Kidnapping silence spurs media debate

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegian police said Friday that they’ve received more than 250 tips from the public in the two days since they finally confirmed the suspected kidnapping 10 weeks ago of a wealthy investor’s wife. Norwegian media outlets that were aware of the case stayed silent, too, but now both the police and the media are questioning whether that was wise.

Police Inspector Tommy Brøske held his third press conference in as many days on Friday, but had to admit there were still no suspects tied to the disappearance of a wealthy Norwegian investor’s wife 10 weeks ago. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Journalists at Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) were among those who knew well before the Christmas holidays that Anne-Elisabeth Hagen of Fjellhamar in Lørenskog was missing, and that police were investigating the case as what was shaping up to be a sensational kidnapping. At the urging of the police, however, the Norwegian media agreed to withhold any publication or broadcasting of the news, for fear that could put Hagen in more danger than she already was. Her husband had found a ransom note and several pieces of paper with various messages and warnings when he came home from work to an empty house on October 31.

The media-shy, low-profile investor Tom Hagen, who’s worth nearly NOK 2 billion (USD 238 million), was also warned that his wife could be killed if he called the police. He thus hesitated, but he reportedly called them after just a few hours, and they quickly launched an undercover investigation. So undercover, in fact, that investigators disguised themselves as tradesmen working at the couple’s home of around 30 years, and used vans and cars with false or even missing license plates.

That aroused the suspicions of long-time neighbours, who in turn called police to report unusual activity at the Hagens’ home. Several were eventually contacted and questioned themselves, and ordered not to discuss the police inquiries with anyone.

Police Inspector Brøske began his remarks on Friday by expressing appreciation to the media for their restraint in not reporting on the suspected kidnapping earlier. He still urged caution, however, because of concerns for the missing 68-year-old Anne-Elisabeth Hagen, a photo of whom was displayed during the press conference. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Now questions are flying over whether the police’s strategy was correct, and whether it was correct for the media to refrain from informing the public about what was going on. “Both the police request that we remain silent, and Aftenposten’s decision to comply raise problematic issues and should prompt debate,” wrote Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief Espen Egil Hansen when the paper finally could publish its photos and stories about the case, which covered fully 10 pages in its Thursday edition.

Hansen noted that the police had clearly told his editorial staff that publishing could but both life and health at risk. “We chose to respect that,” Hansen wrote, as did NRK, newspaper VG and other media following the case. It wasn’t until just before the police and an attorney appointed to advise Tom Hagen held press conferences on Wednesday, 71 days after Hagen’s 68-year-old wife had disappeared, that the news was finally released.

Dilemmas on both sides
The police now admit their decision to withhold information and ask the media to refrain from publishing could have hindered their own investigation instead of shielding it. “We can’t rule that out,” Police Inspector Tommy Brøske told Aftenposten right after the first press conference. “It’s been one of the issues that was difficult to evaluate. Our leads could have gone cold, deteriorated or disappeared.” He acknowledged that police couldn’t cordon off the property with police lines, visibly conduct outdoor searches with specially trained dogs, call for tips earlier or question possible witnesses when events were still fresh. They’re doing all of that now, but are faced with the distinct possibility that neighbours, passersby or others simply won’t remember events, suspicious or otherwise, on the day Anne-Elisabeth Hagen disappeared that could have been important for the investigation.

The local police in the district that serves the Romerike area of Akerhus County in which Fjellhamar is located also chose to restrict information within the national police force as well. They did not alert other police districts on a general nationwide basis, opting only to work with special forces within the state police crime unit Kripos and the state economic crimes unit Økokrim, along with Interpol and Europol. They received help from the two latter international agencies in which investigators have far more experience with such kidnappings involving ransom and communication only on a digital platform that until now have never occurred in Norway.

“We’ve had challenges,” Brøske said. “This is an extremely special and demanding case.” The need for more information ultimately became so acute that police, with Hagen’s reportedly reluctant support, finally went public and sought the public’s help. That had instant results, with all the tips coming in that are being sorted out. Police have also since released video from a surveillance camera mounted outside Tom Hagen’s workplace that shows two pedestrians and a cyclist passing by his office on the morning of his wife’s disappearance. They’ve been asked to contact police. As of midday Friday, when the police held their third press conference in as many days, none of the three had.

High stakes
Tore Sandberg, a former investigative journalist who’s now a high-profile private investigator in Norway, told Aftenposten that the police “gambled high” by waiting so long to go public with the case. “The most important thing the police have lost is a massive amount of time,” Sandberg said. “They can have lost evidence and witness statements that they could have secured if they’d chosen a broader strategy.”

Sandberg added that “the message I got from their first press conference is that police have acknowledged that the strategy they followed hasn’t functioned especially well,” since they still have no suspects 10 weeks after the alleged abduction. He conceded, however, that the police did face a terrible dilemma, because of the threats from the kidnappers. “That would have made most of us think twice before talking,” he said.

It certainly made the media think more than twice, and now again, with some regrets. Aftenposten’s editor Hansen wrote that there are three main arguments that both the police and the media should have informed the public much earlier:

*** Other wealthy Norwegians may have been at risk as well, and should have been told. The alleged kidnappers are believed to have had several potential wealthy victims under surveillance, and opted for the “easiest,” which was Hagen’s wife home alone. “That was information that more people should have known about, so that they could try to protect themselves and their families. Norway is an open society that has long enjoyed a relatively low crime rate. The vast majority of Norwegians haven’t felt much need for special security measures or fear of being a crime victim, to the point that some call them “naive.”

*** Leads in the case may have been lost. Hansen noted that the main reason police went public was to activate both potential witnesses’ memories, while Hagen’s attorney confirmed the publicity is also aimed at prodding contact from the kidnappers, since there’s been no contact or sign of life from Hagen since October 31. Hansen believes the police have good reason to fear that potential tips and leads in the case may have “gone cold.”

*** Hansen also contends that the media lost, at least for the first 10 weeks, the possibility to shine a”critical spotlight” on the police investigation itself. “Such spotlights are not comfortable for the police, but that’s the press’ job, and it’s an important job,” Hansen wrote.

He concluded by welcoming debate on how both the police and media have conducted themselves since Hagen disappeared. “We must rely on the police, that they had good and concrete reasons for staying silent,” Hansen wrote. “When the time is right, the legal authorities will have a great responsibility to at least be open about the basis for their request that we remain silent, too. There’s no assurance it was correct.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund