In times of war, Pentagon reserves right to treat journalists like spies

This piece was originally posted by the Committee to Protect Journalists on CPJ’s blog here.

In times of war, Pentagon reserves right to treat journalists like spies

by Frank Smyth, July 21, 2015

A press briefing at the Pentagon in April. Worrying guidelines on how the military can categorize the press during conflict are contained in the Defense Department's Law of War Manual. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

A press briefing at the Pentagon in April. Worrying guidelines on how the military can categorize the press during conflict are contained in the Defense Department’s Law of War Manual. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

The Pentagon has produced its first Department of Defense-wide Law of WarManual and the results are not encouraging for journalists who, the documents state, may be treated as “unprivileged belligerents.” But the manual’s justification for categorizing journalists this way is not based on any specific case, law or treaty. Instead, the relevant passages have footnotes referring to either other parts of the document or matters not germane to this legal assertion. And the language used to attempt to justify this categorization is weak at best.

This broad and poorly defined category gives U.S. military commanders across all services the purported right to at least detain journalists without charge, and without any apparent need to show evidence or bring a suspect to trial. The Obama administration’s Defense Department appears to have taken the ill-defined practices begun under the Bush administration during the War on Terror and codified them to formally govern the way U.S. military forces treat journalists covering conflicts.

The manual’s impact overseas, especially in the short run, may be even worse. The language used to justify treating journalists as “unprivileged belligerents” comes at a time when international law for conflict is being flouted by armed groups–including government, militia, and insurgent forces–from Ukraine and Iraq to Nigeria and the Congo–and during a time in which CPJ has documented record numbers of journalists being imprisoned and killed. At a time when international leadership on human rights and press freedom is most needed, the Pentagon has produced a self-serving document that is unfortunately helping to lower the bar.

So far the manual has received little press, but both The Washington Times andRussia Today covered it. The Moscow-funded global news outlet Russia Todayquoted Chris Chambers, a Georgetown University undergraduate communications professor, saying that the manual gives U.S. military forces “license to attack” journalists.

At 1,180 pages long and with 6,196 footnotes, the manual includes vague and contradictory language about when and how the category of “unprivileged belligerents” might be applied to journalists. It ignores the most relevant cases where the U.S. military detained war correspondents and accused them of being–using the term coined by Pentagon officials in the 2000s–“unlawful combatants,” without producing evidence or bringing even one accused journalist to trial. The manual mentions international human rights treaties and declarations, but ignores the most important one, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which deals most clearly with the right to free expression and the press.

The Law of War manual is the Defense Department’s most ambitious endeavor of its kind to date. Yet its authority already seems in doubt. The last paragraph in the preface written by lead author and top Pentagon lawyer, Stephen W. Preston, is a disclaimer stating that, while the manual represents the views of the Defense Department, it does not necessarily represent the view of the government. Weeks after the document was released, Preston, who previously served as general counsel to the CIA, resigned quietly without any public notification. He could not be located for comment.

The manual devotes attention to “classes of persons” who “do not fit neatly within the dichotomy” between combatants and civilians, and replaces the term “unlawful combatants,” which U.S. officials used to refer to terrorist suspects held under extra-legal circumstances in the wake of September 11, 2001 attacks, with “unprivileged belligerent.”

“Unprivileged” means the suspect is not entitled to the rights afforded to prisoners of war under international law and can instead be held as a criminal suspect in a category that includes suspected spies, saboteurs, and guerrillas.

Prisoners of war are protected internationally with rights that include being treated humanely, having their status as prisoners reported to a neutral body such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and being held with the expectation of release once hostilities end. “Unprivileged belligerents,” however, like “spies, saboteurs and other persons engaging in similar acts behind enemy lines,” according to the Law of War Manual, may be subject to domestic laws. The domestic penalties for such suspects can include, for instance, the death penalty for those found guilty of spying.

“In general, journalists are civilians. However, journalists may be members of the armed forces, persons authorized to accompany the armed forces, or unprivileged belligerents,” reads the manual. While the document notes in other parts that journalists can work independently, in this section it fails to explain under what circumstances, or for what kinds of activities the category “unprivileged belligerents” could be applied to journalists.

A Pentagon spokesman offered a few examples. “The fact that a person is a journalist does not prevent that person from becoming an unprivileged belligerent,” U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Sowers, of the Pentagon’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, told The Washington Times. Sowers pointed to the al-Qaeda publication Inspire, saying that propagandists for terrorist groups could be categorized as unprivileged belligerents. So could enemy spies who use journalism as a cover, he added.

But the language in the Pentagon manual seems to at least qualify one of the spokesman’s claims. In footnote 241, which refers to section 2.24.1 on independent journalists, the manual cites a U.N. report to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. “Whether the media constitutes a legitimate target group is a debatable issue. If the media is used to incite crimes, as in Rwanda, then it is a legitimate target. If it is merely disseminating propaganda to generate support for the war effort, it is not a legitimate target,” it states.

The manual does not create new laws, Sowers told CPJ. Instead, it “provides a description” of existing laws-of-war rules for “informational purposes; it is not an authorization for any person to take any particular action related to journalists or anyone else.”

The U.S. military has taken action against journalists before. Bilal Hussein, whose photo of insurgents firing on U.S. soldiers in Fallujah in 2004 helped earn Associated Press photographers, including Hussein, the Pulitzer Prize, was detained by Marines in 2006 and held for two years. The U.S. military never provided evidence or an explanation for the detention of the AP photographer, who was presented with CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2008.

Sami al-Haj, an Al-Jazeera cameraman, was detained in December 2001 by Pakistani forces along the Afghan-Pakistani border while covering a U.S.-led offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. military forces accused the Sudanese cameraman of being a financial courier for armed groups and assisting al-Qaeda and extremist figures, but never provided evidence to support the claims,CPJ found in its 2006 report “Sami al-Haj: The Enemy?” Al-Haj, who is now is head of the human rights and public liberties department at Al-Jazeera, was held for six years at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo, Cuba. Prior to releasing him, U.S. military officials tried to compel al-Haj to agree to spy on Al-Jazeera as a condition of his release, his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, told CPJ and media outlets.

One section of the Law of War Manual deals with “Mixed Cases” made up of “(1) certain personnel engaged in humanitarian duties; (2) certain authorized supporters of armed forces; and (3) unprivileged belligerents.” But journalists are not among the examples listed in this category, Sowers told CPJ, and the section that does deal with journalists treats them as “a factual category rather than a legal case.”

Factually speaking, the manual acknowledges “independent journalists” are “regarded as civilians.” But it also rightfully notes limits and cases that could lead a journalist to lose their legal status as a member of the press. For instance, “journalism does not constitute taking a direct part in hostilities such that such a person would be deprived of protection from being made the object of attack.” The manual adds: “In some cases, the relaying of information (such as providing information of immediate use in combat operations) could constitute taking direct part in hostilities.”

U.S. military authorities made similar, unsubstantiated claims about AP’s Hussein and Al-Jazeera’s al-Haj, whose cases the manual ignores. Instead the manual offers its own perspective on how journalists covering conflict should operate.

“Reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying. A journalist who acts as a spy may be subject to security measures and punished if captured,” it states. “To avoid being mistaken for spies, journalists should act openly and with the permission of relevant authorities. Presenting identification documents, such as the identification card issued to authorized war correspondents or other appropriate identification, may help journalists avoid being mistaken as spies.”

As any conflict reporter knows, the idea of finding relevant authorities and seeking permission to report on a battlefield would be as unlikely as it would be unwise. Who constitutes relevant authorities is often impossible to determine in shifting battle lines. Moreover, the manual’s language seems to weaken the point of other passages that affirm the right of independent reporters to be on the battlefield.

Finally, the language in paragraph 4.24.5 “Security Precautions and Journalists” simply contradicts the post-World War II norm of a free press. “States may need to censor journalists’ work or take other security measures so that journalists do not reveal sensitive information to the enemy. Under the law of war, there is no special right for journalists to enter a State’s territory without its consent or to access areas of military operations without the consent of the State conducting those operations,” it says.

To delay journalists who are embedded with the military from filing information that could be of use to an enemy for a reasonable period of time is one thing. But to flatly ban journalists from conflict areas, or to restrict or censor them from filing allegedly sensitive information, which the manual fails to specify or explain, would be a violation of international documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under Article 19, the declaration affirms not only the right to free expression, but the right to “receive and impart information through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The manual ignores it, even though the declaration was conceived and sponsored by the U.S.

The manual addresses other human rights treaties and documents, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, noting that tension can indeed arise between them and the laws of war. But the manual continues to state that the rules of war trump human rights treaties on the battlefield. “These apparent conflicts may be resolved by the principle that the law of war is the lex specialis during situations of armed conflict, and, as such, is the controlling body of law with regard to the conduct of hostilities and the protection of war victims.”

Authors involved in some of the manual’s earlier drafts argued in The Weekly Standard that prior drafts were too deferential to human rights concerns due to the influence of Obama administration State Department political appointees and human rights activists on the National Security Council. The manual goes on to note that “human rights treaties would clearly be controlling with respect to matters that are within their scope of application and that are not addressed by the laws of war,” using language suggesting that a compromise may have been reached to try to find balance.

The manual states in its preface that it has built on antecedent manuals by U.S. military services, the most important of which was a U.S. Army manual on The Law of Land Warfare published in 1956. Military legal experts from the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia also had input, as did unspecified “distinguished scholars.”

The manual ignores many other scholars. While it includes 21 citations, for instance, to a 1923 Commission of Jurists to Consider and Report Upon the Revision of the Rules of Warfare, the manual arguably ignores more relevant documents, including a 2009 International Commission of Jurists report on the Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-terrorism and Human Rights (to which I testified on behalf of CPJ about the U.S. treatment of journalists).

By giving approval for the military to detain journalists on vague national security grounds, the manual is sending a disturbing message to dictatorships and democracies alike. The same accusations of threats to national security are routinely used to put journalists behind bars in nations including China, Ethiopia, and Russia to name just a few.

