It Is Not My Job to Provide the Evidence for a War Crimes Trial ; A Reporter's Job Does Not Include Joining the Prosecution. We Are Witnesses and We Name, If We Can, the Bad Guys

By Fisk, Robert | The Independent (London, England), August 24, 2002 | Go to article overview
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It Is Not My Job to Provide the Evidence for a War Crimes Trial ; A Reporter's Job Does Not Include Joining the Prosecution. We Are Witnesses and We Name, If We Can, the Bad Guys


Fisk, Robert, The Independent (London, England)


Three Western war crimes investigators turned up to see me in Beirut last week. No, they didn't come to talk about the Bosnian war. They wanted to know about torture at Israel's notorious Khiam jail in southern Lebanon, about beatings and imprisonment in cupboard-size cells and electrodes applied to the toes and penises of inmates under interrogation. Most of the torturers were Lebanese members of Israel's proxy "South Lebanon Army" militia, and they performed their vile work for the Israelis - on women as well as men - from the late Seventies until Israel's withdrawal in 2000: almost a quarter of a century of torture. Khiam prison is still there, open to the public, a living testament to brutality and Israeli shame.

The problem is that Israel is now trying to dump its Lebanese torturers on Western countries. Sweden, Canada, Norway, France, Germany and other nations are being asked to give citizenship to these repulsive men in the interests of "peace" - and also because the Israeli government would prefer they left Israel. The three investigators - two cops and a justice ministry official - had come to Beirut to make sure that their government wasn't about to give citizenship to Israel's war criminals. And they knew what they were talking about. We both knew that one former torturer was living in Sweden with his two sons, and that another had opened two restaurants in America.

And I was happy to chat to them. But chatting is one thing. Testifying is quite another. I make this point because the BBC told me last week that their Belgrade correspondent, Jacky Rowland, was planning to testify against Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague war crimes tribunal. I was invited this week to participate in a BBC radio interview with yet another BBC man who had given evidence at The Hague, Dan Damon.

And, in fact, I received a phone call from one of The Hague investigators a few weeks ago, wanting to know if I had accompanied a European Union delegation to a Bosnian concentration camp in 1982. I had travelled with the EU men to two camps - not the one that The Hague investigator was interested in. But this was not the first call I've had from The Hague and I pointed out this time - as I had before - that I didn't believe journalists should be policemen. My articles could be used by anyone at The Hague and I was more than ready to sign a letter to the effect that they were accurate. But that was all.

So when Dan Damon of the BBC argued on air this week that the written or spoken report might not be "believed" if a reporter wasn't ready to testify in a court, I was a bit taken aback. In many cases, The Hague has commenced proceedings against war criminals on the basis of newspaper articles and television programmes. No one, so far as I know, has ever questioned our reports on Serbian, Croatian - and, yes, Muslim Bosnian - war crimes. In fact, I suspect Dan's argument was a bit of a smokescreen to cover his own concern about the boundaries of journalism.

I know, of course, how the arguments go. I may be a journalist, says the reporter as he or she turns up to the court, but I am also a human being. A time must come when a journalist's rules are outweighed by moral conscience. I don't like this argument. Firstly, because the implication is that journalists who don't intend to testify are not human beings; and secondly, because it suggests that reporters in general don't normally work with a moral conscience. Jonathan Randal, who worked for The Washington Post in Bosnia and has told The Hague tribunal that he will not testify against a Serb defendant, understands this all too well.

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It Is Not My Job to Provide the Evidence for a War Crimes Trial ; A Reporter's Job Does Not Include Joining the Prosecution. We Are Witnesses and We Name, If We Can, the Bad Guys
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