Monday, March 12, 2007 

If it ain't broke...

Much as I hate to complain, I must say the whole new set-up on blogger SUCKS.

Ever since "migrated" to the new site, I find it less user friendly, and much, much more of a hassle than it used to be.

Examples: Logging into your site to begin with is now a cumbersome affair, as there are now two prompts for passwords instead of only one.

There is no longer a character format bar on the "new post", so you can't simply select text and click the bold or italic options. Instead, there are "shortcuts" which don't seem to work.

There seems to be no way of regulating font or point-size.

The "post options" appear to be limited only to regulating user comments.

How do you add hyperlinks to text. It was so easy before. Now I can't for the life of me work out how to do it, and it is PISSING ME OFF.

Before, we were given a choice between normal view mode and html. This option seems to have vanished on the new blogger. Why?

But what i really want to know is...

What was the point of changing a perfectly good system for one which is plainly much worse? And do we get the option to return to things as they were before?

Answers would be appreciated.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007 

Coming home to roost

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But a vote in the bag seems to be worth more than both, even if it comes at the cost of Malta’s international reputation. BirdLife director TOLGA TEMUGE outlines the implications of government’s current showdown with Europe over Spring hunting

“Fifteen days between the first and second full moon in March…” It sounds like something straight out of The Last of the Mohicans; but despite the pagan phraseology, this is not an ancient timetable for human sacrifice, nor a primeval form of contraceptive programme. It is actually the hunting lobby’s formal reply when asked to recommend specific dates for this year’s Spring hunting season at last Monday’s Ornis meeting.

Sitting at his desk at BirdLife’s Ta’ Xbiex offices, Tolga Temuge, the NGO’s Turkish-born executive director, jokes about the “exotic”, “tribal” language used to couch the unusual request. But beneath the humour, the underlying concern is serious.

“Coupled with their insistence on a season for hunting at sea during spring, this is as clear an indication as possible that the hunters are not really interested in only shooting turtle-dove and quail, as the supposed derogation states,” Temuge explains. “In reality, the requested timeframe coincides exactly with the wild duck season, as unlike other migratory birds, ducks follow a lunar, not a stellar, migration pattern.”

There is more. Wild ducks, Tolga continues, are most commonly observed by day over the Gozo channel – unlike either turtle-dove or quail, which tend to migrate over the sea by night, and therefore cannot realistically be shot from boats. According to Temuge and his colleagues at BirdLife Malta, all this points towards what the hunters are really after with their insistence on hunting in Spring: a blanket open season to shoot anything that flies.

But for the benefit of those who don’t actually give a flying duck about the hunting issue to begin with: why all this fuss about hunting in spring? And what, exactly, is at stake for Malta?

“A lot,” comes Temuge’s swift reply. “The issue is no longer just about birdlife or even conservation. It is now about the hefty fines that Malta will almost certainly incur if it persists in its obstinacy. It is also a question of safeguarding Malta’s rapidly deteriorating reputation overseas.”

But before looking into the wider implications, Tolga Temuge invites me to consider the particular significance of the EU directive in question. “The first thing we have to bear in mind is that this issue revolves around what it means to be part of the European Union,” Temuge claims. “Basically, the EU sets the rules of engagement for everything you care to name: fisheries, communications, energy production, agriculture, the environment… and also birds. As an EU member state since 2003, Malta is required by European law to transpose the Birds Directive in its entirety. But what is the Birds Directive, and why is it so important?”

Answering his own question, Temuge defines the 1979 law as quite simply “the best conservation legislation of its kind in the world.”“What makes it so good is that it was the result of discussion and co-operation between three different entities: the European Commission, the federation of European hunters (FACE), and BirdLife international. The resulting legislation therefore enjoys the blessing of all parties concerned. This means that, everywhere except Malta, the hunters themselves agree that wild birds should be given a chance to reproduce.” Apart from clearly prohibiting any form of hunting in the nesting season, and the trapping of wild birds at any time of the year, the Birds Directive also safeguards natural habitats by requiring member countries to designate areas for special protection. This, in turn, guarantees Europeans access to pristine natural environment.

