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Protecting the witnesses

Without journalists such as French photographer Rémi Ochlik, the world would not get news about important humanitarian stories. Before Ochlik was killed along with American correspondent Marie Colvin in the besieged Syrian city of Homs in February, he covered stories in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Libya. Here, Ochlik is seen in Cairo, Egypt during civil unrest, November 2011.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Julien de Rosa, courtesy


Bearing witness

During warfare or natural disaster, journalists and humanitarians have very different agendas. The first: to get a story out, to serve as witness about what’s happening on the ground. For the humanitarian, it’s about reaching the people with the assistance they need to survive.

But these agendas do overlap. For humanitarian groups, journalists can help give a voice to the most vulnerable people and their stories can motivate an international or local response. Meanwhile, humanitarian groups often provide the information and access journalists need to tell those stories.

Sadly, journalists like aid workers often carry out their professions at great risk. The conflict in Libya, Syria and Yemen, and the civil unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, made 2011 one of the most deadly for journalists. Meanwhile, journalists covering insecure areas or conflict in Colombia, DRC, Iraq or Pakistan face the threat of death even when doing routine reporting on politics, the economy, crime or natural disaster.

Now the media landscape is changing even more rapidly than the nature of warfare. As small arms and armed groups proliferate, so do bloggers and citizen journalists who, armed often with little more than a cell phone and a laptop, are broadcasting images directly around the world from areas where international media cannot go.

In this hi-tech and violent world, do journalists covering humanitarian crises need greater protection under the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols? Do humanitarian groups have a responsibility to speak up for journalists who, in a certain way, could be considered a vulnerable group?

Visit our website,, for more about journalism during conflict and natural disaster.


“You have to be careful. Later on, if there are international trials or tribunals, these stories could be used by the prosecution or the defendant.”
Tania Mehanna, reporter for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation and veteran correspondent of many international conflicts.


The vast majority of journalists killed in the line of duty are local reporters who are specifically targeted. In this photo, Somali journalists carry the body of their colleague, Abdisalan Sheikh Hasan, during his funeral in southern Mogadishu, December 2011.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Ismail Taxta,


Reporter’s Notebook

How am I protected?
Under Article 79, Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions and Protocols, journalists are protected as any other civilian or non-combatant — as long as they do not take part in hostilities. They are offered no special status based on the dangerous work they do. However, Article 79 specifically recognizes journalists and affords them all the protection given to civilians in times of combat. Journalists who are accredited as war correspondents with a military force benefit from prisoner-of-war status if captured.

Are reporters who work as employees of the armed forces protected?
Reporters who work as correspondents or employees for a branch of the military would be considered legitimate targets of war but they would also be afforded the same protection as soldiers if taken prisoner.

Grey area: should I embed?
Journalists can also choose to ‘embed’ with military troops. This means travelling with military units and following their security requirements. Embedded journalists are protected as civilians under IHL but enjoy no special status under the law unless they have been accredited by the armed forces as officially recognized war correspondents. Also, the troops they are travelling with would be considered a legitimate military target. Many journalists choose not to embed as this can restrict their freedom to move and report independently.


“In situations of conflict, we need an independent press in order to have reliable information that has been neither censored nor self-censored.”
Solange Lusiku, editor of
Le Souverain
, based in
Bukavu, DRC.


Photo: Wendy Bashi/IPS

‘Inconvenient witnesses’

Three questions for Solange Lusiku, editor-in-chief and publisher of Le Souverain, an independent newspaper in eastern Congo.

Do you feel that local journalists are more exposed than international ones?
No, I think that once in the field, the dangers are the same. Whether you are local or international, we’re all journalists in the field. However, I do remember once when atrocities were committed in Kaniola, a village located in the Walungu territory more than 50 kilometres from Bukavu — where men, women and children were slaughtered like goats — my personal reporting material was erased by the rebels but they did not dare to do the same to an international journalist.

Do you feel protected under the laws of war?
No, the lords of war and combatants in eastern DRC have no clue about the law of war. Once they have a weapon in hand, they can shoot anyone they want and whenever they want to. Besides, journalists are inconvenient witnesses. It’s better to get rid of them.

