About 60 foreign journalists were killed while fulfilling their duties during the year 2014, and in addition, a larger number of local journalists were killed in combat areas • Dorothea Krimitsas, director of the Red Cross hotline for assistance of journalists on dangerous missions, told Globes about negotiations with ISIS and the importance of continued reports from Syria, and admitted that the scenario of a helicopter rescuing a journalist from the heart of a battlefield is unrealistic.
By Li-Or Averbach
Read the interview in Globes (in Hebrew)
“The situation is becoming increasingly dangerous for journalists around the world,” says Dorothea Krimitsas, director of the Red Cross hotline for assisting journalists on dangerous assignments. In the past years, Krimitsas’s department has handled tens of requests, and for the international organization – whose hands are tied and which is restricted in its ability to help – this is becoming increasingly difficult.
In a special interview with Globes, she testified: “Most of the organizations we work with say that it has become more dangerous. What we know for sure is that international confrontations today are becoming more complex, and sometimes much more unpredictable. We often have seven conflicts erupting at the same time in different places, and the complexity of the conflicts makes it difficult for us to help civilians and journalists alike. It’s important to us to raise special awareness of the importance of protecting journalists located in the heart of combat.”
- Do you think that the fighting forces today respect the lives of journalists around the world?
“You would expect people to respect journalists, but they aren’t aware that they deserve the same protection as civilians. In the field, the combatants say that journalists should protect themselves and stay away from the line of fire, but they don’t understand that they mustn’t consider them as different from any other civilian, and it’s important to make sure to protect them. This has to be included in the training of combat forces.”
- Perhaps the fighting sides also care less about civilians nowadays?
“Perhaps, but I couldn’t say.”
Active Cases of Journalists in Distress
About 60 foreign journalists were killed in the line of duty during 2014. However, this number is lower than that of local journalists who are killed in battle-torn countries. In the past three years, Syria has become the most dangerous place for journalists – local people or those sent to areas of combat in order to convey information worldwide – to work. When a journalist is wounded in the field and has trouble getting out, or falls into the hands of fighters on the ground, it is usually the organization that employs him or her or the family who turn to the hotline and ask the Red Cross for assistance.
“Most of the requests these days come by e-mail or other means, through a mediator,” Krimitsas says. “We currently have 15 active cases of journalists who are located somewhere where they are in distress or captured. Most are related to the world’s major crisis – Syria.”
Krimitsas admits that it’s difficult to give the incidents of journalists optimal treatment. Quite often the help that she and her staff manage to provide is a visit to the place of imprisonment, but they are not really able, or cannot rescue them. “In 2011, when Libya was in the headlines, we managed relatively well,” she says, “we had visibility, because we succeeded in rescuing over 30 foreign journalists from a hotel in the heart of the combat. No one could get to the hotel, and after several days of dialogue with the two parties, we managed to take the journalists to a safe place. We were the only organization that could do this, because they trusted us.”
According to her, “It’s difficult to evaluate the success of treatment – Do you succeed in providing assistance? Is that only taking the person home? Often we manage to visit the place of detainment and make sure they are being treated properly. We can’t simply take them out of there; it’s not our job to do this. Other organizations can do that. It’s not my business. Therefore it isn’t considered a success.”
Reports Are Important to Humanity
The Red Cross set up the hotline for journalists on dangerous assignments in 1985, and it is part of a group of bodies and organizations that strive to assist those who carry out the important task of reporting from some of the most terrible places in the world.
According to Krimitsas, “journalists have a key role in reporting on humanitarian situations, and their reports are important to us. If we don’t have ways to report and provide information, there will be less awareness of what is happening and what must be done to protect civilians.”
- Why are journalists different from civilians?
International law doesn’t differentiate between journalists and civilians. It differentiates only between being a combatant or a noncombatant. Civilians are protected under international law. The position of journalists is unique, because they don’t take an active part in the conflict and do not carry arms. However, they do play a role on the confrontation line; they are witness to what happens. And still, there is no difference between a journalist in the field and any other civilian, and they deserve protection.
