Italy's confirmation Monday that the Taliban had released Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo marked a positive end to an increasingly familiar story in Afghanistan.
Unlike insurgents in Iraq, the Taliban had largely refrained from abducting journalists in the past, and had never killed one that they had captured. In the past five months, however, the Taliban have held four different sets of reporters, including Mr. Mastrogiacomo, and they killed his Afghan driver last week, claiming that the man was a government spy.
Although all the journalists have been freed, the events suggest that flashpoints between journalists and the Taliban are on the rise. As the Taliban and NATO dial up operations for what could be a crucial spring, tensions are mounting, and journalists are being caught in the middle.
"Given the military situation there, the ante has been upped for journalists," says Bob Dietz, Asia expert for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
Although details were uncertain at press time, media reports suggested that Mastrogiacomo had been freed in exchange for at least two Taliban prisoners: a former spokesman named Latif Hakimi, and a former leader named Ustad Yasar. He spent one night with tribal elders as an interim step toward freedom as the Taliban pushed for more concessions. The Taliban demanded that a third person – also a former spokesman – be released, but it was not certain if this had occurred.
Mastrogiacomo, a veteran journalist who has covered conflicts including Iraq and Lebanon, was kidnapped on March 4 while reporting in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and currently the site of the largest NATO operation since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. He appeared to be well aware of the dangers of reporting from the area, which is largely outside government control. According to one report, shortly before he was captured, he told an editor at the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, for which he works, that he had a "rather delicate meeting" scheduled.
Mastrogiacomo's capture and release are a window into why the Taliban have been more tolerant of journalists than has Al Qaeda.
"Al Qaeda in Iraq has ... the idea that all foreigners are the enemy. This has never been the case with the Taliban," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban."
Instead, the Taliban have targeted those they see to be working for the current Western-backed government, whether they be politicians, Western troops, or contractors and aid workers. This also might have played into the abduction of Mastrogiacomo. The Taliban initally misidentified him as a British writer named John Nichol – who had previously been a member of the Royal Air Force – calling Mastrogiacomo a British spy.
The Taliban consider themselves the legitimate Afghan government, and require journalists to alert them of their plans to travel through Taliban-controlled areas. In the past, most journalists have been detained for not alerting the Taliban of their travel plans, and then released once Taliban authorities have established that they were not spies or government officials.
This is an outgrowth of the Taliban's roots in the "holy war" against the Soviets, when journalists were often the best allies of the mujahideen. "These people know what Western journalism is," says Mr. Rashid.