How journalists like James Foley fall victim to world’s ‘most dangerous conflict’ for reporters

On Thanksgiving Day in 2012, a tall, handsome journalist named James Foley was on his way to the Turkish border when he decided to stop at an Internet cafe in a dust-choked town in northwest Syria. Civil war had ravaged the region, and Foley had employed a translator to help him cross the border. Together, the men entered the Internet cafe, where Vanity Fair reported Foley spent an hour “filing work and chatting with friends.”

After departing, they flagged a taxi and told the driver to head for the border. Somewhere along the way, “an organized gang” stopped the car and extricated Foley, the FBI said. “The translator was also taken, but later released.” But Foley, who tweeted about other journalists facing danger, was not. Nearly two years passed without information of his whereabouts.

Foley had simply vanished — until Tuesday.


A masked Islamic State militant speaks next to to U.S. journalist James Foley at an unknown location in this still image from an undated video posted on a social media website. (Screenshot )

Clad in a orange jump suit, Foley knelt beside an Islamic State militant dressed in black. A camera flickered to life. And Foley, whose parents confirmed his identity Tuesday night, began to speak.

“My message to my beloved parents,” he said, calling the U.S. government his “real killers” for its recent airstrikes against Islamic State targets in northern Iraq. “Save me some dignity, and don’t accept any meager compensation from my death from the same people who effectively hit the last nail in my coffin with the recent aerial campaign. … I guess, all in all, I wish I wasn’t an American.”

The screen went black. And when it came back, the militant, who spoke in a British accent, was clutching a knife. He beheaded Foley, and the camera then settled on another captured American journalist. His name was Steven Sotloff. He had covered Syria, Egypt and Libya, and was kidnapped in August 2013. His Twitter bio describes him as a “stand-up philosopher from Miami.”

The militant grabbed the back of Sotloff’s shirt. “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” the masked man said.

Both Sotloff and Foley took courageous risks to deliver news on what was happening in Syria. But they weren’t the traditional breed of journalist, buoyed by steady paychecks and significant staff resources, who have covered conflict from Vietnam to Kuwait. Sotloff and Foley were freelancers. Sotloff wrote stories for Time Magazine, National Interest and the Christian Science Monitor. Foley, a seasoned video journalist, reported primarily for GlobalPost, a Boston-based news outlet.

Their capture and Foley’s apparent execution raise fresh questions about  how important conflicts across the globe are covered — and the dangers freelance journalists, eager for bylines, face to report them. The Committee to Protect Journalists called Syria, for example, “the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.” According to the organization’s most recent statistics, 69 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian conflict, many of them Syrian. More than 80 reporters have been kidnapped. Around 20 are currently missing, many of whom are believed to be held by the Islamic State.

“Missing from the statistics is anything about the kind of journalists who goes to Syria and why,” journalist James Harkin, who covered Syria as a freelancer, wrote in Vanity Fair earlier this year. “After the death of Marie Colvin, in a blizzard of Syrian Army shells in Homs in February 2012, much of the Western media drew back from covering the country. Meanwhile, a lightly resourced, laughably paid, almost wholly uninsured cadre of freelancers, often armed with little more than a notebook and a mobile phone, infiltrated Syria anyway.”

A picture shows freelance photographer Austin Tice in Cairo in March 2012. The American journalist has been missing in Syria for more than a week, his most recent employers said on August 24, 2012, expressing concern for his safety amind fierce fighting there. AFP PHOTO/Christy Wilcox (Photo credit should read Christy Wilcox/AFP/GettyImages)
A picture shows freelance photographer Austin Tice in Cairo in March 2012. (Christy Wilcox/AFP/GettyImages)

One of those journalists was Austin Tice, a brash, confident former Marine captain from Houston who exchanged his rifle for a reporter’s notepad in May 2012. He linked up with the Free Syrian Army and wriggled underneath a fence to cross into Syria from Turkey. “Newsworthy stuff going on daily,” he wrote on Twitter. “If someone wanted to hire me that would be great. Student loans don’t pay themselves.”

“Crossed into Syria,” he wrote in another tweet. “My guide kissed the ground. ‘Praise God. This is the first time I have been in my country in twenty four years.’

Then, days later: “Made it past numerous Syrian Army checkpoints to our base near Hama. Writing like a maniac, taking photos, working like crazy.”

Tice wrote several pieces for The Washington Post and other outlets. And though he’d never been published before entering Syria, he produced well-crafted, nuanced narratives. Still, he longed for a paper to lend him a more substantial commitment. “I prefer to work for one organization over freelancing,” he wrote on his LinkedIn page. “I can write, film, snap and speak, so if your organization is looking for an all-in-one crisis correspondent willing to get the stories others won’t, call me.”

Award winning freelance journalist Austin Tice, who is believed to have been captured in Syria, has been missing for two years. In the face of uncertainty, his parents, Marc and Debra, continue to search for their lost son. (Jared L. Christopher/McClatchy)

On Aug. 13, 2012, Tice disappeared. Save for one video purporting to show Tice blindfolded and in the captivity of armed militants, he hasn’t been heard from since.

It’s unclear what happened to Tice, but other freelance journalists in Syria explain they often take dangerous risks. Because of meager pay, wrote Italian journalist Francesca Borri in the Columbia Journalism Review, “you end up maximizing, rather than minimizing, the risks. Not only can you not afford insurance — it’s almost $1,000 a month — but you cannot afford a fixer or a translator. You find yourself alone in the unknown. … If you happen to be seriously wounded, there is a temptation to hope not to survive, because you cannot afford to be wounded.”

For some parents left behind, the terror of that outcome is very real — as is their pride in what their children accomplished. “We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, wrote on Facebook Tuesday night. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people. … He was an extraordinary son, brother, journalist and person.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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