Rules for kidnapping blackouts?

Should the media automatically observe news blackouts in all kidnapping cases?  That was the question at the heart of a panel discussion organized by the Canadian Journalism Foundation at the University of Toronto’s Innis College on November 17.

WATCH a video of the panel discussion.

Arguing in favour was former hostage Robert Fowler, who said some published information about his background may have raised his kidnappers’ expectations and prolonged his 4-month captivity at the hands of a group related to al-Qaeda. Fowler, a former deputy defence minister and advisor to six Canadian prime ministers who left the Canadian diplomatic service in 2006, was seized in December 2008 while he was on a mission to Niger as the Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary General.  

Saying he supported a free press, he nevertheless told the journalists present: “My captors grabbed a senior UN wallah. That’s what they wanted. They came a long way – 600 kilometres further south than they had ever been – in order to grab this big UN guy. I don’t think they knew much about who I was, beyond the fact that I was a UN guy. But, gentlemen, you told them. They suddenly –  well, after our capture – they suddenly developed a vivid interest in the duties and responsibilities of the deputy minister of defence, which, needless to say, I did not want to encourage.

“They were intrigued that in one way or another I had advised six prime ministers. And you could see the numbers rolling around in their heads. There is absolutely no doubt that that reporting impacted on the kind of interrogation we were subject to, the kind of expectations they grew, and very, very likely the length of time we spent in captivity.”

Defending the practice of considering blackouts on a case-by-case basis were Stephen Northfield, foreign editor of The Globe and Mail, Robert Hurst, president of CTV News and Current Affairs, and John Cruickshank, publisher of the Toronto Star. Cruickshank headed CBC News when Melissa Fung was kidnapped in Afghanistan and played a key role in persuading other media to join CBC in holding off reporting until her release.