The media is having a field day tracking the story of Paul and Rachel Chandler, the British couple seized by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. Pirates Demand $7 Million and Somali Pirates Split on Demands for British Couple’s Release are just two examples of headline stories describing, among other things, ransom demands, the possible movements of the hostages, and details of the kidnappers’ alleged motives and operations.
No doubt, other prospective holiday makers and adventures will learn from the Chandlers’ ordeal. This is why, from a security standpoint, I have no problem with news organizations reporting that a kidnapping has taken place. But describing the mechanics of what is happening behind the scenes, particularly to free the hostages is irresponsible and dangerous in my view.
Negotiating a hostage release is delicate, complex and can involve multiple mediators from government representatives to private K&R (kidnap and ransom) specialists. Constant public scrutiny complicates this process, making a safe release that much more difficult to achieve. News organizations are well aware of the dangers of too much information getting into the public domain. That is why when journalists are kidnapped, it is usually not reported until after they’ve been freed.
The kidnapping of New York Times correspondent David Rhodes in Afghanistan is just one recent example of the media’s double standard when it comes to reporting the details of abductions. The NY Times asked news outlets to maintain a blackout on the story while Rhodes was being held captive. To the best of my knowledge, the request was universally honoured. I’m aware of around a dozen other K&R incidents involving journalists over the past three years in which details were not reported until after they were freed.
Sadly, the same consideration has not been extended to the Chandlers. Details of a phone interview with the Chandlers in which they were asked where they were being held have been reported. Some networks have broadcast phone interviews with the alleged abductors, including one in which ransom amounts were discussed. The network did point out that the kidnappers had contacted them – not the other way around. Disclaimers aside, the network has continued to report more sensitive details, including that the British Government has a hostage negotiator on standby to deal with the case.
Unlike some EU countries that have reportedly paid for the release of their nationals, the British Government does not pay ransoms to hostage takers. As a British citizen who has worked in hostile environments for more than three decades, I wholeheartedly endorse this policy. If I was ever unfortunate enough to be kidnapped, I would not expect HMG to pay a penny for me. I would also hope that the media would respect my safety and refrain from reporting a play by play of my ordeal and/or efforts to free me.
Are the Somali pirates holding the Chandlers benefiting from all the press coverage? Are they gaining information they previously lacked? The Chandler’s story is most definitely newsworthy. But I urge the media to please be more responsible with their coverage. The finer details of what is taking place behind the scenes to secure Paul and Rachel Chandler’s safe release should not be made public.