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A tale of two bleak press-freedom anniversaries

By Jon Allsop

Ten years ago last Thursday, Austin Tice, an American journalist who was in Syria reporting on that country’s escalating civil war, turned thirty-one. Three days later, he went missing. He has been seen only once since, in a brief video, posted to social media shortly after his disappearance, that showed armed men in masks leading a blindfolded Tice and chanting “God is great.” At the time, some experts and US State Department officials cautioned that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad may have staged the video to deflect blame for abducting Tice onto rebel jihadist militants, when in fact the regime detained Tice itself.
 
Last week, with Tice on the cusp of turning forty-one, the Washington Post, where he was a contributor, unfurled a banner above the entrance to its DC newsroom, emblazoned with the words, “BRING AUSTIN HOME.” Yesterday, on the tenth anniversary of his abduction, the Post dedicated its social-media channels to spreading the same message. At the nearby National Press Club, similar words—“#FREE AUSTIN TICE”—adorned the icing of baked goods. The club was holding an event (described on invitations as a “Welcome Home Party for Austin Tice”) to draw attention to his case and support his family. Debra Tice, his mother, was among the speakers. She described the ten-year anniversary as among the most painful days she’s faced since Tice was kidnapped. She also expressed her belief that the world will soon see Tice walk free.

Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, also addressed the event, insisting, via a video message, that Tice’s case is a priority for the US government. In the ten years since Tice’s abduction, this has not always seemed to be the case. At various times in that period, Tice’s family has been “furious with the FBI, the State Department, the White House, the media and themselves,” the Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote last week, with Debra unafraid “to confront bureaucrats, especially those whom she deems unhelpful, lazy or uncaring.” She believes that some bureaucrats in the State Department have concluded that her son can’t be brought home and thus given up on him, throwing up internal “obstacles” to trying. Debra says that she still regrets not taking a meeting with the Syrian regime a few months after Tice disappeared, after an FBI agent told them not to. If US officials spoke with the regime in the years after that, the Tice family never learned of the talks. The regime, still, has not acknowledged that it is holding Tice, despite the widespread belief that it is, or at least has access to him.
 
Something did change in 2020 when Kash Patel, a top staffer in Trump’s White House, and Roger Carstens, a US diplomat who oversees hostage affairs, traveled to Syria for the first known, high-level, face-to-face talks between White House officials and the regime in a decade. (The New York Times reported that Mike Pompeo, then President Trump’s CIA director, called a top Syrian security official to discuss Tice in 2017, and that a senior agency official met in person with the same counterpart in Syria eighteen months later.) After Trump left office, it emerged that these efforts had not borne fruit, with the Associated Press reporting that administration officials had balked both at the regime’s demands—which included diplomatic normalization with the US and the withdrawal of US troops still stationed on Syrian territory—and its unwillingness to offer any concrete information as to Tice’s whereabouts. (“I would say it’s probably one of my biggest failures under the Trump administration, not getting Austin back,” Patel told the AP.) After Biden took office, his officials continued to insist that Tice was a priority, but the Times soon suggested that Biden would face an even tougher challenge in getting Tice home than Trump did, since Biden has generally been unwilling to indulge the latter’s brand of “unorthodox diplomacy,” as the paper put it. 
 
Then, more movement: earlier this year, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Biden said that he would be open to meeting personally with Tice’s family; a couple of days later, the meeting took place. Biden reportedly told the Tices that recent developments in US sanctions policy could increase the odds of getting Tice home, but that he wasn’t sure what else he could do. Last week, Biden said in a statement that the US knows “with certainty” that Tice “has been held by the Government of Syria,” going further than the US has in the past in characterizing Tice’s detention (even if the wording of the statement left a little ambiguity as to Tice’s current situation), and calling on Syria to “end this” and get Tice home. Also last week, McClatchy, where Tice has also been a contributor, reported that the “sprawling, multinational and often halting effort to get him back” is now “showing signs of revival,” with once-dormant communications channels reopened and direct contacts between the US and the Syrian regime quietly underway. Still, it seems as though these efforts are still at a tentative stage—and Tice’s parents continue to criticize Biden administration officials for slow-walking, in spite of Biden’s orders.
 
As it happens, today marks the anniversary of another event with huge consequences for press freedom and immediate ties to the US: one year since Kabul fell to the Taliban, precipitating a US military scramble to withdraw fully from Afghanistan in the days that followed. As I wrote at the time, the Taliban’s takeover was an incipient disaster for independent journalism in Afghanistan, which had, relatively speaking, flourished since the group’s last spell in power. Since then, various independent outlets, including the broadcaster TOLOnews, have sought to continue their work, but threats to journalists—from detentions to beatings to forced retractions—have persisted with depressing regularity. The ranks of media workers in the country—and women, in particular—have thinned: Reporters Without Borders recently found that in the year since Kabul fell, Afghanistan has lost nearly sixty percent of its journalists and forty percent of its media outlets. A special report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, pegged to the anniversary, found that, despite some signs of resilience, the Afghan media landscape faces a multifaceted “crisis” of censorship and economic decline.
 
As the US and its international partners withdrew a year ago, many Afghan journalists fled; countries including the US announced refugee programs for Afghans who had worked with Western media organizations and now feared reprisals from the Taliban, and though, in the US case at least, eligible Afghans were told they’d have to make their own way to a third country and apply for resettlement from there, a number of them ended up making it onto US planes amid the chaos that engulfed the withdrawal, often thanks to the persistence of major Western outlets. No few evacuated Afghan journalists have continued to work from exile.
 
Still, many journalists who wanted to get out, including some who hadn’t worked for Western outlets but still faced danger, weren’t able to—and even some who did have yet to find resolution. In May, a group of Afghans who once worked for British outlets took legal action to accelerate their relocation to that country, claiming that British officials had reneged on pledges to protect them. Voice of America reported yesterday, meanwhile, that dozens of Afghan journalists are currently stuck in neighboring Pakistan, where they have staged protests urging US and Canadian authorities to help relocate them. One of their number told VOA that they have “lost hope” in their US resettlement claim. Last week, a coalition of press-freedom groups including CPJ and RSF wrote to Blinken urging him to expedite such claims, referring to “troubling” reports of the current slowness of processing. Journalists, the groups wrote, “remain in immigration limbo, from Islamabad to Mexico City, with little idea of when they can expect to receive an official update on their applications or be reunited with their families.”
 
The letter was sent on Austin Tice’s birthday. His case, of course, is in many ways very different to that of at-risk journalists from Afghanistan: he is a specific hostage who needs to be brought home; the latter form a group being forced to contemplate leaving home behind. Still, the US government has a direct stake in both cases, and should endeavor to speed up its efforts on both fronts. And both stories deserve our ongoing attention beyond their anniversaries, when these sorts of things tend to attract a media spotlight that quickly goes away again. Tice’s parents told Roig-Franzia that every year, as the anniversary of Tice’s abduction nears, they field floods of requests for “quote-unquote anniversary interviews.” It’s not that these aren’t appreciated, Debra said, but the family needs a “steady rain.” For them, Roig-Franzia notes, the rain lasts all year round.
 
At the National Press Club yesterday, a display noted that “today would be a good day to #FreeAustinTice.” In an hour or so, Joel Simon, until recently CPJ’s executive director, will tweet a similar missive—because he tweets it every week at around the same time. To borrow from Simon, “it's Monday, the beginning of another week. It's time for Austin to come home.” It’s time for endangered Afghan journalists to have their asylum applications processed, too.

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Questions or comments about what you’d like to read with your coffee? 
Reach today's newsletter editor, Jon Allsop, at jallsop@cjr.org.
 
Our weekly podcast on media news, The Kicker, is available on Apple PodcastsStitcher, and SoundCloud.

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