What Difference Would It Make If Reporters Knew a War Crime When They Saw One?

Article excerpt

This article is excerpted from a paper prepared by Roy Gutman, a correspondent for Newsday, for the International Studies Association conference held in Vienna, Austria in September 1998.

Human rights abuses, war crimes and impunity are the stuff of journalism for the simple reason that crime is news. The traditional watchdog function requires media to report on disregard for the law, especially if that is the attitude of a State or an institution supported by taxpayer's money.

Yet media coverage of international or internal conflict is rarely framed in terms of infractions of the laws of war. International humanitarian law is a thicket of interconnected assumptions, principles, statements and caveats that most laypersons find impenetrable. Would a grasp of human rights and the Geneva Conventions produce better news coverage? Personal experience leads this reporter to think it would.

Reporters were among the first to discover that major governments, far from upholding humanitarian law, would just as soon walk away from it in the absence of vital or commercial interests or a carefully trained spotlight. Early in August 1992, following my own reports disclosing systematic killing at detention camps in northern Bosnia, the stunning television footage by the British ITN network, and the on-site reporting by Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian, United States President George Bush issued a stern-sounding but evasive statement that nonetheless reflected a clear grasp that international humanitarian law had been violated. He did not denounce crimes against humanity, demand the closure of the camps, the freeing of the prisoners, or even an investigation to determine whether crimes had occurred. His only demand was that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) be granted access to Omarska and other camps. Other major governments were slower to respond.

What role can or should reporters play in alerting the world to infractions of humanitarian law? Can they put a spotlight on these violations, if in fact they are not certain themselves what constitute transgressions of humanitarian law? And if they did know, would it make a difference in how these stories are reported and, in turn, how these events are regarded and treated by the international community? How is a reporter to know a war crime when he or she sees it? Too often, what happens is that journalists observe gross abuse and don't call it by its real name, a war crime. What in the past have been called "tragedies" are, in fact, grave breaches of international law, but the law is so complicated and so poorly understood by journalists that their reporting often falls short.

The potential impact of improved coverage of this issue on public awareness is hard to assess in the abstract, but in certain circumstances it could be substantial. Had the media covered the abuses in the Croatia war of 1991 more skillfully, the reportage would have alerted the world to the true nature of the conflict and prepared it better for the explosion of crimes in the 1992-1995 Bosnia conflict. And had reporters provided the legal frame of reference for the systematized maltreatment they found in the Bosnian Serb concentration camps, the widespread and systematic rape, the destruction of culture, the attacks on cities and civilians during the Bosnia conflict, then the public and major governments might have had a better frame of reference for determining a response. …