Each year the list of journalist deaths kept by the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders gets longer. Even though journalists are protected by international law, this protection is increasingly ineffective.
Reporters are increasingly targeted around the world
When journalists report from war and crisis areas, it is from this information that people worldwide get their sense of the situation on the ground. In order to be able to report truthfully, journalists not only need access but also should be entitled for protection of the state, said Guenter Nooke, Germany's human rights commissioner at a recent conference organized by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Berlin.
"If overcoming conflicts and creating peace is a high political objective, then states have to have a strong interest in free and truthful media about war and crises," Nooke said.
Fourth estate as the fifth front
The Philippines has one of the highest rates of journalist killings
Ulrich Tilgner, one of Germany's most prominent foreign correspondents, believes that war reporters are increasingly in danger. The situation for them is getting more and more complicated because, among other things, conflict groups operate apart from civil society.
"In the eyes of the warring parties, they are the fifth front in a war," he said.
Stefan Pauli from the Hesse Broadcasting Service (HR) has been traveling as a war reporter for 25 years. He said the need to feature a live report trumps the need for a background piece.
"We are in a position to report live from every sand dune, but we have no idea what is going on behind the sand dune," said Pauli.
Local staff also in danger
Due to time and budget pressures on the ground, reporters are increasingly relying on local staff -- so called stringers -- who, in turn, try to sell their information. However this also affects the quality of reports.
Christoph Maria Froehder, who as early as 1975 reported from Phnom Penh on the invasion of the Khmer Rouge, is a critic of such a system that relies too much on local stringers who are not trained journalists.
"The main assignment is hard to fulfill if one, let's put it brutally, walks in the tracks of CNN where they cannot do their own background story," said Froehder.
Because stringers are doing more and more of the reporting, they are the ones usually caught in the crossfire.
"We see that it is more often stringers that die, that accounts for over 80 percent of the cases," said Michael Rediske of the German office of Reporters Without Borders.
Stringers are also now the key source of pictures from violent areas in Iraq. Because they are untrained, experts feel that they will not always adhere to professional standards or accuracy.
"As it stands right now, I don't see that we have the criteria to sufficiently check these pictures," Rediske said.
Deciding wars with pictures
"Armies, irregular troops and terror groups are realizing that wars are also decided through news reports and pictures," Nooke explained. "The tendency of some groups involved in conflicts to try to influence journalists -- even by killing reporters -- has increased because of this."
A Japanese journalist was shot and killed while reporting in Burma
On the initiative of Greece and France, the UN Security Council at the end of 2006 addressed the issue of the growing danger for journalists.
Maria Telalian has worked on the draft resolution.
"The text asks all conflict parties to respect journalists and media staff and to offer special protection," she said.
Resolution 1738, adopted by the Security Council on Dec. 20, 2006, condemns the killing of journalists and confirms their status as protected civilians.
One continuing problem though remains the impunity of offenders. About 90 percent of the murders are not prosecuted, according to Mogens Schmidt, UNESCO deputy-director for communications and information.
There is no shortage of binding international rules for the protection of reporters, but there is a lack of enforcement. Since this depends mostly on political will, the UN resolution calls upon states to show what they have done to protect journalists and to prosecute offenders.