Over the weekend, news broke that Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter David Rohde had escaped from captivity in Afghanistan, where he had been held for the past seven months.
The news brought relief to a community overwhelmed by stories of violence against and arrests of journalists in Iran and the recent conviction of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee in North Korea.
But after the relief subsided, other questions arose. Why had no one reported Rohde’s kidnapping? According to Editor & Publisher editor Greg Mitchell, at least 40 news outlets knew about Rohde’s captivity, but they decided not to broadcast the news at the request of the Times. Mitchell said he worried that keeping the kidnapping a secret would jeopardize other reporters heading to the region, but ultimately decided it was the best cause of action in this case.
“I wonder now if a great debate will break out over media ethics in not reporting a story involving one of their own when they so eagerly rush out piece about nearly everything else,” Mitchell said in a post on The Huffington Post. “I imagine some may claim that the blackout would not have held if a smaller paper, not the mighty New York Times, had been involved. Or is saving this life (actually two, there was a local reporter also snatched) self-evidently justification enough?”
Rohde was snatched outside Kabul, Afghanistan last November, along with local journalist Tahir Ludin and their driver Asadullah Mangal, while Rohde was doing research on a book. Although there had presumably been efforts made to ensure the captives’ release, the Times said no ransom money had been paid and no Taliban prisoners held by the U.S. had been released.
Early Saturday morning, Rohde and Ludin managed to escape the Taliban compound where they were being held — using a rope to climb over a wall after keeping their captors up late in order to ensure that they slept soundly. Ludin hurt his foot during the escape, but Rohde was unharmed. They walked to a nearby Pakistani militia base and, when their identities were confirmed, they made it to Islamabad and then on to an American Army base.
But even after the harrowing escape, the question remains: was it right to keep the captivity a secret from the public?
“From the early days of this ordeal, the prevailing view among David’s family, experts in kidnapping cases, officials of several governments and others we consulted was that going public could increase the danger to David and the other hostages,” Times executive editor Bill Keller said. “The kidnappers initially said as much. We decided to respect that advice, as we have in other kidnapping cases, and a number of other news organizations that learned of David’s plight have done the same. We are enormously grateful for their support.”
The situation calls to mind the 2002 kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Pearl’s employers decided to publicize the kidnapping, but he was tragically killed by his captors.
Today, reporter Asra Q. Nomani, who was hosting Pearl and his wife Mariane in her rented house when he was kidnapped, writes how Pearl’s fate may have saved Rohde.
“After I learned David had been kidnapped, in November 2008, I sent him an email with the subject line “prayers to you,”…and I set a Google Alert to his name. But no stories about his kidnapping popped up. The media was respecting a decision by The New York Times and the Rohde familyâ€™s kidnapping specialists not to publicize the news, on the premise that a kidnapping targetâ€™s value only increases with attention. I understoodâ€”and I agreed. In 2002, Wall Street Journal editors and Dow Jones officials chose to publicize Dannyâ€™s kidnapping with interviews on “Larry King Live” and regular headline alerts on CNN…Humanizing Danny was a gamble that would have been seen as brilliant if he had come out alive. Alas, he didn’t. No one is to blame. We all just do the best we know how to do at the time.”
Yesterday, Keller told CNN’s Howard Kurtz that the Rohde kidnapping put him in an “agonizing position.”
“It was an agonizing position that we revisited over and over again,” he said. “But I also have a responsibility for the people who work for me. I send a lot of people out into dangerous places and their security is also part of my job.”