Essay: How to deal with kidnappings

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.

Still, we had no idea if we were doing the right thing.

In the wake of a Colombian Army offensive in the region, we thought the ELN might be holding Ruth and Scott as human shields. In that case, raising holy hell made sense.

But if the rebels opted to demand a ransom payment, perhaps we had just jacked up the importance — and the price tag — of our friends.

“I got the sense that the protests heightened our value to the guerrillas, which can be good or bad,” Ruth told me by email this week. “Our biggest concern was that our captors would take us for spies. So the protests, especially by fellow journalists, supported what we were telling them.”

No money exchanged hands and Ruth and Scott were released after 11 days, in part, because the ELN did not want to further sully its image before the international community.

But when kidnappers don't care about their human rights record, media coverage, government protests and citizen-led “free-the-hostages” campaigns probably won’t work and may even backfire. Take the case of Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate who was grabbed in 2002 by the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

For the part of her time in captivity, Betancourt was held alongside three U.S. military contractors who were abducted by the FARC a year later after their surveillance plane crashed in guerrilla territory.

The U.S. government figured that making a big fuss would encourage the FARC to hang onto the contractors and State Department officials instructed their families not to speak to journalists.

Betancourt, however, is a dual French-Colombian citizen and became a cause-celebre in Europe. With the help of the French media, Paris made freedom for Betancourt a national cause and leaned on the Bogota government to give in to the FARC’s demand to trade imprisoned rebels for the hostages.

The French later cut a secret deal with the FARC and dispatched a C-130 transport plane to South America to pick up Betancourt. But according to email messages contained on a computer confiscated at a FARC camp, the mission fell apart due to a botched ransom payment.

“They were telling us to do deals we weren’t willing to do,” Vice President Francisco Santos told me in an interview last year. “But in turning Ingrid into this important international figure, it just upped the price for her release.”

Washington’s under-the-radar approach also proved maddening, at least to the relatives of the contractors. They criticized the U.S. government for ignoring their loved ones stuck in the jungle and began speaking out to reporters.

The hostage crisis dragged on because, similar to the Taliban, the FARC pays no heed to its international reputation or to the fact that kidnapping is a war crime.

As for Betancourt and the Americans, they were finally rescued on July 2, 2008, by the Colombian Army after spending more than five years in captivity.