Johann Hari: The under-appreciated heroes of 2010

The endless whirr of 24/7 corporate news ignores the people who actually make a difference

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Who did we under-appreciate in 2010? In the endless whirr of 24/7 corporate news, the people who actually make a difference are often trampled in the stampede to the next forgettable news-nugget like Lady Gaga's meat-dress. So in the final moments of this year, let's look at a few people who deserved more of our attention.

Under-Appreciated Person One: Bradley Manning. While we were all fixated on Julian Assange, the story of the young American soldier who actually leaked the classified documents passed almost unnoticed. If Manning was mentioned at all, it was to be described as an impetuous, angry kid who downloaded the documents on to a CD and leaked them as a result of a "grudge" or "tantrum".

Here's what really happened. Manning signed up when he was just 18, believing he would be protecting and defending his country and the cause of freedom. He soon found himself sent to Iraq, where he was ordered to round up and hand over Iraqi civilians to America's new Iraqi allies, who he could see were then torturing them with electrical drills and other implements.

The only "crime" committed by many of these people was to write "scholarly critiques" of the occupation or the new people in charge. He knew torture was a crime under US, Iraqi and international law, so he went to his military supervisor and explained what was going on. He was told to shut up and get back to herding up Iraqis.

Manning had to choose between being complicit in these atrocities, or not. At the age of 21, he made a brave choice: to put human rights before his own interests. He found the classified military documents revealing that the US was covering up the deaths of 15,000 Iraqis and had a de facto policy of allowing the Iraqis they had installed in power to carry out torture – and he decided he had a moral obligation to show them to the American people.

To prevent the major crime of torturing and murdering innocents, he committed the minor crime of leaking the evidence. He has spent the last seven months in solitary confinement – a punishment that causes many prisoners to go mad, and which the US National Commission on Prisons called "torturous". He is expected to be sentenced to 80 years in jail at least. The people who allowed torture have faced no punishment at all. Manning's decision was no "tantrum" – it was one of the most admirable stands for justice and freedom of 2010.

Under-Appreciated Person Two: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The only African leader who appears with any regularity on our TV screens is the snarling psychopath Robert Mugabe, spreading his message of dysfunction and despair. We rarely hear about his polar opposite.

In 2005, the women of Liberia strapped their babies to their backs and moved en masse to elect Africa's first ever elected female President. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was a 62-year-old grandmother who had been thrown in prison by the country's dictators simply for demanding democracy. She emerged blinking into a country trashed by 14 years of civil war and pillaged by dictators – but she said she would, at last, ensure that the Liberian state obeyed the will of its people.

In the face of a chorus of cynics, she did it. She restored electricity for the first time since 1992. She got the number of children in school up by 40 per cent. She introduced prison terms for rapists for the first time. Now she is running for re-election in a fully open and contested ballot. I look at her and I think of all the women I have seen by the roadsides of Africa, carrying impossibly heavy loads on hunched backs – and I know what they will achieve when they are finally allowed to.

Under-appreciated Person Three: Senator Bernie Sanders. In 2010, the hijacking of American democracy by corporations and the super-rich became almost complete. Almost no politician in the US runs for office without begging and scrounging huge campaign funds from the rich – so when they are elected, they presumably feel they must serve their interests, not those of ordinary Americans.

You can see the results everywhere. In the middle of a recession, there was a massive tax cut for millionaires and billionaires – and a tax rise on the poorest Americans. Bill Gates pays less; a family living in a cold trailer-park with no health care pays more – with Obama stitching up the deal with Republicans.

But one American politician, more than any other, showed that there can still be a different, democratic way of doing politics in America.

Bernie Sanders was elected as the independent socialist senator for Vermont with 65 per cent of the vote in 2006, in a fight against the richest man in the state. He won by turning down Big Money and instead organising amongst ordinary citizens – by promising to defend their interests against the people ripping them off.

He won over even very conservative parts of his state to a self-described socialist agenda by telling them: "Conservative Republicans don't have healthcare. Conservative Republicans can't afford to send their kids to college. Conservative Republicans are being thrown out of their jobs as our good-paying jobs move to China. You need somebody to stand up to protect your economic well-being. Look, we're not going to agree on every issue, that's for sure. But don't vote against your own interest. I don't mind really if millionaires vote against me. They probably should. But for working people, we've got to come together."

In the place of the fake populism of the Tea Party, he offered real populism. In office, he kept his word. He has been demanding a real healthcare deal, trying to end the country's disastrous jihadi-creating wars, and captured America's imagination by standing for nine hours in the Senate trying to filibuster Obama's sell-out of his principles and his people. This is what democracy looks like.

Under-Appreciated People Four: The Saudi Arabian women who are fighting back. Women like Wajehaal-Huwaider are struggling against a tyranny that bans them from driving, showing their face in public, or even getting medical treatment without permission from their male "guardian". The streets are policed by black-clad men who enforce sharia law and whip women who express any free will.

Saudi women are being treated just as horrifically as Iranian women – but because their oppressors are our governments' allies, rather than our governments' enemies, you hear almost nothing about them. Huwaider points out that her sisters are fighting back and being beaten and whipped for it, and asks: "Why isn't the cry of these millions of women heard, and why isn't it answered by anyone, anywhere in the world?"

Under-Appreciated People Five: The real N'avi. The people of Kalahandi, India, saw the film Avatar and recognised it as their story. The land they had lived in peacefully for thousands of years – and considered sacred – was in their eyes being destroyed and pillaged by a Western bauxite mining corporation called Vedanta, whose majority owner lives in luxury in Mayfair.

The local protesters didn't give up. They appealed for international solidarity, so Vedanta meetings in London were besieged by people dressed as N'avi. The Indian government finally responded to co-ordinated global democratic pressure and agreed that the corporation had acted "in total contempt of the law". The real N'avi won. They saved their land.

In 2011 we could all benefit from turning off the tinny, shrill newszak and hearing more real news about people like this – so we can resolve to be a little more like them.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

For updates on these issues and others, follow Johann on Twitter at www.twitter.com/johannhari101

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