The apparent back-to-back murders of two American freelance journalists by the same group are unprecedented in CPJ’s history. The beheadings on camera in a two-week period of first James Foley and then Steven Sotloff appear to be an acceleration of a pattern–dating at least to Daniel Pearl’s killing in 2002–of criminal and insurgent groups displaying the murders of journalists to send a broad message of terror.
Despite heartfelt pleas from their families including each reporter’s mother, Islamic State militants operating in Syria and northern Iraq beheaded first Foley, in a video released August 19, and then apparently Sotloff in a video released today, as a grisly way of telegraphing the group’s strength and influence to the world. As of late today, U.S. officials had not confirmed the Sotloff video’s authenticity.
With the rise of mobile Internet technology and social media in recent years, nonstate actors like Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram have tried to leverage platforms like Twitter and YouTube for themselves, bypassing traditional media to disseminate their messages directly, as CPJ documented in a 2013 essay in Attacks on the Press. As both insurgent groups and the governments they fight have become more sensitive to how they are portrayed, CPJ found, journalists have been squeezed between threat of violent attack from one side and pressure of censorship or prosecution from the other.
But the beheadings of journalists as a public warning is something much more stark: rather than bypassing the media to transmit a message, Islamic State made journalists’ murders the message itself.
Islamic State is not the first group to use the beheading of journalists as a way to make a point. Three years ago this month the decapitated remains of freelance Mexican journalist Maria Elisabeth Macias Castro were found by the side of a road with a pair of headphones and a computer keyboard. A note left at the scene indicated that she was murdered for her reporting on organized crime that she posted anonymously on social media as “the girl from Nuevo Laredo.”
Back in June 2002, drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro beheaded the TV Globo journalist Tim Lopes with a sword after he recorded some of their criminal behavior on video. Only four months earlier, Al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan had cut off the head, on camera, of The Wall Street Journal correspondent Pearl.
The accelerated risk comes at a time when news organizations have cut back, leaving freelancers like Foley and Sotloff to navigate the risks of places like Libya, where Foley was captured and held for 40 days in 2011, largely on their own.
Lopes and Pearl were staff journalists; Foley and Sotloff were working solo in the both exciting and dangerous field of international reporting.
Castro was also trying to fill an information vacuum. In Mexico, organized crime groups have terrorized the local press into silence, leading citizens to report criminal activities on websites and social media, either anonymously or using pen names. Castro’s murder was the first ever documented by CPJ worldwide that was in direct relation to journalism published on social media.
Unfortunately, the executions of Foley and Sotloff are unlikely to be the last.