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.

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.

Voice of America interview about chaos in South Sudan

I was based in South Sudan for most of 2015. It’s a country still fracturing along racial and ethnic lines. I was recently interviewed by Voice of America on its daily Africa 54 program (via Skype at Frankfurt Airport). The segment starts at 13:07. I’m described as a “South Sudanese journalist” when in fact I was merely living there last year.


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Never-ending traumas in South Sudan

My book review in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War And Survival in South Sudan
By Nick Turse

Published 05.03.2016
Haymarket Books
220 Pages

South Sudan is a country that almost everybody shamefully forgets. Declared independent in 2011, and still the world’s newest nation, it was engulfed by war in December 2013 and has never recovered. The scale of the suffering is monumental, though nobody knows exactly how many have died or where. Nominally an ethnic battle, pitched between the Dinka and Nuer peoples, I witnessed this firsthand in 2015 when I was based there as a freelance journalist.

I’ve rarely heard more shocking horrors in all my years of reporting around the world from Afghanistan to Palestine. I took testimony from locals in remote refugee camps who told me about seeing women and children being burned alive in their tukuls (huts), mass rape against women from the “wrong” tribe, and people slaughtered in hospital beds. From the capital Juba to smaller towns such as Bor and Bentiu, joy at the country’s independence after decades of battling Sudanese forces soon descended into fear, misery, and carnage. Up to 100,000 people may have been murdered since 2013. Washington, a key advocate of South Sudan under both Presidents Bush and Obama, largely disengaged from the country when it fell apart.

With few reporters based permanently in South Sudan, it’s a country that receives relatively little media attention worldwide, not least because it’s easily framed as a brutal African war with little relevance beyond its borders. Western complicity in failed states, from Libya to Iraq to South Sudan, is rarely deemed important enough to warrant extensive investigation in the corporate media. There are notable exceptions, such as the recent New York Times feature on Hillary Clinton’s dismal judgment as secretary of state when backing the disastrous revolution in Libya, leaving a bloodied and broken state to this day.

It’s disappointing but unsurprising that vast swathes of Africa, and the world, are dismissed by the mainstream press. A combination of ignorance, racism, and parochialism renders billions of global citizens invisible. Thankfully there are independent reporters who refuse to solely report on the latest United States presidential campaign machinations and venture beyond the wire. Anand Gopal and Matthieu Aikins are just two fine examples of journalists who understand the term “embedding” to mean more than traveling with United States troops in a war zone; they spend months and years with the civilians caught up in the midst of hellish conditions.

United States journalist Nick Turse is equally committed to this mission. His 2013 best-selling book on the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves, detailing American atrocities during the conflict and military attempts to cover them up, revealed startling new information that had been buried or suppressed for decades. Turse’s chosen technique was to listen to Vietnamese victims and their American perpetrators.

In his latest book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, he delivers a scathing and deeply reported account of South Sudan’s suffering since its collapse in December 2013. “I had landed in a place [unlike my work in Vietnam] where history was being made and I was going to do my best to report on a different kind of war victim,” he writes. “This time, it was going to be displaced people trapped by the thousands on United Nations bases that had become almost like open-air prisons.” In the last two and a half years, roughly 200,000 South Sudanese civilians have lived under United Nations protection in camps around the country because they feared for their lives from marauding government troops and opposition fighters.

Turse operates like a detective, speaking to as many voices as possible (and thankfully, unlike many reporters, he mostly eschews official spokespeople because he knows they’re programmed to deceive). The culture of impunity that permeates South Sudan is richly explained. When Turse asks a Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) judge advocate general about 100 soldiers arrested in February 2014 for involvement in targeted killings, and why they all miraculously escaped the following month, he’s simply told, “there was heavy fighting so everybody escaped.” A senior United Nations official tells Turse: “These guys are good. The South Sudanese are quite adept at the art of delay.”

After decades of ethnic cleansing and war, Turse writes that before the 2013 explosion,

South Sudan remained an infant state of submerged rage and deep suspicion filled with desperately poor people, lacking infrastructure, possessing only a sea of oil [the country is blessed and cursed with huge oil reserves] and too many men skilled in little beyond guerilla warfare. In other words, it was a powder keg with when, not if, stamped on it.

Turse rightly argues that little has changed since to avoid another bloodbath.

This is a fine book of reportage that meticulously details a catalog of horrors unleashed against civilians. He interviews Martha, a woman who was forced to flee with her children from Bor in December 2013. She recounts fleeing to the Nile River with armed Nuer rebels behind them. “I saw someone being shot,” she says. “First his head was there and then it wasn’t.” Martha survived after wading toward an overburdened ferry and keeping her children above water. Many were not so lucky and perished by gunfire.

Turse’s persistence in South Sudan is never rewarded with hard evidence of war crimes — “I take it as personal failure that I couldn’t verify even one site in or around Juba where corpses were secreted away” — but he skillfully describes a country on the brink of constant chaos. He challenges the United States to take responsibility for partially creating the mess but laments the likely option: “will [the United States] take an easier road — one that silences the guns of today only to have them ring out anew with even greater fury at the dawn of some distant tomorrow — or perhaps even sooner?”

The fracturing of South Sudan, along political, ethnic, and social lines, has led to an NGO-isation of the country. While the United Nations and countless humanitarian organizations provide essential services to the literally millions of civilians who need it — food, shelter, hygiene lessons, and basic education — the result is that international (and mostly unelected) bodies are taking responsibility for the running of a nation. If they all packed up and left tomorrow the situation would undoubtedly deteriorate on the ground, but too few people are asking what this situation says about modern state-making and who picks up the bill.

When a nation collapses, aid groups rush in to help and often provide lifesaving assistance (though this is routinely mismanaged). South Sudan is a grim example of a country that was given billions of dollars of United States support before and after 2011, and yet virtually none of those funds went to building sustainable institutions. Men with histories of violence (including Dinka President Salva Kiir and Nuer Vice President Riek Machar) were supported despite having no experience in running democratic institutions.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, successive Washington administrations, NGOs, and evangelical Christians began strongly backing the Christian South Sudanese against Islamic Sudan, a state that had received Iranian support and protected Osama bin Laden. They didn’t care about the human rights abusers in Juba who were just as brutal as those residing in Khartoum. The chances of South Sudan succeeding after 2011 were miniscule.

