Safety Handbook for Journalists

8. Critical Kidnap Management

Kidnap is as old as recorded history. In the 12th century, King Richard the Lionheart was kidnapped and held to ransom by Duke Leopold V of Babenberg. This is from where the saying “a king’s ransom” comes.

Kidnapping refers to forced capture and detention with the explicit purpose of obtaining something in return for the captive’s release. The objective for kidnapping varies: often it is money, though kidnappers may also demand political concessions. The terms ‘hostage-taking’ and ‘kidnapping’ are sometimes used interchangeably, although hostage taking is used to describe a situation of siege.

In essence, the perpetrators and their hostages have been located and surrounded by security forces and the captors threaten to kill hostages unless they are given a means of escape. A kidnapping can turn into a hostage or siege situation when the security forces trace the whereabouts of the kidnappers and surround their location.

What motivates persons or groups to kidnap?

  • Economical (ransom)
  • Political or ideological (Military pull-out, release of prisoners)
  • Revenge (self-destroying)
  • Mental illnesses (irrational/dark/incomprehensible abduction of young children and women)

Countries with high risk of kidnapping:

  • Afghanistan
  • Somalia
  • Iraq
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Yemen
  • Venezuela
  • Mexico
  • Columbia
  • India

Types of Kidnapping for Ransom

Virtual: A virtual kidnapper contacts a victim’s loved ones and requests money to insure their safe release. However, the reality would be that the victim is not being held but that their phone was stolen, for example.

Express: A person is kidnapped and held for a short time and a small ransom is paid. They might be brought to their bank’s ATM machine and told to withdraw the maximum amount, and then held until midnight when they are told to withdraw the maximum again.

Traditional: A person is actually kidnapped and a message is sent or phone calls are made to their loved ones or employer asking for a large ransom for their safe release. This might be motivated by economic or political gains.

Human trafficking: of women and children, women for slave labour and sex trade and children for adoption to childless couples. In some countries, people have been abducted for their organs.

Phases of a kidnap for ransom:

Risk Reduction Protocol

  • Risk reduction – A number of measures can help reduce the risk, including programmed risk assessment, specialised training and orientation for staff, and well-designed standard operating procedures (SOPs).
  • Avoid routines – Avoid predictability when moving between residences and offices, as well as in off-hours activities, such as going shopping. Vary travel times and take different routes. This is easier said than done and very difficult to maintain over an extended period of time. Choosing routes for example by looking at past and present risks and threats in that particular region.
  • Reduce Exposure – Journalists should not expose themselves on the ground for no longer than what is essential in conflict zones. The golden rule is they should not expose themselves more than 40 minutes in one location while covering a story on the ground in conflict zones. At all times they should reduce their profile.
  • Location and accommodation protection – Location protection and strict rules governing the identification of visitors and limits on access, including access control measures and procedures will enhance your security. While kidnapping is still a risk in residences, hotels and guesthouses, most incidents take place when the victim is on the move, typically in a car or on foot.
  • Heightened awareness and counter-surveillance – A successful kidnapping normally needs planning, and the perpetrators will be watching the residence, office and movements of their identified target for some time before making their move. They may try to find out more about the residence by presenting themselves as servicemen, or checking the locks of doors and windows while staff are away. They may follow a target in a car to establish routines and identify the ideal point at which to snatch the victim. Be observant and watch for anything unusual. Doing this effectively requires constant attention and knowledge about the local environment, including who belongs in the locality and who does not.


Seek local support and protection!

In many cultures where a host is responsible for the wellbeing of his guest, they could mobilise their men to protect the guest as if they were one of his own, it might be a good idea to obtain local

(traditional) protection. Likewise, asking for respected elder’s permissions to stay in their area (for instance in tribal areas) offers a certain type of protection. Although as we have seen recently in Syria this does not guarantee your safety as their hosting party has abducted many journalists.

Armed protection

Another option is to have armed protection at the residence, in the office and on the ground, including leisure time. This could mean armed guards around sites or close protection such as bodyguards, but this can draw attention to your activities.

A public policy of ‘no ransom’ or other substantial concessions

In their policy documents and public communications, governments and news agencies often state that under no circumstances will they pay ransoms or make substantial concessions to resolve a kidnap incident. Publicly, it could not be otherwise: openly stating that ransoms will be paid would be tantamount to declaring open season on your agency and its staff. In reality, however, some money is in many cases paid by families, private companies, governments and aid agencies. Do not overestimate the deterrent effect of a public policy of non-payment: mitigation measures, training and preparation are still required.

Always be alert! Staying alert will deter potential kidnappers as this makes their job significantly more difficult.

