Last week, independent journalist Sam Husseini went to a news conference by Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia at Washington’s National Press Club — where Husseini is a member.
Then he did something that is alien to United States corporate media culture. He behaved as an actual journalist and asked a tough, pertinent, no-holds-barred question. Here it is, as relayed by Husseini’s blog:
I want to know what legitimacy your regime has, sir. You come before us, representative of one of the most autocratic, misogynistic regimes on the face of the earth. Human Rights Watch and other reports of torture, detention of activists, you squelched the democratic uprising in Bahrain, you tried to overturn the democratic uprising in Egypt and indeed you continue to oppress your own people. What legitimacy does your regime have – other than billions of dollars and weapons?1
Prince Turki, former Saudi intelligence supremo, former pal of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, former Saudi ambassador to the US, reacted by changing the subject.2
Were this to happen in the Middle East, Husseini would have been duly kidnapped by Saudi intel, tortured and snuffed out. Ask the remains of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. For much less — saying out loud in an Arab League meeting that King Abdullah was a traitor because he was encouraging the George W Bush administration to invade Iraq — the House of Saud did everything in its power, for years, to make sure Gaddafi was taken out.
Turki exhibits all the trademark democratic credentials of the House of Saud. He refers to the push for democracy in the Arab world as “Arab Troubles”.
After the Turki shoot
According to Husseini, on the same day of the news conference he received “a letter informing me that I was suspended from the National Press Club ‘due to your conduct at a news conference’. The letter, signed by the executive director of the club, William McCarren, accused me of violating rules prohibiting ‘boisterous and unseemly conduct or language’.”
Husseini, communications director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, which showcases critical journalism from all over the world, is a calm, thoughtful man with impeccable credentials. The accusation is not only bogus — it is downright pathetic.
Was this a one-off? Obviously not. Flashback to January 2009, at the same National Press Club, during a news conference by then-Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni. When Livni was asked a tough question — once again by Husseini — the mike was cut, and the conference abruptly terminated. My cameraman, Sebastian Pituscan, was there with me.3
So this is how the much-lauded “freedom of the press” myth in the US actually works. If you perform the job of an actual journalist, telling truth to power, forget about attending press conferences at the White House, Pentagon or State Department. You won’t even be admitted in the building.
If you are an official from a “valuable ally” — such as the House of Saud or the regime in Israeli — you are assured a tough question-free pulpit anywhere you choose, especially if you’re fluent in English.
But if you are an official from a “rogue” regime, the maximum you can aspire is to be humiliated in public, as it happened to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University in New York. Especially if you don’t speak English, and most of what you say is lost in translation.
On the other hand, if you are a travelling US corporate media hack, you can get away with murder.
Example. During the Asian financial crisis, in 1997 and 1998, I went to countless press conferences where parachuted US hacks intimidated Asian leaders as if they were a bunch of hooligans (the hacks, not the leaders). Perky chicks emerging from some two-bit journalism school in the flyover states treated then-Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad as if he was a child rapist, because he had established capital controls.
Mahathir turned out to be right — as Malaysia overcame the crisis much earlier than those, such as Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea, that surrendered to the International Monetary Fund’s dreadful “adjustments”.
In 1989, Chinese students protesting in Tiananmen Square were hailed by US media as heroes standing up to tyranny. In 2011, American students protesting all across the country against financial tyranny are “lazy”, “bastards”, both, or downright criminalized.
United States corporate media could not possibly admit that repression in Tahrir Square by Egyptian riot police is exactly the same as repression in New York, Oakland, Portland or Boston by American riot police.
Still there’s no word from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization about setting up a “humanitarian” no-fly zone over selected Occupy sites in US cities. They are still consulting with the House of Saud.