Turse travels around the country and hears civilians condemn both Kiir and Machar; their forces have been found by the United Nations and human rights groups to have committed horrendous war crimes, and yet nobody is held to account. A recent article in The New York Times, allegedly by both men, claimed to support reconciliation instead of human rights accountability, but it now appears the piece was written by a PR firm. I was constantly told by refugees in South Sudan last year that they hated how Kiir and Machar were feted in global capitals as peacemakers when they were war criminals.

With child soldiers a ubiquitous sight, the Obama Administration had a unique opportunity to respond. Instead, as Turse has reported for The Intercept and this book, the United States gave South Sudan a pass and chose to continue backing the new state politically and militarily. United States presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has avoided being asked tough questions on her central role in this mess. Today, journalists and civilians continue to suffer around the nation despite a faltering peace deal signed in 2015 and enacted this year.

With countless nations arming and training South Sudanese forces, including SudanIsrael, and China, indefinite instability is guaranteed. The tragedy of South Sudan, apart from the constant suffering of civilians forced to survive a meager existence, is the lack of global concern. Success is far easier to support and 2011 independence saw an outpouring of well wishes. Today, however, Juba has squandered those positive feelings and created an autocracy where the voices of average men, women, and children are ignored and their pleas for justice shunned.

Turse’s book is a necessary and moving corrective to these silences.

Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalistGuardian columnist, and author of many books, including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).

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China/Africa Project interview on Chinese relations with South Sudan

I lived for much of 2015 in South Sudan, a country undergoing a violent, post-independence period.

I was recently interviewed by the great China/Africa Project on China’s relations with South Sudan:

Nowhere else in Africa do China’s financial, diplomatic and geopolitical interests confront as much risk as they do in South Sudan. Beijing has invested billions of dollars in the country’s oil sector, deployed over a thousand troops to serve as UN Peacekeepers and committed considerable diplomatic capital to help resolve the ongoing civil/ethnic war between President Salva Kiir against former Vice President Riek Machar.

Even though Beijing has repeatedly deployed its most senior Africa-diplomats to help broker a ceasefire and committed vast sums of money for investment and development, none of it seems like it will do much to slow South Sudan’s seemingly inevitable decline to becoming the world’s newest failed-state.

The destruction this conflict has caused is staggering. Since fighting broke out in December 2013, an estimated 50,000 people have been killed, many by some of the 16,000 child soldiers who have been forcibly conscripted by both sides. Now a quarter of a million refugees are on the move, fleeing the combined threats of war, drought and famine.

Even against these seemingly insurmountable challenges, Beijing’s point man for South Sudan remains stubbornly upbeat. “We as a government are cautiously optimistic about the future of South Sudan. The country’s leaders must remember that peace and security are essential for the growth of the people and the economy,” said Zhong Jianhua, China’s Special Representative for African Affairs, during a May 2016 interview in Beijing.

So why is China so committed to South Sudan? It probably has something to do with money and oil, but that doesn’t explain everything because for a country as large as China, the billions invested in South Sudan represents a relatively small piece of a truly massive global investment portfolio. So what is it?

Independent journalist and Guardian columnist Antony Loewenstein traveled to South Sudan in 2015 to cover the fighting. While in Juba, he also learned a lot more about what the Chinese are doing (or not)  in South Sudan. Antony joins Eric & Cobus to discuss the findings from his reporting assignment and whether he shares Ambassador Zhong’s optimism for the future of the country.

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Resource curse alive and well in Afghanistan

My following investigation is published by the Guardian:

Afghanistan faces an existential crisis over its untapped natural resources. After decades of war and insecurity, the Afghan government and foreign investors are pushing to exploit minerals under the ground but real dangers exist with little enforced regulation. Like Papua New Guinea and Haiti, two other nations with natural wealth that are blighted by the “resource curse”, Afghanistan could be seriously considering leaving resources untouched to ensure peace, stability and a clean environment but the economic imperative is too strong.

Taliban territory is less than one hour from Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Logar Province has traditionally been an insurgent stronghold and regularly sees violent clashes between Afghan security forces and militants. I went there recently to visit the Chinese-owned Aynak mine, one of the largest copper deposits in the world and set to commence operations in the coming years (though an exact date hasn’t been specified).

Its site is an archaeological treasure trove for Buddhist artefacts, but Afghan president Ashraf Ghani announced this year after a visit to Beijing that his government wanted to move ahead with the mine to earn much-needed revenue for his aid-dependent state. The Buddhist treasures are nearly 2,000 years old and reveal an ancient civilisation that stretched across China, India and Japan. Archaeologists have discovered gold jewellery, silver platters and a human skeleton amidst the ancient town.

A secret contract was signed between Kabul and Beijing in 2007 and only this year the Afghan government finally agreed to release its contents. But insecurity, falling global copper prices and a lack of transport for the minerals has stalled the enterprise. It still remains Afghanistan’s largest project in a nation with trillions of dollars worth of resources under the ground.

Locals in Logar’s Davo village told me that their lives had become hellish since the mine’s arrival including being kicked off their lands, pressured by insurgents and the government to leave the area entirely and little economic development. On a bright, sunny day with Afghan and American helicopters roaring overhead, I sat in a compound with 10 men to hear about the impact of the mine. Nazir Khan, a young man who lives in the house in which the meeting took place, escorted me into the area because it was too unsafe in the afternoon with Taliban and Isis-affiliated groups for outsiders to travel alone.

Chief elder Malik Mullah Mirjan explained that his community was promised many benefits after the establishment of Aynak. “The Chinese company confiscated our property and we have never been compensated or paid by anybody,” he said. “We felt like they invaded and stole our land.”

