World Press Freedom Day Updates on U.S. Journalists Being Held Captive


The National Press Club (NPC) held a news briefing today on World Press Freedom Day updating the current conditions of three U.S. journalists, two of whom are being held captive in Russia, and Austin Tice who is being held captive in Syria. In her opening remarks, NPC president Emily Wilkins reiterated that journalism is not a crime and called for the immediate release of all three journalists being held.

Wilkins went on to comment that journalists are being killed at an alarming and unprecedented rate and100 journalists have been killed to date in the Israel-Hamas war. “That is more than all the journalists that were killed in the calendar year 2023,” she said. “Today we call on all parties to immediately stop the killing of all journalists and we call on the U.S. government to use its significant influence to assure the safety of reporters. But we cannot ignore the fact that the vast majority of journalists that have died are Palestinian, and we know that some of them have been targeted by Israeli forces. Besides these killings, journalists are being wounded, they are being threatened and their families are being threatened. This is unacceptable, and it must stop now. Journalists also need to be granted access to report firsthand on what is happening on the ground in Gaza and what is happening in this war. Israeli reporters have also been killed by Hamas. We condemn these killings.”

Debra Tice, mother of journalist Austin Tice who has been held in Syria since 2012, the longest such captivity of any journalist, spoke eloquently of her beloved son and called for normalization of U.S. relations with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Tice spoke briefly about having recently met President Biden at the White House correspondents’ dinner where she said that the most important message she had for the president regarding Austin’s captivity was that “In spite of the fact that he (Biden) had given a very specific directive to the National Security Council on May 2, 2022, in which he told them to get a meeting to listen to the Syrians to find out what they wanted, there was no action taken by the National Security Council until the following February of 2023. I wanted the president to know that his directive had been somewhat ignored and I hoped that will change with the National Security Council.”

When asked by Wilkins if she was satisfied with the U.S. government’s response in her efforts to see her son released, she said that while the government easily engages with her, what she really wants instead is for them to engage with the Syrians. She did disclose that she has received information about Austin but is usable to share that due to the sensitive nature of the situation. She went on to say she could share that “Austin is exceedingly eager to walk free and I hope that he won’t have to mark his twelfth anniversary in captivity.”

In closing she mentioned that to free Austin there must be “sincere dialogue between the U.S. and the al-Assad regime” but that those efforts are being threatened by a bill, H.R.3202 – Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023 – that has passed the House and is now before the Senate.

The case of Alsu Kurmasheva, editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), who has been detained in Russia for the past six months was updated by Steve Capus, acting president of the organization. Kurmasheva, who holds both U.S. and Russian citizenship, was initially detained and arrested at an airport in the region of Tatarstan when heading home to Prague after visiting her ailing elderly mother. She was charged with “failing to register as a foreign agent and for spreading misinformation about the Russian military.”

Capus characterized the charges against her as making “no sense” in her unjustified detention. He thanked the National Press Club and President Wilkins for keeping the spotlight on her case and said that it had helped raise her profile.

One frustration, however, was that the State Department had not yet designated her as “wrongfully detained” but that he remained hopeful that that would soon be the case. The designation, he remarked, is important in that it would allow her to receive visits by U.S. officials. On a personal level, he told of how Kurmasheva has stated that during her confinement, her health has continued to deteriorate due to the harsh and inhumane conditions in prison, but that she remains defiant that she will be released.

Paul Beckett, Assistant Editor of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), spoke about the paper’s journalist Evan Gershkovich, who has been held by the Federal Security Service in Russia on espionage charges since March of 2023.

In response to a question from Wilkins regarding the state of discussions in the case, Beckett indicated that after some disappointments the U.S. special presidential envoy has stated that a new proposal is being put together. While finding this encouraging, he stated that “The issue for us is that this has to be done now. We have a window now to make a difference in securing Evan’s release and we would like the U.S. government to take full opportunity of that. They, themselves, have identified this window; it runs to June 30th which is the end of the pretrial detention that Evan is held under.”

Beckett observed that the landscape in matters of press freedom and detaining journalists overseas has evolved in the past few years from those actions by rogue actors and extremists to that of state actors as the “principal culprits.”

In answer to this transition and on a hopeful note, earlier today President Biden in a statement said in part that “Journalism should not be a crime anywhere on Earth. On World Press Freedom Day, we honor the bravery and sacrifice of journalists and media workers around the world risking everything in pursuit of truth…In the coming weeks, I will be taking executive action in response to the global crackdown on press freedom, as exemplified by the wrongful detention of journalists around the world. I will declare this crackdown on press freedom a grave threat to national security and will authorize measures, including sanctions and visa bans, against those who take abusive actions to silence the press.”

Report and photo by Phil Pasquini

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