Monday, December 05, 2005


By William Fisher

Congressional leaders who have often touted Iraq’s new ‘free press’ as a sign of progress in that troubled country were angered by the Pentagon’s admission last week that it has been planting and paying for Iraqi newspapers to publish ‘good news stories’ written by the military and ‘placed’ in Iraqi media by a Washington-based public relations firm.

In a briefing for the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John Warner of Virginia, the military acknowledged that news articles written by American troops had been placed as paid advertisements in the Iraqi news media and not always properly identified.

Warner told reporters after receiving a briefing from officials at the Pentagon that senior commanders in Iraq were trying to get to the bottom of a program that apparently also paid monthly stipends to friendly Iraqi journalists.

Mr. Warner said there had been no indications yet that the paid propaganda
had been false. But he said that disclosures that an American company, under
contract to the Pentagon, was making secret payments to plant articles with
positive messages about the United States military mission could undermine
the Bush administration's goals in Iraq and jeopardize Iraq's developing
democratic institutions. "I remain gravely concerned about the situation,"
he said.

He said he had been told that the articles or advertisements were intended to
counter disinformation in the Iraqi news media that was hurting the American
military's efforts to stabilize the country.

The story of the Pentagon’s latest PR efforts was revealed last week by the Los Angeles Times. It said that many of the articles were presented in the Iraqi press as unbiased news accounts written and reported by independent journalists. The stories trumpet the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country.

The Times reported that while the articles are basically factual, they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments. Records and interviews indicate that the U.S. has paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism," since the effort began this year, the newspaper wrote.

The articles are received from the military and translated into Arabic and then placed with Iraqi media, both print and broadcast, by the Lincoln Group, a Washington D.C.-based public relations firm which is under contract to the Pentagon. Lincoln’s website boasts of its extensive network of relationships with Iraqi journalists.

The Lincoln Group defended its practices, saying it had been trying to counter insurgent propaganda with accounts of heroism by allied forces. "Lincoln Group has consistently worked with the Iraqi media to promote truthful reporting across Iraq," Laurie Adler, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Administration and Congressional officials have often emphasized the importance the U.S. places on development of a Western-style free media. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cited the proliferation of news organizations in Iraq as one of the country's great successes since the ouster of President Saddam Hussein.

The hundreds of newspapers, television stations and other "free media" offer a "relief valve" for the Iraqi public to debate the issues of their burgeoning democracy, Rumsfeld said.

The administration isn't alone in pointing to the "free" media as evidence of things going well in Iraq. In a November 10 speech, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona touted Iraq's "truly free press".

But Congressional Democrats said the Lincoln Group’s activities were the latest
example of questionable public relations practices by the administration. In an
earlier case, payments were made to columnists, among them conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who secretly received $240,000 for promoting “No Child Left Behind”, the administration's education initiative.

"From Armstrong Williams to fake TV news, we know this White House has tried
multiple times to buy the news at home," Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the
Democratic leader, said. "Now, we need to find out if they've exported this practice to the Middle East."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, called on the acting Pentagon inspector general to investigate the Lincoln Group's activities to see if they amounted to an illegal covert operation.

“The Pentagon's devious scheme to place favorable propaganda in Iraqi newspapers speaks volumes about the president's credibility gap," Kennedy said. "If Americans were truly welcomed in Iraq as liberators, we wouldn't have to doctor the news for the Iraqi people."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT) recently returned from a trip to Iraq and wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal in which he pointed to Iraq's "independent television stations and newspapers" as evidence of the "remarkable changes" there.

“I have just returned from my fourth trip to Iraq in the past 17 months and can report real progress there. Last week, I was thrilled to see a vigorous political campaign, and a large number of independent television stations and newspapers covering it.”

In coordination with President Bush’s speech last week at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, the administration published a "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq". Among its claims: "A professional and informative Iraqi news media has taken root…More than 100 newspapers freely discuss political events every day in Iraq.”

A military spokesman in Iraq said contractors like the Lincoln Group had been used to market the articles to reduce the risk to Iraqi publishers, who might be attacked if they were seen as being closely linked to the military.

Larry Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said General Vines and his staff in
Iraq insisted that their activities with Lincoln had been "in accordance with all policies and guidelines."

