Comparing Media definitions with International humanitarian law Abstract International law, as expressed in International Conventions, is the truest measure of the legitimacy or otherwise of the actions of peoples in conflict. A proper understanding of international standards is crucial to resolving many conflicts. It might seem obvious that Australian news media should report consistent with UN law. Some Australian judges (including


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Comparing Media definitions

Comparing Media definitions with International humanitarian law


International law, as expressed in International Conventions, is the truest measure of the legitimacy or otherwise of the actions of peoples in conflict. A proper understanding of international standards is crucial to resolving many conflicts.

It might seem obvious that Australian news media should report consistent with UN law. Some Australian judges (including those in the High Court) have passed decisions on the supremacy of international law, especially UN law, over Australian law, and this should therefore percolate to stiffer standards in the media.

Australian Codes of Journalistic Practice require that news be presented fairly and impartially, with sensitivity to ethnic and privacy issues, and that factual material be clearly distinguishable from commentary and analysis.

They do not however, explicitly or implicitly, mandate that terminology be measured against the standards of international law. This omission may contribute to incitement of violence against local ethnic minorities.

We propose to compare the definitions provided by international law, including the Conventions on Genocide (1948), Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) and Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (1998), with the terminology and context provided by Australian news media. Particular reference will be made to Middle East issues including the usage of such terms as "civilian", "non-combatant", "legitimate resistance", "terrorist" and "militant".

Judith Rona is an independent internet researcher. Simcha Frieda Udwin is a law student at UCSB. Both are Jewish."

Article: Comparing media Definitions with International humanitarian Law


Modern wars are fought as much in the media as on the battlefield. Public opinion influences governments and international organisations with respect to military or diplomatic action. Not only do journalists affect the outcome of the conflicts they report but they may also influence the security or vulnerability of related local ethnic minorities whose country of connection or origin or whose or compatriots are presented as acting against international humanitarian law.

News media may be unable to prevent adverse public reaction to disagreeable facts but they do have a special responsibility to ensure that opprobrium is not aroused unjustly by information being subverted or exploited to inspire or incite violence. This accountability is recognised by media codes of practice. Using the Australian experience as a paradigm, and with particular reference to the Israel-Palestinian conflict as one that combines concentrated violence with consistent media interest, we propose to examine whether these codes are adequate.

Codes of practice don’t require compliance with humanitarian law

1 Australian media codes of practice

Australian media codes of practice require that news be ‘accurate’, ‘presented fairly and impartially’ (or ‘balanced’ or ‘even-handed’), with ‘sensitivity to ethnic and privacy issues’ and that ‘factual material be clearly distinguishable from commentary and analysis.’

‘Accurate is interpreted very narrowly as merely requiring that information not be demonstrably false, without precluding vague or imprecise language that may convey falsehood by omission. ‘Balanced is interpreted as providing equal time or space to both sides over a period of time. Journalists, claiming ‘moral relativity/equivalence’, that there is no absolute or universal standard of conduct by which to judge the actions of different societies, interpret balance as a requirement for non-judgmental or neutral language. They apply this unevenly, judging state violence according to international conventions whilst presenting violence by irregular forces as value-free. However an objective standard does exist.

2 An objective standard

International human rights law, expressed in conventions and established in customary law, represents an overwhelming international consensus and affects all countries. Some examples are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , the Fourth Geneva Convention , and Conventions such as Genocide , Suppression of Terrorist Bombings , Suppression of Financing Terrorism , etc. Such law is the most appropriate measure of the legitimacy of conflict situations. A proper journalistic understanding of humanitarian law is crucial in correctly reporting political and military conflicts, thus contributing to their just resolution and reducing the threat of hate crimes against related communities.

