Propaganda dressed as news

How Corporate PR industry misinforms and lies to public in a post truth world.

The fossil fuel industry’s determination to manufacture doubt about global warming illustrates the desperation of the oil, gas and coal producers as the realities of climate change strike home. They have created a network of front organisations which actively engage in lies and misinformation about the realities of climate change. While the campaign is largely driven from within the developed world the global South has also been pulled into this high stakes dirty tricks campaign.Keith Bryer has been a regular columnist for South Africa’s largest newspaper group, Independent Media, for several years. He is published in the group’s Business Report, a daily business supplement distributed inside each of the group’s regional titles, reaching hundreds of thousands of readers. Strangely, neither Bryer, nor Business Report, are willing to disclose whether he is a paid columnist or just a source of free copy.

Bryer spent decades at the centre of the public relations department for British Petroleum (BP) South Africa. Now retired, he is listed as an associate partner of the major London based international PR company, Etoile Partners, a “geopolitical consultancy” (http://www.etoilepartners.com) whose clients include the oil industry and whose remit includes “reputation management”.

Recent revelations by whistleblowers have shown that decades ago the fossil fuel industry already knew more than anybody else about the impact of their products on climate change. (See nose198, The nuclear lie of the land.)

As a result, there is a real risk that companies like ExxonMobil can be held liable not just for covering up the known consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, but for lying about these and then embarking on a cynical long-term campaign to undermine any action to reduce fossil fuel use. The industry faces an unprecedented class action, dwarfing the extent of the punishment meted out to the tobacco industry, which already runs into hundreds of billions of dollars.

Exxon has known of these specific risks since the 1970s – from its own research. Yet despite having developed a scientifically sound model, Exxon not only failed to take action but instead rather chose to spend untold millions of dollars both covering up the facts and actively spreading doubt among the public, politicians and legislators.

Dozens of front organisations were created to push this agenda. Groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, The Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute continue to do so, effectively undermining and stalling meaningful action to address climate change.

The documents released in late 2015 by Inside Climate News and The New Yorker have prompted various US state attorneys, including those of New York, California, Massachusetts and the US Virgin Islands, to start investigations to uncover the fraud and malfeasance. The potential damages pose a threat to the very existence of the industry. The stakes could not be higher.

In order to spread this corporate counter-narrative as widely as possible the fossil fuel industry has exploited the increasingly tightly controlled corporate media conglomerates and the trend toward outsourced news gathering. Most people are unaware that a significant proportion of current news is sourced directly from public relations organisations contracted to multinational corporate interests, while mainstream media outlets simultaneously shrink newsrooms and staff to maximise profitability.

As journalists have declined, the ratio of PR news agency employees to journalists has risen. This media infiltration by vested interests has inevitably skewed the bias, as the flow of public relations masquerading as news swells to a flood. As liberal media baron Randolph Hearst put it, “News is what someone does not want you to print – the rest is advertising.”

This is where PR specialists such as South Africa’s Bryer enter the picture, having spent years fronting up for the fossil fuel industry. Not only does he snidely dismiss and denigrate the very notion of climate change, terming it “so-called,” and an unproven theory caused by the sun; he insists that those calling for action on emissions are “communists and socialists of every stripe” and “latter-day puritans”. These are well-documented tactics, widely employed by the Merchants of Doubt.

Reading Bryer’s articles is like juggling a series of contradictions. In one, he claims coal companies are being wrongly held liable for climate change, in another it’s Exxon that’s liable. He cites pundits like the utterly discredited ex-Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore as a reliable source. He claims dealing with climate change will be prohibitively expensive, yet fails to mention the staggering costs and risks of delayed action to manage the emerging impacts of global warming. Bryer unreservedly supports the oil and nuclear industries, excuses Volkswagen’s emissions fraud, undermines solar and wind-generated alternative energy. Naturally he disagrees vehemently with international agreements to deal with climate change. And as a seasoned PR hack, he spins a convincing story to a largely sympathetic audience.

The extent to which Bryer’s discourse closely parallels the identical narratives emerging elsewhere is telling. A recent example neatly demonstrated his role in this corporate echo chamber. In July 2016 he wrote of how ExxonMobil was forced to defend the liberties of free speech as it sought to counter legal investigations into its lies and cover-ups, as discussed.

Exxon has fought back on several fronts. First, it called in its PR media outlets; second, it engaged in the legal battle; and third, it harnessed tame legislators it has a record of funding. The underlying message was the absurd claim that Exxon’s right to free speech was being undermined and that it was the target of a latter-day witch-hunt by nefarious green groups.

Bryer’s narrative was essentially a cut-and-paste emanating from Exxon’s PR pundits in the USA. As far as I can ascertain Bryer has never indicated in any article he has written his link to Etoile, as an associate partner. Remember, their self-proclaimed job is “reputation management” for the oil and gas industry, among others.

I raised these failures of disclosure with the Press Council of South Africa. Despite pointing out the links between Bryer and the fossil fuel industry the Council insisted Bryer was free to express his opinion and that opinion cannot constitutionally be limited, as it is protected under the rights to free speech. Further appeals that provided detailed material links between Bryer and Etoile were likewise  dismissed, again citing the protected right to free speech.

This is a remarkable ruling on two accounts. First, the Press Code requires balance and the disclosure of vested interests. It stipulates that no intentional distortion or misrepresentation can be made, nor shall commercial interests be allowed to influence or slant reporting.  It also clearly states that conflicts of interest should not undermine the trust of the public in the media.

The fact that a business newspaper failed to disclose these links appears to be a significant moral and ethical lapse of disclosure, notwithstanding the Press Code.

