James Foley photographed in Aleppo in 2012. Photo by Mano Brabo
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ISIS video appears to show killing of US Journalist James Foley

Late last night, the militant jihadist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) released a video purporting to show the beheading of James Foley, a US journalist who went missing in Syria in 2012. Foley was a fearless, generous and committed reporter, who had also been detained while reporting in Libya. 

Late last night, the militant jihadist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) released a video purporting to show the beheading of James Foley, a US journalist who went missing in Syria in 2012. In the video he was wearing an orange jumpsuit, and was forced to read a statement blaming the US for his death, before he was executed. The group threatened the death of a further journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, who they claim is in their hands.

YouTube took the video down late last night, and it is still being verified. I should mention that I could not bring myself to watch it, although I knew I would write about it, because I knew whatever I saw I would never, ever be able to unsee. Which is relevant, because while media outlets often protect their readers from the most gruesome, unforgettable images of war, if you’re a war reporter you confront them every day, in the hope of translating this horror to your readers and giving those caught up in conflict a voice. I could never do the same job as Foley or Sotloff, and my gratitude and respect for them is unending.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 69 reporters have been killed in Syria and 80 kidnapped. Twenty are still in captivity, many of whom are believed to be held by IS. Foley entered Syria knowing the risks: he had been kidnapped once in Libya in 2011. “Captivity is the state most violently opposed to his nature,” his friend, fellow captive and reporter Clare Morgana Gillis wrote. She described his generosity, he had been fundraising for a friend, Anton Hammerl, killed in Libya before his own capture, “If he had a sandwich, he’d offer me half; if down to one cigarette, he’d pass it back and forth. He saved my life twice before I’d known him a full month,” she wrote. In an interview on his release, Foley had spoken of his trauma at Hammerl's death and sense of responsibility for Hammerl's children, but he also reconfirmed his passion for journalism. "I'm trying to expose untold stories," he told the BBC, "but I'm also drawn to the human rights side."

Another piece of sad news is that this may not be the only time IS uses this brutal propaganda technique. They know executions will rightly provoke outrage (though ISIS is unlikely to find it effective as a bargaining tool), and the principles that motivate journalists like Foley are the complete antithesis to ISIS's ideology: their narrow, unforgiving, inhumane interpretation of Islam, the ease with which they sacrifice human life to their political ends, their black-and-white view that divides the world into believers and infidels, righteous and evil. Honest, brave, humanitarian reporting is the enemy of dictators, hypocrites and religious zealots, which is why even if you had never met or heard of James Foley you should view this as a tragedy. 

On Twitter last night, people began trying, in their own small way, to re-write ISIS’s narrative. Rather than share pictures of Foley in his jumpsuit, remember him as he would want to be remembered, doing a job he approached with passion, dedication and fearlessness. You can view some photos of him working here. His mother, Diane, released this statement: “We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.” The website dedicated to his release, Findjamesfoley.org appeared to crash several times this morning due to the weight of traffic.

The internet has changed the way in which people publicly share and express their grief. At a time when too many journalists are dying in conflict (30 have died already this year), a modern expression of solidarity might be to declare that “we are all James Foley”, but we are not. The fearlessness and commitment Foley demonstrated are rare qualities, but these qualities remain a source of hope for those caught in conflicts around the world.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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