dinsdag, oktober 04, 2005

Imperialists in NGO drag - US State Department lickspittles Reporters Sans Frontieres produce blogger handbook? Humbug!

Christopher Hitchens, many years before he developed his gasconade, cock-rocketish oeuvre of liberalism-for-frat-boys, wrote a smart little leaflet about how beatific old Mother Theresa was in reality a condom-banning, abstinence-preaching, dictator-ass-kissing harpee of a thing. Everyone quite loved the saintly little midget, so Hitch received not a few sackfuls of hate-mail from affronted Catholic Girl Guides and the like. Who but the hardest-hearted of cynics could find something for which to criticise the beloved Saint of Calcutta's good deeds amongst the poorest of the poor?

Although they don't quite have the public relations machine of the late Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, Reporters Sans Frontieres, the France-based NGO that fights for press freedoms around the world, has as benign a reputation, and is widely thought of as an unimpeachably righteous do-gooder non-profit on the model of Amnesty International. And they have this last week published a pamphlet of their own that will only burnish such regard.

RSF has put out a guidebook for bloggers, aiming in particular at those who live under regimes with a less than humanist attitude towards press freedoms. The Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-dissidents is, according to the Guardian's
bloggers, 'a cross between a motivational business guide and the internet's answer to the Anarchist Cookbook', and, with the acute blogophobia of governments such as that of China, which only last Sunday announced a new crackdown on internet-based writers and activists, increasingly resulting in the suppression and imprisonment of bloggers, there is no better time than now to issue such a pamphlet.

So it seems to be farting in church a little to point out that RSF is actively engaged in the advancement of US and French foreign policy interests to the detriment of reporters' rights; that it white-washed of the murder of journalists in Iraq by occupation forces; supports the right-wing Venezuelan opposition, the invasion of Iraq, and the overthrow of Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Bertrand Aristide; and receives funding from not merely the State Department but also hard-right Miami-based hard-right Cuban exile groups that support anti-Castro terrorism.

Nonetheless, all of this is true. Reporters Sans Frontieres, founded by Frenchman Robert Menard, is nothing more than imperialists in NGO drag, on the model of the AFL-CIO's
notoriously Latin-America-meddling American Center for International Labor Solidarity (which replaces its forerunner, the American Institute of Free Labor Development - the American House of Labor's participation in the overthrow of Chile's Salvador Allende*).

Plainly, in Stalinist Cuba, press freedom does not exist in the way it does in, say, northern European countries, and is thus a legitimate target of criticism from an organisation that monitors violations of press freedom around the globe. However, in its criticisms of Cuba, RSF goes beyond legitimate criticisms of the attacks on journalistic liberties into active anti-regime propagandising barely distinguishable from the biased press releases of the State Department, or even the froth-mouthed hyperbole of the Miami Cuban-exile mafia.

Every year, RSF publishes an annual ranking of countries based on their press freedom, the Worldwide Press Freedom Index. Near the top of the most recent index, not unexpectedly, are such nations as Denmark, Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand, while at the bottom are such oppobrious freedom-allergics as China, Burma, Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. No surprise really. What is surprising is that Cuba comes in dead last, apart from the aforementioned Stalinist Disneyland of Kim Jong-il.

Now, Castro's regime has a lot to answer for, but is the level of press freedom there really almost as bad as that of North Korea? Let's have a closer look at that index, shall we? Out of 167 rankings, Cuba comes 166th, lower than China, which comes 162nd; lower than Nepal - 160th; Iraq - 148th - where, as of the end of September, according to RSF's own figures, 70 journalists had been killed by both sides; dissident-boiling Uzbekistan - 142nd; Russia - 140th; trade-union-friendly Colombia - 134th; Turkey - 114th; and - and this is quite telling - Israel, which comes in at 37th.

But what has happened in Cuba to so frighten these defenders of press freedom? What wicked act could the Cuban authorities have performed against reporters and the media that convinces them that Cuba is the second-least-free state on Earth in terms of freedom of the press? How many journalists have they tortured and killed?

None, actually. No boil-in-a-bag repression Uzbek-stylee; no gay Iranian bloggers hung; no cameramen sentenced to thirty years for speaking Kurdish on air and no Chinese labour activists sent to the funny farm indefinitely for printing posters denouncing poor working conditions.

This is not to say that Cuba is without fault. As RSF says, everything from internet use to possession of a fax machine or computer requires permission and, apart from a handful of Catholic Church newsletters, there are virtually no independent publications. Indeed, one cannot really criticise the specific reason RSF finds a problem with Cuba - the arrest, trial and imprisonment of 21 dissident journalists for receiving funding from the U.S. The reporters remain in jail.

