The ethics of the US alliance

The job of US State Department favourites (journalists, commentators and politicians who routinely rehash US government talking points over war, peace and the Middle East) must be exhausting. Defending the indefensible while still being on the information drip-feed.

Welcome to the US embassy, the free champagne, caviar and PR tips are in the boardroom.

I was recently attacked, with about as much credibility as Israel when talking about Palestinian rights, by Lowy Institute flak Michael Fullilove over my recent Guardian comments on Russia and Ukraine.

Australian academic Scott Burchill is one of the country’s most astute observers of this pernicious trend. This latest piece by him is spot-on:

Reflexive support for state power and violence by America’s cheerleaders in Australia takes many forms. There are ad hominem attacks on those who disclose Washington’s nefarious secrets, such as its slaughter of journalists in Iraq or its illegal surveillance apparatus directed by the NSA. There is a conspicuous silence when US drones murder civilians in Yemen, Pakistan and  Afghanistan.

Currently there is confected outrage when a rival state cedes territory it considers to be a legitimate strategic asset, but convenient amnesia when questions about invasions and occupations by friends and allies are raised.

Compare the reaction to President Putin’s annexation of Crimea, which has so far resulted in one fatality, with Saudi Arabia’s incursion into Bahrain in 2011 which killed many innocent Shi’ites but which Washington refused to even call an “invasion”. Coincidently, just as Crimea houses the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet, Bahrain plays host to the US Fifth Fleet.

Consider Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, which has killed thousands of Palestinians since 1948, and dispossessed many more, but would not have been possible without Washington’s connivance.

Perhaps there is a closer parallel. We are approaching the 40th anniversary of Turkey’s illegal invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus. Mass expulsions of Greek Cypriots, property theft and egregious human violations including killings and unexplained disappearances, followed the initial attack in July 1974. But Ankara remains a valued NATO ally and there are no suggestions in Washington or Canberra that economic sanctions be imposed on Prime Minister Erdoğan, his business cronies or predecessors. Some invasions and land grabs, such as Indonesia’s 24 year occupation of East Timor which Canberra and Washington enabled, are just fine with us.

Hypocrisy, double standards and selective outrage dominates foreign affairs commentary. Amongst the current avalanche of hysterical Putin bashing in the Western media one fact is always omitted. The US is the most promiscuous interventionary state in the world, with mass slaughters in Afghanistan and Iraq being only the most recent examples of its addiction to military violence. In both these cases Australia was an enthusiastic accomplice.

To those infatuated by power, however, these actions – for which apologies are never issued nor reparations paid – are not crimes, merely “wrong-headed and foolhardy” because Washington’s impact on the world is “benign” (Michael Fullilove) and it remains an “overwhelming force for good in the world” (Greg Sheridan, Kevin Rudd). Just ask the Vietnamese.

Perhaps the strangest claim by American boosters in Australia is that Washington is unfairly singled out for criticism by “the left” and thugs like Putin get off lightly. According to a former Liberal Party staffer, “It’s interesting how little the green-left in Australia has said about Russia’s conquest of Crimea which, under international law, is part of Ukraine. Had the United States done it, I think the green-left would have gone berserk.” (Gerard Henderson ).

Actually, the alleged silence of “the left” is neither interesting nor surprising. Despite its own significant responsibility for what has happened in Ukraine, there is no obsession with Washington’s crimes in the Australian media or across the broader political class. But there should be one.

There is no alliance between Australia and Russia. We don’t have intelligence sharing agreements with Moscow. There are no technology transfers and no Russian troops rotating through Darwin. We don’t play host to “joint facilities” with Russia, have routine ministerial meetings with officials in Moscow or regular bilateral summits between our heads of government. We have no influence on Moscow’s political elite.

We do, however, have limited leverage in Washington. The alliance gives us access to their decision makers, regardless of whether our opinions are welcome. With that opportunity comes a responsibility to exert influence where we can, especially to curb America’s propensity to meet its global political challenges with extreme violence. This does not constitute a disproportionate preoccupation with US foreign policy, as the local Washington lobby would have us believe. As our major ally that is precisely where our focus should be.

It is also our ethical duty. In democratic societies, responsibility for the consequences of our actions extends to the decisions taken by governments on our behalf because we can participate in the process of formulating policy. The US alliance is a policy choice for Australia and there is no evading the moral consequences of that relationship, including the international behaviour of “our great and powerful friend”.

Our leaders closely align themselves with their counterparts in Washington, and claim to share both common values and a similar view of the world. In Iraq and Afghanistan, as in several wars before, we have been willingly complicit in acts of aggression and breaches of international law. Drawing attention to these crimes, as opposed to those committed by others we have no influence upon, does not constitute anti-Americanism. It is our moral and political responsibility. Like charity, analysis and criticism should begin at home.

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Triple R interview on politics of citizen’s arrests

I was interviewed by Melbourne’s Triple R radio this week:

On, Michelle Bennett talks to author, journalist and activist Antony Loewenstein about Western hypocricy and “peaceful citizen’s arrests”. In a column he wrote recently [for the Guardian], Loewenstein put forth a discussion-provoking argument for greater accountability of Western leaders, including pushing for a serious enquiry into Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War. 

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Western hypocrisy over Russia

Brilliantly strong Gideon Levy in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

Saddam Hussein has already been executed, and so has Osama bin Laden. But all is not lost for the enlightened West. There is a new devil, and his name is Vladimir Putin. He hates gay people, so the leaders of the enlightenment did not go to Sochi. Now he is occupying land, so sanctions and boycotts will be imposed upon him. The West is screaming bloody murder from wall to wall: How dare he annex territory in Crimea?

