Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Life after Death Row

Great story from The Guardian about the freed Death Row prisoners in the States and their campaigns for justice.

Death-row survivor John Thompson is angry, but not bitter. Which is remarkable, given that the prosecutor in his original trial for murder in 1984 deliberately withheld evidence that proved he was innocent. "I'm angry," he says, "because that man was trying to murder me. He knew I did not commit that crime, had the evidence to prove it, but it made no difference. He was going to have me killed in the chair to further his own career." Of all the cases of death-row prisoners who have been exonerated in recent years, Thompson's is one of the most troubling. Jerry Deagan, the prosecutor in question, only confessed that he had concealed the blood evidence that would have absolved Thompson when he found he was dying of liver cancer, 11 years after Thompson's conviction. In an attempt to clear his conscience, Deagan told his colleague, Mike Riehlmann, what he had done.
But even when Deagan died, it was almost five years before Riehlmann came clean and earned a brief suspension from Louisiana's Supreme Court for his "inaction". After 14 years on death row and seven execution dates, Thompson was given a retrial in 2004. The jury took just a few minutes to acquit him, and later he walked out of Louisiana's Angola State prison with just $10 in his pocket for his trouble. Now he campaigns against the death penalty. And not just for those who might be innocent. "There is nothing about justice in death penalty cases in the US," he told me at the annual conference of Lifelines (, the organisation that arranges pen-friends for those on death row, where he and I were guest speakers. "It's all about votes and careers."
He opened his briefcase and took out a large photograph of a burly-looking man wearing gold-rimmed spectacles. The man, Jim Williams, was the senior prosecutor who oversaw Thompson's original trial. In the picture, Williams wears a look of pride and stands behind a large desk, upon which stands a small model of an electric chair. Attached to the chair are the photographs of five black men. Thompson's picture, in the centre, is the largest. "He was especially proud to send me to the chair," says Thompson, "and it was all based on lies."

Here's a link to John Thomspon's site and new work, helping to rehabilitate prisoners.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Vote for editor of 'The Journalist'

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is voting in a new editor of its house magazine, The Journalist, shortly. If some of the discussion I've seen are anything to go by, passions about the role - and about journalism, its future and future of the NUJ - are running high.

The nice folks over at are hosting debates and information about the candidates, so worth checking them out.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Governments using journalists to spy

A dangerous precedent is being set. Governments around the world are using journalists -- or 'fake' journalists -- to gain access to movements they consider a threat, then using those journalists to either spy on or (if they're disguised police officers) to arrest people.

It's happening in Nepal, Israel and Canada, to name just a few places. And it's got journalists around the world pretty riled up: for if people can't trust us (as little as they do now), how will we get to report on stories if everyone suspects we're working for the police or intelligence units? It's bad enough with some of the conspiracy-minded people I talk to, who seem to believe they're being bugged from the lamposts and that the "Zionists" are out to get them; think how much worse it could get if governments routinely used us as a cover to infiltrate others.


IFEX reports

The Nepali government intends to use journalists as informants as part of a security plan, report ARTICLE 19 and the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), a decision that would undermine the role of independent media and increase attacks on journalists. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) reports that Israeli security forces
were disguised as photojournalists in the midst of a demonstration on 8 and 9 October and arrested protesters.

This issue is not reported frequently and it is difficult to prove the practice takes place, says Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). CJFE last documented a case of a police officer in Canada impersonating a journalist in order to have greater access to a protest in 2008.

According to ARTICLE 19 and FNJ, the use of Nepali informants as security informants is a breach of the code of conduct issued by the Nepali Press Council. ARTICLE 19, the FNJ, and another Nepali group, Freedom Forum, have called on Nepali authorities to remove any proposal to use journalists as spies and to ensure the safety and security of journalists.

"The Government's plan is opportunistic and irresponsible," said FNJ Chair Dharmendra Jha. "Threats and attacks against, and even murder of journalists are rampant in Nepal and to propose to use journalists as informants is at best grossly negligent."

In Jerusalem, Israeli security forces posed as photojournalists by carrying cameras and dressing like Palestinians, reports MADA. They arrested several young protestors at a demonstration last week against Israeli practices regarding Al Aqsa Mosque. MADA comments that this is a violation of international laws and charters and endangers the lives of journalists.

Previously in Canada, a police officer pretended to be a journalist at a Mohawk rally in conjunction with the Aboriginal Day of Protest in 2007. CJFE comments that this practice undermines the media's position as an independent third party, threatening reporters' safety and ability to access stories and sources. Police pretending to be journalists threatens free press as it creates an environment where citizens cannot trust that those who identify themselves as journalists truly are journalists. Police
action has "chilled" potential sources, says CJFE.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Fred of The Philippines

Photo: Ermita, the "sin city" of Manila

I just discovered this story of mine during an office clearout. I decided to type it up again: it ain't hopeful but it is 'real'. And most of all, it is true.



