13 years after we tried to save Danny Pearl’s life, threats to journalists keep getting worse

A man holds up a sign in memory of U.S. journalist James Foley during a protest against the Assad regime.
A man holds up a sign in memory of U.S. journalist James Foley during a protest against the Assad regime.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Just after 6 am on January 23, 2002, I received a call from Paul Steiger, the Wall Street Journal’s managing editor. Journal reporter Danny Pearl had been kidnapped in Pakistan.

In those first hours, we knew little. As the executive in charge of corporate communications for the Journal’s publisher, Dow Jones, I’d heard unconfirmed reports that another journalist in Pakistan had recently been kidnapped and released within 48 hours. We wanted that to be Danny’s fate. But that Saturday, four days after Danny disappeared, his captors started sending emails to other news outlets—not the Journal—showing Danny in chains.

The FBI was planted in our offices in North Jersey (less than five months after the 9/11 attacks, we were not yet back in Lower Manhattan). We had also dispatched Journal and Dow Jones representatives to be with Danny’s family around the world—his pregnant wife, Mariane, in Pakistan; his parents near Los Angeles; his brother-in-law in France. We asked constantly for the kidnappers to contact us—Mariane issued personal appeals—but they never did. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell had gotten involved, pressing Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to help find Danny’s abductors and provide additional protection to Mariane.

Media interest exploded. Within days, my team was handling upwards of 700 calls and emails a day from reporters around the world. I was determined that we would respond to every one, and we spent day and night on the phone with journalists and news executives. We needed to foster a close working relationship with other media outlets—both to gain access to any information they had about Danny and to ask them to keep certain details out of their reports. We were especially sensitive about hiding Danny’s heritage: his mother had roots in Iraq and his father was born in Israel. We didn’t want to do anything to validate the kidnappers’ false assertion that Danny was a member of Israel’s Mossad spy agency.

Mainstream media were empathetic and cooperated. Their instinct was to report all they knew, but journalists shared a bond with Danny and didn’t want to endanger him or his family further. They, of course, were dogged in their pursuit of the story. Top television anchors and bookers constantly pressed me to get Mariane or other members of Danny’s family on their shows. We did provide on-air guests to networks, such as CNN, that aired in Pakistan. But I thought there was limited value in having people appear on programs viewed solely in the United States.

Twelve days into the ordeal—Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 3—ABC News broke into its afternoon sports coverage to report that Danny had been killed and his body identified. Fox quickly picked up the story. Yet no one from either network had checked with us. If they had, we would have told them what we knew—the victim they’d heard about was not Danny. I contacted ABC to insist on an immediate correction, yet the network waited until the end of an NBA game before issuing a retraction. The reporter involved in the story later called to apologize for the way it was handled.

As the weeks piled on, we tried every method we could think of—including some unorthodox ones—to find information that would help us reach the kidnappers. At one point, I rode cabs in New York City just to find out if the drivers were Pakistani and could offer suggestions about which press outlets the kidnappers would be watching, reading, or listening to. I also spoke with every journalist I could find who had a connection to the county—both Pakistani nationals and westerners.

One suggestion offered by Pakistanis in the U.S. and abroad was to emphasize Mariane’s pregnancy—to let the kidnappers know that Danny was an ordinary American citizen and Mariane had “an angel” growing inside her. I followed this advice and made Danny’s unborn child a central part of the press story. But like all our efforts, it didn’t help.

It couldn’t help. In late February, a month after Danny had been taken, our people in Pakistan received a video showing Danny’s execution. We later learned that he had been killed within days of his capture. Our month of frantic searching and pleading would never have brought him back.

The news was devastating to Danny’s family, to his colleagues at the Journal and elsewhere, and to those of us who had been working round-the-clock to try to save his life. But our job wasn’t quite finished.

While Danny’s family had been told that he was dead, they didn’t yet know how he had died—that he had been beheaded. Shortly after we confirmed his death to media, a New York Times reporter who had provided excellent coverage told me that the paper would be running a story with the details of Danny’s death. I asked her to hold off for 30 minutes so I could speak with Danny’s parents. She agreed, and I had one of the most difficult conversations of my life.

In the days that followed, most outlets did not air the video footage of Danny’s death, which had made its way to certain Internet sites. But I had to be blunt with a few news executives—reminding them that one day it could be their reporter whose death was front-page news. The FBI, meanwhile, tried to find the video and remove it from the Internet—this was 2002, when we still thought something like that might be possible. They made heroic efforts, but the footage still exists in the Internet’s darkest corners.

The day after Danny’s death was confirmed, we received only a few dozen press inquiries. As quickly as Danny’s kidnapping had become the largest international story of its time, the story went away. But the brutality of Danny’s killing echoes to this day.

The recent deaths of American journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Luke Somers have forced news organizations to think hard about how to tell the stories of war amid growing danger, and how to respond when a reporter’s life is on the line. How much information should be reported when journalists go missing? What leverage do media organizations have when working for the release of captive reporters? And who is responsible for reporters’ safety?

Danny’s death was a brutal lesson in the limits that even a major international media organization would encounter when confronting a terrorist threat. The Journal, of course, required reporters to check in with editors frequently and had other procedures intended to keep our journalists out of trouble. But we didn’t realize at the time that journalists would become prime targets of organizations determined to shock the world with a show of brutality. As Jeffrey Goldberg recently wrote in The Atlantic, “Even after [Danny Pearl’s] murder, I convinced myself that this horrible moment was the exception that proved the rule.”

Thirteen years later, violence against journalists is frighteningly commonplace. In The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, details the danger journalists face from forces bent on suppressing not only a free press, but free expression of any kind. This danger was made tragically clear in the recent attack on cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo.

The rise of the Internet and social media has also altered the relationship between journalists and rogue organizations. When Danny was killed, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter didn’t exist, and the Internet itself was still young as a news source. Today, terror groups have direct outlets for their messages, which makes it less essential to build trust with journalists. At the same time, the Internet and social media allow mainstream outlets to report gruesome news in a restrained manner. Those with a prurient interest in videotaped killings can scour the web for the grisly details; most people are repulsed by the videos and are satisfied with a press that reports the facts without gratuitous gore.

Yet despite deeper understanding of the extent of the terrorist threat to journalists, and efforts to prevent murderers from using mainstream media for propaganda purposes, the threat remains and needs to be minimized. Constant GPS monitoring of reporters in danger zones could help. As could much more frequent check-ins. But will journalists known for their intrepidity and individualism—qualities we value and admire—accept such measures? Should they be given the choice?

And what of freelancers like Foley, Sotloff, and Somers? Many news organizations rely on the work of independent reporters willing to head to the frontlines. And some journalists see danger-zone reporting as a way to break into or advance in a field that offers fewer and fewer opportunities for a full-time job. Do the organizations that buy work from freelancers bear a level of responsibility for their safety?

An organization with the power and reach of Dow Jones couldn’t save Danny Pearl. And no media outlet will be able to completely inoculate journalists against the terrorist threat. But it’s imperative that all news organizations put in place every protection possible for the people on whom they rely for reporting. Sadly, they also must plan for the worst.