I want to talk to you today about Mohammad Hassan Allawi. To those who knew him here at the UN Mohammed struck us as a sweet, shy, teddy bear of a man who seemed devoted to his wife and five children. He came to our press briefings, asked questions, took notes and filed stories. So you can imagine that it came as a shock to us when the host nation decided to expel him from the US because he was considered a danger to national security.
It had never happened before in the UN's more than 55 year history that a journalist had been expelled. Not even at the height of the cold war when various intelligence agencies, including the KGB and CIA, gave their spies press credentials as cover.
For us at the UN Correspondents Association it was hard to know exactly how to respond. After all only a fool would utterly reject the possibility that the sole correspondent in the USA of the Iraqi News Agency -which meant in effect Saddam Hussein's news agency- might have been sent here with a second more sinister agenda. Maybe Mohammed was in fact a secret agent? They don't all look like James Bond, I know that for a fact because my father who was a short, corpulent, balding man used to parachute into France during world war II to spy on the Nazi V bomber program. Could Mohammed the teddy bear have masked a grizzly bear underneath?
And then there is the fact that, under the terms of the Headquarters Agreement between the host country and the UN, Secretary of State Colin Powell was required to personally certify to the Secretary General that Mohammed had violated American law. The UN lawyers demanded that certification and Mr Powell obliged. Most of my colleagues believe that Mr Powell is an honorable man, surely we could not call him a liar?
But what if Mr Powell had been given false information by less scrupulous individuals in the administration? It would not be the first time. After all he came to the Security Council and proffered evidence of illegal transfers of uranium from Niger to Iraq that was later found to be totally fraudulent. Someone fed Mr Powell that false information. In the lead up to the war, as part of the campaign by the White House to create the misleading impression that there was a direct link between the Iraqi regime and terrorist attacks on the US, one could see how convenient it would be to be able to point a finger at an Iraqi agent engaged in dastardly work in our midst.
Mohammad himself suggested that he was being expelled because he had rejected advances from a US diplomat who was trying to recruit him. "I didn't want to talk to him, I did not want to defect, I am a professional journalist," he told me. "Do they object that I am too close to the Iraqi mission? That is my job, to cover whatever those guys do."
In the end the UN correspondents decided that we would need to see some proof of the allegations against him. None was offered. Indeed Mohammed was never given the chance to see any of the evidence against him, never had a chance to confront the witnesses against him, never had a chance to speak in his own defense. Theoretically he could have appealed his expulsion order to an immigration tribunal, but he was told that if he did so he would be immediately detained in an INS jail. Mohammed told me he feared that if he followed that route he might end up in legal limbo in a remote navy brig or in Guantanamo with no access to a lawyer and cut of from his wife and kids. So he went back to Baghdad. He and his family arrived just a step ahead of the missiles, a step ahead of shock and awe. Today I cannot tell you his fate because I have been unable to reach him by phone for weeks.
But why make such a big deal over one guy who, as we ourselves acknowledge, might not have been just a simple journalist? The answer is because we believe in the sanctity of freedom of the press and we believe that freedom of the press does not exist in isolation, but in the context of the whole panoply of civil and political rights. To defend one we must defend them all. Surely in a democracy Mohammed deserved the right to see the evidence against him and contest it.
We also believe that it is not our job to simply accept what governments say as the plain truth. How could we? Diplomats are paid to sometimes be, well, how should I put it, economical with the truth, in pursuit of their national interests. It is our job as journalists to be skeptical, to ferret out the truth that the-powers-that-be do not want to tell us. Many of us take this role very seriously. We see ourselves as the Fourth Estate, a pillar of democracy, helping to keep the body politic healthy by bringing transparency to the affairs of state.
Which is what leaves many of us so disappointed in the role of the American media in the lead up to and execution of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. As we all know there is no credible evidence of an Iraqi link to Al-Qaeda. In the months immediately after the attacks only 3% of Americans identified Iraq as a culprit. So how then to explain that today some 50% of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks on 9-11? Could it have something to do with the uncritical way most in the American media reported the statements of the Bush administration that sought to create those links?
The outcome of the war appears to demonstrate that the White House embarked on its rather reckless Iraqi adventure on the wings of a lie. Perhaps the American self-styled exploitation teams will eventually come up with evidence of prohibited weapons programs, but so far we have yet to see any proof that Iraq posed any kind of imminent danger to the USA or anyone else. Yet 60% of the American people believed that Iraq did pose an imminent danger. In this they were unique. No other nation on earth, including those who have had bitter experience of Iraqi aggression like the Kuwaitis and Iranians, believed there was an imminent threat. How did the White House build this majority impression if not with the compliant help of the American media?
It is not that any newspaper or TV program went out there and proclaimed that Saddam was responsible for 9-11. Instead what they did is uncritically report White House speeches and assertions that, with a constant drip drip drip finally managed to work their way into the American collective psyche.
Take for example President Bush's press conference on March 6 of this year. It was his first prime-time meeting with reporters since a month after 9/11. At that point most of the world had rejected the president's argument for war, the economy was foundering, the evidence of Iraqi links to terror or weapons of mass destruction had not appeared and yet Mr Bush was allowed to smoothly slip from mentions of 9-11 to talk of the impending war no fewer than eight times without a single challenge from the cowed journalists in front of him. They sat meekly there, even when he let slip that the press conference had been scripted.
One reporter, April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks, went so far as to ask, "Mr. President, as the nation is at odds over war, how is your faith guiding you?" Frank Rich at the New York Times described this question as "a God-given cue for Mr. Bush to once more cloak his moral arrogance in the verbal vestments of humble religiosity. 'My faith sustains me because I pray daily,' came the president's reply. 'I pray for peace, April, I pray for peace.' Far be it from Ms. Ryan to ask a follow-up question about why virtually every religious denomination in the country, including Mr. Bush's own, opposed the war."
Indeed, no one attempted to ask a question out of turn, nor a follow-up, no one raised their voice. No one gave the president anything other than a softball. As Ian Williams, a former President of UNCA wrote recently, President George Bush has been treated with more deference by the press than King George III.
There have been a few shining examples of media that have resisted this role of faithful echo chamber to the White House - one thinks of the New York Times, for example. But for the most part the US media, especially the broadcast media, have been pretty disgusting. Either they were willing participants in a cynical exercise that they knew would boost their ratings or they allowed themselves to be manipulated.
As another colleague recently wrote, "Just ask yourself how many images U.S. audiences got to see of Iraq's population in the weeks and months leading up to the war. Virtually all material that was broadcast involved U.S. military preparations."
Like all rights, if you do not use the freedom of the press to its full, it will wither and I fear that is want is happening in this country as dissenters to the government line are forced to shut up, drowned out by the chorus of voices accusing them of being unpatriotic or traitors. The American media have come to worship power and that is not a recipe for protecting true freedom of the press.
There is another aspect which I find deeply troubling, which is the contempt shown by so many in the US media for the democratically expressed opinions of so many nations. 85% of the French opposed this war, yet their government was supposed to ignore this majority view? The Turks, God bless them, struggling slowly towards liberal democracy, held a vote in their Parliament which rejected the multi-billion dollar American inducement to persuade them to let American troops use their territory. This vote, which reflected the views of nearly 90% of Turks was met with howls of outrage in the American media. Governments, it seems, are supposed to override their obligation to their voters when Washington comes knocking.
Finally we come to the difficult issue of the journalists who were in bed with the US troops. One has to admire their courage and their professionalism of course. But boy were they played like a musical instrument by the Pentagon. Kenneth Bacon, who was the last Pentagon spokesman, wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently that "You couldn't hire actors to do as good a job as the press has done" from the Pentagon's point of view.
Ladies and gentlemen, history may yet prove that the British and American invasion of Iraq was a good idea, but I doubt that the history books will be so kind on the job that we in the media have done. If we members of the media do not use this freedom of the press to its full, and do not do a better job of informing the public, freedom of the press will inevitably become circumscribed.