Glen Ford was a fierce champion of the anti-imperialist cause.
Richard and Roberto would like to dedicate this feature to Glen Ford, one of the fiercest critics of U.S. corporate media the country has ever known. May we all find creative and courageous ways to honor his memory by speaking out against Wall Street, white supremacy, and the U.S. war machine.
In this feature, we interview Syrian-born journalist Richard Medhurst about state propaganda, the mainstream media, and U.S. imperialism.
Roberto Sirvent: Earlier this summer, the U.S. government seized several news outlets’ websites, including one for which you work—Press TV. Can you share a little bit about how this occurred and why you and Press TV are seen as threats to U.S. security interests?
Richard Medhurst: The United States and its allies are afraid of anti-imperialist media. Press TV does not sugarcoat what’s happening in Palestine as some “clash” or “conflict” between two sides on an equal footing. Press TV calls it out for what it is: an Israeli occupation of Palestine. Press TV doesn’t masquerade the war on Syria as an “uprising”, but tells the truth
Biden activated the country’s national emergency laws, reserved for “unusual and extraordinary threats”, and citing Trump’s sanctions on Iran, shut down Press TV along with 32 other news sites belonging to Iran and its allies.
To be clear: The United States didn’t just block these news sites in the U.S. It blocked them worldwide, cutting off 1.4 billion English-speakers from accessing Press TV, and a slew of other outlets also broadcasting in Arabic, such as Alforat and Al-Masirah.
The Biden administration accused these outlets of spreading “misinformation” – whatever that means – and even claimed that they were being run by an elite special forces unit, the Quds Force. The Quds Force is one of five branches under Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Trump brutally assassinated its leader Qassem Soleimani, along with PMU Commander Abu Mahdi, in January 2020.
Once again, you can see here that there is little difference between administrations in regard to foreign policy. Not only does the Biden team keep Trump’s sanctions in place, but also acts on them.
So what exactly does that say when the president of the United States is using the national emergency law to silence the press; and accusing them of working with foreign military and intelligence units? That’s brazen authoritarianism.
Press TV regularly has its Facebook page removed and is banned from using YouTube and any Google Services. This is reminiscent of how the U.S. would repeatedly try to take WikiLeaks’s website offline, getting its PayPal and credit cards blocked to prevent donations. This is what the U.S. does to adversarial publishers. And then people talk about freedom of speech? What Biden just did to Press TV and the 32 other outlets is scandalous. This was an attack on the press. There’s no question.
You made a very perceptive point about how the U.S. government would respond if Iran or Russia had an American news site blocked. How do you account for this double standard?
Earlier this year, Britain’s telecommunications regulator OFCOM revoked CGTN’s license. CGTN is an English-language news outlet based in China. The accusation was that CGTN was controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and that it allegedly failed to disclose this.
Two weeks later China revoked the BBC’s broadcast license in China and Hong Kong. (BBC is tax-payer funded and run by the British government). You can imagine the reaction. Total outrage by Western outlets, calling China authoritarian and all sorts of Sinophobic stereotypes– meanwhile these same voices barely said a thing when CGTN was banned in the UK two weeks prior.
Press TV, based in Iran, suffered a similar fate when OFCOM revoked its broadcast license in 2012. There always seems to be an excuse to take English-language foreign outlets off the air, yet we’re supposed to believe the countries doing this are impartial and supportive of a free press.
Again, it’s important to note that this isn’t just about censoring a publisher or broadcaster inside one’s own border, which is bad enough. What the United States did in June was to completely knock out these news sites, for everyone worldwide.
In the same way the United States seizes (a nice way of saying “steals”) Iran’s fuel tankers and then sells off the oil, or gets the Bank of England to seize Venezuela’s gold in London– these news sites were also seized in a brazen act of piracy.
The claim that the United States has jurisdiction over .com domains and that these news sites didn’t obtain an exemption from sanctions is nonsense. These websites were targeted specifically because they are news sites, and because they publish critical truths about the United States, Israel and Western imperialism.
When supposed “democracies” dub the work of foreign journalists “misinformation”, accusing them of being military units and using that to silence them, you should be extremely worried.
How many times have we heard Rachel Maddow whine about “Russian hackers”? How often do we hear these baseless claims of Chinese, Russian or Iranian “cyberattacks”, in an attempt to malign these countries? Yet all of a sudden when the United States hacks and takes Iranian and other websites offline, all these outraged voices are nowhere to be found.
If Iran had taken a single American news site offline – never mind 33 of them– there would be global outrage. Every U.S. politician and pundit would be screaming from the rooftops, calling it an act of war and an attack on democracy. But in this case, the mainstream media barely bothered to cover or question the Biden administration’s actions. All of a sudden, a continuation of Trump policies and attacking the press don’t seem to bother the liberal left that screamed about “voting out fascism”. The hypocrisy is blinding.
There’s a tendency to view the U.S. mainstream media as more “objective” than many foreign media outlets since these other outlets are “state-run” and therefore serve as mere propagandizing tools for their respective country. How come it’s more difficult for U.S. audiences to view the New York Times, CNN, or NPR as propaganda tools for the state and corporate America (even if some label themselves as “public” radio or “public” television)?
A core pillar of the colonial mindset is persuading everyone that Western countries are the only true democracies and bastions of free expression. This mythos is easily dismantled when you see how journalists like Julian Assange are threatened with 175 years in prison for exposing U.S. war crimes; or how the U.K. recently passed the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, allowing undercover agents to spy or even kill anyone, including journalists, in the name of “national security” or the “economic interests of the U.K.”.
The United Kingdom and United States have just as much “state-run media” if not more. The idea that they are more “objective” and “unbiased” is the most outrageous and ludicrous assessment one could possibly make about Western media.
The British Broadcasting Corporation, despite its name, has always been a state-run broadcaster since its inception. During World War II the BBC would send out coded messages to the French resistance on behalf of British intelligence. Nowadays it does anti-Russian propaganda for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as recently leaked documents show.
Seeing the BBC and virtually every news outlet lie about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in the lead up to the Iraq war was a huge turning point for me growing up. These outlets, like the New York Times and Washington Post, would take anything coming out of Bush or Rumsfeld’s mouth and report is as gospel with zero scrutiny.
They helped sell a war that killed and displaces millions of Iraqis, and then conveniently, once it was too late, some issued mediocre half-apologies admitting they had abdicated their duty to the truth.
How could anyone ever trust them again after what they did to Iraq? And yet today they continue to lie about WMDs, claiming Syria used them despite leaked OPCW documents proving it didn’t.
Anyone can see that the core function of these publishers is to lie for the State in order to start wars, and manufacture consent for regime change, sanctions and imperialism.
These outlets aren’t just mouthpieces for the State and its spy agencies – they literally employ them. Over at FOX News, former CIA Director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is now a contributor. Former FBI agents and CIA directors run around MSNBC’s newsrooms blindly defending the intelligence community, and they call them “contributors”. Just imagine if these outlets that they called “State media” in Iran or Russia did that.
But of course on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites you’ll never see any disclaimers or labels for the BBC or NYT. Only labels like “Iranian State media” or “Russian state-affiliated media” exist. Not because these outlets are any more state affiliated than their European or Western counterparts, but simply because these labels are meant to discredit foreign news organizations and make the Western ones look more legitimate.
Lies about Iraq, lies about Syria, years of Russiagate hysteria, no criticism of Israel – how can anyone in their right mind take them seriously?
What are your thoughts on how the protests in Cuba were handled by U.S. media?
The United States has a long history of coups and attempted regime change in Latin America, and Cuba is no exception.
Whenever protests take place in an official “enemy country” of the United States, you can be sure that the U.S. media will never report truthfully on them. Their goal isn’t to report objectively, but to fan the flames of these protests in the hopes they grow and materialize into a revolt. You can tell just by the language they employ – words like “regime” and “crackdowns”– what their intentions really are. As if the violence displayed by police across the United States in 2020 during the George Floyd protests wasn’t a brutal crackdown by government forces against peaceful protesters.
The media is so desperate to make these protests in Cuba look larger than they actually are, they’ve resorted to taking images of Cubans rallying behind their government, and then calling them “anti-government” protestors too. The level of dishonesty is absolutely staggering.
The Guardian showed a group of supposed “opposition” supporters, who happened to be carrying the flag of Castro’s July 26th movement. FOX News went so far as to blur out the pro-government slogans on people’s signs, to make people think they’re anti-government protestors. One woman who complained on Twitter that the UN mislabeled her photo had her account removed.
Having seen the U.S. and Western media’s attempts to lie and obfuscate about Syria for ten years, none of this surprises me.
The media talks about a worsening economic situation – and conveniently leaves out that the U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba for 6o years. They mention food shortages, rising prices and difficulties getting by without talking about the impact of sanctions in an attempt to place all the blame at the feet of the Cuban government?
Of course people have legitimate grievances in Cuba, just like they do in Syria and elsewhere. But the viewpoints repeated on Western media are usually not held by the majority of citizens there. So what the Western media does is hone in on an opposition group, then amplify its message to the point that people outside think this opposition group represents the entire country. This is how they manufacture consent for wars, sanctions and regime change.
You’ve been very critical of how the corporate media discusses Western sanctions against countries like Syria, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. Can you explain how this deceptive media coverage makes it easier for the U.S. to justify further intervention and imperialism?
Sanctions are often presented as some harmless alternative to war because they do not involve the use of weaponry or explosives. The truth is that sanctions are akin to siege warfare.
When civilians are deprived of food, medicine and basic necessities this is not “harmless”. When hospitals can’t import medical parts or repair parts to heal the sick and people can’t keep warm during the winter, they die. Sanctions kill.
The civilian population always suffers the most from sanctions, not the country’s leaders. They are the ones who starve and die. Therefore sanctions are a form of lethal warfare.
The media never tells you what sanctions really are. Most of the time you don’t even hear the word. Just go watch CNN or DW’s election coverage on Syria or Iran. They’ll briefly mention a “ tough economic situation” without going into much detail, to make it look like the Syrian or Iranian government’s fault. And of course, not a word about the crippling Caesar Act sanctions or Maximum Pressure Campaign imposed by Trump and kept by Biden.
These sanctions are often unilateral and illegal under international law. The parties imposing the sanctions, such as the U.S. or EU, will then take the economic suffering they have created and use it as an argument for military intervention or further punishment.
The entire aim behind sanctions is to starve the civilian population to the point they rise up against their government, and replace it with a government favorable to the United States’ interests. This is just another instrument for regime change and imperialism.
Hood Communist recently had a great article titled, “Biden is Anti-Haiti, and His Haitian-American Press Person Doesn’t Give a Damn.” As you know full well, Biden has used the politics of “diversity” and “inclusion” to appoint Black and brown people to serve in high-level White House positions. Based on your observations over this past year, what are some ways that Biden’s “inclusion and diversity efforts” have further perpetuated white supremacy and U.S. empire?
Sure, Biden’s cabinet is certainly more diverse in gender and race compared to previous administrations. Is it diverse in policy? Absolutely not. Just look at U.S. foreign policy. Biden has maintained practically every single one of Trump’s actions: be it stealing Syria’s oil, or the brutal sanctions of the “Maximum Pressure Campaign” against Venezuela and Iran, and a slew of other countries.
Who do these policies hurt? They hurt people of color all over the world and bolster white supremacy by maintaining the United States’ stranglehold over other nations.
So when Biden comes along and appoints the first African American man to lead the Pentagon – the same Pentagon that occupies and kills people of color overseas – I’m not impressed. Especially when that Defense Secretary, Austin Lloyd, is a former board member at Raytheon, one of the largest weapons manufacturers in the United States.
I’m also not impressed when Biden appoints the first female Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, to run spy agencies that attack Arab, African and Latin American countries. Avril Haines helped orchestrate the legal framework for Obama’s drone program, which killed scores of innocent civilians in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
I’m not impressed either when Biden appoints the first woman to head the Treasury, Janet Yellen, to help over see crippling sanctions on Venezuela, Iran, Syria and more. Are people going to starve any less because a woman is in charge now? Are Cubans going to be able to import more medical equipment now that a woman is overseeing the embargo?
