WASHINGTON — Austin Tice was well on his way to a law degree when the pull of journalism got to be too much for him. Fascinated by the Middle East and frustrated with news coverage he saw as often too shallow, he decided to see if he could do better.
“It always drove Austin crazy when they’d say on the news this couldn’t be confirmed because it’s too difficult to report,’’ said Marc Tice, Austin’s father. “He thought, ‘I’ve got the ability to do this. I can get in there and get these stories.’ ’’
Four months ago, Tice was captured in Syria delivering on that commitment with fresh and compelling freelance reports regularly published in McClatchy newspapers and The Washington Post. While the wait for news on his whereabouts drags on, we wanted to make the case for why this work is so vital and why he should be released.
We also want to draw attention to the delicate role of foreign reporters in places such as Syria. Understanding the savage tableau of war helps citizens, societies and governments make judgments and set policies that affect millions of people. At its best, journalism may save lives by making the costs and consequences of war more vivid.
Inevitably, journalists take risks when they cover wars. We’ve lost friends and colleagues in battle; the brother of one of us, a photographer, was wounded seriously 20 years ago in Sarajevo. But the risks should not include kidnapping, torture or murder.
And yet, so far this year, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 67 journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work.
In Syria, the number killed in combat or murdered is 28, a rate the committee says approaches the worst annual tally of the Iraq War. Foreign and Syrian reporters alike have been killed. Even the head of Libya’s state-run SANA agency was assassinated. This week, NBC’s chief of foreign correspondents, Richard Engel, and his crew escaped a kidnapping in Syria after a gunfight between their captors and rebels.
Many of the journalists at risk in conflict zones today aren’t on staff at big, traditional news organizations. The uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East have attracted freelance journalists who don’t need mainstream news outlets to reach an audience. New technologies enable them to upload video directly to YouTube or report battles in real time to followers on Twitter or Facebook.
Like many freelancers, Tice followed an unusual path to foreign reporting, an assignment that can take decades to earn on a big newspaper’s staff. A captain in the Marines who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tice left the service and went to Georgetown law school. It was just after his second year when he gave in to the tug of journalism that dated back to high school.
Equipped with cameras, an exquisite writing talent and an instinct for finding his way to the center of things, he slipped over the Turkish border into Syria in May. At one point, he managed to get by checkpoints in Damascus by dressing as a woman despite his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame.
His work has been courageous and professional, contributing to the montage of truth that has shaped the world’s understanding of the Syrian conflict. Though he traveled mostly with the rebels, Tice was as interested in one side as the other, in capturing opposing viewpoints and casualties.
He focused on how the rebels were gaining momentum over the summer. He also helped to break the news in August that rebels were carrying out executions and torture. He was often on the front lines of the conflict. He celebrated his 31st birthday, he noted in his last Twitter post before his capture in mid-August, to the sounds of bombs landing nearby.
Information on his captivity, and even on who is holding him, has been hard to confirm despite the constant efforts of his family, our news organizations and contacts in the U.S. and other governments.
Tice was in the country without a visa, as have been the majority of those covering this story. As his captivity heads into its fifth month, he has long since paid the price if this is seen as a violation of the country’s borders.
We believe his own story makes the best argument for his release.
He has surely met the high standards of depth and fairness that drew him to this work. His reporting has served both Syria and the wider world with coverage that cannot exist without dedicated reporters such as Austin Tice. Those responsible for his capture and detention have a moral obligation to return him to his family, his friends and his work.
Brauchli is the executive editor of The Washington Post, and Gyllenhaal is the vice president for news at McClatchy. email: Brauchlim@Washpost.com, Agyllenhaal@McClatchy.com