Eight Dark Days in an Iraqi Prison

By Robin Sloan (more by author)
Online Reporter

Talk about a bad way to start a week.

On Monday, March 24, two Newsday journalists, two freelance photographers, and a


peace activist were rounded up by Iraqi secret police. It was no mere interrogation. All five were carted off to Abu Ghraib, an Iraqi prison that is the largest in the Arab world and one of the most notorious.

The week that followed was psychologically harrowing: The five were separated, interrogated, and though they weren’t hurt, they were threatened. They witnessed beatings.

But then, on the eighth day, relief: All five arrived at the Iraq-Jordan border on April 1, Newsday reported. Their release appears to have been the result of intense lobbying from Newsday editors that included a plea to Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Somehow the message got through, and now all five are free.

One is reporter Matthew McAllester, 33, Newsday‘s United Nations bureau chief. Poynter Online called him in London earlier this week, where he was recuperating, to explore the journalistic dimensions of the ordeal. He still sounded tired.

Poynter Online: Tell us more about what led up to your arrest. Was it something you were doing as a journalist that earned you the unwanted attention of the Iraqi secret police?

Matthew McAllester: The basic answer is, I don’t know. There are probably a hundred theories, but they never explained why we were taken, why we were held, or why we were released. They were in the business of asking questions, not providing information. I’m very anxious to get answers to that myself someday, and I intend to do so.

You wrote a first-person story for Newsday about this very frightening ordeal. Were you still in “journalist mode” all those days in the Iraqi prison? Did you have the idea that you’d write about this later?

To some degree, yes, and I think for two reasons. One, because I’m a journalist and I was in an Iraqi prison and it’s not often you get that kind of access, as odd as it may sound. And even though I was almost completely sure that I was going to die, there was a small part of me trying to remember what was going on.

The second reason was that I had to use several sort of psychological strategies to stay sane, and one of them was to imagine that there was a future beyond the prison, and telling the story implied there would be a future. So I was doing it for that reason, also.

When you describe the prisoner being beaten outside your cell — it’s such a frightening episode. What did that moment feel like?

It was completely terrifying. The whole experience, the whole eight days, was an experience of being completely stripped of power over one’s own present and future. And there were several moments like the one I described in that piece in which that was just rammed home particularly strongly. They were demonstrating to us — whether it was intended to intimidate us or not — they were showing us that they had the power of life and death over all of the inmates. It made you realize that you simply had no control or power over your present or future.

Is there anything you’d do differently as a reporter in retrospect?

“…If I had known I was going to spend eight days in an Iraqi prison facing imminent execution, would I have done things differently? Yeah!”The short answer to that is no. Well, look: There are two different versions of hindsight. One is, if I had known I was going to spend eight days in an Iraqi prison facing imminent execution, would I have done things differently? Yeah!

But, have I been telling myself that I made the wrong decisions in the way that I was operating inside Iraq? I’ve been questioning them, and I questioned them constantly when I was in prison, but I did what I did through an endless series of calculations and risk assessments all throughout the month leading up to that period. I would do the same today as I did then.

Were you trying to get any particular kind of story in Baghdad?

Not really. I was just trying to do good stories, same as any situation. I was just trying to do the best stuff that I could come up with.

What’s your advice to journalists in that kind of situation — covering a regime or organization that has the power to capture, hurt, or even kill you?

I just think that every journalist operating in a country or a society like that has to make his or her own personal decisions, obviously in tandem with their news organization and bosses. When you’re operating in an environment as dangerous as that, which journalists have been doing for decades, centuries, and will continue to do, it always really comes down to personal decision about how far you’re prepared to push things, and no one can really make that decision for you.

I can’t give specific advice because every single minute for every individual journalist is completely different, and you need to build up a kind of experiental database, a personal one, that you rely on. You have to trust your own judgment and your own calculations.

I spoke with Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent, and he talked about the importance of that database, too. He’s worried that many of the journalists in Iraq now don’t have it. Did you have much experience covering conflict situations before going to Baghdad?

I’ve been doing conflict-intensive journalism for over four years, including the war in Kosovo, the Intifada — I was based in Jerusalem for four years — the war in Afghanistan, the mini-war in Macedonia. And in Jerusalem, it was sort of like living in a war zone. So, my database isn’t the largest, but it is relatively significant.

What’s next for you?

I am caught between sort of dying with frustration to be in London and knowing that the battle of Baghdad is unfolding right now, and being kind of too tired to get off the couch. So, I don’t really know what’s next. But I’m dying to get back to work.

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