Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Belarus’

The AEJ and “Dark Power”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 18th November, 2017

2A98F1CF-39A9-47FE-9C77-5A3CA5DEE397Soft power has become an important concept in international relations since the end of the Second World War — namely, the way states use cultural diplomacy and other forms of non-military action to spread their influence. But recently a new phenomenon has been identified: “dark power” — the way some countries, especially Russia, use broadcasting and social media, in particular, to influence or interfere in the affairs of other states. This is something that particularly concerns the three Baltic States and other former parts of the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine and Georgia. The latter two have of course also experienced military interventions by Russia, but all have seen their communications and democracy come under various forms of dark power assault, from cyber-War against Estonia to Russian bots engaging in election and referendum campaigns, including the 2016 EU Referendum in Britain and the US presidential election. No wonder both NATO and the EU are concerned and have been looking at ways of countering this hostile intervention, including running facilities in the Baltic States.

Lithuania, located between Belarus and the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, is particularly concerned and the theme naturally dominated much of the Congress of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), which has been taking place in Vilnius over the past couple of days. For many Western journalists present it was quite shocking to learn about some of the methods being used to distort the narratives of a Post-Truth world, as well of examples of harassment of journalists and broadcasters through twitter and other platforms.

54C3857F-D37D-4E0D-AD4B-3A61F398D92CBut it is not only Russians who are involved. President Trump has shown himself to be a master of the dark arts of disinformation and the dissemination of fake news. One of the strongest presentations at the AEJ Congress was from Mikko Salo of Faktabaari, Finland, who outlined the escalation of Post-Truth in the region and how this can be countered by rigorous fact-checking and counter-assertions. This is an issue of which all media professionals need to be aware, as well as students and others who are operating in a world in which language is being twisted, alternative “facts” published and negative ideologies propagated by forces hostile to the nature of open and tolerant European democratic societies.

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What Next in Ukraine?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 8th April, 2014

Russian speakers in UkraineThe Global Strategy Forum can hardly have realised just how topical today’s lunchtime event at the National Liberal Club would be by focusing on “Crisis in Ukraine, Crisis in Russian-Western Relations: What Next?”. There was an interesting line-up of speakers, including my old BBC World Service colleague, Oleksiy Solohubenko, a SkyNews reporter and presenter, Andrew Wilson, a former British Ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood, and Labour’s last Europe Minister, Chris Bryant MP. Diplomats from both the Russian and Ukrainian embassies also chipped in from the floor, not surprisingly seeing what has been happening recently in Crimea and eastern Ukraine very differently. The West is still protesting about the de facto annexation of Crimea by Russia, though unofficially accepting this as a fait accompli.  But the real concern is how much further Russian encroachment could go, in response to the declaration of “independence” by pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, unrest in other parts of Ukraine and indeed in other regions in Russia’s orbit, including Moldova (Transdniester), Belarus and maybe even Kazakhstan. Most speakers on the panel painted Vladimir Putin as the villain, though Chris Bryant told the rather chilling anecdote that a Russian diplomat had told him that Putin is “not yet mad”, the implication being that he could well become so if he sticks around much longer. In the meantime it does seem likely that Putin is now one of the richest men on the planet, if not the richest, though he manages to hide his assets from public view. Sir Andrew Wood made the point that Russia is weakened by the fact that it relies so heavly on hydrocarbons and indeed could at some stage run out of money. So even if Putin and his at the moment largely adoring compatriots may be on a roll at the moment, things may deteriorate for Moscow quite quickly. The panel side-stepped the question put by the Ukrainian diplomat as to whether the EU and US should now impose the third and far more serious range of sanctions it has threatened against Russia. Certainly, the limited sanctions against a small group of named targets have proved little more than a gentle slap on the wrist. But the ball is currently in the court of the Russians and their supporters in eastern Ukraine, and what they do will now determine what happens next.

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Why Europe Matters!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 11th June, 2013

