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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Requiem for a Transition

Dejan Anastasijevic
Correspondent, Tanjug

On June 5 this year, a strange event took place at the international airport near Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Several hundred people, including several church leaders and prominent politicians gathered to greet a passenger from Austria, carrying flags and banners adorned with his pictures. An accidental tourist might be forgiven for thinking that this was a welcoming party for a pop star or a champion sportsman, but he was neither of these things. The man who returned to Croatia that day was one Dario Kordic, a Bosnian Croat warlord who came home after serving part of a 25-year sentence in the prison of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavie (ICTY) in Scheveningen.

In April of 1993, forces under Mr. Kordic’s command entered a Bosniak (Muslim) hamlet of Ahmici in Central Bosnia and massacred 116 civilians, including many women and children, before burning every single house to the ground. The ICTY indicted Kordic, as well as a dozen other suspects in 1995, and his sentence was passed in 2001. He served his time in the Austrian city of Graz, where he allegedly embraced God and received regular visits by Roman Catholic Bishops, and was released early for good behavior.

Upon his arrival, Mr. Kordic kissed the Croatian soil (actually the floor tiles of the airport lounge), and just as he began to express his devotion to the crowd, a lone voice cried out “Satan! Murderer!” The welcoming party quickly turned into a lynching mob, and the protester, a human rights activist named Zoran Ivancic, was severely beaten before managing to escape to the premises of the airport police, where he was promptly arrested and charged with disturbing public order.

Most Croatian media reported this story in a flat, casual manner, as it was indeed just a minor disturbance of a public event. A cluster of human rights organizations called for a protest in the center of Zagreb, but few people bothered to turn up, and there was barely any media coverage. Life went on. The world’s soccer championship in Brazil began; Croatia seems to be doing well, despite the fact that their key player was disqualified by FIFA for celebrating a victory in a local match with repeated Nazi salutes.

I choose to tell this little story because it’s a good illustration of the state of play in the former Yugoslavia almost 20 years after the end of the Bosnian war, and 15 years after the war in Kosovo. It is a matter of pure chance that the event occurred in Zagreb; it could have just as easily happened in the capitals of Serbia, Bosnia, or Kosovo. As the ICTY winds down and convicted war criminals are being released, we may yet see it happening again and again with small variations.

The problem, as noted by Croatian columnist Boris Dezulovic, is not with the 500 or so enthusiasts who greeted Kordic upon his arrival. The problem is, he writes, “that out of some 800,000 citizens of Zagreb, and out of 4 million Croats, there was just one who dared call Kordic a murderer to his face.”

By now, it’s getting harder to speak of the countries which emerged from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia as “post-conflict” or “transitional.” It’s over: Croatia is already a member of the EU, and Serbia and others are expected to follow soon. In a couple of years, the ICTY will shut down, and in a few more, the last well-behaved war criminal will be released. Not all will receive a hero’s welcome, but unlike their victims, they’ll spend the rest of their days surrounded by family and friends.

There is a whole new generation out there without any firsthand knowledge of the war, whose outlook can be summarized in a vague notion that “we” were right and “they” were wrong. My impression is that they don’t really care—until another historical upheaval releases the dormant demons, just like the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s unleashed the ghosts of World War II.

For me, both as a reporter and as a witness to war crimes, the outcome is both depressing and deeply disturbing. Not only have “we”—the media, human rights activists, war crimes investigators, or simply decent people trying to do a decent thing—failed to stop the war and the atrocities, we also failed to forge a post-war narrative which could break the old Balkan curse of history, repeating itself in periodical cycles of blood and vengeance.

This was a good debate, and here’s my point: 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. If there is any hope for justice, it’s the hope that there’ll always be at least one Zoran Ivancic in every crowd.

Dejan Anastasijević is the Brussels correspondent for the Serbian news agency Tanjug. Before moving to Tanjug, he was a journalist for the Belgrade-based VREME weekly and a freelance reporter for TIME magazine. In October 2002, Anastasijević was the first Serbian journalist to testify against Milošević at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

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