Two journalists working in Baghdad for a Long Island-based newspaper remain missing Friday after reportedly being ejected from the capital by Iraqi officials. The Newsday staffers were last seen in their hotel Tuesday morning.
Matthew McAllester, a staff reporter, and Moises Saman, a staff photographer, sent an e-mail update to their editors Monday afternoon to coordinate coverage and made no mention of problems with Iraqi authorities, according to Newsday. By Tuesday morning their room had been cleaned out and reporters remaining in Baghdad were told they had been ejected in a visa dispute, the paper also reported.
Another free-lance photographer, Molly Bingham, Al Gore’s official photographer during the Clinton administration, is believed to be traveling with the pair and is also considered missing.
“We went to everyone conceivable to try to get the facts,” said Newsday editor Anthony Marro in a statement. “We felt the more questions that could be asked from more directions, the better. We’re optimistic someone will contact us to say … (McAllester and Saman) are in Baghdad and working with officials to try to stay there, or that they are in Jordan or Syria.”
A statement from the Committee to Protect Journalists said that the three had been told to leave over a visa dispute.
“There were conflicting reports that Iraqi officials took the three journalists from the Hotel Palestine in Baghdad, telling them they were being expelled from the country allegedly because of visa problems,” the CPJ statement says. “Some journalists in Baghdad reported that the journalists were put on buses headed for Damascus, Syria. Others said the bus was headed to Amman, Jordan. However, as of this evening, the journalists remain missing.”
None of the three journalists has been able to contact either Newsday or other organizations to report their location or condition.
As the war has intensified and U.S. troops have closed to within about 50 miles of the capital, Iraqi officials have gradually reduced the number of U.S. and Western journalists reporting from Baghdad. But only the three have gone missing in the exodus.
On Thursday, the first reported removal of a journalist from a U.S. military unit in Iraq took place, with military commanders claiming that Phil Smucker, a free-lancer working with The Christian Science Monitor and The Daily Telegraph of London, revealed operation details in a CNN interview.
Smucker gave detailed information on the location of the Marine unit he was traveling with and was then removed from Iraq and sent to Kuwait by U.S. forces.
“My understanding of the facts at this point from the commander on the ground is that this reporter was reporting, in real time, positions, locations and activities of units engaged in combat,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said in a statement. “The commander felt it was necessary and appropriate to remove (Smucker) from his immediate battle space in order not to compromise his mission or endanger personnel of his unit.”
Also reported Friday, U.S. troops in Iraq detained three foreign journalists on suspicion of espionage and beat two of them, relatives and a co-worker asserted Friday. They were released after 48 hours in Kuwait.
U.S. Central Command is looking into the allegations of mistreatment, according to Lt. Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman in Washington.
According to Lapan, the reporters were unilaterals — that is, not embedded with military units — and approached a field force in a vehicle. They were unexpected and were therefore viewed as a security threat, given that irregular Iraqi forces travel around the country in unmarked civilian cars.
The unit stopped the reporters, contacted higher headquarters and were told to move them out of Iraq. The unit moved them back to Kuwait via helicopter while their vehicle remained in Iraq, said Lapan.
The journalists, Dan Scemama of Israel’s Channel 1 TV and Boaz Bismuth of the Israeli Yediot Aharonot, entered Kuwait without proper accreditation. Scemama maintained earlier this week that he was denied accreditation because he represented Israeli television.
The two teamed up with a Portuguese TV reporter, rented a jeep, and entered Iraq on their own, driving alongside American convoys. They phoned in reports based on conversations with U.S. troops and Iraqis.
According to an account by Scemama’s girlfriend, Shlomit Yarkoni, the journalists were forced to stop Tuesday beside six tanks because of sandstorms. “They couldn’t see the road … (and) the Americans advised them not to move because they would not be identified in the dust and … orders to (the troops) shoot at almost anything that moves.”
She said soldiers woke them up at gunpoint early Wednesday and accused them of espionage. The reporters were told to pick up their shirts and let down their pants to prove they were not carrying bombs.
Scemama’s sister, Dina Harel, told United Press International they were told to drop to the sand, face down. They were later kept in a closed jeep for 36 hours.
The Portuguese journalist asked to phone home and was beaten, the two said. His ribs were broken, and he is now hospitalized.
Yediot Aharonot’s city desk editor, Eran Tiefenbrunn, told UPI that Bismuth was also beaten. The newspaper, concerned about loss of contact with the journalists, asked the Pentagon to help find them.
After 48 hours, a helicopter flew the reporters to an American military base in Kuwait where they were released and given their phones back. Their rented jeep was impounded, Harel said.
The International Federation of Journalists Friday called on U.S. authorities to conduct a full investigation into the allegations that troops beat the reporters — a move that Pentagon spokesman Lapan said was indeed in the making.
“If true, this maltreatment of journalists is a grave violation of journalists’ rights. This incident must be investigated and those responsible brought to justice,” said the IFJ in a statement Friday evening.
The Brussels-based organization identified the Portuguese reporter as Louis de Castro of Radio Television Portugal.
P. Mitchell Prothero reported from Washington and Joshua Brilliant from Tel Aviv, Israel. Pam Hess also contributed to this report from the Pentagon in Washington.
Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.