NAIROBI, KENYA; AND JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — For the last 388 days, Paul and Rachel Chandler slept in tents in the Somali bush, surviving on goat meat and tinned spaghetti.
On Monday morning, they woke in the colonial-era splendor of the British High Commissioner’s mansion in Nairobi, and ate a full English breakfast served by white-jacketed waiters.
These details are among the avalanche of media coverage of the retired British couple’s release after more than a year as hostages to Somali pirates. On one British 24-hour news channel, the story even pushed the release in Burma (Myanmar) of Aung San Suu Kyi off top billing.
But that attention – and, more importantly the fact that an estimated ransom of $800,000 bought their freedom – has set a “bad precedent” that could endanger others, analysts say.
“While we are all relieved that the innocent couple is now fine, the matter of the achievement of their freedom, through payment of ransom, sets a bad precedent for others,” says J. Peter Pham, senior vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York. “The lesson for the pirates is that you can grab any Western and you make a media story out of them.
“You can add value to what you capture if you abuse them, if you create heartache in Britain or wherever they come from, and someone is going to come up with the money for their release, and someone is going to profit from this.”
The problem with media coverage
Mr. and Mrs. Chandler, both from the south of England, were kidnapped in the dead of night last October as they slept aboard their 38-foot yacht, moored in the Seychelles archipelago more than 800 miles east of the Somali coast and far from the pirates’ usual hunting grounds. Almost instantly, the twists and turns of their story became front-page news, especially in Britain.
The attention became so great that the couple’s family went to court and won a legal injunction barring further coverage until they were freed. The reasoning being that in a vacuum devoid of publicity, the pirates would begin to think that the world had forgotten about the couple, that their value was diminishing, and that a deal should be struck quickly.
But now that the legal prohibitions have been lifted, other pirates seeing the media’s reaction will think again.
Usually, ransoms are paid by commercial insurance firms, and ships and their crew are freed without fanfare. For the Chandlers, there was no company to foot the bill. Somalia’s government holds little sway over the pirates, and relatives knew there would be no British special forces commando raid. So relatives hired international specialists based in London, Dubai, and Nairobi to coordinate the release.
“Throughout the protracted discussions … it has been a difficult task for the family to get across the message that these were two retired people on a sailing trip on a small private yacht,” the couple’s relatives said in a statement. “[They are] not part of a major commercial enterprise involving tens of millions of pounds of assets.”
Somali diaspora kicked in funds
The rest of the ransom was apparently gathered by the Somali diaspora – the first time this has happened.
“The influence of the diaspora can be hugely influential for whatever goes on in Somalia,” says Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the Chatham House think-tank in London.
“This makes sense. The diaspora has to live in the West, they do business in the West, and the embarrassment of the pirate story doesn’t help them. Somalis do certainly face discrimination, so maybe there is some logic if they did raise money for the Chandlers’ release.”
But a precedent has now been set – that no matter how often a hostage negotiator tells a pirate there is no more money, some will be found. Friends and well-wishers raised roughly half of the much-diminished ransom demand.
Somali government paid ‘substantial’ amount
Complicating matters is the fact that Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government has said that it helped raise the final tranche of the ransom that bought the Chandlers’ freedom.
Mohamed Abdullahi-Omaar, Somalia’s foreign minister, confirmed that “a substantial” amount was paid, but would not comment further “given that there are other hostages still in Somalia.”
That is the point of concern, according to Mr. Pham of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. It creates an incentive telling pirates holding hostages without insurance – like pleasure sailors, rather than oil-supertankers – that the government will step in.
“We’ve started a vicious cycle here, and how to extricate ourselves remains to be seen,” Pham says.
“I think you have to make it illegal to pay ransoms. If the company can’t pay, then pirates lose the incentive to hijack ships. In the long run it will be better for everyone.”