American Journalist Kidnapped
With Frank Smyth
Committee to Protect Journalists
Thursday, Jan. 31, 2002; 1 p.m. EST
An e-mail sent Wednesday by kidnappers holding Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl threatened to kill him within 24 hours. It also warned American journalists to leave the country within three days. The e-mail claimed that Pearl, who disappeared a week ago in Karachi, Pakistan, was an agent for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.
Frank Smyth, Washington representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, was online Thursday, Jan. 31, at 1 p.m. EST, to discuss the Pearl kidnapping. A formerly imprisoned journalist, Smyth was himself accused of being a CIA agent after the Gulf War and will offer his perspective and insight on the current situation.
Smyth writes about U.S. strategy on Iraq, conflicts throughout Africa, and U.S. drug war efforts in Colombia and elsewhere, along with other matters for many publications.
The Committee to Protect Journalists is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1981 to monitor and protest abuses against working journalists and their news organizations, regardless of their ideology or nationality.
A transcript follows.
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Frank Smyth: Good afternoon
As you all may have heard, another e-mail was received this morning claiming that the captors are giving Mr. Pearl another 24 hours. This is good news. Also the man who is no doubt America's most respected Muslim, the ex-boxer Mohammad Ali, has urged the captors to release Mr. Pearl. We also expect Pakistani journalists to issue a collective statement on his behalf shortly.
I will start answering questions I have already received and I would be happy to take more.
What is the reaction of the U.S. government or FBI to the claim that Indian intelligence agents were behind the kidnapping of the WSJ journalist? Thank you.
Frank Smyth: This is an interesting claim but it seems dubious at least to me. I imagine that U.S. and Pakistani authorities are both exploring all leads.
Why did the Pakistani's choose Pearl to kidnap? What was he doing?
Frank Smyth: We are not sure why they grabbed Pearl. But my impression is that they may have targeted him more because he is an American and less because he is a journalist. Pearl had done some critical reporting of Pakistan's failure to crackdown on militant Islamic groups. But he is also the same reporter who back in 1998 reported critically of the U.S. bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.
So I think they were looking for an easy target and he unfortunately fell into their view.
Please tell us why hasn't anyone from the White House said a word regarding this kidnapping?. It's not a low key subject, and Mr. Pearl IS a United States citizen.
Frank Smyth: Perhaps because that would be counterproductive and might lead his captors to believe that he is a spy or is somehow close to the U.S. government.
Have you personally known any journalist who was secretly on the payroll of the CIA or FBI while representing a legitimate media organization?
Frank Smyth: No I have not. However I do know of a case in El Salvador involving a colleague of mine, Jeremy Bigwood. Back in the late 1980s he discovered that a woman named Mary Beth McDonald who claimed to be with the State Department was accessing his photographs that were on file at his photo agency. She cut checks to Gamma from the U.S. Treasury Department, but Bigwood later confirmed she never worked for State. He believes that the CIA may have been accessing his photos without his knowledge. See his story at the American Journalism Review or at www.jeremybigwood.net.
Don't take this the wrong way, because a person's life is at stake here. But does Mohammed Ali's opinion really have any influence on whether or not these kidnappers will release Mr. Pearl?
Frank Smyth: Yes I believe it does. The captors will not be impressed by anything I say. But Mr. Ali has much credibility among Muslims worldwide and I really do think his input in this case may hopefully make a difference.
San Diego, Calif.:
Was Mr. Pearl violating safety policies for his news organization when he was captured? Will those policies change, in your opinion? I am praying for his safe return.
Frank Smyth: No. In fact, Mr. Pearl was known as an extremely cautious reporter who even helped develop safety guidelines for WSJ.
I am praying for him too.
What to we know about that alleged kidnapper group?
Frank Smyth: We know that Mr. Pearl was abducted as he was seeking to arrange an interview with the leader of a militant Islamic group. Yet the first two e-mails that news organizations received had not religious rhetoric but nationalist Pakistani rhetoric. The latest e-mail received this morning, however, makes two references to Allah.
