Nicole Tung / / AP

Reporters losing war zone protection as fighters post propaganda online

Press has become target for kidnappings and killings like never before, AP chief said, calling for new war-crime law

The advent of social media as a propaganda outlet for warring parties has added peril to the job of journalists in conflict zones, the head of The Associated Press said Monday as he made the case for the killing of reporters to be treated as war crimes.

Armed groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), no longer require the assistance of members of the press to score propaganda points, as the Internet provides an avenue for them to broadcast their message directly.

"They don't need us, they don't want us. They want to tell their story in their way from start to finish with nothing in between, and a journalist is a potential critical filter that they don't want to have around," said Gary Pruitt, president of the AP, which reported losing three journalists in war zones in 2014, two in Gaza and one in Afghanistan.

"A beheading becomes a bloody press release,” he said.

His remarks follow the posting of a series of videotaped beheadings by ISIL over the last year, including that of kidnapped journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

"It used to be that when media wore PRESS emblazoned on their vest, or PRESS or MEDIA was on their vehicle, it gave them a degree of protection. But guess what: That labeling now is more likely to make them a target,” said Pruitt.

Although the Geneva Convention condemns the killing of civilians, crafting a specific statute against the targeting of reporters would draw attention to the issue, the news agency head added.

In 2012, the United Nations published a plan of action to combat the risk to reporters. One proposal included amending the Geneva Convention, which has guided the rules of war since the end of the World War II,  and other international statutes to add provisions protecting journalists.

Alex Wroblewski, an American freelance photojournalist covering the Iraqi army’s assault on ISIL on Tikrit, said he welcomes the move, but doubts it would make him or his colleagues any safer.

“I think it's good to recognize that it is a war crime,” said Wroblewski from Baghdad. “But essentially I don't think it will change anything on the ground. And on this level, during conflict, people don't play by rules.”

Before the rise of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, armed groups wanting to broadcast the killing of an alleged spy or prisoner would need the assistance of a journalist. In the past, news blackouts from media outlets would have thwarted such propaganda.

But social media now provides a direct route to the public for such groups, which in turn has made a journalist more dispensable in the eyes of combatants. Sixty-one journalists were killed in 2014, according to the the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

The violence has caused western wire services and news outlets to scale back their operations in conflict zones, especially in areas that ISIL controls, even discouraging travel there outright.

Jackie Spinner, an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College in Chicago, told Al Jazeera that the size of news outlet a journalist works for doesn’t give added protection. 

“I think it makes you more of a target if you’re with a news organization with a lot of money,” Spinner said. “You’re better off getting some big name reporter than a freelancer if you want to make a splash.”

A former Washington Post war correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s, Spinner said she supports Pruitt’s call but cautions that war crimes committed against journalists don’t outweigh violent acts against civilians that happen every day in conflict zones

“There are a lot of war crimes that happen in conflict zones,” Spinner said. “I don’t think the targeting of journalists is any worse than the targeting and killing of other innocent people.”

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