Journalists aren’t passive in regard to International Law

This is a cross-post from Just Journalism

Many of the discussions prompted by the release of the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding report in Gaza deal with its validity. Commentators’ opinions differ regarding its principal author Judge Richard Goldstone, some describing him as a redeemer, others as a partisan of international justice.

But one discussion is traditionally ignored in the wake of reports such as Goldstone’s – the role of the media in bringing them about. Partly because the relationship between the media and international law is explored so infrequently, journalists are considered passive in the flow of information from legal experts like Judge Goldstone to news audiences. References to ‘the PR battle’ or ‘the media war’, heard frequently in relation to the Gaza conflict and the Russia-Georgia war, are metaphors that imagine frontlines of journalists thoughtlessly reporting this claim or that, without any mindful contribution at all.

But the media is more active than we may realize, and journalists profoundly affect what we understand about international law. One way is through the language that journalists popularise in their reports and broadcasts. The first reference to war crimes by the British press in relation to the Gaza conflict came less than 48 hours into Israel’s operation. It was a quotation from a Hezbollah militant in Lebanon, claiming the assault was a “war crime and represents genocide”. What is most interesting is not the readiness of the journalist to include war crimes allegations in his report so soon, but that the journalist saw it fit to quote the legal judgement of an avowed enemy. Somewhere in the mind of the journalist is the logic that these soundbytes convey drama and sell papers.

Of course, the linguistic challenge faced by journalists when reporting on any technical subject is considerable – consider explaining the meaning of quantitative easing or the importance of the CERN Hadron Collider. Employing legal terms over which experts themselves disagree is not an easy task.

But the difference between these examples and the use of complex legal terms lies with the polemics of controlling and deploying these terms. By using legal terminology in their reporting of events – and the insatiability of 24 hour news encourages this – journalists create something that can be contested. Parties race to label their opponents when conflicts erupt and vie for recognition of their victimhood after they end. Bosnians long sought to label the crimes they suffered in the former Yugoslavia as genocide, and the emotive power of the term was no doubt one of the factors that lead to their campaign’s limited success. Similarly, critics of former US President Clinton argue that in 1994 he refrained from classing the horrors in Rwanda as genocide because that recognition would have made American intervention compulsory. These terms are not simply legal; they become political. And through their unchecked use, journalists become advocates in a sense.

News outlets also impact on discussion of international law because of the different level of attention given to the globe’s many conflicts. News outlets have no responsibility to provide equal coverage of the world’s many war zones. But this means that crimes against humanity are far less likely to be alleged in relation to Guinea for example, where security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters this week, with BBC reports of ‘soldiers bayoneting people and women being stripped and raped’. There are some good reasons why we hear comparatively little about Guinea in our foreign news. But this sparse attention does little to motivate legal investigations like those mandated by the UN Human Rights Council in Gaza. Boutros Boutros Ghali’s memorable claim that ‘the CNN is the sixteenth member of the Security Council’ still rings true.

But the point here is not only about the media’s role in rallying political will. The reports that journalists produce can affect the development of the law itself. No fewer than 13 of the alleged violations by Israel identified by Judge Goldstone were based at least in part on customary international law – those generally recognised practices that are viewed as binding on all states.

Whether rules of this sort are applied to events (as opposed to rules that are derived from treaties, say) depends on the information available to legal experts on how states have and have not generally behaved over a certain period of time. The alleged violations made by Judge Goldstone’s team required judgements that Israeli forces had departed from the norms of behaviour set by other countries over this period. And his perceptions about these norms were affected in part by the evidence that journalists recorded, or didn’t. In this way, the preferences the media have for certain regions impact on the experts’ understanding of how states behave on the whole. The legal judgments that result from customary international law are therefore conditioned in part by the filtering lens of the world’s media.

Although international law is just the same as many subjects about which our understanding is affected by the media, the emotive weight of its pronouncements makes that influence particularly interesting. The role that news outlets play is often constructive; British soldiers returning from Iraq have explained how awareness of the media’s scrutiny can improve military conduct. But journalists must acknowledge their growing responsibilities, and experts like Judge Goldstone should take note too.

This article is based on a roundtable discussion recently hosted by Just Journalism, a London-based research organisation focussing on Israel and Middle East issues in the UK media. A full report will follow soon at