Monday, 26 May 2008 20:00 Arab Media Watch Editorial Dept - Africa

Al-Haj Arab Media Watch expresses concern and surprise at the British press's almost total silence over the release on 1 May 2008 of Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj from Guantanamo Bay, where he had been imprisoned without charge or trial for almost six years - the only journalist known to be held there.

The Guardian was the only national British newspaper to report his release, first as a news story by Martin Hodgson (US releases al-Jazeera cameraman, 2 May), then as a feature by Richard Norton-Taylor (The other Alan Johnston, 5 May). The Sudanese national's lawyer "said much of the western media had been slow to take up" his client's case, wrote Hodgson.

Likewise, Norton-Taylor wrote that had Al-Haj died in Guantanamo, his case would have received "the kind of publicity in the west that it has been given only by his employer." If there were similarities between Al-Haj and BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped in Gaza last year, "there was one big difference - that is, in the amount of publicity and attention the two cases have attracted."

AMW concurs. "This has all the makings of a big news story: the release of a journalist working for one of the world's most renowned international broadcasters, imprisoned and tortured unjustly and unlawfully for six years, gravely ill and on hunger strike, at a venue that has attracted international disdain, built by a government claiming to uphold human rights," said AMW chairman Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi.

"Johnston, whose plight rightly received global attention and sympathy, nobly supported Al-Haj's case which, in the words of Aidan White - general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists - 'has come to symbolize injustice and victimization of journalists for simply doing their job'," added Nashashibi. "Shockingly and shamefully, the media seems to have ignored one of their own."

On the same day as Al-Haj's release, it was announced that Jo Burgin - former head of planning for Al Jazeera English - was suing the station for more than £1 million, claiming she was dismissed in April 2007 for being a "white, Christian woman."

This was reported in the Daily Telegraph (by Duncan Gardham), the Independent (by Amol Rajan), the Daily Mirror (anonymously), and twice in the Times (first anonymously, then by Dan Sabbagh). "The mind boggles as to why the British press felt that Burgin's case was so much more newsworthy than Al-Haj's," added Nashashibi.

Al-Haj was arrested on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border on 15 December 2001 while on assignment to cover the war against the Taliban, even though he had a valid visa to work in Afghanistan. No evidence against him was ever released, and he had reportedly been regularly interrogated and tortured.

Al-Haj had been on hunger strike since January 2007, and was forced to undergo "assisted feeding" via a nose tube. According to his lawyer, he was suicidal and had throat cancer, but camp authorities refused medical treatment. He had called for Johnston's release from captivity in Gaza, and in turn, the BBC correspondent called on US authorities to free Al-Haj.

"There is no doubt…that this prisoner, by all accounts a gentle man, was special," wrote Norton-Taylor. "In a remarkable piece of 'frontline reporting,' he chronicled conditions at the notorious prison camp in Cuba, those who died, attempted to commit suicide, or who went on hunger strike with him, of how the Qur'an was insulted, and detainees humiliated. His reports were passed to human rights groups including Reprieve, and Cage Prisoners."

Image Courtesy of the Sudan Tribune

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