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Fears grow for second kidnapped US journalist

Friends of Steven Sotloff, allegedly the second journalist shown in Islamic State beheading video, call for his release.

Last updated: 23 Aug 2014 11:16
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Steven Sotloff, of Miami, Florida, is apparently the second journalist shown in the Islamic State group's video of the grisly beheading of American reporter James Foley.

Sotloff, 31, is a freelance writer who covered the Arab Spring and the war in Syria for Time magazine, the Christian Science Monitor and Foreign Policy. He was kidnapped in August 2013 and is being held by the Islamic State group who threatened on the video to kill him next if the US continues to strike IS targets in Iraq.

Sotloff reported for ForeignPolicy.com from northern Syria in the winter of 2013 on the millions of refugees who were overwhelming the capacity of international aid groups to help. His writing was crisp and poignantly empathetic to the suffering of Syrians who had been displaced from their home villages by shelling and were living without adequate food, water or shelter.

"It was a serious look at the plight of the Syrian refugees," said Benjamin Pauker, executive editor of ForeignPolicy.com, told Al Jazeera.

Sotloff and his fellow war reporters in Syria took huge risks to bring back stories about what was happening in Syria.  "The reporting these people do is extremely valuable, extremely risky and extremely dangerous," Pauker said in a telephone interview.

"People who went in and out of Syria all the time and were very experienced said it just became this black hole. The terrain shifted under them." The Islamic State group suddenly controlled checkpoints that previously had been safe. Relationships with fixers - guides and translators who help journalists navigate - changed dramatically.

By August of that year, Sotloff had disappeared.  "We are always concerned about the people who work with us," he said. "It was horrific to see him show up at the end of that video."

'He kept going back'

Emerson Lotzia, a sportscaster in Florida who roomed with Sotloff at the University of Central Florida where both studied journalism, told Central Florida Future, a Gannett news site, that his friend didn’t let fear of the risks of war reporting in Syria stop him from returning again and again.

"A million people could have told him what he was doing was foolish... but to him it was what he loved to do and you weren’t going to stop him," Lotzia said. "Steve said it was scary over there. It was dangerous. It wasn’t safe to be over there. He knew it. He kept going back."

Much of Sotloff’s reporting from the Middle East appeared in Time magazine. His last byline for Time was in November 2012 on a story about a wave of assassinations of police destabilising Libya.

Steve said it was scary over there. It was dangerous. It wasn’t safe to be over there. He knew it. He kept going back.

- Emerson Lotzia, former roomate

"Eight months of a revolutionary war in 2011 decimated Libya’s already deeply flawed civic institutions," Sotloff wrote. "With no security organisations to ensure order and an ineffective justice system unable to prosecute suspects, Libyans fear their country is slowly crumbling around them."

A spokesman for Time declined comment for this story.

Friends and colleagues among the tight-knit group of freelance war correspondents in the Middle East described Sotloff in social media postings on Facebook and Twitter as a fine journalist, deeply committed to telling the stories of the Arab Spring and the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya.

Portia Walker, a correspondent for the BBC and a former freelancer based in the Middle East who worked with Sotloff, tweeted on August 19: "Absolutely sickened and terrified to hear about Stephen Sotloff: a friend, colleague and fantastic writer who was just doing his job." 

In 2010, Sotloff travelled to Bahrain where he reported for the Christian Science Monitor on the largely Shia revolt against the Sunni monarchy that has ruled the Persian Gulf island since 1971. Sotloff ventured into the poor mostly Shia neighborhood of Sitra where he interviewed residents frustrated with unfulfilled promises of political reform.

"We thought we were heading toward reform" a carpenter named Mazen told Sotloff who shared his story with the world. "None of that was real. We are worse off now than we were 10 years ago."

'Not alone'

Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC, said on Twitter: "Steve Sotloff lived in Yemen for years, spoke good Arabic, deeply loved [the] Islamic world.. for this he is threatened with beheading."

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, said in a US news television interview that she and other members of a Florida delegation had been in touch with the family and US officials at the White House, the Department of State and other agencies over the past year.

"The family has wanted to be low key, private," Ros-Lehtinen said. "I just can’t imagine, as a mother and grandmother, the kind of ordeal for this family."

A man answering the phone at the family home declined to take a call from Al Jazeera.

After Steven’s appearance in the Islamic State group video on August 19, a friend of the Sotloff family initiated a petition to save Steven Sotloff on the WhiteHouse.gov website. As of August 22 it had more than 8,750 signatures.

"On August 19, 2014 it was revealed that Steven is a captive of the Islamist terrorist organisation ISIS [Islamic State group]. Steven appeared at the end of a video in which reporter James Foley was beheaded. In the video, Steven is seen at the end declaring that he will be next," the petition says. "We, the undersigned call upon you, President Obama, to take immediate action to save Steven's life by any means necessary."

More than 70 journalists have been killed in Syria since 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. As many as 20 are missing and may be among other journalists believed to be held captive by the Islamic State group.

"We pray for Steven’s life. We pray for all the journalists who are being held there. He is sadly, not alone," Ros-Lehtinen said.

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Al Jazeera
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