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.”
But while imposing a media silencing is usually seen as the best course when captors are demanding ransom, the appropriate strategy is much less clear when the motive is political, said Smyth.
When Jill Carroll, then a Christian Science Monitor reporter, was captured in Iraq in 2006, her captors threatened to kill her unless all female detainees in Iraqi prisons were released within 72 hours. Nearly three months later, after a huge media campaign for her freedom and the release of five female Iraqi prisoners, she was released unharmed.
“The press [coverage] in that situation I think ended up helping her,” Smyth said, “because it raised the political pressure and raised the potential political cost of harming her.”
But in political kidnappings, press attention does not always work.
When Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, was kidnapped by Pakistani militants in 2002 and accused of being a spy, his captors emailed a list of demands to the US government, including the release of Pakistani nationals from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. Pearl’s plight inspired an enormous international media campaign. Still, nine days after his capture, with the demands still unmet, Pearl was beheaded.
After Rohde escaped and the extent of the blackout was revealed—even Wikipedia had cooperated in censoring its page—a debate emerged over the merits of such silences. While most journalists and media analysts supported the Times’s decision to protect its reporter, others criticized the organization for brazenly—and perhaps selectively—contradicting its mission of serving the public interest through reporting. Kelly McBride, of the Poynter Institute, accused Bill Keller, then the executive editor of the Times, of offering favorable treatment to Rohde.
“What about the next story?” she wrote. “Will you set aside your role as a watchdog, as the paper of record, in order to preserve a life? The next time you are challenged by a newsworthy kidnapping, I believe you’ll put journalism first. You’ll return to your role of holding the powerful accountable and informing the citizens who count on the Times to deliver the most important, accurate stories of the day.”
After his kidnapping, the Times, according to Rohde, did establish a policy, which he agrees with, of providing blackouts to even non-journalists when news of their kidnapping would likely further endanger them. But still, he said, as a journalist he could see possible situations where a kidnapping’s news value might outweigh the potential safety benefit afforded by a blackout.
“I wrestle with it,” he said. “It would have to be a pretty senior public official,” to make the news outweigh the person’s safety. “I just think you always have to consider: ‘Is this going to potentially endanger someone?’”
There’s also no guarantee a blackout, even when requested, will ultimately be honored.
A couple of days after Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, and four members of his team were captured by an extremist group loyal to the Syrian regime on December 13, Turkish outlets Hurriyet, a leading newspaper, and NTV, a national broadcast network, broke the story of the kidnapping (Aziz Akyavas, a Turkish NBC correspondent, was among the group). Still, NBC, citing safety concerns, requested media organizations refrain from reporting further on the capture, and American media did—except for the website Gawker, which defied the request and reported on the Turkish dispatches.
“No one told me anything that indicated a specific, or even general, threat to Engel’s safety,” wrote Gawker editor John Cooke in defense of his post on the kidnapping. “No one said, ‘If you report this, then we know, or suspect, that X, Y, or Z may happen.”
Most journalists, many of whom had sharply criticized Cook after he defied the request, weren’t convinced.
“Gawker took a lot of grief for that, and I think rightly so,” said CPJ’s Smyth. “It’s like, ‘Well, there’s no evidence that it would put him at risk.’ There’s no evidence that it wouldn’t put him at risk, either. You’ve got to err on the side of caution.”
But what’s the side of caution when you don’t have any information to go by? On January 2, more than six weeks after James Foley disappeared, his family decided to go public, pleading with his captors for any information about their son. The next day, in a news conference outside their snowy New Hampshire home, a somber John and Diane Foley were asked what had happened to make them change their minds about releasing the news.