Katrin McGuaran SOMO 2013On 30 March, a report was published by SOMO, an independent research organisation based in Amsterdam, that detailed the tax avoidance scheme that Canadian mining company Eldorado Gold employs to move profits from its Greek mining operation through the Netherlands, thereby denying Greece urgently needed tax revenues. The report, Fool's Gold, received international attention, due in no small part to Greece's profound on-going financial crisis. We asked NUJ member Katrin McGauran, one of the authors of the report, to tell us about how the campaign came about.

There are a great many corporate tax avoidance schemes these days. What makes this one noteworthy?

True enough! In a report from 2013 we identified eight extractive industry companies who not only use the Netherlands to avoid tax in poor countries such as Sudan and Indonesia, but are also associated with human rights violations in these countries. Eldorado Gold is yet another example of this tax and human rights implication of the Netherlands. We got to know about the case when a group of Greek activists called Reinform protested in front of the mailbox company offices of Eldorado Gold in Amsterdam in solidarity with the local community in Greece that is opposing the mining operation there.The company is destroying old forests in a tourist region and open-pit gold mining is well-known to poison the environment beyond repair. Even small-scale gold mining in the area has led to a beach in the village of Stratoni, where the company is based, being closed for swimming since the 1980s. And whilst Eldorado Gold's investment is presented as a solution to the crisis by generating tax income and the negative side effects of the mining a necessary evil, they use these schemes to avoid paying taxes. One thing notable is that it was relatively transparent and simple. We could piece it together from public sources. In fact there is nothing illegal about it, at least until a court finds differently.

And of course this case is pertinent because Greece has a major budget deficit, the causes of which politicians and the mainstream media explain as largely internally created. At the same time, the Dutch finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, as chair of the European finance ministers (Eurogroup), demanded cuts in public expenditure as a precondition for Greece to receive credit, and speaks about necessary tax reforms in Greece, whilst his own country, together with Luxembourg, the second biggest tax leak for Greece, causes millions of euros of losses every year. The head of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Jucker, was finance minister in Luxembourg at a time the country was became one of the world's biggest tax havens. To quote Eva Joly, MEP for the Green group, to call this hypocrisy is putting it mildly.

While companies, and the Dutch government, always point out these schemes are legal – firms have teams of expensive lawyers and accountants finding loopholes in tax laws – the effect is disastrous and of course you can question whether this is in fact legal – it is certainly against spirit of the law. Eroding the tax base of a country this way deprives its citizens of public resources, and that that has a huge negative impact on the quality of peoples' lives. Fundamentally it's a human rights issue.

somo fools gold cover

When the report was launched, Fool's Gold got a lot of media attention. How did you pull that off?

We are a research organisation with a mission to effect social change, and as such we work closely together with groups who actively promote progressive change or represent public interests. For this campaign, I'd like to highlight the role of Hellenic Mining Watch and The Press Project in Greece, both of who did fantastic work.

A first draft of the report was actually presented in Greece to the public and experts for comments already in November of last year. We worked on revising the report until February, but waited with the publication because our Greek partners were concerned that it would be overshadowed by the recent election and the new government's tortuous negotiations with the Troika. So, we held off a bit. Eventually the Greek partners decided that the time was right and we were very lucky to have Eva Joly, who has a long history in fighting corporate corruption and tax avoidance, agreed to speak at the panel debate in Athens, that generated a lot of media attention, too.

The timing was also dependent on an exclusive with a journalist from the big Dutch daily, NRC, who researched the story independently. They published it on Monday 30 March (Multinationals ontwijken belasting in Griekenland via Nederland). Once the other Dutch news channels saw a major daily going with the story, they jumped aboard too. That's usually how it works. Thanks to our Canadian colleagues at Mining Watch Canada, it also made the main Canadian news outlets. Among other things, they brought it to the attention of the well-known Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein, who tweeted it to her 260k followers. That was great to see!

The big challenge with these kinds of fairly complex, arcane topics is of course framing the narrative, turning them into good news stories which are accessible to a wide public. In this case, the hypocrisy of Holland facilitating tax avoidance schemes that wreck the Greek economy while at the same time as preaching austerity to the Greeks turned out to be a very compelling narrative.

Any signals yet that the campaign has had an impact?

Well, the Dutch Lower House has scheduled a debate on tax avoidance sometime after May. So, that's promising. The European Parliament has decided to set up a special committee to investigate this type of tax dodging in Europe, that also helped a lot with the media coverage, and puts political pressure on the Netherlands to change its tax system. At the same time, neoliberal economic policies have become very deeply rooted in the Netherlands. I've spoken officials from the tax department who sincerely believe that attracting foreign investment, no matter if genuine in the sense of material economic activities, or mailbox company-related, which is a simple pass-through, is the best thing they can do for the country's economy. They simply have no idea of the destructive impact of these policies have on the rest of the world. Or they believe in the myth that international competition can ever be fair. The Dutch Ministry of Finance always responds to critique with the argument that if other countries' tax bases are being eroded, they simply need to change their own tax laws to close the loopholes. This was the respose of State Secretary of Finance's Eric Wiebe to our report. The fact that most countries in this world do not have the means to do so because of the major power imbalances that exist between corporations and poor states, or simply corruption in countries where the state represents only the interests of big business, is not relevant to them, even though it is the ordinary people, in this case in Greece, that suffer from the Dutch tax haven regime. So, it remains an uphill battle.

