For days now I see daily reports in our newspapers that Bahraini fishermen, both hobbyists and professionals, have landed into hot water with our neighbourly Qatari Coastguards who seem to escort them directly to jail, without passing Go. At the last count, there appears to be 107 Bahraini fishermen in Qatari custody and one fishermen injured by Qatari gunshots and in hospital now. The Bahraini authorities have obviously called for their immediate release and repatriation. Five have since been released on bail and have returned to Bahrain.
The rumours and suppositions are flying around like wildfire in the absence of official transparency by both governments. No one really knows why this souring of relations has happened at this particular point in time. So the rumours on the mill currently go from Qatar’s refusal to supply much needed gas to fuel ALBA’s expansion forced Bahrain to get it from Iran, much to the chagrin of the Saudis who supposedly donated the BD100 million to build a new medical city was a retaliation the condition of which is to forget about building a causeway linking Bahrain and Qatar! Asinine, I know. However, historically we have had a somewhat unfortunate relations with our Qatari brothers:
Bahrain has also had problems historically with its Arab neighbor and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member, Qatar. Both countries claimed sovereignty over three regions: the island of Hawar (which the International Court of Justice awarded to Bahrain in 2001); the Fasht al-Dibl coral reef; and the Zubara region. In 1996, Bahrain had rejected an offer by Qatar to build a causeway connecting Qatar to Bahrain.
In its relations with other countries Bahrain generally follows the lead of Saudi Arabia. Like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s foreign policy is pro-Western and generally favorable to the United States. Bahrain supported the allies in the 1990â€“1991 Gulf War. Bahrain is home to the largest U.S. naval base in the region; as of mid-2002, the base was slated for significant expansion. King Hamad is expected to continue Bahrain’s close ties with the United States; however, the challenge of balancing a pro-United States stand while retaining the identity of an Arab nation complicate the relationship.
I even remember us preparing to go to war with the Qataris at one point. The instruction went – I heard – to the Bahraini and Qatari coast guards (separately of course) to wind up their fishing lines, put their boots on and get ready for action!
Saudi, apparently and thankfully, intervened and re-established the status quo as much as it could.
So what are the Bahraini fishermen to do now? The hundreds of families whose direct dependence on this industry are threatened economically because of the unwise and unsustainable dredging operations and policies. It is also amply apparent that these policies not only affects the immediately local environment, but the nature of the Gulf itself multiplies this effect several-fold and affects thousands of families in all countries sharing this body of water. Yet, we don’t appear to have a coordination committee between these countries to restrict dredging operations or at least study their adverse effects and put in long term mechanisms and policies to re-habituate what has been destroyed.
As to the off-again-on-again relationship with Qatar, isn’t it time that both countries grew up and treat each other with respect? Apart form the fact that Qatar – in particular – doesn’t need fishing revenues, given it’s oil and gas wealth, should it be leading the effort into allowing GCC citizens and companies the freedom of its waters and that of all Gulf countries to fish where ever they choose? Yes rules and regulations must be introduced. The fish-stock is finite after all and fishing it must be regulated, but intercepting and shooting and apprehending local fishermen and confiscating boats isn’t going to help anyone including Qatar.
With nary a success notched up for the GCC council so far, at least with its 20+ meeting scheduled for Dec in the UAE capital, leaders should show their unity and their understanding and declare the GCC waters available for their citizens to benefit from. I don’t think that every fisherman straying into a neighbouring country’s waters is automatically intent on undermining territorial sovereignty. They either just want to have fun, or make a couple of dinars to feed their children.
First, my good friend SaudiWoman is angered by the resurgence of that infantile fatwa designed to – wait for it – Shari’a compliant gender integration by condoning and encouraging women to breast feed unrelated men in order for them to be considered milk-mother and son; hence, allowed under the Shari’a to mingle.
The practical consideration is that us men – being completely and utterly aroused by such an action with bombs going off in our heads that now suckling is concluded, we now just have to get to third base, a feeling which somewhat nullifies the intent of creating a mother/son relationship at best.
