An Australian Jew goes around five non-democratic countries, 3 in middle east – Iran, Syria, Egypt and two others: China & Cuba, talks to limited people connected on the internet there, double checks the facts and opinions stated by the western media and then meets his fellow Jews in each of these countries and writes about his experiences and observations. The title page of the book mentions India too, but the author did not visit India, at least not for this book or related research. I think that was included for the Indian edition of the book but in my honest opinion is misleading the Indian reader.
Author has tried to find the alternate voices in the countries he visited, equally from both the genders and from people on the fringes. He talks to people who have been blogging, especially on the political scene of the country. He looks at the way their blogs have been received, if they have been accepted as voices, if they have been ignored or if they have been seen as a threat. He quotes many cases where the bloggers voices were suppressed by law, but he also shows lot of action that the blogs have generated. Chapters are structured very well, beginning with the brief history of the country and its political scenario and its relationship with the west, then moving on the few bloggers whom the author met during his visits and then a bit of himself through his visits to Jews in each of these countries. This makes me think – can you really separate religion from your psyche? Do you not always bond with those who are connected to you through a common religious thread? Many authors time and again have re-iterated this even when they publicly claim to be atheist.
He talks about the blogs in local languages and the impact of it as English is not as widely spoken in most of these countries. He also analyzes the view of western media on the blogging in these countries as they only refer to English blogs that are just a small percentage of the total blogs and may be the ones not really creating the impact. A common observation that he has is that young people in all these countries want change, want democracy but not really in the way west thinks they should have. They want their country their way. They definitely want more freedom of expression and more participation within their own countries and more engagement with the world outside. They want change but are not really as unhappy as the western media claims them to be. They have found their own little world online and offline. They are doing their bit to bring in the changes that their society needs.
He also looks at the censorship of the Internet, especially in China. I was surprised by one of the comments in the book that says censorship of Internet is increasing in India. I have not felt it. They have been talking about it but I do not know of any sites that are banned in India or any keyword filters that have been placed. An interesting counter point though is that people always find ways to work around filtered key words, they will have pseudo words which everyone seems to know except the filtering agencies, they will use proxies to access the information that is filtered. Makes you think if Internet in its present form can really be tamed? They also mention a case of Yahoo where they leaked information to government from a private conversation and how this breach was handled.
Quite an informative read, especially for someone who may not know too much about these regions. As a blogger you suddenly realize how much the community is spread out and the potential of this medium to make an impact. Read it to know the offline impact of online revolutions.
My book The Blogging Revolution was released recently in an Indian edition. It’s been receiving positive reviews (including this one in Calcutta’s Telegraph). Here’s another one in The Tribune by Abhishek Joshi:
The Blogging Revolution by Australian freelance journalist Antony Loewenstein is a striking account of the writer’s investigation of the web’s role in repressive regimes which brought him face-to-face with bloggers risking torture, imprisonment and even death.
Antony’s travels to Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Cuba and China get him talking to a vibrant universe of bloggers struggling to be heard under difficult conditions. For them, everyday is a struggle, pitted as they are against the random tide of authoritarian regimes, in stark contrast to the scenario elsewhere on the global map where freedom is taken for granted as an everyday commodity.
The work gets the reader to experience what citizens themselves feel about their situation. This is in contrast to journalistic accounts where quoting official sources or being close to power is a priority.
To put things in perspective, he gets talking about Arab Spring: “Revolutions thundered across the Muslim world in 2011. Regimes fell and leaders fled into exile. Millions of citizens rose up to oust and challenge largely western-backed dictators.”
And about Tunisia, the spark: “Frustrated street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in the city of Sidi Bouzid on 17 December 2010 after constant harassment by local authorities… on Facebook… soon viewed across the Arab world by millions. Protesters took to the streets…. With roughly a third of the Tunisian population having access to the internet, Facebook became an essential tool in spreading the word… despite authorities shutting down power supplies… within weeks the president and his family fled the country.”
The phenomenon runs wide. The author cites a Twitter enthusiast saying: “Saudis cannot go out to demonstrate, so they retweet!”
Shortly before the disputed 2009 elections that brought Ahmadinejad back to power in Iran, one woman, Neda Agha Soltan, shot by a sniper’s bullet in Tehran, became a symbol of resistance, the video of her death being watched by millions on YouTube.
Internet censorship is the state’s weapon: “Russia, China and Iran, far more seriously monitor and infiltrate online spaces to root out any possible dissent.” Even then, as an Iranian blogger told Antony: “They block and we evade the blocks. It goes on everyday. They code, we decode.”
Iran’s burgeoning online community has fundamentally changed the national conversation and forced the ruling mullahs to at least recognise the necessity of reaching the massive youth population. This in a country where in some remote towns, stoning of allegedly adulterous women still takes place.
The complicity of Western technology and security firms with autocratic states has only worsened of late. Chinese dissidents pursued legal action in the US in June 2011 against Cisco Systems for knowingly assisting Beijing in its Golden Shield. Google, McAfee, Yahoo, Microsoft… the list goes on, up to a point where human rights take a backseat to profit-making.
And a reminder: “Google is a commercial organisation, that has offices in India and advertising space to sell. Monitoring censorship and privacy issues are not just concerns in repressive states.”
Antony met an Egyptian woman blogger who started blogging to promote human rights and to campaign against ‘female circumcision’ (female genital mutilation). Her blog has made her distinctly unpopular with large segments of the Islamist population.
A blogger in Saudi Arabia explained to the author that it would take long before the internet could truly challenge decades-old practices. (King Abdullah directed the country’s newspapers in May 2006 to stop publishing pictures of women because it was supposedly leading young men astray.)
