Honduras cracks down on police corruption

Corruption and organised crime have swept like a plague through Mexico and Central America, threatening to bring governments to their knees. There has been little hope of improvement in the region, and the atmosphere has been one of impunity and fear. This week, however, Honduras has led the way to a possible solution by launching a crackdown on police corruption. 176 Honduran police officers have been arrested on charges ranging from drug dealing to murder and kidnap. It is at once shocking that such criminal activity was so widespread and encouraging that the authorities have decided to take action.

 

The arrests took place in the midst of public outcry at the release of four police officers accused of murder, who subsequently went into hiding. This has been a major political scandal, which prompted President Porfirio Lobo to sack his top police commanders on Monday. On the same day also launched a military campaign, known as “Operation Lightening” in those areas which are effectively controlled by criminal gangs. This sent out a clear statement that the situation had become untenable and that this criminal behaviour would no longer be tolerated. This message was reaffirmed on Wednesday evening as the news broke that 176 officers had been detained.

 

A UN report revealed that in 2010 Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world, and much of the killing was associated with criminal gang violence. Honduras is clearly a seriously troubled nation, and one could legitimately ask why this hasn’t happened sooner. One obvious answer is the prevalence of the corruption and the power of those responsible. This is one of the major explanations for the continued violence in countries such as Mexico. Government officials are thought to be amongst those responsible, but they will not impugn themselves.

 

Mexicois still being ravaged, but the healing process had to begin somewhere, and it could be that the Honduran arrests will help. Honduras is known to be on one of the key drug trafficking routes from South America to Mexico and the United States. If the traffickers can be stopped at that point then it would both frustrate their ultimate aim (and potentially act as a deterrent) and prevent them from fuelling the Mexican drug wars. However, this would depend upon the Honduran measures proving effective, which is far from guaranteed.

 

First of all, it is impossible to tell at this stage whether this crackdown has been exhaustive. There could be yet more guilty police officers who have not been fired, who could continue to commit crimes and influence their colleagues.

 

Secondly, these arrests and dismissals will have left a significant police deficit, and although this is temporarily being addressed by the army, a longer term solution will need to be found. The Honduran authorities will need to be very cautious about police recruitment, and devise strong safeguards to prevent the situation from repeating itself.

 

This process has already begun. Congress is now debating a new law reviewing the police force, with a specific emphasis on targeting corruption. This is an unparalleled opportunity for Honduras to build a police force with integrity, and restore public confidence. It would be unforgivable if they did not take full advantage of this – for the sake of their own country and the whole of America.

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Gerhard Richter: Panorama

Tate Modern took on an exceptionally ambitious project in creating their exhibition of Gerhard Richter’s work. Richter’s career is notable both for its duration and its diversity, both of which were beautifully conveyed. There is something irresistibly fascinating about this artist, who was born in Dresden in 1932 but moved to West Germany in 1961. What appeals most to me is his tenacity, and the way he uses art to confront uncomfortable historical truths.

 

The first room introduces the visitor to one of the most important techniques Richter uses: photopainting. This is the process of creating artworks based on photographs, taken from a range of sources including newspapers and family albums. He would often blur the paintings afterwards, to various effects. He showed the comparative luxury of life in West Germany by painting a sports car, which he blurred to create an impression of speed, and a travel advertisement. He heightened the colours in the latter, as a statement on the marketing industry’s exaggerated promises.

 

The most striking pictures in this collection, though, were intensely personal. Two pictures, Aunt Marianne and Uncle Rudi were displayed alongside each other. Aunt Marianne was pictured with the baby Richter, and they were blurred together. Uncle Rudi was presented in his Nazi uniform, but the blurring in this painting created a haze over him, which evoked contemporary German attitudes to the country’s recent past. It transpired that Aunt Marianne had been killed in the Nazi eugenics programme. A painting entitled Herr Heyde was displayed on the adjacent wall, and depicted the arrest of a doctor who was involved with this programme. The effect of this arrangement was typical of Richter’s unflinching portrayal of life in post-war Germany.