Tower Hamlets logoEU free movementThe fightback starts here. Yesterday I blogged about the benefits of the ECHR and the insane campaign by certain right-wing Tories to get Britain to remove itself from the Convention (thereby putting itself in the sole company of Belarus). But this evening I was speaking about why Europe — i.e. the EU — matters, at a pizza and politics organised by my own local Liberal Democrat party, Tower Hamlets. I reminded members that the EU (in its various incarnations), together with NATO, had preserved peace on our continent for nearly 70 years — unprecedented in modern times. The way that formerly Communist countries have been integrated into the Union — rejoining the European family — has been particularly striking. On 1 July, Croatia will be the next. I also maintained that we should champion the free movement of people within the European Single Market, which has helped Brits working on the Continent just as it has helped other EU nationals who have come here. The three areas we shall focus on over the next 11 months will be jobs, the environment and crime, and on all of these the Liberal Democrats have powerful messages to convey, stressing both the local and European dimension (there will be all-out London borough elections on 22 May 2014, alongside the European elections). Moreover, these are areas in which the LibDems have distinct policies from our current national Coalition partners, the Conservatives. The Tories characterise membership of the EU as an impediment, rather than an opportunity; the right wing’s idea that the UK could somehow go it alone and try to arrange bilateral trade deals with major economic powers like the US, China and India is pure cloud cuckoo land. At long last, Prime Minister David Cameron has said as much, but sotto voce, and almost drowned out by the shrieks of UKIP and his own Europhobic headbangers, cheered on by the tabloid Press. Every day the British Press (with noble exceptions such as the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times) spews out lies and distortions about the EU (too often politely dismissed by Euro-realists as “myths”).  I was interested that the Bengali members of Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats (who made up about half of tonight’s gathering) expressed worries about immigration from Eastern Europe and the notion that these newcomers are taking local people’s jobs. That is of course the narrative of UKIP, which has gained some traction, and we need to stress how (a) immigrants contribute more to the UK economy than they receive in benefits, and (b) young Brits (of whatever ethnic origin) really need to be getting appropriate qualifications to fill the jobs that are available and not turn their noses up at tasks which they feel are somehow beneath them. 

Link: http://www.tower-hamlets-libdems.org.uk

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Why the ECHR Matters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th June, 2013

European Court of Human RightsECHRThe European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its associated Court in Strasbourg is a favourite Aunt Sally of right-wing Conservative MPs and Britain’s tabloid Press (which these days, alas, includes the broadsheet Daily Telegraph), but unjustly so. The Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as it is more formally known, has since its drafting in 1950 and later adoption by the Council or Europe done a huge amount of useful work in promoting the Rule of Law throughout Europe (including Eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey; only the dictatorship of Belarus is outside the fold), as well as providing individuals who feel their rights have been violated by their own State to seek redress. Despite the fact that the Court is a separate institution from the European Union it still gets tarred with the Brussels brush by virulent Europhobes, who seem to believe that the United Kingdom has completely abandoned its national sovereignty to foreigners — not that many of these anti-Europeans seem particularly worried about the fact that US influence is far more marked in various aspects of British public and foreign policy, not to mention our culture. Two things have been like juicy bones to these frothing xenophobic hounds. First, the Court’s ruling that it was wrong for the UK to deprive all prisoners of their rights to vote, no matter how short their sentence or trivial their offence. Theresa May could easily have got round that issue by accepting that prisoners with a sentence of less than six months should still retain their vote, but others not — a compromise that would have satisfied Strasbourg. The other even more famous ECHR “outrage”, of course, relates to the prolonged delay in the expulsion of the vile Islamist extremist Abu Qatada because there has not been up till now a credible assurance from his home country, Jordan, that evidence that might be used against him in any trial in Amman would not have been obtained by torture. Now I, like almost everyone in this country, long to see the back of Abu Qatada, who has milked the system here, including claiming benefits. But we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater by saying, oh well, as he is so wicked it does not matter if witnesses against him have been tortured. When we accept that, then we surrender our commitment to human rights (as the last Labour government alas did, with respect to extraordinary rendition). Moreover, it is utter nonsense for Theresa May to float the idea — seized on by relish by some of her backbench MPs and the right-wing Press — that Britain could temporarily withdraw from ECHR so it can expel Abu Qatada, then reapply once he is out of the way. Anyone who knows anything about International Law and diplomacy knows that is shamelessly playing to the gallery while undermining the very foundations of our credibility as a nation. What is really lacking, I believe, is a concerted campaign in Britain to champion what the ECHR actually achieves, in which politicians, NGOs and the enlightened media should participate. It is not just the future of our involvement with the Strasbourg Court that is at stake but our values as well.

