Careful news crews in Pakistan

After threat to Pearl, television networks weigh risks and responsibilities

The Jan. 23 kidnapping in Karachi and threats against Wall Street Journal
Asia Bureau Chief Daniel Pearl had U.S.-based news organizations thinking security and rethinking their presence in Pakistan last week.

Eight journalists have been killed covering the war in Afghanistan. Most networks said last week that they gave their people the option of remaining in or leaving neighboring Pakistan. The kidnappers issued a warning to remaining journalists last Thursday.

That day, two of CNN's seven staffers chose to leave, the network said, adding that it would be reconsidering its Pakistan plans over the weekend.

Tom Fenton, the network's vice president for international newsgathering, noted that, in the past, the network has pulled staffers out of Somalia and Sierra Leone when executives and the staffers themselves believed it had become too dangerous. "I've been on both sides of this. I've been pulled out of spots, and I've pulled people out of spots. I've never believed a story is worth someone's life. Anyone there is a volunteer. If they want to leave, we encourage them to."

Danger is ever-present in covering a war, said Middle East-based CBS correspondent Bob Simon, who was captured and threatened repeatedly by Iraqis and, like Pearl, accused of spying in an ordeal that lasted for weeks during the Gulf War a decade ago. "The only real precaution you can take is to lock yourself in a hotel room. And that's not much of a guarantee."

Added Chuck Lustig, ABC News director of foreign news coverage, "We always have to take these threats under serious consideration in deploying people in the field. But, at this point, we're not planning to withdraw our people."

CBS News, in a statement that it acknowledged was "intentionally vague" for security reasons, said it would be continually evaluating the situation.

Fox News Assignment Manager David Rhodes noted that his network was "not doing as much reporting from Pakistan until last week, but now there's more of a story there."

Fox News had a handful of staffers there late last week, he said. "No one has asked to leave, and we have not made any assignment changes. Our people go into this knowing that these are dangerous places. We have to trust the reporters to know the limitations of the situation."

The Committee to Protect Journalists made repeated calls for Pearl's release last week but did not suggest that journalists exit Pakistan for their safety. "We're not experts in security," said Deputy Director Joel Simon. "The people in the best position to evaluate these threats are the journalists who are there and their editors."

But networks engage security experts, noted MSNBC President Erik Sorenson. "We put all our correspondents through special training before they go overseas," he said, "and we've used security consultants. There are touch points, check in procedures everywhere."

Additional reporting by Allison Romano