BY SIBYLLA BRODZINSKY
Journalists in Colombia who do stories on kidnap victims are criticized by colleagues who believe that interviewing hostages legitimizes the kidnapping industry by treating it as just another beat. Reporters who seek these interviews, critics say, can become instruments to further the captors’ goals (most kidnappings are about ransom, but increasingly the kidnappers use hostages as political leverage for prisoner swaps with the government.)
Defenders of the kidnap interview argue that it is not only a legitimate story but also an important one, since in Colombia 3,000 people are abducted each year. In addition, they say, interviews with hostages can offer families the only proof that their loved ones are still alive. That was the case when the Colombian journalist Jorge Enrique Botero gained access to three American defense contractors held hostage by leftist rebels after their plane went down in guerrilla territory in February. The July interview aired on 60 Minutes II nearly three months later.
armly and seemed at ease. But when the captives asked the government not to attempt a military rescue, it was unclear whether they were speaking freely or had been coached by their captors.
Botero says that’s up to the public to decide. “I don’t believe in ethics codes that say one should not cover certain parts of reality,” he says.
The freelance reporter Ruth Morris was herself kidnapped along with the photographer Scott Dalton when they were on assignment for the Los Angeles Times in January. She says it’s clear that rebel kidnappers always have ulterior motives for granting interviews with their captives: “Colombia’s kidnappers don’t give out information about their victims to make everyone feel better. They usually do it to improve their negotiating position.”
Freelancer Karl Penhaul’s 2001 interview with the Scottish oil worker Alistair Taylor may have been instrumental in securing Taylor’s release after two years as a captive. “It was clear that negotiations had all but broken down,” says Penhaul, who spent four months trying to convince rebel commanders to allow the interview. “In Britain everybody had just forgotten about him. This was the chance to see kidnapping from the other side.”
Penhaul sold a series of exclusive stories to the Scottish tabloid The Daily Record, The Boston Globe, and The San Francisco Chronicle, and video to CNN and the BBC. Six weeks later, Taylor was freed after a ransom was paid.
For Peter Y. Sussman, who helped write the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists, the problem is not in doing the interview, but in how the story is told. “If it’s telling only one side of the story or promoting the interest of captors, then it’s wrong,” he says. “But to say we’ll never do such interviews would be a disservice to the public.
BY SIBYLLA BRODZINSKY