Speech by Prize winner John Pilger

Oslo Sophie Prize Ceremony June 12, 2003

My warm thanks to the Minister of Environment, Mr. Børge Brende, for presenting me with the Sophie Prize and especially the Sophie Foundation for this wonderful honour. I am grateful to Jostein Gaarder and Siri Dannevig for creating and sustaining the Sophie Prize, and with such imagination and enthusiasm. For me, this is an extraordinary occasion, for it suggests that I have contributed a positive voice in helping people understand the dangers that confront us today.

I would like to talk briefly about these dangers: about silence, power and optimism.

”The time has come when silence is betrayal”, said Martin Luther King, ”and that time is now.”

That was the 1960s. King was referring to the silence of the American liberal elite on the iniquities of racism and poverty and the horrors of the invasion of Vietnam. By linking these issues he told a truth that may well have cost him his life.

Today, a similar silence represents an even greater danger for humanity, partly because we live under many manufactured illusions, in what is known as the information age. In fact, it’s a media age, in which most information is repetitive and safe; and by safe, I mean that it propagates and celebrates the essential wisdom and benevolence of great power, while never attacking it as a system, no matter how rapacious and criminal it might be.

Of course, there has always been propaganda. But the word is associated mostly with dictatorships, not free societies like ours. In totalitarian states, people know they are being lied to, and they learn to read between the lines of their newspapers. It’s very different in democracies. I like the story of a group of important Soviet journalists who toured America during the Brezhnev era. They avidly read American newspapers and watched TV. And as they departed, they said to their hosts: ”This is an incredible system you have here. All the news is the same, and all the opinions in the media are the same. And you achieve this without throwing people in prison. It’s voluntary! What’s the secret?

The secret is a form of control we have only now begun to recognise. Today, in the United States, which constitutionally has the freest media in the world, the Federal Communications Commission is about to deregulate television completely and hand greatest source of public information to just five corporations. Murdoch, Disney, Viacom, GE and AOL Time Warner. If you say: But what about the Internet? Surely no one owns that.» consider this fact. In 1999, 110 companies attracted 60 per cent of all internet users. Today, just fourteen  companies exercise the same dominant control.

Never has there been such a concentration of information media power. And most of it is dominated by an invisible force called public relations. In Britain, half the content of all the serious newspapers is supplied or manipulated by special interests using public relations companies and methods. So much of journalism is now pure public relations, or ”spin”.

At the same time, the media has become powerful as never before. We now have government by media, democracy by media, human rights by media and war by media. Never was a war more widely covered than the recent invasion of Iraq, yet never was the truth as smothered. The most important weapons in that war were not aircraft, tanks or troops, but journalists and broadcasters. Right up to the day the Anglo-American attack on Iraq began, a remarkable series of lies by the Bush and Blair governments, seeking to justify their illegal invasion, were channelled and amplified by the great media organisations. Instead of being exposed, these lies were transformed into subjects for legitimate national debate. ”Experts” debated them; the news agenda was set by them. And this way, Bush and Blair were able to define the main issue of the war – Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – and so divert attention from the real aim of capturing an oil-rich country and controlling the Middle East.

Tony Blair’s lies about Saddam Hussein being a threat to the world were echoed incessantly: for example, the discredited claim that he had nuclear weapons. Then there were the lies of omission. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mostly children, were almost never mentioned as the consequence of an embargo enforced by America for twelve long years and backed by Britain. Dennis Halliday, the Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations responsible for Iraq, called this ”a silent holocaust”. As of last July, the United States was blocking more than $5 billion worth of humanitarian goods for the people of Iraq  -- which the Security Council had approven and Iraq had paid for.

This silent holocaust, which claimed the lives of perhaps a million people, received little coverage in the West – so hypnotised was the Western media with the false issue of weapons of mass destruction and the evil of Saddam Hussein.

As we know, it was a charade. Barely a day now passes without the media reporting further evidence of deceptions manufactured in Washington and London – the same media that gave such credibility to the lies that allowed the war to go ahead.

