September 23, 2017
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We Must Honor the Key Role Reporters Play in Syria and Other Conflicts

Attending a conference to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Nuremberg trials, Professor David Crane was reminded of the essential function journalists perform during wars and in post-conflict justice.

By David M. Crane


Syrians gather by the rubble of a house destroyed by Syrian forces’ shelling in the town of Azaz, on the outskirts of Aleppo, in September 2012. AP/Muhammed Muheisen, File

Syrians gather by the rubble of a house destroyed by Syrian forces’ shelling in the town of Azaz, on the outskirts of Aleppo, in September 2012. AP/Muhammed Muheisen, File

IT IS 70 years since the verdicts were given in the Nuremberg trials and sentence was passed on the Nazi personnel most responsible for the deaths of millions before and during World War II. As immediate past chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamesville,N.Y., and a former chief prosecutor of the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL), I recently attended the 10th International Humanitarian Law Dialogs in Nuremberg, Germany, to mark this anniversary and remember the legacy of this groundbreaking example of international criminal procedure and transitional justice.

At Nuremberg I was reminded of the critical role journalists play during conflict and in post-conflict justice, by bringing to light war crimes and crimes against humanity; and by providing international prosecutors with information to help build cases against those who believe that war offers impunity from the law. In the case of World War II, the conscience of the world was shocked by the photographs of concentration camp victims taken by Margaret Bourke-White and by the word-pictures painted by radio reporters such as Edward R. Murrow and Larry LeSueur. Later, testimony from concentration camp survivors, as well as film and photographs, was used in the Nuremberg trials as evidence of Nazi atrocities.

The importance of journalism during and after conflict has not diminished any since 1946. Today, my focus is on the Syrian civil war and on two initiatives begun at Syracuse University College of Law. Both the Syrian Accountability Project (SAP) and Impunity Watch work to account for war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed by all sides in the conflict, and to bring pressure on the international community to plan for some form of post-conflict justice mechanism.

Omran Daqneesh sits on a chair after being pulled out of a building hit by an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. The image was made from a video provided by the Aleppo Media Center. (Aleppo Media Center via AP)

Omran Daqneesh sits on a chair after being pulled out of a building hit by an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. The image was made from a video provided by the Aleppo Media Center. (Aleppo Media Center via AP)

My work and that of my students relies heavily on accurate reporting on the ground in Syria, whether it is to help build a “crime matrix” that might be used by a future international prosecutor or to inform the public of the suffering of ordinary Syrian citizens. We rely on professional journalists working for the few traditional news agencies left in Syria, such as Reuters and the BBC, as well as independent reporters and citizen journalists whose outlets might be less familiar: Women Under Siege, World Crunch or Bellingcat.

The dangers face by reporters in Syria are getting greater. Syria has always been one of the most challenging countries in the world for journalists; now it could be considered the most dangerous story to cover. Atrocities against journalists in the civil war include the high-profile beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, while reporters – such as the late Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times of London – have been caught in indiscriminate bombing; then there are kidnappings, threats and intimidation of journalists and ordinary citizens trying to document their lives.

What are the consequences for a conflict when journalists are targeted, threatened, attacked or even killed? Some answers readily come to mind. Large news organizations tend to reduce or even end coverage. Less news from the region concerned leads to a diminishing of the conflict in the public’s mind, and therefore less pressure on governments to bring hostilities to a peaceful end. The news vacuum is often filled by propaganda.

Independent reporters are doing their best under extreme conditions, but their images and stories can be lost in white noise – especially in a U.S. presidential election year. Sometimes an image from Syria that shocks the conscience does resonate. Recently, CNNanchor Kate Bolduan broke down in tears when she reported on Omran Daqneesh, a little boy covered in blood and dust sitting in an ambulance after a bombing attack on Aleppo. This iconic photo was taken by Mahmoud Raslan, a photographer for a small start-up news agency, the Aleppo Media Center. It’s as powerful an image as that of Phan Thị Kim Phúc running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.

Yet how quickly the photo of Daqneesh was forgotten as the U.S.news cycle ground on relentlessly.

On Oct. 6, at Syracuse University, I joined an unprecedented interdisciplinary gathering of journalists, lawyers, Middle East experts and political scientists to look more deeply at responses to the Syrian civil war, the role journalism is playing and the challenges of covering the conflict. The central reason for bringing journalists together with experts from diverse fields is, first, that researchers and practitioners rely heavily on journalism to provide accurate data, ground truth and evidence trails, as I did when I was the special prosecutor of the SCSL.

Second, these experts can use their platforms to bring the plight of journalists – as well as the stories they are covering – to a wider audience. This process began at Running for Cover: Politics, Justice & Media in the Syrian Conflict on Oct. 6. If you didn’t make it to Syracuse, N.Y., to attend the one-day event in person, I urge you to watch the video at http://newhouseglobal.syr.edu/event/syria/. On Twitter, you will be joined by contributors on the ground in Syria, who will be interacting anonymously to protect their safety.

Finally, I urge you to undertake two more acts to help journalists and journalism in Syria. First, please try to pay greater attention to the Syrian conflict, albeit with the understanding that the U.S.domestic news takes up a lot of bandwidth in all of us. Syria Deeplyand Impunity Watch are both excellent sources of independent reporting. Second, please support the organizations that help journalists in conflict zones throughout the world, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. The latter recently won an important victory in 2015, helping to persuade the United Nations to adopt a resolution on the protection of journalists in conflict zones – a step toward giving the same recognition and protection to journalists in war that the international community does to medical personnel.


- Originally appeared at NewsDeeply.com