Ethics and the Law: Journalists and International Criminal Tribunals (part 2)

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.

In part 1 of this post, we described how journalists recounted their experience of testifying at high-profile international criminal trials. At the same event, legal practitioners also gave their thoughts on the role of journalists in such trials.

The lawyers’ view

The next speaker is the Rt Hon. Lord Justice Adrian Fulford, who was elected to serve as a judge before the ICC for a term of 9 years. Tapping into his wealth of experience, Sir Adrian acknowledges the shortcomings of international justice: trials are too lengthy, trials are too costly, not enough cases are brought before the ICC. The current system of international criminal trials, he says, is an intimidating slow-moving machine, something akin to “a Gilbert & Sullivan operetto” taking place in large surroundings, and could benefit from more imaginative ways of giving evidence to make the process less intimidating for witnesses. It is increasingly difficult to get people to testify, Sir Adrien says, but journalists tend to make good witnesses, as the essence of their role is to bear witness to events.

Wayne Jordash QC, of Global Rights Compliance, is more ambivalent: to him, journalistic evidence does not have any heightened probative value. While Jordash emphasizes the role of journalists as watchdogs as crucial (perhaps now more than ever), and agrees that photo and video evidence is critical, he suggests that journalists’ additional testimony does not have a huge bearing on a case. However, journalism is crucial in another, often ignored way: in pushing the information out and catching society’s attention. Through their reporting on human rights violations in the news, war journalists help keep human rights violations in the news cycle – this, Jordash says, helps mount and maintain support, which can in turn lead to better funding to combat such violations.

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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.

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Looking for women experts? Don’t make it a beauty pageant

Final Phase Digital

1946 – Birth of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, photo credit: UN Photo

This post was co-authored by Almut Rochowanski

Earlier this month, the BBC held its BBC Expert Women’s Day, bringing together “female experts who’d like to appear on air as contributors to BBC programmes”. The event gathered a group of 24 professionals, which included lawyers, scientists, political analysts, entrepreneurs, coders, cultural leaders and sex educators, selected from a pool of 450 applicants for a ‘media familiarisation day”. They were given tips on how to sound natural on air and given the opportunity to experience appearing on camera in a BBC news studio.

Seemingly, this is a well-intentioned effort to diversify sources. However, the way the BBC is going about it makes it seem more like a beauty contest.

This is the latest edition of a programme the BBC launched in 2013. At first glance, it might look like an earnest attempt to overcome the notorious “all-male panel” problem, something the BBC should be applauded for having acknowledged and taking steps to address (even if, in 2012, it was the only major UK broadcaster to refuse signing a pledge to get more women on screen). But, on closer inspection, there are a number of deeply problematic aspects to the initiative. In fact, it is a spot-on illustration of why media organizations suffer from the all-male panel problem to begin with.

The BBC Academy’s call for applications asked women experts to send in their CV, a letter explaining their interest in being on air and a two-minute video of themselves talking about their area of expertise. By having women experts compete to be acknowledged for what they are – experts – this “TV expert” competition puts the onus on women to correct and overcome the discrimination that holds them back. Once again, women are expected to jump through extra hoops to prove that they are good enough to do what men routinely get to do with no questions asked. Women need to not only have the talent and put in the work to become experts on topics like Brexit, terrorism or classical music, but must also submit to a screen test and mentoring in order to be recognized as authoritative voices in their field of expertise.

The screen test that forms part of the application is particularly troubling. Somehow, it doesn’t seem likely that the BBC requires screen tests of the male climate scientists, business experts or lawyers they invite on their programs.  And while the instructions for the video do not mention looks, women are judged on their appearance much more than men, and nowhere more so than in the media. Imagine a female expert on development aid or the music industry considering even for a split second whether she should put on lipstick before recording her video, and it immediately becomes clear how this initiative perpetuates gender discrimination and is self-defeating in its stated purpose.

The competition is based on the lazy and ignorant assumption that women are underrepresented as experts in broadcast media because they have not tried hard enough or because they just do not shine as brightly as their male colleagues whom the media somehow manage to find without them having to answer to a casting call. The same argument is routinely employed to rationalize the low numbers of women on corporate boards, among tenured professors or in government. And yet we know that women are underrepresented in roles of power and prestige because they are overlookeddismissedignoredexcluded and discriminated against.

Our critique isn’t directed at the women who took part in this year’s BBC Expert Women’s Day, or the many more who applied and were not invited. Quite the contrary. These women are obviously very good at what they do, and the fact that they’re ready to put in the extra work and face new challenges illustrates why they have become leaders in their fields. Our point is that they shouldn’t have had to go through a competition like this to be recognised for their expertise and to get a chance to contribute to public discourse.

If the BBC concludes that they have too few female experts on the air, they ought to first take a good, hard look at themselves and figure out where they went wrong. Have they sufficiently questioned their own habits and assumptions? Have they probed their organization’s practices for hidden biases and discrimination? Do terrorism experts always look male in the imagination of the editorial staff? Have they given proper research a try?

Because, really, it is not difficult to find women experts out there. We are literally everywhere. We are at universitieshospitals, research centers and think tanks. We publish booksblog post and articles, we are on LinkedIn and social media, we win prizes and fellowships, we are part of professional networks. In addition, numerous databases have been set up to assist researchers who might be at a loss in identifying women experts for their news coverage. There is The Women’s RoomSheSource, Women Also Know Stuff and The OpEd Project, to name but a few. Having women compete to have their voices heard in a space where their opinions should be sought out as often as those of their male counterparts is not a solution. Rather, by failing to acknowledge and reject the systematic inequalities that women face, this casting call for women experts perpetuates the problem it ostensibly tries to solve.

Almut Rochowanski is a co-founder and coordinator of the Chechnya Advocacy Network. Nani Jansen Reventlow is a human rights lawyer with Doughty Street Chambers and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

This post has been cross-posted on Medium.