Conflict & Justice

Journalists held in Libya may be released this week


Journalist James Foley reporting for GlobalPost from Benghazi, Libya in mid-March. Foley, along with three other foreign journalists, was detained by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on April 5.

BOSTON — Several foreign journalists detained by the Libyan government could be released this week, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Mousa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Libyan government, told the Associated press that three of those reporters were GlobalPost correspondent James Foley, Clare Morgana Gillis, who has written for The Atlantic and USA Today, and Manuel Varela, a Spanish photographer who works under the name Manu Brabo.

Ibrahim told the Associated Press that all three had appeared before an administrative court judge in the Libyan capital of Tripoli on Tueday and may be released as early as this afternoon. Ibrahim said that the journalists were charged with "entering the country illegally," presumably for not obtaining visas, and that arrangements were being made for them to be deported.

All three were taken together on April 5 by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi while they were reporting on the outskirts of Brega, the eastern oil town that has seen some of the worst fighting since the conflict began. A fourth journalist, South African Anton Hammerl, had also been with them at the time. But his whereabouts remain unknown.

Foley, Gillis and Brabo have been held in Tripoli now for six weeks and have been allowed only minimal communication with anyone outside of the Libyan government. Their first visit by an intermediary came more than a month after they were first captured. That intermediary told GlobalPost at the time that all three appeared to be in good condition and being treated well. Sources told GlobalPost that the three journalists have been allowed another visit more recently.

The comments from Ibrahim are the strongest indication yet that their release might finally be imminent after more than a month of conflicting reports coming out of Tripoli. As the days have stretched into weeks, and the conflict has grown more chaotic, so too have concerns for their well-being.

Ibrahim told the Associated Press on Monday that their release was partly delayed because of a NATO airstrike that damaged offices belonging to the Justice Ministry.

Their situation was also complicated earlier this month when the Turkish government, which had been one of the only channels of communication with the Libyan government, closed its embassy in Tripoli and called for Gaddafi to step down. It was Turkish diplomats in Tripoli who managed to secure the release of four New York Times journalists detained in March.

As the detention of Foley and Gillis, who are both Americans, dragged on, international organizations, and their families, have stepped up an effort to pressure the Libyan government to release them.

“The first instinct of tyrants is to shut down a free press, squelching opposition and oversight,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “Throwing reporters and photographers in jail because of — or to prevent them from completing — their work is an unacceptable, dangerous and ultimately ineffective means of stifling dissent."

Foley’s friends and family have been holding regular vigils and rallies to draw attention to Foley’s detention, most recently one in New York City on Sunday that was attended by both David Rhode, a New York Times journalist who was held captive by the Taliban in 2009 for seven months, and Tyler Hicks, who was one of the New York Times journalists captured by Gaddafi forces in March.

GlobalPost continues to work all the necessary and appropriate channels to secure the safe release of Foley, Gillis and Brabo. GlobalPost remains in close touch with The Atlantic, USA Today, the State Department and diplomats still working inside Libya, said GlobalPost CEO Philip Balboni.

“We appeal to the Libyan government and to Colonel Gaddafi to release our journalists as a humanitarian gesture and allow them to return to their families who have suffered greatly by their absence and by the uncertainty surrounding their release,” he said.

Human Rights Watch said that nine foreign journalists and six Libyan journalists are now believed to be detained or missing inside Libya.

Foley, who had been reporting on the Libyan rebel army for GlobalPost since the mid-March, called his mother at her home in New Hampshire on April 23. It was the first contact he had been allowed to make since he was first detained.

Foley told his mother that he was fine, that he felt strong and was not injured. He told her not to worry, that he was eating and drinking and had a decent bed, a blanket and a pillow. He stressed that he was being treated well and expressed his gratitude to the Libyan people.

During the phone call Foley said he had not seen Hammerl. Gillis, who was able to call home twice, also said she was being treated well.

“We love our son very much and we want and need him to be back safely here in New Hampshire," said his father, John Foley, during a press conference at the Foley home last month.

"We are so grateful to all those in this country and around the world who have worked for James’ freedom and that of his fellow journalists. We are praying for you, son, and for your swift return home.”

(Watch videos and read stories from James Foley in Libya and Afghanistan.)