Archive June 2011

WCSJ: The muzzling of government scientists Peter Griffin Jun 29

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I’m at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar where scientists, journalists and science press officers from around the world have been gathering to discuss the future of science journalism.

I’ll be writing up posts over the next few days on the more interesting sessions I’ve been to (of those, there are many) but I wanted to start with the discussion generated by a panel discussion looking at the worrying trend towards scientists who work for Government-owned organisations being discouraged or even banned from publicly discussing science-related issues.

Perhaps the examples presented from Russia and China are not surprising given those countries’ well known track record on human rights abuses. But we also heard from a Canadian science journalist who outlined the extent to which state-employed scientists have been muzzled in recent years.

Russia – scientists jailed

Such is the humility of Russian science journalist and environmentalist Grigory Pasko, that during his WCSJ appearance he didn’t once mention the years he spent in prison between 2001 and 2003 on an espionage conviction that was widely criticized by the global community and which saw him labelled a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International.

In the late 1990s, Pasko supplied information, video tapes and reports to Japanese broadcaster NHK that detailed the dumping of old weapons and nuclear waste in the sea of Japan by the Russian military. The problem was that Pasko was a military officer, writing for Battle Watch, the in-house newspaper of the Russian Pacific Fleet.

Once Pasko was linked to the reports in Japan he was arrested and in 2001 stood trial facing 10 charges. In the end, he was convicted of a single espionage charge and sentenced to four years prison (including 20 months he had already served in custody).

The Russian prosecutor argued successfully that by handing state secrets to Japan, Pasko was committing espionage against his country. An appeal to the European Human Rights Court failed to clear his conviction. Since then, Pasko has become very familiar with the cases of scientists who have been imprisoned in Russia on various charges – there are currently nine in prison, some on similar espionage convictions.

Pasko said the prosecutions against scientists who had displeased the state began during the administration of Boris Yeltsin, but that under Vladimir Putin, “it became massive, accusations of espionage”.

He said scientists who spoke out about science-related issues, passed on information to outside parties or flagged unethical practices became targets of the FSB, Russia’s secret service agency. One tool the FSB apparently uses to apply pressure to scientists is in implying inappropriate use of so-called “dual technologies” – materials that have academic or industrial uses but could also be seen to have military applications too.

Ecological scientists using detailed maps for instance, had been accused of gathering intelligence on military installations and passing them on to foreign powers.

“If I buy a Teflon pen it’s okay. If I sell it to someone I can be accused of selling a dual-use technology,” said Pasko by example.

“There is a list of dual-use technologies. it is a thick book. it became this thick when Putin came to power.”

Pasko laid the responsibility for the intimidation and persecution of some scientists at the door of the FSB, which he said is “omnipotent” in Russia, with insufficient oversight.

Stonewalled in China

As the Asia news editor based in Beijing for the respected journal Science, Richard Stone has experienced firsthand the Chinese Government’s muzzling of scientists.

He says only “3 out of 10″ scientists will generally agree to an interview.

“Really they are quite nervous about interacting with the media. The further from Shanghai and Beijing, the harder it gets.”

In 2007 Stone was investigating claims that the massive Three Gorges Dam was causing major environmental problems in the form of landslides and preventing certain fish species from migrating. He took the claims to scientists only to be met with “a brick wall”.

However by the spring of 2008, he said things had completely changed and scientists were suddenly able to talk. What does he put it down to? A change of tactic in the Chinese Government, which sought to associate the problems with the Three Gorges Dam with previous administrations who had developed the plans for the dam in the early 1990s.

In 2009 however, Stone was widely criticized in the Chinese state-controlled media for a Science report looking at whether the size and scale of the Zipingpu Dam was responsible for the deadly 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

The story raised questions about China’s entire hydro power strategy – and the current leadership’s priorities.

“That’s risky in China,” said Stone.

Scientists were off-limit to Stone on the issue. He encountered similar stonewalling when attempting to talk to scientists in Yunnan province who knew about the mysterious sudden death syndrome that had seen people dropping dead in the region on a semi-regular basis over many years.

Planning a feature for Science, Stone attempted to line up interviews with scientists for a trip to the region. The problem was that no one would talk to him and despite a directive from China’s heath minister to the Yunnan health department to cooperate with Stone, the interviews remained elusive. Stone finally found a local university researcher who introduced him to local doctors in villages. The sudden death syndrome dubbed Little White, has been linked to a particular type of toxin found in mushrooms that causes a rapid fall in a person’s blood sugar level, occasionally leading to death.