Surely if Bryer’s writings were above-board and simply a reflection of his own opinions – not those he was paid to write for his entire professional life – he would disclose his links to Etoile? And surely Business Report would also feel morally obliged to share this information? Neither did so.

Surely neither he nor his publishers ought to be able to naively claim that he is simply a “retired communications consultant” providing his “opinion” – rather than an active player in the field?

On a more sinister note, Bryer’s role appears entirely consistent with that of the Merchants of Doubt, constantly seeking to cast aspersions, sew discord and undermine opposition to its interests. The first rule of propaganda is to repeat a lie, often; by doing so people start to believe it.

Glenn Ashton

Copyright © 2016 www.noseweek.co.za

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First printed in Noseweek Issue 205, November 2016. Please contact Noseweek for reprint permission via http://www.noseweek.co.za
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Some recent unpublished letters to the newspaper….

I must be losing my touch. It used to be that the newspapers would publish every letter I wrote to the editor. Sometimes this would amount to one or two a month.

For some reason – which I will get to shortly – our local morning daily, the Cape Times, has not published a single letter for quite some time. I am starting to wonder whether I have lost my touch. I do know that there is a new editor and owner and probably a new letters editor, which may have something to do with it.

Perhaps this is not so. Perhaps my letters cut more and more to the real issues and the printed media does not want to deal with the real issues? Maybe it prefers to dabble on the surface and not really immerse itself into the swamp of greed into which the world has sunk.

This may not be so and perhaps the years have transformed me into a verbose, curmudgeonly old fart with nothing worthwhile to say.

In case I am wrong I share the last few letters, with some background context, for those who care to read. After all each of them follow the theme of this blog: trying to make the world a better place. And maybe that is not what newspapers are really about anymore. But that is far too cynical and a dark place to go and visit, no?

Questioning big pharma:

This letter was in response to correspondence which questioned Complimentary Alternative Medicines (CAM), with all of the usual biases shown in that debate around how CAM is unscientific and untested. Which is crap…

I am happy that Sidney Kaye (letters 5 June) wishes to fine-tune his mechanistic body with assistance from the medical industrial complex rather than the world of complementary medicine, or apparently, of common sense.
He may be interested to learn that poor medical practices and medical side effects, also known as iatrogenics, conservatively caused 210 000 deaths per year 2008-2011 in the USA, according to a study published by the Journal of Patient Safety. This was a sharp increase from the 98 000 “lost” in 1999.

A single pharmaceutical, Merck’s “Vioxx,” has been deemed responsible for some 50 000 fatalities. Its forced withdrawal from the market has been credited with saving nearly half a million lives. Over the last three years the US government has fined the pharmaceutical industry alone over $11 billion for illegal sales, marketing, drug contamination and manipulating research.

Conversely, remarkably little research is directed by toward solving our most pressing global health challenges. Malaria research is funded primarily through philanthropic, non-medical sources because industry deems it insufficiently profitable.

Yet a new front line malaria drug, artemisinin, is sourced from a plant, Artemisia annua, as was the first, Quinine. Nearly half of existing pharmaceutical drugs are sourced from plants. Extensive research has been conducted on plant based bio-compounds, thousands indicating proof of efficacy.

I would personally prefer to choose natural and complimentary medicines. They are rarely conclusively linked to contra-indications. When these occur they are usually between plant compounds and chemical pharmaceuticals. These cases are routinely hyped up by the medical-industrial complex, blaming natural medicines, not pharmaceuticals.

South Africa struggles to regulate even conventional pharmaceuticals. The Medicines Control Council (MCC) is essentially dysfunctional. To overburden the MCC by forcing it to regulate harmless, yet often useful complimentary medicines is a reactionary response, actively encouraged misinformed and avaricious interests allied to conventional medicine.

While Kaye may wish to tune his “mechanical” organism through conventional medicine, others clearly prefer to first employ individual approaches. Our increasing knowledge of natural and alternative medicines has provided profound revelations how these substances help maintain the delicate balances within our complex, individual metabolic processes. We are not uniform, Cartesian machines.

Yes, there certainly is a place for conventional, allopathic medicine. But to claim the unalloyed superiority of reductionist Cartesian perspectives appears misplaced. Doctors are not gods, neither is the medical industry infallible.

Most importantly, complimentary, alternative and traditional medicines still have a very real role to play in our lives. It is democratically abhorrent to limit our free choice in this matter.


Next was a long letter which examines the increasingly pro-development bent of our City Council, under the control of the liberal (even neo-liberal) Democratic Alliance, who have rolled out a “red carpet for red tape” for developers:

The excellent reports in your newspaper by (reporters) Melanie Gosling and Zara Nicholson, along with related consequent correspondence in the letters column regarding the alienation of important agricultural land in the Phillipi area for housing and industrial use refers.

The decision by the City of Cape Town Mayoral Committee (Mayco) to allow development in an important component of the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) flies in the face of several established city policies. These include the recently promulgated and widely consultative Spatial Development Framework and its associated city zoning scheme, the groundbreaking Urban Agriculture policy (the first such policy in sub-Saharan Africa), the Integrated Metropolitan Environmental Policy, the Urban Edge as well as several other regional and international policies. It is counterproductive to broadly consult, at great expense, develop policies and then disregard them.

