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After a serious decline in civil liberties during the eight-year Bush administration, Barack Obama’s election as president raised many hopes that were quickly dashed.
Firstly, a judicial absurdity remains, one that led to journalists being jailed under the previous administration. Forty states of the union have laws that protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources but there is no such law at the federal level. A new “shield law” that would fulfil this role was resubmitted to Congress after the 2008 elections and was again passed by the House. But it is being blocked by senators, once again in the name of “national security.”
Implementation of the Freedom of Information Act was marked by a similar setback on identical grounds. A promising directive from attorney general Eric Holder said authorities should withhold information only in exceptional circumstances. But, to the frustration of civil liberties groups and despite a federal justice injunction, the White House decided in May 2009 to block the release of photos showing the mistreatment of detainees by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan in order “not to endanger US forces and their allies.” Although photos were already circulating online, the CIA confirmed in April 2010 that it had begun in 2005 to destroy as much evidence as possible in the form of photos and videos of acts of torture in secrets prisons and on the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
When he took office, President Obama promised to remove the detainees from Guantanamo. But the “enemy combatants,” as they were called during President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” are still there. Four Canadian and US journalists were expelled from Guantanamo in May 2010 on the Pentagon’s orders for publishing the name of a witness testifying on interrogation techniques. A US army intelligence analyst was arrested the same month as the presumed source of classified video footage leaked to Wikileaks. Posted on the site in April 2010, the video showed US soldiers deliberately killing two local employees of the Reuters news agency during a helicopter attack in Baghdad in July 2007.
On the strictly judicial front, three years have gone by since the August 2007 murder of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey without justice being rendered. In May 2010, a Californian superior court adjourned a hearing on a possible change of venue for the trial of the alleged mastermind, Yusuf Bey IV. Prior to his death, Bailey had been investigating financial problems at Your Black Muslim Bakery, a local community business run by Bey, who seems to have benefitted from complicity from within the local police.
Another case – a capital one – is also still awaiting resolution. Former radio journalist and Black Panther activist Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, a murder he has always denied committing. In March 2008, a three-judge Philadelphia federal court of appeal vote 2-1 to commute his sentence to life imprisonment but the state of Pennsylvania appealed against this decision to the federal supreme court.
In October 2008 and in April 2009, the supreme court unfortunately rejected petitions by Abu-Jamal’s lawyers for a new trial on the grounds that the original was marred by many irregularities. In an even more grave development on 19 January 2010, the supreme court ordered the Philadelphia federal court of appeal to reconsider its March 2008 decision in favour of selecting a new jury to decide on his sentence. This court now has to decide whether Abu-Jamal lives or not.
File updated in July 2010
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