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Seven journalists unaccounted for, three others abused

(CPJ/IFEX) - New York, March 10, 2011 - At least seven journalists covering the conflict in Libya are unaccounted for, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which expressed deep concern today about their well-being. The most recent to go missing is Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a correspondent for London's Guardian newspaper, whose disappearance was reported today.

Also, on Wednesday, three BBC journalists recounted a harrowing 21 hours in the custody of Libyan military and security forces this week, during which they were subjected to physical assault and psychological torment. The three, along with their driver, were detained at a checkpoint in Al-Zahra, south of the contested city of Zawiya.

"The abuse inflicted on international journalists raises serious concern about the welfare of Libyan journalists unaccounted for since the start of the conflict," said CPJ's Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. "We call on Colonel Qaddafi's government to release all detained journalists immediately, and to allow the media to work freely."

Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi who is an award-winning war reporter, was last known to be on the outskirts of the coastal city of Zawiya, where there has been heavy fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi. "The Guardian has been in contact with Libyan government officials in Tripoli and London and requested them to act urgently to discover where he is, if he is safe and well, and to establish if he is in the custody of the authorities," the paper said in a story on its website today. Abdul-Ahad has reported from a number of conflict zones, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan. The Guardian said Abdul-Ahad was last in touch with the paper through a third party on Sunday.

Andrei Netto, a reporter for Brazil's O Estado de S. Paolo, was released today to the Brazilian ambassador in Tripoli after being jailed for eight days in the city of Sabrata, O Estado reported on its website. O Estado said Netto, who had been held by troops loyal to Qaddafi, was in good health but was told to leave Libya on Friday.

The whereabouts of at least six local journalists remained unclear today, CPJ research shows. Atef al-Atrash, a contributor to local news outlets, disappeared shortly after speaking on air on Al-Jazeera from Benghazi. Mohamed al-Sahim, a blogger and critical political writer; Mohamed al-Amin, a cartoonist; and Idris al-Mismar, a writer and former editor-in-chief of Arajin, a monthly culture magazine, have also been reported missing. Two Tripoli-based journalists – Salma al-Shaab, head of the Libyan Journalists Syndicate, and Suad al-Turabouls, a correspondent for the pro-government Al-Jamahiriya – were detained last month but are now unaccounted for.

Three BBC journalists – reporter Feras Killani, cameraman Goktay Koraltan, and producer Chris Cobb-Smith – were released on Tuesday after 21 hours of abuse that included beatings and mock executions, according to news reports. Killani told the BBC: "They were kicking and punching me, four or five men. I went down on to my knees. They attacked me as soon as I got out of the car. They knocked me down to the ground with their guns, AK47s. I was down on my knees and I heard them cocking their guns. I thought they were going to shoot me." He said he was later beaten severely and accused of being a spy. Cobb-Smith described a mock execution: "A man with a small submachine gun was putting it to the nape of everyone's neck in turn. He pointed the barrel at each of us. When he got to me at the end of the line, he pulled the trigger twice. The shots went past my ear." Cobb-Smith managed to place a call to the BBC with a phone that had not been discovered by security agents.

The International News Safety Institute issued a safety advisory today saying that journalists traveling to Zawiya are being obstructed. "Journalists have been detained at checkpoints on the edge of Zawiya and their equipment has been destroyed. Attempting to get in to Zawiya is extremely risky," the institute said on its website.

Since Libya's political unrest erupted last month, CPJ has documented at least 12 detentions, four assaults, two attacks on news facilities, the jamming of Al-Jazeera and Al-Hurra transmissions, and the interruption of Internet service. Numerous journalists have also reported the confiscation of equipment.
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