Metro Active – July 6, 2005
Media coverage of the Lodi FBI arrests is more
of the same, and it's left the community reeling
By Najeeb Hasan
The media storm that followed the Lodi arrests and detentions has been, up until now, not unlike those which have followed other terrorism-related arrests since 9/11. The pattern has been agonizingly consistent: A flurry of media coverage immediately following the arrests, most of it not skeptical of the government's allegations, which peters out as the government's cases fizzle. The arrests are front-page news, while the releases are buried in the back of the newspaper. When, for instance, Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi, an Air Force translator who worked in Guantanamo Bay, was charged with spying for Syria two Septembers ago, The New York Times gave his case the front page and more than 1,000 words; three months later, when three counts against al-Halabi were dropped—counts that his attorney described as the "gut of the case"—the same newspaper reported the news on page 40 in 147 words. (A year later, the Times did publish a feature-length story that dissected the flawed cases against al-Halabi and other Muslim servicemen at Guantanamo.) Mohammed Hossain and Yassin Aref, two leaders of a mosque in Albany, N.Y., are all but forgotten now, after their case made headlines upon their arrest in 2004 for allegedly devising a plot to import a shoulder-fired missile and using it to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat in New York City. The case against them has also been weakened.
Case in point for Lodi: Of the more than 60 stories that have been written by the four major California dailies—the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle—covering the recent arrests, only a tiny fraction, including a Los Angeles Times piece published June 9, saw fit to point out that the federal government's track record on terrorism convictions is, in the words of the Times, "not unblemished." Even then, the story failed to mention that former Attorney General John Ashcroft was unable to secure a single terrorism-related conviction despite rounding up 5,000 foreign nationals from Muslim communities after 9/11.
"There have been some good articles [about the Lodi case]," acknowledges Hatem Bazian, an adjunct professor at Berkeley who has been studying the federal government's focus on Muslims and Arabs after 9/11 and is working on a forthcoming book, Virtual Internment, on the subject. "But what's a few articles against the damage of an avalanche? You're trying to stop an avalanche with a few flakes of snow. The press runs without any critique. Rather than examining the veracity of the government's claims, it essentially takes the government's claims and runs with them as if they are valid. It is as if the media is yet another agency further trying to see and expose the 'terrorists' among us."
In a weblog posting soon after the Lodi detentions, Bazian analyzed the photographs chosen for a front-page Chronicle story about the probe. One was a shot of Muhammed Adil Khan, the Lodi religious leader detained on an immigration violations charge; the second shot was of Fazlur Rehman Khalil, who allegedly ran a terrorist training camp in Pakistan and who the government claims was an "associate" of Khan's father in Pakistan; and the third shot was one of Osama bin Laden, with a caption saying that Khalil signed a bin Laden fatwa in 1998 that advocated the killing of Americans and their allies. Bazian shakes his head in disgust at the Chronicle.
"The press doesn't question whether this is a legitimate link that needs to be made to begin with," he says. "Essentially, you're condemning them [the Lodi religious leaders]. When you place those pictures in that context, you are pretty much determining that those persons are guilty, regardless of what you write later."
Indeed, a June 25 Los Angeles Times headline about the San Francisco immigration hearing of Shabbir Ahmed, the former imam of Lodi's mosque, reads: "Muslim Cleric Says He Spoke Against U.S.: At a hearing on immigration charges, Lodi mosque leader testifies he exhorted Pakistanis to fight U.S. troops in Afghanistan." Meanwhile, in the body of the story, not a single quote by Ahmed from the hearing is offered that justifies the headline. The closest the Times gets to Ahmed "testifying" that he urged Pakistanis to fight U.S. troops is quoting the imam responding to a question asking him if he urged people to "defend" Osama bin Laden; the imam replied (in Urdu and through a translator), "Being emotional, I may have said it, or I may not have said it."
Bazian, meanwhile, questions why the press believes it's relevant, as the government does, that Ahmed made inflammatory statements about the United States during the bombing of Afghanistan. "Everybody in America that rails and screams about Islam and America would be subject to arrest if they travel to the Muslim world, based on that criteria," says Bazian. "You might disagree with Ahmed's statements, you might condemn his statements, but you can't say he doesn't have the right to say those statements."