The United States is the superpower responsible for the greatest amount of bloodshed since World War II, and the blood of its victims cries out from the soil of Korea and Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. For years, Washington meddled in Latin America’s internal affairs as though those affairs were its own, installing and overthrowing regimes willy-nilly.

Moreover, the number of people in American prisons, and their proportion of the population, is the highest in the world, and that includes China and Russia. Since 1977, 1,246 people, some of whom were innocent of the charges against them, have been executed in the United States. Eight U.S. states limit speech against homosexuality in ways that are remarkably similar to the anti-gay law Putin enacted. It is this superpower that, with its allies and vassal states, is raising an outcry against the new devil.

They cry out against the occupation of the Crimean peninsula as if it were the most awful occupation on earth. They will punish Russia for it, perhaps even fight a world war for the liberation of Sebastopol. America can occupy Iraq — the war on terror and the weapons of mass destruction justify that, as everybody knows — but Russia may not invade Crimea. That is a violation of international law. Even a referendum is a violation of that law — which the West observes so meticulously, as everybody knows.

But of course, the truth is as far from the world of this sanctimonious double standard as east is from west. The annexation of Crimea may be problematic, but it is less problematic than the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel. It is more democratic than Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s land-swap proposal; at least Russia asked the inhabitants under which sovereign power they wished to live, something it has never occurred to Lieberman to do.

Russia’s reasons for the annexation of Crimea are also more convincing than the de facto annexation of the Israeli occupied territories. The Russians and the Israelis use the same terminology of ancestral rights and historical connection. The Israelis add reasons from the Bible, and mix in issues like sanctity and messianic belief. “Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to … their home shores, to their home port, to Russia!” said Putin; in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about “the rock of our existence.” But while most of the inhabitants of Crimea are Russian, most inhabitants of the territories are Palestinian — such a minor, insignificant difference.

Russia is also more honest than Israel: It states its intention of annexing the territory. Israel, which for all intents and purposes annexed its territories long ago, has never dared admit it.

The Israeli occupation does not cry out to the world — not for sanctions and certainly not for threats of war — as the occupation of Crimea does. Netanyahu is not the devil, either in the eyes of the Americans or the Europeans, and Israel’s violations of international law are almost never mentioned. The Israeli occupation, which is more cruel than that of Crimea, is not recognized, and the West does not do a thing to truly bring it to a halt. The United States and Europe even provide it with funding and arms.

This is not to say that Russia does not deserve to be criticized. The legacy of the Soviet Union is horrific, and democracy in Russia is far from real, what with Putin declaring war on the media and on free expression and with the disgraceful Pussy Riot affair; there is rising corruption and, with it, the rule of the oligarchs. Putin does not speak as nobly as U.S. President Barack Obama, but then Guantanamo is run by America, not Russia.

For all the pompous Western talk of justice and international law, it’s actually the Western devil who wears Prada, all the while doing far more than Russia to undermine those vaunted values.

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It’s time for Australia to face up to its dark military past and present

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

Official, government-mandated story telling should be treated with suspicion. How else to to separate the truth from hagiograhy?

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott was in Darwin last week-end to attend a welcome home ceremony for soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. “Australians don’t fight to conquer”, he said in a voice filled with emotion. “We fight to help, to build and to serve. So yes, it was worth it. The price was high but the cause was great and the success has been sufficient.”

Abbott announced that a national day of commemoration for the Afghan war will be held for the first time on 21 March 2015. It’s hard to imagine that this occasion will be anything other than a chance for the state to praise the soldiers who fought in the war, rather than any serious examination of our legacy in Uruzgan province, where 40 men died during our deployment and 261 were seriously wounded. Around 400 “military personnel” remain in the country.

On the ground in Afghanistan, the evidence for any long-lasting and positive legacy is lacking, with many infrastructure projects now abandoned. Britain faces a similar desultory result in the Helmand province.

The coming years will see plenty of celebration and reflection on the contribution of Australia (and Britain) to countless conflicts since the first world war. Author Thomas Keneally recently said he hoped that “no one says ‘Australia was born at Gallipoli’. Australia was born in 1901, and there needs to be a certain amount of de-mythologising. Let’s hope the historians win out over the politicians, who strike me as fairly jingoistic.”

Keneally was correct to call for a rational recollection of the horrors of war (“we let them down when they came back”) though it’s arguable whether Indigenous Australians would agree the country started in 1901. Aboriginal people already feel ignored by official historians, as shown in John Pilger’s documentary Utopia, when he visits the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and finds no recognition of Aboriginal involvement in our foreign or local, frontier wars.

Ask any soldier about the brutality of war – and I’ve spoken to many in Afghanistan – and few of them idealise the battle. Yes, tales of heroism are guaranteed and the latest Hollywood blockbuster Lone Survivor proves that there’ s still an appetite for an Afghan war movie without any Afghans. But the toll of post-traumatic stress, mental health problems, lost limbs and suicide, now an epidemic amongst returning US war veterans, cannot be ignored. Moreover, far too often in the western consciousness local, ethnic voices are diminished or ignored.

War isn’t glorious or beautiful but messy, bloody and destructive. Victory isn’t clean or pretty, a fact that any objective observer will recognise when assessing the the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars with a very questionable outcome (an indisputable victory would perhaps embolden Canberra, London and Washington to embark on yet more colonial adventures). Instead, as Dirty Wars author Jeremy Scahill explains, the Obama administration now prefers covert assassination squads and drones to defang an unseen enemy.

So how should we, as a nation, remember the fallen and living, the disabled and broken, both our own victims and the ones we’ve created in foreign lands?

The job of governments who send men and women into battle is to insulate the public from the bloody mission, but our focus surely must be on avoiding futile and costly foreign wars for the sake of backing our bigger allies. I hope for a day when an Australian prime minister, along with both major sides of the political divide, have the moral fortitude to reject an American request for soldiers or grunt. The world is not designed to be conquered by newest weapons, fastest satellites, deadliest missiles and metadata-acquired intelligence.

James Brown, a former Australian army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, argues in his new book Anzac’s Long Shadow that the lack of skeptical thinking, and excessive spending on first world war commemorations, is “creating a culture in which critical analysis is rare and difficult. That is very dangerous for a military that should be adapting to face new threats.” He’s right, to a point. And yet his vision remains narrow, as Brown then argues that, “it is bizarre and inexcusable that there is as yet no commissioned official military history of the conflicts in East Timor, the Solomons, Iraq or Afghanistan … Serving generals should be making the case to government for the urgent completion of these histories so that the military can learn and improve, but they are not.”

This is exactly the wrong way to approach history. The “official” version of wars are guaranteed to ignore what the public needs to know and feel (look at the Pentagon’s deeply dishonest rendering of the Vietnam war to commemorate the conflict’s 50th anniversary). The 2013 New York Times best-selling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, uncovers new research by journalist Nick Turse that torpedoes the idea that the infamous My Lai massacre was an anomaly. Instead, we discover that US forces routinely killed Vietnamese non-combatants on an industrial scale. Former US army medic Jamie Henry is just one man who tried to detail the atrocities committed by his unit, but the military ignored his allegations and shunned him.

The danger signs are here if we care to look, and a true reckoning of any military past is incomplete without hearing the testimony of all participants, not just our own.

This is the kind of real history that the late Howard Zinn tried to capture in A People’s History of the United States; unvarnished, honest, truthful. Is Australia even willing to begin a similarly sober conversation about our eagerness to join distant wars?

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Should John Howard face a citizen’s arrest over Iraq war?

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

Years after America officially withdrew from the country it invaded in 2003, Iraq remains in chaos. The issue is largely ignored in the press these days, except for the occasional horrific tale of carnage. Nobody senior in the western world has found themselves in the dock defending their justifications for the war.

While examining the lack of legal oversight, the lack of planning or concern for the aftermath of the inevitable fall of Saddam Hussein, and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny preceding what amounted to a US war of aggression, it’s worth reflecting on the viability of making a peaceful, citizen’s arrest on former Australian prime minister John Howard for his central role in this story.

This idea has a clear and principled pedigree. In 2010, Guardian columnist George Monbiot initiated the ArrestBlair.org campaign for the purpose of rewarding anybody who made a peaceful citizen’s arrest of the former British leader. Blair was accused of “crimes against peace” and the crime of aggression. Because the political and media elites continue to insulate Blair and his colleagues from legal culpability over the Iraq war, alternative methods were required.

To this day, Iraqis are enduring insecurity, violence, kidnapping, sexual violence, extremism and terrorism. The legacy of the conflict is absolutely devastating. And yet the politicians who took America, Britain and Australia into the conflict work and play openly.

Howard, who led Australia into Iraq in 2003, remains a free man, lecturing around the world. He was given an award at Tel Aviv University this year for his “unwavering, courageous advocacy of the state of Israel spanning decades”, is often quoted in the media, and gave a talk at Sydney’s Lowy Institute in 2013 defending the morality of removing Hussein from power.

No apologies, no mea culpas and no serious questions followed. The vast bulk of the political elite prefers to ignore what transpired in 2003, and there are no serious calls to hold Howard accountable for alleged breaches of international law in joining George W Bush’s operation (Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry is a notable exception).

In Britain, the Downing Street memo revealed the illegality of the war without a UN resolution. In Australia Howard’s government, according to countless interviews with insiders at the time, had no interest in gaining advice about the legality of the enterprise. Blindly supporting the US alliance, and a desire to crush a former American ally, was paramount. Then defence department head Ric Smith has said that he “was not aware of any senior official advising against it [going into Iraq] in my time .” In reality, John Howard ministers took no advice before joining the war.

The head of the department of prime minister and cabinet, Peter Shergold, told journalist Paul Kelly in his 2009 book The March of the Patriots that “it would be wrong to think they [Howard and then foreign minister Alexander Downer] were not interested in advice but the advice they wanted … was about the conduct of the war and capabilities, not the decision to go to war.”

Britain’s Chilcot inquiry, yet to release its report amidst accusations of political interference, heard in 2010 that every senior legal advisor at the Foreign Office before the war concluded that it breached international law. Despite these damning facts, Blair and his foreign secretary Jack Straw are seemingly immune from prosecution or even serious investigation.

This is where the power of the people becomes vital, if for only symbolic reasons, to highlight the institutional failure of our nominally democratic system to hold the highest office bearers to account. International law must apply to all.

This January, Monbiot praised the latest individual who confronted Blair, at a restaurant in London, and wrote that:

It has already succeeded in doing two things: keeping the issue – and the memories of those who have been killed – alive, and sustaining the pressure to ensure that international law binds the powerful as well as the puny.

