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Digital authoritarianism and the threat to global democracy



Digital technologies empower the growing number of autocratic governments around the globe to surveil their citizens more comprehensively and for less cost than ever before. These technologies promise to concentrate power in the hands of a few, and, as they prove effective and efficient, set in motion a vicious cycle of deeper and more pervasive surveillance. In the process, digital-abetted authoritarianism contributes to undermining global democracy.

By Justin Sherman, July 25, 2019

From FitBits to smart refrigerators, more and more devices are hooked into the global internet every day. There, they collect information all the time. In tandem, artificial intelligence (AI) tools and other algorithmic systems are enabling unprecedented surveillance of physical spaces through technology like facial recognition as well as monitoring of online spaces through capabilities such as real-time bulk data analysis. Governments are increasingly using these digital technologies to enhance the extent to which they can monitor their own citizens: internet surveillance tools are used to spy on web traffic; facial recognition is used to track individuals in crowded public places; and GPS trackers permit the real-time geolocation of people, vehicles, and other objects.

Governments may have different motivations for using these technologies. They can be used not only to enhance public safety or implement e-governance programs, but to censor unfavorable news or suppress protest movements. Some uses are less democratic than others. In Ethiopia, for instance, the government has deployed internet monitoring technologies to block many kinds of online content. Moscow, reportedly, is now weaving AI into its urban monitoring systems. Meanwhile, the Philippines has been applying video surveillance tools to its law enforcement efforts, including in Davao City, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s “drug war” has involved thousands of extrajudicial killings.

As these digital surveillance and control systems become more effective, the incentives for the government to bolster them grow stronger. It’s a vicious cycle: effective uses of high-tech surveillance will only encourage governments to invest more in improving, widening, and deepening these systems. For instance, in China, the effectiveness of Beijing’s internet monitoring programs has only spurred a greater government focus on web censorship and surveillance. Now, Beijing has begun investing in AI-powered surveillance systems for the same ends.

Domestic decisions on digital surveillance have global ramifications. Smaller or less technologically capable countries who desire high-tech surveillance and control may look to global powers like China or Russia for ideas. They also look to these countries for the technologies and investments to execute their own programs.

Through monitoring their citizens at lower cost and greater scale, many undemocratic governments are making it harder for citizens to wrench power from their grasp. Compared to maintaining a vast network of informants, it may be far cheaper and far faster to install web traffic inspection tools on every major internet gateway in the country. Rather than tailing an individual through the streets, it may likewise be far more efficient to track their movements with AI facial recognition. Many authoritarians seem to be placing their bets that high-tech monitoring is largely better than its human alternative. China’s Great Firewall and Russia’s SORM-3 system, both of which monitor internet traffic, are prime examples of this high-tech surveillance in action, at scale.

This digitization of undemocratic behaviors enables violations of human rights. Internet traffic monitoring software, for instance, can be used to help censor foreign news websites and to track who is posting what online; this contributes to the arrests of journalists and bloggers in countries like Iran who speak out against government corruption. The persecution of minorities is especially a risk in countries where notions of national stability are founded on ideas of state unity threatened by outsiders.

Democracies, of course, also use digital technologies to monitor their citizens. From South Africa to South Korea, from Israel to India, many democratic governments build or make use of everything from internet monitoring tools to AI facial recognition systems. It’s worth noting that should democracies not impose adequate checks and balances on the design, deployment, and use of digital surveillance technologies, there is a risk that impacts will go unchecked and the practices of true digital authoritarians will appear less extreme. These harms may also disparately impact already oppressed, marginalized, or otherwise vulnerable populations. There’s a history, for instance in the United States, of governments turning surveillance most aggressively against such groups.

For democratic societies that operate with rule of law and have processes like fair elections by which citizens can place checks on their government, the situation is quite different than in less democratic counterparts. But this does not excuse companies incorporated in democracies that heavily export dual-use surveillance tools that enable, in many cases, undemocratic practices abroad.

