CPJ: The world calls for the release of Daniele Mastrogiacomo

New York, March 13, 2007—Amid a growing public outcry more than a week after the abduction of La Repubblica journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo and two Afghan assistants, the Committee to Protect Journalists again adds its voice to the global call for their release.

Mastrogiacomo, a journalist with 27 years of experience who was on assignment for the Italian daily, was abducted in southern Afghanistan. He was apparently taken sometime on or after March 4, when he last contacted editors. A Taliban military group is believed to be holding him and two assistants, Sayed Agha and a man identified only as Ajmal. Helmand, the province where they were was seized, is in the midst of the heaviest round of fighting between U.S., NATO, and Taliban forces since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.

“We call on those holding our colleague Daniele Mastrogiacomo and his assistants to arrange for his immediate and safe release,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Journalists cannot be used as pawns to be traded for political goals. Their role must be respected by all sides in the conflict.”

The Italian government has confirmed media reports from Pakistan and Afghanistan that say Mastrogiacomo is believed to be alive. Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema told reporters in Rome that the government had opened “humanitarian” channels with Mastrogiacomo’s captors. “You cannot talk about true and outright negotiations. But there are contacts to create the conditions to win the Italian reporter’s release,” D’Alema said.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi told Italian television interviewers that “we know who has Daniele Mastrogiacomo, but we have no idea what their demands are.” He said Italian troops will not be withdrawn from Afghanistan and, in fact, would increase in number as part of the conflict there.

Agence France-Presse reported from Islamabad that it had contacted Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi by telephone at an unknown location. Ahmadi reportedly said that Mastrogiacomo “is in good health and is being kept in a Taliban base. We have been in indirect contact with the Italians.”

The Taliban, speaking to journalists through several spokesmen, have offered different versions of Mastrogiacomo’s captivity and prospects for release. They have said they are investigating whether the reporter was a spy (an accusation categorically denied by his colleagues); they have called for the withdrawal of Italian troops operating with NATO forces in the country; and they offered to exchange Mastrogiacomo for two Taliban detained by Afghan authorities.

Mastrogiacomo’s kidnapping has generated messages of support from around the world. More than 30 Afghan journalists signed a petition circulated by the independent Pajhwok Afghan News calling for Mastrogiacomo’s release.

The leader of Pakistan’s six-party Islamist alliance, Maulana Samiul Haq, has also appealed for Mastrogiacomo’s release. “International journalists have the right to interact with all groups including the Taliban,” Samiul Haq said in an interview with Adnkronos International news agency.

The secretary general of the Islamic Cultural Centre and Mosque in Rome, Abdellah Redouane, made an appeal for Mastrogiacomo’s release following Friday prayers on March 9.

La Repubblica, where Mastrogiacomo has worked since 2002 as a staff correspondent in Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, and Iraq, has posted Web pages in English and Italian.with more than 50,000 signatures calling for his release. The pages have a downloadable picture of Mastrogiacomo with a call for his release in English and Arabic.