The evidence against Howard is long and detailed. He has continued to claim it was “near universal” that Saddam had WMDs and Iraq was therefore a threat to the world. In fact, countless officials, insiders,weapons inspectors and secret services questioned the accuracy of these “slam dunk” assessments. The head of Britain’s MI6 told Blair in 2002 that “the intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy.” In Australia, senior intelligence officer Andrew Wilkie resigned in 2003 over his claims that Howard was abusing intelligence reports over Iraq. No independent legal advice was sought, and therefore the party cabinet decision on war was not a transparent process .

Even former Howard government minister, Nick Minchin, admitted in 2010 that he regretted Australia was “not able to be more successful in persuading the Bush administration to remain focused on Afghanistan rather than in opening up another front in Iraq.” Minchin argued that he “knew that the decision [to invade Iraq] having been made, Australia had to support it.” There was no mention of legal advice supporting Canberra’s entry into the conflict.

Margaret Swieringa, a senior Australian public servant who worked as a secretary to the federal parliamentary intelligence committee from 2002 until 2007, wrote in 2013 that Howard’s use of intelligence reports was fundamentally flawed. She knew, as an insider, that, “none of the government’s arguments [of Iraq’s apparent immediate threat] were supported by the intelligence presented to it by its own agencies. None of these arguments were true.”

A campaign to hold Howard to account wouldn’t be a stunt. It would be a serious attempt to keep the most devastating war in a generation in the public arena by reminding those most implicated that there is a price to be paid if such actions are ever repeated again.

A full public inquiry into the Iraq war, including the war powers used by Howard to take Australia into a conflict opposed by a great number of Australian people, is required.

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Why it’s time for UN sanctions against Australia

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

This month, the United Nations accused Canberra of potentially breaking international law by forcibly repelling refugee boats back to Indonesia. Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, said that the international body was “concerned by any policy or practice that involved pushing asylum-seeker boats back at sea without a proper consideration of individual needs for protection.” He continued: “any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the 1951 refugee convention and other international law obligations.”

The comments were brushed aside as soon as they were uttered. Prime minister Tony Abbott’s administration insists that its policies are legal and safe, and the vast bulk of Australians apparently back even harsher methods against asylum seekers. It is now clear who has won this battle, and it isn’t the forces pushing for moderation.

After 20 years of steadily increasing cruelty towards refugees, it’s time to admit that we’ve reached a stalemate. Simply arguing for a more humane approach has failed. Reason, international law and common sense are no match against inflammatory media reporting, false fears about asylum seekers living in the community, and politicians proudly punishing the most vulnerable in the name of “deterrence.”

Enter the need for a new approach, one that seriously ups the ante: sanctions against the Australian state for ignoring humanitarian law. Australia deserves nothing less. A price must be paid, in a political and economic sense, for flagrantly breaching Australian and international conventions. This could be directed at both the multinationals such as Serco and G4S, who are administering the government’s policies, and the bank accounts and assets maintained by government ministers and officials.

Australian citizens must feel this global isolation in their daily lives, and be made to realise that business as usual is a choice that will bring tough penalties. Locking up children on remote Pacific islands, without proper medical or psychological care, is designed for only one purpose: pain. States opposed to these breaches must gather together and take action, regardless of the inevitable short-term bleating from the Australian government. Activists around the world and at home must have a clear target and goal: to make Canberra believe that the ramifications are simply too high to maintain the current system of a privatised detention network.

Western state powers believe they are immune from prosecution. The idea of a senior western leader or official being charged for war crimes or abuses of power is almost unheard of. The recent news that British human rights lawyers are pushing for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute local military figures and politicians over serial breaches against detainees in Iraq after 2003 was an important reminder that it isn’t only presidents in dictatorships that might face the wrath of The Hague. We are surely not far away from a precedent being set with the sight of a London or Washington-based official found guilty for covering up systematic assaults against Iraqis or Afghans during the last decade.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, explains how the US system is designed to protect the powerful at the expense of the majority. There are countless officials after 9/11 who haven’t been jailed for ordering and performing waterboarding, sexual assaults, illegal interrogations, hiding prisoners in black sites and invading nations. President Barack Obama has ferociously protected the worst abusers, including CIA torturers, and provided immunity.

The relevance to Australia is clear. Western leaders live under the belief that they can behave as they like to the powerless and invisible. Asylum seekers are essentially voiceless, reporters are barred from visiting where they’re warehoused in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and the daily drumbeat of dishonest rhetoric wrongly accuses them of being “illegal”.

Even the threat of sanctions against Australia would enrage the Abbott government and its backers. Australia is a democracy, they will claim. Australia’s decisions are checked and approved by lawyers, they may argue. Australians can vote out recalcitrant regimes, they could state.

And yet transparency over asylum seeker policy has arguably never been more absent. There are far too few journalists dedicated to investigating the refugee issue, media organisations prefer sending their “journalists” to junkets in Los Angeles promoting Australian celebrities, and the result is an immigration bureaucracy that rightly believes its actions have few consequences, shielded from censure.

Sanctions against Australia would wake them up immediately – even though the usefulness of traditional sanctions are questionable. Imagine if immigration minister Scott Morrison feared leaving the country amidst threats of questioning if he landed at Heathrow airport because of the abuse of asylum seekers in his care.

The first, obvious step is rousing worldwide support to place serious pressure on Australia and make its officials and leaders uncomfortable. Ask them tough questions in global forums. Demand they explain why dumping vulnerable men, women and children in isolated prison camps doesn’t warrant sanctions. Tell them that the humane treatment of asylum seekers, at a time when the globe is struggling to cope with millions of displaced Syrians and growing numbers of climate refugees, is vital in a connected world.

The Australian government feels invincible, protected under America’s security blanket and selling its dirty coal to the world. We are sold the myth that building remote detention camps will protect us from the “hordes” trying to enter our promised land. It’s impossible not to conclude that Australia, a colonial construction, doesn’t see itself akin to Canada, the US and Israel as countries struggling to cope with people various officials call “infiltrators”. That bubble must be burst, and the threats of sanctions will be the required shot. Until Australia and its defenders appreciate the necessity to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect, they should feel the world’s opprobrium.

Talk is no longer enough. The UN has had more than 20 years to convince Australia to abandon mandatory detention and its associated ills. Frankly, it hasn’t tried hard enough. Absent of a complete overhaul of the UN system, something that is long overdue, let legitimate legal sanctions be threatened and used.

It’s a price every Australian, myself included, should feel.

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What robust journalism should look like in 2014

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

2013 was the year of Edward Snowden. The former NSA contractor, voted the Guardian’s person of the year (after Chelsea Manning the year before), unleashed a vital global debate on the extent of mass surveillance in the modern age. “Among the casualties”, writes one reporter, “is the assumption that some of the nation’s most carefully guarded secrets will stay secret.”

This is a uniformly positive development, despite the bleating from countless intelligence insidersmedia commentators, the vast bulk of the US Washington elite and a media class that has largely forgotten how to operate without being on the official drip feed. The general public does not accept patronising claims by NSA backers that its tools are used to protect us from terrorism.

A mature debate about post 9/11 spying is essential, something that’s almost impossible to offer when politicians who should know better - I’m looking at you, Australian minister for communications Malcolm Turnbull – slam journalists for doing their job.

So in 2014, reporters have a choice: to either continue being regarded as untrustworthy pariahs (a recent Gallop poll in the US confirmed this belief amongst the general population), or as investigators on power. In this spirit, here are my suggestions for reporters to regain trust – so that all of us finally remember what adversarial journalism looks like in a robust democracy.

Be deeply skeptical of anonymously-sourced stories

Too many stories appearing in the mainstream media are sourced to one, often anonymous source. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance union states in its code of ethics that a reporter should “aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source.” This is routinely breached as journalists prefer to receive sanctioned leaks from officials, government and opposition ministers and advisors and sympathetic business players. It’s lazy and counter-productive, because the story becomes little more than propaganda dressed-up with a byline. Journalists don’t need to leave their air-conditioned offices, and they rarely do.

Think of this year’s main story: Syria reportedly using chemical weapons against its own civilians (despite serious concerns about the truth of the claim and President Obama’s questionable use of intelligence, as raised in a recent article by legendary reporter Seymour Hersh that has barely raised a ripple). When the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – a one-man operation in Britain – is so routinely cited as a source of Syrian casualties in the media, it becomes problematic. The truth from inside Syria is notoriously tough to get, but editors should acknowledge that they often do not know what’s happening on the ground.

Moreover, journalists should only grant anonymity to sources if it’s absolutely essential. The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan chastised her paper for failing to learn the lesson of history (hello, Iraq and WMDs?) and continuing to allow officials to give a clear agenda without attribution. “ One part of the solution”, she wrote, “is for reporters to push back harder against sources who request anonymity. This may not work on high-stakes national security coverage, but it certainly will in other areas.” Too often journalists will allow a source to be quoted anonymously because they’re desperate to find legitimacy to boost their stories’ credibility. The result is a yarn that will please those in power, yet strong journalism should always bring discomfort for those elected to rule us.

No more opinion pieces by sitting politicians

Our media landscape is polluted by politicians pushing a partisan line. An example: on Christmas Eve, Australia’s Liberal assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos wrote in The Australian that the economy was once again booming after Labor administration’s apparent mismanagement. It’s a press release that any self-respecting editor would refuse to print. Likewise, ABC TV’s Q&A should ban politicians, because they offer little more than hackneyed lines produced by overpaid PR agents.

Decent media outlets would tell politicians (and the advisors who often write the columns) that political point-scoring is tiresome. The job of a robust press isn’t to simply provide a carte blanche for our leaders to freely pontificate.

Increasing the ‘Snowden effect’

The rolling coverage of documents leaked by Snowden will continue into 2014 but the big challenge, as Dan Gillmor articulates in the Nieman Journalism Lab, is to:

“use the documents to identify and amplify an issue of such importance and scope that it doesn’t flame up and out in the manner of most stories … In 2014 and beyond, journalists should be inspired by the Snowden effect. They should focus more on critical mass – how to achieve it and how to sustain it. If journalism is to matter, we can’t just raise big topics. We have to spread them, and then sustain them.”

Wikileaks pioneered this publishing model, with countless media outlets around the world covering documents that relates directly to their country. Many others should follow this inspiring lead. It’s the opposite of parochial reporting, and it forces often reluctant competing publications to collaborate on key stories. Competition for leads, and a refusal to recognise that the internet makes such old traditions close to obsolete, hampers innovative journalism.

Cherish the importance of public broadcasters

Who can forget James Murdoch, himself involved in the British phone hacking scandal, telling the Edinburgh TV festival in 2009 that the size of the BBC was “chilling” and that it was mounting a “land grab” in a competitive media market? “The corporation is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it”, he said, “and what is good for the country.” Such sentiments are routinely mouthed by Murdoch hacks in Australia, where innumerable editorials dare to demand the ABC prostrate themselves before the surveillance state and not damage the “national interest”.

