There was a lot of discussion yesterday of the 5th anniversary of President Bush's galling "Mission Accomplished" statement on Iraq, and rightfully so. But that doesn't mean the Bush White House's tradition of doublespeak and verbal hypocrisy ended in 2003 -- far from it. Turns out tomorrow, May 3, is World Press Freedom Day -- and this administration would have been better off keeping its mouth shut.
But of course they didn't. Here's part of an official statement from Bush:
May 3 marks World Press Freedom Day. Just and open societies protect and rely on the freedom of the press. That freedom is enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, because freedom of speech is integral to a free society.
Brutal regimes and others who seek to stifle liberty often do so by closing down private newspapers and radio and television stations. They kidnap, arbitrarily jail, and beat journalists. Some journalists have been taken from their families for years, and others have been killed for speaking out. Many were killed by terrorists, extremists, and insurgents who seek to deny people even basic access to information as well as the right to free speech.
Journalists should be able to report without fear of persecution.
It may be a coincidence, or it may not be, but Bush's statement comes on the very day that this news also comes out:
A former cameraman for Al Jazeera who was believed to be the only journalist held at Guantánamo Bay was released on Thursday, after more than six years of detention that made him one of the best known Guantánamo detainees in the Arab world, his lawyers said.
It would be one thing if the cameraman, Sami al-Hajj, were an isolated case.
He is not:
The case did not draw the attention among American journalists that some of them said it deserved, in part because Mr. Hajj’s full life story was not known. As with most Guantánamo detainees, the Pentagon’s evidence against him was largely secret.
“I would have rather seen more of an outcry,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which tried to call attention Mr. Hajj’s detention.
Mr. Simon said the case was part of what he called a disturbing trend of the American military to hold journalists for long periods without charges before eventually releasing them. He said his group had documented 11 such cases since 2001.
11 cases? But, but...didn't the president say that "journalists should be able to report without fear of persecution." But then Bush also noted that "some journalists have been taken from their families for years."
You mean, like Bilal Hussein?
Husssin (as regular readers well know) is an Associated Press photojournalist from Fallujah who shared a Pulitzer Prize and then was detained by the U.S. miliary and kept from his family for more than two years, as was the case with Hajj:
Mr. Katznelson said Mr. Hajj had been “almost overwhelmed” at the prospect of seeing his 7-year-old son, who was an infant when he left home. But he said the former detainee’s health was so fragile that he would immediately go to a hospital after his military plane touched down in Khartoum.
Beyond that, Bush expresses outrage at the usual suspects like Iran and North Korea, and rightfully so. But the White House is highly selective in that outrage. Bush notes that "[t]he United States condemns the harassment, physical intimidation, persecution, and other abuse that journalists, including bloggers and Internet reporters, have faced in China, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, Venezuela, and Vietnam"...but apparently not in our close friend Saudi Arabia, where a blogger critical of the government was jailed for four months with no charges.
Where does America fit in the big picture? There's plenty of room for improvement. The 2007 Worldwide Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States 22nd, but that was only because press freedom in U.S.-occupied Iraq, which ranks in the bottom half, was separated out. Their report notes:
Violations of the privacy of sources, persistent problems in granting press visas and the arrest of several journalists during anti-Bush demonstrations kept the United States (22nd) away from the top of the list.
The truth is that America's 232-year tradition of a free press, though ever-imperfect, is a powerful one -- powerful enough that I can write blog posts like this one that criticize the government, and for that I am most grateful. But we shouldn't allow that to mask the fact that America's commitment to a free press has been moving steadily in the wrong direction for more than seven years. Every day that a journalist is jailed by American authorities without charges somewhere in the world is a day that diminishes me, as a journalist, and diminishes all of us as citizens of a nation that used to be better than this.
For George W. Bush to issue these hollow words while continuing to deprive any journalists of their freedom to report is the height of hypocrisy. He might as well have simply said, "Mission accomplished," and left it at that.