Al Jazeera Goes to Jail

Al Jazeera Goes to Jail

In Iraq’s media war, US troops are imprisoning and abusing Arab journalists.


EDITOR’S NOTE: After this story about the abuse of Arab journalists by the US military in Iraq went to press, there were several further developments. On March 18, US troops in Baghdad killed two TV journalists from the Al Arabiya network in what appears to have been an overreaction at a checkpoint: Ali Khatib, 34, a reporter, and Ali Abdul Aziz, 35, a cameraman. Two days later, some thirty Arab journalists walked out in protest at a press conference with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had made a surprise trip to Iraq. On March 29, the US military acknowledged it was responsible for the killings but held that the incident was “an accident” and that the soldiers had acted “within the rules of engagement.” Around the same time, six US soldiers were criminally charged with abusing inmates at the US military’s main prison in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, where the Al Jazeera journalists profiled below were held. Meanwhile, the Coalition Provisional Authority shut down a newspaper run by supporters of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, drawing cries of protest and accusations of hypocrisy.

Salah Hassan looks sad and very tired. The Al Jazeera cameraman, a 33-year-old father of two, is recounting his tale of incarceration in a soft and matter-of-fact tone. Sipping tea in the lobby of the hotel that serves as Al Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau, he explains how on November 3 of last year he raced to the site of a roadside bomb attack on a US military convoy in Dialah, near the eastern Iraqi city of Baquba. While he was interviewing people at the scene, US troops who had previously taken photographs of Hassan at other events arrested him, took him to a police station, interrogated him and repeatedly accused the cameraman of knowing in advance about the bomb attack and of lying in wait to get footage. “I told them to review my tapes, that it was clear I had arrived thirty or forty minutes after the blast. They told me I was a liar,” says Hassan.

From Baquba, Hassan says he was taken to the military base at Baghdad International Airport, held in a bathroom for two days, then flown hooded and bound to Tikrit. After two more days in another bathroom, he was loaded onto a five-truck convoy of de-tainees and shipped south to Abu Ghraib, a Saddam-built prison that now serves as the American military’s main detention center and holds about 13,000 captives.

Once inside the sprawling prison, Hassan says, he was greeted by US soldiers who sang “Happy Birthday” to him through his tight plastic hood, stripped him naked and addressed him only as “Al Jazeera,” “boy” or “bitch.” He was forced to stand hooded, bound and naked for eleven hours in the bitter autumn night air; when he fell, soldiers kicked his legs to get him up again. In the morning, Hassan says, he was made to wear a dirty red jumpsuit that was covered with someone else’s fresh vomit and interrogated by two Americans in civilian clothes. They made the usual accusations that Hassan and Al Jazeera were in cahoots with “terrorists.”

While most Abu Ghraib prisoners are held in large barracks-like tents in open-air compounds surrounded by razor wire, Hassan says he was locked in a high-security isolation unit of tiny cells. Down the tier from him was an old woman who sobbed incessantly and a mentally deranged 13-year-old girl who would scream and shriek until the American guards released her into the hall, where she would run up and down; exhausted, she would eventually return to her cell voluntarily. Hassan says that all other prisoners in the unit, mostly men, were ordered to remain silent or risk being punished with denial of food, water and light.

Elsewhere in Abu Ghraib, Hassan’s colleague Suheib Badr Darwish was also in lockup. He had been arrested in Samarra on November 18 and, according to a colleague of his at Al Jazeera, Darwish was badly beaten by US troops.

Meanwhile, on the outside, the network hired a top-flight lawyer named Hider Nur Al Mulha to start working Hassan’s case through Iraq’s largely wrecked court system. Eventually Hassan was brought before a panel of the Iraqi Governing Council’s freshly minted Federal Supreme Court, which was set up alongside its war crimes tribunal for trying the likes of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen. Salah Hassan, journalist, was the subject of the Court’s first hearing. He was released for lack of evidence. After three more days in Abu Ghraib, this time in one of the prison’s open-air camps, Hassan, still in his vomit-stained red jumpsuit, was dumped on a street just outside Baghdad on December 18. Darwish was released more than a month later, on January 25, again for lack of evidence.

Military officials did not respond to my requests for a tour of Abu Ghraib, nor were most of my numerous calls and e-mails about the cases of Hassan and Darwish returned. The one military spokesperson who did address relations with Al Jazeera on the record was Lieut. Col. Daniel Williams of the Coalition Joint Task Force 7; his comment was, “Al Jazeera is a welcome guest and professional news organization.” As one source at the civilian Coalition Provisional Authority explained, “Anything about Al Jazeera is very sensitive, so any on-the-record comment would have to come from pretty far up in the hierarchy. Only a very senior person can deal with this.” But repeated calls to the CPA’s senior spokesperson, Dan Senor, produced no response.

Disturbingly, these two cases fit into a larger pattern of US government hostility toward Al Jazeera, provoked by the network’s tough reporting on the Iraqi occupation. And this hostility is best viewed in the context of the escalating, multimillion-dollar regional media war between Al Jazeera and the US government.

Donald Rumsfeld has called Al Jazeera’s coverage “outrageous” and “inexcusably biased” and implied that he’d like to see the satellite channel thrown out of Iraq. So far the American military has bombed the network’s offices in both Baghdad and Kabul, killing one employee; arrested and briefly jailed twenty-one of Al Jazeera’s reporters; and now has imprisoned and allegedly abused and humiliated Hassan and Darwish in ways that the UN convention on such matters would consider torture.

