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Criminalising journalists for telling the truth is in nobody's interest

American journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem
American journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem, 31 January 2022 [Saifullah Sadik]

When journalists start to make the news instead of breaking it, there are usually some serious consequences, especially when they work beyond the confines of the mainstream media. An exclusive story generally results in rival publications either ignoring the revelations or trying to discredit them.

Why do journalists turn so viciously on their professional colleagues? It's both puzzling and distressing, but I believe that those who feel more comfortable to be pleasing the Establishment than standing up for truth and justice have damaged their own integrity and credibility. Governments with secrets, meanwhile, love to talk about national security and the national interest, often citing both to keep journalists quiet and the public in the dark.

State manipulation of the media is why journalism has developed beyond the mainstream print and broadcast worlds, which seem to have lost the ability to challenge authority and embarrass governments and big business. Today, though, there is a new breed of journalist operating in the realm of social media; much to the mainstream media's annoyance, we are seeing the continued growth of a new and very valid kind of journalism, accompanied by a vicious backlash to discredit the new media kids on the block.

Julian Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks, is a classic example of how journalists become the story and are then vilified and criminalised for doing nothing more than telling the truth. If this independent journalism is allowed to be destroyed by politicians and corporate billionaires, then freedom of speech, thought and word is in danger, as is democracy itself.

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WikiLeaks was set up by Assange in 2007 to give anonymity to whistle blowers who could share original source material freely without interpretations or censorship imposed by journalists in the mainstream media who compromised their integrity and independence long ago. Assange has paid a heavy price for exposing war crimes, corruption, sleaze and hypocrisy by the US and other governments around the world. Attempts to discredit him (and thus the information he has published) have seen him accused of rape, anti-Semitism and paedophilia as well as spying for the Russians. Yes, he does have an ego, but not as big as those in the media and authorities who are out to get him. His lawyers are currently fighting an attempt to have him extradited to the US to face a host of charges which could see him spend the rest of his life in prison. In the meantime, he is being held in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison in London.

Supporters of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, gather outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, UK on 10 December 2021 [Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu Agency]

Supporters of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, gather outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, UK on 10 December 2021 [Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu Agency]

This sort of demonisation is nothing new. America's most famous whistle blower is Daniel Ellsberg, a US marine and military analyst who released the "Pentagon Papers" in 1971, which helped end the pointless Vietnam War by making the public aware of its futility and America's criminally bad behaviour across South-East Asia. He too was accused of being a Russian spy and labelled "the most dangerous man alive" by the then US President Richard Nixon, a corrupt man himself who was totally lacking in integrity.

American journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem helped me to be one of the first Western journalists to get access to Idlib in 2020, an area of rebel-held Syria under the control of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a group linked to Al-Qaida. Abdul Kareem is a co-founder of the independent On the Ground News agency (OGN) and has been attacked by just about everyone who has an interest in Syria. The Russians, Iranians, Syria's Assad regime and Shia militias have him near the top of their hit lists; he is also strongly thought to have been one of the targets on former US President Barak Obama's drone kill lists. And now he is living under the threat of being locked up, tortured and forcibly disappeared by HTS.

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As a result, he has moved to a safer area under Turkish control and is still delivering daily news bulletins for OGN. Many would have thrown in the towel by now, but it is not in the nature of this African American New Yorker to walk away.

So what has he done to incur the wrath of the authorities in Damascus, Moscow, Tehran and Washington? Since the Arab uprising he has reported without fear or favour from Syria. The impartiality of his reports have turned him into a target. The Russians and Assad regime don't want the world to know that they have used chemical weapons on Syrian civilians; the US does not want too much scrutiny of its "extrajudicial killings" — executions without trial — especially when so many civilians are killed in US drone attacks. Washington has a history of disliking and targeting journalists who speak the truth to those in power.

It's much easier to carry out war crimes when there's no one around to witness, film and report what is being done in an effort to hold those in power to account. Abdul Kareem and his team at OGN believe that it is their duty to report the brutality and reality of war, no matter who is pulling the trigger. He doesn't follow Health and Safety rules and goes into volatile areas that are strictly off limits for corporate journalists, but he is impartial and for that his life is under threat. The only friends that he has on the ground are the hundreds and thousands of ordinary Syrians who welcome his daily despatches. Many have turned to him for help to find their relatives who've been disappeared by HTS.

"The Syrian people have invested a lot in this war so the thought of a return to torture and indefinite detention just makes them think that there's little difference between Assad and the new wannabe leaders," said Abdul Kareem. "There's very little to discuss when someone's family members are being put in prison."

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The fearless journalist was locked up last year for revealing the detention-without-trial and torture tactics of HTS. He heard the cries of fellow prisoners as they were being abused. "They were being tortured on an almost daily basis and at times it was difficult for me to pray because their screams were so loud." He pointed out that he was moved to four different detention facilities, and heard the same kind of pitiful cries in each one.

Bilal Abdul Kareem is now about to launch a justice campaign in rebel-held Syria and wants the HTS leadership to embrace his prisoners' rights charter. It will undoubtedly be an uphill struggle and there will be little support for his progressive position.

His lawyer Clive Stafford Smith penned an article for Al Jazeera Journalism Review in which he explained: "Today, few in the media condemn 'Guantanamo on the Euphrates', the camps in north-east Syria — such as the Kurdish run Al-Hol camp — that hold many more prisoners (some 78,000), many of them children. Indeed, they support the government line that people like Shamima Begum, who went to Syria as a delusional 15 year old, are somehow existential threats to the UK and should never be allowed home.

"The media often promotes, rather than disputes, the Islamophobia of populist governments. For example, they appear to share society's prejudice against Bilal Abdul Kareem, a bearded Muslim convert, and decline to report the US government's alleged attempts to assassinate him. They deem him something less than a true journalist, despite the way he puts his life at risk every day to bring the truth out of Syria."

Stafford Smith hits the nail on the head. The mainstream media demonstrates its biases not only by what and how it reports events, but also by the way that it ignores them, keeping the public in the dark about vital issues. Mainstream journalists have the chance to prove Stafford Smith and I both wrong, and boost their flagging credibility in the process, but I wonder how many of them will report objectively when Abdul Kareem launches his initiative. It is vital for them to do so, because criminalising journalists for telling the truth is in nobody's interest.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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