Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Letters: on the journalism of Sami Elhaj

         Carole Pateman, a wonderful democratic theorist who teaches at UCLA, sent me several relevant additions/corrections to the post on Sami Al-Hajj here. From England, she has no childhood attachment to the Times.   She underlines the fact that many Al-Jazeera correspondants are BBC-trained and are better journalists than at the Times.  This is largely because Al-Jazeera covers more of the real human rights situation in the Middle East, including the role of the United States' government in it, which the Times censors. Ideological coverage, as my post showed is not intelligent coverage. The reporter Brian Stelter could say what is true, what he probably knows is true, mainly by quoting Al-Hajj.

       Elhaj (the correct transliteration according to Al-Jazeera, h/t Joseph Dumas) is really a journalist, like I.F. Stone, somebody who covers the real story seriously, somebody straightforward about human rights (torturing people is repulsive; there is no “journalistically objective” description of Guantanamo or Bagram which makes the US government other than repulsive just as there is no such description of the Inquisition or of Stalin’s trials).  He is also someone whom the US government imprisoned and tortured for 7 years.  This man, like Izzy, admires the Bill of Rights and the rule of law, and fights for it.  Brutalized by the United States, he drew the correct conclusions about it and about oppression, for instance, in Jordan generally.  He is one of “nature’s noblemen” and has swiftly become the leading journalist in the Arab world.

        7 years with torture. Did the Bush administration – which made of innocents enemies with every moment in the day – really need to do that?  But a capitalist democracy (and perhaps any government) is always a tyranny over some.  As Carole suggests, the distance between here and a police state – this regime is already the worst kind of tyranny for many (Arabs, immigrants) and treats the poor and even the middle class, for instance, with foreclosure and unemployment – even under Obama is not so far. 

       But many of us are moved to speak out.  I also received an interesting letter from Joseph Dumas, an independent journalist who has interviewed Elhaj, and written a deeper article on the case which he is seeking to get published (anyone who can help, please contact me and I will put you in touch).

      Dumas allows Elhaj to give the point of view of the tortured (Moazzem Begg, Enemy Combatant, is another good place to look).  If one wants to understand what America has become, listening to these words is important.  For instance, he asks in the interview what struck Al-Hajj most about Guantanamo.  Here is a brief interchange:

From your experiences of the imprisonment, and now, one year following your return to your physical freedom, what do you believe is the biggest misperception about your ordeal? Or, perhaps expressed differently: what is the biggest mis-perception about the Detention Center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and its prisoners?

“One great misperception is the idea that Guantanamo is a prison full of terrorists, or potential terrorists. Most of the men I met were innocent and peaceful people.”

In a recent edition of the London newspaper, “The Guardian,” [05-May-2009,  “Miscarriage of Justice”] there was a series of interviews with innocent people who had been imprisoned without merit—some for years, in situations with similarities to yours. One man described the experience as like being “buried alive.” What went through your mind the moment you were arrested? Fear? Disbelief? How do you manage your anger about this experience?

“I always thought it was a mistake and everything would be sorted soon, especially because I know they had my name spelt wrong and my date of birth was incorrect. Everything was telling me that I was the wrong person and that I would be released maybe the next hour, the next day, the next week, etc., until I was flown to Guantanamo, where I realized that things were much more complicated.

“I do not have anger, I have a responsibility. Because of what happened to me, the responsibility is great for me to expose human rights abuses and defend people’s right to information.”

Please speak about the people you met there?

“As I mentioned earlier on, the people I met during my detention were young, peaceful and innocent people. It saddens me whenever I remember that there are still, in Guantanamo, innocent people who have families, sons, daughters, wives whom they miss terribly, and that if I do not fight for their release, they will remain imprisoned even longer.“

Dear Alan, 

        I have been receiving your writings for some while now, but have not been moved to reply before. I don't read the New York Times (what is the point?) but I do know about Sami. That is because, although I am not one of "Al Jazeera's viewers in the Arab world," I am one of very many, who you neglect to mention, who look regularly at their English language edition -- though in our peculiar country I cannot watch their television, since that is prohibited (informally if not formally). But I can see it in the UK and elsewhere, where it is readily available like other news channels, and I can read their English-language website. Their international coverage is by and large large excellent and they often have reporters in places where Brian Seltzer -- whoever he is -- and his ilk would never go. You also do not mention two other relevant points: first, that the US has waged war against Al Jazeera journalists, as you can see in the documentary Control Room (I think that is the title). Second, that when it was set up and still today, a large number of their staff have been trained by the BBC or other Western news companies, and they even employ that old pussycat David Frost. Obama speaks very well but I'm beginning to think that the rule of law is a lost cause here (not the only one of course!). Best wishes, Carole

Dear Professor Gilbert

         With interest, I have just read your posting about the NYT story. I have the un-filtered, un-sanitized back-story on Sami Elhaj (sp: confirmed by the Al Jazeera network). As Glenn Greenwald noted, there has been a near black-out on this story. I am trying to get my in-depth piece published; in addition, I have interviews with key players:  Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, who gives the back-story to the creation and maintenance of Guantanamo; and the lead attorneys:  Clive Stafford Smith, whose legal charity, "Reprieve," has represented more than 50 Guantanamo prisoners; and Joseph Margulies, the lead-attorney, in Rasul-v-Bush, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court in June 2004; in consequence, Guantanamo detainees--for the first time--were granted the accorded legal recognition. I would welcome the opportunity to chat with you.  A lone voice in the wilderness.

          Joseph Dumas

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