“But then, you get one country which refuses to play ball, and suddenly the whole set-up is at risk,” Temuge adds. “What many people do not realise is that if Malta gets away with this act of violation, it could spell the end of the Birds Directive in Europe. After all, if an exception can be made for Malta, then why not for everyone else? What would happen if Italian or Spanish hunters start claiming the same derogation? This is why the EU cannot possibly afford to concede to Malta’s request. The consequences of the resulting domino effect would be disastrous for European wildlife.”

Yes, but what about the government’s claim that it had obtained a derogation on spring hunting during pre-accession negotiations? A claim repeated by both Environment Minister George Pullicino and the Prime Minister earlier this week, precisely in defence of last Monday’s decision?

Tolga shakes his head. “The only derogation obtained by Malta is a five-year transitional period regarding trapping, which is limited to seven species, and which expires at the end of next year,” he explains. “As regards spring hunting, the situation is different. Malta made the case during negotiations that its circumstances were exceptional. But it still has to prove this. If the government claims that there is no alternative to spring shooting, that claim must be substantiated. And here is the trouble: the government knows it can’t substantiate this claim, because our circumstances are not exceptional at all.”

Temuge also points out that, despite having applied for the derogation at pre-accession stage, the Maltese government has so far failed to abide by the usual derogation process, refusing to actually send in its justification for the request for three consecutive years. Why is that, I naively ask? Tolga smiles wryly. “Because it can’t. Neither government nor the Ornis committee has any scientific data to justify the need for hunting in spring. Not because there is no data on the subject; there is, and it is available to everyone who cares to look, including the Commission. No, the trouble is, existing data does not add up to a justification for any derogation on spring hunting. On the contrary, all it shows is that there is an alternative to spring shooting: shooting in autumn. This is why the government is playing for time.”

And it appears that time is very much on the government’s side. As Pullicino himself said in his press conference last Monday, the process leading to fines by the European Court of Justice is “lengthy”. By the time any decision is reached, the next general election will be ancient history, and Pullicino himself will most likely no longer be Environment Minister. But Temuge counters this by arguing that the fines, when they eventually come, will be all the higher for having been delayed. OK… but how high? How much is Malta’s insistence on spring hunting expected to cost the taxpayer in the long term? Tolga shrugs. “That will be up to the European Court of Justice to decide. Judging by the experiences of other countries such as France, which paid over EUR100 million over a breach of the Fisheries Directive, the amount will probably be a lot.”

But there is another dimension that Temuge thinks we are all overlooking: that the cost is not limited to EU fines alone. Unrestrained hunting carries a hefty price-tag in other spheres too. Not least, tourism. It is difficult to quantify the exact impact of hunting on the islands’ hospitality and leisure sector. But recent developments suggest that Malta is already paying too high a price for its overindulgence of the hunting community’s demands. According to a 2003 Malta Hotels & Restaurants Association (MHRA) survey, a staggering 391,000 tourists a year – a figure almost equivalent to the total Maltese population – “noticed” hunting and trapping in the course of their stay. Of these, 20 per cent claimed the experience had a “major negative impact” on their holiday… prompting former MHRA president Justin Zammit Tabona to observe: “It is very preoccupying that the very substantial investment in the hotel and restaurant industry, and the 20,000 jobs this provides, should be at the mercy of a minority who can only see gun barrels beyond their noses”. More recently still, a delegation from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (UK) came to Malta to present the Prime Minister with a 115,000-strong anti-hunting petition... only to be repeatedly denied an appointment, and left waiting on the steps of Castile.

