Ethics, safety and solidarity in journalism

Going into the war zone requires journalists to make from the outset a clear ethical choice about how they intend to do their work.

There are risks attached to every choice, but choosing to maintain independence and work outside the protective arm of the military carries with it more risks, which is why journalists and the media who send them on mission, should prepare themselves more diligently for the task.

Regrettably, many journalists head to war ill-prepared for the challenge. Many have little or no hostile environment training and very often they are unaware of the conditions they can expect. Many are ignorant of their legal rights and responsibilities.

Few know that the United Nations Security Council passed an historic resolution in 2006 calling for an end to impunity in the killing of journalists or that in 2012 all of the major UN agencies agreed a comprehensive ‘Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists’.4 These are required readings for journalists covering conflict: they spell out the rights of journalists and the obligations of states to provide media with protection where it is possible.

AMISOM Troops Capture Territory from Insurgents in North Mogadishu (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

AMISOM Troops Capture Territory from Insurgents in North Mogadishu (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

But few journalists are aware that international law governing armed conflict recognises that reporters play a special role in times of war. The Geneva Conventions, for instance, offer special protections to journalists and media staff. All combatants, whether engaged in all-out shooting wars, civil strife or low-level territorial disputes, should be reminded of it.

The link between safety and ethics may not be immediately obvious, but the same ambitions and economic factors that pressure inexperienced and poorly prepared freelance journalists to enter battle zones also pressure journalists to present the news as they think that their paymasters most want to hear it.

The news becomes what sells best, and certainly at the start of a conflict, accounts of the horrors of war and pictures of dead soldiers (at least from ‘our’ side) are not what many senior television executives prefer to be putting out.

An antidote to this ignorance is the book ‘Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know’, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff. This book evolved from the collaboration of journalists, lawyers and scholars dedicated to raising public awareness of the laws of war and their application to situations of conflict and to promote understanding of international humanitarian law among journalists, policymakers, and the public.5

It contains useful information for any frontline reporter including advice not to go into a war zone with a weapon. Fox News Channel’s Geraldo Rivera controversially carried a gun along with his camera while reporting from Afghanistan, but the action prompted outrage among other journalists and news organisations, including the New York Times, which in 2007 banned their reporters from carrying a gun because it undermined their neutrality.

Journalists should also know that although they always run the risk of being captured and shot as spies, international humanitarian law says that accredited journalists travelling under the protection of an army are to be regarded as part of the accompanying civilian entourage.

If captured by opposing forces they must be treated as prisoners of war. Those who threaten or execute journalists on the battlefield should be brought to trial to face punishment that is sanctioned by international law.

That’s the theory at least. The problem is that the days of the war correspondent in full uniform are as much a distant memory as the set-piece armed struggles of traditional warfare. Journalism has become as much a guerrilla activity as the style of conflict that disturbs the peace of Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

But some principles of good ethical behaviour are essential no matter the nature of the conflict and how it is fought. For instance, journalists covering a conflict rely on the support of local people – translators, drivers, fixers – and all journalists should ensure that they are treated with respect and provided with protective equipment, decent work contracts and insurance in case of accident or injury.

And one of the cardinal principles of journalists – protection of sources – becomes ever more important when lives are at risk. Journalists have obligations to the people they report about. They must not reveal the identity of their sources if they are at risk. People will not tell journalists important news if they fear they will be revealed.

When courts and public authorities ask journalists to hand over material that will reveal a source of information, the ethical reporter will instinctively demur and, if necessary checking with the source first, protect that source even at cost to themselves.

But in times of war, when journalists are witness to unspeakable acts of inhumanity, this principle can come under intense pressure. Most journalists find it impossible to turn a blind eye to the horrors of war and there are occasions when journalists find their conscience impels them to cooperate with the authorities.

For instance, a few journalists who reported on the Bosnian war in the 1990s such as Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian testified at The Hague before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and helped convict some of the leaders who committed acts of inhumanity and crimes of war during that conflict.

Although some journalists warned that they were setting a very unfortunate precedent, Vulliamy and others are unapologetic. They say that bringing to justice war criminals is a cause in which journalists, like other citizens, have a duty to join if only in defence of the civilised values that allow democracy and free journalism to function.

Others disagree. A good example is Jonathan Randal of the Washington Post who famously refused to answer a subpoena6 in 2002 ordering him to appear before the ICTY. Randal, who had covered the war, fought the subpoena with the backing of his paper and won. This action, which was supported by press freedom groups around the world, established some limited legal protection for war correspondents against being forced to give testimony.

Cases like this highlight why journalists and news media need to establish guidelines and internal rules that help protect their sources. Reporters may benefit from a clause in their contracts or their agreements that clearly state their duties and obligations in this area.

But written assurances in a contract will not resolve ethical dilemmas that crop up in the course of a journalist’s work. Sometimes in the midst of inhumanity and injustice journalists are forced to choose whether or not to intervene to help the victims of violence. They have to choose carefully because even when they have the best of intentions, journalists may not be as helpful as they think.

In ‘The Race Beat’, an excellent book about media coverage in the United States of the struggle for civil rights, there’s an anecdote about Flip Schulke, a distinguished freelance photographer who put down his camera and rushed to help a young woman demonstrator who was being beaten up by police. Afterward, Dr Martin Luther King reprimanded him, telling him he was much more valuable as a photographer than a participant.7

His rebuke is a reminder that journalists have to remember their primary role is to record events, expose malpractice, and circulate facts and information. They are not participants in the conflict and they need to consider carefully when the suffering of others, just like calls to patriotic duty, pulls them away from doing their job professionally.

Sometimes, the simplest way of keeping journalists safe is for media staff on all sides of a conflict to join together. Journalists are notoriously individualistic in their approach, but industry solidarity can reduce risks in reporting conflicts.

There was one conflict in modern times where journalists were largely spared from being killed, although they were often in danger. The Northern Ireland conflict raged for more than 30 years of so-called ‘Troubles’ involving terrorist groups in a political and religious conflict which claimed more than 3,000 lives. Remarkably, only one journalist was killed – Sunday World reporter Martin O’Hagan who was shot dead apparently by ‘loyalist’ paramilitaries in September 2001. One reason for this was the role played in the conflict by the National Union of Journalists, a union that represents journalists in both Britain and Ireland.

‘For 30 years there was an unwritten rule in Northern Ireland that journalists were not shot’, notes Michael Foley, former media correspondent of the Irish Times and now a journalism lecturer.

‘Journalists in Northern Ireland were always members of a union that offered solidarity and a bridge across the sectarian divide, regardless of the editorial stance of their publications,’ he says. ‘They stood together, loyalists and nationalists, in their opposition to censorship. They carried the same press card […] Even when working for highly sectarian outlets, journalists were able to demonstrate a professional detachment that allowed the media to be viewed as something between a necessary evil and a trusted conduit.’

Journalists in Ireland and the UK asserted their independence from governments that sometimes expect the media to act as state propagandists. When the UK government banned radio and television journalists from broadcasting the voices of Sinn Féin leaders and certain other political activists between 1988 and 1994, there were repeated protest by the union. The ban was eventually lifted after the nationalist paramilitary group the IRA declared a ceasefire.


4. UNESCO (2012) ‘UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity’.

5. Gutman, Roy, Rieff, David (1999) Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, see

6. Bernstein, Nina (2002) ‘Should War Reporters Testify, Too? A Recent Court Decision Helps Clarify the Issue but Does Not End the Debate See’, The New York Times, December 14, see html.

7. Roberts, Gene, Kilbanoff, Hank (2007) The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, Knopf, New York.



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