Bangladesh leather investigation – film opens Ethical Fashion Show in Paris


Hell for Leather – the debut film of the Ecologist Film Unit, which investigated Bangladesh’s leather trade, has been screened at the International Ethical Fashion Show in Paris.

The film, which documented the environmental and human rights abuses connected with leather production in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, was screened prominently at the pioneering fashion show, one of the world’s only dedicated ethical fashion events. For more information see http://www.ethicalfashionshow.com

A solution to the food crisis? How one chicken might just change the world…


Set against a backdrop of rising global food prices, and the spread of factory farming in countries such as India, The Ecologist Film Unit – a major collaboration between Ecostorm and The Ecologist magazine – this month releases a film which tells the story of a food revolution in Southern India.

View the film at The Guardian

Produced in conjunction with UK NGO Compassion in World Farming, The Giriraja Chicken – India’s answer to the global food crisis details the extra-ordinary way in which scientists and communities are working together to increase livelihoods, consumer safety and animal welfare in rural India using an ancient breed of chicken.

Intensively-farmed chickens in India and elsewhere are typically given large quantities of antibiotics which threaten the health of the consumer; they are also fed on soya grown from the deforested wastelands of Amazonia in Brazil.

Ordinary farmers cannot compete with corporate-owned factory farms. The vast economies of scale that they operate on – often cramming tens of thousands of birds into one shed alone – has effectively squeezed small scale farmers out of India’s poultry market.

There is a solution, however. Scientists at Bangalore University have developed the Giriraja or ‘Mountain king’ chicken. Bred using natural techniques from ancient strains of Tamil chickens, this hardy bird provides nutrition and income for local people without the need for continual and costly supplies of drugs and feed. Naturally resilient, the Giriraja is a living breathing micro-finance initiative that is giving back livelihood to those left behind in India’s economic boom.

Sniffing a success story, corporate-owned poultry companies have already tried to buy out the not-for-profit scheme set up by the university, but without success. For now the Giriraja is helping communities lift themselves from poverty and is a sustainable farming success story that leads the way for the rest of India and the world to follow.

Jim Wickens, Ecologist Film Unit producer says: “Touted as a cure to poverty, factory farming is actually the new cancer in rural India. Unsustainable, cruel and corporate owned, these farms threaten the health of consumers, the wellbeing of the chickens and most importantly they are killing the rural communities they compete against. We wanted to make this film because the Giriraja perfectly illustrates the way in which small-scale pro-poor initiatives are the only effective answer to the spiralling food crisis and chronic poverty that besets rural India today.”

According to Ecologist editor Pat Thomas: “It’s important to see this story in its larger context. The globalised food system that most of us rely on is inherently unsustainable. It requires huge inputs of energy, and creates enormous amounts of pollution including greenhouse gases, and sickening amounts of waste. The Giriraja Chicken story is both a cautionary and a celebratory story for us in the developed world. Cautionary because the kind of food poverty that people in rural India face could so easily and so quickly become our problem. But also celebratory because it shows the benefit of combining local knowledge and small scale agriculture to solve some of the problems of getting fresh, good quality food to those who need it most.

“We can implement similar solutions in this country with better access to allotments, more back garden agriculture, and greater support for Community Supported Agriculture projects. Wherever you live, producing food for self-consumption is a vital part of the food system – it gives people control over what they eat, provides a continuum of local knowledge down generations and across cultures and in doing so promotes community, biodiversity and sustainability.”

www.theecologist.org/etv

www.ciwf.org

Reprieve for humpback whales after investigation thwarts Greenland’s hunt plans


An Ecostorm investigation with WSPA has acted to convince commissioners at the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) annual meeting to vote ‘no’ to including ten humpbacks in Greenland’s whaling quota.

The undercover investigation revealed that 25% of whales killed by Greenland – which they are permitted to hunt only for aboriginal subsistence purposes – are sold commercially, resulting in significant profit and exploding the myth that their whaling quotas are purely subsistence based.

Last month WSPA presented IWC commissioners with compelling evidence, providing them with the information necessary to ensure a ‘no’ vote from a majority 36 of the 65 voting nations.

WSPA’s Claire Bass commented on the vote from the IWC meeting: “This is fantastic news as fewer whales will be cruelly killed. WSPA’s investigation has given the IWC the information it needed to see through the myths of Greenlandic whaling and make the right decision.”

Speaking on the importance of the vote, she added: “This is a significant victory in a bigger campaign to end the slaughter of whales globally, and we will continue in our campaign to end the cruelty of whaling.”

To view the investigative film and read further news reports see: www.wspa.org.uk

Eco-activists targeted with spies and news manipulation


As part of our unique collaboration with The Ecologist, Ecostorm is pleased to announce publication of a new special report and accompanying film “Melting Point: the new frontline in eco-activism” in the July / August edition of the magazine.

Ahead of next month’s ‘Climate Camp’ at Kingsnorth, Kent – where a coalition of campaigners have pledged to shut Eon’s power station complex down – the Ecologist Film Unit investigates how government and big business are countering resurgent eco-activism with spies, strong arm tactics and news manipulation.

To view the film visit: www.theecologist.org/etv/ or www.green.tv.

The print report is carried in the current edition of the magazine, available by subscription or from any good newsagent.

Melting Point is the second in a major new series of films produced by the Ecologist Film Unit. The debut film, Hell For Leather, an investigation into the shocking human and environmental cost of cheap leather production in Bangladesh, was launched in June and broadcast to millions of viewers globally on the BBC World channel.

Former chief government scientist brands Heathrow third runway ‘White Elephant’ ahead of climate camp


In an exclusive interview with the Ecologist Film Unit (EFU) Professor Sir David King has said that government plans to expand British airport capacity are both short-sighted and economically unsound. Sir David, until recently the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, said that the Government’s own policy of drastically reducing carbon emissions made nonsense of current proposals to expand airport capacity:

“I’m looking at this from a marketing point of view – if we’re moving towards decarbonising our economy this must mean that alternative means of transport, land transport, will be favoured over air transport,” he said.

“This must mean that by pricing carbon dioxide, by putting fuel tax on aviation fuel as well (which is the British government position) that we will drive people toward land-based travel rather than air, and investments in new runways will turn out to be white elephants,” he added.

Sir David, who famously described climate change as “a far greater threat even than global terrorism”, made his remarks to the Ecologist Film Unit while being interviewed in June 2008 for the film Melting Point – The New Frontline In Environmental Activism about the extreme reaction of Government and big business to the new generation of climate change activists. His comments come less than two weeks before this year’s Climate Camp at Kingsnorth power station where protesters will gather to express their deep concern over rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier this month John Hutton, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, told an audience at Farnborough air show that the government would press ahead with a third runway at Heathrow despite the objections of environmentalists.

But Sir David’s comments reinforce previous allegations – including those made by opposition politicians and former BA Chief Executive Bob Ayling – that the controversial plans are economically flawed as well as environmentally dangerous.

According to Ecologist editor Pat Thomas: “Sir David’s damning indictment of the UK government’s airport expansion plans is timely and most welcome. There are an increasingly large group of concerned people, all across the country and from all walks of life, who want their views to be heard on the subject of climate change. As our extraordinary film shows, the Climate Camp protesters who will be descending on Kingsnorth power station next month, far from being a threat to our present or future security, are shouting in one voice about the need for a stable climate and a sustainable, secure future for the UK. It’s good to hear Sir David adding his voice to the rising chorus of dissent.”

About the film

Melting Point – The New Frontline In Environmental Activism (10 mins) details the espionage, news manipulation, legal threats and even violence that have become the knee-jerk response of Government and big business to the increasing and vocal concerns of environmental protesters in the UK.

