Alan Johnston, A Free Man

05 Jul

All the annoying talking heads who clutter up our TV screens can sometimes make us forget that “journalism” isn’t just sitting in a studio talking about Paris Hilton. Sometimes, delivering news to your home can kill the person who’s doing it.

The International News Safety Institute calculates that “[o]ne thousand news media personnel around the world have been killed trying to report the news over the past 10 years – that’s almost two deaths every week”. It doesn’t stop there – the INSI study says that “at least 657″ of these people were killed in peacetime, in their own countries, while reporting the news. Worse, 9 out 10 of these killings never reach prosecution. In fact, in two thirds of the cases, the murderer/s are never identified. Killing a journo, it seems, is about as risk-free as murder can get.

Everyone thought Alan Johnston, a BBC reporter who worked out of Palestine, was about to join that list.

Ever since he’d been kidnapped off the street by an Al Qaeda-inspired terror outfit that calls itself the Army of Islam, indications were that he’d either been killed or was about to be killed. Periodically, his captors would release footage of Johnston telling the world how much the British sucked and how well he was being treated. They’d vary the routine by strapping explosives to his chest, a surefire sign of good treatment.

People who see Muslims as one big block of terrorism often ask why the Muslim world never publicly demonstrates its disapproval against the extremist elements in its midst. Johnston, the only international correspondent working in the lawless Gaza Strip” as the BBC puts it, got the Palestinians out on the street.

The Army of Islam might’ve had its supporters (it’s apparently run by a powerful Palestinian family known as the Dogmush) but as weeks passed, the Johnston issue refused to fade. Not only was Johnston well regarded by his colleagues in Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East, but he also worked for the BBC – a news organization unparalleled for the reach of its network, whatever CNN might choose to believe. And yet, the stalemate continued.

Then came the violent Hamas-Fatah clash in Gaza, which left Hamas in charge – but immediately ostracized by the West (which funds a great deal of the aid to Palestine) and Israel (which disburses the Palestinian share of taxes). That’s when Hamas stepped in and “talked” to the Army of Islam. They weren’t inclined to listen. So then Hamas’ security forces arrested a key member of the Army of Islam. Soon after, the two parties arranged a “prisoner exchange”.

Lest you think Hamas, like King Ashoka on the battlefield of his victory, has decided to trade in the gun for some prayer beads and a turtledove, you should know that they haven’t banned militias like the Army of Islam as they’re needed for ‘resistance’ against Israel – but they have decreed that there will be no more kidnapping of journalists and the writ of Hamas will be followed:

The Islamic militants of Hamas are anxious to show Palestinians in Gaza — and the rest of the world — that they can carry out their vow to impose order in Gaza. The photo op of a smiling BBC man is a huge publicity coup, allowing Hamas to say, with some legitimacy, that they are bringing back stability to Gaza.

Johnston says the only time he was mistreated was shortly before his release, when his captors apparently could not contain their angry frustration over Hamas’ terms. He described how they “smashed me in the face” before they shoved him in the vehicle that delivered him to freedom before dawn on Wednesday. As Johnston later remarked, “If it wasn’t for Hamas’ pressure, I’d be in that room a lot longer.”

Israel’s decision to turn over the tax funds to Fatah, which now controls the West Bank, in the wake of the Gaza clashes, could also be a contributing factor. Not only was Johnston’s release an image and control issue, it was also a populist move on the part of Hamas.

Meanwhile, Johnston, who has now been free for more than 24 hours after four months in captivity, and who appeared at a hastily organized news conference with Prime Minister Haniyeh of Hamas, describes his ordeal here:

Rallies worldwide had called for Mr Johnston’s release. An online petition was signed by some 200,000 people. “That is twice the size of Wembley. I just could not believe it,” he said.

He thanked colleagues, international media and ordinary people for organising “the most extraordinary international campaign” for his release. “The thing you don’t want is to be left behind, buried alive, and have the world go on around you,” he said.

He appeared with a cleanly-shaven head, saying one of his first acts after his release was “going to the barbers and getting rid of that just-kidnapped look”.

Now there’s a rare happy ending.


Posted by on July 5, 2007 in News, Newsmakers, Politics


3 responses to “Alan Johnston, A Free Man

  1. Gaurav

    July 5, 2007 at 12:14 pm


    well, statistics in the post are horrifying…..2 journalist death every week!!!…must say not an easy job…hats off to those people who risk their lives to bring us the NEWS….


  2. Amrita

    July 5, 2007 at 12:29 pm

    Hey Gaurav 🙂
    yup, it’s the thing that keeps me from writing off news channels completely. Shows the other side of the mirror

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