BBC correspondent still missing in Gaza after 22 days

New York, April 3, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists today renewed its call for the release of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, seized in Gaza more than three weeks ago, amid intensifying pressure by Palestinian journalists on government officials to do more.

Despite reports that the Hamas-led Palestinian government had identified Johnston’s abductors and expected him to be freed soon, no further information about the journalist has surfaced. Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Abu Hilal told CPJ today that preliminary information led the government to believe that a certain group he did not identify was behind the abduction, but after several communications with the group they denied any involvement. Since then, he said, the government has been following several leads but they have not yielded any new information.

Abu Hilal told CPJ that the abduction took place during a transitional period when a unity government was being formed, which impeded a quick response from the government. He added that the Palestinian security forces are weak at the moment further exasperating efforts to locate the journalist.

“We are deeply concerned that Alan Johnston has been missing for 22 days, and we appeal to those holding our colleague to release him at once,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, and the Palestinian Authority to do everything in their power to return our colleague to safety.”

Journalists in Gaza began a three-day boycott on Monday to pressure the Palestinian Authority to do more to locate Alan Johnston, local journalists told CPJ. During that time, journalists said, they will not cover any official government news. Palestinian journalists have staged several protests calling for Johnston’s immediate release. More than 300 journalists held a picket line outside the Council of Ministers building in Gaza City on Monday.

The BBC reported that top media personalities, including CNN’s Chief International Correspondent and CPJ board member Christiane Amanpour, signed an open letter published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper urging Johnston’s quick and safe release.

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. on March 12, according to 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 this month.

Johnston, who has been held in captivity longer than any other journalist abducted in Gaza, is 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.