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CAPSULE REPORT: IPI mission calls on government to resolve case of journalist Alan Johnston

(IPI/IFEX) - The following is a 12 June 2007 IPI mission statement:

Vienna, 12 June 2007

IPI Mission to Ramallah Says the Palestinian Authority National Unity Government Will Also be Judged by Ability to Resolve Alan Johnston's Case

The International Press Institute (IPI) carried out a four-day visit to the Palestinian Authority (PA) from 4 - 7 June 2007 to advocate for the release of kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston.

While in Ramallah, the mission met with President Mahmoud Abbas, the President's Chief of Staff Rafiq Husseini, Deputy Prime Minister Azzam Al Ahmed, Minister of Information Mustafa Barghouti, Minister of Planning Sameer Abu Eisheh, Minister of Local Government Mohamed Barghouti and Ghazi Hamad, Spokesman of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The mission also met with representatives of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, the Palestinian News Agency and other interested parties.

Johnston was abducted by masked gunmen while on his way home from his office in Gaza City on the evening of 12 March. At the time of his abduction, Johnston, who has been the BBC correspondent in Gaza for three years, was the only Western broadcast journalist both living and working there.

According to senior PA officials, Johnston is being held by Mumtaz Durmush, the leader of a militant group which refers to itself as the Army of Islam. The group released a video of Johnston on 1 June, the first images released since his abduction.

The mission heard from sources who are in contact with Johnston's kidnappers that the journalist is being held in safe conditions and remains in good health. The mission noted that widespread condemnation of Johnston's kidnapping was voiced by government officials representing all parties in the national unity government and was encouraged by comments that Johnston's release remains a top priority.

Officials who met with the mission expressed their desire to resolve Johnston's case quickly, and successfully, and noted that concern for the journalist's safety was the most important factor in any plans to secure his release. Officials also noted that deteriorating security conditions throughout Gaza, worsened by the increase in inter-Palestinian fighting in recent months, have led to widespread destabilisation throughout the whole of the Gaza Strip. These conditions, as well as ongoing sanctions and embargoes against the national unity government, have seriously affected the ability of authorities to maintain the rule of law.

In its meetings with the local press, the mission praised the support given to Johnston by journalists' groups and civil society organisations throughout the West Bank and Gaza and noted that these groups have been rigorous in their efforts to advocate for Johnston's release. The mission encouraged the local media to continue with these efforts and to maintain their public pressure on Johnston's captors to release him immediately.

In each of its meetings, the mission noted with grave concern that Johnston's kidnapping has had a devastating impact on press freedom in the territories. The risk of kidnap for journalists is extremely high and foreign news media have been warned against travelling to Gaza. As a result, the task of reporting now rests entirely with local journalists who carry out their work amid heightened risk of attack and increased concern for their personal safety. These concerns have also led to a greater degree of self censorship among the local media.

Such conditions for journalists severely restrict the free flow of news and information between Gaza and the outside world. The inability of journalists to report freely and without fear of harassment and intimidation has created a news vacuum in which the Gaza story is effectively not being told.

With this in mind, the mission expressed its strong belief that independent, accurate and fair reporting by journalists is particularly important in societies confronted by conflict and stressed the central importance of press freedom and freedom of expression as fundamental components of a democratic society and an essential element for building lasting peace.

The mission called on all parties to the conflict in the Palestinian Authority to respect freedom of the press and to immediately halt all threats, harassment, abductions and attacks against media workers.

The mission also called on President Abbas and all other government officials to strengthen their efforts to secure Johnston's safe and immediate release. The mission respectfully reminded these representatives that the effectiveness of the newly formed national unity government will be judged by its ability to bring about a positive resolution to Johnston's case.

The IPI delegation was comprised of:

- Piotr Niemczycki - IPI Chairman, Publisher, Gazeta Wyborcza, Warsaw, Poland
- Johann Fritz - Director, International Press Institute (IPI), Vienna, Austria
- Radwan Abu Ayyash - Former Chairman, Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation
- Boris Bergant - Vice President, European Broadcasting Union; Advisor to the Director-General RTV Slovenia
- Kadri Gursel - Foreign News Editor, Milliyet, Istanbul, Turkey
- Isma'ila Isa - Publisher, The Democrat, Kaduna, Nigeria
- Viktor Kocher - Middle East Correspondent, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zurich, Switzerland
- Daoud Kuttab - Director, Institute for Modern Media, Al Quds University, Ramallah, Palestine
- Catherine Power - IPI Middle East and North Africa Coordinator, Vienna, Austria

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