John Pilger, a foreign correspondent and documentary filmmaker who focused his often righteous anger on injustices around the world, such as the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia and human rights abuses in East Timor, died Dec. 30 in London. He was 84 years old.
His son, Sam, said the cause of death, at a hospital, was pulmonary fibrosis.
A tireless critic of Western imperialism and voice for the voiceless, Pilger was comfortable with his role as journalistic provocateur. He once derided impartiality as “a euphemism for the consensual view of established authority.”
But he was sometimes criticized for shaping his reporting to fit his leftist worldview: that U.S. foreign policy had often contributed to misery around the world.
Pilger (pronounced PILL-jer), with surfer-blond looks, was one of the first journalists to enter Cambodia after Vietnam ousted Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in 1979, ending their nearly four-year reign of terror. during which around two million people died. .
His reporting from there took up almost an entire issue of The Daily Mirror, the British newspaper for which he had worked since 1963, and was the basis of his best-known documentary, “Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia,” directed by David Munro. .
In that film, Pilger took viewers on a heartbreaking 52 minute ride of what he called “human hemorrhage,” represented in scenes that show numerous unburied skulls and bones lying in extermination fields; genocide survivors remembered in detail how they had been tortured; former Khmer Rouge soldiers, each of whom admitted to killing hundreds of their fellow Cambodians; and children and adults who die from malnutrition and anthrax poisoning due to lack of medicine.
Pilger left little doubt about who he blamed for Cambodia’s vulnerability to the brutal Khmer Rouge: President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, architects of the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and, a year later, , the invasion of the country by the United States and South Vietnam.
“The bombing was his personal, illegal and secret decision,” Pilger said calmly at the beginning of the film. “They bombed Cambodia, a neutral country, back to the Stone Age.”
“Year Zero” was one of dozens of documentaries he made while writing for The Daily Mirror and other publications, including The Guardian.
His honors include a Peabody Award in 1989 for “Cambodia: year ten” a documentary about the conditions of the country a decade after the departure of the Khmer Rouge; an International Emmy in 1991 for “Cambodia: The Betrayal” (1990), which exposed worsening conditions in the country and sought to trace the shipment of weapons to the Khmer Rouge; and the Sydney Peace Prize in 2009, for holding governments accountable for human rights abuses.
But the praise was tempered by criticism of his style: that he subordinated journalism to promotion, leading to some notable errors and questionable claims.
Pilger lost a defamation suit over his claim in “The Betrayal” that British agents were training the Khmer Rouge. A story about a young Thai girl forced into slavery until Mr. Pilger rescued her turned out not to be true.
“Pilger’s reporting, particularly on television, has sharply divided the journalistic world,” wrote British journalist Jon Snow in a review in The Observer of “In the Name of Justice” (2001), a book by Anthony Hayward about the documentaries. of Pilger. . “There was a loyal minority who shouted, ‘Thank God for Pilger,’ and a vociferous majority who criticized his position and his campaign style as ‘too much’ and ‘just not done.’”
John Richard Pilger was born on October 9, 1939 in Bondi, New South Wales, Australia, son of Claude and Elsie (Marheine) Pilger. His mother was a teacher, his father a carpenter and trade unionist. John started a student newspaper with a friend when he was 12 years old.
After a four-year journalism apprenticeship at the Australian Consolidated Press, a newspaper company, Mr Pilger became a reporter for The Daily and Sunday Telegraph in Sydney in 1958. He later freelanced in Italy and worked for Reuters in London until he was hired by The Mirror in 1963. He remained there until 1986.
He began his parallel career making documentaries in 1970 with “Vietnam: The Quiet Mutiny,” about the disintegration of morale among American troops in Vietnam.
His other documentaries include “Thalidomide: The Ninety-Eight We Forgot” (1974), about uncompensated victims of the drug that caused birth defects; “The Secret Country: The First Australians Strike Back” (1985), the story of the mistreatment of Aboriginal people in their homeland; and “Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy” (1994), about the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, in which witnesses described mass killings.
Timor’s film was praised by columnist Anthony Lewis in The New York Times for offering “much new material about the role of Britain, Australia and the United States in aiding Indonesia and tolerating the invasion.”
But Mr. Pilger occasionally had problems. In 1982, she wrote in The Mirror that in Bangkok she had bought an 8-year-old slave girl, Sunee, insisting that she was one of many children in Thailand who had been forced into forced labor in sweatshops or as domestic servants or in prostitution. .
The illegal deal he got (for £85, recorded on a receipt) was that he would keep the girl for a year without having to pay any wages. He did not keep her and returned her to her mother.
The story received enormous attention, but it was not true: another journalist discovered that Sunee was a schoolgirl living with her family, who had been found by a taxi driver hired by Mr. Pilger to find a young slave, and that the driver He had bribed the girl and her mother to play along. Pilger said he was the victim of a hoax.
When conservative British journalist Auberon Waugh questioned the story in The Spectator, Pilger filed a lawsuit (it is still unclear how this was resolved). Waugh later coined the verb “pilgrimage”: “to present information in a sensational manner to reach an inevitable conclusion” and to use “emotive language to make a false political point.”
In 1991, Pilger lost a libel judgment against Christopher Geidt, a former British military intelligence officer and another former army officer, after accusing Geidt in “Cambodia: The Betrayal” of helping train the Khmer Rouge to lay mines. terrestrial. . Pilger apologized and the broadcaster, Central Independent Television, paid a financial settlement.
In addition to his son, Sam, from his first marriage to Scarth Flett, which ended in divorce, Mr. Pilger is survived by a daughter, Zoe Pilger, from a relationship with Yvonne Roberts; his partner, Jane Hill; and two grandchildren.
In recent years, Pilger was a vocal supporter of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who faces extradition from Britain to the United States under the Espionage Act for obtaining and publishing secret government documents.
“Remember that Julian’s pursuit is a measure of his achievements,” Pilger said. the World Socialist website in 2022. “He informed millions about the deceptions of governments many trusted; he respected her right to know. “It was an extraordinary public service.”