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Alastair Macdonald and Samir Noor

Alastair Macdonald, Reuters’ Iraq bureau chief, recently welcomed back three newly freed journalists who had been held without charge by the U.S. military for as long as eight months. Majed Hameed, a correspondent for Reuters and Al Arabiya, and television cameraman Ali al-Mashhadani were released Jan. 15, while freelance television cameraman Samir Mohammed Noor was freed this past Sunday. All three were held at both Abu Ghraib and at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. In previous postings with Reuters, Macdonald, 42, has worked in Berlin, Moscow, and Paris, and as an editor on the wire service’s main editing desk in London before taking over as bureau chief in Iraq last June.


Edward B. Colby: How did three of your journalists get swept up and imprisoned by the U.S. military?


Alastair Macdonald: Well, these are three different cases — they all happened separately. The first case concerned a chap called Samir Mohammed Noor, who is a freelance cameraman who works in the town of Tal Afar in the north. During a search of his neighborhood by Iraqi and U.S. troops at the beginning of June, the first of June, his house was searched and he was told that he was on a wanted list, although nobody had come to look for him previously, and he was arrested.


Then in the city of Ramadi in the west of Iraq in August, at the beginning of August, [came the case of] our cameraman Ali Mashhadani — his area was searched by U.S. Marines, and his home was searched and he was arrested, it seemed, largely because of suspicions raised by film that was on his camera.


And then a couple of months later, or about halfway through the middle of September, also in Ramadi, our text correspondent for our reporters, Majed Hameed — who is also [a correspondent] for Al Arabiya television — was arrested in a specific arresting raid on a funeral of one of his cousins, near his home in Ramadi.


So those are the specifics. All three were released in the last couple of weeks of this month. We haven’t had any specific explanations either for their arrest or for their release, other than that they were held on suspicion of activities connected with the insurgency in Iraq.


EBC: So this whole time you weren’t given much of an explanation from the military about why these three journalists were being detained?


AM: That’s right. There’s never been a specific charge against any of them, and there is not a court process. … Our relationship to them, depending on which of the three you’re talking about, is slightly different, but as the company for whom they were working, we were not privileged to any particular information. We did make the military aware in each case of our relationship with the person they were holding and explain their job for us, but we were not given any information [or] specifics about why they were being held.


That is, until relatively recently. Shortly before they were released, we were given some explanation of the suspicions against them, and what the foundations of those suspicions were. As I say, there was never any specific charge. As the senior officer that I spoke to at the time said, this is not a legal process, this is not a court procedure. And I have to say that we found the reasons given to be not very substantial, and we’re very concerned by those reasons, and therefore we’re very glad that the three have now been released.


But we’re still troubled that they were arrested in the first place, and we are talking to them and we will be making statements and seeking explanations from the military in due course. Clearly, this is not something that we want to happen again.


EBC: In September the New York Times reported Western bureau chiefs saying “the military often seems to arrest their Iraqi employees merely for getting too close to the action.” So how can Iraqi journalists do their jobs and avoid getting arrested and held without legal process for long stretches of time?

Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.