The 1949 Geneva Conventions call for POWs to be treated humanely. This includes protection from acts of violence, intimidation, or being coerced to provide information. Journalists are not bound by international humanitarian law. However, it is their ethical obligation to avoid publishing material that treats captives as objects of “public curiosity,” humiliates them, or puts them at risk.
1. RFE/RL’s basic position is: avoid POW photos, videos, and audio.
2. Exceptions may be made only when it can be clearly justified that such content is in the public interest because it offers significant news value. (In the current war in Ukraine, it can be argued that some footage of Russian POWs is in the public interest because of the lack of credible information from the Russian government about troop deployment and casualties.)
3. If such a justification exists, steps must then be taken to minimize personal details about the POW in question and only show what is strictly necessary for the purpose of the report.
Those steps can include:
- Blurring the face of the POW
- Eliminating audio that includes the POW’s surname or other telltale identifiers
- Avoiding any content that shows the POW to be in evident distress
- Avoiding any content in which the POW accuses superiors or government officials of wrongdoing. Such footage could later be used against soldiers after their return home.
4. Special Cases:
- Using POW footage in a call for information – If a journalist wants to use POW footage in an attempt to find out more about the prisoner’s background, it is possible to use a still image or screenshot and show that to the audience with a call for information. (This can be useful in tracking down family members or other acquaintances who may in turn be able to provide useful information about the nature of the soldier’s deployment. In the Ukraine war, for example, some family members of Russian POWs have testified that the soldier in question had received very little training or believed they were being sent for training exercises only.)
- Interviews with relatives – If a relative of a POW agrees to speak to a journalist about the POW, there is a justified news need for running short, unblurred video of the POW in captivity as part of our report. Such interviews may be the result of a call for information by the journalist, or at the initiative of relatives who themselves contact RFE/RL to highlight the plight of their family member.
- Extraordinary News Value – If a POW video contains news of exceptional significance – for example, proof that foreign mercenaries are fighting in a national army, or visible injuries the POW claims were inflicted by a superior – we may show an unblurred video as part of the news story.