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REGIONS:

Do news blackouts help journalists held captive?

Journalist James Foley was kidnapped in Syria on 22 November 2012
Journalist James Foley was kidnapped in Syria on 22 November 2012

Nicole Tung

(CPJ/IFEX) - 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.

Continue reading on the CPJ Journalist Security Blog.

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