Tuesday, September 28, 2004


The editorial below was written by Rami G. Khouri, Executive Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. It is published here with his permission.

It was not inevitable, but this is how it turned out: three years after the Sept. 11 attacks when Arab terrorists used commercial planes to attack the US, the American army is using its planes to attack individual houses in Fallujah, Iraq.

For the past five days, American planes have bombed targets in Fallujah, routinely killing 15, 20 or 30 people at a time. The US Marines carrying out the attack say they are killing members of Al Qaeda-related terror group headed by Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi, while Iraqis on the ground say many of the dead are civilians, including women and children.

President George W. Bush argues that Iraq is the front line in the “war against terror”. If this is true — which most of the world doubts — then we have two large problems on our hands, and not only the terror problem that erupted on Sept. 11: the war against terror is not being won, and terrorist networks and incidents are expanding steadily around the world.

The single most common emotion that describes the prevalent attitudes towards terror and anti-terror in the US and the Arab-Asian region is probably hysteria. Bush and his ice-hearted Republican political strategists have crassly exploited the shock, fear and bewilderment that gripped Americans on Sept. 11, and turned the US into a hysterical arena defined by a peculiar combination of exaggerated jingoism and militarism as the appropriate response to a constant perceived threat.

The Arab-Asian region that spawns much global terror suffers a parallel hysteria, manifested in slightly different ways among three sectors of society: the bombers and killers are more active than ever, against innocent civilians in most cases; government authorities use police powers more forcefully to stamp out terror, with very mixed results; and the vast masses of the public have essentially suspended their humanity, and shelved their emotions and basic values, neither condemning the terrorists very clearly nor supporting their governments or the US-led war in Iraq.

Otherwise rational people everywhere have been transformed into agents of emotional and political fury, using and accepting severe violence as an inevitable consequence of our times. The political iconography in both worlds is frightening: an American president who brandishes his fighter jets, and Arab-Islamic terrorists who brandish long knives for cutting off heads of foreigners. And so, perhaps inevitably, we find ourselves again following events in ... Fallujah.

This Iraqi city west of Baghdad, like Najaf a month ago, is this week's symbol of hysteria's crazed consequences, for both Iraqis and Americans. The American army surrounded and bombed Fallujah in April, killing hundreds of Iraqis, but then pulled back when the cost in public opinion terms around the Middle East and the world seemed too high. Now the US Marines are attacking again, but in a very different political context marked by many more daily attacks against the US occupation army and Iraqi government targets.

One reason for the stepped-up attacks against the US and Iraqi governing forces is the backlash from the April attacks in Fallujah, and other American attacks since then against other Iraqi cities. With every American military assault against Iraqis defending their own homeland, more Iraqis emerge from the experience hardened, angry and determined to kill Americans, i.e., hysterical, willing to fight to the death, wanting only to hurt or humiliate the United States and its partners in occupation.

This is a strange and bitter place to find ourselves three years after the Sept. 11 attacks that were seen by people everywhere as a horrendous and unjustifiable crime against Americans and the world. Bush's militantly hysterical foreign policy that claims to fight terror, in fact has been a major global catalyst and recruiting agent for terror. Najaf, Fallujah, Ramadi, Baquba and other Iraqi towns did not exist in the American political or popular imagination three years ago. Today, many citizens in those towns only wish to haunt, terrorise and kill Americans, and militants from other countries join them as well. In this respect, Osama Ben Laden has lured Bush into a trap.

How did we get from the crimes of Sept. 11 to the shared hysteria of Fallujah? One of the disappointments of the past three years, in my view, has been the low priority given to assessing the nature and efficacy of the American-led war against terror. Such an effort that has an impact on the entire world cannot be left to the inhumanely calculating political operatives of the Bush White House and the Republican Party. The US needs and deserves the world's help in responding more effectively and rationally to the attacks of Sept. 11.

As important as how we got to Fallujah is how we get out of it, what to do next to stop and reverse the growing global terror industry. It is morally and politically unacceptable for the world to watch on television as Donald Rumsfeld and Ben Laden slug it out in a duel of two crazed gladiators who will only end up killing each other and inflicting immense casualties on innocent people in their respective societies.

As we enter into the fourth year since the Sept. 11 attacks, all of us, in the US and the Arab world, are challenged to acknowledge that Fallujah and all it represents is not the answer to the Sept. 11 terror against the US. There must be a better answer, and it can only be found through a closer consultative political partnership between Washington and the rest of the world — one that would replace hysteria with rationality, and militarism with sound political and economic foreign policy.

Monday, September 27, 2004


By William Fisher

The US press paid little attention to last week’s agreement by officials of the eight major industrial powers and the Arab world endorsing expansion of democratic institutions and a push for political reforms in the Middle East. It gave even less space to an arguably more important development: a seven-point plan submitted not by governments but by some forty civil society groups throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

The private organizations declared: “While the participation of concerned governments in the region would be welcome, we cannot wait… most governments turn a deaf ear to internal calls for reforms.” It called on the G-8 nations for “a more solid commitment “ to “three imperatives - freedom, democracy and justice.”

The group said it did “not claim to represent our societies: only a free vote will…We are here, as individuals, simple members of the so-called Arab-Middle Eastern civil society, women and men who believe in the rule of law, an independent judiciary to protect it, an active and freely elected parliament to enact laws, an accountable, freely elected government to carry them through, meaningful human rights, including foremost the freedom of expression.”

It urged the industrialized nations to begin by creating a “multilateral organization or a special G-8 agency and an emergency fund” committed to “releasing prisoners of conscience, supporting their families and rehabilitating them once freed”. It called this action “the freedom imperative”.

The group also called for help in what it called “the democratic imperative”. It noted: “While most of our countries have parliaments, and occasionally courageous and outspoken members within them, their power is curtailed by executive power, as indeed is the power of our judges which is constantly undermined by executive interference. What we can confidently claim to represent is a different, pressing voice that calls for ballot-based, nonviolent change at all levels of our societies and states, starting from the top.”

The group’s seven-point plan includes:

1) Protecting citizenship equality and participation, especially gender equality, with special attention to the victimization of women.

2) Strengthening of the rule of law by enhancing the independence and role of the judiciary, and monitoring and removing laws that violate human rights and international standards. Emergency laws, special and military courts, undue police detentions and regular reliance on torture…must be abolished.

3) Protecting and enlarging freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of organization.

4) Encouraging critical inquisitive thinking in education generally, and in religious education, where intolerance is actively advocated in its name.

5) Creating jobs for the 5-7 million entrants into the job market, especially the poor and those left behind, by promoting investment in quality services and value-added products, small and micro enterprises, competitiveness and quality, innovation, environmental sustainability and social services.

6) Combating corruption at all levels to ensure the accountability of bureaucracies and the transparency of organizations, both private and public, and financial institutions.

7) Promoting creative arts and culture, and the qualitative enlargement of public space.

The group added: “While the belated rallying of some Western leaders to the central importance of democracy in our states is welcome, Middle Eastern democrats need a more solid commitment…Dictatorship must now be declared a crime against humanity. (Middle Eastern society) now suffocates under the joint pressures of authoritarian governments and extremists…Both continue to remain unpunished for grave abuse of our freedoms, (and) suppression of intellectual and political movements and leaders.”

The plan grew out of a meeting in Beirut in early September attended by 40 leading Middle Eastern and North African civil society groups. It was presented to foreign ministers from the G-8 and Arab countries meeting in New York. The proposals are intended to feed into the Forum for the Future set up at the G-8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia, last June. The Beirut event was organized by the Lebanese Transparency Association, the UN Development Program, the Program on Governance in the Arab Region, and the Economic Research Forum and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

When the US led the G-8 countries in proposing a “Greater Middle East Initiative” last year, the idea was greeted with hostility by many Arab governments who felt that the West, and particularly the US, was trying to “impose democratic reforms from outside”.

Most of the reforms adopted in the Greater Middle East to date are baby steps or patently cosmetic. This remarkable appeal for help from private citizens to the world’s most powerful nations is a measure of the enormity of the task facing them. The G-8 should respond accordingly.

Friday, September 24, 2004


By William Fisher

Sometimes, the most astonishing statements are made in the US Congress, and disappear under the radar, completely unnoticed by press or public.

One such was made by Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage before the House Subcommittee on Operations last week.

It is worth repeating.

Mr. Armitage was being questioned by a committee member on some of the Bush Administration’s un-planned missteps in Iraq.

One such misstep, Mr. Armitage volunteered, was that the US was not aware of, and was wrong-footed by, the ‘tribal influences’ in that country.

This admission of error – one of the few the Administration makes these days – is truly astonishing. How can it be true?

The US State Department, the Pentagon, and many other agencies of the American government, have access to literally hundreds of experts on Iraq. To the best minds in the world on this subject. To their own staffs. To scholars steeped in the history and customs of the country. To Thinktanks without limit.

Did it ask for expert opinion? Or did it ask and then not listen? Well, we’ll probably never know.

What we do know is this: If you asked a junior high school class to write a paper on Iraq, most of the students’ submissions would contain references to the tribes of Iraq. Not because they’re all so brilliant, but because most of them have access to the Internet, and a simple Internet search would have told you much more than you wanted to know about tribes in Iraq.

