Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His book “The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom” is due out Nov. 11.
Sometime in 2013, as Islamic State militants expanded the territory under their control, an order came down to the local brigades: Grab any non-Muslim foreigner you can find. Western journalists became prime targets, and over the next few months dozens were captured by local fighters.
International news organizations purposely avoided covering the kidnappings. Such blackouts are intended to create space for hostage negotiations to move forward discreetly, undisturbed by the media spotlight. Yet this voluntary censorship also had unintended consequences: In late 2013, when 30 journalists were missing in Syria, there was virtually no coverage of the problem, little public awareness that Islamic State fighters were actively searching for journalists and humanitarian workers to abduct, and less recognition of the rise of a group that has now emerged as a serious international security threat.
The Islamic State’s approach to news media, meanwhile, has reaped huge benefits for the group. Ransom payments by European governments have generated millions of dollars in revenue, with the going price per hostage estimated to be north of $2 million. Its grisly videos showing the beheadings of journalists such as James Foley and Steven Sotloff have reinforced the militants’ message of terror and served as valuable recruiting tools. And the group has managed its global image through its deft use of social media and its ability to restrict access to independent journalists.
In the battle over information between the Islamic State and journalists, the terrorists are winning.
Given the dangers and unique challenges involved, news organizations need to reconsider the value of media blackouts, find creative ways to gather news from inside Syria at a time when much of the country is a no-go zone for international reporters, and take steps to ensure that their coverage does not advance the militant group’s goals and propaganda.
The modern media blackout emerged in Iraq around 2005, when the insurgency there was gaining ground. When individual journalists were abducted, news organizations often asked their colleagues in the business for a few days of quiet to sort out who was holding their reporters and to attempt to carry out quick negotiations for their release. As the kidnapping phenomenon spread to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, requests for blackouts became more routine and more extended.
When New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped in Afghanistan in November 2008, the blackout lasted seven months, until he escaped. In the case of Michael Scott Moore , kidnapped in Somalia and recently released, the blackout lasted almost three years.
But the scale of the kidnapping crisis in Syria is unprecedented. All told, more than 90 journalists have been kidnapped there in the past three years — many of them Westerners taken by Islamic State fighters. The relative lack of coverage has made it harder for journalists traveling to Syria to assess the risk for themselves.
While each kidnapping case is different, there is little evidence that news blackouts are effective, particularly when it comes to American and British journalists taken captive by the Islamic State. This is because, as New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi pointed out during a recent discussion at Columbia University’s journalism school, the United States and Britain have a policy of not negotiating with the militant group — so blackouts that are supposed to create space for negotiations serve no purpose. While families and media organizations (rather than governments) have negotiated the release of hostages in other parts of the world, this has not been the case in Syria.
More open reporting on kidnappings, however, and the public engagement it would elicit can compel governments to take more decisive steps. This could include military action, efforts to find another government that could serve as an intermediary with the hostage-takers or more direct engagement with the families of the kidnapping victims. It is less clear, but possible, that more open discussion of kidnappings could also pressure Islamic State militants. For example, the family of recently killed British hostage Alan Henning sought to highlight his humanitarian work on behalf of Muslims in Syria, and the family of American aid worker Peter Kassig , shown in the most recent Islamic State video, has publicly emphasized his conversion to Islam (while in captivity, Kassig changed his name to Abdul-Rahman). To have the best chance at success, these campaigns must begin long before Islamic State fighters issue a public death sentence — after which the group cannot back down without losing face.
It is reasonable to withhold certain information that could endanger a hostage. But as blackouts become the norm, governments’ demands on journalists are growing. The British government, for example, now routinely sends messages to British and U.S. publications, requesting that they suppress certain news. And in Turkey, the government recently demanded that the local news media withhold coverage of the abduction of Turkish diplomats by Islamic State fighters in Mosul, Iraq. When I recently met with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, he contrasted the “responsible” U.S. media with the supposedly reckless Turkish media, which revealed information about the Mosul hostages. In such cases, he argued, the media has an “ethical responsibility not to say anything.”
The threshold for blackouts needs to be raised, and at a minimum there should be more aggressive and comprehensive reporting once hostages are released. It is a sensitive issue, but the Islamic State benefits from an environment in which these facts are obscured.
The horrifying beheading videos released by the Islamic State have heightened public awareness of the dangers journalists face when covering the conflict in Syria. In fact, more than 70 journalists have been killed there since the civil war erupted in 2011.
Initially, rebel fighters welcomed international journalists, hoping that more coverage of the brutal tactics of the Bashar al-Assad government and the devastating toll on civilians would prompt Western governments — including the United States — to intervene militarily.
Reporting from Syria was dangerous during this period, of course; many journalists were killed on the battlefield, including some possibly targeted by Assad forces. But as the conflict shifted, with more-radicalized militants from the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front gaining the upper hand over the more moderate rebel groups, the risk to journalists exploded.
In December 2013, editors from 13 news organizations, including the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and The Washington Post, wrote to the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, noting that because of the kidnapping epidemic, many news outlets “have decided to limit their coverage of the war” because the rebel leadership was unable to provide for their security.
