Wednesday, July 1, 2009

If You Were Captured Abroad Would You Want it Kept Secret?

Many were shocked when the news broke that New York Times reporter David Rohde escaped after seven months in captivity in Pakistan. The details of his escape--including broken limbs and Taliban bribes --were notable in themselves, but most surprising was that hardly anyone knew about the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist locked away with Pakistani terrorists. In all the news of Roxana Saberi, Ling and Lee, and sadly, many more, where was Rohde's media blitz?

As the story unraveled that the New York Times orchestrated a media blackout, convincing other news outlets and even Wikipedia not to cover the story in the interest of Rohde's safety, the heated debate over self-censorship in the press began. And the controversy continues even as Rohde returned to work yesterday, to "perhaps the most sustained ovation ever heard in the paper’s newsroom" according to The Times and "resounding applause" as The Times' Tim O'Brian puts it on Twitter.

Bill Keller, Executive Editor of The Times said that it was after consultation with experts in kidnapping cases, government officials, and Rohde's family that they decided that "going public could increase the danger to David and the other hostages."

CNN's Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour recently interviewed about the incident on WowOWow said although she would like to hear Rohde's thoughts on the controversy, she would want the world to know if something similar happened to her. "If I’m kidnapped I want you, personally, to lead the charge and make sure people know about it," Amanpour said interviewer Lesley Stahl.

When reporter Jill Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor was kidnapped in Iraq in 2006, the Monitor reports it was "criticized in some quarters for seeking a brief news blackout." "That effort ended after about two days, with major news outlets saying they could not continue to sit on a significant story," writes Monitor correspondent Dan Murphy. Carroll was eventually freed despite media attention, but for many (myself included) the highly publicized capture and eventual murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 remains heavy in our minds and the desire to avoid another such tragedy seems to be influencing the decision to self-censor.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute and Matthew Ingram of the Nieman Journalism Lab both came out strongly against The Times' media blackout, attracting much attention and criticism for questioning tactics that might have saved a man's life. But there are two points that are hard to overlook. One is that Rohde escaped. He wasn't rescued or released, he managed to evade his captors. And two is that even Rohde himself has hinted that his captors were merely looking for money, not political gain or to make an example of him.

As Ingram puts it, "the coverup has made things harder not just for future kidnapping victims such as Rohde, but for newspapers and other mainstream media outlets as a whole."

It may seem counterintuitive to critique the handling of the situation now that Rohde is safely back on American soil, but if you were kidnapped abroad, would you want your story told or kept a secret?

Photo Credit: Tomas Munita for The New York Times

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