Gaza a 'no-go' zone for journalists since BBC reporter's kidnapping

Hamas, Fatah clashes make it risky to travel and render the PA ineffectual in guaranteeing journalists' safety.

alan johnston 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
alan johnston 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The foreign press corps has abandoned the Gaza Strip in the five weeks since the kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston, leading to a significant decrease in coverage. Only a handful of foreign journalists have made a few short visits to the area since the disappearance of Johnston, who was the only foreign reporter living full-time in Gaza. In a statement published on Thursday by the Foreign Press Association, it announced that "effectively, Gaza has become a 'no-go' zone for our members." The association is planning to hold a demonstration calling for Johnston's release on Wednesday at the Erez crossing. Conditions were growing more dangerous for foreign reporters in Gaza even before Johnston's capture. The fighting between Hamas and Fatah made it risky to travel with the protection of either side, and rendered the Palestinian Authority ineffectual in guaranteeing journalists' safety. In addition, the security breakdown in Gaza has led to the rise of more armed groups, unaccountable to the main organizations, which have begun targeting foreign journalists, usually for financial gain. The official number of journalists kidnapped for any period of time has been 22, but it is probably much higher since many of those abducted and swiftly released prefer not to publicize their abduction so as not to jeopardize their future coverage of Gaza. Most abductions have been resolved discreetly, usually with the intervention of the PA or one of the main armed organizations, but now some of the smaller groups, with suspected ties to al-Qaida, are trying to emulate the kidnapping of foreigners in Baghdad. At Tuesday's Foreign Press Association annual general meeting, members complained bitterly of the situation in Gaza. Some of them proposed threatening the PA with a boycott of all coverage of its affairs until it ensured journalists' safety, but there was no majority for this proposal. The Palestinian journalists have implemented such a boycott in the past after repeated violence toward reporters in Gaza and the West Bank. "There is a huge load of frustration over Alan Johnston's condition," said Simon McGregor-Wood, bureau chief for ABC and chairman of the Foreign Press Association, "and of course that is linked to the failure of the Authority to fix law and order." McGregor-Wood acknowledged that "foreign press coverage from Gaza is almost gone; we just don't have the sort of personalized coverage we used to have." Few foreign journalists are comfortable talking about the situation in Gaza. Those who have managed to make a quick trip there are extremely reluctant to explain how they went in, thought it is usually with the help of nongovernmental aid organizations. However, most of the NGOs have also dramatically reduced the number of their foreign personnel working in Gaza. Despite widely publicizing Johnston's plight, not all the details on his kidnapping and, more crucially, on the group holding him - the Durmish clan - its demands and methods have been reported by the mainstream news organizations. In some cases, this has been to protect Johnston from any possible reprisal and, but also out of fear of future retribution when reporters return to Gaza. McGregor-Wood denied there was any attempt to hide information. "The main problem is that no one really knows for sure even what group is holding him; obviously we wouldn't like to offend groups who might be helping him." In the absence of the foreign reporters, the news still getting out of Gaza is coming almost exclusively from Palestinian stringers. Some of the major organizations that in the past preferred to rely as little as possible on stringers have signed them on and equipped them with additional recording equipment. But using only stringer-produced material is problematic. "The people who use the stringers have to sift their material very carefully," says Jay Bushinsky, a veteran member of the Foreign Press Association. "You have to be na ve to believe that in a place like Gaza you can be a fair-minded reporter. They have a mission and they don't give anything detrimental to their leadership." Meanwhile, as Gaza is beginning to slip down the international media's agenda as a result of the lack of original coverage, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said on Thursday during a visit to Sweden that intelligence services have confirmed that Johnston is alive, though he declined to name the organization holding him. In its meeting on Tuesday, the FPA also condemned the decision by Britain's National Union of Journalists to boycott Israeli goods. In its statement, the FPA said the boycott "runs counter to the core journalistic values which we are here to uphold and defend, namely objectivity and balance" and that it "may prejudice our membership's already difficult task here in striving to interact effectively with all sectors of Israeli and Palestinian society." The Foreign Press Association also criticized the boycott resolution for failing to mention the plight of Johnston.