Democracy thrives, and indeed in some sense depends, on principles like freedom of information and citizen checks on governmental power. Consolidating control over domestic information flows and pervasively monitoring citizen behavior allow governments to undermine those principles in concerning ways.

Source: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

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First in the U.S.: “Rights of Nature” State Constitutional Amendment Filed in Florida to Protect Waterways



Would amend the Florida Constitution to recognize all waterways as having rights to “exist, flow, be free from pollution…and a healthy ecosystem.” 

June 2, 2021: Florida environmental leaders have begun collecting signatures to qualify a state constitutional amendment that would recognize legal rights of waterways in the state.

The statewide amendment, the first “rights of nature” measure in the United States to be proposed and approved for state ballot petitioning, would, if adopted, change the landscape of environmental protection in Florida. It was approved for signature circulation by the Florida Division of Elections on May 20.

Thomas Lindzey and Chuck O’ Neal are special keynoters at the MOBILIZED World Summit June 12-13, 2021

The amendment would recognize the legally enforceable rights of all waterways across Florida to “exist, flow, be free from pollution, and maintain a healthy ecosystem.” The amendment then provides that any Floridian or Florida organization can file a legal action on behalf of those waterways to require their protection, repair, and restoration.

The amendment also recognizes every Floridian’s legal right to clean water, and authorizes Florida counties, cities, and towns to enact additional protections for waterways. It then shields those municipal enactments from preemption by the state legislature.

The state amendment is modeled on the Orange County, Florida, “Right to Clean Water” initiative which passed overwhelmingly in November 2020. The initiative passed with an 89% majority vote, and recognized legal rights of waterways. In April, the first enforcement case under the new law was filed – against a development company proposing to build on, and eliminate, over a hundred acres of wetlands and waterways in the county.

The amendment is part of a five-environmental amendment proposal aiming for the November 2022 statewide ballot. The other amendments would recognize new legal protections for Florida iconic species, ban toll road construction on conservation land, ban the dredging and filling of Florida wetlands, and ban captive wildlife hunting facilities.

Chuck O’Neal, Chair of the Florida Rights of Nature Network, explained, “It’s time to replace a state government which has been focused on developing as much of Florida as it can, with a system which permanently protects what is important to Floridians and our tourism-based economy. This amendment would achieve several goals – stopping the systematic destruction of Florida’s wetlands while providing permanent protection to what makes Florida special – its waterways and its clean water.”

Mari Margil, Executive Director of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, which provided assistance with the drafting of the measure and assists with “rights of nature” measures worldwide, stated, “For too long, state governments have enabled developers who want to destroy Florida’s waterways. This amendment represents a re-programming of government, to a system which protects, rather than destroys, nature. In establishing the rights of waterways, the amendment is an opportunity to protect and restore nature, following in the footsteps of countries around the world which are changing how they protect threatened ecosystems.”

Joe Bonasia, a member of the Board of Directors of the Florida Rights of Nature Network, explained the need for the amendment, stating, “There were 64 months of red tide from 1878 to 1994 in Florida. There have been over 184 months of red tide in the 27 years since then. Over half of Florida’s waterways are officially declared “impaired,” and the state has issued 23,000 permits for the discharge of pollution into our waterways during the past 50 years. This is all evidence that the system isn’t working. We need a new approach to environmental protection, and recognizing the right of people to clean water and the rights of waterways is that new approach.”

Mary Gutierrez, Founder and Director of Earth Ethics, based in Pensacola, Florida, added, “Northwest Florida is experiencing significant growth that is causing the loss of species habitat, surface water contamination, and increased flooding due to poor planning and increased development. We must act now to protect the waterways and land that sustain us. This amendment will do just that.”

John Cassani, the Calusa Waterkeeper, added, “The Right to Clean Water Initiative, as a new or additive legal tool for protecting Florida’s waters, may be our last best hope to save what is left.”

To qualify for the ballot, the Right to Clean Water state initiative must collect nearly 900,000 signatures over the next eight months. Those interested in signing the petitions to qualify the amendments are encouraged to go to and download, sign, and mail-in the petitions.


