Johnston abduction has 'chilling effect' on Gaza

The abduction of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston has had ‘a hugely chilling effect’on news organisations and forced them to rethink their coverage from Gaza, according to one veteran conflict reporter.

Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute, said that Johnston’s disappearance on 12 March in Gaza City on his way home from work had forced news organisations to rethink their policies in the region.

‘This has had a hugely chilling effect on news organisations and their coverage of Gaza,’he said. ‘It’s had a terrific impact. Gaza was, until recently, a relatively safe place to cover; foreign journalists were welcomed there and had excellent relationships with the Palestinian authorities and the local people.”

Johnston, who has been based in Gaza for the past three years, is the 15th reporter abducted in the Gaza Strip since 2004, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Reporters from the UK, US, France and Spain have been kidnapped in the past three years but all have been released unharmed, mostly after just hours of captivity.

‘Up until now, the victims have been released pretty promptly, but this case has been completely different,’said Pinder, who has spent his career working abroad.

Despite hopes of an early release, Johnston will have spent three months as a captive on 20 June. The BBC and NUJ are planning a series of events to mark 100 days of his captivity.

Sean Maguire, Reuter’s political and general news editor for EMEA, agreed that movement in the region had been restricted, but says this echoes previous times when the media was forced to pull out of Gaza only to return when the security situation settled.

Since Johnston’s abduction, though ‘the mood has got gloomier, the environment in Gaza has become more volatile, more dangerous – it’s more dangerous to move around, there’s more factional fighting’he said.

As in Iraq, international news organisations are now heavily dependent on local stringers to source stories from Gaza. Until his abduction, Johnston was the only permanent international journalist in the region and had been due to leave at the end of April.

Helen Boaden, director of BBC News has said that the corporation is unlikely to send a journalist permanently to Gaza but would consider having someone who moves between Kabul and Gaza.

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