Georgetown University community members are sending letters to their U.S. representatives to advocate for the return of Austin Tice (SFS ’02), who went missing over eight years ago while working as a freelance journalist in Syria.
Over 1,500 people have requested their representatives sign a letter asking President Joe Biden’s administration to prioritize Tice’s safe return. So far, nearly 600 Georgetown community members have sent letters. The constituent letters, sponsored by Tice’s family and other supporters, have already prompted 80 members of Congress to sign and send a bipartisan open letter addressed to Biden, according to Julie Moos, executive director of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports journalists and advocates for independent press.
“It’s important for the public to keep Austin’s name in front of their Members of Congress, who can ask for briefings on his situation, discuss him during committee meetings, draw attention to his situation on the floor while in session, and let the President know that his return home is important to the Member and their community,” Moos wrote in an email to The Hoya. “They have leverage and influence that they can use to help bring Austin home.”
In 2012, Tice was kidnapped in Syria while working as a freelance reporter covering the Syrian civil war. Five weeks after he disappeared, an anonymous YouTube user posted a video, titled “Austin Tice is Alive,” showing Tice surrounded by unidentified armed men. Tice is believed to be alive, and his case is being pursued by the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, a team of experts based in the FBI headquarters that works to recover American hostages abroad, according to the FBI National Press Office.
The #FreeAustinTice campaign, organized by the National Press Club Journalism Institute to bring awareness to Tice’s kidnapping and promote his return, provided students with a prewritten message to send to their representatives.
“We are asking you to help once again. This time, we are asking Members of the House and Senate to sign a letter to President Biden reiterating the urgency of finally securing Austin’s return home so that he can reunite with his family immediately,” the letter reads.
Constituent letters are an effective method of pressuring the Biden administration to prioritize pushing for Tice’s release, according to Joel Hellman, dean of the School of Foreign Service.
“There has been clearly a lot of activity at the White House level, and we think part of that is because of the pressure being put from within Congress and from others,” Hellman said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “We will use every opportunity and every lever that we have to keep pushing for his release, and this one I think is an important one.”
In February, just days into the Biden administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with the families of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad. The Biden administration will continue to negotiate on behalf of all U.S. citizens who are being held as hostages, a U.S. Department of State spokesperson wrote in a Feb. 9 email to The Hoya.
Tice and community members who have demonstrated support for Tice’s safe return embody and exemplify service, one of the SFS’s core values, according to Hellman.
“We feel especially obligated to keep keeping the pressure up for Austin Tice’s return because we think it’s partly the values from the SFS that led Austin to do what he did,” Hellman said. “I think that says a lot about him, and the fact that the community has continued to raise their voice in support of him shows that we feel this is a set of values that are very important to defend.”
Sending constituent letters is another method for the Georgetown community to advocate for Tice’s safe return, according to Doyle McManus, director of Georgetown’s journalism program.
“It seems to me this is a very useful way to reraise the profile of this case and to let the White House know that there are lots of constituencies out there that care deeply about Austin Tice,” McManus said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
Beyond the recent letters, the Georgetown community has been active in the #FreeAustinTice campaign, advocating for Tice’s safe return on social media, launching petitions and participating in peaceful demonstrations since 2015.
In 2019, the SFS honored Tice as a Centennial Honoree, an award presented to SFS graduates who have embodied Jesuit values throughout their lives. Tice was recognized for his commitment to and motivation for understanding the world and sharing the truth, according to an April 13 email from Hellman to SFS undergraduates.
“In going to Syria, his mission was to bring to others an understanding of the world. His motivation was to serve those who could not tell their stories,” the email reads. “And he was willing to do it all at great personal risk.”
According to McManus, continued advocacy for Tice’s safety is an obligation owed to journalists who take risks to keep audiences informed.
“When reporters and journalists are under attack, then reporters and journalists have to speak up for them,” McManus said. “This is a case where journalists have grown to see it not only as justified but as a moral imperative.”