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A Free Press: The Latest Casualty in the "War on Terror"

Frank Knaack,
Executive Director, ACLU of South Carolina
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August 19, 2008

Beyond indefinite detention, numerous allegations of torture, and a massively deficient court system created by the Military Commissions Act, the case of Sami al Hajj, an Al Jazeera reporter, adds the prospect of uncovering a new and equally disturbing side of Guantánamo: its use as a mechanism to further silence the the press.

Illustration drawn by Sami al Hajj while detained at Guantánamo.

Sami al Hajj was arrested in December 2001 by Pakistani authorities as he tried to re-enter Afghanistan, the location of his news assignment. He was turned over to United States officials and arrived in Guantánamo in June 2002. Sami al Hajj was released six years later on May 1, 2008, without ever having been charged with a crime. Although the longterm detention and seemingly arbitrary release of so-called “enemy combatants” without charge is, quite disturbingly, not unique, what does make his case unique is the fact that he is a journalist, and the U.S. government has consistently failed to show that he was acting in any other manner when he was detained and sent to Guantánamo.

The extremely troubling nature of Sami al Hajj’s case was highlighted in a recent article by Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle. The article cites allegations made by Sami al Hajj and his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith of the Londonbased human rights organization Reprieve, that assert that Sami al Hajj’s detention may have been due to the fact that he worked for Al Jazeera, the largest broadcaster in the Arab world and nothing more. Al Jazeera has been consistently attacked by the U.S. government for its alleged inaccurate coverage of the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as U.S. policy more broadly. This criticism has been countered by people across the Arab world, as well as here at home who view Al Jazeera’s coverage of the U.S. led wars as a welcome reprieve from the censored imbedded journalism conducted by the mainstream U.S. media. Al Jazeera English was also recently nominated for two Emmy Awards in the news and current affairs categories.

Egelko’s article quotes Sami al Hajj’s human rights attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, stating that Sami al Hajj and he “calculated about 135 times [Sami had] been interrogated, and about the first 120 the only interest [his interrogators] had was Al-Jazeera.” Clive Stafford Smith was further quoted as stating that the interrogators of Sami al Hajj “told him that they thought Al-Jazeera was an al Qaeda front.” While we have no independent way of verifying the validity of this statement, the state of press freedom in the United States gives added weight to the seriousness of such allegations. As Reporters Without Borders’ most recent press freedom index shows, the United States’ rank is far from its rhetoric. The U.S. is ranked 48th in the world for press freedom, and 111th in the world for press freedom when viewing the U.S. extraterritorially.

The freedom of the press is vital to the maintenance and security of our republic. Allegations such as Sami al Hajj’s, while unverifiable, should make us all more aware of both the importance of such a freedom and the ease with which the government can take it away.

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