Mirjan said that there was no “consultation” about the process and very few employment opportunities despite assurances of jobs for the community. He said he would still back the mine but nobody from the government had ever come and explained how they would benefit. Consultation is undeniably difficult in a war zone but all 10 men were offended that it had been assumed by Kabul authorities that they were expendable to the project and could be pushed aside. Environmental destruction was rife, he continued, from the building of dirty roads and polluting of waterways by early mining excavations.

“There’s no good intention on the part of the Chinese or Afghan government. The army protects the mining project and not us,” he said. The police regularly beat and insulted his family and friends for raising questions about the mine; they were told to shut up. Insurgents threatened violence. Some Taliban wanted no mining at all and opposed anybody who tried to secure a deal with the government to benefit from it. Other Taliban were more pragmatic and insisted on a financial cut when the mine commenced operations.

Aynak is symbolic of Afghanistan’s declining fortunes since the 2001 fall of the Taliban and the American-led war. The state was shocked with weapons, money, foreign troops and aid but with little oversight or accountability the results from a long occupation and massive amounts of foreign aid have been desultory. Attacks against foreigners and Afghan civilians are soaring.

With western aid drying up and few foreign troops remaining in the country, the Afghan government is desperately looking for ways to sustain itself. Mining is offered as a compelling answer. Australia funds initiatives to assist Afghan mining but I was told in Kabul that this was little more than helping Australian businesses benefit from the potential gold rush.

In May this year, the Western Australian government supported a summit of the Australian Afghanistan Business Council to discuss development of the Afghan mining sector. West Australian mines and petroleum minister Bill Marmion said at the meeting: “Western Australia is our nation’s resources powerhouse, and I am confident our regulatory and industry experience will help guide positive mining development in Afghanistan.” Afghanistan and Western Australia signed a deal in 2012 to back Kabul’s “sustainable” mining industry.

Canberra assists many resource-rich states, including Papua New Guinea, but the results of this support have been poor for the people themselves. In theory, mining has the possibility of making a country rich but all too often mineral exploitation guarantees poor governance. Rampant corruption, illegal smuggling, warlordism and a lack of regulation are key factors against a sustainable mining sector in Afghanistan.

In Hairatan, a town in northern Afghanistan on the border with Uzbekistan, a railway runs to the nearest major town, Mazar-i-Sharif, to transport oil and gas. The government in Kabul says this relatively safe area of the country is a strong example of resources being managed responsibly to benefit the nation. But local oil traders I met in the area told the opposite story: how they’re forced to pay exorbitant taxes for little return while the insurgency grows around them.

Masoom Qasemyar, a former interpreter for Swedish forces, told me outside the Hairatan oil and gas trading office that earning revenues from indigenous resources was the only way for the state to grow. That said, he had no faith that the authorities would manage them intelligently.

A report in April found that the nearly US$500m granted by the US government to back the Afghan mining industry had failed because both the Afghan ministry of mines was incapable of managing new contracts, while US evaluation of any progress was close to non-existent.

I asked many Afghans about the prospect of leaving resources in the ground to avoid worsening corruption and environmental destruction, and whether alternative ways to raise money could be found. Javeed Noorani is an independent researcher on mining and co-founder of the Natural Resources Monitoring Network, a gathering of communities from across the country to bring national attention to mining issues. He said leaving resources in the ground was the ideal situation if Afghanistan couldn’t provide social and environmental safeguards.

“Communities are so poor living around mines and when powerful people come to extract they’re exposed to violence,” he said. “If the government doesn’t intervene when minerals are being exploited, and they already are across the state, we transition from one conflict to another.”

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Interview about my documentary-in-progress, Disaster Capitalism

I was recently interviewed by Green Left Weekly newspaper:

Independent journalist and author Antony Loewenstein has made a name for himself writing about war crimes, human rights abuses and corporate profiteering.

For the first time, he is seeking to speak truth to power through the medium of film — with his first documentary Disaster Capitalism now in production. Loewenstein is also releasing a new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe through Verso in September.

Green Left Weekly‘s Paul Benedek spoke to Loewenstein

* * *

Until now, your work has been writing book and articles. What made you move into film with Disaster Capitalism?

For many years, I have realised the power of film and TV to emotionally reach people in ways that the written word cannot.

After a number of books that I know could have benefitted from a complimentary film — My Israel Question would have shown the vicious reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and The Blogging Revolution would have featured some of the inspiring dissidents challenging repressive regimes globally — I started talking to Australian filmmakers in 2010/2011 when I began researching my book, Profits of Doom.

To cut a long story short, various partnerships started and stalled, various local funders showed interest, then didn’t. I realised that I should just start filming myself as I was visiting Christmas Island and Curtin detention centres, Haiti, Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I shot on an HD handycam, the images looked fine, but I was keen to collaborate with a filmmaker to shape my vision.

Who is the team you are working with on the film and what role/s are each of you playing?

In 2012, I met New York filmmaker Thor Neureiter through a mutual friend and we visited Haiti together. Since then we’ve been filming, raising money and crafting the documentary from different corners of the globe. Norwegian filmmaker Spencer Austad, based in Australia, is also involved, and he filmed me in Bougainville and Afghanistan.

Thor is the director, producer and cinematographer, Spencer is the co-cinematographer and I’m the presenter, writer and co-producer. Sydney-based production company Media Stockade are our producing partners.

Briefly sum up the theme of Disaster Capitalism, and why this is an important film to make.

The film features three countries: Papua New Guinea, Haiti and Afghanistan. We are investigating the reality and rhetoric of aid and development and how they shape, affect and change people’s lives, often negatively.

Natural resources are often cited as the best way to help developing nations thrive, but in all three nations minerals and mining are leading to greater poverty and displacement. Despite all these problems, many people are making serious money. This is an inevitable result of exploitative policies that aim to enrich local and foreign contractors at the expense of the population.

The aim of the film isn’t simply to shock and seduce people, it’s shot in a beautiful way, but to show how these industries could be different. Our outreach plan includes showing the film to a wide audience, from cinemas to film-festivals, the UN and aid workers and screenings in Haiti, PNG and Afghanistan themselves.

