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Home > Publications > Quill > Ultimate Risk: Remembering James Foley and Steven Sotloff


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Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Ultimate Risk: Remembering James Foley and Steven Sotloff

After their murders, the journalism world is asking whether some of the most important stories are worth the risk.

By Genevieve Belmaker

There was no question that Steven Sotloff knew what he was doing. The 31-year-old journalist from Florida had worked for years in the Middle East. He spoke Arabic. He knew how to navigate the myriad dangers of enemy combatants, hostile government forces and the painful effects of war on civilians.

The stories he told of what he’d witnessed were often eloquent and heartbreaking.

“At camps such as Atmeh, located less than 1,000 feet from the border with Turkey, they are struggling to survive without heat, electricity, or adequate sanitation,” Sotloff wrote in a January 2013 article for Foreign Policy magazine about a Syrian refugee camp. “The meager rations provided by a smattering of small NGOs leave them scrounging in order to keep their hunger at bay.”

The retelling of a haunting image of suffering marked the beginning of his last year as a reporter. In August 2013, Sotloff and his trusted fixer, Yosef Abobaker, were abducted by 15 masked ISIS gunmen. Abobaker, who spoke for the first time with CNN two weeks after Sotloff was beheaded by ISIS militants, described the journalist as a “nice man” with a “good heart.”

Click on each thumbnail to see the full image with caption.

Abobaker said he tried to send an apology to Sotloff’s family, who have remained largely silent, on Facebook.

“I am so sorry,” Abobakar recounted to CNN of his message to the bereaved parents. “I did my best to save him. ... my feeling is so sorry, like I lost my brother.”

In many ways, Sotloff’s career — largely kicked off by his reporting on the Arab Spring — was just getting started. In addition to his work for Foreign Policy, he had also been published in Time magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Israel’s Media Line and other outlets. The U.S.-born reporter also had joint American-Israeli citizenship and was respected by both the Arab and Israeli media.

In Israel, news of Sotloff’s death was visceral.

“It was horrifying, and the reaction was very public,” said Aryeh Green, director of Jerusalem’s MediaCentral, a hub in the city’s center that offers a wide variety of free assistance — computers and work space, and informational sessions and site tours, largely to foreign journalists.

“There was a lot of discussion in the press about the beheading, about the danger to journalists, and not so much focused on the issue of freelancers but focused on the environment surrounding us,” Green said of how the country reflected.

Sotloff’s abduction was kept under tight wraps for the better part of a year, an intentional move on the part of his family to aid in his release.

Green said that Sotloff’s status as a Jew, had it been known to his captors, likely would have been used as a propaganda tool against the Jewish world. He said the starkest example of a similar case was the high-profile abduction and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl who was forced in taped sessions to talk about the fact that he was Jewish.

For Green, “there’s no question” that being Jewish sometimes needs to be hidden by reporters working in the Middle East and covering the Arab world so they can protect themselves. In Steven Sotloff’s case, it was somehow undiscovered by his captors.

“Sotloff was not killed because he was Jewish or Israeli,” he said. “If they had known he was Israeli or Jewish, that was something that would have been highly publicized.”

Regardless of personal backgrounds or ethnic roots, Green believes the overall violent climate in the region at large is the root of problems reporters are running into while working in the field. During the most recent fighting between Hamas in Gaza and Israel, the gruesome murder of dozens of Arabs in the middle of Gaza made many journalists more than a little jittery about safety.

The need for extreme caution against a backdrop where reporters are being so publicly murdered is slowly but surely creating a de facto situation of self-censorship. It simply isn’t safe enough for reporters to go into Syria, and other pockets in neighboring countries remain incredibly dangerous.

“Because of the hostile environment to journalists, we’re not really seeing the whole picture of what’s going on,” Green said.

In Sotloff’s case, he had planned to take a step back from being a reporter after his August 2013 trip to Syria.

In a Sept. 2 essay for The Daily Beast, Ben Taub described a haunting encounter he’d had with his friend Sotloff. During a conversation over beers at a hotel in Turkey near the Syrian border, Sotloff told Taub he’d grown weary of taking punches, dodging bullets and being called a spy. He was thinking of going home to Florida to attend graduate school.

“But first he wanted one last Syria run,” Taub wrote. “He said he was chasing a good story, but kept the specifics close to his chest.”

That drive to do the job and get the story that Sotloff and so many others like him possess, even in Syria, has contributed to a grim new reality. Syria — for the powerful and deeply important stories that it holds — has the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous country in the world for journalists to work in for the last two years running.

Like other media freedom organizations, the Committee to Protect Journalists has consistently railed against the horrors that plague journalists who dare to work in the country. The list of alarming offenses is long.

