CPJ urges Obama to assert U.S. leadership on press freedom

Presidential Transition Team
Washington, D.C. 20270
January 12, 2009

Dear President-elect Obama:

I am writing as chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists to seek your leadership in reaffirming America’s role as a staunch defender of press freedom throughout the world. Journalists in many countries who risk their lives and liberty upholding the values of free expression look to the United States for support.

To assert moral authority we must first put our own house in order. I urge you to make it a priority to end the U.S. military’s practice of open-ended detention of journalists and media support workers, and to investigate fully the deaths of journalists from U.S. forces’ fire.

The detention without trial of journalists has reduced U.S. standing in the world and may have contributed to the overall global increase in jailed journalists by emboldening the many tyrants who look for pretext or justification to throw critical journalists in jail.

U.S. allies and close friends such as Azerbaijan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Pakistan are among the 10 countries where press freedom has most deteriorated, according to a CPJ survey. Others such as Tunisia are among the top censors of news worldwide.

As Sen. Richard Lugar recently noted, “The example of press freedom we set in this country is an important beacon to guide other nations as they make the transition from autocratic forms of government.”

Or, as your former Senate colleague from Illinois, Richard Durbin, recently said, “America has long been a champion and source of hope around the world for those suffering human rights violations–those holed up in dictators’ prisons, those fighting for press and political freedoms, those bravely standing up to tyranny or injustice.” Sen. Durbin went on to say, “Sadly, I worry that a measure of this leadership, of this inspiration, and of this uniquely American hope has been lost in recent years.”

This hope continues to be eroded by the U.S. military’s ongoing detention of journalists. Fourteen journalists have been held for prolonged periods of time without due process in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo. One is still behind bars. Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer working for Reuters, was detained September 2 by U.S. forces in Baghdad. On November 30, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court ruled that there was no evidence to hold Jassam and ordered the U.S. military to release him. However, U.S. Army Maj. Eric Larson told CPJ in December that despite the Iraqi ruling the army could still detain Jassam if it deemed him a security threat. Larson said a military review would be initiated and could take up to 60 days.

Other journalists who have been held by the military without trial include:

  • Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi photographer, was part of The Associated Press team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Arrested in 2006, Hussein was held for two years without being charged. In November, CPJ awarded Hussein an International Press Freedom Award.
  • Jawed Ahmad, an Afghan field producer with Canada’s CTV, was detained in 2007 at a NATO airfield near Kandahar. Ahmad was moved to Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul and held for 11 months without being charged.
  • Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman with Al-Jazeera, was arrested by Pakistani forces in 2001 along the Afghan-Pakistani border while covering the U.S.-led offensive to oust the Taliban. Transferred to U.S. custody, he was moved to Guantanamo and held for six years without being charged.

Apart from Jassam who is still in detention, all 13 journalists held by the military were released without charge after spending weeks, months, or years in prison. The practice violates the U.S. military’s own commitment to review journalist cases within 36 hours of detention. In March 2006, U.S. military officials in Baghdad and Washington informed Reuters and CPJ of a new procedure to bring quick, high-level attention to journalist detentions to ensure that working journalists would not be held without charge for prolonged periods. But the newly announced procedure was apparently abandoned within months, as I outlined in a November 2006 letter to then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

I believe the abolition of the practice of detaining journalists for prolonged periods without due process would send a clear signal that the United States upholds its long-standing commitment to free expression.

That signal would be further reinforced by an unequivocal commitment by your administration that the military will fully investigate the killing of any journalist at the hands of U.S. forces. Since 2003, at least 16 journalists have died and others have been seriously wounded by U.S. forces’ fire in Iraq. So far as we know, U.S. military authorities have conducted investigations in less than a handful of cases. The investigations exonerated the soldiers involved in each case.

Some investigations failed to reconcile questions concerning operational command and control or contradictory statements by witnesses. A CPJ report found that an apparent breakdown in operational command and control contributed to the 2003 episode in which a U.S. tank fired on the Palestine Hotel, resulting in the deaths of two journalists. Other U.S. military investigations made specific recommendations to avoid a repetition of such incidents, including a review of the rules of engagement and improvements to command-and-control and checkpoint procedures. CPJ and Human Rights Watch together raised concerns about checkpoint security in a 2005 letter to Secretary Rumsfeld. But it remains unclear whether, or to what degree, the U.S. military has implemented its own or other recommendations.

Moreover, the U.S. military has yet to make public investigations concerning most other journalist cases involving U.S. forces. They include the 2003 airstrike on the Al-Jazeera television network’s Baghdad bureau that killed correspondent Tareq Ayyoub.

The Pentagon should undertake a thorough and timely investigation into the death of any journalist by U.S. forces’ fire. The results of such inquiries should be made public and the lessons drawn from it should be incorporated into operating procedures.

I also ask you to encourage the military to include procedures for heightened awareness among soldiers encountering journalists in the field. As U.S. troops find themselves increasingly engaged in confrontations with foes that operate deeply immersed within the civilian population, they must be trained to accept the presence of local journalists who have a legitimate right to cover the conflict. Far too often CPJ gets reports from local journalists in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq of verbal and sometimes physical abuse by U.S. troops.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that accepts no government funds as it works to defend press freedom globally. Since CPJ was founded in 1981 by U.S. journalists concerned about their colleagues overseas, the overwhelming majority of our work has focused on defending journalists working in some of the most repressive conditions around the world.

The greatest threats to press freedom are twofold. One is the alarmingly high rate of impunity for murdering journalists worldwide: Nearly three out of four journalists killed in the line of duty are murdered, and the killers are unpunished in nearly nine of 10 cases. The other is the common incarceration of journalists for doing their jobs: No less than 125 journalists were in prison around the world as of December 1, 2008. Nearly half of those imprisoned are online journalists; they are now detained more often than journalists working in any other medium. CPJ focuses on these issues, along with many other forms of restrictions on press freedom around the world.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of Washington’s resolute defense of media freedom at this time of growing repression, censorship, and attacks on journalists around the world. I encourage you to make press freedom integral to both your domestic and foreign policy. As Thomas Jefferson noted, “Our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”



Paul E. Steiger
Chairman, Committee to Protect Journalists