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Journalists under attack as fighting continues

Jomana Karadsheh and Matthew Chance from CNN are evacuated by the International Red Cross from Rixos Hotel in Tripoli on 24 August
Jomana Karadsheh and Matthew Chance from CNN are evacuated by the International Red Cross from Rixos Hotel in Tripoli on 24 August

Paul Hackett/REUTERS

Four Italian journalists who were kidnapped in Libya were released last week, but the fate of both foreign and local journalists - including six Libyan reporters missing since the uprising started in February - remains up in the air as fighting rages on in Tripoli, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

"The events of the past week show how dangerous Libya remains for all journalists," said CPJ. "We hope that as the hostilities subside, the whereabouts of the Libyan journalists who are still missing become clear."

Atef al-Atrash, a contributor to local news outlets in Benghazi, Mohamed al-Sahim, a blogger and critical political writer, cartoonist Mohamed al-Amin, and Idris al-Mismar, a writer and the former editor-in-chief of "Arajin", a monthly culture magazine, have 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 in late February, but have not been heard from since.

The four Italian journalists had been captured by forces loyal to Gaddafi on 24 August and were released a day later after a raid on the apartment where they were being held captive, report CPJ, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Their Libyan driver was killed in front of them. According to RSF, they said they were roughed up and their equipment and material was confiscated.

RSF reports that their abduction came on the eve of a visit to Italy by Mahmoud Jibril, the second in command in Libya's National Transitional Council, who was due to meet with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The council has been recognised by many countries as Libya's provisional government.

The same day, Matthew VanDyke, a U.S. journalist who had been missing in Libya since 13 March, was freed from Abu Salim prison in Tripoli with several inmates after the prison was seized by rebel forces, reports CPJ. His mother told CPJ that he had been held in solitary confinement for most of his imprisonment.

Earlier this month, Tracey Shelton, a freelance Australian journalist was brutally attacked by two armed men in her Benghazi hotel room, but escaped by jumping to a nearby balcony, said CPJ. She is recovering in another Benghazi hotel, with rebels protecting her.

Also in August, about 35 foreign journalists mainly from the U.S and U.K. were held hostage in Tripoli's Rixos Hotel for five days, report CPJ and RSF. CNN's Matthew Chance said the journalists negotiated with armed guards to win their release.

Journalists in the hotel said that snipers were positioned around the property where pro-Gaddafi forces were still operating. According to RSF, they had little access to food and frequent cuts to the power and water supply.

A video from the "Guardian" shows reporters and photojournalists trapped inside.

Journalists who had passed through the Rixos in the past six months said they feared becoming human shields for the regime in the event of a rebel assault, said the "Guardian". Regime officials have regularly accused foreign journalists of being spies and passing information to NATO and rebel forces.

With Gaddafi forces refusing to surrender, journalists continue to be in the firing line. Two French journalists, Paris Match photographer Alvaro Canovas and France 2 cameraman Bruno Girodon, sustained gunshot wounds while covering the fighting around Gaddafi's Bab al-Azizya compound in Tripoli last week, report RSF and CPJ.

A Russian journalist, Orkhan Djamal of the daily "Izvestia", sustained a leg injury during fighting in Tripoli on 22 August, reports RSF.

CPJ and RSF are urging all the parties involved to ensure the safety of journalists in Libya.

ARTICLE 19 is calling on the council to guarantee the right to free expression in the interim Constitutional Charter, in line with international human rights law and standards.

"The absence of freedom of expression under the Gaddafi government led to widespread and systematic human rights violations, and the Transitional National Council has a duty to the people of Libya not to repeat this," said ARTICLE 19.

On the ground there's hope. In Benghazi, which was taken over by rebels in February, young activists are "using every means possible to express themselves," said Shahira Amin, a Libyan journalist and TV anchor who resigned her post as deputy head of state-run Nile TV in February, writing for Index on Censorship.

"The graffiti on the walls, the launch of new radio stations and Internet TV channels, the public debates about their future, the increased volunteerism and political activism are all manifestations of their newfound freedom," she said - signs that Libyans are forging ahead with building a new, democratic Libya.

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