Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein trav­els across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Britain, Greece, and Australia to witness the reality of disaster capitalism. He discovers how companies such as G4S, Serco, and Halliburton cash in on or­ganized misery in a hidden world of privatized detention centers, militarized private security, aid profiteering, and destructive mining.

Disaster has become big business. Talking to immigrants stuck in limbo in Britain or visiting immigration centers in America, Loewenstein maps the secret networks formed to help cor­porations bleed what profits they can from economic crisis. He debates with Western contractors in Afghanistan, meets the locals in post-earthquake Haiti, and in Greece finds a country at the mercy of vulture profiteers. In Papua New Guinea, he sees a local commu­nity forced to rebel against predatory resource companies and NGOs.

What emerges through Loewenstein’s re­porting is a dark history of multinational corpo­rations that, with the aid of media and political elites, have grown more powerful than national governments. In the twenty-first century, the vulnerable have become the world’s most valu­able commodity. Disaster Capitalism is published by Verso in 2015 and in paperback in January 2017.

Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Reconciling the thoughts of a liberal on the Middle East

I’ve written a long essay/memoir in the latest edition of leading Australia literary journal, Meanjin, on Judaism, Israel/Palestine, human rights and modern identity.


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Think: Digital Futures interview on disaster capitalism in Puerto Rico

Think: Digital Futures is a great program on Sydney’s 2SER radio. I contributed to its latest episode:

When you think about Puerto Rico—decimated by Hurricane Maria, a debt crisis and the longest power blackout in US history—most people see destruction. To a small group of cryptocurrency millionaires, it’s a chance to build a new type of society from scratch. A society built on blockchain technologies.

We chat to Dr Pip Ryan (University of Technology Sydney) and Nathan Waters (founder of Peerism) about what a blockchain based society might look like. Then we speak to journalist Antony Loewenstein about whether this is just a case of disaster capitalism in disguise.

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The strange case of alleged sexual predator Malka Leifer in Israel

My investigation in the Sydney Morning Herald/Melbourne Age:

The legal pursuit in Israel of alleged sexual predator Malka Leifer took a strange turn this week.

As she fought extradition attempts by Victoria Police over 74 charges of child sexual abuse, the 54-year-old first gained, then lost the support of influential Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman.

Grossman is a highly respected rabbi in Israel. He was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement in 2004 – Israel’s highest cultural honour – and he’s the founder and head of Migdal Ohr, a major NGO that helps children and underprivileged teens across Israel.

But last week, in a surprise appearance before the Jerusalem district court, he pledged to monitor Leifer under house arrest if the judge agreed to her release from police custody.

It was “humiliating”, he claimed, for Leifer to remain incarcerated, and bad for her mental health.

The court apparently agreed and authorised her release.

Leifer is a former teacher and principal at Melbourne’s ultra-orthodox Adass Israel girls’ school, who fled Australia with the aid of the Adass community after her alleged offending was revealed.

One of Leifer’s alleged victims, Melbourne-based Dassi Erlich, was gutted at the court’s decision.

“We are trying so desperately to hold onto hope and trying to desperately see justice. We want to hold onto the fact that we will see her back in Australia one day,” she said.

However, early this week, Grossman reversed his position and withdrew support for Leifer, citing the perception that his backing had been “interpreted as supporting an attempt to avoid trial”.

There are many confounding aspects of this case including the role of Rabbi Grossman.

Grossman has assisted accused sexual predators before, including Breslov Rabbi Eliezer Berland who fought extradition to Israel from South Africa.  Grossman went to South Africa twice and argued for Berland to be given bail.

Ultimately, Berland was sentenced in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court in 2016 after admitting to one assault and two counts of indecent acts.

So why did Grossman back away from Leifer?

Multiple sources in both Australia and Israel said the backlash against the rabbi’s decision to support Leifer was immediate. Donors, staff and some board members of his Migdal Ohr organisation objected to his move on social media, and directly to the organisation.

One source said that he personally knew people who had contacted board members to complain, only to be told they were sullying the reputation of a fine man.

However a social media campaign involving Australian and American activists and a number of Australian rabbis put moral pressure on the rabbi. An open letter addressed to Grossman said Leifer’s alleged crimes had “caused untold pain and suffering”.

“Your conduct in this matter raises many serious questions … By involving yourself in legal proceedings which have nothing to do with you for the purpose of supporting an alleged multiple rapist and child sexual abuser and in showing no regard for the pain and suffering of her alleged victims, you are guilty of not only gross Rabbinic overreach but have also committed a huge Chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name), which has brought the entire Jewish community into disrepute,” the letter read.

More than that, sources say, was the threat to the funding of Migdal Ohr.

