Thursday, 20 December 2007

The newspaper in western art

As a Xmas diversion, it's interesting to spend a few moments noting how the representations of newspaper reading in western art significantly reflect the dominant (and competing) ideologies relating to the consumption of media. And given the importance of newspapers in the political culture over the last couple of centuries in the west, it's intriguing to see how their presence in art has been ignored by critics.

Let's focus on just three contrasting images. In 1872 the French Impressionist Pierre-August Renoir painted a portrait of Claude Monet relaxing - reading alone, his face close up to the text. This is the image of the solitary bourgeois male consuming the new professionalized newspaper in isolation but clearly with pleasure. Aesthetic concerns predominate.

Then there's Lyonel Feininger's Newspaper Readers of 1916 which fetched a mere £3.5m at Christie's a few years back. Its vibrant colours and flowing shapes convey brilliantly a real excitement and pleasure in newspaper consumption. But the figures are like you and me - racing about, their heads down, intently reading, far too busy consuming the newspapers (significantly blank) far too superficially. And the readers are separate from each other. Significantly, too, they are all travelling in the same direction (to their right, our left!). Amongst all the bustle and individuality of the consuming public there is still an amazing conformism.

Interestingly, Feininger, an American who became a newspaper cartoonist and illustrator in Germany before concentrating on painting, moved through despair and loneliness to joy and delight during the painting of the piece in 1916. Indeed, beneath the surface jollity (those swirling shapes echoing cubism and futurism) there is a melancholy about the media, of the kind Walter Benjamin evokes in his essay, "The Storyteller", in Illuminations (1970), where he bemoans the decline of storytelling in the face of the media of information.

Finally there's Tina Modotti's 1929 photograph entitled "Campesinos Reading El Machete" which radically confronts the feelings of alienation at the heart of our first two paintings. It shows Mexican peasants with their wonderfully large sombreros, huddled around a copy of the revolutionary newspaper. In an interesting commentary on this work, Jonathan Jones (2003) in the Guardian, focused critically on what he saw as the representation of subservience of the individual to the cause of the working class. "We do not need to see their faces. They are not individuals; they are the proletariat. The future does not belong to the bourgeois self." But what Jones missed was the way in which the newspaper's central position within the composition is so symbolically powerful.

Here is the newspaper shown clearly as the weapon of revolution, educating workers and peasants and inspiring them to revolutionary deeds. And symbolically, too, the reading of the newspaper is a group activity. Politics merges with aesthetics with the photograph, so typical of Modotti's work in general, so beautifully composed: the newspaper, angular and centrally positioned; the hats in the corners contrasting with their beautiful round elegance. And on all of it the sun, hope, shines.

The photograph celebrates the tradition of radical journalism committed to progressive social change which has been marginalised in this country.

If any of this interests you why not dip into the books and article listed at the end? Have a good Xmas and a progressive 2008.

Adorno, T. (1986/1964) The Jargon of Authenticity, translated by Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Adorno, T. (1991) The culture industry, London: Routledge
Albers, P (2000) Tina Modotti and the Mexican Renaissance, Paris: Jean-Michel Place editions
Benjamin, W (1970) Illuminations, London: Jonathan Cape
Jones, J. (2003) Portrait of the week: Tina Modotti's Men reading El Machete, the Guardian, 15 February

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The massacre of Musa Qala

Take a look at Nick Cornish’s series of photographs in The Times Online of some of the 6,000 UK/American/Afghan forces engaged in the recent assault on the town of Musa Qala, in Helmand province. They show their massive firepower: lines of armoured vehicles; men in full military gear dragging away bare-footed Taliban captives in ragged civilian clothes. An unnamed Taliban is lying sprawled out dead in a field.

Photographs in the press before the attacks on the “strategically significant town” showed rag-tag Taliban forces crammed in battered old trucks desperately clutching their small firearms. Against them, poised to attack, stood the full might of the most powerful nation on the globe: armoured vehicles, infantry, artillery and logistics backed up by “dozens of attack helicopters and ground attack aircraft”, as the Daily Telegraph reported.