 

This approach was also manifest in a later collection, entitled 18 October 1977. I found this series the most powerful, and spent the longest time in this room. The date refers to the day when several of the leading figures of the Baader-Meinhof group (or Red Army Faction) were found dead in their cells. Their deaths were officially presented as suicides, but speculation about state involvement was rife. The aim of Richter’s display was not to comment on the group’s ideology or the terrorist acts they committed. It seemed depoliticised and worked on a more abstract, human level. This was a stark, unadorned testament to the deaths of a group of young people, leaving the viewer to form her own opinions about the context. Once again, Richter had identified a sensitive issue which many of his contemporaries would have avoided.

 

Richter has continued to address difficult political subjects, as he demonstrated in his emblematic work September, which depicts the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. The only difference here was that the rest of the world was equally willing to comment on, and condemn, this atrocity. The distinction in attitudes seems to be based on the popularly accepted apportioning of blame. September is a painting based on a photograph taken when the second plane hit, but it was blurred such that the neither the aeroplane nor the fire could be seen. Richter created the blurring effect using a knife, which created eerie impressions like the outline of an aeroplane in the corner of the painting. This was a common feature of Richter’s work, as he would frustrate the viewer by obscuring the anticipated details, making the works more tantalising.

 

This was just one dimension of a vast and varied exhibition, but it made a profound impression on me. I imagine it would require multiple trips to gain a full impression of this remarkable artist and his work.

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Free speech and French satire

November has traditionally been a time for remembrance – in the Christian calendar the month begins with All Saints’ Day (1 November) and All Souls’ Day (2 November). The significance of these dates seems to have declined in modern Britain, particularly when compared with Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations. There, the festival has attained the status of a National Holiday.

 

This made it an ideal focus for PEN International’s Mexico campaign*, which aims to raise awareness of the dangers faced by Mexican journalists, thirty-five of whom have been murdered in the last five years alone. Mexico is known to be one of the most troubled regions in the world, with one of the poorest records when it comes to free expression. But in the light of this morning’s events it seems that there are grave problems far closer to home.

 

I am, of course, referring to the petrol bombing of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The publication’s offices were destroyed in the ensuing blaze, which came just one day after they released a controversial cover featuring a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed. This was a blatant and unacceptable assault on press freedom, one of the core tenets of liberal democracy.

 

As the Prime Minister, François Fillon, said in a statement on the attack:

 

“Freedom of expression is an inalienable right in our democracy and all attacks on freedom of the press must be condemned with the greatest firmness. No cause can justify such an act of violence.”

 

France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, is no stranger to religious tensions. The government recently courted controversy when it banned the public wearing of full-face veils. It strikes me that this was not as outrageous as it may appear, since it forms part of the more general policy of laïcité, the rigid separation of church and state. French state schools, for example, take an equally dim view of the display of Christian and Muslim symbols. Likewise, Charlie Hebdo has treated other religions with equal irreverence. They were not fire bombed on those occasions. Why should it only be Islam which is sacrosanct?       

 

This was not hate speech, and did not incite violence against the Muslim community. The magazine explained that it published this as an ironic reference to the election victory of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, and the adoption of Islamic law in post-Gaddafi Libya.

 

In a touching display of solidarity, the Liberation offered desk space to Charlie Hebdo’s journalists so that they could continue to work after their offices and equipment were destroyed. The daily is also preparing a special edition, which will celebrate the right to free expression, and in particular the right of Charlie Hebdo to offend whomsoever it pleases.

 

*I do have an interest to declare, since I wrote the campaign press release as part of my day job, but the point still ought to be made.

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The Revolution Will Be Digitised

There is no doubt that 2011 has been a momentous year. The previously unimaginable scale and force of the Arab Spring has ensured that this will be viewed as a year of revolution. This is what makes the publication of Heather Brooke’s latest book so timely. The Revolution Will Be Digitised explores the role which technology has to play in the dissemination of information and the consequential empowerment of citizens.

Access to information has been a subject of contention for decades. Indeed, Radio 4 recently launched a successful programme entitled One Hundred Years of Secrecy which looked at how information has been controlled over the past century. So it is not the “Information War” that is new, but the battlefield, to extend that metaphor.

