When a journalist is killed …

The death of innocents in any conflict is tragic. But what about the death of a journalist? A guest blog written by Ivor Gaber, a former broadcast journalist, on the “very ugly face of war.”

Clockwise from top left: Jamal Khashoggi (killed in 2018), Marie Colvin (killed in 2012), Ahmad Shah (killed in 2018), Rory Peck (killed in 1995), Daphne Caruana Galizia (killed in 2017), Maharram Durrani (killed in 2018), Christopher Allen (killed in 2017), and Lyra McKee (killed in 2019).

Last week I was watching a stunning report on Channel Four News about the war in Syria – making me realise that it’s now almost a decade since this most brutal of conflicts first began.

This particular report focussed on the heroic efforts of the white helmets to help newborn babies and pregnant women escape from a clearly marked hospital that had been targeted by Russian warplanes. The footage was particularly harrowing as we watched a newborn being grabbed from an oxygen tent; then, as the baby struggled to survive, he or she was rushed to one of the few still-functioning hospitals in Idlib province.

As the viewer – myself that is – anxiously followed the narrative, hoping the baby might survive, I reflected on how, in war, the deaths of innocent children always seem to be so much more horrific and poignant than the deaths of equally innocent older people.

But then I had a troubling thought: the death of the journalist covering this story would be even more tragic than the death of the child we were watching struggling for life. That’s a horrific sentence for a journalist to write and is not written out of any sense of journalistic self-importance – it’s a pragmatic and symbolic observation.

When a journalist is killed it’s not just a human being who dies, it is the light that that human was trying to shine onto the horrors of war that is also extinguished. And when that journalist has died because she or he has been targeted, then their death has added meaning – symbolising as it does the attempts by that government or those combatants to stop the world from seeing the very ugly face of war.

The Geneva Convention, the international ‘rules’ of the war game, makes the targeting of civilians a breach of international law and therefore actionable in the World Court, and the Vienna Convention extends the same protection to diplomats. But on the protection of journalists the international treaties are silent.

There have been no end of statements, including from the Security Council, about how the protection of journalists in conflict situations should be a global priority. But statements are one thing, laws are another, and governments of all shades have been reluctant to extend the diplomats’ protective umbrella to reporters covering conflicts.

I sit on the governing body of UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communications – the body which has been taking the leading role within the UN system to prioritise the protection of journalists and encourage governments to tackle the issue of impunity. It’s remarkably easy for governments to empower their delegates to these bodies to make speeches with fine words promoting the safety of journalists and tackling the problem of impunity. No one seems to disagree. But then it gets down to actually doing something and there are all too often particular reasons why this or that measure should be opposed. “Not that we are opposed to the principle,” these delegates say, “But we must look at the details.”

So the battle continues. And although debates in international fora might seem a long way from the killing of journalists like Marie Colvin, targeted in cold blood by Syrian government forces, ultimately it is what happens in these debates that either ensures that the international protection that diplomats currently enjoy gets extended to journalists, or the hypocrisy and killings continue.

Fingers crossed.


Ivor Gaber, a former broadcast journalist, is a Professor of Political Journalism at the University of Sussex and represents the UK on UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication