Alastair Macdonald on Iraqi Journalists Finally Freed

Reuters' Iraq bureau chief discusses the U.S. military's months-long detention of three Iraqi journalists, and their release earlier this month.

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?

AM: Well, this is precisely the question that we now need to put to the U.S. military. And I’ve spent … quite a bit of time over the past two weeks, discussing with my journalists exactly what happened to them, and what questions were asked of them … that has certainly given me the concern that nothing I have heard indicates that they were arrested for any other reason than that they were carrying out their normal, professional journalistic activities, with no small degree of courage in the circumstances in which they were in — both Ramadi and Tal Afar are certainly two of the most violent places in Iraq — and I have not heard any suggestion that they were indeed engaged in any improper activity. When I have discussed the reasons for their detention, the impression … is there does seem to have been suspicions raised against them, because we ask them and we employ them to go out into the streets of their town and take video pictures and give us verbal accounts of what is taking place. And that does appear to have been what created suspicion against them and prompted their arrest. And we are certainly looking for an explanation of how we ensure that they are not going to be arrested again, or that other people are not going to be arrested.

EBC: How did it feel to see your journalists finally released and know they could go home to their families?

AM: Well, it was a great relief to all of us. This clearly has been a particular strain on them, but it has been a drain of attention and resources on our bureau for many months, when we are trying to focus on our main job, which is, in difficult circumstances, trying to cull out information about what is going on in a country that we think there is a great deal of interest in …

So clearly we were extremely pleased. I think they’ve had a very hard time, and their families have had a very difficult time, unaware really of quite why they were being detained, and with no clear idea of how long they might be detained for.

So these clearly have been very tough times. It is a great relief. We remain concerned, of course, that because it’s not entirely clear to us what prompted these detentions, we are concerned about those people who have gone back to work and also those many others who are working out in the field in Iraq, how they avoid coming and meeting similar difficulties. … [T]hese people, they’re not unique. There are others still in detention who work for international media groups, and there have previously been journalists working for other groups who have been detained.

EBC: Your predecessor as bureau chief called your Iraqi staff the “backbone” of your operation there. Have these detentions made it harder for you to retain your Iraqi staff, or to recruit new Iraqi journalists, drivers and translators?

AM: I think there is undoubtedly an issue, both with this kind of detention and other security threats, in retaining and hiring staff. And there have been one or two instances where these very courageous journalists have chosen to [resign] gracefully from their positions. … And we have found it difficult, in one or two instances — by no means a large number of instances, we’re talking about an editorial operation that is about 70 strong — so this is clearly an issue. There are many other threats that journalists face in Iraq that are probably greater, and all of these things play a role. But it’s certainly an unwelcome development. …

What is clearly difficult is that … at least two of these journalists who were detained by the U.S. forces have previously had problems also with the insurgents, and journalists — as they themselves would say — found themselves caught in the middle. And Majed Hameed was kidnapped, and we had a couple of very worrying days just over a year ago when Majed was hauled out of a restaurant in Ramadi and thrown into the back of a car by masked men and taken away. And he was, I think, very fortunate to be released after only a couple of days, having been threatened with execution by the people who took him away. … And Ali Mashhadani had also been intimidated by insurgents. So these are people who are trying to do a job, trying to report the facts from a difficult environment, and who have found themselves caught in the middle of this.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.