Forget Fear

[Originally published in the weekend edition of the Vanuatu Daily Post]

My name is Dan McGarry. I’ve been using the nom de plume of Graham Crumb since 1995, but today I have decided to draw aside the literary veil. I do so in solidarity with Marc Neil-Jones, publisher of the Daily Post, in order to make it clear that violence and threats have no power to silence the media.

In past columns I’ve dealt with fairly complex topics: technology, society, politics, culture and history. Today’s, however, is a simple one. It can be summed up in a single sentence:

Violence and intimidation only work when we let them.

For reasons that remain unfathomable to me, politics and power always seem to attract those who are most willing to take advantage of others. Vanuatu is no exception. Over the years, we’ve seen a long succession of Ministers and MPs who seem to value personal indulgence over everything else. We’ve seen thievery, deception, coercion and violence used so widely and so often that it’s hard to perceive what moral compass –if any– guides our political leadership.

So when a particularly unscrupulous character such as Harry Iauko arrives on the scene, it’s hard for our political leaders to know what to do. In fairness to the MP, he’s only slightly further beyond the pale than MPs Korman or Vohor, to name only a couple. As a group, it seems our leaders really have come to believe that the rule of law, respect and kastom are nothing more than useful tools, to be picked up and cast aside as convenience dictates.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: There won’t be any criminal prosecution for what Iauko did. There may yet be retribution, but it will be that special political kind that avoids doing any actual harm to anyone.

Iauko will not be punished for doing wrong; he’ll be pushed aside because he’s given his rivals an opening. In political terms, his fault is not that he’s broken the law; his mistake will have been that he overstepped and so exposed himself.

And that is why I find politics both fascinating and repugnant at the same time.

So, unlike some, I’m not going to demand action from this government. I’m simply going to do what journalists do: I’m going to bear witness.

It may be that MPs feel they have some special exemption from the law and kastom. But it is equally true that in a free society, everyone has the right to form –and to state– their own opinion. And the best way that we can do that is to remain informed, to encourage a public dialogue, to confront people with the facts.

Let the MPs think what they want; we retain the right to think what we like about them, and to say so publicly. And these days, it’s not going to be very flattering.

Violence and unlawful conduct don’t persist merely because our politicians do nothing to stop them. They persist because we allow them to. They persist because we’ve accepted the fact that the only time we ever hear police sirens is when some dignitary is being ushered around town. They persist because we allow politicians to separate themselves from us. Because we allow them to seduce us with paltry gifts and promises.

But most of all, it’s because we all –white and black alike– love to have access to the corridors of power.

No sooner are we given a glimpse of this separate, special world than we begin to fall prey to its allure. Witness how even principled members of government like the PM and Minister Regenvanu have suddenly, inexplicably, found themselves at a loss for words.

In the face of a torrent of international condemnation, the best PM Kilman was able to muster was a statement by his spokesman he would let the courts decide Iauko’s fate. No mention of the fact that in most parliamentary democracies, any minister under investigation immediately steps down – at least until the issue is resolved.

From Ralph Regenvanu? Not a peep. This from the man whose election slogan was ‘Inaf!’ Maybe he’ll amend it next time to ‘Klosap inaf. Wet smol.’

In a canny bit of manoeuvring, however, the PM pulled his Minister out of the fire just days later by shuffling him from Lands to Justice, thus enforcing his silence. No matter that this is his third portfolio in about as many months. No matter that actually governing is near-impossible while the Cabinet is playing musical chairs. No matter that, despite all these portfolio changes and all the problems he’s caused, Iauko remains at his post.

And what of the Opposition, whose job it is to challenge and question? Even Iauko’s VP arch-rivals Natapei and Molisa have yet to say a word.

Let’s forget the politicians, then. They’re obviously powerless to act, except according to the byzantine, counter-factual logic of power.

They don’t matter, anyway. They can bluster all they like, but as we’ve seen in recent months, they can’t dominate and control us all the time. Inevitably, the people win. Throughout North Africa and across the Arabian Peninsula, people have demonstrated that strong governments which rely on coercion to enforce their will can be rendered fragile as paper in the wind.

All it takes is for people to leave their fear behind them.

It’s almost comical to see how quickly bullies like Iauko can be deflated when people cease to fear them, or conversely, how police and other state officials can be rendered worse than useless when they allow their fear to cow them.

The staff at the Daily Post –and Marc Neil-Jones in particular– learned years ago that they were free to tell the truth once they left their fear behind. It’s a small act, and a fairly simple one, too. But its effects are immense.

I remember visiting the Daily Post offices a couple of days after Police Commissioner Joshua Bong had sent his thugs around to give Marc a thumping. In spite of the bashed-in nose, cracked ribs and bloody lip, Marc managed a quirky smile and a chuckle when I voiced my concern. “I’ve been deported, jailed and beaten up before,” he said. “This isn’t the worst I’ve seen.

I am getting a bit old for this, though,” he added wryly.

I would have thought our ministers of state had matured beyond these schoolyard bully tactics too, but apparently they’re not too old for tantrums.

We should all learn from Marc’s example: We have only to free ourselves from fear and the power of these bullies evaporates in an instant.

My name is Dan McGarry. If you don’t like what I’ve got to say, I’m okay with that. I’m not afraid.


[Updated slightly to fix the facts around the policy more accurately reflect reality.]

Jillian York, in her rather timid defense of WikiLeaks, states that she[*] some people ‘got off the bus’, metaphorically speaking, shortly after the release of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video. Describing her personal ambivalence about the latest leak, she draws a distinction between what she characterises as WikiLeaks’ ‘firehose’ approach and conventional journalism.

But to accept that distinction, we have to ignore what happens when we back up a little from our current context and ask: what, exactly, is journalism? I think we can accept that, essentially, it is a means (until recently, our primary means) of obtaining verifiable and ostensibly reliable information about the world around us. The fact that it has become formalised -indeed, institutionalised- is a collateral feature. It does not follow that its formalisation via a collection of ethical practices is necessary to the provision of information. Journalistic ethics, in other words, are very much defined by their context and indeed their application.

As the Judith Miller debacle showed us, unconditional protection of anonymous sources can prove detrimental to the integrity of the craft. Neither selective leaks nor ‘access’ to anonymous sources are sufficient to healthy reporting. Truth, ultimately, is the only reliable measure of the effectiveness of a particular news source. It goes without saying that truth is an increasingly adulterated alloy in popular news reporting these days. It’s not even sufficient to speak nothing but truth; one must, somehow, find a way to tell all the truth that pertains to a particular subject.

WikiLeaks, for better or for worse, represents the logical conclusion of this train of reasoning. I’m open to arguments that it is actually an over-correction, but I don’t feel I’ll be moved without reference to particular details. And that requires access to sufficient information; in short, you can only make that argument retrospectively.

You can see where I’m going with this….

I’m not arguing that complete access to all information is the only true form of journalism. I’m suggesting that making a distinction between WikiLeaks and ‘journalism’ as we understand the word does not describe the process; it describes the actors.

[*] Reading comprehension FAIL on my part. I mistakenly elided the first two letters of ‘some’, changing the meaning fundamentally. Jillian was kind enough to call this mistake to my attention.

‘Nother update: I just re-read this sentence:

Neither selective leaks nor ‘access’ to anonymous sources are sufficient to healthy reporting.

I’m tempted to be a even more provocative and to ask whether they are even necessary to healthy reporting.

As a gendakenexperiment, I wonder what the journalistic craft would look like if secrets of all kinds were tabu.

As students of the Englightenment, most of us immediately shy away from the thought of an environment in which individual privacy is nearly absent. But having lived on the edges of Vanuatu village culture for the last seven years, I can attest to the fact that there are indeed ways to accommodate oneself to a world more akin to what David Brin describes than the ideal world of a doctrinaire libertarian.

Individual privacy is not as axiomatic as many in the West tend to assume….

A Nation of Laws – Ctd.

Time and column inches conspired against me with this week’s Opinion column. Writing these weekly pieces is a labour of love for me, a needful service that – I hope – contributes to the public dialogue here in Vanuatu and to understanding abroad. But the need to earn a dollar often obtrudes, and the time I can devote to writing them is always less than I’d like.

This week, I feel I didn’t have nearly enough time to do a completely satisfactory job of mapping a morally, legally and ethically complicated landscape. While I feel I covered most of the main themes in the thousand or so words allowed me, much more needs to be said.

What follows is a somewhat lengthy consideration of what I chose to say – and chose not to say – in this column, and why I did so….

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