Kidnapping for profit or propaganda: How hostage risk for journalists is on the rise

From Central America to North Africa, kidnappings are on the rise and journalists are among the groups at risk of being abducted. Adding to the challenges of dealing with a hostage situation is a lack of solid information about kidnappings worldwide, or a united international response in dealing with the demands of kidnap groups.

In response to an increase in kidnappings in recent years, Western aid groups, security advisers, and experts in dealing with hostage situations took part in a conference in Nairobi last month, organized by the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Center and Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force. The focus was kidnapping for ransom cases which, delegates at the event were told, are the most common situation worldwide.

During the conference, I addressed motives in kidnap cases based on CPJ reporting going back nearly 25 years. The reasons for kidnapping journalists has varied, from intimidation through short-term abductions by intelligence services, to attempts to gain political influence or force the press to report on certain causes. Kidnapping and murder by drug-related syndicates, some with suspected government ties, have become common in countries including Honduras and Mexico. Kidnapping for propaganda is another motive becoming more common.

While kidnapping to gain political influence is a less common motivation for abducting journalists CPJ documented how in the late 1990s in Colombia, leftist guerrilla groups would abduct journalist as a way of demanding press coverage by forcibly escorting them to the sites of atrocities carried out by civilian supporters of opposing forces. In 2006 in Brazil, a criminal gang kidnapped a TV Globo reporter to demand the network run a video highlighting poor prison conditions for their jailed members. More recently, in Yemen, three journalists were abducted by tribal members pressing government demands including, according to local reports, that their members be hired to protect a local oil pipeline.

The killing of kidnapped journalists for political propaganda is a move that seems to have begun with the 2001 abduction and subsequent murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl. The al-Qaeda affiliate group holding Pearl released a video showing his murder in Pakistan. The method of killing was copied six months later by a criminal group in Brazil when it murdered investigative journalist Tim Lopes. It is a tactic more recently revived by Islamic State militants when they murdered American freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff in 2014.

Ransom is another reason that journalists are kidnapped, and kidnappings of many civilians, including journalists, by groups seeking money have occurred frequently since the 2000s in nations including Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. Whether or not a ransom can be legally paid may depend on the nationalities of the hostages. The U.S. and U.K. have policies of not paying ransoms to kidnappers, under the logic that doing so would only encourage more kidnapping. Under U.S. law, it is also illegal for anyone to pay a ransom to groups deemed by the State Department to be a terrorist organization, such as Islamic State. But many continental European governments have no such policy. Although authorities denied it, after the release of several European journalists who were held captive with Foley, different news outlets reported that their governments apparently paid ransoms.

In the case of Foley, the journalist’s mother said that Obama administration officials warned the family that any attempt to negotiate or pay a ransom to Islamic State could lead to criminal charges. What the same officials failed to tell her is that there have been no cases at all of the family of a hostage being prosecuted in the U.S. for paying a ransom, as Obama administration officials later admitted.

The experiences of the families and employers of kidnap victims was also discussed at the conference. Many share the same concerns when enduring a hostage situation, from how to negotiate and possibly raise or meet ransom demands to how to support loved ones, managers, and peers. Other concerns include how to implement training and safety policies that help mitigate risk and how to continue to operate in dangerous regions while still attempting to mitigate risk.

Many news organizations have kidnapping and ransom insurance. The main value of such insurance, two kidnapping experts at the conference maintained, is less to pay a ransom and more to hire an expert who can manage negotiations for the safe release of victims and to support the family and hostage during and after the ordeal.

Most kidnappings around the world are carried out by relatively localized organized crime groups, experts at the conference said. They are concentrated in sub-Saharan and North Africa. Most of the victims are locals who are kidnapped in an attempt to gain money, but an increasing number in recent years are international aid workers. Many factors contribute to such trends. But one is that local criminal groups seem to find kidnapping to be increasingly lucrative and they rarely get caught.

This rise in kidnappings of aid workers is covered in a 2013 report by the independent research group Humanitarian Outcomes titled, “The New Normal: Coping With The Kidnapping Threat.” The report found, “Not only have kidnappings increased in absolute numbers and as a proportion of overall attacks on aid workers, but also the average global rates of kidnapping among the field population of aid worker have risen by 28 per cent in the past three years compared to the prior period.”

Humanitarian Outcomes notes in its Aid Worker Security Database that the trend continues to rise, with at least 51 kidnappings of international aid workers in 2008, 98 by 2010, and 120 by 2014.

There are other challenges, too, such as how to follow the money involved in kidnapping. One banking expert based in London explained at the conference that despite U.S.-led international reporting requirements, it is still relatively easy for terrorist-related funds to slip through the cracks. (The recent release of the Panama Papers by a consortium of journalists further shows how easily funds linked to people and companies blacklisted for alleged links to terrorist organizations can go undetected.) Another challenge is how to develop effective policies to respond to different types of kidnapping, such as by localized criminal syndicates versus internationally designed terrorist groups.

The discussion has a long way to go, as the problem of kidnappings for ransom and other motivations continue around the world.