INDEX INTERVIEW: “Diplomats should be blogging”

Annette Fisher interviews FRANCES GUY, Senior Adviser on the Middle East at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and former British Ambassador to Lebanon and Yemen.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Francis Guy meets with Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah

LONDON (INDEX). — Outspoken and sometimes controversial, Frances Guy public profile rose when she was forced to apologise for lauding Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah after his death in 2010. The White House had branded the Shia cleric “a terrorist” and the Foreign Office said that Guy’s internet posting praising Fadlallah as a “true man of religion” had been removed “after mature consideration”.

Index on Censorship sat with her to discuss the dilemmas of public service and free speech, as well as her vast experience in the Middle East and the challenges women face in that region.

INDEX: You have spoken about the importance of a free press and have actively supported journalists who have been threatened or imprisoned by their governments. How do you see the state of the free press in the Middle East in 2012?

FRANCES GUY: I cannot speak for all of the region but generally this is a good moment for press freedom in the Middle East. In fact, the advent of satellite television had already made it hard for dictatorial regimes to suppress all alternative sources of information. Al Jazeera was a breath of fresh air, not only to those limited by CNN’s version of world news, but also to all those whose only news came from state controlled television, radio and newspapers. I understand the press in Tunisia is effervescent in its reaction to so many years of uniformity and I know that every night in Baghdad I have a choice of more than 20 Iraqi TV stations to choose from.

All is not perfect of course and the counter-balance to releasing the lid on heavily censored press is to ensure responsible reporting. In Lebanon reporting was not always reliable, so while the press is relatively free there is scope for improving the quality of reporting.

The crisis in Syria has thrown open a new debate on what is information and how you can guarantee its’ authenticity. When access to outside journalists is so severely limited, unbiased reporting is almost impossible. One side’s truth becomes the other side’s lies. Access to the internet makes everyone a potential reporter but verification becomes ever more important.

INDEX: During your postings as Her Majesty’s representative in Yemen and Lebanon, you spoke passionately on greater freedoms for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) citizens in those countries and the region. What do you think governments in these countries could realistically do to increase freedoms for these groups?

FG: One of the issues that shapes public perception is image. There is a debate going on in Iraq at the moment instigated by the women’s journalists association about the image of women in the press; whether it is in Egyptian or Turkish soap operas, where the women are often second class citizens, the brunt of jokes, or reduced to playing supporting roles or whether it is about air time given to women politicians. If governments wanted to improve the status of marginalised groups in society they can ensure that their own spokespeople are from these marginalised groups. Governments can lead by example by nominating women to office where they will have constant media exposure.

Amnesty International

A protest for International Women’s Day in Egypt

Ending discriminatory laws would also help. Relatively simple acts like ensuring gender neutral language in the constitution can play a very important role. In Arabic nouns can be male or female. Some (men) argue that because common practice is that the plural male form in Arabic of e.g. the word citizens is assumed to include men and women then it is acceptable to have only the male form referred to in a constitution. But this leaves a legal ambiguity which can be exploited. It would be so easy to simply include the male and female forms in such texts or to make an explanatory note in every law explaining that the use of the masculine form is used in the sense of men and women on an equal basis without prejudice. I am not sure that any Arab state has done this.

Freedom of expression for LGBT citizens is regrettably even more problematic, but if governments could be persuaded to uphold the neutrality of rights enshrined in constitutions that would go a long way to ensuring those rights are truly applied to all.

INDEX: While you represented the British government, you blogged about matters of interest to you and to the British government. Over the past year, the media has questioned appropriateness of British foreign office representatives using social media as a tool of diplomacy. What are your thoughts?

FG: I think it might have been William Hague who said that there is an inherent contradiction between writing a readable/interesting blog and being a mouthpiece for government. I found it difficult to find something worth writing that did not betray confidences or risked upsetting someone. I therefore often wrote about subjects other than politics; the life cycle of the cedar tree, for example. But that is difficult to sustain.

