NOTE: Middle East Eye has published my latest piece on the shambles that is the upcoming Israeli elections. If you want to handicap the winners or want an in depth analysis of the current political-electoral crisis, give it a read and tell your friends.
Last week, PressTV news anchor, Marizeh Hashemi flew from Iran to visit her U.S. family in St Louis. When she arrived at the airport, instead of meeting son and grandchildren, FBI agents arrested her, took her to another plane, flew her to Washington DC and put her in prison.
Hashemi, who is a U.S. citizen, was manhandled by prison authorities, who forcibly removed her hijab and would only offer her pork to eat, despite her being a devout Muslim. Since then, she has subsisted, according to what she told her daughter, on a box of crackers.
News reports say she was only allowed to speak once to her daughter, two days after she was imprisoned. She has appeared in federal court twice and is represented by a federal public defender. Today is her sixth day of imprisonment.
Initially, the government refused even to say what the charges were against Hashemi. But later they revealed she was being charged as a material witness. DOJ refused to reveal anything about the case in which it wanted her to testify. The statute is a rarely invoked law meant as a last resort if the government believes a potential witness is a flight risk whom they believe might not appear in court.
It has been used only once against a U.S. citizen in a case brought by the Bush administration against a man who the government sought to testify in a terrorism case. In that case, the defendant was eventually acquitted and the citizen charged as a material witness was never charged with a crime or called to testify. He later sued the U.S. attorney general and the case went to the Supreme Court where it eventually ruled against the man, claiming that the AG was not responsible for the errors of his subordinates.
But Hashemi’s case is even more disturbing because she is a journalist and the First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press and offers protection to reporters. Nor does the constitution offer these protections only to U.S.-based journalists. They are offered to U.S. citizens who are journalists wherever they may practice their profession. So the fact that a U.S. citizen who is also a journalist has been mistreated in this fashion is doubly disturbing.
The Committee to Protect Journalists released a strong statement condemning the Trump Justice Department behavior:
“We are concerned by the arrest of a journalist for Iranian state TV, Marzieh Hashemi, and call on the U.S. Department of Justice to immediately disclose the basis for her detention for the past five days,” said Alexandra Ellerbeck, CPJ’s North America program coordinator.
The ACLU’s Human Rights Program director, Jamil Dakwar tweeted:
Very concerning that U.S. officials are not even confirming the arrest of journalist Marzieh Hashemi. Does the Trump administration want to disappear and lock up journalists like in authoritarian regimes? https://t.co/9XM67cg3eR
— Jamil Dakwar (@jdakwar) January 16, 2019
I e-mailed the FBI with a series of questions about Hashemi’s case and was met with a resounding “no comment.” The next day the Justice Department emailed me an unsealed document saying that while Hashemi was not charged with a crime, she was a material witness who would be asked to testify and then released. What the statement left out was that the government could delay the case almost indefinitely, and only bring her to testify at its end. Meaning that unless her defense demands that she be released and secures a judge’s agreement, she could remain in prison for a year and a half or even two years. Keep in mind that this is a grandmother who is 59 years old.
Today, Reuters quoted a “government source” revealing slightly more about this exceedingly murky case:
A U.S. government source told Reuters it appeared that the grand jury was examining whether Press TV is a propaganda outlet that failed to register with the Justice Department as an agent of a foreign government.
If we unpack this bizarre statement, it appears DOJ is going to claim that PressTV is not a media outlet and therefore does not deserve the protections afforded such organizations. As a “propaganda outlet” it would be a mere extension of the Iranian government. And since the U.S. is currently an adversary of Iran, the news organization should be treated as a hostile entity.
Hashemi regularly returns to the U.S. both to visit her family and produce documentary segments which air on PressTV when she returns home to work. In fact, during this trip she visited her birthplace, New Orleans and filmed a Black Lives Matter protest. I suppose the government could argue that given Iran is a hostile entity that what the Iranian-American was doing was only slightly less provocative than an Iranian intelligence agent filming American sites.
In this way, DOJ transforms Hashemi from a legitimate Iranian-American journalist into a dangerous agent of a hostile foreign entity.
It’s worth nothing that over the past year, the Trump administration warned the Russian government news outlets RT and Sputnik that they must register as foreign agents as well. But while the demand was provocative and unwarranted, at least it gave the organizations time to comply with the demand. It didn’t make its demands known by arresting the network’s most prominent news anchor and throwing him into prison.
