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2009-07-06

John Pilger on Honduras, Iran, Gaza, the Corporate Media, Obama’s Wars, and Resisting the American Empire

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Award-winning investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger joins us for a wide-ranging conversation on Honduras, Iran, Gaza, the media, healthcare, and Obama’s wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pilger has written close to a dozen books and made over fifty documentaries on a range of subjects, including struggles around the world for a more just and peaceful society and against Western military and economic intervention. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: From the events in Honduras, we step back to reflect on how the media’s been covering the coup in that country. Last week, award-winning investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger was visiting the United States. He was born in Australia but has lived in London since the ’60s and began his career as a hard-hitting war reporter covering the Vietnam War. He has written close to a dozen books and made over fifty documentaries on subjects ranging from struggles around the world for a more just and peaceful society and against Western military and economic intervention, films on East Timor, Cambodia, Vietnam, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and the United States.

Well, last week, I had a wide-ranging conversation with John Pilger on Honduras, Iran, Gaza, the media, healthcare, and Obama’s wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I began by asking John Pilger to comment on the current state of the mainstream media and how it shapes our perceptions and priorities.

    JOHN PILGER: I don’t believe anything has changed. And if it is going to change in the Middle East, as in other parts of the world, I think one of the really significant and building areas of discussion — indeed, it’s been building for the last few years — is just the kind of information we get through the so-called mainstream.

    We have many alternative sources of information now, not least of all your own program, though I wouldn’t call that alternative. But for most people, the primary source of their information is the mainstream. It is mainly television. Even the internet, for all its — for all its subversiveness, has still a very large component of the mainstream.

    And that means that we’re getting still this — either it’s a singular message about wars, about the economy, about all those things that touch our lives. All we’re getting, what I would call a kind of contrived silence, a censorship by omission. I think this is almost the principal issue of today, because without information we can’t possibly begin to influence government, we can’t possibly begin to end the wars.

    And all of this, it seems to me, has come together in the presidency of Barack Obama, who is almost a creation of this media world. He promised some things, although most of them were amorphous, and has delivered virtually the opposite. He started his own war in Pakistan. We see the events in Iran and Honduras being quite subtly, but very directly, influenced in the time-honored way by the Obama administration. And yet, the Obama administration is still given this extraordinary benefit of the doubt by people who, in my view, are influenced by mainstream media.

    It’s a time when I think we’re either going to begin to understand how the media really works, or we’re going to let that opportunity pass. It’s almost an historic opportunity, that we understand that the perception of our world is utterly distorted, most of the time through what are seen as credible sources of information.

    AMY GOODMAN: John, talk about the contrast between the media coverage of the Iranian elections and the Honduran coup and the response to it on the ground.

    JOHN PILGER: Well, you know, you take the New York Times. The New York Times basically has said that — in so many words, that the Iranian protests represent a mass movement, embracing the majority in that country. Now, there’s no doubt that among the people protesting, the many people protesting in the streets of Iran, are those who want another Iran, those who want greater freedoms — we’ve heard from them in the past — but without any smoking gun, without any credible information, without any evidence that that election in Iran was rigged, rigged to get rid of something like ten million votes.

    I mean, I don’t think anyone doubts that in an election like Iran’s, like an election in the United States, there is fraud. In most elections, there are. And there may well have been extensive fraud in the Iranian election. But the way our perception of those events in Iran has been manipulated is to suggest that this was a great — a revolution that was set to overthrow the Islamic Revolution of 1979. That’s just simply not true. That has preoccupied the mainstream media, has been on the front pages and top of the news on the networks.

    Contrast that with Honduras, yes, it has been a news item, but way at the end of Michael Jackson. And we’ve — as a main component of this news item has been the Obama administration’s alleged condemnation of the Honduran coup. But if you look at the condemnation, which is built on the fact that they said that — they’ve said that — well, they tried to sway the Honduran military from staging the coup — and I have to say, Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to call it a coup, because if she called it a coup, the Foreign Assistance Act would kick in, and she’d have to withdraw all the military support to the 600 US military personnel who are based in Honduras. But she said, and administration officials have said, “Look, we tried to persuade the Honduran military from going ahead with this.” Well, turn that around, as that means that they knew that a coup was coming, and it just beggars belief that they didn’t play a major role in the events, that may well have got out of their control. They may well have not wanted the coup in its present form, in its present crude form, to happen, but they knew about it. It so parallels the 2002 coup against Chavez. Now, that story, which it really is, the kernel of that news story, it is really what matters in that news story, did — well, did the US play its traditional role or not? And why has the elected president of Honduras been kicked out of his country? That’s been relegated.

    So, you have two news stories. You have the Iranian story of protests for freedom. That’s approved, that’s a worthy story. You have the Honduras story of our friends in the south just getting a little bit out of control. That’s an unworthy story. Two different perceptions in two very, very important areas.

    AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you a clip of David Gregory on NBC. He replaced Tim Russert as the moderator of Meet the Press. And he was interviewing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the midst of the crackdown on the protests in Iran.

      DAVID GREGORY: Does the United States have unique role to play here in continuing to support this freedom movement, as you call it, in Iran, an obligation to support the protesters, to really give them moral support, at the very least?

      PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I think it’s clear that the United States, the people of the United States, the President of the United States, free people everywhere, decent people everywhere, are amazed at the desire of the people there to — and their willingness to stand up for their rights.

      I cannot, as I said, tell you what is going to happen. I’ll tell you what I would do, what we all would do, in the face of demonstrations. As we speak, David, there’s a demonstration right now outside my window, outside my office. Well, democracies act differently. They don’t send armed agents of the regime to brutally mow down the demonstrators. I’ll tell you what I did. I called in these demonstrators. They happened to be representatives of a non-Jewish minority in Israel, the Druze community. They have certain protests about the financing of their municipalities. I called their leaders in. I talked to them. I said, “How can I help you?” That’s what democratic leaders do. That’s what democratic countries do.

    AMY GOODMAN: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. David Gregory didn’t ask him about — didn’t push him on this point of how the Israeli military deals with protest. But what’s your response to this, John Pilger?

    JOHN PILGER: But no one ever presses an Israeli leader — Netanyahu or Olmert or any of them. None of them are — they are given — Israeli leaders were given a legitimacy during what was unconditionally a massacre in December-January of this year, as if — and the sum of that was to suggest, number one, that there was a war between Israel and Gaza, and there wasn’t. There was an assault on Gaza that was aimed at civilians, on a defenseless country, on a helpless country, a trapped people. And the second impression was that, yes, Israel is a democracy: we’ll discuss this on television with you; we’ll discuss the finer points.

    The way Israel is reported in the United States is media manipulation on — as almost a high art form. When people like Netanyahu, whose very utterances and his background would suggest somebody, I think it’s fair to say, not credible, but somebody of — well, those of us who would say somebody who would be a prima facie war criminal, is given this kind of legitimacy, not even questioned, not even challenged about the events in his country and his own extreme utterances.

    Yes, we have cartoon figures like Lieberman, a very —- his foreign minister, a very important, but rather grotesque, character, in a sense. So he -—

    AMY GOODMAN: Avigdor Lieberman.

    JOHN PILGER: Yes. He can be made, perhaps — he can be drawn out as the sort of the strange, bad apple in that barrel. But I think it’s that legitimacy that mainstream media gives one side. And the sum of that, as far as Palestine is concerned, is that there is no illegitimate occupation, there is no illegality. There’s some illegality, as Obama referred to in his Cairo speech, about the continuing building of settlements, but there is no suggestion that this is the longest, most brutal, illegal military occupation in our lifetime.

    AMY GOODMAN: Let me just go to that for one minute, President Obama in Cairo, giving his address in the Middle East, talking specifically about the settlements.

      PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

    AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama in Cairo in his heralded address to the Muslim world.

    John Pilger, he says the continued expansion of settlements has to stop. Your response? And then, overall, to his entire address?

    JOHN PILGER: Well, he said the continuing response, but what about all the settlements, the so-called settlements, colonies, that have so honeycombed the Occupied Territories over a period of now almost several — almost two decades? I thought the most significant aspect of that statement was that he referred to the continuing — they should stop the continuing settlements. So, leave the ones that have already been built. Let’s stop building them now. And, of course, the Israelis, ever resourceful in this area, got around this very quickly by issuing building licenses to those settlements that were about to be built and hadn’t been built, as if they had been built, so they wouldn’t fall into President Obama’s category.

    I didn’t think that President Obama’s Cairo speech added up to anything. Yes, it had different language. It didn’t use Bush’s aggressive “you’re with us or against us.” It was very soothing. I read one commentator’s rather apt description of Obama’s words as supplying a kind of mood music to the Middle East. But in the end, what did he offer?

    Did he go — did he talk about the law? And the whole issue of Palestine is really about a respect for law. Did he go back to the 1976 resolution? There it is. It calls on a Palestine state. Did he reach out to the government in Gaza, which, in spite of the media distortion, has time and again called for a two-state agreement in the Middle East? Did he make any move that would begin to resolve this injustice? Did he paint it as an injustice? Because that’s what it is. It’s an injustice on a scale that none of us in our own countries, in our own lives, would tolerate. The answer is, no, he didn’t.

    Now, this is not to suggest that there will be some helpful window dressing here and there. I don’t know. But it seems to me that the pressure on Obama over the Middle East, as indeed over so many other issues, has been so minimal that he can simply perform as Bush Lite.

