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Iraq: Hostage Situation Continues; Italy Asks Media To Show Restraint

The escape of American hostage Thomas Hamill from his Iraqi captors has refocused attention on those foreigners still being held hostage in Iraq. It has also shed light on how different governments are responding to hostage crises involving their citizens. In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has asked Italian broadcasters not to air any reports on three Italian hostages, saying such a move would put their lives in danger.

Prague, 5 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Thomas Hamill's daring escape from his Iraqi captors has been a rare piece of good news to come out of Iraq in recent weeks.

Hamill, a 43-year-old truck driver working for a U.S. company in Iraq, was recovered by U.S. forces on 2 May after he successfully escaped from a farmhouse where he had been held for nearly a month.

Speaking to journalists at a U.S. military hospital in Germany, Hamill urged the public to continue its support for the U.S.-led military forces in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

"I am very glad to be back on an American installation. I'm looking forward to returning to America. First and foremost, I would like to thank the American public for their support of all deployed in the Middle East. Please keep your thoughts and prayers with those who are still there," Hamill said.

Hamill -- an employee of Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), a subsidiary of the U.S. Halliburton Corporation -- was among seven American contractors who disappeared along with two U.S. soldiers when their convoy was attacked in the town of Abu Ghoreib.

The bodies of four of the contractors have since been found. Two are still missing.

One of the two soldiers -- Sergeant Elmer Krause -- has also been confirmed dead. No news has surfaced regarding the fate of the second, Keith Maupin, who was shown alive in video footage first broadcast on 16 April.

"The danger is for that suppression of news to become a habit." -- Ross Biddiscombe, London School of Journalism
The Abu Ghoreib attack was just one of many high-profile kidnappings aimed at civilian foreigners that swept through Iraq in April. Most of the hostages have since been released. At least two -- an Italian and a Dane -- have been killed.

In most instances, the kidnappers have demanded the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq, although it appears some hostage takers have demanded ransom.

At the height of the Iraq kidnapping wave, at least 16 foreigners were being held hostage. The current number of hostages in unclear; the latest tally puts the number at around eight.

Three of them are Italians, captured along with Fabrizio Quattrocchi, the security guard slain by their captors, a group calling itself the Mujahedin Brigades. The hostage takers have demanded that Italy withdraw its 2,700 troops from Iraq.

Two Canadian citizens are also believed to be held captive in Iraq. The latest was abducted on 3 May.

One Jordanian-born businessman, who was abducted in Al-Basrah on 12 April, has not been heard from since.

Several other hostage-taking cases have arisen in Iraq over the past month, but the kidnappers subsequently freed those abducted.

On 8 April, seven South Koreans were abducted but released later in the day.

On the same day, three Japanese were seized by captors demanding the withdrawal of Japanese troops. They were released on 17 April.

Seven Chinese nationals and three Czech journalists were kidnapped in separate attacks near Al-Fallujah on 11 April. All were subsequently released.

On 13 April, five Ukrainians and three Russian civilians were abducted near Baghdad, but released the next day.

The situation has highlighted the way different governments and national media have responded to the hostage crisis.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi this week asked Italian radio and television broadcasters not to broadcast stories about the three Italian hostages.

Berlusconi, who himself controls Italy's largest media empire, said some reports have been "unreliable and dangerous for the safety of the hostages."

In the United States, the CBS network has admitted to postponing for two weeks the broadcast of a report about U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

The decision followed a personal request from top U.S. military official General Richard Myers, who cited the safety of American hostages in Iraq as one of the reasons for his request.

Daniel Neep is an analyst with Britain's Royal United Services Institute, a security think tank. He said restricting media coverage of the Italian hostage situation could indeed deprive kidnappers of a key weapon -- international exposure.

"Of course, it depends very much on the reasons and the motivations behind the kidnappings in the first place. If they were kidnapped for the obvious political reasons, as an expression of opposition to the occupation of Iraq, then obviously one of the things [the kidnappers] are seeking to do is to gain media attention, to have attention drawn to the fact that they've taken these hostages and that opposition is taking place. So, in that sense, clamping down, muzzling the media, would perhaps take away part of the reason behind the kidnappings in the first place," Neep said.

Neep said that, given the significant interest Iraq currently holds for many countries around the world, too much media attention could in fact complicate the hostage situation rather than help it.

But critics say that requesting the media to steer clear of the hostage story amounts to an attempt to restrict freedom of information.

Ross Biddiscombe, of the London School of Journalism, said the case involving the Italian media is particularly worrying.

"The problem comes when the prime minister of a country also owns the media, so that's when you're starting to get into really difficult situations where the journalists cannot have complete [integrity] or may not have complete integrity, you're bordering on suppression of news," Biddiscombe said.

Biddiscombe said the greater danger is that political interference -- justified as protection of national interests -- will become increasingly common.

"The journalists' role in the free world is to make sure that there's freedom of information. That is what journalists are trained to do from the very moment they become journalists, and it's like the First Commandment. It's a horrible gray area -- it's very difficult to have a yes-no answer on every single case, and they all have to be treated on their own merits. And the danger is for that suppression of news to become a habit -- that's the danger here," Biddiscombe said.