“It’s a shame that Malta refuses to take advantage of the situation to improve its environmental credentials,” Temuge laments. “Look at Slovenia, for instance, another recent EU accession state. It has designated two-thirds of its total area as a special environmental protection area. The result? A country of great natural beauty, which attracts educated, cultured and high-spending tourists. In Malta, on the other hand, we have a national branding campaign directed precisely towards the same goal; but then, we discourage quality tourism by insisting on allowing this kind of disgraceful behaviour. In the end, Malta will only attract the sort of tourist who doesn’t care about beauty or culture, but only about drinking. In other words, tourists who spend less money and cause more trouble. Is this what we really want?”

On another level, Malta’s constant defiance of European law on the environmental front is causing untold damage to our reputation overseas. This, Temuge claims, is a pity, when you consider that unlike other countries, Malta has no other major blemish on its credentials as a respectable, law-abiding nation.

“Let’s face it: Malta is not the United States or Afghanistan – to name two countries which, for different reasons, are often viewed as ‘rogue’ states with scant regard for international law. On the contrary: Malta is a small country, a beautiful country, which does no harm to anyone. People should think of Malta and smile. They certainly should not regard Malta as a black spot for the destruction of wildlife and natural beauty…” But this, Tolga insists, is how a growing number of people are beginning to view our country as a result of our obsession with killing birds. And looking at the current situation from a foreigner’s perspective, it becomes increasingly difficult to fault their perception.

Tolga Temuge enumerates the progressive stages of deterioration in Malta’s ornithological track record: “For years, the Maltese government has not really done anything to put a stop to illegal hunting. On the contrary, it has done everything in its power to appease the hunters. More recently, the government made it painstakingly clear that it has every intention of openly defying the Birds Directive by allowing spring shooting. Meanwhile, the government has failed to reply to the reasoned opinion, sent by the EU Commission last June, despite the lapse of two deadlines. “And now, with the latest scandalous turn of events, the Environment Minister has shown he is capable of violating his own government’s laws – in particular, legal notice 79, which was published just last year.”

Talking about Monday’s Ornis meeting, Temuge can scarcely conceal his contempt for the proceedings. “The entire affair was farcical. Not only did an Ornis committee member reveal that the decision had already been taken by the government, in direct breach of section 9.2 of LN79; but it emerged that the date given (April 10) also violated section 10.6, which specifies that a minimum of six weeks’ notice is required before the recommendation of a date for the open season is even submitted…”

The meeting was incongruous for other reasons, too. Not least the fact that the Minister first claimed that it was supposed to be “behind closed doors” – for which reason he objected to BirdLife’s subsequent divulgence of details to the press – but then found no objection to the surprise attendance of FKNK president Lino Farrugia, who walked uninvited into the meeting despite not being an Ornis committee member.

“And then, at seven o’ clock, the minister held a surprise press conference to present his own version of events, knowing full well that details of the meeting had already been leaked to the press,” Temuge adds.

During the same press conference, the minister said that there will be increased penalties in the case of hunters caught breaking the law. How does Birdlife react to this particular announcement?

“The minister also announced that the spring hunting season will take place ‘under strict supervision’,” Temuge replies with more than a hint of sarcasm. “How exactly does government plan to implement this, when there are fewer than 30 ALE officers to monitor the activities of some 16,000 hunters (excluding trappers) in both Malta and Gozo?”

Turning away from last Monday’s meeting, I ask Temuge if he feels BirdLife enjoys the support of the public at large: more specifically, whether we can expect the NGO to return to its earlier, 1980s strategy of holding colourful demonstrations in the streets.

“BirdLife has no intention of taking to the streets in the near future,” Temuge replies. “If other people want to organise an anti-hunting protest, they are more than welcome. I for one will attend, just like I attended the protests against the ODZ extensions last June.”

