Why Kidnap Journalists?

by Dish Staff

Jason Abbruzzese examines how journalists in conflict zones have become common targets for abduction:

The kidnapping of journalists is a relatively new issue. Reporters in conflict zones well understood the risks, but occupied a relatively sheltered position. “Pre-internet and pre-social media, pretty much all parities to wars and conflicts understood that they needed journalists to communicate their message, their view, to get the word out,” [Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma director Bruce] Shapiro says. Another part of the problem: major media organizations have closed foreign bureaus and become reliant on freelancers as cheap alternatives. Without the backing of major media organizations, these freelancers tend to be at even more risk — especially if they and their families happen to live in the country where the conflict is taking place.

Jack Shafer stands back:

The killing of an innocent reporter violates what many of us would call an unwritten social contract stipulating that journalists deserve protection because they’re witnesses to history, not state actors. …

The old framework, in which reporters are generally tolerated, may be coming to an end, especially on the Syria, Iraq, and Libya battlegrounds. As the New Yorker‘s Jon Lee Anderson writes today, “Yesterday’s guerrillas have given way to terrorists, and now terrorists have given way to this new band [from the Islamic State], who are something like serial killers.” Serial killers tend to reject social contracts.

As we mourn Foley’s death, we need also acknowledge how routine the killing of reporters has become world-wide, and not just on the war-front. According to statistics compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 706 reporters have been murdered since 1992, and only 25 percent of them while covering a war. The remainder was assigned to other beats — crime, corruption, politics, human rights, and the like. Of the total dead, 94 percent weren’t foreign correspondents, they were local reporters.

David Rohde, who was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008, compares American and European approaches to negotiating with terrorists:

There are no easy answers in kidnapping cases. The United States cannot allow terrorist groups to control its foreign policy. One clear lesson that has emerged in recent years, however, is that security threats are more effectively countered by united American and European action. The divergent U.S. and European approach to abductions fails to deter captors or consistently safeguard victims.

Last month, a New York Times investigation found that al-Qaeda and its direct affiliates had received at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008—primarily from European governments. In the last year alone, they received $66 million. “Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil,” Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, wrote in a 2012 letter to the leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa, “which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.”

And James Traub probes the moral dilemma inherent in choosing whether or not to do so:

Should states pay ransom to kidnappers? If you are a friend or loved one of the victim, the answer is obviously yes. But even a more remote observer could cite the moral argument that the obligation to treat people as ends rather than means — what Kant calls the “categorical imperative” — forbids one to place the life of the abductee in a balance with abstract goods, like “sending a message” that kidnapping doesn’t pay. In any case, the consequences of capitulation are remote and hypothetical; the life is terribly real. …

The consequences of capitulating to terrorist kidnappers are ruinous. As a recent New York Times investigation revealed, “Kidnapping Europeans for ransom has become a global business for Al Qaeda, bankrolling its operations across the globe.” That’s why no European government will admit to making payments. The thought of Steven Sotloff jammed into a pit, awaiting death, when he might have been freed for nothing more than money, is unbearable. But the thought of rewarding the Islamic State for its savagery is also unbearable. A humane response to a monstrous act engenders more monstrousness.