The Kidnapping of Alan Johnston

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On March 12, 2007, the news organisation BBC expressed its concern after the car of its correspondent in Gaza was found abandoned in the city.
A few weeks later, an
unknown militant group, the Tawhid and Jihad Brigades, finally claimed the kidnapping of the western journalist Alan Johnston. Their goal was to call attention to the situation of Palestinian detainees held by Israel. The militants even threatened to kill the BBC correspondent if the British government did not cooperate. After 114 days in captivity, Alan Johnston was eventually freed after a military intervention from Hamas[1].
Beyond the worldwide mobilisation that his abduction engendered, some commentators took advantage of the story, raising questions about Mr. Johnston’s objectivity. Becoming the main protagonist of the kind of stories he was used to reporting on, he became at some levels the target of those who think that being a war correspondent does not prevent from being neutral in any situation. 

Almost one year from the day he got kidnapped, Alan Johnston did not change his mind. When he came this month to City University to share his experience with us – trainee journalists in the process of being soon confronted to the reality of the field – one of the first things he said was: “Whatever Hamas did in the past and whatever its relations with the international community, I can’t help myself being grateful for what it did for me.”[2] With such a statement, Alan Johnston claims that even the most professional journalist whose line of conduct is to report with strict objectivity what s/he sees, would easily be carried away by feelings when confronted to such an emotional event like a kidnapping. 

Mike Hume, the British newspaper columnist (Hume, 1997)[3], states that there is nothing wrong with taking sides in a conflict. The problem is the tendency of journalists to mix emotion with the reporting of facts. “There is a difference” he says, “between taking sides and taking liberties with the facts in order to promote your favoured cause. There is a difference between expressing an opinion and presenting your personal passions and prejudices as objective reporting.”In the case of Alan Johnston, it is difficult to assert that his gratitude towards Hamas has influenced his way to report on the region, because since his liberation last year, he never came back to Gaza. One thing is sure though, it was not the first time the BBC was accused of being biased, as we will see later. 

But the claim was all the more unexpected since the news organisation was at the time struggling to get the release of its correspondent. While detained by Palestinian extremists, some commentators advanced the idea that Alan Johnston was a “friend” of Hamas, and that the Islamist militant organisation and political party was even responsible for Johnston’s abduction. The journalist Melanie Phillips was at the head of that polemic when she wrote in the British magazine Spectator, “It was Hamas which had everything to gain from the ordeal of Alan Johnston, its friend whom the BBC was about to transfer out of Gaza anyway — and its strategy has worked brilliantly. Not only did it open communication with Britain, but the idea of negotiating with Hamas is now gaining traction fast on both sides of the Atlantic.” (Phillips, 2007). [4]  

It is true that after the release, Alan Johnston and BBC thanked Hamas for its action. So did the United Kingdom. British deputies even called for international engagement with the militant movement, even though the latter is still boycotted by the West because of its anti-Israeli stance. 

Hamas rival and more moderate Fatah faction also took advantage of the confusion accusing the Islamic party to be tightly linked to the kidnapping and to have staged the release in an attempt to get the support of the international community. Although Hamas did not confirm these accusations, it claimed that its contacts with Britain have increased since they worked together to free the BBC reporter. Hamas says that Johnston’s kidnapping forced Britain to change its policy of not publicly meeting Hamas officials.[5]

A version that both the British government and BBC deny. For his part, Alan Johnston says that the theories of manipulation from Hamas are baseless[6]: “I don’t believe in the conspiracy theories in this case. I was on the inside of the kidnapping, and I believe that I could see that the people holding me were genuinely afraid of and worried by the Hamas pressure. I didn’t feel that my guards and their leader were in any way on the same side as Hamas. It is quite the opposite”. Moreover, he adds that Hamas did not present any conditions to the BBC or anyone else before going ahead and securing his freedom. He tries as well to minimize the accusations stating that Hamas had an interest in his kidnapping: “Relations between Hamas and the international community were not the only consideration in this affair”.

However, as I previously mentioned, beyond the kidnapping of Alan Johnston, the question of the objectivity of BBC had already been raised before. It is said that the Corporation has spent thousands of pounds trying to stop the release of the Balen Report[7] which was gathered by Malcolm Balen, a senior editorial adviser, in 2004 – into its coverage of Israel and Palestine. This report accused the BBC of being pro-Palestinian in its reporting of the Middle East.

It is legitimate that the public is expecting the BBC to report objectively on such a sensitive issue like the Middle East conflict, all the more considering that the coverage of the outstanding news organisation is likely to be very influential. Nevertheless, not everyone agrees with this code of ethics. In an article called Truth is Our Currency (1998, pp 102-3)[8], the former reporter Martin Bell says: “I was trained in a tradition of objective and dispassionate journalism. I believed in it once. I don’t believe in it anymore.” Bell considers that the very act of reporting is subjective: “Objective, dispassionate journalism has its place but not in the midst of some brutal war or human calamity. It is still possible in the reporting of domestic politics and it is a statutory requirement for television news but it is inadequate to meet the needs of the good war reporter”.

It seems thus reasonable to be more temperate when it comes to war reporters. Alan Johnston spent three years in Gaza, being the only foreign journalist from a major media organisation based in the region. In these conditions, it can be hard to find the balance between a professional relationship journalist-source and a friendly relationship. For sure, in certain circumstances, it happens that journalists become friends with their sources. In essence sources are not obliged to disclose information to the reporter, so most of the time they have to trust or to befriend the journalist before doing so. Moreover, if offering gifts or money to a source is considered as an attempt of manipulation, nothing prevents the reporter from behaving friendly to the people he spends so much time with. Especially when your life depends on the good will of one of your sources such as Hamas, it can be understandable that their good points are the only thing one can sense at this critical turning-point of ones life.

Having worked in Palestine for 3 years, Alan Johnston was indeed considered by most of the population as a friend whom they could trust, and the several demonstrations of Palestinian journalists in Gaza to get him free proved it. Ramzy Sawlma, shot editor for the Ramattan News Agency, was in Gaza when the local journalists took the street to help their colleague. He explains[9]: “The support was amazing, this is the way it should have been, for such a respected journalist like Alan. While so many journalists left Gaza, […] Alan always stayed.” Ramzy Sawlma was by no means alone in making clear his admiration for the western correspondent. At the time Alan Johnston was still in captivity, Sami Abu Salem, journalist at the Palestine News Agency (WAFA) said[10]: “Johnston, we are in need of you, because you are not one of those who come to Gaza for a couple of hours or days to write a report while a taxi is waiting for them at Eretz checkpoint.” 

Alan Johnston obviously built a close relationship with the people of Gaza during the time he was reporting on the region. Even if his kidnapping has remained unpunished so far, this is not to say that the journalist found himself at the centre of attention without precedent due to the political context in the region, but also because of the reaction he gave to the world regarding the role of Hamas in his liberation. Due to his statute of journalist expected to deliver the objective truth about what is going on in Israel/Palestine, some people got offended by the way he claimed his gratitude to the Islamic militant party. On the other hand, this event has shown that at some levels, war correspondents are more than others likely to break the established rules of journalism when confronted to high risks. It reminds us of the difficulties of being a journalist with professional ideals that could be put into practice in some regions at risk such as the Middle East.  


[1] Hamas had won the legislative election for about one year when Alan Johnston got kidnapped.  A few months after the kidnapping, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh got sacked by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. In that context, Hamas reacted to the journalist community’s appeal for Alan Johnston’s release. Hamas helped to the liberation of Alan Johnston, negotiating with his abductors.  
[2] Alan Johnston came to City University London on March 13, 2008 to share his experience with students from the Masters International Journalism.
[3] McLaughlin, G. (2002). The War Correspondent, page 167. London: Pluto Press. 
[4] Phillips, M. (2007). Alan Johnston and Hamas – A major defeat in the war to defend the free world. Available from http://www.spectator.co.uk/the-magazine/features/69314/part_2/a-major-defeat-in-the-war-to-defend-the-free-world.thtml [Accessed 3 March 2008].  
[5] Urquhart, C. (2007). Hamas leader claims UK has widened links. The Guardian online. Available from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jul/26/israel.foreignpolicy [Accessed 10 March 2008]. 
[6] Interview by e-mail with Alan Johnston, former BBC correspondent in Gaza, February 9, 2008. 
[7] Hastings, C and Jones, B. (2006). BBC mounts court fight to keep ‘critical’ report secret. The Telegraph online. Available from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/10/15/nbeeb15.xml[Accessed 10 March 2008].
[8] McLaughlin, G. (2002). The War Correspondent, page 153. London: Pluto Press. 
[9] Interview by e-mail with Ramzy Sawlma, shot editor for the Ramattan News Agency, February 5, 2008. 
[10] Abu Salem, S. (2007). Palestinian journalist’s letter to Alan Johnston. Available from http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article6743.shtml  [Accessed March 2, 2008].
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