According to CPJ, there have been over 80 confirmed kidnappings of journalists in Syria. However, some abductions are not publicized, so the exact number is almost impossible to know. At least 20 journalists are now missing in Syria, mostly locals, and many are believed to be held by ISIS.

CPJ took the news of Sotloff’s murder as another tragic opportunity to sound the alarm about the realities of working in the country.

"Journalists know that covering war is inherently dangerous and that they could get killed in crossfire,” CPJ’s executive director Joel Simon said in a statement. “But being butchered in front of camera simply for being a reporter is pure barbarism.”

The death toll is also high. In addition to Sotloff, at least 70 other journalists have been killed covering the conflict in Syria, including some who died on the Lebanon and Turkey sides of the border.

James Foley was one of them.

The 40-year-old freelancer from New Hampshire was widely known and well-respected by friends and colleagues. A graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, he started working as a journalist in 2007 and worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.

Once held captive for 44 days in 2011 by Moammar Gadhafi’s Libyan regime, Foley was released. He then took a turn working behind a desk for GlobalPost, an outlet he’d worked with, but it didn’t suit his adventurous, outgoing nature.

Charles Sennott, who worked with Foley at GlobalPost, described the short-lived change of pace.

“I asked Jim Foley to sit down when he came back from Libya and really think about lessons learned,” said Sennott, who said they’d first started working with him in 2010. “I think he had miscalculated. He had embedded with the U.S. military, and in Libya he had traveled with rebel soldiers. He had put too much faith (in this working). The rebel soldiers had gone too far ahead, and the Libyan army came over the hill and the rebel soldiers fled.”

Sennott, who is a GlobalPost co-founder and executive director its GroundTruth Project, said the self-reflection ultimately led Foley back to where his heart was: out in the field.

“There really was no stopping Jim from getting back to the field, because it was the passion of his life.”

Though those at GlobalPost and others who knew Foley were shocked by his murder, they’ve also found solace in the tremendous contributions he made. He went missing in November 2012 while reporting in Syria for Agence France- Presse and GlobalPost.

“It’s sobering to think of the deaths of Jim and Steve,” said Sennott, who described Foley as an “extraordinary talent.” The true legacy of both men, he said, is how “inspiring their work was, how passionate they were.”

Sennott said the epitome of Foley’s skill can be seen in video footage he shot in Kunar Province in Afghanistan in September 2010, which he describes as “one of the most compelling pieces of reporting GlobalPost has ever done.”

The footage shows a gunfight from inside an American Humvee and the moment when the gunner gets shot. It takes a couple of minutes for the soldiers to realize that the helmet stopped the bullet.

“The guy is going to live, and there’s a celebration inside of the Humvee,” Sennott said.

The video made it clear to Sennott and others that they were dealing with someone special.

“I think the emotion of that (moment in the Humvee) came pouring through from the way that Jim shot it,” he said. “We knew he was an extraordinary talent.”

The deaths of Foley, Sotloff and too many others over the past few years have given even more momentum to GlobalPost’s focus on its relatively young endeavor, The GroundTruth Project. The project’s mission is to train and mentor the next generation of correspondents to do work well — and safely.

It’s an ambitious endeavor that might just save someone’s life.

THE DARK SIDE OF FREELANCING

The deaths of Foley and Sotloff have occurred against the macabre backdrop of the advance of ISIS, also known as ISIL, which rebranded itself the “Islamic State.” Videos depicting brutally violent acts of the Islamic State group are prevalent and readily available on the Internet. Worse yet, when they murdered journalists Foley and then Sotloff, and most recently aid worker David Haines, portions of those images are broadcast around the world and shared far and wide on social media.

AFP, the only international news agency with a bureau in Damascus, still regularly sends reporters into areas loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and obtains information and images from local stringers in rebel areas. They will not send reporters into rebel-held areas, though, and haven’t since August 2013.

The news agency’s policy when it comes to freelancers who unilaterally venture into rebel-held areas falls in line with policies for internal staff. They simply will not use the work produced by those freelancers, a position reiterated by AFP global news editor Michele Leridon on Sept. 17.

“If someone travels to Syria and offers us images or information when they return, we will not use it,” Leridon wrote on an AFP blog. “Freelancers have paid a high price in the Syrian conflict. High enough. We will not encourage people to take that kind of risk.”

A similar policy is also in place for the BBC, which also refuses work from freelancers covering Ebola in West Africa.

As Leridon describes it, the situation in Syria has become so dire for reporters that despite the enormity of the story and its impact on the rest of the world, it is nearly impossible to work in certain areas.

“In a war zone there are always pockets of relative safety where a journalist can work, file stories and get some rest,” Leridon wrote. “What makes Syria different is the lack of any such safe haven in the rebel-held zone. The country is dangerous from one end to the other.”