Where has the film taken you, who have you met and what are one or two highlights?

We have travelled twice to each country, Haiti, PNG and Afghanistan, and each time we wanted to have local characters tell their stories, about how the promises from the international community regularly falls short.

One of the highlights was recently visiting Logar Province in Afghanistan, one of the hearts of the insurgency, to meet villagers displaced by the Chinese-owned Aynak mine nearby, one of the largest copper deposits in the world.

The Afghan and Chinese governments and the Chinese company all claim the mine is beneficial to the country, but we saw and heard angry village elders explaining how they faced violence, uncertainty and poverty because of it.

As a film team working very differently from established or mainstream film production companies, what technology has the team used and what have been the challenges on the shoot?

The challenges are immense because we have faced rugged terrain, an insurgency, poverty and access issues. We have shot on a Sony FS100 camera and Black Magic Design camera, Go Pro, iPhone 6 and other devices.

What avenues have you used to fund the film until now, and what are the plans for further funding to complete it?

We have self-funded, raised money on Kickstarter and successfully applied for money from the Bertha Foundation, funders of Citizen Four, Dirty Wars and other successful documentaries. We’re currently speaking to local and international funders to raise the remaining amount. If readers would like to help, they know where to find me.

Where is the film currently at, what needs to be done to complete it and when are you aiming to release it?

Principal shooting of the film is complete, with only minor shooting still required in a few locations. We are raising funds for post-production and hope to have this completed within the next six to 12 months. This project began four to five years ago, so we’re committed to finishing it as soon as possible.

Where do you plan on the film ending up, do you have a distributor and what is your distribution plan?

Our aim for the film is for a global cinema release, to be seen by as many people as possible. We will aim for film festivals, TV, Al Jazeera, BBC, Netflix and a range of other options.

We do not yet have a distributor but are talking to a few. The distribution and outreach plan revolves around changing the conversation on aid and development in a way that challenges the gatekeepers in that industry.

To achieve this goal, we’ll have an active social media campaign and partner with local and global human rights NGOs to spread the message. We’ll also use our various media platforms to discuss the film.

Do you think film is a medium that other progressive journalists and writers should be looking at moving into?

Although making a documentary is a slow process, I certainly believe in its power and worth to compliment other types of writing and activism. There’s a reason Naomi Klein is making a documentary version of her book, This Changes Everything, on climate change. She wants to reach large audiences with a message.

Disaster Capitalism has similar goals because these issues don’t just affect elite policy makers at the UN or NGOs. As our film shows, locals are often negatively affected by policy decisions made in Western nations. We are all complicit.

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How the West has always backed brutal Sri Lanka

My weekly Guardian column:

The Sri Lankan Navy band was busy last week, learning the tune to Waltzing Matilda. They played it to welcome Scott Morrison, the Australian immigration minister, who was visiting to launch two patrol boats donated by the Australian government. A photo of the moment,tweeted by journalist Jason Koutsoukis, showed Morrison sitting alongside president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Perhaps it didn’t worry Morrison that there are growing calls to prosecute Gotabaya Rajapaksa for war crimes, because of his actions in 2009 during the Sri Lankan civil war. Australia has been aware of Sri Lanka’s breaches of human rights for some time.

Australia is now closer to the regime than ever, because of their assistance in implementing Morrison’s tough border protection strategy. As Emily Howie, the director of advocacy and research at the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre, reported in 2013, “the Australian government is actively funding and supporting Sri Lanka to undertake these interceptions [of asylum seekers].”

Her report was based on interviews she gathered in Sri Lanka with people who wanted to leave and were stopped, interrogated and often tortured. Howie wrote in The Conversation that arbitrary detention, beatings and torture are routinely meted out to those in custody, Tamil and Sinhalese, with Canberra’s knowledge.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) works closely with its Sri Lankan counterparts, providing training, intelligence, vehicles and surveillance equipment. This has been happening for years. From time to time, stories surface alleging that AFP offers have been present during Sri Lankan police beatings and interrogations of returned asylum seekers. If true, this fits into a wider pattern of Western officials colluding with thuggish militias and authorities over the last few decades, including in Northern IrelandIraq and Afghanistan.

Britain has had its own peculiar involvement in the darkness of Sri Lanka’s recent past. A groundbreaking new report by British researcher and journalist Phil Miller, a researcher at London-based Corporate Watch and regular contributor to Open Democracy on detention issues, outlines how brutal British tactics utilised in Northern Ireland were brought to Sri Lanka in its war against dissidents and Tamils.

The report uncovers new evidence of government and mercenary elements colluding to put down Tamil independence and calls for equal rights. From the early 1980s, London denied any official involvement in training Sri Lankan “para-military [forces] for counter-insurgency operations” but documents show how the British were working closely with Colombo to stamp out the Tamil Tiger insurgency.

Britain saw a unique opportunity to maintain influence with Colombo by training a generation of Sri Lankan officers. London set up a military academy there in 1997, supplied a range of weapons to the army, assisted Sri Lankan intelligence agencies, protected Sri Lanka in international forums against abuse allegations and pressured various governments to ban the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

One month after the end of the civil war in 2009, Britain was working to assist the growth of Sri Lanka’s police department. There was no concern over the serious allegations of massive human rights abuses of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan military. The agenda was economic and political, with Liam Fox, the British defence minister, explaining in June 2011 that Sri Lanka played a vital role in combating international piracy.

“Sri Lanka is located in a pivotal position in the Indian Ocean with major international shipping routes between the Far East and the Gulf within 25 miles of your coast”, he said.

Russia, China, Israel and America have sold military hardware to Colombo both before and after 2009. Wikileaks cables show the US government recognised the Sri Lankan military’s role in atrocities during the civil war. Although the Tamil Tigers undeniably committed terrorist acts, state terrorism by the Sri Lankan establishment was far worse. Australia’s view has been consistent for decades: Canberra rarely recognises state terrorism if committed by an ally.

