Kidnapped Times reporter escapes after seven months: news blackout lifted

New York Times reporter David Rohde and Afghan reporter Tahir Ludin, who were kidnapped by the Taliban more than seven months ago, escaped from captivity June 19.

Rohde and Ludin, along with their driver, Asadullah Mangal, were taken outside of Kabul on Nov. 10, according to the Times’ report about the escape.

The two reporters escaped by “climbing over the wall of a compound where they were being held in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. They made their way to a nearby Pakistani Frontier Corps base and on Saturday they were flown to the American military base in Bagram, Afghanistan.”

The driver did not escape with them.

The kidnapping was kept quiet by the Times and other media organizations, although it was somewhat known through a minor blog at the time that wrote about a missing Times reporter.

In an April 20 J-Source article about media blackouts called “News blackouts ‘quite common’“, Melissa Wilson referred to Rohde’s unreported kidnapping.

She wrote:

“At this moment, for instance, a prominent international journalist is being held captive and no news organization has reported it. According to Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute, news blackouts happen ‘quite frequently’ in the case of kidnappings. ‘I couldn’t put an exact number on it,’ he says. ‘It’s become quite common over the past three or four years.’

“Case-in-point: the details of the missing journalist mentioned earlier have appeared in one less-than-ubiquitous blog but zero inky headlines, even though the case has been going on for several months. J-Source will not be the one to break this story, but sooner or later, some editor somewhere is going to respark the debate.”

Times executive editor Bill Keller explained the reason for the blackout after Rohde escaped. He said:

“From the early days of this ordeal, the prevailing view among David’s family, experts in kidnapping cases, officials of several governments and others we consulted was that going public could increase the danger to David and the other hostages. The kidnappers initially said as much. We decided to respect that advice, as we have in other kidnapping cases, and a number of other news organizations that learned of David’s plight have done the same. We are enormously grateful for their support.”

The Times noted that both the newspaper and Rohde’s family declined to talk about any details of the efforts to free the captives, except to say that no ransom money was paid and no Taliban or other prisoners were released.

Keller added:

“Kidnapping, tragically, is a flourishing industry in much of the world. As other victims have told us, discussing your strategy just offers guidance for future kidnappers.”

When CBC reporter Mellissa Fung was abducted in Afghanistan in November, 2008, the news embargo surrounding her kidnapping prompted discussion about how her situation was handled in the media. J-Source ethics columnist Stephen J.A. Ward noted that “freedom to publish is a fundamental but not an absolute value, legally or ethically. To say it is not absolute means that it may be balanced by other principles. Anyone who wants to construct a good case for publishing the Fung kidnapping must do more than harp on the rights of a free press. She will have to argue in detail as to why free speech trumps the possibility of serious harm to Fung.”

A Christian Science Monitor (CSM) story on Rohde’s escape outlines what happened in the days after he was kidnapped, what information the Times had, what demands were made and what efforts were made to gain the reporters’ release. CSM correspondent Dan Murphy asks the question “Should the media have kept the capture of The New York Times journalist quiet during his seven months of captivity?” in a blog post called “Rohde: media face tough choices in kidnap cases.

Murphy wrote:

“The extended media blackout, its effectiveness, and whether the press is guilty of a double standard – protecting its own while reporting on other kidnapping cases – is likely to be the subject of extended debate in the days ahead. He was already in captivity when it was announced that he was among a team of reporters at The New York Times who had won a Pulitzer this spring.

“When Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was kidnapped in Iraq in 2006, the paper 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…

“The way the Times handled Rohde’s case reflects the set of informal rules the press is developing to deal with new kinds of conflict, and the new kinds of reporting that they require. Since the Iraq war began, 57 journalists have been kidnapped and 87 killed there. Last November, Melissa Fung, a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., was released in Afghanistan after enduring a month of captivity, much of it bound in a small hole. The media also observed a news blackout in that case.

“‘We have competing interests in these cases – we have the primary obligation of journalists to report in a timely, comprehensive manner on significant events,’ says Bob Steele, an expert on ethics and journalism at the Poynter Institute. ‘But I also believe that we also have an obligation to minimize harm.”

In his On the Ground column, the Times‘ Nicholas Kristof wrote:

“There will be some second-guessing about the paper’s willingness to suppress the story. But i’m convinced that it was the right decision. We believe deeply that news should be reported, but not at the expense of somebody’s life. In rare situations, when the situations warrants, we should withhold crucial information. Our paramount goal shouldn’t be to publish, but to serve the public interest — and in this case I think that was served by keeping quiet…

“Some cynics think we are willing to protect lives by withholding information only when it’s our own people who are involved. That’s incorrect. Our instinct is always to publish, but we do withhold information when we think it’s necessary; there’s no formula, and it’s a delicate balancing act…”