John Pilger on Honduras, Iran, Gaza, the Corporate Media, Obama's Wars and Resisting the American Empire
July 06, 2009
Democracy Now! democracynow.org
Award-winning investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker, John Pilger, joins us for a wide-ranging conversation on on Honduras, Iran, Gaza, the media, health care, and Obama's wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pilger has has written close to a dozen books and made over 50 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.
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AMY GOODMAN: From the events in Honduras, we step back to reflect 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 1960's 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 50 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 mainstream media and how it shapes our perceptions and priorities.
JOHN PILGER: I don't believe anything as changed. If it is one to change in the middle east as other parts of the world, I think one of the really significant and building areas of discussion- and data has 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 subversiveness has still a very large component of the mainstream. And that means we're getting still either its this singular message about wars, about the economy, about all those things that touch our lives. All we are getting is what I would call is a contrived silence, a censorship by a mission. I think this is almost the principal issue of today because without information, we cannot possibly begin to influence government. We cannot possibly begin to end the wars.
All of this, it seams 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 more for us, and has delivered virtually the opposite. He started his own war in Pakistan. We see the events in Iran and Honduras in quiet subtlety, 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 the mainstream media. It is a time when I think, where either we are going to begin to understand how the media really works, or we're going to let that opportunity pass. Its almost a historic opportunity the 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, in so many words, that the Iranian protests represent a mass movement, embracing the majority in the country. Now there is 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 have heard from that 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 10 million votes. I mean, I don't think anyone does in an election like in Iran or in the United States, there is a fraud. In most elections, there are. They may well have been extensive fraud in the Iranian elections. But the way our perception of those events in Iran has been manipulated is to suggest that this was a revolution that was said to overthrow the Islamic revolution of 1979. That is simply just not true. That has preoccupied the mainstream media. It has been on the front pages, and the top of the news and the networks.
Contrast that with Honduras, yes, it has been a news item, way at the end of Michael Jackson. 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 they said, well they've tried to sway the Honduran military from staging the coup, and I have to say Hiliary Clinton does not want to call it a coup because she does so, the Foreign Assistance Act would kick in and she would have to withdraw all the military support to the 600 US military personal 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, you turn that around, and that means they knew that a coup was coming. And just beggars belief that they did not play a major role in the events–that may well have gone 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 is so parallels the 2002 coup against Chavez. Now that story, what really is the kernel of that news story, it is really what really matters in that story, what did the U.S. play its traditional role or not, and why has the elected president of Honduras been kicked out of this country? That has been relegated. So, you have two news stories. You have the Iranian story of protests for freedom, that's approved, thats a worthy story. You have the Honduras story of our friends in the south just getting a little bit of control, that is an unworthy story. Two different perceptions in two very, very important areas.
AMY GOODMAN:I want 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 protest 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?
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I think it is 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—and their willingness to come to stand up for their rights. I cannot, as I said, tell you what is going to happen. I can tell you what I would do, what we all would do in the face of demonstrations. As we speak, there is a demonstration right now outside my window, outside my office. Well, democracies acted differently. They do not send an armed agents of the regime to brutally mowed down the demonstrators. I called in these demonstrators that happen to be representative 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 and said, ‘How can I help you?" That is what democratic leaders and democratic countries do.
AMY GOODMAN: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. David Gregory didn't ask him about, did not push him on this point of how the Israeli military deals with protests. 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. There are given, Israeli leaders were given a legitimacy during what was unconditionally a massacre in December-January of this year. 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, a helpless country, a trapped people. And the second impression was that, yes, Israel is a democracy. And we will discuss this on television with you, we will discuss the finer points.
The way Israel is reported in the United States is media manipulation as almost as high art form. When people like Netanyahu whose very utterances and his background would suggest somebody, I think safe to say not credible, but somebody of well, those of us who would say somebody would be a prima facie war criminal, is given this kind of legitimacy. Not even questioned, not even challenged about the events in this country and his own extreme utterances. Yes, we have cartoon figures like Lieberman who is—as foreign minister very important, but rather grotesque character in a sense.
AMY GOODMAN: Avigdor Liberman
JOHN PILGER: He can be made perhaps or drawn out as the sort of strange that bad apple in the barrel. I think it is that legitimacy the 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 is sum 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.
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 an overall to his entire address?
JOHN PILGER: He says the continuing response, but what about all the settlements, the so-called settlements, colonies, that have so honeycombed the Occupied Territories over almost two decades? I thought the most significant aspect of that statement was he referred to the continuing settlements, leave the ones that have already been built. Let's stop building them now. 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 would not fall into President Obama's category.
I didn't think President Obama's Cairo speech added up to anything. Yes, it had different language. It did not use Bush's aggressive "you're with us or against us". It was very soothing. I read one commentators 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 you talk about the law? 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 the 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 is what it is, in injustice on the scale that none of us in our own countries and in our own lives would tolerate. The answer is, no, he didn't. 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 in so many other issues, has been so minimal that he can simply perform as Bush-light.
