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

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

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

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

How do we escape our filter bubbles?

We live in an age of filter bubbles. I’ve been commissioned by Germany’s Goethe Institute to discuss these issues online for the next month alongside Austrian journalist Robert Misik. Here’s the first entry that is distributed in 160 nations around the world (here’s the German version):

Once upon a time there were hopes that the Internet would democratize social discourse – but today the talk is mainly about fake news and filter bubbles whenever the subject turns to the question of how digitization influences politics. What can journalists do to regain the trust that has been lost? And what can ordinary people do to engage to a greater extent in discussions with one another again? Over the next few weeks, this will be debated here by the journalists Robert Misik from Austria and Antony Loewenstein from Australia. Their digital correspondence is postage-free – and open to all, so join in the discussion and give your opinion! Contradict! Ask questions! You can take part using the comments field on this page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #freepost. Geraldine de Bastion, who is chairing the debate, will contribute your comments to the exchange.

Geraldine de BastionPhoto: Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv

Geraldine de Bastion: 4 December 2009 marked a paradigm shift on the Internet, as it was on this day that Google began creating personal profiles for every user and individually filtering search results. Internet activist Eli Pariser described this as the start of an “era of personalization”, coining the term “filter bubble” for it in his book Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You.

This growing individualization is evident when we are presented with personalized advertising – and indeed when we use supposedly neutral tools such as search engines to navigate our way through the information medium number one; tools we have to use because otherwise the Internet would be simply impenetrable.

“Customized services” are omnipresent. Rather than being an encyclopaedia of world events, the Internet is more reminiscent of a special interest paper. In our social media profiles too, which should really be connecting rather than isolating us, we find ourselves faced initially with a kind of “one-way mirror”, as Eli Pariser describes it in his book. By watching what we click, algorithms learn more and more about us, and we get increasingly entangled in our own personal bias online: when surfing the web, users only see stuff that matches their profile, their worldviews and their convictions.

Some critics of this theory claim that the filter bubble is not a purely digital phenomenon, and that it is intrinsic in all of us from the start. We view the world through our own particular glasses, surround ourselves with like-minded people and read only things that confirm our own opinions.

So how do you perceive your filter bubble, online and offline? And do filter bubbles in fact exist at all?

 

Robert MisikPhoto: Helena Wimmer

Robert Misik: Of course filter bubbles exist. That is not something that requires any discussion – it is rather a question of interpretation: do the filter bubbles in digital communication enclose and confine us to a greater extent than would otherwise be the case? If this is the question to be addressed, the situation is already more complicated. Modern societies are comprised of a large number of subgroups that differ from one another in terms of their ways of life, political persuasions, personal styles and so on. We have inner city dwellers, working class urban districts, middle classes in the suburbs, the super-rich in their favoured areas, big cities, small towns, villages … The people who live in these various sub-communities also have little contact with those in other sub-communities in real life – and when they do have contact, it tends rather to be on a superficial level.

Digital communication, be it in social networks, forums or other online media, reinforces this logic on the one hand while breaking with it on the other. Reinforced in the sense that, assuming we fit into the patchwork of a community with a particular set of opinions, we will find ourselves inundated with ever more messages that reinforce this community’s prevailing opinions. This entrenches our views and gives us tunnel vision. Yet that is of course only one side of the truth. We can see the opinions of others on a daily basis in the social media and forums – where we are confronted with attitudes that we might otherwise not even notice. That is something that is often overlooked when we talk about filter bubbles.

 

Antony LoewensteinPhoto: Reuben Brand

Antony Loewenstein: A key deficiency of modern society is lack of empathy for the underprivileged, a disease caused by experiencing our daily lives in a bubble. Too often what we read and don’t see online and what we hear and experience in our real lives reduces our ability to relate to others who look or sound different to us. It’s tempting to hate refugees coming from the Middle East or Africa if you feel economic and racial insecurity and are told by your trusted newspaper, TV host or friend that you should fear the “other” because they’re worsening your personal situation. Resisting this impulse requires widening what you consume and consider on a daily basis. This tendency existed before the rise of the internet and social media but it’s now easier to find your own tribe online.

I’ve experienced this in my own work. When I visit Gaza as a journalist and tell people that I don’t feel threatened as a Jew by locals or the Islamist government, the instant reaction is often suspicion because the media has fed a line for decades that Palestinians are inherently violent and Muslims want to kill all Jews. This lie can only be challenged by constantly explaining the truth and showing the fallacy of the position.

The rise of Donald Trump, Brexit and rampant nationalism in Europe, the US and Australia has made me spend even more time reading, listening and reporting on the movements that caused these political earthquakes. Contemptuously dismissing Trump won’t make his supporters disappear. I don’t personally know any Trump or Brexit voters, and nor do I associate with white nationalists who loathe Islam, but I’m drawn to exploring why many people are.

UPDATE: Week two’s question: What has been your experience: how can we seek and conduct constructive discourse outside the filter bubble?

My answer:

Living and working outside our own filter bubbles requires us to first acknowledge that our own positions are inherently biased and should be challenged. I proudly call myself a liberal and yet I constantly feel disillusioned with the superiority expressed by ‘my side’ in political debates.

Take the 2003 Iraq war, arguably the most consequential conflict of the 21st century. Countless journalists, commentators and supposedly serious politicians around the world backed the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, including many progressively-minded people. They were catastrophically wrong and yet virtually none of these individuals have paid any political or career price for their hubris. Many of the same faces are now advocating the bombing of Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. What this seminal experience taught me was that we need to question our own ‘side’ first, online and in person, while also disputing the mistruths and bigotry of our opponents.

Truth-telling can be powerful. If Wikileaks had existed in 2003, and it published the conversations of George W. Bush and Tony Blair conspiring and lying about the Iraq war, would the war have been stopped before it even begin?

The election of Donald Trump fills me with dread but I’m not suddenly more concerned about ‘fake news’ today than 15 years ago. Social media has undeniably fuelled our ability to feel connected and insulated from views we don’t want to hear but I’m far more worried about group think when it comes to questions of war and peace and the millions of lives that have been lost in the name of national security and fighting terrorism since 9/11.

We should aim to conduct constructive and insightful conversations with everybody online, personal abuse should be avoided, but it’s the height of arrogance to believe that only we have facts on our side and others, like Trump, Brexit or Marine Le Pen supporters, are all delusional.

UPDATE: Week three question: Do we need new tools to secure a digital agora?

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The wonder, anger and occupation of Jerusalem

My essay in The National newspaper about the city of Jerusalem:

House demolitions occur regularly in East Jerusalem, well away from the tourist path. According to the United Nations, Israel destroyed 190 Palestinian homes in 2016 and displaced thousands of people. It was the highest figure since 2000.

I’ve witnessed Palestinian families thrown out of their own houses, sometimes immediately replaced by radical, Jewish settlers, or standing in front of crushed, concrete structures with nowhere to go. Last year, a few hours after a Palestinian home was demolished in the neighbourhood of Wadi Joz, I arrived to find a solitary man sitting under a large, green plastic sheet. He had 12 children and a wife and all his possessions, including couches, fridge, table, crockery and cutlery, were exposed to the elements. “The Palestinian people don’t help me”, he said. Despite his situation, he gave me a cup of hot coffee and then began calling friends to see where he could sleep with his family.

The official policy of Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat is to make Jerusalem the “united capital”. In practice, this means the approval of thousands of Jewish homes in West Jerusalem, but nothing in the East where Palestinians live. Up to 20,000 Palestinian homes have been built without approval, giving Israel the justification to destroy them, but obtaining permits is almost impossible. It’s a daily reality faced by a Palestinian community that foreigners and Israeli Jews almost never witness nor want to.

To a Jew growing up in Australia, this Jerusalem is vastly different to the fantasy Jewish city described in my youth, although it remains a sparkling and beautiful place. I’m preparing to leave after living here with my partner for more than a year. During this time and in the course of many visits over the past decade, I constantly marvel at the shimmering Al Aqsa Mosque, cobbled streets in the Old City and the green and brown hills of the Mount of Olives. With few tall buildings and its famed cream-coloured stone, the city has a spiritual feeling that is perhaps unrivalled in the world.

However, the brutal politics of division sucks away any inkling of nostalgia. The ubiquitous presence of armed and aggressive Israeli soldiers and police harassing Palestinians increasingly defines it. Many secular, Jewish Israelis hate Jerusalem and try to avoid coming. For them, the comfortable bubble of Tel Aviv is preferable, where the occupation of Palestine is almost completely invisible. They like it that way, away from Palestinians and the ultra-Orthodox, Haredi Jews who ghettoise themselves in isolated neighbourhoods.

As Israel prepares to celebrate 50 years of conquest and occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, this holy city has rarely been so angry and volatile.

Recently released documents revealed that Israel knew from the beginning of its occupation that it was illegal and worried about international reaction. Israel annexed East Jerusalem three weeks after the 1967 war and sent a telegram to its ambassadors around the world explaining that this wasn’t “annexation” but “municipal fusion” to guarantee running services. Israel needn’t have been too concerned, though, because facts on the ground after 50 years have become permanent.

As a journalist in Jerusalem, it’s a strange experience and almost guaranteed to bring cognitive dissonance. It’s possible to spend time in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the day, witnessing suffering and occupation and be safely back at home in the evening. Considering what surrounds us, Jerusalem is perhaps too comfortable for foreign media.

For Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, the city can be a dark experience. I live in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem that’s slowly being taken over by extremist, Jewish settlers. There are plans to build a religious school, a 10,000-square-metre complex in the heart of an Arab area, and accelerated moves, backed by the Israeli Supreme Court, to evict even more Palestinians from their homes. The clear Israeli aim, used over decades, is to make Palestinian lives so miserable that they simply pick up and leave. Some agree, most resist.

There may be no checkpoints separating East and West Jerusalem, unlike throughout the West Bank, but the divides are clear. The vast majority of Jews here have no interest or knowledge of Palestinian history before the 1948 Nakba.

Israel is pushing for millions more tourists in Jerusalem in the coming decades, but this can only be achieved by isolating and silencing Palestinian residents, many of whom lost residency unless they regularly proved that this city was their “centre of life”.

Jerusalem will seduce even the most jaded traveller, but only the blind can ignore the racial and political discrimination undertaken in the name of Zionism.

Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-­based journalist and author, most recently, of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out of Catastrophe.

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US magazine Truthout picks Disaster Capitalism and extracts its introduction

US magazine Truthout has picked my book Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe as its “Progressive Pick” (AKA book of the moment). Here’s an extract from the introductory chapter:

“Sometimes we win the skirmishes, but the war continues.” — Rebecca Solnit, 2011

Back in 1972 Jørgen Randers, today the professor of climate strategy at the Norwegian Business School, published a book called The Limits to Growth. He warned of the devastating impact of population and economic growth on a world of limited resources. Revisiting that prognosis in a 2004 essay, he found that his predictions were correct and that global leaders had been much remiss in ignoring the urgent need to battle unsustainable development.

Randers’ key argument was a challenge to the inherent rules of capitalism. By 2015, he was pessimistic that the current financial order was capable of — or even had any interest in — reducing the devastating effects of climate change. “It is cost-effective to postpone global climate action,” he wrote.

“It is profitable to let the world go to hell. I believe that the tyranny of the short term will prevail over the decades to come. As a result, a number of long-term problems will not be solved, even if they could have been, and even as they cause gradually increasing difficulties for all voters.”

To encourage a country such as Norway to tax every citizen, his suggested solution was for people to pay an extra 250 euros every year for a generation, thereby drastically cutting greenhouse gases and providing an example to other industrialized nations. The idea never got off the ground.

“The capitalist system does not help,” Randers explained.

“Capitalism is carefully designed to allocate capital to the most profitable projects. And this is exactly what we don’t need today. We need investments into more expensive wind and solar power, not into cheap coal and gas. The capitalistic market won’t do this on its own. It needs different frame conditions — alternative prices or new regulation.”

Although Randers pushed the worrying idea of “enlightened dictatorship” — “for a limited time period in critical policy areas” — his thesis strikes at the heart of why wealth is concentrated in so few hands in today’s world: there is little incentive to advocate for a more equitable planet. The market system guarantees unfairness and rewards greed.

Such debates are starting to emerge even among the class who most benefits from such inequality. During the annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, in 2015, where the world’s business and political leaders gather to congratulate themselves, some sessions concluded that inequality was a serious problem facing the globe, and participants were pessimistic about solving it.

Such talk was a start, but hardly enough when the dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president — a man responsible for the death of thousands of his own people — was warmly welcomed in Davos and allowed to pontificate about his vision for “sustainable development.” Human rights and economic freedom must not be mutually exclusive concepts.

The figures speak for themselves. The share of wealth in the US owned by its richest 0.01 percent has quadrupled since the eve of the Reagan Revolution. The top 1 percent of the world’s population owns 46 percent of all global assets. US cuts in food stamps have left the nation’s largest food bank, in New York, struggling to cope with demand. Around 16.5 percent of the state’s population requires emergency food assistance. In 2013, roughly 14 percent of the country’s population “lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members,” according to the US Department of Agriculture — a 30 percent increase since 2007. The US middle class, long viewed as the globe’s most successful, now suffers growing income inequality. A crucial factor in this decline has been the failure of educational attainment to progress as successfully as in other industrialized states.

The system is rigged. During the global financial crisis, Bank of America nearly crashed. One of the largest financial institutions in the nation, it was nevertheless granted £45 billion by President Barack Obama to prevent its collapse. Since then, Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi explains,

“the Obama administration has looked the other way as the bank committed an astonishing variety of crimes … ripp[ing] off almost everyone with whom it has a significant business relationship, cheating investors, insurers, depositors, homeowners, shareholders, pensioners and taxpayers. It brought tens of thousands of Americans to foreclosure court using bogus, ‘robosigned’ evidence — a type of mass perjury that it helped pioneer. It hawked worthless mortgages to dozens of unions and state pension funds, draining them of hundreds of millions in value.”

This is the modern definition of capitalism. As Taibbi told those attending an Occupy Wall Street day of action in 2012, “this gigantic financial institution is the ultimate symbol of a new kind of corruption at the highest levels of American society: a tendency to marry the near-limitless power of the federal government with increasingly concentrated, increasingly unaccountable private financial interests.” Wall Street bankers were happy. The sum of all executive bonuses in 2014, averaging roughly $173,000 each, came to around double the earnings of all Americans working full-time on the minimum wage.

It is an ideology that thrives despite guaranteeing social disharmony. The US model of reducing the role of government while increasing the influence of largely private power has never been so rapacious, though the problem is global. For-profit colleges burden students with huge debts and worthless credentials while receiving federal student aid. Goldman Sachs, a firm with a large measure of responsibility for the economic meltdown in 2008, now invests in social-impact bonds — a system that enriches the company if former prisoners stay out of jail but reduces the accountability of governments and prioritizes private profit. The corporation also makes money from higher education, pressuring underprivileged students to take on debt while giving scant attention to the standard of teaching.

Republicans in Michigan have pushed for the privatization of public school teachers, using a skewed logic that advocates cutting public schools and selling off facilities at the lowest price. Many tolls operating on public roads and highways in the US service the bottom lines of local and multinational companies. Public libraries have been outsourced, reducing employee salaries or eliminating jobs.

In Europe, many corporations and lawyers shamelessly exploit international investment deals to derive profits from suing crisis-ridden nations. Market speculators pressurize fragile nations such as Greece, whose citizens are forced to survive with fewer public services. British citizens living on the margins face eviction or spiraling rent increases because global fund managers, such as Westbrook — based in the United States — purchase homes as assets to be milked for profit.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) traverses the world with the backing of Western elites, strong-arming nations into privatizing their resources and opening up their markets to multi- nationals. Resistance to this bitter medicine is only one reason that large swathes of Latin America have become more independent since the 2000s. The mass privatization that results — a central plank of US foreign policy — guarantees corruption in autocracies. Wikileaks’ State Department cables offer countless examples of this, including in Egypt under former president Hosni Mubarak. The World Bank is equally complicit and equally unaccountable. In 2015 it admitted that it had no idea how many people had been forced off their lands around the world due to its resettlement policies. The story barely made the news and no heads rolled.

One Californian town, Maywood, took the privatization memo a bit too seriously. It literally outsourced everything in 2010, sacking all municipal workers, including the police department, due to budgetary pressure. “We will become 100 percent a contracted city,” said Angela Spaccia, Maywood’s interim city manager.

Decades of anti-government rhetoric claiming that taxpayer money is always wasted have convinced many voters that the corporation knows best, which is why a sustained campaign against predatory capitalism is so hard to keep up — not helped by the fact that 90 percent of Americans rely on information from media outlets owned by only six multinationals, including News Corporation, Comcast, and Viacom. Rupert Murdoch tried to acquire Time Warner in 2014; had he succeeded, the market would have shrunk even further. In this environment, the fact that movements such as Occupy are born and thrive, albeit briefly, is a remarkable achievement. Indian writer Arundhati Roy saluted the power of this movement in a speech at the People ‘s University in New York’s Washington Square Park in November 2011: “What you have achieved … is to introduce a new imagination, a new political language into the heart of empire. You have reintroduced the right to dream into a system that tried to turn everybody into zombies mesmerized into equating mindless consumerism with happiness and fulfillment.”

Although Occupy was dismissed as an irritant and irrelevant by many on Wall Street and in the corporate media, police unleashed a sophisticated surveillance operation to disrupt the protestors. They recognized the danger represented by the threat of a good idea. The challenge faced by opponents of rampant capitalism was how to focus their rage coherently against increasingly pervasive forces. The study of capitalism is soaring at universities across America, indicating the desire on the part of tomorrow’s graduates to understand the tenuous connection between democracy and the capitalist economy.

The phenomenal success of French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century — a work arguing that social discord is the likely outcome of surging financial inequality — indicates that the public knows there is a problem and is in search of clear accounts of it. Piketty advocates a global system of taxation on private property. “This is the only civilized solution,” he told the Observer newspaper.

In 2014, even the world’s leading economic think-tank, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, urged higher taxes for the rich to help the bottom 40 percent of the population. When establishment magazine Foreign Policy publishes an article by the US managing editor of the Financial Times, Gillian Tett, which closes expressing a wish for an “honest debate” about “wealth redistribution,” it is clear that the world has gone a little mad.

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How does the media drive xenophobia?

In the age of Donald Trump and rabid nationalism, I was recently asked to write a short essay by US-based publication World Policy Journal on the role of journalists and media in creating and fanning xenophobia: Big Question

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What Palestine Ltd tells us about disaster capitalism in Palestine/Israel

My following review appears in the US publication Mondoweiss:

Palestine Ltd: Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory (I.B. Taurus), by Toufic Haddad

The Israeli media barely covers Palestine. Although many local, corporate outlets have “Arab affairs” correspondents, a faintly colonial position that reeks of paternalism, 99.9 percent of Jewish journalists live in Israel proper (or the occupied, Palestinian territories) and barely spend any serious time in Palestine (except when serving in the IDF). The lack of Palestinian perspectives is striking considering the geographic closeness of the two peoples.

