Journalists and the Law of War


Image courtesy of HREA, the global human rights education and training centre.

‘Reporting conflict: Media professionals and international humanitarian law’

Most of us depend on journalists of one kind or another for reports on war crimes and other atrocities. At the same time over a thousand journalists have been killed since 1992, both in armed conflict and in (relative) peacetime.[1] The balancing act in today’s world is our need for the facts versus the need to not put reporters at unnecessary risk.

This was the issue discussed by a panel convened on March 12 by Human Rights Education Associates at their headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. The discussants were Anne Bennett, Executive Director, Hirondelle USA[2]; Roy Gutman, Middle East Bureau Chief, McClatchy Newspapers (via Skype from Istanbul) and founder of Crimes of War[3]; and Charles M. Sennott, Executive Director, The GroundTruth Project[4] and Co-founder, GlobalPost.

The discussion was far-ranging but several topics were especially noteworthy.  When asked about the role of the media in armed conflict, all the panelists spoke about the importance of factual, objective reporting. Bennett said that accuracy in reporting contributes to protection for the vulnerable and fills the information gap for those affected by conflict. She also spoke about setting standards – reporters need to understand what they are reporting on – and Gutman said that reporters need to clarify what’s at stake and look for what should not be happening. Most dramatically, Sennott said that the job of the journalist was “to bear witness to the dramatic human failure that is war,” to document the absurdities but also the paths to peace as they present themselves.

Both Sennott and Gutman have a personal stake in the issue of safety of journalists. James Foley was on assignment for GlobalPost when he was murdered in Syria, and Austin Tice was on assignment for McClatchy when he went missing in Syria three years ago. Sennott spoke about how reporters used to be able to cover both sides in a conflict because both sides depended on reports to get their stories out to the public. Now those groups have their own ways to get their messages out so the journalist’s job has become much more dangerous; they’re not needed by the warring parties.

Training and educating emerging reporters to function in today’s conflicts was important to all the panelists. One problem cited was the decline in the standard new business model. Media outlets no longer have bureaux around the world staffed by reporters with many years’ experience in the field – instead, they rely upon a legion of free-lancers who may or may not know how to look out for their own safety. One recommendation Sennott had was “shattering the mold of the fixer” (a fixer is a local journalist hired to help a correspondent but never credited for reporting). Local journalists are a resource who can provide invaluable insight into local events and should be seen as team members, not just “gofers.”

GroundTruth has put together a field guide for reporters (written, in part, by James Foley), codifying the lessons learned by reporters covering war but Sennott believes that more needs to be done to get that information out to the field.  Bennett mentioned a meeting of journalists convened by the US Department of State to discuss safety and the discussion then veered to the need for journalistic independence. HREA moderator Frank Elbers said that United States Institute of Peace was a source of support and Gutman recounted how a USIP fellowship allowed him to write a book critical of US foreign policy[5]. All agreed however, that government funding can be problematic.

Another area of agreement was the need for reporters to understand International Humanitarian Law, the law of war. Gutman said that IHL says what is allowed and what is not allowed. It serves as a “yardstick.” And it is not always intuitive. Sennott spoke of “ground truth” a term used by NASA for comparing satellite data to what exists on the ground; satellites need to be calibrated using ground truth just as war reporting needs IHL to calibrate what violations (or lack thereof) are being seen. Bennett spoke about the need for an IHL framework that many local journalists have not been exposed to. This can result in the misuse of terms like genocide and war crimes. The best training used to be in a newsroom and was done by skilled and experienced editors but that model is gone.

One option is HREA’s new on-line course Reporting Conflicts: International Humanitarian Law for Media Professionals. Development of the course was funded by USIP. It is currently available in English but work is underway to produce French, Spanish and Arabic versions. The course is free and self-directed.

Another resource, if you are interested in learning more about the rules of war, is a free professional training course offered by the IHL team at the American Red Cross, National Headquarters.

As Roy Gutman stated, “IHL is not just the property of …lawyers.”

This article only touches upon some of the major points of the discussion which was fascinating.The event was recorded and you can find a link to it here.





[5] How We Missed the Story, 2008, US Institute of Peace

One response to “Journalists and the Law of War

  1. Pingback: Weekly IHL Update — March 23, 2015 | Humanity in War·

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