Using war as cover to target journalists

Reporters who dig into dangerous corners have become accustomed to being threatened .

The setting at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel represented the height of refinement, but Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, reminded the black-tie crowd at the annual dinner for the Committee to Protect Journalists of something it knew all too well: In many parts of the globe, its profession is under murderous assault.

“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 Rusbridger, who, along with others, was honoured at the gathering in New York.

Journalists who dig into murky and dangerous corners of the world have become accustomed to being threatened and sometimes hunted by drug lords and gangsters, but now some governments have decided shooting the messenger is a viable option. The CPJ reports that government officials and their allies are now suspected of being responsible for more than a third of the murders of journalists, a higher proportion than killings attributed to terrorist groups or criminal enterprises.

On the same day as the Waldorf event, three employees of news organisations were killed in Gaza by Israeli missiles. Rather than suggesting it was a mistake, or denying responsibility, an Israeli Defence Forces spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, said,  “The targets are people who have relevance to terror activity.”

So it’s come to this: Killing members of the news media can be justified by a phrase as amorphous as “relevance to terror activity.” We have entered a very different era of information management in contemporary conflicts. As my colleague Noam Cohen reported last week, both sides in the Gaza conflict used Twitter accounts to fire verbal shots back and forth in an effort to shape perception in the outside world.

Considered targets

The good news is that, unlike in 2008, foreign correspondents were allowed to enter Gaza and see for themselves. The bad news is that they were entering a place where some journalists already there were considered targets, making a dangerous situation all the more so.

Mohammed al-Koumi and Hussam Salam worked as cameramen for Al-Aqsa TV, which is run by Hamas and whose reporting frequently reflects that affiliation. They were covering events in central Gaza when a missile struck their car, which, according to Al-Aqsa, was clearly marked with the letters “TV.” (The car just in front of them was carrying a translator and driver for The New York Times, so the execution hit close to our organization.) And Mohammed Abu Eisha, director of the private Al-Quds Educational Radio, was also in a car when it was hit by a missile.

Human Rights Watch spoke up in protest, saying in a statement, “Civilian broadcasting facilities are not rendered legitimate military targets simply because they broadcast pro-Hamas or anti-Israel propaganda.” While it is true that news media operations have become one more arrow in the quiver of modern warfare, a direct attack on information gatherers of any stripe is deeply troubling.

The violence against journalists in Gaza points to a larger, deadly trend. On Wednesday, the International Press Institute issued a report saying that 119 journalists had been killed this year, the highest total since it started keeping track in 1997. The total included all journalists who died while doing their jobs, not just journalists who might have been targeted for their affiliation or reporting.

Let’s acknowledge that many of those who died were so-called conflict journalists – reporters, photographers and videographers who understood at least some of the associated risks. In Syria at the beginning of the year, Marie Colvin, who had been reporting for The Sunday Times of London, and Remi Ochlik, a French photographer, died when the makeshift media center where they were working alongside opposition journalists was destroyed.

The nature of war has changed in a way that makes covering it more dangerous. Improvised explosive devices, or IED’s, and suicide bombers make no distinction in whom they kill and maim, and the street protests that were the flash point for the Arab Spring were a difficult and dangerous reporting challenge because the protesters and state forces trying to contain them could both be a threat.

The deadliest country for journalists this year, in terms of the number who died, was Syria, according to the International Press Institute. Journalists stay safe in part by knowing where to position themselves, but that conflict was full of asymmetries. In a place where the front lines are constantly shifting, the margin is razor thin between reporting on the death toll and becoming part of it.

Unesco has recognized that more is at stake than dangerous working conditions. It has convened a series of meetings, one of which took place in Vienna last week, investigating ways to increase journalists’ safety and maintain the free flow of information out of combat zones.

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