Journalists held by U.S. must be charged or freed

May 15, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- 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 broke any laws.

One of them, Iraqi photographer Bilal Hussein, was part of the Associated Press' 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in Iraq. He has been held by U.S. forces in Iraq since April 12, 2006, with no indication as to whether he ever will be charged or released.

The other journalist, Sami al-Hajj, is worse off. He's a Sudanese national, a cameraman for Al Jazeera and has been held more than five years. He is the only known journalist being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As with Mr. Hussein, there are no publicly known charges against Mr. al-Hajj.

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

Of course, there have been many cases in this war and others in which local reporters, photographers or stringers hired by American news organizations have turned out to be double agents. 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. The AP examined 900 photos for evidence that 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's come up clean.

Last month, at a New York forum sponsored by the Museum of Television & Radio, Tom Curley, AP president and chief executive officer, declared, "We have reviewed everything about [Mr. Hussein], we stand by him and his work speaks for itself."

So why is the U.S. government still holding Mr. Hussein? Mr. Curley suspected a government effort to chill coverage of Anbar province, where Mr. Hussein was arrested: "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-Hajj. U.S. military authorities said at first that he was being held as a suspected courier for al-Qaida 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-Hajj 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.

I don't know whether either man is guilty of any crimes. Since they have not been charged, it appears that the government doesn't know either. What's outrageous is the lack of due process in both cases. 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-Hajj are not Americans. Americans are taking pains to hold them outside of America under the legally vague status of "enemy combatants."

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 given a fair trial or they should be released. At once.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

Trudy Rubin's column will return next week.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.