Fight for freedom: new research to map violence in the forgotten conflict in West Papua



BAGUS INDAHONO/EPA

Camellia Webb-Gannon, University of Wollongong; Jaime Swift, University of Oxford; Michael Westaway, The University of Queensland, and Nathan Wright, The University of Queensland

Indonesia has recently indicated it is considering investigating the killings of hundreds of thousands of people in the 1965 “anti-communist” purge under authoritarian leader Suharto.

If the inquiry goes ahead, it would mark a shift in the government’s long-standing failure to address past atrocities. It is unclear if they will include other acts of brutality alleged to have been committed by the Indonesian regime in the troubled region of West Papua.

According to Amnesty International, at least 100,000 West Papuans have been killed since the Indonesian takeover of West Papua in the 1960s.

While the number of killings peaked in the 1970s, they are rising again due to renewed activism for independence in the territory. In September 2019, as many as 41 people were killed in clashes with security forces and Jihadi-inspired militia.

Clashes between security forces and the West Papua National Liberation Army have escalated since January, which human rights groups say have resulted in at least five deaths. At least two other civilians were killed in another incident.

The latest violence was sparked by racial attacks on Papuan university students in Java last year, which prompted thousands of Papuans to protest against the government. The protests brought renewed media attention to human rights violations in the region and Papuans’ decades-long fight for autonomy.

However, because the international media have been prohibited from entering West Papua, the broader conflict has received relatively little attention from the outside world. (This week’s feature by ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program in Australia was a rare exception.)




Read more:
Riots in West Papua: why Indonesia needs to answer for its broken promises


New project to map past atrocities

Late last year, we embarked on a project to map the violence that has occurred in West Papua under Indonesian occupation.

This was in part inspired by the massacre mapping project of Indigenous people in Australia by the Guardian and University of Newcastle, and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s mapping of violence in Sri Lanka.

Our aim was to bring renewed attention to the protracted crisis in West Papua. We hope that by showing the extent of state-sanctioned violence going back decades, we might encourage the kind of international scrutiny that eventually led to intervention in East Timor.




Read more:
Will Australia take a stand on West Papua?


The map only documents some of the massacres that have taken place in West Papua since the 1970s, as conditions in the territory make it difficult to accurately record and verify deaths. The challenges include a lack of resources for record-keeping, internal displacement and frequently destroyed properties, and a fear of reporting deaths. Others have disappeared, and their bodies have never been found.

We also encountered a relative dearth of data from the 1990s to 2010s, in part due to few journalists reporting on incidents during this period.

For the purposes of our project, we relied largely on reportage from the Asian Human Rights Commission and the International Coalition for Papua (both of which have strong connections within West Papua), as well as research by the historian Robin Osborne, Papuan rights organisation ELSHAM, Indonesian human rights watchdog TAPOL and a comprehensive report by academics at Yale Law School published in 2004.

Among the most recent attacks is the torture and murders of scores of protesters on Biak Island in 1998, according to a citizens’ tribunal held in Sydney. Some estimates say the death toll may have been as high as 200.



Though far from complete, our mapping project reveals several broad trends.

  • The majority of massacres have taken place in the West Papuan highlands, the region with the highest ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous West Papuans

  • many killings were committed while Papuans were peacefully protesting for independence from Indonesia

  • given the numbers of troops posted to West Papua and the types of weapons at their disposal, the government should have had full knowledge of the extent of devastation caused by attacks by security forces and militia groups. (Indonesian security forces are generally known for being out of the government’s control)

  • in the vast majority of killings, the perpetrators have never been held to account by the government.

The government claims the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) is conducting inquiries into some of the more recent incidents, although there are concerns the body doesn’t have sufficient powers and the government has previously been reluctant to accept findings of abuses.

Why has the world stayed silent?

Both Australia and New Zealand have been hesitant about intervening in human rights crises in the region, particularly when Indonesia is involved.

In 2006, Australia signed the Lombok Treaty, which assured Jakarta it would respect the sovereignty of the Indonesian state and not support “separatist movements”.

However, Australia – and the rest of the world – did finally act when it came to the independence referendum in East Timor.

Australian troops serving on the East Timor/West Timor border with the UN peacekeeping force in 2000.
Dean Lewins/AAP

In his memoir, former Prime Minister John Howard mentioned East Timor independence as one of his key achievements. However, in office, he showed very little appetite for supporting East Timor independence and ruffling Indonesia’s feathers.

It was largely the diplomatic intervention at the international level by US President Bill Clinton, alongside the deployment of Australian Federal Police (AFP) working as unarmed civilian police for the UN mission in East Timor, that eventually secured the referendum.

Co-author Jaime Swift serving in East Timor in 2006.
Author provided

Media coverage played a critical role in persuading the world to take action. In West Papua, the media have not had the same effect.

This is in part due to what the Indonesian security forces learned from East Timor on how to control the media. The Indonesian government has frequently cut internet services in West Papua, enacted a complete ban on foreign journalists and denied requests from the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate human rights violations.

Despite this, mobile phone videos of abuse continue to leak out.

In the absence of extensive media coverage, Papuan pro-democracy advocates and their supporters have been calling for a UN-sanctioned human rights investigation. There is also significant support from human rights defenders in Indonesia for such an inquiry.

As it now has a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, Indonesia should fully support such a move. However, the military retains considerable influence in the country, and holding commanders suspected of human rights abuses to account remains politically difficult.




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In fact, President Joko Widodo last year appointed as his new defence minister Prabowo Subianto, who himself has been accused of human rights abuses.

Given these challenges, what will it take for the world to show enough moral courage to force change in West Papua?

The right way forward is clear. As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Indonesia needs to put an end to the media ban in West Papuan, support an independent UN investigation and hold accountable those responsible within the government for violent acts.

If Indonesia does not take this course of action, then diplomatic pressure from the world will be required.The Conversation

Camellia Webb-Gannon, Lecturer, University of Wollongong; Jaime Swift, DPhil (PhD) candidate, University of Oxford; Michael Westaway, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Archaeology, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, and Nathan Wright, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

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

Many Scots want independence from the United Kingdom. How might that play out in a post-Brexit world?



AAP/EPA/Robert Perry

Simon Tormey, University of Bristol

Of the many issues thrown up by Brexit, one of the most pressing is the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. Brexit was in large measure a revolt by a certain section of English and Welsh opinion against transnational elites, immigration and imagined loss of identity. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.

The Brexit vote reinforced the sense that the “interests of the UK” is a proxy for the interests of numerically larger England over other parts of the union. Surely Scotland, with its strong sense of national identity and separateness, would seek to challenge the union and return to the warm embrace of the European Union at the earliest opportunity?

This sentiment was further reinforced by the recent success in elections of the pro-EU Scottish National Party (SNP) led by Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP demolished the opposition in the 2019 election, winning 48 out of 59 possible seats.




Read more:
The Brexit mess could lead to a break-up of a no longer United Kingdom


With Boris Johnson sweeping to power as UK prime minister on the back of a breakthrough in the Midlands and northern England (the “Red Wall”), the scene was set for a showdown over the issue of another referendum on Scottish independence. Some even speculated we would see a Catalonia-style challenge to the authority of Westminster. So what is the state of play, and what is likely to happen?

Recent opinion polls demonstrate growing support for Scottish independence, which has tipped past 50% of the electorate. More Scots now favour independence than at any time in recent history. In the 2014 referendum, the vote was 45-55 against independence.

But the fact that support for independence is growing doesn’t mean there is a consensus on when a new vote on the issue should take place. This is proving a key consideration.

While there is some support for a poll as soon as one can be organised, others want to wait for next year’s elections to the Scottish parliament to be held first. Still others feel the timing is not right and that clarification is needed on the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the EU, which has yet to be resolved.

Scottish independence is an urgent matter for some, particularly for nationalists, but is much less so for others, particularly remainers who may otherwise have been lukewarm on independence. This exposes a key faultline in the independence constituency itself: some want independence whatever the cost, the commitment of others to the cause might somewhat rest on the prospect of economic benefits for Scotland, which they may feel EU membership would offer.

All this poses a headache for Sturgeon. Does she seek a showdown with Johnson now, but at the risk of losing that part of her support that doesn’t want an immediate poll? Or does she wait until the middle of 2021, when an election might return yet more SNP members to the Scottish parliament, adding legitimacy for a vote on independence – but at the risk of a loss of momentum?

In addition to the vexed question of timing is the nature of the regime in Westminster. The SNP is a left-of-centre party, drawing support from those who wish to see increased funding for social services, housing and education.

Normally, the SNP would find itself in ideological opposition to a centre-right Conservative administration in Westminster. But part of Johnson’s election strategy was to promise to spend big on infrastructure across the UK. There is even talk of a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland.




Read more:
Boris Johnson, ‘political Vegemite’, becomes the UK prime minister. Let the games begin


With the promise of such largesse, the feeling lingers that Scotland does quite well out of its partnership with Westminster. This is an intentional strategy on Johnson’s behalf. The calculation is that by using the superior resources available to him he can undermine the case for Scottish independence, which without EU support is likely to result in an economic hit to the Scottish economy. Vote for independence, in other words, and Scots will be poorer.

This is, as the Scots might say, a canny strategy. It certainly complicates the equation and has already served to dampen the ardour of those who might otherwise have been committed to an early poll.

What might dampen it further is the early panic in Brussels over who will pay the increased costs for the EU itself due to the departure of the UK. The semblance of technocratic modernity and cohesion the EU likes to paint of itself is coming under strain and so, therefore, is the SNP’s case for making a play to rejoin the EU.

