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Mysterious Gaza kidnapping stirs U.S. media debate

Written by: Staff

ERUSALEM, Aug 23 (Reuters) In the nine days since two Fox News journalists were kidnapped in Gaza, one of the more notable aspects of the case had been the relative silence that surrounded it, both in Gaza and in much of the media.

While a previously unknown group, the ''Holy Jihad Brigades'', claimed responsibility for the abductions today, and issued a 72-hour deadline for the United States to release Muslim prisoners or face unspecified consequences, mystery and debate still shroud the kidnappings.

American Steve Centanni, 60, a Fox correspondent, and Olaf Wiig, 36, a New Zealand-born freelance cameraman, were seized by armed men on a Gaza City street on August 14. The abduction is now the longest-lasting in Gaza for more than a year.

Previous kidnappings -- there have been at least seven involving foreigners since August last year, when Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza after 38 years of occupation -- have usually ended after a few hours, or at most a few days.

As well as the timeframe, what's also different this time around is the lack of knowledge about the ''Holy Jihad Brigades'' -- normally, well-known militant groups claim responsibility and make simple demands, often merely asking for jobs.

Foreign security experts say they are stumped by the Fox abductions, which have prompted Western diplomats to warn British and American journalists not to travel to Gaza because of a ''credible threat'' of further kidnappings.

While Wiig's wife, former BBC World presenter Anita McNaught, has travelled to Gaza to appeal for his release, Fox has largely been silent over the abduction. A Fox News employee in Jerusalem today referred calls to the network's public relations department in New York, which did not return calls.

The emergence of the claim and the release of a video of the pair today may spark more intense coverage, but so far, and perhaps in part because of Fox's reluctance to speak out about the case, silence has been the watchword.

MEDIA STEW In the United States, the relative lack of coverage has given rise to a debate over whether Fox, criticised by some as a right-of-centre broadcaster, is being given short shrift by the rest of the media, often cast as left-of-centre.

Bloggers and media analysts have pointed out that when foreign journalists are kidnapped in places like Iraq, there is near-blanket media comment, particularly in the case of reporter Jill Carroll. But in this instance coverage had been scarce.

''The most common suspicion among my readers is that bias against Fox News Channel is coming into play,'' wrote Michelle Malkin, a freelance journalist who maintains a media-monitoring blog at www.michellemalkin.com.

In a posting on the Poynter media forum, www.poynter.org, a TV critic from the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper suggested the lack of attention was Fox's own fault.

''There's not a reservoir of kinship or goodwill with Fox on the part of the rest of the news media,'' Bob Laurence wrote.

Journalists in the W Asia have reacted against that line, saying that if there is any lack of coverage, it has been due more to correspondents being busy with the Lebanon war.

''I certainly resent any suggestion that reporters here would turn their backs on a colleague in trouble just because they work for a particular media outlet,'' wrote Dion Nissenbaum, Jerusalem bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers, on the Poynter site.

As the debate roils, the journalists remain in captivity.


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