Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Amaral supporters optimistic about judge’s rulings in McCanns’ libel case

Kate and Gerry McCann seemed to suffer a setback on Wednesday in suing former detective Gonçalo Amaral over his controversial book about the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine.
In Lisbon’s Palace of Justice, Judge Maria Emília Melo e Castro handed lawyers in the civil action a written statement evaluating as proven or not a list of 37 points on which she intends to base her verdict. Neither the McCanns nor Amaral were present.
Amaral supporters said afterwards that the statement made them feel cautiously optimistic.
The McCanns are seeking €1.2 million in damages for the severe distress they say has been caused to them by the book, A Verdade da Mentira (‘The Truth of the Lie’), and a subsequent documentary.
The judge ruled that while statements in the book may have psychologically affected the McCanns, the anguish suffered by the couple over their missing daughter preceded the book’s publication rather than being a consequence of it.
She pointed out that the book was very largely based on facts in police files. While Amaral put forward the theory that the McCanns had hidden Madeleine’s body and fabricated a story about her abduction, he did not say they had killed their daughter, the judge said.
In personal statements to the court last July, both Kate and Gerry McCann spoke not only of the great harm they believed had been caused to their family by allegations in the book, but that the allegations had hampered the search for Madeleine.
The judge said Wednesday it had not been proved that the Polícia Judiciária stopped collecting information and investigating the disappearance because of the book’s contents.
Amaral insisted last year that the lawfulness of his book was “indisputable” because of a decision of the Appellate Court in Lisbon that overturned an earlier ruling banning it.
The McCanns now have time to seek and present authorisation from the British High Court to formally represent their daughter in this case. Madeleine was made a ward of court at the instigation of her parents in April 2008. This could have a bearing on the amount of any compensation eventually awarded.
This long-running case in Lisbon has been suspended several times over the past five years, including in January 2013 when the court allowed the two sides to try to reach a private settlement. No agreement was reached.
No date has been set for a verdict but it is thought to be more than two months away. Even when it comes, the verdict will probably not be the end of the matter. An appeal is likely.
Also, Amaral has let it be known that he is considering instigating a counter defamation lawsuit against the McCanns to seek compensation for the enormous damages on different levels he claims they have caused him.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The pen is still mightier than the AK47

The support for freedom of expression that was coupled with the denunciation of terrorism during last weekend’s rally in Paris was phenomenal, but how resilient is it going to be in the face of various forms of intimidation?
Holding pencils and pens skyward in a show of solidarity was one thing, but what now? Freedom of expression remains a tangled and contentious issue with no uniformity of opinion on just how free the freedom should be.
On top of a unanimous condemnation of the Paris attacks, politicians of all parties in the Portuguese parliament united in a resolution strongly backing freedom of expression in the press, which is already enshrined in the constitution.
A few days earlier, however, an expression of a more subtle and slightly ominous kind was daubed on the main door and a wall of the central mosque in Lisbon. It was simply the number 1143 scrawled the night after the imam of the mosque had described the Charlie Hebdo attack an “act of barbarity” and pointed out that “it has nothing to do with Islam.”
The number 1143  refers to the year Portugal became an independent kingdom while parts of the country were still occupied by the Muslim Moors. It is believed to have been adopted as a symbol of a small neo-Nazi group in  Portugal of whom little is heard compared to the outspoken far-right organisations in France and elsewhere in Europe.
The imam told the newspaper Público that the graffiti was “provocative… but we don’t feel threatened.”
Still, it was deliberately offensive and that is when freedom of expression of any kind starts to become questionable, both morally and legally.
Freedom of expression is a Western value, not an absolute right. Although political leaders pay lip service to it, they do not always fully endorse it. France bans Muslim women from wearing the hijab. The utterance of a few insulting words by a well-known person in Britain can cause national outrage. The wrong kind of Twitter message can get you locked up. Write what you consider to be an accurate, honest and truthful book about a criminal investigation and you could face years of court action and a crippling bill at the end of it.
