Throughout history, government agencies have attempted to censor those investigators who have truly sought to expose truth through their journalistic and/or artistic mediums. Today, we acknowledge some of those journalists, artists, and public figures who have made sacrifices in the fight for international justice.
On January 29 of this year, 19-year-old Iranian journalist Elham Afrootan was arrested and charged with insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic, a crime punishable by death. Her crime was publishing an article entitled “Make the fight against AIDS public,” in which she satirically compared Iran’s Islamic revolution to the AIDS virus. During her imprisonment, Afrootan was severely tortured, and in March of 2006, was brutally murdered when it is alleged that her captors forced her to drink bleach and other cleaning products.
Stories like Elham Afrootan’s serve as a daily reminder that we live in a world where the media around the globe is strictly controlled. Whether under the domination of the draconian laws of some Middle Eastern governments, or censored by the deep pockets of the corporate-controlled media moguls here in the West, the world’s media is constantly faced with the obstacles of censorship, control, and even persecution. With so much on the line, many journalists in the mainstream have conformed to the rigid standards of the industries in which they work. Yet, amidst the throng of lemming-like conformists, there remain a few heroic figures who stand out amongst the crowd by speaking out against the system.
Charlie Chaplin broke the boundaries of self-centered Hollywood entertainers, using his popularity to publicly expose injustice through his work. He took his first major political stance with his 1936 film Modern Times, which commented on the condition of the working poor during the era of US industrialization. In 1940, he produced the film The Great Dictator as an act of defiance against Adolf Hitler and a great condemnation of fascism and Nazism. The film showed the inhumanity expressed toward German Jews during the Third Reich and was said to be a great act of political courageousness, particularly since it was released during the period of US isolationism. Chaplin’s 1947 black comedy Monsieur Verdoux openly criticized capitalism, creating much controversy and earning him great public condemnation. During the McCarthy era, Chaplin was placed on the Hollywood Blacklist and was thoroughly investigated by then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Chaplin was accused of “un-American” activities and of being a “communist sympathizer.” In 1952, when Chaplin returned to England for a visit home, J. Edgar Hoover negotiated with the INS to revoke Chaplin’s re-entry permit. Thereafter, Chaplin traveled to Switzerland and continued to make films in Europe. In 1957, he produced the film King In New York, a satire about the absurdity of McCarthyism and the paranoia and hysteria which had driven him from the United States.
While Chaplin fought through the silver screen, Paul Robeson, a live theatre actor and athlete, was using his popularity and public influence to advance Civil Rights and anti-lynching campaigns. He fought for equal rights for African Americans both in the entertainment and sports industries and was an admitted ally of the Soviet Union; in 1945, he publicly announced, “If the United States and the United Nations truly want peace and security, let them fulfill the hopes of the common people everywhere, let them work together to accomplish on a worldwide scale, precisely the kind of democratic association of free people which characterizes the Soviet Union today.” Comments such as these would later earn him, too, a place on McCarthy’s Hollywood Blacklist. In 1950, he refused to sign an affidavit stating that he was not a Communist; in response, the US government confiscated his passport. When Robeson and his lawyers contested this restriction later that year, the US government stated that “his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries; it is a ‘family affair.” This criticism did not halt Robeson’s political voice; he continued to speak out as the voice of justice throughout his life. In 1978, he spoke out against Apartheid in South Africa and continued the fight for global justice until his death the following year.
During the Vietnam War, video and still photography became essential mediums of journalism. On June 8, 1972, Huyn Cong (Nick) Ut, a Vietnamese photographer for the Associated Press, captured a picture that would later go on to win him the Pulitzer Prize. The image of the young Vietnamese child, Kim Phuk, quickly became the face of the real war in Vietnam: the war the government was not telling the public about. The photo displays a naked child, running screaming toward the photographer as Napalm dropped from US planes tears through her flesh. This image generated outrage from its audience. “The Napalm Girl,” as she soon came to be called, quickly became the headliner for posters and banners at protests and rallies in Washington, as well as in capital cities and college campuses all over the world.
And then, of course, there was Walter Cronkite. Throughout his years as a news anchor, Cronkite never ceased to bring the harsh realities of American foreign policy to the world. In 1968, following the Tet Offensive, Cronkite traveled to Vietnam and created a report which would later go down in history as one of the most influential of its time. It was in part due to Cronkite’s report that the Tet Offensive soon came to be known as the turning point of the Vietnam War. Cronkite sent harshly realistic depictions of the war, not only showcasing the inhumanity and brutality taking place in southeast Asia, but, more importantly to the global public, the utter senselessness of the war. Upon Cronkite’s return, CBS launched a nationwide broadcast of Cronkite’s conclusions, in which he stated, “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.” The night Cronkite’s conclusions were broadcast, it is said that Lyndon B. Johnson told his closest advisors, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Cronkite was instrumental in leading objective journalism to unparalleled dimensions. Since his retirement in 1980, Cronkite has continued to be a powerful voice on the political landscape of the world. He has been a fierce opponent of the Bush Administration, making great public condemnations of the US invasion of Iraq. In 2006, Cronkite stated in a press conference that he felt the same way about the 2003 US invasion of Iraq as he did about the American presence in Vietnam in 1968. Despite the harsh criticism he has received, Cronkite has never faltered.