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EU Action on Human Rights

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 12th July, 2012

When Cathy Ashton was appointed High Representative in charge of the EU’s external action service, she declared that she wanted human rights to run like a ‘silver thread’ through the service’s policies. But as Edward McMillan-Scott — Liberal Democrat MEP and a Vice President of the European Parliament — said at  a roundtable at Europe House in Westminster this lunchtime, human rights have sometimes played second fiddle to trade matters and other practical concerns. He, the Labour MP Michael Connarty (the senior Labour figure on the House of Commons EU Scrutiny Committee) and Nicholas Beger (from Amnesty International’s Brussels office dealing with the European institutions) were therefore not surprisingly all in favour of the proposed appointment of an EU Special Representative for Human Rights, whose specific job it would be to focus on human rights concerns, wherever they occur in the world, irrespective of other considerations. As Nicholas Beger pointed out, there is currently often a lack of balance in the EU’s stance regarding the transgressions of other states; Belarus rightly comes under criticism for its many shortcomings, but why not Azerbaijan? Oil is a sad but obvious answer, but the putative Special Representative must be above such considerations and look at the world’s nations objectively. I said that I thought the litmus test for the new human rights action plan — of which the Special Representative would be the most high profile part — will come with regard to Israel/Palestine. Michael Connarty rightly touched on Israeli violations in his introductory remarks, but I believe the EU’s credibillity on human rights will only be proven when it does take an objective stand and condemns various elements of the occupation, house demolitions, administrative detention and so forth — though the wide divergence of views among member states relating to Israel could prove to be a problem. By coincidence, while our roundtable was discussing these matters, the House of Commons was getting ready to debate to desirability of appointing the EU Special Representative. Michael Connarty was worried some eurosceptic Tories might use this as an opportunity to further their prejudices, but it is to be hoped that the British parliament will indeed give the initiative its blessing. It would be shameful otherwise.

 

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Reforming the ECHR

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 23rd February, 2012

The 47-nation Council of Europe is little known and much misunderstood, particularly in Britain, where the populist media is in a state of permanent warfare with anything ‘European’. As I hope most readers of this blog already know, the CofE is a completely separate body from the European Union and embraces all of the countries of wider Europe, from Iceland to Azerbaijan and Russia, with the single exception of wayward Belarus. It has its own parliamentary assembly, which meets in Strasbourg, but this is not directly elected by European citizens, unlike the European Parliament, and it has almost no power. But the CofE does much useful work, for example in protecting media freedom, the rights of minorities (notably the Roma in recent years) and promoting transparent democracy. Of course, the main reason the institution gets into the British newspapers at the moment is because of the associated European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This has come under a lot of fire recently in Britain, including from Prime Minister David Cameron, who in turn was strongly criticised by London’s LibDem MEP Baroness (Sarah) Ludford last night, at a seminar on Issues around Reform of the European Court of Human Rights, held at Europe House in Westminster. Mr Cameron likened the ECHR to a small claims court, highlighting how some of the thousands of cases that are sent to the ECHR for consideration each year are of an essentially trivial nature. Certainly, there are far too many of them, which has resulted in a horrendous backlog. Moreover, the British Conservatives in general tend to oppose the idea that the ECHR should have the right to ‘interfere’ in or ‘overturn’ the decisions of British Courts, for example relating to prisoners’ rights to vote and the non-deportation of Jordanian extremist Abu Qatada. But as the QC and leading human rights lawyer Lord Lester pointed out eloquently last night, much of the press coverage of the ECHR in Britain is simply wrong. However, both he and Sarah Ludford and the third speaker Daniel Holtgen, Director Communications at the CofE, acknowledged that the institution is in need of reform. Indeed, the parametres for this may well be set at an upcoming CofE gathering in Brighton. The CofE should probably try to do less but better. And when the EU signs up to the ECHR, as is planned, there will need to be some readjustments to avoid duplication. But it would be helpful in the meantime if British politicians and journalists who should know better stop slagging it off and misrepresenting it. Human rights and democracy are the cornerstones of the European world view, and the CofE is the right forum in which to work for their enhancement.

Link: http://coe.int

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Scrutinising Belarus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th February, 2012

Belarus is often portrayed as the Bad Boy of Europe — the only European state that is not a member of the Council of Europe, thanks to its retention (and use) of the death penalty, the apparently fraudulent nature of its elections and its poor record on human rights. Opposition figures are regularly imprisoned (often for short periods), harrassed and denounced in the official media, and the KGB — which still keeps its Soviet-era name — is a looming, ominous presence, with a large headquarters on the main drag in the capital, Minsk. When I went there a few years ago to meet political and human rights activists, I felt I had walked onto the set of a film of one of John Le Carré’s novels. Rendezvous were made with people at their request in parks or noisy restaurants; Even the head of the Communist party insisted on meeting clandestinely in a café. Yet it is an over-simplification to denounce Belarus blithely as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, for all the self-evident shortcomings of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. People can access the Internet in the numerous cyber-cafés, and young Belorussians with enough money to pay for a Schengen visa can travel West, notably to Lithuania and Poland. They don’t need a visa for Russia, to which Belarus remains tied with an umbilical cord, And even if Lukashenko has sometimes irritated Putin and other Kremlin figures, Belarus is a useful ally for Moscow. Some of the subtleties of the situation came out in a meeting that I chaired this evening at the National Liberal Club, on behalf of Liberal International British Group (LIBG) and Liberal Youth. This was the first such joint venture, which not only packed out the room but also produced some high-level debate, not only from the panel — Jo Swinson MP, Dr Yaraslau Kryvoi of Belarus Digest and Alex Nyce, former East European specialist at Chatham House — but also from the floor. Several members of the audience had had direct or indirect experience of working in or with Belarus and there was considerable discussion about what sort of stance the European Union should take on relations with the recalcitrant state. Intriguingly, a parallel was drawn between Belarus and Myanmar (Burma) and the question was posed as to whether constructive engagement might be a way forward in the hope of encouraging reform — though Lukashenko would have to release prominent dissidents before his good faith would be taken seriously.

