Last week, The Wall Street Journal asked staffers not to talk about Daniel Pearl, the Journal reporter kidnapped on January 23 in Pakistan. With death threats against “Danny” ricocheting around the world, the mood in the newsroom was tense. “We’re all extremely worried,” one staffer said last week. “We want him back, and everybody is thinking about it all the time.”
Some strangers may be following this story because he was photographed with a gun to his head or because his wife is pregnant, but “what makes it so horrible” for friends and colleagues, said this source, is that “Danny is an absolutely terrific person.”
A non-Journal colleague said the kidnappers chose the wrong guy when they decided to silence Pearl. “He’s a real reporter,” said this source, “the kind of guy who can groove in a different society and get the hang of it, as opposed to your basic blockhead who would feel more comfortable camping out with the Marines in Afghanistan.”
Lacking evidence to the contrary, the journalistic community quickly reached a consensus that Pearl is not a CIA agent, as his kidnappers first alleged. The CIA and the Journal have publicly denied the charge, and two correspondents who know Pearl denied it as well. One colleague told CNN that he was “the most anti-authoritarianperson that you are ever going to meet,” while another recalled that in 1998, the Journal reporter was one of the first to question the U.S. bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan. (The kidnappers’ fallback position, that Pearl worked for Israeli intelligence, seemed just as baseless, and the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., denied it.)
On February 1, after an anonymous e-mail announced that “we have killed Mr. Danny,” Pearl supporters continued to keep the faith. Even as CNN was booking pundits to perform a post-mortem, the Journal released the following statement: “We have seen the latest reports and we remain hopeful that they are not true.” A search of Pakistan’s graveyards produced nothing, and on February 4 a dead man found on the road was assumed to be Pearl before authorities declared it was not. The story was so full of reversals that one could not help hoping that Pearl, à la The Third Man, would turn up alive and laughing after everyone believed he was dead.
Alas, this is not a movie. The reality is that a reporter has been accused of being a spy in a culture prone to conspiracy theories, and that the kidnapping poses a severe threat to his colleagues’ safety. Because his death could signal the end of press immunity in the war on terrorism, Pearl has become a cause célèbre overnight, with everyone from editorial writers and former hostages to Muhammad Ali and the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens calling on the kidnappers to set him free.
On January 31, the State Department called for Pearl’s immediate and unconditional release, and the next day, President Bush said that both the U.S. and Pakistan were “actively involved in trying to rescue him.” Around the same time, some Journal editors privately complained that the U.S. should be doing more, but Frank Smyth, a reporter taken hostage in Iraq in 1991 while working on a story for the Voice, praised the low-key response. “Journalists have to operate independently of the U.S. government,” said Smyth, “and if the State Department turns up the heat, that only makes you look like you‘re a spy.”
In a similar vein, former FBI special agent Clinton van Zandt told MSNBC that the U.S. government might work behind the scenes to secure Pearl’s release, but the U.S. must not be seen as offering to meet any demands. “If they made any concessions,” said Van Zandt, “it would be open season on U.S. journalists all over the world.” Others cautioned that discussing the CIA’s historical use of journalists as spies might unfairly endanger Pearl’s life and many others.
Whatever the outcome, Pearl’s abduction has exponentially multiplied the risks of reporting abroad. In an anonymous e-mail sent last week, the kidnappers claimed that many people are “spying on Pakistan under the journalist cover” and warned American reporters to get out of Pakistan in three days or “be targeted.” By late last week, many U.S. news organizations were either giving reporters permission to leave the country or urging them to exercise extreme caution. The New York Times and the Journal declined to reveal specifics about their correspondents, while the Associated Press stationed armed guards outside its Pakistan bureau.
According to Smyth, the Pearl kidnapping will have a “chilling effect” on reporting out of Pakistan. “Pakistan is not at the state that Nigeria was in the 1990s [when many journalists were jailed under a military regime], but it’s taking a big leap in that direction now.”
At The Baltimore Sun, which has one reporter in Afghanistan and another who has just left the Kashmir section of India, foreign news editor Robert Ruby said he has some explicit rules for foreign correspondents. The first is that the reporter’s life comes before the story. “I can’t think of too many headlines that are really and truly worth putting your life at risk for,” he said. “There may be some, and some reporters who are willing to do it, but that’s not part of your job.”
The second rule: It’s the reporter who makes the call, not the editor. “Whatever detailed plans you and I work out, if on the ground you think this is a really stupid thing to be doing, then don’t do it,” the Sun editor tells reporters. Nevertheless, Ruby doubts that many correspondents will be chastened by the Pearl case. “We all think we’re never going to die and that we’re never going to make a mistake or be unlucky.”
If Pearl isn’t a spy, why was he taken hostage? One war correspondent speculated that Pearl is “paying the price for U.S. hubris”—that is, for a government that pursues foreign policies based entirely on self-interest, while forgetting that unilateralism has consequences and can “piss people off.”
Another theory making the rounds is that Pearl’s kidnappers were angered by the Journal‘s recent announcement that it had shared intelligence with the U.S. government. In December, Journal reporter Alan Cullison bought a computer from a merchant in Afghanistan, then discovered that the hard drive contained Al Qaeda files. The Journal shared the files with the U.S. government for verification and then reported on the contents. The discovery was soon followed by the indictment of alleged “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, and the Times reported on the Journal‘s decision to cooperate with the government on January 21. Pearl disappeared two days later.
Did the Journal inadvertently put Pearl at risk? Insiders believe Pakistani hatred for Americans is already so intense that the paper’s actions probably had nothing to do with it. “I think these knuckleheads saw kidnapping Danny as a way to wound the United States,” one reporter said, “and I think they will kill him out of rage.”
At press time, hope springs eternal.