I enjoyed blogging, and the experiment brought me into contact with groups I would never have met otherwise; bloggers in Lebanon who had been imprisoned for their views, for example. Who talks about them? And the LGBT community, similarly sidelined and oppressed. I think the bigger question is about transparency in government. If you believe that better government is open and transparent government then diplomats should be blogging.

INDEX: What limits on the freedom to express yourself did you encounter while you were an Ambassador?

PG: An Ambassador is always an ambassador 24 hours a day. You are judged as being Her Majesty’s Representative, not as an individual. Inevitably, there can be a tension between what you believe as an individual and what you are asked to say on behalf of your government. Even off the record you are an official representative. But that is part of the job and understood as such. If anything, the UN is often even more cautious, because it is formed of member states, i.e. governments so it is wary of criticising openly its members.

INDEX: You have spoken in the past about “freedom with responsibility”, could you elaborate?

PG: I am not sure of the context of the quote, but I am fairly sure that my intention would have been aimed at some irresponsible sections of the media, who do not verify information and who can (perhaps sometimes deliberately) put people’s lives in danger by stating unproven accusations as fact. Some Lebanese journalists are guilty of this, as indeed were many Ethiopians when I served there. The responsibility is to the truth but also to being conscious of the implications of printing/publicising some facts and not others. The British press is clearly not immune to a similar discussion — just because you can do something in the name of freedom of expression does not mean that you have to do it.

INDEX: Having served on the British government, you will be aware of accusations of hypocrisy when countries like the UK lecture other governments about their human rights records when the UK hasn’t “sorted out its own backyard”. What has been your reaction to these accusations?

FG: “Our own backyard” was less of a problem than our failure (as my interlocutors would see it) to deal with crimes that our politicians and armies had committed overseas. There were awkward moments though, when e.g. you are supporting quotas for women as a way to make progress in women’s representation in Parliament, when your own country under successive governments has not introduced quotas and has generally been wary of any kind of positive discrimination. My reaction though was always that freedom of expression, including in the ability to vote out your government if you disagree with it, guarantees a sound level of public debate about all issues.

Women having voted in Iraq

INDEX: You have recently taken up your post with UN Women in Iraq. What freedom of expression issues have you encountered since you arrived?

FG: I have attended was about the image of women in the media and how that can cement social perceptions. The challenge is to get Iraqi TV to show different kinds of women, playing different roles on screen. I am impressed with some of the phone-in programmes on radio which allow citizens to voice their frustrations with the failure of the state to deliver public services. In itself they will not change very much but it does mean that no politician can pretend that they don’t know what the issues are. For a state that was famous for its tyranny of expression, it is refreshing to find people so willing to express their views publicly.

INDEX: What do you see as the key battle grounds for free expression in the next five years?

FG: Five years is a long time in today’s fast moving media scene. For the next months, I think the issue of so-called citizen’s journalists, and immediate access to YouTube etc, will continue to be paramount. What moral limits are there on what should be accessible? Who decides? Can governments’ prevent documents being uploaded on YouTube? Do YouTube, Google etc have some moral parameters – should executions be so readily accessible? And for women, the debate on images of women, including the increasing accessibility of pornographic images will also continue. I think I will put on my wall the pictures of women weight lifters at the Olympic Games… what power and majesty (and defiance).

Annette Fisher is an international development professional based in London

INDEX INTERVIEW: ‘I’ve never published a correction or apology’

LONDON (INDEX). Exposing financial crime is a dangerous career path. David Marchant — an investigative journalist and publisher of OffshoreAlert — knows that. He has been sued numerous times and has never lost, his first accuser is currently serving 17 years in prison for tax evasion and money laundering.

Offshore alerts specialises in reporting about offshore financial centres (known as OFCs), with an emphasis on fraud investigations, and also holds an annual conference on OFCs focusing on financial products and services, tax, money laundering, fraud, asset recovery and investigations. It caters to financial services providers and other financial institutions.

Marchant talks to INDEX — ahead of the OffshoreAlert Conference Europe: Investigations & Intelligence, 26 – 27 November — about the importance of free expression and the peculiarities of his trade.

