REGIONAL REPORT: Randal Testimony Dispute

US journalist's refusal to appear at The Hague sparks row over professional responsibilities.

REGIONAL REPORT: Randal Testimony Dispute

US journalist's refusal to appear at The Hague sparks row over professional responsibilities.

Saturday, 30 April, 2005

Independent journalists in the former Yugoslavia have criticised Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal's refusal to testify at The Hague tribunal - a decision that was backed by many of his colleagues in the United States.

Many members of the local independent press say they have a duty to give evidence about atrocities they have witnessed, and this pro-testimony view appears to be held by Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks alike.

In May, Randal rejected a request to appear before the tribunal to testify in the trial of Radoslav Brdjanin and Momir Talic, both indicted for genocide in north-west Bosnia. The prosecution was especially interested in an on-the-record 1993 interview with Brdjanin, which Randal conducted in Banja Luka.

While Randal was happy to give a statement to the tribunal, he invoked press freedom and the confidentiality of sources as his reasons for staying away from The Hague - a plea dismissed as "unfounded". He has since lodged an appeal, which is due to be heard at the end of the month.

Numerous media groups and journalists' associations in the United States supported Randal's stance. A number of US lawyers calling themselves Friends of The Tribunal, backed by 30 of the aforementioned groups, urged The Hague to drop its demand for the journalist's appearance.

Many local reporters who covered wars in the Balkans found Randal's decision inexplicable. "A refusal to recount a story one more time is illogical to me," said Sejo Omeragic, former war reporter for the Sarajevo daily Slobodna Bosna, and now editor-in-chief of Ljiljan weekly. "Journalism is a profession that seeks to uncover the truth and every reporter ... is basically a witness."

Omeragic, who has cooperated with tribunal investigators several times, also voiced the opinion of many others in Bosnia - that the true reason for American reluctance to testify was not professional, but political. Omeragic and his colleagues fear that the US media's attitude is motivated by Washington's opposition to the new International Criminal Court, ICC, and its determination to prevent any of its personnel from being tried for war crimes.

Many Balkan journalists agree with Randal on the importance of protecting sources. Igor Gajic, editor-in-chief of the Banja Luka-based weekly Reporter, said they're "our bread and butter". Neven Santic, from Croatian newspaper Novi List, said, "If a journalist speaks with somebody 'off-the-record' then he or she should behave like a doctor or a priest and keep the secret."

But they believe that when journalists directly witness war crimes they have a moral and professional obligation to testify.

Some Balkan and many international journalists fear warlords and criminals may attack them if they suspected that they might testify against them in future, but most local editors and reporters interviewed by IWPR felt this was no justification for refusing to give evidence, as correspondents roaming the various battlefields shed important light on concentration camps, ethnic cleansing and mass graves.

In an article for the Sarajevo weekly Dani, reporter Emir Suljagic wrote that exempting journalists from testifying gives defendants an advantage over the prosecution.

Vildana Selimbegovic, editor-in-chief of Dani, together with Marko Markovic, the editor-in-chief of the only daily Croat language newspaper published in Bosnia, Dnevni List, agreed that journalists have a professional duty to testify about what they have seen. Zenun Ccelaj, deputy editor of the Kosovo daily Zeri, said this was especially so in cases with crimes against humanity and international laws.

Many prominent Balkan reporters - especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo - have already cooperated with investigators. Senad Avdic, editor-in-chief of Slobodna Bosna, told IWPR that he has given several statements to the tribunal office in Sarajevo. One of the cases involved crimes committed in the central Bosnian villages of Grabovica and Ahmici.

Avdic told IWPR that, when invited by Hague investigators to clarify some of his reports, he did not hesitate for a moment. " It is a moral and professional duty of reporters to cast light on events," he said. The tribunal asked to see information published in Slobodna Bosna several times and he had "gladly met their requests and sent everything they asked for".

Amra Kebo is editor of Bosnian daily Oslobodjenje. Daniel Sunter from Belgrade, Nehat Islami from Pristina and Dragutin Hedl from Croatia also contributed to this report.

Support our journalists