Keen readers of this blog will be aware of my dismay at the hypocrisy of the western media and its governments. ‘Undemocratic’ regimes make no bones about their philosophy. Like them not, one-party states are clear that their way is what their countries need. Morality, good or bad, does not feature as a justification for what the state does. The West, however, is still afflicted by its colonial past. “What we do is morally right. You must believe in us, or you are evil/ungodly/repressive/backward” – pick your adjective.
In an epic juxtaposition, two media ‘events’ took place recently in the same week in different parts of the world. One involved the closure of ‘a bastion of democracy’; the other, the seizure of 33 web sites operating as ‘criminal, terrorist, fake news, propagators.’ The first took place in Hong Kong SAR, China. The second was ordered by the Department of Justice of the USA. The first hit headlines in the west. The second passed by with little comment from western media.
The ‘Apple Daily’ saga
‘Apple Daily’ was an entrepreneurial Hong Kong newspaper owned by a certain Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong rags-to-riches ‘tycoon’. On Thursday 24th June, ‘Apple Daily’ closed its doors following the arrest of its key editors and reporters – along with the aforesaid Jimmy Lai.
It was accepted that authorities wanted to close Apple Daily. Rumours swirled that the authorities liked the symbolism of getting it done before the centenary celebrations of the Chinese Communist party on 1 July. The operation centred around dozens of unspecified articles that authorities say were part of a conspiracy to have foreign governments impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Beijing, in breach of the National Security Law.
Interestingly, The Guardian, in a review of events after the paper’s closure, highlights one of the activities that might, just, have led to these suspicions:
8 July (2019) – The pro-democracy activist and media mogul Jimmy Lai travels to the US and meets the vice-president, Mike Pence, and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to discuss the proposed extradition bill.
Not surprisingly, China’s foreign ministry released a statement accusing Jimmy Lai of acting as a political tool for foreign forces.
But why did the Apple Daily have to close? On 18th June, The Guardian said:
Assets totalling HK$18m (£1.66m) and accounts containing more than $500m are frozen.
And later a statement from the Apple Daily:
22 June – Next Digital Media (the holding company for the newspaper) says the paper will probably have to close if assets are not released to allow it to pay staff.
But a quick glance at Yahoo Finance shows that Next Digital has been unprofitable for some time. Operating cash flow is negative HK$ 167.5 million. Its profit margin is -21.15%. Ironically, the Hong Kong Government gave the company HK$ 30 million from its business support programme recently – far more than the HK$18 million it froze.
The Hong Kong Government may well have wanted to close Apple Daily as a source of interference in its governance of the city. While we may never know the whole story, the company clearly had been losing money for some time. Its end seems to have been inevitable but had little to do with the ‘crushing of democracy’.
Seizure of Iranian web sites by the USA
The excellent ‘Al Jazeera’ (do read it for balanced news coverage) had this story on 23rd June – the day before Apple Daily closed:
Seized sites include Press TV and Houthi and Palestinian outlets. Move comes amid tense efforts to revive nuclear deal.”
The story referred to an announcement from the USA Department of Justice on 22nd June stating:
Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) announcement explained that components of the government of Iran, to include IRTVU and others like it, disguised as news organizations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations.
This sounds remarkably like Beijing’s denouncement of ‘Apple Daily’. But we know that China did not close ‘Apple Daily’. What do we know about the Iranian and Palestinian sites that the USA closed? (It is a mystery why they used .com domain names when these are generally controlled by the USA.)
Yes, within hours, two of the main news sites were back online using other domains. alalam.ir (in Arabic) and presstv.ir (in English) are now both functioning normally. Browsing their content (with the help of online translation of Alalam) they clearly represent pro-Palestinian, pro-Iranian views. They are critical of the USA in many respects. By no means, however, do they look like terrorist organisations. As for ‘disinformation’ and ‘malign influence’, some would say that most media in most countries engage in this at times, whether accidentally or not.
However, others have a different view. In researching this story, I came across a shadowy organisation called The Camstoll Group.
With our global reach and proven intelligence and analysis platform, we provide governments, financial institutions and corporations with unique insights and sound guidance required to understand and manage risk.
Its officers are almost all former members of the USA Treasury Department.
One of its subsidiaries is Kharon. This means “fierce brightness” and is related to Charon who, in Greek mythology ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx to their final resting place. Kharon conducted an online seminar in 2019 on “Iranian disinformation and media operations”. The graphic explains how Kharon believes that all Iran’s media is linked to the State.
So that’s it then. The Iranians are the bad guys after all; the USA is saving the world for freedom and democracy – yet again. The closure of these web sites did us all a favour.
Not so, says “The Intercept”, ‘an award-winning news organization dedicated to holding the powerful accountable through fearless, adversarial journalism.’ In an article published in 2014, writer Glenn Greenwold refers to the then campaign by the USA to ‘punish’ Qatar for allegedly supporting terrorism. He refers to the backgrounds of the directors of the Camstoll Group in the USA Government and their well-known anti-muslim, right wing, views. Dubai paid the Group large fees to help publicise its campaign against Qatar, Greenwold says.
One of the most critical points illustrated by all this tawdry influence-peddling is the alignment driving so much of US policy in that region. The key principals of Camstoll have hard-core neoconservative backgrounds. Here they are working hand in hand with neo-con journalists to publicly trash a new enemy of Israel, in service of the agenda of Gulf dictators.
That was 2014 and the campaign to punish Qatar. Move on to today and we see the Camstoll Group (aka Kharon) yet again with apparent influence on US Government policy and public opinion, this time against Iran.
If I searched long enough, I could find many more articles and views about both these topics. More details would emerge, more potential scandals and misdeeds would be exposed by ever-diligent media.
We could write it all off as a continuation of The Great Game. These stories were two of the geo-political dramas of the week. Next week there will be others – ministers resigning, royal misbehaviour, football wives. “Nobody believes what they read in the papers, do they?” Who cares?
But, little by little, hypocrisy erodes trust. If a country’s leaders proclaim high ideals, they should abide by them. If it appears that neither politicians, nor the media, in supposedly open and democratic countries can be trusted, it seriously weakens the foundations of democracy itself.