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International Press Freedom Day, a Jamboree of Hypocrisy

Steve Sweeney

May 3, 2023

GLOBAL human rights organisations and press freedom groups will today hold events across the world to mark International Press Freedom day, held annually on May 3. It was established by the United Nations in 1993 on the second anniversary of the signing of the Windhoek Declaration, a statement of free press principles put together by African newspaper journalists. Its stated aim is to “raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

But in reality the event is a jamboree of hypocrisy, with the multimillion press freedom and human rights business operating as the human face of US imperialism, bankrolled by a rogues’ gallery of organisations linked to the CIA and touting for regime change across the world. The obvious campaign to highlight should be that of Julian Assange who faces 175 years in a US prison under the draconian Espionage Act for exposing war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet he remains locked up in Britain’s high-security Belmarsh prison where he has been subjected to what has been described as torture – to an almost blanket silence from the press freedom business.

Those who are hypocritically talking about press freedom today were also noticeably silent last week on the anniversary of one of a litany of war crimes committed by Nato during the body’s 70 plus-year existence which was celebrated with hubris in London in 2019. April 23 marked the anniversary of Nato’s bombing of the Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) building in Belgrade which killed 16 journalists in a targeted attack. It justified the operation saying it was necessary “to disrupt and degrade the command, control and communications network” of the Yugoslav Armed Forces.

But the deliberate targeting of a non-military building is against the so-called rules of war and was too much even for pro-imperialist shills Amnesty International, who branded the attack a war crime. There has been no justice for the victims of the attack or their families and nobody has been held accountable for the bombing. In fact, the only individual prosecuted was Dragoljub Milanovic, general manager of RTS who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to evacuate the building.

In 2011, the Associated Press released a particularly shameful statement, dutifully published in the Guardian, which appeared to justify the bombing saying: “The station blatantly spread Milosevic’s nationalist propaganda, portraying Serbs as the victims of ethnic attacks in the former Yugoslavia, thus whipping up nationalism that led to wars."

“At the same time, the television accused the Serbian opposition of being foreign mercenaries and traitors who were working against the country's interests. The propaganda was so intense that it led to anti-government protests in March 1991 in the capital, during which two people were killed in what was the first popular uprising against Milosevic’s rule."

“It also prompted Nato in 1999 to declare the state TV a legitimate target. The RTS building was bombed during the air war that the alliance launched to stop Milosevic’s onslaught against Kosovo Albanian separatists. Sixteen RTS employees died in the attack.”

Its response displayed a staggering disregard not only for press freedom, but for human life. It was also a statement of staggering hypocrisy given the role of imperialism in destroying most of the media organisations that supported the government in Serbia while funnelling millions of dollars in cash and equipment to opposition radio and newspapers.

One of the main beneficiaries of Western support was the “independent” media outlet B92 Radio which still functions as a news organisation in Serbia today. It was used to amplify pro-Nato propaganda with the assistance of the BBC which re-transmitted its programmes. The German media organisation Deutsche Welle paid for news print and printing presses for opposition newspapers. They, along with a compliant Western liberal media, conducted a propaganda exercise to demonise the Serbian people and soften up public opinion to justify the bombardment and break-up of the rest of Yugoslavia.

Much of the substandard reporting became mainstream narrative including the BBC peddling the fabricated claim that Serbian snipers were paid 2,700 French francs for every child they killed. But a particular low point was the report carried in the Daily Mirror and subsequently Germany’s Bild am Sonntag and the Italian daily La Repubblica which claimed a Bosnian woman died “after being forced to give birth to a dog” by Serbians.

Propaganda plays an important role in any war and has always been paid close attention to by intelligence services. Last year I reported on the collusion between the BBC and British intelligence services to manipulate international media in both the Middle East and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. In an elaborate scheme, the British government paid newswire service Reuters to set up reporting services, which were funded covertly via the BBC. The “news” was then rehashed by local media allowing the British to exercise “political influence” in the regions.