China’s state news service Xinhua claims there are more than 3 lakh government employees who spend their days monitoring the web for dissent and removing suspect comments. Even mild criticism of the regime has led to arrest, physical abuse and imprisonment.
Alternative media and the blogosphere are providing an outlet to hear the hopes and fears of a generation that wants to be heard. The candour and courage of these bloggers, which, one of them tells Antony, is simply a necessity shine through in plain language.
The reader gets an understanding of lives and dilemma of citizens in repressive regimes, and rather than eulogising the merits of online activism, it is a telling account of the challenges bloggers are up against.
The following interview appears in the Australian online legal and human rights journal Right Now:
Samaya Chanthaphavong spoke to Antony Loewenstein, author of The Blogging Revolution about the use of the internet, in particular blogging, as a communicative tool to promote self-representation, democracy and human rights in areas where excessive regimes impose strict censorship over most forms of communication.
RN: We know that as part of your book The Blogging Revolution that you have travelled to Iran, Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to look at how these societies blog under excessive regimes. How important do you think blogging and self-representation is for people from those countries, and also for people that are interested in getting news as to what’s going on in those countries?
[Antony Loewenstein]: There has been no doubt in the last five years all those countries except Cuba have had a vastly important and growing internet culture-I will put Cuba aside and explain why in a second. We shouldn’t forget that in those countries most people didn’t use the internet and were not online, whereas obviously in the West we are. So the voices that we often have and hear are only the elite and not the majority.
So the voices that we often have and hear are only the elite and not the majority.
Most people online aren’t engaged in politics. In China, which is the biggest internet community in the world with roughly 450 million internet users out of a population of roughly 1.4 billion, the vast majority of those people are not engaging in politics. They are downloading music, films, meeting guys and girls. What most people on the internet do.
However in all those countries, with the exception of Cuba, there is a growing space that is repressed to have political discussion and political debate. The reason why I said Cuba was an exception is that it has the lowest internet penetration in that part of the world roughly equating to two to four per cent due to two main reasons: firstly with the US embargo on Cuba it is very difficult to get reliable technology for the regime to use for access to the web. But more importantly in my view, it’s because the Castro brothers are fearful of free speech. So few Cubans have access to the internet so the blogging reach is very small. There is a lack of free speech culture in the public arena which has been a disaster for that country. There are however Cuban political bloggers. Often they are unable to leave the country to get awards that they have won overseas, however their reach within Cuba is miniscule because most people don’t access the web there.
I am saying all of this not to argue that the internet has no influence anywhere – it has massive influence. But I do think that many in the West, particularly since the Arab Spring that started in late 2010, have exaggerated the influence of the internet. For instance, websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc have been spoken of almost as a way to explain what’s happening as opposed to arguing that the internet is an important part of challenging state power and state repression.
But it’s not the only way. In countries where internet usage is either very much censored or repressed, like in Iran, people often have other ways of communicating. Mobile phones, for example, were far more important to talk with and get information. This was seen particularly during the Arab Spring.
Do you think it’s up to the Western media to provide a spotlight on issues such as repression, censorship and free speech or do you think it is something that will gain momentum from within these countries?
The Western press is not homogenous but part of the problem that the Western media has – and this has come out since the Arab Spring – is how little it understands what is happening in those parts of the world.
Far too often, in places like Egypt or others, the Western press has a responsibility to speak honestly about the Western role in maintaining regimes for so long. I am not suggesting the endurance of repressive regimes is solely the West’s fault or responsibility but if you, as a Western country – I am talking particularly about the US of course but not just America – fund, arm, train and support dictatorships and for that matter allow Western security firms, many of whom are based in the States, to provide and support internet censorship in these countries, it will not end well.
The evidence of that was clear before the Arab Spring but since the Arab Spring public documents have emerged from Egypt, Libya and elsewhere of Western (American and European) so called “internet censorship” companies who of course don’t advertise themselves publically as helping dictatorships. They advertise their tools as helping schools censor information from young kids or helping libraries, but the evidence suggests that these corporations have assisted regimes in censorship.
In my view, this has been talked about for years and I discuss it in my book The Blogging Revolution, that there needs to be far more aggressive regulatory legislation in the United States and elsewhere to prosecute corporations that are based in the US or other Western countries that collude with dictatorships in repressing free speech. This doesn’t occur at the moment despite talk about it, and I think it should.
Obama has in fact deepened and worsened that situation rather than making it better.
Do you think from a grassroots level, taking into consideration global internet activism, that people could get momentum going for pressuring governments to introduce legislative measures on companies that provide censorship measures to support regimes?
Yes I do, I think unfortunately to some extent that people are still in shock from eight years of the Bush administration, the last three and a half years of Obama and the election this year, on many of these kinds of issues. Obama has in fact deepened and worsened that situation rather than making it better.
There is an idea somehow that the Bush administration was the worst that it could get; this is a complete myth. The Obama Administration has nationally expanded the monitoring of US citizens. There was a talk from a whistle-blower at the National Security Agency (NSA) about this to media program Democracy Now which is saying that in the last few years the US has collected 20 trillion emails, phone calls etc. This data is not necessarily being actively used but the US is collecting every single email or phone call that everyone makes in that country.
Now that’s happening undeniably illegally, though of course the Patriot Act exists which is a piece of legislation that the Bush Administration initiated post-2001 and the Obama Administration deepened. Many of these companies that are assisting regimes overseas, such as Egypt, Libya and Iran, generally speaking feel protected, though occasionally Hillary Clinton speaks about internet censorship because other Americans believe that America is doing hideous things to their own people and therefore don’t care about what happens in other countries. It is rhetoric that they use when speaking out about censorship.
Telecommunication companies in the United States have been co-opted willingly by the US Government to essentially be involved in monitoring American businesses. Some of these have also been active in countries overseas and colluding with repressive regimes to censor the internet but also to monitor mobile phone calls and text messages. This has become clear in the Arab countries in the last 18 months.
If you speak to many people from those places – and I have and continue to do – they do think solidarity matters.
If we consider all of the censorship and monitoring issues do you think that there is a future in blogging to make a difference to what is presented in Western media? Do you think that there is any point to blogging if (a) no one is really listening or (b) people are pretending to listen or (c) everything is under surveillance? Where is blogging headed?
I don’t want to give the impression that people shouldn’t bother so let’s further explain my points on censorship. There is no doubt that in the last 18 months in many countries there has been a profound shift in the power of citizens to be able to effect change – obviously in the Arab world, though these countries are still in flux – it’s almost like the revolution has happened but they are still in progress. Egypt is in a very difficult situation, Libya is as well, and these countries haven’t come through a dictatorship into a democracy.
It’s all very much a work in progress but I see the role of Western activists who are interested in raising a voice, or giving a voice to the voiceless individuals who don’t get much press or coverage in the West, should continue to reach out and build connections and relationships with people in those countries.
Western media should talk about censorship on the web but they should also try to highlight stories outside the West, not just about support by the US of oppressive practices which happen throughout the Arab world. But also to let people feel that they are not alone.
If you speak to many people from those places – and I have and continue to do – they do think solidarity matters. It matters because you feel like you are not alone, and that people outside your country are listening. We also shouldn’t forget that in many of these places in the last 18 months, since Tunisia had their revolution in late 2010, there are numerous examples of repressive states that are desperate to not show the West their censoring behaviour. They are embarrassed and ashamed and would rather keep those practices hidden.
It’s the rule of independent media to highlight that. This is something that I speak about in The Blogging Revolution. A lot of the Western press reporting on repressive states far too often – and there are many exceptions to this – but far too often echo the perspectives of the US State Department. So in one sense the media agrees that torturing is terrible but have excuses like “it’s a difficult part of the world, America needs to have reliable allies” etc. This is echoed countless times throughout Western press likeWashington Post and The New York Times. It is not just the concept of embedding journalists with the US military in Iraq or Afghanistan that is concerning, it is the mindset that is concerning when dealing with embedding, as they feel the desire and need to be close to power and have access to power.
After all these years since 9/11 and the changes that have occurred across the Muslim world we still rarely, if ever, hear an Arab person in their own voice in the media. Of course you sometimes hear them being interviewed but let’s talk about Iraq for a moment. You rarely see Iraqis in the press, you may hear them for five seconds but we do routinely hear Western analysts talking about Iraq in Washington, London or Canberra. I think the role here of Western activists, bloggers, tweeters, Facebookers, YouTubers etc is to try to bypass that blindness that exists in most parts of the Western corporate press and simply connect with people in these countries and give them a voice because ultimately that’s what media democracy should be.
We still rarely, if ever, hear an Arab person in their own voice in the media.
Where does human rights blogging sit in Australia?
Clearly being in a county like Australia which nominally is a democracy and not a repressive state the role of blogging on the internet is very different to places like Iran and China.
There is a growing push by private companies here in Australia and much of the West – particularly coming out of the US – towards a surveillance state to monitor and collect all electronic communication that you have.
This could be as simple as a phone call made on a mobile to booking travel; everything that you could possibly do online would be collected and stored.
I am not suggesting that Australia is becoming like North Korea but what I am saying is that there is a growing desire by security agents and private companies to do that and is something, in my view, that should be strongly resisted.
What role can Australian bloggers have in spreading Human Rights awareness or activism within Australia?
The role of the Australian blogger can be made up of two things: one, to show the degree of solidarity with people in repressive states because we have a relatively open internet to be able to build some kind of support network for people in rather difficult circumstances and two, to raise awareness of issues in Australia.
Australia clearly has a range of issues and one example that comes to mind is Indigenous Australians being able to be represented in their own voice. There are of course a handful of Aboriginal activists and academics that you hear all the time but you can pretty much count them on the one hand and the image we get otherwise is of drunken guys or women somewhere. Those images, though not untrue, are related to wider issues such as alcoholism etc in Aboriginal communities.
I believe that activism should start at home so these kinds of issues and questions should be spoken about here.
The Blogging Revolution: How the newest media is changing politics, business and culture in India, China, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Cuba and Saudi Arabia By Antony Loewenstein, Jaico, Rs 350
Antony Loewenstein’s book is an intelligent examination of the dichotomous character of the internet, a force that can be both “liberating and restrictive”. Political analysts have often excitedly pointed at the arms of the new media — Facebook, Twitter, blogs — as catalysts for the Arab Spring that toppled several autocratic regimes in the Muslim world. As proof, they refer to the spark that was lit in Tunisia. When a street vendor immolated himself to protest against harassment by authorities, irate local people posted the video of his death on Facebook. Al-Jazeera distributed the video on its network, starting a fire that singed despotic regimes in the region. Loewenstein’s journeys across Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China and his interactions with online dissenters have given him the leverage to posit a caveat in this respect. The internet, he argues, has crystallized into a critical platform for disseminating information among dissidents. But it remains only one of the many arrows in the quiver in the battle for democracy.
Loewenstein bolsters his argument by citing the failure of the ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran. All the factors needed for yet another revolution inspired by the ‘web’ was in place: a repressive regime, tech-savvy youth, YouTube videos of State violence, and so on. Yet Ahmadinejad could not be dislodged from his throne. If anything, the tables have been turned on anonymous dissidents by regimes in China, Russia and Iran that are covertly colluding with technology companies to root out online dissent. Loewenstein’s research reveals that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are competing to design effective deterrents to curb freedom in cyberspace. Significantly, the institutional backlash against online dissidence has borrowed heavily from the rule-book of dissenters. Iran, for instance, has assisted in the formation of individual religious blogs to counter ‘revolutionary propaganda’.
The Blogging Revolution dismantles several other half-truths. In mainstream media, dissidence is often glorified, but journalists seldom pay attention to the forlornness of the enterprise. Here, we come across an Egyptian dissident who confides that his battle against the State has left him terribly lonely. He seems to echo the pain of the Cuban woman activist who confesses her estrangement from her son on account of her opposition to Castro.
Loewenstein also punctures the claim that cyber dissent has helped forge a pan-Arab nationalism. He unearths the ethnic tensions that continue to brew in Syria over the question of Iraqi refugees, thereby exposing new faultliness that are eroding old ties based on identity.
Online campaigns are not only about democracy. For the women respondents, the war is also against regressive norms and their proponents. An Iranian artist complains that she cannot exhibit her work in Iran; an Egyptian blogger reveals that she finds the views of the Muslim Brotherhood extreme. It is heartening to see Loewenstein address the question of women’s empowerment to suggest that the battle against tyranny is complex and layered, and that political change is meaningless without social transition.
Loewenstein should also be thanked for his attempt to democratize information. He is aware that the debased culture of contemporary reportage often prioritizes Western hegemony and interests. His unembedded travels help liberate voices that are seldom accommodated in the mainstream Western media. A Saudi blogger insists that change can never be imposed from the outside on the Muslim world. He could have been speaking for nearly every other dissident. Their views offer compelling evidence for the West to temper its campaign to project the new media as a tool to engineer revolution in the Muslim world.
Loewenstein’s book would also be of use to Indian readers and journalists. The latter, who often succumb to the lure of sensationalism, will find in it a template for objective reporting. Loewenstein’s sympathies may lie with the oppressed but he does not allow his sentiments to cloud his broader objectives. His prose thus remains dispassionate, economical, and nearly always enquiring. As for Indian readers, this book will perhaps make them value their freedom of expression and remind them not to take that right for granted. It will also make them wary of seemingly innocuous developments such as the minister for human resources directing social networking sites to remove ‘objectionable’ content or the judiciary mulling over guidelines for the media in India.
But what of the future, both in the real and cyber world? Even after revolutions — whether or not aided by the social media— things may remain unchanged. In Egypt, recently freed from the shadow of Mubarak, a blogger was imprisoned for criticizing the military. Loewenstein reminds us that it is imperative for dissident bloggers to remain engaged with the injustices that are perpetrated not just in repressive states but also in the free world.
An Iranian blogger had once written that every light that remains switched on in Teheran at night showed that “somebody is sitting behind [sic] a computer, driving through [sic] information road; and that is in fact a storehouse of gun powder that, if ignited, will start a great firework in the capital of the revolutionary Islam”. That light, Loewenstein urges, should never be turned off.
My following investigation is the lead story on Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar English:
The past decade has seen a significant increase in foreign investments in the private security market around the Middle East. Pakistan is one of the countries that attracted the most attention in this global mercenary business.
The American killing of Osama bin Laden last year in Abbottabad still resonates across Pakistan. Newspapers are filled with establishment outrage that Washington has treated the country like an abused cousin for too long. “Give us some respect,” military and government figures opine on the airwaves. “We are an independent nation that won’t tolerate drone attacks and extra-judicial killings,” commentators scream on the radio.
It’s all an elaborate sham. Front page stories in leading publications explain that President Asif Ali Zardari is attempting to negotiate a better deal to allow supply lines that service American troops in Afghanistan through Pakistan to be reopened. This after they were severed in November when US airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. There has been fierce opposition to this proposal, including on the part of leading Muslim groups who want to keep America isolated.
However, a leading national security journalist in Karachi told Al-Akhbar that 90 percent of the supply lines never stopped and journalists in the mainstream media were knowingly publishing lies that the routes had been closed. “This is how our media operates,” he said, “the truth is rarely clear.”
Pakistan, more than 10 years after 11 September 2001, is a broken country. Militants are eating their host, launching attacks inside the country and neighboring Afghanistan, and demanding the overthrow of the central government.The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) is effectively a state within a state, often accused of detaining, kidnapping, and killing journalists at will.
Al-Akhbar spoke exclusively to some of Pakistan’s leading reporters in Karachi, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Peshawar to understand how Pakistan remains, as writer Ahmed Rashid calls his latest book, “on the brink.”
The private security industry is integral to this equation, inflaming a militarised and unaccountable situation and providing vital surveillance to a heavily monitored state.
Shaukat Qadir, a retired Pakistani Army Brigadier close to the country’s political and intelligence establishment, has been at the center of these discussions for years. He was given official permission in 2011 to visit the bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad and interview some of the key players in the Pakistani government and intelligence in an attempt to understand how the world’s most infamous fugitive was able to live in supposed hiding for so long.
Qadir said in Rawalpindi that he believed only a few ISI and Pakistani officials knew the whereabouts of bin Laden before his death. “I refuse to believe it was due to incompetence or complicity,” he argued.
Qadir, 65, discovered in his research that the Americans, despite claiming otherwise, had no idea where bin Laden was hiding and weren’t watching his house for a long time.
“Bin Laden had become a liability, embarrassment, and distraction for Al-Qaeda and they wanted to make a fresh start or at least re-brand,” he said, suggesting the leader had been forcefully retired in 2003 due to growing dementia.
The most explosive allegation was that one of bin Laden’s wives eventually sold him out as a way to share in the US$25 million reward money. There was intense rivalry amongst bin Laden’s wives – some of whom are soon to be deported from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But Qadir didn’t know if that reward had been paid. He’d heard that al-Qaeda, “who were totally broke before this,” had received – not directly from the US though Qadir claimed without hard proof that Washington had unwittingly paid al-Qaeda this money – about US$12 million and his wife US$1.5 million.
Asked constantly if he was sure of his allegations, Qadir wouldn’t confirm them but some of the allegations were certainly plausible. His connections in Pakistan’s military and intelligence are impeccable and in place of anything more substantive, or a thorough and believable Pakistani-led investigation, Qadir’s report stands as a damning indictment of the country’s shadow state that operates above the rule of law and accountability of the parliament.
The years since 9/11 have brought Pakistan instability and mass carnage. An official from MQM, Pakistan’s third biggest political party, said that after the attacks in New York and Washington, “the nation had no choice, under President Musharraf, but to back the US. If not, we would have been attacked.”
This may be true but the effect of the conflict within its own borders and Afghanistan has been a disturbing war against free speech and outspoken journalists. The expansion in private mercenaries has supported a conflict that many told me they didn’t really want but billions of American dollars helped convince any official waverers.
Apart from the ISI, private security companies are another state within the state. Al-Akhbar has been given exclusive access to a list of 62 retired former military men who joined private security companies in the last years.
Sources say that at least half of these men had been arrested and then released for corruption and working for the Americans. Although it was an open secret that many Pakistani officials worked with the US, these men were targeted briefly for pushing the murky rules too far.
The most revealing company name on the list was G4S Wackenhut Pakistan. G4S is a British-based behemoth in the industry with a troubling human rights record. Its presence in countless countries is ubiquitous and it remains the world’s largest security firm on revenues, operating in 125 nations and employing over 650,000 people. Countless men in G4S uniforms are employed across the country.
In Islamabad the G4S manager, retired from the air force, is Muhammad Alamgir Khan. “I wasn’t really working before [in the army],” he said, “but now I’m working for G4S. Army is a way of life.”
Discussing human rights, Khan said, “You love independent media, judiciary, and government until you’re in government and then it’s a problem.” Throughout the two-hour meeting, the term “human rights” were regularly brought up.
The real reason for the expansion in companies such as G4S in Pakistan was revealed in a succinct comment. “If direct foreign investment doesn’t come to Pakistan, the economy fails. Private security helps protect these investments,” Khan argued.
As the security situation across the nation deteriorated, private interests needed protection from militant forces that elements of the state still supported.
In many nations since September 11, private security companies have often replaced functions of the state. In Pakistan, however, the government uses former military personnel to work for private security companies, giving them unique access to intelligence. The war economy fuels an elite group of companies and individuals determined to make money from political instability.
Journalists rarely report on this deep collusion between intelligence, private security, and the state because they face the threat of death or assault. According to the Committee to Project Journalists, Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice reporting. Al-Akhbar met a number of print, TV, and online reporters who recounted stories of official harassment, kidnapping, ISI threats, and torture. Officials are never held to account for these actions.
Hamid Mir is arguably Pakistan’s most famous talk show host and journalist. He works for Geo TV and hosts “Capital Talk.” In his mid 40s and slightly pudgy with a bushy black moustache, his office in Islamabad was a stuffy large room with bare walls and four TV sets playing various local channels.
Mir has interviewed bin Laden three times, including once after 9/11. He is the only journalist known to have spoken to the Al-Qaeda leader after the attacks.
Mir has been the victim of countless ISI attacks and kidnappings, loved and loathed at various times by the Pakistani government, Taliban, and militants. He has sent his son out of the country to ensure his safety. He takes big risks by naming and shaming ISI officials who threaten him and other journalists. Very few other people follow his lead.
He claimed recently that Zardari called him personally and asked him to stop criticising some military figures. He refused. Zardari then urged him to organise more security for his protection and use state-provided services. Mir said he didn’t trust them but he had arranged a guard to accompany him day and night. “Zardari is only the president in the papers,” Mir stated, asserting that the real power in Pakistan lies with the military and intelligence services.
When asked about the role of private security and intelligence he reached for his copy of the Pakistani constitution; clause 256 states, “Private armies forbidden.” Mir said they operated far more frequently in past years, mostly former military men out to make more money in the private sector, but less often today.
The Pakistan government’s war against its journalists isn’t just directed at men. Women are often the silent victims of the conflict though few have a platform like “Miriam” (not her real name) who hosts a popular talk-show.
She told Al-Akhbar of being hassled by the ISI for criticising the intelligence services too forcefully on her program. She initially didn’t take the threats seriously until being warned by close associates that she could no longer ignore them. She has never been told the exact nature of the complaints against her but her life has now changed profoundly. She is not the free woman she was only a few months ago and her movements must be carefully considered.
Leading investigative journalist Umar Cheema explained in Islamabad that this limbo was exactly what the authorities wanted. Having been himself kidnapped and tortured by the ISI in 2010, Cheema said the ISI wanted to instill fear in anybody who challenged its behavior and wanted individuals to believe they could be reached, harassed, or hurt no matter where they are.
These stories were sadly familiar. If they were given a degree of protection because of their fame – this didn’t save Syed Saleem Shahzad who was murdered allegedly by the ISI last year, because he had uncovered a connection between al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Army – such comforts were not shared by Syed Fakhar KaKaKhel, based in Peshawar near the Afghan border.
Peshawar is an edgy city with suicide bombings every other week, most women wear burkas and men have bushy beards. It is a world away from the relative liberalism of Islamabad only a few hours away.