Another practical consideration SaudiWoman reminds us of is that for a women to be considered a “milk-mother” in Shari’a, she must have suckled a child of under 2 years of age, a minimum of 5 complete meals at breast. Now, in order for a woman to lactate, she must have been with child very recently, but the quantity of milk produced is hardly enough to satiate a babe and she is right to question the ability of any women’s capacity to produce 5 full meals enough to fill a grown man.
I guess the guys issuing that fatwa just didn’t realise that such production is not actually on-tap, nor is it generated by pressing a ubiquitous button. It’s simple biology. Scientific, in other words, rather than esoteric hearsay. That is, apart from all the other moral, ethical and yes, even practical considerations.
Talking about practical considerations, there is a brouhaha brewing in our fair isle. Again concerning sex. But this time, a (presumably Sharia-compliant) sex-shop owner is on a slippery slope due to poking tongue at a Customs officer. Said officer apparently had umbrage with some of the more salacious products she was trying to slip through his unusually tight nets.
The 32-year-old mother-of-three appeared before the Lower Criminal Court yesterday, accused of insulting a Customs officer in a row as she tried to import some of her products, which include sex aids and games.
The case was adjourned until September 15, but Ms Ahmed, who denies the charge, says it has already cost her a night in a police cell and lost income on products blocked by Customs.
Customs officials say some of the products which Ms Ahmed tries to import are unauthorised.
But Ms Ahmed argues that some are already on sale in pharmacies and other stores and that she is doing nothing wrong, since her target customers are married couples.
While I shall not hazard a guess at what those products might be, the statement that they are actually already are available at “pharmacies and other stores” is really troubling, from health rather than pleasure considerations. But I shall reserve judgement on those until more details become available.
The interesting thing in this particular matter is that we actually have such a shop already operating for a couple of years, situated in the middle of Jid Ali, which I suspect is a conservative village attached to Isa Town, and that the creative businesswoman has built up a large customer base. Good on her. I hope her business continues to flourish, and that she should stop justifying its existence by psychological and religious grounds. If adults are into what she sells, then more power to them.
What’s the connection between the two events then you might ask? Sex. Is the first thing that comes to mind. The second of course is that if our government doesn’t let her go about her business in the presumably legal manner she has already been operated under, and is banned from selling her products based on some man’s squeamish perception of what is good and proper, or worse, on convoluted religious grounds, then convergence might just happen, and like the illustrious Saudi and Egyptian clerics, our home grown clerics will dare to best them!
I came here at the invitation of the German government’s Foreign Office through their embassy in Bahrain. I came rather hesitantly as I had to take ten full days off work at a time where we’re rather busy preparing for an important project. It took some convincing but I’m now very glad that I accepted to participate. Of course this would not have happened without the excellent team running the office, they’ve really stepped up to the mark, which not only made the trip possible, but actually quite pleasant and without worry.
Nevertheless, I felt that 10 days for a conference is far too long. Normally I would attend a 3 day conference and be itching to return home at the end the first day! That feeling was shared by my colleagues here too, but when the time came to wrap up, we all felt glad to have been invited for this period. In 3 days you hardly start forming a relationship, while the 10 days gave us good time to get know each other, explore Berlin and participate in many cultural activities. It gave us the chance to gel together as a group and become good friends.
The program prepared for us was comprehensive, but not overwhelming, it was designed to give us time to enjoy each other’s company while visiting various Berlin venues and cultural events. The programâ€™s structure and contents were outstanding with obviously a lot of thought put into it to make it relevant to us all.
From a naturally skeptical crowd, the tone and quality of the next ten days were set on the first day of business with excellent presentations from some of the luminaries of the field. The first day brought us in contact with the German political blogging scene through Robin Meyer-Lucht, a communication scientist who runs the influential carta.info, a group blog with some 40 contributing writers, 3 editors and one editorial assistant. The editorial staff are fully employed by the site. The site now serves about 60,000 unique users per month and is monetised by using various techniques. It is currently experimenting with both Kashingle and Flattr as new revenue streams and the initial results are encouraging.