    AMY GOODMAN: He did, however, I believe for the first time for a president, admit the US as involved in the 1953 overthrow of a democratically elected leader, and that was in Iran, Mohammed Mosaddeq.

    JOHN PILGER: Yeah, but what a concession, Amy. We get 1953, you know, fifty-six years ago. You know, that’s easy. That’s easy. But it’s what has happened since then. The demonizing of Iran goes on. The lecturing of Iran, which is a extremely politically complex society, goes on. And the policy is unchanged.

    Iran’s — the crime always is independence. Iran wants — is an independent state and has almost miraculously maintained itself in forms that we might not approve of, certainly, but it has maintained itself as an independent major state in the Middle East. That is absolutely intolerable to the US state.

    And Obama has not shifted from that at all. He has made a number of patronizing appeals to the Iranians. But now to — as he’s, in effect, saying that the protesters should be allowed to control the streets of Tehran, turn that around. What if it was suggested that protesters should be allowed to control the streets of Washington? But that’s, of course, another side of double standards.

    I don’t believe — I really don’t believe — I don’t believe anything has changed. And if it is going to change in the Middle East, as in other parts of the world, there has to be greater pressure from within the antiwar movement, within the peace movement, within all those groups that have allied themselves with the Democrats.

AMY GOODMAN: Renowned filmmaker John Pilger. We’ll continue with my interview with him in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We return to my interview with the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker John Pilger.

    AMY GOODMAN: John Pilger, you’re not an American citizen, but I’d like you to comment on American politics. With the election of the — certification of the election of Al Franken to be the sixtieth Democrat in the Senate, the Democrats have a super majority. They can pass any — a filibuster-proof majority. They can pass anything they want. The question is, from foreign policy to domestic policy, what exactly President Obama will do with this. Primary on his domestic agenda is healthcare.

    You come from Britain, though born in Australia. What are your comments on how this debate is being carried out in the United States? More than 70 percent of Americans say they want a public plan, but it’s pretty clear that even people within President Obama’s own party are terrified, or at least getting millions of dollars from the health insurance and healthcare industry. Explain your system in Britain.

    JOHN PILGER: Amy, my impression, gained over many years — and I don’t think I’d call myself an honorary citizen, but I’ve certainly come into this country and lived in it for many years. My impression is that the ordinary Americans are so far ahead of their politicians, so far ahead of their media, and so far ahead of all those who claim to be their betters and who bestow on them stereotypes that are almost contemptuous. Indeed, you can go back to Madison, when he described the American public as, at best, meddlesome.

    I think if you look the credible polls, say, those done by the Pew organization, then you will see that the majority of Americans are very dangerously subversive. I would say that they may even be left-wing. This is a very worrying situation, of course. But the majority of them want the decencies, as you’ve suggested. They want a universal healthcare system. Now, I’m talking about two-thirds here. I think the figures I saw were 70, 74 percent. They want their country out of the colonial wars that they’re fighting, the various wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. They want the government to take responsibility for those who cannot care for themselves. They want the banks and the banksters, as Franklin Roosevelt called them, brought to account. They have decent — I hesitate to call them radical views. They’re not radical views; they’re just the views of decency, but they’re views at huge odds with their government, be it a Bush government or an Obama government, and their views are at odds with the media that claim to represent them, to be their agents, as it were. And to watch this so-called debate, it’s not a debate, Amy, it’s a farce.

    What Obama is moving towards is what Hillary Clinton tried to, before she allied herself with some of the worst elements in the health insurance business. What he’s moving towards is a very messy version of the old system that will allow the old pirates still to run it, that certain insurance will be guaranteed, yes, on a Medicare basis, but it will be a mess. And it will be —

    AMY GOODMAN: Could you explain, because it’s so unusual to hear about what other systems are without them just being described as “socialist,” and so you end the discussion.

    JOHN PILGER: Yeah.


    AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, single payer in the United States, most popular option, and yet it is almost never mentioned in the media, except by those who attack it. Canada has a system that — where the government pays for healthcare. In Britain, the doctors are employees of the state. Can you explain how the British medical system works, and if it works?

    JOHN PILGER: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, I’ve lived in the UK most of my life, and I’ve used the National Health Service. I regard it as a treasure. I regard it as I’ve had some of the best care for not particularly serious ailments, but I’ve had some of the best care that I could possibly have.

    What happens is, you go to a GP, a general practitioner, and you can choose which one you want to go to in your area. You sign nothing. You simply — they simply have your name and address. And you’re seen by that doctor. If there’s something that is required, you’re referred to a specialist. Where I live in London, I’m surrounded by five of the world’s major teaching hospitals, all of them run by the National Health Service.

