FBI Arrest of American News Anchor Marzieh Hashemi is an Assault on First Amendment

This is not just a random incident, it is a test for a wider attack on the free press.

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Marzieh Hashem, an African-American who converted to Islam and has lived in Iran since 2008, is a reporter and anchor with Press TV, a state broadcaster offering English-language programming. Reports say that she was detained on January 13, 2019 at the St. Louis airport en route to Denver by the FBI and that she is now in custody as a material witness without charges in Washington.

Press TV has become a popular alternative media venue for activists and analysts that challenge American-sponsored views on Israel-Palestine, the “War on Terror,” and many other topics.

In this undated photo provided by Iranian state television’s English-language service, Press TV, American-born news anchor Marzieh Hashemi, right, smiles as she stands with her son in Tehran, Iran. The elder son of Hashemi says his mother is being held in the United States, but has not been charged with anything. Hussein Hashemi says she was detained Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019, as she was leaving St. Louis for Denver. He says she had filmed a Black Lives Matter documentary in St. Louis after visiting family in New Orleans. (Press TV via AP)

The standard litany offered by skeptical liberals in these type of situations runs something like this: “Press TV is quite obviously sponsored by the Iranian regime and represents its political line and biases. Its regular guests are not only progressives who criticize American foreign and domestic policy. They also include a Who’s-Who of disreputable right-leaning kooks that parrot conspiracist dribble.”

Okay, that is a fair critique. But contextual clarity is necessary here.

Press TV’s English broadcaster was launched in July 2007, less than a year after Al Jazeera English of Qatar began broadcasting via cable news and internet venues like YouTube. At that moment, in the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency, relations between America and the Arab world were being sharply questioned by liberals (and indeed by just about all Western commentators).

Arabs across the region had been dealing with the brute end of American foreign policy since the end of World War II, even though in Western minds our imperial policy was uncritically seen as enlightened liberal internationalism. However, Bush and the neocons rather quickly sullied the brand with their delusional blueprint, The Project for a New American Century.

Owing to a mixture of hubris and megalomania, the administration promoted an advertising campaign for the biggest imperial project in human history. The backlash, inevitably, was epic.

As such, Qatar, a long-term strategic ally in the region, stepped in to create an English language affiliate that would appeal to liberals with style and production values equivalent to CNN or MSNBC but focused on Middle Eastern politics. Central to this was that it frequently backed America’s geopolitical role, including favoritism for Saudi Arabia over Iran in those two countries’ multi-decade regional Cold War.

[Editorial comment, Ken Silverstein: I don’t quite see things this way, and I worked at Al Jazeera for two unhappy months a few years back. I see Al Jazeera fundamentally as the Qatari regime’s attempt to project soft power, like the Voice of America — and privately-owned CNN, NBC et al. for that matter — does for the United States government. (And it’s very good at what it does, for the most part, and some smart, talented people work there in addition to a lot of hacks.) The network’s primary aim, then, is not to support U.S. geopolitical goals but Qatar’s. When those goals align the network sides with the U.S.; when they clash the network sides with its Qatari state financial sponsor.]

Press TV was created to confront and oppose the neocon effort to launch war war on Iran. One can surely critique their guest line up but you could say the same about Al Jazeera, which is tied as directly to the Qatari state as Press TV is to the Iranian state. Have you ever examined the motivation of guests on Al Jazeera? For instance, were you aware that the late Jamal Khashoggi, a recent liberal martyr for free speech with a history of appearances on the Qatari broadcaster, had an entirely different MO in the Arab press, one at odds with the Anglophone case for beatification? I’m not defending his murder or even remotely denying what the Saudis did to him was rotten. But I also don’t have any interest in the lack of nuance in the coverage of his death. He was a savvy operator playing favorites within the Saudi royal family and only became critical of the monarchy when his particular clique fell out of favor.

[Editorial comment: Gonna have to step in here. Yeah, Khashoggi was not a saint. Big deal. I met him only once and he helped me out with some very interesting information that ran counter to the official U.S. foreign policy narrative. His murder was disgusting. Period.]

A typical example of the high esteem al-Jazeera had for the late writer.

The saturation media coverage that followed Khashoggi’s murder stands in stark contrast to the lack of interest in the plight of Marzieh Hashemi. It also reflects the way that men of lighter skin tone are valued in the media far more than women of darker skin tone, even when the woman in question is an American citizen.

The “neutral” tone here in fact exposes a clear bias.

Reports indicate that Marzieh Hashem was transported to Washington from St. Louis Lambert Airport. According to Press TV, she has been prevented from wearing her hijab in custody and is only eating crackers because her jailers have offered her a diet heavy with pork, a meat forbidden in Muslim dietary laws.

So to sum up, an African-American expat journalist working at an alternative news outlet has been detained without charges and transported halfway across the country while apparently being subjected to blatantly Islamophobic abuse. Meanwhile, neocons in the White House are eagerly seeking to launch a war against the country she works in.

Let this sink in. Feel good?

UPDATE 1/18/18 NOONTIME: The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City issued a statement Friday. “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.

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