Let’s try it. Go to Google. Enter ‘Iraq Tribes’. The first three references are: ‘The Iraqi Tribes and the Post-Saddam System’, ‘Definition of Arab Tribes in Iraq’, and ‘Iraqi Tribes Are Key Source of Loyalty, Rebellion’. These are three of the 230,000 results of this simple search.

How often during the reign of Proconsul Paul Bremer did we hear about ‘tribes’ ? We heard about Sunnis, about Shias, about Kurds, occasionally about Turkomen, even less often about Assyrians or the many other minorities within Iraq.

But we never learned that these Iraqi tribes – huge families bonded by tradition and inter-marriage – are a central part of the social fabric of Iraq, that they exist within all these major religious groupings, that they frequently straddle Shia and Sunni, and that they are at least as important and influential as the larger groups to which they belong.

As far as I am aware, Prime Minister Allawi was the first person who ever mentioned tribes in prime time: During his visit to the White House, he talked about the conversations he was having with tribal as well as religious leaders, and their participation in the political process. Mr. Allawi knows all about tribes because he is a member of one – as is every other Iraqi. None of them signed up to belong to a tribe; they were members by birth.

Before the US invasion of Iraq, the State Department had undertaken an ambitious project to plan for ‘the day after Saddam’. It brought together some of the best of Iraqi thinking on a broad range of subjects, from education to politics to the role of woman in society. In the end, the plan was rejected by the Department of Defense, which believed it unnecessary because US troops would be greeted as liberators and the barrels of their guns would be filled with flowers.

US failure to even recognize, much less deal with, the role of tribes in shaping Iraqi attitudes and behavior is a measure of the bankruptcy of American policy and strategy.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Journalism Under Fire

September 17, 2004

Part biography, part reprimand, part love letter to the promise of his profession—this speech, given by Bill Moyers at a Society of Professional Journalists conference on Sept. 11, 2004, will be referred to for years to come by those who are worried about the state of journalism. It’s a true classic: “I believe democracy requires ‘a sacred contract’ between journalists and those who put their trust in us to tell them what we can about how the world really works.”

Bill Moyers is a broadcast journalist currently hosting the PBS program Now With Bill Moyers. Moyers also serves as president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, which gives financial support to TomPaine.com.

Thank you for inviting me to share this occasion with you.

Three months from now I will be retiring from active journalism and I cannot imagine a better turn into the home stretch than this morning with you.

My life in journalism began 54 years ago, on my 16th birthday, in the summer before my junior year in high school, when I went to work as a cub reporter for the Marshall News Messenger in the East Texas town of 20,000 where I had grown up. Early on, I got one of those lucky breaks that define a life’s course. Some of the old timers were sick or on vacation and Spencer Jones, the managing editor, assigned me to help cover the Housewives' Rebellion. Fifteen women in town refused to pay the Social Security withholding tax for their domestic workers. They argued that social security was unconstitutional, that imposing it was taxation without representation, and that—here’s my favorite part—“requiring us to collect (the tax) is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage.”

They hired a lawyer—Martin Dies, the former Congressman notorious for his work as head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities—but to no avail. The women wound up holding their noses and paying the tax. In the meantime the Associated Press had picked up our coverage and turned the rebellion into a national story. One day after it was all over, the managing editor called me over and pointed to the ticker beside his desk. Moving across the wire was a “Notice to the Editor” citing one Bill Moyers and the News Messenger for the reporting we had done on the rebellion. I was hooked.

Looking back on that experience and all that followed, I often think of what Joseph Lelyveld told aspiring young journalists when he was executive editor of the New York Times . “You can never know how a life in journalism will turn out,” he said. “Decide that you want to be a scholar, a lawyer, or a doctor…and your path to the grave is pretty well laid out before you. Decide that you want to enter our rather less reputable line of work and you set off on a route that can sometimes seem to be nothing but diversions, switchbacks and a life of surprises…with the constant temptation to keep reinventing yourself.”

So I have. My path led me on to graduate school, a detour through seminary, then to LBJ’s side in Washington, and, from there, through circumstances so convulted I still haven’t figured them out, back to journalism, first at Newsday and then the big leap from print to television, to PBS and CBS and back again—just one more of those vagrant journalistic souls who, intoxicated with the moment is always looking for the next high: the lead not yet written, the picture not yet taken, the story not yet told.

It took me awhile after I left government to get my footing back in journalism. I had to learn all over again that what’s important for the journalist is not how close you are to power but how close you are to reality. I’ve seen plenty of reality. Journalism took me to famine and revolution in Africa and to war in Central America; it took me to the bedside of the dying and delivery rooms of the newborn. It took me into the lives of inner-city families in Newark and working-class families in Milwaukee struggling to find their place in the new global economy.

CBS News paid me richly to put in my two cents worth on just about anything that happened on a given day. As a documentary journalist I’ve explored everything from the power of money in politics to how to make a poem. I’ve investigated the abuse of power in the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals and the unanswered questions of 9/11.

I’ve delved into the “Mystery of Chi” in Chinese traditional medicine as well as the miracle that empowered a one-time slave trader to write the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Journalism has been a continuing course in adult education—my own; other people paid the tuition and travel, and I’ve never really had to grow up and get a day job. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I’ve enjoyed the company of colleagues as good as they come, who kept inspiring me to try harder.

They helped me relearn another of journalism’s basic lessons. The job of trying to tell the truth about people whose job it is to hide the truth is almost as complicated and difficult as trying to hide it in the first place. Unless you’re willing to fight and refight the same battles until you go blue in the face, drive the people you work with nuts going over every last detail to make certain you’ve got it right, and then take hit after unfair hit accusing you of “bias,” or, these days, even a point of view, there’s no use even trying. You have to love it, and I do. I remember what Izzy Stone said about this. For years he was America’s premier independent journalist, bringing down on his head the sustained wrath of the high and mighty for publishing in his little four-page I.F. Stone’s Weekly the government’s lies and contradictions culled from the government’s own official documents. No matter how much they pummeled him, Izzy Stone said: “I have so much fun I ought to be arrested.”

That’s how I felt 25 five years ago when my colleague Sherry Jones and I produced the first documentary ever about the purchase of government favors by political action committees. When we unfurled across the Capitol grounds yard after yard of computer printouts listing campaign contributions to every member of Congress, there was a loud outcry, including from several politicians who had been allies just a few years earlier when I worked at the White House.

I loved it, too, when Sherry and I connected the dots behind the Iran-Contra scandal. That documentary sent the right-wing posse in Washington running indignantly to congressional supporters of public television who accused PBS of committing— horrors!— journalism right on the air.

While everyone else was all over the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio, Sherry and I took after Washington’s other scandal of the time— the unbridled and illegal fundraising by Democrats in the campaign of 1996. This time it was Democrats who wanted me arrested.

But taking on political scandal is nothing compared to what can happen if you raise questions about corporate power in Washington. When my colleagues and I started looking into the subject of pesticides and food for a Frontline documentary, my producer Marty Koughan learned that industry was attempting behind closed doors to dilute the findings of a National Academy of Sciences study on the effects of pesticide residues on children. Before we finished the documentary, the industry somehow purloined a copy of our draft script—we still aren’t certain how—and mounted a sophisticated and expensive campaign to discredit our broadcast before it aired.

Television reviewers and editorial page editors were flooded in advance with pro-industry propaganda. There was a whispering campaign. A Washington Post columnist took a dig at the broadcast on the morning of the day it aired—without even having seen it—and later confessed to me that the dirt had been supplied by a top lobbyist for the chemical industry.

Some public television managers across the country were so unnerved by the blitz of dis-information they received from the industry that before the documentary had even aired, they protested to PBS with letters prepared by the industry. Here’s what most perplexed us: Eight days before the broadcast, the American Cancer Society—an organization that in no way figured in our story—sent to its three thousand local chapters a “critique” of the unfinished documentary claiming, wrongly, that it exaggerated the dangers of pesticides in food. We were puzzled. Why was the American Cancer Society taking the unusual step of criticizing a documentary that it had not seen, that had not aired, and that did not claim what the society alleged?

An enterprising reporter in town named Sheila Kaplan looked into these questions for Legal Times and discovered that a public relations firm, which had worked for several chemical companies, also did pro bono work for the American Cancer Society. The firm was able to cash in some of the goodwill from that “charitable” work to persuade the compliant communications staff at the Society to distribute some harsh talking points about the documentary— talking points that had been supplied by, but not attributed to, the public relations firm.

Others also used the American Cancer Society’s good name in efforts to tarnish the journalism before it aired; including right-wing front groups who railed against what they called “junk science on PBS” and demanded Congress pull the plug on public television. PBS stood firm. The documentary aired, the journalism held up, and the National Academy of Sciences felt liberated to release the study that the industry had tried to demean.

They never give up. Sherry and I spent more than a year working on another documentary called Trade Secrets , based on revelations—found in the industry’s archives—that big chemical companies had deliberately withheld from workers and consumers damaging information about toxic chemicals in their products. These internal industry documents are a fact. They exist. They are not a matter of opinion or point of view. And they portrayed deep and pervasive corruption in a major American industry, revealing that we live under a regulatory system designed by the industry itself.

If the public and government regulators had known over the years what the industry was keeping secret about the health risks of its products, America’s laws and regulations governing chemical manufacturing would have been far more protective of human health than they were.

Hoping to keep us from airing those secrets, the industry hired a public relations firm in Washington noted for using private detectives and former CIA, FBI, and drug enforcement officers to conduct investigations for corporations. One of the company’s founders was on record as saying that sometimes corporations need to resort to unconventional resources, including “using deceit”, to defend themselves. Given the scurrilous underground campaign that was conducted to smear our journalism, his comments were an understatement.

