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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cover-up: a film's travesty of omissions by John Pilger

In his latest column for the New Statesman, John Pilger recalls his undercover reporting from East Timor and reveals that a major new movie, Balibo, perpetuates the cover-up of the role played western governments in the genocial invasion of East Timor by Indonesia and the Australian government's part in the murder of its own journalists.

On 30 August it will be a decade since the people of East Timor defied the genocidal occupiers of their country to take part in a United Nations referendum, voting for their freedom and independence. A “scorched earth” campaign by the Indonesian dictatorship followed, adding to a toll of carnage that had begun 24 years earlier when Indonesia invaded tiny East Timor with the secret support of Australia, Britain and the United States. According to a committee of the Australian parliament, “at least 200,000” died under the occupation, a third of the population.

Filming undercover in 1993, I found crosses almost everywhere: great black crosses etched against the sky, crosses on peaks, crosses in tiers on the hillsides, crosses beside the road. They littered the earth and crowded the eye. A holocaust happened in East Timor, telling us more about rapacious Western power, its propaganda and true aims, than even current colonial adventures. The historical record is unambiguous that the US, Britain and Australia conspired to accept such a scale of bloodshed as the price of securing Southeast Asia’s “greatest prize” with its “hoard of natural resources”. Philip Liechty, the senior CIA operations officer in Jakarta at the time of the invasion, told me, “I saw the intelligence. There were people being herded into school buildings by Indonesian soldiers and the buildings set on fire. The place was a free fire zone... We sent them everything that you need to fight a major war against somebody who doesn’t have any guns. None of that got out... [The Indonesian dictator] Suharto was given the green light to do what he did.”

Britain supplied Suharto with machine guns and Hawk fighter-bombers which, regardless of fake “assurances”, were used against defenceless East Timorese villages. The critical role was played by Australia. This was Australia’s region. During the second world war, the people of East Timor had fought heroically to stop a Japanese invasion of Australia. Their betrayal was spelt out in a series of leaked cables sent by the Australian ambassador in Jakarta, Richard Woolcott, prior to and during the Indonesian invasion in 1975. Echoing Henry Kissinger, he urged “a pragmatic rather than a principled stand”, reminding his government that it would “more readily” exploit the oil and gas wealth beneath the Timor Sea with Indonesia than with its rightful owners, the East Timorese. “What Indonesia now looks to from Australia,” he wrote as Suharto’s special forces slaughtered their way across East Timor, “is some understanding of their attitude and possible action to assist public understanding in Australia”.

Two months earlier, Indonesian troops had murdered five newsmen from Australian TV near the East Timorese town of Balibo. On the day the capital, Dili, was seized, they shot dead a sixth journalist, Roger East, throwing his body into the sea. Australian intelligence had known 12 hours in advance that the journalists in Balibo faced imminent death, and the government did nothing. Intercepted at the spy base, Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) near Darwin, which supplies US and British intelligence, the warning was suppressed so that it would not expose western governments’ part in the conspiracy to invade and the official lie that the journalists had been killed in “crossfire”. The secretary of the Australian Defence Department, Arthur Tange, a notorious cold warrior, demanded that the government not even inform the journalists’ families of their murders. No minister protested to the Indonesians. This criminal connivance is documented in Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra, by Desmond Ball, a renowned intelligence specialist, and Hamish McDonald.

The Australian government’s complicity in the journalists’ murder and, above all, in a bloodbath greater proportionally than that perpetrated by Pol Pot in Cambodia has been cut almost entirely from a major new film, Balibo, which has begun its international release in Australia. Claiming to be a “true story”, it is a travesty of omissions. In eight of sixteen drafts of his screenplay, David Williamson, the distinguished Australian playwright, graphically depicted the chain of true events that began with the original radio intercepts by Australian intelligence and went all the way to prime minister Gough Whitlam, who believed East Timor should be “integrated” into Indonesia. This is reduced in the film to a fleeting image of Whitlam and Suharto in a newspaper wrapped around fish and chips. Williamson’s original script described the effect of the cover up on the families of the murdered journalists and their anger and frustration at being denied information and despair at Canberra’s scandalous decision to have the journalists’ ashes buried in Jakarta with ambassador Woolcott, the arch apologist, reading the oration. What the government feared if the ashes came home was public outrage directed at the West’s client in Jakarta. All this was cut.

The “true story” is largely fictitious. Finely dramatised, acted and located, the film is reminiscent of the genre of Vietnam movies, such as The Deer Hunter, which artistically airbrushed the truth of that atrocious war from popular history. Not surprisingly, it has been lauded in the Australian media, which took minimal interest in East Timor’s suffering during the long years of Indonesian occupation. So enamoured of General Suharto was the country’s only national daily, The Australian, owned by Rupert Murdoch, that its editor-in-chief, Paul Kelly, led Australia’s principal newspaper editors to Jakarta to shake the tyrant’s hand. There is a photograph of one of them bowing.

