Medill alum remains detained in Libya, future uncertain

Sean Lavery

The Twitter feed of James Foley (MSJ ’08) ends April 4, when he remarked about the sunset prayers of Libyan citizens contrasting with rockets over the city of Brega. He sent one more message before the feed’s abrupt end, signifying the moment he and three colleagues were captured by forces loyal to Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gadhafi.

More than two weeks later, journalists Foley, Clare Gillis, Manu Brabo and Anton Hammerl remain in custody with little to no information from the Libyan government about any potential release.

Foley’s parents said they do not believe much progress has been made. His mother Diane Foley said they are relying almost entirely on the Turkish embassy in Libya to provide an avenue for release.

Diane Foley said two weeks of no contact have taken a toll, especially after she was told to expect his release within a week.

“It’s our worst nightmare,” she said. “We wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Diane Foley said James’ recent coverage of the Libyan conflict was just the latest work in a very recent interest in journalism and military coverage. Before coming to the Medill School of Journalism for a second master’s degree, James Foley studied Spanish and history at Marquette University. After working with Teach for America, a job that sent him around the country, he decided to study journalism to launch a second career, Diane Foley said.

Ellen Shearer, Medill professor and director of Medill Washington, said James Foley took her “Covering Conflicts and Terrorism” class, which includes a week-long session of training in a hazardous environment with the hope that journalists will be better prepared to handle dangerous situations.

“What’s going on there is tough reporting,” Shearer said. “The good news is that there hasn’t been any bad news.”

The oldest of five children, James Foley has a brother who served in the military, which his mother said led him to the realm of conflict reporting. His first work as a freelancer saw him embedded with the Indiana National Guard, covering the military conflict in Iraq for various Indiana newspapers. He worked in Afghanistan and Iraq for about a year each. When news of the Libyan conflict broke in mid-March, James Foley traveled to the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi. His mother said for several weeks he had been in contact with his family.

“He was really loving it,” Diane Foley said. “The Libyan people were very kind to him. Several had him over for dinner.”

James Foley talked through video chat with his family three days before he was detained, and an email sent on the eve of his capture let his family know he was alive and well. It was two days before his parents got word.

“When I think about it, it causes pure horror and terror,” James’ father John Foley said. “When I don’t think about it I feel guilty.”

Diane Foley said she was comfortable with his work in Iraq and Afghanistan and said being embedded with the military afforded him safety.

“His trip to Libya was obviously a dangerous thing for him to do,” she said. “I was just trying not to think about it.”

Both parents said keeping the story in the public eye through media exposure is the best course of action they can take as they wait for diplomatic leaders to place pressure on Gadhafi’s government for the journalists’ release.

“The American government needs to be reminded that they’re incarcerated and be pushed to do everything they can possibly do,” John Foley said. “I think the Turkish government is doing a good job.”

Diane Foley said they are using a website and a Facebook campaign to spread word about their son’s situation.

“The American people need to know that this is happening there,” she said. “Journalists are being unlawfully detained. We have no idea what the Libyan government is doing, and because they’re in a bit of chaos right now, I don’t think these young journalists are at the top of their priority list.”

Several Medill professors have reached out to the Foley family in the past few days, Diane Foley said. A Medill spokesperson said the school put a link to the website advocating for James Foley’s release on their Facebook page. Diane Foley said faculty from Medill’s Washington, D.C. news bureau have been in contact to discuss strategy for moving forward.

Shearer said James always said he wanted to be “where the action is.” She said although he has had much experience with freelancing, the situation in Libya is dangerous for all journalists.

John Foley remains hopeful, but said he fears for the safety of his son.

“We hope and pray that he is alive and well,” he said. “Actually, we know he’s alive, we’re just not sure how well.”

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