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From the Belgian Congo to Abu Ghraib - a Century of Disclosure

by James Graham 

Posted: 16 May 2004
Word Count: 1468

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Whoever leaked the photographs of torture scenes in the Abu Ghraib prison was doing us all a great service. The Mirror fakes are unfortunate, but the rest is real and pants are on fire all over Washington. Which is as it should be.

On top of their imperialist adventure in Iraq, Bush and Blair have brought about a sea-change in people's perceptions of power. It's now perhaps easier than ever before to believe that once politicians get real power, they serve their own interests and those of other power-holders - political and corporate. It's easier to believe that representation and democracy have become little more than convenient devices for holding on to power - more useful than tyranny, and much more refined. Or that psychologically there is something not quite right about politicians, that even democratic leaders are somewhere on the same scale that includes Charlemagne, Ivan the Terrible and Henry VIII. Or, indeed, that politicians are criminals who legitimise their own crimes.

If such perceptions have any truth in them - and even if they don't, in order to prevent there ever being truth in them - then disclosure becomes one of the supreme political values. One of its primary virtues is that, unlike freedom, loyalty, patriotism, it has none of the Orwellian corruptions; it is not a Newspeak word. It means, no more and no less, that it is necessary to disclose to the public what politicians try to conceal or spin, and that individuals and groups who do this are to be admired and approved.

The makers and publishers of the genuine torture photos are following in the tradition of one of the greatest whistle-blowers of all time: Edmond Dene Morel, the investigative journalist who in the early twentieth century told the world about the bloody regime of King Leopold II of the Belgians in the Congo Free State - a regime of slavery and genocide that still shocks us today, even after the surfeit of horrors that have darkened the hundred years between Morel's time and ours. 2004 is the centenary of the publication of Morel's book, King Leopold's Rule in Africa. Morel should be recognised, in this year and always, as a pioneer of disclosure.

He was an insider, to begin with: a representative in Belgium of the shipping line Elder Dempster, which had a monopoly of the Congo trade. In later life he was to become a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes; but as the historian Adam Hochschild puts it, in the course of his work at Antwerp Docks 'the young Morel made a deduction more far-reaching than anything accomplished by Holmes'. Simply from observing the loading and unloading of ships that plied between Antwerp and the Congo, noting that rubber and ivory were arriving in huge quantities and little or nothing other than weapons was going the other way, he deduced that the Congo regime must be based on oppression and forced labour.

A thorough trawl through Liverpool shipping records confirmed his intuition: the gross imbalance between the value of imports from the Congo, and that of exports to the Congo (which in any case included arms), was such that it was impossible that anyone in the Congo (except white colonialists and entrepreneurs) was being paid either for the goods or for the labour of producing them. From the time of that discovery, Morel single-mindedly and tirelessly pursued the realities of this brutal oppression, until the world knew the truth.

Unable to get adequate coverage in what we would now call the mainstream media, he started his own newspaper, the West African Mail. He obtained - from other whistle-blowers, of whom there was no shortage - and published secret documents of the colonial regime and the concession companies working for it. He published official records of women and children kidnapped and held hostage to force their husbands to work without pay as rubber-harvesters. He published casualty lists of the names of Congolese people, with the means of death detailed beside each name: 'shot', 'killed with the butt of a rifle'. (A hundred years later, Iraqi dead are still not even officially counted, far less listed by name.) Every claim made by the colonial authority, every denial of atrocities, Morel countered with facts and eye-witness accounts.

Largely owing to Morel's campaign, in June 1903 the British Parliament carried a resolution committing the Government to act together with other European powers 'in order that measures be adopted to abate the evils prevalent in [the Congo Free State]'. Roger Casement, British Consul in the Congo, was sent on a fact-finding expedition. His report was a powerful indictment of the Belgian regime, sparing no details of castrations, the severing of hands and feet, the suspension of 'renegade' workers by their hands for days in the baking sun without food or water, the burning of villages.

In the longer term, though, these were small victories. The power-holders and money-men are not that easy to crack. The fact that Morel and Casement and others have brought so much wickedness into the light of day doesn't necessarily mean that power-practitioners mend their ways. In fact, the effect on Leopold's royal Murder Incorporated was relatively slight. Up to and after his death in 1909, reform came very slowly. The death-toll reached 10 million - half the Congo's population. During World War 1, thousands of Congolese were dragooned into forced labour again, this time for the timber and mining corporations. World War two brought more wretchedness: most of the uranium in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs was mined in the Congo by slave, or near-slave, labour. The first democratic prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, was murdered with the connivance and support of the CIA, and a contemptible kleptocrat, Mobutu Sese Seko, was bunked up to power in his place. Most recently we have had a plethora of gangs, militias and liberation armies killing one another over tin, diamonds, and the very coltan in our mobile phones.

