Louisa Akavi's story was a secret that lasted more than five years from the date she was taken hostage in 2013.

At stake was a woman's life – that of a long-serving nurse with the International Red Cross who survived an attack in Chechnya in 1996 only to be one of seven Red Cross workers taken hostage by Islamic State in October 2013.

Some media found out Akavi's identity soon afterward.

But by an extraordinary feat over the following years, the Government managed to ensure her name and nationality were kept out of the news in a bid to try to keep Akavi alive.


That effort was prompted by a ransom message to Akavi's family in New Zealand, which suggested she would be killed if news of her situation appeared in the media.

This week that secrecy ended after the International Red Cross issued a plea for information on Akavi's whereabouts, along with that of two Syrian aid workers she was abducted with – Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes.

Former Prime Minister John Key, with SIS and GCSB Minister Chris Finlayson (left), Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, and Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee in 2014. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former Prime Minister John Key, with SIS and GCSB Minister Chris Finlayson (left), Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, and Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee in 2014. Photo / Mark Mitchell

That change in stance followed the fall of Islamic State's last piece of territory in Baghouz and Akavi was named in a The New York Times article published today.

Akavi's fate remains unknown despite extensive searches for any news of her since then, both by the Red Cross and New Zealand, along with its international partners. The New York Times quoted the Red Cross as saying they believed Akavi is still alive.

NZME managing editor Shayne Currie said while the media always worked hard to tell stories in the public interest, the decision not to publish in this case was straightforward.

"We had been told that publication of Louisa' s name and nationality would put her life in even more danger, and seriously jeopardise her chances of survival.

"We are only publishing now because the Red Cross has gone public in the hope coverage will help them find Louisa."

Former Foreign Minister Murray McCully was personally involved in many of the dealings to keep Akavi's case out of the media over those years.

He told the NZ Herald how he managed that, saying he was extremely grateful for the manner those media had dealt with it.

McCully met with the editors and senior managers of each outlet which had asked about Akavi. Several other hostages had been named, and McCully had to argue why Akavi should be different. If just one media outlet refused to abide by the request, the whole plan would collapse because others would then have to be told.

"We were obviously asking media to withhold what is on the face of it a pretty good story. That required some justification. So we had to be quite painstaking in outlining the circumstances and quite compelling in terms of what the risks were if there was publication.

"It was a question of getting the first one to agree to withhold publication and then trying to make sure everyone else held the line. I met with senior editorial people myself to ask for their co-operation, and simply outline the circumstances and made it clear that any publication that identified the person or even her nationality could well carry fatal consequences."

The silence was agreed to with an assurance that should Akavi be freed or it was found she had died, media would be told.

McCully went in prepared with reasons. The first was compelling - she would be killed if her name was in the media.

A reason for keeping her nationality a secret was because New Zealand was one of the Five Eyes partners so its citizens could be treated as targets.

It was explained to media outlets it was possible Akavi – who is a Cook Island New Zealander - had told her kidnappers she was from the Cook Islands rather than New Zealand and that revealing her nationality could put her in greater danger.

It was not only New Zealand media that officials had to deal with.

Australian media also got in touch early and, at various points, media in the US and the United Kingdom. They included The New York Times and the UK-based Sunday Times.

McCully says some of those international took a bit more convincing, because other hostages' names were in the media "and some had a more robust view of what was going to be effective here."

McCully recalls the day New Zealand won the seat on the Security Council at the United Nations – October 17, 2014 – a year after Akavi was taken hostage.

McCully was in New York for the vote, a successful end to more than a six-year-long campaign which had consumed McCully's time as Foreign Minister.

After the vote, McCully fronted to the media and then returned to the NZ Mission headquarters for celebratory drinks.

"The party had started, they were all having a glass of champagne.

"We got a huge round of applause from the staff, and then I was ushered straight into a room at the back with no champagne to pick up negotiations with a leading US entity, which our team was trying to ensure their cooperation as well."

Sometimes information would appear on a news website, often placed by staff who were unaware of the agreements reached - and New Zealand officials had to move quickly to try to get the story changed, either by sending in diplomats or McCully.

They succeeded every time. McCully estimates the longest it stayed on a news website was a few hours.

McCully says several arms of Government were involved. That certainly includes the intelligence agencies, although McCully will not confirm that.

"The police, for example, were very involved."

McCully said things had changed several times over the period after Akavi was taken, including information about the identities of those who had her.

"There was a period where there was a prevailing view that ransom might be a motivation, but then there was a period where it was assumed it was not the motivation and that probably different people were behind holding the hostage at that stage.

"In the early stages there were attempts to try and extricate hostages as well, and all of those conversations played heavily into the process."

McCully also gave some insight into the National Government's stance on ransoms and the decision to deploy troops to Iraq to train those fighting against Islamic State, something former Prime Minister John Key was worried would impact on Akavi.

"There was a general look at our policy on these things and the PM at the time had the very strong view that once you were intimidated in one hostage incident, you were putting a price on every other New Zealander who was anywhere within reach of hostage takers.

"So I think he took the view that he had a job to do on behalf of the New Zealand public and on behalf of the country, and he was going to be mindful of the impact on individuals, but also do his job, basically. That's my sense of his point of view."

He said he was grateful for the way the media had handled it.

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) screening those fleeing from Baghouz in February. Photo / AP
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) screening those fleeing from Baghouz in February. Photo / AP

"Because for quite a lot of this time I couldn't offer any proof that the hostage was still alive – we could only say we had every reason to believe she was, and no proof that she wasn't."

McCully's successors Gerry Brownlee and then Winston Peters kept up his efforts.

As recently as February, Akavi's name was used by Isis to try to secure the escape by fighters out of Baghouz and a media outlet was reminded to remove it.

However, as time stretched on after the fall of Baghouz with no information about whether Akavi was alive or dead, it got harder to persuade media to keep the secret.

Despite concern from New Zealand in case Akavi was still being held, the International Red Cross opted to go public and The New York Times ran a story on Akavi.

The secret was out, but the hunt for Akavi continues.