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: For What Purpose?

Olga Lucía Lozano
Creative Editor, La Silla Vacía

Colombia has been immersed in an internal armed conflict for decades. The conflict has also involved a diverse group of actors (paramilitaries, guerrillas, drug cartels, and the Army), whose objectives and terror techniques have changed over time. We reconstruct the history of this conflict on the basis of fragments of the story mentioned in the mass media, in a country that has grown tired of incessantly talking about the same thing in the same terms. We reconstruct this history on the basis of dozens of books on the conflict written by experts, analysts, violentologists, and journalists who describe the conflict in abstract terms or use the disjointed stories of some of the victims.

At times the conflict felt routine, which drove society to create a parallel life where they felt protected from bullets and bad news. Most Colombians avoided reading about painful subjects, especially in the mass media, which abounds with yellow journalism and sensationalism. Even after the government of Alvaro Uribe reached an agreement on the demobilization of the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the majority of the public refrained from delving any deeper. Most people read only the headlines of the scandals, both large and small, surrounding the demobilization process. These headlines in turn concealed the complexities of a process in which each word took on a different meaning depending on who was interpreting it: Reparations? Forgiveness? Forgetting?

The mass media covered the public hearings of the paramilitaries prosecuted under the Justice and Peace Law, where paramilitaries were given reduced sentences if they confessed the truth about crimes they committed. We heard the testimonies, added up the number of murders, listened to the descriptions of the massacres. In the midst of the horror evoked by these words it is sometimes impossible to not take sides, to not ask if justice is truly possible in cases like these. In the end, however, we tell ourselves over and over: “Do not take sides; trust no one, not even the victims; be suspicious even of those truths that seem undeniable.”

Then came the Victims’ Law, sponsored by the Santos administration, which sought to provide reparations to victims without resorting to a judicial process. The mass media in general appeared to concur: a legal framework had finally been approved to provide reparations to those who had most suffered as a result of the conflict. The hearings and the Victims’ Law opened a whole new line of thematic exploration: NGOs, research centers, academics, and journalists began to produce reports on memory, in an effort to dispel the amnesia and give statistics a human face.

However, while dozens of these publications are stashed away, never to be read by most people, dozens of Colombians whose only interest is seeking justice are being murdered. As months go by, land restitution leaders continue to be assassinated or disappeared by those who oppose returning land to those dispossessed due to the conflict. Unless they are particularly well-known or symbolic, their names are merely mentioned in a short article in the printed media.

Yes, the journalists were there. They most certainly denounced what had to be denounced. In many cases they probably took sides. They listened to the people and were moved by the stories that no one wants to repeat. They tried to explain the origins of the transitional justice process and then, in a few cases, attempted to give a detailed explanation of the true scope of the Victims’ Law. We reported on these processes, but did this news ever really reach anyone who is not an expert or journalist with a particular interest in the topic? Did the debates, questions, and answers reach the majority of Colombians? Rarely. And how much of this coverage was truly providing context to the process that was unfolding?

Journalists witness reality and have a duty to tell only the truth, a mantra has been frequently repeated during this debate and in many other spaces. Even though these rules are followed, however, journalism seems to have a minimal impact on reality. We write about “para-politics” and reveal the links between some politicians and illegal armed groups, but today their successors continue to run for election and a segment of the population continues to vote for them, despite knowing the truth about these connections. We reported on the Victims’ Law, but then we forgot that those who insist on its enforcement (not its creators, but the expected beneficiaries) are being threatened or killed, or continue to relinquish their rights out of fear.

This is why I believe that journalism should open itself to new possibilities. It should be able to create conditions whereby its role is not limited to informing but instead includes the capacity to take action: Take action to monitor each step of a process and advocate for fulfillment of the agreements. Take action to create a space where victims, citizens, and the state can perceive themselves and communicate as equals. Take action to encourage society to take interest in topics that they would otherwise avoid, due to fatigue or indifference.

Transitional justice processes can only achieve their desired effects if the media stop trying to approach reality as editors and instead engage with it. They should interact with all those who take part in the narrative and generate a shared sense of responsibility with the users or the audiences, where we are all responsible for ensuring that agreements are implemented.

This is the idea behind the Proyecto Rosa in La Silla Vacia. The project had two main objectives: The first was to tell the story of a woman leader of the victims’ movement in Colombia, so that together we could raise awareness about her situation and prevent her assassination. The second objective was to monitor the implementation of the Victims’ Law, using the voices of all the stakeholders and insisting on enforcement of the law.

None of these actions would have been possible if we had not included Colombian academics and experts from different fields in the project. It would also not have been possible if we had given up on the idea of believing that journalism is capable of taking action and touching the life of at least one person, and ultimately end up helping many other people. If journalism does not have an impact on anyone’s life and does not promote this type of processes, then what is its purpose? Are perhaps the authors worth more than the protagonists of the process?

When people hear me say such things, many think that I am proposing a type of “para-journalism” or referring to militancy. What I am proposing is ethical journalism and meticulous investigations, but at the same time not losing sight of one of media’s main objectives: to observe reality beyond third person narratives. At the end of the day, journalism, like art, can only touch someone’s life if it creates a bond between journalistic productions and those who see, read, or interact with them. It must create a bond that can convert into a network/community willing to let journalistic truths transcend the media landscape in which they circulate in order to reach other realities of Colombian society.

Olga Lucía Lozano is a Colombian journalist whose career has focused on experimentation with narrative and the rethinking of journalistic formats. For over a decade, she has explored the creative potential of online journalism by developing hybrid narrative pieces on issues as diverse as armed conflict, power, culture, and art. She has worked for Colombian media outlets such as El Tiempo and El Espectador, and until late 2008 she was the new media editor at Semana Publications. She later joined La Silla Vacía, a digital media outlet where she currently works as creative editor. The transmedia project Proyecto Rosa, which she created and directed, received the German Development Media award and the Gabriel García Márquez award for journalism innovation.

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