The BBC has its issues - more scrutiny should be applied to its war coverage – but its existence is a challenge to commercial interests and a threat to market fundamentalism. In Australia the ABC, successfully bullied during the Howard years from 1996 to 2007 and intimidated from pursuing countless controversial stories, faces renewed pressures to kowtow to government whims. Constant pressure works, often through self-censorship – something I examined in my book My Israel Question over the Middle East issue. Producers, journalists and editors must resist any attempt to remove or soften stories with the potential to embarrass the powerful. The inherent dangers of taxpayer funded media in such a climate are clear.

Your thoughts

Please share below your ideas about how to bring greater strength to the media and mechanisms to hold journalism, governments and business to account. We’ll all benefit from sharing ideas rather than believing one person or group has all the answers.

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Voices in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, oppose dirty mining

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

bougainville mine

The mine. Photograph: Antony Loewenstein

The mine lies like a scar across a bloody face. Guava village sits in a remote area in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea (PNG), above a copper mine which closed 25 years ago. Resistance to the Rio Tinto-owned pit exploded in the late 1980s and during a recent visit, I got to stand above the massive hole that caused the crisis. Human rights abuses were rampant back then, with locals missing out on the financial spoils. Opposition to the enterprise was inevitable and necessary.

Run by Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) from the 1970s, the Panguna mine spewed unprecedented amounts of pollution into the ground, water and atmosphere. It lingers to this day but nature has begun to reclaim its rightful place across kilometres of land, dipping its ferns, grass and lush green trees across oily and rusting equipment. Guava, with its 400 inhabitants, is a peaceful place up a steep rocky incline. During the rainy reason, clouds dance around unpredictably and the hot sun shines on the moist and muddy soil. From there, the view above Panguna is breath-taking, the scope of the environmental damage visible, and the lack of clean-up criminally negligent.

The Bougainville civil war, which was sparked by conflicts over the mine, lasted 10 years and cost the lives of up to 15,000 people. The PNG government blockade, comparable to that imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, caused immense suffering amongst the civilian population. At the height of the conflict the government – which many say had BCL involvement – trained and led soldiers to crush the Bougainville resistance; some researchers have since claimed that Australia provided support to the Papua New Guinea Defence Force in the process.

Locals were victorious, but they paid a high price: the island has remained eerily stuck in time for a quarter of a century. In the nearest main town of Arawa, where I stayed, burned-out buildings and petrol stations still stand, and drunk youth loiter in parks. The region is nonetheless relatively safe these days, unlike many other areas of PNG, but it faces an even greater threat: the potential re-opening of the mine by the same forces who seem destined to, once again, not listen to landowners.

mine

Photograph: Antony Loewenstein

During my time in Bougainville, I spent the vast bulk of my days with communities near the old mine and around the waste deposits that left vast swathes of land with little more than sandy dirt. A local woman, Theonila Roka, told me as the sun set on the polluted Kavarong river that mining simply isn’t necessary to bring Bougainville independence. “In many ways we’re already independent”, she said. “Most people are self-sufficient, growing their own food on their land.” She doesn’t ignore the economic realities of wanting independence through a planned referendum between 2015 and 2020, but she has no faith that BCL and the government won’t collude once more to deny mineral and financial rights to her people.

Sadly, journalists rarely interview any Bougainvilleans. A recent report by the ABC run Australia Network completely ignored the locals and only featured an interview with the Australian-based writer of a study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) that encourages more Australian engagement and big mining. As articulated by a notable dissenter of the ASPI study, locals are rarely given a voice.

bougainville interview

Theonila Roka. Photograph: Antony Loewenstein

This year has also seen the unedifying sight of AusAid funding Australian academics such as Anthony Regan to assist the Bougainville Autonomous Government to draft new mining laws, which some claim is occurring without proper public consultation (something which Regandenies). During my time on the island, I constantly heard worries about the lack of transparency over who will be allowed to mine and how – along with who owns the rights to the resources.

Nowhere in most media stories is any acknowledgement that Canberra is recruiting advisors with links to the mining giant – but Australia’s record as a colonial administrator to PNG is not easily forgotten on the ground. Some land-owners in Bougainville told me they resented outsiders telling them that they should suffer the reality of polluting extraction while Australians live comfortably in clean cities.

The sheer scale of copper and gold beneath the ground explains the deals being struck. It’s easy to see why so many stakeholders are so keen to keep these issues out of the public spotlight: it’s a bad look to treat local concerns as illegitimate while waving around big dollars to seduce key players. Central Bougainville MP and minister for information and communication Jimmy Miringtoro told the Post Courier that the local population must become resource owners and shareholders. “These [mining] laws”, he said, “must also ensure equitable distribution of wealth from the mine so that no one group in Bougainville becomes rich while the rest are poor.” Indeed, deference to Bougainvilleans must be the priority – a position that remains anathema to diplomats, politicians and insider media.

The aftermath of mining.

Some equipment remains, unused. Photograph: Antony Loewenstein

In the meantime, the lack of real democracy in Bougainville continues to haunt the island as its population gears up to make crucial decisions regarding its independence and the management of its resources. Former resistance leader Sam Kauona is one of the loudest public voices opposing the re-opening of the mine. He told me in Arawa that he recently met the BCL and Rio Tinto heads in the island’s capital, Buka. He said they were shocked when he said it was time for unjust mining legislation across Commonwealth nations to be changed to reflect the will of the people, and that Bougainville was going to lead the charge.

On my last day, I met AusAid’s team leader in Bougainville, Deo Mwesigye. A friendly man who is curious about my reading of the political situation, Mwesigye believes the population largely supports the role of Australia in assisting the building of roads and hospitals there. But when I pointed out that these projects, while important, were referred to by many of the people I interviewed as little more than band-aid solutions, he remained silent.

Today, locals or key land-owners remain skeptical of big scale mining, scarred by the past. Even though the local government initiated formal talks around Bougainville this year to discuss the possibility of re-opening Panguna, locals told me the meetings were not inclusive, that many land-owners felt they were excluded, and that authorities arrived with a pre-ordained goal: bring BCL back to the island. Women’s perspectives are almost invisible, though a Bougainville Women in Mining group submitted a paper recently which detailed their exclusion from the decision making process.

PNG remains a unfinished nation which is being stripped of its resources, from logging to natural gas. The situation in Bougainville provides a perfect opportunity for authorities and the titans of multinational extraction to atone for the mistakes and crimes of the past.

• More photographs from the author’s visit to Bougainville can be found here

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Why the mainstream media is broken part 9754322

The kind of debate that can prove either endlessly boring or vitally important for the health of democracy. Take your pick.

The beautifully produced literary magazine Island asked me recently, after deep coverage of the new book by writer Tim Dunlop called The New Front Page, to write a few words about my vision for a more robust press:

The corporate media talks down to its readers and viewers. The general public likes to consume news in small, easily digested bites, the supposed experts tell us. Nothing too complex.

This may be true for many of the population but not all. The internet has thankfully broken the ability for mainstream reporters to believe they have the right to pontificate and we all should listen.

From Iraq in 2003 to Syria in 2013 and the global financial crisis in 2008, there are countless reasons why alternative perspectives are required and following the herd, a favourite pastime of insider media, has often been destructive and wrong. Trust is in short supply and yet even raising such issues brings defensiveness from the merry band of journalists who call themselves professionals. The relationship between consumer and producer is frayed.

Well-resourced journalism is vital but the Canberra and state press galleries almost guarantee groupthink. Ethical, trained and accountable citizen reporters could regularly write from their areas. Blogging and tweeting should be obligatory. Relying on political ‘experts’ from Labor and Liberal, has reduced political debate to partisan rants. Use only when desperate. Include the list of talent to a) individuals from non-white back- grounds, b) individuals in areas away from the inner cities, c) the disadvantaged and d) anybody under forty- five without a close connection to a politician/adviser/ hanger-on/hack.

This is not a call to dismantle the mainstream press – its resources still dwarf independent alternatives – but to recognise that working for mainstream news doesn’t give you all the knowledge. In fact, it probably means you’re residing in a bubble. Get out more. The more people the media engages, the more likely it’ll be respected. It’s not that complicated.

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How US/Australia intelligence collusion rightly concerns Asia

My weekly Guardian column is here:

Australia has an identity crisis that has never been resolved. Are we a US client state, happy to host any number of American troops and spying assets, or a fully integrated part of Asia? Do we crave true independence, or are we happy to remain America’s ‘deputy sheriff‘ in the Pacific region?

There’s nothing stopping Canberra from having close relations with both worlds, but our regional posture over the last decades has shown a muddled understanding of how to achieve this. We usually arguably prefer to remain tethered to an arrogant Anglosphere whose influence is waning.

When we do look to Asia, it’s not solely about business ties enriching Australian corporations. We too often back the most autocratic regimes imaginable, such as Indonesia’s Soeharto (fans of former prime minister Paul Keating should recall his fondness for one of the most brutal leaders of the 20th century). Canberra’s complicity in the Indonesian occupations of East Timor and West Papua also signals a willingness to ignore human rights for the sake of political expediency.

Australia’s love of foreign conflicts are infamous; this is noticed across (particularly Islamic) Asia. We marched in unison with the US in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – three devastating wars which we comprehensively lost. A decent nation, unlike our own, would offer an apology and compensation for having civilians pay a hefty price for our aggression, or for polluting the ground with deadly chemicals. Our brutishness is not forgotten by the millions of occupied people who experienced it first-hand; terrorism is born this way. Billions of dollars in annual foreign aid isn’t enough to buy us the forgiveness that’s required.

The current diplomatic storm between Australia and Indonesia highlights the myriad of problems with a country Tony Abbott claims is “our most important relationship.” The ability of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to disrupt Australian government policies on asylum seekers, the live cattle trade and intelligence sharing shows how vulnerable Canberra is in its relations with our northern neighbour.

We deserve the embarrassment and awkwardness and yet surveillance state backers, such as Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, claim to be confused over Jakarta’s anger – but just imagine the outrage in Australia if leaks emerged showing SBY snooping on Abbott’s mobile phone (which may well be happening now). Also never forget that Jakarta already operates a brutal network of spies on its own citizens in Papua; nobody’s hands are clean.

Abbott’s response has been predictable; this is a man who sees nobility in the anglosphere, conveniently ignoring the colonial legacies of their rule. As for the Labor party, it has no credibility on the issue because the spying occurred under their watch. A Royal Commission into Australia’s out of control intelligence and security services is the least Abbott should be doing. With new revelations appearing almost daily following Snowden’s leaks, only the most loyal propagandist for unlimited state power would claim that his documents haven’t led to a vital public discussion over the excessive scope of state intrusion on privacy and liberty.

