SKEWED COVERAGE OF WAR CRIMES TRIALS WEAKENS
Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu is legal advisor to the International Criminal
Tribunal in Rwanda. Slobodan Milosevic will go on trial in The Hague beginning
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
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)