REPORTING RISKS LEAVE GAZA NEGLECTED

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Erez Crossing

About a hundred foreign journalists gathered at the Erez crossing – the gateway from Israel to Gaza – to show solidarity with the kidnapped BBC correspondent, Alan Johnston.

Holding placards and pictures of the kidnapped correspondent, the journalists rallied in a dusty car park in front of the crossing’s new, gleaming terminal building.

“Alan is the only foreign correspondent living full time in the Gaza Strip,” said the chairman of the Foreign Press Association, Simon McGregor-Wood.

“In doing so for three years he showed his personal commitment and that of the BBC to report the story of Gaza and its people in a fair and balanced way,” he added.

The BBC’s deputy head of Newsgathering, Jonathan Baker, also on the Israeli side of Erez crossing, said he was making a direct plea to those who are holding Mr Johnston to release him immediately.

“His only offence has been to expose himself to personal danger because of his strong desire to bring the story of Gaza to the outside world,” he said.

Commitment

Four hundred metres away – through the labyrinth of tunnels, turnstiles and X-ray machines that separate Israel from the Gaza Strip – a group of 40 Palestinian journalists marched up to the crossing.

“Free Alan, Free Alan,” they chanted, kicking up the dust on the road as they walked.

Back on the Israeli side, Donald Macintyre, a foreign journalist who knows Alan Johnston well, praised him for his journalistic commitment.

“You’d see him in the Al-Deira [a hotel in Gaza] and he would always cheer you up,” the correspondent for the Independent newspaper said.

“He had always discovered a bizarre aspect about life in Gaza that made you laugh.

“He was incredibly plugged into all that was happening in the territory and would always be willing to help you out.”
Donald MacintyreForeign correspondent

Since Alan Johnston’s kidnapping, very few foreign journalists have ventured into the territory.

‘Trust is gone’

The Foreign Press Association recently issued a statement saying Gaza had become a “no-go zone” for its several hundred members.

Most of the foreign journalists that have entered the territory in recent weeks have been accompanied by security forces provided by the Palestinian president’s office.

But many foreign journalists covering Palestinian issues are nervous about returning to the
Gaza Strip, which they once visited freely.

“I’d be very slow to go back to Gaza,” said Ed O’Loughlin, a correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

“Up until now there has always been the assumption that there will be protection from the Palestinian authority or from Arabic and Islamic customs on treating guests. Now that trust is gone.”

“But if the story was worth it, I’d go back. The days, however, of routine visits are over.”
Instead, international organisations have been relying almost entirely on their local staff to gather information for reports.

Many Palestinian journalists are also concerned by the increasing risk and have been calling on the Palestinian Authority to vastly improve the law and order situation in the territory.
In terms of news, they also fear that Gaza could be neglected by the wider world.

“It only serves to limit the coverage in the Gaza Strip, if foreign journalists stop going,” said Walid Batrawi, a Palestinian correspondent for the Arabic satellite TV station, Al-Jazeera.
“The human stories of the people of Gaza will not be told.”

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