The real scandal of Canberra’s current problems with Indonesia is that we are helping the US with its dirty work. Tapping SBY’s phone and gaining its contents has interest for both the US and Australia, but SBY and his wife aren’t the only targets – in all likelihood, Indonesian civilians with no connection to terrorism or extremism are also being monitored. Snowden documents prove that close allies of the US, such as Britain, allow Washington open access to potentially millions of their own citizens. Australia could be equally supine.

The sheer scale of worldwide snooping, assisted by compliant allies such as Australia, has been exposed by Snowden’s leaks. He should be immediately granted asylum in Australia (his liberty is undeniably threatened in his homeland) for such services to local and international understanding of US behaviour (much of which is illegal, something that doesn’t seem to bother the NSA’s most passionate supporters). An adversarial media should interrogate governments and officials of all stripes and not make life comfortable for those in power.

So where to for Australia’s relationship with Asia? A mature nation treats its neighbours with respect and engagement. Trust takes more than presidential or prime ministerial visits. Speaking out against human rights abuses should also be crucial for Australia. An independent stance means having constant public discussions about the role of a former colony entering the 21st century in a region that likes the idea of declining US hegemony.

And in the meantime, let the leaks continue, and increase – for sunlight always scares the powerful who act in secrecy, too often outside the law.

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Hold the champagne, but nuclear deal with Iran (probably) avoids war

Robert Fisk on the winners and those who are pissed that a war against Tehran may not now happen:

It marks a victory for the Shia in their growing conflict with the Sunni Muslim Middle East. It gives substantial hope to Bashar al-Assad that he will be left in power in Syria. It isolates Israel. And it infuriates Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Kuwait and other Sunni Gulf States which secretly hoped that a breakdown of the Geneva nuclear talks would humiliate Shia Iran and support their efforts to depose Assad, Iran’s only ally in the Arab world.

In the cruel politics of the Middle East, the partial nuclear agreement between Iran and the world’s six most important powers proves that the West will not go to war with Iran and has no intention – far into the future – of undertaking military action in the region. We already guessed that when – after branding Assad as yet another Middle Eastern Hitler – the US, Britain and France declined to assault Syria and bring down the regime. American and British people – those who had to pay the price for these monumental adventures, because political leaders no longer lead their men into battle – had no stomach for another Iraq or another Afghanistan.

Iran’s sudden offer to negotiate a high-speed end to this cancerous threat of further war was thus greeted with almost manic excitement by the US and the EU, along with theatrical enthusiasm by the man who realises that his own country has been further empowered in the Middle East: Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Assad’s continued tenure in Damascus is assured. Peace in our time. Be sure we’ll be hearing that Chamberlonian boast uttered in irony by the Israelis in the weeks to come.

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Profits of Doom receives positive coverage in Paraguay

The wonders of the internet. I was informed this week that a leading daily media outlet in Asuncion, Paraguay, Ultima Hora, published a great article about my new book, Profits of Doom. The journalist, Guido Rodriguez, emailed me to explain that the message of the book resonated with many people in his country.

The following is a Google Translate version of the article so read with that in mind:

I would translate the title of the book and Profits of Doom, the brilliant journalist, photographer and documentary filmmaker Antony Loewenstein.

His reading is very timely, because [President] Horacio Cartes has asked to end the antagonism between politicians and businessmen at the top of Panama.

Antagonism What is it?

The problem of the moment is the collusion between businessmen and politicians, forgetting others.

Cartes proposes a public-private partnership as a solution to our problems. Well, this alliance exists in Haiti (Loewenstein tells us) and has allowed the construction of an industrial complex.

Is not it very similar to the industrial complex that our government proposed to build on the Parana to Rio Tinto?

Comparisons aside, the fact is that in the industrial complex of Haiti are paid wages below the legal minimum wage (five dollars per day), and the happy resort aims to become a center for recruiting cheap labor for multinationals.

Needless to say that Haiti is a very poor country with huge problems: it has a 60% unemployment and need to import at least 75% of its rice.

What it shows is that Loewenstein overcoming those problems should not expect the entry of speculative capital.

After the devastating earthquake of 2010, the country received a good amount of dollars in international aid, the results were not as expected.

It was not only because of the inefficiency and corruption that was, but the error in judgment: speculative capital have no interest in developing any poor country.

By the way neoliberal little Haiti’s future, moreover with vast natural resources (gold, copper, zinc), now tempt multinationals.

This author calls the curse of natural resources, thinking about what happened in Papua New Guinea with the arrival of multinational corporations.

The most famous case is that of the Panguna Mine on the island of Bougainvillea, whose inhabitants took up arms against the exploitation of gold and copper which caused tremendous ecological destruction.

Rebels won, but at a high price: thousands of deaths, destruction, poverty. The culprit was the BCL company, formed by the public-private partnership of local government and Rio Tinto.

Iraq and Afghanistan are other cases studied in Profits of Doom. Iraq’s oil wealth is obvious, what is less known are the mineral deposits in Afghanistan, which attract the attention of companies not necessarily charitable.

Another common feature of these two countries was the privatization of war.

For reasons of supposed efficiency, was entrusted to private companies, the food, the intelligence services and security, say the privatization of war.

In late 2012 (says Loewenstein), had 109,000 private contractors in Afghanistan, nearly twice the number of soldiers.

It has the private sector efficiency, but that the mercenaries earn much more than the soldiers of the occupying armies.

Decidedly, this little privatizing model can promise to Paraguay.

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