Overall, in Robin’s estimate, the German political blogosphere, although still evolving, is driven by passionate bloggers who have become influential in the field. Business enterprises and their supporting services like some PR agencies hoped to ride the blog popularity wave by initiating their own blogs and twitter streams but have been largely discredited as “astroturfers” whose intention is to create content which migrate appear genuine at first, but ultimately shown as either subtle or brash attempts at promoting a product, service or business, something bloggers and general Internet consumers find distasteful if not deceitful.
The German blogosphere is no different from the worldwide phenomenon. It too has its memes, aggregation sites which provide an easier way for consumers to find relevant content quickly and offer an appropriate venue to expose new blogs and of course the obligator rankings, be those generated non officially or through established ranking sites like Technorati.
When it comes to the legal structure of blogging; however, the situation can seem quite daunting to the uninitiated. If not farcical at times, but as those gathered for the seminar are political bloggers with each one of them with experiences running into the law, Jan MÃ¶nikes presentation was eagerly awaited, even though some started with the usual skepticism, once Jan got going, his engaging style and relevant information presented soon captured our full attention. I know some have emphatically commented that it was t he most important presentation in the whole program.
The third and forth presentations after lunch were equally interesting. One dealt with the political blogging scene in Germany presented by Jens Berger of http://www.spiegelfechter.de and the other was about the relation between citizen journalism and classical journalism in Germany by Matthias Spielkamp of www.immateriblog.de which generated an intense debate given that his topic is the classic goading cry for bloggers: â€œrelation between citizen journalism and classical journalism in Germany”. He almost got lynched! The end result; however, is that everyone had his own opinion about the subject with no clear resolution being adopted, as expected. It was a lot of fun though!
Saturday and Sunday were tour and food time. We were given a guided tour of Berlin and the Heavens cooperated as well by making the tour authentic. It incessantly rained! That gave me the chance to prove that my Canon 50D is good for use underwater without modification. It still works!
To make every meeting opportunity fruitful, the organisers always included relevant and interesting people for us to meet and talk with. On Sundayâ€™s dinner we were joined by Germanyâ€™s Managing Director of Reporters Without Borders, Mr. Christian Rickerts, whose experiences he shared together with the various cases his office handles, from championing the freedoms to express oneself through to actively helping defenders, journalists and bloggers who have fallen foul with their governments, and boy those are many. It seemed to me that the whole world has increased the pressure on basic human rights freedoms, or is it because of modern communications that we actually get to hear of them more often now?
Guided Tour of the Stasi Archive
The hairs on my neck stood stiff when I first read that activity in our program. A natural unmitigated revulsion for the idea of state organised spying. That feeling was made even more so when one realizes that the perception of what happened in the GDR, is still being actively pursued by various governments around the world. With the most oppressive now neatly contained in our lovely patch, one doesnâ€™t need much imagination to know whatâ€™s being kept on whom, and the natural instinct to continuously look over oneâ€™s shoulder is not alien at all.
But Germany did something better with this. After reunification and against concerted efforts to destroy the millions of records, the new government preserved them with the clear intention of transparency and making those records available to their owners. Germans could still individually apply to the BStU Archiv to find out if the Stasi did have them under surveillance and wether the record is available for their viewing. A lot of people apparently took the opportunity to look into their lives from the Stasiâ€™s point of view. That experience brought with it painful discoveries; some of those who gave up information and informed on them were in some cases not only colleagues and friends, but close family members like spouses, siblings and parents.
There are many warehouses full of these records all over Germany. The Berlin bureaus for instance contains some 18 million records. If just the A5-sized index cards were placed side-by-side, it is estimated that the resulting line would extend 5,000 kilometers! Of course those cards led to other confidential cards leading to various folders kept on individuals. Apart from the paper trail, the Stasi also kept film, photographs (over a million in Berlin alone), video, audio and probably some DNA samples all of which were meticulously categorized and cross-referenced.
These centres now offer deep research material of the era where several scholars are investigating. What they will get out of it will probably be very interesting to note. One of the results of these research efforts I should think is to preserve the German consciousness so that this kind of unauthorised state spying will never happen again.
