War reporters reflect after James Foley execution spreads online

"It just sucks. I hate it so much. It hurts a lot.”


Patrick Howell O'Neill


Published Aug 21, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 5:46 pm CDT

What drives someone to leave a comfy first-world life, fly to one of the most perilous places on Earth, and put themselves directly in death’s crosshairs?

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Syria, widely considered the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, has attracted scores of reporters from around the globe aiming to tell the stories of the ultraviolent civil war that has killed around 200,000 people and displaced nearly 10 million others since it began in 2011.

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The reporters keep arriving to give voice to the voiceless, to earn a paycheck, to have an adventure, to find success, and to see the world despite the fact that they will inevitably become targets themselves.

No single death from that war has hit the Western world so hard as the videotaped beheading of American photojournalist James Foley. First uploaded and spread on YouTube and Twitter, graphic images of the killing spread rapidly around the globe in a matter of minutes.

“We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” Foley’s mother wrote on Facebook after the video went viral. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”

For most, Foley’s execution serves as a stark reminder of the horrific lengths to which the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS) is willing to go to grab worldwide attention.

For journalists in violent regions, Foley’s murder was a deeply personal reminder of the risks their profession poses.

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Soon after the video circulated online, war correspondent Janine di Giovanni asked if the execution would mean the end of frontline reporting.

“The day after the video was released was a dark day for journalists,” di Giovanni wrote. “It shakes the very core of what we do and what we believe … Was his death—and the death of all the other dead journalists whose names are inscribed at the Newseum—really worth it?”

For di Giovanni, who has made her career by shedding light on the bloody conflicts of the Middle East, the answer is unclear. Others are far more certain that the answer is yes.

“People sometimes say that there’s no story worth dying for, but that’s not true,” Matthieu Aikins, an award-winning Canadian freelance reporter who recently left Aleppo, Syria, told the Daily Dot from his post in Kabul, Afghanistan. “There are some causes worth risking your life for, and bearing witness to the horror of war is one of them.

“At the end of the day, it’s a personal call as to how much risk you want to take, but we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think it was worth it.”

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Jeb Boone, an American freelance journalist (who wrote three articles  for the Daily Dot in 2013)  and a former managing editor of the Yemen Times, vehemently disagrees. Boone shared an editor with Foley and worked with Steven Sotloff, the second American journalist whose life was threatened in the Foley execution video. He now works in the United States.

“No, the stories aren’t worth dying for,” Boone wrote in an email. “If a reporter tells you that then it’s time to take them out of the field. You have to weigh every risk and every decision. Think about how the risk will affect your reporting—is it really going to make the story better? Is taking this risk absolutely necessary to maintain the integrity of my coverage? The answer, most of the time, is no.”

“Many journalists ask for help, many don’t,” Soazig Dollet, the head of Reporters Without Borders Middle East and North Africa desk, told the Daily Dot in a phone interview Wednesday. “Many have an attitude that the worst will not happen to them. ‘Everybody but not me.’”

While accepting the very real possibility of death may be a required rite of passage for a certain class of war journalists, the struggle to stay safe and secure is a daily fight that begins at the keyboard in front of every reporter and continues as they walk the street every day.

Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the international non-profit dedicated to defending freedom of the press abroad, offers digital security training to journalists all over the world. Ever since early 2013 when Edward Snowden leaked tens of thousands of documents detailing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) massive surveillance programs, journalists have become much more interested in digital security than ever before, according to RWB.

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Digital threats come from both nation-states and smaller armed groups. The Syrian regime, in particular, has engaged in a long and effective cyberwar against both rebels and journalists that has easily put real life security at risk.

“We teach reporters to protect their computer, data, and sources using tools like encrypted messages, virtual private messages, TrueCrypt,” Dollet explained. “And we’ve built a website called wefightcensorship.org to make it easy to understand how to protect yourself online.”

Many freelance reporters, however, don’t have the benefit of any training before they enter war zones like Afghanistan. They learn for themselves how to stay safe and they hope to have luck in the meantime.

“I hate to say it, but when I first started reporting from Yemen’s uprising, I took unnecessary risks and I was ill prepared to help myself and the others around me,” Boone says. “That’s true of a lot of freelancers, unfortunately. One organization looking to fix that is Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues [RISC].”

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RISC launched in 2011, after journalist Tim Hetherington was killed during the Libyan revolution. Hetherington, it turned out, didn’t have to die. Shrapnel from an airstrike hit him in the groin and cut his femoral artery. No one nearby knew how to help him, so Hetherington bled out in the back of a truck while driving to the closest hospital. Since then, RISC has helped train and supply reporters in war zones—including James Foley—to help medical aid and emergency preparedness that can easily save lives in war zones.

Wow, I found this in a reddit comment thread. James Foley truly was a beautiful person. pic.twitter.com/Y5B2OLOg2y

— Jeb Boone (@JebBoone) August 20, 2014

Many of the specific details about how journalists do work on the ground in dangerous areas is something of a guarded secret. Although organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists publish long, detailed guides about staying alive amidst chaos, the day-to-day work is kept closer to the chest.

“I cannot go into too much detail about how reporters do work there, because the risk is still too great for those who continue, myself included,” di Giovanni wrote.

In addition to offering freelancers like Foley insurance, training, and counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, RWB and RISC help set up journalists with bulletproof jackets, helmets, war-tested equipment and, perhaps most importantly, connections to locals they can trust.