Much has been made of the role of technology, and social media in particular, in spreading information and encouraging democracy. Nonetheless, Brooke’s contribution to the debate is exceptionally valuable for a number of reasons, not least because she herself became integral to the plot in the process of researching it. As she explained at a meeting of Westminster Skeptics, she began this project as a detached and critical observer, before she realised how caught up she would become. This has allowed her to offer a unique insight into life on the front lines of the Information War.

This is not to say, of course, that the issue is exclusively a combative one. Heather Brooke speaks equally of the “Information Enlightenment” and explores the great opportunities available “where knowledge flows freely, beyond national boundaries”. The goal of this information exchange, she claims, is to discover “truths about the way we live, about politics and power.” Public confidence in each of these is so low that calls for greater transparency were almost inevitable. That is part of what makes The Revolution will be Digitised so appealing. Brooke adopts a narrative style, which makes the book especially engaging and accessible. This also allows her to explore the human stories behind the technological activity and political events. In the first chapter, she describes a young “kid” who becomes disillusioned whilst working in military intelligence in Iraq. This is a sympathetic tale which allows the reader to appreciate how someone in that position could be driven to leak secret information. Although he is not identified as Bradley Manning, Brooke acknowledges that there are distinct similarities.

She goes on to examine Manning’s plight explicitly in later chapters, but she achieves maximum impact by explaining the background first. She sets up the situation by introducing the phenomenon of hackerspaces. These are areas where technologically adept activists meet to experiment and explore the possibilities open to them. As Brooke explains: “Hackers want to deconstruct systems to figure out how they work.” This notion and its systematic implementation are vital to the progression of the book.

This is the story of the now infamous Collateral Murder footage, which shows a US Apache helicopter opening fire on Iraqi citizens. Brooke’s analysis takes us from Iceland (where public disenchantment with the banks sparked an appetite for transparency) to Norway, where she first encountered Julian Assange at a meeting of investigative journalists. She describes her relationship with Julian Assange in a way which reveals Assange in a strikingly intimate – and not altogether flattering – light. It is only after she explains how Assange chose to reveal and publicise the video footage that she introduces Manning’s arrest.

The plotline offers Brooke extensive scope to examine the opportunities and threats posed by the new channels open to both citizens and the government. She develops these points eloquently and reveals the complex and intricate web of rules which dictates how much the public know. Understanding how this works is just the first part of the process, as Brooke rightly points out. We must now figure out how to reduce the risk of censorship and maximise the benefits of increased openness. The potential gains are exceptional. As Brooke notes: “The greatest achievement isn’t in producing technology, but using it to re-define the boundaries of what is possible.”

Originally published in ORG Zine on 20 September 2011 (http://zine.openrightsgroup.org/reviews/2011/review:-the-revolution-will-be-digitised-by-heather-brooke)

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Graphic images and the duality of human interest

On my way to work this morning I chanced upon this intriguing piece about the ethics of using graphic images in news reporting. It is a response to Chris Elliott’s piece from yesterday’s Guardian, in which he considers part of the newspaper’s editorial code. The section in question stipulates that: “People should be treated with sensitivity during periods of grief and trauma.” As Elliott rightly points out, this is a very subjective standard.

I was still contemplating where the lines should be drawn when I reached London Bridge underground station. I was concerned to see that barriers had been put up around a section of the stairs. As I drew closer I realised that there was a man lying there, injured and bleeding. His distress was palpable, but, to my relief, he was receiving medical treatment. It still felt uncomfortable to hear his cries of pain and yet be impotent to help.

Nonetheless, I felt compelled to watch what happened. So, it seemed, did many of my fellow commuters, some of whom actually stopped to look at the unfortunate man. They appeared as embarrassed as I was at our collective curiosity.

Then, just as suddenly as I was grasped by the desire to look, I was struck by an equally strong urge to leave. I found myself walking down the escalator a little faster than normal, wanting to distance myself from what I had seen.

There is something deeply primitive about this response to visible suffering. Seeing an injured person alerts us to the possibility that we could be in danger. What happened to that person could just as easily happen to us. By looking closely at his injuries we are able to assess their likely cause and the level of risk presented. Having evaluated the situation we then want to remove ourselves from the zone of potential danger – as quickly as possible.

