President Obama May Be Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen


Is President Obama keeping a Yemeni journalist in jail? A recent article in The Nation, building on the work of freelance journalist Iona Craig and the Yemeni press, has publicized the case of journalist Haidar Shaye and suggests his investigation of a U.S. airstrike in Yemen is behind his continued detainment.

According to the article, Shaye investigated a 2009 airstrike on a village in southern Yemen, in which the Yemeni government claimed it had carried out the strike targeting an Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) training camp. But Shaye’s investigation revealed that remnants of the munitions used in the attack originated in the United States. He also claimed that over a dozen civilians were killed in the attack. Shaye’s other reportage included interviews with AQAP members, including the late Anwar al-Awlaki. 

The Yemeni government later tried and convicted Shaye of having ties to AQAP, but he rejected the court’s legitimacy. Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh announced his intention to pardon Shaye at the beginning of 2011, but it appears a concerned call from president Obama stayed the pardon and kept Shaye in prison.

In follow-up questions posed to U.S. representatives in recent weeks, the administration defended its assessment of Shaye but failed to provide any further details: The American Ambassador to Yemen confirmed the U.S. conviction that Shaye is an AQAP facilitator, while the National Security Staff spokesman referenced Shaye’s involvement in AQAP and referred to the findings of the Yemeni court. Both denied that U.S. concern had anything to do with Shaye’s journalism.

So is Shaye an Al Qaeda facilitator or a journalist who turned over a few too many sensitive rocks? I hesitate to pass judgment in such cases simply because I don’t know all of the information. I don’t know what the U.S. government knows, which presumably has classified information that backs its concerns about Shaye. However, this unknown information highlights why the war on Al Qaeda needs a good dose of transparency, especially when the United States hopes to work so closely with a foreign government.

It is to the United States’ own detriment that it declines to contribute its side of the story when all open source information suggests Shaye was simply a journalist asking too many questions. By choosing not to reveal the details behind its concerns, the U.S. government not only fails to address this charge, but encourages the idea that any Yemeni it deems an inconvenience can be detained at its request, regardless of that person’s rights or innocence.

If the United States wants to continue working closely with the Yemeni government, it must earn the trust of the Yemeni people as well. Such trust cannot be earned by refusing to participate in the public discourse, especially regarding issues that challenge the legitimacy of U.S. counterterrorism actions. The United States must be a full participant in the public discourse in Yemen, especially regarding issues of terrorism. Ensuring transparency in its actions is essential – the “just trust us” attitude will not fly. 

The title of the Nation article poses the question, “Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?” The truth is effective U.S. strategy would make such a question irrelevant. The United States must learn to be more transparent with the information upon which its actions are based. This is especially true when working in foreign countries whose populations are skeptical of taking the United States government at its word, yet whose trust is essential in countering Al Qaeda.

Photo Credit: The White House