Captive Journalists Become Brutal Tool For Terror Campaigns
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Earlier we told you about a French hostage in Algeria killed by a group claiming to be aligned with the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. Meanwhile in recent weeks, video of another ISIS hostage has surfaced. This one features John Cantlie, a British journalist. Cantlie was kidnapped in 2012, along with American journalist James Foley. His beheading by ISIS last month was filmed and circulated. For these militants, captive journalists are propaganda tools. It's a development that worries Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
JOEL SIMON: They change the national debate in this country through these propaganda videos, these horrible executions and that's something we also need to consider. Their ability to use propaganda in this way is very effective and very troubling.
CORNISH: So if you could just give us a better sense of the numbers at this point. Is there any sense of how many Western hostages there are in this part of the world, journalists specifically?
SIMON: At the height of the kidnapping epidemic, there were about 30 journalists missing in Syria, In all total, there have been about 80 journalists kidnapped. Today we believe there are about 20 journalists that are still being held in Syria. Almost all of them are Syrian, though. There's a slightly different dynamic in play with the Syrians; they often grab Syrian journalists and media assistants opportunistically. Sometimes they grab them just because they don't want any independent voices operating in areas that they control. It's really a business for them at this point. It's a significant source of revenue, the ransom that these kidnappings can generate. So they're looking to grab these people how ever they can.
CORNISH: Even when their hostages are from countries like the U.S. or, in the case of the U.K., don't pay ransoms?
SIMON: Hostages are useful for a variety of reasons. Hostages from European countries generally do pay ransom and the numbers are pretty amazing - several million dollars. The U.S. and the UK do not pay ransom. Canada as well, does not pay ransom. And the journalists are kidnapped from those countries, as we are seeing now, tend to be used for propagandistic purposes and now we're seeing - I don't know precisely what to call it. This latest video, it's just - they basically put a gun to the head of a journalist and said, here's what we want you to say. It's another form of propaganda that's absolutely atrocious.
CORNISH: Now, help us understand something else that we've come to see, which is the coverage blackouts. Why do news organizations agree not to report on abductions in certain cases and is it a controversial practice?
SIMON: Well, the practice started, really in earnest, during the Iraq conflict when we started to see a spate of journalist kidnappings. And initially these were individual cases and the rationale was that, you know, when there was some possibility of resolving these issues quickly then media coverage was going to undermine those efforts. But what we saw in Syria was that these kidnappings, instead of being isolated incidents became systematic. And at one point we had 30 journalists who were missing and nearly all of those cases were blacked out. So at that point we had a situation where I think it did start to become controversial because we had a major epidemic of kidnappings targeting Western journalists and virtually no media coverage of this because of the imposition of blackouts in so many cases.
CORNISH: In recent times we've heard from the family of James Foley. They've been critical of the U.S. government and their handling of this. Again, do you see people changing their thinking about the approach to handling kidnappers?
SIMON: I think the situation now is as bad as it could possibly be. Let's acknowledge that these are - you know, the payment of ransom is tremendously complicated. There's no easy solution. So the families certainly feel that they're in an impossible situation. What hope do they have of getting their loved ones out?
So I don't have any easy answer, but there clearly needs to be more coordination. There needs to be a more systematic policy. This situation is terrible and it needs to be addressed.
CORNISH: Joel Simon. He's the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Thanks so much for speaking with us.
SIMON: It's been a pleasure.
CORNISH: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.