Freedom of expression has little relevance in countries such as China and none at all in North Korea. Nor does it mean anything to extremist Muslims.
USA Today published an open letter from the radical cleric Anjem Choudary saying, “Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires.”
The assassins who massacred 13 people in Paris were apparently happy to die as martyrs in avenging the publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammad, but their efforts to curtail freedom of expression could not have been more counter productive. Their savagery only brought the cartoons to the attention of a vastly greater audience than the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo could otherwise have dreamt of.
When the emotions of last week’s events in Paris have settled, hopefully the pen will still be regarded as mightier than the AK47, but even the fiercest advocates of zero censorship will be faced with limits to their freedom of expression.
Not all who strongly support freedom of expression in principle agree that it should be limitless. Nor is there agreement where the boundaries should be drawn. It will always be contentious – and that’s fine.
Charlie Hebdo was openly anti-religious and it did not confine its ridicule to the Muslim religion. But because Christians are less likely to be offended by mockery of Jesus Christ, does that mean Muslims should feel the same way about fun poked at Mohammad?  
Looked at from another angle, if censorship starts with Mohammad, where does it stop?
If freedom of expression cannot be absolute, surely it demands moral responsibility. Not everyone is a Je Suis Charlie admirer and most professional journalists agree that even without being cowed by the threat of violent retribution, some form of self-regulation and legal restraint is appropriate.
Offence is in the eye of the beholder. Like it or not, the media is going to remain offensive to some, one way or another. A good example is the anger expressed last August by admirers of Sir Cliff Richard while he was relaxing in his holiday home in the Algarve.
The fans were shocked by the BBC’s live coverage from a hovering helicopter of the police raid on the singer’s Berkshire home. The unannounced raid was in connection with an allegation of sexual abuse of a boy under the age of 16.  
Hundreds of viewers complained to the BBC that its coverage made Sir Cliff look guilty even before he had been questioned by police about accusations he subsequently dismissed as “completely false.”
The Daily Mail, itself no stranger to plying offensive stories about celebrities, last week described the BBC as “shameless” in submitting its raid coverage for the ‘scoop of the year’ prize at next month’s Royal Television Society journalism awards.
The point here is that the BBC still faces the threat of legal action because, according to Sir Cliff’s lawyer, the coverage  caused “immeasurable harm to our client and was both premature and disproportionate.”
Whatever the rights or wrongs of this particular case, news organisations in Portugal and in the rest of the democratic world can be counted on to resist any attempts, especially by the powerful, rich or famous, to curb what they regard as honest reporting in the public interest.
Defending freedom of expression will be the focus of a timely two-day conference that will bring together journalists and lawyers in Lisbon at the beginning of next week.
The conference ends the day before a resumption of the protracted trial in which Kate and Gerry McCann are seeking damages of more than €1 million from the author and former detective Gonçalo Amaral because he decided to publish a theory they wholeheartedly disagreed with.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Bye-bye hopes of a happy new year

No sooner had families and friends around the world exchanged best wishes for a healthy, happy and prosperous 2015 than the news broke about Her Majesty’s second son.
A woman alleged that a billionaire American investment banker used her as an under-age ‘sex slave’ and forced her to have repeated sexual relations in London, New York and on a private Caribbean island with rich and famous friends, including Prince Andrew.
This came on top of reported evidence that 22 Westminster politicians abused children, or were involved in child abuse cover-ups, and that the number of paedophile victims all across the UK could runs to tens of thousands.
In abuse of another kind, a Florida man has been charged with first-degree murder for decapitating his mother on New Year’s Eve. Christian Gomez, 23, had allegedly plotted his mother’s murder because she had asked him to do domestic chores.
In a shopping centre up in Idaho, a two-year-old baby boy shot and killed his mother with a pistol he found by unzipping a special purse she had been given as a Christmas present.Why the young mother felt the need to carry a gun while out shopping remained unclear, at least to Europeans, especially as she was described as “a motivated academic and a successful nuclear research scientist.”
