How did Al Jazeera respond to the detention of one of its employees? For over a year, they didn’t. Al Jazeera producer Ahmad Ibrahim produced a
documentary about al-Hajj’s case. He says there was no response because Al Jazeera had little information and a lot of fear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is Al-Jazeera's response to Sami al-Hajj's five-and-a-half-year detention? For more than a year after his arrest, there was virtually no response from Al-Jazeera. Now the channel broadcasts weekly updates on developments in his case.
Ahmad Ibrahim is a producer at Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha Qatar. He made a documentary about Sami al-Hajj called Prisoner 345, and he's become the spokesman for al-Hajj's case at Al-Jazeera, even though he's never actually met him. Ahmad, welcome to On the Media. AHMAD IBRAHIM: Thank you very much for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know you weren't there at the time, but what have you heard of the reaction in the newsroom at Al-Jazeera's headquarters when they first got word of Sami al-Hajj's detention? AHMAD IBRAHIM: There was a lot of confusion because of the lack of information. We were not told that he was arrested by any particular authority. We had to look for Sami and where Sami was held.
Initially, the Pakistani authorities told us that they were holding him on suspicion of links to al Qaeda, that the thing was not very serious. After that, in January, he was moved to American custody, to Baghran, and again we didn't hear anything.
Around the summer of 2002, his wife received a letter from him, from Washington, and it said, I hope you're well. I'm in the place that God chose for me to be in, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
She was stunned. All of us were stunned. All of the journalists who were there were stunned. But there were a lot of obstacles prohibiting Al-Jazeera from, you know, taking his cause. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm interested in those obstacles. It took until early 2003 for Al-Jazeera to really begin covering his case. You have this powerful ability to disseminate information throughout the region. Why did Al-Jazeera wait? AHMAD IBRAHIM: Because there's a lot of political difficulties. Because of the lack of information, I think his family even felt that there was something that they didn't know about their own son.
You know, to think that America would hold people, would hold innocent people, was incomprehensible in that time. You know, people would experience torture and imprisonment and arbitrary arrest in our part of the world. They have never conceived of the United States doing that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's set some of the context here. This was around the same time as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld essentially labeling Al-Jazeera the enemy, or even a terrorist organization. It was also within the context of Al-Jazeera's Kabul office being bombed in 2001 and another missile hitting its office in Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq, killing another correspondent in April of 2003. It may have seemed as if the news organization itself was under attack. AHMAD IBRAHIM: He was held in 2002. The office was bombed in 2001. The journalist was killed in 2003. They were all working more or less in the same regions of where America had gone in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So the arrests might have been linked to those things, but five-and-a-half years later, after the initial arrest of Sami al-Hajj, it's very strange that he's still in prison. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ahmad, you have a website devoted to al-Hajj's cause - prisoner345.net - and it features a rolling count of days, hours, minutes, seconds that he's been in Guantanamo. The site calls for his release. Are you sure that he's innocent? AHMAD IBRAHIM: It is up to the authorities that imprisoned him for five years to try him openly or to release him. It is not for me, because I didn't look at the evidence that they have against him to determine his innocence or his guilt. We think that he should be tried. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How is Al-Jazeera covering al-Hajj's case now? AHMAD IBRAHIM: What we're doing at the moment is for Sami's name and his plight never to be far away from the viewers of Al-Jazeera. So on the scroll that we have, we have his name and where people can go to support his case. We have a website that is focused on him, which is prisoner345.net.
Some journalists around the world organize events of solidarity with Sami al-Hajj. Some go on a voluntary hunger strike for a day or two. Some organize marches and events especially in his home country of Sudan.
So we cover all these things, and we invite his lawyers every time they come back from Guantanamo to tell us the latest on his situation. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It sounds a little bit like the way the BBC was handling the kidnapping in Gaza of their correspondent, Alan Johnston. AHMAD IBRAHIM: Correct. And there were some parallels with the issue of the British journalist, Alan Johnston. The family of Alan Johnston did not know why their loved one was held in Gaza. The whole world didn't know why Alan Johnston was held in Gaza, and the whole world doesn't know why Sami al-Hajj is held in Guantanamo.
It's amazing when you can draw parallels between Gaza and the U.S., huh? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you describe the way this story and other stories out of Guantanamo have affected public opinion about the U.S. in the Arab world? AHMAD IBRAHIM: I can refer you to what Sami himself thought about the States in the extract that one of his interpreters had recalled. He says that I used to have a good opinion of the United States. I used to love this country - like many of the people around the Arab world.
But this particular case, it's a prison that is there, that is continuing to hold people, 90 percent of whom were from this part of the world, and it's very difficult. When I meet some of the American officials, I say to them, it is in the interest of his family for Sami to be released. But it's in your interest that that prison is closed down. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ahmad, thank you very much. AHMAD IBRAHIM: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ahmad Ibrahim is a producer at Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha. His documentary about Sami al-Hajj, called Prisoner 345, was released last year. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the Army readies a new improved field manual for fighting wars, and Iraq's Sunni insurgency reaches out to the Western press. This is On the Media from NPR. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]