I asked Balibo’s director, Robert Connolly, why he had cut the original Williamson script and omitted all government complicity. He replied that the film had “generated huge discussion in the media and the Australian government” and in that way “Australia would be best held accountable”. Milan Kundera’s truism comes to mind: “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Thursday, August 13, 2009

ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent censors Venezuela’s majority- Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network

ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent censors Venezuela’s majority

ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent program screened on August 11, titled “Hugo Chavez: Total Control” did nothing to shore up the ABC’s reputation for well informed, accurate reporting. Eric Campbell’s report from Venezuela was riddled with inaccuracies, half-truths and transparent biases that need to be corrected.

The program’s main message – that President Hugo Chavez is “the dominator… aiming for total control” in Venezuela – is the stock-standard propaganda being peddled by a mainstream media that refuses to recognise or reflect the voices of the poor majority in Venezuela.

What “evidence” does Foreign Correspondent present for Chavez’s supposed megalomania?

Campbell says, “Millions of poor people see Hugo Chavez as a saint … taking money from the rich and giving it to them”. Indeed! Chavez’s popularity is based upon his willingness to put the needs of Venezuela's majority – who for hundreds of years have been exploited and disenfranchised – ahead of those of business elites, and to use the country’s natural oil wealth to improve living conditions for most, rather than line the pockets of a tiny elite.

Under Chavez’s leadership, a 50% increase in social welfare spending in 1999-2005 was accompanied by decreases in infant mortality, an increase in school enrolment (according to the United Nations, illiteracy has been eradicated in Venezuela) and a decrease in poverty.

By 2005, approximately 50% of the Venezuelans enjoyed government health-care and food subsidies. Between 2000 and 2008, enrolments in higher education more than doubled. In the six years to 2009, according to internationally recognized poverty measures, poverty has been reduced from 55.1% to 25.3%. Extreme poverty has been reduced by 72%. (A comprehensive assessment is available in the US Center for Economic and Policy Research’s 2009 report, “The Chavez Administration at 10 Years: The Economy and Social Indicators”.)

In the words of one of the very few ordinary working people interviewed by Foreign Correspondent, “In all ways [Chavez] is a president that worries about his people”.

But, Campbell says, after a referendum this year that enabled Venezuelan presidents to be re-elected beyond three terms, Chavez can now “keep running for president until he dies!”. Well, so can any Australian prime minister. And if it is the people’s will, why not? That’s democracy. Foreign Correspondent doesn’t even attempt to explain how it is that this supposed dictator can be democratically elected and re-elected in 1998, 2000, 2004 and 2006, in ballots certified as transparent and legitimate by international monitors.

Still not deterred by the facts, Campbell goes on to assert that “managing the message and clobbering the media have become a Chavez obsession”.

In fact, there is much more oppositional media in Venezuela than in Australia, and a much greater range of debate in the media. The vast majority of Venezuela’s media is privately owned. Before the government acted this month to enforce Venezuela’s telecommunications law – handing over the expired licences of 32 privately owned radio stations and two regional television stations to community media ­– just 27 families controlled more than 32% of the radio and television waves; many owned 10 to 20 stations. These rich families ensured that the media is a political player, routinely broadcasting reporting that would not be allowed in Australia (such as calls for violent protests and insurrection, and, as broadcast recently by privately owned Globovision TV, a call for Chavez to be “lynched”).

Foreign Correspondent claims that Chavez’s “autocratic socialism is jeopardising the benefits of his revolution”. This misses the point that it is not Chavez’s revolution, but the Venezuelan people’s. Beyond Campbell’s “beleaguered middle class” (which all the statistics reveal is actually earning more than ever) is a thriving network of “social missions” and communal councils that are creating a new participatory democracy in Venezuela that, for all the problems that persist in a country that for centuries was bled dry by a wealthy, corrupt elite, creates the possibility for genuine majority rule in Venezuela.

We urge the ABC to revisit the Bolivarian revolution with open ears, eyes and mind, and give viewers the opportunity to hear the voices of the majority in Venezuela.

August 12, 2009

Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Books that counter our "training" to make war by John Pilger

John Pilger

In his latest column for the New Statesman, John Pilger asks his readers to set aside the usual summer holiday reading lists and reach for books that help us make sense of extraordinary times and to resist our "training" to make war.

These are extraordinary times. Flag-wrapped coffins of 18-year-old soldiers killed in a failed, illegal and vengeful invasion are paraded along a Wiltshire high street. Victory in Afghanistan is at hand, says the satirical Gordon Brown. On the BBC’s Newsnight, the heroic Afghan MP Malalai Joya, tries, in her limited English, to tell the British public that her people are being blown to bits in their name: 140 villagers, mostly children, in her own Farah Province. No parade for them. No names and faces for them. The suppression of the suffering of Britain’s and America’s colonial victims is an article of media faith, a tradition so ingrained that it requires no instructions.

The difference today is that a majority of the British people are not fooled. The cheerleading newsreaders can say “Britain’s resolve is being put to the test” as if the Luftwaffe is back on the horizon, but their own polls (BBC/ITN) show that popular disgust with the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq is strongest in the very communities where adolescents are recruited to fight them. The problem with the British public, says a retired army major on Channel 4 News, is that they need “to be trained and educated”. Indeed they do, wrote Bertolt Brecht in The Solution, explaining that the people . . .

Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

In their modern classic Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky describe how war propaganda in free societies is “filtered” by media organisations, not as conscious “crude intervention, but by the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors’ and working journalists’ internalisation of [elite] priorities and definitions of newsworthiness”. In the wake of the US invasion of Vietnam, in which at least three million people were killed and their once-bountiful land ruined and poisoned, planners of future bloodfests invented the “Vietnam syndrome”, which they identified perversely as a “crisis of democracy”. The “crisis” was that the “general population threatened to participate in the political system, challenging established privilege and power”. Afghanistan and Iraq now have their syndromes.

With this in mind, I respectfully urge readers to put aside the holiday reading lists in the newspaper review pages, with their clubbable hauteur, and read, or read again, books as fine as Manufacturing Consent, which help make sense of extraordinary times.

As Herman and Chomsky decode principally the American media, an ideal companion is Newspeak in the 21st Century, by David Edwards and David Cromwell (published next month by Pluto). The founders and editors of the outstanding website present a fluent dissection of Britain’s liberal media, employing the kind of rigour that shames those who proclaim their impartiality and independence from vested power. Read also A Century of Spin by David Miller and William Dinan, who describe the rise of an “invisible government” invented by Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays. “Propaganda,” said Bernays, “got to be a bad word because of the Germans, so what I did was to try and find some other words.” The other words were “public relations”, which now consumes much of journalism.

The latest achievement of PR is the “Obama phenomenon”. In Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (published in the US by Paradigm), Paul Street peels away the mask in perhaps the only book that tells the truth about the 44th president of the United States.

Not enough laughs? Pack Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, still unmatched in its demolition of the idiocies and lies of the killers who promote wars. Try this:

“Anyone,” says Dr “Doc” Daneeka, “who wants to get out of combat isn’t really crazy, so I can’t ground him.”
Yossarian: “OK, let me get this straight.
In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.”
Dr “Doc” Daneeka: “You got it...”

Kurt Vonnegut’s equally black and brave and hilarious Slaughterhouse Five is my other favourite war book.

“How’s the patient? [the colonel] asked.
“Dead to the world.”
“But not actually dead.”
“How nice – to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”

Faber recently published Harold Pinter’s Various Voices: 60 Years of Prose, Poetry, Politics (1948-2008). It is a gem from Pinter on everything from Shakespeare, night cricket and Arthur Miller’s socks to murderous great power:

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless... while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

If you have not already read it, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is a rare treat: a view of humanity so precisely, beautifully, honourably, yet almost incidentally expressed. In the “bantering inconsequence” (F Scott Fitzgerald) of effete modern fiction, no one touches McCullers or, for that matter, Pete Dexter, whose Paris Trout is the great unsung book of the American South, or Richard Ford, whose Rock Springs is a masterly collection, among his others, on the mysteries between men and women. And don’t forget Albert Camus’s The Outsider, about a man who will not pretend: a parable for today. Happy holidays.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

John Pilger wins 2009 Sydney Peace Prize

John Pilger

John Pilger has been awarded the 2009 Sydney Peace Prize.

The jury’s citation reads as follows: 'For work as an author, film-maker and journalist as well as for courage as a foreign and war correspondent in enabling the voices of the powerless to be heard. For commitment to peace with justice by exposing and holding governments to account for human rights abuses and for fearless challenges to censorship in any form.'

Sydney Peace Foundation Director Professor Stuart Rees said: "The jury was impressed by John’s courage as well as by his skills and creativity. His commitment to uncovering human rights abuses shines through his numerous books, films and articles. His work inspires all those who value peace with justice."

John Pilger responded: "Coming from my homeland and the city where I was born and grew up, this is an honour I shall cherish, with the hope that it encourages young Australian journalists, writers and film-makers to break the silences that perpetuate injustice both faraway and close to home."

The Foundation has cited various examples of John Pilger's work - 2004 film 'Stealing A Nation', the story of the British and American governments’ secret ‘mass kidnappings’ of a whole population of the Chagos Islands in the Indian ocean to make way for an American military base; his 1979 film 'Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia', which depicted the horrors of the Pol Pot regime and the plight of the Khmer people; 1994's 'Death of a Nation', shot under cover in East Timor, which galvanized world wide support for the East Timorese people; and his re-making of the film 'Palestine is Still the Issue', which reminds the world of a continuing occupation and cruel injustice.

Other distinguished recipients of Australia’s only international prize for peace have included previous Nobel recipients Professor Muhammad Yunus and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Indian author and human rights campaigner Arundhati Roy and, last year, the Aboriginal leader and ‘father of reconciliation’ Patrick Dodson.

On Wednesday 4 November 2009 John Pilger will receive the Sydney Peace Prize at a gala ceremony in the Maclaurin Hall at the University of Sydney. On Thursday 5 November, he will give the City of Sydney Peace Prize Lecture in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House. The following morning, he will be the guest of 1500 high school students at a peace festival hosted by Cabramatta High School.