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?
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.
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.
“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.”
He says there are no hard and fast rules for such situations – “I think that rules imply rigidity, and rigidity greatly diminishes good ethical decisionmaking.” Mr. Steele notes that it’s important to consider the specific case: who the kidnappers might be, what the special vulnerabilities of the captors might be – and to listen to the opinions of governments, businesses, and others who have a stake in the outcome.
“The trick is to make journalistic and ethical decisions in a fashion that is not unduly influenced by, say, pressure from terrorists, the self-interest we have in protecting one of our own, or the potential connections we have with government agencies,” he says.
As to a possible double standard, “I think that is a weak spot in the underbelly of the decision making in these cases. We show a preference for one of our own in journalism generally by holding back a story or elements of a story compared to how we might cover the kidnapped oil field worker or diplomat or tourist. In those cases, we might not bring as serious a deliberative process to how we’re going to cover it.”
This is the second time Rohde has been kidnapped in a war zone. While reporting in 1995 on the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and children at Srebrenica, during the Bosnian War, he was arrested and held by Bosnian Serbs for 10 days.
Clay Jones, the Monitor’s chief editorial writer and its foreign editor in 1995, says The New York Times had “consulted us, given our experience rescuing David after his 10-day capture in Bosnia – and we had extensive experience in dealing with the US government and his family.”
Mr. Jones described Rohde as “a classic foxhole reporter – you want him on your side. He obviously takes a lot of risks but he gets good stories… he’s a reporter’s reporter.”
The US government was involved in working to win the men’s release in this case, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meeting with members of the family, as well as Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who knew Rohde in Bosnia and helped secure his release when he was captured there.
At the time of the three men’s kidnapping, Rohde was finishing up reporting on a book project and was not on assignment for the Times. He married Kristen Mulvihill just two months before his capture. Ms. Mulvihill told the Times after she spoke with her husband that he and Ludin “just walked over the wall of the compound,” from where they made their way to a nearby Pakistani Frontier Corps base. On Saturday morning, they were flown to Bagram.
The Times said that no ransom was paid for the men’s release.
“The family is so grateful to everyone who has helped — The New York Times, the US government, all the others,” Ms. Mulvihill was quoted as saying by the Times. “Now we just hope to have a chance to reunite with him in peace.”
Rohde was to head to Dubai to meet his wife and family.
Mr. Mangal, the driver who is still being held, has two children, and Mr. Ludin is the sole provider for his large family of two wives, seven children, a sister, and his elderly parents. He was an English teacher before he moved to Kabul to start working with Western journalists, arranging numerous face-to-face meetings between journalists and the Taliban.
The New York Times paid a monthly salary to both men’s families during the captivity, according to Farouq Samim, an Afghan reporting assistant or “fixer” who was hired for a month-and-a-half by the New York Times to help Afghanistan Bureau Chief Carlotta Gall work for Rohde’s release.
“A journalist is someone who is on no side and a friend of everybody … and David and Taher were those kinds of journalists,” said Mr. Samim.
Ben Arnoldy contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.