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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Journalism and Transitional Justice

Carlos Dada
Founder and Editor, El Faro

In the autumn of 1946, a young Swedish writer and journalist moved to Berlin to write dispatches about postwar life in Germany. Stig Dagerman described the miserable conditions of Berliners living in the flooded basements of a city in ruins, starving and sick, wet and cold. From time to time, he wrote, a foreign correspondent would enter one of these basements and ask a family their opinions on the new German democracy and whether they had lived better during the Hitler years. “Half an hour later, sipping a drink or a good German beer at the bar of the hotel reserved for the press, (the correspondent would) write an article about the subject ‘Nazism is still alive in Germany.’”

That image of the German population is, indeed, what prevailed in the Western public opinion during those years and is partly, as Dagerman admits, true. “If you ask someone starving on two slices of bread per day if he was better off when he was starving on five you will doubtless get the same answer. Each analysis of the ideological position of the German people during this difficult autumn will be deeply misleading if it does not at the same time convey a sufficiently indelible picture of the milieu, of the way of life to which these human beings under analysis were condemned.”

There is, beyond Dagerman’s wonderful prose, a truth aiming to become a principle: no matter how much journalists try not to, in writing about conflicts or post-war environments they also play a role. Readers see through their eyes, and the public’s understanding is limited by the choices the journalist makes.

This is the big paradox of journalism: while it should always aim for objectivity, it is a subjective discipline. And thus reality is always filtered through the journalist’s choices. Whether deliberate or not.

Ideally those choices will be made deliberately, which implies that a journalist acknowledges the task as an intellectual one. So their piece will be determined not only by their capacity to observe and report, but mainly by where the journalist decided to look. Their views, then, are influenced by their knowledge, principles, thoughts, history and culture and, of course, their audiences –whether you appeal to the public’s own positions or instead open their eyes to new worlds apart from their own beliefs is yet another choice. Good journalism always chooses the latter.

It is, therefore, not only about what a journalist chooses to write about, it is also about why that choice was made and which angle was chosen to do it from, about the moral and philosophical arguments involved in those choices. About preserving an intellectual integrity.

“The horror, as horror, interests me only insofar as a precise memory of the offense is necessary to understand its legacy,” writes Phillip Gourevitch in the first pages of his book on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. And then he explains how the genocide took place.

Is it fair to stand with victims and look with sympathy on their demands for justice? It is. Can a journalist actively support transitional justice processes? Yes. The question is where we should draw the line separating journalism from activism. And journalism from propaganda.

The answer lies in the editorial process, or what we call the “journalistic method.” Journalism, after all, is a work of verification. It looks for facts, and the resulting (corroborated, verified) information demands a professional’s capacity to interpret it, to explain it, and submit it to editors. It is not a matter of balance or a matter of sympathy, it is a matter of facts, and context, and meaning that journalists provide.

As easy as it may sound, it has not been so in most conflicts. It takes a quick review of news reports, even in the most respected Western media, about the siege of Sarajevo, about Rwanda, about Iraq, just to mention a few, to see how difficult this task is and how seldom it is accomplished. And still, as Dagerman learned in Berlin, those reports shape public opinion.

Now, about transitional justice: I live in a postwar society. In 1992 the rightist Salvadoran government, backed by the military, signed a peace agreement with the leftist guerrillas to end a decade-long civil war. An amnesty law was passed in Congress, approved without consulting the victims, and war criminals retired and went home. From politicians the message was clear: Look forward. Looking back may only reopen old wounds.

The many victims of war crimes I’ve interviewed suggest the opposite: their wounds can’t heal until the crimes committed against them or their dear ones are acknowledged, investigated, and, in consequence, their dignity is somehow restored.

Justice, like journalism, aims for the truth. Usually, in “ordinary” courts those truths are necessary to solve differences among private citizens or between citizens and the state. But in transitional justice, those truths are a matter for the public sphere. It is in the public’s interest to establish the truth about human rights violations and to forge them into the collective memory.

Transitional justice goes beyond establishing the truth; it includes reparations for victims, punishment for the perpetrators and structural changes to guarantee that violations will not be repeated. I don’t know if journalism “should” actively support those efforts any more than it should support, let’s say, measures against global warming or against poverty. But it certainly can.

I would generally expect intellectuals, including journalists, to denounce injustices and demand justice, to actively support any efforts aimed at achieving that. Truth telling and making sure that our investigations into violations of human rights are made part of a collective memory is certainly one of journalism’s tasks.

Finally, just a small note: Justice and truth are two big words, but different; and peace is yet a different one. As much as they should ideally walk together, sometimes they may get into conflict. In those cases, journalism must always stay with the truth.

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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