Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Online gambling: too much at stake?

     The odds are heavy that Portugal will soon legalise online gambling. You can bet your boots gamblers will be delighted, but the chances are that many non-gamblers will be troubled by this development.
Last week the Council of Ministers approved plans to push ahead and legalise licensed online casino, poker and sports betting. Pending approval by the National Assembly and the European Commission, the new scheme could be in place by the end of this year. It will allow foreign operators to apply for licences.
Although yet to be convinced about the details, Jorge Armindo, president of the Portuguese Casino Association, said in effect that it was high time online gambling in Portugal was brought in from the cold.
It could also be said that Portugal is merely joining the big boys’ club. Online betting is already well established and rapidly expanding in Europe and elsewhere around the world. Nearly seven million people in Europe regularly gamble online.
The European Commission sums up the rather complicated legal situation as follows: “Online gambling in the EU is characterised by a diversity of regulatory frameworks. Some Member States have monopolistic regimes run either by a public or a private operator on the basis of an exclusive right.
“Others have established licensing systems for more than one operator. At the same time, operators licensed in one or more Member States offer gambling services in other Member States without the authorisation required in those countries.”
Gambling on the internet has been commonplace for years in the United States despite demands for a permanent federal ban. As online gambling is not fully regulated there, most sites that accept American gamblers are based overseas.  
While there is no clear legislation in some countries and full legalisation or a total ban in others, it is nearly impossible to prohibit or prevent access to internet gambling sites. 
All forms of gambling in Portugal at present are regulated by the Santa Casa da Misericordia de Lisboa (SCML), a charitable institution. It also runs a state sanctioned monopoly on lotteries and sports betting. There are more than 5,000 points of sale in the country, plus 10 land casinos.
The SCML will retain exclusive rights over social gaming, but the ministry of tourism will act as the regulator for the new online laws and licensees.
It is the sheer convenience of online betting that gets the thumbs-up from gamblers. It is informal and beginner-friendly for those who might find a posh casino hall intimidating.
Even people who have never been into a casino building or a local bookie’s shop enjoy regularly visiting online casinos and poker rooms.
But opponents say gambling on the internet takes things too far. It crosses the line of responsible gaming by targeting the young, the poor and the elderly where they live, and by bringing gambling into living rooms and onto smartphones, tablets and home computers 24-hours-a- day without necessary protections. It also facilitates money laundering.
The main objections to both traditional and online gambling are the financial risks involved for gamblers who can ill-afford to lose. Those who do lose in quite a big way often feel compelled to try to compensate, with dire consequences.
And then there are the addicts for whom winning is intoxicating, like alcohol or drugs. They sometimes end up losing their cars, homes and families.
The big winner when online gambling is liberalised in Portugal will be the government, of course. The taxes on games of chance will range from 15% to 30%. Sports betting will attract a rate of 37.5%.
The government says the money will be used to “encourage sport and for cultural development.”
But what about the social costs? Can a balance be struck? Is there a way to quantify the social costs and weigh them against the revenue benefits?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Kill the ivory trade, let elephants live

Carved elephant tusks displayed and offered for sale by auction at the recent Algarve International Fair were a timely reminder of Portugal’s long association with the ivory trade and of stepped-up global efforts to protect elephants by stopping commerce in ivory and destroying ivory stockpiles.
“Is it ever okay to sell elephant ivory?” a visitor to the fair asked herself on seeing three elaborately carved pieces said to have originated in South Africa “circa 1960,” with estimated auction values of between €240 and €600.  
Current initiatives in Europe and in the United States are aimed at saving elephants, which have been pushed to the brink of extinction by poachers and smugglers cashing in on the continuing massive demand for ivory.
The pieces were on offer at the Algarve fair the day before Britain’s Prince William teamed up with sports stars, including football legend David Beckham, Wimbledon champion Andy Murray and former South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, to launch a United for Wildlife campaign on behalf of endangered species.
The campaign is but part of a much wider effort involving government lawmakers and leading conservation groups who are trying to put an end to the trade in huge quantities of “white gold,” first shipped in from the west coast of Africa by the Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteen centuries.
Over the past hundred years, the population of elephants in African has been cut by half. They are being slaughtered at a rate of 30,000 to 35,000 a year.
Ways to curtail escalating exports of ivory from the European Union to China and elsewhere are the subject of discussions at  inter-governmental meetings in Brussels and Geneva this month and next.
Meanwhile, conservationists point out that any legal loopholes will allow poached ivory to be laundered into the ‘legal’ trade and thus fuel the continued killing.
“Weak European laws on ivory trading are a clear and present danger to Africa’s elephants, and a gift to poachers and smugglers who feed almost limitless demand for ivory in East Asia”, says Daniela Freyer of Pro Wildlife.
Mary Rice, of the Environmental Investigation Agency, added: “We are calling on EU countries to halt all ivory trade within, to and from the EU, and  strengthen enforcement. This includes measures to destroy their stockpiled ivory – both carvings and raw tusks - irrespective of its source and alleged age. We will only be able to end the elephant poaching crisis when the trade fuelling it is banned and demand curbed.”
The United States administration has announced a federal ban - with very narrow exemptions - by prohibiting all imports and  exports and resales of ivory by auction houses and other dealers.
Lisbon is said to have more ivory items stocked by antique dealers, jewellery shops, flea markets and other outlets than any other much larger city in southern Europe.
An academic study a few years ago revealed that of 626 ivory items seen for sale in Lisbon, the most numerous were antique figurines from Europe and Asia, followed by busts and figurines carved in the 1970s from Angola, and antique crucifixes from India, Europe and Sri Lanka.
Nearly all the items seen during the study were made before the ban introduced by the EU Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in 1989.
Some, however, were being sold illegally because Portuguese law requires that ivory pieces to be registered. Since 2004, privately owned ivory is required to be registered as well, but most has not been recorded.
Portugal already has at least 20 tonnes of registered tusks and the Portuguese authorities intercept several hundred pieces of ivory (both raw and worked) coming into the country illegally each year, almost all from Africa, especially Angola, Mozambique and Senegal.
Despite this, much ivory is thought to be successfully smuggled into Portugal, often hand-carried through the airports. Another source of ivory is the Internet, which enables new ivory items to be smuggled in by post or courier service. Nearly all of it is for personal ownership  rather than for sale.
In February this year, Prince William reportedly told zoologist Jane Goodall that he would “like to see all the ivory owned by Buckingham Palace destroyed.”  He was duly rebuked by his father,  Prince Charles.
Apparently Charles thought his son’s remark was somewhat naive and stupid as there is a difference between supporting action against illegal dealing and Buckingham Palace retaining an  important historical collection of artefacts.
The royal spat was an example of the kind of heated feelings associated with ivory and the killing of elephants.
The same week as the Algarve fair, Spain’s King Juan Carlos announced his intention to abdicate in favour of his son, Crown Prince Felipe, following much irritation expressed by Spaniards since the king’s hunting trip to Botswana in 2012. The trip, which was supposed to be completely secret, resulted in the king falling and breaking a hip after being photographed posing with a rifle over his shoulder in front of a dead elephant.
Wealthy Chinese buyers are reportedly fostering a boom with the illegal  trafficking of ivory from Tanzania and Kenya north to Cairo where backroom markets are busy, even though selling ivory in Egypt is against the law. Ivory bought in Cairo is said to fetch up to ten times the price in China.
The auctioneer of the Algarve company selling the carved pieces at the Algarve fair assured us that, “the owner of the ivory items  provided the valid certificates to accompany the pieces. These certificates were on hand and available for perusal..... we act as agents for our clients and endeavor to work to the rules and regulations governing the sale of all items presented for auction.”
A man visiting the fair who expressed disapproval about the pieces, said later that the woman looking after the exhibits dismissed his objection with a shrug of the shoulders.
The visitor who wondered to herself about the ethics of  dealing in even validated ivory, remarked afterwards: “Having visited an elephant sanctuary in South Africa I can tell you that elephants are amazingly elegant and surprisingly quiet and gentle creatures for their size. All of them had been rescued from botched poaching attempts, some with missing tusks and damaged limbs.
“An outstretched handful of peanuts were gratefully hoovered up by a tiny baby while an older elephant presented a curled up trunk, an adapted trick because it had been caught in a poacher’s trap.”
What she found especially repugnant at the fair was that the carved ivory pieces, “relics of animal abuse,” were on display for all to see close to stands promoting rescue centres, services and suppliers concerned with the well-being of domestics animals.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

