How does international humanitarian law protect journalists in armed conflict situations?

Media professionals are increasingly at risk of being wounded, killed, detained or kidnapped while reporting in armed conflict situations. Robin Geiss, an ICRC legal expert, talks about the protection to which they, as civilians not taking part in the fighting, are entitled under international humanitarian law.


  • First let me say that the ICRC remains deeply concerned by the high number of acts of violence against journalists and other media professionals. It has become increasingly clear in recent conflicts that media professionals are more and more at risk of being directly targeted, in violation of international humanitarian law.

    Journalists and other media professionals working in war zones face many dangers. Because of the very nature of their work, they are inevitably exposed to the dangers inherent in military operations. Instead of fleeing combat, they seek it out. Nevertheless, by far the greatest danger they face is that of deliberate acts of violence against them.

    It is often said that the first casualty of war is truth. Accurate, impartial media reports conveyed from conflict zones serve a fundamental public interest: in the information era, images and news can have a decisive impact on the outcome of armed conflicts. As a consequence, the obstruction of journalistic tasks in times of armed conflict is alarmingly frequent. The spectrum of interference is wide: it ranges from access denial, censorship and harassment to arbitrary detention and direct attacks against media professionals.

  • At first sight, one could get the impression that international humanitarian law does not provide a whole lot of protection for journalists, given that the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols contain only two explicit references to media personnel (Article 4 A (4) of the Third Geneva Convention and Article 79 of Additional Protocol I). However, if one reads these provisions in conjunction with other humanitarian rules, it is clear that the protection under existing law is quite comprehensive. Most importantly, Article 79 of Additional Protocol I provides that journalists are entitled to all rights and protections granted to civilians in international armed conflicts. The same holds true in non-international armed conflicts by virtue of customary international law ( Rule 34 of the ICRC's Customary Law Study ).

    Thus, in order to perceive the full scope of protection granted to journalists under humanitarian law one simply has to substitute the word " civilian " as it is used throughout the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols with the word " journalist. "

  • Inasmuch as they are civilians, journalists are protected under international humanitarian law against direct attacks unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities. Violations of this rule constitute a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I. What is more, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian – whether in an international or in a non-international armed conflict – also amounts to a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

  • Journalists and other media professionals run a high risk of being subjected to arbitrary detention for alleged security reasons. This is where the distinction between " war correspondents " (Article 4 A (4) of the Third Geneva Convention) and " journalists " (Article 79 of Additional Protocol I) matters. Both are recognized as civilians, but only war correspondents are entitled to prisoner-of-war status. War correspondents are formally authorized to accompany the armed forces. By virtue of this close relationship, upon capture, they are accorded the same legal status as members of the armed forces. War correspondents thus benefit from the protections of the Third Geneva Convention as supplemented by Additional Protocol I and customary international law.

  • " Embedded journalists " is a modern term. It was apparently first used during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has since gained widespread currency. It does not occur in any provision of international humanitarian law and, so far as I know, it is not clearly defined. However, it is safe to say that war correspondents are commonly, although not necessarily in all cases, equated with so-called " embedded journalists. " In order to become a war correspondent within the meaning of international humanitarian law, official accreditation by the armed forces is mandatory. Thus, if an " embedded journalist " has received the official accreditation then, legally, he is a war correspondent.

  • It's not as if other media professionals who fall into the hands of a warring party do not have any protection at all. On the contrary, the legal protection they are entitled to is quite extensive. This point, incidentally, is often overlooked. First of all, if they are not nationals of the country holding them, then they benefit from all the relevant protections granted by the Fourth Geneva Convention. In addition, whatever the circumstances, journalists and other media professionals always enjoy, as a minimum, the fundamental guarantees set out in Article 75 of Additional Protocol I – a provision that prohibits, in particular, violence to the life or health of persons in the power of a party to an armed conflict, torture of all kinds, outrages upon personal dignity and the taking of hostages. In addition, it provides guarantees of a fair trial for people detained for penal offences. Detained media professionals benefit from the same fundamental guarantees regardless of whether their detention occurs in connection with an international or a non-international armed conflict. As civilians, journalists are protected in times of non-international armed conflict by Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocol II and customary international law.

  • Media professionals who are directly attacked, or who disappear or are taken captive in wartime or in other violence, are of great concern to the ICRC. Since 1985 we have had a permanent hotline (+41 79 217 32 85) available to journalists who find themselves in trouble in armed conflicts. This is a purely humanitarian service. Not only journalists, but also their employers and relatives can use the hotline (or contact staff in one of our offices across the world or write us at to report a missing, wounded, or detained journalist and request assistance. The services provided by the ICRC range from seeking confirmation of a reported arrest, obtaining access to persons arrested, providing information on a journalist's whereabouts for relatives and employers, maintaining family links, actively tracing missing journalists, to carrying out medical evacuations of wounded journalists.

    The ICRC also offers training in international humanitarian law, and provides support for National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies offering first-aid courses for journalists.

  • Existing laws do provide enough protection. They constitute a solid and realistic basis for shielding media professionals from harm as they work in the battlefield. The most serious deficiency is not a lack of rules, but a failure to implement existing rules and to systematically investigate, prosecute and punish violations.

    The ICRC is trying to bring about greater compliance with existing rules. Achieving this aim requires that proper training and instruction be provided for those who have to implement the rules on the ground. It also requires that those who violate the rules be held to account and, if found guilty of crimes, punished. Individuals are criminally responsible for any war crimes they commit, and each party to an armed conflict must respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law.

  • We constantly endeavour to make the rules that protect journalists, and civilians in general, more widely known and better respected. In addition to the training sessions we provide on international humanitarian law, we participate in a wide range of events and expert consultations. Just to give you an example, during the 14th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council, the ICRC participated in a panel discussion on the protection of journalists in armed conflicts. Of course, we cooperate with other organizations working in this field and exchange views with them. Recently, for example, we met with the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, to discuss the protection of media professionals during armed conflict.

  • I'll give you one example of the concrete steps we are taking in this regard. At the last meeting of the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which took place in Geneva in November 2007, we invited the participants (the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, their International Federation, the ICRC and the States party to the Geneva Conventions) to voluntarily sign individual or joint humanitarian pledges, by which they commit themselves to taking all such steps as are necessary to ensure that media professionals working in armed conflict enjoy the respect and protection granted to civilians under international humanitarian law, and to promoting the rules and principles of international humanitarian law that are applicable to journalists.

    However, as so often, much more needs to be done, in terms of commitment and of implementation. So far, six governments and nine National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies have signed such pledges.