It might seem obvious that Australian news reports should be consistent with international law. Some Australian judges (including those in the High Court) have decided in favour of the supremacy of international law, especially UN law, over Australian law, for example Teoh’s case:

‘…ratification by Australia of an international convention is not to be dismissed as merely platitudinous or ineffectual act, particularly when the instrument evidences internationally accepted standards to be applied by courts and administrative authorities in dealing with basic human rights…’

One might think this should therefore percolate to stiffer standards in the media. However Australian codes of journalistic practice do not, explicitly or implicitly, mandate that terminology be measured against the standards of international law or, for that matter, of national law. In response to private inquiry, December 10 2003, the ABA wrote

‘There is no requirement in the codes of practice, either explicit or implicit, that terminology in media reports be consistent with law… The code does not require a licensee to use the most accurate, or legally sanctioned description. The requirement is merely that the words used are accurate…’

The Australian Press Council wrote,

‘The Council is concerned with ethical, rather than legal, questions. The Council does not insist that language conform with legal standards, whether national or international but with acceptable ethical requirements...But, as long as readers are not misled, the Council would not insist on a definitive stance on the use of language. The important questions are: is the report accurate, as far as the newspaper knows and are readers being treated honestly and fairly...the Council can only look on a case-by-case basis at each instance and determine if there has been a breach of its principles.’

  1. 3 Falsehood by omission

At first glance this seems reasonable. The difficulty of ascertaining the exact truth in time to report it at speed requires that standards of accuracy not be too prohibitive. However the media takes advantage of this leeway to continue omitting certain facts even after they have been established. For example, the illegitimacy of groups that routinely attack civilians is masked by the systematic use of words like ‘militant’ to replace more precise words like ‘terrorist’.

Each individual occurrence of the former is defensible but the systematic refusal to define these groups as acting against humanitarian law is a falsehood by omission that contributes to the legitimisation of unlawful violence in the public mind and the dehumanisation, even sometimes extending to demonisation, of the victims.

We clearly understand the value of accurate labelling for foodstuffs, additives, etc, yet when it comes to the language of international human rights, inaccuracy and vagueness are preferred.

2 Defining the terms

  1. 1 Legitimate aims and methods
  • Self-defense and self-determination, also termed legitimate resistance, freedom-fighting, opposing occupation or fighting for independence, are legitimate aims that constitute a just war in themselves but they may be combined with illegitimate aims such as attempted genocide. The Genocide Convention defines this as

‘with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part...’

Legitimate methods are judged by adherence to international conventions, of which the Geneva Conventions are the most comprehensive. A major requirement is that civilians may never be primary targets of violence. This doesn’t totally preclude attacking military targets that are situated in civilian areas however.

  1. 2 Civilians may not be primary targets

Civilians, also termed ‘protected persons’ or non-combatants, are defined as

‘Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause.’

Adults constituting a reserve force are not combatants except when mobilised. Those who merely carry arms, e.g. for self-defense, and those who engage in rioting or other civil violence are also not combatants.

There is no equivalence between civilians and combatants under international law. Attacks on combatants during times of conflict are lawful; attacks on civilians are not, at any rate not as primary targets. There is no dispensation or justification for less powerful groups or non-state militias to be allowed to perpetrate these offences; they are in all situations ‘crimes against humanity’ or ‘war-crimes’.

  1. 3 Combatants – legitimate or illegitimate

A combatant or militant is one who is ‘engaged in warfare’ This includes regular or irregular forces. A ‘militant’ is an irregular combatant, possibly a guerilla fighter, insurgent, or resistance fighter. Combat conduct is bound by international law. Enemy combatants are legitimate targets; civilians are not. Combatants may be targeted even at risk of collateral civilian damage provided the ‘law of proportionality’ is kept. This is a mandatory balancing test between the anticipated concrete and direct military advantage of attacking a particular legitimate military target and the expected incidental injury or damage to civilians. Excessive incidental losses are prohibited.

Attacking, killing, injuring, capturing or deceiving the enemy by acts which have led opposing forces to believe the attackers are non-combatants is the crime of perfidy , a ‘grave breach’ of international law. This includes hiding amongst civilians. Soldiers who have reason to suspect perfidy are more likely to unlawfully fire on civilians and surrendering combatants. The resulting non-combatant deaths are the responsibility of those who practise perfidy.

A terrorist is one who ‘attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation… a member of a clandestine or expatriate organization aiming to coerce an established government by acts of violence against it or its subjects.’ This partially overlaps with ‘militant’, differentiated by its routine use of unlawful force. Other frequently used terms such as ‘activist’ or ‘radical’ do not imply use of force.