Whether all this is enough to keep the Scots in the UK is a matter of speculation. There are lots of obstacles that might yet derail the Johnson strategy: a bad trade deal with the EU, a balance-of-payments crisis, together with loss of revenue for his grand strategy.

But what has become evident since Johnson took power is that he should not be underestimated. Or, rather, an administration underpinned by the Machiavellian cunning of his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, should not be underestimated.

Sturgeon will need all her famed powers of persistence to prevent the independence issue being derailed by a combination of exhaustion with elections and referendums, a Johnsonite play for the centre ground of Scottish opinion, and a collapse in confidence in the viability of a life outside the UK.The Conversation

Simon Tormey, Professor of Politics, University of Bristol

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

Bougainville has voted to become a new country, but the journey to independence is not yet over


Anna Powles, Massey University

The Autonomous Region of Bougainville, a chain of islands that lie 959 kilometres northwest of Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, has voted unequivocally for independence.

The referendum saw 85% voter turnout during three weeks of voting, with 97.7% of voters choosing independence from Papua New Guinea over the second option, which was remaining, but with greater autonomy from PNG. As the Bougainville Referendum Commission stated, the numbers told an important story, reflecting the support for independence across genders and age groups.

It’s a momentous event, not only because it could a new country, but also because the referendum marks an important part of a peace agreement signed almost 20 years ago. The 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement ended the deeply divisive nine year conflict (1988-1997) that lead to the deaths of approximately 20,000 people, or about 10% of Bougainville’s population.

The referendum, however, is non-binding. The ultimate outcome will be determined by a vote in Papua New Guinea’s National Parliament following negotiations between the Papua New Guinean government and the Autonomous Bougainville Government.

But as former President James Tanis said to me hours after the result was announced:

we survived the war, ended the war, delivered a successful referendum, what else can now stop us from becoming a successful independent nation?

China’s interest in Bougainville

For the broader region, an independent Bougainville has a number of implications. Firstly, it sends a strong signal for other self-determination movements across the Pacific, including in New Caledonia which will hold a second referendum for independence in 2020.

There are also geopolitical implications. The referendum has taken place during a period of heightened strategic anxiety among the Pacific’s so-called traditional partners – Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, France and Japan.

There have long been concerns China will seek to curry influence with an independent Bougainville. As one Bougainvillean leader informed me, Chinese efforts to build relationships with Bougainville’s political elite have increased over the past few years.

Beijing’s interest in Bougainville is two-fold: first, it is seeking to shore up diplomatic support in the Pacific Islands region, thereby reducing support for Taiwan which lost a further two Pacific allies this year. And second, to access to resources, namely fisheries and extractive minerals.

Although it will be tempting for many in Canberra, Washington and Wellington to view an independent Bougainville through the current strategic prism – adhering to narratives about debt-trap diplomacy – doing so undermines the importance of local dynamics and the resilience of Bougainville people.

An independent Bougainville navigating a more disordered and disruptive international environment will need nuanced grounded advice, rather than speculation.

The road ahead for Bougainville will be challenging and it will need its friends – particularly New Zealand and Australia.

The much vaunted respective “Pacific Reset” and “Pacific Step Up” policies provide entry points for the kind of genuine engagement and support that Bougainville will require in the coming years.

Celebration with cautious anticipation

Following the result’s announcement, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape said his government had heard the voice of Bougainvilleans, and the two governments must now develop a road map that leads to lasting political settlement.

And Bougainville Referendum Commission chairman Bertie Ahern urged all sides to recognise the result and said the vote was about “your peace, your history, and your future” and reflected “the power of the pen over weapons”. Acknowledging the result is non-binding, Ahern said:

the referendum is one part of that ongoing journey.

And here lies the challenge. The post-referendum period was always going to be one of celebration, cautious anticipation and the management of expectations.

As one of Bougainville’s formidable women leaders told me, there are concerns about security in the post-referendum period as expectation turns to frustration if there are perceived delays in determining Bougainville’s future political status.

What’s more, the negotiations are likely to take a long time, since there’s no deadline they’re required to meet.

There are, however, critical milestones that still need to be hit first. This includes the Autonomous Bougainville Government elections, the first elections following the referendum, so will likely see intensified politicking as politicians jockey for a potential role in building an independent Bougainvillean state.

The Papua New Guinea’s national elections are also scheduled for 2022. The risk in both cases is that Bougainville’s future becomes a political pawn.

An independent Bougainville will face significant challenges and diverse choices.

Not least of which is Bougainville’s economic security and the choices that will need to be made about the Panguna Mine, the gold and copper mine at the heart of much of the conflict, and fisheries, once the new nation’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone is created.

A young nation built on a past mired by the extremes of resource nationalism, Bougainville has difficult decisions to make about how it secures its economic self-reliance.The Conversation

Anna Powles, Senior Lecturer in Security Studies, Massey University

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

Twenty years after independence, Timor-Leste continues its epic struggle



original.
AAP/Antonio Dasiparu

Sara Niner, Monash University

On August 30, Timor-Leste will celebrate the referendum that gave it independence from Indonesia. For the people of this small island, it has been a long battle – one that continues today. You can read our companion story on the island nation’s vexed relationship with Australia here.


