James Foley and the Last Journalists in Syria

"It's part of the problem with these conflicts," Foley said. "We're not close enough to it."
Jonathan Pedneault

On the 636th day of James Foley's captivity, and roughly the 1,250th day of Syria's uprising-turned-civil-war, a video surfaced online that claimed to show the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria beheading the American photojournalist, in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against the Sunni extremist group in Iraq (the militants also threatened to kill the missing American journalist Steven Sotloff, who seems from the footage to be an ISIS captive as well). The Obama administration has confirmed the authenticity of the video, and the Foley family has paid tribute to the slain reporter.

"We have never been prouder of our son Jim," Foley's mother posted on Facebook on Tuesday evening. "He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people."

That exposure is growing fainter by the day. Foley died while working in what is now the most dangerous place in the world to be a reporter—a country where dozens of journalists have been killed and kidnapped in recent years. As the Syrian conflict has grown more indiscriminately violent; as the Syrian government has targeted journalists, censored local news coverage, and barred foreign journalists from the country; as ever-stronger extremist groups have started seizing members of the press (and not even bothering to make demands for their release), news outlets around the world have pulled their staff from the country. Many Syrian journalists and citizen-journalists have been silenced. Freelancers—empowered by the journalistic tools at their disposal, but often lacking the professional experience and institutional safety nets that are invaluable when working in conflict zones—initially helped shore up the coverage, but they too have been deterred by the deteriorating security situation and by risk-conscious news organizations that are wary of publishing their work.

As The Atlantic's David Rohde wrote in November, "Syria today is the scene of the single largest wave of kidnappings in modern journalism, more than in Iraq during the 2000s or Lebanon during the 1980s. A combination of criminality, jihadism, and chaos is bringing on-the-ground coverage of the war to a halt."

The result: The Syrian civil war, which has left more than 170,000 people dead and displaced 9 million more, in perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis so far this century, is grinding on as a dwindling cohort of daring journalists bear witness to its tremendous destruction. It's grinding on in the background of our churning news cycle. We see its deleterious effects everywhere in the Middle East. But we rarely see it.

The 40-year-old Foley, a graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism and a Teach for America alum from New Hampshire, was abducted in northwestern Syria in November 2012. He'd come to the country as a freelancer after embedding with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and being captured by Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces while covering the 2011 Libyan revolution.

And he understood the importance of the work he was doing in countries like Syria. "It's part of the problem with these conflicts. ... 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," he told an audience at Medill in 2011, shortly after returning from his 44-day ordeal in Libya.

He admitted that his motivations were as prosaic as they were high-minded. Asked why he'd decided to travel to the Middle East, he responded, "My brother [a member of the U.S. military] was over there, I guess some kind of romantic notion you have about yourself, too: You want to be a writer, you want to see the world, fiction didn't work out too well, let's try the real thing."

"The honest fact is that when you see something really violent, it does a strange thing to you. It doesn't always repel you," he added. "Feeling like you survived something, it has a strange sort of force that you are drawn back to."

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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