Blackout: the safest way to report a hostage ordeal?

A Fox News cameraman kidnapped in Gaza earlier this year has urged the media to form an industry-wide agreement on how to react to media hostages, warning that too much news coverage can put lives in danger.

New Zealander Olaf Wiig, and his American Fox News colleague, Steve Centanni, were kidnapped on 14 August while working in Gaza, by what was later described as the Palestinian equivalent of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the former Al Qaeda leader in Iraq.

Wiig said: "What is missing at this point is a proper discussion on an industry level — to stand up and say we're old enough, we don't have to listen to what the SAS are telling us, we've all been in the industry long enough that we can take responsibility for our own actions.

"I'm a windsurfer. The golden rule of windsurfing is you only get yourself into a situation if you can get yourself out of it. It was incredibly embarrassing for me to be in the situation where I'd needed somebody to come and rescue me, because that was a situation that I never wanted to get myself into."

Wiig was speaking at a Frontline Club debate in London along with his wife, Anita McNaught, a former BBC World journalist, who was in Beirut reporting on the conflict for New Zealand TV at the time of his kidnapping. She went straight to Gaza and started working to secure her husband's release as soon as she heard the news.

She said: "It was quite clear to me that there was only one place that I had to be — I wasn't going to let any other bugger start negotiating for my husband's release. It simply wasn't possible to delegate that kind of a job."

According to Wiig's wife, the only occasion she was frustrated with Fox News's approach was when two of Wiig's colleagues tried to persuade her to make what she described as an over-the-top plea for her husband's release on camera.

She said: "Both of them took me aside and said: ‘Now, we want Hollywood-grade histrionics here; pull out all the stops.' They wanted crying, they wanted massive emotions and I said: ‘You must be joking.'

"It felt wrong — it felt wrong to me personally, it felt wrong in the context of Gaza in the grip of so much grief, to have a howl. It felt tasteless and it felt a bit un-English."

Wiig said that from the outset his kidnappers wanted to make a hostage video and the biggest motivation for their involvement in the kidnapping, was to film an "al Zarqawi-style video" to announce the arrival of that particular breed of jihadism in Gaza.

One of the issues that Wiig and McNaught discussed was the possibility of an industry-wide agreement of a news blackout when a high-profile hostage is taken, as they said that broadcasting the news gives the kidnappers the attention they desire.

The Christian Science Monitor Middle East correspondent, Scott Peterson, who was involved in the freeing of journalist Jill Carroll, said that it was possible to create too much interest on the ground, highlighting cases such as Ken Bigley and charity worker Margaret Hassan.

Peterson said that international media attention and political pressure could make kidnappers feel that their quickest, safest and only way out was to kill their captives.

"The balance that we were always trying to achieve was reminding people that there are people out there, but not making them such a high-profile target that the easiest way to solve the situation was to kill them," he said.

According to ITN foreign editor Tom Singleton, in an era of fast-paced international news, adhering to a media blackout is not always practical.

He told Press Gazette: "The problem is that it comes out anyway on the wires. If it is a foreign country, it is very hard to control the sourcing of the information. If it comes out on a local basis and it is out there and international wires start snapping, it is out."

Sky foreign editor Adrian Wells said he agreed with Wiig that the Palestinian authority had to try harder to protect journalists and make sure they are not targeted.

He told Press Gazette: "I'm in Israel at the moment and a lot of people are talking about how Gaza is on the edge of almost civil war. There is certainly a lot of tension between the two sides, which is very unusual for Palestinians to be fighting other Palestinians.

"He is right to raise the issue that we, as Western media companies, will have to start thinking in non-traditional ways about how we cover what is probably going to be a very big story in the next few months."

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