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In remembering James Foley, sobering lessons for protecting journalists

August 20, 2014 at 6:12 PM EDT
James Foley’s journalistic career spanned multiple countries and conflicts; his reporting from Afghanistan and Libya appeared on the NewsHour, as well as other news outlets. Gwen Ifill remembers Foley and discusses the dangers reporters face with Charles Sennott, co-founder of GlobalPost, and Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

GWEN IFILL: Joining me now to talk about James Foley and the threat that reporters like him face covering conflicts today is GlobalPost co-founder and journalist Charles Sennott and Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the committee to protect journalists.

Charles Sennott, first of all, our condolences to you and your colleagues on the loss of James Foley. What’s can you tell us about him and how he came to be held?

CHARLES SENNOTT, Co-Founder, GlobalPost: Thanks, Gwen.

You know, the best way to start to describe who is James Foley is probably to start with the way his parents talked about him today. Anyone who saw how much faith they have, how strong they are, they know where James came from. And that’s really important to understanding him.

Jim had strong faith in himself, but his parents had tremendous faith in what he did as a journalist. They understood that Jim wanted to do work that mattered. He wanted to do work that made a difference. They understood his motivations. And they were unwaveringly supportive of it.

And that really is who Jim Foley was. He was a courageous reporter who took great risks to bring the story home.

GWEN IFILL: Do we know physically where he was when this happened yesterday or whenever it happened?


If you have seen this video — and I hope your viewers have not seen it. It’s the most dark and horrific thing I have ever watched. It’s about four minutes’ long. It’s very clear he’s under great duress. It’s clear that the statements he’s making are forced statements.

And it’s in a sort of barren landscape that really could be Syria or it could be Iraq. It’s very, very difficult to distinguish that. And we don’t know precisely where that happened.

GWEN IFILL: Have the people who have been holding him — have been in touch asking for ransom? Apparently, there is a report that there was a threat made that they would kill him a week ago.

CHARLES SENNOTT: That’s correct.

And our CEO, Phil Balboni, at GlobalPost has really tirelessly followed this every day for two years, and has amassed really quite an extensive body of facts and information through a lot of information we have gathered from law enforcement officials, from private investigators, our own private investigators, and, importantly, from colleagues on the ground.

You know, we have a lot of colleagues who really cared about Jim. And every bit of information they could glean would come to us and would be filtered. And it’s hard to sort of share in great detail without putting some of the other hostages who may still be being held and whose lives, as we know, are hanging in the balance — we can’t really share a lot of that information.

But it is safe to say that, at first, there was information he was being held by the Syrian government. That information changed shape over time. It appeared pretty quickly that he was being held by Islamic militants. That’s when fear really set in. He was held in different locations, first in Aleppo, and later in a different location.

The Guardian has reported that location. We think it’s probably better not to report it right now, so I won’t share it. But it is a known ISIS center inside of Syria.

GWEN IFILL: Rob Mahoney, how does Syria rank as a danger zone for journalists?

ROBERT MAHONEY, Deputy Director, Committee to Protect Journalists: It’s the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist, has been for the last year or so.

We have noted some 70 journalists have been killed in Syria since the conflict started in 2011.

GWEN IFILL: Many of them Syrians, right?

ROBERT MAHONEY: And the one thing — yes. Most of them, actually, are local journalists.

And, also, to Jim’s story, Syria is the single worst place we have seen in our entire history as an organization for more than 30 years where hostage-taking has taken place in a conflict zone. There have been more than 80 journalists held hostage at various points throughout the last three years.

GWEN IFILL: As Charlie just suggested, it’s difficult to negotiate or to figure out a way to rescue these hostages. What are the special problems, the special delicacies for someone like you or for the U.S. government, for that matter, in trying to free people like James Foley?

ROBERT MAHONEY: Well, in many cases, the families or the news organizations that some of the journalists work for don’t want to jeopardize their safety and don’t want us to publicly talk about where they might be or even who they are.

Steven Sotloff, for example, who appeared in the video this week, we knew about him, but we didn’t publicly disclose that, because we just don’t know sometimes who we’re dealing with. There are very many groups. They’re splintered. Some were holding journalists for hostages — sorry — holding hostages for criminal ransom, and others were holding them for political purposes.

So, in — with all that uncertainty, it was very difficult to get precise information about the captors.

GWEN IFILL: Bob, is it more complicated when they’re freelance journalists not working for major news organizations?


And we at the committee, you know, are very, very concerned for the freelancers. They don’t have the big institutional support of journalists that are going in for big news organizations. And the majority of the journalists now around there are people like Jim who are working for — as freelancers.

GWEN IFILL: Charles Sennott, James Foley’s father said today they had reached the point where they were considering raising money for ransom or for some sort of payment. At what stage was that at? Were you involved in that?

CHARLES SENNOTT: I wasn’t involved in that.

And one of the things that happens — and, sadly, we have been down this road before, both with Jim and with some other correspondents. And one of the things that you abide by the most is that it is really the family that will dictate what is made public. This is really their decision. We feel that’s extremely important. And we have always deferred to the Foley family.

Just to speak a little bit to the point of freelancers, GlobalPost, we deal with freelancers every day. And they’re deeply at risk. There’s real concern here about how to build a news organization that has a culture of caution and caring for the correspondents on the ground?

We at GlobalPost have worked with the Committee to Protect Journalists. We have worked with a lot of different organizations to think that through. And I think Jim’s death, this horrific news, there are a lot of sobering lessons to be learned from this. And one of them is definitely that we are responsible as news organizations for the people we send into the field.

We take that seriously, but it’s also — it’s also really important to remember that this is a deep reminder that there are journalists who are doing courageous work out there. We live in a cynical time, when there’s a lot of criticism of the media from the left and from the right.

But this is a to also remember that there are journalists like Jim Foley who are out there representing news organizations who really believe in what they’re doing and who are doing the best they can outside of the big network production companies or the big newspapers. They’re doing the best work they can to bring home the stories that matter. And I think that’s important to remember today.

GWEN IFILL: Bob Mahoney, how hard does it make it to get reporting out of places like Syria at this point?

ROBERT MAHONEY: It makes it very hard.

Who, in light of what has just happened, is going to be rushing into Syria, especially freelancers, who actually, as I say, don’t necessarily have the backing and don’t earn the money that would even make it worthwhile going in?

What we rely on and what the news organizations rely on are local Syrian journalists, some of whom are there, some of whom are outside. They’re the ones that have borne the brunt in terms of death and capture in this conflict. And they’re the ones who don’t have necessarily an international voice.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists and Charles Sennott of GlobalPost, thank you both very much.



GWEN IFILL: Many news outlets avoided showing the image of James Foley’ execution, including us. So, how has social media adapted to change — to deal with violent terrorist imagery? Hari Sreenivasan spoke with the chair of the journalism department at Quinnipiac University. You can watch their conversation online.