Detained in Syria for 6 years: Parents of Missing Journalist Hold Press Conference at the UN
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Detained in Syria for 6 years: Parents of Missing Journalist Hold Press Conference at the UN

Getty Images North America/PrtSc

It has been over 2000 days that Houston native Austin Tice, a freelance American journalist and Marine veteran, was abducted by unknown assailants while reporting on the war in Syria. It has been more than 6 years since his parents saw him for the last time. Besides a brief video released shortly after his capture Tice, 37, has not been heard from since. In coordination with the Union Nations Correspondents Association, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Marc and Debra Tice hold a news conference about their missing son on September 17, 2018 at the United Nations in New York City. CPJ is advocating for Tice’s safe release.

On August 13, 2012, freelance journalist Austin Tice dropped out of contact after emailing his father back in Houston to let him know he had wrapped up his reporting from Syria. Two days earlier, on the day of his 31st birthday, he left his last tweet in which called that day “best birthday ever”.

Austin went missing the on August 14 while traveling by taxi from the Damascus suburb of Daraya to the Lebanese border.

In September 2012, 6 weeks after Austin disappeared, a video was released showing the journalist blindfolded and disoriented in the custody of purported Islamist militants. U.S. officials and journalists described the video as “a crude effort to deflect attention from the Syrian government’s involvement in his abduction.”

Throughout Austin’s captivity, the Tices have sought to engage the media and the public, believing that keeping their son’s case in the spotlight would help ensure the U.S. government stays focused on his recovery. But after nearly six years, generating media attention has become difficult and frustrating.

“Many journalists stay in touch with us, but without a new development, their organizations seem more and more reluctant to devote space to the fact that one of their own continues to be held against his will,” Austin’s father Marc told Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. However, Austin’s parents are convinced their son is alive.

“His parents, Marc and Debra, have championed his cause with passion, courage and fortitude,” said Doug Jehl, the Washington Post’s foreign editor.

Houston-area billboard, paid for by his parents and donations, 2015/

But what is happening behind the scenes is extremely sensitive.

In June 2017, The New York Times published a story describing the Trump administration’s efforts to set up a back channel with the Syrian government, citing rumors that Austin was seen in a Damascus hospital being treated for dehydration.

In April, the FBI offered a $1 million award for information leading to Austin’s safe recovery and return.

Screen shot of an FBI poster about Austin Bennett Tice, a photojournalist from Texas who disappeared in Syria in August 2012

The Trump administration has kept in place structures created following the Obama administration’s Hostage Policy Review, which was carried out in 2015 in response to the  murder of American hostages in Syria. In May, after more than a year-long vacancy, the Trump administration named Los Angeles lawyer Robert C. O’Brien as the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. The Tices are in regular contact with O’Brien and have already met with senior officials, including briefly with President Trump himself, who was personally aware of Austin’s case.

The father of Austin said he and his wife stay hopeful knowing that their son is alive and are “sure he wants to come home.” They believe the Trump administration is eager to continue the commitment of bringing people home.

“We know that our president is really committed,” Debra said. “That Americans will not be held against their will.”

Unlike some hostage families who have elected to “black out” all media coverage, the Tices try to generate maximum public attention. They have already secured full-page ads in U.S. newspapers, handed out “Free Austin Tice” pins at media events, convinced the Newseum in Washington, DC to hang a “Free Austin Tice” banner and organized a social media campaign featuring photos of people wearing blindfolds to simulate Austin’s captivity. Austin’s family has also created a website with all the relevant information regarding their son.

Debra Tice speaks about her son Austin Tice at the Newseum in Washington, DC on November 2, 2016. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds,/AFP

They have traveled regularly to the Middle East and held several press conferences in Beirut. In the U.S., they have appeared everywhere from morning shows to the evening news.

On the sixth anniversary of his disappearance, August 14, 2018, US President Donald Trump’s administration believes missing US journalist Austin Tice is still alive, six years after he is thought to have been taken captive in Syria. Concerning an August meeting between US and Syrian security officials in Damascus, two senior US intelligence sources told Reuters the “ongoing dialogue” with the Syrian government included the fate of Tice. 

“We believe him to be alive,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. “We remain deeply concerned about his well-being, and we are actively working to bring Austin Tice home.”

In the meantime, at least five other journalists are missing in Syria and more than 120 journalists have been killed covering the conflict.

Author: USA Really