Training can help journalists survive captivity

By Frank Smyth/CPJ Senior Adviser for Journalist Security on November 6, 2013 2:30 PM ET

Two murdered journalists for the Africa service of Radio France Internationale, Ghislaine Dupont, 51, and Claude Verlon, 58, might have had a chance. They were abducted on November 2 in Kidal in northern Mali, but the vehicle their captors were driving suddenly broke down, according to news reports.

The journalists' remains were found near the vehicle. Dupont had been shot twice in the chest, and Verlon three times in the head. They were "coldly assassinated," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Both were French citizens. The group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the slayings.

Executing journalists in captivity is, unfortunately, not uncommon. Worldwide, no less than 155 journalists, or more than one in five of the 679 journalists murdered in direct reprisal for their work since 1992 were executed in captivity like Dupont and Verlon, according to CPJ research. A small number of those journalists died from torture or under other circumstances in prison. Both Dupont and Verlon were held only briefly before being killed, but the rest of the murdered journalists were summarily executed some time after being captured.

What can journalists do? Hostile environment courses have long included kidnapping scenarios to help prepare journalists and others for the stress and challenges of captivity, and some courses have evolved over time. My firm teaches avoidance protocols and situational awareness to spot and avoid attacks before they occur. Once an attack is under way, experts disagree about whether to resist the attempted abduction or whether to try and escape later. Much depends upon the captors' possible motivations and goals.

Training can help journalists, humanitarian professionals, and others maintain their equilibrium and stay both calm and alert under stress. That, in turn, can help them stay alive. Captors often take cues from their captives. Projecting confidence without showing disrespect, cooperating without seeming to be servile, can be essential. Reading the command structure and finding opportunities to humanize yourself in the eyes of your captors is also part of any intensive training.

Finding ways to maintain one's dignity, while building a respectful rapport with captors, if possible, can be a useful goal. At other times, of course, one may wish to be the gray man or try to blend in rather than stand out. Learning to practice personal self-care in the aftermath of a traumatic event is also recommended.

Yet even the best training provides no guarantee of safety. Executing journalists after capture is a trend that goes back decades. In the early 1990s, journalists were abducted and later executed reporting on guerrilla wars from Peru to Angola. In later years, captors in Burma, India, and Sierra Leone also executed journalists in cold blood. Capturing and torturing journalists and then killing them became common practice in Iraq through the years following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The 2009 Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines remains the worst case. All 57 victims of the massacre, including 32 journalists, were murdered at what appears to have been point blank range with automatic rifles after being intercepted and held by gunmen at least for a short time. Suspects are now facing trial. More recently, over the past year, journalists have been murdered after being abducted in nations as diverse as Syria and Cambodia.

The most notorious abduction-and-murder-case was that of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. But the overwhelming majority of reporters executed in captivity are local journalists reporting on events within their own country, people like Hang Serei Odom in Cambodia whose fatally wounded body was found in the trunk of his car in 2012 at a cashew plantation near the Vietnam border. Serei had reported extensively on illegal logging.

The challenge for any captive is to try and stay collected. I know something about this, having been held incommunicado with a colleague for 18 days in Iraq back in 1991, after we heard another colleague and an armed rebel being executed by Iraqi soldiers. The sense of vulnerability is indescribable. The hardest part for any captive to accept may be that he or she has no control over how things will ultimately play out

Keeping fit, if possible, finding constructive ways to exercise one's mind, including observing, in a way that would not attract attention, one's captors and the environs are all steps toward maintaining hope. So is interacting with other captives. No matter what, the emotional toll of captivity may be overwhelming. That can be compounded by one's concerns about the toll the ordeal may be taking on loved ones waiting back home.

"I was despondent and left with only one certainty: We had no savior among the Taliban," wrote David Rhode, the then-New York Times correspondent, who in 2009 managed to escape his captors in Afghanistan and return to his family.

In the case of the two veteran French journalists murdered last week in Mali, investigators are pursuing the theory, according to The Associated Press, that the abductors decided, once their vehicle broke down, that it would be easier to shoot the hostages than bring them along on foot.


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