I first met Fred in a brothel*. He had a woman on either side of him, laughing and chatting away in Tagalog, the Manilan language. They eyed each other nervously whenever his coarse and frequent laughter disturbed the other patrons and caused them to turn and stare. None of us knew his background but his clown-like face, all furrows and bulbous nose, looked lonely, weary and afraid, even then. He looked like someone’s grandpa gone astray, turning up white-haired and inappropriate in one of the sin capitals of the world.

I got to know Fred pretty well during my three months in The Philippines. We’d meet up in some provincial centre, all the travellers gathered in the same bar or hotel that the guidebook promised would be deserted, and talk about England. His England. I’ve been to pre-war Fulham whilst gambling in the boiler room of a steamship and worked with the lads down at Peckham sorting office, sitting on a tiny tropical island. I probably travelled more with his words than my own feet.

Looking at the spreading web of his tattoos depressed me. It spoke of lost opportunities. His hands and body didn’t move much, just kind of collapsed inwards to eventually protrude in a fragile beer gut. But his eyes were alive with vitriol and longing to live. He knew he didn’t have that long, that was apparent in his bitter and sarcastic talk about friends and family deserting him over the years. I think that Fred must be one of the loneliest people I’ve ever met. He was 79 when I last saw him.

I often asked him why’d he’d put to the road so late in life. In his sober moments, which were few, he told me.

As the youngest of four children, he’d been reared by his mother and sisters in a Fulham (west London) terrace. Their father deserted them before Fred reached his teens. His stepfather beat him. He left school at 14 to do a variety of jobs, never settling and never sticking at anything for a length of time. He blamed it on The Depression.

The War changed his life. Or so he said. He’d never travelled further than Bognor Regis (an English seaside town) and now “some bastard in Whitehall” had sent him to join the 14th Army in India and Burma. The Forgotten Army. They were abandoned with their half-competent officers, more concerned with observing the rigours of protocol than the health and well-being of their men.

He’d been sent to guard temples where teenage girls, sold by their parents, were lowered kicking and screaming onto a hallowed spike, symbolically removing their virginity and consecrating them to a secretive caste of prostitutes. He vividly described the sight of their bright garlands spattered with blood, silken robes parting over twisted, brown flesh. After this he considered all Indians, and most Asians, to be “animals”. The irony of our Philippines surroundings seemed lost on him.

He deserted after a couple of years. The situation was forced on him, he said, by 2,000 Japanese soldiers “running down me bloody throat”. He’d been based in the Burmese jungle when a naked white woman ran into his camp and began babbling, in a Glaswegian accent, that the Japanese were advancing only a couple of miles away (she, by the way, had been an anthropology student who’d installed herself as the leader of the tribe she’d come to study).

“Them fucking officers” ordered her to be arrested because she’d entered their mess, off-limits to anyone below the rank of Second Lieutenant or, for that matter, a civilian. Fred and his mates fled when several hundred tribesmen surrounded their superiors and held them until the Japanese arrived.

He’d been fleeing from himself ever since. As a postman back in Peckham, he’d spent the next 30 years in four unhappy marriages. Fred’s charm did not lie with women (he was robbed twice by prostitutes and charged at least double for their services during the times I met him in The Philippines) and he’d managed to alienate his only daughter.

Postwar England had obviously not brought happiness or fulfillment. He was pensioned off to live in a high-rise flat somewhere in his native Fulham, griping about Maggie Thatcher and femalekind in general to a cold and silent audience. After five years he set off to travel the world, scraping together the savings he had left and vowing, he told me, never to return. He’d been more places in those few years than I’d been in my entire life.

I sat and watched this incongruous figure, spindly legs jutting from beneath fake Fred Perry shorts, and failed to imagine him as a young man. That pained me because I felt I was doing an injustice to his memories. His lips quivered and he frothed everso slightly at the mouth, a broken old man reliving an alien youth. He talked too much. My companions – a motley assortment of minor drug dealers, Norwegian runaways and a hotelier-in-training – laughed and took the piss. Fred would halt his tale and join in with them.

He hadn’t escaped the sorrow of his life by travelling. He was still unsettled. This was the impression you had talking to him, an old man reeling drunk on San Miguel beer and bitter memories. At those times he would begin swearing at everyone around him, the Filippinos, prostitutes and us. He didn’t seem to care, perhaps because he’d lost all he had already. It embarrassed me to see him like this.

I doubt that Fred is still alive. I hope that he isn’t because his weariness and despair I found painful to witness. I shall strive to make my life a success in memory of that man and hope that wherever he is now, he rests in peace.

* Ed note: Most of the bars for the backpackers were also brothels.