New York, August 26, 2004—Iraqi police, some masked and firing weapons, threatened and detained dozens of journalists Wednesday night at a hotel in the southern city of Najaf, where U.S. forces have battled with Shiite insurgents for several weeks. The Committee to Protect Journalists is outraged by this “thuggery,” Executive Director Ann Cooper said today.
Police stormed the Bahr Najaf Hotel, which housed a large contingent of international media, according to CPJ sources and international press reports. The Knight Ridder news service reported that police, some wearing ski masks, fired shots and detained some 60 journalists.
Knight Ridder quoted one of the officers shouting, “All the journalists, out now or we’ll kill you!”‘ as the man kicked doors and pulled reporters out of rooms. The journalists were transported in flatbed trucks to a local police station where they were held for an hour, Knight Ridder reported. None were charged.
The journalists were told by Iraqi police that they had been detained in response to a report broadcast by the Dubai-based satellite news channel Al-Arabiyya saying that senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani was to arrive in Najaf to lead a demonstration. Police claimed the report caught them off guard, caused disruption in Najaf, and incited violence, Knight Ridder reported.
Journalists from Knight Ridder, the Getty photo agency, and the BBC were among those detained, sources told CPJ. Journalists told CPJ that police confiscated some reporters’ satellite phones and computer equipment. It is unclear how many journalists now remain at the hotel in Najaf.
“We call on the interim government to put a stop to this thuggery,” CPJ’s Cooper said. “The Iraqi government seems to take the position it has the right to suppress any reporting it finds objectionable. These actions belie the government’s stated support for press freedom.”
CPJ is also investigating reports that five Al-Arabiyya employees were briefly detained by Iraqi police in a separate incident Wednesday after airing a news item that U.S. missiles had landed near the Imam Ali shrine.
In an earlier incident on August 15, local Iraqi authorities in Najaf ordered all journalists to leave the city within two hours, citing concerns for their safety. Police subsequently visited the Bahr Najaf hotel on two occasions and ordered journalists to leave or face arrest. That same day in front of the Najaf governor’s office, a plainclothes security officer warned journalists to leave in two hours or they would be “shot.”
And on August 7, the interim government barred Al-Jazeera from working in Iraq for 30 days, accusing the station of incitement to violence and hatred.