Speech by Alan Johnston, the BBC reporter kidnapped in Gaza last year and held for 144 days, to the NUJ/CPBF conference “New Threats to Media Freedom”, in London on January 26. Read more reports and listen to audio here and here.
I know we’re here to talk about other things, but all of you know how much the NUJ and many people in this room did with regard to the campaign to secure my freedom last year. I’ve tried to express my gratitude for that in many ways since I have been freed, but I’ll say once more time here that I am immensely grateful it was hugely important, and I am really in the debt of anyone who took part n that campaign in any way.
Moving on to the matters of today, I often think back to a perfect evening in Cairo in the months before 9/11. I remember being at a small gathering of journalists at a big old villa near the Nile and chatting on the lawn to two of my colleagues, Frank Gardner and the former Baghdad correspondent Caroline Horley. Of course all 3 of us were fascinated by the middle east and everything that happens there. That evening we couldn’t know that in the years ahead each of us would be touched very personally by the violence and the rising rage in the Arab world.
As many of you know in 2004 Frank Gardner was chased and gunned down by Islamist militants in the streets of Riyadh and suffered the most appalling injuries. Soon afterwards Caroline was having dinner in a hotel in Jordan when a suicide bomber walked in. In the room above here an entire Palestinian wedding party was devastated and Caroline saw things that I know will stay with her all her life on that night. And of course last year I was kidnapped in Gaza by the Army of Islam.
But at least we three survived. Frank’s cameraman Simon Cumbers lies buried in Ireland and my colleague Kate Peyton was shot dead in Mogadishu. If you look at each of those incidents you can begin to see a rather obvious pattern. Frank and Simon weren’t trying to make contact with Jihadis when they were attacked. They were on the edge of a rougher part of town but they were only filming in the street. Caroline of course was just having dinner. I was driving home when I was ambushed. None of us were looking for trouble at the time, we were targeted because we were westerners or we were in a place linked with westerners.
On the first night of my kidnap in the one face to face conversation I had with the leader of the gang that was holding me he asked me if I was, as he put it, a crusader like George Bush. I said I didn’t feel that I was, that the average crusader wouldn’t have chosen to spend the previous three years telling the stories of the refugee camps of Gaza. But I saw his remark like this. There are unfortunately some people in the west who regard all Arabs as terrorists or potential terrorists and the leader of my kidnapers was a kind of mirror image of that, he saw all westerners as crusaders or potential crusaders.
Those blanket, dehumanising assessments of the other camp are very much part of the current confrontation between the east and the west and perhaps those sorts of views are part of what accounts for the continued captivity of our colleague Sami al-Haj, the Al-Jazeera cameraman who has been held in Guantanamo Bay for some 5 years without trial.
Just the week before last we saw a bomb in the only decent hotel in Kabul killing a Norwegian colleague and afterwards the Taliban said all westerners would be targeted anywhere in the city and the country.
For a long time we have, rightly, put great faith in the argument that as journalists we ought somehow to be immune, that we are non-combatants, merely observers there to try to explain what’s happening and that our work will in the end be to the benefit of some sort of justice
Again and again journalists in the hands of dangerous men at checkpoints or on frontlines around the world have reached for that very reasonable defence. God knows it hasn’t always worked, and at times it has felt very tenuous indeed, I know that myself. But you feel that in recent years the power of our great argument has been eroding. And in some places now it means very little indeed. I can tell you that on the night of March 12, the first night of my captivity in that cell in Gaza, I made our argument for myself and it counted for nothing. The leader of the Army of Gaza said I had made a nice speech but it would not set me free.
All this has an impact on how and what and where we can report. The BBC was the only western media outfit to have a correspondent based permanently in Gaza. But what happened to me convulsed the organisation. For a while it looked like I was dead and gone. And in the real world the BBC is now much more wary about sending people into Gaza. Just as dangers of similar kinds have restricted the way that w e can report in Somalia and Iraq, when you translate that across the board you see that of course other organisations make similar choices and generally much less gets exposed or written about in the most important places than we would all like.
In some ways technology has come to our aid in recent years. It is much easier now via the internet, mobile phones, satellite phones and so on to tap into the work of bloggers, local journalists and others in places like Iraq. If the traditional work of journalists from outside a warzone is more difficult to carry out we still here more readily now from local people living and breathing the conflict, and you might well argue that those kinds of people can anyway bring far more feel and insight into the realities of life in Baghdad than the likes of me ever could, and I absolutely accept that.
But I would still say that there is very much a place for the reporter from outside trying to play the role of a more neutral observer. I know there are limits to anyone’s capacity to claim to be neutral. I am a middle class westerner from a Judeo-Christian society. We all have baggage of that kind from our past and some of it is sometimes difficult to set aside however hard we try. But I think that those on one side or the other in any conflict can have their limitations when it comes to reporting the drama around them. Whether the average journalist in 1945 in this country would have been able to provide the most nuanced, balanced account of the decision to firebomb Dresden say, with all its moral implications, you might have been better to go to a more neutral journalist for that.
And anyway local journalists are in many parts of the world are under the most appalling pressures, often very much worse than those experienced by visiting reporters. Just look at the number of Iraqi journalists who have been killed in recent years. And although Gaza might be less violent in that respect, local reporters there are very conscious indeed of the sensitivities of covering the fight between Hamas and Fatah. They walk a kind of tightrope and it is easy to make very dangerous enemies.
So on many fronts we see the people of our professions struggling to do their job in the places where their work is most needed. So what do we do about it? The one thing that we must do through our newspapers and broadcasting channels is focus attention on it. Since being freed in Gaza I’ve become more aware of the amount of work that organisations like the NUJ, RSF, the CPJ, Amnesty and other do to raise the general awareness of the centrality of the importance of freedom of speech and the work of the media. We’d certainly be in a worse position if it hadn’t been for decades of effort of that kind, and that effort must of course go on.
But it is always going to be hard to make an impact on the ground, I’m talking here about reaching down to the level of the kind of people who really do the damage, the people who threaten or abduct or kill journalists. The angry or drunk soldier on a checkpoint, the party hardman or the extremist kidnapper. These are people who aren’t easily persuaded by reason and the wider moral picture. They move to different rhythms, motivated by ideology or money or the pursuit of power, in their narrow, brutal world.
There are no quick fixes. Sometimes the dangers only really pass with the coming of a degree of order, the coming of some kind of peace or justice. There were times I’m sure when it was very hard to do the best kind of journalism in South Africa, say. I’m sure there are challenges there still, but it is a place that has moved on to something better. And what we must hope is that in many still troubled places policies will change and reason will gradually prevail, even if progress of that kind is almost always painfully slow.
But unless the world’s decision makers or their electorates have a flow of information from places like Gaza and Iraq and Afghanistan and Somalia they won’t know the realities of the situations there, they won’t be equipped with the facts and the understanding that are the basis on which wise choices are made. Of course supplying those facts, providing that understanding, locally and internationally, is the job of us journalists. Our work may be harder and harder to do but it certainly does remain profoundly worth doing.