Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Arctic Sea Incident and the Media: Getting it Wrong

It's been a few days since the saga of the Maltese freighter MV Arctic Sea came to a conclusion, of sorts, with the freeing of her crew by Russian naval forces, who also apparently apprehended the suspected pirates who'd seized the vessel. But all the unanswered questions that linger, as well as the way things played, out raise some serious questions about the media's role in the incident. Not just in the way things were reported, but also in the way it appears the media was deliberately misinformed. None of this does much to much to better the public's awareness of global piracy and the threats mariners face on a daily basis. If anything, it may have muddied the proverbial waters by stoking more skepticism and the reality of things and fueling those conspiracy theorists who feel there are all sorts of grand geo-political machinations going on.

As piracy expert EagleSpeak has alluded to on his site, sometimes it's better to keep things simple (and you, too, can look up the definition of Occam's razor he mentions). Instead, what we've seen since the Arctic Sea disappeared in the Baltic was ever increasing misreporting, misinformation and mistakes.

In my opinion there are two culpable players whose actions should be looked at: the media itself and several governments and NGOs.

The Media: Filling a Void

I'm a professional journalist, so am implicitly aware that headlines garner attention and sensational stories - like a freighter going missing in European waters - captivate audiences. But I'm also aware that one shouldn't fill a vacuum of information with mere speculation or, worse, self-serving innuendo. Too many journalists and would-be experts (and some real ones, too), threw their hats haphazardly into the ring on this one. And in many cases they should not have.

For the record, I received a number of requests for interviews about this incident over the last few weeks. Most wanted to know if terrorists had taken the ship or if piracy off Europe was about to rival that of the Horn of Africa. I disagreed, saying to all who contacted me that we just didn't have enough information to come to any firm conclusions.

That's not very sexy, but there were enough others willing to postulate on the potentials of something dramatic to fill the airtime. Yet it seemed as though most ignored the obvious while spinning ever more complex ideas. Drug smuggling, nuclear weapons, even a strange idea that the whole thing was some bizarre Russian naval exercise (see CNN's report here). And, more problematic, is that many media outlets simply got things wrong when a little research - a Google search, in fact - would have corrected things.

For instance, the Arctic Sea is not a Russian vessel. Russian-built, yes, and crewed at present by Russian nationals, but she's registered in Malta so flies the Maltese cross off her transom. And managed by a Finnish company, to make things more complex - welcome to the world of modern shipping. Small details, but nevertheless important if you're a journalist looking at current events.

Also, this was not the first time we've seen an act of piracy in European waters in centuries, as some have said. I've myself written about an incident a decade ago that mirrored, in some ways, the Arctic Sea event (see here), and then there's the Achille Lauro hijacking back in 1985. Yes, the liner was seized by Palestinian terrorists, but they still committed an act of piracy in so doing.

By the definitions of piracy used by the United Nations, the International Maritime Bureau and a number of sovereign states, what happened to the Arctic Sea most definitely constituted an act of piracy. So I take exception when experts or pundits played this down (see The Telegraph, for instance, which insisted on putting the word pirates in quotation marks).

This was a pirate incident, pure and simple. What the intentions of those who controlled the Arctic Sea the last few weeks was remains to be seen. If it was terrorists who had hijacked the vessel, they had still committed an act of piracy. If it was criminal gangs who'd sent a team to seize her, those boarders were still pirates. If the crew had gone rogue, they would be considered pirates.

So, the media didn't exactly do a bang-up job in reporting on this one. Some blame may be "summer journalism", something outsiders are not much aware of. It's what happens when the more experienced staffers take their vacations and leave juniors to deal with things. But juniors become senior and need to learn the game and how they're manipulated. Which leads me to the second element in this story...

The Official Story

Without a doubt, one of the most troubling aspects of the Arctic Sea incident is the dearth of information that has been provided by the Russian government and what seems to be a number of other offical bodies. I find it very hard to believe that the Russians - and others - knew what was going on all along, and spun a web of deceit to the media in order to safeguard the lives of the freighter's crew. It sounds too much like a case in which parties were initially unaware of the true danger and, effectively, caught with their pants down. Then, after scrambling to deal with the situation, the mantra became "We were always in control of things."

In the days since the vessel was freed, we have yet to receive a full public accountability that can fill in the gaps. This is odd, to say the least, and makes one wonder if the reality of what transpired isn't more confusing. I, for one, would have expected to Russian official to have by now stood up in a press conference and said something like:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for the lack of information that's been provided but rest assured we've been on top of this situation from day one. On July XX at YY hours, we learned of the fate of the vessel and mobilized our assets. In communication with the authorities in ZZ we set out to track the ship, knowing it had been hijacked. At no point was anyone in Western Europe or any other mariner at risk by this incident. Our decision to allow it to transit the busy Kattegat and English Channel at no point was something to be concerned about..."

Was the Arctic Sea ever at risk to other vessels? Why was it allowed to exit the Baltic Sea, where Russia maintains a strong naval presence, to say nothing of the other littoral states there? And why was it deemed necessary to dupe the media - and the public - about what was going on in this particular case?

When a vessel is commandeered by Somali pirates, there is never a news blackout to ensure the safety of the captives, though this is sometimes because the pirates themselves make the news available. I, for one, cannot help but wonder if the Russians succumbed to American envy after the Maersk Alabama incident. The US Navy resolved that situation successfully in order to resuce their own citizens. Was the Arctic Sea incident supposed to be a Russian variation that showed their own resolve?


Hiding details, misinforming the public or filling columns and airspace with innuendos are not the way to deal with the threats that incidents like this one reveal. Piracy, maritime crime and seaborne terrorism are grave problems for the global community. And they should not be hidden away or glossed over.


John said...

It sounds like the only information that was kept from the press was the location of the vessel. I think that was an entirely reasonable thing to do.

Let's put this in another way. Suppose a bus had been hijacked and was taken somewhere. The press gets the word and conjectures about it "disappearing." Meanwhile, the police are using a tracking beacon on the bus that the hijackers don't know exists. Is it wrong for the police to keep the press in the dark about the location of the bus until the situation is resolved?

If it was revealed that the concerned parties knew exactly where the ARCTIC SEA was, would the hijackers have removed the crew? If so, we'd probably still be looking for them.

Anonymous said...

I remember laughing as I read about the pirate submarines used during the Spanish Civil War. Pirate submarine!