The difference journalists can make in conflict zones

Inability of journalists to report from dangerous territories has given rise to what we call citizen journalists in conflict-torn countries

Raed Omari
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Media rights group Reporters Without Borders’ latest report says that 58 journalists were killed across the world in 2016 in the line of duty. In its annual report, the France-based press freedom group says that 19 and 10 journalists were killed in war-torn Syria and Afghanistan respectively, followed by nine in Mexico and five in Iraq.

That the number of journalists killed in 2016 is fewer than the 67 in 2015 is attributed to the fact that many of them avoided conflict-ridden countries, mainly Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Burundi. That is why almost all of those killed in 2016 were local journalists.


“The violence against journalists is more and more deliberate,” RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire said, adding, “they are clearly being targeted and murdered because they are journalists.” RSF also urged the new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to appoint a special representative for the protection of journalists.

The RSF 2016 report, and several such reports, suggest an alarming prospect for journalists that even full-fledged democracies are failing to observe and address. The first is the disinclination to report from war-torn countries because of the lack of protection. This means that the truth is not being reported from places where truth needs to emerge. With little being done to protect journalists, one can conclude that deliberate attempts are being made to silence them as happened frequently during the 1960s, 70s and the 80s.

The fear or inability of journalists to report from dangerous territories has given rise to what we call “citizen journalists” in conflict-torn countries, like Syria. They have become the sources of information that even well-established news outlets immensely rely on for their coverage. However, even citizen journalists are not safe and many of them have been deliberately targeted.

In countries like Syria and Iraq, where the conflict has become extremely complicated, journalists need to be on the side of the powerful to keep themselves safe

Raed Omari

In countries like Syria and Iraq, where the conflict has become extremely complicated, journalists need to be on the side of the powerful to keep themselves safe. This is why reporters belonging to some media outlets, needless to mention them, haven’t been hurt even as they continue to report from these countries.

But what such well-protected news channels do in Syria and Iraq aren’t within the tenets of journalism and even those with limited knowledge of what good journalism is can point that out. In other words, they simply broadcast one-sided stories.

International law

We have reached this stage because of the international community’s failure to protect journalists by drafting strict laws that hold any party hurting or harassing them accountable. Journalists need a UN body to protect them and ensure their safety in war zones. This lies at the heart of international human rights that guarantee peoples’ right to knowledge.

While it is true that the international humanitarian law provides journalists with protection as “citizens” but there are only two explicit references to media personnel in Article A (4) of the Third Geneva Convention and Article 79 of Additional Protocol I, which stipulate that that journalists are entitled to all rights and protections granted to civilians in international armed conflicts. According to legal experts, the same remains true in non-international armed conflicts by virtue of customary international law.


Absence of professional journalists in Syria which – according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), has been the most dangerous place in the world for journalists – has one way or the other added complications to the ongoing war. In Syria, it is unclear who is fighting whom and who is winning. It is also true that the suffering of the Syrian people is less in regions which have been accessed by journalists.

Several countries opposed to the Assad regime have been threatening to sue for war crimes. However, the lack of well-documented data due to the absence of professional media outlets and human rights organizations makes it a difficult proposition.

According to the New York-based CPJ, a total of 107 reporters and media personnel have been killed in Syria since 2011. In a report it released some months ago, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said that that 463 media activists had been killed either by regime forces or armed groups. The monitoring group also said that 1,027 media workers were arrested or abducted between March 2011 and April 2015.


Since June 2014, when Mosul fell to ISIS, Iraq’s second largest city was literally closed to the world. This was also the case with Syria’s Raqqa. Now because journalists covering the military operations in Mosul are enjoying protection, the world has started to know about the city, suffering of its people, developments on the ground and also about the unbearable atrocities being committed by ISIS.

The world’s reaction to Mosul operation and the international community’s response to the suffering of the tens of thousands of citizens fleeing the battlefields is a lot more convincing than in Syria thanks to the sleepless journalists covering the war and its consequences there. Such is the noble cause of journalism that the modern world is still unable to appreciate.
Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via [email protected], or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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