New York Times reporter David Rohde escaped from his Taliban captors in Afghanistan on Friday, seven months after being kidnapped on the way to an interview. The Times had kept the news of his kidnapping quiet, believing that publicity could endanger the hostages. Is that always a good idea?
Not necessarily. In general, publicity benefits the hostage takers, since it allows them to broadcast their demands, leverage negotiations, and raise their profile. But in some scenarios, publicity can help the hostages. For example, it can be useful if the group doing the kidnapping cares about its reputation. When Hezbollah or Hamas kidnaps an Israeli, Israel always generates as much publicity as possible on the theory that neither group wants to be known among potential voters for killing hostages. That's also why the Pope often speaks out when high-profile figures like presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt are kidnapped by guerrilla groups in Colombia. On the other hand, a kidnapper who doesn't care what the international community thinks of him—a small-time drug dealer, for example—would only gain from news coverage (and, presumably, papal denunciations).
In some cases, a kidnapper will demand publicity as a condition for releasing prisoners. In 1976, Croat separatists hijacked a TWA flight out of New York, detonated a bomb in Grand Central Station, and threatened to detonate a second one "somewhere in the United States"—plus a bomb they claimed to have on board the plane—unless five newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, published a propaganda statement in full. The newspapers agreed, no more bombs went off, and the passengers were freed.
In recent years, groups like al-Qaida have kidnapped people with the specific goal of killing them on-camera: Think Daniel Pearl, Nicholas Berg, and Paul Johnson. In those cases, reporting on the grisly event is likely to encourage the kidnappers to do it again. Publicity can also hurt if you've opened up back door negotiating channels, which news reports could disrupt. For example, when Hezbollah began taking American hostages in Lebanon in the early 1980s, some of their family members complained that the kidnappings were not getting enough attention. As it turned out, the Reagan administration was tamping down publicity while back-channel efforts were under way. (They eventually got their publicity.)
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Explainer thanks Brian Jenkins of the RAND Corp., John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute, and Juan Carlos Zarate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.