It is a tried and tested pattern. During the cold war the CIA funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as an explicitly anti-communist news organisation pumping propaganda into the Soviet states. At one stage it even employed several former Nazi agents who had been involved in anti-Soviet activities under the direction of Adolf Hitler. Following the end of the second world war, the CIA and its predecessor organisations realised the importance of waging a cultural war to win the battle for post-war Europe with its former ally, the Soviet Union now perceived as a threat. It established a number of anti-communist fronts, including the influential Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). It was led by major figures from the art and literary world including former communists Arthur Koestler and Ignazio Silone with CIA officer Michael Josselson as its secretary.

At its peak it published art and literary magazines in at least 20 countries and led a bitter campaign against Chilean poet and communist Pablo Neruda as he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Its CIA support ensured it benefited from an almost endless supply of cash with literary works of dubious merit published and promoted as long as they promoted an anti-communist agenda.

But, despite being one of the literary world’s worst kept secrets, its links to the US intelligence services were made public in 1966. In 1967 the CCF was rebranded the International Association for Cultural Freedom (IACF) and continued to receive funding from the nefarious CIA-funded Ford Foundation. One of the CCF London publications was the magazine Censorship, which ran at a substantial loss before folding in late 1967. But the magazine was the model for Index on Censorship which was set up by Stephen Spender in 1972 with cash from the Ford Foundation.

Index on Censorship continues to function today, posing as an organisation that promotes freedom of expression across the world. But a cursory glance at its major donors sets alarm bells ringing. As well as the aforementioned Ford Foundation, it is funded by Open Society Foundations, Open Democracy and the shady soft power organisation the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

The NED was formed in 1983 to “do today what was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA” according to its co-founder Allen Weinstein. It operates as a vehicle for US-backed regime change in a range of countries including Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ukraine and China amongst others pouring billions of dollars into opposition groups and media organisations. Its funding of press freedom groups should be a major source of concern. But its support is not limited to Index on Censorship. The NED is also one of a host of dodgy donors for another press freedom group – Article 19, named after the section of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on press freedom.

This so-called press freedom group also lists Open Society Foundations, the US Department of State and USAid and Freedom House among its backers. Freedom House has been condemned by US dissident academic Noam Chomsky as “a virtual propaganda arm of the [US] government and international right-wing” with alleged links to the CIA. The NGO has been accused of conducting “clandestine operations” in Iran and formenting opposition in China, Cuba and Ukraine as well as Russia.

As would be expected, Article 19 obediently follows the line of its financial backers in a classic case of “he who pays the piper” echoing US propaganda on countries where it seeks regime change, including Nicaragua. Its allegations of violence by an oppressive regime there were matched by English PEN with which it shares London’s Free Word Centre. The founding centre of PEN International was established in 1921 as a worldwide writers’ centre and champion of free expression.

During the 2018 World Press Freedom Day, English PEN saw fit to raise the case of Nicaraguan “journalist” Miguel Mora, portraying him as a plucky dissident bravely opposing a brutal dictatorship. The truth however is very different. Mora has been blamed for hundreds of deaths in Nicaragua and has called for President Daniel Ortega to be killed. In April 2018, during an attempted coup, he incited his supporters to burn down the building of Radio Ya, a pro-Sandinista media organisation. Twenty journalists were locked inside as Mora’s supporters fired at police and firefighters. He was jailed for his actions but released as part of an amnesty in a government bid to restore peace after the unrest.

Following his release he announced his intention to stand against Daniel Ortega in presidential elections – all of which seems strange in an apparent dictatorship. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists – which also backs regime change in Venezuela – was one of those to honour him with a press freedom award at a lavish dinner ceremony.

Like other press freedom groups, PEN International also has history with the CCF and the CIA which successfully infiltrated the organisation in the 1960s with its operatives and associated writers and activists penetrating its upper echelons. Substantial sums of CIA cash were pumped into PEN International to turn it into a vehicle for US government interests culminating in the organisation holding its 1966 conference in New York, seen as a major success for the CCF.

