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Journalist Imprisonment

December 29, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The New York Review of Books has a review by Louis Menand of the new Arthur Koestler biography “Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic” by Michael Scammell. (It was also the lead review in the NYT Sunday book review two days ago.) I read Menand’s review on the same day last week that Brian Stelter had a feature article in the NYT on the one journalist imprisoned at Guantanamo, Sami al-Hajj. This set up an interesting contrast, as I will explain.

Recall that Koestler was himself imprisoned during the Spanish Civil War. Menand reviews this in his article:

[Koestler] was placed in solitary confinement. For many weeks, he was not allowed out of his cell, a chamber six and a half paces long. He was verbally abused by the guards, ignored by the prison authorities, and led to believe that he had been sentenced to death. At night, he listened to men crying for their mothers as they were dragged out of their cells to be shot. Once, he heard a priest, accompanied by guards, going from cell to cell leading prisoners out to be executed. When they reached his door, the priest began to fumble at the bolt. “No, not this one,” a guard said, and they moved on.

He considered suicide, and starved himself for weeks in the hope of simulating a heart condition that might get him into the prison infirmary. He eventually managed to get books from the prison library—the first one handed to him was a Spanish translation of the autobiography of John Stuart Mill—and he was allowed into the yard, where he got to know some of the other political prisoners. But he was given no reason to believe that he would be freed or that his life would be spared.

Meanwhile, Chalmers Mitchell had made his way to Gibraltar, where he telegraphed the News Chronicle about Koestler’s imprisonment, and an international effort was begun to secure his release. William Randolph Hearst called Koestler’s arrest an “unacceptable infringement of the rights of journalists to carry out their profession.” The French government was urged to intervene, and Koestler’s wife, Dorothee, enlisted British notables in the cause. The National Union of Journalists, in Britain, passed a resolution demanding that the British government intercede, and fifty-six Members of Parliament signed a letter in Koestler’s support. Finally, following negotiations involving the League of Nations, the Red Cross, and the Vatican, a prisoner exchange was arranged. Koestler was taken to Gibraltar and remanded to the custody of British authorities on May 14th, after ninety-four days in captivity.

He returned to England to find himself famous. Three and a half years later, he published “Darkness at Noon,” his classic novel about a man confined, interrogated, and executed in a Communist prison.

Sami al-Hajj’s ordeal at the hands of the US military is no less shocking. He was, of course, never charged with a specific crime, and ultimately released. Here is part of Stelter’s description in the NYT last week:

After working at a beverage company and then trying to start a business in Azerbaijan, he began working as a cameraman for Al Jazeera in 2000. He was captured on Dec. 15, 2001, trying to cross the border back into Afghanistan with his camera and a correspondent.

He later came to believe that the Americans were seeking another Al Jazeera cameraman, one with a similar name who had recorded an interview with Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks.

After being detained by local authorities in Pakistan, Mr. Hajj was transferred into American custody and, he says, tortured and beaten at a prison at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan. He was moved to Kandahar and then transported to Guantánamo Bay in mid-2002. Looking back, he says he thinks that he was sent there in part because he was a journalist.

“I had seen a lot of things that I shouldn’t have seen,” he said, citing the treatment of prisoners at Bagram in particular. Mr. Hajj claims that in lengthy interrogations he was asked for details of the network’s staff, policies and processes and that some guards started calling him “Al Jazeera” as a nickname.

He said an interrogator once asked him, “How much does bin Laden pay Al Jazeera for all the propaganda that Al Jazeera supplies?”

“You’re asking the wrong question,” he replied, emphasizing that bin Laden was not a propaganda partner of Al Jazeera, “he’s a newsmaker.”

… According to Zachary Katznelson, the legal director for Reprieve, a human rights group that represented Mr. Hajj, the allegations changed over the years: “First, he was alleged to have filmed an interview of Osama bin Laden. It was another cameraman. So, that allegation disappeared. Then the U.S. said Sami ran a jihadist Web site. Turns out, there was no such site. So that allegation disappeared. Then, the U.S. said Sami was in Afghanistan to arrange missile sales to Chechen rebels. There was no evidence to back that up at all. So that allegation disappeared.”

Mr. Hajj’s release, back to Sudan on a stretcher, came in May 2008 after lobbying by human rights groups and the government of Sudan. The Pentagon spokesman said Mr. Hajj’s release to Sudan “indicated our belief that the government of Sudan could effectively mitigate the threat posed” by him.

Stelter is careful, in standard NYT fashion, not to state that Hajj was actually tortured. In addition, Stelter includes a Pentagon spokesman’s assurance “that all detainees were treated humanely while in custody.” More to the point is a Nick Kristof NYT column from three years ago, which opens as follows.

There is no public evidence that Sami al-Hajj committed any crime other than journalism for a television network the Bush administration doesn’t like.

But the U.S. has been holding Mr. Hajj, a cameraman for Al Jazeera, for nearly five years without trial, mostly at Guantánamo Bay. With the jailing of Mr. Hajj and of four journalists in Iraq, the U.S. ranked No. 6 in the world in the number of journalists it imprisoned last year, just behind Uzbekistan and tied with Burma, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

This week, President Bush is expected to sign the Military Commissions Act concerning prisoners at Guantánamo, and he has hailed the law as “a strong signal to the terrorists.” But the closer you look at Guantánamo the more you feel that it will be remembered mostly as a national disgrace.

Mr. Hajj is the only journalist known to be there, and, of course, it’s possible that he is guilty of terrorist-related crimes. If so, he should be tried, convicted and sentenced.

But so far, the evidence turned up by his lawyers and by the Committee to Protect Journalists — which published an excellent report on Mr. Hajj’s case this month — suggests that the U.S. military may be keeping him in hopes of forcing him to become a spy.

I’ll give the final word to Glenn Greenwald, whose lengthy blog post from last week takes a close look at Stelter’s article. Here’s a portion of the post following up on the Pentagon spokesman’s claim that detainees were treated humanely. For the actual links, see Greenwald’s post itself.

Are the Pentagon’s denials true? Stelter doesn’t say, instead merely passing on al-Hajj’s allegations and the governments’ denials. Using the standard definition of American journalism, resolving conflicting claims and stating the actual truth is a violation of “journalistic objectivity.” Journalists only neutrally pass on claims, not report which ones are true. That’s why Al Jazeera’s doing so with regard to the Bush administration’s conduct is so offensive to The New York Times.

Notably, however, The New York Times itself, in news articles, has repeatedly accused other countries of engaging in “human rights atrocities,” often using that exact phrase to do so: see, for instance, here (America intervened to stop “atrocities” in Somalia, Haiti and Kosovo); here (accusing Peru of “human rights atrocities”); here (accusing Central American militias of being “guilty of wartime human rights atrocities”); here (referencing “human rights atrocities” in Bosnia); here (describing “human rights atrocities” by Sri Lanka); and here (detailing “human rights atrocities” by Serbia) Apparently, it’s a perfectly acceptable “objective” journalistic practice to describe a government’s actions as “human rights atrocities” — just as long as it’s not the U.S. Government being so accused. What a strange concept of “journalistic objectivity” The New York Times has adopted.

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Categories: Journalism, Torture
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