By Dilip Hiro
It’s still the most dangerous border on Earth. Yet compared to the recent tweets of President Donald Trump, it remains a marginal news story. That doesn’t for a moment diminish the chance that the globe’s first (and possibly ultimate) nuclear conflagration could break out along that 480-mile border known as the Line of Control (and, given the history that surrounds it, that phrase should indeed be capitalized). The casus belli would undoubtedly be the more than seven-decades-old clash between India and Pakistan over the contested territory of Kashmir. Like a volcano, this unresolved dispute rumbles periodically — as it did only weeks ago — threatening to spew its white-hot lava to devastating effect not just in the region but potentially globally as well.
The trigger for renewed rumbling is always a sensational terrorist attack by a Pakistani militant group on an Indian target. That propels the India’s leadership to a moral high ground. From there, bitter condemnations of Pakistan are coupled with the promise of airstrikes on the training camps of the culprit terrorist organizations operating from the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir. As a result, the already simmering relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors are quickly raised to a boiling point. This, in turn, prompts the United States to intervene and pressure Pakistan to shut down those violent jihadist groups. To placate Washington, the Pakistani government goes through the ritual of issuing banning orders on those groups, but in practice, any change is minimal.
And in the background always lurks the possibility that a war between the two neighbors could lead to a devastating nuclear exchange. Which means that it’s time to examine how and why, by arraying hundreds of thousands of troops along that Line of Control, India and Pakistan have created the most perilous place on Earth.
How It All Began
The Kashmir dispute began with the birth of the kicking twins — Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan — as independent countries. They emerged from the belly of the dying British Raj in August 1947. The princely states in British India were given the option of joining either of the new nations. The dithering Hindu ruler of Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir (its full title) finally signed a legally binding instrument of accession with New Delhi after his realm was invaded by armed tribal raiders from Pakistan. This document offered that state’s citizens the chance to choose between the two countries once peace had been restored. This has not happened so far and there is no credible prospect that it will.
After the 1947-1948 Indo-Pakistani War that followed independence, India was left in control of almost two-thirds of the princely state (18% of which it lost to China in the Sino-Indian War of 1962). Crucially, the 45% of the former princely state that remained in its hands included the Vale of Kashmir. Guarded by snow-capped mountain peaks, covered with verdant forests of fir and pine, carpeted by wild flowers in the spring, and irrigated by the Jhelum River, it has been described by poets and others as “paradise on Earth.” Its population of seven million is 96% Muslim. And it is this territory that is coveted by Pakistan.
In 1989, having secured the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Afghanistan after a 10-year struggle, some of the Afghan Mujahedin (“Holy Warriors”), including Pakistani militants, turned their attention to liberating Indian-controlled Kashmir. In this, they had the active backing of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, of Pakistan’s army. Earlier, the ISI had acted as the conduit for channelling U.S. and Saudi-supplied weapons and cash to the Mujahedin coalition.
At that time, the two Pakistani groups in the Mujahedin coalition, which always harboured an anti-Indian agenda, emerged front and center. They were the Jaish-e Mohammad (Army of Mohammad) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Righteous), led respectively by MasoudAzhar and Hafiz Saeed. Working with those Kashmiris who wanted their state to secede from India, they soon began to resort to terrorist acts.
The Indian government responded with draconian measures. In July 1990, it passed the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, or AFJKSP, a law that authorized the state government to declare any part of Jammu and Kashmir a “disturbed area,” where the Indian army would be free to shoot anyone acting in contravention of “any law” or in possession of a deadly weapon. Indian forces could now arrest people suspected of committing any offense without a warrant or enter and search any premises to make such arrests. In other words, from then on, the armed forces had carte blanche legal immunity to do whatever they wished without the slightest accountability.
Yet resistance to Indian rule did not subside. In fact, the slogan “Azadi” (Freedom) caught on, emboldening both terror groups to jointly launch an audacious attack on the Indian Parliament building on December 20, 2001, with the aim of taking lawmakers hostage. (They were bravely blocked by armed guards.) In the crisis that followed, the mobilized armies of the two neighbors, each already a declared nuclear power, faced off across their international border and the Line of Control in Kashmir. Pressured by Washington, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf banned the two terror organizations in January 2002. Yet both of them soon resurfaced under different names.
In June 2002, at a regional conference in the Kazakh city of Almaty, Musharraf assailed then-Indian Prime Minister AtalBihari Vajpayee for ignoring the wishes of the Kashmiri people. “The possession of nuclear weapons by any state obviously implies they will be used under some circumstances,” he stated grimly, refusing to commit his country (as India had) to a “no first use” policy on nuclear arms. Vajpayee accused him of “nuclear blackmail.” At home, however, Musharraf’s hardline stance was applauded by the militant groups.
Over the years, the crisis only deepened. In November 2008, for instance, working with the ISI, the operatives of Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked Mumbai’s landmark TajMahal Palace Hotel and two other inns. After a 60-hour siege, 166 people, including 28 foreigners, were dead. Despite initial denials, Pakistan would finally acknowledge that the Mumbai conspiracy was, in part, hatched on its soil, and place Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Saeed under house arrest. But no charges would be leveled against him and he would, in the end, be released.
After the Mumbai carnage, Jaish-e Mohammad’s chief, Azhar, kept a low profile for several years, only to reappear publicly in 2014, issuing fiery calls for more attacks on India (and the United States as well). In September 2016, his fighters stormed an army camp in Uri, an Indian garrison town near the Line of Control, killing 19 soldiers.
With the Hindu nationalist BharatiyaJanata Party, or BJP, under NarendraModi gaining power in New Delhi in 2014, repression of the Muslim separatist movement in Kashmir only intensified. Within three years, the number of security personnel — army troops, paramilitaries, border guards, federal armed policemen, state policemen, and intelligence agents — had reached 470,000 in Jammu and Kashmir, which had a population of only 14.1 million. As a result, the proportion of local Kashmiris among anti-Indian fighters only rose.
This February 14th, a 19-year-old suicide bomber, Adil Ahmad Dar, drove a car bomb into an Indian convoy heading for Kashmir’s capital city, Srinagar. At least 40 Indian paramilitary troops were killed — the worst such attack in the troubled history of the state. Jaish-e Mohammad proudly claimedresponsibility.
After dropping out of his village school, Dar had gone to work in a neighbour’s sawmill. During a four-month-long protest sparked by the killing of a popular 22-year-old local militant leader, BurhanWani, in July 2016, Indian troops gunned down nearly 100 protestors, while injuring 15,000, including Dar. In response, he crossed the Line of Control and joined Jaish-e Mohammad. In the wake of his suicide attack, Indian soldiers raided the home of his parents, locked them inside, and set it on fire. And so it continues in the officially “disturbed” Kashmir.
In response to the deaths of the soldiers (and keenly aware of an upcoming nationwide election), Prime Minister Modi exploited the situation for political ends. He turned popular grief into an emotive and prolonged commemoration of those military deaths. TV networks focused on the flag-draped coffins of the slain troops, while local BJP candidates followed their hearses. The cremations were telecast live, while Modi proclaimed that “the security forces have been given complete freedom. The blood of the people is boiling.”
On February 26th, temporarily released from civilian control, the Indian military launched a “pre-emptive” air strike on an alleged Jaish-e Mohammad training camp near Balakot, six miles inside Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The last time the air forces of either country had crossed the international border was during their 1971 war.
India claimed to have killed more than 300 militants, but Islamabad reportedthat the Indian bombs had actually hit a totally deserted site. (This would be confirmed later by satellite analysis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute which concluded that no damage had been done to the hilltop facility India claimed to have struck.) The next day Pakistan announced that, in a dogfight between warplanes of the two countries, an Indian fighter jet had been shot down and its pilot, AbhinandanVarthaman, captured.
India angrily demanded that he be set free immediately. On February 28th, while announcing the pilot’s release during a televised address, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan warned against miscalculation and the explosive potential for such aerial skirmishes to escalate into a wider conflict in the most dangerous environment on the planet. He said, “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation? Shouldn’t we think that, if this escalates, what will it lead to?”
