Before his kidnapping, BBC journalist Alan Johnston was one of a dwindling number of reporters covering the Gaza story. Living in Gaza for three years, he went missing on March 12 after his car was found abandoned.
Johnston was the only Western reporter to have maintained a presence in Gaza, when it had been effectively deserted by Western journalists due to lawlessness, increasing incidents of kidnapping, and a growing humanitarian crisis.
The utter ridiculousness of kidnapping journalists in this region is that Palestinians need the media. An economic embargo on Hamas and the wider Palestinian Authority has created a destitute society, where even more than ever, the struggle of a people under occupation needs to be relayed to Western audiences.
This is what made Alan’s colleagues protest at what was once the Presidential Compound in Gaza (now Hamas’s headquarters). This is what prompted a coordinated effort by four key international broadcasters Al-Jazeera, BBC, Sky and CNN to dedicate a day of coverage to commemorate Johnston’s contributions, as a journalist and as a friend of the Palestinians.
A few months ago, Al-Jazeera’s own correspondents in Gaza were trapped in a building where gunmen were shooting at them. This was during the intense factional infighting that saw the disintegration of the Unity Government formed in Mecca.
I was covering the story, watching my colleagues talk to viewers via mobile phone, crouching on the floor, dodging gun fire. It was a distressing situation, showing that a permanent presence in Gaza during this rapidly deteriorating situation is risky, and can prove fatal.
Johnston remained captive while Hamas took over the strip.
‘I could hear the rounds of ammunition above me, and I wondered whether there will be a Gaza left, if I am released,’ he told a press conference on Wednesday.
He continued to express his disbelief at the amount of ammunition on Gaza streets during the infighting.
Regardless of the political entity ruling the Gaza strip, Hamas knows very well that media exposure is critical in relaying the virtual prison its citizens live in. As seen last week, Ismail Haniyeh utilised the political leverage Johnston’s release provided, trying to push the assertion that only Hamas not Fatah can provide security in Gaza.
Upon his release, Johnston seemed to agree.
‘If it hadn’t been for that real serious Hamas pressure, that commitment to tidying up Gaza’s many, many security problems, then I might have been in that room a lot longer,’ he told a news conference.
It is rare that a news journalist covering Gaza lives amongst its citizens. They usually live in Jerusalem or any other secure city venturing into Gaza only when an incident necessitates the risk. But Johnston, who covered Afghanistan and Chechnya for the BBC, insisted on residing in Gaza.
While Western media should be relieved of his release, it is worth remembering that 1000 media personnel around the world have been killed trying to report news over the past 10 years that’s almost two deaths every week.
The statistic is one of the main findings of the world’s most comprehensive inquiry into the deaths of journalists and other news media professionals.
The survey was conducted between January 1996 and January 2006 by the International News Safety Institute (INSI) a coalition of media organisations, press freedom groups, unions and humanitarian campaigners dedicated to the safety of journalists and media staff.
The situation stands that many of these journalists will not be remembered, but are a statistic in increasingly dangerous conditions.
What we’ve seen over the past week and a half is a familiar scenario being played out Johnston, after a shower, a shave and a good meal, thanks the Hamas officials for their great efforts to release him. He gives a plethora of press briefings, while the BBC devotes days of coverage to the hero that is the kidnapped journalist.
In a twisted irony, the head of the ‘clan’ that kidnapped Johnston had some telling words, pointing to the double standards of how a Westerner’s life is deemed more valuable than others.
‘The Israelis arrest people left, right and centre, using the excuse of terrorism. When one Westerner seems to be under threat, the whole world stops and pays attention,’ said Sheikh Saleh Dughmush, the head of the Dughmush clan, linked to the Army of Islam, a little known group that held Johnston.
If only the 194 journalists killed in Iraq since March 2003 could be afforded as much coverage.
Meanwhile, while the world celebrates Johnston’s release, the Gaza story continues, a saga that seems to have no end.
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