The misleading justifications of this bizarre about face proffered by Cllr. Bloor illustrate three things: Firstly his poor grasp of integrated planning principles, exacerbated by a poor comprehension of what constitutes a sustainable city; secondly, his unsuitability as a committee member for Economic, Environmental and Spatial Planning (EESP) and finally and most seriously, the inherent conflict between political party funding, combined with the toxic relationship between the Western Cape Property Development Forum (WCPDF) and the DA, city and provincial authorities with their “red carpet for red tape” policy. I will deal with each of these serious issues in turn.

Urbanisation is a major global trend, although it is predicted to slow in South Africa. Cities, long perceived as unsustainable entities, have been re-imagined to provide emerging models for sustainable development. For this to occur cities need to fulfil several criteria, including due care of environmental resources, in this case those related to urban food security. Cities are unsustainable if they simply import food from distant areas.

Philippi is therefore a critical environmental resource. It produces more than 90 000 tonnes of food per year, on around 1500 hectares of land, through up to 5 crops per annum. This land is amongst the most productive in the country, yielding on average over 50 tonnes per hectare. To even consider building on land of this quality, especially when there are numerous other alternatives already identified in the area, not only epitomises unsustainable practice, it borders on the criminally insane. Mayco ought to relocate, en masse, to a familiar urban landmark with a green roof (the local asylum) for even considering this development proposal.

Second, Councillor Bloor appears unable to differentiate his categorically conflicted roles on the EESP. His pursuit of economic development through house and industrial development illustrates a constrained world view. He is clearly ill-equipped and untrained to represent environmental interests, which fundamentally conflict with the objectives of economic development, especially when viewed through his lens of economics training. Like most conventional neo-liberal economists, especially adherents of the discredited Chicago and Austrian schools which he aligns himself with as a member of the Mount Pelerin Society, he believes that the environment both stands in the way of economic growth, while simultaneously providing huge economic benefits through exploitation. This thinking highlights the disjuncture in his official position.

If Cape Town is to become a sustainable city – and we are most certainly a long way from one at present – we have to pursue and encourage sustainable practices. The PHA, which supplies half of our fresh vegetables, is an essential part of our city’s foodbowl. Bloor’s colleague Cllr. Smit likewise shows an inability to recognise the contradictions in his thinking, which appears to be that if there is uncontrolled squatting, let’s not control it but simply use it as justification for further development outside the designated urban edge. This is akin to allowing developers let large tracts of land go to ruin under alien vegetation and then claim it has no intrinsic botanical value hence should be developed. Instead of going down that particular rabbit hole, we should rather police the urban edge, not permit uncontrolled squatting or loss of agricultural land.

Finally and possibly most importantly we need to follow the money. The reality is that party political funding is the Achilles heel of our democratic system, across the board. This has been demonstrated by the ANC with its Chancellor house relationships and also by the DA with its chequebook influenced decision making structures.

Elected DA representatives are not simply expected to attract funding, they are impelled to do so. Failure brings censure and possible loss of lucrative positions. The relationship between the DA, councillors, officials and the WCPDF is inherently conflictual. The WCPDF even goes so far as to declare that it aims to become a statutory body. Imagine that; development policy dictated by developers.

The cosy relationship between councillors, officials, decision makers and the WCPDF is unacceptable. It actively undermines the intents and purposes of the agreed upon Spatial Development Framework, notably the aspects that deal with agriculture and the concept of sustainability.

That the WCPDF has been granted direct access to power is at odds with open democracy. This relationship undermines transparent public participation, especially given that there is no countervailing information flow with civil society organisations and representatives.

In reality we do not have a city that works for us. Instead our city works for developers, who lobby and undermine public processes in return for short term capital gain and profits.

A strong argument can be made that there should be public hearings, if not a commission of enquiry into the relationship between the WCPDF and the DA, our elected representatives, city officials and other decision makers. This is an unhealthy relationship which must be curtailed.


The next was along similar lines, questioning why the city has even considered an unsolicited bid to build a massive exurb to the north of Cape Town, driven by the same development interests:

A number of events lead me to a firm conclusion that environmental planning and developmental analysis in this city is under unprecedented attack through collusion between political and commercial interests.

The first event is the out- of-the-blue initiative by a consortium of developers to initiate a massive exurb on the northern periphery of Cape Town. This initiative has been roundly condemned by all well informed independent planning academics and experts. It is doubly ironic that the consortium made this proposal on the virtual eve of Cape Town becoming the design capital of the world in 2014 – nothing could be as far removed from good design as this pretentious pustule of poor planning.

The second is the increasing cosiness between the DA led City and Province and the Western Cape Property Development Forum (WCPDF). The proposed “red carpet” to smooth planning proposals, while ostensibly sensible, is simultaneously a massive threat to proper integrated planning, as evinced above. The stated goal of the WCPDF is to become “A body that represents development that is recognized by authorities and which will ultimately become a statutory recognised body.” Its tentacles already appear to control too many administrative levers of power.

To even consider having a forum, guided, run and controlled by property developers as a statutory, recognised body should send chills down our collective backs. This is centralised planning epitomised. The reality behind party political funding should ring additional alarm bells in our collective conscience.

The third event is the unilateral concentration of planning administration in the City in one central office, removing planning decision making from the various sub-councils. This and the gutting of SPELUM, the Spatial Planning, Environment and Land Use Management Committee by the mayoral executive committee are even more sinister from a democratic perspective.

The fourth and final warning bell is the tabling of a Proposed Amendments to Systems
of Delegations for Economic, Environmental and Spatial Planning before the City Council in order to further facilitate planning centralisation in the city. In this proposal, one individual, the Executive Director: Economic, Environmental and Spatial Planning will effectively hold centralised control over all metropolitan planning authority.

What appears to be underway is an unprecedented takeover of the planning and development of our city by developers and building companies which hold massive power through their non-transparent funding of political parties and power. The Competition Commission has already investigated the building industry for collusion and found it wanting. What is emerging is the potential for collusion and corruption on an almost unimaginable scale.

All of the above is profoundly undemocratic and is counter to our fundamental constitutional rights. Section 152 of the Constitution states that “The objects of local
government are to provide democratic and accountable government for local communities.” What is occurring, let alone what is proposed, is the very antithesis of this. It is also antithetical to the proper administration of the Municipal Systems act which must provide democratic and accountable local government that encourages community involvement.

The DA led City and Province effectively indicate a desire to enable developers and construction firms to undermine our collective democratic rights. This is in line with that parties liberal principles which prioritise unfettered business and commercial rights, in this case from an urban planning and development perspective. This is not speculation – the evidence is clear.

The DA is simply showing its true colours as a profoundly anti-democratic party which supports the interests of free and unfettered enterprise above and beyond those of individual or of collective constitutional rights. A collective Princess Vlei awaits us all, a chilling situation indeed.


This next letter was a broadside at our monopoly power producer Eskom, the fifth largest power producer in the world and the third largest emitter of CO2, along with our coal to oil converter, Sasol, which runs the worlds biggest single point emitter of CO2 in Secunda. These two entities are both attempting to avoid clean air regulation.

Your editorial of Friday October 4, “Air waves”, refers.

It is beyond the pale that long-term polluters like Eskom and Sasol, who have each enjoyed years of externalising the costs and impacts of their activities on humans and the environment, have the temerity to apply for exemptions to the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act (NEMAQA).

Both Sasol and Eskom rely on coal as feedstock. Coal is the dirtiest fuel on the planet, bar none. Considering the cost of the impacts of mercury emissions from coal alone, South Africa is the second largest emitter of mercury in the world after China. Mercury is a persistent, cumulative toxin, with serious health impacts. Neither is mercury coal’s only serious pollutant.

Industry has delayed the implementation of NEMAQA for years through legal appeals against the law and its regulations, which effectively remain ongoing. Representatives from the energy, chemicals, petroleum, cement and forestry sectors have thrown huge resources at weakening and delaying the implementation of meaningful regulation of dangerous airborne pollution, placing profit above public interest and benefit.

A similar situation occurred in 1980’s in the USA when the government sought to limit sulphur emissions that caused acid rain in Canada. The power utilities fought tooth and nail against any regulation. Yet when emissions were eventually controlled, the costs over the first decade came to between $8 and $9 billion. The benefits were valued at between $101 and $119 billion – a ten-fold benefit.

We have good environmental laws. We can no longer be held to ransom by obstructionist industries which profit by externalising the impacts of their activities. Besides the inherent immorality of the matter is that these large corporations are squandering our own, limited public resources by shamelessly spending vast sums to endlessly delay the due and proper implementation of an act signed into law almost a decade ago.

Aristide: Wrong hemisphere, wrong time

Aristide; wrong hemisphere, wrong time.

Glenn Ashton

May 2004

(Note: I repost this older article in light of the comment made by Bill Clinton that they had screwed up in Haiti and that he regretted his role in US intervention in this nation).

Jean Bertrand Aristide was, in 1990, the hope of Haiti, a shining light emerging from the clergy to usher that benighted nation from its US supported Duvalier nightmare into a new democratic future. There was however one problem; he was a socialist, a man of the people, an egalitarian leader.

Haiti is separated from Cuba by only a narrow channel. Like Cuba until the 1950s, it has long been reliant on its economic ties to the USA, both from funds repatriated by Haitians living in the US and as a source of cheap labour for sweatshops and plantations. In 1990 it appeared to the US to be headed in the same direction as Cuba.

US Navy vessels entered Haitian waters 24 times between 1849 and 1913, to “protect American lives and property”, according to Noam Chomsky. Thus was Haitian sovereignty ignored under the Munroe doctrine. This doctrine was adopted by US President Munroe in 1823, when the that regional giant began to flex its regional muscle, declaring the ‘Western Hemisphere’ out of bounds to European intervention. This early phase of US unilateralism in the region led to the famous ‘Banana Republics’ of Central America, ruled by appointees of the US-owned that supported their interests, primarily the Standard Fruit and United Fruit Companies. The Monroe doctrine was the start of the US marking the greater Caribbean basin as ‘American turf’.

Aristide’s emphasis on social rights immediately put him on the wrong side of Washington. Just as popular movements were crushed in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – the old Banana republics – in the 1980s (mainly by paramilitary hit squads trained at the infamous US run “School of the Americas” in Panama which has relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia and remains active today), so too was Aristide a marked man from day one.

Aristide got 67% of the vote; his US backed, ex-World Bank official Mark Bazin received only 14% of the vote. Aristide came to power in February 1991 and was deposed seven months later, in a US backed coup.

Aristide’s brief rule began to move toward participative, bottom up democratic government, according to Noam Chomsky. However his populism so threatened US interests that he was deposed. After his ouster, an all-out campaign was engaged by both the Haitian army and hired thugs to stamp out the nascent civil society activity. Deeply involved were two individuals who were directly connected to the CIA, Raul Cedras and Emmanuel Constant, of whom more later.

Thousands were killed and the Organisation of American States (OAS) declared sanctions against the illegal rule in Haiti. The US promptly declared its 800 companies involved in Haiti exempt from such sanctions. The next few years saw a period of repression as bad as than that of the Duvalier thugocracy, when their dreaded Tonton Macoutes were allowed free rein in a reign of terror. From 1991 until 1994 it was US inspired, if not supported, proxy forces that engaged in crushing this new social movement. An estimated four to five thousand people were killed in this oppression led by Cedras, Constant and others with direct links to US agencies.

