By: Alastair Macdonald, Reuters
(Reuters) The U.S. military rejected on Thursday concerns aired by Reuters and other media organizations in Iraq about its detention of journalists, saying it would not consider the special nature of their work in reporting conflict.
International media rights groups have joined Reuters in seeking an urgent explanation for the arrest of a cameraman working for the news agency, who has been held incommunicado for more than two weeks and is now in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari and cabinet spokesman Laith Kubba said the government would look into the matter.
Reporters working for media including U.S. television network CBS and Agence France-Presse have been held for months. Other news organizations have also complained about arrests.
U.S. military officials say Reuters’ Ali Omar Abrahem al-Mashhadani, who was arrested by U.S. troops at his home in Ramadi on Aug. 8 after they viewed images on his cameras, is a “security detainee”, implying suspected links to insurgents, but have refused all requests to detail suspicions or accusations.
Asked whether the U.S. military had a policy to take account of journalists’ special role in Iraq, the chief spokesman for U.S. forces, Major General Rick Lynch, told a news conference in Baghdad it did not and had no intention of changing its stance.
“What we’ve got to do is look at the individual that was indeed detained and what was he doing, regardless of what his profession is,” Lynch said. “That’s a ‘no’.”
“The policy doesn’t need to change. The policy that’s in effect is the one that will stay in effect.”
Groups which lobby to protect journalists around the world say the nature of independent journalism in conflict zones, bringing reporters into contact with parties to the conflict, puts them at special risk of incurring unwarranted suspicion.
“The decision to arrest a journalist should only be taken on an absolutely exceptional basis,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement from its Paris headquarters.
“Journalists, especially Iraqi journalists, are already running very great risks to go into the field. More than 60 have already lost their lives in this country in two years. It is shocking that they are also being mistreated by the U.S. army.”
“U.S. forces continue these alarming detentions of working journalists without any acceptable explanation, or anything resembling due process,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
JOURNALISTS WRONGLY ACCUSED
Journalists for Reuters and other media organizations in Iraq have been wrongly accused in the past by U.S. forces of having prior information of insurgent attacks — suspicions apparently raised by their quick response to news events.
Thousands of Iraqis have been detained by the U.S. military and put through a process of interrogation to determine whether they have links with insurgents and should face a trial.
“We have a very deliberate process on how we work with those detainees,” Lynch said, promising to look into Mashhadani’s case.
“We’ll look very closely at that particular situation. What was he doing that caused us to believe he was involved in suspicious activities? And then we will continue to work through our process to determine whether he should remain in detention, be released or transferred into the court system.”
U.S. military lawyers in Iraq say that, for those sent to Abu Ghraib, a detention of six months to a year is typical, before a decision is made to prosecute or release them.
RSF said it had written to top U.S. Middle East commander General John Abizaid to demand Mashhadani’s release.
The CPJ’s Cooper said: “U.S. officials must credibly explain the basis for the detention of Ali Omar Abrahem al-Mashhadani and other journalists being held without charge, or release them at once.”
Mashhadani, 36, has worked for Reuters for a year as a freelance television cameraman and photographer in Ramadi, west of Baghdad. U.S. officials say he can have no visitors, including his family or a lawyer, for 60 days.
Reuters has provided U.S. forces with footage by Mashhadani that shows scenes of conflict and gunmen operating in plain view of civilians. Nothing in his work has indicated activity incompatible with his status as an independent journalist.
“U.S. and Iraqi military forces routinely detain Iraqi journalists without charge or explanation, and some have been held for months,” the CPJ said. It said it had raised concerns in May about eight Iraqi journalists in detention in Iraq, including local staff for CBS News and Agence France-Presse.
RSF said the arrests do “not reflect well on the United States, which nonetheless does not hesitate to give the rest of the world lessons on freedom of expression and democracy”.
(Additional reporting by Timothy Heritage in Paris, Andrew Marshall in London, and Philip Pullella in Rome)