But Martin Kaplan, Associate Dean at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and director if its Norman Lear Center, told me, “Anyone who recalls the good-news propaganda than ran in the state-run communist press even as the Soviet Union was collapsing will find what the Bush Administration is doing in Iraq creepy. It sends a deeply troubling message about what they think democracy is. But given their demonization of dissent in the United States, it sadly comes as no surprise.”

And National Security Advisor Steven Hadley said on Sunday that if the payola allegations are found to be true, it was bad policy and should be discontinued.

Iraqi journalists and their representative organizations have also objected to the practice.

This is not the first time the Pentagon’s PR efforts have come under scrutiny.

In 2004, the agency found itself engaged in bitter, high-level debate over how far it can and should go in managing or manipulating information to influence opinion abroad.

The issue was whether the Pentagon and military should undertake an official program that uses disinformation to shape perceptions abroad. One of the problems with such programs is that in a world wired by satellite television and the Internet, American news outlets could easily repeat misleading information.

Earlier, Secretary Rumsfeld, under intense criticism, closed the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence, a short-lived operation to provide news items, possibly including false ones, to foreign journalists in an effort to influence overseas opinion.

Now, critics say, some of the proposals of that discredited office are quietly being resurrected elsewhere in the military and in the Pentagon.



By William Fisher

Three months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast, Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans faced a ‘town hall’ meeting of several hundred displaced constituents – but had few answers to questioners seething with anger, frustration, confusion and hopelessness.

The questioners, evacuees who were approximately 75 per cent African-Americans, had been urged by Nagin to return to New Orleans from distant but temporary locations where they were trying to put their shattered lives back together. They had been promised trailers, electricity, running water, and help finding jobs.

But the stories they told Nagin and his top lieutenants revealed that they were deeply mired in government red tape, misinformation, no information and an apparent lack of interest. Their seething disapproval of every level of government was palpable.

Many told stories of spending days on the phone trying to reach relief local, state and federal agencies, often only to find that their phone numbers “were no longer in service”.

Others were told to go to centers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), only to find that many of these centers had closed.

One woman, who had traveled to New Orleans from Atlanta, told of being approved for – but yet receiving -- a reconstruction loan from the Small Business Administration and, a day later, being notified by FEMA that she was no longer entitled to food stamps or to her temporary housing stipend.

Another told the mayor she had been making her mortgage payments regularly despite being unable to live in her ruined home, to which the mayor replied, “I understand most local lenders have declared a moratorium on timely payments.”

An elderly woman was trying to reclaim the body of her husband, who died in the flood, but was refused by the central morgue because DNA testing had not begun because the contract with the laboratory has not yet been finalized.

A man who owns a tree care business complained that contractors had been brought in from other states to do the work he had been carrying out for the city for the past 20 years. He said he had never heard from FEMA, despite its pledge to favor local firms.

Several speakers told the mayor they had been advised that their temporary housing was to be discontinued, and that they had 48 hours to find other places to stay.

Others complained that after being urged to return, there were no schools for their children to attend.

Still others told of having to sleep in their trucks or on a floor, living out of a car and waiting for the help that was promised but has not yet arrived.

Said one woman whose import business was wiped out by the storm, along with her home in New Orleans East: "You come to these FEMA centers, you sit all day, You get no answers to your questions. They're evasive. You're constantly 'pending.' What are you going to be doing, 'pending' for the rest of your life? I've lost everything."

With no place to live in New Orleans, many spoke of frequent long drives to obtain help from FEMA. Agency officials, backed by armed guards, refused to allow a reporter into the agency’s giant interviewing room, where long tables lined with seated aid seekers had been set up.

Mayor Nagin listened intently to every questioner. He answered some in vague generalities. He referred others to his staff and promised that they would quickly take the appropriate action to bring them relief. He is currently conducting other ‘town hall’ meetings in other cities where displaced New Orleanians are now living, and continues to urge them to return.

Many of the citizens attending the New Orleans town hall meeting were residents of the lower 9th ward, the poorest part of the city, and the hardest hit by the hurricane.

Meanwhile, Katrina has been gradually but steadily disappearing from prominent coverage in newspapers and on television. With President Bush no longer visiting the stricken areas, the media has apparently moved on.

In an interview, Rev. Tim Simpson of the Christian Alliance said, “With all of the coverage that this disaster received and with it having damaged the Bush administration's credibility so severely, it is amazing that these people have been so quickly forgotten by our government and that the administration has so blithely moved on to other things like immigration reform, as if the Gulf Coast was even stable, much less repaired.”

