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HONG KONG — Recent hostage crises in Fiji and Sulu have been made more protracted by unprincipled journalism.

As failed businessman and terrorist George Speight is belatedly imprisoned and tried, the international press bears some of the blame for the protracted crisis in Fiji, which saw the overthrow of the elected government and the promised reduction of Fijian Indian rights.

Essentially, blame lies with the press for treating Speight as a credible source instead of shunning him as a terrorist. They thereby helped to extend the hostage-taking into a nine-week crisis.

In the crisis coverage, the nouns “kidnapper,” “hijacker” or “terrorist” were seldom placed before Speight’s name. The more respectable “rebel” and ” nationalist” were often used. Occasionally he even became a “nationalist rebel.”

Foreign press coverage too often assumed that Speight was a legitimate player in Fijian politics, while the fact that he had become so by using criminal means was too frequently neglected.

The press failure relates, of course, to the modern media’s terrible lack of discrimination, amid its frantic pursuit of the brief sound bite. Speight was so available, so plausible and so quotable that television particularly was too often happy to provide a platform for his frequently outrageous comments.

As he indulged his fantasy to be the arbiter of Fiji’s destiny, Speight seized the opportunity to escape from the hostage-takers normal isolation, and sought to portray himself as a nationalist hero.

The Fijian military failed by not trying to bottle up the hostage taker until far too late in the game. A terrorist who has taken hostages, including the prime minister of the nation, would never have had such free rein in most nations of the world, would never have been allowed free access to the media.

The normal terrorist would be kept secluded along with his hostages, able only to communicate with those in authority who were negotiating with him. Speight, by contrast, was allowed to “negotiate” in public by stating his opinions to the all-too-frequently obsequious foreign press. Almost certainly the media thereby fed Speight’s delusions of self-importance, thereby further extending the duration of the crisis.

Even the BBC, normally robust in its dedication to accepted journalistic standards, several times interviewed Speight deferentially as if he was an authority on Fijian politics, instead of a thug pointing his guns at the prime minister and his Cabinet.

On the island of Jolo, one of the Philippines’ Sulu islands, the most extreme of three Muslim political organizations in the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf, currently holds 15 foreign hostages who were kidnapped in April when holidaying on the nearby Malaysian Sipadan island resort. As in Fiji, the media has behaved in such a way as to embolden the criminals and therefore drag out the kidnappings.

Additionally, 13 Filipino evangelists from Manila who naively went to the Abu Sayyaf camp to pray for the hostages’ release, plus three French journalists, are also hostages. Of those originally kidnapped on Sipadan, so far only one sick German and six Malaysians have been released.

If anything, the media failure in Sulu is even more despicable than the failure in Fiji. Anxious to report on the hostages in their confinement, the media, particularly TV has been willing to pay cash for coverage.

The hostage crisis has thus been further extended by the foreign press and television coverage given to the previously ignored Abu Sayyaf, and the media’s willingness to pay for it.

The Abu Sayyaf, on the other hand, have been taught that hostage-taking can be a profitable business, as indicated by reports that indicate that they have already netted around $5.5 million in ransom payments from the Jolo captives and also from the release of hostages taken on the island of Basilan.

Earlier in the crisis, it was already clear that the media, mainly television teams, had already paid the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers an estimated $50,000. This naturally whetted the Abu Sayyaf’s appetite for more ransom payments, and more media hostages.

On one occasion, a European television team that went to film the original 21 hostages, were briefly taken hostage themselves before giving the Abu Sayyaf $25,000, which the team had brought with them to Jolo just in case.

Recently, a regional correspondent of the German magazine Der Spiegel was taken as a hostage for the second time, and then released after the magazine is widely believed to have paid $1 million for his release. Der Spiegel’s editors refused to confirm or deny that ransom had been paid.

Checkbook journalism has had a long and dubious history — and these payments have been more dubious than most. As it happens, $1 million each for the European hostages is what the Abu Sayyaf has been demanding for their release.

A Malaysian Chinese entrepreneur with contacts in the region secured the release of some of the Malaysian hostages for undisclosed ransom payments. But European governments have further extended the crisis by asking the Filipino government to, in effect, tie its hands behind its back.

On the one hand, the foreign ministers of Germany France and Finland, in Manila a few weeks ago, sought pledges from President Joseph Estrada that the crisis would not be solved by use of military means. On the other hand, the same foreign ministers also insisted that no ransom payments be made for the release of the hostages. The Filipinos are left in the somewhat naked position of being unable to instill fear wih the threat of military action, and unable to offer incentives with the deployment of dollars.

Very belatedly, like the Fijian military, the Philippine government finally got around to ending the media’s role in extending the crisis and the hostage-taking, by ordering all the television teams, photographers and journalists out of Jolo, and to instead cover the crisis from nearby Zamboanga.

But if the media itself had been more disciplined, and more principled, these two crises might have been already concluded long ago.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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