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.

On anti-Semitism, BDS, Palestine and justice

My essay in New Matilda is here:

As the BDS campaign starts to gain traction, accusations of anti-semitism should be treated gravely – whether from pro-Palestine advocates or Israel’s defenders, writes Antony Loewenstein

The charges of racism were serious. University orientation weeks, reported Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Australian, in early March, “have been marred by a series of alleged anti-semitic incidents”.

Socialist Alternative stood accused, according to the Australian Union of Jewish Students, of expressing hateful comments towards Jewish students, praising Hamas and calling for “death to the Zionist entity” at the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales.

The reliability of the allegations of anti-semitism has not yet been assessed but, if they are found to be true, those responsible must be opposed. A spokesperson from Socialist Alternative tells me that his organisation categorically denies all of the allegations.

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne, a man who never misses an opportunity to fight a culture war he can’t win, accused backers of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel of making anti-semitism “a fashionability among highly ignorant sections of the far Left”. He wanted universities to “step in and take a very firm line” against racism on campus. “Free speech does not extend to ugly threats and physical harassment,” he argued.

It’s time to call this co-ordinated campaign of the local Zionist lobby and the Murdoch press for what it is; a cheapening of real anti-semitism and a clear attempt to brand all critics of Israel as Jew haters. It’s a tactic imported from America and Europe, articulated from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down, that aims to neuter opponents of the Jewish state’s brutal, military occupation as deluded and anti-semitic.

The rhetoric is increasing as BDS scores impressive wins globally — countless European firms are changing their business practices towards Israel in rejecting the occupation — and has entered the mainstream as a legitimate tool to oppose Israeli policies.

Israel supporters have long believed that better PR will solve its problems, as if, for example, there’s any way to positively spin dozens of Israeli teens announcing their refusal to serve in the IDF due to its deleterious effect on Israeli society and Palestinian lives.

It’s a small but deeply courageous step in a society that still idolises a human rights abusing army (Amnesty’s new report details countless examples of the IDF killing Palestinian civilians in cold blood).

None of these profound shifts should escape the debate in Australian, where the Federal Government refuses to condemn illegal Israeli colonies in the West Bank.

The establishment Zionist lobby has tried for decades, with a degree of success, to insulate the Jewish community from the realities of occupying Palestine.

The advent of the internet and social media, along with a more critical young population who won’t be easily bullied into support for Israel because of the Holocaust, are changing the landscape. Hence the need to use old, tired tactics. Parroting Netanyahu’s fear-mongering over Iran and Arabs is increasingly treated worldwide with the contempt it deserves.

The old men who run the Jewish community may catch on one day that it isn’t enough to run an hackneyed style enemies list against opponents; countless journalists and editors will tell you of the bullying calls, letters and emails employed by the Zionist community against critical coverage. It only sometimes now works.

It’s a failing style even called out by The Australian’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons in a recent, robust defence of his stunning ABC TV 4 Corners story on Palestine, accusing distant, self-appointed Zionist leaders of being little more than blind defenders of Israeli government policy. Pundits take note: whenever quoting such people remember to whom they pledge partial allegiance and ask about their funding sources.

Any form of racism must be completely condemned, whether it’s directed at Jews, Muslims, Christians or other minorities. But the way in which a state and community deals with racism is a more pressing the question. After years of falsely accusing critics of Israel of anti-semitism — Sydney University’s Jake Lynch is the latest person to face the predictable and costly wrath of an Israeli-government endorsed legal case against his ethically justified backing of BDS — the organised Zionist establishment lacks credibility in crying about opposing racism, when it so flagrantly encourages demonisation of Israel’s critics along racial lines.

They have a morally compromised voice by being occupation backers themselves. How dare they claim to cry over an alleged rise in real anti-semitism (mostly online) while at the same time shedding crocodile tears against the growing BDS movement? Perhaps they should learn some humility and recognise what their beloved state has become known for globally: repressing Palestinians.

Politically, the Abbott government has pledged to remove section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in an attempt, in their words, to increase free speech (a position loudly backed by The Australian).

Federal Attorney George Brandis said on ABC TV’s Q&A this week, defending his administration’s proposed changes that are opposed by the Jewish community and many other ethnic groups, that the current drafting in section 18C restricts the rights of all peoples to speak and be offensive. Now that there are signs that Brandis may be back-tracking on a complete repeal of the section, it’s really only the Murdoch press that bangs on about “free speech” while denying the same rights to many of its critics.

Despite all this, I’ve argued elsewhere, in opposition to many on the Left who believe the legislation should remain unchanged, that although all speech has limits, a robust democracy should legally tolerate insults over race. But the vast bulk of “discussion” over 18C has been at a desultory level.

Take the recent Australian Jewish News article by Fergal Davis, a senior lecturer in law at the University of NSW. He backed maintaining the current 18C legislation and then wistfully argued that the Abbott government could be the champions of human rights because “we must convince Australians that human rights are not ‘left wing’; they are at the heart of the fair go.” Nice sentiments, but utterly removed from reality. Davis ignores the new government’s shocking treatment of asylum seekers and refusal to seriously condemn abuses at the UN by allies Sri Lanka, Israel and Egypt.

