On Aug. 13, 2012, the FBI reported that freelance photo-journalist Austin Bennett Tice was kidnapped inDaraya, a suburb of Damascus, Syria while reporting on the Syrian Civil War.
Yesterday morning I was scrolling through my Twitter and I saw a post from the Washington Post Press Freedom Partnership which was a print ad about World Press Freedom Day which is on May 3.
According to the UNESCO website, World Press Freedom Day is “a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. Just as importantly, World Press Freedom Day is a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story.”
In the ad, I saw a picture of Austin Rice smiling and the mention of him being stuck in a country that was embroiled in war. I also saw the hashtag #FreeAustinTice. According to a New York Times article, there is a belief that he is still alive in Syria despite many failed attempts to return him home. Up until looking at that post, I did not know about Austin’s case but it was a reminder that the job that journalists do, while adventurous and exciting, is not easy.
I think back to the days when I studied creative writing and wrote for the University of California, Riverside Highlander Newspaper. Interviewing students, professors, school officials and getting baptized with criticism from my editors, I was getting my feet wet. At that time, I did not have too much knowledge on writing styles or writers and I was just starting to become familiar with journalistic words like “lede” and “nutgraf.” With a buzzcut haircut, a clean-shaven face, a pair of black thick rimmed glasses, and a Superman T-shirt (I was trying to emulate Clark Kent), I remembered that journalism was something that I wanted to do (and it still is).
A reminder of just how important and daunting a journalist’s duty can be is my journalism college professor, Claire Hoffman. I remember gaining wisdom during and after class from Claire,a journalist who wrote for the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone. This wisdom was about what it takes to be a reporter. Claire taught me that as a journalist, you have to put yourself out there, get out of your comfort zone, listen to people and never interrupt them when they are putting time aside to tell you their story so that you can tell it. I also learned that as a journalist, you need to challenge yourself to tell that story that you know in your heart of hearts is worth telling. No matter what.
To this day, I try to live by that wisdom. I’ll admit, back in college I was a bit arrogant by only trying to get my name on a byline and trying to be a know-it-all. All of that started to change when Claire firmly, but patiently, pulled me aside and provided the wisdom of what it takes to be a true reporter: by being a good listener, doing your research (or readings), and pursuing the truth to tell your story. I would never forget that conversation and I think it is one that every aspiring journalist should have. I also had several more of those moments with other professors but that particular one was the most profound because it was a reminder that journalism is not just a career, it’s a responsibility. As journalists, we are steward of the news.
When I decided to pursue journalism, I never thought that a year and a half after writing my first piece with the Highlander, a part of my assignment in Claire’s class would involve me taking a trip to the Robert Prestley Detention Center in Riverside where I sat across the window from a prisoner. To this day, that story still evokes a myriad of emotions in me. I can still remember the prisoner in his orange jumpsuit with tattoos emblazoned on his skin looking at me as he told me the story of when he got arrested on his brother’s wedding day for killing an innocent man at a Jack in the Box in Corona, Ca. I can still remember the phone conversations with the slain man’s family member and the former Riverside County District Attorney. That’s how rewarding, yet tough, the profession can be.
Going back to Austin Tice, again, I did not know about this man before looking at that tweet. I learned a little bit about him by reading some articles from the New York Times and People Magazine. I did learn that in addition to being a photo-journalist, he served in the US Marines and his work appeared in various outlets including CBS, the Washington Post, and the McClatchy Company. But I can safely assume that he did not expect to get captured and detained in Syria while doing his job: telling stories of the Syrian war. He most definitely did not expect to have to try to escape only to get kidnapped again. And he most certainly did not expect that in almost a decade, the United States of America,under both the Obama and Trump administrations, would be struggling to bring him back home.
A part of the reason I wanted to write this piece to let readers know that journalism is a very important field in our society. It is what holds a democracy together by calling out those in power whether we support them or not. It exposes corruption and abuse. It tells the untold stories of people or places who are hidden and yet are unique. It also memorializes those who chose to make a difference and it contributes to our history. And it also helps preserve history. Austin was helping to do just that and he ended up getting detained because of that commitment.
In addition, I wrote this piece to remind readers that journalists have rights. They are living every day to tell stories that may not have seen the light of day if not for those brave enough to mention them. Governments cannot and should not mistreat journalists, jail them, or say that what they evoke is ‘fake news.’ And they most definitely should not execute them, like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did when he ordered the assination of the Washington Post Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Daily Planet, inspired by a newspaper in the Superman comics and the bravery of journalists like Lois Lane, Clark Kent, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen, was created to give aspiring journalists, like me, a voice to tell our stories. Our mission statement of the Daily Planet is to “pride itself on journalistic integrity” and “we hope to inform the world in order to make it a better place.” When I was welcomed to join the planet by our editor Zack Benz, I realized that my contributions, as well as the contributions of my fellow journalists, are what help the Daily Planet with its mission.
Whether it is an article about the current events happening in our country and the world, an article or review about a favorite TV show, or a podcast from a comic book nerd from Earth-16,each of us from the editor to the contributing writer is “informing the world in order to make it a better place.” And that was what Austin Tice was doing when he was in Syria when he did not have to be. But he chose to be in Syria to tell a story about a war that was triggered by the government who attacked pro-democracy protesters opposingPresident Bashar al-Assad.
I am also writing this article as a way to urge the U.S Government to free Austin Tice and bring him home. If you are reading this President Biden and Vice-President Harris, I want to point out to you that Austin Tice was only doing his job as a reporter to report what was happening in Syria. I also want to point out to you that he has also served our country as a US Marine. He’s a hero both as a Marine and as a journalist.
In closing, how many more journalists have to be detained or die in order for our governments to realize that they need journalists to preserve freedom for the people and democracies? If it wasn’t for journalist and their choice to not go silent, politicians would go unchecked and have a lust for power, media moguls would use their power to go after vulnerable and innocent people, injustices to minorities would be occurring, and other unimaginable things that I would not want to imagine.
World Press Freedom Day (May 3, 2021) reminded me of what my journalism professor taught me: Journalism is not just a career – it is a responsibility. A responsibility to tell the truth and hold those in power accountable. It is also a commitment to make our communities, and the world, a better place. It also reminds me that journalists have rights, especially when they are doing their jobs by reporting the news. Journalists like Austin Tice and Jamal Khashoggi who are brave enough to be loud and be heard in the face of tyranny. And there are many journalists out there that are in the same boat as they are. Even as the journalism profession evolves, governments and societies will still need journalists.