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August 24, 2006

Whitewashing a Kidnapping

The recent abduction of Fox journalists Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig by Palestinians in Gaza on August 14 presents a disturbing dilemma for their colleagues in the region. Obviously, journalists need to be careful and guard their words in public interviews so as not to jeopardize their own safety or that of their colleagues. But how far to go?

Interviewed on “Special Report with Brit Hume”on August 23, Fox’s Middle East correspondent Jennifer Griffin responded to questions about the two kidnapped journalists who were seen for the first time in nine days on a videotape released by their captors. Griffin appeared to bend over backwards to portray her colleagues’ Palestinian kidnappers in the best possible light, even going as far as to suggest that this abduction was more just a form of Palestinian hospitality than a real kidnapping.

At first, Griffin repeated the captives’ statement that they were being treated well, “as guests”:

Well, I think what was most interesting is that they do appear to be in good health. That's good news. They went out of their way to show how their captors had treated them with respect. They had given them clean clothes, and water and food and went out of their way to talk about how they had access to bathrooms and all sorts of things and that they're being treated as guests.

It is certainly fair to report the captives' statement—including their assertion that they are being treated well. But even if she was hesitant to point out that the hostages' words should be received with skepticism—their lives are, after all, in the hands of those they were praising—did she really need to actively whitewash the taking of hostages? Apparently she thought yes, as she continued to elaborate on Palestinian hospitality, explaining the captives were regarded as honored guests:

This is very important in Palestinian society and in an Arab society. Being a guest is almost an honored value, something that you and I perhaps wouldn't necessarily pick up on being from the west. But this is a very important point.

And it's very important to note that the Hamas spokesman, Rafi Hamed who spoke about this today said that these two guests of the Palestinians should be released immediately and unharmed. This is significant, because that means that the Palestinians themselves are sending a message to the captors that these are their guests and they are responsible for their safety and well-being.

In response to Brit Hume’s obvious question—whether the captives’ statements sounded coerced—Griffin answered that their comments "were not scripted," which apparently was enough to convince her that the hostages were in no way influenced by their precarious predicament. In fact, she considers the presumed "unscripted" nature of the comments evidence that they are indeed being treated as guests rather than as captives:

I think what was interesting is they were not scripted. Many of these hostage videos, the people are scripted. You can tell that they are looking up nervously and their eyes are averting from side to side probably towards people who are forcing them or coercing them to say certain things. What I noticed in this video today is that these are our colleagues that we know very well. Their winning personalities came through. Olaf was exceedingly polite, which he always is. They are both very respectful of the society in which they find themselves right now. Olaf said something that was almost amusing saying to his family, don't worry, I'll worry for you. Steve issued a message to his family, we'll see you soon. These are all very positive signs and it shows they are being treated as guests, and this is very significant.

While Arab society is indeed known for its hospitality, to repeatedly describe Centanni and Wiig as “guests” whitewashes an act of terrorism—not to mention that it makes a mockery of genuine Arab hospitality..

Posted by CameraBlog at August 24, 2006 04:26 PM

Comments

I would think it's more of an idea that she knows that the Palestinians are watching, and she's the one, for some reason, that's been put in charge of negotiations for her colleagues' return. I can understand that she's might feel as though a gun if being held to her own head, and she might also be afraid that if she says anything to anger their captors', she might be held or feel like she's being held responsible to any harm that might come to them. I think in this sort of situation, a little slack is owed to Miss Griffin. I've seen her reports dozens upon dozens of times. She's a fair reporter, and she does the best job, in my opinion, of any foreign journalist in Israel.
-OC

Posted by: Olah Chadasha at August 26, 2006 04:09 PM

The question is how far to go? Of course, I think everyone realizes that Ms. Griffin had to be cautious with her words and emphasize the captives' statements about being treated well. But on the other hand, couldn't she have stopped there? Was it necessary to repeat over and over that they were being treated as guests?

And now that the hostages have been released, where is the outrage among journalists in general about forced conversion?

Posted by: toni at August 28, 2006 12:14 PM

I think Miss Griffin deserves sympathy, but not slack. It's a difficult position for a journalist to be in, but it is still unethical to disguise "negotiations" as objective news reporting.

It's widely known that the international (as well as the local Palestinian) media in Gaza is often intimidated by interested parties. If that were enough to justify cowtowing to to those interested parties by broadcasting skewed news reports, objective reporting would no longer exist.

If the conflict of interest caused by legit concern about the safety of the journalists made it so that Fox couldn't cover the kidnapping neutrally, then they shouldn't have covered it at all.

Posted by: Anon at August 29, 2006 02:21 PM

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