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John Pilger: The strange silencing of liberal America

Obama's greatest achievement is having seduced, co-opted and silenced much of liberal opinion in the US.

How does political censorship work in liberal societies? When my film Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia was banned in the United States in 1980, the broadcaster PBS cut all contact. Negotiations were ended abruptly; phone calls were not returned. Something had happened. But what? Year Zero had already alerted much of the world to Pol Pot's horrors, but it also investigated the critical role of the Nixon administration in the tyrant's rise to power and the devastation of Cambodia.

Six months later, a PBS official told me: "This wasn't censorship. We're into difficult political days in Washington. Your film would have given us problems with the Reagan administration. Sorry."

In Britain, the long war in Northern Ireland spawned a similar, deniable censorship. The journalist Liz Curtis compiled a list of more than 50 television films that were never shown or indefinitely delayed. The word "ban" was rarely used, and those responsible would invariably insist they believed in free speech.

The Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, believes in free speech. The foundation's website says it is "dedicated to cultural freedom, diversity and creativity". Authors, film-makers and poets make their way to a sanctum of liberalism bankrolled by the billionaire Patrick Lannan in the tradition of Rockefeller and Ford.

The foundation also awards "grants" to America's liberal media, such as Free Speech TV, the Foundation for National Progress (publisher of the magazine Mother Jones), the Nation Institute and the TV and radio programme Democracy Now!. In Britain, it has been a supporter of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, of which I am one of the judges. In 2008, Patrick Lannan backed Barack Obama's presidential campaign. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, he is "devoted" to Obama.

World of not-knowing

On 15 June, I was due in Santa Fe, having been invited to share a platform with the distinguished American journalist David Barsamian. The foundation was also to host the US premiere of my new film, The War You Don't See, which investigates the false image-making of warmakers, especially Obama.

I was about to leave for Santa Fe when I received an email from the Lannan Foundation official organising my visit. The tone was incredulous. "Something has come up," she wrote. Patrick Lannan had called her and ordered all my events to be cancelled. "I have no idea what this is all about," she wrote.

Baffled, I asked that the premiere of my film be allowed to go ahead, as the US distribution largely depended on it. She repeated that "all" my events were cancelled, "and this includes the screening of your film". On the Lannan Foundation website, "cancelled" appeared across a picture of me. There was no explanation. None of my phone calls was returned, nor subsequent emails answered. A Kafka world of not-knowing descended.

The silence lasted a week until, under pressure from local media, the foundation put out a terse statement that too few tickets had been sold to make my visit "viable", and that "the Foundation regrets that the reason for the cancellation was not explained to Mr Pilger or to the public at the time the decision was made". Doubts were cast by a robust editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican. The paper, which has long played a prominent role in promoting Lannan Foundation events, disclosed that my visit had been cancelled before the main advertising and previews were published. A full-page interview with me had to be pulled hurriedly. "Pilger and Barsamian could have expected closer to a packed 820-seat Lensic [arts centre]."

The manager of The Screen, the Santa Fe cinema that had been rented for the premiere, was called late at night and told to kill all his online promotion for my film. He was given no explanation, but took it on himself to reschedule the film for 23 June. It was a sell-out, with many people turned away. The idea that there was no public interest was demonstrably not true.

Symptom of suppression

Theories? There are many, but nothing is proven. For me, it is all reminiscent of long shadows cast during the cold war. "Something is going to surface," said Barsamian. "They can't keep the lid on this."

My 15 June talk was to have been about the collusion of American liberalism in a permanent state of war and in the demise of cherished freedoms, such as the right to call governments to account. In the US, as in Britain, serious dissent -- free speech -- has been substantially criminalised. Obama the black liberal, the PC exemplar, the marketing dream, is as much a warmonger as George W Bush. His score is six wars. Never in US presidential history has the White House prosecuted so many whistleblowers, yet this truth-telling, this exercise of true citizenship, is at the heart of America's constitutional First Amendment. Obama's greatest achievement is having seduced, co-opted and silenced much of liberal opinion in the US, including the anti-war movement.

The reaction to the cancellation has been illuminating. The brave, such as the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, were appalled and said so. Similarly, many ordinary Americans called in to radio stations and have written to me, recognising a symptom of far greater suppression. But some exalted liberal voices have been affronted that I dared whisper the word censorship about such a beacon of "cultural freedom". The embarrassment of those who wish to point both ways is palpable. Others have pulled down the shutters and said nothing. Given their patron's ruthless show of power, it is understandable. For them, the Russian dissident poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once wrote: "When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie."

