DURHAM, NC – The National Press Photographers Association joins with the Committee To Protect Journalists, the Reuters News Agency and other media and press freedom organizations in urging the United States military to explain immediately why it is holding in custody Iraqi photojournalist Ali Omar Abrahem al-Mashhadani, a freelance photojournalist who works for Reuters, and to provide full details surrounding the shooting of Reuters journalists Haider Kadhem, 24, and soundman Waleed Khaled, 35, who died from his wounds.
Just this morning the U.S. military released Haider Kadhem after he was held by American troops in a secret location for three days following the shooting that killed Khaled. The military said he was being questioned about "inconsistencies" in his statements after he was taken from the car in which Khaled died. Kadhem suffered wounds from flying fragments, they said.
Khaled was buried on Monday. He was shot several times in the chest and at least once in the head while driving his car, an ordinary passenger vehicle, on assignment to a reported clash between armed men and police in Western Baghdad on August 28. Khaled was the fourth Reuters journalist killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Two are known to have been killed by American fire.
Reuters photojournalist al-Mashhadani is still being held more than two weeks after his arrest. Reuters reports today that a “secret tribunal” has ordered him held, without charges, in Baghdad’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison for up to 6 months when his case may be reviewed again.
Reuters quotes a military spokesperson who said the tribunal decided that the photojournalist is, in their opinion, "a threat to the people of Iraq." Reuters says the military will not tell them why the photojournalist is being held and has refused all requests to detail their suspicions about Mashhadani, or to make any specific accusations. The military response to a demand for his release is that he’s “a security detainee with links to insurgents.”
“Reuters is extremely concerned by this development and is calling for the U.S. military to release al-Mashhadani or to publicly air their case against him,” Stephen Naru, the global head of media relations for Reuters, told NPPA this morning.
Additionally, the U.S. military has confirmed that five journalists for major news organizations are now in detention, including al-Mashhadani and another freelance photojournalist who works for Reuters, as well as a CBS cameraman.
Reuters journalist al-Mashhadani was arrested by U.S. troops on August 8 after a search of his Ramadi, Iraq, home; the military has refused to say why he is being held and there are no charges against him. His brother was detained with him and then released, and he says al-Mashhadani was arrested after they looked at images on his cameras.
“I am shocked and appalled that such a decision could be taken without his having access to legal counsel of his choosing, his family, or his employers,” Reuters global managing editor David Schlesinger said after today’s developments. “I call on the authorities to release him immediately or publicly air the case against him and give him the opportunity to defend himself.”
“We’re extremely concerned when someone like al-Mashhadani, an accredited photojournalist working for a global news agency, can be held incommunicado since his arrest many days ago and simply held without any explanation,” NPPA president Alicia Wagner Calzada said today. NPPA, founded in 1946 and based in Durham, NC, is an organization of nearly 10,000 photojournalists that is dedicated to the advancement of photojournalism and to insuring that journalists’ rights, granted under the First Amendment, are upheld.
“Also of grave concern to us are reports from his family that Marines arrested him after finding video and still images during a routine sweep of his neighborhood,” Calzada said. “Reuters says they have provided U.S. officials with samples of Mashhadani's published work to help establish that the video and still images on his cameras and computers that were found during the search were gathered in the course of his employment. We are disturbed by the appearance that the U.S. military is engaged in summarily arresting journalists in Iraq for simply being journalists, and that a photojournalist would be considered a threat for merely possessing newsworthy images.
“The U.S. government would do well to remember that a true democracy in Iraq cannot flourish without a free press,” said Calzada. “We are not asking that journalists receive special treatment, only that they aren’t targeted as a result of their work.”
Many Iraqi journalists have worked as freelancers for international news agencies covering the war in Iraq, and they have found it possible to cover stories in places that are inaccessible to most foreign journalists or just too dangerous for non-Arabs. The Associated Press won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for their coverage of the Iraqi war by a team of photographers made up mostly of Iraqi photojournalists. Iraqi photojournalist Khalid Mohammed shot the AP’s landmark image of Iraqis chanting anti-American slogans while the charred bodies of four U.S. contractors were hanged from a bridge over the Euphrates River in Fallujah in March, 2004.
“This action (the detention of Mashhadani) and others like it may indeed have a chilling effect on the coverage of the war,” Calzada said, “if Iraqi journalists are now being targeted and detained by U.S. troops, and even shot.”
The military is still investigating the arrest and detention last year of four Iraqi journalists, including three working for Reuters and one working for NBC. According to Reuters, the four reported that they were sexually and physically abused by U.S. soldiers for three days before being released. Last November, two other photojournalists working for Reuters were killed by U.S. forces along with another photographer, also based in Ramadi, during fighting between Marines and insurgents. There’s also a report that eight Iraqi journalists, including some working for CBS and Agence France-Presse, were detained in May by the military without any further explanation.
“It is more than ironic that the same troops who are fighting and dying so that the Iraqi people can have a democratic form of government, complete with its own constitution, infringe on the basic First Amendment and due process rights under the catch-all phrase that these journalists posed a ‘security risk to the Iraqi people and coalition forces,’” Calzada said.