Diane Foley: Trump Has Freed American Hostages. But He’s Made It ‘Less Safe’ to Be a Journalist.
The mother of slain journalist James Foley writes about her work protecting journalists and American hostages abroad. “Unmasking Jihadi John” will premiere July 31 on HBO.
August 19, 2019, will mark five years since the shockingly brutal public beheading of our son, American journalist, James W. Foley.
How could any civilized person carry out such a barbaric, inhumane murder of another innocent human being? Who was this masked executioner with a British accent? How did he become so filled with hatred and drawn to violence? Those are the questions that propelled director Anthony Wonke and producer/writer Richard Kerbaj to create the poignant and riveting documentary Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist, which will be released on July 31 by HBO.
Our Jim was the first of six courageous Americans who were kidnapped, held captive and then brutally murdered from 2014 to 2015. They were conflict journalists Steven Sotloff, Luke Somers and Jim, aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig, and a humanitarian contractor, Warren Weinstein.
Within three weeks of Jim’s horrific murder, our family, friends and donors from around the world established the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation (JWFLF) to advocate for the freedom of all Americans held hostage abroad and to promote the safety of journalists worldwide. Jim once said that “without moral courage, there is no journalism.” We were all challenged to summon the moral courage to bring some good out of Jim’s brutal murder.
I felt it was unacceptable that our great nation would abandon its brave citizens who were kidnapped abroad. I was appalled by our country’s indifference to Jim’s captivity and our ordeal. As an American, I was determined to make the return of innocent American hostages a national priority and to protect independent journalists.
The shock of these murders and the failure of the U.S. government to assist led President Obama to order a comprehensive review of U.S. hostage policy. The review recommended sweeping interagency collaboration and structural changes in the way the government handles the kidnapping of U.S. nationals by terrorists, criminals or pirates. JWFLF worked closely with the reviewers to advocate for a restructuring and better support for American hostage families.
In June 2015, President Obama issued a Presidential Order establishing a U.S. Hostage Fusion cell, a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, a Hostage Recovery group at the National Security Council, a Family Engagement Coordinator and an intelligence manager.
The Foley Foundation partnered with the Ford Foundation in 2015 to fund the start of Hostage US, a nonprofit dedicated to the confidential support of American hostage families. In June 2019, the JWFLF published “Bringing Americans Home” in partnership with New America. This first nongovernmental assessment of U.S. hostage policy and family engagement by researcher Cynthia Loertscher found improved U.S. government support for American hostages, but less for Americans unjustly detained by foreign governments. JWFLF is committed to making this review annual to ensure that the return of Americans held abroad is a priority.
My husband and I met candidate Donald J. Trump within three months of Jim’s murder at a New Hampshire event honoring Jim posthumously. Mr. Trump took time to listen privately to our ordeal and donated $25,000 to our fledgling foundation. Since becoming President Trump, his administration has made the return of American hostages more of a national priority by continuing President Obama’s 2015 governmental changes and by emphasizing hostage negotiation when dealing with foreign powers. In the two and a half years since Trump took office, at least 21 Americans held hostage abroad have been freed.
However, unfortunately, the Trump administration has also made it less safe to be a journalist not just in the U.S., but worldwide. Calling the press “the enemy of the people” has increased the risks of reporting truth to power and has made journalists less physically safe, resulting in oppression, jailing, and even murder. In fact, 4 journalists and a staff member of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, were massacred in 2018 simply for being members of the press.
In pursuit of increased journalist safety, the JWFLF worked with journalists to establish the historic Alliance for a Culture of Safety (ACOS). ACOS brings together press freedom organizations, news media companies and freelance journalists to provide hostile environment and first aid training, medical insurance, security consultation and editor training for the increasing number of freelance journalists in conflict zones.
We also seek to promote preventive safety skills in aspiring journalists. In 2016, the James W. Foley Safety Guide graduate curriculum was written by Ellen Shearer of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, in collaboration with ACOS leaders. This curriculum uses the powerful documentary Jim: The James Foley Story to raise risk awareness for journalism students and teach risk assessment and digital security. This fall, an undergraduate journalist safety program, in collaboration with Marquette University, will be piloted.
Hostage-taking is a horrifying experience for both captives and their families. The agonizing absence of Robert Levinson, Austin Tice, Majd Kamalmaz, Xiyue Wang and Tomeu Vadell are but a few examples of the hundreds of innocent Americans taken hostage annually.
There is so much hatred and violence in our world as explored by this compelling film, Unmasking Jihadi John. We must have the moral resolve to recognize it, fight it and protect our country and its citizens from it. The work of countering hatred in our world is a challenge for every good American.
Whether kidnapped by terrorists, criminals or foreign governments, the return of American citizens must become a priority for our great nation.