Thursday, December 16, 2010

WikiLeaks and the Myth of Western Press Freedom

WikiLeaks and myth of Western Press freedom

Courtesy of the Zimbabwe Herald

IN his defence piece "Why shoot the Messenger?" recently published by The Australian, WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange quoted a young Rupert Murdoch writing in 1958 and saying: "In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win."

Assange defended his "scientific journalism" as practised by his four-year-old website and he argues in the piece that his style of journalism enables readers to make independent judgments both about the journalist and also about the content of the published material.

Assange says he is inspired most by his childhood background when he grew up in the "dark days of corruption" in the State of Queensland, Australia.

When a society is riddled with corruption there is always this irresistible urge to expose the perpetrators and whistle-blowing has always been known to be the best way of exposing the powerful and corrupt elites.

While it is not a secret to the average Zimbabwean that MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai is a "flawed figure", chinhu chakadhanganyika in Shona, the confirmation of this characterisation by the very person who spent half a decade in Zimbabwe publicly propping up and magnifying the image of Tsvangirai was most revealing. Christopher Dell made truth prevail over secrecy — here the secrecy being not the flawed character of Tsvangirai, but the truthful attitude of American elites towards Africa’s most prominent puppet politician.

It was also very informative for Zimbabweans to learn that Christopher Dell called President Mugabe "a dictator" in public and "a brilliant tactician" in private, or at his honest best.

WikiLeaks brought out hard truths about the Iraq and Afghan wars, mainly the fact that these are not just wars but unjust wars based on falsehoods and deliberately told lies meant to mislead the Western public into committing both their lives and resources to a cause that is no less than con.

Also revealed are secrets on corporate corruption, Hillary Clinton’s instruction that US diplomats were to steal information and personal details from UN officials, the call for the US invasion of Iran by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and that Britain’s Iraq war inquiry was no more than a fixed act designed to protect "US interests".

These revelations have been described as "risking people’s lives", "threatening national security" and "endangering troops" and the US has shown ruthless determination to eliminate both the website WikiLeaks and its members, particularly its founder member, Julian Assange.

Credit card corporations Visa and MasterCard were both bullied and arm-twisted into pulling the pin on WikiLeaks and the US government made this a very public gesture. PayPal was instructed to do the same and Amazon and many other website host companies were also ordered to terminate relationships with WikiLeaks. The instruction from the White House has been to "knive Julian Assange’s baby".

One would think this was a nasty piece of act from a notorious totalitarian state run by a tyrant irreversibly addicted to dynastical power, not from the self-proclaimed home of freedom and democratic values — the United States of America.

Barrack Obama’s administration has told the world that Julian Assange needs to be "taken out" and US maverick Sarah Palin has said Assange must be "hunted down like Osama bin Laden".

An advisor to the Canadian Prime Minister publicly called for the assassination of Assange and threats have been extended to the family of Julian Assange, including to his 20-year-old son, who has been threatened with kidnapping and harm so his father can be silenced.

It is very hard to imagine this repressive behaviour is emanating from a Western community, and it is even harder to imagine that Barrack Obama has something to do with it, and that the targeted victim of this most uncivilised brutality is an Australian, a Westerner and a citizen of a country that prides itself as a leading democracy.

Such persecution of journalists is often reported from countries accused of totalitarianism and despotism and the persecuted journalists from these countries often receive numerous awards from the West for bravery and courageous journalism.

One wonders if any such award will come from the US’ many foundations that often claim to champion the cause for democracy and accountability.

Julian Assange’s award comes from the people, the very people who for years have been cheated, misled and conned by successive US governments, and that award has already been given.

The persecution of Julian Assange and his subsequent arrest on what appears to be contrived charges for sexual crimes allegedly committed in Sweden are all a pathetic sign of US hypocrisy and many people are clearly appalled.

The US is basically charging that WikiLeaks and other media publishing these secret US diplomatic cables have all become too independent and too powerful for the public good and this charge is not new at all — it is not the first and will not be the last.

Defending the media against a similar charge, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times once wrote: "The Press is protected (by the First Amendment) not for its own sake but to enable a free political system to operate. In the end, the concern is not for the reporter or the editor but for the citizen-critic of government."

In his argument, Lewis made it clear that when we speak about freedom of the Press, what is at stake "is the freedom to perform a function on behalf of the polity".

He cited Supreme Court judge Powell, who observed: "no individual can obtain for himself the information needed for the intelligent discharge of his political responsibilities . . . By enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process, the Press performs a crucial function in effecting the societal purpose of the First Amendment".

Judge Gurfein ruled in support of the New York Times’ right to publish the Pentagon Papers after the US government had failed to show any threat of a breach of security but only the possibility of embarrassment.

Said Judge Gurfein: "A cantankerous Press, an obstinate Press, a ubiquitous Press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know."

In the book "Manufacturing Consent", Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky co-wrote: "We do not accept the view that freedom of expression must be defended in instrumental terms, by virtue of its contribution to some higher good; rather, it is a value in itself."

The self-image of Western media and the reality in the Western political culture is today a matter of no mean concern.

The contrast to the view that the media are cantankerous, obstinate and ubiquitous in their search for truth and their independence of authority and Herman and Chomsky looked at the propaganda model that sees the media as serving a "societal purpose".

This societal purpose is not that of enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process by providing them with the information needed for the intelligent discharge of political responsibilities, something the leaked US diplomatic cables certainly do. It is rather a contrived societal purpose that serves elitist aspirations and goals.

Zimbabweans, for example, can exercise full political responsibility in the coming election as they are now very clear of the relationship between the ever-meddling US and the puppet MDC-T party, as captained by its "flawed figure" leader, Tsvangirai, thanks to the leaked cables.

The propaganda model suggests that the societal purpose of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state.

The US and its Western allies are now too used to the media that serve the purpose of defending elitist interests and that is done in so many ways. There is the infamous selection of topics, the elitist distribution of concerns, the disgusting framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, as well as the confining of debate to acceptable premises and bounds.

In the book "Manufacturing Consent" Herman and Chomsky sought to show that the Western propaganda model’s expectations are often realised, even surpassed, and this is why Western governments preach that their media are free to express themselves, but not when they do what WikiLeaks just did. Julian Assange’s case falls out of these expectations and in this regard his media outlet is an act of "terrorism" and this is why the man is being hunted down.

Chief Justice Hughes cited "the primary need of a vigilant and courageous Press" in order for democratic processes to function in a meaningful way and that is fairly straightforward and expected. However, the evidence reviewed by Herman and Chomsky indicated that this need is not met or even "weakly approximated" in real practice.

Some have argued that today’s media, particularly those in the West, are more independent than the media in past years. Lewis asserted that the past generations taught the modern media to exercise "the power to root about in our national life, exposing what they deem right for exposure", without regard to external pressures or the dictates of authority. Assange will disagree today.

In the 1970s and the 1980s, the reporting on the Tet offensive was taken as a classical example of how the media had gone too far in their exuberant independence and challenge to authority, so far that they had to be curbed if democracy were to survive.

But even these cases demonstrated the subordination of the media to the requirements of the state propaganda system. At the peak of this alleged media independence, and as the Vietnam War entered its final period, and as the media were threatening Richard Nixon’s presidency, the subordination to these demands never flagged.

This was illustrated by the media coverage of the Paris peace treaty of 1973, one of the most flagrant examples of media misrepresentation based on an uncritical reiteration of official claims and adherence to the political agenda of the state — only comparable to the media misrepresentations that hit Nicaragua in the eighties when the US was propping the Contras against the democratically elected and popular Sandinista government led by Daniel Ortega, or perhaps the onslaught on Zimbabwe after the country embarked on a popular land reform programme that displaced white commercial farmers.

The Watergate affair is to critics of the media an illustration of the media’s irresponsible excesses and the word "irresponsible" has been used by the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, in describing Julian Assange.

To those who defend the media Watergate represents media independence and commitment to the values of professional journalism. So we have two sides of the story here.

The major scandal of Watergate as portrayed by the mainstream media was that the Nixon government sent a bunch of petty criminals to break into the Democratic Party Headquarters for obscure reasons.

The only reason Nixon’s actions were scandalous was that he carried his mischief against an organisation that represented powerful domestic interests in the United States — the interests of the powerful from the business community.

At the time Nixon got involved in the Watergate scandal, the Socialist Workers Party, a legally registered political party, which represented no powerful interests, had several break-ins and disruptions from the FBI.

This was not a scandal at all, and the disruptions and break ins kept going on for a decade — a violation of democratic principles far more serious and extensive than any of the charges brought up during the Watergate hearings.

The actions of the FBI were only part of a well-calculated government plan extending over many administrations to deter independent political action, stir up violence in the ghettos, and undermine the popular movements that were beginning to engage sectors of the generally marginalised public in decision making.

Despite being brought up in court, the actions of the FBI did not attract much media attention and that is why the police assassination of a Black Panther organiser in Chicago was not a scandal at all.

The genocide carried out by the US in Cambodia only entered the Watergate marginally, not because this gruesome war crime killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, but precisely because Congress was not properly notified, so much that its privileges were infringed.

When the Western media criticises President Mugabe for calling for an election, the crime in question is not the act of calling for an election, but the fact that such an election is called for when Morgan Tsvangirai’s party is in disarray and therefore when Tsvangirai is not ready.

It is not a scandal when Tsvangirai discussed illegal ways of removing a democratically elected government with US diplomats, but it is a scandal when Mugabe announces that after the lifespan of the Zanu-PF-MDC inclusive Government, there will be elections.

This is the propaganda model that manipulates the media and yet we stand lectured that there exists in the West something called Press freedom.

Zimbabwe we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death!

Reason Wafawarova is a political writer and can be contacted on or reason@rwafawa rova. com or visit

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