How many Taliban “forces” were there defending the town? We will never know. According to the British military spokesman, Lt Col. Richard Eaton, just 200. other reports suggested 2,000. Whatever the figure, this was no “battle”. According to the headline in the Observer of 9 December 2007, “Fierce battles rages for Taliban stronghold”. Yet when the firepower of one side so overwhelms that of the other (missing the crucial cover from the air bombardment) is this not better described as a massacre, a form of hi-tech barbarism?

How many casualties did the Taliban suffer? Again, we will never know. Significantly Nick Meo reported in The Times of 11 December, after the Taliban had allegedly fled the town on motorcycles: “Fears were growing that there had been heavy civilian casualties.” Certainly, buried in all the reports was the news that 2007 had proved “the deadliest” in Afghanistan since the US invasion in 2001 with more than 6,200 people estimated to have been killed. All we know, then, is that the many many dead Afghans will remain uncounted, unnamed.

So amidst the din of warfare coverage, the silences and omissions for me are always the most significant, the most troubling.

Horror is mentioned in the coverage but the focus is on the Taliban. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, alleged that an unnamed 15-year-old boy had been burned to death on a stove and the town had to be seized from the Taliban to halt such atrocities. “Taliban horror had to end” is the headline in the Mirror of 11 December 2007. There is no such outrage over “our” atrocities.

In contrast to the silence surrounding the dead Afghans, British casualties are named and celebrated. Sergeant Lee Johnson, of the 2nd Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, died on 7 December. His commanding officer describes him as “a huge personality and supreme soldier”.

And in the face of the unspeakable horrors, the military mumble the absurdities of massacrespeak. According to Lt Col Eaton, quoted in the Guardian of 10 December 2007: “It is like a game of chess and we are moving the right pieces into the right places so they are where we want them to be when we need them.”

In this way the hi-tech barbarism of the assault on Musa Qala is domesticated and trivialised, reduced to the level of a game of chess in a strange jangle of words.

Monday, 10 December 2007

‘Worst humanitarian crisis in the world’ largely missing from the UK media

The British mainstream media’s coverage of Africa has recently been focusing on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and the controversial decision by PM Gordon Brown not to attend the European Union-Africa summit in Lisbon in protest at the presence there of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. Yet the continent’s biggest humanitarian disaster has gone largely ignored.

In Somalia, according to the United Nations, more than one million people have been displaced from their homes and put on the edge of starvation by the fighting between the occupying Ethiopian troops and the local, largely Islamic resistance movement. The UN describes Somalia as its “worst humanitarian crisis in 16 years”.

The Indian journal, Frontline, in its current issue, quotes the head of UN operations in Somalia, Eric Laroche, as saying that if such a crisis engulfed Darfur “there would be a big fuss”. Somalia, he said, had been a “forgotten emergency for years”. To add to the country’s woes, over the last year it has faced drought, floods and a locust infestation.

Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the leaders of the EU and Africa at the Lisbon summit to act to end the atrocities in Somalia where Ethiopian troops were engaged in the indiscriminate and deliberate bombardment of civilian neighbourhoods.

Appalling war crimes
HRW said both sides were responsible for appalling war crimes. But it stressed the Somali government had repeatedly harassed humanitarian organisations trying to help the displaced population. Former warlord Mohamed Dheere, the mayor of Modagishu, detained the head of the UN’s World Food Programme for five days in October causing food distribution to 75,000 people to be temporarily suspended.

Somalia’s most recent tragedy began on 25 December 2006 when Ethiopian troops, with the support of the US air force and navy, entered the capital, Mogadishu, and installed a puppet Transitional Federal Government. An Islamist militia calling themselves the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) had seized power in June 2006, ousting the warlords and bringing a much welcomed period of relative peace to the country.

According to Ahmadou Ould-Abdallah, the UN’s top official in Somalia, (quoted in the Frontline report) the short period in which the Islamists were in control in Somalia was the country’s “golden era”. But the US, claiming the SICC were harbouring radical Islamists, resolved to remove them from power. Satellite pictures of the Islamic fighters provided by the US proved vital to the Ethiopian troops in the December 2006 battles.

The country is particularly dangerous for journalists. Eight have already been killed this year. Human Rights Watch reports that the Transitional Government has closed down newspapers and three independent radio stations.
The conflict has also spread to eastern Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State, known as the Ogaden, where a rebel movement, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, has been stepping up its attacks on Ethiopian troops. Both sides are blamed for indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Chad human rights abuses missed by the media
While calling for EU-AU action on Somalia, HRW also focused on another African crisis which has been ignored by the UK media. Following one of the most remarkable human rights campaigns in recent years, Chad’s former dictator, Hissène Habré, now faces charges of crimes against humanity.

Installed as head of state in Chad following a CIA-backed coup in 1982, Habré was responsible for appalling human rights abuses before being ousted in another coup in 1990. In a rare instance of coverage, on May 21st 1992 the Guardian carried four short paragraphs reporting how 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or been executed during the tyranny of Habré. A justice ministry report concluded that he had committed genocide against the Chadian people.

Habré’s victims first looked to Belgium where its historic “universal human rights” 1993 law allowed victims to file complaints in the country for atrocities committed abroad. Following threats from the United States in June 2003 that Belgium risked losing its status as host to NATO’s headquarters, the law was repealed. Yet a new law, adopted in August 2003, allowed for the continuation of the case against Habré – much to the delight of human rights campaigners.

Now Senegal, where Habré lives in exile, has finally responded to an appeal by the African Union (AU) to try the former Chadian dictator. The AU has mandated Senegal to prosecute Habré “on behalf of Africa” while President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal has asked the EU and AU for technical and financial support to carry out the trial. The EU has, in principle, agreed to this request and the AU has named an envoy to the case.
Last week, HRW said Habré’s case provided a unique opportunity for AU-EU co-operation. But HRW’s important plea over Chad was largely ignored by the UK media.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

How peaceful is Nobel winner Gore?

It’s always interesting to compare profiles in mainstream and non-corporate media outlets to detect political bias. Take, for instance, the media’s recent response to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore, former US vice-president and current environmental campaigner.

On the website of the Guardian, the UK’s most “liberal” national daily, Jessica Aldred’s timeline celebrates his long career as an environmental activist. It begins, apparently, in 1969 when after our hero graduates from Harvard he “becomes interested in the topic of global warming”. In 1976 he wins a Congress seat and holds his “first congressional hearings on climate change, and co-sponsors hearings on toxic waste and global warming”.

In 1988, while spending time with his son who is recovering from a near-fatal car accident, “Gore begins to write a book on environmental conservation”. In 1997, he helps broker the Kyoto protocol “and pushes for the passage of the treaty which calls for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions”. In 2002, Aldred reports, Gore “criticises Bush for the war in Iraq”. In 2006, his film, “An Inconvenient Truth”, in which he discusses the politics and economics of global warming, breaks box office records in the United States for a documentary. In January 2007, it receives standing ovations at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah; in the following month it wins the Oscar for best documentary.

In July 2007, Gore organises Live Earth, a seven-continent, 24-hour sequence of concerts in London, Sydney, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hamburg and New York to raise awareness about climate change.

Finally, after he is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2007, “An Inconvenient Truth” is criticised by a High Court judge for containing “nine scientific errors” (and this is picked up by Ross Clark in an assessment of Gore in The Times). Apart from the judge’s comments, not much criticism in Aldred’s PR-ish piece.

Similarly in the Sun, undiluted praise is heaped on our hero. Gordon Brown is quoted: “Al Gore is inspirational.” In the Independent, columnist Johann Hari defends Gore against the “smears” directed him by global warming denialists of the far right New Party. An editorial in the same paper describes Gore as a “green giant”. In the Daily Telegraph, columnist Damian Thompson questions why a “sanctimonious” global warming campaigner should win a peace prize at all.

Contrast all this with the critical assessment of Gore by Alexander Cockburn in a recent edition of the US-based leftist journal, The Nation (highly recommended to all medialens readers: see According to Cockburn: “For a man of peace, Gore has plenty of blood on his CV.”

For instance, he backed the contras in their terrorist campaign against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua during the 1980s, supported the US bombing of Libya in 1986 (primarily aimed at assassinating the country’s president, Col. Muammar Gaddafi); and voted for the neutron bomb, the B2 bomber, the Trident II missiles, the MX missile and the Midgetman. He was a fanatical supporter of the 1991 attacks on Iraq (which, according to Colin Powell’s official record of the conflict, led to the deaths of 250,000 Iraqi troops).

During the 1990s he called for a coup to remove the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, and as the co-ordinator of Iraq policy in the Clinton administration “presided over the sanctions that led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many of them children”. He fully backed Nato’s bombing of Serbia in 1999; during his 2000 presidential campaign he called for the downfall of Saddam Hussein and pledged his support for Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (a leading source for the lies about Iraqi possession of WMD).

He even criticised President Bush’s recent call for cuts in the US nuclear arsenal. “Nuclear unilateralism will hinder, rather than help, arms control…Reductions alone don’t guarantee stability.”

Strange how none of this material appeared elsewhere on Fleet Street. Or did I miss it?

Sunday, 23 September 2007

How the deaths of 80 desperate Haiti migrants at sea can go unreported

And still on the McCann coverage: while Madeleine disappeared on the night of 3 May 2007, early on 4 May at least 80 people perished when a boat sank in the Caribbean. Some of the victims may have been eaten by sharks; many were women and children. Yet the British media, while giving the McCann story wall-to-wall coverage, have been largely silent over these ‘disappearances’.

Take a look at Peter Hallward’s brilliant exposé of the Haiti disaster and his alternative perspective on the McCann coverage at According to the site’s home page: ‘Haitianalysis aims to provide young Haitian journalists a direct route to English speaking audiences, bypassing the need for corporate intermediaries. To accomplish this we plan to provide monetary, technological, and human/translation resources to young, inspired Haitian journalists from poor backgrounds. We also aim to provide a positive perspective on grassroots civil society and look at the under-reported news and events in Haiti and that affect Haiti.’
As Hallward reports, around 75 per cent of Haiti’s population ‘lives on less than $2 per day, and 56 per cent live on less than $1 per day’. Punitive international trading arrangements mean that Haiti’s poor remain poor. ‘Every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s phrase) “from absolute misery to dignified poverty” has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and its allies in the international community. As a result, in a normal year, an average of around a thousand of Haiti’s most desperate or most reckless citizens try to escape this misery by sea.’

Thus, early on Tuesday 1 May, around 160 desperate people crammed into a 30-foot sloop at the northern Haitian city of Cap-Haitien and headed for the neighbouring Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI). What happened early in the morning of 4 May when the sloop was intercepted by a TCI police boat is unclear. Some survivors claim the TCI boat rammed the boat and then tried to tow it further out to sea. The police, however, say the boat sank as they tried to tow it out of ‘heavy seas’.

A report on the tragedy by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation (MAIB) branch in August concluded there was no evidence to suggest the TCI police launch deliberately rammed the sloop. But it does criticise the police for failing to identify procedures for the safe interception of Haitian migrants. Hallward continues: ‘The MAIB investigators further demonstrate that a whole series of failings in seamanship, communications, logistics and planning severely hampered the subsequent search and rescue operation.’

Yet this disaster has been largely ignored by the British media. Type ‘Caicos’, ‘Haiti’ or ‘Haitian’ into an online search facility of a national newspaper and you are most likely to find some useful tips about Caribbean holidays. As Hallward concludes: ‘This is business as usual. It isn’t very hard to see why most foreign observers of Haiti seem to find fantasy more palatable than fact.’


Thursday, 13 September 2007

Beyond the distorted news values of the Madeleine drama

The massive coverage of the Madeleine McCann drama (with countless column inches and broadcast hours being devoted to the twists and turns of the tragedy) reflects a distorted system of news values which promotes “human interest” and sensation above more significant political, cultural, economic and psychological issues. Even commenting critically on these news values is in danger of further feeding the media frenzy.

So why not let’s shift the focus? Driving to work on Tuesday (September 11, 2007) I listened to “The Choice” on BBC Radio 4. I was transfixed. This was broadcast journalism at its very best. Michael Buerk interviewed a convicted paedophile and his wife who had stuck by him, encouraging him to seek treatment.

