RSF decries “contempt” cases against journalists by international courts

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the tendency of international tribunals to bring charges of “contempt of court” or “interfering with the administration of justice” against journalists who have done nothing more than disclose confidential information about their flawed decisions. Journalist Florence Hartmann’s case is the latest example.

“Contempt” charges are supposed to be used by international tribunals to punish such actions as bribing witnesses, giving false evidence and, more generally, conduct liable to “obstruct, prejudice or abuse the administration of justice.”

However, journalists have been prosecuted for “disclosing information relating to proceedings in knowing violation of an order of a chamber” and “undermining public confidence in the tribunal’s ability to protect the confidentiality of information about (…) witnesses.”

RSF calls on international courts to stop bringing “contempt” charges against journalists who have simply shed light on the way they operate. Protecting the administration of justice is legitimate but it must be weighed against the public’s right to information. RSF points out that these courts are required to respect international standards, including those governing freedom of expression and information.

Florence Hartmann is a French journalist who used to work for Le Monde and who was the spokesperson of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague from 2000 to 2006. She went on to write a book entitled “Paix et Châtiment,” published in 2007, that contained revelations about two of the ICTY’s confidential decisions.

In 2009, the ICTY initiated a prosecution against Hartmann that led to her being sentenced in 2011 to pay a fine of 7,000 euros. The sentence was later converted to seven days in prison. On the basis of an international warrant issued by the ICTY, she was arrested in The Hague on 24 March in order to serve her sentence in the place used to hold international criminals.

Her crime was to have published information in full knowledge of its confidential nature and to have revealed facts that could discourage other states from cooperating with the tribunal. For this, she was convicted of “contempt” and “interfering with the administration of justice.”

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has been prosecuting journalists since 2014 on charges of contempt of court, obstructing justice and, in particular, “undermining public confidence in the tribunal’s ability to protect the confidentiality of information about witnesses.” In a series of reports, they succeeded in contacting protected witnesses and thereby exposed flaws in its system of protection.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda prosecuted journalists on contempt charges in 2002 because that had revealed that a key trial witness was suspected of having participated in the 1994 genocide, thereby undermining the credibility of the prosecutor’s case.

These prosecutions set dangerous precedents for all journalists because they penalized legitimate criticism, not obstruction of justice. It is not the job of journalists to assist the “administration of justice.” On the contrary, it is their duty to shed light on the way the internationally created system of justice functions and, possibly, malfunctions. The European Court of Human Right has repeatedly stressed the public interest in media coverage of court cases.

The reasoning used by international courts in these cases often results in their justifying denial of the media’s right to cover what they do. This is the same as saying an entire segment of their activities must be kept secret from the public. But how are you to trust a court to establish the truth about war crimes and genocide if at the same time it is bent on concealing information about how it works?

Imposing jail terms on journalists who do research and then reveal information of interest to the general public is a grave violation of media freedom. It is unacceptable that international courts – courts that, until now, are the highest expression of international law, courts tasked with punishing the most serious crimes and rendering international justice – convict journalists who expose their flaws. This flouts all international standards on freedom of expression.

Publié le 31.03.2016
Mise à jour le 19.05.2016