Guilty as charged: North Korea’s conviction of US journalists Ling and Lee

By Stephen Gowans

There are probably four reasons why Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the US journalists arrested, convicted and jailed by north Korean authorities, received harsh sentences: They entered north Korea illegally, and not inadvertently and innocently as US officials and the Ling and Lee families maintain; they intended to produce video footage that would add to the Western campaign of demonizing north Korea; Pyongyang wants to deter others from sneaking across its borders and a harsh sentence was seen as a way of delivering a warning; Ling and Lee were working with a right-wing evangelist who is trying to destabilize north Korea. It didn’t help, either, that the pair snuck across the Chinese-DPRK border at a time of high tension between Washington and Pyongyang.

Ling and Lee were arrested on March 17, after setting off from Tuman, a town in northeast China near the Chinese-DPRK border. [1] They were on assignment for Current TV, a cable and Internet TV company founded by former US vice-president Al Gore and businessman Joel Hyatt. Ling, a Chinese-American, is a correspondent, while Lee, a Korean-American, is a film editor. Ling is also vice president of Current’s Vanguard journalism department. Her more widely known older sister, Lisa, is also a TV correspondent, who was co-host of ABC’s The View, host of National Geographic Explorer, and a correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show and CNN. [2]

Sometime that morning Ling, Lee, their cameraman, Mitch Koss, along with their Chinese guide, crossed the Tuman river, which forms one-third of north Korea’s border with China, into north Korea. The river is about 20 to 30 yards wide, [3] and on the north Korean side, there are guard posts every couple of hundred yards. [4] The river bed is shallow and would have been frozen that morning. [5]

US officials refer to Lee and Ling as “inadvertently” crossing the north Korea border. Their families talk of the pair “wandering” across the border, as if it were all quite accidental and innocent. [6] And US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismisses the charges against the pair as “baseless.” [7] But there are a few reasons to believe that Lee and Ling knew exactly where the border was and deliberately crossed it.

First, Ling had a model. Three years earlier, her sister, Lisa, had snuck across the Chinese border into north Korea to secretly film a documentary for National Geographic. Unlike her younger sister, she didn’t get caught. [8]

Second, it’s difficult to stumble across a border, when the border is a river, and there are guard posts every couple of hundreds yards on the opposite shore. To believe Ling and Lee innocently wandered across the border is a bit like believing Mexicans inadvertently wander across the Rio Grande into the United States.

Third, Chun Ki-won, a south Korean evangelist who helped arrange the journalists’ trip (and about whom more later) suggested they may have become too ambitious, hazarding a trip across the border, rather than staying on the Chinese side. [9]

Fourth, and most damaging to the notion that the border crossing was accidental and innocent, Lee, Ling and Koss were accompanied by an ethnic Korean Chinese guide. [10] Any guide worth his salt would have been familiar with the terrain and know exactly where the border is.

Moreover, there’s reason to believe the guide was hired precisely to help the three journalists sneak into north Korea. Chun operates an “underground railroad” that smuggles people in and out of north Korea. [11] Since he helped arrange the trip, it’s likely he selected the guide. The guide may have been selected because he had experience in unauthorized border crossings.

Fifth, on June 16, the north Korea official news agency, KCNA, said north Korean officials had confiscated videotape in which someone (presumably Ling) could be heard saying “We have just entered north Korean territory without permission.” [12]

One doesn’t set off with a guide and cross a river that acts as border without knowing precisely what one is doing. The idea that Ling and Lee innocently stumbled into north Korea is implausible.

Here’s what seems to have happened next. The journalists and their guide were discovered by north Korean border guards. When the four failed to produce documentation authorizing their presence on north Korean soil, the guards tried to arrest them. Koss and the guide fled, crossing the Tuman back into China. As Koss stepped onto Chinese soil, he was arrested by Chinese border guards, and detained for two days, before being released. [13]

Koss knows exactly what happened that morning, but has provided no account I can find. Indeed, it is rarely mentioned in Western press reports that Ling and Lee had company on their trip, and that a third American journalist, Koss, escaped. One would think there would be an enormous interest in his story. Instead, silence.

So, what of Chun Ki-won? Chun is founder of an organization named Durihana. Durihana means “one from two”, a reference to the organization’s goal of building one Korea from its current two parts, north and south. But Chun’s idea of unification is hardly one north Koreans would endorse. What he means by unification is annexation – specifically, a Christian (and Buddhist) south absorbing a godless north. [14]

Chun aims to Christianize north Korea. He works to achieve this by smuggling economic migrants out of north Korea, converting them to Christianity, and sending them back to convert others. The goal: to bring down the north Korean government from inside, so the gospel of Christ can be spread throughout the length and breadth of the Korean peninsula. [15]

National Geographic described Chun as belonging “to a diverse group of activists, humanitarians, traffickers and fellow missionaries who operate an Asian underground railway. Some hope to precipitate the collapse of North Korea; others want to convert North Koreans to Christianity.” [16] Chun, it seems, wants to do both. We can be sure that anyone associated with him – including US journalists on a mission to produce a documentary whose content would almost certainly have been unfriendly to north Korea – are likely to be regarded with intense hostility and suspicion by Pyongyang.

Ling and Lee, then, had three strikes against them.

1. They entered north Korea illegally.
2. They were on a mission that could only be regarded by Pyongyang as hostile, for their documentary, had it been completed, would inevitably have demonized north Korea.
3. They were aided by an anti-DPRK evangelist whose aim is to bring down the north Korean government by training and deploying an evangelical Christian fifth column.

For these reasons Ling and Lee were convicted of illegal entry and committing a hostile act. They were sentenced to 12 years hard labor. [17]

The US media, US state officials and ordinary US citizens have reacted to the arrest, conviction and sentencing of the two journalists with outrage. This is partly due to the State Department and US media portraying Ling and Lee as innocents who either mistakenly stumbled across the border or were abducted on Chinese soil by north Korean border guards. Acknowledging that the pair deliberately crossed the border illegally might reduce the outpouring of sympathy.

The arrest, conviction and sentencing of Ling and Lee have played into the hands of propagandists who cite the event as an example of north Korea’s disdain for press freedom. This is partly a red herring. Part of their sentence was related to their unlawful intrusion into north Korea. This has nothing whatever to do with press freedom. Press freedom does not give journalists carte blanche to cross international borders without authorization.

The other part of their sentence relates to a hostile act. This is closer to the idea of repressing press freedom, for it appears the hostile act the pair was convicted of pertains to the collection of documentary footage, while on north Korean soil, that would be used to vilify the country. Demonization is standard operating procedure for Western journalists covering north Korea. What Western press report on north Korea hasn’t begun with the assumption the country is belligerent, provocative, mismanaged, and repressive? While vilifying north Korea may be standard operating procedure, this doesn’t make it acceptable or any less intolerable to north Koreans. Vilification provides Western ruling class forces with openings to mobilize public opinion at home to justify economic warfare against, and military confrontation with, north Korea. While we may think of the words and ideas journalists wield as innocuous, their words and ideas have very real – and potentially devastating – consequences for the lives, safety, and well-being of north Koreans.

Denunciations of north Korea by US sources for arresting, trying and jailing the journalists are hypocritical. While it appears otherwise on the surface, Washington’s tolerance of press freedom is no greater than that of Pyongyang. Both countries deny advocacy rights to hostile media. North Korea punishes journalists whose intentions are to smear its reputation. For its part, the United States denies press freedom to organizations that may, through their control of mass media, mobilize people against what Washington deems to be its interests. For example, Washington bans the Hezbollah TV station, Al Manar, on the ground that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.[18] Let’s suppose it is. Is there a reason why a terrorist organization (and I don’t accept the designation) should be denied press freedom? The answer, from Washington’s point of view, is yes. Press freedom should only be extended to those whose advocacy is within what Washington defines as acceptable bounds. Hezbollah is considered out of bounds because it advocates the use of violence against a US ally (Israel) to achieve a political goal (self-defense) deemed by Washington to be hostile to its interests. Likewise, Pyongyang takes a dim view of press freedom used to advocate positions deemed hostile to its interests. The critical question is not whether press freedom is an absolute value to be fought for, but whose interests are at stake when press freedoms are abridged? Press freedoms are abridged in Western countries when imperialist or capitalist interests are seriously threatened; in anti-imperialist countries, when values of sovereignty are threatened. Since anti-imperialist countries are under constant threat, the need to abridge press freedom is unremitting. Since serious threats to imperialist countries are weaker and only occasional, press freedom in the West, and advocacy rights generally, are abridged less often.

Shouldn’t ideas rise and fall on their own intrinsic merit? If ideas rose and fell on their own intrinsic merits, perhaps, yes. But they don’t. Ideas rise and fall on more than intrinsic merit alone. They also rise and fall depending on how persuasively they’re communicated, and, importantly, how loudly, how often and how widely. It’s easy to accept a communist or anti-capitalist press, if it is small, under-funded, and marginal. The ideas it communicates, no matter their merit, will pose little threat, and will be overwhelmed by a cascade of competing ideas that are so ubiquitous they seem to constitute the common sense. What’s more, the very fact a communist press exists can be pointed to as evidence a society is free and open. And the notion that ideas rise and fall on their own merit can be invoked to explain why the communist press is marginal and why its ideas are not widely embraced. Press freedom, then, is an easy concept to accept, if you own the only truly visible, ubiquitous, press, and competing presses are small, under-funded and marginal.

Another question is whether the intrinsic merits of an idea are universal, or only particular to a specific group. Free trade may have intrinsic merit to the owners of an industrialized country, but not to the residents of an underdeveloped country. Slavery has intrinsic merit to slave-owners, but not to slaves. Occupying Iraq militarily has merit to decision-makers in Washington, but not to Iraqis on the ground. There are few ideas that have an intrinsic merit for all people at all times. Slavery as an idea was dominant in slave-owning societies, both because it had intrinsic merit (for slave-owners) and also because slave-owners had the means to propagate and justify the idea. Slavery has no legitimacy in a capitalist society because it has no intrinsic merits to the capitalist class, and because the capitalist class has the means to propagate and justify competing ideas until they achieve the status of common sense.

What’s more, there are abridgements of advocacy rights that most everyone accepts as desirable. Many countries prohibit advocacy of Nazism and hate-speech. Would we accept advocacy of slavery, the legal distribution of child pornography, or the hunting of racial minorities for sport? Some might, if they could be assured the advocates of these ideas would be marginalized by lack of access to platforms to mobilize support for their ideas on a mass scale. It’s doubtful, however, that their commitment to advocacy rights in the absolute would stand the test of these vile views being broadcast widely. Commitment to advocacy rights in the absolute is, except in the case of a tiny group of rights fanatics, conditional on the exercise of these rights making no meaningful challenge to one’s cherished views.

It’s instructive to consider the consequences of absolute press freedom being achieved at a time when titanic corporations in imperialist countries control vast media monopolies. These media reach far and wide, penetrating even those countries in which working class or national liberation forces (or both) have control of the state. On a world scale, in these times, absolute press freedom offers imperialism a means to perpetuate its domination by controlling most of the levers by which public opinion and people’s perceptions and values are shaped. What hope have anti-imperialist countries to survive, if the vile ideas the imperialist mass media propagate are given free rein?

