SPECIAL REPORT: Are Media Blackouts Proper When Reporters Are Kidnapped in War Zones?

By: Joe Strupp Another New York Times reporter was kidnapped in Afghanistan last weekend. This time, the reporter, Stephen Farrell, was freed in a commando raid, and his Afghan aide was killed. In the previous incident, David Rohde managed to escape with his aide. Farrell was held for only three days, Rohde for several months. What they shared, beyond the danger and eventual safety, was that the media did not cover the kidnapping at all, until the episodes were over.

Some within and outside journalism circles do not agree with these "blackouts." Will a new debate now break out over the handlng of the Farrell case, even though it was of short duration?

In any case, the Rohde kidnapping did spark a much-needed discussion.

Roy Gutman heard about the abduction of Rohde just hours after it happened last November. Gutman, a former foreign correspondent and currently foreign editor for McClatchy Newspapers, contends his reporter, Jonathan Landay, got word to him soon after Rohde was kidnapped in Afghanistan. "We confirmed it with U.S. government sources and I called [Times Foreign Editor] Susan Chira and spoke with her," Gutman says. "She pleaded with me that we not run anything."

Gutman then spoke with Washington Bureau Chief John Walcott, and they agreed to sit on the story. "We did not want to be the ones to jeopardize his release," Gutman recalls.

So began one of the longest, broadest blackouts of an international news story ever. Times Executive Editor Bill Keller later revealed that at least 40 major news outlets, including E&P, agreed to keep the abduction quiet. When Rohde escaped on June 20, Keller called many of the news outlets to thank them.

"You hate to be in the position of sitting on a story," Keller told E&P soon after Rohde's release. "All of the advice we had from those who have been through this is that if you publicize this, you raise his profile and his value to the kidnappers."

With Rohde's escape, a major debate ignited in and out of the journalism community about how responsible the coordinated secret had been. Was this a breach of journalistic ethics, sitting on a story for so long mainly because a colleague was involved?

"I believe alternatives could have been identified that could have allowed us to protect his life and uphold journalistic values," says Kelly McBride, an ethics instructor at The Poynter Institute and one of those who spoke out against the blackout. "The way it has evolved is essentially a double standard. It has to do with who is smart enough to ask for no coverage. I am not confident with that," she adds.

But others, such as David Hoffman, assistant managing editor/foreign at The Washington Post, stress the importance of reporter safety. "All of the experience of the experts has been that the early hours of these situations are the most important," he says. "Blackouts are a reasonable request."

Hoffman, who has reported in the past from Jerusalem and Moscow, shoots back at those who think they can make the best decisions about a particular case from outside the newsroom: "It is not possible for the outsiders to decide these issues," he says. "You want to listen to those who are managing the crisis."

Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press, agrees, adding that non-news folks do not have the same insight into what the reporting means. "They have never had a colleague who has been in that circumstance," she says.

Carroll's organization faced its own dilemma between 2006 and 2008 after photographer Bilal Hussein was picked up by U.S. and Iraq officials in Baghdad and accused of aiding the Taliban. Carroll says Hussein's situation was not nearly as dangerous as Rohde's, but admits the publicity element shifted as needed during the nearly two years he was held. "Early on, we were pursuing the usual channels," Carroll recalls, noting it was kept less public but a formal blackout was not asked for at the start. Eventually, Hussein faced a trial but was released in 2008. "You have to weigh each case," she adds.

McClatchy's Gutman, who was detained briefly himself on three separate occasions while working as a reporter in Bosnia, Sarajevo, and Lebanon, points to Rohde's October 1995 detainment in Bosnia. Rohde, then working for The Christian Science Monitor, was arrested by Bosnian Serb authorities, held for 10 days and released only after pressure from the U.S. State Department and numerous top journalists.

"That was a different situation [in which] publicity was needed," Gutman recalls. "In many of these cases, you welcome publicity if it is a known force. But [Rohde's 2008 kidnapping] was an irregular force, paramilitary."

Another high-profile Christian Science Monitor case: Jill Carroll, who was covering Iraq for the paper in 2006 when she was abducted and held for 82 days. Her detainment began with a 48-hour news blackout, which ended when the Monitor broke the news. An international protest soon blossomed and she was eventually released.

Four years earlier, Daniel Pearl's kidnapping in Pakistan, and eventual beheading on videotape, showed the stark dangers. When Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was first taken, word leaked out slowly ?and the story gained traction after the abductors released video of their victim.

"In Danny's case, we consulted a [security] specialist at the outset and discussed whether publicity would help or not," says John Bussey, who was the Journal's foreign editor at the time. "News of Danny's disappearance began leaking out on the Pakistan side, and the publicity issue became fully moot when the kidnappers e-mailed photos of Danny in captivity to media outlets."

Poynter's McBride recalls getting a phone inquiry from an unidentified AP reporter last November about whether such a blackout is proper ? but McBride didn't know the person was talking about Rohde. "Two days later, [the reporter] told me editors were holding the story," she says.

Kerry Luft, Washington bureau chief for The Tribune Co. and former foreign editor for the Chicago Tribune, says he tends to side with keeping stories quiet when asked to because of the danger to human life. Luft cites the case of Tribune reporter Paul Salopek, who was arrested in Sudan in 2006, charged with espionage, and held for a month before being released following intervention by U.S. officials. "We didn't publish anything until he was formally charged," Luft recalls. "There isn't a magic answer for when to do it, is the reporting going to be more helpful than harmful."

In the cases of Rohde's previous arrest and Salopek's trial, publicity was likely helpful because governments were involved, editors say. Many hold a similar view of the Bilal Hussein/AP case. But even the timing of when to publicize the cases is crucial. "I understand both sides of the argument," says Brian Winter, USA Today foreign editor and among those who kept the Rohde story quiet. "I don't know how we would have handled a situation similar to the one the Times faced."

Critics, meanwhile, claim the Grey Lady was only able to get away with a blackout because of its position in journalism ? and sympathetic colleagues. Edward Wasserman, a journalism professor at Washington & Lee University in Virginia and a Miami Herald columnist, came out hard against the Times. He said conflicting facts have circulated about the reasons executive editor Keller gave for seeking a blackout, some revolving around a potential ransom payment. "In some respects, we are at the mercy of the folks who made the decision for all of the relevant facts," says Wasserman. "I am not understanding why they had to go to the lengths of preventing 40 other news outlets. When they do that, they allow themselves to be instruments of the participants in the drama."

He also raises the claim other critics have made that the Times and similar news outlets would not do the same for a non-journalist, adding, "Some people are in a position to implore the press for restraint better than others."

But several editors disagree. AP's Carroll says all requests for such limited coverage are treated equally, no matter who is involved. "We absolutely listen hard to any request from any place," she says. Adds Luft at Tribune: "Where is that request? If you can show me an example where news organizations broadly flouted a request, please do."

This story first appeared in E&P's August issue.


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