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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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The American Media’s Coverage of Somalia

Last year, the Centre for the People and the Press conducted research on the US public[1] to find out the audience’s news interests and preferences between 1986 and 2007. It turned out that in spite of a great interest for conflict news over this period, results have shown that the latest conflict in Somalia was far from being a priority for the public. Astonishingly, the on-going war in Iraq still ranks first, despite the uprising discontentment of the Americans with regards to this conflict. I will analyse why the American media have covered the Somali conflict in the past few months in the way that they did, in order to understand why some stories are meant to be newsworthy while others never reach the limelight.

“Americans are terribly preoccupied by themselves” stated Susan Moeller (1999, pg 14) in her book Compassion Fatigue. As a matter of fact, an event seems to catch the media’s attention on the condition that the United States is involved in the story. Americans need to be linked to an event in way or another to feel concerned. Media and American media in particular, require symbols to find a story newsworthy. The image of a statue of Saddam Hussein overthrown by an American char and shown over the world is a good example of how such “conventions” guide the American news agenda.

News is a man-made product. The role of the media is thus to give the public stories that are believed to be politically, culturally or economically newsworthy. Fishman (1980)[2] established that journalists led news “by making decisions on their beat structure rather than on news values”[3]. This beat structure consequently favours the “entertaining side” of the event to stimulate the public interest, such as the example of the story of the American soldier Jessica Lynch.[4] As a consequence ongoing conflicts tend to loose their value. In other words, the “Attention to a novel or unusual stimulus lasts as long as it creates a difference between what is seen and the person’s schema (Carolyn Rovee-Collier, 1989)[5]. Moreover, given that the Iraqi war remains a priority of the US government, as the media attention on this issue reveals, it seems like there is no place enough for Somalia or even other regions at war on the front of the “stage”.

Since the US air strikes in Somalia last year, the country is now at a deadlock. Nothing new is happening so the media turn away because editors don’t want to send correspondents to cover events they know will not appeal to their audience.
This results in the American media relying ever more on the major Western news agencies to cover “stagnant” ongoing conflicts, such as the Somali conflict. However, even the news agencies end up loosing interest in these remote regions. In Susan Moeller’s book (1999, pg 11), Tom Kent, international editor at the Associated Press explained: “Basically, in our coverage we cover things until there’s not much new to say”. This leads to a vicious circle since images play a preponderant role in the coverage of conflicts. Without images, a story such a war cannot concretely exist in the minds of the public or is at least hardly newsworthy.

 The progressive disinterest for the ongoing conflicts leads to an unawareness of these regions. The trend which consists in stereotyping peoples into a dehumanized community raises the question of ethics and objectivity that all journalists should consider. “Practices such as seeking multiple witnesses to an event, disclosing as much as possible about sources, and asking many sides for comments” described by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (2001, pg 71) are often put aside in favour of a valorisation of the Western countries such as the United States, whether they are political or economical. It is believed that the Internet plays a role in this practice, since reporters can now have easier access “to stories and quotes without doing their own investigation” (Geneva Overholser, 1998).[6] This does not encourage journalists to investigate accurately in countries such as Somalia where the system of clans and the religious wars are often particularly hard to understand. 

Suffering from a lack of media coverage, Somalia seems to illustrate how news focus does not depend on the seriousness of the story. Particularly in the broadcast field, the media does not cover a country because it is at war, but because the country in which the story is reported has a vested interest in the matter in question. Some essential rules of journalism are thus often put aside in favour of “catchy” stories. However, I am convinced that the public is interested in what the media wants him to know; speaking about these regions only in terms of momentary “newsworthy-and-marketable events” reveals serious failings in terms of journalistic investigation.