Rabbi Grossman’s group claims to endorse child protection, and sources have told Fairfax Media many key funders, particularly in the United States, demanded that Grossman retract his support for Leifer.

About half the funding for Grossman’s organisation comes from the Israeli government, and the rest from Jewish communities from across the world including Canada, Brazil and Britain and 10 percent from the Jewish Agency for Israel. The United Israel Appeal Australia (UIA) donates money to the Jewish Agency but a representative from the UIA in Melbourne told Fairfax Media that “we’re transparent about where our money goes” and none had ever been sent to Migdal Ohr.

“Rabbi Grossman didn’t have a moral realisation”, the source said. “He didn’t issue an apology for the hurt caused [to Leifer’s victims.]”

One source told Fairfax Media that Grossman knew about the allegations against Leifer as far back as 2012 and supported her.

Fairfax approached Rabbi Grossman Enterprises for a response, but was referred to his earlier statement.

Leifer has been fighting extradition to Australia for four years. She fled from Australia to Israel soon after the allegations were aired in 2008, living there while alleging she was mentally unfit to stand trial.

But police were forced to act after an Israeli private investigator filmed more than 200 hours of footage of Leifer in an occupied West Bank settlement and found her to be a “normal, healthy person”.

She remains in custody while an Israeli judge assesses an appeal to deny her access to house arrest.

There are growing calls from the Jewish community within Australia for the Israeli legal system to facilitate Leifer’s extradition to Australia and face justice. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has raised the matter with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in 2017 said that, “justice demands that she be brought back to Australia to answer the charges.”

In 2015, Victorian Supreme Court judge Jack Rush ordered the Adass Israel girls’ school to pay $1,024,428 in damages to Ms Erlich.

Leifer’s fate remains in the balance. Well connected in the secretive Hassidic community, along with her husband Jacob, she’ll undoubtedly fight to stay in Israel and never return to Australia. If the Israeli court finds that she cannot remain in a psychiatric ward and with Rabbi Grossman’s offer now void, she may be released back into the Israeli community. Her victims demand that she faces court in Australia.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author of “Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe”, and was based in Jerusalem in 2016/2017.

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How aid can be used to keep nations deliberately poor

I was interviewed last week in Australian media outlet Crikey by Charlie Lewis about my Disaster Capitalism film:

The documentary Disaster Capitalism opens with the earthquake in Haiti, 2010. Through the ghostly fog of CCTV video, we see the ground furiously shake buildings into dust. Fronted by Australian journalist and writer Antony Loewenstein and shot over six years, in collaboration with director Thor Neureiter, Director of Video at Columbia University, the film visits and revisits three countries — Haiti, Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea —  riven by various crises and trapped in a cycle of dependence on Western aid. This cycle, Loewenstein tells Crikey, is no accident.

“I thought it was important to look at how these countries are connected politically and financially, in other words, how certain conditions are designed to keep poor countries poor,” he said.

Filming began in 2011, when Loewenstein was working on a book of the same name.

“The aim wasn’t to spend six years making the film,” Loewenstein said. “But there is something to be said for seeing how these countries evolve over six years. All that’s really changed is that PMs or presidents have come and gone, but they remain economically broken and I thought it was important to look at why.”

Cycle of dependency

A key factor in the Disaster Capitalism  is that these countries are not, and never have been, without the resources to pay their own way. Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan in particular are rich in minerals. Loewenstein says this is part of the problem.

“Trump has been very keen to really  harness and expand the mining industry if Afghanistan, and they’re tying aid to that … So aid is being used to not help people, but to enrich foreign businesses. Look at PNG, it has huge resources, and after several decades of those being exploited, it hasn’t helped the locals one bit.”

Aid not only enriches Australian business interests, Loewenstein says, but backs up political aims.

“Aid to PNG has been increased, in my view, to provide a bribe to the PNG government to house the refugees we don’t want,” he said.  “Obviously not all of the aid money is related to the pacific solution, but aid has gone up since it was revitalised under Labor.”

And the oversight ensuring that aid isn’t misspent or funnelled towards corruption, he says, is weak.

Missing Oversight

“People in government will tell you there’s lots of oversight and reporting with aid. But I think the problem is that there’s almost no political cost to [Western politicians] if Afghanistan’s aid doesn’t do its job — no one is going to lose their seat over that.”

Part of this stems from those bodies tasked with aid oversight — such as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) — who expose the misuse of aid, have their findings ignored.

“[SIGAR] do amazing work and deliver important reports, and what happens? They’re largely ignored … Obama promised to make the system more transparent and open, and did nothing in his eight years. So I think there has to be more of a political cost when aid money isn’t just ineffective, but governments know that it’s actively going to corruption.”

