American Journalist Kidnapped
With Susan Bennett
Director of International Exhibits
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2002; 2 p.m. EST
A Pakistani organization calling itself the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty Monday claimed in an e-mail message to be holding American journalist Daniel Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Pearl disappeared last Wednesday in the Pakistani city of Karachi. The e-mail included four photos of Pearl who has been the subject of a nationwide police search. In return for the release of Pearl, the message demanded the release of Pakistanis being detained at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
"Despite the precautions that journalists take to minimize the risks in dangerous areas, sometimes they find themselves caught in a situation beyond their control," said Susan Bennett in an interview with washingtonpost.com. Bennett is director of international exhibits at the Newseum, an interactive museum of news located in Arlington, Va.
Bennett was online Tuesday, Jan. 29 at 2 p.m. EST, to discuss safety and security for journalists who have dangerous assignments.
The Newseum is part of the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to the principles of free press and free speech around the world.
A transcript follows.
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over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Susan Bennett: Good afternoon. I'm Susan Bennett with the Newseum, a museum of news in Arlington, Va. Before joining the Newseum, I worked as a journalist here and overseas for almost 25 years. I look forward to talking with you today about journalists and the challenges they face.
What kinds of safeguards are there for foreign journalists? How can/could you keep something like this from happening?
Susan Bennett: In countries of conflict and unstable political situations, journalists often find themselves left to their own devices and wisdom. The Freedom Forum, which operates the Newseum, BBC and other news organizations have sponsored safety training for journalists covering conflict. There they are taught precautions that can be taken -- practical steps such as not carrying or wearing clothing that might be mistaken for military uniforms or not getting into the back seat of a two-door car. But it is difficult to prepare journalists for every possible dangerous scenario.
Reports say Pearl is being kept in "inhumane" conditions to protest U.S. treatment of Pakistani prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. It sounds like retaliation. Do you have any more information on this? Does this kind of protest happen a lot?
Susan Bennett: Details of Pearl's apparent abduction have not been made public. This may be because they are not known by anyone other than his captors or because releasing that information might jeopardize his safety. So it's hard to say at this point if they took Pearl hostage to make a point or decided on the point after they captured him.
Other journalists have been targeted for kidnapping by those who think they might get more publicity for their cause by holding a member of the media hostage. They don't usually get that extra publicity.
Are journalists -- especially foreign journalists -- warned of the possibility of such abductions?
Susan Bennett: Experienced journalists such as Pearl know before going into countries with unstable political situations that there is a risk -- even if they do not get an official caution from their editor. Just as they know there is a risk when they cover a fire or a disaster such as the World Trade Center.
But good journalists such as Pearl also try to minimize those risks by not taking unnecessary chances.
As many reporters and editors have said - including Terry Anderson, the Associated Press reporter who was held captive almost seven years in Beirut - "There is no story worth getting killed for."
Washington, D.C. :
Do you think those photos of Daniel Pearl are legitimate? Some say they're not.
Susan Bennett: I do believe the photos are genuine. Pearl is a well-known, experienced and respected journalist for a mainstream U.S. publication. Both The Wall Street Journal and the CIA have denied claims of his captors that he was doing intelligence work for the U.S. government. I see no validity to those claims and know of no reason why he would participate in any photographic hoax.
What has happened in situations like this in other countries? I remember a reporter was kidnapped in Lebanon and I know reporters have been kidnapped in Colombia. Do newspapers pay up?
Susan Bennett: The reporter you remember is Terry Anderson, who was Middle East bureau chief for The Associated Press. He was abducted in 1985 in Beirut and released in 1991. During the Persian Gulf war, television correspondent Bob Simon was held captive in Iraq for 40 days.
I know of no organizations that keep statistics on kidnapped journalists, but over the years hundreds if not thousands have been taken hostage for a variety of reasons in countries around the world. Sometimes it's for monetary ransom; sometimes to grab a headline; other times it's in retaliation for the work of the journalist or his or her news organizations.
News organizations try to work with law enforcement and through official channels such as the State Department to get their journalists released. What they do behind the scenes is not known until after a release, if then.
How would you evaluate the media coverage of this case? Does it seem excessive? Is the story being underplayed?
Susan Bennett: So far I think the coverage is appropriate. Newspapers and broadcasting outlets have covered Pearl's abduction as they would the capture of any American.
In cases such as this, however, I think the temptation for editors is to err on the side of caution -- that is not to overplay the story just because the victim is a journalist or not to appear to be giving in to the demands of the hostage-takers.
Washington, D.C. :
Is the U.S. government playing a role in trying to get Pearl back?
Susan Bennett: Whenever a U.S. citizen gets into a situation such as this, the U.S. government plays a role. The question will be how much of a role and how aggressively.
There have been reports of State Department officials meeting with authorities in the region to discuss Pearl's abduction. And with a considerable number of U.S. military and intelligence personnel already on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan, U.S. officials should have better information than usual. But the cooperation of the Pakistani government will be essential.
Adelphi, Md. :
A report on CNN said being an American in Karachi is a dangerous thing. Do some reporters take their own risks? What was Pearl reporting on?
Susan Bennett: Being an American in an environment such as Karachi today can be dangerous. Pearl, no doubt, was aware of that. He may have taken what he thought were prudent precautions but no one can anticipate every possible danger.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that Pearl was interviewing Islamic groups for possible articles on the war's impact on the region. But Reuters has said that Pearl allegedly was trying to contact Islamic military groups linked to Osama bin Laden for a story on Richard Reid, the man being accused of trying to blow up an airliner by detonating explosives in his shoes.
Is Pearl Jewish? If so, does this heighten your fear for his safety?
Susan Bennett: I do not know whether or not Pearl is Jewish. But I would doubt that this was the reason for his abduction. We can only hope that the captors decide the smart thing to do is to release Pearl regardless of religious or ethnic affiliations he may or may not have.
Should the U.S. negotiate with extreme factions?
Susan Bennett: I personally do not think that negotiating with extreme factions ever works and I seriously doubt that the U.S. government is preparing to do that in this case.
For now public pressure has been through official channels. Secretary of State Colin Powell talked with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf about the case and U.S. authorities are reported to be working with their Pakistani law enforcement, military, and intelligence counterparts. If there's any back-door dealing, it probably will not be made public.
Hi Susan, I'm very happy with the press coverage and I trust "most" of the information coming from our press corps. You folks do a fine job keeping us here free and aware. I'd like to know what's the most dangerous situation that you've been involved in and also, after 25 years are you still willing to go to faraway unstable places for Americans such as Pakistan or Afghanistan?
Susan Bennett: Glad to hear from someone who trusts the media -- at least most of the time.
Although I traveled overseas as a diplomatic correspondent for a number of years, my greatest danger came from stories I worked on in the United States -- "routine" stories such as derailed trains with hazardous materials on board, fires and riots. The few times when I felt in danger overseas was usually because of my own stupidity -- being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Most of my journalistic friends would leap at the opportunity to report from Afghanistan or Pakistan. And so would I. If you've been bitten by that journalistic bug, you want to go where the action and the stories are the biggest.
What can the Wall Street Journal editors do to get Pearl back?
Susan Bennett: I'm sure the newspaper and its editors are pursuing every avenue. They can work with official channels of the U.S. and Pakistani government. And they may be mounting their own unofficial investigation into circumstances of Pearl's abduction in hopes of clarifying just whom they are dealing with.
Is Pearl being accused of anything or is he just a convenient hostage so the Pakistanis can leverage against the alleged conditions in Guantanamo?
Susan Bennett: The group that captured Pearl - they call themselves the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty - said he was abducted because he is a CIA agent posing as a Wall Street Journal reporter. Both the newspaper and the CIA deny that Pearl has any affiliation and the extremist group offered no proof of their allegations.
Many of Pearl's colleagues, who have known him for years, have risen to his defense and said that he was always an independent journalist.
Susan Bennett: Thanks so much for the thoughtful questions. I hope that the next time we hold this discussion it will be on how Daniel Pearl was released safely.
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