After an unsuccessful ‘news blackout,’ NBC’s Richard Engel confirms Syria capture, details escape

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Engel talks to the 'Today' show about his release. ()
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The Lineup collects the media stories, big and small, that are on our radar each day.

The big news this morning is that Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, has been freed by the unknown armed group that kidnapped him and his production team in Syria five days ago.

"We weren't physically beaten or tortured. It was a lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed," Engel said this morning on the "Today" show.

"They made us choose which one of us would be shot first and when we refused there were mock shootings," Engel said. "They pretended to shoot Ghazi [Balkiz, an NBC producer] several times.” (Scroll down for the "Today" clip.)

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As a veteran conflict reporter, Engel's no stranger to precarious situations. But Syria has proven to be a particularly deadly assignment this year, accounting for 28 of the 67 journalist deaths worldwide in 2012, according to a report out today from the Committee to Protect Journalists. (More on that below.)

News of Engel's capture first leaked out yesterday as Western news outlets picked up on reports in the Turkish media that he and his crew were missing.

NBC News attempted to enforce a news blackout on the developing situation, citing concerns for its journalists' safety.

But not everyone abided.

"No one told me anything that indicated a specific, or even general, threat to Engel's safety," wrote Gawker's John Cook in an item linking to the Turkish reports. "No one said, 'If you report this, then we know, or suspect, that X, Y, or Z may happen.' It was infinitely more vague and general than that."

Business Insider also posted an item about the Turkish report, and Mediagazer and other aggregation sites linked to them.

Others honored the network's request, which was similar to the one issued by The New York Times after David Rohde was taken by the Taliban in 2008.

But as The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone, who withheld publishing an item about Engel yesterday, notes: "Social media played less of a role in the news cycle even just a few years ago, when Rohde was kidnapped. It now seems inevitable that news -- even a single English-language report out of Turkey -- can gain traction over Twitter and get widely disseminated."

Making the "blackouts" of questionable value in protecting journalists working abroad who are captured or arrested.

In other news...

Nearly 60 percent of Americans are following the news in Newtown. [TV Newser]

Meanwhile, media fatigue is setting in there. [Poynter]

Rupert Murdoch and Fox News don't seem to be on the same page about gun control. [New York/Daily Intel]

Another price hike at The New York Times. [Politico/On Media]

Andrew Goldman interviews Soledad O'Brien. [The New York Times Magazine]

Columbia Journalism Review controversy? [iMediaEthics]

Quote of the day...

After the last criticism of the press corps is filed, and reporters and editors everywhere cease their self-recriminations, remember that there is no law that you have to believe anything you read in newspapers or on the Web or watch on TV. That’s always true, but it’s especially true when it’s breaking news that the press is delivering. Don’t expect too much. You won’t be disappointed.

Jack Shafer

On Twitter...

On TV...

Here's Richard Engel discussing his capture in Syria on the "Today" show:

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There was a "sharp rise in press fatalities in 2012," according to the Committee to Protect Journalists' latest year-end analysis:

Combat-related deaths in Syria and targeted murders in Somalia, Pakistan, and Brazil are the driving forces behind a sharp rise in press fatalities in 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists' year-end analysis of journalists killed in the line of duty.

At least 67 journalists were killed worldwide in direct relation to their work by mid-December, a 42 percent increase over 2011. CPJ is investigating the deaths of another 30 journalists to establish whether these were work-related.

Unceasing violence during Syria's conflict proved deadliest, claiming the lives of 28 journalists killed in combat or directly targeted and murdered by government or opposition forces. With domestic media largely under state control and international journalists blocked from reporting, citizen journalists in Syria have paid the ultimate price. At least 13 citizen journalists were killed while covering the unrest in Syria and serving as sources for international news organizations.

"While nearly every aspect of journalism has been transformed by technology, the central function that journalists fulfill remains unaltered," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. "Journalists bear witness. When journalists are killed, our understanding of critical global events is diminished. In no place has this truth been revealed more dramatically than Syria, where so many journalists have been killed seeking to inform the world."

Globally, journalists working online made up one-third of those killed this year, a sharp rise from the one-fifth proportion in 2011, CPJ research shows. Combat-related crossfire was responsible for more than one-third of journalist fatalities worldwide in 2012, while approximately half the deaths were targeted murders. Twenty-eight percent of those killed in 2012 were freelancers, in line with 2011, but twice the percentage of the toll since 1992.

Murder accounted for all 12 deaths in Somalia, the second deadliest country in 2012, where not a single journalist murder has been prosecuted in the last decade. Local journalists said this perfect record of impunity could be attributed to weak and corrupt institutions, which merely encouraged more killings. To fight impunity in press killings, the Committee to Protect Journalists has launched Speak Justice: Voices Against Impunity, a new digital platform to help break the cycle of fear and censorship.

"The cycle of silence works like this: A journalist is murdered, a story dies, others reporters are cowed," said Simon. "The only way to break the cycle is to speak out, demand justice, and insist that our right to receive information be respected. That's why raising our voice on behalf of our slain colleagues is not just a matter of solidarity-for those of us who care about news and information, it's also a matter of self-interest."

Pakistan, the deadliest place for journalists in the past two years, dropped to third place in 2012 with seven killings, although the number of fatalities did not decrease and impunity reigned in the country. Four of the journalists were killed in Baluchistan, a heavily conflicted area with many factions vying for control. Along with Russia and the Philippines, each with one journalist murder this year, Pakistan is a place where journalists are routinely targeted and the killers evade justice.

In Brazil, four journalists were killed in direct relation to their work, the country's highest toll in a decade. CPJ is investigating four additional killings to determine whether they were work-related. Despite Brazil's increasing global leadership and strides to improve governance, journalists were targeted for their reporting on corruption.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, extraordinary violence has been used to censor the press, yet poor or nonexistent investigations make it difficult to assess the motive. CPJ was able to confirm one journalist killed for his work and is examining motives in five other cases.

CPJ research showed that being in official custody did not guarantee a journalist's safety. The organization documented an Iranian blogger who died in prison and a Colombian freelance reporter who died from injuries he sustained during an arrest. CPJ also documented journalists killed in Nigeria, India, Ecuador, Thailand, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Cambodia.

With the exception of Syria, fatalities declined this year in the Middle East and North Africa, where one journalist was killed in Bahrain and another in Egypt. For the first time since 2003, CPJ did not confirm any work-related deaths in Iraq.

Worldwide, one media support worker was killed this year, down from five in 2011.

CPJ has compiled detailed records on journalist fatalities since 1992. Staff members independently investigate and verify the circumstances behind each death. CPJ considers a case work-related only when reasonably certain that a journalist was killed in direct reprisal for his or her work; in crossfire; or while carrying out a dangerous assignment. Cases involving unclear motives, but with a potential link to journalism, are classified as "unconfirmed" and CPJ continues to investigate.

Holiday media parties (or at least ones that aren't just for staff members), are scarce this year, as the dearth of invitations in our Gmail account would seem to suggest. But we did finally get one, albeit last minute: Harper's will be celebrating the season this evening at an appropriately cozy-looking cocktail den downtown: