This post was written by Gagan Biyani.
Earlier last week, New York Times reporter David Rohde escaped from a Taliban prison. He had been a Taliban hostage for the last seven months, but the general public had absolutely no clue. In a joint effort by The New York Times and Wikipedia, the story was kept quiet until his daring escape.
In November 2008, Rohde was captured and held hostage by the Taliban, along with a local reporter, Tahir Ludin, and their driver, Asadullah Mangal. But until he managed to escape, most of the general public had absolutely no clue. To prevent Rohde’s value in the eyes of his captors from rising, the New York Times kept more than 35 major news organizations from reporting on the story. They believed that the publicity from reporting his capture would inflate the value of Rohde’s life, increasing the difficulty of negotiating for Rohde’s release. Keeping 35 news organizations quiet was actually not the hard part – but staving off Wikipedia users from publishing the news? That was a bit trickier.
Through an elaborate and ongoing battle between Wikipedia editors and an anonymous contributor from Florida, the New York Times and the Wikipedia Foundation managed to keep the story quiet. For seven months, Wikipedia editors were in a constant back-and-forth with this user to delete news of Rohde’s capture off of the site. They were unable to contact the user directly, as s/he was anonymously posting on Wikipedia, and thus could not explain to the user why they were trying to keep the news quiet. Infuriated, the user threw insults at the editors who were deleting his addition, and blindly continued their futile fight.
All of this ended when Rohde and Ludin managed to climb over a wall and escape the Taliban’s clenches. In an interesting twist, the driver chose to join the Taliban and thus stayed behind, according to Rohde. This is a truly inspiring story, and the efforts of the Wikipedia editors and the New York Times are beyond laudable. In a recent tweet, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said that preventing the news from breaking may have saved his life. Regardless of the merits of this comment, it made Rohde’s escape more likely, and was a downright impressive feat of coordination by all parties involved.