This was a barely disguised reference to the devastating nuclear arsenals that the two South Asian neighbours now possess, with 135 nukes in New Delhi’s possession and 145 in Islamabad’s. Those arsenals are more than capable of causing havoc far beyond South Asia. It’s estimated that even a “moderate” Indo-Pakistani nuclear conflict could create a global “nuclear winter,” killing directly or indirectly up to a billion people as crops failed and starvation stalked the Earth.
In late February, India handed over to Pakistan a dossier with information on Jaish-e Mohammad, its top leadership, and their involvement in several terror attacks.
Islamabad initially said that the dossier was being “examined.” However, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi added that his government could act against MasoudAzhar only if New Delhi provided “solid, inalienable evidence” strong enough to convince the country’s judiciary.
And yet on March 8th, the Pakistani government acted, launching a crackdown on leading terrorist groups. Among other things, it outlawed the Jamaat-udDawa (Society of the Islamic Call), or JuD, a welfare organization that raised funds for Lashkar-e-Taiba. It sealed the banned organization’s headquarters in Lahore as well as more than 200 schools, seminaries, and hospitals it ran. It also banned its chief, Hafiz Saeed, from leading Friday prayers on the sprawling JuD complex and kept him under surveillance.
One key factor that spurred such action was a warning the Pakistani government received on February 22nd from the Paris-based intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF). It threatened to add Pakistan to its blacklist of non-cooperating countries if, by May, it failed to take specific steps against the financing of terrorism. To be added to the FATF blacklist could mean being sanctioned by most Western nations, a development only likely to deepen Islamabad’s current financial crisis. (Recently, it has had barely enough foreign reserves to pay for two months of imports or service a huge loan it secured from the International Monetary Fund in 2013.)
In January 2018, President Donald Trump had already cancelled plans for Washington to give Pakistan $1.3 billion in military aid and had imposed sanctions on the country for its support of terrorist groups, including the Afghan Taliban. On Twitter, he accused Pakistan of “providing nothing but lies and deceit.” Soon after, the FATF placed Pakistan on its “gray list.”
Still, none of that proved sufficient to compel Pakistan’s powerful military high command to cede its traditional monopoly on national security and foreign policy decision-making, including its covert backing of anti-Indian extremist groups through the ISI. Only when pressure continued to build, bolstered by fresh urging from Washington, London, and Paris, was a critical mass reached that made those generals finally fall in line with recently elected Prime Minister Khan’s more conciliatory stance toward India.
Now, the international community can only hope that the carnage and chaos of February was the last in a tragic series of encounters between nuclear neighbours that could otherwise lead South Asia to devastation and the world to nuclear winter.
Balakot strike: just for bragging rights?
By Manini Chatterjee
We, the people of India, must collectively thank NarendraModi, the chief campaigner of the BharatiyaJanata Party, for making it clear to us why NarendraModi, the prime minister of the country, ordered the air strikes on Balakot deep inside Pakistan in the last week of February.
The ostensible reason for the air strikes was to avenge the massacre that took place in Kashmir’s Pulwama on February 14, which left 40 uniformed personnel of the CRPF dead. The deaths were not a result of an encounter between security forces and militants that have long become routine in the Kashmir Valley. They happened when a lone Kashmiri youth, allegedly belonging to the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad, rammed his vehicle — laden with over 300 kilograms of explosives — into a CRPF convoy inching its way along the highway.
Less than two weeks later, we woke up to the news that Indian Air Force jets had struck the biggest training camp of the JeM in Balakot. The government officially claimed that “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated.” The unofficial claims, conveyed to the media by “sources”, went further: 325 terrorists and 25 commanders had been killed in the strike. Pakistan had been taught a lesson it would not forget. The “New India” under the muscular leadership of NarendraModi would enter the country and take out the terrorists at will if they dared attack India again.
The rhetoric was so powerful and the hyper-nationalist cheering in the media so shrill that no one dared ask for evidence. But when one or two intrepid skeptics did wonder what exactly was achieved at Balakot, the ruling party and its army of supporters became menacing. Anyone who dared asked for proof was talking the language of Pakistan; was questioning the valour of the armed forces; was guilty of sedition and treason.
With the election campaign now under way, the Balakot strikes are becoming a central theme of the ruling party. Even though the Opposition has steered clear of national security issues and focused on jobs, farm distress and broken promises, the BJP is repeatedly bringing Balakot to the fore — and muddying the narrative even more.
Take, for instance, a recent interview given by the prime minister to an English TV channel. Asked whether he would eventually give proof that hundreds of terrorists had been killed in the strike, Modi retorted: “As far as proof is concerned, Pakistan itself has given proof. Why should they wake up at 5 a.m. and tweet? We were quiet. It is not as if the Indian government claimed the attacks first.”
That was a clever answer — but it was too clever by half. It is true that it was Pakistan’s director-general of the Inter-Services Public Relations, Major General Asif Ghafoor, who first tweeted that the Indian Air Force had “violated Line of Control”. But Pakistan also claimed that the Indian jets “released payloads in haste” and there were “no casualties or damage”.
By citing Pakistan’s tweet as proof of the success of the air strike, Modi has — embarrassingly for the country — brought attention to Pakistan’s version as a whole.
More embarrassing has been Pakistan’s subsequent response. If India wanted to teach Pakistan a lesson and left the country with a bloody nose, Islamabad’s response has been very curious indeed.
In a recent chat with foreign correspondents, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, appeared to take the whole Balakot offensive much too lightly. According to The New York Times report on the chat, Imran Khan said that on learning that the Indian bombs had fallen into an empty ravine near Balakot, Pakistan opted for “a measured response and bombed an empty area just across the Indian border.” It went on to quote Imran Khan as saying: “They hit our trees; so we thought we’d hit their stones.”
Imran Khan went further — batting for the return of NarendraModi to power and seeing it as the best possible option of settling the Kashmir conflict. If Balakot was a slap on the face of Pakistan, it is baffling — to put it mildly — why the country’s prime minister should want another term for his hostile counterpart across the border.
But with each passing day that mystery is receding; with every BJP speech, it is becoming clearer that the Indian forces were made to strike Balakot not to teach Pakistan a lesson but to provide bragging rights to NarendraModi as a saviour of the nation and provide him a handy tool for his re-election bid.
If NarendraModi was indeed the supreme patriot that he claims to be and if he truly valued the courage and competence of our armed forces, he should have been the first person to reprimand the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, for referring to India’s professional army as “Modijikisena”. He did nothing of the kind — his silence serving as encouragement to other BJP leaders who repeated the epithet before the Election Commission, belatedly, stepped in.
In fact, he went further than his acolytes. In a speech that shocked retired and serving members of the defence services, NarendraModi asked first-time voters “to dedicate” their first vote to the “valiant soldiers who carried out the air strike in Pakistan’s Balakot” and to the “brave martyrs of Pulwama.” Never before has any Indian leader so brazenly sought to politicize the military for electoral gains.
Perhaps Modi was addressing his appeal to first-time voters because he is confident that the youth — subjected to the relentless propaganda of the last five years — have no knowledge of history and will be easily swayed by claims that Modi has achieved what no other Indian leader has in the past 70 years.
But not every Indian is a first-time voter. And even first time voters have parents and grandparents, teachers and tutors, people around them with longer memories. And many of them will still remember the grit and the glory of 1971 — the only time India decisively won a war. They will also recall that in complete contrast to the faux war-mongering of today, the prime minister of that time showed a grace and courage that was so much more powerful since it was entirely bereft of bombast.
Some BJP apologists, defending Modi’s electoral use of Balakot, erroneously claim that Indira Gandhi too capitalized on the 1971 victory to win by a landslide in the elections that year. The truth, though, is that India won the war after, not before, the elections.
Mrs Gandhi won her famous “GaribiHatao” election in March 1971, a couple of weeks before the Pakistan army went on a brutal rampage in what was then East Pakistan. In the following months, there was a massive influx of East Pakistanis into India. We may have been a lot poorer back then but unlike today we kept our borders — and our hearts — open to those fleeing genocide. More than 10 million refugees found shelter in India.