Traditionally the UN has defined the term ‘terrorism/terrorist’ by example rather than by principle, listing behaviours that constitute terrorism rather than enshrining a specific definition. For example, the 2001 Convention for the Suppression of Financing of Terrorism, listed acts forbidden by certain treaties plus

‘Any other act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.’

Its attempts to produce a formal definition include the suggestion of terrorism expert A. Schmid to start with the existing consensus on what constitutes a ‘war crime’, i.e. deliberate attacks on civilians, hostage taking and the killing of prisoners, to define terrorism as "peacetime equivalents of war crimes". In 2004 the High Panel on Threats Challenge and Change decided that ‘terrorism is never an acceptable tactic, even for the most defensible of causes… there is nothing in the fact of occupation that justifies the targeting and killing of civilians.’ It proposed formalising the Convention’s description as the official UN definition.

  1. 4 Application to the Israel-Palestinian conflict

Palestinian acts of violence with intent to destroy, including suicide bombs, nail-bombs and bus-bombings, are genocidal acts. The Hamas Covenant speaks explicitly of ‘our struggle with the Jews’ and its intention to destroy the state of Israel, declaring ‘There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad… Israel, Judaism and Jews challenge Islam.’ Hamas leaders frequently threaten to force the Jews into the Mediterranean and to fill Israeli cafes and malls with ‘Zionist body parts’. Hamas and similar groups routinely and systematically perpetrate offences against humanitarian law. They target Israeli civilians and pack bombs with shrapnel to maximise civilian death and injury. They also kidnap Palestinian civilians accused of collaboration and torture confessions out of them then publicly execute them.

Palestinian rioters are civilians unless attacking with potential killing force. Unarmed rioters are to be granted the protection due to civilians even if they give cover to attackers, as intent to engage in military action cannot be proven. Likewise stone-throwers (except where the stone has killing force, e.g. where cement blocks are heaved from a height or a bridge onto passers-by) are non-combatants. Official IDF guidelines comply with international law butthis doesn’t always translate into compliance operationally. Humanitarian groups accuse the IDF of excessive and disproportionate force.

3 Assessing media performance

  1. 1 Study the headlines

A study of newspaper headlines in the Israel-Palestinian conflict reveals a marked difference in frequency of identification of perpetrators, passive or active tense and intensity of language. Australian media frequently fail to distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths.

Israeli deaths are frequently described with passive language, e.g. ‘…five die’, ‘Four die, dozens injured in suicide attack, etc, that assigns neither blame to the perpetrator nor identity to the victims who are very infrequently described as ‘civilian’, despite the massive preponderance of civilian victims. (Media frequently describe Jewish civilians living in disputed territory as ‘settlers’, implying they are legitimate targets though, even if armed, they are civilians. Palestinians, though likewise living in the disputed territories in villages which are a mix of old/returning and new residents and also of legal and illegal housing construction, are described as the rightful owners. )

In contrast, Palestinian civilian victims are more frequently identified as civilian although Palestinian combatants are not always identified as such. In both cases death is mostly directly attributed to Israeli action, e.g. ‘Israeli troops kill six Palestinians’, ‘Israeli raid kills 12 in Gaza City’ , and the perpetrators are identified.

Australian media rarely acknowledge that Palestinian groups such as Hamas, Al Aqsa and Islamic Jihad purposefully and systematically target civilians. They conceal the illegality of this deliberate Palestinian strategy under neutral words like militant and rarely invoke the context of international law. They also consistently fail to point out perfidious acts or that the resultant collateral damage is the responsibility of Palestinians. They may describe Israeli response to perfidy as ‘excessive force’ or ‘indiscriminate’ but they rarely evaluate the contribution of Palestinian actions, e.g. hiding amongst civilians, disguising bombers as pregnant women or transporting weapons in ambulances.

  1. 2 Repetition induces a learned linkage

According to advertising principles , repetition is one of four principles believed to increase memorability of copy: repetition, intensity (including placement position in the publication), association value and ingenuity. It induces a learned linkage response in the audience’s mind, especially when the slogan or catchphrase undergoes slight variations.

