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.
Beirut, Lebanon — "There's not a manual for this," says Debra Tice, clutching her husband's hand as they sit in the lobby of Beirut's Commodore Hotel.
Mrs. Tice and her husband, Marc, were in Beirut recently as part of their ongoing quest to find their son, Austin, who was kidnapped in Syria in August while working as a freelance journalist. It's a journey that has taken the Houston family to the State Department, put them in front of media cameras, and introduced them to a world of backchannel communications and international intrigue that they knew absolutely nothing about just a year ago.
"We came here to extend our reach into Syria," Mrs. Tice says. Her husband adds, "We want to reach as widely as we can in hopes that the person who has the ability [to release him] will show some compassion to us."
The number of kidnapped journalists has climbed as news organizations have covered everything from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to the Syrian civil war alongside fighters. And with the rise in the number of reporters operating in dangerous places like Syria – and with many parties seeing value in targeting them – many expect the threat to persist.
Yet no uniform playbook on handling such crises has emerged, largely because each situation is unique. And while that makes sense, it leaves families struggling with agonizing choices as they try to calculate which steps are most likely to secure a safe release for their loved one.
Sifting through sensitive questions
Any number of questions arise: Should we keep it quiet? Or would it be better to go public? Will more pressure help my son get released more quickly? Or will it scare his captors, putting him in further danger?
"The right situation on going public depends on why that person was abducted in the first place," a security contractor who works in the region said in an e-mail interview. "Money? Politics? Islamic fundamentalism? Kidnap for ransom?"
Austin Tice was reporting in Daraya, outside Damascus, when he went missing in mid-August. The Tices became concerned when several days elapsed without a word from their son, who previously had checked in regularly. His disappearance rapidly became public, with McClatchy News Service and the Washington Post, for whom Tice had been reporting as a freelancer, posting stories about his disappearance. The Tices then launched what has become a multi-month search.
But despite all their efforts, the Tices say they and the news organizations have little information to work off of. "It has really been a prolonged silence – an excruciating silence," Debra says.
"We don't know with any certainty where he is or who has him," says Marc Tice. "We could speculate ourselves crazy."
The parents speak wearily about the waiting game they and their six other children – Austin is the oldest – are playing as they wait for news. The situation has changed agonizingly little since his kidnapping in August, with the exception of one video of Austin in captivity that was made public.
Mr. and Mrs. Tice insist they know next to nothing about their son's current status, only that he is the latest in a string of American journalist kidnappings over the past few years. But the couple have worked to keep the pressure on the parties involved by raising sympathy and compassion in television interviews, including one with Russia's RT.TV Arabic service. They traveled to Beirut for a week in November in hopes that being in the region as they made their plea might prompt action.
The tactic is not new, but it is effective, says the security contractor. Security firms are often brought in during cases like these to assist governments, families, and employers navigate the confusing, difficult scene.
"Using family members is good to portray the individual as a human being," he says. But he notes that the message that Tice was there for the people of Syria – something that both Tice and his family have said – may not go over as well as one might think.
"Stating that a captive was there for the people of Syria (let's say) creates unwanted attention and hatred with the local population," he says. "More than one person has stated on web pages, 'Why do we care about Tice when thousands are dying every day?'"
Hope from a YouTube video
The last communication Tice's family and employers received was a YouTube video released in September. Posted on a pro-Syrian government website, it seemed to be an attempt to implicate Islamist militants as Tice's captors. But inconsistencies resulted in a nearly unequivocal dismissal of that possibility.
"When the video of Austin came out, a lot of analysts had looked at the video, and it was clear this was kind of a mock-up of guys who were posing to be these Islamic extremists," says Dahlia El Zein, Middle East and North Africa researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York.
“This would very much fit into the government line that these Islamic terrorists were causing all this havoc in the country. Based on the track record of information, it appears that it's likely that he would be held within Syrian custody," Ms. El Zein says.
Videos like that one are often the starting point for a search, says the security contractor.
"During many occasions, the only way to begin a search is from videos posted, or messages sought by the abductors. Intel plays a vital role. Where the video was shot, what accents were heard, what type of clothing the abductors wore, the terrain, how the victim is being treated, what the abductors' demands [are]. From gaining sound intel, information could be sought and then the search narrows down to a specific area, neighborhood." he says.
"In Tice's case, the search is cold," the contractor says.
When the government is a suspect
Tice is widely believed to be in custody of the Syrian government. The Czech ambassador to Syria, who represents the US there because its embassy in Damascus was shut down in 2011, said earlier this year that embassy sources say Tice is alive and in the regime's hands. Damascus has denied it.
"At this stage, I would suggest the regime has Tice," the contractor says, nothing that the capital and surrounding areas have a much stronger regime presence than a rebel one. "It would have been very difficult for any reporter to avoid imminent capture by the Assad regime. Is he alive? I would expect so. What would Assad gain from Tice being killed?"
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.
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."