Now, it is true that the journalists met regularly at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, receiving advice and funding and are committed to the overthrow of the Castro regime, and one may justifiably ask whether in the States journalists who had received funding and training from a foreign government committed to the destruction of the U.S. and who met regularly at the embassy of an enemy nation would be treated any differently than these Cuban reporters have, but they would certainly not have been arrested and imprisoned in most of the cuddly Scandicanadazealandian democracies - and they, surely, are the better measure of press freedom, not the United States.

The problem is not that RSF criticises Cuba - although some Castrophiles refuse to hear anything but that Cuba is some libertarian Shangri-la and RSF rightly takes such blinkered romantics on - it is that the criticism of Cuba is out of all proportion to the level of pressures on press freedom that exist there.

But back to that list. Israel, by the way, comes in ahead of Italy (39th), and perhaps understandably, but also ahead of Australia (41st), Japan (43rd) and South Korea (48th). Actually, in truth, Israel, like only one other country on the list, has its ranking split in two. In its Worldwide Press Freedom Index, RSF allows Israel to have two kicks at the can - Israel (Israeli territory), which wins 37th place, and Israel (Occupied Territories), which wins 116th place - which is awfully sporting of them. I wonder where Israel would fall in the listing if the two rankings were combined. Still, as bad as things are at level 116, they're still better, according to the noble RSF witnesses, than at level 127 - the Palestinian Authority.

The other country that gets a double-ranking free kick is - shall we say it together, kids? - the United States. There is that bastion of press freedom and home of Fox News, United States of America (American territory), which comes in at a respectable 23rd place, just behind Belgium but ahead of Portugal (25th), South Africa (26th) and the U.K. (30th); and then there is United States of America (in Iraq) [note here how while conceding Israel is occupying something, the U.S. is just 'in' Iraq, like 'I just popped in for a visit', or 'I was over at Mrs. Gilbert's, and what did she put in her strudel, why candied ginger, donchaknow!'], which comes in at a woeful 108th place, sandwiched between Kyrgyzstan and Cambodia, and in the neighbourhood of the Central African Republic (104th) and Rwanda (113th) and Turkey (114th) - still better, mind you than the aforementioned Cuba, of course. Turkey, unfortunately, was unable to convince the judges to allow it both a Turkey (Kurdish-journo-torturing) and a Turkey (non-Kurdish-journo-torturing), which I think is just rotten favouritism on the part of the refs.

Indeed, in the
press release announcing the latest index, RSF seems to forget entirely how poorly America's 'evil twin' performed in its league table, as under a headline that reads, 'The two North American giants score well', the group reports that:

'A police raid in Canada on the home of journalist Juliet O'Neil and the national regulatory authority’s stand against the pan-Arab radio station Al-Jazeera and the local station CHOI FM downgraded the country to 18th place. Violations of the privacy of sources, persistent problems in granting press visas and the arrest of several journalists during anti-Bush demonstrations kept the United States (22nd) away from the top of the list.'
The decision of Canada's national regulatory authority, the CRTC, was actually to approve the broadcast of Al-Jazeera - the Qatar based channel known for being the sand in the thong of Arab regimes almost as much for the calumny it attracts from the U.S., and which has just managed to sign Sir David Frost, the veteran BBC interviewer - thus RSF, the defender of press freedom, is here actually criticising the Canadian communications regulator for expanding such freedom.

The release doesn't even mention the U.S. Army's 8 April 2003 shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Iraq, where almost all foreign journalists had been based, killing Spanish cameraman José Couso of Telecinco and Ukrainian Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and wounding three others. In fact, on the very same day, the Iraqi offices of United Arab Emirates satellite channel Abu Dhabi TV were hit by air strikes as well, and two American air-to-surface missiles also hit Al Jazeera's office in Baghdad and killed Tariq Ayoub, a Jordanian reporter, and wounded Zouhair al-Iraqi, an Iraqi cameraman. Three missile attacks on the media in one day - oh, and add to that Nato's bombing of Radio Televizija Srbija during the air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, and, well, I'm not saying there's a pattern here - I'm no tin-foil-hat-wearing moonbat that thinks that just because one country's armed forces has systematically targeted television stations over and over, that there might be some conspiracy here, but you know - it bears looking into.

But no, according to RSF's release, 'persistent problems in granting press visas' was America's gravest sin against press freedoms.

