Human Rights Monitor
International Humanitarian Law and press
Julhas Alam with Samaha M Karim
This is not an irrational question at all: Why does a journalist need to know about law? Being journalists, especially at the time of complexity through which the world is going on, the matter has come to our minds very pertinently. When it comes to the International Humanitarian Law (IHL), a reporter who is interested to cover conflict must have a good idea about the rules of warfare. Why? Because journalists, who are deployed to cover war, are the “soldiers of the press”.
Kent Cooper, General Manager of the New York-based news agency the Associated Press (AP), used the term “soldiers of the press” in 1943 in an address to the AP Board of Directors to pay tribute to all who were then covering the World War II when Hitler stepped out on the road to ruin.
And war is all about chaos, killing, rape, destruction, and, of course, the presence of the “soldiers of the press” on the ground, no matter whatever the causes.
In this modern age of chaos and brutality, understanding the IHL and keeping it in mind under fire is not a luxury.
Being the prime advocate of promoting IHL and spreading knowledge among the journalists, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has put it this way:
"Whether IHL is respected or violated is an important part of the story in contemporary armed conflicts. Violations of the laws are often at the origin of humanitarian and political crises. When combatants break the laws it can affect the success of their mission. It is increasingly likely that alleged war criminals will be prosecuted and it is important to understand the legal background to such proceedings when reporting on them."
"Understanding what certain actions and events mean in IHL terms will generate more quality war reporting. It will help journalists to ask pertinent questions, look at interesting angles, investigate the story behind the story, and feed the debate on the rights and obligations of the different actors in the field and beyond."
"Quality reporting from an IHL angle can make a difference. It can influence policy and decision-making as well as behaviours, i.e., increase the "will" to abide by the law, to fight impunity, to protect civilians."
While IHL mainly focuses on protection of civilians in conflict situations and puts limitations on the means and methods of warfare, it is also important for the journalists on the ground to be aware of dos and don'ts, no matter one is embedded or working independently. It is important because it is related to a war reporter's personal safety: whether he will be treated as a civilian or not during his assignment in a dangerous situation.
In a recent workshop by the ICRC some two dozen journalists from newspapers, news agencies and television channels get that important message: in reporting armed conflicts it is important for the journalists to know the rules of war.
Surinder Singh Oberoi, a former journalist and now the Communication Officer, ICRC, said: Had he known the law, namely the IHL, he would have been able to write better and his contribution would have been far more effective during his days in the profession.
He believes it is of crucial importance that journalists have some knowledge of the law.
For Bangladeshi journalists it was a great experience especially who are currently involved in global news organizations such as the AP. When it comes to broadcast journalism the knowledge of IHL is a must.
This is a brutal reality that people are dying in war across the globe in this 21st century and everything is getting more and more complex. In this South Asian region, conflict is a reality be it Kashmir, war on terror, Talibanism or crisis in Sri Lanka. Conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is a past but civil disturbance can flare up anywhere in Asia or beyond, and Bangladeshi media will need to deploy their own people there for raw details. Bangladeshi media's presence is now very small in the conflict-ridden areas but being part of that to bring news and photos directly from the scene would be a reality soon to satisfy the audience.
The IHL, in layman terms, the rules of war, has become of great significance to those residing in a region of conflict and also those reporting armed conflicts.
In the two-day workshop on “Situation of Armed Violence-Emerging Challenges, Role and Responsibilities of Media” held on August 22-23, 2008 at the BRAC BCDM, Gazipur, Philippe Stoll, Communication Coordinator of the ICRC, explained some of the essential rules of the IHL.
* One being 'limitation', the IHL states that injuring the enemy is not unlimited, there ought to be a limit to the amount of harm inflicted on the enemy/combatants.
* Another rule signifies 'proportionality'. This is basically that the means and methods of warfare must not be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.
* Concerning a major fundamental right - 'humanity' is another rule. This includes freedom from torture, degrading and inhuman behaviours. One may not inflict unnecessary suffering on another. One may not kill an individual who is unarmed or no longer actively involved in the hostilities and civilians.
* Another essential rule of the IHL is 'distinction'. It is important to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Another distinction is required to be made between the military objective and the civilian objects.
* The IHL also provides a framework for 'military necessity'. This allows a proportionate use of force in making an enemy submit, however it does not permit military necessity as an excuse for inhuman conduct and does not justify acts prohibited by the law. The IHL seeks to provide a balance between humanity and military necessity.
The IHL is applicable in two situations, in International armed conflicts and non-international armed conflicts. The Additional Protocol II applies in these circumstances providing protection of civilians.
Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions prohibits violence against civilians in conflicts “not of an international character” and expands the explicit prohibitions to include forcible displacement (Article 17) as well as “acts or threats of violence, the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population” (Article 13). In recent times observance to the Geneva Conventions is universal.
Humanitarian organizations, as the ICRC, and journalists have certain moral obligations in common. They work as the voice of the victims to the authorities/powers. Persons working in these fields work to promote humanity and protection of the civilian population. In carrying out their tasks the common qualities they must convey are neutrality and impartially.
However, there are certain problems being faced, even though they are neutral, they are becoming the target. In recent times there has been increasing news of journalists being battered and killed. The emblem of the Red Cross used fraudulently in illegal activities hampering the universal neutrality and trust they represent.
The ICRC has showed interests to launch training programme for journalists through practical demonstration in the area of war reporting. That would be a great scope as knowledge about law only cannot equip adequately somebody to work on the ground in a dangerous condition. That can be a step forward for quality journalism, war journalism.
Julhas Alam is Correspondent of the Associated Press (AP), based in Dhaka and Samaha M Karim is working with Law Desk.