With notable exceptions such as Haaretz journalists Amira Hass and Gideon Levy who live in the West Bank or constantly visit it, as well as 972 Magazine, the inevitable outcome is that most Israelis view Palestinians through a security framework. The media reinforces this inherent bias. Palestinians are seen as a foreign threat to be feared or loathed, unless proven otherwise. It’s therefore unsurprising that contact between Israeli Jews and Palestinians is increasingly rare unless occurring at a military checkpoint or Israeli-run, industrial park in the West Bank.

These issues go beyond the Israeli press. I’ve long believed that the more international journalists who live in a city or country the worse the reporting will be. This may be a strange conclusion and counter-factual. Surely the more eyes and ears in one place will improve coverage? In fact, the opposite happens because a herd mentality quickly develops and few journalists, despite convincing themselves otherwise, want to stand out. Think of London, Washington, Canberra and Jerusalem and the lack of distinctive voices emanating from these locations. Too many reporters live and breathe the same air, speak to the same sources, dine in the same places and socialise with the same people. I’m not immune, being a journalist myself, but I’ve spent my professional life rejecting the comforting embrace of stenography reporting.

When I lived in South Sudan in 2015, the lack of critical journalists (or any reporters at all) resulted in a country on the verge of genocide being mostly ignored in the international arena (though of course the state’s strategic importance was tragically far less important than Israel). Embedded journalism, not just the act of working alongside military forces but psychologically aligning oneself with governments and officials while granting them anonymity, is the opposite of adversarial journalism.

It’s shameful that in 2017 the vast bulk of foreign journalists living in Israel and working for corporate media outlets can’t speak proficient Hebrew or Arabic. Barely anybody is permanently based in the West Bank, let alone Gaza.

Isn’t it about time to rely far less on Westerners to explain the Middle East and instead develop and support Arab reporters with more lived and historical understanding? Or utilise Westerners with greater global experience than just working inside insular press galleries? Or how about anti-Zionists, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, being allowed more airtime? The effect of bubble journalism in Jerusalem is pervasive.

Palestinian voices have never been more essential, especially as 2017 is the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, and yet Jewish and Zionist, American journalists still play a key role in explaining the conflict to American audiences. Where are the Arab and Palestinian voices to compliment and challenge what Zionists have been claiming in the press for decades? The New York Times still longs for the two-state solution and foolishly thinks it can be saved.

Cover of Palestine Ltd.

Cover of Palestine Ltd.

This lack of Palestinian agency in the mainstream media could be so easily corrected. Reading Palestine Ltd and learning from it would be a strong start. Toufic Haddad has produced a stunning indictment of the international consensus over Palestine and the failed Oslo “peace process”. Endorsed by Naomi Klein and recently launched to a full house in East Jerusalem – I attended and found Haddad’s talk compelling in its evidence-based denunciation of the US and foreign donors to the Palestinian cause in the last 20 years – Palestine Ltd paints a grim picture of Palestinian hopes for statehood. Haddad shows how it was killed at birth.

In his introduction, Haddad explains the central thesis on promises made to the Palestinians since the 1990s by the donor community. “Implicit to these interventions”, he writes, “was the notion that the market’s invisible hand would guide Israelis and Palestinians to peace, provided the international community financially and politically backed this arrangement and facilitated the creation of an adequate incentives arrangement. The arrival of these political winds to the conflict-ridden shores of the Palestinian setting through Western donor peacebuilding and statebuilding policies thus set the stage for what happened when ‘an army of fighters for freedom’ faced off against a former army of Palestinian nationalist ‘freedom fighters’, embodied in the PLO.”

Palestine has become a business, a very profitable one, for any number of engaged actors from donors to Western states. “Palestine Ltd can be loosely described as the operational endgame of Western donor development/peacebuilding/statebuilding interventions”, Haddad argues, “with this entity functioning as a variant of a limited shareholding company (Ltd.) with international, regional and local investors of one type or the other.”

The strength of the book is the way it methodically shows how any serious Palestinian autonomy was deliberately designed to fail from the beginning. Many Western donors in the 1990s and now claim that they’re acting in good faith, believing that being pro-Palestinian means funnelling more money into the Palestinian Authority (PA), and yet after decades of entrenched cronyism and Israeli occupation, at what point should the money simply stop, the PA be abolished and Israel forced to manage its own occupation and the people within it? This is a reality that Israel fears and explains why, despite the stream of invective against the PA from Israeli ministers, co-ordination between the PA and Israel is constant and unlikely to end.

Haddad investigates World Bank pronouncements in the 1990s, ideas that became the basis for the failed economic experiment still underway in Palestine. “World Bank economists very obviously ignored reference to the exaggerated political determination of the OPT [occupied Palestinian territories] under a protracted settler, colonial arrangement characterised by the massive social and political upheaval and structural deformities of all kinds.”

This wilful blindness is reminiscent of World Bank and other global financial institutions treating Greece like a punching bag while its economy crashed and people suffered. Little care or interest was given to the precarious state of lives being lost or scarred due to extreme austerity after the 2008 financial crisis. Both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) carried on regardless of public protest in Greece, governmental opposition and soaring social ills. Privatisation was the supposed panacea. Selling off public assets was the answer. In fact, it failed, as it always does, yet nobody was held to account.

Similarly in Palestine, Haddad reveals that private sector-led “growth” was the World Bank’s priority from the 1990s. Its stated dream was against “turning inwards” and instead backing the need for the West Bank and Gaza to “open up opportunities elsewhere, especially in Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf countries while maintaining open trade relations with Israel.”

In 2016, the UN found that the Palestinian economy would be at least twice as large if the Israeli occupation was lifted. The restriction of goods, people and movement has devastated daily life. In Gaza, the situation is even worse. When I visited in late 2016, I was told by the UN and many civilians that the nearly 10 year-old siege, imposed by Israel, had never been tighter. Egypt has been equally responsible for the dire humanitarian situation.

