.By Charles Rollet
How NU-Q (and NU) Reacted to Our Breaking Story on Jailed Student Usama Hamed
“The last thing we want is for our students to end up in prison.”
That’s what NU-Q’s senior associate dean Richard Roth told The Daily Northwestern in 2008, after he was asked about reporting conditions in Qatar. His words would become deeply ironic.
In May 2012, as first reported in THE CHRONICLE’s last issue, Northwestern in Qatar journalism student Usama Hamed was beaten and jailed for going inside a mall to report on the aftermath of a deadly fire.
While NU-Q officials repeatedly said Hamed was arrested for being on the wrong side of the police line, Hamed told THE CHRONICLE a policeman waved him into the mall and gave no indication he was crossing a barrier of any sort.
Once he was in jail, NU-Q attempted to help Hamed by sending a government relations officer – but the official proved to be of little use. Hamed, who was charged with being a Syrian spy, starting the fire himself, and assaulting police officers, languished in jail for ten days before he was bailed out by his father.
In Qatar, journalists have been jailed for their reporting before, and students have been arrested as well – it was Hamed’s second arrest. And the Villaggio mall fire Hamed was covering has been controversial, with authorities blocking journalists’ access to several trial hearings of the mall’s owners (who have been accused of manslaughter.)
But aside from these reporting conditions – quite unknown to most college journalists in the USA – it was NU-Q’s reaction to Hamed seeking help which proved to be the most controversial.
Hamed said he was told by NU-Q’s director of student affairs, Greg Bergida, that “Northwestern University does not help or support criminals” after he sought help from the administration upon his release.
Yet since THE CHRONICLE’s article was published, NU-Q officials have not addressed the issue directly. There has been no public notice or official statement on the matter. Nor have they confirmed or denied Hamed was ever told this.
But it’s not that the administration did not notice the article. Far from it.
After THE CHRONICLE’s article was picked up by local blog Doha News, it went viral in Qatar. And according to staffers, NU-Q’s Dean and CEO Everette E. Dennis quickly took charge of the situation – behind closed doors.
An NU-Q staffer, who spoke to THE CHRONICLE on condition of anonymity, said Dean Dennis and two associate deans made “damage control” trips to faculty meetings after the piece went viral.
Far from supporting Hamed, the staffer said Dennis “claimed that Hamed was somewhat hysterical and insulted the police.”
“This allegation may have been quoted from the police report, but we all know that police here include in their reports anything they want as justification for an arrest,” said the staffer. “[It’s] incredible and almost certainly untrue, yet it was quoted to faculty in order to discredit the student.”
According to the staffer, Dean Dennis also told faculty “if you’re a journalist who breaks the law, you have to face the consequences.”
The staffer said Dennis mentioned he and others offered to act as character witnesses for Hamed and held a week of meetings after the incident, as THE CHRONICLE had reported.
THE CHRONICLE emailed Dean Dennis repeatedly asking him to confirm whether such meetings took place, but received no answer.
Another staff member also spoke to THE CHRONICLE on condition of anonymity, and confirmed the meetings took place as described – with Hamed “demonized” behind the scenes.
“It was complete damage control, and he [Dennis] had to put out the fire essentially,” the other staffer said. “I mean if something like this happened in the US, the university in Evanston probably wouldn’t provide any kind of assistance. However, they wouldn’t demonize their students either.”
The Students’ Reaction
While NU-Q’s administration discussed the article internally, students at NU-Q had an “interesting reaction” of their own, said NU-Q senior James Hollo. “The students loved it, but they were a little pissed off it was written by an Evanston student [and not covered by NU-Q media],” he said.
But no one was surprised about what happened to Hamed. While Hamed’s case had never been written about until then, it was widely-known.
“Students were not in shock, this case was never a secret. Everyone knew about it,” said NU-Q sophomore Syed Ali.
Ali was (and still is) skeptical of Hamed’s claim that he was told “Northwestern does not help or support criminals.”
“There is no strong evidence of Usama being told this,” he said.
Other students were very passionate about Hamed’s case. A frequent criticism against NU-Q was that it should have used its connections to get Hamed out of jail, and that the officer it sent, Saeed Mohamed, was not influential enough.
“This guy Saeed is not exactly the guy who I would’ve sent. He’s like a minder, it’s not like he’s some guy who is highly connected and can use his personal connections to bail people out of jail,” said an NU-Q student on condition of anonymity.
The anonymous student was also angry the charges brought against Hamed were not called into question by the administration, noting Hamed was never actually charged for crossing a police barrier.
“They fully accepted the police report that Usama had somehow – with his tripod and camera – managed to assault three police officers, and set the fire in Villaggio the previous day, and be a Syrian spy… even if it was true, you would just take it? They didn’t even question it. Which they should have.”
“Not our issue”
In spite of the various reactions to THE CHRONICLE’s article, the question remains for NU-Q to answer: was Hamed ever told that “Northwestern University does not help or support criminals”?
Administrators are keeping mum; they have repeatedly refused to comment on the statement, neither denying nor recognizing it.
It was well-known to the NU-Q community, however. A student even brought it up during an open meeting on October 22nd, 2012.
“The ‘Northwestern doesn’t support criminals’ statement was brought up, and Dean Dennis was just addressing it,” said junior Penny Yi Wang.
But once again, NU-Q dodged the question. Dennis addressed the case in general but refused to discuss the statement itself, saying it was private.
Sophomore Syed Ali said he asked Greg Bergida, the one who Hamed said made the statement, about it.
“He replied saying that as per the law he is not allowed to disclose conversations he has with any student,” said Ali.
Greg Bergida also refused to comment on the statement when interviewed by The Daily Northwestern. He said Hamed’s jailing was “not on our campus, not in Education City, not our issue.”
Ultimately, NU-Q may never take responsibility for what Hamed said was its lack of support.
But while NU-Q’s administration has stayed tight-lipped about how Hamed’s case was handled, the reaction at Northwestern in Evanston, or NU-E as it is known in Qatar, has been another matter entirely.
“Nobody ever said that stuff.”
Higher up officials at Northwestern have called THE CHRONICLE’s reporting on Hamed’s case false, but have refused to explain why.
President Morton Schapiro and Provost Dan Linzer were asked at a Faculty Senate meeting whether Northwestern stood by or denied its statement to Hamed.
“Nobody ever said that stuff. I don’t have the time…there’s nothing else I can say about that,” replied Schapiro, who was recently in Doha for NU-Q’s graduating ceremony on May 5th. Schapiro later said he did not read the THE CHRONICLE’s article, which was emailed to him prior.
Provost Dan Linzer replied:
“The one case that you’re referring to is not the case, it is just simply not anything that is valid based on what I know. So people can write whatever they write. That doesn’t make it fair or correct journalism.”
Linzer was contacted repeatedly to explain why he believed THE CHRONICLE’s reporting to be inaccurate. He did not reply. After he was approached in person on campus, he said he had “no further comments.”
An Inconvenient Interview
Even though “NU-E” has denied the accuracy of THE CHRONICLE’s reporting on Hamed’s case, NU-Q has taken at least one measure to ensure a similar case does not happen again: by hosting sessions about “reporting boundaries” in Qatar.
Associate dean Jeremy Cohen was the one who told The Daily Q about the sessions. But he also said Hamed did not deserve protection from NU-Q. He said Hamed’s plea for help amounted to saying: “I broke the law and there shouldn’t be any consequences. I should be protected.”
“That doesn’t take bravery … that just takes stubbornness,” Cohen told The Daily Q. (Cohen did not reply to an email asking which law Hamed broke, or to any other inquiries from THE CHRONICLE.)
But the article may not have told the full story.
An original* version of the piece was obtained by THE CHRONICLE. It included an extensive interview with Hamed about his experience, which was cut out in its entirety from the published version.
