WikiLeaks barged into offices all over Central Asia, pressuring independent journalists like these reporters at the highly-respected Asia Plus to instantly sign agreements on WikiLeaks' terms to publish US cables about their country. Here Marat Mamadshoev and a colleague are being told to sign the agreement immediately, but decline.
I'm sickened by Mediastan, the latest propaganda piece by anarchist impresario Julian Assange.
This is my quick take upon first view of this video (so sorry if there are mistakes or names missing, they will be fixed). It's available for rent ($2.99) or pay $7.00 plus on Vimeo. Naturally, I'm unhappy that I had to give a dime to WL, which I oppose on principle -- and I have to wonder how it is that Paypal could agree to accept these payments when it has blocked payments directly from WikiLeaks (and I plan to raise this issue with both Vimeo and PayPal).This piece of vile stuff is supposed to be Assange's attempt to provide an "antidote" to a movie about him coming out in theaters October 18 which he doesn't like called The Fifth Estate (it's too critical) which he trying to kill off in various ways.
Perhaps he's counting on the fact that most people don't know anything about Central Asia, and will merely be impressed that he and his merry band of hacksters caroming around the perilous but picturesque mountain roads of Central Asia -- complete with Soviet-style policeman stopping and searching traffic, tunnels under repair until who knows when, and lots of sheep blocking the road -- are the coolest of cypherphunk hipsters going on a " journalism" trip through dangerous territory.
Except it's not at all that. What this journey consists of is a bunch of people from the region whose first names only are given within the film (but see the credits below), and the discredited journalist Johannes Wahlstrom, son of the notorious antisemite and provocateur Israel Shamir. Discredited -- because of the tendentious way he has covered Israel-Palestine issues, and disgraced because he is accused of falsifying quotes and of antisemitism.)
So an unintended bonus is that with Wahlstrom narrating most of the film -- when the Great One Himself isn't butting in and pontificating -- is that WikiLeaks cannot claim anymore that Shamir and Son don't have anything to do with them and don't represent them. They most surely do, as this film proves.
Johannes is a Russian speaker because he likely grew up in Russia or at least speaking Russian with his father -- who has played a sordid role in the Snowden affair, too, about which you can read on my other blog, Minding Russia. But he and the other handlers or minders or whoever the hell they are really have no sense of this region, whatever their Russian language ability, and burst in aggressively -- and disgustingly -- to try to strong-arm local news media in dire straits in Central Asia, where there is a huge list of murdered, jailed, disappeared and beaten journalists, into publishing WikiLeaks cables.
Another bonus is that one of the Russian-speaking journalists on the tour admits openly that he fabricated stories at his job (supposedly because he felt himself to be pressured to do so by his bosses and their need to sell newspapers) and then was ultimately fired. This is just about the level of journalistic quality we can expect throughout this film.
(The reason I mixed up Wahlstrom and this Russian in an earlier version of this blog, since corrected is because both are accused of fabrications; the Russian admits it in the film, Wahlstrom denies it. And while some WikiLeaks operative @Troushers is accusing me of "lying" here in my summary of the dialogue of this Russian journalist, I stand by it -- indeed he openly admits he fabricated letters and indeed the implication is that he was pressured by his boss, who needed to sell papers even if he didn't say literally that phrase -- Internet kids are so literalist. The obvious reality is, the theme throughout the entire film is that editors and journalists in mainstream media only do things to sell newspapers -- i.e. the obvious point of the snarky portrayal of Bill Keller and Sulzberger talking about traffic for a column of Bill's "half supportive" of Obama. Here's the script verbatim from Dmitry Velikovsky, from Russkiy Reporter, who has been active in covering Manning's trial in the past. Russkiy Reporter also sponsored the showing of the film in Moscow.
Velikovsky: I began with some funny study. I was obliged to edit the column "letters of readers". But the problem was that there were absolutely no letters to edit. But the column should be published twice a day. And so I was obliged to to invent those letters me myself. And I just invented a lot of them.
Wahlstrom: did you get some, any letters at all from real readers?
Velikovsky: Yes we got some maybe three, four or five in two months but they were all containing some critics.
Wahlstrom: but these letters you didn't publish.
Velikovsky: I wanted to publish those letters in the factual content of the newspaper because I found it rather important to have some kind of self criticism. But our marketing department had no self criticism and they forbid me to publish it. So i invented letters about problems of veterans, problems of pensioners, problems of no matter whom. So that's how I became a journalist.
Cue tinkly music...
Astoundingly, this aggressive, beligerent crew have no sense of themselves in this film, so imbued are they with their self-righteousness, even as they beam in Julian Assange on Skype who instructs the locals how they are to treat this material.
It's very clear WikiLeaks has absolutely no interest in the substance of the local stories, they just want to collect partners -- or conversely, shame those potential partners who refuse to deal with them for various reasons by making them look like they are boot-licking lackeys of the United States.
They tape phone conversations with people that are rather sensitive -- like a journalist in danger discussing whether he should publish a story about somebody who wants to run a coup in Tajikistan (!) -- and we have no idea if the people involved were informed that these calls would be taped -- and included in the film.
The single most damaging aspect I've seen in this agitprop trash is that the utterly unsupported claim is made that the local press are paid by the US Embassy to print flattering things about the US in order to get the leaders and publics of these countries to bend over while the US uses them as a launching pad and staging area for their war in Afghanistan.
The WikiLeaks people are too ignorant and blinded by their anti-American ideology to understand that a) the US has no need for this because these countries have cooperated anyway b) these tyrants have their own interests in playing off the US against Russia and China c) it doesn't matter as the US is pulling out of Afghanistan next year anyway.
Now, I write as someone who for six years worked at EurasiaNet and Open Society Foundation and wrote critically about the US role in Central Asia, particularly about the severe human rights and humanitarian issues -- about which the US government was oftne silent -- and the issues around the Northern Distribution Network, the supply path to Afghanistan from Russia which enabled the US to bring non-lethal cargo to NATO troops.
I probably wrote more than anybody on the WikiLeaks cables in Turkmenistan, strategically located between Iran and Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries with heavy US involvement, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. You can search for all these articles and those of my colleagues here eurasianet.org
I also worked in the past as a free-lancer for RFE/RL ("(Un)Civil Society" and "Media Matters") and never experienced any censorship -- I wrote and published directly to the site. I recall only instances when care was taken in covering mass demonstrations once in Ukraine to make sure that the article didn't incite people -- as RFE/RL has a history of being charged with causing uprisings, i.e. in the Hungarian revolution and invasion by Soviet troops. RFE/RL is funded by Congress, but it doesn't have overlords hanging over you as you write -- there is far more independent coverage there than anything you'd see at RT.com, the Kremlin-sponsored propaganda outlet or Al Jazeera.
I have no relationship whatsoever to the US government, so I am certainly qualified to say that this film is an unfair hatchet job on people in harm's way -- oh, so typical of WikiLeaks.
The film opens with the WikiLeaks crew rolling through the mountains with Mehrabanb Fazrollah of Pyandj, Tajikistan, born 18 October 1962, in the back seat of the car telling his story. He was held five years in Guantanamo about which you can read some here.
Through a series of astoundingly leading questions, broad innuendos or outright promptings, the WL gang incites Fazrollah into saying he really knew nothing of any military significance, and his jailing was all for nothing, and boy is he mad. I don't know anything of his case except what I've read in the papers, but the duplicitious smiles and repeating of what foreigners want to hear are very old stories to me from having traveled in this region (I haven't ever been in Tajikistan but I've spent years travelling to Russia and other countries and interviewing Tajiks outside of Tajikistan).
Assange claims bitterly that this poor fellow spent five years ""to find out about a couple of fucking refugees in Tajikistan".
Actually, that's not even what the cable said or even what the man in the film says. They said there were 100,000 refugees. This is relevant of course regarding the Northern Alliance and the Tajiks in Afghanistan. The fellow is charged with membership in the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan (IMT) allied with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group on the American list of terrorist organizations.
Sorry, but this is not nothing, these are real terrorism movements, even if supposedly in decline (like, you know, Al Shabaab was in decline and chased out of their stronghold when they hit Westgate Mall in Kenya?)
You would never know from Assange's sneers that this is a country that was in a civil war for years, that it had the highest number of journalists murdered -- some 50, nearly as many as Algeria, also in a civil war at the time, that these journalists were killed by Islamists because they were secular or visa versa because they were not approved Muslims killed by state security. The war is a complicated one but to pretend that terrorism and war isn't a factor here -- right next to Afghanistan -- is absurd.