I promise you that the hairs on the back of my neck continued in their erection and the sense of revulsion at such methodical voyeurism by the state never left me while we were at the BStU Archiv. Yes, I know itâ€™s over now and Germany has made huge strides at coming to terms with itself, but the over-riding feeling I had then was, if the Stasi did that then, what the hell are our governments doing now, given the plethora of technological devices available at their fingertips now?
The visit to the BStU Archiv convinced me more than ever that legislation must be inculcated which protect against such intrusions. People have a right to their privacy. People have a right to expect and demand transparency from their governments. People have a right to access information. But unfortunately what our parliament here seem to be more content with is the reversal of all of these universal rights.
Does anyone know whatâ€™s happened to that legislation that Andrew Hearn wanted to pass through to demand high-court approval before the State Security here spies on peopleâ€™s communications?
A visit to the source of the news
The afternoon was more pleasant and much closer to our cups of tea I think. After a nice lunch, we visited DPA, the German Press Agency (Deutsche Presse Agentur) and were received by its editor-in-chief and managing director Mr. Christoph Dernbach. Christoph gave us a short presentation about the history of the DPA then opened the floor for questions and answers. Needless to say, we all had many questions. Herr Dernbach was very accommodating and not only answered them comprehensively, but also gave us a tour of his newsrooms. That afternoon was very interesting for me personally and opened my eyes on the mechanics of such organisations.
We also saw how progressive the DPA is. I guess it being independent gives it the opportunity to chart its own paths, and one of those is to provide 300 of its journalists with 300 small video cameras in order for them to produce video content for their subscribers websites! The cameras they received were the small Sony Xacti CG10s. Journalists are of course trained on how to use them in the field, top and tail the material shot if need be then simply upload the raw footage directly to their bureaus in Germany for craft editing. Once the editing is completed, video packages are then released on appropriate websites and sold on to clients.
Itâ€™s good to see that â€œold style journalists” are cajoled into new technologies. They seem to be quite fine with the idea too. I guess to a professional journalist, a video is yet another tool in his quiver and if he can tell a story with the pen, he most certainly will be able to tell it through video as well.
Other than the DPA, we also visited Deutsche Welle TV station and given a guided tour of the facility culminating in a presentation and discussion led by Gabriel Gonzalez, the Project manager of the Deutsche Welle Blog Awards “BOB’s” regarding the awards, which some found controversial.
On another day, we also visited Der Tagesspiegel offices and took a valuable hour of their online chief editorâ€™s time in which we discussed their online strategies and their continuous efforts of integration between print and online. Their overall strategic direction, wisely I think, is to completely remove any distinction between those two worlds and gradually motivate their journalists to be fully conversant with the online world so that they can contribute to either medium whenever required.
Der Tagesspiegel, like the DPA, also provided their journalists with video cameras to file video reports in the field. In fact, on the same day we visited, they had a journalist abroad who was trying (unsuccessfully at the time, a condition which I hope is resolved by now) to upload video content to their office for editing and processing.
Meeting with the officials
As we were in Berlin at the invitation of their Federal Foreign Office, it was only expected that we would spend some time meeting with their officials, and that we did on several occasions.
Our first visit to the Federal Foreign Office coincided with a Palestinian delegation visit, I am told that Mahmoud Abbas was there that day, so they were a bit careful in corralling us through the complex to get to our meeting destination. However I did glimpse a press conference in progress on our way out. I didnâ€™t; however, was able to discern who was in it and what it was about.
The first Federal Foreign Officer to meet us was Herr Eberhard Pohl, the Deputy Political Director of the Federal Foreign Office who briefed us on their politics a bit, but none of us felt other than his interjections were classic politicospeek. Saying much but stating nothing! Or, as my fiend Milos said in his blog about the occasion:
Welcoming the bloggers by the German Foreign Ministry: “It’s tremendously exciting to meet you. I must say that I don’t often meet bloggers. I even looked up Rasmussen blog last night to see what this blogging thing is!”
Likely translation: “You are the bloggers? Really wish I knew who it arranges these meetings. What are you really? Yeah and I wonder if today we will have eintopf or gulÃ¡Å¡ovka in the cafeteria?”
liberal paraphrasing and help from Mr. Google as my Czech is still not perfect!