“However, the Geneva Convention (III, 30, 1) describes the status of journalists differently when they are taken prisoner. If they are accompanying military forces, they are given the status of “prisoners of war,” captives – in contrast to the status of “hostages,” which refers to captured civilians. The status of “prisoner of war,” which is protected under the Convention, is in the interest of the journalists, as they take the risks of military personnel. When journalists do their job, they take special risks and find themselves in situations that may be dangerous; therefore more attention was given to the protection of journalists.
- How is contact made with you?
“Whenever a journalist finds himself or herself in a dangerous situation, such as being captured or injured, someone has to contact us quickly so that we can try to do something for him or her. I say ‘try’ because if we have access to the area, we do it. As soon as we receive the request, we evaluate the situation – Is there access? Will our efforts do more harm than good? Only then do we decide on our action, and then it depends entirely on the situation.”
No Rescue in the Field
Again and again during the conversation, it’s impossible not to feel our interviewee’s helplessness. On the ground there are no superheroes, and the fantasy of a journalist calling for rescue from the heart of the territory of the Islamic State and a helicopter appearing within minutes, is far from reality. Krimitsas and her staff depend largely on the good will of their partners, and also of the hostile forces, on the ground. And if they don’t help, it’s impossible to do much to help the journalist.”
“Once we sent an ambulance of the Syrian Red Crescent, in Syrian territory, where they are our partners,” Krimitsas recalls. “We asked them to go collect the people. If we don’t trust a partner we know and rely on, we don’t do this. If we have ties with reliable people, we help.”
According to her, “if a journalist is detained in a country in which we have access to the detainment locations, and we have regular visits there – we will probably try to find out whether the authorities know anything about the journalist, and if there’s access to him. Every case has to be examined separately. If we discover that this could harm him or his family, we refrain from doing it.
“Often we go to the authorities with names and information, as soon as we know that something will come of out of this. In Libya in 2011, we did this regarding two international journalists who were detained. We managed to find where they were being detained and visit them, and we even managed to convey Red Cross messages between them and their families and employers.”
- But no more than that?
- In recent months it’s impossible to escape the terrifying pictures coming from the areas controlled by ISIS, the Islamic State. It seems there’s no hope for journalists who fall into their hands, and according to estimates, they are now holding over 10 more Western journalists. Can you take any action there?
“As the Red Cross, we are present in Syria, including areas that are not under government control. We succeed in distributing food and water to communities that remain cut off. This, too, is a result of long negotiations, which can sometimes take weeks. There are more combatant groups there; you can’t simply show up. It’s difficult. We have contacts with peripheral groups who are said to be connected to ISIS, but we have no dialogue with the senior levels.”
- Why don’t you simply call upon journalists not to go to these areas?
“It’s not our job to tell journalists where to go to. If we are asked, we can tell them about the humanitarian situation, and then they decide for themselves. But we will not go so far as to tell them not to go. That would be like telling us – the Red Cross – not to go somewhere. This is our job.”
With regard to the confrontation last summer between Israel and Hamas, Krimitsas, a Greek by origin, refrains from commenting, and claims that this is mainly because of her obligation of confidentiality. “We sometimes receive requests from Gaza, I remember,” she says. “We have to be cautious, I’m not the only person who handles these requests.”
- In Israel there are many military personnel, who unfortunately are frequently in combat situations. Without claiming, heaven forbid, that someone would put another person in danger out of malice, if you could turn to them and tell them something – what would you say?
“I would say that journalists are civilians protected identically to any other civilian. Don’t forget that when you see a journalist, you are seeing a civilian, and you have to respect them. Give them the same protection you give to the civilians. Let them go home quickly. Harming a journalist is a war crime.”
Position: Director of the Red Cross hotline for assisting journalists on dangerous assignments.
Previous positions: Head of the Public Communication Department for the Middle East and North Africa at the Red Cross, Director of humanitarian activities in conflicts areas and UN spokesperson on Human Rights Issues.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in philosophy; master’s degree in political science
Place of residence: Switzerland