U.S. journalist marks year in captivity as risks increase for war reporters

Hannah Allam

Tuesday marked a year since American journalist Austin Tice was detained while covering the civil war in Syria, one of at least 14 news media workers who’ve vanished or been seized in the past year, according to press advocacy groups.

Tice’s family in his hometown of Houston was reluctant to speak at length about the milestone, explaining that they didn’t want to complicate efforts toward winning his release or to single out a particular day when each one is excruciating for detainees who’ve been snatched from Syria’s battlegrounds and kept incommunicado for months.

“We don’t even know if Austin knows what day it is,” Marc Tice, Austin’s father, said in a phone interview. “To him and the other journalists missing or captive, it’s just another horrible day for them, and for millions of Syrians.”

Tice’s case is among the most publicized, but there are several more Americans and other Westerners unaccounted for in Syria. Precise numbers are difficult to pin down because many families and employers have requested media blackouts, especially in cases where it’s unclear which group – or even which side of the civil war – has custody of the missing.

Besides Tice, the only other U.S. citizen who’s been publicly identified is James Foley, a reporter for the Boston-based news site Global Post, who was last seen Nov. 22, when gunmen forced him into an unmarked car as he was en route to the Turkish border. The Global Post thinks he’s being held by pro-regime forces.

The FBI confirmed that agents are working several other cases of Americans missing in Syria, but it declined to give names or other details because of a fear that publicity would derail the investigations.

The State Department is “aware of reports that other U.S. citizens have gone missing in Syria, but due to privacy concerns, we have nothing further to add at this time,” spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Tuesday in a statement about Tice’s year in detention.

“We have long expressed concern about the safety of journalists in Syria and strongly urge all sides to ensure their safety,” Ventrell said. “This serves as a reminder of the great risks journalists are taking in order to shed light on the truth of what is happening in Syria.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Syria as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, with 13 killed this year and 49 killed since the conflict began in 2011. The group lists 14 local and international journalists as missing, abducted or detained in Syria, although the real number is higher and can’t be discussed because of family requests, said Sherif Mansour, the group’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.

The list from just the past few months includes Syrian television journalists – Obeida Batal, Hossam Nizam al Dine and Aboud al Atik – as well as several Europeans: Polish photographer Marcin Suder, French radio journalists Didier Francois and Edouard Elias, Belgian academic and reporter Pierre Piccinin de Prata and Italian newspaper reporter Domenico Quirico.

In the unreported cases, most news organizations adhere to families’ requests for media blackouts though such policies have become difficult to enforce as news of abductions spreads quickly via social media. It’s not unusual for the public to learn of an abduction only after the captive is freed.

Last month, for example, a Syrian militia freed French-American photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie after holding him for 81 days. Alpeyrie has told French media outlets that he was kidnapped for ransom, an increasing trend in Syria’s lawless terrain.

Mansour said the Committee to Protect Journalists didn’t have a catchall policy on media blackouts and assessed them on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes the publicity helps by opening lines of contact and holding kidnappers accountable, he said. Other times, the attention can upset the captors or prompt them to raise their ransom requests.

Media blackouts are often recommended for Syria, he said, because it’s so chaotic there that it’s virtually impossible to identify which of the hundreds of armed groups roaming the country would negotiate in good faith.

“It’s difficult to know who’s who and what they’re capable of,” Mansour said.

The Tice family – and, later, the Foley family – decided to go public early on. The families have established websites and given several interviews pleading for their sons’ release.

“It has been 365 days since we last heard from our precious son, beloved brother, adored uncle and faithful friend, Austin,” Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra, said in a statement posted Tuesday to their website, www.austinticefamily.com. “None of us want to place special significance on this date because we know that every one of those days has been unimaginably challenging for Austin. The most tolerable part of this day is that it means we are one day closer to the return of Austin, of all other hostages, and relief of the suffering of the Syrian people.”

Tice, who turned 32 on Sunday, was reporting on the conflict for McClatchy, The Washington Post, CBS and other media outlets when he dropped out of communication last Aug. 13. He was shown alive and in the company of armed men in an amateur video that appeared on YouTube last September. The 47-second clip shows Tice blindfolded and disoriented, mangling an Islamic prayer before crying out, “Oh, Jesus.”

Independent analysts say the captors in the video appeared to be pro-regime forces pretending to be a militant Islamist group; President Bashar Assad has long portrayed opponents of his rule as terrorists. Although extremist fighters are at the forefront of the Syrian rebel movement, diplomatic channels, rebel tips and other evidence have signaled that Tice is in the custody of the Syrian government. The Assad regime has never publicly acknowledged holding him.

Tice had entered Syria in May without a visa – a common practice for journalists attempting to cover the rebel side of the conflict there – and traveled throughout the country with anti-Assad forces. He reached the capital, Damascus, late that July and remained in the southwestern suburb of Daraya. He’d planned to leave Syria to meet friends in Lebanon on Aug. 19 or 20. He last communicated with colleagues on Aug. 13, but he didn’t reveal precisely how he intended to exit Syria.

The complicated, high-risk logistics Tice faced as he traversed Syria have only grown worse for foreign journalists who’ve entered since then. And it’s no longer just the regime side that poses risks for visiting reporters.

In the year since Tice was taken, the rebel movement has splintered and is now dominated by militant jihadists who’ve also seized or intimidated media workers. Even the more moderate opposition forces are furious with the West for what they view as a failure to help them topple Assad. They, too, have become more hostile toward foreign media as the war grinds into its third year.

“Overall, there is a trend that those aligned in the opposition against Assad are going after journalists,” said Mansour, of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “More and more, opposition forces are trying to have access to their materials and to review their commentary.”

Tice, who studied law at Georgetown University and served as an officer in the Marine Corps, was one of the few foreign journalists to report from Damascus as fighting raged in Syria’s then-nascent civil war.

His reporting drew on his military background and helped to explain the battles between regime and opposition forces. The rebels Tice traveled with weren’t immune to his scrutiny; he reported on their own battlefield atrocities in addition to the losses they suffered from the better-equipped Syrian military.

Tice was part of the McClatchy team that in February won a prestigious George Polk Award for war reporting.

“Austin and a growing list of journalists covering Syria are being held for simply doing their jobs,” said Karole Morgan-Prager, McClatchy’s general counsel. “We very much look forward to the day that is recognized and that they are released.”

YouTube video of Austin Tice
By Hannah Allam
McClatchy Washington Bureau