Is it time to end media blackouts?

The head of the Committee to Protect Journalists believes it's no longer an effective strategy

The brutal murder of journalist James Foley and now Steven Sotloff in Syria has sparked disbelief and raw outrage. Now, a broader debate is opening about the role of the media in conflict zones: Are some stories just too dangerous for journalists to cover? Should governments pay ransom when reporters are kidnapped? How should the media cover terrorist propaganda like that surrounding the beheading of these journalists?

Answering these questions requires accurate and timely information from conflict zones, precisely the kind of thing journalists risk their lives to report.

But there is one story the media has not been covering fully, at least until recently. And that is the story of the kidnappings themselves. Under a practice known as a “media blackout,” news organizations have routinely suppressed information about the widespread abductions of journalists and others that have taken place in Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, and other countries around the world. The number of journalists kidnapped each year varies greatly from conflict to conflict, but there has never been anything like Syria. More than 80 journalists have been kidnapped since the conflict erupted in 2011.

As head of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), I’ve been involved in far too many of these cases over the years. I’ve provided support from media organizations and families; I’ve participated in campaigns, both and public and private, to win the release of kidnapped reporters; and I’ve debriefed many journalists and media organizations about their experience.

Initially, I supported the use of media blackouts in selective cases. But more recently I have come to doubt that it is an effective strategy. The rationale behind blackouts is that they can save lives by facilitating hostage negotiations. But I have seen scant evidence to support this. Meanwhile, because the news is suppressed and sometimes never released, blackouts themselves stifle the public debate and undermine the media’s own credibility.

After Foley went missing while reporting in Syria on November 22, 2012, his family and editors initially asked for a blackout. But after much reflection, they decided to go public and in January 2013 launched a public campaign for his release. I believe this was the right decision. The terrible killing of Sotloff, whose abduction was not reported until ISIS itself broke the news in the Foley video, makes clear that blackouts are not likely to effect the outcome at least as far is ISIS is concerned.

In Foley’s case, the public campaign did put pressure on US authorities, which launched an unsuccessful military operation to try to rescue Foley, Sotloff, and other hostages. Media coverage of Foley’s kidnapping also raised public awareness about the perilous conditions in which journalists work in Syria. Finally, it prevented Foley’s depraved killers from using the video of his execution to define him as a helpless victim. Indeed, blackouts may well serve the interests of Islamic militants who peddle in murder videos since they make it easier for such groups to control the message.

The kidnapping of journalists is not a new phenomenon. From Lebanon to Colombia, militant, guerrilla and criminal groups have used media kidnappings to extract ransom, generate publicity, and shape coverage. Journalists are uniquely vulnerable because they need to interact directly with the militants and where possible gain their trust.

At first, the response to such kidnappings was to use the power of the media itself to put pressure on the perpetrators to release their hostage. That strategy worked so long as those holding the journalist were hurt by the negative publicity.

But that logic was subverted by the 2002 kidnapping and killing of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. After The Wall Street Journal reporter was abducted in Karachi, media organizations drew from the old playbook, undertaking a campaign to humanize Pearl and employing prominent Muslims like Muhammad Ali and Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) to appeal directly to his captors. But this media strategy inadvertently served Al Qaeda, which in turn used Pearl as a political prop to spread a message of ruthlessness and terror. The media campaign only heightened the trauma and visibility of the kidnappers. Meanwhile, Pearl’s videotaped beheading became a terrorist motif, emulated not only by Islamic groups as in the Foley case, but by drug gangs in Mexico.

In the aftermath of the Pearl killing, media organizations began to rethink their response to kidnappings. Intensive publicity, it was argued, not only helps disseminate the terror message, it can complicate sensitive hostage negotiations. As media kidnappings soared amidst the declining security environment in Iraq this new thinking was increasingly applied.

Between 2004 and 2009, 57 journalists were kidnapped in Iraq, according to data from CPJ. Seven of them were Americans, 19 were Europeans, 23 were Iraqis, and eight more came from other countries. Many of the kidnapped Iraqis were employees of international news organizations, and 17 of these 57 journalists were murdered in captivity. “We all believed that ransom was being paid in the European cases,” noted Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who served as Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post between 2003 and 2004. “Privately I sure hoped that if I were picked up someone would pay a ransom for me. I do wonder if some of the militant groups would pick up the Americans for the propaganda value and pick up the Europeans to pay the bills.”

One of the first attempts to impose a media blackout came in January 2006, when Christian Science Monitor freelance correspondent Jill Carroll was abducted in Baghdad. Her abduction came at a time when the security environment in Baghdad was rapidly deteriorating, and routines and practices that journalists had developed to keep themselves safe were no longer effective. In Carroll’s case, her mistake was to schedule 48 hours in advance an interview with a Sunni politician. This gave her captors, who were tipped off about the meeting, time to prepare their operation. They swarmed Carroll’s car, executing her long-time fixer, and hauling her away at gunpoint.

