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Guest Post: UNSC Debate on the Protection of Journalists in Armed Conflict

July 16, 2013

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Julia Trehu is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

On Wednesday, July 17, the United States Mission to the United Nations (UN), which holds the UN Security Council (UNSC) presidency, will host an open debate in the council chamber on the protection of journalists in armed conflict. Chaired by UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, participants in the open debate will include NBC’s Richard Engel, Somali journalist Mustafa Haji Abdinur of Radio Simba and Agence France Presse, Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad of the Guardian, and Kathleen Carroll, Associated Press executive editor and vice chair of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

This topic was last considered by the council in 2006 when it ratified Resolution 1738, which condemned intentional attacks against journalists. However, violence against journalists has worsened since 2006. The number of journalists imprisoned has increased steadily since 2006, from 134 to 232 in 2012, the highest recorded since 2006, and murders has increased from 71 to 121. It was not until last year that the UN Plan of Action on the safety of journalists (PDF) was completed and endorsed by the UN Chief Executives Board. The plan has since facilitated country-specific projects in South Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nepal, and Honduras, in addition to the renewal of projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia that are intended to enhance protection.

The UNSC categorizes journalists as civilians under the Geneva Conventions, and therefore affords them the same protection in the context of armed conflict. Unfortunately, a culture of impunity persists, resulting in a debate as to whether categorization of journalists as civilians under international law is sufficient or if journalists should be categorized separately in order to combat impunity and address additional threats, such as political prosecution and threats to life, that journalists face when immersed in the heart of a conflict.

The rise of real-time reporting, particularly through social media outlets, is now an intrinsic component of modern journalism as technological advances have allowed civilians to immediately and directly relay their experiences to a global audience. As a result, the categorization of bloggers, social media users, and traditional journalists is increasingly indistinct. Policymakers continue to debate whether it would be beneficial or detrimental to categorize traditional journalists and civilian “reporters” separately. Civilian reports through social media, or “iReports,” a term coined by CNN but now used generally for “citizen reporting,” are valuable means for communicating fear, as individuals in remote areas can immediately relay images and perceptions of their firsthand experiences. Civilian reporting is particularly pertinent in areas of chronic conflict, which may be formally recognized as a war, such as the civil war in Syria, or may not be, such as cases in which non-state actors are perpetuators of violence. In the latter situation, legal protections for both traditional and civilian journalists are unclear or, in some cases, nonexistent. These unofficial sources provide vital information to the public and media outlets, but a question remains as to whether media companies that utilize civilian reports have legal obligations to provide protection equal to that of their employees.

Debate aside, there is wide agreement regarding certain elements of policies to address the protection of journalists, particularly the need to curb impunity and strengthen prevention. More specifically, journalists with firsthand experience and policymakers have both cited a need for quality first aid and safety training, research on the psychological effects of exposure to chronic conflict on traditional and civilian journalists, and inclusion of a gender component in the discussion.

The reigniting of this initiative will highlight the fundamental importance of rights and protection for the individuals that relay vital information to the public from the frontlines of conflict.The U.S. Mission has expressed hope that this open debate will provide council members and all UN member states with an opportunity to hear firsthand accounts from journalists. The debate is scheduled for 10 a.m. and will be webcast live at: http://webtv.un.org.

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