The rescue of New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell in Afghanistan comes on the heels of Times reporter David Rohde's similar (though much longer) ordeal. It's at least the fifth kidnapping or arrest of a Timesman in as many years.
Farrell was kidnapped over the holiday weekend by Taliban militants while attempting to report from the site of a recent NATO airstrike near Kunduz. He was liberated last night in a raid by British forces that resulted in the deaths of his translator, Sultan Munadi, a British commando, and an Afghan woman. Rohde was kidnapped in November 2008—he was researching a book at the time, not reporting for the Times—and was liberated in what the Times has described as an escape seven months later. In both cases, the Times was able to maintain a news blackout on the abductions.
Before that, there was Barry Bearak's arrest last year in Zimbabwe, and John Burns and Jeffrey Gettleman's mercifully brief (and separate) captivities in Iraq in 2004. Why have so many Times reporters found themselves in harm's way?
The obvious answer is that the Times places its reporters in harm's way, and for good reason. The number of news organizations with the resources and will to cover dangerous parts of the world has been steadily shrinking, and the Times and its reporters have, thankfully, continued to take on the risks of reporting from places where reporters tend to get kidnapped. And as the number of other players diminishes, the risk to the Times increases.
Still, there are other news organizations in Afghanistan, and though plenty of other reporters have been held hostage by the Taliban—in fact, given the prevalence of voluntary news blackouts, there could be dozens in captivity right now that we don't know about—the Times seems to have drawn the short end of the stick.
One reason could be competitive derring-do. According to the New York Daily News, Farrell and other reporters in-country were warned that Kunduz was dangerous and controlled by the Taliban, but Farrell chose to go there anyway to cover the aftermath of a NATO bombing that killed dozens of civilians. Could he have been spurred by the presence of the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran on a NATO fact-finding mission to the region? We suppose it doesn't really matter—we want Farrell to rush where the news is and tell us about what our bombs are doing to people in that country, whether it's to match a competitor's reporting or simply to tell the story on the ground. On the other hand, now that at least three lives have ended as an indirect result of Farrell's decision to ignore the warnings of NATO authorities, it's harder to justify the risks by appealing to journalistic platitudes or, even worse, gung-ho adventurism.
Another factor is security. Farrell and Rohde both were traveling without armed guards, which is—for now—fairly standard for reporters in Afghanistan, even though during the most violent periods in Iraq armed escorts were common for journalists. In Rohde's case, you wouldn't have expected him to use protection—he was traveling to interview a Taliban commander and appears to have been set up. But why wasn't Farrell escorted by armed guards? We've e-mailed the Times to ask.
One puzzling discrepancy between Rohde's case and Farrell's is why Rohde languished for months in captivity while Farrell was rescued straight away. One reason could be that Farrell is a British citizen, and the British military may have simply been more risk-tolerant when it comes to looking after its citizens. More likely is the fact that, according to Farrell's account to the Times, his Taliban captors were freely using their cell phones immediately after his abduction, which would be helpful to military forces trying to locate them with their nearly omnipotent surveillance capabilities .
An even more puzzling discrepancy is that Farrell freely told his story to his employer immediately after his release, whereas Rohde still has not offered any public accounting—not to the Times nor anyone else—about his abduction and escape. Why not?