Foley Reminds Us: At-Risk Journalists Don’t Always Make the Front Page

AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

The death of James Foley brings renewed attention to an old battle waging ad perpetuum: free speech and coverage risks for journalists worldwide. If you follow the news in Syria, you’ve likely benefited from Foley’s reporting contributions, but his name likely went unnoticed for most reading the news. After he was taken hostage for the first time, returned, and then taken the second time, a few more would have been following his story perhaps.

But until recently, many people hadn’t heard of Foley. Now his story is one the world is hyper aware of, as it has become embroiled in U.S. international policy, airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and militant activity in the Middle East.

In life he acted as the eyes and ears of the world in incredibly dangerous and dark places. His death drew the eyes and ears of the world to him in turn, but for now let’s borrow those eyes for a moment and shed light on other freedom of speech issues — more worthwhile a subject matter than the gruesome and inhumane actions of ISIL in taking Foley’s life, already being rehashed across the Internet.   The bare numbers

In 2014, there have been a total of thirty-two journalist deaths according to The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which keeps tabs on the men and women risking life and limb to bring global attention to corruption and war. The thirty-two deaths, including James Foley, were all categorized as deaths where the motive was known to be related to their coverage, but ten other journalists were also recorded in their data under the category “motive unconfirmed,” as were eight media workers, this year. The most common beat coverages including business, corruption, crime, culture, human rights, politics, sports, and, finally, war.

When you look at imprisonment numbers, the reality is far more dire — 211 journalists worldwide were imprisoned as of 2013, the second worst year ever recorded by the Committee, with the highest numbers being seen in Turkey, Iran, and China. The countries categorized as “deadliest” in 2014 were Syria, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Territory, and Ukraine.


As of March 2011 Reporters Without Borders reported that there had been thirty-nine journalists killed in Syria, thirteen journalists imprisoned, seventeen “netizens” — online journalists — imprisoned, and 122 netizens and civilian journalists killed. Of the thirteen imprisoned since 2011, two French TV journalists, Edouard Elias and Didier, had been held for sixth months as of 2013, and two others, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres had been held for over four. Francois has since been released and recently gave an interview about Foley who was held with him. CPJ has slightly different numbers, stating that “at least seventy” have been killed covering the conflict in Syria.Iraq

Reporters Without Borders has a number of reports on journalists who have died, been imprisoned, or suffered attacks covering conflicts there. Many of them are not discussed in the west, especially local reporters and photographers who aren’t affiliated directly with a western publication though they may act as freelancers or contribute to content by breaking stories.

While publications are individual entities, the news and international coverage is important internationally, and reporting feeds off the overall cloud of information contributed. That’s why a story from The AP will spark investigation from The New York Times, or The Washington Post will cover something tangentially related or noticed because of the original article.

Hussam Al-aqooly, a photographer with Al-Baghdadia TV, was stabbed in May, southeast of Baghdad, multiple times in the face, neck, and sustained arm fractures. He was attacked at his office, where his material was taken, and had previously received death threats. In Kurdistan, Ayhan Saeed of Payam TV was badly beaten and eventually hospitalized in late July, reportedly not uncommon in his area given the political dangers. Leyla Yildizhan, a reporter with the Turkish publication Firat was killed during conflict in Kurdistan earlier this month. Al-Ahad TV cameraman Khaled Ali Hamada died outside Baghdad in June and was the first to be killed during the increasing conflict there, according to Reporters Without Borders. Israel/Palestine

Reporters of many nationalities have died will bringing coverage from Israel and Palestine. Palestinian reporters have also suffered violence and intimidation from all sides, and the polarization of media reporting has led to “media organizations [being] both victims of and participants in a perverse system, helping to perpetuate the ‘division’ (Inqassam) in Palestinian society,” according to Reporters Without Borders.

Washington Post foreign affairs reporter Terrence McCoy points out that many times it’s freelancers that face a great deal of danger in coverage overseas during conflicts. He points out that a number of the names, including Foley, that we’re hearing in the news this week were not “buoyed by steady paychecks and significant staff resources,” but were freelancers who crossed into dangerous territory when other major publications had pulled out.

Journalist Austin Tice for example said, prior to his disappearance in 2012, “If someone wanted to hire me that would be great. Student loans don’t pay themselves,” and “I prefer to work for one organization over freelancing.” The news industry is changing, struggling, going online, hiring fewer and fewer reporters, and generally stepping away from full time hires. But freelancers risking everything to bring coverage from dangerous locations deserve a steady hire and health care.

More from Politics Cheat Sheet:

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS