COLOMBIA: Langlois Case Raises Questions About Status of Journalists in War — Part 1

  • by Constanza Vieira (bogotÁ)
  • Inter Press Service

After he was handed over to international negotiators in a remote spot in the rainforest Wednesday, he told reporters he had been treated well.

On Apr. 28, Langlois boarded an army helicopter on an assignment for the France24 TV station to cover a raid on cocaine laboratories. The military had him put on a bullet-proof vest and a helmet.

The army mission was attacked by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and in the fighting, the journalist’s arm was wounded. He took off his vest and helmet, identified himself as a civilian and a reporter, and turned himself over to the rebels, who gave him medical assistance.

The FARC initially declared him a prisoner of war. Later they apparently conditioned his release on the holding of a public debate on journalistic coverage of Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict.

They also called on France’s new socialist president, François Hollande, to send a personal representative, who received Langlois Wednesday along with former Colombian senator Piedad Córdoba, who negotiated the FARC’s earlier release of 30 hostages and a commitment by the insurgent group to stop kidnapping for ransom.

The release operation was coordinated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Four soldiers were killed in the attack on the helicopter in which Langlois was riding, according to the military.

Although the reporter was injured, it did not represent a violation of international humanitarian law (IHL), because he was travelling in a military vehicle.

'If you survive, like in this case, they capture you. They have the obligation to give you care if you are wounded. Later they verify that you are a civilian, and they must treat you as one,' and civilians cannot be arbitrarily detained, ICRC spokeswoman in Colombia, María Cristina Rivera, told IPS.

Many press reports described Langlois as a 'war correspondent'. But Rivera warned that it is wrong to use this term in the case of an internal armed conflict.

She recommended 'using terms that do not have legal connotations,' such as 'journalist reporting on the war.'

'In IHL terminology, it’s ‘journalist on a dangerous mission’,' the head of the ICRC Colombia legal department, Marisela Silva, told IPS.

The 'war correspondent' label appeared in IHL around the year 1950, when the treatment that prisoners of war must receive in international armed conflicts was regulated.

'If a POW flees, he cannot be tried for escaping, because he was representing his country and has the right to fight. And when the conflict ends, he must be released,' Silva summed up.

IHL thus established that reporters accompanying troops to cover military operations must receive, at the very least, the same treatment as prisoners of war if captured.

War correspondents are not necessarily members of the armed forces, and are accredited to report on the conflict.

But under IHL, different rules apply to internal armed conflicts. A number of terms, and the concepts they represent, apply to international wars but not to internal conflicts like Colombia’s.

'IHL norms for non-international armed conflicts have been drafted with great care,' lawyer Alejandro Valencia Villa, a consultant to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Office in Colombia, commented to IPS.

The aim was to avoid differences with countries that they might use as an excuse not to apply the rules.

'In effect, a war correspondent is covering operations by one of the sides. But in legal terms, in a non-international armed conflict, it would never make sense to use that term,' Silva said.

Colombia’s internal armed conflict is reported on from the court rooms, the prosecutor’s office, and the economy, politics or culture desks of newspapers. It is also covered from war zones, and, of course, among the victims.

Journalists in Colombia, then, are basically civilians protected by IHL.

'But that protective status also requires that reporters act in a responsible manner,' Silva said. 'They are going to risk that protection if they get too close to the theatre of operations or if they accompany any of the sides in the conflict, which could be targeted in an unexpected attack.'

She stressed that 'It is impossible to ask the adversary to guess that inside a tank or helicopter, which could be attacked, is a civilian who should not be the target of an attack.'

The ICRC’s main recommendation for journalists in dangerous places is to read up on IHL rules on armed conflicts. The second is to keep in mind that they are civilians.

Reporters who take the risk of exposing themselves to a firefight must 'help the adversary distinguish them' from the combatants they are accompanying, Silva said. 'They have to try to make it as obvious as possible that they are civilians.

'A first practical recommendation is for journalists not to wear green. The colours of their clothes should be completely different from those of the soldiers. They should identify themselves as press workers, perhaps with a logo on some garment,' whenever they are near a conflict zone, she said.

'But there will always be risks, it’s inevitable, and I think it’s important for journalists to be fully aware of that,' she underscored.

Under the Colombian army’s security regulations, anyone on a helicopter in a military operation must wear a bullet-proof vest and helmet. The media, meanwhile, tend to evade their duty to provide their reporters with bullet-proof gear clearly marked 'press'.

But the issue goes further than that.

Silva mentioned 'obligations for the different sides in a conflict when there are civilians nearby.

'The essential rule is that the parties to the conflict must avoid, as much as possible, the proximity of civilians to military targets. That is, in the strictest interpretation of IHL, a civilian should not be inside either a tank or a helicopter,' she said.

'Before allowing (a reporter) to accompany troops, the parties to the conflict should take into account how complicated things are in the area where they are heading, whether there are hostilities or a risk of attack, and how high that risk is. And they should, at the very least, reduce it to a minimum,' she said.

That 'implies a great deal of prior intelligence work' by the armed force that the journalist is accompanying, she added.

© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service