Journalists and war crimes

Control the means of communication: It’s an axiom of war. Manage the message, intimidate and destroy independent media, and the people will follow. It’s why press freedom is a tenet of democracy.

Totalitarian systems, such as North Korea and the former Soviet Union, contour and mobilize popular opinion. Samizdat, banned publications that circulated among dissidents throughout the Soviet bloc, lit a fuse that took years to catch. The truth will set you free — presupposing you have access to the truth.

The Internet age should have ended suppression of independent news and information. It hasn’t.

Social media such as Twitter and Facebook played a meaningful role advancing the Egyptian revolution of 2011, true enough. But it’s also an accelerant for propaganda. What a Twitter activist types on her iPhone can be replicated tenfold by the state. More ominous, governments can regulate Internet search engines. Blacklisted keywords in China include “Tibetan independence,” “Tiananmen Square massacre,” and “China Democratic League.”

In wartime, journalists should have noncombatant immunity. It’s Catholic Just War theory extended to the Fourth Estate. (This doesn’t include journalists embedded with combat forces who accept the risk of injury or death.)

How are deliberate attacks on journalists morally different than, say, attacks on doctors or students? There are gradations of evil. Some war crimes are worse than others. And attacks on journalists should be a war crime.

On Dec. 13, the UN Security Council heard testimony on violence against journalists and a plug by Reporters without Borders that the International Criminal Court weigh the question. To add teeth, the push requires amending Article 8 of the ICC statute to read that “deliberate attacks on journalists, media workers and associated personnel” is a war crime. It’s an expansive definition that extends to stringers and bloggers, media foot soldiers in a combat zone.

Reporters without Borders features a “press freedom barometer” on its website. Seventy-five journalists have been killed this year, it reports, with 177 imprisoned and 166 “netizens” (bloggers) jailed. It also recognizes the limits of multilateral institutions. A November article on its website flags human rights miscreants just elected to the UN Human Rights Council, including Vietnam, China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. Nearly half of the Council’s 47 members sit at the bottom of the RWB’s press-freedom index. That’s why advocates are prudent to focus on the ICC and amending Article 8.

“Freedom of the press means the freedom to criticize and oppose,” George Orwell wrote.

For a free press — all the more so in wartime.

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