Gaza is largely ignored by the Israeli media but a recent interview in Haaretz, with a Palestinian living in the West Bank who works on a mobile clinic in Gaza with Physicians for Human Rights, detailed the desperate environment. An Haaretz editorial in January called for an end to Israel’s punishment of the Gaza Strip.

The dominant narrative around Israel/Palestine today is the brutal and effective ways by which the settler movement has come to define both Israel’s present and future. From its perspective, building colonies on Palestinian land has been hugely successful and the numbers of settlers in the West Bank has surged under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Palestine Ltd doesn’t ignore the settlements but its focus is mostly elsewhere. Take Israel’s determination to secure water and energy resources and how this affected its behaviour during the early “peace process” of the 1990s. Haddad interviews Dr Nabil Sha’ath, a top figure in the PLO and the Fatah political party. In a revealing quote, Sha’ath recalls a meeting with former Israeli Minister of Energy Moshe Shahal:

“[Shahal] tried his best to create a relationship with me when I first came in. He came with a Rabin proposal: ‘Let’s share the energy trade, the energy industry and energy transportation.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘There is going to be peace’, he said. ‘You are not going to be happy if we simply use that peace to get back the pipelines through Haifa from Saudi Arabia and from Iraq [which were built by the British and stopped operating after the establishment of Israel in 1948]. So I’m suggesting that we go together to the Arabs to share fifty-fifty the export of gas through pipelines that come to Gaza and to Ashdod…To Rabin it looked like the Palestinian Authority was a very necessary component for seeking water and energy from the Arabs.”

More than two decades later, the picture couldn’t be more different. Israel routinely withholds water and electricity from the Palestinian territories, exploits a massive natural gas find off the Gaza Strip and is investigating gas pipelines to Turkey and Greece. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are reliant on the benevolence of their rulers, Israel along with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

The deliberate Israeli plan in the last decades to inflame tensions with the Palestinians, and convince both Israelis and the international community that there are no partners for peace on the other side – a view not shared by the Israeli intelligence services – has played out as expected. Hostilities are deepened because they serve political ends. Haddad writes that, “Israel intended to induce a powerful shock-like effect within Palestinian society and leadership alike. This was critical to creating sudden conditions of crisis whose reverberations would be experienced on all levels of Palestinian life, leveraged in both active and passive ways.”

Palestinians are still deemed unworthy of freedom, independence or full rights. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, the Rupert Murdoch-approved hater of Palestinians and Arabs and supporter of bombing the Muslim world, wrote in early January that Palestinians didn’t deserve a state of their own. The word “occupation” was unsurprisingly absent from his screed.

Palestinians have never forgotten how they’ve been betrayed by the forces that claimed to liberate them from Israeli control. After the 2006 Palestinian election, won by Hamas in a stunning rebuke to the Western-backed, Palestinian Authority, Western donors capitulated to Israeli and US pressure and boycotted the result, imposing a financial and political blockade on the government. Haddad argues that this sent a “clear message to the Palestinian electorate regarding how genuine Western donors were in their demands for Palestinian reform or a liberal peace agreement.”

The Trump administration has the capacity and interest to radically shift the staid alignment of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Mouthing platitudes about the two-state solution is likely to subside or disappear entirely. Israel will increase its settlement project with little or no pressure from Washington. The Palestinian Authority, despite having opponents in the US Congress, is a necessary fig-leaf for Israel’s colonisation project.

Palestine Ltd is both a necessary history lesson and guide for the future if past mistakes and delusions are to be avoided. The current trajectory in Palestine, however, points to political stalemate unless a younger, less corrupt and more capable Palestinian leadership takes power and stops relying on empty Western aid promises.

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Behind the Headlines interview on “fake news” and independent journalism

Late last year I was interviewed from Jerusalem by veteran Australian journalist and campaigner Julie Macken, for her radio program Behind the Headlines, about “fake news” and my experiences as a journalist over the last decade in Israel/Palestine, South Sudan, Afghanistan and beyond. My interview begins around 15:50 (with a few scratchy sound issues via Skype):

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The limits of open debate in today’s Israel

The following article appears in the Electronic Intifada by Ali Abunimah:

Israel is threatening to expel an Australian journalist in Jerusalem, accusing him of being a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

The threat against Antony Loewenstein comes after the freelance journalist asked a question about Israeli apartheid at a press conference given by former government minister Yair Lapid, and after a campaign against him by the anti-Palestinian group HonestReporting.

“We are leaning toward recommending that his work permit not be renewed due to suspected BDS activity,” Nitzan Chen, director of the Government Press Office, told The Jerusalem Post. “We are checking the incident because unfortunately, the journalist did not give enough information to our staff. We will learn to check better so there won’t be such incidents in the future.”

Speaking to The Electronic Intifada, Loewenstein, who has won recognition for his reporting from South Sudan and Afghanistan, dismissed any suggestion he had misrepresented himself.

“I am an accredited freelance journalist which is how I presented my work to the Israeli government in March, which they accepted,” Loewenstein said. “I’m not here associated with any organization. I’m here as a freelancer, officially, so there’s been no misrepresentation by me, ever.”

Loewenstein has written about the region for more than a decade, including the bestselling book My Israel Question.

The effective threat to expel Loewenstein comes a week after the Committee to Protect Journalists revealed that this year Israel remained among the world’s worst jailers of reporters – all of those in its cells are Palestinians.

And earlier this month, Israel detained and expelled Isabel Phiri, associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches, claiming she too supports BDS.

Last week, Israel’s Shin Bet secret police barred entry to two leaders of a British Muslim humanitarian aid group, citing “security reasons.” The two officials from Muslim Hands were invited to the country by the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz describes as “a nonprofit group that promotes coexistence, cooperation and equality between Jews and Muslims.”

In August, Israel’s public security and interior ministries set up a joint task force to deny entry to or expel foreign activists allegedly affiliated with organizations that support BDS.

This is part of a broader crackdown, whose primary targets are Palestinians.

On Friday, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that it has been receiving a “worryingly high number of complaints” about Israel violating basic rights of Palestinian human rights activists.

It said that human rights defenders living under Israeli occupation “face daily violations of some of the most fundamental protections afforded by international human rights and humanitarian laws.”

The UN said peaceful protest and opposition to the occupation is effectively outlawed.

Loewenstein became a target after he asked a challenging question at a press conference last week to Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party that was formerly part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.

