Why Rohde kidnap is best kept quiet

Media coverage of a journalist kidnapping shows why those who work in this area almost never speak with the press. Some things are just better not discussed. Period.

David Rohde, the New York Times correspondent, disappeared seven months ago with his fixer. He reappeared last week, having reportedly escaped. In between, there was precious little media reporting because the Times enforced (as best as it could) a news blackout. This is not uncommon in kidnap and ransom (K and R) situations. The experts that handle these issues tend to insist on it.

The ethics of this have been debated, largely positively. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post analysed the decision in a relatively neutral tone, having spoken with NYT Exec Ed Bil Keller.

‘Keller consulted not only government experts but also other news organizations that had been through similar experiences, and there was “a pretty firm consensus,” he said, “that you really amp up the danger when you go public. . . . It makes us cringe to sit on a news story,” but in a life-or-death situation, “the freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish.”’

But Gawker, a NY-based blog, thinks the real reason for the news blackout was to keep the price on Rohde’s head down, which it believes is wrong. “The only thing that matters in a situation like this is Rohde’s life and safety, and we find it very difficult to begrudge the Times‘ handling of the situation. But asking reporters to quash a newsworthy story in order to preserve a life is a very different thing from asking for help to save the New York Times Co. some money.”

Others point out that the Times is itself apparently inconsistent about news blackouts: it has reported some kidnappings, and in other cases where secrecy might be justified has gone ahead with publication.

There is also controversy – and will be more – about what exactly happened to get Rohde released. As New York Magazine says, “The official story about the Times reporter’s dramatic kidnapping and escape leaves much unexplained.” It discusses the problems within and between the teams that worked on Rohde’s release. This story from the Christian Science Monitor also hints at some of the issues surrounding the release. Both – if read carefully – show why this (and most other cases) are best not discussed. Methods, prices, channels, techniques, people – are all talked about and this doesn’t help. In fact for some poor sod we don’t even know about locked in a cupboard in Afghanistan, it could be deadly; not to speak of those that will get taken afterwards.

You might say: well, maybe the Taliban are not great readers of New York Magazine? Which is fair enough, except that the internet of course makes this free for all. Or you might say: but don’t other cases (government secrecy, intelligence, family issues) also justify a degree of self-censorship? I wouldn’t disagree, though in the case of K and R, I tend to think that blanket restrictions are easier to support. And to argue that this is about price rather than life misses the point. This not like negotiating on a house: if the asset becomes to hot to handle, or the process takes too long, the kidnappers may dispose of it, and that could mean a life lost.

Kidnap and ransom specialists don’t discuss what they do with the media – before, during or after a kidnap. The work is technically complex, fusing ethical, financial, cultural, communications and human challenges. So: imagine disarming a human time bomb live on television, with audience participation. Since working with them I have learned great respect for what they do, and their desire for secrecy, despite nearly having a fight with one of the most eminent practitioners early in my career. Don, you were right and I was wrong.


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