Two French journalists now held for 500 days : Only reporters held hostage

Reporters Without Borders repeats its call for the freeing of French journalists Hervé Ghesquière and Stéphane Taponier, and their three Afghan assistants, who are about to start their 500th day in captivity in Afghanistan. They are the only journalists anywhere in the world being held hostage.

They were working for the French TV station France 3 when kidnapped in the Kapisa region of northeastern Afghanistan on 29 December 2009

"There must be further initiatives to get them out,” the press freedom organization said.

“Otherwise it could be too late. Those who have the power to get Hervé and Stéphane freed are certainly in Pakistan, near Quetta. France must plead with Pakistan to intervene and put pressure on the leaders of the Taliban.

“The death of Osama bin Laden has weakened those who thought they were safe in Pakistan. Advantage needs to be taken of that. The way out of this hostage-taking is to be sought more in Islamabad than in Kabul,” Reporters Without Borders said.

For the first time a member of the family of one of those accompanying the journalists has spoken out.

“If the French government and the other countries in the coalition, beginning with the United States and NATO, were better organized, the hostages could be freed in a single day,” the family member said.

“But some countries are not cooperating and there is no coordination between them. For his part Hamid Karzai is not making the necessary efforts.”

According to Abdolhamid Mobarez, president of the National Union of Afghan Journalists (NUAJ), “nothing justifies the holding hostage of these journalists for such a long time.”

“From the start we have been worried about their fate, but we received instructions, particularly from the French authorities who urged us not to talk about their situation, perhaps so as not to get in the way of the negotiations.”

He said he thought that Afghan officials were doing all they could but the problem was Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership was.

“Pressure has to be put on the Islamabad authorities and all possible support used, like that of institutions, civil society organizations and journalists,” he said.

“The death of Osama bin Laden is going to weaken Al-Qaeda. He was their historic head and their main economic resource. I humbly implore the Taliban to free the hostages, they are journalists and should not remain prisoners for having simply done their job.”

Sediqolah Tohidi of the Afghan media protection organization NAI criticized the lack of information about the situation of the hostages, underlining the fact that “nobody wants to raise this issue.”

“Our office has asked for information from the Afghan authorities and officials at the French embassy in Afghanistan,” he said.

“The Afghans have not replied and the embassy asked us to keep quiet for the benefit of the negotiations. It is obvious that here, in the media, they have been forgotten.

“I think that France, unlike the other coalition countries, has reacted very badly, especially in its relationship with the media, taking care not to reveal any information.”

He said that it was the duty of President Hamid Karzai to act, officially or unofficially to call for their freeing.

“At the moment a group of Taliban, with the same ideological line as the hostage-takers, are living under the protection of the government in the middle of Kabul!” he said.

“These people are using the means of communication and the media to serve their goal. Who are they? What are they doing? Journalists are neutral. To inform is their duty and their imprisonment for so long a time is a crime against humanity and against Islam.”

According to Farideh Nikzad, of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association (AIAJ) and editor of the Wakht News agency, detaining the journalists for 500 days is unjust morally and religiously.

“Our association is appalled by this tragedy. We have done everything we have been able to do to get them freed, calling incessantly for their release,” she said.

“But we come up against a wall of silence! Neither the Afghan nor the French authorities want to give us an answer. In December we organized a seminar in the city of Kapisa in the presence of journalists from the region. In a resolution we called for the freeing of the hostages. We reminded the Taliban that at the worst moment of the war journalists were always present and that sometimes they even passed on the messages of the insurgents. So they must be released.

“Some people think that the death of Osama bin Laden will complicate the negotiations. But I wonder in what way journalists who have nothing to with this death, who have been held for more than a year, could be in greater danger? We Afghan journalists are thinking of them and are with them.”

An Afghan journalist who did not want to be identified for safety reasons said he thought the Taliban were in a phase of recovery after the death of Bin Laden

“It is very probable that the position of the hostage-takers is evolving. This Taliban group might envisage proceeding to an exchange of prisoners and might equally accept reconsidering a ransom for their liberation. Because 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.”

Over 10 years many journalists have been kidnapped in Afghanistan. On 31 March 2010 freelance reporter Kosuke Tsuneoka was seized, then freed on 5 September after five months in captivity. In September 2009 a New York Times team, made up of reporters Stephen Farrell and Sultan Munadi, was kidnapped by Taliban in the Kunduz region. Sultan Munadi was killed in a British operation to release them. In October 2001 the Taliban held Japanese journalist Yanagida Daigen near the frontier with Pakistan.

As Ghesquière and Taponier and their three local employees begin their 500th day in captivity, Reporters Without Borders remains mobilized and reaffirms its support to their families and those close to them.

From 13 to 17 May large portraits of the journalists will be displayed in more than 50 parks, gardens and squares in Paris. The pictures will be accompanied by a notice reminding people that this is the longest hostage-taking of French journalists since 1989.

A solidarity rally will begin at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Place des Vosges in Paris in the presence of Reporters Without Borders, the Support Committee, the City Hall of Paris and the families.

In addition Reporters Without Frontiers has launched the operation “A mosaic against forgetting,” calling on Internet users to build a virtual mosaic with the aid of their Facebook profile. Facebook members should go to http://500jours.soutienherveetsteph.... Every profile picture downloaded will make the faces of the two journalists appear.