He added, “What this problem needs is some sustained attention by the executive branch. The President needs to pay more attention to the Gulf and less to giving his second term an ‘extreme makeover’. If people thought he was doing something to make the lives of average Americans better in the first place, he probably wouldn't need an extreme makeover!”

There are also indications that a proposed congressional investigation into government responses to the disaster could itself become bogged down in jurisdictional wrangles and partisan infighting.

From the very beginning of the post-Katrina disaster, Louisiana’s Democratic Senator Mary Landreau has adopted an aggressive posture in urging congress to appropriate massive sums for relief and reconstruction. But her in-your-face style has reportedly alienated some of her colleagues.

In contrast, Senators from Mississippi – parts of which were also devastated by the hurricane -- have been working more quietly behind the scenes to steer resources to their constituents.

But some Louisiana officials suggest that party politics is playing a role in the provision of resources. They point out that their state has a Democratic Governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and that New Orleans is a Democratic stronghold. Mississippi is heavily Republican. Its governor, Haley Barbour, is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and has close ties to the Bush Administration.

Documentation released yesterday by Governor Blanco reveals the total chaos that existed between local, state and federal authorities in the days before, during and after the hurricane hit. They suggest that federal authorities were trying to shift the blame toward the Governor while, in fact, no one was in charge.

A FEMA spokesman said last week that the agency was working as fast as it could to aid the thousands still destitute from the storm.

"I don't know if you understand the magnitude of this disaster," said the
spokesman, James McIntyre. "Almost 1.5 million people have registered for
assistance, and we're working to help them all."

Mr. McIntyre continued: "We're working as fast as we possibly can to meet their
needs, and help them receive assistance for damages from these disasters."

Another FEMA official, the manager of an assistance center in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District, said the mental anguish of many of his clients was now

"As people come in, they become desperate," said the official. "They're coming back, thinking they can live in their dwelling. And then all of a sudden, there's nothing."

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita left more than 281,000 Louisiana residents -- 14 percent of the workers in the state – jobless. That created as massive run of unemployment filings that threatens to bankrupt the state's unemployment trust fund.

In the first seven weeks after Katrina struck, Louisiana residents filed 281,745 hurricane-related claims for unemployment benefits, more than the 193,000 claims filed in all of 2004, according to figures released by the state Department of Labor. The number of filings is 13 times what is normal for a seven-week period.


By William Fisher

Why are we Americans so outraged by the news that money can buy favorable press coverage?

Surely it’s not that many of us haven’t known for years that journalists in poor countries (and a few rich ones as well) are often venal.

I remember sitting with a journalist in El Salvador 20 years ago. He was interviewing me about an export promotion program I was managing for the US aid agency. I answered his questions and gave him lots of documents describing the program and explaining why it was important to his country. He thanked me, but on his way out, he turned and said, ”You know, my newspaper doesn’t pay very well. If I could have a small fee, I could write a longer story and it would probably appear on the front page.”

Twenty years later I heard just about the same story from a journalist in Cairo, who came to talk with me about a globalization program I was involved in. She called it ‘bakshish’ – a tip, an expression of my appreciation.

Needless to say, the aid agency didn’t pay – and the stories got published anyway.

No, what outrages many of us is not that corruption is rampant in most of the
so-called ‘developing nations’. Corruption is a way of life in poor countries, and is certainly not limited to the press (try getting through Customs sometime).

There are three other good reasons why this latest episode ought to make us angry.

First, as far as we know, the journalists didn’t ask for money – the Pentagon offered it. And it did so as part of an organized and well-funded program, complete with its own contractor.

Second, it did so in secret. Absent the Los Angeles Times, which broke the story, chances are that none of us would ever have known that bribing journalists for ‘good news’ coverage of the Iraq War was yet another example of our tax dollars at work. But then transparency has been poison to the Bush Administration.

Worst of all, the Defense Department’s payola scheme was being carried out at the same time the State Department’s exchange program was working to teach foreign journalists about the role and responsibility of a free press.

Why is this the worst aspect of this situation? Because it adds to the widespread perception of U.S. hypocrisy – at a time when we are spending millions trying to ‘win hearts and minds’ around the world.

