Mon, 01 Aug 1994

Pilger's film smacks of opportunism

By Dino Patti Djalal

LONDON (JP): In September 1989, two British citizens went to Indochina to do some field research.

A year later, Anthony De Normann and Christopher MacKenzie were shocked to learn that their pictures were being shown in a television program on Cambodia.

The film Cambodia: The Betrayal depicted their trip to Cambodia as part of a secret British MI6 operation to train the notorious Khmer Rouge guerrillas near the Thai border.

Their names emerged as hot subjects of disgrace in parliamentary questioning and the media fuss. That same year, the producer of the film, John Pilger, received the United States's George Foster Peabody Award and France's Frontiers Award.

In July 1991, they sued Pilger and the television station which aired the film for libel. Pilger's lawyer knew that his case was thin: there was plenty of evidence that the De Normann- MacKenzie's self financed trip had been meticulously prearranged with the Vietnamese authorities and Hun Sen's government in Phnom Penh. When his efforts to get out of the case proved futile, Pilger was persuaded to quickly settle out of court for a financial sum that both sides agreed would not be publicly disclosed.

This case reveals much about John Pilger and his brand of journalism. Pilger is now being sued, again for libel, by a British member of Parliament, Rupert Allason, who Pilger falsely accused of complicity in peddling intelligence information in the case surrounding the death by hanging of a British journalist in Iraq.

In November 1992 a strong complaint, this time from the United Nations Border Relief Operation (UNBRO), was also lodged against Pilger to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission pertaining to Pilger's allegation that United Nations logistical facilities in Cambodia were being secretly rented to the Khmer Rouge as a munitions warehouse.

The same Pilger recently produced a film on East Timor entitled Death of A Nation: The Timor Conspiracy. Although it is generally understood that certain conditions in East Timor remain problematic, Pilger's film contains too many fabrications.

The film certainly did not deter the UN Human Rights Commission to issue a positive chairman statement on human rights in East Timor earlier this year, despite the film being shown in Geneva and a personal appearance by Pilger.

Death of A Nation has become a key mobilizing instrument for the international campaign now being waged by Timorese anti- integration activists to generate support for their cause.

Reportedly, the film will be shown in 40 countries. When it was aired in New Zealand recently, the country's Parliamentarians reacted strongly by producing a resolution on East Timor, followed by a request to visit the area. Pilger has boasted about the impact in New Zealand, and is expecting similar reactions in other countries.

To understand Pilger, one must fathom the depth of his contempt for governments. In Pilger's world, governments are the source of all evil. His pen is a sword not to defend a cause but to bleed governments. He revels in saying "I have made enemies in Southeast Asia".

Hence, it is controversy-making rather than fact-finding that is the hallmark of Pilger's journalism. Hype takes a premium over accuracy; impact over balance.

It is not known how Pilger became entangled with East Timor. When he published Heroes in 1986, he touched on a wide range of political issues but no mention was made of Indonesia or the East Timor case.

What is certain, however, is the clear intellectual deference Pilger accords to long time anti-Indonesia activists such as Carmel Budiardjo and Liem Soei Liong (no relation to the Indonesian conglomerate) in the making of the film.

Carmel and Liem are founders of TAPOL, a London-based anti- Indonesia political organization whose ideological slant is now opportunistically couched as "The Indonesia Human Rights Campaign".

They became Indonesian political outcasts after the abortive coup of the communist party in 1965 and, driven by grudge and hatred, have since spent their time launching a smear campaign against Indonesia, inventing bizarre pseudo-academic concepts such as Islamization, Javanese imperialism and forced sterilization.

TAPOL activists happily furnished these concepts to Timorese anti-integrationists when they established contact in the second half of the 1970's.

By establishing a symbiotic link with Carmel and the likes, Pilger has in effect provided a visual medium to what may be regarded as the "loony literature" on Indonesia, which has been long regarded as too radical to be taken seriously by conventional academics and politicians.

In Death of A Nation, these sideline crusaders finally found an access to the mainstream.

The astonishing thing about Pilger's film is really not the message, which is an old song in a flashy jukebox, but the fact that some uninformed or semi-informed circles, unable to place the film in context, are taking his propositions as truth.

The general public cannot perceive the games and schemes involved in the vicious public relations campaign on East Timor.

Let's face it, East Timor is no rose garden, but with all the things that genuinely need fixing there, the danger of the film is that it creates out of touch hot heads and misleads them in the real issues at stake and what is needed to address the issues constructively.

The bottom line is this: to secure their future, the East Timorese must come to terms with their past and mend the socio- political fractures and emotional wounds which have blistered since 1975. After all these years, greater socio-economic progress and reconciliation -- not prolonged conflict -- are what the East Timorese need and deserve most.

Some international circles must stop treating the East Timorese as if they are prized gladiators endlessly cheered, jeered and agitated by excited international spectators.

Indeed, many of the propositions in Pilger's film can be easily picked apart. But a recent chance to put Pilger to the test ended in disappointment, when Carmel Budiardjo and Pilger organized a discussion on East Timor in London on June 30.

What started as a completely partisan discussion turned interesting when a number of East Timorese figures unexpectedly showed up and challenged Pilger's account. Pilger, obviously surprised, seemed unable to bear the irony of being publicly confronted by the very people he claimed to champion, and did what would be considered odd for a star speaker: he and David Munro left the talks before they concluded, leaving behind an almost speechless Carmel Budiardjo.

Among the Timorese present that evening was Francisco Xavier Amaral, the ex-chairman of Fretilin and President of the Fretilin founded Democratic Republic of East Timor. He later issued a statement in which he accused Pilger of "liberally corroborating the many lies, rumors and propaganda (on East Timor) in his film," and called Pilger's film "part of a game" to turn his people into "political commodities".

When Pilger charged UNBRO of commercial complicity with the Khmer Rouge, he conveniently attributed the information to "our sources" and left it at that. The Broadcasting Complaints Commission, after thoroughly examining the case, later stated that "The Commission are not persuaded that the program makers had sufficient -- or indeed any evidence of UNBRO's involvement" in property dealings with the Khmer Rouge.

Given all this, Australian journalist Greg Sheridan has a point in stating that "Pilger's films have generally been full of misrepresentation, half truth, exaggeration and extreme tendentiousness." Rupert Allason has also expressed dismay at Pilger's "deplorable methods in writing stories".

Consider Pilger's claim that British made Hawks were used to bomb East Timor. One may ask, for example, if entire villages were wiped out in 1983, as he claimed, how could Amnesty International completely miss this out in its annual reports on East Timor that same year?

What's more, how Pilger managed to find a fluent English- speaking Timorese peasant as a "witness" deep in the interior of East Timor is beyond anybody's guess -- something which I certainly was not able to do during my last visit there.

Equally dubious was his other "witness", a Timorese man in exile whose impressive knowledge of the physical features of the Hawks made him look as if he was uttering memorized cues. (Outside East Timor capital of Dili, the locals still have difficulty identifying models of automobile let alone jets). Was this yet another smart gimmick which Pilger crafted to capture his British viewers?

What motivates Pilger? "That's really beyond me," Rupert Allason said. Some may point to an insatiable craving for personal fame, which Pilger certainly has done a good job at. De Normann, however, is more straightforward: "Money. He simply loves money".

Whatever the answer, what captured my attention was a curious sentence at the very end of what was supposed to be a news column: "Pilger's account is contained in Distant Voices, 7.99 pound sterling."

The writer is a regular contributor to The Jakarta Post.

Window: Pilger's film on East Timor has generally been full of misrepresentation, half truth, exaggeration and extreme tendentiousness.