For the first time, the Federal Foreign Office has invited a group of 15 internet bloggers from all over the world to Germany. They come from Russia and China, African and Central Asian countries, the Arab region, Latin America and Europe. Today the flow of information and public debate increasingly take place outside the traditional media. In many parts of the globe this also happens as a consequence of local conditions that impede the work of a free press. Here bloggers take over an important function and confront authoritarian regimes with particular challenges. However, even in countries where press freedom is guaranteed, bloggers enrich the media landscape with their particular take on things. German Foreign Office blog
Iâ€™m glad to say that the other two gentlemen we met at the foreign office were more interesting and most engaging. Herr Markus LÃ¶ning, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at the Federal Foreign Office was demonstrably very passionate about his job, very well travelled and knows his stuff. Although he has taken up this task very recently, he was very aware of our areas, especially the happenings in the former Soviet republics around the Caspian Sea. Not only that, he knew exactly who was imprisoned where and for what! Upon hearing of the death sentence delivered in Singapore against Yong Vui Kong for drug trafficking, he immediately offered to send a letter to the Singaporean president to ask for clemency and to register Germanyâ€™s stance against the death penalty. He listened with attention to other bloggers feedback on the human rights situations in their countries and promised to take up various issues at the first opportunity he has when meeting respective countriesâ€™ representatives.
The other gentlemen from the Foreign Office we met and have had the pleasure of having lunch with at the Foreign Office International Club was Deputy Minister Herr Michael Zenner, Commissioner for Communication of the Federal Foreign Office, who is also the person directly responsible for inviting us to Berlin. We had a wonderful lunch with him as he was interested in everyoneâ€™s story and chatted about his experience with the web and his departmentâ€™s efforts at modernising the communications structure for the better.
The last day of the tour was interesting. The organisers invited Claus Hesseling to talk to us. Claus is a journalist, lecturer for multi-media and online journalism at inwent and at the Technical University of Berlin.
Claus split us into teams and got us to do presentations about topics related to the last 10 daysâ€™ experience and conclusions which were all very similar more or less. Our team presentation was about the effects of blogs on traditional media and the challenges they face. The presentation is available here should you wish to view the bullet points, but we concluded that generally the German media websites have some growth potential as they are not as advanced as those available in the UK and the States. Examples were given for comparison like The Guardian in the UK and the Washington Post in the States.
Every single one of us enjoyed the trip. What we all agreed on is that we have formed good relationships both with each other and the excellent organisers, specifically Lucien Koch, Lisa Moldenhauer and Deniz Ulusoylu.
We agreed that this initiative must continue as each one of us has a lot to offer and there is excellent potential for us to cooperate. Therefore, we decided to start a group blog which will be dedicated to those invited in this initiative and each of us will frequently post relevant articles. The details of this project are still in discussion, and I shall be happy to share the outcome of these discussions with you once they are concluded.
So even though we started this trip with a lot of skepticism, we end it now with a solid outreach program through which we hope to contribute to world understanding.
On behalf of my colleagues, I wish to thank the German Embassies in the participantâ€™s countries and His Excellency Dr. Hubert Lang, the German Ambassador to Bahrain, the German Foreign Office and Kaiser Communications for making this program happen. They all made this trip unique and completely useful.
Weâ€™re so looking forward to doing this again soon and to keep up the momentum gained through the last 10 days. It has been a real pleasure indeed.
and Pakistan (as well as Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iran I suspect) are going frantic over blocking websites they find… uh… offensive to their delicate sensibilities:
“Before shutting down (YouTube), we did try just to block particular URLs or links, and access to 450 links on the Internet were stopped, but the blasphemous content kept appearing so we ordered a total shut down,” he said.
Quite natural isn’t it? They block hundreds of websites, they admit that the adopted measures don’t work, so what do they do? Fuck it, shut down access to the whole global site which is enjoying 2 billion views a day. What the hell, their (and our) people don’t need this shite anyway right? Numerically, we’re about 600 years behind the world (according to the literal numbers on our calendars) so why not change that esoteric figure into an actual condition?
But the YouTube shutdown was in 2007. What, one might ask, do the innovative Pakistani authorities have in their magic turban for this year?
Well Facebook of course!
A Foreign Office spokesman condemned the publication of caricatures of the Muslim prophet on Facebook and urged countries to “address the issue” which he said was an “extremely sensitive and emotional matter for Muslims.”
“Such malicious and insulting attacks hurt the sentiments of Muslims around the world and can not be accepted under the garb of freedom of expression,” the spokesman, Abdul Basit, told a weekly briefing.
cloaked? for heaven’s sake cloaked? Freedom of expression need to be cloaked? Did the guy never hear of the Human Rights declarations at all? Oh I’m sorry, if it comes to attacking our illustrious and great religion our method of confronting that is not negotiation, promoting understanding or simply ignoring the jibes, but no, we have to demonstrate how weak our religion is by summarily banning, outcasting, boycotting or even executing those who “dare” to criticise; thus, confirming the now common precept that Islam is weak.
Stupid. Disgusting. Un-Islamic even.
But wait, there’s more!
After the PTA’s directives against Facebook and YouTube, Pakistani mobile companies blocked all Blackberry services on Wednesday night but restored services used by non-corporate users later on Thursday.
You know what also worries me about this? The people in the picture. People demonstrating in favour of giving up their god-givin human rights.
I fully expect that Bahrain, already blocking hundreds if not thousands of sites under the precept of protecting us from ourselves, will now take head of the “Pakistani model” and go ahead and block the most important sites on the Internet, because, wait for it… blocking specific URLs didn’t work…
Yesterday was a full day with us starting with a visit to Der Tagesspiegel and chatting with its editor responsible for both online and print media and then to the Bundespressekonferenz to listen to about a dozen ministerial spokespersons, who each in turn presented the latest news from their ministry and fielded questions from the audience.
As special guests at the Bundespressekonferenz, we were also joined by a class of young German students. Both our groups were invited to stay after the official part of the conference was done, and then listened to and questioned the government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm.
The Bundespressekonferenz is an NGO created by journalists just after the 2nd World War. Its members are invited to listen to the government programs presented by the invited government representatives and are given the opportunity to ask questions during these fixed meetings which occur every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Guests are permitted but are not allowed to ask questions. It’s held in a building directly opposite the parliament.
What impressed me most about this event is not only the presence of German youth, but the special attention given to them – they were especially welcomed by the chairman of the session and recognised – but also the time the government official took to address them, talk to them about the current issues discussed at that session and answered their questions.
This, to my mind, served two very important purposes:  it demonstrated the transparency of the government, and most importantly  without having the youth waving German flags and carrying pictures of their PM, they were given a very subtle and much more effective lesson in citizenship; one that will be deeply ingrained and doesn’t require overt and most of the time excessive demonstration of forced loyalty to ones country.
Bahrain on Tuesday evening said that it had temporarily shut down the office of Al Jazeera television station for â€œviolating professional conventions.â€ â€œThe Ministry of Culture and Information has made the decision to freeze the activities of Al Jazeera Satellite Channel office in Bahrain after the channel violated professional conventions and did not comply with the laws and regulations of the press, printing and publication law,â€ the ministry said in a brief statement carried by Bahrain News Agency (BNA).
According to the indefatigable Amira‘s Facebook entry, the reason was:
because they aired interviews with university graduates earning less than BD200 a month – and spoke about poverty.
Is it fair to say then that Bahrain’s government strategy to deal with all its problems is to firmly bury its head in the sand? With the various and consistent curbs applied to the media in all its forms it certainly suggests this “strategic” direction.
Although still smarting from past wrongs, it doesn’t choose to bury its head in the sand and pretend nothing happened over half a century ago.
No. It instead found the bravery and humility required to open deep wounds, clean them up, come to terms with history and use those painful experiences to ensure that those horrible events never recur.
They took a single step amongst many by gathering all the records left behind their erstwhile State Secret Police and preserved them into an archive containing some 18 million records, and gave their citizens the opportunity to view the content of their files, should they exist. That offered a lot of people the required closure and allowed them to heal and move on with their lives.
That was one brave step toward national reconciliation.
Reconciliation as a concept is easy of course. But its implementation requires real courage. Something I’m sad to say doesn’t seem to exist in our lovely little country.
Will there be anyone brave enough to tread that path for a better future?
I’m in Berlin as part of an excellent program by the German Federal Foreign Office. They invited a group of 15 international bloggers coming from countries spanning across from Costa Rica through to China. Part of the program is to meet with German bloggers and opinion makers to effect a cultural exchange of sorts. The program is not strenuous at all, not like the usual conferences and workshops I usually go to which cram a lifetime into 3 days. With those you invariably come out fullfilled to be sure, but completely sapped and exhausted too. Well this one is different on many levels. It’s spread over 10 full days with planned time-outs and cultural visits too. Yes, it’s a holiday with a purpose. Thank you Germany 🙂
Blogger Tour 13 May â€“ 22 May 2010 List of participants
We concluded the first day of the program yesterday where we listened to 4 excelent people talk about the German blogosphere, politics, laws and media environment. The one i felt most important was a presentation by a self-described “aggressive lawyer” whose daily job, again by his own description, is to aggressively go after bloggers! It’s ironic because he himself is a blogger too.
Yes, lawyers are supposed to be dry – and the first glance at this one’s text-filled slides sort of confirmed that adage. I know that my fellow bloggers were at first skeptical too. We were resigned to what we were about to receive wouldn’t be anything better than Death by PowerPoint. That mode – i could see around me – was fully engaged.
But the guy surprised us. He didn’t only know how to press our buttons, he was also lucid in his thoughts, methodical in his presentation and made the relatively dry subject of Internet & Press Freedoms interesting through his evident passion.
The gist of his presentation is this: be prepared to be sued if you libel anyone, and he (and other lawyers too) will come after you!
In German law, there is no distinction between a traditional journalist and a “pro” blogger; that is, if your content is “news-type” approaching the same standards as that of a traditional mainstream paper, then you’re not only regarded as an equal to a journalist, but also will be deemed to have met the prerequisites of enrollment in a journalist union and will have the same rights and responsibilities enjoyed by journalists.
Weird isn’t it? And some still choose to be nit-picky about what pigeon hole bloggers should reside in! My friends, the lines are most certainly blurred and there isn’t a pigeon hole big enough to stuff bloggers in.
German law also provides no distinction between slander and libel and guarantees both freedom of expression and the freedom of the press.
Article 5 of the German Constitution (Basic Law) states:
Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing, and pictures and to inform himself without the hindrance from generally accessible sources. Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasts and films shall be guaranteed. There shall be no censorship.
These freedoms are further backed up by several other basic rights such as the guarantee of private property and the right to freely choose and exercise any profession.
It also emphasises that all citizens are generally free to run a publishing company or offer opinions – critical or otherwise – and information in any form to the public by starting a blog – for example – without any kind of governmental approval.
The proviso is that one has to be conscious of the limits of freedom, that is, one’s freedom ends where another’s begin.
This is taken to levels which could be considered by others as extremes; for instance, one has the full right to walk in the street, any street in Germany, fully naked! Regardless of gender. And no one can force that person to dress-up because they individually think that that behavior is “unsavoury” or “disgraceful”, that – I suspect – is an individual’s opinion which is open to interpretation. However, if someone complains that a person’s nakedness “disturbs” him, than and only then would it be considered as impinging on that person’s freedom and the naked person is made to dress up.
The press in Germany is independent of governmental control to the extent that governments (there are 16 of them in this Federation) are forbidden to issue or get involved in the issuance of Press Cards as those are solely the responsibility of the professional bodies such as Press Unions.
