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?

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Debate Closes, Global Discussion Continues

Refik Hodzic
Communications Director, ICTJ

The relationship between the media and transitional justice is of enormous importance to the processes of social change faced by societies in the aftermath of massive human rights abuses. Yet, it remains one of the most understudied aspects of the discourse on transitional justice, with not more than a handful of serious academic works on the subject, and discussions usually limited to the “need for journalists to be trained” in order to report on complex trials, truth commissions, and reparations programs. It was this gap in knowledge that motivated us to ask the question—Should media actively support transitional justice efforts?—in ICTJ’s first online debate.

The choice of those we invited to argue “pro” and “con” was made with careful deliberation. Apart from their impressive records as seasoned, award-winning investigative reporters, Carlos Dada and Dejan Anastasijevic brought with them their experience rooted in the realities of El Salvador and Serbia, societies still struggling with legacies of brutal conflicts and difficult, turbulent transitions. And although they approached the question from opposing vantage points, it soon became clear that their positions are not too far apart when it comes to the underlying principles of the role of journalism in transitional societies. Rather, the debate began exploring some of the key misconceptions about the power of both media and transitional justice to affect change, in what are clearly political and cultural processes amounting to transformations of values by which societies function.

Eric Gordy captured the essence of this dilemma in his contribution:

What would constitute support for transitional justice efforts? In this respect both the contributors who introduce the discussion are right: there is a social obligation to be on the side of justice, as well as a professional obligation to be on the side of truth. The deciding factor might be what it is reasonable to expect transitional justice to do. Can it punish all of the offenders fairly? Probably not. Can it bring satisfaction to victims? Very rarely. Can it establish the truth? Not beyond the confines of its political and professional mandate. What it can do, ideally, is contribute to the opening of well informed and balanced discussions among the public, which might bring about some meaningful political consequences. In that sense the most constructive contribution that media can make is to encourage the development of those discussions, by reporting truthfully but also by promoting an awareness of contexts, and by keeping in mind that completeness, as well as accuracy, is an element of truth.

The richness of the discussion that ensued surpassed all our expectations. Driven through the opening stage and the rebuttals by thoughtful, illuminating contributions by our two main participants and our guest commentators, Lisa Laplante, Olga Lucia Lozano, and Adama Dieng, the debate attracted several thousands of visitors and comments from all corners of the world, proving that it had asked a pertinent question.

Dada and Anastasijevic close the debate not in disagreement, but with different sentiments.

Departing from the position that the main duty of journalism is to “provide public with intellectual tools to make better decisions and to better engage in public debate” to “enlighten its public”, Dada examines whether or not supporting transitional justice efforts can be seen as a duty of journalism. He posits:

Journalism has an obligation to 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.

Anastasijevic does not oppose this, but his mood is more somber as he concludes his closing statement:

There is only so much that journalists can do, provided that they even get a chance to stand up to warmongering propaganda during the conflict, or revisionist interpretations in the aftermath. In the days when governments and special interest groups have so much power over media, the notion that free press can really shape or change the public opinion is becoming preposterous. But we can, and should always be that sole dissenting voice, the one that spoils the public order established by the scoundrels.

As the moderator of this debate, I have no role in agreeing or disagreeing with any of the arguments presented, as much as I am itching to do so. Herein lies the substance of the debate’s contribution to the field: although it has not definitively answered all the questions, it has surely catalyzed an excellent exchange on the issue and opened several clear lines of inquiry that will hopefully help to better define the relationship between media and transitional justice. For that, I am immensely thankful to Dada, Anastasijevic, and all who have helped make this debate a success.

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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