This instinct could help to explain the duality of people’s views about graphic reporting of strangers’ injuries. We want to gain an accurate impression of the level of damage that has been done, which is why we object to “sanitised” images which offend our levels of comprehension. But, having looked at the image for a certain period of time, our instincts tell us to flee. But there is nowhere for us to go. We cannot truly remove ourselves, so instead we ask that the photographs are removed. But if that happens then we can’t make our own judgements about the level of threat a situation poses, thus creating the cyclical dilemma we currently face.

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Fashion: Oppressor or Liberator?

At 9 o’clock this morning, London Fashion Week took over from New York Fashion Week in style. Public attention is not all we have stripped from Manhattan. In August, London overtook New York as Fashion Capital of the World, according to a survey by Global Language Monitor. This seems to have sparked a renewed interest in dressing well, although not necessarily in all quarters. When Vogue asked Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, what he planned to wear to London Fashion Week he appeared nonplussed, and replied: “I don’t know – a suit.”

Fashion is about more than just “what we wear” though. There are numerous debates about what fashion is, and what it can do. Some feel that there is no place for fashion as art, for example, but that all clothes should be practical and wearable. Another important question is whether fashion acts as an oppressive or a liberating force. This seems especially relevant in 2011, the year of revolution.

Western fashion has long been viewed as a mark of freedom by those living under repressive regimes. Earlier this year, the Belarus Free Theatre group performed their “Generation Jeans”in Parliament, with Jude Law in a starring role. This play focused on jeans as a symbol of western democracy and American culture. The narrators explained, in both English and Belarusian, why there was such demand for a counterfeit jeans industry amongst the young and idealistic.

We are now aware of the dark years of repression which followed, but in 1969 Colonel Gaddafi was the one leading the revolution against King Idris of Libya. The Revolutionary Command Council’s stated aim was to achieve “unity, freedom and socialism.” One key change brought under this ‘new society’ was the “emancipation” of women. This was achieved largely by allowing women to cast off their customary dress and wear Western style clothing. As the regime grew more oppressive in recent years, this was reflected in a widespread return to the veil.  This may well display a personal choice on the part on the individual women – I am certainly not debating the merits of the veil itself – but rather the associated perceptions and patterns.

It isn’t only Western fashion which has the power to liberate, though. Fashion reflects our aspirations and if people don’t aspire to western style democracy it would seem incongruous to adopt western dress. That was made very clear earlier this year. Pakistan Fashion Week was held in Lahore in March. This was only the third time the event had run, compared with the 27 year history of London Fashion Week. This was a stunningly beautiful celebration of Pakistani culture and the local textiles industry. There was no need to reference the West here.

This was raised as an issue in India at the end of March. The problem wasn’t the clothing. Catwalks were filled with vibrant colours and designs which are unmistakeably Indian. It was the models themselves who were the subject of contention. Indian models accused the country’s fashion industry of racism. It appeared to favour white, foreign models over darker skinned local women. Carol Gracias, an Indian supermodel said: “You never see a dark-skinned girl on TV ads and that’s where the lucrative work is. Everyone uses fair-skinned girls.” This is thought to be a “hangover” from the British Raj.

This is one of the reasons cited by those who argue that the fashion industry is oppressive. It is undeniably prescriptive, and demands a very narrowly defined idea of beauty. The fashion industry arguably created the unrealistic, “Size Zero” culture. It is not without fault, but equally it does not “oppress” women without other, internal, conditions being present. This seems to have more of an impact on younger women, who are inevitably more impressionable than their more senior counterparts. To blame the fashion industry for low self-esteem in women is to over simplify the issue and to ignore the real (but possibly inconvenient) problems to be addressed.

Female fashion has traditionally been led by men. Critics said that this meant that men were enforcing their ideas of how women should look. Even if that were true in the past, it seems to be changing now. To give one high profile example, Sarah Burton is doing exceptional work at Alexander McQueen. Ultimately, fashion seems to be a force for liberation. The industry tends to be viewed as “oppressive” in liberal democracies, where women are already free to wear what they like, suggesting that the oppression is psychological and these manacles are mind-forged.

Originally published on 16 September 2011 at The Vibe: http://www.the-vibe.co.uk/2011/09/16/fashion-oppressor-or-liberator/

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Do you really need another pair of shoes?

