Every day and night, Austin Tice looks out on Pennsylvania Avenue.
For almost three years, he has smiled from the banner that hangs on the Newseum, as if to say, “Hey, don’t forget about me. I’m still out here, somewhere.”
Last Thursday afternoon, people walking past the banner of Tice, a freelance journalist who has been held hostage for nearly seven years since being detained near Damascus, Syria, largely ignored him.
But from time to time he enters, albeit briefly, in the thoughts of passersby.
Kent Obermeyer, who was visiting from Cincinnati, turned his head to lock eyes with Tice as he kept walking, until he was looking over his left shoulder at the words, “HELD CAPTIVE FOR BEING A JOURNALIST SINCE AUGUST 2012.”
“It’s horrible. Just terrible,” said Obermeyer said. “It’s not anything partisan. This shouldn’t happen to someone just doing their job as a journalist."
But that daily reminder’s days are numbered. The banner will stay up until at least the end of the year, when the museum will shut down and Johns Hopkins will take ownership of the building, according to Newseum spokesman Jonathan Thompson. After years of facing budget deficits, the Freedom Forum in January sold the building at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue NW to Johns Hopkins University.
The Freedom Forum, which advocates on freedom of speech issues, isn’t sure whether it can open the museum elsewhere, and is searching for a new location for its administrative offices. The foundation hasn’t determined whether it will be able to display the banner. A university spokeswoman referred questions to the foundation about what will happen to the Newseum property.
“Change is always challenging, but there are so many good people [at the Newseum]. Hopefully they’ll find a new location,” Tice’s mother Debra said in a phone interview Monday.
The banner was hung in October 2016. It has meaning to her, even beyond its prominent location. On one of her visits to the museum from their home in Houston, she’d found herself at a window, eye to eye with her son. “That was a moment,” she said.
The picture is of him on a hiking trip he took with his father to Washington state. “That picture brings back the best kind of memories," she said. “He looks so great, happy and healthy, and ready to go.”
As Aug. 14, the seventh anniversary of her son’s disappearance, approaches, the family is doing “as good as can be expected,” Debra Tice said. “We really thought it would be resolved in days,” she said. "It’s difficult, she said, to think her son has lost most of his 30s, when he should be doing “the whole minivan and kids thing.”
Tice’s parents worry that the anniversary of Austin’s disappearance will be considered “old news,” they said in an open letter last Thursday in the Post’s Press Freedom Partnership newsletter.
“Austin is alive, with the hope of once again walking free. We also hold on to that hope and continue to do all we can to bring him safely home," they wrote. “That said, clearly our efforts have been insufficient. And until he comes home, we will have never done enough.”
Even with the banner’s future uncertain, efforts will continue to keep awareness of Tice’s captivity alive. On Sept. 30, volunteers will visit congressional offices urging members to take action. Beginning that day, his photos from Iraq will be displayed in Congress’ Rayburn House Office Building.
Reporters Without Borders, an international group that’s been working toward Tice’s release, plans to announce a public education campaign on Aug. 11, according to a spokeswoman.
The Newseum will continue to display some of Tice’s belongings, including his notebook and favorite high tops, and will mark the anniversary of his disappearance on social media.
Tice, a former Marine who was attending Georgetown Law School, went to Syria in May 2012 to write freelance stories about the war’s impact on Syrians for news outlets including The Washington Post and McClatchy. He was last seen, according to his family’s website, on Aug. 14, 2012, five weeks after he was detained at a checkpoint near Damascus. A video surfaced showing armed men leading him blindfolded down a rocky mountainside, Appearing distraught, he repeats, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus."
He was hardly old news for Obermeyer, who was hearing about Tice for the first time. Obermeyer felt a kinship when he learned Tice had been a Marine captain in Iraq. “My grandfather was a tailgunner in World War II,” he said proudly.
Shortly after Obermeyer left on Thursday, Tice’s image brought back the memory of another journalist.
Kevin Moss, in town from San Francisco to serve as a line judge in the Citi Open tennis tournament, stopped to take a picture of the banner.
“Daniel Pearl,” said Moss, when asked what he was thinking about. Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped and beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.
“I hope [Tice] has a better fate,” Moss said, himself a former journalist.
Moss thought too of Bryan Carmody, a freelance reporter whose home was raided and searched this spring by San Francisco police officers seeking the source of a police report leaked to the press.
“I know things are getting more hazardous for journalists, not only around the world but locally,” Moss said. He left promising to go online to learn more about Tice.