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[1] Robinson, M. J. (2007) special to the Pew Research Center. The News Interest Index, 1986-2007Two Decades of American News Preferences. Available from  http://pewresearch.org/pubs/566/two-decades-of-american-news-preferences [Accessed 1 January 2008]. 
[2] Shoemaker, P.J. and Cohen, A. (2006). News Around the World. Oxon: Routledge. 
[3] In the only video of Somalia available on Fox News between August and October 2007, it is mentioned thatSomalia had 26 piracy incidents in 2007”. However, the channel didn’t report these incidents before. The only reason why Fox is doing an exception in the video mentioned is because, as the newsreader says: “the US military is now involved […] to hunt down the pirates […] So we’ll keep an eye”.
[4] Jessica Dawn Lynch is a former soldier in the United States Army who became famous after her widely exposed recovery by U.S. special operations forces. She has since then accused the American Government of making up this story as part of its propaganda aimed at manipulating the American and international public opinion in order to get support in the Iraqi war.
[5] Shoemaker, P.J. and Cohen, A. (2006). News Around the World. Oxon: Routledge.
[6] Kovach, B. and Rosenstiel, T. (2001). The Elements of Journalism. Three Rivers Press

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Journalists’ Sources

In 2003 in Northern Ireland, Clifford McKeown was sentenced to 24 years in prison for a murder committed 7 years earlier. Nick Martin-Clark, the freelance journalist who received the confessions when interviewing McKeown in prison[1] published the story in the Sunday Times. He also testified in court against him, in spite of his promise to McKeown to keep it secret.Martin-Clark’s action aroused indignation from the journalist community. He was consequently excluded from the National Union of Journalists. Furthermore, he has since then been under a witness protection programme. In 2005 in the United States, the New York Times reporter Judith Miller was imprisoned for refusing to give in court the identity of the source who named Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent. She spent 85 days in jail, but having received too much exposure as a result of this story, was then fired from the newspaper.In both cases, those journalists put their careers –and even their lives- at risk, having dealt with the sacrosanct matter of the confidentiality of their sources. In these two cases, one common question is at stake though: When is a journalist under a responsibility to tell?  More significantly even, how it is possible to find the right balance between ethics, public interest and justice? 

Subsequently to McKeown’s story, the journalist Nick Martin-Clark (2003) tried to explain his actions arguing that Chris Frost, chair of the NUJ Ethics Committee, once told him ‘that it was sometimes permissible to “act as a citizen”’.[2] Journalists are citizens, and when “there is an overriding public interest in identifying the sources”[3], the reporters’ duty of confidentiality should not be unconditional. However, I believe that this kind of situation should remain exceptional, as defined by the law,[4] and only be applied when justice is the only way of ensuring public wellbeing. In John v Express,[5] Lord Woolf (2000) observed: “…before the courts require journalists to break what a journalist regards as the most important professional obligation to protect a source, the minimum requirement is that other avenues should be explored”.[6] In fact, even if no one is above the law, a good journalist cannot do his job properly acting only from a “citizen’s point of view”. Through his political, religious, cultural beliefs, a citizen is anything but objective. On the other hand, objectivity should be the essence of a good journalist. Beyond any consideration, the protection of sources of information must be a priority.[7]  

Indeed, revealing sources can be very dangerous for both sources and journalists. In my view, ethics and morality should be, as a consequence, the professional’s main concerns when dealing with the protection of sources. Even if there are circumstances under which journalists should not protect their sources (see above), breaking a pact of confidentiality reveals a lack of integrity from the reporter whom sources trust. Some people put their lives in danger to speak to reporters. Therefore, the European Court of Human Rights (2002) stated that “sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest”.[8] And this would be a real backward step for the profession. Moreover, as Geneva Overholser (2004) says, it is “incontestable that some information vital to a democratic public will reach it only through the protection of confidentiality”.[9] 

This means that a journalist has to be able to justify why, in the public interest, revealing his source is more important than all the wrongdoings that could be disclosed to the public through the source’s revelations. When Martin-Clark (2003) explained to justify what he did that “he felt he could not live knowing such a secret”[10], it clearly proves that he followed his human instincts before his journalistic ones. I do not mean that journalists are robots who cannot have feelings.  I mean rather, that Martin-Clark ran counter to the code of deontology that hallows professional confidentiality. In other words, could you imagine a criminal’s lawyer bound by strict confidentiality, revealing to the court that he knew his client was a dangerous murderer? It would be totally against the rules of ethics. Comparing both professions on the issue of professional confidentiality, Pete Williams from America’s NBC News (2006) said, “It’s the client’s privilege that the lawyer is protecting […] So by comparison here […] it is the source’s privilege that the journalist is protecting”[11]. 

