The imperial thumb on the scale – How the NED distorts democratic discourse in Africa and the Global South

By Roscoe Palm

The role of the CIA in US imperialism is well known. It includes murders, disinformation campaigns and, above all, playing a key role in coups and invasions. South Africa has not been immune. It was the CIA agent Donald Rickard who gave the apartheid state the information that led to Nelson Mandela’s capture in 1962.

In White Malice: The CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa, Susan Williams shows that the CIA operations of influence and coercion were ubiquitous throughout Africa in the post-independence period, and that their work included funding writers. She quotes Wole Soyinka saying that ‘Nothing, virtually no project, no cultural initiative was left unbrushed by the CIA reptilian coils.’

As outlined in a recent investigative piece co-written with journalist Ajit Singh of No Cold War, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) began to take over many of the functions of the CIA in 1983. The NED was the brainchild of the then CIA director William Casey who wrote to a White House official to argue for “National Endowment in support of free institutions throughout the world.” When the NED was established Water Raymond, Jr was the liaison between the CIA and the NED.

A history of imperial interference

Carl Gershman, the president of NED from 1983 to 2021 said that “It would be terrible for democratic groups around the world to be seen as subsidized by the CIA. We saw that in the 60’s, and that’s why it has been discontinued. We have not had the capability of doing this, and that’s why the endowment was created.” Allen Weinstein, the co-founder of the NED, said “A lot of what we [the NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” The NED is often referred to as ‘a second CIA’.

Soon after its founding the NED was used to fund Islamicists in Afghanistan, the same people who would go on to found Al Qaeda later. This included media projects. Large grants were given to organisations such as the Afghanistan Information Center and the Afghan Media project.

Nicaragua – a textbook NED interference operation

The NED also funded the Contras in Nicaragua, a US backed armed right-wing group in Nicaragua conducting a counter-revolution against the Sandinistas. This included support for media. The Sandinistas lost power to the right in 1990 after a massive campaign of disinformation, propaganda, intervention, bribery, and corruption in the run up to the elections.

Professor of Sociology at the University of California and author William I. Robinson outlines the infocomplex that captured one of Nicaragua’s foremost publications, “La Prensa” and the key role played by the NED in putting the imperial thumb on the democratic scale in that country.

Despite the emphasis on externally based propaganda, the CIA, the USIA (United States Information Agency), and the NED maintained a foothold in the internal opposition media outlets throughout the 1980s, the most important of these being La Prensa. Given its prominence for the United States as a leading symbol of the anti-Sandinista campaign, that La Prensa’s publisher went on to become the presidential candidate for the UNO coalition should come as no surprise. The United States had to generate an image of La Prensa as a struggling “independent” news outlet defending freedom and democracy in the face of Sandinista repression.”

One NED document exclaimed “the history of La Prensa is one of struggle, courage and, at times, tragedy, parallel to that endured by the country and the people of Nicaragua. While La Prensa is by no means the sole key to a political opening in Nicaragua, it is probably true that without La Prensa a meaningful political opening cannot occur.” Of course, there was nothing “independent” about La Prensa. It was funded by the United States and functioned as an important outlet inside Nicaragua for the U.S. war and as an official organ of the internal opposition.

At an NED board meeting in that year Gershman called the “victory of the democratic opposition in Nicaragua… a tremendous victory for the Endowment as well.” The NED continues to fund right-wing media in Nicaragua today.

The NED’s continuing operations in the Global South

Since its founding in 1983 the NED has worked in at least 77 countries, with, according to a 1991 report, “advancing democratic political institutions through civic education and the media” being a key priority. This has always included tarnishing the reputation of individuals and organizations.

The NED funds and has funded particular media in specific countries such as the investigative journalism outfit Bellingcat in the Netherlands (which also has connections to Western intelligence agencies), openDemocracy in the United Kingdom, the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism in Nigeria, and the Centre for Media Excellence in Uganda, which also works in Kenya and Tanzania.

In the Southern African region examples of NED media funding include:

• the local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Swaziland
• the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in South Africa
• The Continent, the weekly pan-African publication run by the Mail & Guardian in South Africa

In South Africa the publication of most concern is the Mail & Guardian, where The Continent is directly funded by the NED, and two former editors have gone on to work for NED funded organisations.

Chris Roper was the editor of the Mail and Guardian from 2009 – 2015, and then left to become the Deputy CEO of Code for Africa, whose umbrella organization is funded by the NED. His successor, Khadija Patel resigned as M&G editor in 2020 to become the chairperson of the NED-backed International Center for Journalists and a media funding operation that is bankrolled by the NED.