This oversight is even weaker in Australia, where there is currently no equivalent to SIGAR.

“There are senate committees and politicians who ask these questions, so oversight exists, but it’s weak, doesn’t get much of a voice, and get’s almost no media attention.”

What’s next?

Loewenstein says that many of the worst elements effecting aid may, paradoxically, lead to improving the debate.

“The debate Trump has started, ironically enough, asks the question: is more aid automatically a good thing? The argument from the left has traditionally been that we need more money and support for the poor of the world, and what I’m saying is, after 30, 40, 50 years, these countries are not improving. You have to ask why.”

Further, Loewenstein hopes the current sexual assault scandal afflicting Oxfam — in which aid workers were found to be exploiting vulnerable women — may help illustrate one of the fundamental problems with the current international aid system.

“A lot of other orgnisations are doing the same thing, and hopefully this makes people more aware of what happens when the relationship between aid giver and aid recipients is really unhealthy,” he said.

“So what I hope comes out of this, and it’s so obvious, but far too often aid is administered without asking the people on the ground what they want. You’d be amazed how rarely that happens.”

Broadcast rights for Disaster Capitalism have been sold to several European territories and screenings can be organised through Demand Films.

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Triple R Breakfasters radio interview on Disaster Capitalism film

This morning I was interviewed on one of Melbourne’s best breakfast radio programs, Triple R Breakfasters, about Disaster Capitalism (after a very successful public screening in the city last night):

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What Duterte’s brutal drug war looks like in the Philippines

My investigation in Foreign Policy:

MANILA, Philippines — The murdered man lay in a pool of his own blood. At around 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 22, two men on motorcycles shot Manny “Buddy” Wagan outside his small shop selling junk metal just outside Manila. He was killed instantly with two bullets to the head. A witness recalls seeing the killers get off their bikes, approach Wagan, and shoot him at point-blank range — a common method of execution in the Philippines. Police called the case a “death under investigation.”

It has become a familiar sight in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte took power in June 2016 and launched his war on drugs. As Wagan’s corpse was photographed, examined, and eventually removed by police, young children stood speechless with their parents. A relative of the deceased began weeping loudly. Onlookers shot video and photos with their smartphones. Once Wagan’s body was taken to the morgue, a man lit a solitary candle on the ground beside a puddle of congealed blood. It was just another bloody evening in Manila, a city that has seen a massive spike in drug war-related violence.

It is impossible to say with complete certainty that Wagan was killed because of his drug use or connection to the narcotics trade. But over the past 18 months, many victims of Duterte’s war on drugs have been innocent, only tangentially involved in the drug world, or simply users of crystal meth. And as with thousands of other deaths, the police investigation into Wagan’s killing is unlikely to be properly conducted.

Wagan will end up a mere statistic in a brutal war that has received support from U.S. President Donald Trump, fierce opposition from the global human rights community, and largethough diminishing backing from the Filipino people, especially those in communities most affected by the government’s extrajudicial killings. Duterte has created an effective social media army, with the help of Facebook, to bully enemies and rally his followers. And the country’s war against the Islamic State has brought international backing for the Duterte government.

The exact number of people who have died in Duterte’s war is unclear. The police suggested in October 2017 that only one person had been killed extrajudicially since July 1, 2016, a claim ridiculed by both local and foreign rights groups. The real figure could be as high as 20,000. In January, Human Rights Watch saidmore than 12,000 drug suspects had been killed, mostly the poor in urban areas from either police operations or vigilante-style killings — sometimes by plainclothes police.

The Philippine government has repeatedly violated international law because it does not hold fair trials, or any trials, before executing its citizens. After a brief lull in deaths in late 2017, the last months have seen a sharp upturn in drug war killings.

Duterte has created a culture of impunity, learned from his years as mayor of Davao City on Mindanao Island, where the so-called Davao Death Squad committed multiple rights abuses (with echoes of vigilante violence from the U.S.-backed, anti-communist purges many decades ago). In February, the president told soldiers to shoot female rebels in their genitals.

The government claims that its drug war has drastically reduced crime across the country, alleging that fewer than 4,000 suspects have been killed. The crime reduction narrative was confirmed anecdotally when traveling around Manila; many citizens told me that they felt safer walking the streets at night and less afraid of gang violence. But this apparent reduction in unrest in some areas has come at a tremendous cost, especially for the country’s poorest citizens. When I visited Binondo in Manila, one of the bloodiest areas during the drug war, the first thing I noticed was not violence but extreme poverty. Residents lived in tin sheds and defecated in the nearby Pasig River. Meth, known as “shabu” in the Philippines, was still sold in the area. A printed sign asked residents to call a police hotline to report drug activity.

Unlike other global drug war hot spots — such as Honduras, where vast sections of the country are unsafe, and Guinea-Bissau, where narcotraffickers control parts of the state apparatus — the Philippine drug war has targeted society’s most disadvantaged groups. Other parts of Manila, sprinkled with Starbucks and high-rise office buildings, do not witness state-sanctioned murders on the street.

Not many local groups have challenged Duterte’s murderous policy, but there are a few human rights lawyers attempting to bring justice to the aggrieved victims. The Center for International Law (CenterLaw) in Manila has bravely taken on five cases related to the drug war. Gil Anthony Aquino, one of the center’s attorneys, told me that 99 percent of such cases would never go to court. He acknowledged that he and his colleagues have taken precautions to protect their personal safety, as the government has become increasingly brazen in its attacks on opponents, including trying to shut down critical media by force if necessary. During the Duterte era, at least five journalistshave been murdered while working, mostly in Mindanao. According to the International Federation of Journalists, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters.

The lawyers have therefore been strategic in their work against the president. “We don’t personally attack Duterte,” Aquino said. “We don’t call for his ouster. We skirt around the issues. We try to get accountability from the police.” Aquino’s colleague, Gilbert Andres, explained how Duterte’s drug war was inspiring other nations, including Indonesia, to implement similarly harsh policies against drug suspects. Andres said Duterte had created a dangerous atmosphere in his country. “If you’re a drug suspect, you don’t deserve rights,” he said of Duterte’s mindset. “If you’re an advocate for human rights, you’re an enemy of the state.”

Duterte’s presidential spokesman, Harry Roque, dismissed Human Rights Watch’s concerns in the Philippines because, he said, financier George Soros supported HRW and was a “lobby” against the country’s drug war. Duterte made the same argument in 2016. Roque was simply following the playbook against Soros perfected by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, using anti-Semitic imagery to conjure a global Jewish conspiracy run by the billionaire.

Andres is not oblivious to the dangers of narcotics; he has seen the tragic cost of drugs. “I lost my father, who was killed by a drug addict in Manila in 1989, so this is personal for me,” he said. But the lesson he took from that incident was that “human rights and crime busting can operate together.”

Both he and Aquino are critical of some local and international human rights groups that only document drug war killings and don’t invest in local lawyers to defend victims’ families, prosecute trigger-happy police, and litigate the thousands of crimes that have occurred in the last 18 months. “At the end of the day,” Andres argued, “INGOs [international nongovernmental organizations] should put their hands where their mouths are by helping local lawyers in whatever way. In the end, it is us local lawyers who will risk life and limb for human rights.”

One of the five drug-related cases taken on by CenterLaw involves the police murder of Emiliano Blanco (and others) on Nov. 30, 2016, in highly suspicious circumstances. Residents of the area where he was killed filed a writ of amparo in 2017 — a legal concept originating in Mexico to safeguard individual rights — to protect their community from any further police-led violence and intimidation. The action was partially led by Blanco’s brother, Francisco Blanco Jr., who is now the primary guardian for his brother’s 7-year-old son.

Francisco Blanco was defiant but scared. At times, he was on the verge of tears when describing his brother’s death and tough life. He acknowledged that his brother was a drug user but said he had surrendered to police months before his death. Since the drug war began, police and district heads have collated “watch lists” of suspected drug users, a dangerous and secretive practice that has led to thousands of killings.

He now faces constant police harassment and threats to his life, a common problem for family members of victims. “If I was there on the night of the murder, I would have been killed for sure,” he said. Police visited him a few months later, gesturing to suggest they’d slit his throat and asking him, “Do you want the same fate as your brother?”

Until there is a legal remedy for the Duterte government’s gross human rights abuses, including police being held accountable for their violent crimes, citizens will remain in a precarious position. With few viable options available to victims, and the threat of retribution if they launch legal challenges, it’s not surprising that so few cases are being pursued. Those that have been filed are a crucial check on government abuses.

Blanco’s case is now winding through the courts, and CenterLaw hopes to get resolution this year. The government’s solicitor general, Jose Calida, has condemned the attempt to use a writ of amparo, claiming it would set a “dangerous precedent” and could be used as a “tool by drug personalities in order to ‘fish’ for evidence in the guise of protecting their human rights.” Calida is a defender of Duterte and argues that law enforcement would be impeded in their drug war investigations and the legal move would allow “groundless” accusations against police.

For all the country’s flaws, the Philippine courts are one of the few relatively independent institutions left in the Duterte era, so Blanco’s case still has a chance. Others do, too. Local human rights lawyers desperately need more international backing for such litigation. Without it, they won’t be able to continue their dangerous but necessary work.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and filmmaker. He is the author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out Of Catastrophe, and is currently writing a book on the global war on drugs.

