Iraqi militants who kidnapped an Australian reporter in Baghdad and threatened to kill him investigated his work on Google before deciding to release him unharmed, the journalist’s executive producer said Tuesday.
The reporter, John Martinkus, the first Australian confirmed as having been abducted in Iraq, was seized in Baghdad early Saturday and held for about 24 hours before being freed.
Returning home Tuesday, Martinkus demanded an apology from Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who had said the journalist was abducted when he went to a Baghdad neighborhood that he was warned not to visit. “He was advised not to go to, but he went there anyway,” Downer said on Melbourne radio station 3AW.
“Alexander Downer doesn’t know his geography very well,” Martinkus told reporters after arriving at Sydney’s airport. “I was actually across the road from the Australian Embassy when I was kidnapped. He should apologize to me, actually — personally.”
Martinkus’ executive producer at Australia’s SBS network, Mike Carey, said the Internet — often used by Iraqi militants to air grisly images of hostages being beheaded — likely saved Martinkus.
“They checked on him to see if he was who he said he was,” Carey told The Associated Press. “They Googled him and then went onto a Web site — either his own or his book publisher’s Web site, I don’t know which one — and saw that he was who he was, and that was instrumental in letting him go, I think, or swinging their decision.”
Veteran of war coverage
Martinkus, a freelance reporter who also has covered turmoil in East Timor at the time of its 1999 vote for independence from Indonesia, has written books on subjects including Jakarta’s actions in East Timor and on life in Iraq since President Saddam Hussein’s ouster.
Carey said the Sydney-based SBS network had been worried for Martinkus’ safety after failing to hear from him for almost a day but was only sure that he had been kidnapped after his release.
“It was just getting to the stage where we were getting really panic-stricken,” he said. “And I got a call from John saying, ‘Mate, I’m at my fixer’s house — they’ve dropped us at the fixer’s house. I’ve been kidnapped, but I’m free.’”
“Fixers” are local helpers employed by journalists as translators and drivers to help get them around.
Martinkus said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. from Jordan that he was snatched at gunpoint from outside a hotel close to the Australian Embassy in Baghdad by insurgents who he said were Sunni Muslims.
He said they initially threatened to kill him before checking on his background.
“I can’t say very much, but ... of course they said they were going to kill me,” Martinkus said.
He said he was treated well once he told his kidnappers that he was an independent reporter not linked to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
“I told them what I was doing [and] I wasn’t armed,” he said.
Asked how he coped with the situation, Martinkus said: “I just kept talking.”
Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, sent 2,000 troops to invade Iraq last year and still has 920 military personnel in and around the country. No Australian soldiers have been killed.