Two anniversaries approach for Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist. On Sunday, he will turn 38; three days later, he will start his eighth year in captivity, probably somewhere in Syria.
Tice is a graduate of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, served as a Marine officer and was enrolled at Georgetown Law. But he longed to be a reporter, so in May 2012, with a year to go in law school, he set out for Syria to report on how the civil war was affecting the lives of ordinary people.
The war was just entering its second year, and there wasn’t much reporting about it — getting into combat zones from either the government side or the rebel side was dangerous and difficult. So Tice went in illegally. Soon his images, interviews and reports were appearing in The Washington Post, McClatchy newspapers, Agence France-Presse and other news outlets.
Tice intended to leave after his 31st birthday, on Aug. 11, after filing his last pieces. On Aug. 14 he left for Lebanon by car from the Damascus suburb of Daraa, then in rebel hands. Shortly after, he was detained at a checkpoint.
Five weeks later, a 47-second video titled “Austin Tice Still Alive” was posted on a pro-government webpage, in which Tice is being hustled along a rocky mountainside by what is meant to appear to be a group of Islamist militants. They force Tice to recite, in clumsy Arabic, a prayer Muslims say before dying, after which, breathless and distraught, he says in English: “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.” There were doubts at the time about the authenticity of the video, in part because the captors did not behave as militants usually do.
Without offering any evidence, other pro-regime news sources subsequently posted messages describing Tice as an Israeli agent or accusing him of killing three Syrian officers. But there has been no contact with his captors.
Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra Tice, are convinced he is alive and have worked tirelessly for his release, traveling several times to Lebanon, putting pressure on every diplomat and official they can, organizing special events to keep his fate in the public eye.
The State Department has said it is operating on the presumption that Tice is alive, and it has been working through the Czech Embassy in Damascus (the U.S. Embassy is closed) to press the Syrian government for information. The FBI has offered a $1 million reward for information leading to his return, and journalism organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and the National Press Club have joined in campaigning for Tice’s freedom.
Tice was not a combatant. He was a journalist who went to Syria to report on the plight of people in a terrible civil war. That he was a freelance contributor makes no difference — his self-assigned mission was the same as that of all journalists who confront the enormous dangers of conflict, hostile governments and rapacious bandits to let the world know what is really happening. According to Reporters Without Borders, 239 journalists and 17 of their assistants are known to be imprisoned for their work.
Tice has already paid heavily for his honorable efforts. Demands for his release must not cease until he is free.