This is a transcript of a speech delivered at Hyde Park in Sydney,
Australia, on March 20,2005, at a rally to commemorate the second
anniversary of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.
The other day, the Aboriginal film-maker Richard Frankland said
this: "When you’ve got a voice, you’ve got freedom, and when
you’ve got freedom, you’ve got responsibility. Negotiating with
politicians doesn’t work. You’ve got to change attitudes."
That’s the task for all of us here today. It’s not an easy one.
In fact, many good people in Australia and other countries believe
their voice cannot possibly be heard: that the forces of bigotry
and violence are far too powerful.
And yes, they are powerful. John Howard can lie repeatedly to the
Australian people and get away with it — it seems. There is
no Labor opposition in federal parliament. They’ve become a bad
joke, to the point where Kevin Rudd, the opposition spokesman on
foreign affairs, refuses to say anything critical of the government
that is not immersed in crude sophistry.
We also know that those who are paid to keep the record straight,
who are meant to challenge Howard’s lies and uphold our right to
freedom of speech, a freedom that is a cornerstone of any true democracy
— I refer of course to the media: journalists, broadcasters
— we know where they stand. We know that, apart from a few
honourable exceptions, they are not merely craven and silent, but
occupy a place in this society not dissimilar to the media in the
Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe.
Throughout my career I have reported, often undercover, from countries
ruled by repressive regimes where dissidents would read me reports
in the press that were no more servile and false than the reporting
you read every day in the Murdoch papers in this country. In Eastern
European states, for example, the papers had tame correspondents
in Moscow, who would parrot the Kremlin line. Now read the Washington
correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Gawenda, and
there is no difference. The same parrotting of Bush’s dangerous
absurdities, such as his claims of bringing democracy to the Middle
East — when the very opposite is true.
Considering this, we might ask: Is there no shame?
Is there no shame that, in its annual review of press freedom three
years ago, the international media monitoring organization, Reporters
Without Borders, placed Australia 41st in the world. Countries with
greater press freedom were the following: Lithuania, Bosnia, El
Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Bulgaria, Hong Kong. All these
countries have either been run by dictatorships, or racked by war
or by civil upheaval; yet in 2002 they had greater press freedom
than Australia, which was just ahead of autocracies. None of this,
or the reasons why, are ever mentioned at the numerous back-scratching
awards ceremonies so beloved by the Australian media.
Honourable exceptions aside, supine journalists, like cynical opposition
politicians, like corporate academics, represent unaccountable,
violent power and a corrupt democracy that today offers us no more
choice than between a McDonalds and a Hungry Jack’s. But they do
not represent us. And they do don’t speak for us. And they don’t
speak for humanity. And they don’t speak for democracy. And they
don’t speak for all the moral decencies by which most people live
their lives. In fact, they speak for the very opposite.
I may have first understood this when I reported from repressive
Czechoslovakia, with its Stalinist regime, in the 1970s. The dissenters
who spoke out in that country seemed so few, yet I wondered why
the regime went to such lengths to silence them and attack them
and sneer at them, usually via the state press. I put this question
to the great protest singer Marta Kubisova, whose thrilling voice
sang the anthems of the Prague Spring in 1968. Meeting me in secret,
she replied by reading to me the words of one of her most defiant
songs, written by a banned Czech group called the Plastic People
of the Universe. I have abridged it slightly.
They are afraid of the old for their memory,
They are afraid of the young for their innocence
They afraid of the graves of their victims in faraway places
They are afraid of history. They are afraid of freedom.
They are afraid of truth. They are afraid of democracy.
So why the hell are we afraid of them? …for they are afraid of
What all of you should remember on this second anniversary of the
brutal assault on Iraq is that you are not alone: that you are part
of a great worldwide movement that refuses to accept the dangers
and moral indecencies of Bush and Blair and Howard. Yesterday, all
over the world, people, like you, expressed their defiance and anger
at the unprovoked attack on Iraq, a defenceless country, and the
killing of more than 100,000 people and the theft of their resources
and their poisoning of their land: all of it justified by demonstrable
lies. Go back to a speech John Howard made early in February 2003.
He spoke for 53 minutes and lied about weapons of mass destruction
at least 20 times: 20 lies in less than an hour. Even Bush and Blair
would have trouble topping that.
Then he sent Australian troops off to take part in an invasion which,
under the universally acknowledged and respected terms of the Nuremberg
judgement in 1946, the cornerstone of international law, was, "a
paramount war crime".
That’s not my rhetoric, nor is it agit-prop. It’s the law of civilized
people. And it’s our job to help people understand the great crime
committed in their name, and how those who claim to speak for us,
such as the media, have normalised the unthinkable: as if no crime
has been committed, as if thousands of people have not been murdered,
as if it was all merely a respectable adjustment of the "world
order"’. My point is, they are not respectable; they may wear
the suits of respectability and travel with their fawning courts,
but they are prima facie criminals, be assured.
The other day, an ABC foreign correspondent was promoting his book
of professional adventures in a Sydney bookshop. He told his audience
that it was good to be back in a country where politicians at least
didn’t kill each other. That’s true, but what he didn’t say was
that the same politicians collude in the killing of men, women and
children in other countries: in Falluja, where the truth remains
unreported in the so — called mainstream media in this country
— including the ABC, which has allowed itself to be intimidated
by the Howard government for giving us, now and then, a glimpse
of the truth about Bush’s criminal assault on Iraq.
The time is long overdue. That time is for journalists to break
ranks and speak up. It’s time for teachers to write on their blackboards
that great truism of Milan Kundera: "The struggle of people
against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
It’s time for those who know the dangers, but who say nothing —
academics, lawyers, union leaders, even members of parliament —
to break their silence before their own privileges are undermined
by the steady assault on centuries-old, hard-won civil rights, vividly
expressed in the abandonment of Australians tortured in other countries
by their government and the locking up of people in this country
indefinitely: indeed the erosion of the bedrock of our justice system:
innocent until proven guilty.
Above all, never forget how important and right you are. It is you,
in company with millions all over the world, who have taught again
the great lesson of democracy. You didn’t stop the invasion of Iraq,
but you, and the millions like you, in Spain and Britain and France
and Italy and Brazil and the United States, have alerted the world
to the true darkness of the regime in Washington and its collaborators.
Never in my lifetime as a journalist have I known ordinary people
all over the world to be more aware of the dangers and the issues
that face us. Many can’t be with us today; but their support is,
I believe, a presence. Think back to the popular movement, much
of it led by women, that prevented conscription being introduced
in Australia during the First World War. Those campaigners also
felt rather isolated at times; but they weren’t: they were the voice
of what was right.
Had it not been for you and your movement, I believe Iran and North
Korea would have been attacked by now, and in the case of North
Korea, nuclear weapons might have been used.
Be proud of these achievements: be proud that the seedy, violent
power of Bush and Blair and Hoaward has been exposed by you and
that behind their bravado, they are afraid of you, and of the millions
like you, so, in the words of the song, why the hell should we afraid
Pilger was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs, is
published by Jonathan Cape next month. This article was first published
in the New Statesman.
John Pilger 2005