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By Blake Lambert
TORONTO -- Major media organizations operate as devout, if secular, institutions. Think of churches, mosques and temples, stripped of their religious content.
What remains is the faith, however, both in the mission of journalism and the audience's ability to appreciate it. This belief system is often accompanied by heavy doses of public sanctimony.
Consider the approach of these organizations when confronted with the abduction of their own correspondents. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), upon learning that Mellissa Fung had been snatched in Afghanistan, requested an embargo on information from all Western media outlets in the country.
The corporation, citing advice from security consultants, argued that publishing any details could threaten Fung's safety and undermine attempts to secure her release. That disclosure only emerged once Fung was freed, following four weeks during which she was held captive in a cave. No news story, they rightly proclaimed, is worth a human life.
Their stance is legitimate and will likely become a staple of media organizations whose correspondents are taken hostage. Case in point: Another correspondent from a prominent media outlet who has been seized. As in Fung's case, editors have requested and received an embargo from their competitors in the country. Personal security, once again, is the priority.
For the record, I do not wish that any journalist be killed for performing their job, anywhere. But stopping the flow of information about a kidnapped foreign correspondent suggests that media outlets value the lives of their own personnel above those of other people they report on.
Non-correspondents, whether they are aid workers, diplomats, or ordinary citizens, are never given similar consideration. Their capture in a foreign country or warzone is rightly viewed as newsworthy, consequences be damned for the individual.
The hypocrisy inherent to the selective silence is perhaps more pronounced when it comes to freelance journalists. While editors at the CBC restricted details about their own correspondent's captivity, they did not hesitate in reporting the abductions of freelancers Amanda Lindhout in Somalia and Khadija Abdul Qahaar -- also known as Beverly Giesbrecht -- in northern Pakistan. Of course, neither woman is a member of the church of the CBC.
Nor would the institution's journalists, along with their embargo-observing colleagues, likely engage in self-censorship regarding the abduction of government officials and military personnel in Afghanistan.
Just as important, embargoes distort the account of conditions in conflict zones and fragile states.
Journalists cover wars in part to provide objective accounts that often contrast with governments' optimistic forecasts grounded in ideology or political agendas. At this point in NATO's intervention in Afghanistan, for example, it is absolutely crucial to know the level of security in Kabul. The abduction of Fung on the outskirts of the capital serves as a negative indicator. But by embargoing the story, Western news outlets temporarily misinformed their readers.
News blackouts not only undermine journalism, they can also subvert the democratic process. Mellissa Fung was kidnapped two days before the Canada's Oct. 14th election, and her abduction might have affected the results. At the very least, Prime Minister Stephen Harper might have been forced to respond to more pointed criticism regarding Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan.
Instead, Fung's release became a positive story for the Harper government following its reelection.
The government, like the CBC, deflected inquiries regarding the terms of the deal made with Afghan authorities to obtain Fung's freedom, clouding the public's understanding of the events surrounding her release and illustrating yet another reason why self-imposed media embargoes are rarely in the public's interest.
People deserve to know what their opacity-prone governments are doing at home and abroad. And their most reliable antidote to government spin is information, no matter who is involved.
Blake Lambert is a veteran Africa correspondent and a World Politics Review contributing editor. He has reported for the Economist, the Christian Science Monitor and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, amongst other media outlets.