Wrong is Wrong: Murdering Journalists is Always a War Crime

Syria’s brutal civil war has claimed more lives in a high profile attack on the Syrian news agency of al-Ikhbariya south of Damascus. The attack is reported to have killed seven agency staff all of whom had been working at the time of the daylight assault. Al-Ikhbariya is privately held and is not officially a state news agency; however its coverage has been strongly supportive of the Assad regime throughout the uprising. The attack and its aftermath were described in detail by Al-Arabiya and others:

“…bullet holes pockmarked a two-story concrete building and pools of blood on the floor. One building made of corrugated iron had been almost completely destroyed and flames licked at the metal frame.”

“I heard a small explosion then a huge explosion and gunmen ran in. They ransacked the offices and entirely destroyed the newsroom.”

“They carried out the worst massacre against the media, executing journalists and security staff.”

I am not an Assad supporter. I oppose the Ba’ath regime, I support the revolution against Bashar al-Assad’s rule, and I strongly believe that the only way that Syria now can return to peace and stability is after his vicious government is removed from power. I also have no pretensions about the fact that pro-regime forces have committed hideous atrocities against the Syrian people, nor do I take on face value the predictable and disingenuous statements Syrian government officials make. However in this case the last of the above quotes belongs to a Syrian government functionary, and in an honest reading of events reported by numerous reputable media outlets it is objectively true.

There are no bloodless civil wars, but targeting news organizations and murdering journalists is a clear war crime and deserves unqualified condemnation from those who claim to be fighting for a just cause. What has been shocking and dismaying is that many otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people seem to be doing just the opposite and equivocating, even lauding, the targeted murder of journalists:

This kind of rhetoric is reminiscent of the attacks by U.S. forces against Al Jazeera during the Iraq War. Donald Rumsfeld openly accused AJE of “promoting terrorism” and leaked memos from the White House showed that George W. Bush explicitly discussed bombing Al Jazeera offices and killing its journalists in order to silence their critical coverage on the war. Fox News, effectively the U.S. government’s unofficial mouthpiece during the invasion, published editorials openly calling for the U.S. military to “take out” Al Jazeera, calling it “enemy media”. Indeed, such violent rhetoric became reality as the U.S. launched cruise missile strikes against clearly marked Al Jazeera offices; resulting in the deaths of famous reporters such as Tareq Ayoub and others. As the war continued to grind on and as media coverage became even more critical, further attacks were launched against the Palestine Hotel and other media targets killing several journalists. A helicopter strike which killed two Iraqi Reuters journalists became famous when video of the incident was later revealed by Wikileaks, as did another attack which killed Al-Arabiya correspondent Mazen al-Tumeizi as he gave an interview; splattering his blood onto the still lens of the still running camera.

Killing journalists, even ones you disagree with, consider unobjective, or consider to be undermining your case, is a war crime and deserves the strongest possible condemnation. Whether journalists play a constructive role in your opinion or not, they are still unarmed civilians and must be treated as such by any side making a claim to moral superiority.  If one argues that Syrian state journalists perform a supporting function within the regime and thus deserve wholesale slaughter, what is stopping the same argument from also being used to justify mass executions of doctors in hospitals which treat regime functionaries? What about civilians employed as mechanics by the army? All these people play a role in the regime but they are still unequivocally non-combatants. If in your rationale state journalists deserve to be wantonly killed then there is a very slippery slope as to who on “the other side” doesn’t deserve the same fate.

A revolution is in theory supposed to be aspirational and indicative of the type of country which the revolutionaries would like to create under their rule. The FSA has certainly suffered and been witness to terrible grievances from the regime which naturally create the desire for vengeance. The least which those who support them can do is criticize the FSA when it itself crosses the line into clear crimes against humanity. Taking the position that actions can defined as right or wrong based on who perpetrates them is both dangerous and morally vacuous. Justifying and lauding the killing of Syrian state journalists and other obvious non-combatants does not do anything to further the goals of the revolution but rather serves to tarnish it and play into the narrative of the Assad regime.

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