Justice & Journalism – United in Beirut

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A guest blog by Geraldine Coughlan

The tragic tales of Lebanese journalist May Chidiac and Marlise Simons of the New York Times are testament to the risks journalists take in covering conflicts. Chidiac lost an arm in a car bomb attack in 2005 and Simons was arrested, kidnapped & blindfolded in Latin America. These tales bring home the brutal reality of the risks in covering war crimes. They were central to the first ever gathering of law and media experts on ‘Media Coverage of International Justice’ in Beirut last week.

The old ‘hacks’ who have covered The Hague trials for the past two decades put their heads together with the legal profession and top journalists from the big media houses including BBC and CNN – exchanging tips, enlightening lawyers and training journalists.

The ghost of Samir Kassir, Lebanese journalist and historian assassinated in 2005, was omnipresent. Conference hosts, the SKeyes Centre and the Global Centre for Journalism and Democracy stressed the importance of increased awareness and competence among journalists covering international trials. This need is of particular concern ahead of the start of the trials in absentia of 4 suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebansese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on 25 March.

Tool Box
The spectrum of perspectives on justice and media helped to come up with ideas on a wish list for a tool box for legal journalism. The dynamic interaction between leading lawyers, NGOs and journalists threw the spotlight on the necessity for incisive reporting on justice issues that affect not only victims and offenders, but also those who tell the stories.

Covering international justice is a daunting challenge for any reporter. “The Hague” is a huge concept: a labyrinth of statutes, cases and models. Getting to grips with the differences between the 5 courts in the city spark the first headache: ad hoc, hybrid, Special Courts, UN-backed courts and so on. These then have to be compared with similar models around the world – the Arusha (ICTR), Cambodia (ECCC) and Bangladesh (BICT) tribunals. Then comes the pile of homework on the backgrounds to conflicts, laws and key principles such as command responsibility, joint criminal enterprise and jurisdiction.

Since courts around the world are dealing more with massive crimes, there is a rapidly growing awareness of international justice and the need for legal journalism. The conference looked at ways to develop clear new media guidelines on core issues of accuracy, precision, transparency and accountability – paving the way for a first code of ethics for legal journalists.

Lawyers learned just as much from journalists as vice versa. The crucial outcome of the fusion between these two worlds is the swapping of notes on the establishment of working rules on media coverage of international justice. A gallant attempt to put in place the first framework on international court reporting – but it must embrace a range of complex issues.

New Solidarity
The treatment of themes, such as contempt cases against journalists and lawyers and reporting on witnesses who tell lies, for instance – is deemed essential to a rounded approach to legal journalism.

While a fair trial deserves fair treatment by journalists, it is their duty not to comment on guilt, innocence or law – but simply to describe what happens in court. By developing themes, however, the journalist can explore wider trial issues.

Until now, defence lawyers have been rather wary, if not cautious towards journalists. As they may not comment on their cases they fear being misquoted, which would impact on their professional integrity. But the lawyers are willing to brief journalists on background information to their reports and provide general topical quotes, when possible.

The frequent mistakes that journalists make in covering international trials can be easily avoided if the reporters cultivate contacts who will help check and verify their facts before publication. Besides the core group of legal journalists based in The Hague, there are many around the world who cover international justice. In Lebanon, two-thirds of reporters are ‘au fait’ with current developments in this area. The conference laid the foundations for an inter-connected global law and media support network that will strengthen coverage of international justice.

Clearing the Fog
While the conference presented a unique opportunity for niche networking and a new solidarity between legal journalists and their defence colleagues – it is surrounded by fog.

The STL came up with the world’s first definition of terrorism in 2011. There are no clear definitions yet of legal journalism or international justice but these concepts are ripe for clarifications that will emerge in the new guidelines.

One fun and easy way for a journalist to learn about inspiring aspects of international justice is to attend local public lectures and seminars. These are not just informative but can make for some good story material. Above all, they nurture enhanced contacts between justice and media experts whose common purpose is primarily to ensure a wider understanding of the legal world among the general public.

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