Dangerous Business

Since Sunday evening, two Canadian diplomats — UN Special Envoy Robert Fowler, his assistant Louis Guay, along with their driver (and possibly a fourth person) — have been missing in Niger. Initial indications were that they had been taken by a splinter cell of the MNJ, the Tuareg group that has been fighting the Nigerien gov for control of the massive uranium deposits under the Saharan desert that takes up the top 80% of the country. 

By yesterday evening, the situation had grown more murky, not less. The splinter cell changed its mind and said nope, we don’t have them. The UN is now saying they don’t even know for sure that a kidnapping has taken place. All in all, not a pleasant situation. 

It also raises uncomfortable questions for those of us in the media. There is concern that whoever has the men is waiting, trolling the web reading the stories to find out just how big the fish are that they’ve caught. In which case, any information we report about them might be making the situation worse, putting them in danger. In an op-ed in the OC today, Gar Pardy draws the obvious parallel:

Recently, Canadians learned the value of quiet diplomacy carried out by professionals who only have the safety of the victim in mind. CBC reporter Mellissa Fung is alive and well due in great measure to the total world-wide news blackout that was voluntarily accepted by all media organizations.

Such a blackout is not possible in this disappearance. Some of the horses are already out of the barn. What is needed is a deep sense of responsibility to eliminate unwarranted speculation and the reporting of unverified information.

Some have suggested that the nature of the work by Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay creates a different story line than that surrounding Ms. Fung. That is sophistry of the worse kind. In an age when good people willingly put themselves in harm’s way for a greater good, these are opportunities for the media to restore the word “responsible” to journalism.

It is worth pointing out that there was never a question of keeping the story quiet, Fung-style, since it was broken by the AFP and almost everyone in the Canadian media found out about it through the global wire service. Still, a buzz went around that the CBC had dropped the story (perhaps in light of the consideration that was given to Fung, perhaps for slightly more sinister reasons relating to its status as a state-funded broadcaster — at any rate, I don’t see the story anywhere on the CBC website this morning). 

But Pardy is right, there are degrees of responsible journalism between a total blackout and crass rumour-mongering. I’m sure some of you have thoughts on this, comments are open.