“You talked before about the idea that since Oslo, Israel has done little or nothing wrong, but the truth is that 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the occupation,” Loewenstein began, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Pointing to the large number of Israeli settlers now in the occupied West Bank, Loewenstein continued: “Is there not a deluded idea here that many Israeli politicians, including yourself, continue to believe that one can talk to the world about democracy, freedom and human rights while denying that to millions of Palestinians, and will there not come a time soon, in a year, five years, 10 years, where you and other politicians will be treated like South African politicians during apartheid?”

In response, Lapid attacked The Guardian, claiming that it and other publications are encouraging Palestinians to be intransigent.

From there, HonestReporting, a pro-Israel group whose managing editor once worked in the Israeli army spokesperson’s unit, launched a campaign against Loewenstein.

It called him “an anti-Israel activist” and implied he had obtained his official Israeli press card and membership in the Foreign Press Association under false pretenses.

“Loewenstein is clearly incapable of reporting on Israel in a fair and objective manner,” HonestReporting asserted.

“Did Loewenstein gain his official press card by claiming to be a Guardian writer?” the group asked, effectively making an allegation without any basis.

HonestReporting took its campaign to The Guardian directly, complaining to the newspaper that “hiring Loewenstein was the equivalent of hiring a corporate lobbyist to be the newspaper’s business correspondent.”

This apparently elicited the desired response: The Guardian threw Loewenstein under the bus – presumably without speaking to him first.

According to The Jerusalem PostThe Guardian’s head of international news, Jamie Wilson, said that Loewenstein was contracted to write comment pieces for Guardian Australia and remains an occasional comment contributor but he “is not a news correspondent for The Guardian in Israel.”

And The Guardian’s correspondent in Jerusalem, Peter Beaumont, emailed HonestReporting that he had never heard of Loewenstein.

The Guardian’s distancing itself from Loewenstein is a welcome development,” HonestReporting’s managing editor Simon Plosker said, adding that the Foreign Press Association should revoke Loewenstein’s membership and the Israeli Government Press Office should cancel his accreditation.

Loewenstein told The Electronic Intifada that he identifies himself accurately as a freelancer and author of several books, who contributes to many publications, including The GuardianThe New York Times and Newsweek Middle East.

Loewenstein noted that in the tight-knit world of foreign correspondents in Israel, it would be impossible to get away with misrepresentation: “It’s a pretty small place.”

But the smear did its job and now Loewenstein is a target for government expulsion for asking a challenging question of an Israeli leader.

In February, the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned Israel’s intimidation of the international media, including threats to revoke the credentials of reporters who published headlines it didn’t like.

“It is virtually impossible to work as a reporter in Israel and the occupied territories without a press card,” the group’s executive director Robert Mahoney said. “The threat of withdrawing accreditation is a heavy handed approach at stifling unwelcome coverage.”

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Finalist in the 2016 Kurt Schork Memorial Fund Awards in International Journalism

I’m honoured to be a finalist in the 2016 Kurt Schork Memorial Fund Awards in International Journalism for my reporting in 2015/2016 from South Sudan and Afghanistan:

Four Nigerian Journalists made the short list of 16 in the 2016 Kurt Schork Memorial Fund Awards in International Journalism:

Freelance category– James Harkin (Ireland), Antony Loewenstein (Australia), Jeong May (Canada), Sara Williams (UK/Canada), Sophie McBain (UK), Eric Reidy (USA), Iona Craig (Ireland) and Philip Obaji (Nigeria).

Local Reporter category – ‘Fisayo Soyombo (Nigeria), Aylaa Abo Shahba (Egypt), Chitrangada Choudhury (India), Montanrayo Joel (Nigeria), Olatunji Ololade (Nigeria), Ray Mwareya (Zimbabwe), Umer Ali (Pakistan) and Brian Ligomeka (Malawi).

This year’s awards attracted 93 entrants – 37 Freelance and 56 Local Reporter – from 36 countries. Each entrant had to submit three articles published between June 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016.

Articles published by Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Nation, Matter, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Newsweek, GQ UK, Harpers Magazine, Guardian Long Read, New York Times, The Daily Beast, Newsweek Europe, Vice News and New Statesman are represented in the Freelance Journalist category shortlist.

The Local Reporter category finalists were published by TheCable, El Tahrir, Masrawy, Hindustan Times, Outlook, The Wire, The Nation, Equal Times Magazine, Earth Island Magazine, Global South Development Magazine, Dawn, Pakistan Today, News 24, The Sunday Times and Sunday Punch.

The winner in each category will be announced in September. The 2016 Presentation Ceremony, hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the Thomson Reuters Auditorium, Canary Wharf, London, is on Thursday evening, October 27.

The judges for these, the 15th annual awards, are freelance journalist and author Anna Husarska, Co-Founder of Eyewitness Media Hub, Sam Dubberley, Reuters Middle East Editor, Samia Nakhoul and Richard Sambrook, Professor of Journalism, Cardiff University.

Established in 2002 to honour American freelance journalist Kurt Schork, who was killed in 2000 while on assignment for Reuters in Sierra Leone, the two annual awards are unique to print journalists working anywhere in the world.

The awards recognise the work of reporters who seek to illuminate the human condition through courageous reporting of conflict, corruption, human rights transgressions and other fundamental issues of the day.

The awards are in two categories: a Local Reporter award that recognises the often over-looked work of journalists in developing nations or countries in transition who write about events in their homeland. The second is for Freelance journalists who travel to the world’s conflict zones, usually at great personal risk, to witness and report the impact and consequences of events.

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Chicago radio, This Is Hell!, on Disaster Capitalism

I’ve been interviewed by Chicago radio program, This Is Hell! (“Manufacturing Dissent since 1996”) about my book Disaster Capitalism:

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A few thoughts about journalism, media and why it’s (often) broken

The following conversation is published on US website Mondoweiss:

Antony Loewenstein came through New York recently to promote his new book Disaster Capitalism. He later related to me that at two NY events, he had gone off on journalists as a profession. I wanted to draw him out, and so we exchanged emails.

You said you’d developed real contempt for the profession of journalism. Why?

Loewenstein: Journalism has the potential to be transformative, to inform and provoke, or at the very least inform. Too often I see reporters desperate to be close to power, whether ministers, minders.  Insiders. Being embedded, pre or post 9/11, isn’t just about partnering with US or Western troops in a war zone. Too often it’s a state of mind that requires journalists to not question an economic system (“capitalism is damaged but can be repaired”), or Israeli violence against Palestinians or the apparent necessity of “doing something” in the face of state collapse (as if Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya aren’t cautionary tales). Vast parts of the world are routinely ignored by the Western media because they aren’t seen as having value or important enough. This could be “unpeople” such as most of the Muslim world, people of colour or poor whites.

