NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, along with his production team, made their way across the border to Turkey after five days in captivity in Syria. In interviews on Tuesday, Engel said that he and his team were captured while traveling with Syrian rebels and theorized that he was being held by a Shiite militia group loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Engel said the militia’s members used “psychological torture” on him and his crew and intended to exchange the NBC crew Engel and other journalists for the freedom of others being held by rebel groups. (Watch an interview with Engle and his associates here.)
Word of Engel’s capitivity began to spread on social media on Monday after reporting from Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, despite an official media blackout from NBC. Engel’s freedom came at the hands of a Syrian rebel group known as Ahrar al-Sham:
Hazem al-Shami, spokesperson and a fighter in Ahrar al-Sham battalions, said the rebels had been on the lookout for the missing journalists, and so they had set up checkpoints to search for them. One of the checkpoints was near the town in Idlib Province where the hostages were being kept.
“When they saw we’re searching cars, they started to shoot at us,” he said in an interview on Skype. “So we attacked them until the kidnappers ran away and the hostages stayed in the car.”
Engel’s escape is unquestionably a welcome development, but it also draws attention to the scores of journalists who find themselves either unable to flee prisons or who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their work over the course of this year. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 67 journalists have been killed in the line of work in 2012, a number only surpassed in 2009 in terms of lethality.
The spike in those lost this year comes primarily from Syria, where 28 have died in combat or have been targeted by the government, and another 18 in a mass of targeted deaths in Somalia. The vast majority of those lost this year have been local journalists, though four international members of the press, including American writer Marie Colvin and Japanese journalist Mika Yamamoto, were killed in Syria.
Meanwhile, as of Dec. 1, 232 journalists remain imprisoned worldwide for attempting to cover the news. According to the Committee to Protect Journalist, fifty journalists are behind bars in Turkey alone, the highest rate of incarceration for media members in the world, having just arrested another on charges of terrorism yesterday. The majority of those locked up in Turkey are Kurds on terrorism charges.
Engel’s release also shines a light back onto journalists who also remain in captivity within Syria. Among them is Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who first went missing in August, whose whereabouts are still unknown.