06 November 2009

International law as reported in the media

It is a sign of the times, probably, that the term "international law" is brandished like and all-purpose club by some people. Frequently their limited understanding of the law doesn't interfere with the freedom of use of catchy slogans. Some of these people are journalists, needless to say, and unfortunately their references to "international law" frequently mirror their political beliefs instead of anything having to do with law.

The highly contentious issue of injudicious use of international law was taken up in a roundtable discussion organized by Just Journalism.

The summary of the discussion is contained in a relatively short document. In a remarkably muted tones, the discussion board came to the following conclusions:

  • The politicisation of international law by parties to conflicts and their supporters is inadequately addressed by journalists. Allegations of disproportionality against Israel or genocide against Sri Lanka and other states can be politically motivated and inaccurate.
  • Many principles of international law are heavily contested but are often not presented to news audiences as such. News audiences need to be informed about the various interpretations of these terms in order to be aware of differing claims.
  • The liberal view of international law as a protector against human rights violations prevails in the public consciousness and is perpetuated in the media. In fact, international law often legitimises conflict as well as limiting it.
  • Most journalists reporting accusations of breaches of international law are themselves not lawyers, making it difficult to adjudicate between competing legal claims or to appropriately position them.
  • Journalists must strike a balance between providing detail on the complex legal concepts they refer to, and ensuring their reports remain accessible to their audiences. There is a lack of consensus on the right way to strike this balance at present and this needs further discussion.
The above summary is quoted here for the impatient. Still, it will be worth your time to read the document.