The e-mails each also spell America differently, suggesting that different authors may have written them. We also wonder if the last one is indeed authentic, but we hope so as that one says they are giving him another 24 hours.
From overseas, Dominican Republic:
I sent you a question, regarding how come the White House has made no comments on Mr. Pearl's kidnapping?
Frank Smyth: As I told another person, I think that could be counterproductive.
I just want to see if I understand this case. It is well known that many people who really hate the U.S. don't fully grasp the concept that US reporters don't work for the U.S. government. Yet the journalist goes alone to meet with an extremist group. Sounds pretty stupid to me.
Frank Smyth: Well the line between stupidity and doing your job is hard to find often. Journalists tend to cover combat with others but when they are investigating something they usually do it alone. Clearly no journalist in Pakistan is going to make this mistake again. But many journalists would jump at the chance to get a potential exclusive interview despite the risk.
They've given Pearl another day. That a good sign?
Frank Smyth: This is an extremly good sign. It suggests perhaps that the captors know they will gain nothing by killing him, so they do not want to lose their leverage. It also gives us perhaps at least another day to try and compel them with the help for example of Pakistani journalists who are also reaching out to Pakistani Muslim clerics to try and persuade the captors to let him go.
My thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Pearl and his family.
Obviously Pearl was selected because of his religion. Although journalists go to very risky areas, don't you think that some consideration should be taken that a journalist should not be sent into an area that is particularly hostile toward his race, religion, sex, etc.
Certainly there are other qualified and willing journalists available.
Frank Smyth: Well I think it is difficult to assign journalists based on their own background.
Do journalists working in dangerous countries ever use bodyguards? Is such a practice considered acceptable? If they are not using bodyguards, should they be doing so? In this instance, where a journalist was going to meet someone representing a terrorist organization, would it have made sense to bring a colleague or bodyguard?
Thanks for your reply.
Frank Smyth: Yes journalists have used bodyguards. Colombia is a nation where the government has signed armed guards to protect many journalists who come under threat. However I doubt how much protection they really offer. In the case of Colombia a journalist by the name of Jineth Bedoya was abducted and gang-raped in a case implicating Colombian government authorities working with illegal paramilitary groups. She has bodyguards now, but what she would prefer is to see her kidnapper/rapists brought to justice.
It doesn't seem right that the president
would negotiate with Pakistan. It would be
against the entire purpose of the press to
stop sending journalists to Pakistan, but
it's also not good if the journalists who do
go will be killed just for being there.
Frank Smyth: Clearly it would not be appropriate for the United States to negotiate with Pakistan in response to the kidnapping of Pearl, as it would only encourage more such actions.
We at CPJ firmly reject the notion that there is any parity between U.S. actions anywhere and the taking hostage of a journalist.
What about the threatened USA reporters? Do you think they might leave Pakistan, due to this situation?. Are these credible threats?
Frank Smyth: Clearly US reporters are at great risk and now because of the Pearl case they know it.
I was just talking with a photographer, Marty Leuders, who told me that he was in Pakistan recently and that of all the places he has been including Sierra Leone and other war zones that he never felt so threatened.
Would the nationality of the Indian reporter put him in more danger in Pakistan?
Frank Smyth: Yes unfortunately it no doubt would. The ongoing enmity between India and Pakistan is an emotional that has religous as well as nationalist overtones. An Indian journalist would be as unwelcome in Pakistan as say an Ethiopian journalist would be in Eritrea.
Why do these kidnappers seem to think they are morally correct? From what I read they seem to be interested in the most selfish motives, basically personal glory and a wonderful paradise for themselves. It is so selfish, the virgins, the wonderful afterlife, the desire for paradise for oneself. One will I read said "pray that my mother will be the mother of a martyr, pray that my wife will be the wife of a martyr, pray that my children will be the children of a martyr." What could be more selfish than that? I don't see why these kidnappers would follow a moral urging even from a respected Muslim.