Aristide remained in exile during this time. He was returned to power after extensive international pressure forced US intervention to allow the duly elected head of a democratic state to fulfil his mandate. Additionally, the ongoing international and domestic outcry about the Haitian boat people, literally dying to escape the horror of Haiti, helped tip the scale.

With irony piled upon irony, Aristide was returned to his leadership of Haiti by the same US forces that similtaneously gave amnesty to Constant and many of his thugs. The US also removed extensive documentation from the Haitian armed forces and security services to the US mainland. Both the Bush I and Clinton presidencies refused to part with these documents until names of US citizens were removed. Nobody has even bothered to ask Bush II.

Aristide was forced to accept a wealthy scion as Prime Minister in 1994 and was instructed to institute neo-liberal structural reforms as set out by the US and international financial institutions. This was also, true to pattern, supported by the wealthy classes in Haiti, the traders, plantation owners and assembly line operators, in order to promote a more ‘investor friendly’ climate, supported amongst others by US Aid.

Aristide was thus politically compromised. His constituency wanted fair reward for their labour while his US aligned opponents reverted to their old tactics of political disruption by thugs. Aristide’s supporters countered this and the chaotic stalemate hampered any significant progress along the lines that Aristide and his supporters sought.

Aristide nevertheless tried to continue to put his vision of democracy in place and managed to hold elections in 2000 that were largely fair and free and in which he was again elected by a comfortable majority. The opposition largely boycotted this election over a dispute about the positions of some of their senatorial candidates, in what was essentially a distraction that enabled his opponents to call foul about the elections.

Against this background of instability and external interference, the ante was upped by the return of Emannuel Constant’s men to the border regions of the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s poverty-stricken eastern neighbour. The insurrection picked up momentum. The entire nation slid towards chaos, that was clearly not of Aristide’s making but was driven by external forces aligned to US interests.

In amongst all of this chaos came the celebration of Haiti’s 200 years of independence at the beginning of 2004. This event puts it amongst the oldest independent – nominally, at least – democratic nations. President Mbeki, in an act of solidarity, supported this important event on behalf of the African Diaspora. We must not forget that Haitians overthrew the European plantation owners in a struggle for freedom that began at the end of the 18th century and which continues to this day. The implications of the Haitian example for Africa are profound. It can be strongly argued that our President was correct to both support the Haitian bicentennial celebrations and to invite Aristide to South Africa in his time of need.

After (and apparently during) the South African visit, public order deteriorated rapidly and the US-inspired ‘intervention’, widely regarded as a coup, led to Aristide finding himself on an aircraft to Africa, in an ironic reverse of the slave route that brought his ancestors to the West Indies.

Aristide was not the awful leader that he has been made out to be. He was hardly in any position to run a model democracy but given the blighted history of Haiti his rule was benign. He built more schools in his country during the few years of his rule than had been built in the previous history of Haiti. He allowed unionisation and worker rights. He put a cost-effective public administration in place but vested local and external interests actively undermined his grassroots version of democracy.

The saga of the little priest, Bertrand Artistide is one that has strong resonance with our own liberation movement. It echoes our hopelessness in the time of Apartheid. But Aristide’s real problem is that Haiti is simply situated in the wrong hemisphere to install a people-centred government. The proximity of Haiti in relation to Cuba, the US and Venezuela emphasises its geopolitical strategic value. When Bush II was installed, right wing Haitian expatriates and businessmen gained the ear of the administration and effectively sealed Aristide’s fate.

Had Aristide been the leader of an African nation he would have been hailed as a visionary leader, as someone committed to the rights of the people, a considered man who would have been supported by the First World. He was after all a community priest, someone who lived amongst his people and knew them and what they wanted. He was the reluctant leader of a popular experiment in participative democracy, something that we should all celebrate. Instead he was portrayed as a revolutionary working against the interests of the regional superpower and was mercilessly crushed, crushing the democracy he sought with him. He was the right man, doing the right thing, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The present dynamic in Haiti points to a hopeful outcome. Brazil and other regional nations are involved in restoring stability under UN mandate. South Africa too has a role to play by assisting this elected head of state to return to his nation when peace and order have been restored.

It is just and correct that a nation with the moral reputation of South Africa welcome President Bertrand Aristide of Haiti with dignity and hospitality. It is also high time that those who question our largesse properly examine the real history of the corruption of Haiti.

Glenn Ashton lived in the Caribbean Basin for three years during the 80s and 90s, observing the influences and results of post-colonialism and neo-colonialism in the region.

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The Tragedy of Equatorial Guinea – political slave to the resource curse

Note- this is an article I wrote ten years ago, back in June 2004. Since then the situation has deteriorated in this country with the Nguema family still firmly in control, politically and economically. It is not only the timber that is being stripped but the vast resources of oil being sold to western, mainly US, companies, without the slightest complaint about the political status quo; in fact the leadership attended the recent Africa US summit in Washington. It was originally published as a leader in the Cape Times.

Reposted 7 August 2014.


Follow the Money; Equatorial Guinea

by Glenn Ashton

27 June 2004

A decade ago, few people had even heard of Equatorial Guinea, let alone knew where it was. Guinea, Guinea-Bissau yes, perhaps; but Equatorial Guinea? That was, until the late 1990s, when large oil deposits were discovered off its coast and it was catapulted from its position as a sleepy, poorly run African backwater into the third biggest oil producer in Africa.


