Houston's Austin Tice, Missing: The Most Dangerous of Assignments -- Freelance Journalism in a War

Austin Tice hasn't been heard from since Aug. 11.
Austin Tice hasn't been heard from since Aug. 11.
Courtesy of Tice family via McClatchy's news service

When Houston journalist Austin Tice left for Syria eight months ago to cover the country's devolution and nascent civil war, he melted into a country that has become, both anecdotally and statistically, the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist.

He did it as a freelance reporter, possibly without much protection or support from the organizations he worked for. In a time of shrinking news holes and budgets across almost every media outlet, conflict reporting as a freelancer -- which often means absolutely zero safety net -- has become utterly normal.

No one's heard from the 31-year-old since August 11, the last time he posted to his Twitter feed. He told some of his editors -- he freelances for The Washington Post, McClatchy's news service, CBS News, Al Jazeera English and Agence France-Presse -- that he was traveling to Syria's border with Lebanon to cover fighting there, but hasn't been heard from since.

According to his Linkedin, the one-time Georgetown law student was an infantry officer with the U.S. Marines until the beginning of this year. And, apparently, the pull of conflict was too much for Tice, who writes in his page: "I can write, film, snap, and speak, so if your organization is looking for an all-in-one crisis correspondent willing to get the stories other won't, call me. ... I'm not so great behind a desk."

His family said in a statement they're confident he's safe and are proud of his work. Still, some concern must linger. Since the start of the Syrian conflict in March of 2011, ten journalists have been killed in the country, according to Reporters Without Borders, an NGO providing support to wayward reporters. Five journalists have been killed in the last two weeks.

"The toll from violence against professional and citizen journalists continues to grow at a terrifying rate, just as it does for the civilian population," wrote Delphine Halgand, the organization's American representative, in an e-mail to Hair Balls.

The organization provides insurance to international journalists, but Tice didn't opt in to any plans with them, Halgand said. An additional 30 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria and are still awaiting release. But one of the most disconcerting elements with Tice's disappearance is that no one knows anything at all.

"No one knows if he's alive or dead," Halgand said. It's completely possible he'll re-emerge any day, she said, explaining that scores of international aid workers have vanished for weeks in Syria only to materialize unscathed later.   Earlier this summer, the Columbia Journalism Review published an insightful essay on the dangers of foreign reporting as a freelancer:

More and more news organizations are relying on freelancers to cover dangerous international stories. But these freelancers don't enjoy the same protections as the staff writers and photographers who once covered those stories. While many news organizations claim to look out for their regular freelance contributors, the story some freelancers tell is slightly different. They say that while some news organizations will step in if something goes drastically wrong, most ignore or evade the insurance issues, and freelancers -- fearing the revocation of their story assignments -- don't press the point.

Austin Tice explained why he went to Syria in a July 25 Facebook post that The Washington Post has published with the family's permission. It's as emotive as it is revealing:

We kill ourselves every day with McDonald's and alcohol and a thousand other drugs, but we've lost the sense that there actually are things out there worth dying for. We've given away our freedoms piecemeal to robber barons, but we're too complacent to do much but criticize those few who try to point out the obvious. Americans have lost their sense of vision, mistaking asinine partisan squabbles for principles.

So that's why I came here to Syria, and it's why I like being here now, right now, right in the middle of a brutal and still uncertain civil war. Every person in this country fighting for their freedom wakes up every day and goes to sleep every night with the knowledge that death could visit them at any moment.

We've made a call to The Washington Post to find out what sort of protection, if any, it offered Tice -- so check back later for updates.

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