Archived May 03, 2014 - June 18, 2014

Should the Media Actively Support Transitional Justice Efforts?

In the aftermath of mass atrocity or years of dictatorship and repression, efforts to achieve accountability and reform often materialize through criminal prosecutions, commissions of inquiry and truth commissions, reparations, and institutional reform. In the short term, these measures— often referred to as transitional justice—aim to provide redress to victims, address perpetrators’ responsibility, clarify the underlying causes of abuses, and seek to ensure they are not repeated. In the longer term, they seek to catalyze social change: from a climate in which no person is safe if they belong to a targeted group, to a sustainable peace where rule of law reigns and citizens trust the state to be a guarantor of their rights.

In polarized contexts of social and political transitions, the media can decisively shape public perception and social impact of transitional justice efforts. In fact, the mere inception of such efforts opens political processes that have a fundamentally public dimension, often mediated by professional communicators and, increasingly, social networks. It is with this in mind that we ask the question: should the media be a neutral observer of transitional justice measures, objectively and critically reporting on what they deem interests their audiences; or must it take a proactive role to support these measures, seeing justice for past abuses as a matter of utmost public interest?

Need to catch up? View Opening Remarks

The Case for Yes

Carlos Dada
Founder and Editor, El Faro

It is almost impossible to address all the questions raised by so many participants in this debate. They confirm how necessary it is to engage as many actors as possible to reflect on the relationship between journalism and transitional justice. I congratulate Refik Hodzic and ICTJ for organizing this debate; thank you for inviting me to be part of it. I also encourage all interested parties to continue this discussion.

One of the problems of any international debate is the differences between what participants understand from the same word or concept. I have read in some of the comments in this debate, for example, the equivalence between journalism and objectivity. This notion—“journalism should be objective”—is an old concept still used and guarded jealously by some, but barely means anything for others like me, who believe there is no such thing as objectivity in journalism and it’s not even important to discuss it, but rather how, from our subjectivity, we journalists can bring our work to achieve a closer correspondence with reality (or, if you prefer, with “truth”) and how we can help our public to better understand what we are covering. Journalism is an interpretative discipline, as I tried to explain in my opening remarks. And since I can’t consider objectivity as part of the nature of journalism, I am ill-prepared to debate with anyone that takes it as a departure point, as some of you have.

Also, in some interventions, the words “media” and “journalism” are used indistinctively, as if they were the same thing. It is not, most of the time, the lack of training in journalism what explains despicable publications dealing with conflict and postwar, but rather a series of agendas from media owners, executives and so-called journalists, driven by their ideologies and fears. This is what Dejan Anastasijevic shows when he writes about Serb media “reporting” on the trials at the ICTY. Or even worse, as UN Undersecretary Adama Dieng reminded us, the calling for genocide from radio stations in Rwanda. I could also add Indonesian print media owners—like the one interviewed in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing—or conservative media in El Salvador and Chile that distorted information and actively supported killings and disappearances, and so on. Almost anywhere a conflict takes place, it is possible to find media taking on these roles. Just as media can fuel heinous crimes, Mr. Dieng writes, “it is also possible that it can be used as force for good to promote coexistence among the population.” Sure it is possible, and desirable.

However, the original question of this debate is: Should media actively support transitional justice processes? It is not about its possibilities, but rather about its duties. It is an ethical question. We need to determine if actively supporting transitional justice processes is one of the duties of media–or, more specifically, of journalism. Let’s see:

The main duty of journalism is to report truthfully about matters important to a community. Doing this, journalism provides its public with intellectual tools to make better decisions and to better engage in public debate. It should enlighten its public.
But how do we know which story fulfills better the duties of journalism? The one that reports that a bishop was killed in San Salvador or the one that explains who killed him and how this unfolded into an open armed conflict? At least ethically, there is no difference, as long as both stories are accurate, and not deliberately distorted. But the deeper the story, the wider the context, and the more diverse the sources, the bigger potential it has to enlighten its public. Context defines text.

Another duty of journalism is to hold the powerful accountable. The bigger the political, military or economic power, the higher the responsibility is of those who hold it. And isn’t it part of transitional justice processes to somehow hold accountable those responsible of atrocities? Isn’t it a point of intersection between journalism duties and TJ processes? Yes it is.

Does supporting TJ processes put journalism independence at stake? According to the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Code, “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.” Again, TJ processes try to–or at least should- properly establish what happened, so indeed journalism should actively support this search for the truth, for the public’s right to know, whether in the form of Truth Commissions or special tribunals. (It is very unfortunate that this debate is closing in the wake of a new ICTJ report on truth commissions, which I hope will further contribute to these reflections with new findings).

Journalism should part ways when processes are distorted by political moves that impede the establishment of responsibilities for the sake of peace, usually in the form of general amnesties, which is not uncommon, especially when conflicts end by negotiations or peace agreements.

Journalism has also an obligation with fairness. This goes beyond what we call a “fair story.” Journalism should include the narrative of victims of conflicts, which is also one of the major elements of transitional justice processes (fair and just are the same in Spanish: justo).

So I effectively believe journalism –and media—should support transitional justice efforts, as long as the duties of both meet in the same place.

But just as you can’t expect all media and all journalists to behave ethically, just as well the complexity of actors involved in transitional justice efforts should not expect media –even the best of media— to be “on our side.” You are also actors to be held accountable for your actions (as we are), and your ethics.

Hannah Dunphy put it in much better words:

As someone committed to the aims of transitional justice to confront the past and seek justice for victims, I’m inclined to say yes, of course, journalists should support transitional justice measures. However, this presumes the mechanisms are actually delivering on their promise and serving the rights of victims. Processes of truth and justice all too often bend to the realities of power and politics in which they exist. If a truth commission is corrupt, a war crimes trial seriously flawed, or citizens are otherwise shut out of processes that publicly proclaim to be serving their interests, then I would say the role of the media should be to report on these failings, expose the flaws and report on other groups—such as civil society groups or other activists—who are doing the same.

Finally, I am very glad to see that, as Dejan Anastasijevic put it, “there are no winners in this debate.” A debate should not be seen as a match, but rather, as philosopher Richard Rorty suggested, an exercise where different ideas and perspectives interact to produce knowledge. I truly hope all the contributions to this debate can provoke interesting reflections and new perspectives on such an important matter.

Carlos Dada is the Founder and Editor of El Faro, one of the most awarded and prestigious media in Latin America, based in El Salvador, and recognized for its investigations on corruption, organized crime and war crimes. Dada is a Stanford Knight Fellow and has received, among others, the Moors Cabot Award from Columbia University and the Anna Politkovskaja Award from the Ferrara Festival. He is currently working on a book about the murder of Archbishop Romero and the Death Squads in El Salvador.

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