Indira Gandhi went across the world, campaigning against the suppression of democracy by West Pakistan in its eastern wing and the mass killings and rapes that followed. The American president, Richard Nixon, was famously hostile to her and blatantly backed Pakistan. But Mrs Gandhi combined diplomatic outreach with a quiet military preparation — executed by able military men untrammelled by considerations of electoral expediency — that eventually resulted in unequivocal victory. On December 16, 1971, less than two weeks after Pakistan bombed Indian air bases, its commander in Dhaka, Lieutenant-General A.A.K. Niazi, signed the instrument of surrender in Dhaka before Lieutenant-General J.S. Aurora of the Indian Army. No proof of India’s achievement was needed. No claims were made.
Two days later, Mrs Gandhi’s victory speech in the LokSabha was equally shorn of rhetoric. It lasted barely a minute. “All the world,” she said, “admires a deed well done. And I think, with all modesty, we can say that we have done this action well.” India’s most successful war prime minister went on to say: “But let us not forget that the road ahead is still long and very steep and we have many peaks to scale. Let us hope that we can do this with the same spirit in which we have faced this challenge. And that we will go ahead from peak to peak raising our nation to new heights of quality and of excellence…”
Watch that speech on YouTube. Even first-time voters will be able to tell the difference between the élan of true victory and its 56-inch, tawdry alternative…
(The Telegraph, Kolkata)
Don’t blame Sharia for Islamic extremism – blame colonialism
By Mark Fathi
Warning that Islamic extremists want to impose fundamentalist religious rule in American communities, right-wing lawmakers in dozens of U.S. states have tried banning Sharia, an Arabic term often understood to mean Islamic law.
These political debates – which cite terrorism and political violence in the Middle East to argue that Islam is incompatible with modern society – reinforce stereotypes that the Muslim world is uncivilized.
They also reflect ignorance of Sharia, which is not a strict legal code. Sharia means “path” or “way”: It is a broad set of values and ethical principles drawn from the Quran – Islam’s holy book – and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. As such, different people and governments may interpret Sharia differently.
Still, this is not the first time that the world has tried to figure out where Sharia fits into the global order.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when Great Britain, France and other European powers relinquished their colonies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, leaders of newly sovereign Muslim-majority countries faced a decision of enormous consequence: Should they build their governments on Islamic religious values or embrace the European laws inherited from colonial rule?
Invariably, my historical research shows, political leaders of these young countries chose to keep their colonial justice systems rather than impose religious law.
Newly independent Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia, among other places, all confined the application of Sharia to marital and inheritance disputes within Muslim families, just as their colonial administrators had done. The remainder of their legal systems would continue to be based on European law.
France, Italy and the United Kingdom imposed their legal systems onto Muslim-majority territories they colonized. CIA Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, CC BY
To understand why they chose this course, I researched the decision-making process in Sudan, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from the British, in 1956.
In the national archives and libraries of the Sudanese capital Khartoum, and in interviews with Sudanese lawyers and officials, I discovered that leading judges, politicians and intellectuals actually pushed for Sudan to become a democratic Islamic state.
They envisioned a progressive legal system consistent with Islamic faith principles, one where all citizens – irrespective of religion, race or ethnicity – could practice their religious beliefs freely and openly.
“The People are equal like the teeth of a comb,” wrote Sudan’s soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Hassan Muddathir in 1956, quoting the Prophet Muhammad, in an official memorandum I found archived in Khartoum’s Sudan Library. “An Arab is no better than a Persian, and the White is no better than the Black.”
Sudan’s post-colonial leadership, however, rejected those calls. They chose to keep the English common law tradition as the law of the land.
Why keep the laws of the oppressor?
My research identifies three reasons why early Sudan sidelined Sharia: politics, pragmatism and demography.
Rivalries between political parties in post-colonial Sudan led to parliamentary stalemate, which made it difficult to pass meaningful legislation. So Sudan simply maintained the colonial laws already on the books.
There were practical reasons for maintaining English common law, too.
Sudanese judges had been trained by British colonial officials. So they continued to apply English common law principles to the disputes they heard in their courtrooms.
Sudan’s founding fathers faced urgent challenges, such as creating the economy, establishing foreign trade and ending civil war. They felt it was simply not sensible to overhaul the rather smooth-running governance system in Khartoum.
The continued use of colonial law after independence also reflected Sudan’s ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity.
Then, as now, Sudanese citizens spoke many languages and belonged to dozens of ethnic groups. At the time of Sudan’s independence, people practicing Sunni and Sufi traditions of Islam lived largely in northern Sudan. Christianity was an important faith in southern Sudan.
Sudan’s diversity of faith communities meant that maintaining a foreign legal system – English common law – was less controversial than choosing whose version of Sharia to adopt.
My research uncovers how today’s instability across the Middle East and North Africa is, in part, a consequence of these post-colonial decisions to reject Sharia.
In maintaining colonial legal systems, Sudan and other Muslim-majority countries that followed a similar path appeased Western world powers, which were pushing their former colonies toward secularism.
But they avoided resolving tough questions about religious identity and the law. That created a disconnect between the people and their governments.
In the long run, that disconnect helped fuel unrest among some citizens of deep faith, leading to sectarian calls to unite religion and the state once and for all. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and parts of Somalia and Nigeria, these interpretations triumphed, imposing extremist versions of Sharia over millions of people.
In other words, Muslim-majority countries stunted the democratic potential of Sharia by rejecting it as a mainstream legal concept in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving Sharia in the hands of extremists.
But there is no inherent tension between Sharia, human rights and the rule of law. Like any use of religion in politics, Sharia’s application depends on who is using it – and why.
Leaders of places like Saudi Arabia and Brunei have chosen to restrict women’s freedom and minority rights. But many scholars of Islam and grassroots organizations interpret Sharia as a flexible, rights-oriented and equality-minded ethical order.
Religion is woven into the legal fabric of many post-colonial nations, with varying consequences for democracy and stability.
After its 1948 founding, Israel debated the role of Jewish law in Israeli society. Ultimately, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his allies opted for a mixed legal system that combined Jewish law with English common law.
In Latin America, the Catholicism imposed by Spanish conquistadors underpins laws restricting abortion, divorce and gay rights.
And throughout the 19th century, judges in the U.S. regularly invoked the legal maxim that “Christianity is part of the common law.” Legislators still routinely invoke their Christian faith when supporting or opposing a given law.
Political extremism and human rights abuses that occur in those places are rarely understood as inherent flaws of these religions.
When it comes to Muslim-majority countries, however, Sharia takes the blame for regressive laws – not the people who pass those policies in the name of religion.
Fundamentalism and violence, in other words, are a post-colonial problem – not a religious inevitability.
For the Muslim world, finding a system of government that reflects Islamic values while promoting democracy will not be easy after more than 50 years of failed secular rule. But building peace may demand it.
The Assange Arrest is a Warning from History
By John Pilger
The glimpse of Julian Assange being dragged from the Ecuadorean embassy in London is an emblem of the times. Might against right. Muscle against the law. Indecency against courage. Six policemen manhandled a sick journalist, his eyes wincing against his first natural light in almost seven years.
That this outrage happened in the heart of London, in the land of Magna Carta, ought to shame and anger all who fear for “democratic” societies. Assange is a political refugee protected by international law, the recipient of asylum under a strict covenant to which Britain is a signatory. The United Nations made this clear in the legal ruling of its Working Party on Arbitrary Detention.
But to hell with that. Let the thugs go in. Directed by the quasi fascists in Trump’s Washington, in league with Ecuador’s Lenin Moreno, a Latin American Judas and liar seeking to disguise his rancid regime, the British elite abandoned its last imperial myth: that of fairness and justice.
Imagine Tony Blair dragged from his multi-million pound Georgian home in Connaught Square, London, in handcuffs, for onward dispatch to the dock in The Hague. By the standard of Nuremberg, Blair’s “paramount crime” is the deaths of a million Iraqis. Assange’s crime is journalism: holding the rapacious to account, exposing their lies and empowering people all over the world with truth.
The shocking arrest of Assange carries a warning for all who, as Oscar Wilde wrote, “sow the seeds of discontent [without which] there would be no advance towards civilisation”. The warning is explicit towards journalists. What happened to the founder and editor of WikiLeaks can happen to you on a newspaper, you in a TV studio, you on radio, you running a podcast.
