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Foreigners targeted in Yemen kidnappings

Media watchdogs say reporters, and foreigners in general, are at growing risk from a booming kidnapping industry.

Last Modified: 03 Aug 2013 13:40
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Dutch couple appeal for help in this still image taken from an undated video posted on a social media site [Reuters]

Amsterdam, The Netherlands - A video confirming fears that a Dutch couple had been kidnapped in Yemen has increased concerns about the risks facing journalists in the country.

Evidence that Dutch freelance journalist Judith Spiegel and her husband Boudewijn Berendsen had been seized was posted on YouTube in mid-July.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is warning that reporters are now seen as "high-value targets" in a wave of kidnapping that has plagued the country, while Reporters Without Borders has voiced alarm at the growing threat to media staff.

In the the minute-and-a-half video, Spiegel and Berendsen - missing since June - appear scared and tearful as they plead for help.

"My name is Boudewijn Berendsen…"

"And my name is Judith Spiegel. We are kidnapped, here in Yemen. We have a huge problem," they tell the camera.

Negotiations to secure their release are not proceeding well, Spiegel adds: "So far, nothing has been done. No reaction, no results. These people are armed. If there’s no solution, they will kill us."

It remains unclear who is holding the couple, who claim on the video that their captors were demanding progress within 10 days, but do not specify what their demands are.

Their abductors' deadline has since expired.

Premonition

The freelance journalist and stringer for multiple Dutch media knew she risked kidnap, writing in a column for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad in March: "When I’m lying awake at night, I realise that I’m nowhere safe in this country...

"The idea of having to spend months with these extremists troubles me, and I don’t want to appear in a movie with a Kalashnikov pointed to my head, as happened to Dominik [Neubauer, an Austrian student who appeared in a video in February 2013], " she wrote.

Soon after Spiegel and Berendsen were reported missing, a Sanaa police official told Yemeni press it was likely they had been kidnapped .

Both the Yemeni and Dutch government remain tight-lipped about the case, and the journalist’s parents have released few details about what is known.

Frans Timmermans, the Dutch foreign affairs minister, posted on his Facebook page a short statement claiming that victims of abduction always have the ministry’s full attention and that it was important to remain calm.

In a a short written statement, Spiegel’s parents said they knew the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was dealing with the case.

"We realise it’s [the ministry’s] policy that no information is released, and that when it does, it’ll be us knowing first.

"Of course, we find this very difficult, but our only priority is that Judith and Boudewijn are released as soon as possible and are in safety."

The Yemeni human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman called on her Facebook page for the country’s president and prime minister to direct their personal attention towards efforts to effect the pair’s release.

"If not for Judith and her husband, for the sake of the reputation of Yemen that’s worsening with each passing day this couple is kidnapped," she wrote.

Wave of kidnapping

Anthropologist Marina de Regt, who has worked and lived in Yemen and knows Spiegel, told Al Jazeera that kidnapping was now a prominent feature of life in the country where an old "tradition" has grown into a lucrative business.

"The situation has become increasingly dangerous since the Arab Spring in 2011," said de Regt.

Recent victims include a Finnish couple and Neubauer, kidnapped by al-Qaeda fighters then freed four months later. A week ago, an Iranian embassy employee was seized by gunmen.

"It’s a result of the Yemeni government, not being able to hold on to its people, which is devastating for the country," explained de Regt.

"The Netherlands and Yemen have a very good relationship, and are probably working very closely to solve this. Still, every case differs... [and that is] what makes it so difficult to negotiate."

The CPJ argues that "disgruntled tribesmen have resorted to abductions to pressure the government to release imprisoned family members and extort political and financial compensation. Some captives have been sold to, or abducted by, al-Qaeda linked Islamist militants".

Quirine Eijkman, a researcher at the  Counterterrorism Centre of Leiden University , told Al Jazeera: "Over the past two years, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has grown stronger, making Yemen a more fragile country than it already was.

"It’s not for nothing that the United States started employing drone strikes in Yemen. Although I believe that because of these drone attacks, bad sentiment and anger towards the West has grown."

Reporters Without Borders condemned the abduction, and media outlets have expressed their concern for Spiegel and Boudewijn and are following the case closely.

Rebecca Murray, a journalist who has worked for Al Jazeera from Yemen, praised her Dutch colleague: "[Judith] is one of the few foreigners here that has ventured beyond compound walls and the sensational headlines, to show the world what Yemen and Yemenis are really like, and the daily hardships they face."

Murray stressed that all the Yemenis she knows - including local journalists - were outraged at the kidnapping.

"There is always a nagging fear you could be abducted on your way to or from the field," she said.

"We are definitely watching each others' backs more closely, evaluating risk and tightening security precautions. But as journalists, we still need to go out to get the real story."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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