BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
MIKE PESCA: And I'm Mike Pesca in for Bob Garfield. Last week the Washington Post announced that it would appeal a decision of the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague currently trying cases of genocide in the former Yugoslavia. The court has subpoenaed former Post reporter Jonathan Randal to testify against a Bosnian Serb who he had once quoted in a story. In 1992 Peter Maass was a Post reporter in Bosnia and wrote about Bosnian warlord Milan Kovacovich. Five years later Maass agreed to testify before the tribunal. Kovacovich died before Maass actually took the witness stand, but when he first received the request he faced an ethical conundrum.
PETER MAASS: Well I guess my immediate reaction was surprise. I thought well these are war crimes trials that are going on and we'll have the usual kinds of witnesses there -- you know, meaning victims and perhaps some people on the inside who are willing to testify and then experts or whatever. I wasn't expecting to be called myself, in particular with that incident that they wanted me to testify about I, I hadn't expected that it would be something that could ever be regarded as crucial in a war crimes trial. But once I began thinking about it, I realized well okay, this, this is something that I can see how it might be useful for the War Crimes Tribunal, particularly as they didn't really have any kind of smoking guns with which they could put this fellow, Milan Kovacovich into prison for the rest of his life.
MIKE PESCA:But did you also begin to realize what it would mean for the profession as a whole or for you going to do your job on an ongoing basis? I guess the analogy would be towards the Red Cross doesn't want to testify because then they won't be invited in to administer whatever humanitarian aid they have to administer, if they know they're going to be used to testify in a trial at a later date.
PETER MAASS: Right. Well I think we, we need to kind of dis-associate ourselves from, you know, theories that might exist at journalism school and, and the actual reality. I mean the Red Cross is indeed a neutral organization and is generally regarded as such. Journalists in the field are, are rarely [LAUGHS] regarded by the people-- who they seek to interview when we're talking about wars and warlords as neutral. I mean in fact we're pretty much regarded as spies for our governments, even though that's not what we are. So it's not as though by having testified, you know, we will suddenly be regarded in a different way by the people who we're depending on to a certain extent for information and trying to get information from which is not to say that testifying won't have any effect at all, because in my case, as in the case of other journalists who've been called to testify in fact once you do testify at this tribunal it does become more difficult for you personally -- not for the profession I don't think, but for you personally to go back to the r-- area where for example relatives or friends of the people you've testified against might live, because indeed they might know your face, they might know your name, and they will definitely regard you as having helped put their father or their friend into jail for the rest of his life.
MIKE PESCA:If this were to be an established practice, could you see it having a chilling effect on trying to cover a war zone, trying to cover the people that the United States, for instance, is at war against?
PETER MAASS: Well I think it, it would have a chilling effect if this was really a frequent occurrence. I mean I'm only in favor of testifying really under two circumstances --that is, when the testimony is absolutely crucial to delivering justice in a war crimes trial and only if as well the testimony won't endanger the life of the journalist himself or herself or their colleagues or friends. And those are actually two bars that are quite high, because the first one in terms of the testimony being absolutely crucial, well that eliminates, you know, a large [LAUGHS] number of journalists.
MIKE PESCA: You've thought about this very much. Are you satisfied that the courts themselves have considered it as carefully as you have?
PETER MAASS:In fact I know they've considered it because it's been brought up to them before. I just don't think they fully understand it. I mean in the Randal case which I know pretty well, it's pretty clear that, that what they want him to testify about is really not absolutely crucial, and there are many other ways that they could get this information into the courtroom without having to drag a reporter there. What this man told to Randal was reported in Randal's story, so they can use that as evidence if they want to.
MIKE PESCA:And how American courts deal with this is they typically just have a reporter certify that what was printed he stands by and leave it at that.
PETER MAASS: Also though, you can't -- I wouldn't draw a parallel too closely between you know, the relationship between American reporters and American courts and the relationship between journalists and The Hague Tribunal, because you know in my view I just think that we're not talking about grand larceny. We're talking about genocide, so I think some of the moral considerations really do tip the scales when you're talking about mass murder rather than individual murders or, or less than that.
MIKE PESCA:Does the split among reporters on whether to testify or not to testify -- does it split along lines something like American reporters on one side, Europeans on another?
PETER MAASS: That is one of the splits, definitely. European reporters, because there's a much greater tradition of, let's say, involvement or activism in European journalism, tend to be more willing to testify and there, there are a lot of journalists here who say, you know, just as journalists should not testify or cooperate with law enforcement authorities here in America, the same goes for international authorities even if the crimes that we're talking about are genocide.
MIKE PESCA:And I would assume that one of the considerations goes to the whole reason of why you'd want to force yourself to cover a situation like genocide which is to if not testify in the legal sense, in the colloquial sense to tell the world about the realities of what was going on. And I would also assume that if you wouldn't testify and someone that you covered who committed what you judged to be acts of genocide got away with it, you'd feel pretty terrible, right?
PETER MAASS: Well absolutely. I think the work of the Tribunal is very much a continuation in many respects of the, the work and the mission that a lot of journalists have. So if I can help that process without hurting myself or hurting my colleagues, I'm willing to do that.
MIKE PESCA: Peter Maass, thank you very much for joining us.
PETER MAASS: Thank you.
MIKE PESCA: Peter Maass covered the War in Bosnia for the Washington Post and he wrote Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. [MUSIC]
"Brahms' Quintet no. 2 op. 111 in G"
by Jascha Heifetz - violin, Israel Baker - violin, Milton Thomas & Paul Rosenthal - violas, Gregor Piatigorsky - cello