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Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu is legal advisor to the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda. Slobodan Milosevic will go on trial in The Hague beginning Feb. 12.

ARUSHA, Tanzania
-- On Feb. 12 the trial of Slobodan Milosevic will begin at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague. That trial will no doubt be accompanied by much coverage in the global media. Rightly so. Wrongly, though, will such publicity strengthen an already heavily lopsided coverage of the two international criminal tribunals set up by the United Nations to try the men and women accused of perpetrating mass atrocities in the Balkans and Rwanda during the last decade.

Why is there such inadequate publicity of the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda relative to the Yugoslavia tribunal?

The answer to that question -- and changing that reality -- may determine whether accountability and justice for mass crimes will be established as successfully in Africa as in the Balkans. And the fault is not in the stars, but in the global media. In a world in which imagery has assumed tremendous importance in shaping the course of international relations, where the media train their cameras and what they say when they do have a profound -- even if sometimes distorted -- impact on perceptions of what is important and newsworthy.

The Rwanda tribunal, starting in 1998, has handed down the first-ever verdicts by any court for the "ultimate crime.'' Those judgments -- including the conviction for the first time of a head of government for genocide and a conviction in another case for rape as genocide and a crime against humanity -- have broken new ground in international law and justice for war crimes.

Yet, despite these achievements and the extreme gravity of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which more than half a million victims were killed within a three-month period, media coverage of the Rwanda tribunal's search for justice is far less than that of The Hague tribunal. Trials at The Hague are the subject of long feature and news articles and broadcasts by correspondents of the world's newspapers and television. With the occasional exception, far fewer column inches are devoted to the Arusha trials.
Television coverage is sporadic, and media coverage and other assessments of the Arusha court tend to dwell not on its precedent-setting judgments and other achievements that have contributed much to the development of international criminal justice, but on its institutional imperfections. Coverage of The Hague tribunal, despite the fact that it shares in several respects similar frustrations and challenges as the Arusha court, emphasizes its judicial accomplishments.

While the Rwanda court's location in a small town off the beaten path is a contributing factor to its low media wattage, the fact that it is not a compelling topic of interest for the powerful editors of the global media is a more fundamental reason. There are other factors at play as well, such as perceptions of political priorities and the inadequate and often negative coverage of the African continent as a whole in the global media.

The question of lopsided coverage of the two international criminal tribunals is an important one. It is important not because the two institutions are in competition -- they are not -- but because they are part of an emerging architecture of international criminal justice. And international war crimes courts, because of the political inspiration, mass nature and widespread consequences of the crimes they address, require the public impact and support that effective media coverage generates if they are to dissuade and deter potential war criminals.

It is important that the media cover this subject in a balanced and truly global manner. There has been much soul-searching for the world's inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide. The media now have a responsibility to help ensure that the world knows of the efforts to bring to justice the persons responsible for this heinous crime. A skewed approach that is preoccupied with the Balkans and fails to give sustained, in-depth coverage to the work of the Rwanda tribunal weakens the quest for justice in this part of the world by diminishing its impact and thus the chances for the success of this historic endeavor.

The work of the U.N.'s Rwanda court is far too important to meet such a fate. The irony of the tribunal's publicity deficit is that there really is an interesting story to tell: politicians, clergy, senior military commanders, the first woman to go on trial before an international criminal tribunal, and journalists accused of inciting genocide through hate media are all in the dock, defending themselves against charges of masterminding one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. And this court is putting in place the building blocks of a new culture of accountability in a continent where "big men'' have long held sway with impunity.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services
For immediate release (Distributed 2/6/02)