Covering war and disaster
Report on special meeting on media safety and IHL in war reporting, Geneva 26.11.2007
On 26 November 2007, over 100 representatives of States, Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations, media and media-related organizations gathered in Geneva to consider the relevance of the laws of war for media coverage of armed conflicts and to discuss ways of improving the safety of media personnel. The meeting was hosted by the ICRC and preceded the opening of the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
Why we called the meeting
“The recent deterioration of safety conditions for media professionals in armed conflicts and other situations of violence is highly alarming,” said ICRC Director of Communication Yves Daccord, who chaired the meeting. “We felt compelled to address it within the context of the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The Conference offers the opportunity to inform members of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement as well as States party to the Geneva Conventions about the situation and to call on them to take concrete action, each according to its role and capacity. We have invited media professionals and representatives of organizations working with the media to join the meeting to inspire us with their experiences and ideas.” He explained that the overall aim of the meeting was to give more clout to international humanitarian law, both as a means of giving media reporting on war more relevance and force and as a means of providing protection for media professionals.
Does international humanitarian law make interesting news?
“Why should journalists know the basics of the laws of war?” This was the first question addressed by the meeting. “I think it is important [that journalists know the basics of international humanitarian law ] so that we in the media can point out what the laws of war say, even as some governments are ‘interpreting’ them otherwise,” argued Elaine Cobbe, a seasoned TV and radio reporter and media trainer. Others concluded that understanding how to read events and situations from the angle of international humanitarian law makes war coverage more accurate and compelling. When journalists know what is at stake and what questions must be raised, their stories can make those involved in an armed conflict more accountable. In addition, as Christopher Whomersley, deputy legal adviser of the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and others explained, some legal provisions, such as the prohibition on exposing prisoners of war or civilian internees to public curiosity by publishing inappropriate images, have a direct impact on editorial decisions.
Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations were asked to share their expertise with media professionals by means of training sessions and discussions and by providing information on issues relating to international humanitarian law. By the end of the Conference, seven National Societies (the Syrian Red Crescent and the Red Cross Societies of Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Poland, Tanzania and the United Kingdom) had pledged to do so.
The ICRC, for its part, announced that together with the Crimes of War Project it was developing a digital tool, expected to be releas ed in 2008, to instruct the media in the basics of international humanitarian law.
How international humanitarian law protects media personnel
Knut Dörmann, deputy head of the ICRC’s Legal Division, explained which specific protections afforded under international humanitarian law benefit journalists and their staff. He pointed out that, as civilians, they must not be directly attacked. Any intentional contravention of this prohibition constitutes a war crime. In addition, fundamental guarantees apply to journalists when they are in the power of a party to a conflict. Consequently, the following acts are prohibited, at any time and in any place: violence to life, health, and physical or mental well-being, in particular murder, torture, and cruel or inhuman treatment; outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment; hostage-taking; and arbitrary deprivation of liberty. By considering journalists as civilians, States agree to let them do their job, i.e. take photographs, shoot films, record information or take notes, without this constituting a reason for attacking them or depriving them of their rights as civilians. The rules of international humanitarian law thus offer an important safety net of protection to journalists and members of their crews. However, these rules are not sufficiently obeyed in practice. Therefore, the first objective must be to work for better compliance with the rules.
Too often, the situation on the ground offends the right of journalists to do their job without fear of being attacked. “The world is a worse place than it was. There are groups using brutality and violence that know no bounds. It has been a rude awakening for us journalists, to realise that we are under threat, that seeking to establish a dialogue doesn’t always wor k anymore,” reported Lyse Doucet, an experienced BBC journalist. “We have a duty to care,” she insisted, “in particular when it comes to our non-Western colleagues who are often much more exposed than we are and more neglected.” Several participants strongly emphasized the need for all journalists to be treated equally not only before the law but also in practical terms, for example when it comes to training and equipment.
The main problem as regards safety conditions is not a lack of legal provisions protecting journalists but the fact that existing rules are not sufficiently complied with or enforced, as the reports of media-related organizations working to promote media safety have made clear. States bear the main responsibility for ensuring that the rules are known, obeyed and enforced, and that violations are investigated and punished whenever and wherever they occur. All participants in armed conflicts, whether belonging to a governmental force or not, are bound by international humanitarian law and may be held to account for their decisions and actions.
The ICRC proposed that States party to the Geneva Conventions commit themselves to better enforce the laws protecting journalists working in conflict zones and, in particular, to combat impunity and instruct armed and security forces in the rights of journalists covering armed conflicts. Switzerland, Denmark, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States pledged to take such action.
What can the Red Cross and Red Crescent do to make media personnel safer?
Sarah De Jong, the deputy director of the International News Safety Institute, spoke of the imperative need for journalists to prepare to cope with a wide range of risks. In particular, she called for training in first aid, a proposal that was supported by other participants. Media professionals should not be allowed to leave their offices without at least knowing how to deal with an accident or a health-related emergency, whether their own or that of someone they might meet on assignment.
A few Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations have begun to organize first-aid training specifically tailored for media professionals. Corazon Alma De Leon, secretary-general of the Philippine National Red Cross, argued convincingly that such programmes offer advantages for both sides, while Dev Dhakhwa, secretary-general of the Nepal Red Cross Society suggested that many National Societies will require support to sustain such programmes, which can literally be a matter of life and death for media professionals on risky assignments.
National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies with expertise in this area were urged to consider organizing first-aid training for media professionals in their home countries. In order to ensure that the training would be offered without discrimination, i.e. to journalists under contract and to freelancers alike, it was suggested that the National Societies work in coordination with national media associations or unions. The Danish and British Red Cross Societies pledged to implement this proposal. Some other National Societies (the Iranian Red Crescent, the Red Cross Societies of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, France, Indonesia, Kenya, Nepal, the Philippines and South Africa, and the Israeli National Society) already have more or less advanced plans to provide first-aid training for media staff.
The ICRC HOTLINE service for media professionals who find themselves in trouble in armed conflicts needs to be promoted among editors and the wider media community. This service consists in a permanent contact point (ICRC HOTLINE telephone +41 79 217 32 85) through which employers and media-related organizations can alert the ICRC about media professionals in distress. Such information may also be given to any ICRC office. If the ICRC is working in an area where a journalist is facing difficulties, it may be able to offer help, as it does when others find themselves in similar situations. The services the ICRC may be able to provide are purely humanitarian.
- Committee to Protect Journalists
- Crimes of War Project
- Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma
- Fondation Hirondelle
- Human Rights Tribune
- International Federation of Journalists
- International Freedom of Expression Exchange
- International News Safety Institute
- International PEN
- Media 21
- Reporters Without Borders
- Rory Peck Trust
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
- Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights