Media chiefs unite on press freedom, but will it result in any action?



News Corp Executive Chariman Michael Miller (left), Nine Chief Executive Officer Hugh Marks (centre) and ABC Managing Director David Anderson (right) stressed unity in their fight for press freedom.
Rohan Thomson/AAP

Colleen Murrell, Swinburne University of Technology

In a rare show of unity, the heads of Australia’s biggest news organisations – the ABC, Nine and News Corp – have called for stronger legal protections for press freedom in the wake of this month’s police raids on journalists.

Sharing a panel at the National Press Club in Canberra, the media chiefs outlined several key demands:

  • search warrants to be contestable before the arrival of police
  • better protection for whistleblowers
  • a limitation on the number of documents being marked secret by various government bodies
  • a review of freedom of information laws
  • an exemption for journalists from being prosecuted under national security laws

First to address the lunchtime crowd was the ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, who called the fact that he was seated alongside News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller and Nine chief executive Hugh Marks “an unlikely coalition of the willing.”

But he underlined that unity was imperative because “the stakes are so high.”




Read more:
Explainer: what are the media companies’ challenges to the AFP raids about?


Anderson made a passionate speech that stressed the ABC’s record of “speaking the truth to the community”. He listed the many investigative reports by ABC journalists that led to royal commissions, from Chris Masters’ 1987 “Moonlight State” report on corruption in Queensland’s police force to more recent ones in banking and aged care.

He also referred to the work of ABC journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark on a series of stories called the Afghan Files, the reporting that led to the AFP raid on the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters in Sydney.

Anderson argued that it was difficult for the media to do its job with the “patchwork of laws” in place and whistleblowers running the risk of “being cowed out of existence”. Most importantly, he stressed that

decriminalising journalism is a mandatory first step.

‘Balance too weighted towards secrecy’

Marks claimed that press freedom had been eroded in Australia due to a mix of technological change, bad legislation and over-zealous officials. He said it was now

more risky and it’s more expensive to do journalism that makes a real difference in this country than ever before.

Like Anderson, Marks also emphasised the important investigative public interest journalism carried out by Fairfax and Nine journalists in recent years, including work by Laurie Oakes, Adele Ferguson, Joanne McCarthy and Chris O’Keefe.




Read more:
Four laws that need urgent reform to protect both national security and press freedom


He argued that media freedom was under threat because “governments and institutions are becoming more secretive” and that national security was sometimes invoked to shut down debate on spurious grounds. He believed

the balance is too weighted towards secrecy.

Marks took issue with various current laws, arguing that defamation laws didn’t achieve what they were meant to and the huge rise in suppression orders and complexity of Freedom of Information laws led to an “obstacle course of legal hazards”. Bearing this in mind he said:

This would be the stuff of pantomine were it not so serious.

Miller drew attention to Australia’s slide down the 2019 World Press Freedom Index to number 21 – below Suriname and just ahead of Samoa – and commented that Australia should instead be “leading by example”. He believed that two AFP raids in two days, plus “strong information that other raids were planned” equalled “intimidation not investigation”.

Miller said News Corp had called on Attorney-General Christian Porter to make sure that its journalist, Annika Smethurst, doesn’t face criminal charges after the raid on her home.

He said many of the faults in our laws could be “easily corrected to reset the balance between security and the right to know”.

But there is a deeper problem – the culture of secrecy. Too many people who frame policy, write laws, control information, and conduct court hearings, have stopped believing that the public’s right to know comes first.

More action, fewer promises

The most interesting part of the discussion came when ABC’s Matthew Doran asked the panellists if they thought the public would get behind changing laws to suit a group of privileged journalists. Marks said it was a start.

Freedom of speech feels very personal to me. We have to make it feel personal for the public.

But there were some in the room who appeared less reassured by the rhetoric on display. The Guardian’s Katherine Murphy pointed out that when these laws were passed “tranche by tranche” in recent years, there was not much media focus on these changes.