The message the manual sends to U.S. forces may have serious repercussions for press freedom and conflict journalists for years to come. By simply declaring a journalist an “unprivileged belligerent,” military commanders may now well claim the right to be able hold journalists for long periods outside the normal laws of war.

UPDATE: The twenty-fourth paragraph of this blog has been updated to reflect that the comments made in The Weekly Standard were related to early drafts of the manual.

Do news blackouts help journalists held captive?

Read the original article at CPJ’s Journalist Security Blog here.

Do news blackouts help journalists held captive?

At any given time over the past two years, as wars raged in Libya and then Syria, and as other conflicts ground on in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, a number of journalists have been held captive by a diverse array of forces, from militants and rebels to criminals and paramilitaries. And at any given time, a small handful of these cases–sometimes one or two, sometimes more–have been purposely kept out of the news media. That is true today.

News organizations have invoked the captives’ safety in seeking media blackouts. But do the blackouts really benefit the individuals being held captive?

Different actors hold journalists for various reasons. Ransom can be one, as captors have demanded cash for journalists in Colombia, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Politics can be another, as captors have used journalists like the late Daniel Pearl in Pakistan to communicate a political message. Influencing coverage can be another motive. This month, five employeesincluding three non-journalists of El Siglo de Torreón in northern Mexico were held for over 10 hours before being released.

Extracting information can be another motivation. Last June Mining News editor Franck Fwamba was abducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and interrogated for 11 hours about his finances, sources and relationships. Concerns over espionage can be yet another motive. In 1991, a French photojournalist and I were held by Iraqi government forces who, for a time, accused us of being spies.

The key tests are whether press coverage will work for or against the captive individuals (whether they are news personnel or not) and how the captives’ interests are balanced against the public’s right to information.

“This is not a uniform thing. Each case is different,” said David Rohde, a Thomson Reuters foreign affairs columnist and a former New York Times correspondent who was held hostage for seven months in Afghanistan.

It’s a divisive issue among the press corps, whether to honor a request not to report about a journalist in captivity. In December, Turkish news outlets and the U.S.-based website Gawker, whose slogan is “today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news,” broke a blackout sought by NBC News on the kidnapping in Syria of correspondent Richard Engel and his crew.

The effect of breaking that blackout is largely unknown; the NBC crew was freed within hours of the first public reports. But John Cook’s report in Gawker, in particular, provoked outrage from journalists and human rights defenders who often work alongside each other in conflict areas. Human Rights Watch’s Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert encouraged members of a closed, war correspondents’ group on Facebook to bombard Gawker with emails demanding the website remove the story.

“Yo @johnjcook, ever put yr life on line in hostile country to report story 4 Gawker? Don’t 2nd guess @NBCNews if you havent,” tweeted Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post senior correspondent and associate editor and CPJ board member.

Cook said he spoke with NBC but decided not to go along with the network’s request. “No one at NBC made a case to me that reporting Engel’s situation might cause anything concrete to happen to him, because they didn’t know anything about his current circumstances,” he wrote. “And as a more general question, it’s not clear how publicity as a rule increases risk to kidnapping victims.”

Research by the Committee to Protect Journalists does offer some insight. Engel later said that his captors seemed most interested in getting a ransom. The captors, Syrian militiamen, executed the news crew’s Syrian rebel escort but acted to keep the Western journalists alive. “I didn’t think they were going to execute us at first,” Engel said in an on-camera interview after their release. “They clearly wanted us as hostages. This was a hostage-taking scenario.”

Many observers maintain that publicity in ransom cases complicates efforts to secure the captive’s safe return. “Negotiations with kidnappers could be more difficult if they become aware that they’re holding a ‘big fish,'” noted the Canadian Association of Journalists after the CBC requested a media blackout in 2008 during correspondent Mellissa Fung’s four-week kidnapping in Afghanistan.

“My kidnappers had a delusional idea about the kind of ransom they could get for me,” Rohde told CPJ, saying that press would have only worsened his and a colleague’s chances of survival. The New York Times requested a blackout after an initial report by Al Jazeera about his abduction, and all but a few isolated news outlets honored it. As his ordeal dragged on, Rohde and a colleague eventually managed to escape.

Robert Young Pelton, an author, journalist, and publisher of the Somalia Report, is skeptical of news organizations’ motives behind blackouts. “In many cases, these blackouts are just a bald-faced attempt to buy time, mitigate bad publicity, reduce financial impact, and hide corporations’ incompetence in their ability to get their employees back,” he wrote in a piece for Gawker on the NBC case.

The blackout in Rohde’s case went as far as to include sites such as Wikipedia, which erased user-editor posts about his kidnapping a dozen times before finally freezing the page. New York Times journalists also altered Rohde’s bios on the Times‘ website and, using a pseudonym, also on Wikipedia, as the paper later disclosed in a story once Rohde was free. Colleagues removed the name of his prior employer as it included the word “Christian” along with Rohde’s investigations of groups like Al-Qaeda, while emphasizing his investigation of the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims.

Some were disquieted by such widespread manipulation. Poynter Institute ethicist Kelly McBride said she was “really astounded” by the media blackout. “I find it a little disturbing, because it makes me wonder what else 40 international news organizations have agreed not to tell the public,” McBride told NPR.

Journalists do have a duty to report the news. It was one thing to withhold information about the kidnapping of Rohde, who is very prominent in the field but is not a household name. But would it have been practical or ethical for dozens of news organizations to withhold information for many months about Engel, whose face is seen in millions of homes on a regular basis?

History and context provide some guidelines. Withholding information so as not to endanger individuals, including U.S. soldiers, has been an accepted journalistic practice over time. In 1994, all four major American network television news divisions voluntarily withheld information that U.S. war planes had lifted off from Fort Bragg, N.C., to support a planned invasion of Haiti, only to report the news after the invasion was cancelled.

But some critics complain that news organizations don’t apply media blackouts to non-journalists. “Stopping the flow of information about a kidnapped foreign correspondent suggests that media outlets value the lives of their own personnel above those of other people they report on,” wrote Blake Lambert, a Canadian freelance journalist for the Christian Science Monitor and other news outlets, on the website of the London-based International News Safety Institute after Fung’s Afghan ordeal.

For news outlets to give fellow journalists special treatment would seem indefensible. But it’s not clear-cut that is happening. More than 1,000 people, virtually all non-journalists, have been held hostage in Somalia every year, for example, according to news reports. Only a handful of them receive press attention.

Some news organizations have maintained that journalists held hostage receive no special treatment. Back in 1994, at least 15 news organizations honored an AP request not to report the kidnapping of its correspondent, Tina Susman, who was released after 20 days of captivity in Mogadishu. “We would withhold news of a kidnapping of anyone if we felt that it was not already in the public domain, and if we felt that coverage would further imperil the person’s life or the prospect of an early release,” AP’s then-International Editor Tom Kent explained toAmerican Journalism Review after the ordeal.

Another matter concerns freelance journalists. Several analysts point out that the abductions of freelance journalists are not subjected to the same level of pre-publication scrutiny as those of staff journalists who are kidnapped. Some cases of freelancers are publicized even when they appear similar to those involving staff journalists that are kept quiet. Other cases of freelancers receive little press attention even when coverage of their status would help them.

I know from my own experience how corporate interests can work against journalists held captive. In 1991, during the post-Gulf War uprisings against Saddam Hussein, colleagues and I crossed into Iraq with anti-Saddam rebels. A European colleague, Gad Gross, was executedalong with our armed rebel escort. A French colleague, Alain Buu, and I were captured an hour later and held captive for 18 days. We were missing as far as our editors and family members knew.

A longtime, accredited CBS News radio stringer, I was also carrying network video equipment that CBS television producers asked me to bring in once the radio desk told them that I was going into Iraq. Once my colleague and I went missing, my family still had to push the network to report the case. A debate ensued at the network, with CBS lawyers arguing that giving our story press could be perceived as implying network liability, CBS colleagues later told me. Having CBS News step up to confirm that I was a journalist was key, as Iraqi authorities were accusing me of being an intelligence agent. In any such case, press coverage can help by convincing suspicious captors that the captives are independent journalists, and by underscoring that any actions to harm them would also not go unnoticed. Conversely, sometimes keeping the kidnapping of a journalist -whether a freelancer or not– out of the press can help persuade captors to release the captive and still save face.

There is no single template showing how to handle such cases, as each deserves its own careful examination. But a few guidelines come to mind:


  • Each case is unique, but standards should be consistent. News organizations need to apply the same test of balancing the captive’s interest against the public’s right to know. That is true whether the captive is a journalist or not. And the scale can tip the more any hostage is well-known, whether he or she is a journalist or not.
  • Evidence suggests that publicity can fuel ransom demands for anyone held hostage, although more research needs to be done. Publicity can put captives in danger if it leads to higher ransoms that family members or news organizations are unable to meet.
  • The motive of captors must be scrutinized in each case to determine whether their goal is ransom, political gain, media influence, or something else. This may be difficult to determine. But it should nonetheless help guide any decision weighing whether press would be more likely to help or hinder the captive’s well-being.
  • The decision over whether or not press is desirable should be made by a coalition of stakeholders led by family members, who should independently evaluate the recommendations of news directors and security advisers. (This is especially important in the case of freelancers.) And they should remain open to changing their decisions as a situation develops.
  • Keeping a case out of the public eye is increasingly difficult today due to the Internet; the challenge increases if the captive is a well-known public figure. News organizations may be able to persuade other major outlets to keep a case quiet, but they face extraordinary challenges in scrubbing information posted across the Web. It may be more practical to release limited information about an abduction early, then manage the flow closely.
  • If publicity is desired, close management of information is essential. Colleagues and family members may decide it best to release some information, but still try to keep the case relatively quiet. Advocates may also decide to shape the narrative of a journalist held captive–highlighting one nationality over another, for example, in the case of a person with dual citizenship. Or by highlighting stories captors might see favorably. Or by downplaying information about matters like financial holdings.
  • Journalists do deserve special treatment in one respect. In the case of media blackout or manipulation of information, the public trust must be maintained and readers or the broadcast audience should be informed afterward what was done and why, and the record should be set straight.
  • Do no harm should guide decisions. Claiming that there is no evidence that harm would be done by publicizing a case is not an argument in favor of publicity. Instead, every news outlet should consider whether press is likely to help or hinder the interests of not the news organization or any other entity, but the individual –whether they are news personnel or not–at risk in captivity.


The matter is hardly an academic one for journalists and others either known to be in captivity or still missing today. Freelance journalist James Foley, a contributor to Global Post, was kidnapped in northwest Syria late last year; his family waited six weeks before deciding to make the case public. He remains missing. Austin Tice, a freelance journalist for McClatchy newspapers and The Washington Post, was seized in Damascus in August, and what appears to be a staged video of him in captivity leads observers to suggest that Syrian government forces may be holding him. His parents recently traveled to Beirut to try and appeal to whoever may be holding him.

Neither is the risk limited to Western correspondents. Mohamed al-Saeed of Syrian State TV was kidnapped last August in Damascus and he, like many others, remains missing. Bashar Fahmi of the U.S.-government broadcaster Al-Hurra and his Turkish cameraman disappeared in Syria reporting in Aleppo. The Turkish cameraman was captured and released almost 90 days later. But Fahmi is still missing, and his fate remains unknown.

The over-riding guideline: Every captive situation requires the same degree of care and balance of interests as any story where lives are in peril, whether the captives are journalists or not.

Frank Smyth is CPJ’s senior adviser for journalist security. He has reported on armed conflicts, organized crime, and human rights from nations including El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Cuba, Rwanda, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Jordan, and Iraq. Follow him on Twitter @JournoSecurity.

Solidarity, a key to security, eludes Salvadoran press

The original blog is posted here.

By Frank Smyth/Senior Adviser for Journalist Security

No other journalists are remembered quite like this. Visitors looking through the glass display at the Monsignor Romero Center & Martyrs Museum in San Salvador see the pajamas and other clothes that three Jesuit university priests were wearing when they were shot down by automatic rifle fire. A series of clear containers are filled with dark blades of grass cut from the campus lawn where each had spilled his blood.

These priests were slain back in 1989 by El Salvador’s U.S.-backed military leadership during the largest battle of the nation’s long civil war. In a decision seen as a press freedom milestone, CPJ considered the three university Jesuits (who were slain along with three other Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter to eliminate witnesses) to be journalists. The names of Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, and Segundo Montes are also etched into the glass plates of the Journalists Memorial at the Newseum in Washington.

The three university Jesuits had independently chronicled events and criticized policies through a decade of war after tens of thousands of Salvadorans, many of them independent critics, were murdered or driven into exile. At a time when two right-wing dailies dominated domestic news, the Jesuit university weekly newsletter and bimonthly journal ran analysis and commentary along with select foreign stories in translation, including a few of mine.

The Salvadoran press is diverse today, much like the nation’s politics. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, the party bearing the name of a 1930s-era revolutionary leader, is now in power. A former leftist guerrilla is now a critical columnist for the nation’s most conservative daily. And a new generation of talented investigative journalists is emerging.

But all of this is happening in a professional void in El Salvador, which does not have a long tradition of independent journalism. The generational evolution of journalistic mentors passing on lessons to the next crop of reporters is largely missing here, along with a strong professional culture and sense of solidarity.

I returned to El Salvador last week to help lead a workshop on journalist security at a far-ranging event called the Central American Journalism Forum. The event was organized by the online news outlet El Faro, which is subsidized by the Open Society Foundations. The very notable speakers included Frank La Rue, the U.N. special rapporteur for free expression, the Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú, and the legendary investigative journalists Gustavo Gorritiof Peru and Monica Gonzalez of Chile.

But only a handful of journalists from El Salvador and other Central American nations joined in the conference. Neither the dynamic Salvadoran online magazine ContraPunto, run by the son of a legendary guerrilla leader murdered in internecine violence, nor the fledging Salvadoran press freedom group, APES, or Association of El Salvador Journalists, which recently called a press conference to defend El Faro, were given roles at the forum.

Journalists working in risky nations such as Colombia and Brazil have learned that solidarity in the press corps is essential to survival. After seeing dozens of their colleagues murdered, leading journalists in each of those nations organized press freedom groups to combat anti-press crimes, and collaborative investigative groups to diffuse the risk while working on sensitive stories.

Many people think journalist security involves the use of encrypted files and counter-surveillance techniques–and those practices do have their place. But security is really a way of thinking, a way of approaching your work. And fostering professional solidarity is crucial to that approach.

Isolation can be dangerous, and one recent episode in El Salvador illustrates the potential risk. In March, Security and Justice Minister David Munguía Payés called a press conference to respond to a hard-hitting story by El Faro–and invited reporters from every major news outlet except El Faro. During the press conference the security minister said El Faro journalists could be in danger for their reporting; in response to a question, he raised the case of a French journalist murdered here three years ago.