Yes, disclosure is a hard road and an uphill struggle. But it often seems to me the best of the political virtues - significantly, one not usually practised by politicians - and one of the few worth breaking sweat over.

If public distrust and antipathy towards politicians is deeper now than ever before, at the same time acts of disclosure are more effective than ever. At the level of communications we have now, far more people can be in the know than was possible in Morel's time. In our world, too, the Congo or Iraq seem far less remote or exotic places. The torture pictures from Iraq are much less strange to us than early photographs of mutilated Congolese villagers, or militiamen holding up severed hands. And if public awareness and protest are more easily heightened, the effect of disclosure on power-groups is also more immediate. Morel had to keep up his war of words for ten years before he could feel he was making inroads. Neither Leopold nor his British allies could easily be made to run around like headless chickens. Now, within days, ministers are busy being appalled, apologising, and even - if there's a real panic - actually making policy changes. Even those fake pictures threw ministers into confusion, and brought admissions that reports of abuses had been around for some time, but that no-one in the Government had thought of paying attention to them.

But what matters most is this. Even if disclosure doesn't always soften the hard hearts of power-holders, it does succeed in raising public consciousness. In the 'us versus them' world we find ourselves in (and sadly it's becoming more and more us the people versus them the leaders) disclosure ensures that we are better-informed and better-armed as governments more and more serve interests other than ours: mainly those of corporations and the American empire. And even if the present level of distrust turns out to be only a phase brought on by Bush-Blair chicanery, and representative democracy can still heal itself - even so, it's better to be able to see through political evasions and manipulations as often and as penetratingly as we can.

Morel and Casement and others like them should be celebrated. There should be public holidays in their honour, and TV documentaries to remind us of their achievements. Children in school should be told Morel's story - it's one that young children are well able to understand - and taught that he was a good man and that Leopold was a criminal - by no means the only criminal to have borne the title of King - or President, or Prime Minister.

For information on Congolese history and Edmond Morel, I am indebted to Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost (Macmillan 1998) and to the New Internationalist magazine.

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Comments by other Members

Richard Brown at 17:45 on 25 May 2004  Report this post
Powerful stuff, James! I had not heard of Morel nor had I any idea of the extent of the abuses perpatrated in the Congo. I agree with you about the impurity associated with power. Even if the motivation is messianic (which I still think it might be with Herr Blair) it leads to corruption. It's true that these days there are many more ways of achieving the highly desirable goal of disclosure (investigative journalism, the web, mobile phones etc etc)but is it not also the case that the tools of the manipulators are much more potent than they were?
With control of the mass media in the hands of relatively few ultra-powerful men, with 'spin' being applied to almost all government pronouncements it's very hard to discover the underlying truth about serious issues. However, I guess that Michael Moore is doing his disclosure thing on a big scale and is having some effect. Maybe there's hope!
Whatever, a heartfelt, highly informative piece for which many thanks. I hope it will inspire others to contribute articles. It would be thrilling to see a body of high quality journalistic writing being assembled on the site and, let's hope, adding to the sum total of disclosure.

James Graham at 19:04 on 26 May 2004  Report this post
Richard, thanks for your positive comment. I thought afterwards I had overstated the power of disclosure - and of a well-informed public - to affect political leaders, in any real sense at least. They do apparently react more their predecessors did than 100 years ago, but by and large their responses are dishonest, e.g. being publicly appalled and condemning these ordinary soldiers (or security guards) as 'un-American' when in fact torture in US domestic prisons is pretty well endemic, and the School of the Americas and other such institutions of higher learning have been training American and Latin American 'interrogators' for decades. Prior to that, what seemed to appal Bush wasn't the abuses themselves but the fact that the pictures had been published. I suppose in an odd sort of way that's welcome - he was outraged at the magnitude of the disclosure. I agree too that the power-players are all the time refining their manipulative tool-kits, so that the more we seem to suss them out the more nimbly they will duck and weave.

As for Michael Moore - I was bowled over by Bowling for Columbine. The interview with Charlton Heston was brilliant, and the confrontation with K-Mart over ammunition sales. But the sequence with that poor woman (in Flint, Michigan, I think) who had to neglect her family and get up in the middle of the night to do several jobs - all as a consequence of Welfare to Work, a bright political idea energetically spun and marketed for votes no doubt, but a different matter for the real people affected by it - I thought that was one of the best things I've ever seen in a documentary film. As you say, maybe there's hope.


