James Foley was the only person Nicolas Henin, a French journalist, ever allowed to call him “bro.”
Henin and Foley, an American freelance journalist murdered in 2014, were ISIS hostages together in Syria for 10 months. In the Sundance Film Festival documentary “Jim: The James Foley Story,” Henin details how he came to think of Foley as his brother.
“I usually dislike these familiarities, like, ‘Hey, bro!’ No — I am not your brother. But from Jim, yes, please do,” Henin says in the film in a thick French accent. “We invented a life in captivity and when you invent a life, you must also invent a family.”
Henin was released from his ISIS captivity in August 2014, the same month Foley was beheaded in an ISIS YouTube video that shocked the world.
“Jim” details Foley’s life and captivity through the eyes of his family, who largely objected to his work, but were powerless to stop him. To his family, Foley’s determination to become a conflict journalist, risking life and limb to capture the stories of rebels in places like Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, was a complete mystery.
“Why the hell did you go back?” Foley’s brother, Michael, asks in the opening of the film. “I keep asking that.”
Despite his brush with captivity and death after spending 44 days in a Libyan prison in 2011, Foley lasted three months at home before heading to Syria, to his family’s amazement.
“I told him, ‘You just met my daughter. She loves you, I love you, just why?’” Foley’s brother and U.S. Air Force Maj. John Foley said. “I just wanted to punch him in the face in a loving, brotherly way.”
At its core, the film is the eulogy Foley’s friends and family weren’t able to give after he was killed. But “Jim” isn’t just about Foley or his death as an example of ISIS’ barbaric methods. It illustrates how much journalism and warfare have changed in the age of the war on terrorism. Both the lack of journalistic resources and the nature of terror groups have made conflict journalism more dangerous than ever, as Foley’s friends attest to repeatedly in the film.
“Everyone in a conflict zone has their own measure for what's safe and what isn’t,” Foley’s colleague, Clare Gillis, says in the film. “Remember, there was no bureau to report to.”
Richard Edmonds, a media analyst at the Poynter Institute, said that financial instability in the news business in the past decade or so has greatly altered how journalists cover war.
“It used to be that metro papers — like the Baltimore Sun, Newsday — had some reporters working abroad. Should you have (the) misfortune to have been captured then, it was a good thing to have a large organization behind you,” Edmonds said, noting that most papers no longer have foreign correspondents. “That became a casualty of having to cut some things back.”
To make sure international affairs were still covered when many well-known services like Knight Ridder and United Press International were closing or cutting foreign coverage dramatically in the early 2000s, outlets turned to freelance journalists willing to shoulder the risks alone.
“International coverage dwindled,” Phil Balboni, Foley’s editor at digital news service GlobalPost, says in the film. “We saw a need to fill the void and we needed to work with freelancers (to do that).”
In the film, photojournalist Nicole Tung, who reported Foley’s abduction to his editors and family, explains how the limited resources of modern conflict journalism puts safety and caution purely on the shoulders of the journalists, who often work without any guarantee they’ll sell a story. The only so-called foreign bureaus most conflict journalists in Libya and Syria know are cheap hotels with Internet access and little or no security.
“Many of us never got to experience journalism in its heyday. You hear these stories about being flown first class halfway across the world,” Tung says in the film. “What we do is journalism on a shoestring budget. So we have to be a lot more resourceful and street-savvy.”
Left with fewer resources and in-region support networks, journalists who are captured as Foley was are in more danger today, partially because foreign bureau chiefs were once knowledgeable in how to get their reporters out. Edmonds said that’s still the case for larger outlets like the Associated Press, The Washington Post or The New York Times.
“Bigger papers and wire services get less credit than they should for continuing this kind of reporting and who are experienced in getting these people released and giving reporters guidance for what situations are safe and which are not,” Edmonds said. “That certainly may help mitigate the dangers.”
That also makes it less clear for the captors of freelance writers, photographers and videographers who these journalists work for or who to contact. Foley was in captivity for some time before his family finally received untraceable email directly from ISIS, demanding either $132 million in ransom or the family’s “influence” with the Obama administration to shut down the terrorist holding camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In the film, Foley’s parents, John and Diane, express frustration that the government didn’t do more to help locate Foley given the limited resources of the family and GlobalPost, based in Boston. In the early days of Foley’s abduction, the family had followed U.S. government instructions to keep the kidnapping quiet, to little result.
“We realized at the end of the year (2013) that nothing was being done,” Foley’s father, John, says in the film.
“I have evolving thoughts about what the government did and didn’t do,” Balboni says in the film. “But 15 Europeans are alive and with their loved ones today. I wish we’d tried to raise money sooner.”
Atlantic contributing editor Graeme Wood, who has reported extensively on ISIS and its motivations, doesn’t argue that the closure of foreign bureaus may have complicated conflict journalism, but he doesn’t think the change alone makes reporters like Foley less safe.
“Conflict journalism is dangerous now, but not principally because of the state of the industry. Foley was not ignorant of the dangers or lacking in training that his older colleagues had, and when he was captured, great resources went into his recovery,” Wood said via email. “But he went into a war zone where noncombatant status was not respected in any way by the relevant authorities. That's what killed him.”
Edmonds said that up to the mid-20th century, war was typically a conflict between established governments, who usually understood the role of journalists as working outside the conflict despite their proximity to the fighting. But since 9/11, the rules have changed.
“The conventions of warfare used to be widely applied in through World War II, but much less so now. It’s very dangerous to be a journalist now in many countries,” Edmonds said. “It certainly adds to the hazard in conflict situations that we’re not always dealing with nation states, we’re dealing with self-formed groups within nations.”
Because terrorists and makeshift rebels are more often at war now than governments, journalists’ safety depends more on the whim and loyalty of whoever they’re embedded with. The mood changed dramatically in Syria in 2011, as “Jim” shows.
“The shine was starting to come off,” Foley’s friend Gillis says, in the film, of Syrian rebels’ waning enthusiasm to help journalists there. “You’re very dependent on the goodwill of the people you’re around.”
Terrorist organizations like ISIS also have an inherent suspicion of Western media, and as former journalist captives show in “Jim,” that ideology means ISIS may target journalists on purpose. French journalists held with Foley point to the Charlie Hebdo magazine murders in Paris in 2015 as an example.
“They think that by attacking journalists they are striking at the heart of our society,” Foley’s cellmate and French war journalist Didier François says in the film. “Freedom of speech and what we are denouncing is a threat for them.”Comment on this story
Perhaps there’s nothing that could have spared Foley’s life, nothing that would’ve changed had the government stepped in or if Foley had been a member of a robust news organization. Regardless, Foley’s friends and family continue to ponder the unfairness of his death when other captives have escaped with their lives. The day ISIS released Henin, he recalled feeling sure he and Foley would meet again in freedom.
“I said, ‘See you,’” Henin recalls of his last exchange with Foley, while being led out of the dark cell. “And he said, ‘See you, Bro.’”