Kayla Mueller, kidnappings, and doubts about news blackouts

A news blackout has become an orthodox response to kidnappings in war zones. But is it helping captives survive their ordeals?

Nick Oza/The Arizona Republic/AP
Eryn Street read a statement about her childhood friend Kayla Mueller Tuesday in Prescott, Ariz. Ms. Mueller was held by Islamic State extremists for more than a year before her death, the circumstances of which are still unclear.

  • Dan Murphy covered the Iraq war from 2003-2008, and the kidnapping in Baghdad of Monitor correspondent Jill Carroll.
  • Kayla Mueller's extended ordeal as a captive in Syria, which began with her abduction outside a hospital in Aleppo on Aug. 4, 2013, was hidden from public sight.

    Her friends and family, and the aid groups she had worked with, knew almost immediately she was missing and probably kidnapped. In May 2014, her parents were directly contacted by the Islamic State in a long and ultimately fruitless attempt to extract money from them in exchange for promises of her safety and freedom. Her death was confirmed Tuesday by the White House. 

    Many journalists knew she was missing, too, but they kept that information to themselves at the request of the family. The extended news blackout, long urged on families of kidnapping victims by the FBI, has evolved into standard practice over the past decade or so, and is rarely examined.

    That probably needs to change.

    Almost invariably when someone is kidnapped by militants, families face a chaotic and frightening situation that their own life experiences haven't prepared them for. Their FBI handlers are ready with "expert" advice, and while some friends and family may disagree, every decision takes on life or death importance. The feds are urging silence, and who are they to argue?

    I'm frankly skeptical that this one-size-fits-all approach is smart. Take Ms. Mueller, a young woman who had traveled far from home to provide some measure of succor to the Syrians, suffering from the bloodiest civil war of the 21st century so far. And many other causes that she'd adopted in her young life resonate profoundly in the Middle East.

    In the summer of 2010, she traveled to the Palestinian West Bank and participated in nonviolent protests against home demolitions by the Israeli government. The International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian pressure group she worked with, shared this information after her death, and said it had kept quiet previously "out of concerns for her safety."

    Yet she died all the same. IS claims that Mueller died in a Jordanian air attack on an IS position where Mueller was being held captive. Or she may have been murdered before then. The abductions of Steven Sotloff and and James Foley, both murdered by IS last year, were likewise subject to an extended media blackout.

    Bad faith negotiations

    This is not to second-guess, and certainly not to blame, the difficult decisions made by her friends and family. She was being held by a group fond of enslaving women and of beheading and burning alive captives. The way IS handled its murder of Jordanian fighter pilot Muath al-Kassasbeh indicates that their negotiations are often conducted in less than good faith since they were making demands in exchange for the pilot's safety weeks after they had already doused him in gasoline and burned him to death. 

    But this was a case of a young woman who could have been framed in the public eye in a highly sympathetic fashion. She had demonstrated with Palestinian families, briefly lived with one resisting the takeover and demolition of their home, and escorted children to school in Hebron, where they routinely suffer abuse at the hands of Israeli settlers.

    Early in the Iraq war, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to IS, kidnapped and murdered Margaret Hassan, an Irish woman married to an Iraqi man who was legendary for her humanitarian work among Iraqis from 1991 till the time of her death. Her murder inflamed huge swaths of Iraqi public opinion against the group, and they appeared to learn their lesson. Another eight foreign women were kidnapped in the country, many with track records of public support for and concern for ordinary Iraqis, and all were ultimately released unharmed.

    A Monitor reporter-abductee

    One was a then-reporter for the Monitor – Jill Carroll. She was kidnapped in Baghdad in January 2006, and the Monitor's attempt to maintain a news blackout failed because other news outlets didn't want to sit on the story. The standards then were different.

    But that may have been a blessing in disguise. The Monitor, with help from many other outlets both inside and outside of Iraq, mounted a public media campaign to humanize Ms. Carroll and to make her captors, who had killed Monitor translator Allan Enwiyah during the abduction, look as monstrous as possible if they killed her. 

    Making it clear that their movement would lose support by her murder seemed worth doing. Carroll's journalism in the country had focused on the tragedies many average Iraqis were facing, and some of her stories had inspired donations for families who had lost homes. Was that an important part of the reason why her ordeal ended with her release? Impossible to say. But would her odds have been better if no one had known she was even missing? That I find difficult to believe.

    Ms. Mueller was another instance where her supporters had good material to work with. That chance wasn't taken.

    Joel Simon at the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote after the Sotloff and Foley murders about news blackouts:

    Initially, I supported the use of media blackouts in selective cases. But more recently I have come to doubt that it is an effective strategy. The rationale behind blackouts is that they can save lives by facilitating hostage negotiations. But I have seen scant evidence to support this. Meanwhile, because the news is suppressed and sometimes never released, blackouts themselves stifle the public debate and undermine the media’s own credibility.

    After Foley went missing while reporting in Syria on November 22, 2012, his family and editors initially asked for a blackout. But after much reflection, they decided to go public and in January 2013 launched a public campaign for his release. I believe this was the right decision. The terrible killing of Sotloff, whose abduction was not reported until ISIS itself broke the news in the Foley video, makes clear that blackouts are not likely to affect the outcome at least as far is ISIS is concerned.

    In Foley’s case, the public campaign did put pressure on US authorities, which launched an unsuccessful military operation to try to rescue Foley, Sotloff, and other hostages. Media coverage of Foley’s kidnapping also raised public awareness about the perilous conditions in which journalists work in Syria. Finally, it prevented Foley’s depraved killers from using the video of his execution to define him as a helpless victim. Indeed, blackouts may well serve the interests of Islamic militants who peddle in murder videos since they make it easier for such groups to control the message.

    US officials now say that Mueller was also a target of that failed rescue mission in Syria.

    Going public automatically when someone is captured is no more the right answer than always insisting on radio silence. Such awful situations need to be handled case by case, taking into account what's known of likely captors, the background of the captive, and the country and culture where they're being held. 

    That said, the news blackout orthodoxy doesn't seem to be doing anyone any good.

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