By Thomas Sideris
There are some predictable truths of war. The most common is that old saying – the first casualty of war is the truth. The right to freedom of expression and information constitutes one of the essential foundations of democratic society. In conflict situations and wars, the role of the media is critical in providing the public with accurate and timely information. Trustworthy news and images can contribute to the protection of civilians and conflict prevention, bring to the attention of the international community the horrors and reality of conflict, and expose violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.
Consequently, the work of journalists in conflict zones is fraught with dangers: denial of access, censorship, harassment, arbitrary detention, and attacks are alarmingly frequent. As others who decide to work in conflict areas, journalists take consciously a special risk by working there. However, they are considered civilians and, as such, should not be targeted. Member states should recognize the crucial importance and role of journalism and the media – and ultimately individual journalists – in times of conflict and aggression. Safety of journalists in conflict areas is instrumental to that end.
Conflict situations are also often a fertile soil for mass disinformation campaigns intended to undermine the proper understanding of the developments, as well more generally, security, public order, and peaceful democratic processes. There is a vital need to develop tools to protect democracy more effectively from “information weapons”, while preserving freedom of expression and freedom of the media both in the countries involved in the conflict and more widely.
Ensuring Free Flow of Information from Conflict Zones
Press censorship ordinarily increases during wartime. At the same time the war may attract foreign journalists. The presence of international television coverage may have a distorting effect on the conduct of the parties and the possibility of engaging in human rights monitoring.
Whether human rights information can be regarded as reliable Human rights data can become suspect and/or less available because of its use as propaganda during periods of armed conflict or internal strife. For example, Amnesty International’s 1984 report of El Salvador observed, “The civil conflict also creates a context where allegations as to responsibility for violent deaths may also be expected to be manipulated by all sides for political ends. Furthermore, there is a considerable risk that much of the information gathered during periods of armed conflict may have been filtered through one party or another. Indeed, that party may have been publicizing the same information through other channels, such as the media. In such circumstances the credibility of the information may be doubted and may be seen as war propaganda.
Whether the common language is easily understood by foreigners so that information about human rights violations can be communicated. This factor will not be significantly affected by armed conflict; but if the language of the country is not ordinarily understood by foreigners such that the regular flow of information is feeble, armed conflict will diminish the information flow even further. Whether there exists a communication infrastructure linking the country to the outside world Normal means of communication may become difficult during periods of armed conflict and thus reduce sources of useful information.
During periods of armed conflict, it may be difficult to gain access to areas of active conflict. Travel in some areas may be hazardous without Government or opposition group assistance, which may in turn undermine the credibility of the monitoring exercise. Despite all the difficulties, human rights monitoring is possible during armed conflict situations — particularly if a more activist fact-gathering approach is used. Indeed, in some cases armed conflicts may make monitoring easier in drawing world attention to the situation. While specific information on the events in areas of conflict has been impeded by the fighting, the disruptions of war, and by the repression of domestic human rights monitoring organizations, the increased level of international attention has to some extent compensated for these impediments.
The Challenges of Conflict Reporting – When Injuries from Explosive Weapons Don’t Make the News
Example: injuries go unrecorded in Syria.
Since 2011, Syria has experienced the highest levels of civilian harm from explosive violence globally, with at least 5,134 incidents reported in English language media, leading to the death of 33,135 civilians, and the injury of 34,128.
Such figures, however, as with other Syrian casualty monitors, do not reflect the true reality of the harm that the civilians of Syria have faced.
Over the course of the conflict, has been witnessed a substantial decrease in the quantity and quality of media reporting. A paucity of journalists, the targeting of the media, conflict reporting fatigue, other news priorities, and the repetition of the same terrible news means that an untold number of those killed or injured have gone unreported. In this situation, the injured are less likely to be noted than the dead.
