Tribunals and War Crimes Trials: Treatment of the Press: Investigative Journalists Confront Intimidating Tactics and Legal Actions against Them by International Criminal Tribunals

By Cruvellier, Thierry | Nieman Reports, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Tribunals and War Crimes Trials: Treatment of the Press: Investigative Journalists Confront Intimidating Tactics and Legal Actions against Them by International Criminal Tribunals


Cruvellier, Thierry, Nieman Reports


Kaing Guek Eav, better known as "Duch,' directed the most infamous detention and torture center, S-21, for the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. This is now a genocide museum and, for the first time in 29 years, Eav returned there in February 2008 as a man charged with crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a court located in Phnom Penh and created through an agreement between the Cambodian government and the United Nations. His return was part of the judicial investigation, and information about it was shielded from the public, as is the entire investigation of this civil law system. Even so, this was an historic event and, as such, was announced in advance by the ECCC. Not surprisingly, local reporters--and a few international ones--showed up at S-21 in Phnom Penh's city center to cover the news. Several circumvented the security measures meant to keep them out.

Things then turned unfriendly. Traeey Shelton, a reporter with The Phnom Penh Post, who took pictures of the accused at S-21, ended up being questioned for several hours by the police. Her digital photographs were erased. The Cambodia Daily reported that John Vink, a Magnum photographer, "was warned by a tribunal official that if he published a photograph of Duch he would be blacklisted from the court." The director of TV Channel CTN said he was told by a court official not to air the footage his reporters had taken. As reported by The Cambodia Daily, ECCC Public Affairs Chief Helen Jarvis further warned that "under the tribunal's internal rules any person, whether an employee of the court or not, who knowingly discloses confidential information in violation of a judicial order is subject to sanction by the tribunal, Cambodian authorities, or the United Nations."

These actions sent a strong warning to journalists covering the ECCC, just as those taken by other tribunals against journalists have served a similar purpose. In fact, during the past six years a number of worrisome practices and jurisprudence have developed at UN tribunals, practices that journalists should report on as part of their coverage of the trials themselves.

Reporting on the Courts

In the past 15 years, the rapid rise of international courts involved with criminal justice has signified important progress in the global human rights movement. During the 1990's, three major international tribunals were created: the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and the International Criminal Court (ICC). The first two plan to end their judicial work by 2010; the ICC is a permanent institution that began in 2002. Other war crimes trials have been held under UN-administered East Timor and Kosovo. Three major "hybrid" tribunals, with shared responsibility between international staff and nationals from the country where the crimes occurred, have been set up--the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the War Crimes Chamber in the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the ECCC. Another similar institution, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, should start operating soon, although that court will not deal with war crimes.

A small number of journalists cover war crimes trials and other reporters write occasional stories on proceedings in The Hague, Arusha, Freetown, Sarajevo or Phnom Penh. But what receives considerably less press attention are restraints being placed on investigative and independent journalists through threats and intimidation or legal suits placed against them by prosecutors affiliated with these courts. Nor has the practice of closed hearings and anonymous testimony before war crimes tribunals, particularly at the ICTR, nor issues revolving around witness protection, been reported on with the kind of journalistic scrutiny that might reveal that these procedures have sometimes been created by courts to assure their own protection. …

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