Ahead of next month’s Climate Camp at Kingsnorth power station, this exclusive and powerful film exposes the extraordinary tactics being used to reframe concerned citizens engaging in their right to protest, as dangerous terrorists. It can be viewed, along with other EFU productions, online at http://www.theecologist.org/ETV and will distributed for broadcast externally.

**The full filmed version of Sir David King’s interview, in which he also describes carbon capture and storage – the Government ‘clean coal’ solution – as an “unproven technology” and criticises the rampant consumerism and dangerously limited thinking about renewable energy that is keeping the UK from becoming a “decarbonised economy”, is also available on request.

About the Ecologist Film Unit

The Ecologist Film Unit (EFU), is a collaboration between the Ecologist magazine and the investigative agency Ecostorm. It makes hard-hitting, topical documentaries which are streamed on the internet, and shown on TV and at film festivals and events.

Revealed: the shocking human and environmental cost of cheap leather


A major investigation by Ecostorm for the Ecologist Film Unit (EFU) has revealed the appalling and unreported human and environmental cost of the leather trade in Bangladesh, South Asia. The investigation, entitled “Hell For Leather”, is released this week as a short, hard-hitting, documentary film and as a special report in the June edition of The Ecologist magazine.

Filmed and researched in Bangladesh over a two week period, the film and report reveals how leather used in consumer goods, including shoes, handbags, trinkets and luxury car interiors – some of which find their way onto European high streets – is linked to serious health problems amongst tannery workers.

It also exposes how the toxic chemicals used in leather tanning lead to environmental degradation via the rampant discharge of untreated effluents from tanneries into water supplies and waterways. The investigation focuses on the impoverished communities living and working in Hazaribagh, Dhaka’s major leather producing area, and the detrimental effects these toxic chemicals are having on them.

Home to over 100 tanneries, the Hazaribagh area of Dhaka produces much of Bangladesh’s leather, most of which is destined for export abroad. $240 million worth of skins are exported annually from Bangladesh alone, most sent to the fashion houses of the EU, Japan and China, for working into shoes, handbags and other accessories sold on high streets the world over.

“Hazaribagh has been classed as one of the 30 most polluted places in the planet – a roll-call of toxicity shared by the likes of Chernobyl. The difference with Hazaribagh of course is that it is situated in the middle of the fastest growing city in the world. It is amazing that with so much concern for child labour, air miles and organic food, the chronic problems of leather production in places such as Bangladesh have gone without notice,”. Jim Wickens, producer of Hell For Leather and co-director of Ecostorm, said.

Challenge to Greenland’s whaling claims


An undercover investigation carried out by Ecostorm on behalf of WSPA has found evidence to challenge the myth that Greenland’s whaling is exclusively for aboriginal subsistence purposes.

Greenland is granted a quota of 233 whales annually by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) despite the international commercial ban, because they claim that the whales are needed by aboriginal communities for their own use.

Investigators discovered that some of the whaling is in fact commercial. The inquiry, carried out in April 2008, found supermarket freezers full of whale products, industrial plants for freezing and drying whale meat, and even stock piles of unsold whale meat. At least 114 supermarkets in Greenland carry whale products for retail sale.

Claire Bass, WSPA’s Marine Mammals Programme Manager, said: “Our evidence will blow everyone’s impressions of Greenland’s whaling out of the water; the results have proven that some ‘subsistence whaling’ is no longer providing food critical to indigenous peoples. We’ve traced unacceptable animal suffering back to commercial profit margins.”

Based on the investigation, WSPA estimates that US$1million profit is being made from one quarter or more of the whales that Greenland is allowed to slaughter for subsistence purposes. Consequently, WSPA believes that Greenland’s whaling has crossed the line into commercial whaling.