Herr Jon MÃ¶nikes, the vigorously aggressive lawyer warns us though, that you have to stand behind your words. In what to my mind is a contradictory and unconstitutional requirement, he says that publishers must declare their names and addresses on their blogs, this is to demonstrate responsibility in allowing people easy access to communicate with them should they need to, and for the lawyers to know where to send the summons or the law suit to! Doesn’t that contradict with the Constitutionality of anyone is allowed to have a publishing company, let alone a blog, and not to have to register it with the government? Thinking about it now, I don’t think so and it makes sense. A publisher must stand by his publication. However I’m unsure that this condition is a government requirement, I suspect it’s not but is required possibly by the Unions.
Upon notification from his clients of an infringement in a blog or any other type of media, Herr MÃ¶nikes investigates the situation and if there is merit he would lift the phone to talk to the publication’s owner and demand the alteration, removal or retraction of whatever is published. If they choose not to, he takes them to court, something he proudly states that he has done hundreds if times. And here in Germany, the loser in any civil court must pay the lawyer’s and court fees for the case, so it could get very expensive, especially for bloggers. Most, of course, comply.
Publishers are ultimately responsible for whatever is published on their blogs. Even comments! Yes, that was a revelation to me and a lot of my fellow bloggers in the room. But, there are limits of course… If you do not exercise moderation, that is, if you don’t approve the comment before it is displayed on your blog, then you are not responsible. However, the government or the lawyer has the right to force you to declare the commenter’s identity and IP address if available! That seriously freaked me out!
The advice? Well, don’t read the comments! But if you do and if you find that the comment might warrant a case against you, then you are beholden by law to remove it! If you don’t, then get prepared to be dragged into court. When notified, “professional” bloggers must remove the offending material within something like 24 hours of notification, amateurs however get quite a bit more leeway and get to remove it in a week or so, and of course, as theirs is not professional, then the roles and responsibilities assigned to journalists do not apply to them.
Article 5 continues to say:
These rights shall find their limits in the provisions of general laws, in provisions for the protection of young persons, and in the right to personal honour.
Accordingly, limis to the freedom of expression are:
general laws (including opposing constitutional rights of third parties) – general laws are federal and supersede local governments laws
youth protection – child pornography, certain types of violence depictions, etc
right to personal honour – libel, slander, etc
Probably the only no-negotiation law in Germany which even supersedes freedoms of expression is Holocaust Denial. Germans take this very seriously and if you do, then off to prison you go at the happy expense of the German government and citizens for 5 years. Full Stop.
So don’t deny the Holocaust happening and don’t display swastikas and other Nazi symbols. And oh, you can’t sell Mein Kampf here either. You can own it if it’s handed to you or you found it, but you cannot sell it, and by inference, you won’t be able to buy it.
Regarding the Holocaust, you CAN question its situation, the numbers involved and do academic research into it, but you just cannot deny it’s occurrence.
So how is this all different from the laws in Bahrain and other Arab countries? It seems even stricter than what is coded in our own countries.
Thinking about these issues since yesterday, I think the differences are quite apparent. While in Germany (and other democracies) the law is applied fairly, it is backed up by an independent judiciary and above all it is applied with good will. With us, unfortunately, regardless of how good the laws are on paper, they are applied with ill will for the most part, with an eye on a hidden or declared agenda.
Will this situation change in the future? I hope so. But it won’t happen on its own accord. It requires people to stand up and vigorously demand their rights, rather than just be the usual acquiescents we normally are.
In this, the last episode of the Bahraini Views series for this season, Nawal Al-Sabbagh takes the seat to talk about her experience in business and how, even after she has lost everything when a partnership failed, she picked up the pieces and started again to create another very well known and successful business.
How did she restart? She turned to her passion for art and launched an art exhibit containing her own paintings. Riding on the sales achieved through that exhibition, she relaunched her business career and started Nawal Flowers, now one of the most successful florists and chocolatier in Bahrain.
Nawal doesn’t come from a trading background. Her family – she says – are really more for being employees rather than employers. What made her tick then and what got her to win the top prize in the Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum’s prize, competing against 120 veritable entries from all over the Middle East?
Watch the episode and come to your own conclusions!
I so look forward to the next season and hope that you’ve enjoyed and benefited from the 26 episodes and the initiative I created with the Economic Development Board who have been courageous enough to back such an endeavour.