All the news that’s fit to print?
The New York Times blackout of information on kidnapped journalist David Rohde raised questions about transparent reporting in exceptional circumstances, writes Michael Griffin
16 Jul 09

DavidRohdeThe New York Times blackout of information on kidnapped journalist David Rohde raised questions about transparent reporting in exceptional circumstances, writes Michael Griffin

The escape of a New York Times journalist from his Afghan kidnappers after seven months of unreported incarceration has raised important questions about the ethics of reporting any such seizure at all. It appears an informal code exists that says it is fair to report the ordeals of kidnapped aid workers, diplomats, tourists and soldiers, but not of media professionals.

David Rohde, his translator Tahir Ludin and driver Asadullah Manghal were kidnapped on 10 November in Logar province, 30 miles south of Kabul, during a trip to interview a local Taliban commander. Rohde won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for A Safe Area, his forensic reconstruction of events that led to the massacre of thousands of Muslims from Srebrenica, Eastern Bosnia.

Local outlet, Pahjwok Afghan News, was the first to report the kidnap, subsequently echoed by al Jazeera and the Italian news agency, Adnkronos, though they added little to the initial news-in-brief. Their reports flashed briefly across the Internet where they were picked up and re-broadcast by bloggers and browsers. Within 24 hours of the incident, almost everybody with an interest in the news or in Afghanistan knew that a prize-winning, risk-taking journalist might now be in the hands of scimitar-wielding fanatics, and were avidly awaiting confirmation. It didn’t come until his escape with Ludin on 20 June.

The New York Times sat tight on the story for seven months, and persuaded 40 other news organisations — including CNN, BBC, Reuters, DPA, al Jazeera and AFP — to bite their tongues in the belief that the publicity would have made him more valuable to his captors. At a reception to celebrate the safe return of Rohde and Ludin to New York, New York Times editor Bill Keller said: “The prevailing view among David’s family, experts in kidnapping cases and officials of several governments, and others we consulted was that going public could increase the danger. We decided to respect that advice … and a number of other news organisations that learned of David’s plight have done the same.” Rohde had married Kristen Mulvihill only two months before leaving on assignment, adding to the poignancy of their positions.

Focusing everyone’s mind, of course, was the spectre of Daniel Pearl, South Asia Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal, begging for his life in a televised video in 2002. Pearl was abducted and beheaded by British national Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh during an investigation in Karachi into the Pakistani intelligence service’s links to international terrorism. That tragedy had been played out in public, without altering the reporter’s trajectory by one iota. He left a pregnant wife.

And there was indeed evidence that Rohde’s captors were in it for the money, suggesting greater flexibility for negotiation than in the Pearl case. Keller said that the kidnappers initially asked for no publicity, suggesting a lack of ideological intent and reluctance to turn an opportunity into a military operation. However, later they released two videos to Gulf satellite stations, though these were not broadcast. They may not have been the work of the original captors, however, for it came to light after their escape that the hostages had been “sold” to Sirajuddin Haqqani, a successful Taliban commander, and transferred to North Waziristan. Haqqani had been responsible for the suicide attack on Kabul’s Serena Hotel in 2008.

The extent of the Times-led news blackout was breathtaking. The only information to report was the lack of information, and even when this was reported, Keller was on the phone. Bloggers Little Green Footballs, Political Insomniac, Jawa Report and Dan Cleary were all asked to remove the posts because of the threat to the prisoners’ lives. Meanwhile, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and Michael Moss, a friend and colleague of Rohde at the Times as well as a Wikieditor, were playing cat-and-mouse with user-editors to prevent the kidnapping being added to his page. On 13 November, the news was posted and deleted four times in four hours before the site was blocked for 17 days.

The great escape, when it came on 19 June, was similarly obscured. According to Tahir Ludin, who told the story at their homecoming party, he stayed up late playing board games with their jailers, and they had shimmied down the wall of their compound on a rope while the guards slept. Then they tiptoed through the dark until they met a member of Pakistan’s Frontier Constabulary, who took them to his unit HQ.

As soon as their safety was assured, the debate began over whether double standards had warped the profession. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation followed the same approach as the Times when journalist Melissa Wong was captured in Afghanistan in 2008 and held for 28 days before being released unharmed. “We must put the safety of the victim ahead of our own normal instinct for full transparency and disclosure,” said CBC publisher, John Cruickshank, echoing government arguments to defend the claim of “national security” only at a smaller level.

Michèle Ouimet, of Montreal’s La Presse countered: “Journalists are the first to invoke the public’s right to information, but they become awfully sensitive when it comes to one of their own.” She wondered if such solidarity would include freelance journalists, like Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan, who were kidnapped in Somalia in August 2008 while trying to visit a refugee camp. By one account, Lindhout is now pregnant, having been raped by a captor.

And if the private hells of freelancers are not off limits to responsible journalists, what about South Korean missionaries in Afghanistan, German tourists in the Sahel, private security contractors in Iraq, aid workers almost anywhere, or even soldiers. In early July, an American soldier went missing in eastern Afghanistan, having wandered off-base without weapons in the company of a couple of Afghans. “You can bet that when the soldier’s name is revealed,” wrote Bill Roggio of the, “we’ll be bombarded with interviews of his family and any images or videos released by the Taliban.”

Bill Keller said the Times paid no ransom for the release of Rohde and Ludin (Asadullah Manghal decided the join the Taliban), but New York magazine claimed the newspaper had at least authorised payment of up to $2 million in January. One of its sources, an American contractor, said that although no money was ultimately paid to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the guards had been bribed to look the other way when their captives made their escape. If so, they probably signed their death warrants. Haqqani had been holding out for $8 million, but clearly the Times was ranging far beyond its journalistic remit by doing business with the US forces’ enemy number one on Afghanistan’s eastern border.

If any of this is true, Haqqani was only too well aware of Rohde’s value as a symbol of US journalism when he bought him from the Logar gang at the end of 2008. If his negotiators were still pitching the ransom at $8 million in May as New York magazine alleges, the media blackout may have extended the reporter’s incarceration without reducing his price. And the Old Gray Lady may have other things on her mind. In January 2009, it signed a $250 million loan agreement with Mexican billionaire, Carlos Slim, at an interest rate of 14 per cent (10 per cent in cash).

Perhaps the true story of David Rohde’s kidanp and release will never be known.