Wikipedia and the Kidnapped Reporter: Censor or Savior?

For seven months, New York Times reporter David Rohde was held by Taliban kidnappers. During his captivity, both his newspaper and Wikipedia kept quiet about his plight.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales reportedly agreed to a request from The New York Times to delete all references to the kidnapping on Rohde’s Wikipedia entry.

Thus began a cat-and-mouse game, with anywhere from one to several users repeatedly posting news of Rohde’s capture on Wikipedia and Wikipedia representatives repeatedly deleting that information.

On Monday, the newspaper announced that Rohde had escaped his captors together with Tahir Ludin, a local reporter who had been with him when he was kidnapped.

While the outcome of this story is undoubtedly a happy one for Rohde, Ludin and their friends and families, the information blackout raises questions about freedom of the press in the U.S. and whether Americans are becoming increasingly inured to censorship.

What Happened?

Rohde, Ludin and their driver, Asadullah Mangal, were captured by the Taliban in November, according to reports.

When The New York Times learned of the kidnapping, the paper asked more than 35 major news organizations to suppress the story on the grounds that publicity would make negotiations with the Taliban more difficult.

“I was aware that they had requested other news organizations not to report it,” award-winning journalist Peter Sussman, a longtime member of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, told TechNewsWorld.

However, other publications should not have acquiesced so readily to the Times’ request, he said. “A journalist should ask whether there’s a convincing reason why the harm of disclosure outweighs the need for transparency and disclosure,” he explained.

The Buck Stops With Jimmy

If the Times had asked Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales to censor the news, as has been reported, Wales has to be held accountable for the suppression, Sussman said.

“He’s acting as an editor, and if you’re going to assume that role, then you have a responsibility to disclose the grounds on which you’re doing it,” he said.

This is not the first time Wales is said to have intervened with the content on Wikipedia’s pages. In March of 2008, former Novell chief scientist Jeffrey Merkey accused Wales of extortion in a statement to the Associated Press.

Wales, Merkey said, asked him for money for Wales’ Wikimedia Foundation. In exchange, he would offer Merkey “special” protection for his Wikipedia articles. After Merkey withdrew his financial support, he was reportedly banned from the Wikipedia site.

That month, Wales reportedly was threatened with a lawsuit by former girlfriend Rachel Marsden, who said he secretly made hostile revisions to her Wikipedia entry after they broke up. [*Correction – June 30, 2009]

“Allowing anyone to edit Wikipedia means that it is more easily vandalized or susceptible to unchecked information, which requires removal,” reads the “About” section on Wikipedia’s site.

Who Are We Protecting?

“Two of the basic principles in our code of ethics are ‘seek truth and report it,’ and ‘minimize harm,'” the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sussman said. The trick is to figure out a balance between the two, which is not easy when dealing with a life-or-death problem taking place in a country far away from a newspaper’s home office.

One question that should have come up is from whom information on the kidnapping was being kept secret, Sussman said. “Are we keeping it secret from the American people? The Taliban knew what they had and, after seven months, they still hadn’t released him, so they knew they had someone important.”

Indeed, some publications ran with the story. The Gant Daily blog carried a Nov. 11, 2008, story datelined Kabul from news bureau AHN Media stating that a New York Times journalist and two Afghan colleagues had been abducted in Logar Province, nearly 40 miles from Kabul.

In that published report, a spokesperson for the provincial administration identified the reporter as “David” — no last name was given.

Silence by Government or by Corporation?

“We only get involved when the government or the courts restrict newsgathering and publication,” said Gregg P. Leslie, the legal defense director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (TRCFP). The committee is an organization of practicing journalists.

The problem here, however, is that the ability to impose censorship is now expanding from government hands to those of private organizations.

For example, a trade group went to court earlier this month trying to block the Federal Aviation Administration from releasing information about corporate jets under the Freedom of Information Act, according to a story on TRCFP’s Web site.

“As a general point, our opposition to censorship has become weakened, and the locus of censorship is changing from state censorship to corporate censorship,” Sussman said. “The public is now more credulous about the reasons being given to them to shut them off from knowledge about really important issues.”

*ECT News Network editor’s note: The original published version of this story incorrectly stated that “Wales also got hit with a lawsuit by former girlfriend Rachel Marsden, who said he secretly made hostile revisions to her Wikipedia entry after they broke up.” Jimmy Wales was not hit with a lawsuit, he told TechNewsWorld on June 30. TechNewsWorld regrets the error. Wales stated further that he had never heard of any allegation that he made hostile revisions to Rachel Marsden’s Wikipedia entry, and that in any event, any such allegations were false. The reported allegations were published in Valleywag on March 10, 2008.

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