers the same high pitched affliction. Most riders are responsible and courteous. North Wales Police has worked hard with partner organisations to cut the amount of motorcycle carnage on our routes. This does not begin to address, however, the environmental imposition. Only on the highest peaks (I just about managed it on a misty Helvellyn) is it possible to escape the grand prix ambience. In Germany, some states have banned the use of motorcycles at the weekend in certain areas. Is it now time to banish motorcycles completely from our National Parks?

The British Motorcycle Federation responded by accusing Mr. Wolfendale of breaching the Police code of conduct. They even go so far as to question whether senior Police Officers should be allowed to express personal views at all:

Personal comments by senior police officers in web logs on official police websites, go against the Police Code of Conduct say the BMF in a letter to the North Wales Police Authority, questioning the use of such personal web logs.

This follows comments made by the Deputy Chief Constable of the North Wales Police, Mr Clive Wolfendale’s personal blog on the North Wales Police website in which he floated the idea of banishing motorcycles from National Parks.

In the BMF’s letter, which has also been sent to Mr Tony McNaulty MP, Secretary of State with responsibility for Policing, and to the Association of Chief Police Officers’ (ACPO) Portfolio Holder for Police Standards, Mr Paul Scoot Lee, (Chief Constable of West Midlands Police), the BMF point out that the Mr Wolfendale’s web log for the weekend of August 5th contained a number of remarks that appear to conflict with the Police Code of Conduct ie: ‘Police officers have a particular responsibility to act with fairness and impartiality in all their dealings with the public and their colleagues.’

In what is obviously a personal blog, the BMF have asked if it is appropriate that the North Wales Police budget is used to fund the publication of a Senior Officers personal opinions when Mr Wolfendale’s comments on motorcycles in National Parks appear to be far from impartial.

This is silly. Certainly, the BMF has every right to disagee with Mr Wolfendale, but to insist that police officers should be banned from trying to provide some transparency and accountability into the way that force is run is both counter productive and runs wholly against the principles of a free and open society.