The reality for freelancers has become an impossible juxtaposition between the inherent instinct and need to report the news, colliding against a growing reality that the number of outlets willing to buy such work is dwindling.

For Nicole Tung, a freelance photographer who has worked in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Turkey and has been published in The New York Times and elsewhere, the new world is a bitter pill.

“For Syria, I desperately want to go back,” Tung said in mid-September at New York’s Paley Center as part of a panel of female journalists who have worked in conflict zones.

Many of the people she has worked with directly in Syria are widely branded as activists, but to Tung they’re doing the important work of journalists. She believes the information they provide has become even more important with the sharp decline in foreign press on the ground. It’s a high-risk business, though.

“There’s just no sense of security for them at all,” she said. “For me, I can just leave anytime I want. We’re relying on Syrian journalists, and oftentimes it’s difficult for them to be objective, whatever that means.”

As for her going back into the country, the time just isn’t right yet.

Tung has been personally and deeply affected by violence in the region where she’s spent so much time working since she started photographing the Arab Spring in 2011. Fellow fallen journalists Marie Colvin, Chris Hondros and James Foley were all friends of hers.

Still, she’s tried to “soldier on.”

“In Syria it was breaking in 2012, but now the security has deteriorated so much that ... everything needs to be done in so much detail,” Tung said of the detailed planning, risk assessment, insurance and more needed to work in the region.

Many times, whether in Syria or elsewhere, she’s also had to pick and choose what stories she covers.

“That’s not easy when you’re a freelancer and you don’t have a steady paycheck.”

Then there are the potential clients who, unlike the AFP, the BBC and others, will gladly peruse images she’s produced for possible publication. There’s a catch, though: Tung said the deal in those cases always includes a disturbing caveat: Those types of clients have said they’re willing to look at her work only after she gets out of the country; “essentially if I was still alive.”

Tung’s experiences as a freelancer in this regard are relatively common, and an unfortunate part of working without the backing of a large media organization that can pay to properly train, equip and back up reporters if they get into trouble in the field.

“It’s kind of a lonely place to be when you’re a freelancer,” she said.

RISKS BOTH OLD AND NEW

In New York City, a global hub for journalists of every stripe, the murders of Foley and Sotloff and the increasingly violent dangers reporters in the field face have reverberated on many fronts.

Many who were friends with or encountered Foley from his time in New York (Sotloff was largely based overseas) were also friends with photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, who died while working in Misrata, Libya, in 2011.

Their deaths came at a time before the advance of the Islamic State group and the ongoing crisis in Syria, and prompted some at the time to leave the world of conflict reporting.

Michael Kamber, founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, was one of them.

Kamber is a 25-year veteran photojournalist who spent a decade photographing conflict in locales that included Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Liberia, Darfur and the Congo. The deaths of Hetherington, a close friend, Hondros and others contributed to his decision to quit covering conflict.

To that end, in 2011, he founded the Bronx Documentary Center, a non-profit gallery and educational space that shares photography, film and new media with underserved Bronx communities and the general public. They also host basic field medicine training programs for conflict journalists trained through Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, or RISC.

In 2012, one of the RISC trainees was James Foley, who Kamber described as “just a lovely guy.”

“He was not just a journalist, but very outgoing and community minded,” Kamber said.

Kamber’s take on risks reporters face today is pragmatic and taken in context of conflict reporting as far back as the Vietnam War.

“I think it’s always been dangerous. It’s never been a cakewalk,” he said, adding that those working in Vietnam could say “ journalist” in the local language for some degree of protection. Not so today.

“I think it’s exponentially more dangerous (now),” he said. “It’s a difference between somebody getting caught in the crossfire and someone hunting you down. With Islamic fundamentalists, there’s no protection. They don’t even understand or care about the concept of a neutral press or an objective press.”

In fact, being an American journalist can put a target on your back.

“I think they come from an ideology that is incredibly simplistic,” said Kamber, who believes that an objective, caring journalist is the cornerstone of American democracy, which is exactly what those killing hate. “There are no shades of gray. If you’re an American journalist then you represent the American government. They want to strike a blow against America, and nobody has immunity.”

Kamber’s most chilling assessment, though, is about the way reporters are now being used for fundamentalist propaganda. An image of a reporter in an orange jumpsuit who is about to be murdered sends a message in the most sinister way: An objective journalist is in the way and is somebody to be gotten rid of. He feels that it wasn’t always like that.

“When I started out, both sides welcomed us,” he said. “I feel like now people don’t want us to tell their story. They want to tell their own story. The journalists are no longer needed by any of the actors to get their message out.”