The parallel is free trade. Free trade benefits dominant industrial powers, which have, as a consequence, always favored free trade as a universal principle (until they lose their dominance.) Britain, once the workshop of the world, promoted free trade as an absolute, until its industrial monopoly was eclipsed by the United States, Germany and Japan. These countries rejected free trade as inimical to their own development. They used state ownership, tariffs, subsidies, and other forms of preferential treatment of domestic industry, to develop industrially. Had they accepted Britain’s favored principle of free trade, their development would have stalled and Britain would have continued in its dominant position. Once it lost its status as workshop of the world, Britain rejected free trade and embraced imperial tariffs.

In the same way, imperialism promotes advocacy rights as an absolute. Because capitalist forces in the imperialist countries control the bulk of the world’s mass media, and therefore are able to shape public opinion, perceptions and values on a world scale, they are generally in favour of a free press. A free press means their version of reality holds sway. It is only when opposing forces begin to challenge their monopoly by developing their own mass media that the principle of advocacy rights as an absolute is abandoned. Just as the United States, Germany and Japan challenged Britain’s industrial monopoly by rejecting free trade as a universal principle, so must anti-imperialist and working class forces challenge capitalist and imperialist domination by disrupting advocacy of reactionary positions.

There are other limits on press freedom in the United States. Al Jazeera’s English-language broadcasting can be seen in over 100 countries, but the network faces a virtual ban in the United States, where it is only available from cable providers in Burlington, Vermont, Toledo, Ohio, and Washington. D.C. [19]

In Canada, the British politician George Galloway, who is an effective and passionate advocate of the rights of Palestinians, was denied entry to the country in order to disrupt a planned speaking tour. Canadian officials feared Galloway would mobilize support for Palestinians and against a Canadian ally, Israel. While the ban had little practical effect, since Galloway was able to speak to Canadian audiences through remote broadcasts, this demonstrates that Canada is prepared to limit advocacy rights when faced with very minor challenges to the dominant ideology. How much damage could Galloway, alone, do to the monolithic depiction of Israel as a tiny but plucky country besieged by anti-Jewish Arabs bent on carrying out the Final Solution? By contrast, such countries as Cuba, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and north Korea are bombarded daily with persuasive communications from Western media challenging these countries’ anti-imperialist direction. The provocations they face are a hundred-fold greater than the provocations the dominant class in Western societies face, and yet Western governments are quick to impose limits on advocacy rights, while at the same time condemning anti-imperialist countries for taking defensive measures against bombardment by pro-imperialist propaganda.

The Pentagon also prohibits press freedom by barring the media from covering the return to the United States of soldiers killed overseas. [20] The purpose is plain: to keep US citizens acquiescent so they don’t press more vigorously for a meaningful withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as the punishment meted out to Ling and Lee reflects Pyongyang’s political interests, Washington and other Western countries restrict press freedom and advocacy rights for their own political purposes.

In Iraq, the US military has detained dozens of journalists since 2001. While Ling and Lee faced formal charges and were afforded a trial, the journalists the US military lock up are held without charge and denied access to the courts. [21] Bilal Hussein, an Associated Press photographer, who won a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography, was imprisoned by the US military for over two years without charge or trial. [22] While rallies have been held in support of Ling and Lee, few US citizens are aware of the Iraqi journalists held by the US military.

While Washington is prepared to limit advocacy rights and press freedoms that provide openings to mobilize people against capitalist or imperialist interests, it’s equally prepared to declare advocacy rights to be sacrosanct when efforts are made to impose limits on advocacy of reactionary positions. For example, in November 2008, a resolution sponsored by Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Sudan and three other countries was put before the United Nations General Assembly. The resolution sought a ban on the glorification of Nazism and the description of Nazi collaborators as national liberation forces. The United States voted against the resolution, citing the need to uphold advocacy rights. A US official explained that “in a free society hateful ideas fail on account of their own intrinsic lack of merit,” and that is was therefore unnecessary – and an affront to the idea of free speech — to impose a ban. [23] Yet the United States has officially banned Al Manar, virtually bans Al Jazeera, and won’t allow the media to cover the return of fallen soldiers to the United States.

Washington’s client regime on the Korean peninsula, the ROK, imposes even stricter limits on freedom of expression. Citing threats to south Korea’s national security, the military bans all “pro-North Korea, antigovernment, anti-American and anticapitalism works” from its barracks, including books by Noam Chomsky. [24] For years, photos of north Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, were cut out of the international edition of Time Magazine by south Korean censors. And south Korea’s notorious national security law criminalizes communism and recognition of north Korea. While it is obligatory for Western journalists to denigrate north Korea’s human rights record in every report they file, rarely, if ever, is south Korea’s severe curtailment of advocacy rights for leftist political forces ever mentioned. In the world of Western journalism, the denial of rights to communists and militant anti-imperialists is glossed over, even accepted as desirable. It is only the denial of rights to pro-imperialist and pro-capitalist forces that is considered intolerable and worthy of mention.

Whether one ought to be for or against the arrest, convictions and imprisonment of Ling and Lee depends on answers to the following questions:

Did they deliberately enter north Korea without authorization, thereby knowingly committing a crime? The weight of evidence says they did.

Were they aware of the risk they were taking when they intruded upon north Korean territory with intentions the north Korean government could only regard as unfriendly — and at a time of high tension between their country and the DPRK? Ling and Lee are veteran journalists, not hapless tourists with a shaky grasp of public affairs. It’s fairly certain they were aware of the risks they were taking, but took them anyway, because risk-takers who defy the odds to bring back the story are highly rewarded in Western journalism. Ling’s older sister, Lisa, took a similar risk three years earlier. The risk paid off, and helped build her reputation.

