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The ‘Inherit Traditions’ of the ‘Free Press’ on Display at White House Correspondents Dinner

April 30, 2012 Leave a comment



US President Barack Obama used an annual star-studded dinner to take a few gentle shots at Mitt Rommey (AFP, Saul Loeb)


As expected, the White House Correspondents Dinner was awful. It was the typical genuflecting, flag-sucking farce where various shades of celebrities show up in their bright smiles and pretend there is such a thing as journalistic integrity in this country, or that their criticisms are that dissentious.

The only worthy moment in the history of the spectacle was several years ago when Steven Colbert roasted former President George W. Bush on the non-existent WMD in Iraq.

This years event could have been made notable if one name was mentioned: Abdulelah Haider Shaye.

Thanks to the reporting by Jeremey Scahill over at The Nation the Western world has some idea of who Shaye is. In mid-March of this year Scahill wrote about Shaye in his article “Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?“:

While Shaye, 35, had long been known as a brave, independent-minded journalist in Yemen, his collision course with the US government appears to have been set in December 2009. On December 17, the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested. After conducting his own investigation, Shaye determined that it was a US strike. The Pentagon would not comment on the strike and the Yemeni government repeatedly denied US involvement. But Shaye was later vindicated when Wikileaks released a US diplomatic cable that featured Yemeni officials joking about how they lied to their own parliament about the US role, while President Saleh assured Gen. David Petraeus that his government would continue to lie and say “the bombs are ours, not yours.”

According to Scahill, it was Shaye’s reporting that landed him in jail where he is still a political prisoner thanks to pressure emanating from the Obama administration. As Scahill noted, “For many journalists in Yemen, the publicly available ‘facts’ about how Shaye was ‘assisting’ AQAP indicate that simply interviewing Al Qaeda–associated figures, or reporting on civilian deaths caused by US strikes, is a crime in the view of the US government.”

But Shaye went unmentioned at the White House Correspondents Dinner. And media sources like the New York Times failed to note this. In fact, the Times published four articles on the White House Correspondents Dinner. And despite President Obama having spoke of our “inherit traditions that make us greater than the challenges we face,” which according to him is “a free press that isn’t afraid to ask questions, to examine and to criticize,” there is not one example of this in those articles.

One of the articles, “Much Fodder for Obama at White House Journalists’ Event,” which was buried in the back of the paper on Sunday’s edition, had the unmitigated audacity to refer to there being “much fodder.” But the biggest fodder of all—President Obama’s involvement in silencing a journalist—is apparently not worthy of mention.

Even Jimmy Kimmel, whose performance paled to Colbert’s in 2006, at least had the nerve to say,

You’re here tonight because as journalists you care about freedom, free speech, a free press, and most importantly free dinner. Some people say journalism is in decline—you’ve become too politicized, too focused on sensationalism. They say that you no longer honor your duty to inform America, but instead actively try to divide us, so your corporate overlords can rake in the profits . . . I don’t have a joke for this. I’m just letting you know what some people say.

Other than Kimmel’s jab at the possible war with Iran, that was the height of dissent that evening. But it also highlighted the level of cynicism at the event. The attending journalists “care [so much] about freedom, free speech, a free press,” and such, that they are totally silent on the imprisonment of a fellow journalist guilty of doing his job.

If the journalists were doing their job they would be very concerned about Shaye’s fate, and would have used the dinner as a venue to speak out. They would do so not just because they feel tremendous solidarity for someone in their profession that is enduring such an injustice, but also because they would see how they are vulnerable too.

The reality, however, is that the journalists who attended the dinner, and those that covered it at the “paper of record,” know they are not in danger of being treated like Shaye because they don’t ask questions, don’t examine, and don’t criticize—at least not in any substantial way. They can applaud President Obama for blessing them with his inspiring words about their “traditions” they don’t exhibit. And when President Obama tells them that, “And in service of that mission, all of you make sacrifices,” they pat themselves on the back, and swell with undeserved pride. Then they are free to go home, drunk on champagne, and go to bed where they can sleep comfortably and without worry. Meanwhile, Abdulelah Haider Shaye sits in a prison cell, enduring God knows what, for daring to be a real journalist.

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