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TV journalist details ordeal in Afghanistan

Mellissa Fung says captors kept her blindfolded for four weeks in an underground cave so low the Canadian journalist could barely stand. Chains bound her hands and feet during her last week as a prisoner.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mellissa Fung says captors kept her blindfolded for four weeks in an underground cave so low the Canadian journalist could barely stand. Chains bound her hands and feet during her last week as a prisoner.

Afghan tribal elders and government officials won her safe release late Saturday, 28 days after she was taken from a refugee camp in Kabul while conducting interviews for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

In a video released Sunday, Fung was seen meeting with Afghanistan's intelligence chief and Canada's ambassador. Fung insisted she was fine, but apologized for the situation, despite the fact the refugee camp where she conducted interviews had been visited by many journalists previously and was considered safe to visit.

"I'm sorry for all the trouble," Fung said.

A Canadian official sitting nearby responded: "We're just glad you're here." Fung replied: "Yeah, so am I."

Doesn't want a 'big fuss'
In the videotape, taken by Afghan intelligence agents and released Sunday, Fung tells Canada's ambassador that she is not hurt and that she hopes people won't make "a big fuss" over her situation.

"I'm fine, really, I'm fine," she said.

When the ambassador greeted her with a hug, Fung said: "I'm not smelling great." She later said she hoped to take a shower.

Fung was held captive for a month in a dangerous region of Wardak province overrun by Taliban militants — one province west of Kabul. No officials would say whether Fung was held by the Taliban or a criminal gang, but given the location, Taliban involvement seemed likely.

Crimes against Westerners have spiked in Kabul in recent weeks. An aid worker with dual South African-British citizenship was killed by Taliban gunmen in a Kabul neighborhood last month, and a French aid worker was kidnapped at gunpoint in Kabul earlier this week.

And one day before Fung's release, a second Western female journalist — Dutch national Joanie de Rijke — was freed a week after being kidnapped, Belgian officials said.

Fung, a well-known television journalist in Canada, was taken on Oct. 12, only two days before Canadian elections. Neither her abduction nor de Rijke's were widely reported. Western news organizations honored requests by the reporters' employers and governments not to report the abductions to protect the women's lives during efforts to win their release.

As the two journalists were held hostage, the French aid worker was abducted off the street in Kabul last Monday. News organizations reported the man's abduction, in part because an Afghan intelligence agent died in the process. The French worker's aid group never made a request to media outlets not to report the news, though the kidnapping was publicly reported so quickly it likely wouldn't have done any good.

Complicating negotiations
John Cruickshank, publisher of CBC news, appealed to news organizations not to publicize Fung's capture, and said after her release that he has no doubt it would have been more dangerous and difficult for Fung if negotiations had been conducted "in the full glare of international media attention."

"In my view, when we know that public scrutiny can imperil the safety of innocent victims of a crime such as this, our choice is unavoidable. We must put the safety of the victim ahead of our instinct for full transparency and disclosure," he said.

Afghan media reported the kidnapping, but no international outlets did aside from a few Web sites in China.

Adrian Edwards, the U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan, said the U.N. mission's priority is the safe return of the kidnapped person.

"In managing a hostage or kidnapping crisis, nobody seeks to obstruct the truth or the press, but it's often necessary to be extremely careful about what information is put into the public domain while negotiations are being conducted," he said.

Kidnapping experts consulted during the abductions said that, generally speaking, the less specific information about a case that comes out, the better it is for the hostage. But sometimes, they said, hostage experts can use strategically placed information in the news media to help the negotiations move forward.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Fung's and de Rijke's abductions are part of a pattern of rising attacks on aid workers and journalists in Afghanistan.

"The disintegrating security situation in Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan is already changing the way news is gathered in this important global story," said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator.