The Blog

Giving Reporters Guns

In the war on terrorism, journalists are often targets of the enemy. Should they arm themselves when they're in the field?

11:00 PM, Mar 17, 2002 • By BO CRADER
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THE COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS reports that "most journalists who die in war zones are murdered." That is, they don't die from playing hopscotch through a mine field or getting dinged by a stray bullet, but are deliberately targeted and killed. The current war in Afghanistan is no different. Since the start of the Afghan campaign, seven journalists have been shot and killed--at least four of whom were executed--while another was murdered in his hotel room. A grenade ambush seriously wounded one journalist a few days ago, while another was hit by a sniper's bullet, saved only by his flak jacket.

And then there's Daniel Pearl. Lured into meeting with terrorists posing as friendly sources, the Wall Street Journal bureau chief was kidnapped, held hostage, and virtually beheaded, all on film for his pregnant wife to see.

Journalists have become unwitting players in the power struggles of rival Afghan factions and terrorist organizations. Their noncombatant status make them relatively easy targets for ruthless, heavily armed hoodlums, while their ties to global media promise worldwide publicity for attention-hungry fanatics. Journalists were the first Western casualties in the Afghan theater. Until late last month, more journalists than American servicemen had been killed by hostile fire.

Recognizing the inherent dangers of covering the war in Afghanistan, news agencies are reviewing operating procedures for foreign correspondents, issuing flak jackets and providing "hostile environment training" to protect their reporters from thugs roaming the Afghan countryside.

Yet, at the same time, critics were quick to scoff at Geraldo Rivera for carrying a firearm when he was in Afghanistan, even after a sniper zeroed in on his coif as he was taping a news report. If news bureaus were serious about protecting their reporters, wouldn't they issue weapons along with reporters' notebooks?

Arming journalists is not a new idea. After a deluge of politically motivated murders last December, the Ukrainian government ruled that journalists covering political corruption could carry guns that fire rubber bullets. In parts of South America, carrying concealed weapons is standard procedure for journalists on the crime or drug-trafficking beat. During the Vietnam War, numerous reporters--most notably Peter Arnett, now one of Geraldo's harshest critics on the gun issue--carried weapons for self-defense. While a sidearm might not be a match for an RPG or a well-aimed shot from 200 yards, a gun might have given Daniel Pearl at least a fighting chance.

Yet, Joel Simon, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, suggests the issue is more complicated than it seems.

Some countries--Japan and Australia, for example--don't share in the American belief in Second Amendment rights: Guns are banned or heavily restricted. Even in the Afghan no-man's land, weapons are only as good as the person using them. Proper training in use and maintenance would be necessary just to fire a weapon in harsh desert conditions. And without marksmanship instruction, a gun would be of little use.

Even then, Simon explains, arming journalists might not be in their best interest. "A journalist is recognized as a civilian under the Geneva Conventions," he warns. "Our concern is that journalists should be very careful when taking any action that could compromise that perception. They could be mistaken for a spy or combatant." In theory, if hostile forces view journalists not as objective observers but as soldiers, they might become targets themselves.

Carrying a gun "could make them safer but it could make them more vulnerable" than they already are, Simon continues.

Of course, the Geneva Conventions didn't do much to protect Daniel Pearl or the eight other journalists murdered in the Afghan conflict.

In other words, the war correspondent is caught in a potentially deadly Catch-22. Go into a war zone unarmed and get ambushed, stoned, and executed by a gang of thugs. Carry a gun and get shot as a spy.

Regardless, as this pattern of violence against the news media escalates, it may be that journalists have no choice but to arm themselves.

Bo Crader is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.