Honouring Journalist James Foley

Syria is a Dangerous Place for Journalists – But Here’s Why We Need Them There

by Geoffrey Mock, Egypt country specialist and chair of the Middle East County Specialist, Amnesty USA.

After three years of the Syrian uprising, it often appears like the world is tuning out. Deaths continue on a daily basis, some 9 million Syrians are listed by the U.N. as either refugees or internally displaced people, but the situation is sliding out of attention on news broadcasts, in newspaper headlines and popular attention.

This is why the beheading of reporter James Foley is so important to anyone concerned about human rights in the region. It’s important not just because, as Amnesty International says, it is “a war crime,” but because Syria right now by most standards is now the most dangerous place in the world for journalists.

The world loses attention to a crisis for many reasons, but in Syria, one key reason is because journalists increasingly aren’t able to report on the crisis. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) states that at least 69 journalists have been killed covering the conflict. More than 80 have been kidnapped. CPJ estimates that approximately 20 journalists are currently missing in Syria, many held by Islamic State.

The crimes have been committed by both the Assad regime and by armed opposition groups such as Islamic State, the group that beheaded Foley. Both groups are literally “shooting the messenger.” (See Amnesty International report: Shooting the Messenger: Journalists targeted by all sides in Syria)

Under such circumstances, it’s not surprising that some news organizations have pulled back their reporters, and those that remain are being more cautious in their travels.

But the consequences are significant. Foley once told an audience at Northwestern University, his alma mater, that he wanted to report from the Middle East because, “We’re not close enough to it. And if reporters, if we don’t try to get really close to what these guys – men, women, American [soldiers], now, with this Arab revolution, young Arab men, young Egyptians and Libyans – are experiencing, we don’t understand the world.”

When reporters like James Foley can’t do their job, the rest of the world falls back on stereotypes and preconceived notions about societies they don’t know anything about. The commentary and analysis is left to people whose expertise often is second hand. We stop paying attention.

That’s bad for policy and it’s bad for human rights because activism starts with the documentation of abuses that journalists can do. That’s true in Syria, and for that matter, it’s even true when journalists get arrested in Ferguson, Mo. When journalists are silenced, it’s a win for the abusers.

James Foley and others stood up to the threat and he should be honored for that essential work. The best way to remember him would be for the international community to redouble its efforts and press for the protection of journalists in Syria.

The Islamic State and all armed groups must release all civilians, rights defenders and journalists such as Foley’s American colleague Steven Sotloff. The Assad regime must stop its own abusive practices against journalists, including the enforced disappearance of Ali Mahmoud Othman.

The messengers must be able to speak.

Originally published August 21, 2014 on the website of Amnesty USA

Photo credits: John Foley: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images; Journalist: John Cantlie/Getty Images