Taking into account these facts, I would argue that Martin-Clark should not have disclosed the identity of his source, no matter what the revelation was. In Martin-Clark’s case, no impending danger was harming public safety. His anonymous source did not reveal he was about to commit a crime; this man had already killed and was serving a sentence at the time of his interview with the freelance journalist. In this kind of situation, the protection of the professional relationship between the journalist and his source is much more important than the actual worth of the information collected. As Rachid Nini (2007) said to justify his refusal to cooperate with justice, “I am a journalist, not a cop”[12]. On the other hand, Judith Miller’s decision not to disclose her source is questionable. It is well known how dangerous it is for an undercover CIA agent to be named. Moreover, it would have been in the public interest to reveal what some members of the American government were hiding from their citizens about the invasion of Iraq.

Despite laws protecting journalists’ sources, many courtrooms, even in democratic countries, still consider the refusal of journalists to disclose their sources as an obstruction of justice. This is to say that protecting their sources is a responsibility that journalists have to take on their own, most of the time. A journalist cannot do a good job without a deep concern for ethics and morality. Sources are a gold mine for reporters, and in consequence, a journalist should never give his word to a source lightly. Only serious cases defined by the law should allow a journalist to break a promise. To avoid being confronted by such problems, journalists should appeal to anonymous sources carefully. Relying on anonymous sources is often a risky way, and it has been proved several times in the past that some whistleblowers are not always well-intentioned. The actual job of a journalist is to inform the public, and as often as possible, to make people speak “on the record”. The “off the record” practice should never become automatic, when other ways remain possible to get a piece of information. That would prevent many journalists from being jailed on behalf of the protection of sources.



[1] The Queen v Clifford John McKeown [2003] WEAC3898 

[2] Oberoi, J. (2006). The Source of All Trouble…Revelations and Reservations. Available from http://vega.soi.city.ac.uk/~abbc281/global_village/2006/02/the_source_of_all_troublerevel_2.html [Accessed 3 January 2008]

 [3] Goodwin v UK (1996) 22 EHRR 123.These circumstances are clearly defined by the law in Article 10 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and refer to “national security, territorial integrity or public safety, prevention of disorder or crime, protection of health or morals and protection of the reputation or rights of others”.  

[4] Article 10 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms provides exceptions to the immunity from disclosure in case of “national security, territorial integrity or public safety, prevention of disorder or crime, protection of health or morals and protection of the reputation or rights of others”. 

 [5]  Morland J in John v Express [2000] 1 All ER 280 

[6] Spilsbury, S (2000). Media Law. Routledge Cavendish.

 

 [7] Council of Europe, Recommendation n° R (2000) 7 In its recommendation of 8 March 2000 on the right of journalists not to disclose their sources of information, the Council of Europe declared to be “Convinced that the protection of journalists’ sources of information constitutes a basic condition for journalistic work and freedom as well as for the freedom of the media”

[8] Goodwin v. the UK [2002] 28957/95

[9] Overholser, G. (2004). The Journalist and the Whistle-Blower. New York Times online.Available from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9804E0DD103BF935A35751C0A9629C8B63[Accessed 16 December 2007]                          

[10] Donovan, P. (2003).  Speaking ill of the dead. Guardian Unlimited.Available from  http://www.guardian.co.uk/hutton/story/0,,1025985,00.html [Accessed 3 January 2008] 

 [11] Oberoi, J. (2006). The Source of All Trouble…Revelations and Reservations. Available from http://vega.soi.city.ac.uk/~abbc281/global_village/2006/02/the_source_of_all_troublerevel_2.html [Accessed 3 January 2008] 

[12] Manager of the Arabic-speaking daily newspaper Al Massae.Heard on September 28th, 2007 by the Crown prosecutor in Casablanca, he was asked to reveal the identity of sources which had denounced traffics of royal pardons.

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