The role of the US hegemony is over. Washington no longer controls the world by charm and force. It’s a multipolar planet with countless centres of power. Wouldn’t this be something to celebrate?
In theory, yes. But then, all of a sudden, in a long session of the United Nations Security Council, an Australian from Sydney is appointed to the new position of head chief to manage an unruly earth. Unlike the Secretary General, this individual wields real power to bring change.
That person is me. After thanking my parents and atheist deities, I give the following speech:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your belief in me. It is an honor to assume this position and I pledge to use it responsibly.
At this time in world history, it’s vital to speak truths that many of you will find unpalatable. The vision for a better world is easy to convey. Who doesn’t want a cleaner and safer planet for our children? But getting there is the challenge and, from today onwards, the following policies will be implemented with your generous consent.
The last centuries have seen countless countries commit genocide and gross human rights abuses. Without serious reparations for the crimes committed, from Britain in the Congo in the late 1800s, America through slavery and Australia’s treatment of its indigenous population, we will continue living in the shadow of these outrages. Without proper compensation for today’s generations, it is impossible to properly progress as a community.
All too often, our leaders talk about human rights as an abstract notion, without realising their populations recognise the hypocrisy at the heart of the pledge. Sales of deadly weapons to the world’s most despotic regimes have never been higher and this will stop. Today. Israel, America, Europe and other leading arms manufacturers will have to find new ways of making money, while nations such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia will no longer be able to repress their own people with guns assembled in the United States.
We have a responsibility as a connected world to not tolerate and enable injustice in one state while opposing it elsewhere. Applying international law and holding power to account, whether these officials or governments are sitting in Washington, London, Canberra, Tel Aviv, Kigali or Beijing, must be central in the 21st century. Accountability will be served if Syria’s Bashar al-Assad appears in the Hague alongside George W. Bush and Tony Blair.
A just planet also means a sustainable earth. Climate change is real and worsening. Renewable energy sources will be used in all nations as soon as is humanely position. This will, once and for all, reduce the reliance on dirty fossil fuels that are already causing severe health problems in China and extreme weather patterns in Australia, Antarctica, Africa and South America.
Closer to home, Australia’s two-party system is crumbling under its own internal contradictions. With minor differences between Labor and Liberal, and the Greens struggling to assume a larger political role, we should encourage smaller groups, such as the Wikileaks Party and Pirate Party, to oppose the growing surveillance state.
Tackling the world’s most serious issues requires a robust and diverse media. No one media owner will be allowed to own more than 50 per cent of newspapers, television, online or other sources. Tax breaks will be given to assist new ventures get heard above the often toxic and belligerent mainstream press.
I have only touched on some subjects that I believe must be addressed for the 21st century to avoid the human catastrophes that befall the 20th century. Undoubtedly, you will all have other ideas. My door is always open.
As an atheist Jew, I wish you all the best in your endeavours.”
Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney-based independent freelance journalist, author, documentarian, photographer and blogger. He is the author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.
This ideological function was clear in the BBC Newsnight ‘special’ edition on February 26, 2013, titled ‘Iraq: 10 Years On’. One of the guests on the platform in front of an invited audience was the grandly titled ‘World Affairs Editor’, John Simpson. The veteran journalist has an air of avuncular gravitas, like a political-reporting version of David Attenborough, which helps to promote the notion of BBC News as authoritative and insightful. But look at his words in the cold light of common sense, stripped of the ponderous tone and stolid presentation, and they actually contain little of substance, far less anything that seriously challenges power (as we have documented before: see here and here). Indeed, sometimes those words are simply deceptive. For example, at one point in his Newsnight contribution Simpson really did say:
‘It came as a genuine shock to Blair and Bush to find that Saddam had craftily got rid of his weapons beforehand.’
What secret psychic powers could Simpson possibly possess to detect ‘genuine shock’ inside the brains of Blair and Bush? Rather than Saddam ‘craftily’ getting rid of his weapons, why didn’t Simpson report, as he should have done 10 years ago, that Iraq had been effectively disarmed of its WMD?