Not only was there the vicious campaign directed at me personally, but once again pressure was brought to bear on PBS through industry allies in Congress. PBS stood firm, the documentary aired, and a year later the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded Trade Secrets an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism.

I’ve gone on like this not to regale you with old war tales but to get to a story that is the one thing I hope you might remember from our time together this morning.

John Henry Faulk told me this story. Most of you are too young to remember John Henry—a wonderful raconteur, entertainer, and a popular host on CBS Radio back when radio was in its prime. But those were days of paranoia and red-baiting—the McCarthy era—and the right-wing sleaze merchants went to work on John Henry with outlandish accusations that he was a communist. A fearful CBS refused to rehire him and John Henry went home to Texas to live out his days.

He won a famous libel suit against his accusers and wrote a classic book about those events and the meaning of the First Amendment. In an interview I did with him shortly before his death a dozen years ago, John Henry told the story of how he and friend Boots Cooper were playing in the chicken house when they were about 12 years old. They spied a chicken snake in the top tier of nests, so close it looked like a boa constrictor. As John Henry told it to me, “All the frontier courage drained out our heels—actually it trickled down our overall legs—and Boots and I made a new door through the henhouse wall.”

His momma came out and, learning what the fuss was about, said to Boots and John Henry: “Don’t you know chicken snakes are harmless? They can’t hurt you.” And Boots, rubbing his forehead and behind at the same time, said, “Yes, Mrs. Faulk, I know that, but they can scare you so bad, it’ll cause you to hurt yourself.”

John Henry Faulk told me that’s a lesson he never forgot. It’s a good one for any journalist to tuck away and call on when journalism is under fire. Our job remains essentially the same: to gather, weigh, organize, analyze and present information people need to know in order to make sense of the world. You will hear it said this is not a professional task—John Carroll of the Los Angeles Times recently reminded us there are “no qualification tests, no boards to censure misconduct, no universally accepted set of standards.”

Maybe so. But I think that what makes journalism a profession is the deep ethical imperative of which the public is aware only when we violate it—think Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Jim Kelly. Ed Wasserman, once an editor himself and now teaching at Washington and Lee University, says that journalism “is an ethical practice because it tells people what matters and helps them determine what they should do about it.”

So good newsrooms “are marinated in ethical conversations…What should this lead say? What I should I tell that source?” We practice this craft inside “concentric rings of duty and obligations: Obligations to sources, our colleagues, our bosses, our readers, our profession, and our community”—and we function under a system of values “in which we try to understand and reconcile strong competing claims.” Our obligation is to sift patiently and fairly through untidy realities, measure the claims of affected people, and present honestly the best available approximation of the truth—and this, says Ed Wasserman, is an ethical practice.

It’s never been easy, and it’s getting harder. For more reasons then you can shake a stick at. One is the sheer magnitude of the issues we need to report and analyze. My friend Bill McKibben enjoys a conspicuous place in my pantheon of journalistic heroes for his pioneer work in writing about the environment; his bestseller The End of Nature carried on where Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring left off. Recently in Mother Jones, Bill described how the problems we cover—conventional, manageable problems, like budget shortfalls, pollution, crime—may be about to convert to chaotic, unpredictable situations. He puts it this way: If you don’t have a job, “that’s a problem, and unemployment is a problem, and they can both be managed: You learn a new skill, the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates to spur the economy. But millions of skilled, well-paying jobs disappearing to Bangalore is a situation; it’s not clear what, if anything, the system can do to turn it around.”

Perhaps the most unmanageable of all problems, Bill McKibben writes, is the accelerating deterioration of the environment. While the present administration has committed a thousand acts of vandalism against our air, water, forests and deserts, were we to change managers, Bill argues, some of that damage would abate. What won’t go away, he continues, are the perils with huge momentum—the greenhouse effect, for instance.

Scientists have been warning us about it since the 1980s. But now the melt of the Arctic seems to be releasing so much freshwater into the North Atlantic that even the Pentagon is alarmed that a weakening Gulf Stream could yield abrupt—and overwhelming—changes, the kind of climate change that threatens civilization. How do we journalists get a handle on something of that enormity?

Or on ideology. One of the biggest changes in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. How do we fathom and explain the mindset of violent exhibitionists and extremists who blow to smithereens hundreds of children and teachers of Middle School Number One in Beslan, Russia? Or the radical utopianism of martyrs who crash hijacked planes into the World Trade Center?

How do we explain the possibility that a close election in November could turn on several million good and decent citizens who believe in the Rapture Index? That’s what I said—the Rapture Index; Google it and you will understand why the best-selling books in America today are the 12 volumes of the "Left Behind" series that have earned multi-millions of dollars for their co-authors, who, earlier this year, completed a triumphant tour of the Bible Belt whose buckle holds in place George W. Bush’s armor of the Lord.

These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the l9th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative millions of people believe to be literally true. According to this narrative, Jesus will return to earth only when certain conditions are met: when Israel has been established as a state; when Israel then occupies the rest of its “biblical lands;” when the third temple has been rebuilt on the site now occupied by the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques; and, then, when legions of the Antichrist attack Israel. This will trigger a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon during which all the Jews who have not converted will be burned. Then the Messiah returns to earth.

The Rapture occurs once the big battle begins. True believers ”will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts and frogs during the several years of tribulation which follow."

I’m not making this up. We’re reported on these people for our weekly broadcast on PBS, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious and polite as they tell you that they feel called to help bring the Rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That’s why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It’s why they have staged confrontations at the old temple site in Jerusalem. It’s why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the 9th chapter of the Book of Revelations where four angels “which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released “to slay the third part of men.’

As the British writer George Monbiot has pointed out, for these people, the Middle East is not a foreign policy issue, it’s a biblical scenario, a matter of personal belief. A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed; if there’s a conflagration there, they come out winners on the far side of tribulation, inside the pearly gates, in celestial splendor, supping on ambrosia to the accompaniment of harps plucked by angels.

One estimate puts these people at about 15 percent of the electorate. Most are likely to vote Republican; they are part of the core of George W. Bush’s base support. He knows who they are and what they want. When the president asked Ariel Sharon to pull his tanks out of Jenin in 2002, more than one hundred thousand angry Christian fundamentalists barraged the White House with e-mails, and Mr. Bush never mentioned the matter again.

Not coincidentally, the administration recently put itself solidly behind Ariel Sharon’s expansions of settlements on the West Banks. In George Monbiot’s analysis, the president stands to lose fewer votes by encouraging Israeli expansion into the West Bank than he stands to lose by restraining it. “He would be mad to listen to these people, but he would also be mad not to.” No wonder Karl Rove walks around the West Wing whistling “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

He knows how many votes he is likely to get from these pious folk who believe that the Rapture Index now stands at 144—just one point below the critical threshold at which point the prophecy is fulfilled, the whole thing blows, the sky is filled with floating naked bodies, and the true believers wind up at the right hand of God. With no regret for those left behind. (See George Monbiot. The Guardian, April 20th, 2004 .)

I know, I know: You think I am bonkers. You think Ann Coulter is right to aim her bony knee at my groin and that O’Reilly should get a Peabody for barfing all over me for saying there’s more to American politics than meets the Foxy eye. But this is just the point: Journalists who try to tell these stories, connect these dots, and examine these links are demeaned, disparaged and dismissed. This is the very kind of story that illustrates the challenge journalists face in a world driven by ideologies that are stoutly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality.

Ideologues—religious, political, or editorial ideologues—embrace a world view that cannot be changed because they admit no evidence to the contrary. And Don Quixote on Rocinante tilting at windmills had an easier time of it than a journalist on a laptop tilting with facts at the world’s fundamentalist belief systems.

For one thing, you’ll get in trouble with the public. The Chicago Tribune recently conducted a national poll in which about half of those surveyed said there should be been some kind of press restraint on reporting about the prison abuse scandal in Iraq; I suggest those people don’t want the facts to disturb their belief system about American exceptionalism.

The poll also found that five or six of every 10 Americans “would embrace government controls of some kind on free speech, especially if it is found unpatriotic.” No wonder scoundrels find refuge in patriotism; it offers them immunity from criticism.

If raging ideologies are difficult to penetrate, so is secrecy. Secrecy is hardly a new or surprising story. But we are witnessing new barriers imposed to public access to information and a rapid mutation of America’s political culture in favor of the secret rule of government. I urge you to read the special report, Keeping Secrets, published recently by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (for a copy send an e-mail to publications@knightfdn.org). You will find laid out there what the editors call a “zeal for secrecy” pulsating through government at every level, shutting off the flow of information from sources such as routine hospital reports to what one United States senator calls the “single greatest rollback of the Freedom of Information Act in history.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I digress here to say that I was present when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act on July 4, 1966. In language that was almost lyrical, he said he was signing it “with a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society in which the people’s right to know is cherished and guarded.”

But as his press secretary at the time, I knew something that few others did: LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony. He hated the very idea of FOIA, hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets, hated them challenging the official review of realty. He dug in his heels and even threatened to pocket-veto the bill after it reached the White House. Only the tenacity of a congressman named John Moss got the bill passed at all, and that was after a 12-year battle against his elders in Congress, who blinked every time the sun shined in the dark corridors of power. They managed to cripple the bill Moss had drafted, and even then, only some last-minute calls to LBJ from a handful of newspaper editors overcame the president’s reluctance. He signed “the f------ thing,” as he called it, and then set out to claim credit for it.