El Faro and the French journalist, a documentarian and contributor to ContraPunto, were investigating gangs. Most notably, El Faro had exposed the secret transfer of imprisoned gang leaders to less restrictive jails. The minister took issue with some aspects of El Faro‘s reporting.

Last week, I asked Munguía Payés at a public event whether his comments were intended to threaten El Faro‘s journalists. No, he replied, although he admitted that not inviting the online news magazine’s reporters to the press conference was a mistake. No doubt, but solidarity among the Salvadoran press corps was also lacking.

Journalists did not appear to object to El Faro‘s exclusion from the press conference, “especially those that in some way enjoy certain privileges of political or economic power in the country,” noted one blogger and University of El Salvador photojournalism graduate.

Journalists in Colombia and Brazil have paid a terrible price for their in-depth reporting: They have been murdered, assaulted, kidnapped, and forced to flee. El Salvador’s new generation of journalists has not been tested so severely yet, but these talented reporters would do well to be proactive, to work together, and to speak as one on the issues that endanger them all.

They are picking up where the late Jesuits left off, cutting their own swaths. But, this time, blood should not be spilled.

(Reporting from San Salvador)

UPDATE: This post has been corrected in the thirteenth paragraph to reflect that the blogger is a photojournalism graduate of University of El Salvador, not Jesuit university as previously stated.

Frank Smyth is CPJ’s senior adviser for journalist security. He has reported on armed conflicts, organized crime, and human rights from nations including El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Cuba, Rwanda, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Jordan, and Iraq. Follow him on Twitter @JournoSecurity.

Caveat utilitor: Satellite phones can always be tracked

The original blog is posted here.

Caveat utilitor: Satellite phones can always be tracked

The Telegraph in London was the first to report that Syrian government forces could have “locked on” to satellite phone signals to launch the rocket attacks that killed journalists Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik, as well as many Syrian civilians, besides wounding dozens more including two more international journalists. Working out of a makeshift press center in Homs, foreign correspondents and local citizen journalists alike have been using satellite phones to send images of attacks on civilians around the world.

Without evidence, it is impossible to know whether Syrian forces tracked the journalists’ satellite signals to target the attack. And one should keep in mind that the building being used as a makeshift press center in Homs may have been known to many people in the city.

Yet the consensus among technologists devoted to Internet freedom is clear.

“Satellite phone tracking is not only possible, it’s widely used by military and security services,” one human rights-oriented technologist with experience training citizen activists in Syria told CPJ.

Jacob Appelbaum, a technologist associated with the Internet circumvention tool popular among human rights activists known as Tor, was among the first to warn journalists via @ioerror on Twitter: “No matter what – unless you ‘know’ otherwise, your Satellite phone almost certainly discloses your exact GPS location in an insecure manner.”

There are at least three ways to track a satellite phone. Tracking radio frequency emissions is one. “It is relatively simple to receive this signal for a trained technician, ” reports SaferMobile, a U.S.-based nonprofit group dedicated to helping activists, human rights defenders and journalists share information, in a blog this week pegged to the above attack.

Using commercially available tracking devices is another. “There is ample technology already on the market for doing so,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, another, San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, wrote in a blog yesterday. Companies including the Polish firm TS2 sell monitoring equipment to track different models of satellite phones. The Italian firm Area SpA sold surveillance equipment to Syria last year in advance of the current crackdown, according to Bloomberg News and EFF.

Finally, satellite phones can be tracked through their own built-in GPS devices or weak encryption protocols. “It is very likely that the GPS location data is transmitted by the sat phone in the clear,” reports Safer Mobile. “Additionally and important as a side note — aside from revealing your location with a sat phone — the encryption used by commercial satellite telephone systems has been recently cracked.”

So what are journalists and citizen journalists to do? In an environment where normal Internet access is either shut down or severely restricted, satellite phones remain a key way to transmit and report information. For now, alternatives such as amateur radio links or — as this report from Syria suggests, using carrier pigeons — are largely infeasible replacements.

Technologists with experience operating in hostile environments tell CPJ that one should use a satellite phone in such situations only with strict radio discipline:

-Avoid using a satellite phone (or any radio frequency based device) from the same position more than once.

-Avoid using a satellite phone or similar device from a location that cannot be easily evacuated in case of attack.

-Keep the maximum length of any transmission to 10 minutes at most, then cease transmitting and change location as soon as possible.

-Avoid having multiple parties transmit from the same location, i.e. a central media center may be too dangerous to operate in a place like Homs, Syria.

Journalist security: An evolving field

Original story ran on the Committee to Protect Journalists blog.

The garden city between the mountains and the sea founded by Vikings in 871 cast an historic hue over the discussion. Journalists from nearly every continent gathered this past weekend to discuss journalist security issues in a hotel in Tønsberg, Norway, outside of which a replica of a Viking ship was being constructed.

Marcela Turati is a Mexican journalist who explained that she never expected to cover violence or organized crime. The founder of Mexico’s first group established by journalists to help each other, Journalists on Foot, she perhaps set the tone when she tossed aside the bravado that often accompanies such forums and frankly said, “We need help in how to handle our fear.”

