The trial of Charles Taylor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone has received more press coverage than any other international criminal proceeding since the trial of Slobodan Miloševic at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia. Bloggers write summaries daily, the BBC produces documentaries every few months, and both “Focus on Africa” and “Voice of America” routinely broadcast updates covering the proceedings. The trial is even streamed live from The Hague over the Internet.

Yet is the public face of this trial serving the interests of justice? Much criticism has arisen since the beginning of the trial in January 2008 about the lack of protective measures for witnesses testifying in the case. In light of the heightened scrutiny by the public and the emphasis on the public nature of the trial, the trial chamber seems to lean in favor of open sessions, and has denied closed session requests and various protective measures requested for the witnesses testifying.

In accordance with principles of international criminal law, there must be a balance between the right of the accused to a public and fair trial, and the amount of protection granted to the witness. Many witnesses testifying against Charles Taylor are former rebel group insiders who claim to have been threatened not to testify and whose family’s security may be in jeopardy. Witnesses still living in Liberia may face even greater threats due to the large number of Taylor’s supporters living in the region.

The issue of media interference has arisen in connection with both the prosecution and defense counsels’ discussion of the trial with the media. The defense filed a motion against the prosecution claiming that the prosecution had wrongly discussed investigations and evidence of Charles Taylor’s assets with the international media. In response, the prosecution raised the issue that the defense counsel had made inappropriate public statements to the press about the credibility of evidence being introduced so far in proceedings on matters sub judice. In fact, lead defense counsel, Courtney Griffiths, commented about the prosecution’s evidence at a press conference in Freetown, Sierra Leone stating that it is “safe to say that I am confident that much of it will be exposed for what it is—a rather shoddy concoction of rumor, hearsay and rubbish.” It seems that the defense has made some controversial statements about evidence which may prejudice the hearings, decrease cooperation between witnesses and national authorities, and create the risk of a violent reaction from Charles Taylor’s supporters.

Clearly, this trial will have a great impact on the nature of both future international tribunals and international law, and is being followed by many around the world. Overall the media has arguably had a negative impact on courtroom proceedings. Publicity will continue to undermine the tribunal if the prosecution and defense teams continue to discuss matters publicly and if chambers continues to insist on open proceedings for vulnerable witnesses.

- Anonymous JETL Member

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