With considerable military efficiency, hooded gunmen killed and injured many people on January 7 in another attack on the Paris offices of a satirical magazine renowned for poking fun at extreme Islamists. The magazine had been the target of a fire-bombing in 2011 after publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.
Nothing quite so odious has occurred since the start of the year in Portugal, but the headline news has been no less bewildering.
“There is no justice in Portugal,” wrote Mário Soares in an article in the Jornal de Notícias. Many of his fellow citizens might loosely agree. Even so, it was an amazing statement coming from a former President of the Republic, former prime minister and one of the heroes of the 1974 revolution that replaced dictatorship with democracy.
Soares was referring to the treatment of another former socialist prime minister, and a good friend, José Sócrates, who has been languishing in jail while an inquiry is conducted into his suspected involvement in corruption, tax fraud and money laundering.
In written answers to questions from the national television station TV1, Sócrates insisted in no uncertain terms that the allegations against him were false and defamatory, that he was the victim of a criminal violation of justice and that his imprisonment was a “cowardly act of aggression.”   
Meanwhile the current President of the Republic Aníbal Cavaco Silva ignored Soares’ challenge to intervene and have Sócrates freed. Instead he used his traditional New Year’s message to assert that the economy is growing, competitiveness is improving, unemployment is diminishing and investment is starting out on a path of recovery.
Unfortunately, the head of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi used a New Year interview to declare that Europe faced a “long period of weakness” with the “growing risk of price instability.” The euro promptly dropped to a nine-year low against the US dollar.
Despite Cavaco Silva’s pep talk, the government’s new ‘green tax came into force on New Year’s Day, hiking fuel prices in Portugal while they continue to plummet in the rest of Europe.
One driver in particular was rather less concerned about the price of petrol than the cost of his failure to pay a €1.60 motorway toll. With fines and charges added, he received a bill for €72,000. 
In addition to the stories short on news of either happiness or prosperity, most of the papers in Portugal ran one that questioned our chances of good health in the year ahead. It revealed that this year’s batch of flu vaccine will give no more than 50-50 protection against the latest aggressive strain of the flu virus, which may reach epidemic proportions as it is the same virus that sparked a pandemic in 1968.
Perhaps the most perplexing news was contained in the science section of Tuesday’s Diário de Noticías. A Portuguese university team has won a competition organised by a Dutch foundation with a project that aims to supply seeds for germinating on Mars during an unmanned mission there in 2018. Full marks to the winning team, but does the Red Planet really need any human input?
       For plain silliness, though, it was hard to beat the story about a planeload of Lisbon passengers disembarking at London’s Stanstead Airport. The crew of the Ryanair flight said they directed the passengers to an assigned arrivals gate. Instead, the passengers walked through an exit door ‘left open in error’ and ended up in the departures area. The shambles that ensued caused long security-check queues and take-off delays.
Any good news at the start of the new year? Well, it didn’t make it into the headlines but House Martins, which are largely immune to human lunacy, are gearing up for their epic journey back to Portugal and the rest of Europe from their winter sojourn in sub-Saharan Africa. And one of Portugal and southern Europe’s most attractive and delightfully well-organised resident birds, the Hoopoe, has already started nesting.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Blocking out global warming worries

Climate change is arguably the biggest threat that humanity has ever faced and so perhaps it should have repeatedly dominated the headlines this past year, if not the past decade. It didn’t because discussion on the subject is so confusing and implicitly terrifying that many people don’t even want to think about it.
Academic debate rages about whether or not the globe really is warming – or if so, why, by how much, and what should be done about it.  
The majority of leading scientific authorities argue that the surface temperatures of the Earth have been rising since 1900 - increasingly so in the last four decades.
The Royal Society, Britain’s pre-eminent scientific association, is in little doubt as to why: “It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing the Earth’s climate.”
On what may lie ahead, the British Society is equally confident: “Long-term climate change over many decades will depend mainly on the total amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases emitted as a result of human activities.”
Others are bolder in the views. George Marshall, the Oxford-based founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, points out in a new book that “scientists who are, as a group, extremely wary of exaggeration, nonetheless keep using the same word: catastrophe.
But sceptics insist the theory of ‘catastrophic’ global warming is doom mongering and a fraudulent scientific conspiracy. Some have dubbed it ‘the greatest scam in history.’ 
Paradoxically, the fuss is about only a few degrees. The word ‘catastrophe’ enters the fray to describe what the world can expect if the climate warms by more than 2ºC.
‘Catastrophe’ may seem a little strong for a small amount of warming, but even a change of a few degrees could have extremely negative effects on agriculture, food production and fisheries in Portugal as elsewhere.  
If it were to stretch to 4ºC, sea levels would rise so much that not only small towns and resorts in the Algarve, but Lisbon and two-thirds of the world’s other major cities would end up underwater.
One of the world’s most influential climate scientists, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber believes, “The difference between two and four degrees is human civilisation.” Along with many fellow-scientists, he thinks the 4ºC scenario is increasingly likely.
Four degrees of warming overall would make it two degrees warmer in some places, 12 degrees or more in others. The world, much of it then uninhabitable, would be hotter than at any time in the last 30 million years.
This could happen by 2060 – in other words, if not in our lifetime then in the lifetime of our children or grandchildren.
Portugal is thought to be one of the countries most vulnerable to global warming in Europe. Sea levels along the shores of the mainland have been rising annually by more than 4mm over the past decade, twice those in the previous two decades, according to a government-commissioned report.
Rises in average summer season temperatures of up to 7ºC are predicted for the mainland, though only 2-3ºC in Madeira and 1-2ºC in the Azores.   
Referring to a report released last month by the World Meteorological Organization, the Scientific American magazine ran an article stating that 2014 will likely prove to have been the hottest on record for the planet. “This would make 2014 the 38th consecutive year with an anomalously high annual global temperature.”
Such assertions are dismissed by sceptics who insist that the latest scientific evidence shows that while carbon dioxide emissions have risen, there has been little or no global warming since 1998. 
According to climate specialists Sebastian Lüning and Fritz Vahrenholt, who have examined historical temperature data recorded by weather stations in Lisbon and Coimbra over the last 140 years,  the temperature has risen by nearly one degree since 1850, but there has been no warming either in Portugal or globally in the past 16 years.
“Hardly known today is the fact that around 1950 temperatures in Portugal were as warm over a ten-year period as they are today. And 60 years before that, during the late 19th century, another warm peak had occurred in Portugal, though temperatures were not quite as high as modern levels.”
Those in the sceptical camp claim that the catastrophe hypothesis is a socialist plot designed to curb capitalism.
The retort from the other side is that ‘denial’ of global warming is being engineered and funded by right-wing elitists with vested interests in the oil industry.
On carbon emissions, however, there is some common agreement that the levels are rising and that something ought to be done about it.
Portugal is only a small country but it is doing its bit to cut fossil fuel dependency, expand renewable use and generally strengthen its climate policies.
A survey in 2014 confirmed Portugal’s high standing among the 58 countries responsible for more than 90 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.
The biggest polluters, including China, Russia, India and the US, have been ducking and diving on this issue since the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the Copenhagen summit in 2009 and 18 other major meetings under the auspices of the United Nations. The latest, a few weeks ago in Lima, Peru, offered a glimmer of hope.
“Governments took a step back from chaos in the climate change discussions in Lima and found a way forward,” reported the Guardian, “albeit with some fudges and compromises, giving themselves just 12 months to finalise a crucial international agreement to avoid dangerous levels of global warming.”  
The only startling news to come out of the Lima conference, attended by representatives from 195 countries, was that a group of Greenpeace eco-warriors distinguished themselves by trampling over an ancient UNESCO World Heritage Site “while setting up one of their sanctimonious, publicity-grabbing stunts,” as a sceptical columnist in the Sunday Times put it.