Fakhar’s knowledge about FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] was immense, having spent time in the various regions. He believed that the vast bulk of the violence that was currently bedevilling Pakistan was a reaction to American actions post 9/11. He didn’t subscribe to the clash of civilisations narrative. “Not all the Taliban are the same,” he explained.
Fakhar’s outlook on the ISI was based around pragmatism. He wasn’t blind to the brutality of some Taliban toward apparent enemies or “infidels.” There was no romanticising but he saw them as a product of circumstances created by outside forces in the West and inside Pakistan. His journalism was grassroots, keeping connected to the various people in the regions.
He explained to Al-Akhbar that he didn’t fear for his life but he could only be an independent reporter these days because so much of the mainstream media refused to tell the truth about the role of the ISI in empowering the very elements that were destabilising the state.
The resentment toward foreign influence was palpable in Peshawar. The compound of Khyber News Bureau is a sprawling safe house allegedly once used by the American mercenary company Blackwater until the expulsion from Pakistan of CIA agent and Blackwater employee Raymond Davis in 2011. It was one of up to 70 such private security compounds in the area before 2011, according to Fakhar.
There were also credible, although impossible to verify, allegations by a senior government official in Peshawar of Blackwater activity in the tribal area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The firm was both collecting intelligence on suspected militants and operating with the CIA and US Special Forces.
The presence of Western security companies in Pakistan was unwelcome. Fakhar asked if private security was needed why locals weren’t employed, who understood the area and spoke the language, rather than Westerners who looked foreign, couldn’t converse, and wouldn’t know the latest intelligence because they’d have to rely on others to provide it for them.
When a company such as G4S operates in the country under the guise of providing security for key institutions or individuals, it creates an industry that is self-perpetuating. Instability is growing and G4S will protect you the thinking goes. But instability is worsening because companies such as G4S often operate outside the law and hire guards with little training. The war economy therefore expands and a select few individuals are turning a profit due to the actions of colleagues in the ISI, some of whom back the very militants private security is meant to repel.
The confusing agendas of competing forces in Pakistan have contributed to a culture where “red lines” are constantly shifting for commentators and reporters. Journalists who report on Waziristan, the area suffering US drone bombardment, face some of the toughest conditions.
This is the enigma of Pakistan. It is a nuclear-armed nation which is seemingly always on the verge of collapse due to both a desperate need for American money and its need to secure its regional position against India and Afghanistan. The result is a quasi-police state, backed by private security, silencing critics of its politics of capitulation toward militants and Washington. Courageous journalists and human rights activist are lone voices of dissent.
Over a decade of manoeuvring has left the state divided by ethnic tensions, insurgent activity, corruption, and self-censorship. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have compounded the problem by treating the nation as little more than a testing ground for new weapons against supposed terrorists. Tragically, civilians have born the brunt of the onslaught and turned the country into a cauldron of poverty, resentment, elite disdain, and silence.
That’s the “war on terror’s” legacy.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author who is currently working on a book and documentary on disaster capitalism.
If there is money to be made for defending rogue states (take Burma, Israel or Saudi Arabia), some Western hacks will line up for the job.
Earlier this month, a group of three young Bahrainis arrived in Washington to talk about reform in the small Persian Gulf nation, which has been rocked by Arab Spring protests for the last year. The delegation, including an NGO worker and a tech entrepreneur, both Western-educated, represented “the leading voice for change and reform” in Bahrain, as an email message from one of the group’s representatives put it.
But these weren’t leaders of the protest movement that has challenged the country’s ruling Sunni monarchy. They were members of a “youth delegation” put together by a top American public relations firm, Qorvis, which has been working with Bahrain to shore up the country’s image in the United States.
The youth delegation’s modestly pro-reform message was mixed with sharp criticism of the opposition in Bahrain and complaints about negative media coverage in the U.S.
Last year, in the early weeks of Bahrain’s violent crackdown on the largely Shia opposition protests, the minister of foreign affairs inked a contract with Qorvis to provide public-relations services for $40,000 per month, plus expenses. One of the largest PR and lobbying firms in Washington, Qorvis employs a number of former top Capitol Hill staffers and also works for Bahrain’s close ally, Saudi Arabia. The firm’s work for Bahrain came under scrutiny last year when it defended the government’sraid last year on a Doctors Without Borders office in Bahrain. Also in 2011, a Qorvis official wrote pro-regime columns in The Huffington Post without revealing his affiliation with Qorvis.
Bahrain is an important American ally in the gulf, and its capital Manama is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. An independent commission found late last year that the government had systematically tortured detainees and used excessive force to put down the protests. While the unrest has fallen from the headlines, Bahrain continues tosuppress protests, sometimes violently. And while Bahrain has promised reforms, Human Rights Watch today released a report finding “egregious violations of fair trial rights” in cases brought against opposition activists.
The Obama administration has largely stood by Bahrain, offering muted criticism whilecontinuing to sell arms to the government, though one weapons package remains on hold.
To counter negative press, Bahrain has made a major public-relations push in the U.S., employing Qorvis and several other firms. The youth delegation dispatched to Washington, on the anniversary of the start of the protests, is the latest part of that effort.
My book The Blogging Revolution was recently released in India in an updated edition.
Here’s a pretty good review of it by J Jagannath in a leading Indian newspaper, Business Standard:
The little spark that the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi ignited in December 2010 to torch himself in retaliation against corruption has engulfed the Arab region ever since. It brought the power back into people’s hands and the jitters were felt by the tyrants in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Libya and, to an extent, Bahrain (apart from Tunisia, of course). That begs the question: would all this have been possible without the World Wide Web? Yes it was the dispossessed and disenchanted who first raised their arms against the totalitarianism, but it’s a stretch to deny the blogs played their part by sowing the seeds of discontent.
