I didn’t know Steven well. Our paths crossed briefly at The Jerusalem Report where Ilene Prusher edited his dispatches from the region during the Arab Spring. Ilene describes him as “An excellent journalist, very conscientious, enterprising and brave.”
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Those of us who worked with him knew that he was Jewish, had Israeli citizenship, earned his degree at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and played rugby for the Raanana Roosters, but we took a collective vow of silence, fearing that his kidnappers might seize on that fascinating personal history as an excuse to kill him.
In the end, our self-imposed censorship made no difference. The bastards killed him anyway.
It wasn’t the first time that reporters have kept quiet about a kidnapped colleague in order to try and save his life.
In the past, families and law enforcement agencies have sometimes requested a news blackout in order not to disrupt sensitive negotiations or, in rare cases, rescue attempts.
Media organizations have struggled to adopt a consistent policy, preferring instead to treat each case as it happens. In 2008, The New York Times imposed a news blackout at the request of the FBI on the abduction of one of its reporters and two local assistants in Afghanistan by the Taliban, but reported the news when more NYT reporters disappeared in Libya three years later. All of those journalists eventually returned safely.
In 2009, following another media blackout, NYT reporter Stephen Farrell was rescued by British commandos after being held for four days by the Taliban. His local Afghan interpreter was killed in the operation.
In March of this year, two Spanish journalists were released after being held for six months by Islamic State kidnappers. That incident was also kept quiet at first at the request of the men’s families.
The Sotloff family kept quiet about Steven’s abduction until he appeared in the video of James Foley’s beheading, where he was introduced as the Islamic State killer’s next victim. Foley’s family decided to go public about his kidnapping soon after it occurred.
Despite the different approach, both men met the same terrible fate at the hands of their abductors.
While the abduction of isolated reporters has become a constant threat in conflict zones, the sheer scale of the current crisis may call for a different approach.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says that more than 80 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria – where Steven went missing last year – since the civil war erupted there in 2011. 60 of them were seized in 2013 alone. 75 more have been killed, half of them foreigners. Reporters Without Borders has described Syria as the world’s most dangerous place for journalists.
Last December, 13 major news organizations around the world signed a public appeal to the Islamic State and other Syrian rebel groups pleading with them to stop kidnapping journalists, but it had little noticeable effect.
News organizations don’t like suppressing news, so there is always a struggle when we are asked not to publish information. Journalists have long asked whether sitting on a story just because a colleague is involved is not a clear breach of basic journalistic ethics. Would we do that for anyone else? Most reporters tend to agree that professional ethics pale next to the possibility that holding a story may save the life of a colleague.
But what if it has the opposite effect? What if the silence actually makes things worse, allowing both governments and the public to ignore the problem because no-one is talking about it?
Perhaps Islamic State and other extremists might think twice about these kidnappings if they knew they would be swiftly followed by instant publicity, public denunciation and decisive action – whether to cut off their funds, stop the flow of arms, and even direct military action against them by NATO and other western powers.
Tragically, it’s too late now to save Steven. But if the west can get its act together and come up with a more effective response to these dreadful crimes, we might be able to save the next victim of these cold-blooded Islamic State killers.