A Montreal photographer is defending himself after a U.S. news website accused him of playing an unwitting role in the abduction of an American journalist in Syria.
Yves Choquette, a freelance photographer, told The Globe and Mail he was neither reckless nor naive when he attempted to travel to Aleppo last year.
An article published in The Daily Beast suggested Mr. Choquette’s incautious behaviour drew the attention of Islamic State fighters, who kidnapped U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff and his local guide, or fixer, shortly after. Ben Taub, the U.S. journalist who wrote the article, said, "I stand by my piece in its entirety."
Mr. Choquette's identity remained a mystery after the story was published on Thursday. The piece referred to Mr. Choquette using the pseudonym, “Alex.”
He rejected the article’s claim he sent messages to 30 Syrians on Facebook, often those holding guns, when he was looking for a fixer to take him from Kilis, Turkey to the war-torn city (fixers work with foreign journalists to provide crucial help with logistics and translation). Once he had hired someone, the article said Mr. Choquette sent messages back to several other prospective fixers informing them he would be crossing the border with that fixer, whom he named, at 10 a.m. the following day. The suggestion is he revealed that fixer’s identity, thereby placing him in danger.
“It’s impossible to do anyway because … nobody advertises publicly that they’re a fixer in Syria,” Mr. Choquette said
Mr. Sotloff, 31, an American freelance journalist was abducted along with his fixer – the same one contacted by Mr. Choquette – in Syria in August, 2013. His fate was not widely known until this week when Islamic State released a video of the brutal beheading of another American journalist, James Foley, by a masked executioner. At the end of the video, Mr. Sotloff is shown kneeling in an orange jumpsuit, being held by the same man.
Mr. Sotloff has reported on conflicts in the Middle East for several years for outlets such as the Christian Science Monitor, Time and World Affairs Journal. His family had kept news of his abduction quiet for more than a year in the hope of securing his release. His fixer was later released.
Mr. Choquette confirmed that he is the journalist being referred to in the article because Mr. Taub quotes one of his Facebook messages. Mr. Choquette said he posted to two private journalist Facebook groups asking for help finding a fixer. Computer screenshots sent to The Globe show another journalist privately messaged Mr. Choquette and connected him to an Aleppo-based fixer. Mr. Choquette then exchanged private messages with this fixer and arranged to meet the next morning.
Mr. Choquette said he did not tell anyone else about the meeting aside from Mr. Taub, whom he met the night before he was set to depart in July, 2013. He said Mr. Taub warned him the fixer didn’t seem reputable. Later that night, Mr. Choquette said another journalist told him she had information the fixer had sold him out to kidnappers. Later, he found that the fixer was reliable.
Mr. Taub’s article said Mr. Choquette joked he was “tired of shooting pictures of dogs and flowers back home.” Without any experience working in war and conflict zones, the piece suggested Mr. Choquette wasn’t ready to enter “the world’s deadliest war zone.”
“I have experience in conflict zones but not in that kind of conflict, it’s true,” Mr. Choquette said. “I don’t think anyone has.”