The interview addressed several themes which were critical towards NU-Q. For example, Hamed brought up the school’s press passes, which have not helped him gain clearance with Qatari authorities as they are meant to.
“Hamed retains several specific grievances,” the deleted section read.
“One of these has to do with the press passes that NU-Q disburses to its students. Hamed has tried unsuccessfully several times to coax authorities with the press pass, including in Villagio when he was arrested […] According to Usama, the university should stop handing them out altogether.”
In the unpublished interview, Hamed also criticized the frequent comparisons the administration made between his case and the USA. A common line from NU-Q was that American universities simply do not offer assistance to students charged with a crime, despite Qatar having essentially none of the legal and societal protections journalists enjoy in the USA.
“Another problem Hamed has with the way his case was handled is the constant comparison with American protocols that the administration invoked. Hamed said that many of their responses ‘started with ‘back in the states we do things differently … back in the states, back in the states, back in the states…’ “
Hamed then expressed concern about “future journalism students.”
“Hamed also expressed frustration at being punished for something that a journalism school should greet with accolades: investigative reporting. ‘I worry for future journalism students at Northwestern University trying to do things the right way, or just with ambition or curiosity,’ said Hamed.”
Another line cut out from the original article discussed the “illegitimate” nature of the charges brought against Hamed:
“In November, his case was dropped and archived, affirming the illegitimacy of the charges brought against him, which included starting the fire and being a Syrian spy.”
It seems NU-Q’s administration is at the very least unaware of this, as it has told The Daily Northwestern that Hamed’s trial is still “coming up.”
The article’s author, James Hollo, said he felt the interview was cut “to avoid controversy that they [the administration] thought was unnecessary.”
“In a small community like NU-Q writing a story like that, where you would be essentially going after the administration and going after anyone involved….it would just put you in sort of an uncomfortable situation,” he said.
The article was edited by journalism professor Janet Key, who is The Daily Q’s “faculty adviser,” and The Daily Q’s editor-in-chief, a student. Neither responded for comment.
Concerns about professors like Key having too much control at The Daily Q were raised in a recent Daily Northwestern article titled “Forging a Free Press in Qatar.”
Sophomore Silma Suba told The Daily Northwestern The Daily Q was “too professor-driven.” NU-Q graduate Ismaeel Naar left the paper his senior year because Key “held too much power.”
Naar said the publication had improved recently however, while Suba praised Key’s “40 years of experience.”
Key remains the paper’s faculty adviser. The Daily Northwestern also reported that editors are paid $1,100 and reporters $900 per semester for working at the university-funded paper.
Considering the removal of “controversial” information at a student publication, NU-Q’s lack of transparency regarding Hamed’s case, and its recent decision to ignore an initiative calling for the release of a jailed Qatari poet, has freedom of expression truly improved in Qatar thanks to Northwestern’s presence?
“No. Not at all. Seriously, because they’ve been here long enough,” said Vani Saraswathi, a local journalist who has worked with NU-Q interns before.
“I did feel in the past that in the interactions I had with NU-Q they were not quite aware of the constraints faced by the local journalists,” said Saraswathi. “So when I did raise them, they thought it was local journalists making excuses for being lazy or not taking the initiative. They didn’t seem to get the point of the constraints we faced to working here.”
Syed Ali disagreed. “The press/media culture is still developing in the country, and things are getting better every year,” he said. “This is my honest opinion.”
Others were more cautious.
“I honestly don’t see any progress,” said another student who spoke on condition of anonymity to THE CHRONICLE.
“I think once we put ourselves in the workplace, maybe, our generation specifically would lead to that change. But currently – no.”
For this article, Dean Dennis was emailed repeatedly asking whether Usama was ever told “Northwestern University does not help or support criminals.” He did not respond to any emails from THE CHRONICLE. Neither did associate dean Jeremy Cohen. Other administrators such as associate dean John Pavlik responded by referring THE CHRONICLE to Dean Dennis, citing him as NU-Q’s “official spokesman.”