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The Miami Herald

The Most Famous Journalist in the World

Sabin Willett

The world's most famous journalist isn't Peter Arnett or Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein or Dan Rather. His name is Sami al-Hajj. Chances are you've never heard of him. That should worry you.

Al-Hajj is a television cameraman from Sudan, and until this month he was a prisoner in the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. For years, al-Jazeera followed his odyssey day by day. Al-Hajj became famous to the millions across Asia and Europe who watch the Arab satellite channel's broadcasts and read its website, but he remained all but unknown in America. Most Americans never saw his photograph in mainstream American newspapers or heard about him on television.

Seven-year nightmare

Like other journalists, al-Hajj covered the Afghanistan war in late 2001. Armed with a television camera, he sought to re-enter Afghanistan on Dec. 15, 2001, as his film crew had done since October. A Pakistani border guard seized him and turned him over to Americans. That began a seven-year nightmare: Al-Hajj was sent to a Pakistani jail, to the American air base at Kandahar, Afghanistan, and for long years to Guantánamo, where his imprisonment included force-feeding by nasal tube after he stopped eating in protest.

The Bush administration hinted darkly that al-Hajj was linked to Osama bin Laden, that he'd been involved in transporting weapons and funding terrorist organizations. The administration produced no evidence to support its charges, and al-Hajj denied them, noting the considerable and obvious evidence that he was, literally, a card-carrying journalist.

He was never charged with a crime. He was never brought before a judge. At last, as suddenly and as inexplicably as he'd been captured, he was released.

There was a time when the imprisonment of a journalist without charges would have caused an uproar in this country. Or even when it happened abroad.

When BBC journalist Alan Johnston was captured and held in Gaza, his story was widely covered and his detention was rightly deplored in the United States. At the time, al-Hajj had already been a prisoner at Guantánamo for years, and when Johnston was released two months later, al-Hajj remained in prison. The silence of the American press was deafening.

As his lawyer has charitably suggested, al-Hajj's initial capture may have been an honest mistake. Any competent journalist tracking this story, however, would soon have uncovered a more insidious narrative. Al-Hajj's news crew had covered the human aftermath of American bombing in Afghanistan, and al-Jazeera broadcasts images of the savage cost of warfare that the Bush administration would prefer the world not see.

So was al-Hajj a terrorist? Or a foil through whom the administration hoped to discredit one of its most persistent media critics, and perhaps intimidate others? If al-Hajj was a terrorist, why didn't the administration charge and try him? Why did it release him?

Although he was interrogated more than 130 times at Guantánamo, his interrogators never found any link between al-Jazeera and bin Laden. Was this journalist imprisoned, beaten and interrogated because, as far as the Bush administration was concerned, the enemy was a critical and influential press organization? Was al-Hajj imprisoned because the administration thought it could exploit him to discredit al-Jazeera? Is that what made al-Hajj an ``enemy combatant''?

Not so long ago, our press would at least have asked these questions. It should have been shouting from the rooftops about al-Hajj -- demanding evidence, a trial, the truth. But our press was silent.

War cheerleaders

We've seen all too recently what can happen when a compliant and docile press meekly accepts the administration's line. Five years ago, when war momentum fevered the nation, most mainstream media became cheerleaders, abandoning their professional duty of relentless skepticism. So, too, with al-Hajj: So, too, even where one of their own is involved. Today the war drums are rumbling again, this time for Iran. Will our press stand its post, or pick up the pom-poms of 2002 and 2003?

The omens aren't good. The most famous journalist in the world was imprisoned by Americans, without charge, for almost seven years -- was beaten, isolated, humiliated, force-fed, relentlessly interrogated and then quietly released. And you never heard about him.

Sabin Willett is a partner at Bingham McCutchen LLP in Boston, which represents prisoners at Guantánamo on a pro bono basis. Neither he nor the firm has represented Sami al-Hajj.

Copyright 2008 Miami Herald Media Co.

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