Thursday, March 04, 2010

Banned in Syria - and at Auckland museum

At least one reader of the Scoop Review of Books is pleased that the site has republished my blog post defending Mohsen al Attar from the attacks of Chris Trotter. Commenting under the republished article, 'RKM' reveals that Reading the Maps is banned in his homeland of Syria, 'and so Mr Hamilton must be tracked via Scoop'.

The greatest compliment any writer can receive is censorship at the hands of a dictatorship. I was delighted when Sinologist Michael Arnold informed me a couple of years ago that this blog had been banned in China, and then disappointed when he went on to explain that the suppression of my feedom of speech was nothing personal, but instead part of the increasingly shambolic attempts by tens of thousands of poorly-paid government agents to keep the dodgier parts of the internet out of Cathay. I suspect that the unavailability of Reading the Maps in Syria stems from the same sort of generalised campaign against the unregulated and non-corporate parts of the internet, but I'd like to believe that this blog has been singled out for attention by that country's monarchical Ba'ath regime. Perhaps President-for-life Bashar al-Assad considers my posts on burning issues like the unpublished writings of EP Thompson, wacky theories of New Zealand pre-history, and the art collection of Alan Gibbs to be desperate threats to the stability of his rule?

Bashar is clearly a bit of a tech geek: before he inherited the presidency from his father in 2001, he was the head of the Syrian Computer Society, a group charged with overseeing the belated introduction of the internet into his country. Is it inconceivable that the President-for-life chanced upon this blog whilst cruising the net late one night in downtown Damascus, and was annoyed by the unrestricted freedom of speech evident in our comments boxes, or by the generally low tolerance we have here for hereditary monarchies that bury their critics under ornamental gardens?

But you don't have to go to Syria or China to find regimes determined to curtail internet freedom for selfish political reasons: I've been informed by a reliable source that this blog has been banned from the Auckland War Memorial Museum, where I worked in 2007 and 2008. Staff members who tried to pay a quick visit to these pages from their work computers have watched their screens fill with an ACCESS BLOCKED sign, and a warning against trying to visit websites with objectionable material.

I suspect that the museum's under-siege boss, Vanda Vitali, began to find this site objectionable back in December, after I published an internal document critical of her, along with a brief memoir of life under her regime. Hundreds of visitors have read the post in question, and a series of former employees have used the comments box under the post to vent some of their anger at Vitali. Current museum staff who have been unable to access my post on Vitali at work have simply read it at home.

The ban Vitali has placed on this blog highlights both her hamfistedness and her intolerance of any opposition to her dictates. During the 'restructuring' process that resulted in the sacking of scores of distinguished and long-serving employees in 2008, Vanda attempted to deal with growing opposition to her rule by restricting the e mailing rights of museum workers. In a large and nuanced workplace like Auckland's museum, where staff can work away for days in the splendid isolation of a library archive or a curatorial storage room, e mails are important source of communication and cohesion. Vanda's insistence that 'all-staff' e mails - that is, messages which were sent by an individual to every other member of staff - had to be filtered through her office succeeded in slowing down communications, annoying many workers, and increasing the size of the museum's union branch.

Vitali's latest attempt to use the internet to bolster her rule has ended, predictably, in farce. After being instructed to write a hagiographical account of the life and works of his embattled master for wikipedia, Vitali's head of communications Russell Briggs made the mistake of doing his job from a museum computer, during work hours. When he was outed in the national media, which slated him for ignoring wikipedia's rule that entries be 'unbiased and balanced', Briggs posted an almost sublimely disingenuous justification for his blunder in a comments box at David Farrar's Kiwiblog.

According to Briggs, it wasn't necessary for Vitali's wikipedia entry to mention any of the numerous scandals she has been involved in during the two years of her rule - the endless clashes with employees, the high-profile stoush with the Hillary family over Sir Ed's papers, the deliberate snubs to Maori and to World War Two veterans, and so on and on - because 'incidents' like these shouldn't be 'singled out'. As far as Briggs is concerned, every director of a museum 'lives in the shadow of controversy', and therefore the controversies that have swirled around Vitali aren't worth wasting time with on wikipedia.

It would be interesting to extend Briggs' logic to other jobs involving controversy. All important politicians are inevitably involved in controversies: should we therefore omit to mention these controversies when we provide summaries of their careers in places like wikipedia? Will Briggs be logging on to wikipedia to rewrite the entries for Hone Harawira and Rodney Hide, so that these entries no longer include references to the controversies over the use of public money which engulfed both those politicians last year? Does Briggs favour altering the entry for Richard Nixon, so that it no longer mentions that insignificant little Watergate controversy?

Unfortunately for Russell Briggs and his boss, wikipedia is not as easy to control as the Auckland museum's computer system. The last time I checked, Brigg's ode to the genius of Vitali had been substantially altered by a series of wikipedia contributors. In an irony which Vitali will probably not appreciate, her wikipedia entry now concludes with an excerpt from the blog post I made about her back in December. I've noticed scores of visitors coming to this blog from the wikipedia entry over the past few days, so I suppose I ought to thank Vitali and Briggs for bringing me new readers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is VV still in her job?

7:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You guys really don’t get it, do you? (And will likely never get it)
You continue to shake your fist at God, reject His word, and persecute His prophets – but ultimately, and sadly for you, God will have the last laugh:

Psa 37:12 The wicked plotteth against the just, and gnasheth upon him with his teeth.
Psa 37:13 The Lord shall laugh at him: for he seeth that his day is coming.
Psa 37:14 The wicked have drawn out the sword, and have bent their bow, to cast down the poor and needy, and to slay such as be of upright conversation.

2:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It gets even better: I'm also head of IT at the Museum!

While I'm not going to respond to your astonishing vitriol about me, I will take pains to point out one thing: neither your blog, nor any other individual website has ever, ever been intentionally blocked at the Museum. As a public institution, we have a fairly lightly applied layer of Web Marshal over all internal and public computers,and sometimes sites get caught in the profanity or nudity snares. Even the Herald and Stuff have had that happen, but we always tweak the settings whenever asked by staff.

So, no, you're not banned, you never were, and your opinions are always welcome. Sorry to disappoint you.

Russell Briggs

4:26 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

While I'm not going to respond to your astonishing vitriol about me

Somebody get this man a dictionary! Where is Books in Homes when you need it?

This is a good post but I am confused about the meaning of the Simon Doull picture at the top.

8:43 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For Vanda Vitali and her inner circle of true believers all criticism is by definition vitriolic, crazed, bitter...and all critical ex-employees are disgruntled, hateful, crazy...that's why they're all gagged from speaking out as part of their severance package...

these people can't handle critical feedbaxck in any form...and it was the same in Los Angeles...

9:55 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Auckland has a museum?

4:37 pm  
Anonymous mike said...

"...we have a fairly lightly applied layer of Web Marshal over all internal and public computers,and sometimes sites get caught in the profanity or nudity snares."

How very convenient, eh. Are you really sure there's not a "Vitali" filter?

The fact that Mr. Briggs is also head of IT makes his professed naivity about Wikipedia protocol even less convincing.

5:32 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Well, I did post a youtube clip from the '70s sci fi film Zardoz, in which Sean Connery runs round in a red jockstrap, recently: perhaps that counts as objectionable nudity? ;)

10:41 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

It would be interesting to hear from staff at the museum, for instance to find out whether other NZ blogs are blocked or not, whether hosted by blogspot or otherwise.

10:47 am  
Anonymous RKM said...

Actually (perhaps my favourite word in this english language), the block is for 'blogspot' addresses, but for some reason a cached search seems to get around the problem. Or you can say 'feis-book' to the internet comptroller who will enter a proxy address that sets ones log in as 'Riyadh' or somewhere in California or Pennsylvania.

In honester news, RKM left Syria in early February and now resides in Tbilisi, Georgia. There were visa issues. They would not extend a tourist visa twice.

In funnier news, the url connected to I is actually to this Mr Giovanni commenter who has worked out why I felt so comfortable in Syria and why I wanted to give Bashar the benefit of the doubting.

8:09 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Syria, I'm sure, would be a fascinating place to live - it's only the hereditary monarchy thing I object to.

And now you're in Georgia, eh? I recently saw a (faded) bumper sticker in south Auckland that said 'I love Abkhazia'. There was a faded flag on the sticker too (I assume it was the Abkhazian flag). I was pretty excited...

8:30 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

In funnier news, the url connected to I is actually to this Mr Giovanni commenter who has worked out why I felt so comfortable in Syria and why I wanted to give Bashar the benefit of the doubting.

Reassure me that this has nothing to do with me.

8:34 pm  
Anonymous RKM said...


Actually, I was meaninging to say that Mr Giovanni has pointed to the correct yet subconscious vision of Mr Bashar Al-Assad (peace be upon he) as a doubleganger for Mr Simon Doull who I remember from my childhooding. I was appreciatinging that very much and recalled my time spent in the Islamic Republic of Iran where I noted the similarities between one Ayatollah and one Sir. If only Mr Khomeini could mumble or grumble in a Scots accent. As a payment for my error, let me direct you, Mr Giovanni, friend, to the attached URL which i believe you will find interesting if the breadth of your knowledge has not already led you to it.

And of Abkahzia, some of my best friends are Mingrellian internally displaced peoples. It is rumoured, in this neighbourhood (Vake) that there exists one Aotearoan/New Zealand man who has married an Abkahzian and who lives here or there (there being A/NZ, not Abkhazia). Perhaps he had the car. Or perhaps his wife did.

And as for the hereditary/monarchy thing, there is an interesting story about how Bashar became President when the other son, who was undergoing the grooming, died in a car crash. The other son was of the international playboy type, while Bashar appears to be the studious type. Perhaps that, rather than some subconcious link between Mssr Doull and Bashar explains my willingness to give Bashar a chance.

9:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a Auckland War Memorial Museum employee and my access to this blog was blocked

5:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The blocking of websites at the museum appears random - different staff in the same department seem to have different success accessing this blog. Next up for investigation should be the IT services company who Russell is "managing" into ripping the museum off whilst providing shocking service.

10:06 pm  
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