Missing journalist and Medill alumnus, James “Jim” Foley’s probable location was revealed at a Medill co-sponsored event Friday.
Foley’s family and the news company GlobalPost hosted the event, “Silenced Voices: When Conflict Journalists Go Missing,” in honor of World Press Freedom Day and in awareness of Foley’s captivity. About 60 people attended the live-streamed event on campus. Philip Balboni, CEO and co-founder of GlobalPost, announced that the Syrian air force intelligence service is likely holding Foley and other Western journalists in a detention center near Damascus.
“We are very hopeful of Jim’s release and totally committed to bringing Jim home as quickly and safely as possible,” Balboni said.
Balboni added that GlobalPost has not been able to contact Foley’s kidnappers but has been in contact with several Syrian ministries through the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon.
Foley was kidnapped last November in northern Syria about 12 miles from the Turkish border while freelancing for GlobalPost. This is Foley’s second abduction – the first being in Libya in April 2011.
“We knew when he didn’t call Thanksgiving Day that something happened,” Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, said in a phone interview after the event. It took six months for her to find out that her son is alive.
The event included statements by Foley’s friend Dan Johnson and Foley’s parents. They said that Foley is just one of many journalists suffering the consequences of conflict reporting – 2012 was the most deadly year for journalists, Johnson said.
“When a journalist goes missing, a friend goes missing, a son goes missing and countless stories go missing,” Johnson said. “We aim to tell you at least part of Jim’s story in hopes of shedding a light on the plight of thousands of journalists who report each day to the front lines with little more than a pen, a notepad and a camera despite the very real threats of capture, imprisonment, torture and being killed in the line of duty.”
Medill professor Jack Doppelt moderated a panel of four conflict journalists: columnist for Reuters and The Atlantic David Rohde, journalist and blogger Beena Sarwar, Agence France-Presse reporter David Clark, and Medill alumna and author Roxana Saberi. Three of the panelists had been detained during their careers.
The panelists said that it is good news that Foley is in government detention, as governments are more likely to cave to international human rights pressures than nongovernmental groups.
“Even dictatorial regimes care about their international image now, particularly in this world where it’s mass media,” Sawar said.
Medill sophomore Amanda Gilbert, who attended and helped to bring the event to campus through her involvement in the Medill Student Undergraduate Advisory Committee, said the panelists’ emphasis on the power of the media to free abducted journalists struck her.
“The most powerful message is that even though he went missing, today is not about seeing how dangerous [journalism] is,” Gilbert said. “Journalists and the media can help.”
However, kidnapping and detention of journalists is not a problem that is going away, the panelists said. With new technology, it is easier to freelance, so more journalists are entering conflict zones without the support of a major news organization. Not all freelancers are as fortunate as Foley to have an organization like GlobalPost that lobbies for their release.
“Technology makes it possible for anyone to go shoot and send that image back instantly. So there are more freelancers,” Rohde said. “They’re not as well supported.”
It’s up to journalists to take calculated risks, Rohde added, to make sure that they still tell stories from conflict zones that must be told.
“We have a lot to be thankful for, that people literally put their lives on the line,” said Chair of Alumni Regents Charles Sansone (Weinberg ’62), who attended the event.
“Journalists play a vital role in bringing the light of truth to the darkness of war and suffering,” Foley’s father, John Foley, said. “We are proud of Jim’s commitment to his work.”
Diane Foley later echoed her husbands pride in her son’s work.
“He looks for the voices within a people who are in the middle of conflict,” she said. But despite the hopeful attitude that permeated the event, Diane Foley said she knows that it will be a long time until her son is free.
“It’s still going to be a difficult process having him freed,” she said. “We’re certainly not done.”