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France

French TV journalists mark 500 days in Taliban captivity

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2011-05-13

Friday marks 500 days since two French journalists were taken hostage by Taliban forces in Afghanistan. The continuing plight of Hervé Ghesquière and Stéphane Taponier underscores the dangers of reporting from conflict zones.


Reporter Hervé Ghesquière and cameraman Stéphane Taponier marked a 500th day in captivity on Friday. The now-renowned journalists for the TV channel France 3 were captured by Taliban forces on 29 December 2009, some 60 kilometres from Kabul, along with their three Afghan assistants. According to Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press freedom organisation, Taponier and Ghesquière are the only journalists in the world currently being held hostage.

In France they have become a national cause célèbre. Enormous banners of their side-by-side portraits have been hung up in 50 prominent spots across the capital with the legend, “Release the hostages!” Their images are found on news sites, stencilled onto stickers, displayed in town halls and broadcast at the end of news bulletins. It would be hard for someone living in France not to know who they were.
 
Regular rallies organised in support of the pair, including one to mark their 500th day of captivity, have attracted thousands in Paris and across the country. An October 2010 concert aiming to call attention to their plight was held in one of Paris’s biggest concert halls and a petition calling for their release attracted 80,000 signatures in December.
 
Hopes were raised in September when a senior military official hinted that the pair could be home by Christmas. But by the end of last year, negotiations had failed to achieve results. Today, Ghesquière and Taponier have been in captivity longer than any other French journalist hostages since 1989.  
 
Death of bin Laden: potentially fatal
 
In a video broadcast in April this year, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that his refusal to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan gave the "green light" for the deaths of Ghesquière and Taponier. “The release of your prisoners in the hands of our brothers is linked to the withdrawal of your soldiers from our country," he said. 
 
So when bin Laden was killed earlier this month, alarm bells started ringing. Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppé quickly brushed aside concerns that the incident would block negotiations with the captors, but admitted that it was unlikely to help matters either
 
RSF has called on the French government to take advantage of the situation: “Those who have the power to get Hervé and Stéphane freed are certainly in Pakistan. The death of Osama bin Laden has weakened those who thought they were safe [there]. France must plead with Pakistan to intervene,” they said in a statement released on Thursday.
 
An Afghan journalist cited by the organisation, who wished to remain anonymous, said that bin Laden’s death might actually help negotiations. “This Taliban group, after the death of Osama bin Laden, could lose part of its financial support from al Qaeda and would therefore be more disposed to settle this matter. (…) They might reconsider a ransom.”
 
Juppé avoided raising any hopes, however, noting that the pair could become the objects of retaliation for the death of the al Qaeda leader. 
 
Lucky to be alive?
 
Reporting from conflict areas is always a dangerous business. In 2010, 57 journalists were killed doing their jobs and 171 were imprisoned.
 
This year the number is expected to be even higher, after uprisings across the Arab world saw a spike in casualties. Despite a wave of movements across the Middle East calling for greater freedoms – including press freedom – the situation for journalists covering the story is not a stable one.  
 
“There have never been so many journalists arrested and assassinated in the Arab world as at the start of this year,” RSF secretary-general Jean-François Julliard told reporters on Thursday.
 
Gallagher Fenwick Interview Part 3
A team of FRANCE 24 journalists was arrested and detained by forces loyal to then-president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo during the anti-Mubarak uprising. After being severely beaten and forced to endure a mock execution, the team was released 36 hours later.
 
Others are not as fortunate.
 
British photojournalist Tim Hetherington and American photographer Chris Hondros were killed on 20 April covering the rebel battle for Misrata in western Libya. 
 
Also in Libya, US reporters Clare Morgana Gillis and James Foley, along with Spanish photographer Manuel Bravo, were captured by Gaddafi forces on 5 April and remain in prison in Tripoli. South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl is believed to have been arrested the same day but has not been heard from since.   
 
The whereabouts of American-Canadian al Jazeera journalist Dorothy Parvaz are also uncertain after she was detained on arrival at Damascus airport on 29 April. Syrian officials informed al Jazeera that Parvaz had been deported to Iran because she also holds Iranian citizenship.
 
An al Jazeera statement this week said the channel remains “deeply concerned” about her welfare.

 

Date created : 2011-05-13

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