Friday, October 29, 2010


Seasoned Journalist Sam Bokuba
Along the long and winding road of time, the press has been involved in socio-political conflicts, fighting more wars than any standing army.
Notorious theatres of armed conflicts such as Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, to mention but these, with the attendant spiral of violence and savage bloodletting claiming both life and limb; have seen the media in the thick of it . But for journalists to properly report such armed conflicts and their resultant atrocities, they must be well grounded in the necessary legal and professional tools. That’s just what the International Committee of the Red Cross set out to do when it recently organized a thee-day seminar for radio journalists in Nairobi, Kenya.

The radio and to a lesser extent television carry such power in outreach and impact as could easily exacerbate the dysfunctional character of the news media. Like it has been warned time and time again, the media as instruments of mass communication are a double edged sword, capable of making as much as marring. The damage from irresponsible broadcast content could be colossal.

Take just the example of ‘Radio des Milles Collines’ and the havoc it wreaked in Rwanda in 1994! The Rwandan carnage and the ensuing strife in that country were all caused by irresponsible broadcasting. The news media and particularly the electronic news media in a context like ours where illiteracy is a big obstacle to newspaper readership are potent vectors in the information and formation of public opinion as well as the cultivation of a democratic culture.

Understanding armed conflict
Simply put, an armed conflict involves the use of arms by the warring parties or belligerents. There are two types of armed conflicts: an international armed conflict and non international armed conflict. An international armed conflict means fighting between the armed forces of at least two states like the ‘war’ over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula between Cameroon and Nigeria. Wars of liberation [the 1967-70 Nigeria-Biafra war and Somaliland against Somalia, for instance] are also considered as international armed conflicts.

A non international armed conflict entails fighting on the territory of a state between the conventional armed forces and identifiable groups such as The Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta [MEND] in Nigeria. For it to be considered a non international armed conflict, the hostilities must reach a certain level of intensity and extend over a certain period of time. Worth noting is that internal disturbances [riots like the February 2008 nation-wide unrest in Cameroon, struggles between factions or against established state authority] characterized by a serious disruption of internal order resulting from acts of violence are not considered an armed conflict. When a state is fighting against armed insurgents or rebel groups, it is a non international armed conflict. Examples in Cameroon are the 1955 UPC armed struggle against the French colonialists and the April 6, 1984 coup d’etat. An armed group has no status of a state.
Even when an armed group benefits from external support, the nature of the support [weapons, training of fighters, money etc.] must be determined. Still, the conflict will be considered internal.
But if for instance an armed group in state A is found to be acting on behalf of state B by which it becomes a de facto state B, it becomes a proxy war and thus an international armed conflict e.g Yugoslavia. However it is complex qualifying a conflict as international armed conflict or non international armed conflict.

The following scenarios pose a challenge to qualification of armed conflicts: war on terror, transnational conflict[a foreign authority governing people who are not its own like the case of the USA in Iraq and Afghanistan]and internationalization of an armed conflict[internal conflict characterized by state intervention of a foreign power].Generally, the qualification of an armed conflict is done a posteriori, not a priori, taking into consideration the constitutive elements and the rules enshrined in two legal instruments that regiment armed conflicts: International Humanitarian Law[IHL] and International Human Rights Law[IHRL]
The IHL and IHRL
The International Humanitarian Law [IHL] also known as the ‘law of armed conflict’ or ‘law of war’ is the body of rules that in war time, protects persons who are no longer participating in hostilities. It limits the methods and means of warfare. Its central purpose is to limit and prevent human suffering in times of armed conflict.
The rules are to be observed not only by governments and their armed forces, but also by armed opposition groups and any other parties involved in the conflict. The four Geneva conventions of 1949 and their Additional protocols of 1977 and 2005 are the principal instruments of humanitarian law. The body charged with its implementation is the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC].During international and non international armed conflicts, the IHL seeks to limit the suffering caused by war by protecting and assisting victims as much as possible.
The law addresses the reality of a conflict without delving into the reasons, politics or legality of resorting to force. It regulates only those aspects of the conflict that are of humanitarian concern such as the type of weapons used by the belligerents-biological, chemical, nuclear or conventional. The application of humanitarian law does not involve the denunciation of guilty parties. The IHL protects civilians through rules on the conduct of hostilities viz: parties in a conflict must at all times distinguish between combatants and non combatants and between military and civilian targets and neither civilian population as whole nor individual civilians may be the object of attack. The central issue here is protection; protection of combatants out of combat, a little protection during hostilities, big protection for those not taking part in hostilities anymore: the wounded, sick, shipwrecked at sea and prisoners of war, protection of civilians, special protection for certain categories of civilians such as women, children under 15 years and journalists.
The International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law are complementary. Both strive to protect the lives, health and dignity of individuals albeit from a different angle. Humanitarian Law applies in situations of armed conflict whereas Human Rights law, or at least some of it, protects the individual at all times, in war and peace alike. However, some human rights treaties permit governments to derogate from certain rights in situations of public emergency. No derogations are permitted under Humanitarian Law because it was conceived for emergency situations namely armed conflict.

The International Human Rights Law is born of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The main treaty sources are the International Covenants on civil and political rights and on economic and cultural rights[1966],conventions on genocide[1948],Racial Discrimination[1965],Discrimination against women[1979],Torture[1984],Rights of the child[1989].The main regional instruments are the European convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms[1950],the American Declaration of the rights and duties of man[1948]and the convention of human rights[1969] and African Charter on People’s and Human rights[1981].The IHRL sanctions grave breaches during international armed conflicts especially those that constitute war crimes. According to the Rome statute, crimes against humanity can occur outside armed conflicts as well.

The International Criminal Court [ICC] has been given the mandate to deal with international crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. A distinction must be made between an act of aggression and a crime of aggression. An act of aggression or what is known as jus in bello [law in war] applies to the warring parties irrespective of the reasons for the conflict and whether or not the cause upheld by either party is just. A crime of aggression also known as jus ad bellum or jus contra bellum refers to law on the use of force or law on the prevention of war.
War Reporting
Death of four journalists on the war front, six journalists reported missing, release of three journalists detained on spying charges…,” these are just some of the headlines that highlight the problems confronted by journalists who, in the course of doing their job, are caught in the cross-fire of armed conflicts. What provisions does the public international law make to protect them and to facilitate the exercise of their profession?

The question touches on other, more basic problems. What is the task of the press, radio and television during armed conflicts? What sort of institutional framework must there be for the media to enable them fulfill their tasks? Is there any such thing as a right of access to information even in war? Fundamental issues such as freedom of expression and right to information are involved.

The law of armed conflict has for a long time shown concern for the special situation of journalists on dangerous assignments. This is because journalists are exposed to the physical danger of war and suffer collateral damage arising from hostilities; they can be victims of the direct effects of hostilities [a bomb raid, a shot fired at him or a stray bullet etc.]These are risks run in military operation zones. Journalists can also be victims of arbitrary acts [arrest, ill-treatment, disappearance, etc.]by the authorities, in particular the armed forces or the police in the country in which he finds himself.

Protection for journalists during armed conflicts is contained in article 79 of the Geneva Convention Additional Protocol 3.Accordingly, a journalist is considered a civilian and so cannot be targeted or attacked. Nor can he take part in hostilities. Protection for the journalist ceases when he is seen to take part in hostilities. This is different with a journalist of the military press who is a member of the armed forces and so has the right to take part in hostilities which makes him a legitimate military target.
A journalist engaged in a dangerous assignment to report an armed conflict may be given the status of a war correspondent. By this, he or she is accredited to the armed forces and is authorized to follow hostilities on the field as a neutral, unbiased, non partisan observer. This is called embedded journalism which throws up its own challenges. Can a journalist who benefits from the protection of a warring party during an armed conflict maintain an arms length approach vis-à-vis the protagonists in his reporting? It’s been an issue for lively debate whether journalists should have a special status when they are on dangerous assignments like covering armed conflicts.

Ethical Issues
According to Johannesburg-based journalism trainer, Shenaaz Bulbulia, a journalist reporting an armed conflict should address himself to certain fundamental questions: why am I reporting an armed conflict? What is my angle? Am I objective? Reporting for who? Informed by whom? Reporting with who in mind? Whose voice? Who is the source? Are there multiple sources?
After taking hard ethical decisions regarding the foregoing questions, the reporting should convey the right information; correctly sourced and well attributed with a reporting style that engages the audience and appeals to the broad public and not to special interest groups.

The bottom line is social responsibility and professional ethics that underpin relationship of trust the media have with audience built on truth telling, fairness as well as a detached, non-partisan and unbiased relationship with news sources and warring parties. Journalists should also watch out for xenophobic tendencies intruding into their reporting of armed conflicts and eventually fuelling the conflict like the well documented case of Radio des Milles Collines in Rwanda. Such are the challenges to be met by journalists reporting armed conflicts.

*The writer, a CRTV Journalist, recently participated in a radio seminar on armed conflict in Nairobi-Kenya organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross

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