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Fergal Keane
Sabra and Shatila: Dealing with facts

Panorama has come under fire for its decision to investigate the role played by Ariel Sharon amongst many others in the infamous massacre of hundreds of civilians in Lebanon 20 years ago. Fergal Keane, who has investigated human rights abuses in every continent, explains why journalists have a duty to report on such events.

The comment from the Israeli journalist was instructive. We had been seeking his help with a film about the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, and the role of Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

He told me, "I am not going to do anything that gives the Palestinians any ammunition." There was no point in arguing. He was emphatic.

An Israeli friend put it down to the current political climate. He said, "Because it is like we are in a war at the moment. You have people carrying out suicide bomb attacks against. And it involves all of us and it just isn't the time to help anyone to attack your Prime Minister."

It is a duty of journalists to question the actions and record of those who wield power

Fergal Keane
Another man with a lot of knowledge on the subject told us he wouldn't help because we weren't investigating the PLO as well. For the record Yasser Arafat has been the subject of a hard-hitting BBC investigation, which accused him of allowing corruption, abuse of free speech and torture.

As for claims by some Israelis that by investigating the issue of war crimes at Sabra and Shatila Panorama is guilty of pro-Palestinian bias, I have nothing but contempt.

Lobbies on both sides of the Middle East engage in a propaganda war. That is their business. At Panorama we are simply being true to a basic principle. It is a duty of journalists to question the actions and record of those who wield power.

Israeli co-operation

Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon's spokesman spoke to Panorama
Ironically the Prime Minister's own spokesman gave us an interview in which he was clearly comfortable addressing Mr Sharon's role in the events of 1982. Contrary to inaccurate statements put out by some Israeli officials Mr Gissen was fully aware of the subject when he gave the interview.

He answered questions about Mr Sharon and war crimes very directly and robustly and when the interview was over he left us on friendly terms. In fact some days later his officials provided us with a letter to help us transit easily through Ben Gurion airport with our tapes.

Since then, an Israeli official has queried why the BBC was 'focusing on old news.' I would reply simply by saying that the investigation of human rights abuses and the notion of accountability for such abuses is recognised by all civilised states as a fundamental moral and legal obligation.

I don't doubt that many supporters of Israel would regard an investigation of Mr Sharon's past as an attack on the state of Israel. It is nothing of the sort. It is very simply a factual investigation of a war crime in which the man recently elected Prime Minister of Israel was found to have 'indirect responsibility'.

International law

With the ongoing progress towards the establishment of an International Criminal Court, the debate over war crimes has never been more relevant. The prosecution of war crimes has become one of the issues through which we try to define the nature of the world we want to live in.

The job of a reporter is to deal with the facts

Fergal Keane
I have investigated war crimes and human rights abuses in every continent, and I have never yet been given a welcome by the people being investigated.

Nor do I expect any thanks from the people who were 'directly' and 'indirectly' responsible for the slaughter at Sabra and Shatila or from their political supporters.

The job of a reporter is to deal with the facts. And the facts of Sabra and Shatila are deeply shocking. I spent four months trawling over the details of the slaughter, speaking to witnesses, reading tens of thousands of words and viewing hours of footage.

In Beirut we confronted the man accused of leading the slaughter. There was in Lebanon a sense of surprise that we would wish to revisit such an event.

As one former militia leader said, "For God's sake if you prosecuted for war crimes here we'd all be in jail."

On the face of it he has a point but not one I am inclined to accept. The idea that everybody is as guilty as everybody else and therefore you should have no justice at all is a dangerous way of proceeding. It leads us into a kind of moral free fire zone.

The idea that what happened at Sabra and Shatila should not be held up to public scrutiny on the grounds of the general beastliness of the Middle East may be seductive to those who killed and to those who are accused of failing in their responsibilities to the murdered civilians.

But if the rest of us are seduced by this argument we abandon the most basic principles of democratic accountability. And that way tyranny lies.

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