Journalists Are Owed Protection in Wartime

Journalists Are Owed Protection in Wartime
By Joel Simon

March 31, 2003

Less than two weeks into the Iraq war, this conflict already has proved to be most dangerous for journalists. Two have been killed, several injured and at least six are missing.

The disturbing toll raises critical issues about how journalists are to be treated in times of war when their determination to report the news puts them squarely in harm’s way.

When the Pentagon announced plans to “embed” hundreds of journalists with U.S. military forces, it described the move as “unprecedented.” It was—but only in its scale. The Geneva Conventions, ratified in 1949 to set out standards for conduct during warfare, specifically address the protection of journalists accompanying military forces, noting that if captured they must be treated as prisoners of war.

The 1949 rules described the reality of war coverage in the aftermath of World War II, a war in which journalists covering U.S. forces wore uniforms and sometimes even carried weapons.

Twenty years later, war and the way it was covered had changed dramatically. U.S. journalists covering the Vietnam War did so mostly as civilians. They reported on U.S. activities, but also visited villages to write about the war’s impact.

In 1977, new language was added to the Geneva Conventions describing this new reality. It noted that “journalists engaged in a professional mission in the areas of armed conflict shall be considered civilians” as long as they take no action to compromise this status, such as wearing a military uniform. Civilians cannot be deliberately targeted by military forces during war.

The Geneva Conventions are binding on both U.S. and Iraqi forces. They are clear: journalists embedded with military forces cannot expect to be spared in combat, but they are entitled to prisoner of war status if captured. Journalists who are not embedded are civilians and cannot be deliberately targeted. But they could potentially be tried in civilian courts for violations of domestic law—even something as mundane as entering the country without a visa. International human rights law, which guarantees press freedom, would provide additional protection.

The Geneva Conventions aside, warring parties have tolerated the presence of journalists on the battlefield because they believe they can use the press for their own political advantage. Wits, experience, and training can help a journalist stay alive in a battle zone. But they are really only safe to the extent that at least one side in the battle finds their presence useful.

The U.S. military believes that it can use the 600 or so journalists embedded in its midst to its own political advantage. Likewise, the Iraqis believe that the 100 or so international journalists left in Baghdad serve its purposes.

But that calculation can quickly change—and then things can go terribly wrong, as it has in Iraq. Already killed covering the war was Terry Lloyd, a television correspondent, with the London-based ITV, who was caught in a firefight in southern Iraq. Australian cameraman Paul Moran was killed by a suicide bomber in northern Iraq. Several more journalists have been injured, and at least six are currently missing – including Newsday reporter Matthew McAllester and photographer Moises Saman, who were apparently taken from their rooms in a hotel in Baghdad last Monday and have not been heard from since.

Wars are savage affairs, and no self-respecting war correspondents would ever venture out onto the battlefield relying only on the Geneva Conventions to keep themselves safe. But the larger point made by the language of the conventions is critical—it affirms that journalists have a right to witness war, whether embedded with military forces or not. Armies and governments might not always like having journalists around – but they have a legal obligation to tolerate them.

Joel Simon is the acting director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

© 2003 Newsday, Inc.