We live at a time when ordinary people find it increasingly hard to differentiate fake news from real, as journalists come under draconian restrictions in many countries. Especially in times of ideological conflict and war, journalists have often been dragooned into manufacturing consent, churning out propaganda portraying US wars and regime changes in Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Indonesia and many other countries as justified, against demonised ‘enemies’. Increasingly, we’re told we live in a ‘post-truth’ world. Yet the reality is that corporate media increasingly distort reality in ways that present solid investigative journalism as ‘fake news’, and sell fake news as real. As an anthropologist, concerned with how different social constructions of reality are created and maintained, I offer here a brief overview to try and put present times in perspective.
Starting in 1945 during the last days of the 2nd world war: Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been bombed, Japan has just surrendered, and a handful of reporters who try to bring out news about the terrible radiation sickness are vilified: ‘No radioactivity in Hiroshima ruin’ read the New York Times headline on 13th September, in response to a report by Leslie Nakashima (same paper, 31st August) and Wilfred Burchett in the Daily Express (5th September). Japanese police facilitated Burchett’s visit, despite their fury, understanding his intention to bring out the truth. But in a hospital housing patients, families and doctors all dying from radiation sickness, a doctor finally said to him:
‘I can no longer guarantee your safety. These people are all marked down to die. 1 will also die. I was trained in America. 1 believed in Western civilization. I’m a Christian. But how can you Christians do what you have done here? Send some of your scientists at least…’
But scientists like Oppenheimer who had been part of the Manhatten project were aiding the disinformation campaign. John Hersey added his voice a bit later, writing up survivors’ accounts in anthropological detail. These journalists were vilified in US-controlled media, as ‘the official lying began’, insisting there was no radiation sickness.
As sociologist JPS Uberoi has highlighted, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki represents ‘the end of modernity’ in terms of a ‘scientific experiment’ that no-one would take responsibility for.
Gauri Lankesh is by no means the only journalist to be assassinated in India in recent times. In Jharkhand we have the unsolved murder of Amit Topno in December 2018 – an Adivasi journalist who covered the Pathalgadi movement. We have at least 19 journalists assassinated in Kashmir during 1990-2019, and numerous fabricated cases, such as that against Assif Sultan in August 2018. We have many reports of recent intimidation of Kashmiri journalists, and evidence of government spokesmen trying to control the narrative in Kashmir by branding stories that expose uncomfortable facts as “fake news”
Similarly, journalists investigating the February violence in Delhi were attacked a few days ago (11th August), and over 130 anti-Citizenship Act protestors have been jailed on what many claim are spurious charges, as it happened in the Bhima Koregaon / Elgaar Parishad case in Maharashtra.
Regarding social media, we have Awesh Tiwari targeted on 16th August by Ankhi Das, facebook-India policy director, for defamation, with evidence that the definition of ‘hate speech’ has been twisted in favour of hindutva forces on facebook in India.
The international Committee to Protect Journalists lists 51 journalists killed in India since 1992, compared with 61 journalists assassinated in Pakistan – an acceleration, since another source lists 33 journalists assassinated in Pakistan 2013-2019. This list includes Anwar Kethran killed in Bolochistan in July 2020, with suspicion directed against a Minister whose corruption was being exposed by Anwar. More than 1,000 people gathered in Anwesh’s hometown in anger three days after his death.
China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are presently listed as the worst countries for the jailing and killing of journalists. India (142) ranks slightly above Pakistan (145) and Turkey (154) in the Press Freedom Index (out of 180 countries). In Hungary, journalists are similarly protesting a new crackdown against the free press.
In Turkey a new social media bill targets independent journalism. Reporting about a Turkish intelligence agent’s death in Libya has been especially clamped down upon, as has any criticism of Turkish troops’ occupation of northern Syria, and associated atrocities there. Hundreds of critics of Turkey’s war in Syria have been arrested, including journalists.
Peace solutions offered over years by the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan have gone ignored by Turkish as well as world media. Intimidation of Kurdish journalists follows an all-too-familiar pattern, with an ever-harsher crackdown on Kurdish and other independent journalists jailed in Turkey. I was part of an international peace delegation to Turkey in February this year; and have written about the Kurdish situation.
World media has been shockingly silent on Turkey’s invasion of Afrin in March 2018, and atrocities by Turkish-linked forces ever since; despite repeated revelations about not-so-covert Turkish military aid to ISIS and other extremists.
By contrast, Assad’s Syrian forces are under constant attack by world media. The Syrian white helmets have played a consistent role in manufacturing propaganda, from areas controlled by extremists. Vanessa Beeley is one of several journalists who have exposed this organisation, which has been funded with millions of dollars by the UK and US governments – even according to Wikipedia, which dismisses all criticism of the SWH as ‘conspiracy theory’. An article in The Guardian in December 2017 similarly dismissed all criticism of the White Helmets, refusing to publish several articles written in response, that amplify evidence of the organisation’s links with extremists.
The Guardian was one of the first recipients of Julian Assange’s wikileaks material. Leant on by UK intelligence agencies in June 2013, it destroyed this material and went on to host the first public interviews with the heads of MI5 and MI6 in 2016-2017. Mark Curtis, a consistent critic of UK’s role in fomenting wars, is one of those who have exposed this. How much has corporate media everywhere come under increasing control by intelligence agencies?
Back in 2008, the compromised fourth estate of journalism in the UK was already highlighted. If journalists cannot freely function as a public check on abuses of power by governments, how can the public tell false news from real?
The targeting of Julian Assange in British courts has overstepped all normal democratic bounds and puts a question mark over the independence of the fourth estate everywhere. Mainstream journalists have joined in vilifying his name; while for many independent journalists, his case represents the undermining of their continuing right to speak truth to power.
Prof. Felix Padel is a renowned Anthropologist trained in Oxford and Delhi universities, author of numerous articles and books. He was Professor of Rural Management at the Indian Institute of Health Management Research, Jaipur and has been visiting Professor at JNU,Delhi.