The U.S. threat to journalists

THE U.S. has bombed media outlets, killed reporters and imprisoned journalists without charge for years at Guantánamo and elsewhere, writes Jeremy Scahill.

Journalist Roxana Saberi was recently released from prison in IranJournalist Roxana Saberi was recently released from prison in Iran

Last week, we reported on how retired U.S. Army Colonel Ralph Peters penned an essay for a leading neocon group calling for future U.S. military attacks on media outlets and journalists. Writing for the journal of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), Col. Peters wrote:

[F]uture wars may require censorship, news blackouts and, ultimately, military attacks on the partisan media... a media establishment that has forgotten any sense of sober patriotism may find that it has become tomorrow's conventional wisdom. The point of all this is simple: Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty. But win.

Of course, what Col. Peters is advocating is not new, nor does he need to propose it as a policy for "future wars." It is already a de facto U.S. policy to target journalists. The U.S. has consistently attacked journalists and media organizations in modern wars. In the 1999 U.S.-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, General Wesley Clark, then the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, ordered an airstrike on Radio Television Serbia, killing 16 media workers, including make-up artists and technical staff, an action Amnesty International labeled a "war crime." Richard Holbrooke, who is currently Obama's point man on Afghanistan and Pakistan, praised that bombing at the time.

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The U.S. bombed Al Jazeera in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, attacked it multiple times in the 2003 Iraq invasion, and killed Al Jazeera correspondent Tarek Ayoub. On April 8, 2003, a U.S. Abrams tank fired at the Palestine Hotel, home and office to more than 100 unembedded international journalists operating in Baghdad at the time. The shell smashed into the fifteenth-floor Reuters office, killing two cameramen, Reuters's Taras Protsyuk and José Couso of Spain's Telecinco. In a chilling statement at the end of that day in Iraq, then-Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke spelled out the Pentagon's policy on journalists not embedded with U.S. troops. She warned them that Baghdad "is not a safe place. You should not be there."

Last week, a Spanish judge reinstated charges against three U.S. soldiers in Couso's killing, citing new evidence, including eyewitness testimony contradicting official U.S. claims that soldiers were responding to enemy fire from the hotel. One year ago, former Army Sergeant Adrienne Kinne told Democracy Now! she saw the Palestine Hotel on a military target list and said she frequently intercepted calls from journalists staying there.

As I have reported previously, Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana was shot by U.S. forces near Abu Ghraib prison when his camera was allegedly mistaken for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The U.S. listed as "justified" the killing of Al Arabiya TV's Mazen al-Tumeizi, blown apart by a U.S. missile as he reported on a burning U.S. armored vehicle on Baghdad's Haifa Street.

There have also been several questionable killings of journalists at U.S. military checkpoints in Iraq, such as the March 2004 shooting deaths of Ali Abdel-Aziz and Ali al-Khatib of Al Arabiya. The Pentagon said the soldiers who shot the journalists acted within the "rules of engagement." And Reuters freelancer Dhia Najim was killed by U.S. fire while filming resistance fighters in November 2004. "We did kill him," an unnamed military official told the New York Times. "He was out with the bad guys. He was there with them, they attacked, and we fired back and hit him."

The Obama administration has recently paid a lot of lip service to freedom of the press, particularly around the case of Iranian-American journalist Roxanna Saberi, who was released May 11 from an Iranian prison. Yet, the U.S. military continues to hold journalists as prisoners without charges or rights in neighboring Iraq. Ibrahim Jassam, a cameraman and photographer for Reuters has been a U.S. prisoner in Iraq since last September despite an Iraqi court's order last year that he be freed.

As the Los Angeles Times reported:

His case represents the latest in a dozen detentions the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has documented since 2001.

No formal accusations have been made against Jassam, and an Iraqi court ordered in November that he be released for lack of evidence. But the U.S. military continues to hold him, saying it has intelligence that he is "a high security threat," according to Maj. Neal Fisher, spokesman for detainee affairs.

The Obama administration harshly criticized Iran for its imprisonment of Roxana Saberi, the U.S.-Iranian journalist who was convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison before being freed last week. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized Iran's treatment of Saberi as "non-transparent, unpredictable and arbitrary."

Washington also has called upon North Korea to expedite the trial of two U.S. journalists being held there on spying charges.

Yet the United States has routinely used the arbitrary powers it assumed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorism attacks to hold without charge journalists in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Committee to Protect Journalists points out.

None of the detained journalists has been convicted of any charge, said Joel Simon, executive director of the group, undermining the United States reputation when it comes to criticizing other countries on issues of press freedom.

"The U.S. has a record of holding journalists for long periods of time without due process and without explanation," he said. "Its standing would be improved if it addressed this issue."

Reuters has expressed disappointment at Jassam's detention and has said there is no evidence against him...

Jassam was detained without a warrant "as the result of his activity with a known insurgent organization," Fisher alleged.

No evidence against Jassam was presented at his court hearing in November, Fisher said, because the military intelligence against him had not yet been verified.

Under the wartime rules in place at the time, he said, "there was no requirement to link the military intelligence with rule of law type of evidentiary procedures."

After the court ordered Jassam's release, Fisher said, fresh evidence came to light that suggested he was a "high security threat."

This reminds me of how the U.S. held Al Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj at Guantánamo from December 2001 to May 2008. He alleges he was tortured at Guantánamo and that he had been interrogated over 130 times (as of 2005) with his interrogators insisting in 125 of those interviews that he link al Jazeera to terrorism and al-Qaeda, which he wouldn't. "He is completely innocent," his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith said during al Hajj's imprisonment. "He is about as much of a terrorist as my granddad. The only reason he has been treated like he has is because he is an Al Jazeera journalist. The Americans have tried to make him an informant with the goal of getting him to say that Al Jazeera is linked to Al Qaida." Al Hajj was eventually released after an international campaign and the tenacious work of his lawyers.

When you hold up Iran's handling of Roxanna Saberi against the U.S. handling of Jassam, the comparison is striking. So too is the level of outcry from other journalists. Loud voices demanded Saberi's freedom. Web sites were established. Some 400 people reportedly joined a hunger strike in solidarity with Saberi.

The same is not true for Jassam, who has spent many months in U.S. custody without charges. It is time for journalists, particularly U.S. journalists, to break their silence and demand Jassam's release. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad released Saberi pretty swiftly after her arrest on espionage charges (and subsequent conviction and sentencing). Obama should follow Iran's example and release Ibrahim Jassam. But, in the absence of outcry and protest from other journalists, Obama has little to lose by ignoring Jassam's case.

First published at Rebel Reports.