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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Reporting on Flawed Justice

Carlos Dada
Founder and Editor, El Faro

“Would the public opinion in the former Yugoslavia have been more supportive of the ICTY if the media was less biased?” asks my colleague, Dejan Anastasijevic. “I doubt it, because public opinion on ‘our heroes’ and ‘their monsters’ were fixed long before the trials even began and, more importantly, because the authorities have the same attitude.”

Does he mean that it doesn’t matter how you report because anyway it won’t make a difference? I would strongly disagree. If he could actually prove that media have no effect at all on public opinion, this would render meaningless all the media studies and experiences I know, from the Second World War to Fox News.

Anastasijevic then asks: “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.”

I reported on it once, “Some sort of justice.” A year ago, at the Justice Palace in downtown Guatemala City, General Efrain Rios Montt was found guilty of committing genocide against the Ixil people. It was the first time a former head of state was brought before a court in his own country on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. For weeks, men and women wearing ragged traditional clothing came forward and told their stories of oppression, of torture, of massacres, rapes and disappearances committed by an army that also used airplanes to bomb their villages. Their own narrative, that goes back centuries before Europeans came to this continent, was permeated with the pain that always hits the most vulnerable people of any society during an armed conflict. But they have a memory, and for the first time in the history of Guatemala they were allowed to tell their story to the rest of their country, and the world. For the first time ever, they were finally treated as Guatemalans, with equal rights.

During the last weeks of the trial, most of Guatemalan media—carrying messages from politicians, business leaders, and military veterans—started running special campaigns against the process, claiming that there was never such a thing as genocide in their country and warning that the continuation of these trials puts democracy in danger. It could destabilize the country, many opinion pieces stated, some even coming from brokers of the peace agreement and a few intellectuals.

Judge Yassmin Barrios, who presided over the trial, was criticized every day in the mainstream media, sometimes even attacked for “damaging Guatemala.”

And then, despite this enormous pressure, Judge Barrios saw the trial to the end and found Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.

A week later, the Supreme Court reversed the sentence, arguing that there was a procedural flaw during the trial. Soon after, Judge Barrios was suspended for a year.

Almost two weeks ago, the Guatemalan Congress issued a decree officially establishing that there is no basis to claim that there genocide was ever committed in Guatemala (as if it was up to the Congress, and not a tribunal, to determine this).

A few days ago, I went to Guatemala City 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 had blocked her reelection and shortened her current term.

A genocide verdict reversed, a judge suspended, an attorney general out of office, and a Congress decreeing that there was no genocide in Guatemala. All in just one year. Could anyone call this justice? No, it wasn’t perfect justice. But it was better than nothing. Way better.

The Rios Montt trial was a major story at El Faro. We allocated more resources covering it than most Guatemalan media. We took that editorial decision because we knew that even with the significant likelihood that the trial would be blocked and reversed (as it eventually happened), it was a very important step for the society: to unveil what happened, and to reconcile the country and its indigenous communities with their own past.

As David Tolbert reminds us, transitional justice is not restricted to simply denouncing human rights abuses or bringing criminals to trials; it is rather a series of measures that allow a society to come to terms with its recent conflictive past. Those measures, as my country’s peace agreement proves, are insufficient if they are not enacted in consensus with the victims, and are even counterproductive if, for the sake of achieving peace, they include burying the past and avoid confronting what actually happened or investigating who is responsible for war crimes or human rights abuses. If they establish impunity and amnesia as the departure points in the process of building a new society, the process will fail.

In Guatemala, the truth was advanced not only in respect of the country’s past, but it also revealed how Guatemalan power structures still operate to this day. The trial gave the indigenous communities not only a restoration of their dignity, but also a worldwide visibility and recognition of their suffering throughout history. It confirmed how divided and unequal the Guatemalan society still is and how weak the country’s institutions still are.

If the victims had been denied the right to tell their stories or if the judge had clearly denied justice instead of delivering it, by reporting on the trial journalists would have also been denouncing a flawed process. And that is also a very good way to support transitional justice efforts.

Actually, that is what we at El Faro do all the time. Precisely because in El Salvador thousands of victims have been denied the right to justice, we continuously investigate war crimes and closely follow any effort to bring those responsible to courts. This week we published a long documentary about the massacre in Las Aradas, featuring interviews with victims, witnesses, military, and the president, asking him why we don't have access to the military archives from the war years. We cover these cases so frequently and in such a deliberate way that it is actually one axis of our editorial agenda: not because transitional justice efforts are working, but precisely because they aren't.

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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