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Foley's Death Highlights Plight Of Journalists In Syria


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland. This week, the Obama administration declared the beheading of American journalist James Foley a terrorist attack. It left the door open for a possible expansion of U.S. military actions against Islamic State militants beyond Iraq and into Syria. Foley was the latest name added to a long and growing list of journalists who've lost their lives in Syria. According to Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 20 are still missing in the country.

ROBERT MAHONEY: This is the highest number of abductions that we've ever documented in the more than 30 years that the Committee to Protect Journalists has been operating. Last year, there was a journalist every week that was being abducted.

VIGELAND: ISIS says it is holding another American journalist, Stephen Sotlof. He went missing in Syria last year. But when we spoke, Mahoney told me that the majority of the missing journalists are local.

MAHONEY: Many of these local journalists actually help Western journalists. And Western journalists can't really function without them. They act as fixers. They act as translators. And so they are exposed to all kinds of dangers because they're identified as working with foreign press, in particular with Western press.

VIGELAND: The dangers to local Syrian journalists are obviously huge but you know, you mentioned the case of James Foley and that really seems to be an indication again that international reporters have this added fear of being kidnapped for ransom. Now, some European governments have paid those. The U.S. has made a point of not paying them. Does the CPJ have a position on this?

MAHONEY: Listen, if these were my son or my brother that were taken, I would do anything get that relative home safely. So we understand that parents, that brothers and sisters will do what they think is in the interest of their relative. We do not condone payment of ransom, but we do understand why some families will want to offer ransom to get their sons and daughters home.

VIGELAND: How do you think the U.S. should handle the situations of other American journalists who are still being held in Syria?

MAHONEY: It's extremely difficult. I mean, there's not just journalists that are captured and held hostage, there's also others around the world - human rights defenders, aid workers etc. But in the case of journalists, one of the things that we do is we take our lead from the family and from employer - the news organization - and if they want to work behind the scenes and keep the abduction quiet, we will respect that, and we have done so. The U.S. government works with the families, and it has its procedures in place for trying to free journalists. I know that they've done all that they can from our conversations with families to try to extract journalists safely. But their stated public policy is that they do not pay ransom. So that seems to be ruled out.

VIGELAND: You know, journalists have been covering conflict for as long as the profession has been around. And they have generally been seen as a you know, hands-off. What has changed?

MAHONEY: Well, several things have changed. First of all, with the radicalization of certain groups in the Islamic world in particular, whether it's in Pakistan in the - and Afghanistan, or whether it's in the Middle East, there has been a hostility to the West. And journalists have been cast in the role as representing the West.

So instead of being welcomed or at least tolerated as neutral observers, they are now seen as representatives of a country or of a culture, which of course they're not. And the other thing that has changed is the technology. Groups like ISIS, in many cases now, don't need journalists like they used to to get their message out. They can go straight to the internet, to social media platforms and publish their message, upload their videos to YouTube. And so journalists have been taken out of the equation in some cases.

VIGELAND: That's Robert Mahoney. He is the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Robert, thank you.

MAHONEY: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.