The real questions for the Murdoch press, Zionist establishment, Abbott ministers and other supposed defenders of open speech are as follows: will you follow the path of many politicians in the US, both Democrat and Republican, who are increasingly trying to criminalise civilian backing for BDS? How serious is your commitment to free speech? How willing are you to preach tolerance and acceptance while believing that certain issues, such as legitimate criticisms of Israel (defined by whom will always be the question?) are beyond the pale and anti-semitic?

Away from the huffing and puffing of self-described friends of Israel lies the real limits of insulating Israel from criticism. Trying to stop BDS, through the courts, laws, parliament or defamatory attacks, will change nothing on the ground for Palestinians, and countless people around the world now know it. Israel and its dwindling band of Zionist backers in Australia and worldwide are desperately hanging onto 20th century tactics to fight modern opposition to a racially based state.

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Don’t trust Western media when reporting Russia/Ukraine (or most conflicts)

My weekly Guardian column is here:

Reading the global and Australian media recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Russian president Vladimir Putin is a dangerous demagogue who threatens the security of the world after his country’s involvement in Ukraine and Crimea. How many times have we seen those infamous shirtless photographs of Putin looking menacing and comical? Are we tired yet of journalists and commentators pontificating on a so-called “new cold war”?

Australia’s most popular news website, news.com.au, published a long article last week – pushed as the lead story of the hour – that was the perfect distillation of this disturbing yet predictable trend. It opened with a cute piece of comedy: “We know he loves to strut around shirtless, pose shamelessly for Kremlin PR photographs and invade former Soviet republics.” What a monster! What a brute!

Over many words, peppered with Buzzfeed-style images, the piece reminded readers that Putin was a former member of the KGB who carefully crafts his “macho” image and loves to “butterfly swim through chilly lakes”. Readers would have discovered almost nothing about Putin and Russian attitudes towards global affairs, but such stories would presumably please the White House, which is desperate to frame Putin as the archetypal enemy of the 21st century. Such a message grows from the belief that “our” political and business leaders should be treated with far more respect than non-western figures ripe for one-dimensional portrayals.

After all, it’s far easier to smugly ridicule Putin and his friends while believing our own media is far more inquisitive of power. The evidence for this, however, is in short supply. Too often, the issue of US “prestige” is reflected in comments by journalists who are alleged to be independent from the state department line. And when was the last time a self-described serious outlet mocked Barack Obama, Tony Abbott or David Cameron for their choice of clothing?

Of course, nobody can doubt the brutality of Putin’s Russia. From state-sponsored homophobia – US writer Jeff Sharlet’s recent shocking essay in GQ magazine revealed the desperation of being gay in the nation – to anti-democratic measures against non-violent dissent, Putin has constructed an authoritarian state that tolerates little opposition. This should all be loudly condemned and challenged, and there can be no excuses for any of it. But Washington, with a record of flagrantly breaching international law over Iraq, Afghanistan, drones, extraordinary rendition and torture, might be hypocritical when denouncing potential Russian breaches of law.

The media coverage in Australia (and much of the world) over Ukraine has also too often ignored that state’s historically close ties to Russia. While there is a younger Ukrainian population today who craves greater integration with Europe and its more liberal ways, the idea that pro-Moscow attitudes are only held by older generations is false. We should also always question the focus of media coverage around high profile and reporter-friendly events, protests or even riots. Astute journalists who reported around the Arab Spring should know that the main story is often far away from the image-friendly masses in squares, however undeniably vital they are to capture.

Even more glaringly, the possible role of neo-conservative doctrine within the State Department in undermining a democratically elected (if thuggish) government has been absent from local coverage. Only a minority of journalists have seriously examined the possible financial reasons for Russia and western meddling in Ukraine, with the local currency diving against the US dollar in the last months. “This is jolly good news only for disaster capitalism vultures”, wrote the astute Pepe Escobar in Asia Times. Hear anything about this in the mainstream media? No, me neither (though I’m happy to be corrected).

The Australian newspaper, fond of talking tough over war and peace and instructing our leaders to invade and occupy other nations when America comes asking, praised Australian prime minister Tony Abbott for “taking the right approach” and chastising Russia. “The west needs a fundamental reappraisal of relations with the Kremlin”, boomed the paper.

One of the more revealing attributes of western media chest-beating has been the outrage over the RT (formerly Russia Today) TV station, a Russian-government outlet. When two anchors condemned Moscow’s moves in Ukraine and Crimea, both women were praised as truth-tellers. RT, of course, offers a Kremlin-backed narrative, and we can judge it accordingly, but the criticism of the channel in the west presumes that our media is so much freer and open when analysing war. How quickly we forget the ways in which CNN, as just one corporate example, makes editorial decisions which could be questioned when considered in light of their sponsorship model.

The people of Ukraine and Crimea are suffering and face years of uncertainty over their fate. An accountable and fearless media class would investigate the reality of both American and Russian meddling in nations that directly benefit their strategic and financial positions.

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Condemning media propaganda over Russia and Ukraine

The Western media prides itself on self-criticism but the fact remains that very journalists routinely challenge the inherent power structures of government and the press.

RT host Abby Martin this week damned Russian incursions into Crimea and meddling in Ukraine (she maintains her job thus far) and in this interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan she highlights the narrow perspectives on US commercial TV when debating war and peace:

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What the outsourcing of news really means

More here.

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Why it’s time for UN sanctions against Australia

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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