Three years later: Search for Austin Tice continues
Drivers from all over the city will see the billboard with the face of Houston reporter Austin Tice, calmly smiling down at the Northeast Loop 610 at McCarty Road. The message, “Over a 1,000 days in captivity for being a journalist,” will hover next to him.
The same message has loomed over his parents, Marc and Debra Tice, for over three years. But instead of defeat, they are more determined than ever to find their son.
“We’d done hundreds of interviews and articles, and yet we still have people, people that we’d know over the years, that come to us and say, ‘Oh my gosh, we just heard about Austin’,” Marc said. “We want to keep spreading the word, spread awareness and amplify our voices.”
The Price of Freedom
Austin Tice, former Marine and aspiring law student, disappeared on August 13, 2012, two days after his 31st birthday. He was traveling from Daraya, Syria, to Beirut, Lebanon, while covering conflict overseas.
That following September, a YouTube video titled “Austin Tice still alive” was posted showing Austin, blindfolded, surrounded by armed captors.
Its original video has over 122,000 views and generated buzz over other news outlets with the help of Austin’s parents.
Nearly 270 newspapers and media organizations joined together to highlight the journalist’s case on their websites, according to the Houston Chronicle, making the #FreeAustinTice campaign a national outcry.
“Such a collective mobilization of the American media to raise awareness about a missing American journalist is unheard of,” said Reporters without Borders USA Director Delphine Halgand for their website. “This is a first in U.S. media history.”
The family’s goal is to gather signatures for the petition to send to the White House.
“In a world as complicated as we live in today, how do we get that information across, how do we do that without getting informed?” Marc said. “We get informed by the media.”
Austin, who visited the Middle East during his time as a U.S. Marine, expressed frustration when reading news about war and the rising conflict in Syria, who couldn’t confirm whether or not their information was accurate.
So he decided to fill those voids by reporting on the area himself. Austin, a The Daily Cougar former writer soon became a foreign freelancing journalist, covering beats for The Washington Post, CBS and NPR, among other respected news organizations.
In a Facebook post in July 25, 2012, Austin said that America lost its pioneering spirit.
“We became a fat, weak, complacent, coddled, unambitious and cowardly nation. . . . So that’s why I came here to Syria, and it’s why I like being here now, right now, right in the middle of a brutal and still uncertain civil war,” he said. “Every person in this country fighting for their freedom wakes up every day and goes to sleep every night with the knowledge that death could visit them at any moment. They accept that reality as the price of freedom. . . . They’re alive in a way that almost no Americans today even know how to be. They live with greater passion and dream with greater ambition, because they are not afraid of death. Neither were the Pioneers, neither were our granddads, neither was Neil Armstrong and neither am I.”
Outcry from the public rose in aid of campaign after footage showing freelancing journalist like Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig being beheaded by rebel groups. Austin isn’t believed to be held by the ISIS rebel group.
Roughly 95 journalists have been killed in Syria since the start of the Syrian uprising in 1992, and at least 12 are currently imprisoned, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Just this April, the #FreeAustinTice campaign came to UH, holding an open dialogue to raise awareness about Austin’s journey. Cougars where given the opportunity to sign the petition to the White House and participate in the “Blindfold Challenge.”
“It’s a fantastic metaphor for what happens when journalists are silenced or are taken captive,” Marc said. “It’s not them that are being blindfolded, it’s all of us.”
The campaign soon caught the President Barrack Obama’s attention. Earlier this summer, the White House unveiled entire new policy in the executive order, allowing families of U.S. hostages to pay ransom as well as getting U.S. government to help families communicate with captors.
Marc said at times he felt frustrated at the lack of communication.
“You know if someone can pass along the word that Austin is okay, why they can’t just call us? Why not put him on the phone, let him tell us he’s okay?” Marc said.
He hopes this is new policy will be the steep stepping stone into getting Austin found.
“(The process is) much more collaborative, more efficient… there’s accountability,” Marc said. “Over the last two or three months, we’ve had collaborate talks about what to do and getting agreements forward. It’s a start, it’s not perfect yet, but at least a structure exists. Now we can move forward.”
Billboard Rises Hope
With the help of Clear Channel Outlook, the Tice family along with Reporters without Borders, unveiled one traditional billboard, which stands along Interstate 610, along three digital billboards.
The campaign was brought to the Clear Channel’s attention by family friends Pam and Bill Wallace. Bill was Austin’s scout master when he was became an eagle scout in Troop 266.
Vice President of Public Affairs at Clear Channel Outlook, Lee Vela, said the idea is to keep people talking.
“It’s very sad when someone is missing for this long, especially a young man with such a bright future,” Vela said.
Clear Channel Outlook has worked with the National Missing & Exploited Children and other nonprofit organizations in spreading the message out to help find the lost.
“In this case, it’s a bit unique because the missing is a journalist, I don’t think we’d done one of these before,” Vela said.
These new billboards will create 1.6 million market impressions per week according to Vela.
As the image of Austin looms over the city he grew up in, the hope and determination still lives that one day the Tice’s will get their son back home, where his three prestigious awards hang in the wall, waiting for him.
“Sometimes we think… we shouldn’t have told Austin to go, we should have told him to get a desk job to keep him safe,” Marc said. “But the fact is, we do believe that if you’re called for something, you have to go after it. I still believe that.”