INDEX: As investors continue to pour millions of pounds each month into offshore bank accounts, the Western world is in economic disarray, demanding much more from law-abiding taxpayers to bailout banks. What is your view on the economic crisis, and has it had any effect on the type of investigative journalism you practice?

DAVID MARCHANT: It is unfair to blame the global economic crisis on offshore financial centres. It is, essentially, a people-problem, the majority of whom live in the world’s major countries.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the crisis is that it confirmed what I already knew, i.e. many of the world’s major banks and financial services firms are not well managed. A significant part of the problem is that offering huge short-term financial incentives invites your personnel to act in a manner that is not in the long-term interests of a company. It encourages risk-taking and the concealment of losses to create the appearance of success, as opposed to actual success. It seems that few, if any, material changes have been made to the system, that you can’t change human nature overnight and that history is destined to repeat itself in the future. Other than the crisis causing more schemes to collapse early and there being more to write about, it has had no effect on OffshoreAlert’s investigative reporting.

INDEX: Greek investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis was arrested a few days ago in Athens for publishing the “Lagarde List” —containing the names of more than 2,000 people who hold accounts with HSBC in Switzerland (one imagines, hoping to escape the taxman). The list remained unused for two years after Christine Lagarde passed it onto then Finance Minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou. What do you think about it?

DM: It would not surprise me if the Greek authorities had indeed sat on this information. Governments and corruption or incompetence go hand in hand.

INDEX: Tax evasion is not considered money laundering in some jurisdictions, and it looks less frightening than laundering drug or criminal proceeds. Do you hold any views on this subject?

DM: Money laundering is a criminal offence in its own right. The predicate crimes vary country by country and, in some countries, tax evasion is not among them or was not among them now at one time. In the Cayman Islands, for example, fiscal offences were initially omitted from the jurisdiction’s money laundering laws but the jurisdiction was forced — screaming and kicking — into adding them at a later date. Tax evasion clearly should be a predicate crime. Paying taxes is a price we must pay to live in a civilised society. Who wants to live in an uncivilised society? Certainly not me.

INDEX: How do you balance the need for privacy with the need for transparency in the offshore world?

DM: As a journalist, the more transparency the better but information must be handled responsibly. The word “privacy” is a soft word for secrecy and people have secrets for a reason, i.e. they are typically trying to conceal something that is illegal, immoral or otherwise shameful.

INDEX: You receive sponsorship from security companies like Kroll Advisory Solutions. The global intelligence industry caters for crooks and corrupt, repressive governments alongside corporate clients. Twenty years ago, the value of this sector was negligible — today it is estimated to be worth around $3bn. Any thoughts on this?

DM: To be clear, OffshoreAlert is an independent organisation, not beholden to anyone or anything other than accuracy and fairness. We have limited advertising on our web-site but we do have sponsors for our financial due diligence conferences, which is a commercial necessity. The global intelligence industry is like any other. Companies aren’t particularly choosy about who they will accept as clients. It’s all about making money. I have no idea whether the global intelligence industry has become more prevalent or not over the last 20 years. If it has grown significantly, however, I would guess that much of such growth would be fuelled by banks and other financial firms having to comply with tougher anti-money laundering laws.

INDEX: How do you compare your work with that of, for example, Wikileaks?

DM: I have little or no respect for WikiLeaks. In my limited dealings with the organisation, I have found Wikileaks to be amateurish and fundamentally dishonest. In its very early days, it was clear to me that, in one action at federal court in the United States, Wikileaks clearly misled the court. It is not trustworthy. I consider Julian Assange to be an irresponsible, hypocritical, over-hyped poseur. His major talent seems to be self-publicity. I cringe when I see him described as a journalist. It denigrates the entire profession. Fortunately, there are few, if any, similarities between Wikileaks and OffshoreAlert. We’re not in the same business or market and there is a gulf of difference in the level of professionalism between the two.

INDEX: You actually own 100 per cent of OffshoreAlert and I understand that you are not insured against libel and other legal risks in order to avoid “lawyering” your exposes. Is this correct? Is it necessary in order to safeguard your journalistic independence?