Media involvement

When the media get involved with kidnapping incidents, it sometimes has disastrous effects on the proceedings at hand. Media involvement can impact the whole negotiation process as media coverage can inflate the ego and status of the kidnappers. In the early stages of the kidnapping it is suggested to have a media blackout on the incident.

Kidnap management

In general terms there are four main phases to a kidnapping:

  • The moment of capture.
  • The period in which the kidnapped person is in confinement and negotiations take place.
  • The release of the victim (or confirmation of their killing).
  • Post Release


The moment of capture:

  • People may be shot and injured or killed during a kidnapping. Expect to be threatened with weapons, possibly blindfolded and perhaps beaten, and in some circumstances even tortured or raped. This is to break down physical and mental resistance and signal the dire consequences of any attempt to escape or otherwise psychologically break the victim.
  • In addition, victims may be drugged. If drugs are given, do not resist, as they will then forcefully administer the drugs, which may cause you further harm. These tactics are all designed to keep victims sedated.
  • Do not resist. Indeed, staying calm will help you regain composure, pick up information about where you are and who your captors are, and adjust to the shocking change in your situation.
  • In the initial hours and days, victims are likely to be moved several times as the kidnappers will cover their footprint.
  • Be calm and cooperative, speak only when spoken to, listen carefully and attentively and avoid sudden moves.
  • Do not behave aggressively or try to be a hero: accept the situation. Your actions can and will affect your safety and wellbeing.


When in confinement:

  • Be prepared to be held for a long period of time, and possibly by more than one group.
  • Opportunist kidnappers may sell victims, perhaps to another criminal gang or to a political group seeking to use the kidnapping to obtain political concessions. Where and in what conditions victims are held can vary widely.
  • If in a group, try not to be separated although they usually separate groups.
  • If you are confined in a larger group, identify a spokesperson to liaise with the captors, selected on the basis of ability rather than formal position.
  • Remind yourself that securing release is not your problem but your agency’s. Never negotiate on your own behalf, as you do not know what is happening on the outside.
  • Remain confident that your agency (as well as your government and your host nation) is doing everything possible on your behalf, and providing support to your friends and relatives – even if you don’t hear anything or your captors tell you otherwise.
  • Anticipate periods of isolation and other methods of intimidation and prepare for a long wait. Do not believe everything you are told.
  • Try to build a relationship of respect whilst keeping your dignity: do not beg or plead, be cooperative and obey demands without being servile or aggressive. Do not discuss politics or religion,
  • Eat and drink even if you have no appetite or it is unpalatable. Maintain a routine of rest and activity, try to exercise every day and keep track of time, maintain personal hygiene and maintain your values. Ask for medication if needed.
  • Keep a low profile and avoid appearing to study your abductors. If you do recognise your captors, never let them know this.
  • Never get directly involved in the negotiations for your release. This will only complicate matters. If asked to speak on the radio, telephone or on video, say only what you are asked or allowed to say and try to refuse to negotiate, even if forced by your captors.


Release of the victim:

  • Victims may be driven (possibly blindfolded) to an unknown location and dumped on the side of the road or attached to a structure with bindings, or they may be picked up by a third party charged with taking them to the authorities. It is less likely that there will be a form of direct exchange as this is a high-risk situation for both sides.
  • In a rescue operation, the security forces may assault the location or it may be surrounded and a siege situation may ensue.
  • In the event of a rescue attempt, drop to the ground, seek cover and cover your head with your hands.
  • Wait to be identified. You will not be immediately recognized by your rescuers and you may be roughly handled until you are identified as the kidnap victim and not one of the perpetrators.

Post release:

The return of kidnapped staff also needs to be properly organised and managed. Several competing demands will have to be taken into account:

  • The emotional needs of the captive and their family and friends.
  • Communications between the captive and their family and friends.
  • The need for rest and a medical check-up, as well as possible medical care.
  • The wish of the authorities (host and home governments) to debrief those released.
  • The desire of the press to get hold of the story.
  • Relocation of the victim out of the country for extended rest and recuperation.
  • The need to generalise the information so that the situation has been resolved.

Once released, your focus will probably be on your loved ones and you will probably want quiet time to recover. In the immediate aftermath of an incident, however, there is likely to be a great deal of press attention and the authorities will also want to debrief you to get information about the captors and the circumstances of the kidnapping. So you may be held by authorities for up to two weeks for debriefings. Being kidnapped is a huge psychological ordeal: expect to feel its impact for months and perhaps even years to come but feel confident that, with the right help, you can recover and get on with your life.