On torture-17: Media double standards

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

I began the series of posts on torture with a partial hypothetical based on the true story of two American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling arrested by North Korea. I said that if those journalists were convicted on the basis of confessions obtained using torture, we would be up in arms, even though torture is exactly what the US has been doing to the detainees it has held.

Those two journalists have now been found guilty by a North Korean High Court after a five-day trial and sentenced to 12 years hard labor. The US government and media assumes that the two are innocent (Hillary Clinton describes the charges as “baseless”), except perhaps for accidentally crossing the border into North Korea, and that the sentence was unduly harsh, and that the North Koreans did this just to force the US into some kind of negotiations.

Earlier we had the media spotlight on another American journalist Roxana Saberi who was tried in Iran for espionage and convicted before being released later by an Iranian appeals court. Again, the US government and media saw this trial as purely political, and Saberi received a huge amount of publicity.

Many readers may be surprised to learn that these are not the only recent cases of journalists being arrested by governments. There are others who have been held without charge or trial for much longer periods under much worse conditions, whose plight has been largely ignored by the US media, although they have been publicized elsewhere. The reason is, of course, that these hapless journalists are being held by the US government and this means, of course, they are presumed to be guilty and dangerous and their indefinite detention is to be excused or even justified.

Glenn Greenwald describes some of the cases.

  • Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj was held in the back hole of Guantanamo for six years without trial, beginning in 2001, before being finally released. Even more disgraceful, even after the American interrogators realized that al-Haj was just a journalist, they then tried to coerce him to spy on Al Jazeera for them.
  • The AP photographer Bilal Hussein was detained by the US for two years without any charges brought against him, after his photographs contradicted US claims.
  • Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer for Reuters, was detained by the US in September 2008.

That’s not all. The Committee to Protect Journalists says:

Hussein’s detention is not an isolated incident. Over the last three years, dozens of journalists—mostly Iraqis—have been detained by U.S. troops, according to CPJ research. While most have been released after short periods, in at least eight cases documented by CPJ Iraqi journalists have been held by U.S. forces for weeks or months without charge or conviction. In one highly publicized case, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a freelance cameraman working for CBS, was detained after being wounded by U.S. military fire as he filmed clashes in Mosul in northern Iraq on April 5, 2005. U.S. military officials claimed footage in his camera led them to suspect Hussein had prior knowledge of attacks on coalition forces. In April 2006, a year after his arrest, Hussein was freed after an Iraqi criminal court, citing a lack of evidence, acquitted him of collaborating with insurgents. (my italics)

As Greenwald says:

In Iran, at least Saberi received the pretense of an actual trial and appeal (one that resulted in her rather rapid release, a mere three weeks after she was convicted), as compared to the journalists put in cages for years by the U.S. Government with no charges of any kind, or as compared to the individuals whom we continue to abduct, transport to Bagram, and insist on the right to imprison indefinitely with no charges of any kind. Who was treated better and more consistently with ostensible Western precepts of justice and press freedoms: Roxana Saberi or Sami al-Haj? Saberi or Bilal Hussein? Saberi or Ibrahim Jassam? Saberi or the Bagram detainees shipped to Afghanistan and held in a dank prison, away from the sight of the entire world, without even a pretense of judicial review, a power the Obama administration continues to insist it possesses?

The London Independent reports on the reason that Saberi was convicted of espionage.

A joyful Roxana Saberi yesterday thanked those who helped win her release as her lawyer revealed his client had been convicted of spying in part because she had a copy of a confidential Iranian report on the war in Iraq.

Ms Saberi, a freelance journalist who was freed on Monday after four months in prison in Tehran, had copied the report “out of curiosity” while she worked as a freelance translator for a powerful body connected to Iran’s ruling clerics, said the lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht.

In fact, when we compare the case of Saberi in Iran with the way the US treats the journalists it arrests, Iran comes out much better. Robert Dreyfuss notes that what Saberi did to get herself arrested was more serious than what was done by many of the journalists under US custody and yet she got a quick trial and was released after a quick appeal. As Dreyfuss says:

Here’s what I wonder: If an Iranian journalist came to the United States, deliberately let his reporter’s credentials expire, took a job working for an important US agency that handles confidential or classified material, and then secretly copied one of those documents out of “curiosity,” do you think he would have been released by an appeals court? Or do you think that he might have received, say, eight years in prison for espionage?

Saberi had confessed to being a US spy while serving 100 days in prison. After her release, she said she made a false confession out of fear. She describes her treatment:

In Evin, the jail in the Tehran suburbs where many political prisoners are held, Saberi endured “severe psychological and mental pressure, although I was not physically tortured.

“The first few days, I was interrogated for several hours, from morning until evening, blindfolded, facing a wall, by up to four men, and threatened … I was in solitary confinement for several days,” Saberi said.

I can well imagine that Saberi was frightened and that her confession was not freely given, even though the conditions she describes pale in comparison to the kinds of torture practices the US is guilty of.

The US government and those in the media who cheer on policies of “preventive detention” and condone and excuse torture have absolutely no standing to complain when other governments do similar things.

POST SCRIPT: A real ticking time bomb

Scott Roeder, the person who has been arrested and charged with killing Dr. George Tiller, told the Associated Press that similar violence has been planned against other abortion providers but refused to provide further details. The news report continues, “It wasn’t clear whether Roeder knew of any impending violence or whether he was simply seeking publicity for his cause. Law enforcement authorities including the Justice Department said they didn’t know whether the threat was credible.”

But there’s a way to find out, isn’t there? We could simply torture him because what we have here is a ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario so beloved by those who use it in hypothetical situations to justify torture.

John Cole who, like me, opposes torture in all circumstances, issues a challenge to evangelical Christians who are more supportive of torture than nonbelievers or mainstream Protestants.

Since there is no doubt that we have a history of anti-abortion domestic terrorism, and since we know that evangelicals already support torture for everyone, when do we get to start waterboarding this guy? Does he have any children whose testicles can be crushed? Will we keep him up for weeks on end in stress positions in extremely cold rooms to get him to break? Beat him? All the right made a very good show of how shocked and appalled they were when this man killed Dr. Tiller, so surely they will not object. So when do we get to start torturing this guy?

This same challenge can be posed to anyone who thinks that torture works and uses the ticking time bomb hypothetical to justify torture. Shouldn’t they be calling for Roeder to be tortured?


  1. Leslie Anderson says

    Yikes, I had seen a little bit of information about the two journals that got arrested over in Korea. Has there been anything said recently? Will they be brought back home successfully, or are they going to try to keep them over there for as long as they can? That’s a very sad situation to be in for the families involved.

    -- Leslie, (Acne Researcher)

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