Monday, May 16, 2011

Turkey’s rescue of a reporter

Be it covering earthquake and radiation-hit Japan or the conflict-ridden Middle East and Maghreb, reporters have one of the toughest jobs. Each of these situations has its own peculiar risks, and it is in each such case that a tough call awaits editors.

One of the nastiest conflicts that has been raging for a while is in Libya. It is a civil war, with an uncertain outcome. The conditions have raised the sensitivities of the international community and put challenges on diplomacy. Journalism in this kind of environment is a sort of daredevil act. When one hears that four journalists -- all affiliated with The New York Times -- have been missing for three days, one should be very concerned.

Under such circumstances, good news about the journalists’ fate does not come easily. Some reporters have recently experienced staying at a Libyan jail. One of them was Andrei Netto, a Brazilian correspondent for a Sao Paulo daily. Netto was “arrested” by forces loyal to Gaddafi in Sabratha, a town on the coast, two weeks ago and was moved to a prison outside the capital, Tripoli. He was, after the intervention of the Brazilian authorities, released a week ago.

But, his colleague Ghaith Abdul el-Ahad, who was captured together with him, was not.

Ghaith was covering the conflict for the Guardian. He had entered Libya from Tunisia. The reason he was kept in the prison after the release of Netto was not known. He was not a Brit, but an Iraqi citizen; possibly those who captured him and sent to prison might have thought that he was an agent of some sort.

The person they had picked up was, actually, a highly respected correspondent who has written for the Guardian since 2004. As a Guardian story noted yesterday: “Ghaith has reported from Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, telling the stories of ordinary people in times of conflict. He has won many of the most prestigious awards available to foreign correspondents, including foreign reporter of the year at the British Press Awards, the James Cameron award and the Martha Gellhorn prize.”

The efforts to rescue him did not produce any results. At that stage, five days ago, I had a conversation with Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, who wondered if Ankara, which these days looks after British interests in Libya, would be of any help at all. We shared grave concerns about Ghaith’s conditions.

From the next day on, both the Turkish Presidency and the Prime Ministry took action. In both offices, officials took the request very seriously, and engaged in very delicate diplomacy, through different channels in Tripoli, to have Ghaith released. The efforts, I am told, were intense.

After two days of silence, I received a late night e-mail from Rusbridger on Tuesday night, expressing strong hope. We crossed our fingers and waited.

On Wednesday evening, when I saw the tweet of the BBC on the release of our colleague, all I felt was a great relief.

I expressed my gratitude to all the people who understood fully the value of the free journalism, the gravity of a captured reporter in a conflict and who -- using the soft, friendly power of Turkey -- contributed to his departure to freedom and safety. Their names will not be mentioned for saving lives, but they know what they have done. I again repeat here my thanks to President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan for their firm commitment to the cause. The result shows how important it is that Turkey today “counts” in conflict resolutions.

Now, it is also time to wish for the best for four others, who are missing. Those are colleagues who work for The New York Times: Anthony Shadid, the Beirut bureau chief and twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting; Stephen Farrell, a reporter and videographer who was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2009 and rescued by British commandos; and two photographers, Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario, who have worked extensively in the Middle East and Africa. Some more good news will not hurt, not at all.

18 March 2011

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