Fifteen Ways of Looking at the Media Blackout of Richard Engel's Abduction, Vol. II: Against

The overwhelming majority of messages I got in response to Peter Bouckaert's call for an email campaign were critical of Gawker's decision not to honor the Richard Engel media blackout. But not all of them. Somalia Report publisher Robert Young Pelton, a longtime freelance reporter, wrote me to alert me to Bouckaert's campaign and to tell me that "having been kidnapped and involved in dozens of corporate bungled kidnaps, I can say there is no evidence that keeping things quiet does anything than protect the corporate image and pocketbook." Pelton is has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Somalia, Chechnya, and elsewhere. He was the first American to discover an injured John Walker Lindh and interview him near Mazār-e Sharīf. Pelton was kidnapped and held for ten days in 2003 by a right-wing Colombian paramilitary group. I asked him to put his thoughts into a longer email.

As publisher of Somalia Report, I tracked over 300 kidnap cases every week. As an author with two decades years of experience with groups that kidnap—and as a former hostage held by death squads in Colombia—I don't like the idea of media self-censorship. Typically large organizations will attempt to strong-arm media outlets using the "for their security" line when an employee is kidnapped. There exists no proof that censorship helps expedite a safe release, and there is no proof that accurate information about a victim harms him. Inaccurate reporting about wealth, religion, political views and affiliations could influence a kidnap victim's status, because they could be perceived as lying to their captors. But censorship historically has only covered up a host of corporate incompetence and handwringing.

When I was kidnapped in Colombia, I was working for National Geographic and Discovery TV. Both sent out press releases wondering what I was doing there, even though I had assignment letters and contracts with both. When I returned they sent a press person to exploit my successful release. Even though it had been accomplished by my friends and not by any effort on my employer's part.

Daniel Pearl, David Rohde, and Richard Engel are examples where their employers tried to keep the news of their kidnapping secret. In many cases, these blackouts are just a bald faced attempt to buy time mitigate bad publicity, reduce financial impact, and hide corporations' incompetence in their ability to get their employees back.

All the kidnappers have to do is use Google and Wikipedia...or ask the victim for information. In the case of Engel, modern social media is not restrained by formal demands for embargoes. The news was out.

As for the blackout protecting corporate interests, it may be telling that Daniel Pearl was murdered despite my attempts to introduce a fellow jihadi to negotiate being rebuffed. Rohde says he simply escaped, but the blackout helped suppress news that his firm had hired the controversial ex-CIA officer and Iran-Contra figure Dewey Clarridge to try to rescue him. And Engel's kidnap ended with an ambush from a local Islamic militia. There are horror stories from the wives and families of kidnap victims who are ignored, or when desperate for news of their loved ones are told that "it is being handled by professionals."

They rarely are.

The attempt to cover up kidnaps continue under this myth of security. Journalists like Michael Scott Moore languish in Somalia while his employer desperately tries to hide his kidnap. [Ed note: There doesn't seem to be an operating blackout on Moore's kidnapping.] NGO workers around the world are kidnapped while their employers try to hush it up.

And just under three hundred victims sit off the coast of Somalia, mostly forgotten and many of their employers conducting business as usual. I would challenge media corporations to show exactly why censorship is good for them but not for others.

Previously: Fifteen Ways of Looking at the Media Blackout of Richard Engel's Abduction, Vol. I: For