– Following is the text of a letter from Eileen O’Reilly, president of the National Press Club, and Gil Klein, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, and co-signed by major journalism organizations calling on the Biden administration to prioritize the problem of hostage-taking of journalists by state actors.
President Joseph R. Biden
The White House
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear President Biden
We call upon you to immediately prioritize the release of two U.S. journalists being held hostage abroad: Austin Tice, who was taken in Syria 10.5 years ago, and Evan Gershkovich, who was imprisoned by Russian security forces two weeks ago. Journalism is not a crime and should not be punished.
We also ask you and your administration to prioritize addressing any unjust detention of journalists by foreign powers. Often this action is taken to both silence the important work the journalist is doing, and to use the journalist as leverage in a negotiation. Both are atrocious and in violation of international protocols. Of course, these entities could require the journalist to leave the country but choose to take them hostage instead. When this happens, they succeed in harming and destabilizing countries like the United States, where democracy requires the free flow of information.
When a U.S. passport holder, who is a working, credentialed journalist is taken prisoner, the USG should immediately declare this a wrongful detention. We note that in the recent case of Evan Gershkovich, it took the State Department 13 days to declare his case a “wrongful detention.” While he waited for the designation to be declared, Evan was in solitary confinement. According to the United Nations Torture Convention, solitary confinement for 15 days or more is torture. Some studies indicate irreversible brain damage can occur from periods of solitary confinement of more than 20 days. These early days are a critical time for hostages. Our government’s internal process must be streamlined as foreign entities can use our slow bureaucracy to punish journalists.
The State Department suggests that while they follow their process toward a wrongful detention designation, the detainee will have access to consular visits. But with Evan, that was not done. The Russian government allowed no consular visits in violation of treaties. It was a week before Evan was able to see his lawyer. It was the prohibition of consular visits that makes the solitary so punitive. Meanwhile, during this time the Russian propaganda spread unchecked, false charges were spread through the media. It is vital that US designation of wrongful detention be part of these early news cycles to refute the spread of disinformation and to protect the journalist.
We urge you to act now to obtain the release of unjustly detained journalists, Austin Tice and Evan Gershkovich, and to prioritize any cases of hostage taking of journalists by state actors.”
National Press Club
National Press Club Journalism Institute
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)
Online News Association
International Women’s Media Foundation
American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA)
Washington Association of Black Journalists
Dow Jones News Fund
International Center for Journalists
National Press Photographers Association (NPPA)
National Scholastic Press Association
Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)
Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA)
Report for America
Report for the World
Texas Intercollegiate Press Association
Student Press Law Center
The Groundtruth Project
Associated Collegiate Press
News Leaders Association
College Media Association