Building Markets

Back to all blogs

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.

A very real nightmare



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.

Russel's track record in real life is not great



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.

CBC's Mellissa Fung after being released (with help from a media blackout)



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.

Diplomats Fowler and Guay after being released (without help from a media blackout)



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.


Tags , , ,


  1. Geoffrey York says:

    Scott, I’m a little surprised that you would report our very brief Twitter exchange as if it was a legitimate debate, and then criticize me for what I “failed to point out.” Twitter is limited to 140 characters! Of course there’s a ton of stuff that we can’t point out on Twitter.
    You’re being factually inaccurate when you suggest that the media consistently protect the identity of kidnapped journalists. There are many, many examples of kidnapped journalists who are identified in the media. Amanda Lindhout and Beverly Giesbrecht are just two of the recent Canadian examples, but there are dozens of other examples of American, British and other journalists whose abductions are reported in the media.
    As for the decision about when to report and when not to report: of course it’s an ethical decision, and — like other ethical decisions — you can’t make sweeping rules or generalizations about it. It depends on the situation and the circumstances. I’m sure that you don’t have blanket rules about this for your own staff, and I’m sure that you would always consider the specific circumstances and the specific situation before you make any decisions about how much to release publicly, right? It’s the same with the media. Believe me, there is a lot of soul-searching about these cases, and you’re doing us an injustice if you imply that the media don’t care about ethics, or if you suggest that self-interest is the only consideration. There are long discussions on most of these cases. There are no simple blanket rules. It does depend on the situation and the circumstances. Do we always get it right? Probably not. Are there some inconsistencies? I’m sure there are. But your sweeping attack on the media is certainly unfair.
    What you failed to say, in your attack on the media, is what you think the media should do. You seem to imply that we’re doing it wrong, but you don’t say what we should do. I think that’s because there isn’t any simple rule about it, and you’d have difficulty in reducing it to a simple rule.
    By the way, I spent a lot of time reporting on the kidnapping of Robert Fowler and Louis Guay in 2009. Do you think that we should have kept their names secret? I’d love to hear your detailed thoughts on the ethics of what to do in this case. I believe that Robert Fowler was a leading public figure — a former deputy minister and UN ambassador, and one of Ottawa’s most powerful mandarins — and his kidnapping was a matter of legitimate public interest. There is little question, in my mind, that their names should not have been kept secret. If we had started censoring this news, we would be suppressing a legitimate public issue. But what would you do? Tell us please.

  2. Scott Gilmore says:

    Geoffrey: I’m sorry if you feel you were maligned, which was not my intention. My blog post was written precisely because of the limitations of 140 characters. So feel free to unleash on me…oh wait, you already have.

    Do media “consistently” protect the names of kidnapped journalists? I think we can argue that they do so “regularly”, and much more “consistently” for journalists than for mere civilians. For example, can you name a civilian whose name was protected?

    Am I being unfair to journalists and their editors? Obviously I don’t think so. For all the soul searching you describe, I often see much grubbier instincts to get a story out fast, to hell with the consequences. As proof, can I point out that the same editors that so proudly signed on to protect Fung did not even blink to release the names of others.

    What should the media do? Why not emulate other professions by adopting a common code of ethics? The first line of which could simply be “First, do no harm.” If that simple sentence was considered the bed rock of journalistic ethics, I think you would see much more reticence in reporting on kidnapping, no?

    As for Fowler and Guay, I would not have reported. Fowler was not the President, he was a mid level civil servant trying to do some good. The world would not have been damaged by showing some discretion. But it would have been diminished if by reporting his name it had led to his death. First, do no harm.

    By the way, we already censor the news. You, yourself, do it regularly. The names of rape victims. The identify of the deceased before the family is informed. The name of a young offender. The details of politician’s divorce. But neither you nor we call it censorship. We call it basic decency.