Do you think the protection for journalists can be strengthened?
Yes, protecting journalists is a very high priority because the work of journalists raises awareness as to what is really happening. When the gunfire begins, journalists do not know how to protect themselves. Training journalists on their own security is a necessity.

“Because there has been two decades of war, there aren’t any journalism schools or institutes. So most [journalists] are not aware of how international law, or the norms of Geneva Conventions, relate to reporting the conflict.”
Mohamed Ibrahim, freelance journalist and correspondent for the New York Times, based in Mogadishu.

Journalists are often the first to expose the reality of war and the suffering of vulnerable people. But media workers are also targets. What can humanitarians do to help keep them safe — and get the story out?

On the early afternoon of 24 May 2012, radio journalist Ahmed Addow Anshur was walking through the Suuq Bo’le, a market in the Dharkenley district of Mogadishu, Somalia, when he was shot and killed by four men who witnesses say quickly sped off on motorcycles.

Anshur died instantly from bullet wounds to the head and the chest, making him the sixth Somali journalist murdered in the country this year. If the current trend continues, 2012 could become one of the worst years for Somali journalists since 2009, when nine reporters were killed.

“The violence towards journalists gets worse when there is a political transition,” says Mohamed Ibrahim, a freelance Somali journalist who also works as a New York Times correspondent and is secretary general of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ).

“When the situation becomes very political, each group tries to manipulate the media by threatening or killing journalists,” he says. “Also, there are gangs not related to any political factions that could be involved in these killings as well.”

As with most of the attacks on journalists here, the identity of Anshur’s killers is unknown and most violent crimes against journalists go unsolved. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), based in New York, 41 journalists have been killed in Somalia since 1992, making it the most dangerous country on the African continent for media workers.

On the murky front line of modern conflict, it’s local journalists such as Anshur who are most at risk. War reporters who move from country to country face extreme dangers — as the numbers killed since 2011 during violence in Libya and Syria attest. But local reporters, as well as the ‘fixers’, translators, drivers and media workers who help international war reporters, make up the bulk of media workers killed.

“Most of the journalists who are killed are local reporters covering local stories,” says Mohammed Keita, who directs operations in Africa for the CPJ. “They are far more vulnerable than international journalists because they have little institutional support and they live and work in countries where the rule of law is not very strong.”

Life expectancy: 24 hours

This climate of fear has a chilling effect on those trying to bear witness to the humanitarian consequences of conflict or insecurity. “Our life expectancy is 24 hours — renewable.” That’s how Solange Lusiku describes the situation for journalists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where eight journalists have been killed since 2006.

A champion of the free press, Lusiku is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Le Souverain, an independent newspaper in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province in eastern DRC, a region plagued by violence. Like many journalists and press advocates, Lusiku says a free press is not only vital to democracy and human rights, but to any effective humanitarian response.

“Just as the press contributes to the promotion of democracy, it also promotes humanitarian assistance,” she says. “Humanitarian actors need the press to present facts requiring urgent intervention or to alert people about a dangerous and disastrous situation — even to inform the public about the work they have done.”

While reporters often need humanitarian groups for mobility, statistics and access to dangerous areas, Lusiku says relief agencies also need journalists. “In situations of conflict, we need an independent press in order to have reliable information that has been neither censored nor self-censored,” she adds. “This also allows humanitarians to guide and plan their interventions.”

This is why, maintains CPJ’s Keita, humanitarian groups should advocate for the protection of journalists. During natural crises such as the ongoing drought in the Sahel or Horn of Africa, the state of media freedom in the affected countries should be part of the discussion, Keita argues.

“If a government is engaged in downplaying the extent of the crisis in the name of protecting the image of the country, and they can manipulate data about the humanitarian crisis, it will also have an impact on the response,” he says.

Humanitarian responsibility?

If this is so, what is the role and responsibility of humanitarian organizations towards the press? And do the laws governing armed conflict adequately protect those who risk their lives to get the news out about the realities of war or other dangerous emergencies?

Recent events, from high-profile deaths and kidnappings of journalists in Afghanistan, Colombia, Libya, Pakistan and Syria to the growing global body count (25 killed as of mid-June 2012 by violent means, according to CPJ), suggest that journalists are increasingly vulnerable to attack in places where humanitarian reporting is desperately needed.

Since 1992, in fact, CPJ has documented 919 cases in which journalists were killed due to acts of violence. Of those, 70 per cent were murdered, 18 per cent caught in the crossfire during combat and 12 per cent killed by violence while on dangerous assignments.

Numerous national and global organizations (including CPJ, Reporters Sans Frontières and the International Federation of Journalists) campaign vigorously for press freedom and greater protection for journalists. Most offer training and guidelines for journalists on how to stay safe while on dangerous missions and they publicly push for prosecutions — even launching their own investigations — of crimes against media workers.

An emblem for the press?

Some press groups argue that it’s time for new, stronger protections — even a special press emblem — that would be codified by new provisions in international humanitarian law (IHL).

At an international conference for the protection of journalists in January, Murad al-Sharif, deputy secretary-general of the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC), reiterated his organization’s call for a new international convention to protect journalists.

“What’s essential today is to conclude a treaty that ensures media professionals around the world are treated fairly,” says al-Sharif, who advocates for a treaty that could provide a system for monitoring violations and prosecution of those who target journalists.

Because journalists often are obliged to put themselves in harm’s way to do their jobs, al-Sharif says they need special status and protection beyond what is already afforded to them as civilians under the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols (see sidebar). The PEC, created in 2004, also believes a special emblem for reporters could help reduce unintentional deaths of journalists during combat.

The call for a new convention is not universal, however. In fact, many media support groups and humanitarian organizations argue that what is needed is better enforcement of existing laws, not more laws.

For these advocates, a special status or protective category for journalists raises as many questions as would be solved by new treaty law. For example: Why just single out journalists? Many professionals, from sanitation engineers to medical doctors, carry out vital, life-saving work during conflict. Do they need special protection as well? And how do we decide who is a journalist, especially in this era when reporting is often done by ordinary citizens with a cell-phone camera?

The original authors of Protocol I had many of these questions in mind when they agreed that creating a special status for journalists could weaken the fundamental protections provided to all civilians. “Any increase in the number of persons with a special status, necessarily accompanied by an increase of protective signs, tends to weaken the protective value of each protected status already accepted,” according to an ICRC commentary on the discussions leading up to the 1977 protocol.

For the ICRC, which has long recognized the critical role the media play in exposing the brutal reality of war, the protection of journalists is part of its overall strategy to promote better compliance with existing protections for civilians under IHL.

One of the key objectives of ICRC’s Four-Year Action Plan for the implementation of international humanitarian law is to encourage governments to take concrete action to protect journalists. The suggested efforts range from enhanced military training to stronger legal remedies “to ensure that … violations do not go unpunished”.

Because prosecution for violations of IHL often occurs in military or civilian courts of countries who have signed the Geneva Conventions, many legal experts say strengthening national legal systems is a critical part of ending the impunity that killers of journalists have generally enjoyed (see page 1).

Staying alive

The real challenge, however, is to prevent the killing of journalists in the first place. For this reason, the ICRC offers a variety of services for journalists working in danger zones. Since 1985, it has provided a hotline for reporters, news organizations and the family of journalists who are in trouble.

The organization has also intervened on behalf of reporters who are trapped, detained, kidnapped or injured. Most recently, the ICRC served as a neutral intermediary between warring parties in the safe return on 30 May of Roméo Langlois, a journalist for the television network France 24, who was captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in late April.

When journalists are killed during fighting, Movement actors often help to recover and return their remains. The ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, for example, were involved in repatriating the bodies of American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, both killed during the bombardment of Homs, Syria in February 2012.

In addition, the ICRC and some Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies, offer dozens of IHL training sessions each year for journalists on how to handle concrete events that happen during conflict.

This year, the ICRC also intends to release a new audiovisual training tool that, combined with training from ICRC staff, is designed to help journalists better describe what they are witnessing, understand when the law is being violated or upheld and learn how IHL protects their safety.

“The idea is not to turn the journalists into lawyers,” says Dorothea Krimitsas, ICRC’s deputy head of public relations who manages the journalists’ hotline and efforts to bring IHL training to journalists. “The idea is to help them find the references they need to navigate the intricacies of international humanitarian law.”