Australia’s former high commissioner to Sri Lanka, Bruce Haigh, stationed in the country from 1994, recalls how the high commission in Colombo would regularly liaise with its Sri Lankan counterparts, run training programs and accept Colombo’s line that any and all Tamils associated with the liberation struggle were terrorists.

This mindset existed long before September 11. Little has changed, though. Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, has gone even further than his mentor, John Howard, by expressing sympathy for a Sri Lankan regime that tortures its opponents and refuses to endorse an independent investigation into the end of the civil war.

How nations like Australia should relate to Sri Lanka and other human rights abusing countries is a tough question, when Canberra itself routinely breaches its international obligations. At the very least, we should call for rights to be recognised and improved in foreign lands and at home.

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Why the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement is undemocratic

I was asked to comment by New Matilda:

Antony Loewenstein
Independent journalist, activist and author of Profits of Doom. Twitter: @antloewenstein

The details of the TPP, released by Wikileaks and proving the transparency group remains a vital organisation doing the work journalists should be undertaking, are worrying for national sovereignty. The idea that Australia will become even more of a US client state, with the open collusion of Tony Abbott’s government, should be enough to worry all citizens. We should know how willing Australian negotiators have been to allow US demands for national laws to be abandoned in the name of protecting American corporate interests.

We could pay more for medicines, drugs, films and software because American corporations want us to. The US spying regime could be expanded to monitor newly criminalised internet piracy. The fact that multinationals such as Chevron, Halliburton, Monsanto and Walmart have seen the TPP but the public hasn’t reveals the contempt shown by our leaders. It’s ironic that Wikileaks has had to crowd-source money to release the full document that is being negotiated in secret and in our names.

In reality, the TPP is a policy designed by the US and backed by pliant nations to challenge the rise of China. Pepe Escobar in the Asia Times rightly calls the TPP:

“A major US corporate racket that will lower tariffs across the spectrum to the sole benefit of US multinationals and not small and medium-sized firms in developing countries, all this under the cover of a dodgy ‘highest free trade standard’.”

If Australia had a serious and inquisitive media, the TPP would be leading the news.


Why tackling fossil fuel corporations is vital for the planet

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

The viability of a fossil fuel future is rarely connected to the human rights abuses required to sustain it. How often do we think about where oil and gas is obtained? Are the Europeans or Americans any more aware? This deliberate depoliticisation of our energy present, by the vast majority of politicians, journalists and self-described public intellectuals, is leading to an environment that is both unsustainable and dangerous for the planet.

But don’t worry, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott says climate change has nothing to do with bush fires. Move along. Remain relaxed, comfortable and consume skewers of chewy coal and grisly yellow cake with a touch of BBQ sauce.

One might question why there is such resistance to transitioning to renewable energy and which entrenched interests are at stake.

Buried in the heart of New York Times best-selling author Steve Coll’s 2012 book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, are fascinating insights into one of the most powerful companies on the planet.

Scientists working for the corporation examined ways that climate change could affect ocean and surface trends and allow the firm to source new oil and gas. “Don’t believe for a minute that ExxonMobil doesn’t think climate change is real,” a former manager tells the author. “They were using climate change as a source of insight into exploration.”

By 2004 ExxonMobil, both internally and externally, were forecasting that there was little to no chance of a global response to warming temperatures in the coming decades. Former CEO Lee Raymond publicly dismissed the seriousness of the problem.

ExxonMobil and Walmart trade spots year to year as America’s biggest company and this explains why both of them are so reluctant to do anything that they perceive to affect their bottom line. Acting on climate change was not a priority while continuing business as usual was so profitable.

But Exxon wasn’t blind to the changing agenda. Coll succinctly outlines the dilemma faced by the company’s forecasters: “The issue here was not whether the world had the technologies to forswear oil; it was whether governments, panicked by climate change, would intervene to change price incentives to favour clean energy, knowing that such an intervention might curtail overall economic growth, at least for a time.”

The truth remains that the free market will not solve the climate change problem. Hoping and presuming that a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme will ameliorate steadily worsening pollution, as too many Australians who should know better have claimed for years, is missing the point. With global energy markets currently in flux – witness the possible end to the domination of Arab hegemony and subsequent shift in Middle East geopolitics, thanks in part to America’s pushing of shale gas deposits – old assumptions are ripe for ditching.

A new book, The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, details the brutal realities of how comfortable Europeans consume without thought as to how the their cars are fueled. The multinational BP operates the main pipeline that goes through Georgia, Turkey and despotic Azerbaijan. This has become a key geostrategic struggle between Russia, China, Iran and America for domination of the energy market. A growing rift between Washington and Saudi Arabia, affectively known as a “protection racket” relationship, remains unpredictable.

One of the master illusions of the modern age is how governments and the media so rarely discuss the ways in which our energy needs are sourced. It’s a problem that understandably angers the voiceless, including Indonesians in Aceh, suing Exxon for allegedly supporting Indonesian troops committing human rights abuses while protecting the highly lucrative natural gas pipeline and processing facility at Arun, a claim that Exxon denies.

The debate in Australia over fossil fuels is staid and separated from a global debate. What happens here does affect the world, as environmentalist Bill McKibben correctly said on his recently sold-out tour of Australia in reference to mooted expanded coal plans in Queensland. Such plans literally threaten global temperatures.

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, when demanding Abbott approve massive coal expansion, simply said that he must be allowed to “take the state forward economically”. The miners’ lobbyists have done their work effectively. What should be discussed is the need not to burn fossil fuels and leave carbon in the ground forever.

Research released in April by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics found that, “despite fossil fuel reserves already far exceeding the carbon budget to avoid global warming of more than 2°C, $674bn was spent last year finding and developing new potentially stranded assets. If this continues for the next decade, economies will see over $6tr in wasted capital.” Convincing companies such as Exxon not to exploit the resources under their control will take economic and political pressure.

A campaign this month sees dozens of global investors, managing over $3 trillion of assets, writing to the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies asking them to assess, before annual shareholders meetings in 2014, how the real cost of changes in price and demand could affect their business plans. Craig Mackenzie, head of sustainability at Scottish Widows, one of Europe’s largest asset management firms, says that, “companies must plan properly for the risk of falling demand by stress-testing new investments to minimise the risk our clients’ capital is wasted on non-performing projects.”