RSF itself did actually denounce the attack on the Palestine Hotel initially, but when it came to its own investigation of the shelling, RSF's report ultimately exonerated the U.S. of all blame, resulting in the family of José Couso to attack the RSF report as a white-wash. The Couso family responded to the RSF report
press release, saying:

'The conclusions of this report exculpate the acknowledged perpetrators of the shelling of the Palestine Hotel on the basis of the dubious impartiality of embedded reporters and the testimony of those responsible for the shelling, transferring responsibility to unidentified individuals.

'The report was signed by a journalist, Jean Paul Mari, who has a known relationship with Col. Phillip de Camp, who acknowledged his involvement in the attack and the deaths of the journalists at the Palestine Hotel. Furthermore, the report is supported by the testimony of three journalists embedded with U.S. troops, all of them U.S. citizens; one of them, Chris Tomlinson, having worked for U.S. Army intelligence for more than seven years. None of the Spanish journalists in the hotel has been consulted for the writing of this report.

'The report contains numerous errors, contradictions and irregularities in reference to important facts such as the location of the rooms at the hotel, the site of impact of the shell, the location of witnesses, etc…Reporters without Borders (Spanish Section) requested to join the complaint filed by the family on May 27, 2003, against those responsible for the death of José Couso. After the release of this report which, according to its version, excuses them from responsibility in the murder of the journalists at the Palestine Hotel, it is absolutely illogical and contradictory that their organization continues to be a party to the public action in the open proceedings of the National Tribunal.

'For this reason we express the wish of the family that they withdraw their request for standing as a party to the public action in the open proceedings of the National Tribunal.'*
In fact, RSF actually praised the invasion of Iraq and celebrated the bombing campaign, saying: 'the overthrow of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein ended 30 years of official propaganda and has opened a new era of freedom, full of hope and uncertainty, for Iraqi journalists,' and that, 'for the Iraqi media, decades of zero press freedom ended with the bombing of the Ministry of Information on 9 April in Baghdad.'

Apart from the organisation's contemptable white-washing of America's targeting of war correspondents, thus directly endangering the lives of journalists, and its explicit support for American imperialism, on a more prosaic level, RSF takes Turkmenistan to task, and rightly so, for having no privately-owned media, but the organisation says nothing, absolutely nothing about the undermining of public broadcasters in the United States (the Republican Congress' assaults on the funding of the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio), in the U.K. (the attacks on BBC surrounding Andrew Gilligan), in Canada (the governing Liberal's slashing of the CBC's budget by $400m, around 33 per cent of its funding) or the European Commission's allergy to German public broadcasters' spending money on new forms of diffusion of information such as the internet or via mobile. There is a concerted international attempt by the privatisation fundamentalists to undermine public broadcasting and a growing corporate concentration of the mass media and RSF says nothing about either's effect on press freedom.

Lately, the organisation has taken to criticising Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, specifically for three items: physical attacks on journalists by government supporters, public protests against corporate media bias, and a new law that requires the media adhere to norms of 'social responsibility'.

It is a twisted logic, however, as what are in fact popular and government attempts to free the media from hard-right, corporate control are portrayed as their inverse: attacks on the media. The very attempts to expand the freedom of the press in Venezuela for RSF are crimes against liberty and sufficient to warrant awarding Venezuela 90th place in its Press Freedom Index.

The country's five largest television channels - Venevisión, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Globovisión and CMT - are privately owned and so vituperatively hostile to the Chavez government that they make even Fox News look, well, fair and balanced, and moreover, nine of the ten largest newspapers are opposed to the government.

Impartiality is a foreign concept to the television stations, who,
according to Nation journalist Naomi Klein, during the 2003 failed 'strike' by the managers and owners of the state petrol company, broadcast an average of 700 pro-strike commercials a day. Further, found Klein:

'[I]n the days leading up to the [failed] April coup, Venevisión, RCTV, Globovisión and Televen replaced regular programming with relentless anti-Chávez speeches, interrupted only for commercials calling on viewers to take to the streets: "Not one step backward. Out! Leave now!" The ads were sponsored by the oil industry, but the stations carried them free, as "public service announcements."'

During the strike, the country's communications regulator and a local council for the rights of children and youth in the town of Tachira attempted to use the courts to force the TV stations to break their 24-hour coverage of the lock-out for at least a few hours a day in order to show children's programming - broadcasts which are mandated by the stations' licences. Nonetheless, in RSF's cuckoo, inverted world, this is yet another example of state intimidation of the media.

According to the makers of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, an award-winning documentary on the Venezuelan media's role in the abortive coup, insults, false allegations and even calls for the overthrow of Chavez were and continue to be common in the press and on TV. As the filmmakers note, a month before the coup, the El Nacional newspaper falsely and wackily reported that the Chavez government had entered into a secret deal with Hizbollah and the Iranian government, allowing Iran to build a military base in Venezuela, while the channels routinely refer to government supporters as 'Taliban' and compare Chavez to Hitler, Mussolini and Idi Amin.

In an era when Islamist militants who publish or preach 'enticement to violence' in the UK can be deported from the country or imprisoned, it is glisteningly remarkable that in Venezuela not a single journalist has been jailed, and the TV stations have continued to broadcast their rabid anti-government propaganda.

On a recent visit to Caracas, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told Chavez that he had heard many criticisms in Spain of the lack of press freedom in Venezuela, but after watching just a morning's worth of the rivers of maniacal disinformation that passes for television programming and having read the day's papers, he declared that he had no doubt in his mind that there was 'full and total freedom of speech' in Venezuela.

A former editor with CNN en Español, Andrés Izarra, interviewed by Naomi Klein believes that because the four TV stations have undermined press freedom to such an extent, they have forfeited their right to broadcast and should have their licences revoked.

According to both Le Monde Diplomatique and Klein's Nation article, on the night of the coup, the owner of Venevisión, Gustavo Cisneros, hosted the meetings of the coup plotters at the station. The president of Venezuela's broadcasting chamber was one of the signatories to the decree dissolving the elected National Assembly - the negligee of legality in which the plotters dressed their coup d'etat. The TV networks celebrated the coup on air, but when the coup went awry, and the poor of Caracas and sections of the military rose up returning Chavez to power, the stations responded with a complete media black-out, programming only light entertainment as if nothing had changed.

Truly, the coup was a media-military putsch, where the major media players were not merely sympathetic to the coup, or even just propagandised in its favour, but actively participated in and helped co-ordinate the event.

It is in such a climate that reporters from these stations have come under physical assault from the poor and working classes of Venezuela, defending their president who has massively expanded the provision of social services in the country. RSF's 2004 Venezuela report cites 62 physical assaults on such journalists. However, when one examines the report, one finds that of the 62 attacks only one was by agents of the state. The rest were by 'government supporters' or in one case, merely 'apparently Chavez supporters' (RSF is thus happy to take it on hearsay that attacks are performed by certain actors without corroboration). Furthermore, when one parses the list of attacks, one is struck by the number of 'attacks' that are in fact merely journalists being 'insulted and jostled'.

Indeed, in the most Orwellian of manoeuvres, when Venezuelans have taken to the street to protest the media bias, RSF finds such actions sufficient to include them in its list of assaults on media freedom. As RSF itself admits, most of the assaults came from government supporters during the strike, angry at the bias of the major media outlets, which, says the RSF report, 'actively backed the opposition movement, sometimes violating journalistic principles.' To be sure, many of the demonstrators attacked the right-wing journalists with stones, and this - or any form of violence towards journalists - is completely unacceptable, no matter how biased the reporters, but it must be noted that government supporters are not the same as the government, and that as problematic as such a climate is, it pales in comparison to the regular murder and imprisonment of journalists that occurs on a sadly increasing basis in many other countries.

Since the coup, the stations have continued to operate, with no action having been taken against their directors. What the government has done, is introduce legislation that requires the stations adhere to norms of 'social responsibility', under which, media outlets that 'excus[e] or advocat[e] disrespect for lawful institutions and authorities' are to be penalised.'

However, this tame measure aimed at reining in the corporate-putschist media barons is transformed by RSF into government harassment of the 'free' press.

This burlesque, where a reporters' defence organisation defends instead coup-plotters, was repeated last February, on the occasion of the U.S.-French overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. RSF hailed the coup, calling the popular social-democratic leader a 'predator of press freedom', and, according to local independent documentary film-maker Kevin Pina, carefully documented attacks by Aristide supporters on opposition radio stations while paying no attention to violence on reporters from government opponents, thus helping craft the international media's 'framing' of the conflict in Haiti as one of state and state-supported violence against the media and opposition.

Following the coup and subsequent kidnapping of Aristide, which RSF describes as a 'resignation', the organisation issued a statement declaring that press freedom had returned: 'A new wind of freedom is blowing for the capital’s radio stations.'

According to Amnesty International, after Aristide was overthrown, paramilitaries entered Port-au-Prince and massacred thousands of poor peasants and slum dwellers perceived to be sympathetic to Aristide's Lavalas party.