Marc Harris offshore

Former accountant and self-styled “offshore asset protection guru”,Marc Harris was convicted of money laundering and tax evasion by the US in 2004

DM: I do indeed beneficially own OffshoreAlert in its entirety. Prior to launch in 1997, I looked into purchasing libel insurance. The premiums were reasonable but the problem was that every article would need to be pre-approved by a recognised libel attorney. That would have been costly and would have inevitably led to the attorney recommending that stories be watered down, which would have defeated the primary purpose of OffshoreAlert, which is to expose serious financial crime while it is in progress. I have an even better de facto insurance policy: If someone sues me for libel, I will take all of my incriminating evidence to law enforcement, and do everything in my power to ensure that the plaintiff is held criminally accountable for their actions. This is no idle promise. The first person to sue me for libel (self-proclaimed “King of the Offshore World” Marc Harris) thought he could put me out of business. Instead, he is currently serving 17 years in prison for fraud and money laundering.

INDEX: However, you have been taken to court for libel on many occasions and always won. So the objective behind these law suits seems to be to intimidate or drain you dry. How do you about surviving suing threats?

DM: OffshoreAlert has been sued for libel multiple times in different countries and jurisdictions. [He was sued in the USA (state and federal court), Cayman Islands, Canada (Toronto), Grenada (by then Prime Minister Keith Mitchell), and Panama]. We’ve never lost a libel action, never published a correction or apology to any plaintiffs and never paid — or been required to pay — them one cent in costs or damages. It is a record of which I am very proud. I know how the game is played, I am extremely resourceful, and I am not intimidated easily. This might come across as conceited, but my attitude towards plaintiffs is that I am brighter, tougher and more talented than you and your attorneys and that, if you want to sue me, I will do everything in my power to ensure that you pay the ultimate price of being criminally prosecuted for your actions.

INDEX: According to organisations such as ours, English libel law has been shown to have a chilling effect on free speech around the world. Especially worrying is “libel tourism”, where foreign claimants have brought libel actions to the English courts against defendants who are neither British nor resident in this country. What do you think about it?

DM: British libel law, generally, is among the most repulsive pieces of legislation that exists in the civilised world. It is a reprobate’s best friend and protects the reputations of people who don’t deserve to have their reputations protected. I couldn’t operate OffshoreAlert in the UK or in any country or jurisdiction that has adopted similar laws because OffshoreAlert would be sued out of existence. British libel law is considered to be so repugnant that, in 2010, the United States passed The SPEECH Act that renders British libel judgments unenforceable in the US there is no de facto free speech in Britain because of its libel laws. I find the entire British legal system to be terrible in dispensing justice. In that regard, it is light years behind the legal system that exists in the US, where OffshoreAlert is based.

Miren Gutierrez is Editorial Director of Index


INDEX Q&A: It’s not easy being Green for US third party candidate

Nov 5, 2012 (Index) The United States two-party system leaves little room for third party candidates in the presidential race. Green Party nominee Jill Stein has faced numerous obstacles throughout her run — including being arrested outside of one of the presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

Index’s Sara Yasin spoke to the candidate about free speech in America, and the challenges she’s faced as a third party candidate in the Presidential race

Index: What are the biggest barriers faced by alternative candidates in the Presidential race?

Jill Stein: Its almost as if third parties have been outlawed. There is not a specific law, but they have just made it incredibly difficult and complicated to get on the ballot, to be heard, it is as if [third parties] have been virtually outlawed.

To start with we don’t have ballot status, the big parties are “grandfathered” in. Other parties have to collect anywhere from ten to twenty to thirty to forty times as many signatures to get on the ballot. We spend 80 per cent of the campaign jumping through hoops in order to get on the ballot. It really makes it almost impossible to run.

It takes money in this country. You have to buy your way onto TV. The press will not cover third parties, challengers, alternatives. The press is consolidated into the hands of a few corporate media conglomerates, and they’re not interested and they also don’t have the time because their staff has been cut. So they’re basically, you know, covering the horse race. Not looking at new voices, new choices, the kinds of things that the American public is really clamouring for, and also not looking not the issues. And so you get this really dumbed down coverage that excludes third party candidates.

