Amanda Lindhout: a year in captivity

Amanda Lindhout posted this photo of herself on her Facebook page
Amanda Lindhout, from her Facebook page

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.

Covering the plight of Suaad Hagi Mohamud

Suaad Haji Mohamud (CBC) photo)
Suaad Haji Mohamud (CBC photo)

Kudos to the Toronto Star for going the extra 7,500 miles (about 12,000 kilometres) to cover firsthand the extraordinary plight of Suaad Hagi Mohamud, the Canadian citizen and Toronto resident detained in Kenya for three months after she was falsely accused of passport fraud. The Star’s national security reporter, Michelle Shephard, was in the courtroom in Nairobi today to file a story minutes after Judge Stella Muketi dismissed all charges against Mohamud.

The Globe and Mail, by comparison, hired freelancer Zoe Alsop to cover the story from the Kenyan capital, splicing her prose with Canadian Press wire copy. The National Post assigned a domestic staffer to assemble the story. Canadian Press, likewise, cobbled together their reports using its staff, member news organizations and other wires as sources. Both CBC and CTV used wire services and other news sources to put together their early stories.

The Nairobi assignment must have been a mixed blessing for Shephard, who has been staying on top of the Omar Khadr story for years and has authored a book on him, titled Guantanamo’s Child. In dropping into Nairobi from another assignment in Europe, Shephard was forced to miss this morning’s ruling by the Federal Court of Appeal, which affirmed an earlier court decision compelling the Harper government to press for Khadr’s release. In an age of instant communication, however, she may well weigh in on it and share a byline before tomorrow’s editions.

Three other things to note about this story of bungling by Canada’s foreign affairs department:

• It was originally broken by The Star’s John Goddard last month, based on information fed to him by sources.
• Today’s events demonstrate how agile and multidimensional some large newsrooms have become. In what may be a Canadian first, a broadcaster today aired video on a breaking foreign news story shot by a newspaper. This morning, the CBC aired video of Mohamud’s release, shot by The Star’s Lucas Oleniuk, who accompanied Shephard to Kenya.
• It takes the reach and pocket depth of major news organizations to do some stories. With apologies to diehard fans of social media who claim that a paradigm shift has rendered big legacy media mute, impotent or irrelevant, no amount of Twittering, Facebooking or crowdsourcing would have permitted this story to be told with urgency, context and depth it needed. Some stories require trained journalists in agile boots on far-away ground.

Update: Turns out Shephard was, in fact, on assignment to Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, when the call came to make the side trip to Nairobi. She was working on her amazing visit with Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the former Guantanamo Bay prisoner famous for having been a driver for Osama bin Laden. Shephard’s feature, accompanied by Oleniuk’s photography, appears today (Aug. 17).

Update 2 (Aug. 21): Mohamud has filed a civil suit against the federal government for $2.5 million in damages and is demanding an inquiry be held (see the Toronto Star story). Can you say Maher Arar?