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BBC journalist freed but perils of reporting from Gaza remain

BBC Monitoring

 Analysis by Peter Feuilherade of BBC Monitoring on 4 July

    Amidst widespread rejoicing at the release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston early on 4 July, the two leading Palestinian political factions have sought to claim their share of credit for the outcome.

    Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip where Johnston spent 114 days in captivity, issued a statement "applauding the efforts of Isma'il Haniyah's government, Hamas's Al-Qassam Brigades and the Executive Force for bringing the case of the BBC reporter Alan Johnston to a happy end," the independent Bethlehem-based Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported.

    The statement "also appreciated the cooperation of the Army of Islam in this sensitive stage in Palestinian history."

    Alan Johnston's release came after "intense negotiations" between Hamas and his captors, the Army of Islam, with mediation by the Popular Resistance Committees (PRCs), Ma'an noted, adding: "The PRC's spokesman, Abu Mujahid, told Reuters that a fatwa issued by Shaykh Sulayman al-Daya was the critical turning point."

    At a televised news conference with Johnston and Hamas leaders, ex-prime minister Ism'ail Haniyah expressed hope that a deal would also be reached allowing the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held in Gaza for a year, as well as the freeing of "our hero prisoners from Israeli jails".

    Damascus-based Hamas political leader Khalid Mash'al said on 4 July that the freeing of the BBC journalist showed that his movement had brought order to the Gaza Strip by seizing power in mid-June.

    "The efforts by Hamas have produced the freedom of Alan Johnston," he told Reuters news agency by telephone from Syria.

    The Jerusalem Post quoted a senior Hamas leader, Mahmud Zahar, as saying that securing Johnston's release was not a public relations exercise to improve the movement's relations with the West.

    "We didn't work to receive favours from the British government. We did this because of humanitarian concern, and to achieve a government aim to extend security to all without fear," Zahar added.

    Ma'an also reported Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, who heads the Fatah movement, as saying that the Palestinian Authority had been "working hard in all directions over the past months in order to secure Johnston's life and to free him".

    

Perils of reporting from Gaza

    Hamas said on 4 July that it would strive to protect media freedom in Gaza "and to provide a good atmosphere for journalists to do their jobs properly," Ma'an news agency reported.

    However, the factional fighting in mid-June resulted in the closure of several Palestinian media outlets which have not yet reopened.

    In the climate of intimidation and violence that followed, local journalists came under increasing pressure to align themselves with particular groups.

    There was a brief influx of foreign reporters into Gaza for a few days after Hamas secured control of the territory on 15 June.

    But in a situation where free reporting remains difficult, it is unlikely that Western correspondents will return to the territory on a long-term basis, fearing the risk of abduction or worse.

    

Growing worldwide toll

    Media freedom watchdogs hailed the BBC reporter's release, using it to draw attention to the growing numbers of journalists killed, attacked or abducted in the course of their work.

    The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) noted that at least 29 journalists around the world were being held by kidnappers.

    The worldwide campaign to secure Johnston's release "was symbolic of the fight to free all journalists kidnapped and held hostage," the organization said.

    "We have sent a strong message that kidnapping journalists is an evil practice that must be ended," said Naim Toubassi, leader of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate.

    The Brussels-based International News Safety Institute (INSI) welcomed Alan Johnston's safe release "with profound relief", commenting that he was "fortunate to have the resources and determination of a global news giant, the BBC, behind him".

    "The BBC is one of the most assiduous of news organizations in looking after the safety of its staff in hostile environments," INSI said in a press release on 4 July.

    "Unfortunately the majority of journalists killed and kidnapped around the world do not enjoy such support and too frequently suffer and even die in relative anonymity... In Iraq alone, at least 84 journalists have been kidnapped. Of those, 30 were murdered and six are still detained... INSI counts more than 1,000 journalists and other news media staff who have died trying to cover the news around he world over the past 10 years," the press release noted.

    Source: BBC Monitoring research 4 Jul 07

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