In November 2012, British freelance journalist John Cantlie was taken hostage by ISIS in Syria. Two years later, he surfaced in a propaganda video, extolling the virtues of ISIS and disparaging the West. He's continued to pop up in ISIS propaganda since then, acting as a sort of warped foreign correspondent, forced to report on the extremist group's behalf. Brooke and Bob reflect on Cantlie's role in the ISIS media machine, and how his plight is a window into the challenges now confronting intrepid chroniclers of war. With Nicolas Hénin, French journalist and former ISIS hostage, and Charlie Winter, senior research associate at Georgia State University's Transcultural Conflict & Violence Initiative.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. For months, forces allied with Iraq have battled to take back the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamist State. There’s no end in sight.
JOHN CANTLIE: We’re in the center of Mosul a little way east and behind me it looks like a scene out of a Steven Spielberg film, except this is for real.
BOB GARFIELD: That is the voice of no ordinary battlefield reporter.
[ISIS PROPAGANDA CLIPS]:
JOHN CANTLIE: Hello there, I’m John Cantlie, the British citizen abandoned by my government and a long-term prisoner of the Islamic State.
BOB GARFIELD: British journalist John Cantlie was kidnapped by ISIS in Syria, along with American freelance reporter James Foley, in November, 2012. Foley was beheaded. Cantlie’s head was – preserved.
JOHN CANTLIE: I’m going to show you the truth behind the systems and motivation of the Islamic State and how the Western media, the very organization I used to work for, can twist and manipulate that truth.
BOB GARFIELD: Periodically, he pops up in ISIS propaganda, either as captive or playing a reporter, determinedly, as if his life depended on it, which, of course, it does. In the earliest videos, he’s dressed in the orange jumpsuit his fellow journalists were wearing when they had their throats slit by the man the media dubbed “Jihadi John.” In those first few videos, he’s sitting at a desk looking at the camera. In later clips, he’s a roving reporter out on the street.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the most recent video released on December 13th, Cantlie has a straggly beard. He looks emaciated.
JOHN CANTLIE: As a prisoner of the Islamic State, I’ve witnessed how the Mujahideen have learned how to stop the once-mighty Abrahams quite literally in its tracks with weapons that cost at most just a few hundred dollars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cantlie is a hostage twice over, Later we’ll review how and why. For now, we’ll present him as a symbol of how journalism, however ardently pursued, can come to nothing when trammeled by the news industry’s financial woes and global politics.
In an issue of the ISIS magazine Dabiq last year, Cantlie urged his family, fighting for his release with no apparent help from the British government, to stop. “Let it go,” he wrote, “get on with your lives.”
BOB GARFIELD: Cantlie had a life before. As the BBC noted, his portfolio was stacked with adventure features, ranging from extreme sports to off-road motorcycling.
JOHN CANTLIE: I’m about to ride the most expensive and fastest Italian sports bike on the market.
BOB GARFIELD: He was known as a seasoned professional who got the job done with an abundance of good humor.
JOHN CANTLIE: - ridiculous, this is ridiculous! [LAUGHING] I can’t work in these conditions. I have standards.
BOB GARFIELD: A journalist who had worked in some of the most dangerous countries in the world – Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria.
JOHN CANTLIE: After two weeks, it was time to leave the arable fields and olive groves of Northern Syria. We’d seen just a fraction of what the Assad regime is doing to its citizens, but it’s pretty shocking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When we planned this hour, which first broadcast in May, we were hoping to hear what Cantlie’s colleagues, his friends and family and his government would say about him, but we soon learned that almost no one would say anything because they feared their words could hasten his death. And some of them also are uneasy with the role he's now playing. So we decided to use the plight of Cantlie as the fulcrum for a broader exploration of the challenges now confronting intrepid chroniclers of war.
The era is long past when reporters could move between warring camps without explicit targets on their backs. The era is long past when most journalists had powerful media companies to defend them. And it's long past when combatants needed reporters to get their stories out. Oh, they’re still useful in shaping narratives but not as interpreters, rather as cash cows, public relations pawns and feature players in snuff videos.
BOB GARFIELD: But Cantlie’s role in the ISIS media machine is, as far as we can tell, unique.
CHARLIE WINTER: It’s an example of Islamic State’s impressive defiance in the face of the rest of the world, in the fact that they have got this guy who’s from a Crusader country basically towing the line. I think that that energizes people.
BOB GARFIELD: Charlie Winter, based at Georgia State University's Transcultural Conflict & Violence Initiative, is an ISIS expert. He says whether Cantlie believes or does not believe the things he says is beside the point.
CHARLIE WINTER: There has been this sort of narrative of whether Cantlie has, has gone to the other side, whether he believes the things he’s saying. I mean, this is a man who's been held by Islamic State for a number of years now and he is in total self-preservation mode. If he’s saying things that the propagandists want him to say and he’s saying them convincingly, then that’s going to improve his chances of survival. I do think it's kind of irrelevant to question where his loyalties lie.
JOHN CANTLIE: Sunni Muslims can now walk on the streets of Mosul without fear of sheer oppression.
JOHN CANTLIE: I’m struck by just how normal and crazy [LAUGHS] and busy everything is. This is not a city living in fear, as the Western media would have you believe.
BOB GARFIELD: Cantlie’s first kidnap occurred when he illegally slipped into Syria in July, 2012. He was shot and badly wounded during an escape attempt. A week after his abduction, he was rescued by forces of the Free Syrian Army fighting the rule of Bashar al-Assad. His second abduction occurred soon after the first one and at nearly the same place. Since then, former fellow captives have spoken of special tortures inflicted on British and American prisoners, including waterboarding.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nearly two years after Cantlie was taken, his friend and editor at the Telegraph newspaper, Colin Freeman wrote, quote, “Some of the reporting of his predicament has painted him as the author of his own plight, a devil-may-care adrenaline junkie who didn't know where to draw the line.” “But,” Freeman continued, “that isn’t the John I know. The John I know is aware of the dangers all too well but chose to face them in order to document the brutality of the Assad regime firsthand.”
French journalist Nicolas Hénin shared a cell with Cantlie and others, until his ransom was paid.
NICOLAS HÉNIN: Cantlie is a great journalist. He is a wonderful storyteller. So they realized the asset that he is for them, and they played a bit with him, doing some reporting for their sake. When you’re a hostage, you're just merchandise. You're just something that you keep in the fridge and waiting for a good use.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, he remains “in the fridge” until retrieved by ISIS, looking evermore shrunken and sapped. In a BBC interview after his first abduction, Cantlie shared some of what went through his mind while in captivity.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP & UNDER]:
JOHN CANTLIE: There were times when I actually thought, what’s it feel like when, when you’re shot in the back of the head, you know, when you’re kneeling and blindfolded, you know, is there pain, does it just go dark? Then when, you know, they were sharpening the knives, you’re like, you know, what does it feel like when someone pulls your head back and actually slices your throat, can you taste the blood gurgling down your windpipe? It’s – these are not nice thoughts.
BOB GARFIELD: These days, of course, we cannot know his thoughts. Just before his comrade in captivity, the journalist Jim Foley, was beheaded, Foley spoke words put into his mouth by his murderers. No one condemns him for that. Unlike the outpouring of support and heartbreak that followed Foley's death, Cantlie’s sporadic appearances seem to inspire a kind of - indifference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Case in point, a petition was created in Britain to raise awareness about his plight. All such petitions run for six months. At least 10,000 signatures are required to get the British government to respond, 100,000 to make it a parliamentary debate. In all, 5,646 people signed the petition.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, why journalists are such ripe and ready targets and why you should care.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.