Are Ling and Lee politically neutral? No journalist, no matter how hard she strives to be impartial, is free from class or national allegiances. As journalists employed by capitalists based in the dominant imperialist power, it is inevitable their reporting on north Korea would have had a decidedly pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist tilt, at odds with north Korea’s interests. Ling and Lee are every bit as much warriors in the struggle between Washington and Pyongyang over the question of whether the whole of the Korean peninsula will be dominated by US geopolitical interests as US military and intelligence personnel and Washington decision-makers are. Their battlefield, while it may not be one of missiles and artillery, is people’s minds, and is every bit as important. Ling and Lee are not innocent, politically neutrally journalists, who accidentally stumbled across the north Korean border. They are promoters of an imperialist ideology who almost certainly intruded illegally on north Korea with unfriendly intentions. The evidence suggests they are guilty as charged.


“Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said (July 10, 2009) that the United States was now seeking ‘amnesty’ for two American journalists imprisoned in North Korea, a remark that suggests that the Obama administration was admitting the women’s culpability in a bid to secure their freedom. […] Ms. Ling reportedly called her sister, Lisa Ling, also a journalist, this week and said in the course of a 20-minute conversation that (she and Euna Lee) had broken North Korean law…” Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Clinton seems ‘amnesty’ for 2 held by North Korea,” The New York Times, July 11, 2009.

Laura Ling’s sister, Lisa “revealed that (Ling and Lee) did apparently cross into North Korea from China.” Anahad O’Connor, “Journalists entered N. Korea, sister says,” The New York times, August 7, 2009.

“The full statement by former president Bill Clinton reads: ‘The young women had acknowledged that they did go into North Korea briefly, a few steps, and that they shouldn’t have done it. And the secretary of state had previously said that the United States regretted that.'” Charisse Van Horn, “Bill Clinton speaks about Laura Ling Euna Lee and trip to North Korea,”, August 9, 2009.

“According to Durihana, the Current TV crew met (Chun Ki-won)…in Seoul on March 13, asking for help covering the plight of North Korean refugees in China. Mr. Chun said he put them in touch with (Lee Chun-woo, a south Korean evangelist living in China) and a Korean guide in China. […] The activists, missionaries and smugglers who help shuttle people out of North Korea have moved about 20,000 North Korean refugees through China, mostly to South Korea. Some operate with a political agenda to undermine the North Korean government…” Choe Sang-Hun, “In South Korea, Freed U.S. jounralists come under harsh criticism,” The New York Times, August 22, 2009.

1. Choe Sang-Hun, “N. Korea says it is holding reporters,” New York Times, March 22, 2009; “Detailed report on truth about crimes committed by American journalists,” KCNA, June 16, 2009.
2. Raja Abdulrahim and Jessica Garrison, “Friends speak up for LA journalists held by N Korea,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2009.
3. Choe Sang-Hun, “N. Korea says it is holding reporters,” New York Times, March 22, 2009.
4. Tom O’Neil, “Escape from North Korea,” National Geographic, February, 2009.
5. Choe Sang-Hun, “N. Korea says it is holding reporters,” New York Times, March 22, 2009.
6. David E. Sanger and Choe Sang Hun, “US protests N Korea’s treatment of journalists,” New York Times, June 9, 2009.
7. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea says journalists admitted crimes,” New York Times, June 17, 2009.
8. Raja Abdulrahim and Jessica Garrison, “Friends speak up for LA journalists held by N Korea,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2009; Robert Mackey, “Vigils held for American reporters on trial in North Korea,” New York Times, June 3, 2009.
9. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea said to detain US reporters,” New York Times, March 20, 2009.
10. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea said to detain US reporters,” New York Times, March 20, 2009; Choe Sang-Hun, “N. Korea says it is holding reporters,” New York Times, March 22, 2009.
11. Tom O’Neil, “Escape from North Korea,” National Geographic, February, 2009.
12. Blaine Harden, “North Korea says two convicted journalists admitted ‘criminal acts’”, The Washington Post, June 17, 2009.
13. Choe Sang-Hun, “N. Korea says it is holding reporters,” New York Times, March 22, 2009; Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for Al Gore’s Current, suspected spies,” AP, May 24, 2009; IFEX Alert, March 29, 2009.
14. PBS News Hour, “Evangelical movement spreads throughout South Korea,” February 28, 2007; Interview with Chun Ki-won,
15. Norimitsu Onishi, “Letter from South Korea: Campaign for human rights and fishing for souls,” New York Times, February 24, 2006.
16. Tom O’Neil, “Escape from North Korea,” National Geographic, February, 2009.
17. “Detailed report on truth about crimes committed by American journalists,” KCNA, June 16, 2009.
18. Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2008.
19. “Few in US see Jazeera’s coverage of Gaza war,” New York Times, January 12, 2009.
20. Liz Sly, “US holds journalist in Iraq without charge,” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2009.
21. Ibid.
22. AP, August 23, 2008.
23. US Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of the Spokesman, Questions taken from the February 25, 2009 daily press briefing.
24. Choe Sang-Hun, “Textbooks on Past Offend South Korea’s Conservatives,” New York Times, November 18, 2008.

The Politics of The New York Times

By Stephen Gowans

The New York Times’ and The Washington Post’s promotion of a chauvinist understanding of foreign policy is evidenced in their recent treatment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and their non-treatment of criminal proceedings in Spain against six senior Bush administration officials for torture.

Al-Bashir is sought by the ICC in connection with war crimes charges related to the civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan. Like the United States and Israel, Sudan is not a signatory to the treaty establishing the court. Neither country is willing to submit to the ICC for fear, they say, that their officials will face politically-motivated prosecutions, a fear they unjustifiably suppose is unique to their own nationals. State officials of other countries are as likely to become targets of politically-motivated indictments, all the more so if they preside over land, labor and resources coveted by powerful countries able to exercise influence over the court through their permanent positions on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). But the refusal of the United States and Israel to sign the ICC treaty is more likely motivated by fear that their frequent resort to military campaigns will open their officials to the risk of prosecution for war crimes by an international tribunal. While Sudan has not agreed to be bound by the court, the UNSC — three of whose members refuse to recognize the court — ordered the ICC to investigate al-Bashir.