AMY GOODMAN:He did however I believe for the first time for president admit the U.S.'s involvement in the 1953 overthrow of a democratically elected leader, and what was in Iran, Mohammed Mossadeq.
JOHN PILGER: But what a concession, Amy. We get 1953, you know, 56 years ago. That is easy. That is easy, but it is what has happened since then, the demonizing of Iran goes on, the lecturing of Iran, which is extremely political complex society, goes on. And the policy is unchanged. The crime always is independence. Iran 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 U.S. State.
And Obama has not shifted from that at all. He has made a number of patronizing appeals to the Iranians, but now, as he is in effect saying, 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 of course is another side of double standards. I don't believe anything has changed. 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 anti-war movements, within the peace movement, within all those groups that have allied themselves with the Democrats.
AMY GOODMAN: Renowned filmmaker John Pilger. We will continue with my interview with him in a minute. [Music Break]
AMY GOODMAN: This is "Democracy now!," Democracynow.org, The War and Peace report. I'm Amy Goodman. We return to my interview with the Emmy-award winning filmmaker John Pilger.
John Pilger you're not an American citizen, but I'd like you to comment on American politics. With the election certification of Al Franken to be the 60th Democrat in the Senate, the Democrats have a super majority, 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 health care. 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% 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 least getting millions of dollars from the health insurance and health-care industry. Explain your system in Britain.
JOHN PILGER: Amy, my impression gained over many years, and I do not think that I'd call myself honorary citizen, but I have certainly come to this country and lived in it for many years. My impression is that 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 bestow on them stereotypes, that are almost contemptuous. Indeed you can go back to Madison, when he described he 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 the majority of the people of Americana are very dangerously subversive. I would say they may even be left-wing. This is a very worrying situation, of course. But the majority of them want the decency as you suggested, they want universal health care system. Now I am talking about two-thirds. I think the figure I saw was 70, 74%.
They want their country out of the colonial wars that they are 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, they are just the views of decency, but they are 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 the so-called debate, it is not a debate, Amy, its 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 is moving toward 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you explain, because it is so unusual to hear about what other systems are without them just been described as socialist, and so you ended the discussion. 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 where the government pays for health care. In Britain, the doctors are employees of the state. Can you explain how the British medical system works and if it works?
JOHN PILGER: I have lived in the U.K. for most of my life and I have used the National Health Service and regard it as a treasure. I regard it as— I have had some of the best care for not particularly serious ailments, but I have had the best care that I could possibly have. What happens is, you go to a G.P., a general practitioner—and you can choose which one you want to go to in your area – you sign nothing. They simply have your name and address, and you are 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.
The way the National Health Service is represented in the United States is truly scandalous. That word "socialist" is pulled out. It is kind of infantile almost. Yes it is socialist, if socialist is caring for the majority of the people and taking away the fear of being denied health care that so many millions of Americans have, they have this fear. Then yes, it's a vast community operation that is highly imperfect, doesn't provide enough care for the mentally ill, doesn't provide enough care for the aged. In some parts of Britain, outside the major urban centers, it is not as good as it is if you say go to London and are near great teaching hospital as I am. But it is bereft of the kind of bureaucracy that means-test 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 you have to sign a waiver, you know saying you understand it, and all that, but that's it.
It's so much part of people's lives that one of the most conservative medical organizations, or at least it was in the world, 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. France has the same. Italy has the same. Holland has the same. What is it about U.S. legislators that they appear to be so in bed with such powerful interest such as the insurance companies that they cannot represent their own people's needs, their own people's basic human rights? And that is what it is. It is 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 that then consumes them as they try to pay for their medical care, its primitive.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, how you see especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan where President Obama says he is expanding the war, how you see it ending? You've done more than 50 documentaries, many of them about wars around the world. Also, the response of the British people, how you see what is happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
JOHN PILGER: Obama has begun a new war. There is in Obama war and that is Pakistan. The shaking of the hornets' nest, if you like, in Pakistan, which this administration has done willfully, is a historic disaster. The creation of up to 2 million refugees in Northwestern Pakistan caused by the attacks by the Pakistanis 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 Pakistanis 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 is a war in Pakistan. I believe there is a new jargon term in Washington called "Afpak", which is, well almost beyond commenting on.
The Afghanistan War, so called, is really about building as Gates, Robert Gates the Secretary has said, 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 is building a $1 billion embassy in Islamabad, just as it has 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, 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 is being extended. It probably has the worst record, if that is possible, then Guantanamo in terms of its human-rights abuses.
So what we will see as Obama has said, we will see American ground troops gradually withdrawn. But as they do so, the use of electronic weaponry and bombing will increase. Unless there is an understanding of this in this country, unless people stopped 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, General Casey contradicted him and said—we will probably be there for another 10 years. And other Pentagon generals put it even higher, 15 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 come 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. Eventually, it will not need a standing army there. That is the future in that part of the world, as I say, unless people become aware of that and start to 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. Late breaking news, Robert McNamara died in his sleep this morning in Washington, D.C.