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Kidnapped journalists - one rule for staffers one for freelancers?

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I've been mulling this over since I first heard about the kidnapping of Mellissa Fung in Afghanistan some weeks before it was finally reported and she was set free. Ever since I first started blogging about "the world of foreign correspondents, war reporters, life on the frontline and the job of journalism" for the Frontline Club I've lost count of the number of kidnap cases and killings I've blogged. However, at least to me, there appears to be a three running themes with those kidnap cases that do not get reported.
- they are hushed up by western media, yet are often openly reported in the local press. - those kidnappings that are hushed up involve staff journalists not freelancers. - rumours of cash changing hands follow the release of the journalist.
Most recently we've had the case of Mellissa Fung of CBC and the subsequent ransom/prisoner swap speculation. And before that, the Frontline Club's own Sean Langan from Channel 4 and subsequent ransom speculation. To compare, we have the cases of Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan and Abdifatah Mohammed Elmi, Marwali and Mahad Clise in Somalia. And more recently Beverly Giesbrecht, who was reported kidnapped in Afghanistan last week. There were no reporting restrictions on either of these kidnaps. Would these cases have been reported if the victims were not freelancers and if they had the backing of a big media outlet and decent insurance? There's a huge amount of chatter out there about the ethics of the Fung case, at least in Canada. The arguments tend to focus on whether or not we should be “reporting on one's own". Click the links below in the light of Mellissa Fung's own words from an TV interview she gave soon after her release,
I am surprised because as a journalist, right, I'd want to report on it, but if you're talking about somebody's life, right, I think that sort of supersedes a good story, and I thank everybody for co-operating. link
The following links all come from the pages of the Canadian press. I've selected a few choice quotes. From The Globe & Mail,
Now that the standard has been set, I'm expecting the media will no longer report on the capture or kidnapping of any Canadian abroad so their release can be secured behind the scenes in the same manner. Surely they all deserve the level of protection and anonymity that media organizations grant to their own. link
From The Guelph Mercury,
I'll be frank: I have no idea what I would have done had the decision been up to me. I suspect I'd be uneasy with my course of action, regardless of what it was. I am, however, troubled by the fact that the decision ultimately made in newsrooms around the world seems to be linked to the fact Fung was tied to a large, powerful newsroom. link
From The Canadian Press,
Lindhout's captors have reportedly demanded millions of dollars for her release and she is still missing. Unlike the Fung case, there was no request to Canadian news organizations to hold back publication when reports of Lindhout's kidnapping first emerged in international dispatches. link
From The Guardian (Prince Edward Island),
Am I happy Mellissa Fung has been released after 28 days in a hellhole in Afghanistan? Of course I am. It's one of the year's feel good stories. Did she get special treatment by the media? Yes. link
Also from The Guardian (Prince Edward Island),
while we might wax eloquent about freedom of the press, the need for full disclosure and the public's right to know, responsible journalists know that when a life or lives hang in the balance - and in the absence of some greater good - those rights can and must be suspended, at least temporarily. link
From The London Free Press,
Before we sweep the month-long blackout aside, we should have a few more answers. What happened and under what circumstances might it happen again? The best predictor of future behaviour is past performance. link
From The Times Colonist,
How often has the same courtesy been extended to other kidnap victims? In my experience, virtually never... If the decision to keep Fung's kidnapping a secret is the start of a more aware media recognizing the impact that thoughtless coverage can have, count me in. But I sense a one-off. link
From The Leader-Post,
Fung's story was kept out of the papers because she had a persuasive advocate in her bosses at the CBC, including John Cruickshank, a former editor in chief of The Vancouver Sun. Other kidnap victims are not so lucky. Does that put them at greater risk? link
From The Toronto Star,
I can easily justify Star editor-in-chief Fred Kuntz's decision to agree to the news blackout about Fung: It was a matter of putting human values ahead of journalistic values. Fung's safety, and possibly even her life, took precedence over transparency and the public's right to know. This was the clear ethical choice here. But, I don't have such clear answers about the Star's consistency in such matters. On Jan. 23, the Star's Asia bureau chief, Bill Schiller, reported on the plight of Je Yell Kim, a dental technician in his 50s who was held in Communist North Korea on vague charges relating to "national security." His family had kept his arrest secret for more than two months in hopes that quiet diplomacy might secure his release. Following publication, Kim's daughter, Su Jin Kim, called my office crying inconsolably and asking why the Star disregarded her pleas not to publish when she explicitly stated her fear for her father's life. I explained what Schiller had already told her: that the incarceration of a Canadian by a foreign government was an issue of important public interest in Canada. So, too, was the question of what Canadian authorities were doing to secure his release. I added that as information about her father's plight had already been posted on the Internet, it was likely that other journalists would report it, perhaps with less sensitivity than Schiller, who conveyed the family's concerns about publicity. This conversation didn't sit easily with me and I questioned whether we had been fair in putting the news value before this man's possible safety. link
If anyone knows of any kidnapping case of a freelance journalist that did not go reported until the victim was released or killed I would be very grateful if you would pass on the link or relate the story in the comments. UPDATE: And so it begins...
Canada's top military commander is urging the media to show the same restraint it used in the Mellissa Fung case for the next such kidnapping. link
This is such a can of worms... Where do you draw the line at what is and is not in the public interest. Will the Fung kidnap be held up forever more as the precedent by which other, arguably far more sensitive and important, cases are hushed up?


Gerard White | November 19, 2008 2:28 AM

Interesting blog but I think you missed a vital point. Actually, 95% of kidnappings go unreported. There are currently somewhere in the region of 370 hostages being held in and around Mogadishu. The ones who are taken from ships we rarely hear anything about except when it is spectacular, oil tanker or munitions supplies. In all these cases the hostages are covered by KRI (kidnap & ransom insurance)which is almost certainly the case for someone working for a major network too. Where as independent journalists and aid workers are for the most part there at their own risk. So the kidnappers use the media to try and stir up hysteria and put pressure on whoever is charged with negotiations. They simply turn on Google Alerts and say see, this person is worth much more than your first offer. Threats to kill are part of the marketing campaign.

For those with KRI, the negotiations are very different, a professional team are immediately dedicated and it is just a matter of negotiating and paying a ransom but even then it can take six months or more

Anonymous | November 19, 2008 1:41 PM

Cheers for that Gerard - good point. You wouldn't happen to know where I could find the stats you refer to about unreported kidnappings?

The nature of freelancing means that very few of us can begin to consider the kind of insurance we'd need for somewhere like Somalia or Afghanistan. Although, I'd be interested in knowing if any freelancers do shell out for it.

nadene | November 19, 2008 2:19 PM

I think it's totally right that we all cooperate with

requests not to report or publish a story when asked

not to.

It's not about a 'good' story, it's aboutour colleagues

lives. Sometimes publicity helps (as in

the case of aid worker Clementina Cantoni in 2005), at

others it doesn't. And we need to put those needs before

any scoop. I was disgusted by the antics of one

freelancer who was trying to dig out info on Sean Langan's

kidnapping during the time everyone knew, but was keeping

it quiet. This person was trying desperately to get the

story and being v underhand about it.

I'm pleased to say they got short shrift from other

journalists on the ground.

Anonymous | November 19, 2008 2:32 PM

If silence helped Fung get out of that cave and Sean out of his situation, all well and good, but does that mean it is possible and/or desirable to choose which kidnap cases that do and do not get reported? What criteria do we base these choices on?

I tend to go along with the London Free Press quote above,

"Before we sweep the month-long blackout aside, we should have a few more answers. What happened and under what circumstances might it happen again? The best predictor of future behaviour is past performance."

Are we to assume that in all the kidnap cases that do get reported that the person is not at risk? Or that the risks of not reporting something puts that person at greater risk?

I'm just unclear as to where these lines are.

Boot | November 21, 2008 11:26 AM

I think the rules should be the same for all. It saddens me that media organisations collude to keep secret journo kidnappings, but apply different standards to others who are kidnapped. I've seen this in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's unacceptable.

As for freelance vs staff, it gets worse, sadly.

A major international news organisation in Afghanistan let a stringer rot in a Kabul jail for months rather than admit any association with him. The problem? He was arrested in the company of a Talib official on the way to a Taliban interview. The organisation was embarrassed that it had helped its stringer get ISAF accreditation (standard practice and kind of needed for most pressers), and terrified of putting the American military offside by admitting to the association.

The same company has no death insurance, no health insurance and no disability insurance for any of its staff.