05.14.11

The Mideast's Forgotten Journalist Prisoners

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, dozens of journalists have been detained. Sarah Topol talks to the families as they desperately wait for their loved ones.

Al-Jazeera journalist Dorothy Parvaz told her fiancé, Todd Barker, on April 28, that she was traveling to Syria to cover the uprising there the next day. She had just returned from a two-week reporting trip to Japan and nothing Barker could say could change her mind. Parvaz wasn't tired, she was adamant about the importance of reporting on the Syrian government's brutal crackdown.

Barker and Parvaz usually talk multiple times a day, but he hasn't heard from her since. In all their talks, they'd never had a conversation about what to do if she was captured on the job.

Syrian authorities detained Parvaz as she entered the country on her Iranian passport, but it would be almost a week before they confirmed to Al-Jazeera that the reporter was in their custody. "She is committed to the fact that journalism makes people's lives better, telling the truth makes people's lives better. She believes shining the light in dark situations is a good thing, she lives and breathes that principle," Baker told The Daily Beast.

On May 11, Syrian officials said Parvaz had been deported to Iran the week before, but there has been no confirmation from Iranian officials. Parvaz has had no contact with her family or Barker since her detention. Although Syria released the details of Parvaz's supposed flight to Iran, Barker says her name hasn't been found on the flight manifest. It remains unclear where Parvaz is being held.

"The bottom line is that given the conflicting information we do need independent confirmation that she is in Iran," Barker said, "Whether she's in Syria or Iran, we just want to talk to her."

The most difficult part for families and friends is waiting.

Parvaz joins the growing list of journalists detained while covering the uprisings in the Middle East, where autocratic regimes facing popular rebellions have cracked down on domestic and international media. Twelve journalists have been killed across the region, while dozens are detained, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The most difficult part for families and friends is waiting: for many captured journalists' families, confirmation of detention and proof of life has been slow to come.

In Libya, American freelance journalists James Foley and Clare Morgana Gillis were detained on April 5, along with Spanish photographer Manu Brabo. The Libyan authorities oscillated between acknowledging and denying knowledge of their capture. It would be over two weeks before Gillis was allowed a phone call home. Foley called home later that same week.

"Jim has always enjoyed being a voice for the common person," says his mother, Diane Foley. "He was interested in people and what conflict does to people, he was very passionate about that." Foley had previously worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. Foley had been working for Boston-based GlobalPost from Libya.

"The hardest part is not knowing what's going to happen to him—what's in Jim's future and Clare's too," says John Foley, Foley's father, who spoke by phone from the car as the family drove to New York City for a vigil in Foley's honor to be held on Sunday.

Gillis has been allowed two phone calls home. "She sounded very good, she was very worried that we were worried," her mother, Jane Gillis, said of the first call she received from her daughter on April 21. Gillis had written from Libya for the Atlantic, USA Today, and The New Republic, among others.

Foley and Gillis were detained covering the frontline in eastern Libya. They were moved around detention centers to Tripoli where Gillis was transferred to a woman's prison. They were later moved to a "safe house" with Foley and Brabo according to Foley's mother. An intermediary finally saw the three on May 2 and gave independent verification that they were in good health.

Although phone calls provide cold comfort, the situation of detained journalists remains critical. Their fate remains unknown. "We hope to have Clare home soon, as soon as possible—sooner rather later," her mother says.

As uprisings continue to rock the volatile region, the ever-changing situation and governments' brutal response tactics make reporting there increasingly difficult and perilous for both international and local journalists. Coverage of the uprisings in the Middle East has been a challenge to even the best-staffed media outlets. Four New York Times reporters were detained in Libya, and were later released.

Freelancers face even more difficult decisions: whether to risk their own safety to report on a story that they believe in, with less understanding of how much responsibility their temporary employer will shoulder if they are captured or injured on the job. GlobalPost and the Atlantic have been working to publicize their reporters' capture. Yet Gillis' mother said when her daughter first called home, Gillis was "very surprised" the world knew of her plight.

"These are repressive governments that are determined to prevent people from covering the story. This is one of the tactics they are prepared to use," says Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "These governments like to, particularly when their back is to the wall, pretend that they're different and oblivious to what the rest of the world thinks of them, but even the most oppressive government tries to make some calculation and some acknowledgement that in its ability to do what it does, there's some dependency on the rest of the world," Simon says. "It's very, very important that we keep the pressure on."

Simon has seen awareness campaigns to free journalists work. "Raising your voice in these situations is vital," he said.

Sarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, The New Republic, and Slate, among others.