“Protecting our own”

Do journalists kidnapped abroad receive different international treatment than tourists or even politicians?

If so, should they?

Robert Fowler believes that journalists get preferential treatment, and feels that this is wrong. Reflecting back on the events leading up to his abduction, Fowler recounted a prophetic conversation he had with a prominent Canadian reporter. A few weeks prior to his own kidnapping, he found himself discussing Mellissa Fung’s abduction over dinner with long-time friend Paul Hunter. The two discussed the media blackout and Fowler asked Hunter, “if I were abducted, would the CBC do the same for me?”

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Hunter also recalls every detail of that conversation:

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Two weeks later, Fowler was abducted.

The CBC took extreme measures to ensure that information regarding Mellissa Fung’s 2008 kidnapping remained embargoed.

The New York Times did the same for David Rohde in Afghanistan — for months, they fought to keep all information regarding Rohde’s disappearance under their control. Editors event went as far as to enlist Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, to prevent any contributors to the popular website from creating articles that might reveal information that could hurt Rhode. Steps were taken to rewrite Rohde’s biography on Wikipedia, highlighting any information that might help him and downplaying all information that might hurt him, including, for instance, the fact that he once worked as a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor.

Arguments that the media will go to greater lengths to protect their own are, in part, based on the fact that it is easier, according to Stephen Northfield, to enforce a media blackout from within the industry. “There is a full embargo, or there is no embargo,” Northfield explained, and by this he means that if one organization published a story on the disappearance of an individual, then a media blackout is considered superfluous.

As a result, the decision often comes down to timing. It is far easier for a journalistic organization to contact the individuals in charge of enforcing a media blackout than it is for the family of backpackers or even for the Canadian government. And if one large organization is made aware of the information and publishes before the concerned parties have had the opportunity to request a media blackout, the consensus seems to be that muzzling other members of the press would serve little purpose.

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That being said, most news agencies do not take media blackouts lightly, and quick contact does not ensure a media blackout will be enacted, nor that this embargo will guarantee the safety of the hostage. In the case of Rohde’s abduction, the efforts of the journalism community may have contributed to his safety during his capture, but did not contribute to his release. After a seven month ordeal, he escaped captivity.

Thus, while it may seem that journalists receive special treatment from within their own field, other factors come in to play. Fowler’s case, like Fung’s and Rohde’s, was considered individually, and many factors contributed to how Canadian media ultimately decided to handle his case.

Next: Decision-making point: Should the media institute a blackout about Fowler’s  kidnapping?

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