There are many areas around the world, particularly in conflict or post-conflict zones, where it is dangerous, even life-threatening, to practice journalism. The war in Ukraine provides yet another tragic illustration of the vulnerability of journalists in conflict situations. While it is impossible to prevent all of the risks these journalists are exposed to, states can and should do more to reinforce their safety.
The importance of press coverage of armed conflicts cannot be overstated. By gathering and disseminating reliable information about armed conflicts, journalists carry out a crucial mission of public interest. It is often thanks to journalists that serious human rights violations, war crimes, and other atrocities are brought to the attention of the public and of decision makers. By going where others do not go, by interviewing people, verifying facts, getting the news out, they lay out the situation before our eyes. Sometimes journalists covering conflicts have also helped courts obtain crucial evidence to hold war criminals to account. Their work can therefore document crimes, help to uphold human rights, establish accountability and foster international solidarity.
This comes however with a price. Journalists on duty in the battlefield often face extreme danger, sometimes similar to that faced by members of the armed forces.
For these reasons, journalists covering conflicts are afforded protection under international humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols set out rules to protect people who are not taking part in the fighting and those who can no longer fight. Additional Protocol I specifies that journalists who are engaged in professional missions in areas of armed conflict must be considered as civilians and must be protected as such as long as they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians.
This means that all parties to a conflict must protect journalists, avoid deliberate attacks against them and uphold their rights in case they are captured. In addition, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court establishes that intentionally directing attacks against civilians, and therefore also against journalists who are not engaged in the hostilities, constitutes a war crime.
The Council of Europe has developed precise standards to help member states uphold their obligations to protect journalists covering conflicts. In 1996 the Committee of Ministers adopted a Recommendation on the protection of journalists in situations of conflict and tensions which sets out 12 principles on safety, rights and working conditions, as well as a duty to investigate which should guide state actions and policies. It also provides an inclusive definition of the term journalists by stressing that it covers “all those engaged in the collection, processing and dissemination of news and information” including camera operators and photographers “as well as support staff such as drivers and interpreters”. The same body adopted in 2007 Guidelines on protecting freedom of expression and information in times of crisis, recommending concrete measures notably to ensure personal safety, free movement, access to information, protection of sources and legislative guarantees to uphold media freedom. It also emphasised the crucial role that co-operation between governments and media professionals plays in this context.
Various UN bodies have also adopted relevant resolutions. In 2006 and 2015 the Security Council adopted two resolutions respectively calling for an end to intentional attacks against journalists in situations of armed conflict and urging states to comply with the relevant obligations under international law to end impunity and to prosecute those responsible for serious violations of humanitarian law.
In 2016 the UN published a Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity and the UNESCO Director General reports regularly on the safety of journalists.
In addition, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a Resolution on the Safety of Journalists in 2020 in which it reaffirmed the principles of international humanitarian law applicable to journalists.
These standards are complemented by the work of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, in particular the guidebooks on the safety of journalists, which contain chapters on journalists working in conflict zones, and the joint statement in 2014 with the Rapporteurs of the UN, the Organization of American States and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights which reminded states of their obligations to improve international protection for journalists in conflict situations.
Regrettably, the reality on the ground differs greatly from these standards. In armed conflicts, journalists are often subject to deliberate attacks, kidnapping and torture. The lack of effective investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for crimes against journalists creates a state of impunity which cannot but foster further violence. Covering armed conflicts is dangerous work, and even more so when the states involved do not fully abide by the norms and standards by which they are bound. This not only endangers the lives of journalists, it also prevents them from providing reliable and timely information on issues of public concern, thus undermining people’s right to information.
We cannot allow this to continue. Although it is impossible to guarantee zero risk, states can and should reinforce the safety of journalists who cover conflicts by implementing the existing standards. By ratifying international treaties, they have accepted to apply the provisions contained therein in good faith, prevent their violation, and punish the perpetrators of violations. Thus, states have a positive obligation to protect individuals under their jurisdiction, including by taking effective measures or exercising due diligence to prevent and punish any harm caused by state and non-state actors alike. As established by the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, states are required to carry out an effective official investigation when an individual, and therefore also a journalist covering armed conflicts, “has sustained life-threatening injuries, died or has disappeared in violent or suspicious circumstances, irrespective of whether those allegedly responsible are State agents or private persons or are unknown”.
