Several years ago, Al-Jazeera correspondent Tayseer Alouny was renowned in the Arab world, as well as in the West, as one of the few journalists allowed to report from Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. A favorite with viewers, he was Al-Jazeera's most popular onscreen personality. The peak of his career was his now-famous interview with Osama bin Laden, five weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
Today Tayseer Alouny is under house arrest in Granada, Spain, awaiting trial on charges of conspiring with Al Qaeda and using his trips to Afghanistan to transport funds for Edin Barakat Yarkas (also known as Abu Dada, the alleged leader of the Al Qaeda cell in Spain). Alouny, who is Syrian by birth but has held dual citizenship with Spain for 15 years, was first arrested in 2003 as part of Operacin Datil, or Operation Date. Based on evidence compiled by investigating Judge Baltasar Garzon, Operation Date accused 35 men (including Osama bin Laden) of being members or collaborators of Al Qaeda in connection to 9/11.
Two months after his arrest, Alouny was freed on bail due to his deteriorating health (he has a long history of heart conditions and hernias). He met all conditions of his bail, yet in November 2004, the ailing Alouny was jailed for a second time, after Judge Pedro Rubira claimed he was a flight risk. Held in solitary confinement in a Madrid jail, Alouny again fought for his freedom. He was finally released in March to undergo tests and surgery before his trial begins, sometime in the upcoming weeks. Policemen are stationed outside the door of Alouny's home and he is not permitted to go anywhere but the hospital.
Alouny, who has lived in Granada for 18 years, maintains he is innocent of all charges and he denies any involvement in Al Qaeda. He admits to having taken to Afghanistan a small amount of money as a favor to Yarkas, who asked him to give the money to a relative. Alouny explains that this type of favor is very common in Syrian culture and assured investigators that any contact he had with Al Qaeda was as part of his journalistic work or his role as a researcher for the Instituto de la Paz y Conflictos of Granada (a research institute in Spain dedicated to the study of peace and conflict resolution).
The most damning evidence against Alouny are a number of telephone conversations he held with Yarkas, who has been under investigation since 1995. Alouny's lawyer says most of those conversations were taken out of context, as well as badly translated and interpreted. Confusion may have arisen, he says, from the fact that Alouny and Yarkas speak the Syrian form of Arabic, and some words have different usages and meanings than the Arabic spoken by the translator.
Many in the Arab community see Tayseer Alouny's arrest as continued persecution of Al-Jazeera. According to Reporters without Borders, in 2004 Al-Jazeera was severely condemned by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and suffered direct censorship in Algeria, Tunisia, Iran, Canada and Iraq. (The Al-Jazeera office has been closed in Baghdad since August 2004, following a decision of the interim government.) Some Al-Jazeera viewers who participated in a live debate over the phone last January thought the Spanish government might be acting under pressure from the U.S. government. Jailing Tayseer Alouny, they said, could be a "favor" from the Spanish government in an attempt to improve deteriorated relations between the two countries.
Alouny's defenders say the journalist's only crime was being in the wrong profession at the wrong time in history.
Carlos Hernandez, a prominent reporter who covered the war in Afghanistan and Iraq for the Spanish TV station Antena 3 and who is currently head of communications for PSOE, the socialist party in power in Spain, participated in a meeting in Madrid last January in support of Tayseer Alouny. Hernandez says the fact that Alouny was able to cover the war in Afghanistan and interview Osama bin Laden put him in the spotlight. It was "a historical event that any journalist would healthily envy, and is probably one of the reasons why he is in jail now. With all my respect to Spanish Justice, I read the report and I share with others the opinion that there is no conclusive evidence against him, apart from some personal contacts."
Antonio Rubio, an investigative reporter who writes for the daily El Mundo, agrees. Rubio, along with his partner Manuel Cerda, was the first journalist to uncover the movements of Al Qaeda in Spain and find links to some of the 9/11 terrorists. As a professor at the El Mundo journalism master's program, Rubio invited Tayseer Alouny to speak to his students about Al-Jazeera. "I myself have investigated and interviewed drug dealers, terrorists of all sorts, criminals," Rubio said in reaction to Alouny's case. "I have dangerous contacts as well – should I be accused of collaborating with them?"
Whether or not Alouny is innocent of the charges against him, a host of troubling questions attends the case. Does the fact that Alouny is a Syrian-born journalist covering the "war on terrorism" have anything to do with his arrest? Could the case set a precedent for journalists who cover such topics? Will more journalists fall under suspicion because of who they interview or the kinds of stories they cover? Is freedom of the press under threat due to the war on terrorism?
Many around the world have expressed concern that aggressive counter-terrorism measures are compromising international human rights.
In March 2003, in a briefing paper for the 59th session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch detailed violations connected to anti-terrorism efforts in China, Egypt, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Russia, Spain, United Kingdom, the United States and Uzbekistan. In January 2005, Human Rights Watch published a report titled, "Setting an Example?: Counter-Terrorism Measures in Spain," that analyzes aspects of Spain's criminal law and procedures and observes that the Spanish government falls short of its commitments to international human rights law. Nevertheless, Spain has not enacted legislation like the United Kingdom's Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCSA) or the U.S. Patriot Act, but relies almost exclusively on its criminal justice system.
Since the attacks of 9/11, limitations on press freedom have increased in the U.S.: confidentiality of internet messages has been directly undermined thanks to the Patriot Act; restrictions have been set on access to information (Guantanamo base, military operations in Afghanistan, embedded journalists in Iraq); and attempts to force reporters to disclose confidential sources of information has increased (New York Times' Philip Shenon; Time magazine's Matthew Cooper; Jim Taricani of Rhode Island's WJAR-TV 10). Reporters without Borders says some 10 journalists are currently being prosecuted for refusing to disclose their sources.
Then there is the "collateral damage" from U.S. military actions. Giuliana Sgrena is only the most recent member of the press to wonder whether the U.S. military attack on her was intentional or not. Many journalists working in Afghanistan and Iraq have been injured or killed over the past few years. On April 8, 2003, Al-Jazeera camerman Tarek Ayouba was killed when U.S. missile strikes hit the offices of Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi television stations, as well as the Hotel Palestine, which housed all the international media. Taras Protsyuk of Reuters and Jos Couso of Spain's Tele 5 were also killed. Reuter's cameraman Mazen Dana was shot and killed outside Abu Ghraib prison after identifying himself as an authorized press member to the military commander in the area.
What are the limits? There is probably no better tool for democracy than freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Ensuring that citizens are safe is a government's duty; it is also a government's duty to ensure the right to information. The work and efforts of media professionals and others dedicated to the free flow of information should not be compromised – whatever the political situation.
In a July 2004 interview on BBC's Newsnight, Tayseer Alouny responded to questions about the accusations against him. "Maybe some people will think that I have some relationship with somebody, but I was doing my job in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and maybe I make contacts with anybody, you know," he said. "It's my job – to have a contact, to cover some evidence, to speak with all kinds of people."