Under fire

The number of journalists killed this year while on assignment in conflict zones has touched a new high.

According to International Press Institute, a Vienna-based media watchdog, around 119 people have been killed so far this year, the highest since it began keeping count in 1997. IPI’s figures indicate that Syria was the deadliest place for journalists; 36 journalists were killed there this year.  Somalia, Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines were other death traps for journalists.

IPI’s figure includes media persons who were victims of targeted killings as well as those who were accidental victims of the war. Thus, while several media persons are killed because they are often caught in the crossfire in conflict zones, in most cases, they are murdered to prevent them from disclosing information they may have collected about human rights abuse or other violations.  And it is not just insurgents and the drug-guns networks that are anxious to silence them. Government forces are just as keen to prevent their dirty dealings from being laid bare.  Death of journalists in conflict zones is thus often deliberate. During its recent assault on Gaza, Israel bombed a building housing journalists and claimed that they were working for Hamas. Three Palestinian journalists were killed in this attack.

 Rarely are killings investigated and the guilty punished. The reasons are not hard to find. For one, fixing responsibility for deaths in the chaos of war is difficult. But more importantly, states are reluctant to dig too deep fearing their own role will be revealed. The death of the journalist is swept under the carpet or described as accidental. Often it is blamed on ‘unidentified gunmen.’ But such ‘unidentified gunmen’ are usually part of militias linked to the state.

 In the past, journalists could feel protected by a media identification badge or a press sticker on their vehicle. Clearly this is not the case anymore. Journalists reporting in conflict zones are not seen to be neutral and the line between them and combatants has blurred. Training journalists on staying safe is important to reduce their vulnerability. Media outlets must invest in ensuring their safety; they cannot escape responsibility for the soaring figures of journalists killed.

However, governments need to put in robust efforts too. In September last year the UN Human Rights Council adopted a landmark resolution requiring governments to end impunity and ensure accountability by investigating attacks on journalists and bringing the perpetrators to justice.  Governments need to stand by those commitments now. 

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