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 Debate Is On

Refik Hodzic
Communications Director, ICTJ

As we enter the second stage of the debate on the role of media in transitional justice, my task as the moderator becomes increasingly challenging. There are simply too many issues emerging from this discussion for my modest abilities to do them all justice by summing them up in this post. I say this with a great deal of satisfaction, as it testifies to the success of the project and the salience of the question we asked: Should the media actively support transitional justice efforts?

Although the opening statements of our protagonists, Carlos Dada and Dejan Anastasijevic, suggested that the separation line between their “yes” and “no” responses is blurry rather than clear, they raised some key questions catalyzing a rich stream of commentary from other participants: Can media be expected to “support” institutional efforts at justice and truth without sacrificing its sacred independence? What would such support entail? Is it fair to expect media to mediate public perceptions of flawed transitional justice efforts?

The guest commentator in the opening stage, Lisa Laplante, made her case on this quite strongly:

"Ultimately, journalists often mediate public deliberation. They are the gatekeepers of information deciding what voices, messages, and narratives get into the public domain—voices of victims and their supporters, or alleged perpetrators and their advocates. The way journalists frame the information they receive may either ease longstanding strife or exacerbate it. They can flip a constructive debate about the past into a tug of war over whose version of the past takes precedent. Far from a form of healthy democratic debate, the violent battles of the past can turn into media warfare that can re-victimize the already traumatized, and create societal instability. These conflicts can also create a culture that does not embrace the rule of law or a culture of rights, thus undermining the work of accountability mechanisms."

Dejan Anastasijevic’s rebuttal reflects the uneasiness of journalists to embrace the responsibility implied in Laplante’s argument:

"If the debate has so far failed to produce a final verdict on its opening question, it has raised a number of other issues. For me, by far the most important one is about the general role of the media in post-conflict societies, and their role as what Nerma Jelacic refers to as “watchdogs” or, as Lisa Laplante put it, the “gatekeepers” of information. With due respect to both canines and professional sportsmen, I find such metaphors slightly disturbing. While there’s no denying that journalists own their share of responsibility for the “meek results” of the transitional justice process on the ground, as described by Jelacic, there are other forces involved, forces that are deeper and more powerful than the press."

The depth of the fault line between the aims of transitional justice efforts in achieving a degree of societal consensus about the traumatic past and the journalism’s creed to maintain an independent, “neutral” approach to the subject is certainly seen differently by journalists and transitional justice practitioners. Writes David Tolbert:

"The danger of journalists becoming advocates for transitional justice is rather benign and, in any event, far outweighed by those in the profession playing roles that actively undercut those processes. Thus, I am much more concerned by those in the media who undermine transitional justice efforts than those who push transitional justice in an overly aggressive fashion."

This may be a view shared by many transitional justice practitioners who have struggled to engage the media to ensure a wider, more lasting social impact of measures of accountability and reform in the aftermath of massive human rights abuses. However, it is partly based on an assumption Lisa Laplante addresses in her text:

"Experience shows we cannot assume that the media will be “blank slates” ready to accommodate the new political order and automatically create a healthy level of constructive dialogue and debate about the past, especially in the polarized environments that typify post conflict recovery. Even without reaching a level of criminality, the media still may have played a polarizing role in conflict—a tactic they may continue to use in transitions to peace—often resulting from political allegiances or outright corruption and manipulation."

And if this comment reveals the need to revisit some of the practitioners’ assumptions about the “natural allegiance” with media in transitional societies, Dejan Anastasijevic in his opening statement flips the coin and asks a question many journalists covering transitional justice processes have grappled with:

“Should we, as journalists, support a flawed court because it was conceived of with the best intentions? Is it better to have some sort of justice, however inadequate or perverted, than none at all? Tell me, and I’ll report it."

His opponent, Carlos Dada, takes the question head on in his rebuttal:

"I reported one. A year ago, at the Justice Palace in downtown Guatemala City, General Efrain Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide against the Ixil people. Last Saturday, I went to talk to attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz, the prosecutor in the Rios Montt trial. It was her last day at the office. Congress blocked her reelection and shortened her current term. A genocide sentence reversed, a judge suspended, general attorney out of office and a Congress decreeing that there was no genocide in Guatemala. All in just one year. Could anyone call this justice? And yet, yes, it was better than nothing. Way better."

As Dada’s response and various comments show, the debate is well and truly on. And this is just a glimpse at the arguments made in the protagonists’ rebuttals. My attempt to highlight some of the issues raised so far does no justice to the richness of the discussion. It is my hope that this new stage in the ICTJ Debate catalyzes an even stronger exchange between journalists, scholars, practitioners, and activists from across the globe. Though the relationship between media and transitional justice is complex and often troubled, it is so clearly instrumental to processes of social change to which transitional justice aims to initiate and contribute.

Refik Hodzic is the Communications Director of the International Center for Transitional Justice. For almost two decades, Hodžić has worked in transitional justice as a journalist, film maker as well as an expert in public information and outreach campaigns. He has focused on post-war justice and media primarily in the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, and Timor-Leste. He worked for the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia serving as the tribunal’s spokesman and outreach coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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