International Justice Day 2023 marks the 25th birthday of the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court (ICC): very late in the evening of July 17th, 1998, a high-level diplomatic conference, organised by the United Nations in the Italian capital, ended with rapturous applause and emotional hugs.
It was a dream come true: with the adopted treaty text, the foundations were laid for a permanent international tribunal to try the main culprits of the worst crimes that shock the conscience of humanity: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, aggression against other countries of the family of human kind.
The Rome Statute entered into force on July 1st, 2002, after the necessary 60 ratifications had come in at UN HQ in NY. On January 26th, 2009, the first ICC trial started, in the case of The Prosecutor v. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. Lubanga, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was charged and later convicted for war crimes against the most vulnerable: enlisting children and “using” them as child soldiers.
Striking and shocking “detail”: there were no Congolese journalists present at the opening of the trial, and throughout the trial. As the old saying goes: Justice must not only be done, but also seen to be done. A well-functioning justice system does not only need professional judges, and prosecution, and defence teams; journalists are vital to give publicity to the proceedings, to inform the public, and to check that the suspect gets a fair trial.
At the moment, trials are ongoing at the ICC about the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan; there are ongoing proceedings about other African countries. But there are no journalists from those “situation countries” based here The Hague to cover the proceedings. This is mainly because most of them cannot afford to live in this expensive city. Promises were made by the diplomatic community two decades ago to assist press coverage as one way to facilitate the functioning of the new international court and augment its efficacy have not materialised.
Media coverage and publishing about the proceedings of domestic courts are generally considered important for various reasons. Journalists can ensure that a suspect gets a fair trial and, if convicted, that this was based on evidence beyond reasonable doubt. During the Stalin dictatorship in the Soviet Union, for example, several “dissidents” were convicted in secret trials and sent to labour camps in Siberia. Journalists were not present to verify the prosecution’s evidence.
Media reportage also serves other purposes. When reports about a criminal trial, for example of a robbery, are published in a newspaper, and especially if a conviction is secured, readers who might have been considering earning money easily and quickly the same way are likely to have second thoughts about such a venture. So the crime is more likely not to be repeated. Victims testifying in f.ex. a rape trial will have the satisfaction of seeing the perpetrator publicly exposed in the news media.
The stakes are even higher at international courts which deal with high-level leaders, including former and sitting heads of state such as Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milošević and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya. Charges in international courts are not about the murder of a single individual, bad as that may be, but about mass atrocities. And the charges go beyond the alleged criminal act itself; they are about crimes committed in the much larger framework of conflicts between states and nations or among ethnic communities within a country. Identifying the main culprits and prosecuting them involves satisfaction for the victims and deterrence at a much higher level and on a larger scale than domestic trials. Trials of such high-level leaders are also about reconciliation between large communities and the writing of history.
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One would expect that some lessons had been learnt about the role of the media from trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Initially there were no independent and objective journalists from the Balkan region during the ICTY trials. Often, those who could afford to travel to The Hague were biased in favour of authoritarian rulers like presidents Milošević of Serbia and Franjo Tuđman of Croatia.
It was only after some years that Western governments realised that the ICTY’s findings and rulings would only be accepted in the region if there was unbiased reporting about what happened in The Hague. The European Union and individual countries such as Germany and The Netherlands helped to fund SENSE, a specialised agency where Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian journalists worked together to produce objective coverage of the tribunal that could be published in the whole of the former Yugoslavia.
The same entities helped Beta to send a reporter to The Hague. Beta was an independent news agency of “dissident” journalists of Tanyug, the Yugoslav state news agency, who did not want to become Milošević propagandists. The British public broadcaster BBC gave technical training to staff of B92, a respected independent radio and TV station in Belgrade. The USAID media programme gave financial support to Serbian journalists covering the ICTY.
At the ICTR, after some time money was found for Rwandan journalists to report from Arusha: Swiss funding to report in French for Hirondelle, and American funding for reporting in English for Internews.
When the United Nations decided that, for security reasons, former president Charles Taylor of Liberia should not be tried at the seat of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown, but in The Netherlands, the BBC helped to secure the presence of at least one journalist from Sierra Leone and one from Liberia, the two countries concerned, at the trial.
When Luis Moreno Ocampo made his solemn declaration as the first chief prosecutor of the ICC in the Peace Palace in 2003, he organised a “public hearing” for diplomats and civil society organisations. The Association of Journalists at the International Criminal Court (AJICC-AJCPI) was invited to speak and exposed the late start of good journalistic coverage in the countries concerned at the ICTY and ICTR, as described above.
There was not only the polite applause that is usual at such events, diplomats came to see AJICC representatives during the coffee break to assure that: “At the ICC, we will make sure that there can be journalists from the country concerned immediately when the first trial starts.” This assurance was no doubt prompted by the leitmotif of the early days of the ICC: “Lessons learnt!” (from the ICTY and ICTR).
But diplomats mostly change post every 3 or 4 years. When the first ICC trial started in 2009, in Lubanga, as said, there were no Congolese journalists in The Hague to follow the case. This also happened for the first trial about Uganda.
Congolese journalists who wanted to cover the trials about their countries sent emails asking the AJICC-AJCPI for financial help to come to The Hague – but the Association has no such means. The Association’s pledges to diplomats in The Hague got lukewarm responses. Sometimes, after month’s of begging, organisation’s like Journalists For Justice find some funding to bring situation country journalists to The Hague for a week or so.
Thomas Verfuss is the president of the AJICC-AJCPI and the training editor of JFJ.