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“Bearing witness to the dramatic human failure that is war”

Yesterday I moderated a roundtable discussion on the role of the media in reporting on armed conflict. Panelists were Anne Bennett (Executive Director, Hirondelle USA), Roy Gutman (Middle East Bureau Chief, McClatchy Newspapers) and Charlie Sennott (Executive Director of The GroundTruth Project and Co-founder of the GlobalPost). The event also introduced HREA’s new self-directed e-course Reporting Conflicts: International Humanitarian Law for Media Professionals.

The panelists shared different perspectives on how media professionals should cover conflict situations, how journalists should report on violations of human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL), and how journalists working in conflict zones can be protected.

“Reporting accurate news and information really contributes to the protection of populations that are caught up in conflict,” said Anne Bennett of Hirondelle USA. An understanding of IHL, she added, helps journalists “ask the right questions.”

Like any story, armed conflict “needs to be explained. It needs to be understood,” said Roy Gutman, who reported on the Bosnian wars in the 1990s. “Wars happen…but what we can do is monitor how they’re being fought.” He called IHL a “yardstick” or “toolbox” that the media can use to highlight violations of human rights and of the laws of the war.

Former Boston Globe foreign correspondent Charlie Sennott compared IHL to the “ground truth,” the human measurements NASA uses to calibrate satellite measurements. Just as the ground truth determines if satellite data is accurate, IHL helps media professionals and the public assess violations of the laws of war. He described journalists’ role in conflict situations as “bear[ing] witness to the dramatic human failure that is war.”

You can watch the recording of the event.

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Reporting conflict

Journalists and other media professionals serve a critical role in society in pursuing truth, deconstructing complex situations and making information available and accessible to the public. Knowledge about the complex situations of internal and international armed conflict on which they report enables media professionals to better identify and understand key issues and competing interests, and provides them with guidance in knowing where to look for information, what to look for and what to emphasize, the questions to ask, and whom to ask. Having an understanding of international humanitarian law (IHL), including its legal framework and guiding principles, can provide media professionals with a lens with which to report, and one that will allow them to play the most constructive role possible in promoting the international justice system.

IHL is the law of armed conflict, both international and internal. IHL seeks to limit the effects of war upon vulnerable persons, such as civilians or wounded soldiers, and to limit the methods and means that conflicting parties may use. In 2007, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), for example, convened a meeting on media safety and IHL in war reporting with representatives of government, Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations and the media. In addition to addressing issues related to the protection for journalists under IHL, the need for journalists to understand IHL was also addressed, including so they are able to:

“point out what the laws of war say, even as some governments are ‘interpreting’ them otherwise”, “make war coverage more accurate and compelling” and “make those involved in an armed conflict more accountable”.

At a two-day workshop in 2009 organized by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) and other partners, for example, participants raised the crucial watchdog role that journalists can have in monitoring the rights of civilians in times of armed conflict. Ensuring that media professionals who report on and from situations of conflict have better knowledge and understanding about international humanitarian law, including its framework and core principles, will contribute to the advancement of an informed citizenry.

HREA, the organisation I direct, is currently conducting a survey of media professionals for a new self-directed online course for journalists on the laws of armed conflict and war. The course will aim to raise the capacity of media professionals, from journalists reporting from conflict zones to bloggers to citizen-journalists to editors, to report on conflicts and their aftermath. Reporting Conflict: International Humanitarian Law for Media Professionals will be available in English, Arabic, French and Spanish.

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