How bold these exposes nok look on the front page. But it’s all too late for the thousands of innocent Iraqis bombed and blasted to death. It’s all too late for those children who have been blown to bits by cluster bombs. It’s all too late for those contaminated by the dust of depleted uranium.

The number of people who have died in Iraq since 1990 as a direct result of Western actions is at least 400 times the number who died in America on September 11, 2001. That is the most important story of our times.

I have just come from Afghanistan. I have seldom seen a country as devastated. When the United States attacked this country following September 11, there was widespread approval in the Western media. Liberal journalists called the overthrow of the Taliban a ”famous victory”. That the Taliban was a creation of America was mentioned only in passing, if at all. And the victims of this famous victory were barely mentioned, if at all. Last week, in Afghanistan, I interviewed people who had lost up to eight members of their family in the American bombing – whole villages been wiped out in what George Bush calls, without a hint of irony, ”the war on terror”.

I know of only one journalist – Jonathan Steel in the London Guardian – who has taken the trouble to calculate a true and honourable total of the number who died. His figure is 20, 000, including people so dislocated by the bombing that no relief could reach them. That’s almost seven times the number who died on September 11th.

And what of the wider world? The World Food Programme has said that, because aid resources have been distracted by the war in Iraq, some 40 million people are at risk – mostly in drought regions in Africa – in countries like Eritrea and Sudan.

These are mere glimpses of the disaster imposed by great power that seeks to dominate us all. We cannot say we have not been warned. Who is to be next? Iran, Korea, Jordan? President Bush says he is prepared to use nuclear weapons. The British government has threatened, for the time in Britain’s modern history, to launch a nuclear attack against non-nuclear states. None of this is secret; most of it was spelt out last September when the Bush administration published its National Security Strategy in which the message required no de-coding – world domination.

Silence is betrayal, said Martin Luther King. In those great repositories of knowledge, Western universities, there is silence. Only accredited mavericks speak out. This is hardly surprising when the study of international politics so often orders humanity according to its degree of importance to ”western interests”.

Noble words like democracy are routinely emptied of their meaning, and become jargon terms, like ”good governance” and ”their way”. These are the vocabulary of imperialism – a liberal imperials that dares not speak its name, and a terrorism whose violence is far greater than anything dreamt up by Osama bin Laden. It is our  terrorism.

Simply to state that truth is deemed unscholarly, so better to say nothing. In journalism, reference to it is unthinkable. And yet it’s terrorism understood by millions of people all over the world: by those who have been bombed, or squeezed almost to death by the imposition of debt and ”structural adjustment” policies. For these people, terrorism is the death, every day, of 24,000 human beings from the effects of poverty. It cost America $10 billion to bomb Afghanistan. Only a fraction of that has been sent to rebuild that stricken country. That is terrorism.

At the beginning, I mentioned optimism. The good news, the very good news, is that, across the world, a movement of resistance is growing rapidly. In every country, people are stirring. From the great landless people’s movement in Brazil to the anti-privatisation movement in South
Africa, to the epic campaigns against so-called free trade and debt, and the even greater anti-war movement, nothing like this has happened in my lifetime. Indeed, it’s my view there are now two superpowers in the world: the superpower of Washington and its satellites, and the superpower of public opinion.

For too long, the mantra of many of my colleagues in the media was that the public didn’t care; that people were apathetic and simply not interested in politics. This was always wrong, and it was shown to be wrong during two days in February when some 20 million people filled the cities and towns of the world to speak out against an illegal, unprovoked attack on an impoverished country. And that was just a beginning.

Milan Kundera wrote that ”the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. Those whose lives are distorted by the military and economic violence of western terrorism understand this. But what about those of us who live comfortable lives, on whom bombs never fall and for whom there is always clean water and decent food and hospitals and schools?

Is it time that those of us privileged to have a platform broke our silence about the current danger of rampant power. ”Why?” you may ask. ”What have we got to lose by remaining silent?” The answer is simple. Behind the conquest of countries like Iraq is the prospect of the conquest of us all – the conquest of our minds, our humanity and our self-respect, at the very least. If we say and do nothing, victory over us is assured. If we speak out, we join a resistance that is the very best of us. The choice is ours.