Sunday 20 October 2013

Jeremy Bowen in court

Jeremy Bowen

The BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, has been in court in recent days. He's been at The Hague, giving evidence at the trial of the Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic. 

An 'impartial' BBC journalist giving evidence at a war crimes tribunal might raise a few eyebrows; indeed, as Jeremy Bowen's Twitter feed shows, it has raised a few eyebrows. 

Still, Jeremy firmly believes that he's doing the right thing: 
 Jeremy Bowen ‏@BowenBBC 17 Oct

In answer to a few tweets. Some journos believe testimony compromises journalistic impartiality. But I testify what I reported at the time
 Jeremy Bowen ‏@BowenBBC 17 Oct

I've done it because only justification for reporting terrible human suffering on war is bearing witness, and this comes under that heading
 Jeremy Bowen ‏@BowenBBC 17 Oct

This is the 4th time I've testified for the prosecution at the former Yugo war crimes tribunal. Some journos won't.
The ethics of his actions were touched upon during today's The World This Weekend. Jeremy was interviewed by his BBC colleague, Anna Holligan - the corporation's Netherlands correspondent. 

Before coming to that, however, here's a vignette from that interview: Mladic has a tendency, apparently, to try to stare people out while they are giving evidence. Jeremy Bowen said that he tried to get Mladic to make eye contact with him, but Mladic failed to oblige. Both Jeremy and Anna noted, however, that Mladic was trying to stare Anna out, even though she wasn't giving evidence. [Having seen what Anna looks like I suspect he might have had other reasons for staring at her. A clue follows].

Anna Holligan

Here's a transcript of part of that World This Weekend interview, dealing with the main issue:
Anna: Do you feel its the duty of journalists to bring that to court?
Jeremy: I do. I do actually, because I think that the only justification for what we do, entering peoples' lives at their worst moments, or in some cases their final moments, the only justification for that is to create a record, to be a witness, to bear witness.
Anna: Were you aware at the time, when you were reporting, of how your reports may be used in a war crimes tribunal like this?
Jeremy: Absolutely not. I thought they wouldn't be able to arrest people. I thought they wouldn't be able to get people into a trial. I didn't think there'd be the determination. For me, I'm glad that I've come here to talk about it and to testify because, you know, this sounds a bit corny but I really think I owe it to all those people whose deaths and injuries and disasters that I covered back then. You know, it enormously affected me. It sort of took over my life. And so I'm satisfied that I've done the right thing. 
Anna: There are other journalists who've witness similar things who don't do this, who won't do this on principle, and others who say coming to testify in court could potentially make other journalists targets in the field.
Jeremy: We're targets anyway. In the time that I've been a foreign correspondent, which is getting on for thirty years now, we've gone from being people who at times were accepted as non-combatants. I remember going to my first war in El Salvador in 1989. I remember if we wanted to cross the street we'd shout out in Spanish 'journalist' - 'Periodista! Periodista!'. We'd have white flags and we'd wave them and we would walk very slowly across the street and it seemed the two sides would even cease fire for a while. We're not seen as non-combatants any more. We are much more in the firing line.

1 comment:

  1. Personally, I have no problem with journalists giving war crimes testimony, even Jeremy Bowen. Particularly if they report on what they saw and heard with their own eyes and ears.

    By its nature, much of the evidence in a war crimes trial is circumstantial. An honest journalist (many would not label Bowen that way) must distinguish between eye-witness reporting, third or even fourth party reporting, opinion and speculation, something they don't always do in their reports. Fortunately the journalist comes under cross examination under oath giving the court the ability to test a journalist's evidence in a way the public can not.

    In fairness to Bowen his reporting in Bosnia never was subjected to the harsh criticism that his Middle East reporting justifiably receives. Could that be because he carries a deep personal grudge against Israel that he doesn't against the Bosnian Serbs?

    If foreign correspondents are no longer considered non-combatants the Bowens of the profession bear much of the responsibility. A tough cross in open court may end up discrediting Bowen and the BBC even more than Mladic.


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