13 May, 2016

Unbalanced Acts: Robert Penner and his acrimonious activism


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Rob Penner, Canadian national, who noted his position as “chief scientist” at the outsourcing company Cloud Factory, has become the faultline of a bitter public divide on Nepal. The Nepal government deported him in early May, giving him two days notice to pack up. The ostensible reason was immigration violation, and disturbing social harmony.
A slew of international op-eds in support of Mr. Penner immediately followed from the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, as well as Human Rights Watch. He became a bit of a hero on social media, although there were also equal numbers of detractors noting that he went from “Zero to Hero,” in the manner of C.K Raut and Angkaaji Sherpa, two other individuals who’d come to prominence after advocating for radical solutions to Nepali problems.
His supporters say he was a great advocate of the Madheshi movement and therefore of human rights, his actions online were impeccable and only shows good judgment, and that all of his detractors are ugly right-wing Ann Coulters and Trumps of Nepal. His detractors say he was an online troll, and that he heavily pursued high profile reporters, journalists and editors online and behaved in a way that crossed the barrier from free speech to harassment.
The two sides accuse each other of horrible crimes—the former accusing the latter of being repressive to freedom of speech and reverting back to old style Panchayat politics, the latter accuse the former of being liberals who supported unbalanced reporters of international media who pushed the country into a bitter conflagration between Pahad-Madesh that eventually led to the Indian blockade on Nepal.
The facts stand like this: Mr. Penner, who’d been in Nepal for three and a half years, seems to have developed a great sympathy for the Madhesh movement. He took pride in his ability to respond in fluent colloquial Nepali on Twitter (with some suspicions that his colleagues at Cloud Factory were the ones who were giving him that fluency.) As the Madhesh movement became more heated, Mr. Penner started to become more vocal and started to pursue journalists and human rights activists more relentlessly, asking them to clarify what they meant when they posted on their Twitter timeline.
At a certain point, his exercise of free speech then turned into an exercise in online harassment, with multiple journalists blocking him from their accounts. A female journalist was pursued in this manner for months, not just by Mr. Penner but also his sympathizers, who also put up a false account to mock her.
Here’s a simple example: Mr. Penner, who did not seem immune to his multiple privileges as a white man, demanded to know why only one, and not both, of his comments had been posted on an article on the Nepali Times website. His outrage about his deleted comment turned into a tirade that was witnessed by many people on Twitter. When he did not get an answer, he then contacted Kunda Dixit, editor, directly, demanding an answer.
While this in itself is not illegal, it gives a hint to the level at which he felt entitled to speaking his mind—overlooking house rules and basic norms of courtesy. Perhaps the Nepali Times edits comments for clarity, or it doesn’t allow more than one comment per responder. Whatever the case might have been, for Mr. Penner this event turned into a major opportunity to question the professionalism of the newspaper itself. Would Mr. Penner have felt at ease doing this to the New York Times or the Globe and Mail?
(Full disclosure: in the above mentioned incident, Mr. Penner then got into a conflict with me and blocked me, saying I was a troll. I had since that moment also blocked him and had no more notice of his escapades till the deportation notice caught my eye.)
But Mr. Penner magnum opus—the “factchecking” of the Human Rights Report-- was yet to come. Around September 2015, Human Rights Watch put out a report about the violence in the Madesh, titled: “Like we are not Nepalis”. Many human rights activists within Nepal felt the report was poorly researched and biased, and that it had been written up with two (or perhaps more likely only one) high profile and politicized journalist acting as its primary source.
Mr. Subodh Pyakurel, head of INSEC, a well respected human rights organization that was one of the few organizations to be active in the Terai during the 1996-2006 civil conflict, was one of the responders who commented on this report. Mr. Penner, in the manner of a computer programmer checking errors in code, then went on a line-by-line factchecking spree in which he attacked all comments which said the report was unfair. Instead of trying to find out why people thought it was unfair, he systematically took apart their words, and went into the report to find instances where they could be contradicted.
Just one example: Mr. Pyakurel notes the violence against the police, which led to the backlash and subsequent state violence against protesters, seemed to be poorly documented. He cites the case of a policeman who gets concussion, and says this has been erased from the report. Robert Penner points out that in fact the concussion is well documented—in a footnote that links to the Kathmandu Post article about concussion. Did you not read the footnote? He asks. This is just one example of the kind of nitty-gritty fact-checking which only served to obfuscate the larger debate, which was whether the Human Rights Report was biased or not.