But never has there been an administration like the one in power today—so disciplined in secrecy, so precisely in lockstep in keeping information from the people at large and, in defiance of the Constitution, from their representatives in Congress.

The litany is long: The president’s chief of staff orders a review that leads to at least 6000 documents being pulled from government websites. The Defense Department bans photos of military caskets being returned to the U.S. To hide the influence of Kenneth Lay, Enron, and other energy moguls, the vice president stonewalls his energy task force records with the help of his duck-hunting pal on the Supreme Court. The CIA adds a new question to its standard employee polygraph exam, asking, “Do you have friends in the media?”

There have been more than 1200 presumably terrorist-related arrests and 750 people deported, and no one outside the government knows their names, or how many court docket entries have been erased or never entered. Secret federal court hearings have been held with no public record of when or where or who is being tried.

Secrecy is contagious. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has announced that “certain security information included in the reactor oversight process” will no longer be publicly available, and no longer be updated on the agency’s website. New controls are being imposed on space surveillance data once found on NASA’s web site. The FCC has now restricted public access to reports of telecommunications disruption because the Department of Homeland Security says communications outages could provide “a roadmap for terrorists.”

One of the authors of the ASNE report, Pete Weitzel, former managing editor of The Miami Herald and now coordinator for the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, describes how Section 214 of the Homeland Security Act makes it possible for a company to tell Homeland Security about an eroding chemical tank on the bank of a river, but DHS could not disclose this information publicly or, for that matter, even report it to the Environmental Protection Agency. And if there were a spill and people were injured, the information given DHS could not be used in court!

Secrecy is contagious—and scandalous. The Washington Post reports that nearly 600 times in recent years, a judicial committee acting in private has stripped information from reports intended to alert the public to conflicts of interest involving federal judges.

Secrecy is contagious, scandalous—and toxic. According to the ASNE report, curtains are falling at the state and local levels, too. The tiny south Alabama town of Notasulga decided to allow citizens to see records only one hour a month. It had to rescind the decision, but now you have to make a request in writing, make an appointment and state a reason for wanting to see any document. The state legislature in Florida has adopted 14 new exemptions to its sunshine and public record laws. Over the objections of law enforcement officials and Freedom of Information advocates, they passed a new law prohibiting police from making lists of gun owners even as it sets a fine of $5 million for violation.

Secrecy is contagious, scandalous, toxic—and costly. Pete Weitzel estimates that the price tag for secrecy today is more than $5 billion annually (I have seen other estimates up to $6.5 billion a year.)

This “zeal for secrecy” I am talking about—and I have barely touched the surface—adds up to a victory for the terrorists. When they plunged those hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon three years ago this morning, they were out to hijack our Gross National Psychology. If they could fill our psyche with fear—as if the imagination of each one of us were Afghanistan and they were the Taliban—they could deprive us of the trust and confidence required for a free society to work. They could prevent us from ever again believing in a safe, decent or just world and from working to bring it about. By pillaging and plundering our peace of mind they could panic us into abandoning those unique freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of the press—that constitute the ability of democracy to self-correct and turn the ship of state before it hits the iceberg.

I thought of this last week during the Republican National Convention here in New York—thought of the terrorists as enablers of democracy’s self-immolation. My office is on the west side of Manhattan, two blocks from Madison Square Garden. From where I sit I could see snipers on the roof. Helicopters overhead. Barricades at every street corner. Lines of police stretching down the avenues. Unmarked vans. Flatbed trucks. Looking out his own window, the writer Nick Turse (TomDispatch.com 9/8/04 ) saw what I saw and more. Special Forces brandishing automatic rifles. Rolls of orange plastic netting. Dragnets. Pre-emptive arrests of peaceful protesters. Cages for detainees. And he caught sight of what he calls “the ultimate blending of corporatism and the police state—the Fuji blimp—now emblazoned with a second logo: NYPD.” A spy-in-the sky, outfitted “with the latest in video-surveillance equipment, loaned free of charge to the police all week long.” Nick Turse saw these things and sees in them, as do I, “The Rise of the Homeland Security State.”

Will we be cowed by it? Will we investigate and expose its excesses? Will we ask hard questions of the people who run it? The answers are not clear. As deplorable as was the betrayal of their craft by Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Jim Kelly, the greater offense was the seduction of mainstream media into helping the government dupe the public to support a war to disarm a dictator who was already disarmed. Now we are buying into the very paradigm of a “war on terror” that our government—with staggering banality, soaring hubris, and stunning bravado—employs to elicit public acquiescence while offering no criterion of success or failure, no knowledge of the cost, and no measure of democratic accountability.

I am reminded of the answer the veteran journalist Richard Reeves gave when asked by a college student to define “real news.” “Real news,” said Richard Reeves “is the news you and I need to keep our freedoms.” I am reminded of that line from the news photographer in Tom Stoppard’s play Night and Day : “People do terrible things to each other, but its worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.”

I have become a nuisance on this issue—if not a fanatic—because I grew up in the South, where, for so long, truthtellers were driven from the pulpit, the classroom and the newsroom; it took a bloody civil war to drive home the truth of slavery, and still it took another hundred of years of cruel segregation and oppression before the people freed by that war finally achieved equal rights under the law.

Not only did I grow up in the South, which had paid such a high price for denial, but I served in the Johnson White House during the early escalation of the Vietnam War. We circled the wagons and grew intolerant of news that did not confirm to the official view of reality, with tragic consequences for America and Vietnam. Few days pass now that I do not remind myself that the greatest moments in the history of the press came not when journalists made common cause with the state, but when they stood fearlessly independent of it.

That’s why I have also become a nuisance, if not a fanatic, on the perils of media consolidation. My eyes were opened wide by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which led to my first documentary on the subject, called Free Speech for Sale . On our current weekly broadcast we’ve gone back to the subject more than 30 times. I was astonished when the coupling of Time Warner and AOL—the biggest corporate merger of all time—brought an avalanche of gee-whiz coverage from a media intoxicated by uncritical enthusiasm. Not many people heard the quiet voice of the cultural critic Todd Gitlin pointing out that the merger was not motivated by any impulse to improve news reporting, magazine journalism or the quality of public discourse. Its purpose was to boost the customer base, the shareholders’ stock and the personal wealth of top executives.

Not only was this brave new combination, in Gitlin’s words, “unlikely to arrest the slickening of news coverage, its pulverization into ever more streamlined and simple-minded snippers, its love affair with celebrities and show business, “the deal is likely to accelerate those trends, since the bottom line “usually abhors whatever is more demanding and complex, slower, more prone to ideas, more challenging to complacency.”

Sure enough, as merger as followed merger, journalism has been driven further down the hierarchy of values in the huge conglomerates that dominate what we see, read and hear. And to feed the profit margins journalism has been directed to other priorities than “the news we need to know to keep our freedoms.”

One study reports that the number of crime stories on the network news tripled over six years. Another reports that in 55 markets in 35 states, local news was dominated by crime and violence, triviality and celebrity. The Project for Excellence in Journalism, reporting on the front pages of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, on the ABC, CBS, and NBC Nightly news programs, and on Time and Newsweek , showed that from 1977 to 1997, the number of stories about government dropped from one in three to one in five, while the number of stories about celebrities rose from one in every 50 stories to one in every 14.

What difference does it make? Well, it's government that can pick our pockets, slap us into jail, run a highway through our backyard or send us to war. Knowing what government does is “the news we need to keep our freedoms.” Ed Wasserman, among others, has looked closely at the impact on journalism of this growing conglomeration of ownership. He recently wrote: “You would think that having a mightier media would strengthen their ability to assert their independence, to chart their own course, to behave in an adversarial way toward the state.”

Instead “they fold in a stiff breeze”—as Viacom, one of the richest media companies in the history of thought, did when it “couldn’t even go ahead and run a dim-witted movie” on Ronald Reagan because the current president’s political arm objected to anything that would interfere with the ludicrous drive to canonize Reagan and put him on Mount Rushmore.

Wasserman acknowledges, as I do, that there is some world-class journalism being done all over the country today, but he went on to speak of “a palpable sense of decline, of rot, of a loss of spine, determination, gutlessness” that pervades our craft. Journalism and the news business, he concludes, aren’t playing well together. Media owners have businesses to run, and “these media-owning corporations have enormous interests of their own that impinge on an ever-widening swath of public policy” —hugely important things, ranging from campaign finance reform (who ends up with those millions of dollars spent on advertising?) to broadcast deregulation and antitrust policy, to virtually everything related to the Internet, intellectual property, globalization and free trade, even to minimum wage, affirmative action and environmental policy. “This doesn’t mean media shill mindlessly for their owners, any more than their reporters are stealth operatives for pet causes,” but it does mean that in this era, when its broader and broader economic entanglements make media more dependent on state largesse, “the news business finds itself at war with journalism.”

Look at what’s happening to newspapers. A study by Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America reports that two-thirds of today’s newspaper markets are monopolies. I urge you to read a new book—Leaving Readers Behind: The Age of Corporate Newspapering (published as part of the Project on the State of the American Newspaper under the auspices of the Pew Charitable Trust)—by a passel of people who love journalism: the former managing editor of the New York Times, Gene Roberts; the dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, Thomas Kunkel; the veteran reporter and editor, Charles Layton, as well as contributors such as Ken Auletta, Geneva Overholser, and Roy Reed.