To close the gap between norms and reality, states should take a set of measures before, during and after a conflict to ensure to the maximum extent possible the safety of journalists.
The most obvious measure, and yet so often disregarded, is that states involved in conflict situations uphold international humanitarian law and human rights law. They should notably respect and ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions in all circumstances. The protection of journalists includes the obligation not to target them and to provide an effective advance warning before carrying out attacks which may affect the civilian population – as can be the case in attacks on television and radio towers where journalists may be present.
Another crucial step is for all governments, including those which are not directly involved in the conflict, to co-operate with journalists, their employers, unions and associations. Such co-operation can take various forms. States could support initiatives of journalists’ associations and media organisations, for example those aimed at collecting and distributing protective gear. Helmets, anti-ballistic vests, and body armour can save lives and minimise injury, but they are costly and out of reach for many journalists, in particular local or freelance ones. As the war in Ukraine has shown, there is an acute shortage of such equipment, especially when a large number of journalists are mobilised to cover a conflict. The delivery of protective equipment is sometimes slowed by requirements foreseen by rules on licensing and end-user certificates, leading to several weeks of delay. States should consider easing such licensing obstacles for journalists and helping them and their employers, including financially, to constitute a strategic stock of protective gear that can be accessed rapidly when needed.
Such co-operation should also aim at improving communication with the relevant military and civilian authorities. These authorities should provide journalists with regular information about the conflict, the security measures that should be taken and guarantee freedom of movement and access to information to journalists.
In addition, states should facilitate and support combat and first aid training. All too often journalists cover the battlefield without adequate preparation, a condition which increases their vulnerability. Specialised personnel, including from Defence and Health Ministries, should be accessible and ready to provide journalists on a regular basis with the necessary skills which may be needed in conflict situations to avoid combat risks and react properly to life-threatening situations.
In case of evacuation or relocation of journalists, states should ensure their diplomatic, military and logistical assistance. They should also support initiatives aimed at sheltering and housing journalists, providing goods of first necessity, and establishing safe press centres with adequate equipment where journalists can continue carrying out their duties safely, as also requested by many journalists’ associations and unions a few weeks ago.
Psychological assistance is also a fundamental need, but one that is often neglected. Journalists who have endured conflict-related dangers and witnessed terrible events may experience traumatic stress. This may have a long-lasting impact on their lives and those of their family members. States should help journalists and their family members to access quality psychological assistance and therapy for treating trauma. This is also important for wounded journalists and for family members of killed journalists.
Beyond measures aimed at addressing the most immediate needs in terms of the safety of journalists, it is also important that states reinforce the overall situation of press freedom, which is increasingly being eroded in Europe. A concrete step in that direction would be to strengthen the fight against impunity for crimes committed against journalists. This is a long-standing problem in times of peace when most attacks against journalists go unpunished. In conflict situations, it may be even harder to establish individual responsibilities, including those of the chain of command, but this should not serve as a pretext for inaction. It is crucial to act more resolutely to collect evidence and punish those responsible. This would help establish justice and would show that states' treatment of the press respects its fundamental role in our democracies.
Lastly, respecting the confidentiality of journalistic sources is a key component of upholding press freedom and helping journalists exercise their profession more safely, including in armed conflicts. Journalists rely on sources both for their reporting and for receiving information that may help them avoid risks. If their sources are not protected, journalists’ work and safety can be severely undermined, and the lives of their sources threatened. Therefore, as the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe stressed, no journalist should be forced to hand over information or material gathered in the context of covering conflict situations and any exception should strictly comply with the relevant standards as also reflected in the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights.
All these measures are within reach if there is political will. While states cannot prevent all dangers that journalists may face in the battlefield, they have legal, financial and other means to reinforce journalists’ safety. They should make better use of them.