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Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters speaks on Palestine and the Middle East

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters recently toured around Australia. One night in Melbourne he took the time to speak at a public event, in conversation with Palestinian writer Randa Abdel-Fattah and me, about politics, the media, Palestine and the Middle East. He appeared before a packed house at the Athanaeum Theatre and the video has just been released of the event, organised by the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.

Short clips:

Roger Waters on Palestine – highlights from Aust Palestine Advocacy Network on Vimeo.

Full event:

Roger Waters on Palestine from Aust Palestine Advocacy Network on Vimeo.

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Public Q&A on Disaster Capitalism film and how aid is delivered

Last week in Sydney was the first public screening of my film, Disaster Capitalism. Director Thor Neureiter was in New York but co-producers Media Stockade were there along with a solid audience. There will be many more public screenings in Australia, the US and beyond soon. After the film, we held a Q&A around aid and development plus journalism in conflict zones. It was recorded by Sky News TV and broadcast last weekend. Here’s how they described the event:

The Walkley Foundation has held its first Walkley Talk for the year at the State Library of NSW. The event featured a screening of independent documentary film Disaster Capitalism by journalist Antony Loewenstein. The screening was followed by a robust discussion on aid in conflict zones, revealing how the supply of aid to those in need isn’t always as transparent and ethical as it seems. The panel included the filmmaker himself, along with head of journalism at Macleay College and former foreign correspondent Monica Attard, and journalists Hugh Riminton and Yaara Bou Melhem.

The conversation touched on the role of journalists in delivering accurate public interest news from war zones, and holding NGOs and aid organisations accountable when bringing the reporters on the ground in the first place. It explored the corruption and conflict rampant in countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, and Lebanon, and implications for the media and global community, who may all too often be switching off the television to avoid distressing news. The discussion also offered an insight into the world of freelancing and war reporting, while challenging the concepts of international assistance and development through the perspectives of investigative journalists.

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How the Philippines has been transformed by its war on drugs

My story in Australian magazine Crikey:

President Rodrigo Duterte has maintained a firm grip on the Philippines since being elected in July 2016. Although public support is slipping, due partly to the brutality unleashed by his “war on drugs”, which has seen up to 20,000 people killed in 18 months, the general population still backs the leader. But the violence has done little to change the support of America and Australia for Duterte’s conflict against ISIS in the Philippines.

Yet dissent is rising. During a recent visit to the Philippines to investigate the country’s drug war, I saw posters of Duterte with a Hitler moustache. “Dictator” and “Fascist” were written below his name in Tagalog — “Fight!” It was a message from the country’s biggest labour union. It was strong and direct, a sign of resistance. I saw, too, countless pro-Duterte posters in this battle of propaganda.

Duterte has used social media brilliantly to rally his supporters and denigrate his opponents. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this movement, largely ignored in the West, is how Facebook actively assists political campaigns around the world and then works with winning candidates to harness its online tools. BuzzFeed recently exposed this practice in authoritarian Cambodia, and Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany Party had Facebook assist its campaign for the 2017 general election. A former Republican digital strategist runs the Facebook global government and politics team in the US.

In the Philippines, Duterte’s media team weaponised trolling against its critics. Countless fake accounts attacked and threatened anybody who questioned the President. At the presidential palace, I asked Duterte’s communications undersecretary, Lorraine Badoy, if her department had any connection with Facebook officials. She said it hadn’t, and claimed that the many pro-government, online activists weren’t paid by the government. Badoy used language reminiscent of Donald Trump’s allegations of “fake news” regarding how Western media reported so severely on the drug war. This was an “internal problem”, she said.

Duterte’s war on drugs has become, like in every other nation where a drugs war is waged, an onslaught against the poor. Virtually no wealthy drug users or dealers have been arrested or killed, but thousands have been murdered in the poorest neighbourhoods in and around Manila. This mirrors Honduras, West Africa, the US and other nations where violence is used to control and exterminate the most under-privileged in society. Every barangay (district) collates a list of suspected drug users or dealers, which is given to government authorities. It’s a secret list, impossible for citizens to see, and I was told that those on the list can never get off it.

Horrific stories have defined Duterte’s drug war, and I heard them constantly. With authorities intent on killing and imprisoning poor drug users, rehabilitation services are left to churches (though the government is even cutting funding to these essential services). One such service at the San Roque De Manila Parish seeks to assist drug addicts through lessons on the Jesus and the Bible.