You may call Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein a Nouriel Roubini of geopolitics for predicting an Arab Spring sort of thing after his visits to Damascus and Cairo, which are chronicled in a lively manner in this book. The book is a collection of dispatches from Loewenstein’s visits to Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and China in 2007 to make sense of the nascent blogging craze in these repressive countries.
In Iran, Loewenstein brings the blogging scene to life in an almost Hunter S Thompson way. He visits nooks and crannies of Tehran to meet the handful of dissenters and brings to life the doings of the Ahmadinejad regime. It surely doesn’t augur well for the argumentative nature of any country if a blogger is detained for revealing that Iran’s presidential staff bought dogs from Germany for $150,000. Even though he touches upon the familiar issues, female and homosexual repression, Loewenstein has many original points to make. He’s spot on about the underground rave party scene, where demure women let their hair down. This is something that was portrayed last year in the gritty Iranian film Circumstance.
Equally illuminating is his reportage from Cairo, the solar plexus of the Arab Spring. Loewenstein chats with quite a few bloggers who raised their voices against the corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak. Over the course of his trip, Loewenstein unearths blogs and websites that convey the Egyptians’ anguish in a more nuanced manner than the Western corporate media stationed there. Loewenstein’s trip to Syria is also as revealing and it confirms theories that the Arab Spring was in the making for a long time; all it needed was one small push, which Bouazizi provided.
The Blogging Revolution will be remembered for its prescience. A blogger tells Loewenstein in 2008, “If Mubarak lost power, the Islamists would take over and cause trouble.” This is exactly what looks like is happening in Egypt following Mubarak’s ouster. The book lays bare how misguided the perception of blogs being “echo chambers” and “information cocoons” is. This book is a perfect riposte to what Forbes once said blogs are all about: “the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective.” The Arab Spring showed how the Goliaths had to surrender before the Davids whose only “weapon” is the Internet.
What pulls back The Blogging Revolution a notch or two is that Loewenstein doesn’t make much headway in Cuba and Saudi Arabia. He’s either seen dithering or the authorities never let him near the actual troublemakers. He builds his reportage more or less on an assortment of articles from various sources. Although it’s laudable that he chose to brave the odds and travelled to Saudi Arabia and Cuba, the author appears as hapless as an upended turtle. In China, Loewenstein casts a wider net and tries to ask the Chinese if freedom of speech means anything to them as long as everything’s hunky dory with their personal lives.
Contrary to what Western media reports, Loewenstein finds out that most people prefer to be insouciant about the Tiananmen massacre. “People just want to get on with their lives. It’s in the past,” tells a source to Loewenstein. Here’s how Loewenstein summarises the attitude of Chinese bloggers, “On their wish lists, a Nintendo Wii comes far ahead of democracy. Free pirated films, television shows and music are their primary concern.” However, at the end of his dispatch he concludes that the Chinese politburo cannot anaesthetise the revolutionary streak among Chinese bloggers.
Another setback for The Blogging Revolution is the way Internet revolution zeitgeist has shifted from blogging to social networking and micro-blogging. The Arab Spring really exploded when people started tweeting about the atrocities being committed by Mubarak during his last-ditch efforts to cling on to power. During the disputed elections in Iran in 2009 when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to clamp down on protests and Twitter quelled his efforts, Economist carried a headline “Twitter: 1, CNN: 0”. These minor gripes aside, The Blogging Revolution is a nice throwback to whatever monstrosities the Arab Spring managed to undo and what blogging can achieve, with its heart in the right place, in the future.
THE BLOGGING REVOLUTION
294 pages; Rs 350
Another week and another column by a Melbourne Herald Sun editor Alan Howe on just how dysfunctional is the Middle East, Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians, Islamists etc. The man has form.
Yes, this is what countless Zionist lobby trips to Israel do to a Murdoch man. Hatred Inc:
In Arab lands, like-minded, militant Islamists abound. Some are Sunni. Some are Shia. Some are just bonkers.
Democracy? It’s all Greek to them.
The wave of uprisings this year is being called the Arab Spring, a name derived from the so-called Prague Spring of 1968 in which Czechoslovakian leader Alexander Dubcek untied a few of the shackles of Moscow-enforced communism.
He was a man before his time. Within months the Warsaw pact nations invaded Czechoslovakia sending 200,000 troops and 2000 tanks to forcefully take control of the nation, Soviet boss Leonid Brezhnev installed a puppet leader and communism was quickly restored.
That back-to-the-future lesson is a powerful one for the Arab world.
At first blanch, the Arab uprisings of this year looked to be advances for people often trapped by clerics and tyrants who have used Islam to enslave, torture and kill their people so that they can live in opulent grandeur among some of the planet’s poorest populations.
Iran might appear to be the odd man out. For a start its people prefer to fashion themselves as Persians, but it has a significant Arab core. Its supreme leader seems to shun the indulgences that define the lifestyles of his neighbouring leaders, but he and his president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are still the two of the most dangerous men on earth.
Ahmadinejad is mad. Barking. And soon to be nuclear armed.
This year saw movements for freedom in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Iran, Syria, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia.
The tyrannical states that enjoy Western support – Bahrain and Saudi Arabia – have largely survived, although Egypt fell quickly. Those who alienated the West, or threatened it, or attacked it, are gone. By the hand of their own people.
If the Palestinians put down their weapons, there’d be peace. If the Israelis put down their weapons, there’d be genocide.
As the country reviews its spending on defense and foreign assistance, it is time to examine the funding the United States provides to Israel.
