Wallace House, a University of Michigan organization that sponsors fellowships for journalists and hosts events recognizing journalists’ work, held a panel event Monday night discussing the importance of returning American hostages home safely.
The event centered around the story of freelance journalist James Foley, who was captured in Syria Thanksgiving Day 2012 by terrorist group ISIS and held for two years until he was killed in 2014. Diane Foley, his mother and founder of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, and Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, were the panelists. The event was moderated by Margaux Ewen, the executive director of the Foley Legacy Foundation.
Lynette Clemetson, director of the Wallace House, began the event by discussing President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw troops from Syria. She told the audience Diane Foley would be reading a statement from the foundation about the Trump administration’s decision.
“This decision sends a message that those who take our citizens hostage will not face American justice,” Foley said. “We implore President Trump to hold these ISIS fighters accountable for their barbaric human rights crimes against our citizens and to protect our country against the spread of terror, should they escape.”
Before beginning the panel’s conversation, they played the trailer for a documentary produced by the foundation: “Jim: The James Foley Story.”
Ewen first asked Foley about her decision to start the foundation after James’ death in 2014. Foley explained she was inspired by the government’s inaction and wanted her family to do something in his honor. She also commented on what has happened in the five years since the foundation was started.
“After Jim was executed, I was angry, I was really outraged,” Foley said. “I really felt that our government had deceived our family and totally abandoned us. It just seemed like we had to do something. Here we are five years later and no one has been held accountable for Jim’s death, really, and the challenge continues.”
The panelists also discussed how U.S. policy differs from that of European countries; the United States’ does not negotiate with terrorist organizations, whereas other countries may. Many of the journalists held with James Foley were from these countries and were eventually released by ISIS, as a result, Simon said.
“U.S. policy historically has been that the U.S. does not negotiate with terrorists, does not make concessions to terrorists,” Simon said. “Many of the other countries around the world look at the issue much more pragmatically. French hostages survive, about 75 percent of the time. Spain has the best record in the world, everyone of them has come home. There’s a 25 percent survival rate for American hostages.”
Simon acknowledged the issue is difficult to solve, but emphasized he believes there are things the United States can learn from the policy and actions of other countries when negotiating for hostages.
“I think the one thing the Euorpeans have done well, where the Americans have really failed, is no American citizen should feel alone, without the support of the government, when they are going through something like this,” Simon said. “I mean, that is cruel to leave families to grapple with these … not only does the American government not support them, but they are threatening to put the families in jail for seeking the return of their loved ones.”
LSA sophomore Natalie White, who is interested in journalism but did not attend the event, commented on how she would expect the U.S. government to react when journalists are captured abroad.
“Journalism allows information to spread from source to people, which sounds incredibly basic, but is truly so important,” White said in a statement to The Daily. “Journalism is what connects all the classes and what allows all people to have access to knowledge of what is going on in the world around them.”
At the end of the event, audience members were able to ask questions of the panelists, both through question cards and Twitter.
The first question asked dealt with whether the panelists believe Americans fare worse in captivity than people from other countries, as well as how governments paying ransoms impact journalists who are still being held.
“I mean we are hated in the world, especially at this moment in time,” Foley said. “Westerners are targeted anyway, because of various western coalitions. But absolutely. I think once they found out Jim was American he had one of the worst treatments of any of the hostages."
To conclude the event, the panelists discussed how journalism has been affected by the Trump administration, as well as how journalists are treated abroad.
“The Trump Administration really assisted the Saudi government in covering up that crime, it’s reprehensible and that really sends a message to enemies of journalists and enemies of journalism and those who want to persecute journalists that there will be no consequences in terms of their relationship with the United States,” Simon said.
White also explained how she believes the Trump administration's rhetoric regarding journalists affects their safety.
“I think that the president telling the general public that any group is a threat risks that group's safety,” White said. “I think that journalists often have to be more aware now of their situations and surroundings, especially when interviewing groups that may see them as a threat.”
Foley reiterated her belief that students should continue pursuing journalism, despite job insecurity, criticism from the public and possible safety risks.
“I would encourage them, (being a journalist) would be a very noble task,” Foley said. “But also be honest. It’s hard to make a living and it can be risky. So if (students) want to be journalists, they need to become highly skilled at protecting themselves. But I think it’s so important — we need them. It’s critical, journalists are so important. Without them we wouldn’t be free.”