The author and political analyst Nafeez Ahmed was present at the recording of the Newsnight special and he was given a few seconds to speak from the audience. The very same day that the Newsnight special was broadcast, he published apiece that exposed and demolished the principal ‘seven myths’ underpinning the BBC’s limiting and distorted framing of debate. These included the mendacious claim that decision-making in Washington and London had been skewed by ‘wrong intelligence’, and that the Blair government’s decision to go to war was based on legitimate parliamentary process. In short, says Ahmed:
‘Newsnight ignored the now well-documented fact that the war was conceived for a set of narrow strategic goals which did not genuinely have the interests of the Iraqi people at heart…. Despite the facts being widely and easily available in the public record, Newsnight’s programme on the 10 year anniversary of the war obfuscated them to such an extent that the real, serious questions were largely overlooked.’
If one single, loaded question epitomised the BBC’s service to state propaganda, it was when Kirsty Wark asked her colleague, BBC Newsnight diplomatic and defence editor Mark Urban:
‘Do you think the idea of exporting democracy at the end of a barrel of a gun has gone?’
Media Lens reader Tony Shenton challenged Kirsty Wark on email (February 26, 2013):
‘You clearly believe that Britain invades other countries to export democracy and freedom. Thus, please can you explain why Blair and Cameron et al continue to be friends with brutal dictators such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain etc?
‘Isn’t Noam Chomsky correct when he says Britain and the US will support the most brutal regimes as long [as] they remain subservient to Western elites?’
Wark responded (February 27, 2013):
‘Thank you for your email. You are entitled to your opinion, but I don’t know how you can presume to know what I think, I was simply framing a question.’
Shenton replied (February 28, 2013):
‘As you know, how you frame a debate reveals a lot about your ideological beliefs.’
The “war on terror” remains as murky as ever. Interesting post by Sheila Carapico for Middle East Research and Information Project:
Senate hearings to confirm John Brennan as the Obama administration’s appointment to be director of the CIA brought to light a heretofore clandestine American military facility in Saudi Arabia near the kingdom’s border with Yemen. While journalistic and public attention rightly focused on extrajudicial executions of Yemenis and even American citizens, the new revelations suggest a larger covert Saudi-American war in Yemen. There’s almost certainly more to this story than what Saudi Arabia fails to confirm.
Information about the base was long withheld from the public by both the government and the media. NBC News, theNew York Times and the Washington Post reported on February 5 and 6 that the US built a secret airfield in Saudi Arabia over two years ago, primarily as a staging ground for strikes in Yemen. Both flagship newspapers acknowledged keeping this fact under wraps in deference to the Obama administration’s request for secrecy on national security grounds. Reportedly, the first operation conducted from the base was the one that killed the Yemen-American preacher Anwar Nasir al-Awlaqi.
Bing aerial photographs from 2012 appear to show a facility in southeast Saudi Arabia, north of the Yemeni border and west of the Omani frontier, in the remote expanse of sand dunes called the Empty Quarter.
There also seem to be launching pads for unmanned Predator drones and/or Hellfire missiles at al-Anad Airbase near Aden. Al-Anad is an established installation on Yemen’s southern coast near the Bab al-Mandab, a crucial waterway connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Now evidence has surfaced of yet another US base in the Hadramawt, in eastern Yemen, not far from the base in Saudi Arabia.
As more sleuths inspect more maps, we could learn of more military construction in the Peninsula, and of more Saudi engagement than has been acknowledged.
A reporter for the Guardian quoted journalism professor Jack Lule of Lehigh University, who called the media’s complicity in secrecy about the drone program “shameful.” Lule added, “I think the real reason was that the administration did not want to embarrass the Saudis — and for the US news media to be complicit in that is craven.”
Gee, why would the Saudis be embarrassed? US-Saudi security cooperation has a history dating to the 1950s. Saudi Arabia offered facilities for the American-led Desert Storm campaign to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion. Yet the massive positioning of foreign forces in the land of the Islamic holy places, Mecca and Medina, later stirred controversy. When Osama bin Laden and his jihadi followers decried the presence of “infidel” armies on sacred territory, and used these boots on the ground as a pretext for the September 11 attacks on the United States, the Saudi defense minister ruled that bases inside the kingdom could not be used for attacks on Afghanistan’s Taliban or other Muslim targets. Accordingly, American installations, including the King Sultan airbase in Khobar province, were relocated to other Gulf spots such as Qatar.
