Sunday, August 08, 2004


By William Fisher

Referring to the US-financed Al Hurra satellite television channel in the Middle East, Edward Djerejian, who was President Bill Clinton’s Ambassador to Israel, asked recently why the region needs another state-run TV network and whether placement of US-produced programs on existing Arab channels might not seem less heavy-handed.

The Iraqi interim government’s one-month closure of the Baghdad bureau of
Al-Jazeera – the most watched TV channel in the area – does nothing at all to answer Djerejian’s question. Or the conclusion of the September 11th Commission that the United States needs to do a better job of communicating its messages.

According to the International Federation of Journalists, “Democracy in Iraq will be won by defending human rights and the people’s right to know, not by
returning to the bad old days of censorship and intimidation of journalists” said IFJ General Secretary, Aidan White.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not a big fan of Al Jazeera. I agree with Michael Young, the Opinion Page Editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, that the channel is “daring, aggressive and timely; but also selective, demagogical and gruesome”.

And I have a certain sympathy with the frustration of the Iraqi authorities, who find that Al-Jazeera has been “showing a lot of crime and criminals on TV. They transferred a bad picture about Iraq and about Iraqis. They have encouraged the criminals and the gangsters to increase their activities in the country," to quote Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib. . "This decision was taken to protect the people of Iraq and the interests of Iraq," Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told a news conference. .

But how is this different from the restrictions placed on the press by authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East – regimes for whom a free Iraq was supposed to be a model?

It isn’t. And, as public policy, it is likely to be counter-productive.

When Iraq was ‘liberated’, dozens of new media outlets – TV channels, radio stations, web blogs, daily and weekly newspapers – suddenly appeared. Long-repressed journalists were overjoyed with their newfound freedom of expression, and print and electronic debate was as lively as one would find in any advanced democracy. Then, the now defunct Coalition Provision Authority closed down the newspaper of Sunni cleric Muqtada El-Sadr, only to find it – and him – more popular when it went underground.

The press freedom race to the bottom began with interim Prime Minister Allawi’s establishment of a new media commission to impose restrictions on print and broadcast media. Under the leadership of Ibrahim Janabi, The Higher Media Commission developed a set of restrictions – called "red lines – for Iraqi media.

The formation of the Commission came amidst government concern that too much media attention is being given to rebel groups. Janabi said his commission exists only to uphold national security, not to meddle in the independent press. “In a difficult security situation, we need to fight the terrorists by all means, and one of the main means is the media,” Janabi told the Financial Times.

One of the banned actions is unwarranted criticism of Prime Minister Allawi. If that sounds familiar, it should be. It is an act also illegal in virtually every country of the Arab Middle East.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sent an open letter to Allawi on July 29, saying the Commission is a potential “threat to press freedom.” CPJ urged Janabi to ensure that any actions of the Higher Media Commission comply with international standards of free expression.

“The restrictive media regulations and censorship described by Janabi would undermine the very foundation of a democratic society by restricting the free flow of information,” CPJ Executive Director, Ann J. Cooper, wrote in the letter.

Al-Jazeera said the government’s decision restrains the "right of the Arab people around the world to see a comprehensive picture about what's going on in an important region like Iraq." Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib said the closure was intended to give the station "a chance to re-adjust their policy against Iraq.''

CNN reported, “In an Arab world rife with conspiracy theories, the decision to close the offices of the popular channel could reinforce the perception that decisions by Iraq's interim government are influenced by the United States, which has long complained about Al-Jazeera's coverage.”

This is not the first time Al-Jazeera has been targeted. Iraq's now-disbanded Governing Council, in place during the US occupation, banned the station's reporters from entering its offices or covering its news conferences for a month in January because it had reportedly shown disrespect toward prominent Iraqis. That was the second such ban imposed by the Governing Council on the station.

Al-Jazeera has occasionally run into problems with authorities in other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan and the former Iraqi regime. Unlike Arab state-run media, the station often airs views of local opposition figures and their criticisms of their countries' rulers.

Senior US officials also have frequently criticized the station for its coverage of the war in Iraq. They accuse it of being an outlet for the al-Qaida terror network for broadcasting videotapes and audiotapes purportedly from Osama bin Laden or his aides. Al-Jazeera denies the allegations.

