Journalists in War Zones

A Deadly Grey Area

With military conflicts growing increasingly complex, the safety of journalists in battle zones and troubled areas is becoming a major issue. More and more, journalists and media workers are moving in a deadly grey area. By Petra Tabeling

Memorial for journalists in Bayeux (photo: Petra Tabeling)
France unveiled on 7 October a memorial to journalists killed while doing their job, with monuments bearing hundreds of names in the northwestern town of Bayeux

​​It was a dark day for the media and for freedom of the press when relatives of slain journalists gathered last week in the French city of Bayeux to dedicate Europe's first memorial for journalists, commemorating more than 2000 media workers who have lost their lives worldwide since 1944.

On this very weekend the news was dominated by the murders of three journalists: two German employees of the Deutsche Welle were killed in Afghanistan, while Russian journalist Anna Politowskaya was murdered in her Moscow apartment. As globalization progresses, creating ambiguous interests, actors and hostilities, the issue of journalists' safety is becoming more urgent than ever before.

No Certainties

The conflicts in the Middle East have shown that journalists are not immune to the anarchy and violence they report on. The situation in Iraq, where more than 100 media workers have died since the war began in 2003, makes this especially clear.

Media workers are caught in the crossfire – from Western armies as well as guerilla groups. "Embedded" journalists, i.e. those who work within the ranks of the army, can be certain neither of their physical safety nor of their journalistic independence. On top of everything, kidnappings have become a serious threat.

The killings of French journalists and the kidnappings of French correspondents such as Florence Aubenas and Christian Chesnot were major factors in the French Parliament's decision to propose a law strengthening the status of journalists in military conflicts on the international level.

For example, it calls for an expansion of the Geneva Conventions, which define journalists in battle as civilians who, as such, must be protected; the UN Security Council must guarantee the right to gather information without any restrictions. In addition, NATO should adapt the so-called "Green Book" used by the British Army, which was the first to recognize the independence of journalists in battle zones early this year.

In addition, the law would make it possible for crimes against journalists to be brought to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and suggests that a financial fund for journalists in crisis situations would be helpful.

Robert Menard, Chair of Reporters without Borders, who played a crucial role in drafting the law, praised the politicians' commitment: "If the French government adopts the proposal, we hope for corresponding adaptations by German and other European governments, reaching all the way to the United Nations Security Council."

Supporting independent media workers on location

At this year's conference for war journalists in Bayeux, Middle East correspondents discussed the parliamentary report, not without criticism:

"The Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Hamas won't read a text like that, you can never feel safe. Nowadays it's virtually impossible in Iraq or Afghanistan. The larger problem is the situation of the independent journalists and Arab employees on location; often they don't even have insurance and get no financial support from their clients," says Emmanuel Razavi of the Kabul-based Hamsa Agency. "We give our native employees monthly wages and insurance. That's our philosophy, but few do the same. An Iraqi employee isn't worth less than a Western journalist!"

This is also criticized by Robert Menard: "For example, just two New York Times journalists have over 80 Iraqis working for them, from drivers and translators to informants. I doubt that enough financial resources are available for them. Yet they’re the ones with the greatest risk."

A drop in the bucket

Now, though, there are initiatives to finance the necessary security training for journalists and media workers on location, who often lack the financial or organizational resources to pay for such training. The International News Safety Institute (INSI), founded four years ago to address media workers' security concerns, offers on-location security training sessions funded by donations from Western media companies such as the BBC.

"It's a drop in the bucket," says Sarah de Jong of INSI, "but still, it's important for the international community to understand that the killing of a journalist is always an attack on the truth. And we need lots of journalists, especially in war zones such as Iraq, to find out the truth. We are supporting people's human right to information when politicians, governments, the military and other actors have absolute respect for journalists."

How difficult it has been to accept this is shown by the American military's bombardment of the Hotel Palestine in Baghdad in 2003 and of the offices of the Arab TV stations Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV, in which several journalists died. James Miller, a British documentary filmmaker was killed in the Gaza Strip, targeted by an Israeli soldier despite being clearly identifiable as a journalist.

The memorial to slain media workers in Bayeux displays an especially large number of names of journalists from the Middle East, including the French-Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir. The columnist from the daily "An-Nahar" was killed in Beirut in 2005 when his car was bombed. He had repeatedly pilloried the "Lebanese police state".

At the dedication Robert Menard, Chair of Reporters without Borders, described the memorial as a message and a defiant symbol of those who, despite all the risks, try to find out the truth.

The little park features a marble stone with a quote from the French philosopher and journalist Simone de Beauvoir stating that one can only enjoy freedom when others are free. Now three new names must be carved into the white marble stones. The question of security remains.

Petra Tabeling

© 2006

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

The Media in Iraq
Freedom of Expression under Attack
Kidnappings, murder, and terror – to date almost 90 journalists have been killed in Iraq, more than in any other conflict. Two thirds of the victims were Iraqi nationals. Petra Tabeling reports

Embedded Journalism
When War Feels Like War
How does war feel to those who report on it? In the documentary film "War feels like War," the filmmaker Esteban Uyarra portrays journalists who covered the war in Iraq without the cover of helmets, bullet-proof vests, or the American military. The film will air on the BBC in coming months

Samir Kassir
The Arab Malaise
A year before he was murdered, Samir Kassir published a short book in France under the provocative title "Thoughts on the Arab Malaise". It is written from the viewpoint of one of the shrewdest and most incisive Arab intellectuals. Susan Javad has read it


  • Reporters Without Borders
  • International News Safety Institute
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