  3. Geoffrey York says:

    So, according to “basic decency”, you’re saying that we should not have reported the stunning news that a very senior Canadian diplomat (who had been a deputy minister and ambassador to the UN) was kidnapped in Africa? It’s a very slippery slope, Scott. If the plight of a deputy minister should be kept secret, try going a little higher — what about a cabinet minister? If a cabinet minister is kidnapped, should that be kept secret too? What about the prime minister? Should that be kept secret? Where do you draw the line? Are you going to extend this cloak of secrecy to everyone who gets into any kind of difficulty? What about someone who is arrested or taken into custody in a foreign country — should that be kept secret, just on the off-chance that the regime might get angry if the case is reported? Some regimes might threaten to kill an aid worker if their arrest is reported — should we stay silent just because somehow there’s a slight possibility that it might “do harm” to them if their arrest is reported? It’s a very, very slippery slope that you’re getting into when you call for secrecy.
    By the way, it’s simply incorrect to describe Robert Fowler as a “mid-level civil servant.” He was not some anonymous guy. He had been one of the most powerful and high-profile officials in Ottawa for many years. Yet you call it “grubby” if we report the news of his kidnapping. Sorry, it’s not “grubby” or “indecent” to report the news. It’s freedom of the press, one of the pillars of democracy.
    To compare Robert Fowler to a rape victim or a young offender is a bit absurd. The analogy does not hold. He’s a powerful and high-ranking public figure. If you’re willing to keep this kind of news secret, what else do you keep secret?
    As for codes of ethics: you seem unaware that the media do have very detailed codes of ethics. The Globe has a very lengthy code of ethics that is distributed to all employees. Journalist associations have codes of ethics. There are press councils and other self-regulatory bodies with codes of ethics.
    The biggest problem in your argument is your blanket statement that the media should “first, do no harm.” That sounds very noble, but nobody can be certain of when “harm” is likely to occur. It’s always a judgement call, and we’re not going to defer to the government (or other interested parties) to decide when something should be kept secret.
    You might think that some reporting is likely to harm Robert Fowler or Amanda Lindhout, so the reporting should be suppressed, but many others might assess the situation and disagree. Who calls the shots? Who tells us what to report and what not to report? Should we follow your assessment, or someone else’s assessment? As soon as an outside body is telling the media to keep secrets, you’re already “doing harm” — to democratic freedoms.

  4. Peter says:

    “As soon as an outside body is telling the media to keep secrets, you’re already “doing harm” — to democratic freedoms.”

    Phew.. what a generalistic statement. I am not sure what democratic freedom would be harmed when it becomes a general rule (self-regulated or enforced by an external body) not to publish the names of kidnapped individuals.

    To me, your second reply proves you don’t seem to get the point which the article is trying to make: for aidworkers (no matter their rank or nationality), the more publicity about a kidnapping, the more difficult it will be to get the staff released. For this kidnapping and the next one. “Visibility” and “publicity”are often the main reason why aidworkers are kidnapped in the first place.

    It is not the self-regulatory force, ethical principles or the assumption harm might be inflicted, which are determining whether to publish this or the other story. The pressure for a scope, an insiders’ story, viewer counts, etc.. are much more important for the press, I gather.

    Please review the links in the article. Half of them are not working as they are “mailto” links rather than live http links.


  5. Tim Pearson says:

    Arguments are well covered so I will be brief.

    There should be NO expectation that the media can be balanced. It simply is too much to ask. They are personally involved in personal colleagues lives. It’s personal.

    In Southern Italy, when Kidnappings where weekly, the Caribinieri (military police) simply went on total lockdown on the family and friends of the person kidnapped. Police tailing 24 hours, all bank accounts blocked. All conversations taped. The family and friends became prisoners too until their loved one was released or killed.

    It was illegal to pay ransoms, but in emotional situations, who gives a toss. Same with the media. They try to remain balanced, but must fail (they are human, not droids)

    I don’t want censorship of the press (the blogsphere will only humiliate you), but surely all international kidnappings need to go to a totally independent 3rd party for management.

  6. Geoffrey York says:

    “The pressure for a scope, an insiders’ story, viewer counts, etc.. are much more important for the press, I gather.”
    That’s an incredibly cynical statement, and I think it’s flat-out wrong. Personally, as a working journalist, I’m not motivated by “viewer counts” or other selfish concerns. I’m motivated by my belief is that the government shouldn’t determine the news. Nor should some “external body” (as you call it) determine what can be reported and what cannot. That’s a democratic principle. As soon as the government tells us that a kidnapping of a public figure cannot be reported, it’s a compromise of a basic freedom in a democratic society.
    There’s also another mistake here: the claim that publicity will ALWAYS harm a kidnapping victim. It’s not always true. It’s just as likely, in some situations, that publicity will pressure the government to be more active in seeking a solution to a kidnapping. There have been many cases where the families of kidnapping victims WANTED publicity and attention because they were frustrated by the inaction of the negotiators. Should the media ignore this? Should we decide that the families must be wrong, because of a simplistic principle that publicity is always harmful? I think it has to be considered on a case-by-case basis, not by some advance generalization that publicity is always bad.
    Governments always tend to prefer secrecy, because it makes their lives easier. But as soon as the media start deferring to “external bodies,” those same external bodies will seek further power. It’s a danger that has to be resisted.

  7. Lucas says:

    I’m still struggling to find a recent example of a non-journalist whose name was actively withheld by the press for any serious length of time. If there is one, please advise. Further, most of the journalists I can think of whose names have been released recently (including the examples cited) were freelancers, who lack the protection of a corporate umbrella. But that’s possibly a separate discussion on the value placed on the lives of freelancers (I’ve often ‘worked’ as one). There are also a few examples of an agreed deal breaking down – I think the Pearl case would be an example of this. The most recent case – that prompted this article – certainly doesn’t fit the “leading public figure” argument, and it’s cases like this that make me think there are some merit to the charge of industry hypocrisy.

    Governments do, as Geoffrey suggests, tend to prefer secrecy in these cases but I would argue that this is not only because “it makes their lives easier”, but rather because it tends to protect the person that is kidnapped. While there are some cases of families wanting the case to be made public, the general trend is that they would prefer to keep it quiet, especially when they understand that the publicity of the case tends to generate greater demands from the kidnappers and limits the options the negotiators have.

    That said, I accept that ultimately the only people who can make this decision are journalists/editors (and those who employ them). The idea that the government would regulate it (crude public policy option that will never happen) or that a third-party would adjudicate (totally impractical given the international nature of news) doesn’t jive with the fairly clear principle of a ‘free press’ that we value within modern democracies. I just hope that in the future the industry will make different decisions.

  8. Geoffrey York says:

    Four journalists from the New York Times were kidnapped yesterday in Libya. Their names were immediately released.
    The charge of hypocrisy is absurd. With very few exceptions, names are generally released, as they should be.
    Secrecy is generally a bad idea, for many reasons. Any democratic society needs openness. How can we understand and debate foreign policies if important information is kept secret? Consider two hypothetical examples. Let’s imagine that the Canadian parliament is debating whether to join NATO in launching air strikes on Tripoli. There are arguments on both sides, it’s a broad public debate, and eventually the air strikes are approved. Six months later, we discover that 20 aid workers had been kidnapped before the air strikes and were being kept hostage in Tripoli during the air strikes, but — at the government’s request — that information was kept secret. Wouldn’t you feel that the secrecy was wrong? How could Canadian citizens properly debate the air strikes if a key piece of information was kept secret?
    Second hypothetical example: a high-ranking Canadian official is kidnapped by al-Qaeda, which demands $10-million in ransom from the Canadian government. After months of secrecy, the government decides to send $10-million in taxpayers money to the terrorists in exchange for the freedom of the official. This fact is never reported to the public, and — when journalists dig up the fact — the government pressures the journalist to keep it secret because it might “endanger” its officials overseas. You or I might think that the government is right, but do we have the right to keep secret the fact that $10-million of Canadian taxpayers money is being handed to al-Qaeda? Do you obey the government simply because it claims that the secrecy would “protect” its officials from kidnapping?
    These are some of the factors that Scott is overlooking when he argues in favor of secrecy. As a democracy, Canada needs to know the truth about what’s happening in foreign countries where Canadians are working. With very few exceptions, these cases need to be reported.

  9. Lucas says:

    Until a number of examples can be cited where the press have come together and collectively agreed to not release the name/situation of a kidnapped non-journalist for an extended period of time, as has repeatedly been done in the case of journalists, I can’t see how the charge of hypocrisy could be described as “absurd”. I agree that journalists release the names of other journalists when they have been kidnapped some of the time, but as best I can tell, they always release this information (and more) when it’s a non-journalist, even though there is a recognition that sometimes secrecy is best (otherwise, the names of the journalists would always be released).

    Both hypotheticals above involve a broader societal issue, and I think the public should clearly be aware of the situation, but I don’t think that they represent the norm.

    Let me come back with a hypothetical: a mid-level aid worker is kidnapped in Yemen. 15 Canadian Special Forces are flown in, along with a handful of CSIS reps, and they spend a month setting up an operation, in co-operation with about 50 Yemeni officers, in an effort to free the 33 year-old. Two or three DFAIT staffers are also put on the case to ensure that the politics of the situation go as smoothly as possible. Secrecy is considered by all involved, including the employer and the high-priced security consultant hired by the guy’s family, to be of paramount importance, as the experts in the case feel that if secrecy can be maintained, all involved have a better chance of surviving. The cost to Canadian taxpayers for the operation will, of course, be significant, and the lives of all involved — Canadian and Yemeni — are obviously at risk. Do Canadians have a right to know immediately about the kidnapping — as of day 1?

    (By the way, I believe the Times has described the journalists Geoffrey referred to as “missing”, not kidnapped. I sincerely hope they’re okay.)

  10. Blogs you should be reading…

    […]Here is a Great Blog You Might Find Interesting that we Encourage You[…]……

Rss Feed Tweeter button Facebook button Youtube button