The Media's Role In Reporting About Genocide

by Fernando Quintero

In the March issue of Smithsonian magazine, Eric Stover, director of the Human Rights Center at Berkeley, describes in lurid detail his investigation with a team of forensic anthropologists of a mass burial site near the Serb-held town of Vukovar.

Three men, dressed in dark blue overalls and black knee-high rubber boots, their hands protected with tight-fitting latex gloves, tugged gently at the arms of a corpse, trying to untangle it from a mass of other bodies. Once it was freed, the group's leader leaned over it and spoke softly into a small tape recorder in his right hand: "Body 36 is a young adult male, partially decomposed...left arm bandaged....

Thursday and Friday, April 10 and 11, Stover will moderate a two-day symposium, "Dispatches from the Killing Fields: Reporting on Genocide and Massive Human Rights Abuses in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Burundi."

Panelists will examine how the media has portrayed genocide, and the ways in which the press can improve its coverage of humanitarian law violations committed during armed conflicts.

Since 1992, Stover has been taking forensic teams to the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda to investigate mass graves for evidence of war crimes.

"During this process, writing about it, I had a notion that within the media, there had to be a real turning point in war coverage. Given the enormity of atrocities and human rights abuses, I thought journalists surely could not rely on their usual role of being detached," said Stover.

Thursday at 8 p.m. in Booth Auditorium at Boalt Hall, Richard Goldstone, a judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa and a former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, will discuss the new role of the media in exposing crimes against humanity.

Examples of changes in the role of the war correspondent include journalists testifying in criminal tribunals -- a departure from the journalistic tradition of personal detachment from one's assignments.

On Friday, conference participants will continue examining the media's role in reporting on genocide and human rights abuses, beginning with an historical look at the American West, Armenia, Southeast Asia, World War II and the Congo.

Later in the day, Stover will moderate a panel exploring ways in which local and foreign journalists reported on war crimes and other breaches of international humanitarian law during the recent wars in Yugoslavia.

Afterward, a panel will address several questions pertaining to the press and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Participants include Roy Gutman, a Newsday correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his reporting on Bosnia; Raymond Bonner, a New York Times foreign correspondent; David Gelber, CBS executive producer; Tom Gjelten, a diplomatic correspondent for National Public Radio; and Lawrence Weschler, New Yorker staff writer.

"Our goal is to have a discussion about three major issues: How do journalists report and deal with reporting war genocide? How has the press reported on these atrocities throughout history? And how do governments and the military try to control information?" Stover said.

In addition to the lecture and conference, which is presented in collaboration with the Graduate School of Journalism and the Institute for International Studies, an exhibit of photographs by Gilles Peress will be on display April 10 through 25 at North Gate Hall. Peress spent several weeks with Stover in the former Yugoslavia researching the Smithsonian article and a book on the forensic investigation of genocide and war crimes.

"He brings to a very vivid level both the brutality of genocide, and an idea of the danger and emotionally trying experience of reporting on it," said Stover. "What Gilles Peress does is called 'bearing witness.'"


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