The McCann case: opposing opinions

In the midst of the latest phase in the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, Sky News presenter Kay Burley entered the fray with an article in the Daily Mirror in which she castigated “conspiracy theorists” and “haters” of Madeleine’s parents.
Burley, a reporter and newsreader of long standing, wrote: “I am absolutely staggered by the number of people on social media who think they know exactly what happened to little Madeleine. Conspiracy theorists believe that it’s only a matter of time before the McCanns are held culpable for their daughter’s disappearance.”
Burley went on to dismiss criticisms of Kate McCann’s refusal to answer questions put to her by Portuguese police, and to belittle what many have read into the findings of cadaver dogs in the McCanns holiday apartment and a hire car they used.
 “Easy to dismiss such claims as Looney Tunes, but even a national newspaper was guilty of claiming the McCanns know more than they have told the police,” wrote Burley.
“As a mother I am offended and appalled by such unfounded allegations.
“Every morning the McCann’s must wake up only to be smothered by a blanket of guilt. ‘ If only we’d done this…’
“They have always held on to the hope that Madeleine will be found alive.
“So as the search continues, please ignore the haters and think instead of two desperate parents hundreds of miles away sitting by the phone and hoping against hope that nothing is found this time.”
This heartfelt standpoint exemplifies one of the most contentious features of this extraordinary case. In the absence of indisputable evidence, two conflicting schools of thought have developed about what happened to Madeleine: one that she was abducted, the other that she died inadvertently in the apartment and her parents were somehow involved in a cover-up.
There was no proof either way in 2007 and there is none today, but it is human nature to adopt a preferred line of probability depending on one’s logical and emotional approach.
It is true that many people hiding in the safety of anonymity or pseudonyms make abhorrent, highly abusive comments on internet sites. In the absence of legal options, indeed they should be ignored.
The trouble with Kay Burley’s condemnation, however, is that in its broad sweep it fails to recognise that many of those who do not accept as a given fact that Madeleine was abducted are not “haters.”
Some of the McCann doubters and critics have probably studied this case in more depth and for longer than most mainstream media journalists in Britain.
They are aware, for example, that back in May 2007 no trace was found of a break-in or a burglary, let alone a kidnapping, at the apartment from which Madeleine went missing.
Well-informed sceptics want the truth to emerge so that justice can finally be done. Their reasoned arguments and conclusions are worthy of serious consideration.
Not everyone believes what they hear on television news channels or read in newspapers. ‘Churnalistic’ and seemingly servile coverage of this case gives rise to distrust.
While there is genuine compassion for Madeleine’s devastated parents, a great many Portuguese mothers are offended and appalled by the repercussions in this country of leaving Madeleine and her siblings alone that fateful night.
The reputations of the Portuguese judicial police, the original lead detective and a range of innocent ‘suspects’ have been blackened in the British media over the years.
To cap it all, the Algarve has been cast recently as a hotbed of paedophilia and the ordinary folk dependent on tourism for their livelihood in Praia da Luz have been subjected to the crass timing of the current search operations.
Obviously this case has been a very public and impassioned one, but simplistic rants in the mainstream or social media are not helpful.
One indisputable fact is that no matter how much anyone sympathises with or is critical of Kate and Gerry McCann, it is still far from clear exactly what happened to their daughter.
Sadly, it is looking increasing unlikely we shall know any time soon.
At the end of a TV interview at the weekend, former Chief Inspector Gonçalo Amaral, who believes Madeleine died in the apartment, was asked: “Will we ever find out what really happened that night?”
He replied:  “Yes, we will. When MI5 opens the case files we will find out. Don’t forget that the British secret services followed the case right from the beginning. On location.” 
Amaral did not predict how long it might be before that information becomes available. 

Praia da Luz, the unlikely scene of such an extraordinary mystery.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Madeleine: what's behind the search?

Many people with a keen interest in the disappearance of Madeleine McCann are hopeful that the latest phase in the investigation will reveal vital evidence that will lead to the solving of the seven-year-old mystery. Many others have already written it off as a waste of time – or maybe worse.
A prevalent view is that the Metropolitan Police Service must have good reason for mounting an extensive ground search to which they have committed a forensic team, ground-penetrating radar equipment, specialist dogs and with heavy earth-moving machinery on stand-by.
The reason must have been strong enough to persuade the Portuguese authorities to allow the search on a piece of private land near the centre of Praia da Luz during the summer holiday season.
The British detectives have been understandably cagey about what they expect to achieve, but it seems unlikely they would have gone to such legal and bureaucratic lengths, and agreed to pay the search costs, only to confirm there is nothing of interest buried on the site.
No one will be more surprised if the police do find a body or any other evidence than Praia da Luz residents who know the site well.  They point out that countless walkers and their dogs have crisscrossed the scrubland interminably over the past seven years.
The area comprises bedrock and soil so hard that a kidnapper or anyone else trying to dispose of a body there would have needed a JCB himself. That anyone unfamiliar with the area could have buried evidence at nighttime or unseen is not feasible, they say.
Credible sources say that some Portuguese Judicial Police officers in the Algarve are among those ridiculing the search operation.
Seasoned sceptics suspect it may be just “a fishing trip,” or even a “whitewash,” part of a plan to try to bring the investigation to a dignified close.  
As ever, speculation is rife. Let’s hope for some clarification in the days ahead. 

The scrubland search area is  slightly inland on the left. 
Photo by Praia da Luz resident John Ballinger.