Frank Smyth: Clearly they are operating from a sense of frustration and lashing out at the easiest target they can find. What I think everyone needs to keep in mind is that we all only gain from access to information. The captors demand for example that Pakistani immigrants who are now detained in the US should have access to laywers. They make this demand because they know about it and they know about it because of the work of the press.
Similarly, even bin Laden talks to a Pakistani journalist, Hamid Mir, who is writing an authorized biography of him. It is just as inappropriate for the kidnappers to seize Pearl as it would be U.S. forces for example to target Mir for interviewing Bin Laden.
Are there enough people from India with dialects, or other signs of nationality, in Pakistan so that one wouldn't be in any special danger?
Frank Smyth: I honestly do not know as I have never been to the region.
Do you think those released pictures are legit, especially the one with a gun to his head?
Frank Smyth: I have no doubt they are legit. It would be hard to stage that. And the fear in his face looks palpably real to me.
Frank Smyth: Any more questions?
What do you think the press will do as far as
continuing to send journalists, even in the
face of this threat?
Frank Smyth: Good question. Obviously the media needs to keep sending journalists to dangerous places to cover stories. In recent years many media have cut back so it is imperative that they keep reporters in the field.
And that is exactly why this case is so devastating. Journalists and media alike in the future will be reluctant to go to Pakistan, and that means Pakistani views will get out less to the Western world.
Wouldn't an Indian reporter stick out in Pakistan, where India is the State's enemy?
Frank Smyth: I think I answered this before, but yes any Indian journalist would have great trouble working in Pakistan as any Pakistani journalist would probably have problems working in India.
What could the U.S. reasonably do to help secure the release of Mr. Pearl?
Frank Smyth: The best thing the US could do is to apply its surveillance capabilities in the hope of intercepting something that they could pass on to Pakistani authorities to try and locate him.
San Diego, Calif.:
What does Pearl's religion have to do with his kidnapping? Do we even know his background? FYI, in that part of the world, everyone makes assumptions based on name and nationality that have little to do with reality. That said, Pakistan is a great country full of very friendly people, in my experience.
Frank Smyth: I agree.
Are the e-mails traceable?
Frank Smyth: They are coming from hotmail accounts that anyone can set up anynomously in any internet cafe. Though it should be possible to trace them eventually to the PC they came from, but that would give no more than a general location or city. Of course that might help.
What if the kidnappers follow through with their threat? What do you anticipate world reaction would be?
Frank Smyth: I hope it would be overwhelming and that the captors would realize in advance that they would be undermining the very causes they have championed along with their own credibility.
Pearl's wife is pregnant and she and their unborn child deserve a husband and father. Killing him would be nothing more than banal vengeance.
It is pointless to try to blame Pearl for what happened -- the fact is that journalists of many nationalities have been targeted in this war and died in action. No nationality, race or religion guarantees a reporter's safety in any part of the world -- including the U.S. A journalist was shot at a crime scene in the old USA a few months back.
Frank Smyth: I agree. He was doing his job and they targeted him unfairly and mercilessly for it.
What is next on the agenda for your committee concerning this matter?
Frank Smyth: We have been encouraging the association of Pakistani journalists to come out and make an appeal on his behalf. And Pakistani journalists are also encouraging Muslim clerics in Pakistan to do the same.
We are also in touch of course with the WSJ and others involved in the case. But one thing we hope to do is to work with others to get the message to the captors to let him go and perhaps create a dialogue that might enable them to do so and still save face.
Do journalists need bodyguards and can they be trusted?
Frank Smyth: Generally I think bodyguards will not really help. As I noted, some journalists in Colombia have been assigned bodyguards. But the same journalists still fear for their lives. What we at CPJ and many other journalists would much prefer would be that civilian prosecutorial authorities function well enough in countries that perpetrators of violent attacks against the press along with others may be prosecuted.
San Diego, Calif.:
How can we help Pearl and his family? Is there a fund we can donate to?
Frank Smyth: Not that I know of. One thing perhaps one could do is to call or write to various media organizations and thank them for the coverage they have already given this case and encourage them to continue covering it.
