More Legal Protection for Journalists?


On May first people around the world celebrate International Workers’ Day. Less known to the public are the festivities which take place Sunday, May third, in honor of World Press Freedom Day. On this date the international community celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.[1] This blog focusses on the (legal) protection of journalists.

Blog by H. Buisman


Human Rights

The rights of journalists are, inter alia, enshrined in several international human rights agreements, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (articles 15-19), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and regional human rights conventions, e.g. the American Convention on Human Rights. These conventions are enforced by the respectively courts of human rights.

Journalists play an important role in civil society, especially in times of armed conflict – they are frequently the means by which vital information regarding the conflict is collected, recorded and disseminated to the world at large.[2] Therefore, most of the journalists’ rights are explicitly stated in international humanitarian law (IHL).

International Humanitarian Law

The earliest reference in IHL was made in article 50 of the Lieber Code (Instructions for the Government of Armies of the US in the Field, during the US Civil War) in 1863. Herein it was stated that: ‘citizens who accompany an army for whatever purpose, such as settlers, editors, or reporters of journals, or contractors, if captured, may be made prisoners of war, and be detained as such’.[3] This particular provision was reiterated in the Geneva Conventions (article 4A of Geneva Convention III) and article 79 of Additional Protocol I in 1977. These articles guarantee rights to journalists when captured as prisoners of war. They are, therefore, protected against any act of violence, as well as against intimidation, insults, and public curiosity.[4] Furthermore, IHL defines minimum conditions of detention covering such issues as accommodation, food, clothing, hygiene and medical care.[5]


In view of the growing number of attacks against journalists the International Committee of the Red Cross (hereafter: ICRC) called for a better legal protection of journalists at their 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent in 2011. In their 4-Year Action Plan the ICRC incorporated objective 3, entitled ‘Enhanced protection of journalists and the role of the media with regard to international humanitarian law’.[6] This particular provision calls upon states to integrate specific components on the protection of journalists in armed conflicts in the international humanitarian law training of members of their armed forces.[7] Furthermore, states continue their efforts to disseminate relevant international humanitarian law on rights and responsibilities of journalists, as well as to provide security training to journalists to prepare them for eventualities arising in armed conflicts.[8] Besides the efforts of the ICRC, other interest groups, e.g. Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, advocate for adoption of an international treaty specifically dedicated to the protection of journalists.


The question is raised whether devising a new treaty specifically for journalists can guarantee protection of journalists’ rights. In peace time, journalists are entitled to the same protection of civilians under (international) human rights treaties and in times of armed conflict there are already provisions in IHL safeguarding journalists. In that respect another international treaty to protect journalist from e.g. violence is not needed. The fact that journalists are subject to violence is a result of a failure to observe the law, rather than a failure of the law itself.[9] The value of the existing laws should not be underestimated as there is widespread international support for, for example the Geneva Conventions, the Additional Protocol and human rights treaties.[10] 

In that respect maybe more effect lies in the promotion of these rights of journalists codified in treaties and conventions than in drafting another international treaty. The latter is time-consuming and difficult to arrange consensus between all negotiating parties. With that in mind the World Press Freedom Day, May third, is a good start to raise awareness for the important right of freedom of press and the promotion of the laws that protect journalists.


[1] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),

[2] Dinstein, Y., The International Status, Rights and Duties of Duly Accredited Journalists in Times of Armed Conflict, 73 Annuaire de l’Inst. De Droit International 451, 459 (2009).

[3] Lieber, F., Instructions for the government of armies of the United States in the Field 18 (1863) (emphasis added).

[4] International Committee of the Red Cross, Prisoners of War and Detainees,

[5] Idem

[6] International Committee of the Red Cross, 31st International Conference 2011, Resolution 2 – 4-Year Action Plan.

[7] Idem.

[8] Idem.

[9] Crawford, E., and K. Davies, The International Protection of Journalists in Times of Armed Conflict: The Campaign for a Press Emblem, in Wisconsin International Law Journal, vol. 32 no. 1 pp 1 – 36.

[10] Idem, p 35.

Bibliography manually
  • Crawford, E., and K. Davies, "The International Protection of Journalists in Times of Armed Conflict: The Campaign for a Press Emblem", Wisconsin International Law Journal, 32 (2014), No. 1, pp 1-36.
  • Düsterhöft, I., "Is Journalism the New (Inter)National Battlefield?: An Analysis of the Protections Offered to Journalists in Armed Conflict", Humanitäres Völkerrecht: Informationsschriften, 27 (2014), No.4, pp 156-168.
  • Levin, E., “Journalists as a Protected Category: A New Status for the Media in International Humanitarian Law”, UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs, 17 (2013), No. 1-2, pp. 215-250.
  • Lynch, J., A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict, New York; London, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.
  • Seaga Shaw, I., Human Rights Journalism: Advances in Reporting Distant Humanitarian Interventions, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  • Smith, W., "Europe to the Rescue: the Killing of Journalists in Russia and the European Court of Human Rights", The George Washington International Law Review, 43 (2011), No. 3, pp 493-527.