Stone said it remained challenging to report on science in China and that there was little incentive for scientists to improve the situation.

“They can live very well now. they have all the research funding they need,” he said. “They are not interested in helping journalists change the system.The lesson is don’t take no for an answer.”

Canada shuts down scientists

Surprisingly perhaps, a similar trend is evident in Canada, a country traditionally known for having an open society, transparent Government and robust media.

According to science writer Margaret Munro, a policy change across government departments took place around 2008 that saw federal scientists restricted from talking to the media without prior consent from press officers and in some cases, the offices of government ministers themselves.

The issue has come to light particularly in relation to environmental issues, such as climate change and the mining of Canada’s tar sands.

Munro spoke of Dr Scott Dallimore, a gas hydrates expert and Federally-employed scientist at the Geological Survey of Canada who for years had been widely used by the media.

Despite Dallimore having a paper published in Nature – on the seemingly uncontroversial subject of a massive flood that happened in Canada 13,000 years ago, he was, claims Munro, not allowed to discuss the paper with journalists without the authorization of the Canadian natural resources minister.

The new policies, which Munro speculates were implemented at the behest of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were revealed in a leaked Environment Canada Powerpoint presentation in 2007, which spoke of the need for “one department, one voice”.

“The new rules spread like a virus across Government departments,” said Munro.

“All of a sudden they wouldn’t call you back. A media officer in Ottawa would. It became a very closed system. Researchers have to follow approved lines and scripts. interviews with journalists are tape recorded.”

Again, scientists were reluctant to mobilize to try and challenge the status quo.

You lose your job and you lose that gold-plated pension. We don’t have that revolutionary blood in our veins,” said Munro.

Let Government scientists speak

The session at the World Conference of Science Journalists sparked considerable debate and informal undertakings among representatives of science writers associations to monitor their local situation and increasingly lobby for transparency and the freeing of government scientists to speak openly about their research and important science-related issues in the public interest.

From informal chats around the halls of the conference in Doha, the tightening of control of what government scientists are allowed to say seems to be fairly widespread in Western countries such as the UK and Australia and particularly pronounced when it comes to environmental and health-related issues.

So what of New Zealand? Crown research institute scientists are generally allowed to talk to the media as long as they conform to protocols laid out by their communications offices. However government scientists do often remain absent from public discussion of subjects they are best placed to comment on, which is a longstanding issue often blamed on the “commercial sensitivity” of their work.

But are directives coming down from the offices of ministers to scientists about what they can and cannot talk to the media about? I haven’t seen evidence of that. What is more insidious is self-censorship among scientists who don’t want to rock the boat for the reasons the journalists quoted above have outlined. It is an issue of concern globally particularly as we face natural disasters, the spread of infectious diseases and environmental issues that have potentially major consequences for all of us and which require accurate information to be presented to the public.

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The mechanics of mass murder Peter Griffin Jun 28


A short ride on the S-Bahn north-east of Berlin brings you to Oranienburg, a quiet, semi-rural village with cute houses, a beautiful centuries-old palace and Sachsenhausen – a well-preserved Nazi concentration camp which was the centre of innovation for the Final Solution during World War II.

On a languid summer afternoon a couple of weeks ago I visited the sprawling camp. I felt very self-conscious in doing so. As I walked through the township I felt the eyes of villagers upon me. They go about their business, these Germans, seemingly with quiet resignation as a stream of people traipse through on their way to the town’s main attraction.

Here somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people were murdered by the Nazis and then by the Soviet Union, which in a perversely ironic move, carried on the torture and murder at Sachsenhausen after the war. A lot less people died at Sachsenhausen, which was primarily used for housing political dissidents, prisoners of war and other assorted enemies of the state, than at the better-known camps tasked with liquidating the Jews.

But Sachsenhausen is of historical interest as it was the site where many of the techniques of torture, medical experimentation and mechanized killing where perfected before Heinrich Himmler rolled them out across the concentration camp network – and beyond.

Death camp tourism is booming – hundreds of thousands of people visit the remnants of camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka every year. Why do we do it? Apart from those who go to honour and remember the dead, many I suspect go to try and understand how the Nazis executed the Holocaust.

I came away from Sachsenhausen feeling a little queasy and no wiser as to why a group of intelligent and in many ways progressive men and women in the 1930s set out to systematically exterminate millions of people. But my afternoon at Sachsenhausen gave me an insight into how they did it and the efficiency with which they went about their col-blooded task.

