Screen shot from “Democracy Now!” of a cartoon of Abdulelah Haider Shaye in prison and drawn by Yemeni cartoonist Kamal Sharaf.

Today, United States officials are “reaffirming” the US’s “commitment” to freedom of speech and a free press on World Press Freedom Day, however, there remains one glaring case of repression against a journalist, who President Barack Obama has ordered Yemen to keep imprisoned. His continued imprisonment grossly undermines any messages coming from the US government about its dedication to promoting press freedom.

The State Department during press briefings over the past two weeks has been highlighting cases of journalists under attack from their governments as part of its “Free the Press” campaign.

The Department has attempted to draw attention to: the politicized prosecution and harsh sentencing of Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, the “personal attacks and attempts to discredit journalists” such as Janet Hinostroza of Teleamazonas, and columnist for national daily Hoy; Martin Pallares, anchor of Ecuadoradio; and Miguel Rivadaneira, multimedia editor for leading national daily El Comercio, in Ecuador; Uthayan, a Tamil-language newspaper in Sri Lanka, which has ”seen its personnel beaten, its newspaper shipments burned, its equipment destroyed, and its offices set ablaze in this last month alone”; an Uzbekistan journalist, Solijon Abdurakhmanov, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2008 on “dubious drug charges” after investigating corruption and advocating for farmers’ rights.

It has also called attention through its campaign to Zhila Bani-Yaghoub, an editor for the Focus on Iranian Women website, who is serving a one-year sentence in an Iranian prison for “‘spreading propaganda against the system’ and ‘insulting the president’ for articles she wrote during the 2009 presidential election”; Memtjan Abdulla, an editor at the state-run China National Radio’s Uighur Service, who was detained in July 2009 and has been sentenced to life in prison for “allegedly instigating ethnic rioting in the Xinjian Uighur autonomous region”; Jose Antonio Torres, a Cuban journalist for the official newspaper, Granma, who reported on “mismanagement of a public works project” and was sentenced to 14 years in prison on charges of spying; and South Sudan’s Isaiah Diing Abraham Chan Awuol, who was “shot and killed in December 2012 outside his home in Juba, South Sudan.”

This is not to diminish the significance of these cases (though the ones in Ecuador seem to be hyped). However, one will notice the highlighted cases track nicely with America’s foreign policy agendas.

None of these cases call particular attention to countries, where the US might be partly responsible for the conditions leading to repression, like Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen. For example, Yemeni journalist Abudelelah Haider Shaye continues to be held in prison, not because Yemen decided to infringe upon his press freedom but because Obama has demanded the government not allow him to be free.

Last year, I interviewed Shaye’s lawyer, Abdulrahman Barman. He shared:

[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.

By August 2010, Shaye was kidnapped by national security agency people. He was beaten and dragged to “national security cars.” He was held for thirty-five days incommunicado while activists protested his detention in front of intelligence services and judicial system buildings. These agencies claimed they had not detained him, but he discovered his location through a released prisoner, who had seen him one of the cells. This led to the national security agencies transferring him to another location.

Barman eventually was able to be with him during interrogation and he said there was no evidence against him for the terrorism-related charges he faced. Shaye was tried in a special court and refused to answer the judge’s questions because he did not consider the court to be legitimate.

In January 2011, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison and two years of house arrest in his hometown.

Shaye went on hunger strike in November 2011 and support for his release increased. Yemeni activists protested in front of the US embassy and, finally, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen at the time, was willing to release him. But he received a phone call from President Obama who opposed his release.


In Dirty WarsThe World is a Battlefield, Jeremy Scahill provides further details about Shaye. On December 17, 2009, as Barman mentioned, the village of al-Majalah was attacked with a US cruise missile and at least 21 children and 14 women were killed in the worst strike in Yemen to date. Shaye traveled to the site of the attack to do reporting.

…There he discovered the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which were in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the United States,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets and human rights organizations. He reported that the majority of the victims were women, children and the elderly. After conducting his own investigation, Shaye determined that it was a US strike, and he was all over the media telling anyone who would listen…

Shaye did what the US government had been unable to do and, in the months after US Army medical officer Nidal Hasan went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, he tracked down and interviewed Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. He asked Awlaki, “How can you agree with what Nidal Hasan did as he betrayed his American nation? Why did you bless the acts of Nidal Hasan? Do you have any connection with the incident directly?” He also confronted Awlaki “with inconsistencies from his previous interviews.”

After this interview, weeks later, Shaye interviewed Awlaki on why he thought Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was justified in trying to attack a “civilian airliner” on Christmas Day. Awlaki said, “It would have been better if the plane was a military one or if it was a US military target,” however, he added, “The American people live [in] a democratic system and that is why they are held responsible for their policies.”

As Scahill puts it, Shaye was now giving Awlaki “another opportunity to get his message out,” even if one could argue he was adversarial in his interviews. He also continued to cause trouble for the US by not giving up on what happened in al Majalah and continuing to report on US strikes in Yemen.

…”He was focusing on how Saleh was using the al Qaeda card to gain more money and logistical support from the United States,” recalled cartoonist Kamal Sharaf, Shaye’s closest friend. “Abdulelah was the only person critical and speaking the truth about al Qaeda, so he had significance in the Arab world and in America.” Shaye was working with the Washington Post, ABC News, Al Jazeera and many other major international media outlets, often producing stories that cast US policy in Yemen in a negative light…

Scahill reports that, after he was abducted in July 2010 by Yemeni intelligence agents and went on television to share what had happened to him, US government officials began “privately telling major US media outlets that were working with Shaye that they should discontinue their relationships with him. The government alleged he was “using his paychecks to support al Qaeda.”

Held in solitary confinement for a period, denied access to his lawyer, and subjected to psychological torture and abuse, he appeared in a cage before a special tribunal on September 22, 2010. The judge read the charges he faced, which included “being the ‘media man’ for al Qaeda, recruiting new operatives for the group and providing al Qaeda with photos of Yemeni bases and foreign embassies for potential targeting.

According to Scahill, when Shaye heard the charges, he reacted, “When they hid murderers of children and women in Abyan, when I revealed the locations and camps of nomads and civilians in Abyan, Shabwah and Arhab when they were going to be hit by cruise missiles, it was on that day they decided to arrest me…You notice in the court how they have turned all of my journalistic contributions into accusations. All of my journalist constributions and quotations to international reporters and news channels have been turned into accusations.” And, as he was dragged off by security, he shouted, “Yemen, this is a place where, when a young journalist becomes successful, he is viewed with suspicion.”

On February 21, 2012, more than a year after his conviction, Times of London journalist Iona Craig asked US ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein about Shaye. Laughing, Feierstein responded:

Haidar Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating al-Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans and therefore we have a very direct interest in his case and his imprisonment. But this isn’t anything to do with journalism, it is to do with the fact that he was assisting AQAP and if they [Yemeni journalists] are not doing that they don’t have anything to worry about from us.

Scahill concludes in his book:

For many journalists in Yemen, the publicly available “facts” about how Shaye was “assisting” AQAP indicated that simply interviewing al Qaeda-associated figures, or reporting civilian deaths caused by US strikes, was a crime in the view of the US government. “I think the worst thing about the whole case is that not only is an independent journalist being held in proxy detention by the US,” said Craig, “but that they’ve successfully [intimidated] other Yemeni journalists investigating air strikes against civilians and, most importantly, holding their own government to account. Shaye did both those things.” She added, “With the huge increase in government air strikes and US drone attacks recently, Yemen needs journalists like Shaye to report on what’s really going on.”

Yet, for the State Department, Shaye’s case is not one of concern. It is not one worth highlighting to a press that, by the way, is largely disinterested in what is happening to fellow journalists around the world, who are being killed, arrested, abused, tortured, imprisoned, politically prosecuted and sentenced to prison and sometimes life in jail. (Only Juan O. Tamayo of the Miami Herald seems to have done a story on one of the cases highlighted during a briefing.)

Instead of being outrageous to US diplomats, Shaye’s case causes diplomats to chuckle derisively at those who ask questions about him. It is also one the US media, including outlets that once aired and benefited from his work, have not collectively condemned. Press freedom organizations have criticized Shaye’s continued imprisonment, but press outlets have decided to accept that President Obama is keeping a journalist, who Saleh was willing to pardon, in prison.

The message to journalists around the world is clear. Engage in aggressive reporting in any countries where the US is willing to be outspoken about human rights abuses being committed because it fits America’s agenda, but, if you happen to be in a country where America is fighting its dirty wars, the US government will not just be silent in the face of your repression. The US government may also actively conspire against you. The US government may pressure countries’ governments to use their security agencies against you so you are no longer able to exercise your press freedom.

For the segment on “Democracy Now!” in which Sharaf’s cartoon appears, here is “Why is President Obama Keeping Yemeni Journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye in Prison?“. It aired on March 15, 2012.

If you don’t own “Dirty Wars” by Jeremy Scahill yet, I highly recommend it. You can order a copy by going here.