Here at Planet Veritas, we’re always excited to read about languages in the news. A story which we’ve been following recently however, left us with a more sickly feeling in our stomachs. Last month, two British journalists were arrested in Libya and held for a number of weeks by militia forces. Initially the pair were detained on the grounds of having entered the country illegally, but a few days into their capture they were accused of being Isreali spies after some medical supplies with Welsh-language writing was discovered in their possession. Here’s how their ordeal played out:
The two journalists, Nicholas Davies-Jones and Gareth Montgomery-Johnson (from Carmarthen, South Wales) were working for Iran’s state-owned English language Press TV in Tripoli. One night in February, they were arrested at a party by The Swelhi Brigade; a Libyan militant group. When they asked their captors why they were taken, they were told that they did not have Libyan entry visas in their passports, and had therefore entered the country illegally. After 5 days under arrest, things turned darker for the two journalists when they were accused of spying after Welsh-Language documents in their possession were mistaken for Hebrew.
Speaking in an interview with BBC radio 5 live, Mr Montgomery-Johnson explained that his father was a nurse in a Welsh hospital and that the pair “were mistaken for Israeli spies when the militia men confused Welsh with Hebrew when they found dressings with Welsh-language packaging”.
The militia, on the other hand, claimed these documents to be classified and illegal, and managed to make connections between the journalists and the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafi. During their ordeal, the two journalists were kept in a 3m by 3m room, in terrible living conditions, and lived in constant fear for their lives.
Fortunately, after an ordeal lasting a number of weeks, the journalists were released to State Intelligence in Libya, who released them back to the UK last week following the release of a video of the journalists apologising for their illegal entry into the country. Speaking to the South Wales Evening Post on returning to war reporting, Gareth Montgomery-Johnson said “I don’t know what the future holds yet. It’s hard to articulate how I feel right now, I am overwhelmed with love and gratitude for all my friends and family – I owe my life to them”.
A story like this just goes to show how a lapse in linguistic understanding can have disastrous consequences in a situation such as this. We’re just relieved to hear of the safe return of the journalists back to the UK.