News Media Suppressed Reporter Kidnapping Story It goes against the grain for news organizations to withhold information. But most news media operating in Afghanistan did just that at the request of The New York Times when two of its journalists were kidnapped last week. A commando raid Tuesday freed one journalist and left another dead.
NPR logo News Media Suppressed Reporter Kidnapping Story

News Media Suppressed Reporter Kidnapping Story

Men weep over the body of Afghan journalist Sultan Munadi, killed during a commando raid aimed at freeing him and New York Times correspondent Stephen Farrell. Gul Rahim/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Gul Rahim/AFP/Getty Images

Men weep over the body of Afghan journalist Sultan Munadi, killed during a commando raid aimed at freeing him and New York Times correspondent Stephen Farrell.

Gul Rahim/AFP/Getty Images

The kidnapping and rescue of a New York Times reporter in Afghanistan has focused attention on what the news media sometimes decides not to report.

Correspondent Stephen Farrell was rescued Tuesday after British commandos stormed an insurgent compound in northern Afghanistan where Farrell and his Afghan assistant were being held.

The Times had carried out a quiet but intense campaign to keep the story out of the news after the two journalists were seized on Saturday. Executive Editor Bill Keller told NPR's Talk Of The Nation that newspaper officials wanted to keep from "raising the temperature" of the case in a way that would put the captured reporter and his Afghan assistant in even greater danger.

Farrell and his Afghan interpreter, Sultan Munadi, were seized by Taliban fighters on Saturday as they reported from the site of a NATO air strike that killed as many as 90 people south of Kunduz.

The raid that rescued Farrell left Munadi dead, along with a British commando and at least three other people, described by Afghan officials as a Taliban commander, the owner of the compound and a local woman.

Farrell, 46, holds dual British and Irish citizenship. Munadi, 34, was the father of two children and worked regularly for the Times and other news organizations.

Keller told NPR's Neal Conan that the reaction at the New York Times offices was "a combination of relief and real anguish. Sultan was much beloved in the Kabul bureau, and we feel terrible about the British commando."

Keller said the decision not to go public about the kidnapping was prompted by a desire to keep things calm. "In this case, we had some early word through intermediaries that this might be resolvable and that we could persuade the captors that these guys were legitimate journalists, doing important work, and that they should be released," he said.

The Times asked other news organizations in Afghanistan, including NPR, not to report the story, and Keller says most agreed to cooperate.

He said he found it disconcerting that many outlets seemed to be prepared to go with the story without calling the Times to confirm it. "We had a number of instances of the story popping up on a Web site here, in a newspaper there," Keller said. "When we called, almost without exception, people were understanding about the need to take it down, and they did."

NPR Executive Editor Dick Meyer says the decision not to report on the kidnapping wasn't taken lightly. "As a news organization, we are loath to suppress any information we have," he says, adding that it took a "clear and compelling" case that the reporters' lives might be put at risk.

It is the second time in the past year that NPR has agreed to a New York Times request not to report on the kidnapping of a journalist. The first came in November of last year, when Times correspondent David Rohde and his Afghan colleague Tahir Ludin were captured in Afghanistan. The two men finally escaped in June after more than seven months in captivity.

Meyer says the two situations have prompted much discussion among NPR's news managers.

While the organization decides on a case-by-case basis whether to honor requests to hold stories from news media, authorities or private citizens, he says, "We're going to take a fresh look at our thinking. We don't think there should be a double standard for news organizations."

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says his organization doesn't advocate military action to rescue journalists but recognizes that it may sometimes be necessary.

Simon says the latest kidnapping points up the risks to international correspondents working in Afghanistan as well as the dangers to local staffers who work for Western media companies.

He notes that the vast majority of journalists killed in the Iraq and Afghan wars have been local staffers, in part because they are usually more exposed, living in communities rather than guarded compounds and going out to report in situations where foreigners might be identified and targeted.

Keller says it is not clear how Munadi died. Farrell reported that Munadi was hit by gunfire when he walked out from the cover of a wall during the firefight, shouting "Journalist! Journalist!" Farrell said it wasn't clear where the bullets came from.

Farrell said that he dived into a ditch and waited until he heard British voices before identifying himself as a British hostage and coming forward.

"The point that really needs to be made here," says Simon, "is the increasing risk of reporting in Afghanistan. In this case, the Times really wanted to get to the scene and find out what local people thought about the [airstrike]. I'm concerned that that kind of reporting may be becoming too difficult and too dangerous."