    And the way the National Health Service is represented in the United States is truly scandalous. That word “socialist” is pulled out. It’s kind of infantile almost. Yes, it’s socialist. If socialist is caring for the majority of the people and taking away the fear of being denied healthcare that so many millions of Americans have — they have this fear — then, yes, it is.

    It’s a vast community operation that is highly imperfect, especially — it doesn’t provide enough care for the mentally ill. It doesn’t provide enough care for the aged. In some parts of Britain, outside the major urban centers, it’s not as good as it is if you, say, go to London and you’re near a great teaching hospital, as I am. But it’s bereft of the kind of bureaucracy that means-tests anyone coming into it. I don’t sign anything when I go into a hospital. I do sign when the doctors want to do something to me. You have to sign a waiver, you know, so that you understand it and all that. That’s it.

    It is so much part of people’s lives that one of the most conservative medical organizations, or at least it was, in the world, the British Medical Association, are the greatest champions of the National Health Service. Most of the research is done within the National Health Service.

    Why can’t there be something like this — not exactly the same, in fact, it could improve on it. The same — France has the same. Italy has the same. Holland has the same. What is it about US legislators that they appear to be so in bed with such powerful interests, such as the insurance companies, that they can’t represent their own people’s needs, their own people’s basic human rights? And that’s what it is. It’s in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, actually. It is a human right to have this kind of medical care.

    It’s to take away fear. And all of us have experienced the fear of possible ill health. And I’ve interviewed so many people in the United States that I see them crippled, both by what is medically wrong with them, but by this terrible insecurity that takes over their lives. And the poverty then that consumes it as they try to pay for their medical care, it’s primitive.

    AMY GOODMAN: John Pilger, I want to ask you about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, how you see, especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan, where President Obama says he’s expanding the war, how you see it ending. You have done more than fifty documentaries —

    JOHN PILGER: Mm-hmm.

    AMY GOODMAN: — many of them about wars around the world.

    JOHN PILGER: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

    AMY GOODMAN: And also, the response of the British people, how you see what’s happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    JOHN PILGER: Well, Obama has begun a new war. He has — there is an Obama war, and that’s Pakistan. The shaking of the hornets’ nest, if you like, in Pakistan, which this administration has done willfully, is an historic disaster. The creation of up to two million refugees in the northwest of Pakistan, caused by the attacks by the Pakistani government, egged on and paid for by the Obama administration. The use of electronic battlefield weapons, such as drones and other unmanned vehicles. Drones have killed, according to the Pakistani authorities, American drones launched from, I believe, near Las Vegas have killed something like 700 civilians since the inauguration of President Obama. So there is a new war. It’s a war in Pakistan. I believe there is a new jargon term in Washington called “AfPak,” which is — well, it’s almost beyond commenting on.

    The Afghanistan war, so-called, is really about building, as Gates has said — Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, has virtually admitted — is about building a number of secured permanent bases throughout that country and reinforcing the major facility at Bagram. The United States has no intention of getting out of Afghanistan. It is building one of its fortress embassies in Kabul, just as it’s building a $1 billion embassy in Islamabad, just as it’s built an enormous fortress in Baghdad. Whatever happens to American ground troops, who eventually, yes, will be withdrawn, will make no difference to the significance of the American presence, the American — the violent American presence in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and in Iraq. These are seen as places where the United States will have a permanent presence to be able to — a strategic position, where it will be able to monitor, and perhaps influence, and perhaps control, the influences of its imperial rivals. Bagram base is being extended. It probably has a worse record, if that’s possible, than Guantanamo, in terms of its human rights abuses.

    So, what we will see is, as Obama has said, we will see American ground troops gradually withdrawn. But as they’re withdrawn, the use of electronic weaponry and bombing will increase. Unless. Unless there is an understanding of this in this country. Unless people stop taking the pronouncements of governments at their word. When Obama went to Annapolis and said we’re getting out of Iraq and appeared to be giving a timetable, within a matter of weeks, I believe, he was — General Casey, the head of the Army, contradicted him and said, “Oh, no, we’ll probably be there for another ten years.” And other Pentagon generals put it even higher, fifteen years.

    No mention is made of the enormous American army of mercenaries who are in all those theaters of war, and Special Forces. No mention is made of the Special Forces operation inside Iraq, inside — I beg your pardon, inside Iran. $400 million was allotted to that particular secret war by Bush in one of his signing decrees, which money has gone to both the Kurdish and Baluchi separatist movements.

    The whole region is being crafted, if you like, for a very, very long American colonial presence. And eventually, it will not need a standing army there. That’s the future in that part of the world, as I say, unless people become aware of that and start to knock — bang on the doors of government, of Congress, and of power in this country to expose it.

AMY GOODMAN: Award-winning filmmaker John Pilger. You can get a copy of the show at democracynow.org.

And this late breaking news: former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara died in his sleep this morning in Washington, DC.

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