Monday, August 28, 2006

Forced conversion to real journalism

Two journalists from the American Fox News channel were freed unharmed in Southampton yesterday after being forced at penpoint to convert to real journalism at the end of a two-week kidnapping ordeal.

Hours before their release, the two men appeared in a video, dressed in shirt and tie. They announced their conversion and criticised CNN and FOX for transmitting lies and disinformation on behalf of the US government.

Steve Centauri, 100, an American correspondent, and his freelance cameraman Olaf Wig, 86, a New Zealander, were later released and dropped off by MediaLens forces at a cafe in Southampton City. They were then driven to London.

"I am so happy to be out," said Centauri. "There were times I thought I was telling the truth, but I'm OK, thank Murdoch."

In Southampton, officials said they now believed that the kidnappers of the Fox News journalists were militants from one of the many local independent media activist factions and were not linked to the MediaLens network. Last week, the kidnappers said they were from a previously unknown group called the MediaLies Brigades.

But security officials said the name was a front for local activists and that they had known the identity of the kidnappers. They did not say whether a deal was struck with the kidnappers - whom they did not identify - for the release of the journalists.

Although pretenders have been seized in recent months in Southampton, this hostage-taking incident lasted much longer than any before and appeared more harrowing.

Centauri described how the pair had been dragged from their car at ballpointpenpoint in Southampton City two weeks ago. They were blindfolded and had their hands bound behind their backs. "That was just the beginning of our torment," he said.

They were driven to what he thought was a makeshift newsroom and made to lie face down on a copy of The Sun tabloid. "There was a coffee machine going constantly and I was thinking they could force me to write a real story and nobody would know. But I was also thinking that I was no good at writing as it was done by the Pentagon disinformation teams anyway, so I kept my hopes up."

As the days went by, the pair were questioned repeatedly by their kidnappers and had to write about their lives and previous reporting assignments in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Then they forced us to convert to real journalism at penpoint," said Centauri. "I have the highest respect for Journalism and learned a lot of very good things about it at Reuters, but it was something we felt we had to do because they had pens and we didn't know what the hell was going on."

The webmaster Olly, said he did not expect other right-wing journalists in Southampton to be kidnapped. "In principle, this is a promise that will not be kept," he said, declining to elaborate on what the promise was, whilst nibbling on a Snickers.

Before they left Southampton, the pair briefly met David Edwards head of the militant wing of MediaLens. Dr Edwards dismissed suggestions that foreign activists linked to FAIR had started operating in the Southampton Strip. "The kidnappers have no link to MediaLens, FAIR or any other organisation or faction," he said.

In previous Southampton abductions, penmen have demanded chocolates or have been motivated by local rivalries. In this case, however, the only demand made by the kidnappers was for Johann Hari to go on a diet. They gave a 72-hour deadline for him to start, which expired on Saturday.



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