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Journalists in Armed Conflict

Being a journalist in an area of armed conflict is undeniably an extremely dangerous job, with tough conditions and the ever-increasing risk of death constantly at wake.

Statistics released by the Committee to Protect Journalists show that since 1992 the world has seen the death of over one thousand journalists.

Iraq comes in as the deadliest country for journalists where since 2003, 167 journalists have been killed with two thirds killed by insurgents and one-third killed in crossfire combat.

The second highest country for journalist fatalities is Syria where almost all the deaths are attributed to armed combat situations.

There’s no doubt that being a journalist in a combat zone is extremely dangerous; hence why some may question the journalists who decide to risk their lives visiting conflict zones to document them.

When speaking with ‘worldblog’, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel said (in reference to the deaths of photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros) that journalists in warzones do the work because they love it; they also “experience world events first hand” and “make a difference.”

Without journalists in warzones, society may never see the true reality of war and conflict. Journalists provide the needed documentation of the history of war and bring war crimes and human rights abuse to light. They are the eyes and ears to outside world and represent important periods in time.

So what protects journalists when they go to war or conflict zones?

The rules that shield journalists in areas of armed combat are defined by what is called ‘international humanitarian law’, this body of law, as described by the International Committee of the Red Cross, “regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its effects.  They specifically protect people who are not taking part in the hostilities.”

What makes up international humanitarian law are the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, they limit the “barbarity of war” and contain rules that are abided by the 165 states who have signed onto the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols one and two (194 are signed to just the Geneva Conventions)

Under Article 79, a protocol addition to the Geneva Conventions, “Journalists engaged in dangerous professional mission in areas of armed conflict shall be considered civilians.”

This means that journalists in armed conflict zones cannot be treated as soldiers would in a battle; they cannot be killed, tortured or deliberately harmed.

When imprisoned in armed conflict, journalists are given the status of a ‘prisoner of war’ and under the third Geneva Convention they are to be treated with respect “in all circumstances” by being treated humanely, not starved, not tortured, not made to engage in work with no pay, not used for medical or scientific experimentation and are granted communication with families.

The only time, in which a journalist can lose their “special protection” is when they decided to join combat along side fighting forces and are thus considered as combatants. Journalistic activities like documenting events through interviewing, photography, film and audio recordings are not counted as combat.

However, when the journalist ceases taking part in the hostilities their special journalist protections returns.

This particular condition, however, has recently been contradicted by the United State’s Department of Defense (DOD) with the release of their “Law of War Manual.”

The manual was published July 12, 2015 and has received global criticism from journalists and media organizations.

The manual has been interpreted as enforcing imperialist ideologies and showing lack of respect in upholding international treaties including the Geneva Conventions.

One particular aspect of the manual that has caused much alarm is a section on journalists stating, “In general, journalists are civilians. However, journalists may be members of the armed forces, person authorized to accompany the armed forces or unprivileged belligerents.”

The term ‘unprivileged belligerents’ has caused the DOD to come under the line of fire from journalists frustrated with the term as the Geneva Conventions, U.S law and other tenets of international law do not utilize this term.

It appears that the DOD’s manual only considers legitimate journalists to be embedded journalists who are “authorized to accompany the armed forces”; hence making those who are not accompanying armed forces, what they label, ‘unprivileged belligerents.’

This has been criticized as an excuse for the U.S to attack journalists as they please, with the excuse that they presumed them to be taking part in hostiles.

Chris Chambers, professor of journalism at Georgetown University, spoke in an interview with RT about the reference to journalists in the DOD’s manual and said “It gives them license to attack or even murder journalists that they don’t particularly like but aren’t on the other side.”

The DOD’s statements on journalists are intimidating and challenge parts of the law that are in place to protect journalists.

According to the four-part investigation by Thomas Gaist for Global Research, as a way of seemingly covering the fact that the U.S could break its international treaty agreements and laws, the manual consistently mentions that the DOD “may re-interpret and negate international agreements that prohibit extra-legal arrests and detentions”.

If the Pentagon has clearly stated its intentions to break treaties in relation to arrests and detentions it could be implied that they have no issue in breaching other aspects of treaties, such as that relating to journalists.

The manual also prompted people to cast their minds back to the senseless killing of the group of men in the ‘collateral murder’ video released by Wikileaks in 2010.

The group included a photographer and his driver, both innocent civilians. The commentary from the soldiers in the video demonstrates the lack of control and any attempt of determining if the men were combatants, civilians or journalists.

The controversy around the video was heightened due to the Pentagon’s initial reports that the men were taking part in hostile action, none of which were.

Critics of the manual believe the DOD’s statements against journalists are another step towards, the ever growing, silencing of journalists.  Hence creating a motive for killing journalists under the guise that they were ‘unprivileged belligerents.’

The topic of the manual also brings discussion to better identification of journalists in armed conflicts.

The Press Emblem Campaign is an organization working to “strengthening the legal protection and safety of journalists in zones of conflict and civil unrest or in dangerous missions”.

The campaign has brought up the idea of press identification through a similar form of symbol used by the Red Cross.

It would be used in armed conflict zones to make clear distinctions between combatants and journalists and in theory would be a protection against instances like the U.S targeting what they name ‘unprivileged belligerents.’

However the subsequent question that arises from this is what if combatants start wearing the symbol? Furthermore, would its meaning be disrespected and make cause for its dismantling of use and would the U.S even acknowledge the symbol (in considering what the Pentagon has said in their manual)?

To date, the U.S hasn’t acted on what they’ve written in their infamous ‘ Law of War Manual’ and it is still unclear what exactly they mean by the term ‘unprivileged belligerents’.

It is certain, however, that whatever it is that the DOD does imply in their manual it is not a positive thing for journalists and it may only be a matter of time until the world finds out exactly what it means.