Indigenous myth attributes the high mountain chain that runs like a spine down the centre of the crocodile-shaped island of Timor to Mother Earth’s dying movements when she retreated underground. This mountain chain is more pronounced in the east, in the territory of Timor-Leste, and often protrudes directly down into the sea along the rugged northern coast.

The island is also surrounded by significant waters. To the south are the vast and disputed oil reserves. To the north is a deep exchange pathway for warm water moving from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, creating conditions for a major “cetacean migration” highway for 24 different species of whale and dolphin.




Read more:
For Timor-Leste, another election and hopes for an end to crippling deadlock


In 1944, the anthropologist Mendes Correa described the Portuguese colony of Timor as a “Babel … a melting pot”, and a diverse mix of traditions is still strongly felt today.

The island is a bridge between the Malay and Melanesian world and has as much in common with Pacific Island cultures as Indonesia. The diverse indigenous societies cross the spectrum of matriarchal and patriarchal organisation.

Women are accorded a sacred status within Timorese cosmology and the divine female element is prominent in much indigenous belief. Female spirits dominate the sacred world, while men dominate the secular world. So, while women may hold power in a ritual context, they generally do not have a strong public or political voice. But they are fighting to change this and now make up a third of members in the national parliament.

By the early 16th century, Portuguese colonisers arrived in the Spice Islands of which Timor was part. This was the beginning of a colonial relationship now 500 years old.

Revolts by Timorese against Portuguese rule were frequent and bloody. Famous Timorese rebel Dom Boaventura lost an armed uprising against his Portuguese colonisers in 1911, leaving East Timor to be ruled directly from Portugal by the fascist dictatorship of Salazar for most of the 20th century.

The marginal colony remained neglected and closeted from any modern liberalising trends. But in the early 1970s the Timorese independence movement Fretilin, partly inspired by Dom Boaventura, began to oppose Portuguese colonialism, while developing a revolutionary program that included the emancipation of women.

Rosa “Muki” Bonaparte was one of the founders of the nationalist movement and the leader of its women’s organisation. While Bonaparte participated directly in the struggle against colonialism, she also stood against “the violent discrimination that Timorese women had suffered in colonial society”.




Read more:
Australia and Timor Leste settle maritime boundary after 45 years of bickering


After the colonial regime collapsed in 1974, a three-week civil war, secretly manipulated by Indonesian military agents, was the precursor to the larger war and invasion to come.

The victors of the civil war, Fretilin, reconstituted the faction of loyal Timorese soldiers serving in the Portuguese Army as resistance army Falintil. This army, and the civilian resistance, countered the massive and brutal attack of US-and-Australian-backed Indonesian military for 24 years. The horrors were kept as secret as possible, even to the point of covering up the deaths of those trying to report them, such as the “Balibo 5”.

After the Indonesian invasion of December 7 1975, much of the population of East Timor retreated to the mountains, with the resistance living in free zones for the next three years.

However, in November 1978, the Indonesian campaign of annihilation finally encircled the remaining resistance leadership and 140,000 civilians on Mount Matebian, in the east of the island. Most surrendered. They were placed in prisons and “resettlement camps” where many slowly starved to death. The violence of the 24-year Indonesian occupation affected and traumatised the whole of Timorese society.

After the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia in 1998, President B.J. Habibie agreed to let the Timorese decide their future in a ballot. In his honour, they recently named a bridge after him.

Xanana Gusmao was the key negotiator with Indonesia after the independence ballot.
AAP/EPA/John_Feeder

Timor’s pre-eminent leader, Xanana Gusmao, was the key negotiator with UN representatives. He conducted negotiations from his prison house in Jakarta where he’d been since 1992, serving a 20-year sentence for fighting Indonesian forces in his homeland. He persevered with ballot preparations despite growing Indonesian military and militia violence.

In the August 30 1999 referendum, nearly 80% of East Timorese voted for independence by indicating the blue and green National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) flag on the ballot paper.

Extensive military and militia slayings followed the announcement of the vote. An estimated 1500 East Timorese were killed and more than 250,000 forcibly displaced into Indonesia. About 80% of infrastructure was destroyed. Survivors struggled to feed and look after their families while recovering psychologically from the mayhem.

Stories from the resistance period and 1999 are constantly remembered in Timor-Leste and are hugely significant in the new society. A hierarchy based on past service to the resistance has been established. Pensions and payments to male veterans are one of the biggest expenses for the government.

Anthropologists have described an indigenous belief that those who fought and sacrificed “purchased” the nation with their own lives and are owed a living.

Along with celebration there will be much reflection in Timor in the next weeks about the last 20 years of building a nation from “zero” and the 24 years of struggle that came before that. It will consider what they have achieved and what still needs to be done.

