Skewed media reportings on South Africa and the ICC

BBC News posted an article earlier today entitled “South Africa to withdraw from war crimes court”.  The tone of the piece is reflective of a general trend within the media towards poorly nuanced reporting as regards the International Criminal Court (ICC) and African states. Framed reporting such as this will only add flames to the legitimacy difficulties that the court is currently facing.

The ICC is facing a legitimacy crisis. This is partly due to the sour relationship that has developed between the Court and some African states. Namibia, Kenya, South Africa and Burundi have all been vocal about the possibility of leaving the ICC following a recommendation from the African Union to not cooperate with the ICC, critiquing its case selection and handling (see Decision on the International Criminal Court Doc. EX.CL/952 (XXVIII)). South Africa’s Minister of International Relations, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, has now according to multiple news outlets and blogs signed a document of withdrawal, making it the second state to withdraw from the Rome Statute this week.  Burundi’s parliament voted last week to withdraw, and President Pierre Nkurunziza has signed a decree. The UN has not yet confirmed receiving South Africa’s or Burundi’s withdrawals.

While this does represent a potential crisis for the Court, this is being exacerbated by the media. The BBC article is typical of poorly nuanced writing concerning the ICC. It contains several basic errors, failing to explore the changes the ICC has made in order to address legitimacy questions, and completely ignoring the very important role of self-referrals by African countries to the ICC, all of which contribute towards wider legitimacy problems.

Firstly, the article incorrectly dubs the ICC as a “war crimes court” when it clearly has a much greater mandate - prosecuting genocide and crimes against humanity, in addition to war crimes. Reducing the ICC as a “war crimes court”, no matter how common this is, is factually incorrect and reductive.

Secondly, the article highlights that the Court has only brought charges against Africans, and that nine out of 10 current investigations are in Africa. This is correct. However, the article does not mention that five out of ten situations under investigation at the ICC were self-referrals from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic (I and II), and Mali. Self-referring clearly reveals a belief in the system, whereby the States provide the Court with authority to investigate and prosecute. Furthermore; two of the situations were referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council, Sudan/Darfur and Libya, respectively. Thus, an important aspect of the discussion is that the ICC has only initiated proprio motu (at the will of the Courts Prosecutor) investigations in two African states.

This BBC article and now plethora of other articles popping up on the subject all fail to mention the adjustments the ICC has made in the wake of the criticism it has received from the African Union. The articles also do not note the situations under investigation such as Georgia (not a country in Africa) and the many other cases outside of Africa under preliminary investigations- such as Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq/UK, Palestine, and Colombia. Of the 10 cases under preliminary investigation, 7 out of 10 are outside of the African continent.

Reporting such as this only worsens the legitimacy crisis that international criminal justice is currently facing. As soon as the media presents something in a certain ‘framed’ way, the audience is undoubtedly influenced, and it shapes their beliefs and actions surrounding legitimacy and international criminal law. Changing this perception and media pattern will undoubtedly be yet another challenge for international criminal justice champions.

By Ester Elisabeth Jørgensen Strømmen, Tanja Erika Andersen Czelusniak
Published Oct. 21, 2016 03:33 PM - Last modified Jan. 30, 2017 08:30 AM
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