There’s more, perhaps lots more. There have been many “targeted” attacks purportedly conducted by the US military or the CIA against suspected militants in Yemen in the past two or three years. There have also been “signature strikes.” These are not aimed at persons who intelligence agencies have identified as enemies of the US. Instead, “signature strikes” are robotic attacks triggered by evidence of “suspicious activities” or “patterns of movement” observed, by drones, from the air, such as loading rifles onto pickup trucks. Although lethal targeted attacks, especially against al-Awlaqi, his teenaged son, and at least two other American citizens have attracted the most attention of late, the signature attacks are even scarier. Yemenis are extraordinarily well armed, ranking alongside the US in number of firearms per capita. And gun-toting Yemenis almost certainly pack more firepower than their American counterparts: Markets in the northern part of the country sell bazookas and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Further, Toyota pickups are ubiquitous in Yemen; four-wheel drive vehicles are a logical choice for navigating the country’s unpaved mountain roads. Grenade launchers in Yemen pose no credible threat to the American homeland. But they might, conceivably, be a menace to Saudi Arabia.
A fascinating insight from the British mercenary Simon Mann in Vice magazine about what the Bush administration were really like; criminals on a war mission:
Weren’t you also asked to help kick start the Iraq War in 2002?
Yes. Someone who said he was friends with the American neocons asked me to come up with ideas to get the war kicked off. The first was to pick an Iraqi city away from Baghdad, go there with a rebel force made up of 6,000 Iraqi émigrés, take the city, then say, “Yah boo” to Saddam. That would have forced him to come get us and be zapped on the road by the UK and US, or let the flag of rebellion spread.
The second was far more criminal. We wanted to buy an old rust-bucket ship, sail it to Karachi, load up secretly with some weapons-grade uranium, or whatever, then sail it into the Gulf with a motley crew, including me. We’d then leak our presence to the Saudis, get the navy to intercept us, sink their ship—hopefully without killing anyone—then sail into Basra. The world would have gone nuts and we’d have had an excuse for war in Iraq.
That’s pretty scandalous.
Well, yes. We actually got feedback saying that they liked the ideas, but not me. I believed them.
The grand sweep of history after the Arab Spring is yet to be written; it remains a work in progress. But this piece, by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books, is a stunner, riffing on the prospects of an Islamist phase, what this means for democracy, Arabs in general and Palestine. Read the whole thing:
New or newly invigorated actors rush to the fore: the ill-defined “street,” prompt to mobilize, just as quick to disband; young protesters, central activists during the uprising, roadkill in its wake. The Muslim Brothers yesterday dismissed by the West as dangerous extremists are now embraced and feted as sensible, businesslike pragmatists. The more traditionalist Salafis, once allergic to all forms of politics, are now eager to compete in elections. There are shadowy armed groups and militias of dubious allegiance and unknown benefactors as well as gangs, criminals, highwaymen, and kidnappers.
Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting. Theocratic regimes back secularists; tyrannies promote democracy; the US forms partnerships with Islamists; Islamists support Western military intervention. Arab nationalists side with regimes they have long combated; liberals side with Islamists with whom they then come to blows. Saudi Arabia backs secularists against the Muslim Brothers and Salafis against secularists. The US is allied with Iraq, which is allied with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, which the US hopes to help topple. The US is also allied with Qatar, which subsidizes Hamas, and with Saudi Arabia, which funds the Salafis who inspire jihadists who kill Americans wherever they can.
In record time, Turkey evolved from having zero problems with its neighbors to nothing but problems with them. It has alienated Iran, angered Iraq, and had a row with Israel. It virtually is at war with Syria. Iraqi Kurds are now Ankara’s allies, even as it wages war against its own Kurds and even as its policies in Iraq and Syria embolden secessionist tendencies in Turkey itself.
For years, Iran opposed Arab regimes, cultivating ties with Islamists with whose religious outlook it felt it could make common cause. As soon as they take power, the Islamists seek to reassure their former Saudi and Western foes and distance themselves from Tehran despite Iran’s courting. The Iranian regime will feel obliged to diversify its alliances, reach out to non-Islamists who feel abandoned by the nascent order and appalled by the budding partnership between Islamists and the US. Iran has experience in such matters: for the past three decades, it has allied itself with secular Syria even as Damascus suppressed its Islamists.
When goals converge, motivations differ. The US cooperated with Gulf Arab monarchies and sheikhdoms in deposing Qaddafi yesterday and in opposing Assad today. It says it must be on the right side of history. Yet those regimes do not respect at home the rights they piously pursue abroad. Their purpose is neither democracy nor open societies. They are engaged in a struggle for regional domination. What, other than treasure, can proponents of a self-styled democratic uprising find in countries whose own system of governance is anathema to the democratic project they allegedly promote?
What will all this mean? The Islamists are loath either to share power achieved at high cost or to squander gains so patiently acquired. They must balance among their own restive rank-and-file, a nervous larger society, and an undecided international community. The temptation to strike fast pulls in one direction; the desire to reassure tugs in another. In general, they will prefer to eschew coercion, awaken the people to their dormant Islamic nature rather than foist it upon them. They will try to do it all: rule, enact social transformations incrementally, and be true to themselves without becoming a menace to others.
The Islamists propose a bargain. In exchange for economic aid and political support, they will not threaten what they believe are core Western interests: regional stability, Israel, the fight against terror, energy flow. No danger to Western security. No commercial war. The showdown with the Jewish state can wait. The focus will be on the slow, steady shaping of Islamic societies. The US and Europe may voice concern, even indignation at such a domestic makeover. But they’ll get over it. Just as they got over the austere fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia. Bartering—as in, we’ll take care of your needs, let us take care of ours—Islamists feel, will do the trick. Looking at history, who can blame them?
Mubarak was toppled in part because he was viewed as excessively subservient to the West, yet the Islamists who succeed him might offer the West a sweeter because more sustainable deal. They think they can get away with what he could not. Stripped of his nationalist mantle, Mubarak had little to fall back on; he was a naked autocrat. The Muslim Brothers by comparison have a much broader program—moral, social, cultural. Islamists feel they can still follow their convictions, even if they are not faithfully anti-Western. They can moderate, dilute, defer.
Unlike the close allies of the West they have replaced, Islamists are heard calling for NATO military intervention in Libya yesterday, Syria today, wherever they entertain the hope to take over tomorrow. One can use the distant infidels, who will not stay around for long, to jettison local infidels, who have hounded them for decades. Rejection of foreign interference, once a centerpiece of the post-independence outlook, is no longer the order of the day. It is castigated as counterrevolutionary.
What the US sought to obtain over decades through meddling and imposition, it might now obtain via acquiescence: Arab regimes that will not challenge Western interests. Little wonder that many in the region are persuaded that America was complicit in the Islamists’ rise, a quiet partner in what has been happening.
Everywhere, Israel faces the rise of Islam, of militancy, of radicalism. Former allies are gone; erstwhile foes reign supreme. But the Islamists have different and broader objectives. They wish to promote their Islamic project, which means consolidating their rule where they can, refraining from alienating the West, and avoiding perilous and precocious clashes with Israel. In this scheme, the presence of a Jewish state is and will remain intolerable, but it is probably the last piece of a larger puzzle that may never be fully assembled.
The quest to establish an independent, sovereign Palestinian state was never at the heart of the Islamist project. Hamas, the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, harbors grander, less territorially confined but also less immediately achievable designs. Despite Hamas’s circumlocutions and notwithstanding its political evolution, it never truly deviated from its original view—the Jewish state is illegitimate and all the land of historic Palestine is inherently Islamic. If the current balance of power is not in your favor, wait and do what you can to take care of the disparity. The rest is tactics.
