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To publicise or not: Handling a hostage crisis

Video by FRANCE 3

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-10-25

French journalists Herve Ghesquiere and Stephane Taponier’s abduction in Afghanistan was initially greeted by a media blackout – for security reasons. Their plight has since moved into the spotlight. But will it help secure their release?

A banner with the photographs of the two men has been hoisted on Mont Blanc - Europe’s highest point - and at landmark sites in Paris, where a star-studded concert Monday night featured top French musicians lending their voices to increase awareness of the men’s plight.

Three hundred days after French journalists Herve Ghesquiere and Stephane Taponier - along with three Afghan colleagues - were kidnapped in Afghanistan, their captivity has turned into a sort of cause celebre in France. Their captivity marks the longest period of detention of a French journalist in the field since the Lebanese Civil War.

But it was not always this high profile.

In the immediate aftermath of their abduction, there was a media blackout on the issue. It took the journalists’ employer France Television, a French public news organisation, four months to reveal the journalists’ full names.

Erratic official response mirrors complex nature of insurgency

As for the official French government reaction, it has moved from decidedly testy to supportive.

Shortly after the two journalists were abducted, French President Nicolas Sarkozy publicly grumbled about the risk to French soldiers’ lives by running operations to try to rescue kidnapped reporters in their “impudent” quest for “scoops”. A senior French military official, Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, deplored the prohibitive cost of such rescue operations, putting the figure at 10 million euros.

The official French reaction has since softened with top French politicians pledging their support and promising to do their utmost to secure the release of the two men.

The erratic, often inconsistent public response to the captivity of the two French journalists mirrors the lethally confusing nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, the diverse and often opportunistic nature of key players in the insurgency, and the absence of a consistent international policy on how to tackle kidnappings in this war-prone nation.

Secretive affairs involving murky networks

At the crux of the confusing public response to Taponier and Ghesquiere’s abduction lies the critical issue of whether to increase public awareness about their plight or to enforce a complete information blackout due to security concerns.

Hostage situations by their very nature are secretive affairs. Ransom rumours abound, negotiations involve contacts between murky networks of insurgents, intermediaries and intelligence operatives, and captors sometimes pass on hostages between criminals and militants in exchange for payments running into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The fragmentation of the insurgency and the Taliban’s new-found inclusiveness to involve a variety of warlords, criminals and drug smugglers in their ranks has increased the danger in handling hostage situations in Afghanistan these days.

Dozens of foreign journalists and aid workers have been abducted in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion. In some cases, hostages have been released amid conflicting reports of ransom payments. In a few fortunate instances, hostages have managed to flee to safety.

At times, rescue missions by coalition troops have blundered, resulting in the accidental killing of a hostage – such as the case of British aid worker Linda Norgrove, who died of “fragment injuries” sustained during last month’s rescue bid by US forces.

The most harrowing outcome, one that haunts every single journalist and aid working in Afghanistan, is a killing in captivity. That was the grim fate of a team of eight foreign medical workers captured in the northeastern province of Badakshan earlier this year.

The ‘Anglo-Saxon model’

The debate about the need to suppress details of a journalist’s kidnapping for security reasons over the compulsion to launch public awareness campaigns comes a year after New York Times reporter David Rohde escaped his Taliban abductors after a seven-month period of complete silence by US and international media organisations about his captivity.

In Rohde’s case, his employers maintained that going public would only have increased the dangers to their reporter.

Writing in the French weekly, Le Nouvel Observateur, Sylvain Courage and Sara Daniel refer to what they call “the Anglo Saxon strategy” of not publicly talking about hostages and refusing to make ransom payments.

But in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, Jean-Francois Julliard of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, said while the French government claimed to adopt the Anglo-Saxon strategy, senior French politicians were “the first to break the silence” with “disastrous rumours” about Taponier and Ghesquiere’s excessive risk-taking and the financial costs of trying to rescue or negotiate their release.

‘Let’s hope it will get them freed’

The French media’s silence over the hostage drama ended shortly after the Taliban released a video of the two journalists reading a script calling for the release of Taliban prisoners in Afghan and coalition custody. (Click here for FRANCE 24’s timeline on the captivity)

Days after the video was released, Sarkozy met with then France Television chief Patrick de Carolis.

Experts say the meeting marks a dramatic change in tone of the official French response to hostage crisis.

Over the past few months, senior France Television officials as well as politicians such as French Defense Minister Herve Morin have made trips to Afghanistan to try to pursue the case. And French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has stated that the release of the two men is high on his government’s agenda.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 Monday, Christelle Merial, a France 3 journalist and member of the committee of supporters organising Monday’s concert, said the initial French official response to the kidnappings were disheartening.

“It was very difficult for their families and colleagues because Herve and Stephane are both extremely good, experienced journalists, they’re not beginners and they were not trailing scoops, they were just trying to do their jobs,” said Merial.

Merial however welcomed the change in the French government and media response. “The concert to raise awareness of Herve and Stephane’s situation is a consequence of all the work that’s been done to keep the media focus on them because that was the problem before – they were totally out of the media focus.”

For the families of the two men, the renewed focus on the journalists has been heartening. “The first month was difficult,” said Thierry Taponier talking about his brother’s long captivity in an interview with France 3. “But people are mobilised, we can feel it now. Let's hope it will help get them freed.”




Date created : 2010-10-25


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