Austin Tice disappeared seven years ago, in August 2012, while working as a freelance photojournalist in Syria. He has been held hostage for the past seven years, the only American journalist currently being held overseas.
On September 23, free-press advocates from the National Press Club Journalism Institute and Reporters Without Borders, along with more than 100 volunteers (including myself), canvassed Capitol Hill to ask legislators to support efforts to free the American journalist.
During the day-long initiative, supporters – including Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra – visited the offices of all 535 members of Congress to ask them to keep pressure on the Syrian government to obtain Tice’s “immediate, safe and unconditional release.” Volunteers asked each representative and senator to sign a bipartisan and bicameral letter to President Trump, urging him to work with the State Department to free Tice. The letter, which was drafted by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Patty Murray (D-WA), as well as Representatives Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), Michael T. McCaul (R-TX) and Al Green (D-TX), implored the president to “continue to use the full weight of your national security team — including dispatching the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs — to secure [Austin Tice’s] release.”
As a result of the volunteers’ efforts, 173 members signed the letter — 121 Representatives and 52 Senators.
Tice, an award-winning journalist whose work has been published by McClatchy, The Washington Post, the Associated Press and others, is also a veteran Marine Corps captain. In the seven years since his capture, his friends, family and supporters have worked tirelessly to draw attention to Tice’s plight and to encourage Congress, the White House and the State Department to work with them to free Tice, whose current whereabouts are unknown.
Canvassing on behalf of Tice was a life-changing experience, and one I won’t soon forget. While traversing the Rayburn and Longworth office buildings, I met not only like-minded volunteers, but dozens of compassionate and concerned Congressional staffers willing to listen as an army of Tice supporters in matching green T-shirts went door-to-door to share information on the missing journalist. During one office visit, a young staffer originally from Syria shared that she herself had lost friends and family during the country’s civil war, and she offered a warm hug and a promise to put the letter at the top of her boss’s inbox.
Another staffer I met went to college with Tice’s sister and had already flagged the “Dear Colleague” letter for her boss; she and her coworker offered me and my canvassing partner water and a place to rest between offices.
In addition to the kind and compassionate staffers and volunteers, I had the opportunity to get to know Tice’s parents and hear stories from them about Austin, not simply as the reporter I’ve come to know and respect through his work, but as a brother and son. Debra shared anecdotes about Austin giving his younger sister dating advice when she was in college, and the hilarious outcome – his sister asking her then-boyfriend, “What do you bring to the table, anyway?” when he suggested they get serious. Marc, meanwhile, shared his excitement at the prospect of my meeting Austin when he is eventually returned home, assuring me that I would love his son even more after getting to know him in person.
Following the canvassing, Tice’s parents appeared on CNN to talk about their son and their efforts to bring him home. “I think the hardest part about waiting is when we began to realize what seven years means. Seven years is the difference between an infant in the cradle and a second-grader,” Debra said.
“We know that Austin is alive, the United States government knows that Austin is alive, and that he will walk free, and so we just have to get the stars lined up and all the ducks in a row and all those different metaphors to get this done for Austin,” Debra continued.
“Keeping Austin top of mind is a challenge, but also very important to drive momentum to bring him home,” Marc said.
This was not the first event of the year to draw attention to Tice’s plight. In May, “Night Out for Austin Tice” recruited restaurants across the country to join in spreading awareness and donating proceeds from the evening to the National Press Club Journalism Foundation to be used in their efforts to bring Tice home.
Following the most recent event, organizers capped off their efforts with an exhibition of some of Tice’s photos from Syria displayed in the foyer of the Rayburn House Office Building, as well as remarks from Tice’s parents, his college photography teacher, and Reps. Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Al Green.
Like Tice, Moulton is a veteran of the Marine Corps, an alumnus of Georgetown University and a strong supporter of journalism. “Austin… had the courage to take the principles of a free press to one of the most dangerous places on earth, in the heart of Syria,” Moulton said. “Freedom in a democracy means freedom of speech, freedom of the press and, fundamentally, freedom of its citizens. Austin has lived up to the highest ideals of freedom.
“He has fought for freedom, and it is up to us to fight for Austin until he is free once again,” Moulton continued. “Marines do not leave anyone behind. America should not leave anyone behind. So, it’s time to bring Austin home.”
Green, who represents the Tice family’s home district in Texas, has worked closely with them in an effort to secure Austin’s freedom. “In times such as these, with a crisis such as this, we should all become one, we should be on one accord, we should have one purpose, and that one purpose is to bring Austin Tice home,” Green said. “He belongs to us. He is one of ours. We can’t turn our backs on him.”
For more information on how you can help #FreeAustinTice, visit the National Press Club Journalism Institute’s ‘Ask About Austin’ webpage.
You can also watch videos from the #AskAboutAustin exhibition below.
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.