Monday, December 10, 2007

Bilal and Iraqi journalists

"I wish I had those problems," he said. "I could get killed coming home from school."
He talked about his dreams. He wished that he could sit outside in the garden on this cool windy day. He wished that he could go to the movies and one day have a girlfriend.
But in Baghdad, even this Baghdad that has gone from terrifying to a little less terrifying, these dreams are not within his reach.
A month ago gunmen came to his school and shot three guards during his last period. The U.S. Military came and the students ran out the door to catch their rides. That day he made it home safe. Tomorrow, he doesn't know.
The burden he carries is not fit for a 13-year-old. But this is not an R-rated movie; you can't keep the children out.

That's the end of Leila Fadel's "'I just want one real friend'" (Baghdad Observer, McClatchy Newspapers) about the child of an Iraqi correspondent for McClatchy who has to lead a double life due to the dangers that would result from it being known that his mother is a journalist. Another Iraqi journalist, Bilal Hussein, is under attack from the US military and has been held for over 19 months (it will be twenty months shortly, December 12th) for doing his job but making the US government uncomfortable by reporting realities they'd prefer no one know about. Hussein is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Free Bilal is a resource for those looking for more information. Daryl Lang (Photo District News) reports that yesterday's proceedings, the first time Bilal has appeared before the judiciary, is under wraps by court order:

Bilal Hussein, the Iraqi Associated Press photographer who has been held as a security detainee for nearly 20 months, was present for most of a seven-hour hearing Sunday in a Baghdad court. Beyond those basic facts, nothing else about the hearing was made public. A judge ordered the proceedings be kept secret.

AP has released the following statement from Paul Colford (Director of Media Relations):

Bilal Hussein and his lawyers have finally had a chance to learn about the allegations that the U.S. military has withheld from them since they imprisoned Bilal 20 months ago. But, they were not given a copy of the materials that were presented today, and which they need to prepare a defense for Bilal. We would hope that we have an opportunity to review the material. There is still no formal charge against Bilal, and The Associated Press continues to believe that Bilal Hussein was a photojournalist working in a war zone and that claims that he is involved with insurgent activities are false. Bilal continues to be detained by the U.S. military.
Because the judge ordered that the proceedings today be kept secret, we are restricted from saying anything further.

Must be kept secret? Hardly inspires confidence in the proceedings does it? Nor does the refusal to provide the defense attorneys with the most basic of court documents. Reuters notes:

Hussein is one of several Iraqi journalists who have been held by the U.S. military without being charged. Iraqi journalists working for Reuters have also been detained by the U.S. military for months and later released without charges.

And that's really what it's about, what it's always been about. Target the journalists, whether you're the US military or militias (which is why we opened with Fadel) and maybe the news won't go out. Were it not for the Iraqis, most news outlets would have very little to report because for all the nonsense of 'improvement,' Western journalists can still not walk freely. So target the journalist and you get a two-fer: you intimidate all journalists (including Western ones) and you prevent unpleasant realities from being reported. You can refer to Scott Horton's "U.S. Seeks to Prosecute Pulitzer Prize-Winning A.P. Photographer" (Harper's magazine) on how the US has thus far -- despite claims and whispers to the press -- not had a case.

The lead attorney is Paul Gardephe and Kim Gamel's "Hearing held for detained AP photographer in Iraq" (AP) notes:

Gardephe strongly protested the refusal of the U.S. military to allow him to meet with Hussein privately. Since the U.S. decided Nov. 19 to send the case to the criminal court, a U.S. soldier and a military interpreter have been in the room whenever Gardephe has seen Hussein, allowing no privacy to plan a defense.

"You cannot prepare a defendant for a criminal trial with the prosecutor in the room," said Gardephe, a former federal prosecutor now with the firm Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities to lift the secrecy surrounding the proceedings.
"After almost 20 months in detention, Bilal Hussein finally had his day in court," said CPJ Senior Middle East Program Coordinator Joel Campagna. "But the proceedings are still shrouded in secrecy, raising fears that he will not get a fair trial. Hussein must have an open hearing, and his lawyers must be given access to all evidence against him," he added.
Hussein, 36, was a member of an AP team that won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 2005. He is being held in U.S. military detention at Camp Cropper, near the Baghdad International Airport, under a United Nations resolution that the military says permits it to hold any individuals deemed a security threat.

Fadel is reporting on the lengths one journalist must go to protect her family because of her profession. Fadel's noting the fallout for the son. And the reason the mother must go to such lengths is because being a reporter in Iraq can be a death sentence. Especially if you're an Iraqi which is why the PEW survey two weeks ago (of Western reporters for the MSM) found that the bulk of their Iraqi staff makes a point to conceal their work as much as possible. Bilal's a photographer, he didn't have that option the way he would if he were just recording details on paper, observations and eye witness statements. He had to take the photographs which put him out in the open. That's not a cover for a 'terrorist'. To pretend that it is demonstrates just how far out of touch the military brass is with Iraqi life (if they believe the charges, but it's doubtful they do at this point). Most identified as 'terrorists' in Iraq don't need covers -- in fact many just go to work for the government's Interior Ministry -- but the lie that Bilal is a 'terrorist' serves another purpose domestically, it's meant to make US news consumers doubt the bad realities reported as if Iraq would be wonderful if we all just looked away.

Bilal did his job and he did his job damn well. That's why he's being targeted. Targeting him sends a message to all news outlets and journalists and that's why he's being targeted. Targeting him sends a message domestically that you can't trust that 'bad news' coming out of Iraq because it might be reported by a 'terrorist.' And that's why he's targeted.

This has happened over and over. It happened with a CBS camera operator. He was held for nearly a year and then, after one day in court (or 'court'), he was released because there was no valid to hold him -- there was never a valid reason to hold him. His name is Abdul Ameer Younnis Hussein (sometimes refrecned in the press as Abdul Amir -- and no relation to Bilal). He was shot by US forces in Mosul and detained for over a year with the claims that he was a 'terrorist' (he had been filming the aftermath of a bombing in Mosul -- doing a reporter's job). You can click here for Democracy Now!'s report on that (I believe Jeremy Scahill is supposed to be a guest on the program this morning, by the way) . The military had all this 'evidence' in that as well, or so they claimed. In the end, one look at the case and Abdul was (rightly) released. At the time he was being held there were all these conditional phrases such as "one fact most everyone can agree on" and the reality is it should have been obvious that Abdul was innocent just as it should be obvious that Bilal is. When you have real evidence and you're a prosecutor, you want that trial. You push for that trial. It's in the defense's interest to postpone a trial. (That's true whether they are detained/imprisoned or free. During a lengthy wait, new witnesses can attest that they were model in the period since the arrest.) When you're trying a case in the press, as the US military has repeatedly done, it's generally an indication that your case is weak. When you've leveled charge after charge in the press and your case finally gets a hearing, you don't want a gag order. You want it out in the open, you want the whole world to know every bit of evidence you have, every bit of work you've done, you want them to say, "Well it is an airtight case." "Your honor, that's a delay tactic!" is a phrase you should never have from the defense in court but hear all the time from prosecutors. The fact that Bilal's being tried in what amounts to secrecy only further indicates his innocence.

Free Bilal.

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