Terrorism and Press Freedom: Mothers, Journalists Speak Out

Diane Foley heard about her son’s death last August not from the government but from the Associated Press. Her son, freelance photojournalist James Foley, was the first of two American journalists who were beheaded in 2014 by militants of the Islamic State, or ISIS.

“I didn’t know that Jim was killed until a hysterical AP reporter called us,” Foley said.

Foley and Debra Tice, mother of missing freelance journalist Austin Tice, talked about their frustrations dealing with the U.S. government for their sons’ release during a program Feb. 4 at the Newseum on new threats to journalism and press freedom. The program, held in the museum’s Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater, was co-sponsored by the Committee to Protect Journalists and moderated by Judy Woodruff, co-anchor and managing editor of “PBS NewsHour.”

According to CPJ, more than 60 journalists were killed around the world in 2014, and more than 200 are in captivity.

Before and after the program, press freedom advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders encouraged guests to participate in a #FreeAustinTice blindfold campaign. Tice, a former Marine-turned-freelancer for The Washington Post, McClatchy newspapers and other news organizations was abducted in Syria in 2012. He was one of the first American correspondents to cover the civil war between the Syrian government and rebels. A video of him bound and blindfolded was released in September 2012. His whereabouts are unknown.

Debra Tice acknowledged a “good relationship” with the State Department and support from McClatchy “from Day One,” but said the” information vacuum” from the FBI regarding her son’s abduction resulted in an “acrimonious” relationship “in a middle school kind of way.” Tice also cited Syria and the United States’ unwillingness to talk to each other as an obstacle to  hostages’ release.

“How do you resolve your problems if you’re not speaking?” she said.

Foley said the government “should be able to engage our enemies.” Her family, she said, negotiated with the terrorists through email. “No one would talk to Jim’s captors. We did not feel Jim was a very high priority,” she said.

Foley added that the policy of media blackouts about kidnappings, which the government and many news organizations adhere to, is not effective in all situations, including her son’s.

The American public needs to realize that “being captured is not just for journalists,” she said. “One policy does not fit us all. [The] blackout did not help us.”

Foley and Tice said they have “invested time” in a hostage policy review that was ordered by President Barack Obama in late 2014 and is being prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center. The new policy would outline how hostage situations are handled in the future.

“I want to continue Jim’s work,” Foley said. “He would want to right this wrong. Our government can do better. Our press can do better. I hope part of Jim’s legacy can be to stimulate this discussion and to advocate for a clearer policy that will bring our citizens home.”

In a second discussion that also included Kathleen Carroll, executive editor for the AP, and Douglas Frantz, U.S. secretary of state for public affairs, Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ, described an explosion of journalist hostage taking in recent years that began in 2001 with the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.

“We are dealing with so many families in so many different circumstances grappling with these issues,” he said. “The common experience is just a sense of being completely overwhelmed. There’s a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness.” He said the hostage policy review should “find a way to empower the families, so that they feel some element of control in an environment in which they’ve effectively lost control.”

Carroll added that the news profession was currently working on ways to help freelancers and the organizations that hire them — “people who are trying to get ahead of the situation enough so there aren’t Foley families and Tice families as often, and hopefully, ever,” she said. “The real question for us as news employers and news consumers is, ‘Is the story worth the risk?’ The answer is sometimes, ‘No.’”

Frantz said the role of the U.S. government in journalist hostage situations is the same as it is with other American citizens who are endangered oversees, which is to “put all of the resources possible at play to try and get them home safely.”

Frantz acknowledged that the U.S. government wasn’t prepared for the brutal tactics and frequency of abductions in Syria and agreed with Foley and Tice that the government should do better.

“This whole government review is addressing those [concerns], and I hope that it fixes them. There’s no panacea here, but the very best minds in the U.S. government are applying themselves here,” he said.

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