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JOURNALIST FREED; FIXER AND DRIVER IN CUSTODY

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and other IFEX members welcomed the release of a Canadian TV journalist who spent four weeks in captivity, and continue to call for the release of her fixer and driver, who are in custody.

Mellissa Fung, a correspondent with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), was abducted while on assignment at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the Afghan capital of Kabul on 12 October. She described her 28-day ordeal to Afghan intelligence, saying she was shackled and blindfolded as she languished in a small underground cave.

The CBC confirmed that Shakoor Ferog, Fung's fixer, and his brother, who served as her driver, are in custody. According to CJFE, they were detained when they went to the police station to report Fung's kidnapping. It is unclear whether they were being held out of suspicion or for their own protection.

"Our attention and that of the Canadian government must turn to Fung's colleague Ferog ... He has worked for the CBC for over five years, and has put his life on the line countless times in supporting CBC journalists," said CJFE.

The Taliban has repeatedly denied responsibility for Fung's kidnapping and instead says the Islamist group Hizb-e-Islami is to blame.

The Canadian government has denied reports that Taliban prisoners were exchanged for Fung's release or that a ransom was paid, say local news media. An Afghan official said Fung was freed after local tribal elders and provincial council members negotiated her release.

A day before Fung's release, another foreign female journalist was freed - a week after being kidnapped. Dutch national Joanie de Rijke was abducted near Kabul, while working on a story for Belgian magazine "P" about French soldiers killed in a Taliban ambush in August, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Fung has only just spoken publicly to Canadian news outlets, which suppressed news of her kidnapping at the request of the CBC as part of an international effort to try to ensure her safe release. De Rijke's case was not covered either.

A secret "operations" room in Toronto, staffed by CBC employees and the company's security advisers, kept a small group of people, including Fung's parents, up to date on developments while media outlets in Canada agreed to an unprecedented news blackout.

That blackout - on the advice of security experts who said that any attention or media coverage of such kidnappings escalates the incident and often leads to dire results - was instrumental in Fung's safe release, the CBC said.

CJFE also defended the decision. "As a free expression organisation we believe in the importance of access to information, but our foremost concern is for the protection and safety of journalists," said CJFE.

But the embargo has also raised media ethics questions. Readers' comments on the websites of several news organisations have asked whether the same regard would have been shown for another kidnap victim who was not a member of the media. Concerns have also been raised on what else the news media have kept secret.

Visit these links:
- CJFE: http://tinyurl.com/6lzses
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/5vhaxk
- International Federation of Journalists: http://tinyurl.com/5gukwc
- CBC: http://tinyurl.com/6qeb9h
(12 November 2008)

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