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Family of journalist Austin Tice struggles with silence on kidnapping

Austin Tice was kidnapped near Damascus in August. His family went to Beirut recently in hopes of extending their reach into Syria and finding out more about who might be holding him.

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Indeed, whether the suspected abductor is a government or a rogue player will closely shape the response. El Zein cites the case of Cüneyt Ünal, a cameraman for Turkish television station Al-Hurra. Mr. Ünal was kidnapped in Syria in late August.

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CPJ and other organizations "had a strong belief that he was being held by the Syrians," El Zein says, so they went public, calling on the Syrian government to release him. "The more publicity around it, the better so that the government knew that they couldn’t get away with keeping it quiet," she explains.

Ünal was released from Syrian government custody about two weeks ago.

But the cards are played very differently when dealing with rogue actors, as was the case in the kidnapping of British freelancer photographer John Cantlie and Dutch freelance photographer Jeroen Oerlemans. The two were kidnapped by Islamic militants when crossing into Syria from Turkey. News organizations were unable to get much information about their whereabouts, and knew little until after the release of the two men.

In that case, silence was the best option, El Zein says. The parties working to get the two men out believed the rebel Free Syrian Army might have some leverage, so they kept quiet to give the FSA time and space to negotiate. After a week, it managed to secure the release of Mr. Cantile and Mr. Oerlemans.

Allowing some time for an initial, low-profile investigation is helpful in either situation, says the contractor.

"I would hold the release of information about a person abducted for at least 72 hours. This could give security personnel enough time to back check routes, patterns, and other factors involved in an abduction," he says. "Interviewing witnesses, backtracking the path where the abduction happened – all this provides key information before the case goes cold. Once the case turns cold, then [going public with] as much information about the case is indeed a good thing."

But Tice has been in capivity, without contact, far longer than either of these cases.

"On my previous cases for kidnap and ransom, silence was broken quickly as they wanted payment. In this case, it's different. I expect he isn't being held for ransom or money gain. No news is good news," the contractor says.

A relentless search

The Tices say they will continue to hammer away at gathering credible information on their son's whereabouts.

"When you lose something precious to you, you don't stop asking where that precious thing is until you find it," Marc says.

While all journalists face threats, the risk to freelancers operating in dangerous places like Syria can be particularly acute, as they are often operating without significant institutional backing and experience.

"More and more of those journalists are freelancers because of the nature of the changing field," El Zein says, referring to the rise in the number of freelancers reporting in dangerous places, traditionally more a world for journalists on the staff of major publications. "Especially in Syria, the risks are very high for journalists, and a freelancer going in there without any support structure – it can be very risky and daunting."

Austin's parents were aware of the risks that Austin's pursuits posed, but say there was little they could do to stop their son, who felt compelled to go and report in Syria. "He trained us in parental support. He clearly outlined our job description early on: 'I will follow my path and appreciate your support,' " Debra says. And when they saw his work, their thought was, "There he is, doing his dream. That's our boy." 

Read Austin Tice's Facebook statement here about why he decided to report from Syria.

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