Taken: Alan Johnston

'Nightline' Tonight: BBC Reporter Alan Johnston on His Kidnapping in Gaza


Oct. 29, 2007 —

Earlier this year, I took a phone call from an ex-colleague at the BBC in London.

"Alan Johnston's been kidnapped."

He'd been taken on an ordinary Monday morning on March 12.

It was as shocking as it was unsurprising. The BBC's Gaza correspondent had been the only Western journalist who chose to live in the middle of the story he was reporting…Gaza. Some might have been tempted to say that he had now paid the price for his commitment.

Just a year older than myself, Alan worked with me for the BBC's network news division throughout the 1990s. I tended to cover domestic issues, Alan was forever away on a foreign foray. From Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, and then on to Gaza, he was drawn to dangerous places. Yet his reporting was always measured, impartial -- almost understated.

Now, for the first time in more than 20 years of distinguished journalism, Alan Johnston was silent. And nobody knew where or how he was.

From the moment he was taken, the BBC did everything in its power to locate the hostage takers. Working with the British Consulate in Jerusalem and employing its own security team, messages were sent out to various factions.

Almost immediately, sources had suggested a group called the Army of Islam as the likely kidnappers. Given the history of such abductions, there was the ever present fear that Johnston would be executed.

And then, just over a month after he'd been abducted on April 16, a Palestinian Islamist group claimed to have killed him and promised to release video recordings of their murderous act on the Internet. No such video was ever released.

But with no sign from anyone that Alan was still alive, many of us were tempted to lose hope.

It was a few days later that the BBC's Head of World News made contact. He explained that journalists from around the world would be gathering to campaign for Alan's release on May 3: World Press Freedom Day. He asked if I would speak outside the United Nations building in New York and explained that this would be taken live and broadcast around the world by the BBC's World Service television and radio channels.

I leapt at the opportunity to do something constructive, something that would allow me manifest my concern for a fellow journalist. And yet what does one say?

I spoke to a forensic psychiatrist in the U.K. with expertise in this area, and discussed some of the language I might use. I also spent a few days reading some of Alan's most recent dispatches.

What became clear is that though he was always impartial in describing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, his reporting was never less than compassionate. I therefore focused on his compassion and also appealed to the Middle Eastern respect for family and asked the kidnappers to consider that there would be no winners in this abduction -- that their cause would not be assisted by silencing the very journalist who chose to live among them.

The event itself was very well attended and even U.N. delegates came out to show their support and to stand alongside the community of journalists. But despite the gathering, we heard nothing. For weeks.

Then on June 1, almost three months after he was taken, a video was posted on the Web. It featured Alan sitting in a bright red jump suit speaking to camera, but the words were not his own. He was apparently condemning British and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Yet all of us were overwhelmed with relief that he was alive and did not appear to be injured or hurt in any physical sense.

After three months of silence, a second video would be released three weeks later. But this time the images were much more disturbing. Alan was wearing what appeared to be a vest containing a series of explosives. He would tell the camera that these would be detonated unless the kidnappers' demands were met.

As Alan's incarceration continued, members of Hamas had surrounded a particular area of Gaza where they believed he was being held. The BBC's security advisers had also focused on the same area. Hamas began issuing threats that unless the journalist was released, they would storm certain houses and kill all occupants.

A week later, on July 4, I was sitting in the "Nightline" studio. Just before the broadcast began, I received an e-mail from a former colleague at the BBC. Alan Johnston had been released. Our production team in the control room quickly punched up the satellite feed and we watched live pictures from Gaza. Amidst scenes of chaos with gunmen jostling and flashlights shining…there was Alan.

We announced his release during the show and I felt my eyes filling with tears at the sheer joy of seeing him. Alive.

He was quickly moved to Jerusalem and soon reunited with his family in the U.K. And now, almost four months after Independence Day, Alan has agreed to be interviewed for tonight's broadcast. And though I've yet to speak with him personally, he sent word ahead.

Little did I know that despite him being held in a darkened room throughout his ordeal, with no freedom of movement and barely able to see -- he'd been forced to discard his disposable contact lenses and did not have any spectacles -- his kidnappers had granted him the one window that he longed for: a small radio. Incredibly, Alan Johnston heard every word that I spoke at the U.N. Tonight we'll hear from him.