If we examine data for the years in which a full 12-months’ worth of recording has occurred since the war in Syria began, we find the ratio of civilian deaths to injuries recorded fluctuates. The data suggests that as the conflict got steadily worse the injured went unreported. Deaths accounted for 46% of total civilian casualties in 2012. By 2018 that figure had risen to 57%.
Simply put, as the fog of war descended on Syria, the injured became invisible.
Children. It is worth noting the impact of children being reported among casualties. When children are reported among the casualties, this increases the percentage of death recorded compared to injured. Over the last eight years, in incidents where children have not been reported among casualties, civilian deaths account for 32% of total civilian casualties. While when it is noted that children are among the casualties, civilian deaths account for 42%. This increases further when a figure is given for how many children are among the casualties; in these incidents, civilian deaths account for 44% of total civilian casualties.
There are a few explanations as to why this might be the case. Children are less likely to survive blast injuries, so if children are impacted, the fatality rate increases. Additionally, it has been observed that child casualties are more likely to be mentioned in high casualty incidents, when the injured are less likely to be recorded – such as a house being hit by an air strike. The average number of total casualties in incidents where child casualties are not mentioned is 13. In incidents where several child casualties are mentioned, the average number of casualties is 18.
Battlefields and Rebel Groups
Over the last decade, kidnapping by insurgency groups has become a major concern for journalists and their editors. The agendas of some insurgency groups are increasingly concealed, and they are difficult to trust, which makes certain conflicts harder to cover, especially for those working in foreign countries – the motives of insurgency groups could vary from political to financial, and as foreigners (sometimes from countries involved in the conflict) and/or representing profitable companies, journalists are high-value targets. One Norwegian journalist said: ‘I would’ve been more restrictive. You go in and you don’t have control. In some conflicts journalists are much more likely to be targets, but you also have to consider that the warfare has become more complex.’ One of the journalist informants, a Norwegian veteran, said that showing your press card or having PRESS spelled out on your flak jacket or the company vehicle no longer works as a white flag from an impartial actor, as it used to do. ‘I experienced this for the first time in the Balkans,’ he said. The complexity of the wars taking place in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s put journalists at risk in a way that he had not experienced before. Censorship regimes were implemented, and journalists were arrested. Since then, he said, media have regularly become targets and are not seen as independent. In 2009, the Norwegian freelance journalist and film director Pål Refsdal and his interpreter were kidnapped while in Afghanistan shooting a documentary entitled On the Other Side, about Taliban and their lives as fathers, sons, and brothers. Refsdal was accepted into a Taliban camp and stayed with them in combat for a time, but during the second visit he was captured, and a ransom was claimed for his release. Afghanistan is not the only place were getting the story from ‘the other side’ is becoming increasingly complicated. One of the Nigerian journalists covering Boko Haram in Nigeria commented that it is ever more difficult to understand what the group is fighting for.
He pointed to a lack of ‘rules of engagement’. He also said that they do not invite journalists to capture their side of the story anymore, and that this differs significantly from the Niger Delta militants who fought for resource control and the repair of their degraded environment because of the exploration for oil. The Niger Delta militants had given access to journalists to properly capture their side of the story. This journalist said that even though he is Muslim from Maiduguri, Borno State, he is not seeking to interview any member of Boko Haram, even if he is invited to do so. ‘I cannot trust people who are out to kill and destroy with no definite reason. Niger Delta militants had a vision with demands, but for Boko Haram, what do they want? If [it] is to Islamatise Nigeria, why are they also killing Muslim faithful?’
Covering the War Conflict – Some Tips
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entering its sixth month, the work of journalists continues to be instrumental in informing the world on alleged war crimes and civilian suffering. While covering the events in Ukraine – as well as other conflicts where journalists are at risk, from Afghanistan to Yemen – reporters need to know both hard safety skills and the complex ethical considerations unique to reporting on conflicts.
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 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 like 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 specify that journalists who are engaged in professional missions in areas of armed conflict must be considered as civilians and must be protected as such if 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 .