The intensity of headlines due to placement and language effectively mimics the role of a slogan. The message “Israel kills Palestinians”, regularly and frequently appeared in headlines in the first three years of the intifada war, influencing especially those who weren’t interested enough to read the full articles which may have given a more balanced view.

  1. 3 Effect on Australian Jewish community
Repetitive headlines that link a state or ethnic group to illegitimate and disproportionate violence increase the risk of alienating the general public from related expatriate communities, possibly leading to verbal and physical expressions such as incitement, hate mail, assault, vandalism and arson. The failure to identify victims as civilian, or to compare the rate of combatant - non-combatant death on both sides, has led to an incorrect impression that Israel and Palestinians are alike deliberately targeting civilians and that there is a ‘cycle of violence between two equally bloodthirsty enemies. Even worse, some have been misled into thinking that Israel is the main perpetrator of illegal violence.

Jews have suffered from unrelenting negative coverage wherein the "Jewish country" has been continually judged by harsher standards than its opponents. This has led to the demonisation of Israel and the increasing marginalisation of local Jewish communities (regardless of whether or not they support Israeli policies), due to the equation of Israeli with Jew. There has been a marked contemporaneous resurgence in anti-Jewish activity. Beginning in September 2000, anti-Jewish incidents doubled the previous 13 year average. Both 2001 and 2002 broke records for the highest annual number of reports of anti-Jewish violence, vandalism, harassment and intimidation since the commencement of national record keeping in 1989.

‘The virulence of some public criticism of Israeli actions and their continued misrepresentation, as well as of Israel′s history and politics, have provided additional sources of encouragement and rationalization for anti-Jewish bigotry. Moreover, there was an exponential increase in analogies between Jews and Nazis...’

There has been little redress because media tribunals judge on a case by case basis; therefore they don’t handle issues which only become problems by virtue of systematic repetition.


We propose that media codes of practice be strengthened to deal with the issue of systematic or repeated omissions and that all conflicts should be reported according to the language and context dictated by international conventions. Non-informative words that serve to legitimise unlawful violence should be replaced with appropriately contextual and informative terms in order to minimise unjust victimisation of local ethnic minorities.


  1. ABA Code of Practice

ABA Information,

Australian Press Council′s Statement of principles

©The Australian Press Council

MEAA/AJA Code of Ethics

© Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance

Last Updated:28/7/2004

(2) Universal Declaration of Human Rights

© The Office of the High Commissioner

for Human Rights

Geneva, Switzerland

(3) 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention

© 1996-2003 The Avalon Project at Yale Law School.

The Lillian Goldman Law Library in Memory of Sol Goldman.

127 Wall Street

New Haven, Connecticut 06520

The document was last corrected for conversion errors or the markup was updated on: 07/29/2004 12:46:30

(4) 1948 Convention on Genocide

© The Office of the High Commissioner

for Human Rights

Geneva, Switzerland .

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights OHCHR 1996-2004


8-14 Avenue de la Paix

1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Telephone Number (41-22) 917-9000 - 21k

(5) 1997/8 Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings

© 2004 UNODC

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

(6) International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism,

© 2004 UNODC, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

(7) Oxford English Dictionary

(8) Definitions of Terrorism

UN Resolution language (1999):

"1. Strongly condemns all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by whomsoever committed;

  1. Reiterates that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them". (GA Res. 51/210 Measures to eliminate international terrorism)

(9) Hamas Charter

© 1996-2003 The Avalon Project at Yale Law School.

The Lillian Goldman Law Library in Memory of Sol Goldman.

127 Wall Street

New Haven, Connecticut 06520

The document was last corrected for conversion errors or the markup was updated on: 07/29/2004 12:21:38

(10) IDF, Israel Defense Forces The Official Website

© 2004 Israel Defense Forces

(11) HRW report on Palestinian "suicide" bombings, "Erased in a moment", Human Rights Watch

(12) Tel Aviv University, The Stephen Roth Institute,

The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University began operating as the Project for the Study of Anti-Semitism in fall 1991. It is housed in the Wiener Library.


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