By Thomas Verfuss in The Hague
This summer the 20th anniversary of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is the occasion for many congresses, exhibitions and publications, in The Hague and elsewhere.
When the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the ICC, entered into force on July 1, 2002, expectations were high: the court would try the highest political and military leaders for mass atrocity crimes, thus deter future crimes; provide redress to victims; and assure accountability, and thus help to promote reconciliation as there is no peace without justice.
It is a mixed bag at this stocktaking, 20 years later, especially as far as the highest leaders and deterrence are concerned. What is often forgotten during this debate are journalists and the media. Justice must be seen to be done. A well-functioning justice system does not only need judges, and prosecution and defence teams; journalists are vital to give publicity to the proceedings, to inform the public.
At the moment, trials are going on at the ICC about Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR). But there are no journalists from those situation countries based in The Hague to cover the proceedings. This is mainly because many of them cannot afford to live in the expensive city. Promises made by the diplomatic community two decades ago to assist such cases as one way to facilitate the functioning of the new international court have not materialised.
Media coverage and publishing of the proceedings of domestic courts are 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. Victims testifying in 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.
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 on 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 when the first ICC trial started in 2009, in the case against Thomas Lubanga from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 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.
As the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute, on July 17, 2023, is approaching, the community of states and people that support the ICC system should bear in mind two leading principles: “Lessons learnt!” and “Justice must be seen to be done!”.
Thomas Verfuss is the president of the AJICC-AJCPI.