PEN’s Director of Free Expression Programs and former journalist Dominic Moran reflects on the tragic death of James Foley and the growing threat to journalists as conflicts in the Middle East wear on.


The murder of freelance journalist James Foley by Islamic State extremists highlights the burgeoning risks facing journalists reporting on the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region.

Through years of living and working in the Middle East as a freelance correspondent and civil society organizer, I have some limited experience of the challenges facing what is an increasingly disparate and embattled press corps in countries where hopes for new free expression protections have repeatedly failed to come to fruition.

With the loneliness of what is often a solitary journalistic experience, the constant hustle for contacts, interviews, and assignments, the grind of working for low pay in demanding physical conditions, and the occasional moments of real danger, freelance reporting in the region was taxing even before the effective collapse of Libya, Syria, and Iraq. Since, the work of those like Foley, who have provided a window on the profoundly complex conflicts, has often verged on the heroic.

Increasingly, journalists have died for this work. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that, since November 2011, at least 67 journalists have been killed reporting on the conflict in Syria; 24 were freelancers. Another 80 are known to have been abducted, with the whereabouts of about 20 still unknown. The horrific murder of Foley underlines the extreme danger posed to those who remain in the hands of hardline Islamic militant groups. But reporters have been targeted directly by all sides in Syria. As in the wider conflict, the majority of those that have been killed are Arabs.

At its best, their reporting both reflected the essential mission of the fourth estate to shine light on the gravest iniquities and reminded us that it is the victims of this violence and their struggle to hold their families and communities together in the face of unimaginable suffering that is the true story.