Yale Bulletin and Calendar

March 31, 2006|Volume 34, Number 24















Beth Dickinson '07 (far left), editor-in-chief of The Yale Globalist, is pictured here with international journalists (left to right) Refik Hodzic, Michele Montas, Thomas Kamilindi, Jill Jolliffe, Tina Rosenberg, Max du Preez and Julia Urrunaga.

International journalists describe
their fight for justice

Former Radio Rwanda journalist Thomas Kamilindi just narrowly escaped death during the genocide in his country, although his daughter and father were killed.

Nevertheless, Kamilindi -- one of the Tutsis who found refuge from Hutu militias in the Hotel des Mille Collines in Rwanda's capital city of Kigali (made famous in the film "Hotel Rwanda") -- believes journalists can maintain their objectivity in reporting on a crime against humanity, even when they are its victims.

Kamilindi was one of seven journalists who took part in a panel on "The Role of Journalism in International Justice," presented on March 23 in Linsly-Chittenden Hall by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism with sponsorship by The Yale Globalist and The Artemis Project Student Initiative.

The panel also included Max du Preez of South Africa; Refik Hodzic of Bosnia; Michele Montas of Haiti; Julia Urrunaga of Peru; Jill Jolliffe, an Australian-born freelance journalist who covers East Timor; and New York Times editorial writer Tina Rosenberg, who covers foreign policy and human rights issues. Nayan Chanda, director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and editor of YaleGlobal Online, moderated the event.

Much of the discussion centered on the question: Is it possible for a journalist to maintain objectivity when covering crimes against humanity?

"For journalists, it is very difficult," acknowledged Kamilindi, who has also worked as a correspondent for BBC Rwanda and is currently a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan.

"As citizens, we see ourselves as victims. ..." he continued. "But I believe that journalists must separate their opinions from fact. Opinions can be very controversial, but a fact is a fact. ... If you give your opinion, you don't inform. It is not your role as a journalist to give your opinion."

Kamilindi, who testified as a prosecution witness in the Media Trial in the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda, said his own experience forced him to become an activist: "As a victim, I have to be an activist. But for me, activism is not journalism. Journalism is to report the facts, only the facts, then the public makes a decision."

Montas, also a broadcaster, said she decided to enter the field of journalism when she was 16 years old, when five of her family members were arrested in Haiti on political grounds and never seen again. Decades later, her journalist husband, Jean Dominique, was killed by hired assassins. Montas said these events in her personal history are part of the near-constant political and social strife experienced in Haiti for almost all of the past four decades.

Before the fall of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, Montas said, the "elitist" media in her country mostly spread government propaganda. When that government toppled, the job of journalists was to inform Haitians who had been politically repressed under the government regime, she said.

"We had to tell facts, but the facts that were of interest to the majority of Haitians," she said. "Not to the [people] who spoke French or the elite, but the majority, who wanted to have the facts heard."

Montas noted that Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide established a Truth and Justice Commission in 1996 to examine human rights violations in the country between 1991 and 1995. However, she said, the media did more to report violations than the commission did.

"We investigated stories that the commission would not talk about," she said. "Witnesses came forward [to talk to the media] because they trusted the press more than the commission."

Montas became director of Radio Haiti after her husband's assassination, but was forced to stop broadcasting in 2003 after an attempt on her own life. Threats against other Radio Haiti journalists eventually caused her to shut the radio station down.

"For 30 years, journalists in Haiti have paid a heavy price," Montas told the audience, noting that her country has seen five successive transitional governments since 1986. "They have routinely been arrested and beaten, harassed and forced into exile."

As a white journalist in South Africa during apartheid, du Preez said he felt it was his "duty" to expose government crimes and report on what he believed was an "evil" and violent ideology.

"As a white Afrikaan, those crimes were being committed in my name," he told the audience.

The journalist founded Vrye Weekblad, the first and only anti-apartheid newspaper in the Afrikaans language, which exposed the government's death squads and systematic torture and assassinations. He was also the executive producer and presenter of the weekly public television program "Special Report on the Truth Commission," which became the most-watched show in South Africa. He now works as an independent documentary filmmaker and weekly columnist for several South African newspapers.

"The evil of apartheid is not in the numbers killed, but what the system did to the minds of the people," he said. He claimed that being patriotic "is a dangerous thing for a journalist," but said that a belief in freedom of speech, human rights and democracy "are the lifeblood" of journalists.

"I cannot imagine calling yourself a journalist if you don't uphold those," said du Preez.

He added that he has never considered himself an "objective" journalist. "I don't believe in it," he told the audience. However, du Preez said he does believe that he reported "fairly."

Unlike in Haiti, du Preez said, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission allowed the country's citizens "to get to truths we might not have gotten otherwise." While ultimately the commission granted amnesty to perpetrators of crimes against humanity in South Africa, noted du Preez, "It was the process that was important. ... [T]he nation acknowledged these people's pain."

