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John Pilger, 84, Dies; Journalist and Filmmaker on Human Rights Abuses

John Pilger, a muckraking foreign correspondent and documentarian who trained his often righteous anger on injustices around the globe, like the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia and human rights abuses in East Timor, died on Dec. 30 in London. He was 84.

His son, Sam, said the cause of death, in a hospital, was pulmonary fibrosis.

A tireless critic of Western imperialism and a voice for the voiceless, Mr. Pilger was comfortable with his role as a 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 United States foreign policy had often helped cause misery around the world.

Mr. Pilger (pronounced PILL-jer), with blond surfer looks, was among the first journalists to enter Cambodia after Vietnam drove out Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in 1979, ending its nearly four-year reign of terror during which about two million people died.

His reporting from there filled almost an entire issue of The Daily Mirror, the British newspaper for which he had worked since 1963, and it was the basis of his best-known documentary, “Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia,” directed by David Munro.

In that film, Mr. Pilger took viewers on a harrowing 52-minute tour of what he called the “human hemorrhage,” depicted in scenes showing the many unburied skulls and bones lying in killing fields; survivors of the genocide recalling in detail how they had been tortured; former Khmer Rouge soldiers each admitting to killing hundreds of fellow Cambodians; and children and adults dying of malnutrition and anthrax poisoning for lack of medicine.

Mr. Pilger left little doubt about whom 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 their personal decision, illegally and secretly,” Mr. Pilger said, calmly, early in the film. “They bombed Cambodia, a neutral country, back to the Stone Age.”

“Year Zero” was one of dozens of documentaries he made while also 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 in 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 track arms shipment to the Khmer Rouge; and the Sydney Peace Prize in 2009, for holding governments to account for human rights abuses.

But the praise was tempered by criticism of his style — that he subordinated journalism to advocacy, leading to some notable mistakes and questionable claims.

Mr. Pilger lost a libel suit over his contention 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,” the British journalist Jon Snow wrote in a review in The Observer of “In the Name of Justice” (2001), a book by Anthony Hayward about Mr. Pilger’s documentaries. “There were the loyal minority who cried, ‘Thank God for Pilger,’ and the vociferous majority who damned his side-taking and campaigning style as ‘too much’ and ‘simply not done.’”

John Richard Pilger was born on Oct. 9, 1939, in Bondi, New South Wales, Australia, to 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.

After a four-year journalistic apprenticeship with 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 with it until 1986.

He started his parallel career making documentary films in 1970 with “Vietnam: The Quiet Mutiny,” about the disintegrating morale of U.S. 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 Fight Back” (1985), the story of his homeland’s mistreatment of Indigenous Australians; and “Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy” (1994), about Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, in which witnesses described mass killings.

The Timor film was praised by the columnist Anthony Lewis in The New York Times for offering “much new material on the role of Britain, Australia and the United States in aiding Indonesia and condoning the invasion.”

But Mr. Pilger occasionally ran into problems. In 1982, he wrote in The Mirror that in Bangkok he had purchased an 8-year-old slave girl, Sunee, insisting that she was one of many children in Thailand who had been forced into hard labor in sweatshops or as domestics or into prostitution.

The illegal deal he got — for 85 pounds, memorialized 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 got enormous attention, but it wasn’t true: Another journalist found that Sunee was a schoolgirl living with her family, that she had been found by a cabdriver hired by Mr. Pilger to find a young slave, and that the driver had bribed the girl and her mother into playing along. Mr. Pilger said he was the victim of a hoax.

When the conservative British journalist Auberon Waugh questioned the story in The Spectator, Mr. Pilger sued (how it was resolved remains unclear). Mr. Waugh subsequently coined the verb “to pilger”: to “present information in a sensationalist manner to reach a foregone conclusion,” and to use “emotive language to make a false political point.”

In 1991, Mr. Pilger lost a libel judgment to Christopher Geidt, a former British military intelligence officer, and another former Army officer, after accusing Mr. Geidt in “Cambodia: The Betrayal” of helping to train the Khmer Rouge to lay land mines. Mr. 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 Mr. Pilger was a vociferous 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 the pursuit of Julian is a measure of his achievements,” Mr. Pilger told the World Socialist Web Site in 2022. “He informed millions about the deceptions of governments too many trusted; he respected their right to know. It was a remarkable public service.”

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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