One of the two men working on an assignment on Jolo island with veteran reporter Baker Atyani for Al Arabiya Network called his family and employers to say not to worry about him said Filipino news website Inquirer Global Nation in an article published today.
This was confirmed by Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo on Tuesday. Robredo said the three men were in the custody of militant group Abu Sayyaf but were not under threat.
Al Arabiya's Southeast Asia bureau chief Baker Atyani, camera operator Ramelito Vela, 39, and audio operator Rolando Letrero, 22, went missing on June 12th on an island where other journalists had previously been kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf. No search and rescue operations had been launched as it was not confirmed that the crew was being detained against their will.
When asked if the three men were being held hostage, Robredo answered "they appeared to be free to go anytime".
It also emerged that Atyani had already visited the Philippines twelve times and was aiming to bring home an exclusive report from a week spent with the Abu Sayyaf.
Despite the reassuring news, the Filipino authorities are cautious and seeking to get in touch with Atyani's contacts in Sulu in case the crew has been kidnapped after all.
The episode has stired worries and anger amidst Filipino government officials, human rights activists and media representatives. Some allegations that Atyani was a conduit of the Al-Qaeda terror group to Abu Sayyaf who are said to be linked. Filipino authorities have been deceived and Atyani is expected to explain why he has not cooperated with the local police prior to meeting with the militant group.
The case became a state matter today when Filipino president Benigno Aquino III told reporters that he was considering banning Atyani from the country.
An old debate
It is not the first time journalists are being accused of intruding with national political affairs while showing interest in allegedly dangerous paramilitary groups, therefore misjudging difficult situations. French videojournalist Roméo Langlois was kidnapped by a paramilitary group in Colombia on April 28th and criticised for what was thought to be sympathy for FARC rebels.
Langlois had been in Colombia for ten years. He said on the day he was finally released:
"I hope the army doesn't stop taking people to conflict zones, and let's hope the rebels also take journalists with them to show the daily life of their combatants because this conflict isn't being covered".
Langlois added that "One's job as a journalist is to record and cover conflicts from both sides".