They find that a generation of relentless corporatization has diminished the amount of real news available to the consumer. They write of small dailies being bought and sold like hog futures; of chains, once content to grow one property at a time, now devouring other chains whole; of chains effectively ceding whole regions of the country to one another, minimizing competition; of money pouring into the business from interests with little knowledge and even less concern about the special obligations newspapers have to democracy. They point as one example to the paper in Oshkosh, Wis., with a circulation of 23,500,which prided itself on being in hometown hands since the Andrew Johnson administration. In 1998, it was sold not once but twice, within the space of two months. Two years later it was sold again: four owners in less than three years.

In New Jersey, the Gannett Chain bought the Asbury Park Press , then sent in a publisher who slashed 55 people from the staff and cut the space for news, and who was rewarded by being named Gannett’s manager of the year. Roberts and team come to the sobering conclusion that the real momentum of consolidation is just beginning—that it won’t be long now before America is reduced to half a dozen major print conglomerates.

They illustrate the consequences with one story after another. In Cumberland, Md., the police reporter had so many duties piled upon him that he no longer had time to go to the police station for the daily reports. But management had a cost-saving solution: Put a fax machine in the police station and let the cops send over the news they thought the paper should have. (“Any police brutality today, Officer?” “No, if there is, we’ll fax a report of it over to you.”) On a larger scale, the book describes a wholesale retreat in coverage of key departments and agencies in Washington.

At the Social Security Administration, whose activities literally affect every American, only the New York Times was maintaining a full-time reporter. And incredibly, there were no full-time reporters at the Interior Department, which controls millions of acres of public land and oversees everything from the National Park Service to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

There’s more: According to the non-partisan Project for Excellence in Journalism, newspapers have 2,200 fewer employees than in 1990. The number of full-time radio news employees dropped by 44 percent between 1994 and 2000. And the number of television network foreign bureaus is down by half. Except for “60 Minutes” on CBS, the network prime time newsmagazines “in no way could be said to cover major news of the day.”

Furthermore, the report finds that 68 percent of the news on cable news channels was “repetitious accounts of previously reported stories without any new information.”

Out across the country there’s a virtual blackout of local public affairs. The Alliance for Better Campaigns studied 45 stations in six cities in one week in October 2003. Out of 7,560 hours of programming analyzed, only 13 were devoted to local public affairs—less than one-half of one percent of local programming nationwide.

A profound transformation is happening here. The framers of our nation never envisioned these huge media giants; never imagined what could happen if big government, big publishing and big broadcasters ever saw eye to eye in putting the public’s need for news second to their own interests—and to the ideology of free-market economics.

Nor could they have foreseen the rise of a quasi-official partisan press serving as a mighty megaphone for the regime in power. Stretching from Washington think tanks funded by corporations to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch’s far-flung empire of tabloid journalism to the nattering know-nothings of talk radio, a ceaseless conveyor belt—often taking its cues from daily talking points supplied by the Republican National Committee—moves mountains of the official party line into the public discourse.

But that’s not their only mission. They wage war on anyone who does not subscribe to the propaganda, heaping scorn on what they call “old-school journalism.” One of them, a blogger, was recently quoted in Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard comparing journalism with brain surgery. “A bunch of amateurs, no matter how smart and enthusiastic, could never outperform professional neurosurgeons, because they lack the specialized training and experience necessary for that field.

But what qualifications, exactly, does it take to be a journalist? What can they do that we can’t? Nothing.” The debate over who and isn’t a journalist is worth having, although we don’t have time for it now. You can read a good account of the latest round in that debate in the September 26 Boston Globe, where Tom Rosenthiel reports on the Democratic Convention’s efforts to decide “which scribes, bloggers, on-air correspondents and on-air correspondents and off-air producers and camera crews” would have press credentials and access to the action.

Bloggers were awarded credentials for the first time, and, I, for one, was glad to see it. I’ve just finished reading Dan Gillmor’s new book, We the Media, and recommend it heartily to you. Gilmore is a national columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and writes a daily weblog for SiliconValley.com. He argues persuasively that Big Media is losing its monopoly on the news, thanks to the Internet – that “citizen journalists” of all stripes, in their independent, unfiltered reports, are transforming the news from a lecture to a conversation. He’s on to something.

In one sense we are discovering all over again the feisty spirit of our earliest days as a nation when the republic and a free press were growing up together. It took no great amount of capital and credit—just a few hundred dollars—to start a paper then. There were well over a thousand of them by 1840. They were passionate and pugnacious and often deeply prejudiced; some spoke for Indian-haters, immigrant-bashers, bigots, jingoes, and land-grabbers. But some called to the better angels of our nature—Tom Paine, for one, the penniless immigrant from England, who, in 1776 –just before joining Washington’s army—published the hard-hitting pamphlet Common Sense , with its uncompromising case for American independence. It became our first best-seller because Paine was possessed of an unwavering determination to reach ordinary people—to “make those that can scarcely read understand” and “to put into language as plain as the alphabet” the idea that they mattered and could stand up for their rights.

So the Internet may indeed engage us in a new conversation of democracy. Even as it does, you and I will in no way be relieved from wrestling with what it means ethically to be a professional journalist. I believe Tom Rosenthiel got it right in that Boston Globe article when he said that the proper question is not whether you call yourself a journalist but whether your own work constitutes journalism.

And what is that? I like his answer: “A journalist tries to get the facts right,” tries to get “as close as possible to the verifiable truth”—not to help one side win or lose but “to inspire public discussion.” Neutrality, he concludes, is not a core principle of journalism, “but the commitment to facts, to public consideration, and to independence from faction, is.”

I don’t want to claim too much for our craft; because we journalists are human, our work is shot through with the stain of fallibility that taints the species. But I don’t want to claim too little for our craft, either. That’s why I am troubled by the comments of the former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon. Simon rose to national prominence with his book Homicide, about the year he spent in Baltimore’s homicide unit. That book inspired an NBC series for which Simon wrote several episodes and then another book and an HBO series called "The Wire," also set in Baltimore. In the current edition of the libertarian magazine Reason, Simon says he has become increasingly cynical “about the ability of daily journalism to affect any kind of meaningful change….One of the sad things about contemporary journalism is that it actually matters very little.’

Perhaps. But Francisco Ortiz Franco thought it mattered. The crusading reporter co-founded a weekly magazine in Tijuana whose motto is “Free like the Wind.” He was relentless in exposing the incestuous connections between wealthy elites in Baja, Calif. and its most corrupt law enforcement agencies and with the most violent of drag cartels.

Several months ago, Francisco Ortiz Franco died sitting at the wheel of his car outside a local clinic—shot four times while his two children, aged eight and l0, looked on from the back seat. As his blood was being hosed off the pavement, more than l00 of his fellow Mexican reporters and editors marched quietly through the streets, holding their pens defiantly high in the air. They believe journalism matters.

Manic Saha thought journalism mattered. He was a correspondent with the daily New Age in Bangladesh, as well as a contributor to the BBC’s Bengali-language service. Saha was known for his bold reporting on criminal gangs, drug traffickers, and Maoist insurgents and had kept it up despite a series of death threats. Earlier this year, as Saha was heading home from the local press club, assailants stopped his rickshaw and threw a bomb at him. When the bomb exploded he was decapitated. Manik Saha died because journalism matters.

Jose Carlos Araujo thought journalism mattered. The host of a call-in talk show in northeastern Brazil, Araujo regularly denounced death squads and well-known local figures involved in murders. On April 24 of this year, outside his home, at 7:30 in the morning, he was ambushed and shot to death. Because journalism matters.

Aiyathurai Nadesan thought journalism mattered. A newspaper reporter in Sri Lanka, he had been harassed and threatened for criticizing the government and security forces. During one interrogation, he was told to stop writing about the army. He didn’t. On the morning of May 3l, near a Hindu temple, he was shot to death—because journalism matters.

I could go on: The editor-in-chief of the only independent newspaper in the industrial Russian city of Togliatti, shot to death after reporting on local corruption; his successor stabbed to death 18 months later; a dozen journalists in all, killed in Russia over the last five years and none of their murderers brought to justice.

Cuba’s fledgling independent press has been decimated by the arrest and long-term imprisonment of 29 journalists in a crackdown last year; they are being held in solitary confinement, subjected to psychological torture, surviving on rotten and foul-smelling food. Why? Because Fidel Castro knows journalism matters.

The totalitarian regime of Turkmenistan believes journalism matters—so much so that all newspapers, radio and television stations have been placed under strict state control. About the only independent information the people get is reporting broadcast from abroad by Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty. A stringer for that service, based in the Turkmenistan capital, was detained and injected multiple times with an unknown substance.

In the Ukraine, Dmitry Shkuropat, a correspondent for the independent weekly Iskra, who had been working on a story about government corruption, was beaten in the middle of the day on a main street in the city of Zaporozhy and taped interviews for his pending story were taken. The director of Iskra told the Committee to Protect Journalists (to whom I am indebted for these examples) said that the newspaper often receives intimidating phone calls from local business and political authorities after publishing critical articles, but he refused to identify the callers, saying he feared retaliation. Obviously, in the Ukraine journalism matters.