The journalist security community only began to identify itself as such less than a decade ago in the wake of events since 9/11. It remains an emerging field which now seems to have at least as many questions as answers.

For years journalist security was associated with “hostile environments and emergency first-aid training” provided by private security firms led and staffed almost exclusively by former British military personnel. Such skills remain invaluable for journalists covering ongoing conflicts in nations like Yemen or Libya, or ongoing wars in nations like Afghanistan or Iraq. But one fact remains: In every single nation in conflict around the world–including in both Afghanistan and Iraq–more journalists have been murdered outright than have been killed in combat or other circumstances like suicide bombings.

“I’ve taken one of those classes,” said Kirstin Solberg, who is based in Pakistan for the Norwegian daily Aftenposten, referring to a battlefield awareness and first-aid class. “They help,” she added. “But there are many things they don’t cover.”

Take a matter like how to handle coverage of organized crime. Javier Garza, editorial director of the Mexican newspaper, El Siglo de Torreón, said that he and his colleagues are literally making it up as they go along. They have no doubt earned credibility along the way. Rotating reporters in and out of crime beats to lessen their own stress and make them less of a target, and removing bylines as needed are among the steps he and his colleagues would recommend to others.

But covering organized crime in a nation like Mexico poses another set of challenges. Don’t identify by name the groups involved in shootouts, arrests, or raids, Garza recommended. Take violent stories off the front page as much as possible. In other words, Garza explained, don’t allow yourself as journalists and news outlets to be a conduit for criminal groups seeking to use the press to pass on grisly messages as a way of flaunting their strength to one another.

Or take the issue of sexual assault against journalists. Most of the paramilitary and emergency first-aid courses offered by private security firms did not include separate training or awareness on how to avoid sexual assaults. The journalist security community took most of their cues from these military-oriented experts and courses. Yet, some relief agencies working in unpredictable, field situations have long included sexual assault avoidance and awareness as part of their security training curriculum.

Or take the issue of stress reactions by journalists covering violent or traumatic events. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma only began offering fellowships to journalists in 1999. Since then, the journalist trauma awareness community has worked to have the matter integrated into journalist security training curriculums. Another security concern for journalists that has become only more apparent in recent years is the need for digital information and communications security. How to protect notes and documents on your hard drive, like how to safely communicate with sources and editors are increasingly complex questions in an interconnected world of ever-evolving technology.

Whether it’s safe or even wise to be either on Facebook (or to be too transparent on it) was one of the last points of discussion. Afterward, I noticed that my friend and colleague, the Mexican editor Garza, posted a picture on Facebook of the Viking ship replica being built outside the hotel.

Frank Smyth is CPJ’s Washington representative and journalist security coordinator. He has reported on armed conflicts, organized crime, and human rights from nations including El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Rwanda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Iraq. Follow him on Twitter @SmythFrank.

April 7, 2011 2:10 PM ET

In U.S., Dangerous Misconceptions from TSA Poster

Original story ran on the Committee to Protect Journalists blog.

Back in 2004, Iraqi gunmen loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr abducted U.S. freelance photographer Paul Taggert because, as they later told The Associated Press, they thought he was a spy. Now, a new poster from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration reinforces dangerous misconceptions by depicting a photographer as a terrorist.

“Don’t let our planes get into the wrong hands,” reads the poster’s caption beneath an image of a man holding a camera with a telescopic lens pointed through the chain-link fence of an airport. The poster comes a year after U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano went on Fox News and urged viewers to be suspicious. “If they see, for example, somebody continually taking photographs of a piece of critical infrastructure that doesn’t seem to make any sense.”

The National Press Photographers Association sent a letter on Monday to Napolitano, asking her to order U.S. security authorities to remove the poster from display. “It is my understanding that airport administrators have been directed to post and prominently display this material around airports ‘one poster per entrance,'” stated NPPA General Counsel Mickey H. Osterreicher, who signed the letter. “I would have hoped that DHS and TSA would have been more sensitive to free speech concerns after your statement last year on Fox News regarding photography.”

Worldwide, photographers are regularly detained and harassed for doing their job. And that’s true in the United States as well. Lance Rosenfeld was on assignment this year for ProPublica and the PBS program “Frontline,” taking photographs related to the Gulf oil spill, when he fell under suspicion. Rosenfeld was detained in July near BP’s refinery in Texas City, Texas by police and released only after authorities reviewed his images and collected his personal identification information, which they then shared with BP, the company whose off-shore drilling resulted in the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

“In any free country, the balance between actual vigilance and overzealous enforcement is delicate,” the photographers association wrote last year to Napolitano. “It is one thing for DHS to act when there is probable cause; it is quite another to abuse that discretion in order to create a climate that chills free speech under the pretext of safety and security. It is our position that the material targeted at the general aviation community does just that.”

Jammeh ‘Award’ Coverage Reflects Chill in Gambian Press

Original story ran on the Committee to Protect Journalists blog.