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

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The last days of the Nazi hunter

When Efraim Zuroff went abroad this summer, he visited about 25 sites of mass murder. “That’s how I have a holiday, apparently".

When Efraim Zuroff went abroad this summer, he visited about 25 sites of mass murder. “That’s how I have a holiday, apparently,” he says, only half joking, as we sit down in his office in West Jerusalem.

Zuroff is the world’s top Nazi hunter. He is also one of the last. For more than a quarter of a century, he has been tracking and helping to prosecute war criminals who have evaded justice for decades. In the process, he has helped bring about legislation for the prosecution of former Nazis in countries including Canada, Australia and the UK.

The years of work are visible at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre – Zuroff’s HQ – named after the Austrian holocaust survivor-turned-Nazi hunter who died in 2005. Surfaces are littered with handwritten envelopes postmarked from across Europe and folders stuffed full of documents. On entering, the first thing you see is a 1945 front page from the New York Post, bearing the headline “NAZIS OUT”.

And yet Zuroff is hardly the cloaked sleuth one might imagine. He is tall and jovial, was born in New York in 1948 and, despite having lived in Israel since 1970, still speaks with a broad Brooklyn drawl. A small basketball hoop near his desk betrays an early ambition to become a star player.

“It’s not a job, it’s a mission,” he says of Nazi hunting, describing an occupation that is “riddled with frustration”. Zuroff began his career at the US department of justice at a time when, ironically, the Americans were actively employing former Nazis for their military expertise under a programme known as “Operation Paperclip”.

“Basically, it was a mad chase to get as many of these people as possible, lest they fell into the hands of the Russians,” Zuroff says. The Soviets had a mirror programme in operation.

In the 1980s, together with the All Party Parliamentary War Crimes Group, Zuroff began lobbying the British government to legislate to enable the prosecution of former Nazis. It wasn’t easy. He uncovered 17 Latvian and Lithuanian suspects residing in Britain, but as he notes in his 2009 book, Operation Last Chance, upon meeting the then home secretary, Douglas Hurd, in 1986, “it was clear there was a lack of willingness to address the issue”.

As pressure on the government increased, some British newspapers openly announced their objection. In the book Zuroff quotes a 1986 leader column in the Times arguing that “it is wise and humane to let the matters rest”. The Telegraph denounced Nazi-hunting as “a new and frankly distasteful blood sport”.

“It took four and a half years to get that law passed,” Zuroff says. “In that time, many people died, and some of the best cases could not be brought to justice. It was a real tragedy in all respects.” Between 1991 and now, only one former Nazi residing in the UK has been tried and convicted.

“If you allow people who have committed terrible crimes to live in your midst without taking legal action against them, you’re basically saying it doesn’t matter,” Zuroff says.

One recent case involved a 90-year-old former SS guard from Denmark. “Very often people say: ‘So many years have passed, the suspects themselves are probably sorry.’ But here’s the bad news: I’ve never encountered a single Nazi war criminal who expressed regret or remorse in the cases that I’ve dealt with.”

His latest project deals with the subject of Holocaust distortion – as well as war crimes – in Lithuania, a country with a personal dimension for Zuroff, whose great-uncle Efraim Zar was killed there during the war.

Zuroff has teamed up with the Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite, who contacted him after discovering that members of her own family participated in Nazi executions. Together, they are working on a book about the role of Lithuanians in the Holocaust. “It could be the most important thing I’ve done in my life,” Zuroff says.

It was this that brought him to the killing fields of Europe in August – a visit that still haunts him. “At the end of the trip . . . all of a sudden, I started crying, terribly,” he says. “I said to [Ruta], ‘Listen: I can’t take it. I have the feeling I’m betraying these people. I’m leaving them in the pits.”

The theme of the book, he says, is “passing the torch” to Ruta and future generations in order to trigger a social reckoning within Lithuanian society. In the meantime, Nazi hunting continues. “You have to understand,” Zuroff says, as our meeting draws to a close: “of all the practical tasks related to the Shoah only one is time-dependent – prosecution.” But it is prosecution that has the greatest impact in terms of helping a society face its past.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide