Should there be a new international convention to protect journalists?
By Dana Gornitzki
London - As journalists face increased risk reporting in the field and on the frontline, the debate of whether special protection should be granted is one that sparks a myriad of opinions and emotions.
Those who are against journalists receiving special protection say that existing laws are adequate and that additional definitions would serve no purpose.
Others say the world has become so dangerous for journalists, who are being targeted in increasing numbers for their critical role of keeping the world informed, that existing laws are inadequate.
According to INSI figures, this year alone more than 160 journalists and other media professionals have died. The year threatens to end even worse than last year's all-time record 168.
The question regarding journalists receiving special protection was put to a panel of experts at the Frontline Club in London on 16 October. The discussion focused on whether a new international convention is needed to protect journalists in conflict.
Supporting the view that journalists should receive special protection by way of specific policy-creation and legal definition was Sir Geoffrey Robertson. Drawing on his considerable experience as counsel in various breakthrough cases in constitutional, criminal and media law, Robertson said: "If we have a specific law against killing journalists, it may deter…and there are hundreds that die each year."
Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, agreed that addressing the issue is critical, but that the question is how we can see such a law applied in a way that would be meaningful. He also raised the question of the difficulty in defining who exactly is a journalist, and if a special definition would indeed provide more protection than already exists for civilians or prisoners of war.
Knut Doermann, a legal advisor for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said it is important to have a law, which is simple and straightforward. He pointed to an existing Article (79) in the Geneva Protection, which already prohibits the attack of civilians.
He said: "There's no problem in clarifying certain things. Attacks against journalists are seen as war crimes because they are protected as civilians…To clarify it is fine, but by adding it it may weaken the position."
Sahar Abdulle, a Somalian journalist now based in Toronto, Canada, reported for a number of years in Mogadishu where a colleague and friend on a radio talk show was shot.
He said: "It all comes to accountability…It's a murder…but it's not just about putting a law in the book, but also enforcing."
A report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) two years ago said that "more than 85 percent of journalist killings have gone unsolved" and "in the vast majority of cases, journalists were murdered in retaliation for reporting on government corruption, crime, drug trafficking, or the activities of rebel groups."
One of the CPJ's conclusions was that "the best way to combat murder is to push governments to aggressively investigate and pursue those who carry out the killings…It is already a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and additional protocols to intentionally target any civilians, including journalists, so any specific provision would be redundant…It would also send the misleading message that journalists value their own lives more than those of other civilians."
The debate left the panel and audience asking questions, including:
- With the current state of ever-changing media, how do we clearly define who is a journalist?
- Will a special definition and clause for journalist – aside from that of a civilian – deter killings?
- Which kind of additional protection should be provided to journalists, which civilians are not entitled to in the field or areas of armed conflict?
As the risks for many journalists increase, the debate continues.