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The BBC's Alan Johnston Kidnapping Print E-mail

By Jay Bushinsky
October, 2007

The entire free world, especially its vital news media component, breathed a sincere sigh of relief when BBC Correspondent Alan Johnston's ordeal as a hostage of Palestinian extremists in the Gaza Strip came to an end.  After being held incommunicado by his kidnappers for 114 days with an explosive belt was strapped around his waist at least once, forced to voice a pathetic appeal for acceptance of his captors' demands on videotape while reports were circulated that he already was dead, the doughty 44-year old Scot passed through Israel's Checkpoint Erez, stopped in Jerusalem and flew home free man again.

"It is just the most fantastic thing to be free," he said just before leaving the Gaza Strip, presumably for good, his excitement overtaking the physical effects of his incarceration.  He had lost weight, was pale and visibly fatigued.

Johnston had been seized by four armed men in a white Subaru who pulled up alongside his car as he drove to the BBC' Gaza office on al-Wihdah Street.  It was 2:00 p.m., March 12, 2007, according to sources quoted by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. Local reporters knew immediately who had been taken away because Johnston had left behind one of his business cards, on the pavement -- deliberately, they assumed.  He was not the first journalist seized by gunmen on the streets of Gaza City.  There were at least a dozen previous cases in which the unarmed and unsuspecting prey were Europeans, Americans and Palestinians, but none were as terrifying and mysterious as Johnston's.  He was at the end of a three-year long stint in that part of the Palestinian Authority's divided domain, widely respected and trusted by his hosts and totally above suspicion on any count.  Nor were the kidnappers' motives clear.  According to one well-informed source, they wanted to use him as a means of exerting pressure on the United Kingdom for the release of Palestinian-born terrorist kingpin Abu-Qutada and several of his cohorts believed to be linked to al-Qaeda who are in British custody.  (Abu-Qutada, whose full name is Sheikh Omar Mahmoud Othman Abu Omar, is suspected of being el-Qaeda's chief recruiter in Great Britain.) 

Another explanation is that they, especially the Dughmush clan which was the main group holding him, was holding him for ransom -- a payoff calculated by some at five million dollars.  A third rationale was that Hamas wanted to build up tension and suspense regarding his fate so that it could make political capital as his rescuers.  None of these notions has been verified and insofar as the proverbial payoff is concerned, it has not been confirmed.  Like all the other media whose personnel have been detained ad infinitim, the BBC paid no heed to reports that a large sum of money changed hands through clandestine channels.

The Foreign Press Association in Israel, of which Johnston was an active member, waged a relentless campaign for his freedom and worked closely with the BBC, CPJ and the
local Palestinian press corps in the West Bank and especially in the Gaza Strip.  Leads, tips and often unreliable information poured into the FPA's modest office in Tel Aviv from which its energetic and devoted executive secretary, South African-born Glenys Sugarman, herself an experienced foreign correspondent, kept its chairman, Simon McGregor-Wood of ABC News informed.  There was constant and close coordination with the BBC, but Sugarman and McGregor-Wood always had to bear in mind the political sensitivity that exists in the Gaza Strip, especially among the extremist groups there, to individuals and organizations based in Israel, and exercise discretion.

For their part, the Palestinian journalists launched a variety of initiatives aimed at bringing back Johnston alive.  They staged an unprecedented news strike, refusing to cover the Palestinian government as a whole or its ministers in particular as a means of exerting pressure on them to take swift and effective action.  They staged demonstrations, put up giant portraits of Johnston on public buildings and chanted the slogan that echoed around the world, "Free Alan Now," as they marched.  One of their underlying motives was to defend the freedom of the press that enabled them to keep their public informed.

The consensus among liberal-minded Palestinians was expressed by one of the leading West Bank-Gaza Strip organizations that advocate democracy and civil rights, al-Haq.

"Those that perpetrate kidnappings, whether of foreign nationals or Palestinians, must be held to account through impartial law enforcement and judicial procedures," it said in a statement that coincided with Johnston's release.  Unfortunately, al-Haq's declaration was ignored by the Hamas-led government that had seized control of the Gaza Strip while Johnston was in captivity.  There have been no arrests, no charges and no trials.  Senior Hamas officials negotiated with the so-called Army of Islam which was holding Johnston, conducted direct talks with one of its leaders, Moumtaz Dughmush, head of the clan that engineered the kidnapping, but did not bring Dughmush and his allegedly-renegade fellow-clan members to justice.  Nor did the blurb about Hamas not having known Johnston's precise whereabouts stand up for long.  During the final stages of his ordeal, its armed personnel had surrounded the building in which he was kept and were nearby when he was manhandled by his high-tempered jailers who received orders at 4:00 a.m. to bring him to the home of deposed PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniya in Gaza who was waiting for him with a coterie of local TV crews and journalists.

