As Cairo speech nears, concerns for Obama

June 1, 2009

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
D.C. 20500

Via facsimile 202-456-2461

Dear Mr. President,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing ahead of your scheduled speech in Cairo on June 4 to bring to your attention important matters that are crucial to the long-term success of your stated goal of engaging the people–and not just the regimes–of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

In a few days, hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims will be listening to you with a mix of skepticism and hopeful anticipation. I would like to suggest concrete steps that you and your administration can take to bring U.S. policy in the region in line with the country’s unwavering commitment to press freedom and free expression, not just at home but also across the globe.

The overseas detention of journalists without due process has markedly damaged U.S. prestige worldwide and especially in the Muslim world. It is likely that it has also contributed to an overall increase in imprisoned journalists by authoritarian regimes that have used this policy as a pretext for sidelining critical journalists in their own countries. To date, 14 journalists have been held by the United States for extended periods of time without adequate legal consideration in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo. One remains in custody.

Reuters freelance photographer Ibrahim Jassam was detained by U.S. forces at his home just outside Baghdad on September 2, 2008. A November 30 Iraqi Central Criminal Court decision found that there was no evidence to hold Jassam, and an order that U.S. forces release him was rejected by U.S. military authorities, who concluded that he “continued to pose a serious threat to the security and stability of Iraq.” The military did not provide evidence to corroborate that finding. In correspondence dated February 9 of this year, Chief of Public Affairs Major Neal Fisher told CPJ that Jassam “is awaiting release …as [are] the other remaining approximate 14,800 detainees” in accordance with a “ranking based on their assessed threat” level. Fisher could not provide more detail as to when that would take place.

The prompt release of Ibrahim Jassam, the last remaining journalist in U.S. custody, and a firm commitment that any journalists detained in the future will be guaranteed a timely judicial review would send a clear message to the people of the Muslim world that the United States has brought a difficult chapter of history to an end and is upholding its stated commitment to press freedom.

Since 2003, at least 16 journalists have died and an undetermined number have been seriously injured by U.S. fire in Iraq. CPJ research indicates that the U.S. military has investigated less than a handful of these deaths, and has absolved troops of wrongdoing in all of them. The substantive results of these cases, such as the 2003 strike on Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau that killed correspondent Tareq Ayyoub, have not been made public.

U.S. military authorities should conduct thorough investigations into all instances of journalists killed by U.S. fire. The results of these investigations must be made public and their conclusions should be integrated into the military’s operational procedures. Such a step is not only beneficial for future U.S. military objectives, it is also an essential element in winning over the masses of Muslims who have been disillusioned by the real or perceived lack of accountability for journalist and civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. CPJ’s own report into a U.S. tank shelling of the Palestine Hotel in 2003, which killed Spanish cameraman Jose Couso and Ukrainian cameraman Taras Protsyuk, concluded that an apparent breakdown in operational command and control was a contributing factor. 

President Obama, when we wrote to you in January just before you assumed office, we asked you to ensure that as U.S. troops find themselves increasingly engaged in fighting foes that move among the civilian population, they are trained to accommodate the presence of 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 and detention by U.S. troops.

As you know, the Middle East and North Africa have some of the most repressive environments for journalists in the world. Journalists in Egypt, for example, must endure numerous implicit and explicit threats to their safety and physical integrity to bring news of corruption, mismanagement, and negligence to their audiences.

We commend you for your statement on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, in which you said that the United States “sound[s] the alarm about the growing number of journalists silenced by death or jail as they attempt to bring daily news to the public.” We ask that you reaffirm this commitment when you travel to the heart of the Arab world by seeking the release of journalists unjustly jailed merely for doing what their colleagues in the United States do every day: Report the news as they see it.


Joel Simon
Executive Director