Police senior inspector Ana Lourence Simbajon, who works at the church, said that she believed religion was an answer to drug use and, more tellingly, that she believed the current war on drugs was successful. “Since Duterte, and his fight against drugs because it’s a big malaise in society, street crime has declined”, she said. “Only the President focused on illegal drugs.”

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, writer/co-producer of the documentary, Disaster Capitalism and currently writing a book on the global “war on drugs”, out in 2019

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Who should really benefit from aid?

My article in the Guardian:

Foreign aid has the power to save lives but also to corrupt nations. It’s regularly used as a political football as some argue for more financial support to the world’s most vulnerable people while others believe more money should be spent at home. It’s a false distinction, however, because the key issue is whether western aid is well targeted and empowering people to make their own choices on how to improve their lives, allowing them to eventually become more self-sufficient.

The aid industry is currently under the spotlight, Oxfam’s past behaviour is rightly challenged, although the problems uncovered affect the entire industry. But what’s required is hearing from aid recipients themselves.

The US administration is slashing foreign aid to nations it views as unfriendly or voting against its interests at the United Nations. Nonetheless, the answer isn’t simply more aid. In 2017, Afghanistan was the highest recipient of US aid, US$4.7 billion, but much of the more than US$120 billion given by the US to the country since October 2001 has been wasted, disappeared, stolen through corruption or simply cannot be accounted for by Washington.

Australia has also invested heavily in Afghanistan and seen few positive results. Canberra stumbled into the war with little understanding of what it was trying to achieve (apart from blindly following president George W. Bush). It’s now the longest war in US history with no end in sight and a cost of over US$1 trillion.

Rethinking how aid is delivered should be a key question for western nations but it rarely makes the headlines. For the last six years, with New York-based director Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade, I’ve been making the documentary, Disaster Capitalism, to investigate where aid money is going. Focusing on Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea (PNG), talking to people trying to live decent lives amid economic chaos and conflict, a constant refrain is how little local voices are listened to.

Too often, western governments and aid groups parachute into a crisis and dictate terms to a disoriented population. In Haiti the American Red Cross pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild devastated houses after the 2010 earthquake but today have achieved very little. As Haitian workers’ union leader Yannick Etienne told us, her country became a “republic of NGOs”. Outside governments and NGOs often gave contracts to foreign companies who employed individuals unable to speak French or Creole.

The results were inevitable; Haiti’s position as a US-client state producing cheap clothing for Walmart and Target was unchanged because there was no interest in improving the country’s economic situation beyond handouts.

US aid critic and insider Timothy Schwartz, who appears in the film, powerfully explains the unhealthy dynamics in his new book, The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle, after living there for decades. While acknowledging that not all aid was squandered, he shows in detail how in the first year after the earthquake, the Haitian government got one percent of it. Schwartz condemns the “truth-twisting” – humanitarian groups’ misrepresenting and exaggerating the already bad situation to “get donors to give” – and the many journalists willing to spread these distortions despite the inability of NGOs to get the job done.

In PNG, Australia’s role since its 1975 independence is revealing. Canberra views its close neighbour as a client state, dumping its unwanted asylum seekers, enriching Australian resource companies and overlooking corruption. Canberra gives over $500 million per year to PNG and yet its citizens suffer from appalling levels of poverty and domestic violence.

The province of Bougainville once had the world’s biggest copper mine, run by Rio Tinto, but its existence sparked a separatist revolution. Outraged by its pollution and lack of financial support, locals rose up in the late 1980s. They eventually won against a PNG army backed by Australia but at a steep cost; up to 20,000 died out of a population of 200,000. The mine remains closed today but Australia, PNG and foreign companies insist that an independence vote, scheduled for 2019, is contingent on re-opening big-scale mining, claiming only this could sustain a sovereign nation.

Aid is used as a weapon with the potential for it to be withdrawn if local leaders don’t comply with Canberra’s wishes. Many locals oppose this, angry that compensation was never paid after the battle against Rio Tinto. They push for alternative plans such as tourism, agriculture and fishing.

In Afghanistan, the country’s largely untapped resources are potentially worth up to US$4 trillion. Despite a brutal civil war, the Trump administration, following Bush and Obama, is determined to support a mining industry that enriches foreign companies. Sources in Kabul tell me that Trump officials are already visiting to assess the viability of backing a resource boom, and associates of military contractor Blackwater founder Erik Prince are recruiting locals to secure areas where rare metals are under the ground. It’s a recipe for continued chaos.

What ties Afghanistan, Haiti and PNG together are the ways in which they’re deliberately kept dependent on foreign aid by western governments and some NGOs. There could be another way if locals were asked what they need and want.

