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What Media Coverage Omits about US Hikers Released by Iran

Glenn Greenwald

 by Salon

Two American hikers imprisoned for more than two years by Iran on extremely dubious espionage charges and in highly oppressive conditions, Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer, were released last week and spoke yesterday in Manhattan about their ordeal.  Most establishment media accounts in the U.S. have predictably exploited the emotions of the drama as a means of bolstering the U.S.-is-Good/Iran-is-Evil narrative which they reflexively spout.  But far more revealing is what these media accounts exclude, beginning with the important, insightful and brave remarks from the released prisoners themselves (their full press conference was broadcast this morning on Democracy Now).

Fattal began by recounting the horrible conditions of the prison in which they were held, including being kept virtually all day in a tiny cell alone and hearing other prisoners being beaten; he explained that, of everything that was done to them, "solitary confinement was the worst experience of all of our lives."  Bauer then noted that they were imprisoned due solely to what he called the "32 years of mutual hostility between America and Iran," and said: "the irony is that [we] oppose U.S. policies towards Iran which perpetuate this hostility."  After complaining that the two court sessions they attended were "total shams" and that "we'd been held in almost total isolation - stripped of our rights and freedoms," he explained:

In prison, every time we complained about our conditions, the guards would remind us of comparable conditions at Guantanamo Bay; they'd remind us of CIA prisons in other parts of the world; and conditions that Iranians and others experience in prisons in the U.S.

We do not believe that such human rights violation on the part of our government justify what has been done to us: not for a moment.  However, we do believe that these actions on the part of the U.S. provide an excuse for other governments - including the government of Iran - to act in kind.

[Indeed, as harrowing and unjust as their imprisonment was, Bauer and Fattal on some level are fortunate not to have ended up in the grips of the American War on Terror detention system, where detainees remain for many more years without even the pretense of due process -- still -- to say nothing of the torture regime to which hundreds (at least) were subjected.]

Fattal then expressed "great thanks to world leaders and individuals" who worked for their release, including Hugo Chavez, the governments of Turkey and Brazil, Sean Penn, Noam Chomsky, Mohammad Ali, Cindy Sheehan, Desmond Tutu, as well as Muslims from around the world and "elements within the Iranian government," as well as U.S. officials.

Unsurprisingly, one searches in vain for the inclusion of these facts and remarks in American media accounts of their release and subsequent press conference.  Instead, typical is this ABC News story, which featured tearful and celebratory reactions from their family, detailed descriptions of their conditions and the pain and fear their family endured, and melodramatic narratives about how their "long, grueling imprisonment is over" after "781 days in Iran's most notorious prison."  This ABC News article on their press conference features many sentences about Iran's oppressiveness -- "Hikers Return to the U.S.: 'We Were Held Hostage'"; "we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten" -- with hardly any mention of the criticisms Fattal and Bauer voiced regarding U.S. policy that provided the excuse for their mistreatment and similar treatment which the U.S. doles out both in War on Terror prisons around the world and even domestic prisons at home.

Their story deserves the attention it is getting, and Iran deserves the criticism.  But the first duty of the American "watchdog media" should be highlighting the abuses of the U.S. Government, not those of other, already-hated regimes on the other side of the world.  Instead, the abuses at home are routinely suppressed while those in the Hated Nations are endlessly touted.  There have been thousands of people released after being held for years and years in U.S. detention despite having done nothing wrong.  Many were tortured, and many were kept imprisoned despite U.S. government knowledge of their innocence.  Have you ever seen anything close to this level of media attention being devoted to their plight, to hearing how America's lawless detention of them for years -- often on a strange island, thousands of miles away from everything they know -- and its systematic denial of any legal redress, devastated their families and destroyed their lives?

This is a repeat of what happened with the obsessive American media frenzy surrounding the arrest and imprisonment by Iran of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, convicted in a sham proceeding of espionage, sentenced to eight years in prison, but then ordered released by an Iranian appeals court after four months.  Saberi's case became a true cause célèbre among American journalists, with large numbers of them flamboyantly denouncing Iran and demanding her release.  But when their own government imprisoned numerous journalists for many years without any charges of any kind -- Al Jazeera's Sami al-Haj in Guantanamo, Associated Press' Bilal Hussein for more than two years in Iraq, Reuters' photographer Ibrahim Jassan even after an Iraqi court exonerated him, and literally dozens of other journalists without charge -- it was very difficult to find any mention of their cases in American media outlets.

What we find here yet again is that government-serving American establish media outlets relish the opportunity to report negatively on enemies and other adversaries of the U.S. government (that is the same mindset that accounts for the predicable, trite condescension by the New York Times toward the Wall Street protests, the same way they constantly downplayed Iraq War protests).  But to exactly the same extent that they love depicting America's Enemies as Bad, they hate reporting facts that make the U.S. Government look the same.  

That's why Fattal and Bauer receive so much attention while victims of America's ongoing lawless detention scheme are ignored.  It's why media stars bravely denounce the conditions of Iran's "notorious prison" while ignoring America's own inhumane prison regime on both foreign and U.S. soil.  It's why imprisonment via sham trials in Iran stir such outrage while due-process-free imprisonment (and assassinations) by the U.S. stir so little.  And it's why so many Americans know Roxana Saberi but so few know Sami al-Haj. 

An actual watchdog press is, first and foremost, eager to expose the corruption and wrongdoing of their own government.  By contrast, a propaganda establishment press is eager to suppress that, and there is no better way of doing so than by obsessing on the sins of nations on the other side of the world while ignoring the ones at home.  If only establishment media outlets displayed a fraction of the bravery and integrity of Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, who had a good excuse to focus exclusively on Iran's sins but -- a mere few days after being released from a horrible, unjust ordeal -- chose instead to present the full picture.

Read more at Salon.com


Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a former staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State," about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: "With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful," "Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics," and "A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency." He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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