“Going to war is nothing new for us,” the Associated Press director of photography, Santiago Lyon, told me. “The game-changer for us was kidnapping for ransom.”
But the reduced presence of international news organizations in Syria has opened the door for freelancers with a higher tolerance for risk. Few have had the full support of established newsrooms. Istanbul-based freelancer Sarah A. Topol recalls meetings with editors who told her that it was too dangerous to send her to Syria but that if she did decide to go, they would be interested in seeing her reporting. She decided she would not cover Syria under these conditions.
Foley, who had the support of his media organization, GlobalPost, made a different decision. Following his 2011 abduction by the Gaddafi regime during a reporting stint in Libya, he described to Topol the “freelancer’s conundrum” in assessing danger: “I think it’s just basic laws of competition; you need to have something the staffers don’t, but in a conflict zone that means you take bigger risks: go in sooner, stay longer, go closer.”
After the murders of Foley and Sotloff, however, many publications announced that they would no longer take contributions from freelancers in Syria. “We no longer accept work from freelance journalists who travel to places where we ourselves would not venture,” Agence France-Presse announced on Sept. 17. “. . . If someone travels to Syria and offers us images or information when they return, we will not use it.”
So if the risks make it impossible for international journalists to operate on the ground in Syria, particularly in areas under Islamic State control, how can they cover the war?
Several strategies, valuable but limited, have emerged.
The first is to rely on a network of Syrian observers, paid or unpaid, to provide firsthand observations. Some large news organizations covering the conflict out of their Beirut or Istanbul bureaus use this approach. Of course, Syrians providing information under such circumstances face extraordinary risks; 85 percent of the journalists killed covering the Syrian conflict so far have been local journalists.
The second approach is to seek information from those who have left the country, including refugees streaming across the border bearing fresh news. They are often in contact with others still in the country, and by working the phones reporters can glean a decent understanding of events on the ground.
Third, social media has been a critical source of information about the Syrian conflict. A number of reporters and bloggers have made an effective specialty of parsing, verifying and contextualizing social media postings, notably British blogger Eliot Higgins (a.k.a. “Brown Moses ”), who has received much acclaim for his groundbreaking reports.
Such approaches are useful, but little can substitute for on-the-ground reporting. If and when conditions allow, newsrooms should deploy only staffers or fully supported and seasoned freelancers to cover the Syrian conflict. News organizations must obviously take responsibility for their Syrian contributors as well — providing training on personal security as well as information security — but here the calculation is different. Everyone living in Syria, particularly in areas under Islamic State control, takes risks just to survive, and the decision of brave Syrians to put their lives on the line in the cause of providing news to the world should be respected.
VICE News sent a film crew to embed with Islamic State fighters and in August released a 40-minute documentary. It makes no pretense of balance. It presents the conflict from the perspective of the militants. And it has been viewed on YouTube more than 4 million times.
This approach has been criticized by some more-traditional journalists, who say it risks glorifying the Islamic State. At a recent panel discussion at New York University, the New York Times’ Amy O’Leary suggested that the documentary could be viewed as propaganda and asked VICE News editor Jason Mojica what conditions were agreed upon with the terrorist group to gain such access. Mojica said there was “no collusion” but refused to specify any conditions.
I wish VICE editors would be more forthcoming about the circumstances under which the documentary project was undertaken and whether the Islamic State had the opportunity to review or censor footage in an effort to advance its agenda. But given the dearth of information about this war, I’m glad the documentary was made.
This challenge is not unique to VICE News. When information is at a premium, how can journalists ensure that they are not used to advance Islamic State propaganda and, therefore, Islamic State objectives?
The more the militants restrict independent reporting, the greater value given to the information from the group’s propaganda network, including the beheading videos. And news media blackouts allow the Islamic State to determine the timing of the release of information about hostages. The impact is clear: Whether the group used the killings to forestall U.S. military engagement or to provoke, the emotional, intensive media coverage of the videos contributed to changes in U.S. policy — including the decision to undertake military action in the region.
News organizations, recognizing how the Islamic State is seeking to manipulate and terrorize the public, have shifted their coverage dramatically, becoming more restrained with each subsequent video release. Many did not show video or stills from the execution of Henning, the most recent hostage to be killed. This contrasts with coverage of Foley’s killing six weeks earlier, which was graphic, emotional and visceral. The Independent, a British daily, made the point dramatically after the Henning beheading, publishing a black front page with the headline, “Here is the news, not the propaganda.”
These decisions are not censorship; they are an appropriate exercise in news judgment. The videos should also be removed from YouTube and other popular Web sites according to their terms of service. However, I don’t want to see the videos scrubbed from the Internet altogether. Despite their use as Islamic State recruitment tools, they should remain accessible to determined Internet users who want to understand the group’s brutality.
News organizations must be cognizant of the strategies the Islamic State uses to manipulate its image in the press. As the AP’s Lyon told me, when the Syrian war began, many of the images presented the story from the perspective of the victims. Today, because of Islamic State propaganda, the war is presented from the perspective of the perpetrators of violence.
This forever changes the way the public experiences and understands the conflict.