An Encouraging Sign  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March & april 2011

An Encouraging Sign   

The mother of a journalist detained in Libya hears that she will soon be getting a phone call from her son. Posted: Tues., April 19, 2011

By Andrew Theen
Andrew Theen (andrewtheen@gmail.com) covers national security for Medill News Service.     


After more than two weeks with zero communication from captured American journalist James Foley, the reporter's mother says that Libyan authorities have alerted the U.S. State Department that Foley and another detained journalist may be permitted to call their families in the next couple of days.

Foley, 37, was freelancing for the online publication GlobalPost when he was captured along with fellow U.S. freelancer Clare Gillis and Spanish photojournalist Manu Brabo on April 5. The journalists were attacked and kidnapped by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi near Brega. A fourth journalist, South African photographer Anton Hammerl, also was believed to be captured but his whereabouts are unknown.

Diane Foley, who lives in Rochester, New Hampshire, says a State Department official contacted her to say that diplomats had been told by Libyan officials that Foley and Gillis would be allowed to call their families. She says even third-hand news of a possible phone call is huge.

"At least in a backwards way, that kind of tells us that the Libyan government at least has him," she says.

Thus far, the only confirmation of the journalists' whereabouts came nearly two weeks ago from another reporter who was freed from a Tripoli detention center. Philip Balboni, founder and CEO of GlobalPost, says he's been in touch with Turkish officials in Tripoli and Washington but has received little concrete news.

Balboni says the ongoing civil war in Libya is proving particularly challenging for reporters. "The ease of access to direct front line situations is highly unusual. That opportunity for the journalist is somewhat irresistible."

Balboni says Foley couldn't resist the lure of covering the Libyan conflict, despite GlobalPost’s hesitance to cover such conflict zones. "In this particular case, we did not ask James to go, but you know the life of a freelancer is often one in which you seek out opportunity and James is very courageous."

Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says the speed at which conditions can change in Libya poses the biggest problem for journalists. "Journalists often find themselves outpaced by events on the ground," he says.

He says Libyan officials are following a "deliberate strategy" of capturing both foreign and domestic journalists to use as bargaining chips. Eleven foreign journalists are being detained in Libya as well as six Libyan journalists who are listed as missing, according to Abdel Dayem. He says most are seasoned veterans. "These are not guys who are wetting their feet for the first time."

Foley isn't new to the world of foreign correspondents. He has filed stories for GlobalPost and other news outlets from war zones in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Diane Foley says her son had many close calls in Iraq and Afghanistan. She used to worry more about her two other sons, John, a captain in the Air Force, and Mark, a recent Army enlistee, but that is no longer the case. "We became more and more aware that Jimmy was in a much more dangerous situation," she says "He just took risks."

She says Foley was well aware of the danger he faced in Libya and knew how worried his family and friends would be. Until his capture, he was in constant communication with his family via e-mail and Skype. "He told me he was being careful, but Jimmy's fearless,” Mrs. Foley says.

Despite the risks, she says her son was enthralled by what he was doing. "I really thing he's passionate about being a voice for people that don't have a voice. I think he's finally hitting his stride."

Family and friends are continuing to keep the story in the public eye as much as possible with Facebook support pages, petitions and a Web site, FreeFoley.org.

Brian Oakes, a childhood friend, says he bought the FreeFoley Web domain more than a week ago and launched the site over the weekend after consulting with the family. Oakes says Foley has a powerful curiosity about the world. "We grew up in a small town in New Hampshire," he says, and it "sort of gets embedded in you that you want to see the world."

State Department officials say they are continuing to work through a variety of contacts to provide assistance, but they acknowledge a lack of U.S. contact with Libya makes the situation particularly challenging.

Foley's mother says she wants to keep her son's plight, and that of the other detained journalists, in front of the public.

"Sometimes I watch the news," she says, "but sometimes I shut my TV off and I just pray."

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