The ultimate concentration camp design

Sachsenhausen was set up by the Nazis in 1936 after Adolf Hitler had cemented his power and turned his attention to rivals and enemies who stood to challenge it. The Nazi architects gave great though to the camp’s construction, building it in the shape of an equilateral triangle.

From Guard Tower A, which contains the central gate through which all of Sachsenhausen’s 200,000 prisoners passed between 1936 and 1945, you are given a commanding view of the camp – initially this was the only guard tower as it offered such a good view. During the war, a machine gun was fitted to the top floor of the tower and its arc covered the entire camp.

Camp barrack huts were built in a semi-circular pattern so that from Guard Tower A, the guards had a clear line of sight between the huts. Directly in front of the tower was the Apelplatz where roll call was taken morning and night. This massive area was necessarily large as Sachsenhausen housed tens of thousands of people at any one time during the war.

The camp perimeter was lined with a large wall and an inside electric fence topped with barbed wire. Between the wall and the fence prowled guards and dogs. A wide strip of gravel directly in front of the barbed wire was the “death zone” for prisoners – if they stepped on to this space, guards were free to shoot them on the spot and indeed were incentivised to do so. Many inmates ended their suffering by throwing themselves at the electric fence.

The design was so secure that virtually no one escaped from the camp during the war. But the camp design had a serious flaw – it couldn’t be easily expanded. Increasing the size of the triangle would have meant realigning the camp walls. When the Nazis did expand the camp in 1938, they instead tacked on a rectangular area, called the “small camp”. Other such add-ons and new buildings destroyed the clean lines of the triangle, which led to the erection of eight or nine guard towers around the camp, the type of which you’d normally associate with pictures of concentration camps.

Perfecting the killing machine

Hanging and shooting were the primary forms of execution at Sachsenhausen in the early days. Prisoners would be ordered to assemble on the Apelplatz for public executions. The gallows were slotted into a hole in the ground, which the guards would also stand a pine tree in at Christmas time.

But the volume of executions was growing as the number of inmates did, leading to the creation of the execution trench at the back of the camp. This was a narrow dug-out lined with logs and sand bags and into which doomed prisoners descended. At one end was a gallows where four or five people could be hanged at one time. Here, shootings were also carried out. A partial roof was build over the execution trench to try and muffle the noise of the gun shots. Thousands were killed in the execution trench.

Such was the level of killing that the Nazis were having a hard time figuring out what to do with the bodies. Initially they were sent to mortuaries around Berlin but that required the issuing of a death certificate. Instead, the Nazis changed the regulations and in 1943 constructed a crematorium at the rear of Sachsenhausen near the execution trench to dispose of bodies. The ashes of the dead were spread in a mound behind the camp.

While death from malnutrition, disease, exposure and beatings meant a constant flow of bodies, the number of executions accelerated towards the end of the war, culminating in the gruesome massacre of around 10,000 Russian prisoners of war. How this was done, was particularly deceptive and cruel. The prisoners were escorted one by one to “Station Z”, a series of rooms only the subsided foundations of which remain.

Here they would enter a tiny room alone on the premise of being measured up for a uniform or undertaking a medical examination. They were confronted by an SS officer in a white coat, who would even fake some simple health checks. Meanwhile, a hatch at the back of the room would open and the prisoner would be shot in the back of the head. Military marching songs would be played loudly on a gramophone to mask the noise of the gun shots.

In this way, the Nazi guards disposed of a huge number of prisoners, day after day leading Russian POWs to Station Z. The literature at Sachsenhausen talks about SS leaders descending on Sachsenhausen during the war for the demonstration of the “head shot” technique.
But the mass shootings weren’t enough, despite the efficiency with which the Sachsenhausen guards carried them out. The camp also featured a gas chamber where a routine played out on a larger scale at Auschwitz was employed. Prisoners would be led to a “shower block” only to enter a room where the deadly gas Zyklon B was vented into the room. Sometimes they even ran the showers as well, as it was thought this helped disperse the gas more quickly.

The foundations of Station Z

The building of the gas chamber was preceded by the arrival of mobile gassing vans, which were trailed at Sachsenhausen and used by mobile Nazi killing units on the Eastern front as German soldiers advanced into Russia.

From the gassing and cremations to the rapid-fire executions, many of the techniques used at Sachsenhausen were learnt by SS officers who went on to implement them at other concentration camps.

