Media and War: A Tangled Relationship?

18 July 2007  |CCJD  |by: Red Batario

International Conference on ‘Humanity in War’

17-18 July 2007

PJ Hilton,Petaling Jaya,Malaysia


The Press: Roles and Responsibilities in Conflict Situations


Let me begin with a quote from the People on War Report of the ICRC worldwide consultation on the rules of war.  The consultation was held in 1999 but its findings still hold true today, an age marked by increasing conflict and violence that threatens lives, ways of life, and our very own humanity.

“My mother and everyone who stayed in Sarajevo was a soldier.  My opinion is that soldiers were all civilians who stayed in Bosnia—the children…the journalists who tried to explain to the world what was going on.  They are all soldiers,” a young Bosnian man told his interviewers.

It was a very telling description of a war fought outside traditional battlefields where frontlines are clearly demarcated and combatants easily identifiable.  It is the kind of war that blurs the lines between civilians and armed belligerents.  It is the kind of war that knows no boundaries.  It is the kind of war that now plagues our world.

War has always been a terrible and often confusing phenomenon. It is emotionally charged and journalists who cover it are subject to strong feelings just like everybody else.  The situation becomes even more complex and highly sensitive when journalists are reporting from a country that is at war with their own.

War and the news media feed on each other.  On the one hand, you have journalists scrambling for the STORY since war is always sexy, making for dramatic front page material and compelling video and on the other you have the belligerents wanting to tell the story their way.

So the inevitable question must then be asked: When the first shots are fired does the truth also become the first casualty of war?     

Accusations that the news media often had not fulfilled its role as an impartial recorder and reporter of a conflict are not entirely off the mark.  We have even seen on television extremes of press behaviour in conflict situations such as Bosnia and Iraq: some reporters and camera persons toting automatic rifles, and hate speech given prominence in some instances. There are examples of the news media propagating patriotic rhetoric as fighting between armed forces escalated in regions of conflict.

Competing sides will always try to take advantage of the presence of the news media in an area of conflict and both will manipulate journalists to hide atrocities, demonize the other side, or keep people in the dark about the stark realities of war such as the increasing death toll among soldiers and civilians alike.

Journalists in war situations are under tremendous pressures from their news rooms, their competitors, and the parties to the conflict. Day in and day out, they have to get their facts right, get these quickly to the wires or the airwaves before anyone else does, and get out alive.  This exacerbates the practice of shorthand journalism, the inevitable offshoot of the demands of today’s market-driven media and the need for speed, the need for real-time, real-world reporting.

But the news media and journalists can begin to examine more closely their role in providing the public a better understanding of the implications of war on their day-to-day lives, how they can cope and how conflict can be resolved despite the constraints earlier cited.

“In order to cover war, it is important to understand the nature of conflict.  This means breaking out of the confines of day-to-day coverage and making an effort to comprehend what drives conflict, and what the resolution of conflict really means,” said the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in its Handbook for Local Journalists in Crisis Areas.  

The IWPR also said that conflict can be resolved peacefully although rather rarely easily.  “Violent conflict is not inevitable; it happens for a reason and is driven by people; the primary source of conflict is scarce resources, where power and wealth are unevenly distributed or where there is a long history of grievances and antagonism.  The responsibility of a journalist covering conflict also involves understanding the meaning of violence.”

There is an ongoing debate among journalists as to the goal of war reporting.  Some argue rather compellingly that confronted with cases of genocide such as what had happened in Rwanda and Somalia, reporters will have to take the side of the disadvantaged.   Others say that journalists should frame their stories in the context of ordinary people not involved in the conflict or associated with any of the belligerent parties that could result in a dramatic telling of what war can do to everyone.

There are no hard and fast rules.  But journalists can try to suspend their cynicism even given the reality that war reporting demands that they predict the outcome and that the more pessimistic accounts get the best play on the evening news.  What is truly important to bear in mind is that by striving to explain the complexity of war and conflict, journalists can elevate their reporting to a higher level that can contribute to a more informed public debate on how conflicts can be resolved and future wars prevented. 

Examining deeply, for example, the bombing of a mosque or a hospital where injured combatants and civilians are taking shelter, as clear violations of the Geneva Conventions and humanitarian law, can lead to a story promoting a better understanding of the conflict and its implications for human rights and a speedy resolution of the conflict.

In an extract from the International Review of the Red Cross in 1983, Alan Modoux, head of the ICRC Information Department, wrote: “Let us not forget that under Article 85 of Protocol I, the most serious of these violations are considered as war crimes.  Whenever journalists witness such violations, it is therefore their duty to report them.  I am convinced that public opinion, conditioned by the media, is an excellent means of bringing pressure to bear on belligerents and is capable of favourably modifying the attitude of combatants to victims protected by humanitarian law.”