Following the coup, Canada's RCMP reorganised and trained the Haitian National Police (HNP), who, according to the Canada-Haiti Action Network (CHAN), have continued this wave of killing. An International Crisis Group assessment reports that the HNP have continued the practices of the former Haitian army, which had been abolished by Aristide, including military operations against the capital's poorer quarters. Journalists too have come under assault, alongside Port-au-Prince's poor, with one radio reporter killed in January, but RSF says nothing at all about this.

If we follow the money, the bricolage of dodgy imperial sugar-daddies that populate the arriere-cuisine of Robert Menard's soi-disant human rights organisation, we can perhaps understand a little more why it is that RSF has such a throbbing hard-on for Cuba and Venezuela and is deaf to the screams from Port-au-Prince's slums and radio stations.

To begin with, for an NGO, the group is remarkably close to France's haute bourgeoisie. RSF receives the bulk of its funding from FNAC, the giant French music, electronics and book retailer; CFAO, the French-African automobile and pharmaceuticals distributor; the Hewlett Packard Foundation; French publishing house Hachette; the Electricité de France Foundation; George Soros' Open Society Institute; and France's Sanofi-Aventis, the world's third-largest pharmaceutical firm, amongst others.

Vivendi Universal Publishing Services, a division of Vivendi, the French water-giant-cum-media-conglomerate, offers RSF promotional material, and via Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, Publicis, the Paris-based advertising behemoth, delivers marketing services to RSF gratis.

The group has also received donations from Menard's personal friends, the late arms dealer Jean-Guy Lagardère, and French UMP senator Serge Dassault, the owner of the Dassault Group, a manufacturer of fighter jets. The Dassault Group also owns 82 per cent of Socpresse, which controls leading French conservative newspapers Le Figaro, Valeurs Actuelles and L'Express.

RSF also obtains 11 per cent of its budget in direct funding from the French government, and also receives indirect funding from the U.S. via grants from the Center for a Free Cuba, an organisation that is committed to the overthrow of the Cuban government and which is financed by USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy. Amongst other activities, the NED finances the right-wing Venezuelan opposition - to the tune of some $20 million so far - and is headed by Frank Calzón, who has connections to the Miami anti-Castro exile community and was the former leader of an anti-Castro terrorist group, Abdala, which performed a number of admittedly not terribly successful actions in the U.S. in the 1970's against the Cuban football team. Subsequently, he was director of the Cuban American National Foundation, the principal Cuban-American lobby in Washington.
Luis Posada Carriles, the Cuban-Venezuelan CIA-trained terrorist mastermind behind a series of hotel bombings and the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner in which seventy-three people were killed, claimed in a 1998 interview in the New York Times that he had received financial backing from CANF for a 1997 bombing campaign in Cuba.

So this is the crowd Menard and his RSF runs with: a Shanghai of anti-Castro zealots with links to CIA-trained terrorists; the sultans of the French publishing, pharmaceutical, advertising and arms industries and France's conservative press; and the various tentacles of the U.S. State Department and the French government. With RSF's benefactors coming from such noble quarters as these, one really shouldn't be surprised at all at RSF's Cuban, Venezuelan and Haitian perfidies.

For years, large corporations vacillated between attempting to marginalise environmental campaigners and being petrified that their campaigns were costing them market share amongst beardy Volvo drivers. Today, even the most flagrant eco-scofflaw enterprise has rebranded itself as environmentally right-on, regardless of their continued production of, say, mercury-infused lollipops. Campaigners have found this manoeuvre, of using environmentalists' own campaign strategies and language against them - a sort-of public relations jujitsu that they call 'greenwashing' - intractably difficult to counter, as the Volvo drivers return from the barricades, convinced by the corporations' reassuring words and satisfied that they have saved the world in time for tea.

Like Shell, BP and Unilever before them, imperialists too have now developed their own form of human rights 'greenwashing': impersonating an NGO.

As with Human Rights Watch and Freedom House (which both have similar conservative political and corporate ties to those of RSF), individuals with long histories in or connections to the foreign affairs departments, diplomatic corps and even military or secret services of hegemonic states have formed organisations modeled on such civil society groups as Amnesty International or Friends of the Earth, employing the same discourse of democracy, freedom and justice as that of human rights campaigners.

These groups perform just enough good in the world - such as publishing pamphlets for bloggers and cyber-dissidents - that no one notices when they act in keeping with their original purpose: to further the interests of empire.

* For a comprehensive overview of the history of the AFL-CIO's participation in the U.S. State Department's plans for Latin America, see
Labor Educator's series, The AFL-CIO's Dark Past.

** From the Spanish. From a Z Magazine
article by Salim Lamrani, translated by Diana Barahona.