On February 22, 2012, the Syrian military deliberately targeted and killed by artillery fire American war correspondent Marie Colvin. She was on assignment in Homs, Syria reporting for the London Sunday Times. Colvin’s relatives filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Syrian government, accusing it of targeting and killing her as part of a systematic strategy to silence civilian journalists covering the war. The lawsuit contends that high-ranking Syrian officials, including President Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher worked together to track and target foreign journalists.
Marie Colvin was only one of many journalists who have sacrificed their lives to bring international attention to the atrocities committed by the Syrian government. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of the press worldwide and defends the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal, 113 journalists have been killed in Syria since 2011. CPJ investigates the death of every journalist to determine whether it is work-related or not. They consider a case “confirmed” only if they are reasonably certain that a journalist was murdered in direct reprisal for his or her work, was killed in crossfire during combat situations, or was killed while carrying out a dangerous assignment such as coverage of a street protest. The CPJ database does not include journalists killed in accidents such as car or plane crashes.
There are only two explicit references concerning media personnel in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, but when those references are read in conjunction with other humanitarian rules, IHL protections for journalists are apparent. Robin Geiss, legal expert for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) claims that there are international humanitarian law protections for journalists. The explicit media personnel references are found in Article 4A(4) of the Third Geneva Convention and within Article 79 of Additional Protocol I. In 1953, the Syrian Arab Republic ratified the Third Geneva Convention and Additional Protocols. Most importantly, Article 79 of Additional Protocol I provides that journalists are entitled civilian status in international armed conflicts.
Although the Syrian government is currently responsible for several grievous breaches of IHL, that does not diminish the suffering and sacrifice of foreign journalists. It does not diminish Syria’s commitment under IHL. Article 79(1) provides civilian status for, “Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict.” Syria is liable for strategically and systematically murdering foreign civilians.
The same holds true in non-international armed conflicts by virtue of customary international law. This is explained in Rule 34 of the ICRC’s Customary Law Study, “Civilian journalists engaged in professional missions in areas of armed conflict must be respected and protected as long as they are not taking a direct part in hostilities.” They were non-combatants, and they did not engage in hostilities directly or indirectly.
In an effort to further codify protections for journalists against direct reprisal, the International Press Institute (IPI), Al Jazeera Media Network, the International News Safety Institute (INSI) and the Africa Media Initiative (AMI), have worked together to draft the International Declaration on the Protection of Journalists. The International Declaration on the Protection of Journalists summarizes international principles related to the protection of journalists operating in dangerous environments, emphasizing the responsibilities of states to guarantee journalists’ safety and combat impunity.
To elevate the International Declaration on the Protection of Journalists to the level of customary international law would be a first step to protecting war correspondents and journalists working in places of conflict. The international community needs to bring civil and criminal prosecutions on behalf of their foreign journalists and their families. Journalists, like Maria Colvin, who routinely put suffering lives above their own, deserve representation, and their families deserve reparation. The Syrian government deserves to be held accountable for the war crimes they have routinely committed against journalists.