It feels a little indulgent for one journalist to jump to the defense of another when full disclosure gets a colleague into trouble. Not all journalists exercise good judgment when they choose to release confidential information, and, in some cases, they deserve to face the consequences.
In the past, some journalists have been known to set prudence and timing aside for the sake of gaining the fame and notoriety of breaking a big story. They did so by claiming that citizens have the right to know what their government does — both the good and the bad. Touting this important truth for the sake of personal gain is not simply wrong; it’s despicable. In these cases, when the leak of information has had harmful consequences on bigger plans which need to be protected by secrecy until fully formed, it is right for journalists to be brought to justice.
However, this was not the case for Florence Hartmann, who was charged with contempt of court earlier this week. The French journalist had worked as the spokesperson for the Hague Tribunal’s former chief prosecutor for six years before she was brought to court, and before that she covered the Bosnian war.
Her offense was the 2007 publication of a book and an article in which she discussed the existence of confidential court documents. While the exact content of these secret files is unknown, they are thought to detail Serbian government involvement in the Bosnian war during the 1990s. Specifically, they may chronicle contacts between the Serbian government and the Bosnian Serb army — the kind of details that could incriminate the Serbian government not only for war crimes, but for genocide.
There are some facts that should probably be kept secret from the world until every respective party has had time to fully prepare for the effects of exposure. Genocide is not one of them.
Hartmann felt that the legitimacy she could bring to the case because of her position and reputation would play an invaluable role in bringing justice to the victims of the war in Bosnia.
She maintained in her published works that the documents would provide a link between Belgrade and the massacre of approximately 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. Releasing this information brought Hartmann notoriety and a 7,000-euro ($10,000) fine — but it also made her a hero.
When she went before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Hartmann faced up to seven years in prison and a 90,000-euro fine. The court might well have chosen to give her a less severe punishment because it knew that the international outcry against such a sentence (and, indeed, against the current ruling) would be fierce, but many believe her trial was merely held in order to set a legal precedent.
Rather than slapping the wrists of those who expose their failures, the justice system should be thanking the likes of Hartmann for bringing greater transparency to the field.
Granted, the court may have some reason to believe that, as argued, sovereign states may be less willing to offer up confidential documents for consideration after this debacle. Nevertheless, victims of the Bosnian massacres would be unable to seek reparations from the Serbian government without access to these files. The court should have found a legal way to bring these documents into the public eye — perhaps, as Hartmann argued, during another trial that was going on at the time, in which Bosnia tried to sue Serbia for genocide.
Hartmann now has a criminal record under her belt and a fine to pay. The former should be easy to overcome, given her position — hopefully she can satisfy the latter through book sales.
Rosaleen O’Sullivan is a junior majoring in English and international relations. Her column, “Global Grind,” runs Mondays.