But Tolga Temuge also agrees that there is a general sense of apathy when it comes to civic action. “Not just about the hunting issues. It seems that there is a lack of public participation in most spheres. Having said that, mass protests of the kind you saw in the 1980s are not necessarily the best way to fight the cause. Look at the hunters: they seem to get what they want even without taking to the streets. This is the point we are trying to make: if the anti-hunting majority continue to bury their heads in the sand, hoping that things will change after the election, they are terribly wrong. This, in fact, is what the government is basing its calculations on: that people don’t care enough to base their vote on this issue. However, I think that very soon now, they will realise that they have grossly miscalculated.”


Escape to Repatriation

RAPHAEL VASSALLO takes a look at Eritrea: Voices of Torture… one film the MTA will not be using as part of its Brand Malta campaign.

It is arguably one of the most consistently successful motif in the history of film. Think Papillon, The Great Escape, Cool Hand Luke, The Shawshank Redemption… even Malta’s own contribution to the genre, Midnight Express. There is something cathartic in the well-told story of a daring jailbreak: something which appeals to the viewer’s subconscious yearnings for justice and liberty, and which can only be accentuated if the protagonist is an unjustly imprisoned, or grossly mistreated, victim. But not all escape movies are intended to entertain; and not all “escapes to victory” come complete with a happy ending.

For those who were closely involved in the proceedings of September 2002 – when 223 Eritrean immigrants were forcibly repatriated from Malta, many of them to be tortured on their return – the recent emergence of a documentary on the subject will not have come as a great surprise. Its director, London-based human rights activist Elsa Chyrum, was among the frontliners in the campaign against the deportation at the time, and has since vociferously condemned Malta’s handling of the affair on local and foreign media alike. She was also the first to alert Amnesty International (AI) to the situation, and it is largely thanks to AI’s involvement in the case that the subsequent fate of many of these deportees eventually came to light.

In Eritrea: Voices of Torture, two of the survivors, Habtom Teclab and Semis Mohamed Gaid, relive their treatment at the hands of Eritrean prison guards after their repatriation. Admittedly, many of the shocking details included in the film were already made public by The Times after the AI report in May 2004: how the prisoners were regularly tied up and beaten, forced to walk barefoot on thorns and sharp stones, and deprived of water in temperatures of up to 47 degrees, among other degrading practices. It is clear from individual accounts that some of the detainees, especially those who had fled forced conscription, would never leave their prison camp alive. After a second failed attempt to escape from the notorious Dakhla penal colony, Habtom himself was beaten, bound, and suspended in the scorching sun for 55 days and nights. “We did not look like human beings at that time,” he recalls today from his home in Canada, where he now lives after a third (this time successful) escape. At least three of the other Malta deportees – Robel Goniche, Alazar Gebrendrias and Mussie (Amiche) – have since died after suffering similar treatment is the prisons of Asmara and Dakhla.

“We will probably never know”

Apart from revealing the gruesome realities of war-torn Eritrea, the 20-minute documentary only raises questions about Malta’s role in this humanitarian nightmare. At its most generous, Voices of Torture suggests that the government of Malta “seriously misjudged” the situation in Eritrea. But Chyrum’s narration goes one step further, arguing that the deportation itself was illegal, in that it took place “in direct contravention of the International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.”

More upsetting still are the allegations of mistreatment by Maltese authorities during the repatriation process. Habtom Teclab recalls the night of September 22, 2002 with visible bitterness: “It was one or two in the morning and we were asleep in our beds with our night clothes. Suddenly lots of Maltese soldiers entered the camp with sprays, sticks and guns. They surrounded us, two soldiers to one, and forcibly handcuffed us and took us out.”Semis Gaid supplies additional details: “Some 300 soldiers came to our detention centre to arrest about 150 people. Each prisoner was beaten and handcuffed by two soldiers and taken outside.”In actual fact, the above operation was carried out by the police, although the armed forces were indeed called in to provide support.