What’s clear is how little Washington understands the Syrian revolution, who is fighting and why. Its intelligence is clearly suspect and hardline Islamists are being strengthened. America learns nothing from history. Afghanistan in the 1980s, anybody?
Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.
That conclusion, of which President Obama and other senior officials are aware from classified assessments of the Syrian conflict that has now claimed more than 25,000 lives, casts into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States.
“The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” said one American official familiar with the outlines of those findings, commenting on an operation that in American eyes has increasingly gone awry.
The United States is not sending arms directly to the Syrian opposition. Instead, it is providing intelligence and other support for shipments of secondhand light weapons like rifles and grenades intoSyria, mainly orchestrated from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The reports indicate that the shipments organized from Qatar, in particular, are largely going to hard-line Islamists.
The assessment of the arms flows comes at a crucial time for Mr. Obama, in the closing weeks of the election campaign with two debates looming that will focus on his foreign policy record. But it also calls into question the Syria strategy laid out by Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger.
In a speech at the Virginia Military Institute last Monday, Mr. Romney said he would ensure that rebel groups “who share our values” would “obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.” That suggests he would approve the transfer of weapons like antiaircraft and antitank systems that are much more potent than any the United States has been willing to put into rebel hands so far, precisely because American officials cannot be certain who will ultimately be using them.
But Mr. Romney stopped short of saying that he would have the United States provide those arms directly, and his aides said he would instead rely on Arab allies to do it. That would leave him, like Mr. Obama, with little direct control over the distribution of the arms.
American officials have been trying to understand why hard-line Islamists have received the lion’s share of the arms shipped to the Syrian opposition through the shadowy pipeline with roots in Qatar, and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia. The officials, voicing frustration, say there is no central clearinghouse for the shipments, and no effective way of vetting the groups that ultimately receive them.
Soldiers! Soldiers!” The man hissed his warning as he hurried past, two bullets from a government sniper kicking up dust from the dirt road behind him.
It was enough for Abu Omar al-Chechen. His ragtag band of foreign fighters, known as “muhajiroun brothers”, was huddled in the doorway of a burned-out apartment building in the university district of Aleppo. One of the brothers – a Turk – lay dead in the road around the corner and a second brother lay next to him, badly wounded and unable to move. They had been unable to rescue him because of the sniper.
Abu Omar gave an order in Arabic, which was translated into a babble of different languages – Chechen, Tajik, Turkish, French, Saudi dialect, Urdu – and the men retreated in orderly single file, picking their way between piles of smouldering rubbish and twisted plastic bottles toward a house behind the front line where other fighters had gathered.
Their Syrian handler stood alone in the street clutching two radios: one blared in Chechen and the other in Arabic. Two men volunteered to stay and try to fetch the young injured man.
The fighters sat outside the house in the shade of the trees, clutching their guns and discussing the war. Among them was a thin Saudi, dressed in a dirty black T-shirt and a prayer cap, who conversed in perfect English with a Turk sitting next to him. He had arrived the week before and was curious about how the jihad was being reported abroad.
“What do the foreign news organisations and the outside world say about us?” he asked. “Do they know about the fighting in Aleppo? Do they know that we are here?”
Hundreds of international fighters have flocked to Syria to join the war against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Some are fresh-faced idealists driven by a romantic notion of revolution or a hatred for the Assads. Others are jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
To reach the wars in those countries, foreign fighters had to cross borders with forged passports and dodge secret services. The frontline in Syria is easier to reach via a comfortable flight to southern Turkey and a hike across the border.
According to the Saudi, it was an easy walk from Turkey to the small Syrian town of Atmeh. There, in a hilly landscape flecked with olive groves, the recruits were received by a Syrian who runs a jihadi camp and organised into fighting units. Each team was assigned an Arabic speaker and given 10 days’ basic training, the point of which was not to learn how to shoot but to learn to communicate and work together.
The fighters were then dispersed among the different jihadi organisations, including Ahrar al-Sham (“the Free Men of Syria”) and Jabhat al-Nusra (“the Front for the Aid of the People of the Levant”). Some, like Abu Omar’s Chechens, were allowed to form their own units and simply referred to as the muhajiroun, or “immigrants”. The Syrians refer to the internationals collectively as the “Turkish brothers”.
