Publish and Possibly Perish
For the last several weeks, many have criticized those in the news media who knew of the kidnapping of New York Times reporter David Rohde in Afghanistan and kept that knowledge secret for seven months until after he and an Afghan translator managed to escape.
Rohde’s editors and family believed that keeping news of his kidnapping away from the public increased his chances of not being harmed and of eventually being released. They feared that publicity would make him more valuable to his Taliban captors and, if it came about, would impede any negotiations for his freedom.
Critics accused the Times and anyone else in the news media aware of the kidnapping of hypocrisy, of having a double-standard, claiming that freedom of the press and speech is paramount to their work yet,when one of their own was in jeopardy, the journalists willingly engaged in self-censorship.
Many of Rohde’s colleagues and most reporters and editors were not aware of the abduction, though I knew of Rohde's kidnapping as did a good number of reporters and editors around the country and the globe, and (almost) everyone kept it secret at the request of the paper and the family.
Even with that tacit agreement in place among colleagues (and including government officials and the military), a week ago, the Times ran a story about how news is increasingly hard to contain, even if the news media itself is willing to keep it quiet.
Independent posters on Wikipedia repeatedly tried to include information on web pages as early as three days after Rohde was abducted. But because the Times requested and Wikipedia accepted, top Wikipedia editors erased word of the kidnapping more than a dozen times.
The Times story also noted that because it is common for even the most remote abductors to be connected to the Internet, editors also deleted the name of Rohde’s former employer, the Christian Science Monitor, because it included the word “Christian.”
The increasing danger to journalists and the issue of what should be public knowledge and when, is a troubling topic that has become more common in the past few years.
In the past, journalists covering one side or another in a conflict always faced the possibility of being seen as a combatant by the opposing force. But much of the time, enemies recognized that journalists could be used as a weapon, creating public sympathy as well as chronicling events.
In many conflicts, the neutral nature of journalists made it possible for reporters and photographers to cover both sides, crossing lines whenever it was physically safe. Still, the danger of being seen as a bargaining chip remained real. The ordeal of Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, who was held for seven years in Lebanon in the 1980s is among several chilling cases. Even more is the murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl who was beheaded by his captors in Pakistan.
Two years ago, a Chicago Tribune correspondent, Paul Salopek, was captured by the Sudan Liberation Army, former rebels who switched sides to the government, in Darfur and handed him over to the Sudanese military. Once senior editors at the paper and the magazine became aware of the abduction (the correspondent was on leave from the paper and on a freelance assignment for National Geographic), they (I was one of them) chose to try to win the correspondent’s release without publicity.
A New York Times correspondent in the region and a few other correspondents, editors and friends knew of Salopek’s capture and also honored the decision.
Internally at the newspaper, we agreed that as soon as there was any public acknowledgment of Salopek’s capture by the Sudanese government, we would report it and continue reporting it as a news story.
Weeks later, when the government officially charged Salopek in an open court in Darfur, the newspaper had a story prepared and ran it immediately. In Salopek’s case, it took another three weeks of round-the-clock negotiations between Chicago, Khartoum, Washington and eventually, with the aid of former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, the president of Sudan allowed the correspondent to leave the country.
As the Times noted in Rohde's case, the danger of publicity is that the kidnapped become more valuable and less likely to be released. That was and still is true of reporters who have been held in Iraq.
Despite the charge of a double-standard, holding back information or news of a kidnapping is not restricted to just journalists protecting journalists. Throughout the years of the American occupation in Iraq there have been kidnappings of soldiers, contractors and aid workers that were not immediately reported for the same reasons the Times cited.
It was and is routine for U.S. and Iraqi officials to request a delay of publication or broadcast of a suspected kidnapping until there is enough information to confirm it or, if officials believed there is a chance of negotiation or a release, to delay the news for days or even weeks.
The issue of life and freedom is too important to jeopardize because of deadlines or timeliness. A delay of such news is not critical in comparison to the threat. Still, withholding news for a few days, and especially for months, can be difficult for journalists who believe that putting light on issues and events is (almost) always preferable than concealing information.
On Sunday, the Times' public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote about the decision to suppress the news of the kidnapping in a column titled,"Journalistic Ideal, Human Values."
Hoyt noted that in his previous job with the Knight Ridder publishing company in 2005, he asked other news organizations not to report the abduction of a correspondent and photographer in Gaza. They all agreed.
"Dilemmas like the Rohde kidnapping put editors in excruciating positions," wrote Hoyt. The desire to publish versus the safety of the kidnapped, however, is not a hard choice if the options are clear.
Hoyt also recognized that while most news organizations will honor a request to hold off publishing or broadcasting information for a period of time, many individuals and groups are not aware that news media are willing to do that, but only if asked.