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WAR WITH IRAQ / COVERING THE CONFLICT

Two N.Y. Journalists in Baghdad Missing for a Week

Newsday says Iraq may be detaining the pair. Whereabouts of seven others also unknown.

March 31, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Editors at Newsday voiced growing concern Sunday over the fate of two journalists who have not been heard from since they were reportedly taken from their Baghdad hotel room last week for questioning by Iraqi security officials.

"We're not leaving any stone unturned; we're exploring every possible channel we can at this point," said Les Payne, deputy managing editor, adding that the Long Island newspaper has made repeated inquiries to Iraqi officials about the whereabouts of correspondent Matthew McAllester and photographer Moises Saman.

The men were last seen March 24 at the Palestine International Hotel.

Because of accounts from other journalists, who saw Iraqi security questioning other Western journalists at the hotel, Payne said Newsday "has every reason to believe" that McAllester and Saman are "being detained by government officials. We want to determine if they're still in Baghdad or Iraq, and how we can get them safe passage out of there."

McAllester and Saman are two of nine journalists believed to be missing in Iraq. The others include Molly Bingham, a former official photographer for Vice President Al Gore, and Johann Spanner, a Danish photographer -- both of whom disappeared from the Palestine International Hotel the same night as the Newsday journalists. The remaining five are British TV cameraman Fred Nerac and translator Hussein Osman, and three journalists from Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language television station in Dubai.

Seven Italian journalists who had been reported missing for several days surfaced Saturday in Baghdad after being detained and questioned by Iraqi security officials in Basra, according to Italian newspaper accounts. The reporters said they had been well treated while in custody.

Newsday, which is owned by Tribune Co., publisher of the Los Angeles Times, learned of its journalists' disappearance after they failed to file a news story and photographs as planned on the evening of March 24. Other reporters found McAllester and Saman's hotel room empty the next morning.

Newsday editors said they have been told that security police had been questioning others about the two journalists. Although McAllester and Saman entered Iraq with limited tourist visas on Feb. 24, Payne said they later obtained longer-term journalist visas and were known to Iraqi officials as working journalists.

"Mr. McAllester and Mr. Saman were in Baghdad for only one purpose -- to report the news for Newsday," Editor Anthony Marro said Saturday, adding that the newspaper learned "at first that this was over an issue of visas."

He said both men "have worked for us for years and are both terrific journalists. We appeal to Iraqi officials to explain their whereabouts, to allow us to contact them directly and to arrange their safe passage out of Iraq."

Newsday reported that Iraqi officials at the United Nations have said that they want to help the newspaper determine the journalists' whereabouts, but that "telecommunications disruptions" in Baghdad have slowed their attempts to get more information.

The newspaper has sought help from William Murphy, the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, who has asked the papal nuncio in Baghdad to intercede on behalf of the two journalists. The paper has also been assisted by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy organization, and has been in touch with the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and other journalists, Payne added. The families of McAllester and Saman have asked the Rev. Jesse Jackson to help and he has agreed to do so, Newsday reported Sunday.

McAllester, 33, is a British citizen who moved to the United States. He is Newsday's United Nations bureau chief and recently completed a four-year stint as its Middle East bureau chief.

Saman, 29, a native of Lima, Peru, grew up in Barcelona, Spain. He studied photography at Cal State Fullerton and was teamed with McAllester to cover the Afghan war that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The mystery over McAllester and Saman's whereabouts gets more disturbing by the day because "it doesn't make sense if all this time has gone by and they were detained for a visa infraction," said Joel Simon, acting director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "That's a pretty minor bureaucratic issue. The more time passes, the more our concern grows."

Friends and family have voiced similar concerns over Bingham, 34. Several reports over the weekend that she had left Iraq could not be confirmed.

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