Jim Foley’s legacy: Press freedom and advocacy for US hostages overseas

Courtesy: The James Foley Foundation

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Shortly after her son was executed by ISIS terrorists, Diane Foley met with then-President Barack Obama, who assured her that bringing her son home had been a top priority for the country.

Diane Foley looked at the president and told him, in effect, he knew that wasn’t the case.

American journalist and videographer James Foley was kidnapped while covering the unrest in Syria in 2012. After two years in captivity, his execution was posted online, rattling the country and thrusting a little-known terrorist group into the American psyche.

Months prior to his murder, U.S. military forces attempted a dead-of-night raid on a compound in Syria in an effort to rescue Foley and others being held captive. The intelligence about their whereabouts was good, but stale: they were long gone. Diane Foley said she received a call directly from the president that the mission had failed.

“On the phone, poor man. I don’t think he knew what to say,” she recalled. “It was nine months after they knew where they were, so they were gone.”

Her next conversation with Obama was months later in the Oval Office, after Jim Foley’s murder. The image of her son kneeling in an orange jumpsuit next to his executioner was forever seared into the memory of those who saw it.

“He said, ‘Jim was the highest priority,’” Foley said. “I told him he knew it wasn’t, it hadn’t been.”

“I understood it was a complicated time,” she added.

In the wake of Foley’s case, Obama ordered a comprehensive review of national hostage policies and created a fusion cell at the FBI. The new center linked information from the country’s intelligence agencies so it could be shared with the State Department during a hostage situation, and dedicated a person to communicate directly with families whose loved ones were taken captive.

“That was the way he redeemed himself,” Foley said of Obama. “He’s a good man, but there is no way these Americans were a priority at that time; they just weren’t.”

The family also formed the James Foley Legacy Foundation, which describes its mission as “to advocate for the safe return of all Americans detained abroad, to protect independent conflict journalists and to educate regarding these threats to our freedom.”

“It’s still new and the issues are very complicated; depending on who the captor is, what country [and] what the political situation is there,” Foley said. “I am grateful for more attention and the interagency communication, which wasn’t there when Jim was [taken hostage].”

Target 12 interviewed Diane, who lives in New Hampshire, when she was in Providence with her family on Jan. 3 to be honored prior to a basketball game pitting Providence College against Marquette University, which Jim attended as an undergraduate. Diane said she hopes the way the country handles hostage situations moving forward is part of her son’s legacy.

“The other part of it is … I didn’t really value enough what the media and journalists do for our country and for our democracy. I just took it for granted,” she said. “I really feel there is a lot of very brave journalists today who help us to know the truth, not only in our county but around the world. I feel there is a need to support press freedom in a big way.”

Filling the void

Jim Foley’s capture in Syria was not the first time he had been taken into custody. In 2011, the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya detained him and held him for 44 days before he was released.

He returned home to New Hampshire, but eventually told his family he wanted to go to Syria as a freelance photojournalist. Diane said she tried to talk him out of it.

“Jim has two master’s degrees – there was so much he could have done and he knew it,” she said. “He just felt there was a huge void there; those voices were being silenced, if you will, in places like Syria, Libya and such.”

As Diane put it, Jim was “very passionate about the underdog,” having worked for Teach for America and as an educator in the Cook County jail in Illinois before diving into journalism. As the media landscape contracted, and major news outlets were pulling out of areas like Syria, Diane said her son wanted to fill that information vacuum.

“He really felt there was a story that westerners needed to hear,” she said. “He became close to a lot of the people in Syria and in Lybia [and] really felt for their pursuit of freedom, their hopes and dreams, and became very personally concerned about making sure their voices were heard.”

Diane remembers the last time she spoke to her son, just before he was kidnapped on Nov. 22, 2012.

“I was at work. He called to offer condolences because my 103-year-old aunt had died and Jim knew her well,” Diane said. “It was a hurried conversation. That was the last time I spoke with him.”

Jim’s story was told in the HBO documentary “Jim: The James Foley Story,” which won an Emmy in 2016.

The Foley Foundation also works to educate young reporters who are thinking about becoming a conflict journalist.

“They really need to prepare themselves,” Diane said “It’s a dangerous world, often we’re targeted, that’s the reality.”

She said the tools they teach are important on domestic soil, too, and called it a “sad time” for the country when it comes to attitudes toward journalists.

“Free press is foundational to our freedom, to our democracy,” she said. “People need to know what the truth is before they can make decisions.”

“I am very concerned about that because journalists are risking their lives every day, as are photojournalists,” she said. “So that we can be free.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

In 2015 James Foley was posthumously awarded the New England First Amendment Coalitions’s Freedom of Information Award. The author is a board member of NEFAC. The James Foley Legacy Foundation provided content for the television version of this report.