The New York Times: Propagating chauvinist politics behind a façade of independent analysis and journalistic neutrality.
The New York Times: Propagating chauvinist politics behind a façade of independent analysis and journalistic neutrality.

Meanwhile, the Spanish counter-terrorism judge who prosecuted former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet has initiated an investigation of six Bush administration officials for their role in writing the US policy that justified the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay. The officials are: former White House counsel and attorney general Alberto Gonzales; former vice-president Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington; former Pentagon general counsel William Haynes; former US Justice Department senior advisers John Yoo and Jay Bybee; and Douglas Freith, who was undersecretary of defense.

The six are said to have,

“participated actively and decisively in the creation, approval and execution of a judicial framework that allowed for the deprivation of fundamental rights of a large number of prisoners, the implementation of new interrogation techniques including torture, the legal cover for the treatment of those prisoners, the protection of the people who participated in illegal tortures and, above all, the establishment of impunity for all the government workers, military personnel, doctors and others who participated in the detention center at Guantánamo”. (1)

If the Spanish judge decides to issue arrest warrants, the six US officials could be detained and extradited if they travel outside the United States. In 1998, Pinochet was arrested in Britain after the same Spanish judge issued a warrant for his arrest. The Observer, a British newspaper which covered the Spanish court’s investigation of the six former US officials, approached the story as a “political problem” for the Obama administration, rather than in the high moral tones reserved for the leaders of countries the United States opposes, like al-Bashir. Western newspapers can work themselves up into high moral dudgeon over Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s “thugs” allegedly torturing political opponents, while calmly deliberating on the political difficulties attempts to hold US officials accountable for torture present to the Obama administration. There is an implicit assumption in Western media coverage of US crimes that US officials won’t be prosecuted, and that anyone who thinks they ought to be has stepped outside the bounds of acceptable thought. Obama, as unctuous as any other ambitious, exhibitionist, lawyer whose charm, intelligence and acceptable politics recommends him to the role of ruling class political representative, covered all his bases. He denounced the former administration’s torture policies, while disguising his craven refusal to prosecute the perpetrators as an admirable focus on the future. “Obviously we’re going to be looking at past practices, and I don’t believe that anybody is above the law,” Obama said in January. “But my orientation’s going to be forward-looking.” (2)

Al-Bashir finds himself in the same situation Freith et al. could soon be in, running the risk when travelling abroad of detention and extradition. Despite this, the Sudanese president recently travelled to an Arab League summit in Qatar, in what The Washington Post denounced as a “brazen act of defiance.” (3) (If Gonzales and his band of torture advocates face arrest warrants from the Spanish court but travel abroad anyway, will The Washington Post comment in disapproving tones on their brazenly defiant act?) Rather than being arrested, al-Bashir was welcomed by the heads of Arab states, many of whom denounced the court for its double standards. The leaders pointed out that the warrant for al-Bashir’s arrest was issued soon after Israel brazenly defied the rules of war to carry out a massacre in the Gaza Strip. Despite the Zionist army’s amply documented use of disproportional force against Gazan resistance fighters, its indiscriminate use of white phosphorus in civilian areas, its bombing of civilian infrastructure and targets, and its use of human shields, no indictments of Israeli leaders or soldiers have been forthcoming, or ever will be under the current global order dominated by Israel’s patron, the United States. Israel isn’t a party to the ICC and, with the United States wielding a Security Council veto, the UNSC won’t order the court to investigate Israeli war crimes.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad denounced the court and its indictment against al-Bashir, saying that the ICC’s “weak pretexts about fabricated crimes committed by Sudan” should only be discussed after “those who committed the atrocities and massacres in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq,” face the judgment of the court. (4)

While it’s hard to argue with al-Assad’s point, The New York Times did, trying to discredit it by citing the critical comments of a representative of what the newspaper deceptively dubbed as an independent NGO, the Doha Center for Media Freedom. The group’s spokesperson branded al-Assad as a hypocrite for wanting Israel to be investigated while complaining about al-Bashir’s indictment. That’s not exactly what al-Assad said. He criticized the ICC for its double standards, suggesting that its operation has far more to do with politics, than the pursuit of justice.

While presented as independent by The New York Times, The Doha Center is no more independent than The New York Times itself is. In fact, they are both beholden to the same class interests. Mia Farrow sits on the center’s advisory council and Reporters sans Frontiers’ (RSF’s) Robert Menard runs it. Farrow is an outspoken proponent of Western intervention in Sudan, while Menard is well known for his pro-Western chauvinism and hostility to the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutions.

The Doha Center is a regional satellite of RSF. RSF receives much of its funding from the French government, the US Congress (through the CIA offshoot, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)), the Soros Foundation (notorious for putting up the financial backing for color revolutions), and the Center for a Free Cuba. The Center for a Free Cuba, whose mission is to help overthrow Cuba’s socialist system, is run by Frank Calzon, who spent 11 years with the CIA-interlocked Freedom House. The Center relies on funding from the US State Department (through USAID) and the US Congress (through the NED.)

The New York Times use of the Doha Center to provide ostensibly independent commentary is emblematic of the Western media practice of drawing on experts offered up by ruling class think-tanks and foundation-funded-NGOs to propagate ruling class positions under the guise of providing independent analysis. This practice has been especially evident in Western media coverage of events in Zimbabwe, where news stories have relied heavily on interviews with opposition figures and so-called independent experts, all of whom are generously funded by Western governments and foundations interested in regime change. Having a stable of NGO representatives and opposition politicians the media can turn to for a ready quote, who sing from the same songbook, creates the impression of unanimity born of common experience, rather than a common source of funding.

