DOD Revises War Manual to Clarify Journalist Status

After talks with concerned journalists, the Department of Defense has revised its Law of War Manual, which allowed them to be treated as "unprivileged belligerents" along with spies, saboteurs, and terrorists.

DOD said Friday it had modified the first-ever, 1,000-plus-page document, which was released in June of last year as a DOD-wide guide for soldiers, civilians and lawyers on "the international law principles governing armed conflict," including what weapons can be used and how civilians should be treated.

"The updated manual contains a substantial revision to the section on journalists," said DOD. "[T]he journalism changes reflect input provided by the news media."

DOD conceded it learned a lot from the process and praised journalists for their willingness to work constructively with DOD lawyers.

According to the old manual, said the Committee to Protect Journalists, the "broad and poorly defined category" of "unprivileged belligerents" gave military "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 new manual, by contrast, "recognizes the role of journalists to independently report armed conflicts, and, in doing so, to arrange meetings or have contacts with different sides, including 'enemy personnel,'" said CPJ, calling that "affirmation of journalist rights" a "Seismic shift" for the military.

Reporters Without Borders also hailed the revision.

“We welcome today’s revisions to the Law of War Manual and thank the DOD for addressing [our] concerns,” said Delphine Halgand, Reporters Without Borders U.S. director. “We hope that this update will help to improve the safety of journalists covering conflict, a profession that becomes increasingly dangerous every day.”

The group said that offending passages referring to spying and censorship have been removed, and the manual clarifies that journalists are protected civilians, and also says that journalists "play a vital role in free societies and the rule of law and in providing information about armed conflict.” 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.