All Governments Lie, but can state-sponsored deception be countered by citizen-centred media?

DiA blogger, Jessica Kempner recently attended the screening of All Government Lie at the Human Rights Watch film festival.  The film is a tribute to I F Stone and his ‘legacy of speaking truth to power’. However, there was a glaring misnomer in the film’s title. You could easily be forgiven for assuming that a film so named would address a multitude of sins committed by governments the world over, but you would be wrong. A far more appropriate title for Fred Peabody’s attempted exposé, whose rare nuggets of truth are discredited by conspiratorial undertones, would be The US Government Lies; subtitled And it is also the sole bearer of responsibility for all the evil in the world. The fact that the film takes the multi-faceted US media landscape and reduces it to one homogenised entity of wrongdoing is perhaps the main giveaway that this film is myopic in its vision and one-sided in its presentation of argument. Though needless to say, the simplified conglomeration of so-called mainstream media (MSM) ties the film together by a spurious thread, and Peabody overworks the trope of a chillingly subversive and colluding MSM to the point where it becomes meaningless.

All of that, combined with a tone of pompous indulgence, made the viewing experience quite an ordeal. A shame, because the point is an important one, and Peabody was on the cusp of saying something quite profound about the dangers of unmitigated state-sponsored deception. As it was, the endless streams of interviews with investigative journalists lauding each other’s work in a perpetual cycle of self-satisfied ego-massaging, struck an ironic chord. As the film privileges just one narrative thread, a sense of balance is completely lost, rendering All Governments Lie entirely culpable of the accusation it charges at The Media.

The truth is that amplifying just one point of view will never tell the whole story. Any mechanism that can lift otherwise silenced or marginalised voices from media obscurity into the national discourse should be leveraged. Perhaps we could go some way in empowering these voices by recognising the legitimacy of non-traditional forms of media? Watching the film does bring to mind the value of citizen-led, citizen-centred journalism and reporting.  In countries where government corruption, state fragility and historical oppression, this kind of story-telling is vital.

In Palestine, for example, a number of stumbling blocks have prevented a truthful and impartial national narrative from emerging. The creation of the Israeli national archives was a process that obstructed all Arab agency, and the Zionist victors of the 1948 War were invested in propagating a specific image of the state as it wanted to be seen. How could the Palestinian story be told when the archival material is so inherently unbalanced? As a result, resistance literature became a powerful tour de force for national and political expression. It must be stressed: this literature does not refer to political treatises that talk of lofty, abstract ideals and attempt to apply them to reality, but to fiction. The problematic nature of archives and the politics associated with their construction is well-documented, but through the murky waters of propaganda proffered by a state actively engaged in myth-building, Palestinian resistance literature stands out for its raw honesty.

Citizens United Money Globe | DonkeyHotey

When governments lie, literature and fiction in particular can serve a vital purpose. You cannot separate the work of fiction from its social, political and historical context. Its characters often represent universally recognisable types, allowing us to come away with our own personal readings. The potential for telling the truth is as vast as the reader’s own imagination. Fiction should not be disregarded as a source of truth, and as Ghassan Kanafani, one of Palestine’s most revered writers of resistance literature, wrote ‘politics and the novel are an indivisible case’.

Oppressive governments are in the fortunate position of seemingly having total hegemony over the ‘facts’ that emerge about their countries. But this domination is profoundly disrupted by works of fiction such as Elyas Khoury’s Gate of the Sun, in which the author pens ‘an epic of the Palestinian people’ by gathering hundred of stories in oral history and incorporating them into the fictitious narrative thread.

So let’s imagine for a moment that the film’s claim was instead an accurate reflection of reality.  Surely the best and perhaps the only way to combat this stream of falseness would be to amplify the voices of the voiceless.  While this is a highly exaggerated version of the true state of affairs in America, countries such as Eritrea and Syria frequently feature as the worst offenders for censorship. What tools have citizens in these countries fallen back on to counter such rampant persecution of free expression? Resistance literature, in all its bold defiance, has rung out as a voice of opposition. Publications such as the Anthology Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline are testament to the power of cultural expression in the face of tyranny.

All Governments Lie, in spite of its compelling title, is a documentary that neglects to mention the

lies of pretty much any government. It’s not news that all governments lie. The more important question is how to find ways to circumvent the lies that are par for the course of human existence.

Feature Image: @AllGovsLieDoc | Twitter


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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