BY Hannah Storm

How to deal with a journalist's kidnap

The kidnapping of journalists isn’t a new thing. We saw it in Lebanon in the 80s and 90s with the kidnapping of Terry Anderson from the AP, David Hirst of the Guardian, Charles Glass of ABC. 

Later Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal was detained and beheaded in Pakistan and Jill Carroll of Christian Science Monitor was held in Iraq.

But a sharp rise in the numbers of journalists kidnapped, the trading of journalists between different groups and the manner in which they have been treated has made it a significant phenomenon in parts of the Middle East in recent years.

For news organisations, a kidnapping is likely to be one of the hardest things to deal with since they hold so few of the cards. This is particularly the case if a news organisation is unprepared for the possibility of a kidnap because this will slow its response to the kidnapping in the initial crucial hours.

Contingency planning

In addition to providing safety and first aid training, organisations deploying journalists into a conflict zone need to have a prior-agreed contingency plan.

Although the details of the entire plan don’t need to be known by everyone, it is important that the whole media organisation knows that one exists. This helps ensure that no information is disseminated that might cause harm to the captured journalist if relatively junior staff, or those not involved in a future crisis management team, are the first to know about the kidnapping.

A risk assessment and communications plan should also have been completed, with next of kin details and information that might serve as a proof of life.

The contingency plan should:

  • provide an outline of how the organisation will manage its response
  • include who will be responsible for responding to the crisis, what resources will be available and what the main strategy will be
  • include a plan to ensure business continues if a crisis hits

Kidnap and ransom insurance

This is a specialised insurance that is confidential, politically sensitive and usually underwritten offshore. When a company has it, the exact type of insurance they have, and the way it is accessed, becomes part of the contingency plan.

Kidnap and ransom insurance involves two types of insurance which are usually bought together – the first is linked to the costs associated with the kidnapping and offers unlimited consultancy which can become extremely costly in long drawn out kidnaps. The second involves reimbursement of the ransom. This is a commonly misunderstood area, because it effectively means that even if you have this insurance, the ransom money has to be found first. For obvious reasons, confidentiality underpins these policies. The individuals who are covered don’t know they are and companies don’t broadcast that they have it.

Anyone can take out a policy, but the costs will differ depending on the individuals, their profile, appetite for risk, and locations covered. Individuals can ensure the costs are minimised by the demonstration of risk awareness, planning and training. Most reputable insurance brokers such as Marsha, Aon, Willis, JLT and Lockton know where to obtain K&R insurance for their clients.

Dealing with families

Many different stakeholders can be involved when a journalist is kidnapped – the families, the employers, the government, insurance firms and recovery teams – and it can be tricky to balance the interests of these diverse groups.

Families and news organisations need to engage with governments. However, tensions often appear, because these two groups rarely see eye to eye. Governments differ in terms of their approach, with some like the UK and the US refusing to negotiate or consider ransoms.

The families of kidnapped journalists are likely to experience great stress and uncertainty and, because of their close emotional involvement, they are not often asked to play central role in investigations and negotiations. Sometimes choices are made to withhold certain information to protect them from further emotional pressure. However, they usually remain informed partners and it may be left to them to take the riskiest decisions when private recovery efforts take place.

One thing is certain, however, whatever responsibility and pressure news organisations feel pales by comparison with the anxiety of the family members of a kidnapped journalist. Even after the ransom is paid or the release negotiated, the organisation will need to commit to supporting the individual and his or her family in the longer term in a number of ways.

Covering a kidnapping

When the kidnappings of US journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley ended in their brutal murders, news organisations were faced with many ethical considerations including whether they should share or use any of the videos that the kidnappers had publicly posted online. News organisations debated these issues at length and central to their decision were company values about decency, privacy at the moment of death and the effects on family, colleagues and the public.

In determining how to cover a kidnapping at any stage, there are a number of questions editors and news managers should ask.

  • Should the kidnapping of journalists be given more prominence than that of other individuals?
  • Should the coverage of a member of your own staff or a freelancer colleague differ from the coverage of a journalist kidnapped from another news organisation?
  • Should a news organisation cover the kidnapping of its own staff member any differently that the way it would cover the kidnapping of someone from another news organisation?
  • How does a media blackout on reporting a kidnapping affect public understanding and journalists’ perception of risk?
  • If coverage is limited, how do you explain this after the event?

All of these questions require a careful consideration of the related issues of ethics, safety and justice, and it is helpful to have answers before they are needed, because the pressure of a kidnapping will allow little time to make decisions.

Journalists be prepared

Employers are responsible for the security of the employees and freelancers they oversee, but individual journalists, both contracted and freelance, also need to ensure they are adequately prepared, that they exercise caution and minimise harm to themselves and their employers by the decisions they make.

Because of the prevalence of digital media, an individual’s preparation also requires being aware of his or her digital footprint and trying to minimise the information available online that might compromise the individual or their colleagues.

As well as undergoing the relevant training, completing a risk assessment and having the appropriate equipment to the task, journalists working in dangerous places should sanitise their computer, carry a spare clean phone and ensure geo-locators are removed.

No journalist, or news organisation, can ever be fully prepared for the personal, financial and organisational toll created by a kidnapping, but understanding the phenomenon and preparing for the possibility can reduce the risks and can smooth an organisation’s response should one occur. 

Watch our interview with Hannah Storm about the kidnapping of journalists. 

Hannah Storm is the Director of INSI and co-author of the book, The Kidnapping of Journalists: Reporting From High Risk Conflict Zones, from which this advice is taken.

Image by AFP

With additional thanks to Security Exchange 24 for details on contingency planning and crisis management.