The NED also funds international media organisations such as the Center for International Media Assistance, the Global Forum for Media Development, Code for Africa, the International Fund for Public Interest Media and the El Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (The Institute for Press and Society), described as ‘one of Latin Americas leading media NGOs’. It sponsors Latin America’s investigative journalism conference. The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) is a member of the NED’s international media network, the Global Forum for Media Development. It is notable that NED media funding often has a particular focus on investigative journalism.

The NED has been directly involved in coups, attempted coups, and violent regime change in countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Haiti, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Ecuador, Cuba and Iraq. This is no secret nor is it only acknowledged on the left.

In 2002, following the attempted coup against the elected government of Huge Chavez in Venezuela the New York Times reported that:

“In the past year, the United States channelled hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to American and Venezuelan groups opposed to President Hugo Chávez, including the labor group whose protests led to the Venezuelan president’s brief ouster this month.

The funds were provided by the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit agency created and financed by Congress.”

The NED also played a major role in the 2004 coup against the elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. As always the preparatory work for the coup, and the work of making it seem credible after the event, included a significant media component.

The NED had a similar role in the coup against the elected government in Bolivia in 2019. Again its work in Bolivia has included support for media that is seen to be aligned to US interests. For instance Raúl Peñaranda, who leads a regional media network called Grupo Andino de Libertades Informativas has been a Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, in Washington DC.

The role of private funding partnerships with the NED

It is important to understand that where possible the NED works with politically aligned private funders. In Freeing the World to Death William Blum writes that:

“The standard operating procedure in a particular country has been to send in teams of specialists from US government agencies, non-governmental organization (NGOs), American labour unions, or private organizations funded by American corporations and foundations; leading examples are the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Agency for International Development (AID), and the Open Society organizations of George Soros, American citizen and billionaire. These teams go in with as much financial resources as needed and numerous carrots and sticks to wield; they hold conferences and seminars, hand out tons of papers, manuals and CDs, and fund new NGOs, newspaper and other media, all to educate government employees and other selected portions of the population on the advantages and joys of privatizing and deregulating the economy, teaching them how to run a capitalist society, how to remake the country so that it’s appealing to foreign investors.”

A full understanding of the role of the NED has to take into account its various partners in the world of private funding, and facilitation from its partner networks and funders. These funders are cast as being benevolent actors in the cause of enshrining and entrenching democratic practices, but nothing can be further from the truth.

The Center for International Media Assistance, an initiative of the NED lists among its network and those it resources the Open Society Foundation. Organizations that are resourced by the OSF frequently cite that they are not funded by the NED. In this sense, private partnerships serve as a useful cut-out to manage the poor optics that would inevitably come from being closely associated with the US State Department and the CIA. In the case of OSF, the critique is oftentimes deflected by tactics such as weaponizing false claims of anti-semitism, or by associating critique with some nebulous far-right agenda. This fails to address the very real critique that organizations like the OSF, and many like it, are in explicit and open ‘partnership’ with the NED, and enjoy the public endorsement of the NED.

OSF is also a funder and a stakeholder of the Media Development Investment Fund (MIDF), which bought a majority stake in the Mail and Guardian in 2017. The MIDF also has a relationship with the Daily Maverick, the nature of which is unclear. The bottom line is that in this alphabet soup of acronyms, many paths lead to the NED.

Association with, endorsement by, or knowingly accepting resources from the NED is akin to acting in complicity (or at the very least, accommodating the contradictions and myriad hypocrisies) with the US imperial project on the Global South. It is an acceptance of the regime of neocolonialism, undermining democracy, spreading and entrenching Western imperial hegemony, and deposing those who stand in its way or dissent.

Precarity of media funding – the NED’s leverage  

The NED calls itself a ‘democracy promotion’ organisation but the record shows that it has repeatedly and consistently worked to undermine democratic governments when they don’t toe the US line, and to manufacture consent in support of US power and political and economic agendas. In the post-printing press era of information, the financial precarity of media outlets is the leverage that US State Department-linked organizations like the NED uses to exercise control over the discourse. Publications themselves are willingly captured by the hegemon of Western interests that is so pervasive that it does not need to be policed by overseers or implicit threats of the withdrawal of funding and opportunities.

Far from the information era democratizing the mediascape with a diversity of voices and views into the establishment, it has concretized the neo-liberal hegemon and is an anti-democratic, elitist, and anti-working class force on the polity and the people in the Global South.

It is urgent that new forms of funding are found so that our democracy can thrive with the cut and thrust of a genuinely independent media that can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Taking our democracy seriously requires vigilance about the role of organisations like the NED and its politically aligned private donors, and a clear eyed examination of their power in our society.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Roscoe Palm is the co-founder of @PaisSocialism – the Pan-African Institute for Socialism. Follow him on twitter @RosHariMIA