Plus, Kosovo teens know little about war and huge Romanian privatization hits a big bump.by Jeremy Druker, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Nino Tsintsadze 25 September 2012
The latest turn in the Georgian prison abuse scandal includes a government counterattack, as the authorities have accused opposition activists of staging the infamous videos that were broadcast last week. On 24 September, the Georgian Interior Ministry released a video allegedly showing activists of Georgian Dream, the main opposition party, trying to bribe policemen to commit acts of abuse, The New York Times reports. Three Georgian Dream activists were also arrested.
The scandal, which made headlines around the world, erupted after undated videos apparently showing guards beating and raping inmates with a stick aired 18 September on two Georgian television stations. The videos spurred street demonstrations, the resignation of the prisons minister, and condemnation from President Mikheil Saakashvili.
However, officials have also hinted at links between the opposition and crime groups. An investigation has revealed the close ties of “some politicians with criminals residing in foreign countries,” First Deputy Justice Minister Tina Burjaliani was quoted by Tabula magazine as saying. She said “some” politicians aspire to bring “instability, unrest, and possible violence” and that material proving those claims will become public in the near future. One of the newly aired clips shows an individual attempting to give a policeman $30,000 in exchange for “a video of an officer beating fresh recruits in the army,” according to The New York Times.
Georgian Dream denied any connection to the new videos and blamed officials for falsifying the material as a provocation ahead of the 1 October parliamentary elections. Emzar Ivanishvili, a close relative of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgia Dream leader, appears in one of the video clips released by the authorities.
Human rights groups released a statement claiming an increased number of administrative detentions in recent days and urging the government not to use such means as an instrument of political pressure. Of 23 people detained between 21 and 24 September, they said most were Georgian Dream activists charged with minor offenses.
When it comes to the battle over the Internet, repressive governments have been pushing hard over the past year to gain greater control over what their citizens say and see online. But as government tactics have evolved, cyber activists and bloggers have pushed back. These are the conclusions of a new report released 24 September by Washington-based rights watchdog Freedom House. The report, Freedom on the Net 2012, looked at the trajectory of Internet freedom in 47 countries.
“The findings clearly show that threats to Internet freedom are becoming more diverse,” said Sanja Kelly, the project director, in a statement. “As authoritarian rulers see that blocked websites and high-profile arrests draw local and international condemnation, they are turning to murkier – but no less dangerous – methods for controlling online conversations.”
The report mentioned several ways some authorities have tried keeping a tighter grip on the Internet. Some of these methods are tried and true, such as introducing new, vaguely worded laws that could severely limit the kinds of information put online or harassing or intimidating bloggers. But some countries have also have started to use the Internet against their own citizens by hiring bloggers to intimidate or drown out dissenting voices.
From TOL’s coverage region, the most pronounced cases of threats to net freedom came from Uzbekistan, Belarus, Russia, and Azerbaijan. Uzbekistan, which was included for the first time in the organization’s global Internet report, got the worst score in the region, followed closely by Belarus. However, Russia and Azerbaijan in particular were singled out as two of seven countries worldwide at a higher risk for seeing setbacks in the near future, especially as Internet penetration continues to soar.
Estonia was also mentioned in the report, but for different reasons: It is cited as the freest among the countries polled, praised for the widespread use of e-government and e-commerce. Hungary, which was also categorized as “Free,” got kudos from the report authors for a late-2011 decision by the Constitutional Court to prevent restrictive media laws from extending to online sites. Ukraine and Georgia also barely squeaked into the “Free” category.
A new study has concluded that high school students in Kosovo remain ignorant about the details of the Kosovo war, Balkan Insight reports.
The Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) Kosovo study analyzed interviews held at secondary schools across Kosovo with students aged from 15 to 17. The pupils were asked questions about the 1999 conflict between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents. With their textbooks not providing much if any information, many appeared not to know even the approximate number of victims in the war, generally considered to be around 10,000. Some guessed as many as 250,000, and were surprised to find out that there were Serb victims as well.
The failure of textbooks to provide facts about the conflict fits into a general problem with school books in the region. Balkan Insight mentioned a study conducted by Shkelzen Gashi, a political scientist from Kosovo, in which he compared 7th grade history textbooks in Kosovo, Albania, and Serbia. Gashi presented his findings at a discussion on transitional justice held in Pristina 21 September under the auspices of HLC.
His conclusions included a gamut of misrepresented historical events, false and distorted “data,” and even what he called hate speech.
“The Kosovan books talk about state genocide against the Albanians. The Serb books, on the other hand, present the Kosovo Albanians as terrorists and fascists. These extreme views should not be found in history books for children aged of 15 and 17,” Gashi said.
The privatization of Romania’s largest chemical plant has stalled after the businessman who agreed to buy the majority of shares refused to sign the purchase contract, Balkan Insight writes. After offering 203.1 million lei ($58 million) on 21 September, media mogul Dan Diaconescu refused to sign the deal on 24 September, saying that it was riddled with “hundreds of inaccuracies.”
The sale of the government’s majority stake has been especially controversial because of Diaconescu’s role as the leader of the populist People's Party and the feeling among some analysts that he is using the potential purchase to gain publicity among the electorate but won’t end up delivering on his promises. According to the latest opinion polls, the People’s Party could end up coming in third at the parliamentary elections set to take place in December.
Diaconescu doesn’t have the money he promised for the 54.8 percent stake in Oltchim, or the 100 million euros to buy the Arpechim refinery as an option, Prime Minister Victor Ponta said 24 September, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
The largest state-owned chemical plant, Oltchim has registered heavy losses in the past couple of years, and the IMF conditioned the delivery of a loan to Romania on its privatization by the end of September. The company, which employs around 3,500 people, will be sold off if the privatization fails.
In more depressing news for the Internet’s civic activism potential, online voters in a Slovak poll lost their effort to give a possibly tongue-in-cheek name to a new pedestrian bridge over the Morava River into Austria, according to The Guardian.
Despite an overwhelming majority of online votes in favor (12,599), regional assembly members in the Slovak capital Bratislava voted unanimously to reject a proposal to name the bridge after American martial arts expert-turned actor-turned Internet kitsch phenomenon Chuck Norris. The council instead opted to name the bridge a more historically relevant “Freedom Bridge” in remembrance of those who died trying to cross the Iron Curtain – even though that suggestion gained a meager 457 votes online.
The 550-meter bridge opened 22 September.
In 2006, Norris was also a front runner to serve as a namesake for a bridge in Budapest, eventually losing out to another American celebrity, Stephen Colbert. And while government officials there also ultimately rejected the popular vote, local leaders in Slovakia at least initially assured voters they would honor the wishes of the public.