The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


Journalists are not only at risk in situations of armed conflict. In numerous cases, journalists have risked their lives to investigate matters of corruption, organized crimes, and links between authorities or religious groups. According to the list drafted by the International Federation of Journalists in close coordination with the International News Safety Institute, 106 journalists and media personnel were killed in 2011, compared to ninety-four in 2010. Another twenty journalists and their contributors have died in disaster-related incidents. The Middle East was the deadliest area, with thirty-two journalists and media staff killed. Based on the number of victims, the most dangerous countries for journalists were Iraq, Pakistan, and Mexico (eleven deaths each); the Philippines, Libya, and Yemen (six deaths each); and Honduras and India (five deaths each).

The international protection of journalists continues to pose major challenges, particularly for journalists working in conflict areas. Humanitarian law provides for a special status for journalists in situations of international armed conflicts, and war correspondents need to be accredited to accompany the armed forces of the States parties to the conflict. The multiplication of non-international armed conflicts and other situations of violence in recent times entail an increased need for the independence of journalists from governmental armed forces. The journalists’ need for independence proves scarcely compatible with the existing system and might expose them to violence directed by authoritarian regimes or rebel or criminal groups.

Protection of Journalists within the Framework of Humanitarian Law

International humanitarian law establishes two different statuses for journalists in situation of international armed conflict: “war correspondents,” who are accredited with the armed forces, and other journalists. Historically, the sole status of war correspondent was defined by the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 for international armed conflict. War correspondents (journalists authorized directly by a party to the conflict to follow its troops) who are captured in the exercise of their functions in an area of conflict are considered prisoners of war. This puts them under the protection of the Third Geneva Convention, Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (GCIII Art. 4). In 1977, Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, reiterated this.

It also extended the protection of humanitarian law to other categories of journalists, who are not accredited with the armed forces. These journalists have the status of civilians and are to be protected as such (API Art. 79). Although Additional Protocol I is meant to be applied to international armed conflicts, it is always possible to request that its provisions also be respected in internal armed conflicts.

Indeed, according to the Rule 34 of the study on customary international humanitarian law published by the ICRC in 2005, “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” whether it be in a non-international or an international armed conflict.

Journalists engaged in professional missions in areas of armed conflict are considered civilians. As such, they may not be targeted. They are protected by their civilian status, on the condition that they refrain from any activity that might jeopardize their civilian status and character.

Respect for the rules of professional ethics and independence of the press strengthen the protection of journalists’ civilian status against potential accusation of participation in hostilities or providing military advantage to one side of the conflict.

In its Annex II, Additional Protocol I provides a model for an identity card for journalists. This card can be issued either by the State of which the journalist is a national, in whose territory he or she resides, or in which the news medium employing him or her is located. This card attests to his or her status as a journalist, it serves for identification purposes only, and does not grant them any additional protection than the one of civilian.

CiviliansInternational humanitarian lawPrisoners of war

Recognition of the Special Status Accorded to Journalists in International Criminal Justice

International criminal justice recognizes the specificity of the work war correspondents do and has limited their obligation to appear as witnesses. The protection of journalistic sources and professional secrecy are not clearly and uniformly recognized by national laws; in some countries these legal provisions are absent and, as a result, such a right is not granted to journalists. In the Randal Case ( Prosecutor v. Brdjanin & Talic , IT-99-36-AR73.9, Decision on Interlocutory Appeal, 11 December 2002), the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia admitted that war correspondents should be considered as independent observers rather than as potential witnesses for the prosecution. In paragraphs 36, 38, and 50 of its Decision, the ICTY Appeals Chamber considered that journalists working in war zones served “a public interest” because they “play a vital role in bringing to the attention of the international community the horrors and reality of conflict.” In order to protect the ability of journalists to carry out their functions, the Chamber granted them the testimonial privilege in respect of events relating to their work, as asked by the appellant, Jonathan Randal. The Court decided that journalists working in war zones may be forced to testify only where two cumulative conditions exist: firstly, the information sought must be “crucial to the case”; secondly, “it cannot reasonably be acquired by other means.”

This immunity of judicial testimony has also been recognized by the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence; Article 73 provides that “communications made in the context of a class of professional or other confidential relationship shall be regarded as privileged, and consequently not subject to disclosure.”

Protection of Journalists within the United Nations Framework

There is no specific international convention giving content to the notions of freedom of information or the right of journalists which could serve as a model for national laws on that matter. Thus, in practice, the issue of freedom of information is constrained by the limits set by national laws in the name of public order. Journalists and the media might be charged with various offences under national law, such as a threat to national security, enemy propaganda, incitement to violence, internal disturbances, hatred, separatism, defamation, and so on. A few initiatives have been undertaken within the United Nations system to prevent acts of violence against journalists.