Mr. Penner’s tactics to shut-up the criticism of the human rights community against a general and broad sense the Human Rights Watch report was biased only worked to fuel more conflict. What Mr. Penner missed in this evangelical mission to prove the elites of Kathmandu wrong is that many major human rights institutions which have a presence in the Terai and will continue to work long after he’s gone come from Kathmandu based Pahadi individuals like Mr. Subodh Pyakurel, and that far from being the malevolent and right-wing institutions he was trying to prove them to be, they are instrumental in keeping the norms of human rights alive all over the country.
Mr. Penner's goals seem to be simple—to get justice for Madeshis who suffered during the violence in 2015. But, not only did he try to ratchet up the tension between the two communities, and lead to more conflict, he also seems to have given the Black Flag supporters a sense of international immunity which emboldened them to ask for Indian support for a blockade—a five month long blockade whose severity and economic effects on the country was devastating, especially since it came directly after an earthquake that has destroyed 400,000 homes and injured 22,000 people. The blockade’s effect on Nepal, including collateral deaths from the cold and shortages, cannot be computed with the methods used by Mr. Penner, because he was using quantitative methods to deal with qualitative issues.
Mr. Penner did leave under a blaze of glory (which, one suspects, was always one of his aims). Dipendra Jha, his lawyer, then tried to get the Supreme Court to overrule the decision to deport him—the Supreme Court responded within 24 hours, unheard of in the case of any other Nepali citizen. Obviously he had more access to the elite institutions of justice than any Nepali could ever dream of.
The Supreme Court, to its credit, eventually postponed this meeting. Mr. Penner did leave the country (And Canada did not threaten to pull out its aid, either). What was interesting was the speed with which Mr. Dipendra Jha, his lawyer, was able to mobilize the Supreme Court on this case—my research tells me the Supreme Court is heavily backlogged for years on end, and most Nepalis end up dying before the SC notice comes to them.
The fact that Mr. Penner was able to access the highest court of justice in the nation within 24 hours shows that he wasn’t removed from the corridors of power (photographs have surfaced showing Mr. Penner with Rambaran Yadav, the President of Nepal), and that indeed his supporters’ laments that he was not treated like a Nepali national, and that he did not have access to the same freedom of speech as a Nepali, is disingenuous. Not to mention the fact his drinking buddies have all been up in arms in social media in defense of him—no doubt in person Mr. Penner is a rather sweet and gentle soul, judging from his photograph.
Should Mr. Penner have been deported? I cannot answer this question. What worries me is how polarized the supposedly democratic discourse in this country has become, in the manner of the American hemisphere. There seems to be a substantive group of people who’ve returned from the USA or other Western countries, well versed in the latest lingo, very willing to play the kind of hair-trigger, lets-take-offense leftist politics which is all very well in America, but doesn’t work as well in Nepal where that sort of active polarization could lead to real civil war and multiple deaths. The Oli Government nearly mobilized the army during November 2015, when the violence appeared to be out of control—if that had happened, Nepal would have slid into a low intensity conflict and the death count in the Terai would have been in the thousands.
What shocked me was how high profile commentators of Nepal, well regarded and with big followings on social media, seemed willing to egg people onto this trigger-point of mass conflict, using provocative words and language, using ethnicity and regionalism as divisive methods, instead of getting them to pull back. I could not wonder if these expat Nepalis were more concerned about their public profiles, careers and their salaries, which is dependent upon their liberal credentials, than they were about the possibility of immediate conflict in Nepal. High profile journalists working in international media and reporting on Nepal have also upped this sort of polarizing debates, which is in part (if not in full) responsible for the eventual blockade that India put on Nepal.
More than whether the free speech of a Canadian with uber privileges and multiple media connections was violated by the Nepali state, I think the question is more about how the human rights community is developing in contemporary Nepal. Should journalists and human rights organizations like HRW be held more to account if they bring out unbalanced reports? Should they be asked to go back and analyze their actions—and whether those actions led to more conflict? Did unbalanced journalism lead to the blockade? Do the Kathmandu dailies only give voice to the extremists and not the moderates of the Terai?
At present, the more shrill you are in liberal discourse, the more likely you are to be rewarded by institutions of higher learning with accolades and distinctions. But nobody is willing to analyze whether those actions in fact had real consequences on real people—including 30 million Nepalese who suffered during the blockade.
- See more at: http://setopati.net/opinion/13843/Unbalanced-Acts/#sthash.bGjgsgWH.dpufhttp://setopati.net/opinion/13843/Unbalanced-Acts/

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