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Richard Engel freed, but news blackout debate remains

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Anadolu via AP TV/AP

(Read caption) In this image made from video, NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel shakes hands with an unidentified person after crossing back into Turkey, after Engel and his team were freed unharmed following a firefight at a checkpoint after five days of captivity inside Syria, in Cilvegozu, Turkey, Tuesday, Dec. 18.

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Richard Engel, NBC's chief foreign correspondent, and at least two colleagues, were released from five days as captives in Syria yesterday in what appears to have been a rescue operation by a Syrian rebel unit. Their escape followed an extended news blackout participated in by most of the Western press.

Mr. Engel, cameraman John Kooistra, and producer Ghazi Balkiz were abducted after an ambush near the village of Ma'arrat Misreen, just north of Idlib, while traveling with a group of Syrian rebels.

"We were driving in Syria about five days ago in what we thought was a rebel controlled area, we were with some of the rebels and as we were moving down the road a group of gunmen just literally jumped out of the trees and bushes on the side of the road," Engel told NBC News this morning in an interview from Turkey. "There were probably about 15 gunmen wearing ski masks. They were heavily armed, they dragged us out of the car, they had a container truck positioned waiting by the side of the road. They put us into that container truck ... with some gunmen, some rebels who were escorting us, they executed one of them on the spot."

Engel said the group was moved from safe house to safe house during their captivity, and endured threats of murder, mock executions, and taunting from their captors that they should pick among themselves who would die first. At around 11 p.m. last night in Syria, as they were being moved again not far from the initial abduction, their captors ran into a rebel road block, and two of the captors were killed in the ensuing firefight. Others may have been freed in that gun battle, but NBC and other participants are being tight lipped for now.

Engel: captors loyal to Assad

Engel said the captors were shabiha, Syrian civilian militias loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad, and his description of what he takes to be their loyalties and background is as good a capsule description of the complexities at play in the Syrian civil war as you'll find.

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"These are people who are loyal to president Bashar al-Assad, they are Shiite, they were talking openly about their loyalty to the government, openly expressing their Shia faith, they are trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guard, they are allied with Hezbollah," he said. "We were told that they wanted to exchange us for four Iranian agents and two Lebanese people who were from the Amal Movement and these were other shabiha members who were captured by the rebels, they captured us in order to carry out this exchange, and that's what they were hoping to do, they were going to bring us to a Hezbollah stronghold inside Syria."

Amal, like Hezbollah, is a Lebanese Shiite political movement and militia. Iran's Revolutionary Guards are in many ways the shock troops of that country's Islamic revolution. They are interested to see Mr. Assad, a member of the tiny Alawite sect, a long-ago offshoot of Shiite Islam, retain power in the face of his country's majority Sunni Arab population, since a victory for Sunnis in Syria would deprive Iran of an ally, and provide the Sunnis of Lebanon a potentially powerful new friend.

News of the abduction was kept quiet by dozens of news outlets over the weekend, both at the urging of NBC and as part of evolving ethos among press outlets over how to handle the abduction of colleagues. A number of news operations in Turkey reported that Engel and a Turkish journalist were missing in Syria, and that story was picked up by the UK's Daily Mail and websites like Gawker. But, for the most part, NBC and an informal group of reporters and aid workers jaw-boned most of their colleagues into not following the story, arguing that reporting could put them in danger.

Roots of blackouts

Attempting to maintain a news blackout after an abduction has long been a common practice, both for journalists and other people working in war zones. The idea is generally that a frenzy of questions and attention can make a quick negotiation for release tougher, either by spooking captors, or by raising their perception of the financial or propaganda value of their captive.

In some cases too much silence can be dangerous. If kidnappers know they've got someone high profile, like Engel, and then there's no news, they can get to wondering if their captive is actually a spy working under journalist cover. In others, obviously, publicity can be very dangerous. Every situation has its different particulars. In this instance it appears that people working with the situation on the ground were seeking to buy time for rebels to find the group before they were moved to a part of Syria under government control. 

Double standard?

But as always is in these cases, expect a robust media ethics debate, and discussion of possible double standards from the press. Does the media do more to protect its own than other people? Consider how some US press carried pictures of a man they identified, wrongly, as the Sandy Hook Elementary School murderer on Dec. 14.

And while the safety of Engel and others today can be taken as evidence the blackout "worked," that doesn't prove they wouldn't have been freed if more outlets had reported on events yesterday. When Jill Carroll, then a reporter for this paper, was kidnapped in Iraq in 2006, the Monitor tried to keep a lid on the news, though only managed to keep a hold on it for about 24 hours. With newspapers like The New York Times insisting that they couldn't sit on a major international story for much longer, the Monitor was forced to go public more quickly than it would have liked.

But as that situation evolved, a high-profile strategy within the Iraqi press was adopted to present Ms. Carroll as a sympathetic, honest person who cared deeply about that country and its people. She was eventually released unharmed after three months of terrifying captivity in the hands of an Iraqi group close to that country's offshoot of Al Qaeda. Did the media strategy help secure her eventual release? I'd like to think so. But it's hard to prove. Likewise in the case of David Rohde, a New York Times reporter whose seven-month abduction in Afghanistan was kept mostly quiet by the world's press because the Times was worried heavy attention would lead to higher ransom demands for Rohde. The Times said Rohde eventually escaped his captivity, and expressed satisfaction with the blackout.

Not so blacked out

In this case, some of the blackout efforts had the feeling of closing the barn doors after the horses had bolted.

For instance, The Atlantic website had a story up for hours yesterday afternoon titled "If Richard Engel is missing in Syria, nobody kept it a secret" but pulled it down upon request in the early evening. Reporting on war often brings up ethical conflicts between protecting lives and informing the public, but is vanishing a story down a memory hole after it has probably been viewed tens of thousands of times (it was on the top of The Atlantic's most viewed list at the time it was deleted) the right thing? (For what it's worth, the headline was wrong. Literally dozens of people had kept a lid on this story for days, astonishing in a community whose jobs and personal compulsions are to share information).

In online forums, reporters who cover conflict have been debating the ethics of all this for days, with the majority of opinion coming down on the side of suppressing information if there's any hope it can save lives. But some, including me, have misgivings. Do such practices erode already low public trust in journalists? Are they sometimes potentially counterproductive, if captors are desperate for publicity and enraged when they don't get it?

Austin Tice remains missing

For now, this story has a happy ending for Kooistra, Balkiz, and Engel. But it's a partial one. Austin Tice, an American freelancer, has been missing and presumed captive in Syria since August. There are others who are missing whose cases have been kept more quiet. And the bloody Syrian civil war, with tens of thousands of civilian Syrians dead already, has also been rough on journalists. In a report out today, the Committee to Protect Journalists says 23 journalists were killed in combat situations this year, the highest number since 1992. Syria, and the proliferation of citizen journalists there, were responsible for that number.

"NBC was fantastic in informing our families and keeping everyone up to date, keeping the story quiet. Obviously there are many people who are still not at liberty to do this kind of thing. There are still hostages, there are still people who don't have their freedom inside Syria and we wish them well," Engel said.

His colleague Balkiz summed up: "When we first got captured for me at least it was a moment of disbelief ... there were fumes of despair, at least for me, thinking of my family, my brother, my parents, my wife and I was feeling bad about what I've been putting them through ... and I must say that when we were freed yesterday by the rebels it was one of the happiest moments of my life."

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