Aid that doesn’t principally enrich multinationals and bloated NGOs must be the goal.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author of “Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe” and writer/co-producer of the documentary, Disaster Capitalism

Public screenings of the film with Loewenstein and journalists, organised by the Walkley Foundation, are 22 February in Sydney and 1 March in Melbourne. See the film’s website for future screenings in Australia and globally.

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Growing corruption scandal around Netanyahu and weird connection with James Packer

My story in today’s Sydney Morning Herald/Melbourne Age:

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is in trouble, and it partly stems from his close relationship with Australia’s most recognisable billionaire, James Packer.

The country’s second longest-serving Prime Minister is facing potential charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust after an extensive investigation by Israeli police. They accuse Netanyahu of accepting nearly $US300,000 ($A380,000) in gifts over 10 years.

“Case 1000” which is also known as “Cigars and Champagne,” revolves around alleged bribery and paying for favours. Packer, along with Hollywood producer and former secret Israeli agent Arnon Milchan, are alleged to be those behind the payments.

It’s now up to the country’s Attorney General, Avichai Mendelblit, to decide whether the police evidence is strong enough to indict the Prime Minister.

Netanyahu does not deny accepting huge gifts from both men, but refutes allegations that he granted them any favours.

Milchan’s personal assistant, Hadas Klein, told Israeli police in November that, “there was an understanding that Arnon had to supply the Netanyahu couple with whatever they wanted. The cigars were requested by Netanyahu personally.”

The Prime Minister alleges that pink champagne and expensive jewellery requested by Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, were tokens of good friendship with Milchan.

Israeli police claim that Netanyahu pushed for the “Milchan law”, cutting taxes for returning Israelis who have spent time overseas, helped Milchan get a 10-year US visa and assisted the producer in furthering his film work. Israeli police have also recommended charging Milchan.

Packer’s relationship with the Netanyahu family is also under scrutiny (though he is not facing charges). According to testimony released by Israel’s Channel 10 in late 2017 after Packer spoke to Australian Federal Police agents in Australia on behalf of Israeli investigators, the casino mogul said: “I admire Prime Minister Netanyahu and am happy that I was given the opportunity to be his friend. I was happy to give him presents, many times at his request and his wife Sara’s request”.

At the time of the interview, a spokesman for Mr Packer’s Crown Resorts said: “There is no allegation of wrongdoing on Mr Packer’s behalf … The Israeli and Australian police have confirmed that he was interviewed as a witness, not a suspect.”

Netanyahu allegedly requested gifts and services from Packer worth up to $US100,000 including champagne, tickets to a Mariah Carey concert (Packer was previously engaged to the pop star) and cigars. Packer also showered Netanyahu’s son, Yair, with gifts including free accommodation at his luxury properties around the world.

Netanyahu responded that Packer was his “neighbour and friend” and “now and again, I asked him to bring me something to Israel from abroad”.

Netanyahu’s friendship with Packer reportedly began in 2014 when the Australian businessman met the Israeli leader at a dinner organised by Milchan and Packer. They apparently connected quickly and Packer soon purchased a multimillion dollar mansion in Israel beside a property owned by Netanyahu.

Packer accelerated his business interests in Israel’s cyber-security industry, saying in 2015 that he wanted to build a company with Milchan because, “Israel now has the highest start-ups per capita in the world and this will provide major opportunities in the future”.

Packer was with Netanyahu in the US Congress and UN General Assembly in 2015 when the Israeli Prime Minister slammed the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. In the same year, Packer echoed Netanayhu’s hardline position, saying that it was “the stupidest thing I’ve seen in my life”.

Israel’s Interior Minister confirmed to the ABC in 2017 that he had met Packer’s lawyer to discuss possible residency and citizenship of Israel. Such a development would have significant tax advantages for Packer.

Case 2000 is another headache for Netanyahu. He’s accused of colluding with the publisher of one of Israel’s biggest newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth. Caught on tape, the Israeli Prime Minister was telling its owner Arnon Mozes that he would convince his paper’s main competition, Israeli Hayom, owned by Las Vegas tycoon Sheldon Adelson, to reduce its circulation.

Netanyahu reportedly asked Mozes in return if he could get his publication to be less critical of the Prime Minister and his government. Netanyahu now says he wasn’t serious, but Adelson partially confirmed the allegation, telling Israeli police last year that Netanyahu had asked him not to expand his media outlet.

Adelson used to be Netanyahu’s biggest backer in his battles with the Palestinians and Obama administration, but that friendship appears to have cooled. Adelson is a key Donald Trump backer and reportedly encouraged the US President to move its embassy to Jerusalem and quash Palestinian nationalism for good.

Netanyahu denies all the allegations against him and continues to serve as the country’s Prime Minister.

