Johnston kidnapping was a turning point, say Gaza journalists

The campaign by Palestinian journalists to secure the release of Alan Johnston after 114 days in captivity last Tuesday was partly prompted by fears that his death might end international reporting from the region.

This is view of Reuters’s Gaza correspondent Nidal Al Mughrab, who told Press Gazette that before and during Johnston’s abduction many local journalists suffered a similar fate – but that his proved a watershed in their thinking.

“Alan was the last foreign and international journalist working in the Gaza Strip and there was a great feeling that if all foreign journalists would leave Gaza, the kidnappers would turn the knife against local journalists working for international news agencies as well. We had taken a stand with Alan, but at the same time it was a stand with ourselves.”

The Palestinian journalists began their campaign from day one of Johnston’s abduction – taking to the streets, speaking through loudspeakers and setting up a tent on the Unknown Soldier Square in the heart of Gaza.

The tent became a focal point, not only for the Johnston campaign, but for local issues, a situation which the journalists used to their advantage, attempting to win the local people’s support by informing them of the consequences if anything happened to the last foreign journalist operating full-time in the region.

“We tried to alert the people that more abductions will mean Gaza will be classified as one of the most dangerous places on Earth and that may mean it will be forgotten forever,” said Al Mughrab.

“That would mean the ailing economy would be paralysed forever, no foreigners would come into Gaza, no aid workers and that would end up in a catastrophe for the people of Gaza.

“Johnston’s abduction was a stigma on the foreheads of all Palestinians, not only his captors.”

Johnston was abducted a few days after the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate had formed the Committee to Protect Journalists, which then worked with the BBC in the region on its campaign.

At the height of the campaign, a Palestinian parliament session was called off when reporters blocked the entrance in protest at perceived government inaction about Johnston’s plight. “We were met with resistance from the Palestinian police and the guards to the parliament,” said Al Mughrab.

“There was a scuffle, some of them used their guns to hit people and some threatened to open fire, but were overcome by other policemen.

“Another was overcome by other journalists who stopped him and neutralised him before he was able to use his gun.”

The journalists slogan was “resolve or dissolve” referring to demands for action over Johnston. The journalists went on strike twice and suspended their coverage of the authorities’ cabinet meetings in protest on the lack of movement on the case.

Since Johnston’s release on 4 July, Al Mughrab said the region had witnessed “a flood of international journalists coming back”.

He said the Johnston campaign had mobilised Palestinian journalists to the extent that international colleagues could now be assured of their full support.

“International journalists know that we will not leave them alone, that if someone is abducted we will not rest until he is safe,” he added.

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