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Do news blackouts help journalists held captive?

An image grab from a YouTube video uploaded on December 18 allegedly shows NBC employees, from left to right, Aziz Akyavas, Richard Engel, and John Kooistra in captivity in Syria. (AFP/YouTube)

At any given time over the past two years, as wars raged in Libya and then Syria, and as other conflicts ground on in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, a number of journalists have been held captive by a diverse array of forces, from militants and rebels to criminals and paramilitaries. And at any given time, a small handful of these cases--sometimes one or two, sometimes more--have been purposely kept out of the news media. That is true today.

News organizations have invoked the captives' safety in seeking media blackouts. But do the blackouts really benefit the individuals being held captive?

Different actors hold journalists for various reasons. Ransom can be one, as captors have demanded cash for journalists in Colombia, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Politics can be another, as captors have used journalists like the late Daniel Pearl in Pakistan to communicate a political message. Influencing coverage can be another motive. This month, five employees including three non-journalists of El Siglo de Torreón in northern Mexico were held for over 10 hours before being released.

Extracting information can be another motivation. Last June Mining News editor Franck Fwamba was abducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and interrogated for 11 hours about his finances, sources and relationships. Concerns over espionage can be yet another motive. In 1991, a French photojournalist and I were held by Iraqi government forces who, for a time, accused us of being spies.

The key tests are whether press coverage will work for or against the captive individuals (whether they are news personnel or not) and how the captives' interests are balanced against the public's right to information.

"This is not a uniform thing. Each case is different," said David Rohde, a Thomson Reuters foreign affairs columnist and a former New York Times correspondent who was held hostage for seven months in Afghanistan.

It's a divisive issue among the press corps, whether to honor a request not to report about a journalist in captivity. In December, Turkish news outlets and the U.S.-based website Gawker, whose slogan is "today's gossip is tomorrow's news," broke a blackout sought by NBC News on the kidnapping in Syria of correspondent Richard Engel and his crew.

The effect of breaking that blackout is largely unknown; the NBC crew was freed within hours of the first public reports. But John Cook's report in Gawker, in particular, provoked outrage from journalists and human rights defenders who often work alongside each other in conflict areas. Human Rights Watch's Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert encouraged members of a closed, war correspondents' group on Facebook to bombard Gawker with emails demanding the website remove the story.

"Yo @johnjcook, ever put yr life on line in hostile country to report story 4 Gawker? Don't 2nd guess @NBCNews if you havent," tweeted Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post senior correspondent and associate editor and CPJ board member.

Cook said he spoke with NBC but decided not to go along with the network's request. "No one at NBC made a case to me that reporting Engel's situation might cause anything concrete to happen to him, because they didn't know anything about his current circumstances," he wrote. "And as a more general question, it's not clear how publicity as a rule increases risk to kidnapping victims."

Research by the Committee to Protect Journalists does offer some insight. Engel later said that his captors seemed most interested in getting a ransom. The captors, Syrian militiamen, executed the news crew's Syrian rebel escort but acted to keep the Western journalists alive. "I didn't think they were going to execute us at first," Engel said in an on-camera interview after their release. "They clearly wanted us as hostages. This was a hostage-taking scenario."

Many observers maintain that publicity in ransom cases complicates efforts to secure the captive's safe return. "Negotiations with kidnappers could be more difficult if they become aware that they're holding a 'big fish,'" noted the Canadian Association of Journalists after the CBC requested a media blackout in 2008 during correspondent Mellissa Fung's four-week kidnapping in Afghanistan.

"My kidnappers had a delusional idea about the kind of ransom they could get for me," Rohde told CPJ, saying that press would have only worsened his and a colleague's chances of survival. The New York Times requested a blackout after an initial report by Al Jazeera about his abduction, and all but a few isolated news outlets honored it. As his ordeal dragged on, Rohde and a colleague eventually managed to escape.

Robert Young Pelton, an author, journalist, and publisher of the Somalia Report, is skeptical of news organizations' motives behind blackouts. "In many cases, these blackouts are just a bald-faced attempt to buy time, mitigate bad publicity, reduce financial impact, and hide corporations' incompetence in their ability to get their employees back," he wrote in a piece for Gawker on the NBC case.

The blackout in Rohde's case went as far as to include sites such as Wikipedia, which erased user-editor posts about his kidnapping a dozen times before finally freezing the page. New York Times journalists also altered Rohde's bios on the Times' website and, using a pseudonym, also on Wikipedia, as the paper later disclosed in a story once Rohde was free. Colleagues removed the name of his prior employer as it included the word "Christian" along with Rohde's investigations of groups like Al-Qaeda, while emphasizing his investigation of the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims.

Some were disquieted by such widespread manipulation. Poynter Institute ethicist Kelly McBride said she was "really astounded" by the media blackout. "I find it a little disturbing, because it makes me wonder what else 40 international news organizations have agreed not to tell the public," McBride told NPR.

Journalists do have a duty to report the news. It was one thing to withhold information about the kidnapping of Rohde, who is very prominent in the field but is not a household name. But would it have been practical or ethical for dozens of news organizations to withhold information for many months about Engel, whose face is seen in millions of homes on a regular basis?

History and context provide some guidelines. Withholding information so as not to endanger individuals, including U.S. soldiers, has been an accepted journalistic practice over time. In 1994, all four major American network television news divisions voluntarily withheld information that U.S. war planes had lifted off from Fort Bragg, N.C., to support a planned invasion of Haiti, only to report the news after the invasion was cancelled.