Is there any more controversial issue? How quickly the tabloids damn paedophiles as “monsters”, “perverts” “evil”. Yet here was a journalist handling with sensitivity the extraordinarily delicate issues involved. And in response, “Clare” and “Ian” (who had sexually abused his daughter) spoke with remarkable honesty and courage about what they described as their “family disaster”. With the media circus following the story and the eventual imprisonment of “Ian”, we learned how mother and daughter were mocked and ostracised by their local community – and forced to relocate.

But behind every such tragedy lie human frailty, guilt, hopelessness, confusion. And in this case there emerged, as Buerk kept on probing gently (whilst never denying the seriousness of the abuse), the profoundly moving desire of “Clare” and “Ian” to survive and re-affirm family life.
The interview, then, showed how journalism can move beyond the sensational and throw light on to the dark side of the human psyche: it did not condemn but acknowledged the essential humanity of a man widely demonised as a “monster” – and the wife who stuck by him.

Beware anonymous sources behind latest ‘cyberwarfare’ scares

So the big news now is that the West is facing a major new threat – cyberwarfare from China. I’m concerned. The newspapers are carrying prominent, lengthy articles about Chinese hackers (“cyberwarriors”), some from the People’s Liberation Army, attacking computer networks of British and German government departments. These latest disclosures come after reports that the Chinese military had hacked into the Pentagon military computer network in June.

Predictably the Chinese authorities have been quick to deny all the allegations. Equally predictably, these denials are swiftly dismissed in the news reports. Coverage by Clifford Coonan, in a double page spread in the Independent of 6 September 2007, is typical. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman’s comments (“China and the US are now devoted to constructive relations and co-operation…”) are buried in paragraph 25. Immediately afterwards, undaunted, Coonan returns to his main theme of China’s growing cyberwarfare threat. “In 2003, a cyber espionage ring code-named Titan Rain by US investigators was tracked to Guangdong province after a network break-in at Lockheed Martin.”

Equally worrying is the way in which so many of these features are dominated by anonymous sources. We know, for instance, how anonymous “intelligence”, “Whitehall”, “defence ministry” sources were used to promote the lies about those imaginary Weapons of Mass Destruction in the lead-up to the criminal US/UK assault on Iraq in 2003 and so have become highly suspicious whenever they reappear. But take a look at Coonan’s double-page spread. In 32 paragraphs, there is not one named Western source. Instead, we have authoritative statements from sources such as “one security expert who did not wish to be named”, an “analyst”, “computer security experts”, “a security analyst” and speculating “webheads”.

Michael Evans, Defence Editor, in The Times of 6 September, under the headline “China ‘tops list’ of cyber-hackers seeking UK government secrets”, quotes simply “Whitehall” sources. And he reports: “MI5 has told the Government that at least 20 foreign intelligence services were operating some degree against British interests and that China and Russia were of greatest concern.”

The previous day, Bernhard Warner, former Reuters’ internet correspondent, built a 10-paragraph feature in The Times on “the ongoing digital struggle between China and the West” around quotes from a single source, Roberto Preatoni. But take a look at Wikipedia on Mr Preatoni. In a brief entry, he is described, strangely, as “class 1967” and co-author “with a mysterious person going by the handle of Evil Angelica (named after the infamous web-defacer) of the hacker comics Hero-Z”. Certainly Wikipedia needs to be always handled critically – but surely there are more authoritative sources available on such a serious issue?

A Guardian feature on China’s “informationised army” by Ed Pilkington and Bobbie Johnson, on 5 September, relies in its opening paragraphs on reports in the Financial Times, Der Spiegel and on un-named “internet security experts”. Quotes towards the end come from Sami Saydjari, “who worked as a Pentagon cyber expert for 13 years and now runs a private company, Cyber Defence Agency” and Jody Westby, of “CyLab based at Carnegie Mellon University”. But these sources don’t supply any new information drawn from any original research; they merely rhetorically support the underlying theme of the feature.

