The Safety and Protection of Journalists and their Crews and International Humanitarian Law and media reporting

22-11-2007 Interview

Under International humanitarian law (IHL), civilian journalists on assignments in armed conflicts must be respected and protected from any form of intentional attack. IHL affords civilian journalists the same protection that is granted to civilians, as long as they do not take any direct part in the hostilities.

Interview with Antonella Notari, head of project for the ICRC on the issue of the safety of journalists and on IHL in war reporting.

(Note that henceforth all mentions of "journalist(s)" refer to journalists and their crews.)  
Safety and Protection of Journalists 

 What Does International Humanitarian Law say about the protection of journalists covering armed conflicts?  


 The First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, Article 79 says:  

 1. Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered as civilians (…).  

 2. They shall be protected as such under the Conventions and this Protocol provided that they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians (…).  


 In the ICRC Study on Customary Rules of IHL (2005), Rule 34 in Chapter 10 states 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. (…) State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts.  


 In all armed conflicts, IHL explicitly prohibits the following acts committed against persons not or no longer taking an active part in hostilities: any violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; the taking of hostages; outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment; the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples. See Geneva Conventions, Common Article 3.  



 What can the ICRC do for journalists in armed conflicts in terms of protection?  

 The ICRC's HOTLINE is a service at the disposal of journalists who find themselves in trouble in armed conflicts. Journalists, their employers or their relatives may alert us when a journalist is missing, wounded, has been killed or is detained to request assistance.  


 The kind of protection services that can be provided by the ICRC to journalists are: seeking notification of a reported arrest/capture and access in the frame of ICRC detention visits; providing immediate information to next of kin and employers/professional associations on the whereabouts of a sought journalist whenever such information can be obtained; maintaining family links; actively tracing missing journalists; recovering and transferring or repatriating mortal remains; evacuating wounded journalists, etc.  


 This is a purely humanitarian service and we will assist a journalist as rapidly as possible if this lies within its possibilities and scope of action. Requests can be made through the ICRC HOTLINE permanent phone number on +41 79 217 32 85 or through the nearest ICRC office.  


 As promoters of IHL with civilian and military authorities, non-state actors in armed conflicts and others, we will also endeavour to make the rules that protect journalists and civilians in general known and respected.  


 Furthermore, we will cooperate in initiatives of other organisations that work to contribute to the safety of journalists, for example with national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, the International News Safety Institute, Reporters Without Borders, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and others.   

 What can national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies do for journalists?  

 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies who have an expertise in First Aid training could set up specific courses for journalists in their home countries to increase their preparedness, risk awareness and capacity to deal with a health-related emergency. This can be valuable for journalists who cover natural disasters, armed conflicts and other types of violence.  


 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies who play a role in the promotion of IHL in their countries can contribute to raise awareness about the legal protections afforded to journalists.  

 Why does the ICRC care about the fate of journalists in armed conflicts? And why now?  

 We have been acting in favour of journalists for a long time and the ICRC HOTLINE exists since 1985. However, the increase of attacks against journalists in armed conflicts (and other situations of violence) has prompted us to consider additional ways in which to contribute to the safety and protection of journalists. Like for civilians in general, the safety of journalists in armed conflicts is seriously deteriorating and this is highly alarming. In addition, silencing journalists or scaring them away from crises areas deprives the public of information it should get about crisis situations throughout the world. In our own way, we wish to demonstrate how important the media's work is to us and to those we assist in the field, and to take concrete humanitarian action to help stem the violence towards journalists.   

 What does the ICRC think about the proposal of an international treaty for the protection of journalists in armed conflicts (and beyond)?  

 We are of the opinion that it is most urgent and important to ensure that the existing legal protection for journalists (see above) is divulgated and vigorously enforced by States. If a consensus develops around the development of additional international legislation, we stand ready to accompany such a process as per our possibilities and mandate. Any measures that serve to reinforce existing rules are welcome.   

 What needs to be done to improve the safety and protection of media staff in armed conflicts (and beyond)?  

 The laws that protect journalists against attacks must be up-held and their respect enforced. We believe that all actors of armed conflicts should be told about these rules and their responsibilities, in particular armed and security forces as well as non-state actors.  


 Journalists should be prepared to face the risks of armed conflicts and other situations of violence, through training and other forms of guidance and support. They must receive support from their employers. This must apply to journalists under regular contracts as well as to freelancers.  


 Further recommendations on measures to be taken to improve the safety of journalists were developed by organisations who work to protect journalists, for example in the report on the global inquiry by the International News Safety Institute (INSI) of March 2007.  

International Humanitarian Law and media reporting 

 Why should journalists know about IHL when they report on armed conflicts?  

 Whether IHL is respected or violated is an important part of the story in contemporary armed conflicts. Violations of the laws are often at the origin of humanitarian and political crises. When combatants break the laws it can affect the success of their mission. It is increasingly likely that alleged war criminals will be prosecuted and it is important to understand the legal background to such proceedings when reporting on them.  


 Understanding what certain actions and events mean in IHL terms will generate more quality war reporting. It will help journalists to ask pertinent questions, look at interesting angles, investigate the story behind the story, and feed the debate on the rights and obligations of the different actors in the field and beyond.  


 Quality reporting from an IHL angle can make a difference. It can influence policy- and decision-making as well as behaviour, i.e. increase the "will" to abide by the law, to fight impunity, to protect civilians.  

 How can journalists learn about IHL? What resources are available to journalists on IHL?  

 In some countries, journalists can follow IHL training offered by universities or professional associations. Some national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies organise workshops or other types of training sessions on IHL for journalists. The ICRC also organises such events in a number of countries, often with other partners.  


 Materials can be found on the websites of organisations who work on IHL-related issues or who make resources available to journalists covering armed conflicts, for example   . The ICRC web site is widely consulted by policy-makers and practitioners who deal with IHL issues in their professions.  


 In many countries, experts can be called upon to provide information and opinions on IHL-related issues. (For example, legal advisors of national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies or of the ICRC; professors or researchers; governmental experts; experts of renowned NGOs; and many more).  


 Moreover, the ICRC and the Crimes of War Project are currently developing a digital resource tool to be used in IHL workshops for media, which will be released in 2008 in English.  

 What does IHL say about the way media should report on armed conflict-related stories – particularly about prisoners of war and civilians?  

 Geneva Convention III, Article 13 and Geneva Convention IV, Article 27 say that they must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity . This means that the media must be mindful when showing or printing images of prisoners of war or of civilians that they don't infringe on the dignity and security of prisoners of war and of civilians.