Photo credits: SOMO

The Liberal Democrats have tabled a new Save Our Sources law which is set to be put to a vote in the House of Commons on 23 February.

The amendment to the Serious Crime Bill proposes altering the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to ensure that police officers can no longer view journalists’ phone records without the approval of a judge.

The law change enacts a recommendation made by the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office in its report on police surveillance of journalists published on 4 February.

Read more: Save Our Sources law to curb police spying on journalists will go to Commons vote this month

The new year brought some hope for the three al-Jazeera journalists, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed jailed last year in Egypt on charges of spreading false news. On 1 January a court in Cairo order a retrial after prosecutors acknowledged there was serious problems with the verdicts. 

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Tony Sheldon 2013

Long-time NUJ member Tony Sheldon has written a book, De verschrikking van de nacht - Ooggetuigen van de slag om Arnhem, for which he interviewed numerous eye witnesses of the Battle of Arnhem, also known as Operation Market Garden. It will be published on 18 February by Kosmos Uitgevers. We asked him how his book came about. 

 

How did you become interested in the Battle of Arnhem?

Ten years ago I pitched an idea to the British Medical Journal about a Dutch general practitioner who has shot by the Nazis during the battle after helping wounded British soldiers. Even 60 years later local people still gathered to remember him. I attended the commemoration and met people who had witnessed events surrounding the murder. One elderly woman in particular had, as a teenager, last seen her father marched off that day with a gun in his back. He was among the five men shot. I interviewed her at length and she put me in touch with other surviving eyewitnesses to the battle. I found the stories incredibly moving and realised that unless I recorded them now many would soon be lost altogether. Later a journalist on the Gelderlander Harry van der Ploeg wrote about me and I was interviewed on local radio resulting in a flood of people contacting me with their stories.

 

For a journalist, what are the particular challenges of doing this kind of oral history?

Interviewing elderly people about traumatic events which took place 60 to 70 years before is an honour, an art and a huge challenge, which took every bit of my 30 years’ experience with journalism. You must be very respectful and sensitive. Some people cried, others cancelled after the thought of an interview sparked recurrent nightmares, others became dear friends. The art was simply to listen and let them talk. Sometimes tiny little details were hugely revealing; or what they clearly did not want to talk about. Others talked at great length about the general history of the battle, while I carefully prompted them asking: “Yes but what happened to you? What did you see, feel and smell? What today stays in your mind?” The beauty is that after a while you know so much about the battle, about what happened in a particular room at a particular time of day, that you can win the confidence of your interviewee some of whom had literally waited a lifetime to tell someone.

 

de verschrikking van de nacht omslag 2015

There were many famous and not so famous WWII battles. What in your opinion makes Market Garden noteworthy?

Arnhem, like Stalingrad, was a Second World War battle in which the civilians were often trapped amid the fighting which took place in their kitchens, bedrooms, gardens and streets. So it was a battle in which the civilians had a front-line view of the action. Elsewhere there have been countless military history books based on veterans – the soldiers – memories; here was a chance to use the same technique but from the civilians’ viewpoint.

Even by standards of warfare Arnhem has a particularly tragic narrative. The Allies were winning, Brussels had fallen without a shot, the Dutch on Mad Tuesday (September 5, 1944) were jubilant at the thought of liberation. From Arnhem, heavy shelling could be heard in the distance. Then it all went wrong. Over-ambition by the Allies, a series of tactical blunders in the use of airborne troops and the fierce determination of battle–hardened SS troops to defend their Fatherland, meant the Second World War dragged on for another eight months. The Dutch north of the Rhine continued to endure an increasingly brutal occupation and widespread starvation during the bitterly cold Hongerwinter of 1944-45, while those around Arnhem were evicted from what had then become a forbidden combat zone, and their empty homes were plundered.

 

During the course of your research, what insight surprised you the most?

What is shocking was the strong desire on the part of most civilians after the war to forget their suffering, to move on and down play their experiences; while at the same time showing a huge determination to remember the sacrifice of the airborne troops. Asked even 60 years later, many replied “it was not us who were the heroes it was the airborne”. For the civilians, war and occupation was a horrible experience they wanted to forget. They wanted to work hard and enjoy post-war prosperity. Many did not return to Arnhem, of those who did few talked or wrote about their experiences at the time. Neighbours who had shared moments of extreme danger fell silent about the past. And yet, often decades later a sight or sound would trigger a flashback and a need to talk – the noise of an aircraft engine, a discarded boot, the sound and smell of fireworks, a candle-lit cellar restaurant.


Have you any ideas for another book?

Just like a news story or a feature, another idea crops up while you are writing it. There were so many stories, angles, aspects of the Battle of Arnhem that one could chase up. I would like to research in more detail specific tales of heroic support for their would-be liberators, not just from the resistance but from ordinary people and in particular from young teenagers or children wise in the ways of war before their time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The NUJ rejects the new draft code of practice for the UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which allows the police and other authorities to access journalists' communications without any independent process or judicial oversight. The new draft denies journalists an opportunity to defend the confidentiality of their sources, and information that deserves to be in the public domain won't see the light of day as a consequence. The NUJ believes that RIPA powers have been systematically abused and the law must change.

Source: RIPA – amendments are not enough, UK government needs to change the law

 

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