Read more:
To protect press freedom, we need more public outrage – and an overhaul of our laws


Sky’s David Speers also seemed unimpressed that the media chiefs weren’t calling for a parliamentary inquiry, asking to whom they were speaking in regard to change. Miller’s reply was that they were releasing a document outlining their key demands and that the three of them being there together indicated the importance of the issue.

At the end of the day, perhaps the presence of all three media chiefs united together was singular. Immediately following the event, press freedom campaigner and University of Queensland Professor Peter Greste said “that rare show of unity is hard to understate” and that the AFP raids had

created a rare moment of opportunity that we need to seize.

Nonetheless, he thought it

deeply concerning that none of them seemed to have had any meaningful commitments to action from the government.

News Corp is taking its battle to the high court as it believes that the search warrant on Smethurst’s house was vague and incomplete.

The ABC, likewise, is challenging the police raid on its premises in federal court. Anderson would like the ABC’s downloaded data returned and wants there to be a “threshold test” regarding the justification for when the police can enter media premises.

The publicity from this unified initiative is no doubt positive, but it is entirely possible that a newly elected government could sit back and wait for these legal cases from News Corp and the ABC to pass through the courts before taking any action.

There is little pressure on governments to make concessions to an unpopular press in an era of suspicion of the media, whipped up by populist movements around the world.

The Conversation

Colleen Murrell, Associate Professor, Journalism, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Young Australians champion ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ in designing constitutional change



Many high school students are politically engaged. But how would they change the preamble to the Constitution?
AAP/Lukas Coch

Benjamin T. Jones, CQUniversity Australia and John Warhurst, Australian National University

When the Australian constitution was written in the 1890s, the authors did not envision an independent nation, but a self-governing dominion of the British empire. As such, the preamble does not contain flowery language about national values. Instead it is a dry, legalistic introduction simply noting that some of her majesty’s “possessions” have federated. One unsuccessful attempt to change it was made in a 1999 referendum.

In March 2019, 120 high school students from around Australia met in Canberra for the 24th National Schools Constitutional Convention. Their mission was to write a new preamble, with the authors of this article serving as facilitators. Over two days of lively debate, sometimes heated but always civil, a final version was drafted.

In a referendum-style vote, a majority of students and a majority from each state ratified the preamble (83 “yes”, 34 “no”, two voted informal, one abstained). The students’ preamble was presented to the federal Senate on April 2 and entered into Hansard.

The referendum result.

The students’ preamble

We the Australian people, united as an indissoluble Commonwealth, commit ourselves to the principles of equality, democracy and freedom for all and pledge to uphold the following values that define our nation.

We stand alongside the traditional custodians of the land and recognise the significance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in shaping the Australian identity, their sovereignty was never ceded.

As a nation and indeed community, we are united under the common goal to create a society catered to all, regardless of heritage or identity.

We pledge to champion individual freedom and honour those who have served and continue to serve our nation.

As Australians, we stand for the pursuit of a democratic state that upholds the fundamental principles of human values as set out by this Constitution.

The student’s preamble differs enormously from the one written in the 19th century. It is noteworthy that it includes the words “democratic” and “freedom” twice – neither are in the current preamble or the constitution. From the students’ preamble, three elements emerge that young people want to see enshrined.

Acknowledging First Nations

During the debates, the most contested issue was whether to explicitly recognise First Nations people and if so, how. Ultimately, the students, including a representative group of Indigenous students, voted strongly in favour of constitutional recognition. In particular, the phrase “sovereignty was never ceded” is significant.

It is a rallying cry for many First Nations people and a rejection of assimilation. Indigenous Australians are still fighting for self-determination and the right to be heard. The Voice to Parliament put forward by the Uluru Statement is still being debated. Constitutional recognition that sovereignty was never ceded is a more radical proposal. It suggests that Indigenous justice is important to young Australians.

Egalitarianism is still key

The egalitarian ideal has a long history in Australia. The concept of the “fair go” is mythical in one sense, but a cherished part of the collective imagination.

The first line of the students’ preamble commits the nation to the principle of equality. The third line stresses the importance of a “society catered to all”.

Although not explicitly stated, the word “identity” suggests the LGBT community was in mind. Young Australians overwhelmingly supported the same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017. The government is currently considering new religious freedom laws in response to the sacking of Israel Folau by Rugby Australia.

It is significant, then, that young Australians place such value on society being catered for all, “regardless of heritage or identity”.

Values matter

What permeates through the students’ preamble is the message that values matter. Unlike the original constitutional writers, young people want their preamble to be a mission statement that articulates the “values that uphold the nation”. The trident of “equality, democracy and freedom” are highlighted.

The preamble also notes the twin priorities of a free state that sit together though sometimes in tension. As the third line notes, Australia is a “nation and indeed community”. But the fourth line tempers this with a commitment to “champion individual freedom”. The ideal democratic state for these young Australians places value on both the individual and the collective.

Dr Benjamin T Jones addresses the convention.

Time for change?

At the 1999 referendum, Prime Minister John Howard, despite being against a republic, campaigned in favour of a new preamble. The one he and republican Les Murray authored did not gain much popularity. But it is significant that even an ardent monarchist like Howard was convinced the preamble needed to be updated.

The authors of the students’ preamble were mainly in Year 11 and too young to vote in the May election. Nevertheless, they are thoughtful, intelligent citizens and the future of our democracy. Their voice is worth listening to.The Conversation

Benjamin T. Jones, Lecturer in History, CQUniversity Australia and John Warhurst, Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To protect press freedom, we need more public outrage – and an overhaul of our laws



This week’s police raids have forced us to think again about the role of the media in a democracy.
David Gray/AAP

Peter Greste, The University of Queensland

A few days ago, Waleed Aly asked a not-so-rhetorical question in The Sydney Morning Herald. He wondered how many Australians were worried about the fact that the Australian Federal Police had spent a good portion of this week raiding the offices and homes of journalists who’ve published stories clearly in the public interest.

His conclusion? Not many. He went on to argue that it is because we have developed a culture of accepting excessive state power, with no real thought about the consequences for civil liberties or the functioning of our democracy.

Sadly, I would have to agree with Aly, but as with so many surveys, the answer you get depends on the question you ask.

What if we asked, “Hands up who feels comfortable with relying on the Facebook posts and Twitter feeds of our politicians and departmental spokespeople for information about what our government is up to? Who thinks that is a good way to run a democracy?” Then, I bet you’d get a very different answer.




Read more:
Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy


I agree that Australian media are hardly trusted by the public, but I am also convinced that most Australians recognise the need for some kind of independent watchdog keeping track of politicians and the government on our behalf. It might be imperfect and messy, but a free press has performed that role well enough to keep us broadly on track for much of our history.

Earlier this week, my colleague and fellow University of Queensland researcher Rebecca Ananian-Welsh laid out the intricate web of national security laws passed in recent years that collectively serve to straight-jacket journalists and threaten legitimate whistle-blowing.

In a number of research projects, we have been looking at both these laws and their impact on reporting, and while we still have a long way to go, the early results suggest something deeply troubling.

While they may have helped shore up national security, the laws have also led to a net loss of transparency and accountability. It has become harder for journalists to reach and protect sources and keep track of wrong-doing by government officials. It has also become harder for them to safely publish in the public interest without risking long years in prison or cripplingly expensive and traumatic court cases.




Read more:
Five reasons terror laws wreck media freedom and democracy


An overhaul of Australia’s legal landscape

My organisation, the Alliance for Journalists Freedom, has published a white paper that offers a better way of balancing those two crucial elements of our democracy – national security and press freedom.

The most important of its seven recommendations is a Media Freedom Act. Australia has no legal or constitutional protection for press freedom. It isn’t even formally recognised in law; the High Court has merely inferred that we have a right to “political communication.”

That needs to change. The AJF is proposing a law that would write press freedom into the DNA of our legal system. It would both prevent our legislators from unnecessarily restricting journalists from doing their jobs and give judges a benchmark they can use whenever they are adjudicating cases that deal with media freedom issues.

That alone isn’t enough though. The second recommendation in the white paper calls for changes to the national security laws themselves.

Currently, many of the current laws that Ananian-Welsh laid out in her article include a “public interest” defence for journalists. But as we have seen in this week’s raids, that does nothing to stop the AFP from trawling through journalists’ documents for sources and forcing everyone into court.




Read more:
Media raids raise questions about AFP’s power and weak protection for journalists and whistleblowers


Instead, there should be an exemption for journalists and their sources when reporting on matters of public interest.

That isn’t to suggest that journalists should be immune, though. Rather, the onus should be shifted to the authorities to show why the public interest defence should not apply. It is also important that the exemption include whistleblowers.

Beyond national security, there are a host of other laws that have contributed to a wide culture of secrecy at odds with the principles of open government.

Payouts under defamation laws now routinely run to millions, potentially destroying news organisations and chilling further investigative work. Shield laws that allow journalists to protect their sources in court are also inconsistent across states and need to be strengthened.

Suppression orders that judges use to smother reporting of certain court cases are being applied with alarming frequency and urgently need review. And whistleblower legislation needs to be strengthened to encourage and protect anybody speaking out about wrongdoing in government or elsewhere.

While the raids of the past week have been shocking, they have forced us all to think again about the role of the media in a democracy. If it leads to better legislation that both protects national security and media freedom, then some good might have come out of it after all.The Conversation

Peter Greste, Professor of Journalism and Communications, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How information warfare in cyberspace threatens our freedom



File 20180509 34024 rhe9bv.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Information warfare in cyberspace could replace reason and reality with rage and fantasy.
Shutterstock

Roger Bradbury, Australian National University; Anne-Marie Grisogono, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Dmitry Brizhinev, Australian National University; John Finnigan, CSIRO, and Nicholas Lyall, Australian National University

This article is the fourth in a five-part series exploring Australian national security in the digital age. Read parts one, two and three here.


Just as we’ve become used to the idea of cyber warfare, along come the attacks, via social media, on our polity.

We’ve watched in growing amazement at the brazen efforts by the Russian state to influence the US elections, the UK’s Brexit referendum and other democratic targets. And we’ve tended to conflate them with the seemingly-endless cyber hacks and attacks on our businesses, governments, infrastructure, and a long-suffering citizenry.

But these social media attacks are a different beast altogether – more sinister, more consequential and far more difficult to counter. They are the modern realisation of the Marxist-Leninist idea that information is a weapon in the struggle against Western democracies, and that the war is ongoing. There is no peacetime or wartime, there are no non-combatants. Indeed, the citizenry are the main targets.

A new battlespace for an old war

These subversive attacks on us are not a prelude to war, they are the war itself; what Cold War strategist George Kennan called “political warfare”.

Perversely, as US cyber experts Herb Lin and Jaclyn Kerr note, modern communication attacks exploit the technical virtues of the internet such as “high connectivity” and “democratised access to publishing capabilities”. What the attackers do is, broadly speaking, not illegal.

The battlespace for this warfare is not the physical, but the cognitive environment – within our brains. It seeks to sow confusion and discord, to reduce our abilities to think and reason rationally.

Social media platforms are the perfect theatres in which to wage political warfare. Their vast reach, high tempo, anonymity, directness and cheap production costs mean that political messages can be distributed quickly, cheaply and anonymously. They can also be tailored to target audiences and amplified quickly to drown out adversary messages.

Simulating dissimulation

We built simulation models (for a forthcoming publication) to test these ideas. We were astonished at how effectively this new cyber warfare can wreak havoc in the models, co-opting filter bubbles and preventing the emergence of democratic discourse.