Hamas evidently was intent on looking good worldwide and of boosting its prestige as the sole executors of law and order in the Gaza Strip in contrast to the impotence of the defeated Fatah-led forces of PA President Mahmoud Abbas there.

There were many unusual episodes linked to the Johnston kidnapping.  At least one of them supported the theory that the Dughmush clan's primary objective was to compel the British to let Abu-Qutada and his followers go.  In one instance, several of its gunmen swept into the BBC's office in Gaza amid shouts that they had come to take away two more British correspondents.  Their uninvited arrival was ill-timed, however.  The two Britons they were seeking had just left the premises.

Another episode was the unprecedented demonstration staged by Israel-based foreign correspondents at Checkpoint Erez, April 25, 2007.  It was virtually a surrealistic event: The same foreign correspondents, men and women, who have been covering mass protests, vigils and every other kind of collective of collective effort to advance a cause or make a political point were following suit.  They stood side by side in the warm spring sun, holding "Free Alan Now" posters for all the TV cameramen on hand to see and shoot, listened to speeches made on Johnston's behalf by the BBC's deputy head of news gathering, Jonathan Baker, as well as their own chairman, ABC's Israel bureau chief, Simon McGregor-Wood.  "We salute our Palestinian colleagues and thank them for their courageous efforts on Alan's behalf," McGregor-Wood said.  Baker spoke with the fervor of a political leader and summed up his message of appreciation for the support Johnston was getting day in and day out in dispatches, broadcasts and interviews filed by his FPA colleagues with the words, LET HIM GO!"  In a major statement by Simon Wilson, editor of the BBC's Middle Eastern bureau, he pointed out that the professional consequence of Johnston's plight was that international coverage of the Gaza Strip situation had been truncated.

"We are very happy that reporting has stopped," he said.  In terms of the history of modern journalism, the FPA demonstration at Checkpoint Erez may have been the first of its kind ever.  The International Press Institute followed up two months later by sending a delegation to Ramallah for talks with PA officials.  Its declared purpose was "to maintain pressure" on the parties involved for Johnston to be freed unharmed, said the IPI's Catherine Porter, who joined that
mission.

Ironically, President Abbas' ability to help spring Johnston was limited to nil then and corresponds to his recent statement that he has no idea of the whereabouts of the Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas and other gunmen from Israeli territory, June 26, 2006.  All that he was willing to tell reporters, April 20, 2007, during a visit to Sweden was: "Yes, I believe he (Johnston) is still alive.  Our intelligence services have confirmed to me that he is alive." 

He also said he knew who was holding Johnston, but declined to give details.  Nor did he initiate or authorize any operations aimed at liberating Johnston.

An E-mail announcement transmitted by the Tawhid and Jihad Brigades based in the Gaza Strip had said five days earlier that a "previously unknown group had killed Johnston and would release a video of the execution."  The E-mail said Johnston had been killed after Palestinian and British authorities failed to met demands for prisoners to be freed from Israeli jails.  However, no demand for such a release had been made public since Johnston was seized.  This morbid exchange can be regarded as premeditated disinformation intended to influence the behind-the-scenes contacts presumably under way to extricate Johnston.

The statistical breakdown of abduction cases between 2004 and 2007 involving foreign correspondents (including Johnston) covering the Gaza Strip is ample evidence of the chaos and anarchy in which they tried to operate.  There were six such kidnappings in 2006 and 2005 respectively and one in 2004.  To date, in 2007, there have been three.  All, except Johnston, were detained for only a few hours or days and all, including Johnston, were released ostensibly unharmed.

By nationality, the cases involved two Americans, two Britons, two French nationals, four Spaniard, five other European or Asian nations and one Palestinian.

But the phenomenon at hand, ugly and menacing as it is, is far from new.  Journalists were kidnapped in Lebanon during the 1970's and 1980's, among them the Associated Press' Beirut bureau chief, Terry Anderson, and his CNN counterpart, Jeremy Levin.  Then as now, there were no disclosures of ransoms paid, deals made or conditions met.  In the opinion of one of Israel's senior radio journalists, Yitzhak Noy, who specializes in the local and above all, international, news media, one must not rule out the possibility if not the likelihood that "political strings" were attached to the captives' release.  His theory can be evaluated on the basis of the respective media's subsequent slant, bias or approach to events in the Middle East.  According to the popular wisdom in this part of the world, everything has a price and the only question is how the contending parties negotiate it.  If and when a deal is made however, experience has shown that it seldom if ever comes up for discussion and certainly not for disclosure.

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