There was justified and highly public rejoicing last month when BBC correspondent Alan Johnston was released 114 days after being kidnapped by the Army Of Islam in the Gaza Strip. This was hardly surprising: four months of enforced hospitality in a Middle East basement is nobody’s idea of fun. But now that the fuss has died down it’s interesting to compare Johnston’s ordeal with that of some other journalists held against their will.
One, photographer Bilal Hussein, marks his 500th day in captivity today. Like Johnston, Hussein works for a well-known and respected western news organisation: in his case, the Associated Press. Both men could be described as experts in their respective areas: Johnston as the only permanent foreign correspondent in the Gaza Strip, and Hussein as a native of the Iraqi city of Fallujah, where he initially worked. Both were abducted off the street by groups of heavily armed men. The captors of neither man have given clear or credible reasons for the respective detentions.
There are differences of course. While Johnston’s case received instant and continuing worldwide publicity, one has to search hard to find any news on Hussein’s continued detention. Johnston is a white foreign correspondent and was seized in a foreign land, making him an easy candidate for public sympathy. Hussein, on the other hand, isn’t white, has an unfortunate surname, and is an Iraqi imprisoned in his own country, or what remains of it.
And, oh yes, there’s one other difference. Johnson was abducted by an Islamic militant group: Hussein was seized by the U.S army.
Of course nobody would claim that it’s US policy to kidnap journalists: hack-jacking has generally been the preserve of criminal gangs or politico-paramilitary movements without access to state funds. The US military already has its funding in place, and has yet to make ransom demands for any detained journalists.
Besides which, American forces would make a remarkably inefficient kidnap gang: they kill more journalists than they detain at length.
The news organisations with the largest numbers of journalists in Iraq, the wire agencies, have long complained about the behaviour of the US military toward journalists. In a letter to Senator John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Reuters editor-in-chief, David Schlesinger charged US forces with ‘a long parade of disturbing incidents whereby professional journalists have been killed, wrongfully detained, and/or illegally abused by US forces in Iraq’.
‘We want the rule of law to prevail,’ AP President and CEO Tom Curley has said concerning the Hussein seizure. ‘He either needs to be charged or released. Indefinite detention is not acceptable.’
However his words will not be much comfort to Bilal Hussein, for he is by no means the only journalist detained without charge by American forces and with little prospect of early release. Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj has been imprisoned without charge in Guantanamo Bay for over five years, the only journalist to be held there. As with Hussein, the best justification the US can produce for his imprisonment is a vague statement that he is a security threat. The evidence? A single letter from the Pakistani intelligence services.
The petition to free Bilal Hussein can be found here.