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Rohde: media face tough choices in kidnap cases

Should the media have kept the capture of The New York Times journalist quiet during his seven months of captivity?

By Correspondent / June 20, 2009

New York

Late Friday night, New York Times reporter David Rohde and his assistant Tahir Ludin slipped over the wall of the Taliban compound where they were being held in Pakistan’s North Waziristan and made their way to safety at America’s Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan after seven months in captivity.

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Mr. Rohde, who won a Pulitzer prize in 1996 for uncovering the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica while working for The Christian Science Monitor, and this year for his role in the New York Times’s coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, had been held since Nov. 10, 2008. He, Mr. Ludin, and their driver, Asadullah Mangal, were kidnapped outside Kabul. Mr. Mangal did not escape with his colleagues.

Rohde’s kidnapping had been kept largely quiet by the world’s media, following the lead of the Times and the urging of the family, both of which were concerned that coverage of the kidnapping would put the three men’s lives at greater risk.

“From the early days of this ordeal, the prevailing view among David’s family, experts in kidnapping cases, officials of several government and others we consulted was that going public could increase the danger,” the Times quoted Bill Keller, its executive editor, as saying. “We decided to respect that advice … 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 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.

Given that Ms. Carroll’s captors were eager for publicity – issuing a number of videos to Arab TV stations – keeping the story quiet for a long time would have proved impossible.

Keller said that Rohde’s captors had initially asked for no publicity, and so complied with that demand. The captors’ views apparently changed as time went on, with the release of at least two videos that were produced and sent to Arab TV networks, though they were not given extended air play at the urging of the Times.

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.

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