Have you ever heard of the “world’s most famous journalist”?
Posted by James McPherson on May 28, 2008
A column by Sabin Willett (an attorney for a firm that has represented Guantanamo prisoners) in today’s Miami Herald, reprinted by CommonDreams.org, illustrates why so many Americans are clueless about this nation’s standing in the rest of the world. “The world’s most famous journalist isn’t Peter Arnett or Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein or Dan Rather,” Willett writes. “His name is Sami al-Hajj. Chances are you’ve never heard of him. That should worry you.”
Willett points out that al-Hajj, a TV cameraman from Sudan, was recently released without comment after years in Guantanamo–years in which “al-Jazeera followed his odyssey day by day” while “most Americans never saw his photograph in mainstream American newspapers or heard about him on television.” I’ve attached YouTube clips (more than 23 minutes, or about the length of a full nightly news broadcast in this country) of al-Jazeera’s “Inside Story” coverage of the al-Hajj case and world Press Freedom Day below. A quick search of the New York Times archives for al-Hajj’s name reveals a total of 12 results, only two of those news story focusing on al-Hajj–a four-paragraph story in September 2002 with the lead, “A reporter for the Arab satellite station Al Jazeera is being held at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, suspected of having links with the terror network of Al Qaeda, according to a statement issued by the station,” and then one reporting his release earlier this month.
The press did pay a bit more attention a couple of weeks ago to the government’s decision to drop charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, the supposed “20th hijacker,” after al-Qahtani’s information apparently was deemed worthless in part because he was tortured (supporting John McCain’s early criticism of torture, before he voted to allow more of it). To the surprise of no one who closely follows the media, the charges against al-Qahtani were dropped on a Friday so that American press coverage would be limited.
Willett is justifiably critical of the U.S. news media in the case of the Sudanese cameraman, noting that while they could not have known whether al-Hajj was a journalist or a terrorist, they “should have been shouting from the rooftops about al-Hajj–demanding evidence, a trial, the truth. But our press was silent.” Willett also suggests that the press silence may be a harbinger of ineptitude to come:
Today the war drums are rumbling again, this time for Iran. Will our press stand its post, or pick up the pom-poms of 2002 and 2003?
The omens aren’t good. The most famous journalist in the world was imprisoned by Americans, without charge, for almost seven years–was beaten, isolated, humiliated, force-fed, relentlessly interrogated and then quietly released. And you never heard about him.
Al-Hajj claims he was tortured while in American custody, that he was interrogated more than 130 times, and that his keepers wanted him to go to work for the U.S. “They wanted me to betray the principles of my job and turn me into a spy,” he said. “It was made clear to me later that the main goal behind my detention was to detain the journalist who reveals the truth.”
We have no way of knowing whether al-Hajj is telling the truth, of course. But part of the reason we don’t know is because the American press never bothered to investigate. And if they won’t investigate the case of a fellow journalist, what are the odds they’ll examine any of the other almost 800 other people sent to Guantanamo?
Al-Jazeera’s “Inside Story” on Sami al-Hajj (2 parts)