In Journalist Kidnappings, No Set Rules on Media Coverage


James Foley, Aleppo, Syria, November, 2012. Photo credit: Nicole Tung.

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, 7 p.m., 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 (the witness’s identity is being withheld), 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.

But while there are hostile environment training programs and security handbooks that offer concrete advice to journalists on how to avoid being kidnapped, or increase their survival chances if they are, there is no guidebook or set protocol to follow once a journalist actually is taken hostage. And for families and news organizations, 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 Journal 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.”

For the Foley family, the news of their son’s kidnapping — and the burden of choosing what to do next — must have 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 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 —and not 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 U.S. State Department — Foley and the others were set free by the Libyan authorities.

But last November 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 may have 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 U.S. 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 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 get 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.”

But while imposing a media silencing is usually seen as the best course when captors are demanding ransom, the best course of action 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.

28-year-old U.S. journalist Jill Carroll is welcomed by Base Commander, Col. Kurt Lohide after she landed at the U.S. Airbase in Ramstein, southwestern Germany, Saturday, April 1, 2006. Carroll was a hostage in Iraq for 82 days.  Photo credit: AP Photo/Michael Probst)

“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 press attention does not always work, of course.

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 U.S. government, including the release of Pakistani nationals from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Pearl’s plight inspired an enormous, international media campaign. But nine days after his capture, with the demands unmet, he was beheaded.

The kidnappers’ “motivations were purely political, so I don’t think [the media attention] was going to help one way or another,” said Smyth.

After Rohde’s escape, and the extent of the silencing was revealed — even Wikipedia had cooperated in censoring its page — a debate emerged over the merits of such blackouts. While most journalists and media analysts supported the Times’ decision to protect its reporter, others criticized the organization for brazenly — and perhaps selectively — contradicting its mission of serving the public interest through reporting.

“What about the next story?” wrote Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute in an op-ed directed at Times editor Keller. “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 — aid workers, contractors, soldiers — 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. I would say a senior public official, not an ordinary soldier or low-level diplomat. 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 Richard 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 Cook 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 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 to 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.

“We don’t have any information,” answered Diane. “We just don’t. And that’s one of the things. We just don’t have any information.

“It’s been six weeks.”

That was January. More than three months after the Foleys went public — and more than 130 days after the kidnapping — James Foley remains unaccounted for. John and Diane are still seeking information about their son. At least four other journalists are known to be missing in Syria.