To watch the investigation film and read the report please see:
http://www.wspa.org.uk/latestnews/2008/greenlandinvestigation.aspx

Scottish ‘misled over seal hunt fur’


Seal skins from the controversial Canadian hunts are being sold in Scotland to make sporrans – traditional decorative items popular with tourists and as fancy dress – and buyers are being misled about their origin, an investigation by Ecostorm for Sky News and IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, has revealed.

During the inquiry, investigators discovered that customers in some Scottish shops are told the fur used to decorate the traditional Scottish garment comes from Greenland and is a by-product of a hunt where the seals are killed for food. But the investigation – broadcast by Sky News – has revealed the truth: the skins come from animals slaughtered purely for their fur.

To watch the film and read the report see:
http://news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,30000-1317653,00.htm

Ecostorm joins forces with The Ecologist magazine to form specialist film unit


ecofilmunitlogo1-e1362746428673In a major new venture, Ecostorm has teamed up with The Ecologist magazine, the world’s most widely read environmental magazine, to launch the Ecologist Film Unit (EFU), which will make hard-hitting, investigative films to be streamed on the internet, broadcast on TV and at film festivals and events.

Building on the Ecologist’s reputation for agenda setting reporting on environmental issues and Ecostorm’s investigative film production skills, the EFU will make documentary films that lift the lid on a host of unreported environmental scandals that will shock viewers out of any misplaced complacency that the planet’s problems can be solved simply by switching light bulbs and more recycling!

The EFU’s debut is “Hell For Leather”, an investigation which examines the appalling, and unpublicised human and environmental cost of the leather trade in Southern Asia (see seperate news release).

“The EFU will take the kind of leading edge environmental reporting we are known for to a much wider and more diverse audience, in a much more immediate way. Ecologist editor, Pat Thomas, said. “It will also offer an antidote to the kind of ‘tick-box’ environmental reporting of some mainstream news and provide a model of how print and online media can work effectively together to drive change”.

“The launch of the EFU is an exciting move for the Ecologist” said publisher Jemima Ransome “The world wide web is fuelling a new grassroots environmental activism that the Ecologist believes will be crucial in motivating widespread and meaningful action. At the same time it is also an invaluable medium for engaging a new, younger audience with environmental issues – important since they are the future caretakers of our planet”.

The EFU is currently working on a number of exciting follow ups to “Hell For Leather”, for release later in 2008, and is actively seeking commissions from television news outfits. www.theecologist.org

Jailing of Chinese campaigner highlights dangers of web activism


The jailing of Chinese human rights and democracy activist Hu Jia for subversion after posting articles critical of the Chinese regime on the Internet highlights, say campaigners, the increasing dangers facing activists using the net in many countries across the world.

A recent Ecostorm report, The Price of Dissent, disturbingly revealed how campaigners and journalists in, amongst others, China, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Tunisia and Jordan, face serious persecution for using the net to distribute material deemed as unacceptable by the ruling authorities.

Several pressure groups, including Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty, have launched campaigns dedicated to exposing and tackling the problem.

The news of Hu Jia’s imprisonment for three and a half years comes as a new report by Amnesty International today exposes China’s appalling – and current – human rights record in Tibet and elsewhere in the country. Campaigners are critical of much of the international community – and of the organisers and participants of the forthcoming Olympic Games – for turning a blind eye to the situation as the athletic games approach.

For Reporters Without Borders Internet Enemies campaign, see: http://www.rsf.org

For the Amnesty report on China’s human rights record see: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=17708

Index On Censorship http://www.indexoncensorship.org

Indonesia: new film highlights health risks of country’s wet markets


An investigative film produced by Indonesian pressure group Yudisthira – and Ecostorm – examining the health risks posed by the country’s numerous wet ‘poultry’ markets has been presented to the Indonesian government as part of a new public awareness campaign designed to highlight the links between the spread of diseases such as avian influenza and poor farming practices.

The film, created from footage obtained during undercover investigations carried out in Bali and Java, was produced as part of a pilot training programme commissioned by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and includes graphic evidence of poor animal welfare conditions and of the associated threats posed to human health.

