Yesterday, the Newseum, together with Reporters without Borders, unveiled a banner on the front of the museum in honor of American freelance journalist Austin Tice who has been held captive in Syria since 2012.
Tice is the only American journalist held captive abroad. He was one of the few Western journalists on the ground while the Syrian conflict was still unfolding.
Tice was attending law school at Georgetown University when he decided to travel to Syria, wishing to expose the impact the violent conflict has had on civilians. As a former U.S. Marine, his experiences while on tour in Afghanistan and Iraq had motivated him to tell the other side of the story – the story of the Syrian people who have suffered the brunt of the deadly civil war.
A few days before he went missing in August 2012, Tice tweeted that he had spent his birthday with the rebel forces of the Free Syria Army, and that he had developed close relationships since he had crossed the border into Syria from Turkey in May. He went missing right before he was set to travel to Lebanon.
Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever.
— Austin Tice (@Austin_Tice) August 11, 2012
In October of 2012, US officials believed, based on the limited information they had, that Austin was being held by the Syrian government, although no militant group or government has since claimed responsibility.
RSF, in partnership with Austin’s parents, launched a social media campaign to bring awareness to his continued disappearance. The campaign, #FreeAustinTice, urges US lawmakers and the Obama administration to use everything in their power to secure Austin’s safe and expeditious release.
In attendance at the banner unveiling were a group of Georgetown University students who launched their own student grassroots movement to bring awareness to Austin’ disappearance. They attended the rally wearing blindfolds, a symbol used as part of the campaign in partnership with RSF, representing Austin’s unanswered kidnapping.
“Everyone is blind until Austin is brought home,” said Emily Kaye, one of undergraduate students. Tice explained that blindfolds were meant to show how blind people would be without reporters like Tice, as well as the dozens of reporters who have been captured risking their lives reporting the facts on-the-ground in these conflict areas.
Ari Goldstein, another Georgetown student, said that they felt as if they had a special responsibility to help raise public awareness for Tice’s case because he was a Georgetown Hoya like them. Tice graduated from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in 2002.
The students added they hoped to create some significant change for Tice before President Obama leaves office, as it will put a significant delay on Austin’s cause having to build relationships with a new administration. Kaye hopes that the new administration they will prioritize Tice’s safe return.
The unveiling of the banner on the façade of the Newseum marks a significant step in the campaign. Jeffery Herbst, Newseum President and CEO, explained at the event that the unveiling of the banner would serve as an opportunity to call public attention to the threats facing members of the press around the world. It would be a public reminder of the risks journalists face as they seek to bring accurate information to the world. Herbst added that the Newseum was committed to advocating for the protection of journalists worldwide.
RSF U.S. Director Delphine Halgand explained that the banner marked the first time a major American institution such as the Newseum displayed a public image for an American journalist captive. In October, Halgand mentioned the #FreeAustinTice campaign and RSF’s dedicated efforts to locate him during a talk she gave at The George Washington University about the importance of press freedom.
Sonya Gavankar, a Newseum official, told MediaFile that while it was the first time the museum had put up a banner for a specific captured journalist, it was not the first time they had taken an activist role. Last year, while a Chinese official was visiting Washington, the Newseum hung a sign in Chinese characters about freedom of expression.
The banner, facing the historic Pennsylvania Ave, provides an unprecedented visibility for Austin; the image inescapable to any visiting tourist, diplomat, or lawmaker passing by. Deborah Tice, Austin’s mother, hopes that it will serve as a stark reminder to the president of his obligation to secure Austin’s safe release.