A report in the Daily Mail of 5 September similarly relies almost entirely on anonymous sources. Just one named source, Alex Neill, “an expert on the Chinese military and head of the Asia Security Programme at the Royal United Services Institute” is quoted as saying cyberattacks had been emanating from China for four years. The same source is quoted in Richard Norton-Taylor’s front page splash on “Titan Rain” in the same day’s Guardian.
So, folks, if these “cyberterrorist” scare stories proliferate, let’s see if anonymous (and hence rather dodgy) quotes continue to dominate the coverage. Are the sources transmitting information – or disinformation?

  • Richard Keeble has just co-edited, with Sarah Maltby, Communicating War: Memory, Media and Military (Arima), a collection of essays on the media’s handling of war and terrorism. And with Sharon Wheeler he has also just co-edited The Journalistic Imagination: Literary Journalists from Defoe to Capote and Carter (Routledge).

Friday, 1 June 2007

Human rights abuses ignored as Blair flits across Africa on his ‘glory’ tour

May 31, 2007

Interesting to see how Fleet Street’s coverage of dictators always shifts when they move from being Britain’s ‘enemies’ to ‘friends’ (or vice versa). Remember how Saddam Hussein, former President of Iraq, was fêted during the 1980s in Fleet Street – just as the West backed his country in its war with Iran – but then was suddenly transformed into a global monster in 1990, particularly following the invasion of Kuwait in August of that year.

Now as out-going PM Tony Blair travels Africa shaking the fists of the assembled big-wigs in Libya and Sierra Leone, the appalling human rights abuses (both past and present) in these countries are suddenly marginalised in Fleet Street.

Let’s take as an example President Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, of Libya. He was demonised as ‘mad dog’ by President Reagan for daring to challenge the United States in the 1970s and ‘80s. Gaddafi’s expansionist ambitions in Chad, lying to the south of Libya and with substantial oil reserves, were of particular concern to Washington, Paris and London. Thus the eleven-and-a-half minute attack by US jets on 14 April 1986 on Tripoli and Benghazi represented a deliberate attempt to assassinate the head of a foreign state. The first bomb to drop fell on Gaddafi’s home. Hana, his adopted daughter aged 15 months, was killed; his eight other children and wife Safiya were all hospitalised, some with serious injuries. The president escaped.

Reports of US military action against Libya disappeared from the media after the 1986 assault. But away from the glare of publicity, the CIA launched its most extensive effort yet to spark an anti-Gaddafi coup. A secret army was recruited from among the many Libyans captured in border battles with Chad during the 1980s. And as concerns grew in M16 that Gaddafi was aiming to develop chemical weapons, Britain funded various opposition groups in Libya. In 1996, as former intelligence official David Shayler revealed, an MI6 plot was hatched to assassinate Gaddafi in a car bomb attack. It failed. Significantly, at his trial in November 2003 for leaking ‘official secrets’, Shayler was denied the right (under the European Convention of Human Rights) to speak out about the 1996 anti-Gaddafi plot. Since it is obvious there are a lot of shady secrets from the years of the dirty, anti-Gaddafi war to conceal, such a decision by the court must have come as a relief to the government.

Recently, relations between the US, UK and Libya have thawed, with Gaddafi pledging support for the “war against terrorism” and agreeing to pay compensation to the victims of the 1988 Flight 103 Lockerbie bombing, for which a Libyan intelligence agent was jailed. And thus, as Blair travels Africa meeting his new-found friends, no mention of the appalling attempts at “regime change” in Libya in 1986 and 1996 appears in Fleet Street’s coverage.

Also missing from the coverage are reports of the appalling human rights abuses in Libya. Remember Robin Cook’s much heralded “ethical foreign policy” in which concerns for human rights were supposedly prioritised? The policy is clearly dead and buried. According to Amnesty International, while acknowledging a few recent human rights improvements in Libya, the overall situation remains bleak. AI’s newly published annual report comments: “Law enforcement officials resorted to excessive use of force, killing at least 12 demonstrators while breaking up a protest and one detainee during a prison disturbance.” It continues: “Freedom of expression and association remained severely restricted. Several Libyans suspected of political activism abroad were arrested or otherwise intimidated when they returned to the country. Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death by firing squad for a second time. There were continuing concerns about the treatment of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. No progress was made towards establishing the fate or whereabouts of victims of enforced disappearances in previous years.”