South Africans gained closer familiarity with Equatorial Guinea when a group of South African mercenaries were arrested in Harare, allegedly en route from South Africa to Equatorial Guinea to stage a coup on behalf of forces unknown, but said to come from opponents to the Nguema family. Obiang Nguema has run this impoverished country with an iron fist since the 1970s. He came to power by deposing his despised Uncle Francisco Macias.


Political accountability and democratic governance remains a distant dream for this blighted nation which could politely be referred to as a plutocracy but what could more plainly be called a kleptocracy. This kleptocracy is noteworthy given the beneficiaries of the oil boom and timber extraction, certainly not the populace of that nation. There have been elections, but there have also been hangings of opposition members, as well as allegations of torture and the extra-judicial killing of opponents. Over one third of the population of Equatorial Guinea lives in exile, with deep-seated opposition to the Nguema dynasty widespread both within and outside the country.


Recently the South African connection deepened when the son of Obiang Nguema, Teodoro (aka Teodorin) Nguema Obiang, bought two very pricey properties in Cape Town, one each in Clifton and Bishopscourt, at a combined price of over R50 million. Teodorin Nguema, besides being the son of the president, is also the minister of Forestry for Equatorial Guinea.


Most would consider this an unimportant post until one considers the importance of forestry to Equatorial Guinea. This tiny nation, nestled between Cameroon and Gabon on the Gulf of Guinea, is mostly swathed by lush tropical forest. Make that ‘was’.


Equatorial Guinea is comprised of a total area of around 28, 000 square kilometres, smaller than Lesotho but larger than Swaziland. Of this area, 22, 000 square kilometres of Equatorial Guinea was forested up to a decade ago. Of this, a total 15, 000 square kilometres has been allocated to industrial logging.


Wood is an increasingly valuable global commodity. Sustainable timber extraction is estimated at approximately 400, 000 cubic meters of timber annually. This level was reached in 1996, and in 1997 an estimated 757,173 cubic metres of timber was exported. Presently an estimated 1 million cubic meters of timber are being removed from these forests annually. The entire ecological balance of the region is being irretrievably damaged by this exploitation and EU and US based watchdog organisations have raised concerns at the highest levels about the present state of affairs. And Teodorin is the man in direct charge of this overexploitation of his nations’ resources.


Eighty to ninety percent of the total population of about half a million Equatorial Guineans rely on the forest for food, medicine, shelter, fuel and for other necessities of life. While there are laws that are supposed to protect the forests and limit overexploitation, these are reportedly widely ignored. Timber companies have failed to support even token projects that favour the forest dwellers. Encroachment on traditional lands is further increasing the pressures on rotations amongst small-scale farms in the remaining patches of forest, causing further overexploitation and unsustainable use.


Organisations like the World Rainforest Movement report that the forest resources are being depleted for the benefit of Trans-national corporations while local residents are deprived of their means to livelihood.


As in other places where logging has been allowed, it is not only the forest that suffers, it is the entire ecosystem. The bushmeat trade increases as access into pristine areas is enabled by logging roads moving ever further into the rainforests. Possibilities for exposure to haemorrhagic fevers, unknown viruses and other diseases are proven to increase when logging opens up wilderness areas. Guidelines on keeping slopes free from logging are evidently being ignored and experts warn that this overexploitation is an environmental disaster in the making, with ecological collapse as its inevitable result.


Teordorin is reputed to have close ties to Shimmer International, a subsidiary of the Malaysian Trans-national logging company Rimbunan Hijau. The World Rainforest Movement quotes Richard Wilcox’s study “Asian Economies Fuel Forest Meltdown”, saying that “Rimbunan Hijau has become one of the most ruthless logging companies in the world”, due to abuses of national laws and regulations, human rights violations and contractual breaches. Several other equally disreputable corporations are also involved in this pillage of the resource.


If only a fraction of this story were true, it would be incumbent upon the South African government to investigate this matter. What sort of people do we allow to purchase property here? Surely it is unacceptable to allow such questionably sourced funds to move freely into a legitimate marketplace? Is Financial Intelligence Act (FICA) not designed for precisely such extra-legal practices? Does SA, as a driver of NEPAD, not have an obligation to act in this case and more importantly, to be seen to act to promote democratic governance in Equatorial Guinea? A reasonable person would surely argue that there is little difference between controlling the illicit funds of drug barons and those in places of power who exploit and abuse agreed international standards for environmental governance for self-enrichment and who have acted against their national interest.


The amount of over R50 million appears to have a high likelihood of being tainted by environmental and human rights abuses. An important part of the tropical rainforest in Central Africa is rapidly being depleted to fund the undemocratic leadership of what is claimed to be one of the most corrupt regimes in Africa.


Just as FICA should be applied in this case, so too the principles of good governance as espoused by NEPAD should also be brought to bear in the form of African diplomatic pressure and sanction. Equatorial Guinea has recently gained the resources that should allow its people to be lifted from poverty en masse. To allow the wealth of a nation with a sixth of the population of Cape Town to be squandered on vulgar, opulent mansions, amongst the most expensive in Africa, appears bereft of any moral or ethical principle. Such a situation should not be countenanced by nations like South Africa that purport to promote good governance.


What is presently happening in Equatorial Guinea will inevitably have disastrous long-term effects on that nation. Just as its oil has been found to be monopolised by its tiny elite, so too is its timber. Are South Africans prepared to allow the reputation of their nation to be degraded by offering haven to such people? By all appearances Teodorin stands as an antithesis to the very tenets of freedom and democracy, so hard fought for and held so dear by South Africans. Can South Africans be seen to sell their soul for silver tainted by mud and blood? What sort of message does this send to the world?


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Time to change how economics is taught.

A Demand from Students around the World: Change Economics Education Now!

By Glenn Ashton · 19 Jun 2014

A remarkable thing is happening in the world of economics. Dissatisfied students from various institutions around the world insist that the dominant economics curriculum must change, as it inadequately reflects, or deals with, our current economic realities. They clearly realise that real change occurs from within.

These students demand changes that not only reflect our post-2008 economic crash world, but further insist that the entire theoretical economics framework and curriculum be fundamentally revised. A deep distrust of the dominant neo-classical economic model has emerged. This has spurred these young economists in training to ask how the subject can become relevant for all, not just the few.

Mainstream economic theory has been under increased scrutiny for quite some time. Alternative economic concepts have been reinforced through the work of more socially oriented economists like Nobel Prize winners Amartya Sen, Elinor Ostrum, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. These, amongst others, have led to a marked shift away from the strict current emphasis on neo-classical economics as taught amongst most major educational institutions, towards a more pluralistic perspective.

The New Economics Foundation was founded in the United Kingdom in 1986. It trenchantly criticised the illegitimacy of the dominant economic hegemony. It predicted the inevitable consequences of pursuing neo-classical economics, particularly highlighting its inability to adequately address social inequality and environmental consequences.

Even distinctly counter-cultural economic movements like the Degrowth movement have gained broader consideration. This has accelerated since 2008, when governments indulged in large-scale bailouts of ostensibly free market institutions with tax-payers money.

In 2010 George Soros, the philanthropist entrepreneur who spectacularly demonstrated his grasp of practical economics by gaming the international financial system, founded the Institute for New Economic Thinking. This has served to reinvigorate the debate about broadening economic perspectives, even though it too has come under criticism for its constrained perspective.

The first rumblings of unhappiness around the economics curricula emerged from the US, where a small number of students walked out of a Harvard economics class in 2011 in solidarity with the global “Occupy” protests against growing inequality. This brief dissent failed to translate into substantial changes.

However, in the UK students at the Universities of Glasgow and Manchester formed organisations to directly address concerns with their economics syllabus in 2012. The Glasgow Real World Economics Society and the University of Manchester Post Crash Economics Society were soon joined by students from other august UK institutions, like Oxbridge and the London School of Economics. These, along with dozens of other members have created a formal global alliance known as the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics.

This initiative has managed to penetrate beyond its old world base, notably into Latin America and the Indian subcontinent, along with Australia, Russia and the USA. It has yet to be seen how influential the movement becomes but some progress has emerged in curriculum reform in the UK in particular, despite predictable resistance from mainstream economic thinkers against what is seen as an upstart student-led organisation.

Surprisingly the trend has yet to emerge in Africa, even as economic inequality continues to rack the continent. The only hint at change, The Young Economists for Africa, appears to have been stillborn, becoming moribund soon after its launch in 2012. This is unfortunate, especially given the continental impacts of structural adjustment, coupled to ever-accelerating neo-colonialism.

But exactly what are these students asking for?

Their primary objections revolve around the fundamental reliance on neo-classical economics. This focuses on early economic foundations which solidified in the early 20th century, based largely upon Adam Smith’s 18th century magnum opus, “The Wealth of Nations.” It emphasises the ascendance of a rational market, driven by competition. Our present economic malaise is blamed on this model, propelled by sentiments like “greed is good,” driven by a reductionist, Newtonian perspective.

Yet 17 years before the “Wealth of Nations,” Smith penned a lesser-known treatise, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Instead of emphasising competition and rationality, his theory favoured co-operation rather than competition, reciprocity and fairness instead of the “rational” pursuit of value.

The initiative for economic pluralism insists we should, amongst other things, consider these critical aspects of economics. The University of Manchester Post Crash Institute points out that even mainstream economists like John Maynard Keynes remain marginalised in current university teaching, let alone Marx or Sen, Ostrum and their fellow post-Keynesians.

They insist, in what essentially serves as their manifesto, that higher economics teaching requires urgent reform in order to become relevant. More importantly a good education must produce graduates fit to operate in a far more nuanced and complex world, than one based upon the theory they are currently taught.

They insist that students must be given opportunities to analyse and compare these emerging economic theories. Such comparative analytical opportunities would equip them to discern differences between what constitutes good and bad economic theory and practice.

This leads in turn to the trend amongst higher educational institutions to encourage interdisciplinary research. Universities increasingly encourage broader experiential learning through incorporating inter-, multi- and trans-disciplinary opportunities into their curricula. Economics is by its very nature transdisciplinary, including, inter alia, aspects of sociology, mathematics, science and psychology.

Yet perhaps the very nature of economics (is it a science, art or social study, for instance?), its newness, along with the marked tensions between factions, perhaps all combine to create a degree of internal rigidity and uncertainty? Does this not encourage an internalised rather than outward looking perspective, and the consequent suspicion of multidisciplinarity?

Economics currently attracts students inspired by the questions asked by Occupy protestors, by those espousing degrowth, new economics or even the popularity of “Freakonomics.” They are increasingly savvy as to the underlying nuances of economic thought and while academic rigour is essential, diversity is equally important.

Any education must be integrated in order to equip graduates to participate in the real world. Any academic institution does itself a disservice by diluting its relevance through defensiveness, rather than exposition and interrogation of what actually makes the world of economics real.

