When journalists' safety is at stake, the ICRC hotline can help

02-05-2012 Interview

Since the beginning of 2011, over 60 media professionals working in violence-affected areas have requested ICRC assistance. Dorothea Krimitsas, the ICRC's deputy head of public relations, manages the hotline for journalists on dangerous assignments. She explains how the ICRC can help.

What are the main dangers faced by journalists reporting from conflict zones or areas affected by other forms of violence? Is it safer for them today than it was in the past?

War reporting is no safer today than it was in the past. Despite all the safety measures adopted and all the precautions taken, it remains a very dangerous business.

The Libya example is telling. "Renowned photojournalist killed in Libya," "Libya releases detained journalists," "Freelance reporter shot and wounded in Tripoli": these are but a few of the headlines telling the same story. War zones are dangerous places to work in. Media professionals working in Libya, no matter who they may be – journalists, camera operators, photoreporters or whatever – or whether they are freelancers or not, have not been spared injury, abduction or death.

Deliberate acts of violence against media professionals, which constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, are all too frequent in armed-conflict situations. But the work of media professionals can also be obstructed in many other ways, such as through harassment, censorship, threats, kidnapping or other forms of arbitrary detention. There does not seem to have been any improvement in that regard.

Journalists covering events in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011 are no exception. In fact, media professionals are widely perceived to be increasingly at risk. We are very concerned about this.

Does the ICRC keep records of incidents involving journalists on dangerous assignments? Just how big is the problem?

The ICRC does not compile statistics on attacks against journalists or on journalists' deaths, but a number of media-safety organizations do. In a survey entitled "Attacks on the Press in 2011," the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) highlighted some worrying trends.

Unsurprisingly, the CPJ found that the heaviest losses in 2011 occurred in the Middle East and North Africa. "Deaths during dangerous assignments such as the coverage of street protests reached their highest level on record," the report noted. It also stressed that photographers and camera operators paid a particularly heavy toll, that there was a "high proportion of freelancers among the 2011 victims," and that "the number of victims who worked online has increased steadily."

What kind of protection do journalists enjoy under international humanitarian law?

As emphasized by Article 79(1) of Additional Protocol I, journalists enjoy the same protection as civilians. They must therefore be respected and protected as long as they are not taking a direct part in hostilities. By virtue of customary international law, this dictates that civilian journalists engaged in professional missions in areas of armed conflict must be respected and protected as long as they are not taking a direct part in hostilities. This rule is applicable both in international and non-international armed conflicts.

In addition, "war correspondents", who are formally authorized to accompany the armed forces, are entitled to prisoner-of-war status upon capture although they are civilians (Article 4 A (4) of the Third Geneva Convention).

What can the ICRC do to help media professionals working in armed-conflict situations?

The ICRC is well known for what it does for civilians affected by wars, but less so for the help it can offer journalists on dangerous assignments. Nevertheless, it does have experience helping media professionals in armed-conflict situations.

In 1985, at the request of 16 major media organizations, we set up a hotline for journalists on dangerous assignments.

Can you explain what the hotline is for?

The primary purpose of the ICRC hotline is to enable our organization to take prompt and effective action, whenever possible, when journalists or their crew are arrested, captured, detained, reported missing, wounded or killed in areas where the ICRC is conducting humanitarian activities.

There is a variety of things the ICRC may be able to do. For example, we may be able to seek confirmation of a reported arrest or capture, and obtain access to detained journalists. Or we may be able to provide information to next of kin and employers or professional associations on the whereabouts of a sought-after journalist whenever such information can be obtained. In some cases, the ICRC can help family members restore or maintain contact with a detained journalist, or it can help evacuate wounded journalists. In worst-case scenarios, it may be able to recover or transfer mortal remains.

Can the ICRC demand the release of a detained journalist?

The ICRC will not demand the release of a detained journalist or otherwise advocate for freedom of expression or the right to information, as this lies beyond its mandate. The purpose of the ICRC’s visits to detainees is purely humanitarian. The ICRC assesses the conditions in which detainees are being held, and asks the authorities to improve them if necessary. It may open a dialogue with authorities in order to ensure that applicable procedural and judicial guarantees have been respected. It also provides detainees with humanitarian assistance where needed.