We have it so easy here in this country. America is a utopia for journalists. Don Hewitt, the creator of "60 Minutes," told me a couple of years ago that “the 1990s were a terrible time for journalism in this country but a wonderful time for journalists; we’re living like Jack Welch,” he said, referring to the then CEO of General Electric. Perhaps that is why we weren’t asking tough questions of Jack Welch. Because we have it so easy in America, we tend to go easy on America—so easy that maybe Simon’s right; compared to entertainment and propaganda, maybe journalism doesn’t matter.

But I approach the end of my own long run believing more strongly than ever that the quality of journalism and the quality of democracy are inextricably joined. The late Martha Gellhorn, who spent half a century reporting on war and politicians—and observing journalists, too—eventually lost her faith that journalism could, by itself, change the world. But the act of keeping the record straight is valuable in itself, she said. “Serious, careful, honest journalism is essential, not because it is a guiding light but because it is a form of honorable behavior, involving the reporter and the reader.”

I second that. I believe democracy requires “a sacred contract” between journalists and those who put their trust in us to tell them what we can about how the world really works.

You can link to Tom Paine at www.tompaine.com


By William Fisher

How do we know if we are being successful in our ‘war on terror’?

Well, we haven’t been attacked since 9/11, but maybe no one’s tried. We can’t know the answer to that question because giving us the answer would compromise our national security. We only know that our government tells us we’re safer than we were in September 2001, though ‘not yet safe’.

Maybe a more practical way to judge how we’re doing is by examining the record of the Justice Department in convicting bad guys. After all, Attorney General Ashcroft does seem to hold lots of press conferences announcing various prosecutions. How are we doing on that basis?

Between September 11, 2001 and September 1, 2004, the Justice Department had obtained exactly one terror-related conviction. Moroccan immigrants Karim Koubriti, 26, and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 38, were convicted in Detroit in June 2003 of conspiring to provide material support to terrorism and document fraud. Ahmed Hannan, 36, also of Morocco, was convicted of document fraud. A fourth defendant was acquitted. But the Detroit prosecutions were deeply flawed by l prosecutorial malfeasance, and on September 2nd, after the defendants had spent more than three years in jail, their conviction was thrown out

So, as David Cole points out in the October 4th issue of The Nation, “Until that reversal, the Detroit case had marked the only terrorist conviction obtained from the Justice Department's detention of more than 5,000 foreign nationals in antiterrorism sweeps since 9/11. So Ashcroft's record is 0 for 5,000.”

We’ll never know much about most of those 5,000. The reason is that they were rounded up and detained by what used to be the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now part of the Department of Homeland Security. They were locked up in INS jails -- America’s most secret prison system. Some were deported for visa violations – not for terrorism – and others were eventually released. No one was ever charged with any terror-related crime.

A report by the Justice's Department’s own Inspector General confirmed that hundreds of non-nationals picked up in the post September 11th sweeps in the US were deprived of basic human rights. Most of those detained were Muslim males of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin.

At the same time, the Bush Administration is reaching out to the Arab-Americans and moderate Muslims -- and harassing its members simultaneously.

For example, people are being denied entry to our country based on who-knows-what. The latest case involves Yusuf Islam, the former pop singer Cat Stevens, who was removed from a plane bound for Washington from London when his name showed up on a US watch list. A department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesman said Islam was denied admission to the United States "on national security grounds."

Then there’s the case of Tariq Ramadan, a well-known Swiss moderate Islamic scholar named by Time magazine as one of the hundred most likely innovators of the twenty-first century. Ramadan, who condemned 9/11 and has long argued for Islamic moderation, was on his way to teach at Notre Dame’s International Peace Studies Institute. The Department of Homeland Security revoked his work visa under a provision of the USA Patriot Act. No reason given.

Or the case of Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield, a 37-year-old convert to Islam, who was held for several weeks as a material witness because the FBI charged – in error –that his fingerprints were found on a backpack used in the Madrid train bombings. At least he got an apology from the Justice Department – more than the Detroit defendants ever heard.

Meanwhile, only ‘a few bad apples’ have been held accountable for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and other military prisons, and the CIA continues to play its traditional dirty tricks. One of the most egregious of these is known as ‘rendering’, which means sending someone in its custody to a third country whose prisons are known to practice torture. One such victim, a Canadian citizen, was detained at New York’s Kennedy International Airport and then deported to Syria, the country of his birth. He was imprisoned for almost a year, claims he was tortured while in Syrian detention, and is suing the US Government. Two others were kidnapped from Sweden and flown in a CIA Gulfstream to Egypt, where they were thrown in jail and allegedly tortured.

And, were it not for a couple of wise Supreme Court decisions, the US military would still be locking people up forever, without access to hearings, lawyers, or family.

Meanwhile, the Muslim-American community is being scared out of its wits. Federal, State and Municipal law enforcement are reporting record numbers of hate crimes, including murder, beatings, arson, attacks on mosques, shootings, vehicular assaults and verbal threats. The FBI reports that anti-Islamic hate crime incidents rose 1,600% in the past year. But FBI Director Robert Mueller still says he is “vitally concerned that the rights of Arab Americans, Muslims, and Sikh be protected".

Of course we need to be vigilant. But at some point, vigilance becomes paranoia. I suggest that we reach that point when we’re willing to sacrifice the civil liberties we’re asking the rest of the world to emulate.

About the writer: William Fisher, a former journalist, has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development, and served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration.


Wednesday, September 22, 2004


By William Fisher

Those of us who believe in the American Bill of Rights are about to have our commitment challenged yet again – big time. No, not by the Taliban, but by something very close.

The challenger is Reverend Jerry Falwell, arguably America’s most hysterical televangelist. It was the Falwell who blamed 9/11 on “traitors within the Chosen People…federal court decisions, abortionists, pagans, feminists, many gays and lesbians, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and other liberal organizations”. These groups, he said, “made God mad at us.” He added: “"I think Muhammad was a terrorist."

Now Falwell has founded his very own law school. Its objective is to train attorneys to “infiltrate” the legal field and “fight causes of marriage equality and women’s rights.” He hopes to train a generation of attorneys to take up conservative causes -- to outlaw abortion, gay marriage and other issues that he believes the legal establishment has forced on the public. . “We’ll be as far to the right as Harvard is to the left.”

The law school -- part of Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia – began classes last week. Its dean, Bruce Green, says it will “fuse the teachings of the Bible with the US Constitution, stressing the connections between faith, law and morality.”

Others see a far more sinister outcome. For example, Americans United for Separation of Church and State warned, “when Falwell talks about using the legal system to advance his personal religious beliefs, I get a whiff of the Taliban.”

And Howard Dean weighs in with: “In the days after September 11th Falwell said that America deserved to be attacked for, "throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools…the purpose of Falwell's law school is to roll back the progress of the last hundred years. The people of this country have spent a century unraveling hate and prejudice from our legal system. Falwell wants to bring all that back. I am committed to stopping him.”

Falwell, an ardent supporter of President Bush, believes that “homosexuality is Satan's diabolical attack upon the family” and that the AIDS crisis is "God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals."

In his weblog journal, the dean of the new Law School, Bruce W. Green, wrote, “…we are a Christian law school with… an emphatically historic vision of the triune God, creation, fall, redemption, renewal, and their relation. This vision derives from Scripture and centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ… This is the historic foundation that led to the founding of our country and the American legal system.” In another posting, he said: “Unfortunately, having been trained according to rationalist tradition, many modern legal thinkers make themselves at home in a landscape in which the absence of God is taken for granted and then declare they cannot find any trace of God anywhere — including in the study of law.”

The only Jewish law student at Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, told the National Law Journal he has no reservations about the quality of the legal education, nor does he have qualms about being exposed to Christian principles. "I'm not being compelled to change my faith or anything like that," he said. "Their goal is to really prepare us to hit the ground running. And they want us to be really good lawyers."

Nonetheless, applications for faculty positions at the new school contain its “Doctrinal Statement”. The statement includes affirmations of “God the father, God the son, and God the holy spirit”, the concept of original sin, and a decidedly ‘creationist’ approach to the origins of life.

Many legal scholars and practitioners are skeptical of the blending of law and theology.

Barry W. Lynn, a lawyer and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Tresa Baldas of The National Law Journal he compares Falwell's mix of religion and law to that of Muslim fundamentalists. "I think that the Taliban-like character of this is present because Jerry Falwell seems to believe that religion must trump any other considerations.”

John Sebert, a consultant on legal education to the American Bar Association, who oversees the law school accreditation process, has cautioned law schools about the danger of teaching views that are "so slanted" that they produce lawyers ill-equipped to tackle various legal issues. "You can get to a point where in any type of legal education that focuses solely in one area that's so unidimensional that it has the risk of not being able to adequately prepare its graduates for passing the bar or for effective participation in the profession," he said.

Other legal scholars echo that concern. A.E. Dick Howard, a constitutional law scholar at the University of Virginia School of Law, said his concern is whether Liberty will be tightly controlled by a church or religious affiliation, or whether it will have the institutional independence that promotes academic freedom.

"They don't just plan to talk about the relationship between law and religion. They plan to show how law flows from Christian principles," Howard said. "That's kind of blending law and theology and I don't know of any law school that's quite that explicit."

Emily Whitfield, national spokeswoman of the ACLU, believes Falwell is wrong in "demonizing" judges. Unlike the pastor, she added, "We ultimately have faith in our system of justice."

What is disturbing about Falwell’s latest adventure is not simply that he is going to train right-wing lawyers. The American justice system has survived this kind of movement before. What is truly scary is his vision of where he wants it all to lead –his vision of America.

Here his affinity with the Taliban is inescapable. He would create a country based on a "Christian order" that equates democracy with "mob rule"; a country without freedom of speech; a country that will not tolerate diversity and pluralism, a country that will not permit anybody the right to sin; a country that asks no questions; where church and state are one, and where Christians rule by "Divine mandate". In short, a theocratic police state.

But, as one observer points out, “a police state is great -- if you happen to be the police.”

Monday, September 20, 2004


By William Fisher

Last week, President Bush talked with one of his staunchest supporters, the Manchester (NH) Union-Leader, about the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) he received in July containing a classified warning predicting that the best case for Iraq was "tenuous stability" and the worst case was civil war.

"The Iraqis are defying the dire predictions of a lot of people by moving toward democracy," Bush told the paper, adding: “I'm pleased with the progress. Don't get me wrong. It's hard because there are some in Iraq who want to disrupt the election and disrupt the march to democracy, which should speak to their fear of freedom."

Thus we voters are presented with yet another dilemma. Should we believe the authors of the NIE – the same people who produced the slam-dunk intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction? Or should we believe the president, whose Administration told us our troops would be greeted as ‘liberators’, and that flowers would fill the barrels of our guns?

Both would seem to have serious credibility problems.

Except that the NIE has some powerful evidence the president chooses to ignore: what is actually happening on the ground.

The most reliable evidence coming out of Iraq is that what’s happening on the ground is that the country is sliding toward anarchy.

Reconstruction money can’t be spent because contractors can’t work while they’re being shot at. Volunteers for the Iraqi police and the Iraqi National Guard are unable to join up because they are being blown to bits by suicide car bombers. As a result, Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have had to significantly scale back their original optimistic estimates of progress -- now they say 95,000 Iraqi forces are equipped and trained -- less than half the 200,000 US officials previously said they had already trained. But not a single recruit has completed the full 24 weeks of training, and their performance under fire has been less than spectacular.

Entire parts of the country are no-go areas for both Iraqi and US-Coalition forces. The perilous situation in Najaf and Kufa was resolved not by Iraqi or US or Coalition forces, but by the country’s leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (though Prime Minister Allawi did his best to spin this as his own personal victory).

Falluja remains off-limits to both Iraqi and US forces, and there is little evidence that repeated air strikes on that city have produced results other than the ‘collateral damage’ of innocent people getting killed.

It is unlikely that Iraq will be able to establish enough security for elections to go forward in January. Those mandated to monitor those elections – the United Nations – have made it clear they will not return to have their headquarters or staffers blown up a second time.

Meanwhile, more than a thousand US troops have lost their lives, and more than 7,000 have been wounded. And counting.

The president’s response to all this reminds us of Lyndon Johnson during the worst of the Vietnam war. Johnson insisted on ‘whistling past the graveyard’ as US forces sank ever-deeper into that quagmire. He insisted we were winning, when every rational shred of evidence told us we were losing.

Senator Kerry does not offer us much more of a plan. He still talks about ‘internationalizing’ the forces in Iraq, when there is zero chance any of the great powers of the world are prepared put bulls-eyes on the backs of their young men and women. On Thursday, candidate Kerry told members of the National Guard Association of the United States meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, that Bush knows "the mission in Iraq is in serious trouble."

"That is the truth, as hard as it is to bear," Kerry said. "I believe you deserve a president who isn't going to gild that truth or gild our national security with politics, who is not going to ignore his own intelligence, who isn't going to live in a different world of spin, who will give the American people the truth, not a fantasy world of spin." Kerry said he would bring in more allies to help train Iraqi forces so that US troops could come home.

Both Kerry and Bush continue to tell us it’s not too late to turn things around. But neither has told us of a plan, an idea, a strategy, to do that.

The American people deserve better.


By William Fisher

Western women who are frustrated by the ‘glass ceiling’ – listen up: In Saudi Arabia, the ceiling is made of steel!

In February, if not postponed yet again, Saudi Arabia will have its first-ever municipal elections. But in this first tiny step toward more representative governance, women won’t be allowed to run for office.

Although they played a significant role in pressing for these elections, Saudi writer Maha Al-Hujailan says women in the Kingdom are considered “mere appendages of men without an independent identity.“

She adds: “The exclusion of women from political activities amounts to legitimizing a dangerous mentality founded on the notion that women have only a marginal, or no, role in nation building…The absence of women’s voices in the municipal election will undoubtedly have a negative impact on social development…By supporting an ideology based on sexist concepts, the whole society stands to lose an opportunity for a great social transformation with far-reaching consequences.”

Dr. Suhaila Zein-Al Abedeen of the Kingdom’s National Committee for Human Rights says that voting and running for office is a right of all women in Islam. She points out, “women are directly involved in municipal affairs and sometimes suffer more than men from bad service. For example, lack of water, sewage problems and electricity cuts impact women more than men since they are at home and have to deal with the resulting problems.”

Women, she says, “are perfectly capable of public work. If not, why do we waste millions of riyals on women’s education? Saudi women are as aware and capable of participating in the elections as men are.”

The first Saudi woman to announce her intention to run in the elections, Nadia Bakhurji, says her agenda is ready. An engineer, she says that since her announcement to run, she has received many expressions of support.

“I was optimistic about my decision, but now I am disappointed to hear that women will be excluded. It is a huge mistake to exclude us from this process; women can add value and they have a great deal to contribute.”

At the same time, she concedes that breaking barriers takes time. She says she will offer her agenda to any candidate who is willing to adopt it, and suggests that if women cannot be involved directly in the elections, they could form a think-tank to supply other candidates.

Abeer Mishkhas and Somayya Jabarti, writing in Jeddah’s Arab News, quote “an anonymous Shoura (Advisory) Council member” as saying: ‘What do women want with voting and municipality elections? Why would they want to trouble themselves with things that are new and unfamiliar? These issues are against their nature so why ask for trouble?’

A mother of four takes a very different view, the writers say. “I don’t understand. What is the basis for excluding women? If her vote isn’t against Shariah (Islamic law) and doesn’t trespass any red lines, then what’s the harm? A woman is a citizen just as men are. She is the other half unless the authorities intend to have all-men districts and all-women districts.”

Saudi Arabia’s decision to hold municipal elections was hailed as ‘proof’ that the Kingdom was serious about democratic reform. The exclusion of women candidates makes a farce of this baby step.

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

Saturday, September 18, 2004


By William Fisher

“From Pat Buchanan to Paul Krugman, the cry has gone up that the stress on exporting American ideals is a plot by nefarious ‘neoconservatives’. “

So writes conservative columnist Max Boot in the Los Angeles Times (September 16). But not until the final paragraph of his 800-word piece does Boot even come close to the heart of this issue: ”there will be differences over how to go about” spreading democratic values around the world.

Even Pat Buchanan and Paul Krugman would agree that this is what the debate is about. These gentlemen agree on very little. But I suspect they would agree on at least two things: First, spreading democracy is a worthy objective; second, it cannot be achieved by military might.

That is where they, and most reasonable people, part company with the neoconservative construct: use the military to remove miscreant dictators, and freedom and democracy will emerge naturally. The United States should have learned this lesson from its own history, and from the past misadventures of many other nations. But if America insisted on ignoring the past, there can be no question that it learned the lesson in Iraq: US forces were not greeted as liberators. Their gun barrels were not filled with flowers.

So what should the US do?

Boot cites a number of highly regarded scholars who frame the issue as economic development versus political development. He writes that these experts “puncture the myth that democracy works only in rich nations. In fact, many poor countries have freely elected governments (think India, Poland and Brazil) while some rich ones (think Saudi Arabia and Singapore) do not. Far from economic development being necessary for democracy, they argue that democracy promotes economic development. Free countries grow faster than their more repressive neighbors. They also perform better on social measures such as life expectancy, literacy rates, clean drinking water and healthcare. And they are less prone to armed conflict.”

They note that "the 87 largest refugee crises over the past 20 years originated in autocracies," and they cite Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's observation that "no democracy with a free press has ever experienced a major famine."

This argument seems to me designed to set up a straw man. The ‘choice’ is spurious. It does not need to be made at all. Almost any development professional will tell you that economic development and the growth of democratic institutions are self-reinforcing sides of the same coin.

Which leaves us with the more central question: How?

It seems to me that the answer tilts persuasively in the direction of the ‘soft power’ formula proposed by Joseph Nye, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and now Dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard.

Soft Power means attracting people or co-opting them -- getting them to want what you want. Nye’s thesis is that there are times when the US needs to use military power in the face of a clear and present danger to the country (Afghanistan / The Taliban), or economic power (sanctions, relationships with trading blocs, etc.) to counter other kinds of threats. But, he contends, it is ‘soft power’ that has the best chance of securing cooperation from others – without which the terrorists cannot be vanquished. And without which the debate over economic development versus democracy promotion becomes irrelevant.

The application of Soft Power depends on the skillful use of a quiver of carrots and sticks. America spends a substantial amount on foreign aid each year – though it is right to question whether, in light of current challenges, this budget is anything like large enough. But too much of this aid is spent encouraging economic development in countries that have autocratic or authoritarian governments. A relative pittance is spent on helping to introduce democracy. This imbalance is a vestigial remain of the Cold War, and it has tended to give dictators a free pass, favor economic elites, and achieve little in terms of narrowing the chasm between rich and poor.

