Afghanistan: Each time a journalist is killed, the truth dies with them
07 Oct 2011
Ten years on, targeted attacks against journalists, media workers and other civilians in Afghanistan have proven US Senator Johnson’s immortal words, “the first casualty when war comes is truth”. Despite a number of measures by governments and organisations, violence, and in particular, targeted violence, is increasing worldwide against journalists.
According to the Afghan non-governmental organisation Nai, the 10-year conflict has left 22 journalists dead, 6 of whom were women, and seen 23 journalists kidnapped. Nai’s figures for violence and intimidation against journalists runs into the hundreds.
In Afghanistan and other conflicts, local and foreign journalists, including war correspondents are sometimes caught in the crossfire. These are tragic accidents. More often, and particularly so in Afghanistan, journalists are the victims of disproportionate attacks by international armed forces, in violation of International Humanitarian Law. But a particularly disturbing trend is the specific targeting of journalists, their abductions or summary executions. Over the past five years, the leading cause of death among journalists in warzones has become murder.
As noted by renowned war correspondent Sam Kiley, who has covered some of the most protracted conflicts in the world, including a seven-year stint in Afghanistan: “… thanks to the disaster in Iraq and al Qaeda's efforts, journalists are frequently seen as not only legitimate targets but good ways of getting publicity. There was a time when I quite literally was able to walk between opposing front lines during fighting (say, in Mogadishu) and then back again and file [a story], all in the same day. ”
Attacks on journalists violate their right to life, undermine the public’s right to know and create an environment of self-censorship. ARTICLE 19’s work on the right to freedom of expression and the right to information in conflict regions demonstrates that access to comprehensive and accurate information increases people’s sense of security, while a lack of reliable information fuels insecurity and fear. Each time a journalist is killed, the truth dies with them.
The response of the international community, civil society and the media
The Geneva Conventions, their Additional Protocols and customary international humanitarian law provide that journalists are entitled to all the rights and protections granted to civilians in armed conflicts. Parties to a conflict, regardless of whether they are states or insurgents, are prohibited to target journalists and required to take all feasible precautions to avoid attacks that result in casualties. Parties are also required to avoid defensive measures that put journalists in danger, and “War correspondents” are entitled to receive prisoner-of-war status, and benefit from the Geneva Convention’s added protections.
In response to the targeting and the killings of journalists in Afghanistan, Iraq and in other armed conflicts, intergovernmental bodies, civil society, journalists’ unions, the media industry, and governments have taken a number of preventative measures.
In 2006, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1738, calling for the protection of journalists, media professionals and associated personnel in armed conflict situations. The Resolution calls on governments to prosecute those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law and urges all parties to respect the professional independence and rights of journalists.
On the occasion of the 2007 World Press Freedom Day, the main international media professionals’ associations and non-governmental organisations dedicated to the defence of press freedom adopted the Medellin Declaration which specifically focuses on securing the safety of journalists and combating impunity in both conflict and non-conflict situations. More recently in 2011, UNESCO hosted a meeting of all the relevant UN agencies on The Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity with a view to formulating a comprehensive, coherent, and action-oriented approach to the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity.
Since 1985, the International Committee for the Red Cross has had a permanent hotline (+41 79 217 32 85) available to journalists who find themselves in trouble while in armed conflicts. Journalists, but also their employers and relatives can use the hotline to report a missing, wounded, or detained journalist and request assistance.
Press freedom organisations such as ARTICLE 19 and the media industry have made the issue of violence against journalists in armed conflicts a priority. Monitoring of killings and analysis of national and global trends in violence against journalists has multiplied, as has the rapid evacuation of journalists targeted by parties to a conflict, improved safety training and related advocacy initiatives.
The impact of these steps is difficult to quantify. However, particularly against the backdrop of the conflicts in Afghanistan, these efforts highlight a range of pressing issues:
LOCAL JOURNALISTS COVERING INTERNATIONAL CONFLICTS
Afghani journalists continue to work under extremely difficult circumstances, facing constant pressure from the government, local politicians and Taliban insurgents, all of whom condemn critical reporting. Based on reported cases alone, at least 200 journalists were physically assaulted in the past decade, with scores more leaving the profession or fleeing the country amid threats to their safety.
In particular, the situation of stringers and local journalists in Afghanistan and other conflict-ridden countries remains a major cause for concern as they often do not benefit from the safety training or insurance afforded to their international colleagues. It is in this vein that ARTICLE 19 calls on all media agencies to offer equal support to all their staff and stringers working in conflict-ridden areas, independently of their employment contract or national origin.
In the context of the on-going debates in and outside Afghanistan over the likelihood of negotiations with various armed groups, including the Taliban, ARTICLE 19 calls on all parties to the process and the international community to insist that any future agreement for the country ensures an information regime that maximises a plurality of views, investigative reporting, and the free flow of information, and to support the right of the media to operate independently and free of political and violent pressure.
Over the last decade, the media industry and press freedom organisations have invested in security training of journalists and media workers, particularly those working in high-risk areas, such as armed conflict.
According to Richard Sambrook, former chair of the board of ARTICLE 19 and director of Global News for the BBC, "We know that on average two journalists are killed every week carrying out their work. The world has become a more divided and dangerous place over the last decade. So professional safety training is now recognised as essential for anyone reporting from a hostile or conflict zone. That's a big change from the early 1990s when it was still the exception."
Rodney Pinder, the director of the International News Safety Institute (INSI) told ARTICLE 19 that safety training has increased noting that INSI has trained almost 2,000 journalists in 21 countries over past 7 years: “We have campaigned ceaselessly for more safety awareness and duty of care by news media organisations to their staff and there has been a distinct, albeit slow, response. Nevertheless the organisations that provide proper training and equipment are in the tiny minority worldwide.”
ARTICLE 19 calls on all media agencies operating in Afghanistan or other armed conflicts to properly train their journalists and media professionals in safety procedures – regardless of whether they are international, local or freelance. We urge them to ensure that these journalists and media professionals have adequate insurance to cover for illness, injury and death. ARTICLE 19 also supports the establishment of a solidarity fund to compensate the families of journalists who have been killed whilst practicing their profession in Afghanistan, where insurance is insufficient or non-existent.
IMPUNITY: SILENT KILLER OF JOURNALISM
The impunity for crimes committed against journalists and media personnel, including in armed conflict situations, has arisen as the number one concern for the profession and civil society around the world.
With impunity for the perpetrators of attacks against journalists feeding into the cycle of violence, there is little hope for the situation to improve for local journalists, who will increasingly turn to self-censorship to protect their security and that of their families. On 5 September 2010, Sayed Hamid Noori, a prominent TV journalist for Radio Television Afghanistan, was stabbed to death near his home in Kabul. The motives for the killing are unknown, as are the killers and the investigation is progressing slowly, despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai issuing a statement ordering authorities to spare no effort in bringing Sayed Hamid Noori's killers to justice.
The situation is not any better for foreign correspondents covering the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan either. On 20 September 2011, Iranian cameraman Farhad Taqaddosi was severely injured, along with seven other civilians, during a Taliban attack in Kabul on 13 September and died from his injuries one week later. There have been no convictions. In early 2010, Rupert Hamer, was the first British journalist to die during the war in Afghanistan and the first to be killed in a war zone since Terry Lloyd, the ITN reporter, and Richard Wild were killed in Iraq in 2003.
Around the world, domestic, regional or international jurisdiction has been largely ineffective in bringing justice or accountability to journalists and other media workers, a situation leading ARTICLE 19 and many others to call for far greater implementation of a government’s responsibility to protect and stronger pro-active interventions to ensure journalists can do their work. Press freedom organisations around the world are launching an impunity campaign, marked by an International Day to End Impunity every 23 November.
ARMED CONFLICTS AND VIOLENCE
From the standpoint of the number of victims to violence, the nature or notion of armed conflicts itself has undergone rapid challenges in the last ten years. Indeed, an increasing number of victims of violence, including journalists, are not to be found in situations of “traditional” international armed conflict, but rather in non-international conflicts, such as insurgencies, which are not fully covered by the Geneva Conventions. A case in point is that of Mexico where the war between the Mexican authorities and the drug cartels has resulted in 77 killings of journalists over the last ten years. In other parts of the world, armed conflicts may be localised and limited to a region in a country otherwise formally at peace, such as in the Philippines, for instance. On 23 November 2009, 34 journalists were executed in what is now known as the Maguindanao massacre, when a total of 58 persons lost their lives. The massacre took place in the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. As a result, and just five years after its adoption was hailed as a major victory, Resolution 1738 is of some relevance but of limited reach and use.
Participants to the aforementioned UNESCO conference on the safety of journalists, “affirmed the need for UN agencies to strengthen the protection for freedom of expression as a universal right in all places, not only in areas of armed conflict. The well-documented record of journalists’ deaths and impunity calls for far-reaching and innovative responses. Small or cosmetic changes would not be enough.”
- The above image was taken by Tim Hetherington, a photojournalist who was killed by mortar shells fired by Muammar Gaddafi's forces while covering the 2011 Libyan conflict