PRI’s “The World” Oct. 1, 2010, interview on the story with Frank:

“President Jammeh bags 4 awards,” trumpeted a September 17 headline of the Daily Observer, a pro-government newspaper in the Gambia, a West African nation whose idyllic façade as “the smiling coast of Africa” is maintained in part by President Yahyah Jammeh’s brutal repression of the independent press.

Under the headline, Observer reported that “two of the awards with an accompanying letter came from the president of the United States of America, Barrack [sic] Obama, who commended the Gambian leader for the accolade, and also commended him ‘for helping to address the most pressing needs’ in his community.” The Gambia State House’s website similarly reported: “In a letter accompanying his two awards, the U.S. President Barrack [sic] Obama described President Jammeh as an inspirational leader and thanked him for his exemplary dedication, determination, and perseverance for the development of the Gambia as well as the advancement of humanity at large.” The story quickly spread over the Internet, reaching the circulation of the widely read, Washington, D.C.-based news aggregator AllAfrica.

The claims are false. Regarding “your query asking for confirmation of Gambian reporting on the Gambian president receiving awards and a letter from President Obama,” White House National Security Council spokesman Bob Jensen wrote in an e-mail to CPJ: “Those reports are incorrect. The Gambian president did not receive what the media reports are claiming.”

In fact, among the four announced awards, only one from the United States was undeniably real: a Nebraska Admiralship or award denoting Jammeh as an honorary admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska. A tongue-in-cheek distinction from the Midwestern, landlocked state, “an ‘admiralship’ in the fictitious ‘Navy’ of Nebraska is meant to be a ceremonial acknowledgment of Nebraskans who have shown outstanding citizenship,” noted Nebraska governor’s office spokeswoman Jen Rae Hein in a statement to CPJ. “We regret that this individual has attempted to embellish a certificate for a Nebraska admiralship, claiming that it was a high honor bestowed upon him by the governor, when to the best of our knowledge, this person has no relationship with or ties to Nebraska.” The spokeswoman further noted that the Nebraska governor’s office routinely processes thousands of admiralship requests annually.

The Gambian State House website reported that three of the awards, including the Nebraska admiralship, were presented to President Jammeh in Banjul by an unnamed official from a Palermo, Sicily-based organization called the International Parliament for Safety and Peace. Its website states that it was founded in 1975 by an archbishop of the Cypriot Orthodox Church. The international parliament has been reportedly accused of providing credentials to educational institutions otherwise not accredited in their own nations, and of selling membership, titles and other distinctions for fees.

The fourth stated honor was an “Honorary Vocational Bachelor’s Degree” bestowed upon Jammeh by the “Printers and Publishers Guild of Northern Germany,” according to the Daily Observer. German authorities told CPJ they found no record of any such award; extensive Internet searches in English and German revealed no such guild or other organization with a similar name.

Speaking to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals, a former Daily Observer staffer, who worked at the newspaper in recent years, expressed no surprise at the credulous reporting of the awards. “If [the story] wasn’t out in the paper, someone would be in Mile 2 [prison] today–the managing director or the editor.” The person described a newsroom of fear: “You’re terrified. Nobody wants to go that prison.” One Observer reporter who may have suffered this fate is “Chief” Ebrima Manneh who has disappeared in government custody since National Intelligence Agency officials seized him at the Observer office in July 2007. Despite repeated calls from U.S. senators, journalists, activists and a West African human rights court ruling, Gambian authorities have continued to deny their detention of Manneh. Former colleagues said Manneh was arrested after printing a critical BBC article about Jammeh.

Daily Observer columns consistently flatter Jammeh and refer to him as “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh” in a cacophony of honorifics reminiscent of late Ugandan military ruler Idi Amin whose formal introduction was a recitation: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshall Al Hadj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC., Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda.”

Yet, it was not always so. The Daily Observer was once the standard-bearer of independent journalism in the Gambia. Launched in 1992 by Liberian editor Kenneth Best, the Observer was Gambia’s first daily newspaper and was once its largest circulation publication. Best, who arrived in Gambia as a refugee following the burning of the offices of his original Liberian Observer during civil war in Liberia, told CPJ the paper started with a circulation of 3,000 and peaked with a certain July 1994 edition that sold up to 30,000 copies. “‘Army coup in Gambia’ was the headline,” he recalled. “It was the first successful coup, and we told the whole story. We interviewed all the five lieutenants who staged coups.”
One of those lieutenants was then known simply as Yahya Jammeh. “We sold 10,000 copies in 15 minutes,” Best said. However, as Observer began scrutinizing the junta’s handling of transition to civilian rule, the newspaper became a target of government repression. Barely three months after taking office, Jammeh’s junta deported Best, who later sold the Observer to private businessman Amadou Samba.

That the handful of Gambian private newspapers has not challenged Jammeh’s questionable award claims is indicative of the chill of self-censorship that has fallen on continental Africa’s smallest republic. This is the result of years of repression, including a series of unsolved arson attacks on media outlets, the unsolved assassination of leading editor Deyda Hydara, ongoing arrests and Jammeh’s periodic threats to the media.