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Panorama Tuesday, 19 June, 2001, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
Ask Fergal Keane
Fergal Keane
Ask Fergal Keane

Reporter Fergal Keane answers your questions on the issues raised in The Accused. Click on the link below to watch coverage of the forum.

Video56K


Transcript:


Newshost:

Binjamin S. from Jerusalem: I cannot understand why you are not asking the same questions of the Palestinian leader? - What they are doing is relevant for today's news and more than you are asking.


Fergal Keane:

I think one thing I would have to point out first is the programme The Accused simply did not level accusations and report accusations against Ariel Sharon. It was very careful to go to Beirut and confront those accused of being directly responsible for the massacre. So that needs to be clarified.

The second thing I would say is that anybody who watched programme will have noted that the context in which Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 was reflected fully - that is the statement from the Israeli Prime Minister's spokesman that they were facing a threat of continuous terrorist attacks over the border. So it was made very, very clear. Secondly the atrocities, the savage slaughter carried out by the PLO against Christians was also reported. These were critically important parts of the context.

Now as for the question about Yasser Arafat. I would have to point out that people who doubt our willingness to confront issues of human rights abuse in relation to Mr Arafat, should look at a programme - a documentary which the BBC made two years ago, which is the same length as Panorama, in which, in the opening minutes of that programme he was accused of allowing torture, corruption, the abuse of human rights, the suppression of free speech.


Newshost:

So you are not afraid to put those points?


Fergal Keane:

Absolutely not.


Newshost:

Lior from Shoham:Your program showed only one side, what about the suffering of the Israeli civilians?


Fergal Keane:

Again, I have to point to the opening two minutes of the programme with Mr Ranaan Gissin - the Prime Minister's spokesman - talking about the threat of the northern part of Israel being depopulated as a result of PLO bombing and I made that point. I need to make this very, very clear to those - particularly Israeli government spokesmen who talked about the pro-Palestinian bias - another spokesman who spoke about the BBC having been tinged with anti-Semitism. That is completely and utterly untrue - a contemptible remark in my view.


Newshost:

Wyatt Austin from Canterbury: Does it sadden you that whenever a journalist's report is critical of Israel (even if unbiased), the stock response is to try and discredit it by labelling it anti-Semite? Were you labelled anti-Semite?


Fergal Keane:

A spokesman for the Israeli department for foreign affairs did talk about it and it was widely reported in the international media - the BBC's reporting being tinged with anti-Semitism.

One is reluctant to engage in that debate because it is such a ludicrous charge. But let me just say this much - the very first book which lit the fire for me in terms of human rights as a young boy was reading the diary of Anne Frank. I am someone who has reported on genocide in Rwanda. I have witnessed precisely what the extermination of a racial group involves. Having gone to Rwanda, one of the most moving moments of my life was to stand in Auschwitz when I was sent to produce a report for the BBC on the millennium. I was proud to stand on the stage at Britain's first ever National Holocaust Memorial Day.


Newshost:

The answer is you find such a suggestion partly offensive and partly absurd.


Fergal Keane:

Both offensive and absurd but more offensive than anything else.


Newshost:

Dan Budescu from Haifa: Throughout the programme, you kept repeating that it was well known that the Christians and Palestinians in Lebanon were killing each other during the civil war, long before Israel entered Lebanon. But strangely, there is no accusation on the killers. You only choose to accuse the Israeli who "should have known" - why?


Fergal Keane:

Of course that is not true but it may be that that he hasn't seen the full film and I think when he does he will realise that we travelled to Beirut and confronted Elie Hobeika, the man Israel's Kahan Commission accused of being directly responsible for the slaughter. That wasn't an easy thing to do. But from my point of view it was an absolute duty of ours to go to those accused of direct responsibility for the killing.


Newshost:

It is worth making the point that this programme will be re-shown on BBC World and on the Panorama website after this - we'll keep you fully informed as to when it is exactly going to be re-shown.

The next question is from Oded Farhi from London: How can you honestly claim no hidden political agenda when failing to reveal any new details on a 20 year-old event during a "topical" news program?