Similarly Human Rights Watch comments on Libya: “The government still restricts freedom of expression and bans political parties and independent organisations. It continues to imprison individuals for criticising Libya’s political system, the government, or its leader. Due process violations and torture remain concerns as do disappearances unresolved from past years.”

Little mention of this in Fleet Street. Reporters were more concerned to hail BP’s return to Libya – with the company granted the right to explore for gas in a deal worth $900 (£450) – and Gaddafi’s decision to buy British missiles and air defence systems in a new military co-operation agreement.

Then in Sierra Leone, Blair was pictured smiling again as he was ‘made an honorary chief by a grateful African nation’, as the Guardian reported. Britain’s military intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 is universally applauded on Fleet Street as helping to bring peace to a war-ravaged country. The Guardian continued: “The British intervention is seen as both a decisive moment in the restoration of democracy in Sierra Leone and the high water mark of Tony Blair’s interventionist foreign policy.” Likewise, the Independent reported on May 31:

“For Britain, the Sierra Leone intervention was a demonstration of that now long-forgotten concept, the ethical foreign policy. It was also the fulfilment of a Blairite African fantasy, born out of his father Leo's memories of visiting Fourah Bay College several times in 1960 to lecture in law and mark papers. On a previous visit to Lungi on 10 February 2002, he recalled: ‘My father always told me what friendly people the Sierra Leoneans are.’ Yesterday, he again recalled his father, but also elevated Britain's role in Sierra Leone to the rank of an example for others to follow.”

Mark Curtis, in his book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses (Vintage, 2004) seriously challenges the official story on Sierra Leone. He suggests that the unilateral intervention (ignoring the UN) in May 2000 was undertaken more as an attempt to demonstrate Britain’s “great power status” and influence in West Africa than out of any concern for human rights. As Curtis comments: “If Britain had been serious about human rights, perhaps it might not have exported 7,500 rifles to Sierra Leone as part of a £10 million package in 1999.

The country was already awash with weapons, whose availability contributed to the phenomenon of child soldiers. If Britain were serious about human rights now, perhaps it would try to weed out from, rather than absorb into, the reconstituted army it is currently training those past human rights abusers.”

The current reports by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on Sierra Leone are damning. HRW comments: “Since the end of Sierra Leone’s brutal armed conflict in 2002, few improvements have been made in the dynamics that contributed to the emergence of the conflict in 1991 – rampant corruption, gross financial mismanagement, inadequate distribution of the country’s natural resources and weak rule of law.“

AI is equally bleak: there has been little progress in strengthening the justice system or in reforming laws that discriminate against women. Several suspected political opponents were recently arrested and tried. Sierra Leone remained one of the poorest countries in the world with 70 per cent of the population living on less than US$1 a day and high illiteracy rates. Rates of mortality and disease were at crisis levels due to the inadequate health infrastructure.

A report in The Times by Africa correspondent Jonathan Clayton highlighted these appalling statistics but added: “Nevertheless, the country is at peace and, though corruption is endemic, there are signs of a mini economic boom.” In contrast, and more realistically, HRW comments: “The government’s failure to address crushing poverty despite massive international aid and alarmingly high unemployment rates among youth, render Sierra Leone vulnerable to future instability.”

Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln. His two latest co-edited books Communicating War: Memory, Media and Military (Abramis) and The Journalistic Imagination: Literary Journalists from Defoe to Capote and Carter (Routledge) are to be published shortly.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Frontline: a journal carrying a serious critique of US/UK militarism

And so to New Delhi – to interview Indian journalists hoping to join a British Council-sponsored programme we are running at the University of Lincoln next term. The visit gives me the opportunity to catch up on India’s flourishing leftist print media.

For instance, Frontline, edited by N. Ram, has maintained a consistently rigorous critique of US/UK militarism for many years and is always worth a read. In the current issue, John Cherian examines the Bush administration’s recent military adventures in Africa, highlighting the announcement in February of the creation of a US military command for Africa, “Africacom”.

