Journalists, Protection of

By William A. Orme, Jr. 

In the vicious civil conflicts and undeclared cross-border battles that are increasingly the norm for full-blown shooting wars, few combatants are aware that the Geneva Conventions afford special protections to journalists. It might be prudent for a reporter in such situations to keep a Kevlar-coated copy of the Geneva Conventions in the left breast pocket since the protective powers of international treaties are based on the assumption that the combatants will observe international law.

The laws of armed conflict stipulate that journalists play a unique and essential role in wartime. A century ago war correspondents ran the risk of being shot as spies. Though this can still happen today—the 1998 killing of an Iranian journalist by Taliban militiamen being just one recent case in point—the executioners at least now face the possibility of internationally sanctioned punishment.

The spirit and the letter of international humanitarian law are clear. When accredited by and accompanying an army, journalists are legally part of that military entourage, whether they see themselves that way or not. This has been the legal practice at least since the early nineteenth century. If captured by opposing forces, they can expect to be treated as prisoners of war. The Geneva Conventions say so quite unambiguously: equating war correspondents with “civilian members of military aircraft crews” and other integral, albeit nonuniformed, participants in the greater military enterprise. Absent evidence of atrocities outside their roles as war correspondents, they are not to be treated as spies.

Journalists are legally entitled to greater autonomy than most other civilian noncombatants: reporters can be detained only for “imperative reasons of security,” and even then are entitled to be held with the same legal protections as a prisoner of war, including the right not to respond to interrogation (though notebooks and film may legally be confiscated by military personnel).

The 1949 Geneva Convention regulations were tailored for the accredited uniformed war correspondent, who could be viewed by the enemy as part of the military entourage. Though clearly not a soldier, the correspondent was still performing an officially sanctioned role in an organized military force. To the extent that tradition or prudence dictated by-the-books treatment of noncombatants or prisoners of war, the correspondent presumably benefited.

Those days are largely gone. The fear of being taken prisoner can still be quite real in Iraq or Chechnya or the Afghan highlands, but the potential captors might well not be conversant with international humanitarian law. Being held hostage by guerrilla forces or a renegade pariah regime in the 1990s is a qualitatively different (and usually more frightening) experience than being an Axis or Allied prisoner of war in the 1940s. In the early 1960s many correspondents and combat photographers still wore army-issue fatigues. A decade later the Vietnam press corps stood conspicuously apart from the fighting force in dress, political perspective, and even national loyalties. (Indeed, since the 1977 adoption of Additional Protocol I, journalists are now advised that the protections they are afforded under the Geneva Conventions may not apply if their clothing too closely resembles that of combat personnel.) Article 79 of Protocol I in addition to reiterating the rights of journalists accredited to armed forces provides for an “identity card” issued by a government attesting to their status as a journalist.

The rights most journalists enjoy in wartime today were won in their respective national political cultures. In the final analysis, field commanders tolerate the presence of the press because of the political power and legal protections the press has acquired in their own local arenas. Some reporters may feel that to demand special protection under international humanitarian law is to invite special regulation under such law. Regardless, the protection is explicitly stated in law. In many instances accreditation comes with the territory: it is the only way to get access to the military transportation needed to cover the conflict, or to the official briefings (where it is often explained that what has just been seen firsthand may not have in fact happened and the real story is what was not seen by reporters).

But journalists roaming around the wilder conflicts of the world are forced to live instead by the Dylan dictum: to live outside the law you must be honest. Never pretend to be what you are not or deny being what you are unless your life depends on it. Carry a camera, but never a gun. And keep that dog-eared copy of the Geneva Conventions in your breast pocket until after the shooting stops.

Related posts:

  1. Journalists in Peril
  2. Prisoners of War