Foreign journalists freed in Afghanistan

Foreign journalists freed in Afghanistan

11th November 2008, Comments 0 comments

Westerners in the Afghan capital Kabul are becoming increasingly concerned about security following a recent spate of kidnappings and killings.

Security has been deteriorating in Afghanistan for two years although it is only recently that violence against Westerners in the country's capital has been on the rise.

In the last few days two journalists have been released unharmed after being kidnapped in the city. Dutch journalist Joanie de Rijke, 43, was taken by gunmen last Saturday and was freed after nearly a week in captivity.

Thus begins a mile of tombstones, 4 abreast, rows three feet apart © Random McRandomhead Troops killed
She was in Afghanistan covering a story for Belgium's P-magazine on the deaths of 10 French troops killed in a Taliban ambush in August.

Michael Lescroart, editor in chief at the magazine's publisher De Vrije Pers, said that following her release Ms. De Rijke was "physically in good shape."

And on Saturday Canadian television reporter Melissa Fung was released after a month in captivity. In both cases few outside the media knew of the kidnappings until the journalists were released - and in both cases there were denials that any ransom had been paid.

Without protection
Ms Fung was kidnapped on October 12th while conducting interviews at the Quarga Lake refugee camp on the outskirts of the Afghan capital. Hundreds of displaced people have fled there in hopes of escaping the violence. It's a favourite spot for reporters working in Afghanistan and Kabul is considered more secure, so it was not unusual for Fung to go there without armed protection.

When she was captured Ms Fung was taken to the snowy mountains southwest of Kabul, in Wardak province, where she was kept in a tiny cave for four weeks. It was so small, she barely had enough room to stand.

Ms Fung says for the first three weeks, someone was with her, but during the last week, she was left alone, blindfolded with her hands and feet chained.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said hundreds of people around the world were involved in Fung's release and he offered his gratitude. But he also said no money went to the abductors.

"No ransom was paid. It's the government of Canada's policy not to pay ransom, and no ransom was paid by anyone in this case."

And when Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Rob Dekker confirmed De Rijke had been released he was clear that no money had been handed over. "The Dutch government does not pay ransoms," he said.

Soldiers watch cattle running for their lives while a CH-47 helicopter prepares to land © Rising threat
Whatever the truth of what goes on behind the scenes to free hostages, the rise in threat levels to journalists is a major concern to Western media organisations.
Joel Simon is with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

"Foreign nationals are in danger because they're visible and because they're high value targets. If you can kidnap them you can get attention, you can get money and some of these criminal gangs, that's what they're after."

And according to Afghanistan's ambassador to Canada, Omar Samad, the increase in the number of kidnappings in his country over the past year is not just by the Taliban insurgency but by other criminal groups.

"They target not only foreigners, but also Afghans. We hear this every day almost. You have the usual suspects - the Taliban and other organizations who do this for political reasons and to terrorize people. There's also the possibility of interconnectivity between such groups at times."

In both cases, news of the kidnappings were kept secret over fears for the safety of the journalists. And that decision by major western news organizations presented a major ethical dilemma.

John Cruikshank, the publisher of CBC news, told RNW that

Soldier searching an Afghan man © lafrancevi
"Refusing to report a story is one of the most difficult and unnatural decisions than any journalists face. Our journalistic standards, however are clear. The first priority is the safety of the victim. In my view when we know that public scrutiny can directly imperil the safety of an innocent victim of a crime, such as this, our choice is unavoidable."

Mr Cruikshank added that there would be no change to the public broadcaster's policy as far as covering conflict. But many media groups agree the incident is a reminder of how dangerous it is to go to war zones, and might cause some reporters to think twice about accepting those assignments.

Dan Karpenchuck and Paddy Maguire

Radio Netherlands

Photo credit: willy61 ; ; Random McRandomhead ; lafrancevi

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