Another practice of the US media is to ignore or minimize events that challenge the doctrinal view that the United States and its allies do not commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, or carry out gross violations of human rights. Abuses may be duly noted, but the basic tenet that the West’s intentions are well-meaning remains sacrosanct. There could hardly be a better example of this than an April 4, 2009 New York Times paean to Nato, an organization established well before the Warsaw Pact, and which arose as the successor to the anti-Comintern Pact of Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan against the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union collapsed, (in which Nato pressure played no small role), and presumably now without a raison d’etre, the alliance launched an illegal and aggressive terror bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, deliberately disdaining to secure UN approval for its actions, knowing it would be turned down. This gave rise to a whole industry aimed at supplying Nato with a legal figleaf to justify its aggressions. The alliance has since been pressed into service in the attempted conquest of Afghanistan. Its incessant expansion up to the borders of Russia is viewed as a hostile act by the Russian government, spurring Moscow to initiate a defensive military build-up. And yet, despite its aggressive and hostile nature, The New York Times celebrates Nato as “an alliance that deterred the Soviet Union, opened the door to emerging democracies (and) battled ethnic cleansing.” (5) In this, threatening the Soviet Union becomes deterrence, building a ring of military bases around Russia becomes opening the door to emerging democracies, and state terrorism against Yugoslav civilians carried out in contempt of international law becomes battling ethnic cleansing. If Nato truly battled ethnic cleansing, it would be locked in battle with the Israeli military, whose 61-year long effort to cleanse historic Palestine of Arabs, marks it as an ethnic cleansing organization par excellence. Instead, Nato countries are putting up the money that allows Israel to bomb, bulldoze and terrorize Palestinians.

Another example of The New York Times’ implicit commitment to the view that US foreign policy is at root guided by admirable values, is the newspaper’s reaction to the Obama administration announcing it will seek a seat on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council because “it believed working from within was the most effective means of altering the council’s habit of ignoring poor human rights records of member states.” (6) Anyone who has been paying the slightest attention, and whose function isn’t to act as a public relations hack for the US government, will greet this with stunned amazement. After Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and the humanitarian catastrophes of immense scale sparked by the wars of conquest against Iraq and Afghanistan – and this on top of a blood-soaked history of military intervention, destabilization, and mass murder around the world – the United States has the gall to seek a seat on the Human Rights Council in order to rescue it from failing to admonish others more energetically over their human rights records. Rather than being gobsmacked by this stunning chutzpah, The New York Times blithely carries on as if Quasimodo hadn’t announced it’s time for everyone to sit up straight. We’re assured that “human rights organizations generally applauded the move,” including the “nonprofit organization Human Rights First,” inviting the question: What legitimate human rights organization could possibly welcome the equivalent of Nazi Germany seeking to join the anti-imperialist league to exercise a self-proclaimed anti-colonialist leadership?

In light of the above, we might expect Human Rights First to be a ruling class vehicle, lurking behind the disarming label “nonprofit.” And, indeed, it is. Previously known as The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Human Rights First is a corporate law firm-dominated organization funded by the Ford Foundation, Soros (again), arms manufacturer Lockheed-Martin, and Mitsubishi. The organization’s job is to attack US foreign policy betes noire over human rights abuses. According to its website, it acts to “strengthen systems of accountability in countries where human rights violations occur,” though a look at where the organization’s attentions are focussed would lead one to believe that Human Rights First regards human rights violations to occur only “in places like Guatemala, Russia, Northern Ireland, Egypt, Zimbabwe, and Indonesia” but not in places under United States or Israeli control. The landing page of its website on April 4, 2009 featured reports on Russia, Colombia, Guatemala, hate crime laws, Cuba, and Thailand and a paper arguing that “terrorism” suspects should be prosecuted in federal courts, but nothing on Israel’s unending human rights violations or US abuses in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Small wonder then that an organization that believes all the big human rights problems occur under the purview of countries the United States opposes should applaud Washington’s intention to join the UN Human Rights Council.

Mainstream newspapers and the human rights organizations, NGOs and think-tanks they rely on for expert commentary, propagate ruling class positions under the guise of providing independent and neutral analyses. Their analyses implicitly accept certain values and assumptions: that the military strategy and foreign policies of the United States and its allies are guided by defensive and humanitarian considerations; that the countries and movements the United States opposes are hostile, threatening, despotic, contemptuous of human rights, and are best subordinated to US leadership and moral guidance; that tribunals, international courts and international law must be pressed into service to prosecute and punish others, but the United States must not be prevented by international law from exercising its moral authority and leadership. This doctrine has a political purpose: to engineer the consent of 9/10ths of humanity for their exploitation and oppression by a US state acting on behalf of the corporations and hereditary capitalist families that recruit and sponsor its personnel, formulate its policy through a network of think-tanks, and structure its decision-making.

1. Julian Borger and Dale Fuchs, “Spanish judge accuses six top Bush officials of torture,” The Observer (UK), March 29, 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Brian Murphy, “Sudan’s leader arrives in Qatar,” The Washington Post, March 30, 2009.
4. Michael Slackman and Robert F. Worth, “Often Split, Arab Leaders Unite for Sudan’s Chief, The New York Times, March 31, 2009.
5. Steven Erlanger and Thom Shanker, “Nato leaders debate Afghan strains at summit,” The New York Times, April 4, 2009.
6. Neil MacFarquhar, “In reversal, US seeks election to UN human rights council,” The New York Times, April 1, 2009.

Western Media Bias in Coverage of Contested Elections

By Gowans

While elections that bring populists and reformers to power are often contested as fraudulent by Western-backed opposition coalitions which receive favourable and substantial coverage in the Western media, when pro-foreign investment parties come to power in disputed elections, the event barely merits a footnote in the back pages of Western newspapers.

The latest example of the almost complete Western media silence on contested elections that pro-foreign investment parties win, can be found in the October 30 election of Rupiah Banda as president of Zambia.

Banda’s election has been “welcomed by foreign leaders and investors who praise his government’s conservative fiscal policies.”

