Updated | May 1 The death of noted war photographer and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tim Hetherington in Libya last week served as a grim reminder of the risks reporters face in covering the world’s bloodiest and most neglected conflicts. As the Committee for the Protection of Journalists noted, there have been more than 80 attacks on the press in Libya since the start of the fighting there, including four fatalities.
What makes Libya especially dangerous, perhaps, is the absence of any formal military presence on the ground. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been deadly for journalists, too, but at least in those conflicts, reporters have been able to embed with American or coalition forces. In Libya, the rebels are ragtag and disorganized, and are largely incapable of guaranteeing the safety of foreign reporters.
And yet, many journalists persevere, even in the face of such threats. Hetherington and a colleague, Chris Hondros, were on the front lines in the besieged city of Misrata when they were hit with a rocket propelled grenade, launched presumably by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. An Al-Jazeera cameraman was killed in an ambush near Benghazi. And freelancer Matthew VanDyke was believed to have been captured near Brega, a strategic oil town that has been the scene of intense fighting, just days after arriving in Libya, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. He has not been heard from since.
Others have been held and interrogated for weeks by the Libyan government, without formal charges or even a basic explanation for their detention. James Foley, an American journalist who contributed reporting to GlobalPost and the PBS NewsHour, was detained on April 5 outside Brega during clashes between rebels and government troops. Foley and two other journalists, American Clare Gillis and Manu Brabo, a Spanish photographer, were attacked by Gadhafi loyalists and taken captive, according to eyewitnesses.
Foley had been covering the opposition movement in Benghazi since early March, and had followed the rebels to the front lines as they pushed westward toward Tripoli. In one of his first dispatches for GlobalPost, he wrote that in Benghazi, “Even an ordinary job appears fraught with danger.”
Foley and the other detained journalists have since been transferred to a detention center in Tripoli, and until recently, there has been little news regarding their condition. On Saturday, for the first time in the three weeks since his capture, Foley was allowed to contact his parents in Massachusetts by phone. In an interview Tuesday, Foley’s mother Diane said her son was healthy and in good spirits when he called, and that he was hopeful he would be released soon.
“He sounded very positive and very strong,” Ms. Foley said. “That’s our Jim.”
Foley said he was still unsure where, exactly, he was being held, or when he’ll be freed. He has been interrogated “a lot,” Ms. Foley said, though the Libyan government has declined to charge him formally with a crime or even explain why he has been detained for so long.
“We’re no closer to him being released in a lot of ways,” Ms. Foley said. “He’s still very much imprisoned there in Libya. And we’re still not sure if and when they’ll allow him to be released.”
Foley’s parents have been in daily contact with officials at the State Department, who have been working intensively for the release of both American journalists. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the Libyan government to release all American citizens “unjustly detained,” including Foley and Gillis. And New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has contacted the Turkish embassy, which helped secure the release of four captured New York Times journalists in March.
Foley’s friends have also set up a website for information on his detention, FreeFoley.org, and are holding rallies this week at two of the universities Foley attended.
Ms. Foley said there were times at which her family felt “powerless,” especially given the Libyan government’s track record of brutal and often paranoid behavior. “We’re really at the mercy of a rather irrational government, and a government that’s in turmoil,” Ms. Foley said. “It’s just a very frightening situation.”
The call from James, however, offered a glimmer of hope. James has a younger sister who will be graduating from college in May, Ms. Foley said. On the call Saturday, he told her, “Mom, I’ll be home for that.”