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.

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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US media largely ignores world; citizens remain insular

The role of corporate media is to serve powerful business interest and advertisers; serving the public good ain’t really a serious consideration.

New data from the US is both disturbing and unsurprising and shows even more reason why alternative and indy media must grow in power (via IPS):

If people outside the United States are looking for answers why Americans often seem so clueless about the world outside their borders, they could start with what the three major U.S. television networks offered their viewers in the way of news during 2013.

Syria and celebrities dominated foreign coverage by ABC, NBC, and CBS – whose combined evening news broadcasts are the single most important media source of information about national and international events for most Americans. Vast portions of the globe went almost entirely ignored, according to the latest annual review by the authoritative Tyndall Report.

Latin America, most of Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia apart from Afghanistan, and virtually all of East Asia – despite growing tensions between China and Washington’s closest regional ally, Japan – were virtually absent from weeknight news programmes of ABC, NBC, and CBS last year, according to the report, which has tracked the three networks’ evening news coverage continuously since 1988.

Out of nearly 15,000 minutes of Monday-through-Friday evening news coverage by the three networks, the Syrian civil war and the debate over possible U.S. intervention claimed 519 minutes, or about 3.5 percent of total air time, according to the report.

That made the Syrian conflict and the U.S. policy response the year’s single-most-covered event. It was followed by coverage of the terrorist bombing by two Chechnya-born brothers that killed three people at the finish line of last April’s Boston Marathon (432 minutes); the debate over the federal budget (405 minutes); and the flawed rollout of the healthcare reform law, or Obamacare (338 minutes).

The next biggest international story was the death in December of former South African President Nelson Mandela (186 minutes); the July ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and its aftermath; the coverage of Pope Francis I (157 minutes, not including an additional 121 minutes devoted to Pope Benedict’s retirement and the Cardinals’ conclave that resulted in Francis’ succession); and the birth of Prince George, the latest addition to the British royal family (131 minutes).

The continued fighting in Afghanistan came in just behind the new prince at 121 minutes for the entire year.

The strong showings by the papal succession, Mandela’s death, and Prince George’s birth all demonstrated the rise of “celebrity journalism” in news coverage, Andrew Tyndall, the report’s publisher, told IPS. He added that “a minor celebrity like Oscar Pistorius (the South African so-called “Bladerunner” track star accused of murdering his girlfriend) attracted more coverage [by the TV networks – 51 minutes] than all the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in the [11] months before Mandela’s death.”

An average of about 21 million U.S. residents watch the network news on any given evening. While the cable news channels – CNN, FoxNews, and MSNBC – often get more public attention, their audience is actually many times smaller, according to media-watchers.

“In 2012, more than four times as many people watched the three network newscasts than watched the highest-rated show on the three cable channels during prime time,” Emily Guskin, a research analyst for the Pew Research Centre’s Journalism Project, told IPS.

As in other recent years, news about the weather – especially its extremes and the damage they wrought – received a lot of attention on the network news, although, also consistent with past performance, the possible relationship between extreme weather and climate change was rarely, if ever, drawn by reporters or anchors.

Last year’s tornado season, severe winter weather, drought and wild forest fires in the western states constituted three of the top six stories of the year, according to the report. Along with the aftermath of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, those four topics reaped nearly 900 minutes of coverage on the three networks, or about six percent of the entire year’s coverage.

“A major flaw in the television news journalism is its inability to translate anecdotes of extreme weather into the overarching concept of climate change,” noted Tyndall. “As long as these events are presented as meteorological and not climatic, then they will be covered as local and domestic, not global.

“An exception in 2013 was Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines,” he noted. That event captured 83 minutes of coverage among the three networks, making it the single biggest story by far out of Asia for the year.

By comparison, the growing tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea – which many foreign-policy analysts here rate as one of the most alarming events of the past year if, for no other reason, than the U.S. is committed by treaty to militarily defend Japan’s territory – received a mere eight minutes of coverage.

Two other major U.S. foreign policy challenges received more coverage. North Korea and the volatile tenure of its young leader, Kim Jong-un, received a total of 87 minutes, including 10 minutes to visiting basketball veteran Dennis Rodman, of coverage during 2013.

Events in Iran, including the election of President Hassan Rouhani and negotiations over its nuclear programme, received a total of 104 minutes of coverage between the three networks over the course of the year, nearly as much attention as was given the British royals.

Libya received 64 minutes of coverage, but virtually all of it was devoted to the domestic controversy over responsibility for the September 2012 killings of the U.S. ambassador and three other officials there. The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and the civil war and humanitarian disaster in the Central African Republic received no coverage at all.

As for the Israel-Palestinian conflict which Secretary of State John Kerry has made a top priority along with a nuclear deal with Iran, it received only 16 minutes of coverage in 2013. “Palestine has virtually disappeared from the news agenda,” noted Tyndall.

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Why the Wikileaks Party visit to Syria was so delusional

My weekly Guardian column is published below:

The sight of Australian citizens associated with the WikiLeaks party sitting and chatting with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad during their recent “solidarity mission”, along with their comments about the regime, is a damning indictment on a party that ran a dismal election campaign in 2013 and has never bothered to explain its subsequent collapse.

For WikiLeaks supporters such as myself (I have been backing the group since 2006), this latest PR exercise is nothing more than an act of stunning political bastardry. It does nothing to push for true peace in Syria, and essentially amounts to a propaganda coup for a brutal dictatorship. It’s also a slap in the face to the WikiLeaks backers who are still expecting answers about why the party imploded without public review or reflection.

The problem isn’t meeting Assad himself. He’s the (unelected) leader of Syria and an essential part of any resolution of the conflict, still supported by many Syrians who fear Islamic fundamentalism. Saudi Arabian-backed extremism across the Middle East, implicitly supported by the Western powers now focused on Assad’s butchery, is spreading sectarian carnage by pitting Sunni against Shia, leading to the death of thousands. Syrian civilians are suffering the full brunt of this madness. Saudi funding for Syrian “rebels” – in essence backing Al-Qaida terrorism – is repeating the playbook used against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, enriching militants in a battle that will inevitably come back to bite the Saudis and their Western allies.

A third way is, for the time being, out of sight. And in this context, it’s hard to see how the WikiLeaks party can judiciously show solidarity to Syria’s besieged people.

When the WikiLeaks party delegation returned to Australia, various members expressed their views about the trip. Activist Jamal Daoud, who wrote in 2012 that he supported Assad, blogged that he had heard while in Syria that “the alternative to the regime is total chaos.” Although acknowledging that meetings were held with both regime and rebel representatives, Daoud clearly believes that the regime remaining in place is the ideal outcome.

John Shipton, chief executive of the party and the father of Julian Assange, spoke to ABC Radio in Melbourne to defend the mission. He mouthed the talking points of the regime itself – that they’re fighting terrorism in cities and towns across the country – and claimed that the WikiLeaks party is planning to set up an office in Damascus in 2014. “We’ll continue to expose the truth to the Australian people and to our international audience”, he said. Shipton added that as the delegation walked around Damascus, they found “a lot of support for the government” – which is undoubtedly true, but likely to be similar to journalists being taken around by minders from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and finding nearly universal backing for the dictator.

Sydney University academic Tim Anderson – who wrote in 2007 that Cuba is a democracy and the US is not, ignoring the lack of an open press and the Castro brothers’ authoritarian ruling in the process – also defended his participation in the mission after The Australian newspaper attacked him. He went on to state: “forget the absurd myth of a single man [Assad] ‘killing his own people’. That line is designed to pull the wool over our eyes. This is a ‘regime change’ exercise that went wrong, because Syria resisted.”

It is deeply problematic that Anderson and other side players downplay or brush aside the gross abuses committed by the regime, which have occurred both during the war and during Bashar and his father Hafez’s decades-long rule.

Considering how the mainstream media will spin such a trip must be a major consideration when talking about “truth” in a modern, complex war. How support for a peaceful resolution practically occurs when facts on the ground are notoriously difficult to assess should be the heart of the matter. Instead, it appears that the WikiLeaks party was caught up in an inevitable maelstrom of their own naive making. If you visit Syria and are pictured meeting Assad, you should make damn sure you’re on the front foot to rebut the likely criticisms and provide a cogent and detailed rebuttal to what you saw, and why a few WikiLeaks party members from Australia can make any difference to the war. You should also know that any “solidarity mission” to Syria will be used by either side as a way to bolster their claims and defend their own crimes, of which there have been plenty by all sides.

