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Essay: How to deal with kidnappings

As the Taliban takes more high-profile hostages, there are lessons to be learned from Colombia's war with the FARC.

Colombian police officers perform an anti-kidnapping and anti-extortion demonstration for Brazilian officers at the police academy in Sibate, near Bogota, Sept. 5, 2009. Though security has improved, Colombia has registered more than 24,000 kidnappings since 1996. There's no magic formula for how to respond. (John Vizcaino/Reuters)

BOGOTA, Colombia — The debate over how to cover kidnappings has intensified as more reporters are abducted in hot zones and editors receive frantic pleas from their colleagues to black out the news.

Of the dozen or so requests to withhold coverage over the past two years, the most high-profile cases involved New York Times correspondents David Rohde and Stephen Farrell, who were grabbed by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

Times executives argued that news stories could raise the risks to the hostages and most media outlets agreed to look the other way. Rohde and Farrell emerged from captivity unharmed yet the news blackout raised troubling questions.

“Doesn’t publicity sometimes help hostages instead of endangering them?” wrote Edward Wasserman, a Knight professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University in Lexintgon, Virginia.

“And what about the harm done by silence — the innocents who might not have strayed into a dangerous place if they’d been forewarned?”

News organizations are now mulling over what to do if they receive similar petitions to withhold coverage when non-journalists are abducted. But for the media, as well as for governments, aid groups and businesses operating in dangerous areas, drawing up a set of guidelines for how to deal with kidnappings would prove a frustrating exercise.

Anyone who thinks otherwise should spend some time in Colombia, where I’ve been based for the past 12 years.

Though security has improved, Colombia has registered more than 24,000 kidnappings since 1996. And because each case is different, “there’s no magic formula for how to respond,” said Claudia Llano, of the Foundation for a Free Country, a Bogota group that counsels the relatives of hostages.

News blackouts may have helped Rohde and Farrell. But my colleagues in the Bogota press corps opted for saturation coverage when two of our own were kidnapped.

In 2003, reporter Ruth Morris and photographer Scott Dalton, who were on assignment for the Los Angeles Times in northern Colombia, were abducted by a left-wing guerrilla group called the National Liberation Army, or ELN.

It was the first time that Colombian rebels had detained foreign correspondents and we responded with a barrage of newspaper, TV and radio dispatches as well as protest letters and demonstrations on the streets of Bogota.