James Foley: Courage in the face of danger
To just mourn the brutal death of photojournalist James Foley … seems not enough.
To just be sickened by the shabby and cowardly manner in which he was beheaded by the terrorist group ISIS … feels inadequate.
And to hear his killers say Foley died in retaliation for U.S. military airstrikes in Iraq … is to face the twisted logic of generational vendettas that so scar the Middle East conflict on which Foley was reporting.
Foley, 40, was kidnapped in November 2012 while reporting on the Syrian civil war for a Boston-based online news organization, Global Post. He also had worked for PBS NewsHour and NBC News, and had returned to reporting after being abducted in 2011 and held for nearly 40 days by Libyan government troops.
Dozens of journalists have gone missing in Syria since 2012. And the Committee to Protect Journalists lists, worldwide, nearly 50 journalists and other media workers who have been killed or died thus far in 2014 while gathering and reporting news.
A video posted on YouTube shows Foley reading a statement critical of the U.S. bombings of ISIS fighters in Iraq and then being beheaded by a masked executioner. The video ends by showing another captive American journalist, Steven Sotloff. “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” says the ISIS figure in black.
Foley's family created a “Free James Foley” page on Facebook to seek his release, which now carries a plea from his mother, Diane Foley: “We implore the kidnappers to spare the lives of the remaining hostages. Like Jim, they are innocents. They have no control over American government policy in Iraq, Syria or anywhere in the world.”
She also says, “We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
The Newseum's Journalists Memorial, in Washington, D.C., carries the names of more than 2,200 journalists who have died since the 1800s in the pursuit of news. Each year since 1997, the memorial has been rededicated, and a symbolic group of new names is added to represent all who died in the previous year, to call the world's attention to the inherent danger globally in reporting the news.
In a June interview on the Newseum Institute's “Journalism/Works” online news program, immediately after speaking at the 2014 Memorial rededication, Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of The Associated Press, agreed that there are increased dangers to journalists worldwide.
She noted the irony that the very new media and new technology that make it possible to report the news quicker and to more people also means journalists no longer are considered noncombatants in war zones.
“Even in the wars in the Balkans 20 years ago, you could still put 'press' signs, TV, on your car. And the combatants on all sides wanted their stories told, and they felt it was important for you to help tell their story,” Carroll said. “Not that you were taking sides … but you were there to tell their story that otherwise would not be told.”
Carroll said, “That's really changed a lot. No one labels themselves 'press' anymore because that makes you a target. And part of the reason is these factions can tell their own stories. … Journalists are no longer considered a tool to get the message out.”
Sadly, it's not just in war zones that journalists face injury and death. Among the representative group added to the Newseum's memorial earlier this year are journalists from all areas of the globe who also challenged political figures and movements and who reported on drug gangs and other criminal activity.
Foley and others who cover conflict, or place themselves at risk reporting or commenting on any number of controversial subjects, are willing witnesses on behalf of all of us—and necessary ones. As Carroll notes, it's far too easy in this electronic age to shape messages from a singular point of view. The value of having multiple voices is multiplied exponentially by the opportunity we now have to read, see and hear them.
Perhaps the ultimate context in which to place the horror of Foley's death, and others like it, can be found in history's lesson that such tactics ultimately fail. Messages can be blocked for a time, and messengers stilled for the moment—but not for all time. Even now, the world knows ISIS for what it is.
And to those left to carry on the work of James Foley, it may be the words of Winston Churchill, spoken in Britain's darkest hours of WWII, in late 1941, that offer guidance and inspiration:
“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force.”
True then. True now.
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute's First Amendment Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.