Hopefully, Timor-Leste can build a free and fair future for the over 1 million citizens, 60% of them under 18. They include many inspiring, educated young leaders who are ready to take up the responsibility.

As we watch and cheer from the sidelines, we hope for a less eventful and more peaceful future for all Timorese.The Conversation

Sara Niner, Lecturer and Researcher, School of Social Sciences, Monash University

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

New Caledonia votes to stay with France this time, but independence supporters take heart



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Voting is not compulsory in New Caledonia, but nonetheless 80.63% turned out to vote in the independence referendum.
Shutterstock

Denise Fisher, Australian National University

The November 4 referendum in New Caledonia was a breathtaking example of democracy in action, with new consequences for the French territory, France and our region.

The vote had been long-deferred, long-awaited and for some, long-feared. It took place peacefully, a major and poignant achievement that was unimaginable 30 years ago, before the Matignon/Noumea Accords were signed. They were designed to end civil war, promising the hand-over of a number of autonomies, to be followed by this referendum.

The result favoured staying with France by 56.4% to 43.6%. Key characteristics were the strong turnout, especially by young Kanaks, the relatively strong vote for independence, and bitter division between the two sides.




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Explainer: New Caledonia’s independence referendum, and how it could impact the region


Voting queues were long, with many waiting two hours to vote. Voting is not compulsory in New Caledonia, and the turnout was an extraordinary 80.63% of those eligible to vote (all Indigenous Kanaks, and a large proportion of those from other communities with longstanding residence in New Caledonia). This is the highest in recent history, with levels at the last French national elections 37% (2017) and provincial elections 67% (2014).

As French President Emmanuel Macron noted hours after the polls closed, France has fulfilled its promise and delivered a transparent process, legitimised by the unprecedented high turnout, the attendance of 13 UN observers and a Pacific Islands Forum observer team.

What does it mean for New Caledonia?

This relatively close result is probably the best all round for stability. The campaign has been bitter, and even commentary between leaders in television coverage of the results saw strong denunciation, particularly by loyalists.

While potentially stoking fear among loyalists for the future, the sizeable independence vote nonetheless may give pause to their tendency to triumphalism, challenging opinion polls and their own belief that they would win at least 60% and possibly 70% of the vote.

In their confidence, just days before the vote, the loyalists declared that with a massive win, they would seek to reverse the Noumea Accord guarantee of a second and potentially third referendum, an inflammatory step for independence supporters.

For independence leaders, the result vindicates their careful strategy of negotiating under the Noumea Accord for potentially two more votes in 2020 and 2022 in the event of a “no” vote, automatic participation for all Indigenous Kanaks, and mobilising the young.

Young Kanaks voted in large numbers, peacefully, and apparently for independence. This was so even in mainly European Noumea, which returned a surprising 26.29% “yes” vote.

With natural population growth, their numbers will increase as 18-year-olds become eligible to vote in 2020 and 2022. In contrast, the number of voters from other long-standing communities will vary little during this time-frame.

Independence leaders can also work to improve the vote from Kanak island communities, whose turnout remained at traditional lower levels, and those who may have responded this time to one independence party’s call for a boycott.

What does it mean for France?

The relatively close result means both sides may be more likely to participate constructively in the ongoing dialogue process set up by France.

Macron has urged New Caledonians to overcome division and continue the 30-year process “in favour of peace”, emphasising dialogue. He referred to a future within France and the Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe visited the territory on November 5 to continue dialogue and urge calm.

The task of France remains delicate: to manage, impartially, a process respecting the positions of both sides. It’s complicated by the fact the 43.6% favouring independence are largely Indigenous Kanaks. They are not leaving, they have regional support, and their interests must be considered in any long-term future.




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On the positive side, positions canvassed by independence and loyalist parties alike threw up areas of shared interest that can form the basis of future cooperation. Provincial elections in May 2019 will clarify their support, but risk being undermined by extremist parties on both sides.

What are the implications for the region?

The result guarantees continued regional and international interest in the next steps. Reports of the Pacific Islands Forum and UN observer teams will be considered by their organisations. New Caledonia continues to be represented by the pro-independence Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) at the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

Separatists in Bougainville (Papua New Guinea), set for their own independence referendum next year, and West Papua, both the subject of MSG attention, will take heart.

Macron’s invocation of his Indo-Pacific vision engaging New Caledonia specifically to counter China gives a new edge to the interest in the referendum process by regional countries and partners.

Australia, meanwhile, will continue to retain a close interest in stability in our near neighbour, respecting the process while continuing cooperation with France.The Conversation

Denise Fisher, Visiting Fellow, Australian National University

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

How ABC chairman Justin Milne compromised the independence of the national broadcaster



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Reports this week revealed that ABC Chairman Justin Milne called for a journalist to be fired after receiving complaints from the government.
Joel Carrett/AAP

Peter Fray, University of Technology Sydney and Derek Wilding, University of Technology Sydney

Update: Justin Milne has now resigned as chair of the ABC board.


Behind the extraordinary events engulfing the national broadcaster lies a rather ordinary and clear statement of principle enshrined in the ABC Act. It clearly stipulates that one of the functions of the board is to maintain the corporation’s independence and integrity.

Has Justin Milne, as chairman of the board, done that?

Reports from Fairfax Media this week revealed email correspondence between Milne and the then managing director, Michelle Guthrie. In the emails, Milne called for chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici to be sacked over a report on government funding for research and innovation.

Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had complained about the article; this followed complaints in February about two other pieces by Alberici on corporate tax, also critical of government policy. The ABC amended and reposted one of these pieces and eight days later republished the other, an analysis.

An internal ABC review found fault with both earlier articles, which had attracted considerable attention.

Another report this week in The Daily Telegraph makes further claims that Milne later demanded the resignation of ABC political editor Andrew Probyn, following anger from Turnbull. “You have to shoot him”, Milne is claimed to have said to Guthrie.




Read more:
ABC Board Chair over-reaches in a bid to appease hostile government


On one view, the performance of a journalist is an operational matter for the MD or other executives, not a strategic matter, and there was no cause for intervention by Milne.

But others might ask, isn’t it the role of the board to intervene if there’s possibly severe reputational damage to the organisation and executives are not acting?

Both points seem reasonable, but this is the ABC, not a commercial operation.

It’s hardly contentious to say that its journalistic role distinguishes a news organisations from other businesses. Watchdog, fourth estate – however we describe it – news media are different. Editorial independence, along with editorial standards, is important.

But this is even more pronounced for public broadcasters. While government funds the ABC and SBS using public money, these are not state broadcasters. Being free from state control is a part of the legislation under which the ABC operates. It’s when we look at the ABC Act that we see the problem for Milne.

Although we often speak of the ABC “charter”, this is really just section 6 of the ABC Act. It sets out the functions of the ABC and it’s where we find reference to the ABC providing “innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard”.

But important obligations are found elsewhere. The requirement to provide a news service, for example, is in a later, operational section.

And it’s section 8 where we find the twin requirements of independence and editorial standards. These are worth setting out in full:

  • 8(1)(b) to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation

  • 8(1)(c) to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism

The problem for Milne is that these obligations are not imposed on the ABC as an organisation. They are imposed on the board. The lead-in to section 8 is: “It is the duty of the Board…”




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Media Files: ABC boss Michelle Guthrie sacked, but the board won’t say why


Returning then to the emails, at issue was a report by Alberici on the main 7pm television news bulletin on May 6. According to the Fairfax report, Turnbull sent an email to news director Gaven Morris the next day complaining about the report.

Morris sent it to Guthrie, who contacted Milne. Milne responded, saying “they [the government] hate her” and “get rid of her”.

This apparently is before Communications Minister Mitch Fifield complained about the same report on May 9 and before the ABC’s complaints review unit had a chance to assess the complaint. When it did, it found no problem with the article except for one inaccuracy – certainly nothing that would justify the dismissal of the journalist.

It appears Milne acted to protect the reputation of the ABC. He and the board are required to do that – protecting its “integrity” is a part of their statutory duties. And the board also has a role in upholding standards.

Had the ABC’s complaints unit found there was a serious problem for a second time and executives had failed to act, maybe the board would have been right to intervene. But that step – assessing the validity of the complaint – was skipped, and it seems the main reason for proposing Alberici’s dismissal was to appease the government.

In this case, “independence” should have trumped the reputational aspect of “integrity”, especially when the risk was political. Instead, the chairman of the ABC may have compromised both values.The Conversation

Peter Fray, Professor of Journalism Practice, University of Technology Sydney and Derek Wilding, Co-Director, Centre for Media Transition, University of Technology Sydney

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

Why the ABC, and the public that trusts it, must stand firm against threats to its editorial independence



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Author Tom Keneally, actress Magda Szubanski and journalist Kerry O’Brien are among the ABC’s high-profile supporters.
AAP/Jeremy Ng

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

The people who are turning up at Save the ABC rallies around the country are defending a cultural institution they value because they trust it.

In particular, they trust its news service. Public opinion polls going back to the 1950s consistently show it is by far the most trusted in the country.

So at this time it is pertinent to look at what creates a trustworthy news service. The cornerstone is editorial independence. As opinion polls have shown time and again, where people suspect a newspaper, radio, TV or online news service of pushing some commercial or political interest, their level of trust falls.

Editorial independence does not mean giving journalists licence to broadcast or publish whatever they want or to avoid accountability for their mistakes.

It means encouraging journalists to tackle important stories regardless of what people in power might think, then backing them to make judgments based on news values and the public interest, not on irrelevant considerations such as commercial, financial or political pressure.




Read more:
Constant attacks on the ABC will come back to haunt the Coalition government


Editorial independence is hard won and under constant pressure from outside the newsroom.

In commercial media, this pressure comes from big advertisers or company bosses with financial or political interests to push.

In public-sector broadcasting, the pressure comes from the federal government, which provides the funding and has powerful means of subjecting the broadcaster to intense political pressure.

A robust editorial leadership is essential to resisting this heat. It’s a daily battle. If the senior editorial management wilts, the weakness is swiftly transmitted down the hierarchy.

Middle-level editors and the staff journalists who work to them start looking over their shoulders, tempted to take easy options and avoid possible heat. The easiest option is self-censorship, dodging sensitive stories, leaving out material or watering it down.

This is where the ABC is at a crossroads. It has as its managing director and editor-in-chief Michelle Guthrie, a person with no journalistic background and who until recently showed scant signs of understanding the impact on the ABC’s editorial independence of the Turnbull government’s relentless bullying.

Then last month she gave a speech at the Melbourne Press Club in which she said Australians regard the ABC as a great national institution and deeply resent it being used as “a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests”.

It was a start, and now the cause has been taken up by ABC staff themselves and by the wider public in the Save the ABC movement led by ABC Friends.

It is strongly reminiscent of events at The Age nearly 30 years ago, when I was an associate editor there. Then, a Save The Age campaign showed how effective a public outpouring of support for a news outlet can be when they set out to defend one they trust.

The campaign’s origins lay in concerns among senior journalists at the paper over what might happen to its editorial independence when receivers were appointed in 1990. This followed a disastrous attempt by “young” Warwick Fairfax to privatise the Fairfax company, which was the paper’s owner.

A group of senior journalists, including the late David Wilson and the distinguished business writer Stephen Bartholomeusz, formed The Age Independence Committee. It drew up a charter of editorial independence.

The key passages stated that:

  • the proprietors acknowledge that journalists, artists and photographers must record the affairs of the city, state, nation and the world fairly, fully and regardless of any commercial, political or personal interests, including those of any proprietors, shareholders or board members

  • full editorial control of the newspaper, within a negotiated, fixed budget, is vested in the editor

  • the editor alone decides the editorial content, and controls the hiring, firing and deployment of editorial staff.

The Save The Age campaign generated tremendous public support. Former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, who had barely been on speaking terms since the Dismissal 15 years earlier, joined together at the head of a public demonstration in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens. One of the campaign slogans was “Maintain Your Age”, a pun on Whitlam’s post-Dismissal election slogan, “Maintain Your Rage”.




Read more:
The politics behind the competitive neutrality inquiry into ABC and SBS


Eventually, the receivers signed the charter and so, after some wrangling, did the new owners led by the Canadian-born newspaper baron, Conrad Black. Black is gone but the charter remains.

Like The Age in 1990, the ABC today has strong public support.

Like The Age in 1990, senior journalistic staff, most notably the Melbourne “Mornings” radio presenter Jon Faine, and former presenter of 7.30 on ABC TV, Kerry O’Brien, have shown leadership, lending their profile and authority to the cause.

But unlike The Age, the ABC does not have publicly acknowledged bipartisan political support.

Whatever Malcolm Turnbull’s private views of the ABC, and whatever the stated policy of his government, the facts are that since 2014 the Abbott and Turnbull governments have cut $338 million from the ABC’s funding, and the federal council of the Liberal Party voted last month to sell it off.

It is quite possible that when it reports in September, the present inquiry into the ABC’s competitive neutrality will provide some impetus to this proposition or propose some other ways to clip the ABC’s wings.

It is significant in the context of editorial independence that the inquiry is taking a particular interest in the ABC news service. That is the part of the ABC most detested by politicians, and on which the present government has focused its most intense pressure.

The ConversationIf editorial independence weakens, public trust will weaken too. That would make the ABC an even more attractive political target for a hostile government.

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

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

As Spain represses Catalonia’s show of independence, the rest of Europe watches on nervously


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Reuters/Yves Herman

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle and Georgia Monaghan, University of Newcastle

On Sunday, more than 2 million Catalans voted in a referendum on the question:

Should Catalonia become an independent state?

The vote was a milestone in the century-long struggle for self-determination in Catalonia, a region in northeast Spain. The claim for independence, though, was again met with opposition by the Spanish government, with Spanish police seizing polling stations and beating would-be voters.


Further reading: Catalonians and Kurds have a long battle ahead for true independence


Catalonia’s claim for independence

Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont said on Monday that Catalan “citizens have earned the right to [be] an independent state”. Puigdemont sees the 90% referendum win as a self-evident claim for independence.

Catalonia’s claim to independence is historical. It has always considered itself a distinct entity. While Catalonia has co-existed with Spain for centuries, the 1979 Statute of Autonomy under the 1978 Spanish Constitution permitted Catalonia some autonomy, with self-government of education, health care and welfare.

Catalonia has also maintained a culture and language distinct from its Spanish neighbours. For Catalans, strong national identity has been demonstrated through resistance of repressive expressions of Spanish influence – notably the Franco dictatorship’s attempts to suppress Catalan culture and language.

As one of the strongest and most productive economic regions in Spain, the perception among Catalans is that they give more in tax than they receive in state benefits. In 2015, 20% of Spain’s total GDP came from Catalonia, while the state budget for Catalonia received a 6.5% decrease from 2003.

The current Catalan claim for independence has been energised by the perceived economic and political repression of the region by the central government in recent years. Many Catalans believe Catalonia would be more successful if it could self-rule.

Parallel to inequitable economic treatment, the Spanish government has also moved recently to tightly constrain Catalan autonomy. In 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Court struck down an expanded version of the Statute of Autonomy that granted Catalonia the title of a “nation”.

In March 2017, former Catalan leader Artur Mas was banned from holding public office after being found guilty of disobeying the Constitutional Court by holding a symbolic referendum in 2014. Such aggressive responses by Spain to the idea of secession have driven increasing numbers of Catalonians toward the independence movement.

In the context of Sunday’s referendum, Puigdemont argued that his people’s sovereignty lies with the Catalan parliament, and that no other court or political power could ban or suspend the vote.

The referendum’s legality is certainly contentious, notably because it did not adhere to democratic conventions like the requirement for a minimum threshold of votes. Regardless, Puigdemont is looking to make a declaration of independence in the coming days.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont spearheaded the independence referendum.
Reuters/Albert Gea

Why does the Spanish government oppose Catalonian independence?

While Catalans claim independence, Madrid refuses to recognise the referendum’s legitimacy at all. According to Spanish President Mariano Rajoy:

There has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia.

Rajoy labelled the referendum as a “constitutional and democratic atrocity” and slammed the Catalan leaders for creating “serious damage to co-existence” between Spain and Catalonia.

In line with the 2010 Constitutional Court decision, the Spanish government opposes Catalan independence on the grounds of constitutional invalidity. The 1978 Spanish Constitution denies the independence of Catalonia, declaring the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.

Madrid argues there is no provision in the Spanish Constitution for self-determination, and that a unilateral vote of independence is at odds with Article 155’s requirement for democratic participation of all Spaniards. On these grounds, the Constitutional Court banned the referendum – which nevertheless proceeded on Sunday.

What happened during the referendum on Sunday?

Sunday’s referendum was marred by violence and repression. Spanish national police forcibly blocked voting, seizing ballot boxes and voting papers, physically removing voters from polling stations, and attacking civilians with batons and rubber bullets.

Catalan emergency officials say that 761 Catalan civilians and 12 police were injured during the police actions in Barcelona and Girona.

Catalan and Spanish leaders blame each other for the violence. Rajoy condemned the Catalans for their “radicalism and disobedience”, praising the Spanish police for their “firmness and serenity” in response.

This response sits uncomfortably with images of voters being removed from polling stations by their hair and attacked with batons while raising their hands in peaceful protest.

The UN has criticised Madrid for its disproportionate and violent response to a peaceful attempt at self-determination. Human Rights Watch has condemned the Spanish government for violating Catalans’ civil right to peaceful assembly and free expression.

In contrast, the European Union regards the vote as illegal but has called for unity and peaceful relations between Spain and Catalonia.

As Catalans call for a national strike in response to Madrid’s repressive actions, the world waits to see whether this act of protest will be met with greater repression. Madrid could use emergency powers to take full administrative control of Catalonia.

Catalan firefighters formed a human shield protecting voters from Spanish police on Sunday.
Reuters/Juan Medina

Catalonia and the struggle for self-determination

On Monday, Puigdemont said the Catalan people:

… have sent a message to the world, we have the right to decide our future, we have the right to be free and we want to live in peace.

Catalonia is effectively asserting the right of its people to self-determination. This is a collective human right, enshrined in common Article 1(1) of the twin human rights covenants – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

In voting at a referendum and preparing for a declaration of independence, Catalonia is following a similar contested path to the emerging state of Kosovo. In 2010, the International Court of Justice found that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not violate international law.

Spain is the only major country in Western Europe to refuse recognition to Kosovo as an independent country. Spain’s insistence that unilateral secession cannot be permitted for Kosovo is intertwined with its determination not to lose Catalonia.

Self-determination can be realised in a range of ways, including through forms of autonomy within a nation-state. It may be that a negotiated arrangement that would preserve Spain’s sovereignty over Catalonia would still be possible.

However, by meeting Sunday’s assertion of self-determination with repression, Spain has undoubtedly fuelled Catalonia’s determination to establish an independent state.

The ConversationOther EU member nations, including the UK, will be watching with concern that Catalonia may inspire separatist movements in Scotland, Bavaria and Flanders.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle and Georgia Monaghan, Research Assistant, University of Newcastle

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