Moral and political clarity is vital – which is why, for example, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was rightly condemned in my view after he voiced support for Iran and Syria in the process of opposing “US imperialism“, and refused to oppose human rights abuses in both nations. Equally, being a supporter of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination shouldn’t automatically lead to backing Fatah or Hamas, two groups with a documented record of abusing their own citizens.

The situation in Syria is dire, with dirty hands on all sides. As it stands, the solution is not with the Baath party, nor the Al-Qaida-aligned rebels – but this is a decision for the Syrian people to decide. Encouraging a peaceful settlement and negotiations must be the goal. The WikiLeaks organisation remains an essential tool in holding governments to account, but its Australian-based party’s visit to Syria exposes the dangers of believing that the “enemy’s enemy is my friend”. It is not.

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Glenn Greenwald explains how and why journalists need strong opinions

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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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Looking for the first mainstream media’s marijuana editor

Al-Jazeera America has the story:

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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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How to be a clueless fashion magazine in one easy step

How to be a vacuous and morally void magazine is far too simple.

Here’s Human Rights Watch’s Iain Levine with the story:

What were they thinking? 

Someone, somewhere in the depths of luxury magazine Elle thought it was a good idea to feature “North Korea chic” in September’s edition of the magazine (the page was subsequently replaced). 

“Some iteration of the military trend stomps the runways every few seasons,” the article purred. “This time, it’s edgier, even dangerous, with sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring.” Dangerous indeed for those actually in North Korea and subject to being executed for simply watching a foreign video. Or for those beaten to death. 

It didn’t take long for the world to render its judgement – outrage on social media condemned Elle for its breathtaking ignorance and insensitivity.

The magazine’s mea culpa quickly followed: We regret the reference to North Korea in our post on the season’s military trend, and have removed the image. We apologize to those we offended. It wrote on its website.

It’s worth pausing to consider where the outrage over “North Korea Chic” stems from.

Human rights activists become used to hearing distressing stories of cruelty and brutality against the powerless and the innocent. It is the price we pay for helping to bear witness and demand justice.

But even for the more hardened amongst us, North Korea, provides some of the worst and most gut-wrenching stories imaginable: torture, starvation of children, beatings, random killings, forced labor in brutal camps.

Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge, who heads a UN panel into the crimes of North Korea, admitted that he had been reduced to tears by some of the testimonies he had heard.

Ironically, Elle is a magazine that seeks to contribute to the debate about “rebranding feminism”.  In a recent interview, Elle’s UK editor declared: “We have always been forthright, smart, brave, and intelligent.”  

In October, my colleague, John Sifton, attended one of the sessions of the UN inquiry on North Korea. Hetweeted: “North Korea escapee says mother gave her the starving baby while she went out to find food somewhere. The baby died in her arms.” And then “witness is now crying”.

Yes, Elle has removed the North Korea page but one can’t help wonder why Elle thought it “forthright, smart, brave, intelligent” to trivialize the totalitarian regime of North Korea in the first place. Rather than just apologize for offending, why not use its powerful media platform to call out North Korea for its notable cruelty, not its style.

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David Hicks deserves justice, an apology and compensation

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

It’s hard to think of an Australian individual since 9/11 who has experienced more humiliation and abandonment by the federal government than David Hicks. Julian Assange, who declared he felt abandoned by the Australian government, perhaps comes close. As they both found out, an Australian passport is no guarantee of protection against a superpower determined to aggressively impose its will.

Hicks is currently launching legal proceedings in the US to overturn his 2007 conviction for providing material support for terrorism – a crime he and his legal team say does not exist. A 2012 ruling in a US appeals court found that a similar conviction against Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Hamdan, was invalid because US law did not recognise material support for terrorism as a war crime at the time Hamdan engaged in the activity for which he was charged. Both Hicks and Hamdan were prosecuted under a 2006 law, and the US appeals court ruled that its retroactive application was illegal. Hicks is now trying to follow Hamdan in having his conviction quashed.