We used agent-based models to examine how opinions shift in response to the insertion of strong opinions (fake news or propaganda) into the discourse.

Our agents in these simple models were individuals who each had a set of opinions. We represented different opinions as axes in an opinion space. Individuals are located in the space by the values of their opinions. Individuals close to each other in the opinion space are close to each other in their opinions. Their differences in opinion are simply the distance between them.

When an individual links to a neighbour, they experience a degree of convergence – their opinions are drawn towards each other. An individual’s position is not fixed, but may shift under the influence of the opinions of others.

The dynamics in these models were driven by two conflicting processes:

  • Individuals are social – they have a need to communicate – and they will seek to communicate with others with whom they agree. That is, other individuals nearby in their opinion space.

  • Individuals have a limited number of communication links they can manage at any time (also known as their Dunbar number, and they continue to find links until they satisfy this number. Individuals, therefore, are sometimes forced to communicate with individuals with whom they disagree in order to satisfy their Dunbar number. But if they wish to create a new link and have already reached their Dunbar number, they will prune another link.

Figure 1: The emergence of filter bubbles

Figure 1: Filter bubbles emerging with two dimensions, opinions of issue X and opinions of issue Y.
roger.bradbury@anu.edu.au

To begin, 100 individuals, represented as dots, were randomly distributed across the space with no links. At each step, every individual attempts to link with a near neighbour up to its Dunbar number, perhaps breaking earlier links to do so. In doing so, it may change its position in opinion space.

Over time, individuals draw together into like-minded groups (filter bubbles). But the bubbles are dynamic. They form and dissolve as individuals continue to prune old links and seek newer, closer ones as a result of their shifting positions in the opinion space. Figure 1, above, shows the state of the bubbles in one experiment after 25 steps.

Figure 2: Capturing filter bubbles with fake news

Conversation lobbies figure 2.
roger.bradbury@anu.edu.au

At time step 26, we introduced two pieces of fake news into the model. These were represented as special sorts of individuals that had an opinion in only one dimension of the opinion space and no opinion at all in the other. Further, these “individuals” didn’t seek to connect to other individuals and they never shifted their opinion as a result of ordinary individuals linking to them. They are represented by the two green lines in Figure 2.

Over time (the figure shows time step 100), each piece of fake news breaks down the old filter bubbles and reels individuals towards their green line. They create new tighter filter bubbles that are very stable over time.

Information warfare is a threat to our Enlightenment foundations

These are the conventional tools of demagogues throughout history, but this agitprop is now packaged in ways perfectly suited to the new environment. Projected against the West, this material seeks to increase political polarisation in our public sphere.

Rather than actually change an election outcome, it seeks to prevent the creation of any coherent worldview. It encourages the creation of filter bubbles in society where emotion is privileged over reason and targets are immunised against real information and rational consideration.

These models confirm Lin and Kerr’s hypothesis. “Traditional” cyber warfare is not an existential threat to Western civilisation. We can and have rebuilt our societies after kinetic attacks. But information warfare in cyberspace is such a threat.

The ConversationThe Enlightenment gave us reason and reality as the foundations of political discourse, but information warfare in cyberspace could replace reason and reality with rage and fantasy. We don’t know how to deal with this yet.

Roger Bradbury, Professor, National Security College, Australian National University; Anne-Marie Grisogono, Visiting fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Dmitry Brizhinev, Research Assistant, National Security College, Australian National University; John Finnigan, Leader, Complex Systems Science, CSIRO, and Nicholas Lyall, Research Assistant (National Security College), Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia doesn’t have a constitutional right protecting freedom of the person – it needs one



File 20170707 26461 11nw22n
Migration legislation does not require judicial authorisation for a person to be deprived of their freedom.
AAP/Dean Lewins

Bede Harris, Charles Sturt University

The recent wrongful detention of two Australian citizens by immigration authorities highlights that our Constitution offers inadequate protection for freedom of the person.