Indeed, the 1960s brought a powerful voice to the world of reporting. Around the globe, the voices of independent journalists and speakers were being heard. Franz Fanon, a doctor and writer originally from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, also published work which focused primarily on the effects of racism and colonization. By 1952, at the age of 27, he had already published his first book, entitled Black Skin, White Masks, which analyzes the paradigm of the colonizer/colonized relationship and deconstructs the psychology of racism, which, he asserts, “blinds the black man to his subjection to a universally white norm and alienates his conscious.” When the Algerian War broke out, Fanon’s medical practice brought him in daily contact with both the victims and perpetrators of this war. So appalled by the stories of torture and brutality, Fanon resigned from his position at the hospital and fled to Tunisia to work on the war front of the Algerian independence movement. There, he worked as both a doctor and a journalist, publishing work that exposed the realities of the war. Before his untimely death of Leukemia in 1961, Fanon managed to finish his final book, The Wretched of the Earth, a fiery indictment in which Fanon calls for a complete revolution, stating that the only way to rid the world of the evils of racism was through finding a new world, and that this new world could only be founded through “absolute violence.” He argued that this revolution must be led by the peasants and that, through violence alone, the races would be purified and the evils of imperialism would cease. Jean-Paul Sartre published the book in the year of Fanon’s death.
Today, the world has seen the results of independent journalism. The people know its power; they saw its effects throughout much of the 1960s. But governments of the world have also seen its power and have taken every measure possible to suppress it. Yet, in spite of the restrictions faced and the competition provided by the millions who have chosen to conform, a few courageous voices ring out above the crowd, even in today’s corporate controlled media circus.
Andrew Gilligan first became famous for speaking out against the government during the war in Kosovo. In 2003, Gilligan accused the British government of “sexing up” its reports on Iraq’s military capabilities in order to justify joining the Bush Administration in the US-led attack. His primary criticism was centered around the UK report that Iraq could deploy biological and/or chemical weapons on the UK within forty-five minutes. He originally reported that experts had “serious doubts” about the authenticity of this report and called the government’s allegations against Iraq “questionable,” but in later reports, Gilligan substituted the word “questionable” for “wrong.” Lord Hutton later called Gilligan’s reports on The Today Programme “unfounded.” The UK government continued to pressure Gilligan to reveal his source for his allegations, but he subsequently refused. It was later uncovered that Gilligan’s source for the report was the world’s foremost biological weapons expert, Dr. David Kelly, who committed suicide shortly thereafter. After the publication of the Hutton Inquiry, which declared Gilligan’s accusations false, Gilligan resigned from the BBC, stating: “This report casts a chill over all journalism, not just the BBC's. It seeks to hold reporters, with all the difficulties they face, to a standard that it does not appear to demand of, for instance, Government dossiers.” Since his resignation, Gilligan’s career has made leaps and bounds. He currently works as a freelance television reporter and also currently serves as the Defense and Diplomatic Editor of The Spectator and writes for The Evening Standard.
French journalist Florence Aubenas has reported from some of the world’s most dangerous war zones. A foreign correspondent for the French daily Libération, Aubenas has covered wars in Algeria, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, as well as genocide in Rwanda. In December of 2004, she was sent to Baghdad on an assignment to cover the Iraqi elections. The following month, however, she was captured in the al-Jadriya district while reporting near Baghdad University. Blindfolded and chained, Aubenas was held captive in a two meter by two meter room in total darkness for 157 days. During this time, she was severely beaten, given very little food and water, and was subjected to temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). After recuperating from her captivity, Abenas has courageously returned to work, ready to travel into danger zones again.
Robert Fisk, the Middle Eastern correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, has been reporting internationally for over thirty years. His work has taken him to the 1974 Carnation Revolution of Portugal, the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Persian Gulf War, and the 2003 invasian of Iraq. He has written hundreds of articles and several bestselling books, including The Great Quest for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East. His journalistic investigations have included sharp criticisms both of Middle Eastern and Western governments, receiving criticism from both sides. And Fisk, too, has faced violence in an attempt to report from danger zones. Once, while stationed in Pakistan, he was attacked by a group of Afghani refugees. He later said of his assault, "I couldn't blame them for what they were doing. … the brutality was entirely the product of others, of us – of we who had armed their struggle against the Russians and ignored their pain and laughed at their civil war and then armed and paid them again for the ‘War for Civilisation’ just a few miles away and then bombed their homes and ripped up their families and called them ‘collateral damage.’”
The world of entertainment has long played an essential role in the influence of public opinion. Yet while some Hollywood celebrities have chosen to remain silent in the face of world events, a few have stepped out from the crowd to use their work in order to make a statement. George Clooney’s films of late have been geared toward criticism of US foreign policy. The former ER star who made his millions through roles in action films and romantic comedies has recently taken a stand to make his work count. His 2004 directorial debut, Good Night and Good Luck (which he also co-wrote) sought to expose the evils of McCarthyism and draw comparisons to the right-wing hysteria which still exists in American society today. In 2005, he also produced and starred in the film Syriana, which discussed the corruptions of US foreign policy in an age of so-called “terrorism”; his role in this film won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
As the world is currently being duped by the horrific lies spun by world governments and propagated by the mainstream media, there are a few remaining brave journalists and artists who continue to demonstrate the qualities of the heroes before them. The heroes and heroines we name in this article are only a few of those whose integrity has prevailed despite the threat of the loss of their jobs, their reputations, and even their lives. To all those, past and present, who have sacrificed themselves in the name of journalistic integrity and global justice, we salute you.
1st July 2006