Over the weekend Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist David Rohde escaped from his Taliban kidnappers, seven months after he was taken hostage in Afghanistan.
The news was dramatic, all the more so because it was not public knowledge that the former co-chief of the South Asian NYT bureau had been kidnapped in the first place.
The NYT had requested global media not publicize Rohde’s kidnapping, in the belief that coverage would adversely affect his chances of survival.
NYT executive editor Bill Keller told Editor and Publisher, “All of the advice we had from those who have been through this is that if you publicize this, you raise his profile and his value to the kidnappers. You do not gain anything because the Taliban is not responsive to international public opinion.”
Forty media organizations worldwide complied with the NYT’s wishes and the only news of Rohde’s capture was heard from a handful of lone bloggers and segments on Arab TV.
The success of the media blackout over the kidnapping is all the more remarkable given that Rohde, who won his first Pulitzer in 1996, was again a recipient of the coveted award earlier this year. That he was unavailable to accept it was not noted anywhere.
Defamer say it was a matter of balance between reporting the news and “being sensitive to a potentially fatal situation”, praising the New York Times for the blackout, “the Times, thankfully, chose Rhode’s life.”
But The Christian Science Monitor, Rohde’s former employer, has questioned the validity of the media blackout, asking whether the press is guilty of a double standard “protecting its own while reporting other kidnapping cases.”
The National Post similarly questions the special treatment afforded Rohde and other western journalists taken hostage:
Interestingly, newspapers have felt liberated to reveal the tale of Rohde’s kidnapping, along with his fixer and driver, now that the American reporter is free, even though one member of the group still remains held in the Taliban compound.
Countless people have been kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the Afghan war began in 2001. Earlier this month between 400-500 Pakistani students were kidnapped by the Taliban and a number of other journalists have been taken hostage including Canadians Beverley Giesbrecht and Melissa Fung in 2008 and Italian Daniele Mastrogiacomo in 2007.
While there remained a media black out on Fung and Rohde, the Taliban kidnappings of hundreds in Pakistan have remained fair game for the press. Does the fact that most other Taliban hostages, including Rohde’s driver, are not western journalists make them any less deserving of the protection of media silence? If indeed protection is what it amounts to.
The Taliban take a lot of hostages and regularly. Their reasons for doing so are not explicit, nor consistent.
Rohde’s kidnappers initially requested the release of Taliban fighters imprisoned in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, then demanded a ransom of tens of millions of dollars. They also wavered between demanding media silence and releasing video tapes to local TV stations.
Kidnapping to ignite coverage of the resistance group and keep their situation in the headlines might be considered passé in the world of new media where any freedom fighter or terrorist can upload videos onto YouTube or start a blog. But nothing grabs global attention like a westerner in trouble.
The Monitor suggests the Taliban are motivated by a desire to fuel fear and intimidation, in which case kidnapping foreigners like David Rohde makes sense as does the reaction of the NYT.
AFP report that, for their part, the Taliban are denying involvement in Rohde’s kidnapping.