This is of course the game, too, of the International Relations Realist school in Washington and elsewhere, who minimize terrorism and laugh it away as a fantasy of Pentagon planners. But the reality is that both are true -- real terrorist acts have occurred here and there are in fact real Islamists pressuring secular society including press, and there are also fake terrorists that the oppressive government thinks up to keep itself in power. And you know something? I surely do not trust Julian Assange and his crew of losers to tell the difference.
I will never forget in my life the terrified face of a Tajik journalist who had been receiving death threats that I helped rescue from Tajikistan in the 1990s -- and it was a brave man going the extra mile inside the US Embassy actually that got him and his family out of there.
In the film, after reading some cables on Gitmo -- and as I said, the cases may be innocent, but the WL goons are hardly the judge, and there are real complex problems of terrorism and pressure on secularism in these countries -- Assange and Wahlstrom sit and guffaw about a line in a memo they've found about Bildt getting in touch with Karl Rove instead of really trying to understand the complexities of the region They find this such a smoking gun and so "evil" that they roar for minutes, but we don't get the joke.
The translator asks outrageously leading questions and they all laughed and carried on and made it clear they sympathized with the Tajik taken from the battlefield from Gitmo and don't interview him impartially or critically at all. In the same way the pick up a memo from someone named Michael Owens, and start roaring about the US "empire of the 21st century" -- which is of course a rather lack-luster claim these days -- some empire of the 21st century which they are just now leaving, eh?
Then they read from cables -- only partially -- with a "scene-setter" -- talking about how the Tajiks have "unfailingly" allowed their overflights, which is all they really wanted from them. They then purport to read from a cable implying that these "imperialist Americans" in Dushanbe want to "make the local media more pro-American" and will first plant positive stories in the Russian media, then pay the local media to reprint them in the local press.
They don't actually cite from any document or give any source, and it isn't in any known cable from the WikiLeaks Cablegate already published that the US Embassy engages in this practice.
So without anything to bolster this claim, WikiLeaks smears gazeta.ru, Interfax, and Ekho Moskvy, claiming that they've somehow engaged in this practice.
It really is an outright lie. I have read the Russian-language press in this region for years. They are critical of the US and there aren't these glowing planted pieces they imagine. And the US doesn't need to engage in such a silly, crude practice.
First of all, CENTCOM, the US military command for the region of Central Asia, has its own official news service, but more to the point, it has its own supported English- and Russian-language Internet news service everyone knows they are behind as they tell you, that it uses to put stories for the local media to pick up - where they are identified as such and sourced from this page, not hidden under bylines or mastheads from the indigenous media.
Secondly, none of these papers in the region have very big readerships -- they don't have the capacity. We are talking about newspapers with 50,000 or 100,000 or 500,000 possibly at the most, but more at the low end. It's just not a way to reach people. Internet penetration is very low in some of the countries -- it's about 60% in Russia but drops down sharply as you go East.
The US already has Voice of America as an outlet to cover the perspectives of the US, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty which serves to enhance or enable struggling local media -- they have open partnerships with some local stations, and because they are far more independent than the official media of these authoritarian states, they have more credibility. To be sure, RFE/RL are not going to be radically antithetical to the foreign policy of the United States, any more than the BBC or Al Jazeera or RT.com. But unlike Al Jazeera and RT.com, RFE/RL really tries to cover critical local news without fear or favour, and proof of that is just how many journalists have been arrested, jailed or expelled over the decades. The US government doesn't need to crudely pay somebody to hide behind, in other words. But these, too, don't have a huge audience outside the intelligentsia in the big cities.
The fact is, WikiLeaks has not produced proof of this disreputable claim, because they've cited one cable only partially where it sounds like a proposal that one doesn't know was fulfilled, and in citing another cable, in Kyrgyzstan, it appears that the Kyrgyz foreign minister presents this idea, and that it doesn't come from the Americans.
To be sure, paid-for press and infomercials and advertorials are rampant in this region in the official and unofficial press. But to claim that these brave independent outlets take payments to portray te US nicely is just an outright smear for which there isn't an iota of proof. It puts these brave people in danger to suggest it.