A three-man news team for the Dubai-based Al Arabiya network, including a veteran Jordanian TV reporter, are missing on a remote Philippine island notorious for kidnappings by Al-Qaeda linked militant organisation Abu Sayyaf. But the Filipino police and military have refused to launch a rescue operation, arguing there are no sign of struggle.
Upon arrival on June 11th, Southeast Asia bureau chief of the Dubai-based Al Arabiya network Baker Atyani and his two Filipino crew, photographer Ramil Vela and audioman Roland Leftreiro, told the authorities they were in Jolo to shoot a documentary for the channel.
They were picked up by a minivan in the morning of June 12th and failed to return to their hotel on Jolo island, provincial police chief Antonio Freyra said.
"The Jolo mayor offered to provide security for them, but they declined, saying they would not go far from their hotel," Senior Superintendent Freyra told AFP by telephone.
Local authorities searched their rooms in Jolo town centre after the hotel owner reported to police that they failed to return in the evening, he said.
Jolo is a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, a small Islamic militant movement that has been blamed for most of the country's worst terrorist attacks as well as kidnappings of foreigners.
Were they kidnapped?
But suspicions have been raised regarding the real intentions of the crew, and particularly Atyanis’, an experienced reporter who interviewed the late Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden before the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks.
According to the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), a Manila-based organisation that spoke to an information officer from the Sulu Provincial Police Office on June 15, “the police were still unsure if the three had indeed been kidnapped or might have gone elsewhere. But the police said that they were putting up checkpoints in the area to search for them”.
Filipino paper The Inquirer spoke to Sulu governor Sakur Tan who said Atyani “deceived” him about his itinerary on the day he disappeared. “The journalist may just be pursuing a story somewhere on the island” said the report.
The police and military did not launch any search-and-rescue operations for Atyani and his crew “who were listed only as missing”. “We cannot say abduction because there are no signs of struggle.” “Maybe he was pursuing a story and he wanted to keep us at bay,” Freyra said. “Maybe he arranged a meeting with the leadership of the Abu Sayyaf group and he didn’t want others to cover it.”
History of kidnappings of journalists
Freyra said there was no information yet as to whether they had been kidnapped. He added that foreigners who ventured to the far southern island were targets for the Abu Sayyaf and other groups involved in abductions.
"If Americans or other foreigners come here it is natural for us to offer them security.... We all know that we still have a kidnapping problem here," he said.
The Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility says that Abu Sayyaf has already kidnapped many journalists including the French Jean-Jacques Le Garrec and Roland Madura in 2000 who eventually managed to escape.
CMFR’s executive director Melinda Quintos de Jesus told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF) that “the lack of [the Al Arabiya TV crew] coordination with any of the authorities makes it very difficult to judge that there is a lack of cooperation from the Filipino government”. She insisted that Abu Sayyaf is known to be “quite erratic” but “we can’t say the journalists are actually in danger”.
Quintos also stressed that launching an operation would be difficult. “In this terrain taken over by Abu Sayyaf, even the government’s rescue capacity is not certain to succeed. You don’t want to involve civilians who live in nearby civilians. It has to be a strictly calibrated operation” she said.
“At this point we are still trying to find out what the government is trying to do. I would still say that the government should try to find out if they are ok or not” she concluded.