Covering armed groups
Whether embedded within a military unit or reporting in an area controlled by armed groups, knowing the relationship between these actors and journalists is the first thing any reporter should consider.
“We have to know that we are there for a different reason than the armed forces are. Working in the same place doesn’t put us in the same situation [as a soldier].”
While we are covering areas controlled by armed groups, it’s important for journalists to fully acknowledge their own identity in the context of the conflict. Anything from our nationality or ethnicity to what language or dialect we speak, to the publication or media house we’re reporting for, can have an effect on our relationship with military forces. These factors can influence what side of the conflict these armed forces believe we are on, and they can affect our safety. Our personal background can also influence how we view the conflict and the military’s role in it.
Ultimately, it’s up to journalists to do proper research on the political and societal situations going on in the areas they report in. Reporters should also become familiar with the armed group’s ideological background and the foreign support it receives, to both keep themselves safe and report fairly and accurately on the conflict.
Interviewing survivors of traumatic experiences is a delicate task for journalists. Reporters must ensure that the interview isn’t making their source experience any additional trauma. “Our responsibility is to, at least, don’t harm people”.
Having certain rules set before interviewing survivors is an important first step to minimizing harm. We approach survivors clearly, calmly, and tell them in advance that the interview will be published or broadcasted. We really have to say who we are, what we are doing there, because they are not obliged to answer us.
During an interview, we don’t ask questions such as “how do you feel?” that might be difficult or traumatizing for the interviewee to answer. Instead, we can begin by asking simple questions about facts, dates, and times, or about what they saw or heard. As your source becomes more comfortable, let them begin to open up on their own.
Journalists should also avoid promising their interview subjects anything. Instead, we can say that we’re going to write the story, and that we’re going to try to have it published – as even publication of a story is never certain.
To save or not?
In the midst of a conflict, there are situations where a reporter might be presented with the “save or not” dilemma, in which a civilian or fellow colleague is at risk nearby.
Three questions for journalists to consider if this occurs:
Are you yourself in danger?
Are there others able to help?
Can you cover what is happening and still help?
Ethically, it’s important for a journalist to ensure their own safety first. If others are available to help – soldiers or medical personnel, for instance – allow them to do so and continue reporting.
We have to save ourselves and then others.
Only if there is no present danger to us or others, and doing so doesn’t impact our coverage, should a journalist step in. This isn’t just a personal safety concern – risking our life means possibly losing important coverage of ongoing events or atrocities. The biggest help as a journalist is to be there and report – our presence is very, very important.
The publishing dilemma
There are times when publishing an interview or photos, or broadcasting footage might be ethically problematic. In these cases, it’s important to consider if publishing the story will be more detrimental than not publishing it. Content that glorifies violence – such as photos of clearly identifiable bodies, especially of enemy combatants – is one scenario in which a story or photo shouldn’t be published.
In instances when the decision to publish is more uncertain, I would suggest considering three considerations. The first is if the coverage is essential to the public. For example, during the assassination of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1981, a photo showing the gunmen at the time of the assassination provided important context and a snapshot of the moment to the public – context that could be achieved without showing Sadat’s body after his death.
Second, consider the harm survivors may experience if a story is published, especially if their identity is revealed. Journalists should have a clear justification for their publishing decision in the context of the conflict, and after considering fully the risk it might pose to igniting further violence.
Finally, for reporters covering conflicts around the world, understanding your responsibility and role as a journalist is paramount. My role is not to convince people, but to present as much as possible to let people know [what is happening].
At the same time there is the politics of justice. We are there not to make people cry about this conflict, you need people to know what to do, [how] to act, [and] what the situation is. We need to prove that there are people on the ground who are civilians who need to be protected.
Thomas Sideris is an investigative journalist and an award-winning director based in Greece. He is working at the Greek Broadcasting Corporation. Mr. Sideris was shortlisted for 2 years in a row (2018 and 2019) for the PRIX EUROPA PRIZE, a special EU prize for the best journalist in Europe.