If students are to be equipped beyond the cliché of “the dismal science” – and current, mainstream economic theory remains dismally incapable of meeting our needs – then they must receive the most complete training possible. If graduates are to effect change they must be able to deal with, and hopefully solve the dire social and environmental challenges we collectively face. They certainly cannot, and will not, remain confined within stagnant academic backwaters.


This article was first published on SACSIS, the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service – http://www.sacsis.org.za
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Bread and Circuses – how we are distracted from reality by modern media

Bread and Circuses: How dystopian fantasy distracts us from our dystopian reality.

By Glenn Ashton

16 July 2014

Two millennia ago the Roman commentator Juvenal wrote of “panem et circensis,” bread and circuses, to demonstrate how the masses had abandoned political responsibility in exchange for full bellies and extreme entertainment. In Juvenal’s times entertainment was of the gladiatorial variety.
Today the violence of gladiators has been replaced by sports heroes and teams where rules constrain the violence, or by cinema and television featuring violence as gratuitous as the Coliseum, watched while we munch junk food, distracted from our dystopian reality.
We live in a time of peril. The danger is not so much the shadowy extremists portrayed mass media or Hollywood movie themes as it is a function our economic system which drives human and environmental exploitation, creating inequality, pollution and climate change. Those capable of realising change apparently choose distraction rather than action.
Suzanne Collins denies she wrote “The Hunger Games” series as a protest against our dystopian world. Yet our reality eerily echoes her fictional nation Panem (yes, bread!), where the one percenters in the capitol monopolise global resources while keeping the colonial serfs in line through military power and violent entertainment. However Collins does admit to drawing inspiration from the way in which war and so-called reality TV has become a seamless continuum.
Humans are good at self-distraction. Historically we blamed our ills on malicious deities or fate. Before we adopted the trappings of so-called western civilisation and monotheistic religions, we danced sacred dances or performed ritual ceremonies to celebrate or assuage the wrath of the gods. We discovered, and continue to use drugs and alcohol to enhance or blunt our perception.
Our modern world demands our constant attention. We are immersed in a web of instant messaging, email and social networks, effectively a seamless media feed. We are simultaneously informed and misinformed. The lines between reality and fantasy, real war and computer simulation are increasingly blurred. We are intentionally distracted from the shadows flitting across the walls of reality, while big brother peers over our shoulders.
This distraction is necessary to divert our attention from the great lie of the impossible premise of endless growth in a world of limited resources, of dwindling forests, grasslands and marine resources. Plastics and pollution clog planetary arteries; toxins saturate land and water; fossil fuel emissions pollute our atmosphere. This all adds up to what is termed a polycrisis. Some recognise the threat, but most appear to prefer to remain distracted as the easier option.
The varieties of distraction are instructive. They are not exemplified as much by the candy coated rom-coms about vacuous idols living the American dream as by disaster movies, where everything is to blame for human troubles except (occasionally) for anything similar to the actual threats we face.
The updated version of “Godzilla” provides a useful example as to the variety of available distraction. We have the frantic hero yelling about this lizard/dinosaur sending everyone back to the stone age, itself an ironic nod to US general Le May’s threat to bomb Vietnam back to the stone age.
In “Transformers – Age of Extinction,” cities are threatened by absurd robot aliens rather than the realities of fragile food and water supply chains. Then there is the “Edge of Tomorrow,” where the diminutive hero repeatedly gets to blow up illusionary threats from the future, instead of dealing with the causes. Pompeii does show natural disaster, but with nature as deity, as in Vulcan.
And these are just the latest big budget distractions from the real and present danger we face. It is not lizards we should fear but far more tangible threats like economic and ecological collapse.
The OECD recently warned of diminished growth and ecological risk as we hit the limits to growth toward mid-century. Just as we are co-responsible for wantonly destroying global ecosystems in the pursuit of profit, we are equally complicit in failing to act against increasing inequality that Thomas Piketty shows to threaten social stability. The reality is that we have devised inadequate responses to our polycrisis.
It would be trite to claim that relevant social commentary is absent from entertainment media. The point is we remain as prone to the allure of bread and circuses, of sports extravaganzas, junk movies and food, as were the citizens of ancient Rome while the elite compromised the empire. We all know what happened to Rome.
It is painful to face up to failure, particularly when surrounded by the evidence of dysfunction. The alcoholic, the sociopath and the drug addict are the last to seek help, usually after alienating those who mean the most to them. So too with plutocracy and empire. Can we continue to allow ourselves to be co-opted by those distracting us with their bread and circuses?
In 2011 the celebrity philosopher Slavoj Zisek asked the Occupy Wall Street protestors, “We know what we do not want, but what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want? Remember: The problem is not corruption or greed; the problem is the system which pushes you to be corrupt.”
We know our system is rotten and failing us in almost every possible way. It is ecologically and economically fragile. Yet what we spend on war could bring peace to the world many times over, shift us from unsustainable resource exploitation toward ecosystem restoration and provide real growth for all. Contradictorily, those who seek change, in any form – environmental, social or economic – are portrayed as the enemy.
If we are to change the system we need to look beyond the circuses of the big and little screens and the junk dished up as bread, which stunts us intellectually, spiritually and literally. As analyst Nassim Taleb loves to remind us, “If you see fraud and don’t shout fraud, you are a fraud.”
Mary Pipher’s recent book “The Green Boat” elegantly showed how engaged and linked communities, from local, to regional, to national level can indeed begin to change the system. Meaningful change requires overt rejection of contemporary bread and circuses. If not, we will be complicit with the fraud perpetrated upon us.

This article was first published on SACSIS – http://www.sacsis.org.za – on the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 South Africa License