This is not the first time Australian citizens have been unlawfully detained. In 2001, Vivian Solon, who had suffered a head injury, was deported even though she told immigration officials she was an Australian citizen. In 2004, Cornelia Rau, also an Australian citizen, was held in immigration detention after she was unable to identify herself because of mental illness.

The government could do this because migration legislation does not require judicial authorisation for a person to be deprived of their freedom. The Solon and Rau cases were found to be only two of more than 247 instances of unlawful detention that had occurred over the previous 14 years.
The extent of the government’s power was revealed in 2015, when the Department of Immigration announced Operation Fortitude. This would have involved stopping people randomly on Melbourne’s streets to check their migration status. The operation was cancelled only after mass public protest.

So, anyone who is walking in the Melbourne CBD and speaks with a strange accent, or has suffered a brain injury, or is experiencing mental illness and cannot demonstrate a right to be in Australia, is liable to detention at best – and deportation at worst – without recourse to the courts.

Where the Constitution lacks

The reason the government has this power is because Australia’s Constitution does not adequately protect individual liberty.

In 1992, the High Court held that separation of powers means that only courts can declare people guilty of crimes and imprison them. It therefore held that parliament cannot enact laws authorising the government to do that.

However, the court said that parliament can authorise the government to order so-called “non-punitive” detention – for example, detention for immigration purposes or in cases of communicable diseases.

Section 75(v) of the Constitution allows someone to challenge government decisions on administrative grounds. However, the High Court has held that this section does not allow the courts to decide whether the exercise of power is reasonable. On this basis, it found it would be lawful to detain someone under the Migration Act forever.

The court has also held that there may be many other – undefined – circumstances in which people can be detained without court approval.

The concept of “non-punitive” detention is vague. It is also oxymoronic: all detention is surely punitive to the person who experiences it. It leads to the bizarre situation that the law provides you more protection if you have committed a crime than if you have not.

It is fundamental in a free society that the law should not allow the state to deprive a person of liberty other than through due judicial process.

What a protection could look like

The Liberal Party proclaims its belief in “the inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples” and a “just and humane society”. Yet it marked the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta – the founding document protecting rights in western democracies – by drafting legislation authorising deprivation of citizenship without the need to go to court.

Labor has been no less resistant to the idea of constitutional rights. The Rudd government’s terms of reference to its inquiry into human rights specifically excluded consideration of putting new rights into the Constitution.

Opposition by politicians to constitutional rights is obviously self-serving, and it is often absurd as well. Former NSW premier Bob Carr objected to a Bill of Rights on the ground that it would create a “lawyer’s picnic”.

In a free society, it ought never to be lawful for a government to detain people by executive order alone.

The only effective way to protect liberty of the person is to deny the government the power to detain, unless it can demonstrate to a court that there are reasonable grounds for deprivation of liberty. And the only effective way to prevent the government from enacting legislation to give itself that power is to create a constitutional right protecting freedom of the person.

This right could be phrased as:

Everyone has the right to due process of law and not to be unreasonably deprived of personal liberty.

In a system where the burden appears to lie on the individual to prove they are lawfully in Australia rather than on the state to prove they are not, we are all vulnerable to deprivation of liberty.

The right to individual liberty is also a basic requirement of human dignity. That a person has been deprived of a right by a democratically elected parliament does not diminish the assault on their dignity.

The concept of a free society inescapably requires that limits be imposed on the will of the majority. That is why the power of parliaments has to be restrained.

The ConversationThis is what opponents of rights who trot out the objection to “unelected judges” overturning parliament’s will fail to grasp. It is precisely because judges are independent of the will of political majorities that ultimately only the courts can effectively protect individual freedom.