Word of Carroll’s kidnapping spread quickly among the media community in Baghdad. As the executive director of the CPJ, I got a number of anxious emails from journalists to alert me. But the Monitor asked that the news of Carroll’s kidnapping be withheld. Their hope was that the media blackout would provide a chance to negotiate a quick release. Monitor editors also feared that Carroll could be lying, denying to her kidnappers that she was a journalist for example, and news of the event might blow her cover.

Journalists in Baghdad went along with the request but also expressed deep discomfort about withholding information they considered to be newsworthy. Media organization put pressure on The Monitor to make a public statement, which they did two days later.

Once The Monitor made the decision to go public, they employed a media strategy to secure Carroll’s release. While taking a relatively low-key approach in the United States, they sought to use local Iraqi media to paint Carroll as a friend of Iraq. It is not clear what role, if any, the media campaign played in the eventual decision to release Carroll after 82 days. One of her captors’ key demands was the release of Iraqi women held at the Abu Ghraib prison, of which there were only a handful. On January 26, the US military released five female detainees, along with more than 400 male prisoners. While the US military insisted this was not done in response to Carroll’s kidnapping, it did, as Carroll herself later noted, make it “harder to justify killing me.”

As the threat to journalists escalated in Baghdad, media organizations took extraordinary measures to protect their employees, fortifying bureaus, adding security advisors, and limiting movements of their correspondents and local staff. While Iraqi journalists working without such protections continued to be killed in record numbers, kidnappings of international journalists started to decline.  

In the rest of the world, media kidnappings continued to spread, particularly to places where Islamic militants were active. The reasons were myriad. The Pearl killing and other high profile kidnappings in Iraq had given kidnappings the patina of legitimacy among groups aligned with or inspired by Al Qaeda. Kidnappings, particularly of Europeans, also became a critical source of funding for militant groups around the world, as The New York Times has recently reported, because their government was more apt to pay ransoms.

The total number of journalists kidnapped around the world during this period was not large, probably several dozen, but many of these cases received intensive publicity. For example in March 2007, Taliban fighters in Afghanistan abducted Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo and his fixer Ajmal Naqshbandi. Several days later, the kidnappers beheaded their driver. The videotaped murder—replete with fighters gloating as the executioner wiped the bloody knife on his tunic—was aired on Italian television. Mastrogiacomo was also featured in the film, pleading for his life. It so shocked and terrified the Italian public that Prime Minister Romano Prodi, his governing coalition shaky, put tremendous pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to capitulate to the captors’ demands and release Taliban prisoners in exchange for Mastrogiacomo’s life.

After Karzai acceded, the Taliban released their Italian hostage but demanded the release of two more Taliban prisoners in exchange for Naqshbandi. When Karzai balked, the Taliban beheaded him. The Mastrogiacomo case received massive media coverage, particularly in Italy. Perhaps the masterful way by which the Taliban used the media to achieve their political objectives of securing the release of their fighters while discrediting the Karzai government helped make the case for future blackouts.

In any case, the number of blackout requests increased subsequently. One reason was the involvement of professional security companies contacted by media companies to help manage high-risk deployments. These firms systematized the response to kidnappings—setting up command centers, rotating staffing, keeping families informed, liaising with governments, and in some cases carrying out ransom negotiations with the kidnappers.

While media organizations were conflicted about blackouts because they sought to balance their essential responsibility to report the news with a desire to help their colleagues, security contractors experienced no such conflict. Their only obligation was to their client. Media coverage, they believed, could complicate sensitive negotiations and increase ransom demands. They also believed that managing media and responding to journalists’ queries was a tremendous distraction during a period of crisis. Unless there was a specific objective to be achieved through the media, they argued, it was better to keep things quiet.

Canadian reporter Mellissa Fung’s horrific case was one example. She was abducted in 2008 while traveling outside Kabul. Her employer, the CBC, requested there be no media coverage, a request honored for the 28 days of her captivity. Fung was held in deplorable conditions, kept in a dank hole, denied adequate food, and sexually abused. Her kidnappers, led by two brothers, were not insurgents but rather common criminals who wanted a ransom payment; they did not have explicit political demands, nor did they make a video. Fung was released after Afghan officials identified the kidnappers and detained their relatives, essentially orchestrating a hostage exchange that won the reporter her freedom.

In other cases, requests came from governments. When Canadian Amanda Lindhout and Australian Nigel Brennan were abducted in Somalia in August 2008 their governments asked the media not to cover the abduction (word eventually leaked up although certain details were kept quiet). The two were ransomed after 15 months in captivity and Lindhout went on to write a best-selling memoir.

One of the most sustained and sophisticated media blackouts involved New York Times journalist David Rohde, who was abducted in Afghanistan in November 2008 along with his fixer, Tahir Ludin, and his driver, Asadullah Mangal. After Rohde was kidnapped, The Times, in consultation with Rohde’s wife and family, immediately requested a news blackout, which they actively enforced for seven months. The original motivation for the blackout was an early request from the kidnappers that there be no media attention. But the abductors eventually had a change of heart, producing a series of videos of Rohde that they hoped to get on Al Jazeera.

In June 2009, as negotiations dragged on, Rohde and Ludin escaped, using a rope to climb out a window. They then made their way to safety at a nearby Pakistani army base. Mangal was eventually released from captivity and reunited with his family in Kabul.

A few weeks after Rohde escaped from captivity, I met him and his wife Kristen Mulvihill for lunch in New York. We spoke about his experience, and about the best way for CPJ to be helpful the next time a journalist was kidnapped. While the media blackout obviously had nothing to do with Rohde’s escape, he believed it was a vital component of making the volatile situation easier to manage. I supported the blackout of Rohde’s case and believed it was the right decision at the time. It’s been a journey since between then and my current view that blackouts should be employed only in the rarest of circumstances.

Of course this does not mean the journalists should report every detail about a kidnapping. Certainly widespread media attention, including the broadcast of emotional appeals from family members and hostage tapes from the kidnappers, can drive up ransom demands or make political demand of the kidnappers easier. But I’m hard pressed to come up with a case where the complete suppression of news was essential to a positive outcome in a kidnapping. Meanwhile, the lack of coverage means that governments face limited public pressure to act and limited scrutiny of policies that may contribute to the kidnapping epidemic, including the payment of ransoms by European governments. (CPJ’s position is that governments should not pay ransom, but we understand that families and private companies sometimes do.)

When a particular media organizations requests that other news outlets suppress coverage of a kidnapping, it can be a difficult decision to make, one that is confusing and contradictory. When the requests come from media organizations, they are generally honored, but when the requests came from governments they give pause. In December 2009, two journalists from the national broadcaster France 3 were kidnapped along with their Afghan colleagues by the Taliban while reporting on a road construction project outside Kabul. The French government called for a media boycott, but the families and press freedom organizations pushed back, holding public rallies and events to keep the case in the public spotlight. The two journalists were released in June 2011 after 547 days in captivity.

I have also seen cases in which family members and employers disagree on the need for a blackout and make contradictory requests. Media organizations often struggle to comply.

That kind of selective coverage—even with the best of intentions—damages the media’s credibility since for the most part it is international journalists working for major international media outlets that receive the consideration. This is not a question of policy. As former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller noted in defending the blackout in the Rohde case, the Times considers requests to suppress news of kidnappings not just for journalists but for others as well.

But the reality is that it is usually editors with large media organizations that are in the best position to make the request for the simple reason that they know in the critical first minutes and hours before the news becomes public.

The use of blackouts in journalists’ kidnappings is also uncomfortable because media organizations routinely publish information that is embarrassing, damaging, and even dangerous to individuals for a variety of reasons. They do this because their primary mission is to inform the public, and they justify all sorts of intrusions on that basis. Making active decisions to suppress news about their own colleagues inevitably can raise questions about double standards.

In Syria, approximately 30 journalists were reported missing at the end of 2013. Blackouts may have made sense in some individual cases, but collectively the large number of them obscured the scope of the problem and reduced media coverage of the troubling shift in the security environment: The Islamic State was actively hunting for journalists to abduct. In order to draw attention to the risk, CPJ decided to make public the total number of kidnapped journalists in Syria without providing names or details of specific cases. Today, the number of journalists held hostage in Syria has dropped to approximately 20. Some journalists of those kidnapped were ransomed, others escaped, and four were killed. Most still being held are Syrian reporters captured by Islamic militants.

Now, after Foley’s murder, there has much more media coverage about journalist kidnappings, including reports on the payment of ransoms. This is positive. Going forward I believe the best course of action would be for media organizations routinely to report the news of a journalist’s kidnapping in a straightforward unemotional way, omitting, for example, demands from the kidnappers and indicating in clear language when they are withholding certain information at the request of family members or editors. Of course, it would be a simple matter for the kidnappers to record their demands on a hostage video and post it online, and those who are interested in the information will find it. But if the mainstream media does not actively report on it, it is less likely to generate the kind of public pressure and visibility that complicate hostage negotiations.

This is a compromise solution and one that poses significant challenges in a highly competitive environment in which news organizations no longer exercise an information monopoly. Nevertheless, if media organizations all over the world can agree among themselves not to cover journalists’ kidnappings, then surely they can also agree on how to cover them.

Joel Simon is a CJR columnist and the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His second book, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, was published by Columbia University Press in November 2014.