Chuck O’Neal, Chair, Florida Rights of Nature Network (FRONN), (407) 399-3228

Thomas Linzey, Esq.,Senior Attorney, Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights,, (509) 474-9761

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How the World Bank helped re-establish colonial plantations



How the World Bank helped re-establish colonial plantations

In October 2020, a group of 79 Kenyans filed a lawsuit in a UK court against one of the world’s largest plantation companies, Camelia Plc. They say the company is responsible for the killings, rapes and other abuses that its security guards have carried out against local villagers at its 20,000 hectare plantation, which produces avocados for European supermarkets.

Such abuses are unfortunately all too routine on Africa’s industrial plantations. It has been this way since Europeans introduced monoculture plantations to Africa in the early 20th century, using forced labour and violence to steal people’s lands. Camelia’s plantations share this legacy, and the abuses suffered by the Kenyan villagers today are not so different from those suffered by the generations before them.

Abuses and injustices are fundamental to the plantation model. The question that should be asked is why any of these colonial plantations still exist in Africa today. Why haven’t Africa’s post-colonial governments dismantled this model of exploitation and extraction, returned the lands to their people and emboldened a resurgence of Africa’s diverse, local food and farming systems?

One important piece of this puzzle can be found in the archives of the World Bank.

Last year, an alliance of African organizations, together with GRAIN and the World Rainforest Movement (WRM), produced a database on industrial oil palm plantations in Africa. Through this research, we found that many of the oil palm and rubber plantations currently operating in West and Central Africa were initiated or restored through coordinated World Bank projects in the 1970s and 1980s. The ostensible goal of these projects was to develop state-owned plantations that could drive “national development”. The World Bank not only provided participating governments with large loans, but it also supplied the consultants who crafted the plantation projects and oversaw their management.

In case after case that we looked at, the consultants hired by the World Bank for these projects were from a company called SOCFINCO, a subsidiary of the Luxembourg holding company Société Financière des Caoutchoucs (SOCFIN). SOCFIN was a leading plantation company during the colonial period, with operations stretching from the Congo to Southeast Asia. When the colonial powers were sent packing in the 1960s, SOCFIN lost several of its plantations, and it was then that it set up its consultancy branch, SOCFINCO.

According to documents in the World Bank’s archives, SOCFINCO was hired by the Bank to oversee the development and implementation of oil palm and rubber plantation projects in several African countries, including Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinée, Nigeria, and São Tomé and Príncipe. SOCFINCO oversaw the development of blueprints for national oil palm and rubber plantation programs, and helped identify lands to be converted to industrial plantations.  It was also paid to manage the plantations and, in some cases, to organize sales of rubber and palm oil by the state plantation companies established through the program.

SOCFIN received lucrative management fees through these projects, but, more importantly, they positioned the company to take control of the trade in agri-commodity exports from Africa – and eventually to even take over the plantations. It was a huge coup for SOCFIN. As the World Bank projects were operated through parastatal companies (companies owned or controlled wholly or partly by the government), local communities could be dispossessed from their lands for plantations under the justification of “national development” – something that would be much more difficult for a foreign company like SOCFIN to do. Indeed, a condition for World Bank loans was that the governments secure lands for the projects, a step made easier by the fact that most of the projects were being implemented by military regimes.

The World Bank projects also allowed SOCFIN to avoid the costs of building the plantations and their associated facilities. Under the projects, the African governments paid the bill via loans from the World Bank and other development banks.

It was not long before the parastatal companies set up by the World Bank were mired in debt. Of course, the Bank blamed the governments for mismanagement and called for the privatisation of the plantations as a solution – even if those plantations were already being run by the high-priced managers of SOCFINCO and other foreign consultants.

In the privatization process that then followed, SOCFIN and SIAT, a Belgian company founded by a SOCFINCO consultant, took over many of the prized plantations. Today, these two companies control a quarter of all the large oil palm plantations in Africa and are significant players in the rubber sector.

