Julie Anderson is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Reporting from conflict zones, while risky, is crucial to understand global crises. Seventy journalists were killed on the job in 2013: 44 percent were murdered, 36 percent in direct combat or crossfire, and 20 percent while on a dangerous assignment. Combat-related deaths were due in large part to the Syrian civil war, along with spikes in violence in Iraq and Egypt. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the country has been the deadliest in the world for journalists, with thirty-one killed in 2012 and twenty-eight in 2013. Professional media workers and citizen journalists alike have been targets of death, torture, enforced disappearance, abduction and intimidation, and an indeterminate number of human rights violations by both pro- and anti-government forces. Already ten journalists have been killed globally in 2014.
Six months ago, CFR’s Center for Preventive Action and International Institutions and Global Governance Program cosponsored a roundtable on “The Protection of Journalists in Armed Conflict” to foster a discussion on the successes and gaps of United Nations (UN) policy approaches to the protection of journalists in armed conflict, and how to ensure protection while maintaining a global network of information sharing. Since we last considered this topic, violence against journalists in conflict zones has received increased attention. On July 17, 2013, the Security Council hosted an open debate on the protection of journalists in armed conflict—the first time such discussions took place since 2006. The murder of two French journalists, Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, in Mali on November 2, led to the General Assembly passing Resolution 68/163 on the “Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity,” on November 26. This marks the first resolution specific to journalists in armed conflict and impunity for crimes committed against them. The resolution acknowledges changes to the journalism field, including the evolution of online citizen journalism, urges states to prevent violence against journalists, and proclaims November 2 as “International Day To End Impunity For Crimes against Journalists.” European institutions also reexamined the issue. In response to the Council of Europe’s “Draft Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists and Other Media Actors,” released September 22, UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reached out to the council on October 31 to “jointly [explore] the potential for the safety of journalists to be an indicator of development and the fragility of states.”
Events like the murder of Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon in Mali, or the 2012 kidnapping of NBC correspondent Richard Engle in Syria, makes the daily violence and horrors faced by local populations a reality for western observers. In the diary of his kidnapping published in Vanity Fair, Engle describes the terror of being abducted, duct-taped around the eyes, mouth, and wrists, and stripped of his possessions, while knowing that his captors had done this before. The increased attention to the dangers journalists face while reporting from conflict zones is welcomed, however it must not distract from those most in need of protection and advocacy. The abduction or killing of western journalists is the exception, not the rule. In 2013, only 9 percent of journalists killed on the job were foreigners. 91 percent were local professional or citizen journalists trying to shine a light on violence and expose abuse and corruption within their own countries. While speaking to the Security Council during the open debate last July, the AFP’s Somalia correspondent, Mustafa Haji Abdinur, summed it up when he described himself as a “dead man walking” because of the dangers he faces covering stories in his own country. Amnesty International’s report, “Shooting the Messenger,” documents a long list of abuses against journalists within Syria, perpetrated by both the government and anti-government forces. In just one of many examples, Miral Abdul Aziz Sheikha, a Kurdish journalist from northeastern Syria, described being arrested at a protest in August 2011. He told Amnesty International, “They would beat me every day during these twenty-six days. They seemed to know a lot about what I had written and questioned me about it during the beatings. They concentrated on an open letter I had written to Bashar in April 2011 in which I asked him why he is not installing reforms fast enough.” During his imprisonment he was denied medical treatment for his heart condition and was only released when his health began to deteriorate. Unfortunately, it is stories like this that are the norm—journalists and bloggers targeted by their own government or countrymen.
If the UN and other international actors wish to adequately protect journalists reporting from conflict zones, then an accurate account of the violence perpetrated, and identification of journalists most in danger, is crucial. Furthermore, there is a need to shift the conversation from debate to implementation. There is widespread agreement that policies for the protection of journalists should include a dual focus on curbing impunity and strengthening prevention. But how can the international community strengthen impunity when 91 percent of victims do not make international news? And who will bear responsibility for preventing impunity?
Some experts have suggested that there are opportunities for the UN to harness its various agencies and legal mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review, Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, to combat impunity for crimes against journalists. Where local courts may not have the capacity, authority, or inclination to hold perpetrators accountable for violence against journalists, multilateral institutions may be the only option. To strengthen prevention, future policies should include a focus on quality first aid and safety training, undertaking and supporting research on the psychological effects of exposure to chronic conflict on traditional and civilian journalists, and a gender component. To this end, the BBC Academy’s College of Journalism trains freelance journalists in everything from preparing for an assignment, to battlefield first aid, to coping with trauma. Additionally, innovative programs like TechCampNYC brainstorm ways technology that can be used to protect journalists in conflict zones.
Multilateral institutions must work to make sure these types of training programs operate where they are most needed, reaching local journalists in their own communities. By focusing on western cities, only 9 percent of potential journalist victims are reached. Proper safety, security, and psychological training would allow both international correspondents and local journalists to act more responsibly and effectively in the dangerous situations they face daily. As global conflict and civil unrest continue in all corners of the world, investing directly in these trainings to protect journalists will be crucial to ensuring their safety while maintaining access to information, as the public and policy makers seek to understand global conflict.