The Missing Journalists of Syria’s War: The Struggle to Save Those Who Bear Witness

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James Foley

Michael Foley just wants his brother back. James Foley, known as “Jim,” is an American freelance reporter who has been unaccounted for inside Syria since November. On Thanksgiving Day, the Foleys were told that James, 39, and another journalist were apparently intercepted and kidnapped by four armed men in Taftanaz, northwestern Syria, while on their way back to the Turkish border. Michael, 37, became the New Hampshire-based family’s point-person for coordinating an awareness campaign to locate his missing brother.

There was anger at first, Michael says, then frustration that it was happening again. In April 2011, James was detained in Libya for six weeks after forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi attacked the pack of journalists he was with, leading to the death of Anton Hammerl, a South African photojournalist. But this is different: in Libya, there was an acknowledgment that he was being held; in Syria, it’s a cruel guessing game: “The bottom line is that we don’t know who has him and that’s what makes this so difficult,” Michael says. A media blackout was immediately put into play as more information was sought, but the family went public in January with the Free James Foley campaign after nearly a month and a half of radio silence.

The three-month mark of James’s disappearance comes a year after one of the industry’s bleakest weeks in decades. On Feb. 22, 2012, government shelling hit a makeshift media center in the Bab Amr district of Homs, killing veteran Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik, who, less than two weeks earlier, won a prestigious World Press Photo award for a Libya photo essay. In recognition of the one-year anniversary, Paul Conroy, a British photojournalist who was wounded in the media center attack, published a note online that thanked everyone who had helped him recover and honored the legacies of those killed in the strike. “Marie’s ethos—to bear witness—was an inspiration to all who knew her and to those who read her passionate reports from the frontlines,” he wrote. “Marie will be in my heart for as long as I walk this troubled earth.” Ochlik was “a rising star whose light was snuffed out many years too soon.”

Six days earlier, Anthony Shadid, a celebrated New York Times correspondent, died unexpectedly while preparing to leave Syria after a reporting stint and on Feb. 21, a key citizen journalist and livestreamer named Rami al-Sayed was fatally wounded by regime shelling in Homs.

“This is Iraq-level violence,” says Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He pointed to the media center attack as the year’s darkest moment for journalists, which culminated with a nine-day effort to evacuate colleagues wounded in the strikes, including Conroy, French reporter Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, a French photojournalist who was on assignment for TIME. Soon afterward, some news organizations began scaling back their reporting presence and ambitions in the war-torn country.

Since the uprising began in March 2011, CPJ has confirmed that 27 of the 32 journalists who have died there were local. Seventy journalists were killed worldwide last year, and of that figure, 28 of them were in Syria. Another 21 were abducted there, and by year’s end, at least 13 had been released. A number of citizen journalists remain missing, including Anhar Kochneva, a Ukrainian journalist who was reportedly captured in October by a militia affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and held on the grounds of being a supposed pro-government commentator.

There’s also Austin Tice, a freelancer and a former U.S. Marine who was apparently picked up by Assad-allied forces in August and who the State Department said in October may be in government hands. Tice’s family blanketed the media with a campaign requesting information about him, but they have received no word on his condition. Recently, he won a George Polk Award for his coverage of military-rebel confrontations.

Despite all this, at least a few hundred journalists crossed into Syria last year to cover what has now become a wrenching civil war that has left tens of thousands of Syrians dead, forced hundreds of thousands more into neighboring countries and displaced millions within their own borders. “When you choose to cross the border into Syria is really when your protection ends,” Michael says, certain that James knew that well.

The spiraling chaos that has engulfed the region has led to a proliferation of armed groups and militias, some with gauzy loyalties and agendas—kidnappings have become both a consequence and a tactic of the fight. As such, days spent inside Syria turned into a nerve-shredding cat-and-mouse game for reporters and photojournalists.

“Journalists do this because they feel compelled to bring these stories to the public, and also because there’s an element of personal ambition, and it’s exciting, and it can be thrilling to cover these kinds of conflict,” says Simon. “It’s important that there be somebody out there who’s willing to take the risk to cover these stories.” Michael Foley says that conflict reporting was a “natural progression” for his brother since it combines his passions for writing and photography with the task of covering tough stories and helping better people’s lives: “I think he’s really found his calling.”

Today, a press freedom initiative called “A Day Without News?” launched with the goals of highlighting the extreme risks taken by journalists who choose to cover armed conflict around the world and to persuade governing bodies to hold accountable those who target or harm the media.

(LightBox: Raising Awareness of the Perils of Reporting)

To date, the Foleys have received “several responses” to their pleas for information and they’re actively working through them while pursuing additional leads. Like the Tice family, they remain optimistic they’ll find their loved one. “Jim seems to have nine lives,” Michael said, laughing. “I think we’ll get through this fine.”

PHOTOS: Chaos and Killing in Syria: Photos of a Slow-Motion Civil War