Ethics and the Law: Journalists and International Criminal Tribunals (part 1)

Seyi Rhodes Journalists Event

Seyi Rhodes recalls giving evidence at the Gbagbo trial before the International Criminal Court.

LONDON – Can journalists give evidence at international criminal trials without compromising their objectivity? What is the probative value of journalistic evidence? What does it feel like to be cross-examined by Slobodan Milošević?

These were some of the questions discussed at the event Ethics and the Law: Journalists and International Criminal Tribunals hosted on 25 October at London’s Frontline Club. The fourth of a series of events on “Ethics and the News”, the panel discussion was organised by the Ethical Journalism Network and Global Rights Compliance, and chaired by Channel 4 Head of News and Current Affairs Dorothy Byrne.

The toll it takes to testify

The event started with the screening of a short, harrowing extract of the 1992 documentary Omarska’s Survivors: Bosnia 1992.

As the lights come back on, we hear from the first panelist, former Guardian and Observer reporter Ed Vulliamy. He is familiar with those images – in fact, he was there when they were filmed, as he and British journalist Penny Marshall managed to gain access to the infamous Omarska concentration camp and exposed the dire conditions of living for prisoners there.

A certain weariness shows on the face of Vulliamy, who explains that they reported the atrocities in Bosnia for “three effing years” before things started to change. Vulliamy bore witness to many human rights violations on the ground, and later repeated that exercise in a different, more judicial setting years later, as he became the first journalist since the Nuremberg trials to testify at an international war crimes tribunal. In total, he testified in ten trials for the prosecution at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (“ICTY”), including those of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and General Ratko Mladić.

Would I do it all again?“, Vulliamy wonders out loud. He seems ambivalent. He stresses the difference between objectivity and neutrality; journalists have a duty to be objective, he notes, but as human beings they also cannot stay neutral in the face of horrors and wrongdoing. His answers, however also reveal the personal and mental toll it takes to re-live those experiences in front of a tribunal.

That personal toll is something that two other journalists present that night are all too familiar with.

This includes former BBC foreign correspondent Jacky Rowland. In 2002, Rowland’s decision to testify against former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević at the ICTY drew mixed reactions from other journalists. In her case, however, Rowland’s decision stemmed from the fact that all the information she gave evidence on was already in the public domain, and there were no sources to protect. Asked to testify about what she saw in 1999 at the Dubrava prison in Kosovo, where she founds score of dead inmates, she felt that testifying in court was part of her moral duties as a citizen, and an extension of her role as journalist. She recounts being cross-examined by Milošević, who had elected to represent himself in the trial: “He had decided to put the whole of Western Europe on trial… instead of defending himself, he was conducting his own prosecution.” But this wasn’t the hardest part of testifying; the real difficulty came from a lack of support (moral and practical) from the BBC, and their active efforts to distance themselves from Rowland’s testimony.

Giving evidence at a criminal trial was also a challenging experience for journalist Seyi Rhodes, who has worked for the BBC and Channel 4 amongst others. The depiction of the war unfolding in Rhodes’ 2011 documentary “Inside the Battle for Ivory Coast”, filmed for the Channel 4 series Unreported World, happened almost by accident. The filming crew originally went to the West African country to show how a political crisis could spiral into a civil war. As conflicts escalated, however, the country descended into fully-fledged war, culminating into what was dubbed “the battle of Abidjan” between forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner of the national elections, and those loyal to Laurent Gbagbo. As borders closed, Rhodes and his team had no choice but to stay in the country and bear witness to the growing violence. They were later contacted by the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) to give evidence in what was quickly becoming one of the most high profile trials to take place before the Court since its inception. Rhodes recalls how difficult it was have to access traumatic memories that he had tried so hard to repress: “You put them in the box… and then someone asks you to go back and open the box.” Rhodes also reflects on the racial element of his decision to give evidence, and how difficult it was to reconcile his race and political views as a black, left-leaning man, with the giving of evidence against a black, left-wing politician.

(to be continued in Part 2)

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