The Journalist as a Witness to War Crimes
A New Book Helps Reporters Define What They See
Editors Roy Gutman, a correspondent for Newsday, and David Rieff, a freelance author, have organized an alphabetical encyclopedia of atrocities, legal definitions and practical advice. The book offers firsthand experiences with organized barbarity: machete massacres in Rwanda, genocide in Cambodia, the Serbian sniper siege of Sarajevo, rape camps, slavery in the Sudan. In telling their war stories, the contributors often describe their own helplessness. The writers have covered many war crimes over the years, “without any particular expectation that the perpetrators would ever be brought to justice,” Lawrence Wechsler, a staff writer for The New Yorker, concedes. Part of the problem, as David Rieff explains, is that “humanitarian intervention is at once an immensely powerful and a terribly imprecise idea.”
But now the international community appears more responsive, the authors observe, and that is why they have created this guide. International laws are actually being used to punish some war crimes, thanks to the special international tribunals investigating Bosnia and Rwanda. There also is the pending effort to create an international criminal court. “By virtue of their profession, war correspondents may well find themselves among the first outside witnesses on the scene at war crimes. As such, they’re going to need to be informed witnesses, and the rest of us are going to have to become a far better informed and engaged public,” Wechsler asserts.
This book tells journalists what to look for to determine whether a war crime may have been committed. Was there a machine gun emplacement hidden in the rafters of the targeted hospital? Were armed troops accompanying refugees who were fleeing? Had the defenders of a town raised a white surrender flag before they were shot? Was the radio station broadcasting journalism or propaganda incitements to murder? Was the electrical station used by the military or only by civilians?
Knowing the international laws regarding war crimes might even help to persuade some combatants to desist, one contributor suggests. “I was present as a nonpartisan journalist, but found myself unexpectedly faced with situations where I felt a moral obligation to save lives,” writes Jon Lee Anderson, a freelance writer, recounting gruesome civilian executions in Sri Lanka. “I had no primer like this one, where the laws are clearly outlined, to help me formulate my arguments more convincingly. It is difficult to know whether men who feel themselves to be above the law can be persuaded by legal arguments, but it is certainly worth a try.”
The book is compelling, but also frustrating at times. Some contributing authors suspend their neutrality to settle old scores, while others barely get started on the topic they’ve chosen. Benny Morris’s chapter on the 1948 Arab-Israeli war is a comparatively lengthy polemic against Israeli atrocities, while Terence Taylor’s too-brief article on biological weapons doesn’t go far enough to tell journalists what to look for when seeking evidence of biological weapons. The book seems to be an eclectic compendium of what each journalist wanted to write rather than an integrated or complete analysis of what they actually needed to address. But despite these drawbacks, “Crimes of War” makes a valuable contribution.
Most importantly, “Crimes of War” shames the journalist who relies on descriptions of anarchy or “ancient hatreds” to describe what is happening on the ground at the present time. The editors cite British journalist Lindsey Hilsum’s belief that when a journalist reports in this manner, “chances are that he or she has not fully understood what was going on.”
The challenge to look more closely at what is unfolding, and understand it more clearly, infuses each chapter. For example, Israeli photographer Alex Levac describes in chilling detail how he rescued his film from confiscation by Israeli security officers, only to discover later, when he developed it, what he had: clear evidence that a Palestinian bus hijacker was murdered by the Israeli Shin Bet security service.
The book stresses basic common sense about preserving legal evidence. “Mass graves can be easily tampered with and the evidence they contain lost forever,” cautions Elizabeth Neuffer of The Boston Globe. Instead of digging around the site themselves, journalists should photograph the suspected mass grave and mark its location on a map. They should then contact a credible investigating unit.
Journalists are often caught up in these catastrophes and must make life-and-death choices that affect themselves and others. “We underwent many blindfolded interrogations, and were later brought to Baghdad and imprisoned. During one particularly severe interrogation, I was accused of being a CIA agent,” recounts Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist whose photographer comrades did not fare so well. “…Saddam released us. But Iraqi authorities kept Gad’s camera bag. His remains have yet to be recovered.”
International law may not provide the neutrality protection that American journalists expect. Journalists who are accredited by and accompanying an army are legally part of that military entourage, “whether they see themselves that way or not.” They should expect under the Geneva Convention to be treated as prisoners of war if captured by opposing forces, advises New York Times reporter William A. Orme, Jr. Their notebooks and film may legally be confiscated by military personnel under these circumstances.
One of the most powerful stories in the book is also one of the most disturbing. South African judge Richard Goldstone, the first prosecutor of the International Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, describes in his foreword how his court in South Africa received anonymously a videotape which showed police lining up before a crowd. This videotape proved they were criminally responsible for shooting the civilians.
“One can imagine the agonizing which preceded the decision on the part of the reporting team to send me the videotape—how they weighed the general rule of not providing such evidence for court proceedings against the unique proof they had of the events in question,” Goldstone writes. He deduces that the film was produced by an American television company crew. “Whoever they were, I was most grateful for their action, which enabled many innocent victims to obtain a large measure of justice,” he says. But the fact that the tape was never broadcast “illustrates the uncertain tension that journalists feel about publishing or broadcasting controversial events without knowing the precise limits of the law or law enforcement.”
This book is, for all of its horror stories, a triumph of hope over experience. Even as he concludes that barbarities like the Khmer Rouge genocides haunt every era, battle-worn Sydney Schanberg, who reported for The New York Times, exhorts reporters to renew their efforts to expose them. “Is it hopeless, then, to try to strengthen both the international law and its enforcement? No, never hopeless, not if you believe in the possibility of improvement, no matter how slight. Journalists are by blood and tradition committed to the belief, or at least to the tenet, of trying to keep bad things from getting any worse than they already are.” This book just might help them do that.
Ellen Hume was Executive Director of PBS’s Democracy Project and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.
In this century’s seemingly endless cycle of crimes against humanity, journalists sometimes can make a real difference. “Crimes of War,” written by seasoned combat reporters and other experts, advises journalists how to advance justice by using international law as a context for coverage.