There will be an unintended consequence of the government’s over-zealous and hasty legal strategy: it will draw international attention to PressTV. It will turn Hashemi into a martyr. It will drive the world even farther from the U.S. position against Iran. Before this PressTV was at best a minor thorn in the side of U.S. policy. It was a minor provocation. But now, the Iranian TV network has been offered a megaphone to amplify its views. People who’d never heard of it will want to know and hear what it has to say. As a regular interview subject, I welcome the increased attention. I just wish it didn’t come at this woman’s expense.
Not to mention that if we begin determining that foreign news organizations with reporters here are not journalist and are subject to criminal prosecution, other nations may start treating our own journalists the same way. Be prepared for a CNN or Voice of America news anchor to be unceremoniously thrown in jail in some far-off country as Egypt has done with Al Jazeera journalists and Myanmar has done with Reuters reporters. We are not immune. We only think we are because we presume we are too powerful to be treated so shabbily by our inferiors.
Compare PressTV’s treatment to the accommodations offered to the Israel Lobby here. Israel’s agents, diplomats and ministers are treated royally. Prime ministers routinely address joint houses of Congress. Israel intelligence assets are treated with kid gloves by the Justice Department even when they’re stealing government secrets. No pro-Israel group, even those supported financially by the Israeli government has ever been asked to register as a foreign agent.
Further evidence of the utter hypocrisy of the DOJ’s position in this case is that Donald Trump has publicly admitted that he approached a Russian bank to finance his proposed Moscow tower project. That financial institution, VT Bank, was listed as one of the sanctioned Russian companies by the U.S. government. In other words, Donald Trump, while he was running for president, pursued negotiations with a business no American citizen should touch with a ten foot pole. Doing such business was illegal and he could have been punished severely. Yet he faced no consequences and is unlikely he would have had he consummated the deal.
Yet, a poor grandmother who’s done nothing more than perform her job as a journalist gets thrown in prison because she happens to work for a media entity the U.S. government has declared persona non grata. And what benefits did she earn from this? Anything like the $300-million Trump stood to earn in profits from his Moscow Trump tower? Hardly.
She is currently represented by a federal public defender. This is a complex national security case involving criminal charges. Hashemi needs a skilled defense lawyer, not a public defender. I hope she gets the representation she needs and deserves. Further, her children have also been subpoenaed to testify. Keep in mind that there is parent-child privilege. So what possibly could the government expect children to say about or against their mother? The thought of this legal charade criminalizing both a parent and her children is outrageous. It is an only slightly different version of the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families in order to create trauma and deter them from migrating to the U.S.
Even worse, her children have told the press that they can no longer makes any public statements on behalf of their mother. They said they have received a gag order. If this is true, the only possible way the government could do this is by obtaining a national security letter, a secret document which compels the subject to remain silent about the letter and its content.
In normal circumstances, anyone subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury may speak freely before or after the hearing. The other matter on which they must remain silent is the content of the grand jury testimony itself.
I am a regular guest on PressTV and have been interviewed a number of times by Hashemi. I do not know her personally and have no contact with her besides these interviews. I can say that she is a journalist no different from any U.S. TV news anchor, and our government would never treat Brian Williams or Rachel Maddow as it is treating Hashemi.
I fear that the Iranian journalist may be a pawn in a larger game played by U.S. and Iranian authorities. She may serve as an example for the Trump administration to show it’s cracking down on Iran, as hostilities increase between the two countries.
There are two Iranian-American citizens being held in Evin Prison under flimsy charges. The Obama administration did a prisoner exchange under which we freed several Americans detained there in return for Iranians detained here. But Siamak Namazi and his son were not among those included in this exchange. It’s entirely possible that the Trump administration is holding Hashemi hostage in return for the release of the Namazis. Her status as a well-known Iranian TV personality gives her even more cache as a bargaining chip in such a negotiation.
The other possibility is that as an American who works for the Iranian government, the Justice Department may seek to punish her for violating U.S. sanctions. But given the current set of charges, it doesn’t seem like that is the direction it is taking in prosecuting her.
I urge human rights NGOs who’ve not released statements on this case to do so. I urge those which have released fairly tepid statements expressing no more than “concern” for Hashemi to begin questioning the premise of the U.S. case against her and demand that DOJ answer substantive questions about its strategy, goals and behavior in this matter. We’ve seen the Bush Justice Department make a mockery of the constitution after 9/11. We’ve seen the Trump administration do even worse. Let’s not permit further infringement of individual rights by this horrid administration.