Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Tale of Two Journalists; Roxana Saberi and Sam Dodson

I have recently written separate commentaries on two jailed journalists. One, Roxana Saberi, has received a great deal of attention from the mainstream media and her case has been widely reported on and disseminated across the globe. The other case is that of Sam Dodson. His case has gotten virtually no attention from the mainstream media. As he languishes in a jail cell refusing to eat his plight has only been discussed on few liberty oriented blogs. I begin to wonder why this should be and thought an examination of the differences between the two cases might shed some light on this phenomenon.

It was interesting to note, as I researched these cases, that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that last year there were 125 journalists jailed worldwide as of their census of Dec. 1st, 2008. Yet one must wonder exactly how accurate their count is in these times when the Internet provides a means for anyone to become a journalist. The CPJ itself makes an interesting statement on its website that the United States will hold journalists in jail for a few days without charge and then release them. These journalists apparently are not counted in the census, so the true scope of the problem is clearly unknown and severely under reported. I suppose Roxana Saberi and Sam Dodson could count themselves lucky to be getting any attention considering how much attention the other 123 journalists are getting.

That said, why is it that Roxana Saberi gets so much attention while Sam Dodson’s case seems to be followed by only a few – shall we say – lesser known news outlets? Well, perhaps it’s because Ms. Saberi’s case is taking place in Iran whereas Mr. Dodson’s case is playing out in these United States of America, in New Hampshire to be exact. It is always easier to point out the imperfections in one’s neighbor than it is to see the same faults in one’s self. In the same manner, I suppose it’s always easier to see the tyranny and injustice in another’s government than it is to see the same in one’s own.

Roxana Saberi’s case is unusual on many facets. For one thing, she is a dual citizen, so even though she was born in America, the Iranians may feel that perhaps they have more jurisdiction over her since she’s been living there for six years now. Why someone would want to subject themselves to the dictates of two such different arcane and arbitrary sets of law is anyone’s guess, but I imagine Ms. Sebari felt it would help her better perform her work. In any case, her citizenship status has helped to spark international attention. Still, one might wonder, would such attention have been given to her had the United States of America arrested her? Before you claim that such a thing could not possibly happen in this nation keep in mind that many huge laws have been passed since Sept. 11th, 2001, such as The Patriot Act and The Military Commissions Act, which empower the executive branch of our government to ignore human rights and do exactly what is being done to Ms. Saberi. In fact, the last I heard, as of January 2009, a journalist named Ibrahim Jassam is still being held without charges by the US military.

Even the Iranians seem able to do better than that. Ms. Saberi was charged with espionage and tried in an Iranian court of law. This is exciting stuff, the kind of story novels are written about. Granted, the trial was held behind closed doors and in secret, for national security reasons we are told. Of course, the US is not to be outdone by Iran and has created provisions so that the same thing may be done here simply by the executive branch of our illustrious government accusing someone of being an enemy combatant in the war on terror. But at least Ms. Saberi was charged, tried and sentenced which is more than the US has done in several cases when imprisoning journalists, recently holding one without trial for six years.

Please don’t get me wrong, I think what is happening with Ms. Saberi is a terrible, criminal act and that the Iranian authorities should be held accountable for their actions. I’m just trying to put a little perspective on it. It seems to me there is far too much hypocrisy in this world. Ms. Saberi was arrested on unrelated charges constituting a victimless crime and is now sentenced to have eight years of her life stolen from her. Indeed, her life could be forfeit for she has gone on a hunger strike in support of her claim that she is innocent. There is much outrage and support expressed for her.

I am glad to see that the plight of jailed journalists is finally getting coverage, yet the same type of thing can and has happened under US auspices and I continue to wonder just how much attention this matter would have been given if the US was holding Ms. Saberi. Would we see the same level of outrage and support had she been arrested for a seatbelt violation and was then accused of being a spy, handed over to federal authorities, labeled an enemy combatant, held for a time without charges, possibly tortured, tried in a secret military proceeding and finally sentenced? Such a thing is a possibility because government personnel are not held accountable when they ignore their own rules that were supposed to protect individuals from exactly this type of tyranny.

The case of Sam Dodson is a good example. His case may not be as glamorous as Ms. Sebari’s. He may not have been accused of spying for a foreign government or tried for espionage, but the implications of his case are far more important, in my opinion. His case is one based on the power of civil disobedience in an attempt to expose the inherent violence in the system. He has purposely decided to take a principled stance to hold the authorities accountable for following their own rules and regulations.

Mr. Dodson was arrested for refusing to remove a video camera from an area in a building supposedly owned by the public. He did this because he felt the order was unlawful due to the fact that not only was it unconstitutional, but the written order posted on the wall of the building was unsigned. Mr. Dodson was quickly and harshly subdued and arrested for trying to assert his individual rights and for asking the policing authorities involved to do their correct job by enforcing the law as written in the constitution which is supposed to be the supreme law of the land.

Mr. Dodson is still being held in jail because he refuses to give up his rights. He refuses to help his jailors any more than he is required to. He refuses to give them his correct name because it is not required of him. The judge in the case admitted as much in a recent decision when he wrote Sam would not reveal information “as expected” of suspects, not “as required.” He has already graciously cooperated by allowing his person to be fingerprinted and his picture to be taken, as required by law. The authorities know who he is, where he lives, what he does, etc. and yet they continue to hold him simply because he has decided to exercise his right to remain silent, simply because they can’t coerce him into confirming their suspicions with his own voice, hence waiving his fifth amendment rights.

The judge in this case has declared that Mr. Dodson will be held indefinitely until such a time as he provides his name as “expected” of him. His sixth amendment rights have been violated because he refuses to obey a request that doesn’t have to be obeyed. He will continue to languish in jail until he succumbs to the dictates of the authoritarian judge or until a higher court rules on a writ of habeas corpus that has been filed. He was arrested for a victimless crime and continues to be held for trying to hold the individuals who support the system accountable for their actions. He has effectively been given a life sentence for refusing to do something that is not required of him. Indeed, he feels so strongly about seeing to it the authorities respect the rights of the individual that he has engaged in a hunger strike to protest his continued imprisonment. If things continue as they are and in the worst case scenario, Mr. Dodson’s life could be forfeit in an attempt to preserve the respect for individual rights as codified in the Constitution that government officials claim to regard so highly and take an oath to uphold.

Ironically, Mr. Dodson was originally arrested for an activity which if allowed in Iran may have prevented Ms. Saberi’s incarceration. There is no reason judicial proceedings should be secret. If there is evidence that a crime has been committed and that there are victims or intended victims involved then that evidence should be presented for all to see. Allowing independent press agents to video record in public courtrooms ensures that actions taken against any defendant, not just journalists, are justifiable and in accordance with the rules set forth by the system itself. In fact, the very insistence of secrecy should in and of itself make one suspicious of the activity undertaken.

In the US constitution, the idea behind the judicial branch of government was to ensure the protection of individuals against unwarranted and intrusive authoritarian government. It was supposed to serve the populace. Unfortunately, it is not succeeding in fulfilling its role. The decisions being made on a daily basis show that the courts are now more concerned with maintaining the fa├žade of government legitimacy than they are with protecting individual rights. We see this as judges refuse to explain to juries that it is their duty to judge the law as well as the defendant. We see this as judges continue to uphold victimless crimes and collect fines for the state. We see this as judges in courts everywhere consistently change the rules as they see fit and as is convenient for the state. Courts worldwide have become nothing more than tools of government to elicit obedience from the populace rather than a protection for the individual against a much more powerful state apparatus. It’s a shame that it takes such events to shine a light on the corruption of the system. It’s a pity that more judges and officials aren’t principled enough to prevent such occurrences in the first place.

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