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A United Nations war crimes tribunal has rejected as unfounded the refusal by an American journalist to testify about an interview with a suspected war criminal that was published in The Washington Post newspaper. The decision announced late Monday could set a precedent for journalists called to testify before international courts. It is the first time a journalist objected to giving evidence at the Yugoslav tribunal, established in 1993 by the United Nations to try Balkan war crimes suspects. A panel of three U.N. judges dismissed the motion on behalf of retired reporter Jonathan C. Randal in which his publication argued that compelling journalists to testify could endanger their lives and the lives of sources. “There is absolutely no indication at all that if forced to testify in this case, Randal could possibly be exposed to physical harm or any other kind of harm or risk,” the court found. “What is worse is that he expects this trial chamber to assert the journalistic qualified privilege” based on U.S. examples “which almost in their entirety dealt with cases and situations completely different to his.” It said his testimony was relevant and admissible. This paves the way for the court to request or order Randal to appear, but the tribunal has no way of forcing him to testify. If the court orders him to appear, and he does not, he will however be in violation of international law. The Washington Post said it was considering an appeal. “The court acknowledged that journalists perform a vital public service when reporting from combat areas and that war crimes tribunals should regulate the process of calling them as witnesses,” spokeswoman Lisa Jaczko said. “We are disappointed, however, that the court decided not to protect Mr. Randal from testifying based on the facts of this case.” Randal did not immediately return messages Tuesday for comment. The judges agreed with Randal that journalists should have the right to invoke professional privileges to protect sources, but said “this fundamental question does not arise in Randal’s case” because he published the source’s name and had no additional confidential material. It said press freedom needed to be weighed against law on a case by case basis to ensure that “the course of justice is not impeded by the withholding of evidence.” “Journalists should not be subpoenaed unnecessarily,” the ruling said. Court examinations should “not unduly hamper, obstruct or otherwise frustrate the vital role of news gathering,” it said. Prosecutors say Randal has information that “goes to the heart of the case” of ethnic cleansing against two Bosnian Serbs accused of war crimes during the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict. Randal was summoned in the case of Radoslav Brdjanin and Momir Talic, who are accused of the persecution and expulsion of more than 100,000 non-Serbs during the Bosnian war. In an article published Feb. 11, 1993, Randal quoted Brdjanin, whom he described as a Serbian housing official, as advocating the expulsion of non-Serbs from the Bosnian city of Banja Luka. The article read: “He said he believes the ‘exodus’ of non-Serbs should be carried out peacefully, so as to ‘create an ethnically clean space through voluntary movement. Muslims and Croats, he said ‘should not be killed, but should be allowed to leave — and good riddance.”‘ Randal was summoned after he told tribunal investigators that a local journalist was with him and had translated Brdjanin’s words. The prosecutors said they wanted him to testify because those quotes did not appear in an article written three days later by the second journalist, whose name was being kept secret for his own protection. Geoffrey Robertson, a defense lawyer representing The Washington Post in court, had said the newspaper recognized the need to gather evidence against accused war criminals, but forcing reporters to testify was against the long-term public interest. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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