Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Kidnappings and the media

I’ve been reading a lot of criticism on the blogs for the Canadian media’s decision to keep quiet, at the request of the government, on the kidnapping of CBC journalist Melissa Fung until her safe release could be secure, for fear publicity could endanger her life. I must say, I tend to side with the media on this one, with one large caveat.

Much is being made of this happening late in the election campaign. I feel that’s largely a red herring. Are we really suggesting news late in the campaign that a journalist from the CBC had been kidnapped in Afghanistan would really have impacted people’s votes? It seems unlikely. It may have called more attention to Afghanistan, which was largely a non-issue in the campaign, but I don’t think it would have changed anyone’s minds on the war, or caused someone to shift their votes.

No, the election timing is irrelevant. Campaign or no, the issue is was the media right to stay silent?

My inclination is to say yes. The public’s right to know does not routinely trump all. Embargos for security reasons are commonplace: for example, during ministerial or Prime Ministerial trips to war zones, details are commonly known to the media but embargoed until after the trip for security reasons. That’s perfectly legitimate.

If the government makes a legitimate request that a kidnapping not be publicized for fear if jeopardizing the person’s safe release, that request should be honoured. The life of a person in danger should, at least temporarily, outweigh the public’s right to know. And they will know eventually, once the danger has passed. If we’re to err, I’d rather err on the side of saving a life.

Now, here’s the caveat. Would the media have made the same right to know vs. safety and security had the kidnapped Canadian not been one of their own, a journalist? What if it was a Canadian aid worker? Or a soldier? If they can answer yes, then I support their decision in the Fung case. If they answer no, then I have a problem.

Obviously it’s harder for them to take a tough line when it’s a colleague’s life on the line, and easier to be dispassionate and hold to journalistic moralities when it’s a stranger. That’s why there needs to be a consistent policy agreed to BEFORE such cases occur.

Either all kidnappings are embargoed for security reasons if requested by the government, or none are. I favour such blackouts, but only if they are consistently applied, and later held up to public scrutiny.

UPDATE: This article summarizes some of the media commentary on the issue.

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1 comment:

ch said...

So far, Canadian media did not report on three journalists, Fung, the Dutch one released just two days earlier, and the American one kidnapped yesterday. The last kidnapping appears in the US and other media. Very worrisome: American, Pulitzer Prize winner, NYT reporter, said to be captured by the Taliban.

Meanwhile, Canadian media reported on a French aid worker kidnapped on November 3rd. So out of 4 kidnappings of "westerners" in Kabul in the last month, only the non-journalist was reported. This despite pleas for discretion from the French government and others. I just don't see what their principle is. Is it simply not to report on kidnapped journalists, or am I missing something?