UNESCO Resolution 29, 1997

On 12 November 1997, the General Conference of UNESCO adopted a resolution entitled “Condemnation of Violence against Journalists” to condemn violence against journalists and call upon Member States to uphold their obligations to prevent, investigate, and punish crimes against journalists and promote legislation on this matter.

UN Security Council Resolution 1738, 2006

The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1738 in 2006 to condemn attacks against journalists in conflict situations. It recalls “that journalists, media professionals and associated personnel engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered civilians, to be respected and protected as such.” It also urges parties to armed conflicts to protect civilians as they are obliged to under international humanitarian law. As civilians, journalists shall also enjoy protection under Security Council Resolution 1894 of 2009.

Medellin Declaration, 4 May 2007

On 3–4 May 2007, during the UNESCO Conference on Press Freedom, the Medellin Declaration on “Securing the Safety of Journalists and Combating Impunity” further encouraged Member States to investigate all acts of violence of which journalists are victims, release detained journalists, sign and ratify the Additional Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and finally “comply with the commitments of UNESCO Resolution 29 to promote legislation with the intention of investigating and prosecuting the killers of journalists and to combat impunity.”

The Declaration on the Safety of Journalists, 2009

The Declaration on the Safety of Journalists was adopted during the Fourth World Electronic Media Forum on 12–13 November 2009 in Mexico and supported by UNESCO. The declaration calls for “sustained and concrete international action to address the murder of journalists and media support staff around the globe in peacetime and war.” It draws attention to the fact that “most of them were not killed in war but while doing their job in their own countries in peacetime.” It also reminds that governments are primarily responsible for the safety of all their citizens, including those in the news media.

Professional Initiatives

Faced with a general trend toward a worsening of the conditions in which journalists exercise their profession—and particularly since the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—various professional organizations have launched protection and mutual aid initiatives.

Reporters Without Borders

Concerned by this general observation, Reporters Without Borders has drawn up a Declaration on the Safety of Journalists and Media Personnel in Situations Involving Armed Conflicts. The Declaration was drafted following a workshop held on 20 January 2003 and attended by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross; NGOs such as Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, and Lawyers Without Borders; the Groupe de recherche et d’information sur la paix et la sécurité; international humanitarian law experts; press organizations; and spokespersons for NATO and the United States Department of Defense. The Declaration, opened to signature on the same day, was amended on 8 January 2004 in the light of events in Iraq. Recalling the principles and rules of international humanitarian law protecting journalists and the news media during armed conflicts, the Declaration proposes improvements to the law in line with present-day requirements. At the same time, Reporters Without Borders has launched a number of initiatives to help journalists working in conflict areas. Those initiatives range from lending bulletproof vests and helmets to a free press SOS hotline for journalists in trouble and training for reporters going to war zones. In addition, the NGO, with UNESCO, has compiled a Handbook for Journalists for those going to dangerous parts of the world, listing international norms protecting them and containing practical advice on how to stay alive and safe.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Within its protection activities, the ICRC has been operating since 1985 a hotline providing assistance for journalists on dangerous assignments. The ICRC can provide journalists with the following types of protection: obtaining information from the parties to the conflict and any other source on journalists; passing the information on to his or her family; enabling the journalist and his or her family to exchange family news, possibly via Red Cross messages; and repatriating him or her if no other intermediary is available. Besides, the ICRC organizes regular IHL training sessions for journalists.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)

The world’s largest organization of journalists, the IFJ represents around 600,000 members in more than 131 countries. The IFJ promotes international action to defend press freedom and social justice through a strong, free, and independent trade union of journalists. The IFJ is the organization that speaks for journalists in the United Nations system and within the international trade union movement. For years, the IFJ has campaigned for greater safety and for a focus on in-country journalists and freelances who are at greatest risk and who have the least protection. Every year the IFJ issues a report tracking the number of journalists and media staff killed during the year. The IFJ fights the culture of impunity firmly rooted in some regions where governments consistently failed to fulfill their obligations to protect journalists and punish those who committed acts of violence toward them. The IFJ took part in the International Day against Impunity for crimes targeting journalist, which was organized for the first time on 23 November 2011.

The International News Safety Institute (INSI)

The International News Safety Institute is a coalition of news journalist support groups and individuals exclusively dedicated to the safety of news media staff working in dangerous environments. INSI’s purpose is to create a global safety network of advice and assistance to journalists and other news gatherers who may face danger while covering the news on international assignments or in their own country.

International Covenant for the Protection of Journalists

More than ten press syndicates agreed in September 2007 to establish the International Covenant for the Protection of Journalists. The non-governmental organization works in collaboration with the Geneva-based Press Emblem Campaign and has consultative status with the United Nations. The ICPJ advocates for specific protection for journalists in the form of a separate convention, arguing that the protection granted by the Geneva Conventions remains too broad in its scope. In December 2007, the NGO proposed a draft proposal for an International Convention to strengthen the protection of journalists in armed conflicts and other situations.

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