The disparate levels of fighting ability among the men was immediately clear. The Chechens were older, taller, stronger and wore hiking boots and combat trousers. They carried their weapons with confidence and distanced themselves from the rest, moving around in a tight-knit unit-within-a-unit. One of the Turks was a former soldier who wore western-style webbing and equipment, while the three Tajiks and the Pakistani were evidently poor. Their trousers were too short, their shoes old and torn.
If some of the foreign fighters in Aleppo were callow, others such as Abu Salam al Faluji boasted extraordinary experience. Abu Salam, a rugged Iraqi with a black keffiyeh wrapped around his head, said he had fought the Americans in Falluja when he was a young man. Later he joined al-Qaida in Iraq and spent many years fighting in different cities before moving to Syria to evade arrest. These days he was a commander of the one of the muhajiroun units.
I found him watching a heated debate between the Syrian commanders about how to defend the buckling frontline.
The government attack had begun as predicted and mortars were exploding in the streets nearby, the sound of machine-gun fire ricocheting between the buildings. The mortars were hammering hard against the walls, sending a small shower of shrapnel and cascading glass, but Abu Salam stood unflinching.One Syrian, breathing hard, said that he had fired three times at the tank and the RPG didn’t go off.
“Don’t say it didn’t go off,” Abu Salam admonished him. “Say you don’t know how to fire it. We used to shoot these same RPGs at the Americans and destroy Abrams tanks. What’s a T72 to an Abrams?
“Our work has to focus on IEDs and snipers,” he told the gathering. “All these roofs need fighters on top and IEDs on the ground. You hunt them in the alleyways and then use machine-guns and RPGs around corners.
“The problem is not ammunition, it’s experience,” he told me out of earshot of the rebels. “If we were fighting Americans we would all have been killed by now. They would have killed us with their drone without even needing to send a tank.
“The rebels are brave but they don’t even know the difference between a Kalashnikov bullet and a sniper bullet. That weakens the morale of the men.
“They have no leadership and no experience,” he said. “Brave people attack, but the men in the lines behind them withdraw, leaving them exposed. It is chaos. This morning the Turkish brothers fought all night and at dawn they went to sleep leaving a line of Syrians behind to protect them. When they woke up the Syrians had left and the army snipers had moved in. Now it’s too late. The army has entered the streets and will overrun us.”
He seemed nonchalant about the prospect of defeat.
“It is obvious the Syrian army is winning this battle, but we don’t tell [the rebels] this. We don’t want to destroy their morale. We say we should hold here for as long as Allah will give us strength and maybe he will make one of these foreign powers come to help Syrians.”
The irony was not lost on Abu Salam how the jihadis and the Americans – bitter enemies of the past decade – had found themselves fighting on the same side again.
The evidence is clear; Washington fuels more conflicts globally than Tehran could ever hope to do:
Weapons sales by the United States tripled in 2011 to a record high, driven by major arms sales to Persian Gulf allies concerned about Iran’s regional ambitions, according to a new study for Congress.
Overseas weapons sales by the United States totaled $66.3 billion last year, or more than three-quarters of the global arms market, valued at $85.3 billion in 2011. Russia was a distant second, with $4.8 billion in deals.
The American weapons sales total was an “extraordinary increase” over the $21.4 billion in deals for 2010, the study found, and was the largest single-year sales total in the history of United States arms exports. The previous high was in fiscal year 2009, when American weapons sales overseas totaled nearly $31 billion.
A worldwide economic decline had suppressed arms sales over recent years. But increasing tensions with Iran drove a set of Persian Gulf nations — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman — to purchase American weapons at record levels.
These Gulf states do not share a border with Iran, and their arms purchases focused on expensive warplanes and complex missile defense systems.
The following is published today as the lead piece by ABC’s The Drum:
The two-hour drive from Islamabad to Peshawar is along a surprisingly smooth road. Mud-brick homes sit amongst lush, green fields. Police checkpoints are set up routinely to stop unwanted visitors.
