NEXT CENTURY FOUNDATION – Another journalist bites the dust, and this time not by the hands of a serial human rights abuser but the very country that, for generations, has sat a standard for freedom of expression and free speech: the United States of America.
On January 14, US-born journalist Melanie Franklin – better known under her Muslim name: Marzieh Hashemi, was arrested in St Louis’ Lambert airport as she prepared to board a plane. Within hours of her arrest Ms Hashemi was transferred to Washington DC where she has been detained without charge ever since, under almost absolute secrecy, and very limited contact to the outside world.
If not for widespread condemnation and pressure by social media, it is likely Ms Hashemi would have slipped through the cracks of America’s justice system – her civil and constitutional rights trampled over without any hope of recourse.
It was federal judge Beryl Howell, chief judge of the US District Court in Washington DC, who, last Friday, first broke silence over Ms Hashemi’s case by confirming that her detention had to do with a request by the FBI that she’d be made to testify before a grand jury, behind closed doors. No other details were offered as to why an innocent woman, a 59 years old grandmother and prominent journalist would be robbed of her freedom, cut off from her family and friends, and made to suffer the humiliation of the prison system.
A long-standing TV anchor for Press TV, Ms Hashemi, who also holds an Iranian passport, travelled to the US in late December to visit her terminally ill brother and to complete a documentary on Black Lives Matter she was working on. She now languishes in prison, shackled, her fate quite literally in the hands of her captors as no time-frame was offered insofar as what would qualify as an acceptable testimony.
While it is perfectly reasonable to ask any individual to collaborate with the authorities, it is difficult to rationalise the violence and contempt Ms Hashemi has faced. Beyond the restrictions put on her freedom of movement, the journalist, who is a devout Muslim, was forcibly made to remove her headscarf and presented only with pork-based food products at meal times.
If she has now been provided with proper clothing and food, following public outrage, one cannot help but wonder how many ‘others’ have had to contend with such breach of their human rights, and one must say dignity.
With the memory of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder still fresh in our mind it is virtually impossible not to recognise behind such development the rise of a dangerous trend against journalists, notwithstanding contumacy for the rule of law.
And so I must ask, is free speech being criminalised to serve very political purpose?
Ms Hashemi’s detention needs to be viewed within its broader context, and that is to say the independence of media, and of course officials’ willingness to play authoritarian games. America has long been engaged on that treacherous road that is media correctness – it is under President Trump’s administration however that such trend has turned into an accepted modus operandi.
A report by US Press Freedom Tracker in December 2018 attests to that. It reads: “The journalistic landscape in the United States is volatile, and 2018 has been a harrowing year for press freedom. The Tracker has documented more than 100 press freedom incidents since January, from murders and physical attacks to stops at the border and legal orders.”
Article 19 – a British-based organisation dedicated to the defense of free speech, warned against the many and grave violation journalists have had to face as a result of governments’ strongman policies and heavy-handed tactics to promote media’s compliance.
Executive Director Thomas Hughes said on the matter: “Our data shows that freedom of expression has been in decline for ten years and that this demise has accelerated significantly in the last three years … This is a global phenomenon with many violations happening in countries where freedom of expression has traditionally been protected.”
Ms Hashemi’s detention is symptomatic of America’s political and legal radicalisation. The US Freedom Tracker has documented a total of 27 subpoena or legal order cases against journalists – with 21 of those occurring in 2018.
It writes: “It’s likely that many subpoenas are not reported, and many legal orders for journalists’ records are conducted with high levels of secrecy. Therefore, the number of legal order and subpoena cases counted by the Tracker are likely to be a severe undercount, making a straight comparison of the data between years sometimes difficult.”
And: “2018 also saw the first publicly known seizure by the Trump administration of a journalist’s communications records, when the Department of Justice seized years of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins’ phone and email records as part of an investigation into her confidential sources. She was notified of this seizure after the fact, so she had no way to challenge the seizure in court.”
While it would be easy to fall within the trap of our own taught prejudices, and thus dismiss the injustice done on account Ms Hashemi sits an appointed ‘undesirable’ by virtue of her faith and choice of residence: Iran, notwithstanding her political views, one would argue against such moral relativism.
To fall silent before the strong-arming of our press equates to the rationalisation of authoritarianism, and by extent the death of all our democracies.
Self-preservation dictates that we all speak out in defense of Ms Hashemi, if not for her sake, for our own.