He has been in a similar situation twice before, facing corruption allegations in 1997 and 2000, but both times he escaped being charged. Israel has a long history of former politicians being indicted for corruption including, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who served time in prison for accepting bribes during his time as mayor of Jerusalem.

Columnist Anshel Pfeffer in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz writes that Netanyahu’s fatal flaw is that, “just like his belief in the cult of hasbara (or public diplomacy), and that if only Israel explains itself better to the world, everyone will be won over, he’s convinced that his image, as presented by the media, is the source of all his setbacks”.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, and was based in Jerusalem in 2016/2017

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Interviewing Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters about Palestine

Last Friday night in Melbourne, I interviewed Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters alongside Palestinian writer Randa Abdel-Fattah. The event was organised by the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network. Waters is in Australia on his massive “Us and Them” world tour (which I saw on Saturday night and it was one of the most spectacular music performances I’ve ever seen).

The Q&A was a unique public event, over 500 people attended, and we discussed the Middle East, Donald Trump, Palestine and his politics over decades. He was frank, funny and refreshingly down to earth. Unsurprisingly, Australian, pro-Israel politician Michael Danby condemned the event, including my involvement, but got both my names wrong in his press release.

Full video of the evening is coming soon but in the meantime here’s a story from popular music website, Noise 11:

Pink Floyd legend Roger Waters gave his time for the Australia Palestine Advocate Network in Melbourne on Friday and while explaining the issues between Palestine and Israel also took aim at a number of his fellow artists Elton John, Thom Yorke, Steven Tyler, Steve Van Zandt and Nick Cave.

Roger Waters has been working tirelessly since 2006 to try and bridge peace between Palestine and Israel after being confronted by Israeli fans at one of his concerts in Tel Aviv after calling on them to make peace with their neighbours 12 years ago.

Ever since he has campaigned for musicians to boycott performances in Israel and recently praised Lorde for doing so. However, he hasn’t had the same reaction from others.

In Melbourne, Roger Waters sat down for a Q&A for the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN).

During his talk for APAN Waters called Thom Yorke “a self-obsessed, narcissistic, drippy little prick” and Elton John ‘Queen Mum’. He also called out Nick Cave for saying he was bullying him, said “fuck you” to Steve Van Zandt and referred to Steven Tyler as “an old lady”.

Waters has been spreading the message to help mend the Middle East situation after that personal confrontation at his gig.

About Thom Yorke he said:

“Thom Yorke said that Ken Roach and I were throwing mud at him. No we weren’t. We were trying to engage him. I had a long email exchange with Thom Yorke and in the end he said ‘that’s it I’m giving up the music business, you have finally convinced me’. He was just being sarcastic. He is a prick. At least have a conversation. He is just a self-obsessed, narcissistic, drippy little prick”.

About Elton John:

Elton John went and played in Sun City about 500 times when everyone else in the world was anti-apartheid and said you can’t go and play in Sun City and he said ‘yeah I can, I’m the Queen Mum’. You kind of go, well he is just dopey and also he obviously doesn’t give a fuck about anybody else except the lesbian gay whatever whatever community which he does seem to care about. He will make videos protecting his one little area of people who are having violence done to them but he seems blind to (others). We are all human but some people are human in different ways.

About Little Steven

Little Steven, Steven Van Zandt from the E Street Band. He produced ‘Sun City’. I wrote to him and said ‘hey Steve, don’t you think it’s time we did one of these about Palestine because the situation is appalling. It is exactly the same situation it was in South Africa, it’s worse. He wrote me a letter back and said “I think the situation in Palestine is much more complicated and that turned into a threat. He said ‘I think you should be very careful about what you do and what you say because your career could be over in a heartbeat. I thought “fuck you”. This guy in his charlady hat is threatening me. He did say however he admired my courage and would love to have lunch so I wrote back and said “what about next Friday?” That was four years ago.

About Nick Cave

Your bloke, Cave. Gimme a break, was he really saying that his freedom of speech was being infringed? It doesn’t deserve an answer. I was co-signatory of all the letters sent to him. I didn’t speak to him personally. I don’t want to speak to him. I think it is pitiful to bring that up and say “I don’t want Roger Waters bullying me. I’m a musician, I just want to play my music”. What? They are shooting the fucking feet of 18-year-olds who want to play soccer. Don’t talk to me about your freedom of speech. Pay Attention”.

About Aerosmith and Steven Tyler

Aerosmith went to one of these training camps. What are they doing? What were they thinking? I ran into Steve Tyler in a sushi restaurant in LA and he leapt up to me. I thought, who is this, a little old lady? He had his hair up and I thought ‘oh God there’s a little old lady who wants to talk to me’ and it was Steven Tyler.

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