Indonesian wet markets traditionally sell live animals out in the open. Depending on the region, animals are often caged and killed onsite for preparation. The wet markets have been frequently linked to the country’s ongoing risk from the deadly H5N1 version of avian influenza, which has so far claimed in excess of 100 lives in the country.

During a ten day Ecostorm training programme, Yudisthira campaigners received instruction in operating PD150 broadcast cameras, covert cameras, shooting basic sequences for editing, planning investigations and onsite filming, carrying out on-camera interviews, writing storyboards, and logging footage. Then, in a joint field investigation, the footage and information needed to make an effective campaign film was gathered.

Yudisthira, an active member of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) -led Asian Coalition for Farm Animals (ACFA), is currently working on a two-part advocacy campaign consisting of an assessment of poultry welfare in the wet markets of Java and an assessment of antibiotic residues in broiler chicken meat sold in the wet markets of Denpasar, Bali.

Ecostorm carried out investigative and broadcast film trainings in four countries during 2007, with three more currently planned for 2008.

For more information see:

http://www.yamp.com/balidogs
http://www.wspa.org.uk

Inside China’s “cruel and violent” trade in live dogs


An investigation into China’s trade in live dogs to feed the country’s demand for dog meat, regarded as a delicacy by many consumers, has been released in the run up to the forthcoming Olympic Games. The investigation, carried out by Ecostorm on behalf of pressure group One Voice, revealed shocking images and information never before seen by much of the outside world.

For a Sky News report on the investigation see:

news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,91266-1308739,00.html

For the full One Voice report, video and photos see:

http://www.onevoice-ear.org/english/campaigns/china/dog_report.html

Revealed: the global trade in livestock that threatens welfare, environment and human health


There’s a global trade in live farm animals taking place – a secretive and dirty business that sees millions of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and other species trucked and shipped around the world for slaughter and processing, retail and consumption.

Fuelled by the growing demand for cheap meat and meat by-products, and enabled by increasingly intensive agricultural production, this largely unreported trade not only raises serious concerns about the welfare of the transported animals, but poses much wider questions about the nature and sustainability of modern food supply and production.

Advocates of the trade claim they are simply feeding consumer demand, and that the sector is well governed, provides much needed employment and vital income, ensures regional food security and consistently maintain that welfare standards are generally high.

But in an unprecedented global operation, Ecostorm investigators, working on behalf of the Handle With Care coalition – a body made up of some of the world’s leading animal welfare pressure groups – travelled to over a dozen countries in six continents to examine the true cost of this lucrative trade to animals, people and the environment.

Working undercover and utilising a variety of unique research techniques, Ecostorm investigators tracked shipments of farm animals from Canada to Hawaii, Brazil to Lebanon, Spain to Italy, India to Bangladesh, Australia to the Middle East, Namibia and Botswana to South Africa, as well as within Thailand, Mexico, Greece and elsewhere.

The investigations, documented in a unique series of specially commissioned campaign films and cinema adverts, graphically uncover the often shocking conditions endured by millions of farm animals annually as they are transported hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles from one country to another.

Evidence obtained by investigators also exposes the negative impacts of the industry on the environment – particularly in Brazil where cattle ranching has been identified as a major cause of deforestation – and on people, especially the now near-universal plight of small-scale traditional farmers squeezed out of the market by the increasingly globalised trade in livestock.

Compelling evidence of the potential spread of animal / human diseases as a result of the trade is also revealed: in Thailand, the links between the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza and the movement of live poultry are highlighted; in Bangladesh, the thriving yet illegal trade in cattle from India is revealed as being partly responsible for the spreading of foot and mouth disease in the region.

Britain too plays a role in this global trade, with thousands of animals a year typically exported to Europe for rearing, slaughter, processing and consumption. Many of these are young calves transported principally to the Netherlands, France, Spain and elsewhere for veal production. Although restrictions in place following last year’s foot and mouth outbreaks temporarily curtailed the trade, exports of live farm animals from the UK are expected to resume imminently.

