Kidnapped reporter’s release prompts questions about news embargo

When CBC reporter Mellissa Fung was released on Nov. 8, nearly four weeks after being kidnapped in Kabul, Afghanistan, Canadians breathed a collective sigh of relief.

While all rejoiced at Fung’s safe release, some journalists questioned how things were handled by the media.

Fung, who was on her second stint reporting in Afghanistan, was kidnapped from a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul while there reporting for a story she was working on. She was taken to mountains west of the city and kept in a small cave for 28 days.

News of her abduction was kept secret and the CBC and other media outlets did not make public the fact that she had been kidnapped. Upon her release, CBC publisher John Cruickshank said:

“In the interest of Mellissa’s safety and that of other working journalists in the region, on the advice of security experts, we made the decision to ask media colleagues not to publish news of her abduction. All of the efforts made by the security experts were focused on Mellissa’s safe and timely release…We must put the safety of the victim ahead of our normal instinct for full transparency and disclosure.”

Some journalists, such as Michèle Ouimet, a columnist with Montreal’s La Presse, questioned whether the Canadian media showed more solidarity toward Fung than it did for freelancer Amanda Lindhout, who was kidnapped in Somalia last summer. Ouimet wrote:

“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.”

On the question of whether journalists would be as content to keep a story quiet were it not a fellow journalist, Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno is clear:

“There has been some grumbling about Canadian media staying silent, not reporting on Fung’s abduction though it was known within the industry, while her release was being negotiated. I don’t know if we treat our own differently. The media have withheld details before, including the fact of a Christian peace activist’s homosexuality, which is a crime in Afghanistan. No story is worth imperilling a release or rescue.”

Quoted in an article called “A question whether no news is good news,” Globe and Mail editor Edward Greenspon said an individual’s safety must always be balanced against the importance of quickly informing the public. He said:

“Consequences are not something journalists usually think about because they aren’t in the business of shaping outcomes. If a given piece of information is newsworthy, in the public interest, it’s ‘publish and be damned.’ On the other hand, there are no absolutes. Editors exist to exercise their discretion about what should be published and in what way.”

Greenspon and Globe deputy managing editor for foreign news Stephen Northfield will answer reader questions related to media organizations’ handling of kidnappings, ransom demands and news-blackout requests in a Globe Q&A session on Nov. 11.

The National Post’s Tom Blackwell is sure the media embargo will be hot topic of debate now that Fung is safe. In a Nov. 10 column he recalls how he and other journalists reacted upon hearing the news at the Kandahar Air Field. He adds:

“Meanwhile, there was another extraordinary development. News of the abduction was now buzzing throughout Afghanistan but Canadian and international media had agreed to hold off on reporting the kidnapping. The fear was that publicity would complicate negotiations with the abductors, and potentially raise Mellissa’s value in their eyes. It seemed like the right thing to do, but the unprecedented news blackout will undoubtedly be a subject of debate for some time.”

Blackwell’s Post colleague Brian Hutchison points out that reporters were told that making the story public could have put Fung in danger. He writes:

“As Ms. Fung knows, Canadian reporters embedded at KAF compete with each other for stories and keep certain things to themselves, but it’s not a bare-knuckle fight. They look out for each other. Information regarding security is shared. Acting selfishly or indifferently to a colleague’s safety is beyond the pale. It’s why no reporter or news agency broke ranks and ran with Ms. Fung’s ordeal.

Some commentators are now criticizing media for keeping her capture a secret, pointing out they have reported other kidnappings in Afghanistan.

The point is, reporters were asked not to disclose this particular event; it was determined by more informed sources that sharing details of her kidnapping would have put Ms. Fung’s life in jeopardy.

Honouring the request proved the correct course.”

Two days after Fung’s release, a Pakistani newspaper reported that two Taliban insurgents were released in exchange for Fung, but according Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan Ron Hoffmann, no such deal was made. The CBC reports:

“CBC News publisher John Cruickshank has said the broadcaster will not comment on any negotiations or demands that may have led to Fung’s release. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Cruickshank and Afghan intelligence agents have all said that no monetary ransom was paid for Fung’s release. Harper also said all Canadian and Afghanistan laws were followed to secure her release.”

While it is certainly good news that Fung was released unharmed, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) suggests that her situation is but one example of the disturbing situation for journalists in Afghanistan. Bob Dietz, the Asia program coordinator of CPJ said in a statement:

“Melissa’s freedom is a great relief, of course. But her abduction is only one incident in what has become a pattern of kidnappings and attacks not only on foreign reporters and aid workers, but Afghan journalists as well. The disintegrating security situation in Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan is already changing the way news is gathered in this important global story.”

UPDATE: A Nov. 11 Globe and Mail editorial addresses media outlets’ decision to hold the story of Fung’s kidnapping, calling the self-censoring “sensible, humane and necessary.” It concludes:

“No one can be certain that media reports of her abduction would have put her at far greater risk. But neither was it mere speculation; it was a reasoned belief, based on the advice of those with experience in the field. If there is a public interest important enough to risk a life in imminent peril, it was not apparent in this case.”

Next week on J-Source: Stephen Ward looks at the world press’s self-imposed embargo on the Melissa Fung story and probes the tension between reporting the news and minimizing harm.