Let me put it another way: Nine days ago, the Israeli cabinet reacted to months of demonstrations against the high cost of living there and agreed to raise taxes on corporations and people with high incomes ($130,000 a year). It also approved cutting more than $850 million, or about 5 percent, from its roughly $16 billion defense budget in each of the next two years.
If Israel can reduce its defense spending because of its domestic economic problems, shouldn’t the United States — which must cut military costs because of its major budget deficit — consider reducing its aid to Israel?
Look for a minute at the bizarre formula that has become an element of U.S.-Israel military aid, the so-called qualitative military edge (QME). Enshrined in congressional legislation, it requires certification that any proposed arms sale to any other country in the Middle East “will not adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge over military threats to Israel.”
In 2009 meetings with defense officials in Israel, Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher “reiterated the United States’ strong commitment” to the formula and “expressed appreciation” for Israel’s willingness to work with newly created “QME working groups,” according to a cable of her meetings that was released by WikiLeaks.
The formula has an obvious problem. Because some neighboring countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are U.S. allies but also considered threats by Israel, arms provided to them automatically mean that better weapons must go to Israel. The result is a U.S.-generated arms race.
For example, the threat to both countries from Iran led the Saudis in 2010 to begin negotiations to purchase advanced F-15 fighters. In turn, Israel — using $2.75 billion in American military assistance — has been allowed to buy 20 of the new F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighters being developed by the United States and eight other nations.
American arms merchants enjoyed a dominant year in 2010 as the United States was responsible for selling more than half of all weapons worldwide.Although U.S. arms exports actually declined last year, compared to 2009, the dramatic drop in global arms deals resulted in American suppliers controlling 53% of the market (up from 35% in 2009). Altogether, the U.S. inked $21.3 billion in new weapons orders with foreign countries in 2010. These figures do not include arms deals made directly between commercial weapons makers and other countries outside of the U.S. government program known as the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system.Only 49% of all U.S. deals were with developing countries, which usually account for the vast majority of international military purchases. These nations accounted for 70% of all new arms agreements with American suppliers last year. In 2010, U.S. companies led the world in arms sales to developing countries, controlling 40% of the market.The United States overwhelmingly dominates arms sales to the Near East, with the bulk of sales in the last four years going to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Iraq.
The New York Times documents the shift in the Arab world at a time when Washington is largely viewed as siding with occupiers (Israel) and brutes (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain etc):
A last-ditch American effort to head off a Palestinian bid for membership in the United Nations faltered. President Obamatried to qualify his own call, just a year ago, for a Palestinian state. And President Nicolas Sarkozy of France stepped forcefully into the void, with a proposal that pointedly repudiated Mr. Obama’s approach.
The extraordinary tableau Wednesday at the United Nations underscored a stark new reality: the United States is facing the prospect of having to share, or even cede, its decades-long role as the architect of Middle East peacemaking.
Even before Mr. Obama walked up to the General Assembly podium to make his difficult address, where he declared that “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.,” American officials acknowledged that their various last-minute attempts to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with help from European allies and Russia had collapsed.
American diplomats turned their attention to how to navigate a new era in which questions of Palestinian statehood are squarely on the global diplomatic agenda. There used to be three relevant players in any Middle East peace effort: the Palestinians, Israel and the United States. But expansions of settlements in the West Bank and a hardening of Israeli attitudes have isolated Israel and its main backer, the United States. Dissension among Palestinian factions has undermined the prospect for a new accord as well.
Finally, Washington politics has limited Mr. Obama’s ability to try to break the logjam if that means appearing to distance himself from Israel. Republicans have mounted a challenge to lure away Jewish voters who supported Democrats in the past, after some Jewish leaders sharply criticized Mr. Obama for trying to push Israel too hard.
The result has been two and a half years of stagnation on the Middle East peace front that has left Arabs — and many world leaders — frustrated, and ready to try an alternative to the American-centric approach that has prevailed since the 1970s.
“The U.S. cannot lead on an issue that it is so boxed in on by its domestic politics,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator in the government of Ehud Barak. “And therefore, with the region in such rapid upheaval and the two-state solution dying, as long as the U.S. is paralyzed, others are going to have to step up.”
The arms industry is a massive global market of Western nations, willing dictatorships and heaps of money.
New Statesman reports on the world’s largest arms fair recently held in London:
The two main exhibition halls have previously hosted concerts by Roxy Music, Alice Cooper and UB40. But today they are crammed with around 1300 exhibits, selling guns, bombs and the latest in security technology. A handful of stalls are devoted to life-saving equipment. Most of the space, however, is reserved for displays featuring 100lb hellfire missiles, AK47 rifles, stealth tanks and even gold-plated handguns.
The quiet dissipates and is replaced by the sound of chatter. Business cards change hands, and multi-million pound contracts are being negotiated. At a large stand run by the defence arm of SAAB, a Swedish company more renowned for its cars, Håkan Kappelin is showing off a laser-guided missile system to delegates from India. It has a range of 8km and can travel at speeds of up to 680 metres per second.
“It could be deployed inside a city like London. And you can engage any type of target,” he says. “Not like when you use an infra-red system, where you have problems with houses in the background. Just reload in five seconds and engage the next target.”
The delegates nod approvingly. “680 metres per second,” one repeats to another.
Upstairs, in a briefing room, Defence Secretary Liam Fox delivers a speech. Anti-arms campaigners have levelled criticism against the government for doing deals with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of crackdowns on protesters across the Arab world. Fox is dismissive. “I am proud that the UK is the second biggest defence exporter in the world,” he says. “This is fundamental part of the coalition government’s agenda for economic growth, but it is also part of our strategy of enlightened international engagement.”