James Foley was supposed to arrive by 4. It was Thanksgiving, and Foley, a freelance journalist covering the war in Syria for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse, was going to meet his friend Nicole Tung, another journalist, in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli to catch up and rest for a couple days. But Foley never showed.
“I was starting to worry after 6, 7pm, when things were very quiet,” Tung said. “By 10, 11, I knew that something had definitely gone wrong.” When she was finally able to get in touch with someone in Syria who had seen Foley, Tung learned her friend had been pulled from the cab he was riding in and kidnapped at gunpoint.
Tung knew the responsibility fell on her to get the bad news to Foley’s family in New Hampshire. Then it would be up to them to decide what to do next—and whether to make the news public.
There are hostile environment training programs and security handbooks that offer concrete advice for journalists on how to avoid being kidnapped or how to increase their survival chances if they become hostages. But for their families and employers, there is no guidebook or set protocol to follow. Deciding whether to make the news public or ask media not to report it is often the first dilemma.
“Every case is different. There’s no sort of one way to approach it,” said Paul Steiger, chairman of ProPublica and the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal when reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan in 2002. “Sometimes a media blackout can help a person or group of people who have been kidnapped, and sometimes publicity is the best course,” Steiger said.
For the Foley family, the news of their son’s kidnapping—and the burden of choosing what to do next—seemed like a cruel déjà vu.
In 2011, Foley, freelancing for the GlobalPost in Libya, was captured with three other journalists when the group came under fire from forces loyal to the Gaddafi regime. Anton Harmmerl, a South African photographer, was killed in the attack; Foley and the other two were captured and interrogated, and one was accused on Libyan state television of being an American spy.
Soon after the Libya kidnapping, the Foleys and the other families decided to go public. Media attention was seen as a way to both legitimize the captives as journalists rather than spies and put pressure on the Libyan government for their release. Six weeks after their capture—and after media publicity and very public appeals from the United Nations and the US State Department—Foley and the others were set free by the Libyan authorities.
The Syrian kidnapping was different. This time, the Foleys had no idea where or by whom their son was being held, or even whether he was still alive. In the absence of information, and on the advice of security experts, they decided to remain silent.
“I think it’s very difficult to launch a media campaign when you don’t know who you’re putting pressure on, and this was the case with James,” said Tung.
For six weeks, news of the capture was silenced. Any journalists who contacted GlobalPost or Agence France-Presse about Foley were asked not to reveal the kidnapping, just as journalists who contacted NBC about Richard Engel were a month later, when the correspondent and his team were also taken hostage in Syria.
Such news blackouts have become a well-established tradition among American media, particularly when a journalist is captured by insurgents seeking ransom.
In 2008, in perhaps the most elaborate media silencing, the New York Times for eight months muffled news that one of its reporters, David Rohde, had been kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Convinced Rohde was extremely valuable to the US government, the captors were demanding $25 million in cash and the release of 15 Guantanamo prisoners in exchange for that of Rohde. After some debate, Rohde’s family and Bill Keller, then the executive editor of the Times, decided on a blackout to avoid stoking the captors’ already-exaggerated ransom demands.
“If somebody finds out that you’re a big fish—that you’re a really big, well-known journalist,” said Frank Smyth, senior adviser for journalist security at the Committee to Protect Journalists, “it’s like, ‘Man, we can get some more money out of this, or maybe get more money out of this than we got before.’”
Rohde, who escaped captivity eight months later, was grateful for the blackout. His Taliban captors “relished defying the United States,” he said. “There was no way that public attention and calls for release from journalist groups were somehow going to pressure them to release me. They loved it. They would ignore the outcry.”