An otherwise brilliant philosophy professor used shoes to illustrate the concept of diminishing marginal utility. He claimed that once you had reached the minimum required number of shoes (two) each shoe acquired thereafter was less valuable than the one before. I respectfully disagree.

 

There is something of a mystique surrounding shoes. Why do we love them so much? Why do we go back to them even when they hurt us? I have a theory that their allure operates on a primordial level. Beyond fulfilling the basic function of clothing us, shoes also embody the essence of man as a creative, ambitious, social being.  This is why I believe that the art of shoe shopping is natural and beneficial, and why it merits encouragement. We should not be ashamed of our shoe lust – we should embrace it.

 

At their most superficial level, shoes are aesthetic creations. They have the potential to be exceptionally beautiful, and to make the wearer feel radiant. The attraction is hardly elusive. But their beauty differs from that of a meadow or a waterfall. We appreciate shoes as the end products of human endeavour. They inspire us and remind us of man’s capacity to produce the truly exquisite. Such talent must not be ignored.

 

It was Francis Bacon who said that “fashion is the only attempt to realise art in living forms and social intercourse”. He had the right idea. Fashion is art. It is art which is easily integrated into our lives and which takes on a daily significance. Moreover, it is a vital part of our national identity.Britainhas an illustrious history of creativity. I need not remind you thatLondonis one of the great fashion capitals of the world. We take pride in our culture of nurturing artistic expression and innovation. It is enshrined in the laws of our country that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression”. This tradition has given the fashion industry a solid foundation, but now we must step up to ensure the continuing viability of this rich and vibrant dimension of British life.

 

Fashion and retail represent a substantial sector of the economy. To a greater or lesser extent, we have all been affected by the current economic crisis. Initiatives such as government stimuli have offered short term relief, but if we want to see real recovery the economy has to be allowed to heal itself. What can we do to aid its recuperation? I hear you cry. We can spend. No longer should we feel guilty about splurging on a sensational pair of stilettos. This has become a virtuous act.

 

From this perspective it seems that we almost have a civic duty to buy another pair of shoes. Not only do you need another pair, but the whole country is depending on people continuing to make such purchases.

 

The importance of the footwear industry operates on a personal level as well as a national one. The designer has chosen to share with us the workings of his imagination. He has conceived them long before they are unveiled to the public; and he has nurtured his ideas and seen them through to fruition. The creator has given the purchaser something of himself, and this is a gift which is rightly cherished. When we buy a pair of shoes we connect with the designer, and with those who have contributed to the creative process. When we buy vintage shoes, the chain of people who have loved them is even longer. The idea of our shoes having a history intrigues us. This link to countless other people reminds us that we are not alone. This is just one dimension of shoes’ unifying quality.

 

Shoes can be an excellent social lubricant. With new styles constantly appearing in magazines and on our acquaintances we rarely tire of talking about them. They have cross-cultural appeal and can offer the perfect ice breaker, even in otherwise trying circumstances.

 

There are few experiences as depressing as having to travel by bus in LA. One of them is waiting for the bus in LA. Nonetheless, one should never underestimate the power of black suede pumps to salvage any situation. One night whilst I was keeping my solitary vigil they attracted the attention of a woman who was to become my best friend there. My shoes had saved my (social) life. As I remember her first question to me, I still overflow with shoe-related pride: “Where do you work, with your cute shoes?”

 

She had already made assumptions about my lifestyle and status based on my shoes. It is no secret that we dress to create a certain impression of ourselves. When we don an especially fabulous pair of shoes we inevitably seek the approval of others. Whether we wish to appear taller, more stylish or more successful, a great pair of shoes can give us the confidence we need to sparkle professionally and personally. When we look at shoes we see our aspirations.

 

Shoes appeal to us on a deeply personal level. They evoke intense emotions as they reflect our innermost desires whilst attending to our fundamental needs. Moreover, the economic, social and creative benefits of a new shoe purchase are overwhelming.

 

So let us vote with our feet and support the footwear industry inBritain. Yes, you really do need another pair of shoes, and, come to think of it, so do I.

Originally written for the ELLE New Talent Contest 2010 

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