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#FreeAustinTice: Parents of UH alumnus kidnapped in Syria speak at University

Austin Tice

Austin Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra, spoke at the #FreeAustinTice panel discussion on Monday. | Brittaney Penney/The Cougar

At 4:15 p.m., the murmurings of a small group in the Honors Commons faded. Slowly, the shuffling stopped. Tapping feet grew still and quiet. Even the breathing deepened, giving way to the deafening and inconsolable silence.

The man on everyone’s minds was Austin Tice, a UH alumnus and overseas journalist who disappeared in Syria in 2012.

The Cougar editor in chief Cara Smith opened the event by reading excerpts from some of Tice’s last Opinion pieces he wrote for The Daily Cougar. Honors College professor Ted Estess called for a minute of silence for Tice, and poetry readings from Honors professor Robert Cremins and Director of the Arab Studies program Emran El-Badawi rounded out the introductory speeches.

“That which we, every day, take for granted — the capacity to speak freely to our loved ones — that is what has been denied to Austin,” Estess said.

After, journalism professor Lindita Camaj — herself a former foreign correspondent — spearheaded a discussion on journalism abroad with Tice’s parents, Debra and Marc Tice, and the United States Director of Reporters without Borders, Delphine Halgand.

Working as a freelance photojournalist in Syria, Tice had just decided to leave Damascus when his family and editors lost contact with him nearly three years ago. Anxiety beat at them for four days until Marc received a phone call. He said he still remembers that the caller ID was simply “Washington, D.C.”

“Are you sitting down, Mr. Tice?” the official asked Marc over the phone.

Marc called Debra, who was in Minnesota at the time, explaining to her that their son had been kidnapped. The perpetrators posted a YouTube video, showing what Marc described as armed men “curiously dressed like jihadis” with a single message: “Austin Tice is alive.”

Tice grew up in Houston and ventured into journalism with only a decade of children’s wisdom, writing a letter to a nature magazine about a bird he watched with his mother. Years later, Debra tenderly remembered how early Tice realized he wanted to be a writer.

“He was born big, and he lived large — always,” Debra said. “He was never afraid to have an adventure. His love for journalism, I like to say, began the first time he crawled across the Sunday paper on the living room floor.”

Austin attended UH for a year and reported for The Daily Cougar. He came to UH at 16 after being homeschooled and created a second home for himself in the Honors College. Estess, who founded the Honors College, grew fond of Tice during that time.

“I remember when Austin decided to join the Honors College,” Estess said. “We were delighted. We were impressed with the way Austin became a part of this college. He made this place his place.”

When the civil war ripped through Syria, Tice, who had visited the Middle East before during his time as a U.S. Marine, felt sources on the ground weren’t capturing a grand enough picture of the culture or war. Uncertain that all the facts were being shared, he picked up the burden himself.

Through his endeavors, Tice earned the 2012 George Polk Award for War Reporting and, in the same year, the McClatchy Newspapers President’s Award. Before all of this, though, Debra said he was humbly “thrilled when he was published on the first page of the Washington Post.”

The thing that’s going to change for journalists is that we begin to develop an appetite for real news. We will not tolerate that they are silenced. We will not tolerate that they are captured, because we want what they serve.

— Debra Tice

Reporters Without Borders, the non-profit where Halgand defends speech and the press, has pegged Tice as the headlining case of the foreign and war correspondent’s plight in the modern day.

“Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, press freedom has been declining in the past few years for all countries, not just the U.S.,” Halgand said. “When you see a conflict on the ground, there is (also) an information war. Each party involved wants to see their (reasoning) in the news, so they are targeting journalists.”

Halgand estimated that around 40 journalists have been captured in the last year, especially in war-torn countries like Syria, Libya and Ukraine, and that 180 were imprisoned all over the world.

But Halgand stressed that the greatest volume of victims aren’t usually Americans like Tice. Local journalists, she said, account for nearly 90 percent of the victims of kidnappings and free-speech violations.

“When journalists are missing, we are all blindfolded,” Halgand said.

Now, a campaign to raise awareness for Tice thrives. All are encouraged to sign a petition to the U.S. government, encouraging it to take action on Tice’s behalf.

The family also encourages supporters to participate in their social media campaign, where users take a picture of themselves blindfolded and upload it to their social media account using #FreeAustinTice. The act symbolizes the blindness and disjunction people would face in a world where journalists are allowed to be silenced.

“What is important is to live… Take your shoes off and let the wind blow through your hair,” Tice wrote in his column nearly 16 years ago. “Even if that wind is hot, muggy and heavy, and the sweat is rolling down your face and staining your shirt, it shows that you are alive. It shows that you are living.”

CORRECTION: Delphine Halgand’s name was misspelled as Halgard in a previous version.

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