Monday, May 31, 2004


By William Fisher

By banning television cameras from showing the courts martial of the US military personnel accused of carrying out the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, America has lost a golden opportunity.

Here was a chance to show the world -- especially the Arab world -- how our military justice system works. Reaction from ‘the Arab street’ to the first such trial strongly suggests that Iraqis and others in the Middle East have missed a valuable learning experience. And that US authorities have made yet another miscalculation.

People interviewed by major news organizations in the Middle East felt the trial was too short -- obviously unaware that the defendant, Specialist Jeremy C. Sivits, had entered a guilty plea, thus eliminating the time-consuming presentation of evidence to a jury. They were also unaware that the ‘Special’ court martial that heard the Sivits case can only hand down prison sentences of up to one year, or that others will be tried by ‘General’ courts martial, which are empowered to impose longer sentences, up and including the death penalty. They were also unaware that there is very little difference between the civil and military systems of justice.

Americans have learned a great deal about the US justice system over the past decade by watching live criminal and civil trials on television. Much of this knowledge has come from watching high profile prosecutions of celebrities. Nonetheless, Americans now know a good deal more about legal procedure, legal precedents, and about the roles of the judge, jury, witnesses, prosecutors and defense attorneys. They know how important good lawyers are. And most of the evidence indicates that those involved in legal proceedings have become quite comfortable with the non-intrusive techniques developed for cameras in the courtroom.

But more importantly, watching justice play out on the small screen teaches viewers a lot about the transparency of the process. This would be particularly valuable in the Middle East, where this central attribute of good governance is in very short supply.

The US spokesmen in Iraq said they decided against cameras because they were fearful of making this first court martial appear to be ‘a show trial’. Even though print media were allowed to cover the proceedings, the no-TV decision virtually insured that Iraqi and other Arab audiences would conclude that the trial was secret. Because they still believe that what they read in newspapers is government propaganda, and because secret trials are what they’re used to.

If the US military was fearful of showing its dirty linen in public, they have shot themselves in the foot. What they could have shown is that the military has high standards and aggressively prosecutes those who violate them – regardless of rank. So far, they have chosen rumor over transparency. In so doing, they have played directly into the hands of those who attack the United States for torturing prisoners.

But it is not too late for the Pentagon to reconsider this decision. Many trials lie ahead. The US military would do itself – and the nation – a real service by putting our cameras where our rhetoric is.

About the writer: William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other areas for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration

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