The ICRC often steps in when nobody else can. However, it is important to note that the services offered through the hotline are strictly humanitarian and that the ICRC will only be able to do for journalists what it can do for other civilians in similar situations. Of course, the ICRC can take action only in places where it already has staff on the ground.

How can journalists, their families or their employers report a case over the hotline?

They can contact the closest ICRC office, or call the dedicated 24-hour hotline number +41 79 217 32 85, or send an e-mail message to press@icrc.org, in order to ask for help and advice.

Basic information such as the person's name, date of birth and nationality, information about the circumstances surrounding the incident, if available, and the reasons for which assistance is being requested, should be provided. The information will subsequently be passed on to specialized ICRC staff in the field.

How many requests have you received from media personnel over the past year? Do they all reach you over the telephone hotline?

Since the beginning of 2011, over 60 media professionals working in conflict zones or other areas affected by violence, including 50 in Libya alone – working independently or for media outlets – have requested and received some kind of assistance from the ICRC.

Most of them contacted ICRC delegations in the field by calling or visiting our offices. Requests to evacuate the journalists trapped in the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli in August 2011 reached us by phone, by e-mail, and even by Twitter. In Syria, journalists also used Twitter in one instance, as no other option was available.

Have you always been successful in handling the requests? Can you give us examples?

When taking a request, we generally explain what we can do; if we are not in a position to help, we also explain why. Obtaining results almost always requires the cooperation of several staff members involved in different activities, such as visiting people held in detention facilities, tracing missing persons or providing medical assistance. It can be a long and difficult process, which mostly takes place behind the scenes. There is never a guarantee that what we do will result in success.

Over the past year, the ICRC has succeeded in visiting a number of journalists in Libyan prisons, and it has sometimes been able to give the journalists the opportunity to send messages to their families. In other instances, the ICRC has intervened with the authorities to obtain information. Even a tiny piece of information can be important. For example, a confirmation that a person is being held captive – that he or she is alive – can bring enormous relief to worried families and employers.

Since the hotline was set up in 1985, we have helped journalists in a number of countries.

In June 2006, for example, when a Swedish journalist covering a demonstration in Mogadishu was killed, the ICRC offered its services to the Swedish embassy. The next day, the body was flown to Nairobi, along with four other journalists who had asked to be evacuated.

In November 2006, when a Colombian correspondent of Telesur was arrested at Bogota airport by security services, ICRC delegates visited him the day after he arrived in Barranquilla prison. He was released three months later.

In March 2003, after a battle near Basra in which two journalists covering the Iraqi war for ITN were killed and a third managed to escape, a fourth journalist was reported missing. He was believed to be dead, although there was no proof of his death. The ICRC and the Iraqi Red Crescent made extensive efforts to locate him, immediately after the incident and over the following years – so far, unfortunately, without success.

Why does the ICRC not share more information on the cases it handles through its hotline?

Some of the actions undertaken by the ICRC, such as the evacuation in August last year of more than 30 journalists from the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, Libya, have been given extensive media coverage, but most efforts take place out of the public view.

For example, when the ICRC was asked to visit detained journalists in Libya and help them get back in touch with their employers or their families; or in Syria, when the ICRC was approached to help evacuate wounded journalists.

The ICRC deals with hotline cases in a confidential manner and expects in return that those requesting assistance will treat the information given to them with the same discretion. There are two reasons for this: one is that confidentiality is a key tool of the ICRC's work, which has proven effective in helping the organization to earn and maintain the trust of everyone it has to deal with and to gain access to places where nobody else is allowed in. The other reason for the ICRC's insistence on confidentiality is that it often has to work in very sensitive situations – so sensitive, in fact, that life and death may hang in the balance.


Requests for help reached the ICRC through Twitter at the very time the crisis situation was unfolding. 

Requests for help reached the ICRC through Twitter at the very time the crisis situation was unfolding.

Tripoli, Libya. Journalists are evacuated from the Rixos Hotel in an ICRC vehicle on 24 August 2011. 

Tripoli, Libya. Journalists are evacuated from the Rixos Hotel in an ICRC vehicle on 24 August 2011.
© Reuters / P. Hackett