Assange’s principal media tormentor, the Guardian, a collaborator with the secret state, displayed its nervousness this week with an editorial that scaled new weasel heights. The Guardian has exploited the work of Assange and WikiLeaks in what its previous editor called “the greatest scoop of the last 30 years”. The paper creamed off WikiLeaks’ revelations and claimed the accolades and riches that came with them.
With not a penny going to Julian Assange or to WikiLeaks, a hyped Guardian book led to a lucrative Hollywood movie. The book’s authors, Luke Harding and David Leigh, turned on their source, abused him and disclosed the secret password Assange had given the paper in confidence, which was designed to protect a digital file containing leaked US embassy cables.
With Assange now trapped in the Ecuadorean embassy, Harding joined the police outside and gloated on his blog that “Scotland Yard may get the last laugh”. The Guardian has since published a series of falsehoods about Assange, not least a discredited claim that a group of Russians and Trump’s man, Paul Manafort, had visited Assange in the embassy. The meetings never happened; it was fake.
But the tone has now changed. “The Assange case is a morally tangled web,” the paper opined. “He (Assange) believes in publishing things that should not be published…. But he has always shone a light on things that should never have been hidden.”
These “things” are the truth about the homicidal way America conducts its colonial wars, the lies of the British Foreign Office in its denial of rights to vulnerable people, such as the Chagos Islanders, the expose of Hillary Clinton as a backer and beneficiary of jihadism in the Middle East, the detailed description of American ambassadors of how the governments in Syria and Venezuela might be overthrown, and much more. It all available on the WikiLeaks site.
The Guardian is understandably nervous. Secret policemen have already visited the newspaper and demanded and got the ritual destruction of a hard drive. On this, the paper has form. In 1983, a Foreign Office clerk, Sarah Tisdall, leaked British Government documents showing when American cruise nuclear weapons would arrive in Europe. The Guardian was showered with praise.
When a court order demanded to know the source, instead of the editor going to prison on a fundamental principle of protecting a source, Tisdall was betrayed, prosecuted and served six months.
If Assange is extradited to America for publishing what the Guardian calls truthful “things”, what is to stop the current editor, Katherine Viner, following him, or the previous editor, Alan Rusbridger, or the prolific propagandist Luke Harding?
What is to stop the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post, who also published morsels of the truth that originated with WikiLeaks, and the editor of El Pais in Spain, and Der Spiegel in Germany and the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. The list is long.
David McCraw, lead lawyer of the New York Times, wrote: “I think the prosecution [of Assange] would be a very, very bad precedent for publishers… from everything I know, he’s sort of in a classic publisher’s position and the law would have a very hard time distinguishing between the New York Times and WilLeaks.”
Even if journalists who published WikiLeaks’ leaks are not summoned by an American grand jury, the intimidation of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning will be enough. Real journalism is being criminalised by thugs in plain sight. Dissent has become an indulgence.
In Australia, the current America-besotted government is prosecuting two whistle-blowers who revealed that Canberra’s spooks bugged the cabinet meetings of the new government of East Timor for the express purpose of cheating the tiny, impoverished nation out of its proper share of the oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea. Their trial will be held in secret. The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, is infamous for his part in setting up concentration camps for refugees on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus, where children self harm and suicide. In 2014, Morrison proposed mass detention camps for 30,000 people.
Real journalism is the enemy of these disgraces. A decade ago, the Ministry of Defence in London produced a secret document which described the “principal threats” to public order as threefold: terrorists, Russian spies and investigative journalists. The latter was designated the major threat.
The document was duly leaked to WikiLeaks, which published it. “We had no choice,” Assange told me. “It’s very simple. People have a right to know and a right to question and challenge power. That’s true democracy.”
What if Assange and Manning and others in their wake – if there are others – are silenced and “the right to know and question and challenge” is taken away?
In the 1970s, I met LeniReifenstahl, close friend of Adolf Hitler, whose films helped cast the Nazi spell over Germany.
She told me that the message in her films, the propaganda, was dependent not on “orders from above” but on what she called the “submissive void” of the public.
“Did this submissive void include the liberal, educated bourgeoisie?” I asked her.
“Of course,” she said, “especially the intelligentsia…. When people no longer ask serious questions, they are submissive and malleable. Anything can happen.”
The rest, she might have added, is history.