Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Music Industry Icon Says Antigua Making a Big Mistake.

Many of us will remember the offshore gambling money flowing in Antigua in the late 90s and after the millennium. It was like nothing we had seen since independence. One of my friends who worked for one of the biggest online Casinos here said "everyone was spending like cowboys in a tavern".
In fact, most of my friends were working in that industry during that time. If you knew how to use a computer and happened to be searching for work you were hired and were getting paid way more than your peers were in the hotels.
Four of my close friends started working for a online casino in the mid 90s. They were the only employees working in the converted house in Blue Waters, and within a few years they were writing marketing checks to the tune of millions to companies like MSN and Yahoo. They had moved out of that little house office and were taking up an entire commercial building. They were working with dozens of others and the company was still growing. The island was buzzing and everyone was seeing some of the pie. The trickle down was more of a waterfall than a trickle. I remember attending one of the offshore sports betting companies new years party which they allegedly spent EC $100,000 on. None of us will ever know how much money was passing though Antigua's banks, but we were the biggest players in a multi-billion dollar industry. There were regular twenty five year olds making way more money than both of their parents were combined, and many of them never imagined it would end. You know what they say about all good things though.
Things really took a turn when Jay Cohen, the founder of one of our biggest sports books, was arrested as he arrived in the USA in July 2004. He felt that the USA had no right to be preventing people in the USA from betting offshore in Antigua. The US had recently used The Wire Act to stop US citizens from placing bets abroad over phone or internet. He was the first person to be charged by the USA for violating the Federal Wire Act. The US did many other things in an effort to stop their citizens from betting off shore including going after the credit card companies and other payment providers. It became extremely difficult to do business, and many casinos and sports books either folded or pulled out of Antigua. The economic trickle down really became a trickle, and in 2003 Antigua and Barbuda took on the USA at the World Trade Organization saying that US policy on online gambling violated WTO rules. In a David vs Goliath ruling, the WTO agreed with Antigua thus beginning a decade of negotiations and arbitration. In 2007 the WTO essentially gave Antigua the right to sell US copyrighted material to the tune of about US $20 million dollars a year in a twisted form of sanctions. It was a fraction of what Antigua and Barbuda was looking for, and it was an extremely controversial judgement which wasn't going to be a quick fix. Either way, Antigua would more than likely be getting the dirty end of the stick. It makes me think about all those WTO protests to be honest.
Anyway, Jay Cohen seemed optimistic when I spoke to him about it. He had done his jail time and was back in Antigua taking a back seat to it all but following the discussion nonetheless. A few years ago he told me that he felt that the minute Antigua started selling US copyrighted material, companies like Microsoft would be lobbying for a change in offshore gaming policy. He felt that offshore gambling's biggest allies would be the American companies who were having their material legally sold (pirated) by Antigua. Antigua and Barbuda didn't jump at the green light to be modern day privateers and instead continued to negotiate hoping that the USA would relax their stance. Nothing changed and on Monday Antigua applied to the WTO to start imposing the recommended sanctions. The World Trade Organization agreed, and Antigua has said that it would be reasonable and responsible in the way that it sells US intellectual property.
Like most people I am eager to find out which property is going to be reasonably sold without the owner of the property getting paid. You can imagine how unreasonable the property owner will think it is.
This weekend I spoke with one of Antigua's most respected music producers about the WTO judgement. Torsten Stenzel is a German award winning musician, songwriter, composer and producer who now resides and runs his internationally famous studio here in Antigua. Apart from local and regional artists like Jah Cure, Buju Banton, Drastic, Jus Bus, Tian Winter, Claudette Peters, Logiq, Kenni Blessin, Itchy Feet, Asha, Shya and Promise, Torsten has worked with huge international acts and his list of associates and collaborators is huge. Since 2007 he has attracted many music industry icons here to Antigua to work in his studio and while his Antiguan company is getting stronger and stronger he is worried that all of his work will be jeopardized by what our government does next.
Torsten says, "Selling music and movies without paying the musicians and artists is unfair and will cause worldwide problems and not just problems with the US. Since illegal downloading went through the roof, the music industry is having a hard time, and artists get little or no revenue from selling music. Some talents live like homeless people yet have a million views on their youtube music video. People always think the pop stars are rich but the ones who are making money are way less than 1%. Government needs to protect their creative people and not just sell them out with no pay."
I reminded him that this would only apply to US copyrighted material and that Antigua has been backed into a corner by the USA. Tosten disagrees. "I think that once a torrent site is up and running it will be difficult to make sure that only US copyrighted material is being sold. Before you know it there will be every kind of music from all over the world being sold on it. I agree that the US has no right to destroy the local online gambling industry, but if you legalize downloading copyrighted material you are hurting the artists that have nothing to do with the problem and not hurting the US government. It is the wrong signal and will effect people who have nothing to do with the original problem. I have had big industry names calling me recently asking me about what the BBC is saying about Antigua setting up a pirate site. I don't want this! In March we fly in Sony Music executives from Japan, and the news that Antigua supports music piracy isn't going to be positive for our relationship and future music business coming to Antigua from Japan."
I put it to Torsten that it may be foreseeable that the music industry would end up being indirect allies in Washington and that artists could possibly join with Antigua in the call for a change on US gambling policy. Torsten didn't seem as optimistic as Jay Cohen though, and for a moment I had a vision of Madonna, Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen doing a TV commercial calling for a boycott of Antigua as a tourism destination until they stopped stealing their music. Who knows what will happen when the downloads start. The USA has made it clear that they would consider any dowloads to be theft and piracy. IT's something to think about and there can be no doubt the this story is long from being finished.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Minister of Fisheries in Antigua is hooked and can't get away.