A hive of industry

If Sachsenhausen was primarily used for detaining and killing enemies of the state, it was also a useful source of slave labour for the Nazis, who put tens of thousands of people to work each day.

While the camp is relatively small, it is backed onto by a large complex of workshops that prisoners would occupy in various jobs connected to the war effort. In the lead up to war, Sachsenhausen had a productive “kilnkerworks” were bricks were churned out for building projects in Berlin. Later, prisoners switched to making bombs. Krupps, plane maker Heinkel and AEG all used Sachsenhausen labour for their war-related production.

Prisoners at the camp were at one stage involved in a bizarre SS counterfeiting scheme, in which billions worth of US and British banknotes were produced, with the aim of introducing them into circulation to collapse the value of the dollar and the pound. An apparently excellent film about this little-known affair has been produced.

One research and development project carried out at Sachsenhausen deserves particular mention. The edge of the Apleplatz is lined with rough and varied surfaces which I just put down to the ravages of age. However, the ground was intentionally varied by the Nazis to test the soles of boots to perfect the best design for the German army. According to Sachsenhausen guide material, prisoners were assigned boots and made to march over these varying surfaces for hours at a time. Many of the prisoners were given ill-fitting boots, leading to nasty injuries to their feet.

Human guinea pigs

Elsewhere in the camp, in a series of tile-lined barracks, another series of far more sinister experiments was going on. Here SS doctors started out dissecting prisoners who had died of disease or exposure to learn more about how they had died. However this morphed into an unethical and monstrous programme of experimentation on living prisoners.

Many were intentionally infected with diseases, sterilised, given experimental drug treatments or had limbs removed. Dr Mengele, the notorious SS doctor at Auschwitz has become synonymous with the depraved scientific experiments carried out on prisoners by the Nazis. The same type of activity was going on at Sachsenhausen conducted by lesser known doctors.
A roster of psychopaths

While innovative in their designs and techniques and the ways in which they worked and killed their prisoners, key to Sachsenhausen’s operation was the brutality of its leadership.

Audio commentary at Sachsenhausen featuring interviews with those who were imprisoned recalls stories of the brutal block furhers. Numerous mentions are made of Iron Gustav, a particularly psychopathic camp commander who was notorious for beating people to death. Gustav would ride his bicycle at high speed into the lines of prisoners during roll call, mowing down people, while beating them with an iron bar, managing all the time to remain on his bicycle.

While random, brutal and chaotic, even the behaviour of the guards was by design – the SS knew ruling by fear would mean more compliant prisoners. Most of the camp commandants were executed or imprisoned after the war or committed suicide. Iron Gustav was imprisoned first by the Russians, then the Germans and died in the 1970s.

The misery continues

The Red Army liberated Sachsenhausen as it rolled towards Berlin in 1945, but not before the SS had forced thousands of prisoners on a death march north, during which many died of hypothermia and exhaustion.

Sachsenhausen became special camp number 7 under the Russians and was promptly filled with former Nazi officers, anti-communists and political prisoners, overseen by the NKVD, Russia’s Gestapo-like secret service. While the gassings and gruesome experiments ended, guard brutality and horrendous living conditions were features of the Russian camp too and around 12,000 people died at the camp between 1945 and 1950.

The importance of Sachsenhausen

Sachsenhausen is an amazing place and has been thoughtfully preserved to act as both memorial and museum. Standing in the execution trench or in front of the autopsy table in the pathology building it is hard to comprehend the evil that was done there 60 – 70 years ago. The scale of the killing and its clinical nature is unfathomable.

As I wrote above, I’m no closer to understanding what made seemingly civilised people undertake these crimes against humanity. As I sat in the sun at Sachsenhausen in the shade of the massive Soviet-inspired memorial to the camp’s victims, I tried to put myself in the shoes of an SS doctor or camp commandant.

Himmler, even Hitler it is rumoured visited Sachsenhausen in 1938 and a constant stream of other senior Nazis and their allies passed under tower block A at Sachsensausen, over the same stones I did as a tourist.

What made them do it? Rabid ideology? The lure of money, power, control? The freedom of ethical constraints? I struggle to comprehend it in any shape or form, which is perhaps the only comforting thing you feel as you exit Sachsenhausen’s gates and board the train back to Berlin – that what happened there would be unlikely to be allowed to happen again in this age of globalisation and increased transparency. It is our collective responsibility as members of a global community to make sure it doesn’t.

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