In Iraq, journalists tread warily

Foreign journalists in Baghdad who expected to be terrified by bombs say they have discovered an even more frightening prospect following the disappearance of four of their colleagues last week.

All four - two reporters from Long Island-based Newsday and two freelance photographers - sent word Tuesday that they were safe, and were crossing over the Iraqi border to Jordan.

Newsday correspondent Matthew McAllester and photographer Moises Saman had been out of contact since March 24, when they e-mailed the Long Island, N.Y.-based newspaper from Baghdad to say they would be filing material.

Molly Bingham, a freelance photographer based in Louisville, Ky., called her family Tuesday to report that she, too, was safely out of Iraq.

Also leaving the country was Danish freelance photographer Johan Rydeng Spanner, according to Abi Wright, a spokeswoman for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Coming after the four were apparently taken from their hotel rooms by Iraqi security officials eight days ago, the group's release was the source of much relief for relatives and co-workers. But their detainment was a sobering reminder of the potential dangers facing reporters working in the heart of a war zone.

"People are being incredibly cautious," says Craig Nelson, a reporter with Cox News Service in Baghdad. "They know they are walking on eggshells and could be expelled at a moment's notice for the slightest infraction."

Western journalists in Baghdad suggest the four missing reporters may have been arrested because they entered the country on nonjournalist visas.

Mr. McAllester and Mr. Saman had procured the type of visa issued by the government to volunteer "human shields," say colleagues in Baghdad.

Ms. Bingham was on a tourist visa, according to her companion, freelance writer Nate Thayer, who was also traveling as a tourist before being expelled from Iraq Saturday.

Newsday's Mr. McAllester and Mr. Saman had acquired journalistic credentials from the Iraqi Ministry of Information the weekend before their disappearance, according to Newsday managing editor Charlotte Hall.

Iraqi officials say some 350 foreign reporters, including 16 Americans, remaine in Baghdad to cover the war from the Iraqi side. Iraqi ministers give daily press conferences to present their version of events.

Otherwise, however, the government has tightly restricted the movement of reporters herded into the Palestine Hotel, near the banks of the Tigris river, a 17-story, French-built building that "was probably fine in its day," says Lindsey Hilsum, diplomatic correspondent for Britain's Channel 4 News who has been in Baghdad for the past two months.

"It is not necessarily what you would choose for a summer holiday, but it is perfectly adequate," she says. Staffed by friendly Sudanese, the hotel serves food that at least some of the hotel guests are eating, she says, though others rely on canned foodstuffs they had stored before hostilities began and fresh vegetables fetched by drivers.

Since the war started, Western reporters have been allowed out of the hotel only on bus trips organized by the Ministry of Information. The Iraqi officials who accompany them - described by their wards as "minders" and by the Iraqi government as "guides" - "try their best to help," says Ms. Hilsum. "They are not spies trying to stop us working."

Correspondents in Baghdad do not have to submit their copy or scripts to government censors, but many of them know their articles and TV reports are being monitored by the authorities. The main constraint, however, is the lack of freedom to move about. "The restrictions on our movement are so great that I don't know what I am not able to report," Hilsum points out.

The persistent heavy bombing of the Iraqi capital, she says, is less frightening than she had expected, though sometimes her hotel does shake. "Like most Iraqis, we have got used to things that go bang in the night, but most of the bombing is not that close to us, and I slept through it last night."

But with US and British troops closing in on the capital, and Baghdadis growing increasingly angry at civilian deaths, "the mood on the streets is changing," says Mr. Thayer. "If you have an American or a British passport it is not a good thing."

To pass the time, and to restore his composure, Mr. Nelson says he is reading a biography of Saddam Hussein and listening to Miles Davis and Bob Dylan. Hilsum listens to the "Maestro" classical music channel on her digital radio for an hour a day. To stay informed, she uses the radio's crystal clear reception to tune in to the BBC World Service and the CNN International soundtrack. When she can, she reads W. H. Auden's poetry.

Despite the rigors and dangers of life in a war zone, she says she is happy she stayed in Baghdad after other reporters either left of their own accord or followed editors' orders to leave the city before the war began.

"This is the heart of the story," she says. "We can't report everything we want to, but this is what the story is about and I've spent lots of time and energy preparing for it."

With the roads to Jordan and Damascus subject to US and British bombardment, and controlled at different points by Iraqi and US troops, "I've told my editors who want me to leave that it's safer to be holed up here with 350 foreign journalists than to be on the roads," says Nelson.

But, like many of her colleagues, Hilsum worries about the prospect of house-to-house fighting in Baghdad.

"It would be very difficult to leave then," she says. "At the moment, the regime wants us to be here and feels an obligation to keep us safe if our papers are in order. But if street-fighting broke out, some of that might crumble. That is when we will have to be most careful."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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