Environmentalists everywhere are fed up because top-level political shilly-shallying has been going on for well over a decade. Now would be a good time for world leaders to stop procrastinating and start turning words into action.
They are in no great hurry, of course, as governments rarely have a long-term vision, being focused only on their next election. The next summit, in Paris, will not be until towards the end of 2015.
As for the rest of us, we can barely cope with all the bad news about wars and terrorist savagery, corruption and economic crises, let alone the terrifying prospect of a global climate catastrophe.
As supposedly the most intelligent of species with dominion over all others, the title of George Marshall’s new book - Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change - speaks volumes about what a hopeless lot we humans are when it comes to looking after life on our planet.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A new shake-up in the Madeleine case?

The Operation Grange investigation by the Metropolitan Police into the disappearance of  Madeleine McCann is said to be “upbeat” and set to continue despite mounting costs, a top resignation and apparently still no breakthrough in sight.
The latest episode in this extraordinary case, with Scotland Yard detectives questioning ten people in Faro, does not seem to have resulted in any meaningful progress.
 The previous high point in the investigation featured British police searching across three sites next to Praia da Luz in the summer. Scorned by sceptics as a ‘whitewash’ and a ‘circus,’ the searches produced no new evidence and gave rise not only to exasperation among local citizens, but also speculation that the investigation was nearing its endgame.
The speculation heightened with news that the cost of the inquiry was approaching £10 million at a time of stringent budget cuts that could have disastrous consequences for police forces across the UK.   
The announcement that Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood was retiring from the Met as the head of Operation Grange further invigorated the notion that the case was going nowhere.
“After careful consideration and a full and rewarding career in the Met, the time is right for me to move on,” Redwood said.
A headline in the Mirror declared: “Madeleine McCann top cop quits: This does send a certain kind of message.”
The paper reported that with Redwood’s resignation, “the inquiry into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann suffered a blow.” It went on to quote a source close to the inquiry: “The investigation has gone on for three and a half years now. However a lead detective would not typically stand down if they can see a result in the pipeline.”
If this did indeed send “a certain kind of message,” it was somewhat confused by the simultaneous announcement that DCI Nicola Wall was to replace Redwood as leader of the Operation Grange team.
This left some observers wondering if the latest questioning in Faro was a last ditch effort that might soon lead to a formal wrapping up of the investigation.
Not so, apparently.
Anthony Summers, co-author with his wife Robbyn Swan of the book Looking for Madeleine, told the BBC Breakfast programme that, according to his sources, the Operation Grange team is “upbeat and believes the case is solvable.”
There is said to be no political pressure, no hidden agenda and no pressure or problem about expenditure.
The team still comprises about 30 officers and support staff, essentially the same number as earlier in the investigation. The expectation is that they will continue ploughing methodically though a vast amount of information.
So, the indications are that although the investigation is taking a very long time with apparently little success, this should not be interpreted as meaning that detectives are pessimistic about the case or about to give up.
It has been known by insiders for some months that Redwood was going to retire. But immediately after the announcement, the Mirror quoted a senior Labour MP as saying: “There are times when public duty must override personal circumstances, and this is one of them. If senior officers were aware of the DCI’s retirement plans, why was he put on to this case in the first place?”
Interesting question, but this is a side issue.
The main thrust is that Nicola Wall has now met the senior Portuguese officials she will be collaborating with after formally taking command of Operation Grange on 22 December.
When Inês Sequeira was appointed Portimão’s new public prosecutor in October she was quoted in the press as being “utterly determined” to crack the case.
She has the backing of Portugal’s first woman attorney general, Joana Marques Vidal, Portimão’s PJ chief, Ana Paula Rito, and the Oporto-based PJ detective in charge of the Portuguese investigation, Helena Monteiro.
Nicola Wall has served at the Met for 26 years, most recently as head of the Murder Investigation Team in West London. Hitherto she has not had much media coverage, but that’s about to change.
Vogue magazine last year reported that she prided herself on her investigative speed; that she was only partially joking when she attributed her low media profile to the fact “we solve cases so quickly nobody gets involved.”
       An omen perhaps?

DCI Nicola Wall arriving at the PJ headquarters in Faro.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Human migration: madness in motion

Unlike birds and other creatures that migrate in an orderly and timely way, the mass movement of humans is shambolic.
We used to wander about freely hunting and gathering in small tribes. As human populations grew and greeds as well as needs became greater, the more developed tribes sent explorers forth to look for opportunities among vulnerable communities abroad. Invaders and colonisers followed.
Portugal and Spain appealed to Celtic, Roman and Moorish intruders. Britain attracted Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Normans.
The trend swivelled when the Portuguese, Spanish and later the British dispatched their brightest and bravest to set up shop in Africa, Asia and the Americas.
Now we are into a different kind of mass movement in which the trend has done a U-turn: the former colonising countries are being colonised.
Accurate statistics are fleeting and iffy because of the erratic and sometimes illegal nature of migration, but according to the OECD the percentage of foreign-born citizens living in Portugal is about 8% compared with 12% in the UK and well over 14% in Spain.
In Portugal, foreign-born residents from outside the EU outnumber those from within by about four to one. The majority are from the former colony of Brazil. There are also plenty from the old African territories.
Being among the poorer European countries, Portugal is not fretting about being swamped by EU immigrants. They are seen as an asset not a threat. Over the past couple of decades, plenty of East Europeans have come to work hard. Reasonably well-off British citizens, who like to be thought of as ‘expatriates’ rather than immigrants, have ambled in to buy property and retire in the sun.
Alarmingly, however, with Portugal’s population ageing and its birth-rate dropping, there has been an exodus in recent years of well-educated young men and women seeking employment in the far-flung Portuguese-speaking diaspora.
Some are going to the US where Barack Obama recently emphasised that Americans “are and always will be, a nation of immigrants.” About 20% of all international migrants - nearly 41 million or about 13% of the total population - live in the US.
Obama’s decision to enact sweeping immigration reforms that would allow almost five million people to remain living in the country illegally has outraged Republicans. Immigration could become a central issue in the next US presidential election. It undoubtedly will be high on the agenda in the next general election in Britain.
David Cameron pledged last year to reduce the UK’s net migration rate to tens of thousands. Embarrassingly, the net figure to June 2014 has turned out to be a whopping 260,000. It could have been worse: Germany is much the preferred destination within Europe.
It’s not only the scale of immigration that currently has the British in a lather. The Brits see themselves as victims of their own economic strength and generous benefit schemes. It’s claimed that too many immigrants, especially those from cash-strapped Eastern Europe, turn out to be scroungers.
Because of the many indigenous people in Britain who say immigration is so far out of control that they feel like foreigners in their own land, a referendum on continued membership of the EU becomes ever more likely.
Well aware of the surge in euroscepticism and the need to placate anti-immigrant voters, Cameron said he would lead the UK out of the EU unless it reformed the ‘fundamental principle’ of free movement of workers.
He quickly backed down on his demand for a cap on the number of EU immigrants after German Chancellor Angela Merkel ‘sat on’ him and said the matter was non-negotiable.
Political squabbles don’t come into the equation for those from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa paying big bribes to people smugglers to get them to the French port of Calais. If they manage to scramble past the high fences, riot police, sniffer dogs and ranks of carbon dioxide detectors at Calais docks, there’s a chance of making it across the English Channel to the new El Dorado.
By contrast, the controversial Golden Visa scheme (which the Portuguese government intends to continue) enables the wealthiest from China and elsewhere to become residents and travel freely within the Schengen countries of Europe. This despite the recent unveiling of a predictable scandal involving corrupt Portuguese government officials and property agents.
In some ways migration seems to have descended into madness, a frenzied free-for-all. Bar-tailed godwits and monarch moths behave with far more dignity.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Corruption: bringing down the mighty

A wise man once said, “Corrupt politicians make the other ten percent look bad.”
