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Al Jazeera Reporter’s Murder Raises Concern About Protection Of Conflict Journalists

Under the Geneva Convention, journalists are to be treated as civilians in times of war, hence killing them is seen as a war crime and should not, in any instance, be condoned.

On Wednesday, May 11, grief filled newsrooms across the globe over the death of veteran Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed while covering an Israeli army raid in the occupied West Bank. 

The Qatar-based TV channel alleged that the Israeli forces deliberately and “in cold blood” shot Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American, in the head during the unrest in the Jenin refugee camp. The medium has since called on the international community to hold Israeli authorities accountable.

While Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said it was “likely” that Abu Akleh was killed by stray Palestinian gunfire, Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz said, “Our initial findings from the investigation cannot indicate what gunfire was directed at Shireen and cannot exclude any option under this operational chaos.” He added that Palestinians in Jenin were firing from “multiple directions. We are not certain how she was killed.”

Meanwhile another Al Jazeera journalist, Ali al-Samoudi, who was wounded by a bullet in the back at the scene but is now in stable condition said, “We were going to film the Israeli army operation and suddenly they shot us without asking us to leave or stop filming. There was no Palestinian military resistance at all at the scene.”

Israeli military, according to reports, has frequently launched arrest raids into Jenin refugee camp following a wave of attacks by Israeli Arabs and Palestinians on the streets of Israel and the West Bank in recent weeks. The attacks have reportedly left 17 Israelis and two Ukrainians dead.

No fewer than 26 Palestinians have also been killed – including assailants shot dead while carrying out attacks, or militants and civilians killed during Israeli raids and confrontations in the West Bank. Israeli operations have, however, centred on the Jenin district, where four of the Palestinians who carried out attacks in Israel came from.

Condemning the shooting of Abu Akleh and Samoudi, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas alleged that it was “part of the occupation’s policy of targeting journalists to obscure the truth and commit crimes silently.”

There have also been calls for independent and transparent investigation into the incident with world leaders demanding that those responsible be held to account. Although Israel offered to participate in a joint investigation with the Palestinian authority, the latter rejected the move. 

The latest incident brings the total number of Al Jazeera journalists killed in the line of duty to 12 since the medium launched in 1996. All the incidents involved journalists covering armed conflicts.

Aside from Al Jazeera, many newsrooms have also had their journalists murdered by security personnnel during armed conflicts. Most of these killings, according to the United Nations, are still not resolved and the development is fast making conflict reporters fear for their lives. 

Many civil society groups have repeatedly argued that journalists deserve special concern during conflicts because of the social role they play in informing the public, but this has never been the case as no fewer than 10 journalists have been confirmed killed in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. 

Matthew Chance of CNN was one of those caught in the crossfire during the Libyan war. Recollecting that experience, he said, “As a foreign correspondent I have covered conflicts all over the world; in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, the Balkans, and Georgia, but I have never experienced anything like the five days I have just spent in the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, held captive by a group of Kalashnikov-brandishing young fanatical Gaddafi loyalists. There were moments when I did not think I’d come out of the place alive, but what I found hardest to cope with was accepting my complete loss of control. My fate was out of my hands.”

In a 2006 book entitled Blood Brothers, TIME senior correspondent, Michael Weisskopf, also wrote about how he lost his right hand in Iraq in 2003. 

“All journalists and media workers are civilians under international humanitarian law, and their rights must be respected and protected,” says Robert Mahoney, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Executive Director.

Under the Geneva Convention, journalists are to be treated as civilians in times of war, hence killing or harming them is seen as a war crime. Article 79 formally states that journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in zones of armed conflict are civilians and as such, they enjoy the full scope of protection granted to civilians under international humanitarian law. Journalists are thus protected both against the effects of hostilities and against arbitrary measures taken by a party to the conflict when they fall into that party’s hands, either as captives or in the case of an arrest.

The only time when the immunity of journalists should be revoked is when they take a direct part in the hostilities and, even at that, every possible precaution must be taken to avoid, or at least limit, loss of human life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.

A research on legislative international framework to protect journalists in armed conflicts states that “there is much violence against journalists, the safety and security are important measures for media organisations and international organisations that try to protect journalists, but in conflict situations, such protection is not enough, we need protection by enforcing international laws to defend journalists.” 

In his comments, a Lagos-based lawyer, Adetokunbo Ademola told HumAngle that “journalists are expected to be treated like doctors and other aid workers in armed conflict and as such not be killed for discharging their duties. The recent incident and others in the past raised a lot of concerns about the protection of conflict reporters. We are quick to say that the first casualty of war is truth but who will tell the world the truth if journalists are recklessly being murdered?”

He added that journalists make courageous choices to travel to war zones to ensure that “our responses are based on the facts unfolding on the ground. Death shouldn’t be their reward.”

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Adejumo Kabir

Kabir works at HumAngle as the Editor of Southern Operations. He is interested in community development reporting, human rights, social justice, and press freedom. He was a finalist in the student category of the African Fact-checking Award in 2018, a 2019 recipient of the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence, and a 2020 recipient of the Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award. He was also nominated in the journalism category of The Future Awards Africa in 2020. He has been selected for various fellowships, including the 2020 Civic Media Lab Criminal Justice Reporting Fellowship and 2022 International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) 'In The Name of Religion' Fellowship.

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