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VanDyke's deception increases risks for journalists

Matthew VanDyke returned home last week from Libya, arriving at the Baltimore airport still dressed in combat fatigues. "I went there to support the revolution," VanDyke declared. "My family did not know that when I left. You don't tell your mother you're going off to fight a war."

What troubles us is that VanDyke told his mother that he was going to Libya to be a journalist. So when he was captured on March 13 near Brega, that's what she told us.

VanDyke had done some journalism and documentary work in the Middle East so we had no reason to doubt his mother's assertion. Concerned that a reporter may have been captured while carrying out his work, we raised alarms, issued several news alerts, and spent a great deal of time on the phone with his mother advising her on a strategy to bring her son home.

We now know that VanDyke was captured while carrying out a reconnaissance mission with other rebels in a truck carrying weapons. He spent 166 days in a Libyan jail, escaping from prison as the rebels entered Tripoli and the capital fell into disarray. He later rejoined his revolutionary companions, participating in the fighting near Sirte, where Qaddafi made his last stand. VanDyke served as the gunner in an improvised jeep outfitted with a machine gun.

In many parts of the world, journalists who are captured by rebels or governments are accused of being spies. CPJ has condemned government intelligence agencies that use journalists as informants or allow their agents to use journalism as a cover. Even the CIA has pledged not to do this because it recognizes the risk it poses to the work of journalists in conflict zones.

We do not know exactly what VanDyke told his captors. He did not respond to our emailed questions after his release. Still, the next time a journalist is captured and swears that he is not a spy his captors may be more skeptical. And they may be less inclined to believe CPJ or other press freedom organizations because of the example posed by VanDyke.

VanDyke told reporter Bruce Goldfarb, who interviewed him at the Baltimore airport, that he "appreciated" the work that CPJ did on his behalf. "I'm appreciative that they spent time and resources, and that by keeping my story alive they did prevent the regime from executing me. And I'm very grateful for that."

Well, Matthew VanDyke may appreciate us but we don't appreciate him. Pretending to be a journalist in a war zone is not a casual deception. It's a reckless and irresponsible act that greatly increases the risk for reporters covering conflict.

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Comments

Totally agree. Tnx for speaking out on this.

This is very poor way for the CPJ to react.

Joel Simon accuses VanDyke of 'Pretending to be a journalist in a war zone'.

But what evidence does he offer in his article? None.

Telling your mother you are something is completely different to telling that to the Libyan authorities.

Did Joel Simon beat up on John Simpson for entering Afghanistan wearing a Burkha during the Afghan war?

Its a two way street.

I think CPJ made the right call here. While CPJ can stretch the definition of "journalist" to some very politicized persons in the interests of freedom of the media, they have to draw the line at combatants and people advocating or using violence. And that's what they did here.

At one level, it's a shame that the human rights movement's very successes have forced it to engage in a narrowing of definitions of freedom activity that means a civic organization actually has to get into the position of not wanting to save someone fighting a tyrant because he does fit a prescribed definition.

Yet as Joel points out, the success of the mission with governments and non-state actors especially in conflict zones hinges on being able to claim a definition of the profession that groups like CPJ stick to.

Journalism is an occupation. Not an Occupation.

Confused by this reaction by 'duckrabbitblog.' Joel Simon clearly cited VanDyke's admissions, all the evidence you should need, in his link to this article:

http://arbutus.patch.com/articles/vandyke-i-went-to-libya-to-support-revolution#photo-8375939

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In VanDyke's own words:

“When I went to Libya, my family thought I was doing more filming than I was, and more writing,” he said. “My purpose there was not journalistic. That was assumed when I went missing, because I’d been a journalist.”

“I was supporting the revolution when I was captured."

He enlisted in a rebel brigade and was given a military Jeep. “We put a Russian machine gun on it,” he said. “I was the gunner.”

===

VanDyke told his mother he was going to Libya to film and write, suggesting that he was going for journalistic reasons. VanDyke's mother informed both the press and the CPJ of his claimed purpose when he was imprisoned, who then reported him to be a journalist in dozens of articles. The Qaddafi regime, along with every other anti-free-press dictatorship in the world, could have used these articles to claim he was a spy, and cast doubt on every other journalist reporting from dictatorships.

So when you say that "telling your mother you are something is completely different to telling that to the Libyan authorities," it isn't – because his claim of journalistic intentions was broadcast by the press all over the world.

The damage could be even more widespread. What if China, for example, had reported there was an "American "journalist" firing machine guns at Qaddafi forces? The political ramifications could be enormous. Fortunately I haven't found anything in any searches of Xinhua sites.

It was a horribly irresponsible thing for VanDyke to do, and put untold scores of real journalists in danger.

Did you not read the article or its sources, before attacking Mr. Simon?

This blog post is ridiculous. The guy told his mother he wasn't going to fight because he didn't want her to worry about him. That is completely different than "pretending to be a journalist in a war zone."

I can't find one article about this guy where he is quoted saying he was in Libya doing journalism. He never claimed to be a journalist in Libya. He went missing and everyone assumed he was a journalist. Everyone was wrong, so what?

Just because Joel Simon feels embarrassed about what happened and feels the need to defend CPJ is no reason to falsely accuse this guy of wrongdoing. He didn't put anyone in danger, and didn't hurt the profession.

The guy cannot be blamed for what was said about him while he was missing in a Libyan prison.

@bob You're not getting it. VanDyke told his closest contact he was working as a journalist in Libya. When he got captured, she and the people she enlisted to help accepted his story in good faith.

*Real* journalists all over the world are captured and accused of being spies or enemies of the state. VanDyke, by actually being a combatant, undermines the credibility of every other effort to free real journalists being held on trumped-up "enemy" charges. They stand less of a chance of survivial because of VanDyke's casual, irresposnible deception. That's a big deal Bob.

I completely agree with Mr. Simon. And as a documentary filmmaker recently back from filming along the Eastern Congo border, I certainly don't appreciate him. As Mr. Simon stated: "Pretending to be a journalist in a war zone is not a casual deception. It's a reckless and irresponsible act that greatly increases the risk for reporters covering conflict." VanDyke should be held accountable for his actions.