When Al Jazeera reporter Sami al Hajj was released from Guantanamo Prison in 2008, he was received with a hero’s welcome in his native Sudan. In later interviews, al Hajj detailed the horror of his seven-year confinement, leading Arab audiences to wonder at how the United States, supposed leader of the free world, could justify its prolonged incarceration without trial of an accredited journalist.
To answer, one must return to the years of the Bush administration. When the United States took over Iraq, Arab media widely condemned the deliberate targeting of Arab journalists, setting a new precedent in involving members of the media in political conflicts and disputes.
American journalist Shane Bauer and his friend Josh Fattal, arrested at the border between Iraq and Iran, recently sentenced to eight years by an Iranian court for espionage, fit that bill.
The return of al Hajj garnered widespread media attention across the Arab world, with images of an emaciated father greeting his son on the tarmac in Khartoum. The boy was just four-months-old when American forces arrested his father in Pakistan while reporting for Al Jazeera. That was in 2001. Al Hajj was then shuttled from one detention camp to the next, eventually landing in Guantanamo. Like Bauer and Fattal, he went on hunger strikes to protest both his treatment and his wrongful detention.
While al Hajj’s plight was met with mute silence by the American press, Al Jazeera kept his picture on its website and regularly broadcast updated reports about his condition, especially during his hunger strikes. The influential news outlet also publicized letters of support sent to his family and lawyers.
The American transgressions against journalists did not stop with al Hajj. Throughout his imprisonment, the Bush administration ordered numerous strikes against known media targets. In 2003 alone three such strikes were executed in Baghdad, one targeting Abu Dhabi Television, another hitting the Palestine Hotel -- where correspondents were known to reside -- and a third that struck Al Jazeera’s offices in the Iraqi capital, killing journalist Tariq Ayoub.
While the administration maintained the attacks were not deliberate, Arabs accused Washington of intentionally looking to silence what it saw as negative reporting. “The first objective in launching these strikes,” a colleague of Ayoub’s told Al Jazeera, “is to send the message that those who do not side with [the United States] against Saddam Hussein one hundred percent will be punished.”
Ayoub’s father offered another interpretation. The objective behind these targeted killings, he told Al Sahfi.com, “is to eliminate those that can bear witness to crimes committed by U.S. forces in Iraq.”
The most damming evidence, however, was the video provided by the whistleblower site, Wikileaks. It showed an American attack helicopter launching a missile strike against Reuters journalists Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh in 2007. For many in the Arab world, the images were yet further proof that Washington was indeed targeting the media.
Other governments and insurgencies began to see journalists as fair game. According to the nonprofit, Committee to Protect Journalists, the targeted killing or kidnapping of reporters spiked following the American invasion of Iraq.
In 2006, a female correspondent for Al Arabiya named Atwar Bahjat was killed near Samarra by Iraqi militias. In 2008, Israeli forces brutally beat Palestinian photojournalist Mohammed Omer, who was awarded the first annual National Ethnic Media Award for Best Youth Voice a year earlier. At the time of the beating, he was returning from London after receiving the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism.
In 2009, North Korean border guards detained journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling after they secretly slipped into the country to cover human trafficking in the region. The two, who worked for Al Gore’s Current TV, were sentenced to 12 years each, a lifetime by North Korean standards, but were soon thereafter released following a visit by former President Bill Clinton.
According to the Chosun Ilbo, a major in Seoul, the arrest of the American journalist was not an accident but was well orchestrated by North Korea’s State Security Department deputy chief Ryu Kyong. Ryu apparently had his spies in China work with the Chinese-Korean guide to deliver the two young women to awaiting North Korean soldiers on the frozen banks of the Tumen River. (Ryu, according to the Chosun Ilbo, however, didn’t get to celebrate his success too long. He was reported executed earlier this year due to an internal power struggle.)
Observers were quick to note that North Korea was looking to capitalize on the journalists’ detention to squeeze diplomatic concessions out of Washington. A photo of Kim Jong Il standing next to a former U.S. president can go a long way, for example, in boosting domestic propaganda about the North Korean regime’s international standing.
Iran may have something similar in mind.
Bauer, an experienced photojournalist and fluent in Arabic, and his friend, Fattal, were detained along with Bauer’s fiancée Sarah Shourd near the Iraq-Iran border in 2009, while hiking in a mostly Kurdish area known as a popular tourist destination. Shourd was later released on what Iran said were “humanitarian grounds.”
The two men, meanwhile, were sentenced to eight years each, drawing shock and dismay from friends and relatives, and condemnation from Washington. But while the harsh verdict, carried by Iran’s state broadcasters, allows the regime to appear firm in the face of American pressure, its timing suggests a possible opening.
It is a common practice among Muslim rulers to grant clemency to political prisoners prior to Eid al-Fitr, a four-day period marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Reform-minded Iranians, in fact, are already pushing for the release of Bauer and Fatal. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi issued a statement earlier this month urging Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to let them go, implying that factions within the regime may be seeking to mend ties with Washington.
While Arab media have paid little attention to the case of the two Americans, they have remained acutely attuned to the prolonged detention of Arab journalists, including Samer Allawi, the Afghan bureau chief for Al Jazeera, who remains in custody in an Israeli jail.
Allawi was picked up while visiting relatives along the Israeli-Jordanian border. Israel recently announced that it would extend his detention.
Such is the legacy of the United States since the Bush years, which offers little in the way of a response to growing calls from those within the Arab Spring for greater press freedom and security. Instead, practices legitimated and perpetuated by Washington have become the norm for those looking to silence the media. Sadly, Bauer and Fattal have become political pawns to this new norm.
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