President Barack Obama and other United States government leaders marked World Press Freedom Day yesterday. Obama issued a statement to pay “special tribute to those journalists who have sacrificed their lives, freedom or personal well-being in pursuit of truth and justice.” He invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that every person has a right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” He highlighted journalists in countries like Syria, Eritrea, Vietnam, Ecuador and Cuba, who have been targeted, threatened, detained or harassed.
Obama closed his statement with this declaration:
…No matter the cause, when journalists are intimidated, attacked, imprisoned, or disappeared, individuals begin to self-censor, fear replaces truth, and all of our societies suffer. A culture of impunity for such actions must not be allowed to persist in any country.
This year, across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, the world witnessed not only these perils, but also the promise that a free press holds for fostering innovative, successful, and stable democracies. On this World Press Freedom Day, we call upon all governments to seize that promise by recognizing the vital role of a free press and taking the necessary steps to create societies in which independent journalists can operate freely and without fear. [emphasis added]
This statement would be meaningful if it weren’t so fraudulent, if there wasn’t a clear example of a journalist having his freedom grossly violated by the order of President Barack Obama himself.
Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a journalist whose reporting focused on issues of terrorism, has been in jail since 2010. Then-Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh was going to pardon and release him, but, as Jeremy Scahill of The Nation reported, Obama ordered Saleh in February 2011 to keep him in jail.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Shaye’s lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman, an attorney and human rights activist in Yemen. In the interview, he briefly recounts the story of what happened to Shaye, including how he came to be charged and sentenced to prison for “terrorism-related crimes.”
[Shaye] is one of those who got all of the information quickly and put it out there for the public. His work actually impacted the Yemeni government and US government in ways where they didn’t want to see it. The Yemeni intelligence were trying to actually recruit Shaye and have him work in the intelligence but he refused. So, after the attack on al-Majalah where so many civilians including women and children were murdered, Abdulelah was beaten up and kidnapped [in June 2010] by the national security agency and he was asked to shut up and be silent and not to talk about these kind of issues.
Shaye, according to Scahill, went to the site of the attack and took photographs of the missiles, cruise missile guidance systems, cluster bombs (some of which were left unexploded) and “meat” hanging from trees (one could not tell whether it was human or animal flesh). Because of Shaye, Amnesty International obtained photographs and was able to figure out the weapons were not in the arsenal of the Yemeni military. WikiLeaks released diplomatic cables shortly after and confirmed that Saleh met with Gen. David Petraeus and agreed to continue to say the bombs were from Yemen and not the United States.
The attack on al-Majalah in December 2009 is one of the main incidents that has fueled rage in Yemen against the United States. Obama authorized the attack. The American Civil Liberties Union and Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) have filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records on what happened and whether the US has compensated any of the families of the women or children that were massacred. They have submitted a FOIA request for details on whether anyone has been held responsible for the bloodshed. But, there has been no response to the request and the State Department has hid behind the Yemen government and refused to specifically address the attack on al-Majalah.
Barman shares how Shaye went back to doing his job and then describes how Shaye was targeted by the country’s security agency again:
In August 2010, a number from the national security agency rid over and kidnapped him from his house. It was when they raided his house Abdulelah was wearing his sleeping clothes and that was all he was wearing. Even with that said, he was beaten up and was dragged to the national security cars. For thirty-five days, we were doing ongoing protest in front of intelligence services and judicial system buildings so we could do something and he could be released. All the intelligence of the security service agencies said they didn’t detain him.
One of the prisoners who was released said he saw him in one of the cells. He was detained by himself in a small cell. So, when we announced we figured out his location, national security transferred him to another place. When I sat with him during the interrogation, I couldn’t see any evidence against him that he could be tried with. And he also was tried in a special court and constitutional court that has mainly judges from the intelligence services. So, we protested this in constitutional court and so did Abdulelah who did not answer any of the judges’ questions.
Shaye asked the judges to bring those who had kidnapped him because what they had done was illegal. The judge refused and he was sentenced to five years and two additional years of house arrest in his hometown.
Right now, he’s detained in detention that belongs to national security agency and he is not allowed to be visited. There’s only a small amount of individuals that can visit him and this is his brothers. The only people that can visit him is his family members, but he has refused visits from his mother, wife and sisters because he does not want to see them in detention.
Shaye went on hunger strike in November 2011. That helped build support for his release.
After we had been protesting in front of the US Embassy, the former president granted him a release. And after that, after former president Ali Abdullah Saleh granted his release, he received a phone call from President Barack Obama saying he is concerned about letting him be released.
Up to this point, there is a lot of ongoing activities to call for Abdulelah to be released. And the new president promised he will look into his case, which will lead to his release. What we are concerned about is Obama might interfere again.
Consider what Barman says here. The Press Freedom Rankings Index for 2012, released by Reporters Without Borders, gave Yemen its worst ranking ever. It noted that Yemen had “succumbed to violence between President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s opponents supporters,” and “the future” of the country and how it will allow the media to operate freely is “undecided.” But, in the case of Shaye, this ranking is only material to the imprisonment of him if one thinks the Obama administration is taking advantage of the fact that Yemen is one of the worst countries for freedom of the press. It only is significant if one thinks Obama is capitalizing off of suppression of the press to continue counterterrorism operations that include drone attacks. Otherwise, Shaye’s detention is all because the Obama administration wishes to punish him for reporting on al Qaeda and US attacks in Yemen.
Finally, Barman addresses the level of interference from the United States in Yemen and how he has been targeted for his human rights work:
…During the revolution, our office in Yemen was attacked by tanks and it was completely organized. I’m talking about the human rights organization I work with and before that the law firm I worked for actually got burned. They completely destroyed our human rights organization and our law firm. Through six months, we were working in a tent and our tents were based in Change Square where the intelligence services could not reach us among the protesters. And of course everyone who works on these issues will always face danger but we believe in a just cause and we defend that. And everyone that believes in a cause should defend that cause until terrorism comes to a complete stop and all the human rights violations.
He adds Yemenis face not only “terrorizing by the government but also terrorizing of human rights organizations.” Yet, he professed a belief that the good always defeat the bad.
I was able to interview Barman because he came to the drone summit co-organized by CODEPINK, CCR and Reprieve. He attended Scahill’s speech on Saturday. He stood up and described the work he is doing and how he recently helped negotiate the release of 72 captured Yemeni soldiers from Ansar al-Sharia. He explained why he had come all the way from Yemen to Washington, DC, for the summit and it was quite moving because he had come to the summit hoping to find Americans that had some humanity. He wanted to get in touch with Americans, who actually were concerned about the actions of the US government and what the Obama administration is doing to innocents in foreign countries.
Barman’s office was attacked by US-backed forces. Shaye was picked up, detained and convicted on “terrorism-related” charges by a client regime of the United States because he was interviewing people like the now-assassinated US-born Yemen cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and members of al Qaeda. Shaye has been designated a terrorist and remains jailed because the US maintains he is working with al Qaeda. On top of that, as Scahill has pointed out, not a single media organization, like ABC or the Washington Post, which benefited from his reporting, has spoken up in opposition to what the Obama administration has done.
Shaye went on hunger strike again in February of this year. The Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) called on the Obama administration to release him. But, when asked by journalist Iona Craig about Shaye’s imprisonment, US ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein laughed and said Shaye was “facilitating al Qaeda.” And, since Scahill’s story broke, outrage over a US president having a journalist jailed has not pushed the US government to relent and let Shaye go free.
The Obama administration, which carries out counterterrorism operations and provides military aid to Yemen, has contributed to creating the exact climate, which President Obama condemned on World Press Freedom Day. However, the administration cares about the jailing of an innocent journalist about as much as it cares about the innocent people that have been killed in drone strikes in Yemen. It cares about Shaye about as much as it cares about the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son.
Which is to say that the administration is not bothered in the least bit by the fact that it has callously destroyed the life of a journalist in Yemen. The pursuit of a “war on terrorism” takes priority over press freedom and Shaye was a journalist, who was successful at bringing transparency to US operations, and he had to be neutralized.