And then there was one …

Each year, CPJ compiles an annual census of journalists imprisoned around the world, and every year since 2001, the U.S has figured on this list of infamy.

During this period, journalists have been imprisoned right here in this country for refusing to reveal their sources; imprisoned by the U.S. military in Iraq for long periods without charge; and, in at least two cases, declared “enemy combatants” and held at U.S. military prisons in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Last week, U.S. military authorities released one such journalist, Jawed Ahmad, who was held for 11 months at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Ahmad, a field producer for the Canadian broadcaster CTV, was jailed without charge or due process.

Even worse, he claims that he was abused in U.S. custody. 

Ahmad’s detention and release conforms to a pattern that began with the advent of the “war on terror.” Journalists have been detained on the battlefield, held for extended periods, and subsequently released without any charges having been filed.

This record of prosecutorial failure raises questions about whether there was ever any real evidence against any of these detained journalists. The most sinister possibility is that military authorities never intended to prosecute any of them and labeled them “enemy combatants” or “imperative threats to security” as a way of stifling scrutiny of their cases.

Unquestionably there is a pattern: Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj, detained for more than six years at Guantanamo; AP photographer Bilal Hussein, released earlier this year after two years in custody in Iraq; and Jawed Ahmad, held in Afghanistan, were all released with no wrongdoing ever having been proven.

Currently, there is only one known journalist in U.S. custody. Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer for Reuters, was arrested earlier this month during a raid at his home near Baghdad. In March 2006, the U.S. military promised to review the cases of detained journalists within 36 hours, but the procedure does not appear to have been followed in Jassam’s case.

The record of journalist detentions is bad enough, but the lack of due process is even more troubling. If there is evidence that Jassam committed a crime then there must be a legal process to try him.

Because the U.S. government has detained dozens of journalists and never managed to prosecute a single one, I am hopeful that Jassam will eventually be released. But I wonder if months or years of his life will be lost in the process.

The annual appearance of the United States on CPJ’s imprisoned list since 2001 corresponds precisely with a dramatic upsurge in the total number of journalists imprisoned around the world. At the end of 2001, the number of journalists in prison worldwide shot up from 81 to 118, eventually reaching a high of 139. At the end of last year, there were 127 journalists in prison, including two held in U.S. military custody.

CPJ will publish its next imprisoned list at the end of the year, and it is my hope that by then Jassam will be out of jail by then and the U.S. will not be on it.

I also hope that the disappearance of the U.S. from our imprisoned list will contribute to an overall decline in the number of journalists imprisoned around the world. While the U.S. has made a relatively small contribution in numerical terms, the long-term detention of journalists without due process has set a terrible example. It has reduced the United States’ standing in the world and may have contributed to the overall global increase in jailed journalists by making it that much easier for the many tyrants who are looking for any excuse or justification to throw critical journalists in jail.