Kidnapping, Aid Workers, and the Media
My biggest fear is kidnapping. In this business, it’s a very practical fear. I’ve personally known four people who were taken. One in Iraq, one in Russia, one in Afghanistan, and one in Cambodia. Three survived and one died very brutally.
Our staff work in places where kidnapping is a frequent concern. We spend a great deal of energy and money to try and reduce the risk, and we’ve also debated at some length the ethical issues related to kidnapping.
For example, there is the issue of ransoms and kidnap insurance. This is a real-world example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If a ransom is paid the likelihood of you surviving may increase. But the future risk to other aid workers definitely increases. When a big payout is made (like the $20m for the Koreans in Afghanistan) the market value of hostages goes up. Therefore, there is a consensus in the aid industry that while it may be pragmatic in the short term, ransoms and K&R insurance are unethical over the long term.
Another ethical dilemma is whether the media should report on kidnapping. This is a very important issue, because when someone is taken, and it becomes a media story, several things happen.
First, the wider the story is reported, the higher the perceived value of the victim and the higher the ransom demand as a result.
Second, the public reporting complicate the private negotiations for release. Information on the efforts to release the hostage may be misrepresented, or the likelihood that a ransom or rescue attempt is made gets telegraphed to the hostage takers. This reporting may contradict or undermine what the negotiators are saying or it may attach unrelated issues. (Imagine, for example, if an Israeli politician publicly commented on the story of an American kidnapped in Pakistan.)
Third, reporting on the kidnapping draws unhelpful attention to the entire business of kidnapping and proves the point that it can be an excellent marketing tool for any aggrieved cause.
For these reasons and more, journalists frequently choose to not report on kidnappings….of other journalists. The most recent was when CBC reporter Mellissa Fung was kidnapped in Afghanistan. The CBC convinced all the other media outlets to impose a media blackout, which helped lead to her eventual successful release. However, days later the CBC opted to publicize al Qaida’s kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats in Niger. The hypocrisy was stunning and noticed by many.
And once again, the media are demonstrating that they maintain a double standard on kidnappings that hurts the rest of us who work in conflict zones. Last week a civilian male was kidnapped in Afghanistan. The media is giving it full coverage. When I griped about this on Twitter, The Globe & Mail’s Africa correspondent Geoffrey York countered that this recent case is different from Fung’s because it was the kidnappers who had released the man’s name What York failed to point out was that in Fung’s case, the local Afghan media did release her name as well. It was widely reported on list servs and security warnings (I also believe it was briefly on an international wire service – but have not been able to find a record of this. Anyone else?). It was hardly a secret. Who releases the victim’s name is a distinction lost on me. In both the Fung case and the current one the question faced by editors around the world is the same “Will reporting on this make it more likely or less likely that the victim will survive?” If others have chosen to report, does it make your decision to do the same any less ethical?
Following the release of Fung, The Globe & Mail was rather proud of its decision to enforce a media blackout, noting that “We’re not in the business of putting lives in jeopardy.” The unspoken caveat being, “Unless, of course, it’s not a journalist’s life in jeopardy.”
For me, for my staff, and for aid workers operating in difficult environments everywhere, this question of media ethics and hypocrisy is not merely an interesting after-dinner debate. It’s something that wakes us up in the middle of the night. We wish they would apply the same ethical standards for us, as they do for their own.