New York, June 1, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists today renewed its call for the immediate release of captive BBC reporter Alan Johnston following the disclosure of a videotape showing the journalist alive and in apparent good health. The tape was the first proof of Johnston’s condition that captors have offered since the abduction in the Gaza Strip more than two months ago.
The video, posted today on the Islamist Web site Al-Ekhlass, shows a seated Johnston wearing a red sweatshirt against a dark backdrop with a logo of the “Jaish al-Islam” (“Army of Islam”). The little-known Palestinian group has claimed responsibility for the abduction. It was not clear when the videotape was made.
On the video, a portion of which was posted on the BBC’s Web site, Johnston said he had been treated well and had not been subjected to physical abuse. He also criticized British, U.S., and Israeli policies. Videotapes of captives typically include compelled statements. At the end of the video, Johnston began to spell out conditions for his release when he is interrupted by a voice speaking in Arabic who demanded the release of Islamic prisoners, among them Palestinian-born militant Abu Qutada, currently jailed in Britain for ties with al-Qaeda and awaiting deportation to Jordan, The Associated Press reported.
“Although it is unclear when this video was shot, we take heart that it offers confirmation that Alan is alive and that he appears well,” said Joel Simon CPJ Executive Director. “However, we remain alarmed that he is being held against his will. We appeal to those holding him to free him at once.”
Early last month, Jaish al-Islam issued an audio and visual recording on the Internet and in hard copy form in which it claimed to be holding Johnston and had demanded the release of Abu Qutada and other imprisoned militants. The tape, which included pictures of the Iraq war, Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Qatada, showed no images of Johnston.
Jaish al-Islam, headed by Mumtaz Dughmush, is allegedly one of the groups that seized Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit in June 2006, according to the BBC. The group is not affiliated with al-Qaeda, the BBC has reported. Mumtaz Dughmush is a member of the powerful Dughmush armed clan operating in Gaza.
Johnston, 44, was seized by four armed men in a white Subaru as he drove 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. Johnston, who joined the BBC in 1991, has been based in Gaza since April 2004.
At least 15 other journalists have been abducted in the Gaza Strip since 2004, according to CPJ research. All of the other abducted journalists were released unharmed. Johnston has been held captive longer than any other journalist abducted in Gaza.
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.
Here are capsules recounting the abductions of 15 other journalists since 2004. A statistical breakdown follows.
IN THE GAZA STRIP
May 18, 2007
Abdel Salam Abu Askar, Gaza Media Center
Abdel Salam Abu Askar, director of the private production company Gaza Media Center, was abducted for a short period by members of Hamas’ military wing in Gaza City.
Abu Askar told CPJ that Hamas gunmen stopped his car as he was leaving his Al-Naser neighborhood at around 7 p.m. The gunmen took him to two unknown locations and questioned him about the nature of his journalism and the financing for his media company, he said. Abu Askar said that the gunmen dropped him off near his home after holding him for about three hours.
Shahdi al-Kashif, managing editor of Ramattan news agency, said he later visited Abu Askar at the director’s home. Abu Askar was not physically harmed but looked fatigued, he said.
Gaza Media Center is a small production company that provides services for Fox News and Sky News, among other media outlets. Abu Askar has close ties to Mohammad Dahlan, a powerful Fatah figure in Gaza and President Mahmoud Abbas’ national security advisor, according to news reports.
The abduction followed intense clashes between Fatah and Hamas factions that broke out on May 13.
January 1, 2007
Jaime Razuri, Agence France-Presse
Razuri, a veteran staff photographer for AFP, was seized by a group of unmasked, armed men as he was entering the news agency’s bureau in Gaza City, AFP reported. He had been returning from an assignment with his interpreter and driver.
Razuri was released on January 7. It is unclear who abducted him. Palestinian security officials suspected that the Dughmush family, a large armed clan in Gaza City, was behind the abduction. The Dughmush clan had been pressuring the ruling Islamic Resistance Movement to turn over 18 people suspected of killing two of its members, according to reports and CPJ sources. But an aide to President Mahmoud Abbas said the family helped in releasing the journalist and was not directly linked to the abduction.
October 24, 2006
Emilio Morenatti, The Associated Press
Morenatti, an Associated Press photographer, was abducted by unidentified Palestinian gunmen as he walked out of his Gaza City apartment toward his driver and interpreter Majed Hamdan, the AP reported. Hamdan said four gunmen grabbed his keys and phone and told him to turn away, pressing a gun to his head, and threatening to harm him. The gunmen shoved Morenatti into a white Volkswagen and sped off.