I am asked why I want to see the troubled Pakistani town near the border with Afghanistan. I say I’m a reporter, flash my International Federation of Journalists press card, which I’m sure the officer can’t read, and am quickly waved through.
Islamabad is a relatively liberal city in one of the most volatile nations on earth. Peshawar is geographically close but a world away. Women, if they’re seen at all in public, walk in shapeless burkas and men have thick beards and wear the traditional salwar kameez. Suicide bombers regularly attack government buildings, police and army in a continuing war against the Pakistani state and its Western backers. I arrive feeling uneasy.
A once stable town has been torn apart in the last decade as militants seek to overthrow both a corrupt central government and expel a Washington-led campaign against the resistance that is seen as illegitimate and lacking public support.
When I visit in March this year, I am surprised by the vibrancy of the Pakistani media. Multiple outlets joust for dominance, routinely publishing scandalous information about politicians and celebrities. But as I have seen first-hand in Iran, Palestine, Syria, Cuba and Egypt and a range of other countries, magical “red lines” exist that must not be crossed. If they are, journalists can pay an extremely high price.
I meet independent journalist Hayat in Peshawar. He’s 35 with a wife and two young children. He wears a pink-striped shirt and grey suit. Pockmarked face. His office is on the third floor of a non-descript building. His knowledge about the FATA (Federal Administered Tribal Areas) is immense, having spent time in the various regions. He talks about the different Taliban groups, how they relate to each other and the government.
Peshawar is on the edge of this abyss, the entry point to a tribal land that remains impossible for Westerners and most Pakistanis to visit. Since 9/11, it has been occupied by the Pakistani army and militants and often remains lawless.
It is where US president Obama, far more than his predecessor George W Bush, has unleashed an unprecedented number of drone strikes, killing hundreds of civilians since 2009, according to a recent study by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. These men, women and children are rarely given names by the Western media. Instead our media class are happy to simply repeat official Pakistani and American government claims of killing “terrorists”.
We degrade our profession by mindlessly rehashing White House press releases with no evidence to support the thesis. Sadly it has become a regular occurrence in both the tabloid and so-called quality press, including the ABC, Fairfax and News Limited. “10 militants killed”; “7 Al-Qaeda terrorists killed”. No evidence. Rarely any photographs or video. This isn’t journalism; it’s stenography.
Hayat’s voice is invisible in the West, despite speaking fluent English. Here’s a man with unique access to one of the most challenging areas on the planet and yet most Western news outlets seemingly prefer to rely on familiar faces and voices. When was the last time you read an article about Iraq or Afghanistan by an Afghan or Iraqi actually based in their respective countries?
During research for my book, The Blogging Revolution, on the internet in repressive regimes, a work that took me to Cuba, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China, it became clear that many in the Western media are reluctant to hear voices that don’t conform to their idea of what a foreigner should sound like or think. It is the only explanation for the near-complete exclusion of indigenous voices from conflict zones in our mainstream press.
Their freedom of speech is ignored because of the inherent, Western-centric nature of our leading journalists and media practitioners. Let me be blunt; our white-skin dominated media often doesn’t trust brown, yellow or black skin. The result is a wilful myopia that ignores both the nuance of a nation and the reasons post 9/11 that so little is understood about the reality of the rapacious “war on terror” and its reach in dozens of countries worldwide.
Why do “they” hate us? Because we occupy and kill “them”.
A recent story by independent journalist Matthieu Aikins in the Columbia Journalism Review should be a wake-up call to anybody who believes that advocating free speech in a globalised world hasn’t changed in the last decade. It has, hugely. Aikins details a recent story by a filmmaker from Britain’s Channel 4 who worked with Syrian dissidents in the capital Damascus. The Syrian was providing secure communications expertise to the resistance and the Western filmmaker interviewed him about his work. But the dissident worried that the documentarian wasn’t taking appropriate security precautions to protect his identity and work. For example, he was using a mobile phone and SMS without protections.
Last October the filmmaker was arrested in Syria, held for days in prison and had has laptop, mobile phone, camera and footage taken by the regime. As soon as he discovered this, the dissident fled Damascus, stayed with relatives in another town and then escaped to Lebanon. The dissident and his colleagues were scared that Syrian intelligence now had access to names, faces and information about opponents of president Assad.