Still, du Preez said that he questions whether a journalist must make a moral choice to first be a citizen -- acknowledging his or her concern about the rights of other human beings. "What is the criteria?" he asked. "Even if you do write as an activist, you must be very, very sure of your facts and not write propaganda."

In her presentation, Urrunaga discussed her experience as a member of a team of journalists that uncovered the graves of a group of university students and their professor, who were kidnapped and murdered by a paramilitary faction of the Peruvian army. Now a master's degree candidate in international relations at Yale, Urrunaga also helped expose atrocities by the regime of Peruvian president Alberto Fujimoto.

In Peru, where the government "did not follow the rule of law," she said, journalists are sometimes forced to break laws themselves, as her team of journalists did to uncover the mass grave.

"How do you prove there are human remains in the graves, when if you touch the graves you are violating the law? If you tell the authorities, there is always the risk that the remains will be removed, taken to another place," said Urrunaga, who was also chief of programs for the journalism initiative at the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad in Lima, Peru, a non-governmental organization specializing in freedom of the press and protecting journalists throughout Latin America.

Urrunaga said, however, that breaking the law "must be the exception, not the rule" for journalists.

`The Peruvian journalist also noted that in the two decades of civil war between government forces and rural communist guerillas called "Shining Path," some 70,000 people were killed -- most of them "peasants."

"For the media to investigate the war, we had to decide how to cover the story," she said. "Both sides -- both the terrorists [guerillas] and the military -- were wrong. We [in the media] were trying to take the side of the peasants."

Taking a side was less of an issue for Hodzic, a radio and television journalist from Bosnia who worked as a spokesperson for the United Nations in missions in Bosnia and East Timor and as an outreach coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

He credits the media for bringing the conflict in the former Yugoslavia to the world's attention, noting that "everything changed" when photographs of Serbian-run concentration camps showing "emaciated" prisoners appeared in newspaper and television reports in 1992. The photographs resulted in an international outcry against the abuse.

"The role of the media in the conflict in Bosnia is something journalists can be proud of," Hodzic said.

When reporting on the crimes by Bosnian Serbs, Hodzic recalled, journalists put their lives at risk, and some were murdered. However, he said, journalists "realized there was strength in numbers" and refused to be silenced.

Today, he noted, courts are holding some 20 different trials, including the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, to bring justice to those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"The media was not just an observer but was an active element in the process" of making such crimes known to the world, he said. "Our country is thankful that is the case."

Hodzic commented that in Bosnia, where so many innocent people were slaughtered, "the objectivity doctrine that is built into journalism" is called into question. "What is objectivity?" he asked. "There is one truth about what is going on. You report that with a view as a good human being," he said, adding sometimes the media must appeal to "the humanity of others."

In her coverage of East Timor, Jolliffe said, she developed her own set of principles and applies "one measure, one yardstick to all situations."

She wrote about human rights abuses in East Timor during Indonesia's occupation of the country and has continued to report from Timor since its independence in 2002, covering both United Nations and government performance on human rights issues.

"East Timor is at a crossroads," Jolliffe remarked. "Those who are under the age of 30 don't know the rule of law; they've known only arbitrary terror, at least until 1999 [the year U.N. peacekeeping forces entered the country]."

She told the audience that an ad hoc court held in Jakarta acquitted most Indonesian officials of any abuses and said that while East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation determined that major crimes against humanity were committed in the country between 1974 and 1999 (it estimated that up to 180,000 Timorese were killed or starved during the Indonesian occupation), it has no power to act on those findings. For the Timorese people, the question is, "Who should we be reconciled with, the military officers who persecuted people?" the journalist said. "The [Timorese] want reconciliation, yes, but they also want justice."

Describing herself as an "advocate of objectivity," Jolliffe noted that she follows the BBC style of using two independent sources for her stories. "I believe in those old-fashioned things," she remarked. "That doesn't mean I don't believe in freedom of speech, human rights and democracy."

Jolliffe agreed that there are situations that warrant a journalist breaking the law, and said that she, in fact, had to enter East Timor illegally after being banned from the country. Her illegal and clandestine entry into the country was justified, she said, because she felt "there were greater illegalities going on there at the time" that needed to be reported.

Rosenberg applauded the work of all of the other panelists and remarked that all have conducted their work at great personal risk. She noted that all of them agree that, to do their jobs well, they must be "scrupulously fair" and "get it right," both for "their own credibility and for the historical record.

"Many victims of gross human rights abuses are forgotten," she continued. "Journalists play a role in democratizing healing. ... Journalism is one way to tell these stories. ... It is up to journalists to help people to recognize the truth of what they have lived."

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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