Journalists face danger when reporting around the world. It may be that freelancers have even less protection than those who work for well-known media companies.
On Wednesday, March 16, the New York Times published an article stating that four of its journalists were missing. The journalists had been traveling to the town of Brega in Libya with the rebel forces when they were detained and held for questioning for several days. After the journalists answered some questions about where they were from and what they had been doing in Libya, they were released and allowed to return to tell their stories.
The story is not unfamiliar. Gadhafi’s forces briefly detained several Al Jazeera journalists this spring.
Thankfully, these journalists were safely released and were able to meet their families once again.
For freelance journalist and aspiring book author Matthew VanDyke, the return has not been so speedy or nearly as publicized.
VanDyke, 31, received a degree in security studies from Georgetown University in Foreign Service, speaks Arabic, and has traveled extensively in the Middle East.
VanDyke had just returned from a six-month motorcycle trip through Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan in December 2010, when the road called out to him yet again, his girlfriend, Lauren Fischer told The Epoch Times in a phone interview.
He was planning to come home and finally polish the video footage, pictures, and writing he had compiled during his travels into a book. However, the scent of the blooming flowers of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya were too enticing, and VanDyke was ready to set out again.
He had already been in the region two years ago, from 2007 to 2009, when he traveled from Spain to Mauritania, across North Africa and finally to Iraq.
In addition to becoming the subject of a book, a draft of which he had completed, the trip had fostered in him a special affinity for Libya and introduced him to several Libyan friends with whom he kept correspondence.
Thus, the decision was made to set out to Benghazi, Libya. A trip to Libya would be an ideal ending to his book, and allow the story of his Libyan friends to be told, Fischer said.
VanDyke decided on Benghazi on Feb. 25 and on Feb. 26, he was on a plane heading there.
“Go to Libya to Witness History,” he wrote on a hanging whiteboard in his apartment.
He was heard from for the last time by those close to him on March 13, in a GPS tracking e-mail, which disclosed his location to be somewhere near the town of Brega, where the four New York Times journalists were arrested a few days later.
The day before, VanDyke had spoken to Fischer, telling her of his decision to head to Brega. She could barely hear him as he was on a truck already on his way there. She did not feel very comfortable with his going but she conceded.
That was the last time she heard from him, other than a brief, similar conversation he had with his mother that afternoon.
A few days later after no word from her boyfriend, Fischer saw on the news that Gadhafi’s men had taken Brega and violence had escalated in the region, taking down phone lines and severing communication. Fischer tried calling VanDyke several times, however, the phone lines were not working. She could only hear a message in Arabic.
She was concerned at this turn of events, but remained optimistic, having been used to her boyfriend’s adventures as a traveler and the unreliability of communication. On March 15 she was finally successful in contacting VanDyke’s closest friend in Benghazi, Nouri Fanos, who told her that he had not returned to Benghazi as promised.
There was no word for a week until on March 22. VanDyke’s mother Sharon VanDyke received a call from a man with an Arabic accent. Even though he had placed the call to VanDyke’s mother, the man said that she had reached the wrong people and that he had never heard of Matthew.
After that exchange, Fischer and VanDyke made about 20 calls a day to the phone number, without success. Finally, a call went through and a man in Tripoli answered.
He, too, had never heard of VanDyke, he said.
It was then that Fischer and VanDyke’s mother filed a report with the State Department. VanDyke’s mother traveled to D.C. the following day to follow up.
Since then, it has become his mother’s full-time job to trace her son. She has constructed a spreadsheet of some hundred organizations and people she has contacted hoping to find him.
The possibility of an arrest by Gadhafi loyalists became more likely when on April 4, Fonas contacted VanDyke’s mother. He said VanDyke three or four other Libyan friends might have been detained by Gadhafi forces somewhere in Brega.
On April 18, Fonas again called her and this time he said he had good news. He said that a Libyan man had spotted VanDyke in Libya. When he was pressed for more information about the Libyan man, he could not give any answers.
That was the last time his family learned anything about VanDyke’s whereabouts.
VanDyke was no stranger to detainment in war stricken regions. In his past trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, he had faced detention 18 times. Each time, he was kept for a couple of hours and then released.
Baltimore Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger held a recent news conference to raise awareness about Matthew VanDyke’s disappearance and to urge Gadhafi to release him.
He was not involved in any risky political business and he was a friend to all types of people in Libya, including those loyal to Gadhafi, said Fischer. “He thought Gadhafi took care of Libya and Libyans. He thought Libya was very clean,” she said.