Beware the Newest Growing
Casualty of War: Journalists
While a precarious ceasefire between Israelis and Palestinians hangs on the balance, there’s another tragic consequence among the conflict’s casualties: the breakdown of one of most basic precepts of modern warfare, that of the protected role of journalists covering the action.
Coinciding with claims that Israeli forces may have deliberately targeted alleged pro-Hamas reporters at a media center in Gaza, a new International Press Institute report puts at a record 119 the number of journalists killed around the world so far this year while doing their job.
Even though in every war, there’s a gray area intersecting the work of media-accredited reporters with that of P.R. professionals paid by one side or another, according to the Geneva Convention, all parts involved share responsibility over the lives of anyone covering an armed conflict.
Thus, any violation or deliberated attempt to restrict a reporter’s role during wartime is liable to internationally sanctioned punishment. The increased number of journalists being harmed, or even considered enemy combatants in contemporary warfare, should be cause for alarm to everyone who ultimately benefits from their courageous and often unfiltered coverage.
The convention was a civilized agreement, reached by almost all nations around the world in 1949, that aimed at both protecting the profession of war correspondent, and at establishing clear and humanitarian rules of warfare. Perhaps because much has changed since WWII, many governments took upon themselves to rewrite such rules, and the result has been disastrous.
SHOOTING THE MESSENGER
After its aircraft hit two Gaza media buildings on Sunday, wounding eight journalists, Israel first denied that they were the target. Then a military spokeswoman added a disturbing comment, saying that ‘the journalists … were serving as human shields for Hamas,’ which many took as a justification for the action.
It was all the more disturbing since last week, after three news organization employees were killed by Israeli missiles, the same spokesperson had said that ‘the targets are people who have relevance to terror activity,’ a wondrous sentence in its menacing vagueness.
In the 2008-2009 war against Hamas, Israel had already bombed the same buildings it blasted Sunday, under the assumption that Islamist militants were operating out of them. The viciousness of the most recent attacks bodes very poorly for Israel’s public image in the U.S., despite President Obama’s support to its actions.
Even though Israel can boast being one of the few countries in the region where there’s freedom of the press, the international community was aroused by how it chose to frame the argument: that the professionals that were wounded were in fact Hamas militants. That’s because whether they were or not is irrelevant in the context of the bigger issue.
NO EYEWITNESS CAN BE BLIND
The important distinction missing here is that journalists, while reporting for media organizations, have a commitment to be objective and present the facts with accuracy as they see them. Where their personal allegiances lie in the political spectrum should be irrelevant to the quality of their reporting.
Apart from that, they are also entitled to their own opinions, as citizens and eyewitnesses to the conflicts they’re assigned to cover. So it’s not that reporters are under strict obligation to be impartial about what they see. Often, the dept and nuance conveyed by a story is in direct proportion to how much we know about the writer’s own personal views.
In fact, it’s a marked characteristic of any garden-variety authoritarian regime to demand a hypocritical, absolute ‘exemption’ of personal opinions, from those assigned to tell the official version of the facts, preferred by its leaders. That’s when dangerous assumptions about what should be the ‘common good’ take root and fester.
The issue is a crucial one in these times of civil conflicts and undeclared cross-border battles. Frequently, whoever controls the narrative, gathers the most support from outside forces. And that’s what’s more troubling about the shooting of journalists, who by definition, do not carry weapons, and even when embedded with one side, should have no stated allegiance to either.
If an entire army allows itself to target for killing its enemy’s P.R. machine, in a personalized, methodical way, it’s technically perfectly capable of targeting also its own information corps. And that’s when freedom of information ends, and coercion by the powerful starts. Since there’s no democracy without a free press, you may go ahead and complete the rationale on your own.
THE INFORMED & THE UNARMED
There was a sobering feeling permeating the Committee to Protect Journalist‘s annual black-tie dinner, last Tuesday at New York’s Waldorf Astoria. ‘Targeting journalism has become a trend, and now the people who are harassing and killing journalists include governments as well as the people you would expect,’ said Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of The Guardian.
The gathering highlighted the extreme conditions journalists work in war fronts, hazardous on their own and fraught with all sorts of fatal risks. On top of that, the apparent official endorsement of clearly violations of international laws by one army or another are not just redundant, but downright illegal warfare.
As for the Israeli-Palestinian latest conflict, it has been particularly lethal in such a short time of actual hostilities. And organizations such as the CPJ, Human Rights Watch, Unesco, and Reporters Without Borders have been particularly busy, coordinating efforts to prevent more violations and protect media professionals working in Gaza.
No matter how inevitable it may seem, and often it is not, but when a conflict has clocked, in such a brief period of time, so many incidents of state-sponsored violence against media professionals, there may be something else, behind even its worst motivations. And no law-abiding nation should stand by while that happens.
THE ENDLESS CYCLE
It’s one of the oldest sins in the world, practiced by the powerful against the powerless, and still as wrong as, well, the world is old: if the message is unpleasant, shoot the messenger. Fortunately, there will always be another messenger and another and another, to prevent the message from being ignored.
Apart from the human toll the bloody exchange has already exacted, the material destruction, and the empowerment of discretionary political ideas that should not have become so prevalent in the region, as well as the potential derailment of any immediate plans for a long-term peace process, the Gaza conflict has added now a new horror in a long, deeply troubling, and painful list.
That it may be OK to target and kill journalists, for as long as they may be, or have ever been, sympathetic to the other side. That’s not just one of the worst, most senseless aspects of any conflict, but it may set a new low, and become the darkest symbol yet, of this latest flareup of intolerance in the Middle East.