Journalists and international humanitarian law

One of the most important protections that journalists operating in a conflict zone are afforded is their status as civilians. This means they cannot be deliberately targeted, and cannot be taken prisoner by the warring factions. Under the Geneva Conventions journalists are only entitled to this protection “provided that they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians.” This is why anything that muddies the waters could increase the risk to journalists.

This issue arose in November 2011 when aspiring filmmaker Matthew VanDyke returned home from Libya. VanDyke arrived at the Baltimore airport still dressed in combat fatigues. “I went there to support the revolution,” VanDyke declared. “My family did not know that when I left. You don’t tell your mother you’re going off to fight a war.”

When VanDyke went missing, press reports citing his mother and girlfriend said VanDyke was engaged in journalistic activities such as writing a book, and one report said that he was carrying a press pass. His girlfriend, Lauren Fischer, says today that she was describing Van Dyke’s past activities, and did not intend to imply that he was working as a journalist in Libya. She takes responsibility for the misunderstanding with the media.

In any case, as VanDyke had done some journalism and documentary work in the Middle East before, we had no reason to doubt reports that his mission in Libya was journalistic. We raised alarms, issued several news alerts, and spoke with his mother by phone advising her on a strategy to bring her son home.

We now know that VanDyke was captured while carrying out a reconnaissance mission near Brega with other rebels in a truck carrying weapons. He spent 166 days in a Libyan jail, escaping from prison as the rebels entered Tripoli and the capital fell into disarray. He later rejoined his revolutionary companions, participating in the fighting near Sirte, where Qaddafi made his last stand. VanDyke served as the gunner in an improvised jeep outfitted with a machine gun.

VanDyke did not respond to our emailed questions sent soon after he returned. However, VanDyke told reporter Bruce Goldfarb, who interviewed him at the Baltimore airport, that he “appreciated” the work that human rights groups did on his behalf. “I’m appreciative that they spent time and resources, and that by keeping my story alive they did prevent the regime from executing me. And I’m very grateful for that.”

VanDyke, to our knowledge, did not claim to be a journalist in Libya. Still, the confusion surrounding his activities there was unfortunate and could potentially complicate the work of journalists in conflict zones who take stringent measures to safeguard their status as civilians and to ensure they receive the protection to which they are entitled under international humanitarian law.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This blog post, including the headline, has been substantially revised throughout to reflect that while VanDyke acknowledged in his interview with Bruce Goldfarb that his “family thought I was doing more filming than I was, and more writing” in Libya, he did not “pretend to be a journalist,” as reported in the original post. VanDyke said he had been misquoted in the original Goldfarb piece, which has since been corrected.