Georgetown University’s undergraduate Journalism Program presented an event Wednesday night on the plight of Austin Tice (SFS ‘02), who disappeared while freelance reporting on the conflict in Syria in 2012, and its implications and lessons for the journalism community as a whole. The event was part of the 2016 Salim El-Lozi Lecture series, which annually brings speakers to campus to discuss the First Amendment and global freedom of the press.
The event’s speakers were Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra, Daily Beast Senior National Security Correspondent Nancy Youssef, and Delphine Halgand, the U.S. Director of Reporters Without Borders (RWB). The discussion was moderated by Sanford Ungar, a Georgetown Scholar in Residence focusing on free speech issues, and the former co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Attendees were welcomed to a pitch-black auditorium, with the exception of a single, brightly-lit chair on center stage. “People keep telling me to be safe, as if that’s an option. They keep asking me why I’m doing this crazy thing,” boomed a voice over the loudspeakers. “Every person in this country fighting for their freedom wakes up every day and goes to sleep every night with the knowledge that death could visit them at any moment. They accept that reality as the price of freedom. They’re alive in a way that almost no Americans today even know how to be. They live with greater passion and dream with greater ambition because they are not afraid of death. Neither were the pioneers. Neither were our granddads. Neither was Neil Armstrong. And neither am I.” Such were some of the last words posted on Facebook by Tice, whose current whereabouts remain unknown.
Tice’s parents mentioned that he was initially inspired to work as a journalist in the Middle East after serving in the United States Marine Corps. Tice’s father recalled that his son became interested in the plight of Iraqis and Afghans in his time in the military. He went to Syria out of a desire to share “the human effects of the war” with the world. Tice’s parents recalled that the first reports on their son’s whereabouts surfaced ten days after his disappearance when a Czech diplomat mentioned that Tice had been arrested on a Prague news program. Tice’s father called this event “very strange,” as well as “consequential too, because at that point, the decision about going public with Austin’s situation was taken out of our hands.” This announcement was shortly followed by a YouTube video from an unknown source showcasing Tice, alive and in captivity.
Tice’s parents then detailed their ongoing struggle to rescue their son. His father mentioned that at the outset of their family crisis, it was frustratingly clear that the United States government lacked a set architecture for gathering intelligence on and mounting a rescue effort for a missing freelance journalist in a war-torn country such as Syria. Tice’s mother detailed that the family’s current rescue strategies operate on “much more of a personal level;” the family has worked to try to contact and influence various diplomats and government officials who potentially have influence in Syria.
Tice’s parents urged attendees to speak out, especially to government officials, in order to spread awareness about their son’s plight. “The important thing for us with the campaign is for our government, the of the people, by the people, for the people, to hear that the people want something done,” said Tice’s father. Tice’s mother added that the current election climate threatens Tice’s prospects for a safe rescue as politicians become flooded with distractions “We need to get Austin home before this election ramps up any more,” she said.
Every attendee was given a black blindfold emblazoned with the #freeaustintice hashtag, part of an ongoing RWF public awareness campaign. “When a journalist is kidnapped, the image is often that he is blindfolded,” noted Halgand, “but actually when a journalist is kidnapped, we are all blindfolded, because we are all deprived of information.” He also decried international suppression of journalism, citing 54 journalists worldwide who are currently being held hostage, 150 who are currently detained, and approximately 800 who have been killed while reporting in the last 10 years.
Youssef’s remarks expanded on this theme. “There have been a number of examples where the lack of journalism has really changed our conversation and our understanding of major events,” she said, “There were no journalists, Western journalists, in Benghazi.” This lack of effective reporting, Youssef asserted, has contributed to the ongoing confusion around the Benghazi crisis.
Ata Akiner, a member of the Georgetown Law Center’s Student Bar Association cited significant support at the Law Center for Tice. When asked, undergraduate students also had generally positive reactions to the event. Laura DeGeorges, an exchange student, said she was “pleasantly surprised, but also shocked to see how confident” Tice’s parents were, considering their son’s circumstances. Nate Card (COL ’18) added that he found it interesting that many in attendance expressed interest in war journalism as a defined career. War journalism “shouldn’t be a desirable thing,” he said, “but now apparently it is.” Sam Patterson (SFS ‘16) speculated that Austin Tice’s actual situation is sensitive information; “I think there’s a very good reason for the amount of detail we were or were not given.”