Journalists themselves bear some responsibility for this weaponization of the media. Flag-waving by the U.S. media in the wake of 9/11 and a mirror-image jingoism among many Arab journalists mean news organizations on both sides are seen to be part of the war effort. The historic standing of the media as independent, reporting all perspectives without bias or distortion, was frittered away. But that does not mean journalists deserve to die.
Reporters without Borders has called for an investigation to determine whether the Geneva Conventions have been violated in Lebanon. But there is plenty of wiggle room in current international laws. Indeed, a Pentagon legal directive states, “Civilians and civilian property that make a direct contribution to the war effort may also be attacked…”
In an age when satellite television transmits real-time images from the battlefield, and when media drives public opinion which itself drives policies of war and peace, clearer legal protections for journalists are required.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has in his hands a proposal for an international law that would make it a war crime for any military force to specifically target journalists. Events now unfolding in the Middle East underscore the urgency of its passage.
Let’s not be naive. The UN hasn’t been able to protect itself - its Baghdad headquarters was leveled by a car bomb, four UN peacekeepers were killed last week in an Israeli attack on their base in south Lebanon, and the UN offices in Beirut and Gaza were sacked over the weekend. Even mass murderers rarely face international justice. So a UN resolution is not going to stop attacks on journalists by governments or non-state actors. But it will at least send a symbolic message back to those seeking to muzzle the press.
As al-Arabiya’s Nabil Khatib, who has seen eleven of his staffers killed in Iraq alone, recently told me, “This, with time, could build momentum where insurgents or military will be less violent. Now they feel they have a free hand.” Lawrence Pintak is the director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at The American University in Cairo. A former CBS News Middle East correspondent, his books include Beirut Outtakes; Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad; and, most recently, Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas. He can be reached at lpintak ~at~ aucegypt.edu.