US vs. the Arab Press

Salah Hassan, a cameraman for Al Jazeera tells a disturbing story of his arrest by American soldiers in Iraq.

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.”

Hassan’s treatment at the hands of US troops is not unique:

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.

Parenti notes that this hostility toward and attempts to silence Al Jazeera extends even to the US trying to compete with Al Jazeera by launching a sattelite station of it’s own:

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.

For a look at the Arab response to Al Hurra, see “Arabs United in Hating Al-Hurra.” Al Jazeera is also considered an enemy by the IGC which banned the station from covering any Puppet Council activities.

This anti-freedom attitude toward the Arab press on the part of both the American Occupiers and their puppet council does not bode well for the future freedom of the press in Iraq. As far as I have been able to determine, there is no mention of a free press in the new Neocon-midwifed Basic Law. For all the blather emanating from the Bush administration lauding “freedom” and “liberty” in Iraq, there are very few real signs that it exists at all in Iraq, and more disturbingly, it appears that no one really plans for it to exist. You’d think the Americans overseeing the Iraqis writing the law would’ve let them crib a few ideas from their own constitution, which at least managed to slow the tyrants down a little.

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