EDITORIAL -- Under wraps: When a news blackout is used to save journalists

Written by Susan Mannella on .

New York Times reporter David Rohde and Afghan journalist Tahir Ludin escaped June 19 from a Taliban stronghold in Pakistan's tribal area, where they had been held hostage for seven months.

Mr. Rohde, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Mr. Ludin were seized in November outside Kabul while on their way to interview a Taliban commander.

As Mr. Rohde's employer, The New York Times sought a press blackout on the journalists' capture -- not the usual course for a major news outlet. The blackout was honored by the estimated 40 news agencies that were aware of the kidnapping.

The Times took the approach out of concern for the captives' safety. It isn't clear what the kidnappers wanted, although one Pakistani press report said the Taliban demanded the release of prisoners in Afghanistan and millions of dollars for their safe return. After Mr. Rohde and Mr. Ludin escaped, the Times said no ransom was paid and no Taliban prisoners were released.

While the story has a happy ending, what of the public's much-heralded right to know? Did The New York Times and other organizations duck their obligation to report the news because it may have brought harm to their colleagues?

Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, said the newspaper was told by government officials and experts in kidnapping cases that writing about the abduction would have put the captives in danger. He said the Times has taken this approach in other kidnapping cases.

While journalists are determined to report the facts, there is no uniform rule on how to approach a delicate situation when lives are at stake. So long as the press is consistent in its sensitivities to covering hostages, whether the captives are journalists or not, it is following a standard of integrity.

In this case, the public did not learn about the journalists' abduction, but lives were saved. That's a good outcome for the former captives and for all of humanity. This time silence was the right course for the press to take.



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