This comes soon after the American-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. As Cherian reports: “There are credible reports of US troops participating in special operations inside Somalia after a gap of more than a decade. The Americans provided the Ethiopian army with satellite pictures of Somali militia positions, and American planes bombed parts of southern Somalia. Seventy civilians were killed and more than a hundred wounded. More than 1,500 American troops have been based in nearby Djibouti since 2002. They played a key role in the planning and execution of the invasion of Somalia.” And significantly last year, Bush announced plans to expand the Camp Lemonier base in Djibouti from 88 acres to over 600 acres.

Also according to Cherian, the US is backing the secessionist movements in southern Sudan. “The subterfuge of ‘humanitarian intervention’ could be resorted to in the ongoing bid for regime change. The American preoccupation with Darfur is a case in point. Darfur, which is the size of France, is known to have vast oil and gas reserves…Neighbouring Chad is already exporting huge quantities of oil to the West. The US is also unhappy that the oil from southern Sudan is flowing to China, India and other emerging nations.”

The future importance of West African oil reserves to the US cannot be under-estimated. As Cherian reports: “Senior American officials have expressed the hope that the Gulf of Guinea on the West African coast would be able to meet a quarter of the US’s oil needs within a decade.”

America already supplies more than $1 billion worth of military equipment to Egypt every year. US troops help train anti-terrorism forces in Algeria, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda while the US has spent over $500 million on the Trans-Sahel Counter-Terrorism Initiative. And as the US expands its ring of permanent military bases on the continent, plans are being developed to set up a naval base on the small West African island state of Sao Tome. Cherian comments: “Sao Tome, along with Nigeria, controls huge off-shore oil reserves. Washington installed a friendly ruler in Sao Tome after a stage-managed coup in 2002.”

Elsewhere in the same edition, Aijad Ahmad examines the mass revolts against imperialism and neo-liberalism in Latin America and argues that “for the first time since its rise as a superpower the US is facing a serious threat to its hegemony”. And Vladimir Radyudin, in Moscow, argues that Russia’s geopolitical resurgence is causing major shifts in the international balance of power. He reports on the formation of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Doha, Qatar, on April 9 uniting Russia, Iran and Qatar. “The idea of a gas OPEC has rattled the US and Europe as it would shift the alignment of forces in the energy markets and leave them out in the cold.”

It’s hard to find such well-researched, incisive reporting of American militarism in the UK print market. So why not check out Frontline at

Thursday, 11 January 2007

France wages war in Chad – away from the glare of the media

While US jets pound villages in Somalia, away from the glare of the international media, French aircraft are attacking towns in Chad and north-eastern Central African Republic bordering Sudan’s Darfur region.

Even in France, the war has gone largely unnoticed. The headline in the current Politis, the radical left weekly, is blunt: La France en guerre (France at war). But elsewhere the mainstream media (Le Monde, Libération, Figaro and the television channels) are silent on the conflict.

The French Mirage F1 jets are intervening in support of two beleaguered dictators. Idriss Déby, of Chad, was installed by a French-led coup in 1990. His predecessor, Hissène Habré, is now to be tried in Senegal for crimes against humanity during his rule from 1982 to 1990. Déby’s rule has proven equally oppressive – but while rebels increase their hold over large parts of the impoverished country and threaten the capital N’Djamena, the French government of Dominique de Villepin remains loyal to Déby. Chad, after all, is strategically crucial lying just south of Libya and to the west of Sudan while its oil reserves are likely to become increasingly important in the US-led “war on terror”.

In the Central African Republic, French operations are aimed at repelling rebels which the government of François Bozizé claims are backed by the Sudanese. But the rebels of the Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement (UFDR) deny any links with Sudan and claim Bozizé, whom the French helped into power in a 2003 coup, is ruling the country along ethnic lines.

The French backed Bozizé on the understanding he would introduce reforms – but while these have never been introduced the support continues. In the Politis article, Dante Sanjurjo highlights the way in which the war is being waged without any debate in either parliament or the media. Roland Marchal, an African specialist at the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales (Ceri), claims that French society reacts more to humanitarian than political crises. “Why do the French need to intervene like this? And what will it achieve? No one asks these questions.”