Perhaps this was said at least partly in jest, but it is certainly true that corruption lurks in the shadows from the bottom to the very top of politics in many countries all over the world. Portugal’s reputation in this regard is far from the worst, but it is still appalling.
Abuse of power for private gain has long been suspected not only within parliament and local administrations, but also the judiciary, the police, the military, state agencies and nationalised and private businesses. Many if not most culprits get away with it of course.
Transparency International, which calls itself the leading civil society organisation fighting corruption worldwide, will launch its 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index on December 3. Portugal is likely to drop a peg or two from its position of 15th in the 28 EU countries and 33rd in the world.
Transparency International has been monitoring citizens’ perceptions annually for the past 20 years. Keeping scores like this is a helpful guide, but it doesn’t profess to tell anything like the whole story because corruption is such a crafty, behind closed doors and under-the-table activity. 
 According to this year’s anti-corruption report produced by the European Commission, 90% of the Portuguese population think corruption is widespread in this country. The average among EU member states is bad enough at 76%.
The same report reveals that more than 70% of those within companies who responded to the EC survey believe that corruption is a problem when doing business in Portugal.
Asked if they considered patronage and nepotism to be a problem for their company when doing business, the ‘yes’ figure was again about 70%. The great majority rated the ‘problems’ in doing business in Portugal as ‘serious’ or ‘very serious.’
Plenty of people also think the medical and health system is ‘corrupt’ or ‘extremely corrupt’ and that backhanders and kickbacks are sometimes involved in awarding public tenders, or the issuing of permits and licences for building works or safety and sanitary arrangements.
Trying to keep control on corruption in Portugal starts with the national anti-corruption unit of the Polícia Judiciária (UNCC). The investigation of misconduct and abuse of power committed by holders of political office is but one of UNCC’s responsibilities.
The prevention, detection and investigation of all kinds of embezzlement, influence peddling, fraud and forgery is up to the UNCC. Big job. Although the unit is said to be under-resourced, the arrest of former prime minister José Sócrates and the unearthing of the Golden Visa scandal suggests that investigators have been working at full throttle.
How these new corruption cases are handled – and if and when they eventually reach trial - will be watched meticulously by the media, bearing in mind that the judicial system itself is perceived by many to be very corrupt. The statute of limitation for corruption offences is 15 years, which is just as well because court processes are often woefully slow.
Front-page news coverage of the Sócrates and Golden Visa cases came hard on the heels of sensational allegations against FIFA officials awarding the staging of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, violent outrage over government corruption in Mexico and shenanigans in China that have resulted in more than 13,000 officials being found guilty of corruption and bribery in the first nine months of this year alone.
So what’s new? Over the years, leaders of all stripes - dictators and pillars of democracy alike - have been unable to resist the temptation to abuse their power for personal gain.
Among the worst in modern history was the president of Zaire from 1965 to 1997, Mobutu Sese Seko. He embezzled somewhere between $5 billion and $15 billion. In addition to chartering supersonic Concorde aircraft for shopping trips to Paris, Mobutu and his family, together with an army of bodyguards, used to enjoy visits to his holiday mansion in the Algarve.
The wise man who said, “Corrupt politicians make the other ten percent look bad” was Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and then secretary of state to Richard Nixon who presided over arguably one of the most corrupt administrations in the history of the United States.
The American author John Steinbeck was of the opinion that “power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts…perhaps the fear of a loss of power.”
Mobutu feared being toppled by a military coup and being thrown out of his homeland, which is what happened.  
Richard Nixon’s undoing was his desperate cover-up manoeuvring, fuelled by fear of being exposed by his many political enemies for the 1972 Watergate break-in.
While José Sócrates has little else in common with these two mega-rogues, he must have known that with the worsening of the economic crisis in 2011 an ignominious fall from power was inevitable.
Perhaps the moral of the story lies with a saying attributed to the former Socialist prime minister’s namesake, the classical Greek philosopher Socrates: “He is richest who is content with the least...”