Here’s what we know about Hicks. He was born in Adelaide in 1975 and worked various jobs across Australia. He converted to Islam in the 1990s, stating he wanted to be around people who “shared his desire for belonging”. Drawn to what he saw as the oppression of Muslims in foreign lands, he left for Albania to join the Kosovo Liberation Army. By late 1999, he visited Pakistan to study Islam. In early 2000, Hicks joined the radical militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), and received training to fight Indian forces in Kashmir. He wrote in a letter that “there are not many countries in the world where a tourist, according to his visa, can go to stay with the army and shoot across the border at its enemy, legally”. He was in Afghanistan in September 2001 and, though he had no knowledge or involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks, he was captured and sold to the US for $1,000 and subsequently flown to Guantánamo, where he remained without valid charge.

Hicks maintains he was interrogated, tortured and held in isolation for nearly six years in Guantánamo – including 244 days in solitary confinement in a closet-sized cell without sunlight. He says he was also experimented on by US military doctors during his incarceration (a new study by The Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism found that doctors tortured suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay). Amnesty International maintains that Hicks was illegally detained without fair trial for years, and that when he did have one, the military commission he appeared before never met international standards for fair trials.

This didn’t stop Australian commentators from baying for blood, however. In 2011, News Limited’s Miranda Devine dismissed any critics of Guantánamo’s detention practices as whingers. Those thinking that “suspected terrorists” being “smacked around a bit” constituted overly harsh treatment were naive, she wrote. In other words, Hicks deserved what he got. When Hicks was still in Guantánamo Bay in 2007, Devine also referred to him as “a well-trained terrorist, an al-Qaida ‘golden boy’… and the enemy traitor when Australian troops were on the ground [in Afghanistan].” For years Hicks was primarily referred to in the corporate press as a “terrorism supporter” by Murdoch columnists such as Tim Blair – fair trial be damned.

Repeat government smears against individuals deemed suspect is nothing new. During the Cold War, many reporters were happy to be spies and display their deluded patriotic duty. Australian citizen and journalist Wilfred Burchett, who dared investigate the “other side”, was denied his passport for years because he refused to play the insider game of praising the capitalist west. In the “war on terror”, we see a new generation of journalists who blindly re-hash propaganda dressed up as fact about war, illegal detention and intelligence.

There is documentary evidence suggesting that in 2007, former prime minister John Howard asked the US to manage the Hicks issue. Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of military commissions, told US journalist Jason Leopold in 2011 that he had concerns about the Bush administration charging Hicks. There was “no doubt in my mind”, Davis added, that “this was an accommodation to help Howard by making the David Hicks case go away [in an election year].” The alleged political fix, which was always denied by Howard, bothered the vast bulk of the Australian population.

It’s perfectly legitimate, indeed crucial, to ask Hicks tough questions about his background, his belief in the Taliban and his nauseating old letters denigrating Jews and praising bin Laden. But none of this justifies long-term jailing, torture and psychological abuse. Colonel Morris Davis told the Australian in early November this year that the treatment meted out to Hicks at Guantánamo was “at least as good, if not better” than towards other detainees. It was an absurd statement – suggesting that Hicks may have been tortured, but it could have been worse.

Hicks tells me that his lack of both education and friends caused him to “make some unfortunate decisions” before 9/11. He says he now far better understands the world and reads widely. “I always wanted to help people”, he says, “but today it’s not through resistance, though the Australian government uses violence and sends troops to fight in various wars.” He condemns the vast bulk of the media for following the lies told about him for all these years. “Nobody is calling for accountability or a royal commission [about my case]. I would support this or a full judicial review.”

Although he has no contact with the other former Australian Guantánamo captive Mamdouh Habib, he rightly believes that he deserves monetary compensation, like Habib received, for his years of suffering. He’s not currently pursuing a compensation claim, but it’s something he hopes will happen one day soon.

Today, Hicks works as a panel-beater in Sydney and fears leaving the country. “I have a passport”, he says, “but with the targeting of individuals who supported Edward Snowden, including Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda in London, I’m scared of traveling. If the US can go after them, and they’re big names, they could get me in spite.”

