Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, writes: Sometime in 2013, as Islamic State militants expanded the territory under their control, an order came down to the local brigades: Grab any non-Muslim foreigner you can find. Western journalists became prime targets, and over the next few months dozens were captured by local fighters.
International news organizations purposely avoided covering the kidnappings. Such blackouts are intended to create space for hostage negotiations to move forward discreetly, undisturbed by the media spotlight. Yet this voluntary censorship also had unintended consequences: In late 2013, when 30 journalists were missing in Syria, there was virtually no coverage of the problem, little public awareness that Islamic State fighters were actively searching for journalists and humanitarian workers to abduct, and less recognition of the rise of a group that has now emerged as a serious international security threat.
The Islamic State’s approach to news media, meanwhile, has reaped huge benefits for the group. Ransom payments by European governments have generated millions of dollars in revenue, with the going price per hostage estimated to be north of $2 million. Its grisly videos showing the beheadings of journalists such as James Foley and Steven Sotloff have reinforced the militants’ message of terror and served as valuable recruiting tools. And the group has managed its global image through its deft use of social media and its ability to restrict access to independent journalists.