Monday, July 19, 2010

Paper claims to have won US ambassador's $5,000 wager

After the US Ambassador to Kuwait Deborah Jones claimed that no journalist has ever been jailed in US history for expressing political views, putting forward a $5,000 bet to anyone who could prove that any US administration had jailed a journalist for expressing political opinions, local newspaper Al-Rai has taken up the challenge.

When Al-Rai suggested to Ambassador Jones that the recent dismissal of longtime CNN reporter Octavia Nasr over her expression of condolences on the death of Shiite scholar Mohammad Fadlallah disproved this claim, Ambassador Jones insisted that this was a separate issue and that any private institution in the US has the right to take whatever action it deems fit against an employee who has violated company policy.

Ambassador Jones made the wager after condemning the recent imprisonment of Kuwaiti columnist Mohammad Al-Jassem by a local court. In a bid to win the bet, Al-Rai cited several cases in which journalists were jailed in the US, not necessarily for statements of opinion but for refusing to disclose certain information, which the paper would qualify as their being imprisoned for political viewpoints.

In 2005, the paper pointed out, New York Times journalist Judith Miller was jailed after refusing to reveal her sources in a case that led to the exposure of CIA officer Valerie Plame. Preliminary investigations in this case revealed that officials of [former US President] George W. Bush's administration had intentionally leaked Plame's identity as retaliation for the stance taken by her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, when he criticized the exaggeration of intelligence information on Iraq's weapons of
mass destruction, which was used to justify the 2003 invasion. Miller was released after three months of imprisonment when it was revealed that the source who leaked the information was Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, the Chief of Staff for former US Vice President Dick Cheney.

Meanwhile, Al-Rai continued, a simple online search revealed a notorious case in US history, back in 1734, when American journalist John Peter Zenger was imprisoned after writing articles in the New York Weekly Journal in which he attacked the "corruption" of the then-New York governor who allied himself with the British colonists. This case is, however, not considered by most to be a violation of the laws of journalistic freedom in the US since it took place prior to the nation's declaration of independen
ce in 1776.

Another case, however, this time in 1847, saw New York Herald journalist John Nugent imprisoned, initially in the Capitol Building by Senate members, after he refused to reveal his sources in leaking confidential details of the Guadalupe-Hidalgo agreement that ended the US-Mexican war, which was still classified as a top secret document at the time. Nugent was subsequently jailed for a month without trial, although he was later released over concerns about his health.

Three years before this, in 1844, another American journalist, Richard Hargreaves, was accused of defamation against the chairman of the board of trustees of St. Clair County, Illinois, based on a report published in the Belleville News Democrat, in which Hargreaves accused the chairman of fraud and of lying to voters.

In 1991, meanwhile, four journalists were jailed for a number of hours after they failed to testify in the trial of former South Carolina Senator J.M. 'Bud' Long, who was charged with corruption. In a similar incident in 1949, journalist Liza Abraham was jailed for 22 days for abstaining from supplying her testimony concerning an interview she previously conducted with a US official facing corruption charges.

Most recently, meanwhile, freelance journalist Joshua Wolfe was jailed in 2006 after refusing to hand over a collection of videotapes he recorded in July 2005 which reportedly showed a suspect setting a police car on fire. In this case, Wolf spent 226 days in jail after opting to exercise his constitutional right under the first amendment to freedom of speech.

Al-Rai argued that the above cases all offer proof that American journalists have indeed previously been jailed for reasons connected to their political stance and is claiming to have won the bet put forward by Ambassador Jones, who has so far failed to respond to the newspaper's claim.

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