When Covering Iraq Kidnappings, Caution Can Save Lives

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By: Jay DeFoore

For a heart-wrenching week in 2004, Micah Garen’s friends and family members didn’t know if the freelance journalist was going to live or die.

A dedicated reporter and photographer with a passion for protecting Iraq’s ancient archeological treasures, Garen and his Iraqi interpreter were taken hostage by armed gunmen Aug. 13, 2004, in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah. Four days later a group named the Martyrs Brigade vowed to kill Garen within 48 hours if American troops did not withdraw from the holy city of Najaf.

Garen’s situation and those of several other journalists abducted in Iraq since the war began in 2003 should offer some hope to the family awaiting word on Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor stringer kidnapped in Iraq on Saturday.

Throughout his ordeal, Garen’s family members did everything in their power to secure the journalist’s freedom. “My family and fianc?e faced the forty-eight hour execution threat deadline heroically and humanely, working non-stop to reach out to people,” he wrote recently on his Web site. “They contacted Iraqi tribal leaders, religious leaders, political leaders, friends, colleagues, Congressmen and Senators, the FBI, non-governmental organizations and even a former President, in an amazing around-the-clock grass-roots campaign that would make Jack Bauer envious. The appeals came in fast and furious from all directions, hundreds of people speaking with one voice, and my family prevailed through strength, courage and, most importantly, compassion.”

Carroll’s friends in Iraq and the editors at The Christian Science Monitor are likely taking similar steps to win her release. Marshall Ingwerson, the Monitor’s managing editor, told E&P earlier today that a “hostage working group” consisting of state department officials and Iraqi police were searching for Carroll and those who kidnapped her and killed her translator, but as of this writing her whereabouts have not yet been reported.

So what role does the media have to play in these kidnapping situations?

Slate.com’s Jack Shafer and several articles on this site have examined the media blackout angle of Carroll’s story, and Shafer makes strides in explaining the complex calculations at play.

But each kidnapping situation is different, information is often sketchy, and there’s no clear consensus on how to negotiate a hostage’s freedom, much less how the media should cover the process.

This much is known: the desire to suppress media coverage, especially in the early stages of a kidnapping and particularly with journalists working for well-known news organizations, is a fairly common, and sometimes beneficial, practice. In Garen’s case, his father successfully convinced editors of The New York Times to withhold news of his abduction to allow time for sensitive negotiations.

A couple of months after Garen’s release, another young journalist, 24-year-old freelance photographer Paul Taggart, was kidnapped while attempting to secure an interview in Baghdad. Taggart was held for three days and eventually released unharmed. But of note to media watchers was the virtual news blackout that was orchestrated after his abduction.

Writing in the Jan/Feb 2005 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Judith Matloff estimated that as many as 20 news organizations took part in the embargo, “including al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV and al-Arabiya.”

Did the lack of news save Taggart’s life? Maybe.

When I called Taggart’s photo agency back in October 2004 to confirm the news of his release, I was told that the lack of media attention helped in this case. “Because there was no value placed on him, he was never sold up the river and put in a yellow jumpsuit,” World Picture News founder Seamus Conlon said at the time, referring to the prisoner-style garb some kidnap victims have been forced to wear for videotaped messages.

In April of 2004, New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman was kidnapped along with freelance photographer Lynsey Addario. I got early wind of the abduction, and an editor at the Times confirmed some of the details. After some arm-twisting, the editor at the Times convinced me to withdraw the name of the journalists from Web reports already published.

In his recent exchange with Shafer, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller explained that the paper had asked news organizations not to identify Addario and Gettleman as working for the Times because, “we had good reason to believe the abductors would kill them if they knew that.”

The thinking goes that if the kidnappers don’t know that they’ve got a big fish, they may throw it back. But kidnappers, however ruthless, aren’t stupid, and you can bet most have Internet access. A simple Google search can often unearth a treasure trove of a working journalist’s prior work.

Ultimately, the decision of what to publish and when should come down to a simple calculation: are we doing more harm than good in publishing this?

Matloff, who teaches a course on war reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, advises caution in most cases.

“No story is worth a life, and news should be withheld if we can reasonably assume that we could save a hostage — fellow journalist or anyone else — and make sure that we can get the facts out eventually,” she wrote for CJR. “We should by no means suppress reporting on troubling stories such as the beheadings in Iraq. But we must give equal treatment to civilians from other professions who have been taken hostage, something that hasn’t been addressed adequately so far. ? We should be wary of preferential treatment — an issue that I know makes editors squirm — and be as conscientious about an abducted Turkish truck driver as a kidnapped photographer from Tulsa. Do we even consider calling fellow journalists and asking, ‘Are we endangering a life by publishing this story?'”

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