Is This a Terrorist? Governments Around the World Think So

ByJillian York

"Journalists are not terrorists!" This is what Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, the jailed bureau chief of Al Jazeera Egypt, shouted from the cages where he and other journalists were being held during a March 5 hearing.

Fahmy, along with 19 other journalists (nine of whom work for the Qatari network), are being held on terror charges for interviewing members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is, according to the Egyptian government, a terrorist organization. This is a rapid shift from a year ago when the now-defamed group was in power.

Image Credit: AP. Journalists are facing terror charges in Egypt.

For journalists, reporting in a post-9/11 world means performing a dangerous dance with vaguely-worded anti-terror and national security laws.

Journalists are being imprisoned in record-breaking numbers, often under the guise of anti-terror or national security laws. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press watchdog group, 232 journalists were jailed worldwide in 2012, 132 of whom were held on anti-terror and national security charges.

Though authoritarian governments like Egypt's lead in these imprisonment numbers, the United States has played a significant role in legitimizing the tactic, imprisoning journalists in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.

Image Credit: AP. The now closed Camp X-Ray in Guantánamo Bay.

Furthermore, U.S. allies in the global war on terror — such as Morocco and Ethiopia — are increasingly employing it to silence journalists whom they believe threaten their deeply entrenched regimes. And like with Egypt, the reaction from the U.S. has been underwhelming.

One telling case is that of Eskinder Nega, a prominent journalist in his country of Ethiopia, who was arrested in September 2011 under the country's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009 and sentenced to 18 years in prison. The proclamation gives the government's executive branch sweeping power to detain anyone who "writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, disseminates" statements deemed to encourage or support terrorist acts. In an ironic twist, Nega — who had been imprisoned before under the government of now-deceased Prime Minister Meles Zenawi — was detained after publishing an online column critical of the use of the proclamation to silence dissent. Nega's prosecution has been roundly condemned by human rights groups.

The East African country with a spotty human rights record may not be the first that comes to mind when one thinks of U.S. allies, but it was, in fact, an early member of the United States' "coalition of the willing" and has received considerable financial support from the United States to help in the war on terror; the U.S. even allowed the Ethiopian government to complete a secret arms purchase from North Korea, despite long-term sanctions. The CIA has also reportedly used Ethiopia as a site for extraordinary rendition.

In response to Nega's prosecution, the U.S. Department of State spoke out about the use of Ethiopia's anti-terror law to prosecute journalists, but is it too little too late? After all, the U.S.' partnership with Ethiopia during the war on terror undoubtedly influenced the creation of the law itself.

Last September, Moroccan authorities arrested journalist and editor Ali Anouzla, charging him with "material assistance" to a terrorist group, "defending terrorism," and "inciting the execution of terrorist acts."

Image Credit: AP. Moroccan editor Ali Anouzla.

What was Anouzla's crime? The editor and co-founder of popular publication Lakome had linked to an article in the online edition of Spanish publication El País that in turn linked to a YouTube video reportedly uploaded by AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Now, at the behest of the Moroccan government, Spain got involved and is investigating El País and Ignacio Cembrero, the journalist who wrote the article.

Let me repeat that: Spain, a member of the European Union and by all accounts a democracy, is investigating a journalist who linked to a YouTube video because Morocco — a "partly free" monarchy with a poor human rights record — demanded it do so.

Like Ethiopia, Morocco is an ally in the global war on terror, receiving more than $40 million in military and security assistance from the U.S. in 2011 and (like Ethiopia) its prisons have been reportedly used for extraordinary rendition. While the U.S. has called Morocco a moderate ally and its efforts to fight terrorism "clear, direct, and strong," groups like Human Rights Watch have expressed serious concerns about the country's human rights conditions.

Further east, Abdulelah Haider Shaye sits under house arrest. The Yemeni journalist, known for his interviews with high-ranking Al Qaeda members and for uncovering the United States' role in a 2009 drone strike, was convicted of "terrorism-related charges" in 2011 and sentenced to five years' imprisonment.

Yemen is a tricky ally: The U.S. is — for all intents and purposes — at war in Yemen. One hundred and fifteen Yemeni nationals have been held at Guantánamo. But the impoverished country also receives hundreds of millions in military aid from the U.S. to combat terrorism.

Image Credit: AP. A Yemeni man protests against drones.

After outcry both from western human rights organizations and tribal leaders, Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was reportedly prepared to grant Shaye a pardon until — journalist Jeremy Scahill claims — President Obama intervened. While the State Department says their interest in Shaye's case has to do with his alleged support for Al Qaeda, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa, Philip Luther, stated: "There are strong indications that … [Shaye] has been jailed solely for daring to speak out about U.S. collaboration in a cluster munitions attack which took place in Yemen."

Although some of the most prominent and brazen uses of terrorism laws against journalists come from U.S. allies that rely on the financial support of their benefactor, national security laws that allow for prosecutions of speech acts are increasingly common, and are likely influenced, if indirectly, by the global war on terror. In China, any speech that threatens to "subvert the State power or overthrow the socialist system" can be prosecuted. Lèse-majesté laws in Thailand, Jordan and Morocco are frequently used to stifle political dissent. And the U.K.'s Terrorism Act of 2000 famously came up for debate last year after it was used to detain David Miranda, a Guardian journalist (and partner of award-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald).

Image Credit: AP. Journalist Glenn Greenwald and his partner, David Miranda.

Of course, there is also a rise in prosecutions of whistleblowers on national security grounds in the U.S. over the past decade, coinciding with the war on terror. Like the prosecutions of journalists cited above, whistleblowers are being subjected to similarly lengthy sentences, correlated not with actual harm caused to the state but instead, perhaps, with the embarrassment caused.

The global war on terror is spinning out of control, and the persecution of journalists is just the latest indication.