The humanitarian angle

This type of training can have a direct and important impact on how news is reported during warfare, says Tania Mehanna, a veteran reporter who has covered many international conflicts for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. She has also attended several ICRC workshops on IHL and journalism.

During her coverage of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, for example, she was often confronted with tough choices. One of the questions that came up during each of those conflicts was how certain weapons — including cluster bombs and incendiary agents such as napalm and white phosphorous — were being used.

“When you report on prohibited weapons or those that are allowed, but only under certain circumstances, this kind of information can be very helpful when you write your story,” says Mehanna.

“You have to be careful,” she adds. “You have to know for sure whether particular weapons have in fact been used because whatever you say is going to be taken very seriously. Later on, if there are international trials or tribunals, these stories could be used by the prosecution or the defendant.”

For journalists in countries such as Somalia, this type of professional training is sorely needed, says Somali journalist Mohamed Ibrahim. “Most journalists here are young people who make very little money — not even enough to take care of their daily needs,” he says. “And because there has been two decades of war, there aren’t any journalism schools or institutes. So most of the Somali journalists are not aware of how international law, or the norms of Geneva Conventions, relate to reporting the conflict.”

Raising professional standards and ethics — fostering the notion that journalists are independent and not taking sides in politics or the conflict — is another step that can help make journalism a safer career choice in Somalia, he says.

In places such as Somalia, Ibrahim says journalists often report on issues related to international humanitarian law, whether they intend to or not. A better understanding of both humanitarian and journalistic principles, Ibrahim says, could not only help save the lives of journalists — but also help them get the story out about other vulnerable people affected by conflict and natural disaster.

“During the drought, Somali journalists here have really done a lot, they have really done their best,” says Ibrahim. “But they need to increase their skills so they know better how to cope with reporting within this very difficult and dangerous humanitarian situation.”

The sole survivor of a massacre finds his home in ruins after the Bosnian army recaptured his village from Serb forces in the fall of 1995. He is standing on what is believed to be a mass grave of sixty-nine people, including his family.
Photo: ©Rob Haviv/VII



In 2011, journalists including Ron Haviv found numerous bodies in a Tripoli hospital where executions appeared to have taken place. Photo: ©Ron Haviv/VII

Witness to war crimes

The images of photographers such as Ron Haviv are often about giving a voice to the voiceless and bearing witness. In Bosnia, when accompanying Serbian paramilitary forces in 1992, Haviv documented the execution of Bosnian civilians in what would later become known as ‘ethnic cleansing’. More recently in DRC, he documented attempts by warring parties to displace populations and control access to food and medicine. In a recent interview, Haviv spoke about how journalism can help expose violations of humanitarian law.

When you witness an atrocity such as an execution, what’s going through your mind?
The first thing I’m thinking about is: is there anything I can do to stop this from happening? Often, just my presence somewhere has changed the dynamic. Because there is a witness, there is a non-local.

But it is very precarious. On a few occasions, a killing happened in front of me and I wasn’t able to stop it and I was also not allowed to take any photographs. So there was no actual evidence. So I promised myself that if I were in the same situation again and I wasn’t able to stop it from happening, I needed to be able to come out with some sort of photograph as evidence. That way, at the very least, the people don’t die in vain.

Did the photos of the executions have an effect?
The photographs were published in many magazines
before the first shot was even fired in Sarajevo and I was very confident that this was evidence of the kind of ethnic cleansing that everybody had been talking about and that the international community would react. But, at first, the photographs did nothing. They eventually became adopted by the Bosnian causes to motivate people to join their cause, as a kind of propaganda. Eventually, they were used in The Hague to issue indictments for various people involved in war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

During your recent coverage of the war in Libya, you and others took compelling photos of a hospital in Tripoli where there were signs that people had been bound and executed.
Executions were taking place by Gaddafi loyalists against the rebels. But at the same time, it was very apparent that Gaddafi loyalists were being executed by the rebels as well. Coming across these scenes, it was incredibly important, first, that it be known and second, that other organizations knew where to go to begin their own investigations. For reconciliation to occur, people need to understand what happened during the transition.


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