But some critics complain that news organizations don't apply media blackouts to non-journalists. "Stopping the flow of information about a kidnapped foreign correspondent suggests that media outlets value the lives of their own personnel above those of other people they report on," wrote Blake Lambert, a Canadian freelance journalist for the Christian Science Monitor and other news outlets, on the website of the London-based International News Safety Institute after Fung's Afghan ordeal.

For news outlets to give fellow journalists special treatment would seem indefensible. But it's not clear-cut that is happening. More than 1,000 people, virtually all non-journalists, have been held hostage in Somalia every year, for example, according to news reports. Only a handful of them receive press attention.

Some news organizations have maintained that journalists held hostage receive no special treatment. Back in 1994, at least 15 news organizations honored an AP request not to report the kidnapping of its correspondent, Tina Susman, who was released after 20 days of captivity in Mogadishu. "We would withhold news of a kidnapping of anyone if we felt that it was not already in the public domain, and if we felt that coverage would further imperil the person's life or the prospect of an early release," AP's then-International Editor Tom Kent explained to American Journalism Review after the ordeal.

Another matter concerns freelance journalists. Several analysts point out that the abductions of freelance journalists are not subjected to the same level of pre-publication scrutiny as those of staff journalists who are kidnapped. Some cases of freelancers are publicized even when they appear similar to those involving staff journalists that are kept quiet. Other cases of freelancers receive little press attention even when coverage of their status would help them.

I know from my own experience how corporate interests can work against journalists held captive. In 1991, during the post-Gulf War uprisings against Saddam Hussein, colleagues and I crossed into Iraq with anti-Saddam rebels. A European colleague, Gad Gross, was executed along with our armed rebel escort. A French colleague, Alain Buu, and I were captured an hour later and held captive for 18 days. We were missing as far as our editors and family members knew.

A longtime, accredited CBS News radio stringer, I was also carrying network video equipment that CBS television producers asked me to bring in once the radio desk told them that I was going into Iraq. Once my colleague and I went missing, my family still had to push the network to report the case. A debate ensued at the network, with CBS lawyers arguing that giving our story press could be perceived as implying network liability, CBS colleagues later told me. Having CBS News step up to confirm that I was a journalist was key, as Iraqi authorities were accusing me of being an intelligence agent. In any such case, press coverage can help by convincing suspicious captors that the captives are independent journalists, and by underscoring that any actions to harm them would also not go unnoticed. Conversely, sometimes keeping the kidnapping of a journalist -whether a freelancer or not-- out of the press can help persuade captors to release the captive and still save face.

There is no single template showing how to handle such cases, as each deserves its own careful examination. But a few guidelines come to mind:

  • Each case is unique, but standards should be consistent. News organizations need to apply the same test of balancing the captive's interest against the public's right to know. That is true whether the captive is a journalist or not. And the scale can tip the more any hostage is well-known, whether he or she is a journalist or not.
  • Evidence suggests that publicity can fuel ransom demands for anyone held hostage, although more research needs to be done. Publicity can put captives in danger if it leads to higher ransoms that family members or news organizations are unable to meet.
  • The motive of captors must be scrutinized in each case to determine whether their goal is ransom, political gain, media influence, or something else. This may be difficult to determine. But it should nonetheless help guide any decision weighing whether press would be more likely to help or hinder the captive's well-being.
  • The decision over whether or not press is desirable should be made by a coalition of stakeholders led by family members, who should independently evaluate the recommendations of news directors and security advisers. (This is especially important in the case of freelancers.) And they should remain open to changing their decisions as a situation develops.
  • Keeping a case out of the public eye is increasingly difficult today due to the Internet; the challenge increases if the captive is a well-known public figure. News organizations may be able to persuade other major outlets to keep a case quiet, but they face extraordinary challenges in scrubbing information posted across the Web. It may be more practical to release limited information about an abduction early, then manage the flow closely.
  • If publicity is desired, close management of information is essential. Colleagues and family members may decide it best to release some information, but still try to keep the case relatively quiet. Advocates may also decide to shape the narrative of a journalist held captive--highlighting one nationality over another, for example, in the case of a person with dual citizenship. Or by highlighting stories captors might see favorably. Or by downplaying information about matters like financial holdings.
  • Journalists do deserve special treatment in one respect. In the case of media blackout or manipulation of information, the public trust must be maintained and readers or the broadcast audience should be informed afterward what was done and why, and the record should be set straight.
  • Do no harm should guide decisions. Claiming that there is no evidence that harm would be done by publicizing a case is not an argument in favor of publicity. Instead, every news outlet should consider whether press is likely to help or hinder the interests of not the news organization or any other entity, but the individual --whether they are news personnel or not--at risk in captivity.

The matter is hardly an academic one for journalists and others either known to be in captivity or still missing today. Freelance journalist James Foley, a contributor to Global Post, was kidnapped in northwest Syria late last year; his family waited six weeks before deciding to make the case public. He remains missing. Austin Tice, a freelance journalist for McClatchy newspapers and The Washington Post, was seized in Damascus in August, and what appears to be a staged video of him in captivity leads observers to suggest that Syrian government forces may be holding him. His parents recently traveled to Beirut to try and appeal to whoever may be holding him.

Neither is the risk limited to Western correspondents. Mohamed al-Saeed of Syrian State TV was kidnapped last August in Damascus and he, like many others, remains missing. Bashar Fahmi of the U.S.-government broadcaster Al-Hurra and his Turkish cameraman disappeared in Syria reporting in Aleppo. The Turkish cameraman was captured and released almost 90 days later. But Fahmi is still missing, and his fate remains unknown.

The over-riding guideline: Every captive situation requires the same degree of care and balance of interests as any story where lives are in peril, whether the captives are journalists or not.

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