Bede Harris, Senior Lecturer in Law, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Arab Spring & Christians


Many in the West have rejoiced with the fall of dictators and tyrants in the Middle East. However, the prospects of freedom for all in democracy just isn’t being realised, especially for Christians. The link below is to an article reflecting on the persecution of Christians in the wake of the Arab Spring.

For more visit:
http://www.aina.org/news/20130305203949.htm

Article: Headism – The Bald Head Art Movement


This Blog is entitled ‘Random Thoughts,’ which therefore allows me the freedom to post about all and sundry, though I do have a few definite lines that I tend to follow most of the time. Every so often I come across some very ‘random’ stuff, some of which could also be categorized as ‘weird.’ This one probably falls into the weird category if ever there was one. It could also give me something to think about when male-patterned baldness is complete.

The link below is to an article about ‘Headism,’ which is what one calls the bald head art movement apparently. 

For more visit:
http://www.odditycentral.com/pics/a-bald-art-movement-artist-uses-his-head-in-the-name-of-art.html

Suspected Islamists Burn Down Two Homes in Ethiopia


Two thatched-grass structures belonged to evangelist who received threats.

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 21 (CDN) — A Christian near Ethiopia’s southern town of Moyale said suspected Islamic extremists on March 29 burned down his two thatched-grass homes.

Evangelist Wako Hanake of the Mekane Yesus Church told Compass he had been receiving anonymous messages warning him to stop converting Muslims to Christ. The Muslims who became Christians included several children.

“Inside the house were iron sheets and timber stored in preparation for putting up a permanent house,” said Hanake, who is in his late 30s. “I have lost everything.”

The incident in Tuka, five kilometers (nearly three miles) from Moyale in southern Ethiopia’s Oromia Region, happened while Hanake was away on an evangelistic trip. A neighbor said he and others rescued Hanake’s wife and children ages 8, 6 and 2.

“We had to rescue the wife with her three children who were inside one of the houses that the fire was already beginning to burn,” said the neighbor, who requested anonymity.

Church leaders said neighbors are still housing Hanake and his family.

“The family has lost everything, and they feel fearful for their lives,” said a local church leader. “We are doing all we can to provide clothing and food to them. We are appealing to all well wishers to support Hanake’s family.”

Hanake said he has reported the case to Moyale police.

“I hope the culprits will be found,” he said.

An area church leader who requested anonymity told Compass that Christians in Moyale are concerned that those in Tuka are especially vulnerable to a harsh environment in which religious rights are routinely violated.

“The Ethiopian constitution allows for religious tolerance,” said another area church leader, also under condition of anonymity, “but we are concerned that such ugly incidents like this might go unpunished. To date no action has been taken.”

Tuka village, on Ethiopia’s border with Kenya, is populated mainly by ethnic Oromo who are predominantly Muslim. The area Muslims restrict the preaching of non-Muslim faiths, in spite of provisions for religious freedom in Ethiopia’s constitution.

Hostility toward those spreading faiths different from Islam is a common occurrence in predominantly Muslim areas of Ethiopia and neighboring countries, area Christians said, adding that they are often subject to harassment and intimidation.

Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies generally respect freedom of religion, but occasionally some local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

According to Operation World, nearly 40 percent of Ethiopia’s population affiliates with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 19 percent are evangelical and Pentecostal and 34 percent are Sunni Muslim. The remainder are Catholic (3 percent) and ethno-religious (3.7 percent).

 

Jimma Violence

In Jimma Zone in the country’s southwest, where thousands of Christians in and around Asendabo have been displaced as a result of attacks that began on March 2 after Muslims accused a Christian of desecrating the Quran, the number of churches burned has reached 71, and two people have reportedly been killed. Their identities, however, were still unconfirmed.

When the anti-Christian violence of thousands of Muslims subsided by the end of March, 30 homes had reportedly been destroyed and as many as 10,000 Christians may have been displaced from Asendabo, Chiltie, Gilgel Gibe, Gibe, Nada, Dimtu, Uragay, Busa and Koticha.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says


Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.

 

Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org