The task that President Bush gave his longtime confidante Karen Hughes – now Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy – was arguably an impossible job in the first place. How does even the most competent diplomat go about convincing the world that Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, were aberrations, for which people were held accountable and sent to jail? How can Karen Hughes persuade anyone that America is a fair and compassionate society based on the rule of law when evidence keeps piling up that justice is meted out to everyone except the policy-makers who are actually responsible?

Now, the Pentagon has hammered another nail into the coffin of Public Diplomacy. That should make us all angry.

And, speaking of accountability, the Defense Department’s press payola program was the idea of a real person. And that idea was reviewed and approved by other real people.

Who are they and when will they be fired?

Appearing on a Sunday talk show, National Security Advisor Steven Hadley joined Iraqi journalists in the view that, if the DOD investigation supports the allegations, the Pentagon’s latest caper was bad policy and should be stopped.
But based on past performance, we’ll never know who was responsible for this brainstorm, and no one will ever be held accountable.

Not long ago, the media uncovered another neat little DOD program known as “Total Information Awareness”. The program was an advanced form of "data-mining," that would have effectively provided government officials immediate access to our personal information such as all of our communications (phone calls, emails and web searches), financial records, purchases, prescriptions, school records, medical records and travel history. Under this program, our entire lives would be catalogued and available to government officials. In the ensuing furor, the program was shut down. But nobody was reprimanded, much less fired.

This was no aberration; it has been a consistent pattern in the Bush Administration.
No doubt the DOD’s media payola program will soon be quietly shut down. But, we – the folks who financed it – have a right to know whose brilliant idea this was in the first place.

Remembering Eleanor and the Human Rights Declaration

By William Fisher

Since Eleanor Roosevelt presented the International Declaration of Human Rights to the United Nations for ratification 37 years ago next week, the world has witnessed – and often ignored -- some of the most egregious rights violations in modern history.

Racial segregation and injustice toward people of color in the United States, Australia and the apartheid regime of South Africa. The Gulags of Russia.
Chemical warfare in Vietnam. Attempted genocide in Rwanda, by Idi Amin in Uganda, Pol Pot's "killing fields" in Cambodia, Sudan’s campaign against the people of Darfur, and the attempted genocide of Kurds in Iraq. Ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and militia violence in Timor. Child labor. Gender discrimination. Denial of universal suffrage. Increasingly repressive governments from the Middle East and North Africa to Latin America to Asia restricting rights of press freedom and peaceful assembly. Failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Gross violations of the Geneva Conventions by the American military and ‘rendition’ of ‘ghost prisoners’ by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to countries known to torture prisoners. Widespread religious and economic discrimination.

The U.N. has also come under fierce criticism regarding its Human Rights Committee, whose members have often included countries known to be gross violators of basic rights.

But when Mrs. Roosevelt, wife of the then-American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, presented the draft Declaration to the U.N. membership, she said it “is based upon the spiritual fact that man must have freedom in which to develop his full stature and through common effort to raise the level of human dignity. We have much to do to fully achieve and to assure the rights set forth in this declaration. But having them put before us with the moral backing of 58 nations will be a great step forward.”

The non-binding Declaration of 1948 identified many rights: life, liberty and security of person, freedom from slavery and servitude, freedom from torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, equality before the law, not being subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile, freedom of movement and residence, the right to marriage and to found a family, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, peaceful assembly and association, work, health and education.

But, since its signing, an estimated 60 million people have died or been maimed by war and human rights abuses. And the number of victims continues to climb.

Some human rights observers examine this record and conclude that the United Nations is a toothless tiger, incapable – or unwilling – to move from rhetoric to action.

Others see the glass as half full and claim the historic declaration has made a major contribution toward focusing the world’s attention on the preservation of human rights, despite the failings of so many nations.

Among them is Dr. Omid Safi of Colgate University. He told IPS that the Declaration “has had a major worldwide impact on conversations about human rights. One of the best indications of the impact it has had on Muslims is the involvement of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, who has worked extensively on harmonizing Islam and international human rights discourse.”

Rev. Tim Simpson of the Christian Alliance agrees. He told IPS, “The declaration is an important symbol. In itself it has not ameliorated human rights around the world, but it has given every member of the family of nations a standard by which to judge their own society's efforts. First World democracies could say to the developing world, ‘This is the direction in which you should strive to take your politics’, while Third World countries could remind the West whenever it strayed, ‘Don't forget the values that made your nations great’. Clearly, there is still much to do in the world to better human rights, but we have moved a great deal since the middle of the last century and the Declaration is part of the reason for that change.”