Yes that's right. He's like a big mouth grouper who's bitten off more than he can chew. The hidden circle hook is riveted solidly in the side of his jaw and he's slowly being reeled in.  He's changing his colours but the camouflage won't help him. He's regurgitating the bait, but the hook is set. He's looking for rocks to hide behind, but there are none big enough. He's shaking his head in protest, but the line is taught and he's coming around. There is no escape now Brother B, you are coming up and have to concede that you are no longer in control.

Hilson Baptiste, Minister of Agriculture and responsible (astonishingly) for The Environment Division and Fisheries was in parliament bad talking me trying to suggest that because my dad, the lawyer, represents illegal French fishermen, I'm a hypocrite for calling on better environmental protection and trying to get the Fisheries regulations signed. In addition, he tried to make it sound like he's the one who has been pushing for the regulations to be passed. The reality is that we, the people, forced him to sign this thing and despite him doing everything he could to bury it, the regulations are starting him in the face once again and he must sign them. For years the finished regulations languished on his desk while he gazed into his solitaire playing computer doing nothing to help our severely depleted fishery. Year after year they remained unsigned despite all the work from the Fisheries Department and consultations with stakeholders that went into getting them to that stage. Each time someone asked him for a reason why he wasn't signing them he gave some lame excuse or the other. The Chief Fisheries officer was quoted time and time again as saying that her hands were tied on fisheries issues until the regulations were signed by the Minister. The Environmental Awarenss Group, The Fishermens Cooperative, The Sport Fishing Association, Fisheries, the press, and many individuals like myself asked for him to sign them and he ignored us all. The regulations did two things that frightened him. The first is that they actually gave slightly more control to the highly educated, knowledgeable people who have spent their careers day in and day out running the Fisheries Division. These people who know better than any other civil servant what is going on out on the water have had no say on what goes on out there up until now. The Minister who once told me after I invited him to come and see some of our reefs for himself: "Me cant swim so what the hell am I going to do out on a boat..." is the one who makes the key decisions in the Fisheries Department. Decisions that often are polar opposite to what his own officers have recommended. Take for example the Cabinet decision which called for Fisheries officers and other authorities to stop enforcing the laws which pertain to spear fishing. It is illegal to spear fish in Antigua without a permit from the Chief Fisheries Officer. Brother B went to Cabinet and lied to his Cabinet members telling them that his officers said that people should be permitted to spear fish. This information came to me from fisheries officers and from one of the Ministers who was in Cabinet. Imagine a Minister convincing other Cabinet Members to issue an order which would see that officers charged with upholding the law permit these laws to be broken. 
The second reason that he hadn't signed the regulations which he himself has been quoted as saying is that he didn't want anyone telling him to sign anything. He wasn't going to be pushed to do anything. It's something these elected officials seem to forget time and time again.. We elected you and you work for us!!!
In March or 2012 when the general public was up in arms about the huge investment being made by Chinese businessmen to target lobster in our waters, I started an education campaign which attempted to show just how broken our fisheries policy and current regulations were. IT wasn't the fault of Chinese, or of Dominicans, or of French fishers. It was the fault of the Minister responsible for Fisheries who permitted a free for all type of policy to carry on. It was and still is the wild west out there and lawlessness prevails. Once again calls were made to sign the completed fisheries regulations. Together with my fellow board members of The Antigua Conservation Society, we started a online petition to the PM. It was clear that Brother B would never sign the regulations unless something drastic was done. Thousands signed it and the press loved the idea that people were so interested in seeing the regulations signed. Brother B knew the tide was turning, and to find a way out of the hole he had dug himself into he decided to start from scratch with the regulations. Defering a decision was as good as not making a decision. New regulations would be drafted. This would delay the process and I think he hoped fishers would water down the regs, but after months of working on it the opposite came to be true. Consultations provided stronger regulations. Fishers were tired of the status quoe. They were tired of catching less and going further to do so. The press and general public was all over the issue.
Everyone has been watching and he's now got to sign it. The Fisheries department sent the redrafted regs to the ministry of legal affairs has FINALLY (after nearly three months) said they are good to go. Sooooo to save face after being found on the wrong side of public opinion on this issue, brother b is now suggesting in parliament that he's the champion of the fisheries regulations. He is the savior of the reefs and the fishery. In parliament this week he declared that I made people sign a document "against him" and that he's the one who got the regulations to where they are. He bad talked me saying that I am only and environmentalist when it suits me and all sorts of other things aimed at personally tarnishing my reputation. I don't care what this big mouth grouper thinks of me. I have one thing to say to him as he flips and flops on the slimy deck..... which is what I have been saying from the start....: JUST SIGN THE BLASTED THING ALREADY!