Aikins rightly says that it’s easy to condemn the filmmaker for not taking adequate digital precautions of his material but it’s really systematic of a wider problem.
We are all failing to encrypt our work when reporting from conflict zones and nations where intelligence services are ubiquitous. I have been guilty of this myself. When off-the-shelf surveillance equipment is now so easily available - WikiLeaks’ Spy Files revealed the vast number of Western security firms selling technology to repressive and democratic states, making the monitoring of email, Skype and mobile phone calls – it is the responsibility of journalists, human rights activists and NGOs to learn how to protect information that could mean the difference between life and death for the people we claim to represent and protect.
But we are foolish to believe these threats only exist in the non-Western world. The Obama administration has accelerated the development of a surveillance state apparatus that now listens and records every phone call and email every day in the US. Some estimate up to 20 trillion calls and emails have been stored in the last years. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has written extensively about Obama’s unprecedented war on whistle-blowers.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan recently, working on a book and film about disaster capitalism, I heard countless reporters talking about self-censorship, a daily need to assess what to write and what to avoid.
During a recent episode of Julian Assange’s The World Tomorrow – an outstanding weekly TV program that interviews some of the key thinkers and players in our world, individuals largely ignored by the corporate media – he spoke to Alaa Abd El-Fattah from Egypt and Nabeel Rajab from Bahrain. Both men have been imprisoned, tortured, held without charge. Both men remain outspoken. Both men refuse to be silenced and curtail their own free speech. Both men should be heard in our media on a regular basis but they are not. I believe it is because they are ferociously opposed to US-backed repression. They are unapologetic. Passionate. Necessarily unbalanced in their views towards Washington’s love of reliable autocrats. And yet their biggest recent audience is on the WikiLeaks founder’s current affairs show.
An inquisitive media would be intrigued with a book such as Poetry of the Taliban, a just-released tome that outlines without romanticising the love, adventure and fears of a group both pre and post September 11 that has beaten the world’s greatest super-power.
Supporting freedom of speech in its entirety, not merely claiming to appreciate all views but actually meaning it, as far too many liberals only endorse points of view with which they agree, means hearing the positions of groups or individuals with whom you may vehemently oppose. Truly free speech should make us uncomfortable, confronted and offended.
The internet has brought knowledge and information to more people than at any time in history. There are close to one billion Facebook accounts. Countless people use YouTube and Google every day.
But none of these tools provide human rights protections or ensure free speech. They merely give officials more opportunities to monitor and document a user’s online footprint. Although they allow activists much easier access to friends and colleagues around the world – and using online proxies to communicate and surf freely are essential in both repressive and democratic states – the reach of Western security companies is far greater than most people realise. It is no longer paranoid to presume that we are being watched and monitored by the state.
Wired magazine recently revealed that the National Security Agency in the US is building a $2 billion centre that aims to:
“intercept, decipher, analyse, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks… Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.’”
The threat to freedom of speech globally isn’t just in the obvious places – Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico or China – but in our own backyard, instituted by our democratically elected leaders.
We have been warned.
This is an extract from the 2012 PEN Free Voices lecture, first delivered at the Sydney Writers Festival in May.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author, co-editor with Jeff Sparrow, of the just released Left Turn, the upcoming After Zionism and a 2013 book and film about disaster capitalism. Follow him on Twitter. View his full profile here.
Yes (via Salon’s Glenn Greenwald):
For all the righteous talk about human rights oppression and violent assaults on democratic protesters in the Muslim world, any honest ranking would place Saudi Arabia near or at the top of that list. This week, the long-time head of the deeply repressive Saudi Interior Ministry, Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, died. Prince Nayef — in addition to having been one of the hardest-line religious conservatives opposed to internal reforms, having been accused by Sen. Chuck Schumer in 2003 of having a “well-documented history of suborning terrorist financing,” and having blamed “Zionists” for plotting the 9/11 attack — was one of America’s closest and most loyal allies in the region.