One year ago today, freelance journalists Amanda Lindhout of Canada, Nigel Brennan of Australia, Abdifatah Mohammed Elmi of Somalia and their two drivers were abducted as they were returning from the Afgoye refugee camp, about 20 kilometres west of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
Elmi and the drivers were released from captivity on Jan. 15; they had been separated from Lindhout and Brennan immediately after capture.
Over the past year, little has been heard from the captors, their hostages, the families (who don’t wish to jeopardize official efforts to free the pair) or government sources. The information that has surfaced is sobering, speculative and unconfirmed.
A poor-quality silent video appeared on the Al-Jazeera TV network within weeks of the abduction. Both CTV News and Omni Television have received frantic phone calls from a woman claiming to be Lindhout, but her identity couldn’t be confirmed. Rumours abound that Lindhout has attempted escape twice, only to be recaptured. Reports of ransom demands have been contradictory. A Somali news website has suggested Lindhout is already a victim of Stockholm syndrome, living happily with one of her captors and a child she bore. Some of Lindhout’s supporters and a few news organizations have been critical of what appears to them to be the lack of a robust response from Ottawa, where terse statements are given that efforts to secure the release of the 28-year-old Sylvan Lake, Alta., woman are continuing through “appropriate channels.” For more details, see this story in the Red Deer Advocate.
Lindhout’s fate and Ottawa’s capacity to deal with her predicament should be of special concern to Canadian journalists. As a freelancer in a foreign country, she simply does not have the institutional support of a major Canadian news organization, as did Mellissa Fung, the CBC reporter captured in Afghanistan. In Fung’s case, it became clear that the CBC was in regular contact with Canadian government officials, senior executives at other Canadian news organizations, and even Afghan intermediaries.
Depending on the business models that emerge for journalism over the coming decade, the number of freelance journalists who work in Canada and abroad as independent contractors to media outlets, both large and small, is likely to increase, not decrease. Multimedia journalists such as Lindhout, who are either self-assigning or commissioned by staff-lean news outlets to prepare specific reports, could rapidly become the norm, not the exception. Therefore, the capacity of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to deal with the illness, incapacity, arrest, detention or abduction of Canadians abroad, including failed states such as Somalia, is likely to become an ever-greater issue — as will be the capacity of organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, which has issued a statement on the grim Lindhout anniversary, to support them.
Update 1 (Aug. 24): The Canadian Association of Journalists today issued a press release calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to help free Lindhout.
Update 2 (Nov. 28): Lindhout and Brennan were released by their Somali captors on Nov. 25. The two journalists travelled to Nairobi the following day for medical treatment. Reports indicate a ransom payment of $600,000 (U.S.) was paid by the families.