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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Media and Transitional Justice: A Complex, Understudied Relationship

Lisa J. Laplante
Associate Professor of Law & Director, Center for International Law and Policy

I first became interested in the role of media in transitional justice settings in 2009, while directing a monitoring project of the human rights trial of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori.

In the course of the project, the local press coverage of the trial drew my attention, with its explosive and provocative headlines often focused less on the proceedings of the trial as it was on scandal and speculation about the defendant and the victims.

I wondered how public consumption of these accounts contributed to the overall success (or not) of Peru’s transitional justice project. In my scholarly pursuit of thinking through this question, I was amazed to discover that few transitional justice scholars had examined it. Moreover, few countries have consciously considered the role of the media in the design of their transitional justice strategies.

How did we miss this central question? I think, in part, because assumptions about journalism and how it functions have insulated it from academic or practitioner scrutiny. For example, it is assumed that the media will automatically perform in a way consistent with the ‘canons’ of the journalistic profession and, moreover, that traditional peace-time approaches to journalism are the best suited for transitioning societies.

However, my observations compel me to take the stand that we need to question these assumptions, and for that reason I welcome ICTJ’s online debate.

We need to address the assumption that the media will even care about transitional justice initiatives if journalists are not drawn into the process. Legal processes can be boring and not always easy to comprehend. Often, journalists may lose interest because they do not believe the story will “sell.” Yet, without the collaboration of print, radio, and TV, the work of transitional justice mechanisms occurs in a vacuum—the public will know little to nothing about these justice processes if the media does not report on them. In turn, without sustained public attention, the impact of transitional justice will be dramatically different.

However, the question remains: is transitional justice enough to grab the attention of the public, or do journalists need to guide this audience, to help them understand what is happening?

It is important to acknowledge that there is no guarantee as to the manner in which the media will choose to cover the day-to-day developments of transitional justice. Yet, their reporting can greatly influence society’s acceptance or rejection of these initiatives and the goals they promote.

I am in agreement with Dejan Anastasijević that the media should be free to call attention to transitional justice mechanisms which operate at sub-par levels; this reporting serves and protects all parties involved in the process, and assures a type of accountability.

But what about reporting that foments division based on ideology or other types of non-factual reporting? Should the media be trained to be more sensitive to how they “mediate” societal dialogue in transitional justice settings? Should the media be trained to actively promote transitional justice mechanisms and help shape public opinion and perceptions on justice, human rights and democracy? Or is it better to allow them to do business as usual, presumptively through objective and neutral reporting?

These questions bring us to the crossroad that I recognize to be one of the greatest points of tension in this debate.

Promoting any type of “standard” for reporting in transitional justice contexts may appear as “intervening” or even censorship, which runs contrary to the ideals of journalistic neutrality. The attempt to limit speech may seem to contradict international norms preserving the freedom to receive and impart information as recognized in most international human rights treaties.

This tension reveals a fundamental contradiction in the goals of transitional justice. On the one hand, transitional justice seeks to promote a culture of respect for human rights and democracy, which necessarily includes free speech, the right to information, and objective journalism that tolerates public debate and disagreement. Yet, transitional justice projects also seek to promote one version of the past which acknowledges that human rights violations occurred, and they were morally and legally wrong.

Transitional justice processes therefore theoretically require restrictions on the full application of free speech—at least in the short term—in order to draw a baseline of conduct (human rights norms) and to ensure that delicate democracies take root and grow deep enough to withstand more vigorous dissent and disagreement. Yet, this restriction requires a very delicate and careful balance of rights—especially in the aftermath of violent conflict and repression—to avoid the danger of a post-conflict government assuming an authoritarian stance and control of media reporting.

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.

Certain outlets or members of the media who themselves acted to encourage or incite violence in the past may become subject to accountability measures like trials and truth commissions. 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.

Putting these extreme examples aside, even if many journalists are trained to neutrally “just report the news” they may not appreciate how they influence a national dialogue about past atrocity. They may fail to understand how the traditional “witness role” in reporting (reporting verbatim what is said and done by all parties involved in a story) may have unexpected outcomes that undermine a transitional justice process.

Communication scholars like Lance Bennett have challenged the longstanding belief that the media has little impact on politics and polemic social issues, even in “normal” times. “Framing” of news through the choice of words, phrases, and images that convey a particular “angle” of a controversy can exert significant influence on the perceptions and opinions of citizens.

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.

This dynamic occurred in Peru during the human rights trial of its former president Alberto Fujimori, who was charged with human rights crimes and corruption that occurred during his decade long rule (1990-2000). The media sympathetic to Fujimori inflamed tensions and often printed sensationalist headlines to distract the country from the actual evidence being introduced at trial. Sometimes they publish distorted, false, or sensationalist versions of the truth to avoid addressing some more serious issues as hand.

Similarly, in 2013, when Guatemala’s former General José Efraín Ríos Montt was tried for genocide and crimes against humanity for his leadership in the massacre of hundreds of indigenous communities in 1982, the media engaged in a type of “memory battle” that deepened societal divisions. Arguably this tense environment may have created a context in which witnesses and lawyers felt intimidated and threatened, judges felt pressured, and ultimately may have contributed to the annulment of the trial.

The reality of post-conflict recovery requires a new consciousness that the media does not merely present the facts, but instead shapes the parameters for interpreting the facts and events published for mass consumption that may move us towards or away from preventing conflict and thus assuring peace. This paradigm shift and baseline understanding justifies the inclusion of the media on the roster of issues that a transitional justice project must address.

Lisa J. Laplante teaches Public International Law, Transitional Justice, and Business and Human Rights at New England Law | Boston. She spent almost six years as a human rights lawyer and researcher in Peru. She has provided legal counsel to victims bringing complaints to the Inter-American Human Rights System. She was also a researcher with the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as a grantee of the Notre Dame University Transitional Justice Program. She co-founded the Praxis Institute for Social Justice, where she served as deputy director.

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