It is becoming less unusual to hear of American journalists abroad who are detained, kidnapped or even killed in the line of duty. But for local journalists across Africa, Asia and the Mideast, kidnapping, detentions and threats to their families are disturbingly familiar.
Journalists from these places assume a target on their backs the moment they pick up a pen, and conduct their work dodging the scopes of local mafias, corrupt officials -- and now, the U.S. government.
On Oct. 26 of last year, a 22-year-old Afghani journalist named Jawed Ahmad, working for Canadian Television, was arrested in his own country by the U.S. military. He was called to the Kandahar Airport, purportedly by a Canadian Television colleague (none reported contacting him that day), and promptly detained by American forces.
He has been held without charges or trial for the past eight months in the detention center at Bagram Air Force Base, just north of Kabul. He is one of 12 journalists detained by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2004, according the Paris-based press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders.
The trend is not only potentially disruptive to efforts to promote democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also may be illegal, particularly in the light of a recent Guantanamo ruling that held at least one offshore detention center accountable to the U.S. Constitution.
That's why the Stanford Law School International Human Rights Clinic has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ahmad against the U.S. government. Clinic project leader and attorney Barbara Olshansky said that Ahmad committed no crime, and that his detention is a threat to both the rule of law, and to free speech.
"In the United States, we believe that freedom of the press is an essential component of our democracy, but it appears that under military order, the U.S. government is detaining foreign journalists without basis and without due process," Olshansky said. "That runs afoul of our beliefs and the law. It also interferes with our ability as citizens to get uncensored press reports from combat zones."
The Stanford Human Rights Clinic is petitioning for Ahmad's right to a fair trial.
Olshansky, who has been litigating Guantanamo cases since their inception, said the Bagram detention center is an even "darker, larger black hole than Guantanamo." Prisoners there report torture and beatings, she said.
Jawed Ahmad's brother, Siddique Amhad, fears that the journalist has been mistreated. Following a videoconference arranged by the International Committee of the Red Cross in January, Siddique said his brother had lost weight, had a broken tooth and appeared as though he had been beaten.
According to Siddique, Ahmad said the military told him he was detained for having Taliban contacts in his phone.
It is impossible to know for certain why Ahmad is in prison. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing and the U.S. Justice Department is unwilling to comment on the case.
Ahmad and his brother are well-known among journalists, according to colleagues. Carlotta Gall, the Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief for the New York Times, has worked alongside Ahmad, and she told the Committee to Protect Journalists that he had nothing more than other journalists by way of contacts with the Taliban.
"Speaking with combatants in an asymmetrical theatre of war is absolutely legitimate," said Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Journalists seek out all sides. I am sure that Canadian Television would have demanded reporting from all sides."
If journalists in war zones must now fear indefinite detention by the U.S. military for routine reporting on an enemy, then there is a fundamental and crucial departure from both the U.S. Constitution and the Geneva Conventions in the manner in which the United States is perpetrating the war on terrorism.
"It is not illegal under U.S. law to have contacts with an enemy. Reporters need it to have a story; that's how the news works," Olshansky said.
In the Ahmad case, the Justice Department is expected to invoke a military order issued by President Bush two months after 9/11, authorizing the military to detain, indefinitely, any person who has engaged in or conspired to commit acts of international terrorism.
"The Department of Justice can be heard with great empathy that they are doing this to protect our troops and win this war," said Dietz. "But within those parameters, they have to find a way not to abuse local journalists."
Among the chief worries for Ahmad's family is that he could be held indefinitely. And in fact, they have reason to be concerned.
Bilal Hussein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Associated Press, was held by the U.S. military for two years before being released in April without charges. And Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj was held without charges by the U.S. military for five years at Guantanamo.
Journalists working in failed states, amid war or widespread poverty and corruption, regularly endure low wages, threats on their lives and families, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment by rogue governments as a condition of their profession. Eighty-five percent of journalist killed abroad are local reporters, and rarely are their deaths investigated, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
"They do it because they have bought in to the concept of journalism and free speech - they understand it intuitively," said Deitz.
The petition filed by the Stanford Law School International Human Rights Clinic on Ahmad's behalf may force the U.S. government to reveal the nature of the charge against him. Without the government presenting at least an allegation of illegal or hostile conduct, a seasoned journalist might say that Ahmad was only doing a reporter's job well in contacting the enemy. A more cynical observer might conclude that he has been detained for committing an act of journalism.
Anna Sussman is a journalist who has reported from the United States, Africa and Asia.
© 2008 San Francisco Chronicle