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Protection of journalists in armed conflicts

In the last three years in Somalia, 25 journalists have been killed, nine of them during 2009. According to Somali journalist, Omar Faruk Osman, President of the Federation of African Journalists they were murdered “for simply doing their job… reporting the news and revealing the truth”.

Governments are urged to ensure the safety of journalists covering conflicts. © UN Photo/Mark GartenOsman was addressing a panel discussion on the protection of journalists in armed conflict at the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva.

“The Horn of Africa,” Osman said, “is a place where the choice of being society’s messenger often equates with choosing martyrdom… Political instability, election-related violence, military coups and civil wars in several African countries continue to endanger the lives of journalists.”

Another of the speakers, Mogens Schmidt from UNESCO said that since 2002, the number of journalists killed when reporting from conflict and war zones has risen steadily.

Opening the panel, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kang noted that many journalists and media professionals make the courageous choice to go to conflict zones so the world can be told about armed conflicts and the human cost they entail. She added that under international humanitarian law, journalists in armed conflict are classified as civilians and should be afforded the same protections as civilians. 

Other panellists confirmed that the existing body of law should be sufficient to protect journalists even when they report from war zones, but they were unanimous in their conclusion that in almost all cases the perpetrators of crimes against journalists escaped justice.

Frank La Rue, the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression told the Council that this serious problem cannot be addressed effectively unless there is a willingness on the part of States to address the protection of journalists at a national level.  “Preventing impunity,” he said, “is the most important deterrent…”

Referring to the problem of impunity, Osama Saraya, the Editor in Chief of Al Ahram newspaper said since the war in Iraq started eight years ago, more than 280 journalists had been killed.  None of those responsible for the killings has been brought to justice, he said.

Speaking on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Robin Geiss said experiences from recent armed conflicts, international as well as national, showed that media professions were increasingly at risk of becoming the victims of direct attacks in violation of international humanitarian law. 

“In the information era, images and news can have a decisive impact on the outcome of armed conflicts,” he said.  Journalists are often exposed to dangerous situations because of the nature of their work but they also face deliberate acts of violence.  “The spectrum of interference is wide: it ranges from access denial, censorship and harassment to arbitrary detention and direct attack.”

Geiss stressed that intentionally directing an attack against a civilian amounted to a war crime under the Rome Statute. Because journalists are civilians, attacks against them in this context are war crimes.

Hedayat Abdel Nabi, President of Press Emblem Campaign, said that the time had come to develop guidelines through a working group that would lead to a global agreement for the protection of journalists.

The Council heard repeated calls from the panellists for more vigorous implementation of the law as it stands.  Geiss considered that “existing rules provide a solid and realistic basis for protection.” Osman also believed that “we already have enough law, the problem is that it is not properly acknowledged or respected.” La Rue suggested that States should establish an urgent response mechanism for the protection of journalists in armed conflict.

Deputy High Commissioner Kang added her voice to those calling for action from the international community, saying, “The erosion in the observance of the international norms highlights the need to take proactive measures to ensure they will be fully respected and implemented.  Translating them from aspiration into more effective action on the ground is the challenge that we must as an international community of States urgently confront.”

22 June 2010