Lindhout’s hard road to truth

The price of revealing the truth can be uncomfortably high — ask Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan.

The price of revealing the truth can be uncomfortably high — ask Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan.

After 15 months in captivity in Somalia, Lindhout and Brennan were released last week, apparently after a privately-brokered deal involving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Lindhout, originally from Sylvan Lake, and Brennan, an Australian photographer, were beaten and threatened by their captors, kept in confined, dark rooms, moved regularly and allowed outside contact only to relay the kidnappers’ demands. They were forced to read scripted material during those infrequent phone calls. They became pawns in a high-stakes game.

What Lindhout and Brennan initially sought — to examine and report on the lawless, oppressive nature of life in Somalia — they came to experience firsthand.

It is not an experience that any journalist would knowingly or willingly invite, but it can clearly be a consequence of travelling to such places as Somalia, certainly one of the most dangerous and volatile places on Earth.

There are risks inherent in international journalism, and Lindhout and Brennan were familiar with the risks. They both had spent considerable time in such strife-filled areas as Iraq and Afghanistan. Lindhout had clearly documented in columns for the Advocate the dangerous line she walked in Iraq; the near-misses she survived, often out of sheer luck, and the potential for harm she felt so very often.

Yet she ventured into Somalia, accompanied by Brennan, without the kind of support and training that staff journalists enjoy.

“They were young, adventurous freelancers hoping to score a good story or two in Somalia,” National Geographic contributing writer Robert Draper told the Advocate last week. He was in Somalia at the same time, met Lindhout and Brennan, and knows acutely the risk they were taking.

It was one risk too many.

And so the couple’s many family, friends and supporters suffered months of anguish and uncertainty, and in the end the families apparently felt forced to take the initiative to win their freedom.

It has been suggested the Lindhout family lost faith in the federal government’s ability to help them.

Certainly the money paid to the kidnappers (anywhere from $600,000 to $1 million) was quietly raised by family, friends, supporters and sympathizers.

It was not raised by the federal government, nor should it have been. As heartless as it seems, Ottawa’s steadfast refusal to pay ransoms in international kidnap cases is both prudent and comforting.

Any Canadian travelling abroad would become a target for kidnapping if the federal government willingly paid ransoms for its citizens.

But questions remain about how much, or how little, Ottawa did on behalf of Lindhout.

The fact that CSIS representatives wasted time and resources interviewing Advocate staff members shortly after the kidnapping seemed strange at the time and even less explicable now. We played no role in Lindhout’s decision to go to Somalia — or Iraq before that — and had no contact with her once she arrived in Somalia.

There is no evidence that federal officials played any substantive role in the couple’s release.

That is troubling — but it is unlikely that any more information will ever be forthcoming to alleviate those concerns. From Ottawa’s perspective, it would seem, the less known about its international diplomacy, the better.

The argument that news blackouts on kidnapping ease the process to freedom and protect journalists has merit.

But the Lindhout story was well documented from the moment the two were taken on Aug. 23, 2008.

Closing the door on information, and failing to reassure Canadians that their interests were being looked after abroad, reflects a woeful lack of understanding by the federal government.

Lindhout and Brennan paid an extraordinary price in pursuit of truth.

And Canadians have learned that sometimes the truth about their government’s efforts on their behalf is at best vague and unsettling.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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