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Alan Johnston: a reporter in Gaza

Eóin Murray
22 April 2007

The kidnapping of the BBC journalist Alan Johnston on 12 March 2007 is closely tied to the security situation in the Palestinian territory, says his friend Eóin Murray.

Today, Monday 23 April 2007, marks the sixth week of captivity for BBC journalist Alan Johnston. Over the course of those six weeks some extraordinary events have taken place. In particular, as one BBC colleague of his remarked, Alan has become part of the news instead of reporting it.

The campaign to free Alan is inclusive and border-crossing. On 29 March, the Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal called for his release. On 2 April, angry journalists inside the occupied Palestinian territory orchestrated a self-imposed gagging-order - refusing to cover news of the Palestinian government until Alan was released. On 12 April, the BBC, Al-Jazeera and Sky News organised unprecedented simultaneous broadcasts from Doha, London and Ramallah.

Demonstrations, interfaith services and solidarity vigils have been held in London, Gaza, Beirut and Dublin. On 17 April, after a group claiming to represent Palestinian prisoners declared they had killed Alan, a Gaza-based organisation called the "Mothers and Families of Palestinian and Arab Prisoners inside Israel Jails" described the kidnapping of Alan as "un-national and against the Palestinian cause." This statement was then followed by a flurry of high-level condemnations of Alan's kidnapping from Palestinian prisoners including Marwan Barghouti of Fatah and Sheikh Hassan Yusef of Hamas.

Perhaps the most surprising event was when Richard Makepeace, British consul-general in Jerusalem, broke the European Union-imposed boycott on Hamas by meeting the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.

The online campaign for Alan's release has also taken off. No less then four online campaigns or petitions have been set up calling for his release. Thanks to innovative campaigning by the BBC his story is now being carried in viral waves across the blogosphere.

In a post on one website, the BBC foreign-affairs editor John Simpson observes that he has "never seen so much support for a detained journalist...these events are a mark of how much we all miss you."

The breadth and depth of the campaign from inside Gaza and around the world to free Alan is a mark of the man himself as opposed to any overriding political concern. The fact that he was (prior to his kidnap) the only foreign journalist living in and reporting Gaza is a testament to his professionalism; the humanity and care of his work there gave voice to a deep sympathy with the plight of ordinary people attempting to survive inside the confined territory.

Alan is one of those rare and remarkable characters who will, inevitably, touch your life no matter how short a time you spend with him. His ability to tell a good story and his astonishing eye for human detail make journalism a natural career choice for him.

I remember well the first time I met him, in early 2004. I had just returned to Gaza through the main Israeli checkpoint. I encountered a large group of women demonstrating about a nearby military incursion. An Israeli tank was quickly approaching the demonstration. My taxi-driver hadn't turned up to collect me and I was stuck in the middle of what looked like a serious trouble-spot - with no obvious escape route.

Alan had been reporting on the demonstration and spotted me as he was about to drive away in his armoured jeep. He swerved back and picked me up. We drove away from the chaos. Over the course of the next few years we became very good friends.

Alan and I often sat and talked in to the night about the risk of being kidnapped - we agreed that we would only get kidnapped together so that we would have good company during the whole experience. This is only a slice of the bizarre humour that you have to develop when working under such circumstances.

A question of security

At the same time, the theme of this conversation may help explain why the campaign to secure Alan's release does not appear to have moved very far. The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) has observed hundreds of minor and serious infractions of basic law and order over the past few years, many of them directly related to the proliferation of small arms. In almost all of these cases no prosecution has taken place and justice is very rarely served.

Gaza's lawlessness is sourced in a shift of political power from legitimate sources of authority to sources of authority based on violence. At one time the Palestinian factions controlled the streets; now, increasingly, warlords have garnered considerable influence, often under the cover of the national cause and almost always with the use or threat of violence (see Donald Macintyre, "Gaza: a disturbing dispatch from a no-go area", The Independent, 21 April 2007).

Just such a family of Gaza criminals, with deep connections to people in high political office, is alleged to be behind Alan's kidnapping. However, the current degree of political chaos and darkness inside the Gaza strip means that it is virtually impossible to confirm what is really going on.

The release of Alan Johnston remains the single most important priority for his family, friends and colleagues. After it is secured, the restoration of the rule of law inside the Gaza strip is an imperative if similar incidents in the future are to be avoided. This would be in the true interest of the Palestinian people whose predicament Alan Johnston has so professionally reported.

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