Embracing a fully renewable future isn’t a technological problem; it’s a political fix that will only come with a massive fight. Scandinavia is leading the world in examples of divesting from fossil fuel companies. Oxford University recently found that these campaigns are growing in strength globally. It must be considered in Australia, with the worst polluters facing financial pain – the only message they’ll understand – for continuing with business as usual. Rio Tinto, I’m looking at you (amongst others).

Vast research has been undertaken in the last years that reveals the possibility of moving to a sustainable and cost-effective energy future.Clean energy reports are being issued constantly and the Greens partyhave provided a realistic roadmap.

Even the World Bank, that bastion of neo-liberal “reform”, is warning about the dangers of a four-degrees warmer world, causing increased risk of natural disasters and sea-level rises. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change rationally explains the dangers without immediate action. The United Nations Environment Program released a 2012 report that outlined the required cuts to global emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change in both the developed and developing world. Australia’s Beyond Zero Emissions have a zero carbon plan.

Tackling the world’s most powerful corporations, whose interest it is to continue consuming and burning fossil fuels, will take nothing short of a soft revolution. I’ve long argued against climate activists who use cataclysmic language when discussing climate change; this alienates the vast bulk of a population that needs to believe in the importance of changing habits and mindsets. But this doesn’t mean that hoping and praying for polluting companies to realise they need to reform or die won’t take massive public pressure, divestment and new opportunities.

Uncontrolled capitalism is sold as the best system to ensure global prosperity. In reality its strongest advocates, with help from its political and media mates, is ruining the chances of a healthy globe for all its citizens, not just the wealthy in the London, New York and Sydney bubble. Climate justice, for the silenced in our corporate media, is just the beginning.


US mass surveillance in the Pacific

Here’s my weekly Guardian column published today:

What if China was beating the US at its own super-power game in the Pacific and we didn’t even notice?

While Washington distracts itself with shutdown shenanigans and failed attempts to control the situation in the Middle East, president Obama’s “pivot to Asia” looks increasingly shaky. Beijing is quietly filling the gap, signing multi-billion dollar trade deals with Indonesia and calling for a regional infrastructure bank.

Meanwhile in recent years, New Zealand has been feeling some of the US’s attention, and conservative prime minister John Key is more than happy to shift his country’s traditional skepticism towards Washington into a much friendlier embrace. Canberra is watching approvingly. It’s almost impossible to recall a critical comment by leaders of either country towards global US surveillance. We are like obedient school children, scared that the bully won’t like us if we dare push back and argue harder for our own national interests.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), warmly backed by Australian prime minister Tony Abbott and New Zealand, is just the latest example of US client states allowing US multinationals far too much influence in their markets in a futile attempt to challenge ever-increasing Chinese business ties in Asia. German-born, New Zealand resident and internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom tweeted this week:

in a nutshell US Corp lobbyists drafted TPPA US Corp & Govt expand power US Corp lawyers can sue NZ NZ can’t win. GET OUT”

This erosion of sovereignty goes to the heart with what’s wrong with today’s secretive and unaccountable arrangements between nations desperate to remain under the US’s security blanket, and New Zealand provides an intriguing case-study in how not to behave, including using US spy services to monitor the phone calls of Kiwi journalist Jon Stephenson and his colleagues while reporting the war in Afghanistan.

There’s no indication that Australia isn’t following exactly the same path, with new evidence that Australia knew about the US spying network Prism long before it was made public. We still don’t know the exact extent of intelligence sharing between Australia and the US, except it’s very close and guaranteed to continue. Frustratingly, the “Five Eyes” relationship between English-speaking democracies has only been seriously discussed publicly in the last years by Greens senator Scott Ludlam.

New Zealand is a close Australian neighbour, but news from there rarely enters our media. This is a shame because we can learn a lot from the scandal surrounding the illegal monitoring of Dotcom and the public outcry which followed, something missing in Australia after countless post-Snowden stories detailing corporate and government spying on all citizens.

Dotcom is the founder of Megaupload (today called Mega), a file sharing website that incurred the wrath of US authorities. Washington wanted to punish him but Dotcom obtained New Zealand residency in late 2010, bringing a close US ally into the mix. Intelligence matters usually remain top-secret, leading New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager tells me, but this case was different, blowing open the illegal spying on Dotcom. His lawyers scrutinised all the police warrants after the FBI-requested raid on his house. The government communications security bureau (GCSB) has always claimed it never monitored New Zealand citizens; Dotcom soon discovered this was false. Public outrage followed, and an investigation revealed many other cases of GCSB over-reach since 2003. Prime minister Key responded by simply changing legislation to allow spying on residents.

Hager explained to me what his investigations uncovered:

“With Dotcom, GCSB helped the police by monitoring Dotcom’s e-mail. What this largely or entirely meant in practice was that the GCSB sent a request through to the NSA to do the monitoring for them and received the results back. This means that the NSA used either wide internet surveillance (essentially “Echelon for the Internet”) or else requests to the internet companies (Gmail etc) directly, ie the Prism type operations. It’s not clear which it was.”

The Key government now wants to increase its monitoring capabilities even more, and New Zealanders are showing concern.

“I spoke at a public meeting in Auckland’s town hall before the GCSB bill was passed. It was the biggest political meeting I can remember attending, with three levels of the large town hall completely full, and hundreds of people turned away. It’s been a big thing here, becoming one of those issues that is a lightning rod for general unhappiness with the government.”

New Zealand journalist Martyn Bradbury has also been a vocal critic of the Dotcom case. He’s pushing for a New Zealand digital bill of rights and tells me that “the case against Dotcom is more about the US stamping their supremacy onto the Pacific by expressing US jurisdiction extends not just into New Zealand domestically, but also into cyberspace itself.”

