It recently had two screenings in Pakistan, Islamabad and Karachi, and the Q&A sessions that I participated in via Skype are below (forgive the poor sound/picture quality). Audiences wanted to discuss the film itself but also how it related to Pakistan itself. There’s various examples, such is here, of how the corporate brand is increasingly dominating the country including after natural disasters.
Here’s the Islamabad event.
The Karachi event:
My book review in yesterday’s Weekend Australian newspaper:
In The Operators, a great book on the war in Afghanistan, the American journalist Michael Hastings is scathing of reporters who spend their lives praising generals and socialising with them. Hastings exposed the arrogance and childish antics of the then head of US operations in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, and his team. Barack Obama fired the general, who today runs a management consultancy firm.
After Hastings’s scoop, many mainstream journalists went after him, instead of questioning McChrystal’s credentials. Hastings was attacked for breaking the “gentlemen’s agreement” that existed between reporters and the military. Journalists would receive scoops and access if they played this cosy game.
The New York Times published articles praising McChrystal and urged the president to keep him in his role. Largely ignored was the fact that his aggressive counter-terrorism policies were a key factor in surging violence against civilians and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hastings, who died in a car crash in Los Angeles in 2013, was contemptuous of uncritical, embedded journalism that cared little about the lives of Afghans and Iraqis.
Australian war correspondent John Martinkus shares much with Hastings’s worldview. His new book, Lost Copy, is a damning indictment of what we don’t see and hear about the never-ending “war on terror”.
A veteran of conflicts in East Timor and Aceh, Martinkus spent years reporting for SBS’s Dateline. In an introduction, he argues that the positive stories told by journalists about Afghanistan, and Australia’s presence in Helmand and Oruzgan, are fantasy.
“The truth of the situation that governments, militaries and some sections of the press that unquestioningly supported them spent so many years trying to deny has been revealed,” he writes. “But very few are telling that story now.”
Today the Taliban controls more territory than at any time since 2001. This is the reason Donald Trump gives for occupying the country indefinitely, but Martinkus cites historical examples to show how greater use of US drones and CIA covert actions will only inflame the situation. Indefinite war, benefiting arms dealers and private contractors, is the result.
Lost Copy is a lesson in the ugly alliances forged by Washington in its futile attempts to control Afghanistan. Perhaps there’s no better example than Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, backed by the CIA in May 1979. Martinkus calls him a “religious fanatic and heroin trafficker” who, “despite his outspoken and virulent anti-American views, received between a third and a half of all American aid to the [anti-Soviet] rebels, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars”.
In 1992, Hekmatyar’s rebels “laid waste to large parts of Kabul, with rocket attacks being one of his favourite tactics”. A former ally of al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, Hekmatyar is now rebuilding his political career in Kabul.
Martinkus directly links the American indulgence and patronage of individuals such as Hekmatyar to the country’s ongoing chaos. Travelling independently gives him unrivalled access to hidden secrets. He documents cases of American and foreign forces denigrating, destroying, burning or cursing Muslim bodies.
“Somewhere in the US military, people were identifying Islamic, Afghan and Iraqi customs and recommending ways to violate them, with a frequency that was only slowly becoming apparent as occasionally an incident was caught on film or witnessed or photographed.”
Martinkus claims many of these stories never saw the light of day: “Countless more were dismissed on the ground by sceptical and partisan reporters as the complaining of those with an agenda. Others were blocked at an editorial level by a press, in the US, the UK and Australia, that by and large supported both wars [Iraq and Afghanistan].”
The risk of “taking sides” in war reporting is expertly dissected by Martinkus. When he was kidnapped in Baghdad in 2004, across the road from the Australian embassy, he was condemned by then foreign minister Alexander Downer and also by right-wing bloggers. Some even claimed he had faked his ordeal. On his release, Martinkus said he did not support the US occupation of Iraq, which made him a prime target for attack. “To even broach the topic of what was motivating the Iraqi insurgents,’’ he writes, “was enough to bring down a wave of condemnation for being seemingly sympathetic with terrorists.”