But count on this: The absence of Al-Jazeera for the next month will create a news vacuum – which others will surely fill. The way to stop the media from presenting pictures of prisoners being humiliated, or hostages being beheaded, is not to shoot the messenger; it is to stop the abuses.


By William Fisher

In about a week, the Commission hand-picked by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is due to release its findings on prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere. The panel is headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, and includes members of the DOD Defense Policy Review Board. Its mandate from Rumsfeld: Review Department of Defense detention operations and advise the Secretary of Defense on the “cause of the problems and what should be done to fix them.”

In its ‘what should be done to fix them’ role, the panel would do well to consider the 10-point strategy recommended to President Bush and the US Congress by Human Rights First, an independent, not-for-profit organization composed of lawyers with wide experience in prison detention and related issues. These are the group’s 10 recommendations:

Commit to upholding the laws on interrogation and detention. “…publicly affirm (America’s) commitment to upholding the letter and the spirit of the laws regulating interrogation and detention, including the Constitution of the United States, Acts of Congress, and the international treaties that it has signed…”

Investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and abuse and publicly report on all cases. “…investigate and prosecute…all those who carried out acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in violation of U.S. and international law, as well as those officials who ordered, approved or tolerated these acts…”

Ban the use of torture. Violations should include “sexual abuse, humiliation, use or threat of electric shock, medical or chemical methods or materials, beating, shaking, hooding, "water boarding," extended sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement, and prolonged incommunicado detention (i.e., without visits from family members, consular officials, and/or legal representatives).”

Rescind all orders permitting conduct that amounts to torture and abuse. To include “interrogation orders, guidelines or regulations permitting conduct amounting to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment …”

Compensate victims of abuse and notify their families. “…in any case where violations of law are found, the victims of abuse and their families (should be) notified of all actions taken to redress the abuse, and…provided adequate reparation including compensation and rehabilitation.”

Mandate rigorous training for interrogators and ban civilian contractors from conducting interrogations. Training should include those engaged in “gathering intelligence through interrogation (and) U.S.-controlled interrogators should be instructed and examined at regular intervals…move immediately to ban the conduct of interrogation under any circumstances by civilian contractors to the U.S. government.”

Disclose the location of all U.S. detention facilities worldwide and account for all detainees in custody. Account for “the number and nationality of all individuals held, state the legal basis for their detention, and…to inform the immediate families of those detained of the detainee’s location and status.”

Inspect all military detention facilities worldwide and report findings to Congress. . “The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Army, CIA, and other relevant Inspectors General should conduct regular inspections of all military and intelligence-run interrogation facilities worldwide to ensure compliance with U.S. legal obligations. Inspectors General should document the results of these investigations in regular reports to Congress.”

Provide all those in custody visits by the Red Cross and due process. “The legal framework governing the detention of all persons in U.S. military custody should be clarified. Where required under international law, each person must be afforded an individualized determination by an independent authority of his current status, rights and obligations.”

Ban transfer of prisoners to countries that use torture. “The United States should institute rigorous and regular procedures for evaluating the likelihood of torture or other human rights violations before any individual” is transferred.

The organization says its plan “is intended to move beyond concern and dismay and set a positive way forward.” Its goal “is to help the United States reclaim its role as a leading defender of fairness and liberty in the world and to make clear that abuses like those we have seen and read about can never again be done in America's name.”

It has now been three months since the world was exposed to the despicable photos of detainees being abused in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Since then, there have been many well-documented reports of similar abuses elsewhere, and evidence suggesting that the problem goes much further up the US military’s chain of command than the “few bad apples” the Pentagon has thus far blamed.

Currently, there are six separate investigations ongoing by the Department of Defense, in addition to that of the Schlesinger panel. Of these, the public has heard the ‘preliminary’ findings of only one: the report of the Army’s Inspector General, which found no evidence of ‘systemic failure’. Both Republican and Democratic Party members of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, which heard this report in testimony before a hurriedly convened meeting, were outraged with the results. And the Schlesinger panel itself has come under suspicion because of its reportedly close ties to Secretary Rumsfeld.

Whether the US military can credibly investigate itself remains an open question. The Schlesinger Commission’s report may help us decide. But if it ignores the common-sense recommendations of Human Rights First, it will have missed a golden opportunity to begin to restore respect and credibility to the United States. Then, the US will be looking toward a truly independent body built on the model of the September 11th Commission to determine the “cause of the problems and what should be done to fix them.”