Bolting from Hamilton to Pulitzer after class, Events Editor Isabel Sepulveda slid into last nights book talk on Joel Simon’s “We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages, and Ransom” just as introductions wrapped up. Featuring Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Janine di Giovanni, former war correspondent and current fellow on the Council of Foreign Affairs, and moderated by Kyle Pope, Editor in Chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, the conversation dealt with the complex moral and political questions around paying ransom to terrorist groups in exchange for journalists and other political hostages.
Joel Simon’s book was inspired by a conversation in the aftermath of a tragedy. In November 2014, freelance video journalist James Foley went missing while working in Syria and his captors demanded a large ransom for his safe return. The U.S. (alongside Great Britain) have a “no concessions” policy, leaving families to navigate a complex legal environment in which payments by companies and families were technically illegal, but usually overlooked. Foley’s mother Diane approached Simon and Committee to Protect Journalists to see if they could do anything to help her bring her son home safely. Amid worries about legal jeopardy and fears that paying the ransom would make journalists more attractive targets in the future, the CPJ opted not to help her, and James Foley was ultimately murdered by his captors in August 2014. In a heartfelt conversation after the tragedy, Diane Foley asked what proof he had that paying the ransom would have put other journalists in jeopardy and with that question, Simon’s investigation was born.
The picture that emerged at the same time challenges and reinforces the conventional wisdom. First, there’s an argument about policy, which claims that countries with no concessions policies are less likely to have journalists kidnapped in the first place. The numbers don’t bear out this claim, simply because other countries, including many in Europe, do not have the same policy, and even if governments don’t pay, families and employers often will. (Di Giovanni remarked on an assignment early in her career in Chechnya, where many reporters had been kidnapped. Her editors were less worried, “Murdoch [who owned the paper] is friends with an oligarch, so we’ll get you out.”) As long as there’s a market, kidnappers will continue taking journalists hostage and, as Simon noted, they’re “not checking passports.”
Concessions policies might not make a difference in whether or not a journalist is kidnapped, but it can determine who makes it home. In Spain, where the government always pays for political hostages, journalists have 100% survival rate. In France, where they pay when it provides political benefit, there’s an 85% survival rate. The survival rate with the U.S. no concessions policy? 25%. As Simon powerfully stated, “This is the cost of the policy in human lives.”
Kyle Pope, managing to expertly guide the conversation through its many twists and turns, prompted Simon to take a look at this from a more moral perspective, which argues that money given to terrorist groups who kidnap journalists funds terrible things. Simon conceded this, noting that targeting Westerners was a significant source of funding for al-Qaeda, but stopping the practice is difficult. The Obama administration attempted to get Europe on board with a no concessions policy, undercutting the market for human lives, but Europeans “want to play ball” and avoid the political fallout of leaving someone behind. The two opposing policies make hostage-taking even more lucrative. The best way to raise the stakes in negotiations is to kill the hostage whose government will pay the least, so the no concessions policy increases the profits to terrorist groups while causing the deaths of Americans.
Both di Giovanni and Simon advocated for global policy, but di Giovanni worried that journalists could become ATMs for these groups and turn what’s already an occupational hazard into an even more endemic issue. Simon agreed and concluded from his research that “strategic ambiguity” might be the best bet, allowing governments to account for human life alongside national security concerns. Di Giovanni also pointed out that this also provides protections for freelancers, who are increasingly entering dangerous war zones that veteran war correspondents find too dangerous to enter, or those with poor families who cannot afford to pay.
Of course, you can’t have a conversation about the safety of journalists today without talking about the Trump-administration-shaped elephant in the room. Simon had strong words the president’s handling of the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, saying he might go so far as to “call Trump the accessory after the fact.” On top of his other shots at the press, it leaves a bad taste when thinking about how he might handle another issue like this in the future.
But not everything Simon had to say about Trump was negative. The Obama administration took a lot of heat for their poor treatment of the families of hostages after Diane Foley and others like her brought their grievances to the public. While the no concessions policy was never on the table, the White House reviewed their structures to help families and made it clear that private citizens who paid ransom would not be prosecuted. The government “had lost track of the human dimensions” of the issue, instead focusing intensely on the possible strategic costs. Surprising anyone who follows politics, Trump agrees with Obama on these policy changes. In fact, his focus is more on the political benefit of bringing hostages home, creating an even stronger support structure for families.
The Q&A was full of beautifully succinct questions that ranged from clarifications on the numbers, a deeper explanation of kidnapping and ransom insurance, which many newsrooms use to protect reporters, and other subtle nuances. But what became clear was that this issue had touched all of their lives one way, and Pope, Simon, and di Giovanni all talked about friends and colleagues who lost their lives in their pursuit of truth. Throughout, their personal experience made it impossible to lose track of the human dimensions.