Held without charges; 2 cases of journalists in U.S. military custody raise questions

By Clarence Page
Chicago Tribune
May 13, 2007

WASHINGTON – Has journalism become a crime in the Bush administration’s “war on terror”? We Americans are left to wonder. Our military is holding two journalists without charges or any public evidence that they broke any laws.

One of them, Iraqi photographer Bilal Hussein, was part of The Associated Press’ 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in Iraq. He has been held by U.S. forces in Iraq since April 12, 2006, with no indication as to whether he ever will be charged or released.

The other journalist, Sami al-Hajj, is worse off. He’s a Sudanese national, a cameraman for Al Jazeera and has been held for more than five years. Currently, he is the only known journalist being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As with Hussein, there are no publicly known charges against al-Hajj.

Various allegations have been leveled by the military, but the AP has rebutted each one. At one point, for example, U.S. officials alleged that Hussein was involved in the kidnapping of two other Arab journalists by insurgents. This was refuted by none other than the two journalists, who praised Hussein for helping them to be released.

Of course, there have been many cases in this war and others in which local reporters, photographers or stringers hired by American news organizations have turned out to be double agents. With its own reputation and the lives of its reporters and photographers at stake, the AP has thoroughly investigated Hussein, his photos and the allegations against him. The AP examined 900 photos for evidence that he might have been on the scene when explosions or other attacks took place, as the Pentagon has speculated. Last week, at a forum held by the Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I am a board member, Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the AP, said he’s come up clean.

“We’re not new to this job,” Carroll said. “The AP has been covering wars since Little Big Horn.”

Last month, at a New York forum sponsored by the Museum of Television & Radio, Tom Curley, AP president and chief executive officer, drew applause by declaring, “We have reviewed everything about [Hussein], we stand by him and his work speaks for itself.”

So why is the U.S. government still holding Hussein? Curley suspected a government effort to chill coverage of the unruly Anbar province, where Hussein was arrested. “He is an innocent victim,” said Curley. “This … is about The Associated Press. We are the target. Freedom of the press is the target.”

With that, Hussein’s case holds ominous similarities to that of al-Hajj. U.S. military authorities said at first that he was being held as a suspected courier for Al Qaeda and other extremists. But there’s also evidence he might be the victim of mistaken identity, confused with another suspect with a similar name.

Mostly his lawyers say interrogations of al-Hajj have focused on his employer, Al Jazeera, and the rest of its staff. He has even been offered a chance to be released if he agrees to inform U.S. intelligence about the satellite network’s activities, his lawyers say. Journalism shouldn’t be a crime, even for a network this administration doesn’t like.

“If there is any evidence of a crime, then let’s see it,” Zachary Katznelson, al-Hajj’s lawyer, said. That sounds fair to me.

I don’t know whether either man is guilty of any crimes. Since they have not been charged, it appears that the government doesn’t know either. What’s outrageous is the lack of due process in both cases. If the government has a case, it should press charges. Otherwise let these men go. That’s the American way. Or, at least, it used to be.

But, of course, Hussein and al-Hajj are not Americans. Americans are taking pains to hold them outside of America under the legally vague status of “enemy combatants.” The Bush administration is hardly the first or only regime to grab as much authority over people’s lives as it can. The next one probably will too. That’s why the framers wrote the Bill of Rights. The life of democracy is in the protection of individual freedoms.

If we Americans still believe in such niceties, our alleged “combatants” should either be charged with a crime in a court of law and given a fair trial or they should be released. At once.

Reprinted with Permission of Tribune Media Services, 2007