Matthew VanDyke
Matthew VanDyke

Journalist missing in Libya; 1 killed in Iraq

New York, April 8, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about the fate of American freelance journalist Matthew VanDyke, who has been missing in Libya since mid-March, according to his family and news reports. He is among 15 reporters either missing or in government custody in Libya.

VanDyke arrived in Libya on March 6 via the country’s eastern land border with Egypt, and has not spoken to his family since March 12, his mother, Sharon VanDyke, told CPJ. On March 13, she received a GPS tracking email from him; the coordinates correspond roughly to the location of the Libyan city of Brega. VanDyke has not been heard from since. On April 4, Nouri Fonas, a Libyan friend of VanDyke’s contacted his mother and informed her that her son was believed to have been captured along with three Libyan friends on March 13 or 14 near Brega by forces loyal to leader Muammar Qaddafi, the mother told CPJ. They were later transported, along with more than 1,000 Libyan civilians to Surt, a Qaddafi stronghold, according to Fonas.

On Thursday, pro-Qaddafi forces detained photographers Manuel Varela, Anton Hammerl, James Foley, and reporter Clare Morgana Gillis on the outskirts of the city of Brega. The Global Post, for which Foley was reporting, confirmed to CPJ late on Thursday that all four journalists were in government custody.

At least six local journalists who spoke critically of government policies are unaccounted for amid wide speculation that they are in the custody of Qaddafi forces. On March 28, Libyan security forces detained Rana al-Akbani, a reporter for the arts and culture section of the Libyan daily Al-Shams, a friend of hers told CPJ on the condition of anonymity. Libyan authorities are also holding Al-Jazeera journalists Ahmed Vall Ould Addin, Kamel Atalua, and Ammar al-Hamdan.

“We are deeply concerned for the safety of Matthew VanDyke,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “We call on the authorities in Tripoli to make clear whether they are holding him and to do all in their power to ensure his safe release.”

Anti-press attacks were reported elsewhere in the region:

In Iraq, the director of a satellite news channel was killed today. CPJ has also documented press freedom violations in Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, and Syria.

CNN reported that Taha Hameed, director of the Iraqi satellite news channel al-Massar TV, which is affiliated with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, was killed today in southern Baghdad. Hameed was traveling with human rights activist Abed Farhan Thiyab, when unknown gunmen shot them dead in their car, CNN said. At least three other journalists have been killed in Iraq since March, CPJ research shows.

Also in Iraq, Saad al-Aossi, editor-in-chief of the critical weekly Al-Shahid was moved from al-Rasafa Prison in southeastern Baghdad on March 24 to an unknown location, the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported. Al-Aossi was taken from his home in central Baghdad in April 2010 by unknown armed men. Various news sources have described the men as part a special security force attached to the prime minister’s office.

In Yemen, security forces arrested Mansour al-Samdy, a reporter for the state-owned daily Al-Thawra, on Thursday after raiding his Sana’a home, according to domestic news reports. Local journalists told CPJ that al-Samdy called the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate to say that he was being held at the Interior Ministry and that his phone was about to be confiscated. He has not been heard from since. The syndicate said in a statement that the Interior Ministry denied holding him. On March 31, Abdel Ghani al-Shamiri, former head of the news division at Yemeni state television, was taken from his home by national security officers in plainclothes; he was released the following day, local journalists told CPJ.

Syrian authorities arrested Al-Arabiya correspondent Mohamed Zayd Mastou on Thursday, the Dubai-based news station said. Mastou, a Syrian national who lives in Norway, went to Syria to cover the protests that began on March 15. Authorities gave no reason for his arrest, Al-Arabiya said. The Damascus suburb of Douma and the southern city of Daraa have both witnessed extensive social unrest in recent days, with mobile phone lines, and some landlines, disabled since Wednesday, CPJ research shows. Syrian blogger Ahmad Hadifa, who was detained on March 24 in Damascus, remains in state custody and has not been heard from, Syrian bloggers told CPJ.

In Bahrain, Mohammed al-Maskati, who was detained on March 31, was released today, according to a message he posted on his Twitter feed. Prominent Bahraini blogger Mahmood al-Yousif, who was detained on March 30, was released on April 1, Agence France-Presse reported.

In Sudan on Wednesday, security forces confiscated the entire print run of the pro-opposition daily Ajras al-Huriya, the paper’s deputy editor-in-chief, Faiz al-Silaik, told Reuters. He said the confiscation was likely caused by the paper’s coverage of a recent air strike in Port Sudan that killed two people. On Tuesday, security forces also confiscated all copies of Al-Midan, Abdelgadir Mohammed Abdelgadir, a journalist at the pro-opposition weekly, told CPJ. The confiscated issue contained materials on the anniversary of the April 6, 1985, bloodless coup that ousted former President Gaafar Nimeiry from power. Abdelgadir also told CPJ that four Al-Midan employees detained in February, after the newspaper covered pro-reform protests, were released on March 6. They were held incommunicado for 32 days and no charges were ever leveled against them.

On Tuesday, an Egyptian military court postponed its verdict in the case against blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad until April 10, according to local news reports. Sanad was arrested on March 28, likely in connection with a recent article in which he criticized the military’s performance. The blogger was charged with “insulting the army,” the state-owned Al-Ahram‘s website reported. If convicted, Sanad faces up to three years in prison, lawyers and human rights activists told CPJ.

“Arresting a blogger for his writings and trying him in a military court makes a mockery of the sacrifices made by millions of Egyptians during their revolution, in part to end precisely those types of arbitrary practices,” said CPJ’s Abdel Dayem.