07/25/2013 06:09 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2013

A Victory for Press Freedom Happens In Spite of Obama

As of Tuesday, Abdulelah Haider Shaye is a free man. One of the top journalists in Yemen, he's been in prison for two and a half years on charges of providing aid to a terrorist organization. His crime is a straightforward one: reporting the unvarnished truth.

In December of 2009, the United States attacked the village of al-Majalah, killing 41 civilians with Tomahawk missiles and cluster bombs. The attack was meant to target an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) meeting, but instead hit a civilian neighborhood.

The Yemeni government, run at the time by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, issued an official statement insisting everyone slain (mostly women and children) were "terrorists" and that the strike was by the Yemeni military, not the US. Shaye was the first to uncover the truth, revealing not only the identities of the victims but showing that US-made cluster bomblets littered the area.

Shaye's report was 100 percent accurate, and one of the WikiLeaks-released State Department cables (10SANAA4_a) states that the attack was American, and furthermore that the U.S. had an agreement with President Saleh to falsely take the blame for them. The November 2010 release of the cables brought renewed attention to Shaye, and within a matter of weeks, he was arrested for his coverage as a "terrorist."

The false imprisonment could've ended pretty quickly, as early 2011 saw growing protests against President Saleh's dictatorial rule. Facing growing criticism at home and abroad about the treatment of Shaye, Saleh was prepared to pardon him in early February of 2011. That's when Obama called.

Despite international consensus that Shaye's arrest was unlawful, and Amnesty International saying he appeared to be jailed "solely for daring to speak out about US collaboration in a cluster munitions attack," Obama warned Saleh against pardoning Shaye, and insisted that he was "assisting" AQAP.

This is where things get downright terrifying. Giving "aid" to terrorist organizations like AQAP is illegal, but the in this case the definition of aid is stretched far beyond any reasonable limits. The US government quite literally argued that by reporting the truth about civilian deaths in a U.S. air strike, Shaye was harming America's ability to launch such strikes and by extension AQAP was enjoying a net benefit.

The Obama Administration's general hostility toward press coverage that is less than favorable is nothing new, but the idea that the U.S. president is keeping journalists jailed abroad for telling the truth is more than shocking. That Obama's view toward such journalists is even harsher than a dictator like Saleh is doubly so.

This week we finally got something resembling justice for Shaye, who after his harsh mistreatment and an extra two and a half years of extra detention which would've never happened if President Obama simply stayed out the matter, was finally pardoned by current President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Hadi, another military dictator "elected" by a U.S.-endorsed vote in which no one else was allowed on the ballot and "no" votes weren't allowed, is hardly a friend to freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Shaye's release is not a testament to Hadi's benevolence, but rather to the sustained outrage over the injustice of his imprisonment.

That press watchdogs and human rights groups finally got Shaye released is a major victory for freedom of the press made even bigger because it comes in a country that desperately needs more personal liberty. But years of President Obama fighting tooth and nail against such freedom is a disgrace to America's own history of press freedom, and a grim sign of the impact the United States will have going forward on free speech at home and abroad.

Jason Ditz is news editor at, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times and Detroit Free Press.