Journalist Austin Tice has been missing in Syria for six years. Is it still news?

August 8, 2018
Marc and Debra Tice, parents of US journalist Austin Tice who was kidnapped in Syria five years prior, hold portraits of him during a press conference in the Lebanese capital Beirut on July 20, 2017. (Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

On August 13, 2012, only a few days after celebrating his 31st birthday, freelance journalist Austin Tice emailed his father back in Houston to let him know he had wrapped up his reporting from Syria. Tice’s parents have not heard from him since. Austin went missing the following day, August 14, while traveling by taxi from the Damascus suburb of Daraya to the Lebanese border.

Throughout Austin’s captivity, the Tices have sought to engage the media and the public, believing that keeping their son’s case in the spotlight would help ensure the US government stays focused on his recovery. But after nearly six years, generating media attention has become difficult and frustrating. “Many journalists stay in touch with us, but without a new development, their organizations seem more and more reluctant to devote space to the fact that one of their own continues to be held against his will,” Austin’s father Marc told me.

Austin’s parents are convinced their son is alive. US officials with whom I’ve spoken told me the same thing. But what is happening behind the scenes is extremely sensitive. In June 2017, The New York Times published a story describing the Trump administration’s efforts to set up a back channel with the Syrian government, and cited rumors that Austin was seen in a Damascus hospital being treated for dehydration. In April, the FBI offered a $1 million award for information leading to Austin’s safe recovery and return.

The Trump administration has made the recovery of American hostages a foreign-policy priority, and the Tices say they have met with senior officials, including briefly with President Trump himself, who was personally aware of Austin’s case.

Departing Obama administration officials made a special point of briefing Trump’s national security team on the outstanding hostage cases during the transition in January 2017. In a rare instance of continuity, the Trump administration has kept in place structures created following the Obama administration’s Hostage Policy Review, which was carried out in 2015 in response to the  murder of American hostages in Syria. In May, after more than a year-long vacancy, the Trump administration named Los Angeles lawyer Robert C. O’Brien as the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. The Tices told me they are in regular contact with O’Brien.

Unlike some hostage families who have elected to “black out” all media coverage, fearing that publicity could lead to increased ransom demands, the Tices have sought from the outset to generate public attention. Working with the press freedom group Reporters without Borders, they have secured full-page ads in US newspapers; handed out “Free Austin Tice” pins at media events; convinced the Newseum in Washington, DC to hang a “Free Austin Tice” banner; and organized a social media campaign featuring photos of people wearing blindfolds to simulate Austin’s captivity. They have traveled regularly to the Middle East and held several press conferences in Beirut. In the US, they have appeared everywhere from morning shows to the evening news.

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To mark the sixth anniversary of Austin’s captivity next Tuesday, the National Press Club is hosting an event with Tice’s parents and representatives from McClatchy and The Washington Post, both of which published Austin’s work from Syria. “Austin Tice is a talented, courageous, and committed freelance journalist,” said Doug Jehl, the Post’s foreign editor. “His parents, Marc and Debra, have championed his cause with passion, courage and fortitude.” McClatchy is distributing #FreeAustinTice flags and banners, which will be displayed in their offices and newsrooms throughout the country. (At least five other journalists are missing in Syria and more than 120 journalists have been killed covering the conflict.,)  

The Tices welcome feature stories and expressions of solidarity. But they are wary of probing coverage of the behind-the-scenes machinations, which they fear could jeopardize the sensitive efforts to get Austin back safely.

In September 2012, a month after Austin disappeared, a video was released showing the journalist blindfolded and disoriented in the custody of purported Islamist militants. US officials and journalists described the video as a crude effort to deflect attention from the Syrian government’s involvement in his abduction. The Tices refuse to comment or speculate, noting that they do not know who is holding their son, and have never been contacted by anyone seeking his release. “Exposés, or speculations about potentially sensitive efforts to gain Austin’s freedom are disturbing at best and threaten our efforts and Austin’s safety at worst,” Marc Tice tells me.

I’ve also had informal conversations with a few reporters who told me they have tremendous sympathy for the the Tice family but also feel that any information about Austin’s whereabouts or efforts to secure his release is inherently newsworthy and should be reported.

Given the dearth of new developments in Austin’s case, I called Terry Anderson to ask him how he thought journalists should think about coverage. Anderson, the former AP bureau chief who was held hostage for seven and a half years in Lebanon, is semi-retired and lives in Virginia (and is the honorary chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists). He remains passionate about supporting hostage families and called the Tices at home in Houston not long after Austin went missing. The Tices were grateful for the call, but also found it somewhat unsettling. “At the time, we weren’t thinking about the possibility that Austin’s case could go on for months or years,” Marc Tice recalls.

Six years into his own captivity, Anderson recalls, his goal was to get through each day believing—but not daring to hope—that he would soon go free (in his eloquent new book The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast, journalist Michael Scott Moore writes that “hope is like heroin to a hostage” because of the terrible emotional crash that sets in each time it’s dashed.)

Anderson argues that media attention in long-term hostage situations accomplishes two critical things. First, it keeps pressure on the government, which, even if it is focused on the case, must also juggle competing priorities. Second, there is a chance that the hostage in captivity will hear through the media about the efforts to win their release, boosting their spirits and making them feel less isolated and alone.  

As a journalist himself, Anderson recognizes the dilemma. Journalists first and foremost have a responsibility to cover the news and keep their readers informed. They need to apply their own judgement about what is news. Their interests may diverge from those of hostage families who are understandably seeking to manage and control information in ways that will further the resolution of their case.

Still, Anderson tells me, in the case of hostages, news judgement alone cannot drive the agenda, especially when a reporter is the victim. “It’s a fellow journalist, for Christ’s sake,” Anderson argues. “If you can find a way to cover it, you have a moral obligation to do so.” On August 14, it will be six years since Austin Tice disappeared. It’s up to the media to keep his case alive.

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.