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“My best protection has always been my ability to blend in with the locals,” Aikins told the Daily Dot. Hiding in plain sight can sometimes help more than any bulletproof armor. However, Aikins—who looks ethnically Middle Eastern and knew Persian before he ever entered the region—possesses a great advantage when it comes to blending in.

“I’m a giant white man, so I had no hope of keeping a low profile,” Boone, a native of Augusta, Georgia, said. “What’s a lot more important is becoming an active member of the communities you report in.”

Boone, who studied Arabic for several years before working in Yemen, said that the community protected him.

“‘You’d be an absolutely idiot to go there—’Don’t’ was what I needed to hear sometimes,” he explained.

“On lots of other occasions, their kindness was what protected me the most. I’ve been stuck in a stampede of protesters running from gunfire when a shop owner or a neighborhood resident would snatch me out of the crowd and pull me into their store or home. I’m not sure what would have happened to me without the kindness of a few strangers.”

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Only one year ago, the journalistic situation in Syria seemed like it had hit rock bottom. Reporters felt surrounded on all sides as colleagues were kidnapped at an unprecedented rate in the war-torn country. Hell rained down from above, as Assad-regime airstrikes killed prominent writers like Marie Colvin. Now, a new threat looms large.

“We know in the past few days, as ISIS is gaining more and more control around Aleppo and approaching the border, it’s getting more and more complicated for journalists to work,” Dollet explained. “They’re losing in Iraq and winning in Syria.”

Syria, which inherited the crown of deadliest country for journalists from Iraq, saw 49 reporters kidnapped in 2013. This year so far, that number has fallen drastically. The last attempted kidnapping of a journalist in the country took place in mid-May, when English war correspondent Anthony Loyd was taken, beaten, and shot by a man he’d eaten breakfast with a few hours earlier. Loyd was eventually freed by Syrian rebels.

The lower frequency of kidnappings and murders does not, however, mean Syria has become a safer place for journalists.

“I was just in Aleppo [before leaving for Kabul] and it felt far riskier than when I visited a year before,” Aikins said. “I think the situation is deteriorating in both countries for journalists.”

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These images of death and wholesale destruction in Gaza remind me of what I saw in Aleppo. http://t.co/uC78rHp5ij pic.twitter.com/qIj0QHQq4E

— Matthieu Aikins (@mattaikins) July 26, 2014

Kidnapping has traded places back and forth with shelling and outright execution as the greatest threat to journalists in the region. Reporters Without Borders representatives say kidnapping is emerging once again as the top threat to foreign reporters in Syria.

“It’s going to take a bit of time to assess the James Foley assassination,” Dollet said. “Will journalists go inside Syria as they were doing or no longer?  What precautions will they take? That’s a bit difficult to know now.”

There’s no telling what the future holds for reports inside conflicts like the Syrian civil war. However, the drive to show the world these cataclysmic events remains.

“I think a love of excitement and adventure drives most war correspondents,” Aikins said. “But [if] that’s all you have, then you’re just an adrenaline junkie.

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“In the end, it’s only by feeling empathy with the dispossessed victims of these wars that we can give our work moral purpose, and perhaps protect ourselves from the more corrosive aspects of risk-taking.”

“It’s part of the problem with these conflicts,” Foley said at his alma mater Northwestern University in 2011. “We’re not close enough to it.” Without trying “to get really close” to the people who are living through it all, said Foley, “we don’t understand the world.”

At the time of this speech, Foley had just recently been released from 44 days in captivity in Libya covering that country’s successful revolution.

“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 said. “Feeling like you survived something, it has a strange sort of force that you are drawn back to.”

Eid mubarak to all my dear friends in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and beyond. Let’s hope for better times ahead.

— Matthieu Aikins (@mattaikins) July 29, 2014

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Six years ago, Aikins first hitchhiked across the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border with the goal of writing about the American-led war in the country. Sleeping alongside roads and joining prayer at local mosques, he not only blended in with the locals but befriended them.

“When a colleague dies, it gets past your shell and touches you in a very personal way,” Aikins says, when we ask how the Foley video affected him. “At the same time, we have to be careful about elevating ourselves as Western correspondents above all the other innocent victims of war—our mourning should bring us together in solidarity with them, not set us apart.”

Across the media landscape, journalists who knew and respected Foley have been writing emotional reflections on his death. For those who put themselves in the crosshairs to tell the stories no one else dared to tell, as Foley did, there may be little choice but to dive head first into the pain.

Do not watch the video. Honor James Foley’s memory. He was a good damn reporter. The world is less good without him.

— Jeb Boone (@JebBoone) August 19, 2014

“The freelancer community is devastated. We’re scared, too,” Boone says. “We’ve all been arrested and detained at some point in our careers. Who knows what could have happened.

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“I know when someone dies everyone says, ‘Oh, they were so good.’ But Jim Foley really was good. Not a selfish bone in his body. Everything he did was for his friends, his family and the people he gave his life to help give voice to. Steven Sotloff, the second American depicted in the IS video, worked with me in Yemen for a short period of time. We’re obviously hoping beyond hope that he gets out of this somehow. It just sucks. I hate it so much. It hurts a lot.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Matthieu Aikins’s nationality. He is Canadian | Updated with details of Jeb Boone’s past contributions the Daily Dot.

Photo by Shafee Jamal (published with permission)

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*First Published: Aug 21, 2014, 3:00 pm CDT