I’ve been living in South Sudan this year and seen some fine and brave journalists, locals and Westerners, covering an incredibly brutal war. What’s been revealing and depressing is some editors in comfortable Western capitals saying that they don’t want stories that are “too depressing”. As if a reporter can prettify an ethic conflict to make Western audiences less uncomfortable when reading during breakfast on their iPhones.

I regularly ask myself what journalism is achieving apart from awareness that often brings little or no changes on the ground. It’s important and necessary to bear witness, and I’ll continue to do so, including in my new book, but what if seeing and witnessing simply isn’t enough?

I got the sense that you went on a more visceral rant against the profession at your events. I’m not going to stand up for the profession, any more than I want to stand up for the human race, but: Are there other professions that you have more admiration for than those parasitic journos?

I don’t have contempt for journalism as a profession, far from it, I have major issues with the ways it’s often undertaken. Media complicity in state violence – from the US bombing of Iraq and Libya, Israeli crimes in Palestine and US involvement in the Indonesian genocide in the 1960s – is the issue here. Reporters often claim they have to play a delicate dance or game with sources, especially in officialdom, to get access. But that access often means sanctioned leaks to a favored journalist. That’s not journalism, it’s stenography. I understand it’s often important to quote off the record information, I do it myself though sparingly, in a sensitive story. But the mentality that many in the media have – don’t stand out, join the crowd, fit in, be liked – means that independent journalism has never been more important.

My professional journalistic career began just after 9/11 so I’m a product of the last decade plus years. There are simply too many stark examples of wilful journalistic dishonesty (and lack of acknowledging mistakes) to believe countless reporters from many major media outlets don’t prefer being wrong to challenging state spin. It’s largely cost-free, career wise. Standing up to a lying Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Dennis Ross or Barack Obama takes guts.

I admire many professions, from brain surgeons to environmental scientists.

As human beings, we are full of faults, contradictions and hypocrisy. Journalists are no exception. But I’ve long believed that reporters have an extra responsibility when covering matters of war, refugees, life and death. We are conveyors of information that can either inform a population, or lie to it. I wish more journalists left their offices and psychologically embedded positions and valued more pissing off those whose outcome (if not primary aim) is to harm civilians. Defending or justifying state violence is the most degrading of arts.

Your critique is a variation of Killing the messenger. The press has always and will always reflect the powers that be, by and large; because they are paid by those powers. It is the role of independent media to challenge the powers that be, but how do they achieve that independence? There are some true independent spirits, but the basis of independence is financial, too. And progressives are a distinct minority in this system; we represent dissent but we also require forms of social support. And we shouldn’t shut off communications with the MSM types. I realize I’m becoming a crabbed conservative in life, somewhat; but I do want a way forward, and for me that involves putting breadcrumbs on the trail for the mainstream journalists.

I’ve never argued that cutting all ties, irreconcilable differences with the MSM, is desirable. I regularly write for the MSM, and will continue doing so. Its audience remains strong and influential. Leading by example by the MSM is rare, very few mainstream reporters will take the way on important social issues. From the gay rights movement to Palestine, they’re often following years after activists have led a path and the general public is usually far savvier and smarter than the MSM (and many of us) presume. That’s fine and should continue. But you seem to be arguing that independent media is hard, and the path is tough and let’s not entirely shut out the possibility that the MSM may one day, say, support BDS because Israel is a pariah and will only change its behaviour though strong outside pressure. When ethics and business collide, the former rarely wins. If history is any guide, the MSM are unlikely to be leading on anything that will upset their power and advertising base.

For me, the constant failings of the MSM are that they don’t reflect the will of the people, views and ideas that are shared by many in the population. War isn’t popular, neither is privatization of public services. Full healthcare is backed by many Americans and yet it’s framed in the MSM as a bitter partisan ‘debate’. It is in Washington but many outside America laugh and cringe at the inability and unwillingness of the DC elite to provide publicly provided medical care for all. I want the MSM to be honest about its agenda and biases. We all have them and yet too often the myth of ‘objectivity’ is wheeled out as a weapon against indy media, as though the MSM is balanced and straight and indy reporters are inherently biased (check out the wonderful UK website Medialens and its recent analysis of the BBC and Afghanistan).

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How foreign mining companies breach human rights in Africa

My investigation in the Guardian:

Australian miners are making a killing overseas. With little regulation or oversight, billions of dollars are being made in some of the most remote places on Earth.

The necessity of partnering with autocratic regimes has proved no impediment to investment. Human rights have been breached. Victims are largely invisible.

None of this should be surprising. If Australian companies operating internationally are mentioned in the media, it appears in the business pages and discusses the strengths of a CEO or share price. Rio Tinto, for example, receives largely uncritical coverage despite in the 1980s the corporation facing serious allegations of human rights abuses around the world, including in Papua New Guinea.

Two American non-profit media organisations, the Centre for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, recently bucked the trend and released a stunning report, Fatal Extraction, on Australian mining companies working in Africa (in which no allegations were made against Rio Tinto). How revealing that this research was led from America and not Australia itself.

The findings of the report, produced in collaboration with African journalists on the ground, were shocking.

From the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Malawi, grim details of death, maiming and police and army brutality were revealed.

A lead investigator on the report, Will Fitzgibbon, told the Guardian that while the response to the report was “positive”, there was also a sense that “Australia’s debate on corporate impacts and alleged violations overseas is much more limited than elsewhere. In Canada, for example, there have been lengthy parliamentary debates and deep media analyses of comparable allegations in a way that is yet to happen in Australia.”

I asked Fitzgibbon how these violations should be addressed in Australia. He said:

“The jury is still out on whether new laws are the most pressing response to this problem. Many argue that there’s a lot that can also be done in terms of company reporting to investors and of promoting voluntary and transparent application of international principles of business and human rights.”

Australia’s lack of interest in alleged corporate crimes in far-away places is related to a worrying incuriousness among reporters and politicians (the Greens are a key exception).

“There is a huge imbalance between Australia’s diplomatic and business interests in Africa. We still have one of the lowest numbers of embassies and high commissions in Africa among our peers yet we have mining companies, sometimes literally flying the Australian flag, in places like Burkina Faso, Niger, Madagascar and Zambia,” Fitzgibbon said.

Eritrea is one country that should be under the spotlight.

“The economy of Eritrea has experienced considerable growth in recent years,” explains the website for Australian mining company Danakali. The Perth-based firm, which until recently was known as South Boulder Mines, has partnered with the Eritrean National Mining Company to develop a massive potassium-bearing salts deposit around 350km from the country’s capital, Asmara.

Danakali’s managing director Paul Donaldson said, “The Danakil region of East Africa is recognised as an emerging potash [potassium salts] province, and to date over 10bn tonnes of potassium bearing salts have been identified.”

Online intelligence magazine Geeska Afrika explained: “Eritrea has many benefits it can offer potential investors. It has a safe and stable government with an educated and disciplined work force.”

Absent from all the propaganda was any mention of Eritrea as one of the most repressive nations in the world. A UN report in June detailed horrific allegations of abuse committed by the regime. Human Rights Watch argued that “this authoritative report rightly condemns the horrific patterns of torture, arbitrary detention, and indefinite conscription that are prompting so many Eritreans to flee their country”. A sizeable majority of refugees leaving Eritrea and attempting to reach Europe are fleeing from this regime. I’ve met many Eritreans in South Sudan who prefer to live in a war zone than under the Eritrean dictatorship.

Danakali has been engaged in Eritrea since at least 2013. An independent Eritrean media outlet had accused the company of benefitting from forced labour. I can find no public response from the company about the country’s human rights record and the unavoidable ethical issues that arise from partnering with an autocracy. They have not responded to requests for comment.

Apart from a major Eritrean rebel group this year warning the firm to stay away due to environmental concerns and allegations that the indigenous Afar community was being pushed off its lands to make way for the development, the Australian company has not faced any serious questions over its work in Eritrea.

Australia has an inglorious history of turning a blind eye to profitable bad behaviour. Although the Australian Wheat Board paid kickbacks to the Saddam Hussein regime in the 1990s and early 2000s for favourable contracts, lengthy legal wrangling resulted in few significant scalps.

With only one journalist working for an Australian media organisation permanently based in Africa, ABC’s Martin Cuddihy in Kenya, the continent is easily ignored or dismissed. South America is even more woefully unrepresented. Finding stories of Australian corporate malfeasance on either continent requires expensive and time-consuming work.

Of course this is not just a problem facing Australia. The Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York has been pushing the United Nations for years to end the impunity enjoyed by American and European firms operating in developing states. The US Supreme Court has increasingly accepted arguments from multinationals that they have no responsibility for human rights abuses in the countries in which they operate.

I’ve spoken to senior human rights lawyers in Australia who say it’s also incredibly tough to pursue a successful case against a mining giant through the Australian courts. The people of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea have been waiting for decades for any compensation from the Rio Tinto-owned mine that caused a brutal, decades-long civil war.

Australia sells itself as a nation that can teach the world about responsible mining – Afghanistan is one willing student – but the record suggests our corporations have a callous disregard for the rights of civilians.

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Free speech in a time of terrorism

Yesterday’s massacre in Paris at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is shocking and unforgettable. The publication may have been frequently racist against Muslims and a whole host of “enemies” but the right to offend is a key attribute in a democracy. This doesn’t mean we have to applaud editors and writers who trade in racial stereotyping.

As a journalist, such an attack affects me deeply. The only response is standing up for what we believe and stating it strongly and frequently. We will not be silenced. We will write. We will speak out. We will continue to tell the truth. We will reject the onslaught and say that talking honestly about Islam, Palestine, Israel, terrorism and the “war on terror” is vital.

My friend George Burchett, currently based in Vietnam and the son of famed journalist Wilfred Burchett, penned the following today and it seems apt for the moment:

Charlie was a good friend from my high school years in Paris, in the early 1970s.

Charlie Hebdo was a child of May 68, France’s youthful rebellion.

It was a good time to be in Paris.

You could see the latest Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Visconti, Tarkovsky, Godard etc.

Sartre was still around.

You could attend public Foucault lectures at the College de France, watch the inscrutable Lacan or the great mythomane André Malraux hold forth on TV.

Where are they all now?

The gunmen who spread Charlie Hebdo with bullets and assassinated four of France’s best and wittiest cartoonists among others have also fired bullets in our collective psyche.

Nothing is fun any more.

This is real.

A binary hyperreality as defined by G W Bush & Co: with us or against us.

What happened yesterday morning in Paris was unthinkable some 40 odd years ago.

Yes, there were Red Brigades, Baader Meinhof, the PLO, the War in Vietnam, the coup in Chile and so on, but there was also hope, solidarity, love, tenderness, humour, poetry.

Going to the Quartier Latin to see Felini’s Satyricon or Easy Rider, one passed the black vans of the CRS, the riot police, parked on the Boulevard Saint Michel and Saint Germain.

You’d spot them inside, playing cards, ready for action at any hint of “trouble”.

The same game of youth versus authority was played in the very same places in medieval Paris, between the king’s constabulary and mischievous students.

It was all part of the great French tradition of youthful rebellion against authority, King & Church or, after the Revolution, the much despised bourgeoisie.

It inspired a rich poetic tradition: Villon, Ronsard, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Appolinaire, Prévert, to name but a few from a very long and bright list.

Charlie Hebdo was part of that wonderful centuries-old tradition of biting satire and irreverence.

Nothing was sacred.

Every now and then Charlie was banned for a particularly outrageous issue.

It used to run a serial called Les Aventures de Mme Pompidou (The Adventures of Madame Pompidou).

Occasionally Mme Pompidou and her husband, Monsieur le Président Georges Pompidou were not amused and all copies of Charlie Hebdo were seized.

But that was an innocent game compared to yesterday’s massacre.

Something has changed in the world.

Too much blood has been spilled since 9/11 and now the entire planet is soaked in it.

The age of Enlightenment and rational thought is making way to medieval faith-based intolerance.

G W Bush declared a Crusade, and enough lunatics have answered his challenge.

We must answer them by saying: JE SUIS CHARLIE.

Charlie lives as long as there is humour, laughter, tenderness, satire, love, poetry, art.

If we give up on that, the forces of darkness win.

And the light goes off.

We can’t let this happen.

WE ARE CHARLIE.

George Burchett

Ha Noi, 8.1.15

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