Nigeria is a good example of how this scheme worked. Between 1974 and the end of the 1980s, SOCFINCO crafted master plans for at least seven World Bank-backed oil palm projects in five different Nigerian states. Each project involved the creation of a parastatal company that would both take over the state’s existing plantations and develop new plantations and palm oil mills as well as large-scale outgrower schemes. Overseeing all of SOCFINCO’s work in Nigeria was Pierre Vandebeeck, who would later found the company SIAT.

All of the World Bank projects in Nigeria generated enduring land conflicts with local communities, such as with the Oghareki community in Delta State or the villagers of Egbeda in Rivers State. After dispossessing numerous communities from their lands and incurring huge losses for the Nigerian government, the parastatal companies were then privatised, with the more valuable of the plantation assets eventually ending up in the hands of SOCFIN or Vandebeeck’s company SIAT.

SIAT took over the plantations in Bendel state through a subsidiary and then, in 2011, it acquired the Rivers State palm oil company, Risonpalm, through its company SIAT Nigeria Limited. Vandebeek was SOCFINCO’s plantation manager for Risonpalm under the World Bank between 1978-1983.

SOCFIN, for its part, took over the oil palm plantations in the Okomu area that were also developed under a World Bank project. It was SOCFINCO that first identified this area for plantation development as part of the study it was hired to undertake in 1974. The Okomu Oil Palm Company Plc. (OOPC) was subsequently established as a parastatal company in 1976, and 15,580 hectares of land within the Okomu Forest Reserve of Edo State was “de-reserved” and taken from the local communities to make way for oil palm plantations. The company hired SOCFINCO as the managing agent to oversee its activities from 1976-1990. Reports vary, but at some point between 1986 and 1990, OOPC was then divested to SOCFIN’s subsidiary Indufina Luxembourg.

This sordid history explains why so many of subsidiaries of SOCFIN and SIAT in Africa still carry national sounding names, like SOCAPALM in Cameroon or the Ghana Oil Palm Development Company. It also explains why these companies are so well designed to extract profits into the hands of their owners, and the crucial role of the World Bank for facilitating this corporate profit-seeking process in the name of “national development”.


Courtesy of Local Futures, This post is adapted from a GRAIN blog

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The GlobalVision Virtual Film Festival Begins April 2nd






Free access to award-winning documentary films and programs drawn from 30+ years of global coverage over 5 weekends in April

About this Event

Join us in April for Globalvision’s free virtual film festival

Free access to award-winning documentary films and programs drawn from 30+ years of global coverage over 5 weekends in April – April 2nd-30th

Visit the website for more information and documentary trailers:

What to expect:

Screenings and Interactive Conversations with Filmmakers, Correspondents and Producers – Q&As every Friday at 7:30 PM EDT.

Five themed Weekends: South Africa April 2-4; Investigations April 9-11; Human Rights April 16-18; Pop Culture April 23-25; Frontline Friday: April 30. Live and on-demand streams on Vimeo.


Opening Night: MANDELA IN AMERICA 9 cities, 11 days, filling stadiums and energizing millions of Americans with memorable public and private moments. Exclusive behind-the-scenes access – from the streets of Harlem to Yankee Stadium, from the White House to Congress, from tense moments in Miami to a wildly enthusiastic reception in a Detroit factory. Appearances by Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Tracy Chapman, Johnny Clegg and Savuka, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Danny Glover, David Dinkins, Eddie Murphy, Spike Lee, & more.

COUNTDOWN TO FREEDOM: TEN DAYS THAT CHANGED SOUTH AFRICA A chronicle of the behind the scenes rebirth of a nation and Nelson Mandela’s triumph in South Africa’s first free elections. Narrated by James Earl Jones and Alfre Woodard.

BEYOND JFK: THE QUESTION OF CONSPIRACY This spellbinding documentary re-examines the issues raised by the assassination of President Kennedy and explores the late Jim Garrison’s contention that there was a”second conspiracy” to cover up the truth. RARE interviews with Oliver Stone, Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, & other stars.

THE HARVEST (LA COSECHA) In some countries children pick crops 14 hours a day. The United States is one of them. Every year there are more than 400,000 American children who are torn away from their friends, schools and homes to pick the food we all eat. Profiles of three young migrant farm workers as they journey from the scorching heat of Texas’ onion fields to the winter snows of the Michigan apple orchards and back south to the humidity of Florida’s tomato fields while sacrificing their childhoods to help their families survive.

THE MAKING AND MEANING OF ‘WE ARE FAMILY’ In the tragic wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, legendary songwriter, producer and musician Nile Rodgers re-recorded his classic hit song to revitalized a spirit of unity, solidarity and civic pride – with a diverse community of artists, actors, personalities, firefighters, policemen and everyday citizens. Featuring Afrika Bambaataa, Ashford & Simpson, Jackson Browne, Roberta Flack, Joel Gray, KC & the Sunshine Band, Eartha Kitt, Patti Labelle, Queen Latifah and many more.

IN DEBT WE TRUST: AMERICA BEFORE THE BUBBLE BURSTS A prescient, hard-hitting documentary from the late Globalvision co-founder Danny Schechter that burrows deep into the politics and economics of American debt culture to expose a system operating on borrowed money and borrowed time. Released in 2006 before The Great Recession of 2008.

FRONTLINE FRIDAY — Three compelling long-form news investigations written, produced and directed by Globalvision co-founder Rory O’Connor for America’s premiere broadcast documentary series — plus a shorter, more personal version of his award-winning film The Hole in the Wall broadcast by the PBS sister series Frontline World.

SOUTH AFRICA NOW Political and cultural programming from the legendary series that chronicled struggle & liberation and any more films drawn from the Globalvision archives.


South Africa Now Reporter Phillip Tomlinson April 2 9/11 Press for Truth Director Ray Nowosielski April 9

The Harvest & Yellow Wasps Producer Rory O’Connor April 16 We Are Family Co-Director/Producer Patrice O’Neill April 22

The Resurrection of Rev. Moon Reporter Eric Nadler April 30

For more than three decades, the award-winning media firm Globalvision has been bringing “the best of the world to the rest of the world.” Founded in 1987 by Rory O’Connor and the late Danny Schechter, the company’s initial focus was the production of two internationally distributed weekly newsmagazines, South Africa Now and Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television, seen in 17 and 62 countries respectively.

Globalvision programming has aired on leading networks in more than one hundred countries – from ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and FOX in the U.S. to the BBC, RAI, NHK, National Geographic and others abroad. In addition to creating hundreds of hours of broadcast television programming and dozens of documentary films, the company has produced a wide range of informational, educational and entertainment media for both domestic and international clients, including broadcasters, large and small corporations, and not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations.



In 1985, Steven Van Zandt (of the E Street Band) and Danny Schechter put together an all-star roster to sing an apartheid protest song, including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, U2, Jackson Browne, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Wolf, Pete Townshend, Gil-Scott Heron, Peter Gabriel, Miles Davis, and many more. They were collectively known as Artists United Against Apartheid, and the song was “Sun City.”

Schechter was involved because he is a journalist, author, television producer and filmmaker who has made six nonfiction films about Nelson Mandela since the 1960s. His new book is called “Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela,” which was published in conjunction w/the film “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.”

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We are One

Mobilized TV

Mobilized TV on Free Speech TV  takes a deep look at our world, the consequences of human activity on our planet, and how we can reverse and prevent existing and future crises from occurring. Mobilized reveals life on our planet as a system of systems which all work together for the optimal health of the whole. The show delves into deep conversations with change-makers so people can clearly take concerted actions.

Produced by Steven Jay and hosted by Jeff Van Treese.

Mobilized’s TV series Mobilized TV  premieres on Free Speech TV on Friday, October 15, 2021. All episodes appear:

Fridays 9:30 PM Eastern (USA/Canada)

Saturdays:  6:30 PM (Eastern USA/Canada)

Sundays:  8:30 AM Eastern (USA/Canada)

January 7, 8, 9, 2022

Leading Environmental Justice Attorney, Thomas Linzey of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights is a leading force helping communities implement successful rights of nature laws. Find out how your community could take on big business to serve the health of all.


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