Press freedom or freedom with the truth?

[Translated and distributed to Khmer-language newspapers in late May 2013.]

Here we go again. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, a US organisation with more dollars than sense has issued a scorecard for the world. The latest one to be parachuted into Cambodia a few weeks ago made a small splash by claiming that the Cambodian media had become less free in the last year.

The scorecard is formally titled Freedom of the Press 2013 and is an annual publication of a Washington-based organisation called “Freedom House”. Before considering what Freedom House has to say about Cambodian media, it might be well to examine its credentials. What is Freedom House? What are its qualifications for judging “freedom”?

Wikipedia calls Freedom House “a non-governmental organization”. Freedom House’s web site says it is “an independent watchdog organization”. Both statements are wrong; Freedom House is neither non-governmental nor independent. It could perhaps best be described as a semi-official tool of US foreign policy, completely intertwined with the US.

According to its own web site: Freedom House’s “representatives regularly testify before Congress, provide briefings to high level Administration and State Department officials …” One of its reports has been chosen by the US government “as a formal source for the determination of country eligibility for the Millennium Challenge Account, a foreign assistance program designed to provide additional aid to poor countries that, among other criteria, achieve certain democratic standards”.

Again according to its web site, Freedom House was established in October 1941 at the request of then President Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted an organisation that could increase public enthusiasm for entering World War II. It was a bipartisan government tool from the beginning: the initial honorary chairpersons were Wendell Wilkie, the Republican presidential candidate whom Roosevelt had defeated a year earlier, and Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor.

Only two months later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did away with the need to convince the US public to go to war. This must have caused a certain crisis of perspective for Freedom House: a timeline of its history on its web site lists only one thing it did during the war: sending a letter to President Roosevelt urging him to take action against German atrocities – not an action that required a lot of courage at the time.

As soon as World War II was over, Freedom House enlisted in the new war against Communism. It “strongly endorsed the post-war Atlantic Alliance [the forerunner of NATO], as well as such key policies and institutions as the Marshall Plan and NATO”, its web site acknowledges, referring to the policies and organisations that the postwar US government developed to extend its influence as far around the world as possible.

Although it later became dominated by neoconservatives, Freedom House originally typified what became known in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s as “Cold War liberals”. This phrase described advisers or would-be advisers to the US government who argued that US goals could be achieved more easily by mixing rhetoric about “democracy” and the occasional minor concession at home or abroad with the standard threats and/or use of military force.

For example, during the US war against Vietnam, while hundreds of thousands of US citizens were demonstrating in defence of the freedom of the Vietnamese to run their own country without US interference, what was Freedom House doing? According to the timeline on its web site, in 1967, “Freedom House convenes 14 top Asian scholars to discuss issues related to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. The report is seen as ‘a clear call for moderation,’ and is said to have helped persuade President Johnson to reduce forces in Vietnam”. “Moderation” in regard to the war at that time in the US meant seeking a de-escalation of the fighting and then negotiations that would leave the US government with the “freedom” to continue determining what happened in Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos).

Perhaps even more revealing is this passage from the timeline for 1982: “Freedom House observes elections in El Salvador, supports continued U.S. assistance, notes human rights abuses but also warns about the long term threat to freedom from communist insurgency”.

In 1982, El Salvador was in the midst of a full-scale civil war brought about by a US-installed military dictatorship that, among other “abuses”, arranged the rape and murder of US Catholic nuns and the murder of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador (“communist insurgents” were everywhere). The “election” was arranged to give a “democratic” face to the military dictatorship and the slaughters it was carrying out in the countryside. Freedom House gave cover to the charade by pretending to “observe”. Always the voice of “moderation”, Freedom House then urged a balance between mass murderers (“abusers”) and the people who were being murdered. And the US “assistance” it supported of course went to the dictatorship.

Journalist Jeremy Bigwood describes the evolution in Freedom House’s role: “Since the end of the Cold War, Freedom House has adjusted to the new geopolitical environment by shifting its attention from attacking Communism to undermining what Washington considers to be ‘authoritarian’ and ‘populist’ countries. Freedom House now quietly funds projects in those countries that the United States considers to be economic or ideological threats, or more openly in allies that the United States wants to keep in line. Freedom House tends to stay away from U.S.-friendly totalitarian regimes and monarchies.”

Coups against governments Washington dislikes are not necessarily a violation of “freedom” in the view of Freedom House. For instance, when the radical populist president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown in a military coup in 2004, the Washington Post published an article by Adrian Karatnycky justifying the coup. Karatnycky was executive director of Freedom House in 1993, then served as president from 1996 to 2003, after which he became a “senior scholar” at the organisation.

There is a good deal more about Freedom House’s activities that could be mentioned, but the above seems sufficient to make the case that this is not an objective observer of freedom or of anything else. Oh yes, there is one other thing: depending on the year and the source, this “independent” organisation gets between 80 and 96 percent of its funding from the US government.

So Freedom House’s reports on Cambodia or any other place in the world should not be taken at face value. They may be useful as an indication of the political intentions of a certain layer of wealthy and influential people in the United States, but that’s all.

To turn now to Freedom House’s claim that press freedom in Cambodia has declined, the main evidence cited was the “case of independent radio station owner Mam Sonando, who was convicted of sedition and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the outlet’s coverage of land disputes”.

Aside from the fact that Sonando was not sentenced for covering land disputes, but for allegedly helping to organise a secessionist movement, this indicates the danger of annual scorecards based on minimal familiarity with the countries being scored. The scorers employed by Freedom House had presumably been told that Cambodian courts never reverse the conviction of an opponent of the government, and so hadn’t taken that possibility into account: when their report was released, Sonando had already been free for six weeks. Don’t be surprised if, next year, Freedom House claims credit for the Appeals Court decision.

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