By: Arthur Max, Associated Press Writer
(AP) The Washington Post appealed Friday against the subpoena of a former reporter by the U.N. war crimes tribunal, in what could be a precedent-setting case for war correspondents in international justice.
A defense lawyer, seeking to block the summons to retired Washington Post reporter Jonathan C. Randal, argued that compelling journalists to testify to a war crimes court could endanger the journalist’s life and the lives of his sources, and would make news gathering more difficult in war zones.
The prosecutor countered that Randal had information that “goes to the heart of the case” of ethnic cleansing against two Bosnian Serbs accused of war crimes during the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict. Journalists cannot be given a blanket exemption from testifying in court, said prosecutor Joanna Korner, who argued that the overriding public interest was the fair prosecution of war crimes suspects.
Defense attorney Geoffrey Robertson sought a ruling from the court granting journalists a “public interest privilege” to refuse to testify other than in exceptional cases, but which would not stand in the way of any journalist who volunteered his testimony. Those exceptions would fall into “a narrow area” in which the evidence is crucial to proving guilt or innocence, he said.
Randal was summoned in the case of Radoslav Brdjanin and Momir Talic, who are accused of the persecution and expulsion of more than 100,000 non-Serbs during the Bosnian war. The defendants have pleaded innocent to 12 counts of war crimes, including genocide.
A court spokesman said Randal’s subpoena had been kept confidential, apparently on orders of the court, until it was brought for argument in an open hearing.
In an article published Feb. 11, 1993, Randal quoted Brdjanin, whom he described as a Serbian housing official, as advocating the expulsion of non-Serbs from the Bosnian city of Banja Luka.
The article said Brdjanin “personally argued that those unwilling to defend Serb territory must be moved out but that the Serb political leadership so far had not agreed. He said he believed the exodus of non-Serbs should be carried out peacefully to create an ethnically clean space through voluntary movement. Muslims and Croats, he says, should not be killed, but should be allowed to leave — and good riddance.”
Randal was summoned after he told tribunal investigators that a local journalist was with him and had translated Brdjanin’s words. The prosecutors said they wanted him to testify because those quotes did not appear in an article written three days later by the second journalist, whose name was being kept secret for his own protection.
In a statement to the court read by Robertson, The Washington Post said it recognized the need to gather evidence against accused war criminals, but forcing reporters to testify was against the long-term public interest.
“Coerced testimony of reporters impairs the news gathering function which is so important to democracy,” Robertson said, citing the Post‘s argument. “These concerns are particularly appropriate in the context of war zone reporting. War correspondents who take the witness stand risk being perceived by potential sources an investigative arm of a judicial system, government, or private parties.”
Robertson cautioned the three-judge bench that their ruling would set a precedent for the permanent International Criminal Court, due to come into existence in July to hear cases of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The United States has disavowed its signature on the treaty creating the court and said it will not cooperate with it.