- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

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 have broken any laws. The rest of us are left to guess. The best guesses don’t make our government look good.

One of them, photographer Bilal Hussein, was part of the Associated Press’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in Iraq. Yet the Iraqi has been held by United States forces in Iraq since April 12, 2006, with no indication whether he ever will be charged or released.

The other journalist, Sami al-Haj, is worse off. He’s a Sudanese national and cameraman for Al Jazeera who has been held for more than five years. He is the only known journalist in the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As with Mr. Hussein, there are no publicly known charges against Mr. al-Haj, either.

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

Of course, there have been cases in this war and others of local reporters, photographers or stringers hired by American news organizations working as double agents for insurgents or other enemies. With its own reputation and the lives of its reporters and photographers at stake, the AP has thoroughly investigated Mr. Hussein, his photos and the allegations against him. They’ve examined 900 photos for evidence 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 has come up clean.

“We’re not new to this job,” Miss Carroll said. “The AP has been covering wars since Little Big Horn.” At a New York forum sponsored by the Museum of Television and Radio last month, Tom Curley, AP president and chief executive officer, drew applause by declaring, “We have reviewed everything about [Mr. Hussein], we stand by him, and his work speaks for itself.”

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

With that, Mr. Hussein’s case holds ominous similarities to that of Mr. al-Haj. Military authorities at first said the Somali national 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 Mr. al-Haj 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, Mr. al-Haj’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 the government doesn’t know, either. The lack of due process in both cases is outrageous. 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, Mr. Hussein and Mr. al-Haj 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 be given a fair trial or they should be released. At once.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide