Media Opinion

Avi Yemini and his ilk are anything but journalists

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Self-proclaimed journalists such as Avi Yemini (left) and Rukshan Fernando (right) aren't deserving of the title (Screenshots via YouTube)

Right-wing propagandists calling themselves citizen journalists are nothing more than frauds and opportunists, writes Tom Tanuki.

FOR YEARS, I have been pointing out pre-meditated stunts at rallies that were orchestrated to provoke a popular misconception of some sort. Usually, it’s far-right agitators doing it, but as I’ve orchestrated some of those stunts myself, I am good at spotting them. More importantly, though, I’m someone who will actually go to the rallies in question, so I can get to see the bullshit unfold in person. 

This is at the heart of a deep, permanent divide that propagandists exploit with rally activism: on one hand, there are people at the event who create media events and on the other sits an army of armchair commentators, agitators and propagandists waiting to harvest that media. That is the reason agitators’ stunts and ruses at rallies always succeed. They don’t have to be clever or nuanced. There’s a hyper-partisan platform or ten waiting for whatever they’re handed, ready to blast it out to the world.

The anti-lockdown movement has been exploitable by agitators to a near-unprecedented extent. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, it’s so ideologically malleable that any agitator can step in and stamp their agenda upon it uncontested. Many of the rest of us have been stuck at home during the pandemic, providing these events with an unusually large captive audience. And as much of the Left’s boots-on-grounds activism has waned over the pandemic, there have been few contests to these events (or independent eyes watching them).

Enter “citizen journalists”. A seasoned opportunist like Avi Yemini, whose pre-pandemic history of “journalism” I wrote about last fortnight, has enjoyed extraordinary success glomming on to the anti-lockdown movement for profit. Now, he is joined by figures like Rukshan Fernando, AKA “Real Rukshan”. Rukshan has been creating bland and formulaic – but competently produced – anti-lockdown content for over a year; he was catapulted to fame for his long livestreams of anti-lockdown rallies targeting the CFMEU. He and Avi are two “citizen journalists” of distinction in Australia at the moment.

In the differences and similarities between the two of them, we can trace the outline of what their game really is and what I believe they should be called.

I wrote recently of Rukshan’s breakout, folkloric reception at anti-lockdown rallies during the week of anti-union events. He’s more low-energy and bland than the usual popular right-wing figurehead, more along the lines of an Andy Ngo. Among his uncritical audience that passes for impartiality, in the midst of so much spectacle, being boring seems close enough to being honest.

But Rukshan is more wildly partisan than even Avi Yemini. He has produced various advance promotional videos for anti-lockdown rallies while (intentionally) taking his name off them. He has produced video work for Reignite Democracy Australia, including looping videos for their promotional anti-vax message buses. He is an active promoter of the movement and extends his sympathetic, deeply skewed perspective to his livestreams.

Tell me. If I promoted a rally, produced media for it in advance, assisted its other organisers and attended to record deeply sympathetic content at the event, would it be fair to call me an organiser of that event? Certainly, that seems a fairer label than calling me an “independent journalist”.

Avi Yemini is different to Rukshan. He’s years ahead, deep into the funding and content machine of the far-Right; through sheer amoral opportunism, this double-vaxxed content creator is quite comfortable representing the interests of organised anti-vaxxers. He has crowd-funded hundreds of thousands of dollars – at least – which Rebel News says is for the purpose of wildly varying “causes”. 

They need donations to pay for Avi’s private security guard, who they already pay for. They need money for people to be bailed who don’t require it. Throughout, he’s been “fighting” coronavirus fines. The Fight the Fines campaign has been his biggest anti-lockdown fundraising campaign.

How much fighting is his team actually doing? Avi made a video about one man who was fined merely for not having gotten a COVID-19 test quickly enough. The situation sounded terrible and in the video, months ago, Avi committed to defending the man as part of the Fight the Fines campaign. The video, which has over 75,000 views, helped promote the fundraiser.

But I have recently learned that that man has been ditched by Avi’s legal team because he applied for a bail variation to go and see his children. They told him they won’t be representing him. Last I heard, he was stranded, set to attend court without anyone to represent him. 

I wonder where the money for his fight went. How many other people has this happened to? I don’t have any answers because there’s no transparency at all about these fundraisers. All I know is that this is the product of highly effective commercialisation of a pseudo-political fundraising machine — and there is nothing “journalistic” about it.

“Citizen journalism” is a term to be careful with — its misuse tarnishes a lot of real work. Defined, it simply means independent people gathering sharing news without being part of an establishment media organisation — uploading conflict, activist struggle, war or police brutality to the internet. The Arab Spring would not have happened as it did without citizen journalism. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street were elevated to global attention with the aid of independent journalistic effort.

I want to disconnect these figures from a label that allocates them esteem they don’t deserve. Citizen journalism can attract criticism for competing with the operation of better-quality, better-funded establishment journalism and it can be prone to bias — but it nonetheless implies an independent participation in newsgathering. That, in turn, infers objectivity. Even the term “street journalism” implies a documentarian role.

But the deep, dishonest subjectivity of these figures is their most defining trait. That excludes them from the “journalist” title at all.

I considered the term “independent propagandist” as they have a role in propaganda generation, but that term describes the (popular) practice of private citizens funding and disseminating propaganda for a cause. Avi and Rukshan are absolutely part of a propaganda machine – Avi is right at the centre of it in Australia, enjoying backing from a few independent propagandists himself – but they aren’t stand-alone creators of it. They are too opportunist and ideologically malleable. 

One minute, Rukshan thinks Black Lives Matter rally-goers should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law; the next, he sees himself as a poster boy for essentialist freedom, when they’re anti-lockdown. One minute, Avi is encouraging police to shoot and kill environmental activists; the next, he’s comfortably rebranding as an anti-police brutality activist. It is precisely their sleek, apolitical opportunism that enables their grind. Propagandists up top feed them bullshit. They enact it at the rallies.

I think it’s best to describe their function as street propagandism. They are too deep in their connection to far-right movement and ideology to have earned the “journalist” label, but they are also too directly involved in on-the-ground protest not to deserve the “street” label. They are pawns to the career imperative; saying and aligning with whatever guarantees them the most opportunity. (Rukshan can only declare independence so far in that he hasn’t been welcomed into the machine like Avi has. But that will change.) They are happy to be subsumed into the lucrative global far-right content media machine, as long as they get opportunities from it.

What’s the importance of correctly labelling them? When we remove Avi from the “journalist” label he’s been pushing for years, we see a plain agitator and pest, repeatedly removed from rallies by the police for baiting participants on film; hounded by organisers like me who are on to him. And if Rukshan couldn’t cling to the title of “journalist”, he might have been more exposed to incitement charges for organising rallies during COVID-19 outbreaks. 

So the appeal of the “journalist” tag is not just about prestige. It’s a protective layer of bullshit for these career bullshit artists. I want to deny them that protection. They are street propagandists.

Nothing will ever replace the ability to see through rally propaganda by having actually been there at the event. But nothing will ever thwart the waiting mass of media outlets waiting to skew the work of activists and agitators toward their own political ends. For as long as these street propagandists harness the power of rally activism to promulgate a political ideology in return for a career, so must there exist people ready to cut through their bullshit and tell the truth about what they’re up to.

Tom Tanuki is an online satirist, social justice commentator, writer and comedian. He has worked in anti-racist political comedy, most notably through his satirical group the Million Flag Patriots and anti-racist group Yelling At Racist Dogs (Y.A.R.D.). You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.

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