Justice for Hicks – through a formal apology and legal readdress – is vital to restore a modicum of Australian credibility. Heads should roll. Careers should end. Dignity can only be restored if apologies and compensation are offered.

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Why it should not be unlawful to offend a person because of their race

Today the Guardian hosts a discussion about the proposed changes to Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. Writer and academic Alana Lentin argues the laws should remain while I state they need reform:

Alana Lentin

The right to offend is often held up by liberals everywhere as more important than the right to be offended. But posing the problem of protection from racial discrimination in this way suggests that “taking offence” is a choice of the same order as being deliberately offensive.

When Aboriginal people, asylum seekers and other racialised groups are told that those who vilify them in the press – often touting stereotypes and outright lies – are merely voicing their opinions in a free society, their experience tells them that a truly free society would not look like today’s Australia. Democracy exists in name, but systemic inequality makes a mockery of it.

When Andrew Bolt and his political supporters speak of rights, they know as well as any critical legal theorist that rights are far from universal, despite the rhetoric. The message sent to those victimised is “why can’t you just be free like me? Why can’t you get beyond the identity, the difference, that calls for it to be pointed out and ridiculed?” For example, those in favour of publishing the infamous 2004 “Muhammad cartoons” claimed that for Muslims to take offence was ridiculous, as to follow Islam is a choice that could just as easily be renounced. Tell that to any man or woman next time they are suspected of being a Muslim terrorist just because they’re not white.

By repealing the so-called “Bolt laws”, Brandis is not only telling racialised minorities in Australia that the right to vilify them is more important than their right to be protected from racist insults, he is going a step further. At the very least, this ends the duplicitousness of the “antiracist racist state.” However, political point scoring is not a good reason for lauding the repeal.

Some on the (white) left who support Brandis argue that curbing media freedom opens the door to Zionist groups using racial discrimination law to sanction those calling for a boycott of Israel. As a Jew, an Israeli citizen and a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporter, I reject this. We must be able to protect those who face the worst racism in our society from the spread of hatred, while at the same time exposing the nonsensical equation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

In matters of race, freedom of speech only protects the right of some to offend; and the right of those in power to be offended has, and always will continue to be protected anyway.

Antony Loewenstein

The proposed changes by Australian Attorney General George Brandis to the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) – removing a section that makes it illegal to insult and offend people because of their race – have nothing to do with freedom of speech. Ignore the true believers who say they are.

It displays a selective concern about dissenting views. Sydney University’s Jake Lynch is being taken to the federal court after allegedly breaching the RDA over his support for BDS against Israel, and yet Brandis has said nothing. I would hazard that these ideologues support “free speech” that empowers their worldview, not oppressed minorities. It’s an unsurprising first legislative move by a new government which will do nothing to widen the range of views in the public square.

In spite of this, I believe Brandis’ proposed changes should be welcomed – albeit with clear caveats. I agree with Sarah Joseph, director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, who points out that “there is no human right not to be offended or insulted“. The Centre welcomes the amendments, pointing out they’re consistent with international law, but calls to retain a restriction of intimidation and humiliation over race. The Human Rights Law Centre has also called for reform and not repeal of the RDA.

Section 18c of the RDA, which is set to be amended, was used in the successful prosecution of Herald Sun commentator Andrew Bolt in 2011after he attacked the credibility of Aboriginal Australians. His popular and far from silenced newspaper responded with the front page headline This is a Sad Day for Freedom of Speech. Bolt and his colleagues have suffered no loss or lack of voice ever since.

But the principle is nonetheless important – and section 18c isn’t keeping the racist hordes at the door. Fighting intolerance and discrimination isn’t the job of an ever more powerful state. It must be fought in the public domain while never forgetting the profound power disparity between different individuals or groups. Bolt has the right to express his odious views, but I have an equal responsibility to challenge them vigorously.

In the meantime, if Tony Abbott’s government was serious about strengthen Australia’s democracy, it would improve FOI lawsrelease basic information about asylum seekers, and reform onerous defamation laws that protect the rich and powerful.

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