In contrast, far too little is spent on programs to help build and strengthen democratic institutions. When the US has attempted to strike a healthier balance, it has often done so in clumsy and ineffective ways. Not long ago, the US took Egypt to the woodshed and insisted that the Mubarak regime show some evidence of real political reform. The response was largely cosmetic and short-lived. The Bush Administration’s Greater Middle East Initiative was seen in the region as a one-size-fits-all attempt to impose democracy from outside. And America’s pitiful efforts to use the tools of mass communications to broadcast its ‘message’ to this region have been met with skepticism and an audience of about two per cent of the Arab and Muslim world.

One of the reasons for our inability to use Soft Power more effectively is our use of military power inappropriately, i.e. in Iraq. Another is the precipitous decline of American prestige among Arab populations because of the invasion of Iraq and the failure to make the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a more important priority. And,
to be realistic, some of our failures have to be attributed to the desire of the authoritarian non-democratic regimes we support to simply hang on to power.

Max Boot refers to a study by Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton and former Clinton administration official, and Jitka Maleckova, a professor of Middle Eastern studies in Prague. They write: "Apart from population — larger countries tend to have more terrorists — the only variable that was consistently associated with the number of terrorists was the Freedom House index of political rights and civil liberties. Countries with more freedom were less likely to be the birthplace of international terrorists.”

Which should tell us we need to be much more skillful in persuading these regimes that it is in their self-interest to promote democratic change as an effective means of combating terrorists.

This will mean optimizing our use of both carrots and sticks. The United States has many of both. The process won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. But the status quo is not an option. Sustaining dictators will not win the ‘war on terror’.

Friday, September 17, 2004


By William Fisher

It isn’t often I find myself agreeing with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. But the Secretary is to be commended for his spirited defense of an Indonesian journalist convicted of criminal defamation and sentenced to a year in prison “under laws dating to the Dutch colonial period and the early years of independence” – in what should never have been a criminal case in the first place.

The case involves his friend, Bambang Harymurti, the chief editor of Tempo, Indonesia's leading newsmagazine, and two of his colleagues. Charges stem from an article in Tempo that linked a wealthy Indonesian businessman to a suspicious fire in a Jakarta market where the businessman planned to build a fancy commercial shopping center. The businessman sued for civil defamation and, according the Wolfowitz, “unusually, the government charged Mr. Bambang and two of his colleagues with criminal defamation. Prosecutors,” he added, “asked for two-year sentences and - even more unusually - asked that Mr. Bambang be detained immediately, treating him like a dangerous criminal who should not be allowed to remain at large.”

Mr. Bambang, Secretary Wolfowitz wrote in the New York Times (September 16), is “a journalist of enormous integrity, someone who takes seriously his responsibility not only to publish the truth but also not to publish falsehoods. He is also a Muslim who has courageously denounced terrorism and extremism on the editorial pages of his magazine.”

One of Mr. Bambang’s acquitted co-defendants was Ahmad Taufik, a founding member of the Indonesian journalists’ organization, the Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI), who was previously jailed under the criminal code during an attempt by the Suharto regime to clamp down on press freedom. In 1995, he was jailed for three years for reportedly "hate-sowing articles." In 1997, Taufik was awarded the 1995 CPJ International Press Freedom Award, but could not accept the award because he was in jail.

”The mere fact that this case has been brought, “ Wolfowitz writes, “is a threat to the freedom and democracy that Indonesia has enjoyed since the collapse of the Suharto government six years ago.”

President Christopher Warren of the International Federation of Journalists, agrees. "The rise of repressive regimes in Indonesia has historically been heralded by a restriction of press freedom, including an over-zealous use of spurious legal avenues to lock up defenders of free speech," says Warren. "The journalists of the world are today calling on your government to act in the interests of genuine freedom of the press in Indonesia and repeal these regressive laws.".

While praising Indonesia for making “remarkable progress in developing democratic institutions”, Secretary Wolfowitz says his “concerns about this case extend far beyond my worry about the fate of a friend. I believe that the whole world has a stake in the success of democracy in Indonesia…One of the worst possible ways that power can be abused is to take away the freedom of the press and thereby remove one of the most important mechanisms for ensuring that government respects the rights of its citizens.”

The collapse of Indonesia's first brief experience with democracy in the 1950's began with "an attempt to undermine freedom of the domestic press through the criminalization of journalists." Under President Sukarno, 60 press cases were brought before the Special State Court in September 1957 alone, Mr. Wolfowitz notes.

Indonesia, with a population of almost 240 million, is 90 per cent Muslim and home to more Muslims than any other country in the world -- 15 percent of the world's Muslim population. That, says Wolfowitz, “makes it an important role model in the post-September 11th world. It is no accident that the terrorist fanatics associated with Al Qaeda have been attacking Indonesia, even before the horrendous bombings in Bali in October 2002. And the attacks continue, with one just last week.”

But press freedom in Indonesia presents a mixed picture. "I'm worried," says Leo Batubara, executive director of the Indonesian Newspaper Publishers Association. "The people around (President) Megawati have learned two things from our history: If you want to hold on to power, you have to be close to the military, and you have to control the press."

He cites the agreement of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) to revive the Ministry of Information, which, under President Suharto, was used to muzzle the nation's media. Publications were licensed by the ministry and could be shut down on a moment's notice if deemed to transgress their vague guidelines. Nongovernment radio news was illegal, and all television stations were either government-run or owned by Suharto's associates.

Hinca Panjaitan, a lawyer who runs the Indonesian Media Law and Policy Institute, says members of Megawati's party have been in the forefront of efforts to water down legislation that would guarantee press freedom, particularly for the broadcast media. "Her party doesn't really care about open media,” he says. , Panjaitan, who lobbies for more liberal media laws and teaches media outlets about their rights, says a creeping backlash against the media has begun, with regional bureaucrats and soldiers taking the lead.

Much of the anti-Government sentiment is based on the use of defamation laws against journalists like Secretary Wolfowitz’s friend. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), an organization representing over 500,000 journalists worldwide, has launched a global campaign -- including a protest march in India -- urging Indonesia to refrain from jailing three journalists under the country's draconian defamation laws. IFJ member organizations worldwide are participating in a campaign calling on the government of Indonesia to remove defamation as a criminal offense and restrict financial damages in civil defamation to sensible and rational amounts. They are also urging it to remove the crime of "insulting the President or Vice-President" from the criminal code.

"'Don't jail journalists' is the message that we are sending to the Government of Indonesia…” says IFJ president Warren. "Indonesia needs to recognize that it is completely inappropriate to send journalists to jail for defamation; defamation should be tried only in the civil, not criminal, jurisdiction."

Over the past year, a number of defamation cases have been brought against journalists and media organizations.

In September 2003, the news editor of the newspaper Rakyat Merdeka, Karim Paputungan, received a suspended sentence from a Jakarta court for publishing a satirical cartoon of parliamentary speaker Akbar Tandjung. The cartoon satirized the speaker after he was found guilty of corruption. Tandjung is appealing the decision and remains speaker.

In October 2003, editor Supratman of Rakyat Merdeka was given a suspended six-month jail sentence and a year’s probation after being found guilty by a Jakarta court for "spreading hatred" after publishing headlines critical of the Indonesian government and particularly the president. The case was brought under article 134 of the criminal code, which outlaws insults to the president or vice-president and is punishable by up to six years in jail.

Says Amnesty International: “Legal cases recently brought against media professionals highlight continuing flaws in the Indonesian legal system and indicate disturbing attempts to restrict fundamental rights to freedom of expression and opinion and the public’s right to access to information. Amnesty International believes that these cases represent the most serious threat to press freedom in Indonesia for almost a decade and is urging the Indonesian government to take the steps necessary to uphold fundamental rights and avert a backsliding into a more restrictive environment”.

Another source of concern has been treatment of the press trying to cover the violence in the breakaway prince of Aceh last year. According to Human Right Watch, the Indonesian government “has blocked Indonesian and foreign correspondents from covering the military campaign in Aceh, where gross human rights violations are taking place…Indonesia’s security forces and separatist guerrillas have intimidated journalists…”, says Saman Zia-Zarifi, deputy director of the HRW’s Asia Division.

HRW says that reports from Aceh highlighted several instances of executions of civilians by the Indonesian military, widespread displacement of civilians, and a lack of basic necessities such as food, healthcare and access to education. Since martial law began, Indonesian security forces have verbally and physically intimidated journalists in Aceh. Military officials have also arbitrarily detained correspondents in the field. In one widely reported case, members of Indonesia´s elite special forces, Kopassus, beat an Indonesian radio journalist who was reporting on the plight of Acehnese civilians fleeing the military campaign.

It adds: "Whenever the press has pulled away the shroud of secrecy around Aceh, it has exposed serious abuses. As the government intensifies its military campaign, press access to Aceh becomes even more crucial for providing information on how civilians are surviving the war."

Reporters without Borders, a Paris-based organization that speaks for journalists, says the Indonesian army “did everything possible to keep the news media away from Aceh…Two reporters were killed in the rebel zone and dozens of others were physically attacked or threatened.”

Nevertheless, despite generations of widespread corruption, many observers believe Indonesia is serious about wanting to build democratic institutions. How it approaches the issue of press freedom will be a major measure of the depth of its commitment.