When journalist Marie Colvin was shelled to her death in 2012, ostensibly by Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, there was little sign that her killers — or those who killed hundreds of her fellow journalists — would face any court of justice. In fact, over the course of the past decades, the vast majority of killers of journalists have gone unpunished, with rarely a killer or torturer being brought to justice, leaving dishonored the international laws that protect journalists as civilians and grant the rest of the global community the right to information. In fact, since the United Nations passed Resolution 2222 to affirm journalists’ civilian status and the importance of free media, roughly 50 journalists have been killed. But laws and resolutions are not really meaningful without enforcement mechanisms. No enforcement generally means those laws can go ignored with no consequence.
This is what is heartening about the lawsuit filed against the Syrian government by the family of Colvin for her extrajudicial killing. Colvin was a deeply committed journalist who worked tirelessly to expose war crimes and other truths that otherwise would remain hidden from the public. She was among a core group of dedicated journalists on whom we rely to tell us the facts when war-makers and others refuse to give that information to us. And these journalists do so, often at risk to life, liberty and limb.
During the first war in Iraq, Colvin and then BBC journalist Allan Little sought to set the record straight when neither the Iraq government nor the Allied forces would speak honestly, according to Little. The two journalists physically traveled to a bombsite and counted the bodies one-by-one — the numbers exceeded 350 dead.
“Let that be the end of the dispute,” Little told me in our interview for Reporting From the Danger Zone: Frontline Journalists, Their Jobs and an Increasingly Perilous Future, my most recent book. It’s just one tiny example of what Colvin and her colleagues do in the effort to set the historical record straight. Without this kind of work by ethical journalists worldwide, no one may ever know these types of important bits of information that governments and rebel groups would like to keep buried in some cases, and exaggerated in others.
Enabled by a 2008 law that waives immunity for states deemed as terrorists, the case, Colvin et al v. Syrian Arab Republic, will test the boundaries and potential remedies of these laws in US civil courts. These remedies could offer one venue for the aggrieved families to press their cases and will hopefully show that the killing of journalists does not go without any consequence. In the process, perhaps it will inch the needle toward justice in protecting our messengers, without whom we would be left with nothing but spin from war-makers on each side of a conflict.
The complaint filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability claims that Assad’s forces deliberately targeted Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik, as a means to silence media coverage. Shrapnel struck a local translator, Wael al-Omar, and two other journalists, Paul Conroy and Edith Bouvier, who sustained serious injuries from the attack. The attack destroyed the Baba Amr Media Center, which was established by local Syrian citizen journalists, including Khaled Abu Salah, according to documents filed in court.
Civil lawsuits have been used to seek recourse for bad behavior and faulty products that caused damage. With large-dollar verdicts and public airing of facts, the actions have become one means of restitution for the aggrieved, often when either the government is the guilty party or when its other branches are incapable or unwilling to address the injustices caused by another entity. Civil rights lawyers believe the threat of large-scale fines and public shaming deters bad behavior by governments and corporations.
It remains to be seen if Colvin’s family members will have their day in court and if they will see Assad on the witness stand or even take his deposition. It isn’t enough to leave the matter of journalists’ lives to private rights of action in the civil courts. But should the case proceed and act as a warning for others who target journalists, it is a step in the right direction.