Tag Archives: Democracy Now!

Documentary film about lawyer William Kunstler opens in New York

KUNSTLER_Emily_Sarah_2008_Disturbingtheuniverse_0_posterThis weekend, the documentary film, “Disturbing the Universe,” about self-described radical lawyer William Kunstler, has its New York City premiere at Cinema Village. The film, directed and produced by two of his daughters, Emily and Sarah, for their production company, Off Center Media (which produces documentaries exposing injustice in the criminal justice system), takes a personal look at a man who was known for representing often controversial defendants from the Civil Rights era until his death in 1995. The film was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ve seen some excerpts in an interview with Emily and Sarah Kunstler on Democracy Now!. One of the defendants that Bill Kunstler represented was one of the alleged teenage suspects in the Central Park Jogger case from 1989. Yusef Salaam (who is interviewed in the film) was convicted and spent more than five years in prison for a crime he did not commit (he was exonerated in 2002 when the actual attacker confessed and matched a DNA sample).

The Central Park Jogger case was infamous in 1989 and shock and outrage followed the arrests of the teens. Headlines referred to them as a “wolfpack.” As the teens were convicted in the court of public opinion, Kunstler decided to take the case, as he had taken many others in the past. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could see Salaam be exonerated.

Yesterday, news came from the Justice Department that a number of the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will be brought to New York to face trial in a civilian court. This news has caused the same, if not more, hyperbolic reaction that the Central Park Jogger case did 20 years ago. So I wonder if Bill Kunstler, if he were still alive today, would have represented Mohammed, the self-proclaimed terrorist and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. I think, considering he represented the so-called Blind Sheikh for his role in the 1993 bombings of the World Trade Center, that Kunstler would. But maybe not. Speaking in 1970 on why he didn’t represent right-wing groups, he said, “I only defend those whose goals I share. I’m not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love.” It is true though, that in later years, he would take on cases when he felt a defendant was convicted before the case reached the courtroom. Clearly then, he was a principled advocate who believed in the rule of law, the legal justice system, and the rights of all, no matter how controversial, despised or hated.

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The Legal Restrictions of Newsgathering at Demonstrations

Journalists Arrested While Doing Their Job: The Legal Restrictions of Newsgathering at Demonstrations

By Kieran K. Meadows

Inside the Xcel Center the first week of September, the Republican National Convention was finally getting underway after a slow start because of Hurricane Gustav. Outside the convention center on the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota, a completely different story was unfolding. Thousands of protesters had converged in St. Paul to take part in demonstrations or engage in acts of in civil disobedience. More than 800 people were arrested, including many reporters who were covering the convention story.

“If you were a journalist covering the protesters, then you were subject to any number of these tactics,” said Sharif Abdel Kouddous, referring to police crowd control tactics such as concussion grenades, tear gas, mace, and police on horseback. Kouddous, a producer of the nationally syndicated TV/radio news program Democracy Now!, was arrested twice while covering the protests.

“It made it difficult and dangerous to be on the street,” he said. “The fact that you had a camera with a press ID didn’t seem to matter.”

During the week of the RNC, police detained or arrested nearly 50 journalists, including independent media and traditional media journalists, according to the Minnesota Independent.  Some were arrested violently and sustained injuries inflicted by police, actions that drew a sharp rebuke from the organization Reporters Without Borders. Some journalists were released right away, but many spent at least a night in jail. These events illustrate the challenges journalists face in covering this type of story. A series of legal questions arise around issues of censorship, prior restraint and newsgathering restrictions all related to First Amendment rights.

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The Sanitized War Disconnect

The New York Times has a front-page article today by Michael Kamber and Tim Arango about the increasing difficulty photojournalists are having with an American military that is attempting to control graphic images from the war in Iraq. One of the photojournalists featured in the Times’ article is Zoriah Miller, who was recently interviewed on Democracy Now! after he was barred from the Marine Corps for publishing graphic photos showing Marines killed in a suicide attack last month. In the Times’ article, Miller says:

“The fact that the images I took of the suicide bombing — which are just photographs of something that happens every day all across the country — the fact that these photos have been so incredibly shocking to people, says that whatever they are doing to limit this type of photo getting out, it is working.”

The Times’ article says that “searches and interviews turned up fewer than a half-dozen graphic photographs of dead American soldiers,” and, by a recent count, only a handful of Western photographers are covering the war today.

One is forced to wonder, as Miller implies above, if the public saw more of these photos — which in reality show the true nature of war and the consequences of violence — would there be the same amount of passivity regarding the ongoing unpopular war?

Very Late Update: The New York Times’ Public Editor weighs in on the details of the Times’ decisions to publish war photographs.

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On the Definition of “Success”

Due to Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama’s trip to Iraq early this past week, there’s been a lot of seeming consensus in the news media again around the idea that the so-called “surge” has succeeded. The campaign of Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain has been aggressively pushing this narrative mostly because it’s virtually the only thing McCain is running on now (i.e. saying he was right about the surge). However, early in the week the New York Times rejected McCain’s op-ed piece (which was a rebuttal to Obama’s op-ed piece a week earlier) on the grounds that it offered no new information (in terms of overall strategy with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan) and that it did not define “victory” (read: success) in Iraq.

Let’s have a look at the definition of “success”:

success: (noun) the accomplishment of an aim or purpose

While on his whirlwind international tour this week, Obama was interviewed by CBS News anchor Katie Couric. She asked him three different times, within a few minutes, some variation of the McCain Campaign talking point: “Why don’t you admit that the surge has succeeded?” Obama said there was no doubt that the work U.S. troops did was one of the things that had helped to reduce violence (see below for more info on what the other things were). Obama has consistently said the aim or purpose of the Bush surge strategy was to reduce violence enough to enable significant political progress between different Iraqi factions and interests; and to bring an end to the de facto civil war which had engulfed the nation in sectarian violence.

So has this aim or purpose been met? If adding tens of thousands of additional troops wasn’t the only thing that contributed to a reduction in violence, what were the other things? Can we actually, in all honesty, say that the surge has succeeded? Was the only goal of the surge to reduce violence? And if so, now what?

Independent journalist Dahr Jamail was interviewed on Democracy Now! back in January right after President Bush touted the surge as a success in his SOTU address. Jamail emphasized that we understand the surge (or more appropriately termed, escalation) in the context of a then almost five-year war.

JAMAIL: Well, the surge—and what’s very interesting, too, is not only do we have a US surge, according to Mr. Bush, we have an Iraqi surge—two Iraqi surges, actually, the first of which he mentioned in his talk last night, the concerned citizens or the awakening groups. Well, it’s really interesting that the same time last year, as Mr. Bush was happily doing during his speech, comparing where were we last year to this year, well, last year, these same people, these concerned local citizens, according to the US military, were called al-Qaeda or insurgents or terrorists. And now that there’s 80,000 of them on the US payroll, they’re concerned citizens and they’re an Iraqi surge. And these same people, as we look at the situation on the ground, this is causing deep, deep—a deepening of the political divisions in the country. The US-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been vehemently opposed to this concerned citizens group backed by the US military in Iraq, these people, most of which are former resistance fighters, because they’re now a threat to the Iraqi government forces. So that’s causing huge problems on the ground in Iraq today. And if we look at the situation, the military recently announced within the last month that there was a sevenfold increase in the use of air power last year. So these are some of the reasons why right now there are fewer US troops dying, but the reality is they’re paying off resistance fighters to stand down. And Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands the largest militia in the country, has his militia on stand-down until next month, where that stand-down might end and things would change dramatically.

The current debate between the presidential candidates about who was right about the surge (and moderated by the news media) would, I think, like Jamail, be better understood in terms of the broader context of the Iraq War as a whole. Not to mention framing it using clear defintions of words like “success.” You would think that the news media that did so poorly in covering the rush to war in 2002-03 would try a little harder to get this part of the story right. Or maybe not.

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