What about you, Frank? What exactly did your kidnappers want? Did they choose you from a group of individuals reporters, or just randomly?
Is your case very similar to Pearl's?
Frank Smyth: My case was different. Myself and two other journalists, Gad Gross, a photog for Newsweek, and Alain Buu, a photog for Time, snuck into northern Iraq after the Gulf War with Kurdish rebels who were then trying to overthrow Saddam.
Gross and our volunteer translator who was an armed Kurdish guerrilla, Bakhtiar abdl al-Rahman, were captured and executed by Iraqi soldiers minutes later.
Buu, who is French, and I were captured an hour later. The Iraqi soldiers wanted to kill us too, but an intelligence officer intervened and demanded that we be held for interrogation. We underwent many blindfolded interrogations over 18 days. We were --Humdillyhal or Thank God!-- never tortured ourselves, but we were imprisoned in what I think was Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, and we witnessed Saddam's guards torturing many Iraqis including one adolescent boy.
For me see "Tragedy in Iraq" that I wrote for The Village Voice that is posted at www.franksmyth.com.
Also we were missing the entire time the Iraqis held us. In Pearl's case he is not missing as we know he is being held hostage, only we do not know who the captors are.
How do you know who to trust as a foreign correspondent in a country that's unfamiliar?
Frank Smyth: That is the trick of the business. Whenever you deal with anyone as a journalist you always must ask, Who is lying to me or Who is trying to stretch or bend the truth. You make eye contact and watch their body language and expressions and even the tone of their voice. And you ask questions, preferably unexpected ones, and see how they respond.
I have de-briefed many people this way including individuals who claim to have been have primary knowledge about death squads. One guy in Rwanda I did not believe, although he had some good information. One guy in Colombia I did believe, although in the end I confirmed relatively little of what he said.
How fast and/or favorably are the clerics and journalist associations responding?
Frank Smyth: It is happening to day and I wish it had happened sooner. But I think we were all expecting a long stand-off over Pearl under the new e-mail came yesterday announcing a 24 hour deadline --that has now been extended, if one believe's today's e-mail, another 24 hours.
Frank Smyth: Funny how 'celeb credibility', which is an American characteristic, will (possibly, hopefully) be a breakthrough in this case.
...and if the press becomes a target, these kidnappers or any kidnappers are denying their message is even newsworthy ... if they kill the 'messenger' in order to publicize their 'message'?( no sympathetic messenger; no message)... the rationale seems a bit fuzzy on the part of the kidnappers?
Frank Smyth: Good point. A free press works for everyone as we all need access to information to make decisions and to stay informed. If they go through with their threats it will surely backfire on them, but I fear that if they think only in terms of vengeance they might go ahead anyway.
Frank Smyth: We are almost out of time. For more information about the Committee to Protect Journalists, please go to
The site is comprehensive and there is information about press freedom and journalists facing difficult conditions in most countries around the world. Please know as well that most of the journalists CPJ helps are not only non-American but non-Western journalists.
Let's hope they don't trust themselves so much as to actually do what they say they will. It'll be just horrible for his wife and the entire journalistic community.
Thank you Frank, for your time. I'll be checking on your story. Good luck!!
Frank Smyth: Thank you. My pleasure.
Some comments, rather than a question, if I may. Thank you for being here today.
First, people who walk in the moral gutter cannot claim the high ground, so these kidnappers should release this innocent man. At least then they can claim to have done the right thing in the end, even if they did the wrong thing in the beginning.
Second, I commend journalists all around the world, but especially in dangerous places, for their courage. Their contributions make our world more accountable to itself, and are very appreciated by common folk like me.
Frank Smyth: I agree. Thank you.
Frank Smyth: I am going to sign off now as I must leave my office. But I appreciate washingtonpost.com giving me this opportunity and I would like to thank everyone for their thoughtful questions and their concerns for Daniel Pearl.
For more information on his case and others please the Committee to Protect journalists site at
Thank you! Frank Smyth
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