The IWPR believes that “reporting in a conflict area begins with the fundamental question of how a conflict is framed.  Short-hand references are inevitable in journalism.  But simplistic use of ethnic or religious identification, or open use of concepts of ‘us and them,’ can be highly provocative.  In war reporting, such abbreviated terminology, thoughtlessly used, can contribute to a sense of polarization suggesting that conflict is inevitable.”

The news media can explore new approaches to journalism when covering wars like searching for alternative voices, focusing on commonalities of purpose and agreements rather than areas of disagreements, and giving more prominence to significant developments away from the arena of conflict such as initiatives for peace building.

Going back to the basics also should serve as a constant reminder.  Responsible practice of the craft demands that journalists must not in any instance use language that dehumanizes people, incite others to violence or promote hate speech in their accounts of unfolding crises.  In fact, even international war crimes tribunals have discussed the issue of whether to prosecute for war crimes news media that directly contribute to the promotion and use of violence.

As the news media may be confronted with war situations in which their countries of residence are parties, the prohibition of war propaganda is of critical importance.  Article 20.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides for the incorporation of this standard into domestic law.

The Article states that “any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law…the responsibility of the media implies the assessment whether their contents respect this prohibition if incorporated in domestic law, or alternatively, whether they assist this incorporation through their performance.” 

The Press and International Law

Over the last 10 years more than 1,000 journalists and media staff worldwide have been killed in the line of duty.  In many parts of the globe, like Iraq, Colombia, and the Philippines, coping with threats, harassment, intimidation or worse, has become part of the journalist’s job description.

As modern warfare, terrorism and crime follow different patterns, journalists reporting these conflicts and events are ever more at risk of being caught in a cross-fire or taken hostage.  The free flow of information, on which enlightened governments and peoples depend, suffer.  Violent attacks on journalists tend to have a chilling effect.  Attacks hamper the journalist’s ability to probe deeply and report accurately thus depriving the public of its right to know. 

Because of the demands and nature of their work, journalists are lumped under an ill-defined category of people who either closely follow or “embed” with armed forces without necessarily being part of these forces.  Journalists operating with military units in the frontlines run the risk of getting hurt or killed by the attack of an opposing armed force or by so-called “friendly fire.”  The law offers no protection because artillery shells do not discriminate between a reporter and a soldier.

Journalists may lose not their right to protection as civilians but de facto protection if they stay too close to a military unit in an operational area.

A journalist on a dangerous professional assignment in a conflict area is a civilian and is entitled to all rights granted civilians per se.  The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the two Additional Protocols of 1977 guarantee these rights provided the journalist “does not undertake any action which could jeopardize his civilian status.”

As civilians, journalists do not enjoy special status apart from those provided by law respecting and protecting the rights of civilian populations.  Under the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, “civilians are protected from harm.  Additional Protocol I, for example, states that in order to ensure respect for, and protection of, the civilian population and civilian property, those fighting must at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian property and military objectives.”[1]       

Knowing the law may sometimes spell the difference between getting killed and staying alive. Surviving and effectively working in a conflict area depends to a large extent on journalists’ knowledge and understanding of how the law protects them and victims of conflict or when the law is being violated.

International humanitarian law, developed to protect in times of conflict persons who do not take part in the hostilities and to limit violence in achieving military gains, exists in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 and other related conventions and treaties.

David Lloyd Roberts, in his book Safety and Security Guidelines for Humanitarian Volunteers in Conflict Areas wrote: “The statute of the International Criminal Court makes it a war crime to carry out intentional attacks against the civilian population or against individual civilians not taking a direct part in hostilities.”

With the world increasingly becoming more dangerous for journalists and access to conflict zones increasingly denied the media for independent reporting, and with the news media itself under siege for failing to live up to the true purpose of journalism…millions of people around the world, theoretically protected by the Geneva Conventions and International Humanitarian law, are slowly being abandoned to the mercy of belligerents who can act with impunity in the absence of independent witnesses like the press.

It is a challenge that not only the press but all of us should meet head on…not tomorrow or the day after but today.


*Red Batario is the Regional Coordinator for Southeast Asia of the International News Safety Institute (INSI), a Brussels-based non-profit, non-political coalition of news organizations, press freedom groups, media associations, and individual journalists concerned with the safety and protection of journalists worldwide.

A journalist for over 30 years, he is also the Executive Director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD), a non-profit, non-government media organization that serves as a capacity development and advocacy facility for journalists working with citizens, communities and institutions for social change through engaged journalism.

[1] Article 48; also refer to Articles 17 and 51 of Additional Protocol 1, ICRC Handbook for Humanitarian.