I’m not impressed by the Biden administration’s racial or gender diversity, when that “diversity” is used as a cover to continue oppressing people of color all over the world and uphold American hegemony. The entire concept of Western powers going to someone’s country, killing them, enslaving them, exploiting them, stealing their resources, and dictating what political, economic, and social life they must live – this is firmly rooted in white supremacy. That’s what American and Western imperialism upholds.
Dictating to other countries what their politics must look like, while occupying their land and stealing their resources – how different is this from having the French or British occupying them a century ago? This is imperialism, pure and simple.
All these mechanisms, whether sanctions or occupation or piracy, serve to uphold American hegemony and white supremacy. It doesn’t matter who’s pulling the lever if the result is still the same.
This “diversity” they speak of is all a neoliberal act, to maintain the same oppressive policies and practices. Maybe the faces are new, but the game is the same, and the dynamic of oppressor-oppressed is still there.
I know you follow events in Syria closely. Is there anything BAR readers should watch out for in terms of how the U.S. corporate media and Biden administration are deceiving the public about your home country?
Syria recently held presidential elections. Many mainstream outlets like CNN, DW and others “reported” on the elections the same way they do when covering Venezuela or Iran’s elections: they only brought on opposition figures, and repeated the worst stereotypes about these countries’ governments.
Most Syrians support Bashar al Assad. Some may not like that, which is irrelevant, because that’s the truth. I never heard this fact in a single mainstream media report on Syria’s elections. Not one of them showed the seas of people coming out to celebrate President al Assad’s victory. If the media omits such a key, basic piece of information, then how can we take any of their reporting seriously?
Another lie we heard during their election coverage was that Syrians living outside government-controlled areas were barred from voting. But by whom? Naturally, people in Idlib could not vote in the election, because HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham, a rebrand of Al Qaeda) does not want them participating in the election. Nor do the Kurdish, and U.S. occupation forces in Eastern Syria. So if people could not vote in those regions, that’s not the government’s fault. Of course, the media won’t tell you that.
The media also mentions that Syrians are suffering under a terrible economic crisis – which is true. The problem is they leave out that it’s due to U.S. and EU sanctions. My cousin in Damascus was telling me the other week how people only get a few hours of power a day now, and you sometimes have to wait in line for days just to get fuel. Before the war began in 2011 there were no more power cuts.
You know that imperialist stereotype about socialist countries, how people have to “wait in breadlines”? Those breadlines were created by the United States. Syria used to be self-sufficient for years and a net exporter of wheat, but now you wait hours to get one bag of bread thanks to the West’s ten-year war against Syria – but you’ll never hear that on the news.
The Biden administration is no different from the Trump administration. In cooperation with the Kurdish-led SDF, the U.S. is still occupying and stealing Syria’s oil fields in the Eastern and North-Eastern regions of Deir Ezzor and Hasakeh. Syrians are also deprived of food and the valuable crops that grow in this breadbasket region.
Biden continues to bomb Syria and hasn’t removed Trump’s Caesar Act Sanctions, that have ravaged Syria’s economy and currency. In short: same old.
Next time they tell you about “economic suffering” ask yourself who created that. The only reason they mention it is to imply the government is responsible, when in fact sanctions and war are behind it. That’s something I hope the readers retain.
But most important of all: Syria is not just some war zone that we hear about on the evening news. Syria is a country with a vibrant culture and history. It’s a patchwork of various ethnic and religious groups that have coexisted together for centuries and beyond. Its capital Damascus, where I was born, is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Almost every major civilization from the Romans to the Ottomans has tried to take Syria for itself because it is the centerpiece of the Middle East. I hope people can begin to see Syria for its beauty, and to appreciate its historical and cultural value. After all, there’s a reason Syria is called the Cradle of Civilization.
Featured image: File Photo
(Black Agenda Report) by Richard Medhurst and Roberto Sirvent