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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Business as Usual to Foreign Editors

Media: Reporter's kidnapping in Pakistan highlights an occupational hazard for correspondents abroad, news executives say.

January 31, 2002|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite threats to American journalists made by the Pakistani kidnappers of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, executives at major U.S. news organizations said Wednesday that they have no plans to pull their reporters or photographers out of the country. Most said, however, that they have reinforced earlier warnings to their journalists in the region to exercise extreme caution and to take no unnecessary risks.

"I just talked with both the people we have there, and I reiterated what we always say: that no story is worth putting yourself in grave danger," said Colin McMahon, foreign editor of the Chicago Tribune. "I know the attraction of going out on a limb for a story . . . but it doesn't do you any good if you're kidnapped and you can't file the story."

McMahon said it's difficult to know how large or widespread the kidnappers' group is and what its actual intent and capabilities are, but he said its actions so far won't change the newspaper's coverage. Other editors agreed.

"There are times when it's dangerous to be a journalist, but as journalists, part of our mission--our calling--is an obligation to report the good and the bad and the dangerous," said Bob Dubill, executive editor of USA Today.

Reporters in Rotation

Dubill said his paper has three journalists in Pakistan--two of whom will be returning to the U.S. on scheduled home leaves this week. "They will be replaced there as the news dictates and as logistics make possible," he said.

Other news organizations said they also are moving reporters in and out of Pakistan in accordance with previous plans, although Martin Baron, editor of the Boston Globe, said, "We have a reporter who's been scheduled to come out Friday . . . and the reporter who is supposed to replace her will wait a few days in London to see how things develop."

In an e-mail sent Wednesday to several U.S. news organizations, a group that had previously identified itself as the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty threatened to execute Pearl "within 24 hours" if the U.S. did not release all Pakistanis taken into its custody during the war in Afghanistan. The group accused Pearl of spying for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, and said other U.S. journalists in Pakistan also are spies.

Any U.S. journalists who do not leave the country within three days will be "targeted," the e-mail said.

Paul Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, has vigorously denied that Pearl is a spy, and other news executives have issued similar denials about their journalists. In an e-mail sent to the kidnapping group Wednesday, Steiger said Pearl is a professional journalist, with "no ability to change the policies of the U.S. Government or the Government of Pakistan."

Appeals to Kidnappers

Steiger has appeared on CNN and BBC radio and television in recent days, hoping the kidnappers will see or hear him and agree to his request that Pearl be freed unharmed.

In light of the threat to Pearl and other journalists, editors at the Journal and several other news organizations were guarded Wednesday when talking about the assignment of, or security precautions taken by, their staff in Pakistan. Associated Press declined to comment, and a spokesman for the New York Times said, "We don't wish to discuss the specifics of correspondent whereabouts or movements for obvious security reasons."

But Edward Cody, deputy foreign editor of the Washington Post, said his paper is about to have "even more people than usual in Pakistan" because the newspaper's foreign editor is en route to Islamabad for a weekend meeting with Post reporters in the region.

Steven Butler, a foreign editor for Knight Ridder, said one of his reporters, Jonathan Landay, had been in Pakistan, pursuing the same story that Pearl was working on "when we had to pull him out to cover Afghanistan two weeks ago."

"He's very relieved," Butler said. "He could have gone down the same path as Pearl."

In response to Wednesday's developments, Butler said he sent a message to all his correspondents in the area, "restating our standard-issue advice."

"We told them, as we have from the beginning of this war, to keep moving around; don't establish a regular routine that makes it easy for people to track you. Don't go anywhere alone. Take every precaution you can--and remember that just because some extremists might seem friendly to the press, that doesn't mean they have the same view of the press that we do, and it doesn't mean you shouldn't continue to be very careful."

Mary Braswell, deputy foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, said she told Times reporters in Pakistan of the kidnappers' threat and asked them to "make your own decision" about whether they want to leave.

She said she would talk to them again today as events unfold.

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