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Former Seattle writer apparently held by Syria

Dorothy Parvaz, missing in Syria.

Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial writer and columnist Dorothy Parvaz has been missing since arriving in Syria on Friday, joining what is apparently a growing number of journalists who have gone missing there as the government attempts to restrict coverage of the unrest. Journalists’ groups, her friends here, and her employer, Al Jazeera English, are asking Syria for information.

On the editorial board of the P-I, Parvaz was a breath of fresh air with her outspoken, incisive commentary about events and culture. She also was tirelessly old-school in her focus on accuracy, honesty, and fairness. Mark Trahant, her former boss (and mine when we were on the editorial board together), called her “one of the most thoughtful, insightful” journalists and said it was “really a privilege to work with her.”

A lot of former P-I people were feeling the same way today. Former foreign editor Larry Johnson and others were helping to organize a letter-writing and phone-calling campaign to urge Syria to release her and to ask for the help of local and state congressional leaders.

Al Jazeera’s first report on her disappearance this morning (May 2) said that its reporters and those from other media outlets have been hindered in their efforts to report on the unrest there, which has grown in recent weeks. The story said:

Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told Al Jazeera there was “strong evidence” to suggest Parvaz had been detained at Damascus airport.

“Obviously we are worried for the safety of Dorothy, specifically, as we are for numerous other journalists who are in government custody right now,” said Dayem.

He said up to a couple of dozen journalists had been detained in Syria since the current unrest began in mid-March with the number held fluctuating on a daily basis “between a handful and a dozen.”

Parvaz recently had reported for Al Jazeera from Fukushima, Japan, on the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami there. Shortly after graduating from college, Parvaz, now 39, had worked with the English-language section of one Japan’s national newspapers.

But Parvaz, a fierce idealist about peace and democracy despite sometimes being painted by her critics as hard-edged, had been eager to cover the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East this year for Al Jazeera. She sent wry emails to friends questioning why her gender should be considered a reason to keep her out of the most dangerous areas. Trahant said that as he thought about her disappearance, he imagined that she must have lobbied to cover the Syrian demonstrations. “I could hear her pushing for [assignment] in Syria, saying, ‘I need to be there.’ ”

Her father, in Vancouver, B.C., with whom Parvaz is very close, captured his daughter in terms that rang true with her friends. Fred Parvaz told “She’s a very adventurous journalist. She really lives the job. … She didn’t say anything [about heading into Syria], because she knew we’d object.”

Trahant said that when he called the Syrian Embassy to express his concern, he was shuttled into a voice recording. He then sent an email. Recalling what he wrote, he said, the message was, “It is critically important that the government locate and bring to safety Dorothy Parvaz. And, basically, the whole world is watching.”

He recalled a P-I editorial board meeting with a Syrian ambassador that left him very impressed. Until the crackdown on recent protests, Syria has often been regarded as one of the more reform-minded regimes in the Middle East, although the Council on Foreign Relations says the country has long supported the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and has been on Human Rights Watch’s list of countries engaging in torture.

A Facebook page supporting Parvaz was established today (May 2). On Twitter, Al Jazeera English asked that messages about Parvaz be marked with a hash tag: #FreeDorothy.

Al Jazeera said Parvaz graduated from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She earned a masters from the journalism program at Arizona State University. When the Hearst Corp. closed the Post-Intelligencer newspaper in March 2009, she was studying at Harvard University in the Nieman fellowship, the most prestigious program for journalists in the country, and later did a fellowship at Cambridge University in England, before joining Al Jazeera English. In March 2010, she wrote an article for Crosscut about the nuclear ambitions of Iran.

In addition to her U.S. citizenship, she has Iranian and Canadian citizenship. In a 2006 series for the Post-Intelligencer, she chronicled her only return to Iran since leaving as a 12-year-old girl. She traveled on what was officially authorized as a tourist visit and later talked of her luck in traveling before a crackdown by the regime there. The heightened repression included the extended imprisonment on phony spy charges of scholar Haleh Esfandiari, who holds dual U.S.-Iranian citizenship.

The Middle East demonstrations of this year have brought risk, injury, and death for a number of journalists of various nationalities. Four Al Jazeera journalists were arrested by the Libyan government; as of Sunday, one was still being held. Journalists for The New York Times and The Guardian were also held there for a time.

On Sunday (May 1), CBS correspondent Lara Logan recounted on “60 Minutes” the violent sexual assault inflicted on her in Cairo during a demonstration she was covering. CBS said Logan, who is returning to work after recuperating with family in this country, wanted to break “a code of silence” about the added risks women journalists face in some situations. Logan spoke with pride about the dedication of women journalists who had spoken up about their own difficulties after her assault came to light. She said:

They don’t want it to stop their job because they do it for the same reasons as me — they are committed to what they do. They are not adrenaline junkies you know, they’re not glory hounds, they do it because they believe in being journalists.

Women in the crowd helped rescue Logan.

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