John Pilger, high-profile journalist who exposed abuse, dies at 84

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John Pilger, journalist and documentarian who helped expose state-controlled brutality and human rights abuses in Cambodia and East Timor, even as he faced criticism over factual errors and allegations of he allowed his left-wing political views to disproportionately shape his narrative, he died on December 30 in a London hospital. He was 84.

The cause was pulmonary fibrosis, said his son, Sam Pilger.

In columns, articles, books and television documentaries, Mr Pilger campaigned to expose government crime and corruption, traveling the world to report on the Vietnam War, Cambodia’s “killing fields”, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the displaced Palestinians. Gaza and the West Bank. His work brought him several journalistic awards as well as scorn and ridicule, as critics said he was less of a reporter than a policeman, fueled by a belief that Western governments were to blame for some of the worst human rights abuses of the 20th century.

An Australian based in Britain for most of his career, Mr Pilger was quick to distance himself from most reporters in the mainstream media, which he respected as writers for the rich and powerful.

“It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers, without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths surrounding it,” he wrote in 1998. “Top of the list is the myth that we now live in an ‘information age’ – when, in fact, we live in a media age, where the information available iterative, ‘safe’ and limited by invisible boundaries.”

Mr Pilger (pronounced PILL-jer) was only 27, serving as chief foreign correspondent of the Daily Mirror tabloid, when he was honored at the British Press Awards as Journalist of the Year in 1967, nominated for what he got out of the Vietnam War. He was honored with the award a second time for his reporting in 1979 on the Khmer Rouge, the communist regime that ruled Cambodia for four years under the dictator Pol Pot.

Other reporters, including Elizabeth Becker from the Washington Post and Sydney H. Schanberg from the New York Times, had reported on the brutality of the dictator. But Mr Pilger has been widely credited for bringing wider attention to the Cambodian genocide, which claimed the lives of around 2 million people, almost a quarter of the country’s population.

Mr Pilger said he wanted to “put Cambodia back on the human map” through his ​​report, which included articles in the Mirror – a whole issue of the newspaper was dedicated to the work his – and a documentary, “Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia” (1979), directed by his friend David Munro. Filmed in Cambodia shortly after Vietnamese forces removed the Khmer Rouge from power, the documentary featured interviews with survivors, including two artists who, as they made flat busts and portraits of Pol Pot, among the only members of a group of 12,000 people who survived. mass murder, forced labor, starvation and disease.

The film reportedly raised over $45 million in aid to Cambodia, including millions of dollars in small donations collected by British school children.

Mr Pilger and Munro later collaborated on documentaries including “Death of a Nation” (1994), about Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor and the bloody aftermath. The filmmakers secretly arrived in East Timor, posing as officials with a travel company, and used small camcorders to record the aftermath of attacks around the island, including the massacre of up to 200 demonstrators. for independence at a cemetery in Dili, the capital of the country. .

To contemporaries such as Martha Gellhorn, the famous American war correspondent, Mr. Pilger was “a brave and valuable witness of his time.” His journalism earned him honors including a Peabody Award, for the documentary “Cambodia: Year Ten” (1989), about the legacy of the Khmer Rouge; International Emmy Award for “Cambodia: The Betrayal” (1990), about the fear that Pol Pot and his friends will return to power; and the 2009 Sydney Peace Prize, for “enabling the voices of the powerless to be heard.”

But detractors said Mr Pilger’s work was often filled with righteous anger rather than rational analysis, and argued that for all his criticism of Western powers, he tended to overlook mis- co-opted by brutal leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. . Many critics blamed him for the Cambodian genocide, which he laid largely at the feet of American leaders who authorized the bombing of the country during the Vietnam War.

“Cambodia’s Holocaust was as much American as Pol Pot’s,” he wrote in a 1990 feature for the Guardian. The statement represented a case of “moral relativity gone wrong,” the person wrote. -British journalist William Shawcross, who had worked as a reporter in Cambodia, in an essay for the Observer newspaper.

“Pilger often spoils his case by claiming a monopoly of wisdom, by abusing those who disagree with him, by treating feelings as well as facts, and by to see everything through a moving anti-American prism,” Shawcross said. .

Mr Pilger’s journalistic reputation has been tarnished by a number of high-profile investigations, including a defamation case in 1991 in which he was found to have defamed two former British soldiers through one of the his documentaries in Cambodia, which said that the men were training Khmer. Guerrillas Rouge to lay land mines. The London Evening Standard reported that Mr Pilger had never met the two men and “made no attempt to speak” until he met them in court. He agreed to apologize and withdraw, and was reportedly awarded around £100,000 each in damages.

The defamation case followed a disastrous Daily Mirror feature in 1982 written by Mr Pilger about child slavery in Thailand, in which he revealed that he had bought an 8-year-old boy called Sunee – at costing 85 pounds – and then took her with her mother in a small town outside Bangkok. The story gained international attention and was soon shown to be untrue: the Far East Economic Review reported that Mr Pilger had hired a matchmaker, a local taxi driver, to help with the story, and he discovered that the enterprising driver had found a schoolgirl in Bangkok and paid her family to play with the rice.

Mr Pilger said the attempts to discredit the story were “overblown, rude and extreme.” Later he said he was cheated by the fixer. The case prompted Auberon Waugh, journalist and satirist, to coin a new verb: “to pilger,” which he jokingly offered the definition of, “to try to arouse anger by elevated suggestions or absurd” or “moving in a persistent manner. .”

The term made it into a reference book, the Oxford Dictionary of New Words, only for the editors to announce in 1994 that it would be withdrawn from subsequent editions after objections from Mr. Pilgrim.

By then, some of his admirers had tried to reclaim the term. Journalist Phillip Knightley wrote in the Spectator magazine to explain himself: “The word ‘to pilger,'” he said, “means to perceive with insight, compassion and sympathy . “

John Richard Pilger was born in Bondi, a suburb of Sydney, on October 9, 1939. His mother was a school teacher, his father a carpenter and trade unionist.

Mr Pilger started a student newspaper at his high school in Sydney and completed a four-year journalism apprenticeship with Australian Consolidated Press. He wrote for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in Sydney, briefly tried freelance work in Italy and moved to London in 1962, working for Reuters before joining the Daily Mirror as a reporter there. in 1963, just as the tabloid was expanding its coverage of national and foreign affairs. .

Within a few years, he was reporting abroad. He came to the United States to report on civil rights and was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, a US senator and former attorney general, to kill fatally.

Mr Pilger began working on documentaries in the 1970s, dealing with subjects including the devastating effects of thalidomide, a once widely used drug marketed to pregnant women, and history of Aboriginal Australians. He was let go from the Daily Mirror in the mid-1980s, after falling out with new publisher Robert Maxwell, and later worked as a columnist for the New Statesman.

His marriage to Scarth Flett ended in divorce. In addition to his son Sam, a sportswriter, Mr. Pilger is survived by his partner of more than 30 years, Jane Hill; daughter, novelist and art critic Zoe Pilger, from a relationship with journalist Yvonne Roberts; and two grandchildren.

Late in his life, Mr Pilger campaigned for the release of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who is fighting extradition from Britain to the United States and is charged under the Espionage Act. “If Julian Assange is extradited to the United States, the very idea of ​​free journalism is lost,” he told the Independent newspaper in 2021. “No journalist will be a being who wants to challenge strong power and reveal the truth safely.”

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