Also seeing the half-full glass is Chip Pitts, President of the Board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC), immediate past Chair of Amnesty International USA, and a professor of international human rights at the Stanford Law School. He told IPS, “The Declaration gave human rights traction; what we now need is action… A new global scrutiny exists as a result of modern communications, 24-hour media, and the explosion of nongovernmental organizations and global and regional enforcement mechanisms” since 1948.

He adds: “The Declaration worked incredibly well to establish and proliferate standards…The Declaration also offered an integrated view of civil and political rights, on one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights, on the other. That integrated view was challenged during the Cold War, when the U.S. supported the former rights and the Soviet Union supported only the latter. Space for a newly integrated view opened up briefly during the 90s, but has been closed again just when it is most needed -- during this new century, when the cracks and fissures from globalization are newly apparent.”

But Dr. Jack N. Behrman, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina who served as an official in the Kennedy Administration, takes a far less optimistic view.

He told IPS, “If human rights include non-discrimination and human dignity, it is not possible to have any measure of whether they are better now than before. Exposure of each is still not at all full, and what we do read and hear in the media does not give encouragement that we have improved. In fact, the U.S. practice of torture displays the opposite.”

Behrman says “One reason for not extending human rights is the continuing view that ‘I and My People’ deserve more than others do, and if they get it my way, they should be pushed down or aside. A second is fear -- of others and loss of ‘my’ position and prestige.

IPS asked commentators for this article to identify the major problems facing the U.N. and what the body could do to overcome them.

BORDC’s Pitts notes that “The international legal mechanisms remain weak -- e.g. the state-to-state complaint mechanisms of the UN treaty bodies, and the limited rights of individual petition operating there and in the regional human rights bodies (e.g. the Inter-American and European procedures). And these limited mechanisms have been weakened by powerful nations lately, especially the United States. For the United States to actively encourage so many nations to undermine fundamental human rights by adopting principles like those at the heart of its own ‘Patriot Act’ -- e.g. by condoning arbitrary and secret detention, disappearances, discrimination, reversal of the presumption of innocence and the right to fair trials, of the right to confront your accusers and the evidence against you, of the right to be free from cruel and inhuman treatment -- is a tragic setback to global peace, prosperity, and true security.”

His recommendation: “We need to move from standard setting to enforcement and implementation via application to non-state actors (e.g. corporations, al Qaeda) as well as states, and on the basis of a newly integrated vision of a world in which all human rights are respected and protected; but this is difficult without leadership of the sort that resulted in the Declaration, and political will to overcome narrow interests and recognize the immense practical importance of human rights.”

Dr. Safi thinks “more work can and should be done” in “working with religious reformers who want to find a religious voice for engaging universal human rights discourse, establishing international organizations for the monitoring and when necessary persecution of crimes against humanity, and considering issues such as poverty as central to help translate human rights discourse into a meaningful reality for the lives of the one billion human beings who live on a dollar a day, and for whom human rights discourse sounds like an elitist concern without a meaningful impact on their lives.”

But, according to Dr. Behrman: “The U.N. cannot possibly do enough, for it is composed of countries that do not ‘buy into’ the Declaration even if they have signed it. The basic obstacle to doing more is the attitude of individuals, ethnic groups, communities, and nations that supports separation instead of a willingness to embrace humanity. The Declaration itself cannot work at all; it depends on each country's implementation. And I have not read in the media that any country has shown the way in protecting human rights, particularly of minorities and immigrants.”

Professor Abdullahi An-Na'im of the Emory School of Law in Atlanta, voices a similar view. He told IPS, "Upholding and protecting human rights is the responsibility of every government, state, and their citizens, and not of the UN as an abstract entity. The UN is what its member states make of it, or fail to make of it. Every decision to act or fail to act, allocation of resources, and follow through, etc. is taken by government delegates."

He continued: "Human rights are always violated or protected on the ground, in real time and space, which is always within the jurisdiction of a state, not the UN as such. A violation can only happen when some human being does or fails to do something to another human being. That can only be done by the citizens of one state or another, and also within the territory of a state. The protection of human rights will not improve until we all accept our responsibility for this, and stop blaming the UN for our failures."