Johnston abduction has 'sharpened minds'

News units rethink assignments

LONDON -- As the fate of kidnapped BBC Gaza reporter Alan Johnston hangs in the balance, his abduction has prompted news organizations here to re-assess the impact and risk of reporting from hostile environments.

Kidnapped on his way from work in March, Johnston will have been missing for 100 days on Wednesday and is believed to be held by armed Palestinian group the Army of Islam.

The threat of kidnap in such regions as Iraq, Gaza, Somalia and the Palestinian territories is a mounting concern for broadcast news organizations and their personnel, and an increasingly dangerous fact of life for reporters and crews based there.

"From our point of view, there is a constant fear of kidnap, and the risk is always there. It is something we fear all of the time," said Andrew North, the BBC's Baghdad correspondent, in an interview from the BBC's news compound in Iraq.

"Since Alan was kidnapped, the situation has gotten even worse here because of the kidnapping last month of five Britons from a government ministry," he added. "That has underlined the threat here; we think about it all the time."

Even within the Green Zone -- the four-square-mile protected area in Baghdad where Westerners are based -- the situation is deteriorating, North said, adding that mortar fire, bombings and gunfire are an ever-present threat.

"Nowhere is safe," he said. "A gun battle broke out near the house where we are based a few nights ago, and we all ended up ducking for cover."

The BBC is one of the few remaining news organizations to have a permanent bureau in Baghdad alongside U.S. networks including ABC, NBC, CNN and Fox.

But even those broadcasters that have withdrawn from Iraq on the grounds of security are reviewing their safety procedures across the board.

"We are in the middle of undergoing a review of our kidnap policy; our security department is looking at the whole issue of what we would do in a kidnap situation," said Adrian Wells, head of foreign news at Sky News, the British Sky Broadcasting-owned news channel.

"Alan's situation has sharpened minds in terms of trying to decide a clear idea of how we would have reacted in a similar situation," he said. "We've been taking a lot of advice from experts in hostage negotiation, the kidnap unit of London's Metropolitan Police and security experts."

Wells said he regards the situation for reporters on the ground in such territories as "incredibly worrying" and said the issue of kidnapping is a "constant concern." Last year, a local Palestinian staffer for the broadcaster, Abu Askar, was kidnapped in Gaza last year but was released after just a few hours.

Since Johnston's kidnapping, Sky News reporters, like the rest of their Western colleagues, have been pulled out of Gaza, reporting instead from nearby territories like Jerusalem.

The BBC declined to comment on any aspects of the Johnston kidnapping. A spokeswoman for the organization said that "due to the sensitivity of the situation," it would not discuss the journalist's plight.

"We just don't want to say anything that might add to the situation," she said.

But security experts familiar with the challenges of stationing reporters in hostile environments believe that BBC bosses and security experts will have been working closely with the British Foreign Office and local officials to set up a dialogue with the kidnappers.

"The concern for the BBC has been twofold," said one source who asked to remain confidential. "The first is about whether this group wants money or weapons, because they can't seem to be paying via the back door or the front."

The second concern is about the possibility of a bungled rescue mission that could result in Johnston's death.

"The problem is, even if you know where he is, you don't want the Palestinian security services rescuing him because the most risky thing would be a mangled shootout trying to get him back."

Officially, the pubcaster has mounted a campaign and vigils to keep Johnston's situation in the public eye, and BBC director Mark Thompson traveled to the region to meet local Palestinian officials to call for the reporter's release.

Tony Maddox, CNN International's managing director/executive vp and a former longtime BBC staffer, said he's been impressed with the way the BBC has dealt with the situation.

"They're living the nightmare we all have, and they've handled it with great dignity," he said. "Our view on Gaza is that to retain some kind of presence there is going to require the kind of infrastructure that we currently have in Baghdad, and that's just not feasible."

Paul J. Gough in New York contributed to this report.