June 4, 2010 - Updated on January 25, 2016

Panel on protection of journalists in armed conflict

Verbal statement – George Gordon-Lennox, Reporters Without Borders

Mr. Chairman,

We at Reporters Without Borders share the concern about war reporters and their ability to operate that has already been expressed in the course of this debate. Dozens of journalists are killed each year in war zones.

Concern is growing because journalists are being targeted more and more. Our international president, Gérald Sapey, who has headed well-known print and broadcast media in Switzerland, can confirm to you that 20 years ago, war reporters risked being killed by a shell or stray bullet, but now they are being directly targeted, now they risk murder or abduction.

This is due to a change in the nature of wars. Twenty years ago, there were traditional wars between “professional” armies with a known front line. Nowadays, there are many belligerents, who are not always identified, and the front line is moving and often undefined. In Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, journalists are above all regarded as spies to be eliminated or as bargaining chips. Respect for journalists as neutral and independent observers no longer exists. For Afghan, Iraqi or Somali insurgents, the journalist is above all a foreigner who supports his government.

We are also concerned about kidnapping and hostage taking. Much has been said about killings, but there is also a need for structures and mechanisms that can be quickly activated when journalists are taken hostage. They do not exist. Reporters Without Borders is ready to volunteer its services in the management of such a project.

As a result of all of this, there are fewer and fewer war reporters and entire regions (Somalia, Gaza Strip, Democratic Republic of Congo and southern Afghanistan) are no longer sufficiently covered.

We must also continue to be vigilant about the phenomenon of embedding. This is tending to become the rule rather than the exception. Nowadays, some armed forces no long want to talk to journalists if they are not embedded. This is particularly so with the US and Israeli armed forces.

Journalists need to know more about how soldiers operate, just as soldiers need to know more about how journalists operate. Military service is gradually disappearing and young journalists covering war zones have often had no previous contact with soldiers. Relations can be fraught because the journalists know nothing of the military’s operational methods and chain of command.

The French military organise training sessions that enable young reporters and soldiers to get to know each other a bit better and be less suspicious of each other. It is an experiment that has worked and could be adopted more widely under the aegis of the United Nations. The UN could hold training sessions to increase awareness of the work of journalists in war zones. Several armies do it already. So do private sector companies. It could be interesting to have a more international approach.

At a more institutional level, real efforts are needed to monitor and promote implementation of Security Council Resolution 1738, which says journalists in war zones must be recognised as civilians and, as such, must be respected and protected. There is not enough awareness of this resolution, even on the part of senior UN officials!

This raises questions about the UN’s ability to make any significant effort to challenge and condemn the states responsible for this situation. A code of silence, sham investigations and a failure to prosecute suspects are the main characteristics of this impunity, which just strengthens the ability of belligerents to ignore international law, including the Geneva Conventions.

Reporters Without Borders thinks this situation is eroding the moral authority of the rules and regulations that have been established and is undermining belief in the ability to enforce international law. The need is therefore greater than ever to remind everyone of the principles that governed this resolution’s adoption in New York in 2006 and to call on protagonists to respect them. We think this is the way to go, rather trying to get the international community to adopt new rules.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.