What Necessity?

[This column appeared in today’s Vanuatu Daily Post]

The week before last, Vanuatu witnessed an unprecedented event in its political history. Parliamentary Speaker George Wells instructed the members of the Police and the Vanuatu Mobile Force to bar all members of the public and the press from entering Parliamentary precincts.

Then, with no one but the MPs themselves to witness, the government changed.

We are told that a vote was held on a pending no-confidence motion. We are told that certain members of the Government crossed the aisle to vote with the Opposition. But we don’t know precisely what happened, what words were spoken and what actions were taken to ensure this outcome.

Were Police or soldiers present inside Parliament as well as outside? Were any threats, implicit or explicit, made to Members before the vote? Were any blandishments or other incentives offered?

I’m not suggesting any of these things took place. I’m suggesting that they could have, and we would never know. Anything could have happened during that session, and unless we find some way of getting corroborated evidence of what did happen, a question mark will always lie over the proceeding.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, a United Nations organisation that works to strengthen democracies worldwide, lists five key attributes of a healthy democracy:

It is representative; it is accessible; it is accountable; it is effective. And it is transparent.

Without transparency, none of the other attributes are measurable.

Secrecy runs counter to kastom as well. It is frankly unimaginable that any change in the customary power structure could take place beyond the view of the people.

Arguably, MP Wells had the legal authority to clear the public and the press from Parliament. Whether he had the moral right to do so is not so easy to determine.

While the Constitution clearly states that the proceedings of Parliament are to be public, it leaves room for extraordinary circumstances. The Standing Orders of Parliament, the rules by which the Speaker is legally bound, state, ‘The Speaker may order the withdrawal of visitors [from Parliament] in special circumstances.’

The Orders further state that, ‘In exercising his duties, the Speaker may request assistance from officers of Parliament or if necessary, members of the Police Force.’

‘… If Necessary….’

So, MP Wells need only explain what ‘special circumstances’ required that Parliament be barred to the public in order to reassure the citizens of Vanuatu that he acted legally.

And then, of course, he would have to lay out the reasons why the use of Police was necessary. The Standing Orders only allow the use of Police ‘if necessary.’ Any reasonable definition of necessity requires the presence of an obvious and otherwise unavoidable circumstance. It should therefore be easy for MP Wells to explain what threat to public order existed that required the presence of armed soldiers at Parliament’s gates.

Was there danger of insurrection? A coup? Violent criminal activity? I’m not being facetious here; I’m genuinely asking. Mr. Wells obviously didn’t just decide out of the blue that these measures were necessary. I trust that he had his reasons.

I only ask that he share them.

It is critically important that the ex-Speaker justify his actions and demonstrate to the people of Vanuatu that he acted lawfully and with reason. If he does not, then the legality –and the legitimacy– of the vote is called into question. If the vote is called into question, then so too is the government.
That’s not something anyone wants.

This is not a trivial issue, a slip-up in a young democracy that’s just finding its feet. If indeed it is the case that the public and the press were barred for no good reason, then a terribly dangerous precedent will have been set that cannot be allowed to continue. It is anti-democratic, and it is anti-kastom.

The only thing that could excuse this behaviour is if MP Wells can demonstrate that he did not overstep.

By all accounts, nothing happened during the vote that had not happened before. This should not make us complacent. It should have the opposite effect.

If indeed, the threat of force was used to bar the public and press from a session of Parliament in which a change of government took place, and there was no compelling reason for this action, then Vanuatu’s politicians, no matter how inspired or high-minded their intentions, have led the country away from its roots.

Transparency is not just the name of a local political gadfly. It is a real thing. It is crucial to the country’s well-being. And it is not possible to like it on Monday, ignore it on a Tuesday and promise to be back Wednesday.

As the recent WikiLeaks controversy has shown us, a shining light can be discomforting, even embarrassing at times. It can actually make it more difficult to get things done. But –and here’s the key– it makes it more difficult for us to do wrong, too.

Newly-minted Prime Minister Sato Kilman has already voiced his reservations about the measures taken by the Speaker. That is commendable. He should introduce changes to the Standing Orders in the next sitting of Parliament to ensure that if these rules are ever again invoked, they will not be applied frivolously and with little cause.

Selling Democracy – Part II

In a press conference about Iran last week, a reporter asked US Press Secretary Robert Gibbs if the US couldn’t do an end run around Iranian censorship and use its satellites to ‘beam down’ broadband data connections to the Iranian people.

The question as asked comes across as remarkably naive to us geeks. We make it our business to know the difference between the logical (soft) network and the physical (hard) network.

A tension exists between the inherently democratic design of the myriad end-to-end connections that compose the Internet and the centralised conformation of the physical networks themselves. Briefly, the ‘soft’ elements of the network (the software we run on our computers and the protocols they follow) are completely agnostic about how the data they share actually get from one point to another.

On the other hand, the ‘hard’ elements (international satellite links, long-distance cables and the connection between your home and your ISP) are all about how the data moves. Controlling the data flow is their very essence.

From a ‘hard’ network point of view, this idea of ‘beaming down broadband to an entire population’ is little more than a pipe dream. The thing is, it’s pretty easy to receive a signal from a satellite. Sending an answer back is another matter entirely. That requires some pretty sophisticated equipment.

This led a number of geeks to discard the question entirely and to laugh more than a little at the naiveté of the reporter who posed it.

I’m not so sure we should cast it aside it so quickly.

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Selling Democracy by the Byte

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent. Updated and edited slightly from the original print version.]

Thirty years after the Revolution, the June 12th Iranian presidential elections seem to have catalysed a transformational moment in the nation’s history. One Western commentator writes:

The widespread, sustained, peaceful and courageous demonstrations by Iranians this week has been an astonishing and inspiring sight. In a way this feels like the anti-9/11.

Analysts have suggested that the rapid rise in popularity of moderate candidate Mir-Hosain Mousavi caught the theocratic regime’s leaders flat-footed. Juan Cole, President of the Global Americana Institute and long-time commentator on Middle-East affairs, writes:

As the real numbers started coming into the Interior Ministry late on Friday, it became clear that Mousavi was winning. Mousavi’s spokesman abroad, filmmaker Mohsen Makhbalbaf, alleges that the ministry even contacted Mousavi’s camp and said it would begin preparing the population for this victory.

The ministry must have informed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has had a feud with Mousavi for over 30 years, who found this outcome unsupportable. And, apparently, he and other top leaders had been so confident of an Ahmadinejad win that they had made no contingency plans for what to do if he looked as though he would lose.

They therefore sent blanket instructions to the Electoral Commission to falsify the vote counts.

His narrative is, he admits, largely speculative.

The result, witnessed through countless independent blog posts, photos and videos, has been massive, occasionally violent protest in the streets of the capital Tehran and, according to reports, in Tabriz, Mashad, Shiraz and Rasht as well.

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[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.

This statement was first uttered in 1993 by John Gilmore, Internet pioneer and co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation. Since it was first quoted in Time magazine, it’s become axiomatic, an unanswerable trump card to be played whenever the issue of Internet censorship arises.

There’s a good reason for this. Numerous efforts by governments, institutions and organizations to impede the free flow of information have achieved mixed results at best and, more often than not, failed. Only in places like Tibet and Burma, where the government owns and closely controls the information networks, has any kind of comprehensive censorship been successful.

The Internet was designed as a ‘network of networks’ – that is, a communications medium that effectively had no centre of control. While it never completely achieved that aim, it’s still a vast departure from the monolithic telecoms networks that we used to have.

The presence recently of Sulu Censors (so called for the skirt-like traditional dress many of them wear) in all television, radio and print media outlets has largely neutered Fiji’s traditional media. But the flow of information has simply found a route around this ‘damage’. In recent weeks, Fijians at home and abroad have flocked en masse to the Internet to get their fix of national and local news, uncensored by the Bainimarama regime.

Internet Pioneer Mitch Kapor’s assertion that “[Internet] architecture is politics” has never been more true.

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