And then you have the debates, which are a mockery of democracy. Which are really sham debates held and organised by the Commission on the Presidential Debates, which is a private corporation led by Democratic and Republican parties. They sound like a public interest organisation; they’re not. They’re simply a front group to censor the debate. And to fool the American voter into thinking that is the only choice that Americans have. And in fact, by locking out third party candidates, we’ve effectively locked out voters.

According to a study in USA Today a couple weeks ago, roughly one out of every two eligible voters was predicted to be staying home in this election. That is an incredible indictment of the candidates.

Index: What are your thoughts on how multinational companies are using lobbying, lawsuits and advertisements to chill free speech around environmental issues?

This is certainly being challenged. Fossil fuels are an example. The fossil fuel industry has bought itself scientists — pseudo scientists I must say — and think tanks to churn out climate denial. That whole area of climate denial has been sufficiently disproven now, to the point where they don’t rear their ugly head anymore. Now there’s just climate silence, which Obama and Romney really share. Romney is not denying the reality of climate change, he’s just not acting on it. Unfortunately, Obama has seized that agenda as well in competing for money.

I think we are seeing enormous pushback against this, in the climate movement, in the healthy food movement, in the effort to pass the referendum in California (37) that would require the labeling of food which the GMO industry is deathly afraid of, because people are rightly skeptical. So for them, free speech, informed consumers, informed voters, are anthema, it’s deadly for them. They require the supression of democracy and the suppression of free speech. And the buying of the political parties is all about silencing voices like our campaign. which stands up on all of these issues.

There are huge social movements on the ground now for sustainable, healthy organic agriculture. For really concerted climate action, for green energy, for public transportation. These are thriving movements right now. Our campaign represents the political voice of those movements. There is also a strong movement now to amend the constitution to stop these abuses, to stop this suppression of free speech.

Index: Do you think that the two-party system allows for topics viewed as inconvenient to both Republicans and Democrats to remain untouched?

JS: That’s their agreement really. And the commission on presidential debates makes it so very clear. They have a written agreement that was leaked a couple of weeks ago. That agreement includes very carefully selected moderators who agree about what kinds of questions they will ask and they will go through…until they find the candidate for a moderator that will agree basically not to rock the boat. The moderators have to agree to not only exclude third parties, but not to participate in any other format with candidates whose issues can’t be controlled. This has everything to do with why they make the agreements that they do and why they will only talk to each other, because they’re both bought and paid for by the same industries responsible for the parties.

When I got arrested protesting the censorship of the debate, my running mate and I were both tightly handcuffed with these painful plastic restraints, and taken to a secret, dark site. Run by some combination of secret service, and police, and homeland security. Who knows who it really belongs to, but it was supposed to be top secret and no one was supposed to know and we were then handcuffed to metal chairs and sat there for almost eight hours. And there were sixteen cops watching the two of us, and we were in a facility decked out for 100 people to be arrested, but it was only the two of us and one other person brought in towards the end of the evening who was actually a Bradley Manning supporter who had been arrested just for taking photographs of someone who was photographing the protesters.

Index: What does freedom of expression mean to you?

JS: It means having a democracy, having a political system that actually allows the voices of everyday people to be heard. Not just, you know, the economic elite which has bought out our establishment political parties. So free expression, for me, is the life blood of a political system. I was not a political animal until rather late in life. I was shocked to learn we don’t have a political system based on free expression. We have a political system based on campaign contributions and the biggest spender, and they buy out the policies that they want, so to me, that is where free expression goes. And if we don’t have it we don’t have politics based on free expression —- it’s not just our health that is being thrown under the bus, it’s our economy, it is our climate, it is our environment. We don’t have a future if we don’t have free expression. If we don’t get our first amendment and free speech back, and that means liberating it from money.

Sara Yasin is an editorial assistant at Index on Censorship. She tweets at @missyasin