by Laura Snedeker
In American-occupied Iraq, freedom of the press is as elusive as Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. The U.S. military continues to hold Iraqi photographer Bilal Hussein of the Associated Press (AP), who has languished for two years in an American military prison. Hussein remains imprisoned against release orders from an Iraqi court and despite the dismissal of terrorism allegations against him.
Hussein was detained on April 12, 2006 by U.S. forces and charged with “terrorism-related allegations” and with being in contact with the kidnappers of an Italian citizen who was killed by insurgents in 2004.
Although the Iraqi court granted amnesty to Hussein and effectively closed the case, the U.S. military declined to release him, citing the need to review the court’s order and obtain a full report from Iraqi authorities. The Pentagon also invoked a U.N. Security Council mandate that permits the military to keep a suspect in custody against the wishes of the Iraqi government if that suspect is deemed a security risk.
The Pentagon’s method of dealing with Hussein is reminiscent of its treatment of “enemy combatants,” people captured on the battlefield whom the U.S. has detained indefinitely and tried in secret military courts. Although Hussein is alleged to have conspired with insurgents, possessed bomb-making material, and supplied insurgents with false identification, the Pentagon never publicly disclosed the official charges against him, which the Iraqi court examined in private, according to Reporters Without Borders.
More disturbing than the dismissed terrorism allegations is the way the U.S. military has effectively criminalized journalism by detaining Hussein merely for having contacts among the insurgents. Any reporter who wants to get the other side of the conflict knows the importance of cultivating such sources, but the military’s tactics of fear must give pause to any journalist, lest he or she be arrested for the actions of their associates.
By limiting the media’s ability to construct a coherent and truthful picture of the war, the Pentagon hopes to maintain the appearance of being in control of the rapidly deteriorating situation. The media that were so complicit in the early days of the conflict have grown less so, and Iraqi journalists who are less dependent on the military than their American counterparts complicate the situation. The Iraqi government has often been complicit in trying to limit the media’s influence, stressing its role in fighting terrorism and forbidding Iraqi journalists from photographing bomb sites or from talking to Kurdish separatist rebels in northern Iraq.
Given the poor media climate created by the military and the Iraqi government, it is not surprising that many Americans are ignorant of the war and uninterested in foreign affairs. The complexity of the situation in Iraq defies a single explanation, and Americans cannot begin to understand the motivations behind the myriad sectarian and political parties if they are permitted to see only one side of the conflict.
Hussein’s detention sets a bad precedent in Iraq, in the U.S., and around the world for freedom of the press. If America can detain journalists in Iraq on vague terrorism charges and forbid them from associating with its enemies, then nothing prevents the unstable government in Iraq or the enemies of press freedom in America from using the same convenient rationale of national security. Such actions are no different than the actions of violent foreign dictators. The U.S. should not provide such a poor example nor endanger its own freedoms at home.
(Editor's Note: To sign a petition asking for Hussein to be freed, please go to FreeBilal.org.)
(The photo of Bilal Hussein is from FreeBilal.org.)
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by Laura Snedeker