At the same time that the US military is harassing Al Jazeera reporters, other parts of the US government, including the State Department, are attempting to answer Al Jazeera in its own language and format. On February 14 the United States launched a nominally independent, US-funded Arabic-language satellite channel called Al Hurra, which means “the free one.” The purpose of this effort is to address the lack of popular support for the US occupation in Iraq, as well as the deepening crisis of American legitimacy throughout the Arab world; polls from the region indicate that more and more people hate the United States every day.

Unlike other US-funded forays into Arabic-language media, Al Hurra, with an annual budget of $62 million, could be quite sophisticated and possibly effective in reshaping the beliefs of the politically important and demographically dominant Arab youth scene. The new channel has a stable of proven Arab journalists–one senior producer is a Palestinian who was poached from Al Jazeera, while the channel’s top managers are Lebanese Christians with proven journalistic track records. On the other hand, the channel is based in Virginia, includes Colin Powell on its board of directors and its first broadcast was a pre-recorded interview with George W. Bush–none of which bode well for winning Arab hearts and minds.

Regardless of how well Al Hurra fares, Al Jazeera faces increasing obstacles to its reporting in Iraq as its correspondents are harassed, arrested, abused and killed by US troops.

So far, Al Jazeera’s management has kept rather quiet about the cases of Hassan and Darwish. When I interviewed Ceddah Abdelhak, the channel’s general manager in Baghdad, he insisted that the channel had publicized the cases, and he was clearly upset about the bad treatment of his staff. But other journalists in Baghdad say that Al Jazeera is under so much pressure from the Americans that its owners in Qatar are afraid the channel could be expelled from Iraq if they push too hard on any issue that upsets the CPA.

This is not an unfounded fear. According to sources that insisted on anonymity, the coalition called the network’s managers in Iraq to the Republican Palace in Baghdad for a meeting in late January, at which the CPA’s head counsel threatened Al Jazeera with expulsion if the network did not stop “destabilizing the occupation” with its tough reporting and intense editorial criticism. Allegedly, the CPA attorney explained that the coalition needed no legal justification to expel Al Jazeera and implied that US authorities were even pressuring the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, to rein in Al Jazeera, which, though run independently, is owned by the government of Qatar.

Another Al Jazeera adversary is the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which recently barred the network from covering its sparsely attended meetings. The IGC was much more aggressive with the next most prominent Arabic-language network, Al Arabiya, which it threw out of Iraq for two months beginning in late December of last year. During that suspension, Al Arabiya’s equipment was seized and its journalists faced $1,000 fines or possibly a year in prison if they violated the sanction. The network’s offense had been “incitement to murder” by playing a taped message from Saddam Hussein, who was then in hiding.

Arabs working for other media outlets have also been harassed by US troops. Mazen Dana of Reuters was shot and killed by an American soldier outside Abu Ghraib prison in August. Then, in January, elements of the 82nd Airborne Division stationed in Falluja jailed and allegedly beat a three-man Arab-language crew, also from Reuters. The news agency immediately lodged a formal complaint with the US military, charging that its journalists had been abused while in detention. A Reuters freelancer told me that one of the journalists was later hospitalized.

Travel the roads of the so-called Sunni Triangle looking for action, and one can get plenty of comment about Al Jazeera from US troops who are lower down in the ranks. More than once I have met soldiers in the field who respond to requests for interviews or permission to enter their area of operations with, “As long as you’re not Al Jazeera.” One officer with the 82nd Airborne in Falluja claims that Al Jazeera filmed an attack on his unit in which one of his sergeants was impaled with debris from a bomb and then burned to death in the ensuing fire.

“We knew something was wrong when we saw people with cameras,” explained the young lieutenant with a controlled bitterness. “Later my guys said they saw footage of it on Al Jazeera.” When I pushed the lieutenant and his soldiers on this point, it was unclear whether the men had actually seen footage of the attack or just of the aftermath, and whether it was even on Al Jazeera.

A few events like this and the hatred for Al Jazeera builds into a slow-burning passion among the grunts. Stories of Al Jazeera’s perfidy now circulate among the troops with the tenacity of urban myths. And while Al Jazeera programming includes Western-style fashion shows and mainstream business news, it also gives ample time to the views of anti-American Arab nationalists and political Islamists who hate and excoriate the occupation. Yet as several well-placed sources explained, while the fixers and reporters of Al Jazeera are connected enough and numerous enough that some of them could probably work with the resistance to film attacks as they happen, they do not, both because they fear expulsion and because of explicit orders from the network’s highest echelons. Indeed, the coalition has not documented a single instance of an Al Jazeera journalist conspiring in an attack on the occupation.

The pressure on Al Jazeera may be having the desired effect. Average Iraqis increasingly dismiss its news as soft on the occupation. Al Jazeera’s general manager himself says the network’s coverage is now “more balanced” than it once was, because it gives increased airtime to US claims of steadily increasing peace, progress and prosperity. Al Jazeera’s main spokesperson, Jihad Ballout, was more circumspect in his comments on relations with the Americans in Iraq. “This war has been very hard for all of the press to cover. This is to some extent due to the security concern of the US, the UK and the Iraqis, but it seems that Al Jazeera has gotten more than its fair share of attention. While we understand the security concerns, we believe the media should have the space to do its mandated job.”

Today Hassan is back at work, as is Darwish. Al Jazeera is still in action, and Al Hurra is the public face of America’s ideological offensive in the Middle East. Viewed from outside, the media environment in Iraq looks open and fair. But the continual abuse of Arab journalists is the more accurate core sample. Reading this political sediment one sees that the American project in Iraq is made of imperial ambition, not liberty and democracy. More broadly, the intimidation and mistreatment of Al Jazeera by the world’s most powerful army should be seen as a threat to press freedom everywhere.

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