3. Blackouts: a brief history

Media blackouts have historically been used by governments to control the flow of information and buttress their power. In times of conflict, countries have strategically released or concealed information to advance a particular agenda.

Early 20th century examples of such blackouts include the Western media’s censorship of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Vietnam War and the subsequent devastation of Agent Orange. Countries like China and North Korea also censor the information their citizens can access by instituting geographically-delineated media blackouts that are still pervasive to this day.

Today, blackouts are mostly used in hostage-takings. The most notorious recent examples are kidnappings led by extremist groups, for whom the tactic has become a common and powerful way to make demands and spread their message.

In such cases, media blackouts are no longer used as a type of nationalist or patriotic agenda-setting strategy, but rather as a tool to protect the victim, and on a larger scale, to protect national security. By instituting a blackout, the media can conceal important information that captors could use to leverage ransom demands.

With globalization of media and instantaneous access to international news, information has never been easier to share. While this is undeniably a positive sign of technological progress, it also means global journalistic silence required for a blackout is nearly impossible to achieve. The notion that everyone can be a journalist with the power to instantaneously share information complicates the already-challenging process of establishing and enforcing a blackout. These difficulties have brought forth the need for an international discussion on the topic.

In her article “Self-Imposed Media Blackout,” journalism professor Mary Tolan shows how the tenets dictated by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics are often conflicting. Journalists must simultaneously seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable, she says. These are, in theory, ideal guidelines, but “in the real world, two tenets are often mutually exclusive.”

“It is quite possible to be a very ethical journalist and still to produce journalism that is utterly irresponsible or destructive. You could say that journalism’s codes of ethics provide a convenient defense of the indefensible: it is much easier to stay within the guidelines of the codes—especially if you have the power to interpret and enforce them—than it is to fulfill the civic responsibility of the press.” (Jeremy Iggers, 1995)

Tolan illustrates the need for consideration of media blackouts by comparing two American case studies. In 1993, a prison riot in Lucasville, Ohio took America by surprise. This has since been deemed “one of the longest and bloodiest (prison riots) U.S. history.” During what became an 11-day siege, hundreds of prisoners revolted against the prison guards, killing nine fellow inmates and holding eight guards hostage.

The media received very little information about what was happening inside. Reporters ended up publishing hearsay and speculation, inflating the number of dead tenfold and consequently exacerbating the circumstances. Their irresponsible stories created hysteria in the community but also angered the inmates. Tolan says that as a result of this unethical reporting, “at least one more guard was killed by the Ohio inmates.”

Tolan then describes a similar hostage situation in an Arizona prison in 2004. She recounts that during this situation, state prison officials gave the media a Columbia Journalism Review article about the 1993 Lucasville Riots as an example of what not to do. With this lesson in mind, reporters willingly abided by a self-imposed, selective blackout of the Arizon situation. The public did have access to general information, but details like the names of those involved, the charges for which the inmates were doing time, and the rapes that were happening during the siege were all kept quiet.

As for kidnappings abroad, one famous example is that of New York Times correspondent David Rohde, who was captured by the Taliban in 2008. During his seven months in captivity, not a whisper of his disappearance was reported in the media. Rohde eventually managed to escape and has since written extensively about his experience. He is now working with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma on a set of guidelines for dealing with the kidnapping of journalists.

Edwin Dyer, who was kidnapped by al Qaeda around the same time as Rohde, was not so lucky. As a tourist, he did not have the protection of a larger organization, and unlike Rohde, his abduction was not shielded by a media blackout. After being detained for four months, he was beheaded by his captors.

While this may seem like distinct evidence that blackouts are the best option for journalists reporting on hostage-taking situations, the issue is not that simple.

An analysis of recent prominent kidnappings compiled by the Canadian Association of Journalistsprovides little in terms of pattern, which is why a clear-cut policy on the matter has been difficult to create. Factors to consider are the location of the kidnapping; the identity of the perpetrators and the type of demands they are making; the role, nationality and career of the kidnapped; and whether or not a blackout was shielding the case. But no combination of these factors accurately predicts if the abducted party will live or die, hence the need for case-by-case consideration.

Next: Robert Fowler: catch and release