Safety of Journalists

The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Barometer proves that countries involved in violent conflict are dangerous places for media professionals – with 37 journalists killed in Iraq since the beginning of 2006, 3 in Sri Lanka and Colombia, 2 in Afghanistan. But also the figures from countries like Mexico (7 deaths), Russia (3) the Philippines (2) and China (2) show that the lives of journalists are threatened even in states that do not have discernible war zones.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently published details about 580 journalists that were killed in the line of duty worldwide between January 1992 and August 2006. According to these data, 71,4% were murdered, 18,4% died in crossfire or in combat-related circumstances and 10% during other dangerous assignments. Print reporters face the greatest risk of death, except in few parts of the world like the Philippines and India where radio journalists and TV reporters have a higher risk of being killed.

Status of journalists and war correspondents in case of conflict

“Journalist deaths typically spike in times of war, from about 26 in years without major conflict to roughly 46 in years of significant warfare. Several of the deadliest countries for journalists – Iraq, Algeria, Colombia, and Bosnia, for example – reflect the wars that have endangered all citizens.”

In times of violent conflict, the dangers journalists are exposed to are more imminent than in ordinary times. Independent, precise and professional information is particularly vital under these circumstances. 137 journalists and media staff have been killed since the beginning of the Iraq war, which is the deadliest conflict for media professionals since the Second World War. Recent conflicts in Lebanon or in Somalia have shown that, once more, journalists working in conflict zones are particularly vulnerable, despite the fact that “attacks against journalists and media equipment are illegal under international humanitarian law, which protects civilian persons and objects, as long as they are not making an effective contribution to military action.”

Even though media professionals working in conflict zones have the status of civilians, this status and thus international humanitarian law is less and less respected by some belligerents. According to the analysis carried out by CPJ, journalists working in war zones (especially local reporters) are usually not killed by an errant bullet. In fact, they are usually murdered. Crossfire in combat is just the second-leading cause of deaths, although it is the major cause of international journalists’ deaths.

Since journalists and war correspondents covering conflicts do not receive a full safety guarantee by the belligerents, it is the responsibility of the media institution that sends them into conflict zones to limit the risks and to provide protection, basic guaranties and, if necessary, compensation – no matter if they are salaried or freelancers, local or international journalists. Protection should in no case constitute an embedding by military forces – as it was the case during the Iraq war – or by governmental authorities. Instead, military forces should be informed about the rights of journalists in conflict zones. “In 2005, CPJ and Human Rights Watch urged U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to take basic steps to improve safety at military checkpoints in Iraq. The recommendations, many echoed by rank-and-file military officials, called for the use of non-lethal measures such as spike strips to disable vehicles; the use of international symbols to warn drivers; and the use of warning lights. Military forces must be willing to investigate journalist killings, even when they are unintentional.”

Vulnerability of local journalists

Of all journalists working in dangerous situations, local reporters run the greatest risk of becoming victims of violence. According to the CPJ analysis, 85 % of all journalists killed were not foreign correspondents working in war zones, but local journalists doing their work. They were typically murdered “not on assignment, but in their offices, on their commutes, or in their homes. Nine out of 10 murders, CPJ found, had the hallmarks of premeditation such as careful planning, groups of assailants, and gangland style executions.” In conflict zones and countries where press freedom is not sufficiently valued, journalists become targets of rebel groups, militias, drug traffickers, extremists or corrupt politicians. While international journalists are often heavily equipped and protected, local journalists usually do not have the means to protect themselves sufficiently. One of the objectives of every safety strategy should be the provision of safety training for local journalists and the development of international norms for safety training and equipment.

Criminal organisations, corruption and investigative journalism

“However professionally and accurately information is processed, corruption will continue to thrive without the vigilance of the media and civil society, and the bravery of investigative journalists and whistleblowers in particular.”

Assuring the right of press freedom should be a priority for every government worldwide. All too often, journalists do not have the independence they would need to reveal corruption or misuse of power, to denounce attacks on human rights and to facilitate an open dialogue between the state and civil society. The measures taken by different governments in order to control – directly or indirectly – the media differ in motivations yet share the same threat to democratic process. Again, the CPJ analysis confirms this assumption: almost one-quarter of all journalists killed over the past 15 years covered political topics, one fifth aimed at exposing corruption.

It is vital to stress the importance of free access to information and press freedom in the struggle against corruption and for the promotion of good governance of public life.

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