He was released later that day. The AP said no group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
August 14, 2006
Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig, Fox News Channel
Centanni and Wiig, a correspondent and freelance cameraman respectively for Fox News Channel, were ambushed by gunmen on Omar al-Mukhtar Street in the center of Gaza City. Two vehicles trapped the journalists’ satellite uplink truck marked “TV.” Gunmen forced the driver to the ground, and abducted the two journalists. A previously unknown group called the Holy Jihad Brigades later claimed responsibility. The group demanded the release of Muslim prisoners held by the United States. The journalists were released unharmed on August 27.
March 14, 2006
Caroline Laurent, Elle
Alfred Yaghobzadeh, SIPA
Yong Tae-young, KBS
Gunmen seized Laurent, a reporter for the French women’s weekly Elle, Yaghobzadeh, a photographer from the photo agency SIPA, and Tae-young, a correspondent for South Korea’s public broadcaster KBS, at the Al-Dira Hotel in Gaza. All three were released unharmed 22 hours later. Palestinian security services said the kidnappers were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Reuters reported at the time. The abductions came after Israeli forces stormed a prison in the West Bank town of Jericho and seized a PFLP leader, Ahmad Saadat, and five other group members held in connection with the assassination of an Israeli minister.
October 12, 2005
Dion Nissenbaum, Knight Ridder
Adam Pletts, Knight Ridder
Nissenbaum, a U.S. reporter for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, and British photographer Pletts, a freelancer working for the news organization, were abducted by armed gunmen in the southern Gaza Strip. “A car followed our vehicle for three or four minutes and then stopped us. Six gunmen pointed their weapons and said ’We want the foreigners,’” Ziad Abu Mustafa, a Palestinian interpreter who was with the journalists, told Reuters. He said the captors ordered him to stay behind as they drove off with the two journalists, heading toward the southern Gaza town of Rafah. The journalists were freed later that day after several hours in captivity. Palestinian security officials said the men were kidnapped by renegade members of the ruling Fatah party, CPJ sources said. They said Fatah officials and Palestinian security officers negotiated their release.
September 10, 2005
Lorenzo Cremonesi, Corriere della Serra
Masked gunmen abducted Italian journalist Cremonesi, of the newspaper Corriere della Serra, in the town of Deir el-Balah in the central Gaza Strip. He was released later that day unharmed.
August 15, 2005
Mohammed Ouathi, France 3
Ouathi, a soundman for French television channel France 3, was forced into a car on August 15 by three men with rifles as he walked to his hotel in Gaza City with France 3 colleagues. He was released on August 22. No group claimed responsibility for Ouathi’s abduction. Reuters reported that a Palestinian militant umbrella group called the Popular Resistance Committees said it had helped mediate Ouathi’s release, but it did not identify the kidnappers.
January 8, 2005
Ramon Lobo and Carmen Secanella, El Pais
Reporter Lobo and photographer Secanella of the Spanish daily El Pais were briefly abducted by masked gunmen in Gaza’s Khan Younes refugee camp. They were released unharmed 90 minutes later.
September 27, 2004
Riad Ali, CNN
Ali, a producer for CNN, was seized at gunpoint from a car in Gaza City. He was freed the following day.
CNN said a tape surfaced shortly before Ali’s release in which the producer said he was being held by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant Palestinian group with ties to Fatah. The brigade had earlier denied involvement in the kidnapping and had joined other groups in condemning it. Ali said on the tape that he is a Druze, a minority Arab population in Israel whose members often serve in the Israeli army. He called for the Druze not to serve in the Israeli army. No demands were made.
STATISTICAL BREAKDOWN (includes Johnston abduction):
• 2007: 3
• 2006: 6
• 2005: 6
• 2004: 1
• Spain: 4
• United States: 2
• United Kingdom: 2
• France: 2
• Palestinian: 1
• Other European and Asian countries: 5
• Men: 14
• Women: 2
• Photojournalists: 6 (Includes still photographers and camera operators.)
• Reporters: 7
• Producers: 1
• Technicians: 1
• Other: 1
• Gaza City: 11
• Khan Younes: 4
• Deir al-Balah: 1