Lost Copy is a fine example of war reportage, sceptical of official claims and committed to honest journalism. Martinkus provides inspiration to the next generation of reporters who want to move past the military PR to document the endless wars consuming the Middle East and Africa.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist. He will be at the Sydney Writers Festival, April 30 to May 6. swf.org.au
By John Martinkus
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 272pp, $39.95
I was recently in the UK researching the “war on drugs” for my forthcoming book, out in 2019, on the global drug war.
While I was there my film Disaster Capitalism screened in Newcastle in the north-east of the country. Sponsored by the great group, Recovering Justice, there was a full house to watch the film and then discuss the drug war and the film’s themes.
Here’s the review of the evening, written by Rugged University’s Alex Dunedin, along with the links between the drug war and disaster capitalism.
Before the event, I was interviewed by You Die Twice, an outlet that covers alternative culture in the north-east of England:
It showed for the first time in the US in late March at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. After the film, there was a Q&A and it later broadcast on the great Disaster Politics podcast (where I appeared last year):
Take a listen to the live panel discussion after the US Premiere of Disaster Capitalism (@DisasterCapFilm) in New York City on March 27, 2018 at the Columbia Journalism School (@ColumbiaJourn). The panel includes the film’s director Thor Neureiter (@ThorNeureiter) and disaster experts Chernor Bah (@Cee_Bah), Jeff Schlegelmilch (@JeffSchlegel), Sarah Baker from Healthcare Ready (@HC_Ready), and is moderated by Jonathan Sury (@JonathanSury) from the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute (@Columbia_NCDP).
A key aim of my Disaster Capitalism film with director Thor Neureiter is to highlight the darker sides of aid (without arguing that aid should stop). There are currently many screenings of the film around the world from Australia to the US and UK (with many more to follow).
Aid Watch is a wonderful group that challenges the often wasteful and opaque nature of aid – they’re sponsoring a film screening in May alongside Jubilee Australia – and they’ve written an insightful overview of the movie:
Ever wondered why some societies seem to exist in a permanent disaster? Some would have us believe it’s their fault. This film lays blame squarely at what it calls ‘disaster capitalism’ – an aid-industrial complex that solidifies vulture capital, aid agencies, ‘donor’ governments and local cronies. The bloc is shored-up by the military but mainly works at the level of policy. Its genius is in converting disaster into opportunity, exploiting vulnerabilities to force a permanent ‘transformation’.
The idea is not new. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the World Bank saw its opportunity for ‘shock therapy’, as WB official Jeffrey Sachs called it. Naomi Klein named the concept back in 2007, most graphically focusing on the aftermath of the 2005 New Orleans flood. In 2015 Antony Loewenstein extended the concept, with a focus on profit and securitisation, and now his film takes the concept further, into the murky world of ‘development assistance’.
Best-selling journalist and author Antony Loewenstein joins award-winning filmmaker Thor Neureiter, along with co-producers Media Stockade, on a six-year investigation into this world and the ramifications of disaster capitalism in Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea.
The film takes us along today’s global frontiers of ‘disaster capitalism’, from Afghanistan, to Haiti to Papua New Guinea (PNG).
In Afghanistan we encounter the disaster of the US ‘hearts and minds’ reconstruction effort, larger than the Marshall Plan. The film exposes new US efforts to control the country’s corrupted and coercive mining sector, ironically to compensate for US beneficence as occupier. In Haiti, aid inflows seal deals between the government and post-disaster carpet-bagging investors. The film shows how local people are compulsorily shunted from shanties to industrial estates, to capture their labour for world factories, at knock-down wages. And finally, the film takes us to PNG, the largest recipient of Australia’s aid largess. Mining again is the key, with a focus on Bougainville, and Australia’s role in fuelling the war over the Panguna copper mine, and subsequently in trying to reopen it. Again, aid offers renewed disaster.
Across these countries and very different situations the focus is on how aid is used – not on how it could be used. Yet it remains agnostic – the situation is bleak, yet the possibilities remain. One of the films great strengths is in the way it portrays the people and organisations it engages with – a mining campaign group in Afghanistan, shanty-dwellers in Haiti, community landholders in Bougainville. Their strength is an inspiration and an indication of how true democracy and self-determination can prevail, against corrupted elites, hooked on disaster capitalism. The film advances this cause, exposing this increasingly familiar mode of domination, and how people contest it.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.