Journalists in Conflict

Journalists in Conflict

15 November 2022 ~

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) exists to minimize human suffering and to protect civilians and former combatants no longer participating in conflict – such as prisoners of war. IHL also works to protect journalists in conflict, and includes specific policies that make threatening, harming, and killing journalists and humanitarian workers, a war crime. Yet, despite the laws protecting professionals, some countries, and their representatives, take actions that cause harm and death – often with impunity.

In 2012, Marie Colvin, a journalist covering the siege of Homs Syria, and photojournalist Rémi Ochlik, were killed by the Syrian government, which had discovered Colvin and Ochlik’s location by tracking their coordinates from their electronic devices. (A few years later, my own team, as well as several Doctors Without Borders, and International Red Cross teams, were also tracked and targeted in the same manner in Yemen.)

Determined to hold those accountable who threaten, harm, or kill journalists, and humanitarian workers, in July 2013, the UN Security Council held discussions regarding the protection of journalists. Resolution 1738 condemned all attacks and violence – including intimidation and harassment, torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detention.

Further, Resolution 1738 urged all member states to commit to preventing violence against journalists and media workers and to conduct thorough and speedy investigations to hold the perpetrators accountable. The resolution concluded that “the deliberate targeting of civilians and other protected persons, and the commission of systematic, flagrant and widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in situations of armed conflict may constitute a threat to international peace and security,” – in short… it is a war crime to kill journalists.

But even with UN Resolution 1738 in place and the Additional Protocols, the next year (2014), correspondents James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Haruna Yukawa, Kenji Goto, and humanitarian aid workers David Haines, Alan Henning, and Peter Kassig – were detained, tortured, and executed (beheaded) by ISIS while working in Syria. Each person’s murder was filmed and posted online.

Still yet, even ISIS can be held accountable. Four of the militants who participated in the abduction and murder of the journalists and humanitarian workers have been found guilty and are in jail or have been killed. One member, El Shafee Elsheikh was found guilty in US District Court in Alexandria in April 2022. In August 2022, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Marie Colvin’s family attorneys filed suit against the Syrian Arab Republic, claiming that the government ordered her assassination. In 2019, the US District Court in Washington, DC found Syria guilty. Judge Amy Jackson stated that Colvin was “specifically targeted because of her profession, for the purpose of silencing those reporting on the growing opposition of the country. The murder of journalists acting in their professional capacity could have a chilling effect on reporting such events worldwide.” Judge Jackson went on to say, “A targeted murder of an American citizen, whose courageous work was not only important but vital to our understanding of war zones and of wars.”

The world watched in outrage, disbelief, and sadness at the events that have transpired in Israel in May after Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran journalist for Al Jazeera, was killed while she was reporting in the West Bank at the Jenin refugee camp. It is believed that she was killed by Israel Defense Forces (IDF). , even as she and her team all donned blue helmets and vests clearly marked “PRESS”. Reports, witness statements, video, and audio from the scene indicate that Abu Akleh and her team were deliberately targeted. Israel continues to emphatically reject this allegation.

But Israel’s culpability is not minor. Since 2001, the country has been involved, in one way or another, in the deaths of fifty correspondents: and the injury of 144 journalists, since 2018.

Another consideration… Abu Akleh is a US citizen and under 18 US Code 2441 (also known as the War Crimes Act of 1996), as well as the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the Additional Protocols of 1977, Rule 34, applying to Journalists – her death constitutes a war crime.

To further add to the trauma, Israeli police attacked mourners during the funeral procession, they said, because the mourners were carrying Palestinian flags and the coffin was also draped in the flag, which is forbidden in East Jerusalem. The police reacted with such force that the pallbearers struggled to hold her coffin, nearly dropping it.

Over the course of the last few months, the IDF concluded that there was a possibility that Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by unintentional fire by IDF agents, contrary to its initial report denying any possibility one of the agents killed the journalist. But there has to be accountability, even for Israel.

After global outrage and multiple appeals by Shireen Abu Akleh’s family, the Justice Department opened an investigation in November 2022. Israel has said it will not cooperate and that it will not allow an external investigation into its own affairs.

Holding those accountable for Shireen Abu Akleh’s death must be a priority. At a time when journalists are frequently attacked, abducted, and killed, upholding the standards of International Humanitarian Law, and punishing the perpetrators sends two messages: Facts Matter, and Journalists are not Targets. #ThinkingOutLoud #JournalistsNotATarget #IHL #Gaza #Syria

With gratitude… Lara

Image: Shireen Abu Akleh by Al Jazeera Media Network


  1. Journalists… Humanitarian Workers… Civilians… #IHL covers us all and targeting any (or all) is a crime. Whoever is responsible here – there has to be accountability.

  2. This one hit close to home. As someone who has been wounded while serving humanity, it is disturbing that humanitarians and journalists, and others cannot do their jobs without being targeted. Accountability is the standard. – JN

  3. All of these cases should be turned over to the ICJ or the ICC. They should be investigated without compromise, and they should be prosecuted. That is what the courts were created for after all. And if there is a guilty verdict, the perpetrators should go to prison… without impunity.

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