Local authorities have so far been reluctant to comment on the alleged beating of detainees before repatriation. AFM Commander Brig. Carmelo Vassallo referred me to the inquiry carried out in May 2005 by magistrate Abigail Lofaro, which roundly exonerated the authorities of all blame. But the report’s conclusions, while dwelling at length on legal, technical and procedural issues, fail to address any specific individual mistreatment allegation against the local police or armed forces.

Meanwhile, the question of whether the deportation was legal or not continues to elude any clear answer to this day. In defence of its actions, the Maltese Government has consistently argued that the decision was taken in consultation with UNHCR, which had itself declared Eritrea a “safe destination” prior to the deportation. More significantly, none of the 223 deportees had applied for refugee status while in Malta, despite having being given ample time and opportunity to do so. For her part, Elsa Chyrum believes the Maltese government had misinterpreted the UNHCR, which at the time was involved in a programme of voluntary repatriation of Eritrean refugees from Sudan: “Soon after the 1998-2000 war… UNHCR published a cessation of status that was wrongly interpreted by the Maltese government,” she told Canadian based organization AfricaFiles. “UNHCR stated those who were displaced during the revolutionary years, that is prior to 1991, could safely return to Eritrea.” It was on the basis of this document, which was clearly inapplicable to immigrants arriving in 2002, that the deportation was later justified.

The issue of refugee status application, on the other hand, is not touched upon in Chyrum’s documentary. Considering that the role of counsellor to asylum seekers generally falls to NGOs, among them UNHCR, it is at best unclear why the Eritrean migrants refused to comply with standard immigration procedures at the Hal Far detention centre. This anomaly assumes weighty implications in the context of the 1951 International Refugee Convention, which has often been criticised as too vague, especially in its definitions of the word ‘refugee’. Were the Eritrean migrants informed of the possible consequences of their refusal to comply? And if so, by whom?

Speaking to me in confidence, one witness to the proceedings said simply: “We will probably never know”… adding that the UNHCR’s own internal procedures had prevented its Malta official from testifying before the inquiring magistrate. In the end, then, at least part of the entire deportation fiasco may well boil down to a simple, albeit tragic, communication failure.

“Impossible to seek asylum”

On another level, Voices Of Torture also speaks volumes about the dire circumstances faced by asylum seekers on the long trek to Europe. While voices in Malta continue to argue that Sub-Saharan Africans travel across two, three, even four ‘stable’ countries before coming here, Habtom’s ordeal suggests that in reality, there are no safe havens south of the Mediterranean littoral.

For reasons of geography, Eritrean asylum seekers have little choice but to cross the frontier into Sudan. The expression must be understood figuratively, for the two countries have been mired in a border controversy since the early 1990s. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Sudan ostensibly forms part of an alliance which also includes Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, Eritrea’s traditional enemy. But the country also depends on the Eritrean government for mediation between the various factions in its own ongoing civil war. The resulting scenario is that Eritrean government agents operate freely in Sudan, and escaped ‘prisoners of war’, as Eritrea’s conscientious objectors are invariably classified, can expect little protection from their immediate neighbours. From the documentary, it transpires that the guards responsible for Robel Goniche’s death were in fact members of the Sudanese border police, and not Eritrean soldiers as elsewhere reported.

Libya, too, is singled out as a ‘black spot’ for asylum seekers. As Habtom puts it, “Sudan’s and Libya’s human rights records are as bad as Eritrea’s. It’s almost impossible to seek asylum in those countries.” This impression is confirmed by international agencies such as Human Rights Watch, which observed in its September 2006 report that “migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers reported physical abuse by Libyan police and prison guards, sometimes allegedly resulting in deaths.” Furthermore, Libya has no asylum law or procedure, has not signed the 1951 Refugees Convention, and refuses to enter into any kind of formal agreement with UNHCR.These revelations may have uncomfortable implications for the European Commission’s current immigration strategy, which involves co-operation with Libya to a large degree. As a result of European pressure, Libya has recently overturned its “open-door policy” on irregular migrants: a move which has done little to prevent thousands of asylum seekers from pouring into the country through its border with Chad, but which may have had the effect of immediately criminalising the estimated three million immigrants already in the country. Ironically, in the final analysis it can be argued that by persuading Libya to “stem the tide” of immigration, the European Union may have indirectly created a further reason for asylum seekers to risk the perilous Mediterranean crossing in the first place. From this perspective, it seems likely that the Eritrean experience will one day be repeated.

Eritrea: Voices Of Torture can be viewed on The film has been flagged on account of its disturbing content, and can only be accessed by registered YouTube users. So far, by mid-January, it has been viewed 42,962 times.

Saturday, December 30, 2006 

James Brown Shuffles Off His Mortal Coil

By our Staff Reporter, Will Shakespeare.

(A hospital room in Atlanta, Georgia) Alas! The soul of Soule away hath been stol’n this Monday last, when JAMES BROWNE, Revel of Rhythm and Bard of the Blues, did pass from this great stage of fools, aged three score and thirteen.
“Melancholy indeed am I to stand before thee alone. A team were we,” quoth Brown’s personal attendant Charles Bobbit at the press parley Tuesday last, where his plenteous woes did pour forth in drops of sorrow.
Attend did Bobbit beside the death-marked man where he lay, and chanced to hear his passing words: “This night do I depart.”
Thus, with three long quiet breathes, he dyed.
Ripp’d from his motheres womb in Barnwell, (a smalle hamlet in the Colonies), year of OUR LORD, 1933, break through did Browne the mists of his lowly originnes as sonne of a Moorish cotton-reapere, to win great honour ‘pon the battle fieldes of pop. Rude was he of lyrics, and unpolished in his funkie beates. But t’was his portance ‘pon the stage that bought golden opinions o’ critics and the time, when, his roisting rhythmes beating loude within his yers, by sound and fury Browne rapt would be, and imitate the actions of an Anthropophaginian.
Long shall be remembranc’d the parted Godfathere of Soule, for the lascivious pleasing of his multitudinous smash-hittes, ‘mongst which be found:
Prithee, Prithee, Prithee
Proclaim it Aloud: Moorish Am I, And Also Proude
I Have Thee (Gode Feel I), and
Arise! (Desire Do I To Be Akin to) A Sexe Machine.

Farewell, sweet Sovereign of Soule.

Friday, May 19, 2006 

Eat my ashes, Danny Boy...

"There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dare not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed."

Bertrand Russel, Human Society in Ethics and Politics

Sunday, April 30, 2006 

Wanted: new England manager

A vacancy has arisen for the position of manager of the English national football team. The ideal candidate should fit the description below:

Mustn't drink;

Mustn't smoke;

Mustn't take drugs, or indulge in any vice known to man;

No criminal record;

Can't have had a single affair in his entire life (Ideally, should never have had sex at all);

Must be patient, and possess the necessary communication skills to get his message across to people with the intelligence of David Beckham;

Mustn't have any children or family who can be threatened;

Must be prepared to forgive and forget any media intrusion into his private life, no matter how outrageously unreasonable;

Must have a minimum of three years' experience in persecution, suffering, torture and death;

Must be able to come back from even the most devastating defeats;

And finally, must be able to perform the mother of all miracles and turn England into a World Cup winning team.

Oh hang on, we might just have found the perfect candidate:

(Needless to add, no previous football experience necessary)

Sunday, April 23, 2006 

The Empire Strikes Back

Luke! Come and join me for a shitty lager!


Saturday, April 22, 2006 

Who says blogs aren't influential?

Click to enlarge


Wanted for crimes against literature

The police are looking for a man
Who wrote some verse that didn't scan

Suspected of committing crimes
Like coming up with awful rhymes.

"If you have info leading to
His capture, call 2122.

Do not approach him on your own
Just call us on the telephone.

Thanks for your attention," said
The Chief Inspector, Captain Fred.