Fergal Keane:

What I would say is that some of the testimony given to us by people who hadn't spoken about these events was new. But more importantly, we now operate in a climate, and it is very important that people realise this, where the abuse of human rights, the question of war crimes, are now recognised as an international obligation by governments in a way that they certainly weren't 20 years ago.

At the time of Sabra and Shatila there did not exist what I would call the community of conscience that revolve around the issue of war crimes and the legal framework which has been developed for example on the Pinochet case. We are in a situation now where it is perfectly legitimate now to ask the former US presidential candidate Bob Kerrey about allegations of war crimes levelled against him in the Vietnam War. It is perfectly legitimate and accepted that we can ask questions of French generals from what happened in Algeria - in the past few weeks there has been controversy in France over this. It is perfectly legitimate in Britain for a government to hold an inquiry into events that happened in Northern Ireland 30 years ago. Is there anyone who is suggesting that there should be countries in the world that should be exempt from the process of examination?


Newshost:

But are you suggesting that we should retrospectively apply more sophisticated standards now to the deeds that were committed then?


Fergal Keane:

But the point is the standards existed at the time. Since 1945, it has been a binding obligation on, what one would call, those civilised states to abide by the Geneva Convention and the law of war designed to protect civilians. What has created impetus for this of course are the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda - they have raised the issue in the public consciousness.


Newshost:

Is there any suggestion by you, given as you say that it is the possibility of a war crimes prosecution against Milosevic and the action of war crime trials which are pending in the former Yugoslavia, is it fair to say that you may have in the viewing public's mind, been suggesting that Ariel Sharon was as guilty and guilty of the same sorts of things?


Fergal Keane:

No, absolutely not. Nowhere in the film is there that suggestion.


Newshost:

So these are categorically different crimes of which you are speaking?


Fergal Keane:

Milosevic is accused of genocide - crimes against humanity - he is also accused of war crimes. But the principal counts against him are that he attempted in whole or in part to wipe out an ethnic group and that he was guilty of crimes against humanity. Let us be specific about what that involves - that involves provable deliberate intent.


Newshost:

And that only applies to genocide?


Fergal Keane:

Genocide and crimes against humanity. War crimes are different - you do not have to prove the deliberate intent. Nobody is suggesting that Ariel Sharon had the deliberate intention.


Newshost:

But that he was in command and responsible - that is the charge.


Fergal Keane:

He was the one who gave the order and what the Kahan Commission found was that he had disregarded the danger to civilians.


Newshost:

GA from London: How can you blame Sharon for this massacre when Israel was not involved in the actual killings?


Fergal Keane:

That is the point that I have been addressing. Again the film is very, very clear and people who have written to me personally and e-mailed me personally saying why didn't you go after the Phalange - please watch the film - that is precisely what we did.


Newshost:

Guy Shechter from Valbonne, France: Why not be equally critical, or more so, of the Phalange members who were "directly" responsible?


Fergal Keane:

I sat not much further away than I am sitting from you now from Elie Hobeika and I put to him "Can I put it to you that you are a ruthless mass murderer who is lying to avoid justice" - how much plainer and more forcefully is it possible to put the allegations of direct responsibility?


Newshost:

El from Jerusalem: Why didn't you look for the direct killers instead of pointing at Sharon as the central person to blame?


Fergal Keane:

We did pursue people in the mountains of Lebanon and it was quite a scary adventure.


Newshost:

So you tried to go the literal point to find the direct killers?


Fergal Keane:

Absolutely - yes.


Newshost:

Osnat from Israel: Why didn't you investigate Sharon eight month ago, when he was elected?


Fergal Keane:

Because it takes a long, long time to mount an investigation like this.


Newshost:

So when, as it were, was the button pressed? Why was the button pressed?


Fergal Keane:

I would have to say that regarding the question of human rights abuses - I have spent most of my reporting career over the past 10 years in zones of conflict producing reports about human rights abuses.


Newshost:

So the first part of your answer is that it doesn't constitute a disinterest in Sharon that you were doing something else. But what about the specific question as to the process of producing this programme? How long did it actually take and when did it start?


Fergal Keane:

I think the idea certainly came up around the time that Mr Sharon was running for office and let's remind people that it did become an issue during Israel's election campaign. It is not something we dreamed up out of nowhere. It is a legitimate issue for public discussion and debate.

Let me pose this question - what kind of world do you think we would live in if we said that the prime minister of any democratic state shouldn't be investigated? So the real question is that those people who hold power should be accountable.


Newshost:

Francis Shrago from London: Why did the BBC feel it necessary to broadcast this programme in the midst of the current peace process?


Fergal Keane:

Let me be clear about one thing I have absolutely no political motivation nor have I any reluctance to take on governments or people of power in the world.

If you start to conceal abuses of human rights or if you start to put these fundamentals to one side - hide them - in the interests of political progress or political expediency, you go down a very slippery road indeed.


Newshost:

So you think you would have been playing politics far more to have considered that question too carefully?


Fergal Keane:

Yes.


Newshost:

Francine Ferdwick from London: Was this an appropriate time to show such a programme bearing in mind the current situation between the Israelis and Palestinians and the media war the two sides are engaged in?


Fergal Keane:

I think it is very difficult to suggest to journalists that you shouldn't report because other people may take your work and manipulate it. You would just abandon what we do. I don't think there is a logic or sense to that argument. We made the programme because there were fundamental questions which had to be asked and need to be answered.


Newshost:

Robert Buizer from Rotterdam: Don't you agree that the international war crimes tribunal should play a more active role in the Middle East conflict and point out those responsible on all sides even if it is impossible to arrest them but to show that international justice is at least being sought?


Fergal Keane:

As I mentioned earlier, there is a developing community of conscience on the issue of international law reflected in the move now for an international criminal court and I personally would love to see a situation where all people accused of abuses of human rights or in the case of Sabra and Shatila, indirect and direct responsibility would have a legal forum in which the charges could be answered. I think that would healthy for democratic states.


Newshost:

S Pashley from Bristol:What is being done to get Ariel Sharon to the War Crimes Court in order for him to account for his role in the massacres?


Fergal Keane:

I think the question we posed in the programme was whether there were grounds for indictment. Now taking it a step further and asking - is anybody going to arrest Ariel Sharon - all those who are accused of the separate category of direct responsibility - that is something you would have to ask the international criminal prosecutors - it wasn't the subject in discussion last night.


Newshost:

Gibreel F. from Newark, USA: What are the chances that the International Tribunal of War Crimes would actually take some action in prosecuting the Criminals who "directly or indirectly" wreaked havoc in Palestine and Israel since the beginning of the conflict?


Fergal Keane:

I think at the moment if one is standing back and looking at this, I think there is a very limited chance that this will happen. I would just point you to some precedents and that is when one looks at the rulings by our own House of Lords in relation to Pinochet, the moves in France, the questions being put to Bob Kerrey in the United States - the questions even raised for Henry Kissinger in a recent book. I think there is a situation now where it is no longer impossible for us to approach people of power and ask them to account for themselves. That is what our role as journalists is in this process. We are simply investigating and asking people to account for themselves.


Newshost:

Atif Suleman from Edinburgh: Do you think the programme will be given serious consideration by politicians and in the UK as well as the international community?


Fergal Keane:

I would hope that people take it seriously and regard it for what it is and that it is a fair-minded approach to the situation. There will be people who see this through the prism of their own prejudice and I can't do anything about that.


Newshost:

Ken Patterson from Bristol: Do you have any confidence that any of the people involved in this massacre will ever be brought to account?


Fergal Keane:

I am always hopeful - confident I think requires rather different grounds.


Newshost:

Vanessa from London: What do you hope to achieve for the victims?


Fergal Keane:

I am glad somebody has asked the question about the victims because in all of this debate and in all of the questions, I notice a distinct lack of interest in those who actually suffered - the 800 people who were butchered. Let's remember the facts of what happened - these people were undefended - 150 Phalangists were sent in - though that wasn't a huge force they clearly went in knowing that the people were not defended.

I cannot change the lives of the victims and that is not what I set out to do. But what I think journalism can do is to say that every individual victim in a case like this - whether I am in Rwanda, whether I am in Burma, whether I am in Afghanistan - all the countries I have covered - that their individual humanity matters. Don't forget we based human rights legislation on the belief that individual humanity matters and that it should be protected.


Newshost:

Peter Thomas from Cheshire: Why wasn't the successful action against Time magazine mentioned?


Fergal Keane:

Ariel Sharon sued Time magazine because Time magazine alleged that he had incited the Phalange. That is a different issue to what we discussed on programme. We have never suggested any such allegation therefore it wasn't our territory.

We were very, very clear that we were not accusing Ariel Sharon of direct responsibility as defined by the Kahn Commission - that would be somebody who had incited people to violence and who had taken a direct part in the slaughter.


Newshost:

Yaniv Stern from Haifa: Do you think it is possible to compare between accusing Ariel Sharon and accusing Yasser Arafat or Hafez El Assad, for the deaths of thousands of innocent citizens?


Fergal Keane:

But this programme wasn't about comparisons - it was a very detailed investigation of a massacre in Beirut in 1982 - it was not about comparisons. But we did feel it important to include references to the PLO's slaughter of Christians at the village of Demur in 1976. We also felt it important to point out that this Kahn inquiry was, in my words, unique to the Middle East and Mr Gissin was allowed to express that viewpoint.


Newshost:

Jonathan Adams from London: Did you encounter much resistance to the completion of the programme, both internal and external?


Fergal Keane:

Within the BBC I have received fantastic support from the very top of the organisation. Our right to do this programme which is the thing we need to defend was defended at the very top of the organisation. It was a fair question to put - a legitimate analysis of a human rights issue that was supported from the very top. I would add that nothing in my career in journalism - and I have worked in some pretty tough places - but nothing I have come across has compared to the level of interest, e-mails and debate and I really welcome that.


Newshost:

Chris Doyle from London: Did you find evidence about Israeli soldiers preventing Palestinians from leaving the camps?


Fergal Keane:

I think the impression that most people would have got looking at the programme would be the disgust felt by the Israeli troops that we interviewed at what had happened in the camps. In relation to the specific question, there was an order given, clearly, to some of the troops that people were not to be allowed out of the camps. But in fairness to those troops it is not possible to lay an accusation against them.


Newshost:

S Sanbar from London: I praise you highly for your effort. But what made you take on such a controversial task?


Fergal Keane:

I knew that when I took on this task it would arouse a certain degree of interest - internationally and nationally. Part of me - if I am honest - said do I really want to stir up a hornets' nest by doing this story. But when I found myself asking a question like that, I knew I had to do the story. You can't walk away from things because you are afraid that people will attack you and criticise you afterwards. Fundamentally I believe it is our job to hold people to account - you can't run for democratic office and not expect that people will ask questions of you.


Newshost:

Shuny Carin from Jerusalem:The responsibility that Sharon bears, albeit indirect, for the massacre was established by the Kahn Commission light years ago. Does the BBC really believe it is enlightening anyone?


Fergal Keane:

If one was to ignore human rights abuses on the basis that they happened many years ago or on the basis that we knew most of the facts - I think we would be in a very dangerous world. Some facts bear repeating and more importantly they bear being put in context - they bear legal examination and critically these facts need to be put to the people concerned.


Newshost:

Riaz Esmail from London: Having made the programme, what are your expectations now?


Fergal Keane:

The question of Sabra and Shatila, I am happy to leave for the moment but there are many other issues of human rights that I would like to look at. One of the big stories that fascinates me and which I hope to follow up and which needs following up is what happened at Hamma, Syria in February 1982, when there was a huge massacre. One of the perpetrators is somewhere in Europe now. So a story like that deserves long-term investigation. I am happy to go after people and ask them questions and ask them to be accountable wherever they are.

Links to more Panorama stories are at the foot of the page.


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