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.