Felmagre at 20:30 on 27 May 2004  Report this post
Your thoughts concerning the 'power' of the media in the hands of potentially corrupt and corruptible people resonated with me. Interesting, Moral who used the media in order to bring to the attention of 'powerful' people the evils being committed by 'corporations (East Inda Company in particular) and leaders was himself a victim of the media when slandered by those whom he was 'exposing'

Today, the situation is that we are being told things but one wonders if in fact the things we are told are actually true. Credibility is a real problem, words have a power only if believed. How do we stop the power of the powerful? Sometimes over-exposure dulls the senses and as a result can turn out to be the friend of the corrupt and powerful.


James Graham at 11:53 on 28 May 2004  Report this post
Words do have power only if believed. There's another interesting parallel between Morel's disclosures and present-day ones. He did use eye-witness reports, but I don't think he necessarily rated them and didn't depend on them. They were words that could be dismissed as unreliable or deliberately misleading - just as the propaganda of the colonial authorities could be dismissed. So Morel used official documents, which were much harder evidence. There's an interesting article in last week's New Statesman by David Edwards - 'The rise of the people's news', where he welcomes the growing dissemination of evidence, e.g. of torture in Abu Ghraib, killing of non-combatants in Falluja, through people using small digital and mobile-phone cameras, and putting their pictures on the net. As we know from the Mirror, photos can be unreliable too, but not many are. In a sense the Abu Ghraib photos are like Morel's authentic documents - more credible than mere words. Edwards argues that it's becoming more and more possible for people not tied to mainstream media 'interests' to set the news agenda and counteract the self-censoring tendencies of the corporate press. The situation at Abu Ghraib was known in Washington, and some of it was known to the Washington Post, for example, for several months. But after the hard eveidence of the camera got out, they couldn't ignore the situation any more. Neither could the politicians.


Jim Beard at 07:11 on 02 June 2004  Report this post

I am new to the Journalism Group and am catching up with members past work, so forgive me if this is somewhat late. I found this to be a most authoritative piece of journalistic writing and one that must be worthy of wider publication. Have you submitted it elsewhere? You not only hit home about the current corruptive power of corporatism but also reminded us that such abuses have served Mammon for some time past. Reading your article I remembered the words of Gore Vidal some years ago during the first Clinton presidential campaign when he said that it did not matter who was elected to the White House as Corporate America rules the world anyway. We witness the reality of those words daily.

As you say, acts of disclosure are more effective now. We saw this first in recent times during the Vietnam conflict when we were treated to the horrors of war in our living rooms and the public, especially in America, rallied like never before against the conflict. But, I have to ask how long do such acts of aggression and tyranny stay in the public conscience today and what part the media plays in diverting the general public away from these issues.

I refer to the increasing tendency of pampering to the banal tastes of the masses whose attention span decreases daily. Witness the dearth of quality television in favour of trivia such as Big Brother and virtually anything on the television on Saturday evening. Then there is the newspaper coverage of some footballer or pop star and their current marital state of affairs. The reason these trivial issues get published or shown is merely to serve the profit motive.

Like other members who have responded to your work I have no answers to these problems. As I live in Italy I see at first hand the power that the media and the political system has over the public conscience. The problem here, of course, is that both are in the hands of a Prime Minister who recently attempted to change the constitution to give immunity from prosecution to serving Prime Ministers and holders of other top state posts. Fortunately the Constitutional Court threw his law out and a case of corruption, relating to previous business affairs, is currently being pursued against him.

As you can see you really struck a chord.

Kind regards


James Graham at 11:49 on 03 June 2004  Report this post
Many thanks for your comment on my article. I certainly agree about the media, but there are alternative media now that never existed before, even if they still don't have anything like the influence of the corporate media. This article would have been on one of the alternative media sites, Z Net - www.zmag.org (as well as on WW ) if they weren't going round in circles at the moment trying to fix problems on the site. The longer they take, the more dated the article will become. (That's journalism!)

It's good news if Berlusconi isn't going to get away with the immunity thing. I think we've made progress in holding political leaders to account. For example even if Pinochet never actually stands trial, so much is known about him worldwide - partly through disclosure, partly good journalism - that in a sense the evidence is known, the case has been made, before the 'court of public opinion'. The same applies to Kissinger - we have Christopher Hitchens' book The Trial of Henry Kissinger.


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