Despite his perspective, Kamber still believes in the power of the pen, film footage and photographs. In fact, he sees the role of the media as a powerful antidote to ignorance, fear and one-sided narratives forced on the public through the use of mass media.

“A good, solid independent journalist can be a threat,” he said. “They can contradict your propaganda.”

Rachel Beth Anderson, a filmmaker who also knew Foley and was in his circle of friends, was shocked by the news of his death. But it also confirmed to her that the unwritten rules everyone used to at least loosely follow have changed.

“A journalist used to be hands off (as a target),” she said. “They were respected and not targeted. Now, today, journalists are full-on being targeted.”

Anderson spent seven months in Libya during the war there in 2011 making her documentary film, “First to Fall,” which follows two young Libyan friends who join rebel forces to fight against Gadhafi. After Foley died, she decided to screen the film at the Bronx Documentary Center as a fundraiser for The James W. Foley Legacy Fund, which was recently established by his family.

For Anderson, when people watch “First to Fall,” it proves to her why an objective, independent perspective is so critical, despite the very real risks.

“I’ve had people who have had to walk out of my film because they can’t handle it,” she said. “That’s the importance of having people in these places; otherwise it gets romanticized.”

FIXERS AND OTHER SUPPORT

One obvious problem freelance journalists face is support. Large media organizations provide everything a journalist needs: pre-reporting risk assessment and training, equipment, support in the field, financial backing and a guarantee of publication at the end of the day.

In the world of freelancers, the benefits of choosing what to report and when to go are increasingly dampened by the uncertainty of how reporting can be safely accomplished and who will buy the work.

Stories of media outlets of all types unwilling to commit to taking a story until a reporter comes back alive are becoming increasingly common. Anderson said what happened to Sotloff and Foley raised a lot of questions about how freelancers are treated overall.

“I think that shouldn’t happen,” she said. “I think you either support people fully because they are providing the content or you make the conscious decision that even if you go, we’re not going to use your footage.”

The onus should be on the media outlet, said Anderson, who went to Libya without insurance and without backing of any kind. In hindsight, she realized that if she had needed someone to negotiate for her release, the task would have fallen on her family.

Those familiar with Sotloff’s capture have made similar assessments, even pointing out that his fixer, Abobaker, likely had valuable information about who might have targeted them. He said in his CNN interview that the U.S. government never even interviewed him for information. The government hasn’t responded to his claims.

There’s also the work of weighing possible outcomes, which GlobalPost’s Sennott said falls squarely on the shoulders of journalists. He has learned from hard personal experience that making the decision to put your life on the line to tell a story should come with a hefty reality check.

In the course of his career, Sennott has covered about 15 conflicts, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war in Kosovo. As a father of three and a husband, he learned early on to make calculated assessments about the risks versus the reward.

“When everyone does the calculus of risks as to whether or not they are going to go in and cover war, the question is, ‘Are you adding value and knowledge?’” he said. Those who can honestly answer yes on both counts can be good sources of information, add context and bring a fresh view to the story.

“I think the journalists who bring something to the stories they are covering are the ones who do the best work,” he said.

Fixers like Abobaker, local assistants for hire to overseas reporters, are often critical to success. They are often necessary, but they present unique challenges and can be risky if not vetted carefully. Journalists experienced in working with fixers recommend word of mouth and checking the individual’s record with those who have worked with him in the past (fixers are usually men).

For freelance photographer Tung, her fixer is often key.

“In certain situations, you rely on your fixer,” she said. “They know the country.”

There are times when it’s up to the reporter to troubleshoot or diffuse a situation, particularly when a person or group of people has become aggressive, angry or even hostile. Tung has found that simply expressing empathy works well, as does physically backing away and apologizing profusely for intruding, while saying, “I’m leaving, I’m leaving.” It’s worked for her.

“Just sweet talking your way out of things can work,” she said, adding that “a lot of times being a woman helps.”

In one instance, she was stuck with another woman on the Syrian side of the Syria-Turkey border and wanted to get across before nightfall. They begged with the guard to let them pass, showing photos of family members.

“I didn’t want to spend the night asleep in an open field with men around,” she said. The theatrics paid off, and they were allowed to cross the border.

Tung’s experience, and the experience countless other journalists have faced while working in hostile environments, demonstrates a simple fact: Regardless of support, it’s often up to the person on the ground to make or break situations.

She recommends mapping the territory ahead of time, knowing your escape routes and being prepared to exercise self-defense (but to never carry a gun). Planning for the worst can buy you just enough time so you can escape if necessary.

“It’s not paranoia,” Tung said. “If you don’t have an escape plan, it can be bad.”

Genevieve Belmaker is a New York City-based journalist covering crime and criminal justice, and a regular Quill contributor. Contact her at genevievemlong@gmail.com or interact on Twitter: @genevieve_long

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