The Department of Defense Law of War Manual released its instructions on the rules of war, how to kill an enemy, and defined journalists as “unprivileged belligerents.”
An unprivileged belligerent is an illegal combatant who engages in armed conflict in violation of international laws and practice.
They can be detained and prosecuted under domestic law. This term is mainly used in manuals like the DOD, but is very obscure under international law, meaning the person has no rights under the Geneva Convention. The manual defines journalists as civilians.
“However, journalists may be members of the armed forces, persons authorized to accompany the armed forces, or unprivileged belligerents. Members of the armed forces may serve as journalists or in some other public affairs capacity. These persons have the same status as other members of the armed forces.”
Journalism is loose term today as anyone can claim to hold journalistic standards. In a combat zone where sensitive information could put troops at risk or endanger lives, investigative journalists are seen as a threat as they go between enemy camps, and countries.
The manual states that reporting on military operations is seen as collecting intelligence or spying.
“To avoid being mistaken for spies, journalists should act openly and with the permission of relevant authorities. Presenting identification documents, such as the identification card issued to authorized war correspondents or other appropriate identification, may help journalists avoid being mistaken as spies.”
States also may need to censor a journalist’s work and take security measures so the reporter does not reveal sensitive information.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Survey, 64 percent of war, foreign, or government correspondents felt they were being spied on, or their information was being digitally hacked. Members of the organization of Investigative Reporters and Editors were surveyed (671), and believed the government collected information from phones, and emails.
Does this give the government the freedom to destroy journalists who don’t side with them?
Yes, a professor of journalism at Georgetown University said in a published report. “It gives them license to attack or even murder journalists that they don’t particularly like but aren’t on the other side.”
You can read the manual on the Department of Defense's website.