By documenting the typical international supply chains of certain meat and meat products – literally from ‘crate to plate’ – and approaching, for the first time, the subject of live farm animal transport as an issue of globalisation as well as animal welfare, the investigations and campaign films present strong visual and other evidence which show that this trade, in its current form, is both unacceptable and unsustainable.

To view the films, photos, campaign reports and other background material visit http://www.handlewithcare.tv or http://www.wspa.org.uk

Leading retailers pull Dutch veal after investigation reveals “cruel” conditions


Secret film obtained by Ecostorm in conjunction with campaign group Compassion In World Farming has resulted in several leading UK retailers – including top London department store Selfridges – to cease selling speciality veal meat from Holland.

The footage, obtained at contract farms supplying ESA and imported by Smithfield Market-based JF Edwards and Son, revealed Dutch calves being kept in barren and narrow cages that campaigners have claimed may have breached EU legislation banning veal crates, which keep the meat tender by preventing the animals developing muscle. They were banned in the UK in 1990.

CIWF’s chief policy adviser, Peter Stevenson, commented on the findings: “Apart from the legal aspects, I feel the systems shown are desperately impoverished. They represent a cynical ‘what’s the least we can get away with’ attitude rather than a genuine attempt to provide good animal welfare.”

External Links

The Independent’s (UK) coverage of the investigation
Footage from the investigation featured on the BBC Six O’Clock News

The price of dissent – investigation


As the bloody crackdown on Burmese democracy activists unfolded earlier this year, the world was able to watch thanks to the Internet and other modern technologies used to disseminate eyewitness accounts, photos and video clips.

The military junta’s attempt to impose a blackout on news of the turmoil taking place inside Burma resulted in most foreign media, particular television, being forced to rely on these dispatches from so-called ‘citizen journalists’.

In common with those organising and participating in the demostrations, those reporting on the uprising faced grave danger of arrest, imprisonment , torture and worse. A number of journalists were attacked, harassed or detained by the security forces during the crisis and at least one – the Japanese video reporter Kenji Nagai – was killed, almost certainly by the gun of a Burmese soldier.

Anyone, journalist or campaigner, caught taking photos, video – or crucially – accessing and uploading information onto the Internet faced an immediate, brutal beating and arbitrary arrest.

As the ’saffron uprising’ continued, the Burmese authorities shut down the country’s main Internet server, closed Internet cafes and severed mobile phone and landline connections in an attempt to stem the wave of electronically transmitted evidence of the atrocities taking place in Rangoon and beyond.

But Burma is not the only country where the Internet has become the frontline of the struggle against human rights abuses and for freedom of expression, or where using such technology carries a deadly risk.
Forced labour

Activists and journalists in China, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Tunisia and Jordan, amongst others, face persecution for using the net to distribute material deemed unacceptable by the ruling authorities. Such is the extent of the problem that Amnesty last year launched a major global campaign to highlight and tackle the issue.

The group used the case of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist sentenced to ten years imprisonment for ‘ illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities’, to launch irrepressible.info and expose the scale and severity of Internet repression.

Tao’s crime had amounted to emailing a US campaigning group about Chinese government warnings to news jourrnalists not to cover protests marking the anniversary of the Tiannamon Square massacre. According to Amnesty, Tao has been sent to a forced labour camp to carry out his sentence, and his wife and family harassed and threatened by state officials.

Part of the reason for such harsh repression of those using the Internet for information and awareness raising, say campaigners, is that oppressive regimes such as in China realise the potential power such technologies provide to dissenters and ordinary people alike.

“The internet has become one of the [most important] new tools for activists involved in non-violent resistance – alongside other technologies like mobile phones and desktop publishing,” Matthew Collin, author and specialist on youth and democracy movements, told Ecostorm.

“They use it to promote their message, to network and organise clandestinely, and to evade censorship and communicate with the world in situations where the government controls the media or shuts down alternative outlets.”

Over the last decade, the Internet has indeed radically transformed the nature of activism and campaigning and, correspondingly, resulted in widespread but under-reported human rights abuses.

An early example of the Internet being successfully used by activists came when Mexican peasant group the Zapatistas used email and websites to alert the world to government troops’ violent assaults on peasant held land, in the mid-nineties.

The Zapatistas actions not only garnered unprecedented international support that pressured the Mexican authorities to cease their attacks, they, for the first time, dramatically linked up a powerful mix of activists from both first and third world nations.

In the Balkans, during the Kosovo war in 1999, Father Sava Janjic, Archdeacon of Kosovo’s Decani Monastery, caused a similar stir after his constant email dispatches from inside the conflict zone uniquely galvanised opposition to war from a surprisingly diverse range of people and political groupings.

Dubbed the ‘cybermonk’, Fr Sava had shown – as the Zapatistas, and similar resistance groups in East Timor, Indonesia and Brazil had done so previously – how the relatively new medium of the Internet could be used to reach out to huge new audiences at the touch of a button, with dramatic results.

In the following months, as NATO planes bombed Serbia, the Internet also became a vital lifeline to the outside world for anti-Milosevic campaigners after independent radio station B92 was forced to broadcast online as the Belgrade authorities moved to close down transmissions.

Similarly, youth resistance group Otpor – widely recognised for helping to destabilise the Milosevic regime from inside Serbia – successully used the Internet, email and text messages to help organise opposition actions against Belgrade’s rule following the conflict, often in the face of brutal reprisal’s from the Serbian security forces.

Otpor’s pioneering use of the Internet also saw the dissemination of rare pictures and information from inside the closed country to the outside world and is credited with inspiring democracy movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe in the years following Milosevic’s fall from power.

In the build up to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, youth resistance groups used a website named Maidan to post leaked information and documents from government sources – encouraging anger and further dissent – and for organising so-called ‘flashmob’ instant protests.

In Belarus, prior to the presidential elections in 2006, one youth movement used similar methods in an attempt to oust the government – but was raided by the authorities, its computers seized and website closed down.

Although the use of the Internet and other modern communication technologies by pro-democracy activists is widely documented, commentators are keen to point out that others, with less democratic ideals, have also been quick to utlise the net .
Counter activism

Matthew Collin highlights one such instance: “In Kyrgyzstan, before their uprising, a youth resistance group discovered that government loyalists had created a similar website to theirs, with a similar name, but full of pro-government propaganda. It was a canny trick to try and undermine them.”

Similar games are currently being played out online by pro and anti Serbian groups over the future of the disputed territory of Kosovo.

As first uncovered by The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, savekosova.org and savekosovo.org – the first set up by the American Council for Kosova and the second by the American Council for Kosovo – are virtually identical websites.

But despite similar layouts and overall design, the content of the two portals is radically different. One supports independence for Kosovo and the second backs continued Serbian rule over the region. To add to the potential confusion for web users, both sites use global paranoia about Islamic terrorism as an argument.

Such ’smoke and mirrors’ campaigning by activists over the Internet is not unique to Eastern Europe. In the US anti-activist websites such as Activistcash.com, created by the Centre for Consumer Freedom, have sprung up to counter the growing popularity of environmental, safe food and animal rights organisations all using the web to expand their supporter base.

Such counter initiatives began to appear following the rise of online activist news services such as Indymedia. The portal, which now has numerous editions in dozens of countries globally, grew out of the anti-globalisation protests in Seattle, London and Genoa, and provides what activists describe as “an antidote to the mainstream media.”

Indymedia enabled, for the first time in an semi-professional fashion, campaigners and citizen journalists from virtually any viewpoint or pressure group to upload and publish online reportage, comment, photographs and video – bypassing what they saw as official censorship and misrepresentation by the mainstream media.

In the UK, the Undercurrents video news network was at the centre of efforts by activists, particularly road protesters, hunt saboteurs, anti GM and arms trade campaigners, to use video on the Internet to expose and highlight environmental, animal welfare and human rights abuses.

Larger, less grassroots, campaigning organisations have too utilised the Internet to advance their positions. Greenpeace was amongst the first to fully explore the potential of e-campaigning, encouraging its members to lobby government and business leaders about ecological destruction via email.

In the US, the WildAid organisation – which has the single aim of ending the global illegal trade in wildlife – successfully pioneered the use of the Internet to deliver high (TV) quality video adverts, or Public Service Announcements, to an audience of millions.

With the advent of so-called web.2 technology, new, interactive and highly populist web portals including Facebook, You Tube and MySpace have also assisted, in varying capacities, in disseminating the messages and activities of activist and pressure groups. At one stage, You Tube was carrying over fifty different clips during the recent Burmese uprising.

Although US and European activists involved in utlising the Internet for change have been targeted – Otpor members were brutally assaulted and imprisoned by Serbian police, and Indymedia reporters attacked in a notorious raid during the Genoa protests in 2001 – it is campaigners and reporters elsewhere in the world who have, and are, sufffering some of the most serious repression.
Hunger strikes

In June this year, Vietnamese dissident Nguyen Vu Binh was finally released from the country’s Ba Sao prison after serving five years of a seven year sentence for using the Internet to criticise the Communist authorities and being convicted of ’spying’.

A former journalist, Vu Binh was also planning to set up a new political party in Vietnam, which is illegal as the communist authorities state that only one political party is allowed.

Although the Vietnamese government was praised for releasing Vu Binh early, campaigners point out that at least eight other political and ‘cyber’ activists have been jailed recently for ‘conducting propaganda against the state’ .

Similarly, in Tunisia, human rights activist Mohammed Abbou was released from prison earlier this year after being punished for publishing several news articles critical of the Tunisian authorities on the Internet. Abbou was forced to carry out hunger strikes to help highlight his position and was reportedly harassed and ill treated during his detention.

In Jordan, Ahmad Oweidi, a scholar and political activist, was recently imprisioned for ‘heading an illegal organization, harming the government’s reputation and violating the country’s e-mail laws’ after sending e-mails discussing alleged corruption and human rights violations in Jordan to officials and newspapers.

Many other dissident voices who’ve exploited the Internet remain in prison globally.

In China particularly, dozens of activists charged with offences arising from using the Internet to further their opinions and causes are currently in prison – or in hiding – after repeated crackdowns by the authorities on Internet freedoms. Amnesty says China and Vietnam head the list of countries most heavily involved in Internet repression.

But it is not only such direct targeting of individuals, say campaigners, that poses a risk to Internet freedom. According to the Open Net Initiative (ONI), a project that aims to document global patterns of Internet content filtering and surveillance behind national firewalls, many governments are secretly blocking web sites containing content deemed unsuitable and some are attempting to avoid widespread Internet use in general.

In Iran, for example, g-mail and Facebook have been periodically unavailable after being ’switched off’ by the authorities; in China, many external sites – particularly those carrying evidence of human rights abuses inside the country including Tibet – are simply unavailable. A similar situation exists in Burma and several central Asian countries, amongst others. In some, such as Turkmenistan, the number of Internet users is minimal.

Ian Brown, an ONI researcher based at Oxford University, told Ecostorm: “For many governments the Internet as a whole represents economic potential so they are keen in general, it is more of a case of controlling what [users] see rather than trying to curtail its usage completely.”

Amnesty’s UK director Kate Allen argues that unless action is taken on a global scale to highlight all forms of Internet repression – covert and overt – there is a danger of the world creating two Internets, “one that is an arena for free and peaceful exhange of ideas, and another that is a tool for repression.”

A version of this report appears in Index On Censorship