The protection of journalists - FAQ

01 November 2017
The protection of journalists - FAQ
La Montañita, Caquetá, Colombia, 2012. The FARC-EP release a French journalist to the ICRC and the organization Colombians for Peace. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Carlos Villalon

Media professionals reporting on armed conflict situations or other situations of violence continue to pay a steep price for the risks associated with their work. How are they protected under international humanitarian law (IHL)? How can the ICRC help?

What are the dangers facing media professionals working in areas affected by armed conflict?

Despite all of the safety measures adopted and precautions taken, media professionals on dangerous assignments appear to be increasingly at risk. Although journalists reporting from war zones are inevitably exposed to those dangers inherent to military operations, the greatest threat they face is that of deliberate acts of violence against them. Indeed, much to the ICRC’s concern, journalists and members of their crew continue to be directly targeted in many places all over the world, in violation of international humanitarian law. Their work can also be obstructed by censorship, threats, and harassment, etc.

What kind of protection do journalists enjoy under IHL?

Under IHL, media professionals working in armed conflicts enjoy the same rights and protections as any other civilian, so long as they do not participate in hostilities. Although IHL only makes two explicit references to media personnel (Article 4 A (4) of the Third Geneva Convention and Article 79 of Additional Protocol I), their protection under existing law is quite comprehensive once these provisions are read in conjunction with other humanitarian rules.

What is the ICRC’s position on the protection of journalists?

The ICRC is of the view that existing laws provide journalists with enough protection. The challenge is to ensure better implementation of these laws. Any violation must be thoroughly investigated, and those responsible must be prosecuted and punished. Individuals can and must be prosecuted for any war crimes they commit, and each party to an armed conflict must comply with international humanitarian law and must ensure that others do so.

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

The ICRC helps media professionals working in armed conflict situations in three ways:
- It generally promotes international humanitarian law, with the aim of preventing violations of the law and enhancing protection;
- It can train journalists in first aid and IHL, providing background to their reporting and information regarding the ways in which the law protects them;
- It may be able to help journalists on dangerous assignments who are in need of humanitarian assistance.

What can the ICRC help with? 

The ICRC may be able to help when media professionals or members of their crew are arrested, captured, detained, reported missing, wounded, or killed in areas where the ICRC is operational. Circumstances allowing, the ICRC may be able to:
- Seek confirmation of a reported arrest or capture, and obtain access to detained persons;
- Provide information on whereabouts to next of kin and employers or professional associations;
- Help family members restore or maintain contact with a detained person;
- Evacuate the wounded;
- In worst-case scenarios, the ICRC can also try to recover or transfer mortal remains.

What can the ICRC do for detained journalists?

The ICRC can do for detained journalists what it can do for other civilians in the same situation. This includes assessing treatment and conditions in detention, and asking the authorities to improve them if necessary. In its dialogue with the authorities, the ICRC might also discuss respect for applicable procedural and judicial guarantees. In short, the ICRC will focus on what it can do to safeguard the physical safety of detained journalists. The ICRC will not ask for the release of a journalist, nor will it campaign for freedom of expression or the right to information, as this lies beyond its mandate. All ICRC services are strictly humanitarian.

Who can call the ICRC media office for assistance and how?

Media professionals, their families or their employers can report cases directly to the closest ICRC office; by calling +41 730 34 43 or by e-mailing Basic information to be provided includes:
- the concerned person's name;
- date of birth and nationality;
- information about the circumstances surrounding the incident (if available);
- the reasons for which assistance is being requested.
This information will be subsequently passed on to specialized ICRC staff.

How are requests handled?

Upon receiving a request, the ICRC will inform the enquirer of the extent to which it can provide follow-up. This very much depends on the organization’s presence on the ground, humanitarian operations, and the security environment. Meanwhile, working on requests almost always requires cooperation from various staff members, involved in activities spanning visits to people held in detention facilities, to tracing missing persons, to providing medical assistance. This can be a long and difficult process, often taking place completely behind the scenes. Success is, unfortunately, never guaranteed. Yet, even the tiniest piece of information – for example, confirmation of a person’s detention, or a sign of life - can make a difference, bringing enormous relief to worried families and employers. The ICRC deals with cases in a confidential manner, and expects those requesting assistance to treat the information given to them with the same discretion.

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

Such cases may be highly sensitive, if not matters of life and death. Confidentiality has repeatedly proven effective in helping the ICRC to earn and maintain the trust of everyone it has to deal with in its work. It also allows the ICRC to gain access to places where nobody else is allowed. While some of the actions undertaken by the ICRC have received extensive media coverage (e.g., the August 2011 evacuation of journalists from the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, Libya), most of the efforts involved took place out of the public view.

Does the ICRC compile statistics on incidents involving media professionals on dangerous assignments?

The ICRC does not compile statistics on attacks against media professionals or media professionals’ deaths. However, a number of other media-safety organizations do (e.g. reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists).