The story of The New York Times journalist David Rohde’s escape from his captors in Afghanistan raises interesting questions about the role of the media in hostage takings. As has been widely reported, the major media outlets displayed a high level of solidarity by keeping mum about Rohde’s capture for 7 months. By resisting their natural urge to report the hostage taking of one of their peers, the international journalism corps honored the request of Rohde’s family and The New York Times not to make the story public.
Some commentators refer to this “media blackout” as a mere case of “professional courtesy.” They point out the double-standard of journalists seeming to be more concerned about a hostage’s safety when the victim is a member of their own profession. At the same time, they freely report on the hostage taking of aid workers, soldiers, or tourists.
The intriguing question here is, however, did this “media blackout” strategy work in Rohde’s case? We have no way of answering this question. After all, Rohde did not get released. He escaped his captors.
The media may well benefit hostage takers in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them kidnap foreigners for ransom. Others use the hostages as bargaining chip to secure the release of jailed comrades. Certainly, the media can help terrorist organizations in their cause of spreading fear (and forcing foreigners out of their country) by publicizing the drama unfolding around hostage takings with dramatic video footage.
However, publicity by TV stations like Al Jazeera can also become dangerous to hostage takers. According to hostage security expert Will Geddes, publicity can help catch kidnappers. The more people, and especially experts, get to know about the situation, the more likely there will be clues from the public that can lead to the capture of the hostage takers. As Geddes told the BBC: “By bringing this information to a wider community you are also bringing that wider community to potentially problem solving and as such any proper security service group is more than likely monitoring the correspondence within Al Jazeera to see who are they communicating with and that can perhaps lead back to where some of these kidnapping gangs are operating. “
Rohde’s escape from his hostage takers was certainly spectacular. The media’s discipline quite noteworthy. The question about whether the “media blackout” strategy worked, however, remains unanswered.