By contrast, opposition leader Michael Sata, “a populist with strong support among workers and the poor,” has raised concerns among foreign investors by “the strident anti-investment tone of his last campaign for the presidency in 2006.”

Sata, who leads the Patriotic Front, “branded the election a fraud” after a late surge of votes erased his lead. The Patriotic Front noted “discrepancies between vote tallies and the number of voters on registration lists.”

In the former Yugoslavia, Belarus and Zimbabwe, elections which have brought, or have threatened to bring, leaders to power who are not prepared to welcome Western exports and investments on entirely favourable terms and without restriction, have been denounced as unfair before the first ballot is cast.

When this happens, the Western media routinely provide the pro-investment opposition wide and sympathetic coverage.

In what little Western media coverage the Patriotic Front has received, Sata’s charges of electoral fraud have been treated as the whining of a poor loser.

According to the official tally, Banda won 40 percent of the 1.79 million votes cast, versus 38 percent for the leader of the Patriotic Front.

It’s unclear whether Banda’s election victory was fraudulent, but the double standard evident in Western media coverage of contested elections evinces an institutional bias consistent with the view that media coverage reflects the class interests of its owners.

Were Sata the comprador champion of foreign investment and Banda the populist backed by working people and the poor, we would have expected visible and sympathetic coverage of the opposition’s complaint that the election had been stolen.

“Zambia opposition to contest Banda election, Reuters, November 2, 2008.
“Zambia swears in a new president,” Reuters, November 3, 2008.

CBS Cries “By Jingo!”

CBS correspondent Scott Pelley uses interview of Iran’s president to make case for war

By Stephen Gowans

There are, in major capitalist societies, tight little communities of interconnected families whose members intermarry, live in the same neighborhoods, and sit on corporate boards. They practice corporate law and investment banking and own the lion’s share of the society’s income–producing property. They are the capitalist class.

In the United States, secretaries, under-secretaries and deputy secretaries of the departments of State, Defense, Treasury and Commerce, are drawn overwhelmingly from this class. US foreign, defense, and economic policies reflect the interests of this tight little community, partly as a result of key positions of the US state being dominated by its members and partly because the imperatives of the capitalist economy define the bounds within which policy can be implemented without provoking serious economic and political crises. For example, a decision to raise the minimum wage five-fold and cut the working week to 30 hours would force businesses to cancel new investment, either as a conscious act of economic sabotage or as the inevitable result of trying to maximize profits. The ensuing flight or strike of capital or both would lead to businesses cutting staff, some shutting their doors altogether, and others moving elsewhere. The result would be soaring unemployment and enormous pressure on the government to reverse its business-unfriendly policies. A government that persisted in this folly would soon find itself in the midst of a political crisis with no prospect of re-election.

Accordingly, governments avoid straying beyond the limits imposed by the logic of capitalism and its imperative of profit-making. For this reason, socialist and labor parties that come to power on reformist programs almost invariably abandon their programs and act as good capitalists. Those that do not, fail to win re-election or are overthrown by military coups d’etat, toppled by foreign military intervention or menaced by foreign sponsorship of internal subversion.

In addition to dominating the state, the capitalist class dominates the media: first, through its ownership of newspaper chains, TV networks, movie studios, publishing companies and the like; second, by controlling a network of public relations firms and think tanks that suggest and plant stories in the media and make available experts the media routinely consults; and third, through the power its members in key government positions have to shape the public agenda.

The third point deserves elaboration. In the US, the president and his cabinet shape the media’s agenda simply by the fact that all of their public statements are reported. They can draw the media’s attention toward certain issues by mentioning them (the humanitarian crisis in Sudan, the religious obscurantism of the Taliban, the alleged human rights abuses in Zimbabwe) and away from other issues by saying nothing about them (the humanitarian crises in Iraq, Congo and Somalia, the religious obscurantism of the Saudi regime, the serious human rights abuses of Egypt.)

If the president says, “There are mass graves littering Kosovo filled with the corpses of 10,000 ethnic Albanians” the assertion becomes widely accepted as true, even if, in the back pages of newspapers years later, the assertion is shown to have been a deliberate fabrication. By then, the original accusation has been transformed into an accepted truth that a few disconfirming bits of information tucked away in the back pages of newspapers will be unable to dislodge from their firm place in the public mind. Despite reams of evidence to show that NATO exaggerated the number of deaths in Kosovo to justify its bombing campaign, it’s still possible to read newspaper articles today that accept NATO’s earlier war propaganda as the truth. Likewise, the president, vice-president, and secretaries of state and defense could be assured, in the lead up to the war on Iraq, that any time they said Saddam Hussein was hiding banned weapons their accusations would be widely reported and accepted as credible.

The reality that the capitalist class dominates both the state and media should, then, lead us to predict that the media will act in concert with the state, playing the role of the state’s unofficial propaganda arm. While its members will profess to be completely neutral and independent, thereby lending legitimacy and weight to the news they report, they will nevertheless act in ways that shape public opinion to the interests of the state as representative of capitalist class interests.

A good example of the media playing the role of the US state’s unofficial propaganda arm is a CBS 60 Minutes interview of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, conducted on September 23 in Tehran by correspondent Scott Pelley. The interview is shocking in the extent to which Pelley abjures any pretense of impartiality to act as a pitchman for US foreign policy positions, sounding to someone unimmersed in US jingoism, more like a State Department spokesman than an ostensibly neutral journalist. So blatant was Pelley’s use of the interview as a platform to advance State Department spin that Ahmadinejad wondered aloud whether he was talking to a journalist or a US politician. The truth of the matter is that the dichotomy between journalist and politician is false. They are not separate, non-overlapping categories. Owing to the common domination of the US state and media by the capitalist class, members of the government and members of the media share common goals and behave in common ways in pursuit of those goals. That Pelley conducts himself as a politician is no accident.

Pelley began by asking Ahmadinejad what he was thinking when he asked to visit Ground Zero. A visit to Ground Zero, Pelley pointed out, would “be insulting to many, many Americans.” Baffled, Ahmadinejad asks why, and Pelley responds, “Well, sir, you are the head of the government of an Islamist state that the United States government says is a major exporter of terrorism around the world.” This was the first of a number of statements Pelley would make to present US government allegations as fact.

The germane questions here are, What is meant by terrorism and has the terrorism Iran is accused of, anything to do with 9/11? The terrorism the US government says Iran sponsors refers to the violence of Hezbollah and Hamas to resist domination by the US and its proxies in the Middle East. We could just as easily accuse the US of carrying out terrorism in Iraq, or of sponsoring terrorist groups that operate within Iran. Significantly, terrorism in the words of US state officials, and the mimetic US media, amounts to any use of force to resist domination by the US or its proxies. We should ask, Is the use of force to resist domination by an outside power or to throw off an occupation legitimate? If so – and the aims of Hezbollah and Hamas are precisely this – then Iran’s support of these groups is legitimate. That these groups act to defend their people against the predations of the US state and its allies does not make them, ipso facto, terrorists.

The connection Pelley makes between Ahmadinejad and 9/11 is contrived. There is nothing to indicate Iran had anything to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but Pelley helps those making a case for escalating confrontation with Iran by slyly suggesting there is (in much the same manner the US state suggested Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11.) At the close of the interview, he returns to the theme, telling Ahmadinejad that many Americans believe that when Ahmadinejad’s plane flies over Manhattan he looks at Ground Zero and says, “Good. Somebody got ‘em.’” It’s difficult to imagine that before Pelley broached the subject many Americans wondered about Ahmadinejad’s views on 9/11, much less on anything else (except perhaps the Holocaust.) Pelley’s description of what he claims to be existing public opinion is really a means of creating new public opinion, of instilling in Americans the belief that if Ahmadinejad wasn’t connected in some way to 9/11, he certainly welcomed it.

Repeatedly, Pelley claims to know what the American people think, saying they believe Iran to be an enemy of the US, that Iran is exporting terrorism around the world, and that Iran is on the path to war (Iran’s refusing to kowtow to demands to surrender its independence being seen in US media circles as anti-American bellicosity.) It would be disingenuous to pretend that the opinions of the American people on most foreign policy matters are not, in the main, shaped by what high government officials tell them. But it remains the case, nevertheless, that the views Pelley attributes to the American people, are the views of the US state. His questions, constructed to echo official propaganda, are not so much sincere questions as an exercise in reinforcing the US state’s regime change agenda. Ahmadinejad’s amazement that a “representative of the media” should repeat “the untrue accusations leveled by [his] government” is understandable.

Among the most astonishing, not to say war-mongering, of Pelley’s statements is that Ahmadinejad has American blood on his hands. This accepts at face value the claim by the US state, a notoriously unreliable source, that the Iraqi resistance is using Iranian manufactured weapons. It also makes a leap of logic, inferring, from this premise alone, that the Iranian government is arming the resistance. This leap of logic is equivalent to concluding Boeing has American blood on its hands because the 9/11 hijackers flew Boeing aircraft into the World Trade Centre, or that all guerillas who use Kalashnikovs are armed by Moscow. Arms manufactured in Iran readily circulate throughout the region, just as arms manufactured in the US and elsewhere do. There is no basis to make the claim that the Iranian government is arming the resistance, which isn’t to say it isn’t. But we can ask if Tehran is indeed arming the resistance, would this be defensible? Since the US and British forces were clearly not invited into Iraq and are not wanted, but nevertheless refuse to leave, the arming of the resistance by Tehran would indeed be legitimate – an act equivalent to the US arming the French resistance to drive out the Nazis. A journalist who was truly impartial (an impossible ideal) would accept this dispassionately. A journalist who is acting as a propagandist for the US state would rail against it as monstrous. One needs little imagination to know how Pelley would react.

While telling Ahmadinejad he has American blood on his hands and then asking why, has the character of asking “when did you stop beating your wife?” the most objectionable part of Pelley’s performance lies in his telling Ahmadinejad “You owe President Bush” (for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein.) Since Saddam Hussein attacked Iran as a client of the United States with Washington’s full backing and support, telling Ahmadinejad he owes Bush is tantamount to telling Chileans they owe Augusto Pinochet for restoring democracy to Chile (something Margaret Thatcher, a Pinochet-supporter, was once bold enough to do.) All those who felt the need to declare publicly in the run up to the US-British war on Iraq that they too believed Saddam Hussein was a monumental shit – an assertion that while true had nothing whatever to do with why the US planned to attack Iraq and therefore should never have been raised in the context of discussions on the impending war – must bear some responsibility for the fact that monumental shits like Pelley can justify the war on Iraq by reference to the toppling of Saddam Hussein and know that what he says will resonate with public opinion.

It’s tempting to complain bitterly about Pelley’s departures from what’s understood to be journalistic rectitude, and to think that pressing journalists to live up to their ideals is a useful investment of one’s time. But the reality is that journalists, like everyone else, serve somebody (to invoke an old Bob Dylan song.) Pelley serves his employers. As members of the US capitalist class, his employers are committed to shaping public opinion to facilitate the carrying out of the foreign policy of the United States. That policy, as it respects Iran, has as its goal the toppling of the current economically nationalist regime and its replacement by one that will accommodate US exports and investment and military deployments. These are goals whose principal beneficiary is the same community of corporate board members and Social Register members who dominate both the government and the media and stand to accumulate more capital in Iranian energy investments and exports to the country if Ahmadinejad and Iran’s revolutionaries are chased from power. Pelley, in playing the hoary game of individualizing a country and investing the individual with hateful qualities to justify war, is serving the interests of this tight little community.