CPJ renews calls for release of BBC correspondent in Gaza

New York, March 13, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists today renewed its call for the release of abducted BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston amid reports that the Hamas-led Palestinian government had identified his abductors and expected him to be freed soon.

During a meeting in Gaza City, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya told BBC representatives that the kidnappers had made personal rather than political demands, a local journalist who attended the meeting told CPJ. Reuters reported that Ghazi Hamad, Hamas spokesperson, later said: “This issue is on its way to being solved, God willing. We have definite information regarding the parties behind this kidnapping.”

“We remain concerned about the safety of our colleague Alan Johnston and call on those holding him to free him at once,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “For the last three years, Alan Johnston has dedicated his professional life to telling the story of Palestinians in the in the Gaza Strip. There can be no justification for depriving him of his liberty.”

He added: “The Palestinian Authority must do everything in its power to see that he is safely returned.”

Johnston, 44, was seized by four armed men in a white Subaru as he was driving near the BBC’s Gaza City office on Al-Wihdah Street around 2 p.m. Monday, according to local CPJ sources in Gaza. Johnston was quickly identified because he threw his business card on the street, according to news reports. No claim of responsibility was made and the motive for the kidnapping remained unknown, local journalists told CPJ.

Johnston joined the BBC in 1991 and has been based full-time in Gaza since April 2004. He was due to return to London at the end of next month.

“We still have no confirmation of the whereabouts of BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston,” a BBC statement said. “We are working closely with the Palestinian authorities and others to establish the facts surrounding the situation.”

Johnston’s abduction has been condemned worldwide and in the occupied Palestinian territories. Haniya and President Mahmoud Abbas have denounced the kidnapping. Dozens of Palestinian journalists staged a rally in front of the BBC’s office calling for Johnston’s immediate release. One sign held up by the journalists read, “The kidnapping of Alan Johnston is a crime, and the Palestinian Authority should take responsibility for it,” The Associated Press reported.

Johnston was the 15th journalist abducted in the Gaza Strip since 2004, according to CPJ research. CPJ research shows that all of the previously abducted journalists were released unharmed.

Past kidnappings appeared to be the work of private individuals or groups seeking to exploit foreign hostages for political purposes or to use them as bargaining chips to secure the release of jailed relatives or to win government jobs. To CPJ’s knowledge, none of those responsible for abducting members of the media has ever been apprehended or brought to justice.