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War Correspondents Are No Longer Spies in the Eyes of the Pentagon

Updated Law of War manual removes references that equate journalism to participation in hostilities

Australian press photographer Gary Ramage photographs British troops in Afghanistan in 2010. (Kenny Holston (Flickr/Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

All’s fair in love and war—including, apparently, equating journalists with enemy combatants. That was the case in the United States until today, when, as the Associated Press reports, the Pentagon updated its Law of War manual to remove wording that implied that journalists can be considered spies and enemies by U.S. military commanders.

The updated manual strikes controversial text that was put into place in 2015. At the time, the Department of Defense released its first-ever Law of War manual, a lengthy document intended to serve as a resource on war-related international laws like the Geneva Convention for U.S. Armed Forces. The manual outlined everything from the conduct of hostilities to how the military should treat prisoners of war, and it also contained a provision on journalists that raised eyebrows.

“In general, journalists are civilians,” the manual wrote. “However, journalists may be members of the armed forces, persons authorized to accompany the armed forces, or unprivileged belligerents.” The manual compared journalistic activity to spying, stating that “in some cases, the relaying of information…could constitute taking a direct part in hostilities.” The text adds that a state might need to censor journalistic work to protect sensitive information from falling into enemy hands.

Those words provoked a furor among journalists themselves. The New York Times’ editorial board slammed the guidelines, calling for their immediate repeal and stating that they would make war correspondents’ work “more dangerous, cumbersome and subject to censorship.”

“Suspicion comes first,” a former Washington Post fixer and correspondent Naseer Nouri told the Montana Journalism Review. “[Military authorities look at journalists] like they are bad unless they prove otherwise.” Other organizations like the Associated Press also protested the guidelines.

In a written statement, the Department of Defense told Al Jazeera that it disagreed with criticism of the guidelines and that journalists misunderstood and were interpreting the manual. But pressure from news organizations seems to have prompted the agency to change its mind, the AP reports. The updated text softens language about journalists, removing the controversial description and stating that “engaging in journalism does not constitute taking a direct part in hostilities.” However, it still states that journalists could be considered combatants “if they otherwise acquire such status.” As combatants or belligerents, journalists could still be captured or stripped of the protections afforded civilians during war.

It remains to be seen whether the revised manual will be well-received by journalists, but the question of how to view war correspondents gains more urgency every time a journalist is captured or killed during combat. Thus far, the Committee to Protect Journalists has confirmed 23 journalist deaths in 2016 alone, 74 of whom covered war beats.

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