Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The credibility of the International Criminal Court, ICC, will be tested at its inaugural trial in two months’ time, which will see the militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo facing charges of recruiting child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo's northeastern Ituri region.
The case - which begins on March 31 - will send signals to other governments and their leaders, not the least of which are Uganda and Sudan, where men indicted by the ICC are still at large, as to how committed the world is to a universal system of justice.
A thorough and reasoned trial for Lubanga could generate respect for international judicial mechanisms, and may well spur cooperation and police action, not simply verbal assurances of support.
And, perhaps more important, a successful trial, no matter how it is defined, could instill a sense of trust in the ICC. Ultimately, that trust would offer hope for millions of victims of war crimes, not only in the eastern Congo, but in dozens of other war-torn regions.
Consequently, interest in the Lubanga case has been high among journalists in the Congo’s sprawling capital of Kinshasa. This has intensified with the recent arrest and incarceration of a second Ituri militia leader, Germain Katanga.
“We give a very good position to the ICC [in our publication], because we think that it guarantees the impartiality of its judges and is determined to track down alleged criminals,” said Diana Gikupa, editor-in-chief of Kinshas’a pro-government newspaper L’Avenir.
In the Congo, where judges are notoriously corrupt and the judicial system is chaotic at best, crimes go uninvestigated and unpunished, leading to widespread distrust of courts.
The ICC’s Lubanga trial is a watershed event for war-weary Congolese who have stood by and watched as perpetrators of horrific crimes of war walk away free.
The ICC is dependent on the Congolese press to inform citizens about the Lubanga trial’s daily turn of events, procedures, motions and rebuttals, but often finds that this is done with mixed results.
Congolese reporters tend to be poorly trained and many are unfamiliar with the legal workings of a far-off international court based in The Hague.
“Sometimes they write inaccuracies or spread rumours,” acknowledged Paul Madidi, the ICC’s spokesman in the Congo. “Fortunately, not everyone has this vice.”
To combat this problem, the ICC spent three years working with and educating journalists about the ICC. Yet, said Madidi, it may have been insufficient to overcome some pervasive misconceptions.
Among the most prevalent, he said, is that the ICC doesn’t have jurisdiction over crimes committed before July 2002, the year the court came into effect. This perplexes many Congolese because they’ve experienced war crimes for decades.
Troubling to Congolese journalists and observers alike is that Lubanga is not being prosecuted for far more serious crimes, which many say he has committed. They also wonder why the ICC isn’t prosecuting those who they say are behind the conflicts in Ituri.
“During the election campaign in 2006, one newspaper had on its front page an article saying that ‘ICC is to arrest [opposition leader Jean-Pierre] Bemba,’” said Madidi.
“Similarly, headlines in other newspapers read that the ICC is about to arrest [rebel leader Laurent] Nkunda.”
Neither statement was true.
“Other newspapers say the ICC is behind the international arrest warrant delivered against Nkunda,” continued Madidi, yet it was actually the Congolese government that issued its own warrant in 2005 for crimes allegedly committed by Nkunda’s soldiers during an attack on the South Kivu town of Bukavu in 2004, he explained.
At the Kinshasa weekly Echoes des Grand Lac director John Lwamba said he follows the work of the ICC with a critical eye.
“We criticise, in our analysis, the work of the court, considering that the court is only dealing with ‘small fish’, using the DRC as a guinea pig and ignoring all other crimes committed before July 2002,” said Lwamba.
Belhar Mbuyi, general director of a Kinshasa-based television channel and radio station, also keeps watch on the ICC. “We make independent analysis about this court,” he said. “We point out its strong and weak aspects in our editorials.”
Sonia Robla, the Hague-based head of the ICC’s public information unit, admitted that the court faces an uphill battle to generate sympathy and support for its work in the Congo.
Robla said the court works hard to correct the various mistakes and deeply held misconceptions among some members of the press.
“We have organised training [for] journalists and have regular meetings with them,” she said.
To this end, the ICC brought a group of Congolese journalists from radio, television and print to The Hague to cover the November 2006 hearing when judges confirmed the charges against Lubanga.
Like the country itself, the Congolese media is sprawling and disparate, with several daily newspapers in the capital and hundreds of small radio stations scattered around the country, many of which produce their own news programmes.
The United Nations Mission in Congo, MONUC, has a station, Radio Okapi, that broadcasts around the country, while several television stations, including the state broadcaster Radio-Television Nationale Congolaise, RTNC, also have nearly national coverage.
But because the printed news media is virtually non-existent outside Kinshasa, Madidi told IWPR that it is through radio and television that most Congolese hear about the ICC.
To generate interest in the ICC, popular Congolese actors have been enlisted for sketches that are broadcast to explain the ICC, including the rights of the accused and crimes under the court’s jurisdiction.
It seems to be working. Awareness of the court is high in the Congo.
Surveys of more than 4,000 people conducted late last year by the DRC Coalition for the ICC - a member of the Coalition for the ICC - found that 86 per cent had heard of the court, and some 55 per cent considered it to be fair and independent.
But the poll, conducted in Kinshasa, Bukavu, Bunia, and elsewhere, also revealed that the ICC still has its critics. More than 30 per cent said they disliked the slow speed at which the ICC works.
“The Congolese deplore the slowness in the procedures before the ICC, which in four years of investigations has not yet rendered a single judgment,” said one member of the DRC Coalition for the ICC.
With its first trial finally set to begin, the ICC hopes to quiet some of this criticism.
Exactly how the court will ensure that the Congolese population, including journalists, will be kept informed about proceedings in The Hague isn’t clear.
Public viewing sites followed by discussions are one option, as are interactive town hall style meetings, say court officials. Live on-line streaming of the trial at the court’s field offices, has been one suggestion, but due to severely limited access to the internet, this is an unlikely solution.
“It is important to bring everything happening in the courtroom as close as possible to the communities affected, and journalists are a natural way to convey information in the country,” said Robla. “For the court it is not only important that justice is done, but also that justice is seen to be done.”
Désiré-Israel Kazadi is an IWPR journalist in Kinshasa. International justice reporter Lisa Clifford contributed to this article.
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