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Journalists' detention in Libya drags on

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Journalists' detention in Libya drags on

Four reporters have been held for more than a month

  • Journalist James Foley reports for GlobalPost from Benghazi, Libya in mid-March. Foley, along with three other foreign journalists, was detained by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on April 5.
    GlobalPostJournalist James Foley reports for GlobalPost from Benghazi, Libya in mid-March. Foley, along with three other foreign journalists, was detained by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on April 5.

BOSTON — In more than a month of captivity, two American journalists detained in Tripoli have been allowed only a single visit.

Although an intermediary visited GlobalPost correspondent James Foley and Clare Morgana Gillis, who has written for USA Today and The Atlantic, where they are now being held in Tripoli, the two reporters remain in custody. The intermediary spoke to both of them and said they were in good health and were being treated well.

Foley and Gillis, together with Manuel Varela, a Spanish photographer who works under the name Manu Brabo and South African photographer Anton Hammerl, were picked up by Gaddafi forces on April 5 while reporting on the conflict near the eastern town of Brega. The intermediary said Gillis and Foley reported that Brabo was also in the same detention facility, but that they did not know the whereabouts of Hammerl.

International organizations have condemned the prolonged detention of the journalists by the government of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and have called for their immediate release.

“The first instinct of tyrants is to shut down a free press, squelching opposition and oversight,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “Throwing reporters and photographers in jail because of—or to prevent them from completing—their work is an unacceptable, dangerous and ultimately ineffective means of stifling dissent.

“We call on those nations holding journalists captive — including Americans Clare Morgana Gillis, James Foley and Matthew VanDyke in Libya — to release them from custody immediately. Similarly, we call on the leaders of nations that embrace a free press to take a stand against this outrage by encouraging the release of these brave men and women who willingly walk into the most dangerous places on earth to bring the news to their readers, viewers and listeners in all media,” Dalglish added.

Status uncertain

As the conflict between forces loyal to Gaddafi, an expanding rebel movement and international forces becomes increasingly murky, so too has the status of the four journalists.

In the month since the four were first detained, conflicting signals have repeatedly come from inside Tripoli. Spokesmen for the Libyan government had early on said the reporters would be released in a matter of days. But as days have stretched into weeks and now more than a month, concerns for their well being are growing.

Adding to the uncertainty is the recent decision by the Turkish government to close its embassy in Tripoli and to call on Gaddafi’s immediate removal from power. The Turks had been one of the only channels of communication with the Libyan government. It was Turkish diplomats in Tripoli who managed to secure the release of four New York Times journalists that were detained in March.

Foley’s friends and family have been holding regular vigils and r in support of the detained journalists and to call on others to join the growing chorus demanding their release.

GlobalPost continues to work all the necessary and appropriate channels to secure the safe release of Foley and Gillis. GlobalPost remains in close touch with The Atlantic, USA Today, the State Department and diplomats still working inside Libya, said GlobalPost CEO Philip Balboni.

“We appeal to the Libyan government and to Colonel Gaddafi to release our journalists as a humanitarian gesture and allow them to return to their families who have suffered greatly by their absence and by the uncertainty surrounding their release,” he said.

The United Nations also has added its voice. Following calls by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Human Rights Watch in April, U.N. investigators formally raised the case of the detained journalists with Libyan authorities on April 27.

U.N. delegation to probe issue

A three-person commission from the U.N. met Libyan officials to probe alleged human rights abuses, including "indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, civilian casualties, torture and the use of mercenaries," said Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian legal expert and member of the commission.

Bassiouni told Reuters he also would use the delegation's visit to Tripoli to raise the issue of foreign journalists—including Foley—being held in Libya.

At a press conference on April 21, Clinton demanded the release of all U.S. citizens who have been "unjustly" detained inside Libya. Human Rights Watch had also previously urged the Libyan government to release, or at least provide information about, all 15 of the journalists it believes are being detained inside the country.

"Libyan and foreign journalists are facing unlawful restrictions from the government, including incommunicado detention in Tripoli," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. "If the government has nothing to hide, then it should let the media do its work."

Human Rights Watch said that nine foreign journalists and six Libyan journalists are now detained or missing in Libya.

Foley, who had been reporting on the Libyan rebel army for GlobalPost since the mid-March, called his mother at her home in New Hampshire on April 23. It was the first contact he had been allowed to make since he was first detained.

Foley told his mother that he was fine, that he felt strong and was not injured. He told her not to worry, that he was eating and drinking and had a decent bed, a blanket and a pillow. He stressed that he was being treated well and expressed his gratitude to the Libyan people.

Although Foley said he had not seen South African photographer Anton Hammerl, who went missing at the same time, the South African government said it had received information from the Libyan authorities confirming that Hammerl is in good condition.

Gillis has been able to call her parents twice, raising hope that she might be released sooner than later. But those hopes have withered as the days passed. She also told her mother at the time that that she was being treated well.

Families don't lose hope

Eyewitnesses first saw the reporters being taken by Gaddafi forces outside Brega on April 5. But the Libyan government had previously not officially confirmed it was holding the two reporters and had not allowed them to make phone calls. And it was almost five weeks before a representative from outside the Libyan government was allowed to visit them in person.

As their children’s detention drags on, the families of Foley and Gillis have stepped up media campaigns that they hope will help speed their release.

“We love our son very much and we want and need him to be back safely here in New Hampshire," said his father, John Foley, during a press conference at the Foley home last month. "We are so grateful to all those in this country and around the world who have worked for James’ freedom and that of his fellow journalists. We are praying for you, son, and for your swift return home.”

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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