I talked to one of Dotcom’s lawyers, Ira P Rothken, who went further:

“The US government’s attack against Megaupload bears all the hallmarks of a political prosecution in favour of Hollywood copyright extremists. The US used its influence with New Zealand to unleash a military style raid on Dotcom’s family, to spy on him, and to remove his data from New Zealand without authorisation – all of which has been found to be illegal. Megaupload and Kim Dotcom are today’s targets, but the US crosshairs can just as easily be trained on anybody globally who dares challenge or inconvenience a special interest that holds sway in Washington, and the US – with its notoriously insatiable appetite for demonstrating political and global power – seems all too willing to cooperate.”

This brings us back to China and the US’s attempts to convince its Pacific friends to fear a belligerent and spying Beijing. The irony isn’t lost on the informed who realise Washington’s global spying network is far more pernicious and widespread than anything the Obama administration and corporate media tell us is coming from the Chinese.

Neither China nor the US are benign in the spying stakes. Both are guilty of aggressively pursuing their interests without informing their citizens of their rights and actions. Australia and New Zealand are weak players in an increasingly hostile battle between two super-powers, and many other nations in our region are being seduced by the soft power of Beijing (including Papua New Guinea, partly due to its vast resource wealth).

A lack of transparency abounds. What is desperately needed is an adversarial press determined to demand answers about Australia’s intelligence relationship with the US – and whether all citizens should now presume they’re being monitored on a daily basis.


Inside the mind of a Chinese internet censor

A key theme of my book The Blogging Revolution is China’s extensive web censorship regime.

Fast forward to 2013 and this story, via Reuters, offers unique details about the pathological desire to exercise control over citizens:

In a modern office building on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Tianjin, rows of censors stare at computer screens. Their mission: delete any post on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, deemed offensive or politically unacceptable.

But the people behind the censorship of China’s most popular microblogging site are not ageing Communist Party apparatchiks. Instead, they are new college graduates. Ambivalent about deleting posts, they grumble loudly about the workload and pay.

Managing the Internet is a major challenge for China. The ruling Communist Party sees censorship as key to maintaining its grip on power – indeed, new measures unveiled on Monday threaten jail time for spreading rumours online.

At the same time, China wants to give people a way to blow off steam when other forms of political protest are restricted.

Reuters interviewed four former censors at Sina Weibo, who all quit at various times this year. All declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the work they once did. Current censors declined to speak to Reuters.

“People are often torn when they start, but later they go numb and just do the job,” said one former censor, who left because he felt the career prospects were poor. “One thing I can tell you is that we are worked very hard and paid very little.”

Sina Corp, one of China’s biggest Internet firms, runs the microblogging site, which has 500 million registered users. It also employs the censors.

The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.


Reuters got a glimpse of the Sina Weibo censorship office in Tianjin, half an hour from Beijing by high-speed train, one recent weekend morning.

A dozen employees, all men, could be seen through locked glass doors from a publicly accessible corridor, sitting in cramped cubicles separated by yellow dividers, staring at large monitors.

They more closely resembled Little Brothers than the Orwellian image of an omniscient and fearsome Big Brother.

“Our job prevents Weibo from being shut down and that gives people a big platform to speak from. It’s not an ideally free one, but it still lets people vent,” said a second former censor.

The former censors said the office was staffed 24 hours a day by about 150 male college graduates in total. They said women shunned the work because of the night shifts and constant exposure to offensive material.

The Sina Weibo censors are a small part of the tens of thousands of censors employed in China to control content in traditional media and on the Internet.

Most Sina Weibo censors are in their 20s and earn about 3,000 yuan ($490) a month, the former censors said, roughly the same as jobs posted in Tianjin for carpenters or staff in real estate firms. Many took the job after graduating from local universities.

“People leave because it’s a stressful dead-end job for most of us,” said a third former censor.

Sina’s computer system scans each microblog before they are published. Only a fraction are marked as sensitive and need to be read by a censor, who will decide whether to spare or delete it. Over an average 24-hour period, censors process about 3 million posts.

A small number of posts with so-called “must kill” words such as references to the banned spiritual group Falun Gong are first blocked and then manually deleted. Censors also have to update lists of sensitive words with new references and creative expressions bloggers use to evade scrutiny.

For most posts deemed sensitive, censors often use a subtle tactic in which a published comment remains visible to its author but is blocked for others, leaving the blogger unaware his post has effectively been taken down, the former censors said. Censors can also punish users by temporarily blocking their ability to make comments or shutting their accounts in extreme cases.

“We saw a fairly sophisticated system, where human power is amplified by computer automation, that is capable of removing sensitive posts within minutes,” said Jedidiah Crandall of the University of New Mexico, part of a team which did recent research on the speed of Weibo censorship.


China’s gargantuan web filtering system

There has never been anything like it in human history. Then again, the internet is the perfect tool for officials to monitor and censor material.

Disturbing piece in the New York Review of Books by Perry Link:

Every day in China, hundreds of messages are sent from government offices to website editors around the country that say things like, “Report on the new provincial budget tomorrow, but do not feature it on the front page, make no comparisons to earlier budgets, list no links, and say nothing that might raise questions”; “Downplay stories on Kim Jung-un’s facelift”; and “Allow stories on Deputy Mayor Zhang’s embezzlement but omit the comment boxes.” Why, one might ask, do censors not play it safe and immediately block anything that comes anywhere near offending Beijing? Why the modulation and the fine-tuning?

In fact, for China’s Internet police, message control has grown to include many layers of meaning. Local authorities have a toolbox of phrases—fairly standard nationwide—that they use to offer guidance to website editors about dealing with sensitive topics. The harshest response is “completely and immediately delete.” But with the rapid growth of difficult-to-control social media, a need has arisen for a wide range of more subtle alternatives. For stories that are acceptable, but only after proper pruning, the operative phrase is “first censor, then publish.” For sensitive topics on which central media have already said something, the instructions may say “reprint Xinhua but nothing more.” For topics that cannot be avoided because they are already being widely discussed, there are such options as “mention without hyping,” “publish but only under small headlines,” “put only on back pages,” “close the comment boxes,” and “downplay as time passes.”

We know all this thanks in large part to Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the School of Information at Berkeley, who leads the world in ferreting out and piecing together how Chinese Internet censorship works. Xiao and his staff have collected and organized a repository of more than 2,600 directives that website editors across China have received during the last ten years. Some are only a line or two long; others run to many pages. Some are verbatim, others are paraphrases. Some were collected from Twitter, Sina Weibo (China’s domestic Twitter), and Internet forums, while others were sent to Xiao by editors in China who were frustrated or angry—either at what the directives said or at the fact of censorship itself.

And as Xiao has discovered, the new censorship strategies show the government’s growing awareness of the power of social media. Informal news stories—often accompanied by photos from smart phones—now spread widely and quickly enough that official media lose credibility if they do not at least mention them. In such cases, “on the back page” might be the best option. Moreover, Web users now understand Internet censorship well enough that the issue can itself be one that angers them. (The traditional print and electronic media are censored, too, but directives for them arrive via unrecorded telephone calls, which are much harder to trace and seldom leak. Because the Internet is too large to manage by telephone, its directives go out in writing.) Under the scrutiny of Web users, propaganda officials face the unwelcome task of censoring the Internet while trying to appear as though they are not—or at least not doing it “unreasonably.” This forces them to seek balance. In one instance, a story about two policemen who were killed in an auto accident got out on the social media; censors anticipated an outcry if they “completely and immediately deleted,” so they allowed the story to appear but added the instruction “close comment boxes”—apparently from fear that the boxes might fill with cheers of the kind that normally spring from generalized resentment of the police.

But as Xiao has revealed, the censors expend even more effort on the parallel task of “guiding” expression in pro-government directions. When a story reflects well on the Party, Web editors receive instructions to “place prominently on the home page” or “immediately recirculate.” Authorities also organize and pay for artificial pro-government expression in chat rooms and comment boxes. Provincial and local offices of External Propaganda and Party Propaganda hire staff at salaries of about US $100 per month (less, for part-time work) to post pro-government comments. It is hard to say how many salaried commenters exist nationwide, but estimates run to the high 100,000s. Some of this commenting is outsourced as piece-work. A few years ago, people who agreed to do this work were given the satiric label “fifty-centers” because they were said to be paid fifty Chinese cents per post. By now there are commercial enterprises that contract for comment work. Even prisons do it; prisoners can earn sentence reductions for producing set numbers of pro-government comments.


Untangling the murky energy war between US and China

Far too often the media covers conflicts in terms of good guys and bad guys, ignoring the never-ending power dynamics over energy and oil.

Fascinating piece by Pepe Escobar in Asia Times that describes who really runs the world:

Beijing has clearly interpreted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s “liberation” of Libya – now reverted into failed state status; US support for the destruction of Syria; and the “pivoting” to Asia as all interlinked, targeting China’s ascension and devised to rattle the complex Chinese strategy of an Eurasian energy corridor. 

Yet it does not seem to be working. As Asia Times Onlinereported, the Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline may well end up as IPC, “C” being an extension to Xinjiang in western China. Beijing also knows very well how the proposed Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline has been a key reason for the emphatic attack on Syria orchestrated by actors such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Beijing calculates that if Bashar al-Assad stays and the US$10 billion pipeline ever gets completed (certainly with Chinese and Russian financial help) the top client may end up being Beijing itself, and not Western Europe. 

Considering its strategic relationship with Islamabad, Beijing is also very much aware of any US moves to stir up trouble in geo-strategically crucial Balochistan in Pakistan – with a possible overspill to neighboring Sistan-Balochistan province in Iran. In parallel, Beijing interprets US bluster and intransigence about Iran’s nuclear program as a cover story to upset its solid energy security partnership with Tehran. 

Regarding Afghanistan, the corridors at the Zhongnanhai in Beijing must be echoing with laughter as Washington backtracks no less than 16 years, to the second Bill Clinton administration – an eternity in politics – to talk to the Taliban in Doha essentially about one of the oldest Pipelinestan gambits. “We want a pipeline” (the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India, TAPI), says Washington. “We want our cut”, the Taliban reply. This is politics as Groundhog Day. 

The problem is Washington has absolutely nothing to offer the Taliban. The Taliban, on the other hand, will keep their summer offensive schedule, knowing full well they will be free to do whatever they please after President Hamid Karzai slides into oblivion. As for the Washington notion that Islamabad will be able to keep the Afghan Taliban in check, even the goats in the Hindu Kush are laughing about it.

Syria, though, remains the key story – as the pivot of a spreading cancer, a Sunni/Shi’ite sectarian war largely encouraged by the House of Saud and other Gulf Cooperation Council actors, and bought hook, line and sinker by the Obama administration. 

It took a courageous diplomat to leak it, plus translations from Russian to Arabic and then English, for the world to have an idea of what politicians actually discuss in those largely vacuous, photo-opportunity summits. What Russian President Vladimir Putin told Obama, Britain’s David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande face-to-face at the recent Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland is nothing less than gripping. Examples: 

Putin addressing the table: “You want President Bashar al-Assad to step down? Look at the leaders you’ve made in the Middle East in the course of what you have dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’.” 

Putin addressing Obama, Cameron and Hollande: “You want Russia to abandon Assad and his regime and go along with an opposition whose leaders don’t know anything except issuing fatwas declaring people heretics, and whose members – who come from a bunch of different countries and have multiple orientations – don’t know anything except how to slaughter people and eat human flesh.” 

Putin addressing Obama directly: “Your country sent its army to Afghanistan in the year 2001 on the excuse that you are fighting the Taliban and the al-Qaeda organization and other fundamentalist terrorists whom your government accused of carrying out the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington. And here you are today making an alliance with them in Syria. And you and your allies are declaring your desire to send them weapons. And here you have Qatar in which you [the US] have your biggest base in the region and in the territory of that country the Taliban are opening a representative office.” 

The best part is that German Chancellor Angela Merkel then corroborated Putin’s every word. And Chinese President Xi Jinping certainly would have done the same.