In 1976 CIA agent Frank Platt was appointed as liaison for PEN’S Writers in Prison Work colluding with Index on Censorship’s Michael Scammel. He used his position to feed information to former CCF secretary and CIA official Michael Josseslon. More latterly PEN I has attracted criticism for its appointment of Suzanne Nossel as executive director of its American Centre. She is a classic example of the revolving door between government and NGOs having served as executive director at Amnesty International and as chief operating officer for Human Rights Watch – an organisation which recently backed the fascist coup in Bolivia.

But it is her support for wars in Afghanistan and policy of liberal internationalism which advocates the use of US military and soft power for regime change that is of major concern. Her appointment at PEN caused journalist Chris Hedges to resign citing “Nossel’s relentless championing of preemptive war — which under international law is illegal — as a State Department official along with her callous disregard for Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians and her refusal as a government official to denounce the use of torture and use of extrajudicial killings, makes her utterly unfit to lead any human rights organisation, especially one that has global concerns.”

The continued covert CIA funding of these multimillion pound organisations raise some serious questions. Should we trust these groups as purveyors of human rights and press freedom? Clearly not. The appointment of people such as Nossel and the behaviour of the organisations are deeply ideological and reflect the interests they serve.

The infiltration and manipulation of press freedom and human rights groups by the intelligence services is merely an extension of the cold war efforts to ensure that they remain largely ineffective and steer any campaign into safe, apolitical liberalism. As Frances Stonor Saunders points out in her excellent “Who Paid the Piper?” this is a deliberate tactic deployed by both British and US intelligence services from the 1940s – “they soon realised the usefulness of accommodating those people and institutions, who, in the tradition of left-wing politics, broadly perceived themselves to be in opposition to the centre of power."

“The purpose of such accommodation was twofold: first, to acquire a proximity to ‘progressive’ groups in order to monitor their activities; secondly, to dilute the impact of these groups by achieving influence from within, or by drawing [their] members into a parallel – and subtly less radical forum.”

The same press freedom groups that decry alleged restrictions in countries that coincidentally happen to be in the crosshairs of Washington have no qualms when it comes to the banning of Russian media organisations. There has been barely a sound from them over the banning of RT and other Russian channels from broadcasting in Britain, the U.S. and Europe. Reporters Without Borders went one step further and lobbied for support for a campaign to limit Russian media output across the European Union. The group launched an appeal in 2022 with an email from Jeanne Cavelier, head of the RSF Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, asking for donations. She claimed that several Russian television channels, including Rossiya 1, Perviy and NTV, were spreading “disinformation and content that in effect condones war crimes and incites violence and hatred, legitimising the invasion of Ukraine and the Russian army’s crimes.”

However when asked for more information, RSF was unable to point to any specific examples of such activity by the organisations cited in its appeal. In a panic, the press freedom group issued a statement, which it then rolled back from calling on General secretary Christophe Deloire to respond. In an attempt to clarify, he said that the channels were “created to destabilise our democracies in a context of information war” and had lied by describing Russia’s intervention as defensive. “In short, they serve the interests of a repressive, censorious and propagandist state.” He said that Russian media has challenged the dominant narratives on the bombing of a hospital in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol and the massacre of civilians in the town of Bucha and also suggested that the US had funded “a secret network of biological laboratories used to design chemical weapons.”

But as journalists it is right to scrutinise such incidents and seek to cut through the fog of war. The appeal called for French authorities to act against Eutelsat, which RSF claims is profiting from broadcasting Russian media outlets and “deriving dividends from disinformation and censorship.” It accused the satellite operator, in which the French state is a major shareholder, of “acting as an intermediary for the Russian war propaganda apparatus."

“Help us to get Eutelsat to comply with the international convention that requires respect for the right to freedom of expression and information,” the RSF message said above a donation button. Mr. Deloire denied that RSF was calling for censorship but accused the Russian outlets of promoting “propaganda and lies,” saying that “Eutelsat should rather broadcast independent Russian channels.” He insisted this case was different from the state bans on RT and others which RSF opposed, but was about the jurisdiction of governments. “We call on France and other signatory countries of the Eutelsat convention to impose the respect of the principles of this convention,” he said.

On May 3 it is important to remember those incarcerated around the world for raising their voices, but it is equally important to ask the key question of the press freedom groups – whose freedom are they really fighting for?

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