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Is French journalist kidnapped in Colombia a prisoner of war?

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Carlos Villalon/Reuters

(Read caption) Rebel commander Ancizar delivers a statement, confirming that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have taken captive of French journalist Romeo Langlois, in Florencia, Caqueta province, May 5.

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• A version of this post ran on the author's site, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

In a video, Colombia's rebel group the FARC say French journalist Romeo Langlois is a prisoner of war (POW). The Colombian government has rejected this labeling. Who is correct?

In the video (in Spanish), filmed by journalists Karl Penhaul and Carlos Villalon, a resolute commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who calls himself "Ancizar," reads from a guerrilla communique stating that Langlois was taken during a seven-hour battle on April 28 with the Colombian army in the southern department of Caqueta.

"The 15th Front would like to inform [the public] that French Journalist Romeo Langlois, [who] was captured in the middle of a battle wearing a military uniform, is in our hands," Ancizar says. "He is a prisoner of war."

When pressed by Penhaul, Ancizar says he hopes that they can "overcome this obstacle," an apparent reference to positively identifying Langlois as a journalist and potentially freeing him.

The Colombian security forces have denied that the French journalist was dressed as a soldier, stating that Langlois was wearing civilian clothes along with an olive green helmet and a bulletproof vest. The military, Colombia's Vice President Angelino Garzon, and Human Rights Watch have all said that the FARC's labeling of Langlois is incorrect, and that by taking Langlois hostage, the FARC is violating its previous pact to stop kidnapping civilians for ransom.

[See InSight Crime's FARC profile]

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The fundamental question here is whether a "uniformed" journalist should be considered part of a military unit which s/he is accompanying, and therefore subject to the same legal status as members of the armed forces if taken captive. According to the most recent safety guide released by the Committee to Protect Journalists:

A credentialed, uniformed journalist legally becomes a part of the military unit with whom he or she is traveling, according to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Embedded journalists may be fired upon legally by opposing forces as part of the unit, and the individual journalist may later be detained legally and held for the duration of hostilities as a prisoner of war.

But in Langlois' specific case, it is unclear whether wearing military gear, which was not identical to what the Colombian army wears, should qualify him as a "uniformed" journalist or war correspondent and thus make him eligible for POW status. Also complicating the issue is the fact that, after the FARC ambushed the military unit he was accompanying, Langlois was shot in the arm and then reportedly stripped off his gear and ran towards the rebels in his civilian clothing.

These ambiguities mean both the FARC and the military can make their cases for whether Langlois properly qualifies as a POW under the terms of the Geneva Conventions. As Colombia Reports editor-in-chief Adriaan Alsema observed, "Both the army and the FARC are well aware of this clause and are happily interpreting it for their own benefit."

For Langlois, the distinction is critical. Under Article 4 of the Geneva Convention, "war correspondents" may be considered POWs, but journalists may not. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) legal expert Robin Geiss:

Both are recognized as civilians, but only war correspondents are entitled to prisoner-of-war status. War correspondents are formally authorized to accompany the armed forces. By virtue of this close relationship, upon capture, they are accorded the same legal status as members of the armed forces.

Complicating the legal definition of who constitutes a "war correspondent" – someone who has received accredited authorization from the armed forces whom they accompany – is a more modern term, "embedded journalists," a label which was first used during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, and which also has been applied to Langlois. As Geiss points out:

[The term] does not occur in any provision of international humanitarian law and, so far as I know, it is not clearly defined. However, it is safe to say that war correspondents are commonly, although not necessarily in all cases, equated with so-called "embedded journalists." In order to become a war correspondent within the meaning of international humanitarian law, official accreditation by the armed forces is mandatory. Thus, if an "embedded journalist" has received the official accreditation then, legally, he is a war correspondent.

The ambiguities over Langlois' status as a POW is indicative of a wider debate over the status of journalists reporting from war zones. With the evolution of warfare, many situations of conflict – including those involving organized crime – scarcely resemble traditional battlegrounds. When asking whether Langlois merited special protection as a civilian during the FARC-military clash, these are also considerations that could be applied to journalists reporting elsewhere in the region, areas such as San Pedro Sula, Ciudad Juarez, or Rio de Janeiro, all of which have been described as experiencing varying states of urban war. If it is difficult to define whether Langlois should be considered a POW or not, it is also difficult to decide whether the traditional terminology is still applicable to modern conflict zones.

– Elyssa Pachico is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region find all of her research here.

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