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.

Reporters cannot play the role of judge or jury in a war crimes case, nor should they advocate policy responses. The reporter’s proper role is that of watchdog: to alert the public to the first signs of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. Until and unless there is an effective International Criminal Court with an active prosecutor who has a method, staff and the necessary access to chase down allegations, I am not sure who except the media can investigate, document and present the evidence of crimes in real time. Doing this properly and avoiding major errors requires professional skills, patience, resources and risks that are not always in ample supply in the news media.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions, far from being outdated or overtaken by events, might provide the public a normative guide to what matters in conflict. After all, they represent the lessons learned after the century’s worst conflict; and their content, much of which dates back a good deal further, has a certain logic to it. While the ICRC properly seeks to encourage observance by citing positive examples, the news media can properly put the spotlight on war crimes. Public grasp of what is at stake in war will be enhanced if reporters know which acts are legal and which are criminal, particularly in the era now opening of international courts to hear cases of abuse.

At the end of what may well be remembered as the decade of ethnic cleansing, at the close of a century of wars waged against civilians, and at the turn of a tumultuous millennium, perhaps it is time to make the public more aware of these same distinctions.

In an effort to raise awareness of international humanitarian law, a group of reporters and law scholars, with the backing of American University’s Washington College of Law and its Department of Communications, have organized the “Crimes of War Project.” The project’s aim is to educate the news media in the United States and abroad about humanitarian law. A pocket guide to war crimes—including 60 articles by reporters about grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and crimes against humanity—will be available later this summer. Some examples will be unambiguous in terms of how they represent violations of this law. Others will be more ambiguous, but in each instance a discussion of the applicable law will provide guidance. There will also be articles from coverage of nine major wars, with reporters taking a fresh look from the perspective of international humanitarian law and, more specifically, at war crimes.

Making the determination whether an incident rises to the level of a war crime is unfortunately a task that journalist should now consider taking on given the brutal conflicts they are now sent to cover. While the process of learning about what constitutes such crimes requires time and effort, I think the value of doing so will be reflected in the coverage that results.

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