Within hours of his apparent execution being broadcast on the Internet, the mother of Jim Foley, the kidnapped American photographer, paid tribute to her son via a Facebook page, which had initially been set up to campaign for his freedom. Diane Foley’s statement said her boy “gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people” and that she had “never been prouder” of him.
It is touching, yet bear in mind that not every family can rise to the occasion. A few years ago I interviewed Phil Bigley, the brother of Ken Bigley who was abducted and later beheaded by al-Qaeda while working in Iraq in 2004. Phil told me that the moment the family back in England realised the true gravity of Ken’s predicament was when a Merseyside police liaison officer suggested that they prepare a statement in the event of his death. As Phil put it, “Drafting that statement made us really come to terms with the fact he might die.”
To my mind, it’s small details like this that ram home the true horror of atrocities like Jim Foley’s beheading. They prove the adage that the target of a kidnapping is not just the hostage, but families, friends and countrymen back home — who can do nothing but watch (or indeed, not watch) as their loved one is killed.
To many, though, the killing also raises the question of why journalists like Foley persist in going to places like Syria, where such fates are an occupational hazard. After all, it was not the first time that he had given his family cause to be desperately worried. In 2011 he spent six weeks in jail in Libya after being captured by Colonel Gaddafi’s forces while covering the civil war.
Those who might question his decision point out that in the Internet age the wars in Syria and Iraq are practically broadcast live anyway via footage placed by activists and combatants alike on social media. Why, therefore, is there any need for westerners to be doing the same? Would it not be safer to simply use local Arab stringers and freelancers, among whom there is no shortage of fluent English speakers? Having put my own family through six weeks of hell when I was kidnapped in Somalia a few years ago, I can appreciate the arguments of the stay-at-home brigade. For being abducted is not like other war-zone experience. Suffer a beating or a bullet wound, as I once did in Iraq, and as long as it isn’t too serious, you can be laughing and joking about it a few days later. Kidnaps, however, with their prolonged stress, force your family to play at being heroes too. When I languished in a cave in Somalia, my main fear was not just for my own safety, but that one or other of my parents might suffer a heart attack.
None the less, I can cite a number of reasons why western journalists will still seek to put themselves in harm’s way. One is a simple sense of historical perspective. Despite the grim novelty of Foley’s death being broadcast on the Internet, journalists have been busily getting themselves killed, imprisoned, kidnapped and generally mistreated since the profession began. We should not become risk averse now.
Another is that, despite the temptation to rely on local stringers because they might be at less risk, most editors feel that there is still no substitute for despatching their own staff, with their own eye for detail, and their own understanding of how best to relate the unfolding drama to their newspaper’s readers. It is, to put it bluntly, the best way of doing the story justice, and the tragedies in Syria and Iraq richly deserve that we do so. Being a foreign correspondent in the post 9/11 world can be a very dangerous job. The word sahafa is one that every western journalist in the Arab-speaking world learns pretty quickly. It means ‘Press’ — and used to offer some modicum of protection in dangerous situations. Less so now. I have lost count of the number of colleagues who have been kidnapped in the past 10 years, many of them suffering ordeals that make my own adventure in Somalia look like a holiday.
This is not only because certain Islamist groups are more brutal than the guerrilla outfits of bygone conflicts. What has also changed is that such groups can now communicate independently via the Internet, which means they no longer rely on foreign press crews to get their messages out.
In the old days there used to be a certain symbiosis between journalists and guerrilla groups: as the only people who could broadcast their grievances to the wider world we had a value as witnesses. Today, by contrast, when groups like the Islamic State and al-Shabaab have their own media wings and Twitter feeds, no journalist can expect much traction by offering to “tell their side of the story”.
Instead, western reporters who cover the likes of Syria these days have to do so with no expectation of special treatment, other than being specifically targeted for kidnapping and worse. That Jim Foley and others choose to take that risk, working in a world where the sword is most definitely mightier than the pen, shows that whatever else is said about journalism these days, some of its old traditions are still going strong.