http://libg.co.uk and www.belarusdigest.com

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AEJ Congress 2011 Bucharest

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th November, 2011

The location inevitably influences the content and atmosphere of any international professional or political gathering and such was certainly true over this long weekend at the 2011 Congress of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) in Bucharest. The affiliated local organisation is the Romanian Association of Independent Journalists (who hosted us delightfully) and the significance of that word ‘independent’ is obvious a mere 22 yeas since the downfall of the Ceaucescu Communist dictatorship. Just how awful that was — not least in human rights terms — was brought home to us participants in the final working session yesterday, when we were shown a film about the memorial established in the former political prison where pre-Communist political leaders, bishops, priests and other ‘undesirables’ were kept in inhumane conditions, tortured and in many cases assassinated, their bodies being disposed of in unmarked graves in the middle of the night. The Securitate, Communist Romania’s equivalent of the Stasi and KGB, monitored and harassed and intimidated journalists, writers and artists, becoming particularly paranoid about anti-regime sentiments in that regime’s final year of 1989. But the new Romania has its challennges for journalists, too — not so much pressure from the government (though that can occur, as elsewhere) but in particular from various oligarchs who own huge slices of the TV market, which is especially important in a country where most people still get their news from evening TV bulletins. We were reminded that a similar situation exists in Ukraine, from which we heard some thought-provoking testimony, as well as from Moldova, Belarus (probably the worst) and Turkey (where 66 journalists are currently in prison, and many others are the subject of legal proceedings). In Britain and so much of the EU people take a free Press for granted, but we don’t know how lucky we are. And of course, Britain doesn’t exactly have an unblemished record itself, given the recent phone hacking scandals, the (now threatened) influence of Rupert Murdoch & Co and the corrosive legacy of Downing Street spin, crafted so devilishly under Tony Blair’s watch. A Congress such as this weekend’s Bucharest event underlines how important it is to have such an interchange of experiences and analyses, not just as an act of solidarity (important though that is) but also to show how responsible journalism can contribute positively to the European project and Europe-wide high standards of human rights and freedom of expression, which was after all the main reason for the AEJ’s foundation.

Lik: www.aej.org

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London Pride

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 5th July, 2008

 The sun shone on London Pride today. My precautionary umbrella became no more than a theatrical prop. Four of the top five Liberal Democrat European candidates (Dinti Batstone, Chris Le Breton, John Pindar and myself) were on the march through London’s West End. Our colleague, (Baroness) Sarah Ludford MEP was understandably celebrating her mother’s 90th birthday instead, but she has been doing sterling work on LGBT issues on the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee. That was summarised in an excellent leaflet knocked up for the event by the party’s special interest group, DELGA, in which I also made a pledge that, in solidarity with people living with HIV and AIDS, I shall refuse to set foot in the United States again until Washington lifts its iniquitous ban on people with HIV/AIDS traveling there.

Britain has made huge advances on LGBT rights since Roy Jenkins decriminalised adult, consensual male homosexuality in 1967. But there is still much progress to be made in several other EU member states, both at the governmental and popular level. And things are still dire in several of the EU’s near neighbours, including Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Turkey — all specifically highlighted by members of the large Amnesty International contingent on today’s London Pride parade.

Nick Clegg made what was reportedy an excellent speech at the concluding rally in Trafalgar Square. As I was helping to man the DELGA stall, right up against the National Gallery, at the time, I couldn’t actually hear it, so I look forward to the press release. It has to be said, though, that the loudest cheers were for my Tower Hamlets neighbour, the actor Sir Ian McKellen. Oh, and a bevvy of behived, transvestite Amy Winehouse look-alikes.

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